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The Art of Breathing: The Secret to Living Mindfully

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple breathing exercises.

 

A flock of paragliders are soaring like eagles on powerful currents of rising air. Far below, a group of children watch in amazement as the pilots practise their aerobatics silently above their heads.

Then, suddenly, something starts to go wrong. One of the pilots loses control of his wing and starts spiralling like a leaf towards the earth.

After what seems like an age, the young man smashes into the hillside. He lies face down on the hillside. Broken.

But he is alive. After a moment of stunned silence, he begins screaming in agony. It will be at least 30 minutes before the paramedics arrive and another hour to reach hospital. Alone, he knows that he cannot afford to lose consciousness in case he never again awakens. So he begins forcing himself to breathe.

Slowly. Deeply. With a supreme effort of will, he focuses his mind away from his broken body and onto his breath. In. Out.

Inch by inch, the agony recedes. Before, finally, he reaches a state of calm tranquillity. Of pure mindfulness.

I was the young man who crashed his paraglider.

And the art of mindful breathing saved my life.

For thousands of years, people have used the art of breathing for equally profound effects on the mind and body. Some have used it for relief from chronic pain. Many more to cope with anxiety, stress and depression. Some claim it led to spiritual enlightenment.

But I’m as spiritual as a housebrick…. so I use it to help me stay calm in a chaotic world and to better appreciate the bittersweet beauty of everyday life.

Breathing seems so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. It is so mundane that many of us have even forgotten how to breathe correctly – and this, as I found out after my paragliding accident, has huge implications for overall health and happiness.

Correct breathing enhances the immune system and helps rid the body of toxins and pollutants. It calms the mind and wards off anxiety, stress and unhappiness. And focusing on the breath with the mind’s eye is the heart of mindfulness meditation, which has been clinically proven to beat depression, and enhance overall happiness, wellbeing, clarity of thought – and even decision-making and creativity.

To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this little exercise with me: Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Place your hands on your stomach. Spend a minute or so feeling them rise and fall as you breathe in . . . and out. Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Allow yourself to relax into the breath’s fluidity.

As the breath waxes and wanes, oxygen and nutrient-rich fluids are pumped through the abdomen, flushing out toxins. The physical movement of the breath in the body also massages the liver, kidneys, intestines, joints of the spine, indeed everything, so they’re kept healthy, supple, and well lubricated.

But there’s also a hidden – and equally important side to breathing. Your breath actually reflects and amplifies your emotions. So incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.

It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress. Breathing then becomes a little quicker and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed.

It’s a vicious cycle….

But there is an alternative. A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm tranquillity. Soothing hormones flow through the body. These calm negative thoughts, feelings and emotions so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply. You begin to relax.

It’s a virtuous cycle….

Unfortunately, most of us breathe incorrectly. This is especially true in the modern world where we often sit slumped at desks for far too long each day while being bombarded with work, emails, calls and messages. This can become even more of a problem if we are under any kind of stress. This disturbs our natural breathing patterns which in turn creates even more stress. It works like this.

Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles that lie between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working. Instead, they begin tugging against each other, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work. But the secondary muscles are only designed to shoulder 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed.

If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

Thankfully, to breathe correctly, all you need do is relearn the art of breathing.

The art of breathing lies in paying attention to your breath in a very special way. It’s the heart of mindfulness and as old as meditation itself. You can learn the basics in just a few minutes. Mastering it takes somewhat longer.

Breathing meditations are actually very simple but people often make them unnecessarily difficult and complicated. Firstly, meditating cross-legged in the lotus position is very uncomfortable. You can’t meditate if you’re not comfortable. Take a deep breath . . . and ask why the chair was invented.

Secondly, you don’t need any equipment, mantras, incense, fancy bells, apps, or even a quiet room. In fact, all you need is: a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

Try this little mindfulness exercise with me.

1) Sit on a straight-backed chair. Place your feet flat on the floor (with your spine one inch from the back of the chair). Be comfortable (with a relaxed but straight back). Place your hands loosely in your lap. Close your eyes.

2) Focus your mind on the breath as it flows in and out. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose and into your lungs. Feel the rising & falling of your chest and stomach.

3) Where are the strongest feelings? Nose, mouth, throat, stomach, chest, shoulders? Pay attention and explore the feelings, especially the way they rise and fall. Don’t try to alter them in any way or expect anything special to happen.

4) When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Be kind to yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. Realising that your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the breath IS the meditation. It’s a little moment of mindfulness.

5) Your mind may eventually become calm for a little while…. or filled with thoughts or feelings such as anger, stress, or love. These may be fleeting. See them as clouds in the sky (simply watch them drift past). Try not to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.

6) After five minutes (or longer if you can manage) gently open your eyes and take in what you can see, hear, feel and smell…

7) Repeat twice a day.

