In the Beginning there was….

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ― Aristotle

In the beginning, there was…..

A raisin.

“A what? What on earth are you going on about?”

Let me explain and it will all become clear.

One of the first; possibly the most basic of all mindfulness practices, is called the Raisin Practice. It is the first practice in the eight-week mindfulness programme written by Doctor Mark Williams that I completed a few years ago (a link to the book and programme is at the end of this blog post if you want to find out more). You can use a raisin, or you can use some chocolate – though that tends to get very sticky and messy as you have to hold the chocolate for a while! It is a fantastic and simple way for people to be introduced to the world of mindfulness.

So what is the practice and how can you do it yourself or with others? The Raisin Practice is a mindfulness exercise that requires you to focus your mind on the present moment using all your senses – what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The idea is that by focusing all your attention on the raisin, you help to bring your mind into the moment and train it to notice the present.

A favorite of children’s lunch boxes, handing these out and using them with adults in a mindfulness practice can sometimes come as a bit of a surprise. The technique may sound simple, but being still and present can be hard, especially with such a small thing as a raisin.

I am going to be holding an introductory session on Mindfulness; being held via video skype; to a group of work colleagues. I will be using the Raisin practice as the basis for the session. So how on earth am I going to do the exercise?

I plan to have a colleague hand out the raisins and then follow the steps below:

How do you practice the Raisin meditation? Before you begin, find a quiet spot where you can sit down and relax. You might find taking a few deep breaths will help you loosen the body and bring your mind to the practise. Once you’re ready, pick up the raisin and hold it in your hand. The next steps follow your senses.

1. Look at the raisin. Really concentrate. Let your eyes roam over the raison and pick out all the details– the colour, areas of light and shade, any ridges or shine from the crystalised sugars of the fruit. Before moving onto the next step, close your eyes, as this can heighten your other senses and help you focus.

2. Touch the raisin. With your eyes closed, place the raison into the palm of your hand. With your fingers explore the raisin’s texture. Is the skin waxy? Are there any edges? Is it sharp? It is soft or hard? Does it feel bigger that what you saw? Sometimes it can feel bigger.

3. Smell the raisin. Bring it close to your nose (don’t stick it up there!) and breath deeply. Concentrate on any scents and fragrances you can detect. Does the raisin smell sweet? Or perhaps earthy? Has this triggered your taste buds, saliva in your mouth or made your tummy grumble? Do you notice any other smells?

4. Taste the raisin. With your eyes still closed, place the raisin into your mouth. Notice how your hand instinctively knows where to go. Don’t chew yet, just spend some time concentrating on how the raisin feels on your tongue. Turn it over in your mouth and feel it’s texture on the roof of your mouth.Take a single bite into the fruit. Don’t swallow it yet. Focus your mind on the sensations just released into your mouth. How does it taste? How does this develop as the moments pass? How has the raisin changed? Do the smaller pieces of fruit feel different? Can you taste sweetness? Caramel? Any bitterness?

 

5. Finally, hear the sounds you make as you chew the raisin. You might hear the crunch of sugars; the motions of your jaws; the movement of your tongue as it helps you to maneuver the chewed raison and finally swallow it. Do you feel the remains of the raisin as it starts to travel down your throat?

Now take a moment to notice how your whole body feels. The calmness. The stillness of the moment.

When you are ready, start to awaken your mind. You might want to move gently, slowly open your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

With the meditation exercise now complete, you can carry on with your day. You will notice though a deeper insight into the day.

As mentioned at the start of the post, the link to the Book, “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world” is below. I have recommended this book to numerous people and they have found it of benefit, by following the audio guided eight week mindfulness programme. Check it out at:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-practical-guide-finding-frantic/dp/074995308X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Finally, as always, I leave you with the following quote.

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

…. Namaste ….

Declutter by 50% mentally as well as physically

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.” ― Marie Kondō, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

With Spring in the air and the Easter break upon us; many people take the time to do what is known as a Spring Clean. Spring cleaning is the practice of thoroughly cleaning a house in the springtime. The practice of spring cleaning is especially common in climates with a cold winter and with this winter past us; it seems as if the spring clean bug has hit hard here in the UK.

