• How to Have a Mindful Look at your Dark Side

    dark sideA key element of living a mindful life is being able to observe feelings (how they arise and fall away) and learning to be objective enough to allow that process to happen naturally. However, when it comes to extreme emotional experiences, such as hatred or intense anger, should we still be so accommodating? Can we really cultivate compassion if we make space for these destructive emotions?

    Mindfulness encourages us to become less judgemental, and so we are faced with a dilemma. If we don’t negatively judge feelings of hate, might it not just start to fester within us and start affecting our behaviour?

    It’s important to find some balance between knowing and living from our core values (i.e. being a compassionate person) and acknowledging that despite our best efforts we are not immune from experiencing the darker side of our humanity. People, events and tragedies are bound to sometimes trigger dark emotions within us; emotions that we would likely not want to admit to others for fear of judgement or misunderstanding. And this is where we might start to see the importance of allowing space for such experiences.

    Judgement leads to a denial of our internal world, and of the experiences of other people. This way of being is not in line with living a compassionate life. As dark as these feeling may be, it’s useful to look at them with the same openness and curiosity as other feelings.  Doing so creates a strange paradox; by looking at our very darkest emotions, we get to know them better, we get to see that they are fleeting experiences that we don’t need to hold onto or act upon, and also that we are not alone in experiencing them.  Therefore we are more able to become genuinely compassionate to the full spectrum of human experience, rather than simply the nice or comfortable parts.

    Being unafraid of our dark side, and honest about its existence, can help us live with greater presence and authenticity. And by shining the light of kind awareness on our darkness we reduce the risk of developing the types of cruel beliefs and ideologies that can grow from that darkness if left unchecked and ignored.

  • Why Uncertainty is Good for the Brain

    uncertainWhen it comes to world events, family disputes, office politics, etc., we are often quick to take a side, and sometimes very passionately. Once we have taken a side in such an argument it's usually difficult for our minds to reassess, even when presented with new information; our emotional stance can make it difficult to assess (or even want to assess) the situation with objectivity. But what is the apparent safety of such decided opinions? Why do our minds so easily choose a side, and why do we have an adversity to uncertainty? Cognitive neuroscience may provide some insight.

    Different Types of Uncertainty

    Decision making is crucial to our survival; it’s important that we judge correctly whether it’s safe to cross the road, if this fish is still good to eat, or if we can trust that person.  According to Hsu et al. (2005), there are roughly two types of uncertain events that we are regularly faced with: risky and ambiguous. Risky decisions tend to be when the odds are known, and the probability of outcome may be assessed and estimated, e.g. I know I have 10 red cards and 10 blue cards in a deck, so I can roughly guess my chances of picking a blue card. Conversely, in ambiguous decisions, the uncertainty of the odds creates a difficulty in analysis, e.g. I have 20 cards, but I have no idea what proportion is red, and what proportion is blue, hence picking a blue card feels more down to chance.

    How Uncertainty Affects the Brain

    Hsu et al. (2005) found that in the face of uncertain events, in both hemispheres the amygdala (raw emotional responses) and prefrontal cortex (executive function) increase in multimodal sensory stimulation as ambiguity of a situation also increases. Like a pressure cooker, the missing information in a decision that creates uncertainty effectively puts pressure on our mind to seek out more information to inform our decision.

    Brand et al. (2006) also suggests that unlike risky decisions, ambiguous decisions often rely less on previous rational feedback from past choices, as well as being more susceptible to emotional responses associated with comparable situations. This could explain why we tend to repeat the same kinds of arguments with people we have history with: it’s difficult for our minds to view each new situation mindfully due to our past emotional responses.

    In ambiguous situations, our minds may choose to seek a definitive answer to alleviate this pressure that we sense building. Our mind attempts to balance the discomfort experienced when no clear path is right or wrong, and we are faced with a choice that doesn't involve a binary option.

    Watching How Our Minds Seek Answers

    A great way to explore this tendency of the mind is to delve into that part of the internet that we seem to love and loathe in equal measure: the comments section! News stories are particularly good places to try, and the more complex the matter the better. Not only will you find a multitude of arguments and counterarguments, but you’ll also be more likely to already have an opinion of your own too. As you read through the opinions, watch what your mind does. Notice any tension that builds when you read an argument you disagree with, or if you find yourself feeling torn between two (or more) different points of view.

