• How Mindfulness Can Help Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS)

    PMS

     

    The symptoms of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) can range from mild irritability, bloating and cramps, to acute depression, anxiety, even suicidal feelings. It can make it hard for us to focus at work, and can sometimes cause conflict at home with our loved ones.

     

    We may find ourselves snapping at people, or feeling tearful for no discernible reason. In short, it can make us feel vulnerable, out of control of our emotions, and that we are not really ourselves.

    Due to the complex nature of PMS, mindfulness unfortunately can’t offer a complete ‘cure’. However, it can offer some much-needed comfort and support to help us get through those difficult times, and can be used in conjunction with other remedies and treatments.

     

    Awareness of Your Cycle

     

    Some women find it useful to track their symptoms by keeping a diary. After two or three months, you may start to notice a pattern in your symptoms.

    Having this knowledge of our fluctuating moods means that they won’t take us by surprise so much. It also enables us to deal with them with greater awareness.

    If we discover that our mood worsens in relation to our cycle, we can mindfully watch out for the negative thoughts or beliefs that come with it. Knowing that our emotional symptoms have a physical cause (i.e. ovulation) might help us go a bit easier on ourselves, and rather than beat ourselves up about it, we can do more to be caring towards ourselves.

     

    Communicating Mindfully with Loved Ones

     

    If we become angry or irritable each month, this will affect how we communicate and interact with our partners, friends, family and even work colleagues.

    Mindfulness can help lessen the negative impact that our changing moods or physical discomfort may have on other people, because it can improve our communication. When we are mindful of how we’re feeling, we can express those feelings in a more neutral, considered way.

    Say for example that we tend to find our partner very irritating during PMS – every little thing they do seems to put us on edge. We may become snappy and a bit mean. If we’re not mindful, we could really hurt our partners feelings, or cause arguments.

    Yet, by regularly checking in with ourselves, and asking, ‘How am I feeling right now?’ we can express our feelings more mindfully.

    For example, if we notice that we’re in a bad mood, we could give our partner a heads up: ‘I’ve woken up in a really low mood. I’m doing my best, but I might be a little grouchy today, I’m sorry’.

    Or if we realise that we’ve snapped at them, we can at least acknowledge it and apologise, explaining that we didn’t mean to hurt their feelings, we’re just struggling right now.

    Simply being open, honest and mindful of what’s happening for us can make those difficult emotions easier to cope with. Trying to hide them or deny them will not only make them harder for us to deal with, but we also won’t be as sensitive to other people’s feelings.

     

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    Can’t Sleep?

     

    Our menstrual cycles can play havoc with our sleeping patterns. If we’re finding it hard to get to sleep, mindfulness can help in a few different ways.

    Thinking long term, it may be worth beginning a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Studies have shown that people who meditate daily experience improved sleep. This may be because meditation helps us step out of stress responses (which prevent us from sleeping) and into a more relaxed state.

    Meditation also helps the brain deal with those internal chattering thoughts – the type that can keep us awake at night! Research shows that meditation decreases activity in the ‘me centre’ of the brain – the part that’s responsible for mind wandering and self-referential thoughts (otherwise known as ‘monkey mind’).

    For more immediate comfort (for example, if you’re reading this in the middle of the night because you can’t sleep) some mindful breathing can help calm a racing or stressed-out mind. Each inhalation and exhalation offers a helpful anchor for our attention, rather than going around and around with whatever is going on in our minds.

     

    Mindful Comfort Eating

     

    Many woman experience food cravings in the lead up to, and during, their periods. The foods we usually want to eat at this time are high in sugar, salt, fat or carbohydrates – like chocolate, crisps, or bread. This isn’t really a problem, unless we overdo it.

    What can sometimes happen is that we’ll go overboard on the junk food then feel unwell, or guilty. Feeling guilty or ashamed then makes us feel even worse, and then we’re caught in a vicious cycle.

    Practicing mindful eating can help us enjoy our comfort foods, without overindulging and making ourselves feel even more bloated or depressed as a result. In learning to identify the seven types of hunger, we can first understand the hunger we are experiencing.

    We can then slow down the whole eating process by taking the time to enjoy how our food smells and looks before we begin to eat. Then, as we take the first bite, we can really savour how good it tastes. This way, not only will we get more pleasure from the food, but by slowing down we also become less likely to eat more than we really want to.

     

    Self-Care

     

    Self-care is always a nice thing to do, but when we’re feeling vulnerable, tired or unwell it’s especially important. Otherwise, what we’re likely to do is ignore, ignore, ignore… until things get so bad that we suddenly can’t cope anymore.

    By cultivating an attitude of self-care we can identify our when we need to restore ourselves. In doing so we can give ourselves the attention and care we need to deal with our symptoms as they arise.

    During PMS, our acts of self-care could take many different forms. It could be that we take some time out to rest, arrange to meet a good friend, treat ourselves to a comforting bubble bath or our favourite film, or if our symptoms are particularly difficult we might decide that we need to visit our doctor to talk about medication or hormone supplement options.

    It's also important that we continue to cultivate self-care when our period begins. This might mean cosying up with a hot water bottle, booking a relaxing massage or taking some gentle exercise to ease any pain we might experience. We may even wish to consider the period products we choose to use.

