Aware and knowing it

Awareness is something that is inherently part of us, so developing awareness through the practice of mindfulness meditation does not mean adding something new or extra to the picture, it involves developing and enhancing skills that are already here, naturally within us. Mindful awareness can simply be described as knowing what is happening while it is happening. It is the knowing quality of awareness that helps us to develop all the beneficial qualities of mind that meditation brings. We don’t just see a flower, we know we are seeing a flower. Through consciously paying attention to what is immediately within our experience, we become more conscious of what is arising in our awareness, from moment to moment.

Whatever we experience, and whatever appears in the mind, whether it be a sound, a smell, a sense of touch, taste, a thought, emotion, or physical sensation, we can be aware of it. So everything can be part of meditation practice and a support for mindful awareness. It is not something we add to life, it is life itself. So moments of seeing the bare winter trees, smelling woodsmoke in the wind, feeling the warmth of water in a tap, hearing the clank of cutlery in a washing up bowl, can all be moments of meditation, and reminders that practice is here with us, and right under our very noses. It is not something elusive that we either “do” or “don’t do”. When we begin to explore meditation practice, with the subtle shift of effort involved in remembering to be aware, it is easy for us to make a big deal  of it.  But in essence, it involves a simple shift of  focus, many billions of times. And it includes recognising clearly, when awareness has drifted, and we are not present. This is not something that has gone “wrong” or off the rails, it is part of the practice itself.

It is through recognising awareness and  in countless ordinary moments, that meditation practice builds, outside of any more formal practice that we may do. As long as we are are aware, we are meditating. So the process of building up a practice, deepening concentration, mindfulness and compassion, stems from this very simple fact of human life, that awareness is a capacity we can develop beneficially in our lives to bring us greater clarity and connection to life. And it can be completely part of our ordinary, everyday life as we go about our business.

The Tibetan meditation master, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, gives the most wonderfully encouraging advice to us all as follows:

” As long as you maintain awareness or mindfulness, no  matter what happens when you practice, your practice is meditation. If you watch thoughts, that’s meditation. If you can’t watch your thoughts, that is meditation too. Any of these experiences can be support for meditation. The essential thing is to maintain awareness, no matter what thoughts, emotions, sensations occur. If you remember that awareness of what occurs is meditation, then meditation becomes much easier than you think.”

From “The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness“.

 

 

Mindfulness, mid-winter and the Christmas rush

It is an ironic  fact of modern life  that as nature slows down to its most dormant point, with the days shortening and dwindling hours of daylight, that human activity is on a rising surge of activity in the lead up to Christmas. I was aware of this contrast driving down from Bellingham in Northumberland National Park towards Hexham one afternoon recently, noticing the starkness of all the winter trees against a marbled winter sky, and the light already sinking into the deepening shadows and recesses of the landscape.

It is a time of year when everything is thrown up in vivid contrast. The Metro Centre is the largest shopping centre in the UK  and yet only a few miles away, Newcastle upon Tyne’s West End food bank is the largest in the UK, and where only this week, the demand for Christmas dinners doubled on one of the days it was being served. I found  that Hexham was jammed with traffic  tailbacks, and there were long queues in all the shops and the carpark exits were in gridlock. So how do we practice  mindfulness in a world that is hurrying nowhere, and how can we can access it in the headlong Christmas rush? How do we balance all the activity with what matters most?

