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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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Caring Connection

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.