• 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

  • How Mindfulness Can Help Prevent and Ease Burnout

    Most kind of work brings with it some level of stress, whether we’re in a position that entails a lot of responsibility or whether we have deadlines and standards to meet. We may find ourselves doing more than one person’s job without the extra pay. Or we may simply just not enjoy our work and find that we are feeling stressed and low because we feel unfulfilled.

    Work-related stress may leave us feeling exhausted, disillusioned and all out of compassion or care for our fellow colleagues or clients. Burnout doesn’t just affect us as individuals, but also the people we work with and provide services for. We may find we’re more impatient with customers, or may get overly defensive when a co-worker offers some constructive criticism.

    Fortunately, mindfulness helps us spot the signs of burnout before they become severe, and can also improve existing symptoms. For example, studies have shown that after participating in an 8-week mindfulness course, healthcare professionals saw improved scores on the Maslach Burnout Inventory – a test which measures factors such as emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.

    Recognising the Signs

    For some, burnout can creep up unnoticed. How many of us let our job take precedence over our individual well-being? Of course selflessness is admirable in certain circumstances however, when this attitude goes unchecked, we may start to see serious consequences in regards to our mental and physical health. Whilst we may think we’re doing a good job by dedicating ourselves so fully to the role, if our actions lead to burnout we’ll find ourselves no longer able to care about the role at all.

    Although it may sound like a small thing, recognising and acknowledging how we are feeling is of vital importance. We can’t seek support without first noticing that we need to, and it can mean the difference between taking a few days off work to rest and being forced to take a long absence because of severe burnout.

    Through practicing mindfulness we become more aware of subtle changes in our mood and physical health, and can start to notice more quickly when we are struggling. Rather than waiting for a full meltdown before we take action, we can read the signals of our minds and bodies and start to take better care of ourselves.

    Using Creativity to Re-Focus

    It’s hard to pay attention when we’re exhausted or disillusioned. Whether it’s paperwork, or interacting with a client or colleague, tiredness and disinterest can lead to us making mistakes. When those mistakes are to do with someone’s health, finances or important services the consequences could be serious.

    However, staying focused becomes easier when we notice new and different things about a person or situation. Simply changing some of our fixed routines can help us see things in a new light, therefore keeping us engaged. For example, if you’re struggling to feel compassion towards a difficult client, practice mindfulness when you’re talking with them. Notice your beliefs about the person, and imagine that they may not be completely true. Try to see that person with fresh vision, as if you were meeting them for the first time. Or if the problem is repetitive paperwork, make small changes to help you focus. Try sitting in a different place. If you can’t do that, change the layout of your desk. Use a new pen and notice how it feels in your hand, notice how the ink looks on the paper. Although these may at first sound like pointless exercises, studies have shown that making simple changes to our environment or to our relationship with an object or action can greatly improve attention and focus. When we’re engaged with an activity, responding in a mindful way, we’re less likely to make mistakes or feel stressed.

    Self-Compassion and Self-Care

    How often do we show the same level of compassion to ourselves as we do for our loved ones and friends? Preventing or healing from burnout is impossible without taking care of ourselves and practicing some self-kindness.

    Far from being a fluffy or airy-fairy concept, self-compassion allows us to perform better in our jobs in a practical way, by preventing harmful burnout. Self-criticism and compassionately noticing where we can improve are not the same thing. Many of us confuse being hard on ourselves with being driven, yet without kindness we are likely to drive ourselves into a breakdown rather than towards long-term happiness and success.

    Using mindfulness to become aware of the ways in which we give ourselves a hard time, and to step out of habitual unhelpful ways of responding to our own emotional needs, helps us overcome or avoid symptoms of burnout and will also make us better at our jobs.

