The Importance of Connection

My friend Barbara recommended a book to me called ‘Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions” by Johann Hari and so I downloaded it to my iPhone and am now listening to it…for the third time! I could not recommend it more strongly for anyone who is interested in human flourishing and wellbeing and the causes and conditions we need to have in place individually and as a society in order to achieve it.

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Why is it such a good book. Firstly, it is very well researched and takes a critical stance in relation to the evidence that has emerged over the last 50 years. Secondly, it is thoroughly engaging as Hari is such a beautiful story teller. He tells the stories of the researchers he has spoken to, about what inspired them to research the subjects they did and their experiences of conducting the research and of finding, often surprising results. He also tells stories of individuals loss of connection and their journeys to reconnecting. Then there is his own story of being told his depression was caused only by a chemical imbalance in his brain, of years spent on ever higher doses of anti-depressants and then his journey to finding this was not the case and that there were many and diverse causes and conditions that had resulted in his depression and which needed to be addressed for him to flourish.

Above all I loved the authenticity and unflinching honesty of Hari’s writing – repeatedly moved to cathartic, healing tears as the stories unfolded and spoke to me about my life, my lost connections and my journey of reconnecting. I am inspired again to bring us all together as a community of like- minded practitioners, with common values, able to support each other and I hope our new membership site – opening on 27 March will help with this. It struck me that as members of the Mindfulness Association membership, it is up to us all to see what we can contribute, as well as what we can gain from engaging with each other. I have also been inspired to set up a local weekly practice group with my friend Moira Harris in the Dumfries area and we will have a group about this on the new membership site. The group will start up in mid-April. This I hope will provide a supportive place to share experience and practice for all those who come along – but I am motivated because I also crave this connection myself.

The lost connections are: to meaningful work, other people, meaningful values, childhood trauma, status and respect, the natural world and a hopeful and secure future. Each is beautifully explored drawing together research and personal stories and gives clarity to the many failings of our current individualistic and materialistic culture to support human flourishing. This proves time and time again, that it is not our fault (as Paul Gilbert would say) if we find ourself struggling in our lives. However, Hari also explores innovative and creative ways to enable us to restore these lost connections – some of which we can begin to put in place ourselves and others of which will require us to come together in order to change the society and culture which we are currently subject to.

I find the book hopeful and soothing. I often feel completely baffled by and isolated from the values of the environment around me and struggle to know how to engage skilfully. It helps me that others are feeling the same way and that scientific investigation is leading to a similar conclusion.

I hope that you will come together with me and others in the MA membership for our Joyful Club weekend in Samye Ling this summer – for more details please follow this link. A chance to connect again.

Kind Wishes

Heather

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Sit Down Next To Me

My morning routine is to get up and do my meditation and then do some exercise. I listen to an inspirational playlist while I exercise and after my meditation this is sometimes a great opportunity for insight and a sense of freedom and space in my mind, especially when I go on the cycle machine. When I go on the running machine, it is generally an opportunity to observe a subliminal reflex telling me to stop immediately, but I am generally able to refrain from following that reflex and keep going, albeit with some reluctance and struggle. This subliminal reflex message arises with a feeling of such authority, it is difficult sometimes not to follow it and my usual habitual pattern. But the playlist definitely gets me into a green zone of safeness and joy from which it is much easier to refrain.

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Music has been there for me my whole life, whenever things have been tough. Soft Cell and Japan in my teenage years, when I often felt isolated and misunderstood. The Smiths and the Cure supported me through my time at university and then many other bands. I used to be quite a music snob, but over the years have relaxed! When people or circumstances fail me, music never has. Sometimes I think that it is a kind of a weakness and that I am terribly ‘attached’ to this support. In reality, we all need some supports to get us through the ups and downs of life and there are worse things than music. We need a raft to get us to the other side of the river and music is a key part of my raft and I can leave it behind once I get to the other side. It will be a while though as I am only just dipping my toes in the water.

Earlier in the week, I was on my cycle machine and the Stereophonics song ‘Maybe tomorrow’ came on – I love that song and have written about it in my blog before. The chorus goes ‘Maybe tomorrow I’ll find my way home’ and the thought arose in my mind, ‘But I am home now’. Literally, I was at home, in my porch on my cycle machine looking out over the garden, but that wasn’t the point. I was present with my experience, as it was, in that moment, and in that sense I was home. I was reminded again, that I can be with the richness, openness and joy of every moment, if I just let be my discursive thought process, rest back into my body and just be present. A sense came to me of the interdependence of all life – it was a good moment (although I will not try and grasp after it again). We can all do this when we remember, but so often we forget, caught up in the stories of our lives and our selves. Often, this experience comes upon us in the face of beauty, a vast sky, a smiling face, a soaring bird, but as our mindfulness practice develops these moments occur more often.

