Never Tried Meditation? Start Here…

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If you’d like to bring more mindfulness to your life then beginning to meditate is one of the best ways to start. Meditation is a ‘practice’, we are practicing not to be brilliant meditators but to show up more fully to the moments of our life as they arise. Neuroscience shows us that through meditation we can train the brain to be more focused on the present and spend less time mind-wandering. So taking some time out to meditate may mean you spend less time procrastinating, worrying and ruminating leaving you more time to feel alive.

Meditation is for everyone, it’s a return to our natural state of being. Learning to meditate is actually more an unlearning of all that we’ve placed on top of our ability to simply be present.

So, lets get started; the best place to start is exactly where you are. If you can find a space in a quiet room then that is helpful, however really we can meditate anywhere. It is worth bearing in mind that there are rarely the ‘right’ conditions for meditation and it is part of the practice to see if we can allow and accept things as they are. All you really need is already here – your body and your breath, you can’t breathe in the past or the future, only now, so this is always our access point to the present.

How should I position myself?

It is good to get comfortable with an upright aligned spine and a grounded triangular base, so if you are sitting on a chair try to have your feet on the floor, hip-width apart, feeling into the sitting bones. To avoid back ache the knees should be positioned below the hips. Alternatively sit cross-legged if this is comfortable for you; some people find it helpful to place something under the knees to prop them up if there is any straining across the groin area. With any seated position it is worth having a little sway from side to side, backwards and forwards to feel into your mid-point, so the head is resting aligned on the neck and neither the head or pelvis are tilted too far one way or another. A further option is to lay down. I advise clients to lay in a semi supine position, on their back, head slightly propped up with a book or small pillow and knees raised, again hip width apart, feet on floor. Laying in semi-supine is great for realigning the spine, plus if we begin to fall asleep our knees usually start to wobble and this wakes us up!

What should I be doing?

Relaxed awareness is what we are after, so there’s no need to try too hard, rather than our awareness being on our thoughts we are gently tuning into being present for this moment in time. If we approach it as ‘being in meditation’ rather than ‘doing a meditation’ this tends to bring a lightness of touch that allows us to let go, be less judgemental and move into sensing mode.

What about thoughts?

Mindfulness meditation is not about ‘clearing the mind’ or pushing away thought. If you’ve ever lain in bed at night trying to stop thinking you’ll know how this tends to make thoughts come thicker and faster.  Instead we are recognising and changing our relationship to thoughts. We do this by being completely open and allowing of thought, just choosing to let thoughts come and go whilst gently bringing our attention back to the present.

I’ve developed a meditation technique called the ‘sitting at the station of our thoughts’ approach. Rather than jumping on every train of thought that comes along we gently attempt to stay where we are in the meditation, allowing trains of thought to come and go without getting on board. Thought only becomes thinking when we engage with it. When we notice a thought and our compulsion to get on board we simply redirect our attention back into the breath or the body and in doing so allow that particular train to continue it’s journey without taking us along for the ride. At first we may find that some of our thoughts have a sticky quality that draws our attention, whisking us off into the worlds of past and future thinking. However, as we practice just noticing this, without beating ourselves up but gently coming back to the station, we retrain the brain to let go and return to the now. The impact of this is felt not only in our meditation but in our day-to-day lives as we get better at letting go and beginning again, right where we are.

Let’s meditate!

When we start meditating it is useful for us to use a fixed ‘anchor’ such as the body or breath so that we have something to focus on, this type of meditation is called ‘Bompu Zen’ or concentration meditation. As we build up our ability to be less distracted through practice we are able use less of an anchor and move into the realms of ‘Satori Zen’ or insight meditation.

So, let’s start with the anchor of the breath…

You may want to read the below through and get into a meditation position that’s comfortable for you before giving this a go:

Firstly, noticing the breath just as it is, tuning in to the natural rise and fall of the breath that can be felt down in the tummy…

Then very simply we begin counting our breaths 1–10…

In-breath is 1

Out-breath is 2

In-breath is 3

All the way up to 10

And then we begin again at 1.

