Beyond Borders, “The platform for small nation dialogue and cultural exchange”, has been holding an annual international festival of literature and thought for the past five years. The festival is set in the breath taking Scottish borders at Traquair House, reputed to be the most romantic castle in Scotland. The topics dealt with in the 2016 festival programme included “Elizabethan England and the Islamic world” by Professor Jerry Brotton, “After Chilcott” by Sir Kieran Pendergast and Andrew Gilmour, “the Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan, “Kohinoor” by Willam Dalrymple, “3.5 billion cracks and counting” by the first Minister Nicola Sturgeon, “finding solace” by Michael Mansfield QC, introduced female peacemakers from the Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey in the 1325 fellowship programme … and the list goes on and on and on. A remarkable festival attracting world class speakers from the literati and all the brain child of Mark Muller QC and he asked whether I would consider teaching meditation at the festival.
I had been attending the festival for the last three years. I enjoyed the debates but I really enjoyed waking up early in the morning and meditating at Traquair. Meditators know good air. The air at Traquair has a honey like quality to it, it is rich, sweet and nourishing. The valley which holds Traquair, is a feast for the senses with its greenery, rolling hills, grazing cows and horses in the distance. All conducive to settling the mind and to the practice of meditation.
I really did not know how meditation sessions would be received at the festival but the venue is an ideal setting for meditation. This was a great starting point. Secondly, I know stress is prevalent and not enough attention is given to understanding and training the Mind which is the real source of stress. The people and attendees at the festival are working under incredibly demanding circumstances. If I could give a glimpse of what it means to relax by using simple techniques, then this may ignite an interest in relaxation and meditative techniques as a balance to the demands of life. For these reasons, I agreed, irrespective at how out of place meditation initially appeared in the programme.
I enjoyed the two days of teaching at the festival. The attendees to the relaxation and meditation sessions were visibly moved by their experience and the enquiries from those who approached me with questions followed a similar theme, “life is stressful, I need to deal with it and I have heard meditation helps. Please tell me how?”
I have been meditating since 1995 and first started to teach meditation in Chambers, albeit infrequently, in about 2003. I now teach on a more regular basis for Malvern Bhavan, which I founded. I have just taken over the running of Poulstone Court Retreat Centre in the Herefordshire countryside which offers retreats in Yoga asana and Meditation. My relationship with meditation started as a means to cope with life as a young Barrister. Starting a career at the Bar with a young family was a very difficult period.
It is said that there are five kinds of Mind; distracted, stupefied, disturbed, focused or mastered. I recognised that my mind at the time was predominantly distracted, stupefied or disturbed. These types of Mind are not helpful in dealing with the constant juggling one has to do to deal with the life I was trying to create.
Meditation became a tangible idea when its role in life was explained to me with incredible simplicity and clarity. The Mind is the cause of both your bondage and liberation, make it your friend. Breath and Mind have a unique relationship, if breath is calm, Mind is calm and if breath is agitated, Mind is agitated. Meditation is a systematic process that introduces you to, and unfolds Mind, eventually giving mastery of it. Breath is its gateway.
The point is, the Mind can be accessed through breath and breath can be managed consciously. This is why many of the starting practices associated with meditation, including yoga asana and mindfulness, concentrate on the relationship between body and breath, breath and mind.
I had been given a three-hour slot each morning at the festival, which was broken into two sessions. The synthesis of each session is understanding the link between breath, body and Mind and a very basic exercise which builds on this idea is a short twelve-minute breath and awareness exercise. It is very effective for calming the mind when it is distracted or agitated and is a foundational practice which usually follows practices centred on getting to know diaphragmatic breathing.
If you decide to undertake this exercise, then ensure for twelve minutes you will not be disturbed. I tend to set an alarm to sound quietly after twelve minutes. This is an effortless exercise in which you mentally observe the body doing what it does naturally, and that is, to breathe.
Sit on the edge of a chair with back, neck and head aligned and upright. The flats of the feet should be parallel, about a foot apart and placed firmly on the floor. Palms of the hands should be resting on the knees or thighs. Right palm on right knee, left palm on left knee.
Next survey the body, mentally becoming aware of how the feet are given support by the floor. To the ankles, calves, knees, the hands on the knees or thighs, the thighs, hips, abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck, face, the head, the upper back, mid back, lower back, bottom supported by the chair, backs of the thighs, back of the knees, calves, feet, and then how the ground firmly supports the feet.
Observe the movement of breath as you inhale and exhale. How the lungs effortlessly fill and empty with air as the body inhales and exhales. How the ribs move, especially the lower ribs, effortlessly flaring out and then in as the lungs fill and then empty with every inhalation and exhalation.
Move awareness to what is happening around the base of the nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. One inhalation/exhalation is a breath cycle. How breath, on inhalation, is sucked into the nostrils from the space between the upper lip and the base of the nostrils. On exhalation, how breath is forced into the space between the base of the nostril and the upper lip. Observe this process for three breath cycles. Breath should be measured, without any noise and smooth.
Next, allow the mind to follow the inhaled breath deeper into the nostrils to the point around the bridge of the nostrils around the eyebrow centre. Become aware of what is experienced in this region as you complete a breath cycle, particularly, the warmth of the air it is expelled out at the bridge of the nostril. Repeat for three cycles. Breath should be measured, without any noise and smooth.
Return attention to the base of the nostrils for three breath cycles, moving awareness to what is happening around the base of the nostrils with your inhalation and exhalation. Observe this process for three breath cycles. Breath should be measured, without any noise and smooth.
Become aware of the support the ground gives to the feet, the hands on the knees or thighs, then mentally survey the body starting with the legs, hip, abdomen, chest, neck, head and gently move fingers and toes.
Hopefully the 12-minute alarm has sounded by this time. Cover the eyes with your hands and open eyes whilst covered.
Bring hands back to their starting position resting on the knees or thighs.
Maintain awareness to the space that has been created for a few moments.
I am grateful to Beyond Borders for taking the bold step of introducing meditation to the festival as stress management should be an integral aspect of a demanding working life. Meditation techniques are simple, require only a few props, if any and can bring some order to the day by simply giving Mind, space to breathe.
13 September 2016
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