British School of Meditation Blog
This year my silent retreat was at St. Beuno’s in North Wales. www.beunos.com
Going on retreat has become an essential part of my spiritual practice and I now go on one at least twice a year.
We live in a noisy, 24/7 world, under pressure to respond almost instantly to texts and emails, to keep up to date with our Facebook postings, and join other social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn. There is a 24 hour news cycle with constant updates so that we can know what is going on anywhere in the world by looking at Google or at an app on our Smartphone.
For me the opportunity to get away from this has become really important. I work from home so my work computer is in my home office. I have been to lots of different places on retreat and have come to appreciate deep silence while on away. Just getting away from home and the office gives me an opportunity to recharge my batteries and reconnect with my spirituality.
St. Beuno’s is a spirituality centre set in beautiful countryside, not far from Rhyl. The grounds are lovely and there are plenty of walks you can go on in the local area. The centre itself is a calm and tranquil place and you feel your cares and worries beginning to drop away from you as you are welcomed at the front door.
Silence begins on the first evening after dinner and a short meeting to go through ground rules. Silence is maintained then until breakfast on the final morning. However, everyone is given a spiritual director and you meet with them once a day for forty five minutes. This gives all the retreatants an opportunity to talk through any problems that may have come up coping with being in silence. It is also an opportunity to discuss deeper issues with someone trained to help with discernment.
The time is spent in silence but you are free to do whatever you wish to with your time. The only timetable events are meals and two daily services in the chapel. Attendance at the services is completely voluntary; however, I did find them a lovely way of joining with my fellow retreatants.
A silent retreat isn’t for everyone. When I tell people I am going on a silent retreat quite often the reaction is ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that!’ we can be afraid of silence because it is just you with your thoughts. However, silence can be very therapeutic in our noisy world.
One way you could discover if a silent retreat was for you would be to go on a day/half day retreat and see how you got on.
Another place to investigate for retreats: https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/
Every year Woodbrooke runs retreats and one is run by nuns from Plum Village in France and based on the teachings of the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. www.plumvillage.org
What is Meditation?
This is question is one that we are often asked, in fact it is one of the very first pieces of work that our students must write about for their qualification as a Meditation Teacher with BSoM.
Headspace defines it:
‘Meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. And eventually, you may start to better understand them as well’. https://www.headspace.com
The Buddhist Centre define it as: -
‘Meditation is a means of transforming the mind. Buddhist meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things. By engaging with a particular meditation practice, you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new, more positive ways of being. With regular work and patience these nourishing, focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energised states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life’. https://thebuddhistcentre.com
My definition: -Meditation is the practice of observing your mind, thoughts and body, without attachment. Meditation helps to bring moments of peace and acceptance, a place of stillness where you can just rest.
My interpretation of meditation is that it is a practice, a skill that needs to be learnt. It is not something that can be done just once and you will reap the benefits, it is a skill that has to be practised by you regularly, hopefully, at least once a day. This might be for just 5 minutes but if you can meditate for longer periods this will be helpful. However, never feel guilty for meditating for just couple of minutes, some time spent in meditation will be better than none.
So, I ask myself, what are the benefits Meditation has brought to you? Well, it has helped me to deal with the stress that we all have every day, when I feel overwhelmed I just sit and take three conscious breaths; this helps me to refocus and calms me, this is also meditation in my view.
Meditation has allowed me to be more grounded, by this I mean more focused on the task in hand, less living in the future or the past. I have also noticed how beautiful the world is because I take time to look.
Meditation has taught me to be more observant of the world around me. I have just recovered from a couple of fractures in my leg, and meditation helped me deal with the pain, I would observe the pain, and somehow this would stop the discomfort from taking me over, it was just a pain in my knee, that was getting better and healing. I guess you could say it taught me acceptance.
One of the other benefits to me is that it has allowed me to be more creative, I used to worry if a picture wasn’t very good, now I enjoy the process and what it turns out like is a bonus.
If you wish to learn to meditate go to our website and find a registered BSoM Meditation teacher near you. http://www.teaching-meditation.co.uk/findateacher/
The vagus nerve and cancer - guest blog from Dr David Hamilton PhD
I recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.