When my daughter was a baby, I sang songs to her and the favourite song I sang to her was a song by the band James, called ‘Sit Down’. The theme is of us all coming to sit down together in sympathy, as our imperfect selves ‘in love, in fear, in hate, in tears’. Since it was first released (back in 1989) it has been a favourite and it really resonated with me this morning, as I have been working on our new membership website. It reminded me of my heartfelt aspiration to try to do more to bring our community of practitioners together – so that none of us feel alone and so that we all feel supported.

Now that I have moved I have a more reliable internet signal and so can be more involved in the online membership teachings. I am facilitating a session online tomorrow evening for our membership on the ‘On duty/off duty’ practice from the Insight training. The new membership site should open on 27th March and I sincerely hope that the discussion forums and practice groups will take off – you can even book an online meeting on Zoom with your fellow members and friends. For more information about the membership (if you are not already a member), click here. If you are a member, then I look forward to connecting soon via the new site. Jane will be in touch with more news about it soon.

Then the next song that came on was an old Coldplay song called ‘Brothers and Sisters’, with the lyric ‘Brothers and sisters unite, its the time of your life’. Do you notice a theme? Alone there is little we can do, but united together we can be a force for good in our world. We can support each other to spread the values of mindful compassion, to be sensitive to the difficulties in our lives and in the world and make a difference. This all comes from our practice together.

I usually sit in the morning between 6am and 8am (often not for the whole of that time) and it supports me to think of all the others who are also doing their morning practice. So please, brothers and sisters, sit down next to me. We can all have a sense of common practice together in our different locations, however we are, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears, sitting amid our imperfection with compassion so that the magic of peace, flourishing and happiness can begin to happen (but no hidden agenda!).

So I look forward to you joining me in my practice tomorrow!

Kind Wishes

Heather

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Walk with Me

Last week I was fortunate to be invited by Moira Harris to a showing of the film ‘Walk with Me’ (click here for the trailer) about the community at Plum Village led by Thich Naht Hahn. Watching the film was a meditation in itself and it felt like receiving a transmission of the most profound teaching on mindfulness. I can still feel the effects now. After the film Moira and I led a short discussion about the film and more generally about mindfulness and several themes emerged.

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One was about the simplicity of the Plum village community lifestyle and how conducive this was to becoming mindful throughout the day. Thich Naht Hahn and members of the community travelled to New York and took their stable mindful tranquillity with them. We commented how difficult it is to be calm and mindful within the hustle and bustle of our busy lives.

This was inspiring me to make my life more simple, which has been a work in progress for some time. My move to live in the countryside in Scotland, close to Samye Ling is part of this. As well as my intention to work locally, rather than travelling abroad to work.

In my daily life, I schedule time for practice and exercise first thing in the morning and take a long lunch to walk the dogs in the forest above the house or at the beach. I am lucky that I work from home during the week in my work of running the Mindfulness Association and so can be flexible with my time. I have a lot of work to do, the volume and nature of the work can be quite stressful, so balancing this with time for practice, exercise and walking in the countryside is necessary for it to be sustainable. It is generally where I have my best ideas and so in this way the work does itself, in my unconscious mind!

After watching the film I am inspired to introduce more silence to my driving, cooking and house work time. I have long aspired to reduce the time I watch TV in the evening and replace it with some yoga and meditation. Although I am half way through the second series of The Crown and this has a certain addictive pull to it!

I have a great chance just now to set these new habits in motion, as I will be home alone for the next three weeks as my husband is joining our daughter in Australia for three weeks. Although I will miss them, I am also relishing the prospect of reflective time alone. So this inspiring film came to me at just the right time.

Another theme from the film was the bells that go off at Plum Village every fifteen minutes, which everyone pauses for to become present. It was wonderful to see this, old and young alike, simply stopping in the middle of their music playing, cooking, conversations, etc – just to pause and to be.

I thought this funny, as I had to turn off the mindfulness bell on my mobile phone on entering the cinema. I am again inspired to really stop and be whenever the bell on my phone dings, rather then ignoring it and just carrying on with whatever I am doing.

I realise that I am truly fortunate in my life and work circumstances to be able to simplify my life. It has taken many years to get here and is still a work in progress.

