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Sunday, 24 May 2015

Mindfulness Week 7: When Did You Stop Dancing?



As we are on the penultimate week of this Mindfulness course, this week's tasks are much more free form. There is no habit releaser for the week, nor any new meditation so this week's post may be slightly shorter than usual. We had a small task which I'll be talking about in more detail than the meditations, a task that I encourage all of you suffering from stress to try out when you have a quiet moment.

Meditations

This week, the instructions were to pick two meditations from previous weeks and practice them this week, specifically looking for meditations that created a "nourishing" feeling for me. Any meditation that left me feeling rejuvenated and restored energy to me. I chose the Breath and Body meditation because it feels the most natural after so many weeks of practice.. I also chose the Body Scan meditation because, although  I struggled with it in the week I was introduced to me, it left me feeling totally relaxed when I was able to complete the meditation.

The meditations went all right, there were still some struggles particularly with the Body Scan since it is quite a long meditation. It got me to think about what my plan of action will be once the routine of the books is over. Will I be disciplined  enough to continue meditating, and will it help me in the same way without this blog and the book as guidance?

The conclusion I am at presently is that I need to make changes in my life in order to stick to this and other new habits I want to keep.

Changes, not sacrifices.

Re-shuffling my schedule, sleeping earlier so I can wake up earlier or having to-do lists for the day to keep myself productive and create a routine that isn't suffocating, but still gives me spaces in the day to do fulfilling things that my anxious brain might consider time wasters.

Task of the Week: Nourishment vs. Depletion

This week, the task given to me in the book was to write a list of 10-15 things I might do in a typical day. Once I had completed that, I was to then mark an N next to the tasks which felt nourishing to me mentally and physically, and a D next to the tasks that depleted me, drained me of energy. I could then tally up the average split between depleting and nourishing things happening in my daily life. Some tasks are actually a combination of both, and so I would give them an N/D mark and give half a point to each side. My list was as follows:


  1. Shower: N/D
  2. Bus to/from work: D
  3. Customer facing work: D
  4. Talking to colleagues: N/D
  5. Work away from customers: N/D
  6. Eating: N/D
  7. Sleep: N/D
  8. Writing: N
  9. YouTube: N/D
  10. Facebook: N/D
  11. Listen to music: N
  12. Talking to friends online: N
  13. Tumblr: N/D
  14. Check emails: D

Depleting Activities: 7
Nourishing Activities: 6.5

I am just slightly off-balance, but there are so many things I do daily that are N/D and don't have to be. When I'm on the internet, in particular, I enjoy the things I'm doing but I always have this voice in the back of my head telling me I'm wasting time, telling me I could be more productive. However, I've probably spent a draining day at work and so can't accomplish those productive things with low energy. I think about the things I could or should be doing and I feel a wall between me and accomplishing it because I need to recharge. I don't see it as that however, I see it as a clear sign of my laziness, uselessness or whatever else. My mood gets lower and so I resort back to the instant-gratification amusement of the internet and the cycle begins again until I just get stuck. This leads to carrying this burden right up until the point I'm supposed to be sleeping, resulting in poor, uncomfortable sleep (which is why sleep is marked as N/D) so I start the next day with low energy. No wonder things eventually build up and begin to feel difficult, if this cycle persists?

The next step, after this exercise, is to make a list of five changes I could make to adjust the excess of depleting nature of my everyday life, and attempt to implement these changes in the coming weeks. The list I came up with was:

1. Walk to and from work rather than getting the bus
2. Going to the gym regularly to relieve stress and tension and life more healthily
3. Doing my most regular activities, like eating and showering, more mindfully
4. Using reading as a relaxation method as well as Facebook or YouTube
5. Breathing Space Meditations during the day

Another task to create more nourishing moments on a daily basis is to turn one common activity into something called a Mindfulness Bell. A Mindfulness Bell is an action, sound, or anything that you can associate with switching yourself into a mindful way of thinking. I chose taking a walk as my bell, because it's something I will be doing more regularly and being outside will give me a chance to observe the sights, sounds, and smells around me mindfully in an ever-changing environment.

