Last week I spent 6 nights at a retreat centre in Devon. The idea of a retreat is to spend some time away from your day to day life, going back to basics, giving you space and time to recharge your batteries and think about your life. Retreat centres are usually quite remote and at this centre we were encouraged to leave behind or turn off any electronic devices, including mobile phones. I took my Kindle on the basis that this was just for reading purposes and there is no way I could go a whole week without reading.
When I got off the train in the nearby town, I sent a message to my nearest and dearest informing them that I would be incommunicado for the next week and then turned off my phone, with a pang of anxiety.
My retreat was a buddhist led women-only week, this centre also has mixed sex retreats and weeks that are just for men. This was the first time I had been on a single-sex retreat. I didn’t choose it on that basis, it was just because the dates suited my plans. We arrived one by one on Sunday afternoon and were shown to our rooms. Mine was basic but comfortable with a single bed, desk and chair, one shelf and a small window overlooking a pretty outdoor seating area. After unpacking my few belongings for the week, I joined some ladies in the living area with the retreat coordinators to await the arrival of the remainder of the group. There would be ten retreatants in total. The two coordinators are volunteers who live at the centre for a whole year, supporting a new group of retreatants every week of the year. They run the centre, keeping it clean and well maintained and tend the gardens with the help of the retreatants and a gardener. They also lead the various practices and sessions that the retreatants take part in and organise visiting teachers.
all ten retreatants had arrived and we had made our introductions, we quickly settled into the routine of the retreat. Mornings started early with a mindful movement session in the garden, followed by a silent meditation in the hall. This was followed by the morning tasks, each retreatant had a task to complete every morning, mine was collecting wood for the log burner which heated the water for the centre. Breakfast was eaten in silence and then there would be a morning meeting at which the silence was broken. The meeting was an opportunity to share our feelings and thoughts and to learn about the structure for the day. The rest of the morning was usually taken up with gardening up in the beautiful vegetable patch, overlooking the river. We all had specific tasks that we had chosen in the garden. Not being much of a gardener I decided to weed the vegetable beds. Working in silence gave plenty of space for reflection and moving meditation. At midday there would be a guided meditation in the hall followed by lunch. The menu was vegetarian, except for lunchtimes, where each day, two retreatants would cook a vegan lunch for everyone. When it was my turn to cook, I made a mushroom risotto with brown rice. I was apprehensive about cooking for 12 people and getting the quantities right, but we did a pretty good job and served up a tasty meal. Washing up after mealtimes was another task that was shared between retreatants on a daily basis.
In the afternoon there was personal practice time for 3 hours. This was a chance to reflect on our retreat experience, to read books from the retreat centre library, walk in the beautiful grounds, relax in a hammock or in our rooms, swim in the river or the open-air swimming pool. Before supper there would be a session with a visiting buddhist teacher, which would usually be a Q&A about various aspects of meditation practice. Supper was a DIY affair and followed by an evening silent meditation. Silence would then continue through the evening and until the morning meeting the next day.
On Wednesday there was a whole day of silence, which meant that we were silent from Tuesday at 8.30pm all the way through until Thursday at 9am. I had been looking forward to this aspect of the retreat, as I have enjoyed previous retreats with periods of silence and found them relaxing and peaceful. I was taken by surprise with the silence this time, it didn’t really feel like silence at all. I hadn’t realised how busy my mind had become. There was a constant running commentary going on in my head, that I hadn’t really noticed in the day to day business of ‘real life’. In the morning on Wednesday I felt as though there would never be any silence, but once I had observed the busyness of my mind, I felt that I could work with it and by the afternoon, I had reached a place where it seemed like my thoughts had slowed down and there was more spaciousness.
On reflection, I can see that my mind had been getting busier and busier over the last few weeks and months, but that I hadn’t really noticed. I had been running group meditations but neglecting my own practice and this silence had brought that into focus. The lesson I’m taking from this is the importance of leading from my own practice.