    Ruby, founder of WUKA Period Pants, says;

     

    "It's so important to put yourself first, and listen to your body. It's why we created so many different styles of WUKA period pants: everybody's different and responds differently during their cycle. For example, finding the right fit, flow, style and comfort in a pair of period pants goes a long way. Bleeding freely with no restrictions, mentally and physically, makes a huge difference."

     

    Whatever form it takes, we can consciously act kindly towards ourselves, listening to our needs and taking action accordingly. If we deny or suppress our needs, we become tense and stressed. However, if we show ourselves compassion, this creates a lighter and more spacious mindset for us to deal with our symptoms.

     

    The Mindfulness Project runs a regular Mindfulness for the Female Cycle workshop. View our calendar for upcoming dates. 

     

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  • Exploring Fear with Compassion

    Compassion

    This blog post is based on a talk by Tara Brach, titled ‘Transforming Two Fears: FOF and FOMO’. Click here for the full audio.

    When we experience fear, sometimes the last thing we feel we want to do is meet it head on. Our habitual response may be to distract ourselves, or try to ignore it. However, by doing this, we miss out on the opportunities for freedom and growth that fear offers.

    If we can investigate our fear with compassion and openness, we can move through it and beyond, to a more spacious place – not a place where the fear ceases to exist, but where it can safely co-exist with other aspects of our humanity.

    In her talk ‘Transforming Two Fears: FOF and FOMO’, Tara Brach explains two common types of fear: fear of failure (FOF) and fear of missing out (FOMO), and what we can do to meet these fears with kind awareness, curiosity and acceptance.

    Fear of Failure

    This can encompass many different fears, not just the obvious ones that may come to mind. Fear of failing in our career, education or relationships is common, and something we all share. So is the fear of not being able to cope with certain situations, for example ‘How would I cope if I became unwell?’

    There are probably countless other situations that we may have imagined, and consequently worried about, namely about our ability to successfully meet those challenges. Fear of rejection, or of not being good enough also fit this category. Tara describes it as ‘fear of deficiency’; a feeling that we’re simply not prepared or equipped for what the future may bring.

    These fears keep us alert to everything that might go wrong, in either our immediate or distant futures. They come from the primal part of our brain, which simply wants to avoid harm. It’s tempting to believe that by analysing everything that could go wrong, we will be more prepared.

    And sometimes this may be true. But usually what happens is that we become disconnected from the present moment, which is where our resiliency and strength truly exists.

    Fear of Missing Out

    Fear of missing out is somewhat different. It’s that nagging fear that we’re missing out on pleasure or gratification of some kind, that our lives could or should be different somehow, that we could have more, that things could be better.

    This fear creates a feeling of dissatisfaction with our lives. Or it can create a fearful sense of urgency, that we ‘must’ take this particular action now, otherwise we might miss out on an opportunity forever.

    Advertisers regularly take advantage of this shared fear of ours, promoting limited time offers, and encouraging material competitiveness with our peers, for example. But we may also experience this fear in relation to things such as finding love, having children, or losing our youth.

    Investigating Fear Through Meditation

    Tara Brach offers two reflective meditations to help us meet these two distinct fears, with honesty, acceptance and kindness. After all, these are fears that we all experience. Although we often believe they are a personal failing on our part, they are in fact a shared experience across all of humanity, and even other species too!

    Reflecting on the Fear of Failure 

    The first step of widening your identity – not being caught in the cocoon of fear – is to just investigate. Just to notice it, witness it,” says Tara. “So you might bear witness, without judgement, and just ask yourself, ‘So where do I become afraid of falling short?’

    With a sense of openness and curiosity, we can explore the kinds of thoughts and memories that come to mind when we reflect on our fears of failure, rejection or not being enough. Can we think of one particular habitual fear that comes to us time and time again?

    Rather than trying to dance around it and avoid it, take some time to really meet it within yourself. Notice the reactions it triggers, the typical line of defence you take against it. And rather than seeing it as your personal fear, Tara suggests viewing it as ‘the’ fear – one of the archetypal fears that all humans experience. How does doing this with a sense of kindness affect that fear?

    Reflecting on the Fear of Missing Out

    Now with the same openness, we can feel into the distinctly different fear of missing out; the stress or anxiety we experience from feeling there is something pleasurable or gratifying to be had that we don’t yet have. What feels particularly important to us to have right now? The range of experiences this could include is vast, from not wanting to miss out on the latest piece of technology, to not wanting to miss out on achieving an enlightening insight. It could be that we’re frightened of never achieving the level of wealth or success that we crave, or of not finding ‘the one’.

    The less we feel that our needs are being met in that area of life, the more intense our fear of missing out on that thing will be. Our desire or fixation on what we don’t yet have can cut us off from the present moment. By exploring our FOMO, we may notice that shift, from a mindful state to a more narrowed, restricted view. But again, this is not a personal fear of our own creation, it is ‘the’ fear of missing out, arising in us as it arises in all of us.

    How does it feel in the mind, heart and body? Tara reminds us that, “You’re bearing witness to how this human self is when caught in this conditioning. So bring some kindness to it.

