Group November 3rd 2016

We listened to a talk from Pema Chödrön's 'Noble Heart' - a recorded retreat. Pema is a Buddhist nun, ordained in 1974, she is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. The chosen talk was number 3, 'Developing Inner Strength and Trust'. She describes how, when we watch our minds, we realise we perhaps aren't what we thought we were - there are cravings and aversions - and fear. We usually turn away from fear but she describes how feeling fear helps us move beyond our usual and habitual view of ourselves. An essential part of seeing further is developing trust and inner strength. Where do we look for this? She describes 'the wrong places', i.e., addiction, dogmatic belief systems and sometimes 'transcendental' experiences - places we all look for security and comfort, but grasping and clinging doesn't make things last and so we overlook how deeper well-being can come when we open ourselves to the totality of our experience - cf Kabat-Zinn's 'Full Catastrophe'.

So developing trust and inner strength comes from opening to the present moment. The practice of mindfulness cultivates this, as does practice of the 'four great catalysts' :- maitri (aka loving kindness), compassion, joy and equanimity, all of which exist in us, but which can be nurtured and expanded. Mindfulness begins with attention and trust in the present moment - whatever that is - dark and light, joy or sadness. It's a process, it's about "dropping the speech balloon'' - that judgemental commentary on what we notice - it's 'good'/'bad', 'right'/'wrong' and instead to trust what we observe, developing a flexible mind. Mindfulness helps us relax and trust in our present experience, it's a tool to bring us back to the multi-sensory feel of the present moment, helping bring us back when we disocciate or 'numb out' and try to leave whatever it is we don't like.

Loving kindness practice helps us to work with the fear of this. It's described as 'unlimited, unconditional friendship toward oneself, which is then radiated out to all other beings', it's about 'placing the fearful mind in the cradle of loving kindness'. Fear, Pema says, makes us get away from direct experience and this weakens us, it isolates and cuts us off from each other while it is our interconnecttefness that heals.

In loving kindness, gentleness and kindness are important, so too is honesty, moving us away from self-deception. What we realise about ourselves is our introduction to what others are seeing and feeling and thinking, so giving us good heart towards others. Knowing emotions and thoughts can reduce their hold, and this includes depression, where mindfulness and loving kindness may not cure, but can soften, reduce fear and foster an aware and measured life approach.

This is a gradual path  - not to be rushed, letting things evolve at their own speed, using our own experience and our own being, going at our own pace.

'Pema Chodron explains Maitri:  (>watch

There was then a reading from Don Miguel Ruiz's 'The Four Agreements', about Toltec wisdom. The Toltec, from south Mexico, were known as "women and men of knowledge" or naguels, they were scientists and artists and they formed a society to explore and practice spiritual knowledge and practices. Ruiz describes how this came about, around 3.000 years ago, with one human being looking differently at life:

'He could understand everyone very well, but no-one could understand him. They believed he was the incarnation of God, and he smiled when he heard this and said,"It is true. I am God. But you are also God. We are the same, you and I. We are images of light. We are God." But still the people didn't understand him.

He had discovered that he was a mirror for the rest of the people, a mirror in which he could see himself. "Everyone is a mirror," he said. He saw himself, but nobody saw himself as themself. And he realised that  everyone was dreaming, but without awareness, without knowing what they really are. They couldn't see him as themselves because there was a wall of fog or smoke between the mirrors. And that wall of fog was made by the interpretation of images of light - the Dream of humans."

We finished with 'Making a vow', a loving-kindness based practice from Germer's 'The mindful path to self-compassion' (p266-267).


Group October 13th 2016

The session began with the 3-fold breathing practice - described below. We then used enquiry to describe how some of us experienced this 'embodied' practice. It was interesting how some found a deeper relaxation through this practice, others noticed a link between their physical experience and an emotional reponse - e.g. breathing from the upper chest sometimes producing a sense of constriction and anxiety, showing the interconnection between our bodily and emotionally felt states. There was also, as often noticed (or not!), that tendency to bring some fairly harsh judgement to bear as in 'how we are doing with this practice? 'or 'am I doing this right?'. With a new, and different practice, this seems even more in evidence - our anxiety moving us away from presence to critiquing our performance. Enquiry seems ever useful in showing up the commonality of this kind of negative self-judgement, but also the possibility of opening up to a kinder way of allowing our experience to be just as it is. 

Broader enquiry brought some discussion about the distinctions between 'formal' and 'informal' practice, and the tendency sometimes to discount the present moment awareness that we bring to everyday experience in favour of the formal sitting meditation etc. Sometimes it does seem practically hard to maintain a regular mediatation practice, so accepting this and letting other moments and experiences 'count' and 'be noticed' is a way to bring flexibility into 'practice', and then possibly moving once again to an intention to re-establish some more formal practice once again. 

There was discussion of the 'Lion's Roar' article 'Life is tough. Here are six ways to deal with it' by Norman Fischer ( The six are:

1.Turn all mishaps into the path

2. Drive all blame into one

3.Be grateful to everyone

4.See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness

5. Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help

6. Whatever you meet is the path

It was interesting, and heartening, how such suggestions, if offered without sanctimony, and received with enough breadth, do resonate, no matter what our religion or belief system.

We concluded with a short practice.






