Gratitude

We might work out our bodies and even our minds, but, we can also work out our feelings. It is comforting to think of our feelings as being within our control, like a muscle to be trained. For example, if you are prone to negativity and you are aware of that, then you can start to monitor your behaviour and your attitude in situations where this arises. One feeling you can train that will help you become more mindful day to day, and feel that smile from within, is gratitude.

When I was a little girl one of the things I was taught to do before I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep, was to say thank you for everyone in my life. Thank you for my mum, thank you for my dad thank you for my brother and sister, thank you for grandma thank you for ……. My family is big, so I never got to thank all the uncles, aunts and cousins, and I was asleep before I knew it.

Gratitude is a tendency towards appreciating the positive in life, either we are more naturally inclined that way, or we have to realise that it is a quality, a way of being, that requires some effort to cultivate. Whoever we are there is always room for improvement.

Sometimes in the yoga class I will ask people to take a moment to think about three things they are grateful for. I see that within moments they relax more in their posture, and a gentle smile emerges. The reason being, when we are grateful, we feel joy. Gratitude is linked to kindness, it lifts the heart, we are saying thank you from the heart.  This could be for the sound of birdsong, the kindness of a neighbour, or a child’s laughter. So many things.

Numerous studies have shown a strong association between higher levels of gratitude and wellbeing, including lowered stress levels, more fulfilling relationships, better sleep and overall greater resilience.

A way to train this feeling is to cultivate a regular practice of being thankful. It can take just a few minutes each day, you could do this before you go to bed. Think about, or write down, at least 3 things you are grateful for today. The more you do this the more you notice the many wonderful things in your life and you can’t help but smile and say thank you. Over time you start feeling grateful during the activities or experiences you are having, before eating your dinner and during the meal, when listening to a loved one, giving your whole attention and being grateful for that person in your life. Really experiencing the sights and sounds of nature instead of being lost in thoughts.

Gratitude is strongly linked with mindfulness, the more aware you are, the more you notice what is going on with your mental and physical state moment to moment. Train the muscle of mindfulness and gratitude and live a more fulfilling life. Like with a physical yoga practice or gym practice, the more you do it, the more you notice a difference.

Smile and the world smiles with you….

Think of someone you know that has a beautiful smile, the kind that touches your heart and lifts your spirits. You see their eyes light up and they generate a warmth and joy that connects from within.

The likelihood is that you are smiling as you think of this person. Your body relaxes, your breathing is steady, and your mood lifts.

Studies have shown that the act of smiling, alters your body’s chemistry and elevates your mood. We only have to try it to find out!

I will often invite people to smile during a yoga class. If we are holding a yoga pose that requires balance, focus and concentration, we might notice that we tighten in the mouth and hold our breath. Softly smiling however releases tension in the facial muscles, we also let go of tension in the mind and the body. A reminder to breathe steadily in and out through the nose counteracts any feelings of tightness. When we take deeper slower breaths, with a typically longer exhale, we stimulate one of the key nerves of the body, the vagus nerve. Activating this nerve slows the heart rate, reduces blood pressure and helps us feel more calm and at ease.

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and is the main pathway connecting the gut to the brain. It is in charge of reducing and turning off the ‘fight or flight’ response of the body. You can consciously activate the vagus nerve to induce inner-calm through relaxing the muscles of the face and breathing steadily in and out through the nose.

Try this:

Sitting comfortably on a chair or on a cushion, take a nice inhale through the nose and sigh out through the mouth. Do this a couple of times.

  • Settle yourself and notice your normal breath as it is in this moment.
  • Take a breath in through the nose, pause, and then exhale out through the nose, long and slow.
  • Centre yourself in the here and now, feeling the length in your spine, notice how your shoulders drop a little with each out breath.
  • Now, take a deep steady inhale through the nose, breathe down into the lower belly, feel your ribcage expand, then your chest. Stay with the pause at the top of your inhale. Then take a long deep exhale through the nose, emptying your chest, the rib area and the lower belly. Feel that sense of slowing down as you continue with this breath, softly smiling as you do so.
  • Breathe in smiling, feeling the healing, nourishing aspects of oxygen in your body. As you hold the breath for a few seconds, imagine it radiating health and nourishment inside you. Then breathe out thinking “Letting Go”, releasing all of the tension in your body through your exhale.

You can do this breathing at any point throughout the day, waiting at the train station, queuing in the supermarket, or intentionally taking the time out to do this at home or at work.

Keep smiling…..and, of course, keep breathing!

I like it, I don’t like it

We operate along gradations of I like it / I don’t like it, seeking pleasure, avoiding pain. This impacts our mood and our interactions. Our mind is always quick to judge ourselves and others and this influences our behaviour and our sense of being. Our brains can’t help producing states of desire and aversion regardless of our intentions. This can happen right this moment we can either be in some kind of neutral state, or somewhere along the I like it / I don’t like it spectrum.

