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Category: Mindfulness & Buddhism

Implicit vs Explicit Ethics in Mindfulness Teaching

A few weeks back I wrote the blog post Is Secular Mindfulness Shoehorning in the “Other” Seven? in which I bemoaned the fact that secular mindfulness courses included most of the parts of the Buddhist Eight Fold path but only claimed to include one of them.

Last week BBC Radio 4 – Beyond Belief was on Mindfulness. In the programme Ernie Rea lead a discussion with Christopher Titmus co-founder of Gaia House,  Chris Cullen from Oxford Mindfulness and Rebecca Crane from Bangor Mindfulness Centre. This was a very good programme. Well balanced and thoughtful. I recommend listening on the link above if you haven’t heard it already.

Is Secular Mindfulness Shoehorning in the “Other” Seven?

2014-05-14 18.07.41I went to a set of evening lectures at the University of Edinburgh last week called “Mindfulness for Depression: Theory and Practice”. It was a really good evening as an introduction to the subject.  Prof. Stephen Lawrie presented an overview of depression and what a bad thing it was both to the individual and to society as a whole. Dr David Gillanders presented Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) as an example of a modern therapy that uses mindfulness and Prof Stewart Mercer presented on what mindfulness was and where it came from. Before the questions we had a few minutes of mindfulness practice very well lead by Stewart. The room of several hundred people fell totally silent. It was powerful stuff.

Living as an Embedded Buddhist

DSC_7998When I first heard of Engaged Buddhism I made a common mistake. I presumed it was all campaigns and demonstrations. I didn’t think it was for me. I’d been on a few demos and sat on some committees but they all felt far too confrontational for my newly developed sensibilities. Now I had a family and a job as well as the practice. If I was going to become a social activist it would have to wait a decade or two. Maybe when the kids have left home or in that period between my eventual retirement and the crematorium.

My dismissal of Engaged Buddhism didn’t sit comfortably. The vow to share the fruits of the way with all beings was becoming increasingly heart felt. In a moment of frustration I said silently “I’m more of an Embedded Buddhist than an Engaged Buddhist.” It was like hitting the right combination on a safe. There was a click and the door swung open.

Practicing Back To Front

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As with many of the best things I can’t remember how I stumbled on it but a few weeks ago I came across a TED talk by Simon Sinek called “How great leaders inspire action“. I was so impressed with this simple idea that I went on to buy Simon’s book “Start With Why“. The idea is so simple that I don’t think it stretches all the way to a book though. I can state it here in just a few lines along with Simon’s golden circle diagram and you can watch the video below.

Mindful Portrait Photography – A Manifesto

FaithI would like to reconnect with my photography but I would like to do it in a way that is informed by my Buddhist practice and that becomes part of that practice. This topic has been in the back of my mind for some time but has now crystallized into this manifesto for action. A manifesto that I hope will also be of  value to non-Buddhist photographers looking for direction.

Key to my practice is the notion of Right View or “inter-being” as it is formulated by Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh. We inter-are with each other and everything else; from the most distant star to the flea on the cat. Suffering is born of denying this truth. Joy comes from embracing it.

It seems easy to accept we are made of star dust but tough to admit our deep dependency on other humans. This lack of acceptance leads to the creation of barriers,  stereotyping,  prejudice and eventually violence. If we are to use our camera as a tool for positive change then it appears obvious we should use it to dissolve these barriers and that this should involve portraying others. This has potential both in the act of photographing and in the viewing of the photograph itself. Hence this manifesto is about Portraiture rather than any other form of photography.

Time Warped Addendum: Mindfulness

Cat Cairn: the Kielder SkyspaceI just finished reading Claudia Hammond‘s latest book “Time Warped“. Claudia is a psychologist who presents programmes on health (particularly mental health) on  BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. Chief amongst these is All in the Mind and my favourite Mind Changers.

Time Warped is a fun read. I start quite a few popular science books but don’t always finish them often because the style becomes laboured as the author tries to force human interest into every piece of research they mention – I find myself saying “too many words”. Time Warped does not fall into this category. There was plenty of stuff that is new to me and made me think more about my perception of time and how I related to it. I’d never heard the one about moving Wednesday’s meeting two days “forward”  – does it fall on Monday or Friday (definitely Friday for me).

