Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Update on Our Drop In Classes - Meditation and Listening

In our current series of drop in meditation classes we've been practicing a simple variation of the mindfulness of breathing. During the term I was going to be taking this one practice and developing various 'ways in'. The form was going to stay more or less the same but I'd emphasise various aspects of it each week. In the event what has happened is that we have struck on a way in which seems particularly helpful. It looks like we will stick with this for the rest of the term. What we are doing is working with the language and metaphor of listening. 

I have effectively divided the practice into three stages. In stage one we actually listen. You could call this a period of the mindfulness of sounds. In the second stage we change direction and 'listen' to the body. In the third stage we change again and 'listen' to our hearts and minds, our inner landscape.

What is great about  this approach is the nature of listening. To listen is very different from looking (which is the dominant sense faculty for most of us and also supplies a dominant metaphor in meditation - 'observation'). Listening, although it is in a sense active, involves a greater quality of receptivity, of sensitivity, than looking normally does. We don't go looking for sensations of sound, as it were the sounds come to us. All we have to do is open up to the sounds, receive the sounds. 

I think it is this receptivity of actual listening that sets the scene beautifully for the following stages. As we turn our ear then to the body we notice more sensations than perhaps otherwise we would have. There is a virtual symphony of bodily sensations going on all the time. Having taken up a more receptive posture in the first stage towards sounds, the body now seems more alive and vital. And then in the third stage the same occurs - our feelings, thoughts and emotions seem all the more approachable, vivid and recognisable for having adopted this 'posture' of listening. 

There is also something about listening that reflects, and is reflected in, the actual posture that we try to adopt while sitting in mediation. Our physical posture can enhance or distract from this metaphorical listening posture. The body both reflects, or shows up, our inner psychological posture, and it can have an influence on that inner posture. The physical posture of listening is soft, yet poised. There is an alertness that is also open. There is no defensiveness  - our soft animal bodies are vulnerable and our meditation posture is one that embraces that vulnerability rather than hardening against it. Working at the level of the physical body through our posture we can then encourage this inner listening. Through adopting a good meditation posture we encourage the conditions whereby the inner ear can hear better.

That's a short ramble over the work in progress that is this term's drop in classes. If you're in Edinburgh and are curious to try it then come along  - Wednesday evenings 6.15pm at the Healthy Life Centre on Bread Street. See the website for more details.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Meditation and the Agitated Mind

An agitated mind can be an unpleasant or even painful thing. There is constant activity, movement, as images, thoughts and feelings race through our awareness uncontrollably. Along with all this activity comes an unsettling feeling. It can be as if we were in the company of a rather unpleasant stranger who just won't leave us alone. The feeling that we are not in control, that we can't just shut off the mental activity can make us feel helpless. This helplessness is a source of stress and anxiety. In desperation we might turn to various distractions, but mostly they make things worse. What to do?

If you have tried meditation you might have had some early 'success'. By which I mean finding some relief from the mental torrents. It is common for this early success to be short lived and followed by a period of frustration. I recently met a woman who described this exact scenario. To be honest it reminded me of my own early experience: Meditations full of ease and clarity, the breath - "delicious", was how this woman put it, but then the difficulties set in.

This pattern can be explained in various ways. It is a complex issue relating to expectations and wanting to repeat past experiences while not wanting to face present experience. It is about integrating those parts of the mind that are easy to integrate and moving on to work on the more reluctant parts. However there is hope, the fruits of practice are there for everyone to experience with the application of a skillful effort. On one level it is simply a matter of time on the cushion. It is also a matter of looking at lifestyle, of judging whether there are too many forces of disintegration in one's life. But it is also a matter of learning meditation skills: being able to set up the conditions for the mind to settle. Principal among these conditions are relaxation, non-wilful effort, self love, acceptance of our present state, a willingness and courage to turn towards the uncomfortable, patience and a trust in the process of the unfolding mind.

