Group September 7th 2017

We began with a practice on equanimity based on one of Jack Kornfield's and Tara Brach's 'Mindfulness Daily' short practices, within the 'Present and Non-Reactive' section, which uses the repetition of the words 'may I live with a peaceful heart' to encourage a calm and open approach to the inevitable changes in our lives, including illness, separation and loss. Equanimity is one of the 'four immeasurables' or 'limitless ones' described in Buddhist teachings. In her 'Noble Heart' Pema Chödrön says how sometimes 'equanimity' is taught as a practice before 'loving kindnes's or 'compassion' and 'sympathetic joy' in order to lay the ground for a bigger perspective of what's possible, for instance, through the practice of loving kindness, melting distinctions between attraction and aversion, not getting stuck within reactive patterns. It's interesting how in the secular 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' programme, van den Brink and Koster describe these four qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as 'Four Friends for Life', describing them as boundless 'because they are not restricted by the narrow perspective of our ego'. They continue that equanimity 'refers to an open-minded and warm-hearted state of mind .... the antidote to conceit, arrogance and overinvolvement, which means excessive identification with our attributes, possessions, views and opinions'. It's important to note this does not mean indifference or not caring, but rather gaining inner balance in order to respond more wisely and humanely to all that life throws at us!

Following enquiry around the practice and then broader discussion of our own mindfulness practices, we discussed the 'Tend and 'Befriend' reaction that is described in van den Brink and Koster as the 'fourth instinctive reaction to stress that evolved in mammals'. This is the protective, caring attitude towards offspring and vulnerable others, often displayed through social connectedness, especially evident in times of great danger (possibly seen in some recent world disasters) Although obviously helpful and even inspiring, van den Brink and Koster describe how such a reaction can become excessive, leading to over-protectiveness, followed by exhaustion and the ignoring of one's own needs. Compassion, or empathy fatigue, brings its own cycle of imbalance and alienation.

We closed with a short personal practice/reflection on equanimity. 

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Group August 3rd 2017

We began with a short 'Beginners Mind' practice from the 'Mindfulness Daily' series by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, reminding of the value of seeing with fresh eyes and renewed presence, staying curious and interested without judgement, which can, in Jack Kornfield's words, 'open a doorway to creative solutions' in our lives.

We followed on with a 'Kindness meditation - yourself' drawn from Erik van den Brink's and Frits Koster's 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' which establishes a soothing breathing rhythm and then encourages the formation of kind wishes towards ourselves, finding a rhythm between the breath and the words and phrases, abbreviating the phrases, eventually letting go of them completely if that feels okay, resuming them if the mind wanders. Whatever arises, working with it kindly and compassionately, labelling, repeating words or phrases or focusing once more on the soothing breathing rhythm, possibly bringing to mind another kind being or beloved pet, before directing the feelings once more towards oneself.

There was enquiry following these practices, then more general enquiry about general mindful experiences over the previous month.

We discussed the three emotion regulation systems which Gilbert and others describe to help make sense of our complex emotional lives. These are 1. The Threat System 2. The Drive System 3. The Soothing System. These systems alternate in their dominance, depending on the situation, but insight into our own individual patterns of reaction and response can help us to see more clearly which systems have been 'practiced' more or less in our lives - and may help us for instance, through practice, shift the balance, towards less fear reactivity and greater soothing. For further discussion, exercises and practices see 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' by Van den Brink and Koster.

We ended the session with a short practice on 'Intention', again taken from Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.

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Group June 1st 2017

We started with a practice based on Pema Chödrön's 'Noble Heart' audio retreat (chapter 2). This practice begins with breath awareness, focusing on the outbreath, 'touching the breath' as it leaves the body, labelling thoughts as 'thinking', seeing them as clouds dissolving in a vast sky. Next the focus moves to one of compassion, bringing an attitude of 'unlimited friendliness', fluidity, relaxing in the body and mind. Building on this, the emphasis shifts to that of discipline, bringing a quality of precision and clarity to the instruction, so the instruction is to focus on the outbreath, label thinking when it arises, and to just 'come back as best you can' to the outbreath with gentleness and precision.  Finally, following gentle and compassionate mind, disciplined mind, the focus shifts to a non-grasping and open mind, 'relaxing out grip', opening up with each outbreath, labelling gently and letting go.

