Our Practice

Our practice – what to expect.

The following information should be useful to both absolute beginners to Buddhist practice and those with some experience with other Buddhist traditions. Should any words here be unfamiliar and are not immediately explained, there is a glossary on another page on this site – please refer to this where necessary.

The Thursday evening practice usually comprises:

  • A guided meditation, followed by
  • A period of walking meditation (Kinh Hanh) followed by
  • A period of unguided (silent) meditation.
  • Sharing from the heart / from silence*
  • Sharing the merit of the practice
  • Announcements

* It is not compulsory for anyone to speak: you do so only if moved to say something. More about this below.

At various times a bell is invited to sound to mark the beginning or end of particular parts of the practice.

To a certain extent, this is all you need to know – just sit and experience the session. However, if you would prefer to know more detail, then a more comprehensive explanation follows.

The sound of the bell.

The bell is a tool, a “bell of mindfulness” that reminds us to be in the present moment, should we become distracted. It also lets us know when something is beginning or ending. When the bell is rung three times, we stop whatever we are doing and relax and become aware of our breathing. We stay still and silent until the sound dies away. By stopping to breathe and restore our calm and our peace we become free and restore our mindfulness.

Within the practice, the bell is “invited” to sound, rather than being “struck”, the tool being used to invite the bell is therefore known as the bell inviter. The person inviting the bell (“the bell-master”) needs to feel really solid, at peace and present in the moment. Accordingly he or she needs to concentrate their awareness so that the bell will produce a beautiful sound and be of maximum benefit to those present, the Sangha. To help the bell master accomplish this, the bell-master may first focus on his or her breath and recite the following gatha:

“With body, speech and mind in perfect oneness
I send my heart along with the sound of the bell.
May all who hear it awaken from forgetfulness
And transcend all anxiety and sorrow.”

Before the mindfulness bell is invited to sound it is important to “wake up” the bell. To wake up the bell contact is made by the bell-inviter on the edge of the bell and held, creating a short muffled sound. This allows the those present to prepare for the full sound of the bell. This is particularly useful at the end of a meditation session to avoid startling anyone with the full sound of the bell.

The sound of the bell gives us an opportunity to come back to our breath and dwell in the present moment. On hearing the sound of the bell, we concentrate for at least three breaths. If desired, the following gathas can help us in this practice:

Listen, listen, this wonderful sound
Brings me back to my true self.

The sound of the bell is the voice of the Buddha
calling me back to my true home.

Before inviting the bell again, the bell master will allow enough time for three in- and out-breaths.


This can be a difficult practice for people new to the practice, particularly “us” in the west – bowing is a standard feature of etiquette in many Asian countries. Group members bow to one another during the evening’s formal practice. It has no religious connotations but many Westerners find it unnatural and wonder whether it is necessary to bow or not. Thich Nhat Hanh has often said to his students, “To bow or not to bow is not the question. The important thing is to be mindful.” When we greet someone with a bow, we have the chance to be present with that person and with the nature of awakeness, within us and within the other person. We do not bow just to be polite or diplomatic, but to recognize the miracle of being alive. It is also said that to bow is to acknowledge the potential of Enlightenment in the other person – potentially, we are all Buddhas!



As yet, we don’t give full formal meditation instruction but, hopefully, the following will give you enough to start.

Before the actual meditation, a few words about posture. Don’t feel you need to be supple enough to get into the lotus position on the floor in order to be able to meditate. Many Group members use a chair which is a good place for beginners to start. A chair is a perfectly acceptable meditation base provided you use it correctly. Most, however, sit on the floor, either cross-legged on a cushion, or astride it, or on a meditation stool where the meditator kneels.

