Heartspace practices

In our last session we closed with a 'centering' meditation drawn from Chris Germer's 'The mindful path to self-compassion'  This is a secularised version of a Christian practice Germer describes as deriving from a 14th Trappist monastery attic in Massachusetts (p.260). 

Here is a quote from Father Richard Rohr, OFM., from the Centre for Action and Contemplation:

"Next time a resentment, negativity, or irritation comes into your mind ... consciously move that thought or person into your heart space. Surround thoughts and sensations with silence, with the warmth of your life-blood...In this place it is almost impossible to judge, create story lines, or remain antagonistic. You are in a place that does not create or feed on contraries but is the natural organ of life, embodiment, and love. Love lives and thrives in the heart space."    https://cac.org

There are meditations for centering and balancing ourselves from many contemplative wisdom traditions.  Such 'equanimity' practices help us rise above small-minded judgemental or habitual self-blaming minds - to find a bigger, sensed, 'heart space' within.


November 2019 - Insole Court

We started with a brief, grounding 'sensory scan', adapted from Brantley and Millstine's 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind' (pp 62 - 63). 

Our main practice was a 'Compassionate Body Scan' taken from Kristin Neff's 'Self Compassion' (pp 133-4). If it's not our regular practice, it seems useful to 'come back' to a body scan every now and again. It's a reminder of just how much we hold in our bodies - pain, emotion, tension. Neff says of the body scan as commonly taught, 'The idea is to systematically sweep your attention from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet, bringing Mindfulness awareness to all of the physical sensations in your body' (p.133). One can of course start with the toes and work up. The difference with this scan is the addition of self-compassion so that "whenever you come into contact with an uncomfortable sensation while scanning your body, you should try to actively soothe the tension, giving yourself compassion for your suffering." (Neff, p.133). Once awareness has been swept from head to toe, attention can finally be brought to the entire body, with all its sensations, with love and compassion.

The body scan was followed by enquiry. For some, a body scan is a fairly regular practice, for others this practice was a reminder of what was often the first experience of mindfulness practice. Sleepiness during a body scan can sometimes be a reminder of our tiredness, and accepted as such, other times it could be used as a prompt to maybe sit rather than lie down, or vary the practice in some way. 

There was a reading from Brantley's 'Calming your anxious mind' (pp 63 - 64) which includes the following passage: ' With mindfulness, even the most disturbing sensations, feelings, thoughts and experiences - including fear, anxiety, panic, and worry - can be viewed from a wider perspective as passing events in the mind rather than as 'us' or necessarily true. By simply being present in this way, you support your own deep healing, and you will discover and dwell more steadily in your own inner space of peace and equanimity.

We then had general enquiry. In our troubled times practicing any degree of non-reactivity seems especially hard.  It's even harder when those close to us are struggling, displaying uncontrolled anger etc. Keeping some degree of equanimity ourselves at such times can be a form of micro-practice, maybe offering up a different way to be in such circumstances. And for ourselves we can always practice 'taking in the good' à la Rick Hanson as a regular 'antidote' training to that bombardment of negativity we are all subject to.

We closed with a short 'Centering meditation' drawn from Chris Germer's 'The mindful path to self-compassion' (pp260-261), where we allow a phrase or word to 'bubble up' within us, something that  comes up from within, that resonates and somehow speaks for a heartfelt need within. 


September 2019 meeting . Insole Court

We began with a short 'settling' practice - touching into awareness of the state of body and mind - using the anchor of the breath/ breath in the body or a stabilising part of the body itself (such as the feet on the floor) to steady and to ground.

Our main practice was drawn from the 'Mindfulness Daily' audio series (Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach). This practice notices pleasant, unpleasant and more neutral emotions in both mind and body - to bring a growing acceptance that we are all subject to such feeling states and that by gently allowing ourselves to feel this range in our practice we can learn how to be with them in our daily lives. We began by taking an alert but relaxed posture and then bringing awareness to the breath/body anchor and allowing a 'soothing breathing rhythm' developed from Paul Gilbert's 'Compassion Focused Therapy' (2010) by van den Brink and Koster. After this calming and steadying exercise, attention was turned to awareness of our emotions in the moment - sadness. calm, fear, boredom - and acknowledging such without judgement. Then we practiced awareness of where in the body we experienced such emotions - gut, throat, heart - and imagined such feelings as patterns of energy within the body - changing, moving, passing - strongly, subtly. Always remembering to go softly, allowing a gentle return to the breath or body anchor if feelings could possibly overwhelm. We need always to respect our own vulnerabilities. We then returned attention to our anchor, allowing our emotional state awareness to move into the background, then if emotions tugged we could always return once more and put them 'centre stage' for a while, before eventually returning once more to the breath/ body anchor. We then finally closed the practice.

Enquiry revealed that this practice allows insight into our habitual emotional responses. Anxiety and depression are relatively common emotions and they can threaten to overwhelm many of us. If we can learn to recognise our own triggers and automatic responses early enough - through practice - we can learn - albeit gradually - to make choices in our daily responses.