    The point of this exercise is not to decide which individual is correct in the argument, but to simply become aware of the reactions and pressure our mind presents us with in the face of allowing ourselves to sit in uncertainty. Try to ‘surf’ the urge to settle on just one point of view. In other words, notice the urge to ‘know’ what’s true, but see if you can ride it out.  Being aware of this rising inner conflict has in fact been shown to strengthen the brain structures associated with executive functioning, and our ability to navigate beliefs loosely, and with more freedom. This ability is a key element to living a more mindful life.

    Our ability to form opinions and make decisions is definitely a useful evolutionary tool that helps us navigate our day-to-day environment which can often be highly ambiguous. However, the persistent need to find an answer can indeed produce a fragile perception of reality and impede our navigation of complicated dilemmas.

    .....

    MEDITATION:

    Body Scan

    TIPS:

    Why Meditate?

    The Present Moment

    RETREATS:

    3-Day Mindfulness and Nature Connection Retreat

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS

    Introduction to Mindfulness

  • Six Ways Mindfulness Eases Parenting Stress

    parent

    written by Liz Lowe

    As soon as I had a child, people who already had them began telling me several times a day to, ‘enjoy it,’ because, ‘it goes so quickly’.

    Sometimes, battling through endless sleepless nights followed by tired, tantrum-filled days, I just wanted time to fly by faster.

    But time flows on, and today’s stresses become tomorrow’s fondly recounted anecdotes. No matter the age of your child there are always challenges, and as we move through each stage there’s a tendency to look back at the previous one and realise how good we had it.

    Chaotic family schedules, differing agendas and conflicting opinions or advice can all cause stress. Parenting is a full-time job (on top of our other roles and responsibilities), but one with no motivational appraisals, nor promise of promotion to an executive role with more sociable hours. Of course there are bonuses though: one cuddle or belly laugh can soothe a tired head, and make us forget that we just spent three hours scraping porridge off the sofa.

    Developing a mindfulness practice is undoubtedly one of the most positive things I have done for my family. Here are six ways that mindfulness can help parents to savour the sweet spots and sail through the storms.

    1. Mindfulness helps you press the ‘pause’ button

    Our auto-pilot setting seems useful at times; when you’ve done the school run and appear to also be dressed, yet can’t quite remember how it happened. But it can result in days that blur into one another, and missing out on the little moments that give life sparkle. Being mindful enables us to pause, appreciate and imprint those moments into our minds.

    1. Mindfulness improves our response to stressful situations

    Communicating effectively with young humans requires depths of patience we never knew existed. They can push our buttons like no-one else, and it’s easy to interpret their boundary-testing behavior as a personal attack.

    Parenting, especially when we’re being challenged, can bring up fears and negative beliefs that were born in our own childhood. By recognizing and addressing these feelings we are better able to empathize with our kids, and to respond with kindness. And in turn, their response to us will be far more positive.

    1. Mindfulness puts us on our children’s wavelength

    Children, especially younger ones, naturally exist in the present moment. They don’t have ‘to do’ lists; they do what they feel like doing. They’re oblivious to the oppression of ticking clocks; they do things in their own sweet time.

    When you’re running late, a toddler that wants to stop and pick up every leaf on the path can be ‘quite’ annoying. But slowing down to their pace, even occasionally, opens our eyes and brings a fresh perspective to familiar scenes. Sharing in their wonder at the world can bring a sense of happy calm, as well as strengthening our bond with our child.

    1. Mindfulness builds our resources

    Nurturing ourselves is crucial if we are to support others. A regular mindfulness and meditation practice, even just a few snatched minutes a day, boosts our energy and positivity and helps to keep things in perspective. Better still, mindfulness can easily be incorporated into our everyday routine.

    1. Mindfulness helps us to accept things as they are

    Mindfulness helps us to accept a situation for what it is, in all its messy, imperfect glory. We learn to resist wishing that things were unfolding in a different way, or fretting about how to make them better: we can just ‘be’, and engage with the present moment.

    Even uncomfortable circumstances can provide the opportunity to explore our feelings and learn from them, becoming less critical of ourselves and more tolerant of others.

    1. Mindfulness helps us appreciate what a great job we're doing

    Being mindful increases awareness of our actions and the feelings behind them. And once we’re conscious of our triggers, it becomes easier to pause, reflect and move forward with a calmer outlook.

    It’s important to take time to appreciate our efforts and progression. Perfect parenting is an impossibility but any time we respond mindfully, and with kindness, we are officially winning.

    And remember: just enjoy it, it goes so quickly.

    .....

