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I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The first set came out last Thursday and the last will come out next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope!  Through the spirit of power confirm Thou me in Thy Cause, O my Best-Beloved, and by the light of Thy glory reveal unto me Thy path, O Thou the Goal of my desire!  Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God!  Let Thine everlasting melodies breathe tranquillity on me, O my Companion, and let the riches of Thine ancient countenance deliver me from all except Thee, O my Master, and let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!

Bahá’u’lláh

Practicing Weeding the Garden

schwartzA few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to their Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91) and felt it could be used more widely to dispel almost all intrusive and undesirable patterns of thought and feeling. I was so impressed that I thought it worthwhile eliminating all psychobabble and creating a simple mnemonic so the whole idea was easily remembered and used. This is the first of two weeding techniques.

Spot It

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the storm breaks.

Step Back

The second stage is stepping back. It involves reminding myself that the habit is not me. I can change it. Thoughts and feelings are mostly just brain noise that can’t necessarily be trusted: actions are often their equally unreliable product. I can step back.  This makes the next step possible.

Stop It

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough and step back, I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am. It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change. The brain is plastic.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

Swap It

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself and the mind will cloud up again.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Prayer and meditation are obvious remedies for the spiritually inclined. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Step Back, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next session. You may notice that I draw a distinction between the mind and the brain. We may need to explore this briefly if it is not clear why I am making that distinction.

There is a simple practice that gives us a readily portable substitute for any undesirable pattern of thought and feeling. It’s the mantram, the second practice to help us weed our minds.

Eknath Easwaran

Meditation

I owe a better understanding of this idea to Eknath Easwaran and his book on meditation – Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life. He advises using quotations as a core meditative means of training our minds (more of that next time). He recommends the Mantram as something more portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:

What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at inmost centre of our being.  . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He recommends we use the mantram at all moments of stress or simple waiting. It helps keep us calm and, for him, every repetition counts, taking us slightly deeper each time we repeat it with focused concentration. He strongly recommends we use it before we sleep.

The mantram (page 112) is also ‘particularly helpful in the case of hurry, because it gives the restless mind something to fasten on to and gradually slows it down.’ When a mistake triggers a mind bomb (page 113) ‘[t]he best course to follow at that time is to repeat the mantram a few times and recollect yourself so you can proceed at a measured pace.’

A Mantram-style Exercise Based on a Bahá’í practice

Is there a way that, by using words, we can have some confidence that we are replacing a negative thought process with something more positive? Bahá’u’lláh, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, instructs Bahá’ís to repeat the Greatest Name 95 times each day.

  1. It hath been ordained that every believer in God, the Lord of Judgement, shall, each day, having washed his hands and then his face, seat himself and, turning unto God, repeat “Alláh-u-Abhá” ninety-five times. Such was the decree of the Maker of the Heavens when, with majesty and power, He established Himself upon the thrones of His Names. Perform ye, likewise, ablutions for the Obligatory Prayer; this is the command of God, the Incomparable, the Unrestrained.

About the repetition of Alláh-u-Abhá, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

Let all experience the spiritual enrichment brought to their souls by this simple act of worshipful meditation.

This would seem like a good place to start. Obviously there are many ways of fulfilling this spiritual obligation. What is clearly important is that is should be done mindfully. Below is an illustration of one possible way of achieving such mindfulness. For those who are not Bahá’í, then any spiritually inspiring word or short phrase can be used instead.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm.

We can use our rate of breathing to pace our use of the Greatest Name (or whatever spiritually significant words we have chosen). In the Aqdas it only says “repeat”, so we may feel that this can be done within the mind alone or that it requires to be said out loud. If we are repeating the Greatest Name or its equivalent for us in our heads it is possible to do so on every in-breath: the virtue of this from a meditative point of view is that we perhaps “inhale” some of its power as we do so.  If we repeat it aloud, it is hard to do so except on the out-breath. For the purpose of this group meditation, it is better to repeat our chosen words in our mind silently.

Of course, for this to completely fulfill our spiritual obligation as Bahá’ís we must perform our ablutions (the ones for our obligatory prayer will do if we are saying the Greatest Name at the same time). We also need to “turn towards God.” This may not prove possible here at this point.