Group September 22nd 2016

Our session started with a walking meditation in the grounds - it was a beautiful mellow September day. Some of us chose a simple walking meditation with the ground as our anchor, 'feeling the earth' through the body and feet, whilst others were open to all the senses as we walked, including the sense of proprioception, sometimes called the 'sixth sense'. This has been described by Oliver Sach's in 'The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat' as 'that continuous but unconscious sensory flow from the movable parts of our body (muscles, tendons, joints) by which their position and tone and motion is continually monitored and adjusted, but in a way which is hidden from us because it is automatic and unconscious', and allowing us to feel our bodies as belonging to ourselves. Through walking meditation we can bring awareness to this 'unconscious' sensory flow.  Some of us practiced incorporating loving kindness phrases into our walking, using the movement to physically 'embed' the intentionality of the compassionate phrases into our beings.

We held a period of enquiry following the practice, with some discussion around the idea of trusting to a kind of innate sense of physical 'wisdom' when it came to 'being in our bodies' (as opposed to our heads, as per usual!).

In walking meditation being in contact with the 'outside world' can bring challenges and choices - e.g., an external object such as a sailing boat can carry us away into a personal 'story' - pleasant or unpleasant, and we can get caught up with the narrative, but we can also make a choice to bring the attention back to 'pure seeing', or to move the focus elsewhere, or maybe back to an anchor such as the ground beneath us or the breath.

We followed with a period of general enquiry and reflection. Mindful awareness seems to bring a shifting of perspectives on both historical and contemporary situations and emotional states, sometimes with new insights, sometimes offering new ways of looking at otherwise difficult, personally challenging life situations, with compassion and humour helping frame and support.

We had further discussion around the value of developing bodily awareness through some form of physical practice (such as yoga, tai chi) to help with the reconnection of body and mind - especially important if there has been an experience of trauma. This is sensitive work and for some it could mean individual therapy, but for others a gentle, kind and curious exploring of the body through, for instance, a simple yoga practice, can be hugely healing. (See 'The Body Keeps the Score' by Bessel Van der Kolk' and 'Trauma and Memory' by Peter Levine for more information on trauma therapy).

The first chapter from Jon Kabat-Zinn's ' Wherever you go there you are' seemed a useful way to 'ground' us to what mindfulness is about - in a secular though reverential way - acknowledging the Buddhist origins whilst emphasising the extreme relevance to our society today:

'The habit of ignoring our present moments in favour of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded. This includes a lack of awareness and understanding of our own mind and how it influences our perceptions and our actions. It severely limits our perspective on what it means to be a person and how we are connected to each other and to the world around us.' (p. 5)





3 fold breathing

After a basic yoga-style relaxation (standing, stretching and then sitting) to connect to our bodies and ground ourselves, we followed the 3-fold breathing practice taught by Reggie Ray.  You can find this on if you join their mailing list. They send a link for two sets of podcasts of "somatic meditations" and the '3-fold breathing' is in the series called 'The primordial body'. There are a number of recordings here which have really helped kick start my practice again by helping me to see previously used meditation techniques from a new perspective. I really enjoy his explanations.

Group August 4th 2016

We started the session with a mindful self-compassion practice adapted from Germer ( This is a practice which combines mindfulness of sound, bodily sensations, breath awareness and loving-kindness with self-compassion phrases.

'Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given with our hearts' (Jack Kornfield, 'A Path with Heart').

The practice was followed by enquiry. There was discussion around the choice of phrases used and how being flexible with them can help them resonate more personally, and the value of returning to the intentionality of deliberately bringing kindness and compassion to oneself, as a way of working with our inherent vulnerability as human beings, which can so often lead to negativity, self-criticism, even self-loathing. If we neglect compassion toward ourselves, then compassion toward others eventually leads to exhaustion and burn-out.

A personal discovery has been finding that loving kindness can be practiced 'off the mat' - e.g., whilst walking, the repeating phrases seem to flow more effortlessly (less thinking, more being), and in daily moments of challenge, the 'opening' effect of self-compassion and kindness can shift perspective quite dramatically. 

Tara Brach's, 'Waking up from the Trance of Unworthiness' (from 'The Self-Acceptance Project', various authors) begins:

'Many years ago, I began to focus on the urgent need for self-acceptance. In fact, I called it radical self-acceptance, because the notion of holding oneself with love and compassion was still so foreign. It had become clear to me that a key part of my emotional suffering was a sense of feeling "not enough'", which, at times, escalated into full-blown self- aversion. As I witnessed similar patterns in my students and clients, I began to realize that the absence of self-acceptance is one of the most pervasive expressions of suffering in our society.'

An evolutionary perspective shows how self-protection helps survival, but Tara Brach describes how this sense of vulnerability can become highly personal, and childhood experience abetted by our competitive culture can add further messages of unworthiness and inadequacy. This is turn can lead to attempts to defend and promote ourselves and cover our feelings of unworthiness - ending in aggressive behaviour towards ourselves and others.  Sounds familiar to me!

To reconnect to our innate (though often undeveloped) compassionate selves, Tara Brach describes two elements: mindful recognition of what is going on inside us, and a compassionate response.

The practice of R-A-I-N is a way of doing this (N.B. a useful version of this is presented by Judson Brewer at  )  

Tara Brach describes RAIN as a practice for 'disentangling from the trance' -  at any moment. Here's a summary:

R is to recognise what is going on. Pause and acknowledge feelings of unworthiness

A is to allow what thoughts and feelings are here. Deepen the pause. Let it just be, without distraction

is to investigate with kindness and gentle curiosity. You can put your hand on your heart and offer self-compassion. 

is non-identified where we intentionally don't identify with the unworthy self, but instead inhabit a larger loving awareness and wholeness. (NB Judson Brewer uses the idea of N for Noting whatever body sensations are present at any moment - to gain perspective).


We ended the session with a reading of 'Kindness' by Naomi Shihab Nye from 'Words Under the Words', Eighth Mountain Press, 1995)