December 2018 meeting

We began with a simple practice for connecting to the body drawn from Jeffrey Brantley's 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind' (p108). Brantley writes, 'By developing your ability to quickly connect with the "inner landscape" of your body, revealed in direct experience of changing physical sensations, moment by moment, you can help your mind and body relax and ease the effects of anxiety and fear.' This practice is a kind of open body scan, rather akin to the 3-minute breathing space, useful both formally and also informally throughout our day as a reminder to embody experience as opposed to carrying it all in our heads. We closed the practice with an acknowledgement of gratitude to the body, however frail, for carrying us through our lives.

We followed with enquiry, opening up to sharing our individual experience with mindfulness practices over the past month. We discussed the idea & indeed experience that mindfulness does not necessarily protect us from the ups and downs in life (there can be an expectation e.g. in mental health that it should) - but the shared experience was that embodiment can shift the mood 'simply' by experiencing and acknowledging the 'felt sense' or energy of the feeling or mood state - though our usual (reactive) response to pain or hurt is to shut down, avoid, ignore, distract or conceptually solve. But we also discussed how much we should 'put up' with pain or discomfort - emotional and physical - sometimes we do need to give the body or mind a break, ease up, go for a walk, chill out, play some music, have a glass of wine (Pema Chödrön in 'The Fearless Heart' chapter 23 talks about the need to be kind to oneself in order to open up to the rest of the world, a kind of lived loving kindness practice).

As this was the last session of another tumultuous year politically it seemed a good moment to read some prescient words of Jon Kabat-Zinn from 2005:

'As individuals and as a species, we can no longer afford to ignore this fundamental characteristic of our reciprocity and interconnectedness, nor can we ignore how interesting new possibilities emerge out of our yearnings and our intentions when we are, each in our own way, actually true to them, however mysterious or opaque they may at times feel to us. Through our sciences, through our philosophies, our histories, and our spiritual traditions, we have come to see that our health and well-being as individuals, our happiness, and actually even the continuity of the germ line, that life stream that we are only a momentary bubble in, that way in which we are the life-givers and world-builders for our future generations, depend on how we choose to live our own lives while we have them to live.

At the same time, as a culture, we have come to see that the very Earth on which we live, to say nothing of the well-being of its creatures and its cultures, depends in huge measure on those same choices, writ large through our collective behaviour as social beings. (Coming to our Senses, p4)

We closed with a short loving-kindness meditation broadly drawn from Germer (see p 132 -138) sending wishes both to ourselves and outward to others.





November 2018 Meeting

We began with a reading from Kabat-Zinn's 'Coming To Our Senses' :

'Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well...That doesn't mean that your aspirations to effect positive change, make things different, improve your life and the lot of the world are inappropriate. Those are all very real possibilities. Just by meditating, by sitting down and being still, you can change yourself and the world. In fact, just by sitting down and being still, in a small but not insignificant way, you already have.' (p 61)

Kabat-Zinn goes on to explain this apparent paradox by saying:

'We need to develop and refine our mind and its capacities for seeing and knowing, for recognising and transcending whatever motives and concepts and habits of unawareness may have generated or compounded the difficulties we find ourselves embroiled within, a mind that knows and sees in new ways, that is motivated differently. This is the same as saying we need to return to our original, untouched, unconditioned mind.' (p 62)

Our practice was build upon the practice of 'Spacious Awareness' taken from the 'Mindfulness Daily' series guided by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.This practice helps to open up, expand, allow more space for a mind which otherwise can easily contract, concretise, and limit  awareness. The first 10/15 minutes was spent forming intention, settling, focusing on the breath in the body. The next 15 minutes attention was moved to awareness of sound ... this awareness opens up the experience of sounds coming and going, arising, passing across awareness, and leaving. Awareness is likened to the sky - vast - with sound, like clouds, passing across. We moved to awareness of thought/images coming and going in space/awareness ... pleasant, unpleasant, neutral... Then to body sensations, emotions - held in awareness - in a vast sky, passing, changing. The practice ended with opening the quality of spaciousness to loving awareness for all beings.

