If you’ve ever experienced stress, anxiety or low mood chances are that your GP, support worker or therapist have suggested you give Mindfulness a go.
But why is Mindfulness considered such a helpful tool for looking after your mental wellbeing?
Below I outline three key skills you’ll gain with regular Mindfulness practice that will help you feel more resilient, positive and in control of your mental wellbeing.
Get better at responding to your physical needs
Your body is sending you useful information all the time about how you’re feeling but many people are so stuck in their heads that they don’t even notice it.
Mindfulness helps you become more aware of the sensations you’re experiencing in your body, as they happen. This means you’re more likely to notice when your body is asking for attention or flagging up that something is wrong.
Why is this good for your mental health?
Well, the more in touch you are with your body, the more likely you’ll respond to its needs and look after yourself. For example, if you are aware that your jaw feels tight and your shoulders are getting stiff that gives you a clue that you might be getting stressed or tense. With this information you can then choose how you want to respond – will you just plough on with work, getting more and more frazzled, or do you need to take a quick break, have a stretch or prioritise getting an early night?
The more skilful you get at picking up these physical cues the better chance you have of taking conscious, wise action to look after yourself before stress, tension or worry become chronic.
2. Learn that thoughts are not facts
Are you someone who worries a lot, or overthinks everything?
You’re not alone! One of the first things you’ll notice when you start meditating is how busy your mind is, how many thoughts are whizzing around, and how easy it is to get sucked into them.
Contrary to popular belief, Mindfulness isn’t about stopping your thoughts or making your mind go blank – as long as you’re alive you will be thinking! Instead it’s about learning how to observe your thoughts rather than believe them.
With regular Mindfulness practice you’ll realise that your thoughts are not necessarily facts, and that you don’t have to buy into them. It’s incredibly liberating to realise that your thoughts are just mental events that come and go, especially if you’re someone that has a lot of harsh or negative thoughts about yourself.
3. Stop adding to your own struggles
Many of us have harsh inner critics that pile on the judgment and shame when we’re struggling. Even if you’re kind and caring towards others you may notice that the way you talk to yourself is unnecessarily severe.
It’s absolutely the last thing you need if you’re feeling a little wobbly, and for some people that negative self-talk can fuel what might just be a fleeting period of stress, low mood or anxiety into a longer-lasting, entrenched battle.
For example, imagine you’re feeling worried about an upcoming task at work. Many of us will almost automatically add shame and judgement onto that feeling of worry. Thoughts may start to proliferate as we blame ourselves for feeling this way, or catastrophise about what might happen;
‘I shouldn’t be so worried about this, I should be able to cope’
‘So-and-so never seems to worry about stuff like this so why do I?’
‘I’ll mess it up and look ridiculous’
‘I’m completely inept and I should just give up and quit’
What started as a fleeting emotion can end up snowballing so much that it feels completely overwhelming.
Mindfulness trains us to stop adding all those unnecessary layers of judgement onto our experience, which can make things feel a lot more manageable. From a mindfulness perspective there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to be, so there is no need to judge yourself for what you’re going through.
With practice Mindfulness will you to yourself gently and warmly and to give yourself compassion rather than harshness at difficult times.
Going through a big life event or experiencing an acute period of mental illness? Then it’s probably best to wait until you’re feeling more settled before starting to learn Mindfulness, and focus on finding other ways to support your wellbeing in the meantime.
Want to delve deeper into the world of Mindfulness? There are some fantastic books out there to offer inspiration, information, comfort and wisdom. Below I share a few of my very favourites. They are all tried and trusted volumes that I’ve returned to time and again over the years. I hope you enjoy them!
Before we get started, just a quick reminder that Mindfulness is a way of life and a daily practice. Books are wonderful, wonderful things, but just reading about Mindfulness will only get you so far and is no replacement for actually practising Mindfulness!
1. ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn
We’re starting with a classic! Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely recognised as one of the founders of the secular Mindfulness movement in the West and in this book he explores what it means to live mindfully in terms of values, attitudes and actions both on and off the mediation cushion. I find his writing deeply grounding – his formidable intellect and discipline come across strongly but there is so much here that is also deeply humane.