You can stream this Breathing Meditation here.

As that short meditation will have begun to reveal, your breath is the greatest asset you have. It’s naturally meditative and always with you. It reflects your most powerful emotions and allows you to either soothe or harness them. It helps you to feel solid, whole, and in complete control of your life while grounding you in the present moment, clarifying the mind, and unshackling your instincts.

The art of breathing kindles a sense of wonder, of awe, and curiosity — the very foundations of a happier and more meaningful life. It grants you the courage to accept yourself with all of your faults and failings. To treat yourself with the kindness, empathy and compassion that you truly need, and helps you to look outwards and embrace the world.

And when you do this, you’ll discover the secret to living mindfully.

You can find out more in my new book The Art Breathing: The secret to living mindfully. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as ‘A marvellously beautiful and sensitive book.’

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

Is Empathy Our Most Dangerous and Self-Indulgent Emotion?

Compassion is becoming a word so widely misused that it is rapidly losing its true meaning. Many people (and organisations) appear to profess ‘compassion’ in the same way that they support eliminating poverty and protecting the environment, that is, they’re in favour so long as they don’t have to do too much about it.

At first glance, this is a little disheartening….. However, true heart-felt compassion remains intrinsically human and easily stirred. Compassion is so deeply embedded in human nature that few people are incapable of experiencing it. That fact that we get angry when we see people behaving thoughtlessly, unfairly, or callously, is a testament to humanity’s intrinsically compassionate nature. We are angered by sexism, racism, and inequality precisely because we are caring compassionate creatures. If we were not, then we simply would not care about such things, let alone become angry about them. We even wage war out of the compassion we feel for others, however misguided that may prove to be. Compassion is human. And strange as it may seem, it is also good for us.

Dr Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one of the world’s leading researchers on human emotion, says that cultivating positive emotions such as compassion helps to build the four key resources that progressively enhance success and overall happiness in life. Firstly, it helps to build cognitive resources, such as the ability to mindfully attend to the present moment. This, in turn, enhances concentration, creativity and focus. Secondly, it helps to build psychological resources, such as the ability to maintain a sense of mastery over life. This can help ward off anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of being trapped or exhausted. Thirdly, it builds social resources, such as the ability to give and receive emotional support. This helps to build and maintain family ties and friendships. And fourthly, it helps build physical resources by, for example, boosting the immune system so that you are healthier and more energised by life. Enhancing these four resources will help you to meet life’s challenges more effectively and to take advantage of its opportunities.

In short, says Dr Barbara Fredrickson: ‘When people open their hearts to positive emotions, they seed their own growth in ways that transform them for the better.’

Mindfulness is a highly effective way of enhancing such positive emotions. It does this on many levels simultaneously, but it primarily works by helping people reconnect with their previously suppressed emotions (there are also specific practices such as ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation that directly enhance compassion). It also helps people tease apart, and sense, the many different ‘flavours’ of their emotions so that they cease to be over-whelmed by the intensity of their feelings.

A good example is the way that people misunderstand (and feel) compassion and empathy. Empathy is the sharing of another person’s state of mind and their emotions whereas compassion actively seeks to relieve another’s suffering. Therein lies the crucial difference: compassion is active whereas empathy is passive. Empathy is, in some ways, a necessary precursor to compassion. It provides the motivational force to actually relieve another’s distress. But it can also be a ‘negative’ or even a coercive emotion because it is ethically neutral.

People often confuse compassion with empathy. A rather brutal analogy highlights the difference: A torturer will put a gun to your head. An empathic torturer will put the gun to your child’s head. A compassionate one will put the gun down…. Same situation. Same tools. Only the interpretation of the raw emotional data differs.

So empathy alone can be quite dangerous (and arguably a little self-indulgent). To my mind, empathy carries with it a slight tinge of entertainment or even voyeurism. It is stoked by the news media, who ironically, often have the best of intentions. Empathy in the Twenty-First century can also be highly damaging to mental health and well-being. We are all bombarded with disturbing images from war-torn parts of the world. Talented journalists, photographers and broadcasters all compete to get the most harrowing stories and images. Empathy then ensures that they eat their way into our soul and corrode our mental wellbeing.

Dark political and economic forces can also use our natural sense of empathy to drag us into interminable wars over which we can have no long term influence. It is one thing sending off young men and women to die if they can banish an evil dictator and bring peace. It is quite another to send them off to be blown apart because people have been manipulated into believing that ‘something must be done’. Quite simply, most western interventions over the past few decades have served only to enrich the arms industry, satisfy our desire ‘to do something’, and provide news channels with exciting footage. And to what end? Can we influence the course of a civil war? A more compassionate approach would be to accept that terrible things can happen, and that we have absolutely no control or influence over them. In such scenarios, the best course of action is to adopt the first principle of medicine. That is: ‘First, do no harm’. And that may mean doing nothing at all.

