The Present 8 week online training
Apr 22, 2021
I was looking to take a course that would expand my personal repertoire of mindfulness strategies, but would also give me tools I could use in my classroom. After being fortunate enough to attend one of Chris’s Pro D sessions, I knew I wanted to learn more from him. The Present has helped me immensely. I now have a whole toolkit of strategies to use with my students. I am seeing them benefit significantly from the incorporation of mindfulness practice into our classroom. Chris is an incredible resource and his delivery of the material is exceptional. I very much enjoyed the way he incorporated the practices themselves into our sessions and found myself leaving the sessions both relaxed and inspired. I cannot recommend Chris and The Present highly enough. Jacqueline Dunn. Grade 3/4 French Immersion Teacher. George Jay Elementary. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Welcome to The Present.
The Present is an online training program that takes a new approach to mindfulness. It has different initial intentions to a traditional eight-week mindfulness course. The early weeks are explicitly about discovering how things already are in life; looking at experience with interest, curiosity, and friendliness; building curiosity, awareness, and mindful attitudes as we step back, or “decentre," to see things more clearly, but with no need to make changes.
The course offers practices and reflective questions to support the development of friendly awareness towards yourself and your experience, building clear noticing skills and attitudes of beginner’s mind and acceptance. During and between classes you will cultivate a clearer awareness of how to practice mindfulness in a way that makes sense for you in the context of your life, work, relationships.
The themes explored (here and now, focusing, coming home to the human body, coming home to the human mind, connection, noticing choice, and change) offer “windows” to explore mindfulness during the six weeks of the course.
The Present is intended for people who are busy, who find it difficult to commit to daily formal practice. It is also offered as a way to deepen practice for those who have attended a traditional eight-week mindfulness course and now want to find ways to live more mindfully.
Duration of course: 6 weekly Zoom sessions.
Timings for each session: 90 minutes.
Cost: $149 (inclusive of tax)
For further information and a conversation about your needs, contact me at email@example.com
Cell: 250 884 5462
About Chris Reck
Chris has over 20 years of experience as a teacher and trainer. He trained with the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) in the UK, and the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University, Wales. He recently completed postgraduate research with the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University. He based his research on the uses of mindful attention and how it can frame agency and identity for a teacher. Chris has also given several keynote presentations on mindfulness in education, most recently at the British Columbia Association of Living Mindfulness (BCALM) Mindfulness Summit, held at the University of Victoria, BC
Chris Reck is an imaginative and dedicated teacher - but more than that, he is one of the people who understand most deeply how to teach in a way that builds young people's own capacity and confidence as real-life learners - which is surely the pivotal responsibility of 21st-century education - any young people who are lucky enough to have Chris as a teacher will be well prepared for life Professor Guy Claxton, Emeritus Professor at Winchester University and Visiting Professor of Education at King's College London.
I have been privileged to see the creative fruits of Chris’s experimentation and growth as an educator. Chris has the rare skill of being able to take the germ of an idea or intellectual provocation and to run with and develop it, in the process of which he manifests many desirable qualities – intellectual risk-taking and curiosity, creativity, rigour, the skill of drawing astutely on his own reading, culture and experience, and a genuine interest in engaging and extending the interests of learners of all abilities and backgrounds (which he does with great success). Dr Barry Hymer, Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Cumbria in Lancaster.
The Present offers you a mindfulness practice that can be experienced as "windows of awareness". There are six "windows" through which we view our experience. These are here and now, focusing, coming home to the human body, coming home to the human mind, connection, noticing choice and change. The course also weaves in an understanding of the neuroscience of each "window' as a means of further supporting your well-being.
In the "window' of Here and Now you will explore exercises and practices that can get you out of your busy mind and into the present moment. You do this by using your senses and your body rather than thinking. You will explore sensations of touching, seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling as they arise in your experience, moment by moment.
