MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF
So, the final part of this blog post series covering details on the relationship between stress and anxiety, tips on reducing stress & anxiety through Hypnotherapy and informal and formal mindfulness practices. Today I'll focus on the formal meditation practices that are worth developing as a daily habit to help reduce stress and anxiety in your life. These formal meditations also help develop the skills required to practice mindfulness in the ‘real world' when you are out and about.
Beginners to mindfulness can often struggle with the formal practices of mindfulness so I'd like to offer a few tips on getting started but, more importantly, maintaining the habit of a regular practice and the benefits it can bring. Now. it's been a few years now since I started my regular practice but even now I currently meditate for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening. Now, some evenings I struggle, simply because of tiredness. Tonight for example I have to write this post to keep my habit going, yet have already been to the gym this morning, yoga this afternoon and acting class this evening, as well as seeing a few health coaching clients so I'm just ready to sleep after that.
However, on days when we are less ‘busy' and let's face it…you are never too busy that you can't make time for yourself even for 5-10 minutes each day, just get up earlier, say no to something, quite watching junk TV or go to bed earlier – you can ALWAYS find 5-10 minutes to practice meditation and find space for yourself. That space creates more time in your life and equips you will skills and tools to better handle stressful or anxious moments in your life. Busyness is a product of your own invention, if you have a lot on at work then tell your boss and ask him if you can leave early or if you can get some help with something, or even do what I did and switch to a 4-day week or part-time work – if the boss doesn't listen to you, then he is putting the business and work over your own health, and that's never a good sign and perhaps a sign you need to look for a new job! Also get help from your family, your friends, don't go out drinking or socializing for one night and spend the night running yourself a hot bath, reading and just relaxing, go for a massage – simple MAKE the time for yourself and meditation.
Rather than me explain detail all the different formal techniques, I recommend you download an app like Headspace, Calm or my own personal favourite Stop, Breathe & Think which have free recordings of these practices you can play around with.
We can often lose a connection with out body and not listen to it. I have been guilty of this in the past when my body has cried “Enough Exercise already!” and I've gone on regardless and tired myself out or even worse, injured myself. The body scan is a great meditation to do as you can do it lying down, and even when you are in bed, either first thing in the morning, or last thing at night before bed – I usually do mine at night as it helps me relax naturally and I often have a better nights sleep as a result. It's a time totally set aside for yourself, just let go of any expectations or judgements and don't even try this with the aim of relaxing, that may or may not happen but just accept the experience for whatever it may be. It's also about letting go of feelings of needing to get things done, and releasing emotions that we can hold in the body, as well as a way to train out attention which can be as focused as the little toe or more expansive across the whole body.
We can spend SO much time in our own heads with thoughts, emotions, feelings and constant thinking that, by practicing the body scan, we can disconnect from our mind and it helps us to listen more attentively to feelings and sensations in our own body. You also move away from the auto-pilot of ‘doing' mode into a ‘being' mode to allow our experience to be exactly as it is.
SITTING MEDITATION/MINDFULNESS OF BREATH
Something you can do anywhere really, at traffic lights, at your desk in the office, in front of the TV, on the top of a hill is a mindfulness of breath meditation. It's simply a case of focusing on the feeling of your breath, breathe deeply into and out from the belly – known as Diaphragmatic breathing or deep, belly breathing. You can sit in a chair, you can kneel on the floor with a cushion or pilot under your knees or sit in cross-legged/Burmese position. Your knees should ideally be lower than your hips and you can use cushions, blocks or whatever you need to prop yourself up. The ideal is to rest your attention on your breath, breathe deeply and you will find your mind constantly wandering, which is fine and perfectly normal, but what we are doing is practicing that ability to notice that and bring our attention back with kindness to our breath, which is always with us till the day we die. If we can keep trying and persevering with bringing our focus to the breath in this formal practice, we can also do the same whenever we are facing challenges in our day-to-day life or when we want to bring ourselves more peace, whether it's at traffic stop lights, the queue at the supermarket, in a business meeting – you can always just take a few, very deep breaths and really FEEL the breath enter and exit your body – if it helps you can place your hand on your belly and feel it rise and fall. I practice this for 15 minutes every morning as soon as I wake up – it used to be email and the internet but now I just take that time for myself by getting up earlier and really rewarding myself with that time to breath and relax before I do anything else in my day.
