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Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 1

This pair of posts draws on some (very) ancient wisdom that could be so valuable in our modern times – to help us re-connect to a kind of wellbeing that we’ve lost touch with.

I’ve become fascinated recently by how ancient people lived. I don’t just mean going back a couple of thousand years. I mean the hunter-gatherer culture that goes back tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Many of the books I’ve read recently which appear to be about different areas – parenting, education, meditation and psychology – all seem to point to the same thing.

Which is that with the birth of agriculture, we began to lose our sense of connection – to the earth, to ourselves, to each other, and to our ‘right brain’ that mediates these connections so powerfully.

Anthropologists suggest that in hunter-gatherer cultures, people experienced much higher wellbeing that we do in modern culture. I’m not ignoring that certain hardships may also have been more prevalent in those environments, or at least that some of the advantages of modern life weren’t available. I’m not wishing to romanticise their experience. But a few things have really got me questioning the received wisdom of our own times. What can we learn from those ancient people?

To start answering that question, I’m going to first mention more contemporary idea. I first stumbled across the idea of the ‘right brain’ when I realised that my son’s style of learning doesn’t fit the current dominant model: he likes to learn in a very embodied way, with a passion for storytelling, visual resources and hands-on exploration. When I stumbled across the theory about brain hemispheres, I began to appreciate his wonderful learning style more fully, and to see the joy and wonder that emerge when he follows his deep curiosity.

The basic premise of the theory is that we have 2 brain hemispheres, left and right, and that some of us tend to use one side more than the other*. The left side is associated with logic, language, planning, analysing and step-by-step learning. The right side is associated with creativity, intuition, imagination, spatial abilities and ‘bigger picture’ learning. This is a huge simplification – there are also other attributes for each side, and we tend to use both sides in combination.

Recent science has begun to suggest that the right ‘brain’ is actually the right hemisphere of the brain plus the whole of the body (not just one side). It’s all linked up. The vagus nerve that links the gut to the brain figures somewhere in here (you’ll have heard of ‘gut instinct’). I read somewhere that we actually have more receptors for messages that are passed from the body to the brain, than the other way round. This certainly made me reevaluate the importance of the information that our sensitive bodies can pick up.

In modern culture, we’re encouraged to rely heavily on our left brain skills, and so we disconnect somewhat with the right brain/body. We literally become disembodied, and lose the ‘body wisdom’ that in ancient cultures would have equated success in the world of hunter-gathering. Stressful experiences can lead us to dis-connect further from the body: to escape uncomfortable feelings, we may seek refuge in numbness or mental strategies such as explanations or evaluations.

You might think that right-brain skills aren’t as relevant in our world as they might have been to our ancestors. But in withdrawing into the left-brain, we also disconnect from the emotional energies that are associated with the right brain/body. When we disconnect from emotional parts of ourselves (even the ones we might not like, such as vulnerability, fear or anger), we feel less whole and our wellbeing gets compromised.

This is where practices like mindfulness, self-kindness and meditation can help us to re-connect with the lost parts of ourselves, and rediscover wholeness and greater ease of being.  In the second part of this blog, I suggest some ways that our experience could be enriched by greater connection to our right brain/body, and also some thoughts about how to actually make that happen.

*I should say that much of what I’ve written here about left/right brain theory is a gross simplification, and possibly includes my own interpretation of information that could be read a different way. I’m also aware that some studies would appear to disprove some of what I’ve shared. An alternative way to look at those studies is that they confirmed that each hemisphere functions differently, and that perhaps modern culture trains us to rely on the left brain more heavily (I’m quoting psychotherapist Paul Francis here). Personally, I’m a strong believer that ‘truth’ is what we find in our own experience. I can appreciate too why there might be resistance to the idea of our bodies being at least as wise as our brains.

If you want to learn more about the brain hemispheres and modern-day disconnection (and see what seems true for you), these authors may be of interest:

Reginald Ray on body-based meditation (his book ‘The Awakening Body’ is a good starting point)

Peter Levine on how the nervous system processes stressful experiences (‘In An Unspoken Voice’ is a very comprehensive book)

Cindy Gaddis on the ‘right-brained’ learning style

Peter Gray on hunter-gatherer cultures (you can find his blogs about education on psychology.com)

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

This is one of my most popular posts, and has featured on the Huffington Post and Everyday Mindfulness…

For an awfully long time, I believed that I could only be happy when I’d changed something about myself. For example, when I was more calm and confident, or when I stopped making mistakes and always got everything right. Only once I’d become that other person (I believed) could I stop feeling there was something wrong with me.

