Coming Home to Myself

WHILE MEDITATION CAN OFFER US CLARITY AND CALM, CONNECTION IS ITS GREATEST GIFT

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 Let’s be honest. Most of us start meditating to fix ourselves – in some way.

 To fix our stress, our sleeplessness, our over-eating, over-spending. To perhaps fill that hole in the pit of our stomach that yells at us “you are not enough, you need to do more”.

When we approach our meditation this way, it becomes just another thing on our endless “to do” list. Another thing we “should” do to live well and be happy. What if we changed this? What if we looked at meditation as an opportunity to nourish ourselves? As a gift to ourselves (and the world). As an opportunity to find out what we are really about and then to live from a place of greater compassion and wisdom……..

 As I have written and spoken about before, I was a resentful meditator. It was just another thing I felt I should be doing and another thing I could beat myself up about for not doing. I was simply bringing the same approach to meditation as the one I had been practicing all my life. Work hard. Don’t give up. Do it properly. Achieve and ultimately, win. I fell in love with mindfulness as a technique because it offered me the possibility that actually, I didn’t need to fix anything, do anything, achieve anything.

However, over the years of teaching and yes, “selling” this technique, I have noticed the promises I have made my students and clients. Yes, your concentration and productivity will likely improve (clarity) and yes, your stress levels will likely reduce, and your sleep will improve (calm). These are clearly great benefits and we all need more of these in our modern life of 24/7 stimulation. To be honest though, for me, the greatest gift of mindfulness and meditation, has been a sense of befriending myself, a sense of coming home (this, my friends, is connection).

 Before I started on this journey, I wasn’t even aware of my internal critic – she had always been there, spewing a constant barrage of orders. Setting goals and demanding achievements – to demonstrate my worth to myself and the world. It was only when I sat down and started to watch the activity of my mind that I was able to notice her, my very own drill sergeant.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this drill sergeant of mine has been incredibly helpful. She has pushed me to work hard when I wanted to give up. As an adolescent, she stood by my bed at 5am encouraging me to get up for swimming training, reminding me that I needed to beat my arch enemies – Penny and Lauren. As a young adult studying psychology, it was probably her that got me through the statistics at university. As a new mother, she was the one demanding I get up for the 400th time in one night. The thing is however, her constant commands about having to do and be more, caused me to leave myself, over and over again. I believed that joy and peace and happiness and perfection could not possibly be residing within me. I had to go out and search for it in other places – in jobs or clothes or friends or food. I left myself and my own heart over and over and over again. As a result, I had nowhere to belong and nowhere to rest.

“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don't belong. You will always find it because you've made that your mission. Stop scouring people's faces for evidence that you're not enough. You will always find it because you've made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don't negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”

Brene Brown – Braving the Wilderness

Mindfulness and meditation continue to help me to come back home, back to my true self, back to my heart. I am reminded to connect to something greater than my internal drill sergeant (she is still there but just doesn’t drive the bus as much as she used to!) and to value myself as a perfectly imperfect human. For me, this is indeed a daily practice and one I now enjoy and look forward to.

So, if you are looking to start or deepen your own meditation and mindfulness practice, pay attention to your attitude, pay attention to your expectations and pay attention to the promises the teacher makes. The clarity and the calm may arrive and hallelujah for those, but it is the connection that we can never unlearn or un-feel, it is the coming home that we will carry with us forever.

But She Can Do It

COMPARING OURSELVES TO OTHER WOMEN CAN STEAL OUR JOY AND MAKE BURN OUT FEEL EVEN WORSE

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 Last night I caught up with a dear friend. She was telling me all about how busy and full her life is and in the next breath, described the panic attack she had had only days earlier. Waking up at 3am, unable to breathe and feeling as if she were dying. Now this woman is amazing, strong, funny, smart, a mum and highly respected in her industry. We were at a bar, it wasn’t time for therapy and deep soul searching but the thing she said that got me thinking and really prompted me to write this blog was:

 “If she can do it, why can’t I?”

I remember having that thought, several times, just before I burnt out. I remember having that thought, several times, as I lay in bed, completely exhausted feeling not only like a failure because I “couldn’t do it” but feeling like failure because “she could”. That was me, 4 years ago.

Burn out can look a little different for everyone, but for most of us, it looks a little something like this:

·      Feeling drained, unable to cope or tired for no apparent reason

·      Headaches or digestive problems (can lead to weight loss)

·      Feeling disengaged at work or just not caring as much as you used to

·      Feeling irritable or even angry with your work colleagues/family

·      Disrupted sleep

Of course, if these symptoms persist for longer than a few weeks, it might be worth going to see your GP and working with them to determine whether you may benefit from a referral to a psychologist or psychotherapist. You could also check in with your organisation’s EAP provider (if they have one) for some additional support. We belong to each other and we do not have to go alone through this tough stuff that can come with being a feeling or sensitive human.

Over the past 4 years I have really deeply enquired into what happened for me when I burnt out, where did I get it so very wrong?

This is what I have learned:

We are all put together differently – we absolutely cannot compare ourselves to another person with any amount of validity. Us humans are so damn complex. We not only have all of our genetics and childhood experiences that have gone into making us into the women we are, there is also a whole lot of other stuff we are not aware of such as epigenetic trauma/emotions or even past life memories. As a result, each of us will have our very own and very unique recipe of wellbeing and success. The trick here is to slow down, listen, and stay in your own lane. We need to stop competing and comparing and just “do us”.

Play to our Strengths – we each have a unique set of strengths that make us excel in the workplace. Now the strengths I am referring to here are not just things we are good at but things that we like and that nourish us as well. Often, we find we may start to head towards burn out if we are playing outside of our strengths too often, doing work that we may excel at but that doesn’t naturally fill us up. You can check out the work of my friend Nikki Smith with whom I worked to learn more about my strengths. Nikki works with the Gallup Strengths Finder and leads her clients through developing a career that is more strengths based.

Connect to and listen to our Values – “The most important thing, is to remember the most important thing” (Suzuki Roshi). So what is that for you? What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to be living? So few of us have ever had the opportunity to take the time to really reflect on our values. Because of that we often adopt others’ values and try to fit our beautiful selves into them and then wonder why it just doesn’t feel right in our body, heart or minds. Do your own values audit and consider what is your most important thing.

Define Success – In the depths of burn out, I was moaning to a friend “but I just want to have a successful career”, she asked me, “But Liv, what does success look like?” I started reeling off the typical characteristics of success that I thought were universal, you know: “to be well-respected” and “to make good money”, my friend looked at my wryly and she said (she’s also a psychologist) “is that really it? Isn’t it more about helping people in our line of work?” and the words “yes, yes” spilled out of my mouth and I could feel my heart opening and my body softening…she followed up with the next question “do you think you have ever helped anyone?” and my clear answer was “absolutely!”. Then the crazy and incredibly freeing realisation dawned on me “MAYBE I HAVE ALREADY HAD A SUCCESSFUL CAREER and I can stop trying so bloody hard now!”. That was a massive “ah ha” moment for me. So my question for you is, what does success look like for YOU? Not your parents or your cool friend or you school mates, you!

Honour our Body – Our body knows what is going on and some argue it has direct access to the deeper layers of our being, our soul and our life’s purpose.  It is trying desperately, often daily, to give us these clear messages, helping us to get back on track and follow the right path. That squeezing in the heart, that knot in the belly, they are messages to be noted and explored, not sensations to be repressed and simply breathed through (or brushed over with meditation!). Of course, for some of us, these feelings are remnants of unresolved trauma or something much deeper which may need to be addressed with medication or some form of psychotherapy. These more chronic issues aside, for many of us, we really do need to learn to listen to the whispers of our body and honour her messages.

 Put our Own Gas Mask on First – As women, we are trained to put everyone else before ourselves. We rush to work, we rush to pick up, we rush to the supermarket, we even rush in and out of yoga class (if we manage to prioritise the time to go!). Dr Libby Weaver refers to this pattern that is all too familiar as “Rushing Women’s Syndrome” and she purports that this (along with many other factors of course) is contributing to the rise in rates of depression, anxiety and chronic illness in women. Our bodies (that haven’t changed all that much since we were cave women) just can’t keep up. When we are unwell, we are of no help to others. Please, take some time to ask yourself – how can I keep myself well and balanced so I can better contribute to my family, my workplace or my community? Is there a way I can be setting firmer boundaries so others in my life (partners, friends and children included!) are clear of what is OK and what is not OK when it comes to how they treat me?

Review your Environment and Set Boundaries – Getting to burn out, usually takes two, both us and the organisations/group we work/live in. So, take some time to consider, are the requests being made of you realistic? Or do you need to set firmer boundaries? Are you working in an organisation that actually aligns to your values or are you being asked (usually covertly) to compromise these? Take some time to truthfully determine whether you are happy in the role/organisation you are in and if not, review your options.

Summary - Questions to Ask Ourselves

·   What is my personal recipe for wellbeing? What do I need in my day/week to be full of energy and thriving?

·   What are my strengths and how much time am I spending playing to them?

·   What are my values? Are my values aligned with the organisation I am working with?

·   What is my definition of success?

·   What is my body trying to tell me?

·   Can I reframe self-care to become important so I can better serve others (rather than a selfish activity)?