The truth is that awareness is a natural part of us, with us, wherever we are, at any place and at any time. So it is right there  in the traffic and supermarket queues that we can lean in with awareness to the feelings and thoughts spinning within us, the sounds of cars and voices and jingle music, the bright lights, the swish of the windscreen wipers, the feel of the car seat and the pedals, edging forward in the traffic queue, acknowledging the faint smile as someone lets us out of a side lane into the main line of cars heading for the exit. Why not allow a few moments to slow down, connect, find the ground in the moment exactly as it is,  as things are slowed down already, and much as we may wish otherwise, there is nothing to do in this moment, nowhere we can rush to, as the rushing has already been incapacitated by the sheer volume of traffic, and everyone else is in the same boat, waiting to get home, heading for the same exit? The opportunity to access spacious awareness isn’t somewhere at the end of a shopping list, it is right here, leaning into the moment with the rain sluicing across the windscreen, the intermittent thud of the wipers, and the huddled figures dodging between the cars to cross the road, picked out in the headlights from the oncoming traffic. We easily forget when inconvenienced, that practising with inconvenience is the heart of the practice in that moment, and that the qualities of patience, trust, kindness, non – striving are being excercised right there at the driving wheel in the middle of the pre-Christmas chaos. And so ironically again, in the middle of a car park jammed with stationary traffic, some felt moments of quiet and  peaceful breathing as the car inches forward in first gear,  and a there is a sense of wider and  shared connection with the other drivers also going nowhere.

It is as well to remember  that Christmas is not a great time for everyone moving in that slow queue – there  will be hidden sadnesses, isolation, sickness amongst family and friends, recent loss,  financial worry, job insecurity, not to mention a shared  fear for the world rising in moments of reflection as scenes from Aleppo surface in the mind from last night’s news. And it is often in the most unexpected, yet simple moments,  that some sense of inner peace and meaningful connection is experienced, in those bare, open moments of allowing  things to fully be just the way they are, the way things have constellated in to the particular human mosaic of circumstances in the car park on this particular afternoon, just as, eventually, driving out in to the rural dark, the trees  are imprinted in detail in the indigo light of a fading, evening sky: each trunk, limb, branch, and twig etched in its own precise, and unique outline. Manifesting in spaciousness, just as everything arises in awareness itself.

Mindfulness in Newcastle upon Tyne 2017

The next 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course will be starting on January 24th in central Newcastle upon Tyne. The course is suitable for those with no previous meditation experience who wish to learn how to establish a  mindfulness practice,  those who have a little experience of mindfulness, but feel they could benefit from the support and guidance of a structured course to establish a stronger foundation of personal practice, and also those with an existing  meditation practice who wish to deepen their practice and integrate it more fully in daily life. The course offers an in depth exploration of how we can allow spaces in the busy flow of every day, so that we can be more fully present and grounded all that daily life involves, especially when things are more challenging for us. The course involves 8 taught sessions with commitment to a home practice programme and accompanying CDs and handbook. There is also an opportunity to attend a full day of practice with others in the mindfulness community. This takes place after week 6 of the course on Sunday 12th March at Newton and Bywell Community Hall, near Stocksfield.

 

With mindfulness practice, we are always beginning again with whichever moment we are in.  The new year can be a positive time to allow for new beginnings and fresh approaches to living our lives more fully and clearly. It is a time of year when we naturally renew intentions towards our well-being, and reflect on how we can live a more balanced life. The course is offered in a welcoming and supportive group environment to encourage development and exploration.

The course takes place on Tuesday evenings, 6.30 pm – 8.45pm at The County Hotel on Neville Street, immediately opposite Central Station.

For full course information and an application form, please see the Courses page on my website.

Generosity

The 6 week Attitudinal Foundations of Mindfulness course which I have been running in central Newcastle upon Tyne has recently concluded. It has been a rich journey of sharing and reflection together as a group.  The course  has offered a more expanded “vocabulary” for exploring how practice can be applied in the fabric of day to day life, through greater familiarity with  the ways in which these qualities show up  time and time again in our experience of practice. This has brought new insights, and has opened the door to new possibilities for responding to what we meet in the flow of life, and through recognising the places where we habitually struggle.

The attitudinal factors of mindfulness have been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the pillars of mindfulness practice” (Full Catastrophe Living, Piatkus, 2004. )These fundamental qualities include: beginner’s mind, non-judgement, patience, trust, non- striving, acceptance and letting go. Together they constitute interconnected qualities of heart and mind which bring an essential attitudinal approach to how we relate to experience through practice, and which are naturally developed through the course of pracice itself. Recently Jon Kabat-Zinn  has included generosity and gratitude as additional qualities which are also essential to practice.

