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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
Even with the best of intentions it can be a challenge to stay mindful during the school holidays and especially during the consumer binge session that Christmas can so frequently become. We see old friends and family which can trigger off old behaviour patterns, if we have kids they are house-bound, wired and going stir crazy and there will be alcohol, often lots of it.
So how do we stay with our intentions to continue our daily mindfulness practice during winterval?
Firstly remember that daily practice means 6 days out of 7 so you can allow a day or two to slip by in the next week and not be too concerned. Saying that I have found that when you take all of the above into consideration maintaining even a very parred back daily practice over Christmas can be extremely helpful.
Here are 6 ways to stay present and mindful during the festive season:
- Make tea! Practice loving kindness by offering to make a cup of tea for your relatives before they head into alcohol fueled oblivion. This works on so many levels, you are being kind, you are offering something other than alcohol and perhaps sobering up a few older sherry soaked relies along the way. And best of all use the the time it takes for the kettle to boil to shut the kitchen door and do a 3 minute breathing space: acknowledge, gather and expand awareness as that kettle boils!
- Go for a walk! Going for a post-Christmas dinner walk works wonders for clearing the mind and lifting the spirits while having a welcome sobering quality. If you can’t persuade anyone to go with you just excuse yourself for 10 minutes and walk round the block, bring awareness to your feet, the fresh air and the (probably) snow free vistas.
- Start and end each day with a brief breath meditation. On waking sit yourself up on the edge of your bed and just focus on the breath. Notice how the mind will wander and remind you of the 50 things you need to do. Notice how it feels to bring yourself back to the breath and the body, sitting on the bed, breathing.
- Practise loving kindness. If you are spending Christmas with relatives or old friends see if you can practise loving kindness by hugging each of them in turn and asking them how they are. OK so some of them will invariably forget to ask you back but for one day at least try letting it go and see how that feels.
- Wash up mindfully! When the feasting has finished and the pots need to be cleaned see if it’s possible to turn mindful attention to washing up. Notice the soap bubbles on the plates, the feel of the water, any emotions and thoughts? Make a small dent in the mountain of dirty dishes before gently passing on the washing up baton for someone else to enjoy.
- Have a digital detox! Switch off your gadgets for at least one day and just be, whether on your own or with family or friends. Notice how it feels and be aware of any resistance that arises from the driven-doing mode of mind.
This list is by no means exhaustive but so far these have proved helpful – good luck, stay mindful and thanks for the follow in 2015.
Wishing you all a mindful Christmas and a peaceful new year.
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
At the risk of sounding akin to a celebratory hypnotist, ‘the power of mindfulness’ has become something of a catch phrase in my house. As my practice deepens and I draw on mindfulness more and more to steer me through everyday life I find myself saying well of course of, it’s all thanks to the mindfulness that I did this or didn’t do that. In short, that I am breaking through overused and very old, tired behavior patterns.
For many of us who practice there is that sense of (while being very kind to yourself and living in the moment and not dwelling in the past as best you can) why didn’t I take this more seriously many years ago? A few courses ago I had a very youthful participant and I found myself thinking how wonderful : to be so in touch with yourself at such a young age.
The video clip that the Mindfulness in Schools project made recently shows this so clearly as year 8 children say sagely, it’s only ten minutes, you might as well do it. How wonderful to be in the habit of mindfulness at such a young age, the closing comments from the teacher sums it up, I wish I’d been taught this at school (my words not hers)!
But I also know that at what ever age participants come to mindfulness, it is rarely a life skill that one regrets acquiring.