There are many practices that help in the calming or soothing of the mind. One that I find particularly good is a very simple practice using the breath. It is simple in the sense that there isn't a great deal of structure or form to the practice. There is no elaborate visualization, no progression through various complex stages. There is just a simple pattern to follow:

Start by settling into your posture, be sure not to be in a hurry to start. Take your time and allow the body to find a comfortable relaxed posture, but one that is also upright and poised. Take note of your surroundings, the sounds, smells etc that locate you in a particular place. Then just sit, with eyes closed, and notice how things are with your mind. Notice the content of the mind. There are thoughts, feelings and emotions. There are images and memories. All the activity of the mind that I mentioned above - just notice it without judgement. Sit with that for a while. You will probably be swept off into day dreams from time to time. Don't worry about that. After a short while you might be able to sense the agitation itself that is producing all this activity. It is a kind of energy or pulse, a restlessness, an agitation. There is this vibration behind the individual dreams, thoughts or feelings. It is there, as it were, in the background permeating our mind and generating all this activity. Let this sense of agitation come into greater clarity and make this the object of the meditation. With a loving awareness we hold this felt sense of agitation in view and we use the breath to soothe it. Imagine the breath flowing into that agitation. On the out breath we can encourage a softening, a calming down.

This process goes on for as long as you like. The longer the better. But it is important to take each breath as it comes and not to think ahead. It is no good either just having an idea of the agitation - we need to settle around the actual felt sense of the agitation in the mind or heart. As we do this it is also helpful to allow self-compassion to inform the experience. As we dwell on the agitation we notice much more directly that it is a form of suffering and compassion for ourselves can arise spontaneously. This is a great help. It motivates us and comforts us.

In such formless practices our intention is crucial. In this case the intention is to sooth the mind, to calm the agitation, and to relax. Having this intention is like giving ourselves permission. Or it is like being invited to live in a different way, to inhabit a different mode of being. And the intention is enough. The intention fuels the practice, gives it direction. All we have to do is allow the intention naturally to inform our effort. This will happen as long as we don't try to force something to happen.

This practice is a direct route to calming the mind by having as its object the very experience of an agitated mind. We don't get bogged down in the particular content of the mind but instead focus on the quality of our awareness itself. We can think of this as like a texture, or flavour or colour. For me an agitated mind has a spiky texture, a jagged texture. It is sharp and pulsing, energetic. Sensing this directly and dwelling on it with love and the soothing, compassionate, flow of the breath, will help you dial down the agitation and experience greater peace. This is a strategy without side effects that can be relied upon.

In the coming term of drop-in classes in Edinburgh I am intending to lead this practice most evenings. In previous terms I have gone for a variety of different techniques to show the breadth of meditation possibilities. But I this coming term I am going instead for consistency and depth. If you return week after week we will practice this meditation and develop some skill with it. Hopefully in that way the fruits of the practice will ripen more readily.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Spiritual Home - A Precious Place On Our Path To Flourishing

I used to work at a retreat centre that is soon to celebrate its 25th anniversary. As part of that anniversary they are collating stories from all the previous team members. I have just finished writing my contribution and a theme struck me that I wanted to share on the Live and Flourish blog: Spiritual Home. 

This is a phrase that you often hear from people who come on retreat. For them the retreat centre has become their spiritual home. It is a wonderful thing to witness someone saying. They are usually quite emotional and certainly full of gratitude. It is a feeling that some people have from the minute they step into the grounds. For others it is a feeling that grows over several visits as they gather experiences and build connections with people and the landscape. There is a sense of profoundness which I think this phrase 'spiritual home' communicates. The spiritual home is the place where we connect in profound ways with what is most important to us. It is the place where we have profound contact with other people - where we feel safe enough to allow our self to be seen. It is a place that holds or embodies a sense of the profound mystery of life so that we can approach it and try to come into relationship with it. It is a place that nourishes our most profound longings, for connection, for understanding, for acceptance and for peace. 

I think this is something we all need, whether or not we call it our spiritual home or not is irrelevant. We need a place that can be all those things. A place we can return to for clarity, solace and strength. It is especially good if this is a place where others share in a similar experience - such that the shared experience amplifies our own personal responses and takes them deeper. 

In a world that has been steadily flattened into scientific blandness, where anything remotely soulful struggles for legitimacy, we can struggle to find such places. If we are lucky to find such a place we might still struggle to allow those feelings to flourish as the inner cynic seeks to sabotage and dismiss them. 

My experience while working at this retreat centre showed me that this is a need many people are happy to share and express - even though often it wasn't something they were particularly looking for. But once that need was recognised, once the spiritual home has been found, and we realise it has been found, the doubts are usually banished. We have found something so precious and meaningful that the shallow scientific perspective shrinks to its proper (and important) place in a much more profound vision of life. This shift is a retrieval of something that our culture more generally has lost. As such we are going against the grain and we might need to seek out the support of others who understand and appreciate this richer perspective on life.
I know all this might sound strange to you. However, if you do sense a longing for such a place I would recommend you relax around that longing and not go desperately seeking it out. Perhaps it isn't too fanciful to think that our spiritual home finds us rather than us finding it. I would trust that if you are opening up in general, opening to life, then you will discover a spiritual home sooner or later. The place will find you, you just have to be receptive enough to hear when it is calling. 

My spiritual home is this retreat centre where I used to work. I go back regularly for retreats and sometimes to work leading retreats. Perhaps it's because I'm getting older, but these days I'm very aware of all my previous visits, the history I have with the place. It is such a rich experience. I'm reminded of all the aspiration of my naive 25 year old self who first moved there. I'm reminded of the trials, struggles, mistakes and successes of my path to flourishing. I'm reminded of all the connections I've made with fellow travellers on the same path. I'm reminded of the great sea of humanity that is struggling towards wholeness. I'm reminded of the preciousness of this human life, and its brevity. Of course your spiritual home doesn't have to be a retreat centre. It could be a special place in nature that holds these things for you. It doesn't have to even be a place  - it could be a group of friends or a regular event. 

This blog is something of a ramble -spontaneous reflections that just bubbled up as I wrote my contribution for these 25th anniversary celebrations. I don't think there is a great point or message. Perhaps if anything it is just to share the concept of the 'spiritual home' and how important I think it is, especially in this modern world where these subtle poetic concepts can be so hastily dismissed. It is possible for us all to find such a place where the mysteries of the human heart can be witnessed and taken seriously. When we do then our path to flourishing is made so much easier.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A seasonal thought for the day.

Renewal  - that's a pretty strong theme in life at this time of year. Hopes, aspirations, dreams and reflections seem to almost force themselves into our minds. It's easy for me to get cynical about this. The list of broken new year resolutions is endless and the whole process comes around again all too quickly. Dismissing this annual flood of hopes and reflections can seem like the rational thing to do.
I try to resist being this cynical at new year because hope for a good year ahead seems to me a healthy hope to dwell on. It also seems a good idea to have a time in the year where we particularly take stock of things. The speed and complexity of modernity can squeeze out time for reflection  - time to ask the profound questions like 'is my life fulfilling?', or 'am I making the most of my life?' , or 'does my life express my values - what I really believe to be important?'. 

If nothing else reflecting on our life at new year is a precious opportunity to renew our purpose - to reconnect with our values - to affirm the choices we have made - injecting perhaps some much needed vision into the day-to-day. If we go too long without doing this the danger is that we forget the very things that animate our lives - leaving a peculiarly empty feeling  - a 'what's the point?' kind of feeling. 

I'm going to make a point of allowing some time to follow this annual inclination to reflect on life. Maybe over a quiet coffee at home, or out on a walk in nature. The landscape seems to assist these hopes, aspirations, dreams and reflections in welling up into clearer forms. Another way is to dialogue with a friend or partner. Sometimes it takes the act of trying to articulate these reflection to bring clarity to them. 

