Overcoming Overthinking with Mindfulness

 

A Swirl Live event 25th September, Newcastle upon Tyne

I’m delighted to be offering an introduction to mindfulness practice  together with Andy Walton, Founder of Swirl, on 25th September. Details as follows:

Tuning into your breath and focusing your attention is a key first step to overcoming a distressing level of overthinking. Mindfulness is a technique that can strengthen this ability. A practice aimed at using your senses to ground yourself into the here and now. Yet, it’s a practice that takes discipline, perseverance and patience and it’s not a quick fix.

Join Swirl as we take you through key approaches to effective practice, discussing common barriers, busting myths and providing clarity on how it works. The session is led by Gwennie Fraser, a mindfulness teacher with over 25 years of experience and Andy Walton, Community Mental Health Nurse and Swirl Founder.

The session includes takeaway copies of the Swirl Guide to overcoming overthinking to ensure participants build on what they have learnt and continue an empowered outlook.

Capacity — 10 participants

Price £15 (£13.50 for Swirl Members)

Date: Wednesday 25th September, 2019

Time: 7–9pm

Venue: Tyneside Cinema, The Headspace Room, 10 Pilgrim St, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 6QG

Contact: andy.walton@swirlzine.com for further information.

About Swirl:

Swirl is an outlet for those wishing to overcome overthinking in positive, proactive and practical ways. We provide evidence-based, uncomplicated and empowering guidance through vibrant, artful print and thoughtful real-life conversations.

Swirl is a project led by a transatlantic, multi-disciplinary team with lived experiences of anxiety. We are a social organisation, aiming to break down barriers and encourage dialogue in spaces not usually entered by mental health-specific services. We create opportunities to engage everyday people proactively in approaches to better manage worry and rumination.

www.swirlzine.com

A Reflection on Personal Practice Mentoring

The following is a post written by a mentee and shared recently with the Mindfulness Network.

For further information about personal practice mentoring:https://www.mindfulness-supervision.org.uk/personal-practice-mentoring/

“I’ve been practising mindfulness since I did my ten-week course with a local Buddhist centre in 2004. I came to mindfulness because I felt a desire in myself to experience life in a new way – a way that was more open to awareness of the experiences of life as they unfolded. Since then, I have undertaken various mindfulness training courses and retreats. In 2016, I completed the distance learning MBSR course with Bangor as a refresher. Afterwards I found it difficult to find people to practise with and so when an opportunity arose to take part in personal practice mentoring I jumped at the chance.

A mentoring session is a very gentle experience and has evolved into its present structure as a result of a dialogue between the mentee and the mentor. My overriding experience of the process is that it is centred around the needs of the person receiving the mentoring. The mentor acts as guide and facilitator and allows the person receiving mentoring to navigate their own course.

Each session is an hour in length and I usually have one session per month, although at times I prefer to have two sessions if I am working through some more complex experiences. We begin with a short check-in to see where I am at and then move into a time of guided meditation. This mediation is always focused on what is most relevant and necessary for me right now and is based upon what I have told the mentor that I would like the session to be. After the meditation, we spend the remainder of the session reflecting on the experience – searching for the nuances at the edges of my experiences. We finish by exploring what might be helpful to me to allow my practice to deepen.

For me, the benefits have been immense. The personal practice mentoring sessions have become an island in an often turbulent and fast flowing river of experience. They have been an opportunity to deepen my practice and to weave it into the fabric of my daily life. Most of all, practice mentoring has been an opportunity to remain engaged with practice in a way that I never could have done alone. My mentor is a person I can trust and whose wisdom and generosity of spirit I deeply value.

I would highly recommend personal practice mentoring to anyone who wishes to deepen practice and integrate it into their daily lives. In short, I’d recommend it to anyone who really wants to live a mindful life.”


Fr Martin Bennett OFM Capuchin is a Capuchin Franciscan Priest, Chaplain, Life Coach and Mindfulness Practitioner.


Being in The Digital Age

The Word

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have pencilled “sunlight.”

The opening lines of Tony Hoagland’s poem, The Word, have been circling through my mind recently. I read it aloud in a recent session of my eight-week course.  A distance learner had also described how pausing at intervals in her day had become like moments of “sunlight.” The word “sunlight” captures the effect of pausing to allow awareness to illuminate our present moment experience, lifting us out of the fog of distraction and doing mode, and then dropping beneath the layers of discursive thought and the conceptual mind and to rest in awareness itself.

