A year of Mindfulness and its impact

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” ― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

As this year races towards its conclusion, I am taking some well earned time away from the normal work world to spend time with my family and friends. At the same time, I am reflecting on what a year it has been and how much my practice of Mindfulness has made a difference. If you practice Mindfulness, are interested in its impact, or curious as to some of the benefits its practice might bring to you, your world and your friends and family; I’d urge you to read on

I have been practicing Mindfulness on a regular basis now for more than a year. My formal meditation practice is regular, at least five times a week. It follows a routine I have developed first thing in the morning before I get ready to go to work. However, I also experience the “in the moment” elements of Mindfulness during the day. The short pauses to focus on the breath; the quiet reflections when I am stationary in traffic; even the being in the moment when I am in a meeting or discussion with people. It comes to me when I am relaxed, as well as when I am stressed by work and life in general.It has become a way of being for me. I am not perfect at it. Far from it. Many experts and people that have been practicing Mindfulness for years say you are always on a journey and I can agree to that.

So what are some of the results and changes I have noticed? What have others noticed around me? They include:-

  • Stress: My levels of stress are much lower than ever before. Even major changes in the work environment have not made me so stressed as once they might have done.
  • Calm and centered:. Whether at work or at home, I am much more calm and centered. There have been very few – I can count them on one hand – moments where I have become angry and frustrated. Even when I have gone “off the deep end” it has been more of a shallow dive than a “full twist, half tuck, and belly flop” moment.
  • Accepting and forgiving: My levels of tolerance and forgiveness have improved dramatically. I am much more likely to listen, accept and move on. I love the following prayer and have a copy of it printed out at my desk at work:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Being present: I find that I have moments of quiet reflection and am just happy being. It is a strange feeling but very rewarding. Even when someone has cut me up in a traffic jam, I just sit and accept.
  • Open and engaged: I feel that I am more open to the differences that exist in all of us. More engaged in conversations and much more likely to feel part of the flow.
  • Ruminating: I love this word. I imagine a cow sitting and chewing the cud for hours on end. That is what most of us do with our thoughts. With 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts going round in our heads every day, there is no wonder that we can get caught up in a rumination. I have found mine are a lot less. Yes, I still have them and can find myself getting caught up in thoughts and feelings, but it is a lot less than i used to do and the impacts are lower.
  • Finally, Meat: This is a strange one. I went to a talk given by Matthieu Ricard earlier in the year. I wrote a blog post about the experience and the impact it had on me. It was titled: An evening with Matthieu Ricard”. There is YouTube video of it as well. You can even see me standing up before the event started [around the 10 second mark into the video]. It is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6SrjbRDP-Q

I bought his book “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World” at the event and even though it is a massive 800 pages long, read it over the following two weeks. The two chapters on the way we farm meat and the impact on nature really touched something in me. I remember as a small boy going through the cattle market in Newton Abbot with my grandmother and aunt and seeing one of the marketeers punching a hole in a cow’s ear to insert a tag. It had a profound effect on me then and even now. So I decided I would continue to eat fish, but all other forms of meat I would give up. It has been hard. I love meat. I always have done. But for me, this is something where I wanted to make that small change in my world. I have tried for it not to affect the family too much. We still have tray bakes and roast dinners etc. I just do not eat the meat.

That has been the impact of a year of Mindfulness practice and its impact on me.

I would encourage to have a go at Mindfulness – either via an app for your smart phone; via a face-2-face class or one-on-one sessions; or even to read a book, such as “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman”. Please do let me know how you get on. Oh and if you want any help, do get in touch.

Likewise, if you practice Mindfulness, it would be great to hear from you as to its impact and benefits you have seen.

I leave you with the following quote:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”  ― Neil Gaiman

Life stress bubbles

“Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in your own.”  ― Adam Lindsay Gordon

The lead up to Christmas is always a stressful time. The preparation for this single day of the year eclipses almost every other life event, even more so as it occurs every year. I don’t know what is the most stressful for you: the getting of the perfect tree; the putting up of the decorations; the presents and wrapping thereof; the buying of food; the turkey / goose / beef, plus prep’ing and cooking; the laying out of the Christmas table. Maybe, the biggest stress factor is, who is coming / going to who’s place to celebrate the day?

This year has been no exception to all the previous years in our house except; since I have been practicing Mindfulness for more than a year and also completed a number of counselling courses, I have been able to observe a number of these stressful events, rather than being caught up in them.

I noticed that everyone exists in their own “life stress bubble” as I called them, We all do it. All of the time. We exist in our own worlds. Wrapped up in the moment. By moment, stress of life. Living each moment full on. Like bubbles, each one is different, unique and separate. Often going in their own different directions. When they occasionally meet, they might stick together, separate but connected. Or they merge into a larger and different bubble. You can sometimes see people fighting to escape their bubble. Wanting to be different but not knowing how. Eventually, the bubble bursts and the stress and the reasons disappear. However, just as you think things have settled down, another stress bubble is created and off you go again.

The ability to stand outside of some of the most stressful moments of the festive season and observe meant I experienced more calm and peace. It also meant I did not get caught up in my own bubbles and stress. It also meant that I was able to be more centred and in the present moment, rather than in the stress of others. Even as I prepared the Christmas lunch for nine people of vegan, vegetarian and meat eating formats. I shared my thoughts with others and they too recognised the idea of “life stress bubbles”. The question that then followed was; “after recognising them, how do you deal with them?”.

You can deal with them on an individual basis by first recognising that they exist and we continually create them. No matter how centered you are. How often you practice Mindfulness, or any other form of reflective contemplation. How much counselling and self help you practice, you will still create them. Instead, the ability to first recognise when they occur and then step outside of them, is the key.

As for dealing with them in groups, whether that be loved one’s, family, colleagues or friends; I have some ideas and will try them out. How do you deal with your “life stress bubbles”? Talk about them? Do something physical? Listen to music? How do you deal with them in groups or individually? Do tell.

I leave you with the following quote:

“In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is Me.”  ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Mindfulness apps and Digital Therapy technology

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  R. Buckminster Fuller

I came to Mindfulness through reading a book – “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman”. Others go on a training course or experience day, but there are very people I know that use an application [called an “app”] on their smart phones or tablet devices. Maybe it is my age – I am after all in my middle years – but I have spoken to many younger people, mostly at work, and none have got such an app.

Mindfulness Apps:

Why has this come to my attention you might ask? Well, I was talking to a colleague in the HR department at work the other day, as they started a Mindfulness pilot programme in one of the divisions. They were not going to do group sessions, or even one-2-one programmes. Rather, they sent out a short video presentation and suggested that if people were interested to use one of the many apps that are available.

I have checked on a number of application stores and by my count, there are at least 22 meditation timers out there, ranging from $0 to $5 and varying in the extras they offer, for instance nature sounds with an associated timing bell at the end. If you take a broader look at apps containing some sort of meditation or mindfulness component, you are looking at nearly 45 apps, some endorsed by clinical psychologists and others merely asking you to choose an emoticon to describe your state of mind. The one that the company was recommending was Headspace.

This app provides 10-minute meditation sessions, with the first 10 days available free of charge. Then, you can choose a subscription. There are annual and monthly options. You start with a brief body scan and then Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, talks you through the instructions, for instance, “Don’t force your breath, your body already knows how to breathe”. The app provides animations about how the mind works and tips on how to sit and breathe. It also allows you to set meditation reminders and track your activity. To get the app go to Headspace (on-the-go)

I tried it just to see whether it was any good. I found the app pleasant and the animations were well designed. The meditation practices were good and gave you options in terms of type of meditation and also duration. However, the focus is on meditation practice, rather than the broader Mindfulness approach that I use. It is certainly not the MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme that I followed for eight weeks.

Digital Therapy technology:

What has further gripped my attention is the launch this year of a number of “online Digital Therapy” applications. There are hundreds of unverified mental health apps available for Apple and Android, encompassing mindfulness, CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Talking Therapy, mood tracking, peer support and more.

Most apps designed for mental health sufferers, including those endorsed by the NHS [National Health Service UK], are clinically unproven and potentially ineffective, a new study has shown. In research published in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health, a team at the University of Liverpool found that many mental health apps and online programmes lack “an underlying evidence base, a lack of scientific credibility and limited clinical effectiveness”.

