• Mindful Eating: The End of Dieting

     

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    Few of us exclusively eat when we are actually physically hungry, when our body sends us hunger signals such as a grumbling stomach, slight dizziness or an empty stomach feeling, which let us know that we need fuel up our bodies.

    Most of us will eat at other times too - when it’s the “right” time on the clock, when we feel stressed out, upset, bored or when we have a craving for a particular food. If we are offered food we will often take it, no matter how hungry we feel, and we will eat just because we are in the company of other people who are eating. Sometimes we know that there won’t be any food available or that there’ll be no time to eat later on, and so we eat more than we need so we have enough food in our bellies until there is food again.

    As a consequence of this, it is easy for our calorie intake to exceed the amount we actually need and so inevitably we gain weight. Our society’s prescription for having too much weight is an often extreme, short term diet in order too lose a few pounds and then eat less and more healthily for the rest of our lives.

    Why Diets Don’t Work

    Usually when we start a diet we are very disciplined. We have a dream target weight, a food plan, freshly stocked kitchens and so we enthusiastically commence our diet. As soon as the first few pounds are off the scale, for many of us, something almost miraculous happens: super-hero motivation fills us and we burst with willpower. At this stage, we might not even be able to understand anymore why we were eating too much, let alone ever touched chocolate cookies or crisps! We feel like a new person who has finally got their weight and eating habits under control.

    Unfortunately, this first phase doesn’t last forever. I believe this may be because human beings are evolutionarily programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In phase one, the pleasure of losing our first pounds is so exciting that it unquestionably exceeds the pain or discomfort of not eating that second portion or bar of chocolate in front of the television after an exhausting work day. We’ve got endless willpower!

    After a while, however, something shifts and our willpower decreases. We realise that in order to keep those pounds off permanently we will have to always maintain that same level of discipline. In addition to that realisation, we might go through a stressful period at work or a difficult period with our family - or simply feel a bit low, as life can be. That’s usually when we discover that we can’t maintain our willpower anymore and we slip. “After all, what’s the problem with a little piece of chocolate here and there anyway?” we might think. But it never ends with that small piece of chocolate, which soon becomes a bar and we end up back in our familiar and comfortable eating habits. This is shown by the fact that about 95% of people who lose weight by dieting regaining it in 1-5 years. Not only that, our dieting can promote an unhealthy relationship to food.

    I believe this is because diets don’t help us change our eating patterns in a sustainable way. They change – for a certain time – the food we put on our plates and into our mouths, but they do not change our relationship with food. In order to change our eating patterns in a sustainable way, willpower is simply not enough.

    Mindful Eating - Tapping Into Our Innate Abilities

    Unlike diets, Mindful Eating teaches us to change our eating patterns step by step. It teaches us mindfulness skill-power! However we cannot develop this overnight. It takes time. Because just as eating patterns take years or decades to evolve, they take a lot of training to sustainably change.

    Mindful-Based Eating Awareness Training doesn’t tell us what to eat or what not to eat. It doesn’t provide us with any rules or orders. Instead it trains our innate ability to tune into our bodies cues and learn to read these signals telling us when it’s time to eat, how much to eat and when to stop eating. It teaches us the skills to tap into our hunger and fullness awareness, to better develop our taste satiety and trains our ability to slow down while eating, thus tasting our food mindfully.

    Hunger and Fullness Awareness

    Training our hunger and fullness awareness lets us reconnect with our ability to check in with physical hunger and fullness symptoms. For example, instead of listening to our mind when it says it’s time to eat, we start listening more to our belly and whole body’s signals of when it’s time to eat. We also learn that hunger and fullness are intimately linked but don’t completely ;it is possible for us to feel full and still physically hungry. In the water bottle meditation during the course, participants are asked to come to a session hungry and then drink half liter of water (or 1 small bottle of water) while mindfully observing how they feel fuller and fuller in their stomach, yet still they may have a feeling of physical hunger.

    Taste Satiety

    Food tastes a lot better when we start eating and this satisfaction starts to decrease when we go into the phase of overeating. This satisfaction decrease is because our tongue sends feedback signals to our brain to tell us to stop eating. But many of us don’t tune into these taste satiety signals. The more we can train our taste satiety ability, the more we will be able to tell when food doesn’t taste as good and will then naturally stop eating because we do not get as much satisfaction.