For example, if we notice a butterfly, we might explore its colours, movements, or patterns. We also become aware of what is happening within ourselves as we watch. Whereas, if we think about the butterfly, we might decide on the kind of butterfly it is; judging if this butterfly is better or worse than another we have seen. The mind may remember other times we have seen butterflies, or plan how to release them back outside. Or we might decide, oh, I must capture this moment on my camera and post it on social media! When the mind is engaged in these sorts of thoughts, we often miss the actual detail of the experience and the opportunity to take in the freshness of the present moment experience. The thing is, we can allow ourselves to be here and now with any experience that we’re having. If we're eating something, we can explore the piece of food with all of our senses. If we’re walking somewhere, we can feel our feet on the ground as they are placed and moved and sense our whole body in motion. If we begin to notice that the mind is time traveling and moving off to the future or into the past, we can choose to bring the mind back to here and now.
When we're here and now with mindful awareness, we’re experiencing what is already here; opening to the detail of this experience with curiosity, friendliness, and acceptance. We can feel … “Wow, it's like this!”
The Neuroscience of Here and Now
The brain is only around three pounds (1.4kg) in weight, but it uses up nearly 20% of our energy. This is because it works continuously through all of our waking and sleeping hours. The brain coordinates basic life functions such as breathing and waking up from sleep. It also enables us to walk, speak, recognize familiar faces, solve problems, make decisions, and navigate our environment. The brain is particularly good at learning. For example, the brain makes it possible to learn complicated sequences of finger movements in piano playing. It also enables us to learn new languages, new sports and to learn to read and write.
Every new skill we learn changes our brain by building new pathways which become stronger with practice. These pathways help us to get better and faster at what we are learning. Through repetition and practice, we constantly rewire our brains with new pathways. This process is called neural plasticity. Some connections between brain cells (called neurons) become stronger with repetition, allowing the information in the brain pathways to travel more easily and efficiently. Interestingly, our thoughts, feelings, and sensations also change and shape our brains. When we repeatedly feel something or think about it, it then becomes easier for us to feel or think the same thing next time. Many of us think about the past or the future most of the time. This is a pattern of thinking developed over many years. It can mean we don't notice what is happening right now, in front of us.
Learning to stay in the here and now is like any other skill. Instead of thinking about the past or the future most of the time, we can learn to come back to the “here and now” when we choose. We can guide our attention away from thinking to sensations and experiences in and around us. We can support our being here now by paying more attention to sensations in our body, sights and sounds, smells, etc.
As we repeatedly bring our attention to the here and now, our brain changes and rewires. We create new pathways in our brain that support us to stay here and now more often. With practice, coming back to the “here and now” becomes easier and requires less effort. As with learning any skill this repetition and practice are the key to being in the present moment.
When we focus, we choose what we are noticing. This is like shining a torch on an object and letting our attention be directed and placed. We can learn to choose whether we have a narrow, and therefore more detailed focus, or a broad, less detailed focus. When we read a story, we focus on the words on the page. When we draw, we might focus carefully on the pencil on the paper as we create our drawing. When we’re dancing and learning a new step, we might focus on the teacher’s feet to copy her, or have a broader focus, becoming aware of our body movement, as well as listening to the music.
When we learn about mindfulness, we quickly recognize that a lot of the time our focus isn't really chosen. We might be daydreaming or doing something like brushing our teeth on autopilot, thinking about another time and place altogether in autopilot. We might not even remember brushing our teeth at all. We human beings spend a lot of our time with our minds on autopilot. Our ability to be on autopilot is essential to managing all the tasks we need to do in everyday life. We'd never get out of the house on time in the morning if we needed to focus all of our attention on every detail of every individual task. Being on autopilot or mind-wandering are normal human experiences that will inevitably happen. However, with mindful awareness, we can notice when we are on autopilot sooner and then choose to return our attention to where we would like it to be. How we relate to our mind as we focus, or refocus, is also a key factor. It's important not to be harsh or unkind with our mind when it wanders. Being friendly and encouraging towards our mind wonderings will support us to refocus more easily. Mindful awareness is about having a kindly attitude towards the choice to refocus, without trying too hard to stay focused.
Neuroscience of Focusing.
Our ability to pay attention is the basis of our everyday functioning. At every moment, we are bombarded with lots of information. If you look around right now you could be paying attention to the colours and sounds in your environment or to your thoughts or tasks at hand or even to the people around you. Attention helps us choose what we need to pay attention to in a particular moment. We can think about attention as a filter that selects, in every moment, what is most important for us.