The study also suggests that many mental health apps can lead to over-reliance and anxiety around self-diagnosis. This is very worrying when you consider the people that the apps are targetted at in the first place. I am not going to advocate any digital therapy apps as I have not used any and have no need for them. Rather, my concern is that any approach that you take to help manage your own therapy, you recognise that one of the key components of any therapy is TIME. Whether it is one-to-one counselling, group therapy, drugs or even the use of an app; the key ingredient that makes the therapy more effective is time and the focus you put in. Counselling therapy takes time and commitment and there are no quick fixes for deep seated issues. The concept of the use of digital technology in the therapy field is interesting, but I feel that more scientific research is carried out before any app can be really endorsed.  

I will keep an active interest in the Digital Therapy space and see where things develop.

In the mean time, I leave you with the following quote:

“Our life is made up of time; our days are measured in hours, our pay measured by those hours, our knowledge is measured by years. We grab a few quick minutes in our busy day to have a coffee break. We rush back to our desks, we watch the clock, we live by appointments. And yet your time eventually runs out and you wonder in your heart of hearts if those seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades were being spent the best way they possibly could. In other words, if you could change anything, would you?”  ― Cecelia Ahern, Love, Rosie

A couple of interesting articles on Digital Therapy you might find interesting.

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-10/30/mental-health-apps

http://techcrunch.com/2015/11/12/pseudo-therapy-apps-the-fad-diet-of-mental-health/

 

What is it like growing up as a 21st century teenager

“You forget all of it anyway. . . You forget who was cool and who was not, who was pretty, smart, athletic, and not. . . You forget all of them. Even the ones you said you loved, and even the ones you actually did. They’re the last to go. And then once you’ve forgotten enough, you love someone else.” Gabrielle Zevin, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

As a father of two teenager daughters (sixteen and nineteen) and further surrounded by their male and female friends, my house often resembles a teenage “hangout” or “frat house”. I tend to leave them to their own amusements, but occasionally, they allow the “oldie” to sit with them and chat about what is going on in their “world”. A lot of what is going on in their world I remember as similar situations from my time growing up. Who was going out with who? Who got drunk / high at the party? Who had started smoking? Though the difference with more girls around, is the clothes, fashion and desire to look good tends to be discussed more. 

During one of these group discussions, we somehow got on to the topic of comparing what it was like when I was growing up as a teenager and the differences to today’s group. I pointed out some of the technology and social differences between my time as a teenager and now and what really shaped me as a person when I was growing up. They included:

  • Phones: No mobile phones. To make phone calls you had to have either a house phone or call from a phone box. Oh and you had to put physical money into it before you could make the call. Unless, you called the operator and asked for a reverse charge call and boy oh boy, was mum cross when I did that.
  • TV: No satellite, cable or the like. There was only three terrestrial channels.  In addition, there was only VHS or BetaMax video tapes and a lot less choice in movies.
  • Music: Music was either via the radio and the Radio One Top 40 on a Sunday or the TOP40 TV programme on BBC One, a one hour programme on a Thursday. I used to record onto tape, the Top 40 broadcast on Radio One on a Sunday evening and then use a duplex tape deck to cut my own tapes. Else, you went to the shops and bought either a vinyl disk or a tape. There was no iTunes, or online download available. In fact…..
  • Internet: There was no internet. Can anyone imagine no internet. If you had homework and needed to research something, you had to rely on either borrowing books from the school or local library. Or the memory of your parents and friends on particular subjects.
  • Social Interaction: Trips to the local disco or pub were arranged and planned. Getting dressed up on for an evening out was a big thing. There were no sleepovers, group hangouts and the like. No impromptu getting together. You normally went as a mixed boy/girl group and the evening as spent dancing, chatting, drinking and trying to get “off” with someone. Pretty similar to today. 

Teens today are exposed to and consume more technology than any earlier generation. The ability to sit and watch internet TV, whilst Whats app’ing their friends, as well as texting, plus listening to music on the internet, whilst doing their homework – yes I have seen this all happening at the same time – means they are swimming in technology and bombarded with external stimula. In addition, children are encouraged to grow up far too quickly. The Netmums website users completed a survey that showed that children are under pressure to grow up too fast. Girls were made to worry about their appearance and their weight, boys were meant to act tough and both boys and girls were under pressure to take an interest in sex at too young an age.

However, this worldly experience that they think they have developed does not always translate into maturity for them and may even stunt their emotional development. As I found out with my teenagers, they will challenge your opinions and lifestyle as a way of achieving her own adult identity. They use the expression “It is my time” generation. Something I completely buy into. After all, I did it with my parents.