    Slowing Down

    Mindful Eating also teaches us how to slow down. Through training, we can learn that by taking time to eat we to savour every bite. If we gulp down our food or watch television while eating (or both), our tongues and brains hardly register that we’ve eaten a whole meal. No wonder our mind and body will then not be satisfied after a meal and will request more food. Many of us, when we start to practice mindful eating, will become real food gourmets, because mindful eating not only trains us to savour every bite mindfully, it also teaches us to look at our food, smell it, feel it and sometimes even mindfully listen to it. As trained mindful eaters we don’t want to gulp down a whole chocolate bar anymore, but will now go for smaller sized deliciously prepared desserts that not only satisfy our tongues, but also our other senses.

    Emotional Eating, Urge Surfing & Self-Compassion

    Every time we eat when we are bored, anxious or even happy, we are eating for emotional reasons. We’re not eating because we are physically hungry and therefore our body doesn’t need to be given food. In such moments, we not only need to tap into our hunger awareness, taste satiety and mindful eating skills, we also need something else to cope with our emotional discomfort or pain. This is where basic mindfulness skills come in.

    One of the many things mindfulness teaches us is to learn to accept and sit with uncomfortable states of mind, heart and body; to accept this very moment as it is – pleasurable, neutral or uncomfortable, and observe it with curiosity and with a non-judgemental awareness. When we feel upset or bored, we often don’t stay with those feelings but immediately feel the urge to push them away. In those moments, a piece of chocolate comes in handy because it momentarily takes our mind off of an uncomfortable state.

    A technique called Urge Surfing helps us with such emotional urges. Urge Surfing helps us to accept and observe emotional urges with kindness and curiosity so that we will become stronger and stronger in surfing them. This is important because no urge lasts forever (mostly only a few seconds or minutes). Thus, the more professional we become in surfing the urges, the less we will give in to them.

    Self-compassion is a vital part of Mindful Eating. Often when we have overeaten we end up berating ourselves, which usually makes us more upset, and in many cases makes us want to eat even more. In a Mindful Eating course we instead learn to treat ourselves with kindness, so that we can interrupt the cycle of overeating, beating ourselves up and then eating even more as a result.

    Mindful Eating is not about willpower, restriction or following rules. It’s about reconnecting us with our bellies, taste buds, emotions, treating ourselves with compassion and kindness.

    Want to learn more about mindful eating and experience some of the practices for yourself? Check out the details of our next 8-Week Mindful Eating Course here.

  • Simple Mini-Meditations for the Workday

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    A recent survey conducted by Bupa showed that 28% of British workers don’t take a minute for themselves during the workday. And two thirds of employees are unable to take a proper lunch break, even for 20 minutes. So it’s little wonder that so many of us feel that we just don’t have the time to fit meditation into our day.

    However, taking even just a few moments to slow down and calm our minds throughout the day can have a positive effect. After all, just one minute of mindfulness is better than none! So why not try these super simple mini-meditations to start off with.

    A Few Deep Breaths Before Jumping Out of Bed

    The alarm buzzes, jolting us from our sleep, and suddenly we’re facing another work day. If we like our job, then this isn’t such a bad thing. Yet if we dread going into work, these first few moments in the morning can be pretty tough. Taking a moment to calm our minds during this time could make a huge difference to how we feel for the rest of the day.

    Before we jump out of bed and get busy with our morning routine, why not take just a few deep breaths first? As we breathe in deeply, we can notice how the oxygen fills our lungs and energises the body. As we breathe out, we can try to let go of any tension we’re holding in our neck, shoulders or back. Of course, consciously breathing for 10 or 20 minutes is proven to benefit us in many ways, but if we feel stretched for time, just three deep breaths can be enough to take us out of our default mood of dread or depression and into a more relaxed state of mind.

    Have a Mindful Tea Break

    Leaving our desks and spending a few minutes in the kitchen to make a hot drink can provide a nice break. If we add mindfulness, however, this time can feel even more enriching.