The practice was followed by enquiry, opening up to broader enquiry of bringing mindfulness into our daily lives.

We ended with a brief version of Germer's 'Centering Meditation', taken from 'The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion' ((p.260-261). This is a securalized version of a meditation drawn from the 14th century, discovered in a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts. The meditation is designed to open our hearts and minds to inner guidance that is beyond our usual habits of thought, allowing personal words or phrases of supportive love to arise and become the focus of attention, before returning once more to the breath.

July 2018 meeting

We started with a practice drawn from 'The Pema Chödrön Audio Collection' (Sounds True, 2004). 

The one chosen was a mindfulness awareness practice, where the attitude is one of unconditional friendliness and 'learning to let go'. Certain 'techniques' are first described:

1. The posture, embodying balance, allowing the energy to flow through the body, the heart and mind to open. In this practice the eyes are encouraged to be open, to help work with any obstacles that may present themselves. The mouth is slightly open, to help relax the face and neck. The whole idea is to 'minimise the sense of struggle'.

2. The object -  here the out-breath. The in-breath is regarded as a pause before the out-breath which is a relaxing and softening out. We are just 'to be with the breath in a light and relaxed way'.

3. How to work with our thoughts. When they arise (this isn't wrong, it's the nature of mind to think) the instruction is not to get rid of thoughts but also not to grasp or judge. We can say to ourselves 'thinking' and then let go, it's 'not a big deal' -  coming back to the out-breath - until, once again, noticing when we have wandered off, and gently, once more coming back. We may label the kind of thinking - 'worrying', 'planning', before opening once again to the present moment.

We continued this practice for 15 - 20 minutes, always coming back, softening, relaxing, letting go, with gentleness and openness.

To close the practice, a description of 'Beginners Mind' was read from Kabat-Zinn's 'Full Catastrophe Living'. Here is a section: " Whatever the particular technique we might be using, whether it is the body scan, the sitting meditation or the yoga, we should bring our beginner's mind with us each time we practice so that we can be free of our expectations based on our past experiences. An open, "beginner's mind" allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. No moment is the same as any other. Each is unique and contains unique possibilities. Beginner's mind reminds us of this simple truth." (p. 35)

We followed the practice with some rich enquiry, sharing practice obstacles (such as sleeping, drifting off) and reactions to 'different' instructions such as having palms facing up and eyes open and to the idea of 'labelling' thoughts. 

We then had general enquiry and discussion around practice length and practice preferences. The ways in which we variously hold emotion in our bodies was shared. Once more, the relationship between 'formal' and 'informal' practice was discussed. We were reminded of the value of the 3 minute breathing space as a portable way of literally carrying practice into daily life.

We closed with a short sitting body scan. 

October 2018 meeting

After a two month break we began with a a practice based on Jack Kornfield's 'Mindfulness: The Core Practice' taken from the 'Emotional Healing' section of the Sounds True 'Mindfulness Daily' (NB highly recommended as a 40 day, 10 minute a day guided programme). This particular practice is about " the power of mindfulness and kind attention (loving awareness) to notice experience just as it is - with a spacious, non-judgemental attention."

It 'simply' uses the anchor of the breath and/or chosen body anchor to open up to the whole play of experience in an inclusive way. Once established and steadied with the breath, the practice moves to the experience of sound before widening further to the waves of emotion, physical sensation and thought, acknowledging and allowing before returning to the breath or body focus, and always returning to the breath/breath&body anchor if overwhelmed. The practice closes with attention back to the breath.

