The Vampire Express and moments of happiness

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

 
You are probably wondering what on earth the title of this article is all about? Perhaps something about a horror film or a book? A bad dream? Nope, not at all. It concerns one of the strangest types of travel that I experience. The rail commute into London.

Picture it if you will. Take a moment to imagine the following scenario:-

An early morning; normally around 6:30am. It is dark and possibly cold. The cars arrive at the railway station and people park up. Everyone seems to have a “spot” that they park in, normally to enable them to leave as quickly as possible at the other end of the day.

A rapid walk to the station office and a queue – the first of the day – to buy a coffee, tea and perhaps the paper. The coffee shop staff are warm and friendly and chat to each customer in turn, often, and this is important, calling them by their name. Everyone they speak to responds and smiles and there is a brief moment of friendliness.

Then a quick walk down the ramp to the station platform and a short walk along the platform, either towards the front or towards the rear of the platform, depending on personal preference. But, and this is important. The regulars, always stand in the same place. Yep. nearly exactly the same place.

Then we wait. In silence. Complete and total silence. Nobody speaks or chats.

The tannoy announces that the train is approaching on “Platform Two”. You know, if you have done the journey as many times as I have over the past few years, that the train is about a mile away, or a few minutes till it arrives. If it has been raining, people come out of the rain shelters. Umbrellas are folded away and people get ready to board the train.

The train arrives and the regulars have positioned themselves almost directly in front of a door. Sometimes, the train driver overshoots or undershoots the correct stopping point on the platform. Difficult, I know, as there are large illuminated signs to inform the driver of the correct stopping point. When this happens you can just hear the tutting from some people. Anyway…

People press the open door buttons and climb aboard. A brief scramble and everyone gets to a seat.

At this point, I’ll point out, that whilst I live on a main line railway into London, my station is far enough out, that I always get a seat. The interesting point, though, is that time after time, people choose the same seat. Rarely do they choose something different. Laptops open. Books are extracted. Tablets and iPads are turned on. Smartphones twinkle in the carriage lights. Everyone. And I mean nearly everyone, does something so that they do not have to interact, even look at the person opposite or beside them. Silence reigns.

The train leaves and picks up speed. Soon, it is slowing down and arrives at the next station. The process is repeated. And again. And again. At some point, there are no more seats and people stand. Yep. Stand all the way into London.

Some people pay over four thousand pounds [£4,000] every year to stand on a train!

Eventually, we arrive in London and there is the queue to exit the train. The rapid walk to the exit barriers. Followed by queueing to present your ticket and leave the train station. A further walk and some of us, continue by foot to our offices. Some turn right and queue to go onto the London Underground. Followed by queueing to get on the underground train. Queueing to leave the station and then the final walk to their office or place of work.   

For nearly the whole journey, there is silence. People do not talk. Hang on, though? Right at the beginning, everyone that was commuting that morning was greeted by the people in the coffee shop when they borough their morning drink. Each one by their name. Everyone who is a regular, at some point, will find out the name of the people they are traveling with.

This whole experience, I call getting onto the “Vampire Express”.

Why on earth do I call it that? Until I took up Mindfulness, I felt as though my whole soul was being sucked dry by this depressive, negative and repetitive process and atmosphere.  You might have felt it too reading it just now.

So now when I travel to London by train, how do I deal with it differently?

Moments of happiness is the key

When I go to the coffee shop in the morning I order water and always smile and chat to the staff. I choose to stand in different places on the platform. When the train arrives, I always wait for the person in front to get on. I generally say good morning to the person next to me. I do not have a fixed seat, but try to consciously be aware of where people want to sit.

When we get to a different station and the train is full, if there is someone who looks like they need a seat, I will ask them if they would like mine. The look of astonished gratitude on their faces when this happens is amazing.

I make the effort to look around the carriage and also to see what is rushing past the window. I try to practice a silent breath mindfulness practice and be present and aware. I never rush at the other end.

