Session 1, 27/7/2021 – Classic mindfulness practice
In this classic mindfulness practice, you start by using the breath as an anchor for your attention, and then you widen the field of your attention to include strong experiences and welcome them with a kind awareness. Strong experiences may be physical sensations, emotions or thoughts.
Remember that at the heart of this practice lie two very simple questions: what is happening in me right now, and can I accept it and let it be as it is?
Remaining curious, simply observe what happens to each experience as you give it your full attention: does it intensify, weaken or transform?
Classic mindfulness practice (20 min)
Session 2, 10/8/2021 – Self-compassion and lovingkindness practice
There are three foundational elements in self-compassion:
- Mindfulness comes first: we become aware that we are suffering, we are able to recognise our feelings and to admit we are in pain instead of pushing it away, pretending it’s not there, or lashing out in anger. As we become mindful of our suffering, we don’t get lost in the storyline, we are not overidentified with it. And this is not only about big suffering, but any time we experience difficult emotions.
2. The second part is our sense of our common humanity: it provides the distinction between self-compassion and self-pity. It’s the idea that all human life is imperfect, that all people make mistakes, and are flawed in some way. That’s what it means to be human. We know it rationally, but when we fail or make a mistake, our immediate assumption is that something has gone wrong. And it makes us feel very isolated from others. Research shows that one of the most damaging aspects of not having self-compassion is that feeling of isolation and separation. Whereas, when we connect to the fact that suffering is shared and that we are not alone in this, it is part of our human experience, we feel connected.
3. The third part is to respond with kindness towards ourselves: when we notice we are suffering, and especially if it comes from failing in some way or feeling inadequate, instead of criticizing ourselves for our shortcomings, we have an understanding response towards ourselves, treating ourselves the same way we would treat a good friend. We feel motivated to help ourselves: we offer a soothing and comforting response, and we take right action to support and protect oneself from harm.
The physiology of self-compassion
Self-compassion and self-criticism have a very different physiology.
When we criticize ourselves, we are tapping into the body’s self-defence system, our reptilian brain or limbic system, the flight fright freeze reaction to threat. So when we fail, or make a mistake or we get rejected, or something difficult happens in our life, we react as if our lives were threatened, and we start criticizing ourselves, attacking ourselves in reaction to the threat. Self-criticism is associated with high adrenaline and cortisol release, a sign of stress.
Self-compassion taps into our caregiving system, that developed later on throughout evolution, and resides in our prefrontal cortex. When we feel self-compassion we release the hormone oxytocin and opiates that make us feel good and safe. This compassion system is triggered primarily by gentle touch and gentle vocalisation. This is why we always include some form of soothing touch or physical gesture of care and compassion, and some comforting words in a gentle, kind tone of voice during a self-compassion practice.
Self-compassion and lovingkindness practice (20 min)
Session 3, 17/8/2021 – Listening deeply
In The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield writes that “meditation is a deep listening with the body, heart and mind to find graciousness, wisdom and ease amidst all the change around us. We can invite a sense of calm and steadiness with each breath. We can become the loving awareness that is tuning into our heart and listen deeply.”
We can begin each day with loving awareness, opening our curtains and looking through the window, or stepping outside into our garden or our balcony, and tuning into the space around us, the landscape outside, the trees, the buildings, the sky…tuning in to the vastness of the space that holds all the planets and galaxies… we can breathe with the plants and the trees, with the birds and the stars… As we look outside, we can see the clouds floating in the sky, and allow our mind and heart to become the clouds and the sky, feeling them in us as well… let ourselves open and merge into space with an open heart and an open mind. The invitation is to start each day by relaxing and resting in the immensity that surrounds you, the immensity that is you, making space for everything that arises, anger, fear, boredom, joy, pleasure, pain, suffering…
When we rest in loving awareness, we shift from our sense of small contracted and fearful self to a larger sense of who we are. By relaxing deeply, we can shift from the fight, flight, freeze stress response activated in our survival brain, to a more peaceful and calm state of being, from which a wise response can be born. We gain perspective on the events in our life.
We start with pausing and quieting the mind so we can listen deeply to our body and to our heart, and feel what matters most to us. With mindfulness practice, we learn to be present for whatever is in our heart, listen deeply to ourselves and hold with tender compassion and loving awareness whatever arises. And when we have learnt to do it for ourselves we can practice the same deep listening with others.
Listening deeply (20 min)
Session 4, 24/8/2021 – Awareness of the body sensations
Mindfulness meditation is an embodied practice, an invitation to come back to our body, as a portal to presence. The body lives in the present, when we are aware of the body, we are connected to presence, to what is really happening in this moment.
But in our fast-pace screens addicted society, we tend to go through life in a state of disconnection from our bodies. The more time we spend online, the more we are looking at screens, the more dissociated we are from our bodies. We take refuge in our mental control tower.
