Shine a light on your thoughts through mindfulness

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Imagine you are walking down a dark street alone at night. Suddenly you hear a noise behind you. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action getting you ready to run away or turn around and fight the stranger who you believe to be following you. Your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate to search your surroundings for a safe place to run too and all your blood redirects away from you internal organs an towards your limbs to help you run. You are in a state of stress and so you should be, this is our innate reaction to danger. It’s the clever way we humans are designed to protect ourselves.

Now imagine that you stop walking, switch on a torch, turn around and shine the light behind you to find that it is just a young woman walking alone, looking as nervous as you are to be out alone in the dark. You feel a great sense of relief and now that the danger has passed your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to return your body to a state of equilibrium. Your heart rate slows, your blood pressures drops, the blood begins to circulate to your vital organs again and all is well

When we have a fearful or stressful thought, our bodies have the same (if slightly less pronounced) fight or flight reaction. We think about the interview we have tomorrow, a deadline we might miss, or the public speaking event we have planned and the stress response activates in our bodies. A lot of the time we are lost in stressful thoughts without being aware of it and so our poor bodies are in a low-level stress response for much of the day. The anxious thoughts are like the stranger following us down the dark street.

We can over come this by using mindfulness practice as the torch-light that we shone on the stranger. When we bring our awareness to our thoughts, and question them, we are shining a light on them and they are no longer a threat to us. They are just thoughts.

Developing a mindful meditation practice helps to develop awareness of the thoughts and emotions that are with us throughout each day. We can learn to observe the thoughts without getting carried away by them. We become masters of our minds rather than being mastered by our minds, and ultimately we feel the benefit in our bodies as our stress and anxiety levels diminish.

Meditation myths 

Many are missing out on the benefits of meditation practice due to their beliefs about what it is, and what it isn’t. So here is a little meditation myth busting. 1. It is a religious practice Although mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism it is not affiliated to any religion. You can practice mindful meditation no matter what religion you are (and even if you have no religion). 2. You have to sit cross legged for hours You can practice meditation in any position you like! An upright and alert position is best but this can be on the floor or a chair. If you prefer you can lie down but this often leads to falling asleep. 3. Meditation is complicated and I’m no good at it You cannot get mindful meditation wrong. If you are being still that’s great, if you are able to watch the breath and explore the breath, that’s even better. It is not about having an empty mind. It is about paying attention, and developing awareness of thoughts and emotions as the arise. The more thoughts that arise, the more opportunity you have to flex your mindful muscles. 4. It will make me too placid and complacent You will not lose your drive to strive through meditation, but you will have space to look at what you’re striving for and why. You will gain clarity and focus. 5. Meditation practice requires too much time The more meditation practice you can do the better it is but any amount of stillness is beneficial. If you don’t have time for a seated practice, try introducing mindfulness into you daily routine. See my previous posts entitled 5 easy ways to turn frustrating situations into calming mindful pauses and savour the simple things 6. I don’t have time to meditate  Just 5 minutes of stillness in your day would benefit you. The more busy you feel the more you will benefit from finding stillness. There is an old zen saying that you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes per day, unless you are too busy, then you should sit for an hour.

The side effects of meditation

If you are contemplating starting a mindful meditation practice, or you are struggling to keep up with your practice, here are some important reasons to keep going. Don’t forget you cannot get this wrong. Even a moment of stillness is worthwhile.

You may forget where your doctor’s surgery is

Research has shown that regular meditators visit their doctor less often. They have reduced levels of stress and stress associated illness such as high blood pressure. It also boost immune function.

You might live longer

There is evidence to show that meditators are more content and suffer less anxiety and depression, and these happy emotions are linked to longevity.

There is no excuse for forgetting your anniversary

Meditators have improved memory function and enjoy more fulfilling relationships. Is this because they remember the important dates like anniversaries and birthdays?

Increased resilience in the face of chronic disease

Meditators reduce the negative impact of chronic conditions such as pain and fatigue.

These side effects are much more pleasant that many drug side effects used to treat anxiety, depression, hypertension and pain. So let’s start using meditation as preventative medicine and improve our quality of life in the process.

