7:00pm — Week 1 Review

Spend roughly five minutes checking in with class participants about how they went during the week.

  • How did they use their waiting time?
  • What resonated with them from the material covered in the first week?
  • What technique or concept from the first week was the most useful or effective?
You may have to ask multiple questions to draw information out. Encourage students to be precise about what worked and what didn’t.
Spend 5 to 10 minutes running through the Mindfulness of the Body Exercises introduced in Week 1. Introduce variations, perhaps from the Z-Health Neural Warmup or something from your personal repertoire.
Continue with a short meditation (around 5 minutes) focusing on the body (specifically on sensations of softening, release, sinking, letting go or heaviness), the breath and the heartbeat. Make sure to include suggestion on how to create a ‘holding space’. That is, how to treat oneself with a kind, gentle, caring, tender and compassionate type of attention. Refer to Chapter 3 of The Meditator’s Dilemma by Bill Morgan, for more ideas on the inner holding environment.

7:25pm — How Meditation Works

Summarise last week’s material by noting that we addressed the question “What is Meditation” and looked into the two arms of meditation: relaxing the body, and calming the mind. You may like to briefly elaborate on these points and then introduce this weeks theme, in which we look at how meditation works. Explain that an understanding of the ‘mechanics’ of meditation allows students to be flexible, adaptable and creative in their approach to meditation. Rather than blindly following a formula this understanding allows them to develop a style that suits their own lifestyle and temperament, and their ever changing personal needs and desires. We’ll develop this understanding of how meditation works by comparing the normal mind with the meditative mind.

The “Normal’ Mind

Step 1: Ask: “What are the qualities of the normal mind.” I usually joke that I’m going to make the assumption that you all have normal minds, and that you can tell me what it’s like to have one! I stress that there is no right or wrong answer. We’re just looking for the words you’d use to describe how it feels ‘in your head’ on a typical working day. Students often describe what they are doing with their mind (e.g. planning, worrying, catastrophising), so it may be necessary to refocus them by asking how their mind feels (e.g. busy, disorganised, chaotic, overflowing, scattered).

Write the responses on the whiteboard.

You’ll likely get a long list including: scattered, busy, planning, processing, emotional, imaginative, chaotic, anxious, fatigued, stressed, full of worry, etc.

Step 2: At this point, you may like to note that no one said: “My mind is typically a peaceful oasis of serenity, quiet and calm!” Then suggest that the most typical responses to this question reveal the following three characteristics:

Elaborate on these points. (Further explanatory notes can be found by hovering your mouse over the links above).

Step 3: Ask: “If we agree that our minds are typically characterised as above, what might the results of such a mental state be?” Write the responses on the whiteboard. e.g.

  • fatigue / exhaustion
  • confusion
  • poor judgment
  • anxiety and stress
  • illness
Step 4: Then using the responses draw out the inevitable progression: fatigue, combined with scattered attention, leads to confusion, agitation, exhaustion, anxiety, illness and depression. Mental stress does not remain in the mind. It also contributes to physical stress, creating tension in the body and contributing to discomforting emotions. While our busy  minds may be very creative — productive even — the side effect of over-thinking is a slide downhill into territories we’d prefer to avoid.
Step 4: The Stress Cycle

Next, ask: “Why would we use our minds like this if we can see that it leads so clearly to stress?”

Spend a few minutes writing responses on the whiteboard. Responses might include:

  • habit
  • education
  • culture
  • work environment
  • technology
  • conditioning
  • our ‘wiring’
  • lack of alternatives etc.
Step 5: Acknowledge that all the responses offered by the class are valid; that a range of factors contribute to our current mental habits. Then either draw “The Stress Cycle” diagram, or use one prepared on a flipchart, to illustrate how a mind stuck in its thinking mode, can create a feedback loop in which stress is continually triggered and never dealt with or released.

stress-cycle

Some of the main reasons we remain trapped in this stress cycle are:

KEY POINT 1:  Stress is inevitable. As long as we are alive, we are bound to experience some form of stress, perhaps on a daily, or even more frequent basis. Stress, of course, is painful — and, naturally enough, we do our best to avoid or escape it. Our primary means of avoiding stress is to think. This might seem strange, but thinking is our simplest and most basic escape mechanism. By thinking we are attempting to avoid feeling.

After all, we only have a certain amount of attention available at any given moment — and if we direct it all into thinking, then we have little attention spare with which to feel our emotional discomfort, pain, stress etc. In other words, by thinking we retreat into a conceptual world, an imaginary world of ideas and interpretations. We escape from the visceral, embodied discomfort of experience.

