How I find space in the most stressful of days

There are always those days where it feels like we don’t stop. Like the demands are continuous and we don’t have time to catch our breath. It might be a pressurised day at work, or a day at home with children on your own. The nature of the stressor doesn’t matter. It’s the relentless nature of it that affects our wellbeing. Shamash Alidina uses a good analogy of the water cup. If you had to hold it for one minute that would be no problem. Hold it for an hour and your arm would ache. Hold it for 24 hours and your arm would be in significant pain. It’s the duration of the pressure that causes the problem.

 

“If the pressure is too high for you and lasts for long periods of time, it can cause chronic stress, and that’s where the danger lies.” Shamash Alidina in ‘The mindful way through stress’

 

It’s not always possible to change our lifestyle, at least in the short term, but we can draw upon some small changes to alter our perception of the demands placed upon us. To create more space for us to breathe, to think and to rest. What I’m going to describe now is how you can feel the pauses in your day to break-up what seems like a continuous barrage of stimulus and demands.

 

Let’s explore this together with a short exercise using our breath as an example. We often think of our breath as being continuous. It’s the one activity that links our lifetime from birth to death. We are wholly dependent on our breath continuing in order to survive, and yet the breath is also punctuated with short pauses all the time.

 

Feel the pause exercise

 

  1. Close your eyes
  2. Draw your attention down into the body and become aware of your breath
  3. Allow yourself to observe the natural rhythm of the breath
  4. When you’re ready, see if you can observe the subtle pause between the out breath and the in breath of the next breath
  5. Keep this going for a few breaths until you can consistently feel the pause
  6. See if you can notice the stillness and lack of tension in the body in this pause
  7. Now see if you can observe the even more subtle pause between the in breath and the out breath
  8. Again, see if you can notice the stillness present in this pause
  9. When you’re ready, bring this meditation to a close and allow yourself to notice how you feel as a result

 

In the same way as the breath, there are often small pauses within the day that we don’t notice. Bringing mindful attention to these pauses can help us to metaphorically put down the water cup for a while so we can rest, before starting again. Drawing attention to these pauses can be difficult at first until we get the hang of it so it can help to start with a specific intention. Perhaps if you have a lot of driving to do you can use every red light to take a deep breath in and out. Imagine coming away from every red light feeling more positive and rested, rather than more stressed and aggravated! If you’re spending the day at home with children, perhaps use a task like boiling the kettle to remind you to take a deep breath in and out. Just feeling a moment of stillness. Anticipating the positive experience of a warming cup of tea. Or if you’re in the office, you could decide to breathe deeply and mindfully while drying your hands at the hand drier. Think you don’t have time to dry your hands at the hand drier? Try counting. It’s normally less than 20 seconds. Imagine using those 20 seconds to rest, clear your mind and appreciate the warm air on your hands rather than rushing out of the toilet with half dried, damp hands.

 

Once you start to notice the pauses you’ll find yourself noticing more and more pauses and embracing the chance to rest, albeit briefly, before continuing with your day. Take the opportunity to nourish and shine affectionate attention on your body and mind, and everyday demands will start to feel less overwhelming.

 

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The Powerful Journey of Knowing Yourself

A lot of people say they feel more content and confident as they get older. There’s a sense of knowing who you are, being content with your own satisfaction in a situation and having a clearer picture of what you want and how you as an individual can make that happen. For the very fortunate, they achieve a sense of authenticity or self-awareness that allows them to understand who they are at the very core of their being. And perhaps most crucially, what brings them joy in life. It’s a happy person who is able to articulate what brings them joy and make a practice of inviting that into their life every day, or better still, making that their vocation.

 

I am most definitely still on this journey seeking my authentic self, but feel I have come a lot closer in recent years having introduced a number of deliberate practices into my life that have developed my self-awareness. I spent quite a few years adrift, not really knowing who I was or what I was good at. I relied on other people to tell me what my strengths were and what I should celebrate as my successes, which limited my ability to make myself happy. This is not to say that I wasn’t doing good work or enjoying myself during this time, but it felt somewhat hollow and I wasn’t sure why. Without really understanding myself or what I wanted, my actions lacked integrity and meaning.

 

It’s only in recent years as I’ve integrated more mindful practices into my life that I’ve started to build a better sense of who I am and with that knowledge comes the power to make positive changes for myself and for my family. To develop ways of living and loving that make us all happier.