This was followed by enquiry - around the practice itself and beyond. We shared obstacles and the value of diversity of practice, especially in emotionally turbulent times, personally and universally. We discussed the value of short practices, of movement practices such as mindful walking, and of not falling into self-criticism when it's tough to do much at all by way of formal practice. 'Informal' moments during a tricky day still count towards reminding us of the present moment, its small joys and kindnesses shown amidst sorrow, and of life's impermanence and of our shared humanity - even in the apparently dark midst.

We shared recent encounters with the mindfulness 'world' - Ruby Wax's 'How to be Human' book/show and the recent Sounds True 'Waking up in the World' online event. The latter took at wide ranging look at social & political activism, taking a broader world context for mindfulness, following individuals' drives and motivations to bring about a fairer, more just and sustainable world.

Our closing practice was taken from den Brink's and Koster's 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' - 'The Breathing Space with Compassion - Coping with Emotional Pain' (p.81).This is a compassion-based variation of the 'coping' version of the 3 minute Breathing Space developed by Segal, Williams and Teasdale in their well-known 'Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression' (2013). In this version the practice has: phase 1)  Being present with open, kind awareness; phase 2) Allowing a soothing breathing rhythm  (to increase vagal tone and heart rate variability (HRV) to foster compassion) and phase 3) Allowing compassion to flow to the body and to the emotional pain - broadening from self to others if applicable.



June 2018 meeting

Today we began with a practice drawn from Jack Kornfield's and Tara Brach's 'Mindfulness Daily' programme (Sounds True).

This practice is the initial practice of the first section of the programme, entitled 'Mindfulness Basics'. These first practices encourage the building of basic mindfulness skills, attitudes and approaches. in this one, 'Pausing for Presence', that moment of remembering or awakening to presence is acknowledged and developed. Without the 'coming to' of that pause we can continue in our daily habitual routines of un-awareness, non-stop chatter, thinking, judgement and emotional turmoil. We need to 'find the gap' as Pema Chödron sometimes describe it. So applying this in our daily lives has huge significance - without it we can be mindful on the cushion but mindless throughout the day.

So the practice is really a 'coming to' practice -  practiced by taking a seating, lying or standing position - but it could be an 'off the cuff' practice done anywhere -  acknowledging being awake, for a moment being still, with an attitude of gentleness. Noticing the state of our being, taking a full, deeper breath, and feeling the sensation of the exhalation - in the tummy, chest, throat or nostrils. Letting our normal breathing resume, and gently allowing the body to let go and relax, supported by the chair or ground beneath, and noticing in this pause the feelings in our body (cold, tense, hot..) and noticing without judgement. Also noticing the state of the heart just as it is - racing, quite, uplifted, sad.. Mindfulness holds it all. Just noticing being here, right now, just as it is. 

This practice provides the opportunity to introduce presence and spaciousness into any moment, stepping out of autopilot, and providing an opportunity for greater clarity and wiser action.

We followed the practice with enquiry and broader discussion around the challenges of keeping a mindfulness practice going and of remaining mindful in our busy, crammed lives. Here an attitude of understanding that this is a challenge for all, that harsh judgement just perpetuates any sense of failure, and that beginning again in any moment is always there for us, as long as we have breath.

We then discussed Rick Hanson's teaching from Advice for Difficult Time ( Sounds True) - using his particular blend of Buddhist and neuro-scientific wisdom. He describes that whilst suffering is inevitable, there are three strong ways to work with and alleviate our individual responses to being in the world. Firstly, to accept and be with what arises - staying with, rather than trying to escape from. Secondly, working on reducing our ingrained habit of dwelling on the negative in our thinking and in our lives. Thirdly, acknowledging the positives in our lives - bringing them more to centre stage as it were. His active metaphor for this is 1)first view the garden 2) pull up the weeds 3) plant flowers. Simple, but a way of compressing core ideas in a vivid image.

We closed with another practice taken from 'Mindfulness Daily'. This time it was a simple breath practice - foundational but revolutionary in encompassing presence, awareness of body and breath in body, patience and kindliness in returning to the breath again and again.