Overall, this was a great week, the main benefit being the chance to reconnect with my own practice. Since I got home I’ve been practicing every morning for between 20 and 40 minutes and I intend to keep this up. I feel energised and renewed and ready to face the ‘real world’ again.
I was also pleasantly surprised about the experience of communal living with a group of women. This was my first experience of an all-female group and there was an ease and familiarity that came very early in the week, as well as a feeling of mutual respect and support.
If you are thinking of trying a retreat, I would encourage you to give it a go, it might surprise you how much you will take away from it. There are lots of secular and shorter retreats available and lots of beautiful centres around the country and abroad, depending on your budget. There are also some retreats that are free or subsidised, contact me if you’d like the details of these or the retreat centre where I stayed.
Some common myths we’ve heard about mindfulness are busted here:
It can’t be Christmas already? The older I get, the quicker it seems to come around each year. This year it seems even earlier after just spending a fortnight at Disneyworld, where Christmas celebrations started just as we arrived, at the beginning of November. I have now heard every variation of Christmas carol and song performed in a Disney format.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Grinch, I love Christmas. I was singing along with every Disney Christmas song and dancing around the Christmas trees. The build-up to Christmas gives us something to look forward to through the bleak winter months of November and December where it doesn’t even seem to get light some days. I love the music, the trashy TV, the copious amounts of calorific food and drink.
The thing is, the anticipation of the event always seems to be more rewarding than Christmas itself. I love the build-up, the decorating, making lists, talking about plans with friends, Christmas Eve in the pub, planning menus, even the shopping can be fun. But when the big day comes, it often seems like an anti-climax.
I’ve been thinking about why this is, in relation to what I know about Mindfulness. I know that mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally, to the present moment. When I consider this definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn, it seems obvious. I spend all my time pre-Christmas looking forward to the day itself, instead of mindfully enjoying the build-up, which is the part I really enjoy and is happening now, in the present!
So this year, instead of pinning all my hopes on one day, I’m going to take the time to be mindful in the run-up and enjoy each moment as it arises.
As some of you are probably aware, I have been training to run in the Cardiff Half Marathon, which is happening in less than two weeks’ time, on 1st October 2017. Prior to this, I wasn’t a runner, the furthest I had ever run was 5k and that nearly killed me, or it certainly felt that way.
I wanted to take part to challenge myself, as well as to improve my fitness and overall health. I found a 12-week half marathon training programme on the internet and off I went. The first couple of weeks involved running for no more than 30 minutes at a time, although this was hard enough. Gradually over the weeks it built up to two medium length runs during the week and a long run of up to two hours at the weekend.
As the weeks went on, I kept waiting for the point where the runs would start to feel easier and I might even enjoy it. Unfortunately, with three weeks to go, that moment still hadn’t arrived. Every time I ran, it would feel just as hard as the first time, my face so hot it felt like it would explode, struggling to breath, blisters on my feet and aches and pains in my legs, neck and shoulders. I started to feel anxious and doubt that it would ever get any easier. How was I going to cope with at least three hours of running when even a short run of 40 minutes felt horrible?
What has all this got to do with Mindfulness? I hear you ask. I started to think about how Mindfulness has helped me over the years to cope with the ups and downs and stressful events in my life. I wondered if I could apply what I had learned to a physical activity like running. I knew that Mindfulness could be applied to other physical activities like walking, so I decided to try an experiment.
The next time I went for a run, I meditated on my breath in the morning, before running and then set off to do my usual route, which involved a long hill. Running up that hill has always been a horrible experience, fighting for breath and legs burning all the way. This time, within a few moments of running up the hill, my calf muscles started to burn. I decided that instead of trying to ignore the pain, I would do the opposite and direct my attention towards it. I dropped my awareness down into my lower body, starting with my feet and carried out a body scan. This is a common Mindfulness practice that is usually carried out lying down, where you scan through the whole body, bit by bit and notice the sensations. I noticed the contact between my feet and the ground, then scanned up my legs to the burning sensation in my calf muscles. I stayed with that feeling and explored it for a while, noticing specifically which part of the legs were burning and going deeper into that sensation to really experience it fully. I directed my breath into the sensations in my calf muscles and imagined I was breathing into them.
