The Eight Week Course is coming.
I've been thinking more and more about how we teach and learn mindfulness and how there is so much misunderstanding about what 'meditation' is and is not.
I've written elsewhere about the essential difference between the three main streams of meditation and how we can tie ourselves in painful knots if we confused samadhi meditation with mindfulness or visualisation. They are all different tools. Just as we'd struggle to crack a nut with a knitting needle or make a scarf with a nutcracker, trying to find the mindful state with absorption is going to end in a sore head.
So more and more, I concentrate on teaching how mindfulness practice (not absorption a.k.a. samadhi practice) aims at opening us up to a sense of our Being in the world. And in doing that we necessarily have to engage with the forces of distraction, the tendencies that take us away from Being. There's nothing wrong with these - we don't want to get into a split, this-bad, that-good, sort of thinking - but they are powerful and without being mindfully considered they can control our lives from the shadows.
Approaching the forces of distraction with kindness is the beginning of kindly mindfulness or "beingfulness" as I have called it.
Each eight week course is an engagement with these contrary forces - beingfulness and distraction - and each course casts new light on how we can best engage with them without punishing ourselves.
It starts this Friday in London and runs for 9 weeks (with a gap over the Valentine Week) till the 8th March.
You can book here.
We've posted two new podcasts up on the website. They are shorter extracts and guided meditations from the course that is happening at Spa Road in London at the moment.
One is the body relaxation exercise that starts almost all Mindsprings classes. The other is a guided meditation looking at the nature of emotions.
We like to try new stuff out at Mindsprings but the truth of running a course in a venue is that it can be expensive and it means we tend to run courses where we know we'll get a good showing of participants. That's a shame because it means that new things - things that perhaps are not on the radar - tend to get squeezed out.
So in 2012 we've decided - as much as possible - to be a bit more flexible and start running more spontaneous, pop-up workshops in cafes, in parks, on trains or in someone's office.
It works like this:
It's that simple. Hopefully, out of these 'scratch' gatherings the more interesting and successful mindfulness projects will blossom into full-scale courses.
Here are some of the current contenders:
I’ve been working on the course that I’m giving this week in London - It’s about “poisoned patterns of the mind” and it seems to have caught quite a lot of people’s attention.
I’m interested in the patterning of the mind at the moment. I read Norman Doidge’s excellent The Brain That Changes Itself over December and it had quite a mind-changing effect. (Fittingly enough). The hope that neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow new neural pathways in adulthood) offers us is immense. Not just for phantom limb sufferers, or stroke victims, but also physically healthy humans who suffer from disordered thinking, depression and mood malfunction. And that latter category, of course, includes just about all of us.
Naturally, as a trainee therapist, I have a vested interest in neurobiological evidence that shows that the way we think and experience the world with our brains can be changed. Otherwise why would I bother practicing? As a long term meditator, I know for a fact that the brain changes. In the 10+ years I’ve been practising, my awareness of myself in the World has changed unutterably. Some of that is down to solitary practice, some to brilliant teachers, some to Ayahuasca. But the fact remains that I experience the world and my existence quite differently from the me from 1999. Qualitatively better, I would say.
So, what about “poisoned patterns”?
Neuroscience shows us that neural patterning creates the pathways through which our experience of the World and our internal response to it flow. I don’t subscribe to the materialist view that consciousness is the wet stuff of the brain. Rather I subscribe to Alva Noë’s notion that consciousness is function of a brain in a moving body in a World. So the way the brain patterns it self is a constituent factor in our experience of the world.
The neurobiological rule is: what fires together wires together. That is, the neurons that regular get activated become stronger and the pathways more robust. It’s like a path down a snowy hillside. There are infinite possibilities of getting down it when the snow is virgin but once one toboggan has gone down, the chances are the next dozen or so will go down a very similar path. Eventually, the icy tunnel is etched so deep that it’s almost impossible to find another route down. This is what happens with the brain pathways.