  • A Mindful Movie Experience: Momo

    ‘Momo’ is a magical film about our fear of losing time. Although it was made in 1986, this subject is still just asrelevant as it was back then. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that Michael Ende (who wrote the novel which the film is based on, as well as ‘The Neverending Story’) couldn’t have guessed that twenty-nine years on his wisdom would be needed now more than ever before. As a society we are obsessed with ‘saving time’. Think of the countless apps and technologies which have been designed to help us manage time. We count the minutes that we work, exercise – even meditate! We can instantly communicate with people who live on the other side of the world. We can pop food in a microwave and eat it five minutes later. And yet, who feels that they have more time? If anything, we feel we have less than we ever did. If you do too, then Momo is a must-see film.

    Momo starts off as any typical children’s film would – innocent and sweetly fanciful. We meet the heroine, Momo, when she is discovered hiding away in a hole by the side of the road, on the outskirts of an unnamed Italian city, by a kindly road sweeper. She is quickly accepted into the lively community there, and they build her a home. While the people around her get caught up in anger, doubt and arguments – like we all do – she brings a sense of calm wherever she goes. She is the embodiment of mindfulness: compassionate, non-judgemental and perfectly present. Her curious nature brings joy to everyone, and it seems that everything is wonderful… until the Men in Grey arrive.

    momoThis is where the sweet children’s film takes an all-too-grown-up turn. We instantly recognise these sinister Grey Gentlemen from the ‘Timesavings Bank’, who start advising the townspeople on how they could spend their time more efficiently – for how many of us have our own internal Grey Gentlemen? They analyse the time the people spend on sitting with friends or gazing out of the window reflecting on their day, and tell them how they are wasting valuable seconds here, there and everywhere. They are very convincing, and it’s not long before the people start acting differently; they become rushed, agitated, unfriendly. They no longer do things for the enjoyment of it, but for how much money they can make and how much time they think they can save. And this means they no longer have time for the free-spirited Momo. Even the kindly road sweeper says he has to work a late shift, “just this once”…. However, it doesn’t end there. I won’t spoil the film for you, but let’s just say I didn’t call Momo the heroine of the story for no reason!

    Perhaps the most prominent lesson of the film is to take time to appreciate all the little moments of life. Unlike the Grey Gentlemen, who frantically try to ‘save’ time by rushing, Momo notices, and therefore appreciates, everything around her. Many of us have certainly fallen into the trap of thinking that we never have enough time. And yet, practicing mindfulness helps us to see that this simply isn’t true.

    The ‘Three Step Breathing Space’ approach can help us re-centre when we get caught in a mental rush. This works firstly by becoming aware of our experience in the moment; what are our current thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations? Next, we redirect and focus our attention on the physical sensations of breathing. This way we can use the breath as an anchor, bringing us back to the present moment. We’ll probably find that our mind wants to wander, but we can gently keep bringing our focus back to the breath. Lastly, we expand our attention to our whole body, feeling the sense of our attention encompassing our whole being. This helps us acknowledge and accept everything that we are experiencing in the moment. By doing this practice regularly, we can notice more and more quickly when our attention is on rushing, rather than appreciating what’s around us. Like Momo, we can start to take more joy in the birds singing in the trees, the sun and the clouds in the sky, or the breeze on our faces. Far from being a ‘waste’ of time, noticing these seemingly small moment are what makes life worthwhile.

    Johannes Schaaf does a wonderful job directing this film, and Radost Bokel plays the part of Momo totally convincingly. The Grey Gentlemen are genuinely creepy, not just because we may recognise their plan to account for every second of every day within our own lives – they’re also pretty creepy to look at! There are also truly heart-touching and insightful moments where the film expresses mindfulness teachings we may already be familiar with, but have probably never seen portrayed in such a creative way. Momo is a special film, and is bound to leave you with a refreshed sense of how time should really be spent.

    We’ll be screening Momo at our Movie Night on Friday 20th March, 19:45 – 22:00. Click here to book your place.