Why is this important?
I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.
That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.
I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.
The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress(free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).
Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.
Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.
Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.
The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.
So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).
The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning
down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.
In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).
The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”
The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.
So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?
The answer is yes.
There are a few ways, in fact, that include:
- practice of compassion
I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.
Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.
For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.
The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.
So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!
For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.
Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.
Apps and guided meditations can be very helpful and a support for your meditation practice. I am using an app on my tablet which is called Insight Timer; the icon is a singing bowl, it has a lovely sounding bell which you can set for time you want to meditate for and even set it so it can ring in intervals during meditation. The app also has guided meditations, one of which is by Sharon Salzberg. Mary also has a meditation there too. Put Mary’s name into the search box and her Waves meditation will come up. The app also shows with little dots where people are using this app though out the world at the same time as you, all good fun. https://insighttimer.com/
Another well known app and a very good one is Headspace. https://www.headspace.com/
Headspace was started by Andy Puddicombe. Andy says on the Headspace website:
‘Andy Puddicombe is a meditation and mindfulness expert. An accomplished presenter and writer, Andy is the voice of all things Headspace. In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten-year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India. His transition back to lay life in 2004 was no less extraordinary. Training briefly at Moscow State Circus, he returned to London where he completed a degree in Circus Arts with the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, whilst drawing up the early plans for what was later to become Headspace’.
Headspace is now used by millions of people all over the world. It’s a fantastic app. It is on special offer at the moment. 40% off your subscription. First 10 lessons are free.
Guided Meditation CDs (Mary has recorded several which are excellent) and Apps are very useful as a tool to help us to build our practice of Meditation, they are a bit like the small training wheels children have on their bicycles. while they are learning the skill of cycling, until they can to ride without them. This is what we should be aiming at with our practice, to become the meditation, in everything that we do, not just for 20 minutes or so, every now and then. It will be amazing when we all get to that point, for me I definitely still have my L plates on.
Guest Blog from Natalie Snuggs, BSoM Registered Teacher
How can I meditate over the holidays?
I have been asked this question so many times I decided to make it the subject of this month’s blog. As we all know when we start to meditate getting a regular routine going can be the tricky part; once that is established it is pretty much plain sailing for a while. But then a holiday comes along, and the combination of children, visitors, days out, trips away etc. throws all those good intentions out.
As a meditation teacher I have made a commitment to daily formal meditation and in some ways, this makes it easier as everyone knows I ‘have’ to meditate each day. However, I was contemplating this just the other day when stating my intention for that day’s meditation. I asked myself, ‘why am I meditating?’, the first answer, ‘because I have to.’ Then I asked, ‘is this the only reason?’ I soon realised that if someone gave me permission to skip my meditation for a few days I wouldn’t want to. I have learnt how beneficial daily practice is for me and I now make it a priority.
However, I also know how hard it is to juggle a full-time job, four children and elderly parents especially during the holidays, so here are my personal five top tips to help you:
1) Lower your expectations for a while
If you have to change your meditation time you may not be as alert so choose exercises you find easier, give yourself a break and remember you are doing the best you can. Use guided meditations more, do body scans before you get out of bed. The important thing is to keep trying; decide how long you will sit for and then just do it, however you think it is going.
Another trick is to do shorter meditations more often. Obviously, we want to extend our practice and learn to sit for longer periods over time, but sometimes this simply isn’t possible, so we end up just not doing any practice at all. Even ten minutes is beneficial; the worst meditation is one that doesn’t happen. A few minutes of mindful breathing at intervals throughout the day can work wonders.
2) Incorporate more daily mindfulness
Almost any activity can become a meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh says that any walk is a meditation, we can also eat mindfully, wash mindfully, clean mindfully etc. I would suggest two methods: first choose an activity for the day which you will carry out mindfully, decide what it will be the night before and how long you will spend doing this (e.g. the first three minutes of my shower or every time I wash my hands). This way you have a clear, manageable intention which you stick to and which helps you maintain some sort of daily routine.