The reason I stressed changes as opposed to sacrifices, is because whittling away things that are important to you as a person creates low mood rather than fixing it. It isn't as simple as cutting out things that might take up time in order to make room for greater productivity. It's more about weighing up aspects of these things like time, importance, how depleting or nourishing, to create a balanced schedule.

This diagram is from the book I'm using, created by Professor Marie ├ůsberg to describe how any of us can get burnt out when our lives become focused on fewer and fewer things. The ring at the top represents a life with a variety of activities, and each lower ring is a life with less and less diversity, focusing on nothing but what we percieve as the most important things, and the words on each side are the symptoms of this focus. It's important to maintain a varied, nourishing but active lifestyle rather than just cutting out one thing after another. As we see in the diagram you become constrained, unable to branch out because of poor mood, hopelessness, joylessness, fatigue and many other negative symptoms. All of it ultimately leading to exhaustion.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Mindfulness Week 6: Trapped in the Past or Living in the Present?

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Apologies for posting this post late, I had a particularly tough Sunday so I didn't feel up to writing. I won't say much about it, but I'm going to be coming up with a post in the near future just listing my opinions in terms of mental well-being and relationships and this will feed into it. What I'll say right now is that Mindfulness in the face of as difficult a situation as a relationship ending is invaluable. The ability to face your difficult emotions head on in one meditation, to take a step back and observe your thought pattern and calm the storm of spiralling bad thoughts in another, and the ability to learn more about yourself as a person as a whole.

Understanding your flaws and your emotions is key to getting through the low moments, because there are so many times in my life where I feel like I'm emotionally exhausted, but I cannot place the root of that feeling and that causes me to spiral. You can nip that in the bud when you take the time to listen to the pattern of your thoughts and learn just what is ailing you. I'm hoping this training will help me speed up my emotional recovery.

When you're adrift in a dark sea of feelings and possibilities, unable to figure out where to sail for safety, Mindfulness, therapies, counselling, medication, or just talking to someone about how you're feeling can be your lighthouse.

 We now return to your scheduled hippie-dippy-but-actually-seriously-valuable meditation broadcast!

Meditations

 The past week was very slow moving, and I think that was partly down to me practising more mindful behaviour like taking walks and taking the time to think. It has been attempting to rush past me as I look forward to new things, but I'm finding myself taking more breathing spaces, helping time to slow down around me. I'm saying “yes” to more things too though, planning future events and creating a trail of fun for me to follow through the year. I'm living in the moment while also looking forward to things, I suppose. It's nice. It relates to this week's meditation and purpose actually. It's all about “befriending” oneself, forgiving ourselves for past mistakes and learning to live for right now, loving who you are right now.

 We all have moments where we're just doing our own thing and then suddenly a memory of a mistake we've made or something that has gone wrong for us flashes into our minds out of nowhere. We think and think and think about it, replaying it in our minds and making us feel worse. It begins to reinforce negative opinions of ourselves, and those things become ingrained in us:

  • I'm worthless 
  • I'm a failure 
  • I'll never find love 
  • I'll never find happiness 
  • I'm falling apart 
  • Everyone is surpassing me 
  • Etc... 
Our difficulty in forgiving ourselves for bad events, big or small, is much greater than our ability to remember the good days and jobs well done. The new meditation for this week is named the Befriending meditation and is meant to aid in that search for the ability to stop dwelling in the past. It introduces an affirmation promoting emotional well-being and encourages you to extend the sentiment to yourself, a loved one, a stranger, someone you find difficult, and then to all beings.

May I be free from suffering
May I be as happy and healthy as it is possible for me to be
May I have ease of being

I found it surprisingly cathartic, the idea of sending love out in the world. It releases pressure in your body somehow, considering others and what they may be going through before wishing them peace and happiness. Even the people I find particularly difficult. I would make mental note of people I saw throughout the week, like an older man I saw sat at a bus stop with his head buried in his hands, and make a point to wish them happiness. I really enjoyed this week, and frankly a message of loving oneself, forgiveness, and not dwelling on mistakes could not have come at a better time for me.