We will simply be trying out one way of replacing brain noise with an uplifting alternative.

There is no need for us in this case to count as we are not attempting to replicate exactly the Bahá’í discipline. Also there is no reason why Bahá’ís should not at other times draw on the power of the Greatest Name to settle our distracted or disturbed minds. Others should feel free to use any spiritually significant alternative in the same way.

When we have finished, we can share how that felt and what we learnt.

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Sunset in Builth

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Mindfulness books

‘Where on earth has the Williams book on mindfulness gone?’ Bill muttered to himself furiously. ‘I knew it was a mistake to reorganise my books. Whenever I do that I can never find anything.’

He scanned his shelves, feeling as though his eyes were sticking out on stalks.

‘Ah, there it is,’ he spluttered triumphantly as he spotted it tucked at the top of a stack of books, almost hidden by the shelf above. He added it to the pile on his desk ready for the meditation experience that evening.

The plan was to do the meditation in the dining room. The upright chairs there were the only ones suitable for keeping a straight back in the hope of straightening the mind. The sitting room sofas and armchairs were great if you wanted to slump and sleep, but that wasn’t the aim this evening.

Carrying the books, he went downstairs to check on the state of the dining room.

‘That’s nice of her,’ he thought, as he spotted the small table with a candle which Mary, his wife, had placed in the centre of the space between chairs he’d laid out earlier. He spread the books on the dining table near the window: Easwaran, Williams, Leaping Hare and Thoresen.

There were only six straight-backed chairs and they were expecting seven people. He decided not to fret about that just yet. The first thing was to decide exactly what approach to take.

He had convinced himself that there were a number of those coming who hadn’t tried meditation before. Perhaps he should have been more surprised about this, given that currently meditation seems to be the third most popular activity after sleeping and eating, at least among his circle of acquaintances.

‘Right,’ he said to himself. ‘Think what to do. I’d better find out how much people really know. I think it’ll be pretty basic.’

He ran with that. He decided he’d make it clear he wasn’t an expert – more like we are all investigating together. He’d tell them it had taken him three months or so, when he started to meditate, to move from being able to focus on his chosen object of meditation for only a minute or so to being able to meditate, with the odd deviation, for ten minutes of more. He’d talk about how people differ and one size of meditation wouldn’t fit all. He’d use the example of how we all differ in terms of our default mode of sensing reality: some of us are visual and rely on our eyes, some are more auditory and verbal, preferring our ears, and some, like him, were tuned more into bodily sensations. He planned to give people a choice of how to meditate based on their preferences in this respect.

As he headed for the kitchen to make himself a coffee, he remembered a joke he’d read many years ago.

‘What do you do if you want to make God laugh?”

‘I don’t know. What do you do?’

‘Make a plan.’

‘I’ll just go with the flow,’ he smiled to himself.

. . . . . .

As the time for the session approached he found himself getting increasingly nervous. He kept pacing to the window to see whether any cars were driving up the slope to the house. He knew one person wasn’t coming: she’d had to visit her mother in hospital after an accident.

No chair problem, then. But it was already seven-twenty. Where was everyone else?

He spotted his car through the dining room window and realised it was parked too low down the drive. He went outside to pull it up a bit more to make room for the two other cars he was expecting. As he walked to the car with the keys in his hand, he saw a familiar figure in a fawn jumper striding round the corner at the bottom of the road. They grinned at each other.

‘I thought Megan was giving you a lift?’

‘She changed her mind. Not sure why,’ Ron replied.

‘Well, the walk will have done you good. Come on in.’

This plan to learn about meditation together seemed to be creating more stress than calm. Not what was planned at all.

‘It’ll just be the three of us and Fleur then, it seems,’ Bill said as they all sat down in the comfy hall chairs to wait for her.

Just as they began to explore why Megan and her friend hadn’t come, there was a knock at the door, somewhat to Ron’s relief.

‘Come in,’ Mary shouted.

‘She can’t,’ Bill exclaimed as he groped for the key. ‘The door’s locked.’

He opened it to find the tall pale figure of Fleur smiling just outside with her hand reaching for the door handle.

He welcomed her in and as they sat waiting for the magic moment of 7.30 to arrive he mentioned that Hereford looked as though it might be preparing to welcome its quota of refugees and that we might need to help in some way.

