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Posts from the ‘mindful living’ Category

How Mindfulness Soothes ‘Red Alert’

When I first learned about the 3 emotion systems, I wished I’d know about it earlier.   Having experienced several years of high stress and anxiety, I could see how this knowledge might have helped me navigate such a difficult period.  Here’s a brief introduction to what these systems are, and why they are key to balancing stress.

In his book The Compassionate Mind, psychologist Paul Gilbert outlines these systems, which I’ll describe here as:

Threat zone

Striving zone

Contentment zone

When something makes us feel threatened,  typical feelings are fear/anxiety,  or defensive feelings like anger and resentment.  The stress hormone cortisol is very much associated with this system.  In the striving zone, we’re focussed on trying to achieve things.  When we get what we want, it feels good.  But constant striving is exhausting and can lead to burnout.  The contentment zone is the one we were designed to return to when the tiger that was lurking has gone away.  This is when we feel calm and at peace, and we’re just Being, not trying to achieve anything.  Affiliation is also an important aspect of this system: connecting with others helps us to feel safe and soothed.   We need a bit of each of these systems to function well and stay alive, but often they become out of balance.

So, taking an overview of these three zones – where do you spend the most time currently?  When I looked back on my infertility struggles, I could see clearly that I constantly bounced between Threat and Striving.  Even worse, I had no control over what I wanted to achieve, which amplified the negative effects of both those zones.  During that time, it was safe to say that I pretty much NEVER spent any time in the Contentment zone.  I hardly even knew that such a state existed.  All I felt was scared, frustrated and isolated.

The good news is that even when we’re experiencing stress, there are ways to bring ourselves into the Contentment zone a bit more.  And spending more time there can rebalance the depleting effects of the other two zones.  Practising meditation regularly is one way to do this.  This is partly because it moves us away from the Doing mode that is associated with striving, and into the Being mode which is more characteristic of contentment.  When we practice mindfulness meditation, we’re not trying to achieve anything or get anywhere.   We’re just Being With our experience.   Practised over time, regular meditation can also help us ‘dial down’ the threat system, so that we feel more calm generally.

The other aspect of mindfulness that helps us plug into the contentment system is connecting with others.  When we engage in Connection meditations, we can reduce feelings of isolation by focussing on our shared humanity:  just like us, everyone wants to be happy, and wants to avoid suffering.  Taking it further, mindfulness often offers an environment that enables us to connect with others in a very human way.  Over time, I’ve come into contact with lots of people who’ve turned to mindfulness to help with their own suffering.  Even during difficult times, it has helped me to feel part of that human community, among others who also suffer but for different reasons.

If you want to read more about the emotion systems, I would highly recommend the book Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden.

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!)

Making The Most Of Messing Up

Today didn’t go quite how I had planned.

I had planned a day trip with our son to a geology shop and museum in a nearby town. It would be – I thought – a nice easy short train trip and a chance to explore somewhere new.

What actually happened was that I didn’t check the trains beforehand and there was a rail strike, which meant far less trains were running. Then I miscalculated the walking distance between stations and we just missed our train. After waiting an hour for the next one, it got cancelled. By this time I’d also realised that the packed lunch I’d been organised enough to prepare was not in my bag, but left behind at home. Oh, and the kid-friendly restaurant I thought would be a good plan B had closed down…

My initial response was anger – at myself for messing up, at the rail company, at whoever I could blame. I managed not to say the f word out loud (though I may have said it silently to myself), and I may have actually stamped my foot in frustration. But it took less than a minute for a more mindful response to kick in. I could make a choice. I could either let the day be ‘ruined’, or I could open myself up to something unplanned.

As we wandered out of the station, my son practically squealed with delight to find that we’d emerged by his favourite city water feature – some streams with mini-waterfalls. Who says leaf racing is only for summer days? Following his lead, I quickly let go of any lingering disappointment, and found the joy in cheering on my leafy competitor. After that we headed into the nearby football museum for some air hockey, followed by lunch at the science museum, and what the boy described as some ‘quality time’ building with construction toys together.

Today didn’t go quite how I planned. It was much more fun that I could ever have planned.

For more writings, guided meditations and more, visit my resources site Lollipop Wellbeing

How I Eliminated My To-Do List

I’ve been fantasising about life without a To Do list for a really long time.

It’s not so much the actual things on the list that I find tricky. It’s the drive to try to get to the end of the list. When I’m in that list-conquering mode of powering through, ticking things off, I’m feeling physically clenched & tight, as I grasp for that elusive end point. The one that never comes.

For years I’ve used that well-known system of having 2 lists – one for Later, which is pretty massive, all the things I want to get to at some point. I don’t look at that one very often. And a much shorter one for Priority tasks – this is pulled from the big list, and only has about 7-9 things on it at once. And yet, something about this small list was still bothering me.

Then I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. I also have another To Do list that doesn’t weigh so heavy. One that works with me, not against me. That list is a small whiteboard where I keep track of things I want to do with (or for) our son – buy a particular resource, research a potential day out, find an activity idea related to an interest of his. It’s a grid of 9 boxes, and in each one I write one thing I want to do.  Whatever I’ve put in each box gets rubbed out and refilled as one thing is done and the next idea comes along to fill its space. And here’s the thing. I don’t resent filling up those spaces again, and it doesn’t make me feel defeated. Why? Because for one thing, it’s not organised as a list, with a top and a bottom.

That struck me as pretty radical. And it also made total sense. In a hugely outcome-driven culture, a list is yet one more way that I was staying hooked on getting somewhere.

I began to wonder, what if my Priority list was arranged more like my family activities board, so that it didn’t have a top and a bottom?

Sure enough, there’s an app for that – and now I have a ‘list’ that looks more like a wheel, or a flower, (or a wonky kind of grid): it says Next in the middle, and has tasks written around that in a kind of circle. Maybe it’s a To Do sheet instead of a list.

And it feels different. It doesn’t matter so much if I don’t clear anything off it. I can do one thing, and not feel quite so driven to get to the next thing down on the list – which makes it easier to let go and take a break. I also put less time & energy into deciding what should be at the top.

It’s been very freeing. I haven’t got rid of things that I need or want to do – it’s the list format that I eliminated. And without that, I just don’t have to get to the end of anything before I can relax. It’s helped me to shift my mindset from the product of a crossed-off list, to the process of a fully-lived life.  When I do complete something, I’m not crossing it off, so much as opening up a spot for something else. I’m not trying to make it shorter, I’m keeping it full with things that matter.

I once read a great quote about how the only time we will have no To Do list is when we are dead. It really made me appreciate not only the futility in trying to get to the end of the list, but also the vitality inherent in that collection of intentions, tasks and ideas – the evidence of a life being lived, day by day. And not rushing to get to ‘the end’ of that life.

For more writings, guided meditations and more, visit my resources site Lollipop Wellbeing

What Does My Meditation Practice Look Like, Really?

I love meditation. 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 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 20-minute meditation – at the moment, usually a kindness practice.
  • Plus an early evening 30-50 minute practice – typically a version of a 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.

So some days, my practice looks more like this:

  • Wake up later (after being out the night before) 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).
  • Listen to a short meditation together with my son as he settles before bedtime.
  • 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.

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

*Remember I said I’ve been practising for over 9 years, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that a beginner should aim for a 50-minute sit! 10 minutes is plenty to start off with…  In fact, as an update to this footnote I should say that currently I’ve reduced the length of my practices again because I’m doing a different type of practice which I find more intensive.  There really is no ‘gold standard’ to aim for here.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you can find more of my writing and free resources at my site www.lollipopwellbeing.com