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.

 

 

 

Mindfulness course in central Newcastle upon Tyne

The next 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course will be commencing on 26th April on Tuesday evenings  from 6.30 to 8.30pm at the Mercure Newcastle County Hotel on Neville St, Newcastle upon Tyne, immediately opposite central Station. Booking is now open and full course and booking information can be found on the courses page of this website.

The 8 week course offers a unique opportunity to develop a strong personal foundation of mindfulness practice in everyday life. At times of stress we can feel overwhelmed and react in ways that are automatic and reinforce unhelpful patterns, leaving us feeling stuck. Bringing awareness and acceptance to our immediate experience can help us to notice stress developing, and to respond skilfully. The aim of this course is to learn new ways of handling challenging physical sensations, emotions, moods and life situations by helping us to access our own powerful inner resources, developing greater awareness, understanding and resilience.

Mindfulness practice can support us in moving from reactivity and being caught up in trying to fix or solve our difficulties, to responding to life’s challenges with greater wisdom, skill, kindness and self-care. By being present in more of our moments, we can open to more skilful responses, choices and possibilities and enrich our experience of life, reconnecting with ourselves so that we can  live more fully and clearly.

The course is completely secular and takes place in the supportive learning environment of a group, with time within sessions to share and  reflect on individual experiences of practice.No previous meditation experience is required.  Participants are encouraged to commit to a daily home practice sessions which is supported by guided practices on CDs. The cost of the course includes a full set of CDs with guided practices for use at home, course handbook, in between session practice support from your teacher if required, and the opportunity to deepen and integrate learning from the course with a day of mindfulness practice after week 7, on Sunday 19th June  at Newton and Bywell Community Hall, Stocksfield (15 miles from Newcastle).

Following the course, participants are offered the opportunity to attend monthly practice support sessions, further days of retreat and an annual residential retreat in rural Northumberland.

“Anyone can learn mindfulness. It’s simple, you can practise it anywhere, and the results can be life-changing.”

Be Mindful ( www.bemindful.co.uk)

Revisiting autopilot

In our last “Staying Mindful” practice support meeting last week, we reflected  a little on working with distraction and how we can go about renewing an interest in habitual patterns of mind and activity where we have an ongoing tendency to drift out of the present moment. At the start of an 8 week course, we begin with recognising the difference between  autopilot and mindful awareness, and what is revealed to us when we begin to intentionally bring mindful attention to our experience.

We’re all on a continuum between distraction and awareness, and the practice of mindfulness helps us to lean further towards a fuller attentiveness in our lives, and also towards  being  more readily able to recognise when and how we get caught up in habitual and preferential mind states, in the many forms this can take.

As practice becomes more established and embedded in our lives,  we develop our capacity for awareness and get used to the renewed effort, patience and intention that is required to bring ourselves back to the  present moment when we have drifted away, both in our formal practice and everyday life. But as  the process evolves over time, how can we maintain a curious, yet gentle interest in  continuing to see  how our well worn habits and patterns play themselves out? How do we open up to working with the thoughts and emotions that come round and round again instead of switching off?  How do we remain alive to the impulses and tendencies of liking , not liking and finding downright good old boring, that so readily hook us out of where we are  and that block or obscure  our ability to  experience the full vitality of life in any given moment? Where do we go when we are not here? How do we drift? What habitually hooks us out?

When we start training the mind through the small steps of practice, we embark on a journey that  requires  kindness and honesty as we begin to see ourselves and our neurotic, human patterns  more clearly. We’re such creatures of habit, that even our practice can become routine and familiar, and sometimes a bit dulled and lacking in focus at the edges. It can be helpful to refresh practice from time to time by renewing an interest in where  the camera lens habitually goes fuzzy in our lives, where  we tend to  zone out from and drift off to, the places where we get habitually hooked and entangled. Our whole life becomes an arena for wonderful and rich learning through becoming more aware of the geography of habit; the places, people, situations, thoughts, feelings, activities, things we like and  avoid, and are indifferent to.  By waking up to the force of habit, we reclaim  the vitality and colour of life from the dead space of unawareness and reel more of our moments in.

So perhaps, in daily life, we can begin to notice again, how much we still drift in to the grey zone of autopilot, and perk up and notice what it is actually like. Does it feel like a sort of inert dullness or does it take the form of busy, multi-tasking whizziness? Where do we go when our minds drift? Is it to planning or re-hashing the events of the day, or drifting towards a dreamy wanting, or analysing how things could be different? Do we surround ourselves in  subtle entangling veils of “if”, “but”, “when”, “could”and “should” and “can’t”? Do we lean forwards to the future, or lean back to the past? Are there strong areas of habit we exercise without questioning  in our daily life? When do we check email? How and where do we have our lunch? Where do we sit? What do we snack on? What do we google? What do we do if we get a free moment and nothing is happening?