·   How can I set firmer boundaries, so others are clear when it comes to how I need to be treated?

Finally, burn out is absolutely not your fault so please do to put a layer of self-criticism over yourself for already feeling exhausted. Burn out is simply very useful information that perhaps there are some tweaks that need to be made to the way we are living and the way we are valuing ourselves and our time. And please, let’s stop comparing ourselves to our sisters, especially when we are not coping. Comparison of course can be inspiring and can help us to grow and learn if used wisely. It can point us in a direction we may want to go and give us tips when it comes to setting and achieving our career goals. However, very often “it can be the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt) and you know what, there are enough very real joy thieves in our lives, let’s not add another one unnecessarily.

It's Both

HOW BEING MORE INCLUSIVE IN OUR APPROACH TO LIFE CAN REVOLUTIONISE THE WAY WE WORK WITH OUR EMOTIONS, OUR MINDS AND OUR BODIES

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 I may be a slow learner, but I have come across something that has actually revolutionised my world – the idea of “and” as opposed to “or”. Very rarely is anything completely pure, it is usually a beautiful mixture of a whole lot of seemingly conflicting things – all mushed together in one big marbled messy stew of life.

 Now, this has been a very long time coming for me. I have always found it incredibly hard to work out exactly which “box” I fitted into. I never really seemed to fit anywhere, at its most basic level; this can be demonstrated by my taste in fashion.

 I remember growing up and being really torn between wanting to wear a tie-died petticoat and no shoes and a really lovely designer dress and Prada mules. I honestly thought I had to choose one style and stick with it. So, I did. I would flip flop between wearing twin sets one day and then opp shop gems another. Neither of these styles, in their pure form, felt authentic to me but I had no idea there was another option. Although, I felt, on a very deep level, like I was abandoning my true self to fit into a particular box and there was that gnawing sense of a lack of authenticity – or something akin to that, lurking in the pit of my stomach.

 And then one day, I realised, I am actually both. I can like both and I can combine both to create something completely new. I am the boss and I can create a whole new “box”. And, so I did. It started with fashion and now it has extended into other (waaay more important) areas of my life.

 So, working with the possibility that you too may be constrained by black and white, either/or thinking, I thought I would share some of my learnings across these areas. Of course, the general learning of “both” can go across pretty much every area of life, both personally and societally.

 Holding our emotions

We were holidaying one summer with friends. One day, the wife and mother of the other family was complaining about her husband (and father of the children). She felt he didn’t seem to be around much, he seemed to prefer to be at work or at the gym rather than with her and the children and when he was with them – he was distracted and snappy. I rather flippantly commented “so you don’t love him at the moment?”. She looked up from what she was doing and with a very serious look on her face she said:

“oh no, I never withdraw love, I always love him, I am just frustrated”

This was rather groundbreaking for me; it had honestly never occurred to me that we could feel two seemingly conflicting emotions at the same time. Love and hate. Happiness and grief. Gratitude and jealousy. It was some years later that I discovered mindfulness and then, it all made sense. I leaned that I am not my emotions – I am the sky and they are simply the weather (as the famous Pema Chodren quote goes). So, next time you feel consumed by an emotion, see if you can remember it does not need to take up all of you (or all of your relationship). By all means, let it be there, hold it, be curious about it, experience it fully but remind yourself that you can feel it all – the love and the hate, at the same time.

 Working with our mind

In my early 20s, at my quarter-life crisis, I read “You can Heal Your Life” by the wonderful Louise Hay. To be honest, my life wasn’t sick and really didn’t need healing, but I was not happy and felt a sense that something was missing. So, I studiously did the daily affirmations in front of the mirror. I would stand in front of the mirror and recite “I love and approve of myself” daily, for months. I imagined the life I wanted to be living, but it continued to feel artificial, as though I was forcing something. Then in my early 30s and, having abandoned positive thinking and affirmations as hippy dippy stuff that doesn’t work, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the idea that actually, we don’t have to “do” anything. I went from one extreme to the other! I now worked with acceptance (still getting the hang of this one) and non-judgement (always a work in progress) and spent many hours observing my thoughts and emotions, without doing anything in particular about them; all in the name of building my self-awareness. Then one day, this process of non-doing backfired. I had stopped actually listening to my intuition, my values and my heart and was just coasting along in a never-ending haze of acceptance.

As it turns out, we need both. We need both intention and attention. It is helpful to have a clear view of where we are going and what really matters (intention) but we also really need to stop and reflect on where we are first (attention). If all we do is manifest – we are never truly happy now, if all we do is sit contentedly in the now without assessment – how do we really grow?

We need to both work WITH our mind (accept where and who we are) and ON our mind (cultivate more wisdom, love and gratitude – or “grow the good” as Rick Hanson puts it).

Start where you are, pay attention, be present, be clear and keep your feet firmly on the ground. Practice mindfulness and meditate your little heart out if you are so inclined. Then, set your intention for what you would like in your life and watch for signs that you are heading in the direction (such as better sleep, improved relationships, clearer thinking etc) and change course when you need to. It is all good and the path, especially when it comes to the management of our mental health is incredibly personal. Finally, be wary of any teacher/psychologist/coach who tries to tell you there is only one way – I used to be one of these people (a slightly fanatical meditation teacher!) and honestly, we can serve you best by being a point of reflection and accountability – you are the only one who knows you, listen to you.

Managing our physical health

Health issues run in my family. My dear mum suffered with cancer 3 (or was it 4?) times and she struggled with a range of other auto-immune disorders. When, at 34 I was diagnosed with my own auto-immune condition (rheumatoid arthritis or RA) my own journey of healing and acceptance began. To be honest, getting RA was probably the thing that saved me, it was certainly the reason I took a deep dive into my own mindfulness and meditation practice. It was my body yelling (incredibly loudly) that something was not right, that the way I was living was not serving me well. Over the past years I have flip flopped between a 100% blaming attitude towards my genetics and early childhood (“it is just the way I am put together”) and a 100% blaming attitude towards myself and the way I have lived, thought or eaten (too much stress, too much negative thinking, too much sugar etc). After 9 years of exploration, and kind of tiring internal and external battles, I have pretty much come to the conclusion, you guessed it, that it is, indeed, both.

There is BOTH the genetic/early childhood learning component and the environmental/behavioural component and this realisation has allowed me to shift from blame to responsibility. Yes, some people can cure themselves with enough kale juice and deep meditation while others, need to add medication and deep interpersonal connection into their healing recipe and will still not slide into remission or be symptom free. Through this blossoming realisation of “both”, I have managed to make the massive shift from “fault” to “responsibility” – it is not my fault I have RA but it is absolutely my responsibility to manage it as best I can.

In conclusion, our very human tendency to think in absolutes, to be seduced by judgement, at the expense of inclusion, can create some real challenges for us – especially when it comes to managing our health. At the same time, if all we do is pay clear and accurate attention to what is happening, without weaving in a healthy measure of intention setting or effortful change, we may end up coasting along in a semi-superficial stage of fabricated bliss, missing out on all of the beautiful authenticity of being human. By accepting the marbling together of seemingly incongruent experiences, our world can open up and we can either create brand new boxes or get rid of the boxes all together. I vote for no boxes. Here’s to a box-free future for all!

Mindfulness and Meditation for Parents

A RADICAL ACT OF LOVE FOR OURSELVES AND THE WORLD

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How can we make space in our busy day for our own nourishment? 

Modern parenting is hard. We have so much information coming at us all the time when it comes to what we “should” be doing to ensure we raise balanced and well-adjusted adults. Sign them up for “this” extra-curricular activity, read “that” book, watch “this” TED talk, do more, be more. We are so inherently uncomfortable with the struggle or discomfort of parenthood (and any discomfort, to be honest) that we seem to be constantly seeking to fix or numb the situation by any number of antidotes.

Firstly, we need to become discerning when it comes to where we place our attention when it comes to how we parent. We need to choose the philosophies or experts that align with our personal values and then build on our inherent wisdom that way. We are wiser than we give ourselves credit for, often, we just need to learn to see clearly to access that wisdom. We know, there are many routes to the same destination (and in this case, the destination really, is children who are thriving – but not at the expense of broken parents) and for us to be prescriptive about which way is “right” is foolish. However, from my personal experience as a daughter, a parent, a psychologist and a meditation and mindfulness teacher, I truly and wholeheartedly believe the best thing we can do as a parent is to build our own capacity for self-awareness and then choose to live and to love consciously, rather than automatically. Meditation is one way for us to build this capacity. And yet, in our busy lives, full to the brim with so much richness and activity, it can be really hard to find the time to, basically, do nothing.

 So how do we do it?

Valuing it more than the laundry

So many of us barrel through our days so mindlessly, that we are not even aware of where our attention is at any given moment. This is absolutely not our fault. It is a small glitch in our evolution and one that can be worked with and even rectified. By becoming aware of where our attention is, we can actually choose where we would like to place it. This choice can become conscious and can be guided by our own personal value system.

 Imagine this, it is the evening, the kids have gone to bed, the house is finally quiet and you slump down on the couch to watch TV and attack the epic mound of laundry that has been piling up over the week. This point in time is a moment of choice, we can either watch TV and fold, we could go to bed and read (or sleep!) or we could mosey over to our meditation cushion and simply watch our breath, feel our body, open our heart or do whatever we do when we meditate. It is all about how much we value each activity. We might ask ourselves, what is the best way I can spend my time right now? Or What is the most important thing? Whatever it is, do that. Often we will actually find that the laundry can wait until tomorrow, the kids can even burrow through the mound and find clean socks in the morning.  Better still, leave it on the couch and see if someone else does the folding for you.

