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

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Book Review by Aisha Ashraf: An Inconvenient Posting

Published by Aisha Ashraf in her popular blog Expatlog, you may prefer to click to read it there and learn more about Aisha’s ‘life without borders’ 

Dangerously evocative reading for those acquainted with the invisible assassins Culture Shock and Depression. 

Describing an encounter with depression during her family’s expatriation to Houston, USA, Laura J Stephens’ memoir will strike a chord with displaced souls everywhere.

Straight-talking, hard-hitting, while those on nodding terms with ‘the black dog’ will undoubtedly find something of interest here, the expat niche is where ‘An Inconvenient Posting’ will garner its greatest appreciation. As a professional psychotherapist Laura was better prepared than most for the changes she anticipated yet still found herself stalled by the rictus of morbidity that settled over her. In her deceptively down-to-earth style, she captures the emotional vortex of the expat experience so skillfully that I found myself reliving the dramas of my own. Corresponding memories continued to re-surface long after I’d put the book down. Details like glancing at the clock to gauge the time on another continent when thinking of absent loved ones bring visceral authenticity to the account, and the practical guide that follows offers advice and resources for anyone currently struggling with depression or preparing for expatriation.

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While it’s the dramatic, life-changing events that capture our imagination, in reality, the tightening screws that stretch our lives and test our endurance make themselves felt in more subtle ways. Laura documents the almost imperceptible slide from fully inclusive functioning to becoming an outsider in your own life that so characterizes depression. As readers, we share the dilemma of conflicting thoughts, vacillating between “something’s not right, but I probably just need time to adjust” to the insistent whisper “how far down can you go before you can’t get back out?”

In an unflinchingly honest description of psychological displacement, she lays bare her insecurities, hopes and naivetés, so that like Doubting Thomas, we can approach, poke our fingers into her wounds and see for ourselves the discomfort and distress she overcame. She creates a window of understanding for those who’ve never expatriated and the opportunity for deeper self-knowledge for those who have.

We travel with her as she leaves the familiar, ‘the lattice of small white frames of my Georgian kitchen window… the sunlit autumn garden strewn with dead leaves and worm casts’ for ‘the world they had only previously seen on TV’ familiar on the surface but deceptively alien in practical terms where she often feels ‘like an actress in the wrong role’.

‘No one had died on the journey and yet I felt bereaved’

Working through her thoughts and feelings with therapist and Life Coach Gretchen, Laura draws back the curtain on the more intangible aspects of the process of acclimatization, demonstrating how, even if you’re living as expected, ticking all the boxes – getting the driver’s license, attending the gym regularly – it’s no guarantee you’ve reached your equilibrium. She conveys the frustration of the ‘trailing spouse’, bereft of professional identity and diminished in social stature. She also discovers how past experiences can have a significant influence on subsequent postings as her new situation resurrects old ghosts.

The biggest obstacle to overcome in any expatriation is recognizing ‘we can only live in the present however much we look to the future.’ After a year of torturous adjustment and a return visit to her homeland, Laura finds her perspective has shifted and she is able to better appreciate the opportunity to have seen what was previously unseen. On her return to the US she finds herself welcoming routine and reconnecting with family life. Somewhere along the way Houston has become home.

Overcoming Isolation

Isolation is the companion of loneliness. It can be a reality if you live in the middle of nowhere or it can simply be a state of mind. If you chose to be cut off from the rest of civilization, then you probably like it that way, in which case this blog and my ‘Five Tips for Overcoming Isolation’ are not aimed at you!loneliness

During my twenties I lived on my own; I was happy – I had my own place and felt very grown up – I embraced my independence like a longed for best friend. And yet I remember arriving at work and asking my co-worker, Jacquie, if she’d spoken to anyone since I’d said “goodnight” at the end of the previous working day. people on waterloo bridgeWe laughed about the fact that we travelled home on packed commuter trains, walked the half mile from the station to our homes, prepared and ate our dinner for one, watched some television, slept alone and repeated the same routine going back into work the following morning. And yet we had not spoken to another living soul even though we were surrounded by people on the streets of London; nipping through Waterloo Station and riding the escalator up to our platform, no words were exchanged with our fellow commuters.

