March 2020 - Insole Court

 We began by standing in the yoga Mountain pose - this standing upright pose helps improve posture, balance as well as bringing calm focus. In her 'Mindfulness - A Practical Guide', Tessa Watt says how this 'grounding' pose (feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, spine tall, crown of head lifted, shoulders relaxed) brings contact with the earth and,

'brings us into the present moment, and brings us down, down, down ... out of the bulb at the top of our necks where many of us think we reside, until we can fully inhabit our bodies from the ground up'. (p.71 - 72).

So the mountain metaphor/image is used in various yoga and meditation practices to encourage us to inhabit our bodies and to bring a sense of solidity, stillness and spaciousness into our being. The mountain meditation is a popular practice - described in e.g., Watt (p 178 - 179), Kabat-Zinn's 'Wherever You Go There You Are" (pp 135 - 140) and Orsillo and Roemer's 'The Mindful Way Through Anxiety' ('pp 220 - 222).

We followed with our main practice - an 'Equanimity meditation' - from van den Brink's and Frits Koster's,   'A Practical Guide to Mindfulness less-based Compassionate Living' (pp 114 -115). This practice starts with a  'Breathing Space' (drawn from Mark Williams et al's MBCT protocol), then into a 'Soothing breathing rhythm' itself derived from Paul Gilbert's 'Compassion Focused Therapy'. The words of the well-known Serenity Prayer (which appears to come from both Christian and Stoic wisdom traditions) can be used  to help bring a senses of equanimity:

'Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.'

A mountain image may again be invoked -  to connect with the quality of equanimity - or possibly a tranquil lake.

Then we brought to mind someone fairly neutral to us whom we have encountered -  for example a shop assistant or a bus conductor - and visualise them in front of us, aware of that person's own vulnerability in the face of ageing, disease, loss or death - like any human being - and sending them a wish of equanimity, using words like, 'May you feel calm and balanced amidst life's ups and downs ... May you live in peace with impermanence and unpredictability'. 

Next send a wish of equanimity towards oneself, with words such as, 'May I feel calm and balanced in the midst of life's turmoil ... May I accept I cannot change the past ... I cannot predict the future ... I can only do what lies within my responsibility'. 

The practice can then be extended to close family and friends. Also, if wished, to difficult persons, maybe with words such as, 'You are responsible for your own decisions ... I cannot make choices for you, but I can wish you discernment and wisdom...'.

Lastly, we can conclude with a universal expression such as, 'May you find calm amidst chaos ... ease amidst uncertainty  ... inner peace amidst uncontrollability and unpredictability ... wisdom in a frantic world.'

Coming back to the breath we then ended the practice.

The practice was followed by inquiry. In our times right now we may well need regular short equanimity practices to help soothe, quieten and bring us back to ourselves so we can act with discernment and wisdom.

Here's a verse drawn from the poem, 'Start Close In' by David Whyte:

'Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.'

Towards the end of our session we moved to neuroscience, to brain plasticity, and some of Rick Hanson's practices (www.rickhanson.net).

Though we may well understandably be moving into survival mode, there is still good reason (maybe moreso) to look for those simple good experiences each day (e.g. a stranger smiling at us) and to take a breath, slow down and let the experience sink in viscerally. We also might ask  what might help us grow (even in such difficult times) - this could, for example, be to look for any small occasions to practice equilibrium in the course of the day (see above). We may also wish to add a short gratitude practice at the beginning and/or end of the day  (e.g.,den Brink and Frits Koster, 'A Practical Guide to Mindful-Based Compassionate Living' p. 97) where we can  sit and invite things to come up for which we feel grateful or appreciative - people, animals, nature, memories - and simply hold these in awareness.

We closed with the 'Mind Like The Sky Analogy' glimpse practice from Diana Winston's 'Little Book of Being' (p. 138)`:

'Imagine your mind is like the sky - wide open, spacious, boundless, endless, transparent. Everything that you encounter - thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories, sounds, images - is just like clouds floating by. Stormy clouds, wispy clouds - nothing can disturb the vastness of the sky. Settle back into the sky-like nature of your mind'.

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                             

February 2020 - Insole Court

We started with a short practice - 'Coming to our senses' (title drawn from Jon Kabat-Zinn's book) - to bring us  into awareness of our physical senses and our sensibilities in this very moment. "What is here right now?" ... breath, body, emotion. thought ... we can hold it all - gently. Then we can form a personal intention - to be here, to be here with kindness, to listen, to notice judgement ...to literally be heartfelt.

