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.
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
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.
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
My fair weather meditation spot!
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
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.
Even someone with an established meditation practice has wobbles. At a training I went to earlier in the year a fellow participant brought a weeble along to her teaching slot and said mindfulness is like a weeble, we have wobbles but we’re less likely to fall down.
I had a few days last week when I did no practice. Or at least that’s how it seemed. I did no formal practice – stressed, busy, trying to tie up all the loose ends before another round of courses start my final push was hijacked somewhat by a fascinating election which lost me work time as I watched late night coverage and then recovered from sleeplessness the next day.
Two days with no practice affects me and so soon I was back in the quiet space – getting up early, peace and calm before the kids make their demands. But what impressed me most was that during those two days I felt very aware – aware of not practicing, aware it was quite nice, aware I felt it was a worthy reason (elections only come every 5 years after all) and just able to still inhabit the moment even though the formal practice had temporarily slipped.
Today as I got up at 6am and set about my silent practice before the day gets started, I felt a sense of relief. There will always be times when the practice slips – it’s wanting to return to it that counts.
Today’s practice time: 40 minutes (movement and self-compassion practice)
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.
A few months ago I was invited by the Grow Mindfulness group to their launch event at Westminster University that took place on Friday 13th March. I put it in my diary made a few inquiries about who could pick up the kids for me that day and with childcare secured, booked my free ticket,
Being in London on a Friday was a habit buster in itself and knowing the kids were being picked up by their favourite substitute to me – their dad – was lovely. Knowing everyone was happy I left early and chanced upon Dermot O’Leary’s dance-athon (it was red nose day and the BBC headquarters are two minutes from Westminster Uni) which further renewed the feeling that I was doing something a bit different and exciting on a school day (I’m a parent of 2 young kids with a very fixed schedule – so it doesn’t take much!)
The event itself was a good chance to network with other mindfulness teachers – much needed when so many of us work in our own little bubbles most of the time. There was an excellent talk on the neuroscience that backs up and supports everything we do when we teach these courses. On my courses I try to point out that it isn’t just Buddhists we need to doff our caps to, it’s the neuro-scientists who have proven with the help of MRIs that these practices can change our brains, helping us shift from the amygdala towards the insula.
But what was most heartening was that Grow Mindfulness is a grassroots organisation that literally wants to grow mindfulness and widen access to the eight week courses. Made up of committed passionate women from working class backgrounds, it was so heartening to hear them talk about broadening our scope and making sure everyone who needs mindfulness has some in their lives.
Quite how we will do this is still to be decided and without doubt the journey maybe a challenge but I left with a heart felt sense that this is an organisation that wants to shake things up a bit while connecting and supporting those at the very heart of mindfulness provision. That is an organisation worth supporting.
Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes seated meditation
Practising mindfulness does not make all the bad stuff in your life go away. There is no way to stop the potential stressors in your life. All we can do is learn how to breathe through them when they do appear. There are various things that I really don’t like doing – ringing up my bank is one of them (I struggle to remember the answers to all those security questions I set up several decades ago and yet when asked by a computer they come to mind so easily) or talking to my children’s teachers (why do I still feel like I am on the naughty chair?).
And yet do those things I must on occasions. So mindfulness allows me to notice that it’s difficult for me to do this, I acknowledge this without in anyway berating myself. I notice that I seem to be doing anything rather than the tasks in hand and finally when the Facebook-faffing-denial can go on no longer, I do them.
And when I do finally face that I have to do them and they can be put off no longer a strange thing happens. I prepare for the moment. This is a big thing for a dyslexic, being prepared, it’s never been something I do. At interviews I have always been more prone to winging it than painstakingly researching what it is I am being interviewed for.
But now I research and I prepare and I breathe and I know there are certain things that can help me get through these arduous chores like not being hungry or hungover, so I choose my moments, pause and then do it, without judging myself that it may well have taken three days before the procrastination came to an end.
Today’s Total Practice Time: 1 hour