Ways to Wisdom Retreat

Online retreat – Tuesday 28th December to Saturday 1st January

After many years of leading “Uncontrived Mindfulness” retreats, I’m excited to be offering a retreat specifically aimed at people who have already been on retreat with me, to help them take their practice of this method deeper.

So this online retreat is for anyone who has previously participated in a week or more of retreat with me.  It will be led by myself with support from Vajrapriya.

While continuing to emphasise a receptive and broad ‘seeing’ of whatever arises in our experience, the retreat will have a special focus on how  wisdom can be developed: both by recognising moments of clear seeing, and by learning to recognise how ‘moha’ (delusion) manifests – this recognition is itself a moment of wisdom.

Running from Tuesday 28th December with a 10.30 am start to Saturday 1st January, ending 9pm, come and spend the quiet and wintry time before New Year meditating and investigating the nature of your mind. The invitation is to really give yourself the time and space to be on retreat, so that awareness can grow and support a deeper seeing into the mind.

A limited number of review slots will be available.

The retreat is on a dana basis.

It will consist of 4 sessions a day (times in GMT):

7.30-8.15am (from Wednesday) Unguided meditation
10.30-12.30 Input and meditation
5-6pm  Input and meditation
8-9pm Unguided meditation and ritual

On the first and last day there will be an extra session with check-in groups from 4- 4.45pm. Here you have the opportunity to share something of your current meditation practice and meet some others on the retreat.

Once booked you should receive a simple email confirmation from Google. We will be in touch one week before the start of the retreat with more information.
Please use the Contact form if you have further questions at this point.

Just what is Uncontrived Mindfulness?

This is one of the questions I get asked most frequently these days. This happens especially in the book launch sessions I’ve been leading, mainly on zoom, since ‘Uncontrived Mindfulness: ending suffering through attention, curiosity, and wisdom’, was published at the end of March 2021.

The question is usually followed by ‘if there is uncontrived mindfulness does this mean that there is also such a thing as contrived mindfulness’?

And, yes, I think there is. So, I want to tell you what I tend to say on those occasions when I talk about contrived and uncontrived mindfulness.

Most of us already know what contrived mindfulness can feel like, especially in the early stages of our practice. It can happen when we’re trying a bit too hard, we’re being a bit forceful and the mind – and often the body too – become tense. Over time we can create a loop where we get frustrated at not being able to ‘do’ mindfulness and this brings about more tension and ‘trying’. What we are calling mindfulness feels a strain and not very pleasurable at all!

This is clearly where our ‘contriving’, or in other words, our trying to make something happen, is unhelpful although it can be a useful experience to know what mindfulness isn’t! But I think contriving can also be a part of wholesome mindfulness where we gently and persistently set up the conditions for mindfulness to come into being in a much more natural way. In this way ‘contriving’ relates to encouraging and cultivating mindfulness. We strengthen our intention to be aware through reminding ourselves, in the present moment, and through remembering to be aware. Gradually more moments of mindfulness string together, on and off the cushion. We start to build momentum in the practice.

Momentum gives rise to mindfulness that has a different feel and flavour to what has gone before. There is no need to actively (even in a receptive way) cultivate mindfulness. It’s like riding a bicycle – when you start out you have to keep peddling or you’ll stop and perhaps fall off! However, once you’ve got going you don’t need to peddle much at all, just the occasional push will keep you going.

With uncontrived mindfulness it is like the awareness is happening on its own. There is a sense of flow and ease. No contriving is necessary at this stage of the practice. We just have to get out of our own way as the mind is naturally aware and knowing what is happening. There is no need for personal effort as the qualities of mindfulness and some clear seeing have become strong in the mind – in a similar way to a muscle becoming strong through repetition of a certain exercise.

When mindfulness is uncontrived, we can lose the feeling that there is someone solid and whole who is doing the practice. We lose what we can call the feeling of me. And in its place can be a felt understanding that there isn’t anyone thinking, directing, or controlling experience. This understanding includes the sense that everything – including awareness – is simply happening on its own terms.

