Having gathered good momentum for my weekly writing, I am taking a blogging pause' for a month. I am about to head off on a retreat - a 4 week retreat that in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition is referred to as Dathun, literally a ‘moon session’. The month-long period of practice is an opportunity to immerse myself in mindfulness meditation alongside others in the ‘sangha’ or Shambhala community. I am told that each day will be a full schedule of sitting and walking meditation, interspersed with periods of work (to contribute to the running of the centre). Another central practice is that of oryoki, a way of taking our meals borrowed from the Japanese Zen tradition. Each person has his or her own set of bowls, chopsticks and napkins. During each meal the set is opened, food is served accompanied by chanting, and everyone eats on the meditation cushion. After eating, the bowls are washed and the sets assembled right on the spot. Most of the retreat will be in silence: some periods of ‘golden’ silence (no talking), and some periods where only ‘functional’ speech is allowed (“can you pass me the salt please?”).
Practice from 7am in the morning through until 9pm each night, for 28 days. As I sit here writing, 4 days before I head off, I have a multitude of feelings about the retreat, and I watch how those feelings and thoughts sway me: oscillating between excitement and anxiety.
One of my work roles is that of Course Leader for the MSc psychotherapy at the University of Brighton, a post I have been in for nearly two years now. Over the past few weeks its been mid-year assessment time, and whilst marking and moderating work can be tiring and requiring much concentration, it is one of the aspects of the teaching role that I really enjoy: its a chance to see how the students are taking in the theory and applying it to their clinical practice with clients.
The MSc students have recently completed a module on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: or more specifically, as our students are from Humanistic and Psychodynamic counselling backgrounds, how CBT might fit in a relational frame. This is an important module, not only because it helps our students understand the mechanics of CBT at a time when for many members of the public this is the mode of therapy with which they first make contact (CBT remains the GP’s first suggestion for conditions such as anxiety, depression and insomnia); but also because it is important for students to look at other modes of therapy to help them deepen an understanding of their own mode: a critical reflective stance of why therapy works.
This weekend I joined my fellow Shambhala Buddhists for our regular book club. Every 4 to 6 weeks, we take a book which has a Buddhist tone: its not always a Dharma book - as we often take more mainstream psychology books (as I have written about previously) or even novels. I enjoyed our latest selection, Robert Wright’s book “Why Buddhism is true”, as it blends the very latest in neuroscience and psychology, and relates these to descriptions of meditation found in the original Buddhist texts.
I became a practicing Buddhist during this “the mindfulness revolution”, so I have not known a time when meditation and its effects wasn’t being researched by scientists. Although I come from a background in the natural scientists, I haven’t needed the reports from peer-reviewed journals to tell me that meditation works (or as Wright says why Buddhism is “true”). What I have appreciated about Buddhism and its practices is its empiricism: I am not asked by the Buddhist texts to believe a theory or rely on logic, but rather to observe my experience directly. I do this on the cushion as I meditate, and I (try to!) to do this in everyday life and when I am in the therapy room with my clients.
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