 

  • I’m noticing and letting go of bad habits.
  • I know my strengths and limitations better and can allow for them.
  • I have a much better idea of what brings me joy and I’m working on how I can make this my vocation.
  • I find it easier to let go of the activities and situations that don’t bring me happiness so I can focus on more important things.
  • Understanding who I am and how I react allows me to respond to my family in a more loving and constructive way.

 

Other than allowing for the natural passage of time, there are a number of things I have been doing to improve my self-awareness more deliberately.

 

Observation of thoughts and emotions

 

When we start to meditate, and incorporate mindful practices into our lives, we begin to observe the well-worn grooves in our brain. The little tracks that take us places without us even realising. We begin to question the definitiveness of these tracks. What are we auto-piloting? What lies beneath our reactions? How does our body respond? What is our reaction to stress? Is that the reaction we want? Can I travel a less worn path?

 

If you read my post on anger for instance, you can see that a mindful approach inserts a pause before we set off down our habitual reaction to the emotion ‘anger’. That pause gives us time to both create a different response in the immediate moment but also to observe how our body reacts and what our mind wants to do so that we are able to reflect on it later.

 

Self-reflection

 

Once we’ve observed how we think and react, the next stage is to understand why we think and react in this way. What happened in our early years? What were the formative experiences that shaped our thinking? How have our reactions served us since then in life? Which of our behaviours do we want to keep and which do we want to change?

 

This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do on your own so you may want to talk to someone else about this. Either a friend/partner or a professional. Lori Fitzgerald is awesome and works in my local area but she’s also available on skype and has lots of downloadable worksheets and programs that can help you on the path to self-discovery.

 

I’ve also found journaling to be incredibly useful for me in this process. Writing down my thoughts and feelings has been both a cathartic experience and a way to get to know myself better. When we’re thinking, we’re not necessarily conscious of our thoughts or questioning them, but when we write them down, we have the opportunity to explore them more objectively. Equally, tracking even the most mundane of activities in my journal has lead me to understand some of my behaviours more. Why do I not drink enough water? What is stopping me from being more active?

 

If you want some help getting started with a journal, there are lots of journal prompts on all manner of topics available on Pintrest and they can be a great way to start thinking about yourself in ways you haven’t yet considered. Here’s a good example.

 

Honest feedback

 

Sometimes we need honest feedback from an outsiders perspective to stretch our understanding further. At work, at home, with our friends, in our creative/physical endeavours; external coaching can be invaluable, but not always easy to hear. My own tendency is to be defensive when it comes to criticism so receiving honest feedback isn’t always easy. If you find this to be case too, then I’d recommend the following.

 

  1. Seek the opinion of someone you trust. You don’t have to rely solely on your line manager at work for example. It’s fine to approach someone, explain that you’d really value their opinion and ask how they would most like to do that. Starting with someone you trust means that you’re better able to be vulnerable and open to critique than you would otherwise be.
  2. Set the intention to listen and understand. If you’re asking for feedback as part of a process of self-awareness, you don’t have any agenda other than understanding yourself better so you can make positive changes. If you start to notice yourself feeling anxious, angry or defensive, then try to observe these feelings in the body. What does it feel like? Where do you feel it? Try not to react immediately to these emotions, but go back to your original intention to listen and understand.
  3. Write it down. Try writing down the feedback and your associated reactions afterwards so you can start to explore the feedback in a less emotionally charged state. Often when we have some time to reflect, we realise that there is some truth to negative feedback, even if it’s difficult to receive. Writing down our reactions also allows us to explore why we react that way. I feel like my defensiveness stems from the need to wear a protective cape of ‘perfection’. Hearing negative feedback feels like someone ripping holes in that protective cape and I feel vulnerable. It’s taken a long time to understand that I can be loved and valued without being perfect, but understanding it has been the first step.
  4. Gather feedback from more than one person. Once you start to feel more confident receiving feedback, try to gather as much honest feedback as possible from different people. There won’t be one definitive opinion of you and hearing from multiple people will allow you to develop a better understanding of yourself overall.

 

I’m still very much a beginner on this journey, but I already feel a much greater sense of contentment and wellbeing just in knowing myself that little bit better. Taking charge of your own happiness starts with understanding yourself and it’s a powerful journey. I’d love to hear more about yours.

 

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5 useful things to do while you’re waiting for your child to fall asleep

My eldest daughter has always been very sensitive and high needs. She still likes to have our loving presence while she’s going to sleep and we’re pretty happy to go along with that. That doesn’t mean that we’re not sometimes silently willing her to ‘go the f@ck to sleep’ while we’re sat on the floor thinking of the many things we have to do that evening! It’s frustrating, and dare I say it boring sometimes to be sat on the floor. That said, we know that she’s just a more balanced and easy to be around child when her cup is full and she feels loved.