As a spontaneous expression of generosity, on the final evening of the course,  a participant  who runs a speciality bakery, brought along the day’s surplus of loaves, cakes, mince pies and Christmas biscuits which were bought by members of the group, and all donations made given to the charity Shelter, and also the food distributed that evening to homeless people on the streets in the vicinity of Neville Street and Central Station.

At Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham there has also been a recent collection made by the school Human Rights Group of second hand waterproof jackets, mens shoes, hats, scarves, gloves and toiletries for donation to  the Newcastle  West End Refugee Service (www.wers.org.uk) which is an established charity supporting assylum seekers and refugees in Newcastle upon Tyne. And right out in Northumberland National Park, the community of Tarset is running a donation “hub” at the local Holly Bush Inn for donations of children’s Christmas gifts and seasonal food treats that can be added to much needed food parcels at this time of year at The Newcastle West End Foodbank (www.newcastlewestend.foodbank.org.uk). This offers emergency support to local people in crisis as part of  a nationwide network of foodbanks, supported by the Trussell Trust working to combat hunger and poverty across the UK. These individual and community gestures make a direct difference in significant ways at a time of year when human need is at its greatest and needs to be remembered, and which we can all find ways of contributing to.

Barnacles don’t do Facebook

Barnacle rocksReturning to my favourite piece of shoreline in the NW highlands of Scotland, I am struck by how on the one hand it is so timeless, unchanged and familiar, yet just as I find it again in this moment. It happens to be a fine summer’s morning, a day of silk-screen blue sea, a mirror on which a black-backed gull is floating out there on the water, like a rubber duck, and there being barely a ripple, so the tide is welling and glugging and swirling like liquid glass against the jumble of barnacle-covered rocks jutting out to sea. The rocks themselves, splashed with lichen, and the shapes and shadows cast between them, are as familiar to me in their detail, as the sensory impressions of bog thyme and heather scratching my legs as I pick my way to the shore, the clouds of heather pollen kicking up like incense, and to where a fence post lies tossed on the rocks, still lying just where it was last time I came here, except perhaps more bleached by the elements now, like a discarded whalebone.

The mountains across the far side of the sea loch are precise in this clear, morning light, and the islands to the east are gleaming and suspended like jewels in the water, held in a basin of light, reflecting a clear sky. On the huge rock where I’m sitting, I can see clearly down in to the mysterious kelp forests below the water, as if looking through a telescope beneath the surface of the sea. From here, I can see thousands of barnacles on the rocks above the tideline. Sea anenomes, firmly closed, dot the surface like blood cells or praline chocolates, glistening, plump and moist. There is a very faint hissing sound as heat evaporates from the rocks and it is almost as if the barnacles are breathing, releasing air through open spores.

I reflect with some humour that these living organisms studding the rocks in their steadfast millions, are an equal part of our world, and we breathe the same air. We’re part of a living biosphere, consisting of millions of micro–organisms, mostly invisible to the naked eye and of which we have no awareness at all. Yet these organisms, even the visible ones we do see, when we are connected through mindful awareness, when we simply look and see, do not share the mental obsessions, complications and fixations of the modern human world and mind. Barnacles have no awareness of Brexit, they don’t do Facebook, they haven’t a clue who Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn are, or whatever may have come in by text or email in the last half hour. Nature, and the shoreline I have just arrived to, is just as it is in this moment. I instantly feel the release of stepping in to something simpler, bigger and shared.

After a while, sitting quietly on the hissing rocks, I delight in the detail of today’s shoreline findings, which include a giant female spider who has sun her web magnificently between two boulders, her guy ropes firmly anchored by silver, gossamer threads. She is sitting proudly at the centre of a perfectly woven web, billowing like a sail in the space between the rocks to catch a morning haul of midges. There are remains of sea urchin, scattered like shattered glass, and the remains of a lobster carcass hauled up in the ledge of a gully above a freshwater pool, overhung by gorse – the recent remains of an otter’s meal. Moving along slowly, my awareness is filling now with the seeing of winkle, jammed driftwood, and shining seaweed, feeling the welcome warmth of heat rising off the sandstone slabs beneath my feet, as mental activity recedes and gives way.

