I am developing a new and challenging habit … to sit in silence; or at the very least, not have the radio on as I potter about my flat. This is unusual behaviour for me because I’ve always hated silence, always needed noise to fill the void; and that sound has invariably been the radio, or whichever album I’m currently in love with. Yet in recent months, I have started to switch everything off and just be with the sounds around me. Not a problem when those are birds singing or neighbours coming and going, but more challenging when my fridge starts ‘snoring’, which it does for about fifteen minutes every hour of the day; I was told it’s the gas. However, I have persevered and am writing this in relative silence – the oven is cooling down from dinner (homemade ratatouille; not bad if I do say so myself) – and my studies over the last year have also often been accompanied by silence.
So why the self-imposed change in habit? Primarily it’s because of work. I’m a teacher, and my desk is in the middle of a large, open-plan office, so it’s difficult to get quiet time during the day. Then there’s the commute to and from work and the gym, which I frequently do with headphones on, often to drown out unwanted noise. When I swim, I’m in a little cocoon of googles and swim hat; just me, my thoughts and the water, bliss!
It’s still a challenge sometimes, to be with whatever reaches my ears from the world around me, (especially when it’s my neighbour’s TV as it is now while I’m typing this) but I’m learning to welcome silence into my life, and my brain often thanks me for it because everything quietens down, not just on the outside but the inside too; and that is a relief for someone whose mind rarely stops chattering! I even prefer to meditate in silence now, and try to time it when little aural stimulation is likely.
The one time I struggle to be without the radio is when I go to sleep; I still need a little background murmur to help me drop off, especially when I can hear the TV from above or below my flat. However, I will continue to make the most of the silence as and when I can.
I hope you can find a moment of peace today and enjoy the silence.
A few weeks ago I was listening to one of my favourite radio programmes, Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music and heard an interview with Haemin Sunim, and immediately placed an order for his book.
I have quite a few books on Buddhism and meditation and was intrigued to see how Haemin would approach the subject differently. As it has been primarily inspired by his Twitter account, in which he gives advice on a number of topics, the book has similarly been divided up in to the following sections; rest, mindfulness, passion, relationships, love, life, the future and spirituality. It’s written in a very accessible, conversational style, and you could either read all the way through, or just dip in and out of it.
However, what really impressed me were the beautiful illustrations which accompany the words and elevate this above many others in this field and making it a joy to hold and read.
Recent minor surgery has resulted in much anxiety and forced ‘doing very little’ on me. Prior to the operation I was becoming increasingly apprehensive and had to find a way to calm myself. The answer came in the form of a free app; Headspace, which has ten introductory meditation sessions and encourages you to set a daily reminder to find the time and space to reconnect with yourself. As a former yoga teacher you might think I wouldn’t need to an app to remind me to meditate, but you’d be wrong; even those trained in meditation sometimes need a little shove in the direction of ten minutes of peace each day. Especially, if like me, you were not very good at sitting and doing nothing in the first place, and much preferred the physical asana practice of yoga.
It is also very beneficial to go back to the beginning sometimes and remind yourself of what you already know but may have forgotten, and possibly approaching it in a different way in the process. I have almost completed the ten free sessions and have found them very useful during what has been a very challenging time for me. As yet, I haven’t decided if I will sign up for further access to Headspace but it did lead me to consider re-reading some of my meditation books and I thought I would write a post about them as potential inspiration for some of you.
The little ‘Sit like a Buddha’ book is a simple, straightforward guide to meditation, written with humour, and is a realistic approach to the practice. It’s also a quick read, so you can get straight on with your meditation! One aspect of the book which I found useful was the chapter entitled ‘know your why’, which was something I had never thought about before. I guess I just thought ‘I should meditate’ but never asked myself why I was doing so; it was just something I felt I ought to do. Yes, I know all the benefits (and they are many) but what was the particular reason for sitting on any given day to practice? That I had not previously questioned; and so my reason these last few weeks has clearly been dealing with anxiety over my surgery, and the ongoing recovery from it. Once I had established my why, I felt a greater sense of purpose to practice and found it easier to make the time to do so.
‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ is a classic of the genre from Thich Nhat Hanh; my copy is quite old; it was published in 1991! That goes to show how good it is because I do not horde, I have regular and quite ruthless clear-outs of everything, books included. The fact that this one (and others by TNH) has escaped my eager de-cluttering is testament to it being an essential read for anyone interested in meditation. I love the relevant examples used to allow beginners in to the practice, such as ‘washing the dishes, wash the dishes’ and the importance of being fully present in every moment, regardless of how you might feel at the time. This is something which I have often used when anxiety comes calling and I consciously re-direct my focus to what is happening in the here and now, as opposed to what I fear may happen. This is a must purchase! As are any books by Thich Nhat Hanh.
‘The Meditator’s Handbook’ is one of the first books on the subject I ever bought and takes a more psychological approach to the practice. It details varies styles of mediation from different belief systems, both eastern and western alike, in addition to perspectives from Tai Chi and yoga. It is a very thorough and therefore, a more academic guide, with plenty of opportunities to put what you have read about into practice. I would say this is for those who are more serious about their practice and would like to know something about the various meditation traditions around the world.
‘Mindfulness’ by Williams and Penman is one of the more recent publications on meditation and takes a modern approach by focusing primarily on the practice of mindfulness and how it can help with anxiety and depression. It includes an 8-week programme with accompanying CD, and is clear, practical and extremely helpful; especially at a time when mental health is (rightly so) being given increasing importance in society. As someone who is currently not 100%, I am aware that my recovery will be as much mental as physical, and if I can remain positive I will get better much quicker.
Regardless of whether you are a proficient practitioner or a beginner, I hope this post has inspired you, and I would love to hear of your books, apps or any other meditation tips you have.
The time between Christmas and New Year has always felt a bit odd to me; the main event has passed and now I feel I’m in limbo-land, waiting for everything to get back to normal again after New Year. I sometimes feel a little low as I reflect on another year passed and what I have yet to achieve in life, whilst at the same time feeling eager for the following year to begin so I can hopefully bring some more dreams to fruition. 2016 is certainly a year which many will be glad to see the back of, and for a number of reasons, both personal and global. As mentioned in my previous post, 2017 is the first of the next nine-year cycle, and therefore it is vital that you get off to a good start.
Over the last few months, as 2016 has come to close, many feelings and situations in my life have also changed or ended. Maybe the same has happened for you. I’ve already made plans for goals I wish to achieve next year, and am really looking forward to putting them into action. Have you taken the time to reflect on what dreams you would like to see realised in 2017? Try to get out and about in nature, especially if it is sunny, and use that as inspiration for your reflections. I went to a lovely National Trust property today; Mottisfont in Hampshire, for a very cold but enjoyable walk around its house and grounds. Having felt a little tired and down-hearted when I woke up this morning, I left feeling 100% better after strolling around, camera in hand, marvelling at the trees and winter light casting long shadows across the frost covered grass. Seeing gardens in winter often makes you appreciate them all the more when you see them again in full summer colours.
It clearly had the desired effect as I’ve come home inspired to write a blog post, something I haven’t done in a while. I’m sure many of you who are reading this may be looking back on this past year with a mixture of emotions, so I suggest a dose of Mother Nature to ease any sadness or melancholy. It has certainly helped me.
A word on Mottisfont; it became busy quite quickly, so I recommend getting there for when it opens. There are two cafes but they too filled up fast, so you may want to take your own lunch, although I can highly recommend the scones! The grounds are lovely, even at this time of year. However, the person who recommended Mottisfont to me said June is the best time to visit because the roses are in full bloom and smell wonderful; so a return trip is a must! At this time of year, the house is only open on the ground floor but it had been beautifully decorated. I look forward to seeing more of it on my next visit.
For more details, follow the link below. I visited Mottisfont at my own expense.