My practice brings an increasing appreciation and gratitude for the simplicity of these “sunlight” moments, allowing ordinary qualities and details of daily life to show themselves and be fully absorbed. It could be as simple as: hearing the raindrops on my coat; the hiss of passing traffic on a wet road; glimpsing the sodden leaves by the front door; the pale blue of the early morning sky through the outline of a tree; or the texture of a bowl of thick winter soup with my spoon. It brings to the forefront a more valued recognition of the completely ordinary textures of daily life. It also brings more conscious recognition of the gift of awareness itself.

Sunlight moments are not necessarily special moments, they are simply a doorway to “the very drab, the common, the daily presentations” as Mary Oliver describes in her poem Mindful. But they can also bring pleasure, and life shines brightly through these simple details. Allowing the warmth of sunlight to soak in helps me lean towards a more grounded simplicity and contentment that is also the basis of courage to deal with the more difficult aspects of life when they occur. It is part of the conscious holding space, the subtle backdrop of daily life, and opens to a broader landscape, a feeling of being part of an interconnected world.

The importance of sunlight moments came home further to me after reading a recent article in The Guardian newspaper on the impact of the digital world  –including smartphones and other devices – on our ability to concentrate (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world). Apparently, according to research conducted in 2018 by the UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom:

  • people check their phones on average every 12 minutes in their waking hours
  • 71% never have the phone switched off; and
  • 40% check their phones, often within five minutes of waking.

The article says:

by adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the word but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.

In other words, always being digitally available has an insidious impact on long-term mental health, and sunlight moments are even more important for our well-being. I was quite shocked to see this stark evidence on the pages of a national newspaper.

One evening, after teaching an eight-week MBSR course in Newcastle upon Tyne, my train home was delayed. The waiting room where passengers gathered was quite full and I took one of the last seats available. Everyone around me and in front of me had their heads down, absorbed by their phones. No one spoke and it was very quiet.

I sat down and felt glad for the opportunity of a few moments to settle after all the packing up following the session, and to reflect on things.  As I sat opposite the row of people on their phones, I wondered if, in this situation, the distraction of being on the phone removed some of the perhaps understandable social awkwardness of sitting so closely opposite total strangers. I also wondered what people were using their phones for.

My own mobile phone was tucked in my coat pocket with my return ticket home. I had put them there so they were both easily and readily accessible, instead of having to retrieve them from the bottom of my bag during the journey. I noticed how the opportunity to check my phone passed through my mind as a compelling consideration. Perhaps there were messages from the family? Perhaps some emails I hadn’t seen before leaving home? Nobody would have thought it strange if I had pulled out my phone too. It would have been entirely normal. In fact, I was the odd person out, by not getting my phone out and checking it. I let the impulse pass, settled into the hardness of the seat and listened to the hum of the bar heater overhead.

The train came into a station and people boarded. It was old train stock, not with the high-backed seats where you can slump into a corner, but rows of low-backed seats with a metal rail more like the seating on a bus, so that you are sitting quite close to the person in front, acutely aware of the detail of their hair. As the train engine roared to life, the sound of the train moving out of the station muffled the quiet tones of conversation of an older couple two seats further in front, the animated  bubbling laughter of young girls at a table further up the carriage with their shopping parcels piled up in a flurry, and the slurred efforts of a drunken man who was trying to explain something of importance to his neighbour. These were the textures of the last train home.

As the train crossed the Tyne Bridge, I saw the coloured lights of the city laid out like a firework display, sparkling in the river below. I wondered how I would spend the journey. Could I look at my phone, and see if my daughters had left a message or photo? I could call my husband, text a friend, or read the news. I had a book in my bag and a notebook for journaling and reflection, and my to-do notebook was in my bag too. I decided to do nothing and settled into the slowing of my breathing and listening to the rhythmical slowing and speeding up of the train, the hissing of brakes and vacuum doors opening and closing, and the automated announcements as we heaved to a standstill at each stop on the line. Gradually, the residues of the day began to settle and ease within me – fragments of visual memories and thoughts, mixed with the hum of conversation in the carriage, the heavy metallic clunking of the track and the shuffling of the man in the seat behind me.

