7:00pm – Introduction, Course Aims, and Overview.

In the first week students may arrive up to 15 minutes early, so aim to have the room ready before then.

 

If the room is untidy, do your best to make it presentable, and arrange the chairs neatly, with a comfortable amount of space for each participant.

If it’s cold, turn up the heaters so people arrive to a warm and cosy room, and in summer, turn on the fan to cool things down.

You can also use this time to get to know some of the students, to commit their names to memory and to do your best to establish a warm, welcoming and friendly environment.

You may also like to hand out the course notes (front / back). Aim to start right on time.

Welcome!

Course Aims

Learn to meditate:
a) on your own
b) anywhere
c) anytime

When we say meditate, we mean: any technique that allows you to a) relax the body, and b) calm the mind.

When we say on your own, we mean: you’re learning a skill that you can take away and develop, so you won’t have to rely on a teacher, a group, or guidance from outside.

When we say anywhere: we mean: anywhere! Not just in a quiet room, sitting on a cushion whilst listening to sitar music and burning incense!

When we say anytime: we mean: anytime. In fact, we suggest that you will be much better off doing dozens of spot-meditations (or mindfulness exercises) a day, rather than the occasional long meditation.

Student Introductions. Get each student to answer:
a) What is my previous meditation / mindfulness experience, AND
b) Why am I here? What is my intention? 

7:15 – Common Misconceptions

You may be a complete beginner, or you may have been meditating for years. In either case, you’ll have walked into this class carrying a range of  ideas and beliefs about meditation, picked up from stuff you’ve heard and read before. Whether you find meditation easy to learn, rewarding and relaxing — or a task that seems filled with struggle and difficulty — will largely depend on these beliefs.
Point out that most of these beliefs arise because we have picked up ideas about how meditation should be done. Also point out that (even though we’re now living in the 21st Century) many of these ideas are derived from the great eastern religious and monastic traditions. These traditions were developed thousands of years ago, by monks, yogi’s and hermits, living in a very different culture and practicing meditation for very different purposes. We live in a culture where time is in relatively short supply, where reflection and rest are not sanctioned, let alone encouraged, and where sitting is what we do 8 hrs a day (so we may not need more of it!) Therefore, the traditional meditative ideals need to be adapted to our needs and lifestyles. In other words, if you think you have to sit still for 20 minutes every day, in silence (and perfect mental and emotional stillness), you’ll likely fail. On the other hand, if you understand how to integrate and adapt meditation according to your own needs, it will become a useful skill, rather than an impossible ideal.
The cover page from TIME, August 4, 2003 (or something similar) is a useful prop to illustrate this point. That is, such imagery reinforces a stereotypical view of meditation, and perpetuates the idea that meditation is something esoteric, exotic and unrealistic.

7:20 The True Versatility of Meditation

Compare misconceptions from above with versatility evident below. Meditation doesn’t require a special time or place. Meditation is versatile, adaptable, can be integrated into any day/activity.

You can meditate:

in any posture including sitting, lying, walking.
whilst exercising
at meals
stuck in traffic
when waiting
in bed
toilet
shower
meetings
etc

Summary: Two Ways to Meditate

  • On the spot
  • spontaneous
  • unplanned
  • utilizes down/transitional/commute time
  • immediate reduction of stress
  • return to balance

7:30 Movement Meditations (Exaggerated Mindfulness of the Body Exercises)

Introduce this first series of meditations by explaining that increased body awareness is a prerequisite for mental and emotional calm. If our bodies are tense and tight this will be reflected in how we think and feel. Why? Because if we’re physically tense the brain assumes that there is some kind of threat nearby, and that we should remain on high alert.

The first step in learning to relax therefore, is to become aware of the tension we carry unconsciously in the body. To do this we need to make it a habit to tune into the body; and we can do this most effectively, through movement and touch.

This is like paying periodic attention to the dials and gauges on the dash of your car. If you don’t pay them attention, there are consequences; usually negative. (You get a speeding ticket, or run out of fuel). It’s exactly the same with the body.

These simple exercises shift our attention away from the things that we’re usually preoccupied with, so that we can connect with the body. This is inherently relaxing, partially because we are shifting from thinking to sensing, partly because we are becoming aware of how tense we might be and partly because we are doing simple things to loosen the body.

