Touching the earth: exploring a new, secular self-help mindfulness group approach

A group of friends, colleagues and I are exploring a new, less hierarchical way for supporting each other in cultivating more genuine relationships with experience, other people and the world through mindfulness meditation and interpersonal sharing and exploration of meditation experience. Touching the Earth is a volunteer, self-help approach based on egalitarian, inclusive, and democratic values, one that seeks to avoid the ‘power-over’ issues that plague so many traditional teacher-centric Buddhist, Yogic and other spiritual groups worldwide, such as sexual abuse and boundary violations by meditation teachers.

Touching the Earth integrates a new mindfulness-based psychotherapy I developed called Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy (EFMT) that has secular Buddhist roots (see https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/emotion-focused-mindfulness-therapy-and-stephen-batchelors-four-tasks/) with the self-help format of Focusing Changes groups (http://previous.focusing.org/changes.html) developed by Eugene Gendlin. We are just at the very beginning of exploring this new integration.

While the role of cultivating appropriate communication is emphasized in the Buddhist Eightfold Path, Touching the Earth draws on forms of experiential and emotional processing and communicative empathy developed by Person-Centered and Experiential Therapies over the last seventy years which go beyond traditional Buddhist practice and instruction. These are based on principles described by Carl Rogers, the founder of Person-Centered Therapy.

Rogers (1969) identified the goal of education as the facilitation of change and learning, not the delivery of content. Learning takes place in an environment of shared experience, safety, trust, and promotion of self-governance. (Ray, 2019, page 317)

Rogers emphasized learning to relate to each other in a genuine way, how listening with communicative empathy, positive regard, acceptance and congruence creates safety and fosters growth and flourishing. Congruence refers to being aware of and understanding our own feelings and their relevance to current and past contexts, so that we can respond to others in non-defensive, attuned ways.

Such a process of growth and flourishing cannot be taught to us as passive recipients by an idealized other. While teachers, coaches, trainers and therapists can play important roles in helping us orient towards more wholesome ways of living, cultivating this capacity within a community of peers is more effective in the long-term and holds the promise of better embodying contemporary values such as authenticity, inclusivity, anti-oppression, interdependence, autonomy, egalitarianism and democracy. This does not negate the value of consulting at times with more experienced practitioners, studying with scholars, or entering a course of psychotherapy to address depression, anxiety, trauma or interpersonal issues.

Touching the Earth format

Touching the Earth groups are self-help groups that aspire to treating participants as equals, where no one is paid to lead or facilitate, and each participant takes responsibility for cultivating their own path and for supporting others in cultivating theirs. The basic session format we are currently exploring involves meditation, journaling one’s meditation experience, and then exploring the meditation in triads.

In each triad, the first person shares and explores their meditation experience. The second person tunes into what the first is expressing in a compassionate, empathic, non-judgmental and communicative way, reflecting back their understanding and what they find most poignant in the first person’s process and sometimes asking open-ended questions to clarify their understanding. The person who is actively sharing and exploring their experience is responsible for recognizing and choosing the particular forms of experiential and emotional processing they want to engage in. The active listener follows and reflects their choices and refrains from making suggestions or recommendations unless the person who is sharing and exploring consults with them.

The third person resonates with what is happening, keeps track of the time, and can also act as a consultant if requested. When the process is over, the three debrief the experience. The whole cycle is repeated two more times so that everyone gets to experience all the roles. Then the larger group gathers together again to meditate briefly, followed by people sharing what they are carrying forward from the session, and ending with another brief meditation.

We have begun exploring Touching the Earth here in Toronto in a series of quarterly one-day workshops for mental health professionals who have at least some initial familiarity with EFMT. The first day last fall went very well, with ten people participating. The next workshop will be in February 2020.

The workshop started with a light breakfast, followed by meditation and journaling. Then everyone introduced themselves and their hopes for the day. After a break, I introduced Touching the Earth and, then, with my friend and colleague who was hosting the event in her condo’s party room, Cleo Haber, modelled the core Touching the Earth format. I shared my meditation and explored what was coming up for me and Cleo followed and supported me using empathic reflections and open-ended questions. This was followed by group discussion. The participants said they learned a lot from observing how I shared my practice and explored what emerged and how Cleo “held the space,” creating a safe place for me to share and explore by tuning into my process using warm communicative empathy.

People appreciated my transparency and willingness to be vulnerable in this way, how it broke with normal, more defensive power-over dynamics and helped to create a safer situation that made it easier for them to be more authentic in what they explored and shared.

After lunch, the group meditated, journaled and then divided into triads to share and explore our meditation experience using the Touching the Earth format. I also participated in a triad. After the first cycle, there was group discussion and Q & A, followed by two more cycles and then more discussion. We ended the day with a brief meditation and then people sharing what they were carrying forward from the day.

In the discussions, participants said they learned a lot from each others’ sharing and felt deeply supported in their own sharing. A number remarked on how empathic reflections by the person who had been actively listening to them had enabled them to go deeper in their processing. People said it was easier to share in triads than the larger 6-8-person groups they were accustomed to in the annual summer EFMT retreats or in EFMT professional mentoring groups. They spoke about how the process had deepened their connection with their meditation practice and inspired them to relate to friends, family and clients in fresher, less controlling ways. Participants also said they were deeply moved by how I was dismantling and letting go of the leadership role.

