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

Advertisements

Don’t say it!

Don’t say it!  Is the message that floods my head when the truth feels unspeakable. Perhaps you experience that too? Might you be curious to learn more about identifying your unspeakables and maybe even how to go about sharing some of them?

By bringing to the fore that which annoys us/burdens us, or plays out as resentment for another, we have a better chance of processing it and in doing so we can unburden ourselves and let go of the past. We know that suppressing difficult feelings can lead to increased stress levels and ultimately ill health so this can only be a good thing.

Below are some steps you can follow to help bring into awareness those blind spots we all have; the things we find it difficult to talk or think about, even when we are aware of them.Hand image Let Go

So should we verbalise our unpeakables? Would it help? That is for us to judge individually, I think the key is to begin by identifying them and then consider whether to give them a voice. Unlike the ‘Unspeakables’ in the Harry Potter books; Wizards and Witches who work in the Department of Mysteries, you do have a choice! It is important to remember that, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like we do.

Firstly, a minor confession. This week, I was returning from London and having dashed for the train, I was thirsty as kitchen roll. I tried to quickly unscrew the lid of the bottle of Diet Coke I’d just purchased. Gripping really hard, my hands wouldn’t turn the white plastic top; it would not budge. I sighed to myself and sat back, puffing with frustration. The message rebounding in my head its just not happening. I tried again (sometimes I can make it work and get the grip I need using my sleeve) but the sharp pains shooting up my thumb and into my wrist were warning me to stop, now.

There were several people I could ask for help, so what was stopping me? Answer; mostly my vanity – I didn’t want to admit to a stranger I have a medical problem that effects my thumb joints, the thought was strangely revealing and not in a good way.

Moments later, another more sensible part of me took over and I got up and asked an older guy if he would mind opening the bottle for me. As is often the case he was only too happy to respond to my request for help. Back in my seat, sipping the sweet fizzy liquid, I smiled at the irony of my own process, realising I had uncovered one of my own ‘unspeakables’.

Last month, I mentioned the power of journaling to unleash the thoughts and feelings we can’t verbalize. Don’t say it, write it, is one way of managing the emotional material that troubles us. Taking things to the next stage and actually speaking about them can be life changing, in a positive way. Equally there are some things best left unsaid, so on that basis, I would proceed with a healthy dollop of caution!

Do you have any ‘unspeakables’?

Not sure if you have any? Grab a piece of paper or if you prefer just try this in your head.

Step 1: Begin by thinking of some facts (try for three) that you always avoid revealing to anyone. A secret from your past perhaps? Resist the urge to censor what comes up.

Step 2: When you’ve got some things in mind, imagine that you have to reveal them.

Step 3: How does that feel?

Step 4: If you had to reveal your unspeakable truth, is there something you could manage to disclose in confidence but something else you definitely would keep secret at all costs?

Step 5: Think; might it be a relief to unburden yourself? Perhaps it would not seem such a big revelation to someone else. Maybe your load would be made lighter by sharing? What is the nature of the block; is it fuelled by embarrassment or shame.

Step 6: Remember that your unspeakable truth may not be a big deal for someone else and vice versa. It is okay to at least consider that prospect? Might there be someone who you would really trust and safely confide in?

Still think you don’t have any ‘unspeakables’? Below are some topics we often avoid discussing in a social setting for fear of causing offence. That habit can be carried over into our personal relationships and sometimes it’s partly down to cultural norms. In that climate, airing problems can feel impossible and ultimately block our progress. If you are an expat living outside your host culture, the following list may be even more problematic to negotiate:

Sex, money in general/poverty/affluence, political affinity, body shape/weight (fat, thin etc), body odours, health/medical problems, cultural differences, gender, facial hair (women!), graphic details of trauma, addictions, depression, death and so on…

If you would like to hear a little more about the nature of shame and vulnerability, click here for a helpful video by Brené Brown.

In my next blog I will look at the phenomena of ‘the elephant in the room’ and offer some tips on how to help share something important that feels difficult to impart… 

Writing with Benefits

Can writing, in its many forms, make us happier? Research tells us that it can be a useful coping mechanism for managing stress. So how does that work?

Most of us like to read and appreciate being able to do so, whether that be for the learning we gain or the gathering of interesting facts; being enthralled by a heart-stopping storyline or simply noting the Emergency Evacuation Notice that might just save our life. But have you ever considered being the writer? You may be thinking what would be the point of that? Or perhaps you already write.

There is the obvious allure of making mega bucks as an author; realistically that only works for a few premier league novelists and I’m very happy for them. But I don’t want to dwell here on money, even though it is undeniably important and clearly can contribute to happiness.

