October 2019 - Insole Court

We began with a 'simple' breath, body, sound and thought practice drawn from the 'Waking Up' series of introductory meditations by Sam Harris. In this practice attention is drawn to the breath, bringing awareness to the moment it arises to the moment it subsides. Also, when a thought arises, attention is brought to the thought or image, and there is instruction to notice the thought and to see what happens to it as awareness is brought to it - does it linger? disappear? - before coming back to the raw sensations of breathing and the awareness of the body in space. With sound, attention is brought to the ever-changing nature of sounds - arising, fluctuating - and eventually fading or disappearing. We cannot control or hold onto these sounds - they come and go - similar to our thoughts, except we can 'fuel' out thought stream if we let ourselves get caught up in some storyline about ourselves. 

In practice there is always the opportunity to 'begin again' at any moment - and this is true on or off 'the cushion'. Knowing and practicing this can be a great help, comfort even, when we 'lose it' - both within our practice and in everyday life. 'Just come back' or 'begin again' are words uttered by our meditation guides or teachers, but we  can utilise such words ourselves to bring us back to an awareness of the present - whatever the circumstances -in a gentle, forgiving way.

Our enquiry centred around the endeavour - and difficulty - of bringing mindfulness into our lives. We touched on the whole conundrum of starting a mindfulness course or practice to make ourselves feel better, and possibly succeeding - up to a point! But stuff still happens - and maybe we then begin to realise that change and illness and ageing and death are indeed 'part and parcel' and that working and practicing to accept this is also healing us - but in a deeper way. Both are surely valid - but the work of acceptance is a long road, but one that is hugely aided by that realisation of the universality of our condition - and an understanding that our survival and goal-oriented predilections whilst natural, are not the whole story. We also need safety and connectedness and maybe also some humility about our place in the whole scheme of things.

Our second practice was a 'silence with singing bowl' meditation. We privately repeated the first practice, but used the periodic sound of the singing bowl to 'bring us back'.

We finished with a few moments of silence to offer a private, kindly and supportive wish for ourselves - a wish such as  'may I live with a peaceful heart', 'may I be at ease' - or 'may I feel safe'. Such a wish can also form a kind of intention for ourselves as we go about our everyday lives. 


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September 2019 meeting . Insole Court

We began with a short 'settling' practice - touching into awareness of the state of body and mind - using the anchor of the breath/ breath in the body or a stabilising part of the body itself (such as the feet on the floor) to steady and to ground.

Our main practice was drawn from the 'Mindfulness Daily' audio series (Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach). This practice notices pleasant, unpleasant and more neutral emotions in both mind and body - to bring a growing acceptance that we are all subject to such feeling states and that by gently allowing ourselves to feel this range in our practice we can learn how to be with them in our daily lives. We began by taking an alert but relaxed posture and then bringing awareness to the breath/body anchor and allowing a 'soothing breathing rhythm' developed from Paul Gilbert's 'Compassion Focused Therapy' (2010) by van den Brink and Koster. After this calming and steadying exercise, attention was turned to awareness of our emotions in the moment - sadness. calm, fear, boredom - and acknowledging such without judgement. Then we practiced awareness of where in the body we experienced such emotions - gut, throat, heart - and imagined such feelings as patterns of energy within the body - changing, moving, passing - strongly, subtly. Always remembering to go softly, allowing a gentle return to the breath or body anchor if feelings could possibly overwhelm. We need always to respect our own vulnerabilities. We then returned attention to our anchor, allowing our emotional state awareness to move into the background, then if emotions tugged we could always return once more and put them 'centre stage' for a while, before eventually returning once more to the breath/ body anchor. We then finally closed the practice.

Enquiry revealed that this practice allows insight into our habitual emotional responses. Anxiety and depression are relatively common emotions and they can threaten to overwhelm many of us. If we can learn to recognise our own triggers and automatic responses early enough - through practice - we can learn - albeit gradually - to make choices in our daily responses.

