Tag Archives: Mindfulness Meditation: Breath and Body

retox – detox

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 

ground hog day

Monday mornings seem to often have the same familiar pattern. We all sleep in and struggle to get out of bed even though the night before was not any later than usual. The kids grumble about not wanting to go back to school, I say something bright and cheery like hey ho, only 3 weeks to go before summer and one of them bursts into tears because they thought it was only two more weeks before summer. My husband makes a hasty exit and the kids won’t see him again until Tuesday morning.

Everyone moves very slowly, I try my best to encourage, bribe and sometimes coerce a more speedy start. It all grinds to a halt at breakfast while my daughter goes from slow mo to freeze frame. With only ten minutes to go I find her whimisically staring out the window as she is meant to be brushing her teeth. I go to brush my teeth leaving them for all of 2 minutes and then when I get back of course one of them is crying claiming the other one punched them. I am losing the will to live and it is only 8.30. I file the incident under ‘sort out later’.

We walk to school and today that part went well except when we reached the school gates I realise the kitchen clock is 10 minutes slow again (it keeps doing this and then fixing itself, which lulls you into a false sense of security) and so we have actually arrived ten minutes later than hoped.

My daughter is given a damning red slip by the school office and looks even more anxious that she is arriving late. I stroll off to my allotment wondering how I can avoid this inelegant start to our week. Being a woman I naturally assume it is my job to fix this mess.

I lose myself for several hours while weeding and strimming and afterwards I take the blanket out of the shed and lie in the shade watching the clouds go by. Part of me wonders what the old boys might make of this left-field behaviour but a bigger part doesn’t care. I am completely in the moment, and in that moment it feels like everything will be OK.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes formal siting practice, 10 minutes informal practice – watching the clouds (I recommend it!)

external events

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

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!

Everyday Stressors

Coming into London the other day there was the unwanted and depressing announcement that due to a fatality on the line all trains would be delayed and possibly cancelled at short notice.

It seems most people’s first thought in a scenario such as this is towards the departed person that became a fatality on the line. Phones were fished out of pockets. People calmly and quietly explained to bosses and line managers dotted all over the capital that they would be late because ‘some poor beggar has bought it on the lines’, as one fellow commuter put it.

Then we proceeded to wait. It was cold. It was wet. It was the week before Christmas. It was the last thing any of us wanted to do but wait we did. For more information. For a train. For clarification.

I have yet to see a better example of collective acceptance as this. It was as though the whole platform sighed, with a nod of compassion towards the person who had died, and waited in a very stoical, polite and respectful kind of way.

Half an hour later, only after the train company, in their wisdom, cancelled and sent off (empty) a 12 carriage train only to announce a 4 carriage train would be next, did the annoyance start to be more palpable.

We were all late, for very sad reasons, but there was now a whole platform filled with disgruntled commuters trying to squeeze onto a very packed and tiny train. Some jostled and elbowed their way to the front. Others hung back. People started to moan about the logic, or lack of it, of sending off a lovely 12 carriage train at peak travelling time when the next train in line had so few carriages.

Anger was present, there was no getting away from it but still most people stayed calm. There were a few tuts, sighs and muttered swear words but as the 4 carriage train pulled away, leaving most people still waiting on the platform in the cold wet gloomy morning I felt strangely heartened. Most of us were able to face this disappointment with a sense of decorum.

Arriving at work after the forty minute wait on the platform, the forty minute slow train ride (standing up, feeling as though in cattle class rather than second class), followed by another 30 minute squeeze on the tube, I felt like I had already done a full day’s work.

But there were moments when the fog of disappointment cleared enough for me to meditate during the nightmare commute. Meditate on frustration, disappointment, acceptance and loss. The stressors don’t vanish but you see them for what they are: a string of annoying obstacles, coincidences rather than a conspiracy to ruin one’s day. And at the heart of the meditation lies compassion – for the person who died and their loved ones.

Total practice time: 20 minutes seated practice + 10 minutes walking meditation

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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Sticking with your practice come what may

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)

The Power of Cooking

For me it’s only a small exaggeration to say that food means everything and is a real barometer of my internal weather. The last few weeks with endless colds doing the rounds, I’ve felt tired, snuffly and lacking the necessary energy to cook healthy food.

Recently quinoa and super food salads have been making way for fish and chips. There’s nothing wrong with this for a week or two but when we are busy and stressed takeaways and ready meals can become a way of life . I was procrastinating about what to cook tonight when I saw a pot of coriander wilting on the window sill.

It reminded me I had bought it over a week ago with the idea of making dahl and rice sometime soon and yet every evening I have been unable to find the energy to make a dahl from scratch, so even though it was on it’s last legs I still rummaged around the freezer in search for something, anything, that would help me avoid making dahl.

But why do I do this when I love dahl? And actually, like all wholesome tasks, I don’t actually mind creating one once I have started.

The answer is that we drop the things that nourish us when we are at our lowest. Feeling stressed and depressed? Out the window goes your yoga, bookclub or wholesome cooking. This is really useful to know if you are a mindfulness practitioner. When we need our practice most that is when your driven doing mode of mind will be screaming your to do list at you. What you want to meditate? Not till you have done every single thing that needs to be done first.

This irony of our minds steering us towards unhelpful behaviour is covered in week seven of the eight week mindfulness meditation courses I teach. Through mindfulness meditation I have learnt to navigate that compelling busy stressed out voice that urges me not to cook, to ditch the yoga and to zone out to TV with some crisps. Some weeks it is easier than others and this week food has been my main stress indicator and the thing that fell by the wayside. It happens to us humans,  no need for self flagellation.

So after lunch today I congratulated myself on noticing my wilting coriander plant and all it stood for and then finally made that dahl from scratch. It felt good to be cooking again and I can’t wait to eat the results but most interestingly it was the process itself, the soothing washing, chopping, stirring, crushing that comes with making a dahl that felt so nourishing to my rather stressed and tired mind right now.

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes (yoga and seated meditation)

The rush hour

I read somewhere recently that 40-somethings are often in the rush hour of their lives. The article said this is when career and child rearing responsibilities reach their pinnacles leaving those in their forties with very little free-time outside of work and child-rearing. The moniker Dual Earners, Toddler Twins (DEETs) rings very true for me and my partner.

It feels as though we have had toddler ‘twins’ for decades, though of course it has only been six years. And by definition neither of them are officially toddlers anymore nor twins. But having two young kids while trying to have a career is trying and frequently tests my mindfulness practice, let alone trying to carve out a new career for yourself at the same time.

Add to this mix the never ending story of retraining, which so many of us undertake in our thirties and forties because we realise we want something different or need something that fits round the kids, and you have levels of busy-ness unknown to our parents generation.

When my parents were in their forties they weren’t schlepping off onto training courses and retreats. You decided what you wanted to do at 18 and pretty much stuck with it. There are of course pros and cons to this model but in their forties I think they were certainly relaxing, watching TV and going down the pub more than I ever do!

I realised the other day, as I got in from London and had half an hour before needing to pick the kids up, that what I thought I should do was turn the computer on and catch up with emails and then head back out into the world even more frazzled than when I arrived. But I paused and guess what? A different idea came to mind.  How about leaving the computer off, putting the kettle on and allowing myself half an hour with the paper before getting the kids?

Deep down we know that’s what our parent’s generation would have done with a spare half hour, rather than thinking their blog that has 3 readers desperately needs to be updated, on which note I down tools for lunch!

Today’s total practice time: 35 minutes (20 minutes qigong and 15 minutes self-compassion meditation)

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