Where does the term, Spring Clean possibly come from?

A possibility has been suggested that the origins of spring cleaning date back to the ancient Jewish practice of thoroughly cleansing the home in anticipation of the springtime festival of Passover; which they continue to do every year. Another idea is that it comes from the Iranian Nowruz, the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring. Iranians continue the practice of “khooneh tekouni” which literally means “shaking the house” just before the Persian new year. However, no one really knows.

What it does seem to be though, is a deep seated desire basic to de-clutter and clear up after the depths of the cold, dark winter, where we seem to spend a lot of time indoors.

I noticed over the Easter weekend that many people were out in their gardens, clearing leaves and dead items away; cutting the grass and planting new additions for the garden.

Others were cleaning windows; driveways and paths; or painting the outside of their properties.

Others were out running; cycling or in a couple of cases speed walking.

It seemed as if the mild weather, nature’s life bursting out and the holiday time, all coincided to give people the “Spring Clean & Declutter” bug.

Even in our house, we were tidying up; clearing the bathroom cabinet; taking unwanted items to the recycling centre and clearing the winter detritus from the garden. I also took the opportunity to clear up my laptop. After a recent rebuild onto Windows 10; I had not sorted out my filing; my browsing history or even the bookmarks that I had stored for up to two years, since getting the laptop new. This decluttering took an hour or so and in the process, I noticed, that I was clearing up about 50% of my files, my old history and past work.

It made me reflect that we also need to declutter ourselves as well; our minds as well as what those people were doing, exercising and running about.

So how do you declutter your minds?

There are many articles, even books written on the subject, but here are a list of tips I have found useful and continue to use:

Breathe: Slowly take a deep breath – counting up to six. Pause for a count of four. Exhale slowly for a count of up to six. Repeat. How does it feel? Great, right? Deep breathing is a simple yet effective technique to clear your mind, induce tranquility and improve your mood instantly. It lowers the heart rate, your blood pressure and helps your body relax. It is also one of the central practices of Mindfulness, which I practice and follow.

Learn To Let Go: It is important to let go of negative thoughts and emotions that make you feel bogged down. Eliminating negative thoughts, fears and concerns help reduce stress, boost self-esteem and frees up mental space. Monitor your thoughts regularly and try to replace your negative thoughts with positive ones. To help with this, try the next tip.

Keep A Journal: Journaling is a great way to relax your mind by crystallizing, analyzing and organizing your thoughts. Writing down what you are thinking can help eliminate intrusive thoughts about negative events and improve your memory. Think of the typical task list we all have written. Writing in a daily journal can also help manage anxiety and cope with depression, as it’s a healthy outlet to release bottled emotions, which you can not often express or share with others. It is your virtual counselor. You don’t have to be a writer to start a journal. For beginners, bullet journaling is one of the easiest techniques to use. As mentioned here, the next tip is….

Avoid Multitasking: Single-task as much as possible. Make a list of things you need to accomplish that day, that week and possibly even that month. Keep the to-do list simple and realistic. Start with what’s most important and make your way down the list, completing one task at a time. Don’t worry if you do not accomplish everything on the list. After all, for every set of tasks, you may only achieve 50%, and that is still an achievement!

Do a physical declutter: Go on have a go at a physical declutter. Is it a kitchen cupboard? Under the sink? Your clothes cupboard? The boot of your car? Part of the garden?  Whatever you choose, choose something where you can see clutter and possibly mess. Take it out, sort it out, choose what you want to keep and what you want to discard/give away / pass to charity. Put those items on one site and return the 50% (yes, it will be that amount). You will feel accomplished at the end of the exercise.

Finally, Take Some Time To Unwind: Last but not the least, take a break! Your brain needs to rest and recharge in order to perform smoothly. So switch off your TV’s, phones and laptops and do something that makes you feel happy. Whether it’s a long nap or a walk in the park. Do something that takes you away from the rush of your daily life.

If you have a tip or technique to declutter; I’d love to hear what you have tried. What has worked and what has not.

I leave you with the following quote.

“Accept yourself, love yourself, and keep moving forward. If you want to fly, you have to give up what weighs you down,” writes author Roy T. Bennett in his book The Light in the Heart.

