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11. A New Year A New Start!!

Welcome to 2020!! A new year and a new decade. Have you consciously closed 2019? Have you considered your vision for this year?

We all have little rituals that we perform throughout our daily, weekly or monthly going ons. Perhaps your morning ritual is to have a cup of tea or coffee in bed or spend some time on your own before the household rises and the day moves forward at light speed.

What are your dreams and desires for this year? The coming decade?

‘If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes’ – Andrew Carnegie.

This is the exciting beginning of a new year and decade. We all have the ability to tap into our core intentions whether it is for this week, month or year. To be able to build our dreams each of us needs to build in daily practices to help us reach our desired dreams.

Let us consciously map out the coming year by setting areas of focus. These may be Career, Personal, Physical, Mind, Finance or other areas. You may wish to choose one area, a few or, if you’re feeling really brave, a wide range! I would love you to take time to sit still to reflect and consider your overall intention for this year. Break this down into actions to build on this intention.

‘Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.’ – Pablo Picasso

Within each area you have chosen, take time to list your key goals. You may wish to break these down into SMART focus goals. Be BOLD.

SMART goals are useful but need to be done properly:

  • Specific (not vague)
  • Measurable (so you know when you have achieved them – and it can be helpful to measure the following of a positive routine rather than focusing on your final goal, as in the second example below)
  • Achievable (because there is no point in setting impossible goals)
  • Relevant (focused on what you really want to achieve)
  • Time-based (to help with motivation)

For example, you may want to read more or lose weight. As SMART goals, these might be:

  • Read at least one book each month throughout the year.
  • Stick to your daily calorie count and go to the gym three times each week.

At the conclusion of each month, take time to reflect on what you have achieved in your core areas of focus. This reflective process allows you to look at:

  • inspiration;
  • gratitude;
  • bravery moments;
  • learning;
  • how you have changed;
  • what is working or not working;
  • belief systems; and
  • how to move forward.

You may achieve your key intention faster or change your desires. This is very normal. To achieve your intention, you need to consciously work at it each day. Just like your daily ritual of a morning cuppa or coffee you need to invest time into yourself and your dreams. To build change you need to actively participate in your daily practice.

CREATING A HABIT

  • 21 days to create the habit
  • 21 days to strengthen your resolve and embed the habit
  • 21 days to make your new habit a part of your DNA

Michelle House (Rich Living at michellehouse.com.au)

There may be challenges, changes and delays as you move into achieving your intention. Life is not a straight line, or perfect! This journey will have ups and downs, surprises and influences outside your control. Ask yourself with honesty, what is my first response to a challenge?

Some put their heads down and get going. Others see insurmountable obstacles (catastrophising), experience automatic emotional responses (crying, yelling, etc) or face negative self-talk. What counts is working out how you respond and moving forward.

If you find you are straying from your goals, consider:

‘You know, everybody has setbacks in their life, and everybody falls short of whatever goals they might set for themselves. That’s part of living and coming to terms with who you are as a person.’ – Hillary Clinton

Every little step moves you closer to your intention or goal. Even 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. Tiny steps are always better than no steps at all.

‘One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.’ – Michelle Obama

Time to Have a Go!

One set of intentions for myself this year is to work on building on my practices and attitude towards gratitude, forgiveness, and kindness.

To get you started on your intentions journey, below I have given you some ideas for questions you may wish to consider.  

  • What would you do if you could not fail?
  • What word or theme would you like to set for this year?
  • Do you have a mantra, saying or quote that makes you feel light? If so, write this out.
  • Are there words, images, poems, music, etc that help you connect strongly to your theme or intention? Write, cut out and stick, draw and listen to all the things that you find to support your theme.
  • Can you identify activities that you enjoy and give you expansion?
  • How can I improve to reach where I am choosing to go?
  • How will I know when I have achieved an intention?
  • Where do I want to be this time next year? Where do I want to be in 3 years’ time? What about five years?
  • Are there mindset beliefs I need to let go of? E.g. not good enough.
  • How will I nourish and be kind to my body?
  • How will I consciously improve my mind?
  • How will I consciously improve my relationships?
  • How will I expand and grow my knowledge and learning?
  • How can I be more creative?
  • How will I incorporate self-care this year?
  • How can I bring in more laughter and fun this year?
  • How can I connect and be more present in nature this year?

Your intentions can be listed and broken down into smaller chunks using the SMART process explained above. We are all visual creatures so you may wish to create a vision board that incorporates all your intentions and hang it somewhere you will see it each day.

At the end of each month take the time to reflect on what you have achieved with your core areas of focus. This reflective process allows you to look at:

  • what has inspired you;
  • what you have been grateful for;
  • how you were brave;
  • what you have learnt about yourself;
  • what you were most proud of;
  • what you need to change to move forward;
  • what did and didn’t work;
  • are you hesitating to move forward – if so why?

Wishing you all a fantastic New Year and a new decade to build further dreams and realities. As Nelson Mandela said:

‘There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of.’