The ultimate message is straightforward and simple: don’t miss the richness, beauty and possibility of each moment, otherwise you’ll end up missing out on your life. Like all the great teachers he also draws on his own life with humility and humour (one of my favourite chapters is called ‘Cat Food Lessons’ and starts with him getting angry about his family leaving dirty cat food bowls for him to deal with!) Also recommended from Jon Kabat-Zinn; ‘Full Catastrophe Living’.
2. ‘Self-compassion’ by Kristin Neff, PhD
I’m a big fan of psychologist Dr Kristin Neff. I often use her guided meditations in my own practice (she has a wonderful soft Texan accent) and regularly sign-post people to her website which has some great free exercises to try. In this book she outlines the concept of mindful self-compassion – the practice of relating to our own suffering with kindness and care, the same way we would to a good friend who was struggling.
Given that she’s a researcher as well as a meditation teacher her claims are all backed up with interesting data and examples. What I responded to most in this book though were the brutally honest and highly relatable accounts of her own struggles with work, relationships and parenting which she uses to illustrate how mindful self-compassion can work in the real world.
Other great titles on self-compassion: ‘The mindful path to self-compassion’ by Christopher Germer (who co-founded the Mindful Self-Compassion programme), and Kristin Neff’s second book ‘Fierce Self-compassion’ (which I’m half way through at the moment!)
3. ‘The Little Mindfulness Workbook‘ by Gary Hennessey
Short, accessible, and down to earth; if you’re new to Mindfulness this is a great place to start. This little gem of a book will give you a straightforward introduction to the concept of Mindfulness in bite-sized chapters. This is the book included on my Mindfulness for Stress courses so I refer to it all the time. I like the fact that the chapters are so short, and interspersed with interesting questions to ponder, exercises to try and space to record your own observations. Bonus: includes a range of audio downloads of guided meditations so you can even use the book as a self-guided eight-week course if you like.
4. ‘The Mindful Way through Depression’ by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal & Jon Kabat-Zinn
If you’ve experienced depression and want to learn how to avoid relapse, this book is for you. Combining models from cognitive behavioural therapy alongside mindfulness techniques this book explores the reasons why low mood can take root and offers hopeful techniques to avoid the rumination and self-blame that so often fuel it. A trust-worthy, highly respected and ultimately optimistic book from four experts in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and mindfulness. Bonus: Includes CDs/audio downloads of guided meditations, templates for individual reflective practices and guides for using the book as a self-guided eight-week course.
5. ‘Right here with you’ Edited by Andrea Miller & the editors of Shambhala Sun (now known as ‘Lion’s Roar’)
I love this eclectic collection, which covers every aspect of building mindful relationships including self-love, marriage, break-ups, bereavement, community and more. It features chapters from spiritual leaders, therapists and meditation teachers from many traditions and none, including Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.
A rich and reassuring companion no matter what stage of life you’re at (I’ve dipped into it at so many different points in or in between relationships and have a feeling I’ll keep returning to it). The chapters range from practical advice to more off-beat musings; one of my favourites is ‘Let it Bee’ by Jennifer Lauk, writing about her attitude towards an infestation of bees after going through a divorce.
6. ‘When things fall apart’ by Pema Chödrön
I was first drawn to this book by its title and I still appreciate that Pema Chödrön never shies away from the bleaker side of human experience. Going through a period of despair, chaos, suffering or fear? This book offers a compassionate, reassuring and clear-seeing guide to bravely staying with and fully feeling our difficult experiences, even when our first instinct may be to run away.
For those who don’t know her already Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun so her writing tends to have a more overtly Buddhist flavour to it, but there is so much comfort here for absolutely everyone. (She has many other excellent books; I sometimes carry a copy of ‘The pocket Pema Chodron’ – a tiny little book which you can literally fit in your pocket! – it’s great to have at hand for a quick dose of inspiration).