I recommend the book as a good read … however…  I do think Claudia drops the ball when she mentions mindfulness and I have been wondering what to do about it. I don’t want to critise what is a good book but I do want to set the record straight – so I thought I’d write this as a kind of addendum – but then I realised I had already more or less written it back in 2010 in the post “The Present Moment Does Not Exit“! In that post I hope I establish that we can choose how we interpret the “Here and Now” i.e. what we consider to be part of our current experience and what we don’t. Because we have this choice we can actually control how we perceive not just time but everything. If you don’t have an active contemplative practice this may be a hard pill to swallow and I think this is where Claudia misses it.

Anātman as a Telephone Conversation

I was trying to explain the Buddhist notion of not-self or anātman to a friend and found myself using a new metaphor that I haven’t heard before – the self as telephone conversation.

Hinduism has the notion of Ātman. Jainism has a similar notion (same word) and, of course, the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are founded on the notion of a soul. If you don’t have the notion of a self these religions just don’t work out. In the Abrahamic faiths the soul is immortal and destined to heaven or hell. In the Hindu based faiths one is working for ones soul to become one with Brahman.

Buddhism starts from a different place by stating that the self can not be found. This is often erroneously referred to as a doctrine of “no-self” but Buddhism is not nihilistic. It doesn’t assert that you don’t exist. It asserts that you can’t be nailed down in reality. Nothing you point to can be called you.

Goenka Vipassana Washes Whiter

I have just returned from a ten day Goenka Vipassana retreat at Damma Dipa in Herefordshire. It was a challenging, rewarding and inspiring experience and I am finding it something of a challenge to write a blog about it.

Firstly a description of what a ten day Goenka Vipassana retreat is. These retreats are taken by thousands of people a year at many retreat centres and hired facilities around the world. They are run for free depending entirely on the generosity of old students to fund the next generations of students and ongoing support of the facilities. The courses were originally run by S.N. Goenka himself but he is now very old and so all courses are run ‘virtually’. Each teaching session takes the form of an audio recorded, lead meditation by the great man. Each evening and in the morning of the last day (11) there is a one to one and a half hour video talk from Goenka. All meditations start and finish with between five and ten minutes of Goenka chanting slowly in Pali.

A Brief Introduction To Mindfulness Meditation

Today I launch the first version of my “A Brief Introduction To Mindfulness Meditation” pamphlet with a massive print run of fourteen! Plus availability on-line and the possibility of printing as many as needed of course.

Download a digital copy to read and freely distribute from the
downloads page.

Near the end of 2010 I became frustrated with what I thought of as the “barriers to entry” for people who were interested in developing a meditation practice. It was as if the very bottom rung of an otherwise excellent learning ladder was missing.

MindfulnessTree: Support Your Practice With Your Smart Phone

Last winter, whilst exploring ideas for a possible research proposal, I wrote a prototype desktop web application to help people learn the Mindfulness of Breathing. It formed the basis of an  assignment that you can read about in a previous blog post. The application, BreathFollower, is still running on  Google App Engine at http://breathfollower.appspot.com/ . Almost as soon as I started developing that application I began to regret not developing it for the mobile phone. BreathFollower won’t even run on an iPad. I thought that if you could cradle the application in your hands, in a similar position to the cosmic mudra,  and tap the screen with your thumb to interact with it, it would be more effective. As soon as my assignments were out of the way I started on a phone based application.

Why I am Quitting the Bangor Mindfulness MSc

Edit: 2014-04-24 ~ Three Years Later ~ A friend just pointed out that this post is now coming second on a Google search for “Bangor Mindfulness”. I am somewhat amazed at this and slightly disturbed. It makes the post appear far more significant than it is. I considered taking it down but that seems a little too much like 1984. Instead I decided to add this note and a robots = noindex which should prevent it appearing in Google search in due course. Please take what is written below as a foot note by someone who was on the course and nothing more.

You will see from previous posts that I have been on the Mindfulness MSc at Bangor University for the past year. This will be the tenth post that comes in that Bangor MSc category. If you were to read through all the older posts you would see that I have become disenchanted with the course and will not be surprised that I am stopping. I have now completed the Foundation module and the Research module and have sufficient marks to exit the course with a Post Graduate Certificate in Mindfulness Approaches.

Bangor Foundation Assignment 2 Results

Attached is my second assignment from the Bangor Mindfulness course which has now been marked. This is the document as submitted but with my name and copyright information added.