10. With Gratitude Comes a New Attitude

Christmas is fast approaching and, with it, we often find a build-up of our emotions. These may include excitement, happiness, dread, and perhaps sadness. Other festive stressors may also play havoc with our well-being at this time. These could be financial pressures, family expectations, missing loved ones, the passing of loved family members and dealing with estrangement. These stresses can combine and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, ingratitude, an inability to cope with competing deadlines or an inability to meet set/perceived expectations.

“Being thankful is not always experienced as a natural state of existence, we must work at it, akin to a type of strength training for the heart.” – Larissa Gomez

This quote really sums up my journey to being grateful for what is around me at Christmas time. I had to work hard at being thankful for all that I had and learn to build resiliency with family interactions and not allow them to affect me too personally.

During this time many of us can express opinions based on our personal emotional states and this can create imbalance or hurt. Many of us feel pulled in many directions during this time and this can disrupt our daily routines. My family is based in Australia and my husband’s in the UK and, for us, some little things used to become big issues, such as meeting postal deadlines, late evening/early morning Skypes, organising travel and, in the UK, dealing with occasional weather-related disruption.

I learned to love the wintry UK Christmases and stop comparing them to my hot Australian Christmases that I associated with family breakfast BBQs and swimming at the beach followed by kicking back with friends and enjoying shared leftovers. For a long time, all I could see in the UK was lack of light (dawn after 8am, dusk before 4pm!), bitter winds, cold rain, fog, ice, frosts, low cloud, greyness, being stuck indoors…

“At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Albert Schweitzer

I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and, in the winter, my mood could dip very fast into depressive thoughts. Christmas could heighten this state and being away from family and friends could be a strong depressor for me. Seeing them on Skype enjoying the sunshine, BBQs and water activities made me pine for those activities too. During a particularly bad SAD episode my doctor suggested Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. A counsellor suggested I write down everything I was grateful for each day and evening – a list of five things each time. This was exceptionally difficult at first; but as I continued I found I could write down five things very quickly for each slot. That counsellor relit my internal light which had dimmed and it was the beginning of rekindling the spark of life within me.

Gratitude is the quality of being thankful – a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness – and it has two positive aspects:

  1. It is a positive emotion felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of gift; and
  2. It is a social emotion often directed towards a person (the giver of a gift). For some people this can include a feeling towards a higher power.

Working with my counsellor I built a reflective gratitude structure that, with practice, allowed me to be more mindful and thankful for everything I had. I was developing a conscious choice for gratitude, able to stand back and look at my perceived negative experiences with new, fresher eyes. I learned that negative experiences are an opportunity to learn, grow and change. I could identify my triggers more easily and know when to walk away to be more still or when a ‘fight’ wasn’t worth my time. Repeating cycles don’t have to continue.

The gratitude attitude can really work. For some complex issues, it can take time. For myself I have learned I deserve recognition, compliments, laughter and joy. I have learned to accept surprises with love and wonder. With my own growing awareness, I have been able to return to giving to others with no expectation of a response or recognition.I now thoroughly appreciate this time of year: the Christmas light switch on; sparkling shop window displays; Christmas parties; putting up the Christmas tree on 1st December and decorating it with baubles and tinsel that twinkle and shine; choosing gifts for family and friends; and baking Christmas gingerbread biscuits or cakes to share with friends, neighbours and colleagues. There are many things to enjoy and for which to be thankful; but I had to learn to enjoy my new environment and re-learn to see the joy around me.

Time to Have a Go!

Creating a gratitude practice has many benefits and can be applied in all situations (work/personal/community, etc). This is the beginning of your new attitude towards gratitude.

Here are some gratitude exercises that I found helpful. (Some are challenging but you don’t grow without these!). Where appropriate, add in why each answer is important or supportive or inspirational to you.

Using your journal consider the following:

What does gratitude mean to you?

  • I am grateful for…
  • I am grateful because…
  • Gratitude makes me feel…
  • Some things that make me happy are…
  • Some things that inspire me are…
  • Some things that nurture me are…
  • Each morning and evening list a minimum of FIVE things for which you are grateful…

How you can actively shape your own life with gratitude

This part of gratitude asks you to consider your emotions, thoughts, responses, people and experiences in your life. Take time to consider these:

  • Feelings that I want more of in my life are…
  • Thoughts I want more of in my life are…
  • Experiences I want more of in my life are…
  • Who cheers for me?
  • Who are my support group?
  • Why are these people important to me?
  • What environments do I enjoy?
  • How do I support myself or show self-care?
  • Why did that situation cause me that emotion (e.g. anger/hurt/laughter/happiness)
  • How do I express my gratitude?
  • How I can invite in more joy?
  • How I can respond positively to a surprise/compliment/unexpected gift?

Meditation on Gratitude and Joy:

This beautiful meditation, to read aloud to yourself, is from Jack Kornfield (https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-gratitude-joy/).

Let yourself sit quietly and at ease. Allow your body to be relaxed and open, your breath natural, your heart easy. Begin the practice of gratitude by feeling how year after year you have cared for your own life. Now let yourself begin to acknowledge all that has supported you in this care:

With gratitude I remember the people, animals, plants, insects, creatures of the sky and sea, air and water, fire and earth, all whose joyful exertion blesses my life every day.

With gratitude I remember the care and labour of a thousand generations of elders and ancestors who came before me.

I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the blessing of this earth I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the life I have been given.