 The shift comes when we start to value our own self-care and our own ability to wake up and bring choice and freedom into our lives, over other seemingly urgent tasks that are simply calling to us with the voice of conditioning and habit. When we step outside of the conditioning we may have inherited or learned, we can choose how to spend our time, we can choose with wisdom and with heart.

 A radical act of love

Self-care is not selfish. When I make time to meditate, I am a more grounded and present and more loving parent. The same goes for physical exercise, cooking nutritious food or leaving the kids at home to go out to see friends or a film or play. When we become a parent, our need for nourishment doesn’t simply disappear – we are still human. I don’t know about you, but I certainly need more in my life than just my kids (as grateful as I am that they are in it). So, I will always remember the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn:

“Meditation is a Radical Act of Love”

I can’t guarantee exactly what he meant by that but for me it means: meditation is an act of love for myself and therefor love for my kids AND love for the greater community. The more centered, present, loving and “mindful” I can be, the better I am able to contribute positively to myself, my family and my community. It all starts with us, we are the ones we have been waiting for, but to remember that, often we need to get out of our own way.

 Choosing a time that works for you and your family

The time of day I have meditated over the years has varied as my children have continued to get older. When they were little babies, I was often too tired for a long formal meditation practice (as I would nod off the minute I closed my eyes) and so I prioritized sleep in those moments I could steal. Now, they are much older and can entertain themselves for a time.

 When our kids are babies – 0-6 months

Sleep when you need to sleep, don’t meditate. When we have babies, we can use this time to really practice being mindful and present with them – both of us are nourished by this practice. Our baby can become the object of our typically distracted attention as we become engrossed in their eye colour, the shape of their ears or the wrinkles on their little hands. As our mind wanders to our “to do” list or other plans or worries, we can gently bring it back to our baby. When we do this over and over again, we start to learn the typical places our beautiful minds go and can start to become familiar with our own internal territory. This will till the soil for our growing consciousness as parents. “Mind the Bump” is a free app I helped create that has some great practical tools to help us through this age-group.

 6 months – 2 years

When my kids were in this age-group, I would meditate either before they woke up in the morning or while they napped in the middle of the day (if I was at home).

 2-5 years

As we sadly say good bye to our midday naps, we may need to either start getting up before our kids or asking a partner to watch them for us so we can sneak in our morning meditation practice before the day begins. I know what I am about to write is not PC at all but, we could even pop on a couple of episodes of “Peppa Pig” and sneak to our meditation cushion. I mean, they are probably watching it anyway so why not make the most of this time to nourish ourselves rather than do laundry?

 5 years +

I will never forget the time I wanted to sneak into the study for a midday meditation and I told my oldest son (5 years old) that he needed to entertain himself for 15 minutes. I think I set up blocks, puzzles, drawing or something for him to do. About 5 minutes into my meditation, I started to hear a gentle bump against the study door…bump….laughter….bump….laughter…I wasn’t sure what it was and everything in me wanted to get up from the cushion to see, but I continued to sit. So I decided to simply include the “bump…..laughter” into my meditation. These sounds were just like the thoughts that were coming and going in my mind or the dull ache in my knee that was starting to make itself known, they simply contributed to the moving landscape of my meditation. When the time was up, I gingerly went out to see what was going on – he had been making paper planes and throwing them at the study door and then falling into fits of hysterics. I was teaching a class not long after this experience and I remember including that insight into my teaching – everything that happens in our awareness can simply be included into our practice.

These days, with a 6 and 10 year old, I get up early-ish and meditate most mornings, either while they kids are asleep or waking up (they know not to disturb me unless someone is bleeding!). Sometimes my meditation happens after school drop-off or in the middle of the day, sometimes in the evening. I do find however, that my day tends to run more smoothly when I spend, even a few minutes, centering myself in the morning.

Parenting is wonderful and hard and tiring and exhilarating – all at once. Meditation is a wonderful addition to our kit of resources. To welcome meditation into our lives in a meaningful way, we need to be flexible with how we do it but value it enough that we prioritise it over the thousands of other tasks calling to us. And you know what? By modelling this nourishing activity to our kids, we can only hope that they build their own practice of stopping, of noticing of expanding and of loving – the world sure could do with more of that right now. More radical acts of love I say. 

Connection to Ourselves and Each Other

WHY WE WANT IT, WHY WE ARE NOT GETTING IT AND HOW TO GET MORE OF IT

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“We are neurobiologically wired for connection”
Dr Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 2018

We will go to almost any lengths to feel connected to something - anything. If our relationships with ourselves and others are unsatisfying we may search for it in other ways – through alcohol, drugs, food (especially chocolate), shopping or social media. The communities that may have traditionally offered us this connection have all but gone. Our neighbourhoods have changed – fences are higher, people are busier, and fear is rampant.  Perhaps it used to be the church that offered a sense of belonging, then maybe we looked to corporations to provide that community for us. Now, for many of us, the very human face to face connection we all crave has been replaced by the unfulfilling vortex of social media. On the surface, we are “more connected” than we ever have been, however the flimsy tech-enabled lure of “Instabook” often leaves us feeling more unsatisfied and lonelier than ever. It is no surprise that rates of depression and anxiety are increasing (WHO, 2014), as we become more and more reliant on technology and less and less connected to ourselves and each other.

Working in mental health and wellbeing for over 20 years has been one of the most rewarding and challenging parts of my life. When I reflect on the hundreds of individuals and organisations with whom I have worked, connection has been the most pivotal component in predicting the efficacy of our work together. Our ability to connect with ourselves and each other appears to be one of the most important skills we can learn and something we need to consciously foster in our world if we are to tackle the mental health crisis we are facing.

The concept of connection officially revealed itself to me as I was attempting to efficiently “package up” the clear benefits of mindfulness. I came up with three: Clarity, Calm and Connection. The first two were really obvious and scientifically validated hundreds of times over. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly, to focus more effectively, to be more creative and to chill out. The Connection piece was more nebulous and less discussed but at the same time, possibly the most profound shift I personally experienced as a result of my own mindfulness and meditation practise.

Connection has two components; connection to ourselves and connection to others. Both are important. Connection to ourselves sounds like it belongs in a sentence with “peace, love and mung beans”, let me flesh it out a bit for you.

Connection to Ourselves

We may as well get to know ourselves (and dare I say, like ourselves), we are with us every day and every night whether we like it or not, it seems wise to spend some time investing in this relationship. The crazy thing is, few of us have any idea how to do it – and, if you are anything like me, we don’t even know that it is an option. This is where our mindfulness and meditation practice can come in. Through our meditation we start to learn and really understand that what makes us “us” is something bigger and more powerful than our thoughts and emotions or even our body, intellect or personality. It is that ineffable part of us that is always there, always steady, always calm. It can become the warm embrace of our very own best friend, there with us all the time.

For many of us, this deeper part within us has been forsaken for others’ beliefs and opinions and sometimes even values and goals. We think the voice in our head is actually our voice but, we may find that it is often that of (often well meaning) primary care-givers, ancestors or even society itself.

The following section of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” describes this beautifully:

……….but little by little,
As you left their voices behind,
The stars began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds,
And there was a new voice
Which you slowly recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper and deeper
Into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do-
Determined to save the only life you could save

Over our journey into adulthood, we have often so habitually abandoned ourselves, that we don’t even know who we are anymore. We can’t hear our own voice for all the chatter from friends, family and society – all telling us who we should be and what we should have. We chase the next “shiny thing” in the hope that will finally make us happy when in fact it can do quite the opposite, as the goal posts seem to always be changing. Johan Hari, in his excellent book “Lost Connections”, 2018, discusses the tendency many of us have to adopt “junk values”. He argues that it is in fact our pursuit of goals such as wealth, fame and beauty that can contribute to our rising states of depression and anxiety and he suggests that we take time to discover our personal value system, rather than simply slipping on any old one “Instabook” or the Kardashians happen to be selling that week.

Connection to Others

 Of course, once we realise that we are not our thoughts (or body or emotions etc.) we may start to entertain the possibility that actually, we are connected to everything and everyone around us. We are an integral part of the hum of the human race, we are one little thread in the tapestry. My breath is your breath – we share this experience of being human. We have evolved as social beings, we need each other to survive – we even have an entire part of the brain dedicated to attachment and relationships. Johan Hari suggests that rates of depression and anxiety are increasing not because we “have broken brains” but because we are “animals whose needs are not being met”. Global levels of loneliness are rising (Brown, 2018) – we must find our way back to each other.

In 2015 I was part of a team to set up a yoga, meditation and fitness studio. We studiously did all of our planning and market research, we knew meditation was the next big thing in the wellbeing space. We created out muse and developed our brand, we fitted out the studio and recruited our team. We thought we were setting up a wellbeing studio – it turns out however, the reception area (where we served complimentary tea and bubbly water) was the most frequented room in the studio – our guests were simply desperate to connect. We had set up a Connection Studio.

 Since 2013 I have offered a range of workshops to my corporate clients. At one time – there were three on the “menu”; Clarity (problem solving, decision making & creativity), Calm (stress management) and Connection (leadership, teamwork & compassion). Overwhelmingly, my clients chose the third workshop – even though they did not quite have the words to describe it – they sensed connection was what their organisation was hungry for and they were always right.

Imagine if we could get out of our own way enough to authentically connect with other people in our lives – at work, at home, and in our communities. We could simply start by putting down our devices and looking people in the eye. Consider the positive impact we could have in our pursuits to care for the environment with more wisdom when we really understand, on a deep and personal level that we are living in an intricate and vulnerable system and that our very survival depends on our behaviour.

“Connection” will be the word for 2019/20 – I can feel it in my bones.

Wonder Women

THE ROLE OF MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION IN SUPPORTING WOMEN TO BE EVEN MORE WONDERFUL

Modern women are just amazing. This is the first generation we have been told we can have it all – we can step up and have our fathers’ successes BUT we need to still maintain our mothers’ responsibilities (ref. Dr Libby Weaver). As a result, we are working tirelessly from the minute we wake up to breakfast to children to work to children to dinner and then often to work again on the couch with a heat bag and a cup of tea…we then fall into bed exhausted at night and get back up again to do it all again the next day. 

Dr Libby Weaver has come up with a syndrome to describe the lifestyle of the modern woman – she calls it “Rushing Women’s Syndrome” – where we are dragged from one demand to the next – not even allowing ourselves time out to do nothing in the car or on the train or bus – using that time to make phone calls, answer emails or listen to the latest podcasts.

Now, some of us can do this. There are some true wonder women who can and do, do it all with some ease. There are even some, I am sure, who love the busy and frenetic life they have. However, the vast majority and certainly the women I seem to meet in my line of work, are only just keeping it all together, but the cracks are starting to show: they are not sleeping well, their temper is flaring, they are moving further and further away from their partners or they are getting sick more and more often…..

 So what is going on?

The current climate is a result of so many factors, here are a few:

Feminism - It is a result of the great successes of feminism (while there is obviously still a long way to go when it comes to equality in many areas) that women are now sitting in boardrooms and running companies and even countries. Hooray for this, about time.

Technology - broadly has a lot to answer for – the fact that there is no clear division between work and home these days has helped to create an ongoing cycle of a 24/7 need to respond and deliver. We never really “go home” anymore – we are always “on” and for those of us who need to take some down time, it just is not there organically anymore.

Social Media – the habitual and mindless competition and comparison of what women are doing and how they are succeeding is RIGHT there – right in our face while we are sitting at home in our stained tracksuit pants with chocolate dripping down our chin, already feeling less than glamorous – only to have her there in her fab Prada suit and red lippy and then that little voice echoes to us “why cant I have that, be that, earn that?”

No Family or Village - The breakdown of the family system and the “village” means we are relying more and more these days on paid childcare of some kind to look after our kids – with that comes very little flexibility so when kids get sick or the date for a client’s workshop changes, it takes more effort to juggle everything.

 So, in summary, we are doing more, more often and with much less support than previous generations. Our beautiful bodies and minds just can’t keep up with this pace and something has to give. Often, sadly it is our health – be it mental or physical – or both.

In 2013, I was part of the team to set up Australia’s first mind and body studio, I went into partnership with 4 amazing people and we worked hard to set up a “mindfulness studio” where we offered mindfulness based yoga, fitness and meditation. We opened in April 2015 and were voted one of the best studios in Australia within months of opening, we were ON FIRE! The catch was that it was a 7 day a week business and, given I was the mindfulness and meditation partner and this was very new to Melbourne back in 2015, the workload was unforgiving. Now, I was terrible at setting boundaries and saying no… so I just kept taking on more and more and saying yes to more and more….all the while…my brain AND my body was talking too me….the thoughts were “Liv, this is too much, you need to slow down, you haven’t seen your kids in a week….” but, as I became so adept at managing my thoughts, I would “notice the thought and let it go”…what I didn’t do, was FEEL into my body, until it was too late. I completely burnt out and ended up in bed by Oct 2015. In Jan 2016, I listened to my heart and my body and decided to leave the partnership as I couldn't give the business what it needed and still be the present and engaged parent I wanted to be. It was the hardest decision I have ever made but, my body and my heart thank me every day – my ego is still recovering though….

What I learnt:

 Mindfulness and meditation are important but they are not all we need to be doing to look after ourselves in the current climate – we still need to exercise – often, we still need to see our girlfriends and we still need to sit down and eat (at least one meal a day!) to really get the nutrients out of our food.

 I needed to reconnect with my body – to listen to my gut and my intuition and treat myself like a “whole person” – not just a brain and then a body that is dragged around after it.

 So what do we need to do? 

1. Set firm boundaries

We need to stop saying “yes” to everything, we need to stop seeking approval of others and we need to stop, listen to our gut and from that place that is deep and strong within us – we need to say “no, thank you, but no”. This is new for many of us, as girls, we were never taught to listen to our own inner voice – we were taught to be quiet, to be pretty, to be polite and to seek approval.

2. Change the rules

This is brand new territory for all of us, we ALL (women and men) need to make it OK for men to pick up more of the family and domestic duties. We need to sit down as a family and divide the tasks – rather than leaving it all to the woman to manage. The other mummies in the park or at kinder need to include the daddies in the play dates and invite them over for afternoon tea too.

3. Stop Competing and Comparing and instead Connect and Collaborate

As humans, we part of us is wired to compete and compare, it has held us in good stead as far as our survival as a species goes however, these days with the added impact of social media, we may need to work at tempering this a little bit. What has happened to the sisterhood girls? We need to ask our friends and family for help, we need to reconnect with our community.

 4. Fall in love with ourselves again

We need to learn to trust ourselves again and maybe if we trust a little more we can try a little less. We can stop seeking approval from others and simply do our work and then step back. All of this trying is totally exhausting.

5. We need to let go of our own vision of ourselves as wonder woman

As I was sharing the outline for this article with my husband, he smiled in his beautiful supportive way and he said – “the other thing is, you need to allow yourself to let go of having to do everything yourself” – we need to let go of our own vision of ourselves as wonder women.

How can we do this?

Well, given I am a meditation teacher and a mindfulness educator, part of the answer for me lies in building our general levels of awareness. We need to build our awareness across two areas; the external world – what is actually happening?  And the internal world – what are we actually thinking and feeling?

External Awareness

We need to see clearly the actual external situation we currently find ourselves in – are we doing more than our fair share? Can we ask for more help from our partners/friends/family? What is actually happening here? Am I being taken advantage of or not?

Internal Awareness

We need to learn to really connect with our internal world. What is important for me? What is my body and my heart telling me in this situation? Of course we cant always be guided by our body and our heart but my general rule is (now!) if you get the same message a few times – you should probably listen.

 The rules and the landscape have changed my friends so we need to change too. If we don’t, we are just going to keep getting sicker, more marriages will break down and the anxiety rates in our beautiful children will just keep rising.

 None of us really knows the answers, we are all just making it up as we go along and we are really the only one who knows the answer for ourselves.  Just because she is working 5 days in her power suit and sits on all of the kinder fundraising committees and still makes organic bread with free range ham sandwiches for Jimmy for kinder – it doesn’t mean you have to keep up.

 Let’s cut the crap, if not for our health and ourselves, for our children.

 In all of this, I think the best gift we can give ourselves and our children is the capacity to come home, to come back to the place inside us that has always been there – the place that is clear, calm and connected. It doesn’t matter how we get there, what matters is that we get there – often. By living and working and parenting from this place of clear seeing awareness we can fall in love with ourselves again and come back to each other. We will all be better for it.

 

 

A Real Superpower

MINDFULNESS TO HELP US ALL TO RIDE THE WAVES OF LIFE WITH MORE EASE

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Originally posted 2016

We were holidaying in Queenscliff recently and the opportunity came up for me to have 1 hour to myself – my youngest took himself off to bed for a midday nap. Ahhhh peace, it must have been the 1-hour of running along the beach and the 1.5 hours of up hill scooting we had done in the morning. No, I really didn’t mean to exhaust him, honest……

During this nap time, my eldest (7 years old), was complaining he was bored…. And I tried to explain to him that being bored was OK and really, part of life. That he should practice being bored well as, when he is an adult there will be large chunks of his life that are boring but necessary, like putting petrol in the car, lining up at the bank and paying bills online.

Needless to say, he wasn’t really interested in my philosophy at that point and he snapped “its OK for you, you have that super power”….which one I thought? Gosh, I have so many! So I asked him…”what do you mean”….and he responded, “well, you have the power that allows you just to sit out here and watch the clouds and do nothing, I don’t have that power”.

I tried to explain that we all have that power; we just need to practice it. Again, he was really not interested in hearing mum rant on (again) about how accessing the natural clarity, calm and connection within all of us was a basic human right. After helping him to come up with an imaginary game to play with his Shopkins, I stopped and asked myself “what are we doing to our kids?”. The constant entertainment we are providing them today – the iPads and TV, the phones and toys. Are we robbing them of a basic life skill? Of knowing how to be bored and just doing nothing? Just playing for the sake of playing, with no agenda, hidden or otherwise?