7. ‘Buddha’s Brain’ by Dr Rick Hanson
Dr Rick Hanson has a real knack for communicating complicated neuroscience in a digestible and down-to-earth way. For those who are curious to start learning about HOW Mindfulness works this book is a great place to start. Bringing together the latest research from the worlds of psychology, neurology and meditation this book is unashamedly positive about the human potential for change and growth. Rick Hanson has written several excellent books on this topic, and his website is full of fascinating articles and videos if you prefer to digest your neuroscience in smaller portions!
8. ‘How to relax’ by Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh has published so many beautiful and accessible books over the years it’s hard to know which one to pick. Beautifully illustrated with simple line drawings, this slim book is written in his trademark clean, clear and simple style. A tonic for all you over-achievers and do-ers out there, it’s less a book and more a gentle series of reflections or reminders to live simply and take time for rest. One to pick up for instant relief whenever life is getting busy. I often open at a random page and use it as a starting point for a moment of reflection.
9. ‘Living well with pain and illness’ by Vidyamala Burch
This book was a HUGE deal for me when I was struggling with chronic pain. I remember feeling a huge wave of relief wash over me as I read it. Vidyamala’s personal experience of using Mindfulness to manage a debilitating health condition underpins the writing, and her wise, reassuring, clear-thinking voice rings through loud and clear.
I found the many case studies of people finding ways to live well with their pain particularly reassuring. It gave me hope that it was possible to live WITH my body as it was, rather than always fighting against it or wishing my experience was different. Includes helpful illustrations, and fascinating explorations of what happens to the breath when we live with psychical pain and discomfort.
(Also recommended for people living with pain or health conditions: ‘Mindfulness for Health’ by Vidyamala Burch and Dr Danny Penman. This is the book my students use on Mindfulness for Health courses and it was awarded First Prize in the ‘Popular Medicine’ category of the British Medical Association Awards in 2014)
10. ‘Lovingkindness: the revolutionary art of happiness’ by Sharon Salzberg
Another of my favourite teachers, Sharon Salzberg was part of the first wave of westerners bringing Buddhist teaching back to the USA, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I regularly meditate using Sharon’s guided recordings so when I read this it felt like receiving advice from an old and trusted friend. Sharon is a wonderful storyteller and draws on her own life, as well as Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions to explore what it means to cultivate kindness and well-wishing for ourselves and others, including the common barriers people experience (many people don’t like or ‘get’ this meditation straight away). A wonderful guide to living with an open heart.
Congratulations! If you’re reading this then you’ve already taken an important first step towards a fuller, healthier, more joyful life by signing up for a Mindfulness course. You’ve made a commitment to invest in your own wellbeing for the next eight weeks, and to learn tools and techniques to help you thrive long-term.
The following tips will help you get as much as possible from your course. They are drawn from my experience of teaching Mindfulness to dozens of students over the last few years, in all kinds of settings including mental health charities, community groups and workplaces. I hope you’ll find them helpful and reassuring.
1. Keep an open mind
You’ll be learning a whole range of practices on your course – from mindful movement to breath-based exercises and compassion meditations. The idea is to get a taste of all the different facets of Mindfulness and to test out what works for you (and what doesn’t). You’ll find some practices come naturally to you and are really enjoyable, while others might take a while to get used to or take a bit of perseverance.
If you don’t take to a particular practice straight away, don’t worry. I’ve had students who can’t bear to sit still, but find it really easy to do mindful movement, for example. That’s fine! There’s more than one way to be mindful, and you won’t know what works best for you until you try. If you keep an open mind you might even surprise yourself – a practice you start off hating can sometimes turn into a favourite.
2. Don’t expect results straight away
When you’ve invested time and money in a course, it’s natural that you’ll want to get some serious benefits from it; to feel calmer, more relaxed, less stressed. All of these are perfectly achievable goals, and will come with time. But it can be helpful to put your goals to one side initially, to take the pressure off and allow yourself to focus on the process rather than the outcome.
There’s a reason why Mindfulness is traditionally taught over eight weeks rather than one day. It takes time to absorb the key principles and embed the practices in your daily life.
I often tell my students that it’s like starting a new exercise programme. You wouldn’t expect to be fitter and stronger after just one visit to the gym! Similarly, Mindfulness is a training for the mind and it’s only once you’ve made it a regular part of your daily routine that the ‘muscles’ of awareness, wisdom and self-compassion will really start to strengthen and you’ll reap the rewards.
3. Commit to daily practice (at least for the eight weeks you’re on the course!)
It’s always hard to fit an extra activity into our already busy lives and many people worry that they won’t be able to stick to the recommended daily home practice. Before you start it’s good to ask yourself; will I realistically be able to carve out 10 minutes, twice a day, to practice these new skills? If you can’t honestly answer yes to that question then maybe it’s not the right time for you to start learning Mindfulness just now.
Most people, however, can manage to find the time if they take a good look at their daily routine. For example, how long do you spend scrolling on your phone? Or watching TV? Most of us spend a LOT longer than 10 minutes on our screens every day, and often not on productive or fruitful activities. If you can spend just 10 minutes less on your screens, then voilà! You have time to practice. And if you don’t manage to practice every day…
4. Try not to judge yourself
We all have off days (yes, even Mindfulness teachers) and sometimes life just gets in the way despite our best intentions. If you don’t manage to practice one day, try not to berate yourself or feel too guilty; you will have another chance tomorrow. Remember it’s never too late to start again.
Even if you haven’t practiced all week, next week you can start again. You can rest assured that you won’t be the only person in the group who hasn’t managed to practice every day, and your teacher will be able to offer tips and advice to help get your practice back on track.
5. Make the most of your teacher
One of the bonuses of doing a live Mindfulness course (as opposed to learning from an app or book), is that you have an expert on hand to answer your questions and offer personalised advice. Their whole raison d’être is to support and encourage you, so take advantage of their expertise!
Keep falling asleep? Getting distracted? Your teacher can help you reflect on any challenges you’re facing, and give you helpful pointers. That said, we’re not mind-readers, so we can only offer support if you ask for it. So please don’t be shy, reach out and make the most of your personal Mindfulness expert for the eight weeks you have them.
With these tips you have everything you need to get the most from your Mindfulness course. I wish you well in your course, and your journey towards a more mindful way of being.
A couple of years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to learn one poem by heart every month. That would bring me joy, I thought, and sharpen my mind. It would make me a better, more impressive Mindfulness teacher too, being able to recite poems by heart during my courses. I love poetry so I was sure it wouldn’t even feel like a chore, it would be a fun challenge!
I started in earnest and got close to learning a poem in January but for whatever reason it didn’t really stick. In February I decided I should learn two poems to make up for my failure in January, but life got busy and that didn’t happen either. By March I had more or less given up and was berating myself that I hadn’t managed to achieve such a meagre goal. Rather than finding my usual enjoyment in poetry, now it just reminded me of my failure and lack of self-discipline. After 12 months of low-level, niggling guilt there was still only one poem I knew by heart (‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver in case you’re interested), and that’s one that I had learnt almost without trying on holiday once.
This has tended to be my experience with New Year’s resolutions over the years: that they quickly become sources of guilt rather than motivation, reminding me of all the things I’m not achieving, and all the ways I could be better if I could just be more disciplined. I would be a better/happier/healthier person if only I could meditate for longer, eat better, exercise more, work harder etc.
Underlying all of this was the corrosive belief that I am not OK as I am. The belief that it would only be through effort, discipline, and grit that I would ever become a better version of myself. Meditation teacher Bob Sharples calls this “the subtle aggression of self-improvement”. I often share that quote with students, because it’s so common that people come to Mindfulness with the goal to become ‘better’ in some way; calmer, less stressed, more focussed. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting any of these things, there’s nothing more normal when we’re struggling than to want things to be better. The risk is that we start seeing ourselves as a project, a half-finished piece of work that we must force ourselves to complete. We focus on our flaws and imperfections, on all the ways we are falling short, all the aspects of ourselves we feel need to be fixed.