 When mindfulness and wisdom are cultivated, they are what predominate in the mind. When greed or anger or disappointment are cultivated (through dwelling and proliferating on them) they are what become strong forces in the mind. The difference is that when awareness and wisdom are cultivated, they are capable of understanding how the mind really works, whereas craving and co. will only reinforce the delusion of a separate self.

Other words for uncontrived are ‘uncultivated’, ‘unconstructed’ or ‘unfabricated’ are used in different Buddhist traditions and these are commonly found in translations. But it was only recently I was directed to a translation where ‘uncontrived’ was used instead. The hermit yogi Milarepa repeating in the last line of one of his songs, ‘the uncontrived mind is so blissful indeed!’

If you would like to dive into exploring the bliss of the uncontrived mind, check out the online retreat, I’m running for Order Members & Mitras from 25th September to 1st October .

Believing the Impossible

Something that has been a defining part of my psyche and that I have worked with quite a bit in my practice is doubt. Particularly self-doubt. I know I’m not alone as most of us, at some point, if not many points in our lives, experience self-doubt. It’s not for nothing that the Buddha named doubt as one of the first three ‘fetters’ which when seen through and ‘broken’ mean significant progress on the spiritual path. Doubt is a powerful and deep force in the mind and can be painful to experience.

Self-doubt can make us feel uncertain about our choices or lacking in confidence. It can make me doubt the words I put on these pages, question whether I’m saying anything of relevance or even if my words make sense. Whatever evidence there is to the contrary, doubt is that little undermining voice, that squirmy unsettling feeling. It might just appear once in a while or seem to be ever present. It can hold us back from action in an endless round of second guessing ourselves.

A few months ago, I came across a podcast series from the BBC called ‘How They Made Us Doubt’. Maybe some of you listened to the dozen or so episodes? I listened while I cooked lunch, so the recordings didn’t have my fullest attention, but enough get a clear sense of the damage done through the deliberate introduction of doubt into public discourse.

There were two main targets: firstly, from the 1950’s onwards around the effects of smoking on our health, and in more recent decades, focusing on human made climate change. The podcasts showed evidence of a documented and deliberate policy of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to seed enough doubt to sew confusion about the harms done despite overwhelming scientific research to the contrary.

I find this manipulation of information in the world we live in mirrored by the way doubt or self-doubt works in our minds and affects our views, opinions, and choices. Doubt is insidious, it promotes an alternate and distorted perspective. It plays on ‘what if?’, and ‘how can I be absolutely sure?’ Doubt plays a game of smokes and mirrors leaving confusion and paralysis in its wake. It creates an equal playing field by giving a platform to the almost impossible – and in the process making it seem entirely possible.

We can see doubt working in our own minds like any other mental ‘object’; it needs observing, feeling into, and to be seen for what it is. But this is easier said than done as it is such a slippery, amorphous mind state. I find a number of things help once doubt has been identified in our experience.

  1. Check if you’re identified with it. Are we believing what doubt is saying about us, or about a situation? Recognising the identification and the belief that it is true will help release its grip, enabling us to see it more clearly.
  2. Seeing through the view that we have to take doubt’s perspective into account. (We all know now that smoking is bad for us!)
  3. Treating it like ’Mara’, a mischief making, undermining voice that we can safely ignore. (I’ll keep writing despite its whisperings!)
  4. Remembering that the Buddha experienced doubt right until on the point of Enlightenment. It’s not a mistake or failure to experience it.

We can remember too that in Buddhism doubt is not all bad, with sayings such as ‘the bigger the doubt the bigger the Buddha,’ or ‘great doubt, great awakening’. These aphorisms are talking about the potential of doubt; that searching questioning quality of mind that doesn’t close down options prematurely.

Our job is to feel into and distinguish between doubt that is helpful to the path, and doubt that leads to more suffering.

