Rest. See what happens next.

7 Jun

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“It is said that all that you are seeking is also seeking you, that if you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you a long time. Once it is here, don’t move away. Rest. See what happens next.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves.

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

New Year’s Mindful Resolution: The Results

8 Apr

Last January, I told you about one of my New Years’ Resolutions: to complete Prof. Mark Williams’ and Dr Danny Penman’s 8-week mindfulness programme. My aim was to become more efficient at work — one the many benefits associated with mindful meditation. Today, I am proud to say that I have kept my resolution, and this post is about what I’ve learnt through this experience.

As soon as I started reading Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, I knew that it wasn’t a so-called “self-help” book but an actual 8-week course based on scientific evidence, without the tediousness often associated with the phrase. The book is very easy to read and uses examples of daily experiences, that everybody can relate to, to explain how the mind works. Each chapter takes the reader a step further into the practice of mindful meditation, with a few simple exercises and pre-recorded guided meditations lasting up to 15 minutes. Although I initially wasn’t quite sure how I would find the time to meditate twice a day, every day, for 8 weeks — I was worried that it might compromise my productivity at work — I quickly realised that the programme didn’t have any negative impact on my working hours. Nor did it have any impact on my social or family life. The only change to my daily routine was that I watched a bit less TV,  which of course wasn’t a bad thing.

I’d been finding it more and more difficult to focus on my work for quite some time. Being self-employed, productivity is key to my success. When I’m not productive, I simply don’t make any money.  So I often criticised myself for not being more focused, and I felt under pressure to work longer hours in order to make up for the time I wasted procrastinating. This proved to be counter-productive and just left me feeling stressed and tired. Very early in the book, I learnt about the mind’s “Doing mode” and its natural tendency to go into auto-pilot. The mind likes to keep busy by solving problems, planning things, or even day-dreaming. After 12 years in the same job, work had become a well-established routine for me, something that my mind thought it could do in auto-pilot. I realised that I wasn’t being lazy at all, but simply bored. My mind wanted/needed something more challenging. Something it could get its teeth into. Work wasn’t doing it for it anymore, so it kept itself entertained with all sorts of thoughts and day dreams. As soon as I understood that, I stopped criticising myself and instead started thinking about ways I could make my job interesting again. Perhaps a few mindfulness techniques could help me to “wake-up” and be more present. Perhaps something more radical was needed, like a new career.

This wasn’t the only lesson I learnt from the book. Another valuable one was about the art of acceptance. In week 5, “Turning Towards Difficulty”, I learnt how to observe any negative feeling and its effects on my body without letting it control me. As it turned out, I was feeling particularly frustrated that week. I had told my favourite charity (the Hawn Foundation) that I was going to attempt a treadmill half-marathon at my local gym to raise awareness about their work (my second New Year’s Resolution). My fund-raising page was ready to go live, but I could feel some pain in my left ankle and it became clear that I had developed tendinitis during my training. I initially thought that I could overcome the pain and carry on running, but it got worse and I became very disappointed with myself. By learning how to observe my feelings through mindful meditation, without judging myself, I eventually managed to accept my situation and decided to postpone my fundraising challenge. I realised that acceptance doesn’t mean failure or resignation. Instead “mindful acceptance gives us choices” (p.164). If I had continued to put pressure on myself to complete my challenge, no matter what, I would have probably injured myself more seriously. Taking a break, looking after myself and postponing the event was a far better decision to make. A few weeks later, I received an invitation to a conference and networking dinner due to take place in London, on the day I was originally planning to run my half-marathon. If I had insisted on keeping that date for my challenge, I would have missed an excellent opportunity to meet other professionals like me and give my career a much needed boost. It was as if my body had known all along.

Observing my feelings rather than pushing them away proved to be a very useful tool, but my favourite meditation was the one I discovered in week 6: the Befriending meditation. That week, the book encouraged me to feel and develop loving kindness towards myself, my friends and family, people I find difficult and everybody else. It turned out to be a very calming meditation exercise, and the perfect antidote against cynicism. Every day, the media bombard us with stories about phone-hacking scandals, sporting heroes falling from grace, terrorist attacks and energy companies making more and more money while pensioners can’t afford to heat their homes. It’s easy to become cynical about life. The Befriending meditation helped me to find a quiet place inside myself. A place where I could feel and develop a warm feeling of compassion. If everybody practised this sort of meditation, there’s no doubt in my mind that the world would be a much better place.