5 Habits of mindful people

 

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If you want to become succesful at something, a good place to start is to find a role model and examine their habits.

On my recent Enhancing Mindful Resilience training I was impressed and in awe of the trainers who seemed to embody mindfulness and exude the serenity that mindfulness can bring. So I have spent some time watching people who I consider to be “mindful masters” to compile a short list of habits that promote mindful living.

1. Meditation

Mindful people prioritise their meditation time. They don’t wait to see if they get everything done and then if they have time, squeeze 10 minutes of meditation in. They meditate (usually as part of a morning ritual) and then begin the rest of their day. If you feel like you don’t have time to mediate, set your alarm just ten minutes earlier, when it goes off hit snooze. Then sit up in your bed and meditate for the 9 minutes until your snooze alarm sounds. You will feel the benefits for the rest of the day.

2. Conscious Listening

How often are you involved in a conversation and whilst the other person is talking, you are planning your answer, wondering if you will finish work on time or wishing you had bought those shoes in your lunch break? You are not in the present moment, consciously listening to the other person, you are in the past or the future.

When I observe mindful people in conversation they are calm and you can sense that they are present and listening fully. They don’t rush to provide answers or respond in the conversation. Their speech is unhurried and considered. They creat space to engage fully in the present moment. Being in conversation with a person who is mindfully aware is noticeably different and a much more enjoyable experience.

3. Mindful Eating

How often do you eat your sandwich at your desk or eat your tea whilst watching TV? You are not concentrating on your food. You are not enjoying the tastes, the textures or the smell of the food. More importantly you are not paying attention to when you are full, and so you mindlessly eat until the plate is clear. Experiments have shown that when a person is blindfolded during their meal, they eat less. They are not distracted and cannot see when the plate is empty, and so they stop eating based on their sense of feeling full.

Mindful people will treat their meal times like a ritual. Preparing the food and eating the food without distraction. Try turning the TV off and sitting quietly to eat your food. Savour each bite, chew the food for longer and take some time between forkfuls. Listen to your body and stop when you feel full rather than when the plate is empty.

4. Uni-tasking

I often find myself checking my emails on my i phone whilst I am walking round the supermarket. Or writing an email at work whilst I am on hold on the phone. By multi tasking we are doing neither task to the best of our ability. Rather than save time, we are probably causing more problems for ourselves and wasting time. I might forget half of my shopping list due to being on my phone and have to go back to the supermarket. I might make a mistake in the email because I am concentrating on the phone call.

Mindfully completing one task at a time will save time. Look at each task like a ritual. Give it your full attention and do it to the best of your ability then move on to the next task. Try to remain in the present moment. When your thoughts wonder to the next thing on your “to do” list, notice this and gently guide your attention back to the task at hand.

5. Self Compassion

One of the key principles guiding mindfulness and mindful people is self compassion. Being kind to ourselves as much and as often as possible. Don’t judge yourself for your thoughts, actions or lack of action. If your mind is busy during meditation, don’t get frustrated,  just notice the thoughts, acknowledge the busy mind and guide your attention back to the breath and the present moment. It is not possible to do a mindful meditation incorrectly, just a moment of quiet and stillness will benefit you. Don’t stop practicing because you fear you are not meditating correctly.

 

 

 

5 easy ways to turn frustrating situations into calming mindful pauses

How often are you kept waiting for things and find yourself frustrated? Waiting at the school gates when you need to be home and starting the tea, stuck in traffic and late for a meeting or, waiting to find out if you got the job that you just interviewed for. Life moves so quickly and we all feel that when we already need more hours in the day, anything that holds us up is just another stress. Well for those of you who just don’t have time for a regular meditation practice, follow these five tips to turn those frustrating events in your day into calming mindful pauses and soon you will be wishing for more traffic jams.

