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MAY TIPS: Slow, Simple, Local

These three words have become something of a personal mantra recently.  You may have heard of the Slow Living movement, and it has much in common with mindful living.  Every so often, I find myself called to slow down some more, to create time and space for what’s most important in life.  Here are three ideas for slower living, if you feel inspired to join me.

Slow

In the Aboriginal culture, there is a practice known as dadirri, or ‘deep listening’.  Hank Wesselman (drawing on Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann’s well-known reflection) describes it as ‘a special quality which allows each of us to make contact with a deep spring that lies within us.  To connect with that spring requires that we achieve a state of quiet, still awareness.’

Fast living just doesn’t seem to allow enough room for this natural inner wisdom and wellbeing to emerge.  However, when we pay full attention to our embodied experience, we get a taste of this quality of deep listening.  And living more slowly really supports that.

When I notice I’ve become disconnected – from myself, from loved ones, or from my environment – I know I’m not leaving enough room for deep listening to happen.  But re-connecting doesn’t have to mean spending hours in meditation – it can be as simple as leaving something out of my schedule for the day or week, to create the needed space.

Simple

In modern culture, there is so much on offer that it’s easy to get drawn into craving ‘bigger, better, more’.  Recently I’ve been re-evaluating the simpler experiences in life.  I noticed that I wasn’t fully appreciating things that happen frequently, simply because I was chasing after novelty.

I found that it’s possible to re-engage with these familiar occurrences – like hanging out with friends, cooking, family downtime – and discover just how rich these experiences are.  Choosing the simple life, far from being boring, can actually create a wonderful feeling of ‘enough’.

Local

I was very inspired by Melanie Warnick’s book This Is Where You Belong – in which she explores the theory of place attachment and how it can boost wellbeing.  She outlines a plan to help you learn to ‘love where you live’.  It really reminded me of the mindfulness practice of taking in your local environment as if you were visiting on holiday.

Practicing ‘loving where I live’ has encouraged me to see my local area through this illuminating lens of unfamiliarity.  Making an effort to spend my time (and my money) in my local community has brought an unexpected sense of joy and connection.  It’s become a habit to ask myself ‘where can I buy this locally?‘, or ‘what can we do for fun nearby?‘, and I feel a lot more content and rooted for it.

Sometimes, I just return to those 3 words – slow, simple, local – as a kind of anchor, to catch myself from coming adrift.

Additional resources

Meditations that complement this month’s theme are ‘Breathing With The Body’, ‘Support Your Self’, or ‘5 Minute Breathing Space’ – which can all be found on the Meditations page.

Blogs that relate to slow living:

Committing To Self-Kindness

Hurry Up, Get More Done and Die by Mark Morford

Podcast on slow living from Brook McAlary & Tsh Oxenreider – On Ignoring What Slow Should Look Like

If you would like to be notified when I post new tips and blogs, you can ‘follow’ the blog to receive emails (using the button at the bottom right corner of the footer). I also post updates to Twitter – see Contact page for the link.

If you would like to work with me, I run mindfulness workshops and classes in Heaton Moor (South Manchester). I also offer 1-to-1 sessions via Skype – see the Coaching Programme for more info.

Committing To Self-Kindness

I’m a big fan of slow living. The world we inhabit seems to speed up more all the time, and the more I try to keep up, the less well I feel.

So for some years I’ve been following a practice of catching myself ‘in the act’ of doing too much, too fast – and putting the brakes on. Slower living, for me, is where I can actually find peacefulness and freedom.

It occurs to me that we often approach wellbeing practices in the same way – as something to be ‘mastered’ as quickly as possible. I’ve written before about mindfulness and giving up the quick fix, and I’m continuing that exploration here. I think our desire for instant success (understandable as it is) can make it harder to access the powerful benefits of self-kindness meditation.

I’ve been there: initially, I thought that the goal of these practices was to (quickly) experience some lovely peaceful feelings, and that if I didn’t achieve that result, I’d be failing at it.

Like many of the approaches I’d tried to help me feel ‘better’, I wanted self-kindness to make difficult feelings like anxiety and shame go away. And fast. Of course I did, no one wants to prolong their suffering if something might help to ease it.

But it’s interesting that the things that have helped me the most – ie self-kindness and mindfulness – have taken longer to take effect than other things that have helped to a lesser degree (and believe me I’d tried many!). Fortunately, something made me hang in there with my self-kindness practice, even though initially it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere fast.

I think that thing may have been something one of my meditation teachers said. What she shared was that it had taken her about 18 months of daily self-kindness meditation to really start to feel an impact. And that her teacher had told her the same thing.

Because I was so inspired by this teacher, I decided to give it a go, to actually commit to a long period of exploration, rather than writing it off as yet another approach that didn’t work for me. Looking back, I think I decided that I was worth the effort. I made self-kindness my main practice for the time being, and I stopped looking for other solutions. I did kindness meditation as close to daily as I could manage, whether I felt like it was ‘working’ or not.

And sure enough, I did start to notice a profound shift in how I was able to cope with difficulty. Not immediately. But after 18 months sounds about right. By then, I had discovered a reliable way to manage uncomfortable emotions without getting quite so triggered into limiting behaviours. I no longer felt afraid of anxiety, or crippled by shame and self-judgement. It was deeply liberating. It began to feel spontaneous to relate to myself with loving compassion in difficult moments, instead of self-criticism, or escaping into futile problem-solving attempts. Around this time, I found myself in an extremely stressful situation, and was so thankful that my foundation of self-kindness had become strong enough to support me through it.

I should say that I’m not being prescriptive here. I’m not saying ‘do this practice for 18 months and you’re guaranteed this result’. I’m just saying that in a world of quick fixes, we might need to adjust our expectations if we want to experience real, deep change. One person might feel a change more quickly than me; another person might say it was more like years before they felt things shift. I’m saying we need to give ourselves time.

I always found it helpful to bear in mind that these practices were gradually changing the neural pathways in my body and brain that created struggle, in the form of anxiety, shame, or whatever other unwanted emotion I was wrestling with.

And more importantly, that these pathways had been laid down over decades – throughout my life as I’d collected experiences that had shaped my way of being in the world.

So if it took decades to build those original pathways, it would also take time to build new, different ones.

These days, I think of self-kindness as less of an ‘intervention’, and more of a practice of self parenting. It’s ongoing, not a short-term project with an end point.

It’s about being in relationship with myself, not doing something to myself.

It’s a way of being there for myself, not as the parent who ‘keeps me in line’, but the deeply attuned, responsive parent I can turn to for support, love and acceptance, whatever I’m feeling. This hasn’t exactly come naturally to me, so I’ve had to invest time and commitment to build this relationship with my ‘little self’, instead of ignoring, invalidating or criticising her.

In my experience, self-kindness practice isn’t so much about trying to switch on certain feelings, as getting to know myself better. Through these meditations, I’ve gradually opened up to more of what I’m actually feeling, and this greater attunement seems naturally to help me meet my own emotional needs. This responsiveness is not dissimilar to how a mother’s loving presence helps to regulate an infant’s nervous system.

Self-kindness can be transformative and deeply healing – but we can’t rush it. As we now know from the field of somatic (body-based) mindfulness, the nervous system needs to go slowly when processing difficult emotions, to avoid being flooded by sudden contact with overwhelming feelings.

It can feel challenging and deeply unfamiliar to connect with ourselves in the way I’ve been describing, and it’s not uncommon to experience resistance to this practice. It might conflict with coping strategies we’ve adopted, or an identity we’ve assumed. A hurdle for me was to be willing to acknowledge my vulnerability, and to accept the presence of feelings such as sadness or fear. It takes courage to allow ourselves to fully experience these feelings. In my case, I was scared that if I let go of my strategies for disconnecting from theses feelings, they would overwhelm me.

Given all this, it’s really important to find a style of practice that feels supportive. If things feel too intense when we’re doing a particular mediation, we don’t need to force ourselves to keep going. We can give ourself permission, at any point in meditation, to move awareness away from something that feels too overwhelming – this too is an act of kindness.

It’s worth exploring to discover different meditation recordings, or varying the practice depending on how robust we feel on any given day – I’ve written about that previously here We may also need to work with a therapist to support the development of self-kindness, especially if we’re experiencing strong emotions or intense resistance, and that’s no sign of failure or inadequacy.

Pacing ourselves is part of how going slowly helps to build self-kindness. We don’t need to look for a big catharsis that will ‘resolve’ everything all at once; instead, we can ease ourself into closer contact with a range of feelings, a bit at a time.