I really enjoyed reading Mark Williams’ and Danny Penman’s book, as well as practising meditation on a daily basis. Many readers have said that it transformed their lives, and although I can’t say that it transformed mine, it definitely added something positive to it. It gave me a set of tools that will allow me to make better, more informed decisions, and taught me techniques that will help me to find peace in a frantic world. No wonder it became such an instant best-seller.

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

Mindfulness In Schools

28 Mar

This short report on the importance of mindfulness in schools was shown on the BBC yesterday morning and is now available on the BBC Breakfast website: “Some scientists suggest that a brain training technique called mindfulness could help teenagers manage stress.  The BBC’s Education Correspondent Luke Walton has been to a school in Kent to find out how it works. Alison Abbott, an assistant head teacher and Professor Willem Kuyken, discuss whether they need lessons in relaxation.”

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

All It Takes Is 10 Mindful Minutes

5 Feb

This delightfully inspiring 10-minute TED Talk by Andy Puddicombe explains how taking the time to focus on the present can change your life. Enjoy!

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

New Year’s Mindful Resolution

1 Jan

This is the time for the customary New Year’s resolution and this year I am making not one but two resolutions, one of which involves a physical challenge to raise money and awareness for my favourite charity. I will tell you more about it in the next few weeks, once I have taken care of a few practical details. In the meantime, here is the first of my two new year’s resolutions: to complete Prof. Mark Williams’ and Dr Danny Penman’s 8-week mindfulness programme and focus more on the present.

Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World has received great reviews on websites such as Amazon from people suffering from stress, anxiety and even depression or chronic pain. The first few pages have already taught me a lot about the way our mind works and the benefits of mindful meditation:  increased mental and physical stamina, better and more fulfilling relationships, a stronger immune system, to name but a few.

I look forward to telling you more about this programme in a couple of months.

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

My Mindful Adventure in Nepal

17 Dec

This is the story of my ups and downs in the Nepalese Himalayas and the lessons I learnt from the experience. I hope it inspires you to follow your dreams.

For a full-screen display, simply click on the photos.

Early in the morning of October 7th 2012, a minibus picked me up, together with a group of 15 other trekkers (including 3 solo travellers like me), from our hotel in Kathmandu to take us westwards to the village of Naya Pul, where a 30-minute walk would lead us to Birethanti, the starting point of our journey. We travelled for the best part of the day along a narrow winding road which had featured a year before on the BBC2 World’s Most Dangerous Roads programme. Still feeling jetlagged after a cosy night at the Royal Singi Hotel (from now on it would be noisy lodges, squat loos and showers outside), I spent hours observing the busy traffic, bursting with sound and colour, the sheer drops on the side of the road and the hairpin turns that greeted us beneath hazy mountain tops. I prayed that the clouds would be kind enough to clear in time for our little adventure. It was my first ever trek and I couldn’t wait for it to start.

Day 1: Ulleri

We started our trek bright and early and followed the left bank of the Burungdi Khola (Burungdi river) under the hot, Nepalese sun, cheered along by the deafening choir of Asian cicadas. We stopped for lunch in Tirkhedunga, where a variety of noodle soups, rice dishes, herbal teas and chapati bread gave us all the energy we needed for our first real test: a steep stone staircase made of 3,228 irregular steps, winding its way through neatly terraced hillsides to the top of Ulleri (2,073m). The first of many, many steps…

Day 2: Ghorepani

The second stage of our trek took us through vast rhododendron forests, where the occasional water buffaloes and the resounding bells of goods–carrying mules provided colourful interludes to our long, regular ascent. A nice, easy ascent, compared to the previous day, although we had to be aware of the risk of being bitten by leeches, a risk we luckily all escaped. We reached Ghorepani (2,855m) in the middle of the afternoon to witness a magnificient mountain vista peering through the clouds: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchhare and Lamjung, among others.

Day 3: Sunrise at Poon Hill

After an early wake-up call at 4.30am and a rushed cup of tea in the lodges’ dining room, we climbed in the dark to the top of Poon Hill (3,210m), hoping to witness a spectacular sunrise over Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. The walk to the view point normally takes an hour, but I felt on the verge of fainting after just 20 minutes. Worried about getting cold, I was wearing thermal leggings under my trousers, a thick fleece under my windproof jacket, warm gloves and a woolly hat. This resulted in me seriously overheating which, combined with the altitude, the steep climb and a skipped breakfast, made my head spin and my knees wobble. I sat on the side of the path and let everybody walk past me. Our leader reassured me that the weakness I was experiencing was very common and offered to carry my backpack. A few sips of water and an energy bar helped me to get my strength back and I managed to push on, following a long, winding trail of glowing head-torches all the way to the top of Poon Hill, just in time to see the sun emerge from behind the mountains. What a spectacle!!