  • Mindfulness in the Face of Terrorism

    Optimized-Je Suis Charlie

    The news is filled with tragedy every day. Yet there was something different about what happened in Paris last week. It wasn’t that it was any worse than other atrocities or acts of terrorism; it was that it was so close to home. And, although it may feel like an uncomfortable truth, gunmen storming an office on an ordinary Wednesday morning is more personally frightening to us than the same happening to a school thousands of miles away. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about other parts of the world, it just means that our brains are wired to seek out threats, and danger so nearby will naturally affect us more deeply. The question is, how do we remain mindful in the face of such tragedy, and how do we keep our hearts open amid such strong emotions?

    Fear, Anger and Hate

    It may seem flippant to quote Yoda from Star Wars when writing about such a serious matter, however there is undeniable truth in what the scriptwriter wrote for the character: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

    Although we live in an unpredictable world, we’re pretty good at forgetting that we’re not in control. Most of our days pass by without incident, and so when we hear on the news that something terrible has happened we are shocked back into the reality that life can be precarious and unsafe.

    Many of us have probably wondered, “Are we next?” This is a scary prospect. For Londoners it’s also bound to bring up painful memories of the 07/07 bombings. These fears are then fuelled by sensationalist media coverage. If we’re not mindful, we can end up feeling paralysed by fear and despair.

    Our initial reaction to the attack on Charlie Hebdo may have been shock or sadness, yet if we’re honest with ourselves how many of us then became angry? With that anger comes all kinds of aggressive and defensive thoughts and feelings. This is normal fight-or-flight stuff. However, if left unchecked, these thoughts and feelings could rapidly turn into hatred.

    This is how racism and prejudice are born; when we allow normal emotional reactions about individuals to turn into beliefs about entire groups of people. This is why mindfulness is so crucial. If we mindlessly descend into hatred, this doesn’t just cause suffering within us; it also fuels division outside of us too. Approaching our feelings with acceptance, compassion and honesty helps us avoid getting lost in this destructive spiral.

    Acceptance Doesn’t Have To Be Passive

    While acceptance of feelings and circumstances is important, this acceptance doesn't mean, as Tara Brach says, “to be a doormat”. It doesn't mean that we have to simply accept that bad things happen in the world and that we have no influence; that we need to accept the anger, fear or sadness that this brings up, add a little (self-)compassion into the mix, and that's it.

    If we feel passionate about injustice, acceptance is only the first step. The next step is to take action. Why? Because we can be accepting and still go to a demonstration such as the one in Paris and thus let the world know that we furiously condemn the killings of those journalists and want to stand united with others for peace. Mindfulness is not about simply sitting on a cushion, it can also give us the courage to get up from that cushion and engage with this world.

    Having Open Hearts, Even When it Hurts

    Even though it’s hard, we need to give ourselves permission to have an aching heart. The pain triggered by such tragedy can be overwhelming. We may lose faith in the goodness of humanity, or despair at the fact that we don’t live in a kinder world. It’s easy at times like this to become suspicious of each other, to want to disconnect. But we don’t like feeling these things, and so our instinct is to fight it. This just creates more suffering.

    The practice of mindfulness helps us to hold this range of emotions with gentleness. We realise we don’t have to push these thoughts away, because our compassionate heart is able to hold them lightly without turning them into truths about the world.

    Our fear and anger can be so strong as to make us forget the good things about people. Yet mindfulness helps us stay committed to the truth. The truth is that terrible things do happen, but so do good things. The existence of terrorism does not negate the fact that people also do wonderful things for each other every day.

    Ultimately, accepting the painful feelings which arise, and acknowledging that this pain is an experience we share with the whole of humanity can help stop divisive beliefs from taking hold. And making a conscious effort to remember the goodness in people will help us keep our hearts open.

  • Have yourself a mindful and merry christmas!

    Mindfulness is all about getting out of our heads and into the present moment and the best way to do that is by connecting with our senses. Why? Because we can't smell tomorrow, or feel yesterday! That's why Christmas is such an amazing opportunity to practice mindfulness.

