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Holiday, friendship and “meditation retreat” (eleventh post)

This is the eleventh and final post about the Moroccan trip - a reflection once I was back in Scotland. 

So it's before breakfast on Tuesday morning in Edinburgh.  We got back about 36 hours ago.  I'm now mostly into the swing of "normal, everyday life" again.  150 plus emails, piles of post, phone messages - the usual "welcome back" after being away.  I said at the end of the first post about this trip (just 12 days ago) " ... it feels a fun, slightly crazy thing to attempt - to try to combine/construct something that's a mix of adventure, holiday, time with good friends, and also a meditation retreat.  Like trying to play some strange mix of musical styles."  We achieved this well.  Good.  And now what's been brought back with us?

Memories.  Some beautiful memories - following the elegant, swaying backsides of the camels through the desert, watching sunsets from the sand dunes, the incredible night skies, singing together all 8 of us on our backs under a big blanket, the multi-coloured midday salads, the inner quiet & connection, the kindness & friendliness of the Moroccan people.  Precious to savour.

I've already mentioned the "Alternative Lives" exercise in the last post  - with my Hermit, Refugee Doctor, and Psychology Professor.  The Hermit expresses in several ways.  So last year I went up into the Scottish hills on my own for a few days.  In three weeks time I hope to repeat this, solo camping and walking in Glen Affric.  The Refugee Doctor links to working with Depression Alliance Scotland (somewhat on hold at the moment because of the time I want to spend with my mother who's in a nursing home).  The Professor is partly expressed through writing this blog and sharing research with colleagues each month.

And I want to follow up mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) more.  I've been teaching forms of inner focus since the 1970's.  I am however drawn to pretty much anything that has a better evidence base supporting its helpfulness in relieving suffering.  MBCT is currently the meditation variant that has the best - and increasing - support.  Ten years ago, John Teasdale invited me to spend a week on Bardsey Island - off the coast of Wales - with the originators of MBCT (John himself, Mark Williams, Zindel Segal) and others, with meditation input from Ferris Urbanowski, a senior teacher who worked at John Kabat-Zinn's Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, University of Massachusetts.  I felt privileged to be invited to that retreat, but a bit disappointed too.  I'd hoped for academic discussion and personal contact mixed in with shared meditation.  Instead there seemed to me to be a rather over-respectful acceptance of whatever Ferris decided to teach us.  I'd been on plenty of "respectful" meditation retreats as a student and wanted something with more thoughtful bite to it.  As John Kabat-Zinn had put it in his introduction to the original MBCT text (p. ix) "It is my sincere hope that this book will introduce mindfulness to both clinicians and researchers in the cognitive therapy community in ways that will spark interest and enthusiasm and will benefit people suffering from depression.  I hope that it will also introduce those primarily interested in mindfulness meditation to recent developments in understanding the psychological processes that underlie recurrent depressive disorders, for the usefulness of a well-built bridge is that it can take traffic in both directions."  On the Bardsey Island retreat, it felt to me as though the traffic was a bit one way.

I went back to using Autogenic Training as my basic teaching vehicle, but evolved it year by year as new research on "inner focus" methods emerged. This evolution of the method didn't endear me to the official UK Autogenic Training society who seemed, at times, to imagine that science stands still.  It was good to know that there is even encouraging data that Autogenics can, like MBCT, reduce depressive relapse.

The reality though is that MBCT and MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) are hot research areas at the moment.  It makes sense for me to train more formally in them - especially with the recent papers comparing MBCT favourably to continuation antidepressants and showing potential risks in long term antidepressant use.  I've emailed Bangor University's Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice about their distance learning options, applied for June's Teacher Development Retreat on Holy Isle, and have started using a "Being Space" variant of the "Breathing Space" exercise in "Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression".  

Balancing "doing" and "being".  Like breathing in and breathing out.  It keeps us alive. 


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