In enquiry, we moved to a general discussion of mindfulness practice and the human characteristic of harsh self-judgement. Mindfulness practice can often reflect our lives  - that sense of not coming up to scratch, self-blaming, tighening our grip - whilst losing it! So we work with staying with, relaxing and allowing.  The process of integrating mindfulness into our lives is an ongoing challenge for us all and the 3-minute breathing space is the tool recommended in health-directed mindfulness courses such as MBSR and MBCT, reminding us wherever we are to come back to this moment. The breathing space is basically a 3-step 'awareness routine'.  In Teasdale et al's, ''The Mindful Way Workbook' applying the breathing space in everyday life is described in this way: 

'In using breathing spaces in everyday life, you acknowledge that there is strong emotion around and take a few moments to bring awareness to it (as thoughts, feelings, and body sensations), simply allowing it to be there without judging it, without trying to chase it away or solve any problem (Step 1)  You then "touch base," wherever you are, by returning to the anchor of the breath (Step 2) and to the grounded spaciousness of awareness of your body as a whole (Step 3) In this way you shift mental gears so that you bring a more responsive, balanced mind to the next moments of your day.' (p. 123).

The simple - and timely! -  acronym AGE can always remind us of this routine : Awareness (of what's happening right now) Gathering (the breath in) and Expanding (awareness out). An hourglass/eggtimer symbol can also help remind us of the shape of this change in awareness. 

The group discussed a Lion's Roar article by Pema Chödrön (April 13, 2017) entitled "How we get hooked and how we get unhooked". This offers further perspective on how we habitually get caught up in the moment, but how we can learn to loosen up: '... shenpa, or the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked, we begin by recognising that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.'   Meditation practice itself helps us recognise our habitual patterns.

We finished with a short closing practice.



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Group July 6th 2017

As a group we listened to a downladed meditation a group member had previously found helpful. This included several periods of silence which we all found useful. We also took advantage of the beautiful weather to meditate privately outside, when several did walking meditations or meditations focused on the five senses.

A fascinating discussion followed about how useful or not each of us found visual images in meditation. Reference was also made to two articles (1) by Rick Hanson about Making Good Bargains (NB can sign up for weekly 'Just One Thing' emails at  this one was from June 28th 2017)  and (2) The Practice of Gratitude ( from 4th July 2017 Mindful Magazine) found at 



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Group May 4th 2017

Today we began with a loving-kindness body scan, drawn from Jeffrey Brantley's 'Daily meditations for calming your anxious mind' (p.152). Brantley says in his introduction, 'Old, unconscious habits of meanness, self-criticism, and judgement can easily and quickly focus toxic attitudes on your body. For example, how do you usually react to and treat your body when it is sick, hurts, or is injured? Are you angry or kind?' He continues, ' ....focusing loving-kindness on your body - can help you cultivate a wiser and friendlier relationship with your body in any situation. This practice can be especially helpful in times of anxiety and worry when your "fear body" is loomimg large'. This scan, rather than systematically going around the body, toe to head or visa versa, takes the broad approach of feeling the flow of sensations throughout the body and adding kind words and  expressions of gratitude towards the body, both as a whole and wherever seems to call for closer attention. This can be taken into the organs of the body as well as its major regions and any part where there is or has been sickness, hurt or injury, using a mindful breath and kind, compassionate words to soothe and express gratitude

It is probably worth saying this practice is not about, for instance, healing a sickness, but about shifting the attitude towards the body in a more aware and kindly direction, whatever state it is in)

We followed with enquiry around this practice, and then generally. This practice can, like most others, be incorporated into everyday life, whenever we 'come to' and take a few moments to feel and breaths and in this case, bring a compassionate focus to the body.  The 3-minute breathing space has proven to be of huge value in providing a simple route for bringing mindfulness into the routine of life, as a mini reminder to 'come back' and notice what's happening right now and attending to sensations, emotions and thoughts with consciousness, rather than blind habit. 'The Mindful Way through Depression' (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, Kabat-Zinn, 2007) teaches a useful variety of applications for the '3-minute breathing space', which can of course be made into any length, from 30 seconds to 30 minutes - depending on the occasion!

We spoke of the way pain of all sorts can be made more bearable by not hardening into it, allowing for possibilities, somehow bringing a flexibility into how we regard even the possibility of further painful experience. Dealing with depression is one thing, dealing with the fear of future depression another, and it should not be minimised or denied. The practice of mindfulness in both its detailed attention, and in the vastness of 'just being with' offers the possibility:

"... to live life as if each moment is important, as if each moment counted and could be worked with, even if it is a moment of pain, sadness, despair, or fear" (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

Jeff Brantley ( 'Calmimg Your Anxious Mind') talks of four important internal factors that support meditation practice: Attitude ('don't know it all'  is good!); Curiosity ( even in unpleasant or difficult moments); Motivation (and determination and discipline - even if you don't like it!) and Belief in yourself (in your own ability and power to do something to help yourself). This last factor could well be called 'belief in your own wisdom', and for someone who has suffered depression, the 'experienced understanding' that mindfulness offers and the journey of resilience are huge possibilities. 

We finished our session with a short audio practice from 'Mindfulness Daily' by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach - 'Coming back to your senses' (Sounds True recordings).


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