Skip to content

Posts from the ‘meditation’ Category

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 through enactment, visual resources and hands-on exploration of geometric shapes. He reads very fluently, but contrary to the phonics-type step-by-step model, he learned to read the big, apparently complex, words first. He plays with numbers in a very creative way, but doesn’t enjoy learning by rote memory. 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 found 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, but 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 personally), you might like the books or websites of these authors:

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 – you can sign up for free emails on the Home page of my resources website.  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.  To learn more about this, click here for the more info.  You can also find out more at the Mental Health Foundation website called Be Mindful 

My Top 10 Mindful Reading List

I often recommend some of these books to people – and I’ve found them all so helpful personally. Some are on mindfulness, others on self-compassion – but they all have something valuable to say about being human.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your reading list, you might like to try some of these.

1. Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – a fantastic intro to self-kindness, & how it can replace poor self-esteem.

2. Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson – great for boosting positivity.

3. Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams & Danny Penman – I recommend this as an intro to mindfulness for those who are curious but haven’t yet tried it.

4. The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert – fascinating explanation of our emotion systems and why we find life difficult.

5. Calming Your Anxious Mind by Jeffrey Brantley – a good book to progress to once you’ve already started practising mindfulness.

6. The Mindful Path To Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer – again, I’d say best read once you’ve already started practising self-compassion meditations.

7. The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D Siegel – I found the sections about learning how to be with difficulty especially helpful, after I’d attended a mindfulness course.

8. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn – I read this once I had a fairly established practice as a way of developing further.

9. Breath By Breath by Larry Rosenberg – A good book for people who already meditate regularly and want to go deeper.

10. Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life by Steven C Hayes – practical exercises that help build discomfort tolerance, based on the ACT approach. The chapters on Values are great if you want to make some changes in your life. I’d suggest learning a bit about self-kindness before doing the other exercises.

If you’ve read any of these, what did you think?

Which books would be on your Top 10?

(At some point I might do a ‘part 2’ to this post – there are definitely more I could add since I first wrote it!)

Should I Sit Up Or Lie Down To Meditate?

This a question that comes up alot in classes, and it also comes up alot for me in my own practice too!  And with good reason.  Choosing a posture for meditation is in itself an exercise in being mindful.

This is because there are no simple, black-and-white, right or wrong answers in this area.  I realise this may not be what you want to hear if you’re looking for an ‘how to’ guide.  I used to love a good set of rules to follow (in any area of my life), but learning mindfulness is very much about developing inner wisdom and trust in our own instincts.  With time, we can become more responsive to what’s happening in our own experience.

Picking a posture is a good example of this responsiveness.  While I won’t give a prescriptive list of right or wrong, I’m happy to share a few things that may help you experiment while you find your feet (or bottom, or back…)

What do I need right now?

When you prepare to meditate (whether that means self-guided or listening to a recording), check in with yourself.  What do you need right now?  Some other considerations that may be useful are:

If you’re feeling resistant – what will make meditation feel more appealing/do-able?

If you’re feeling sluggish – what will support a quality of awareness?

If you’re feeling physical discomfort – what does my body need?

If you’re feeling emotionally fragile – what will give me the most support?

When you check in with yourself, you may discover that you need to sit in a chair, lie down covered by a blanket or make an adjustment for your particular body.  The wisdom of the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver comes to mind: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’.

Sitting and lying – what’s the difference?

Meditation is an awareness practice, and your posture will ideally support your ability to bring awareness to your present-moment experience.  There are a few pitfalls when it comes to picking a posture that can interfere with this, and a few benefits of certain postures that are useful to know about.

Sitting

One pitfall here is the belief that it’s the only ‘proper’ meditation posture, and to force yourself to stay in a position that feels uncomfortable.  Although we don’t necessarily avoid unpleasant experiences in mindfulness, if you add discomfort in your posture, you’ll be sitting with a whole load of extra distraction.  Plus meditation will seem like an endurance test, and you might stop doing it at all eventually.  Also if you find yourself slumping when you sit, it may be that lying down enables you to get a more supported posture.  Where sitting up is useful is that being upright brings a quality of alert awareness that can support curiosity.  Sitting in an upright chair is usually a comfortable option for most people – you definitely don’t need to sit cross-legged, and I would advise getting the advice of a meditation teacher (in person) before you do so.  Many of my own teachers who have been meditating for decades choose a nice upright chair when they practice.

Lying

When we first learn to meditate, we might need to lie down (and even fall asleep!), as we begin to seek the support of the ground and let go.  This isn’t a problem, but do be aware that over time, lying down to ‘relax’ could be a way of avoiding parts of your experience.  Meditation isn’t about escaping our thoughts, feelings and body sensations – but about learning to relate to them with more kindness and awareness.  When we lie down, we are more likely to drift off, and become less aware of thoughts, feelings and body sensations.  BUT – this is also where lying down can be helpful.  If you are experiencing unpleasant feelings, then lying down may help you to get in touch with them, without getting overwhelmed.  Feeling the support of the ground underneath the body in itself can be quite calming.  This is totally personal (for some people, lying down may not create a feeling of ease).  Body awareness may also be explored more deeply while lying down.   Personally, I have found that after many years of practice, I am now able to lie down to meditate without a significant loss of awareness or drifting off.

As you become more responsive to what you need in each moment, you’ll get to know which posture will support your practice on any given day.  And of course there is always the option of starting off a meditation lying down, and then transition (mindfully) to sitting for the rest of that practice – or vice versa.   A bit of both within one practice can give you the full range of benefits.

If you really want a rule, I’ll concede and give you just one to close with.  As any good teacher will tell you, ALWAYS ALWAYS choose a posture that feels comfortable for your body, and NEVER EVER stay in a posture that causes physical pain or distress.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the following resources:

For a little more on posture, here’s a piece from Mindful Online called How To Find The Right Meditation Posture For Your Body

My website for blogs, meditations and free resources – Lollipop Wellbeing

My blog on Everyday Mindfulness called ‘4 Ways To Make Meditation Easier’