Now, I am absolutely not saying that we should stop all technology – as my dear husband (who works in tech and TV) points out to me, it is here to stay now, we may as well embrace it and of course I agree. I just wonder, what is, or more accurately, what will be the cost of this 24/7 stimulation generation we are raising? Are we raising adults who will be so disconnected from their bodies and the present moment experience that they will have no way to understand or sit with less pleasant emotions like boredom? Will this generalize to other human less pleasant emotions like sadness or worry? Are we just teaching them to numb out from a very early age by shoving an iPhone in their face when they don’t get what they want? In later years, will the iPhone be replaced by something more harmful like drugs or alcohol? I have absolutely no idea, I am curious though. I do know though that time doing nothing does feed our spirit, it does nourish our body and it certainly feeds our creativity.

We are at a really interesting point in our evolution, both as humans and, more specifically, as parents. We are raising kids at a time where there are really no parenting rules, anything goes. We have access to books and research that pretty-much support any parenting model we choose to follow: strict rules vs. more lasaiz fair, full time day-care vs. full time stay at home – really anything is OK and it is up to each family to work out what is best for them. And this is how it should be.

One thing hasn’t changed though and that is our core job as parents, which is (among many many other things) to prepare our children to be citizens of the world, to be able to contribute to the world in some way and to support them to live to their full potential. As we know, the “dark” parts of life are often the bits that can help us to learn and to grow most profoundly (such an unfortunate phenomenon this one!), as the quote goes, “we cant get to day without going through the night”.

What will happen if we don’t give our kids the opportunity to experience sadness or disappointment or boredom?

Life is hard and beautiful and hard and we need to equip our kids with a whole tool kit to support them to thrive and feel strong, regardless of what is going on. So, in my effort to help myself and anyone else who would like to listen, I have jotted down a couple of tips to support us to allow our kids to experience the whole rainbow of emotions – rather than just the shiny bits and you know, that really is a super power.

 1. Explore it

When they are feeling sad or worried, ask your child to explore the feeling. Where do they feel it in their body? Can they make room for it rather than fight it? Can they breathe into it and really feel it? Can they allow themselves to hold it gently, as if they are holding a precious flower or gem? Can they see that they are not the emotion, that it is something happening to them? They may even like to experiment with asking the emotion or feeling what it needs right now.

 2. Colour it

Ask your child to describe their feeling in colours or shapes – this can help them to express how it feels using words they are more familiar with. The risk here is that they become really annoyed and just throw something at you!

 3. Celebrate it

When they express either “positive” or “negative” feelings (from a mindfulness perspective, we tend not to assess feelings as good or bad) say, “that’s great, you are feeling, that means you are human and you are alive” or “how lucky are we that we get to feel all of these emotions – lets explore them together”.

If you ask me, we all do have this superpower, in fact, I believe it is our birthright. Sometimes, however, we just need to be reminded and, so do our kids.

Self-Esteem Vs. Self As Team

BECOMING OUR OWN BEST FRIEND

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Originally posted 2017

We can give our kids and ourselves something much more sustaining and enduring than self esteem – a connection to a wiser and broader self.

In my early 20s I did my postgraduate thesis on self-esteem in adolescents. The details of the findings are a little fuzzy now, but two things I do remember clearly is that the way girls viewed their body (their “physical-self”) and the way boys viewed their achievements (their “academic and career-selves”) were two of the strongest predictors of their overall levels of happiness.

My question is, what happens when we don’t meet these “desired” levels of beauty or achievement? Or when the “desired” levels are unattainable due to Photoshop or our natural skill level (or lack of it!). What are we left with? How can we “bounce back” from life’s setbacks?

In my late twenties I remember asking my beautiful Dad “What is the one piece of parenting advice you could give me?”. And he said “Help your child find something they are good at and then support them in it – it helps to build their self esteem and sense of identity”. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, that is really smart and it has definitely worked for me”.

It has taken me another 20 years to realise that we may be able to develop this approach further. I wonder what happens when can no longer do what we are good at, due to injury, circumstance or just plain old interest? Where does our self-esteem go?

You see, I was a pretty awesome swimmer, in junior school I made the state championships and in high school I was always the last swimmer in the relay (for those of you who don’t know, the fastest swimmer always goes last!) – it became a key part of who I was and I pinned my self esteem to being the fastest in the pool. And then….(dramatic drum-roll), I dislocated my shoulder playing beach rugby (long story) and couldn’t swim for a year. I distinctly remember being devastated about this and asking myself “Who am I now?” and I am sure it sent me into a spiral of negative thinking and questioning my worth and place in the world. Where do I belong if not in the pool? I had nothing to fall back on, no safety net. If I wasn’t a swimmer – who was I?

 I believe we actually need to be teaching our children (and perhaps learning ourselves in the process) that we are much more than simply what we are good at. We are much more than the body, the friends or the career we have. We are more than the car, the house or the handbag we have. We are more than the achievements of our children and more the number of “likes” or “followers” we have. If we continually pin our sense of self onto these external factors, we are continually at the mercy of the constant changing nature of the world. Friends, “likes” and handbags come and go; it is risky to tie our sense of self to these.

So, how? How do we learn that we can experience all of these wonderful parts of our modern life, that we can enjoy and engage with all of them, but that they are not who we are?

I am sure there are other ways, but the way that I have discovered that continues to gift me with an immense amount of freedom, choice and comfort is mindfulness.

However, I have not been practicing mindfulness for longer than I have been practicing mindfulness. I spent the first 30 years of my life pinning my self worth onto my looks, my success, my achievements, the number of friends I had, the shoes I wore. This way of seeing and being had become automatic for me and with this way of living, I was constantly thrown around by the turbulent waves of emotions resulting from the events in my life. With almost 10 years of mindfulness training under my belt now, the waves are of course still there – the waves are part of being human, I just don’t get dumped quite as often anymore. And I have finally realised now that I am not the waves; I am the whole damn ocean, although I periodically forget that too! That’s why mindfulness and meditation is called a practise – we keep practicing and practicing, possibly forever.

However, if we can get this through to our kids from a young young young age, their battle will be much easier than ours. They will still have to deal with all of the challenges of life and of course, it is not our job to protect our children from pain, it is the pain that will make them stronger. However, with the knowledge and understanding we have now about mindfulness and meditation, we can give them the tools to ride the tumultuous waves of this human life with a little more ease. In doing this they may become more resilient that we have been – and to be honest, they will need to be with all of the change and madness that is part of our everyday existence today.

So, I think my dear Dad got this one half right, he got a lot 100% right (be kind, work hard, laugh a lot, eat with great gusto, greet everyone you meet with joy and sing sing sing) however we can build on his advice by supporting our kids to develop their own internal well of self-worth. By teaching them they are worthy of love and belonging, regardless of their achievements, is gifting them the freedom to be themselves and to live, love and work to their full potential.

Mindfulness does not protect us or our kids from the chaos of life; illness still happens, jobs will still be lost and our heart will continue to break – there will be pain, oh yes, there will be pain. Mindfulness however can teach us that we are bigger and more expansive than all of it – the good and the bad. We can hold the joy and the sorrow, the success and the failure in our broad and open awareness and know that it is happening to and within us, but it is not us. With that comes great empowerment and great freedom.

 

 

Mindfully Mum

FINDING CLARITY, CALM AND CONNECTION WITHIN THE CHAOS OF MOTHERHOOD

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Originally posted 2016

Becoming a mother was one of the most exciting and challenging roles I had ever accepted.
The job ad read a little something like this:

“Are you in your 30s, in a serious relationship, already have a dog and looking for the next step?
Join our growing organization and find your real purpose!

We are seeking capable, intelligent and loving women to join our flourishing group. You will have some prior experience with children and relatively strong pelvic floor muscles.

You will be rewarded with long, warm snuggles, unconditional love and affection and a sweet smelling sleepy baby. You will enjoy shopping for cute baby clothes, knowing smiles from strangers and compliments on the cuteness of your offspring.

You will experience satisfaction from your new role and will feel fulfilled and challenged. Working hours are flexible and uniform typically consists of yoga pants and baggy t-shirts.

Apply at applications@mummeup.com.au”

And for some women, the reality of the role may, in fact be very close to the job ad. For me, they were quite different…… Yes, there were (and still are) occasional long snuggles and some shopping for cute baby clothes and there are absolutely elements of satisfaction and intense meaning that this role has brought to my life. However, the flexible working hours did not turn out to be quite as flexible as originally promised and my manager (the child, not the husband) seemed to be very unpredictable, totally incapable of taking accountability for his actions and very unsure of what he really wants! Not to mention the tears (from everyone) and the feelings of loss of identity, loneliness and life focus. Questions like “who am I now that I am a mother?” “when will I ever have time for myself?” “How does she manage to do it all and I can barely manage a shower?” and “Am I doing this right?” made regular appearances in the chatter of my mind. Thank goodness I discovered mindfulness, just in time. Just as I was becoming completely disengaged and a little resentful, mindfulness reached out and tickled my curiosity. It may have just saved me from losing all of my marbles…

MIndfulness - The definition

The formal definition of mindfulness is “Moment to moment, non-judgmental awareness” (Jon Kabat-Zinn) but I quite like to think of it as “being open and curious to what is actually happening, rather than what we think is happening”. As mothers we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about what is happening, rather than taking part in what is happening. It is this constant chatter of our very busy minds that can get us into trouble and distract us from engaging wholly in our own lives.