I stayed with that feeling for a while and then continued to scan up the body. As I did, I noticed that the burning in my calf muscles had receded and in a few moments, it had gone completely as I directed my attention to other parts of the body. Before I knew it, I had reached the top of the hill and was back on the flat!
I was amazed by the power of paying direct attention to an unpleasant sensation instead of trying to block it out and push it away. I have been using this technique on my training runs ever since and, although it’s still not easy, it is slowly becoming more comfortable and I feel confident that I can work with pain in the body, in the same way that I can work with emotional pain and stress.
Yesterday I did my penultimate long run before the event, using the body scan whenever I noticed I was flagging or feeling uncomfortable. It was a two hour run with plenty of hills and at a few points, I noticed that I was actually having fun! Wish me luck for the big day.
If you would like to learn how to carry out a body scan and other Mindfulness practices, why not come along to our next Retreat Day at Beggars Reach Hotel on 28th October? Places can be booked on our website or our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mindfulfuture.wales
On a summer Sunday in August the dome at beautiful Hilton Court Gardens in Pembrokeshire was the venue for our first Mindfulness Retreat Day. In fact the weather was so good that we spent most of the day meditating outside on the grass, overlooking the stunning bay below.
Particpants learnt a range of meditation practices, including the body scan and breathing anchor and took part in some Mindful Movement, a moving meditation based on Qi Gong. After lunch we had a mindful walk around the wonderful gardens and we ended the day with the beautiful Mountain Meditation. We were so relaxed by the end of the day that none of us really wanted to leave!
Places are now available on our next retreat day at Beggars Reach Hotel on 28th October 2017. Bookings can be made on the website www.mindfulfuture.wales or on our facebook page at www.facebook.com/mindfulfuture.wales.
Our August blog to keep you all updated on the latest developments at Mindful Future.
We hope you are all having a good summer and finding time to take a mindful break. Jo has just returned from a Mindfulness Retreat at Taraloka in Shropshire. This was an Advanced Mindfulness course for trainers run by Breathworks, for trainers who have already completed their Initial Mindfulness Trainers course.
The week involved a residential retreat in a beautiful setting, where participants were all invited to ‘unplug’ by turning off our phones, laptops etc. This was quite a challenge for some! Part of every day was spent in total silence, including mealtimes, which was an opportunity to eat, study and carry out other tasks mindfully without interruption.
Jo has now completed the Advanced training and will be running a practice Mindfulness for Stress course in September with supervision from a Breathworks trainer. Successful completion will enable us to run Breathworks accredited Mindfulness for Stress and Mindfulness for Health 8 week courses.
The photo above shows the centre piece from our closing ceremony.
Here are some more photos from the week:
This was followed straight after with a Mindful Movement trainer’s weekend in Manchester, which was run at the beautiful Manchester Buddhist Centre in the city centre. Being in the centre of Manchester was quite a culture shock after a week of peace and quiet at Taraloka!
Jo has now been trained in Mindful Movement, which is a moving meditation. She will be incorporating this into our future courses.
We were delighted to learn recently that we had received a small grant from Comic Relief to enable us to run a mindfulness course for family carers. We will keep you posted on how this goes.
We are also through to the final stage of the bid to become part of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. If we are successful this will give us access to a year of mentoring and workshops with successful social entrepreneurs as well as some much needed funding.
In addition, we are working hard on other grant bids to enable us to work with more people with barriers to access.
Social Enterprise Activities
Jo has been giving talks to local groups including Hafal Crossroads and Newport Carers Forum and delivering mindfulness taster sessions, which have been well received. We are hoping to do further work with a group of family carers through our Comic Relief grant.
Cardiff Half Marathon
Jo and Executive Committee member Mikinda Hawkins have signed up to run the Cardiff Half Marathon in October. Jo is raising money for Ski 4 All Wales and Mikinda is running for. Clic Sergeant. Please sponsor them if you can at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jo-swift4.