On the other hand, if you are fed up of the cycle of broken resolutions and would like some support with this process, our Focusing and Dialogical Mentoring provide just the right kind of context for this work. In these sessions we listen, empathize and make the occasional suggestion. Like being in front of a mirror we reflect you back. In this way you can achieve a degree of clarity about your life that you might otherwise find difficult to reach.

One way or another I hope you also, like me, manage to find some time to reflect, renew and reconnect at the turn of the year and that this brings you a greater sense of purpose and enthusiasm for life.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

On Meditation and Stress in the Workplace.

I was recently asked to run a meditation workshop in a workplace where there was a particular problem with stress. In this blog I've tried to summarizes my short talk and the discussions had with the staff there:

There are good reasons why meditation has the reputation that it does with regard to stress. But one danger I am keen to avoid is presenting meditation as a simple means to an end, in the same way that we take aspirin to rid ourselves of a headache. This is a common way that meditation is presented and I think it is misleading. Meditation does help - just not like that - and I hope to show how it does helps here:

To begin with I think it is helpful to make the distinction between pressure and stress. There is always pressure in life and in many cases we actually seek it out, such as with sport, theatre, music, and of course we seek it in love relationships. In other words pressure is a sign of life. 

Another reflection that takes us along these lines is that different people respond differently to the same pressures. Given any set of pressures one work colleague might struggle while another will take it in their stride, or, in other words, will be more resilient. 

I think the distinction between pressure and stress hints at the way we can cope better. It seems to hinge on this: as pressure builds (perhaps a deadline looms or things have gone pear shaped) we respond to the pressure - there is an emotional response. 'Stressing out' is one response  - a sort of panic/fear response. Or as the pressure builds and is sustained we can get ground down by the burden of it. This being ground down is also a response, it is as if emotionally we are close to collapse, an emotional capitulation. 

In light of this dynamic between the pressures of the objective situation and our response (panic/fear or emotionally collapsing) we can see more clearly how a regular meditation practice can help with stress. I want to do this by drawing out four ways that meditation changes us and show how each of them has a bearing on our experience of stress. 

Firstly there is simply the fact that meditation, at its most basic, is an awareness practice. By meditating we become more aware of ourselves and of others. With regard to stress in particular this has multiple benefits. For example, we become more familiar with those situations where our stress responses (panic/fear-feeling ground down) are triggered. Armed with greater clarity about this means we are forewarned and therefore, sometimes at least, able to take such steps as to avoid or minimise the stress. Furthermore, greater awareness of self means that we catch the stress response much earlier than we would have otherwise. Stress usually builds, it isn't a binary - on/off phenomenon. With greater awareness we can catch our stress response before it becomes fully blown and this again gives us greater opportunity to be creative in changing the situation where we can. 

Secondly, and related to awareness, there is the most commonly known aspect of meditation experience - relaxation. It is clearly the case that meditation does induce a more relaxed body and mind. As the tension in the body is let go, the tension in the mind can release. In practice it happens more simultaneously - tensions is let go  - even just a little bit - and our system calms down.   

This is invaluable in relation to stress and pressure, both in terms of recovering from a stressful experience and becoming more resilient to pressure. Any pressure that we are storing up or holding in our being (our bodies and minds) will be, as it were, discharged during meditation as we relax. This means that we are at least a little bit more resilient when we go into work the next day  - a bit further from the tipping point of stressing out. But relaxation is obviously not enough. Given that pressures are likely to continue we will pretty soon be close to tipping point again. This then brings us to my third consequence of meditation.

Thirdly we have 'integration': Integration happens in different ways and on different levels. It happens on the cognitive level, the personality level and the social level. It is also both a gradual process within each meditation and cumulative over the years:

When we speak about being 'all over the place', or being 'scattered' or 'pulled apart' - we are in the territory on cognitive fragmentation. The mind is not 'together', we don't feel 'centred', we have 'lost our grounding'. Our culture increasingly seems to encourage this fragmentation. Our attention is artfully grabbed by the sophisticated technologies and techniques of a pervasive marketing industry. Multi-tasking has almost become a norm in a society that demands ever greater efficiency. These are some of what we could call the forces of disintegration. Meditation on the other hand is a force of integration  - as we meditate the mind comes together - unifies. This is one of the greatest gains to be had from meditating - it feels good to become more centred and it strengthens the mind,  making it less easily pulled apart. A mind that is stronger, more stable and centred is a mind more able to cope with demanding situations  - and much less likely to stress out.