I would strongly recommend that you watch this movie and hope that it inspires you to simplify your own life and make more time to just be. This gives us the opportunity to enjoy the richness of the moments in our life. Something emphasised in the film by moments of ladybirds, ants and butterflies going about their business at intervals during the film – and of course the walking among the trees and the sunrises.

I enjoy watching the birds at the feeders just outside our kitchen window: mainly blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinches and sparrows. I like watching how some of them cheekily reject a peanut and toss it onto the ground. Then when the feeders are empty they come and tap on the kitchen window. I have always loved birds and I especially love how they are descended from dinosaurs. I couldn’t feed them in our old house as the fallen nuts and seeds brought the rats out – no such problem in the new house – so far anyway!

I am reminded again of the joy of being in the present moment – I just wish that the ever-present distractions of modern life weren’t so tempting!

Is there a way for you to simplify your life? Does it seem impossible? Perhaps hold the aspiration, take one step at a time and see what unfolds.

Oh, and do watch the film if you can.

Kind Wishes

Heather

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Everyone is Up and Running

Last week I had a meeting with my fellow trustees of the new Everyone Project Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO): Vin Harris, Chloe Homewood, Jan Major and Barbara Reid. You couldn’t wish for a more talented and effective group of people to launch a project with. We signed the articles, which brought the Everyone Project Charity into existence! We had a brief birthday celebration. Then got on to the work of starting up!

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This project started when Barbara and I met for lunch about two years ago and shared our concern that those on our mindfulness courses already knew about mindfulness and were able to pay for their courses. It felt exclusive. But wouldn’t it be great if we could be more inclusive and offer courses to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access one. The Mindfulness Association (MA) has a network of 100s of trained Mindfulness Based Living Course (MBLC) teachers who were looking for meaningful work and there were many charities or other organisations looking for mindfulness courses for their staff , volunteers or client groups.

A plan was emerging and I took this back to develop with Vin, who is brilliant at developing a business plan. His Charity the Hart Knowe Trust partnered with the MA in this venture, with both parties providing most of the funding for our courses so far. Chloe joined us at this point, as she was so passionate about the project and we started with our first round of 11 courses in autumn 2016, then honing our process for a second round of 25 or so courses in spring 2017. Our third round of 20 courses are just about to begin.

An excellent team to get things going. If you run your own organisation, are a sole trader or are just interested, and would like to learn from Vin and Chloe, then they deliver an Enlightened Enterprise course, which you might find interesting (click here for more info).

Generally the organisations we partner with in the Everyone Project, provide a venue for the MBLC course, recruit the course participants and provide other support, such as copying course material. This means that the costs for funding the courses is mainly the tutor fee, which is pretty efficient for taking up to 15 participants through an 8 week course.

So far, over 350 people have benefitted from attending an MBLC course who otherwise wouldn’t have. How wonderful is that!

Alan from MAHQ and Julie McColl joined us to evaluate the outcomes of the courses. Moira Harris, who is a graduate of the MSc in Mindfulness (click here for more info)) is taking on the research role from now on, as the MA have sponsored her to do her PhD at the University of Aberdeen on evaluating the Everyone Project courses.

When we decided to set up the Charity we invited Barbara on board (as she helped come up with the idea in the first place) and Jan, as both are passionate about the project and have extensive experience working in charitable organisations and fundraising and are all round excellent people to work with.

So now we are developing a website and beginning to fundraise. If you wish to make a donation, enquire about running a course as a qualified MBLC teacher or take part as an organisation, then please get in touch with Chloe at everyone@mindfulnessassociation.net. We are looking for new applications for courses from the beginning of March and these courses will then run in the autumn of this year.

Once the bank account is set up, we are beginning with an online crowd funding campaign and with a sponsored sit at our Joyful Club membership weekend (click here for more info) in the hope of raising £20,000 by July so that we are able to fund even more courses next time round. So I will be in touch!

It feels a bit surreal what we have achieved so far with this project and the prospects for the benefits to communities across the UK are phenomenal. I can’t quite believe it has been possible.

But we continue together with our next steps, as we have done so far, without expectations or assumptions about what might unfold and in this way the possibilities are endless. It makes me feel amazingly joyful that we can reach out to so many people, especially when the times feel quite dark. A beacon of hope.

It’s a good way to live – choose a direction that is meaningful to us and is in line with our values – and keep going step by step in that direction – a recipe for a happy life.

So what’s your direction?

Kind Wishes

Heather

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Books, Books, Patience and More Books!

To my delight, this week I received my 3 author copies of the Mindfulness Based Living Course (MBLC) book that Choden and I have written together. We finished writing it just before Choden did his one year retreat, in October 2015. So it has taken a while!

