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)





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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)


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Group on June 2nd

Our opening practice was a simple breath meditation, based on one from Jack Kornfield (, gently bringing the attention back on the breath every time it should wander, rather like training a puppy with firm kindness. Followed by enquiry.

Followed by general enquiry around practice, difficulties, habits of mind, favourite practices, the benefits and uses of both longer and shorter practices.

We discussed the recent online Neuroscience Summit ( and a talk by Kelly McGonigal on 'The Default State'. Interesting key aspects of this state of the brain are: (1) When the brain is in its so-called 'resting state' it becomes more (not less) active: more areas of the brain are turned on - this is the Default State (DS) (2) This is the same state elsewhere called 'monkey mind' 'wandering mind' 'blah blah blah mind' (3) Experienced meditators are shown to mind wander to the DS, but they return more quickly to the task in hand (i.e.. meditating) (3) The DS is involved with memory and emotion, problem solving, self-reflection, social cognition and judgement (with negative bias) (4) The DS is also how we know who and what we are in the world - so we need it! (5) Studies with those with social anxiety, depression, chronic pain and trauma show how the Default State is involved - e.g., those with depression have trouble switching from the default to task focus and other areas of the brain get involved, i.e. those involved with self-judgement and inhibition of behaviour, so causing a kind of paralysis and withdrawal from the world and the future (6) but the good news is we can change the Default State - through meditation, including mindfulness, by labelling/naming it, through breath focus, using a mantra, and through compassion training the mind can become more likely to 'mind wander' to the more positive, thereby developing an alternative Default - e.g., the relationship to chronic pain can be radically transformed. ((7) the wisdom is 'not to talk to the Default Mode' i.e. not to see it as the solution, but as a brain concoction that has bias and though necessary, can lead to suffering, but that can also be checked and influenced through awareness and choice. 

We then moved to some of Kristin Neff's self-compassion exercises ( which tap into our care-giving selves using warmth, touch and soothing vocalisation.

We closed with a short self compassion practice from Rick Hanson (Just One Thing).





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Group on July 7th 2016

We began with a Mountain Meditation taken from Jon Kabat-Zinn.

This was followed by enquiry followed by a larger enquiry concerning how people were in a period of intense political & emotional turmoil and the place of mindfulness practice in the midst of this. There was discussion around the primary need for personal stability and emotional safety and the importance of a sense of connection with others as well as a personal sense of control through basic lifestyle choices such as a good diet, adequate sleep and exercise. Usual mindfulness practices may need to be changed or adapted rather then struggled with - being flexible and self-compassionate helping to reduce that tendency to negative self-judgement.

Working with difficult emotions was discussed - such emotions are to be acknowledged and their expression can be healing (as with extreme sadness). Of interest, in 'A Force for Good - The Dalai Lama's vision for Our World', Dan Goleman describes how the Dalai Lama advises "well-guided anger" where one will, "Keep a calm mind, study the situation, then take a countermeasure. If you let a wrongdoing happen, it might continue abd increase, so, out of compassion, take appropriate countermeasures." "Muscular compassion" is the term Dan Goleman gives to this approach by the Dalai Lama to wrongdoing in the world. 

For all of us, simply taking a breath or a space to help with our tendency for emotional reactivity & unthinking behaviour is the first step to wiser and kinder action - however small - or great - the context may be. 

There was some discussion around the 'rightness' of using distraction at times of strong emotion and stress. We try to use our thinking minds to solve emotional states and often this just makes things worse. So, when dealing with difficult mind states, a meditation practice where we set the mind on something else like the breath or the body can open up a spaciousness around the thinking and loosen it up. Equally, simply taking a walk or doing some gardening or going for a swim will take the focus from the tyrannical thinking mind and into the body and its connection with the space and environment surrounding it. 

We concluded this session with the poem 'The Garden' by Harry Clifton (from 'Being Human' edited by Neil Astley).

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Group on 5th May 2016

We began with a practice where we combined mindful walking in the grounds (a lovely day) with a concentration-type 'Taking in the Good' practice (see Rick Hanson's 'Just One Thing') - a mix of traditional and neurobiologically - inspired practice. It's useful to come back to walking as a practice, not necessarily to treat it as a formal practice, but always useful to ground and reconnect literally with where we are in time and space. By deliberately focusing for 10, 20 or 30 seconds on the good moments & experiences in our life, we are helping to incline our brains and minds towards the positive (see Hanson for more information and ideas). 

Following enquiry from the above practice, we had further discussion around the value of flexibility of practice and the different routes to self-compassion.

There was a selection of poems taken from the anthology 'Being Alive' edited by Neil Astley:-

'The Gift' by William Stafford

'The Mower' by Philip Larkin

'The Bright Field' by R. S. Thomas 

We finished with a short closing practice.


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