The Myth of my Life

I’m currently in the midst of a whole stream of book launches, following the publication of Uncontrived Mindfulness on 31st March this year. The most recent was Glasgow, where I was introduced by a friend I met in my first year as a practicing Buddhist. We lived and worked together in a Buddhist community and ‘right livelihood’ business when I was 24 and she was 22. She introduced me as a ‘friend for life’ – a bit like a book for life – but a living, breathing and sharing version! I was very touched; a friend for life is such a gift and having someone in my life who has known me for almost two thirds of it and shared the whole of our dharma lives, is a precious thing.

One of the many benefits of such a friendship is knowing another human being really well and also being known really well in return. In the ten minutes she spoke introducing me on zoom she shared a recollection of me, which she linked to the subject nature of my book.

Thirty-five years ago, we shared a house in London, practicing a Buddhist life with others. At the bottom of our small garden ran a train line heading towards Liverpool Street Station, one of the major transport hubs of east London. A train rumbled, screeched, or clanked past our house on average every three minutes. Each time my bedroom, which overlooked the garden, vibrated! My friend remembered me saying to her that I could tell the state of my mind by how I reacted to the trains – whether there was frustration or annoyance at being disturbed by the ‘noise’ or was there a simpler registering of what was happening as part of the landscape of the moment.

What she was pointing out was that all those years ago I was already ‘watching my mind’ and was curious about what I found out. Working with the mind in this way seemed almost to come naturally as a way of practice, and it is this strand in particular that I’ve followed through my practice within the Triratna Buddhist Community and emphasised through deep learning with Sayadaw U Tejaniya. Even though I had only been practicing for a matter of months and knew very little about the Dharma, my friend’s recollection (which I don’t recall at all!) showed a pattern linking that moment and many others over the years which resulted in my being there in Glasgow to launch my book.

Sangharakshita wrote about patterns – in life and in practice – and he related this to the quality of sampajanna. Usually, we take sampajanna to be about continuity of purpose, where we check in with to see if what we are doing is in line with our overall spiritual direction. A bit like checking a compass to make sure we’re still heading in the direction we want to go.

  Sangharakshita suggested that if we were to look back over our lives, and particularly our time as practitioners, we would see this ‘continuity of purpose ‘playing itself out. He says “it might seem uncannily as though your life has a direction of its own, independent of your conscious volition… as if there was a goal implicit in everything you did, with the goal gradually becoming clearer over time”

Once, in conversation with Sangharakshita, he asked me if I saw a connection between the figure I visualised in my meditation practice, and satipatthana mindfulness practice. Immediately I said I did. He seemed unsurprised. Yes, he said, we each have a doorway or gateway to Awakening, and whatever practices we do are expressions of that aspiration. Be it the gateway of ‘beauty’ or ‘wisdom’, or – in my case – ‘truth’, it doesn’t really matter; they are all different paths to the same spiritual goal.

Another way of looking at this is as a life’s myth within us which is just waiting to unfold. Perhaps there is something in us needing even just slightly favourable conditions to enable it to grow and strengthen. And when we look back at our lives this trend can be discernible, even manifesting within us children, expressed through our interests, or the superheroes we loved. It is what has made us who we are. The psychologist James Hillman called this patterning a ‘master current’ running through our lives. A thread of meaning, of value, or of love – we’ll have our own ‘flavour’ to this current running through us.

I sometimes lead a meditation connecting with the master current of what is deepest and most creative within us. The current is not static and can ebb and flow through different time frames and inner landscapes. Sometimes it’s a small stream that occasionally dries up or even disappears though it’s never completely dormant. At other times, the current of goodness, or truth or awareness swells to a vast river pulsing and alive. It carries our intention to practice.

Can you look back on your life and discern the current of it? Or have a sense of being oriented to a particular quality? – the gateway you’re continually stepping through that will take you to Awakening.

Here’s a link to the Master current meditation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ox5x6J7tZMc

Uncontrived Mindfulness – publication day!

