Archives for posts with tag: Buddhism

I spent the new year at Sharpham House in Devon – a beautiful stately home surrounded by acres of rolling hills, with breathtaking views of the River Dart.

I attended a five day meditation retreat, which involved 30 minute seated meditation sessions before breakfast, lunch and dinner. The retreat was ‘semi-silent’: the silence would begin at 9pm each evening (after a 30 minute yoga nidra session), and last until 10am the following morning. We also spent new year’s day in silence. It was divine!

Highlights: wandering in the grounds, long sleeps, delicious home-made vegetarian food, spending hours in the library curled up with a good book, having amazing conversations with the other retreat guests and making new friends, playing the piano in the music room, breathing in the fresh Devon air and having the time and space to think clearly and plan for a fun and fruitful 2017.

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This week is ‘Live like a Stoic’ week in London. But what does it mean to be stoical? Doesn’t it involve being miserable and repressing your emotions? No no no. Jules Evans, Policy Director at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, explained to me what Stoicism is, how it can benefit busy Londoners, and how it relates to mindfulness meditation.

KB: What is Stoicism?

JE: It’s an ancient philosophy that originated in Athens in 300 BC before spreading to Rome and around the world. It inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and still helps many people today to cope with adversity and live a good life.

KB: How can adopting a stoical outlook on life help busy Londoners cope with the demands of living in a chaotic, capitalist and at times dangerous city? 

JE: It helps people focus on what is in their control while accepting what is not. It helps them become aware of how their opinions and perspective can create their emotions and how they can change their perspective and thereby change their emotions. And it helps them think about virtue – what does it mean to live with fortitude, patience, kindness, integrity?

Live like a Stoic Week 24-30th November

Live like a Stoic Week 24-30th November

KB: Can Stoicism help Londoners to observe the beauty in their own city? 

JE: There’s an idea in Stoicism of living in the now, bringing your attention to the present in order to appreciate the beauty of nature for example. There’s also the idea of sometimes widening your perspective, getting a bigger picture, through the contemplation of nature. That might best happen outside of London, but I find Hampstead Heath a good place for contemplation!

KB: Would a stoic practice mindfulness meditation? 

JE: Yes many do. Both Stoicism and Buddhism share the idea of the importance of mindfulness, of learning to be conscious of one’s automatic thoughts and desires and to avoid hasty attachment or aversion to external things.

KB: What does Stoicism have in common with Buddhism?

JE: Well, mindfulness for one. Overcoming attachment and aversion. Focusing on the present moment. More fundamentally, both think of philosophy as a form of therapy or medicine. And both share the cognitive theory of the emotions – the idea our emotions are connected to our thoughts and beliefs.

KB: Where can Londoners go to practice Stoicism and meet other stoics? 

JE: We are hosting a big event in London this Saturday although it’s sold out alas. But there is an online handbook at http://modernstoicism.com/ which people can follow. Plus lively facebook and reddit pages on Stoicism, and an organisation called New Stoa. There are many local philosophy groups such as the London Philosophy Club, and organisations like the School of Life and the Idler Academy often host stoic events.

In English culture, owning your own house and garden is a big deal. We don’t always pay enough attention to the beautiful green spaces that anyone can visit – regardless of their income, career, age or social status.

Image by Anne Marie Briscombe

Avenue of Plane Trees, Green Park, by Anne Marie Briscombe

There are eight Royal Parks in London: together, they make up 5,000 acres of opportunity for fresh air, picnics, exercise, getting in touch with nature and, of course, mindfulness practice.

Pelican in the sun, St. James's Park, by Anne Marie Briscombe

Pelican in the sun, St. James’s Park, by Anne Marie Briscombe

The Royal Parks press office gave me permission to share these excellent images of the parks: in this post I’m sharing spring and summertime images from Green Park, St. James’s Park and Hyde Park, in the next post I’ll share images from Regents Park and Greenwich Park.