The interesting thing was that the book advised you use the 'Mindfulness of Body and Breath' meditation from week one as a precursor to this new meditation. I hadn't done it in so long that I'd forgotten how long it was or what it entailed, and I will say I found it difficult to focus! I was expecting that, after the week I spent practising that meditation, it would be easy to slip back into it. Because of all the time I had spent away from the meditation, however, it was almost as difficult as my first time doing it. That was oddly comforting though, it reinforced my belief that I'm not just “bad” at meditation, or that it doesn't work for me. It requires practice, like all things.

Habit Releaser 

My habit released for this week was about rediscovering a hobby or thing that you enjoy but have been neglecting of late. I chose music, singing specifically, and so I paid a visit to Camden's Roundhouse.
I spent a couple of hours in a little practice room singing, really singing, and writing songs. Just for fun, because I find the process fun. I enjoy the way my brain fires, the way melodies suggest themselves to me and words bubble up out of the rhythm. I really warmed up and practised and was serious about perfecting the sounds I was making rather than just singing because a song won't get out of my head. I really missed the whole creative process, the buzz of it, and although I've felt somewhat blocked lately I think it really is a case of writing down whatever comes to my head and not worrying about things being amazing from the get go. The more I make the effort to write the more likely I'll get ideas, I suppose.

You may wonder why I needed to go to a practice room to do what I could do at home, and the reason is simple: having a dedicated space to work on something puts you in the frame of mind to do it. As soon as the door was closed, I felt ready to go. It is the same for mindfulness: having a place you can go to specifically for meditation can enhance your ability to focus beyond what you may imagine. I even tried meditation in the practice room and found it really beneficial. I was able to focus in such a quiet, private, clear space.

Worrying about past failures or issues can negate our ability to progress and feel worthwhile on a daily basis, as this week's chapter explains. In a similar way, focusing on how easy it may have seemed to write a few years ago, wondering why it doesn't feel the same or comparing my ideas now to my ideas of the past limits my ability to write and sing, making it difficult to progress or enjoy it. What is most important is the here and now, and finding peace in that here and now.

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Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mindfulness Week 5: Turning Towards Difficulties

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Getting to the halfway mark had felt to me like surpassing a substantial hurdle in this program. Unfortunately, in my relief at passing that hurdle I hoped that this week would be a little bit easier, which it, unfortunately, was not. In fact, the primary focus of this week was difficulty and how it affects us. True to my nature my tactic was avoidance, putting off the meditations, or not committing to them fully and resigning myself to believe that it just wasn't working anymore, or maybe meditation just isn't for me and I should give up now. What helped, actually, was a little book I had borrowed from my library around the same time I picked up the book that I'm using for this program. It's called "Mindfulness Made Easy" (hereafter: MME) by Martha Langley, and it acts as a perfect companion to "Finding Peace in a Frantic World" (hereafter: FPFW).

Both books seem to be providing the same information and in a similar pattern, but where FPFW is structured as a guide to help you through a program with large weekly exercises to work through, MME takes a slower, more detailed approach and explains the mechanics of mindfulness, small activities you can do to slowly test the way it works and how you're affected and lists various reactions to types of meditation as well as why all those reactions are okay or normal or understandable. One thing that MME explained to me that I now use to help anchor my focus is an affirmation. I had always called this sort of thing a  mantra, which is like a word or sound that you can use to focus on when meditating. Something like the stereotypical "ommmm" sound is a mantra. An affirmation is specifically a phrase with meaning that you can use for focus when meditating. It should be short, present tense, first person, and positive in its language. It does not have to be said aloud, which I had assumed, but it can be. Having to say something out loud would utterly break my concentration and pull me out of the moment, not to mention I would feel fairly self-conscious.

The affirmation I chose is: I am here. I think it in time with my breathing (*in breath* I *out breath* am here), and the words help me remember where "here" is, the time and place, and what I'm doing. In the few times I've used it, it has been extremely helpful in my concentration. There are other things I can use such as focusing on a fixed point in front of me rather than closing my eyes, or focusing on an object like a burning candle or a plant or something. I intend to try these methods and see if any one of them works best, but I'm finding the affirmation very helpful.

