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practically sugar free

Last year I quit caffeine and reassessed my relationship with alcohol. So I guess it was only a matter of time that sugar would be the next in line to be culled. To me the three together are quite symbolic: sugar, caffeine and alcohol fuel our lives in the West – they are all acceptable and highly addictive. Two are classified as drugs, sugar gets less attention. But all three affect our lives and health and are, within society, the topic of much debate.

I believe capitalism cannot really function without them. We drink at night to unwind from the busyness of our lives then when we get up at 7am and feel tired we fuel ourselves with sugar and caffeine to get us through the day and then guess what? At the end of the day we need a little help to unwind again. It’s a cycle: wash, rinse, repeat.

The last year has been a playful adventuring into this theory that I have long held, that this holy trinity of substances fuels capitalism and also fuels a lot of suffering. ‘To know and not act, is to not yet know’, as Mishima wrote. I cannot really know this is the case until I have rid myself of cravings for all three.

So here I go – 2018 and a sugar free, caffeine free, alcohol free life. Sounds fun, right? The bizarre thing is I couldn’t be more excited. I decided as alcohol and caffeine have already been dealt with my ‘dry January’ this year would focus on sugar.

Now out of the three, sugar is the one I was most reluctant to tackle. I have never eaten that much sugar, it seems a fairly natural, plant based, food. Where’s the harm in it? So I started this experiment fully expecting to find it pointless, not for me and revert back to my biscuit eating ways come the end of January.

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But to my surprise I have enjoyed this mostly sugar free month. I’m not like super strict about it, I still have ketchup and have eaten some tomato soup in that time (both heavily laden with sugar) but I have stopped putting honey on my muesli and now buy sugar free muesli at that. I have quit, after so many years, my daily biscuit at around 3pm. It’s been replaced with dried mango and I have survived! I got lots of chocolate for Christmas which has been hidden away but I am sure it will get eaten at some point. Yesterday there was cake at work and I said no. Not because I felt I mustn’t but because I genuinely didn’t want it.

The comedown from sugar is just as bad as when you give up caffeine: headaches, cravings, flu like symptoms. If something makes you feel that bad when you quit I figure it can’t be that good. I have tried some adventures in sugar free baking and the kids are keen to try a sugar reduced life.

We never know how something will feel until we try it, all I know is that 3pm dip which I had everyday has now vanished. I feel more energetic in my mid-40s than I possibly ever have or at least post-children. I know there will be days when I say yes to cake but just to crack the daily biscuit habit alone seems a great achievement.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes movement 10 minutes seated

hello 2018

If I were to make any new year’s resolutions, which I’m not sure are even that useful (see a previous musing on this here thismindfullife.net/2016/01 ) they would be drawn from the learning that happened during the retreat late last year thismindfullife.net/…7/12/21/retreating-3 along with less sugar and more creative writing.

Part of this drive to unleash more creativity will involve The 52 Lists Project which I hope to work through as the year unfolds.

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This book appealed to me as it was weekly rather than daily, which felt a more realistic aim. And it’s a book rather than staring at a screen which pledging to do a blog post everyday for a year or whatever would entail.

I guess that means a new year’s resolution might also include, if I decided to make them,  less screen time, less busy-ness in general.

One day I hope to find that elusive work-life balance and so for the most part more than anything else less busy-ness resonates most with me if I were to pledge to do anything differently in 2018.

Belated happy new year – in the spirit of less busy-ness it has taken me a week to write a new year’s blog post!

Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes movement and seated practice

 

 

ground hog day

Monday mornings seem to often have the same familiar pattern. We all sleep in and struggle to get out of bed even though the night before was not any later than usual. The kids grumble about not wanting to go back to school, I say something bright and cheery like hey ho, only 3 weeks to go before summer and one of them bursts into tears because they thought it was only two more weeks before summer. My husband makes a hasty exit and the kids won’t see him again until Tuesday morning.

Everyone moves very slowly, I try my best to encourage, bribe and sometimes coerce a more speedy start. It all grinds to a halt at breakfast while my daughter goes from slow mo to freeze frame. With only ten minutes to go I find her whimisically staring out the window as she is meant to be brushing her teeth. I go to brush my teeth leaving them for all of 2 minutes and then when I get back of course one of them is crying claiming the other one punched them. I am losing the will to live and it is only 8.30. I file the incident under ‘sort out later’.

