Tag Archives: stress management

retreating

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.

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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:

  1. Do more yoga!
  2. Rediscover the body scan on a more regular basis (this was done everyday on retreat and I loved rediscovering it)
  3. Spend less time on line
  4. Spend more time with the kids
  5. Be generous
  6. 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

having a complete day of rest

Anyone who knows me well knows I have been atheist since primary school. I’m a fairly committed and unwavering atheist which comes with challenges (it’s pretty scary admitting there is no heaven, it’s even harder sharing that ethos with young children, now I have them!). But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and draw wisdom from the world’s religions – most of us need some code of ethics to live by and being a secular Christian from my upbringing I of course remember and carry with me many of the teachings from my days of reluctantly attending church.

There are many things I agree with from those teachings – love, compassion, forgiveness all sit very well with my own world view. And the idea of having Sunday as a rest day is something that for many years I neglected – won over by the opening of shops on Sundays during my youth and then having  a busy life in adulthood has meant the rest day has oft been neglected.

In the run up to Christmas, which again coming from a family of Christians, I observe but more in the spirit of pagan mid-winter festival than the co-opted capitalist version of pointless, wasteful consumption of things we all probably don’t even need, it is tempting to shop till we drop any day of the week, specially cramming it into a Sunday.

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Yesterday though I managed to do what it would be great to do every Sunday – a complete day of rest. Of course the kids still needed feeding as did I and my husband, of course the dishes still needed washing up but aside from that I did nothing. I spent large amounts of time on the sofa reading The Guardian, drinking tea – it was bliss! My phone was off, I didn’t check my emails once.

I can’t remember the last time I have allowed myself to do that and I know it’s unlikely to happen again until mid January but if we can all just give ourselves a complete (or as near as feasibly possible) day of rest even just once a month I think stress levels would decrease and well-being would be positively impacted. Such  a simple thing that costs nothing – how challenging will it be to observe?

Today’s Practice Time: 20 mins movement, 20 mins seated practice

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.

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.

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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.

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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!)

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.

 

 

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.

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor

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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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