Well today is finally the day when my first book is published. I celebrated with a bike ride on a beautiful day in the Shropshire hills and countryside.

I was thinking while riding in the sunshine, that a book is a bit like a village! You know the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and I think birthing a book is the same. So many people contribute over a long period of time. Starting with my English teachers at school (one memorable essay/story about the end of the world because the sun was dying) and my sisters to whom I’d tell stories I’d made up. And my Mum who read voraciously and passed on her enthusiasm.

And along the way, the readers, the encouragement and feedback offered. Short stories, detective stories, ideas still hiding in the back of my mind for a children’s story (some of you will remember ‘Truffle Pup’!) set in the mountains of Aragon. And a solitary retreat where a complex ‘dharma fiction’ idea was born and is yet to be nursed into a reality.

Finally to this book, to the friend who suggested that my retreat leading material was a natural structure for a book. And another good friend (who became my editor) who said ‘well, writers write!’ to my failure to get on with the actual job of writing, providing me with the impetus to come home from that meeting and set myself a writing timetable.

To the Trustees at Windhorse Publications who thought the initial chapters showed promise. And the team at WP who have been consistently patient and helpful with my inexperience about all aspects of the process of how a book comes into being.

To those (including some of you) who I know sponsored the book, making it more likely it would make it to publication. It’s here!

What comes now are a series of book launches on zoom. These will be associated with various Triratna Centres across the UK and Europe, and then spreading further in accord with later publication dates. With the link below you can find out if I’m going to be speaking anywhere near you, you can purchase the book or ebook, and you can watch a little video with me and Dhammamegha, the director of Windhorse Publications talking about the book.

Prioritizing the Mind of Ease

The past few months have felt like surround sound psycho education, an immersion in a new perspective, becoming increasingly familiar with it. This is enabling an increased sensitivity to my internal experience and how to track it, while mastering the concepts and vocabulary from a range of different disciplines and practises. These include Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and an online training in Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness. ‘Psycho education’ is important in understanding something of the way the brain and nervous system function, and how these subtle physical processes can be interrupted and knocked off track very easily into fight, flight and freeze.

Recently I was trying to describe the relationship between what I was learning and my dharma framework. I said I had a whole map of the mind that I worked with awareness and wisdom practice, but there were a couple of countries I visited regularly within the globe where I didn’t speak the language or know the customs. This articulated something of the experience of being with very familiar painful states of mind and body but not understanding how they kept arising and persisting year after year however I practiced with them.

It’s been helpful too, to see some connections between meditation, especially the receptive practice I’m trained in, and more psychophysical approaches.

One of the features of trauma sensitive mindfulness is that we are always ‘in choice’. This is because some of the traditional focuses of meditation practice – on the breath or the body – can be very triggering if you’ve experienced certain kinds of trauma. So, it is important that you have options and can chose a focus that really does conduce to relaxation and stability of mind rather than its opposite. I’ll describe a couple of different areas where we can be ‘in choice’.

Usually, a meditation teacher would lead a practice with a specific focus such as the breath, or a body scan where you pay attention to each part of the body as it’s named by the leader. But in TSM you would always offer more than one option as to where someone might focus their attention. Typically, this might include the breath, or a neutral part of the body like sensations in your hands, or perhaps sounds in the environment around you.

Uncontrived Mindfulness, and the receptive approach that I learned from Sayadaw U Tejaniya doesn’t specify any single or particular ‘object’ to rest the attention with. The object is seen as quite unimportant, irrelevant even; the only ‘job’ of the breath or sound or body sensation is to support awareness becoming more continuous. So, the focus will often be quite momentary and light moving to different aspects of experience but with a continuity of mindfulness. So receptive practice is – in this way – very compatible with trauma sensitive meditation.