Hope you all have a wonderful summer, I will be seeing some of you at our Retreat Day at Hilton Court on 27th August, which is now sold out!
I am writing this blog post sitting on a tiny stool carved from a log in a tepee. As I look around, I am surrounded by trees and spring flowers in brilliant shades of pink and yellow. In front of me is a little wooden bridge over a stream and the only sounds I can hear are the birds singing and the stream as it flows over the rocks. Sunlight dapples the leaves and a gentle breeze ruffles my hair. I am completely alone but I have never felt less lonely.
How easy it is to be mindful in this place. Nothing disturbs me and I feel totally at peace.
Rewind one week and the environment couldn’t be more different. I am in the middle of a queue to see an event at the Hay Festival on bank holiday weekend. It’s the busiest day of the festival and I am queuing for the most popular event. There is a cacophony of noise around me. Excited children are getting louder and louder and tired, stressed-out parents’ tempers getting shorter and shorter. Armed police patrol the area adding to the tension. Behind me the queue snakes back further than I can see. My feet ache from standing most of the day. I am surrounded by people but I feel lonely.
How easy is it to be mindful in this place?
In the past I have fallen into the trap of thinking that mindfulness is only possible in the right environment. For me, that would be at home in my meditation space, on my stool, with my ‘special’ cushion. I have often been guilty of using the wrong environment as an excuse not to practice when I haven’t had time or been away from home.
I have practised mindfulness meditation in cars, on trains, in the supermarket and at work as well as in the quiet environments that we might think would be more conducive to mindfulness. In fact, I would say that I get more benefit from being mindful in these busy environments, because these are often the places that can increase stress and anxiety the most.
It is possible to be either totally mindful, or completely distracted in any environment. You could be in the quietest, most picturesque place, yet be caught up with your thoughts and worries, or be in the noisiest, busiest place, yet be fully aware of the present moment. Being mindful is not dependent on a particular environment, on being alone or on having complete silence.
Next time you think you haven’t got time or are in the wrong place to be mindful, try just dropping inside the breath for a few moments and you might notice that you can benefit from just a few minutes of practice wherever you go.
This 3 minute breathing space meditation is useful to learn so that you can use it wherever you are:
April was a busy month for Mindful Future. We have just started our sixth 'Introduction to Mindfulness' course in Haverfordwest; we are now delivering courses at Pembrokeshire College on Wednesday evenings and in Haverfordwest on Saturday afternoons.
We have also started working with the VC Gallery to run a mindfulness drop-in for their customers on a Monday afternoon. This is funded from the profits made from the public courses. We are very proud to have started working towards our social enterprise aims and would like to thank Barry at VC Gallery for his support.
We held our first monthly 'Mindful Moment Drop-in' last Saturday in Haverfordwest. This is an hour long session that is a top-up for people who have previously attended one of our courses and a taster for people who are new to mindfulness, or not sure if they want to attend a full course. The next drop-in will be on 20th May in Haverfordwest. If you are interested in attending, please contact us and we will reserve a place for you. The drop-in is free, although donations towards our social enterprise work are very welcome.
We are also taking bookings for our next course which will run on Tuesday evenings from 6th June in Haverfordwest. Contact us for more information and to book a place.
We have been very pleased with the response to our request for volunteers to join our management committee and would like to thank Leanne, Suchi, Mikinda and Ellen for volunteering to help. We are looking forward to working with you to ensure that the organisation is sustainable and continues to grow. There is still room for more volunteers to join the committee and we would particularly welcome some men. If you are interested or you know someone who might be, please contact us for more information.
One of the most common topics for discussion at our sessions is distraction, or mind-wandering. A lot of people find that when they sit down to meditate or just to watch the breath for a while, their mind starts to wander and they get distracted very easily. They are often surprised that when they mention this, everyone else in the group has the same issue!
Why do our minds wander so much and get distracted so easily? The first thing to point out is that this is quite normal. Our minds do wander, random thoughts seem to pop into our heads from nowhere and it is quite easy to get carried away on our train of thought and be distracted for a while before we even notice what has happened. Have a look at this article from Psychology Today for more information.
