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.
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.
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.
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
In the last couple of weeks my youngest had a medical procedure that required a week off school. This in turn involved much juggling of work patterns, dependency leave and childcare arrangements. I was working from home some of the days and trying to give care to this little person in pain and as if that weren’t enough plates to spin it all fell on a week when I happened to have 3 additional bits of mindfulness work.
A six week in-house mindfulness course I had been delivering to a large charity came to close. I gave a taster session in the private sector which had caused me a great deal of anxiety, for whatever reason I imagined private sector people would somehow not be as engaged as their public or charity sector counterparts – how wrong I was, they were lovely and engaged participants throughout, proving of course we are all human regardless of the sector we work in. Even bankers want to relax.
To top off this busy and exhausting week I was facilitating my not-for-profit local meet up group’s biannual all-day practice session. I let out a big sigh when I realised how the week would pan out – why do these frantically busy weeks keep happening to me? This is a theme in my life and I thought one day it would stop.
Strangely though as I arrived at the draughty little community hall where we come to practice every few months I felt such a sense of relief. Yes I wanted to be having a lie in, eating porridge with the kids, putting my feet up after the worst week I have had for ages but I’m here instead and here is good enough. It turned out in fact it was exactly where I needed to be.
Throughout the week’ long convalescence of my youngest, my mindfulness practice had gone out the window along with the chance to do any CIC or life admin. And after not meditating for a week I was so ready for a day of calm and stillness. It was writ large for me to see what I have always known deep down – we frequently think we don’t want what we need most.
I’ve been on catch up ever since, catching up with life admin, catching up at work after a week away from the office and of course trying to stay on top of the looming winterval shenanigans just round the corner. But for this year at least I have finished all my teaching commitments so a little calm has now been restored to my life.
Today’s total practice time (so far): 20 minutes movement, 10 minutes sitting
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
It’s often asked on mindfulness courses: what’s better? Guided or self guided meditations. Perhaps the most skilful answer is to say your end aim might be to guide yourself through the many meditations one learns on a mindfulness course. But this doesn’t have to happen over night. Many people prefer to use the guided meditations given out on CDs for months or even years after a course elapses. If that keeps someone meditating everyday then it really does not matter. Some prefer the guided meditations as someone else’s chatter can keep the chatter of the mind at bay. It’s true when making the transition from guided to self guided your mind chatter shoots up to the point where you wonder what was actually learnt. But then this is all part of the learning. I hadn’t listened to a guided meditation for ages, not since my last silent retreat last year, but last week I wondered how it would feel to again be guided rather than guiding. It felt a bit like a mini retreat only cheaper. It’s now half term and my mini retreat has been put on hold while the kids have a week off school. Back to squeezing it in when I can. On my to do list is to keep sharing some of the meditations with my kids while we are all off the hamster wheel of school runs and life’s general busyness. Today’s total practice time: 40mins