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It took time to find a publisher.  After being turned down several times, when we were almost ready to publish, the arrangement with our first publisher fell through.  It has taken patience and bloody minded commitment to keep going! Then we found our current publisher, O Publications (an imprint of John Hunt publications), who published MA tutor Heather Grace MacKenzie’s (now Bond) book ‘Awakening Child: A journey of inner transformation through teaching your child Mindfulness and Compassion’. She gave me their details and they welcomed us with open arms. However, it has taken a while to get to this stage and the publication date is not until the end of November – so I will have to continue to be patient! But what an awesome Christmas present for all our friends and family!

But seriously, it is an accompaniment to the MBLC 8 week course and a self help version of the course to help those who can’t attend an MBLC class. We hope it will raise the profile of the MBLC course and bring more people to the 8 week course.

Now, I haven’t had a book published before and so am pretty excited, especially after such a long wait, and keeping going despite all the set backs. So I am going to be carrying a copy with me and showing it to all the friends and family I meet – I am resisting showing it to those sitting next to me on the train! So if I show the book to you, please indulge me – I am working on finding a balance between celebrating this accomplishment and working on not letting it go to my head! Not easy!

At the moment Choden and I are working on the final copy of the second book we have written together and this time with Rob Nairn. It is called Mindfulness to Insight: The Seeing Is the Doing. Shambala are publishing this book, which we are due to hand in by the end of the month. So that takes care of the presents for Christmas 2019!

Then after the current review of our Compassion curriculum, I am hoping that we can write a book about that – completing the trilogy of Mindfulness, Insight and Compassion – albeit out of order! Christmas 2020?!

At this time there are two other books arising from the Mindfulness Association’s work in partnership with the University of Aberdeen on the MSc in Studies in Mindfulness (Click here for more information on The MSc: Studies in Mindfulness). The first is a book by the MSc Programme Director Graeme Nixon about the rise of Mindfulness in relation to different aspects of our current cultural context. The second is about the experience of the Mindful Heroes – graduates from our MSc who are at the forefront of implementing Mindfulness in their field of work. If any of you have heard the conference presentations from our MSc graduates, they are pioneers and their work is truly inspirational!

Our motivation is to get the material out there to as many people as possible who may benefit from it and to demonstrate the value of long term Mindfulness training, over years and not weeks; and of Mindfulness training imbued with the qualities of Compassion and Insight from the start, ie. Our MA approach.

I am curious to see how it continues to unfold! It been a pretty magical journey up until now, but the potential for the future seems wonderful!

I’ll let you know when the MBLC book can be pre- ordered!

Kind Wishes
Heather

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Something Difficult To say

I had something difficult to say this week. I didn’t want to say it, but nevertheless it had to be said. I reflected and made notes on how to say it and after several iterations felt it was sayable. It troubled my sleep the night before and I was still undecided about whether to say anything the following morning. Then I listened to the Coldplay song ‘Miracles’ and after that I knew I would speak.

The lyrics for the chorus are:

Now you could run and just say they’re right
No I’ll never be no one in my whole life
Or you could turn and say no wait they’re wrong
And get to keep on dancing all life long

I spoke and it all went fine and the connection between those of us in the conversation is, I think, stronger.

My upbringing has made it very hard for me to say the difficult things. My habit is to avoid conflict and instead fuel resentment. I don’t want to rock the boat and I want to be liked the best. But not speaking my truth disempowers me and stepping up and speaking it keeps me dancing!

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I can only do that now through my Compassion and Insight training. The Compassion training has given me the resources of self-kindness, strength and wisdom to face my fear and do what I think is right regardless of the consequences. My Insight training helps me not to buy into the stories I tell myself about what people will think of me and how I will be disliked and isolated from the group. Generally, it goes a lot better than I imagine, people value the honesty and respect emerges.

Last weekend I taught on the first Compassion weekend of the MSc in Mindfulness with Aberdeen University (click here for more information). We saw significant breakthroughs where some of our course participants saw how some of the habits that they had used to protect themselves when they were young, were limiting their lives now. There were tears of hope and relief that they didn’t have to continue to follow these habits any more. Habits that had limited and disempowered them in their life. A powerful catharsis we experienced together as a group – safe in each other’s presence. This is the Miracle of Compassion and we can all benefit from it.

The practice that really seemed to help was the Compassionate colour guided practice, which is available on our completely free Compassion Based Living app.
When I experience a difficulty, I may shed an odd tear. It is the kind response to a difficulty from myself and from others, or the joy and hope of our human potential that really touches me and has me in tears.