Does it make a difference? I think so. There are sometimes more smiles on my carriage. A nod and a hello back. Little acts of warmth and happiness. I treat the commute as a journey, rather than a means to a destination, and hence enjoy it for what it is.

I leave you with the following quote…..

“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”Walt Whitman

 

Fresh vs Familiar

A great post on trying to keep your mind open to the day.

Of Undisputed Origin

To “see-saw”

To change rapidly and repeatedly from one position, situation, or condition to another and back again.

My mind is twisted in a knot this morning, it is see-sawing back and forth between wanting to rewind my mind, my attitude and my approach to life back to a time when the day  brought something new, inspiring and very fresh to

. . . the comfortof this moment now, the familiarity and “security” of knowing how things will probably pan out.

I’ve been lying to myself. I think I don’t like to be too comfortable yet I try to control it all. Perhaps if I didn’t try to command the day so much with lists, tasks, goals and the determination to “get it done” . . perhaps a few hours of letting it all go – letting life unfold. . .

The day is brand new, the possibilities are…

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What you see and hear isn’t always what it seems

Our prisons are other people’s eyes; our cages are their thoughts. – Ruby Wax, from her autobiography, How do you want me?

The world revolves around the events and the interactions that we all participate in. We create our own world inside of us; recreating and reinforcing our thoughts and perceptions, moment by moment, every day of our lives.

Our challenge to ourselves is that we are biologically and mentally stimulated by the negative as well as the positive. Unfortunately, we have a natural born tendency to think more negative thoughts than positive ones. In fact, it is a 9:1 ratio. Yes, we have nine negative thoughts for every positive one. When you consider that the average person will have upwards of 70,000 thoughts per day; that means you are whacking yourself with upwards of 63,000 negative thoughts and only 7,000 positive ones.  

We reinforce this from a cultural perspective. Think of the news you might have seen or heard or read today. How many articles were positive? Uplifting? That made you feel that the world was a great place to be? Advertising does the same, but in a more subtle manner. ‘You can change and become this’. ‘Better, faster, cheaper’ A consumption led idea of tomorrow that is going to be different and positive, rather than recognising for most of us, what we have now is sufficient and in many cases what we want.

It’s no wonder then that our internal dialogue is so negative and we can suffer from depression.

We all go through the rollercoaster of emotions – in relationships, in friendships, at work, or even when we play. If you are not careful you can end up in a negative spiral, where you feel completely out of control and not able to deal with any situation. That level of negativity can be terrible to experience and can be equally horrible to see someone else go through. Your instinctive reaction is to reach out to them. To try to help them. You may even offer words of support or guidance. Don’t.

It is a painful lesson to learn. Our perceptions of others are not the reality that they feel.

Words expressed by yourself to say one thing can so easily be picked up in a completely different manner by others. Your offer of support can actually be regarded negatively. You think you are being helpful when in fact you may be reinforcing negative thoughts in the other person. It is so hard to not step in. Harder still if you feel that you can help.

What advice can I give when you are faced with such a situation?

When I am faced with these situations, it takes a real effort on my part to try to stay positive and not to jump in with advice and offers of help. To remain calm. To remain focused on the other person and not let my own thoughts and perceptions take over. Sometimes a walk and some “self-talking” helps. Be careful though you don’t get noticed walking the streets talking to yourself. You could be considered one of the “special” people!

My mindfulness practice really comes into its own as well. The compassionate practice is one of my favorites and helps to centre yourself both in the present moment and allow you realise that the thoughts you are experiencing are only transient, not permanent. If nothing else, being able to feel calm. The practice uses the mantra of:

“May xx be safe and free from suffering”

“May xx be happy and healthy”

“May xx have ease of being”

The first time you internalise the words, the xx, is “May I…”. The second time you internalise the words, the “xx” is the name of the person who is suffering. Give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

What do you do when you are faced with the situation? Suggestions always welcome.