A Fearless Heart

Heart stoneA book I am currently reading and greatly enjoying is “A Fearless Heart” by Thubten Jinpa. Thupten Jinpa has been the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama for nearly thirty years. He is an adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, and chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, which is dedicated to promoting collaboration between the sciences and contemplative knowledge, especially Buddhism.

The book shows us how and why compassion is the key to greater well- being and how  we all can train our capacity for compassion so that we can become more resilient to the inevitable challenges that life presents us with. The book is full of thoughtful reflection and practical exercises that are based on the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) that he has helped to create at Stanford University School of Medicine. It is a book infused with gentle wisdom and penetrating insight. Drawing on Buddhist and western psychology, it describes very clearly why compassion is so essential to our well-being, and how it can be accessed and touched and experienced right in the heart and reality of everyday life, rather than viewed as an ideal or concept or aspiration that is somehow beyond our reach. It describes simple practices that can be developed as a way of building compassion for ourselves and others in profound but simple ways.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the 8 week  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction progamme that I teach termly in central Newcastle upon Tyne, describes it as “the bravest, clearest, and most engaging book I know on why we need to cultivate compassion”. In his introduction, Thubten Jinpa writes: “Even at the height of our autonomy as adults, the presence of another’s affection powerfully defines our happiness or misery. This is human nature – we’re vulnerable and it’s a good thing. A fearless heart embraces this fundamental truth of our human condition. We can develop the courage to see and be more compassionately in the world, live our lives with our hearts wide open to the pain – and joy – of being human on this planet. As utterly social and moral creatures, we each yearn to be recognized and valued. We long to matter, especially in the lives of those whom we love. We like to believe that our existence serves  a purpose. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures. It’s through connecting with other people, actually making a difference to others, and bringing joy in to their lives that we make our own lives matter, that we bring worth and purpose to our lives. This is the power of compasion.”

Making the most of it

bees on comb

 

Here in the uplands of the Northumberland National Park, the heather is flowering at its peak. The fells have taken on their full stain of purple, great pools of deep colour, like cloud shadow passing over the landscape. In the recent fine weather, I took some moments to watch our bees flying at full capacity, to-ing and fro-ing from the heather on the fells above our house. Our six hives are situated at the edge of deciduous woodland, facing south and to the moorland  above. A shepherds hut overlooks the row of hives, which also serves as a kind of observation hide, from which I can closely observe the bees’ activity throughout the year. But on this glorious hot afternoon, I have pulled a bench out in front of the hut, so I’m sitting directly behind rank of the hives at a short distance, getting as close as I can, looking out over hives to the meadow, a sea of tall, moving grasses.

There is something deeply thrilling about watching the bees, as they are today, at the height of their activity. From deep within the hive, a huge swelling hum resonates – the intense sound of thousands of honey bees active on the combs and frames ranked side by side within the boxes, in a throng of concentrated activity. In this afternoon heat, the air in front of the hives is a kaleidoscope of flight paths, the zig-zagging of bees in and out of the hives to and from their various trajectories on the heather and meadow flowers.  The colonies are united in purpose and working to full capacity while the weather conditions permit.

Heather is the bees final and essential crop before winter and there is a urgency in their activity, to build vital stores while they can. The flowering period of heather is short and weather dependent. When the bees are working on the heather, it is best to leave them uninterrupted to get on with it. Even the most mild- natured bees get especially irritable and agitated if the hives are entered for any bee-keeping procedures during this vital period. It is not wise to thwart the bees unnecessarily. Today, in the warm, late afternoon sunshine,  they are focussed and unfussed by my presence sitting quietly behind their ranks. An occasional bee buzzes lazily before me, checking me out, but I am completely safe sitting here, facing outwards behind them.