You may find it helpful to close your eyes while you do this.

Move as deeply as you can into the experience of the breath you are in and allow the next breath to arrive all by itself. Don’t rush to get to the next breath or the next number, just be focused on where you are. Thoughts will pop into your head, this is perfectly OK, but as soon as you realise that you have got on board one of those trains simply return to counting the breath.

Well done! You’ve chosen to make a start. Exploring our inner space is one of life’s greatest adventures, I wish you the happiest of journeys.

Frances Trussell, Mindfulness Mediation Teacher and Author of You Are Not Your Thoughts; The Secret Magic of Mindfulness” out now.

This article was first published in Planet Mindful January 2019

 

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Mind the Gap; the brilliant technique for being less stressed!

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Stress used to rule my life, expressing itself in many guises. Highly emotional and easily upset, despite the pretence of a hard exterior even the slightest of criticisms pierced my very thin skin. Often the red mist would descend, amid flashes of anger I’d suddenly become a shouty, stompy (occasionally throwing things) version of myself. Back then I might have described myself as passionate and fiery, in denial about how destructive my outbursts were to my relationships with others and with myself. Huge waves of self-loathing and hot tears would usually follow one of these fits. I’d replay the fight or incident, rerunning and reimagining the dialogues, struggling between the need to be right and the potential I might not be. Writing this raises many uncomfortable and embarrassing memories. But it also raises a little smile in me, because I can say, hand-on-heart, things do not push my buttons in the same way anymore. I cultivated a technique I call ‘Mind the Gap’ which worked so effectively for me it changed my behaviour and reduced stress across all areas of my life. I’ve gone on to teach this to many hundreds of my clients since.

It came from recognising that the stress, anger and upset in my life wasn’t coming from outside forces, it was coming from inside me. When we take ownership of our stress we have an opportunity to respond to where we find ourselves rather than be stuck in the cycle of unconscious autopilot reactions.

It was the most minor of mundane events, the alarm clock went off – the sound was enough for me to want to throw the alarm clock out of the window, to wish I could throw myself out of the window. Anger and anxiety shot through me, a precursor to the cycles of worry that I knew would shortly kick in. Then a realisation; the alarm clock was just a machine with sound coming out of it, the stress didn’t come from there. The day, just a day of my life, the stress didn’t come from there either. The stress came from me, how I was reacting to a sound and my thoughts around this. In this split second of awareness I was able to see myself almost like having an out-of-body-experience. I could witness my behaviour, feel my physical reactions and see the thoughts that were feeding this. I was able to step back and see that this pattern that had been appearing in all areas of my life. Usually an event, situation, comment or even thought served as a trigger for my stress reaction, I’d then fly off the handle, disappearing into a series of stories of my head rather than the reality of the situation. I’d got well practiced in living in the worst-case scenario world of my thoughts, constantly acting from defence mode as if at threat from some immediate attack. I’d been reacting not to what was in front of me but to the tale I’d created around that and at the very route of that reaction whether expressed as anger or tears was always fear. I’d been living in hyperarousal, so often it only took the slightest thing to tip me into fight or flight. In becoming aware of this something shifted in me, I’d created a really small space in which I could witness myself and how things really were. From this space I could see that I had some choice about how the next moments played out – I could either continue to react or choose instead to respond. For me, and so many people I’ve worked with, this moment of recognition is transformative. Like switching from autopilot to manual, a claiming back of power.

Here’s how the ‘Mind the Gap’ technique works and how you can implement it into your life. Firstly it’s helpful to recognise that stressors are external pressures and stress is your reaction (or response) to those pressures. Therefore, stress doesn’t come from ‘out there’ it comes from inside you. Usually what feeds our stress is not the situation but our thoughts around it.

When we are operating on autopilot we automatically react to stressors;

Stressor > Reaction.