I leave you with the following quote. With kind wishes to my brother…. As his most recent blog post prompted the title of mine.

“Stop judging long enough to understand that what you see and hear isn’t always what it seems.” – Julian Summerhayes

 

You can check out Julian’s post at: http://juliansummerhayes.com/the-unexamined-life/

The Mindfulness tool, the Breath

“are you breathing, are you lucky enough to be breathing”  ― Hettie Jones

One of the primary mindfulness tools that is available to each and every one of us and that we have free unfettered access to, is our breath. Until I came to mindfulness, I did not really think about the breath. Well, unless I was out cycling or walking really quickly. Then when I got out of breath, like anyone, I’d notice the shortness of breath and the desire to regain that sense of normality.

So when do we start to breathe? And is it really autonomic?

I didn’t know this, but babies lungs do not function the same way in the womb as they do outside of the womb. Before birth, a baby’s lungs are filled with amniotic fluid. They do “practice” breathing towards the end of the pregnancy with periodic inhaling and exhaling of amniotic fluid. Somewhere between the 24th and 28th week of the pregnancy, surfactant — sometimes called “lung detergent” — starts being produced in the amniotic fluid. As the pregnancy continues, more surfactant is produced. That is why the closer to term, 38 to 40 weeks, the better a baby is able to breathe outside the womb. Surfactant coats the inside of the lungs and keeps the alveoli, or air sacs, open. This helps when the baby is born by enabling the baby to quickly start to breathe air.

There is a respiratory control center at the base of your brain that controls your breathing. This center sends ongoing signals down your spine and to the muscles involved in breathing. These signals ensure your breathing muscles contract and relax regularly, hence the breath cycle. You can change your breathing rates, such as by breathing faster or holding your breath or even slowing down the breath through yoga or meditation practice. Your emotions also change your breathing. For example, being scared or angry can affect your breathing pattern by making you breath harder and faster in an effort to circulate more oxygen through your body.

The breath as a tool of Mindfulness:

There are a number of benefits that using the breath as the primary driver for the practice of mindfulness meditation, including:

  • It is invisible, you don’t need an app or a tool
  • Does not impose on you – it is always there
  • It is subtle. When you get into the practice, you will notice a difference in the in breath as well as the out breath. I have noticed a slight pause between the in breath and the out breath. Do you?
  • It is completely natural
  • You carry it with you always. Some people use mantras or vocal repetition, but the easiest is the use of the breath itself.

The next aspect to be aware of, is how you are sitting:

  • You need to be sitting awake. Upright with your back slightly away from the back of the chair. I try to imagine that I have a piece of string that is pulling me up from the back of my neck
  • De-focus your gaze in front of you, or even close your eyes.

The breathing meditation itself:

  • Become aware of your breath as you breathe. Don’t try to control your breath, just let it come and go. As you focus on your breath, it will tend to slow down. Don’t worry, that is natural.
  • You might become aware of the coolness of the breath as you breathe in. A cold spot on your nose. The diaphragm moving as you breathe in and ou. Your stomach might move. The warmth of the breath as you breathe out.
  • As you focus on your breath, thoughts will come. They ALWAYS will. it is natural. Don’t worry about it.
  • Don’t run after the thoughts.
  • don’t hold onto the thoughts
  • Let them pass. Like a bird in the sky or like clouds cross the sky
  • The sky behind the birds or clouds does not change. That is the pure Mindfulness Awareness.
  • You will chase the thoughts. And when you do, you will berate yourself for doing that. Don’t. We all chase our thoughts.
  • Instead, congratulate yourself for coming awake and noticing you are and instead return to the start of this section.
  • You  can practice this for a few minutes of even longer. I tend to do this for 20 minutes. When you wish to stop. Slowly, bring your thoughts to the present. Wriggle your fingers, roll your shoulders and finish.

 

And that is that. I would encourage you to have a go. Please do let me know how you get on.

