Group October 5th 2017

Our opening practice was drawn from Hanson's 'Buddha's Brain' (p 201) entitled 'The Meditation', about which Hanson writes, 'The Buddha offered a kind of road map for contemplative practice: steady the mind, quiet it, bring it to singleness, and concentrate it.' Following the practice, through enquiry, we opened our reflection around supports ('factors') for mindfulness and concentration (again using Hanson's guidance) - including acknowledging the challenges of meditation (which tests attention in order to strengthen it). The five factors of concentration, according to Hanson, are: Applied attention (initial directing of attention to an object, e.g., the breath); Sustained attention: staying focused on the object, such as remaining aware of the entire inhalation; Rapture: intense interest in the object; Joy: gladdening of the heart, including happiness, contentment and tranquility; Singleness of mind: experiencing everything as a whole, with few thoughts, equanimity and a strong sense of being present.  

Within our enquiry we looked at seeming resistance to certain concepts, e.g., that of rapture, discussing how our experience, conditioning and knowledge strongly and uniquely influence our reactions to words and ideas, but also noting how we can also open ourselves up through curiosity to possibility and experimentation.

Hanson's work includes the referencing of neuroscientific evidence to demonstrate how our brains can be trained/ rewired through eg meditation practice, and he suggests different ways to help the brain steady the mind, sometimes postulating what is happening within the brain itself.

So these are some of the approaches recommended by Hanson: 1) keeping attention on the object by e.g., imagining a little guardian living in the anterior congulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain involved in applying and sustaining attention. 2) filtering out distractions by e.g, starting a breath meditation by exploring sound, which paradoxically, by inviting distractions in, encourages them to move out. 3) managing the desire for stimulation by e.g., breaking the breath into small parts - inhalation, exhalation and pause between - so there's more to notice, or alternatively, doing e.g. walking meditation, which provides more stimulus. 4) encouraging rapture and joy - such positive feelings help concentrate attention by increasing the transmission of dopamine to the brain's working memory - i.e., encouraging happiness within a practice can actually help concentration! (n.b. different words and phrases may resonate better with us than others 5) singleness of mind - unification of awareness, involving deepening absorption in the object of attention, Hanson suggests may be associated with high-frequency gamma waves seen in experienced meditators.  Other ways to encourage this singleness of mind include nuturing a continuitiy of here-and-now presence throughout our day.

We closed our session with a short private reflection on our intentions for practice.


Group September 7th 2017

We began with a practice on equanimity based on one of Jack Kornfield's and Tara Brach's 'Mindfulness Daily' short practices, within the 'Present and Non-Reactive' section, which uses the repetition of the words 'may I live with a peaceful heart' to encourage a calm and open approach to the inevitable changes in our lives, including illness, separation and loss. Equanimity is one of the 'four immeasurables' or 'limitless ones' described in Buddhist teachings. In her 'Noble Heart' Pema Chödrön says how sometimes 'equanimity' is taught as a practice before 'loving kindnes's or 'compassion' and 'sympathetic joy' in order to lay the ground for a bigger perspective of what's possible, for instance, through the practice of loving kindness, melting distinctions between attraction and aversion, not getting stuck within reactive patterns. It's interesting how in the secular 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' programme, van den Brink and Koster describe these four qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as 'Four Friends for Life', describing them as boundless 'because they are not restricted by the narrow perspective of our ego'. They continue that equanimity 'refers to an open-minded and warm-hearted state of mind .... the antidote to conceit, arrogance and overinvolvement, which means excessive identification with our attributes, possessions, views and opinions'. It's important to note this does not mean indifference or not caring, but rather gaining inner balance in order to respond more wisely and humanely to all that life throws at us!

Following enquiry around the practice and then broader discussion of our own mindfulness practices, we discussed the 'Tend and 'Befriend' reaction that is described in van den Brink and Koster as the 'fourth instinctive reaction to stress that evolved in mammals'. This is the protective, caring attitude towards offspring and vulnerable others, often displayed through social connectedness, especially evident in times of great danger (possibly seen in some recent world disasters) Although obviously helpful and even inspiring, van den Brink and Koster describe how such a reaction can become excessive, leading to over-protectiveness, followed by exhaustion and the ignoring of one's own needs. Compassion, or empathy fatigue, brings its own cycle of imbalance and alienation.

We closed with a short personal practice/reflection on equanimity. 

Group July 6th 2017

As a group we listened to a downladed meditation a group member had previously found helpful. This included several periods of silence which we all found useful. We also took advantage of the beautiful weather to meditate privately outside, when several did walking meditations or meditations focused on the five senses.