When we bring our awareness to what is going on for us, we give ourselves the opportunity to notice when we are in a potentially stressful situation, be aware of our thoughts, feelings and what is going on in the body. By switching from autopilot to manual we create space in which we can choose to respond rather than react:

Stressor > Gap > Response

With our mindful awareness we get to ‘Mind the Gap’ between an event and our reaction, hopefully choosing to respond rather than react.

So, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation remember that stressors will be stressors but it’s your stress and notice how awareness of this helps to dissipate your feelings around it. For example, in a traffic jam we have a couple of options:

Option 1: Be incredibly annoyed/upset/angry about the traffic jam, worry about the knock of effect of your lateness, catastrophise about possible outcomes, allow damaging stress hormones to rush around your body.

Option 2: Be in the traffic jam.

Either way the traffic moves no faster. The force of your upset has no impact on the traffic, the only person it has an impact upon is you. Stress in small bursts can be useful but living in a constantly stressed out state we become distressed, our immunity to disease is weakened with both the quality, and possibly quantity, of our lives reduced. The more we practice minding the gap the more we develop a ‘not-minding so much’ attitude to life. After all we are not in the traffic, we are the traffic – whether we choose to be stuck in it is down to us. Wherever I’ve encountered a similar stuck feeling this insight has helped me enormously. I won’t claim to always get this right but I’ve learned to let go more, of the need to be right and of the struggle with what is. Ultimately as we raise our level of consciousness we come to recognise that resisting where we are or fighting with the past is a huge waste of our energy. We can instead channel this energy, the most precious of resources, more wisely. How we respond to where we find ourselves is our greatest power in life, stepping into this our most empowering choice. Mind the gap and witness how this gap grows, becoming space and lightness. This space has allowed for more compassion, humour and creativity than the former stress-head me would ever have dreamed possible.

This piece, written by Frances Trussell was first published by Psychologies Magazine 15th August 2018: Link to original article on Lifelabs here.

You can now order a copy of Frances’ new book: You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness 

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How to be grateful for depression

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I can look back on my episode in the depths of despair with gratitude. Without that period of madness, my mindfulness practice would have remained in the ‘should’ pile alongside many other I’ll-get-round-to-it-when-I-have-the-time projects. Broken into a million pieces, you tend to only pick up the bits that are truly important to take with you into the next phase of the journey.

I feel quite sorry for the mildly miserable, they might never be down enough to be forced to look for another way; sleepwalking through a life of grumpy discontent. No, I am glad to have been painfully depressed, stabbed and prodded into wakefulness. I had no other choice to commit to a practice, I could no longer be ruled by my thoughts. And, oh, the joy of contrast; in the moment of becoming the observer and recognising your own power to sit back, to watch, to choose, to bask in separation. How quickly our relationship with our thoughts can shift, and how remarkable this shift can be. Suddenly the world, once dark, appears in full beautiful colour.  It is like when you misplace your keys in your living room, you know they are in there somewhere so you really open your eyes and look. And with this new way of looking, really looking, something happens. Familiar items within the room suddenly appear to you with a vibrancy and clarity as if they are being seen for the very first time.

For me, meditation is like brushing my teeth; I just wouldn’t want to go out and breathe my un-meditated breath on anyone. An un-meditated me feels a bit gross, sloppy, unfocused, easily carried away by the rivers of thought. For those people that manage to feel sane without meditating I salute you, I am not sure how you do it. Meditation isn’t the only way of being mindful, but it is the best way to start cultivating it. I love to learn and during my first flushes of falling for mindfulness my appetite for knowing all there was to know on the ‘subject’ was ferocious. I devoured book after book at breakneck speed, it seems funny to reflect back on all that striving. What meditation teaches us when we sit and look is that we already know everything we need to know. Whilst we have a very human need to learn, it is in unlearning we find the being bit of ourselves. Like all things we try to attain, we can get lost in doing mindfulness, but quietly as we practice, we realise mindfulness instead. And with each realisation another layer of ourselves falls away, we see things a little more clearly and the subtle hum of happiness begins to beam through into every part of our being.