Just as we are grateful for our blessings, so we can be grateful for the blessings of others.

Continue to breathe gently. Bring to mind someone you care about, someone it is easy to rejoice for. Picture them and feel the natural joy you have for their well-being, for their happiness and success. With each breath, offer them your grateful, heartfelt wishes:

May you be joyful.

May your happiness increase.

May you not be separated from great happiness.

May your good fortune and the causes for your joy and happiness increase.

Sense the sympathetic joy and caring in each phrase. When you feel some degree of natural gratitude for the happiness of this loved one, extend this practice to another person you care about. Recite the same simple phrases that express your heart’s intention.

Then gradually open the meditation to include neutral people, difficult people, and even enemies until you extend sympathetic joy to all beings everywhere, young and old, near and far.

Practice dwelling in joy until the deliberate effort of practice drops away and the intentions of joy blend into the natural joy of your own wise heart.

9. Our Emotional Content – Part 2

In my previous blog post on our Emotional Content I explained a journaling exercise. The journaling exercise was asking us to write about an event, each day, writing in detail using all our senses to describe the moment. The week’s prompt included an important reminder that, as triggers to emotional memory, smell and taste are as important as sight and hearing. The writing exercise was “express your feelings about this event and how your sensory inputs and interactions with others made you feel”.  This mindful journaling exercise occurred whilst I was preparing for a College inspection, working through some exams and completing external studies. Needless to say, I didn’t do each day but completed them on days where things felt they’d gone awry.

One day I realised I had written four pages and was even more unsettled by the experience. I still wasn’t able to identify the true emotions I was experiencing. I went on a hunt to try to find something to help.

Many theorists have suggested journaling to express views and sort out emotional baggage, including Carl Jung, James W Pennebaker and Julia Cameron. But I wanted more information on the emotions themselves and how to deal with them. Again, there are so many theorists, from Darwin and James-Lange to Cannon-Bard, Schachter-Singer and Fredickson.

So much out there; but I just wanted a simple list of emotions to at least identify what I was experiencing. One book that helped was The Sedona Method by Hale Dwoskin which has pages of positive and negative emotions to choose from. Then I found the following lovely table from Positive Psychology (https://positivepsychology.com/emotion-wheel/)  that explains the joining of the emotions and how they work:

Love Joy + Trust Remorse Sadness + Disgust
Guilt Joy + Fear Envy Sadness + Anger
Delight Joy + Surprise Pessimism Sadness+Anticipation
Submission Trust + Fear Contempt Disgust + Anger
Curiosity Trust + Surprise Cynicism Disgust +Anticipation
Sentimentality Trust + Sadness Morbidness Disgust + Joy
Awe Fear + Surprise Aggression Anger + Anticipation
Despair Fear + Sadness Pride Anger + Joy
Shame Fear + Disgust Dominance Anger + Trust
Disappointment Surprise+Sadness Optimism Anticipation + Joy
Unbelief Surprise+Disgust Hope Anticipation +Trust
Outrage Surprise + Anger Anxiety Anticipation + Fear

This chart helped me understand the joining of primary emotions and helped me identify what I was feeling in certain situations. It allowed me to consider how I was expressing emotion and my actions based on different stimuli. It explained some of my reactions and helped me reflect on my behaviours (positive and negative). This is an ongoing process and I am still learning which are my triggers and what can be left behind. I’m still learning how to create good boundaries and how to move forward with acceptance.

By continuing with journaling I have been able to share my experiences in a stable and more balanced way with my husband. I have allowed myself to create the changes I need to self-improve and I feel I am empowered to share my emotions in a much more constructive way. It is a wonderful way to reflect and analyse my own emotional patterns to help meet any changes or challenges that are occurring.

Maintaining a mindfulness practice allows me to attend to my emotions, be curious and patient with them, learn to accept we have different emotions and change my emotions to other emotions.

Time to Have a Go!

Using your Journal (using pen and paper) take as much time as needed to look at a relationship issue. This could be related to work, a personal relationship, family, children, or anything else.  

Remember your journal entries are private and the journal is a way to express your own feelings and problems without hurting anyone involved. As you write, you may be able to see the situation more objectively (after letting off steam), thus allowing you to pinpoint more accurately the reasons behind your anger, sadness, frustration, etc. When you are ready to have a conversation with the people involved you may be able to resolve them more easily.

Really take time to notice words you are using. Sometimes they are markers to deeper feelings within your subconscious. Highlight or underline words and feelings that seem to recur. Try to understand why these things are important to you.

8. Our Emotional Content!

Our emotions are sometimes simple and at other times highly complex. How many times have you been flummoxed by your emotions? Plenty of times probably. I know that I have been flying high after a great success at work (e.g. a struggling student who finally passes an exam and comes to say thank you for your help or a dyslexic student who produces a strong written piece of work after hours of struggling to get it onto paper) and in a moment that can flip to a feeling of disappointment or disenchantment as you head into another meeting with a negative manager.

Emotional health is an area that many of us hide from by putting on a brave face. Hmmm…nothing like having false pretences.