Mindfulness is a skill that can be learnt by anyone. It is nurtured simply by paying attention with an open and accepting approach. It involves removing our judgment (black and white thinking – good mum/bad mum etc) and applying the compassion and acceptance we may typically reserve for other, to ourselves. Sounds simple hey? And it is but simple doesn’t mean easy.

Nurturing this skill takes practice and commitment as we are literally rewiring our brain. We are gaining insight into our thought patterns and habits and deciding whether they are useful for us now in our current lives and in our current roles. Through this process we introduce the element of CHOICE to our experience and bring a greater degree of clarity, calm and connection into our existence.

Our mindfulness skills can be developed through formal practices such as meditation, yoga or relaxation exercises or informal practices such as simply paying attention to what we are doing. We can fold laundry mindfully, we can brush our teeth mindfully, we can listen and engage with our kids mindfully, we can even wipe their little butts with awareness! Research tells us “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” so our task is to reign in this wandering animal and use it for good rather than allowing it to use us for evil (such as freaking out because the nappy is not on perfectly straight!).

So how does performance in the motherhood role look when we approach it with a greater degree of mindfulness? By simply bringing awareness to both our internal (thoughts and feelings) and external (behaviors) experiences, we can examine them with more clarity and make the executive decision as to whether they are contributing positively to our existence. Are they enhancing our relationships or slowly destroying them? Are they boosting our self-esteem or stripping them? And ultimately, are they contributing to our happiness?

Tips for finding more clarity, calm and connection

1 The “Now What?” Meditation Inspired by Denise Roy (Momfulness)

You know those times you are trying to get your kid in the car, running late for a meeting and still trying to eat your toast and your kid decides he would prefer to sit in the front seat rather than his seat in the back? It is during these times that this practice is particularly useful. All it takes is three mindful breaths.

1. First Breath – connect with your internal strength and ground yourself (stop the crazy spinning thoughts!)
2. Second Breath – tune into your kid – what is going on for them? Are they tired, hungry, not wanting to go to school today?
3. Third Breath – Ask yourself – now what? How do I need to be in this moment? What is going to help me here?

2 R . A . I . N

This is a handy practice to use when you feel like you have lost many of your marbles and would quite like to gain a little more clarity and perspective in a situation you are finding stressful. It is a four-step approach and uses the acronym R.A.I.N:

R – Recognize your experience (“ah…I am feeling anxious”) Where am I feeling it in my body? how do I know I am anxious?
A – Allow it to be (“hello anxiety my old friend”) Can you breathe into it and allow more space for it to be there? can you let go of any belief that this feeling is bad or wrong?
I – Investigate the possible learnings (“what are you telling me anxiety?”). This stage is REALLY important, it may be here you gather more information about your values or even your own personal childhood traumas that have triggered you. This is not just a “head thing”, we are not just thinking about it, we need to tune into our body here. This takes practice and meditation is a great place to do that.
N – Non-attachment and Nurture (“I know I am feeling anxious but it is just a feeling and it does not need to overwhelm me as I know it will pass”) and then we show ourselves some loving attention: “I know this is hard darling, I know you are trying your best”, this can be facilitated by stopping, breathing deeply (especially elongating the exhalation) and putting our hand firmly but softly on our heart area (giving ourselves and our body a little loving snuggle).

Hopefully these tips will bring more clarity, calm and connection to your role as a mum. It is a wonderful job and we are incredibly lucky and blessed to have been successful in our application and as long as we don’t let our minds (and all of the expectations, worries and irrational beliefs) run the show – I believe we can continue to find meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment, even in the sleep deprived chaos of it all!

Girl Troubles – Where do they come from?

A MINDFUL APPROACH TO MANAGING THE COMPLEXITIES OF BEING FEMALE

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Originally posted 2015

I am terrible at maths.

I blame Miss Drummond – my third grade teacher. She spent more time shaving her legs in class than she did teaching, and believe me, when it came to multiplication, subtraction and especially division – I needed lots of teaching.

My maths difficulty aside, after some very rough calculations – I estimate that around 70% of my close female friends, across both America and Australia are on anti-depressant medication. 70% does seem rather high, especially when we are talking about a group of well-educated, intelligent, creative and passionate woman, most are in long-term relationships, many are mothers, some have busy and rewarding careers but they are all battling the troubles of anxiety and depression. Of course, the other possibility is that being a psychologist I am attracted to interesting, complex and slightly mad people in my life so my sample group is significantly skewed. Regardless, I sense there is a bit of a problem so I ask you what is going wrong? Why are these women needing to turn to medication to ease the chattering of their minds? What can we do as a society to ease some of the a) stress of being a woman and b) stress on our medical system as a result of the number of women seeking treatment and medication?

I wonder whether the following areas could be woven into both our formal education system as well as our parenting classes:

1. Build Emotional Management Skills
Research tells us that women are likely to be more emotional beings than men – with this comes great strength (emotional intelligence) and some weakness (greater incidence of anxiety and depression when these emotions are not well managed). What are we doing to support women to manage and leverage the plethora of emotions they are genetically wired to experience? Science tells us that practicing mindfulness can enhance both emotion regulation and feelings of general well-being. The implementation of formal “awareness and observing” practices into both school and home life would be an invaluable addition to all.

2. Develop Relationship Skills
In my thesis (gosh the stats were a grind), I found that one of the biggest predictors of girls’ happiness is the quality of their relationships. What are we doing to support young girls and teenagers to manage the complexities of their relationships? I sense that woman are evolutionary wired to invest time and energy in relationships, however it may be possible that our prehistoric mind has trouble managing the complexities our modern era have introduced to us in this area.  

Practicing mindfulness can help us to build deeper a connection within ourselves – to learn to love and accept ourselves as we truly are. It can also free us to build deeper and more genuine connections with others so we feel truly supported in this wonderful journey of life.

3. Set a Realistic Standard
The messages women are sent today about their role in society are so mixed and so complicated. I believe it is actually harder to be a woman now that it has been at any other time in history. According to the “pretend world” of media we are supposed to be the perfect wife/partner, be in great shape, have no wrinkles, be in a successful career, have well adjusted children, be a good cook, have a clean home, have lots of girlfriends and a fabulous wardrobe. The reality for most of us is that all of these combined are simply unachievable, something, somewhere has to give. And so we turn to medication because we are not living the perfect life we feel like we “should” be living. It is only the likes of Angelina Jolie (who we all know is a little bonkers anyway) who may be able to pull all of these off, but I am sure she does it with a lot of help and probably a great therapist.

Sadly, other women can be our worst enemies too. We can be so harsh on each other, some of us paint the picture that we do have it all together, leaving the rest of us feel inadequate on some level. Come on girls, what happened to the sisterhood?

So, as a women and a mother (of 2 boys!), I believe it is our role to do the following for our girls:

  • Teach them that it is OK to be vulnerable – after all that is how we build deep connections within ourselves and with others (refer to Brene Brown’s wonderful TED talk on vulnerability)

  • Help them to clarify their values and live within these – that is where true, deep happiness comes from

  • Encourage them to set their own goals rather than be guided by others’ expectations

I believe women have the capacity to really shape and shift the state of the world as we live in it today. They have the emotional intelligence, the great relationship building skills and the drive to succeed that will support us into the next century. We just need to support them to manage these strengths more effectively. And, as far as my maths skills go, I have accepted I have strengths in other areas and have employed a great accountant!

Mindfulness Skills During Organisational Change

CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT IN LIFE AND IN ORGANISATIONS

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"Leaders all over the planet are beginning to understand the benefits of purposefully learning to be more attentive and focused, non-reactive, and clear." 


—Saki Santorelli, EdD, Executive Director, Center for Mindfulness

Originally posted 2014

It is the leaders of our organisations who define and drive organisational change; it is their responsibility during such uncertain times, to do so with clarity, calm and a connection to their own values and emotions and an awareness of the values and emotions of their employees. That is to say they have the opportunity to implement organisational change with a more mindful approach, from which the whole organization benefits.

What is Mindfulness?

The simplest definition of mindfulness is “attending non-judgmentally to what is actually going on, not what we think is going on”. Often at work we can become carried away by our ideas about an event or a relationship.  We spend a lot of time thinking about situations that are not actually happening and, may in fact never happen. We tend to ruminate obsessively about the past and worry incessantly about the future.

 All of this mental activity takes up a lot of time and energy (and is rarely fruitful) and can leave us exhausted, unable to think clearly, stressed out and feeling isolated and alone. Mindfulness is a simple tool that can allow us to connect to the “here and now”, it is a tool that can help us to wake up, show up and live all of our moments with greater clarity, calm and connection. It is a tool that can support us to be more effective leaders and more resilient and engaged employees.

 Mindfulness has a long history and it is said to have originated in the Buddhist tradition. It then moved into philosophy and medicine and is now receiving a lot of attention (and funding) in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and education. Some of our biggest companies (Google, Apple, General Mills) have woven mindfulness into their culture and many other local organizations are currently doing so (Target is in the process of training their leadership team in mindfulness skills).

