Tag Archives: Muswell Hill

waking up

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.

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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.

getting things done

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.

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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)

 

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.

xmas cheer

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!

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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!

a mindful read

As any busy member of a book club can testify once you start reading for a book club it can sometimes prove a challenge to fit in any other reading. Recently, thanks to not being able to get hold of one particular title, I found myself at liberty to choose any random book off my book shelf.

I chose ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ by Aldous Huxley. Bought well over  a decade ago, inspired by reading Brave New World in the first book club I was ever part of, a group that discussed and dissected dystopian classics in Central London on Tuesday nights, filled with anarchists and radical feminists. Fast forward ten years and now I am part of a suburban book club, a group of mums who wanted an excuse to escape the drudgery of motherhood to discuss books and drink wine, authors have included Caitlin Moran and Julian Barnes, nothing too taxing on the whole. It’s great fun reading other people’s choices but I also miss choosing for myself.

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‘Eyeless in Gaza’ is the most Buddhist novel I have ever read, not that I read many Buddhists novels, in fact I would probably actively avoid them being a secular mindfulness practitioner but it’s message was basically – get to know your mind, choose a different path and liberate yourself from suffering.

I was blown away by the quality of the writing, the skillful way the story weaved between various time frames and characters. Written in 1936 it felt very relevant and prescient in many ways. Themes covered were love, lose, betrayal, abortion, homosexuality, addiction, disconnection, war, bullying, public school life, bereavement, redemption, forgiveness, patriotism, pacifism and having the curiosity to try to live a different life. And at the heart of it all was compassion. It is essentially about how one man shifts from a position of recoiling from life to embracing it.

It’s a month since I read it and I quite possibly can no longer do it justice. For a book club book I sometimes make notes, as I was reading for personal pleasure I made no notes and so all the quotes I enjoyed are lost somewhere in the 500 page text but if you are looking for a compelling Christmas read that covers life, death and how to live and train the mind and walk a different path I can’t think of a better, more relevant read.

Today’s total practice time: 5 minutes breathing space (kids are off for Christmas hols!)

 

 

Resurfacing

I came out of retreat more than two weeks ago, blinking like a mole in daylight for the first time. Travelling through London on the tube at rush is almost too surreal an experience after five days of silence and stillness. Suffice to say it felt slightly psychedelic, like the colours and noise were cranked up just a little too much.

The retreat itself was a delight. It was very different to any retreat I had done before. I found myself comparing it to previous experiences and finding it didn’t quite measure up. It was too short, too easy and too still and yet I knew it was exactly the right retreat for me at that moment. I found myself judging the Qigong (often with the words ‘this is so lame’ ringing in my mind), unspoken they felt all the louder.

I arrived late and was put on lunchtime pot washing detail for my work hour which meant I was out of sinc with most other retreatants and I lamented not getting that lazy lunch hour that was such a celebrated part of my previous retreat.

For some of the time I was holding on to that previous retreat, remembering one sunny afternoon when after a lovely veggie lunch a load of us lazed around on the grass in the sunshine. People I would never see again, many of whom’s names I didn’t know, and yet in that moment I felt so utterly and wordlessly connected to them. It was pure joy.

By day 3 I shed the old retreat and made friends with this present one. It was a much easier retreat in many ways, for a start I had only one room mate (not three) and she didn’t snore or use the toilet twice each night. I was sleeping well, I came out of the retreat feeling more revived not less.

And the Qigong was pretty still and I struggled with that – with boredom, with stiffness and restlessness. But it gave me so much to work with. I had to be with the body and all its aches and pains, whether I wanted to be or not. I had to do the dull movements for eight hours each day because I was there and I might as well take part. And I grew to love them and the breath works we were taught.

Two weeks later, even though life has been one busy blur since coming home, I still do those movements and the breath work everyday and my practice has never felt more stable.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 1 hour (Qigong, movement and breath work)

Retreating

In life we find thousands of ways to retreat from reality. As a student I used going out and drinking as a short cut from reality and this can be a hard habit to shake off. Now it’s gadgets and internet access galore that continually pulls me away from the here now.

Inexplicably when things get tough, that is when I feel compelled to google what flooring we need to buy for the bathroom. Or last weekend I spent several hours googling therapist courses, only to wake up the next day knowing it had all been some impulsive mind trick to pull me away from the kids and their constant squabbles.

Why is it so hard to be with what is? To really reside in the here and now.

The answer is simple: we humans, all of us (yes you!), are addicted to distraction. The human mind is addicted to distraction. So checking Facebook 90 times a day or whatever your ‘vice’ might be is totally normal given the addictive nature of smartphones and the way the mind loves distraction.

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However that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to this addiction, we can reassess things and set some boundaries if we want. When I told work mates I was off on a silent retreat this week the reaction was divided between ‘how wonderful’ and ‘I couldn’t do that’. Several people have said ‘wouldn’t you just chuck this away if you could’ waving the ubiquitous smartphone.

I think the answer really is to find a balance you are happy with and we always know when that is achieved or more often, when it isn’t and we feel out of sync.

Once a year I have to go on retreat to support my mindfulness teaching. When I taught in mainstream adult education my CPD revolved around how to inspire learners to use the Virtual Learning Environment or how to use a Smart board. Now my CPD is go to Devon for five days, live without gadgets, in total silence whilst being sustained on amazing veggie food (that I didn’t have to cook).

It’s a change I appreciate and one that always helps me to reset my own dial.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 10 minutes so far but a schedule of seven hours meditation each day awaits me this weekend and beyond!

 

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.

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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

The Power of Cooking

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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)

balance

On being an adult

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Many of us, especially perhaps my generation who grew up with Thatcher and the Falklands War as the backdrop for our childhoods, sometimes ask the question ‘When will I actually grow up?’

Even though I have been old enough to vote for more than two decades and ditto buy alcohol it still sometimes seems that achieving full-blown adulthood has somehow eluded me. For so many years I was footloose and fancy free, a global vagabond and loved every moment of it.

It took moving out of London, getting a mortgage, signing up to the teacher’s pension scheme (after nearly a decade of putting my head in the sand, pretending old age wouldn’t affect me) and waking up from two years of new-parenthood sleep deprivation to make me think OK maybe I am now actually an adult. Maybe this is actually it, I am all grown up.

It’s funny the roles we like to hold onto. We become so attached to the comfort of a well-worn character trait. Disorganised, slightly useless with money, not still really sure where life is taking you. I have felt all of those and more since being more an ‘adult’.

But what I have come to realise, with the help of an established meditation practice, is that some of that stuff you can let go of, while keeping the parts that serve you well. I don’t feel I have to be crap to be me anymore. But I still quite like keeping my child-like wonder at the world. After all many things about adulthood – the striving, the rushing, the not seeing what is there in front of you – are very overrated.

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes (Qigong and sitting breath and compassion practice)

balance