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.
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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)
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
Every January for the last ten years I have detoxed. It has become part of my calendar, alongside Christmas, New year and loved ones birthdays. It sits at the beginning of January like an old friend and some years I have longed to get on with it. Other years I have thought I don’t really need to do this. When I was pregnant it was a perfect excuse for not drinking so no one suspected for months! I usually do a 3 day fruit detox to kick things off followed by a few weeks of vegan, alcohol free living. By February I have usually had enough. But this year I could not complete my 3 day fruit detox, I felt awful, hungry and slightly ill so after two very long days, during which I still had to cook for the kids, I decided life is too short. The vegan part of the detox feels like pure bliss in comparison. I can easily go without meat, dairy and alcohol, just don’t deny me carbohydrates! Meditating was the one enjoyable part of the fruit detox this year, to quieten my hungry thoughts and focus on the breath was pure relief! And today having cast aside the fruit detox I did yoga, chi qong and an extended meditation. Total practice time today: 1 hour