As soon as we close our eyes to meditate, our mind starts to produce an endless stream of comments and judgments, memories and stories of the future, worries and plans.
This stream of thoughts is described as the “waterfall” in meditation teachings, because its compelling force carries us so easily away from the experience of the present moment.
All our thoughts and emotions are in fact closely connected to our physical sensations, without us being aware that this is happening.
Sensations are our most immediate way of experiencing and relating to life. When we are not aware of these bodily sensations, we tend to become caught in our mental and emotional reactions, in the stories of our mind, and we lose the connection with our true nature.
The basic meditation instructions are to be mindful of the changing stream of sensations without trying to hold on to any of them, change them or resist them. It does not mean standing apart or observing from a distance but rather directly experiencing what is happening in the body. The invitation is to let go of our picture or mental map of our body, and instead to directly enter each body part with awareness.
Initially it is quite common to find it hard to feel certain body parts. We get lost in thoughts, we leave our bodies. So we simply notice the absence of sensation, the numbness with a lot of kindness. It is important to go slowly and gently, with care and with practice we begin to notice more sensations, we ease ourselves back in, it is a relaxing back and it takes its own time.
Awareness of body sensations (24 min)
Session 5, 31/8/2021 – Walking meditation
Use the walking meditation to calm and collect yourself and to live more wakefully in your body. Practice at home first. You can then extend your mindful walking in an informal way when you go shopping, whenever you walk down the street or walk to or from your car. You can learn to enjoy walking for its own sake instead of the usual planning and thinking and, in this simple way, begin to be truly present, to bring your body, heart and mind together as your move through your life.
Walking meditation (17 min)
Session 6, 07/9/2021 – Self-Compassion practice for difficult emotions (RAIN)
Mindfulness practice invites us to feel our emotions fully and consciously, to make space for them, even the difficult ones, instead of avoiding them, pushing them down or being completely dominated by them.
We learn to bring awareness to the felt sense of what is happening to us when we are triggered, to feel our own vulnerability.
When we experience strong emotional reactivity, one practice that is particularly helpful is self-compassion and loving presence using the acronym RAIN. RAIN stands for the four steps of Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. These steps are easy to learn and can be used whenever we feel stressed, fearful, reactive and confused. Over time, they build inner resilience and trust in our own wise heart, so we can respond to life in a way that expresses our truth.
RAIN practice (20 min)
Session 7, 14/9/2021 – Gratitude Practice
Gratitude is correlated with the parts of the brain that have to do with every other positive emotion of happiness , contentment and joy. Gratitude is as a fundamental positive emotion, at the heart of all other positive emotions. It is the sense of receiving something good, appreciating the good things we have been given in life.
A number of studies have revealed the physiological and psychological benefits of positive emotions and gratitude. Studies show that positive emotions contribute to resilience, well-being and health. More specifically, positive emotions lower the blood pressure, protect the immune system against stress, and preserve long term physical health. People who have an attitude of gratitude are more optimistic, more successful, experience greater well-being, are less self-preoccupied, and have more of a sense of openness to the universe.
There are two parts to the practice of gratitude:
The first part is our training in mindfulness: seeing clearly what is here for us to enjoy, opening our senses to everything and appreciating what we have, being really present to the world around us.
The second part is to become aware of our negativity bias, and to actively practice seeing and enjoying the good in our life, this practice is called “gladdening the mind”.
We can practice formally during our meditation sitting, intentionally bringing to mind what we are grateful for in our life, and allowing ourselves to open to the feeling of gratitude, let it fill us, really feeling it in our body and in our heart. This will be our practice today.
We can also practice informally throughout our day. Whenever we have a spontaneous experience of something pleasant, something we are appreciating, something that brings up a bit of wonder or joy or care, just to pause and really notice it and appreciate it, saying thanks to it. So we get in the habit of pausing and savouring. It can be helpful to breathe with the experience for five breaths or ten breaths, long enough to create new neural pathways.
Gratitude practice (20 min)
Session 8, 5/10/2021 – Awareness of sensations
To practice awareness of body sensations , we start by finding the breath and resting in the breath for a moment, and then we expand the field of our awareness to include all the sensations in the body. As we sit there will be ease or tightness, pleasure or itching, areas of vibration, sometimes pain and all of those can be included in the meditation with the same kind of attention and respect that we developed for the breath.
We learn to allow that opening of the body, whether its pleasant or painful to happen in the same field of mindfulness, with the same open attention. The guiding principle in allowing the body to be part of the meditation is to allow what arises for you with the same quality of presence and awareness as we generated for the breath. What allows us to open is the quality of presence that we bring.
