Week 1: Coming to our senses Pasted Graphic

In the first week we will introduce mindfulness and some exercises that are intended to make us much more aware of what is going on in our bodies. The intention is to start to move away from automatic pilot, where we are driven by our inner thoughts and feelings, and to become more in touch with the world around us.

The principle we start with is one that Jon Katab-Zinn applies: “there is more right with us than wrong with us”. From where we are, we can grow in patience, acceptance, wisdom and understanding. Whether you are a long term meditator, or new to meditation, bringing an open mind to the practices will help you explore them.


Why are we here?

Pasted Graphic 1 Beginner’s Mind”

Thank you for joining this course on mindfulness. We would like this to be an enjoyable experience as well as an important learning experience. There is a lot we can say about mindfulness but we think the most important thing is to show you. There will be plenty of opportunities for discussion, and we welcome questions, but the emphasis will be on learning to be more mindful, using a number of practices that you can take away and apply in your own life.

If you like, there are plenty of books around so that we can read more about mindfulness, and we can recommend some. There is a lot of theory, but like many useful things it is possible for you to use mindfulness without studying the theory. Most of us have been walking or talking or listening most of our lives without necessarily understanding the theory behind what we are doing. It can be just like that with mindfulness. We would encourage you to focus on experiencing the class, seeing what arises, and not come with any preconceptions or expectations. After the course, some deeper reading and study might be appropriate for you.

We all arrive at a class like this with different expectations. So the first thing we would like to do is to explore and share those expectations. Some of us might have an established mindfulness or meditation practice. Some of us might be completely new to the experience. No matter how much experience we have, we can all share and learn from each other. Sometimes the novices teach the experts more than the experts teach the novices.

One of the ideas or attitudes that mindfulness tries to develop is what is known as “beginner’s mind” . That means bringing into an experience an attitude where it is treated as if it were completely fresh. It means leaving behind prejudices and seeing things as new. So throughout all of these classes we invite you to bring along a beginner’s mind. You may have been meditating for years, but when we introduce a particular technique, we suggest that you follow it as if it were for the first time.

So, in this spirit, let us do a very short exercise exploring for each of us why we are here, and what we are hoping to learn.

Mind Wandering and Mindfulness Pasted Graphic

This practice is not about a state, it’s not about getting somewhere. A couple of common misconceptions are that mindfulness meditation is about not thinking, or relaxing, or achieving a particular pleasant state of mind. Such states of mind and body may arise but that is not the goal, and mindfulness practice is not about not thinking or trying to get anywhere in particular.

Research shows that there is a correlation between mind wandering and unhappiness. In mindfulness meditation we take an object, like our breathing or sound or body sensations, and use it to help us to remember to return to a mindful awareness of the present moment. We do this over and over again, building our “attention muscle”, patiently and non-judgementally

Each time you recognise being caught up in mind wandering, and return to a caring and curious awareness of the present moment, is a moment of mindfulness. Awareness itself is non-judgemental, and notices what is happening in the present moment without evaluating it. The more practice we have at returning to the present moment, the more natural that becomes.

Even though you intend to keep your attention resting with your breath or sound or a particular part of your body your mind will naturally wander. The mind thinks, and you will notice that you’ve become caught up in thinking. Please don’t make thinking the enemy. Thinking is an amazing, creative, and brilliant capacity we have. When you notice you’ve been caught up in mind wandering, rest assured you haven’t done anything wrong and you’re not falling short. This is a moment of mindfulness: a moment of remembering. Remembering what? Remembering to return to presence. Remembering to give your attention to what’s happening in this moment with curiosity and care.

Pasted Graphic 1 Automatic pilot - paying attention

We spend a lot of our time with our attention being drawn from one thing to another. In the mindfulness world, it is often said that we spend a lot of our lives on automatic pilot. To a large extent that doesn’t matter. We wouldn’t want to have to think about everything we do in fine detail; we certainly would not want to be like the proverbial caterpillar confused about how it walks by having to pay attention to each leg individually. Automatic pilot has a role to play.

Sometimes however we need to take the controls back from automatic pilot. Much of meditation or mindfulness is really about taking over the controls and switching off automatic pilot, at least for a little while. By doing so, we can start to break some of our bad habits and create some good habits.

In the early stages of developing mindfulness skills, we begin to recognise when we are on automatic pilot and when it’s appropriate to switch off automatic pilot. You can do this from time to time throughout the day. Just deciding to do some simple thing, such as brushing your teeth, with full attention on what you are doing helps to develop the skill of paying attention and moving away from automatic pilot.