    Using Fear as a Portal

    “If we deepen our attention when we’re caught in the fear of failure, when we’re caught in that fear of rejection… the more we discover a kind of timeless belonging that takes us beyond that fear. And with FOMO, the more we get in touch with that fear of missing out and that wanting for gratification, the more we discover that what we wanted was always here. And we tap into an absolute infinite flow of creativity, of dynamism.”

    So by meeting these fears with attention and compassion, we can use them as portals to move beyond, into greater spaciousness. Our fears will still be there, and will still catch us. Yet by mindfully greeting them each time we notice them arise, we can become less and less contained by them. We can stop basing so much of our identity around constantly trying to subdue these fears by using outside sources, such as money or achievements, and instead tap into something deeper within.

     

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  • The 11 'Dangers' of Mindfulness Meditation

    dangers

    Mindfulness meditation is a wonderful tool, supported by a growing wealth of evidence which demonstrates the many benefits of the practice. However, recently there have been a few articles in the press which have highlighted the 'dangers' of meditation.

    Therefore, it seems a good time to look deeper into what could be considered meditation dangers, and how we can not only address them but also learn from them.

    On our mindfulness journeys as practitioners and teachers, we have certainly all encountered hurdles to our practice. Some of us might have unconsciously used mindfulness to force positive feelings, others might have used the technique to avoid certain situations (see below: 'Chasing a 'Feel Good' State' and 'Meditation as Avoidance').

    Most of us, however, would probably not say that by doing so we've put ourselves in 'danger'. On the contrary: If we have, for example, used mindfulness to feel good, we might have brought to awareness our tendency to chase happiness instead of trying to be with whatever presents itself to us in this very moment. Bringing this to light through practising mindfulness will then help us break free from this pattern. This potential 'danger' that we encounter during our practice might turn out to be a wonderful gift that helps us deepen our practice, and understand ourselves better, thus helping us grow.

    Here is a list of some of the common 'dangers' that we might encounter in our practice. They might help to shine a light on some mindfulness meditators patterns.

    1. Abandoning All Other Coping Mechanisms

    After practising mindfulness (even for only a couple of weeks), many people get really passionate about the practice. But we should not forget that there also exist many other great techniques that can help us cope with life's challenges. For example, sometimes when we feel down or nervous, we might not always choose to meditate, but rather go for a run or a swim. Or we might want to meet up with a friend or watch a funny movie. There are many ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life, so let's use them all!

    2. Chasing a 'Feel Good' State

    Many of us have experienced wonderful states when practising mindfulness meditation. We may suddenly feel complete peacefulness or have a great insight into the nature of our mind or life. Such states do happen during meditation and when they do, it certainly feels good. However, the primary aim of mindfulness is not about chasing these states or insights. Mindfulness instead is (most of the time) simply about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. Being attached to any experience can cause unhappiness, whether it's good or bad. But the funny thing is that the more we accept the simplicity of our moment-to-moment experience, the more often we will naturally be present and feel good when we meditate.

    3. Being Mindful of Everything All the Time

    In mindfulness we learn to pay attention to whatever arises in the present moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally. Yet, this does not mean that we have to pay attention to everything. For example, if we feel a very strong pain in our back, we do not have to dive right into that pain and explore it for twenty minutes. Or, let's say, we suddenly feel very sad during meditation - we do not have to stay with that sadness until we cry.

    A huge part of mindfulness is about cultivating compassion and care for ourselves. So if we do feel terrible pain in our back due to chronic tension, we can choose to meditate lying down or practice mindful movement. Or we may choose to shift our attention away from our painful back to our toes or the sounds around us. In short: meditation doesn't mean that we have to torture ourselves by focusing on unpleasant experiences. Instead we always have the choice in how we wish to approach our pain!

    4. Over-Analysis

    Some of us have the tendency to analyse our issues, character, family, friends, work colleagues or life in general. If one has such a tendency, we might easily start to analyse everything that happens when we meditate. True, great insight may arise when we practise mindfulness. However, mindfulness is not about putting a certain amount of time aside each day to silently analyse. Instead it is about developing the skill to notice when we've drifted off into analysis and then chose to gently come back to the present moment by reconnecting with a sensory anchor such as the breath, sounds or bodily sensations.

    5. Self-Improvement Project

    Many meditators turn their meditation practice into a rigorous self-improvement project. We may wish to become this eternally present, accepting, compassionate, grateful and enlightened being. This can actually have the opposite effect. If we have such high goals, we might become overly critical of ourselves when we do not live up to our high standards. Instead, we can remind ourselves that just because we meditate does not mean we have to be a 'better' human being in any way. All that we might become is just a bit more aware and accepting of our everyday humanness, and that's okay.

    6. Detaching from Painful Thoughts & Feelings

    In mindfulness meditation we practise noticing when our minds have drifted off into the past or future, and then gently bringing our attention back to the present moment using a sensory anchor.

    Mindfulness is, however, by no means about learning to control our minds or to push away or suppress our uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Rather, it is about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. It's about 'being with' whatever is arising in the moment. If we notice that we've started using mindfulness to forcefully avoid certain states of mind then we may be on the wrong track, and it won't work long term anyway. What you resist will persist.

     

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    7. Too Much Practice (Too Soon)

    When we first start meditating, we might immediately fall in love with mindfulness (also called "the honeymoon phase"). Having a history of excessive worrying, analysis or rumination, we feel so happy to have found some peace of mind. What a relief! Often what happens in such cases is that we do too much too soon. Maybe we decide a month after our first meditation session that we will embark on a rigorous ten-day silent meditation retreat. This might work for some of us, but for others it might be overwhelming.