Habit Releaser

This week's habit releaser was interesting: planting some seeds. It was all about being mindful in the moment again, smelling the earth and feeling it in your hands, carefully sowing the seeds and watering the earth. While I am an idiot and managed to spill half the seeds somewhere in our garden, I did plant a few and I enjoyed the action of taking the time out to focus on these things. I have never really planted things before, daffodil bulbs in primary school maybe but that's all, so new experiences are good.






Meditations

I had another week with a series of meditations. This time there were three from last week plus one new one. One of the past meditations was the Three Minute Breathing Space, to be performed whenever I feel like I needed it, and I've gushed on that meditation enough times. The other two past meditations were the Breath and Body meditation, which I've become incredibly comfortable with after now three weeks of doing it, and the Sounds and Thoughts meditation, which I will admit I find less difficult than last week. I still struggle with falling out of concentration but less so, which is good.

The new meditation was the Exploring Difficulty meditation, so no surprises that it proved to be difficult! It's all about taking a new path when hard, distracting, difficult thoughts crop up in our minds: exploring the feeling and "breathing into it". When you breathe into a part of your body in meditation it means you focus on that part of you and imagine it to be like a lung, imagine it filling with air as you breathe in and collapsing as you breathe out. It's a way of really zoning in on how that body part feels whilst using your breath to anchor your thoughts.

I think the reason I found it so difficult is that my first attempt at this meditation went well up until the end, and as a result of that I became really overwhelmed emotionally. What it asks you to do is take a difficult situation happening in your life (or that has happened previously), and focus on the feeling that thinking about this thing gives you. You don't try to solve it and refrain from getting lost in it, just exist with the feeling and try to pinpoint where in your body you feel it most. Butterflies in your stomach maybe, or headaches, or a tight feeling in your chest and throat which is what I tend to get. You breathe into that part of your body, breathe into the feeling, and then observe as the feeling fades in and out. Once you finish the meditation, what can happen is that the thing you were worrying about seems much less dire, or stops bothering you all together. What happened to me the first time was that I got so emotional and sad/anxious about the difficult situation that I wasn't properly able to calm down in the cooling off/breathing part at the end of the meditation. I had to go to work that morning feeling really shaky and emotionally strange, and I think a fear of that happening again has made me slow down on my twice-a-day meditating.

What luck, then, that I managed to remember I still had this MME book out: it's provided me with small exercises to do in my down time to practice focusing and observing my thoughts rather than getting lost in them. I feel like I'll need these tips and tricks more in the next three weeks, and hopefully I can use them to really open myself up to this meditation on difficulties. It's really important, I can feel that from the times I've done it without issue.

Psst. Psssssst. Ask.FM is a thing.

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Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Commit This To Memory



I saw Motion City Soundtrack live on Monday, May 4th, 2015 and It was maybe one of the best concerts I've ever been to. I had so much fun despite going alone, and not only did they play my favourite song, but the tour t-shirt is covered in the lyrics to the same song. I was so happy the minute I saw it.

The show was part of a tour celebrating the ten year anniversary of their album Commit This To Memory, an album that came out around the same time as a few albums, although I didn't discover them all until a few years after they came out, that pretty much shaped my taste in music. A lot of who I am as a person and a writer and a music lover sprung out of these albums. This band has written a song about feeling like rain, and I knew exactly what that meant somehow which fascinated me. I wanted to think of things like that, make people feel think "how are these words describing how I feel so perfectly?"

I hadn't actually listened to the album in a while for whatever reason, so really listening to it again on the day of the show, and then hearing it live, brought back a flood of emotions and feelings. It was a heavy, hard-hitting nostalgia coupled with the happy adrenaline one gets from being at a gig. It was a mix of the emotional, visceral, achingly poetic, lyric geek fifteen-year-old me, but I could buy drinks at the bar and I wasn't terrified of the (albeit tiny) moshpit.

So I've already spoken about why being fifteen again would be terrible, for me anyway, and the past few days have only solidified my stance. The night was great, and once the feeling was dying down by the time I got home that night I started dwelling on it, rethinking it, wondering what I could have done to make it better, and wondering if maybe the night wasn't as great as I had thought. What if I could have met Justin Pierre, what if I had brought friends? What if I could have caught a pick? What if what if what if.... I was chasing the feeling away by trying to hold onto it or make it better, and for days afterward too. I've listening to the album on repeat, feeling slowly sadder and sadder about not being at the gig anymore, whilst listening to an album full of pretty sad songs.