Strongly enforced neural networks tend to “hog the signal”. New experiences, original thinking, creative exceptions all get edited out by the insistence of that deep runnel in the snow. Anything that happens tends to get experienced the same way: our emotion, our thinking, but also our perception starts to use a very limited palate. Our actions, likewise become very circumscribed.
This is bad news if your neural pathway keeps on leading you to a heroin dealer or to uncontrollable rage. Neurons are not picky. If they fire, they’ll wire.
There is also the contrary rule: use it or lose it. Neural networks that don’t fire very often get dismantled and other processes take over the brain’s ‘real estate’.
This is good news if we’re trying to break up the patterning in the brain. Giving up cigarettes for example - once we’re through the cold turkey and years have past, we can look back with puzzlement at our 60-a-day habit. That whole nicotine-dependent network has been reassigned to some other brain pattern.
What is clear to me as I think about this issue is that patterns are not inherently “poisoned” - what is problematic is not their toxicity but their fixity.
Which is where mindfulness comes in as a useful tool for breaking up unskillful patterns in the mind and freeing up neural real estate for something more beautiful and life-enhancing.
Fixity is a problem for meditators. The more you meditate mindfully, the more you realise that there is no ultimate stillness, no pattern-free zone. Being alive means motion and it means patterns. What we discover, paradoxically, is that we have to stop trying to pattern the pattern and let it be.
So this weekend, we’re going to be exploring not only the problem of fixity in the way we think and ‘hold’ our experience - but some potential solutions. Can mindfulness offer a ‘delicate pickaxe’ to tease apart the elements that make up these fixed paths down the neural hillside and re-introduce some flexibility, fluidity and novelty into our way of existing in the world?
Of course, I’m biased. I’m sure it can.
Got quite a number of new courses coming up in the Autumn months of 2011:
Please book for all at the Booking page.
My therapy work has got me interested in the field of energy psychology.
Working with trauma - highly painful, emotionally-charged events from the past that impact on the here-and-now - psychologist and therapist have started working with bodywork techniques. There is a practice called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming) which the NHS now uses as its standard treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (which is when past trauma flashes into the present as if it were happening now). EMDR involves people recalling their difficult memories while following a moving spot (usually a finger) with their eyes.
There are other procedures (using tapping on the acupuncture meridian points or the 'chakras' of Eastern medicine) which have a similar effect: a movement or stimulation of the body seems to have a powerful effect on our emotional and thought patterns. Practices like EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) or AIT (Advanced Integrative Therapy) have proved very successful in the treatment of phobias, panic attacks, traumas.
Since almost all our negative mindstates can be traced back to 'little T' traumas then these techniques also have an exciting application in general therapy and meditation practice.
No one really understands how these things work. There are theories about balancing the hemispheres of the brain (the right brain taking a more holistic, contextual stance); about replicating the dream-processing of REM sleep; breaking chemical and neurological pathways between painful memory and other parts of the brain.
Of course, Chinese, TIbetan and Indian medical thinking has always linked body energies with mental well-being. The Western separation of 'thinking mind' and body doesn't hold in yoga or acupuncture. However, as we in Europe and America approach meditation and make it our own, there's a danger in making it too cerebral.
When I trained in a Thai Monastery, the emphasis was almost entirely on walking practice, There was actually not very much sitting. Embodying your being was seen as central.
Teaching and participating on various mindfulness courses, I am struck by how that first 'pause' - the first time we stop 'doing' all the time and take some space to 'be' - often pitches us into a panic and a startling anxiety about being in our body. Very often our habitual mode of existence is totally 'in our heads' and we are shocked to find how painful our body is; how we have let it get tense, irritable and distorted by simply not being there for too long.
John Kabat-Zinn's work has concentrated on this in his 'body-scanning' but I think that taking it a step further there might be space within the body to actively free-up the mind.
There is also a phenomenon which I am increasingly noting which is called 'psychological reversal'. Energy workers like Roger Callahan, noted this decades ago. It's a unconscious reversal of the body's energy system from health. That is, unconsciously, we are hijacking all attempts to get well.
