A Mindful Christmas

The Christmas period is often a time of increased tension, stress or anxiety for many and can result in unpleasant experiences for individuals or families. Spending an extended period of time with friends and family doesn’t happen very often, so it would be beneficial for all if we were able to approach the festive season with a peaceful mind.

What causes stress at Christmas?

Mindfulness shows us that the struggles we go through in life often aren’t external to us (as we believe them to be) but are instead based in our perception and thoughts/beliefs about a situation. Most of us feel the pressure to get the right gifts for the right people, spend enough money but not too much money, make sure everyone has enough food and drink, wear the right outfit, attend the right events or parties, not drink too much,…and inevitably find time to demonstrate the right amount of merriment on social media…

A lot of the pressure we experience during the festive season can be found in our thought patterns or learned responses. Thoughts of how things should be and comparison to ideals or others can be harmful. If we tune into the present moment (no pun intended) and observe our true experience in the moment, we may find that we are able to enjoy the season more than previously. If something does go wrong – the turkey is dry, you couldn’t get that last minute gift because it had sold out – you can use mindfulness techniques to bring yourself back to the moment instead of getting caught in unhelpful negative thought patterns.

Tips to move mindfully through the festive season

A mindful queueing experience: You can’t avoid them, there are queues in shops, in supermarkets and on the roads this time of year. Every year we know it will happen the closer we get the Christmas, but every year we find ourselves frustrated, tense, irritated and sometimes infuriated with the constant waiting. Battling against the flow of life is a great source of stress for us. If we catch ourselves as frustration arises and instead of letting it take hold, we bring ourselves to our immediate experience of the moment. No judgment, no likes or dislikes, just observation. What does impatience feel like? Where is it held in the body? Try to feel it rather than think about it with the usual ‘why is this taking so long?’ ‘I should have joined the other queue’. You will notice almost straight away that tension eases out of your body and impatience gives way to patience naturally.

3 minute breathing space: When things get really testing (either during the build-up to Christmas day or during a family gathering for example) we often say things we regret or experience anger with ourselves or others. When we feel that a situation is getting too difficult, we can take 3 very effective steps to transform the moment mindfully.

  1. If you feel anger, impatience or frustration arising, catch it as soon as you are able and stop yourself from speaking or acting negatively. If you need to remove yourself from a situation, you can do so.
  2. Ground yourself in the moment by tuning into your breath. If you are agitated, try taking long slow breaths for a few minutes to give yourself space.
  3. Pay attention to what you are experiencing. Try to feel it in the body instead of listening to your thoughts about a situation or person. Bring your awareness back to the moment and your direct experience of it. Try to bring awareness to how a situation affects everybody, rather than just you.

Reclaim time: We always run out of time at Christmas. Not enough time to finish the shopping, wrap the gifts, visit friends and family, finish things off at work before the break. The constant rushing and pressure to ‘people please’ often leaves us more tired after the Christmas holiday than before it. This year, make a little time for yourself. The pressure we feel is often self-applied, so take a load off. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but a little mindful self-care can go a long way. Take a walk outside and take in all that nature has to offer this season. Take a long bath with some essential oils. Read a new book. Find opportunities to bring yourself and your experience back into the present moment as often as possible instead of living in an imagined future or re-living a past event.

Christmas is the perfect time to practice gratitude; not just for the gifts given and received, but for all the fortunate things we experience in life that often get swamped by thoughts of how life should be or what we should have achieved ‘by now’. Take a few moments each day to list the things you are grateful for…I bet that list is much longer than your Christmas wish list.

Letting go of the past

Letting go of the past will be an issue for most people at some point in their lives. We can all remember hurtful things that were said to us decades ago, or bad experiences that we (knowingly or unconsciously) allow to affect our future experiences. I think we would all agree that being able to let go of the past would provide us with more space in our minds and more peace in our lives.

So how do we do it? It comes back to basic mindfulness principles of being in the present moment, using an anchor to keep us there and staying intentionally and without judgment.

