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.
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!)
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
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.
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)
Every marathon runner needs supporters!
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
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)
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)
I read somewhere recently that 40-somethings are often in the rush hour of their lives. The article said this is when career and child rearing responsibilities reach their pinnacles leaving those in their forties with very little free-time outside of work and child-rearing. The moniker Dual Earners, Toddler Twins (DEETs) rings very true for me and my partner.
It feels as though we have had toddler ‘twins’ for decades, though of course it has only been six years. And by definition neither of them are officially toddlers anymore nor twins. But having two young kids while trying to have a career is trying and frequently tests my mindfulness practice, let alone trying to carve out a new career for yourself at the same time.
Add to this mix the never ending story of retraining, which so many of us undertake in our thirties and forties because we realise we want something different or need something that fits round the kids, and you have levels of busy-ness unknown to our parents generation.
When my parents were in their forties they weren’t schlepping off onto training courses and retreats. You decided what you wanted to do at 18 and pretty much stuck with it. There are of course pros and cons to this model but in their forties I think they were certainly relaxing, watching TV and going down the pub more than I ever do!
I realised the other day, as I got in from London and had half an hour before needing to pick the kids up, that what I thought I should do was turn the computer on and catch up with emails and then head back out into the world even more frazzled than when I arrived. But I paused and guess what? A different idea came to mind. How about leaving the computer off, putting the kettle on and allowing myself half an hour with the paper before getting the kids?
Deep down we know that’s what our parent’s generation would have done with a spare half hour, rather than thinking their blog that has 3 readers desperately needs to be updated, on which note I down tools for lunch!
Today’s total practice time: 35 minutes (20 minutes qigong and 15 minutes self-compassion meditation)
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!
In week seven of an eight week mindfulness meditation course we explore the exhaustion funnel. When teaching this class I quote from This Frantic World which says in some countries doctors don’t ask ‘when did you start to to feel depressed’. Instead they ask ‘when did you stop dancing?’. I have yet to find out which country it is that has such enlightened doctors but I am tickled by the idea that perhaps in some utopia there may be salsa on the NHS!
This is a preamble to say that dropping the things that nourish us can cause us more stress than hoped. A person may drop all sorts of ‘optional’ pastimes in the name of clearing the decks or making more time. But they then may wake up a few years later burned out and with little joy in their life. Hence the question is really when did you stop doing the things you loved and start only focusing on work/children/caring responsibilities/obsessive house renovations (delete where applicable).
The good news is that none of this is irreversible. As Jon Kabat-Zinn frequently says there is always more right with you than wrong with you. Reclaiming your life is a big part of week seven and a big part of living mindfully. Being able to ask yourself, ‘what is the best thing I can do for myself right now?’ and perhaps deciding it’s a cup of tea rather than whittling away at your seemingly endless to do list.
Today’s Total Practice Time: 30 minutes
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!)