June 2018 meeting

Today we began with a practice drawn from Jack Kornfield's and Tara Brach's 'Mindfulness Daily' programme (Sounds True).

This practice is the initial practice of the first section of the programme, entitled 'Mindfulness Basics'. These first practices encourage the building of basic mindfulness skills, attitudes and approaches. in this one, 'Pausing for Presence', that moment of remembering or awakening to presence is acknowledged and developed. Without the 'coming to' of that pause we can continue in our daily habitual routines of un-awareness, non-stop chatter, thinking, judgement and emotional turmoil. We need to 'find the gap' as Pema Chödron sometimes describe it. So applying this in our daily lives has huge significance - without it we can be mindful on the cushion but mindless throughout the day.

So the practice is really a 'coming to' practice -  practiced by taking a seating, lying or standing position - but it could be an 'off the cuff' practice done anywhere -  acknowledging being awake, for a moment being still, with an attitude of gentleness. Noticing the state of our being, taking a full, deeper breath, and feeling the sensation of the exhalation - in the tummy, chest, throat or nostrils. Letting our normal breathing resume, and gently allowing the body to let go and relax, supported by the chair or ground beneath, and noticing in this pause the feelings in our body (cold, tense, hot..) and noticing without judgement. Also noticing the state of the heart just as it is - racing, quite, uplifted, sad.. Mindfulness holds it all. Just noticing being here, right now, just as it is. 

This practice provides the opportunity to introduce presence and spaciousness into any moment, stepping out of autopilot, and providing an opportunity for greater clarity and wiser action.

We followed the practice with enquiry and broader discussion around the challenges of keeping a mindfulness practice going and of remaining mindful in our busy, crammed lives. Here an attitude of understanding that this is a challenge for all, that harsh judgement just perpetuates any sense of failure, and that beginning again in any moment is always there for us, as long as we have breath.

We then discussed Rick Hanson's teaching from Advice for Difficult Time ( Sounds True) - using his particular blend of Buddhist and neuro-scientific wisdom. He describes that whilst suffering is inevitable, there are three strong ways to work with and alleviate our individual responses to being in the world. Firstly, to accept and be with what arises - staying with, rather than trying to escape from. Secondly, working on reducing our ingrained habit of dwelling on the negative in our thinking and in our lives. Thirdly, acknowledging the positives in our lives - bringing them more to centre stage as it were. His active metaphor for this is 1)first view the garden 2) pull up the weeds 3) plant flowers. Simple, but a way of compressing core ideas in a vivid image.

We closed with another practice taken from 'Mindfulness Daily'. This time it was a simple breath practice - foundational but revolutionary in encompassing presence, awareness of body and breath in body, patience and kindliness in returning to the breath again and again.




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March 2018 meeting

We began with a practice drawn from Tara Brach entitled 'Spacious clear awareness' (tarabrach.com). The practice begins with attention on posture, stillness, then intention, followed by awareness of breath (lengthening and letting go) and a short body scan from the top of the head to the feet and contact with the ground, with awareness of all sensation, opening and softening to all that is present within the body. Then there is opening to awareness of sound, within and without, near and far, arising and disappearing, with a spacious awareness. The practice then moves to an awareness of all that arises - sound, sensations, feelings, thoughts.... noticing the changing flow of life moving through. The movement of the breath (at the nose, chest or belly or whole body breathing ) can always be held in the foreground of awareness - to stabilise and anchor. Whenever the mind is carried into thoughts, just noticing and opening back into presence ... to an 'awake awareness' with a relaxed and open attention. To close, feeling the breath in the foreground and opening the eyes, being open to experience outside and allowing awareness of the senses to extend beyond the practice.

We followed with enquiry  - one reflection was that this 30 minute practice allowed a little more time to deepen into the practice - where shorter practices possibly do not. We discussed the practice length 'question' ( a common theme amongst novice and experience practitioners alike !) and feelings were generally that rigidity and judgement about rights and wrongs around this were unhelpful - lots of individual differences, variations, variability over time etc. There was discussion around the difference of starting a body scan at the head or the feet - the latter possibly has a more immediate 'grounding' effect, bringing us out of the 'headiness' where we usually reside ! whilst starting with the head perhaps brings us early on to precisely an awareness of our 'head space' but this time with attention on our senses and felt experience - rather than habitually going to our thinking minds - and all the 'baggage' that goes with these.

We reflected on the value of experimentation within our practices, and of 'mixing and matching' - something that comes more easily as we get beyond that fixation with having to practice in a particular way, at a particular time and in a particular place, maybe using a set recording etc - all of which can of course establish and strengthen practice but patterns which can eventually become limiting in themselves. There's also the importance of carrying practice through into our daily lives. Formal practice (when we deliberately sit etc. to practice) is distinguished from 'informal' practice  - but both are usually considered vital in bringing mindful presence into our lives. In a talk broadcast on Sounds True recently, Eckhart Tolle said,

  '...there's the example of the meditator man who is meditating on Mette, a Buddhist meditation called lovingkindness where you spread lovingkindness out from you... It may go something like, "May I be well and happy" ... And the words are used as pointers so that you emanate peace you can feel yourself.... And then you include the next circle: "May everybody in this house be well and happy" .... Gradually you expand. "May everybody in this state be well and happy - in this country, the entire planet" .... Anyway, this man was practicing the metta lovingkindness meditation and then the door opened and his daughter came running in. And so he opened it and said, "Can't you see I'm doing my meditation? Get out of here. Every day you disturb me while I'm doing this to close the gap between the practice and living". So if you are a meditator or if you take up meditation, beware of that.' (from 'Opening to the Depths of the Present Moment' from Sounds True 'The Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, 2018). 

In his 'Wherever you go there you are', Kabat-Zinn has a great little chapter entitled 'Going Upstairs' where he desc ribes realising he could use this everyday activity as an opportunity to practice mindfulness:

'When I am able to capture this wave of energy in awareness while I am still at the bottom of the stairs or starting on my way up, I will sometimes slow my ascent - not just one step at a time, but really slow, maybe one breath cycle per step, reminding myself that there is really no place I have to go and nothing I have to get that can't wait another moment for the sake of being fully in this one' (p.202).

In 'The Miracle of Mindfulness' Thich Nhat Hanh says,

'While washing the dishes one should be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing. But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.'(pp 3-4)

Now this kind of daily living practice can indeed at first sight appear a bit 'silly' - but it does seem that, as with a formal practice that deepens, and brings clarity and possibly wisdom - so this kind of informal activity of daily living practice can also deepen one's appreciation of the intrinsic beauty of simple, ordinary things - and bring us back into presence with what is here - right now.

As mindfulness is brought ever further into all areas of western life, so apparently is the realisation that for some, a formal daily practice may not work as well as moment-to-moment practices - in the field of addiction, for instance, there is evidence that introducing informal practice (in this case via app-base training) into daily life was more effective in helping smokers to quit than a formal practice - which was introduced later. (Judson Brewer 'The Craving Mind' - interviewed on Sounds True 'The Mindfulness and Meditation Summit (2018)

We closed with ''The breathing space with kindness', taken from den Brink's and Koster's 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' (p 49) 

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January 2018 meeting

We began by returning to Kabat Zinn's 'Full Catastrophe Living' and reading from Chapter 7 - 'Walking  Meditation'. Here are some extracts:

'Walking meditation involves intentionally attending to the experience of walking itself. It involves focusing on the sensations in your feet or your legs or, alternatively, feeling your whole body moving. You can also integrate awareness of your breathing with the experience of walking. 

We begin by making an effort to be fully aware as one foot contacts the ground, as the weight shifts to it, as the other foot lifts and moves ahead and then comes down to make contact with the ground in its turn .... when the mind wanders away from the feet or the legs or the feeling of the body walking, we simply bring it back when we become aware of it. To deepen our concentration, we do not look around at the sights, but keep our gaze focused in front of us. We also don't look at our feet. They know how to walk quite well on their own. It is an internal observation that is being cultivated, just the felt sensations of walking, nothing more.

Because we tend to live so unconsciously, we take things like the ability to walk very much for granted. When you start paying more attention to it, you will appreciate that it is an amazing balancing act, given the small surface area of our two feet. It took us about a year as a baby to be ready to learn this dynamic balancing act of locomotion...

