Tag Archives: Cambridge

awe and wonder

I have been looking at the sky as part of my daily mindfulness practice for a couple of years, inspired by an activity described by Vidyamala Burch in her excellent book Mindfulness for Health. I loved the invitation to notice the sky for 5-10 minutes everyday and do it whenever I remember to. So I might be standing on a platform at Tottenham Hale station and notice either blue skies or grey clouds and I notice how the difference between the two can make me feel.

I might do it, on a slower day, from my garden with a cup of tea or on busy work days I look at the sky from the kitchen window in my workplace as I make a herbal tea. The practice is simple – look at the sky, check in with the body, notice the breath, notice any thoughts, go back to noticing the sky, repeat.

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The view from my plot!

This morning I made time to visit my allotment which doesn’t happen that often these days. I was late in London at college last night and had awoken as always too late and to much general child induced morning chaos – arguments, some dog poo that had mysteriously made it’s way into the house and needed to be cleared up, confusion about whether the kids had a trip to pizza hut and needed a packed lunch or not, an interview later today and mindfulness-based supervision were all things I had to navigate before 11am.

But squeeze in a trip to my plot I did and after that list of things it felt practically obligatory! I weeded for 20 minutes and then gave myself permission to just sit and watch the sky for 10 minutes before heading home, something again that I rarely do. When I started the practice several years ago I had no idea it would impact so deeply on my life and had no idea about the recent research into awe and the positive affects it can have on our lives. Researchers have found that having a daily dose of awe in our lives can improve our moods, our health, make us more cooperative and less materialistic and even help with critical thinking.

greatergood.berkeley.edu/…/eight_reasons_why_awe_makes_your_life_better

And for me watching the sky gives me that daily dose of awe that we all need in our lives, so too does watching a nature programme on TV – so this is something literally all of us can access in our own way. And it works well with clients who have experienced trauma and who might not yet feel OK to sit with their eyes closed on a cushion, simply going to their local park or even looking out the window at some clouds can be enough to kick start the process of better regulating emotions.

greatergood.berkeley.edu/…/four_awe_inspiring_activities

Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes (including 10 minutes of sky watching)

clearing out for winter

It’s that time of year when we need to face winter square on. As time has passed I am getting better at preparing for my least favourite season. I realised a few years ago being in denial about winter is not helpful and creates more suffering. So instead these days I embrace winter – I dig out my winter coat and start wearing warm clothes as I know it will help me accept that it’s here – those dark long (frequently grey and wet) British winter months are part of my life, just like summer is and so I need to celebrate the arrival of winter as best I can.

At my allotment after a bumper crop of apples, middling crop of pumpkins and disappointing crop of spuds I have now cleared the decks ready for winter. My moto during a busy term this autumn has been to visit the plot little and often. I have been rocking up to the plot at 4pm on a Sunday sometimes – clearly in denial that, since the clocks went back, I will only get half an hour at best but actually quite enjoying this.

By making it so time limited I get to keep on top of things but not miss out on family life (no one else can be tempted to accompany me now the weather has turned). And today I finished weeding one last raised bed and then got the satisfaction of covering three raised beds in readiness for spring. All cleared of weeds, I covered it in thick black membrane, so each bed is now tucked up away from the cold, like an animal hibernating until the weather gets better.

There are two active beds still – for garlic and broad beans (yet to be planted) and a few odd jobs that mainly involve lopping (the apple tree and the fruit bushes) but aside from that I feel like I have cleared out for winter.  This morning as I thought of that line I was reminded of a Rumi poem we use when teaching mindfulness that I had read the day before at a silent practice session and the lines about ‘clearing you out for some new delight’ resonated as I cleared the decks for winter, knowing this act means I am also, in a way, preparing for new life and spring.

The Guest House
Translated by Coleman Barks

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, 
some momentary awareness comes 
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jalaluddin Rumi

 

retreating

This is the time of year that many of us want to hunker down, switching off from work concerns and spending time with family.

So when I went off on retreat last week, leaving the kids to have their last week of school without me I did question my motivations. I had booked it up months ago, in the summer and back then it had seemed a move bordering on genius – going on retreat before all the Christmas madness kicks in, what’s not to love?

