Meditation

The Eight Week Course is coming.

This was a public lecture Alistair gave to the Norwich Interfaith at the Octogon Chapel, 21st November 2012 on the subject of sexuality and spirituality.

There's a list of behaviours guaranteed to piss off your friends after you come back from a retreat. Being preachy is probably right at the top of it.

Last weekend we held a new workshop at Spa Road on the subject of Anxiety.

Running new courses is quite an anxiety-provoking task, so I was a little nervous when I met all the participants for the first time. But we were in the warm and gilded splendour of the Bermondsey Shrine room with its massive coloured Buddha beaming down on us, so I felt like we were working in a positive field of energy.

Anxiety is a ubiquitous human experience. As far as we know animals don't experience it because animals don't have an on-going sense of existence-through-time. It seems human beings are the only ones who have the capability to imagine ourselves in the past and the future. This is, of course, the most amazing thing. It allows us to plan ahead and build St. Paul's Cathedral and it allows us to think back and remember the beauty of the Renaissance. However, the sense of time has its down sides.

Animals seem to exist in a state of present moment awareness. They don't as far as we know, have a sense that in the future they will die. They live for the moment. Humans, in contrast, have the ability to project that fatal and terminal event, death, quite vividly. We also are able to plan to avoid it. And we remember the events of the past equally vividly.

This ability to imagine the past and the future and make assumptions about the present has profound consequences for us when we think about anxiety.

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 a 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……..

A friend of mine sent a wonderful article on the silence in a Trappist monastery.

Another weekend at the coal face of mindfulness.

That makes it sound hard, dirty work, which it wasn't. Infact Kim and Dylan showered us with culinary plenty (Sri Lankan Butternut Squash curry anyone?) and the water-meadow-flooding rain made everything in the Abbey gardens intensely green. We did have windows of sunshine too, which allowed us to wander/wonder at those incredible trees they have there: the most beautiful London Plane, cascading down those jig-jag branches heavy with doe-skin brown leaves and that massive beech with its bolus-bulging trunk and copper-green buds.

It was, however, a fruitful weekend in my thinking around mindfulness - which is ever-evolving.

I'm deep in the middle of a research project for my therapy training about the fascinating subject of dissocation and how it impacts our mindfulness.

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”?

George Monbiot makes an interesting statement in this morning’s Guardian. He points out that there is a myth: that the people at the top of corporations are financial geniuses who got their wealth by merit of their brilliant minds and hard work. This myth is false, he says. It is a self-attribution fallacy, a myth of election. Not only do these people not have superhuman talents but:

they have preyed on the earth's natural wealth and their workers' labour and creativity, impoverishing both people and planet. Now they have almost bankrupted us. The wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are some of the most effective wealth destroyers the world has ever seen.

I agree with Monbiot’s politics and I too believe that the unbridled greed of unregulated capitalism has put psychopathy in the driving seat of our culture with disasterous results.

But as I was running around Shoreditch park trying to shake of a turn-of-the-season cold, I was also reflecting on another myth-busting shift that is happening. It’s more subtle and slow-moving than the dynamic Occupy movements that are springing up all over the globe, but it is I believe complementary and phenomenally powerful.