Stop by stop, the train gradually emptied and the number of passengers dwindled rapidly once we had left the Metro Centre stop. Nobody new boarded either. The drunken man had slumped asleep in his seat and the girls had left in a whirl of paper parcels and bags. The lines from the poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas came to mind, “No one left and no one came/On the bare platform.” Nothing happened. No latest news of Brexit. No likes or shares. No messages. No emails. No texts. No posts. No alerts. No new friend requests. No weather updates. No new photos on Instagram. Just the buzz of the departure signal, the train restarting and the swaying motion of the carriage and the odd glimpse of the moon, a white coin moving between the trees as the train curved along the line of the river.

By the time I stepped out at Hexham station, I felt a quiet alignment with the gradual slowing of the train to the platform edge. The journey home had been a coming home to myself at the end of a full day, a time without any to-dos, where I allowed the business of the day to quietly settle within me. I walked slowly to the car and drove out on to the dark winding roads home. I chose not to put on the radio. No late night news. No interviews. No latest from Parliament. No discussion. No interesting book reviews. No traditional fiddle music. Instead, the colours of the waving autumn trees flashing by in the car headlights, the glistening stone walls and the moon still making its ghostly appearance through skimming clouds.

The Guardian article has made me more conscious of my mobile phone usage. I have poor signal where I live, so this naturally limits activity. However, with both daughters now away at university, I find myself checking my phone more often as we exchange messages and photos together. I love to see and laugh with them on Facetime, and I often wonder what it would have been like before this was possible. Keeping in touch with them by phone also means I see when emails have come in, even when I may not wish to look at them, or Facebook notifications, which are a lost cause as I never manage to keep up with them. It’s not an easy balance, having a smartphone these days! I have by no means mastered the art of it. But increased awareness of phone usage  helps me to notice the subtle moment-to-moment choices around when I pick up my phone, such as when and how often I check it;  what I choose to look at; how long I spend on it; and  when I switch it off altogether. I am making more of a conscious effort to notice how the reality of my day is shaped by the presence of the phone and the activity that surrounds it.

So here it is. A question of balance. How do we participate in achieving a spacious balance in an age of digital and social media, and in a world that is saturated with information triggered by the slight pressure of a fingertip upon a portable screen? Nowadays, appreciating the fleeting and ordinary may be even more revolutionary and vitally linked to our well-being than is recognised. It would seem that today, social and digital media offer limitless and world-embracing benefits of communication, creativity and connectedness, but that on a personal level, can also strain our capacity for focus, flexibility, concentration, and calm. Continuous partial attention (CPA) threatens to become the new normal along with the catapulting rise of online shopping trends. The Guardian article points out, “What is noticeable is that you cannot just go from a state of distraction to one of concentration.”

Pema Chodron repeatedly calls us to witness and appreciate the ordinary fleeting moments of everyday life, stepping out of our cocoon of over-involvement. She writes of these moments “… we usually speed right past them. So the first step is to stop, notice and appreciate what is happening. Even if this is all we do, it’s revolutionary.”  We benefit hugely from being part of a digital age, and we also need to have moments of pausing to allow sunlight in. We also need space to breathe in a highly stimulating world that leads us to switch between multiple screens and multiple activities, potentially disrupting the focus and rhythm of our attention and our capacity to absorb the reality of what is really taking place within and around us. Awareness, rather than an app, keeps us connected.

The gift of practice is that it serves to bring us to the gaps that exist between stimuli and input and allows spaciousness to manifest. Like the, the essential nature of the mind is already there, waiting to shine. We are participants who shape our own reality, and through awareness we become more aligned with the creative possibilities and choices that exist in the fullness of life’s many seemingly competing and complex textures.  As the Irish philosopher, John O’Donahue has said, quoted in Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, “Each of us is an artist, everyone is involved, whether they like it or not, in the construction of their world.”

So “whether we like it or not,” we are all part of a digitally communicating age. The title of The Guardian article was “The Lost Art of Concentration.” In all our losing of concentration, there are multiple opportunities for remembering and recognising awareness in the subtle details of ordinary life. As a course participant of mine wisely said, “If mindlessness is definitely with us, then mindfulness is more than possible.” If there are limitless possibilities for doing, then there are limitless possibilities for being that lie not in opposition, or as self-correction, but in leaning towards more creative, spacious and harmonious balance. This is the gift and art of practice itself.

Tony Hoagland’s poem, The Word, continues:

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.

Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living course

My first Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living course is well underway in central Newcastle upon Tyne and we are now currently looking forward to our day of practice which follows week 7 of the course, which will be held in the rural, tranquil setting of Newton and Bywell Community Hall, near Stocksfield.

MBCL was developed by two experienced mindfulness trainers, psychiatrist/psychotherapist Erik van den Brink and meditation teacher/ health care professional Frits Koster who pioneered mindfulness-based work in the Dutch mental health services. I completed training over the course of 3 years with Erik van den Brink in 2017, and I am delighted to be offering  this deeply life-enriching course in the north-east.

The aim of MBCL is to deepen the mindfulness-based path to alleviate suffering and enhance physical, psychological and social well-being by offering a secular advanced training in compassion practice towards oneself and others. The programme integrates wisdom from the contemplative traditions with modern scientific insights drawn from neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, positive psychology and therapeutic models such as mindfulness-based approaches, Compassion Focused Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  The practices offered build on the skills developed in mindfulness practice and the course is suitable for anyone who wishes to deepen their personal practice with the heart qualities of  compassion.  The course is designed as a group training for participants who have previously followed an MBSR,  MBCT, Breathworks or equivalent programme and anyone who wishes to deepen their mindfulness practice with heart and the focus of compassion.

Compassion is defined as the capacity to be sensitive to the suffering of ourselves and others and the willingness to relieve and prevent it (Paul Gilbert, 2104). Compassion has a transpersonal quality, as it involves commitment to alleviate suffering, whoever is the potential sufferer. Therefore, when we speak of compassion, we include ‘self-compassion’ . What we do for ourselves we do for others, and what we do for others, we do for ourselves. Many recognise their tendency to overlook themselves while trying to be compassionate and the course helps to find greater ease in dealing with life’s inevitable pain and ‘dis-ease’, as well as developing a kinder and warmer attitude of receiving and giving of care, to self and others.

The emphasis on the course is on experiential work and building up the practice of compassion,  and participants are encouraged to spend 45 mins to an hour daily on the  formal and informal exercises in daily life.  A range of suggestions for home practice are given following each session, rather than specific homework. This enables participants to tune in to their deeper needs and to work at a suitable pace . Key practices include; soothing breathing rhythm; kindness meditation; compassionate imagery; dealing compassionately with resistance, desire, and inner difficulties; compassionate breathing; walking and moving and bringing kindness to the body; compassionate letter writing; practising sympathetic joy, gratitude, forgiveness and equanimity; cultivating a compassionate mind and inner helper and learning to work with  the ‘inner critic’; taking in what nourishes us and contributes to happiness.

The course is greatly enhanced by the key teaching themes of the MBCL curriculum, including the evolutionary perspective of the multi-layered brain; acknowledging pain and suffering as part of life; gaining insight in to the three basic emotion regulation (threat, drive and soothing) systems and how to recognise them in ourselves and cultivate a healthy balance in daily life; deepening understanding of stress reactions like fight, flight and freeze, tend and befriend, and their psychological equivalents; understanding how influences from outside  such as an ‘inner critic’ and maladaptive inner patterns  can easily cause imbalances;  seeing how to build an “inner helper” and compassionate mind. The course also looks at the process of over-identifying and de-identifying; our social connectedness and cultivating a sense of common humanity;  our capacity for absorbing positive experiences and perspectives that contribute to happiness;  and developing the Four Friends for Life (a secular naming for the Four Boundless States or Brahmaviharas): loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

The combination of practice and theory in the course  work beautifully together. The process enables a language and understanding  of compassion to grow up experientially, as an infusion of understanding and skills, rebuilding new perspectives in the inner landscape of the mind and heart and helping to  engage more compassionately with life itself. The course sessions are held weekly to fortnightly to allow space to explore and integrate the practices fully and regular calendar exercises are offered to help with practising mindful compassion  in daily life. A traditional metaphor of compassion that suits the learning of the course well is that from the mud of suffering, a new lotus is given space to bloom, each with its own individual patterns of experience and developing potential. The compassionate mind that is within each one of us is given space and courage to  connect with its own capacities and qualities, and find renewed expression and care.

“Out of the soil of friendliness, grows the beautiful bloom of compassion, watered by the tears of joy, under the cool shade of equanimity”.

