Tag Archives: breathing space

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

a paradigm shift

When I was in Brighton this weekend to support my sister as she ran her first and (she professes) only marathon I was struck by the huge amounts of people who had given up time and energy to train to run this 26 mile challenge.

Men, women, old, young and people of diverse nationalities, it seemed, had decided to give the Brighton marathon a run for it’s money. As we stood around waiting for glimpses of my sister on the epic route we mused about what gives people the running bug.

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There were drums, clackers and lots of banner waving and a huge amount of support as people wrestled with their body as it screamed stop and their mind which was set on finishing the marathon and gaining a medal.

In his book Mindfulness in eight weeks Michael Chaskalson makes the observation that in 1970, the first New York marathon had only 127 entrants and fewer than half of those made it to the finish line. By 2010 44,829 people finished the New York marathon which at that time was a world record for marathon races. And each year all the big marathons around the world are hugely oversubscribed.

Chaskalson makes the case that somewhere along the line in those 40 years a paradigm shift had taken place. In that time running, jogging, gym membership and yoga became common place. He proposes that we are set for another paradigm shift – that possibly in 40 years time mindfulness will be as common place as jogging. Mental fitness will take it’s natural place as an equal alongside physical fitness.

It’s a great and optimistic vision and one of course I hope comes true but with out the support of friends and family it can be challenging to run a marathon. And for the person who tries to make time to meditate it can also be a challenge if those around are not supportive and understanding that to cultivate any practice routine, be it mental or physical, takes time, energy and patience. The rewards are not so instantly apparent with mindfulness and no one will hand you a medal on completion but in the long run it might be even more beneficial for all of us if that paradigm shift happens soon.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 50 minutes (15 minutes yoga followed by a bodyscan)

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Every marathon runner needs supporters!

mindfulness-based parenting

It’s tempting to think there is some trick or technique we need to learn, some course we need to attend, some skill we need to master (and somehow never do) that will fix us and/or our parenting.

Last weekend I went on teacher training at The Tavistock and Portman Centre for a course (coming soon) entitled Mindfulness-Based Welbeing for Parents. I learnt a lot about how to adapt the heavy eight week courses many of us teach to better suit busy parents.

I’ve adapted before and admittedly most of the practices on this course are much the same as on other courses. Once you’ve stripped away the differences and the parent centered content, the key message of the course was all about nurturing ourselves with kindness and friendliness and how we can do that as parents if we want to survive and thrive in the face of rearing small unpredictable little charges.

As with all mindfulness courses it all comes back to practice, daily practice. There is no easy way round it. They haven’t yet invented a mindfulness pill that will turn you into an all present enlightened being.

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So this course, among many others, is a good place to start a regular mindfulness compassion practice. Turning towards yourself and your parenting ‘flaws’ whatever they may be with a kind and gentle eye (not being there, being in their face, being disconnected, giving them too much pizza, the list is endless of course) and treating these ‘flaws’ just the same as when you have moved away from the breath in a practice – you kindly escort yourself back to the breath each time.

In my practice now I drop in two reflections – can I be present with my kids during their moments of difficulty and can I be kind to them during their moments of difficulty? This in itself is a life time’s work but turning towards the possibility, setting the intention and being able to see this is the intention even when things don’t quite go the way you’d hoped, is a useful starting point. And being able to show yourself some kindness too.

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes seated, 10 minutes movement.

 

 

 

a lesson in acceptance

A few weekends ago my husband and I woke up on a Sunday morning and had a rare moment of clarity. The sun was shining, it was gloriously mild, the kids had been going a bit stir crazy the day before and all the homework had been completed. It was a perfect recipe for a day out. Last year we had decided to take the kids to Stonehenge en route to Glastonbury and had been gifted an English Heritage Membership Card as an early Christmas present from my mum. Ever since then if we have the energy and the time instead of doing our default trip to a nearby forest we sometimes swing by Audley End House, which costs a fortune before we had this red card but, for this year at least, is free.