1. Stuck in traffic

Being stuck in traffic can be frustrating and stressful particularly when you have to be somewhere. The fact of the matter is, that unless you have a hover board that you can hop onto, you are stuck. So get comfortable in the seat, put your favourite CD in the CD player, and listen mindfully to the songs you love. Use the music as your focusing anchor. Listen to the words, the melody and the sounds. If your attention drifts and you catch yourself wondering if you’re going to be late, don’t judge yourself just gently bring your attention back to the music. If you don’t have any music in the car, use your visual senses. Look around and take in your surroundings. Try not to attach any description to them just observe. Again if your attention drift just acknowledge this and come back to what you can see. Do this for as long as it feels effortless (or until the traffic moves)!

2. You’ve been put on hold

I wonder how much of lives we spend on hold, calling the gas supplier or our mobile phone provider? And just when you manage to get through to a real human, they kindly inform you that you have the wrong department and put you back on hold whilst they transfer you!
I now try to use these times as my meditation time. I get comfortable either in a chair or on the floor, I put the phone onto loud-speaker and put it close by and I do a short mindfulness practice. I take a few moments to settle and then I bring my hands to belly and focus on the rise and fall of my belly as I breath in and out. When my attention drifts which it always does, I notice it and guide it back to the feeling of my hands rising and falling against my belly.
You will become so peaceful during these times that you may wish that you could go on hold a little longer! And, when the call handler does answer the call, you will have a much clearer and calmer mind to deal with the situation at hand.

3. Waiting in a queue

Queueing can be very frustrating. I have the wonderful skill of judging queues very badly and after lots of deliberation I always end up joining the one that moves the slowest.
When this happens, stand with your feet hip distance apart, rock back and forth slightly to ensure your weight is even throughout the whole foot. Soften your knees a little. Now just bring your focus to the feeling of your feet on the floor. Taking your focus to the feet takes you out of your head and your thoughts. Notice where your feet make contact with the ground, which parts of your feet press more firmly onto the ground? Notice which parts of the feet don’t make contact with the ground. Practice moving your weight slightly from one foot to the other. When needed gently bring your attention back to your whole body and the matter at hand.

4. Waiting for the kettle to boil

How often do you impatiently flick the kettle off before it has boiled? The next time you are making a drink, take your time. Pay attention to all the actions involved in the process. Filling the kettle, flicking the switch, putting the tea or coffee into the cup. Think about the tea or coffee, where it came from, what processes it may have been through to get to your kitchen. Listen to the sound of the kettle boiling, watch the steam rising. If you thoughts wander just notice it and bring your attention back to the kettle boiling. Don’t flick the switch too soon, just enjoy the process and then maybe sit quietly and mindfully enjoy the drink.

5.  Waiting for the friend who is always late

We all have at least one friend who always turns up late. The one you tell a little fib to and give them an earlier meeting time than everyone else just so that they might turn up at the proper time 15 minutes later. If you are alone in a bar or  waiting restaurant for someone you can sometimes feel self-conscious and find yourself, pretending to be on the phone or scanning your twitter feed. Next time this happens, try to avoid feeling the need to distract yourself. Get comfortable in your seat, feet flat on the floor and take a few mindful moments. Nobody in the restaurant will notice what you are doing. You could choose to focus your attention on the noises around you or the smells. Or just focus on you in breath and out breath. When your friend arrives they will wonder what your secret to looking so serene is.

 

Mindfulness should be easy and effortless. It is simply the practice focusing our attention onto a neutral anchor such as the breath, a sound or a sensation. When our attention drifts (which it always will) this is just a welcome opportunity to notice where our attention has gone to, and bring it back to our focusing anchor. It just takes us one step back from the often continuous dialogue in our minds, and gives us some welcome peace. It also keeps us in the present moment. So welcome the mundane and frustrating moments as blessings and never miss the opportunity to give yourself a mini mindful meditation.

Meditation for a flatter stomach

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Many of you will have heard of the ‘fight of flight’ response. It is the physiological response to feelings of fear. It enables us to avoid danger by either, running away or fighting. So when you are faced by a dangerous situation, circulation to your brain increases for faster reactions, blood pressure rises, your heart beats faster and your muscles tense ready for action. Adrenalin and cortisol levels increase to sustain this state for a short time. This response is life saving when we are in danger however, many of us are living under constant stress and our bodies are remaining in this fight or flight state for prolonged lengths of time.