A useful exercise is to take a pause from time to time, and just check in with yourself. It might not be for more than a few seconds. Just stop what you are doing and ask yourself in a way meaningful to you: “what is going on for me right now? How am I feeling?”. Then go on with your day.

Automatic pilot can become very damaging when it is programmed badly. For example, if your mind is programmed to look out for verbal threats, then automatic pilot can start to treat even innocent comments as a potential threat. Similarly, if automatic pilot is switched on most of the time to worry about work, then you might be distracted whilst driving and drive dangerously.

Our aim is not to switch off automatic pilot, but to recognise when it may become a problem, and to learn how to take over the controls, and then to reprogram it.

Getting in touch with our bodies Pasted Graphic 2

We can be surprisingly out of touch with our bodies.

Our thoughts and feelings often dictate our lives, and sit in the centre of our attention. However, our thoughts and feelings are often mirrored through sensations in our bodies. By bringing more attention to our bodies, we can get more of an insight into how we react to events that surround us, and to the effects of thoughts and feelings on our lives.

By bringing thoughts, feelings and body sensations together in our awareness, we begin to realise how much tension and stress is felt in the body. Often sensations arise in the body before they are reflected in our thoughts and feelings.

The body scan is meant to bring us more in touch with our bodies. It is an exercise in attention, focusing carefully on different parts of the body. However it is also an exercise in awareness, usually bringing into awareness sensations that are routinely hidden by our habit of focusing on thoughts and feelings.

The exercise can be done very quickly, and it is quite common in some meditation practices to do a short body scan at the beginning of the practice, and it can be a useful exercise in calming and settling the mind. In an MBSR course, it is done very slowly with the intention of bringing participants much closer to awareness of sensations in the body.

This exercise can be easily done anywhere you are able to sit or lie still undisturbed for a period, and done at whatever pace the time you have allows.

Throughout the exercise, the intention is to notice the sensations in the body and not to change them. Changes will naturally occur in the sensations, but the object of the exercise is to become aware of what is there rather than striving to change what is there. Sometimes you will hear guidance suggesting that you even embrace uncomfortable sensations.

The Body Scan (Guided practice: BodyScan)

Find a comfortable place to lie or sit for about 30 minutes. Settle into your position, adjusting so that you can stay still in this position for the whole practice.

Begin by becoming aware of your surroundings, then bring attention to the sensation of your body in contact with the floor, or your seat if you are sitting, or anywhere that your body is in contact with the outside world. Then for a short while bring attention to the rhythm of your breath entering and leaving the body.

Starting with the left foot, focus your attention on your toes, noticing the sensations there. Notice whether sensations are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. You may have no sensations where your attention lands, but that is okay too. Move attention to include the sole of your left foot, noticing what sensations are there in the same way. In this way the guidance will take you all the way through your body, at each stopping point just noticing sensations without trying to change them.

Throughout the exercise, inevitably your mind will wander. That is natural, and if you are listening to guidance just resume where the guidance is at the point that you noticed your mind wandered. Mind wandering is natural. If you are lying down, you may drift off to sleep too. That too is natural. Do not judge yourself negatively for any of these.

Home Practice - Week 1

Home practice is an important part of learning mindfulness. We have busy lives, but if possible try the following in the coming week.

  • Each day, set aside 30 to 45 minutes to follow the guided body scan that we used to close this session. Use the CD provided, or download one from the web. Don’t expect anything in particular, just notice your experiences.
  • Eat at least one thing mindfully. Ideally, eat a meal by yourself mindfully, but if that is not possible maybe a piece of fruit or even a chocolate bar.
  • Choose another activity to do mindfully - showering, brushing your teeth, washing up, trying to bring all of your senses and awareness to the activity.
  • Throughout the day, find opportunities to pause and check in with yourself.
  • Try the “nine dots exercise”. The objective is to draw four straight lines through the dots without taking your pencil off the paper:

. . .

. . .

. . .

  • 6. Make notes on anything you noticed, keeping a regular journal of experiences.
  • 7. Before coming to the next session, reflect on your week and complete the weekly summary below.
  • Weekly summary

Before coming to the next session we invite you to make a short summary below of your week. You might want to consider the following questions to guide you:

What came up for you this week arising from the course and your practice?
What difficulties did you have?
What questions arose for you?