Being terribly depressed was one of the best things that could have happened to me. All pain is a messenger, and the message I had ignored for too long was that I was on the wrong path in my life. I see this time and time again with clients who come to me looking to overcome depression. So strong the pull of how we think we want our lives to look, we begin to override our internal sat nav until we can no longer hear the voice of truth within us, we become lost to ourselves. So the messenger of emotion ups the anti, louder and louder pain shouts, our heart beats faster and anxiety rings in our ears. When we really hit rock bottom there is no choice but to finally ‘get the message’ and from down there we get a chance to truly begin again.

How beautiful this principle of beginners’ mind, we really can give ourselves permission to start over, with each new moment comes a new beginning and each mediation a place to get familiar with beginning again and again. When in meditation we forget to begin again; frustration, anger and boredom arises as holding up a mirror to us until we see what we are doing to ourselves. To see that reflection is such a teaching, I am chuckling to myself as I write this because an old earworm has returned to sing the Radiohead lyrics to me; ‘you do it to yourself you do and that’s what really hurts’. This full human experience really does hurt sometimes, it can be so painful and yet so exquisitely beautiful all at the same time. It is so hard for the mind to accept these two opposing truths and that’s ok too – because not all things can be figured out on the level of the mind. If you are in pain you know you are alive, and being alive is certainly something to feel grateful for. So feel pain, but know that you don’t have to feed it with your thoughts. Instead of mindlessly scattering seeds for the crows to peck, we can consciously plant seeds that we gently cultivate.

Depression is a pushing downwards, low thoughts take us on their repetitive downward spiral into lower and lower mood, the body joins this journey like grabbing onto the back of a conga line – with each kick a release of stress hormones, a slumping of posture, a reducing of immunity, forwards and downwards we dance. We lose ourselves in the dance, we become the dance and the dance becomes us, smothering and suffocating in its embrace. In meditation we sit in separation, thought comes and goes and when we don’t engage we see this separation for ourselves. Thought only becomes thinking when we choose to get involved with it. In stillness, free will is placed right under the spotlight of our attention. As thought forms float through we begin to see them for what they are, they are just thoughts and they are not us. And so the grip lessens, our relationship with our thoughts changes and release arrives.

We have the power to choose to act in ways which lift us in an upward direction, to embrace more of those things which make us feel alive and move away from those that deplete us. I used to be very busy trying to control the universe, it was exhausting. These days I choose more carefully the parts I play and try to be playful in the playing of them. I particularly enjoy being DJ when it comes to choosing what song to play in my head, if you don’t like your thoughts you can always change the record.

That’s not to say that the cloud of depression never floats into my life to obscure the view, but nowadays I see it for what it is – just a cloud. Mindfulness has made me recognise my own innate strength, I feel content in the knowledge that whatever the storm it will pass and that I have the power to weather it. The sun is always shining behind the clouds.

This article by Frances Trussell was originally published on ‘everyday mindfulness’

You can now also follow Frances on Twitter @francestrussell and Facebook 

This is the summer of your life

mindfulness, summer

On childhood summer evenings I would sit by the breeze of my open bedroom window listening to the symphony of the season. The laughter of those children still allowed to play out, the kicking of balls in the park and shouting to friends. Birdsong soared high amongst the barbecue smoke whilst the clinking of glasses accompanied grown-ups chatter below.

How bittersweet those balmy nights, a loveliness and still a longing. A longing for a time when the days would be mine, the laughter my own in a no-bedtime, no-rules, me-time-all-the-time kind of way.

So now, I have arrived. And you have too. Here we are, exactly where we wanted to be back then. This day is ours, this night is ours and it’s us who makes those rules. We made a promise to ourselves that when we got here we would embrace those evenings with all our being, feel the warmth of the sun on our face, that now would be that time.