I read a story once about a woman who had young children and was unable to find time to meditate. This was really getting her down until a visiting monk asked her what her daily routine was. Thinking he would try and persuade her to find time for formal practice she was surprised when he agreed that there simply wasn’t time in her day. Instead he encouraged her to see that caring for her family was a form of mindfulness and her daily washing up became her meditation practice for some years. Instead of this being a chore, it became something she looked forward to doing as ‘her time’.
Second, you can meditate anywhere: sit on a beach, close your eyes and just listen, allow sounds to come to you. Feel the air move over your skin, breathe in and notice what you can smell. Stop every now and then and examine a flower, a leaf, a rock as if it is the first one you have ever seen. Really listen to what your child / partner / parent is saying to you as if it is the most important conversation in the world, because in some ways it is.
3) Get the kids involved
Children are very mindful and love activities such as blowing bubbles and shouting goodbye to worries, watching clouds and noticing different shapes or colours and seeing how many different shapes of shell or stone they can spot. Just noticing without judging is a very useful skill for them to learn. They also love sound meditations, ask them to close their eyes and listen for a minute and then ask them what sounds they heard in order – it helps with their concentration and memory too.
When colouring with older children suggest they use their non-dominant hand for a while, it doesn’t matter how tidy it is, it is the fact that they focused well that counts. There are lots of sensory activities online which can be used as mindful activities. Sharing this kind of practice helps the whole family.
4) Have a clear intention
Write in your diary when you will return to your formal daily practice and stick to it. Discipline is part of meditation and I know from experience how easy it is to let it slide and how detrimental that can be. And if you feel part way through your family holiday that you really need time to meditate on your own don’t feel guilty about it. You wouldn’t feel guilty if you were ill and needed to lie down for half an hour so why feel guilty about doing an activity which will keep you happy and healthy? Making your meditation time a priority will also help your future practice and sends a positive message to those around you that you value your well-being.
5) End each day with gratitude
If every waking moment of your day is filled with family and loved ones who all want your time, remember to be thankful for this. Take a bit of time at the end of the day to be grateful for the health that allows you to be busy, for the people who want to be in your life and the amazing adventures you are having each day. Sometimes the best that can be said of a day is that we all survived in one piece ready to go again tomorrow; things don’t have to be perfect. When we count our many small blessings we realise how lucky we are, then we can sleep, reminding ourselves that we are doing the best we can.
Guest blog from BSoM accredited teacher, Jacqui Bagatelas
For years I’ve told myself “I don’t do exercise”, but last Christmas I decided this needed to change! After a simple party game on Christmas Day that involved me throwing paper balls over my shoulder for 2 mins, I woke up on Boxing Day with my shoulder and neck completely seized and suffice to say in a lot of pain. Pain medication wasn’t hitting the spot, so I turned to Prosecco, which funnily enough loosened my muscles and got me through the day, but lying still all night just repeated the pain cycle the next day. I spent two nights sleeping on my treatment chair, rotating between that and each end of the settee. One evening, the only comfortable place was the floor and this was when I decided, I needed “to do” exercise again.
Well, with Mindfulness Meditation, I’ve learnt that our brains are powerful things. The messages we give it create our reality, so this is where I decided to start, firstly I joined the Gym. I went with a positive message “I’m going to do this”, four minutes into the cross trainer, my positivity started to wane, my wheezing chest protested and I seriously doubted my survival!! I really was unfit, but determined to make this work as my shoulders and neck needed it I came back again and have indeed made it work. Here are the ways that I use Mindfulness in the Gym, use these tips to help you:
· Eyes shut and visualise – on the machines where it’s safe to do so, definitely not the running machine, unless your goal is to face plant and give yourself an injury, I shut my eyes. I find that by shutting my eyes I’m more focused on my mantras and it also stops me clock watching. What’s the phrase ‘a watched kettle never boils’. I’m more in the moment too, I can feel and visualise the strength of my muscles working and the expansion and contraction of my chest with my breath. Athletes often visualise themselves achieving their best times and performance, so there’s no reason why we can’t do the same. I never thought I’d be able to up my time from 5 mins on that cross trainer the first day I did it. Now I’m managing 18 minutes and I’ve also increased the intensity, I break a sweat, but I definitely don’t wheeze!