At some point the masks crack and eventually fall. These cracks normally occur when our values clash with what is being asked of us. I know that’s when my mask started to crumble. Being asked to act several different ways to several audiences becomes exhausting and debilitating. We all play a part in different settings: parent/child; siblings; friendship; professional face/s; lover; significant other half; house mate; colleagues; social or personal space; owner of a business; employee; self-employed; etc.

So many roles and so little time.

Think about all the different roles or expectations that you have each day. Make a list of them to clarify how many different roles/expectations you have and what might be asked of you. You might find the list rather long.

My husband has had the discomfort of watching me go up and down and through the wringer with my emotions and emotional investments: to my job, my students’ wellbeing, colleagues, friends, family and him. At one point he noted I was all at sea, not knowing what to do with my energy or emotions and not knowing how to switch off. He asked me to explain what was going on… but I couldn’t. I didn’t even know where to start.

Oddly enough, that week whilst working on my mindfulness course, one of the journal tasks asked us to record our emotions throughout a week. My heart sank a little as we’d have to delve into and record what we were feeling. The week of this journal recording just happened to coincide with the week of our College inspection. I think the universe was jumping up and down with JOY but I just had a sinking feeling: another task to add to an excessive workload.

The journaling exercise was asking us to write about an event, each day, writing in detail using all our senses to describe the moment. The week’s prompt included an important reminder that, as triggers to emotional memory, smell and taste are as important as sight and hearing. The writing exercise was asking us to express your feelings about this event and how your sensory inputs and interactions with others made you feel. The final prompt was: take 15 minutes without lifting your pen off the page, just write. “Right,” I thought, “That’s a small, easy task!”

There is more to come in my next blog on how I did with this exercise. In the meantime, give the below a go.

Time to Have a Go!

Throughout the next few weeks take the time to write in your journal each day. Remember your journal is private and for your eyes only. You should take a minimum of 15 minutes without lifting your pen off the page.

Write about an event, each day, identifying all the emotions linked to the event. When writing use all your senses. Express your feelings about this event and how your sensory inputs and interactions with others made you feel.

For example: walking to school with the kids (note interactions between yourself, your child/ren, your partner, other parents, the walk itself – perhaps noticing of colours, smells, parks, trees, dropping them off at the gate, etc).

7. Reflection on Emotional Issues

‘The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist.’ Will Smith

We can approach our emotions or emotional states from a position of power or a position of powerlessness.

Emotional issues are among the most painful of all for us to deal with as they can create feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, fear, guilt and self-loathing. By learning ways to deal with our fearful emotions we are freed from a cycle. As the saying goes: we fear what we don’t know or understand.

By taking a proactive approach to reflection we grow our awareness of our selves. This helps us to integrate new learning when situations recur and develops our emotional intelligence. As a person, if we can accept all our aspects of self (the good, the bad and everything in between) we are able to move forward with respect for our self.

We all have many parts that need to be integrated, accepted and loved for what they teach us. If we can move to a state of observation without judgment on ourselves, we can pass these observations and non-judgment to those around us. As we grow and change, we develop more flexible responses to triggers and negative patterns. To be whole we must work on our strengths but never ignore our weaknesses. It’s our weaknesses that teach us the most as they highlight what we need to work on in order to move forward.

Time to Have a go!

Emotions will always crop up so allow the emotion to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions throughout your day and say to yourself: ‘joy’, ‘anger’, ‘frustration’, ‘happy’. Acceptance of the presence of your emotions allows you to re-wire your brain and develop your response to a situation.

Once you have practiced naming emotions throughout your day, for a week, try and extend the exercise.

You may wish to look at an area of weakness or fragility to work on for building understanding and acceptance of the emotions involved.

You may wish to look at an area of strength to work on for building understanding and acceptance of the emotions involved.

6. Control (well, the illusion of control!)

In one of my mindfulness group lessons, our instructor very gently but firmly introduced the topic for the week: ‘How much control do you have?’ Most of us laughed at the absurdity of the topic. WE ALL HAVE CONTROL…

Maybe. But perhaps most of us have much less control than we think.

As you continue reading, consider that your mind enables you to shape the world around you and to make it conform to your wishes by providing shelter, warmth, food, water and protection. The controls you have are normally over external, environmental factors but what about your internal world? What about the world of thoughts, emotions, memories, urges and sensations?

Our instructor got us ready for our first meditation and gave us our normal instructions but with a couple of ‘extras’. Our first meditation was along the following lines:

I would like you to stop yourself from thinking for two minutes. For the next two minutes prevent any thoughts whatsoever from coming into your mind – especially any thoughts about a flower or a shooting star!

Well needless to say, we all laughed as we inevitably thought about flowers and shooting stars.

As you continue reading, I want you to avoid thinking about your favourite chocolate or ice cream. Don’t think about the texture, the colour or how it tastes as you take a bite. Whatever you do don’t think about how good it feels as it melts in your mouth…

How are you doing? Have you gone to get a snack? Perhaps like me you just got lost in a memory of a summer day enjoying an ice cream or being snuggled on the sofa with a chocolate dessert.

Last one. Take a moment to think about a lemon.

How did you go? What did you experience? Did you sense any physical reactions such as your mouth watering, your heartbeat changing, screwing up your face, experiencing a sense of bitterness, sweating, repulsion…?