The key to how we work with what is present in the body is how we touch it or relate to it, it means bringing in the second wing of mindfulness, allowing with loving presence, asking the question “can I be with this?”. As we sit in meditation, whether we encounter tension, pain or ease, whatever energy we encounter we want to receive with this quality of kindness and openness.
The simplest way to do this is to name and acknowledge the energies that arise in the body, feeling them and giving the same attention as the breath. For example if there’s itching, feel the itching, really give it space to tingle and itch for a time, and after a while you’ll notice that it passes away.
As we pay attention to the opening of the body in meditation, it is important to let go of any expectation on how it is supposed to be. Sometimes when you pay attention to a particular sensation it will dissolve and you will feel more peaceful, sometimes it will not change, and sometimes it will get worse, the intensity of the sensation will increase as you pay attention to it.
However, we don’t want to make a struggle of our meditation. If there is something opening in our body, we give it our attention as best we can, and if it becomes a struggle, then we can just release that and come back to our breathing quite naturally. We don’t want to make the meditation something where we’re fighting against ourselves, rather simply allow ourselves to open as best we can.
Awareness of sensations (20 min)
Sessions 9 & 10 , 12/10 & 26/10/2021 – Open Awareness
In the practice of mindfulness there are two different strategies of developing our attention. One we call a directed awareness, where we use a primary object like the breath or the sensations in our body, as we’ve been doing, becoming aware of the feeling of the breath, the feeling of the body, and then becoming open to whatever other object becomes predominant, like thoughts, sounds, sensations, emotions, becoming mindful of that experience, and when that’s no longer predominant, returning to the primary object.
A second strategy of attention is called open awareness, we are simply aware of whatever arising experience is predominant, without returning to the breath each time. So we might go from a thought to a sensation to a sound, to a breath, to another sensation, to a sound, simply noting moment after moment what is arising.
It’s often helpful to begin with a more directed awareness, using the breath or the body as your primary object, and when the mind feels somewhat stable in its mindfulness begin to transition to a more open awareness, where you are noticing , noting and feeling whatever it is that is arising moment after moment. At a certain point in this practice of open awareness you may feel that you’re beginning to lose your focus.
Sometimes when we’ve been practicing open awareness for a period of time, the mind can begin to feel scattered, or getting lost in thoughts for long periods of time. At those times, it’s helpful to return to a more directed awareness, using the breath, using the body posture as a focal point for your attention, returning to those experiences after each new arising object. In this way we interweave these two strategies in our sitting practice
Directed and Open Awareness (16 min)
Open Awareness with Sounds (20 min)
Session 11 , 09/11/2021 – Smiling bodyscan and opening to life
A source of ongoing stress in our life can be our resistance to our experiences, our difficulty to accept what is happening, what Jack Kornfield calls being at war with ourselves, all our inner judgments and inner conflicts. We make war with the way things are, and this creates stress and tension inside us. We don’t stop the war by an act of will. In fact, when we struggle to change ourselves, we only continue the patterns of self-judgement and self-blame. We keep the war against ourselves alive.
Meditation practice gives us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organically, through understanding and gradual training. It helps us cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our battles. It helps us to see clearly our conditioning and habits of behaviour and talk, all our likes and dislikes, our prejudices, our hidden fears…We learn to open our heart to things as they are and to rest in the present moment, without needing to change anything to our experience.
To rest in the present moment means to experience things as they are here and now, instead of being caught up in plans, expectations, ambitions for the future and in regrets, guilts or shame about the past.
In the present we encounter whatever is here: our pain, our grief, our love, our hope, our loneliness, our boredom…We learn to face these parts of ourselves. We learn to connect to all our feelings and sensations in the moment.
This is an ongoing practice. Over and over we will notice thoughts and reactions that take us away from the present, our resistance to things the way they are, our ideas of how we would like life to be.
In our practice we can learn to open to what is here in the present, to make space for it, to see it for what it is. We practice saying “yes” to all our experiences. And when we let ourselves feel the fear, the discontent, the difficulties that we were avoiding, our heart softens. We learn to embrace our own personal griefs like our joys.
Smiling bodyscan and opening to life (20 min)
Sessions 12 &13, 16/11 & 23/11 2021 – Letting go practice
The process of letting go
In meditation circles we like to tell this story about how hunters are catching monkeys in India: they cut a hole in a coconut that is just big enough for a monkey to put its hand through. Then they will secure the coconut to the base of a tree. They slip a banana inside the coconut through the hole and hide. The monkey comes, puts his hand in, and takes hold of the banana. The hole is too small for the fist holding the banana to get out. All the monkey has to do to be free is to let go of the banana. Even as the monkey hears the humans coming and starts to panic, it holds on tightly to its prize. It seems most monkeys won’t let go.