At the level of personality, integration is about welcoming into awareness the 'parts' of our personality that we have disowned, suppressed or denied. Numerous judgements, often absorbed when young, can cause this fragmentation on the personality level. As our awareness grows and expands in meditation these lost parts of our personality are found. In terms of stress this is invaluable because it is often those parts that we have disowned, for example the vulnerable part, that are the least resilient to pressure. Even though, indeed because, these parts are in the shadows they can have a disproportionate effect on our response to pressure. Greater self-awareness means we can acknowledge more fully when a 'part' is feeling the pressure build. We can then extend this part some sympathy, some understanding - acknowledge the pressure - but also notice that this is only one part among others. That is not to say we dismiss these parts once we become aware of them - but that their voice is heard as one among many - a contributor to a complex whole - not a saboteur pulling strings from the shadows. 

Then there is integration on the social level. This comes about because with greater awareness comes greater awareness of others.  This means we naturally begin to feel a greater sympathy with others. Our sense of sharing a common humanity is enlarged and becomes a significant influence in our lives. We can begin to feel more rooted in our society and on this earth. We begin to notice and feel more like participants in life rather than mere bystanders, and this feels good, wholesome and healthy. 

This kind of integration has obvious bearing on stress, especially in the work place. When you look at what are reported as causes of stress in the workplace an awful lot of them are to do with our interactions with others. Bullying, unrealistic workloads and deadlines, lack of support are all determined by these relationships. The whole culture of the workplace would improve dramatically, and with it our stress levels, if we all regarded each other more fully as human beings - rather than as mere objects. And even if none of your colleagues are meditating a personal practice will nevertheless improve your relationships significantly. You can't underestimate the effect of really seeing someone fully as an unique human being. Not only will you relate more respectfully to them but they will usually reciprocate. People notice being fully seen and in my experience it is something they really appreciate. 

Fourthly and lastly meditation influences our 'character'. Meditation both requires and strengthens certain character traits. For example, patience is a virtue that everybody recognises. Patience is an essential quality to have if you want to meditate. But also as you meditate you become in turn more patient - you exercise that virtue and strengthen it. Another example would be courage. You need the courage to sit and face your experience of stress. At first this might not be a pleasant experience and you'll probably want to get up and do something (anything) to distract yourself. If you don't physically get up you might 'zone out' or daydream your way through the meditation. But with courage we can be with our experience and in time become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

This reflects well the nature of meditation practice - it works at the level of our general character and not at the level of specific issues. We don't meditate to directly rid ourselves of a particularly unpleasant experience, such as stress. But rather by meditating we create the conditions in which stress is less likely to arise. Such conditions include a strong character; a more courageous, patient, loving character. Such a character is more resilient to pressure: more imaginative and confident, more able to respond to pressure in creative ways such as asking for support, having that awkward conversation rather than postponing it, not reacting to the boss when he says something critical, building good relationships that will help you through the tough times, etc. 

These are some of the many ways in which meditation changes us and helps us to become more resilient to pressure and stress. It isn't just a simple case of relaxation, important though that is. Becoming more aware, integrated and developing our character traits all contribute to becoming more resilient to the effects of pressure. As pressure builds you will notice it earlier and have more time to address the issues before feeling ground down. As you integrate and strengthen your character traits you build in capacity - the mind being stronger, more 'together' and equipped with traits that will help you manage situations and your feelings more skilfully. Pressure in life is a given - some we can avoid others we can't - what we can do is take the initiative with our mental states and our character traits - rather than leaving them to habit and chance. It is in this way that meditation allows us some influence on how much, and to what extent, stress shows up in our lives.