Over the last year I have become a keen swimmer, which is in stark contrast to my childhood self. I didn’t start learning how to swim until I was about seven-years-old, and I was terrified. Looking back now I realise how lucky I was to have a pool at my school, but as I was struggling to stay afloat from one end to the other while my teacher shouted at me, my good fortune was quite far from my mind.
Everything about the experience was horrible; the cold changing rooms, the foot bath, the deep end in which I thought I would drown, and having to stay behind and swim extra lengths because I was rubbish. I love swimming on my back now, looking up at the water reflected on the ceiling and listening to the muffled sounds all around my little cocoon of hat and goggles; but as a child backstroke was accompanied by my teacher walking along the side of the pool holding a large pole, which she allowed me to hold onto, at first, and then she would pull it away and I’d suddenly panic and start to sink as she reminded me to kick, kick, kick! The only positive of all this was the Kit-Kat I’d be given afterwards to restore my flagging energy.
As with all things at school, the children were divided up according to ability, and so I spent most of my time in the slow lane on the right-hand side of the pool for the less able swimmers. Occasionally, if I swam well I’d be moved to the next group, which should have pleased me as the further along I moved the better I was; but I hated this because it took me away from the comfort of the side of the pool. I would even try to sneak back to the slow lane in order to maintain my sense of safety, only to be told off for doing so.
Reflecting on all this has made me realise that much like my frightened younger self who tried to cling to the side of the pool, I have continued to play it safe throughout life. This was also due to shyness, which held me back until my late twenties; in addition to a fear of the unknown and unpredictable. Unlike most young people, I didn’t experiment with drugs, hardly drank alcohol, and never touched a cigarette, which I’m sure many would argue is not necessarily a bad thing (and I’d probably agree with them). However, I don’t have all the ‘stories’ of fun, crazy times with friends, but then that’s also because I didn’t have that many as a teenager and young adult. Fortunately, as I have got older, I have grown in confidence and my life has opened up too, but there is so much I missed out on as a young adult, which is a shame.
That reticence to leave my comfort zone was partly due to the safety of the side of the pool, and my reluctance to let go and bravely swim out into the world and experience it more fully and freely. Instead, I spent many years watching from the side as others lived life to the full. I feel a certain sadness that I missed out on many rite-of-passage experiences in my younger years, but as I now swim happily, improving all the time, I hope that success and increasing confidence in the pool will once again translate into life and enable me to continue to expand and embrace all that life has to offer me without fear.
I think I’m starting to realise the ‘why’ of a lot of things which have happened to me. I’m beginning to feel (almost) grateful for them as I come to understand that they have set me on a road to a place where I am more content with my life, and myself.
One of my biggest regrets has always been where I went to university. I had three lonely, unhappy years in a city I didn’t particularly care for, quite far from home. This sadness was primarily due to my being extremely shy, so at a time in my life when I should have been living it up, I had few friends because I wasn’t able to make any.
I have always looked back at my degree therefore with regret, feeling I should have studied closer to home, in a city I felt more comfortable. However, the reason I didn’t choose to do so was the course itself; it wasn’t really what I wanted. The university further way had the better course, Media and Fine Art, the former of which I now teach to international students. My three miserable university years have meant that I have worked with, and taught so many funny and interesting people in a consistently rewarding job.
My decade of teaching has also cured me, for the most part, of my shyness, so I have a few more friends now. I am also aware that I am precisely where I’m meant to be, and meeting the people I am meant to. Something I have never felt before. To be honest, I’ve never really believed in fate but I’m starting to wonder if there’s something in it.
I hope I can continue to realise the worth of all my past hurts and regrets; primarily so I can let them go and move on with the knowledge and understanding they have given me.
I’m working on it.
I hope anyone reading this, especially if you suffer from shyness, can be inspired to keep going through the painful times, and find the place where you belong, even if you don’t do so for quite some time. Just keep moving forward, and you’ll get there.
This post was partly inspired by the following quote shared by Elephant Shambhala on Facebook: