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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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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Radio 3 - Slow Radio series ..

From Bev...

Here are summaries of Five 'Slow Radio' soundscapes (from Radio 3) featuring themes from monastic life (podcasts available) :-   

1)     SILENCE : 23rd Oct Tonight, in the first in the series, monks from Downside, Belmont and Pluscarden Abbeys meditate on the subject of silence, against a background of chant and sounds evocative of the peace and serenity of the monastery. The programmes allow the listener to appreciate life at a monk's pace, reflecting the gentleness and calm of monastic life. Listeners will hear musings from the monks themselves, interspersed with their singing and sounds from the natural world. The series is available for download as a podcast. It accompanies the BBC 4 television series Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery, which visits the monasteries in search of inner peace, presenting an alternative to the hectic pace of modern daily life.

Monks need silence & love it in order to pray. We need silence a) inside your head to shut off the whirlpool of whirling thoughts and b) to calm your heart with all its attachments and desires. Try to put them aside and Be Still before God. St Benedict’s firstly wanted people to LISTEN. He is often portrayed with fingers on lips inviting us to SILENCE – not of coldness or hostility or indifference but SILENCE OF ADORATION. It’s not silence for silence’s sake, or to cut yourself off from other people - but TACITURNITY : silence for recollection, reflection; to create inner & outer peace for prayer, reading & study. Our speech could be a weapon used to wound or hurt others or to promote or justify ourselves – to put ourselves up and put others down. St Benedict wanted all such speech  banished from the monastery. He wanted silence to go deeper, into the state where you are walking with God all the time. You have to work at finding silence in a noisy world of machines, cars, planes etc. Silence is heaven.

2)     PRAYER :  24th Oct Tonight, in the second in the series, monks from Downside, Belmont and Pluscarden Abbeys meditate on the subject of prayer, against a background of chant and sounds evocative of the peace and serenity of the monastery

3)     WORK 25th Oct Tonight, in the third in the series, monks from Downside, Belmont and Pluscarden Abbeys meditate on the subject of work, against a background of chant and sounds evocative of the peace and serenity of the monastery.  

4)     MEDITATION  26thOct : Tonight, in the fourth in the series, monks from Downside, Belmont and Pluscarden Abbeys meditate on the subject of meditation, against a background of chant and sounds evocative of the peace and serenity of the monastery.

5)      LOVE 27th Oct : Tonight, in the last in the series, monks from Downside, Belmont and Pluscarden Abbeys meditate on the subject of love, against a background of chant and sounds evocative of the peace and serenity of the monastery.

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November 2017 group

We began with an audio download from Reggie Ray entitled, 'The purpose of meditation' (from a Sounds True series 'The Power of Meditation'). This talk describes how meditation allows us to digest experience. RR believes medtation is probably more important now than it ever was -  in western culture especially, periods of 'aloneness' have been reduced. So why meditate? He says our lives today are so packed, busy, information-loaded, there is often little time to process our experience - we live on the surface. We often struggle with who we are, with our self-esteem, we go so fast all we often do is just hold on and maintain. The motivation to nurture compassion through meditation helps us to soften towards ourselves and also towards others. Meditation can help uncover our hearts and our potential.  So meditation - just 20 minutes a day - can have a huge impact on ourselves and our relatedness towards others.

We followed this talk with a short sitting practice, using our breath-within-the-body as our anchor. Towards the latter part of the practice we brought in loving-kindness or compassion or equanimity phrases of our choosing - or simply stayed with the breath.

We followed with group enquiry. Then there was discussion with linkage with the recent Radio 3 podcasts and the BBC 4 series 'In search of inner peace', reflecting on and celebrating the value of silence. It's possible that our society is repeatedly traumatising itself through bombarding with constant news, information, social media stimulation that is never individually processed or assimilated - the growth of mindfulness in our society is perhaps in part a 'wise' response to this - a stepping apart and inner dwelling to quieten and to tend.

'Now in 2017, Kabat-Zinn vibrates with an urgent belief that meditation is the "radical act of love and sanity" we need in an age of Trump, accelerating climate change and disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire' ( from G2 interview, The Guardian, October 22nd 2017)

"Between stimulus and response there's a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." (Victor Frankl)

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Group October 5th 2017

Our opening practice was drawn from Hanson's 'Buddha's Brain' (p 201) entitled 'The Meditation', about which Hanson writes, 'The Buddha offered a kind of road map for contemplative practice: steady the mind, quiet it, bring it to singleness, and concentrate it.' Following the practice, through enquiry, we opened our reflection around supports ('factors') for mindfulness and concentration (again using Hanson's guidance) - including acknowledging the challenges of meditation (which tests attention in order to strengthen it). The five factors of concentration, according to Hanson, are: Applied attention (initial directing of attention to an object, e.g., the breath); Sustained attention: staying focused on the object, such as remaining aware of the entire inhalation; Rapture: intense interest in the object; Joy: gladdening of the heart, including happiness, contentment and tranquility; Singleness of mind: experiencing everything as a whole, with few thoughts, equanimity and a strong sense of being present.  

Within our enquiry we looked at seeming resistance to certain concepts, e.g., that of rapture, discussing how our experience, conditioning and knowledge strongly and uniquely influence our reactions to words and ideas, but also noting how we can also open ourselves up through curiosity to possibility and experimentation.

Hanson's work includes the referencing of neuroscientific evidence to demonstrate how our brains can be trained/ rewired through eg meditation practice, and he suggests different ways to help the brain steady the mind, sometimes postulating what is happening within the brain itself.

So these are some of the approaches recommended by Hanson: 1) keeping attention on the object by e.g., imagining a little guardian living in the anterior congulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain involved in applying and sustaining attention. 2) filtering out distractions by e.g, starting a breath meditation by exploring sound, which paradoxically, by inviting distractions in, encourages them to move out. 3) managing the desire for stimulation by e.g., breaking the breath into small parts - inhalation, exhalation and pause between - so there's more to notice, or alternatively, doing e.g. walking meditation, which provides more stimulus. 4) encouraging rapture and joy - such positive feelings help concentrate attention by increasing the transmission of dopamine to the brain's working memory - i.e., encouraging happiness within a practice can actually help concentration! (n.b. different words and phrases may resonate better with us than others 5) singleness of mind - unification of awareness, involving deepening absorption in the object of attention, Hanson suggests may be associated with high-frequency gamma waves seen in experienced meditators.  Other ways to encourage this singleness of mind include nuturing a continuitiy of here-and-now presence throughout our day.

We closed our session with a short private reflection on our intentions for practice.


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