It is inspiring to be so close to this hub of purposeful activity on this late summer’s afternoon, each bee contributing to the health and well-being of the hives, each flight an expression of their united intention, serving the colony as a whole. Today the cohesive organisation of these communities is manifesting  in its maximum glory. At the peak of their activity, the fullest potential of the colonies is being actualised from within to without and there is a sense  of complete harmony witnessing this climax of their productive endeavour. The air hangs with the scent of honey, gold bullion locked up in the vaults of the hives.

Watching the bees, I  am fascinated and  humbled by the wisdom of their  levels of social co-operation and organisation, their ability to align so completely  with the prevailing weather conditions, their absolute presence and focus in the moment, drawing from nature what is there to be drawn upon, each bee following its own flight path and completed journey to and from the hive, over and over, as long as the weather and flying conditions hold.

I reflect that as humans, the gift of mindful awareness similarly has an agency of purpose, and allows us to actualise our fullest potential as human beings, bringing us conscious connection with the world we inhabit and are part of , the breathing in of experience through the senses and the mind’s clear mirror. With mindful awareness we engage with the world responsively and with choice, opening to the limitless possibilities of life’s unfolding, in a million consciously lived moments, like the million flights of the honey bees to the heather this hot August afternoon, making the most of it, and returning with gold.

Gwennie Fraser lives in Northumberland National Park and teaches mindfulness in North-East England, including Northumberland and Newcastle upon Tyne.

 

 

 

 

 

New mindfulness course for Autumn 2016, Newcastle upon Tyne

This autumn I will be running a new 6 week course on the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness, described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the pillars of mindfulness practice” (Full Catastrophe Living, 2004). The course will be held on Thursday evenings from 6.30 pm- 8pm in the Grainger Suite of the Mercure Newcastle County Hotel on Neville St, Newcastle upon Tyne, immediately opposite Central Station. The course is suitable for those who have already completed an 8 week MBSR or MBCT course and would like to deepen and develop their practice further through exploring these qualities in their practice, and in a supportive group environment.

Non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go are interconnected qualities of mind and heart which bring an essential attitudinal approach to  practice, and which are  naturally developed through practice itself. They can also be cultivated consciously as a way of reinforcing and deepening mindfulness practice and integrating it in daily life.

There has been enthusiastic interest in the course from those regularly attending the monthly Staying Mindful practice sessions which  I have been offering at the County Hotel in previous years. My intention with running this course is to offer a structured opportunity to deepen and enliven our practice through exploring and  developing these qualities, and  applying them in our lives. The course will run at fortnightly intervals to allow space and time in between sessions to practice with these qualities at home. Guidelines and suggestions will be given for home practice, and course materials to assist with reflection.

Mindfulness practice is a life long journey, which has many aspects to it, as we continue to meet the full spectrum of life experience and the limitless possibilities for growth and change that this experience offers. It can be valuable to explore practice with fresh perspectives, reflection and insight, not only for the benefits of deepening our meditation practice, but in revisiting how we fundamentally live our lives. I have been looking forward to offering this course for a while, and am excited about the opportunity it presents to  support the journey of practice more deeply with those in the growing mindfulness community who are committed to bringing awareness in to their lives and work.

Places are limited on this course and there has been enthusiastic uptake, so please check the website for availability. Early booking is advised to avoid disappointment.

8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in central Newcastle upon Tyne

This autumn, I’m really looking forward to offering the next 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, which will be starting on Tuesday evenings from 27th September , 6.30- 8.45 pm in the Grainger Suite of the Mercure Newcastle County Hotel, Newcastle upon Tyne, immediately opposite Central Station The course is a wonderful opportunity to build a strong foundation of mindfulness practice in daily life, and to develop and reflect on the experience of this in a supportive group learning environment. The course is completely secular and no previous meditation experience is required. It can also provide a way of  integrating a more established meditation practice more deeply in to daily life.