After breakfast back at the lodges, we climbed to a pass at 3,193m to enjoy more breath-taking views of the Annapurna mountain range, before descending again through the jungle to Banthanti at 2,620m. Negotiating muddy, slippery rocks and tree roots on a downhill trail turned out to be quite a challenge for my knees, but it wasn’t as challenging as climbing up the steep, irregular steps that took us to a small pass at Tadapani (2,745m). There, a magnificent view of Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare’s twin-peaks (also known as “Fishtail”) made it all worth it.

Day 4: Chomrong

I woke up on day 4 with a burning throat and a blocked nose, but the rest of my body felt OK and the warm morning sun helped me to feel positive. There is something really special about having breakfast in the open, against a backdrop of snow-capped giants soaring into clear blue skies. Our trail first descended through the forest to the Kyumnu Khola, before a steep ascent to Chomrong (2,170m). Our challenge for the day was to cope with the burning sun, the humidity and temperatures of up to 28°C (82°F) – not the most comfortable trekking conditions, at least not if you’re used to the cool British weather. In the evening, Chomrong offered us the most magical sunset I have ever witnessed, over Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare. For the first time during our trek, I missed being in a relationship.

Day 5: Dovan

Day 5 started with a steep descent down a long stone staircase, followed by a steep ascent in the sun. We then made our way through a jungle of oak, hemlock and rhododendron trees towards Kuldi Ghar (2,540m), where a warm cup of lemon, ginger and honey tea helped to clear my nose and soothe my throat, at least for a little while. Our trail then took us up through bamboo thickets and forests of rhododendrons to the small clearing of Dovan and its teahouses (2,505m).

Day 6: Machhapuchhare Base Camp

We resumed our trek at 8am, aiming to reach the lodges at Himalaya Hotel two hours later for our tea-break, but I struggled to keep pace with the rest of the group and quickly lost sight of them in the thick forest. My throat had taken a turn for the worse and was very painful. I started to doubt whether I would be able to make it to Annapurna Sanctuary, the climax of our trip. I had spent so much time and effort preparing for that holiday that the thought of having to quit so early upset me. Feeling dejected and a bit lonely at the back, I hit a low point and cried, hoping that the Nepalese guide who was walking behind me wouldn’t notice.

I caught up with a couple of people who had stopped to catch their breath. One of them, a woman in her early 60s, noticed my distress and walked by my side to cheer me up. After a couple of jokes about my wallowing, I was smiling again and we soon met the rest of the group at the lodges, 5 minutes after they had arrived themselves. Our leader proudly announced that they had made it in just 1 hour and 15 minutes. I suddenly realised that I was doing a lot better than I thought and that I could afford to slow down if I needed to. Completing the trek was still achievable.

With my mood lifted, I was able to enjoy the rest of the day. We stopped at Hinko cave, where the first expeditions to Annapurna Base Camp used to camp, and began to notice a change in the scenery. The forest was now slowly giving way to a more rugged type of landscape. We spied on a family of white, fluffy monkeys swinging from tree to tree, spotted wild beehives hanging high from naked cliffs, and got mobbed by herds of musky sheep. We crossed a ravine, before climbing again steeply among boulders. The valley then broadened, leading us into a thick rain cloud. Walking in wet conditions wasn’t as challenging as I feared it might be. The rain lent an eerie atmospheric feel to our surroundings, while a slight feeling of drunkenness caused by the altitude helped me to relax. When we finally arrived at Macchapuchhare Base Camp (3,700m) in the late afternoon, it had started to snow. We quickly gathered into the dining room, where a gas heater was placed under a long central table to allow our clothes to dry (and our knees to roast). A retired hospital consultant examined my throat and supplemented the pain-killers I had been taking for the past few days with a course of antibiotics. I was very lucky we had a doctor in our group.