But of course the Christmas madness kicks in around late November so I was already in the thick of it when I left last week to Gaia House for a retreat on remembering the heart’s potential.

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I arrived one day early and had the whole house to myself near enough. I then maintained the silence as all the other participants arrived which made me feel a little out of kilter with the house but by the time the retreat started properly I was already very settled and ready to get the most out of the teachings.

There were moments of rich learning and everyday practical insights coupled with being in nature and in the silence, having time for awe and wonder at a robin tweeting nearby or a leaf falling from a tree. The simple pleasure of a hot cup of tea (with no biscuits or sugary treats) drunk outside on a crisp morning never ceases to be amongst my favourite moments when on retreat.

As I recounted some of my adventures in the mind and on retreat with my husband who had of course had a very different five days, single handedly looking after the kids, he said I don’t think I need to be in silence for five days to appreciate having a cup of tea outside. And to be fair neither do I. I love doing just that in my own garden or at the allotment but there is something very special about being on retreat. About being with people but not having to be anything for those people, about living alongside people in silence.

Top six things I realised in the silence:

  1. Do more yoga!
  2. Rediscover the body scan on a more regular basis (this was done everyday on retreat and I loved rediscovering it)
  3. Spend less time on line
  4. Spend more time with the kids
  5. Be generous
  6. Be brave

I’m not quite sure how the last 2 things will manifest. A whole new year awaits us after the winterval excitement passes by, so these are themes I will continue to explore in 2018 but for now that doesn’t seem an insignificant list of things to realise would have a big impact on my life, on which note I won’t be online again for some time.

Many thanks for following and reading my musings in 2017, wishing you a peaceful and productive 2018 xx

waking up

It’s often said that when we start to practice mindfulness we wake up to our lives. So it’s seems right to also say that when we lose mindfulness it can often feel like everything is a bit hazy, like being asleep. But with regular practice we come through the haze and gain awareness once more.

For many years I have tried to practice mindfulness with varying degrees of success. At first I was holding the commitment too loosely, if I have time I have time, really taking that gentle message a bit too close to heart. Then when training to be a teacher there was rigidity: must. practice. every. day. And this was useful, this was necessary but it really isn’t a boot camp.

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Now I feel I hold the practice in my life with the right amount of lightness and commitment, the rigidity has softened and I can be flexible with whatever each day brings. Some days, like today, I get a glorious stretch of space in which to practice for an hour undisturbed. But in reality this might only happen twice a week. The other days will be a mixed bag – 40 minutes here, 30 minutes there – each day. Sometimes I can do that all at once, other times it might be 2 or 3 slots of 10 minutes.

Whatever form it takes I find it all equally beneficial and welcome whatever I can manage each day. Letting go of should’s or any sense of guilt is a very liberating part of the practice. Each moment spent meditating is a moment of real wakefulness, constantly interrupted by the haze of thoughts, thinking and busy minds. But that is the practice – we fall asleep and then we wake up. Again and again.

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

Resurfacing

I came out of retreat more than two weeks ago, blinking like a mole in daylight for the first time. Travelling through London on the tube at rush is almost too surreal an experience after five days of silence and stillness. Suffice to say it felt slightly psychedelic, like the colours and noise were cranked up just a little too much.

The retreat itself was a delight. It was very different to any retreat I had done before. I found myself comparing it to previous experiences and finding it didn’t quite measure up. It was too short, too easy and too still and yet I knew it was exactly the right retreat for me at that moment. I found myself judging the Qigong (often with the words ‘this is so lame’ ringing in my mind), unspoken they felt all the louder.

I arrived late and was put on lunchtime pot washing detail for my work hour which meant I was out of sinc with most other retreatants and I lamented not getting that lazy lunch hour that was such a celebrated part of my previous retreat.

For some of the time I was holding on to that previous retreat, remembering one sunny afternoon when after a lovely veggie lunch a load of us lazed around on the grass in the sunshine. People I would never see again, many of whom’s names I didn’t know, and yet in that moment I felt so utterly and wordlessly connected to them. It was pure joy.

By day 3 I shed the old retreat and made friends with this present one. It was a much easier retreat in many ways, for a start I had only one room mate (not three) and she didn’t snore or use the toilet twice each night. I was sleeping well, I came out of the retreat feeling more revived not less.