Our brain is naturally wired to pay attention to what is important for our survival. Since birth, we've been training our brains to pay attention to what is important for our safety and survival in our environment. For example, bright lights and loud noises catch our attention easily because they could signal danger. These automatic ways of paying attention are very helpful. With practice, our brain becomes very good at paying attention automatically in many other ways. If we regularly walk to school or to the shops along the same way, we can find our way without needing to pay a lot of attention to where we are going. This results in our mind being able to wander automatically in many different directions; from thinking about what's happened in school to thinking about what's for dinner.
These automatic ways of focusing attention can be helpful in many ways. However, they also limit our ability to notice and choose what we are paying attention to. Mindfulness teaches us to learn to notice what we are paying attention to and to focus attention where we choose. Whether we are automatically focusing attention or choosing our focus of attention, we are using slightly different parts of the brain. When we choose to notice where our attention is and bring attention to what we want to focus on, we activate a part of the brain called the ACC. The ACC stands for the anterior cingulate cortex. It is the frontal part of a collar-like brain structure surrounding the connection between the left and right hemispheres of our brain. The ACC is the part of the brain which enables us to control our attention.
Neuroscience research shows that the ACC is one of the brain structures that consistently show more activation with mindfulness practice. This is because the ACC works harder when we choose to pay attention than when we run on autopilot.
Importantly, if we repeatedly train the ACC when paying attention, we are also becoming better at focusing in general. Therefore, mindfulness helps us not only to become better at guiding our attention to the present moment but also to focus attention in general. We can apply our improved attention skills in many ways; when we are planning to learn new skills or regulating our emotions.
Coming Home to the Body
All of us have a human body and fortunately, human bodies have ways of functioning that are mostly beyond our awareness. We wouldn’t live long if we had to put breathing on our ‘to-do list or learn how to consciously control our heartbeat. The automatic nature of our bodies, and their ability to keep in balance, is something we can happily take for granted when all is well. Our bodies cool themselves when we’re hot and create heat when we’re cold, by shivering. Our bodies tell us when we’re hungry or thirsty, full of energy, or needing sleep. Our bodies are wise.
Having a modern human busy body means we may lose awareness of the signals being sent by our bodies. In many parts of the world, we eat when we’re not hungry and forget to drink, even when our body is thirsty. We might push our bodies too hard because we have lost the connection with what body sensations are trying to tell us. Many busy people say they routinely ignore signals from their bodies that they need to go to the toilet because they want to continue with the task at hand. If we’re caught up in a job that needs finishing or an exciting game that has a strong pull on our attention, the body’s signals are likely to be ignored.
The window of Coming Home to the Body offers us the chance to tune into our bodies and connect or reconnect, with what our bodies tell us. The body’s messages can be an important source of wisdom. The human body has interesting habits which mindfulness can help us to get to know and respond to skillfully. For example, as human beings, we are hard-wired to react to a perceived threat in certain ways that will be with us all of our lives. Understanding these human patterns can help us to make informed choices about how we respond. Our body and minds work together, so worries, anger, or excitement will arise as sensations in the body. It’s possible that experiences in our body, such as “butterflies” in the stomach, can tell us first that there’s something on our mind.
Mindful awareness can help us learn to live in greater harmony with our body, appreciating its intention to keep us safe and well and learning to care for it by listening to its wisdom.
Neuroscience of Coming Home to the Body
In the process of evolution, many brain functions developed to enable us to survive. For example, the brain is an excellent threat detector, allowing us to notice danger within one-sixth of a second or less!
Amygdalae are parts of the brain that are particularly good at detecting threats. We have two amygdala – on in each of the two hemispheres. We use the word amygdalae to describe both of them together. The amygdalae look like almonds and are located inside the brain, close to the striatum. When we are in danger, for example when we see a snake or angry dog in front of us, the amygdalae will very quickly send a signal to warn us that we need to move away.
Sometimes the threat detection systems of the brain can also work against us. For instance, we can become afraid if we start thinking about a visit to the dentist or worrying about an exam. Indeed, the amygdalae are one of the first structures to become activated when we are anxious or angry, or when we think of something threatening.
