Tag Archives: Mindfulness courses in Cambridge

Non-doing

Often described as a dead-week, the week between Christmas and New Year is actually perhaps the closest many of us get to an extended period of real genuine non-doing. A time to disconnect from work and just be with your nearest and dearest. This of course can come with its own challenges but as the week is nearly over it’s also worth reflecting how precious a week of non-doing is these days.

If my kids read this they would perhaps laugh at the idea of me ever having a non-doing week as there have been chilly picnics at nearby Audley End and several frosty walks through a nearby forest. Yesterday they were promised a lazy day and both declared they would not leave the house, even to venture into the garden.

They kept their word but by today my youngest, a spirited seven year old boy, was asking when that promised trip to the allotment would be. For want of better plan I said how about now and left the hubby in charge of lunch. We walked down to the plot in the fog and enjoyed getting some fresh air whilst aware we were the only people out and about bar a couple of dog walkers. I often make the comparison that having young kids is akin to having a dog, they really do need to get out at least once a day which makes non-doing a challenge to navigate.

Once at the allotment we planted out garlic, dug up some frozen onions and weeded a frosty patch of earth where we then planted out broad beans. No idea if this is the right time to do it, we found the broad bean seeds and went for it. My son enjoyed moving worms out of harms way and breaking a frozen pond in an abandoned plot next door. His hands got soaked and frozen and he shivered all they way home but we both enjoyed a brief bit of purpose amidst the non-doing along with a well-earned flask.

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Now I have been out of the house I feel settled enough to enjoy non-doing for the rest of the day! I predict by tomorrow my feet will start itching for action and adventure once more though.

Today’s total practice time: In the spirit of non-doing I have done no formal practice all week however I was mindful when I made my cup of tea this morning.

lessons in mortality

When we are young it seems for a few years at least, that everything in nature can lead us to learn some tough lessons about our brief time on this planet. The gritty fact that we live, we get old (if we are lucky), our health fails and then we die is encapsulated in the changing of the seasons and the life cycle of a tadpole.

Most kids will remember losing a beloved pet or grandmother as the thing that really taught them about lose. When my children’s great granny died they were too young to fully understand and hadn’t known her well enough to really grieve her absence.

Granny is often referred to by the children, they often say ‘I wish granny were still alive’, but there is no hint of pain in their voices. They say it almost just to get a reaction from the adults, we all say how lovely that you still remember granny.

A similar one-step-remove style of grieving occurred when their paternal grandfather died late last year. Again they were aware it was a sad time and were very kind to their dad, asking (sometimes again and again) if he missed his dad, if he were sad about his dad dying but again it affected them only slightly as they’d met him three times and the last time was several years ago.

They have never had pets to grieve. As parents we have made the decision that we barely have the time and resources to look after our children and so don’t want to add a neglected cat, dog or rabbit to the list of things to feel we are not doing well.

In the end it was a tree that gave my son his first real taste of grief. Who would have thought that the itinerant tree feller who happened to knock on my door a couple of weeks ago could have inadvertently caused so much grief.

The silver birch in the front garden had long been on our culling hit list. Like so many things it got postponed and a tree we said we would fell four years ago was still standing in the middle of our front garden, blocking sunlight from the living room, in April 2016. In that time my son had grown to love it and said (posthumously for the tree) it was his most favourite tree in the world.

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It took the woodsman less than half an hour to get rid of the tree. As the kids arrived home from school I said almost jokingly, notice anything different? It was then that my youngest burst into tears. Anger then bubbled up as he yelled why would you do this mummy, you killed my tree, at the top of his voice while several bemused neighbours looked on. He then sat by the side of where once the tree had been, cross legged and said this would now be his meditation spot. There he sat sobbing for 10 minutes.

It took a further week for him to control his emotions when he passed by that spot and today he said he felt the garden did look better without the tree but confessed that he did still miss climbing it. He still sits cross legged by it’s ‘grave’ when ever time allows and watching the young lad suffer brings to mind that life deals us some very hard lessons to swallow and everything is impermanent. That might terrify each and every one of us but at times of sadness that can also serve as a comfort; this too will pass.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes movement, 10 minutes breath meditation.