KEY POINT 2: We try to think our way out of stress for a couple of reasons.

Firstly our natural tendency to escape or avoid discomfort is reinforced by years of schooling, in which we are trained to rely upon and trust our logical, rational minds. At school we are given a whole bunch of problems (stresses) and asked to solve them using our intellect; our rational, logical minds.

Unfortunately, most of our stresses are not logical. You can’t work through an argument with your spouse in quite the same way you can an algebraic equation. Typically, our stresses are emotional in nature, and as such do not respond to logical argument.

For example, we don’t come to a rational decision to be angry. Anger just happens. Trying to solve emotional problems with the intellect is often pointless, leading into, rather than away, from deeper stress. Indeed, through our thinking we usually end up trying to justify why we feel angry or hurt, rather than truly acknowledging why we feel these emotions.

Imagine you are running late for work, on a day in which you have a heavy schedule and an important meeting to get to. An impatient driver cuts you off or refuses to let you merge with the traffic. In such situations you don’t stop and consider what options you have and what the most logical course of action would be. No, there’s just a rush of emotion. You gesticulate wildly, shout and fume. You justify your anger by by casting aspersions on your fellow commuter, questioning his driving ability and perhaps using the most vivid parts of your vocabulary to describe him as a person. Then you get to work, and tell the first person you see about the moron you met on the road this morning. Later on that evening, talking with your partner, you share your story again. In this way we exacerbate and perpetuate our stress. Some people hold on to such stresses for weeks, years or even decades. The event itself lasted but a fraction of a second!

KEY POINT 3: The very nature of thoughts and emotions contribute to this dynamic. Our thoughts are electrical impulses in the brain, so a busy brain might feel like a malfunctioning telephone exchange: confusing and chaotic, but bearable.

Emotions, however, are chemical cocktails; hormones flooding the bloodstream. We might sense that we’ll be completely overwhelmed, and drown, in an emotion.

In other words, a mind filled with negative and self-critical thoughts is usually not quite as disturbing as a strong and seemingly uncontrollable emotion. Rather than flounder in grief or sadness or fiery anger, we choose the relative safety of thinking.

EXAMPLE: You can illustrate this process in action by posting the question: What happens in the following scenario? You are sitting at work and a colleague comes up, taps you on the shoulder and says: Hey, You’re wanted in the bosses office?

  1. In all likelihood, the first thing you’ll notice in such a situation, is that you start thinking about why the boss wants you: “I’m being dismissed or made redundant”, or “He caught me stealing stationary last week!” The Worst Case Scenario Generator leaps into action, inventing reasons in a vain attempt to prepare for the unknown.
  2. What’s the reality? We don’t know why the boss wants to see us. This moment of uncertainty leads to nervousness and anxiety, perhaps a knot of tension in the gut, which (whether we consciously aware of it or not) we don’t like and want to get rid of. Confronted with the unknown our minds go into problem solving mode, vainly trying to figure out the probable cause of our anxiety. But it can’t know (until you actually hear what the boss has to say).
  3. Our problem solving actually exacerbates the problem. By imagining all kinds of negative outcomes we feed our anxiety. It’s like throwing fuel on the emotional fire.
  4. Our thoughts and emotions get stuck in a feedback loop, and we prolong and perpetuate our stress.

Such unacknowledged emotions are usually chronic rather than acute. They sit just beneath our thoughts, sending a continual drip feed of hormones into the body saying “this is no time to relax”, “we’ve got things to do.” In this way our thoughts activate the stress response.

You do not need to repeat the following information verbatim, but it may help to make the points above clearer, particularly if you need to extrapolate or respond to questions.

  • In this mode we try to think or intellectualise our way through difficulties
  • Because stress is amplified by painful emotions we try to avoid feeling
  • We do this by thinking, keeping busy, working harder or distracting ourselves with food, drugs, entertainment etc.
  • This may seem strange, in part because most of us are so habitually drawn into our thinking processes that even when strong feeling arises we don’t experience them with a lot of precision. We may not notice how our emotions impacts and resonate within the body. Instead, we get constantly drawn into accompanying narratives about how we feel. As a result,  we may not even realise that the actual feeling part of our experience — the ‘pleasure or pain — happens within the body.
  • It might seem logical to try and avoid life’s discomfort, but by failing to accept and experience these painful emotions we trap ourselves in an endless stress cycle.
  • Thoughts: are electrical impulses that fire in the brain, allowing us to process many things simultaneously and at great speed.
  • Emotions: are a chemical flow within the body, a cocktail of hormones that we usually experience as relatively vague or  indistinct waves of emotion.
  • While thinking may seem rational, it is usually driven by some variant of fear, anger or desire

