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Blog – CamAWISE Mindfulness Sessions

By Dr Petia Tzokova

CamAWISE offered 30-minute mindfulness sessions for 8 weeks between May and July this year. The sessions took place online on Wednesday evenings and were facilitated by Kalai Vanii Jayaseelan, a Mindfulness & Emotional Intelligence Coach and director of Sukhaatma. I attended almost all of the sessions and really enjoyed them! I already have a background in mindfulness meditation, but some participants were new to this, and I thought Kalai tailored the sessions very well to both new and experienced meditators alike.

Mindfulness meditation has become quite popular in recent years and many people have heard of it but may not have tried it. Meditation usually involves sitting (either on a chair or the floor), but can also involve lying down, standing, or even walking, usually with your eyes closed, although this is not compulsory! A lot of the time, the aim of the meditation is to deliberately keep focussed on something (could be anything!), but usually it’s internal things such as the breath, body or thoughts or external things such as sounds, simply because these things are always available to you!

When your mind wanders, you simply bring it back to what you were supposed to be focussing on. The main idea is to stay with what’s here in the present, not the past or future, in a non-judgmental way. Practising like this in meditations means these skills will spill over into a person’s everyday life, and they will become more mindful and focussed generally, as well as responding in a calmer way to difficult situations.

I’ve just finished my PhD in Engineering at the University of Cambridge. I’ve practised mindfulness for a few years now; I initially did a course for students (following Mark Williams’ book “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World”) and have been practising on and off since. I initially started meditating to improve my focus and concentration, as well as my general mental health. I restarted practising more regularly in lockdown, due to the situation and while finishing my PhD.

Kalai’s sessions came at just the right time for me and seemed like a great opportunity to get back into mindfulness. I’ve been involved with CamAWISE for years and I thought it would be great to meditate with others with whom I have something else in common.

Each session started with introductions if someone new had joined to make everyone feel welcome. We would then always have a meditation practice of about 10-20 minutes. Afterwards, we had a brief group discussion about the practice, where Kalai was happy to answer any questions.

We explored different meditations throughout the 8 sessions. The general techniques we used were focussing on the breath, including counting each breath (and seeing how high we could get before getting distracted by a wandering mind), and a body scan technique, where we focussed on each part of the body in turn, and then the body as a whole. I had tried most of these meditation types before, but it was great to be refreshed and try them again with others.

A highlight for me was a meditation called “loving-kindness meditation”. I had done this type of meditation before, but not in the way that Kalai taught us. The way I practised this before was by bringing to mind several different people: myself, a loved one, a neutral person and someone who I don’t get along with, and wishing them well in my head one after the other for a few minutes each. The overall idea in Kalai’s session was the same, but this time the instructions were to wish another participant in the session well. This involved opening our eyes halfway through the meditation to look at the other person (on the laptop screen!) and wish them well, again in our heads. I had never done the loving kindness meditation in this way before and I thought it was great (and required less imagination!).

In the discussions at the end of each session we also covered topics other than meditation. These included “flow state”: a frame of mind where time seems to just flow by, while we remain focussed. Kalai recommended the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport to learn more about how to get into this state more often. We also tried journaling, which involved writing whatever came to mind in response to a particular prompt, e.g. “things that annoy me are…”, “when I’m at my best I…”. I thought this was a good way to get thoughts out of a busy mind.

The sessions have been particularly helpful for me, as I hadn’t meditated with others much since the mindfulness course I originally took part in; this reminded me that I actually really like to meditate in a group, even virtually! I therefore sought out mindfulness meditation groups within the university – now I’m involved in several and I also recently took part in an online half-day mindfulness retreat!

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