This time of year is often thought as an ending – end of the year, winter solstice equating the mid point in winter, days getting longer and yet winter can also be a time of renewal. A time for clear outs, declutters and bonfires. A time to embrace the changing seasons, wrap up in winter coats and walk outside even when it’s cold and wet.
Getting outside is always important but this year in these strange COVID times especially it’s important to keep those daylight moments regular and frequent. As the Swedes say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. If you find yourself shivering and shunning the great outdoors this winter break it might the time to invest in a new pair of socks or an all-weather winter coat. I still try to call in at my allotment occasionally to clear away weeds and cover over beds and it can be a delight even in winter.
And for those of us stuck in tier four this Christmas there is not much else to do but visit the great outdoors or meet a friend occasionally for an outdoor stroll. I’ve been struck by how adaptable my children are to this new normal – meeting a friend in the park to shoot some hoops even though it’s raining, going on walks round the nearby muddy fields, taking time to perfect guitar chords: al have frequently trumped screen time so far this holiday. Yes of course there is still worrying levels of screen time and endless mine-craft but what has stood out is how keen they are to connect with their friends even if it means walking round a soggy field just to do that.
Tier four was a shock to many of us, I had not been keeping up with the news much as an act of self care, so first I heard were friends and family texting to say all our plans were cancelled. But it’s also possible that for some people some good will come of this time as we learn to slow down and take notice of our surroundings . As I stood chatting to a friend in the park during a torrential downpour she said ‘One day we will laugh at this.’ It’s hard to see the brighter side right now but hopefully better days are not too far off.
It’s world book day this week, it comes round quick each year. My kids are now in upper primary and I’m not sure where the time has gone but this year their school are doing a Drop Everything and Read event during which time every time a bell is sounded they do as the title suggests – giving up all other pursuits to read a book.
I have been looking for a fun way to bring more mindfulness into family life and so I asked the kids how they would feel about doing a Drop Everything and Meditate event at home this week, to accompany their reading at school. The idea being we sound a bell at some point each day when we are together and meditate. They loved the idea especially the element of surprise and so we have managed to do it twice so far this week, bells curtesy of Insight Timer which I love for it’s free access and multitude of bell choices insighttimer.com/meditation-timer
Of course they wanted to know what would happen if the bell sounded when they were on the loo or having a shower or reading their book but they already knew the answer – drop everything and meditate (though not literally if you are holding a cup of juice!)
I hope I remember to do it throughout the week as so far it’s been a pleasure to sit with them and meditate when they least expect it and who knows it might prove to be the much sought mysterious way of getting them to mediate more often which so far I have not been able to really achieve.
Today’s total practice time: 45 minutes (seated and movement) + 10 minutes settling practice
Mark Williams writes about the importance of whittling your way through various tasks, having a little task each day policy can be so useful. Starting a task but accepting it might not all get finished in one go is also advised.
My tasks this year have sometimes felt like mountains I will never scale. First all my spare time was consumed by preparing materials for a corporate session I did earlier this year. Once that was done and delivered there were then amendments to the corporate session to be made.
Hanging over both of these tasks was the usual whirl of recruiting for various courses, advertising for various courses, renewing my insurance and events and responding to emails. Oh and having a job, two kids and a life to fit in as well. And at the summit of my mountain was getting my application for the UK Good Practice List of Mindfulness Teachers sorted.
It was always the last thing on the to-do list each day, often getting bumped down when something needed responding too. Never quite urgent enough to make top of the to-do list.
But then Be Mindful started displaying big green ticks next to teachers who are ‘listed’ so then getting listed suddenly felt a little more urgent.
Today after much ping-ponging of emails with my supervisor and gathering of evidence – about a month’s work in total – I have finally submitted my mindfulness list application. It feels good. I am £90 worse off and I have to wait a month to find out the outcome but I put everything together as best I could and have let that go for now. The amendments to the corporate session are next on the to-do list but for today I am going to stop, breathe and reflect on the feeling of achievement we get when a looming task has been completed at last.