Wherever we are there is an element of story telling,  we create past, present and future narratives in our minds and most of the time it is fiction. We are the protagonist of our own continuous unfolding monologue, and we must forever defend our sense of self. We are often wanting something else, not wanting what we already have, expecting something more from others and being disappointed when our expectations are not met. We didn’t like what someone said so we let it stoke a fire in us, and we can invent a story as to how this plays out if it were to happen again.

How can we can let go of this often defensive attachment to self during our day to day life? This is no easy task and takes commitment and time to tune into what is going on in our mind and our bodies, observing, noticing, reflecting, and letting go. We must be mindful not to be too harsh with ourselves, but to adopt an attitude of kindness as we cultivate a more balanced way to be.

It is a continuous ebb and flow as we let go of the narrow world of judgement and thereby slowly loosen the grip on our own self importance.

The fictions that don’t always serve us

We operate along gradations of I like it / I don’t like it, seeking pleasure, avoiding pain. This impacts our mood and our interactions. Our mind is always quick to judge ourselves and others and this influences our behaviour and our sense of being. Our brains can’t help producing states of desire and aversion regardless of our intentions. This can happen right this moment we can either be in some kind of neutral state, or somewhere along the I like it / I don’t like it spectrum.

Wherever we are there is an element of story telling,  we create past, present and future narratives in our minds and most of the time it is fiction. We are the protagonist of our own continuous unfolding monologue, and we must forever defend our sense of self. We are often wanting something else, not wanting what we already have, expecting something more from others and being disappointed when our expectations are not met. We didn’t like what someone said so we let it stoke a fire in us, and we can invent a story as to how this plays out if it were to happen again.

How can we can let go of this often defensive attachment to self during our day to day life? This is no easy task and takes commitment and time to tune into what is going on in our mind and our bodies, observing, noticing, reflecting, letting go. We must be mindful not to judge ourselves too harshly, to actually be kind and encouraging as we cultivate a more balanced way to be. It is a continuous ebb and flow as we let go of the narrow world of our likes and dislikes and thereby slowly loosen the grip on our own self importance.

Your own Parachute

Imagine doing something that you enjoy and the more you do it the more you get better at it, and it helps you reach heights that you never thought possible? (And no, it’s not parachuting!).

Cultivating a regular yoga and meditation practice can prepare you for anything. That sounds like quite a claim but it’s true. If you can achieve a natural resting state of equanimity and emotional resilience then you are pretty much prepared for whatever comes your way.

I know because I speak from experience. A recent example is from early 2019 where I had to have an operation and undergo surgery. It is without doubt that my yoga and meditation practice helped me physically and mentally, pre and post surgery. The many years of yoga and mindfulness helped create the resilience necessary to face difficult times. Since my operation I feel that there has been a radical shift in my nervous system and consciousness, and my body has an unprecedented degree of suppleness and energy.  This is thanks to the operation itself but also to my regular practice of meditation and breathing work, all part of yoga.

Mindfulness research is showing how meditation can benefit physical health as well as mental well being and the best way to know this is to experience it for yourself.

Yoga unites the mind and the body through the breath, and that is an almost literal translation of the word. It also helps us in times of difficulty. When I did the 8 week MBCT course some years ago, the trainer said that sustained meditation practice was like weaving your own parachute, so that when the time comes when you need all the help you can muster, your parachute is ready. As Mark Williams and Danny Penman wrote in ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World’, “there’s no point in doing this when we’re falling headlong towards destruction. We have to weave our parachute every day so that it’s always there to hold us in an emergency.”

Here are two videos, one is a short guided meditation, the other one is a body scan. Both can help you in your journey to weave your own parachute:

Observe Yourself

When the mind and body are in balance it is like the ever present clear blue sky, a vast spaciousness of non-reactivity. What clouds and dulls the mind is negative mental states along the spectrum of I like it, I don’t like it. There is a craving for something or a sense of clinging to the view that if only things were different then life would be better.

Our day to day life is always in relationship to, or in relationship with, whether we are alone or with others, it is always in the plane of relating. It is how we comport to situations, people, things, that determines whether we are in balance or not. When we feel ill at ease, be it mildly or more pronounced we will feel it as tightness in the body and mind, reflected in our mental, verbal and bodily actions.

The very early sign of liking or disliking as a mental state is a feeling sensation in the body. To understand this and start to transform it is no easy task. It does however begin with awareness of that early reactive tone in the body and the voice of your mind. If we know a situation or interaction triggers us to behave in a certain way we can start to catch ourselves before we spill over into the habitual reaction. We can pause for a moment and actively choose to respond differently.