Why? I guess it’s because city life is made more bearable by the anonymity of crowds. People hate being packed into a confined space where they can feel each other’s pointy elbows pressing into their sides and even smell their breath! We all get it – we really don’t want to speak to each other.

According to the New York Times ‘MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.’ Interestingly, their report even suggests that living alone can make people more sociable.

Sometimes I felt isolated and a tad lonely despite having a buoyant social life. Balancing this was the knowledge of a trade-off; I could have a lodger and the potential companionship that might afford, but I preferred my privacy and less hassle. You know the kind of thing; waiting to get in the bathroom before work, your Gran’s familiar old frying pan burned and ruined, doors banging at unsociable hours. I did try it for a while (and I was fortunate to have a choice).

So, Isolation can be caused by a lack of communication and companionship or, as I’ve alluded to, you can feel isolated by your own thoughts, hemmed in by secrets that can’t be shared… There are many such examples; family members who harbour an alcoholic – each feels forced to play their part in concealing the truth, the married partner who yearns for an old lover, the secret gambler who’s blown the family’s savings, the child starting a new school who has no friends but doesn’t want to worry their mum and dad, the parent with an ‘empty nest’ or the elderly person who has lost their mobility and contact with the outside world. These people and others (the potential list is endless) might feel they cannot confide their loneliness.  man praying

For me, there was nothing in my experience quite so isolating as arriving in an unfamiliar country and trying to orientate myself, whilst experiencing the losses of ‘home’ and all the while thinking I should be grateful for my new existence. Fortunately not everyone feels like that, but it’s easy to see how they could.

My earlier foreign posting and the subsequent repatriation had gone fine. The problem with the second posting was that I did not feel that sense of a personal ‘ trade-off’.

An accompanying expatriate spouse, who had stalled their career by moving countries, I found life a struggle without that focus and as for many expat spouses, my partner had his head down in a new job which required significant periods of time away from home.DSC_2919

With young children at school, most of the day (and evening) hours were suddenly very quiet. In time I picked up the threads and made a new life, I adjusted, but the transition was very challenging.

I have learnt that self care and a preparedness to take action are key to coping with such challenges. Here are FIVE TIPS FOR OVERCOMING ISOLATION:

  • Firstly, have some compassion for yourself. Imagine observing yourself as someone you care deeply for; what do you notice and what advice would you give that person?
  • Keep in touch with established contacts (if you have them) but be prepared to go out in the world and form new bonds. Remember it takes time to build new relationships; they require care and attention – think of a house plant that needs regular, small amounts of water in order to thrive.
  • Acknowledge the losses and get the feelings out there – do something creative – a new hobby perhaps? It will provide an outlet for your emotions. It may also provide an opportunity to make new friends if you join a club or a group activity.
  • People often find it helps to keep a journal of their feelings; the therapeutic benefits of this are well documented. More on journalling below.
  • If at all possible speak to someone you trust about how you feel (professional therapist or otherwise). Please don’t suffer in silence…

JOURNALLING

A journal can take many forms, you could begin with a diary describing the day’s events or you might like to include how you felt when you got up and how you feel at the end of the day. You could find yourself writing pages of thoughts and feelings. Your journal will quickly become a place for you to clear your mind, a dumping ground and perhaps a highly creative, exploratory place. Whatever model works for you, there are many benefits to writing from your authentic self. Your mind will have a focus that could, in turn, benefit your health.

Throughout the day we have thousands upon thousands of thoughts, most of which come and go in a second. Many of these thoughts will link us to memories, often the same ones being replayed over and over, again and again. The result is we reinterpret how we feel based on repetitious ways of processing. By writing these feelings down we can observe our own thought patterns as they emerge, clearing a path for new ones. Essentially, by grounding our thoughts on paper and thereby observing them, we create ourselves space for alternative ways of thinking.

It takes time to process and integrate change and loss. If we know what is wrong we can take the necessary action to make adjustments to our life. And if we let go of the past we can more easily give our attention to the present.

If you would like to learn more about the process of journalling and how it helped me survive a depressive episode, follow my adventures in An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity.

Finally, I’m looking forward to talking about recognising depression at the forthcoming Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) later in the month. If you would like to register for the confererence, the deadline is Wednesday 13th March. Among the presenters will be Linda A Janssen, author of an exciting new book The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures (to be published soon). You can find Linda at www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Please go ahead and comment on the topic of this post.