 

PIN 5 useful things to do while your child is falling asleep

 

Inevitably, when we’re frustrated and impatient, our children pick up on that and are less likely to go to sleep. With that in mind, I have some suggestions for how you can relax into the process and create a greater sense of calm for you and them to hopefully make bedtime more enjoyable for everyone. Here are 5 useful things you can do while you’re waiting for your child to go to sleep.

 

Try a restorative yoga pose

It’s obviously not practical to be running through a series of yoga poses while your child is trying to fall asleep but you can set yourself up for a restful 15 minutes in a restorative yoga pose. I first came across restorative yoga from my yoga teacher Lara at All Woman and it’s been linked with a wealth of health benefits. I’m personally favouring a heart opening pose at the moment because I have tight muscles across my chest but there are lots more options. You can have a look here.

 

Do a body scan

Pains, aches and weird sensations are our body’s way of telling us that something isn’t right and maybe we need to do something differently. Perhaps visit the GP, perhaps stretch or do exercise or perhaps do some self-care (a bath, massage, treatment etc). Often in the fullness of the day we can become disconnected from our body and ignore or sweep under the carpet these bodily sensations resulting in long term health complications. Bedtime can be a great opportunity to lavish some mindful attention on the body. Slowly passing our mindful gaze over our whole self from our toes to our heads. Noticing how the body feels and re-connecting our mind and body so we can take better care of ourselves.

 

Bring mindful attention to the breath

Children have great empathy and will follow our lead in terms of emotional state. If you can calm your breath then you can help them to calm their breath and emotional state too. Try the 5-7-8 technique.

Breathe in for 5 seconds.

Hold for 7 seconds.

Breathe out slowly for 8 seconds.

This technique calms the nervous system and instils a sense of calm. Useful to quell any frustration you may be feeling and useful to help them fall asleep as well.


 
Pelvic floor exercises

Ladies, we never do this as frequently as we should. If you can create a nightly habit of doing your pelvic floor exercises at bedtime then that’s one set a day done.

 

Listen to a podcast or audio book

If all else fails, get yourself some discrete earphones and listen to something enjoyable. My husband has this small device for one ear that links via Bluetooth, which means there are no visible wires or attached devices for your child to covet and distract them from falling asleep. There’s a similar one here.

 

So, there you have it. 5 useful things to do while you’re laid on the bedroom floor. Sweet dreams!

 

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Book Review: Mindfulness For Parents by Amber Hatch

In ‘Mindfulness For Parents‘, Amber Hatch has created an ideal guide for those coming to mindfulness for the first time as parents. Her accessible style and gift for explaining mindfulness concepts simply and effectively make this a very compelling book. There are information and advice from the early weeks of having a baby to raising older children in a gentle and compassionate style as well as more practical advice on introducing mindfulness to children and maintaining your own practice.

 

mindfulness-for-parents-by-amber-hatch

 
This book does an excellant job of demonstrating through examples and suggested exercises how to establish a mindfulness practice in the midst of raising a family. I would have loved to read this book when I was first learning to practice mindfulness as it was sometimes a struggle applying the theory I was learning to our busy family life.

 

  • How do you meditate when you don’t have time to yourself?
  • How do you stay calm and patient when you’re so tired you could fall asleep walking?
  • How do you step outside of the guilt and critical thoughts and create compassion and forgiveness for yourself?
  • How can you simply enjoy your children when they know exactly how to push your buttons?

This book answers all of these questions and more so you can find peace and joy in every day. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has not yet established their own mindfulness practice or is struggling to do so as a parent.

 
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Giving the gift of presence

Thich Nhat Hanh said

 

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

 

In today’s busy, multi-channel, multi-attention world, it’s rare that we give our full and undivided attention to others. We talk whilst preparing dinner or we watch movies whilst surfing on our phone. Slowly and silently the distance between us can increase until  all of a sudden we can turn to the person next to us and feel adrift or disconnected. We all crave connection with our fellow humans; especially those we love. Gifting our mindful presence can help to reduce that divide and bring us closer as well as allowing our loved ones to bloom in our unconditional love.
If you fancy bestowing your presence rather than presents upon your loved ones this Valentines Day here are 3 suggestions.