Journaling

Regulars to my blog will know that a few years ago, when I was really struggling emotionally, I began to express myself by writing down my feelings and thoughts, something I’d not done before.

Having recently arrived in Houston on a posting from England, the austere black covered notebook slung carelessly on my bedside table would become a place of refuge, an escape from my isolation. The notebook had begun life as a safe place to store my seemingly endless ‘to do’ lists, but was soon transformed into a journal. In the privacy of my bedroom, alone with my silent friend, I could say absolutely anything; shameful ramblings allowed me to unleash my authentic feelings. Instead of being in transition, I realised, I had become completely stuck – set adrift, marooned in my own head. I discovered that the process of scribbling down the unspeakable was like releasing steam from a pressure cooker!

Months later when daring to look back at my daily entries, I was surprised at the depth of feeling contained in those pages. I didn’t remember feeling them so intensely or writing them in that way and yet there they were, staring right back at me.

I summed up my sense of incredulity:

‘How is it that a formerly together, fulfilled human being can find herself torn down by the simple act of moving from one western country to another?’

Thoughts of that ilk, captured in my journal, galvanized me to write about the process I was going through and my learning from it. So the journal itself remained personal (worth noting as the privacy of knowing you won’t have to share, allows you to write freely) and later it would provide me with the material I needed to write my story as a memoir and thus share it.

What of other types of writing? Essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels, even tweets; do they help us to move forward therapeutically?

Books and Essays

In March Pico Iyer, a journalist, writer and novelist, was the keynote at the Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) in Washington. He also held a Writer’s Forum session (skillfully hosted by Apple Gidley) where he spoke of the “interesting conundrum of writing” and how through imagination and creativity an “alternative self appears in the world”.

Although most of Pico Iyer’s ten books are about travel and “new global people”, it was his words about the joy of “inhabiting the alternative universe” that particularly resonated for me, he was referring to writing fiction – he’s published two novels as well. Most writers experience a sense of escape and being in another world when they are engrossed in the task of writing, I find it still wonderfully restorative and what I want to share with you is that anyone can have a goboy arms up superman

A top tip for writer’s block from Pico Iyer was to write from “the deep place”.  And to help you capture a sense of a place you have visited, he recommends emailing a friend (imaginary or otherwise) describing it from your memory. To help bring your writing to life, Iyer advises scribbling down notes at the time; snippets of dialogue, ideas and the like to refer to later.

Blogging

Unlike journaling, blogging is of course a typically public activity and yet it can still be therapeutic. Particularly if you find the act of sharing and connecting with others has that affect on you.

People blog for many different reasons; something that was also discussed at the FIGT Conference where Linda Janssen (adventuresinexpatland.com), Maria Foley (iwasanexpatwife.com), Norman Viss (theexpatcoachdirectory.com) and Rachel Yates (DefiningMoves.com) – all successful expat bloggers – spoke of sharing and connecting with others through their blogging. Some bloggers do it for personal expression, others for business reasons. My word of caution would be to be mindful of sharing personal content which could impact adversely on people close to you…

Twitter

Twitter is an exciting way to connect instantly (and publicly) with people all over the globe. With its 140 character limitation, it can be a succinct way of expressing yourself and sharing useful information. Twitter can help you hone your writing skills as the challenge of trying to capture what you want to say in a tweet encourages discipline and creativity. Beware; tweeting can be time consuming – Twitter has a reputation for being a hungry bird and is not a great vehicle for expressing difficult emotions or managing your stress levels! I heard someone who advised “If you wouldn’t shout it out in the supermarket then don’t tweet it.”

Getting Started

Wondering how to get started with writing yourself to a happier place? All you need is a blank screen or a sheet of paper and a willingness to try. The benefits of journaling are well documented. One way to begin, is to ask yourself What is going on for me right now? Or you could ask yourself for an image, a thought, a phrase or a single word that represents how you feel. Try not to censor what comes up.

Resources:

There is of course an abundance of material on the internet to help you get started on your writer’s journey; you could search for whatever is most tailored to your needs. Here are some resources I have found helpful:

http://www.juliamccutchen.com/

Write Your Life Stories http://www.joparfitt.com/2013/03/write-your-way-to-a-happier-you/

Books:

Journaling Through: Unleashing the Power of the Authentic Self by Angela Caughlin

Writing memoir: Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Writing Begins with the Breath, Embodying your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring

Blogging:

On the therapeutic value of blogging: scientificamerican.com

Free Blog tips every blogger should read: weblogs.about.com

Twitter:

A step by step guide to Twitter: blogs.telegraph.co.uk

How to get started with Twitter: support.twitter.com

You can ‘follow’ me on Twitter at @laurajstephens

Your greatest resource might be your time and the giving of it to writing. Good luck and let me know how you get on.