    Try turning the process of making tea or coffee into a mindfulness meditation by slowing down every action, even if it’s only slightly. When we reach for our mug, instead of grabbing it from the cupboard, treat it as if it’s something precious. Notice how it feels in your hand – is it cool, or warm from the dishwasher or sink? Notice how the tea bag feels when you pick it up and place it in the mug, or how the coffee granules look as you dip a teaspoon into them. Watch how the boiling water pours into the mug, and how the coffee dissolves, or how the tea bag starts to turn the water a rich brown colour.

    Noticing each individual step of the process can help us appreciate the present moment more. Instead of seeing this time as meaningless, as just a necessary thing to do in order to create a drink, we can use this time to remember that every moment can feel special, even the seemingly mundane ones, if we just take time to slow down and notice.

    Take a Mindful Eating Moment in Your Lunch Break

    Bupa’s survey showed that about a third of workers eat their lunch at their desks, and a quarter admitted to answering emails or using their work phones during lunch. This trend is having a detrimental effect, both to work productivity and to our physical and emotional health. Over half of the people surveyed said that skipping lunch puts them in a bad mood. However, while the length of our lunch breaks may be out of our control, we do have control over how we spend the time we do have.

    We probably don’t have time to eat all of our lunch mindfully. Yet why not try eating at least the first two or three bites in a more mindful way? Before we start eating, we can take just a moment to look at our food, feel it in our hands, and appreciate the fact that we have something to eat. As we move our food up to our mouths, we can notice how it smells before taking a bite. When the food is in our mouths, we can focus our attention on how it tastes, and how the texture of it feels on our tongue, gums and teeth. Doing this, even just two or three times, can help our lunch feel more satisfying, and may also help us feel a little more in control of our time and our experience in the moment, rather than feeling that we are in a never-ending rush.

    Mindful Listening in Meetings

    In meetings, we’ll often find that our minds completely wander onto other topics, such as what we’ll cook for dinner, or ruminating about problems we’ll face when we return home in the evening. Yet this provides us with an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness! After all, mindfulness isn’t about clearing our minds of thoughts; it’s about noticing what’s going on in our minds.

    We don’t always need to be in a peaceful setting with our eyes closed in order to meditate. In essence, meditation is all about noticing when our mind is wandering away from what we want to focus on, whether that’s our breath, the food we’re eating, or a meeting. So when we realise that we are no longer listening, we can practice bringing our attention back to whoever is speaking. This way, we can easily bring meditation into our workday, whilst at the same time being more productive and present in our work roles.

    Have you experimented with bringing more mindfulness into your workday? How did it change your experience? We’d love to hear your tips and stories in the comments below!

  • Tips for Mindful Baking

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    Baking is a perfect way to practice mindfulness. To successfully bake a cake, some biscuits or a loaf of bread, we need to pay close attention to the recipe. If we measure out too much flour or don’t include enough butter, if we don’t mix the ingredients in the correct order or don’t knead the dough for long enough, we’ll end up with poor results. This need for focus can help quieten our internal chatter, and can therefore be very therapeutic.

    A Party for the Senses

    We can involve all of our senses in the process of baking. Paying close attention to how the ingredients look, smell, taste, feel, and even how they sound, can provide a wonderful self-soothing affect. Next time you bake, why not take some time to really look at the ingredients as you measure them out and add them to the mixing bowl. Notice the texture of the sugar: is it fine and white, or coarse and golden brown? How does it fall as you sprinkle it into the mixture? Notice the colour of the butter, and the texture as you cut through it. Take time to smell the individual ingredients, and then notice how they smell as they become combined. If you’re mixing anything by hand, notice how it feels on your skin. You can even notice how the mixture sounds as you stir it or whisk it. The sounds of cake batter or bread dough as it is kneaded might bring back warm memories and comforting sensations from our childhood.

    Gratitude

    Paying more attention to the process of baking also gives us the opportunity to feel gratitude. When we slow down, and stop doing things on auto-pilot, we become more aware of how special things are. We can take a moment to feel grateful for the ingredients we have, for the farmers and workers which have grown and produced them so that we are able to use them in our baking. We can feel grateful for our senses, and for our ability to bake. If we’re self-taught bakers, we can feel gratitude for the recipe books we have read, or perhaps our school teachers, parents, grandparents, friends or spouses taught us how to bake, and so we can feel grateful for their presence in our lives. There’s really no limit to what we can feel grateful for, and appreciating the act of baking can make our final products even tastier than if we take everything for granted.