If you sit on a chair, keep your back straight with the head centred over the spine. Don’t lean on the back of the chair. Both feet should be planted firmly on the ground, legs at 90 degrees or slightly more to your body. You should have three points of contact to keep you steady in meditation – your buttocks and your two feet. If you sit on the floor or kneel, you need to feel steady, with your buttocks on teh stool or cushion and your knees on the floor, or being supported. The importance of keeping the back straight is to allow the diaphragm to move freely. The breath is an important part of meditation, so it is important to be able to breathe freely and deeply. In general, as we get older, our breathing becomes restricted, and less and less complete. We tend to take shallow breaths in the upper part of the chest. Usually, we’ve got our belts on very tight or we wear tight clothing around the waist. As a result, deep, complete breathing rarely occurs. It is important to loosen up anything that is tight around the waist and to wear clothing that is non-binding. Don’t worry what you look like – you and everyone else will have their eyes closed! The chin is slightly tucked in. Although meditation looks very disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body. It doesn’t take strength to keep the body straight. Should you begin to feel uncomfortable, do not suffer! Mindfully and as silently as possible, adjust your position. Try and learn from your mistakes so as to find a meditation position that works for you.

The position of the hands is a personal choice. Traditionally in Zen traditions, the dominant hand is held palm up holding the other hand, also palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. If you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding the left hand; if you’re left-handed, your left hand is holding the right hand. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands form an oval. If this isn’t comfortable, just rest your hands on your legs.

So, on to the actual meditation. There are many different forms of sitting meditation. In our practice, concentration on breathing forms the basis of sitting meditation.

Periods of guided meditation generally last for about twenty to thirty minutes. These usually commence with three sounds of the bell. If we are waiting for the session to begin, we can make sure our posture is comfortable and begin the process of focussing awareness on our breathing. At all stages we are aware of our body which should be relaxed and alert.

Our breathing during sitting meditation should be unhurried, light but at the same time deep. We do not aim to control our breathing but rather we allow it to deepen as we relax with the practice. As we concentrate on our breath it becomes possible to follow it with our awareness. We follow the passage of air in and out, aware of our diaphragm or our belly rising and falling. The breath provides a focus for our awareness which unites the body and mind.

When we are distracted with unrelated thoughts, feelings or sensations during sitting meditation – as we all tend to be at times – we try not to dwell on these but simply acknowledge their presence and return to our breathing. We let them go; we do not follow them. Such thoughts, feelings and sensations become like clouds which we allow to pass by without clinging to them. Eventually, if we practise well, the sky will begin to clear.

When we begin to learn sitting meditation it can be helpful to silently recite the word In as we breathe in and Out as we exhale. Alternatively we can count a cycle of inbreaths and outbreaths – say from 1 to 10 before starting again.

What you should do in the guided meditation.

Listen and concentrate. A guided meditation is when your imagination is led on a journey with the purpose of achieving healing and realizations through purposeful contemplation and reflection.  The idea is to let go of any thought you may have and allow your subconscious mind to follow the words that are spoken.

To give an example, many (but not all) of the guided meditations start with:

“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.

“Breathing out, I know I am breathing out”



Try and be aware of only your breath, but don’t feel you need to repeat “in” and “out” all the way through. If you find you are truly focussed on your breath, that is enough. And don’t feel disheartened if you keep finding that you have become distracted: as soon as you know you have been distracted and have come back to the breath – you are doing the practice correctly!

A smaller bell is invited for other parts of the practice, for example, with walking meditation and at the end of the evening session.

Getting ready for walking meditation.

  • The inviting of the small bell is the signal for us to stand up and arrange our chairs, stools and cushions in the centre of the meditation space. We then stand facing inwards (towards each other).
  • When everyone is standing and still, a second sound of the small bell signals for us to bow to one another and turn to our left so that we are now in a circle facing clockwise around meditation space.
  • On the third sound of the bell the walking meditation practice begins, as described below.
  • To end the walking meditation session there will be another sound of the bell. At this point we do not stop walking. This sound of the bell lets us know that we are on the final circumambulation of the room and should stop by our original place when we reach it.
  • Once everyone has stopped walking and is standing at their original place in the room there is a further sound of the bell. At this point everyone bows to one another, takes their chair and resumes their sitting position, ready for the next session of meditation.

What do I do in walking meditation indoors?

Kinh Hanh literally means slow walking in Vietnamese. It is the form of walking meditation conducted in the meditation room. We refer to it as Kinh Hanh to distinguish it from Outdoor Walking Meditation. Kinh Hanh is a wonderful meditation which is central to our mindfulness practice.  Usually Kinh Hanh is integrated with sitting meditation practice in the meditation room. It offers us the experience of the whole Group moving in mindful unity together in the meditation room.