If we repeatedly feel anxious, it becomes easier for the brain to activate pathways which detect threat. We get better at everything we practice, so the threshold for threat detection will be lowered and we will feel threatened and anxious more easily and more often. Research has shown that people who experience increased anxiety also show chronically increased activation in the amygdalae.
In contrast, when we anchor our attention to the present moment, on the immediate experience of our senses and body, we can decrease amygdalae activation. Cultivating an attitude of acceptance and kindness can further enhance our ability to regulate the brain’s threat detection tendencies. Research shows that as we reduce stress through mindfulness practice, the activation, and even the size of the amygdalae, can reduce.
As we learn to stay in the present moment and notice sensations in our body, we are also training other parts of the brain. Brain areas called the insula (or insula cortices) are the main brain regions involved in the awareness of bodily feelings and emotions. There are two insulas in each of the hemispheres, located inside the brain as if they are folded in.
Research with meditators has consistently shown increased activation in the insula. This is particularly in the right hemisphere of the brain and the part of the insula closer to our forehead (right anterior insula). This increased activation in the insula is the result of learning to notice sensations in the body and becoming more aware of emotions.
Better awareness of sensations in our body and our emotions is a necessary prerequisite for us to be able to look after our body. For example, noticing tension in our shoulders might be a sign for us to relax and take a break. By taking notice in this way, the tension in our body associated with stress and anxiety may gradually reduce. With repeated, we are rewiring our brain towards a healthier pattern of threat detection and awareness of the body and emotions.
Coming Home to the Mind
By this stage in the program, we will have already noticed what it is like to have a human mind. For example, the experience of thinking about other times and places while we do a familiar task. We will have explored how the mind wanders and can be easily distracted, even when we’ve chosen to (and really want to) focus on something else! We will learn about how our memories really influence our choices, and how much or for how long our bodies react when we feel threatened. Maybe we’ve already noticed how we often believe our minds over our body sensations when, for example, we think we want that piece of cake, but our body says we’re not hungry.
The window of Coming Home to the Mind offers the chance to focus on our thoughts and habits of mind in a little more detail. What are thoughts? How do we actually experience them? Are they repeated as sounds, images, or both? Do they have favourite places that they like to go to?
Our body and mind aren’t separated, but act together and are influenced by each other. Coming Home to the Body allows us to explore how our thoughts and emotions are connected. For example, how do certain types of thoughts feel in the body, such as worrying, happy or creative thoughts? How can thoughts lead us to behave in certain ways? How do some thoughts carry us away to places we didn’t choose to go? How can we cultivate awareness so that we can recognise the mind’s habits and create more choices in how we respond?
There are human patterns of mind that are designed to keep us safe, such as our mind’s tendency to focus more on problems than things that we find enjoyable. We can explore the mind’s habit of making meaning, and filling in the gaps when it has only limited information. We can see how the mind uses stored memories to help us understand experiences in the here and now.
Neuroscience of Coming Home to the Mind
Our human brain is very good at completing patterns. If we see an unfinished picture, our brain has the tendency to fill in the gaps. If we look at clouds in the sky, we tend to perceive them as images of faces or objects. When we hear a story, we often automatically complete some unclear parts without even realising it. This excellent ability of the brain to complete patterns strongly builds on its learning and memory capacities. During our lives, we learn how things usually look, how they typically work, and how people behave. Based on this learning we create expectations in our perceptions of things, situations, thinking, and emotions.