A fascinating discussion followed about how useful or not each of us found visual images in meditation. Reference was also made to two articles (1) by Rick Hanson about Making Good Bargains (NB can sign up for weekly 'Just One Thing' emails at  this one was from June 28th 2017)  and (2) The Practice of Gratitude ( from 4th July 2017 Mindful Magazine) found at 



Group August 3rd 2017

We began with a short 'Beginners Mind' practice from the 'Mindfulness Daily' series by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, reminding of the value of seeing with fresh eyes and renewed presence, staying curious and interested without judgement, which can, in Jack Kornfield's words, 'open a doorway to creative solutions' in our lives.

We followed on with a 'Kindness meditation - yourself' drawn from Erik van den Brink's and Frits Koster's 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' which establishes a soothing breathing rhythm and then encourages the formation of kind wishes towards ourselves, finding a rhythm between the breath and the words and phrases, abbreviating the phrases, eventually letting go of them completely if that feels okay, resuming them if the mind wanders. Whatever arises, working with it kindly and compassionately, labelling, repeating words or phrases or focusing once more on the soothing breathing rhythm, possibly bringing to mind another kind being or beloved pet, before directing the feelings once more towards oneself.

There was enquiry following these practices, then more general enquiry about general mindful experiences over the previous month.

We discussed the three emotion regulation systems which Gilbert and others describe to help make sense of our complex emotional lives. These are 1. The Threat System 2. The Drive System 3. The Soothing System. These systems alternate in their dominance, depending on the situation, but insight into our own individual patterns of reaction and response can help us to see more clearly which systems have been 'practiced' more or less in our lives - and may help us for instance, through practice, shift the balance, towards less fear reactivity and greater soothing. For further discussion, exercises and practices see 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' by Van den Brink and Koster.

We ended the session with a short practice on 'Intention', again taken from Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.

Group June 1st 2017

We started with a practice based on Pema Chödrön's 'Noble Heart' audio retreat (chapter 2). This practice begins with breath awareness, focusing on the outbreath, 'touching the breath' as it leaves the body, labelling thoughts as 'thinking', seeing them as clouds dissolving in a vast sky. Next the focus moves to one of compassion, bringing an attitude of 'unlimited friendliness', fluidity, relaxing in the body and mind. Building on this, the emphasis shifts to that of discipline, bringing a quality of precision and clarity to the instruction, so the instruction is to focus on the outbreath, label thinking when it arises, and to just 'come back as best you can' to the outbreath with gentleness and precision.  Finally, following gentle and compassionate mind, disciplined mind, the focus shifts to a non-grasping and open mind, 'relaxing out grip', opening up with each outbreath, labelling gently and letting go.

In enquiry, we moved to a general discussion of mindfulness practice and the human characteristic of harsh self-judgement. Mindfulness practice can often reflect our lives  - that sense of not coming up to scratch, self-blaming, tighening our grip - whilst losing it! So we work with staying with, relaxing and allowing.  The process of integrating mindfulness into our lives is an ongoing challenge for us all and the 3-minute breathing space is the tool recommended in health-directed mindfulness courses such as MBSR and MBCT, reminding us wherever we are to come back to this moment. The breathing space is basically a 3-step 'awareness routine'.  In Teasdale et al's, ''The Mindful Way Workbook' applying the breathing space in everyday life is described in this way: 

'In using breathing spaces in everyday life, you acknowledge that there is strong emotion around and take a few moments to bring awareness to it (as thoughts, feelings, and body sensations), simply allowing it to be there without judging it, without trying to chase it away or solve any problem (Step 1)  You then "touch base," wherever you are, by returning to the anchor of the breath (Step 2) and to the grounded spaciousness of awareness of your body as a whole (Step 3) In this way you shift mental gears so that you bring a more responsive, balanced mind to the next moments of your day.' (p. 123).

The simple - and timely! -  acronym AGE can always remind us of this routine : Awareness (of what's happening right now) Gathering (the breath in) and Expanding (awareness out). An hourglass/eggtimer symbol can also help remind us of the shape of this change in awareness. 

The group discussed a Lion's Roar article by Pema Chödrön (April 13, 2017) entitled "How we get hooked and how we get unhooked". This offers further perspective on how we habitually get caught up in the moment, but how we can learn to loosen up: '... shenpa, or the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked, we begin by recognising that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.'   Meditation practice itself helps us recognise our habitual patterns.

We finished with a short closing practice.