 

 

a paradigm shift

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.

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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)

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Every marathon runner needs supporters!

a lesson in acceptance

A few weekends ago my husband and I woke up on a Sunday morning and had a rare moment of clarity. The sun was shining, it was gloriously mild, the kids had been going a bit stir crazy the day before and all the homework had been completed. It was a perfect recipe for a day out. Last year we had decided to take the kids to Stonehenge en route to Glastonbury and had been gifted an English Heritage Membership Card as an early Christmas present from my mum. Ever since then if we have the energy and the time instead of doing our default trip to a nearby forest we sometimes swing by Audley End House, which costs a fortune before we had this red card but, for this year at least, is free.

So Audley End House had been decided on with the kids’ blessing, especially when I said we’d have lunch at the cafe and my daughter decided they probably do sausage rolls, her favourite.

We all piled into the car and we kept saying, wow this is what it’s like to be sorted and organized. You know one of those families that manages to get out of the house before ten o’clock. Somehow for us that has always been a struggle.

Partly because we are laid back people who believe we should all have a rest. Sunday mornings are lazy and porridge filled. The food theme continues, I usually cook something and we all sit down to break bread – often it’s the only family meal we get to eat together for the whole week.

There’s value in going slow, in allowing yourself to melt into a lazy Sunday morning with no plans. But with kids there will always come a point when daylight, fresh air and a leg stretch are very much needed. And at that point we’ll roll out of the house, not quite sure what to do or where to go, there’ll be no packed lunch made, we’ll arrive at said local forest and people are queuing round the block to get in, the kids start kicking the backs of the seats and are complaining they’re hungry, you look at the clock and realise somehow it’s 2pm already and then dark thoughts creep in about the weekend being nearly over already and you’ve only just managed to drag yourself out of the house.

So it’s a balancing act, like everything in life. But on this Sunday we felt we’d got it right. We hadn’t cajoled anyone to hurry or rush, it had still been a fairly lazy and porridge filled start to the day but miraculously we were sitting in the car, sun shining and it was only 10.45am. And we had a plan and everyone was happy with it.

Fast forward fifteen minutes and we are still sitting on the drive, kids kicking the backs of our seats and tempers in the back are getting frayed. The car won’t start, for the second time this year. I feel disappointment wash over me. We were like the f-ing Von Trapps for once in our lives and then how does fate repay us?

The car will not move. It’s not budging, something is severely wrong with the brakes. And so we stay put. Back to thinking on our feet, a skill I was usually good at pre-kids, but add whining and kicking seats and suddenly quick thinking gets clouded.

I can feel disappointment wash over me and I am aware that a behavior trait pre-mindfulness would be getting angry – at the car, the situation and then shutting down – ignoring it all, going online, using the whole situation as an excuse to disconnect from my family. What’s interesting to me was on that day I felt pulled towards all those things but somehow there was space and distance to not go down that well-trodden path.

‘Let’s go to the allotment instead,’ I said cheerily hiding my disappointment that was just as real as theirs. Both sighed heavily. ‘My sausage roll!’ was the only audible comment from my daughter.  ‘TV?’ offered my youngest.

‘Allotment and a pub lunch?’ I offered again. They grumbled and plodded all the way to the allotment as we left my husband to call the AA and wait. But once at the plot they played on the rope swing, got muddy and soon forgot about Audley End. I got some weeding done and then took them for that promised pub lunch. My husband was able to join us as they played in the pub garden in the sunshine and then the youngest suggested we walk along this muddy path we’d discovered.

We went for this local walk in the bright sunshine, the kids getting even muddier, stopping to chat to every dog walker who passed by. It’s a path I have never had time to explore in four years of living here. It hadn’t been the day trip we had envisaged but it taught me a lot about acceptance and how everyday is a chance to tread different paths.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 20 minutes

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor

 

new year, new me

It’s very tempting at the beginning of a new year to consider all the changes we should make, all the vices we should curb, all the virtuous activities we should take up.

There’s a certain level of striving in all of this, as though somehow old me from the previous year wasn’t good enough. The reality is that the person who was making all those unhelpful life style choices last year is still very much alive and kicking after Big Ben has struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.

