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

 

 

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?

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. 

 

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.

 

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.