How about this year (which let’s face it, is hard enough as it is), we gave ourselves a break from all that striving and self-flagellation? What if we acknowledged that survival may be the best we can hope for just now, and that we are already coping the best we can? Wouldn’t it be a relief?
The harsh voice of our inner critic – which so often drives our well-intentioned goals for self-improvement – could be replaced with a kinder, softer voice. We could adopt the same kind of words and tone we might use with a friend or loved one who was feeling inadequate – recognising that things are hard and offering friendship and compassion rather than guilt-tripping and disapproval.
So that’s what I’m doing this year, join me if you like. Every time I notice myself using that nagging, judgmental tone (‘I should be achieving more’, ‘I should be eating less’, ‘I’d be happier if only I …”) I will be gently reassuring myself that I am already enough, I am already whole, I am already worthy of love.
Here’s that Bob Sharples quote in full, from ‘Meditation: Calming the Mind’ (and before you ask, no I won’t be attempting to learn it by heart anytime soon):
“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives up in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”
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Gosh it’s been a tough week, hasn’t it? The gathering darkness, a second lockdown fast approaching and a long winter stretching ahead…
Like many people I’ve definitely noticed a dip in my mood, so I’ve been trying to practice what I preach and started making a conscious effort to tune into small everyday pleasures in my life.
It may feel trivial to ‘stop and smell the roses’ at a time like this but every time you do so you’ll be strengthening new neural pathways in your brain, training yourself to be someone who notices and appreciates small pleasures even when times are really really hard.
What everyday pleasures have you been savouring lately?
The anniversary of my becoming a fully accredited mindfulness teacher handily falls at the end of the calendar year, so what better time to reflect on the ups and downs of 2018?
Achievements and highlights
I have taught approximately 92 people in and around Oxford this year, through taster sessions, weekly practice groups and 8-week courses. I feel so happy to have potentially planted a little seed of mindfulness into so many people’s lives.
Giving back to my local community has always been important to me, so I was really pleased to offer six free Mindfulness taster sessions this year, including at Elder Stubbs Festival (fundraising for Restore), the Bodleian library (fundraising for Oxfordshire Mind), Abingdon and Witney College and Oxford International Womens’ Festival.
Hosting a Mindfulness for Stress 8-week course in my newly renovated meditation room at home in East Oxford was such a delight. I was so pleased that course participants commented on how comfortable, warm and welcoming the space felt. I’m really looking forward to hosting most courses here next year.
A week’s silent retreat at Vajrasana in Suffolk in December was a lovely way to end the year and gave me much-needed space to rest and recalibrate. It was hugely inspiring to spend time with Breathworks founders Vidyamala Burch and Sona Fricker, along with senior teachers MJ and Andrea and fellow teachers from across the UK.
Balance has been a big theme for me this year. As well as starting out as a mindfulness teacher, I also took on a part-time position in a local charity and found myself caring for a loved one through a mental health crisis in the latter part of the year. There have been moments when I haven’t had as much time or energy as I would have liked to devote to growing my mindfulness teaching practice.
Having to wear a ‘business hat’ for the first time in my life has been a huge learning curve and one that has not always sat comfortably with me. Charging people (or not) for my services has brought up a lot of mixed emotions which I’ll continue to explore in the coming year.
I had also totally underestimated how much administrative work goes in behind the scenes in setting up a teaching practice. It has sometimes been frustrating spending so much time on admin and marketing, rather than the actual teaching which I love so much. My hope is that as I get more established the admin side of things becomes less time consuming.
The constant throughout the highs and lows of the year has been my personal daily mindfulness practice. It has given me solace in difficult moments, brought delight, curiosity, softness, perspective and connection.
There have also been times when it has just felt mundane, even boring. I still aim to sit for a formal meditation at least once a day, but I also find myself incorporating shorter and less formal practices into my daily life, whilst drinking tea, walking, cycling, doing the washing up etc.
One thing’s for sure, mindfulness continues to nourish and sustain me (I only have to skip a day or two of practice to be rudely reminded of why I need it so much!)
