Category Archives: meditation

Fancy trying meditation?

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Looking back at 2016, and I think one of my successes was maintaining a meditation practice. It wasn’t always perfect, but I did manage something close to 350 days out of the year – not bad!

I also hit a personal record ‘streak’ of 122 days in a row. And then I forgot one Saturday – argh! Not for an obvious reason, like being super-busy or stressed – in fact, I was probably too chilled out that day. Oops!

The silver lining to this, however, was that I was no longer tied to the app I’d been using – Calm – which, while good, was blown out of the water by the one I’ve since switched to: Insight Timer.

I’m not here to sell that to you (not least cos it’s free!), but one of the things I’m loving about it is the 365 Days challenge. I think there’s something like 140K people signed up already worldwide, which is pretty amazing! And yes, it’s as obvious as it sounds: try to meditate every day for a year 🙂

2020mfpTo help with this, each day has a new podcast. The first 20 were a series, 20-20 Meditate for Peace, which I finished this morning (having missed the first two days of January due to daft ‘traditions’ which don’t lend themselves to this whole idea of fresh starts!). While a little too ‘new agey’ for my tastes (yes, I meditate; no I don’t need to have chats with my own ‘higher self’. Hmm), I got a lot out of this. That’s perhaps surprising given I have been meditating for quite some time now, but there’s never a wrong time to go back and have a refresher on the basics.

More, I decided to use this building practice – it started with 1 minute on day one, 20 minutes on day 20 – as a way to get back into seated postures. I usually meditate in ‘corpse pose’, which is great for deep breathing, imo. But I’ve always looked at those pictures of folk sitting crossed legged for hours, and wondered how on earth they could do that. It’s not the legs that get me (although I decline the full lotus position of feet above knees!), but the back. So, 20 days of building up I’m hugely pleased to say my posture is WAY better!

There are a hundred benefits to meditation – and posture is now one of them, for me! – so if you fancy giving it a go, I do recommend the 365 Days challenge. The next couple of weeks are due to focus on different roots of meditation practices, and will then explore different types. So, an encouragement to stick to a routine, but also a great way of learning more about this whole thing. And I’d suggest that if it hasn’t worked for you before, trying out the different types – breathing, walking, or even eating meditations have been mentioned! – there’s almost certainly going to be something that suits.

Namaste, as they say!

TIL 22: Stress Management 4b

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Following on from this post, I realised in my sleepy state I’d forgotten several things we’d covered!

First, the concept of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, and how much we use these words to beat ourselves up. Try and catch yourself! Even the fun stuff in life is all too often turned into a ‘should’ – I should really go on holiday. I must catch up with the girls, it’s been ages. It might sound minor, silly even, but just the change from ‘should’ to ‘want to’ in talking/thinking about a task can make it easier or more enjoyable. Even chores – not “I have to do the ironing”, but “I want to look after my clothes and feel good about my appearance.” (for example)

We also did a really lovely visualisation exercise, based around that idea of change. We were to imagine ourselves somewhere calm and safe, with a view of a broad swathe of sky. Imagine the warmth of the sun against your skin, and a cool breeze. Now look out and see the shadows start to lengthen, and the birds singing the evening chorus. The air cools a little, and the sky starts to go from blue into the amazing reds, oranges and pinks of sunset, then darker still into indigos and the deep deep blue-black of night. The stars come out – what a view you have of the milky way! Ponder for a moment how far those pinpricks of light have travelled to reach you. Now watch the moon rise, throwing shadows around you, shifting as the orb tracks across the sky before setting. Feel the calm moment of utter stillness, before a hint of light starts to show in the east, gradually brightening through the golden pinks of dawn. A few chirrups start from the birds, building to the full dawn chorus as the sky continues to brighten. You can see the dew on the grass in front of you reflecting the new day’s sunlight.