To begin walking as a formal meditation practice, you should make the specific intention to do it for a period of time, say ten minutes, in a place where you can walk slowly back and forth in a lane. To keep mindfulness strong, it's a good idea to focus your attention on one aspect of your walking rather than changing it all the time. So if you have decided to pay your attention to your feet, then you should stay with your feet for that entire walking period, rather than changing to the breath or the legs or the full gait... Choose a pace that maximises your ability to pay attention. This might differ from one time to another, but in general it should be slower than your normal pace of walking.' (pp 114 - 116).

We followed with period of walking meditation outside in the grounds.

Then we had a rich period of enquiry. For some, the day was so beautiful that the choice was to be aware and stay with all the senses that were around, and to simply take this in (à la Rick Hanson). For others the miracle of walking was pre-eminent and moving. Then there was discovery - of the felt differences walking up and down slopes; of the challenges of walking (and so wobbling) slowly. There was also working - and experimenting with - the almost overwhelming sound of birdsong - allowing this into the foreground before then bringing the experience of walking back into main focus, and letting awareness of sound move into the background.

We continued with discussion around New Year mindfulness 'resolutions' - perhaps better stated as intentions for the year ahead. For some, online courses seem to offer regular structure to help with discipline and motivation, to help supplement daily practice. Motivation and intention opens up interesting and ongoing discussion - and individually we can be aware of the value of refreshing our practice, discovering new practices, returning to familiar ones, always open to looking at what motivates and guides us in the flux of our lives.

We had discussion around 'tonglen' - called by David Nichtern the practice of "giving and taking". He explains:  'When you practice giving and taking in the field, simply breathe in the difficulty and pain of the other person and breathe out a sense of spaciousness and relief, right there as the exchange is happening. Obviously other people do not need to know what you are doing for the practice to work.' (Awakening from the Daydream, p. 53). 

This practice of tonglen has been taught by many Buddhist teachers, more recently notably Pema Chödron (A Noble Heart, chapter 7) and is also recommended by western psychotherapists such as Germer (The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion) and in a more secular 'take' on the practice, Van den Brink and Koster (Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living) use the term "Compassionate Breathing' to describe the practice of bringing compassion to one's own pain - and possibly others' pain - viscerally, without the use of words. 

Notably, Van den Brink and Koster add this rider within their 'Compassionate Breathing' practice: 

Please do not force yourself with this practice. Allow a playful and light-hearted attitude with an inner smile. If it helps you may also use the arms and hands, bringing them to your heart while breathing in and bringing them out from your body while breathing out.' (p 140)

As with all practices, but perhaps especially with tonglen or den Brink's and Koster's 'compassionate breathing', it's important to choose the practice wisely, especially if there is vulnerability. Softly, softly would be the approach here, always with timing and context in mind.  

Kelly McGonigal also uses adaptations of tonglen in her teachings and practice. We finished our session with a brief heart-breathing meditation drawn from her work.




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February 2018 meeting

We began with a sitting practice, taking our seat with mindful awareness of our posture and our body - doing a mini body-scan from our feet on the ground to the top of our heads, then sweeping back down with proprioceptive awareness of our bodies in space. Then setting an intention for the practice, reminding ourselves that setting an intention 'on the cushion' can always be carried into our days and our lives. So, for instance, we can set our intention in the sitting to 'practice with kindness' or 'with a peaceful heart', and this helps set our 'compass', and we can return to this again and again throughout our day whenever we remember and come back. We followed with three deeper breaths, letting go on the out breath of whatever tension is residing in the body. Then moving to a soothing breathing rhythm (as described in Gilbert & Choden p.192 ff and Van den Brink and Koster p.48 -49), intentionally breathing light and warmth and space through the heart area, possibly placing the hand on the heart or belly area, maybe letting a soothing image or colour come into awareness. Moving then to compassionate embodiment. Acknowledging the body as it is with whatever pain is here - physical or emotional - whatever comes up - and bringing to mind a wish such as, "may I be free from pain", "may I have clarity", "may I have courage". Let the wish flow from the heart into the body, in time with the breath, breathing into the pain area, if that is possible. If others are involved in the pain and suffering, acknowledge their suffering by holding a wish of goodwill such as, "may you be safe" or possibly the joint wish, "may we have courage".  Coming back at the end of the practice to intention - we may wish to remind ourselves of our intention at the start of the practice and set our intention to follow this through into our day. We may also wish to frame a larger intention in keeping with our lives and our values - something like  "to live with a courageous heart" - to help guide us through our days.