If you’re one of the 92 people I worked with this year, thank you for being part of my journey. I look forward to seeing you again in 2019 and wish you all a Happy New Year!
Nothing has gone horribly wrong today. No huge stresses or dramas, no fights or deadlines. I just woke up feeling tired and world-weary, there’s a niggly ache in my hip, anxious thoughts whizzing around my head and low mood lurking somewhere nearby.
My most reliable mood-lifter is to get out into nature so I set off after breakfast with Tisha, my trusty four-legged walking buddy. We head out along our usual route, into the wilderness down beyond the playing fields and stop by the river.
Today the water’s muddy and there are no kingfishers to be seen. I feel heavy and keep slipping on the muddy path in my wellies. I’m too hot and my hip is hurting more as I walk.
Turning a corner we come across two muntjac deer, just a few feet away. They stop stock still and Tisha doesn’t even notice them. It usually seems like a kind of blessing, these chance encounters, but even this doesn’t lift my spirits today.
I trudge home, aching and grumpy.
A woman on the street stops to tell me how beautiful she thinks Tisha is. That’s a nice moment, seeing her delight. But soon enough it passes.
Then I meditate.
Often that helps shift me out of my funk, to feel less entangled in anxious or dark thoughts, more spacious and accepting. Today, however, apparently not. Nothing seems to have shifted by the end of my meditation and I decide to go back to bed for a nap, skipping my weekly Pilates class (which I know would have helped with the pain, but the pull of sleep is too strong).
Later I go for a coffee with a family friend. We chat and smile and I feel more like myself for a while.
Back at home I play the piano but I’m painfully aware of how out of practice I am and get frustrated, my fingers stiff and my head too fuzzy to focus on the music properly.
My partner gets home from work. We talk and hug and eat dinner together and I ask him “What’s wrong with me?”
“You’re just having a bad day my love, we all do sometimes” he answers, gently.
His kindness softens something in me. It’s like a huge sigh of relief.
Yes, this is just how it is right now.
I’m having a bad day – we all do.
And that’s OK.
And it will pass.
Sometimes that’s all there is to it. There is no magic wand. We do what we can to stay well, to manage stress and look after our mental wellbeing; we go for walks and talk to friends, we practice mindfulness and some of us take our meds too.
But sometimes we all have bad days and just accepting that this is how it is right now is one of the most powerful, liberating and compassionate responses there is. It releases us from the trap of resisting or fighting against our own experience, labelling it as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. We are not designed to be happy all the time, after all. The odd bit of low mood, worry, or physical discomfort are all normal parts of life.
By practising mindfulness we begin to understand that our thoughts, emotions and sensations are not fixed or static, that they are part of a wider flow of experience that can be both pleasant and unpleasant, joyful and overwhelming. THIS is the shared human condition. How deeply comforting to be reminded of that in difficult moments.
This is just how it is right now, and it will pass.
In this article I’m talking about my own experience of low mood, the kind of day to day blip we all experience sometimes. If you’ve been feeling consistently down or anxious for more than a couple of weeks or are at all concerned about your mental health, it’s always best to seek professional advice. Your GP is a good place to start. The charity Mind have a wealth of information on their website too.
They’re smelly, slobbery, scary and a general PAIN. They whine and moan, wee everywhere and demand to be taken for walks. They eat random stuff off the street (mouldy pizza anyone?) You have to pick up their poo (which is gross enough) but if you’re extra lucky they’ll roll in some fox poo too and then need to be washed, because they can’t clean themselves, obviously. They bark at everything from the doorbell to the moon and are so needy they can’t stand to be left alone for even a half hour. And then there’s that wet dog smell. Yuck.
I come from a family of “cat people”. Growing up there were always cats around (and sometimes rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and goats too, but that’s a whole different story…) Cats were great and dogs were bad. They were not part of our vocabulary or our experience and they were definitely not to be trusted. I never understood why you would go to the trouble of housing such needy, noisy, messy creatures as dogs when there were lovely cuddly self-sufficient cats in the world. Right?