I wanted to find out some of the underlying reasons and came to the following conclusions. They may ring true for you or not. Please feel free to challenge and comment.

Freedom and Goals

During adolescence many teenagers rebel because they want more independence and control in their lives. From the simple examples of wanting to go out themselves, or perhaps going out with their friends to the next town on their own; Through to wanting to decide what they want to do, or not do, when they leave school or college. This new-found sense of self also involves planning, communications and setting goals for themselves. It can be very challenging to get them to think beyond the immediate, the today, and think about the years to come. After all, everything is available right now for them. I know of very little that teenagers have to “wait” for now.

Emotional Maturity

Adolescence can be emotionally volatile for a  teen because they are experiencing a roller coaster of physical and mental changes on their way to adulthood. I have noticed that they go through at least 2 different stages of volatility. The first one around the age of 13-15 and the second around 17-18. The first one is mostly connected to the start of the adult hormone cycle and the second, with the realisations that they are now fully fledged adults, able to vote, marry, drive a car, etc. The responsibility can be daunting. Who taught you about car insurance? Or taxing a car? How to manage debt and credit cards? What to do when you get to vote, even the process? We take for granted so many things we do as adults that are not taught in schools.

Stubborn or Assertive?

While many teens are strong-willed, being assertive is not the same as being stubborn. Assertiveness is a sign of maturity because it allows for the teenager to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. A mature teenager will be able to hold their position without being disrespectful to someone who may have a different viewpoint. However, too often they appear to be stubborn and unwilling to think about other people’s perception. I have explained that even though they live in a world of their friends and others of similar ages at school, when they get out into the adult world it is different. They will have to interact , engage with and deal with people of varying ages, backgrounds, education and culture. The more flexible in their approach, the better it is for them . I gave the example of trying to persuade their grandfather (grandpops as we call him) – who is in his 70’s – to do something. It was interesting to help coach them on different approaches they could take.

Wanting all the rights but none of the responsibilities

It is not uncommon to hear teenagers declare that, since they are now an adult, they can do what they want. Strident claims are made regarding their rights but little is said of their responsibilities.  Accepting responsibility for their actions is often cast aside by excuses that shift the blame to others. We have made an art of making excuses and shifting the blame. An adult attitude respects the need to take responsibility for their lives and actions within it. That they ask for help when they need it, but does not ask other people to do for them what they can do for themselves. An adult attitude also takes responsibility for the consequences of their actions and the decisions that are made and does not shift blame for things that have been done.

Sexual Maturity

Teenagers experience powerful sexual awakening and their bodies flood with hormones as they step into teenagehood. At the start, boys tend to become moody,quiet and have the “Kevin” approach of communication – grunting responses. Girls, tend to become giggling and shy. Then the boys realise that to attract the girls, they need to start to shower more often and take care of their grooming. Girls begin to dress provocatively and “strut their stuff.” There is the incessant chatter and exhibition of sex in movies, music, books and the general media. In many ways our culture seems like a sex obsessed teenager. Luckily, for the girls and their friends, they seem to be more mature in their approach. Only time will tell. I make no comment on the sexualisation of children and leave that to others.

The “It’s not Fair!” view

One of the most common complaints I hear from the girls is that something isn’t fair. It is normally related to to something that happened where they reflect that  “I didn’t get what I want but it seems like others did.” Basically this is all about me. I keep telling them that truth be told, life’s not fair. This is the hardest element to understand, accept and move on. It is even harder for adults. Many of us still do not accept this. Many are stuck. And many do  not seek to change. This is where I have used Mindfulness to help. Life is how you live it after all, rather than ruminating on the past…..

There is a lot to take in about the 21st century and the changes that teenagers face as they grow up today. I have only scratched the surface, but hope some of this rings true.

I leave you with the following quote:

“People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”  ― Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

The illusion of Time

“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infintesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future.

We have no present.

Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience.

We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is.

We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.”
Alan W. Watts

The Heart of Meditation is a Journey

The heart of meditation is a journey. We are brought through doorways beyond our imagination. Letting Go, Letting Be, Receiving.