Our first longer practice was drawn from Jack Kornfield's 'A Meditation on Stopping the War Within' - from his  'A Path with Heart' (p. 30). After settling with the body we become 'open to whatever (we) experience without fighting (and) 'Let go of the battle'. We then bring attention to the breath. After a while we shift our attention to the heart and mind. And become aware of any feelings we are struggling with - fighting, fear, denying avoiding.. We may name these emotions. Then the instruction is to be interested, kind and to let the heart be soft and open. "Breathe quietly and let it be'. We then bring attention to any battles in our own lives - loneliness, fear, anger, addiction - and sense the struggle within, if possible locate the struggles within the body and also notice any accompanying, arising thoughts that carry these struggles on, being aware of all the inner battles within, and how they are perpetuated. Gently allow any of these experiences to be present, notice with curiosity and kindness. Allow the body, heart and mind to be soft, open without fighting. Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and be at rest. Recognise the universality of our feelings. If there is any sense of overwhelm from sensing  these emotions, just return to the breath, or the breath within the body. To close, bring awareness back to the breath, allowing a soothing breathing rhythm to stabilise and calm our sensibilities, before finally closing the practice.

We followed the practice with group inquiry. This was felt to be quite a strong practice, but the self-compassion within it tempers this. It could be developed to a recognition/awareness of others' strong feelings - again, accompanied by compassion. The practice has 'real-time' applicability. There was discussion around catching an emotion such as anger as it arises in real life - finding that little gap of non-reactivity where a choice can be made not to react and allow anger to overwhelm. It might be about counting slowly, or leaving the room, or taking a walk - to calm, or self-soothe - or at least not to escalate. This isn't about getting rid of anger, rather seeing and recognising it for what it is - before deciding how to be with it. Never easy - but small shifts in awareness and behaviour change patterns. Other useful 'pause' practices (named by Pema Chodron) could include the 3 (or 2 or 1!) minute breathing space, and the RAIN (Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nuture) practice (Tara Brach). 

Our second, closing practice, was a 'Heart Awareness' practice taken from Diana Winston's "The Little Book of Being'.  Here is an extract:

'After you are settled, drop your awareness down from your head into your heart area, and first feel what is present in your heart. Then imagine your heart is that which is sensing, seeing. hearing, perceiving and feeling. To help you to do this, you can repeat a few times, "Drop the knowing into my heart." What happens? Try looking through your heart, then hearing, then feeling, then knowing - all through your heart. Can your heart sense both inside of you and outside of you? Notice the emotional tenor to this way of practicing.' (pp 148 - 149).

Diana Winston reminds us how we get so caught up in our stories, dramas, worries - often for days, even weeks and years - making us lose track of ourselves. She offers some reminders to help us shift into natural awareness - we can repeat these slowly. allowing them to sink in:

Your mind is luminous, aware, present, and radiant.

It is vast, open, and spacious.

There is nothing you have to do except shift into this recognition.

Try it now.

Shift. Relax your body. Relax your mind. Just be.

Rest in awareness.

 

 

 

 

December 2019 - Insole court

We began with an 'Intention' practice, drawn from the Sounds True 'Mindfulness daily' programme by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Jack Kornfield  reminds us that if/when we become aware of our intention before we act, we are in a better position to make better choices, leading to clarity and harmony - the alternative is auto-pilot. Intention precedes all action.

So on this occasion, we can set an intention for the actual practice - such as being present as best we can, or remembering to be kind to ourselves. We can also become aware of any urge to move as we sit, to note this and only move following this awareness. We can even practice becoming aware of when thoughts enter our minds. We can also set long-term intentions - using framing such as, 'What are the deepest intentions in and for my life?'

When we are mindful of intentions, it gives us greater freedom how we choose to act. It is valuable to pause - and check - especially in the midst of difficulty - maybe asking, 'What is my best intention here - for the well-being of all concerned?'. Clear intention brings focus. We can compare intention practices to pause practices, as e.g., recommended by Pema Chodron, who describes such practices as a way of stepping out of the stream of thoughts that often preoccupy us, realigning us with our best goals. 

We followed the practice with inquiry.

We then read the following excerpts from 'Dancing with Elephants' by Jarem Sawatsky:

'From our perspective, no matter what diagnosis you come with or what's wrong with you, there is more right with you than wrong with you - no matter what is 'wrong with you'.

It was like someone just smacked me on the head and I fell awake. More right with me than wrong with me? The man speaking knows I have Huntingdon's disease. In fact, he has spent his whole career working with people who have chronic and terminal diagnoses ...

Living on long-term disability with a chronic and terminal condition, I have a huge list of specialists I can call on to help with what is wrong with me... The medical literature on my condition divides into stages based on the inability to do things. More negative, problem-based thinking! I need to be careful not to see myself as one huge, fragmented problem ...

But Jon Kabat-Zinn was pointing toward a different, more freeing way...

Jon knows his task is to liberate people. In working with people with chronic and terminal conditions, he first focuses on freeing them from the stories they've absorbed from others, stories which suck the life right out of them. His approach is rooted in wisdom gleaned from witnessing thousand of people who have been in this spot and who have figured out how to get their lives back. This is hopeful. It is the hope of knowing that what you need is right here; it's not the hope of escaping from this place. I like this hope.'(pp 43 - 46)

We finished with a practice again drawn from 'Mindfulness Daily, this time entitled 'Emotions and Inner Resources', led by Tara Brach. This practice can be seen as a precursor to mindfulness - useful for when we are beset by fear, despair or trauma, and the practice of mindfulness can seem tricky. Here, we are intentionally activating our inner resources .. purposefully seeking refuge. 