Are you really able to control what you think and feel? The truth is we all have much less control over our thoughts, feelings and sometimes physical reactions than we’d like. What we can control is our actions and it’s through taking action that we can create a rich, full and meaningful life.

As I continue on my journey, I know I have had times when I just wanted to run and hide. I just didn’t want to be in any social environment with any form of interaction. When I started my first steps into mindfulness, in a class with other people, I was struggling with myself to control emotional turmoil caused by family illness, excessive workloads and work restructuring. I was experiencing panic, anxiety, self-judgment, failure and low self-esteem.

I just could not cope with the sensory overload with competing deadlines and long-distance calls at odd hours. One day I returned from the course and couldn’t even remember driving home except for the extreme fog on the motorway, long tendrils winding across the road, then no fog, then moving back into deep patches that obscured other cars completely. I realised that was exactly like my mind and my emotions rolling in and out, swirling around, receding and then completing blanketing any thoughts or emotions I was having. I was confused and very numb. Depression was rolling back in and I really didn’t want that again. All I could think was, ‘oh, the vicious circle is back’.

A few days after that drive home I realised I had forgotten the homework and reading we had to complete. I worked myself up so much that I went into a BLUE FUNK. I was ranting and raving at myself: how can I do this? “I can’t even concentrate! I can’t even remember what I had to drink ten minutes ago so how am I supposed to do reading, take notes, comprehend what is being said? I need to lie down, I haven’t ironed my clothes, I haven’t cleaned the house, I’m not even dressed…” the list continued on and on.

As I calmed down, I started judging myself and all I could think was that I had failed. Mindfulness is about non-judgment, compassion, acceptance and kindness to oneself, none of which I was managing to achieve. So, what was that homework I had to do? It was asking me what I do to try to avoid emotions and feelings! Urghhhh! Well, everything! I put on a brave face; I smiled and said everything was fine; I indulged in comfort eating; I drank alcohol; I hid and avoided seeing anyone, including really compassionate, loving friends; sleeping didn’t sleep; I wouldn’t get dressed in the morning; I wouldn’t talk about my problems but contemplated that life would be better without me in it. I did so many things to avoid feeling the emotions and the dark negative thoughts I was having. I was avoiding at all costs acknowledging my fear, guilt at not being home in Australia to help with my ill family, hurt, exhaustion, and stress and bullying at work. All of this accumulated into an intense unhappiness.

Did I do the reading for homework? Yes, eventually, and it took time. I was really struggling with the concepts as I really still couldn’t hold in the information which was so foreign to me. 

I discovered I was employing some of the most common control strategies to avoid, get rid of, or escape from my very unpleasant emotions and feelings.

Russ Harris, in the Happiness Trap (2008), divided a number of control measures into our Flight or Fight responses. From the following, what control measures have you used or do you put in place?

Flight Strategies Fight Strategies
Hiding/Escaping: You hide away or escape from people, places, situations, or activities that tend to give rise to uncomfortable thoughts or
feelings. For example, you dropout of a course or cancel a social event in order to avoid feelings of anxiety.
Suppression: You try to directly suppress
unwanted thoughts and feelings. You forcefully push unwanted thoughts from your mind, or
you push your feelings ‘deep down inside’.
Distraction: You distract yourself from
unwanted thoughts and feelings by focussing
on something else. For example, you’re bored or anxious, so you smoke a cigarette or eat some ice -cream or go shopping. Or you’re worried about some important issue at work, so you spend all night watching TV to try to keep your mind
off it.
Arguing: You argue with your own
thoughts. For example, if your mind says, ‘you’re a failure,’ you may argue back, ‘oh, no I’m not – just look at everything I’ve achieved in my work.’ Alternatively, you may argue against reality, protesting ‘it shouldn’t be like this!’
Zoning Out/Numbing: You try to cut off from
your thoughts and feelings by ‘zoning out’ or making yourself numb, most commonly through
the use of medication, drugs, or alcohol. Some
people do their zoning out by sleeping
excessively or simply by ‘staring at walls.’
Taking Charge: You try to take charge of your
thoughts and feelings. For example, you may
tell yourself things like, ‘snap out of it!’ ‘stay
calm!’ or ‘Cheer up!’ Or you try to force yourself to be happy when you’re not.
Self Bullying: You try to bully yourself into
feeling differently. You call yourself names like
‘loser’ or ‘idiot’. Or you criticize and blame
yourself: ‘Don’t be so pathetic! You can handle
this. Why are you being such a coward?!’

How many did you use? All, some or just a few? I used a number of them depending on what was occurring and how robust I felt at the time. These control strategies are normal responses and healthy if you:

  • Use in moderation
  • Use them in situations where they work
  • Using them doesn’t stop you from doing the things you love. 

They become an issue when: used excessively, in situations where they can’t work, using them stops you from doing the things you truly value.