We are like the monkeys, we find it hard to let go when we are grasping to something, and as we have started to see last week, letting go is a process, sometimes all we can do is “let be”: not trying to get rid of the experience, but softening into a state of allowing. It is what we practice with the second wing of mindfulness, allowing our experience to be whatever it is, without trying to hold on to it, push it away or change it.
This allowing is made possible when the heart is open, we bring a loving presence to our experiences, without any added judgment. When we can allow and accept what is present to us in our life, it brings a felt sense of release in the body and the mind. We make space for our experience to be here, and we actually can feel more spacious, less contracted.
It is like opening a fist, letting go of the tension of grasping. This process takes time and many rounds, and we need to cultivate patience within ourselves.
“When you stop holding on so tight – to ideas, beliefs, objects, or beings you cherish, and precious concepts of who you are – you begin to live in a way that lets you flow with life. You can meet what life brings you and respond creatively, in trust, and with generosity of heart. You discover that letting go is something you do for yourself, not to yourself. Rather, by learning the art of letting go, paradoxically, we get what we really want. We step into the contentment and ease of a relaxed mind.” – James Baraz, in Awakening Joy
Letting go practice (20 min)
Session 14 , 30/11/2021 – Letting go of thoughts with body and breath awareness
The practice of Mindfulness involves learning to return to our anchor whenever the mind wanders and you notice. When any emotions become obvious, acknowledge them with a kind attention and name them softly. When they have passed, return to your anchor. Begin to notice which feelings tend to arise most frequently and notice and name any reactions to these feelings. Hold the reactions and all that you observe spaciously, with loving awareness.
As you practice, be aware of the thoughts that arise and name them softly “thinking”, “planning”, judging”, “remembering”, “dreaming”… When you have recognised and named a thought that has arisen, return your attention to mindful presence with the breath and any sensations or emotions that arise. Become aware of any thought patterns, the issues or themes that take over your mind on a regular basis, “your top ten tunes”. If you like, you can use your journal to write down what you notice.
Letting go of thoughts (20 min)
Session 15 , 7/12/2021 – The Practice of Taking in the Good
In his book Hardwiring Happiness, the American psychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson describes the mind as a garden. When we practice being mindful, we are simply looking at the garden with its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. This first step is already very useful, but we can go further. We can decrease the negative by pulling the weeds in the garden of the mind, and increase the positive by planting more flowers.
He invites us to take a three steps approach to our experiences: let be, let go, let in. For example, when something difficult or uncomfortable happens, we can start with being with the experience, observe it and accept it for what it is even if it’s painful (recognise and allow). Second, when it feels right – it could be a matter of seconds with a familiar worry or a matter of months or years with the loss of the loved one – we can begin letting go of whatever is negative. Third, again when it feels right, after we have released some or all of what was negative, we can replace it with something positive. For example, you can remember what it’s like to be with someone who appreciates you and stay with that experience for a 10-20 seconds.
This third step is important because it allows us to grow new neural circuits in our brain. Experience-dependent neuroplasticity shows that each person has the power to change the structure of their brain for the better.
The negativity bias and the practice of taking in the good
In order to survive as a species, our ancestors had to pay particular attention to threats, dangers, and be able to remember them well and become even more sensitive to them. Consequently, the brain evolved a built-in negativity bias, so it perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive stimuli. The brain is Velcro for the negative but Teflon for the positive.
The best way to compensate for the negativity bias and build our inner strengths is to regularly take in the good. The practice of taking in the good is a systematic approach that allows us to deliberately internalise our positive experiences into implicit memory, so that they can start to have an impact on neural structure in our brain.
The first step is to have a positive experience: It involves noticing a positive experience that is already present or creating one for yourself. For example, you could think about things for which you feel grateful, bring to mind a friend, recognise an accomplishment… It is important to pay attention on how it makes you feel in your body, so it is more than positive thinking.
The second step is to enrich it, which means stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds, open to the feelings in it, sense it in your body, let it fill you, enjoy it, encourage it to be more intense if you can. Recognise how it nourishes you and makes a difference in your life.
The third step is to absorb it, set the intention for this experience to sink into you, sense how it really lands in your mind. You might use visualisation for this, for example placing it like a jewel into your heart. Know that it is becoming part of you.
The idea is to make this a habit, as the brain is like a muscle, and gets stronger the more you exercise it. By taking in the good regularly throughout the day, it will become automatic, and you will be weaving good experiences into your brain.
How does it work in your day-to-day life ?
- Appreciate the little things in your life: your friends, your family, your pets, a good meal in good company, the kindness of a by-passer….
- Make time every day to savour positive experiences, for example when you wake up in the morning or before going to sleep
- Make sure you enjoy positive experiences as they happen, noticing them, noticing how they feel in your body, making them last