As a kid my gut reaction to dogs was to run and hide behind the nearest adult. And when I grew up, my response was still to run and hide behind the nearest adult! For years I got by just fine by crossing the street whenever I spotted a canine enemy up ahead, or swerving out of their way on my jogging route through the park. Yes, I probably looked a bit weird but I was OK with that as long as it meant I didn’t have to interact with dogs.
And then, aged 28, disaster struck: I started dating a man with a dog.
At first it didn’t really come up. He would leave his dog at home when we met. Then, when we eventually got to the point of visiting each other’s homes (it was a slow, slow burner), he would keep her under close control, and I would stay well away or cower behind him. I was terrified that I’d get bitten (not that I had any prior experience of being attacked by a dog but I told myself it’s a fairly rational thing, to be scared of a howling beast with huge sharp fangs and claws… don’t you think?)
Ever so slowly though I learned to tolerate Tisha (see, she has a name now). My partner taught me to ‘speak dog’, how to offer her the back of my hand as a greeting, to turn my back if I didn’t want her jumping up at me and to be firm when giving her commands to sit or stay. I resigned myself to having her in my life: “If I want to be with him, I’ll have to put up with his dog I suppose…”
As we spent more and more time together, I saw different sides to her. Rather than just the over-excited hello and frenzy of her walks I also saw her relaxing by the fire, curling up next to my partner, gently licking his hand when he was sad. I could see how much contentment she brought to his life, how much he valued her company.
Four years down the road, Tisha has slowly but surely worked her magic on me, and it’s official: I’m in love.
I honestly think she’s the most perfect creature I’ve ever come across (I mean just look at her!) Her sleek, shiny coat, her distinguished white whiskers (she’s a “senior” now, according to the vet), her deep brown eyes fringed with thick black lashes, the way she stops to ever-so-delicately sniff individual flowers in the garden. I miss her when we’re apart. When I’m ill or low, she gives me a reason to smile, laugh, and leave the house each day. I know I can always count on her for affection and companionship even on those days when human interactions seem too difficult.
We even meditate together. As soon as I begin she arrives and curls up next to me, paws and head gently nestling into my legs. I don’t know if she’s attracted by the sense of calm or is just pleased to have found a comfy spot for a nap (the latter, I suspect) but I savour those moments together, her warmth and soft breath, her little sighs and yawns.
So there we go. This creature who once terrified me has become one of my best friends. My fear and aversion have been transformed into love. Now when I meet dogs in the park I’m enchanted by their enthusiasm and zest for life. I look up into their owners’ faces and recognise the loving glow in their eyes as they watch their cherished pet racing around in circles of pure joy, fuelled by the sheer delight of being alive, and outside, and in possession of a tail which needs chasing.
I feel ashamed of the way I used to pity and judge people who went on and on with ‘boring’ stories about their dogs, or who seemed to love them a little more than was natural. I’ve become one of them, and it seems the most normal thing in the world to me now.
And so I can’t help but wonder… If my attitude to dogs can change so dramatically, what other sources of joy might I be missing out on or saying no to out of ignorance, fear or prejudice? In what other ways do I box myself in and limit my experience? “I’m not a dog person”, “I’m not good with numbers”, “I’m terrible at public-speaking”, “I’m not….”(you fill in the blank).
What if the things which make us most afraid and uncomfortable are the very ones which could bring us the most happiness, if only we opened our minds for long enough to allow them to change us?
Thanks Tisha, for showing me that people can – and DO – change.
Try this: What new opportunities, relationships or experiences might you be missing out on because they’re ‘not you’? Start by just noticing which people, situations, or places you tend to avoid, fear or dismiss and – if you’re feeling bold – start approaching them (with baby steps, plenty of patience and a good teacher, if at all possible).
Sinking into bed after a long day, feeling relaxed
Cooling breeze by the river
(Tisha’s my dog, in case you are wondering whose silky ears I have been stroking!)
Taken on their own none of these experiences is particularly remarkable and some are distinctly mundane and unglamourous (eating porridge, cycling to work, walking the dog). They’re just little things that were enjoyable or felt good in some way. Things that I would probably have missed altogether before.