As well as being relaxing in its own right, this visualisation reminds us that change is a constant. The sun dips below the horizon every night, and rises again every morning. The seasons rotate in the same manner. As a tree loses its leaves in autumn, it doesn’t fret for the loss but rather makes space for the new growth in the spring. Likewise, our own lives will change and cycle, and each time something falls out of our lives it makes room for something new.

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TIL 19: Cognitive Bandwidth

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Random Fridays, where I waffle about an article I’ve read during the week!

Following on from posts on (not) Doing All the Things and more generally Time Management, I stumbled across an article on Lifehacker about Cognitive Bandwidth. I’d say it’s worth reading the article behind it all, Why You Feel Busy All the Time – and given this is exactly how I was feeling last week, the read couldn’t have been more timely!

“There are always … more things to read, more ideas to follow up… The result, inevitably, is feeling overwhelmed: we’re each finite human beings, with finite energy and abilities, attempting to get through an infinite amount. We feel a social pressure to “do it all”, at work and at home, but that’s not just really difficult; it’s a mathematical impossibility.

For me, it wasn’t that I had an untenable list of things to get through last week, but even when I wasn’t doing I had an ongoing ‘whirr’ of “this next, then that tomorrow, don’t forget about…”. Cognitive bandwidth overload!

busyAnd that quote above – the modern to-do list is never empty. Well, mine never is! There’s always something that can be tidied, made, read, watched – my stack of unread books plus those I’d quite like to read might last out several decades by this point! Can we say overwhelm?!

The article doesn’t really offer solutions, but it does point out the contradiction that the busier we are (or feel), the worse our time management skills get.

My own solution? Rephrase a lot of the ‘I should’s into ‘I want’s (I’ve just spent a massive chunk of the weekend cooking – but it’s been fun!). Be realistic with your to do list – maybe write it and cut it in half. Take time to meditate. Plan downtime – and make it proper downtime! There are reasons why going to the cinema is more relaxing than watching a movie in the house (you’ve paid and made the effort to go there, you’re more likely to concentrate rather than have half a mind to jump up and finish the dishes), for example. Pick your task or leisure and focus on just that – this is what mindfulness is all about.

TIL 11: Stress Management 3

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Can’t believe I’m halfway through the course already! Was a great one today, kicking off with how we’ve been making use of the info so far in our daily lives.

Key point: if things are ‘getting better’ i.e. you don’t feel so stressed, now is not the time to give up! Training your relaxation/de-stress response is easier when you’re calm, so that when you really need it you’ve got the toolkit to draw on.

Practicing relaxation:

  • reduces the effect of habitual stress reactions
  • can help stop stress building up over time
  • reduces tiredness, by cutting down on unnecessary muscle tension
  • increases confidence in your ability to deal with stressful situations
  • helps with better sleep
  • helps the immune and healing systems.

You cannot – should not, really – eliminate stress entirely from your life, but you can limit the unnecessary and harmful effects. The ‘flight or fight’ response is a very natural survival trait, recognising it as such is healthy – but staying in that state when dealing with day-to-day stresses is not.

A lot of stress in modern life is not triggered by events, but rather stems from ‘ruminating’ thoughts – the ‘what ifs’ and fears. Two points:

  • Thoughts are not facts
  • Right now, in this moment, you are absolutely fine

However, the parts of the brain that deal with logic and emotion are separate. If we get too caught up in the emotional ‘storm’ then using logic to calm it down will be very difficult.

One way to deal with stress and anxiety is to very slowly build up your tolerance to difficult or stressful situations, in as easy a way as possible.

Today’s exercises were on mindfulness. This is becoming a bit of a cliche these days, but one statistic quoted is that we spend an average of 56 minutes out of every hour thinking about the future, or the past – which leaves 4 minutes or less where you are actually in the present moment of your life! Mindfulness is just about paying attention to that ‘now’. It’s sort of the opposite of the autopilot mode we can all go into, particularly with routine tasks. That can have its place, but particularly in moments of stress then the time spent in ‘thinking brain’ – e.g. ruminating over fears and what ifs – can be the worst thing.