 

The monkey mind

“I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ — the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I don’t know about you, but my mind can be a jumble of disconnected thoughts on a daily; hourly or even minute by minute. If you consider that per day, we can have between 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day, this means between 35 and 48 thoughts per minute, your mind is a constant jumble of thoughts.

What is a thought?

A definition that I came across suggests that a “thought” is a “sporadic single-idea cognitive concept resulting from the act of thinking, or produced by spontaneous systems-level cognitive brain activations.”

What I tend to believe is that a thought is those individual images; movies or silent conversations that we have. I have a mixture of these. Not sure if this is normal or not, so I would be interested to hear what your thought process is.

However, one thing I do know is that apart from the normal random thoughts that occur during the day including – “Why is that driver pulling out on me”; “what’s for lunch?”; “what is next to do?”; there are those reoccurring self-doubt thoughts.

“Why did I do that?”; “Why did I say that?”; “Will anyone notice I made a mistake?”; “Why do I continue to make the same mistake”; “Is so-and-so happy? Have I upset them?”; “Will I lose my job?”; “What about my health?”  – those types of thoughts.

These are associated with an expression called “Monkey Mind”. I love the idea of your mind as a tree and that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your mind, is like a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long.

These self doubt thoughts drive irrational fears, made real by our own constant attention. Left unchecked you can literally come to believe that these thoughts are real!

The result of the monkey mind of self doubt, results in mental as well as physical fatigue. We’ve all had days where it feels like we’ve achieved nothing and there’s a mountain to climb tomorrow. You feel exhausted and completely worn out.

So what is the answer?

The first step is awareness. Are you aware that you actually have self doubt thoughts and all they are is thoughts. Not real, but purely your own self consciousness? As an experiment, set aside a notepad and for a while, every time you have a self doubt thought either write it down, or even make a mark on the paper. You will be amazed how many you can get in a short period of time.

Secondly, find a way to quieten those thoughts. You will never get rid of them, but you can find ways to reduce their intensity. You can try meditation; mindfulness (which is what I practice); yoga; or some other form of contemplative pursuit. You can try exercise, as it is very difficult to have many thoughts when you are pounding the treadmill, cycling, swimming or doing something physically taxing.

You could try event try a technique called the A-B-C Technique. A lot of the time, the monkey mind is caused by your thoughts disagreeing with what’s going on around you. When the present moment situation doesn’t align with what your personal beliefs are, your monkey mind begins to spit and howl. The A-B-C technique can help you deal with the disparity between what your monkey mind thinks should be happening, and what is actually happening. Here’s how it works:

  • A is for “activating event”. That is, something happens.
  • B is for “beliefs”. Your monkey mind starts interpreting what’s happening based on your beliefs.
  • C is for “consequences”. As a consequence of the thoughts that you’re having about what just happened, you feel certain emotions.

The key to taming the monkey mind by applying the A-B-C technique is to question the beliefs that the your mind is relying on in order to reach the conclusions that you are having.

I leave you with the following quote.

“We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.” ― Thomas Merton

The dark mind of fear

“The mind of man is capable of anything.” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The time after the Christmas break always seems to bring with it the darkest part of the winter season and also the darkest time for many people.

The seasonal celebrations are over. The presents have been put away or exchanged. The decorations are down and put away for another year. The striving for the winter sales is on in the high street and people are out trying to get bargains. The return to work after the festive break always seems to bring with it a sense of dread. The office festive fun is over and there are no holidays or breaks in the near future.

Then there is the annual bout of flu, influenza and other bugs that seem to strike the populus at this time of year. Reports this year of the Auzzie flu and the Japanese Flu viruses, were widely reported, with people being struck down; waiting times at hospitals getting worse and all of the scare stories.

For me personally, this year, there was a moment in all of this where I truly felt the dark mind of fear. Let me explain.