Relatedly we discussed cultivating our soothing systems - many of are well practiced in using our threat and drive systems!  - but we possibly have neglected the one that seeks connection, safeness, and responds with contentment and ease (Gilbert; van den Brink and Koster ). Polyvagal Therapy (Deb Dana) describes a multitude of ways in which the vagus nerve can be toned to better serve our oft beleaguered nervous systems. We talked about the simple practice of a 'Pleasure Walk' (Practical Guide to Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living, van den Brink and Koster, p 22) which can open up all our senses to the natural world - 'simple - and easy'!

Our short, closing practice was a 'Breathing Space with Kindness', an adaptation of the MBCT 'Three Minute Breathing Space' using a Soothing Breathing Rhythm to develop a self-compassionate response in our daily lives.

We closed here

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July 2019 meeting - Insole Court

We had our second meeting at Insole. Began with a short - 5 minute - settling practice, establishing being in the 'here and now', in silence.

Our next, longer practice was drawn from Brantley's 'Calming your anxious mind'. This guided meditation, called 'Awareness of breathing', focuses on an investigation of the breath, each breath, within the body. It begins with a reflection of the foundational attitudes for mindfulness practice which is really about allowing presence. These attitudes are non-judging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. As Brantley says 'Let go of any agenda about changing fear, anxiety, panic, or anything else, and don't try to make anything happen.' (p. 120). There is a paradox here. For those coming to mindfulness  for health reasons, to reduce stress, help with anxiety, depression or chronic physical conditions, 'results' are naturally going to be looked for. Brantley has this to say on this crux matter: 

'Having an agenda to get rid of something or to change something is a common source of frustration in meditation practice. Change and transformation do occur through meditation, but only when you teach yourself to allow attention and awareness to include disturbing and unpleasant conditions like anxiety and panic.

In the domain of meditation, it is the practice of being, not doing, that works. To be skillful in approaching any distress in your life - including fear, anxiety, or panic - through meditation, it is helpful to recall some fundamental points.

* Everything happens in the present moment

* Fear, anxiety, and panic, are only experiences flowing into and out of the present moment

* Meditation can be understood as a process of inner transformation that involves establishing a calm and focused attention, cultivating awareness, developing understanding and wisdom, and activating kindness and compassion.

* By correctly practicing mindfulness of fear, anxiety, and panic, you develop a clear understanding of their lesson and begin to see what action is necessary.

.... To produce change through meditation you have to stop trying to change anything! It is good enough to be present. It is strong enough to bring full attention to the present moment  - as it is.' (pp 200 - 201)

Brantley later adds these key words:

'Learning to make room for upset will help. Cultivating and resting more in the "heart" qualities of mindfulness - kindness and compassion - will comfort and steady you. And, discovering your inner resources for safety, silence, and stillness will empower you to deal with the most disturbing experiences.' (p. 201).

We followed this breath practice with enquiry. It was a 'return to the basics' for some of us ...perhaps a bit unsettling for that, almost like coming back having been away, but a useful reminder of what we have with us all the time, from moment to moment. This practice, as with so many, can be adapted to our daily lives, at any moment.

Our second practice was a walking meditation in the grounds, amongst the acer trees and shrubs. Some used the time to focus on simple awareness of walking, step by step, others using awareness of the beauty of nature surrounding us - maybe incorporating some of Hanson's 'Taking in the good' practice to encourage the brain to tilt in a positive direction, and/or allowing some personal loving-kindness phrases to come up as we walked. 

We ended with a short closing practice.


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August 2019 meeting - Insole Court

We began with a 'Pausing for presence' practice drawn from Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach's 'Mindfulness Daily' (Sounds True). This practice explores the first step necessary in mindfulness practice, pausing in order to become present. Really, this sums it all up, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, thinking or feeling. It's about coming to, becoming grounded, remembering ourselves. Pema Chodron often talks of the 'Pause practice' and the familiar '3-minute breathing space' is another version of this simple 'first step' practice.