Another way choice and flexibility is encouraged is through the posture we take up. If there is an over-emphasis on sitting (either on the floor or in a chair) and, in particular, sitting very still, we can end up overriding instincts that are trying to keep body and mind feeling safe and the nervous system at ease. Being able to observe very subtle emotional tensions and make mental and physical adjustments can help avoid further tension and rigidity, bringing about some equilibrium.

It’s made me realise how even though Sayadaw U Tejaniya in Burma has studied very little outside of his own monastic tradition, he could recognise a ‘dharma casualty’ at 50 paces! That’s a flippant way of saying he has learned and now instinctively knows what’s helpful for a mind to practice well. Such things as relaxation, flexibility and self-trust all feature strongly in the approach he has developed from his own teacher.

Sometimes, in our desire to push through, to ‘get somewhere’ in practice, we try and keep to the rules to race to our goal. Instead, with more sensitivity, though we might feel we’re letting ourselves off the hook, think of the long game. We’re setting up conditions that support relaxation and presence. Whether we do that lying down or moving a bit in meditation is beside the point. We learn to judge for ourselves what a helpful quality of mind in and out of meditation feels like. Once we’ve connected with how to bring those conditions into being, we’ll be able to do so more and more often until it becomes second nature.

Worth taking a little time over don’t you think?

Some questions and answers from a recent retreat.

Just a few of the questions from the Beautiful Mind retreat held online over New Year 2020.

Could you sum up, if possible, in three main points what you’d like us to take away from the retreat to help us deepen our practice of mindfulness.

My rather active mind kept coming up with different groupings of 3 main points. There were these three points but then there were also these three points but in the end I settled on these three!

  1. The importance of recognising that we can be aware of anything and at anytime. That awareness is always available, if we remember. In a sense this is already more than one point. We can be aware of anything – and awareness is always available. And, part of the same point, is that mindfulness always has an effect on the quality of the mind.  
  2. The second of the three points is to remember to ‘settle back’. If you like, we’re remembering the quality of energy, the quality of effort to use, to settle into being aware. It’s a very simple idea but I think it has quite a big effect. We relax into the present moment, and we relax into awareness.
  3. And then the third thing is Right View. Just checking in with ourselves: how am I relating to experience? And there not being a right answer to this, we’re checking to see where the mind is coming from, what is its point of view? Is the mind relating to what’s happening with this quite strong personal sense? Or is there a lessening of that subjectivity and more objectivity? Right View is always encouraging us to train the ‘dharma lens’, the wisdom perspective – and strengthening that. We learn a particular application of the dharma perspective from this practice but of course we already have a lot of dharma knowledge from our broader practice and our study of the dharma. So in the meditation it’s really just accessing that Right View on a moment to moment basis. We’re recognising the lens through which we’re seeing what’s happening.

Can you say something about the relevance of this practice to our broader training within Triratna, especially Ordination training?

Sangharakshita talked of us needing to ‘watch our minds’ and that’s always useful, referencing back to awareness, referencing back to the importance of mindfulness. And perhaps particularly in daily life practice, we can ask “what is the mind knowing?”. What is the mind knowing? Within a communication with someone or sitting down to eat or answering an email. We can know what the attitude in the mind is towards what’s happening. So all those sort of activities can be known with broader mindfulness.

Again, with spiritual receptivity in relation to the quality of effort or energy used, seeing when we’re using more energy than is needed or is helpful. Being able to settle back. It’s important for all of us within our practice to have an element of ‘Just Sitting’ or more formless practice. And while this Satipatthana practice we’ve been doing is more of a ‘just sitting with bells on’ – that’s sometimes how I describe it, there is a need to balance activity and conceptual understanding, it’s essential also to have an element of receptivity from just sitting type practice.

There are many other relevant area,s but I’ll leave it with these two for now. One useful document is some new guidelines for Ordination training that talk about the need to have ways of working with difficult mental states that arise, and the practice of ‘staying with’ without buying into the emotional state and without supressing it is very useful.

A few days ago, you talked about awareness being impartial, while also having some understanding of what does or does not lead to suffering. You said if you allow what’s arising to arise, at some point, when there’s enough awareness, it will say ‘you don’t need to go there’.