So Audley End House had been decided on with the kids’ blessing, especially when I said we’d have lunch at the cafe and my daughter decided they probably do sausage rolls, her favourite.

We all piled into the car and we kept saying, wow this is what it’s like to be sorted and organized. You know one of those families that manages to get out of the house before ten o’clock. Somehow for us that has always been a struggle.

Partly because we are laid back people who believe we should all have a rest. Sunday mornings are lazy and porridge filled. The food theme continues, I usually cook something and we all sit down to break bread – often it’s the only family meal we get to eat together for the whole week.

There’s value in going slow, in allowing yourself to melt into a lazy Sunday morning with no plans. But with kids there will always come a point when daylight, fresh air and a leg stretch are very much needed. And at that point we’ll roll out of the house, not quite sure what to do or where to go, there’ll be no packed lunch made, we’ll arrive at said local forest and people are queuing round the block to get in, the kids start kicking the backs of the seats and are complaining they’re hungry, you look at the clock and realise somehow it’s 2pm already and then dark thoughts creep in about the weekend being nearly over already and you’ve only just managed to drag yourself out of the house.

So it’s a balancing act, like everything in life. But on this Sunday we felt we’d got it right. We hadn’t cajoled anyone to hurry or rush, it had still been a fairly lazy and porridge filled start to the day but miraculously we were sitting in the car, sun shining and it was only 10.45am. And we had a plan and everyone was happy with it.

Fast forward fifteen minutes and we are still sitting on the drive, kids kicking the backs of our seats and tempers in the back are getting frayed. The car won’t start, for the second time this year. I feel disappointment wash over me. We were like the f-ing Von Trapps for once in our lives and then how does fate repay us?

The car will not move. It’s not budging, something is severely wrong with the brakes. And so we stay put. Back to thinking on our feet, a skill I was usually good at pre-kids, but add whining and kicking seats and suddenly quick thinking gets clouded.

I can feel disappointment wash over me and I am aware that a behavior trait pre-mindfulness would be getting angry – at the car, the situation and then shutting down – ignoring it all, going online, using the whole situation as an excuse to disconnect from my family. What’s interesting to me was on that day I felt pulled towards all those things but somehow there was space and distance to not go down that well-trodden path.

‘Let’s go to the allotment instead,’ I said cheerily hiding my disappointment that was just as real as theirs. Both sighed heavily. ‘My sausage roll!’ was the only audible comment from my daughter.  ‘TV?’ offered my youngest.

‘Allotment and a pub lunch?’ I offered again. They grumbled and plodded all the way to the allotment as we left my husband to call the AA and wait. But once at the plot they played on the rope swing, got muddy and soon forgot about Audley End. I got some weeding done and then took them for that promised pub lunch. My husband was able to join us as they played in the pub garden in the sunshine and then the youngest suggested we walk along this muddy path we’d discovered.

We went for this local walk in the bright sunshine, the kids getting even muddier, stopping to chat to every dog walker who passed by. It’s a path I have never had time to explore in four years of living here. It hadn’t been the day trip we had envisaged but it taught me a lot about acceptance and how everyday is a chance to tread different paths.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 20 minutes

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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Grow Mindfulness Launch

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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

http://www.growmindfulness.org/

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The Power of Cooking

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For me it’s only a small exaggeration to say that food means everything and is a real barometer of my internal weather. The last few weeks with endless colds doing the rounds, I’ve felt tired, snuffly and lacking the necessary energy to cook healthy food.

Recently quinoa and super food salads have been making way for fish and chips. There’s nothing wrong with this for a week or two but when we are busy and stressed takeaways and ready meals can become a way of life . I was procrastinating about what to cook tonight when I saw a pot of coriander wilting on the window sill.

It reminded me I had bought it over a week ago with the idea of making dahl and rice sometime soon and yet every evening I have been unable to find the energy to make a dahl from scratch, so even though it was on it’s last legs I still rummaged around the freezer in search for something, anything, that would help me avoid making dahl.