We walk to school and today that part went well except when we reached the school gates I realise the kitchen clock is 10 minutes slow again (it keeps doing this and then fixing itself, which lulls you into a false sense of security) and so we have actually arrived ten minutes later than hoped.

My daughter is given a damning red slip by the school office and looks even more anxious that she is arriving late. I stroll off to my allotment wondering how I can avoid this inelegant start to our week. Being a woman I naturally assume it is my job to fix this mess.

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I lose myself for several hours while weeding and strimming and afterwards I take the blanket out of the shed and lie in the shade watching the clouds go by. Part of me wonders what the old boys might make of this left-field behaviour but a bigger part doesn’t care. I am completely in the moment, and in that moment it feels like everything will be OK.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes formal siting practice, 10 minutes informal practice – watching the clouds (I recommend it!)

external events

On the 8 week MBSR course I teach in week 7 we look at how we often drop our most nourishing activities at the very times when they are so needed. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Out go the yoga classes. Short on time? Cancel on your friends. Working late? Order in a take away. It seems this is part of the human condition, something we all share – it’s a struggle to look after yourself when things are going well, forget it when things are going badly.

There is no magic cure for this very human predicament and I know people with decades of meditation practice who still succumb to this phenomenon. However the best thing we can do to at least stay on top of this is to pay attention to it, perhaps offer it a friendly if rather wry smile, accompanied by the thought ‘hello old friend!’ If we are aware this is how we behave when we are stressed research has shown we are much more likely to emerge quickly from the other side of the dip.

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I can imagine many people dropping healthy ways of being in the last week, as they have become sucked into the cycle of 24 hour news and worries about the future. That has certainly been my own experience since events have unfolded in the UK. Earlier this week I halfheartedly pulled my practice back together, reclaiming the very act of self care I need most at this time, not because I felt like meditating but because I had to. Procrastination and worry have never helped me feel settled, meditation does.

It is that simple. But of course as many have observed, it isn’t easy.

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes movement and compassion practice

Addicted to our screens

I’ve lost count of the articles I’ve read about the pervasive and damaging nature of technology. Participants on the eight week courses I teach often comment on how difficult it is to switch off from work, citing the fact they can all too easily read their emails 24/7 as one more stressor in their life.

Being by nature quite low-fi I thought I had managed to dodge all of that. I didn’t get a smartphone for years and like many middle-classed parents, I don’t use much technology in front of the kids. Their screen time is usually limited to watching the occasional CBBC programme on the computer and the odd educational maths or English online primary game we’ve discovered.

So recently when I facilitated a full day mindfulness practice session I was surprised by how much yearning I experienced to check in with my phone as the day unfolded.

Perhaps it was because running the session, though fulfilling and relaxing as it was, felt like work. And at work, away from the kids, I often lose track of how often I surreptitiously check my phone for missed calls, aware small children can fall sick at any point during the school day, I check in with my phone to seek reassurance. A blank screen tells me all is, thus far, well.

So I was working but needed to model the behavior I had set out for the group – a day to switch off your phones and just be with yourself, practising non-doing, practising noticing what happens when the distractions are out of our reach for six hours.

As facilitating meet up groups comes under the broad umbrella of work, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of it for my own personal practice. But the day unfolded as one of great calm. It allowed me to tap into the calm I had experienced whilst on a longer retreat. I was aware I didn’t want the day to end and part of that was connected with having a digital detox for the day. It allowed me to return to work the next day fully recharged, ready to face the Christmas chaos of work do’s and busyness that lay ahead.

For more details on local practice sessions and our regular meet up group follow the retreat tab https://thismindfullife.net/retreats/ or the meet up group tab https://thismindfullife.net/bishops-stortford-meet-up-group/

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes mindful movement, 30 minutes seated practice.

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Retreating

It’s been a long time since I have had the time or the space to write a blog post. My whole summer was one long digital detox. I noticed the urge to upload photos of sunny scenes on Facebook and then ignored that urge and just enjoyed the moment. I’m not claiming it will last into autumn when things get a little dull both literally and in terms of mood. It’s not easy being deprived of daylight and moments outdoors. I probably need a proper outdoorsy winter coat to facilitate my escape during the winter months.