The silence of our heart is the balance to the busy demanding world we live in. This is why so many people are hungry for and enjoying the heart of meditation. The unending presence we find within is very healing for all our limits physically, emotionally, and in the world.

This is the heart of a wonderful article from the Huffington Post. Many people want to learn meditation or deepen their practice but are uncertain where to turn. There are so many different styles, teachers, techniques. What to do? It is the doing which can be the problem in the first place. Meditation is undoing and coming back to the simplicity of being, the simplicity of enjoying this moment. Every time we practice meditation we are making a mini retreat from the world around us to realise another world within. This is our time to let go, let be, and receive.

For the full article, go to the Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-davis-phd/the-heart-of-meditation-l_b_8720908.html

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness in everyday life

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”― Blaise Pascal, Pensées

I listened to a talk given by Jon Kabat-Zinn recently, as part of the Mindfulness Summit [I enclose a link at the end of this article]. He was talking about the practice of mindfulness, not the sitting in quiet meditation, but the daily practice that is the essential core part of mindfulness.

As the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme that has helped thousands of people change their lives, he has spent over 30 years practicing mindfulness, as well as running the MBSR programme. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a mindfulness-based program designed to assist people with pain and a range of conditions and life issues that were initially difficult to treat in a hospital setting. It uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help people become more mindful. Mindfulness-based approaches have been the subject of increasing research interest: 52 papers were published in 2003, rising to 477 by 2012. Nearly 100 randomized controlled trials had published by early 2014.

What Jon was talking about  was the daily practice of mindfulness. How to live your life mindfully. He was honest about it as well. If you don’t get it, that is not a problem. You can do whatever you feel will help you. If that is going to the gym, going running, walking or anything else, it does not matter. It is important to do it mindfully, rather than on automatic pilot, as it were.

He talked about “who is doing the doing?”.

The idea, that from the moment we wake up, getting ready for work, spending the day working, sitting down for dinner in the evening; we are generally on auto-pilot. Too often, we will have spent the day “doing the doing”  and suddenly think to ourselves, “where did the day go?”. It happens to all of us, no matter how much we try not to let it happen. Even whilst you are reading this article, I can guarantee that your thoughts will have drifted off – perhaps to food, work, or a to-do list of things.

 

Jon defines Mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.

 

Mindfulness is a set of simple, yet powerful practices that can be incorporated into daily life to help break the cycle of unhappiness, stress, anxiety and mental exhaustion and promote genuine happiness.

 

The start of the definition is the key here: “paying attention” this is where you need to focus on the present moment. What are you doing moment to moment. One simple exercise is to be aware of cleaning your teeth first thing in the morning. Jon suggested you might want to count the first five breaths when you wake up. Just to ground yourself in the present moment. You can be mindful in many situations. It is being present and not letting your monkey mind wander off.

 

The “in a particular way” is where you focus on the activity or interaction you are being part of. Rather than the constant thoughts of “I, Me and Mine”, like “does he/she like me? Are they listening to me? Why do they always treat me that way?”, be present and open to the moment. If you find yourself getting caught up, focus for a second on your breath. The breath as it goes in and out. When I am in a meeting or in a stressful situation, I sometimes, stop for just a second before I would normally plunge straight in and just notice my breath. That really helps. And because it is so subtle, no one notices.

 

The “on purpose” element is you seek to be open intentionally and deliberately in the interaction that you are part of. Don’t check out of the conversation, don’t go into self-discussion mode. If you are in an activity, be fully aware of the activity. If it is walking, are you aware of how you are walking? It sounds simple, but having broken my ankle in the past and having to learn to walk again, I am aware that whilst walking is an automotive activity, you can be aware of how you walk.

 

The “in the present moment” speaks for itself. Now, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow, but rught here, right now.

 

And finally, “and nonjudgmentally.” This can sometimes be the most difficult aspect. If your mind wanders. You tend to remonstrate with yourself. Blame yourself for “failing” to follow through with the practice. This is where you need to bring forgiveness and being “non judgemental” to yourself and also to others.

 

It was fantastic listening to Jon and participating the in the month of Mindfulness Summit. As always, I leave you with the following:

“We are addicted to our thoughts. We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.” Santosh Kalwar, Quote Me Everyday

 
Mindfulness Summit Link:

  1. Day 31 – An interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn on the Deeper Dimensions of Mindfulness, plus the livestream replay.