5 tips for getting the most from your Mindfulness course

Congratulations! If you’re reading this then you’ve already taken an important first step towards greater health and happiness by signing up for a Mindfulness course. You’ve made a commitment to prioritise your own wellbeing for the next eight weeks, and to learn tools and techniques to help you thrive long-term.

These 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; mental health charities, community groups, big companies. 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. 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!)

You won’t be giving it a fair shot if you don’t. 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 a 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 voila! 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 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’etre 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 and take your next steps towards a fuller, healthier, happier life. I wish you well in your course, and your journey towards a more mindful way of being.

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A different kind of New Year’s resolution

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.

 

Learn more about self-compassion:

This recent Guardian article is a great starting point: ‘Silence your inner critic: a guide to self-compassion in the toughest times’

Kristin Neff has a range of free guided self-compassion meditations and exercises on her excellent website, and you can Test how self-compassionate you are

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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A simple trick to balance out your Negativity Bias

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.

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Our brains are wired to be really good at noticing threats and problems, which is great for our survival, but not so helpful for our happiness! (it’s what neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson calls the Negativity Bias). To balance this natural tendency towards the negative we have to allow ourselves to fully experience and dwell on any pleasant experiences we may have. You don’t have to create special experiences – just normal everyday things like a warming mug of tea, a really good hug, birdsong, a cosy jumper, the sound of rain on the window, a beautiful sunset – ordinary experiences which we might not normally notice. So rather than just glancing at the sunset, we choose to stay with it for a little longer (say 20-30 seconds) and really allow ourselves to take it in fully; the shifting colours, the shapes of the clouds, the silhouettes of the trees…

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?

“This is just how it is right now”; a gentle suggestion for coping with down days

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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. We 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.

This is just how it is right now.

I’m having a bad day.

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; 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.

With practice 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.

I sometimes joke that if I ever got a tattoo I would choose the words ‘This too shall pass’. The irony of having a quote about impermanence indelibly marked on my skin appeals to my sense of humour (although I suppose my body is impermanent too so maybe it’s quite fitting after all). But I also find those words deeply comforting in difficult moments.

This is just how it is right now, and it will pass.

 

PS

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 out professional advice. Your GP is a good place to start. The charity Mind have a wealth of information on their website too. 

Change IS possible. Just ask my dog.

I do not like dogs. Not. One. Little. Bit.

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.

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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). 

A simple practice to reconnect with the beauty in your life (and all you need is your senses)

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So I took my own advice about how to keep that holiday feeling going and challenged myself to notice ten pleasant experiences each day.

Here’s a little sample of them:

Warm breeze on the cycle ride to work

Drinking tea that’s just the right temperature

Sun on my face

Smelling mint and sage in the garden

Dewy wet grass underfoot in the meadow

Tisha’s whiskers glistening in the light

The creamy texture of my porridge

Stroking Tisha’s soft, silky ears

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? 

How to make that holiday feeling last forever

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Hands up who loves holidays?!

Yup, me too!

Every moment on holiday feels so precious doesn’t it? (and not only because you know how much you’ve paid for the privilege of being there!) Sunsets and stars get watched, food and kisses are really 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.

Unless you are incredibly wealthy sooner or later most of us 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 after all) I have instead been sat here watching Orange is the New Black 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.