Tag Archives: secular meditation

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.

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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.

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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

lessons in mortality

When we are young it seems for a few years at least, that everything in nature can lead us to learn some tough lessons about our brief time on this planet. The gritty fact that we live, we get old (if we are lucky), our health fails and then we die is encapsulated in the changing of the seasons and the life cycle of a tadpole.

Most kids will remember losing a beloved pet or grandmother as the thing that really taught them about lose. When my children’s great granny died they were too young to fully understand and hadn’t known her well enough to really grieve her absence.

Granny is often referred to by the children, they often say ‘I wish granny were still alive’, but there is no hint of pain in their voices. They say it almost just to get a reaction from the adults, we all say how lovely that you still remember granny.

A similar one-step-remove style of grieving occurred when their paternal grandfather died late last year. Again they were aware it was a sad time and were very kind to their dad, asking (sometimes again and again) if he missed his dad, if he were sad about his dad dying but again it affected them only slightly as they’d met him three times and the last time was several years ago.

They have never had pets to grieve. As parents we have made the decision that we barely have the time and resources to look after our children and so don’t want to add a neglected cat, dog or rabbit to the list of things to feel we are not doing well.

In the end it was a tree that gave my son his first real taste of grief. Who would have thought that the itinerant tree feller who happened to knock on my door a couple of weeks ago could have inadvertently caused so much grief.

The silver birch in the front garden had long been on our culling hit list. Like so many things it got postponed and a tree we said we would fell four years ago was still standing in the middle of our front garden, blocking sunlight from the living room, in April 2016. In that time my son had grown to love it and said (posthumously for the tree) it was his most favourite tree in the world.

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It took the woodsman less than half an hour to get rid of the tree. As the kids arrived home from school I said almost jokingly, notice anything different? It was then that my youngest burst into tears. Anger then bubbled up as he yelled why would you do this mummy, you killed my tree, at the top of his voice while several bemused neighbours looked on. He then sat by the side of where once the tree had been, cross legged and said this would now be his meditation spot. There he sat sobbing for 10 minutes.

It took a further week for him to control his emotions when he passed by that spot and today he said he felt the garden did look better without the tree but confessed that he did still miss climbing it. He still sits cross legged by it’s ‘grave’ when ever time allows and watching the young lad suffer brings to mind that life deals us some very hard lessons to swallow and everything is impermanent. That might terrify each and every one of us but at times of sadness that can also serve as a comfort; this too will pass.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes movement, 10 minutes breath meditation.

 

 

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.

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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!

mindfulness-based parenting

It’s tempting to think there is some trick or technique we need to learn, some course we need to attend, some skill we need to master (and somehow never do) that will fix us and/or our parenting.

Last weekend I went on teacher training at The Tavistock and Portman Centre for a course (coming soon) entitled Mindfulness-Based Welbeing for Parents. I learnt a lot about how to adapt the heavy eight week courses many of us teach to better suit busy parents.

I’ve adapted before and admittedly most of the practices on this course are much the same as on other courses. Once you’ve stripped away the differences and the parent centered content, the key message of the course was all about nurturing ourselves with kindness and friendliness and how we can do that as parents if we want to survive and thrive in the face of rearing small unpredictable little charges.

As with all mindfulness courses it all comes back to practice, daily practice. There is no easy way round it. They haven’t yet invented a mindfulness pill that will turn you into an all present enlightened being.

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So this course, among many others, is a good place to start a regular mindfulness compassion practice. Turning towards yourself and your parenting ‘flaws’ whatever they may be with a kind and gentle eye (not being there, being in their face, being disconnected, giving them too much pizza, the list is endless of course) and treating these ‘flaws’ just the same as when you have moved away from the breath in a practice – you kindly escort yourself back to the breath each time.

In my practice now I drop in two reflections – can I be present with my kids during their moments of difficulty and can I be kind to them during their moments of difficulty? This in itself is a life time’s work but turning towards the possibility, setting the intention and being able to see this is the intention even when things don’t quite go the way you’d hoped, is a useful starting point. And being able to show yourself some kindness too.

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes seated, 10 minutes movement.

 

 

 

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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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

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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)

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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)

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Snow day

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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)

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