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Anna on the Summer Retreat at The Abbey

After weeks…and weeks…of rain, I had begun to question the wisdom of running a mindfulness weekend entitled “Sinking into Summer, Sinking into the Body”. We were, however, to be blessed with plenty of warm sunshine and very little rain during our weekend of compassionate mindfulness at The Abbey. Giving us ample opportunity to sink into our practice amidst roses in full bloom, freshly mown lawns, butterflies on the wing. And the brilliant iridescence of the delicate wings of azure-blue damselflies. As night fell, the unnerving drone of particularly succulent mosquitoes made for a little more tension, but ….. “accepting what is, without preference”. As the mantra of mindfulness gives us the freedom to embrace whatever is happening in our experience. Including all the feelings of antipathy or resistance that might be present: the humble mosquito is a great teacher. I fear one or two might not have survived the weekend.

Much of our experience happens in or through the body

The focus of this particular weekend was the body, working with the body as a vehicle for mindfulness. So often we associate mindfulness with just the mind. Forgetting that much of our experience happens in or through the body, and unaware that by bringing our attention into the physical body we can access the “present moment” in a very direct, straightforward and immediate way. You might like to take a moment – right now – to experience for yourself the value of being in a body. Sitting quietly, with your eyes closed, bring your attention inside your body. Allow your attention to scan your body from the feet upwards, naming the parts of the body as it does so. Feet, ankles, legs, hips, belly, etc. When you have completed your full-body scan, turn your attention to your breathing. Become aware of the gentle rise and fall of your belly and ribcage as the breath enters and leaves your body.

Even in this simple exercise, we may notice an immediate calming and settling of the mind, stillness and focus that was not there before. We have anchored our attention in the body – and we have already begun to relax and to become more mindful. To become more present.

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well

It is in stillness and presence that we find peace and wellbeing. Julian of Norwich, the 14th Century Christian mystic, is perhaps best known for her prophetic words: “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”. Such wisdom is hard to penetrate. But here she alludes to a state of mind that perceives reality with such depth of clarity and acceptance that “all manner of thing shall be well”. No problems, no suffering. Nothing that needs to be fixed or changed or improved. Simply a shift that frees our awareness from its usual absorption in thinking.

One of the paradoxes, and great gifts, of mindfulness practice, is that in order to develop or deepen our capacity to accept, we will have to accept the unacceptable. Mindfulness can be an uncomfortable business in the early stages: as we become more aware, we realise just how much our minds judge, reject, refuse. How strong the preferences of our ordinary mind – liking what it likes, disliking what it dislikes. Chasing and holding onto what it wants or decides is “good”, ignoring or discarding what it doesn’t want or decides is “bad”. Gaining such insights can be shocking and painful, and – without acceptance – give rise to even deeper tendencies to reject and judge. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the internal critic: “well, it’s awful to know how much of the time my mind is criticising and judging. What a critical mind I have. And now I’m criticising my mind for being critical”…..

The more I teach mindfulness, the more I see the value of compassion as a companion on the path

How do we accept all of this???

Through developing and strengthening compassion and loving-kindness. The more I teach mindfulness, the more I see the value of compassion as a companion on the path. Where acceptance relates to a positive mental attitude, compassion relates to the presence of a kind heart. When mind and heart come together, there is real power.

Compassion literally means “to suffer (passion) with (com)”. It implies a willingness to feel suffering, whether that be our own or that of another, and a wish to alleviate that suffering. In the presence of compassion, our thoughts, words and actions are much more likely to be helpful and kind.

Whilst compassion is a natural stance of the awakened mind, it can also be cultivated through mindful effort and with certain practices. One of the most effective is the heart practice of Tonglen. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that means ‘sending and taking’. This practise originated in India and came to Tibet in the eleventh century. With the practice of Tonglen, we work directly with our habitual tendency to avoid suffering and seek pleasure. We learn to embrace our life experiences with more openness, compassion, inclusiveness, and understanding, rather than denial, aversion, and resistance.

Tonglen practise invites us to say “yes”, to everything

We do this through the radical practice of taking IN suffering and sending OUT peace, happiness, wellbeing, healing. It is obvious that Tonglen practise is completely contrary to the ways in which we usually hold our personality (ego) together. Each of us has our defensive ego strategies for coping with the pain, hurt, disappointment, and suffering we encounter in life. Fundamentally these strategies all involve saying “no” in one form or another. Tonglen practise invites us to say “yes”, to everything. Particularly that which we want to say no to! In so doing, the practice gradually dissolves and transforms the armour of our self-protection. Wearing away our defences and our habitual clinging to a separate sense of self. It may be counter-intuitive from the ego’s point of view, but the experience of doing Tonglen increases peace, fearlessness, connection, love, joy and compassion.

Although Tonglen is most commonly practised for others, it is good to practice it for ourselves. It is very healing and can bring great relief, spaciousness and upliftment to our hearts and minds. I think we were all surprised on the course at how powerful Tonglen really is. Many people reported feeling nervous about doing this practice. Afraid of what they might experience, but there was no doubting the radiance, the confidence, the clarity, compassion and wellbeing on everyone’s face at the end of two practice sessions of Tonglen.

We are no longer condemned to the prison of trying to create a saccharin-sweet world but are freed to experience things as they are

As compassion floods into and saturates our hearts and minds, acceptance grows. That which was once unacceptable is welcomed more readily, and more and more of our experience. Whatever form it takes – enters our conscious awareness without resistance. We are no longer condemned to the prison of trying to create a saccharin-sweet world but are freed to experience things as they are. And in so doing, come a little closer to the inherent wellness we discover in “all manner of thing”.

I’d love to know your thoughts about Tonglen. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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