Longchenpa

I will be offering the MBCL course again in the coming months.  If you are interested in attending this course, please register interest via the MBCL page on my website or drop me an email at gwennie@mindfulnessinlife.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Swirl

I was delighted to receive my copy of Swirl recently, a booklet produced by Andy Walton and Gina Yu, on overcoming worry and over-thinking. Andy Walton is a community mental health  nurse based  in the north-east who trained in mindfulness through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and works with military veterans through  Combat Stress, a charity that helps military veterans with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Andy wanted to produce a guide to rumination that would be concise,  empowering, uncomplicated and pleasing to the eye, and also free of mental health stereotyping. The words “mental health ” don’t appear until the last page. The result is a stylish and beautifully produced 20 page booklet, designed by award-winning creatives, including Guardian and New York Times illustrator Nate Kitch, providing accessible and straightforward wisdom on rumination from mental health professionals. It is simple, accessible and contains clearly presented information in a series of beautifully illustrated chapters. As Andy described in an interview with The Guardian, ‘if you wake up in the middle of the night with your mind swirling with thoughts, my hope is that you can pick up Swirl and that it will soothe you, help you feel a bit more in control, bring you back to the here and now. It’s something you could read on the bus on your way to work that will give you the positive mindset that you are in control of your thoughts.’ You can read more of the article from this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2018/may/15/mental-health-self-help-guide-swirl-zine

The booklet gives simple clear guidance on being grounded in the present moment, recognising thought activity and for example, the benefit of labelling thoughts rather than being subjected to the labels, making choices that stem from responding rather than reacting, and the value of building blocks of taking small steps towards a narrative of self-care and resilience. It’s a wonderful distillation of practical advice on how to work with rumination and engage pro-actively with the present moment,  building new habits to support well-being. The combination of its simplicity and design has great impact, simple truths powerfully distilled in a creative format that inspire the possibility of working transformatively with the mind.

Swirl is available from www.swirlzine.com for £6. Since publication, the booklet has  been donated for free to every secondary school pupil in the borough affected by the Grenfell Fire.

Staying put

Following the thaw, life has returned to more normal routines, and everyone has been emerging from the Siberian blast with their accounts of having been snowed in. Here in the uplands of Northumberland National Park, the snow lay siege and fell continuously for several days. As the wind picked up, we watched as blizzards bowled across the fields, kicking up the snow in great clouds of spray, despositing deep drifts against anything vertical in its way. We lost track of the track and the garden became a scooped out hollow. Every time we looked out of the window, it was still snowing, and the deposits accumulated in exaggerated lumps and mounds like a rising tide.

 

It was impossible to travel, an effort to even walk to the top of the track as far as the single rack road, which was drifted in anyway. Life stripped back to the absolute basics, tending to the necessary and the immediate; the simple tasks of making a meal, digging a path through the snow to the woodshed, feeding the birds, bringing in the logs, brushing snow off boots, drying waterproofs. There was time and space to appreciate simple things. Time slowed like a pulse rate to a natural rhythm of quietly unfolding activity. In the bitter temperatures, comforts seemed more deeply appreciated; warm bread, dry socks, the logs burning in the stove. Golden oak leaves lying on the path and the egg yellow trumpets of daffodils on the windowsill sang out in a landscape erased of colour. On a late afternoon walk, a hare dashed from cover and its fleeting form hovered along a line of snow banked up against a stone wall, insubstantial, barely touching the surface, as if running in thin air, a moving clip of film. In silence, thin veils of gauzy snowflakes continued the steady pulse of precipitation, adding to a growing sense of transparency and space within which life became regulated.

Perhaps it is because ordinarily so much more of our time is spent on the move, covering greater distances, walking more easily and quickly, traveling further afield, accomplishing a wider range of tasks, and the mind and the senses stimulated by a greater variety of subjects, that the contrast of life in the snow seemed so highlighted. It aroused different reactions. People loved or hated it, surrendered to the slowed pace of life or felt cabin fever. But there was no choice. Perhaps the real “beast from the east” was more a reflection of our inability to slow down and adjust to the severity of the prevailing weather conditions, the withdrawal of distraction.

In the quietness following the blizzards, I suddenly heard a nuthatch, its fluting call ringing out with a confident, urgent insistence, itself an invitation to wake up to the detail of a temporarily transformed world. The thaw soon began, a slow yielding, the snow receding and revealing things just as they had been left before. The amount of rising moisture generated a cloudy mistiness that coated the air and permeated the snow itself, compacting and shrinking it, softening the hard contours and releasing the trees, creating room to breathe. Grasses reappeared in the field as a messy tangle, the perfection of the snow giving way to the juicy mess of life beneath and the natural order of things, and slowly our human life and activity following in its wake, with its renewed possibilities.