Then, several years back I went through a bereavement which changed all the relationships in my life, not least the one I have with myself. Here’s what I learned that helped me finally let go of self-attacking.

In my 20s, I’d tried endless self-help books in an effort to become someone else. I hated that I always felt anxious and lacking confidence. I was determined to rid myself of these defects so that I could finally be happy. In my early 30s I discovered mindfulness, which helped me enormously in recognising that my thoughts weren’t necessarily facts.

Mindfulness got me through the seven miscarriages I had before our son came along. But when he was a toddler, I suffered another loss, this one particularly traumatic. During the aftermath, things got very messy. I knew that friends were finding it hard to be around me. In truth, I found it hard to be around me. I felt like I couldn’t rely on anything, my anxiety shot up, and my reactions to others were unpredictable. I wanted friends to support me even though they didn’t have a clue how, and I was very sensitive to well-meant comments.

Sadly, this led to the breakdown of some friendships. In the past my response would have been to blame myself. My self-talk would have sounded something like this: “see, you’ve chased everyone away because you’re handling this really badly and you’ve become a horrible person.”

But I turned instead to compassion meditation. Not only did it (eventually) help me to heal some of those rifts, it prevented me from attacking myself.

I remember sitting in meditation one day offering myself the phrase ‘May I have ease of being’. Suddenly, the phrase became ‘May I have ease of being, just as I am‘. Not ‘May I have ease of being – when I’m perfect’, but right now, just as I am: messy and heartbroken and chaotic. This learning for me was huge. I didn’t have to wait till I was getting things right to feel OK about myself. I could love and accept myself right now, because being human is hard.

I no longer believe that we have to fix our perceived defects in order to be happy. We can be content just as we are, even when parts of our experience are difficult. And we can wish that others too have ease of being, just as they are.

When we can bring this gentle acceptance to ourselves and to others – no matter how human or unskilful our behaviour, we can let go of the added burden of (self-)criticism. This means we can use that energy elsewhere: for compassion, support and love. How would you use this extra energy?

What Is Mindfulness?

I’m often asked the question ‘what is mindfulness?’.  I don’t believe there is one definitive answer to this question.  What you’ll find here is just one possible answer, based on the way I have received and share the practices of mindfulness and self-kindness…

Mindfulness means being with our experience in a gentle, accepting way.  When stressed, we have a tendency to be stuck in our heads, thinking and problem-solving.  With mindful awareness, we learn to inhabit our direct, sensory experience in the body, and this gives us more choice in how we respond to difficulty.  Through learning to be with all of our experience – even the difficult parts – we build emotional confidence.  I share mindfulness with a strong emphasis on kindness and compassion (including self-kindness, which is extremely powerful in helping us cope with difficulty).

What are the benefits?

Research shows that mindfulness reduces stress and improves wellbeing.  I can personally say that it has helped me feel much more calm and positive in the face of many life challenges. Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, but it does have profound & lasting benefits when you make it a habit.  

So how does it work?

Mindfulness is practised by engaging in regular meditation.  But it may not be what you associate with the word ‘meditation’.  There are sitting practices that can be done while being guided.  These include focusing on the body, the breath or feelings of kindness.  There are also ways to bring mindful awareness to whatever we’re doing, and this all counts as meditation.  Over time, meditating regularly starts to have a positive impact on how we are generally.  It’s a bit like training to get fit: when practised regularly, it has a cumulative effect, re-wiring the brain to create new neural pathways.  Although practising meditation will greatly enhance the benefits, it is possible to start becoming more mindful of your habitual responses by using mindful awareness tools in daily life.

What’s the best way to learn?

Most people find that some guidance is helpful initially via a class or course of some kind.  This can be especially helpful if you think you’re ‘no good at meditating’.   Being able to access regular sessions helps with motivation to keep your own practice going (read more about that here).  It can also be useful to connect with other people who are learning. You can get CD’s or downloads with guided meditations to listen to at home.  My recordings can be found on the Meditations and Mini-Meditations pages of this blog. 