 

1. A shared experience in the present moment
Have you ever smelled a scent or listened to a song and been transported to a vivid memory? Strong, sensual (by that I mean activating one of your 5 senses) experiences have the ability to ground us in the present moment. Enjoying these together can really allow us to be present in each other’s company and let go of distractions. The sky is your limit here but examples would be:

  • Watching the stars
  • Trying new foods together
  • Listening to live music
  • Massage with aromatherapy oils
  • A nature walk

 

 

2. Deep listening
Listening deeply to others allows them to feel heard and understood; and ultimately loved. With deep listening we use our self awareness to let go of our own agenda and embrace all that the speaker has to communicate in the present moment. We’re not evaluating or categorising the content of what they say, we’re not thinking about what to say next and we’re not trying to make them feel better. We’re simply listening to and absorbing what is said. Perhaps with some reflective statements to ensure we understand what they’re saying.
You don’t have to sit down and ‘do’ deep listening (unless you want to). Just try to be mindful of the next time your loved one seems to have something to say or work through and remind yourself that this would be a good time to listen deeply to what they have to say.

 

“The listener’s job is simply to be present and by their presence to hold a space for the other person to explore their felt senses and chosen issues. It is not the listener’s job to “be helpful,” to problem-solve or commiserate or evaluate, but simply to be mindfully present, including being mindful of their own felt senses as they arise.” (mindful.org)

 

If you want to learn more about deep listening there is a great article on mindful.org here.

 

3. The heart’s bulletin board
In her book ‘Only Love Today’, Rachel Macy Stafford talks about the heart’s bulletin board.

 

“Every human being, young or old, has a heart’s bulletin board. Every person needs safety, love and affirmation offered in terms he or she can understand.”

 

We are in charge of the messages we leave pinned on our loved one’s bulletin board. We can leave messages of love and affirmation that demonstrate our understanding of their unique qualities or we can leave messages charged with criticism, shame or anger. When we bring our mindful attention and presence to our loved ones, we can decide to offer soul building words that affirm our love for them.

 
I am grateful when you…
I notice that you…
Your eyes sparkle when you…
I enjoy when you…
You make my day better.

 
So there are my 3 suggestions for giving the gift of presence to your loved ones. If you have any more suggestions I’d love to hear about them! Just comment below.

 

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Mindful tips to improve relationships

A meditation on fire, motherhood and renewal

My choice of practice to welcome the new year today was to meditate using fire as my focus. I love this practice for many reasons.

 

  • There’s the symbolic aspect of cleansing so appropriate for the New Year.
  • It’s a really tangible and natural anchor which is helpful when you’re sleepy (as I was today).
  • As I only have a fire pit outside, it’s a good excuse to be out in the open air.

 

The intention was simply to stay with my experience of watching the fire; noticing any thoughts, placing them into the fire and watching them disappear. A standard mindfulness of thoughts meditation. In fact you don’t need fire for this meditation, any anchor such as the breath or walking will enable you to put some space between you and your thoughts. Sometimes though, when you let go of all the thoughts keeping your mind busy, that’s when you get to the really good stuff. The insights or creativity that you struggle to connect with in everyday life.

 
The previous year has been quite challenging and I’ve wrestled with a lot of unsettling and difficult emotions. Mothering two small children fulltime has been all-consuming and at times overwhelming. I’ve mourned the loss of my identity and knowledge of who I am and what I’m good at. I know I’m not alone in this and there is some fascinating work being done in neuroscience that is identifying the actual changes to the brain when we become mothers and why these big shifts in emotional state occur. You can read more about it here. Whilst these changes to the brain may be necessary and ultimately positive for us, it doesn’t make it any easier to manage at the time. It’s difficult to notice and accept negative and difficult emotions when small children take up so much of our mental and physical space.

 
As I watched the fire I spent some time letting go of the usual stuff. Conversations I had that day, things I needed to do, some regular insecurities and worries etc. As I continued to watch  however, I noticed my thoughts being routinely pulled towards a sense of watching my old self be consumed by the fire and I decided to run with this train of thought for a moment. I realised that I’m not simply being consumed by the fire like wood or coal. Instead I am within the fire. Like metal, I am being returned to a molten state to be reborn with new purpose. More empathy, more love and less concern for what others think. I’m not lost, just changing and that makes me hopeful and excited for what is to come.

 
One of the greatest gifts mindfulness has given me is the ability to shift perspective from destructive to hopeful and I will be forever grateful. 2017 is looking good already.

 
“I no longer feared the darkness once I knew the phoenix in me would rise from the ashes.” William C. Hannan