Group March 2nd 2017

This time we began with a practice drawn from Pema Chödrön's book, 'When things fall apart', Chapter 4, 'Relax as it is'. This is a fundamental meditation instruction and includes instructions from her teacher Chögan Trungpa Rinpoche on posture, with the 6 points of 'good' posture being: 1. seat (flat) 2. legs crossed comfortably or flat on floor 3. torso upright, slightly away from back of chair 4. hands open, palms down 5. eyes open, gaze downwards 6. mouth very slightly open, jaw relaxed. As a group we discussed variations on these, such as palms up, eyes closed etc. and we agreed experimentation is probably always useful, but getting hung up about a fixed way probably isn't! If you have a physical difficulty or indeed anything that means you have a problem sitting for any period of time, then adapting and individualising practise makes complete sense:  Vidyamala Burch's 'Mindfulness for Health', for example, contains many practical insights and suggestions for working and practicing with chronic pain and conditions. Our practice continued with the instruction just to "touch the out-breath and let it go" or "be one with the breath as it relaxes outward", labelling any thoughts as "thinking", with no big deal, consciously cultivating unconditional friendliness whilst simply returning to the out-breath. 

In our enquiry, the focus on just the out-breath was brought up, and we discussed how our attachment to 'one way' - and 'one way only!'  often arises (in all aspects of life) - we fear letting go of the familiar in order to try something different, so staying constricted and closing ourselves off to other possibilities ... 

Pema Chödrön explains the impact on her of this meditation's focus on the outbreath:

"That was the first time I realised that built right into the instruction was the opportunity to completely let go. I'd heard Zen teachers talk of meditation as the willingness to die over and over again. And there it was - as each breath went out and dissolved, and there was the chance to die to all that had gone before and to relax instead of panic." (p.29)

Sometimes it seems necessary to go 'back to basics' (as with our practice today) maybe especially in times of upheaval and chaos, to reconnect and to work to embody our practice once more, moving away from all the 'headiness' of our world and its headlines and continual chatter...  great teachers like Pema Chödrön and Thich Nhat Hanh and indeed Jon Kabat-Zinn (and many others) can help 'bring us back' to ourselves and the wisdom that lies within us all.

Dealing with life's difficulties: No. 6

The last of the 'slogans' from Lion's Roar, offering optimism alongside a final reminder about responsibility...

Contributed by a group member:

6. Whatever You Meet is the Path

This slogan sums up the other five: whatever happens, good or bad, make it part of your spiritual practice. In spiritual practice, which is our life, there are no breaks and no mistakes. We human beings are always doing spiritual practice, whether we know it or not. You may think that you have lost the thread of your practice, that you were going along quite well and then life got busy and complicated and you lost track of what you were doing. You may feel bad about this, and that feeling feeds on itself, and it becomes harder and harder to get back on track.

But this is just what you think; it’s not what’s going on. Once you begin practice, you always keep going, because everything is practice, even the days or the weeks or entire lifetimes when you forgot to meditate. Even then you’re still practicing, because it’s impossible to be lost. You are constantly being found, whether you know it or not. To practice this slogan is to know that no matter what is going on—no matter how distracted you think you are, no matter how much you feel like a terribly lazy individual who has completely lost track of her good intentions and is now hopelessly astray—even then you have the responsibility and the ability to take all negativity, bad circumstance, and difficulty and turn it into the path.

 

 

Dealing with life's difficulties: Nos 4 & 5

 

And here are two more mind-training slogans from the Lion's Roar...

Contributed by a group member

                                                   *****

4. See Confusion as Buddha and Practice Emptiness  This means that we situate ourselves differently with respect to our ordinary human confusion, our resistance, our pain, our fear, our grief, and so on. Rather than hoping these emotions and reactions will eventually go away and we will be free of them, we take them to a deeper level. We look at their underlying reality. When your mind is confused and entangled, you can take a breath and try to slip below the level of your desire and confusion. You can notice that in this very moment time is passing, things are transforming, and this impossible fact is profound, beautiful, and joyful, even as you continue with your misery.