Relatedly we discussed cultivating our soothing systems - many of are well practiced in using our threat and drive systems!  - but we possibly have neglected the one that seeks connection, safeness, and responds with contentment and ease (Gilbert; van den Brink and Koster ). Polyvagal Therapy (Deb Dana) describes a multitude of ways in which the vagus nerve can be toned to better serve our oft beleaguered nervous systems. We talked about the simple practice of a 'Pleasure Walk' (Practical Guide to Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living, van den Brink and Koster, p 22) which can open up all our senses to the natural world - 'simple - and easy'!

Our short, closing practice was a 'Breathing Space with Kindness', an adaptation of the MBCT 'Three Minute Breathing Space' using a Soothing Breathing Rhythm to develop a self-compassionate response in our daily lives.

We closed here

October 2019 - Insole Court

We began with a 'simple' breath, body, sound and thought practice drawn from the 'Waking Up' series of introductory meditations by Sam Harris. In this practice attention is drawn to the breath, bringing awareness to the moment it arises to the moment it subsides. Also, when a thought arises, attention is brought to the thought or image, and there is instruction to notice the thought and to see what happens to it as awareness is brought to it - does it linger? disappear? - before coming back to the raw sensations of breathing and the awareness of the body in space. With sound, attention is brought to the ever-changing nature of sounds - arising, fluctuating - and eventually fading or disappearing. We cannot control or hold onto these sounds - they come and go - similar to our thoughts, except we can 'fuel' out thought stream if we let ourselves get caught up in some storyline about ourselves. 

In practice there is always the opportunity to 'begin again' at any moment - and this is true on or off 'the cushion'. Knowing and practicing this can be a great help, comfort even, when we 'lose it' - both within our practice and in everyday life. 'Just come back' or 'begin again' are words uttered by our meditation guides or teachers, but we  can utilise such words ourselves to bring us back to an awareness of the present - whatever the circumstances -in a gentle, forgiving way.

Our enquiry centred around the endeavour - and difficulty - of bringing mindfulness into our lives. We touched on the whole conundrum of starting a mindfulness course or practice to make ourselves feel better, and possibly succeeding - up to a point! But stuff still happens - and maybe we then begin to realise that change and illness and ageing and death are indeed 'part and parcel' and that working and practicing to accept this is also healing us - but in a deeper way. Both are surely valid - but the work of acceptance is a long road, but one that is hugely aided by that realisation of the universality of our condition - and an understanding that our survival and goal-oriented predilections whilst natural, are not the whole story. We also need safety and connectedness and maybe also some humility about our place in the whole scheme of things.

Our second practice was a 'silence with singing bowl' meditation. We privately repeated the first practice, but used the periodic sound of the singing bowl to 'bring us back'.

We finished with a few moments of silence to offer a private, kindly and supportive wish for ourselves - a wish such as  'may I live with a peaceful heart', 'may I be at ease' - or 'may I feel safe'. Such a wish can also form a kind of intention for ourselves as we go about our everyday lives. 


August 2019 meeting - Insole Court

We began with a 'Pausing for presence' practice drawn from Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach's 'Mindfulness Daily' (Sounds True). This practice explores the first step necessary in mindfulness practice, pausing in order to become present. Really, this sums it all up, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, thinking or feeling. It's about coming to, becoming grounded, remembering ourselves. Pema Chodron often talks of the 'Pause practice' and the familiar '3-minute breathing space' is another version of this simple 'first step' practice.

We listened to the poem - 'Two Voices' by Alice Oswald (Falling Awake, 2016) - a finely and quirkily observed description of two very different creatures greeting the dawn. There's an abundance of curiosity and wonder at the natural world - something we can easily lose in our fast, hi-tech existences.

Our longer practice was around developing spaciousness - again from 'Mindfulness daily' (Sounds True)- this time Tara Brach's 'Spacious awareness'. This sort of practice can be helpful to open up, allow more space for a mind that has become rather closed down, troubled, confined. Maybe helpful in especially challenging times.

The practice starts with settling the mind and body through a focus on the breath/breath in the body. Then setting a personal intention - as best one can, to bring awareness into the present moment, to bring kindness to the practice .. whatever resonates. Then moving to exploring spacious awareness through sound, with sounds passing across our awareness like clouds or like bubbles, eventually vanishing without trace. Then to thoughts, images - coming and going, holding these while present in clear, open space. And on to bodily sensations and emotions - allowing these to come and pass or change, held in a vast open sky of awareness. Finally, deliberately bringing a dimension of love and compassion to this spacious awareness.

The practice was followed by enquiry. Our times have brought forth very strong emotions, such as anger, in many of us. This has to be acknowledged. What one does with the emotion becomes a choice, but the seeing it for what it is is an important early step. It's harder when witnessed and felt in others. But we still and always need to pay attention to our own need for love and compassion - again as an early step. Pema Chödrön has this to say about loving-kindness in her book, 'The wisdom of no escape':

'Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we already are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. ... The path of meditation and the path of our lives altogether has to do with curiosity, inquisitiveness. The ground is ourselves; we're here to study ourselves and to get to know ourselves now, not later ... Inquisitiveness or curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open - actually being able to let go and open. Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness toward ourselves. Precision is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what's really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into the microscope. Openness is being able to let go and open.' (pp 4 -5).

We closed with a short grounding practice.