    MEDITATIONS:

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindful Parenting Workshop

    RETREATS:

    3-Day Mindfulness and Nature Connection Retreat

  • Dealing with 'Impostor Syndrome'

    bambiDo you often attribute your successes to luck rather than your abilities? Do you feel that you’re tricking people into thinking you’re more competent or intelligent than you actually are? If so, you may be experiencing ‘impostor syndrome’ – a term first used in the 1970’s by psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes to describe high-achievers unable to internalise their accomplishments. It is also coupled with an ongoing fear of being exposed as a fraud; that one day people will realise that you’re not as good at what you do as they first thought.

    Whilst ‘impostor syndrome’ is not defined as an official mental disorder, it is often a painful character trait to live with. Not only do we fear judgement or rejection from others, but we also miss out on experiencing satisfaction and pride in what we do. Even when we do receive praise, this may be followed with anxiety over whether we can perform to the same standard again in order to avoid disappointing those who have praised us. So what can we do about it?

    Breaking the Rumination Cycle

    Those of us who feel like a ‘fraud’, whether it’s in our career or creative pursuits, may find that we typically spend more time ruminating about our failings than we do on enjoying our successes. Even if we succeed nine times out of ten, we’ll probably dwell on that one mistake more than anything else. Here’s where mindfulness can come in handy!

    By building some awareness around our thought patterns (i.e. “I know they said they liked it, but it could have been so much better”) we can begin the process of detaching a little from those thoughts. It may even help to give them a label, to help with recognising them for what they are. So for example, next time you find yourself reflecting on how you duped your boss into thinking you were good at your job, you can think to yourself, ‘Impostor syndrome thought’. This can be done with all kinds of thoughts actually, but the point is to start identifying with the thoughts less, so that in time you may come to think of yourself as less of an actual impostor, and more as someone who just has impostor thoughts.

    Lingering on Praise

    When someone praises us, our first thought might be something like, ‘Oh, it was nothing’, ‘I just got lucky’, or ‘Anyone could have done it’. If we’ve experienced impostor syndrome for a long time, we may brush off praise without even being aware that we’re doing it. Yet it may be helpful to start giving more attention to the positive feedback we receive.

    By spending a few moments to let the good feelings in, we can start to do a little rewiring of the brain to help it become more attuned to receiving praise. As Dr. Rick Hanson describes:

    “By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience—even the comfort in a single breath—you’ll help turn a passing mental state into lasting neural structure.”

    So next time someone tells you that you did a good job, experiment with letting that positivity in, even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first.

    Self-Compassion

    This may seem like a difficult thing to give yourself if you’re feeling like you’re no good at anything, yet bear with us. When we’re feeling inadequate, what is it that we most crave? It’s probably a sense of self-confidence, or better yet, some self-esteem! We want to feel adequate, competent, enough. Yet, we tend to base our sense of self-esteem on our achievements, which puts impostor syndrome sufferers in a rather hopeless situation. As Dr. Kristin Neff says it in her book ‘Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind’:

    “It’s the old carrot-and-stick approach—self-judgment is the stick and self-esteem is the carrot.”

    Instead of constantly trying to succeed enough to earn ourselves some elusive self-esteem, we can instead give ourselves something that doesn’t rely on such conditions. After all, we don’t usually give compassion to others based on how much money they earn, how high-ranking their position is, or how popular they are. Rather, we give compassion to those who are suffering, and that can include ourselves too.

    Although mindfulness can’t completely remove our impostor thoughts, by using the above practices we can start to relate and react to them in a lighter, healthier way.

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Work

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • How to Mindfully Tackle a Big Project

    mountain

    Perhaps you’re planning to start your own business, refurbish a house, train in a new career, etc., and you’re wondering to yourself ‘how on earth am I going to do this?’ The scale of the project may seem overwhelming. There’s just so much to do, and because our minds want to keep jumping ahead to what the end result will look like, we can find ourselves experiencing a range of unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety, despair or intense self-doubt. Our fixation on the end goal can make the process of getting there really quite miserable.

    Yet mindfulness can offer some relief. The problem isn’t that we have a lot to do on our project; after all, our entire lives tend to be full of things that need to be done. Rather, our stress and doubt come from our disconnection from the present moment. Our desire to race to the end of the project means that we’re not fully engaged with what we’re doing right now, and therefore we have little chance of actually enjoying it or finding fulfilment in it.

    A good way to approach a big project is to first make a plan, although it’s helpful to give ourselves permission to veer from it if we need to. This way we have a guide to follow, yet our project stays fresh and organic at the same time. Being mindful means we are regularly checking in with what’s happening and re-adjusting to meet new challenges and experiences.

