Mindfulness: Happiness is an inside job

You may have heard the buzz around the practice of ‘mindfulness’? Its use has becomes far reaching, with schools and even governments employing its use. Its origins lie in centuries-old Buddhist meditation practices and breathing exercises.

I was sitting over a latte trying to explain what mindfulness is to a friend and have to say I found it quite difficult to describe, I thought it would help to write about it, so here goes …

Put simply, mindfulness requires us to focus on ourselves, tuning into the here and now; stilling the mind and concentrating on the present reality.

I’ve discovered it is not something just for other people; we can all use it to help us concentrate better and reduce our stress. Life can be so challenging and complex and we all experience suffering in different ways; physically, emotionally or spiritually. This can lead to a sense of disconnecting from ourselves. Mindfulness can help us to tune in and reconnect with our inner space; that might be our own subconscious or simply the ongoing internal dialogue we have.water lily

INVITATION TO PAY ATTENTION IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I’d like to invite you to stop what you are doing and give what is written here your full attention. For example, you could do this in a multi tasking, half hearted kind of way; whilst checking your phone, eating a sandwich or allowing your mind to wander off, OR you could read this blog mindfully.

If you’d like to try, reading with your full attention might involve:

  •          Pausing from anything else you are doing
  •          Becoming aware of the feeling to be ‘pulled’ to carry on with other activities … notice other thoughts and feelings creeping in and perhaps the need to rush.
  •          There may be something distracting you; a noisy environment perhaps? Allow yourself to observe how your senses are being stimulated and those thoughts and feelings as they crowd in. Try to let them go, think of them as just thoughts and sensations.

‘Mindfulness’ means ‘to remember’ or ‘to recollect’ the present moment. It can be surprisingly difficult to achieve staying in the moment for any length of time, and yet the benefits are well documented.

There is a plethora of information available on how to practice mindfulness; possibly too much to capture and keep your attention in one blog post! So I have compiled some links and book resources to help you decide an appropriate place for you to dive in, should you wish to.

PEACE, SILENCE & SOLITUDE

You might like to try a breathing exercise to help step out of the auto pilot state and reconnect with the present moment. You will need at least ten minutes but can take up to an hour if you wish:

Sit quietly, close your eyes and ‘go inside’. Allow yourself to become more aware of distractions. It is completely natural for your mind to wander, just notice this happening and take your attention back to your breathing.

Focus on the cool air coming in to your nose. You can think of your breathing as a mantra, counting up to six as your breathe in, and eleven as your breathe out (I found this quite difficult at first but learned to do it easily in a few days.)

Remember to be gentle and compassionate with yourself; being mindful takes practice and resistance is normal – humans are designed to be constantly thinking!

After a little while of focusing on your breathing you could ask yourself these questions:

  •          What am I thinking?
  •          What am I feeling?
  •          What is happening to my body?
  •          What inner sensations am I aware of?

Try to notice, acknowledge and stay with each answer.

Accept all your experiences, even the unwanted ones. You can have strong feelings but you don’t have to react.

Now gently re focus on your breathing, it is a constant in your life, always there for you, follow the breath all the way in and all the way out.  Do this for a few minutes; take as long as you can.

Notice when your attention wanders and again gently bring it back to your breathing.

Feel your awareness encompass your whole body; expand your awareness so your body feels as though it is breathing.

Allow any sense of discomfort, resistance or tension. Sense the space around you, hold that sense and imagine yourself being soft and opening up (your might find it helps to visualise your favourite flower opening up and blooming).

Did you know …

One of the best ways of developing

mindfulness is to start a regular

meditation practice.

Daniel Siegel

pebblesBy allowing ourselves to be still, anchored to our breathing, we learn to tune into our thoughts and feelings. In this way mindfulness can helps us to deal with negative emotions such as anger, fear & greed. It can therefore impact positively on our relationship with our inner self and others.

Mindfulness can be simply maintaining awareness in the moment, whether you are reading a blog or eating a sandwich (and if you are take notice of the taste, texture, smell and how your sandwich looks!).