The part of the brain strongly supporting our ability to remember is called the hippocampus. The structure is deep in the brain and has a similar shape to a seahorse. Hippocampus means ‘seahorse’ in Greek, hence its name. We actually have two hippocampus structures, one in each of the two brain hemispheres. Together they are called hippocampi. Hippocampi are very good at storing patterns of our thoughts or behaviours. For example, if we are repeatedly anxious when speaking in front of people, the hippocampus supports the creation of pathways that remind us of this fear when we speak in front of others again. Similarly, if we have the tendency to worry, hippocampi support the storage of these thought patterns and make it easier for them to become activated the next time. The hippocampi are very sensitive to stress. As part of the stress response, stress hormones are released into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. The hippocampus contains brain cells that combine with some of the stress hormones, but this can prevent the growth of new neural connections in the hippocampi. With chronic stress, the hippocampi can even become physically damaged. As a result, it can become more difficult to learn and store new memories. The activation of the hippocampi can be reshaped when we notice and relate to our experience in healthy ways too. For example, we can learn to anchor our attention on our bodily sensations or sounds when we notice we are feeling anxious. With repetition, this way of relating to our experience becomes easier and the anxious feelings may appear less often. The hippocampus, just like any other structure in the brain, does not operate in isolation; it is connected to other parts of the brain. There are connections between hippocampi and the prefrontal cortex, Ventral Striatum, insula, and amygdala. They work together when storing new memories. For instance, memories associated with strong emotions, such as those linked to reward or threat, are easier to remember. This is enabled by links between hippocampi and the Ventral Striatum (reward) and hippocampi and the amygdalae (threat). The prefrontal cortex can regulate what we choose to learn and remember. The insula enables our awareness of body sensations, emotions, and experiences, and store them with the support of the hippocampi.
This all points to the possibility of us choosing, learning, and remembering patterns of thinking and feeling, which can support our well-being.
What does it feel like when we’re connected? How do we connect with activities, experiences, people, or ourselves? Humans are social beings, so it is important for us to feel connected. Our survival may even be threatened if we are completely disconnected. We can experience a connection to any sort of experience or object. The way we attach meaning to a connection can be highly individual. My son’s Teddy Bear is a crucial connection for him, but not to his brother. As adults we feel connected to many situations; such as when we are with close family or our best friend, maybe hiking a particular trail, sitting by a stormy ocean, perhaps listening to a particular piece of music, or preparing a certain dish of food.
When people are low in mood, they often talk about feeling disconnected from themselves, as well as from others. It’s often said that people can feel lonely in a crowded room. Many people name meaningful connection as one of the most important and nourishing things in their life. The senses can help us to connect and focus, and where we choose to place our focus can help us to form stronger connections with things that we choose. The Hindu meditation teacher, Dandipani, has a beautiful mantra that encapsulates such connected focus: where awareness goes energy flows. For instance, choosing to stay with a hug or a smile for a few more moments can give a much stronger sense of connection with someone we care about. Taking time to watch a beautiful sunset or a rainbow or feel the warmth of the sun, whilst choosing not to let the mind wander into planning or worrying, may support our connection with that place and that moment. Moments such as these are already present in our lives, we are simply choosing to be aware of them as they happen.
Becoming aware of how our attitudes do or do not support our sense of connection can have an impact on our experience of that connection. Experiencing attitudes of kindness, appreciating and savouring will have an impact on our experience of connecting in a very different way to experiencing a sense of disinterest, dissatisfaction, or taking an experience for granted.
Neuroscience of Connecting
A sense of connection is closely linked to our emotions. Feeling connected usually has a positive emotional quality. It often broadens our attention, giving us a sense of spaciousness and feelings of being at ease. This is reflected in the activation of some brain areas associated with attention control and emotion processing.One of the regions supporting our sense of connection is called the striatum. The striatum is located inside the brain hemisphere, near the middle parts, and close to where the two hemispheres are connected. The striatum helps us regulate our attention and emotions. Mindfulness research has shown that striatum activation increases as we practice mindfulness.
Of particular relevance to connections is a part of the striatum called the Ventral Striatum (VS). The VS plays an important role in our feelings of reward. When we find an activity rewarding, such as having a good meal or having an enjoyable social interaction, the ventral striatum is more active. This is mostly due to higher levels of a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which is associated with rewarding experiences.
The VS is an important part of the so-called ‘reward system’ in the brain because of its sensitivity to rewarding experiences. When we pay more attention to which connections we find rewarding, we can choose to engage in those connections more easily. This type of choosing modulates the activity in the reward system. The activation of the reward system can also become imbalanced. This is one of the symptoms of depression that is associated with a lack of connection – a lack of rewarding experiences. The balance of the reward system can also be disrupted in addictions when the activation of the VS is not well regulated.
Feelings of anxiety and anger are often closely linked to a lack of reward and a sense of disconnection through a narrow focus on the problem. We may feel that we don’t have enough space, thus feeling the opposite of connection and spaciousness.
