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Posts from the ‘mindful living’ Category

Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I considered how we’ve become disconnected from our embodied experience as human beings.  The more that modern culture has prized (and praised) a ‘left brain’ approach to living and learning, the more we’ve lost touch with the wisdom of our right brain/body.

By contrast, research on hunter-gatherer people suggest that they are more ‘whole-brained’, or I might say ‘whole-bodied’.  People who’ve lived with and studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures have shared some fascinating insights into a way of life that appears to support better wellbeing than we enjoy in contemporary western culture.  So what might happen if we were more connected to our right brain/body? (When I use this phrase, I mean the whole body).

We might add less stress to our experiences. The thinking mind can be a great tool, when it’s the right one for the job. But when we have an unpleasant experience, we often add an extra layer’ of difficulty with thoughts that escalate our distress. This is sometimes called ‘discursive thinking’ in the meditation tradition. If we can stay with our experience in the body, the difficulty tends to pass through quicker and with less suffering. (This is often taught in mindfulness courses).

We might be more present-moment oriented. Instead of constantly thinking about what resources (money, possessions, relationships) we need to store up for the future, we might concentrate more on what we need for just now. Of course it may still be important to provide for the future. But perhaps we can balance this by inhabiting trust, and by having more modest ambitions. If we have fewer wants, these are more easily satisfied and we are more likely to enjoy the wellbeing of being happy with what we’ve got right now.

We might enjoy work more. I was fascinated to read that in a hunter-gatherer culture that still exists today, they don’t have a word for ‘work’. They cheerfully get on with a range of necessary activities, but they don’t label any of these separate tasks as ‘work’. This seemed to mirror a discovery I made myself about not labelling activities as work – I found it really liberating, as it began to erode a belief I’ve picked up that work has to feel hard and unpleasant if I’m doing it right! My post 3 Things We Can Unlearn To Boost Mindfulness. was largely inspired by my own changing relationship to the division between ‘work’ and ‘play’.

We might stop chasing ‘happiness’ as a goal. In our culture, we seem to have created a mythical destination called ‘happiness’ that once reached, we can dwell in permanently. But in reality, we all experience a constant flow of feelings that arise and pass. Being able to enjoy present-moment feelings of joy or peace, without trying to nail them down, is to experience true wellbeing. I reflected more deeply on this in an old post Finding Happy Ever After – Right Now.

We might feel more whole, more fully human, and more at ease with ourselves. Research tells us that suppression of emotions reduces wellbeing rather than improving it. I’ve seen the enormous value of self-kindness practices in helping people to re-connect with these cut-off parts of themselves, and the confidence and resilience that then emerges. I’ve learned in teaching these practices that our right-brain imaginative capacities are a huge ally in accessing this capacity: often people feel unsure about how to connect with self-kindness, and then discover that in using their imagination, they can find a creative ‘way in’.

We might be more peaceful. In my own experience, the more connected I am to all parts of myself, the more I can connect with others peacefully, without the need for defensiveness or control. I find it fascinating to reflect on the escalation in human conflict since we started farming and separating ourselves with territories that we need to defend. For me, the concept of the Love Mode vs Power Mode is really helpful, which I touched on here.

We might regain our connection to the earth and halt some of the damage that we’re doing. I’m by no means innocent of engaging in non-eco-friendly practices, but my awareness is growing of the ways I can reduce my own impact on resources. Perhaps if we collectively felt more connection to our environment, some large-scale care for it might become possible.

As to how we find our way into these changes… I’ve known for a while that meditation helps the right brain/body to come back online. I haven’t just read the theory, I’ve experienced an explosion in my own sensitivity, curiosity and creativity (all ‘right-brain’ traits) as my meditation practice has become more established. And of course I’ve witnessed the journeys of people who come to my classes.

I suspect that the practice of meditation helps us attain more balance by calming down the left brain that wants to be constantly figuring everything out verbally. In the meditation space, there is more room for the wisdom of body sensations that we are usually cut off from. It’s not a quick path, but it’s one that (I believe) can gradually lead to healing and wholeness, not just for ourselves, but also for the natural world that we are a part of.

If you want to explore meditation, you can find my recordings on this site under Meditations and Mini-Meditations

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)

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 

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!)