 To build our mindfulness skills we simply need to refine our ability to attend to the “here and now”, to build our “mental presence”, to learn to anchor our mind in one place.  This enables us to quiet the constant internal chatter and can lead to us having greater mental clarity, working more productively, feeling less stressed and having more successful relationships. We can build this skill through formal mindful meditation practice (focus your attention on the breath) as well as informal practices such as noticing you are making yourself a coffee while you are doing it (instead of thinking about something else). The key is simply, matching our thought to our action in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness can teach us to be more accepting, to demonstrate compassion for ourselves and others, to approach situations with an open curiosity and to let go of the past.

Relevance of mindfulness during organizational change

A 2010 study found that numbers of employees receiving medical treatment for stress-related disorders were greater in organizations faced with significant change. This tells us change is stressful for employees. Chronic stress can be expensive for organizations, in terms of an increase in workplace health and safety claims, absenteeism and employee turnover and a reduction in staff productivity.

 Organisations have typically focused their stress management dollars on altering the “stressor” (external focus) such as time management training, redesigning of jobs or improved organizational communication (Mason Fries, National University).  While these are useful initiatives, during times of organizational change, it may be more beneficial to equip employees with the skills of altering one’s perception of the stressful situation (internal focus) as the change process itself is already underway.

 Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to significantly reduce stress across both clinical and non-clinical populations (Grossman et al, 2003). While introducing mindfulness-based programs for leaders and employees before the change implementation would be most useful, giving your team some simple mindfulness tools to help them to manage the change is also likely to be effective.

 Case Study - In 2006, AOL Time Warner Inc. reduced their sales and marketing group from 850 to 500 people. Mindfulness classes were incorporated to help employees deal with the working arrangements. As well as helping staff function better at work, the classes were regarded by many as a gesture of thanks for a job well done (Mindfulnet.org, “The Business Case for Mindfulness”).

Conculusion

Mindfulness skills are relevant for both leaders and employees during times of organizational change as both groups can profit from the stress reduction benefits offered.

Through mindfulness, leaders can experience greater clarity of thought and therefore make more accurate and timely decisions and communicate these decisions with greater precision and compassion. Employees can benefit from staying in the “here and now” and avoiding the stress associated with worries of the future. Through practicing compassion for themselves and others they are more likely to feel more supported and less isolated during the change process and through practicing acceptance they are more likely to be working with the facts (rather than the fantasy) of a situation, allowing them to plan a more realistic path for their future.

 In conclusion, any organisation facing a large or small change initiative would be wise to consider including mindfulness skills training into their project plan. Through the implementation of this practice you can expect a greater degree of clarity, calm and connection in your leaders and employees and a smoother and more sustainable transition.

“Who are you? Who are you? I am a walrus……”

MINDFULNESS AS A PATH TO SELF AWARENESS AND AWAKENING

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Originally posted 2014 

For those of you growing up in the 80’s you will know this is a quote from “The Breakfast Club”. As you will remember, the key characters (all teenagers in a weekend detention) are asked to write an essay describing who they think they are. The “nerd” of the group sticks two pens in his mouth and says “I am a walrus”…….makes me laugh every time!

Anyway, from the wisdom of the “Breakfast Club” to the insights of one of the most incredible spiritual leaders of our time….Eckhart Tolle. One of my all time favourite quotes from “The Power of Now” is on page 4 of his book (I probably remember it so clearly as I have started to read this book about 300 times – finished it only once….). He is describing his long battle with depression. He goes on to detail what he noticed to be happening in his mind during a particularly dark time for him.

“I cannot live with myself any longer”, this was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then, suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe” I thought, “only one of them is real”

Every time I read this, it helps me to remember that ‘I’ am so much more than what I and other people habitually “see”.

‘I’ am not the car I drive, the books I read, the way I do my hair or the relationships I have (sounds a bit like a quote from Fight Club). All of those external things belong to the ‘self’ that I have created to allow me to live in this physical modern world.

It has taken me forever to grasp this concept. I have always had a sense that there was “more” to this whole life thing. That surely there was more to it than the colour of my jeans, the career I choose or the handbag I carry. And so, I have finally understood that we truly do have many parts (body, mind, heart and spirit). And so often, these parts are so disconnected from each other that we are not truly functioning at our best.

For the purpose of this blog, lets just focus on two of them – the ‘I” (spirit) and the ‘self’ (mind).

Mindfulness is a tool that supports us to discover direct access to the ‘I’. How do we find this ‘I’ in the madness of our lives? I can assure you it is lying somewhere between the phonecall to your boss and the dinner you are about to prepare……

 Think of a time when you have felt truly and deeply content…when time seemed to stop and you felt like you were just in “flow”,

 When the incessant chatter of your mind took a break,

 When your body felt whole and complete and truly divine, perhaps even a little tingly.

For most people, this happens when they are doing something they are passionate about like dancing, singing, painting, playing an instrument, listening to music, connecting with nature, doing yoga or cooking. For some lucky people, they even experience this when they are working….

A time you feel the worries, the planning and the obsessing just melt away. When you feel clear headed, stimulated but calm, when you feel aware and tuned in.

A time you feel connected to another – you feel your hearts meeting, you no longer feel separate or alone…..

This all happens when you are in touch with your ‘I’ and when you allow your ‘self’ to take a back seat.

I am hoping to paint a picture of where mindfulness can bring you. The irony is that you are already there, some of the time, you just are not aware of it.

So, the question remains, who are you? Do you really know your true essence? Who would you be if we took away the money, the relationships, the body, the career? Mindfulness is one path that can help you to find out. You never know, you may discover you are not actually a walrus after all.

Acceptance is not Giving Up, it is Waking Up

THE APPLICATION OF THE ANCIENT WISDOM OF ACCEPTANCE IN OUR MODERN LIVES

Originally posted 2013

I feel like the term “acceptance” is deeply misunderstood in our modern world. And yet, it is such a wonderfully powerful attitude to develop and I am sure we would all generally have a happier and more fruitful existence if we were to nurture this skill. So, let me be really clear, from the perspective of mindfulness, acceptance….….is not:

·       Giving up or giving in
·       Dropping your standards
·       Liking everything
·       Tolerating injustice

…..is

·       Seeing things as they are and not wishing for them to be different
·       Waking up to the reality of our situation
·       A skill we can develop
·       Easier with practice

It could be represented in a diagram where Giving Up is at one extreme and Striving is at the other. Acceptance sits somewhere in the middle, it is not an either/or scenario; it is not black and white. While we may move across this spectrum throughout our moments, days and lives, the purpose of this article is to support you to spend more time in the middle zone and less time in the exhausting “fight” at either end.

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According to a well-known (and, in my opinion intuitively and experientially accurate) theory, acceptance is the final stage in the five stages of grief (Kübler-Ross). Grief comes in many shapes and sizes. We can grieve the loss of a loved one, we can grieve the loss of a dream or we can grieve the fact that somebody ate the last piece of dark chocolate without telling you.

The good news is, no matter how big or small your grief – acceptance is usually the end result. The bad news however is that in the early days, you may need to do some emotional gymnastics before you can reach this nirvana of acceptance.

According to Kubler-Ross, the emotional hoops you may go through are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. While this theory gives us an awesome framework in which to place acceptance, and an understanding of where it can come in our emotional journey, the purpose of this article is to give you some tips to cultivate more acceptance in your life – in those everyday moments with which we are faced ….everyday.

Have you noticed we tend to spend a lot of time and energy wishing things were different? Wishing our boss were more caring, our children were better at maths or our husbands more interested in yoga? We spend a lot of time denying and resisting what is already a fact. When we do this, we are trying to force a situation to be different to how it already is, which, in turn just causes more tension and contributes to less room for real growth, happiness and healing.

Life is full of discomfort (the Buddhists refer to it as suffering) and, as humans; we are neurologically programmed to avoid this discomfort. This was an important skill to help us to survive as a species however; we are no longer running from the discomfort of tigers or lions and bears (oh my!). We are more likely to be running from the discomfort of our thoughts and feelings, the discomfort of our relationship dynamics or the discomfort of the incongruence between our actual and our ideal lives. This act of constantly trying to avoid these discomforts not only makes them stronger by creating more tension in us, it is downright exhausting. The key to managing these discomforts more effectively and thereby reducing our levels of anger, anxiety or depression is acceptance.

As detailed above, acceptance is not about giving up on your dreams and aspirations, or tolerating a life that is not in-line with your values. It is about seeing your life as it really is, accepting it and then having access to the skills to respond appropriately. How will we ever get to “there” if we never allow ourselves to truly see what “here” looks like?

Acceptance allows us to see things as they really are, rather than spending so much time being pulled off-course by our attachment to our desire that things were different.

So, how do we build this skill I hear you yelling?

Start small

Lets not launch into building this skill with the big ticket items in life, lets start small, after all, this is a new skill for many of us so taking baby steps is they key. You may like to choose a couple of simple unexpected scenarios to practice such as if a meeting you had been looking forward to was cancelled or a friend is running late for a dinner date. Use the following steps to cultivate acceptance in these scenarios.

