Habits

  • Mindful Attitudes to Bring About Positive Change

    Written by Amy Jane Wood

    As we step into a new year full of possibility and promise, eager to leave last’s year baggage behind, now is the time that many of us take inventory of our world and resolve to set new goals and intentions for change.

    So often, these best-laid plans are derailed due to impatience or expectations – ways of thinking that lead us away from the present moment. It’s no surprise then, that the most effective way to usher in change is to do so consciously – using mindfulness. By making the choice to shift to more mindful attitudes, we can begin to break old patterns and cultivate long-lasting change. So how do we begin?

    Choose to be proactive instead of reactive. How do you respond when you struggle to meet a goal? Some of us may run on a reactive mode of thinking that can lead to knee-jerk responses like ‘what’s the use’. Reactive patterns are often habitual and automatic, and to break them we must first identify them. Bringing mindful awareness to these patterns gives us the power to do so, and to shift to a more proactive way of thinking. This also extends to the way we practice mindfulness when problems arise - used reactively, mindfulness can only help in the heat of the moment, but when used proactively, it guides our thoughts and actions before a problem becomes a problem.

    Choose fluidity instead of rigidity. Be open to the reality of the present moment – it’s peaks and valleys, the possibility for failure and the potential for success in any given situation. In this way, we become more fluid, more resilient and far less likely to give up at the first hurdle. The practice of focusing and refocusing our attention is the first powerful tool that we learn in mindfulness, and can help us to carry our new goals and intentions forward.

    Choose self-compassion instead of self-criticism. A kind inner voice that supports us, rather than judges us, is far more likely to elicit our motivation to grow and change. In fact, study after study has shown that self-criticism is one of the biggest obstacles to forming new habits and meeting new goals. By responding to our frustrations and difficulties with kindness and compassion, we are better able to bolster ourselves for success.

    Choose acceptance instead of denial. Acceptance is a fertile ground for growth and change, and can dramatically transform how we relate to our experiences. When we come from this place, we are more likely to succeed in whatever we do. By accepting ourselves just as we are, and recognising that we may stray in the process of trying to meet new goals and intentions, we reduce our resistance to change.

    Choose value-oriented intentions instead of all-or-nothing goals. Avoid rigid resolutions and all-or-nothing goals to ‘quit’ or ‘stop’ a habit, and keep an open-minded attitude with more positively-framed goals. Mindfulness can help us both make and follow through on such resolutions, as well as provide strategies that help you more effectively handle the stresses and challenges that often derail resolutions.

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    MEDITATION:

    Acceptance Meditation

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    New Year's Resolution Workshop

    Introduction to Mindfulness

  • Improving Our Health, Compassionately

    turtle

    One of the exciting things about life is that we don’t have to stay the same as we are right now; we can re-invent ourselves at any time. For example, we can decide to become healthier, whether that’s through eating better, getting fitter, breaking unhealthy habits or addictions, or by cultivating greater peace of mind and emotional resiliency.

    However, we all too often make these types of self-improvement plans when we’re in a low mood. Maybe we’ve been eating too much junk food lately, and so we think to ourselves, ‘Oh god, I’m so fat. I must go on a diet!’ rather than having a kinder thought such as, ‘I want to start eating more mindfully.’

    When we make health plans from a place of self-loathing we often set unrealistic and unkind goals for ourselves. This means we are unlikely to achieve them, and even less likely to have a nice time along the way!

    A Check-List for Mindful Goal-Setting

    Whatever our health goals may be, it’s important to ask ourselves these questions before we set out on achieving them.

    Is my goal realistic?

    Say we want to stop eating unhealthily, and so we come up with the goal of giving up chocolate and sweets completely. It might work; we might indeed have the will power to never touch the sweet stuff again. But alternatively it might be really difficult! So difficult in fact, that we fail terribly, end up binging on them, and then feel even worse about ourselves than before.

    Instead of banishing sweets from our lives altogether, why not just get more mindful about eating them? We can treat ourselves now and again to a small portion, and practice really savouring it while we eat. We’re still moving towards our health goals, but in a more realistic way.

    Is my goal kind?