Today’s Total Practice Time: 40 minutes (movement and seated practice)
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.
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
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
It’s been a long time since I have had the time or the space to write a blog post. My whole summer was one long digital detox. I noticed the urge to upload photos of sunny scenes on Facebook and then ignored that urge and just enjoyed the moment. I’m not claiming it will last into autumn when things get a little dull both literally and in terms of mood. It’s not easy being deprived of daylight and moments outdoors. I probably need a proper outdoorsy winter coat to facilitate my escape during the winter months.
At the tail end of summer my digital detox went nuclear by going on a week long silent retreat. I could probably write several blog posts about the insights I had during that week. How hard it was to be away from the kids, not even able to chat on the phone and yet also it was blissful. I didn’t plan a meal, cook any food or wash any dishes for a whole week. I didn’t have to bribe anyone to wash their face, brush their hair or walk to school a little faster.
I spent seven hours a day meditating. The insights came thick and fast but at the end of the retreat I felt so ready to come home and connect with others. The mountain of emails I came home to has now meant the digital detox is well and truly over. With new mindfulness courses starting in the coming weeks I cannot afford those lofty ideals any longer, it’s back to realizing I am frantically online till 10pm and juggling the kids, work and a life.
But as a way to deepen my practice and settle the mind a 7 day retreat cannot be underestimated, I will do it all again next year even though sorting out cover for the kids wasn’t easy and being apart is hard, it really was worth it in terms of deep learning and calm.
Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes movement, 30 minutes sitting.
Even someone with an established meditation practice has wobbles. At a training I went to earlier in the year a fellow participant brought a weeble along to her teaching slot and said mindfulness is like a weeble, we have wobbles but we’re less likely to fall down.
I had a few days last week when I did no practice. Or at least that’s how it seemed. I did no formal practice – stressed, busy, trying to tie up all the loose ends before another round of courses start my final push was hijacked somewhat by a fascinating election which lost me work time as I watched late night coverage and then recovered from sleeplessness the next day.
Two days with no practice affects me and so soon I was back in the quiet space – getting up early, peace and calm before the kids make their demands. But what impressed me most was that during those two days I felt very aware – aware of not practicing, aware it was quite nice, aware I felt it was a worthy reason (elections only come every 5 years after all) and just able to still inhabit the moment even though the formal practice had temporarily slipped.
Today as I got up at 6am and set about my silent practice before the day gets started, I felt a sense of relief. There will always be times when the practice slips – it’s wanting to return to it that counts.
Today’s practice time: 40 minutes (movement and self-compassion practice)
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.
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.
In week seven of the eight week mindfulness meditation courses I run we look at what activities nourish and deplete us. Participants are encouraged to do an inventory of their lives and consider some simple steps to redress the balance, in favour of nourishing activities.
For myself whenever I do this, and it is certainly something we can all do with reviewing from time to time, my relationship with the internet often looms large as one of my least enjoyed habits.
I don’t have a TV so the internet is my source of catch up TV as well as my supermarket and shopping portal and it also supports my mindfulness work and looms large in my day job. Even though my boss works in the same building that I teach in I rarely see her and so any questions are emailed.
In the past I have found that I would answer a work email or a course enquiry late into the night, I would sit there in driven doing mode, pressing on, wanting so much to clear the decks. But what I have come to realise is that with emails the decks are never clear and in this world of fuzzy work-life boundaries, the only person who can impose any good practice guidelines is yourself.
So I endeavour not to be online after 9pm and I try not to check in at all on Sundays, everyone deserves at least one day off after all. If something pops into my head (google x, y or z, order such and such, email so and so) I write it down on a list by the computer.
And so now instead of seeing the internet as this invasive time consuming beast I see it as a communication tool that supports my teaching but that also needs to be used carefully and in moderation.