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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

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.