Jane and I are leading the Compassion course at Samye Ling this year and you are very welcome to join us (click here for more information).

And in preparation, why not join us for our ‘Joyful Club’ membership weekend (click here for more information) and build with us the resources required to face the difficulties on our Compassion journey. The difficulties are where it’s at when it comes to personal growth through practice.

If we have practiced we can bring our Compassionate colour to mind to give us the courage to face what needs to be faced and to respond with kindness and wisdom and a heartfelt desire to connect authentically with ourselves and those around us. Give it a go!

Kind Wishes
Heather

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Cultivating Loving Kindness

The week just gone I have spent at the Purelands Retreat centre teaching a Compassion Based Living Course (CBLC) teaching skills retreat (click here). It was a coming together of fifteen teachers of the Mindfulness Based Living Course (MBLC) who had also completed our Mindfulness Level 2 Course: Responding with Compassion and who wanted to learn to teach Compassion.

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We started on the Tuesday evening with a reflection on why we wanted to teach Compassion. For me quite a strong response arose with the message ‘Because compassion is the only antidote to the pernicious culture in which we find ourselves’. I was quite surprised by the strength of my response, but it does feel like the culture in which we live is separating us from each other and is not conducive to us flourishing as human beings. We see a widening gap between the haves and the have- nots, between North and South, and an ever accelerating rise in mental health problems. There is constant coverage of war and political fighting on the news, setting us against those from other countries, religions or cultures or against those with other views. I hear stories of many distressed friends, family members and colleagues, struggling to deal with the challenges that modern life is bringing them.

I believe that the only thing that will bring us together is Compassion. A heartfelt understanding that we have more in common than separates us, in that we all suffer and that we all want to be happy. Compassion trains us to step into the shoes of the other, so as to understand their suffering and from there we can develop a possibility of mutual understanding and communication. I think Mindfulness is not enough – there also has to be Compassion.

So the definition of Compassion we use is the sensitivity to the suffering of ourselves and others, with a deep desire to relieve that suffering. And boy was this present in the wonderful group of people training to teach Compassion. This group had the courage to face and come to terms with their own suffering, so as to gain the understanding from which to authentically be present with and help others.

The act of having to face our suffering, can put a lot of people off training in Compassion, but I have to say that training in Compassion also requires us to cultivate a resource of joy, loving kindness and equanimity from which to face the suffering. Much of the training is about cultivating these resources and a real feeling of workability emerges as we gradually come to feel and understand that we have the resources to face the difficulties in our lives and to thrive and flourish as human beings regardless of what we face. 

Our membership weekend this year is all about building the resource of joy in our practice and in our daily life. I have found this so very important in my own practice and life and it is quite nice to live life joyfully, being grateful for all the wonderful people and opportunities I have in my life and appreciating the world around me. And why not? If I am happy, then those around me are happy and I am in a much better position to help others. If I get bogged down in the suffering of the world and become distressed I am no use to anyone and I am miserable. Easier said than done. Why not come and explore this with me at our July membership weekend ‘The Joyful Club’ (click here for more details).

By the end of the retreat we had been through the CBLC course together, teaching and giving feedback, exploring rationales and teaching points for the different practices. The final feedback session was wonderful to hear, with many people experiencing significant insights. For me the insight was the importance of loving kindness practice and an intention to make this a focus of my practice for the next few months. Recently I have been experiencing quite a lot of anger and a sense of separation from those around me. I know from previous experience that, for me, loving kindness practice will help me with this. There is a real value in doing the practice for myself and for those towards whom I feel anger, to remind me of my intention to be loving and kind and patient, even when my buttons are pressed. I realise that I won’t always be able to do this and that’s OK to – I am far from perfect – I am happy to be a compassionate mess of a person!

Jane and I are leading a Compassion training (click here for more details) at Samye Ling later this year and I am very much looking forward to it. It always benefits me to go through the theory and practices again – I always learn something more about myself. Some rough edge is always smoothed. It is painful to experience and feel my own anger, but well worth it, if I can use this experience to cultivate more resources of loving kindness. 

You can practice the ‘Widening circle of loving kindness practice’ as well as the ‘Limitless Joy practice’ and the equanimity practice of ‘Aspiring Dissolving and Equalising’ on our Compassion Based Living app, available for free from the Google play store and the Apple app store for Android and Apple devices.

Why not join me in these practices and in cultivating loving kindness this next few weeks.

Kind Wishes

Heather

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