    Mindful Eating

    Once we’ve measured, mixed, and baked, we can then finish our mindful baking experience with some mindful eating. After all, if we’ve taken the time to bake with mindfulness, it would be a shame to just wolf down what we have created!

    Just as with baking, we can make use of all of our senses when we eat. Noticing how our food looks, smells, feels and sounds before we take a bite helps our minds focus less on our mental chatter and more on our present experience. Fully enjoying how our baking tastes can give us an enriching feeling of accomplishment. What might have once just been seen as a simple slice of cake can now provide a full and rich sensory experience, which helps ground us firmly in the sweet present moment.

    To learn more about mindful eating, why not sign up for our online Introduction to Mindful Eating workshop on Tuesday 12th May!

  • 8 Wellbeing Benefits Of Practicing Gratitude

    Increased gratitude is a common result of practicing mindfulness. As we start paying more attention to our thoughts, we notice where we block ourselves from appreciating the good things in life. Say, for example, that you always used to get angry when stuck in traffic, but now when you bring your focus to where you are (rather than where you want to get to) you notice things such as the song on the radio or a beautiful scene beyond the car window. We can’t feel grateful for things we don’t notice, and so mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand.

    Gratitude

    The Science of Gratitude

    Robert Emmons, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at UC Davis in California, and has been studying the effects of gratitude on over 1,000 people. The participants in his study ranged in age from eight to eighty, and were split into two groups. One group was asked to keep a journal in which they were to write five ‘gifts’ that they were grateful for each day, while the other group had to write down five ‘hassles’. Some examples of the ‘gifts’ people noted were generosity of friends, and watching a sunset through the clouds. Examples of ‘hassles’ were things like difficulty in finding a parking space, and burning their dinner.

    What Emmons found was that those who had kept a gratitude journal experienced significant psychological, physical and social benefits: a 25% improvement in overall health and wellbeing in comparison with the group focussing on what had gone wrong each day.

    Here are just eight of the many ways in which mindfully practicing gratitude can improve our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others around us.

    Greater Energy Levels

    When we experience sadness or depression, our energy levels slump way down. Sometimes doing the simplest of tasks can feel like running a marathon. However, people who kept a gratitude journal in Emmons study reported that their energy levels improved. Many also started exercising more. People with depression are often told that exercise will help, however this study suggests it may in fact work the other way around; that being mindful of what’s good about our life plays an important role in having the energy to exercise.

    Better Sleep

    On average, study participants found that they were not only sleeping 10% longer than they used to, but that the quality of their sleep was improved. They reported waking up feeling more refreshed and ready for the coming day.

    Reduced Blood Pressure

    With our current hectic lifestyles, high blood pressure has become a common problem. However, simply taking moments to focus our attention on our loved ones or friends, or on the beauty of nature, can lower blood pressure, thus taking the strain off our hearts, brains and many other parts of the body.

    Feeling Less Lonely

    Gratitude strengthens relationships, not just with people we know, but with other people in general. When we’re mindful of positive traits and behaviours in others, we feel more supported, and that leads to us feeling more able to support others in return. When we feel safer, we become less selfish, as we no longer feel such a need to look out for our own interests above others. This leads to us feeling less lonely and isolated, as we are more able to truly connect with others.

    Fewer Physical Symptoms

    People who wrote down five things they were grateful for each day became less affected by aches, pains and other physical symptoms. This ties in with other studies which have found that mindfulness can ease uncomfortable physical symptoms, even chronic pain.

    Improved Attentiveness

    As we mentioned earlier in this post, mindfulness and gratitude are very much linked. Over time, those who deliberately thought about what they were grateful for experienced greater attentiveness. They felt more alert and aware of life.

    Taking Better Care of Health

    Practicing daily gratitude resulted in many participants taking better care of their physical health. Mindful individuals tend to have better self-control and are less impulsive, in many areas of life, including eating habits. Add this to more exercise and better quality of sleep, and you’ve got an all-round much healthier life.

    Increased Joy

    When we steer our attention to what’s good about the world, we naturally feel a greater sense of joy. It’s important to note, however, that gratitude isn’t about denying what’s wrong; solely acknowledging the positive and avoiding the negative can do us much psychological harm. But noticing good things, when and where they exist, takes us out of seeing the world as just being a bad place where bad things happen. In truth, life contains both good and bad, but mindful gratitude helps us appreciate those lovely moments in life, whilst at the same time enabling us to make more of those lovely moments for others.