    Don't forget that a great part of mindfulness is about being kind and caring with ourselves. After all, we wouldn't run a marathon after having run for half an hour every few days, and maybe we'll even decide that we don't need or want to run a marathon at all!

    8. Over-identification

    Some of us over-identify with being a mindfulness meditator. Everything becomes about mindfulness: We join every mindfulness group out there, read every book on mindfulness, redecorate our flat in a mindful way, only want to have friends who practice mindfulness, etc. We might even become self-righteous about our lifestyle.

    While mindfulness indeed is a beautiful practice, we need to remember that the practice is about accepting ourselves and others as we are and not getting attached to any bundle of beliefs. Otherwise we might alienate ourselves from our non-mindful friends and family who might not really get what this is all about, or who simply have no desire to meditate - which is totally fine too! Not everybody in this world has to become a meditator. And the best way to share mindfulness is by being mindful yourself.

    9. Meditation as Avoidance

    Some mindfulness practitioners have noticed that they might have used meditation sometimes to avoid certain things. Let's say we feel down and lonely and it might be good to go out and meet a friend. But we cannot find the energy to leave our home. So instead we then decide to stay at home and meditate. There's nothing wrong if we do that once in a while. But staying at home and meditating all the time will probably not help us in becoming less sad and lonely.

    10. Doing it without Proper Instructions or Teachers

    When we learn to meditate, it's advisable to do it with a well-trained teacher. Sometimes, people who start meditation, for example, think that mindfulness is another relaxation technique. While relaxation might be a by-product of meditation, it is not the aim.

    Someone new to meditation might think that they can have a completely thought-free mind when meditating. If that does not occur, they may feel frustrated and think that they're not a 'good' meditator, or that meditation is not for them. In such cases it is good to have a well-trained mindfulness teacher to support the learning process. Especially because it is not advised to start with mindfulness when one is, for example, in the middle of a depressive episode or suffering from the loss of a loved one.

    A well-trained teacher is aware of that and will find out before a course whether it's the right time to embark on a course or whether it might be better to wait for a while until the person feels more stable. Meditation can also bring up unexpected thoughts and emotions, some of which could be challenging. So it's useful (and comforting) to have an experienced teacher to help us through that process.

    11. Suppression of our Needs

    Although acceptance is a key component, meditation is not about blind acceptance. In mindfulness one learns to be curious and accepting about one's emotions and life in general. This is a beautiful skill to develop. However, this does not mean that we need to accept everything and never take action if we need to do so. If someone, for example, crosses our boundaries and makes us angry, we should not simply use the mindfulness skills to accept the action of this person and the resulting anger and be passive. Instead we can use our mindfulness skills to notice that we are angry, pause and breathe and then let them know how we feel.

    Mindfulness is by no means about suppressing our needs and enduring everything as a practice in acceptance! It is more about empowering us to feel more centred within ourselves, so that we can make decisions with greater consciousness, clarity and self-compassion, and sometimes that will involve taking action.

     

    Join the next 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course (MBSR) or 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Course (MBCT) and start learning about meditation with the guidance of a qualified teacher. 

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  • An Introduction to Mindful Parenting

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    Cultivating mindfulness in our role as parents will certainly be a challenge at times, however the benefits that mindful parenting can bring make it a challenge worth accepting.

     

    By being present with our children, and our own emotional process, we can make better decisions and react with greater clarity and compassion.

    Children Are Already Half Way There

    Small children easily switch from one emotion to another, without clinging to previous thoughts or feelings. In this sense, they are already present; they are in the moment with each emotion.

    However, what children lack is conscious awareness of their experience. They don’t yet have the language to explain their feelings, and so they express them through their behaviour. They don’t know what it means to be angry, sad, disappointed or exhausted, just that they feel the discomfort from it.

    As parents, it’s up to us to teach children about their emotions, to give them words for their feelings, to help them understand why those feelings have arisen, and about how to deal with them. Meeting these experiences with mindfulness means that we can do this is an effective and compassion way.

    Modelling Mindfulness

    Compared to other species, human beings are born “immature”. What this means is that our minds are more open to learning from the environment we are born into, rather than having a set of fixed instincts and reflexes.

    A major way that we learn how to fit into our environment as children is through imitation. A good example of this is when babies play with toy telephones, lifting it up to their ear and pretending to talk. There is no evolutionary need for a baby to know how to use a telephone; they do it because they have watched us do it many times. 

    This really highlights the importance of mindful parenting. Say for example that our child is having a tantrum; if we yell at them to calm down, what they are learning from is our angry tone, not our words. If we can practice mindfulness, and incorporate it into our day-to-day way of being, we can successfully demonstrate mindfulness to our children so that they can imitate it and learn from it.

    Where to Start?

    The best first step to mindful parenting is to practice mindfulness for ourselves. It may be useful to look through our blog for tips on how to become more mindful in different areas of life, or to sign up for one of our courses or workshops.

    Our Lab also offers lots of free meditation links, articles and videos to get you started. Most importantly, practicing mindfulness for ourselves will help us cope better with the challenges of parenting, so that we can enjoy less stressful lives.