    We want to lose weight quickly, and so we decide to live on smoothies alone for a month, or we sign up for the toughest, most physically gruelling boot camp we can find. Yet these kinds of goals seem more like punishments than ways to help ourselves enjoy life more.

    When we don’t like how we look or behave, it can feel impossible to treat ourselves kindly. We may feel that we don’t deserve kindness; that because we’re overweight, depressed, addicted to something, that means we’re bad. But imagine that your friend wanted to lose weight, or that your child was suffering with depression, or that your beloved was struggling with an addiction. It’s unlikely that we would say to them the things we say to ourselves. Would we really say to a friend, ‘My god, you’re disgusting! You should starve yourself for a week!’

    When setting goals, it’s useful to imagine that we are helping a friend set those goals instead. Imagine the kindness and gentle encouragement you would feel for your loved ones, and incorporate that level of care and compassion into your own goal-making. Make those goals self-nurturing: for example, instead of ‘I don’t want to be fat any more’ try changing it to ‘I want to nurture my body with healthy food and exercise.’

    How will I treat myself when I stumble?

    We might be doing really well with our plans, but then one major upset has us reaching for the junk food or cigarettes again. In these moments it feels like all our hard work has been for nothing! This is where self-compassion can really shine and make all the difference, because it’s at these times of perceived failure that we’re most likely to give up on our goals completely.

    Mindfulness helps us see that life is a series of moments. Rather than mentally remaining stuck in a previous moment where we mindlessly scoffed a whole pizza, we can ‘refresh’ ourselves and become new again in the here and now. This can help us forgive ourselves for slipping up, because what’s done is done, and now this is a new moment. It helps us see that we can begin again, and again, and again if needed, because each new moment is a fresh opportunity to get back on track.

    Do I really need to achieve this goal?

    Do we actually need to lose weight, or is it just that our thoughts about our body are very negative at the moment? When our minds are clouded, it can be hard to judge what is true. Yet through practicing mindfulness, we are more able to take a step back from our thoughts and see them more clearly. If we’re already at a healthy weight, perhaps it’s not our body that we need to change, but our thoughts about it, and how we treat it.

    An effective way of exploring the truth behind our desired goals is to place your hand on your heart, to close your eyes, and really tap into how your goals make you feel. Are they coming from self-compassion, or self-hatred? Are they moving you forward into health, or holding you in a cycle of guilt and shame? By exploring our self-beliefs and inner dialogue, we can find out where our goals are really coming from, and whether we should put them into practice.

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

     

  • How to Recognise a Fight-or-Flight Response and What You Can Do About It

    birdAs we navigate through life, it’s important for our physical survival that we recognise and act appropriately to dangerous situations. In these situations, we often don’t have time to logically weigh up our options and figure out the best course of action, and so our brains have evolved in such a way as to save us time.

    When faced with a perceived threat to our safety, a part of the brain called the amygdala (which processes memory, decision-making and emotional reactions) is triggered and ‘hijacks’ the rational, thinking part of the brain. In other words, the amygdala decides for us whether we should stay and fight, run and hide, or freeze completely. This is what is commonly referred to as the fight-flight-or-freeze response: very handy if a car is hurtling towards you, or someone starts following you down a dark, secluded alleyway, but not so useful if we’re simply arguing with our partner or just said something embarrassing to our co-workers. The amygdala struggles to tell the difference between real, immediate danger and perceived danger, i.e. although it’s painful to feel humiliated in front of others, it’s not going to kill us like a rabid dog would.

    So how can we recognise when we are reacting disproportionality to a situation?

    How Does This Moment Feel?

    Learning to recognise our emotional reactions takes some time, and becomes better with practice. The more we tune in to what we’re experiencing in this moment, the more we remember to do it going forward, and perhaps most importantly the easier and more natural it becomes to do so. Therefore the best way to start noticing our amygdala reactions is to start developing a regular mindfulness practice in general, in the same way that exercising regularly now will ensure that your body is strong and healthy later on in life.