Many of us drive, take trains and very rarely just walk anywhere, let alone mindfully. Try to leave the car at home for journeys within a 3 mile radius, get off the train a stop earlier or leave the house earlier and walk around the block near to where you work, take a different route into work if you are walking every day or just get outside at lunchtime and go for a walk. A big problem I see is people saying they are going for lunch at work, then coming back 10-15 minutes later with lunch at their desk and they are just not taking sufficient time. I will often just go out for a walk for 45 minutes, even to Waterstones or a local bookshop, read and then walk back just to get some exercise in. I will either walk home or walk into work…sometimes both depending on the weather and my energy levels but the important thing is to walk mindfully. Be aware of your surroundings, this is easier in nature but just really take in aspects of your environment and walk slowly, feel each step. There is a great book on this called “How To Walk” by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh which I can heartily recommend. Just remember that when you are walking from A to B, focus less on the ‘B' and more on the ‘to' and you will realise that the mindfulness experience comes from the journey, NOT the destination.
I've lost a fair bit of weight over the last few years, a lot of that has been a result of my Health Coaching with the CHEK Institute and really educating myself but a large part of it has been mindful eating. When you eat slowly, really savour your food and appreciate where it has come from, eat organically and real foods – no processed rubbish or dried/dead foods – it really does give you a sense of nourishment. When you eat slowly, really chew each mouthful 20-30 times before swallowing, it can also aid digestion and make you fuller quicker so you automatically eat and require less. It also helps to break down the foods, proteins etc so you rarely suffer from digestive issues. Drinking your food and eating your water is a good phrase to remember.
When you eat mindfully, also really engage your senses…LOOK a the colours of your food, in fact try to make your food as colourful as possible – chromotherapy is healing with colour and it really does make a difference to fill your plate with a variety of colours. SMELL the food, use herbs and spices to really bring some scent into your meals, HEAR the sounds as you chew, crunch or drink. FEEL the food – if you can use your hands it can really help you connect with the textures of the food, TASTE the different flavours – really try to get a sense of the ingredients that make up each meal. By utilising your senses, slowing down and just enjoying each mouthful before starting the next – it really does improve the overall eating experience and has a number of health benefits. Try it at least for one meal each day to start with and it also makes you have healthier food choices as you become more aware of what satisfies and nourishes you, compared to what doesn't and may be done out of some other emotion or need.
Metta is a Buddhist term meaning loving-kindness. One of my favourite books on this topic is by LovingKindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. To quote Wikipedia –
“The practice generally consists of silent repetitions of phrases like “may you be happy” or “may you be free from suffering”, for example directed at a person who, depending on tradition, may or may not be internally visualized.
Two different methodological approaches have been discerned in recent review papers, practices that focus on compassion and practices focussing on loving-kindness. Focussing on compassion means that meditation consists of the wish to relieve a being from suffering, whereas focussing on loving-kindness means wishing a being happiness.
The practice gradually increases in difficulty with respect to the targets that receive the practitioners compassion or loving-kindness. At first the practitioner is targeting “oneself, then loved ones, neutral ones, difficult ones and finally all beings, with variations across traditions.””
I really love this practice – often I will substitute my morning Mindfulness of the breath with a Metta Bhavana practice as it's known – especially if I feel I have had a difficult time with emotions or with certain people in my life. It really helps develop that feeling of loving kindness, not just towards other people, but also towards myself when I feel like I have been too hard on myself.
Formal meditation can be quite tricky to get a regular habit from, however the results have been transformational for me and the benefits seep into everyday life – bringing heightened awareness, focus, attention, joy and pleasure in everyday experiences. Some formal practices you may prefer over others and that is fine – I see formal practices as a toolkit, we are all different and you may prefer some over others but give them all a try on a regular basis and see what you feel best suits you.