The reading and homework prompted me to realised that I was ‘zoning out’ using alcohol more and more excessively. I was using alcohol to escape from marking drudgery (I‘m a Lecturer), my intake increased the larger the class and thus the workload. It was my crutch to gain a little laughter and to switch off from unrealistic marking targets, constant preparation, losing a work/life balance. I realised I was no longer enjoying the ‘hit’ or getting the ‘hit’ from a glass but needed more and more to get the same buzz. The alcohol also become a great depressor for me, the day after crash was more pronounced and I was even more down, frustrated and felt more guilty than before. I was losing my sparkle and joy fast. I was also gaining weight exponentially – not walking or moving as fast as before, struggling with stairs etc. All signs that I was overusing my ‘zone out’.

Time to have a go!

We all have urges and most urges don’t last for very long. However, if the urge to keep snacking, eating or having more to drink continues we normally give in to it and this can have long term effects on our health. The following mindful exercise is asking you to experience change and impermanence of urges. By using mindfulness, we stay exposed to the thought, feeling and urges for their natural duration without feeding or repressing them.  In fact, if we just let an urge be, non-judgmentally, without feeding or fighting it then it will crest, subside and pass.

Experiencing the Changing Nature and Impermanence of Urges

Get yourself into a comfortable meditation position (sitting or lying) and you can close your eyes or leave them open.

Start with concentrating on your breath.

As you continue your breathing start to notice or sense any discomfort e.g. restlessness, an itch, pressure point

Note the desire to relieve the (your) discomfort by moving and resist it!

Notice the thoughts that arise e.g. ‘I wish this itch would go’; ‘it is driving me crazy’; ‘this pressure point is so uncomfortable!’

Now say calmly to yourself: ‘this too will pass’

Now say irritably to yourself: ‘this too will pass’

Notice the thought that arise e.g. ‘this is not bloody well passing!’ ‘I really would love to have a scratch right now!’ ‘I want to adjust the way I am sitting to relieve the pressure on….’

These are just thoughts passing through. So gently bring your attention back to your breath and bodily sensations. Notice the changing position, shape and quality of the discomfort over time. Being interested in the feeling as precisely as you can. Just notice how the shape and intensity changes with the cycle of your breath. Is it more intense on the in breath or the out breath?

Have your thoughts spontaneously gone to other matters e.g. planning a holiday, shopping lists, to-do lists, school runs, football game, a fight with your partner? Again these are just thoughts and if you have strayed gently bring your attention back to your breath and body sensations. Have these changed? Probably. They will be different again.

5. How Mindfulness techniques and practice helped me

As for many of us, I had become attuned to my ‘auto pilot’ also referred to as set pattern response based on my personal past experiences with my family, friends, peers, work colleagues and my students. Learning about mindfulness helped me to enhance (well in some instances relearn completely) how to be flexible and adaptable to situations. This relearning allowed my brain to be re-trained with better or new responses to situations and thus come off my ‘auto pilot’.

Through acknowledging that I had fallen into a repetitive pattern and that I needed help I was able to take my first steps in exploring and cultivating a new working base for myself.

Mindfulness has allowed me to change the way I react and interact with external influences and more importantly in my relationship with myself. I learnt to identify my common self-critical or self-blaming thoughts thus creating greater patience, kindness, acceptance, and compassion towards myself and others (even my students!).

I have found that completing my daily mindfulness routine (sometimes this is only 10 minutes) I am enjoying greater fulfilment in my daily life as I am more present in the activities I am doing, such as my gardening. The biggest change is I am not ruminating or having as many negative thoughts and my anxiety levels have dropped substantially as well. Just over a year ago my blood tests showed I had high levels of cortisol and high cholesterol levels. These two indicators are associated with being in a prolonged state of flight, fright and freeze – or anxiety and stress – over a prolonged period of time. This year I have shown a marked drop in these.

Time to have a GO!

Here is one of the key Mindfulness exercises that you can have a GO with.

The Basic Mindfulness Meditation (FOCUS)

To commence get yourself in a comfy position (e.g. sitting on a straight-backed chair, lying on the floor, sitting cross legged) that will keep you awake or alert. You can do this with eyes open or closed.

Focus on your breathing. Don’t change the rate of breath or depth but do notice sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out. Notice if your belly is rising and falling with each intake of breath and each exhale.

Once you have narrowed your concentration to focus just on your breath, begin to widen your focus and become aware of: sounds, sensations and your thoughts.

Embrace and consider each sound, thought or sensation without judging it. If you notice your mind wandering (you know making to do lists, ticking off shopping or chores still to do etc) draw your focus back to your breathing. Re-try expanding your awareness again to incorporate sounds, sensations and thoughts.

Complete the meditation by refocusing on your breathing. By creating a daily practice, even at 10 minutes a day, is more impactful than once a week. Why? This allows you to re-train your brain to store new memories of responses to situations we have practised thus creating a new response system. We become less reactive/reactionary.

4. Our Stories, Myths and Fairy Tales

Our perceptions of what happiness and success look like are often shaped by myths, white lies and fairy tales. For many of us this begins within our families, directly from parents and guardians, grandparents, or aunts and uncles. They may also come from wonderful stories we were read or other interactions we had as children.

Many of the stories we were told as children were forms of fairy tale. Often, these stories ended with our heroes living, ‘happily ever after. Tales such as those of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White or Peter Pan allowed us to escape into different worlds but also set an illusion of expected roles for males and females. All of them created a type of happiness and expectation without us really noticing. For boys this often meant fighting pirates, flying, being in control and exploring. Meanwhile, the girls would often clean things and pine away in a locked tower, awaiting rescue from a knight in shining armour.