    An easy place to start is to begin regularly asking yourself, ‘How does this moment feel?’ Set an alarm on your phone, or place a few sticky notes around your home or work desk if it helps you remember. Just take a moment to check in with yourself. Try asking the question after something upsetting happens, like an argument, some bad news, or an unexpected bill, and get familiar with what happens in your body and mind when this stuff happens. Do you feel scared (like you want to run away), angry (like you want to fight) or numb (like you just want to curl up into a ball)? Is your heart rate elevating, your breath quickening or restricting, your body tensing and tightening, or feeling weak and fatigued? If so, you may be experiencing fight-flight-or-freeze. This is a universal experience: if you have a brain, you experience amygdala reactions, end of story! So don’t beat yourself up about it. Just try to observe it as best you can, so that you know how it manifests within you.

    Once you’ve started to notice these reactions, what can you actually do about it?

    Mindfulness Techniques

    Research shows that mindfulness practice shrinks the amygdala and also weakens connections between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This means that over time we become less reactive to perceived threats and more able to think about how we’d like to respond. For example, when our partner does something that usually triggers a fight-or-flight response (i.e. makes a comment that we perceive as critical or embarrassing, yet isn’t meant as such), we can react more calmly and not in a way that then descends into an unnecessary falling-out.

    Once we’ve recognised a change in our mood, like an onslaught of disproportionate rage or depression, we can then apply some helpful mindfulness techniques.

    This could be focussing on the breath while we observe our amygdala-triggered thoughts. Any time that we notice our minds getting stuck, we gently bring the attention back to the breath, and continue to breathe through the reaction until it passes. Remember that the emotional reaction isn’t wrong or bad, but at the same time, if the reaction isn’t appropriate or helpful to the situation then it’s better to let it pass.

    We might also try using mindfulness ‘anchors’ around us to help us come back to the moment. For example, try focussing on sounds, sights or other physical sensations that can help ground you in the present, again noticing where the mind goes, and each time gently and kindly bringing it back to your point of focus.

    It’s useful to view this practice as a form of self-care. By taking proactive steps to guide ourselves through amygdala reactions, we can not only save ourselves from the harmful effects of prolonged stress in the body, but we can also avoid further negative or destructive situations occurring because of our fight-or-flight responses.

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    MEDITATION:

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression

    8-Week Mindfulness Course for Depression

    8-Week Mindfulness Course

    Mindfulness One-Day Workshop

    RETREATS:

    3-Day Mindfulness and Nature Connection Retreat

  • Making Self-Care a Daily Habit

    self-careA common side-effect of practicing mindfulness is that we start to notice the ways in which we neglect our well-being. Whether it’s unhealthy habits or addictions, stresses in our lives, or unkind judgemental thoughts about ourselves, by becoming more mindful we see these issues with greater and greater clarity over time. With this new awareness can often come a desire to start treating ourselves with more care.

    For those of us who have been self-critical or neglectful of our well-being throughout our lives, self-care may at first feel a little awkward and unfamiliar. We might also not be so good at recognising when we need it. Developing a new, caring attitude towards ourselves can take time as we undo a lot of old, ingrained uncaring patterns and habits.

    At first we might only notice that we need self-care when we feel really low, like when we have the flu or when our depression is really bad. This is a great first step! However, self-care doesn’t have to end there. We can turn acts of self-care into a daily habit. With practice it may even start to come as naturally to us as brushing our teeth!

    Although small self-caring actions are better than none at all, to truly cement self-care into our natural way of being it may be useful to intentionally set aside at least 30 minutes a day to do something nice for yourself, so that you really stop everything else that you’re doing and just focus on you. It could be that you take some time after work to do a relaxing yoga routine so that you can enjoy the rest of your evening, or that you go to bed a little earlier than usual to read a good book, or that you make yourself a healthy meal with all of your favourite ingredients. It could even be that you sign into Netflix and order a pizza, just as long as you’re doing it with that intention of treating yourself nicely, rather than as a distraction or zoning out.

    Far from being selfish or self-indulgent, developing a daily self-care habit can give us more energy and resilience to deal with all other aspects of our lives.

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    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • Finding Your Inner Balance in an Unpredictable World

    centreIn this uncertain world, we try our best to find routine and predictability, hoping that these things will make life easier. However, life isn’t so great at cooperating with our plans! Life is messy, so what can we do?

