It’s that time of year when we need to face winter square on. As time has passed I am getting better at preparing for my least favourite season. I realised a few years ago being in denial about winter is not helpful and creates more suffering. So instead these days I embrace winter – I dig out my winter coat and start wearing warm clothes as I know it will help me accept that it’s here – those dark long (frequently grey and wet) British winter months are part of my life, just like summer is and so I need to celebrate the arrival of winter as best I can.
At my allotment after a bumper crop of apples, middling crop of pumpkins and disappointing crop of spuds I have now cleared the decks ready for winter. My moto during a busy term this autumn has been to visit the plot little and often. I have been rocking up to the plot at 4pm on a Sunday sometimes – clearly in denial that, since the clocks went back, I will only get half an hour at best but actually quite enjoying this.
By making it so time limited I get to keep on top of things but not miss out on family life (no one else can be tempted to accompany me now the weather has turned). And today I finished weeding one last raised bed and then got the satisfaction of covering three raised beds in readiness for spring. All cleared of weeds, I covered it in thick black membrane, so each bed is now tucked up away from the cold, like an animal hibernating until the weather gets better.
There are two active beds still – for garlic and broad beans (yet to be planted) and a few odd jobs that mainly involve lopping (the apple tree and the fruit bushes) but aside from that I feel like I have cleared out for winter. This morning as I thought of that line I was reminded of a Rumi poem we use when teaching mindfulness that I had read the day before at a silent practice session and the lines about ‘clearing you out for some new delight’ resonated as I cleared the decks for winter, knowing this act means I am also, in a way, preparing for new life and spring.
The Guest House
Translated by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
There are all sorts of programmes and support groups, both online and in our communities, to help us cut down or quit alcohol. One such website is one year no beer, whose aim is to encourage people to have a dry January through to December oneyearnobeer.com . Another – club soda – is a mindful drinking website joinclubsoda.co.uk They both work as membership organisations and there are different packages available to support those who want to quit alcohol.
I have found myself on a largely unplanned break from booze. I always do dry January, I’ve been doing it before it even had a name in the mainstream media. This slowly built up to often being dry January and February. Then last year it finally happened – I had a few weeks when I had a glass or two of wine but then found myself wondering why bother?
This heralded an unprecedented voluntary dry six months punctuated only by a trip back to my old home Madrid and my favourite bar in the world the sherry bar. That and a gift token to a honey beer tasting were pretty much my only adventures in alcohol of 2017.
I did Christmas sober and had my second New Year’s Eve sober. Yes, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself but I’m also mindful that having a moderate glass of wine can be great fun, a pleasure with a meal. So I’m not sure where this dry spell will take me, I quite fancy doing the full ‘one year no beer’ which would take me to September 2018 and then I’ll just see how I feel.
I was lucky – my mindfulness practice and research into addiction meant I was very aware of what tricks the mind plays on us when we give something addictive up. I didn’t need to sign up to an online group or challenge but they are useful resources and thanks to raised awareness around dry January and a small but growing acceptance that living a sober life is a wonderful liberating step I think there will only be more and more people taking this journey.
Whether you are choosing to drink every month of the year or taking a break for January it’s always good to reassess alcohol use. One year no beer gathered together the data below from Professor Kevin Moore’s research (Royal Free Hospital, London) into stopping alcohol for four weeks and the benefits are very compelling.
What happens when you take a break from booze?
Today’s total practice time: 1 hour (30 mins movement, 30 mins seated)
This is the time of year that many of us want to hunker down, switching off from work concerns and spending time with family.
So when I went off on retreat last week, leaving the kids to have their last week of school without me I did question my motivations. I had booked it up months ago, in the summer and back then it had seemed a move bordering on genius – going on retreat before all the Christmas madness kicks in, what’s not to love?
But of course the Christmas madness kicks in around late November so I was already in the thick of it when I left last week to Gaia House for a retreat on remembering the heart’s potential.
I arrived one day early and had the whole house to myself near enough. I then maintained the silence as all the other participants arrived which made me feel a little out of kilter with the house but by the time the retreat started properly I was already very settled and ready to get the most out of the teachings.
There were moments of rich learning and everyday practical insights coupled with being in nature and in the silence, having time for awe and wonder at a robin tweeting nearby or a leaf falling from a tree. The simple pleasure of a hot cup of tea (with no biscuits or sugary treats) drunk outside on a crisp morning never ceases to be amongst my favourite moments when on retreat.
