Tag Archives: tranquility

clearing out for winter

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.
Jalaluddin Rumi

 

one year no beer

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)

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

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)

 

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 

 

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!

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)

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The rush hour

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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)

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