And yet, how easy it is to shift those jumper goal posts, lost in the mourning mind of summers gone or the longing mind of summers to come. But it is not going to get any better than this, now is the only place we get to experience anything because it is always now. There will, of course, inevitably be the perfect-house-bigger-garden summer that lives in our heads. The one where a slightly thinner and more attractive version of ourselves has our hair windswept whilst driving our top-down Aston Martin. The next holiday, the next job, the next relationship, next month or next summer, that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The wanderings of the mind can trick us into believing that the next lick of the ice cream will taste better than this one. So remember to savour the flavour of this moment. There is little point saving happiness for best like Grandmas crockery.

Feel this summer, own it, squeeze the juice out of it. You have arrived at your destination; this is the summer of your life.

It is always the summer of your life should you choose it to be.

Building Sandcastles

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I love a new pair of shoes as much as the next girl but today I was shoeless, sand between toes and surrounded by the sounds of the sea and children playing. None of us can take ourselves too seriously on a trip to the British seaside. There is no glamorous way of hobbling over the pebbles to paddle in the freezing English Channel, or of eating sandy sandwiches huddled behind a wind-break. I will never forget jumping waves as a kid with my Nan, she let out such a yelp of excitement with one leap she lost her false-teeth to the sea. They might still be out there somewhere chattering away on the cold sea bed.

It is the things we do, not the things we have that make this life. So well trained we are in our principle occupation as consumers, like little ants we work away eyes down and focused on those prizes. It is easy to forget the ‘being’ bit of human-being until we allow ourselves the opportunity to be and to feel human again. Our culture places so much emphasis on the accumulation of ‘stuff’, yet what is the stuff that really matters when we look back over our lives?

Some things cannot be bottled or bought, the re-discovered pleasure of digging in the sand, the triumph of creating our moated island decorated in shells. The satisfied sadness when it’s time to say goodbye as the sea arrives to claim our spoils and the night to take our day.

All of our castles are made of sand and the tide of life will come to wash them away. When we are not so weighed down by stuff it may be easier to ride the waves.

Life is short

Bus

So there you are, body walking along the road but mind somewhere else altogether. Wandering in thought, worries, projections of the future; predictions for how things might or might not work out, catastrophising. All of these ruminations are just bad guesses, terrible guesses in this case because BOOM there you are gone. You didn’t even see it coming – the bus that hit you. And so it is with life, and death, however we might try to map it out, we can’t ever know for certain what’s just around the corner. What a waste of life worry is. If only we’d been present for the walk, if only we’d showed up and paid attention to what was actually going on around us rather than being lost in the ‘if only’ of the mind.

A family friend died this week, too young to die by the expectations we set for such things, but death has no regard for expectations. My news feed swells with photographs and memories shared, the pain and beauty of how precious life is. We are remembered when we die not for our inner world of thought but for our outer world, for the moments in which we touched people. The laughter we shared, a look, a smile, the way that we held them, for the moments that we were alive for them.

Life is short, be alive while you are alive, make the moments count.

This Blog will change your life…

“Do you have a blog?” clients have been asking for some time and my answer has been a big fat no, until now.

Both trained journalist and meditation teacher, blogging would seem like an obvious thing to do. And yet I find myself uneasy to add to the barrage of distractions which might be stopping us from engaging fully with our direct experience of life.

I have an admission to make… I too check my phone and social media far more often than I would like. I am drawn in by those catchy titles promising hidden gems of knowledge to improve my life. Well let me share with you the little gem that’s right here, hiding in plain sight; Life is always the thing that is happening right now. So, I wont find what I am looking for on my phone on anyone’s Twitter feed or status update nor on the pages of any book because someone else’s words paint a second-hand picture of the world, a pale imitation of the vibrant truth we experience when we commit to being here now.

Life is now and it is going to happen whether you choose to pay attention to it or not. I hope you make the choice to be concious of the moments of your life as they arise – this moment is your life.

find out more at: http://www.mindfullyhappy.com