    Using mindfulness to find some inner balance can help us cope with the ups and downs life throws at us. Finding our centre can help us navigate this ever-changing world with more ease.

    The first step is to recognise the beliefs and ideas we have about how our experience ought to be. For example, when something painful happens and we react with thoughts of ‘this isn’t fair’ or ‘this isn’t right’, we can use these as prompts to check in with our beliefs. What we may find is that our beliefs stem from simply wanting to avoid pain or discomfort.

    The next step is to understand that this is completely natural. No one wants to suffer. In this way, we are the same as every living being, and we can use this understanding to give ourselves, and others, some compassion. Seeing these reactions as universal, and not due to some personal failing, we can then loosen a little around these beliefs. We can’t shake them off entirely of course, but they may become a bit less heavy.

    Once we recognise and understand what’s going on in our minds, we can then take some practical steps to find our centre. By ‘centre’ we mean that deeper part of you; the part that is more spacious and therefore more accommodating to what is currently happening. You could try thinking of it as stepping out of the beliefs and ideas that make life painful (i.e. this is wrong, this is bad, this shouldn’t be), and into a wider space, the space that exists between those thoughts. Here in this space there is room for what actually ‘is’, and it is always there for us to take refuge in.

    How we connect with that centre may vary depending on what works best for us personally. We may find that simply focussing on the breath is enough to get us there. Or we may need to take some time away from everyone else to meditate for a while. Perhaps we might find our centre through mindful movement practices, or by going for a walk outside and getting some fresh air. Maybe it’s by placing our hand on our heart. Whatever it is, it will be something that reconnects you with this moment right here. This is where you’ll find your balance again.

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    MEDITATION:

    Body Scan

    RETREATS:

    3-Day Mindfulness and Nature Connection Retreat

  • Eat, Drink and Be Merry (Mindfully)!

    smell
    If you’re trying to stay healthy, the Christmas season can bring some stress. When we’re catching up with friends and family, and attending work parties, we’ll likely be offered countless mince pies, cakes and chocolates, plus plenty of glasses of alcohol. Usually we might eat and drink too much in December and then try to make up for it in January with a strict diet. Yet we could instead use a little mindfulness this season so that we can enjoy all the tasty things without feeling guilty, bloated and groggy afterwards.

    Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the food and drink after all. The smell of mulled wine, the taste of spiced fruit, and that sound of lifting the lid off of a box of chocolates are nostalgic elements of the season. We probably have many warm memories of these things, and so we should feel free to enjoy them! By mindfully savouring these treats we’ll not only enjoy them more fully, but we’ll also be less likely to overindulge and make ourselves sick.

    The key to mindful eating (and drinking) is to slow down and fully engage all the senses, and what better time to do this than at Christmas! When we eat a slice of Christmas cake we can savour the smell of mixed spices, and take a moment to think of the time it took to soak the fruit in the alcohol, then to mix it with the cake batter, and then to decorate it, all so that we can enjoy eating it in this moment. Even if we’re out drinking, we can apply the same attention, savouring the warmth of our mulled wine or the bubbles in our champagne; we can mindfully enjoy getting a little light-headed and merry, and of course we can also savour the company of our friends and loved ones.

    It’s usually only when we do these things mindlessly that we end up regretting them; we knock back too much wine or overeat without noticing, and are then left with all the bad feelings that come after, like a hangover or a stomach ache. But by being present while we eat and drink, we can monitor our feelings as we go and will know when we’ve had enough.

    So this Christmas don’t be afraid of mince pies and bubbly; be present and make precious memories of sharing them with friends!

    MEDITATION:

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Eating Awareness Training Workshop

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • We Don’t Have to Wait until January for a Fresh Start

    stoneChristmas is fast approaching, with the promise of New Year’s resolutions hot on its tail. We collectively buy into the idea that January 1st marks the time for fresh starts, however we don’t really have to wait until after Christmas to start anew. Each and every moment gives us that opportunity. Including this one right now!

    Change rarely happens in one fell swoop. Lasting changes are made up of lots of little choices; lots of little moments that when added up together become powerful. By postponing change, or imagining that somehow the start of a new year will mean the start of a new personality in which we’ll have more willpower and drive, we often set ourselves up for failure. It’s all too big; too much to tackle all at once.