Often there are 'secondary gains' to illness: maybe being depressed allows us to avoid a difficult decision, or get out of a painful relationship. But often as not there is simply a systematic distortion. Our energies - which naturally should be flowing forward into connection and flux - get muddled and start to flow backwards. Which explains that inchoate sense of stuckness we often feel.
I've found that working with the body directly can work on our psyche quickly and powerful. Much more so than endlessly circling the issues in the thinking mind. By "working with the body" I mean - on one level - keeping active and doing exercise; but also trusting that the body has an unconscious flow towards health and mental well-being that we can stimulate by exercises.
Things like taking five minutes every day to do Donna Eden's 'energy workout' or learning to tap the meridian points while experiencing painful emotional states or negative thoughts seems to have a very direct and powerful influence on the body-mind.
It's a rich and exciting vein of practice that I'm keen to explore. We'll be looking it more deeply in the "Tapping into the Body" workshop at the Spa Road Centre in April, if you're interested.
After the lovely warm group that gathered at Spa Road for the last weekend workshop in November, we've decided to run another set of weekends in the Shrine Room in Bermondsey.
All the details are on the London course pages, but in short:
Even as the British winter shivers in, I am tremendously excited about Mindsprings summer excursion to Iceland.
I was there in August for a weekend break and we travelled into the interior and sat on a mountain in the bright sunshine at 11pm, and I was struck by the preternatural silence that reigns there. The landscape is so new - volcanic rock and moss - that there are no birds, no insects, so you experience the silence that might have existed in the billions of years before life came to Earth.
I remember thinking at the time that it would be the best place in the world to meditate and then, a week later, during my Holy Island course I met an Icelander who then invited me to come and give a course there. What an honour.
We're using a school in the interior of the island, so there will be a residential week meditating, eating and sleeping in the middle of the silence for six days. The retreat is right at the beginning of June so there is virtually no darkness at all. Midnight sun. I think it will be a very powerful experience.
I'm working with a group of Icelandic meditators and they have allowed me to invite a group of about 10-15 people to come with. So if you'd like to be part of the Mindsprings Icelandic Summer expedition please check out the page and bagsie a place with a deposit.
You'll need to sort your own airfares (from the UK they're around £230 at that time) and we will be organizing a weekend stay in the capital Reykjavik at the beginning of your trip and a day at the end.
I hope lots of people can come...
I'm delighted to say that I'm going to be working more at the Spa Road Buddhist Centre in Bermondsey.
I've always had a strong connection to the Kagyu Tibetan lineage (they own Holy Island too) and the new centre they have manifested in South London is so inspiring. Through incredible hard work, diligence and vision Lama Zangmo and her team have rescued a battered old Victorian library from the slow decay of council occupancy and transformed it into an astonishing dharma centre. There is a spectacular shrine room with a giant, hand-crafted Buddha rupa but also two very beautiful yoga and meditation rooms.
The building's right opposite a very charming park and just round the corner from all of the trendy cafes and bars of Bermondsey street.
I'm going to be running a Friday evening eight week course there through the winter. It's a bit of an experiment since I've never done a course on a Friday - but I think it will be a lovely way to break up the stress of the week and sail into the weekend in a mindful fashion.
It's an integrative mindfulness course so we'll be continuing our exploration of ways of bringing mindfulness into the very fabric of our day-to-day lives. More information and booking here.
Following the cancellation of the Special Yoga Centre classes due to re-building work, I'm delighted to say we're starting a new eight week evening course at Evolve Wellness Centre in South Kensington.
It's tucked away in a mews just beyond the Natural History Museum, near South Ken underground and it's a lovely new centre run by Adrian and his team. They put a particular emphasis on integrating yoga, meditation and well-being into modern lifestyles, so I'm happy to working there.
It's an eight week course, Tuesday evening 6.45-8.45pm starting 12th October 2010- details can be found here.