Over time, raised cortisol levels brought on by chronic stress can lead to impaired cognitive function, blood sugar imbalance, decreased bone density, high blood pressure, lowered immune system and increased abdominal fat. In fact one of the main causes of increased abdominal fat is raised cortisol levels. Our body stores fat expecting to need it for energy for the high stress situation that we are facing.

So by finding ways to initiate the relaxation response in our bodies we can lower cortisol levels, thereby stabilising our blood sugar and reducing food cravings. Lowered cortisol levels should also help reduce belly fat. Studies have shown that mindful meditation may significantly reduce cortisol levels leading to the reduction in the risks associated with raised levels.

So take a few moments each day to consider how your body feels. What thoughts are running through you mind? If you don’t have the time for a regular meditation practice, try taking 5 minutes on your commute to work or take a mindful walk outside on your lunch break.

If you have the time, try this short mindful meditation practice for a few minutes and if you are able too, build up the time you allow for this each day.

Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor. Notice what is going on around you and within you. What can you hear, smell or sense? What are your bodily sensations, body weight, temperature, contact points with the chair? What is happening in your mind? What emotional feelings are present? Allow whatever is there to be there without judgement. Now Narrow your attention down to your breath. Notice the rise and fall of your abdomen, the depth and length of the breath. When your attention drifts, acknowledge that it has drifted and gently bring the attention back to the breath. After a few minutes, broaden out you attention again to the thoughts, emotions, body and surrounding area. After a few more moments you can go back to your day and enjoy the benefits of reducing your stress hormones.

Lessons from a meditation retreat

 

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This weekend I had the luxury of spending a day at a meditation retreat. This was a new experience for me, I went alone and I did not know anybody there so I was a little apprehensive. When I first walked in and saw the meditation cushions on the floor my first thought was that I would never be able to sit on a cushion for a whole day. Thankfully everyone there had the same thought and we all opted to sit on chairs (phew!).

From the moment that I walked into the room I felt relaxed, my shoulders lowered a little and I soaked up the peaceful atmosphere. Everyone was there for a break from daily life, for retreat. Everyone remained quiet most of the day with little need for small talk. This is very new for me as someone who feels compelled to fill every silence with nervous babble. Before long I felt comfortable just sitting in companionable silence (no need for nervous rambling after all).

So I learned many lessons from the retreat. First, just because we are meditating does not mean we have to sit in an uncomfortable lotus position and second, I will not explode if I sit quietly with another person without talking. From David, the excellent meditation teacher I learned the principles of Anapanasati Sutta (the awareness of breathing) and I will talk about this in a later blog. My most important and valuable lesson from the day came from a passing comment from the mediation teacher during his introduction to the day. As we all settled down to begin the retreat he advised us that “if we had any expectations for day, we should leave them at the door as they will only get in the way of our experience”.

At first I was a little disgruntled by this. After all if he didn’t want to know my objectives for the day, how would he ensure that the retreat met my needs? I consider myself a driven person. I set goals, creat a plan on how I will reach those goals and then systematically work towards them. I came to this retreat wanting insight and enlightenment. I wanted to observe his teaching style to inform my own practice of guiding mindful meditation with my patients. I wanted to spend time at the end evaluating how my expectations had been met.

After giving some thought to his comment I realised how right he was. I have let my expectations get in the way of many life experiences. When I go on holiday, I research the area, spend hours on-line working out an itinerary, I track the weather leading up to departure, discuss plans with friends and imagine how wonderful it is going to be . Inevitably, when I arrive on the holiday, if I have to deviate from the plan or something does not meet my expectations, my experience is somewhat dampened.

conversely I will spend sleepless nights expecting a busy day at work, a difficult organisational meeting or a nerve-racking interview and in reality, the experience is never as harrowing as anticipated and could have actually been enjoyable if not for my poor expectations (and lack of sleep).

So I am due to spend some time on the beautiful Dalmatian Coast in a few weeks and the plan is……………. there is no plan! I am not going to spend hours online or pour over guide books before we depart. I am simply going to turn up and experience the moment, no expectations.