· Diversion - visualise – whilst exercising I take the opportunity to visualise something I want to achieve, and I see myself having actually achieved it. For me at the moment, my thyroid function needs nurturing, I’m visualising my Thyroid gland working beautifully, I almost see if pulsing and then imagine all the benefits that an optimally functioning thyroid will offer me, one of them being lots of energy to exercise. I find that visualising whilst I’m exercising also diverts me from my unhelpful thoughts, about how much longer I can exercise for, about how much of a burn I’m feeling, so that I can actually exercise for longer and reach my goals
So, 6 months on, I’ve used the knowledge I had around mind-set to completely change the way I view exercise in my life. Most weeks I manage to get to the gym twice a week for an hour session and for someone who hadn’t exercised for years I’m happy with that and so are my neck and shoulders! Where in your life, personal or professional, could you start using mindfulness, mantras and visualisation to help you achieve your goals? Feel free to get in touch if you need some inspiration :-) x
Jacqui Bagatelas Freedom Therapies MAR IIR Dip BSoM
This morning I meditated using my TM mantra. I have been practising TM for nearly 20 years now, and it has served me well. I am not alone in doing TM. Since it was introduced into the West by the Beatles in the 1960’s a great many people have adopted TM as their meditation practice. Some famous names include: Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Goldie Hawn and Jennifer Aniston.
When you learn TM, you are given a mantra to repeat silently twice a day for 15-20 minutes. Practising helps me to feel calm and centered and enables me to cope with whatever life may throw at me.
There are however, many other mantras you can use successfully. Meditating on Lovingkindness involves repeating loving words silently in your mind, such as ‘May you be well, may you be happy’
‘Calm’ is a wonderful mantra and for many it brings a sense of calm and well-being.
The most basic mantra is Om, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras.
Frans Stiene, http://ihreiki.com says this about mantras: ‘The main point of chanting a mantra is to stay mindful, with a single pointed concentration on the mantra itself. Thus, if we start to recite the mantra from memory, rattling it off while at the same time we follow our thoughts to the past, present, and future, then the mantra is in reality doing nothing at all. The real key in chanting mantras is that we stay single pointedly focused on the mantra itself. This is why sometimes if we learn a mantra and, after a lot of practice, we start to feel that we are just rattling it off by memory, we might need to refocus our concentration again. We can do this by focusing, for example, on the syllables of the mantra. Or we may need to begin working with a new or longer mantra so that our concentration becomes more single pointed again’.
So, mantras are powerful tools for meditation, however, they are a type of meditation not the only way to meditate. We all need to find the best form of meditation for ourselves, sometimes by trying several until you find the one for you.
We have been writing blog posts on our website for 7 years now. We then set up our Facebook page and started copying the blog posts onto FB.
Most of our posts are about the benefits of meditation and the growing body of scientific evidence to support these benefits.
Since we opened the British School of Meditation in 2011 there had been an explosion of interest in meditation and mindfulness and we are delighted to be part of that process.
Last week we were voted as one of the top websites/blogs for 2018:
thank you to Anju Agarwal for the recommendation!
How Meditation Can Help to Restore a Sense of Balance
In this post, Gillian Higgins, international war crimes barrister and meditation teacher explains why she began to meditate, how it helped her to become a better parent and changed her practice as a barrister.
A few years ago, I found myself feeling stressed and overwrought on a regular basis with no apparent remedy in sight. As both a parent to my young daughter and a practicing war crimes barrister, I felt there must be a way of running my professional motor more smoothly while enjoying the challenges of parenthood without feeling completely exhausted. The truth was I needed to learn new skills to help me restore a sense of balance and an ability to be present.
The only criterion in my search was that it must be scientifically provable. And so I discovered mindfulness meditation. I did my research, started to attend a class with an inspiring local teacher, read as many books as I could and most importantly, I began to practice, even when I didn’t want to. In the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure it was making a difference and I often experienced a sense of frustration or boredom. Persuaded to continue by my teacher, after a few months, I started to feel a subtle change. In my work, I found myself better able to cope with stressful situations and in time, the behaviour of others in the workplace became something I observed, rather than took personally. As a parent, I became more willing to be present no matter how difficult that could sometimes be, and felt better able to respond rather than knee-jerk react to the challenges that parenting often brings.