    And Then….

    When we start to become more aware of our own thought processes, emotions and reactions, this will change the relationship we have with our children for the better.

    We can step out of reactivity (although of course we’re only human and will still get caught in emotional reaction sometimes) and into being more present with whatever our children are going through in the moment.

    Read on for some practical examples of mindful parenting...

    Avoiding Reoccurring Problems

    Albert Einstein famously described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Mindfulness can help us notice unhelpful or unproductive habits so that we can adopt new strategies.

    Say for example that going to the supermarket with our children is always a headache. Our child always ends up seeing something they want, we tell them they can’t have it, and so they become grouchy or angry.

    We may get so frustrated with their behaviour that we eventually cave in and let them have it, just so that we can get some peace. Situations like these can turn into regular patterns that cause a lot of stress.

    Being more mindful can help us pre-empt such situations and deal with them before they happen. We can, for example, explain to our child that we will only be buying what’s on our shopping list, and ask if there is anything they can think of now that they might like to add (within reason).

    We can create a routine whereby the family as a whole stops making impulse buys at the supermarket. This gives our child a structure that they know will always be in place.

    Owning Our Emotions

    Let’s face it, children can be a non-stop stream of changing emotions and challenging needs. It’s stressful, and this means that, like our children, we may find ourselves on an emotional rollercoaster.

    Although we don’t intend to, children can provide an easy outlet for our anger or frustration. We can talk to children in ways that another adult would not let us get away with. This is why it’s important to take a step back to acknowledge and own our emotions, so that we don’t unintentionally lash out at our children or make them responsible.

    There are different ways that we can take responsibility for our feelings. Sometimes we may need to explain to our children that we are feeling very angry, but that it isn’t their fault. Other times, it might mean that we need to make extra efforts to give ourselves self-care, i.e. that we arrange childcare so that we can take some time out.

    Self-soothing practices may also be useful, such as placing our hand on our chest, or giving ourselves a hug. In other words, sometimes we’ll need to be our own parent and look after our own wellbeing.

    Shifting Our Perspective

    Mindfulness helps us reframe situations so that we can see them from a different angle. Sometimes what we think of as ‘problems’ can actually be opportunities for growth and bonding.

    For example, in a situation where we discover that our child has lied to us about something, our immediate reaction may be of disappointment or anger. We may want to tell them off or punish them, with the aim of teaching them that it is wrong to lie. However, sometimes it may be more helpful to use the situation as a chance to understand our child better.

    Applying some openness or curiosity may help us find a deeper bond with our child. We can ask questions to find out why they felt they should lie, and try to reassure them that it is safe to tell us the truth. Of course, for this to work, we must be mindful of how we react to them when they do tell the truth. We may realise that we haven’t made it safe for them to come to us, and so this gives us the chance to be more present with them going forward.

    Parenting is a complex process; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This is why presence of mind is crucial, so that we can deal with each unique situation as it arises. By applying the key concepts of mindfulness, such as compassion and non-judgemental awareness, we can really enrich our family life.

     

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  • How Mindfulness Breaks Us Free From Thinking in Absolutes

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    Our 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.

     

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    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.

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  • Practical Tips for Practising Mindfulness

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    There are so many benefits to be gained from regular mindfulness practice. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can improve learning processes, memory and emotional regulation (just to name a few things!) by prompting changes in different regions of the brain. However, in the same way that it can be difficult to get into new exercise or healthy eating habits, it can be hard to turn mindfulness into a daily practice, even if we know how much we will benefit from doing so. Once we’ve gotten into the swing of things, maintaining a regular mindfulness practice becomes much easier. But what steps can we take when we’re first starting out that will help us incorporate mindfulness into our daily routines?

    Using Your Phone as a Mindfulness Prompt

    The simplest and easiest way that we can become more regularly mindful is to set an alarm on our phone or watch. By setting alarms to go off at certain times of the day, our present mindful self can remind our future self (who might have become a bit mindless by that point) to take a pause and breathe.

    How long we choose to pause for is completely down to us, but even if we’re working at our desks when the alarm sounds, we can take a moment to adjust our posture and let go of any tension we’re holding in our bodies, so that we can continue with our work in a more present mindset.

    It’s best to choose a gentle alarm tone, rather than something that will jolt or aggravate you when it goes off. Experiment with setting alarms at different times of the day, maybe focusing on times that you know you could particularly use a mindfulness prompt, for example on your commute to work, at lunchtime, or as you’re winding down in the evening.

     

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    Making Time to Sit

    Even though we know that meditation is good for us, we can probably come up with lots of reasons not to do it. When faced with the choice between watching our favourite TV show and sitting for 20 minutes in silence, the TV show is probably going to seem more entertaining! Once we’ve gotten into a regular meditation practice, the benefits we feel from it will motivate us to make time for it. Yet until that happens, we might need to give ourselves a little push to make the effort. Setting a regular time for meditation can help us do this.

    Pick a time of the day that you’re most likely to be able to stick to. For example, if you’re always rushed in the mornings, it might be better to choose a time in the evening when things aren’t so hectic. It might be useful to start off with a short amount of time, like five or ten minutes. You can then increase your meditation time once you start to get comfortable with it. Try your best to sit down to meditate every day at your chosen time, even if you don’t feel like it sometimes. Just remember, it will get easier the more you do it.