The Steps
When you find yourself in a scenario where you are feeling frustrated, disappointed or angry, follow these steps:

1.     OBSERVE – Observe the thoughts/feelings that come up for you (be aware of any thoughts around wishing things were different)
2.    DESCRIBE - Describe and acknowledge these thoughts/feelings (do not judge them as good/bad or right/wrong)
3.    TAKE NOTE – Take note of the facts - what is actually happening? (not what you wish had or hadn’t happened) and use this information to respond skillfully
4.    BREATHE – Come back to your breath (your trusted anchor for the mind) and continue on with your day

 Self Talk
There are some handy phrases you might like to start to introduce into your repertoire to encourage this new skill. Just the process of saying these things will not make you truly accept but they can act as a prompt and a reminder and they are solidifying your intention to accept - that is part of the way there already!

·       “I am enough” – I accept me as I am
·       “It is what it is” – this can be extended to people as well as scenarios
·       “This is uncomfortable but it will pass”
·       “I do not agree with it or like it but I accept it”

Practice
The best thing you can do to develop any skill is to practice it. There are two types of practice, formal and informal.

Formal practice (Meditation) - One of the great benefits of meditation or any other contemplative practice is the opportunity to practice acceptance. To watch the thoughts and feelings come and go, knowing that they will always change and accepting them for what they are. This kind of formal practice does not need to happen only when sitting on a hilltop in the lotus pose – you can practice this while doing your daily chores. For example if you are folding the laundry, watch the thoughts come and go and accept them as they are, regardless of their nature. And then, gently and with compassion, direct your attention back to your folding. Through the repetition of this simple process, your “acceptance muscle” grows stronger and stronger.

Informal practice – there will be many opportunities in your life to informally practice acceptance. Your son dropped a whole jar of vitamins on the floor? Accept it, there is no benefit to anyone in taking the journey through denial, anger and depression – just go straight to acceptance and you will be able to develop a more effective strategy to get them cleaned up.

In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living, 2009) “If we keep our attention focused on the present, we can be sure of one thing, namely that whatever we are attending to in this moment will change, giving us the opportunity to practice accepting whatever it is that will emerge in the next moment. Clearly, there is wisdom in cultivating acceptance”.

What is Mindfulness?

MINDFULNESS IS SIMPLE BUT SIMPLE DOESN’T MEAN EASY

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Originally posted 2012

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through moment to moment, non-judgement awareness” Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is simple but simple does not mean easy.

The simplicity lies in the fact that to be mindful we do not have to DO anything, we just have to BE. Therein lies the difficulty. We are so conditioned to DO that we don’t remember how to just BE. Mindfulness is about attending to what is really going on, not what we think is going on. It is about being aware of what is happening now and not being carried away in the past or absorbed in a fantasy of the future. Take some time to observe a 2 year old. They are not stuck in the past or obsessing about the future, they are wholly and solely focused on this very train they are playing with, or this very bug they are crushing! And then observe the pure happiness or joy they experience from the smallest things – wouldn’t it be great if we could all remember how to do that? We were all 2 once (a very long time ago for some of us!).

 According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (and the broader Buddhist tradition) there are seven key areas to focus on when cultivating mindfulness in your life. These are:

1.       Non- Judgement – adopting the role of “observer”, an impartial witness to your experience
2.            Patience – knowing that things will unfold in their own time
3.            Beginner’s mind – noticing that no moment is the same, reveling in the wonder of the now
4.            Trust – developing a trust in yourself and your feelings
5.            Non-striving – letting go of the desire to “get somewhere”
6.            Acceptance – a willingness to see things as they really are
7.     Letting go – allowing thoughts, feelings and situations to be what they are and not attaching a desire to control them

These seven areas are all good and well I hear you say! But what about when I am stuck in traffic with a screaming child in the back, running late for a music class I don’t even want to go to, on the phone to a demanding boss and trying to each lunch…..how do I adopt a non-judging, patient, beginner’s mind, accept, trust and let go while releasing my desire to “get somewhere”? I hope to cover each of these seven attitudes in more detail in my blog in the future but in short, you just be where you are…..you remove the additional stress of worrying about not being where you would like to be…..you just allow yourself to be there – in all of the chaos. Step back mentally and watch it all happening, as though it were happening to someone else. Remove the pressure and just watch……and breathe, God, don’t forget to breathe. 

The breath is a key tool in cultivating mindfulness. Our breath provides a trusty refuge for us in the chaos of our modern lives. In the past, I would become so annoyed when people would lecture me about the wonderful qualities of the breath….”the breath this, the breath that, bla bla bla, yadda yadda, yadda…” I used to think. But after a very long sales process, I have finally bought into the idea of the power of the breath. It truly does provide the bridge between body and mind and is a very excellent tool that is there for us to use all the time.

So, there it is - a quick definition of mindfulness. Seems far too short for such a massive topic. However something that has constantly occurred to me is the feeling that we tend to use so many complicated whizz-bang words to explain such a simple topic. I think one of my early teachers captured it in three simple words “awareness, awareness, awareness”.

A single shot, soy, decaf latte please….

MINDFULNESS AS A MAP TO WORKING OUT WHO WE ARE AND WHERE THE HELL WE ARE GOING

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Originally posted 2012

I have no hope of ever becoming enlightened. I like nice shoes way too much.
I have always struggled with the dichotomy of wanting to be peace, love and mung-beans with enjoying having a lovely glass of wine, appreciating beautiful clothes or seeing a trashy film. I have believed that these two parts of “me” were mutually exclusive……that I could not in fact meditate without dreadlocks or a shaved head. That a hairstyle would magically transform me into a spiritual being that was connected with all that “is”……that there was a direct hair link to the “powers that be”.

And so, I have flipped and flopped between being a tie-die-wearing hippy with a nose-ring and being a lipstick-wearing business women with a fancy handbag. My preferred coffee order demonstrated my internal struggle - really, what kind of person orders a single shot, soy, decaf latte? A person who really wanted to drink tea but drank coffee to go with the image.....

Eventually, I confessed to myself, that I wasn’t terribly comfortable in either of these guises and that maybe, just maybe – I was neither of them but was both of them…..And so began the very unsettling process of realising that I didn’t “fit” in any pre-established box and that I was actually required to build my own box. A box somewhere between spirituality and superficiality.

And so, after many many years of searching for something to help me on this journey, after hours of Sanskrit chanting, incense burning, expensive hand-bags, past life readings, kinesiology sessions and daydreaming about how a tattoo will change my life - I have finally found the answer for me. 

In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn:

"It is impossible to become like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself"

My map for making this discovery is called mindfulness.
I have developed this blog (and my website livmindfully.com) to provide some practical and accessible information regarding mindfulness for modern people to integrate into the reality of their lives. Into a life containing some or all of the following; wardrobe malfunctions, dirty diapers/nappies, spiritual awakenings, fat days (….weeks or months), bad takeaway pizza, complicated relationships, doing funny walks down the hallway to get your kid to follow you, mountains of washing to fold, yoga, challenging children, stressful careers, food guilt, demanding bosses, meditation, family vacations and totally irrational thoughts that feel so very real.

Mindfulness has changed my life, I sincerely hope it nourishes you too.

Liv Mindfully

THE STORY OF THE BEGINNING

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Originally posted 2012

“Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.

"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."

"And he has a Brain."

"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has a Brain."

There was a long silence.

"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.”

- A.A. Milne

Somewhere along our journey, our brain got in the way. In the way of our happiness, in the way of our relationships with our partners, parents, children and friends, in the way of our ability to fall asleep peacefully (without popping a pill) and in the way of our physical health. Take some time to reflect on how long you spend “in your head”, when you are driving home from work are you aware of what your mind is up to? Is it sewing useful and fruitful seeds or is it behind the shelter sheds kissing the naughty boy and getting into terrible trouble? 

Much to my embarrassment, my brain has spent far too long behind the shelter sheds. Clearly it all went pear-shaped somewhere for me as I am now getting my wisdom from Winnie the Pooh…..

I once asked one of the yogis I studied with "how can we take what we are learning at the ashram into our everyday life filled with stress, pressure and bills to pay?” She simply replied "awareness, awareness, awareness". Those three words (well, one word really) sparked a lifelong journey for me.

I wanted to know what she was talking about – how would awareness improve my life? And did I have to wear an orange robe and shave my head to get the gist of this whole thing? And finally, what quantity of lentils and soy milk did I have to consume?

Eventually, through my work as a psychologist, I came across the teachings of the wonderfully inspirational Jon Kabatt-Zinn. He was talking about this thing called mindfulness. A simple technique helping people to become aware of what is really going on – both in their minds and in their lives.

I completed a training course in Mindfulness Based Therapy (thank you Dr Craig Hassed, you are a rockstar) and started practicing some of techniques I learnt there – both in my personal life and during counselling sessions with clients. And then it started to happen. I started to notice what was really going on and my clients started to notice too. 

The simplicity and effectiveness of these techniques struck me and I started to wonder why we hadn’t learnt about this stuff sooner. Why weren’t we teaching this to kids at school? And how can I reach a broader audience to further support the awesome work Jon Kabatt-Zinn and his buddies were up to in the medical and academic fields.

And so, I have taken it upon my self to get the word out there. No, I am not a swami, or a monk or an academic. I do not eat lentils all that often, I do wear leather shoes and I do drive a car. 

However, I am me. I am a psychologist, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a professional coach and I am incredibly passionate about helping people to live with less pain and more peace. I am committed to helping people rediscover their internal sanctuary where they can be free of the pressures of doing and take more time to enjoy being.