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Why stop the mind wandering?

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.

Mel Wraight
www.stillpointmindfulness.co.uk © 2016

Why Retreat?

Why Retreat?

Why do people go on retreat?

If you have been exploring yoga or mindfulness or other wellbeing activitarkwright-garden-room-300x230 (1)ies for a while you will have noticed that there are “retreats” on offer but you may be wondering what it’s all about and if it is for you.

Does a day or a week to yourself without the pressures of everyday life, in peace and quiet, with good food and beautiful surroundings sound like just what you are yearning for? then a retreat might be just what you need. This is one of the many reasons to go on retreat. You may be thinking “how is that any different from a holiday?”. Holidays are great but they are not necessarily focused on self-care, in fact they may be a wonderful opportunity to indulge in food, wine, culture, sun or sea but often we pack so much in to our holiday we come back feeling like we need a rest.

On a mindfulness retreat the invitation is there to slow down everyday life. To become aware of our own natural pace and processes. Think of it as a spa day for the mind. How wonderful it is to just focus on one thing at a time like making yourself a cup of tea and then enjoying it fully, not in a hurry to do the next thing or working at the same time. The view you spend the afternoon enjoying is of the internal experience of living in this one amazing body, this one amazing life. A retreat can be a great place to experience mindfulness practices for the first time away from distractions and with the support of an experienced teacher. Or it might be an opportunity to renew your mindfulness practice, to reconnect with why you meditate or deepen your practice. On my mindfulness retreat days I welcome beginners and the more experienced. We practice different meditations and mindful movement with plenty of time for discussing and understanding and we have a good lunch and nice treats through the day. The next retreat I will be running is at the lovely Arkwright meadows community gardens, a haven of growth in the heart of Nottingham, a short walk from the tram and the train station.

I always include a period of silence on my retreat days. When faced with the idea of silence in a group for the first time people can often feel very apprehensive: will it be awkward? what if I need to speak? what if I make a noise by mistake? However once they have tried it most people find silence can be a welcome relief from small talk, trying to perform well for others or just having to speak in a group. In silence we have the chance to get inside our own experience, to allow feelings to arise without silencing them with chatter. It can also help us notice the world around us more clearly and rediscover the wonder we used to feel as children at small details in our world. We move from silence into speaking again gently with the understanding that silent contemplation can be a powerful experience. Some people don’t want to give it up!

To book on the next one day mindfulness retreat:
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Mindful Eating challenge

Mindful Eating challenge

Mindful Eating: coping with the food court at the motorway services on a bank holiday

 

I spent the August bank holiday weekend at the glorious “Into the Wild Festival” in Sussex enjoying music and meditation, yoga, alternative therapies, drumming and crafts and a very chilled atmosphere. Festival food is always a great delight for me and this was no exception with a fantastic range of delicious food for vegetarians, vegans and meat eaters. Bee Wilson in her book “First Bite, How We Learn to Eat” points out the enormous influence the food environment has on our eating and food choices. imagesHer argument is that the single most influential step a government could take to improve the population’s diet would be to legislate to create a healthy food environment on our supermarket shelves. The festival provided a really healthy set of food choices: super-tasty and fresh vegan and veggie curries, salads, soups and snacks and some sweet treats in the form of raw chocolates, homemade cakes, great ice-creams and sorbets. Sunday night I queued for handmade sourdough, wood-fired pizzas and chai tea so popular they had a vat constantly bubbling while they grated and ground fresh spices for it at the back of the stall. It also helped that the festival is a drug and alcohol free zone. I felt really well fed all weekend without being overfull or uncomfortable and my digestive system was very happy. It was easy to make good food choices all weekend.

Leaving a festival bubble for the “real world” is often a bit of a shock and on the way back we had to stop to get some lunch at a motorway services. I had already touched base with my tummy and planned in my head the tasty salad I would buy at M&S (I really like it that they have their outlets at motorway services now). Walking in through the automatic doors of the service station my senses were met with an avalanche of temptation as I stepped into one of the most difficult to manage food environments: a food court. There were doughnuts in many shapes and colours, fried chicken and burger bars, pasties and chips, Mexican food, Indian food, fish and chips, pizza and sandwiches, ice-creams and sweets in giant sized bags, coffee with syrups to add, crisps on special offer, Chinese noodles and spare ribs and everywhere advertising, aromas and other people eating. How to resist the temptations and stick to the plan to have the salad my body really wanted?

There is a very powerful mindfulness meditation called “Who is hungry in there?” I learned this from Dr Jan Chozen Bays’ book “Mindful Eating – A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food”. 41bXMGrw7JL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The meditation takes you through an investigation into each of the seven hungers we commonly experience: eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, mind hunger, heart hunger, stomach hunger and cellular hunger. This is easy to do as a practice and I recommend it to really understand the nature of hunger and cravings and be in closer contact with eating for genuine stomach or cellular hunger; that is because your body needs fuel of a particular kind. If you only ever learn one mindful eating practice make it this one and do it at every eating event until it becomes an automatic habit. You can listen to me guiding this meditation here:

 

So how did I manage the food court? By tuning in to what my stomach felt comfortable eating, the clean food the cells of my body craved and at the same time understanding that the food environment was specially designed to activate my eye hunger, nose hunger, mind hunger and mouth hunger by using advertising, images, aromas, messages to appeal to me on every level. Then I put my head down and like an SAS commando I got into M&S and out again as fast as possible!

I run mindful eating courses lasting 4 weeks and 6 weeks: why not come and learn to tune in to your real hunger to enjoy the food your body needs without guilt?