    Instead, let’s remember that in each moment we have the chance to make a different choice. Becoming more present and grounded in our day-to-day lives makes us more able to choose not to have that cigarette right now, to have the healthy option for dinner, or to go out for a run – because we feel like it, not because we’ve trapped ourselves in a big commitment. And then we can just take each moment as it comes. Maybe the next time we want to binge on junk food, we might just eat a little less or more slowly. Maybe we won’t exercise every day, but if we’re present enough to enjoy the feeling it gives us afterwards we’ll want to do it more often. If we’re in our heads, dreaming of an ideal version of ourselves that we hope will miraculously occur come the new year, then we aren’t being present in all of those little moments that really matter. For it’s in those moments, these moments happening right now, that we make more conscious choices. This way, we can change in an organic way that suits our current abilities. And we’re far less likely to feel like ‘failures’ in February!

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    New Year's Resolution Workshop

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • Hygge: Cultivated Cosiness

    mug
    There are many words from other languages that we don’t have an equivalent word for in English. Like the German word ‘schadenfreude’, which means to take pleasure from the misfortune of others, or the Spanish word ‘sombremésa’ which is used to describe the time spent after a meal, talking to the people you shared the meal with. Although we are familiar with these emotions or situations, somehow having a singular word for them can make them more tangible; naming such things can help us become more mindful of them.

    The Danish and Norwegians have a concept known as ‘hygge’ (heurgha). It’s used to describe things or situations which give us a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. ‘Hygge’ is an integral part of Danish life, and so it may come as no surprise that Denmark is considered to be one of the happiest countries in the world.

    My Danish friend, Daniel says: “You can make something hyggelig; you tidy your home, you bring cake for your class, you light candles, etc. And something can be hyggelig too; an old house, or a bench in a park, or a campfire... It's very ingrained in the language and social interaction/tradition but we're also very relaxed about it in the everyday. It can range from the very small to the big things.”

    So how can we use mindfulness to help us bring more hygge into our lives?

    One way is to bring awareness to what makes us feel nice and cosy, and then to consciously incorporate more of those things into our lives. For example, if fairy lights make us feel happy, we can hang some in our bedroom, or if we haven’t seen our friends for a while we could invite them to our home for a candlelit meal. Or we can just set aside some time to snuggle up under our duvet and read a good book.

    Another way is to be more mindful of the hyggelig things that are already around us! We can, for example, slow down and savour a lovely cup of tea, take time to enjoy a beautiful scene, or delight in the warmth of a knitted jumper or blanket.

    How do you cultivate cosiness in your life? Leave a comment sharing your best hygge moments!

    MEDITATION:

    Candlelight Meditation

  • Finding Refuge in the Breath

    bambi
    The mind is a constant whir of activity. Without any effort, our minds can jump from past regrets to concerns about the future to mentally noting that doctor’s appointment we have next week. If our minds are particularly busy, this stream of thinking can sometimes become too much for us to take. The non-stop nature of it can be overwhelming.

    Naturally, we want to retreat. And we might do so in a number of different ways. We may have a glass of wine, or a cigarette, or some cake, or switch on the TV and zone out. We might constantly check social media for distractions, or go on shopping sprees, yet this only increases the busy-ness of our minds. Rarely do these things give us that sense of respite we so badly need.

    Thankfully there is a better refuge available to us, one which we can access at any time, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. It doesn’t exist outside of ourselves, so we’ll never be without it.

    When we find ourselves in the midst of stress, anxiety, depression, sadness, or even intense excitement (this can be overwhelming sometimes too), simply taking a deep breath can bring great relief. When our minds have become tumultuous with thought – each passing thought like a wave that rocks our little boat in a stormy sea, and the rocking never seems to end – we can take a deep breath and…. ahhhh, the waves settle; sometimes just a little, but sometimes a lot! The more we practice, the easier it gets to remember to take those important moments of refuge.

    Try it now. Take a deep breath…. and let it out slowly. How has it changed the quality of this moment?