Something that should help us gain some perspective on letting go is that the past has already been and gone; it has been let go of already. What our mind is holding onto is attachment to an event, thought, experience or occurrence from the past. It’s that attachment that stays with us and effects our mind over and over again. When we go into the ruminative state, we run the past (or an imagined future) over and over in our minds. Neither the past nor the future exist; it’s just our thoughts that disturb the mind.

If we repeatedly bring ourselves back to the present moment, our mind will start to learn not to dwell in the past and slowly we will let go of attachment or harmful/negative thought patterns that seem to have power over us. One of the best anchors that we can use in our practice of letting go is the breath. It’s always with us and accessible at any time. Bringing awareness to the breath frees the mind from the past and brings it immediately into the present moment. A simple breathing meditation can be used any time, any place and can provide immediate relief from unhelpful thoughts based on the past. By being in the present moment, we are forced to let go immediately of our attachment to the past. The process won’t be easy and it will take time to be free from attachment to the past for longer than a few moments, but practising bringing ourselves back to the present moment will train the mind to let go.

If the breath doesn’t work for you, or your thoughts prove a stronger anchor than observing the breath, you can try a sense based mindfulness practice; using what you hear, see, smell, feel etc in the environment at that moment to keep you in the present.

Using mindfulness to break down attachment stems from Buddhist teachings and practices that have worked for providing mental calm and clarity for many hundreds of years. The Buddhist tradition that I follow very much focuses on making Buddhist teachings practical and accessible for the modern world. Applying traditional mindfulness techniques in practical ways means the application of this ancient knowledge is relevant to helping us solve our modern problems.

Try something old; to find something new.

 

Winning Ways to Wellbeing

I visited a primary school in Warwickshire recently and was pleased to see a display promoting wellbeing through 5 practical steps that are now promoted as basic steps to wellbeing all over the world. The ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ outline simple steps that we can all take to improve our wellbeing and are now advocated by the NHS in order to help people actively take control of their wellbeing. Starting small and building to a holistic approach to wellbeing can help us lessen or avoid more long-term conditions such as depression or anxiety that can effect physical and mental health for many years.

But what is wellbeing exactly? What are we trying to improve? Undoubtedly our mental health and states of mind, but wellbeing is a whole of life experience. An improvement in our overall quality of life and experience through practical, active steps to increase our levels of enjoyment, self-worth, physical and mental health and interactions with others.

This sounds like a big challenge, right? Definitely. But luckily the 5 ways to wellbeing really do work and are a great start to improving wellbeing.

The 5 Ways to Wellbeing

  1. Connect – There is strong evidence that being around others (friends, family, social groups) not only increases our all-round wellbeing, but also increases our longevity. Talking is the best therapy. You don’t have to share everything with others; start small. Make a meaningful connection instead of living in the digital world all the time. When you ask someone how they are, actually listen and pay attention to the answer. Speak to a stranger or  make conversation while waiting in a queue. Try car sharing with a colleague; they might even become a friend.
  2. Be active – We have all read the decades of evidence that shows being physically active improves our mental health…so why do we still doubt it? Because it’s not easy to get active and stay active. But it’s not hard either. There are small changes we can make on the way to becoming more active and improving wellbeing. Take the stairs instead of the lift. Take a class after work with colleagues or organise a new sporting activity for all work colleagues to try. Go for a walk at lunchtime. Get off the bus a stop earlier and walk to your destination. If you feel like more of a challenge, take up a regular class that is proven to aid concentration, inner peace and help sleep…yoga is the obvious.
  3. Take notice – The basics of mindfulness; notice your surroundings. Be present in the moment and just ‘be’ instead of always ‘doing’. The only moment that exists is right now, so try to pay more attention to what is really going on instead of living in your head thinking about what has already happened or what might happen. Being mindful increases our awareness and knowledge of the self. If we know what we spend our time thinking about, we can start to change our thought patterns for the better. Living mindfully is a difficult task for the novice, but we can all try small steps. Choose a mindfulness cue; a sound or sight that whenever you hear/see it reminds you to take 60 seconds to be mindful and notice what’s going on in the environment.
  4. Keep learning – Not only is the mind kept active, but there is the chance for social interaction, being mindful and being active all rolled into one here. Continued learning can enhance self-esteem, motivation and can help you to prioritise goals and your own happiness. This doesn’t have to be a formal class to count as learning. You can try learning a new word each day, try reading the news in a foreign language, listen to classical music, join a book club.
  5. Give – By giving to others we develop our compassion which in turn increases our compassion for ourselves. Engaging in acts of kindness helps us to gain perspective on our own internal struggles and gain an understanding of the greater good. Giving your time, expertise or just random acts of kindness to others can greatly increase your wellbeing and decrease your attachment to seeking happiness through material gain.