If you’re not quite ready for regular meditation, but you want to develop a more mindful response to worry, stress and overwhelm – you can still learn to live more mindfully in everyday life.  I share tips on how to do this in my classes, in my book and via my monthly mailing list which is available via my Lollipop Wellbeing site.   Although it’s true that sitting meditation enhances the benefits of mindfulness, you can also develop your own set of tools that can be used whether you meditate or not.

Are all classes the same?

There are different types of courses and classes.  My approach is helpful for stress, but is not intended to provide support for debilitating mental health issues.  If you have been diagnosed with (or suspect you may have) a mental health condition such as depression or an anxiety disorder, you can ask your GP about a referral to a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course (MBCT) – this is different from the classes I offer. 

Making Friends With My Anxiety

As a wellbeing coach and mindfulness teacher, I don’t just share from the theory of mindfulness, but from my own experience too.  Here’s my own story about how mindfulness and self-kindness transformed my relationship with anxiety – from outright war, to acceptance and befriending. This process unfolded for me some years ago, and I’ve included excerpts from the personal journal (in italics) that I was writing at the time.  I hope this gives you an idea of mindful learning in action.  The freedom and relief I discovered during this period of my life were in fact what motivated me to train as a mindfulness teacher.

For many years I’d struggled with anxiety, and when I experienced recurrent miscarriages, it seemed to intensify those feelings.  When our son was 18 months old, we suffered particularly devastating loss, which seemed to ratchet up my anxiety to new levels.  I was terrified of losing my son aswell, and I felt surrounded by threats to his safety.  I came to a point where I was hardly sleeping because I was getting up so often to check on him. Routine tasks were taking me a long time:  I would become paralysed, trapped in extra measures designed to eliminate any imagined risk.  I also began to worry that my son would pick up on my anxiety and feel the world wasn’t a safe place.

One day, I had what I call a ‘What if?’ moment.  Faced with an everyday situation,  I stood paralysed, calculating how I could eliminate any risk  (bear with me if you’ve never suffered anxiety – I know that may not sound logical). And I suddenly wondered – ‘What would it be like to be free of all this, to just do these everyday tasks without a second thought?  What would a life that be like?’  This moment planted a seed of possibility.  Mindfulness had already helped me to cope with a level of sadness that I’d never have thought I could withstand.  So I wondered if I could also turn to my mindfulness practice to help with the anxiety I was experiencing.

Being a coach, I knew I’d have to build my confidence up slowly.  I decided to take small opportunities in daily life to challenge my usual responses.  That instead of always taking action to eliminate tiny or non-existent risks, I would practice noticing that and delaying my reaction.  I identified typical situations that I wanted to handle differently, and I used a journal to record my experiences both during meditations and in life.  My dream outcome was that “I would be a confident and relaxed parent. I would be able to do practical tasks with less effort, leaving me with more energy for having fun as a family. “

Soon, my awareness of what was happening in anxiety-provoking situations was increasing.  I found that during challenging situations, I was able to pause, and create just the tiniest bit of space before reacting.  And in that space, sometimes I could find a new way of seeing things, or the courage to do nothing, and wait for the clouds of panic to clear.

I was making room for a more balanced response. Here’s what I wrote just after one such situation.  “I was able to see that it was my anxiety I needed to tolerate, not an actual risk. Maybe this is what learning to trust feels like.” Mindfulness gives us more choice about how we respond to difficulty.  In my case I began making a choice between avoidant behaviours (which protected me from feeling anxiety), and ‘letting things go’ which exposed me to difficult feelings, but which I often felt was healthier all round for my son.  The fact that my ‘anxiety’ behaviours became a choice – rather than an unquestioned necessity – felt extremely liberating in itself.

I began relying on mindfulness to help me ‘ride out’ the intense waves of anxiety.  I would bring my attention to my breathing and try to just stay in the present moment rather than going into an imaginary and catastrophic future. Then, I noticed  “it’s like I can actually feel it start to subside physically.  Like it’s the physical ‘fight or flight’ response that’s been triggered, and that’s what changes and subsides. “  All this time, I’d felt like the key to reducing anxiety was to control external events, and now I was learning that I didn’t need to exhaust myself doing that!