At the tail end of summer my digital detox went nuclear by going on a week long silent retreat. I could probably write several blog posts about the insights I had during that week. How hard it was to be away from the kids, not even able to chat on the phone and yet also it was blissful. I didn’t plan a meal, cook any food or wash any dishes for a whole week. I didn’t have to bribe anyone to wash their face, brush their hair or walk to school a little faster.

I spent seven hours a day meditating. The insights came thick and fast but at the end of the retreat I felt so ready to come home and connect with others. The mountain of emails I came home to has now meant the digital detox is well and truly over. With new mindfulness courses starting in the coming weeks I cannot afford those lofty ideals any longer, it’s back to realizing I am frantically online till 10pm and juggling the kids, work and a life.

But as a way to deepen my practice and settle the mind a 7 day retreat cannot be underestimated, I will do it all again next year even though sorting out cover for the kids wasn’t easy and being apart is hard, it really was worth it in terms of deep learning and calm.

Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes movement, 30 minutes sitting.

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Stuff to do

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It’s often noted that our to-do lists can be unrealistic. Whilst it’s a good idea to have a list of stuff to do so we don’t forget all those tasks that need doing it can sometimes turn into a stick with which to beat ourselves up.

My to-do list has seemed so long this last year or so – it has often spanned 2 or 3 sheets of A4. And it’s the merging of the tasks that made me toy with the idea of giving up to-do lists altogether. On my to-do list there would be things to get from the shops alongside long term home improvement projects alongside paperwork deadlines and tax returns and room bookings and kids play dates to arrange and the whole thing seemed so amorphous and overwhelming. At times I couldn’t sit at my desk as even looking at it made me twitch!

I have now gone about two weeks without adding anything to my to-do list. I have been exercising my memory and seeing if I can just remember what needs to be done – emailing participants, replying to party invites, getting shopping has all some how been done by the power of my brain remembering it unprompted. I have at times had senior moments where I struggle to remember what needs to get done but it has also cleared the way for uncovering long forgotten projects like decluttering (still haven’t done it) sorting out a plumber (ditto) and resurrecting granny’s chair.

About a year ago I placed my late granny’s chair in the garden with the idea that it would be my meditation spot on sunny dry days. It has sat there ever since, the cushion slowly eroding despite covering it with carrier bags, the wood becoming characterful and mottled. The other day I saw a bird pecking at the wasted carrier bags and this inspired me to take action. Responding to the moment rather than doing a to-do list objective.

I dusted it down, removed the carrier bags, sponged down the cushion, removed all bird poo, let it dry off and then sat with a cup of tea feeling all aglow from having remembered a long forgotten plan without the help of the all pervading and rather stress inducing to-do list!

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes movement and seated practice

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My fair weather meditation spot!

Dealing with stress

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Sometimes mindfulness teachers present such a level calm embodiment of mindfulness to the world and their participants that it is hard to imagine them ever feeling ruffled. I like to joke that I am very good at modelling imperfection as all mindfulness teachers are encouraged to do. Modelling imperfections I have no hesitation in doing but modelling calm whilst under stress I have always struggled a tad more with.

So on Wednesday when I found myself locked out of the building where I normally teach one of my courses I was amazed to find myself feeling surprisingly unruffled. Even when the emergency contact number failed to come up with any help I still found myself smiling and thinking oh well, that’s that then.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an annoying situation that I hope I never find myself in again but I didn’t battle it or get myself all agitated, that was the big difference. There was no denial, I felt myself almost settle into the situation and think this is just how it is right now.

It’s almost mandatory for us mindfulness teachers to use anything unpleasant or uncomfortable as a way to practice mindfulness. If someone has a cough in a class we say ‘It’s OK it just gives us something to work with’, ditto if there’s a loud ticking clock or traffic noises outside. It’s just something to sit with and see what arises.