    And if you do miss a day? Or two, or five? It’s okay! Go easy on yourself. Just try to keep that intention going, and start over again if you need to.

    Find a Meditation Buddy

    Sometimes sharing a routine with a friend can make it easier to stick to. It’s so tempting to make excuses and reasons not to do something when it’s just us, but we generally don’t like to let our friends down. We tend to make more of an effort to stay on track with our plans when we know that someone else is also benefiting from it. Plus the social side of it might make it more enjoyable if we don’t like sitting alone.

    Alternatively, if you want some guidance and a structured routine, it might be beneficial to join a regular meditation group. Here at The Mindfulness Project we host a weekly evening meditation for people who have completed an 8-week Mindfulness Course. Check out our calendar for more information on what’s coming up at our space!

     

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  • Mindfulness Tips For When We Feel Jealous

    jealousy

    Sometimes it’s as harmless as envying a friends new pair of lovely shoes, but at other times jealousy can feel like a painful dagger in our hearts. It can make it difficult to enjoy any sense of happiness or gratefulness in our lives, because all that we can see is what we don’t have. It’s called the ‘green-eyed monster’ for good reason, for at its worst jealousy can make us bitter, resentful and lead us to behave in ways that aren’t aligned with how we really want to be.

    When we’re focusing on the good in others’ lives, and only on the bad in ours, our view of life becomes distorted and we get stuck in an envious trance. If we can learn to notice it when it arises, jealousy can serve as a reminder for us to take some mindful steps back into the present moment.

    Recognise and Accept

    Before we can make positive use of the arising of jealousy, we must first get to know it better. How does it make us feel? Although it may seem unappealing, it might be useful to bring to mind a situation that made you feel jealous, so that you can become familiar with the mental and physical changes it creates. For example, it might make you feel tense, or perhaps it gives you a heavy or restrictive feeling in your chest or throat. Maybe your pulse quickens, or perhaps you start to feel tearful. What kinds of thoughts are attached to the emotion? And what happens to your mental clarity? It’s likely that any sense of peace or spaciousness disappears, and instead we find that our whole attention is taken up by the subject of our jealousy.

    Once we become familiar with these signs, we will then be more able to recognise its presence next time it occurs. With this recognition, it’s also helpful to give ourselves some compassion and understanding, trying our best to just accept that we feel jealous in this moment, without piling on too much guilt or judgement about it.

    Breathe Through It

    Jealousy might sometimes highlight problems in our lives that we have the power to change. For example, if we’re envious of a friend’s career, we might find that we can take certain steps that will enable us to change careers and find our dream job.

    However, in other situations, we might experience jealousy over something that we just can’t do anything about. For instance, in unrequited love, if we see the person we love with their partner, and feel all the jealousy and pain that comes with that, there’s nothing we can do to change that situation. In these types of scenarios, the best that we can do is to breathe through the emotion until it passes (which it always will).

    A simple meditation that focuses on the breath is useful for when we’re experiencing emotional pain. Of course, it’s a given that our minds will wander onto painful thoughts, but by gently bringing our attention back to the breath each time we notice, we can become a little calmer. If we can include an attitude of compassion during this process – forgiving and understanding ourselves – then we will find that our racing minds will eventually settle down, and we can move on with our day, knowing that at any time we can return to this practice of coming back to the breath.

    Proactive Steps

    By focussing on what is missing from our lives, our minds create suffering. However, there are things that we can do that will help our minds focus more on the good, and less on what is lacking.

    To help train our brains to see the good things in life, we can practice writing down three things each day that have made us feel grateful, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem. Knowing that we need to remember things to write down will prompt us to start consciously looking out for the good stuff. As well as this, we can also start allowing ourselves to linger on pleasant experiences. If we’ve been feeling jealous, we’ve already been letting ourselves linger on unpleasant experiences, so we might as well do the same for the good stuff! Each time we let these positive experiences and feelings sink into our brains, we get a little better at noticing them and appreciating them.

    There will always be things in life that make us feel jealous from time to time, and gratitude won’t cure that completely. However, by taking proactive steps to notice things that make us feel grateful, we’ll be able to bring some balance and happiness back into our lives.

     

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  • Mindfully Coping with Desire

    Bee

    Desire or wanting comes as naturally to us as breathing. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to survive, if we didn’t crave things like food, community and rest. Our desires and wants drive much, or maybe even all, of our existence in one way or another. And yet so much of our suffering is put down to desire – a wanting of something we currently don’t have.

    So if we want to be free of suffering, does that mean we must free ourselves from wanting? Or is there another way, one in which we can still enjoy the pull of our hearts (and the adventures and experiences that brings), without being pulled away from the moment?

    Why Desire Causes Suffering

    If we’re not mindful, we may find that our desires end up constantly pulling us this way and that. A good example of how this can happen is when we’re shopping. We might have started out by looking for one thing that we wanted or needed, but when faced with so many other products we soon find ourselves wanting stuff that we might never have even heard of before! Or perhaps we’re watching a movie, see someone eating a burger and suddenly we’re overwhelmed with a craving to eat the same.