    Practise Coming to Your Senses this Holiday Season

    Whether you're out shopping for gifts or taking a Sunday stroll, be sure to really tune into the sights, sounds and smells of the season. Feel the winter wind on your cheeks, observe how the Christmas songs can take you back and give you a certain feeling inside, take in the smells of mulled wine and pine needles in the air. Be present for these things -- this is the real essence of the season.

    Wooden reindeer in snow

    Savour the Flavours without Going Overboard

    Mindfulness not only helps with truly savouring all the treats that Christmas brings, it also helps limit the overconsumption that often accompanies holiday parties and family meals. We tend to end up consuming more food and drinks than we'd like, however this holiday party season is the perfect time to practice using mindfulness to help us determine when we've had enough. By really savouring our food and drinks more slowly, we can naturally notice when we've had our fill. We can use mindfulness to check in with our bodies and follow the signals that it sends about fullness. So rather than acting when our mind says: "I want another cookie!" we can listen to what our belly says. If you notice that you are comfortably full or maybe that your belly is already bursting then thank your mind for that thought and try to leave the cookies in the jar -- or simply close your eyes and smell the cookie. Sometimes savouring with the nose is just as amazing as savouring with the tongue. Try it out!

    Don't be too Hard on Yourself

    A big part of mindfulness is not only compassion for others, but also for ourselves. Therefore, have the intention to be kind to yourself! We spend so much time leading up to the holidays thinking about everyone else: shopping for gifts, planning around others' schedules, and trying to create the perfect atmosphere for everyone. It's important that we have a little self-compassion as well. Make a point of just noticing how you might be putting too much pressure on yourself, or beating yourself up when things don't go as planned, or feeling like you ate too much. In those moments just remember to take a few deep breaths. And like you would tell a good friend: don't be so hard on yourself -- that's just part of the holiday experience as well.

    It's Just the End of the Year, Not the End of the World

    In the frantic run up to Christmas, we might see the holidays as like a drop-dead date and we forget that -- as beautiful as Christmas can be -- it's just another day that will come and go. Bring awareness to the expectations you might be holding for the day. Every time you notice your mind racing ahead to any sort of inflated or unrealistic expectations, just take a few breaths and come back to the present moment. The same applies to the good old expectation of a family drama. Ruminating about what could happen over Christmas dinner won't help. It only makes you more and more tense during the lead up to Christmas. Let go of any expectations and greet the day when it's at the door step.

  • A Mindful Movie Experience: MANAKAMANA

    Written by Alexa Frey

    The last time I went to the cinema was to watch the movie MANAKAMANA. Having read that this movie was about slowing down, I expected an interesting documentary showing beautiful landscapes and interviews with exotic people from a foreign land teaching us stressed out Westerners how to slow down.

    I can't tell you what actually happened in this 120 minute film, simply because I don't want to give away all of its content. But there are a few things about the movie I would like to reveal.

    The movie indeed is about slowing down. In fact, the audience is forced to slow down because at a first glance not much happens in the movie. In fact, the first ten minutes or so the audience watches an old man and a young boy simply sitting on a moving means of transportation - doing nothing. I am sure I wasn't the only person in the audience getting a bit impatient and then even a bit irritated.

    Immediately the experience reminded me of the first time a mindfulness teacher told me to close my eyes and watch my breath. Immediately my mind thought: “Oh great, how boring! That's what meditation is about? Get me outta here please!”

    The movie went on. After a while the audience was introduced to more characters and to my relief, some of them actually spoke. That immediately gave me hope – maybe the pace of the movie would now pick up and I'd finally be entertained! I couldn't wait!

    However, to my disappointment, the conversations and images on the screen remained scarce and redundant throughout the whole movie. Soon I again noticed irritation and then at times even anger arising. I have to admit that at one point, I even thought about tearing out of the cinema! The thought of my to-do-list evoked more calm in my body than having to watch another minute of this boring movie!

    And then, as if a miracle had happened, something in me suddenly changed! The moment I had realised that I was actually free to leave, I suddenly wanted to stay and I relaxed into my seat and finally opened myself up to the movie.