 

 

The value of retreat

Retreat, however long a time we can manage to commit to, enlivens practice and it enhances life. It supports the development of practice and our own potential for living a meaningful and fulfilled life. Just as simple moments of awareness bring us valuable space, clarity and  perspective in our busy everyday lives, retreat offers a unique opportunity for time especially focussed on developing all the benefits that come from  cultivating this awareness. It allows us to simply extend our time for practice, in a way that compliments and benefits both our daily lives and practice itself.

In the time and space offered by retreat, and through being in an undistracted environment, we can renew our motivation, intention and inspiration for practice. We re-connect with that heart felt spark of intention that drew us to embark on practice in the first place. We have space to allow experience to unfold and open, without the pressing limitations of external pressures. Through retreat, we are able to dedicate our time in a way that supports our practice to develop and deepen, far beyond the time of retreat. We can become clearer and more simple in our intentions, and discover how this benefits us.  We become more familiar with the basis of our awareness and our capacity to pay attention. Through the continuity of practice, we remind ourselves, over and over again, how to pay attention and relate to our experience without striving to manipulate it,  make it something different or contrived.  We see more clearly what gets in the way, the places where we get caught up,  where we can learn to let go.

Being with the process of practice over an extended period of time, we rediscover how experience is impermanent and constantly changing, and how each moment unfolds into the next. We deepen our trust in allowing experience to be just as it is, and  ourselves to be just as we are. Through this, we develop greater  kindness and compassion for ourselves and how this naturally  opens  our understanding and compassion for  others. The many moments and opportunities for being with our experience more clearly, offer us a chance to slow down, quieten the mind and calm the heart. We learn how all our changing experience, including our mundane distractions, our sorrows and our joys, can be held in the space of a gentle and loving awareness, enabling us to come closer to ourselves and to the basis of life itself. We gain a deeper appreciation of our common humanity. Being with others in retreat, in itself, reminds us that we are not alone in all that we experience.

Renewing our capacity and willingness to be with our experience moment by moment, also gives us courage to work with the grit of our lives, to be with our rawness and difficulty, all that is tender and uncertain, our hopes and fears, the ways in which we resist life and feel held back. We learn to open to the full range of experience, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, rather than a selected, cautious part. We learn it is possible to step out of reactivity, and have courage to be with ourselves, feeling what we are feeling, and experiencing what we are experiencing. Moving into greater familiarity with the flow of experience, with its countless new beginnings, and kindly seeing its unfolding moment by moment, builds self-understanding, resilience and care. It has direct relevance to how we respond to life, how we learn to give ourselves space to breathe. Being in practice, in a supportive environment, enables us to step out of our busy, full and distracted lives, and see life with fresh eyes.It offers us the possibility of developing beneficial insight in to the nature of awareness and all our mental activity and perception. We allow time to rest our minds and hearts and fully be the human beings that we already are. Gently settling in to being with just what is, we allow ourselves compassionate space to open more fully to living the moments and the gifts of the unique life we have.

Through 2018, we are offering possibilities of different lengths of retreat in Northumberland, suitable for all stages of practice. This includes regular days of mindfulness practice, offered termly at Newton and Bywell Community Hall near Stocksfield, a two day non-residential retreat also at Newton, and a 5 day residential retreat at Shepherds Dene Retreat Centre. Further information about all of these retreats can be found on the Practice Support page of my website. All the events are listed on the Course Dates page and application forms will be forwarded through registration of interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Start the Week

On Monday, in the dark of a January morning at 7 30 am, I held the first online mindfulness Start the Week session by Zoom. Not having hosted a meeting before, I wondered how the technology would work out and how it would be to enable the connection to happen smoothly. Would it really be possible for everyone to see and hear and connect? I picked my way carefully across the residual snow and ice towards the hut where I had set things up on my laptop the evening before, with a feeling of excitement and adventure. It was very dark, with no sign of light on the horizon. The day had not yet begun. There was comfort in the embracing darkness, and a feeling of not only opening to the early beginnings of a new day, but also the freshness of the unknown, like preparing to go on a journey.