    MEDITATIONS:

    Gratitude Meditation

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Cultivating Happiness Workshop, Self-Compassion Workshop, 8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course, Self-Compassion Drop-In for Graduates

  • Holding Happiness Lightly

    happiness

    Savouring happy moments is important. In the same way repeated exercise makes our muscles stronger, paying attention to what makes us feel good helps our brains become better at noticing positive things. You can read more about this in our blog post Being Open To The Good Things In Life. However, that savouring of happiness can all too easily turn into clinging, and clinging to any experience, even a lovely one, will inevitably cause suffering as all experiences are transitory.

    Wanting More

    Sometimes happiness can sneak up on us and take us completely by surprise: an unexpected present or compliment, the chance discovery of a great book or café, falling in love, being outside during a beautiful sunset, etc. In those moments, we feel a kind of deep and pure happiness; we weren’t necessarily looking for those things, and so our minds are free of expectations. We just enjoy the joy. But then, after the moment has passed, we may start to feel that our happiness is dependent on those things happening again, or in different, better ways. The compliment made us feel good, and so we want more of them. The sunset was awe-inspiring, but perhaps if we were to watch the sunset on a beautiful island rather than in the middle of the city it would be even better. Rather than simply savouring the pleasant feelings and then moving on, we start forming criteria for our future happiness based on what has made us happy in the past.

    Conditional Happiness

    From a young age, we start collecting these ideas and beliefs about what must happen in our lives in order for us to feel happy. For example, when we are small we feel happy and safe when our parents approve of us, and so we carry that idea with us, perhaps for our whole lives: “If I can just win my parents approval, then I’ll be happy.” Or maybe we picked up the belief somewhere along the way that we can’t be truly happy unless we’re in a relationship, but then when we’re in one it may seem that being in a relationship isn’t quite as joyful as being married, and then we think we’ll perhaps find an even greater sense of happiness if we have children, and so on.

    The problem with conditional happiness is twofold. We suffer in the lead up to achieving it, because we are filled with a desire for something we don’t yet have, and so therefore feel a terrible sense of lack. Then once we do have it, rather than finding that place of eternal happiness that we had been hoping for, the emotion naturally passes and we have to set our sights on the next goal that will make us happy. If we’re not mindful, we could get stuck on this treadmill for the rest of our lives.

    Cultivating a Sense of ‘Enough’

    Some of the happiest people are not those who have everything they ever wanted, but are those who find contentment in what they have. It’s an unconditional happiness; a steady peace of mind that doesn’t fluctuate so wildly depending on whether life goes our way or not. We can cultivate this sense of ‘enough’ by becoming more accepting of the way things presently are, and by becoming more appreciative of the little things in life.

    Mindfulness helps us see that reality is not our idea of how things ought to be, but that it is simply what is. When we believe that ‘what is’ is incorrect somehow, this can cause us tremendous amounts of suffering. For example, if we don’t get a job we really wanted, or if the person we are in love with doesn’t love us back, we can get totally lost, not just in sadness and despair (which are understandable reactions to painful events), but also a sense of things not being the way they should be. We are at odds with reality, and that really hurts. Yet by learning to accept that things don’t always go our own way, and by learning to compassionately accept painful feelings, we can become more steady and more in the driving seat of our own peace of mind.

    Appreciating the little things in life is also important, and nice to do! While we may believe that to be happy we must have wealth, our dream job, our dream partner, etc, we can actually find happiness in the very act of being appreciative. Try noticing something right now that you can appreciate, no matter how small. Maybe it’s your cup of coffee, the fact that you have the ability to hear traffic on the street, or simply that you are breathing. They may seem like mini-happy-moments compared to “important” ones like getting married or winning the lottery, but while we are in these little moments, while they fill us with contentment, don’t they seem almost as big?

    Learning to hold happiness lightly is a work in progress for us all. We’re bound to get stuck, to find ourselves projecting our happiness onto future events, or to think that we would be happy now if only it wasn’t for X, Y or Z. But by practicing, by noticing our expectations and conditions for happiness a little more each time they arise, we can eventually loosen our grip, and make way for a more unconditional kind of joy.