I leave you with the following quote:

“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” ― Mary Oliver

3 Minutes is all it takes

“Pick the day. Enjoy it – to the hilt. The day as it comes. People as they come… The past, I think, has helped me appreciate the present, and I don’t want to spoil any of it by fretting about the future.” Audrey Hepburn

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend a UK Service Management Summit at St Hughes College, Oxford. In fact, it was more than just attend. Let me give you the back-story.

I am part of a Service Management community in the UK. We organise a conference at least twice a year, where like-minded people across the service spectrum can get together and learn, share and discover. We share case studies; new innovations; and changes in how various organisations think about and deliver service. After the last event, I got a phone call to ask if I would like to attend a new summit being planned in the UK. More than that, would I be willing to host a round-table discussion and possibly sit on a panel discussion. “Of course”, I said. “No problem at all. Let me know the dates and I’ll be happy to attend”. Oops. A quick e:mail followed with a request for a short personal bio. Next thing, I see the published agenda. I am on two panel discussions and am co-hosting five round-table discussions. Talk about putting myself right into it.

However, Mindfulness; has helped in the lead up to the event. I live much more in the present moment – that is what Mindfulness teaches you. Mindfulness also helps you to focus on the present moment and not worry about the future. It helps to stop you ruminating about what is potentially going to happen in the future. Without Mindfulness; I know prior to the event, I would have been thinking thoughts such as;

‘Who is going to be there?.’ ‘Will I make a fool of myself on stage?.’ ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be on a stage!’, ‘What if I am late?’ ‘What if I get asked a question I can not answer?’ ‘Why did I sign up for this?’ ‘You are an idiot Summerhayes!’ ‘%$&^&^’

You get the picture. Except, none of those thoughts crossed my mind. Yes, I have been very busy at work. Additionally, life outside has filled every second of spare time. However, I know that in my old way of thinking, I would have been ruminating. Worrying. Getting wound up. None of this happened since I practice Mindfulness every day.

It was only on this past Monday, that I rechecked the agenda. Remembered what I had signed up for. Reviewed the discussion table topics and reflected in my own mind the key items I could bring to the summit. Yes, I did have a query with regard to parking. A quick e:mail to the organisers and the response that there was not parking on site. No worries. I found a local car park, only about a mile from the venue.

Yes, I did have a restless night’s sleep, but perhaps that was my subconscious playing scenarios through, somewhat like a movie. Anyway. I got up as normal for a day at the office. Got ready and drove to Oxford. Mindful moment in the traffic jams on the ring road. A quick park up and a lovely walk past colleges and Victorian houses to the venue. The entrance is the picture I’ve used for this post.

And this is where the three-minute meditation came into its own as I stood at the entrance to the summit.

The Three-minute Breathing Space meditation

Step 1: Becoming aware

  • Deliberately adopt an erect and dignified posture, whether sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes. Then, bring your awareness to your inner experience and acknowledge it, asking: what is my experience right now?
  • What thoughts are going through the mind? As best you can acknowledge thoughts as mental events.Don’t judge them.
  • What feelings are here? Turn towards any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them without trying to make them different from how you find them.
  • What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing, acknowledging the sensations, but, once again, not trying to change them in any way.

Step 2: gathering and focusing attention

  • Now, redirect the attention to a narrow ‘spotlight’ on the physical sensations of the breath, move in close to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen . . . expanding as the breath comes in . . . and falling back as the breath goes out.
  • Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Use each breath as an opportunity to anchor yourself into the present. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.

Step 3: expanding attention

  • Now, expand the field of awareness around the breathing so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture and facial expression as if the whole body was breathing.
  • Aware of the whole body, moment by moment.

And that is that. Or is it?

“Hang on a mo. What happened at the summit? Did you sit on the panel? Did you actually speak? Did you run a round table? Did it go well? Did you feel nervous or relaxed?”

