Group May 4th 2017

Today we began with a loving-kindness body scan, drawn from Jeffrey Brantley's 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind' (p.152). Brantley says in his introduction, 'Old, unconscious habits of meanness, self-criticism, and judgement can easily and quickly focus toxic attitudes on your body. For example, how do you usually react to and treat your body when it is sick, hurts, or is injured? Are you angry or kind?' He continues, ' ....focusing loving-kindness on your body - can help you cultivate a wiser and friendlier relationship with your body in any situation. This practice can be especially helpful in times of anxiety and worry when your "fear body" is loomimg large'. This scan, rather than systematically going around the body, toe to head or visa versa, takes the broad approach of feeling the flow of sensations throughout the body and adding kind words and  expressions of gratitude towards the body, both as a whole and wherever seems to call for closer attention. This can be taken into the organs of the body as well as its major regions and any part where there is or has been sickness, hurt or injury, using a mindful breath and kind, compassionate words to soothe and express gratitude

It is probably worth saying this practice is not about, for instance, healing a sickness, but about shifting the attitude towards the body in a more aware and kindly direction, whatever state it is in)

We followed with enquiry around this practice, and then generally. This practice can, like most others, be incorporated into everyday life, whenever we 'come to' and take a few moments to feel and breaths and in this case, bring a compassionate focus to the body.  The 3-minute breathing space has proven to be of huge value in providing a simple route for bringing mindfulness into the routine of life, as a mini reminder to 'come back' and notice what's happening right now and attending to sensations, emotions and thoughts with consciousness, rather than blind habit. 'The Mindful Way through Depression' (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, Kabat-Zinn, 2007) teaches a useful variety of applications for the '3-minute breathing space', which can of course be made into any length, from 30 seconds to 30 minutes - depending on the occasion!

We spoke of the way pain of all sorts can be made more bearable by not hardening into it, allowing for possibilities, somehow bringing a flexibility into how we regard even the possibility of further painful experience. Dealing with depression is one thing, dealing with the fear of future depression another, and it should not be minimised or denied. The practice of mindfulness in both its detailed attention, and in the vastness of 'just being with' offers the possibility:

"... to live life as if each moment is important, as if each moment counted and could be worked with, even if it is a moment of pain, sadness, despair, or fear" (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

Jeff Brantley ( 'Calmimg Your Anxious Mind') talks of four important internal factors that support meditation practice: Attitude ('don't know it all'  is good!); Curiosity ( even in unpleasant or difficult moments); Motivation (and determination and discipline - even if you don't like it!) and Belief in yourself (in your own ability and power to do something to help yourself). This last factor could well be called 'belief in your own wisdom', and for someone who has suffered depression, the 'experienced understanding' that mindfulness offers and the journey of resilience are huge possibilities. 

We finished our session with a short audio practice from 'Mindfulness Daily' by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach - 'Coming back to your senses' (Sounds True recordings).


Group April 6th 2017

As it was a beautiful sunny day we started with a 'Walking with Kindness' practice drawn from 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' by Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster (p. 124 - 125). This practice combines a traditional walking meditation with its focus on mindfulness of the body from a standing posture to walking with presence and finding a soothing walking rhythm (one that feels comfortable), then once again pause in a standing position, asking the following questions, ' Could I offer myself in this moment a kind wish?.  What would I wholeheartedly grant myself?'. Then to see what arises - possibilities may be peace, trust, courage, strength or space. If nothing particular comes up then one could use a phrase drawn from a loving-kindness practice, something like, 'May I feel safe', 'May I be peaceful', 'May I be kind to myself' 'May I accept myself as I am'. Then once more start walking in a soothing rhythm. As with movement of the breath with sitting meditation, the wishes or phrases can flow with the movement of the body when walking, for example moving one foot with the expression of one wish, the other foot with another, and so on, or whatever pattern or synchronisation seems 'right'. On the other hand, it may be the wishes and the movement of the body just seem to flow independently and that is okay too. As with all practices, if attention wanders from the standing or walking body and the phrases or wishes, the instruction is to notice and gently come back, but there's a lot of space in this practice to experiment with rhythm of movement and rhythm of internal sound and to change and shift this from time to time with kind and compassionate intention. A further possibility is to widen the circle of walking with kindness to include a friend, neutral, difficult others, and further, to all beings, as with traditional loving kindness practice, maybe having them walking side by side with you.

We then had a period of enquiry on the practice. Themes were finding walking stability, changing from wobbly to smooth surfaces, difficulty going uphill, being soothed, grounding through connecting to the earth - all metaphors for life really!

Regarding broader enquiry, there was discussion about bringing mindfulness into everyday life and using the simple breathing space as a wonderful tool to do this. It's a ongoing journey of discovery, peeling back the layers of habituation and unfriendliness towards self and widening the circle of understanding and compassion. 

We looked at the source of the 'oft quoted' Mr Duffy from James Joyce's short story 'A Painful Case' from the Dubliners collection: 'He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances'. As a result of his 'disenbodiment', Mr Duffy doesn't engage with real life and therefore remains a sad case - it's a melancholy acknowledgement of the perils of just going through the motions, averting from the messiness of life, but so missing its joys. Playing safe, feeling constrained and guided by fear can influence our whole lives. However, our fear is a natural protector and so needs to be acknowledged and sometimes, especially in vulnerability, it is important to tread carefully.

We ended with a 'Breathing Space with Kindness', again from Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster (p 49), opening with being present with open awareness, moving to a soothing breathing rhythm and finally expanding awareness with kindness through introducing a kind wish for oneself, possibly combined with the rhythm of the breath.   



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.



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.

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.