    There are other forms of desire too. We can desire to be right, and to have a solid sense of who we are. These desires can make us inflexible and cut us off from being present. For example, when we’re arguing with someone, our internal dialogue is likely to be full of justifications, stories about how we’re right and the other person is wrong.

    Our desire to be right often gets in the way of hearing the other person, as well as truly listening to ourselves, so that we remain in conflict much longer than we might really want to.

    Instead of desire resulting in us following our hearts true calling, we find ourselves trapped in a perpetual state of never being quite satisfied enough, always wanting something more or different than what is, forgetting perhaps the simple things we set out wanting to achieve.

    Desire causes suffering not because of its existence, but because it so often disconnects us from ourselves. When our sense of wanting takes us away from the present moment, that’s when it becomes painful.

    Exploring Desire

    Through practicing mindfulness we can learn how to dance gently with our desires, learning to recognise when they become restrictive (cutting us off from our presence of being) and also enabling us to enjoy them when they are enriching.

    One way that we can become more mindful of desire is to consciously look into it, so that we can notice how it arises, expresses itself and feels in our bodies. We can take a few moments to close our eyes and really focus on something for which we are feeling a particularly strong desire.

    How does that desire feel in our bodies? What emotions does it bring up for us? Then we can go even deeper, fully allowing our bodies to express that sense of wanting. If we curl our hand into a fist, what does that fist do as we go deeper and deeper into our desire? Does it soften, or does it tighten?

    What happens to our posture – do we relax, or do we sit forward and tense up in our seat? In the midst of our focused desire, do we feel comfortable, or not? As we look at it closely, is this even what we truly desire, or is it a substitute for something else, some feeling or way of being that is currently lacking in our lives?

    By spending some time exploring in this way, we’ll be able to see whether we are binding ourselves to the object of our desire and losing touch with the present. We’ll be able to tell whether our desire brings us joy or whether it is actually causing us to suffer. If we do discover suffering, we can then practice letting go, even if it’s only slightly, coming back to this moment now and trying to tap into what it is that our hearts really want.

    We may discover that by simply becoming more grounded in our presence, we naturally meet some of the needs we are seeking to fulfil from outside of ourselves, whether it be through food, entertainment, a person, a career or a material thing.

    Forgiving Our Wanting

    Another trap that is easy to slip into is wanting to be free of desire. Because desire can make us tense and grasping, that may sometimes mean we don’t like how we become when we want something. However, by resisting desire, we are setting ourselves against something which is a natural part of being alive.

    Therefore it’s important to cultivate an accepting attitude towards this tendency that we all experience. If we can practice recognising and allowing desire to be, with a gentle compassion, we will not only be free of the more destructive sides of desire, but we can also enjoy a quieter mind – one that is not so full of struggle against what is and how we are in a given moment.

     

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  • The Joy of Mindful Learning

    Drawing

    Can you remember how you learnt to write your name or how to walk? Probably not! When we’re children, we learn many skills with ease. However as adults, learning new things becomes a little trickier, partly because our brains are not developing at the same lightning speed as they used to, but also because we’ve got more fears and thoughts in the way.

    To begin learning a new skill, and to stick with the learning process until we become confident and proficient, requires a certain set of qualities, such as patience, presence, determination and self-compassion. These are all qualities which flourish when we practice mindfulness!

    Being a Patient Student

    We tend to become inspired to learn a new skill – such as creative writing, knitting or a new language – when we see the products of people who have already learnt those skills. For example, we might read an amazing book and think to ourselves, ‘Wow, I’d love to be able to write like that!’ So from the very start, our aims are high.

    Being ambitious is not a problem in itself; however it can sometimes make us impatient. We want to be a good writer/fluent in Spanish/an expert in crochet right now. But when we’re solely focussed on outcomes, we miss the opportunity to find joy in the learning.

    Learning takes time, and requires many small steps. We’re bound to make mistakes and produce things that we’re not happy with. Our ‘failures’ may make us feel that we are no good at what we’re doing. But if we can practice mindful learning, we can start to enjoy the process itself, and can maybe even let go of needing our results to be of a certain quality in order for us to feel happy. We can do this by becoming more centred in the present moment.

    Learning Starts Here

    By pausing and taking a few conscious breaths, we discover that this moment right here is where all future things begin. The past is gone, and the future hasn’t happened yet – all we have is this moment. So what small steps can we take right now that will help us progress towards our goals?

    If we take the creative writing example, what we could do right now might be to read an article on how to begin writing, we could sign up for a workshop or a course, or we could simply start writing and explore what comes to us. Whatever it is that we do, we can try and be present in doing this first simple step. We can do our best to be content with where we are at this moment in our learning journey, and trust that our combination of intention and action will eventually take us to where we want go. If we find our minds wandering onto ideas or fantasies about how we want the future to be, we can simply pause again, take a few more breaths, and settle back into where we are right now.

    Staying Determined

    Speak to any expert in any field and they will (if they’re honest!) tell you that they faced many hurdles on their journey to where they are now. For every bestselling novel, there will be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of words of text which were thrown away out of frustration or rejected by publishers. For every invention there will be many unusable prototypes which came before. For every beautiful cardigan, there will be many tangles of wool! Success is built on past failures. So how can mindfulness help us deal with these set-backs, and help keep us on track with our learning?