To increase mindfulness it can be helpful to use the senses. We all ate plums – first looking at it, examining the colours; feeling the texture; smelling the fruit. Then pay attention to how it feels against your lip, your teeth. Savour the flavour. Where in your mouth do you taste it? Does it change?

After this, we headed out into the sun for ten minutes, and explored the immediate surroundings – again, using as many senses as possible. The sound of a fountain (which many of us had never noticed before!), the warmth of the sun, the smell of the flowers, the sound of birds. This can be easier – or at least more pleasant – in nature, but can be carried into any task.

TIL 1: Stress Management

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In the middle of an incredibly stressful year, I seem to be intent on adding to it by doing this crazy September Learning Challenge. So makes sense to start with a recap of what I learned on the first session of my Living with Less Stress course!

The word stress can be used in different ways, but often it’s referring to the ‘flight or fight’ response in our bodies – the production of extra adrenaline, etc in preparation for fighting a sabre toothed tiger or running away from a man with a spear. In the modern age, the stress response kicks in in the same way, but to less obvious ‘dangers’: bills needing paid, health worries, uncertainties and just the fast pace of modern life. These are not always stresses that can be tackled directly. We can often develop the habit of being in a permanent state of tension.

While some stress is good – the kick of adrenaline before a race, or the additional focus this brings for an exam, for instance – long-term stress can be detrimental to health (e.g. frequent colds) and even alter our personality (more irritable, easily overwhelmed). Often this has become the new normal, meaning we don’t always recognise that we could be managing our situation better.

Think about having an emotional thermometer (0-100 degrees). Your normal, base temperature – just from day-to-day life – might be something like 40 degrees. When something stressful happens – an upcoming presentation at work, perhaps – this might give you a jolt of 30 degrees, taking you up to 70 until the additional stress disappears. Even with the presentation stress, you still have some spare capacity – it might be difficult, but you could probably cope with a puncture on the car, for instance.

However, if the stress is something that goes on for a longer time, the baseline might have risen to 70 and stayed there for long enough that you don’t recognise it as abnormal. Now imagine that same presentation stress hits – suddenly the additional 30 degrees takes you to boiling point: you feel out of control, unable to cope. If the puncture happens, you’re already in meltdown.

Right, that’s the background (and future posts will NOT be this long!). Good news is, over the next few weeks I should be learning how to do something about all of this – because apparently stress IS something we can choose to change!

The two exercises we started with were paying attention to the breathing, and a stretch and relax routine.

If you pay attention, you will notice your breathing is shallower when you’re tense. Notice this by placing a hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen – which moves more when you breath? It’s more difficult to breath from your abdomen sitting or standing, but practice it when lying down. This is how you breath when you are asleep, and your body will automatically find it more calming.

As well as ensuring you’re breathing into your belly, try this: breathe in counting slowly to 4; breathe out counting slowly to 6.

The stretch and relax routine involves tensing and releasing different muscle groups in turn. I must confess, I was initially worried about straining something, but you don’t have to be too aggressive with the tensing – just hold a lighter tensing for a little longer. Start from feet first, or head first. E.g.:

  • legs – from sitting, lift your leg in front of you and point the toe towards your face until you feel a stretch. Hold for a few seconds, then release and allow the leg to relax back to the floor. Do the other leg.
  • thighs and buttocks: tense, hold, release
  • lower back: curve and push back into the chair. Release.
  • upper back: put your hands around yourself onto the opposite shoulder, as if giving yourself a cuddle.
  • arms and hands: pull your arms in close and form your hands into fists. Might be worth repeating the hands a few times – they hold more stress than you’d think!
  • shoulders: bring them up to your ears
  • neck: drop your chin down to your breastbone as far as you can – feel the stretch on the back of your neck. Also, try looking round to the side as far as you can, holding for a few seconds each way
  • face and jaw: clench your teeth and/or grin like a maniac! Scrunch up your nose and eyes as if you’ve caught a nasty whiff!