Ensure that people remain standing tall (heels down, head up), that they do all these exercises gently and mindfully, focusing on making the movements gracefully and fluidly, and without moving into pain or unnecessary tension.
  1. Shake the Silly’s Out
  2. Joint Rotations
  3. Shoulder Shrug
  4. Meridian Tapping
  5. Power Points
  6. The Jane Fonda
After 3, stop briefly and go around the entire group, asking them to describe how they feel (in one word), having completed those few minutes of loosening, limbering movements. Note that the primary purpose of these first three mindfulness exercises is simply to become aware of the body (including tension, discomfort, fatigue and pain), and that the tendency is that afterwards you’ll feel a bit more connected to, or aware of the body, and that you’ll also likely feel a little more loose, soft, grounded, or relaxed.

 

Then continue with Exercises 4 to 6, the energizing variations, indicating that the primary purpose, again, is to bring attention to the body; but that with these remaining exercises, the tendency is to feel a little more energized and alert.

Upon completion congratulate everyone for having successfully completed their first meditation. Note that they  may not have expected to spend their first meditation class shaking, slapping and rubbing themselves in the groin, but that these techniques are well suited to our sedentary lives and can be a very effective means of both relaxing the body and calming the mind.

Explain that these techniques can be used anywhere and can be done in much more subtle forms. These are exaggerated mindfulness of the body exercises. For example, a subtle version of ‘Shake The Sillies Out’ can be done whilst walking, by paying attention to the contact of your feet on the ground, or how freely your arms, or hips, or spine is allowed to swing. Similarly, whilst stuck in traffic, or standing in a lift, you might take a big breath in, allowing the shoulders to rise imperceptibly before sighing gently as you exhale.

8:00 Principles of Meditation: Relaxing the Body

diagram-1
Offer the following explanations pertaining to the diagram above.

Almost every teacher and every book will define meditation differently. This can lead to quite a bit of confusion, even among folk who have been meditating for years. As beginners, a degree of clarity is useful, so we define meditation very simply as: any technique that a) relaxes the body, and b) calms the mind.

This definition is easy to understand. It gives you a sense of what you are meditating for, and how to go about it. For example; if you find yourself wondering what to do, or whether you are ‘doing it right’ you can simply ask:

  1. Am I relaxing (or becoming more aware of my body), and
  2. Am I calmer (or more aware of what’s going on in my mind).

Key Points

POINT 1: Physical relaxation and mental clarity are the essential ingredients in almost all meditation techniques.

Just as medicines have ‘active ingredients’, (which are the chemicals in drug that make the medication work) so too does meditation. Those active ingredients are physical relaxation and mental clarity or calm — and nearly every meditation technique is a means of achieving these basic outcomes.

Everything from better health to reduced anxiety is largely a result of increased awareness (and relaxation) in these areas. Not surprisingly, if you don’t achieve some degree of relaxation and clarity whilst meditating, you’re not likely to benefit from the practice.

POINT 2: Relax the body in order to calm the mind.

Firstly, note that the body and mind are not separate, as our culture, and this diagram may suggest. In the context of meditation it’s best to think of body and mind as two sides of the one coin. You can’t do something to the body and not have it effect the mind, and vice versa.

And while meditation is often thought of as a mental discipline or training, you can’t afford to disregard the body. If your body is stressed, uncomfortable, or in pain, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to calm the mind. This is why we began with our Mindfulness of the Body exercises. They are great mini-meditations in their own right, and also excellent preparation for formal sitting meditations. By attending to the body you release physical tension, and also, to a surprising degree, any accompanying mental and emotional tension.

“Where the body goes the mind will follow.”

POINT 3: The Mind is notoriously difficult to control

I like to refer to my mind as the “Worse Case Scenario Generator”. Perhaps you have one of those installed? It’s the part of your brain that loves to ask “What if?” and imagines all the possible negative outcomes to a particular event, situation or issue. Not only that, but it has a tendency to fixate upon such questions. Thoughts, when we’re in this mode, trap our attention. It’s almost as though they have a life of their own.

Because the body does not differentiate between real and imagined threats, it reacts to these worries and concerns as though they were real. In response, the body produces a surplus of adrenaline — and not surprisingly, we begin to feel stressed.

This in turn, alters the ability of our brains to function rationally and prevents us from being able to calm ourselves down. Attention gets routed through the amygdala (emotional processing unit, where impulsive ‘fight-or-flight’ reactions are generated) and the pre-frontal cortex (rational part of the brain, where we can think through things logically and see from a broader perspective) goes offline.

The outcome of these neurological and physiological changes within the body, is that our attention becomes fixated, or stuck, on perceived problems. It’s designed to do this, because we can’t afford not to pay attention to a threat. This is our basic survival mechanism at work. The problem is that it often gets overworked. It’s triggered by all kinds of minor worries and concerns, many that we can’t do anything about (at least in the short term).