Our interactions with family members are also a huge influence on expectations and roles that stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Almost all of us have a favourite story or fairy tale. I do and I bet you do too. I remember numerous fairy tales being read to me and my sister, when we were small, with princes and princesses going through trials and tribulations before ultimately living in the happily-ever-after universe. I’d bought into the world of princesses: I was a beautiful damsel and I would be riding off into the future on the white stallion of my rescuing prince who would look after me, keeping me safe, sound and happy.

Funny how life somehow doesn’t turn out this way. My late teens and early adult life was more along the lines of Princess Leia or Ripley from Alien, having to fight really hard to get what I wanted both professionally and personally, kissing lots of frogs and toads along the way, slaying evil monsters in my mind and not a white stallion or prince to be found. I was experiencing the trials and tribulations of young adult life by myself. I was unlearning everything I thought I knew about what constituted happiness. I was reshaping my expectations of myself along with my expectations of relationships and roles.

We all have been fed myths about happiness, contentment and success. Russ Harris explains that we have four Myths about Happiness which he explains beautifully in his book, The Happiness Trap (2008). Russ Harris explains how we are set up for our happiness traps both within community, family, cultural and societal expectations. These expectations are all based on our emotional needs and desires. I have paraphrased some of this below.

Myth 1: Happiness is the natural state for all humans.

No, it’s really not. Statistics show 1 in 10 adults will attempt suicide while 1 in 3 of us will suffer from a psychiatric disorder at some stage in our life. Non-psychiatric disorders such as loneliness, divorce, work stress, midlife crises, and relationship issues will affect us all at some point. Therefore, we are more likely than not to be experiencing some form of negative emotion at any given time. ‘True happiness’ is rare.

Myth 2: If You’re not Happy you’re Defective

Not true; but we have been trained by assumptions. Western culture in particular pushes this idea and it is reinforced by marketing and the Hollywood movie juggernaut.  We have been conditioned that mental suffering is abnormal and that this is a weakness or illness. REMEMBER: we all suffer painful thoughts and feelings.

Myth 3: To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings

Our western society tells us to eliminate negative feelings and accumulate positive ones. But there’s a catch. The things we value most in life will bring us a whole range of feelings both pleasant and unpleasant!

The Hollywood film Inside Out illustrates this conflict beautifully.

Myth 4: You should be able to control what you think and feel

We have a lot less control over our own thoughts and feelings than many us would like to admit or even believe. Our best CONTROL is over our ACTIONS. It is through us taking action that we create a rich, full and meaningful life.

So which myths apply to you?

Be honest: at least one applies if not more, and this is where I had to start to unravel my ideas of what is meant by happiness, success and contentment.

On my ongoing mindfulness and life journey I have had to learn to unlearn a host of emotional controls and myths. I had witnessed these, experienced them or had them demonstrated to me by very well-meaning adults or friends. I had to accept that those I blamed or held accountable for the way I was feeling were just repeating what they’d learnt or experienced as children, through school and family dynamics. The only way to change was to accept my limitations, work out the origins of some of my core beliefs and work through how they affected me.

The answer for me was journaling. If you can identify with the following sayings then it is time to review your perception of these common phrases:

‘Don’t cry’          ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’      ‘Oh Dear…’         ‘Get over it’

‘Stop being a cry baby,’                ‘Do you think that’s good enough?’     ‘Dust yourself off’

’Is that really the best you can do?’     ‘Toughen up’      ‘You’re just being overly sensitive!’

‘Just get over it’               ‘Stop being such a  wimp!’            ‘You’re so naïve’

All these phrases teach us we should be able to switch our emotions on and off with ease. We are taught early to cover up our true emotional state and this is reflected in these common phrases and so many more, such as ‘have a stiff upper lip’ or ‘put on a brave face’.

Time to Have a Go!

Using a journal, consider the following questions:

1: Can you describe happiness for yourself? What does this happiness encompass? How do you pursue happiness in your life or lifestyle?

2. Are you aware of any factors or expectations that affect your happiness? How do they affect your happiness?

3. Can you identify any core emotional learning that you need to let go of? How does this core learning affect you? You might wish to consider your interactions with others, defence modes, falling back into repetitive patterns with key adults such as parents (parent/child roles)/partners/siblings etc. How could you let this learning go?

4: We all have favourite quotes and song lyrics. The following are a few of mine that have led to inspiration or ‘aha’ moments. I would like you to write about the following quotes and song lyrics. Consider how you feel after reading each one. Do you have other thoughts? Do you have other quotes that ‘sing’ to you? If so, write about these and why they chime for you.

“And I wanna see you
As you walk through the door
And time will make us
Some ways less and some ways more
And I wanna talk of nothing
As the world passes by
And I wanna think
But not to say

Let me face
The sound and fury
Let me face
Hurricanes”

Hurricanes by Dido

“I don’t think any of my family or friends would have predicted that I’d run my own business or be considered a successful entrepreneur. With my upbringing, there just wasn’t that kind of expectation of me growing up. But look a little deeper and I think that you can see all the ingredients and inspirations for what was to come.” – Cath Kidston from Coming up Roses: The Story of Growing a Business

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” – Arthur Conan Doyle

3. How did I start my Mindful Journey?

In my teenage years I was lucky enough to be in a school that believed in meditation as an option for school sport. Curiosity won and I signed up for the few classes that were brought in from an external organisation. During these sessions I learnt how to relax and refocus. I learned that somehow the floor can disappear when one is relaxed and calm.