‘It’s fine but we need to find a way of putting an end to the wars that are driving this,’ Fleur replied.

‘Well,’ Bill said, ‘that’ll take at least a generation to achieve, and in the meanwhile we have to do something. I read a good suggestion somewhere that we should remove all restrictions and give everyone a visa for a year. That would give us breathing space to think, make quotas more acceptable, and go some way to making dangerous boat trips less appealing because there would be a legal way into Europe.’

Candle lit room

On that note of relative harmony they all moved to the dining room where Bill lit the candle as they sat. He asked how much they knew about meditation and quailed to discover it was a lot more than he had thought. Plan A was looking suspect. There was no Plan B.

‘Oh well, blast on regardless,’ he thought, explaining in addition that this was not about having mystical experiences but about connecting with one’s true self at the deepest level.

Which they obligingly tried to do. A candle for the visually inclined, a mantram for the verbal and following the breath for the rest.

‘I just can’t stop my thoughts,’ Ron shared as they spoke about the experience they’d had. ‘I look at the candle and I’m analysing it straightaway. The flame’s trembling. It’s darker at the bottom. I just can’t stop.’

‘I find it easiest to meditate while walking. I just focus on the middle distance and my mind quietens down,’ was Fleur’s experience. ‘Sitting still is harder for me. The after image of the candle is more helpful than the candle itself.’

‘The candle flame works beautifully for me,’ Mary explained. ‘As I stare at the flame my mind goes silent and all that I experience is the glow of the flame.’

‘That shows how different we are,’ thought Bill to himself.

Out loud he added, ‘I tried all three just to see if my preference for bodily sensations had changed. The candle didn’t stop me thinking, but as Fleur said, the after image worked better. Even so I find following the breath works best.’

They agreed to try again with only one method.

‘Can I use my app?’ Ron asked.

‘Only if you have earphones,’ Bill crisped.

‘No. It’s OK. There’s no music or instructions. It’s just the bells. I can set it so we can meditate for 15 minutes with one bell at five minutes and another at 10.’

‘I can’t do fifteen minutes,’ Mary chipped in with a hint of panic in her voice. ‘Can we just do five again or can I step out?’

So it was agreed to do only five minutes with a bell after two.

As soon as the last bell rang, it was clear they’d all had enough. Even before Bill could ask for feedback, Fleur said, ‘Time for tea,’ and they all stood up.

. . . . . .

They sat in the relaxing chairs in the entrance hall, each sipping their different tea: two with mixed fruit, one with camomile, and Bill with his favourite lemon and ginger. Fleur was thumbing through Easwaran’s book, which she’d picked up off the dining room table, wondering what Bill’s purple question marks in the margins meant, but not daring to ask.

‘How do you know when you’re meditating and a thought comes, that it’s not from somewhere deep inside and should be attended to?’ asked Ron.

Silence.

‘That’s a good question,’ Fleur said, lifting her head from the book.

‘It is,’ said Bill. ‘I often have that problem. If I’m meditating during a period when I’ve been struggling to solve a problem the answer, sometimes quite complex, comes shooting into my mind out of the blue. Nowadays I keep a pad and pen close by and write it down if it seems that important. If I don’t and keep meditating, I either keep thinking of the solution so I don’t forget it, spoiling the meditation, or focus on my mantram and at the end can’t remember what the solution was exactly.’

‘But wouldn’t it still be meditation if you simply focused on the answer you have found for the rest of the meditation time?’

‘I suppose it would,’ agreed Fleur. ‘That’s how creativity works. Ideas come when the mind is quiet and you need to catch hold of them when they come or you lose them.’

‘True,’ Bill chimed in. ‘The soul or the heart, whatever you want to call it, usually only tells me once. If I ignore what it said, it doesn’t tell me again.’

‘I think I meditate so that I can choose when to tune into my heart and receive these insights, rather than wait for them to come at random when I’m doing the dishes or I’m out for a walk,’ Fleur continued.

‘Or listening to music,’ Ron added.

There seemed to be general agreement on this point. Everyone felt it was a good time to stop. It remains to be seen if they will meet again next month.

Mantram

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