    First of all, practicing mindfulness can help us take ourselves out of the equation a little. When we are mindful, we can more easily reframe our experiences, so that rather than constantly being in emotional reaction to life, we can detach a little and see things more clearly. Rather than seeing our failures as being indicative of our personal worth, we can create some space to see that our failures are simply steps towards becoming good at what we’re doing.

    Of course we will inevitably feel disheartened, frustrated, or doubtful of ourselves at times. These are experiences that we share with the whole human race. Yet, we can always return to this moment and start again.

    A Nurturing Attitude

    Anyone who can remember being criticised by a parent, teacher or peers will know how important encouragement is, and how painful it can be when we don’t receive it. Overly critical people can really put a dent in our self-confidence, and can affect our belief in ourselves for many years. Generally we tend to be encouraging to others in their creative or academic pursuits, yet how often do we afford ourselves the same amount of support?

    Self-compassion is really important when we’re learning a new skill, not only so that we can be kind to ourselves when we make mistakes, but also so that we can see when we have achieved something. Self-compassion is all about nurturing and caring for ourselves. By developing a nurturing mindset, we’re more likely to progress, and enjoy the process of learning.

    Next time you achieve something, why not congratulate yourself as you would a good friend who had achieved the same thing? Maybe you could even treat yourself in some way, to acknowledge that what you’ve done has value.

     

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  • How Art Galleries Can Help Us Practice

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    Studies in art galleries have found that people generally don’t spend much time looking at artwork. The average viewing times vary from study to study, ranging from a glance of less than two seconds to up to 32.5 seconds, yet even the upper end of that scale doesn’t seem that long when we consider the amount of time and effort it takes to visit an art gallery in the first place. The Louvre in Paris estimates that people spend just 15 seconds admiring the Mona Lisa. This could be because the crowds of people make it hard to stop and look for longer, yet sometimes it might possibly be because we think we know what the Mona Lisa looks like and so we don’t take the time to admire her with fresh eyes.

    Practicing mindfulness enables us to really appreciate our senses. Whether it’s listening to music, tasting or smelling food, enjoying how things feel on our skin or how colours and shapes look, we can use mindfulness to savour these moments; moments that, without mindfulness, are so easy to miss or take for granted. With mindfulness, these sensory experiences can be enjoyed as if they are new to us.

    So when we visit somewhere like an art gallery, we can use our knowledge of mindfulness to heighten our sensory experience of the place. By remembering to slow down and really see what we are looking at, our visits can become enriching rather than routine.

    The Gift of Sight

    If we have the ability to see art then we have something precious to feel grateful for: our sight. It’s easy to take for granted something that has always been with us, and that we use every day without having to think about it. However, if we can take a pause from running on auto-pilot we have the opportunity to let gratitude into our hearts for this amazing ability.

    We may realise that we have spent most of our lives never really seeing the colours around us. It might not be until we focus our attention on what our eyes are taking in that we start to notice subtle differences in tone or hue, the varying textures of paint on canvas, or the captured marks of brush strokes. Even statues that we walk past on the street every day could offer us something new and interesting, if we offer them our full attention. Feeling gratitude for our sight can help prevent us from skimming over life’s rich details.

    Curiosity Creates Fresh Vision

    In a fascinating talk, Dr. Ellen Langer demonstrates how what we see in an image is determined by what we already know about that image. She starts off by showing what looks like an abstract black and white image and asks the audience what they see. Some members of the audience say they can see a cow, and Langer responds by pointing out that the only reason they can see a cow is because they’ve already seen the image before and have had the cow pointed out to them. Sure enough, once the cow image is highlighted, it’s impossible to not see it any more, showing us just how much our senses are influenced by pre-existing knowledge or ideas.

    Langer then goes on to describe the attributes of mindlessness:

    “Mindlessness: an inactive state of mind characterised by reliance on distinctions, categories drawn in the past:

    1) The past over-determines the present.
    2) Trapped in a single perspective.
    3) Insensitive to context.
    4) Rule and routine governed.
    5) Typically in error, but rarely in doubt.”

    Dr. Langer’s approach is light-hearted; she uses examples of her own mindlessness to demonstrate her points, and makes it clear that just because we’re often mindless doesn’t mean that we’re stupid. Mindlessness is not something we ought to feel embarrassed or guilty about; it’s just human.

    However, once we become aware that we are detached from the moment, and that our sensory experiences are being heavily influenced by the past or by a fixed perspective, we can remember to breathe, and re-focus on what’s right in front us.

    In this context, a little doubt can come in handy! What would things look like to us if we weren’t so sure of what we knew or thought about them? This sense of curiosity acts as an antidote to our habitual ways of thinking and seeing. We can actively look for novelty, whereas before we might assume familiarity.

    Never Underestimate the Power of a Painting

    Art has the power to transform our lives, to give us new ideas, to prompt us to think differently about ourselves or the world. The way in which art does this is often subtle, requiring mindfulness on our part so that we may ‘hear’ its lessons or insights. This process of inspiration is entirely personal: the artworks themselves don’t contain any wisdom; these qualities exist in our relationship with them. We must be open, to allow space for it, in order for it to arise for us. That’s not to say that we go searching for deep meaning in every work of art we look at, just that if we gently and consciously cultivate a more open, mindful mind, what our eyes are seeing has more chance to inspire us.

     

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