We’re now almost at the end of January and if you find yourself filling with remorse about your broken resolutions as you read this, worry not. Two thoughts come to mind – one is the truth about new year’s resolutions – that they are hard to achieve at any time of year and harder still in the midst of gloomy old January when the only flicker of joy amidst the long winter nights might be a large glass of Rioja or a chocolate eclair with a pot of caffeine fueled tea.

An article in The Guardian recently claimed the best time to start on a new you would actually be springtime, a much better time for new beginnings and fitness regimes. Especially as the article pointed out, if your new year’s resolution was to go running: it’s pretty much dark when you leave for work and dark long before you get home at this time of the year, so when exactly were you planning to squeeze in that run every day?

Year’s ago when living in Japan and asked by a friend about my new year’s plans I shared my humongous list of new year’s resolutions which remained unchanged for more than a decade. I can still say it like a mantra. (Give up smoking, drink less, do more yoga, meditate everyday and write that damn novel). ‘Blimey,’ he said, ‘That sounds more like you need a new personality to achieve all that.’ While I did manage to kick the smoking and did pen a very mediocre bit of fiction while living in Madrid that I now cringe at the sight of, the new me list remained largely underachieved.

My friend was right – I needed something to shift on a much deeper level to achieve all those goals. Fast forward a fair few years and once I finally cracked the meditate-everyday part of my own personal pledge (one random May please note, new year’s had nothing to do with it) I was finally able to achieve the other components, slowly but surely, and bring about lasting change.

I still haven’t written a novel I am proud of and my ukulele (a later edition on the list of well being) still sits dejected and dusty and very much un-played. But there is now less striving in my life so resolutions these days are far gentler – be happy for what you have, spend more time playing and being present with the kids.

If the resolutions ever get too ambitious I remind myself of the second thought that came to mind when belatedly writing about new year’s resolutions. It’s a joke of sorts. What’s the most Buddhist song of all times? Most people think it will be some monks chanting or a Beatles number about letting it be (or God forbid the Frozen ditty about letting go) but no, according to Robin Wright – professor of Buddhism and Modern Psychology at Princeton University (available for free on Coursera) it is in fact ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones.

Once we truly take on board that whatever we do, however big our house, however much food we have in that house, whatever salary we earn, there will always be a little part of us that is dissatisfied with what we have – then we will have made a significant break through. There will always be striving to change old me and actually when I had a multitude of vices, there was some merit in that. These days though I find myself shrugging and thinking you know what, you’re good enough.

Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes (yoga and a brief body scan)

https://www.coursera.org/learn/science-of-meditation

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Retreating

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.

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Stuff to do

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It’s often noted that our to-do lists can be unrealistic. Whilst it’s a good idea to have a list of stuff to do so we don’t forget all those tasks that need doing it can sometimes turn into a stick with which to beat ourselves up.

My to-do list has seemed so long this last year or so – it has often spanned 2 or 3 sheets of A4. And it’s the merging of the tasks that made me toy with the idea of giving up to-do lists altogether. On my to-do list there would be things to get from the shops alongside long term home improvement projects alongside paperwork deadlines and tax returns and room bookings and kids play dates to arrange and the whole thing seemed so amorphous and overwhelming. At times I couldn’t sit at my desk as even looking at it made me twitch!

I have now gone about two weeks without adding anything to my to-do list. I have been exercising my memory and seeing if I can just remember what needs to be done – emailing participants, replying to party invites, getting shopping has all some how been done by the power of my brain remembering it unprompted. I have at times had senior moments where I struggle to remember what needs to get done but it has also cleared the way for uncovering long forgotten projects like decluttering (still haven’t done it) sorting out a plumber (ditto) and resurrecting granny’s chair.

About a year ago I placed my late granny’s chair in the garden with the idea that it would be my meditation spot on sunny dry days. It has sat there ever since, the cushion slowly eroding despite covering it with carrier bags, the wood becoming characterful and mottled. The other day I saw a bird pecking at the wasted carrier bags and this inspired me to take action. Responding to the moment rather than doing a to-do list objective.

