Sunday 15 May 2016

Task 14: Practise mindfulness for a day at a retreat in Brighton, UK

The idea for this task was inspired by my previous life as a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, but in recent years mindfulness as a secular practice has become a hugely popular addition to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Rather than challenging distressing thoughts (as in CBT), mindfulness invites us to observe distressing thoughts in the present moment - and then to let them pass through the mind and float away.  

About five years ago I attended an 8-week mindfulness course and learnt different forms of meditation such as mindfulness of the breath, body scans, walking meditation and compassion-focused meditation.  I still love to do walking meditations, especially when I'm on the Ashdown Forest with the dogs. I think Alfie's mind is likely to be fuller than mine (he's a real worrywart), but Mabel's mind is definitely like the drawing below, perhaps with the addition of a deer or two hiding in the trees.

Recently I've been finding it quite a challenge to maintain the discipline of doing a more formal daily meditation, even though I know how helpful it is. And hence my decision to include this task on the sixtyat60 list. A full day of guided meditation practice. A full day of shared silence in peaceful tranquil surroundings. A full day with my lovely friend and psychotherapist colleague Sian, who volunteered to accompany me. My inner core felt soothed at the very prospect.  

And then lo and behold an email popped up in my inbox, alerting me to a day course on Healing Ourselves and Others at the Bodhisattva Kadampa Meditation Centre in Brighton. Such perfect timing! The Bodhisattva Centre is home to an international Buddhist community and it runs lots of courses and retreats to anyone interested in meditation practice. Although neither Sian or I had visited the Centre before, we knew it by reputation. We duly booked places. 

We arrived at the Centre last Saturday morning for our day of meditation. The Centre is based in a Grade-II listed building in the centre of Brighton and sits in 2 acres of grounds, filled with all manner of trees, shrubs and well-cultivated flower beds - a hidden sanctuary within its urban setting. Sian and I were definitely looking forward to having some calm time in this place. 

Inside the building the monks and volunteer staff were smiley and welcoming. The World Peace Cafe was selling yummy looking cakes.  The atmosphere was serene yet buzzy.  Sian and I joined a group of about 70 people of all ages and backgrounds in a bright and sunny room. The teacher, Gen Kelsang Lhachog, sat cross-legged on a platform-like chair in front of us. She was warm, gentle, jokey and quietly confident, and exuded conviction in a completely non-authoritarian way.  We learnt that her day's teaching and meditations were to be based on a book called Eight Steps to Happiness by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. 'Wow - just eight steps?' I thought to myself, 'Can it be that simple?' At which point Gen Lhachog reminded us to keep our minds open, and cautioned against listening like 'upturned, leaky or nasty-smelling pots'.  I especially took note of the nasty-smelling pot (distrusting or automatically disagreeing with what I heard...)

The focus of the morning session was on 'Taking'. The meditation involved bringing to mind a person or people we wished to protect from suffering and to imagine drawing their suffering out of them in the form of thick black smoke. We then had to visualise taking the smoke through our chests into our heart centres, and imagine the smoke destroying our own selfishness. Some people reading my description might perhaps need to be reminded of the nasty-smelling pot analogy. But I thought the meditation was pretty powerful stuff.

Then it was lunchtime. I was feeling very peaceful if a little drained (meditation can be surprisingly tiring!) We were given an amazing 2-course lunch, which included upside down pineapple pudding and custard - talk about comfort food. And then we returned for the afternoon session, which was on 'Giving'. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sun's rays crept stealthily into the room. I had a wonderful sense of contentment and well-being. We prepared ourselves for the 'giving' meditation, which involved bringing to mind a person for whom we wished happiness. We were asked to develop a strong wish for them to be happy, as if we were wishing it for ourselves. 'You'll start to feel as if your body is being pervaded by blissful light',  said Gen Lhachog from far away......zzzzzzzzz.... oh my goodness, I must have  dropped off for a few where was I? Ah yes, the nature of pure love.....zzzzzzz.....oh no, I'd dropped off again. It seems I was just a little too relaxed.  I felt joy in my heart nevertheless.  And I bought the 'kind heart' CD afterwards for good measure.

At the end of the day, Sian and I had a quiet wander around the grounds and beyond to swop observations and ideas. We struggled to do a decent selfie, so we got a young man from the World Peace Cafe to take a photo of us (as Sian says, sleepy eyes behind the glasses hidden!)


The following day I felt on absolute tip-top form - very relaxed yet energised. Gen Kelsang Lhachog told us that her day's teachings could be summarised in seven words 'Do no harm, cherish others, practice virtue'. I think those are very fine rules for life. And I intend to listen to the CD regularly - only perhaps not straight after eating a large bowl of upside-down pineapple pudding and custard.  My warmest thanks to Sian for being the perfect companion on Task 14 (whether in a dozing or wakeful state!) 

I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Shooting Star Chase children's hospice care in memory of a special little girl called Thea Redford. 

For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at

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