                                                      *****

 

5. Do Good, Avoid Evil, Appreciate Your Lunacy, Pray for Help

These slogans bring us down to earth. If spiritual teachings are to really transform our lives, they need to oscillate (as the slogans do) between two levels, the profound and the mundane. If practice is too profound, it’s no good.  We may be soaringly metaphysical, movingly compassionate, and yet unable to relate to a normal human or a worldly problem.  On the other hand, if practice is too mundane, if we become too interested in the details of how we and others feel and what we or they need or want, then the natural loftiness of our hearts will not be accessible to us, and we will sink under the weight of obligations, details, and daily-life concerns.  

 

First, do good. Do positive things. Say hello to people, smile at them, tell them happy birthday, I am sorry for your loss, is there something I can do to help? These things are normal social graces, and people say them all the time. But to practice them intentionally is to work a bit harder at actually meaning them. We genuinely try to be helpful and kind and thoughtful in as many small and large ways as we can every day.

Second, avoid evil. This means to pay close attention to our actions of body, speech, and mind, noticing when we do, say, or think things that are harmful or unkind with generosity and understanding—and finally we purify ourselves of most of our ungenerous thoughts and words.

Third, appreciate your lunacy realise your weakness, your own craziness, your own resistance and develop a sense of humorous appreciation for our own stupidity. We can laugh at ourselves .

Fourth, Pray for help we pray to whatever forces we believe or don’t believe in for help. Whether we imagine a deity or a God or not, we can reach out beyond ourselves and beyond anything we can objectively depict and ask for assistance and strength for our spiritual work. We can do this in meditation, with silent words, or out loud, vocalizing our hopes and wishes.

 

Prayer is a powerful practice. It is not a matter of abrogating our own responsibility. We are not asking to be absolved of the need to act. We are asking for help and for strength to do what we know we must do, with the understanding that though we must do our best, whatever goodness comes our way is not our accomplishment, our personal production. It comes from a wider sphere than we can control.  We are training, after all, in spiritual practice, not personal self-help (though we hope it helps us, and probably it does). So not only does it make sense to pray for help, not only does it feel powerfully right and good to do so, it is also important to do this so that we remember we are not alone and we can’t do it by ourselves. It would be natural for us to forget this point, to fall into our habit of imagining an illusory self-reliance. People often say that Buddhists don’t pray because Buddhism is an atheistic or nontheistic tradition that doesn’t recognize God or a Supreme Being. This may be technically so, but the truth is that Buddhists pray and have always prayed. They pray to a whole panoply of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Even Zen Buddhists pray. Praying does not require a belief in God or gods.

Group February 2nd 2017

We began with practice - a 'loving kindness body scan: developing affection and gratitude for your body' drawn from Jeffrey Brantley's, 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind', working through the body to address emotional states, with the intention of connecting with the body in a kindly, respectful way.  Followed by enquiry. 

There was discussion following some readings from Rick Hanson's 'Hardwiring Happiness - how to reshape your brain and your life':-

'The brain is the organ than learns, so it is designed to be changed by your experiences. It still amazes me but it's true: Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure... intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity - especially if it is conscious - will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current re-shaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain... Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain.'

Under the heading 'Paper Tiger Paranoia' he continues:-

'One aspect of the negativity bias is so important that it deserves particular attention: the special power of fear. Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn't one, and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.'

No wonder we have a negativitiy bias 'hard-wired' into our brains! But Rick Hanson goes on to describe how such a biologically based tendency is intensified by other factors - temperament, personal history, our current personal situation, but also the economic and political climates of our times, as Hanson says, 'And throughout history, political groups have played on fears to gain or hold on to power.' Sounds relevant now?!

So our modern life leaves us too often in a reactive state, reacting to a million and one small or moderate stressors, affecting our health and well-being.