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    MEDITATIONS:

    Body Scan

  • How Mindfulness Breaks Us Free From Thinking in Absolutes

    greenerOur brains are a bit like movie projectors; each thought is a film and in that moment that one particular film is all that we can see and hear. Some are brighter and louder than others, grabbing our attention so much that we forget reality for a while. We can’t really stop this from ever happening, it’s just what brains do. They project a series of opinions, judgements and memories throughout each day.

    However, constantly getting caught up in these thoughts can cause a lot of problems, especially if those thoughts are unpleasant or restricting. Say for example that the movie currently playing in our head is all about how bad things are always happening to us, or how we’ll never feel happy ever again. These thoughts of absolutes (‘always’ and ‘never’) can make us feel totally hopeless about our lives, tearing away any sense of personal power or contentment.

    And yet, as convincing as our thoughts may be, mindfulness training gives us the knowledge and skills to be able to take a step back and remember that each thought is like a projected image. That’s not to say that we don’t still feel all the emotions from watching the movie, but at least we remember that it’s just a movie, rather than real life.

    Confirmation Bias

    A cognitive bias is a tendency to think in a certain way; usually in a way that diverges from good judgement, logic or objectivity. Psychologists have studied and named over 75 different cognitive biases! A common bias that many of us share is known as confirmation bias, or selective perception bias. This is when we pay more attention to evidence that supports what we already think, and dismiss any information that contradicts it.

    Here’s an example: We’re on our way to work when our car breaks down. Our brain searches for examples of other bad or inconvenient things that have happened to us, and suddenly we’re not just dealing with this one broken down car, we’re dealing with everything from our past that has ever gone wrong. We start having thoughts like, “Why do bad things always happen to me? Why do I never have any luck?” In our current state of mind, we’re overlooking all the good or even neutral things we’ve ever experienced – such as the countless number of days when our car didn’t break down on the way to work. Instead, we take our previous bad experiences as ‘evidence’ that we suffer from constant misfortune.

    Believing that we’re doomed to a fate of endless bad luck is distressing and painful. It can make the future look bleak and hopeless. So how can mindfulness help us avoid this trap of thinking in absolutes, without denying our understandable feelings and reactions when things do go wrong?

    3 Minute Breathing Space

    The 3 Minute Breathing Space is a very handy mindfulness practice that we can do pretty much anywhere, anytime. When we find ourselves in a stressful or upsetting situation, rather than letting our brains spiral into an even worse place, we can take a moment to acknowledge our present feelings. It’s a very useful tool to use to help us step out of our habit of catastrophizing situations.

    Begin by closing your eyes (if that feels okay) and start to become aware of how you’re feeling. What thoughts are going through your mind? And what emotions are present? This first step is about gently acknowledging what you’re experiencing without trying to change it or push it away.

    Next, once you have a sense of how you’re feeling, re-focus your attention onto the movements of the breath. Notice how your chest or belly rises and falls with each breath, how the air feels as it enters your nose or mouth as you inhale, and how it feels as you exhale.

    The third and final step is to then to extend your awareness to encompass the body as a whole, doing your best to bring a kind, spacious awareness to your present experience. Notice any tightness or tension that you’re holding in your body, whilst retaining some awareness of your breathing. Then when the time feels right, open your eyes again.

    Gratitude Journal

    If we have a tendency to catastrophize situations and often focus on what is going wrong, it may be helpful to start a gratitude journal. By noting down at least 3 things every day that we feel grateful for, we can train our mind to notice more of the good things that happen to us. Keep in mind though that noticing the good things doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. It’s simply about cultivating a more balanced perspective, noticing the full range of experiences in our lives.

    Regular Meditation

    Studies have shown that regular meditation can strengthen emotional resiliency by promoting changes in the brain. Richard Davidson, a neurobiologist at the University of Wisconsin, discovered that people who are able to regain their emotional balance after a setback have stronger connections between the left prefrontal cortex and the amygdalae than those who aren’t. Mindfulness meditation strengthens these connections! This means we can become more able to avoid getting emotionally knocked over by every inconvenience or misfortune that comes our way.

    Want to learn more about how mindfulness can help us deal with emotions? Check out our calendar for upcoming workshops and courses!

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