Tag Archives: Meditation

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

 

one year no beer

There are all sorts of programmes and support groups, both online and in our communities, to help us cut down or quit alcohol. One such website is one year no beer, whose aim is to encourage people to have a dry January through to December oneyearnobeer.com . Another – club soda – is a mindful drinking website joinclubsoda.co.uk  They both work as membership organisations and there are different packages available to support those who want to quit alcohol.

I have found myself on a largely unplanned break from booze. I always do dry January, I’ve been doing it before it even had a name in the mainstream media. This slowly built up to often being dry January and February. Then last year it finally happened – I had a few weeks when I had a glass or two of wine but then found myself wondering why bother?

This heralded an unprecedented voluntary dry six months punctuated only by a trip back to my old home Madrid and my favourite bar in the world the sherry bar. That and a gift token to a honey beer tasting were pretty much my only adventures in alcohol of 2017.

I did Christmas sober and had my second New Year’s Eve sober. Yes, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself but I’m also mindful that having  a moderate glass of wine can be great fun, a pleasure with  a meal. So I’m not sure where this dry spell will take me, I quite fancy doing the full ‘one year no beer’ which would take me to September 2018 and then I’ll just see how I feel.

I was lucky – my mindfulness practice and research into addiction meant I was very aware of what tricks the mind plays on us when we give something addictive up. I didn’t need to sign up to an online group or challenge but they are useful resources and thanks to raised awareness around dry January and a small but growing acceptance that living a sober life is a wonderful liberating step I think there will only be more and more people taking this journey.

Whether you are choosing to drink every month of the year or taking a break for January it’s always good to reassess alcohol use. One year no beer gathered together the data below from Professor Kevin Moore’s research (Royal Free Hospital, London) into stopping alcohol for four weeks and the benefits are very compelling.

What happens when you take a break from booze?
Today’s total practice time: 1 hour (30 mins movement, 30 mins seated)

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

membership

Was it Groucho Marx who said that thing about not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him? Does that demonstrate some deep seated sense of self loathing on his part or just a dislike or mistrust of clubs?

I share some of his reservations about clubs and membership. As a child I was an adamant non-joiner – Brownies? No thanks, brown really wasn’t my colour and the activities they did left me cold (although I did have  an old Brownie uniform in my dressing up box as a child and it was fun to put it on, displaying someone else’s badges but without having to bother with the effort of earning them).

My children, particularly my eldest are stark opposites. They must take after their dad, who was a real joiner in childhood. They love Beavers, Cubs, drama, if there’s a club they will happily join it, so much so I have now had to say no! No more clubs, not wanting to make their childhoods as busy as their adult lives will no doubt be.

Although reading some employment forecasts who knows, maybe many jobs will be automated in the next decade or so and a life of leisure and hobbies beckons our young folk. Maybe after schools clubs are mere training grounds for all the leisure time they will have to come.

But back to the present, I have switched roles with my husband as I find in adulthood it’s fun to join things and feel a sense of solidarity with your fellow man. Long gone are the days when my favourite line from a film was ‘I hate my fellow man and my fellow man hates me.’ I’m a joiner these days.

I did a spell as a parent governor (won’t be repeating that!) I belong to a political party (the compassionate one of course), I have a membership card for the co-op. I support my union at work not just by being a member but I have stepped up and become a work place rep as I believe there has never been more need to protect those hard won workers rights.

And then of course there is all the mindfulness organisations I am a member of. This year saw me join the coveted list of good practice following mindfulness teachers.

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I still support Grow Mindfulness (even though it has stopped being a membership body) that lovely grassroots organisation that tried to put teachers at the front line of policy developments around mindfulness.

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And my favourite mindfulness organisation that I often wax lyrical to other mindfulness teachers who have not heard of them is the Mindfulness Association. Yes they are very Buddhist (but isn’t Bangor? and Oxford?) but they put compassion and accessibility at the heart of every course they deliver, every bit of training they provide is more affordable for normal people who want to access mindfulness. This in turn can only mean one thing – more mindfulness for everyone. They actively work towards a Mindful Nation, rather than paying lip service to it and yet ensuring training costs put training out of reach for most people.

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As a secular practitioner, I’m proud to be a member of an organisation that talks the talk and actually walks the walk.

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Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes

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.

going slow

The past couple of weeks I have been reining in the mindfulness work. I have a lot booked in for April so I needed a couple of weeks respite from the constant blogging, status updating, amending advertising, updating my website, booking rooms etc that comes alongside the very thing I enjoy doing which is teaching mindfulness.

The truth of the matter is simply I spend far more time in front of a computer than I do teaching mindfulness, such is the nature of recruiting participants for the courses and groups that I run.

So having  a few weeks off in which I consciously put nothing onto my facebook page and wrote no blogs and instead made time for the kids and my allotment have been very welcome.

Going slow is a thing. It’s been a thing for many years. Our ancestors were very good at it but we in 2017 often struggle with the concept.

The fruits of going slow have been giving the kids a lovely Easter break so far, we have been to the forest twice, met with friends and family, visited the plot and grown things!

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I recommend a time of going slow amidst the busyness to anyone who feels they need it. During that time of going slow I have still been at work, I have still been commuting into London 3 out 5 days. But what changed was the stuff outside my actual day job. Freeing myself from constant internet slavery for a few weeks has been lush!

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes movement, 20 minutes seated practice (in my garden no less, how is that for going slow!)

 

retox – detox

It’s that time of year again, when we set ourselves lifestyle or well-being goals and then perhaps give up halfway through January realising that nothing beats the winter blues better than a glass of red wine or a slice of cake.

