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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#mymindfulbujo March: Sky Colour Tracker

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I wanted to create a #mymindfulbujo challenge for March that would offer a short pause in each day to be mindful whilst connecting with nature. Being in a natural environment often gives me my greatest sense of mindfulness and grounding with the earth and I’m not alone. Nature has been proven to calm the mind and reduce the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety (see this excellent article from National Geographic). When I examine myself, I think there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

 

  • Nature provides a sense of perspective that we can lose in everyday life. Often we get so caught up in our thoughts and the everyday rush of life that it becomes all encompassing. Our mind perceives these thoughts and stressors as ‘threats’ and acts accordingly. When we connect with nature however our sense of the world expands and we see how large the earth and the Universe are. We see beyond our immediate problems and gain a new perspective on their impact on our life and those around us.
  • Nature also tends to offer some very tangible and useful ‘anchors’ for our attention. Think of sitting on the sofa watching the rain on the window or listening to the waves break on the beach. Our mind naturally wants to rest on and connect with the natural world around us. We are drawn to the soothing and calming pull of nature.
  • Nature is also out of our control. There’s nothing we can do to stop the rain from coming or make the waves calmer. We can relinquish any agenda or expectations and simply be with whatever the Universe decides to send our way.

 

I’ve chosen the sky for this challenge because it’s nearly always available to us at any time of the day (unless you happen to be stationed on a submarine). One of my favourite things to do each morning is look out of my kitchen window, from which I can mainly see trees and sky and see what the sky is doing. Sometimes it’s brilliant blue, sometimes it’s vivid reds and purples and sometimes it’s grey. It serves as a useful reminder of the impermanence of each state in our life and that every day is a new day with something new to look forward to if we approach it with open curiosity.

 

The beauty of this challenge is that you can approach it in any way you want to, but here is how I will be doing it.

 

  1. I’m going to set a regular time each day to observe the sky so it becomes routine and I don’t forget to do it. For me, this will be around 6.30am when I go downstairs with the girls for breakfast. The morning sky just after dawn tends to have the most beauty and variety in the colours. In your lunch hour or at sunset would also be good times however if this suits the rhythm of your day better.
  2. I’ll probably start by taking a few deep breaths just to settle my mind and let go of any thoughts. All that is left then is to observe the sky with mindful attention and curiosity for a few moments. Let go of any preconceptions you have and notice what is happening in the sky; clouds, movement, birds, colours. It’s unlikely the sky will be one uniform colour, so try to notice the full spectrum of colours in the sky and decide which colour is more predominant or that you connect with most that day to record in your journal.
  3. I’m going to record this in my journal in the style of a mood mandala with a ring for each day to represent the colour of the sky. There’s a picture of my initial set-up below and I’ll update every now and then on Instagram so you can see my progress as it gets filled in. This can be as simple or as fancy as you like however. So, if you just want to create a page of boxes to fill in or have a box next to your daily log each day, that would work brilliantly as well. The key here is to focus some mindful attention on the sky. Recording in the journal is just a fun way to remind you to do it.

 

 

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Update! The completed mandala. 

You can find more #mymindfulbujo challenges on my resources page

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Book Review: Only Love Today by Rachel Macy Stafford

I’ve been following Rachel’s blog The Hands Free Mama for a few years now and I’ve always adored her writing. It’s like the written equivalent of a hug from a friend. Her work is full of hope and inspiration for turning a bad day around without feeling sanctimonious or judgemental. I haven’t read any of her previous books so I was delighted to be given the chance to get a sneak preview of this one.

 

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I was somewhat surprised (and happy) to find that this isn’t a cover to cover read or a manual for mindful living. In the words of Rachel this is a “flip open, read-in-any-order book of daily encouragement designed to shift perspective and anchor us in love”. Each short passage of c. 2-3 pages tackles a specific theme and includes a short quote (great to write in a journal as a reminder), an encouraging passage based in experience and a suggested exercise for the day to help reinforce this shift in perspective. You could simply work your way through the book taking a passage each day, or you could just use the index to refer to relevant passages as and when needed.

 
On opening the book initially, the first passage I came to was exactly what I needed that day. After a 5am start with two small, tired people, I was feeling pretty grumpy and snappy. I hadn’t exactly been the model Mum thus far and I was feeling bad about it. The “Only Love Today Affirmation” really helped me let go of the regret and resentment and open up to all the possibilities yet to come that day.

 

 

 

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“Today I will choose love. If I mistakenly choose distraction, perfection or negativity over love, I will not wallow in regret. I will choose love next. I will choose love until it becomes my first response… my gut instinct… my natural reaction. I will choose love until it becomes who I am.
Let love start this day.
Let love end this day.
Let love transform the minutes in between.”

 
This book allows us to accept our human, imperfect selves, whilst still allowing us to grow and nurture those around us with increasing love and softness. I’d thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who loves someone. Loving ourselves and those we cherish with gentleness, empathy and compassion is probably something we all hope to do and yet still manage to stray away from some days. This is the perfect companion to help you get back on track.

 

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Q&A: How can mindfulness help when I’m feeling down?

This week I was sent a question and I think it’s really relevant to all of us at one point or another so I thought it was worth turning into a blog post. It also made me think that I could have a regular question and answer on the blog so if you have any questions, then have a look at the contact page and send them in.

 
Q. Some days I struggle with just having a bad day. It’s hard not to see it as a set back, or all my ideas and positivity not working anymore and instead just accept it’s a little blip and not the end of the world. But still it shocks me that I have these odd days where my energy is off as I know I’ve come so far. I think ‘I shouldn’t feel like this! I know I should be turning it around and flipping this on it’s head’ but some days I can’t! What do you do?

 
A. I think in your question you are already halfway to the answer. Often we think of mindfulness as being a progressive state towards enlightenment at which point we will have ‘reached our goal.’ The more I learn about mindfulness though, the more I see our lives as being in constant state of dynamic movement. We’re like a cruise ship passing through a different port everyday. Some ports we like and some we don’t like. Sometimes the weather is calm and blissful, other times the ship is buffeted by storms and big waves. Mindfulness is a tool we can use to help us navigate all of these places and weathers but it can’t ensure we stay in one place forever.

 
Emotional states ebb and flow and this is perfectly normal and natural. Our intention with mindfulness is to accept each emotion in the moment and allow it to be as it is without becoming too attached to it. My first mindfulness teacher told me ‘what we resist, persists’ (a Carl Jung quote) and this is often true of negative emotions. If we become too attached to making them go away, our brain starts to ruminate on ways to solve the problem and we’re taken out of the present moment and into the past or future. All this thinking and ruminating can actually make the bad mood hang around longer or even spiral downwards into a darker mood.

 
A practical exercise you could do in this situation is as follows.

 

 

  1. Take yourself back into the body with a simple meditation. This could be a 10 minute meditation or simply 3 mindful breaths. Whatever time allows.
  2. Use your mindful attention to identify what emotion you are feeling. Anger? Sadness? Boredom? Frustration?
  3. Use a mantra to acknowledge the impermanence of emotions. Something simple like ” I am angry, this will pass.’ You can repeat this as many times as you need.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Take a moment to acknowledge what you need. Would it be helpful to eat if you’re hungry or reduce your ‘to-do’ list for that day?

 
Rumi wrote a beautiful poem about how we can welcome and make peace with all of our emotions and I’m going to share it here.

 

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The Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~Rumi

You have a right to experiment with your life

Do you ever read a quote and have it change your life? I’m a little bit in love with Anaïs Nin anyway but I read this quote of hers and it finally gave me the courage to do what I’d been afraid of.

 
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“You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too.” – Anaïs Nin

 
At the time I had a great job with great people but I knew that I wanted to be able to look after my family on more of a full-time basis. I also had a passion for mindfulness that I wanted to explore. I spent many months ruminating on the decision about whether to leave (I’ll tackle rumination in a different post) and there were two key thoughts that were holding me back.

 

  • It’s highly unlikely I’d be able to return to research in such a fantastic position. What if I regret it and want to return?
  • What if I fail? Everyone would see me fail and that would be embarrassing.

As I read that quote however, I realised that making mistakes IS inevitable. I could take all the precautions I wanted but at some point I would make a mistake anyway. We often see our lives (particularly our professional lives) as being a linear upward trajectory. We don’t expect to pause, to reset, to circle back around and come up again on a different path. But would it be so bad if we did? It suddenly felt quite liberating to acknowledge that I’d had an amazing time in research for 12 years but that right now, I could allow myself to take on a new challenge. And if I decided to return to research in the future, maybe I would find another amazing role to fill. There are no definites, only possibilities.

 
The other thought I acknowledged was that failing and making mistakes ARE OK. This is one I struggle with a lot and learning self compassion through my own meditation practice has been very healing.  Yes it feels bad to fail, but it can also be a great teacher if we let go of the accompanying self-criticism and negative thinking that we often heap upon ourselves when we do so. We can be kind to ourselves instead. Acknowledge the hurt, explore what the experience has to teach us and then let it go. We can even be grateful to our failures for teaching us.

 
So as I prepare to launch my new classes this week, I feel that familiar knot of trepidation in my stomach. My anxious mind telling me that failure is a possibility. That it would be safer not to try. To remain unseen and untested.

 
And then I remember those words “You will make mistakes. And they are right too”. I remember that I have love to give. That I am passionate about what I do. That I want to share that feeling of loving life again that I had when I learned mindfulness for the first time after my first baby. That I can do this.

 
The best mentors often allow us to step outside our thoughts and see them from a different perspective. Thank you Anaïs.