    In the following meditation, we will bring to mind somebody and something we are grateful for, and will be guided to not only ‘think’ gratitude but to also feel it in our body. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxKU4scnoUA&t=281s

    Our Gratitude Workshop with Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi next month is perfect to learn how to cultivate gratitude, happiness and a sense of enough. Check it out here.

  • The Importance of Rest

    rest

    It’s easy to tell when a baby or small child is tired. They might cry, get super grouchy or throw an almighty tantrum. As we get older, we learn to regulate our behaviour more, and we become better at hiding our tiredness. We may still feel grouchy, but we can function. If we weren’t able to do this, commuting home at the end of the day would reach a whole new level of unpleasantness!

    However, just like when we’re small, our mood changes when we get tired. Whilst we’re able to hold back from crying and screaming, we might express our discomfort in other ways. For example, how many arguments with our partner/children/colleagues started because one of us was tired? Tiredness can result in poor judgement, mental fogginess, lowered capacity for compassion (for ourselves and others), and when it gets really bad we become more likely to have accidents. And yet, despite all of this, sometimes we are just as oblivious to our need to rest as a tantruming toddler. We have become so skilled at hiding our tiredness that even we can’t tell when we need to rest.

    Running on Empty

    We can stumble through our daily duties without noticing much about what’s happening around us, or what’s going on within. Before we know it, we can end up totally exhausted, without having noticed how we got there. Our bodies might be tired enough for rest, but our minds are still racing away, thinking and worrying about all the things we need to do.

    When we aren’t mindful, we can easily strain ourselves. For example, we might drink caffeine to stay awake, until we crash. If we’re self-critical, we can put too much pressure on ourselves to work long hours and not give ourselves adequate time to relax. We might forfeit sleep in order to get more done, and then wonder why we can’t switch off when we do eventually go to bed.

    Over time, this way of being will deplete us. Despite everything we might achieve through pushing ourselves, we will inevitably lose our sense of joy and our peace of mind. When we’re tired, the world can seem so grey. But by slowing down and paying attention, we can start to notice the beauty of life again.

    Listening to the Body and Mind

    Being mindful helps us tune into ourselves so that we can hear those subtle signals from our bodies and minds that tell us it’s time to rest. Whether it’s through meditating daily, or setting reminders throughout the day to prompt us to take a moment to check in with ourselves, the important thing is to make the time to listen.

    Are our muscles tight? Do parts of our bodies ache or hurt? Do we feel lethargic? When did we last eat something or drink some water? And how do we feel emotionally? Are we feeling stressed, depressed, angry, overwhelmed? If we receive a ton of yes answers, it might be time to get some rest! By paying more attention to how our bodies feel, we become less likely to get snappy or irritable when we’re tired, and more able to take positive action.

    Give Yourself Permission to Do Nothing!

    Doing ‘nothing’ may seem in total opposition to society’s obsession with ‘achieving’, and so for some of us it can be really hard to do. But it’s important. Apart from food and water, rest is our next most basic and essential need. So why do we feel so bad about giving ourselves time for it?

    In the same way that we set aside time to exercise, we need to deliberately take time to rest, both physically and mentally. Developing a mindful bedtime routine is a good way to wind down at the end of each day. For example, switching off our phones at least an hour before we go to sleep can help us mentally switch off from work and life stresses. Setting aside a regular time to meditate is also useful, and gives us a chance to check in with how we’re feeling.

    Just remember that any thoughts about being lazy, not deserving the time out, needing to do other things first, whatever, are all just thoughts. We do deserve to enjoy life from a rested mind!

    Our online workshop with Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi next month is perfect for those who would like to learn more about how mindfulness can improve sleep. Check it out here.

  • Values, Rather Than Goals, Help Us Live a Rich and Meaningful Life

    In his book “The Happiness Trap”, Russ Harris, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), suggests that the word happiness has two different meanings.

    One of them is ‘feeling good’. We feel good when we feel a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification. Say we have finally been given that long longed-for promotion or we’ve just been on a great first date with someone amazing. In those moments, we feel a great sense of pleasure. They are life’s ‘happy moments’. And because these moments feel so good, we naturally want more of them.