Wednesday night gave me a lot to sit with and see what arose. After my room shenanigans I got to my usual train station to find the express train I hoped to catch had been cancelled. There was no wrestling with this second major inconvenience of the day, instead once again there was a sense of shrugging, a letting go, when before there might have been silent curses and annoyance. Nothing else has actually changed, just my perception of all the stuff that happens.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 40 minutes movement and seated practice

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor

Decluttering

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For a while now I have been perusing websites looking for ‘storage solutions’. Anyone who knows me well enough not to trigger a major deep clean before a visit to my house will know that my hubby and me are bohemian at best when it comes to cleaning and keeping on top of the mess that is generated by having two children under the age of seven in the house.

I went through a stage of just binning all their art work, when they were in bed, without even glancing at it but now I cannot do that – I take notice of what they do and then feel I cannot bin it so easily. My son’s small box room is full to bursting with junk modelling projects (I do eventually throw them out but it takes a while before they fall from favour). For the art work I have bought them display folders in which to keep the art work they like with the threat of it’s not in the folder it goes in the recycling and let them sort their own mess out (theoretically at least).

But still the stuff keeps growing. And so I find myself shopping for storage solutions when I chanced upon an inspiring article about decluttering. We’ve all heard of it but when I read this article I was struck by how much stuff I have held onto over the years. Like many generation renters I have done so many moves over the years (a quick count on my fingers and I calculated it’s been about 16 different abodes since graduation and several international moves to boot) and much of this stuff has travelled with me.

The article on decluttering made me think about my books, much treasured some of them but also lots of never-to-be-read-again titles, why not give them to Oxfam so someone else can enjoy them for a quid rather than have them sitting there gathering dust. So I’ve decided to have a massive declutter, when I get time, which might not be any time soon (I borrowed my mum’s shredder about two months ago and still haven’t shredded anything as yet, she now of course wants it back and it seems to sit there accusing me of total slackerdom!)

I’ve started taking notice of my books for the first time since I unpacked them 3 years ago (my last move when we left generation rent and became mortgaged instead) and found myself wondering why I had held onto Memoirs of a Geisha for all these years – a book I read while living in Japan, it’s hardly a masterpiece or something I wish to revisit. I also noticed I had 2 copies of The Great Gatsby, one I sourced recently when my book group read it, the other has been with me for years but I have so many books I forgot I had it.

What could be a clearer example of rampant consumerism than having so many books you don’t even know what your own collection contains? Some of the books I’ve never even read, some I’ve read and will never read again. I’m not proposing to get rid of all of them but my aim is to halve my book collection sometime soon and donate those I know I will never read again to Oxfam and then hopefully I won’t need to shop for even more storage solutions!

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes sitting and movement.

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor

Holiday Chaos

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It’s fair to guess that not many of us relish a life of forever trotting on the hamster wheel of life, without pausing or stopping for holidays. In my day job I am particularly lucky in that I get 20 weeks off each year, it would be a stretch to say that it’s all paid holiday, as it really isn’t but I have always valued the time off I get even though, particularly in August, I am frequently broke.

But the one thing about routine is that it can nurture and help us sustain our practice. I had been a fit-my-practice-in-where-I-can practitioner until this year. At the start of 2015 I made a very vague new year’s resolution to start having a more Jon Kabat-Zinn approach to my practice, now the kids are older and I get a bit more sleep. I decided to get up at 6am on work days and 6.30am on non-workdays to give me a full 30-40 minutes of silent practice every week day before the house erupts into noisy five year old style chaos.

On my workdays I continue the practice into my breakfast, foregoing radio 4 and munching my muesli in silence (believe me this is the hardest of all asks for a new’s addict like myself). The difference I have noticed to my life though reassures me the early starts are well worth it.

That routine, and thinking I need to practice followed by a lovely realization, that box was ticked at 6am this morning, it really can’t be beat. And most importantly the impact my practice now has on my life feels even more profound than when I first started a solid commitment to daily meditation. Quicker to smile, more reluctant to shout even when my youngest is throwing his biggest of strops.

But only 3 months into this regime/routine and then along comes Easter and all my good intentions are thrown out the window by illness on the kids part and the school holidays. I didn’t really want to go back to work yesterday but as I sat on the train meditating and got back into the habit of regular pauses throughout my working day I know that for now my sense of calm and order has once again been restored!

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes movement and self-compassion practice.

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