Our habits are part of us and it is through our habits and learning to see them more clearly, that mindful awareness offers us different possibilities. We need to see them, to work with them.  We’re in partnership with them, whether we like them or not. But if we can begin to see the pieces of the jigsaw a bit more clearly, the picture begins to open up to something a bit more wider, spacious, giving and flexible. What we practice grows stronger. We can become part of something bigger,  less constrained and predictable. New pathways open up through the woods, small little trails leading between the trees that we haven’t been down before, but which perhaps take us somewhere new.

On BBC Winter Watch recently, I was fascinated to see how they tracked the flight patterns of a golden eagle and a sea eagle by attaching cameras and GPS technology to them, which, by some miracle, were then  linked up to computers on the ground. Sure enough, as each eagle climbed the thermals,  soaring in to the sky above the Cairngorms, squiggly patterns began to appear on the tablet screens of the researchers on the ground. “Look at those tight spirals!” they exclaimed .”Wow – she’s going at 46mph!” The information was all there in patterns and numbers  and data appearing on the screens, constellating in facts, figures and diagrams, moment by moment.

But what I found incredible was the totally new experience of being able to see the world from the eagle’s point of view as it flew – the way the mountains tipped and the sky veered and whole valleys and rivers flew like ribbons in some enormous overview rushing underneath its soaring wings, tilting, adjusting with the detailed movements of its body and head, which you could just see below the positioned camera, pointing to the hugeness of the world below its crown of chocolate-layered feathers.

Afterwards, I reflected how in a parallel way, through mindfulness practice, we’re leaving the confines of pattern and construct behind, the gathered data and predictability of our lives,  and opening to the spaces where limitless possibilities, viewpoints, and perspectives exist, that perhaps we never knew could be possible. Perhaps, just by doing something differently, we can consciously participate in creative change, rising above the drift of our lives with renewed clarity and vision. We don’t have to be down there, glued to the graphs on the  computer, we can be up there with the eagle experiencing the sky.

 

Mindfulness in Education Conference 2016

I recently attended the Mindfulness in Education Conference 2016 at the Institute of Education in central London, organised by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), which was attended by over 700 delegates, from all over the UK and abroad. It was a stimulating day of presentations and break-out sessions and a chance to find out how mindfulness is beginning to make a difference to the well-being of staff and pupils in schools. Although not a school teacher myself, I have teenage girls going through exam years at GCSE and A level, and know from our own experience as a family, the pressures and stresses that young people go through. I have recently trained in delivering the .b Foundations course for  school staff through the Mindfulness in Schools Project.

The day was introduced by Professor Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Southampton and Exeter, and a freelance consultant. She described mindfulness as the “WD40 of education – it unlocks doors”, and  “helping people to live the lives they want.” Professor Mark Williams, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), gave a wonderfully clear talk about the origins and applications of mindfulness, tracing mindfulness to its roots in the long river of practical philosophy from Asia, through to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering work in the Stress Reduction Clinic which he founded in 1979 at the University of Massachussets Medical School, and to the emergence  of mindfulness today  in diverse contexts right across the spectrum of society, offering a  life-changing “way of cultivating a sense of changed narrative from self-criticism to self-care that is foundational for being fully human.”

Richard Burnett, Co-founder and Director of the Mindfulness in Schools Project, talked about how the possibility of introducing mindfulness in schools has now shifted from a field of possibility to a dawning growth of massive potential through the introduction  of mindfulness courses into school curriculums ,  through the development of Paws.b and .b  mindfulness courses for junior and secondary schools, and the recent .b Foundations training for school staff. He described  how these courses  offered the evolving  possibility of “putting well-being at the heart of school” and “nurturing staff to nurture children”. He cautioned that mindfulness should not be adopted as a “panacea” and that it would be “token-istic” if a school were not embedded in mindfulness, through the thorough training of staff and the gradual development of a mindful culture within a school, a process that needed time to evolve and to be effective, and to grow in to place through the principles of established practice.

Anthony Selden, the biographer and historian,  then chaired a lively  panel discussion with children and teaching staff of schools where mindfulness has been successfully introduced, with an inspiring and realistic discussion of the challenges of introducing mindfulness to schools and the deep benefits it brings, not only to the  core well-being of staff and  children, but also to  the children in terms of their capacity to handle their emotions, stresses and difficultes through the effective skills that mindfulness practice  gives them for approaching life in general, as well as encouraging a creative response to learning with greater focus, resilience and increased performance ability, confidence, and emotional self-regulation A teacher who had experienced the 8 week course for staff said: “It was really holistic. It helped me with everything I had to deal with”.

The panel discusson was then followed by Tim Loughton MP who had worked on the All Party Paliamentary Group “Mindful Nation Report”, and cautioned that the increasing mental health issues of young people were “at risk of being seen as normal rather than as  a crisis”. He highlighted  mindfulness as “non-stigmatising, practical and popular” and that it wasn’t just a potential add-on in education, but something that needed to be “mainstream at the heart of education” with its researched benefits in supporting” health, creativity and productivity” and that this was “firmly on the radar of government now” as an important innovation in education policy.