When we practise Kinh Hanh our breath is coordinated with our steps. When we hear the bell to start we take an in-breath and make one step with the left foot. On the out-breath we take another step with the right foot. Then we begin the cycle again, the left leg always co-ordinated with our in-breath and the right leg always coordinated with our out-breath.  Throughout we are continually aware of the body and relaxing the muscles of the mouth in a gentle smile: “Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, I smile.” Our body flows in a continuous movement in harmony with our breathing. We are aware especially of the contact of our feet with the ground, and the wondrous nature of the present moment: We hold our head still, focusing our attention about five feet ahead of us, but we are very aware of the Group. If we find that we need to slow down or speed up we alter the length of our steps; we do not aim to change our breathing which stays relaxed and light.

As always the key ingredient in this practice is awareness. Kinh Hanh is best practised in a spirit of celebration and joy. It helps the whole Group if we remember to smile. Remember that should you find co-ordination your breath with your walking, do what feels comfortable at first. What will probably happen once you get used to the practice, in time, is that you find the suggested method easier.

Outdoor walking meditation (other venues, i.e. on retreats and Mindfulness Days).

Outdoor walking meditation is a wonderful way to renew our contact with nature. It gives us a chance to refresh the body, to dwell in and appreciate all the aspects of our environment; the earth, the air, trees, sunshine, each other and even sometimes the rain.

The key to the practice of walking meditation is mindfulness. Dwelling in the present moment we are fully aware of our surroundings, of our breath, and the precious contact of our feet with the earth. Our lives often seem to be bound up in getting somewhere and reaching some future goal. In walking meditation there is no destination. We walk in order to walk; we have already reached our destination; it is the here and now; we can move slowly, relax and smile. “Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know this is the only moment.”

The practice of outdoor walking meditation is very simple and very profound. As with Kinh Hanh, we coordinate our steps with our breathing, but this time we take several steps for each breath. The number of steps we make depends on what we find comfortable. Many people find three paces for each in and each out breath works well. As we step we can silently recite a short gatha to help us. This can be as simple as: “in-in-in: out-out-out”, each word representing one step. There are many such mindfulness verses that we might find useful. We may wish to compose our own to help us. Another example is “With-every-step: I kiss-the-earth.” If we are conducting walking meditation as a group then periodically there will be a sound of a hand bell. This is the signal for us to stop walking and breath in and out at least three times. We look around us, breathe, and appreciate our surroundings.

What do I do in silent meditation?

Silent periods of meditation generally last for about fifteen twenty minutes. These usually commence with three sounds of the bell. If we are waiting for the session to begin, we can make sure our posture is comfortable and begin the process of focussing awareness on our breathing. At all stages we are aware of our body which should be relaxed and alert.

Refer to the information given above with regard to the breath, i.e. be aware of teh bretha s it goes in, as it goes out… don’t try and control it. This is our anchor, what we come back to when we become distracted.

When we begin to learn sitting meditation it can be helpful to silently recite the word In as we breathe in and Out as we exhale. Alternatively we can count a cycle of inbreaths and outbreaths – say from 1 to 10 before starting again.

Do tell the facilitator if you are a beginner and he or she will try and explain a little more in the session to help you.

Speaking from the heart / out of silence.

This is about mindful speaking and mindful listening. Care over the use of speech is one of the Five Precepts taken by Buddhists of all disciplines. Thich Nhat Hanh has expanded the wording of the precept in a very beautiful and loving way:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

When we speak to the Group we try to follow these guidelines and it is obviously enormously beneficial if we can carry this practice into our everyday lives.

The period of sharing is a valuable opportunity to speak from the heart to a supportive community. It is a chance to highlight something from the Dharma reading or to share the fruits and difficulties of our practice, time to speak from the heart about our personal experience, and to support each other by mindful, non-judgemental listening.

Above all, please enjoy your practice. Don’t worry about finding meditating difficult, that’s normal. Do not hesitate to ask questions at the end of the session if you need advice. If the person you ask cannot answer you fully, he or she can refer you to someone who can help, or perhaps written material, whatever is appropriate.

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