Much of Rick Hanson's work is about 'levelling the playing field' and 'tilting towards the positive'. His 'taking in the good' approach is designed to correct the two tendencies of the negativity bias - 1) decreasing negative feelings, thoughts and actions while 2) increasing positive ones.

'Taking in the good' draws us out of reactive episodes and strengthens our responsive brains. He describes 4 steps:-

1. Have a positive experience 2. Enrich it (e.g., experience it through mind and body) a Absorb it (deliberately feel sensations sinking in)  4. Link positive & negative material   (optional ) - deliberately allowing positive material to make contact with previous more negative material to 'tip the balance' = acronym HEAL

We can use these steps to consciously re-train our brains on a daily basis. They may be very small experiences - contacting a friend, noticing the first green shoots from the ground - but several times a day, for ten to thirty seconds a go is not a lot each day, but it can shift perspective, even in difficult times.

We finished with a 'Breathing Space with Kindness' practice from 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' by Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster.

 

 

 

Group January 12th 2017

We began with a practice derived from Jeffrey Brantley's 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind' called 'Noticing space, silence, and stillness: a meditation for opening heart and mind'. Here, we are encouraged to look afresh at things we often take for granted - things in our visual field, including spaces between objects;  sounds, and silence between sounds; and then to our thoughts and feelings - noticing how they arise from and return to silence and stillness. In this way we can learn to use space, silence and stillness to hold and support us in our practice, and in our daily lives. Having opened ourselves in this way, we concluded the practice by moving our attention to the practice of 'equanimity: finding peace within the process of life', a practice 'rooted... in the wisdom and openness of heart that follows acceptance of the inevitability of change at every level' (Brantley,2008). This practice is not about 'getting it right' but about discovery, wisdom, and gently not taking it all so personally! This practice uses reflections such as, 'Despairing at my own weakness and vulnerability, may I remember how every life contains these things' and, 'Speaking with absolute certainty, may my next remark be laughter at myself'. In the self-guided retreat 'Noble Heart', Pema Chodron reminds us that equanimity is about growing a vast mind, one that doesn't narrow down into 'for and against' 'picking and choosing' - it's 'big sky mind, i.e., taking the bigger perspective on things - the 'Hubble telescope' view on life'. And as a path through life she describes eqaunimity as about 'putting oneself in another's shoes', which can then engender compassion and loving kindness, which can themselves be worked with and opened up to prevent these 'catalysts' from becoming over-whelminng and 'frozen up'.

We followed the practice with personal enquiry. Moving into a broader context, we touched on the current focus of the 'politics of fear' but how community and coming together in positive and constructive ways can act as a useful and life-affirming step away from fear and hate (see e.g. www.lionsroar.com)

Regarding our individual practice, the group again discussed the difficulty of doing compassion practices for others (especially towards those who arouse strong negative feelings in us, but as a general practice as well). Rather than struggling it's perhaps better to continue to work gently with this, with the intention of opening this out little by little - remembering the notion that compassion is often regarded as complex and multi-layered, preceded by self-nurturing, with the motivation of the alleviation of suffering at its core (Gilbert and Choden).  

Susan Piver's talk from a recent 'Science of Meditation' online summit (from Soundstrue.com) was touched upon - she mentions three ways to sustain practice: 1. consistency (little and often rather than lengthy but infrequent) 2. taking our growing understanding of ourselves and tapping into the wisdom and knowledge of others - teachers, spiritual guides etc. 3. meditating with others from time to time.

Finally, some Rick Hanson 'wisdom'  - 'You are what you pay attention to' (also from the 'Science of Meditation' summit) and how such training opens up and broadens our minds, opening up from the brain's mid-line tendency to ego, and away from the brain's protective bias to fear and avoidance towards approach, empathy and openness.

We finished with a quote from the late Oliver Sach's:

'My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure' (Gratitude, 2015)