    Then, once we have a list of tasks, we can take each one and give it our full attention, rather than feeling we have to somehow do everything all at once. So for example, if we’re studying in order to start a career, we can relax a little and enjoy the process of learning; if we’re starting a business we can view each step as a new challenge to meet with curiosity, rather than seeing them as blocks in the road to our goal; or if we’re tackling a big creative project we can use mindfulness to put our heart into each small detail.

    By breaking our big tasks into smaller ones we can give each one the attention and presence they need, and perhaps even find some joy in doing them!

    "Things take the time they take. Don't worry." – Mary Oliver

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Work

  • Can Observing Our Dark Side Make Us More Compassionate?

    darkA key element of living a mindful life is being able to observe feelings (how they arise and fall away) and learning to be objective enough to allow that process to happen naturally. However, when it comes to extreme emotional experiences, such as hatred or intense anger, should we still be so accommodating? Can we really cultivate compassion if we make space for these destructive emotions?

    Mindfulness encourages us to become less judgemental, and so we are faced with a dilemma. If we don’t negatively judge feelings of hate, might it not just start to fester within us and start affecting our behaviour?

    It’s important to find some balance between knowing and living from our core values (i.e. being a compassionate person) and acknowledging that despite our best efforts we are not immune from experiencing the darker side of our humanity. People, events and tragedies are bound to sometimes trigger dark emotions within us; emotions that we would likely not want to admit to others for fear of judgement or misunderstanding. And this is where we might start to see the importance of allowing space for such experiences.

    Judgement leads to a denial of our internal world, and of the experiences of other people. This way of being is not in line with living a compassionate life. As dark as these feeling may be, it’s useful to look at them with the same openness and curiosity as other feelings.  Doing so creates a strange paradox; by looking at our very darkest emotions, we get to know them better, we get to see that they are fleeting experiences that we don’t need to hold onto or act upon, and also that we are not alone in experiencing them.  Therefore we are more able to become genuinely compassionate to the full spectrum of human experience, rather than simply the nice or comfortable parts.

    Being unafraid of our dark side, and honest about its existence, can help us live with greater presence and authenticity. And by shining the light of kind awareness on our darkness we reduce the risk of developing the types of cruel beliefs and ideologies that can grow from that darkness if left unchecked and ignored.

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • Finding Your Inner Balance in an Unpredictable World

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

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

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

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

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

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

    .....

    MEDITATION:

    Body Scan

    RETREATS:

    3-Day Mindfulness and Nature Connection Retreat

  • There’s More to Looking After Our Bodies Than Diet and Exercise

    1Let’s just start by saying that a good diet and exercise are super ways to nurture our bodies! However, there is no shortage of advice on eating well and working out, especially at this time of year. Instead, this blog post will look at other, less obvious ways that we can ground ourselves in the body and find more enriching physical experiences.

    Becoming more connected and in tune with our physical bodies is an effective way of becoming more mindful. By bringing more awareness to our physical experience, we naturally come more into the present moment, using our senses as anchors to the here and now. It can also help us adopt a more self-nurturing and self-compassionate approach toward ourselves.

    Mindful Movement

    Mindful movement practices sometimes double up as exercise, for example something like yoga is great for strengthening muscles as well as practicing mindfulness. Yet, there are other ways we can practice mindful movement; ways which focus less on fitness or weight loss, and more on simply enjoying the movement of the body for its own sake.

    Those of us who spend all day at a computer may particularly benefit from connecting with our bodies more. How often do we reach the end of the working day and discover tightness in the shoulders or an achy back? We can be so focussed on our work or studies that we disconnect from the body completely. Yet if we can make a habit of regularly checking in with the body, we can start to give it some more movement and flexibility.

    So right now, tune in for a moment. How does your body feel? Sense into your feet, legs, back, shoulders, even down through your hands to your fingers. Are there any parts of the body that want to stretch or wiggle? If you feel comfortable with it, why not stand up for a moment and get curious about how your body wants to move. Maybe you feel like bending forward to touch the ground, rolling your shoulders, circling your hips, or raising your arms high above your head for a tall stretch. You can’t get this wrong; it’s all about taking notice of your current experience, and meeting it with openness. Notice how any stretching or movements affect your mood or energy levels. Have some fun with it!