    Society reinforces this tendency to strive for a constant state of happiness: Hollywood and fairy tales lead us to believe that happy endings are the ultimate goal, and advertisements tell us that if we only buy this specific product it will make us feel good. Our society drives us so much towards happiness, that when we spot someone in a state of unhappiness it makes us shrug – maybe not if it’s a loved one, but most definitely if it’s a stranger. For example, if we see an adult sobbing on a train, our nervous system immediately tenses up; we potentially feel shame, look away and most often don’t know what to do.

    True Happiness

    grapesLuckily, there’s a second meaning to happiness which encompasses more than just ‘feeling good’ – after all, we not only experience pleasurable emotions such as Love, Joy and Curiosity, but also unpleasant ones such as Fear, Anger, Shock, Disgust, Sadness and Guilt. Russ Harris believes that true happiness does not come from wanting to feel good all the time, but from ‘living a rich and meaningful life’ which is directed by our values. He defines these as ‘your heart’s deepest desires for the sort of person you want to be, and the things you want to do in your time on this planet’.  Examples of values are ‘being caring’, ‘independence’, ‘creativity’ and ‘mindfulness’.

    Unlike goals, values can’t be completed or ticked off a list. They are a direction we desire to keep moving in, an ongoing process that never reaches an end. A good example of a value is ‘being loving and caring’ as opposed to the goal of ‘getting married’. You can have the intention to be loving and caring every day for the rest of your life, but once you’re married you are married. Goal achieved. You may even end up being married and at the same time being hard-hearted and uncaring. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever set goals for ourselves. But rather than seeing their achievement as our ultimate aim in life, we should look upon them as lucky by-products that may or may not happen while living a life according to our deepest values.

    Getting Better at Feeling

    ACT is a good abbreviation because it stands for committing to take action towards creating a rich and meaningful life, guided by our deepest values while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. Because when we head towards what really matters to us, we will not only experience feelings like Love, Joy and Curiosity, but along this path we will also experience the more unpleasant feelings of the spectrum of human emotion. ACT, as a mindfulness-based approach, teaches us how to mindfully explore those feelings, open up to them and accept them as a natural part of life instead of having to constantly push them away. In that sense, ACT is not about simply ‘feeling better’. It’s about opening up to life in all its shades, thus ‘getting better at feeling’ so that we can follow our hearts truest values and live a rich and meaningful life.

     

  • Being Vulnerable In Love

    There’s a popular saying that we must first love ourselves before we can expect others to love us. However, as with everything in life, the truth is more complicated than that.

    Love for ourselves will come and go; there will be times when we actually don’t like ourselves at all. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be loved by others. What is more crucial in a relationship is that we are willing to be vulnerable and honest; that we are willing to be open and show our loved ones who we really are, warts and all. This is by no means an easy feat, and however long we have been with our partner, it doesn’t seem to get easier with time. Being vulnerable is painful, and risky. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

    Love is a Risky Business

    Even in the early stages of a relationship we’ll find that vulnerability is necessary. Telling our date that we’d like to see them again, leaning in for that nervous first kiss, or telling them for the first time that we love them, all require us to take a risk. We open and offer our hearts to this other person, without any guarantee that they’ll want it. It’s no wonder that many of us find it easier to stay single! Yet love can’t blossom without us taking these risks, without these painfully vulnerable moments. This is true even 10 or 20 years into a relationship. The need to be vulnerable with each other never goes away.

    Strawberry Heart Square_3For a long time, society has taught us that vulnerability is a weakness. We’re not safe when we’re vulnerable, so it’s important to be strong. It’s true that we don’t feel ‘safe’ at all when we open ourselves up to others. But mindfulness can help with this.

    “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
    Thích Nhất Hạnh

    Life gets difficult when thoughts, emotions and outside events are constantly throwing us off balance. This is also true in relationships. When every misunderstanding and argument throws us into doubt and inner turmoil, it may feel that being in a relationship is not worth the hassle. However, through the practice of mindfulness we can develop a stronger centre, an anchor to ourselves. This way we can keep our heads above the waves, even if sometimes it feels like we’re only just managing to do so, rather than drowning every time our imperfections make the waters become choppy.