After several years of practice, I decided I wanted to learn to teach and enlisted with The British School of Meditation. It was a journey that not only deepened my own practice, but also gave me the confidence to take mindfulness meditation to the Bar and to share mindfulness meditation with my colleagues, many of whom feel a growing need to develop stress management skills in order to cope with modern practice.
Last year, my teaching led me to create The Mindful Kitchen Company with my friend Miranda Gore Browne who became a regular at my local meditation classes in Easebourne, West Sussex.
As a Great British Bake-Off finalist and passionate cook, Miranda talked to me about the similarities between baking, food and meditation – all of which encourage the mind to be present in the moment. Soon after, we hatched a plan to launch an initiative focused on the idea of“cook, bake, breathe and eat”which aims to bring together the benefits of mindfulness into everyday life and the natural joys of the simplest things in life – food, baking and being in the moment.
Gillian’s first book 7 Days of Mindfulness is due to be published later this year. For more information about her work, see Practical Meditation at www.practicalmeditation.co.uk
For more information about The Mindful Kitchen Company, see www.themindfulkitchencompany.co.uk
Guest Blog from Geraldine McCullagh
When I first decided to train with the British School of Meditation as an accredited meditation teacher, it was to help with my one to one work with business leaders. I’m a coach and trainer, specialising in self presentation and communication. I draw on my background as a broadcaster, but also as someone who has meditated for many years, to deliver this. As I experimented with techniques to facilitate better communication, like working with the breath, the posture and being fully in the present moment, it became clear I was incorporating mindfulness and clients were responding well to this. This being the case, I wanted to understand better the wider context for the role of mindfulness in developing leaders, the evidence for its benefits for mental resilience and well-being, to learn further meditation tools beyond my own practice, and to have an external validation that an accredited course and membership of a professional meditation body, that required ongoing CPD, would give me.
Without question it has benefited my one to one work. But it’s also led me to do corporate work with teams which I’m finding very rewarding. The business world is becoming more aware of the cost of days lost by employees taking time off because of stress, or by employees underperforming because of feeling under too much pressure. Mindfulness can’t change external factors, but it can change how we react to them, making us feel calmer and more in control.
Most recently I’ve started working with the Gloucestershire firm, BPE Solicitors. At the start of the year they ran a series of well-being events for their staff, delivered by different practitioners. One of their team had worked with me before and asked if I’d be interested in running a mindfulness event. I delivered 2 sessions, each of an hour, to 2 groups of 20, looking at some definitions of mindfulness as well as introducing some breathing and visualisation techniques to experience it. The staff reaction to this was very positive, so they invited me to provide one day a month of 2/3 sessions (depending on numbers as we are trying to keep the groups down to 10 or less) up until the end of the year.
Amanda Coleman, HR Manager at BPE Solicitors, says “We value the productivity and commitment of our teams but know they need to look after themselves to sustain this. These sessions have proved popular and effective, so we’re pleased to support them”.
The attendees are responsive and clearly appreciate that BPE are happy to invest in their emotional and mental health. If nothing else, the sessions give them time to step away from their desks and discover how 40 minutes of meditation can make them feel both calmer and recharged. But I’m also exploring with them what techniques work particularly well for them, so that if they wish, they can start using them within much shorter sessions on their own. I’m emphasising too that mindfulness isn’t just about sitting and focusing on their breath, mantras or visualisations. It’s also about a certain level of awareness we can bring to all sorts of everyday activities to step off the treadmill for a few moments of being present.
Over the next few months, we’ll be continuing to work with tools to help us be physically centred and more relaxed. We’ll be looking at how to calm our minds, then start to watch our minds and stop our thoughts from overwhelming us. And we’ll work with our senses to be more fully present in the moment, using sight, sound, smell and taste (the very popular mindful chocolate eating exercise!).
The British School of Meditation has been established to train teachers in meditation techniques to meet the growing demand for highly trained and accredited meditation teachers throughout the UK including: the Midlands, South West, Wales, North West, North East, London and the South East.