It’s also important to recognise that not all self-kindness meditations are the same. There are so many different ‘ways in’ to the practice, because we’re all different! The recordings on my site include a range of approaches – for instance, some people resonate with the ‘parts of self’ approach, whereas imagery or the breath may work for someone else. My own practice keeps evolving to meet my changing needs, so I don’t just stick with one way of doing it myself.

Kristin Neff’s website is a great resource that also includes written exercises, if meditation isn’t your thing.

Personally I’m so grateful for all the teachings and resources that helped me to learn this practice, and my sincere hope is for others to find their own way in to self-kindness, taking as much time as is needed.

If you’d like to read a bit more about what self-kindness looks like in practice, and the benefits, you might like some of my other blogs on the subject:

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

Human, Not Broken

Why Mindfulness Needs Kindness

For info on my workshops in Heaton Moor, South Manchester see the Workshops page.

Relaxing As Letting Go

The word ‘relaxation’ can be problematic. Have you ever had the experience of someone else telling you to ‘just relax’? If only it were that simple.

It’s true that practising mindful body awareness can lead (eventually) to a greater sense of relaxation. But it’s also true that a stressed nervous system needs to go gradually, and it might not let go of tension straight away. In fact, rushing things can have the opposite effect: trying to force ourselves to relax can put our complex body-mind system into a defensive state, rather than a calm one.

Meditation teacher Reggie Ray reminds us that the first step towards relaxing is to actually become more aware of tension. I believe that learning to do this with self-kindness, not judgement, is a crucial step towards freedom from stress. I love how Gregory Kramer explains that ‘relax becomes accept’. From this place of accepting ourselves just as we are right now, we can begin to let go of some of the things that prevent us from experiencing true relaxation.

With mindfulness, we learn to notice the additional layer of stress that we might be adding to our experience – this extra layer of tension is what we begin to relax first.

For example, we might let go of a role we feel driven to play, or an idea of who we need to be. We might let go of telling ourselves a story about how we should be, or about how life is. We might let go of being so hard on ourselves, or of the relentless rush and the unconquerable To-Do list. We might let go of some physical bracing against a body sensation or emotion that we don’t like.

We might begin, very gradually, to let go of habitual strategies that once protected us, but which now limit us; these habits might be mental, emotional, physical or behavioural, and they are personal to each of us. It takes huge courage to truly relax if we’ve spent decades practising vigilance against what might threaten us in some way.

So how do we actually go about moving in this direction?

Bringing awareness into the body (also known as somatic mindfulness), and lying down can both have a profound effect on nervous system regulation. When in bodily contact with the ground, we can connect with a sense of stability that a stressed nervous system really appreciates (you’ll have heard the term ‘grounding yourself’).

Lying down to meditate can also help with letting go of physical ‘holding on’, and in a wider sense it supports the practice of slow living: we weren’t meant to rush around non-stop, and our bodies know this.

As we build body awareness, we also begin to allow the activation cycle of stress to complete, leaving us feeling more peaceful – but this is a process that we need to give time to, even if what we’re aware of for quite a while includes tension or unwanted body sensations.

Paying attention to bodily experience is very effective for reversing chronic stress, but also can be challenging at first for those of us who’ve experienced chronic stress – hence the need to go slowly and not try to force anything. Forcing things can lead to feelings of frustration and failure.

Instead of pushing for a ‘result’ from meditation, we can give ourselves permission to be just how we are in this moment (even if it’s anxious, sad or angry). This is actually key part of being able to relax in the fullest sense: suppressing our emotions creates resistance which works against our capacity to experience peace. As Arnie Kozak wisely points out, ‘Relaxation is a reliable by-product of mindful attention. If you aim directly for relaxation, however, that effort can actually get in the way’.

Given that it can feel challenging when we first begin to re-inhabit the body, I think it’s important to adopt a two-pronged approach that includes not just body awareness, but also compassion – I think of it as ’embodied self-kindness’. Whatever our preferred way to practice self-kindness, it’s a powerful resource that we can lean into when we don’t feel able to put our attention in the body. (You can find plenty of meditations and blogs about self-kindness on this site).

As I reach the end of this post, I’m reminded of the brilliant words of Danna Faulds in her poem Self-Observation Without Judgement, which I’ve shared below.

Sheila runs classes and workshops in Heaton Moor, South Manchester sharing mindfulness, self-kindness and body awareness.