POINT 4: The bottom line is that it’s best not to argue with the mind. Don’t get into a fight with it. Don’t try to think your way out of thought! Relax the body instead. (It’s much easier to relax your body than it is to control your mind). Then, because the body no longer feels stressed, the mind will naturally begin to calm down.

8:15 Meditation for Relaxing the Body — 7 Deep Breaths (3 Big Sighs)

Guide class through 7 Deep Breaths meditation, explaining beforehand that we breathe in very different ways depending on how relaxed or tense we are — and that by gently encouraging or mimicking a relaxed breath we naturally become calmer.

[Eric Harrison: How To Meditate CD1 TRACK 3]
Debrief

Any difficulties will likely be caused by:

a) trying to breathe too much, too deeply or in a particular way — e.g.  trying to change the breath too forcefully. Sighing is a very gentle letting go as you exhale — that’s all.

b) Not accepting the way you are breathing now. Ultimately it’s about accepting the way you are breathing now, rather than trying to control the breath.

Note that some people associate the breath with anxiety or panic, so the breath may not be the best thing to focus on for them. They can give it a miss, or come back to it later, or you may suggest that they focus on the breath, but only indirectly, for example, as the sound of a wave flowing through the body, or just on the oscillation of the spine.

8:20 — Calming the Mind

  • Meditation is NOT a blank, thought-free state of mind.
  • NO attempt need be made to try and stop, change or block out thoughts.
  • What’s helpful, is to become more aware of your habitual patterns of thinking, and
  • to establish healthy, harmonious relationship with those thoughts.

 Useful Metaphors

  1. Welcome your thoughts — and play the gracious host
  2. Parent your thoughts — as you would a new born baby
How best to relate to our thoughts is perhaps the most crucial — and the most frequently misunderstood — aspect of meditation. Most people assume that in meditation our job is to slow down or stop thoughts. Our task, apparently, is to avoid thinking and maintain focus on the ‘present’. In fact, our recommended strategy is to do just the opposite.  Afterall, the brain’s job is to think.

One well known teacher (Sogyal Rinpoche) says: “Just as it’s in the nature of the sun to shine, it’s in the nature of the mind to think.” What he’s suggesting here is that if you spend your time during meditation trying to block out your thoughts, that’s akin to grabbing your garden hose and trying to extinguish the sun — a fairly futile endeavour.

The futility of trying to block out your thoughts can be better understood if you compare thinking with sensing. Although we usually distinguish thinking from our other senses (seeing, hearing etc.), they actually function in more or less the same way. That is, just as sounds, images, smells, tastes and sensations register in the mind, thoughts register in the mind. Of course, we sometimes see and hear things that we’d prefer not to see. But we don’t engage in the vain attempt to stop ourselves from seeing or hearing! To try to do so would be ludicrous. You can’t stop the eyes or ears from functioning. In just the same way, you can’t stop the mind from performing its function; which is to think.

And what happens — in meditation — when you do stop thinking, for a moment or two. You probably say to yourself:  “Oh, I’m not thinking!” In other words, even to know that your mind has gone quiet requires some thought, some re[cognition]. In other words, if you really do stop thinking then you’re either a vegetable or dead.

It’s also interesting to note that studies have been conducted that show that when people are asked to stop (repress) their thoughts and emotions, they actually think more. We all know this. Afterall, what happens when I ask you NOT to think of a pink elephant?

Finally, another well known meditation teacher referred to thoughts as the secretions of the brain. He was suggesting that thoughts operate in a similar fashion to the enzymes secreted in the gut. Those enzymes are needed in order to digest our food. In the same way, thoughts are the ‘enzymes’ that enable us to digest what we experience. And of course, if your gut stops secreting the enzymes which aid digestion, then you won’t remain healthy (or alive) for long. Similarly, attempts to stop thinking will generally create similar dysfunctions in the psyche.

In Practice

  • We give ourselves PERMISSION to think freely, without insisting that our thoughts remain positive, obey a certain speed limit, stay at a certain volume or distance, or only remain for a certain period before shutting up or buggering off.
  • We show INTEREST in the thinking process.
  • We recognize that thoughts are often driven by unacknowledged emotions, and that attending to our emotions is as important as listening to our thoughts
  • Know that we have the option of focusing on our sensory experience
Thoughts tend to have a certain momentum and direction of their own, what I like to call a voltage. You might have a two volt thought (a bit like a no-name brand battery), which just flashes through consciousness briefly, barely registering and certainly not bothering you. Or you might have a 240,00 volt thought, associated with a major issue in your life, say, an altercation with a work colleague or spouse. This one, once released into the mind, will probably take some time to wear itself out. The charge is not going to disappear because you’ve decided not to focus on that thought. It will still be there, waiting, trapped in the body. If you ignore it, then it will probably manifest in some other way – through irritability for example. Better to sit with it. Sooner or later, during meditation, you’ll find that you become less embedded in the thought. You’ll get a sense that you’re watching, observing or witnessing the thought, rather than being carried along by it unconsciously. Or you’ll gain some insight or perspective into the issue that’s troubling you.