    This experience is so similar to when a mindfulness meditator, having reluctantly sat for a while, suddenly notices her surrendering to the moment. When moving from the doing to the being mode and in that, letting go of all expectations and just noticing what is there – in a friendly and non-judgemental way.

    As soon as I had surrendered to the movie, I noticed how I finally started opening myself up to the movie and the characters in it. Instead of expecting them to be a certain way, to say certain things and most of all, to entertain me, I simply started observing them. The old lady eating her ice cream and the American tourist speaking nervously to her new friend. The more I opened up to the characters, the more they became real human beings instead of two dimensional characters on a screen. My agitation had turned into deep interest and empathy for the movie characters.

    Luckily I still had another 60 minutes of the movie ahead of me, which I was grateful for and have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it.

    MANAKAMANA is in UK cinemas from December 12. Visit www.manakamanafilm.co.uk to find a screening.

  • Embracing Impermanence

    Through practicing mindfulness we discover many things about ourselves and life that we may not have given much thought to previously. We may become aware of strengths we didn’t have the confidence to acknowledge before, and we may find a new honesty and acceptance about our weaknesses. Practicing mindfulness can also lead to us seeing life in a different way, sometimes bringing a harsh clarity that can be hard to deal with. For example, when we become more mindful of our moment to moment existence, it becomes strikingly clear that nothing is permanent; thoughts, emotions, relationships, and ultimately life itself are all destined to change or end at some point.

    This awareness can be a double-edged sword. It shows us that grief, pain and heartache will all eventually pass, and this gives us hope. Yet it also reminds us that all that we cherish will one day fade; hardly a joyous prospect! We may feel panic or depression; it may throw our whole life into question – the choices we’ve made, the things we have given priority to. But it may also gift us with the ability to appreciate each precious moment, rather than forever projecting our happiness into an imagined future.

     

    Impermanence

     

    Fear of Connection

    Opening our hearts can be challenging at the best of times, but knowing that everything is impermanent may make it feel too hard to bear. If everyone is bound to die, if feelings change, if loves comes and goes unpredictably, then we may feel like, ‘What is the point?’ It’s a difficult question. But mindfulness may help us come to our own answers.

    One of the many benefits of mindfulness is that it can help us focus on what is truly important to us. Cultivating self-awareness helps us put aside what we think society wants from us, what our parents expect of us, what our education has taught us to believe, and allows us to reach our own heart. It gives us the space to ask ourselves, ‘What is really important to me, in this moment?’

    This simple question can help us cut through fears and insecurities, which often distort our true values and wishes. We may have told ourselves over and over that it is too dangerous to open our hearts to other people, to situations, to new experiences, so much so that we live from that story and lose touch with what we want for ourselves deep down. So, what is the point of opening our hearts in the face of impermanence? If we look deeply enough we may find that actually we’re willing to face the possibility of losing something for the opportunity of connection.

    The Art of Gratitude

    Perhaps the most profound discovery we will make through exploring impermanence is a sense of gratitude. In any beautiful moment, no matter how simple or spectacular, we can reign in our attention and think ‘So, this moment is fleeting, but how lucky I am to be here to experience it.’

    Being fully in the moment won’t always necessarily be joyful. At times this presence may feel bitter-sweet. Appreciating a beautiful scene alone may bring with it as much sadness as it does happiness, or saying goodbye to a sick loved one who we may not get the chance to see again is bound to break our heart. But at least we will know that we did not let the moment pass us by without honouring it.

    Knowing that we do not have forever to make the time to enjoy special moments, that appreciation and happiness do not exist in the future but in the here and now, we can start to lead more fulfilling lives. Whilst we may want to capture a moment and live in it forever, knowing that we can never do that makes those moments more meaningful. Because they will pass, they are worth our attention.

    Facing the impermanence of life is not easy. Many of us will battle with the range of emotions that impermanence brings. Yet if we can accept this as a shared battle, something that all human beings have to face and traverse, it can bring great humility, compassion and fierce presence into our lives.

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