It went really well. I was focused on the event. The people around me. The interactions on the discussion table were positive and engaging. I co-hosted the table for two and a half hours of intense dialogue. I was not nervous being on the panel in front of over one hundred delegates.In fact, I was on two panels, one in the morning and the final panel of the afternoon and contributed and lead a number of topics. 

I was focused on the event. I was attentive to the people around me. The interactions on the discussion table were positive and engaging. I co-hosted the table for two and a half hours of intense dialogue. I was not nervous being on the panel in front of over one hundred delegates.In fact, I sat in on two panels; one in the morning and the final panel of the afternoon; and contributed and led a number of topics. During the breaks and lunchtime, I took some time to step outside. I continued the 3-minute exercise and was able to appreciate the spring sunshine and beautiful surroundings of the St Hughes college. Overall, I enjoyed the whole day and would do it again.

So, If you are going to present. Stand on a stage in front of people. Or even if you are put in a position where you might feel nervous and worried; give the three-minute exercise a try before hand. I would encourage you to have a go. It will make a difference. Oh and do let me know how you get on.

I leave you with the following quote:

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu

The essence of the Breath

“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” Mary Oliver

 
The core of Mindfulness meditation practice is the use of the breath, as one of the tools to bring yourself into the present moment. After all, we carry it with ourselves throughout our lives. It is always there and we, too often, forget all about it. Unless you get a terrible cold. Then you notice it. Generally when you are wheezing.

To practice mindful breathing, you don’t have to sit cross-legged or do anything special. Simply stop what you’re doing and turn your awareness to your breath. Don’t attempt to control your breath,simply observe it.As your breath happens. Moment by moment.

In and out. In and out. Constant, always there, but always changing.

You might be surprised to see how short and inconsistent your breath is. This is normal. We often breathe this way and don’t even notice it. We have developed a habit of breathing at the top of our lungs in a short, compacted manner. Unless you are a singer, or actor, very few people actually use the whole of the breath cycle, breathing right down into the lungs.

The way we breath greatly affects how we feel and act. Mindful breathing can completely transform how we feel on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. Remember, we are trying to extend and deepen being present and the breath is something that can help greatly in this.

So, how about trying the following…..

  • Count each in breath and out breath as an individual number.
  • So breathe in – one, breathe out – two, breathe in – three, etc. Do this until you get to 10 or until you become distracted by a thought, feeling, or sensation.
  • I can tell you now, that unless you have been practicing Mindfulness, you won’t get to 10. Let alone 100.
  • When you do get a thought, feeling, or sensation, and we all do, don’t worry about it. Don’t feel you have to criticise yourself.
  • Don’t punish yourself. Say you are a failure. You are not.
  • Just start all over again. In a relaxed manner. Focusing on the breath. As it comes and goes.

Even Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the modern Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movement and who has practiced Mindfulness based meditation for over 40 years, still says it happens to him. That his mind wanders. 

  • In the beginning, it will be very difficult to count to 10 like this without becoming interrupted or distracted by thoughts or feelings.
  • These interruptions aren’t a bad thing, so make sure not to label them as such.
  • When you notice a distraction arise, be it a thought, feeling, or sensation- and they will be plentiful- simply acknowledge it without thinking anything about it (accept it openly as you would a loved one coming into your arms) and then gently direct you awareness back to your breath.

Even if you can practice this for 5 minutes in the morning and for 5 minutes in the afternoon, over a four to six week period, you will notice a difference. Not least of which, the time before the interruption occurs will get longer.

I tried it today, just to see how long I could “last”. I got to 100. Not bad. But then the thoughts came again, And I had to start all over again. Somewhat like the breath itself.

I leave you with the following quote…….

“Can words describe the fragrance of the very breath of spring?” Neltje Blanchan

 

One of life’s pleasures is on the decline, Reading

 

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

One of my life’s pleasures, perhaps an addiction, has been reading. I can remember reading from a very early age. In fact, I used to use  a torch and read under the covers long after the lights were out and I was supposed to be asleep. I am sure my parents knew I was a “secret  bed reader”. I was forever running out of torch batteries.