We had a wonderful christmas period as a family, but between Christmas and the New Year, I came down with a serious case of “man flu”. I did not go to the doctors, but felt so bad, that I dosed myself up with paracetamol and went to bed. I am not sure if it was flu, but I have not felt so bad for many years. Headaches; sweats; aching legs and joints; uncontrolled shivering; coughing and spluttering; runny nose and no appetite at all.  I found light hurt my eyes and noise hurt my ears. All I wanted to do was to drink water and rest. I was a complete mess.

The Friday after Christmas was the worse day.

As I lay in bed, I felt the struggle as the breath came and went. I could hear the sound of my breath as it went in and out. The raw rasping. I could actually feel the movement of my chest. So unusual. It felt frightening that I was reliant on the mechanical movement of my chest and the struggle that I was having, even breathing. My mind wandered and I felt as if I was in the bottom of a dark place and the weight of the darkness was pressing down on me. Every breath felt a struggle. A dark and fearful struggle.

Then I realised that at it’s very centre, was my thoughts around the practice of mindful breathing. Allowing the thoughts to come and go. The simplicity of just being with the breath. I concentrated on the practice of the breadth and it helped. The moment to moment breath. I became less frightened and fearful. I lay there are truly rested.

Since that Friday, I have slowly recovered. I returned to work after the New Year and then promptly had another “man flu” episode and ended up in bed again. I am not asking for sympathy, after all it was just “man flu”.

The hacking cough has been with me for the past three weeks and physically it has been a slow process to get back to normal. Did I have the flu? I have no idea. Did I feel terrible that Friday – yes – absolutely. But I can say, that even in that darkest of moments, the practice of focusing on the breath and just the breath, really helped.

I hope that you are well and at this time of year, darkness of the mind does not descend upon you, physically or mentally. I hope that you have time to think and to practice whatever techniques help you to be grounded and feel alive. For some people it is sport; for some it is exercise; for some it is mindfulness; and for others it is being with those they care for. Remember, every day is a great day, even if you don’t feel it at the time.

I leave you with the following quote which really struck a chord with me,

“The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” ― Thomas Paine, A Letter Addressed to the Abbe Raynal on the Affairs of North America

Simple steps to help develop a “Now Mindset”

“Forever is composed of nows.” ― Emily Dickinson

One of the biggest questions people ask about Mindfulness, is all around being the in “now”. What on earth is it about? What does it mean and why even think about it?

Practicing Mindfulness helps you to focus on being present in the now. Present moment awareness brings calm, peace and sanity to your life. It exposes your ego and puts you in touch with your true self. It helps you be more connected to both yourself and also to everyone around you.

The present moment is all there ever is. Still, most people ignore it, imagining the future or the past, stuck in their thinking minds.

The present moment is so simple. Its simplicity is masked by the egoic mind – wanting to get to some imaginary point in the future (as if the future will bring more happiness than anything could now), or reliving the past (as if this is more important than now). So many of our problems, traumas, anxieties, fears etc. are all based in our minds. Dwelling in the past, or conditioned by the past and then negatively anticipating “the future”.

Time exists only in the mind. It keeps you from the conscious presence that is who you already are, only available within the present moment.

So how can you become more aware? It does take some time, so be prepared to take a few minutes out of your day to try one of the following:

  • Be aware of what you can see, hear, smell, feel. Take a moment to really concentrate on looking at an object or listen to the sounds going on around you. Perhaps sit outside and feel the breeze on your skin or the smells in the air around you.
  • Be aware of your breath flowing gently in and out of your body. The breathing exercise is one of the fundamentals of Mindfulness practice. For a blog post I wrote on the breath practice, go to: https://martinsummerhayes.com/2016/04/20/the-mindfulness-tool-the-breath/
  • Experience and feel your body from within – for example can you be aware of your legs – as if you are feeling the inside of them? This might sound strange, but try it, and you might be surprised by the results.
  • Can you hear the silence behind any noise that may be there? Listen to the background, as well as the foreground noises.
  • Be aware of space around all things you can see rather than just the things themselves? Look beyond the foreground and look to the background.
  • Finally, can you feel yourself as the awareness behind the thoughts that arise? This is probably the most difficult one to try.

 

Practicing any of these approaches on a regular basis will help put you within the present moment and somewhat out of your mind. Of course the mind may well pull you back in again with some thought, or emotional resistance may arise, but that is the challenge with the mind.