    Reframing Our Baggage

    By cultivating compassion and adopting a less judgemental viewpoint, we can reframe not only our own flaws and hang-ups, but those of our partner too. Rather than seeing our failings as a sign that there is something wrong with us, or that we’re not good enough (or that our partner is not good enough), we can start to see that everything we struggle with is simply a sign that we are human. These imperfections are something we share with all of humanity. Whatever we may feel embarrassed about or ashamed of within ourselves are not unique to us alone.

    Of course, there will be some issues that cannot be tolerated within a relationship. Not all relationships can last. But even in these cases, we can aim to end relationships in the most compassionate way that we are able to, forgiving ourselves or our partner if possible, so that we can move on in life without holding onto resentment or blame.

    Taking the Plunge

    There can be no love without an element of risk. In order to connect with others on such an intimate level, we are required to go out on a limb, to potentially make fools of ourselves, to take the risk of being rejected. But the payoff from taking these risks can be worth all the heartache it may cause.

    We can only be truly loved if we are loved as a whole. Allowing someone to only see and love our best side means we are not loved fully. The same goes for our partner; if we don’t allow them space to be imperfect, can we really say that we love them?

    Ultimately, if we want love we must dive into it, even though it is bound to be messy and difficult at times, because true love will also be beautiful and profound too. Let mindfulness be your anchor, and take the plunge.

  • How Animals Help Us Live in the Moment

    The company of animals certainly seems to have a healing effect in many of our lives. This is probably partly due to the fact that they don’t judge us in the same way fellow humans do. They may get annoyed with us if we stroke them the wrong way, but they’ll never judge us for our flaws. A cat or a dog will never reject us because we eat too much, have credit card debts, or don’t call our mothers as often as we should. It’s not unusual to see dogs sitting beside homeless people on the street. Our animals love us, even if we don’t love ourselves. In many cases, they embody mindfulness; they are non-judgementally present in the moment. When an animal is sitting with us, they aren’t busy thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. They are simply there. This is probably why they have such a special place in many of our lives.

    Being Mindful with Our Pets

    Stocksy_txp09765ccdOx5000_Small_189814In our busy lives it can be all too easy to take our pets for granted. However, if we can make the time, our pets can provide us with great ways to practice mindfulness.

    Next time you’re with your pet, why not take a few moments to really notice everything about them. When you stroke them, pay close attention to how their fur or feathers feel beneath your hand. Maybe even imagine that it’s the first time you’ve ever felt them, and see what difference it makes to your experience of them. Notice their appearance, taking in every whisker, every feather or patch of coloured fur, every paw and claw. Watch how they’re breathing. Listen to their heart beat if you’re snuggled up with them. Perhaps most importantly of all, cultivate a sense of gratitude for having them in your life. Remember all the difficult or painful times that you’ve been through, and how your pet has been there with you through it all. Let that gratitude fill you from top to toe.

    Animals and Meditation

    One of the great things about animals is that they don’t care about our plans. They have a habit of interrupting those streams of thought that we feel are very important. Although this may at first seem like a negative thing, it can actually help us become unstuck from living in our mental chatter by bringing us back to reality. For this reason, animals can help us in our formal meditation practice.

    Have you ever been meditating, and then heard a dog barking in the distance, or had your cat try climbing on you for a cuddle? Far from being distractions from our meditation, they can enhance it. Meditation is not about escaping from the present moment, but about embracing it. While we’re taking our meditation very seriously, animals are just living their lives. And so that dog barking in the street or that cat determined to have your attention act as anchors to the flow of the present. They are reminders that we are not in control, and that the best way to cope with life is to let go of our pre-conceived ideas of how things should be and join in with the dance of how things really are.

    We can do this by noticing our reactions to them. If we feel annoyed about our meditation being interrupted, we can look at why that is. Perhaps it’s because we have an inaccurate idea of what meditation is about. Or perhaps we’re attached to an idea of how we’d like to be. In this way, animals can have a very humbling effect. They can remind us that our meditation practice doesn’t place us in an elevated state above the rest of life, but that in fact our meditating is just like the barking in the street, just one small part of life as a whole.

    Animals are indeed great mindfulness teachers, if we take the time to notice them. What mindfulness lessons have you learnt from your pets? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!

    MEDITATION:

    Animal Affection Meditation

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