    Comfort and Cosiness

    There’s nothing like putting on your favourite pyjama’s and curling up in a freshly made bed to read a good book. Or perhaps your favourite comfort is to wear some fluffy socks as you watch TV with your cat. Whatever makes you feel comfy and cosy, try to regularly do those things for yourself, as a way of treating your body with kindness and care. Bringing mindful attention to these comforts can make them feel even more yummy! Notice how your self-nurturing intentions affect your body.

    Sensory Pleasures

    This could mean so many different things; from finding a shower gel in your favourite scent, to being touched by your partner in certain ways (or touching yourself). Getting to know what feels, smells, looks or sounds good to us, and then consciously giving ourselves those things is important to our well-being, and helps us engage with the physical world around us. We can use these pleasurable sensations as a type of meditation. For example, we can listen to our favourite songs and really notice all the musical elements in the piece, or we can place things around our home that we love the look of, and spend some time admiring the small details of those items. Bringing more awareness to our sensory experiences may even help us start to enjoy things we normally do on auto-pilot, such as brushing our teeth or applying moisturiser to our faces.

    Our bodies don’t need to be perfect in order for us to enjoy the physical world around us. Having fitness or healthy eating goals can be very rewarding, yet by taking the time to look after our bodies in other ways too we can step out of seeing our bodies as a ‘project’ that needs work, and start to simply enjoy the fact that we have a body that can move, feel and have experiences.

    MEDITATIONS:

    Body Scan

    Face Relaxation Meditation

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

    Eating Awareness Training Workshop

     

  • Delve into the Unknown This New Year

    Dive

    It’s at this time of year that we reflect on what we have done during the previous twelve months, and think forward to the future to what we would like to achieve. This can be a good time to honestly and mindfully look at our lives and consider whether we are feeling fulfilled, and what we might do differently to ensure we are spending our time in ways that make us feel alive and content.

    What usually happens when we do this is to think of changes we’d like to make and new things we’d like to try. However, while the prospect of change can be exciting, it can also be daunting, especially for those of us who struggle with anxiety. When faced with the unknown, our minds naturally try to seek answers, even when there aren’t any. We want to know beforehand how we will cope, how we will feel and what to expect. Because we can’t possibly know these things, our ‘answers’ can so often take the form of ‘I can’t’, ‘It’s a silly idea’ or ‘I’m just not ready/capable’. And so we find ourselves sticking with what’s familiar.

    Making plans is of course important. It’s not wise to rush into new things unprepared, especially if it’s something big like travelling to a new place or changing career. Doing some research or asking for advice can help answer some of the more practical questions we may have. Yet there will come a point when we must finally face the unknown, without all the answers. As we all know, life is not always accommodating to our careful planning.

    Mindfulness can help us meet the unknown with presence and curiosity. When we get stuck in our old thought patterns we become inflexible; unable to open to new experiences or to access new parts of ourselves. But if we can find ways of coming back to this moment right here (again and again) we can not only find the courage to try new things, we may also surprise ourselves. We may find that we are far more capable than our habitual doubts and worries would have us believe. And we may also find that simply being more present in life creates exciting changes all by itself!

    MEDITATIONS:

    Changing Season Meditation

    COURSES WORKSHOPS:

    New Year's Resolution Workshop

  • Every Encounter is a Once in a Lifetime Occasion

    photo-1449885164684-02f9f7f1caa5 (2)

    ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’ is a Japanese idiom which roughly translates as ‘one time, one meeting’. It is used as a reminder that each encounter we have with a person or group of people will never be repeated. Even if we meet with those people regularly, that one particular encounter with them is unique.

    According to the Japanese Tea Culture Glossary, the expression has been traced back to a 16th century Japanese tea master, Sen no Rikyū. The concept was later elaborated on in the 19th century by Ii Naosuke: “Even though the host and guests may see each other often socially, one day's gathering can never be repeated exactly. Viewed this way, the meeting is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.”

    Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect on how our experiences with family and friends over the holidays, or even with our co-workers when we return to our routines, might take on a deeper significance if we were to view each encounter in this way.

    We might sometimes feel that life is rather monotonous: we may see the same people, and do the same things every year. But if we can bring more mindfulness to these occasions we may find that life actually presents us with many new and unique moments, if we just adjust our perspective a little.

    Experiment with applying the ‘ichi-go ichi-e’ concept as you engage with people over the holidays, and notice how it changes your experience of them. We’d love to hear your findings in the comments below!

    MEDITATIONS:

    Good Friend Meditation

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    8-Week Interpersonal Mindfulness Course

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