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Posts from the ‘Meditation’ Category

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.

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. 

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

 

Quitting The Quick-Fix: Mindfulness As A Lifelong Practice

This year marks my 10-year mindfulness anniversary, since I first went on an 8-week ‘Mindfulness for Stress’ course. And I think I’m learning more now than I ever have.

When I embarked on the course, dedicating a whole 2 months to something felt like quite a big undertaking. We live in such a quick-fix culture, and with so many approaches that promise instant stress relief, I guess I thought that an 8-week mindfulness course must get me sorted by the end of it, right?

Well, thankfully I had access to great teachers who helped me realise that to really get the benefits, I’d need to approach mindfulness as an ongoing practice, not a quick fix.

As a mindfulness teacher now myself, I realise that we don’t believe that anyone who comes to a class needs ‘fixing’ anyway. It’s about becoming more human (not less so), and finding ways to live this human life with greater ease.

In my case, I’d tried so many quick fixes for anxiety during my 20s, but mindfulness is the only thing that’s stuck, and continues to ‘work’. It’s a total gamechanger.

And it doesn’t just ‘work’, it continues to develop, as I deepen my meditation practice. Even after 10 years, I’m still learning so much. About myself. About life. It’s helped me enormously so far, and yet in some ways I feel like I’m only just getting started, and I’m eager to keep exploring.

The first big shift for me was finding freedom from anxiety. Currently, my practice is helping me to open to a more joyful life. Looking at all the positive changes in me over the last decade, who knows how the practice might change me even more deeply, given another 10 years?

So I think it’s important that mindfulness doesn’t become something that we tick off and forget about. While an 8-week course is a great starting point, it’s definitely not an end point: mindfulness is a life-long practice. Remembering this can be really helpful once the course stops, because life doesn’t stop.

While there’s no defined end point to reach in our practice, there is a constant development. We don’t talk about ‘getting better’ at mindfulness, but rather ‘going deeper’ in our practice… getting to know ourselves more intimately, so that we can find increasingly greater ease and freedom, even when life is difficult.

This ongoing development is why I teach classes throughout the year, to support a growing community of people who continue to explore together and make new discoveries.

Some of these insights are that mindfulness isn’t about controlling our feelings, fixing ourselves, or getting rid of so-called negative emotions. Instead, it’s about becoming more comfortable with the full range of our human experience. This is a gradual – but transformative – process. It’s profoundly freeing. But reversing the patterns we’ve built up over decades can’t happen instantly.

So, if you have the courage to keep exploring, to commit to going deeper in your practice, then you’ll discover this freedom for yourself. If you ask me, it’s totally worth it!

If you liked this piece, you might also be interested in this one that emerged as a kind of ‘part 2’ – Committing To Self-Kindness

 

Meditation Practice For Real Life

I love my meditation practice. Well I do now.

For quite a number of years, I wouldn’t have said I enjoyed it, but I certainly got alot out of it.  I kept going regardless, because the more I did it, the better I seemed to cope with whatever life was throwing at me.  Even if I spent most sessions watching my thoughts on their usual loops, or sitting with uncomfortable emotions, overall I wasn’t feeling quite so overwhelmed by life’s ups and downs.

So by now, 9 or so years down the line, it feels quite natural do some kind of meditation pretty much every day.  And yes, I even enjoy it now (once, I’d never have imagined myself saying that!).

I’m often asked how much I meditate.  Here’s one answer to that question.

Some days, it looks like this:

  • Early morning awareness practice of around 10-20 minutes.
  • Plus an early evening practice of about 20 minutes or longer.

The practices I do depend on what is emerging in my life at that time, so it might be body awareness, self-kindness or breathing meditation.

When it’s possible to do that much practice, I definitely notice the positive impact on how I feel in the rest of my life.

But of course, the ‘schedule’ I’ve outlined above isn’t always possible.  I’d be lying if I said it was.

If I’m answering the question, ‘what does my meditation practice look like, really?’, then I also need to show you another kind of typical day.

So some days, my practice looks more like this:

  • Sleep in a bit and skip morning meditation in a rush to get out the door on time.
  • Remind myself I can practice on the train by bringing awareness to my breath, the motion of the train, the feel of my feet on the floor etc, without needing to close my eyes.
  • Become aware that I’m mentally beating myself up about a conversation I had yesterday… practice self-kindness by offering myself some words of comfort.
  • Have a mindful cuppa after lunch – looking at the sky, not at my phone.
  • Feeling stiff and scrunched up in my body… do a few mindful movements, possibly with my son joining in/offering his suggestions for variation.
  • Get outside for 5 minutes… take in the feeling of air against my skin, and the sights and sounds around me.
  • Realise hubby is working late which throws off my evening meditation sit… chop veggies mindfully (they call this ‘working meditation’ on retreat after all).
  • Squeeze in a short meditation like one of these, as a welcome (and do-able) little pause.
  • Notice I’m tempted to stay up late scrolling through social media… lie on the living room floor for a few minutes to bring awareness into my body, then decide an early-ish night is quite appealing.

And actually, that’s quite alot of practice in a day.  It can be so easy to get hung up on sitting meditation that we overlook how mindfulness shows up in our day – which is the whole point after all!  I find that the line between ‘practice’ and ‘living’ gets more blurred over time, so that a day without meditation isn’t necessarily a day without mindfulness.

And for me, finding lots of brief moments of awareness and kindness in the day can be every bit as sustaining as a meditation ‘sit’.

Where might you find those moments of living-as-practice in your own life?