A few years ago I was struggling with a huge workload in a work environment ravaged by restructure and major building works. I started to show classic signs of stress (including an inability to sit still, a racing heart, an inability to finish sentences or thoughts). I was anxious and depressed and had found it hard to sleep due to a racing mind., I had extreme exhaustion, frequently burst into tears, chewed my nails, experienced fogginess and constantly worried about the future.

My Mum bought me Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Professor Mark Williams. This started my inquiry into what Mindfulness was, how it could be applied and what the science had to say. On several occasions I started the meditations but never got through them or I would just forget or find an excuse not to practice the meditation protocols. The exercises were supposed to help re-wire my brain – but FORGET IT. I had to admit to being a great procrastinator and non-completer. I had become the worst student EVER. I had to admit I had little motivation to do things on my own.

When going on this journey I had to be honest with myself about my limitations and I realised I needed human interaction to get the best out of myself. I wasn’t working well on my own, finding a million reasons not to do things.

I finally found an instructor who ran small course groups. I turned up nervously but completed the course. I had found a group of equally confused, loving, compassionate and funny people all trying to cope with life’s challenges being thrown at us (you know: work, family, partners, studying, etc). BEST THING EVER. For me, having the support of a trainer, enjoying the discussions, practicing exercises and completing a meditation helped me to develop and cultivate my mindfulness practices.

Time To Have A Go!

There are many TECHNIQUES to practice mindfulness. Here is a sensory sensations exercise.

The sensory sensations exercise asks you to take the time to notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. As you complete sensory sensations take time to name each one – ‘sight’, ‘sound’, ‘smell’, ‘taste’, or ‘touch’. Do this without judgment and let them go.

Choose a location that will allow you a minimum of 15 minutes to just be within its space (e.g. such as in your garden or in the bath). Now take a few breaths to bring awareness to your breathing and to help calm yourself. As you sit, stand or lie within this space take the time to notice all the sights around you (e.g. the colour of the garden walls, the trees, paving, decking, grass). Then move to all the sounds you can hear (closing your eyes may help) and just listen. You may hear birds singing or calling, cars driving past or wind rustling the leaves. With each sound you hear, deepen your breathing and relax. Using your sense of smell take time to identify the scents around you (e.g. your perfume or deodorant, freshly cut grass, the perfumes of flowers, etc). Continue this identification for your sense of touch (e.g. the weight of your clothing on your skin, the flow of a breeze across your face, the feel of grass or paving on your feet, how your shoes or chair move with you, any pressure points, etc).

2: Mindfulness Meditation and Practice

Mindfulness can be life changing once you get into a routine. It is wonderful when you find a time for regular mindful practice that suits you. Getting started with a routine can be hard, though, amongst the day to day distractions of our busy lives. For many people, the best times are early in the morning, in a break at lunchtime or in the evening just before sleep.

If you are struggling to complete your daily mindfulness practice you can:

  • See if you prefer being mindful with a friend or in a group. A like-minded friend can help to maintain your motivation. Nowadays, that friend could be on the other side of the world on a computer screen.
  • Use an aid such as an audio book or a meditation on YouTube. For example, some YouTube videos use a dot that grows and shrinks in time with your mindful breathing.
  • For many people, being part of a regular group can help with motivation week to week. Find a local group or instructor such as my own MeetUp group in Hawthorn, Melbourne. Find someone whose approach feels right for you and don’t be afraid to walk away if the group doesn’t meet your needs. Groups are sometimes advertised in the local paper or there may be local supported community groups. A good group can also give you emotional support and you can share ideas for practice and have fun too!
  • Create your own ‘care’ schedule and stick with it. This might mean being flexible within your working, family, caring and friendship schedules. You can always find 10 minutes in the day to spend on yourself even if it means locking yourself in the smallest room!

Your mindful practice is a journey. Try to be mindful each day and STAY WITH IT. You may sometimes miss a day or two of mindfulness exercises and, if this happens, it isn’t a disaster, it’s just life. One core principle is practicing ACCEPTANCE. This acceptance involves being kind and forgiving towards yourself. So, if you miss a meditation or a mindful exercise, just make an effort to get back into the routine again the next day. Remember, you can always find a few minutes each day. The best thing is, the more regularly you practice mindfulness, the easier it is to keep your routine going.

There are many TECHNIQUES to practice mindfulness. Here is a body sensation mindfulness exercise.

  • Body sensations. Take time to notice your body’s subtle sensations (such as an itch, a pressure point or tingling) without judgement and let them pass. Notice each part of your body starting from your head through your torso to your toes.

My Mindful Mondays group starts on Monday 18 February at the SWell Centre in Hawthorn, Melbourne. Find me on MeetUp at https://www.meetup.com/en-AU/Mindfulness-with-Kate/. More from this blog next month!