Day 7: Annapurna Base Camp

The next morning, the sky had cleared completely. We climbed for two hours among granite boulders along a muddy path still sprinkled with snow. But I didn’t feel the cold. The sun was warming my back, and I felt hypnotised by the soaring giant in front of us. At Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m), we found ourselves encircled by some of the highest mountains in the world: Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, Annapurna Fang, Annapurna 1 and 3, Gangapurna and Macchapucchare. I completely forgot how poorly I was. I felt elated. I had made it to Annapurna Sanctuary! I sat on a ridge overlooking the camp and took a few moments to take it all in: the flapping of multicolour prayer flags in the cold, thin air; the stone monuments left for those who had perished during their summit attempts; the blues, the browns, the greys and the whites; the occasional, thunderous booms from the nearby glacier, and the warm, comforting appeal of hot masala tea served in mountaineering tin cups. Never before had I experienced anything so breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. This was a moment to be savoured with all the senses.

Day 8: Descent to Bamboo

We woke up early the next morning to watch the run rise over the Sanctuary. My throat was still sore and swollen, the flaky skin around my nose felt as if it had been singed, and I had conjunctivitis in my left eye. Apart from that, my energy levels were fine – considering – and I was still buzzing from the day before. My three roommates and I reluctantly got out of our mummy sleeping bags to put on some clothes in the cold, unheated room, and quickly zipped up our down jackets before meeting the rest of the group outside. It had snowed overnight but the sky was now clear again and the air was crisp. Soon, blazing crowns appeared at the top of the mountains, slowly cascading down their eastern flanks. Despite the freezing cold, we all felt privileged to be able to witness such a majestic show.

After a quick breakfast in the camp’s communal room, we began our descent to Bamboo Lodge. The valley we had climbed up in the rain and sleet two days before was now boasting dark, frosty ramparts on the left-hand side and sunny, moss-covered cliffs on the right. I was blinded by the beauty of the landscape in the glaring sun, and once again found myself lagging behind. I walked as fast as I could, but the rest of the group shot off ahead of me. I don’t know what annoyed me the most: my inability to keep up with them or the fact that they were in such a hurry to leave this magical place. My throat tightened with frustration and the next breath in made a terrifying whooping sound. I tried to breathe in again, but my swollen tonsils only allowed in a tiny flow of thin mountain air. I undid my scarf in a panic, threw my hat in the air, and turned towards a couple of strangers who were walking behind me. Every breath I tried to take in made the same seal-like sound. The couple panicked too, but luckily for me my group leader was walking at the back that day. He was with me in a flash and took my backpack off my shoulders as I let myself drop onto the ground. Despite his medical training, there wasn’t much he could do for me. I had tonsillitis. He told me I was going to be OK and we waited for a few minutes in the sun while I composed myself. Once I could breathe almost normally again, he told me to take it easy, slung my bag over his shoulder and led the way. We still had several hours of walking ahead of us before reaching Bamboo.

The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I focused on the trail to avoid tripping on a muddy rock or a tree root, a risk that increased as we re-entered the forest. One step at a time, I somehow managed to find my own rhythm, and the hypnotic clink of my trekking poles soon sent me into a trance-like state. Every time we stopped for a quick break I felt weak and tearful, but on the whole the hours went surprisingly fast and we reached our lodge in the middle of the afternoon. My morning scare hadn’t been life-threatening, but I was still feeling quite shaken. Being such a long way away from any medical facility had made me feel rather vulnerable. Luckily for me, another member of our group had brought antibiotics from the UK, and on the advice of the hospital consultant who had examined me a couple of days before, I was able to double the dose. I lied down on a narrow bed, too exhausted to be bothered by the plague of moths perched on the damp walls, and took a greeting card from the luggage our porters had carried into to room. The staff at my local gym had signed it for me before my trip. It had a picture of a cat carrying a light-sabre at the front, with a legend that said “May the force be with you!” Not long now before I could tell them about my Nepalese adventure.

Day 9: Jhinnundanda

The antibiotics finally kicked in during the night and my throat felt much better the next morning. We resumed our descent down a long, undulating trail towards the Chomrong river. By then the whole group was feeling the impact of our daily trek and the pace slowed significantly down during the steep uphill climb back to Chomrong. We stopped there for lunch and stretched our sore muscles before setting off again through hazy terraces, steeply down towards Jhinnundanda. Our pretty lodge was a welcoming sight and the evening meal was an opportunity for us to thank our young porters who, for the past 9 days, had been carrying two 15-kilo kitbags each on their backs with nothing but a strap around their foreheads. They sang traditional songs for us, accompanied by the catchy rhythms of a Nepalese double-headed drum or madal, and we all had a go at the local dance. With our spirits high and our hands warm from all the clapping, we forgot how tired our bodies were and threw in an impromptu YMCA routine, putting an even bigger smile on the faces of all those taking part.

