I want to catch your attention with the ordinary rather than the extraordinary in this blog. It may feel like meditation or mindfulness is some special or rarefied activity. Maybe you like it to be special. The right clothes, the right cushion, chair, posture, the right space may all be important to you and that’s fine. I met someone who had a little meditation retreat hut built in her garden and this was her sanctuary. People often spend time and money going off to meditation retreat centres in beautiful parts of the world. Again, this is a good thing to do now and again. I go on retreat at least once a year to deepen my practice with a concentrated period of meditation, contemplation and reflection.
But what if you don’t have time to do this? or the funds? Or even the inclination. Mindfulness has huge benefits to unlock in your life but it is a practice. You won’t get the benefits by just reading about it (even this blog), buying the right clothes/cushion, magazine or jewelry. You will only experience the benefit by actually meditating. Then it will change your brain and probably your life too.
So, what is everyday mindfulness and what are the “in between bits” of life? Mindfulness can be a moment, just a moment of being absolutely present. The mind opens with relief like a flower in the sun when it finds this presence. It is a mental-break, peace from the relentless chatter, busy-ness, planning and worrying of the mind. It is entirely possible to find that the mind is on the go all day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep without giving you a moment’s peace or presence. How do you feel on a day like that? My guess would be mentally shredded and exhausted by it! Or maybe you are more the person who thrives on being busy, for whom stopping or slowing down means being left with your own thoughts and you don’t like that. Maybe status derives from being relentlessly busy. If you are 100% happy with that then you can stop reading now and get on with more productivity. What I keep in mind though is that at the end of life people do not generally say “I wish I had spent more time at work”, they say “I wish I had taken more time to experience the journey”.
|When the late Nadine Stair of Louisville, Kentucky, was 85 years old, she was asked what she would do if she had her life to live over again.
“I’d make more mistakes next time,” she said. “I’d relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been on this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.
“You see, I’m one of those people who live sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, and a raincoat. If I had to do it over again, I would travel lighter than I have.
“If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds and I would pick more daisies.”
Let’s think about the in between bits for a moment, where could they be? Try observing them just today. They are usually moments of inevitable pause, times of waiting. Waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for the shower to run hot, waiting for the bathroom to be free, waiting for the elevator to arrive, waiting for the lights to turn to green, waiting for your turn at the checkout in the supermarket, waiting for the bus, train or tram. Waiting for the car park barrier to open, waiting for someone to answer the phone, waiting for your lunch to heat through in the microwave, waiting for the meeting to start, the dentist to call your turn, the rain to stop. Or the in between bits might be routine, daily activities like cleaning your teeth, shaving, applying your makeup or taking a shower. Instead of letting your mind race off to listing and planning why not take the time to just be present, experience what is going on in you and around you? As you stop to wait take note of your breath and feel it moving in and out of your body. Notice any tension building up in the body and breath into that part of the body, choosing to soften or relax there. Try just smiling and notice how the muscles of your face soften and rearrange themselves. In that tiny, in between moment become more present in your life. Live every moment, live more lightly.
Mel Wraight 2019
If you want to view the powerpoint from my change resiliency workshop for Nottingham University staff click here:
My five favorite books to bring you sunshine!
There are a few books I have read in my life that I find myself recommending time and again to people. These are the books that I think can make a real difference to how to see and live life. With summer coming and time to read and think I hope you enjoy my selection of 5 books for greater happiness in life.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt draws on ancient wisdom, philosophy and modern psychology to describe what they all agree are the things most likely to make us happy in life. This provides a well-written and engaging manual on how to improve your experience of living. Best of all his style is easy to read and understand.
The Consolations of Philosophy: Alain de Botton.
De Botton is a philosopher for modern times who has turned his attention to many of the difficulties of our lives; mood, love, work, religion, status anxiety and even architecture. In this book he explores the ancient philosophers and draws out wisdom which holds true across the centuries in an accessible and engaging style.
Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food: Dr Jan Chozen Bays
Dr Bays is a medic with a deep understanding of mindfulness. This book helped
me meditate on and understand why I eat what I eat. I love food and this book didn’t tell me t
restrict myself but to pay attention to what really nourishes me and keeps me feeling well. It includes a CD od lovely practices some of which I have adapted and recorded and made available on my website: https://www.stillpointmindfulness.co.uk
The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself form destructive thoughts and emotions: Chris Germer
Dr Germer is an american clinical psychologist who alongside Dr Kristen Neff has pioneered much mindfulness work in the area of developing self compassion. I use this book to help me with overly self-critical thoughts, thoughts that I am not good enough and with just allowing myself to be human and vulnerable! It helped me understand what self-compassion looks and sounds like.
Hardwiring Happiness: How to Reshape Your Brain and Your Life: Dr Rick Hanson
Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist who draws on personal and professional experience and his research in neuroscience. This book provides practical strategies to overcome the tendency of the mind to focus on the negative in life and build up our capacity to “take in the good”, however tiny in our day to day lives. I love it!