I dusted it down, removed the carrier bags, sponged down the cushion, removed all bird poo, let it dry off and then sat with a cup of tea feeling all aglow from having remembered a long forgotten plan without the help of the all pervading and rather stress inducing to-do list!

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

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My fair weather meditation spot!

Dealing with stress

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Sometimes mindfulness teachers present such a level calm embodiment of mindfulness to the world and their participants that it is hard to imagine them ever feeling ruffled. I like to joke that I am very good at modelling imperfection as all mindfulness teachers are encouraged to do. Modelling imperfections I have no hesitation in doing but modelling calm whilst under stress I have always struggled a tad more with.

So on Wednesday when I found myself locked out of the building where I normally teach one of my courses I was amazed to find myself feeling surprisingly unruffled. Even when the emergency contact number failed to come up with any help I still found myself smiling and thinking oh well, that’s that then.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an annoying situation that I hope I never find myself in again but I didn’t battle it or get myself all agitated, that was the big difference. There was no denial, I felt myself almost settle into the situation and think this is just how it is right now.

It’s almost mandatory for us mindfulness teachers to use anything unpleasant or uncomfortable as a way to practice mindfulness. If someone has a cough in a class we say ‘It’s OK it just gives us something to work with’, ditto if there’s a loud ticking clock or traffic noises outside. It’s just something to sit with and see what arises.

Wednesday night gave me a lot to sit with and see what arose. After my room shenanigans I got to my usual train station to find the express train I hoped to catch had been cancelled. There was no wrestling with this second major inconvenience of the day, instead once again there was a sense of shrugging, a letting go, when before there might have been silent curses and annoyance. Nothing else has actually changed, just my perception of all the stuff that happens.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 40 minutes movement and seated practice

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor

Decluttering

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For a while now I have been perusing websites looking for ‘storage solutions’. Anyone who knows me well enough not to trigger a major deep clean before a visit to my house will know that my hubby and me are bohemian at best when it comes to cleaning and keeping on top of the mess that is generated by having two children under the age of seven in the house.

I went through a stage of just binning all their art work, when they were in bed, without even glancing at it but now I cannot do that – I take notice of what they do and then feel I cannot bin it so easily. My son’s small box room is full to bursting with junk modelling projects (I do eventually throw them out but it takes a while before they fall from favour). For the art work I have bought them display folders in which to keep the art work they like with the threat of it’s not in the folder it goes in the recycling and let them sort their own mess out (theoretically at least).

But still the stuff keeps growing. And so I find myself shopping for storage solutions when I chanced upon an inspiring article about decluttering. We’ve all heard of it but when I read this article I was struck by how much stuff I have held onto over the years. Like many generation renters I have done so many moves over the years (a quick count on my fingers and I calculated it’s been about 16 different abodes since graduation and several international moves to boot) and much of this stuff has travelled with me.

The article on decluttering made me think about my books, much treasured some of them but also lots of never-to-be-read-again titles, why not give them to Oxfam so someone else can enjoy them for a quid rather than have them sitting there gathering dust. So I’ve decided to have a massive declutter, when I get time, which might not be any time soon (I borrowed my mum’s shredder about two months ago and still haven’t shredded anything as yet, she now of course wants it back and it seems to sit there accusing me of total slackerdom!)

I’ve started taking notice of my books for the first time since I unpacked them 3 years ago (my last move when we left generation rent and became mortgaged instead) and found myself wondering why I had held onto Memoirs of a Geisha for all these years – a book I read while living in Japan, it’s hardly a masterpiece or something I wish to revisit. I also noticed I had 2 copies of The Great Gatsby, one I sourced recently when my book group read it, the other has been with me for years but I have so many books I forgot I had it.

What could be a clearer example of rampant consumerism than having so many books you don’t even know what your own collection contains? Some of the books I’ve never even read, some I’ve read and will never read again. I’m not proposing to get rid of all of them but my aim is to halve my book collection sometime soon and donate those I know I will never read again to Oxfam and then hopefully I won’t need to shop for even more storage solutions!

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes sitting and movement.

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor

Staying Mindful this Winterval

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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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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