The advice is to practice the above twice a day for a few weeks, dropping to once a day as you become more aware of how tense your muscles are.

Overall, the message is to try and spot tension early and reduce it before it builds up to more critical levels! This means being very purposeful for a while, perhaps carrying out the above exercises to a schedule while you learn to recognise the signs that you need them.

Meditation helps

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I’ve started and not been able to finish half a dozen long, rambling posts about everything and nothing. There’s no point in (my usual!) waffling about what I want/think I’m going to do, which may or may not happen (again) – it gets dull. And then has what I have done been going on long enough to not just be tempting fate in waffling about it?!

But, here goes: meditation helps. Life kicked me hard this year, and I’m still picking up the pieces. I won’t say I was a serene being of light thanks to my 5-10 minutes of meditation every day, but it certainly didn’t hurt. A little oasis of calm. And during the worst times, I looked forward to those 10 minutes (the Calm app gave me a free trial at just the right time) rather a lot.

Benefits-of-meditation-2It’s gone back a little towards being a chore, oddly enough, as the stresses have eased (or at least moved). But what I’m seeing as the wider effects seem worth a mention. Or, not to sound to smug about it, being generally more mindful has suddenly and unexpectedly been the best diet plan I’ve ever found!

I’m learning stuff like: that feeling in my tummy is nerves/thirst/digestion, not hunger. That I don’t have to jump to shove a snack in my face every time I might be hungry – and if I am genuinely hungry, it’s okay to sit with it for a while if I’ve a meal planned in a bit, anyway. Or, a cup of tea will keep it at bay until dinner. I’ve learned that chocolate doesn’t actually satisfy hunger cravings, ever.

Aside from diet (I know, yawn!), it’s also a little easier (long way to work on this one!) to take a worry and point out to myself that it hasn’t happened yet, or that it’s out of my control. Or just that I can take a deep breath and not have to cope with it right at this instant.

And there’s more: focus. Also needing a LOT of work, but with similar ‘I don’t have to think about that right now’ thoughts, I can do a single task, and push all the ‘I shoulds’ to one side while I get on with it. Well, that’s the theory, at any rate!

Yup, meditation helps. I’d wish not to need quite so much help, but hey – life!

(PS it’s nigh-on impossible to find a non-cheesy image for ‘meditation’, so I’ve gone with this one for at least not looking like a smug model. I’m hoping all of those listed benefits hold to be true, too!)

If you chase two rabbits…

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…you will not catch either one.

imagesThis phrase cropped up in the intro to a writing course I started today (Write More Write Now). It’s one of those ‘ye olde’ pieces of wisdom that it’s hard not to nod along to – and yet, when I do, I get that sinking feeling that if it really is true, then my scannerism is totally preventing me from success.

Perhaps, though… perhaps instead of chasing rabbits, what I’m doing is casting out a net, made up of all the many interests that I have. I’m not chasing one, two, or even a dozen rabbits – I’m just strengthening that net, and seeing what catches up in it?

On the other hand, taking the advice a bit less black/white: if I don’t focus on one thing, at least for a little while, then no – of course I’m not going to achieve anything. Another course I’m currently doing (yeah, yeah – I’m an addict!) is on Mindfulness – so, lots on ‘flow’ and being in the moment, and yeah, focusing on one thing at a time.

So here’s the good news: one thing at a time does not mean one thing ever, or all year, or even all day. It means one thing RIGHT NOW. While I’m working on writing, focus on writing and on that plot idea – not the shopping list, or what to make for dinner (stir fry and egg fried rice, btw 🙂 ), or whether I should be pursuing a different story idea – ah, because there’s the other rabbit.

I do have multiple plot ideas, and a dozen other interests. And that’s okay. Just, in this one moment, allow yourself to be fully passionate about just this one. The rest will be waiting after lunch, or tomorrow, or… 🙂

footprints* There is a follow-up idea, perhaps, to ensure that you’re actually following rabbit tracks. Unless you’ve studied these things, there are a lot of different kinds of footprints out there…