Finally, there are many approaches to meditation where you are actively encouraged to avoid thoughts in some way, others where you are instructed to label or name thoughts. A more subtle approach might just be to recognize them and then shift your attention somewhere else, to the breath, for example. Alternatively, you might just be invited to focus on what you can hear, or to attend to sensations within the body. There are pros and cons to all of these techniques, and we’ll be exploring most of them in some shape or form throughout the course; however, as a general rule, we’ll recommend that you adopt a fairly laissez-faire approach to thinking. Accept your thoughts as a natural and inevitable part of the meditation process, without reservation. Don’t even protest a little. By incorporating this one insight, or attitude, your meditation will be much easier.

8:25 — Meditation 3 – Catching the next thought

Tell the class we’ll do our final meditation for the night. Truly a ‘spot’ meditation, as it only takes 2. 4 seconds.

Instructions: Stop, right now, and wait for your next thought… pause a second or two. OK. What was it?

Responses might include:

  • “I didn’t have one” (yes, they do sometimes get stage fright!)
  • “What’s my next thought” was the next thought.
  • “I’m hungry / tired”
  • “I noticed the sound of the clock”
Explain: It’s largely irrelevant what happens. The point is that you are aware of the thought at that moment. This is very different to the state of mind you might be in as you drive home from work, thinking compulsively with little or no awareness. Who hasn’t driven home, pulled into the driveway and thought, “How the hell did I get here?”

Just because we are not conscious of our thoughts does not mean that they aren’t affecting how we feel, as well as what we do or say.

Periodically asking yourself “What am I thinking about?” during the day gives you a chance to assess what’s going on, and if necessary to choose to focus on something else, or in a different way.

Homework

Suggest that students endeavour to notice those moments during the following week in which they are required to wait: stuck in traffic, queuing at the supermarket, dentist or doctors surgery, waiting for a train, tram, friend, phone call, something to download, or someone to arrive.

Try out any of the techniques we’ve introduced throughout the week, focusing on using waiting as a trigger.

Movement Meditations, 7 Breaths, Pulse, Stress-O-Meter, Thought Catching.

They can take a flexible approach – count or don’t count. 7 breaths or 3 and a half.

Tune into the body periodically throughout the day to get a sense of where you’re really at. Mind can play tricks, body doesn’t lie. e.g. “I’m NOT ANGRY!”.

Catching thoughts can be useful for anxiety – prevents a train of thought from steamrolling you into stressful territory.

Additional Meditation (if needed): Track 6 from Eric Harrison’s How to Meditate (Part 1) CD [The Countdown], which is essentially a short bodyscan, done over 7 breaths.

Teacher Contemplation

Here’s some food for thought, courtesy of Lorin Roche. It summarizes, quite well, the approach to thinking that I think is best suited to a fruitful meditation practice.

One of the great secrets of TM is that you do not block out thoughts. Not even a little. And you don’t mentally complain to yourself about the thoughts. You don’t resist at all, and this turns out to be an amazing secret, a key to going deep. At the same time, you don’t cling to the mantra and use it to block out noise. If you are in deep inner silence, just barely hearing the mantra very faintly, and sublimely relaxed, and then suddenly you start thinking of your to-do list, and get anxious about it, you do not resent the thoughts for coming and interrupting you. No. What you do is almost nothing. You don’t encourage the thoughts and you don’t discourage them in any way. If the thoughts keep coming, you pay attention to the sensation of tension in your body that is giving rise to the thoughts.

What happens is that thoughts come, noises attract your attention, and you simply notice them, and then you return to listening to the mantra. Because you are not concentrating on the mantra, it changes all the time. It speeds up, slows down, shifts rhythm, fades away, comes back, fades away, doesn’t come back for a long time. The attitude to have here is so weightless it is hard to describe. Let me give it a shot: you are simply prepared to enjoy the mantra, however it is appearing. There is a slight sense of encouraging the mantra, and that’s it. Your attitude toward the universe is incredibly tolerant.

The most radical, truly radical insights of TM is that there is no control. There is no way some small part of you can control your vast self – that would be like your little finger arrogantly deciding it is going to control the whole body. What you are doing is riding your craving for vastness, the longing the little self has to meet its essence. You aren’t even “letting” that happen, because it is not up to you to issue permits. You set up the situation so that your little self, as you know yourself, can gradually get to know your larger self. TM’s formulation of the naturalness of this meeting is better and simpler than anything else I have ever encountered, except Laksman Joo’s work.

