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!
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)
Last year for my family holiday I went glamping, in a beautiful bell tent with the hubby and kids (then 3&5 so you can imagine there was nothing remotely glamorous about it). It was lovely and testing and different all at once.
Holidays are what get us away from our routine, from the nine to five grind of school runs, doing homework with reluctant jiggling young children and commuting into London. To stand back, take stock and have a rest is so welcome even though with young kids there is no rest, only a change of location in which you perform the never ending round of get up, entertain, cook , cajole to eat veggies, clean teeth and then usher bedwards.
It was hard work being in a tent, losing my space to practice any form of meditation or yoga and then when the children finally did go to sleep it was usually only half an hour later before it got dark.
Talking to someone recently about camping they said ‘It’s the ultimate habit buster, you have to change the way you think and change the way you do everything, from going to the loo in the night to washing the dishes, nothing is how you usually do things when you camp.’ That is so true. The practice was just being there, watching the flames flicker each night by the fire as we had a medicinal glass of wine and talked briefly before crashing out to face another 5am wake up call from our youngest and most excitable child.
This year’s holiday was more civilised – a farm house with my extended family. I had space and time to do Qi Gong everyday and meditate as much as I wanted. It was bliss compared to glamping but I wouldn’t completely rule camping out in the future because there are very few experiences that get you right back to basics, it just might be more rewarding once my son has stopped waking up at 5am.
And for those of us who go away only once or twice a year there are so many ways to shake things up in our daily lives in between holidays, from changing where we sit to watching a random film we know nothing about, little and regular changes to our daily routine can help us recognise and even change our sometimes unhelpful habitual behaviour.
Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes
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!)