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Mindfulness... Where to go from here?

One of the enduring challenges in developing a framework for mindfulness training in a secular context is the absence of any form of community or social structure within which the training and practice can take place. By contrast, in the contemplative traditions, mindfulness practices were typically part of a larger structure of practices, doctrines, beliefs and ethics, and these were taught within particular communities, for example, within a monastic environment.

For the most part, people in the west are tending to come into contact with mindfulness through books or apps, and therefore without access to the support of a teacher, let alone a community of like-minded people. This is why I have tended to encourage people to take some form of group training, such as an 8-week course like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). I teach on these courses, and in the process, I see people directly benefiting from discovering mindfulness within a group setting, (and also from the guidance of the teachers). However, all too often, people come to the end of the course, and find themselves adrift, as the sense of support and involvement with the group evaporates.

Mindful Pathway, an organisation I teach with, have been very proactive in trying to resolve this dilemma. For a while now they have been running monthly sitting groups, and occasional ‘retreat days’ open to people who have attended their 8-week course. This year Mindful Pathway introduced a 5-week “Embedding Mindfulness” course, for graduates of their 8-week MBCT courses. I worked alongside Ruth and Karen, my fellow teachers, to develop a course that builds on the MBCT content, by beginning to investigate the deep connection between mindfulness and insight practices, and also exploring the development of compassion and self-compassion; a route that has become popular in the development of secular mindfulness. The course also examines other important areas, such as the barriers and pitfalls in developing a regular meditation practice.

But as we presented the course for the first time this summer (2018), what perhaps struck me the most, was the strong sense of community and support within the group. This, above anything else, made me feel certain of the value in developing ways to support people in their regular practice of mindfulness, and, as much as possible, keeping social interaction at the heart of this.

Einstein's optical delusion

Listening to Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her 'stroke of insight' reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein, which Richard Davidson used to close his session at the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue, "The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation":

'A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.'

This brief quotation seems to connect so well with the insights that Jill shares in her presentation: The concept of oneness, or connection, and how we are cut of from it by the 'optical delusion' of our consciousness. The sense that we can observe this restriction and strive to free ourselves from it. And not least, the need for compassion.

On that subject, Davidson's presentation, (Mind-Brain-Body Interaction and Meditation), covered some of his research into neural states in experienced and novice meditators. He noted, 'Many areas of the brain were more activated during compassion meditation compared to the neutral state… Another brain region, the medial prefrontal cortex, has been implicated in self-relevant processing… This area of the brain associated with the self is deactivated when people are generating compassion, which is very much a selfless state.'

A transcription of the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue has been published in "The Mind's Own Physician" - ISBN: 978-1-57224-968-4

Despite the fact that this is quite a well-known quotation from Einstein, there seems to be some uncertainty as to the exact wording he used. It’s possible he may have re-written this a few times, leading to confusion today, but after some searching I found the following quote was included in a letter he wrote in 1950.

'A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe', a part limited by time & space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts & feelings as something separated from the rest –
A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.
Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind'.

Albert Einstein, February 12, 1950.

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