I have found mindfulness most useful as a becalming tool, particularly when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, it provides a welcome opportunity to stop, rushing, doing, planning etc and generally going too fast. In the stillness I am free to tune in to what is really important and make more considered decisions and that must be a good thing.

RESOURCES

Guardian Articles:

Should we be mindful of mindfulness?

Julie Myerson: how mindfulness based cognitive therapy changed my life

Coping with stress: can mindfulness help?

Books

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, 2002

For trauma: In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, 2010

Videos

Thich Nhat Hanh – Ten Mindful Movements

Guided meditation: Guided Meditiation with Dan Siegel (Wheel of Awareness)

Quotation Reference

“Happiness is an inside job” ~ William Arthur Ward

January Jitters

I don’t know about you, but giving up chocolate or alcohol for the New Year never appeals, particularly as January is a month of family birthdays for me; excuses excuses I hear you say … well there is always February.

Have you been thinking about what’s in the offing for 2014? Briefly reflecting on my life and what could be evolving within it, I seem to be struggling this year to capture images for what lies ahead; there are mists swirling at my mind’s edges and I can’t quite capture them. Or perhaps I don’t want to.

I’ve a hunch my resistance could be connected to my mother having Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, it is a certainty that she will continue to lose her memory and my fear is she won’t recognise me by this time next year. I don’t want to have an image for that. Other changes are in the pipeline too and adjustments will need to be made.dawn

I’m finding it helpful to separate what is largely beyond my control and instead offer my energy to making sure I care for myself. I’m thinking of mind, body and soul, in short, resilience for the challenges that lie in wait.

The first challenge of 2014 came on the second day with an operation to my nose. It was preceded by the most sober of New Year celebrations, ever! I am beginning to recover, from the operation that is, and am reminded how even a short procedure involves facing the fear of going under; waiting for the injection of anesthesia, whilst trying to make polite conversation (a diversionary tact by the nursing staff no doubt) not wanting to feel the liquid coursing through the back of my hand and up my wrist, but also wanting to be back in my bed and alive as soon as possible. Then, a painful and grim post op twenty four hour period and thereafter the best you can hope for is feeling exhausted and aching.

The good news is I was able to have an operation at all and I hope to be breathing through both pipes very soon, something I don’t have any memory of! I’m excited to find out how that will feel and keeping my fingers crossed that when the swelling goes down I will discover all has gone to plan …

Perhaps my focus should be to breathe in life this year as I’ve never done before! With that goal in mind, I have put together a selection of thoughts (below) to help me stay positive. My hope for us all is to find our best selves and focus on feeling happy and fulfilled.

A selection of positive thoughts and ideas to banish the January jitters:

1)      “Celebrate your life no matter where it takes you – no matter how difficult – and know that it is only a transition.” ~ Kryon

2)      What are you not happy with in your life?

Ask yourself what is stopping you from making the necessary changes.

Imagine a friend is telling you about the problem, what would you advise them to do?

3)      Enjoy yourself and strike a healthy balance.

An example of my own will be enjoying a couple of the melt in the mouth Hotel Chocolat chocolates my brother bought for Christmas, two at a time each day, as opposed to scoffing the whole box. I’ve included a photo just to demonstrate the magnitude of the task at hand.IMG_2024

4)      It’s feels like a cliché, but bears repetition; getting enough quality nutrition, exercise and sleep will make you more resilient in the face of life’s challenges.

Having said that, each year (or is it each month) I resolve to get into bed earlier. Still working on that one!

5)      ‘Set boundaries. Protect your precious time and energy.’ ~ Cheryl Richardson.

I would add that allocating regular free time to just be allows space to unwind and emotionally nourish ones self.

6)      ‘Reconsider commitments. You have the right to change your mind.’ ~ Cheryl Richardson.

Some people are over committed whilst others lack the drive to make a commitment, how is your balance?

7)      ‘We are all students and teachers. Ask yourself: “What did I come here to learn, and what did I come here to teach?” ~ Louise Hay.

Somewhat profound perhaps and yet I find it helpful to look for the higher purpose of what and who is happening in my life.

8)      “To reach out with love, to do your best and not be so concerned with results or outcomes – that’s the way to live.” ~ Brian L Weiss, MD

As someone who is task orientated, I find this thought both positive and freeing.

