Week 2 - Exploring our edges, and coming home to our bodies Pasted Graphic 1

By being more in touch with our body and feelings, and noticing how we react, we can start to take a little more control. Our natural tendency to challenges is the "fight or flight" response. That might have worked well in more primitive times, but in modern times the tendency is to contain our reactions which creates stress. In this session, we start to explore the edges that we have, understand a little more about how our reactions, and stay more present.

By getting a greater sense of our direct experience, we start to build skills that will eventually help us to learn to move away from automatic pilot, take the controls and begin to steer more skillfully around the obstacles we all face. In this session will explore further practices that help us see and know experiences more fully, and help us stay more in the present.

We will continue with the body scan practice. This is will help us to develop our sensitivity to our emotions and become more aware of our reactivity. It will help us understand more the links between our body sensations, feelings and thoughts. We often find areas of difficulty in the body that we have previously blocked out, and becoming aware of them with open hearted and wise attention is a skill we can build on more generally in our daily lives.

A note on attitude in practice and about practice
Pasted Graphic 2
Mindfulness exercises focus heavily on attention and awareness. All of the time we are being bombarded by stimuli that, if we tried to be fully aware of, could overwhelm us. Our minds are therefore very selective in what we pay attention to. Mindfulness practices help us to strengthen our ability to pay attention and be aware of what is happening in the present moment, and can bring more or different things into our consciousness.

Mindfulness practices also usually include guidance into our
attitude towards things that come into our attention. A particular attitude that is often mentioned is judging. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention, on purpose, with a particular attitude; there are many attitudes that he discusses, but in particular he emphasises a non-judgemental attitude.

By being non-judgemental, it does not mean that we become indiscriminate, and do not take action to prevent bad things from happening. What it means is that when things come into our attention as thoughts, feelings or sensations, we notice and accept them without acting on them, developing a sense of curiosity about them. Negative thoughts may arise, and we notice them without judging ourselves for the fact that we have had those thoughts; we should not act on negative thoughts, but suppressing them can simply bury them until a stimulus causes them to arise again, often when we are less able to deal with them in a constructive way.

Another perspective on mindfulness is described by Shauna Shapiro, who considers mindfulness in terms of intention, attention and attitude. Like Kabat-Zinn, she strongly emphasises attitudes that are kind to ourselves and others. In mindfulness practice, and as far as possible in daily life, when thoughts feelings and sensations arise, we can acknowledge them in a non-judging way.

Whatever your practice, it is useful and interesting to ask "What am I practicing for?  Where is this practice taking me?" You may be practicing to deal with some difficulty in life or get a little more comfortable, or to cultivate presence and to use that presence to explore your experience, or you may be seeking some form of personal transformation. This is part of Shapiro’s view on intention in mindfulness, which must complement attention and attitude. However, as we shall discuss below, being goal driven in our practices can be counter-productive, so in mindfulness practice our hopes and aspirations are something we note, rather than something we aspire to.

Being clear about intentions will help inform practice and choice of practice, and perhaps help you in gaining benefit from practice. Mindfulness can support the development of greater kindness towards ourselves and others, in a secular or a religious context. This often comes out implicitly in the contemporary mindfulness exercises, rather than as an explicit instruction. Often a guidance will touch on attitudes, which promote openness and compassion, towards ourselves and others.

We all come to practice with some expectations, and it can be difficult to bring a beginner’s mind to practice. It can be easy to see a particular practice as being the best way, but we are all at different stages in our individual journeys, and we all have different needs and expectations. Indeed, there is good research to show that an individual’s expectations from practice, and practice itself, tend to change over time.  It is important as you work to develop trust in your own practice but notice mindfully (with curiosity and care) if you find judgment forming about other ways of practicing. Trust takes time, and can be slow to develop, but with care and persistence it is likely to come. Though it may be difficult, try letting go of expectations and stay with the experiences of a particular practice. The experience of a particular practice may change over time.

In this course we are introducing a range of practices that may or may not be of value to any particular individual, and which should not challenge your personal beliefs. Try them during this course, check out your experience, and if they are useful to you now then persist beyond this course. If not, set them down - they may be helpful another time. This is an exploration, an opportunity to try different practices, and an opportunity to find out more about yourself.

Non-striving

It may sound odd, but striving in meditation can be very counter-productive. Striving is about goals, trying to get somewhere. Mindfulness meditation is about being here, with whatever is arising. Of course, we meditate because it is beneficial. Paradoxically, the harder you try the harder it can become. Maybe you had an experience with that learning to ride a bicycle - the more you tried at first to balance, the more you wobbled, until you learnt to trust your instincts and began to balance without trying.