Self-kindness also became crucial to letting my anxious feelings pass without getting trapped in avoidant behaviours.  At the time I reflected that “When I tolerate the anxiety, it’s like letting that part of me have a voice, listening to it and validating it. Once it’s been heard, it doesn’t need to shout at me any more.  And that’s the moment that the feeling of anxiety starts to subside.  It’s when I don’t want to listen, and get locked in a battle to shut out or disprove that voice, that I get stuck in anxiety and feel trapped and suffocated.”

This was the first time I began to understand what is meant by ‘befriending’ difficult feelings: “It was as if I had to first accept myself – all the parts of myself, including the anxious, the perfectionist and the vulnerable parts – and give them compassion just as they are, instead of believing that I only deserve compassion when I’ve calmed down/have fixed things/am feeling good about myself.”  

The impact of self-kindness is evident in my journey, as I noticed that “All the time I’m getting braver at tolerating my anxious thoughts and impulses without always acting on them, and more compassionate with myself when I do act on them”.  I found that the anxious part of me was only one part of me – and another voice would kick in saying ‘you can do this, you can cope’.  And I started to believe it.

Following these realisations, I noted in my journal that “I’m not putting off unpleasant tasks.  I’m accepting that I find them unpleasant, noticing the anxiety but doing things more efficiently – as I lose less time fighting with myself and just get on with it.  At the same time I’m being aware of my feelings, and encouraging myself compassionately for doing them even though I find them difficult.”  So tasks that had once seemed ‘too much’ had now become perceived as merely ‘unpleasant’.

Over time, my perspective became that  “I just feel much less ‘at war’ with myself in general in terms of my anxiety levels – like I’m struggling with myself much less, like I have space to breathe.  It just feels like less of an issue than it has been – like my anxiety isn’t interfering with living so much.”

I discovered that with a foundation of self-kindness in place, I was finally able to apply mindfulness skills to transform my relationship with anxiety.  I don’t tend to describe this journey as ‘overcoming’ anxiety, as I don’t see it like that anymore: I’ve released myself from that struggle with it.  Now, when feelings of anxiety arise, I can embrace them as a part of my overall emotional landscape, and recognise they are just one of the full range of emotions that we human beings naturally experience.  I no longer feel trapped by these feelings, nor do they prevent me from living fully.  To me, this is the true freedom we can find in the practices of self-kindness and mindfulness.

Note – it may not be advisable to learn mindfulness for the first time if you are currently experiencing debilitating anxiety, and you may need therapeutic support from a health professional.

Has Mindfulness Become Yet Another Marker Of ‘Success’?

I’ve become a little wary of blogging about mindfulness recently; I fear I’m at risk of becoming something of a cliche, if I write another piece about how great mindfulness is, and how everyone should practice it.

Because it’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? And I do worry that it could be turning into yet another thing that people feel they have to achieve.

But life for most of us is hard enough without that burden.

I’m beginning to prefer to use the word ‘awareness’ – it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of expectation, there’s more room for not getting anything right.

We can grow awareness very very slowly, and we can become more aware without even having to change anything. The habits we’d like to change are often so deeply entrenched because the idea of doing anything different is, quite frankly, terrifying.

If what we’re shooting for is simply awareness, we really don’t have to change the habit until we’re ready: just bringing compassionate awareness to those times we catch ourselves in the act is enough. It’s more than enough. It kickstarts the process of real change.

Because with awareness, we start to truly understand our habits. We begin to see what it is that we’re avoiding (or seeking) through particular behaviour. This can show up in the things we actually do, but also in our mental and emotional patterns and habits. I speak here from personal experience – many of my own habits are attempts to escape uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty, confusion, insecurity or fear (to name just a few).

Once we have this kind of insight into our own patterns, a positive change can begin to unfold naturally. And that will likely not be a neat and tidy movement towards ‘success’. A gradual growth as a human being may occur that is meandering, back-sliding, acceptance-requiring – and quite astonishing.

What’s more, there is no particular end-point that we need to reach. In my own practice of ten years, the more awareness I’ve developed, the further away I’ve moved from needing to evaluate my own success, at anything – including meditation.

I hope that as mindfulness becomes more embedded into our culture, we can embrace it as a simple invitation towards greater awareness, as we tread this tricky and amazing path of being human.

If you liked this piece, you can find out how to explore my approach through my other pages on this site.