If you would like to comment or have any self care tips of your own, please go ahead and share them below.

N.B. The quotes that aren’t mine are taken from a selection in Everyday Positive Thinking,by Louise Hay, Hay House Inc.

On Twitter or want to join? Follow Cheryl Richardson @coachoncall, Louise Hay @LouiseHay and me @LauraJStephens

Moving on and Letting go

‘Forgive and Forget?’ was the title of my last blog article, it looked at the dilemma and merits of doing so. But what happens when you decide it is time to move on irrespective of the need to forgive and forget? How do you finally let go?

Letting go and Loss

Moving on in your mind or literally going somewhere – or both perhaps? That is the wrench expats can feel moving countries; with all that is familiar beyond reach – often in a blinking of an eye or the time it takes to make a long haul flight! Change-ahead

Expat or not, we all have losses in our lives; we move schools, change jobs, move house, loose contact with friends and occasionally, sadly, a loved one dies. We usually adjust to these normal life events, given a little time to accept and integrate the changes.

Transitioning and letting go can still be tough, particularly if you experience the deep grief associated with death or another significant ending (examples being: divorce, suffering chronic illness, addiction, or as mentioned a cross cultural move).

It can enhance our ability to cope if we understand our natural process, typically through a sequence of emotional stages. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, refers to this as ‘The Grief Cycle’, her model forms the hypothesis that people undergoing catastrophic personal loss will experience “five stages of grief”.

1.     Denial

2.     Anger

3.     Bargaining

4.     Depression

5.     Acceptance

Although the model was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients it can be useful to others undergoing significant loss.

Another model you might find useful was adapted from the Kubler-Ross research to help people cope better with change in the workplace. Known as S.A.R.A.H. Again, it helps us to understand our process, acknowledging that as people meet with change they generally have the following reactions:

1.       Shock

2.       Anger

3.       Resistance

4.       Acceptance

1.       Healing

Emotions Accompanying Loss

Speaking from my own experience, I felt a plethora of mixed emotions when I left England to take up another foreign assignment to Texas. I struggled with sadness, anger, disbelief, guilt and resentment at leaving friends and relatives. Conversely I also felt some relief as I believed I was doing the right thing for my partner by supporting his career and that it would benefit the whole family. Although this holds true, once I discovered there was no hope of continuing my new found career as a therapist, I found myself unable to cope with my accumulation of losses (as I saw them) for some time.

In my book ‘An Inconvenient Posting’ published by Summertime Publishing, I wrote:

“Angry was a word I preferred not to apply to myself. How about ‘frustrated’ or ‘fed up’? At times I hated myself for expressing my anger and sadness, I wanted to cope for the children’s sake. They had not asked to come here (Houston) and were coping better than me.”

Tips – What Helped me ‘Move On’

My journey back to happiness from an episode of depression and the adventures our family encountered are detailed in the book, but a number of things helped me let go and move through my own cycle of grief which I would like to share with you:

  • Writing and journalling my thoughts and feelings in a private place.
  • Acknowledging what was going well and noticing what I did like about my new situation!
  • Visualising myself happy and settled in my new home – it was tough on the black days but it still helped to imagine a positive outcome.
  • Pushing myself to talk to people, getting supportive comments from old friends and making the effort to initiate new friendships even, when my heart wasn’t in it.
  • Getting out of bed straight away, jumping in the shower, having breakfast and leaving the house.
  • Setting simple, small goals and gradually doing more as I could manage them.
  • Acknowledging there is no magic cure for depression; with professional help I became my own detective, working out what had gone so wrong and why I was depressed. After all, nobody had made me leave ‘home’ …
  • Remembering that time can be a great healer if you take steps to care for yourself emotionally and physically.
  • Seeing my progress, albeit slowly at times, through The Grief Cycle helped encourage me that I was healing. It normalised my shock and anger and gave me hope that ‘Acceptance’ might follow.

Resources

On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler

Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges

When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron

The Emotionally Resilient Expat, by Linda Janssen

An Inconvenient Posting, an Expat Wife’s Memoir of Lost Identity, Laura J Stephens