But why do I do this when I love dahl? And actually, like all wholesome tasks, I don’t actually mind creating one once I have started.

The answer is that we drop the things that nourish us when we are at our lowest. Feeling stressed and depressed? Out the window goes your yoga, bookclub or wholesome cooking. This is really useful to know if you are a mindfulness practitioner. When we need our practice most that is when your driven doing mode of mind will be screaming your to do list at you. What you want to meditate? Not till you have done every single thing that needs to be done first.

This irony of our minds steering us towards unhelpful behaviour is covered in week seven of the eight week mindfulness meditation courses I teach. Through mindfulness meditation I have learnt to navigate that compelling busy stressed out voice that urges me not to cook, to ditch the yoga and to zone out to TV with some crisps. Some weeks it is easier than others and this week food has been my main stress indicator and the thing that fell by the wayside. It happens to us humans,  no need for self flagellation.

So after lunch today I congratulated myself on noticing my wilting coriander plant and all it stood for and then finally made that dahl from scratch. It felt good to be cooking again and I can’t wait to eat the results but most interestingly it was the process itself, the soothing washing, chopping, stirring, crushing that comes with making a dahl that felt so nourishing to my rather stressed and tired mind right now.

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes (yoga and seated meditation)

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On being an adult

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Many of us, especially perhaps my generation who grew up with Thatcher and the Falklands War as the backdrop for our childhoods, sometimes ask the question ‘When will I actually grow up?’

Even though I have been old enough to vote for more than two decades and ditto buy alcohol it still sometimes seems that achieving full-blown adulthood has somehow eluded me. For so many years I was footloose and fancy free, a global vagabond and loved every moment of it.

It took moving out of London, getting a mortgage, signing up to the teacher’s pension scheme (after nearly a decade of putting my head in the sand, pretending old age wouldn’t affect me) and waking up from two years of new-parenthood sleep deprivation to make me think OK maybe I am now actually an adult. Maybe this is actually it, I am all grown up.

It’s funny the roles we like to hold onto. We become so attached to the comfort of a well-worn character trait. Disorganised, slightly useless with money, not still really sure where life is taking you. I have felt all of those and more since being more an ‘adult’.

But what I have come to realise, with the help of an established meditation practice, is that some of that stuff you can let go of, while keeping the parts that serve you well. I don’t feel I have to be crap to be me anymore. But I still quite like keeping my child-like wonder at the world. After all many things about adulthood – the striving, the rushing, the not seeing what is there in front of you – are very overrated.

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes (Qigong and sitting breath and compassion practice)

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Snow day

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We had a snow day the other week. It was a perfect flurry that made everything look picture perfect and yet it didn’t totally disrupt the trains and roads, so win-win all round.

On the eight week mindfulness courses I teach there is much reference from week one of the beginner’s mind. Participants are asked to eat a raisin as though they have never seen one before and then this continues in their home practice by doing a daily task with the spotlight of their full attention.

If ever there is something that reconnects us with beginner’s mind it must surely be walking to school with two kids after a snow flurry. The same old tired journey we do everyday was suddenly magical and exciting to them. The alley we traverse (often much covered in dog poo) was transformed into a Narnia-esque secret snow tunnel.

There were oooohs, there were arrghs, there were a few soggy tumbles as well but with the help of kindly curiosity I found myself quelling the urge to say ‘come on’ (surely the most overused two words on the school run?) and instead just marveled at their marveling. At moments like that I find myself thinking, ‘this moment, must remember this moment.’

It seems to me children are naturally mindful and we (society, parents, teachers, life, soft cops) squash it out of them, telling them to hurry and multi-task so we can squeeze all the things that need to be done into one day.

How wonderful it was to just take our time, marvel at the beauty of winter and, for one day at least, give ourselves permission not to rush.

Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes with the kids (it is half term)

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