Mindfulness includes meditation practice drawn from Buddhist traditions. When teaching the skills of mindfulness it is common to teach meditation techniques that focus primarily on observing what is going on in the body or mind. This kind of meditation makes its focus the “felt experience” of the individual. This can be affirming and empowering as one’s own experience is always with us and is used as a healthy ground for learning about living in the moment. It helps people develop increased emotional regulation (the ability to manage emotions up or down) by introducing them to what is going on in their bodies, minds and emotions and helping them see how to stay with that experience long enough to respond wisely.
This meditation is sometimes called “formal practice” is often of a prescribed or decided length, done sitting or lying or standing in a deliberate posture, with or without guidance to stay with the practice. We are practicing directing and sustaining the attention and in doing so developing the muscle of attention and becoming familiar with our capacity for awareness and unawareness.
But formal meditation is not the only way to practice mindfulness. The quality of awareness cultivated in formal practice can also be brought to daily activity by becoming “mindful”. Research suggests that about half the time we are not really aware of what we are doing http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_mind_wandering_make_you_unhappy, instead our actions are on autopilot while our minds think about something else. It’s a useful state to be able to enter but if the mind is, for instance, constantly worrying about the past or the future it can be exhausting and demoralising. We literally miss the experience of living the life we have in the moments we have.
Informal practice or becoming “mindful” might include might include really listening to our children or friends as they ask us questions or tell us their thoughts rather than thinking about chores that need to be done or what we will say next. It can be dropping in to present moment experience while washing up: feeling the hot water, the weight of the plate and watching the water run off. It can even be just stopping to feel our feet on the ground as we stand waiting at the bus stop or zebra crossing. Informal practice typically lasts for shorter periods of time but is done more frequently than formal practice and can bring a real sense of the joy of being alive.
There are a few places left for both the 8 week mindfulness based stress reduction course and the 4 week mindful eating course! Sign up now on the courses page: http://bit.ly/mindfulNottingham
See you soon! Mel
In mindfulness we aim to stay focused on the present moment: it sounds simple but it’s not easy and we usually have to repeat the task of noticing that the mind has wandered off to think about something else and draw it back to experiencing the present moment. Mind wandering is natural and universally experienced!
A “beginner” at a meditation retreat day asked me “If it’s natural for the mind to wander why do we try to stop it?” What a great question!
When we are not focused on something specific the mind starts to roam. It also roams even when we are trying to focus! The wandering mind makes links between past and present and future and sometimes makes creative leaps of lateral thinking and association. It finds patterns, makes maps, and generally organizes our experience creating our sense of self. All pretty useful stuff so why not let it just wander?
Well, the mind is not necessarily wandering in a benign landscape of experience. Like collecting mushrooms in the woods it is possible to gather the poisonous kind as well as the edible and nutritious.
So as soon as we stop focusing on something the mind enters a different “not-concentrating” state. Neuroscientists have identified certain regions of the brain that become active when we are no longer focused and given them the name “the default mode network”, a kind of “standby” functioning if you like. It is not yet understood what this default mode does but it is quite likely to include monitoring of the environment for threat and opportunity to ensure your survival. Therefore in this mode it is possible for the mind to get very caught up with the possibility of danger or desire and for the fight or flight response to be triggered or cravings to develop. Many of us know the way that boredom can trigger cravings for food, or the way an unfamiliar sound can, with the help of the imagination, become a reason to feel nervous or fearful. Often these feelings appear without us really understanding why; this is because the rational, analytical mind was “offline” while the mind wandered in default mode.
When the mind wanders it is also likely to retread familiar, well-worn paths: old ruminations, memories, pre-occupations and concerns. The associations the mind makes then can fuel thoughts and emotions not of the moment but of the past or the future. The mind starts to make “stories” about our life. This is when worries and anxieties are most likely to surface and affect our mood negatively. Depression often presents as a cycle of negative, pessimistic, self-critical thoughts about the past or future. Through the lens of depression the world, self and life can often look as distorted as images in a fairground mirror. Unfortunately it seems to be the case that once we have had an episode of depression we are more susceptible to further depression at a later date. This may be because the mind recognizes sensations and experiences which remind it of the depressive episode and starts to fill in the blanks: to associate and generate feeling. Letting our mind explore unguided in such a distorted way usually makes things worse.
In mindfulness we are not actually attempting to stop the mind wandering; it is the nature of the mind to wander, it is more that we are noticing it has wandered and guiding it back to an anchor such as the breath or the body. This means we can wake up to what the mind is up to and can choose where out thoughts go. This practice is especially helpful for people suffering from excessive worry and anxiety, stress and depression because so much of what maintains these conditions is the unhelpful and often untrue thoughts that are common in depression and anxiety.
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