We can do this in a number of ways. We can recall or imagine a place that may connect us with our inner resources. We can call on remembered people or beings with whom we have a connection, to help ground and soothe - this could be a spiritual person, or a person we have known, or even a pet. We may also find ease through touch of an object - a stone, a pebble  - or through something like a photo or a picture. We can then focus on the breath, lengthening and letting in comfort and ease, placing a hand on the heart or belly, communicating tenderness, establishing a soothing breathing rhythm. We can use any words that may deepen our sense of safety - 'May I be safe' ... 'May I be at ease' ... 'It's okay'.  Then just rest ..  allow the warmth/ease/connection/well-being to be felt ... to find the inner resources that are already there but need to be rediscovered and made more available.We finished with this poem by Hafez:

How

Did the rose

Ever open its heart

And give to this world

All its

Beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light

Against its Being.

Otherwise.

We all remain

Too

Frightened

 

 

January 2020 - Insole Court

We began with a short practice bringing us into the present by bringing attention to the body.

We then moved to an introduction to Diana Winston's description of awareness practices ('The Little Book of Being', p 29 - 30) where she describes a spectrum of practices through from focused awareness (our usual practice, often following the breath) to more flexible awareness, with a wider field, including choiceless awareness, and on to natural awareness, which is described as usually 'effortless and objectless, emphasising awareness of awareness.' Winston goes on to describe how, in natural awareness, 'our mind tends to rest in a place of ease, and awareness seems to happen on its own. Typically, attention is broad, and it doesn't focus on objects'. Winston is keen to emphasise that the spectrum of awareness practices is not a vertical hierarchy, but horizontal, with all practices related to each other.

We followed with a classical, focused meditation , beginning with three deeper breaths to encourage relaxation, then bringing attention to sensations of breathing in the body, followed by attention to sounds, always coming back to either the breath in the body or the sounds around whenever attention wanders.

We moved on to an expanded awareness, opening to allowing attention to move to other objects of attention so that when attention strays from the anchor, instead of bringing it back straight away, we keep our attention on whatever is taking it - a pain in the back, or a loud noise, or a troublesome thought. The instruction is to sense, feel, notice whatever has taken attention away from the anchor. When the new object no longer holds attention, then the attention can return to the anchor - until something else pulls the attention away and once again whatever it is that has taken it is sensed and felt, until once more attention goes and it is back to the anchor once more. 

Beyond this, fully flexible awareness is practiced when, whilst attending to our anchor, we are aware of things happening in the background, but we do not focus on them. Then we can allow the background to become the foreground, and we pay attention to whatever is there - we listen to a sound, we feel a sensation, we pay attention to a thought. As Winston says, 'You can choose where to place your attention, or let the objects choose you, bringing attention to whatever is most obvious in any given moment' (p.69.  If we need to we can return to our anchor at any time, to regain stability..

One way to move into natural awareness is by relaxing effort. Rather than putting our attention onto our breath or other objects, we allow ourselves to just be with the objects as they arise. Winston says ' So what does relaxing effort feel like in meditation? It feels like stopping the attempt to wrestle with your unruly mind, or bring it effortfully back to the present, and instead resting, relaxing, and exploring the awareness that is already present. It often feels like things are just happening on their own, and we're witnessing them. It can feel immensely relaxing and joyful to stop the struggle.' (p.73)

The practice ended by coming back to the breath once more, and opening our eyes.

We followed the practice with enquiry. There was a feeling of this being different, but with a sense of relaxation. By starting with 'classical mindfulness' there is clarity before moving into more spaciousness. One's anchor is always there to return to whenever there is a sensed need for more grounded-ness.

We then listened to part of a conversation between Sam Harris and Judson Brewer called 'Mindfulness and Addiction'' (Waking Up App). The continued use (of whatever) despite adverse circumstances" is the definition  of addiction according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. This approach parallels the understanding of suffering according to Buddhism: the 'craving mind' can be especially associated with addictions. Cellphones here are described as 'weapons of mass distraction’. The conversation is a blend of up-to-date neuro-scientific study, especially regarding addiction, related back to Buddhist teaching on 'Dependent origination' (everything arises and is dependent on something else to exist) which JB links to our human tendency towards addictive, reward-based, craving, subjectively-biased minds. Mindfulness training, increasingly via apps, possibly using personalised neural feedback, can quieten that part of the brain (here the posterior cingulate cortex) called the 'Default Mode Network' where many of our habitual, personalised tendencies tend to reside, and then learning to open up to a less 'personal', more expanded mind, with less suffering.

We ended with a short practicer followed by a closing reading of William Wordsworth's poem,

'The world is too much with us'

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in nature that is ours:

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. - Great GOD! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.'

William Wordsworth

A stoical mind

The philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (121 -180 C.E) can be found in his collection of writings called ''Meditations'. They reflect the influence of Stoicism, especially of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher.

Here is a sample:

'Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong: and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none of them will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.'(P. 10)

A quote for our times?