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.

Lessons from a speed awareness course

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If I were to describe mindfulness to you, I would say it is an awareness, a noticing of what is happening right now. So when I received a letter recently explaining to me that I had been caught speeding by a camera positioned close to my home, I realised I had not been practising mindfulness recently. I had not noticed the camera and I had not even realised that I was speeding. I was in such a rush to get where I was going, my thoughts were half an hour ahead imagining being late to meet my friend and the possible outcome of that, or in the past, why hadn’t I set of earlier, I should have finished work on time. So I had clearly proven to myself, that when you move through the day mindlessly it tends to make life more difficult. So this was my first lesson in mindfulness taught to me by the speed camera.

I was offered the opportunity to attend a speed awareness course rather than have 3 penalty points of my drivers licence. I reluctantly attended the course expecting it to be dull, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from learning a lot about road safety and feeling embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on the highway code! I heard words of wisdom which by can be directly transferred to the practice of mindfulness in day-to-day life. And so I got my second lesson in mindfulness from the speed awareness instructor.

The instructor asked “how do we feel when we are speeding in our cars and driving erratically?” We responded that it can feel stressful and frustrating, we make mistakes and miss turn offs. “So” the instructor then asks “how does it feel to drop back, take it a little slower, leave more space between us and the next car?” After some thought we all admit it would feel more relaxed, we would have more space and time to respond appropriately, we would probably, actually get there quicker and more safely.

It struck me that this is exactly what we are achieving when we live mindfully. It is allowing more space and time. We have time to respond calmly rather than react hastily to life events. Things “go right” more often because we are not rushing or cutting corners. By taking more time we probably are more effective and achieve things in a more timely manner. So since my speed awareness course, I have been mindful of my speed when driving and I have to admit that driving is a much more relaxing experience. I have also tried to bring this reduced pace into my life, and so far so good. I still get my work done on time, I am more effective and the stress is lifted. The only way I can describe it is that I have more “space” in the day in subtle ways that make me feel better.

Challenge yourself to consciously slow down in everything that you do for a whole day and see how it feels. I promise you, you will like it.

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.