We followed the practice with enquiry, covering such things as 'scattered mind' and then moving into a general enquiry of the previous few weeks. We spoke of common obstacles to practice such as routine breaking, procrastination. In a talk on 'The Mindfulness and Meditation Summit', a recent online 'Sounds True' broadcast and publication, Leo Babauta spoke of the obstacles to habit change, i.e., putting off, stopping and not starting again, rationalisation  ("I'm too tired" etc.), harshness around 'failure' ("I'm no good at meditating") and uncertainty of our our own worth or value ("Am I a good enough person?"). He described how mindfulness itself can help with such obstacles - e.g., staying mindfully with the urge to put off, noticing your rationalisations, seeing them as clouds that pass, using compassion to deal with self-harshness, staying gently with those feelings of uncertainty about ourselves. One could add that being aware of the universality of all these reactions and feelings can also help with seeing these obstacles for what they are - common experiences of the human condition, to be acknowledged, softened and worked with.

We looked at how we try to bring compassion and mindfulness into our everyday lives.  We shared our experience of working with difficult but common emotions such as irritation and impatience. What seems helpful is staying with the emotion by noting it, feeling it ( e.g the surge of anger or irritation accompanied by the constriction In the throat, the churning in the gut, the bracing of the shoulders) experiencing its presence, rather than straight away reacting to it in a futile attempt to make it go away! Allowing it to shift and change - making that space for a more considered response.

We discussed Pema Chödrön's 'Compassionate Abiding' practice which is a softer, more on-the-spot version of 'tonglen' (see January's session), bringing compassion into everyday difficult situations, including watching horrific events on our news feeds. The practice simply involves breathing in whatever feelings crop up within the body-mind - and breathing and sending out whatever would seem to lessen the suffering ..a generous heart, an openness to the suffering. From this action can come.

We ended with a poem by Wendell Berry, read by Jack Kornfield at the close of the recent online 'Sounds True' summit:-

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting for their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


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December 2017 meeting

Our session began with a body scan with kindness, combining elements from Brantley's 'loving kindness body scan' ( 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind') and Germer's 'Mindfulness of emotion in the body' ('The mindful path to self-compassion'). This practice ranged from physical to emotional awareness with a focus on kindness. We followed up with enquiry.

On the cultivation of loving kindness toward yourself Pema Chödrön has this to say:-

'Some people find the teachings I offer helpful because I encourage them to be more kind to themselves. The kindness that I learned from my teachers, and that I wish so much to convey to other people, is kindness toward all qualities of our being. The qualities that are the toughest to be kind to are the painful parts, where we feel ashamed, as if we've just blown it, when things are falling apart for us. Maitrior loving-kindness, means sticking with ourselves when we don't have anything, when we feel like a loser. And it becomes the basis for extending the same unconditional friendliness to others.'

We had group enquiry around what gifts mindfulness has given us personally - reflections included the courage to show vulnerability. 

There was a final practice drawn from Kelly McGonigal's interview on 'The upside of stress' from the recent Shambala Mountain Centre 'Reality Summit'. This brief loving-kindness practice she describes as 'embodying and opening up to the embodiment of loving, kindness and compassion... shown to shift your physiology in the direction of both stress resilience and compassion, changing what's happening in the autonomic nervous system and the cardiovascular system ..'  Key features of this practice include imagining 'a quality of attention as if you were lightly holding a thread between your thumb and your index finger and life were just pulling that thread gently through...' and 'imagining if the breath were entering the body from the centre of your chest and it could find its way into your heart and from your heart into your lungs .. as you exhale, that breath woukd move from the lungs into the heart and then out through the centre of the chest... the breath is nourishing and strengthening the heart.' 

We finished with this closing paragraph from Kabat- Zinn's 'Coming to our Senses'', published in 2005: 

'Perhaps it is time for us to own the name we have given ourselves as a species, to own our sentience, and come to our senses while there is still time for us to do so. And while we might not realise it, that time, by all reckoning, is shorter than we think. And the stakes higher. What is at stake, finally, is none other than our very hearts, our very humanity, our species, and our world. What is available to us is the full spectrum of who and what we really are. What is required is nothing special, simply that we start paying attention and wake up to things as they are. All else will follow.'( p. 609) 

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