Having connected to the Zoom meeting link there was the excitement of participants starting to appear on the screen and we were able to introduce ourselves from our different locations, which included Northumberland, central London and Islamabad in Pakistan, several hours further forward on the other side of the world. As we settled in to meditation together, I heard a buzzard calling in the wood behind me, and a voice in the street in Islamabad, briefly, a snatch of sound from another country. It felt wonderfully heart-warming to join in practice together, each in our own homes, and to open to the day and to the week together in connection and awareness. It felt quite miraculous that technology had enabled us to share our intentions to  meet for practice and share a peaceful, mindful start  to the week.

Start the Week will continue to take place on Monday mornings from 7 30 am GMT and is open to all MBSR/MBCT course graduates. Please  email me  by Friday before the session so that I can send you a link to the Zoom meeting by email. There is an open invitation to make a donation to the West End Food Bank in Newcastle upon Tyne. Details of this can be found on the Start the Week page of my website listed under Practice Support.

The power of the present moment

When we begin to practice paying attention, we start to notice how strong the tugs and pulls on the mind are and how well developed our habit of distraction is. It can seem so engrained, so vivid, random and unruly. The process of building a new muscle of attention, a new mental habit of present moment awareness, may feel quite daunting and effortful to begin with, a bit like getting into a boat and launching off and finding a wobbly balance on the water. Launching into practice may seem reliant upon our wavering good intentions and willingness to find those moments of having strayed right off track, and allowing ourselves to begin again. However, the good intentions and willingness to find those new beginnings are a vital part of the process of building a stable mindfulness practice. Like an underlying buoyancy aid, we begin to discover that practice is always there, supporting us and holding us on the water.

Through practice itself, we learn to return repeatedly to the reality of the present moment, wherever and however this places us, and how far and for however long we have strayed. We do this hopefully with some good humour and compassion, yet all too often too we will also notice how hard we are on ourselves and how readily the inner critic has a field day with our rampant minds. This too is a vital part of the process. Nothing is excluded or unworthy of our compassionate attention, perhaps especially those harsh judgments and unkind ways in which we relate to ourselves and our lives. And what perhaps we don’t see at the beginning is how the endeavour of practice, those repeated moments of beginning again with ourselves just as we are, without judgement or conditions or agendas, is building compassionate awareness and the very basis of practice itself.

Each time we return our awareness to the present moment, we are creating the possibility of standing in an open and creative relationship to our experience. We are offering ourselves the opportunity of being more aware and responsive in our mental, emotional lives, rather than having the quality of life dictated to and overruled by our negative habitual tendencies. My meditation teacher, Yongey Mingyur Ronpoche, once described the process of practising moments of awareness as drops in a bucket filling slowly. We may not be aware of the accumulative effect of the process, but invisibly we are building a new way of perceiving and relating to ourselves and the world around us. We are oiling our tools of awareness for when we need to use them wisely and to good effect.

In our pressurised world, we don’t always have the luxury to step back from situations to work things through and think things out rationally and logically. We often say how we don’t even have time to think. And so our human and inbuilt tendency to react is easily hair-triggered by a backlog of automatic engrained perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, concepts, preferences and past memories, all loaded to the trip wire of the moment in which we hit the unwanted and downright inconvenient. We are hardwired to reactivity. The moment an experience is registered, our subconscious tendency to classify it as positive , negative or neutral kicks in to gear. If we like the experience, we are drawn towards it, if we don’t like it we will reject it or push it away, and if it is neutral our attention will skate over with disinterest.

The power of stopping even for a fraction of a second and knowing what we are experiencing and what is happening in the landscape of the present moment is a radical reversal of our reactive tendencies. The very moment we lean in to the here and now and see our thoughts and emotions for what they are, a little bit of distance is created between the raw material of our experience and our automatic tendency to over-inhabit and solidify every experience that comes our way. We underestimate the small wedge of freedom this creates. The power of the present moment offers a sliver of space in which the gap is widened between reaction and response, between solidity and flexibility, between hard and soft, between open and closed. Awareness is space itself.

Each time we catch ourselves and pause, each time we stop in the knowing of our experience for what it is, we are offering ourselves a space to breathe, a greater chance of dealing with our life experience more creatively, instead of being ruled by our more practiced negative feelings and thoughts. When we learn to catch a thought as a thought, and know an emotion for its taste and texture, a new muscle memory is being laid down. It only takes a moment for awareness to shine through to illuminate precisely the experience we are having. A moment of pausing is all that is needed.