Whilst at secondary school, I managed to work in the school library, helping to manage the school library. Yes, the school had a proper library, stuffed full of fiction and nonfiction books. Hundreds of them. Every term, the heads of departments would put together an order for books, send it off and they would duly come in. My “job” was to catalog them. Cover the jackets with the clear plastic, similar to the stuff parents still use today for their children’s text books. Then place the books on the shelves, ready to be borrowed. I had the pick of them and devoured books by the dozen. I would take home two or three at a time. Read them and return them.

When I left school, my passion continued. I would buy books as often as I could afford them. Sometimes new and sometimes second hand. Science Fiction. Horror. Thrillers. Crime. Whatever took my fancy.

Whilst at university, I would read in their library, mostly New Scientist magazine and books on technology. As you can imagine, I was a “book worm”. Completely consumed by them. In fact, I still am.

Perhaps that is why my imagination has always as vivid and clear as it is. Active would be an understatement. I can see images in three dimensions. In colour. In full motion. I can imagine being part of  conversations and dialogue. I can be associated and be part of the story. Or I can observe the story from afar. My mind has always been filled with movies. 

A few years ago, we moved house and the new place does not have as much space for my books as the old house did. I took the decision, that after all those years, to pass on some of my book collection. After many trips to the local Oxfam book shop, I handed over to them in excess of 500, yes, 500 books. And I still have three bookshelves full. I still read nearly every day. And at weekends, I will sit and read for a few hours.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book, called The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Doctor Kevin Dutton. A section of the book grabbed my attention and prompted this post. In the book, he shared some research carried out by Jeffrey Zacks, Professor of Psychology & Professor of Radiology and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, Washington University, in St Louis, USA.

With the aid of fMRI scanners, the team peered deep inside the brains of a group of volunteers as they read stories. What they found was an intriguing insight into the way our brains construct our sense of “self”. Changes in the stories characters locations [e.g. ‘they went into the house from the street, or got into a car and drove away’] activated areas of the brain associated with spatial location. Changes in the stories characters and how they interacted with objects [e.g. they picked up a pen] produced similar responses in the region of the brain associated with grasping. Finally, and most important of all, changes in a character’s goals elicited increased activation in the prefrontal cortex which helps control personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Our imagination, really affects our brain.

The conclusion is as follows: When we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative” and literally change the neural pathways in our brain. Reading changes how we think and react to situations. TV does not do this. Nor does reading on the internet. It is the in-depth reading of a book – whether physically or via an electronic device, that is the key. The research also points to the fact that for some people, certain books or stories will have a more profound impact on their lives. If you read, what is your favorite author? Your favorite book? The one that has the most impact on you? For me it was George Orwell’s 1984. It is my absolute favorite.

So that is the good news. The bad news is that as a culture, reading is on the decline. Potentially terminal decline.

The number of children who say they love reading books for fun has dropped almost 10% in the last four years, according to a US study, with children citing the pressure of schoolwork and other distractions. In fact reading amongst young children and teenagers has dropped every year since 2005 when surveys were started to measure the levels of reading in young people.

Only four in 10 children said they read daily in their own time when the first survey was carried out in 2005. That figure is now around three in ten or even less. The research found that young people were shunning books in favour of TV – 54% of those questioned said they preferred watching TV to reading.

I will leave you with this final thought.

The research has pointed out the people who read stories, become more attuned to those around them in daily life. They exhibit higher levels of empathy and connectedness to other people. Whereas for those that don’t read, they are more “me, me, me” fixated. More selfish and less likely to help others.

If you believe that the world is becoming more selfish, perhaps we should encourage people, especially the young to read more.

 

I leave you with the following quote and since it is a Friday, a funny one:

 

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx, The Essential Groucho: Writings For By And About Groucho Marx