Day 10: Pokhara

Our final day arrived, and it was going to be one of the longest with a 7-hour hike back to Birethanti. With my throat feeling better I decided to go off the pain-killers. It was a mistake. After just half an hour of walking, my stiff legs, which until then hadn’t caused me any real grief, started to feel terribly sore. I had no choice but to push on. A chartered bus was waiting for us in Birethanti to take us to the picturesque lakeside town of Pokhara for our flight back to Kathmandu the following day. I tried to motivate myself with the promise of a hot shower and a soft, comfortable bed as soon as I got to the hotel, but with the highlights of our trek behind us, the last thing I wanted to do was to spend another day trekking.

After a few hours, we reached a new dusty dirt road, freshly carved into the mountains. My first reaction was one of joy: no more knee-battering steps! But my relief was short-lived. The long, monotonous road never seemed to end, each turn triggering a burst of muted expletives as a new stretch unfolded under the baking sun. Most of the group disappeared into the distance; only two remained at the back with me, together with our leader and one of the guides. With my energy levels at their lowest, I was by far the one who struggled the most. But when I finally arrived in Birethanti and lifted myself up one last flight of steps, grimacing and using my poles as crutches, the whole group welcomed me with a round of applause and put a big smile on my face. I was last but it didn’t matter. I had completed my first trek, with some amazing experiences along the way. I felt my heart fill with a warm sense of achievement. I was happy. Aching, exhausted, but happy.

It occurred to me that my trek in Nepal wasn’t just an opportunity for me to practise mindfulness in beautiful surroundings. It also turned out to be a great metaphor for the sort of journey we are likely to experience in the pursuit of ours dreams, whether we dream of climbing a mountain, becoming a writer or finding the courage to perform in front of people. When we decide to follow ours dreams, the first difficulty we may encounter is the sinking realisation of how steep the learning curve is going to be (the 3,228 steps to Ulleri). We may feel burdened or even paralysed by negative thoughts about ourselves and our abilities (my backpack). Before embarking on a challenging project, it is therefore important to make this sort of baggage as light as possible by believing in ourselves. Some people may make fun of our dreams and drain our energy with their negative comments (the leeches), but others will applaud our courage and cheer us on (the cicadas). Our journeys will have ups and downs, but each step will take us closer to our final goal. At times we will feel as though we are walking in the dark, but our dreams will light the way (the trail of head-torches at Poon Hill), and sometimes it will be painful and we will feel like quitting (my illness). We may also feel as though everybody else is going in the opposite direction (the herds of sheep). At such times, determination and perseverance will be our best allies. “Keep calm and carry on”, as the British would say. And there will be help around. Some people will lead us and guide us; others will share their expertise with us or ease our burden to allow us to the next stage. Trust the right people, and you will be on your way to success. But my trekking experience taught me one more thing: once we have reached the climax of our dreams, and the best parts are behind us, we may feel low or tired and find ourselves without an exciting goal (the last day of the trek). To me, this shows how important it is to aim high, really high. People often say that the best way to avoid disappointment is to lower one’s expectations. I would rather aim high and risk disappointment, because reaching one’s destination isn’t actually the most important part, even if it is often the most enjoyable. The journey itself, with all its passing treasures (the breath-taking views, the exotic wildlife, the people I met…), is what really matters. The longer the journey, the richer the experience. Be mindful of all the things you see, hear or feel along the way, and whether you achieve your ultimate goal or only come closer to it, you will have an amazing time. Someone once said “reach for the stars and be prepared for anything”. This is the sort of advice I now choose to follow.

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If you liked this post, why not share it with a friend using the smart buttons in the Comments section and help me promote mindfulness? You may also like the story of my experience in Japan: “Mount Koya, or the Secret to Happiness”.

Do you have a dream you’d like to pursue? Have you already achieved your goal? How did it feel? I would love to hear from you.

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

The Science Behind The Silence

12 Nov

This BBC report explains perfectly what mindfulness is and what its benefits are. I found it on a brand new WordPress blog: Dan’s Mindfulness Adventure. Thank you Dan for sharing this video with us, and congratulations on your new blog!

Enjoy!

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If you like my blog and would like to make a donation to the Hawn Foundation, please click here for US dollars or here for British pounds. Thank you for your generous support.

To learn more about this, please click here.

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