And the Qigong was pretty still and I struggled with that – with boredom, with stiffness and restlessness. But it gave me so much to work with. I had to be with the body and all its aches and pains, whether I wanted to be or not. I had to do the dull movements for eight hours each day because I was there and I might as well take part. And I grew to love them and the breath works we were taught.

Two weeks later, even though life has been one busy blur since coming home, I still do those movements and the breath work everyday and my practice has never felt more stable.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 1 hour (Qigong, movement and breath work)

Retreating

In life we find thousands of ways to retreat from reality. As a student I used going out and drinking as a short cut from reality and this can be a hard habit to shake off. Now it’s gadgets and internet access galore that continually pulls me away from the here now.

Inexplicably when things get tough, that is when I feel compelled to google what flooring we need to buy for the bathroom. Or last weekend I spent several hours googling therapist courses, only to wake up the next day knowing it had all been some impulsive mind trick to pull me away from the kids and their constant squabbles.

Why is it so hard to be with what is? To really reside in the here and now.

The answer is simple: we humans, all of us (yes you!), are addicted to distraction. The human mind is addicted to distraction. So checking Facebook 90 times a day or whatever your ‘vice’ might be is totally normal given the addictive nature of smartphones and the way the mind loves distraction.

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However that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to this addiction, we can reassess things and set some boundaries if we want. When I told work mates I was off on a silent retreat this week the reaction was divided between ‘how wonderful’ and ‘I couldn’t do that’. Several people have said ‘wouldn’t you just chuck this away if you could’ waving the ubiquitous smartphone.

I think the answer really is to find a balance you are happy with and we always know when that is achieved or more often, when it isn’t and we feel out of sync.

Once a year I have to go on retreat to support my mindfulness teaching. When I taught in mainstream adult education my CPD revolved around how to inspire learners to use the Virtual Learning Environment or how to use a Smart board. Now my CPD is go to Devon for five days, live without gadgets, in total silence whilst being sustained on amazing veggie food (that I didn’t have to cook).

It’s a change I appreciate and one that always helps me to reset my own dial.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 10 minutes so far but a schedule of seven hours meditation each day awaits me this weekend and beyond!

 

Lightening the load

In the eight week Mindfulness-Based Parenting Programme I teach we encourage parents to draw a picture of a balloon with sandbags. Now we all need a bit of ballast to keep us from floating away into the stratosphere but too much weight will see us permanently grounded. So like many things in life, it’s all about balance. When I did this exercise a few months ago I realised I had too much weight dragging me down.

The last year has been a busy exciting haze of taking voluntary redundancy and heading off into new career territory. It’s been a bumpy ride, the kids don’t like me working more days and longer hours, we’ve had to negotiate a lot of childcare arrangements so that everyone’s needs are met but a year since applying for (and getting) voluntary redundancy I can honestly say it was a smart move and one that I have not regretted.

But my balloon was still too heavily weighed down and something had to give. Part of the point of these exercises is that it gives you the chance to stand back, reflect and take stock. There are some sand bags (being a parent full stop is a massive sandbag for example) that are not likely to go away. Cooking, cleaning and work are all sandbags on my picture but these need to be done. However two of the biggest sandbags over this last year have been being a governor (I urge anyone to give this a go, it gives you a taste of local democracy in action but only if you have the time – I realised I really didn’t )  and learning to drive. Both activities really drained my resources and time and yet gave me very little pleasure.

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So I handed my resignation in after three years of being a governor, I had procrastinated the whole summer and then with one simple email it was done. A very heavy sandbag had been severed from my balloon making me feel instantly lighter.

The second sandbag I have been trying to sever was not quite so simple. It isn’t particularly easy or pleasant learning to drive at any time in your life but when you are 45, dyslexic, extremely busy with few slots in which to book either lessons or tests, have zero interest in cars and have never even wanted to drive in the first place – then you can imagine it was a very challenging learning curve. I started out consistently having weekly lessons but around spring the lessons got patchy especially for every school holiday. I had several months when I didn’t have any lessons. I found both driving instructors I had hard work and quite unprofessional. And the knowledge that if I still lived in North London I would have happily yielded nothing more than my Oyster card well into my dotage didn’t help. And don’t get me started on how uneasily it sits with my green credentials.