It is also important to note that every time we notice we have been distracted and manage to turn our attention back to the object of focus, this is actually a moment of mindfulness. We are being mindful of the fact that we have been carried away on our train of thought. From my own experience, I have observed that the more practice I have at noticing when my mind has wandered, the quicker I am able to turn my attention back to the object of focus. It's a bit like a workout for the mind, the more repetitions you do, the stronger the mental muscles become.
We should also be aware of the tendency to get cross with ourselves when our mind wanders. It's normal for our minds to get distracted, so there is little point in berating ourselves when this happens. When you notice that your mind has wandered, be kind to yourself, acknowledge what has happened and gently guide your attention back to the object of focus.
So in summary:
Did you know that Monday 20th March is International Day of Happiness?
World Happiness Report
The 2017 World Happiness Report will be released at the United Nations at an event to celebrate the day. The report ranks 155 countries by their happiness levels. Happiness is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.
3000 respondents in each of the 155 countries were asked to evaluate their current lives on a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible. The key variables that marked out the differences between countries were:
Of significant interest to those interested in Mindfulness, the United States, UK and Australia all ranked having a diagnosed mental illness as being more important than income, physical illness or employment in determining levels of happiness.
In all countries the most powerful effect would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders, which are the main form of mental illness.
Mindfulness practices can help people to improve their mental health. The mental health charity Mind says that Mindfulness can help you to:
Action for Happiness
Action For Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society. They have a website with lots of fantastic free resources, including the 10 Keys to Happier Living. They also have a great Happiness Pack for Kids, which has lots of cool resources that kids can and adults can have fun using together.
Have a look at their resources and see if you can create a little more happiness today!
Diagram reproduced from Media Psychology Tools.
In this week's mindfulness group, we discussed the Three Emotional Regulation Systems. This model comes from the work of Professor Paul Gilbert OBE, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby and founder of The Compassionate Mind Foundation. More information can be found in his book 'The Compassionate Mind'.
In the diagram above, you can see that we have at least three major systems that regulate our emotions and each one is designed to do different things. These systems have been shaped by our evolution and interact to balance our emotions.
The purpose of the threat system is to help us to react to dangers by activating our instinct to fight, flight or freeze. The brain gives priority to dealing with threats over pleasurable things. Hormones released are adrenalin and cortisol and the emotions experienced include anxiety, anger and disgust. These unpleasant emotions help us to respond to threats appropriately.
The drive system motivates us to achieve and get things. It helps us to seek out the resources we need to survive and thrive. When we win and achieve the things that we want and need, we experience feelings of excitement and pleasure. The hormone dopamine is released, which is important in driving us towards getting what we need. The pleasurable feelings that dopamine causes often drives us to want more and more. When what we want to achieve or get is not available or our efforts are thwarted in some way, the threat system takes over, causing feelings of anxiety, frustration and anger.
The soothing system provides us with feelings of contentment, safety and peace. This is an inner peace and contentment that is different from the excitement and pleasure of getting and achieving caused by the drive system. Importantly, this system can be activated by giving and receiving kindness and affection, which releases oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the 'cuddle' hormone. The release of endorphins is also linked to this system, endorphins are the body's natural painkiller and help us to have the feelings of calm and well-being.
We absolutely need all three of these systems to survive and thrive. Problems can occur when our three major emotional regulatory systems are out of balance. Often we find ourselves moving between the drive system, wanting to achieve and get things and the threat system, when our needs are blocked in some way. Studies have shown that Mindfulness Meditation stimulates the soothing system by consciously cultivating compassion and kindness. 'Loving Kindness' meditation is a particularly useful practice for this.
Learn how to practice 'loving kindness' and other meditation practices on our 'Introduction to Mindfulness' course. The next course starts on 4th March in Haverfordwest.
Mindfulness for Health, Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman
The Compassionate Mind, Paul Gilbert
Jo is a director of Mindful Future and an accredited Breathworks Mindfulness Teacher. Breathworks is one of the leading Mindfulness organisations in the UK