I am as partial as the next person to resetting the dial in January, I have been doing a regular dry January for more than a decade and in the past have done all sorts of fruit detoxes and vegan months during January.

This year my best intentions went a little awry as they frequently have since becoming a parent. The vegan/veggie January thing doesn’t work as well when you are cooking for two carnivores everyday. My daughter gallantly offered to keep me company but fell off the veggie-wagon on day 4. And so did I.

I got some horrible bug the day I went back to work, which hey, if nothing else you have to admire the timing of it. I managed to dodge the sickness bug the whole two weeks I was off and then on my first day back to work I was struck down in the evening with the worst sickness bug I’ve had for years. There were jokes (later) about being allergic to work but I was left confined to my bed for nearly 24 hours, unable to do anything other than sip herbal tea and listen to radio 4. Once again as sick days go, it could have been much worse – my husband was around and so able to supply me with tea and a radio.

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Luckily the bug went as quickly as it arrived and so the next day when offered soup I readily agreed not realising it was chicken soup. I concluded there and then that this year detoxing probably isn’t for me. Instead of going fully vegan, eating clean and no alcohol for a month the best I can manage this year is no caffeine, alcohol and less biscuits which actually is good enough.

I do less of the retoxing these days anyway and so perhaps there’s less to detox, who knows if any of this stuff makes any difference anyway. If nothing else I approach it as a habit buster – a time to challenge that afternoon habit of always having a strong cup of builder’s tea and replacing it with peppermint. Yes I miss the caffeine hit and the chocolate hobnob I usually dunk into that pre-school run or commute home cuppa, but it’s always good to review these habits that can steer us towards automaticity after so many years of observing them.

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes movement and seated practice 

 

xmas cheer

As a dyslexic I have often relied on to do lists and being super organised to get me through the working week. Being organised isn’t a natural default setting for most dyslexics and so it is something I have had to cultivate over time. This can lead to a rather rigid approach to life that for me feels rather unnatural.

A while back I started toying with the idea of letting go of to-do lists, and instead embarked on the idea of doing things as the need arises. It’s been about three months since I ventured down this experimental path and I can report back that life has been more chaotic than usual. I have been late for things, something us perfectionist dyslexics who have spent a lifetime cultivating strategies to hide their dyslexia, find really difficult. I have forgotten things. And as for a Christmas shopping list – forget it, it all went free form this year.

The surprising thing about all of this though is that none of the above stressed me out, I found myself bathing in the chaos and quite enjoying it. I knew things seemed a shambles at times but I somehow managed to meet it with a friendly curiosity. How do I feel when I am not quite so in control? How late, chaotic and shambolic can I let things get?

It’s really healthy and a big part of the MBCT course to nudge ourselves out of our comfort zones. So often that gets translated as eating a curry when really we want chips, which is a great place to start but as a practice can we allow ourselves to go deeper with this and start to challenge the very way we interact with and meet the world?

I like to present as calm, competent and in control and I used to feel discombobulated if I couldn’t present that side of myself to the world. But letting go of to do lists has helped me embrace the chaos that is life, especially life with two young(ish) kids.

I bought the kids a book called ‘beautiful opps’ which teaches every mistake is a chance to learn and grow. I’ve been battling against the chaos of parenthood for a long time but now I feel ready to embrace the mess and the chaos, confident it won’t completely submerge me.

As I finished off my Christmas shopping today – yes the 23rd December – amid the crowds that would normally have annoyed me while I cursed myself for leaving it so late, I found myself instead doing a wry smile and wishing all the lastminute.com shoppers like myself well, us chaos prone types need to stick together!

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Today’s total practice time: None so far but I plan to hide in the kitchen at some point and do 10 minutes breath meditation!

a mindful read

As any busy member of a book club can testify once you start reading for a book club it can sometimes prove a challenge to fit in any other reading. Recently, thanks to not being able to get hold of one particular title, I found myself at liberty to choose any random book off my book shelf.

I chose ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ by Aldous Huxley. Bought well over  a decade ago, inspired by reading Brave New World in the first book club I was ever part of, a group that discussed and dissected dystopian classics in Central London on Tuesday nights, filled with anarchists and radical feminists. Fast forward ten years and now I am part of a suburban book club, a group of mums who wanted an excuse to escape the drudgery of motherhood to discuss books and drink wine, authors have included Caitlin Moran and Julian Barnes, nothing too taxing on the whole. It’s great fun reading other people’s choices but I also miss choosing for myself.

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‘Eyeless in Gaza’ is the most Buddhist novel I have ever read, not that I read many Buddhists novels, in fact I would probably actively avoid them being a secular mindfulness practitioner but it’s message was basically – get to know your mind, choose a different path and liberate yourself from suffering.

I was blown away by the quality of the writing, the skillful way the story weaved between various time frames and characters. Written in 1936 it felt very relevant and prescient in many ways. Themes covered were love, lose, betrayal, abortion, homosexuality, addiction, disconnection, war, bullying, public school life, bereavement, redemption, forgiveness, patriotism, pacifism and having the curiosity to try to live a different life. And at the heart of it all was compassion. It is essentially about how one man shifts from a position of recoiling from life to embracing it.

It’s a month since I read it and I quite possibly can no longer do it justice. For a book club book I sometimes make notes, as I was reading for personal pleasure I made no notes and so all the quotes I enjoyed are lost somewhere in the 500 page text but if you are looking for a compelling Christmas read that covers life, death and how to live and train the mind and walk a different path I can’t think of a better, more relevant read.

Today’s total practice time: 5 minutes breathing space (kids are off for Christmas hols!)