As I recounted some of my adventures in the mind and on retreat with my husband who had of course had a very different five days, single handedly looking after the kids, he said I don’t think I need to be in silence for five days to appreciate having a cup of tea outside. And to be fair neither do I. I love doing just that in my own garden or at the allotment but there is something very special about being on retreat. About being with people but not having to be anything for those people, about living alongside people in silence.
Top six things I realised in the silence:
- Do more yoga!
- Rediscover the body scan on a more regular basis (this was done everyday on retreat and I loved rediscovering it)
- Spend less time on line
- Spend more time with the kids
- Be generous
- Be brave
I’m not quite sure how the last 2 things will manifest. A whole new year awaits us after the winterval excitement passes by, so these are themes I will continue to explore in 2018 but for now that doesn’t seem an insignificant list of things to realise would have a big impact on my life, on which note I won’t be online again for some time.
Many thanks for following and reading my musings in 2017, wishing you a peaceful and productive 2018 xx
The past couple of weeks I have been reining in the mindfulness work. I have a lot booked in for April so I needed a couple of weeks respite from the constant blogging, status updating, amending advertising, updating my website, booking rooms etc that comes alongside the very thing I enjoy doing which is teaching mindfulness.
The truth of the matter is simply I spend far more time in front of a computer than I do teaching mindfulness, such is the nature of recruiting participants for the courses and groups that I run.
So having a few weeks off in which I consciously put nothing onto my facebook page and wrote no blogs and instead made time for the kids and my allotment have been very welcome.
Going slow is a thing. It’s been a thing for many years. Our ancestors were very good at it but we in 2017 often struggle with the concept.
The fruits of going slow have been giving the kids a lovely Easter break so far, we have been to the forest twice, met with friends and family, visited the plot and grown things!
I recommend a time of going slow amidst the busyness to anyone who feels they need it. During that time of going slow I have still been at work, I have still been commuting into London 3 out 5 days. But what changed was the stuff outside my actual day job. Freeing myself from constant internet slavery for a few weeks has been lush!
Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes movement, 20 minutes seated practice (in my garden no less, how is that for going slow!)
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
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!)
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)
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)
We had a snow day the other week. It was a perfect flurry that made everything look picture perfect and yet it didn’t totally disrupt the trains and roads, so win-win all round.
On the eight week mindfulness courses I teach there is much reference from week one of the beginner’s mind. Participants are asked to eat a raisin as though they have never seen one before and then this continues in their home practice by doing a daily task with the spotlight of their full attention.
If ever there is something that reconnects us with beginner’s mind it must surely be walking to school with two kids after a snow flurry. The same old tired journey we do everyday was suddenly magical and exciting to them. The alley we traverse (often much covered in dog poo) was transformed into a Narnia-esque secret snow tunnel.
There were oooohs, there were arrghs, there were a few soggy tumbles as well but with the help of kindly curiosity I found myself quelling the urge to say ‘come on’ (surely the most overused two words on the school run?) and instead just marveled at their marveling. At moments like that I find myself thinking, ‘this moment, must remember this moment.’
It seems to me children are naturally mindful and we (society, parents, teachers, life, soft cops) squash it out of them, telling them to hurry and multi-task so we can squeeze all the things that need to be done into one day.
How wonderful it was to just take our time, marvel at the beauty of winter and, for one day at least, give ourselves permission not to rush.
Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes with the kids (it is half term)
It’s often when we need it least that illness can strike. Although saying that is there ever a good time to be ill? All week I have been catching up with my work – both from my day job and from my mindfulness teaching work that I do. Blog posts, emails, advertising, lesson planning, proof reading my new mindfulness booklet, burning CDs and labelling them – it all takes up time.
And last week I was unable to do any of these day to day tasks as I was on retreat in Lockerbie, although at times I blinked and found myself remembering Tibet and my travels there. It was a wonderful, nourishing retreat and also very hard work. And of course this week has been all about playing catch up.
My oldest has had a hacking cough all week and I have insisted she trudge in to school every chilly day so that I can get my work done. She was fine and she didn’t need a whole week off but today she looked at me and just said ‘mummy, I think I need to rest my voice’.
As a teacher I know that feeling only too well so I relented and said OK you can have today off. This caused a meltdown in my youngest who on twigging that the oldest was having a day off decided he too was so ill school was not option.
As I almost dragged him bodily into school, a forced smile on my face, and the oldest ‘ill’ one kept skipping with delight (in between hacking coughs) at the idea of having a whole mummy day at home, I recalled, or perhaps it was somewhat later, what Jon Kabat-Zinn says about kids.
Let your children be your own zen master, he advises. That way whatever they throw at you, you can take a deep breath and tell yourself this is all part of the practice!
Total Practice Time: So far today ZERO, but the intention is there!