Myself, I envision this as a way of transforming leadership roles so that they become more vulnerable and participatory, less about power-over and more about cultivating implicit authority based on participating in helpful ways in empowering egalitarian group processes. An important step will be passing facilitator roles among the members. We are planning every fourth session to have a longer group discussion to reflect on how the series is going.

The Meaning of ‘Touching the Earth’

The phrase ‘touching the earth’ refers to a gesture the Buddha made during the meditation that led to his awakening. Traditional Buddhists describe what happened mythologically: Mara, the evil one, saw the Buddha was meditating with the intention to awaken and sent his demon army and temptress daughters to discombobulate him. The Buddha responded by bending forward and touching the earth. The Earth witnessed him and his many lifetimes as a bodhisattva, setting him free from Mara’s grip.

I like to think of this functionally as the Buddha shifting into mindful experiencing, coming alive to his body’s empowering resonance with the situation, how experiencing is a fluid synthesis co-constructed by multiple processes within us and around us in the world. Mindful experiencing is characterized by an earthy, grounded, spacious, nonjudgmental friendliness that enables us to decenter from difficult thoughts and feelings, recognizing they are not direct truths about self, others and the world. This enables us to make deeper sense of emotions, to recognize and carry forward helpful emotions and to let go of unhelpful ones. Helpful emotions provide rich implicit information about situations; they tell us what matters to us (our values) and they motivate us to act.

The Focusing expert Ann Weiser Cornell (2013) has described how, when we are in this spacious, friendly aliveness to our implicit resonance with the world, if we turn towards suffering in ourselves or others and resonate with it, compassion naturally arises. Buddhists might recognize friendliness and compassion as the first two of the four Brahma Viharas, often translated as ‘divine dwellings.’ According to Bikkhu Analayo (2015), the Brahma Viharas were common practices during the Buddha’s time for liberating the mind, repurposed by the Buddha for his own aims.

Reflections on mindfulness as an embodied social practice

The Touching the Earth approach acknowledges how meditation is more social than most people imagine. As Eugene Gendlin pointed out, our implicit resonance in situations, which he referred to as the felt sense, is interpersonal. It can come alive through shared activities and particularly through specific kinds of mutually attuned conversations. This may have something to do with how most people find meditation easier to do with others. Robert Sharf (2015) and Evan Thompson (2017) have pointed out that even when we are meditating alone, meditation is an embodied social practice, structured by the social, cultural and religious processes that informed how we learned to meditate and its evolving meaning for us.

Thompson (2020) criticizes what he calls “neural Buddhism,” a perspective that he says emerged out of the annual Mind and Life Summer Research Institutes in which he participated, an ongoing collaboration between scientists, Buddhist monks and meditation teachers, and philosophers to explore contemplative sciences. Neural Buddhism is based on the notion that ‘enlightenment’ is a brain state and that mindfulness practice is training the brain to reach that state. For Thompson, to think that mindfulness takes place just in the brain is as mistaken as to think that a bird’s flying happens just in its brain.

Conclusion

Our hope is that Touching the Earth groups will provide robust, inclusive, egalitarian, democratic ways for peers to draw on our shared resonance to support each other in cultivating genuine relationships with experience, others and the world through meditation and interpersonal processes.

Next steps may involve a 1- or 2-day workshop open to the public to initiate a monthly series of 2.5- to 3-hour sessions, with the hope that this eventually inspires a network of similar groups. One could see how monthly sessions could be augmented in time by workshops, study groups, retreats and weekly meditation sessions organized by the participants themselves.

In January to March 2020, I will share an adapted Touching the Earth format with thirty students drawn from the University of Toronto’s eleven clinical programs in a mindfulness unit consisting of five, biweekly, 2-hour evening sessions, part of a special Health Arts and Humanities Inter-Professional Education Certificate at the university.

I am considering integrating the Touching the Earth format in some way into the annual summer EFMT residential meditation retreat, a retreat aimed at mental health professionals with some familiarity with mindfulness. The next retreat is scheduled for August 20-23, 2020, at the Ecology Retreat Centre, north of Toronto.

Values are always aspirational. While Touching the Earth is oriented to inclusive, egalitarian and democratic values, my sense is that the success of each group will depend on a core of experienced practitioners who support each other and less experienced members in cultivating these values, with the informal authority in the group becoming better distributed over time. There is a lot to figure out and experiment with and we will hopefully learn from our mistakes.

References:

Analayo. (2015). Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications.

Cornell, A.W. (2013). Focusing in clinical practice: The essence of change. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co.

Ray, D.C. (2019). The encounter group win counselling training: is it therapy? Person-Centred & Experiential Therapies, Vol. 18, No. 4, 314-324.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Sharf, R. (2015). The “work” of religion and its role in the assessment of mindfulness practices. Youtube video. 2015 UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain research summit “Perspectives on Mindfulness: the Complex Role of Scientific Research.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-mzNLf3L7U

Thompson, E. (2017). Mindfulness and the enactive approach. Retrieved from the website, The Brain’s Blog: http://philosophyofbrains.com/2017/01/28/mindfulness-and-the-enactive-approach.aspx

Thompson, E. (2020). Why I am not a Buddhist. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


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COMMENTS

2 Replies to “Touching the earth: exploring a new, secular self-help mindfulness group approach”

Francesca Khanna

Hi Bill,
Wishing you a very good New Year.

I would like to sign up for the day-long program on February 9th.

I enjoyed your article and look forward to the 9th of Feb.,

Bill Gayner

So glad you enjoyed the article, Francesca, and that you can attend the February Touching the Earth workshop.

Warm regards,

Bill

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