Sometimes learning to meditate is likened to training a puppy to sit. If you encourage the puppy, speak kindly to it, celebrate when it sits a while, then with patience it will learn. If you get cross with the puppy, then it might sit for a while, but it will build up resistance and become rebellious or mischievous.

Likewise, do not measure your practice by how well you follow the guidance. Sometimes a meditation can be very haphazard. Comparing yourself with a goal can become very discouraging. Even the most experienced meditators have difficulties with their practice. In fact, practice is often about finding the “edges”, those things that are difficult for us, and being aware or them, not going beyond them until you are ready.

Being mode and doing mode

In mindfulness we often talk about two orientations to the world: being more and doing mode. Being mode is very much based on accepting what is there for you, not striving to change it, not judging the current situation, experiencing what is there. Doing mode is very much about “getting somewhere”, achieving a goal, changing what is, improving things. One is not necessarily better than the other, though in some circumstances one mode may be preferable.

We all live somewhere on the spectrum between being and doing. Work is usually a doing activity, with much to achieve. In fact, that is usually why we get paid! But we all need to step off the treadmill from time to time, and rest from doing mode. That is when being mode can be of most value.

Doing mode, however, can be very addictive. “If only I could do just a bit more …”. Recognise that? At the end of the day, tired from a day’s work, you sit on the sofa with a cup of tea and put your feet up, and immediately your mind switches to something you need to do. Instead of enjoying your cup of tea, you start to plan. A few minutes later the tea is gone, perhaps with a few biscuits to “give you some energy,” and you are off on your next task.

Doing mode at its most extreme becomes “driven doing mode”. When that happens, we simply never stop doing things until exhaustion takes over. Our lives can become goal oriented, and even when we have achieved a goal there is another one to replace it. Driven doing mode can be very addictive, and if it becomes a permanent way of living it can be very harmful - we will consider that more later in the course.

Breath meditation - stepping back into the present moment Pasted Graphic 4

“the more conscious we are of the interconnectedness of our thoughts and emotions, our choices and our actions in the world, the more we can see with eyes of wholeness, the more effective we will be when faced with obstacles, challenges and stress”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Full Catastrophe Living”, 2013

A key effect of mindfulness practices is to help us gain more insight into what is going on for us in the present moment. We often feel that we are in the middle of impossible and unchangeable circumstances without really examining them. By taking time out, we can get a fresh perspective on our circumstances, and build a foundation that will help us to respond thoughtfully rather than react automatically.

A mainstay practice for many is breath meditation. The breath is always with us, and though we hardly notice it for much of our daily activity, we can always return to it. So doing, we can temporarily become aware of our thoughts and sensations in a more detached way, and turn back and take a view of what is happening to us.

By taking a regular time out to practice noticing and returning to breath, over time we can gain abilities to see a little bit more clearly what is happening around us and within us.

Breath meditation is not intended as an escape. Rather, the breath should be seen as an anchor that can help us avoid being tossed by the storms of life and blown into more dangerous waters. The breath is very much in the body, and using the breath we are stepping out of auto-pilot and coming back to our senses, back to what is here for us now.

Exercise
(Guided Practice 10MinGuidedMeditation 1)

Find a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed for the period of your practice. Ideally a quiet place, at least while you are learning the practice; as you gain experience you may find it possible to meditate in more noisy environments such as on a bus or train.

Make yourself comfortable. Choose whether to meditate with your eyes open or closed; at first eyes closed can be easier.

Get a sense of where you are. Perhaps the short body scan may help you settle. Note any particular sensations around you such as contact with your seat and noises. Then gently bring your attention to your breath, not trying to change the breath, just noticing the sensations of the breath where they are most vivid for you.

When your mind wanders, as it certainly will, then notice the wandering and without judging yourself return your attention to the breath. Each noticing of mind wandering is a key part of this meditation. Notice what took your mind away, but do not judge the thoughts or sensations that you wandered into. Simply return your attention ever so gently to the breath, over and over again.


Home Practice - Week 2

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

  • Continue with the body scan practice daily.
  • Choose a different activity to do mindfully.
  • Make notes on anything you noticed.
  • At points through the day, stop and bring awareness to the breath.
  • Each day, add to a “pleasant events diary” (see below).
  • Before coming to the next session, reflect on your week and complete the weekly summary below.

Pleasant Events Diary

Make notes below each day of particular events which you found pleasant. Prompt yourself with the following questions:

  • Where were you when you had the experience?
  • Were you aware of pleasant feelings at the time?
  • Did you notice any body sensations? What were the details of them?
  • What was your mood, thoughts, feelings at the time of the event?
  • What thoughts and feelings are with you as you write about the event?
  • 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?