We may not see directly how the bucket is filling with these drops of awareness and precisely how beneficial and infinitely valuable they are. Perhaps we take for granted how the very ordinariness of all we experience is the fertile ground from which this awareness has the capacity to develop and grow to bring us this degree of rich connection and insight. Yet the power of the present moment is reinforced each time awareness is allowed to manifest.

Each time we know what we are seeing, hearing and tasting, every time we are conscious of an emotion, a thought or a sensation, we have an opportunity for practice and we move towards the reality of a more richly inhabited world. Each time we repeatedly step over the threshold of unawareness, habitual distraction and reactivity, and enter through the gateway of direct experience, mindful awareness brings us through to a more fully lived sensory, mental and emotional landscape. It leads us to a more conscious life, a life of greater compassionate interaction with ourselves and others, and a life that is infused with greater discernment, care and ease.

This is why we practice pausing, and unleash the underestimated power of the present moment. Again and again, vital moments of clarity guide the boat forward with certainty and a growing confidence in the trustworthiness of our craft.

Mindfulness, distraction and the Christmas rush

At the last monthly practice support meeting held in Newcastle at the County Hotel, we explored how the lead up to Christmas can be a valuable and rich basis for our practice to support us amidst the increased pressures we may experience at this time of year.

Where I live, which is in quite a remote area of the Northumberland National Park, we have already had snow lying before Christmas, and have been snowed in at the bottom of our track. It means we leave the car at the top of the track, and ferry everything we need up and down to the house. Sometimes in the absolute dark, we need a torch to cross the cattle grids and it can feel like something of an expedition, hearing only the crunch of the snow on the verges as we pick our way carefully down hill, sometimes catching sheeps’ eyes gleaming in the dark as we pass, and the glimpse of a thin moon hanging above the birch trees. Everything remains frozen at the moment – the fields are coated in thick white frost, the burn in the woods is a wonderland of frozen  pools and hanging icicles, and the whole landscape is penetrated by a cold charge of deep stillness. It is midwinter and nature is moving towards its greatest point of contraction as we head towards the solstice.

Despite this natural slowing down in the natural world,  and the moving towards a time  of focussed gathering, giving and celebration, it is a time of year when we can experience the speediness and commercial drive of society,  greater pressures on our time and energies, and the stress of expectations from ourselves and others to conform to perceived norms of socialising  that we may not feel wholly comfortable with.  It may also be a time of increased loneliness and difficulty, depending on our individual circumstances.  As we hurtle towards the darkest point of the year, we also seem to hurtle forwards into a brightly glittering and  artificially illuminated world. How then, do we balance these internal and external factors, and keep close to the core of our being and what we most value?

Although in times of increased business and pressure, the “no time” mind set is easily activated, mindful awareness itself is always within us and brings the possibility of countless moments of leaning in to just whatever situation we are in. Here right in the heart of the Christmas rush is the gift of practice itself. At the core of our being the opening is already there. The very nature of the season in all its manifestations serves as a  reminder of how valuable it is to start just where we are in the present moment. Instead of being pulled out of connection by the glitter of  external distractions, we can compassionately find the shape of whatever moment we are in, and let this be an opportunity to soften and open to this very place.

In our meeting we reflected together how practice, very simply, allows a perspective and grounded-ness  that shines a way helpfully forward, moment by moment. As we feel our way in making countless choices and decisions, it becomes possible to  find the ground in just the next moment, and trust the sufficiency of our own awareness and resources, one step at a time. And so we find our way home, in repeated moments,  rather like  discovering  the sufficiency of the natural  light from the moon, creeping down a snowy track in the dark of a winter’s night, and finding the path that is already there. In the midst of the glitter and the chaos, we can remember to shift gears in to a moment of awareness and grounded presence and the kindness of possibility that shines from this. Instead of feeling far away from the gates of our practice, we discover it right there under our feet. Even the process of taking a simple breath reminds us of what is most significant and meaningful in its bare simplicity.

Monthly mindfulness practice support meetings are held at The County Hotel, Neville Street, Newcastle upon Tyne on a Thursday evening, from 6.30-8pm. They are open to anyone who has completed an 8 week MBSR/MBCT course. Please see the Course Dates listing for future meeting dates.