It is part of being human to be reactive and have emotions like anger, fear or jealousy, BUT we can modify or reduce the volume of these reactive states, through repeated self observation, reflection and a caring understanding attitude. Beneath all of this is the vast clear non reactive body / mind experience.

We are what we repeatedly do

We all have our positive and negative habit energies, cultivated over the course of our lives, a result of conditions and circumstances over time.

If we are aware of our negative habit energies or behaviours, then we might choose to do something about them, especially if we start to become aware of the detrimental impact on ourselves and those we interact with. The start of the process is befriending the self and becoming aware of how we act in the world, getting to know who we are from the inside out, stepping back and viewing this world of I, Me and Mine.

One way to begin is by bringing attention to the breath, even for a moment, this will set the stage for facing that moment, and the next one with greater clarity. It creates a small window to tune into the body and the mind, sensing what’s going on.

It takes practice to catch our reactions as they are emerging. Through ongoing meditation and mindfulness practice we start to lessen the hold that repetitive thought patterns can have on the mind and the body. Over time, through self observation, reflection, and self understanding, we can affect change, bit by bit, until the grip of the negative habit energy starts to loosen itself. Using the breath as an anchor in difficult moments we can create space so that instead of amplifying our reaction we can pause and choose how to respond.

The negative habit energy will not disappear completely, but overtime will reduce in volume.

As Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, so let’s make the time and the effort to become the better version of ourselves.

Temporary Suspension

The Kroller Muller Museum, Otterlo, is one of my favourite places here in the Netherlands. This weekend we were there (again), taking the shaded paths around the sculpture garden. The Needle Tower (pictured here), seemed to lose itself to infinity hovering precariously upwards and beyond, an aluminium and steel structure that somehow belonged to the landscape. The sky played with the geometric forms, the sculpture mimicked the sky. It was imposing yet fragile, permanent and transitory. The interplay and interconnectedness between viewer, object and environment took me out of the everyday aspect of life. It was an aesthetic experience transcending the self, momentary yet timeless.

This feeling of being outside of time and space in the conventional sense is very similar to being in a meditation practice where we transcend or lose our sense of self, the ever grasping ego of wants and desires evaporates. Art and nature are both aspects of life that create a similar dynamic to meditation, there is an element of engaging that becomes a subtle letting go.

When we contemplate aesthetically, or come to a certain meditative state, there is a sense of losing the ‘I’ of who we are, as we merge with everything around us,  without boundaries, there is no separation.  It is the still point of temporary suspension where time stands still.

Out of your head into your body

The conditioned modality we live in is in our heads. We live in our heads almost all of the time apart from when pain or tension in the body calls us to respond. When we do respond the response is often a head based reaction, a verbal reaction. We often treat our body as if it were separate from the head.

Every moment thoughts are vying for our attention. It is as if our head is hovering 30 cm in front of us as we proceed through the day: planning, thinking, creating narratives, projecting forward. The head leads, the body follows.

We live in a back and forth relationship with past based thinking and future based thinking, only occasionally do we feel and see the present as a tiny slit of light in a dark room. That light is integration, the head is back on the neck, integrated with the body and interconnected with our surroundings. We are in felt relationship with the self and the world around us.

Using the breath as an anchor, feeling the breath deep in the lowest part of the belly, we can cultivate befriending the self and bring the head back to the body. As we practice yoga and mindfulness our mind, heart, and belly come into balance and harmony.  There is a feeling of space and freedom within and in relationship to our environment and our interactions.

Life is like the (dutch or british) weather, it is never the same for very long!

Life would be dull if things stayed just the way we wanted them to be. Every minute, every second there is constant change and movement taking place, in everything. In this moment,- sitting or standing, wherever you are, change is happening in your body, right down to the most subtle level.

I feel good right now, I want to stay feeling good. It’s bright and sunny, it may rain later, it may hail or even snow. I might cry. Yet I want to stay feeling good.

We want to cling to the joy, show aversion to the pain, make it go away somehow.  It is easier perhaps to stay present with what is joyful, yet often, ironically, we can be more present with suffering because it feels more raw.  To be present in whatever mood state or situation we must practice being in touch with our mind state and body state and we can do this through the breath. Conscious breathing is our anchor to finding balance and composure in the midst of change.

Circumstances change, people change, everything changes, even though we can delude ourselves into thinking otherwise.  Becoming aware of this helps to create a more balanced and contented perspective. All of us will face sickness and death, all the big topics we don’t like to think about when it comes to impermanence, especially our own. Yet confront them, – see that change is all pervasive, understand it and embrace it.  Make the most of your life and your potential for being. There is nothing passive about accepting impermanence!