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!
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.
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.
It’s often when we need it least that illness can strike. Although saying that is there ever a good time to be ill? All week I have been catching up with my work – both from my day job and from my mindfulness teaching work that I do. Blog posts, emails, advertising, lesson planning, proof reading my new mindfulness booklet, burning CDs and labelling them – it all takes up time.
And last week I was unable to do any of these day to day tasks as I was on retreat in Lockerbie, although at times I blinked and found myself remembering Tibet and my travels there. It was a wonderful, nourishing retreat and also very hard work. And of course this week has been all about playing catch up.
My oldest has had a hacking cough all week and I have insisted she trudge in to school every chilly day so that I can get my work done. She was fine and she didn’t need a whole week off but today she looked at me and just said ‘mummy, I think I need to rest my voice’.
As a teacher I know that feeling only too well so I relented and said OK you can have today off. This caused a meltdown in my youngest who on twigging that the oldest was having a day off decided he too was so ill school was not option.
As I almost dragged him bodily into school, a forced smile on my face, and the oldest ‘ill’ one kept skipping with delight (in between hacking coughs) at the idea of having a whole mummy day at home, I recalled, or perhaps it was somewhat later, what Jon Kabat-Zinn says about kids.
Let your children be your own zen master, he advises. That way whatever they throw at you, you can take a deep breath and tell yourself this is all part of the practice!
Total Practice Time: So far today ZERO, but the intention is there!
Last year I gave myself a Christmas present of a day of silence. I had to sit on rail replacement bus services to get to my precious day of silence and the community hall the day long retreat was taking place in had an unexpected interloper halfway through the day that burst our silent bubble but still it was worth putting life on hold for just one day.
The last few week’s have tested my practice to the limits and, as the dust settles for the time being at least, I find myself more enthused then ever. So putting my life on hold once more this weekend comes at just the right time, a quiet calm before the storm of Christmas and preparation for going into retreat for almost a week early in 2015.
I feel a small amount of trepidation about leaving the kids for so long but I have also booked myself a single room, figuring I may as well try to catch up on about six years worth of sleep while in retreat. The childcare is in place, the train tickets are booked and I have a lot of pre-retreat reading to undertake over Christmas but just as a day long retreat is quite nourishing I know a week long one will be profoundly so.
Today’s total practice time: 1 hour
The body scan meditation has been much on my mind of late, I have been doing it everyday for a month so I am feeling intimately acquainted with it. I haven’t done it with such gusto since I first came to mindfulness, it almost feels like revisiting an old friend.
The body scan provides the firm foundations for an eight week mindfulness course. It often makes up the bulk of home practice from week one or week two in an eight week course. Often described as the marmite meditation because people sometimes love it or hate it. Very few feel ambivalent towards it.
Why does it trigger such a response? Because it shows the doing mind participating in some of it’s most doing mind antics – it judges, analyses, compares. Perhaps all good things when you are working. But when you are lying on a yoga mat trying your best to feel your big toe perhaps the body scan shows the doing mode as a tad impatient and reticent to just let go and be in the moment.
So why bother, as early as week two especially, with a challenging meditation?
It’s precisely this challenge that gives participants an opportunity to really try to be mindful. The body scan allows participants to better connect with their body. It also allows them to see the doing mind in all it’s chattering glory. It provides ‘resistance’ training. If you can do the body scan twice a day for the next week having never meditated (at least daily) before, then the rest of a mindfulness course will be peachy!
Today’s practice time: 30 minutes (the body scan of course!)