Learning to notice when we are connected and when we are becoming disconnected can help us understand these feelings better. We are activating the prefrontal cortex when we notice feelings of connection and disconnection, as well as when we choose rewarding experiences. The prefrontal cortex serves to regulate the activity in the VS. With repetition, new pathways in the brain become established through the process of neural plasticity. As a result, we learn to notice and regulate the activation in the VS in favour of healthy connections which, in turn, support our well-being.
Noticing Choice and Change
Things change; this is an inevitable aspect of life. We could say, paradoxically, that change is one of the most stable features of our experience. Some of these changes are obvious to us, for instance, seasons or the weather. Changes may be internal or external and often interrelated. We can feel grumpy in the morning going to work, then receive good news and feel cheerful. Later on, we may feel tense when we are faced with a challenge, yet on our walk home in warm sunshine, our mood is lifted once again. How we feel may also change within minutes, as a result of what we think about, for example, whether we are noticing having a lovely holiday or thinking about an unresolved problem. We may feel different based on what we focus on, for example, our sensations and emotions, and whether we label them as pleasant or unpleasant. As we practice mindfulness, we become more aware of our internal experiences, such as feelings, emotions, and thoughts, as well as external experiences. We notice more clearly how everything changes through the moment-by-moment unfolding of an experience. The changes and movement of experience can support us to be curious and in tune with the here and now. We learn that we are in a relationship with experience but not necessarily in control of it.
As human beings, we sometimes act as though experiences we find unpleasant or don't like will only change if we do something to make them change. When things are not as we want them to be we tend to act quickly to try to change the situation to make things better. We scratch itches, even though they often quickly pass on their own. Paradoxically, our circular thoughts about a tricky situation and our actions to try to resolve them can actually make matters worse. We can “stoke the fire” of a situation by lying awake trying to resolve a situation we don't like or use lots of energy trying to change something. Instead, we could develop awareness to understand that the situation might not even happen or will resolve itself without her efforts after all!
When we like an experience, we usually want things to stay the same and may find it very challenging when they do change. But we can consciously work on cultivating choice. The Serenity Prayer captures the essence of such cultivation:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
Mindfulness practice can help us to be with the changing nature of experience so that we can know when we need to act to create necessary change and when no action is the wisest course to take. We may realize that just noticing patterns of change is sometimes enough. The window of Noticing Choice and Change connects with all of the other themes explored so far. Focusing on noticing choice and change in our experience specifically supports our understanding of this fundamental aspect of experience.
Neuroscience of Noticing Choice and Change
Our usual way of relating to the constantly changing stream of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations may create a default pathway in our thinking and experiencing. Nearly two decades ago, scientists reported that even the brain seems to have a default mode. They used the term ‘default mode of brain function’ to describe a pattern of activation which arises automatically when we are not focusing on a specific task. For many people, the default mode is experienced as mind-wandering; a more or less random way of thinking about the past and the future. We may start worrying about something that upset us or begin making plans about our evening. Mind-wandering can sometimes be helpful, for example, when we are trying to find new solutions to problems. Importantly most of us are not aware of our default mode of thinking and feeling at all.
The default mode is linked to a distinct pattern of activation in the brain. It involves activity in a network of brain areas called the Default Mode Network (DMN). Some of the brain areas involved in the DMN increase and others decrease in activation during the default mode. The DMN involves several brain areas, which we discovered previously in The Present. For example, parts of the prefrontal cortex (called vmPFC - the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and dmPFC - dorsomedial prefrontal cortex). The network also involves the middle part of the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) and the hippocampi. There are three additional regions in the default mode network that we haven't talked about so far (PCC - posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, and IPL - inferior parietal lobule).
Research findings show that meditation training changes the activation in the DMN. One of the changes involves strengthening the connections between the ACC and some other parts of the network. This suggests that meditators are less likely to engage in random mind-wandering. Their DMN pattern is also associated with more awareness (more noticing) of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations and more conscious choice of attention focus (more conscious change). These findings suggest that just like learning other skills, we can learn to notice change and choose to relate to change in ways that support our well-being.