The question is – can awareness lead to skilful mental states spontaneously without going through a choosing process?

This is actually a very big question, because it brings in the whole area of ‘choosing’ and deciding. It brings in the whole area of volition, and to what extent we ever choose or decide. And if what we take to be ‘me’ or ‘myself’ choosing or deciding, if, as the Buddha says, there is a big question mark over that then what is choosing, who is choosing or deciding.

There are different models of mind within the Buddhist tradition and we’ve been working within one on this retreat. Subhuti in his book ‘Mind in Harmony’ and Sangharakshita in ‘Know Your Mind’ are using a very similar model – that of mental factors. Volition, or we could say intention, or that move to action or samskaras or mental formations – whichever word we use – we mostly act through our habitual behaviours. What we think of as our choices are often more inevitable than we might think. Because they’re made on the basis of certain mental factors working in the mind, and they’ve been working in different formations, they line up in different faculties in the mind, in the moment.

We have energy behind our habits and choices, we have volitional energy behind our habits. We also have the present moment, and to the extent we can be aware in the present moment we can influence what happens. It’s often what’s talked about in a slightly different way as the point of freedom, or ‘the gap’.

I almost see it as if you’ve got these little characters in any given moment. You’ve got the character of ‘little greed’ manifesting in the moment, or you’ve got ‘little frustration’ or ‘little aversion’ and you’ve got lots of these characters including ones like a certain amount of calm. And like with the 5 spiritual faculties we’ve been working with and with mindfulness, if it’s present, we have some sense of what is happening with all these characters. So mindfulness is quite influential in the present moment.

So, to relate all this to the question – can mindfulness lead to skilful states spontaneously without going through a choosing process? Well mindfulness is a skilful mental state, so if it’s present, it will have some influence on the moment, but it also depends quite a lot on those historical, habitual mental factors and which of those are also present. Perhaps in the moment in question if you’ve been meditating for a while or you’ve been on retreat, you can feel you’re in a positive mental state, well, there will be a lot of positive mental factors in the mind in that moment. There are skilful factors, including awareness itself which is a skilful mental factor. The presence of awareness leads to the encouraging and prioritizing of those skilful factors in the mind, and takes the mind in a more positive direction without going through a conceptual ‘choosing’ process. Because the orientation of your being in that moment is supported by a preponderance of positive qualities this is influencing whatever decision is made.

As I said, this area of intention is a big one and on a longer retreat, probably an in-person retreat we would address intention more fully and practice with it. The more awareness we have the more, the more kalyana, beautiful qualities of mind the more ‘choice’ we have over following a direction that is in-line with our values.

A Beautiful Mind

I’m turning my mind to a retreat I’m running soon over New Year for Order Members and Mitras. Some of you reading have already booked for it and I look forward to seeing you in the zoom space. The theme is Uncontrived Mindfulness: a beautiful mind.

You may well have different responses to the idea of a beautiful mind. Qualities of the beautiful (kalyana is the word in Pali) mind are often associated with positive emotions such as kindness, compassion, and generosity. It sounds inspiring, and delightful to have a quality of mind that is enjoyable and pleasurable to experience, and beneficial to others to be around.

But you might respond by feeling a bit daunted or put off because you know that the quality of your own mind is often far from the ‘ideal’. That’s all very well, you might think, but what about all the times when I feel grumpy or depressed or struggling to get through all I’ve got to do. What about the times when I’d just prefer to go shopping or eat pizza?

It’s natural that we all have times when the mood is low or we feel unmotivated to practice, and it is easy to think with this type of mind that we can’t practice or feel doubtful or despondent about our own ability to change and grow spiritually. We might think we just have to try harder, to make more effort, and turn the mind state around to something more ‘positive’. While it is natural at times to feel doubt, aversion, or a lack of motivation, using our will to try and change what is happening is not always helpful and can sometimes lead to tension and frustration.

