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.
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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Mountains are often admired from afar for the qualities that they appear to have. Some of these qualities we find beneficial and seek in life: stability, longevity, calm, unwavering and balanced. When we spend some time really contemplating the image of a mountain, we see that it is constant and reliable through the seasons; it is a home for plants and animals; it provides shelter and protection; it abides in tranquility through the centuries.
While it’s often the case that we try not to actively ‘think’ in passive meditation, we can use the visualisation of a mountain in active meditation to assist us in contemplating and finding inner peace. If we spend time on the visualisation we can imagine ourselves taking on the qualities of the mountain.
The Mountain Meditation can be used as a regular practice or as an escape from the rigours of daily life as and when required. I use the Mountain Meditation often as a precursor to sitting with mindfulness of breathing; it acts as a relaxation technique and brings focus before working on expanding awareness.
How to do it…
- Sitting in a comfortable position on a cushion or chair, have the back straight but not tense and the hands resting in the lap.
- Bring the gaze down towards the floor and gently close the eyes.
- Spend a few minutes on breathing meditation/mindfulness of breathing
- Picture in your imagination a mountain – it could be a snowy mountain of the Alps or Himalayas, it could be a forested mountain bathed in sunshine
- Try to bring your image of a mountain into clear focus
- Observe its shape, lofty peak, solid based, gentle or sharply sloping sides, its surface (rocky, smooth, dusty, forested, snowy etc)
- Notice it’s enormous size and how solid and unmoving it is from afar and up close
- Try to bring the qualities of the mountain into your own body – your head becomes the lofty peak, sitting in your chair you are rooted at the base. Your arms become the slopes of the mountain. Feel the sense of uplift from the base of your body projecting through the crown of your head.
- The mountain experiences the force of the seasons – sun, rain, snow, gales. Through it all, it sits unchanging, experiencing all that comes its way
- The mountain never resists, complains or judges – it accepts everything, just being itself
- We can imagine embodying the same unwavering stillness and calmness.
- We can experience the fullness of life and its changes through the seconds, hours, years
- We will experience the changing nature of our minds, our body, the outside world. We will have periods of shade and of light. We can maintain the peace of the mountain throughout.
- Sit in stillness for a while.
- Gently open your eyes and mindfully arise from meditation after around 20 minutes.
Mindfulness is a practice of widening our awareness and insight so that we can live in the present moment without judgment. The ability to watch our minds and the busyness within as an observer rather than through grasping onto thoughts, allows us to experience a greater freedom and peace of mind. The skills of mindfulness can be used in daily life to reduce stress and anxiety, be more productive and develop better relationships at work and at home and lead to a greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing.
The following mindfulness courses are now available in Stafford:
Introduction to Mindfulness—single session course (£25)
Available on the following dates from 6 pm—8 pm:
Tuesday 6th February
Tuesday 13th February
Eight Session Mindfulness Practitioner Course (Introductory offer price £130)
Course starts on Tuesday 27th February and runs weekly with one home practice week at week 5. Each session runs from 6 pm—7.30 pm.
Courses are held in a town centre location with nearby parking. Course materials will be provided.
For more information, visit the Mindfulness tab
If you’ve seen Eat Pray Love you know one of the benefits of silent retreat is a fabulously smooth and relaxed throat from giving it a rest. But, do the benefits go deeper?
We’ve all heard the stories of monks and nuns spending years in silence to achieve higher spiritual realisations, but unless you live in the mountains of Tibet, this isn’t really an option in our busy modern lives. One way to try the silent treatment is to go on a short retreat led by an experienced teacher who, periodically, can offer guidance on meditation and how to make silence your friend.
What Silent Retreat Looks Like
When I went on retreat earlier this year, I really had no idea what to expect from the period of silence. It sounds so simple…so simple that I thought it would almost certainly be a waste of time. I was wrong. We started the day on our meditation cushions with some mindfulness of breathing (a simple breathing meditation that usually starts off a period of meditation) and brief guidance from the teacher. We were then instructed that we should try to maintain mindfulness through breathing, sensory experience, body scan and mindful movement for the morning session of approximately 2 hours. There would be a short break, but no talking throughout.
Although I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 6 years, this was by far the longest I have spent in meditation. I was daunted, but remembering my mindful practices of non-attachment, I just went for it! I can honestly say that by not having any expectations before the day, it actually helped me to just sit and see what happened. I experienced some mind wandering (obviously) but also achieved the longest period of peace and inner calm than I have ever previously achieved. This was done through listening to the environment – really letting the sounds of ‘now’ into awareness. I don’t mind admitting that I have struggled to have peace of mind for any great length of time over the years, but the benefits of any peace of mind are liberating to say the least. It was interesting to note on silent retreat that even when we were permitted to speak, nobody took up the offer. I also confess that there was a border collie in residence at the retreat and I may have forgotten myself and said hello to him…but I think he kept my secret.
The afternoon continued for another lengthy period of silence; around another 2 hours. Luckily the weather was good enough for mindful walking outside. It was interesting to note that people definitely preferred to stay in their own company drifting off to various corners of the retreat centre and garden, making no eye contact; as though when one kind of social interaction was off limits, all kinds were off limits. It was increasingly difficult to find lengthy periods of peace of mind throughout the day, but when concentrating for such long periods, attention does wander. I tried not to give myself a hard time over this. All participants reported different experiences: some really enjoyed it, others struggled. Spending time alone and in silence is a massive challenge for some personality types. Another reason why it’s so important to let go of judgment and move towards kindness.
What to ‘expect’ from yourself
Silent retreat isn’t easy. It’s a test for experienced meditators and can easily lead to frustration. It’s important to have a solid meditation practice before attempting silent retreat to get the most out of it. There isn’t much time for instruction, no guided meditation and no questioning so you need a full quota of practices to try out through the day/s.
You will find you become tired. It will definitely test your patience. You will have positive and negative thoughts and of course general busy-ness in the mind. That’s all ok! Try to welcome everything and push nothing away. We can place an expectation on ourselves on silent retreat that there will be some kind of breakthrough in our practice. This expectation is something that should be released as soon as possible. Holding onto expectation fuels attachment which definitely gets in the way of awareness. It should be approached the same way as any mindful meditation; without attachment to thought, without agenda and without the need for an outcome. I’d had this retreat booked for about 6 months in advance (people clearly queue up to not talk to each other) so it helped that I had no plans other than to be at the retreat. I had nothing to do but be there – how often does that happen in modern life!?
Above all else, remember to be compassionate and kind towards yourself…it’s the key to progress. I think this retreat advanced my practice by giving me a good length of time to practice in isolation. Without the distractions of everyday life and the pressing demands on my time I could really let myself be at ease with meditation. Silent retreat really does feel like a journey (cliché I know) but it’s true! All emotions are experienced. It’s definitely something I’d recommend and it’s certainly something I will be doing again.