But I got to the point where I had ploughed too much time, money and energy into this venture that I had to plod on with the whole joyless exercise. So plod on I did and 14 months after first stepping into a car and with numerous gaps in lessons I passed my driving test on Thursday. Delight wasn’t even close to what I felt, instead I was flooded with utter relief that it was over and I could now do things that interest and nurture me on my precious one day a week without the kids rather than sitting in a car being shrieked at about the give way rules of a roundabout by a highly strung instructor.

So I am feeling light and buoyant right now. Severing these things that drained my resources has left me with the space and energy to do other more pleasant things. I am meeting a friend for lunch today, plan to go out in London after work next Wednesday (which I haven’t done for ages because Thursdays were frequently driving lesson days) and I am getting excited about my retreat later this month.

Be aware if you do clear away some of your own sandbags there will be an overwhelming urge to instantly fill the gap with more crap. Two days after freeing myself from my governor role I started talking to my husband about my desire to become a union rep at work, he didn’t even need to say anything, he just kinda looked at me with a bemused face that seemed to say there she goes again, the queen of busy-ness! ‘Maybe I’ll give it 6 months before doing that,’ I found myself saying.

From next week I’ll be working four days a week in London. That’s the most I will have ever had to do the commute and instead of feeling worried and overwhelmed by this prospect I feel that clearing the sandbags has allowed me to have the energy to accommodate this change in working patterns. It’s only for eight weeks and then I go back to 3 day weeks. My house may get dusty in that time, I’m cool with that, but at least I won’t be squeezing committee meetings and driving lessons into the few spare moments I do have to relax.

Today’s practice time: 10 minutes movement, 15 minutes seated practice

 

 

 

 

 

lessons in mortality

When we are young it seems for a few years at least, that everything in nature can lead us to learn some tough lessons about our brief time on this planet. The gritty fact that we live, we get old (if we are lucky), our health fails and then we die is encapsulated in the changing of the seasons and the life cycle of a tadpole.

Most kids will remember losing a beloved pet or grandmother as the thing that really taught them about lose. When my children’s great granny died they were too young to fully understand and hadn’t known her well enough to really grieve her absence.

Granny is often referred to by the children, they often say ‘I wish granny were still alive’, but there is no hint of pain in their voices. They say it almost just to get a reaction from the adults, we all say how lovely that you still remember granny.

A similar one-step-remove style of grieving occurred when their paternal grandfather died late last year. Again they were aware it was a sad time and were very kind to their dad, asking (sometimes again and again) if he missed his dad, if he were sad about his dad dying but again it affected them only slightly as they’d met him three times and the last time was several years ago.

They have never had pets to grieve. As parents we have made the decision that we barely have the time and resources to look after our children and so don’t want to add a neglected cat, dog or rabbit to the list of things to feel we are not doing well.

In the end it was a tree that gave my son his first real taste of grief. Who would have thought that the itinerant tree feller who happened to knock on my door a couple of weeks ago could have inadvertently caused so much grief.

The silver birch in the front garden had long been on our culling hit list. Like so many things it got postponed and a tree we said we would fell four years ago was still standing in the middle of our front garden, blocking sunlight from the living room, in April 2016. In that time my son had grown to love it and said (posthumously for the tree) it was his most favourite tree in the world.

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It took the woodsman less than half an hour to get rid of the tree. As the kids arrived home from school I said almost jokingly, notice anything different? It was then that my youngest burst into tears. Anger then bubbled up as he yelled why would you do this mummy, you killed my tree, at the top of his voice while several bemused neighbours looked on. He then sat by the side of where once the tree had been, cross legged and said this would now be his meditation spot. There he sat sobbing for 10 minutes.

It took a further week for him to control his emotions when he passed by that spot and today he said he felt the garden did look better without the tree but confessed that he did still miss climbing it. He still sits cross legged by it’s ‘grave’ when ever time allows and watching the young lad suffer brings to mind that life deals us some very hard lessons to swallow and everything is impermanent. That might terrify each and every one of us but at times of sadness that can also serve as a comfort; this too will pass.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes movement, 10 minutes breath meditation.

 

 

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!

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