You may notice that as you stay in the present moment, you might become more aware of deeper feelings, thoughts and emotions that you were not aware of before. This is fine, and they are as they are. Allow them to be as well, do not name any emotion or thought – let them be, be the space for them, and see what happens. You may notice as you do this, a sense of peace, aliveness, awareness, however subtle or strong is arising in the background

This practice of present moment awareness and acceptance puts you in touch with what you really are, and sets you free from all the negativity you may be carrying in your mind. There is only this moment, and it is as it is.

I leave you with the following quote.

“Live in the present, remember the past, and fear not the future, for it doesn’t exist and never shall. There is only now.” ― Christopher Paolini, Eldest

Attitude 6 – Acceptance

 

“Some lose all mind and become soul, insane. Some lose all soul and become mind, intellectual. Some lose both and become accepted Charles Bukowski

This is the sixth of the seven attitudes that Jon-Kabat-Zinn believes are the basis for Mindfulness.

So what on earth is the idea of Acceptance?

Definition: Simply put, coming to terms with things as they are.

Some of the key things you can try include:

  • Seeing things as they actually are in the present. If you have a headache, accept you have a headache.
  • We often waste a lot of time and energy denying what is fact. We are trying to force situations to how we would like them to be. This creates more tension and prevents positive change occurring.
  • Now is the only time we have for anything. You have to accept yourself as you are before you can really change. 
  • Acceptance is not passive; it does not mean you have to like everything and abandon your principles and values. It does not mean you have to be resigned to tolerating things. It does not mean that you should stop trying to break free of your own self-destructive habits or give up your desire to change and grow.
  • Acceptance is a willingness to see things as they are. You are much more likely to know what to do and have an inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is actually happening.

Practising non-striving leads us directly to the next attitudinal quality of mindfulness which is acceptance. Sometimes we confuse acceptance with approval or resignation.

Accepting something means seeing things as they are right now. It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do something about it. See if there is something you feel challenged to accept, and what resisting it feels like.

Does it help? Does it make you feel stuck? Just notice. The attitude of acceptance can have a quality of compassion and understanding to it. These qualities actually make it easier to change something. I once heard someone say with regard to weight loss, “No one ever changed by hating themselves into it.” When I reflected on this statement, I found it to be true for myself. See what is true for you with respect to acceptance.

The video where Jon describes the Acceptance attitude can be viewed here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOGsj0Aklx8&list=PLkgahhWgJW97ADlyc2BYMwOD8wZjcBZ8D&index=9

I leave you with the following quote.

“Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 

Attitude 4 – Trust

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them” ― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

This is the fourth of the seven attitudes. Trust is talked about is so many different guises, how does it reflect on mindfulness? Trust is important in mindfulness because you can’t expect mindfulness to give instant results. Trust me, when I started the formal eight week programme, it wasn’t until week seven that I realised that something was changing and growing. Without genuine trust, you may not put your heart into the process of developing a mindfulness practice and thereby reduce the chance of enjoying your journey into mindful living.

So what is Trust?

Definition: Trusting in your intuition and your own authority.

  • Developing a basic trust in yourself and your feelings.
  • Trusting in your own authority and intuition, even if you make some ‘mistakes’ along the way.
  • Honour your feelings. Taking responsibility for yourself and your own well-being.

The foundation of Trust encourages us to look deeply at trusting ourselves. Many of us have given our power away to an outside authority, or to a system or institution. Meditation takes us back to ourselves, where we can access our own wisdom, and trust ourselves. Pay attention to self-doubting thoughts when they arise and look deeply into where they really come from, instead of just believing them. One of the gifts meditation can offer is that of authenticity.

  • We aren’t meant to be like anyone else, we can only be ourselves.
  • Looking at our thoughts and feelings can lead us to a more authentic life.
  • Finally, can you trust yourself?

The video where Jon describes the Trust attitude can be viewed here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9HhURnnlh4&list=PLkgahhWgJW97ADlyc2BYMwOD8wZjcBZ8D&index=5
I leave you with the following quote.

“When you’re surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you’re by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don’t feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you’re really alone.” ― Fiona Apple