More on this here: https://melbournemeditationcentre.com.au/articles/managing-emotions-with-meditation/

7:25pm — The Meditative Mind

Ask (rhetorically): “So how do we escape the stress cycle, the mind that thinks too much, or too fearfully? Then suggest that students remember, and describe, a time in which they were deeply relaxed. What were they doing? What do other people do to relax? “
Write the students’ responses up. They’ll likely include:

  • Listening to music
  • Exercising
  • Spending time with pets
  • Getting a massage
  • Gardening
  • Eating & Drinking (Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Alcohol
  • Watching TV
  • Reading
  • Lying on the beach
Then ask students to see if they can identify a common element from the relaxing activities listed above. They’ll probably come up with a range of answers, but be unable to recognize that what all relaxing activities do, including meditation, is draw attention into the sensory realm. Before revealing this simple principle you might ask: “What would you prefer; to read the recipe / menu, or eat the meal; to talk about how hot it is, or to go for a swim; to learn about how best to give and receive a massage, or to get one?”
IMPORTANT! Note that in these activities we need not make any effort whatsoever to stop thinking. We do not demonize, resist or attempt to stop our thoughts, we simply allow our attention to be drawn into the sensory world. By doing this our thoughts are put in perspective. They become one part of a much larger mental landscape, rather than the sole overwhelming focus.
Then elaborate by offering the following information: In simple terms we can do one of two things with our mind [attention]. We can think, or we can sense. We’ve already seen what thinking can do. What happens when we fully engage with the sensory world? Let’s find out. I’ll now guide you through an exploration of each of the major senses.

8:00pm — Meditation: Exploring the Senses

8:20pm — Meditation 1 Debrief

A good chance to connect with the entire class; getting responses from each participant based on the simple, open-ended question. “What did you notice during that exercise, either good, bad or indifferent?”

Comment on how different people enjoy different senses. Each of the senses is a window or portal into relaxation. It’s helpful to find out which work for you.

Point out that you don’t have to be perfect. One moment in the sensory world is one moment away from potential stress, so you begin to relax. When we focus on sensory things thoughts drop into the background. They rarely disappear completely, but because they are no longer activating the stress response you’ll begin to relax.

8:25pm — Homework

Set homework: This week you have free reign to experiment with shifting from thinking to sensing. Endeavour to come up with your own ways of meditating and tap into your intuitive sense of what will work for you. Remember (and don’t neglect) the techniques from Week 1, appreciating that they work because you are shifting from thinking to sensing.

8:30pm — Conclusion

If time permits you may like to elaborate on how sensing works to relax us, by sharing some of the following points.

  • Sensing is a perfectly natural and instinctive mode of relaxation (e.g. comfort food, music, sunset, listening to waves on the beach, rain on the roof).
  • Meditation just makes the act conscious, deliberate. To use the cliche – we “stop and smell the roses.”
  • Interestingly it’s not what we sense that relaxes us, it’s just the increased sensory input. So there’s potential for all sorts of things, from traffic noise to the hum of an air conditioner or a ticking clock, to become objects of relaxation.
  • When we sense there’s less energy available from thinking – thinking and sensing are functions that inhibit one another.
ThinkingSensing
is activeis more passive
involves past and futureis in the present
is complex and fastis simpler and slower
has high emotional chargehas low emotional charge
is stimulatingis relaxing
burns energyconserves energy
tightens the bodylets the body soften
Beta Brainwaves (13-40Hz)Alpha Brainwaves (7-13Hz)

Teacher Contemplations

Taken as a whole, this teaching is startling in its breadth, in the huge range of human experience that it encompasses. It shatters the picture we have of what meditation is, or how meditation teachers too often present it – as a way of dissociating from the human experience and trying to rise above it. There is not a hint of the usual life-denial which permeates and distorts spirituality East and West. This tantra is about going deeply into experience, embracing it fully, without reservation. Nature is embraced as is all of human nature. Lust and passion become fires that illumine, and gusto is taken to its most refined degree possible. Meditation is presented as the nexus or meeting ground of light and matter, spirit and flesh, and the meeting is to be consummated with great joy.

 

Tantric meditation is an integration of the opposites, not obliteration or mere transcendence of them. It is an alchemical union in which each exists in its fullness and in a relationship of complementarity with the other. — Lorin Roche, The Radiance Sutras.

On to Week 3 Notes.