I got 64% which translates as a ‘B’. The marker made some kind comments about my “highly original ideas” but rightly points out that this becomes the focus of the essay and marks me down accordingly. You can judge for yourself what you think of the assignment.

An areligious (not “A religious”) justification for meditation

If I start to talk about how the world is and therefore how we should best live there is a danger you will dismiss what I say as either playing with ideas that have no relation to real life (philosophy) or trying to impose some mumbo jumbo from a possible imaginary deity (religion). Many people are reluctant to explore this stuff because it will either prove a complete waste of time or overturn a belief system that they have accepted since childhood.

Despite this I do need to create a narrative explanation of why you should try mindfulness meditation. The rationality at the heart of our culture requires that this comes first. Please treat what follows as a pragmatic way of viewing the world for the purpose of living the good life rather than just a set of ideas or a religious doctrine.

Things arise in dependence on conditions and when those conditions cease the things cease. This is the root of the philosophy. This is easy to accept because when we look we can see it is true. This should not be confused with “cause and effect” which is more a product of language. To have a “cause” and an “effect” we need to define one thing as being the cause and something else as being the effect which is useful when we want to use words to represent these things but involves isolating them from the rest of the universe. Drawing a line around them if you like. So we could talk about it raining because it is cloudy but this conveniently leaves out the causes of clouds and the processes within the clouds.

Being, Doing and Doing-Being

Cognitive dissonance is a wonderful thing. At least it is a wonderful thing once you know about it and can enjoy the way it wags your opions and actions around against your will. It is amazing what we can’t see because it is simply too unpleasant to contemplate. Of course the fun part is spotting it in other people. They suffer from dissonance whereas we allow for it!

One concept we use in the “mindfulness community” is  the difference between Being and Doing. We urge people to stop Doing stuff or even trying to do stuff and to start just Being. Segal et al describe this as two modes of mind in “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression” and use the evocative metaphor of changing gears in a car to describe how we shift between the modes.

This way of teaching mindfulness is incredibly useful.  I will continue to use it to explain mindfulness meditation – but it can be over done and it has just occurred to me how to explain what I mean by this.

My Problem With “Self Compassion”

From BHL: Ornithological MiscellanyRecently I’ve had a problem with the term “self compassion”. Every time I heard it my toes curled. I tried to explain this to friends and colleagues but it always met with the polite nodding and smiling that showed I wasn’t getting through.

I would say that there is no “because” in compassion. You just develop compassion without a focus. You don’t feel compassionate to an injured animal because it is injured in preference for feeling compassion to another animal that isn’t injured. Why would you feel compassion to someone just because that someone happens to be you. Or, indeed, why would you deny that person compassion just because it was you.

I wondered if the compassion of psychology was the same as the thing that I was experiencing through my practice. It was all brought to a head by an interview in this week’s All In The Mind on BBC Radio 4 with Professor Paul Gilbert from University of Derby Mental Health Research Unit.  The interview had been designed to make my toes curl. A patient described her case very well. A carer who didn’t care for herself. And then the penny dropped. I was wrong. I had been getting my brahmavihāras in a twist.

Buddhism has the notion of four virtues or brahmavihāras. A brahmavihāra is an abode of Brahma. They are sometimes called the four immeasurables or sublime attitudes. Basically they are the recommended way to approach the world. The four brahmavihāras are:

Accreditation and Certification as a Dharma Teacher?

On reflection one of the reasons I enrolled in the Bangor Mindfulness course was that I felt a need for some kind of accreditation before I could teach. In fact, if I want to teach in the public sector, I probably do need such an accreditation. We are as well to admit the world contains charlatans, fakes, hypocrites and quacks even if we don’t actually point the finger at anyone.  I wouldn’t expect my doctor to refer me to someone who hasn’t been checked out or my kids to be taught by a fraud so I have to admit that – if public money is to be spent on teaching people mindfulness – the trainers will need to have some kind of kite mark or branding.

As the Bangor course has progressed I have come to the realisation that, if I were to teach mindfulness, I would not teach it in quite the way the standard eight week courses are delivered. If I were a professional I would take that in my stride. I would be able to adapt to the available terrain, work through the course, get qualified and then teach in my way. I am sure that this approach would be perfectly acceptable and I am sure it is what many people will do. But I am not a professional in this particular field so I really can’t bring myself to invest the energy, time and money in working through the teaching modules  and assignments to show I could do what I wouldn’t do.