Bringing awareness and acceptance to our immediate experience can help us to notice stress developing and to respond skilfully. Developing this awareness through practice is the process through which change and transformation become possible. The aim of the course is to learn new ways of handling challenging physical sensations, emotions, moods and life situations by helping us move towards greater balance, resilience and self -care. Challenges and difficulties are part of life, but by changing how we respond, rather than react to them, moment by moment they can become workeable. Each moment is a new beginning. This continues to be a profound inspiration for me in my own personal practice and daily life, and in sharing the benefits of this course.

For further detailed information about the course, or to check availability,  please read the course information on the courses page of the website, where there is also a link to a booking form.

 

 

Warp and weft

In the last Staying Mindful: Monthly Practice Group meeting we explored the attitude that we develop towards practice as we continue to practice over a period of time  beyond our initial training. While the regularity of daily practice, what and when and where we choose to practice, and how we build this in to  the routines of daily life, is of continued importance in the long view of practice, our attitude to practice is just as important as the patience, effort and discipline required. Like the warp and the weft of a weaving, both directions are needed to bring things towards a balanced whole. We need the structure and routine of practice to build the habit of awareness in our lives, but we also need the kindness and care  towards our practice and life experience to help us become clearer, more open and compassionate. Both are mutually independent.

Pema Chodron, in her lovely book “How to Meditate : A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind”(Sounds True, 2013) talks about steadfastness and loyalty towards ourselves as one of the primary qualities that we cultivate through regular meditation practice. We cultivate steadfastness through continually allowing whatever is happening in our experience to be there, and through staying with the experience. The “practice ” of meditation means that we are helping this attitude and quality of mind translate itself in to our life experience at other times.

“We have such a tendency to lay a lot of labels, opinions, and judgments on top of what’s happening. Steadfastness- loyalty to yourelf – means that you let those judgments go. So in a way, part of the steadfastness is that when you notice your mind is going a million miles an hour and you’re thinking about all kinds of things, there is this uncontrived moment that just happens without any effort; you stay with your experience.

In meditation, you develop this nurturing quality of loyalty and steadfastness and perseverence towards yourself. And as we learn to do this in meditation, we become more able to perservere in all kinds of situations outside of our meditation, ot what we call postmeditation.”

In our meeting,  we reflected on what cultivating steadfastness and loyalty might really mean to us in our practice, and how it might be relevant to the reality of how we practice from day to day. Does practice become a rather hard, rigidly carved out space in daily life? Do we contrive things so we only sit when we feel like it, or wish to feel good? Do we give oursleves a hard time when we don’t manage to practice when, or as long, or as regularly as we would wish? How can we more loyal to the process, to the experience itself? What would steadfastness in practice look like to each of us individually? Would it involve a change in what we choose to do, or how we approach our practice, the intention we bring to it, the way in which we relate to oursleves?

A word that came up in our reflections was “relationship”, a sense of how we build relationship with ourselves through practice, through beginning in the moment, with whatever is here. Some of us thought that “steadfastness” seemed like quite an old-fashioned word, but that it had qualities of rootedness, holding, persistence, not giving up, a sense of honesty and truth with ourselves. Staying close to our values and what really matters. Choosing to sit with ourselves  on a regular basis is a way of developing a steady relationship to the ups and downs of experience,  but it is also a gateway to a less contrived way of living and perceiving, in which honesty and steadiness are allowed to flourish without striving for things to be other than they are.  It can perhaps be helpful to hold both the warp and weft of practice in mind, as we continue to open to the journey of practice in daily life.  We can think about our practice freshly and consider if we need to give more nurturing care to the warp or the weft. We can begin to see the way the weaving holds together with an inbuilt strength and integrity, instead of flopping and unravelling and dropping out and all the million ways our energy is dissipated when we do not pay attention. We can perhaps see our practice more clearly and value it more deeply.

Staying Mindful Monthly Practice Meetings take place monthly in The Grainger Suite of the Mercure Newcastle County Hotel (directly opposite Central Station) 6.30pm- 8pm. The next meeting will be Thursday 19th May. The meetings offer a chance to drop in and continue to practice together in a friendly group environment  and reflect on practice together (with all its many new beginnings)  in a supportive, non-judgmental way.