The parks might not look quite this picturesque every day, but they definitely beat spending your lunch break sitting hunched over a computer, gobbling a Pret a Manger sandwich 🙂

Boating on the serpentine, Hyde Park, by Indusfoto Ltd

Boating on the serpentine, Hyde Park, by Indusfoto Ltd

The Royal Parks are also ideal for trying out a walking meditation practice. To do a walking meditation practice, you simply need to devote your full attention to your present experience whilst walking. Notice the soles of your shoes as they make contact with the earth, notice any sensations in the body, any external sounds in the park, the shapes and colours of the trees, water and animals. Every time your mind wanders away to past or future thoughts, take it back to your present experience. That’s it – nothing too complicated!

Horse Guard's Parade, St. James's Park, by Indusfoto Ltd

Horse Guard’s Parade, St. James’s Park, by Indusfoto Ltd

I recently came across the following advice for walking meditation by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

“In our daily lives, we usually feel pressured to move ahead. We have to hurry. We seldom ask ourselves where it is that we must hurry to.

When you practice walking meditation, you go for a stroll. You have no purpose or direction in space or time. The purpose of walking meditation is walking meditation itself. Going is important, not arriving. Walking meditation is not a means to an end; it is an end. Each step is life; each step is peace and joy. That is why we don’t have to hurry. That is why we slow down.”

Would be great to see rush hour tube travellers adopt this attitude!

Buddhists have been practicing mindfulness for more than 2,000 years. Matthieu Ricard, the happiest man in the world (measured in a laboratory!) is a Buddhist monk. For some reason, I’d never visited a Buddhist centre, so I decided to rectify this last week and paid a visit to the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green.

London Buddhist Centre

London Buddhist Centre

The LBC run drop-in lunchtime classes (donation only) Monday-Saturday. I took the newcomers class with Subhadramati, a Buddhist Order Member who has been practising meditation for more than 25 years. We were led to a shrine room, a quiet room with a beautiful gold statue of the Buddha in a seated meditation pose.

Shrine room

Shrine room

Subhadramati began the class with a five minute introductory mindfulness practice. We sat cross-legged on chairs or cushions, and Subhadramati invited us to become aware of our posture, the weight of our bodies, and the contact of our limbs and feet with the floor. We then brought our attention to our breath, noticing the flow of air in and out of the body. It always amazes me that such a simple practice can be so effective in just a couple of minutes: as my breath became deeper and my body remained still in a seated pose, I felt a sense of calm and focus that can be really hard to locate when I’m travelling around central London!

We then progressed onto the formal Buddhist practice of mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing has four progressive stages:

1. In the first stage you use counting to stay focused on the breath. After the out-breath you count one, then you breathe in and out and count two, and so on up to ten, and then you start again at one.

2. In the second stage you subtly shift where you breathe, counting before the in-breath, anticipating the breath that is coming, but still counting from one to ten, and then starting again at one.

3. In the third stage you drop the counting and just watch the breath as it comes in and goes out.

4. In the final stage the focus of concentration narrows and sharpens, so you pay attention to the subtle sensation on the tip of the nose where the breath first enters and last leaves the body.

We spent around five minutes on each stage, punctuated by the sound of a Tibetan bell at each interval. What I particularly loved about this practice is that it is very easy to relax into: there are no complicated breath techniques, it is just a case of observing what is happening in the body, and watching the flow of the breath. Also the four different stages provide a point of focus, which prevents the mind from wandering…which is something that I’ve definitely experienced with other practices!

At the end of the practice, Subhadramati explained that mindfulness of breathing is one of the two main Buddhist practices. The other is ‘loving kindness’, which is designed to help the practitioner develop a more compassionate attitude towards themselves and others. At the LBC lunchtime sessions they practice mindfulness and loving kindness on alternate days throughout the week.

Would I recommend mindfulness of breathing at the LBC? Absolutely. I’m hoping to try out the loving kindness practice soon!