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.

 

 

 

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

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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.

Dealing with life's difficulties: Nos 2&3

Here are the second and third mind-training slogans (lojongs) from the 'Lion's Roar' article in October about dealing with what life throws at us - the good, bad and frankly bewildering. 

Contributed by a group member         

                                                ****                            

2. Drive All Blames Into One

Drive all blames into one means that you take full responsibility for everything that arises in your life. Your reaction may be  : This is very bad, this is not what I wanted, this brings many problems. The questions to ask may be : What am I going to do with it? What can I learn from it? How can I make use of it for the path?

Your answer maybe that you do have the strength and the capacity. Drive all blames into one is a tremendous practice of cutting through the long human habit of complaining and whining, and finding on the other side of it the strength to turn every situation into the path. Here you are. This is it. There is no place else to go but forward into the next moment. Repeat the slogan as many times as you have to.

                                                ****          

3. Be Grateful to Everyone : this is very simple but very profound.   Did you grow the food that sustains you every day? Did you make the car or train that takes you to work? Sew your clothing?  You need others every single day, every moment of your life. Thanks to others and their presence and effort you have the things you need to continue, and you have friendship, love and meaning in your life. Our dependence on others runs even deeper. Where does the person we take ourselves to be come from?

Apart from our parents’ genes and their support and care, and society and all it produces for us, there’s the whole network of conditions and circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. Where do our thoughts and feelings come from? Without words to think in, we don’t have anything like a sense of self, and we don’t have the emotions and feelings that are shaped and defined by our words. Without the myriad circumstances that provided us the opportunities for education, for speech, for knowledge, for work, we wouldn’t be here as we are.

The idea of an independent, isolated, atomised person is impossible, Cultivate every day this sense of gratitude.If you feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, if you feel grateful for what is possible for you in the moment, no matter what your challenges are, if you feel grateful that youare alive at all, that yu can think, that you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk - if you feel grateful, you are happy and you maximise your chances for well-being and for sharing happiness with others.

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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)

 

 

Group December 8th 2016

We started with a talk from Reggie Ray's 'Guests for tea - Part 1 from Dharma Ocean' - find at: https://www.dharmaocean.org/episode-134-guests-for-tea-part-i/

The talk spoke of how we can be gripped by judgement, self-criticism and perfectionism but how loving-kindness (maitri) practice can soften these negative tendencies within us.

We followed with a loving-kindness practice adapted from Rick Hanson's 'Buddha's Brain' (pp 171-172).

Then we had a period of enquiry around loving kindness practices and our responses to the various elements - for example, how we approach the practice of sending loving kindness to our 'enemies' - those we may indeed hate - and the difficulty we can obviously have with this. Pema Chodron would say such a practice helps us move from suffering to happiness, helpng us (non-conceptually) get the notion of what is the root of happiness and what causes it to grow, suggesting that by starting with ourselves, using this practice has the potential to open our minds and help us grow individually, but also collectively, for we are not naturally isolated being, 'we are all part of a flow of energy, a process, part of a whole' ('Noble Heart' by Pema Chodron, chapter 4).

We finished by tapping into the 'wisdom' of Don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements) who talks abut the dangers of 'gossip' in our society (written before the explosion of the internet and social media):-

'Gossiping has become the main form of communication in human society. It has become the way we feel close to each other, because it makes us feel better to see someone else feel as badly as we do ....One little piece of misinformation can break down communication between people, causing every person it touches to become infected and contagious to others...'

We finished with a brief loving-kindness closing practice.