The thing about being achingly poetic is: you have to ache. Aching isn't a good thing. I've been feeling it though, that warm, dull, painful ache in my chest that feels like being a teenager. I'm wasting a good feeling with my obsessive running and re-running of thoughts and feelings over in my head in an attempt to fix or improve them. I'm constantly trying to revise my thoughts and words and feelings, so certain that if I think hard enough I'll make everything better when all I'm really doing is spiralling.

I'm aware of it though, and actively pulling myself back from these destructive thought patterns. That shows me the therapy, the Mindfulness, and the attempts to improve my mental emotional state are working in small but noticeable ways. It's nice to have a little indicator that you've made progress, because it shuts up that annoying inner critic we all have, if only for a little while.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Mindfulness Week 4: Moving Beyond the Rumour Mill

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I'm half way through my Mindfulness journey, and it seems a pattern is forming. Good week, tough week, good week, and now a tough week again. Generally though, I can feel progress. It's becoming easier to quiet my sporadic thoughts, to focus and see things more clearly. I can tell my mind is becoming clearer because I'm writing more, and not just random ideas but whole products that I can be proud of. I've come up with more ideas for this blog once these weekly updates are done, and more than ever I'm managing to get real sleep which is so important for your mental health and your ability to cope with life in general.

This week's chapter is all about how our thoughts operate like rumours. It described how when we see the world, our interpretations of a scene based on what we can see plus our own personal biases, become the truth in our minds. We may be rushing to somewhere without time to do more than observe, and see a homeless person begging on the street, outstretched towards us. One of us might see them as helpless and in need, another might see them as intrusive or a nuisance. The truth can only be gleaned from gaining more information, but at a glance we make a quick judgement and take that as fact, whether it is true or not. Similarly, when we are under pressure or stress we make judgements reflecting our unhappy mindset. Thoughts like "it's all my fault" or "I can't fail" or "I just can't relax" are rumours, judgements we make in a heightened state of frustration. If we take time, learn to logically assess a situation before making a judgement and focus our constant flow and stream of thoughts, we can get rid of the rumours our minds create.

Meditations

There were three meditations this week, two of which were carried over from last week: the Breath and Body Meditation and Three Minute Breathing Space. As they were carried over I found them somewhat easier to do than last week and was able to work on understanding the rhythm of my thoughts as they try to encourage. With the Breath and Body, I found it easier to use my breath as a rhythmic anchor for my thoughts. I notice myself trying to do it in stressful situations like work or meeting new people. My thoughts race and flash back to other moments where I felt the same nervousness, but I do my best to face the emotion and listen to my breathing at the same time, so I don't get caught up in dwelling on the worry.

The Three Minute Breathing Space continues to be my favourite tool, and I use it without the audio guide now, just whenever I feel particularly wound tight and anxious.

The new meditation for this week is called The Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. It's a longer one, around ten minutes, and I think that is part of the reason I found it quite difficult to maintain. Like the body scan from week two, I get frustrated, fall asleep, or try and put off doing it at all. I understand the point of it: it's about likening the way sounds are constantly happening around us to the ay we are constantly thinking. In the same way, it should be possible to tune out certain thoughts the way we can tune out certain sounds. It will happen with time, I'm sure, but for now I have not been able to feel the effects of this meditation, but I am feeling the effects of generally meditating regularly. I went to meditate and do some writing in the park today, and I think maybe changing my scenery from time to time may help with the more difficult meditations.


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Habit Releaser 

This week's habit releaser was a nice one: to go to the cinema! It was similar to last week, about taking the time to do something for you and enjoy it mindfully. I went to see the new Avenger's film, and personally I really enjoyed it bar maybe a couple of plot points. I had a really good night overall actually, where normally I would hate going anywhere after work. It's becoming more apparent what my IAPT advisor told me, that when we feel bad we stop doing the things that make us feel good, which in turn makes us feel worse. It makes a lot of sense, more than it had, so I'll follow that advice more closely from now on.

PS: I've started an ask.fm for the blog! Ask me questions, suggest topics, or write whatever you feel!


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