We listened to the poem - 'Two Voices' by Alice Oswald (Falling Awake, 2016) - a finely and quirkily observed description of two very different creatures greeting the dawn. There's an abundance of curiosity and wonder at the natural world - something we can easily lose in our fast, hi-tech existences.

Our longer practice was around developing spaciousness - again from 'Mindfulness daily' (Sounds True)- this time Tara Brach's 'Spacious awareness'. This sort of practice can be helpful to open up, allow more space for a mind that has become rather closed down, troubled, confined. Maybe helpful in especially challenging times.

The practice starts with settling the mind and body through a focus on the breath/breath in the body. Then setting a personal intention - as best one can, to bring awareness into the present moment, to bring kindness to the practice .. whatever resonates. Then moving to exploring spacious awareness through sound, with sounds passing across our awareness like clouds or like bubbles, eventually vanishing without trace. Then to thoughts, images - coming and going, holding these while present in clear, open space. And on to bodily sensations and emotions - allowing these to come and pass or change, held in a vast open sky of awareness. Finally, deliberately bringing a dimension of love and compassion to this spacious awareness.

The practice was followed by enquiry. Our times have brought forth very strong emotions, such as anger, in many of us. This has to be acknowledged. What one does with the emotion becomes a choice, but the seeing it for what it is is an important early step. It's harder when witnessed and felt in others. But we still and always need to pay attention to our own need for love and compassion - again as an early step. Pema Chödrön has this to say about loving-kindness in her book, 'The wisdom of no escape':

'Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we already are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. ... The path of meditation and the path of our lives altogether has to do with curiosity, inquisitiveness. The ground is ourselves; we're here to study ourselves and to get to know ourselves now, not later ... Inquisitiveness or curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open - actually being able to let go and open. Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness toward ourselves. Precision is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what's really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into the microscope. Openness is being able to let go and open.' (pp 4 -5).

We closed with a short grounding practice. 





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June 2019 meeting - Insole Court

We had our first meeting at Insole Court, Llandaff. Given this was a new venue and experience, we began with a  short grounding practice, taking our seats and bringing awareness to our bodies, our breath, and the ground beneath us, coming to rest in the present. 

Our first main practice. We came 'back to basics' with a body scan drawn from Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine's 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind' (p 108 - 109) entitled 'your inner body: a mindfulness meditation fro connecting directly with your body'. This is a practice to use both formally and informally, to 'tune into' the body throughout the day. The introduction to the practice says, ' 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.' There was an introductory reading from 'Full Catastrophe Living' (Kabat-Zinn) beginning, ' Wholeness and connectedness are what are most fundamental in our nature as living beings..' In this section the body scan is described as '... a door to the larger world, in that what we see in the workings of our body teaches us many lessons  that apply in other domains in our lives. What's more, our bodies usually require some healing. We all carry around at least some physical and psychological tension and armour. Our body has a lot to teach us about stress and pain, illness and health.' (p 162). 

The practice was followed by enquiry. The practice is perhaps more like a whole 'body sweep' than a systematic body scan - but with positive daily applications. Most of us seem to feel the need to return to a whole body practice of some sort from time to time - to remind us of what bodies go through, and are telling us, if we listen!

Other variants of the body scan can be found in many texts - including a concise one in Tessa Watt's 'Mindfulness - A Practical Guide'  (pp 61 - 63) and a breath-directed one from Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman's 'Mindfulness for Health' (pp 63 -68).

We had time for a second practice - once more returning to the familiar and grounding practice of the 'Mountain Meditation', this time taken from Watt (pp. 178 - 179). In this meditation we use the idea of into bringing the image or metaphor of the mountain into our own body - 'with your base rooted in the earth, and your peak rising skyward. Feel the strength, stability and unwavering quality of the mountain.' (Watt p179).

The session finished with a short closing practice, with the expressed intention of bringing practice into our daily lives. 



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