A comment that summed up the potential for mindfulness supporting future generations came from a young girl, possibly aged 8 or 9, who sat calmly and quietly on her chair on stage in front of the 700 delegates and listening attentively throughout the long banter and  discussion between panel members. When finally asked how mindfulness helped her in her school day, she  simply replied “it just helps me  to feel calm”.

For further information, go to www. mindfulnessinschools.org.

 

Caring Connection

Macleodganj 2009-129 (Butterlamps)The recent horrific stream of events in Paris and Lebanon  has brought us face to face with unimagineable brutality and its consequences. It seems as if this has brought a heightened awareness of both terrible human suffering in its many shocking and tragic forms, but also of human kindness  from countless strangers who were prepared to support victims of the bombings in the street, opening their doors, donating blood, comforting, and even shielding others in the face of attack. And kindness in the form of  world-wide gestures of caring connection and solidarity, the many impromptu  street gatherings and vigils, and city lights.  An image which has particularly stayed with me is the photograph of the lights from thousands of mobile phones held up in the darkness in a spontaneous vigil that took place in Trafalgar Square. Somebody had taken care to initiate the gathering through social media, and thousands responded. The light of each phone represented someone who had cared  enough to make the decision to travel to central London and attend. Collectively, they lit up the whole square with a sea of lights and a shared expression of caring humanity; a conscious wish to connect.

These simple gestures of caring connection bring meaning and hope when not much else makes sense in the midst such  of atrocity. They arise from a basic, innate human capacity for compassion, and a wish for others to be free of suffering. In the wake of these recent atrocities, the countless stories of courage, kindness, caring and empathy that have emerged,  have emphasised the power of caring connection to sustain and nurture core human values in the face of despair and unimagineable suffering. In the questioning that inevitably follows events such as these, the mixture of horror and kindness has caused me to reflect deeply again  on the value of practice,  and how the many simple moments of caring connection that we make in relation to our own experience and  and in relation to others,  resonanates immeasurably through the sphere of our individual lives. Each moment of awareness flexes the muscle of mindfulness and compassion and builds  an inner strength to deal more effectively  with our own difficulties  and to be more able to support others. These times call us to stay connected and to make conscious caring connection, rather than falling into disconnection, or  simply feeling overwhelmed and powerless.

In last Thursday’s Staying Mindful  monthly practice group meeting, held at the County Hotel, Neville Street, Newcastle upon Tyne,  we practised and  reflected together on  how our intention and motivation to practice helps us to sustain caring connection, in ways that make a difference to ourselves and others in our daily lives. It felt helpful to give space for this reflection at a time when there is so much concious unease, fear and uncertainty. Wholesome qualities of mind are developed whenever we welcome our experience with kind attention and can remain open. Each drop makes  a difference in the accumulative  flow of our  conscious lives, and brings something to the shared collective. We start with just this; conscious, caring conection in the middle of whatever is going on.   I was reminded of a beautiful passage by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, in which she talks about the value of practice:

This is why we practice meditation—so that we can treat ourselves more compassionately; improve our relationships with friends, family, and community; live lives of greater connection; and, even in the face of challenges, stay in touch with what we really care about so we can act in ways that are consistent with our values.”

(from “Real Happiness: the Power of Meditation”, 2010).

We can learn to trust the secure holding of being tenderly and mindfully present, no matter where we are, whatever is going on in our experience.  What we practice grows stronger and influences life around us in simple and meaningful ways. Perhaps, in these troubled times, our motivation and intention to practice can be strengthened, and our practice be of even greater value to ourselves and others.

8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course January 2016

The next 8 week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction will be commencing in central Newcastle upon Tyne at The County Hotel, Neville Street (immediately opposite Central Station) on Tuesday 19th January 2016 . Places are currently still avaialable on this course.  Full course information and an online booking form can be found under the Courses listing on the website.

The new year is often a time when we can feel more resolved to refresh our perspectives and take steps towards  a more balanced and healthier balance in life. The 8 week course offers a practical and experiential way of experiencing and integrating mindfulness in to the heart of daily life, making practice part of who we are and how we live. The course  explores, as part of the learning process, how we can experience life more fully, and deal with our difficulties more skilfully, and how we can find greater spaciousness in the moments and momentum of our busy daily lives. Bringing awareness and acceptance to our immediate experience can help us to notice stress developing, and to respond skilfully.  The aim of this course is to learn new ways of handling challenging physical sensations, emotions, moods and life situations by helping us to access our own powerful inner resources.

The course includes eight weeks of two hour classes, and  the opportunity to deepen and integrate the learning of the course after week 6 with a full day of mindfulness practice   in the beautiful rural setting of  Newton and Bywell Community Hall, near Stocksfield.  The course fee includes the taught course sessions, a set of practice CDs and handbook with learning materials, and inbetween session support with practice if required. The course is led in a supportive  and friendly group environment. Mindfulness meditation practices, including gentle stretches are taught  and are the basis of regular home practice over the 8 weeks of the course. No previous meditation experience is required.

The course usually fills in advance of starting, so it is a good idea to enquire if a place is available before applying. On receipt of application, an orientation call will be arranged as preparation for the course and to talk about your application and the course together in more detail.