There are lots of qualities of the beautiful mind that are not obviously altruistic or happy.  What the beautiful mind qualities have in common is that they are all ethically skilful. And because of this, they reduce suffering in our experience. The particular qualities we’ll be exploring on the retreat are from a Buddhist ‘list’ known as the 5 Spiritual Faculties and in their own distinct ways they all benefit us whenever we experience them. They are faith, energy, wisdom, concentration/stability, and the central factor, within the mandala of the 5 faculties, mindfulness.

There is much I could say – and will say on the retreat – about each faculty, but for now I simply want to address the conundrum of having an ideal of a ‘beautiful mind’ with, at times, the reality of a distinctly unbeautiful mood. If we are to avoid polarising with ourselves into spiritually acceptable or unacceptable parts we need to think in a skilful way about our practice. By thinking in a way that is in accord with the Dharma we no longer need to reject what we don’t like or over-identify with the parts we think are positive and good.

We can use the five spiritual faculties working together to do this, but for now, I want to bring in just one way in which mindfulness forms part of that helpful perspective on the broad range of our experience. With mindfulness we are cultivating a quality of mind that is spacious and at ease with whatever it observes. Some part of the mind is always ‘knowing’ or observing what is happening. If we can get curious about that part of the mind, we allow it to grow and become stronger. We ‘grow’ a skilful awareness that recognises a disgruntled mind, a self-pitying mind, or an over-intoxicated mind but without indulging in it or opposing it.

When we give more attention to the quality of mindfulness, we are less interested in the ‘objects’ of experience, than with the mind that is knowing what is happening. Mindfulness recognises unskilful or unhappy mind states for what they are, without judging, and uses them as simply more experiences that can be known in awareness. The knowing of each experience is like using a mindfulness muscle that becomes stronger and more flexible with each new object. Whether the object is a neutral one like the breath, or a more obviously pleasant or unpleasant one matters not a jot to awareness. Any object does the job of helping grow mindfulness.

On the retreat we’ll look more at how the other spiritual faculties of faith, energy, wisdom, and stability support mindfulness to ever greater freedom. And there is a freedom when we’re released  from the tyranny of always having to have ‘good’ or ‘pleasant’ experiences and can fully appreciate that we can have difficult and unpleasant moods and mind states without the need to get rid of them.

You can find more about the practicalities of the retreat on the info page – here

Uncontrived Mindfulness : a beautiful mind.

An online meditation retreat for Order Members & Mitras.

From Monday 28th December at 7.30 pm to Sunday 3rd January ending 9pm.

Awareness and Wisdom are both qualities of the mind that is beautiful, clear-seeing and free. These and other qualities of the ‘kalyana’, or ‘ethically lovely’ mind will be explored on this meditation retreat through the lens of the Satipatthana Sutta, and the five Spiritual Faculties.

We will encourage a receptive, open awareness and work with right view, to cultivate both beauty and truth, allowing the whole range of our experience to be known as it is.

The retreat will consist of 3 sessions a day: 10.30-12.30, 5-6pm & 8-9pm GMT. The main input sessions (morning and afternoon) will be recorded and posted daily in case you have to miss one, or the time zones don’t work for you, of if you want to re-listen to a session.

Please feel free to engage with the retreat with the flexibility you need if you have other responsibilities to attend to or health needs.

I really enjoyed the last retreat, and this one will have the added bonus of bringing in the New Year. After a sobering 2020 we’ll have the chance to sit on New Years Eve together, in warm, spacious awareness with Vajrasattva.

The retreat is running on a Dana basis, and there will be an opportunity to offer dana during the retreat.

Book here

Once booked you should receive a simple email confirmation from Google. We will be in touch a couple of weeks before the start of the retreat with more information.

