Tag Archives: Mindfulness courses in Cambridge

Winter Solstice

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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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)

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.

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.

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!

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

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

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

Decluttering

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.

Learning to dance again

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