So what you are doing in TM has a musical quality to it, in that you are listening to a vibration, a sound. And there is a jazz quality, improvisations wandering off into silences, because you aren’t repeating the sound mechanically, over and over. You are interested in the sound, and allow it to be different in each moment. You let it have its own rhythm, and you allow it to fade into the silence. Then you come back to it. So there is always a surprise – the mantra is different in every moment, and the silence after the mantra lasts as long as it lasts. You just never know. It’s fresh in every moment. That’s why people can meditate for hours a day, and meditate every day for years: it’s like listening to music that is eternally changing.

The great thing about TM, which the great insight, is that you don’t make unnecessary effort. No wrong effort. Only the right effort, which is not effort at all. Right effort is to BE THERE. Meditation is being there witnessing everything and you don’t run away. And the word effort does not describe what is called for. Courage is called for. The willingness to feel everything. Effort, or trying, is only a distraction and will only be effort toward the wrong thing. This is an astounding insight, because skill IS called for. It is very difficult to sit there and face everything, in total darkness and total silence, second after second, minute after minute, day after day, on and on and on. One of the brilliant gifts of TM is knowing how to make darkness and silence interesting. In TM, they are not afraid to let things be simple.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the first aphorishms is Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah. This is usually translated as something like, “Yoga is the suppression of the fluctuations of mindstuff.” In practice, everyone thinks this means that yoga is blanking out your mind. You flatten the waves. Yoga = union, chitta vritti = modifications or fluctuations, chittam = mindstuff; nirodhah = restriction or suppression. You can read hundreds of translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and they almost all use some variation on arrest, cessation, stoppage, inhibition, restriction, and control. You are supposed to still the mind, they say. And I think they are all wrong. Sorry, boys. You don’t understand your own tradition.

The best spin I could put on this sutra is “When you pay attention to the fluctuations of mindstuff, an underlying sense of stillness emerges.” That is perhaps a fair meaning of this very unfortunate aphorism, which seems to have caused millions of people to fail miserably at meditation over thousands of years. Just think about this for a minute. What does suppression result in? More suppression. I get the feeling that what has been going on for centuries is that people have been failing at meditation. The ability to transcend is so delicate that if you even hint at resisting thought, you wind up with the feeling of sand in your gears. Instead of being able to slide up and down the levels, you wind up stuck.

Actually, this is an empirical question. Train one group to try to suppress thought, restrict flutuations. Train another group to welcome fluctuations as they meditate. Measure the ability to meditate in both groups over time. You can even explore this in yourself. Explore the nuances of gently, appreciatively holding your experience. Notice how that works. Then set out to restrict your thinking as a way of silencing your mind. What works better? One problem with taking a “scriptural” approach to truth is that you are always favoring tradition over what works.

If you look up the etymology of the word, some experts say, nirodhah (or nirodha) means containment. Rodha is an old Indo-European word pertaining to keeping a fire. Back in the day, everyone knew what it was to make and maintain a fire. You were always pushing ashes and rocks around, banking the fire, then fanning the flames. This was an everyday skill and the word rodha referred to this process of containing a fire. Usually you did not want to put the fire out.

Occasionally you’ll come across a student who has a great deal of trouble with thoughts and emotions. They come to meditation — as most people do — hoping to find peace of mind by abolishing all thoughts from consciousness. This, of course, is impossible; but they might have a hard time accepting that fact, and persist, over many weeks, with an antagonistic relationship to the thinking mind.

For such people, it can be useful to remind them frequently of a few points.

Firstly, thoughts are not facts. In a sense, our thoughts aren’t even our own. They are the voices of our parents and teachers, friends and enemies — and they represent the many messages we have picked up from family and school life and from our culture in general; including though music and film, relationships, books and so on. As such, our thoughts are usually automatic, internalised representations of what we have heard, over our entire life.

These voices can’t be stopped. They travel down deeply engrained pathways, like rivers through the mountains. All we can do is follow the current, accepting that we’ll be taken downstream, and the best we can do is steer our way around the eddies and snags.

Frequently remind yourself that:

  1. I am not going to be judged for what I think during meditation.
  2. I am not accountable for the content.
  3. I do not need to act on my thoughts.
  4. I do not need to believe my thoughts.
  5. I do not need to edit or censor my thoughts.
  6. Thoughts are a sign that my brain is doing it’s job.
  7. I do not need to interfere.
  8. Thinking goes on all the time during sleep and dreams when I am unaware (and unable to interfere).
On to Week 2 Notes.