A few things other things I noticed:
how many of the pleasant experiences were to do with my dog, Tisha. Whether it was stroking her fur, snuggling up together, listening to her soft breathing, or laughing at her silly antics there is no doubt that this little creature brings endless joy into my life.
the days when I went for a walk in nature it was really easy to notice ten pleasant experiences – in fact I could often notice all ten just on a short walk. This wasn’t really a surprise as I have always known how beneficial being in nature is for me, but it was a good reminder of how important it is to keep including this in my daily routine.
I had a couple of days when my mood was quite low and on those days it was MUCH more of a struggle to notice pleasant experiences. Or if I did notice something pleasant I couldn’t really let myself savour it. For example at the weekend I went kayaking; it was a beautiful warm end-of-summer evening on a gorgeous stretch of river but instead of enjoying the sights, sounds and sensations I felt stuck in my head, going round and round thinking about a problem. I guess that’s why it’s good to get into the habit of noticing the pleasant, so that it becomes a habit, even when life is hard..
Do I suddenly feel like I’m on holiday all the time and the whole world is brimming with joy and magic? Nope.
Do I feel just a little bit more tuned into the everyday beauty around me? Yup.
And that’s enough, because after all most of our lives are not filled with mind-blowingly exciting or dramatic experiences. It’s the subtle, quiet moments of ease, delight, satisfaction and pleasure that I’m interested in, the ones we can so easily miss when we’re not paying attention.
Did you try the ten pleasant experiences challenge? How did you get on? What did you notice?
Every moment on holiday feels so precious doesn’t it? Sunsets and stars get watched, food and kisses are savoured, conversations with loved ones expand and deepen. Hours and days are spent having fun, relaxing, resting, exploring, just ‘being’. Every experience just seems so much more vivid and alive…
Away from our usual habits, commitments and distractions time slows down enough to notice and savour all the small pleasures of life that usually just fly by in a blur.
And it’s not just about having the time to notice, there’s also something about being in a different frame of mind. After all, when you’re on holiday you’re actively looking for all the good things because if you’re going to bother booking a holiday, travelling and paying for it all, then you’re sure as hell going to make the best of it!
But holidays have one fatal flaw: they end.
Sooner or later we have to pack up and head home, back to work and our busy, busy lives. So if we only get to go away every now and again (and some of us, maybe never) what does that mean for the rest of the year? That we’re just plodding through our lives waiting for those few precious weeks of bliss?
What if we could feel that alive and awake to our experiences at home too?
I ask ‘what if?’ because it’s a question I’m still living, one I don’t have the answer to yet.
Within a few days of returning from holiday in Cornwall I can already feel my old habits closing in again and it’s so frustrating. Why is it that rather than watching the sunset (which is just as beautiful here as it was in Cornwall) I have instead been sat here watching Netflix for the past two hours? Old habits die hard I suppose…
But I do get glimpses sometimes, a sense that it’s possible to find those moments of beauty and connection at home too, if we don’t let our routines and habits dull us to them.
Like last night, when my partner and I took our beloved dog out for a walk and stopped to sit by the river. We gasped at the exotic turquoise flash of a kingfisher, laughed at the excitable puppy who just couldn’t control her excitement in meeting us, and drooled over juicy blackberries in the hedgerows. These moments of beauty are all around us, even in our ‘normal’, humdrum lives, if we only remember to look…
So this is a note to myself:
You don’t have to wait until your next holiday to experience life’s pleasures.
You just have to slow down for long enough to notice the beauty that’s already here.
Try this: start training yourself to notice the beauty around you by writing down 10 pleasant experiences you have today.
They could be as small as the warmth of the sun on your skin, the sound of birds singing, a beautiful sky, a delicious cup of tea, the touch of a loved one’s hand. If you can, try to write them down when they happen, while the sensations are still vivid. What do you notice?
I’ll be doing this practice myself over the next few days and will be back to share some of my experiences soon! Feel free to share your own experiences too.