By Melani Sampson, BFM participant 2018-19
I live in the UK and work as a psychotherapist, both in the National Health Service (NHS) and my own private practice in London. In the NHS I deliver a slightly adapted Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for patients with long term physical health conditions, many living with severe chronic pain. My interest in meditation grew from my yoga practice, which I started over 20 years ago, and in 2014 I did an MBCT teacher training run by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. From this moment, my interest in the origins of secular mindfulness developed.
I started to read books on Buddhism, but to be honest I found it very difficult to learn Buddhism through books. I attended workshops, mostly day-long ones run by London Insight Meditation, as well as retreats once or twice yearly. These were helpful in deepening my knowledge of the origin of the secular mindfulness programme, but did not seem to have a continuous, comprehensive thread of the Buddhist teaching. Somehow this seemed to me a bit patchy.
I heard about Bodhi College during a retreat and decided to enrol in the ‘Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness’ programme – which includes four retreats. In February 2018 I started the first module ‘Contextualising Mindfulness’ in Beatenberg, Switzerland. I found the retreat had a good balance between silent practice and study. The first module comprehensively explored the Satipatthana Sutta, one of the most significant early teachings on mindfulness that underpins all insight meditation and contemporary mindfulness programmes. The teachers were not only extremely knowledgeable, they were able to attune very well to the different levels of knowledge of the participants. Coming from a psychological / psycho-therapeutic background, the programme whetted my appetite – with comparisons between early Buddhist teachings and modern psychological theories being skilfully explored.
Having done this first module, I had no hesitation to enrol into Module 2: The Existential Challenge. Again, the topics were carefully chosen, and primarily aimed at people who teach Mindfulness-based courses, those who are in training to do so, or using mindfulness in their work in other ways.
Topics included ‘The Three Universal Characteristics’ identified by the Buddha as impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not-self (anatta). ‘Embodiment’, as foundational to the path of awakening and the alleviation of distress was deeply discussed. ‘Perception, Proliferation and Cognitive Chain’ was succinctly explained, exploring how the experience of self and world are constructed and fabricated moment by moment, by unconscious perception, proliferation and habit and most importantly how this can gradually be liberated. Whilst for me this was not a new concept, the opportunity to explore all of these experientially during the retreat was palpable. My motivation to apply what I was learning to my own daily experience started to develop more consistently.
I have now finished Module 3: The Big Picture. Before I attended, I was very much looking forward to going back to Beatenberg. The module explored how our present-moment experience is constructed. This exploration included the Buddha’s outline of the ‘five aggregates’ (khandas), a framework we can use in order to look at our experience. The other framework discussed was ‘dependent arising’. The teachers explained very clearly how the Buddha described the process of becoming / identification and how we are born with certain drives – such as the desire to discover who we are. A fixed ‘world view’ is then established, often to our overall detriment as it leaves none or limited room for growth. After this third module, I began to really delve deeper below the surface – experiencing the benefits of these teachings in my daily life. Although I was committed to mindfulness practice before, each module added more steady motivation – a transformative experience which surprised me.
Throughout the programme the quality of the teaching has been excellent. Many of the teachers have been instrumental in developing the mindfulness based programmes, and the retreat content carefully selected to provide a comprehensive structure to understand the early Buddhist texts that became the origin of the contemporary mindfulness. The silent practice, for me, became a palpable experiential exploration of the teaching – seeing it ‘in action’, flavouring moments of insights and liberating experience. In groups, we discussed its relevance to our own lives – sharing through incredibly helpful exercises.
Back home, I now use this knowledge in my own day to day experience, bringing confidence both in my teaching of Mindfulness, and working individually with clients. For me, it is not only about the knowledge per-se which is interesting in itself, but also about how I can learn to notice, challenge and change my own ingrained patterns of thinking, feeling and impulsive reaction. Hopefully I can continue to grow.
I feel a deep gratitude to have had the opportunity to attend three modules, and continue on to the fourth – Universal Empathy. Receiving the ancient wisdom, cherishing the friends I made through these retreats, being supported by the Bodhi College staff, and being part of our Sangha, has been invaluable. To spend time at Beatenberg and the quintessentially English countryside at Sharpham House was more than a pleasant experience. These areas are testimony to the stunning beauty of nature. Walking meditation in the snow of the Swiss Alps and the peaceful presence of silence overlooking the River Dart at Sharpham were memorable indeed. We were nourished and looked after by committed staff and volunteers. May I always treasure these gifts I have received, and may I give myself to the flow of this great circle dance of loving kindness and compassion.