When Mindfulness isn’t enough

I have a tremendous amount of faith in awareness as a way to wisdom but that doesn’t mean that sometimes other approaches are helpful or even essential on the path. Sometimes what’s needed is found outside the Buddhist tradition. I’ve been exploring some ideas and recent research, that say that mindfulness is helpful for a lot of people but not necessarily so if you’ve experienced trauma. Or at least, the mindfulness practice may need to be tailored in such a way that takes into account how the body and mind of someone affected by trauma might react. Such approaches are known as ‘trauma sensitive’ mindfulness, or ‘trauma informed’ mindfulness.

Most of us probably think of trauma as the big life threatening one offs like a violent assault or a car accident. Or sustained physical or sexual abuse as a child. But trauma has been redefined in recent years in two important ways.

 Firstly, the term is used as applying to the body-mind system that regularly feels overwhelmed by some aspect of their life, after the traumatic event. It is less about what has happened than how the individual mind-body system responds to what has happened. In her book ‘Widen the Window’ Elizabeth Stanley uses the example that if a dozen marines go into a combat situation, there will be a dozen different responses to what they’ve experienced once they’ve returned home. Some may go on to develop PTSD or depression, and others will not. She says this is not about who is a stronger person or better able to ‘cope’ but is down to involuntary responses coded into the nervous system from earlier life experiences.

Secondly the definition of trauma has broadened to include ‘relational’ and ‘developmental’ trauma.  Developmental trauma is often experienced as more chronic ‘micro’ events in childhood. A recent massive study looked at the effects of ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ on adults ‘being frequently sworn at, insulted or put down, pushed, slapped, grabbed, injuries causing marks or being touched in a sexual way’. When these things happen to us as children the study found the traumatic effects often continue to affect us in adulthood. Between adults, ‘relational’ trauma manifests when coercive, violent, or controlling behaviours are present within a sexual relationship.

Because of the involuntary and ongoing nature of these physical (heart racing, sweating, ‘awful’ bodily feelings) and emotional (compulsive mental ‘stories’ and feelings of threat and unsafety) feelings, meditation by itself might not be enough, and in some cases, can make things worse. In meditation we are often focusing inwards and this can heighten ‘symptoms’ such as negative thoughts, frightening memories, and unpleasant body sensations, leading to re-traumatizing. We’ve known for many years that meditating while clinically depressed is not advised, because it can cause a vicious spiral of increased painful rumination on difficult thoughts and feelings, and it now seems that a similar mechanism is at work with trauma, through the nervous system.

If you find that meditation or mindfulness (which is where most of the research has been carried out) leaves you feeling worse off than when you started, stimulates a lot of negative self-talk, or you  feel somewhat numb and frozen after meditation, or if meditating regularly leaves you feeling tense or ‘out of your body’, pause. It’s not necessarily a bad technique or that you are doing it wrong. Or that you just have to try harder or for longer to get it ‘right’. It might just be that you need something more tailored to the needs of a dysregulated nervous system to help it settle into a regulated state.

This is where somatic based approaches such as Somatic Experiencing come into their own. They are able to work directly with the nervous system in the body (bottom up) rather than the ‘top down’ approaches of most therapies using the rational mind. And somatic approaches work well in conjunction with awareness cultivated through mindfulness practice. Trauma informed and trauma sensitive mindfulness is not about being more cautious or careful about how you use mindfulness, but about having more information. You can use the gentle curiosity of a receptive mindfulness to assess how your practice is going, looking honestly at what is or isn’t helping. And then it may be useful to look at simple exercises from SE, Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness (https://davidtreleaven.com/) or MMFT (Mindfulness for Mind Fitness) that work directly with orienting the nervous system to a bodily experience of safety that we might consciously not have known we were missing.

It made a big difference to me to understand that the nervous system, once dysregulated (which can happen to anyone), usually cannot find its own way to equilibrium without help. It takes away a lot of the judgement or feelings of failure or ‘not good enough’ in relation to practice. Once we understand how to bring the body and mind into regulation, we regain the initiative in our meditation. Practice begins to bring more fruits rather than struggle, and a feeling of potency and possibility.

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