A challenge…

I challenge you to try the 5 Winning Ways to Wellbeing for one week and track how you feel in body and mind. Leave a comment below about your experiences and check back to see my review of a week of Winning Ways to Wellbeing.

A Mindful Holiday

We all love to ‘get away from it all’, ‘leave our troubles behind’ and enjoy a holiday (maybe several if we’re lucky) each year. We have a plan of where to go, what to see, what to do and even the places to eat, the number of hours we want to spend on a beach, the sights we want to tick off our ‘to do’ list. For how much of our holidays are we actually present? Really present…paying full attention to what we’re doing in the moment, not thinking about the next thing we’re going to do or how what we did this morning perhaps wasn’t as great as we thought it would be.

We all hope that a trip away will be the ideal escape from work, from stress, from real life. As soon as we recognise that physically moving out of the sphere of our troubles or busyness doesn’t actually rid us of those things, then we can get the most out of our breaks and life generally.

Happiness and peace of mind can occur anywhere at any time, as long as we are in the present moment, paying attention, on purpose.

Paying attention

We can get the most out of our holidays by simply paying full attention to what we’re doing. I enjoy driving in continental Europe, and I think it’s because I pay so much more attention to the task of driving than I normally do. I’m constantly watching, listening, feeling the roads. My focus is fully on the task…and it becomes enjoyable. My mind is not on the destination and what I’m going to do when I get there…it’s just on the very moment of driving.

Pleasure and peacefulness can be found in many places that might usually frustrate us when we’re on holiday. Being stuck in traffic might seem like a waste of time leading to frustration or irritation, but it’s also a great opportunity to people watch, to observe the real life of another country or culture, to take in the sights and sounds of the places we pass through.

How to holiday mindfully

So, you’ve paid a lot of your hard earned money for a break  – how do you get the most out of it by using mindfulness? There are a number of top tips for this…

  1. Walk as often as possible. This could be to get from A to B or to explore an area or just to get to the shops or beach. Leave the car behind. Being on foot gives you endless opportunity to practice mindfulness. Feel the ground under your feet, listen to everything you can hear in the moment; the language, the breeze, music, traffic, life going on right now. Focus on taking in life as it happens in the moment. When you are outdoors under your own steam, there is so much going on to focus your attention on now. If you aren’t able to walk, spend some time sitting outside and let your senses fully take in the environment.
  2. Use your senses. Don’t just look at things, take a picture and move on. We are very visual by nature and that’s fine, but we have 4 other senses to work with. Listen to what’s going on, what does the city/forest/beach/mountain where you are sound like? Think back to your last holiday – if someone asked you to describe what your destination sounded like, would you be able to do it? Similarly with smells, we only notice the extremes of good or bad. Try to focus in on the smells of the sea air, the leaves and vegetation, the traffic, any animals nearby, food cooking etc. All these things bring you into the present moment so you create stronger memories and find more peace, more genuine ‘escape’ from busyness. The same approach works with taste and touch; use all your senses to bring yourself into the present.
  3. Use photography differently. In the age of social media, we carefully construct or contrive images to draw the most appreciation from strangers. Try taking photographs of real moments, real life. Take photos that draw your attention to what your senses (other than sight) are experiencing. Create memories of touch sensation, smell, sound etc. In the present moment, it will draw you right into focussing on now, but later, your images will also serve as mindfulness cues that you can rely on in everyday life.

Remember, the core of mindfulness is to be present, whether that’s on holiday or at home. We often feel obliged to pack in as much as possible when we’re on holiday as it only happens a few times a year. Try to move from ‘doing’ to ‘being’. Don’t just pass through life, really live it.