How To Bounce Back From A Mindfulness Lapse

Old habits die hard, so the saying goes.  And even though I’ve been practising mindfulness for a number of years, this is still true.  I’m just more aware of those habits!

Like the urge to push uncomfortable feelings away.

I’m sure some of you know what I mean.  That old familiar feeling you don’t like starts creeping up on you (in my case feelings of anxiety or sadness), and before you know it you’re in full-on problem solving mode.

How can I get rid of this feeling?  What meditation will make it go away?  Whose podcast of wise words can I listen to so I can find the mysterious ‘answer’ to stop myself feeling this way?

But here’s where the mindfulness steps in.  I’m not totally lost in this automatic habit.  These days, I notice myself doing this.  I recognise more quickly when I’m caught in that seductive agenda of trying to control how I feel.

In these moments I’m reminded that I don’t actually need to find some new trick or perspective.

I just need to re-visit something I’ve learned many times before.  That taking a mindful approach means turning towards these awkward, uncomfortable feelings.  It means exploring them with curiosity and responding with kindness.

Mindfulness doesn’t remove discomfort so that we’re ‘fixed’ and never feel it again.  In this human life, we’re going to keep on experiencing the unpleasant, the difficult and the challenging – alongside what’s beautiful, moving and enjoyable.

I’ve heard it said that mindfulness is a process of re-minding yourself.  During a meditation we may need to re-mind ourselves to come back to the breath – 20 times, or a hundred times.

And so it is in life that we constantly re-mind ourselves to respond to our experience with kind attention.  Often this means turning towards what we’re really feeling, so we can let it be felt and flow through.  The alternative is to get seduced into trying to fix the unfixable, or try to ignore it.

Those times when we find ourselves caught in old patterns aren’t a sign that our mindfulness has lapsed or failed.

When we see our old patterns playing out and can notice – in the midst of that very difficulty – what’s really happening, we’re being mindful in the most courageous of ways.

So the next time you notice an old habit kicking in, try not to give yourself a hard time.  Instead, celebrate this moment of awareness and bravery, which has brought you back to mindfulness.

Sheila Bayliss runs wellbeing classes in Heaton Moor, South Manchester, and offers personal workshops by Skype.

Don’t Stop Growing

At what age do we stop learning and growing?

I used to think that by the time I reached adulthood, I should be some sort of finished product. That I should somehow know everything by then (whatever ‘everything’ means!) Or that I at least should feel like I know what I’m doing.

But the reality is, we’re all learning, all the time. And rather than this being something to be ashamed of, it’s something to celebrate. Indigenous cultures honour the transition into becoming an elder, a wise and valued member of the community. This sort of wisdom doesn’t grow in a few years or even a couple of decades, it takes a whole load of life experience – with all the losses, joys, frustrations and insights that can entail.

I read recently about the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes who is revered even though she brings destruction, because the hot lava also creates new ground when it cools. This reminds me so much of the new ground we constantly create in life as we continue to develop as human beings. As the fire of awareness begins to burn away old ways of being that are no longer helpful, new possibilities emerge. We gain new resources and strategies for meeting life as we cultivate new mental and emotional capacities.

This emotional growth isn’t a neat process; sometimes, it’s in our messiest moments that we learn the most. Transformation can feel intense, as if our painful feelings are fuel for a fire that burns away our old patterns to make way for a new way of being. Or we can have periods of feeling stuck or lost, through which we learn to trust that something different is germinating, even though it feels like nothing much is happening in that space of ‘incubation’.

I suppose this is one of the reasons I believe that self-kindness can be the most transformational practice of them all: because if we can learn to see ourselves through kind and loving eyes, we can appreciate the growth that is happening through our struggles.

So far, my own growth journey hasn’t involved becoming less vulnerable, less emotional or less imperfect. It’s been about becoming more human: more receptive, more responsive, more alive and more whole. It’s been about discovering a kind of confidence and ease that is nothing like the limited mould I once thought I could squeeze myself into.

And the more we grow personally, the more we have to contribute to the world around us. Whether that’s through work, or friendship, or parenting, or supporting the natural world, or some other way that we feed into community – we all have our own unique part to play.

So if you are on a growth journey, please don’t stop growing. This world needs it.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Marilyn McEntyre’s poem ‘What To Do In The Darkness’

My recordings of guided self-kindness practices.