We can counteract the tendency to substitute empathy for compassion by actively cultivating the growth of positive emotions. Recent work has shown that it is possible to do this using a specific type of meditation known as Metta (or Loving Kindness). In a landmark study, Dr Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina found that practicing this meditation increased the pleasure and intensity of feelings as diverse as curiosity, amusement, hope, joy, awe, and love.[i] In turn, these positive emotions built the four key personal resources necessary for a happy and creative life, namely; cognitive, psychological, social and physical. This meant that those who practised the meditation found themselves with an increased purpose in life, had more friends, were happier and healthier, and were consequently more satisfied with their lives. And over time, such feelings lead to enhanced creativity, clarity of thought, cognitive flexibility and compassion. It’s a virtuous circle too; happiness leads to success – and success to greater happiness. These aren’t just welcome outcomes in themselves. Recent work has discovered that such positive moods also directly enhance divergent thinking, the type of thinking which underpins creativity.[ii]

Perhaps then, if we can collectively learn to think and act more creatively, we might just be able to deal with the world’s problems more effectively. We might learn to deal with them with intelligence and compassion, rather than risk making them worse with empathy.

 

Try these simple practices to enhance compassion and wellbeing

Try this Resilience Meditation (a type of Metta meditation) led by Dr Danny Penman. You can listen, stream or download it from here. Try doing it for at least 5 days.

You can also try this simple Breathing Meditation to ground yourself in the present moment and clarify the mind.

the-art-of-breathing-coverjpgNew Book: The Art of Breathing – The secret to living mindfully. Just don’t breathe a word of it… 

You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of? 

My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much. 

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…

‘A marvellously beautiful and sensitive book.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

 

References

[i] Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J. & Finkel, S. M. (2008), ‘Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, pp. 1045–62. See Barbara Fredrickson’s website at http://www.unc.edu/ peplab/home.html.

[ii] Lorenza S. Colzato & Ayca Szapora & Dominique Lippelt & Bernhard Hommel (2012). Prior Meditation Practice Modulates Performance and Strategy Use in Convergent- and Divergent-Thinking Problems. Mindfulness
DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0352-9.

What exactly is mindfulness? Hint: it’s probably NOT what you think it is…

In 2010, when Mark and I were trying to come up with a title for our book ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World’, we were met with blank incomprehension. Almost everyone would say: ‘Mindfulness? What the hell is that? You can’t call a book Mindfulness, nobody knows what it is… Nobody will read it.’

The world has moved on a little since then and mindfulness has become mainstream. But the concept often remains equally misunderstood. Many people feel that they haven’t quite grasped the idea because it seems so deceptively simple (this might be because the concept itself is easy to understand but the actual state of mind is difficult to cultivate for more than a few seconds at a time).

Mindfulness is, quite simply, full conscious awareness. It is paying full conscious attention to whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions are flowing through your mind, body and breath without judging or criticising them in any way. It is being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment without being trapped in the past or worrying about the future. It is living in the moment not for the moment.

Mindfulness can also be understood by what it is not. It is not a religion. Nor is it inherently mystical or spiritual. Prominent atheists, such as Sam Harris, are quite happy to meditate because of the clarity of mind it engenders. It is simply a tool for reconnecting with life, for embracing the ebb and flow of the world, and for coming to a greater understanding and acceptance of life’s eternal flux. Although people through the ages have used meditation for spiritual purposes, the main thrust of my work is to help people gain relief from anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and physical pain. It is said that ‘all life is suffering’ but I think that is far too bleak. All life can be suffering, if you allow it to be, but it certainly need not be this way. Life can be broadly happy and meaningful but only if you first get out of your own way and allow it to naturally unfold before your feet.

Another misconception is that mindfulness is in some way ‘opting out’ or detaching yourself from the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually about connecting and embracing life with all of its chaotic beauty, with all of your faults and failings. Many people also mistakenly believe that the aim of mindfulness is to intentionally clear the mind of thoughts. Rather, it is about understanding how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself in knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. It teaches you to observe how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions rise and fall like waves on the sea. And in the calm spaces in between, lie moments of piercing insight.

Although meditation is extremely powerful, it is not the only way of becoming more mindful. Every aspect of life can be used to enhance mindfulness. Every one of your senses can become gateways to this delightful state of being. Eating and drinking, and even such simple things as walking through a park and smelling the flowers, can all become mindfulness practices. The work of Dr Ellen Langer at Harvard University is instructive. She has dedicated her life to finding novel ways of enhancing mindfulness and has rediscovered what many accomplished meditators have said for centuries: the key to mindfulness is to actively engage with life. There’s one little problem though: ‘mindlessness’ is all pervasive. We are all naturally mindless. If we are left with ourselves for more than a few moments, we can easily lapse into mindlessness. And we are generally not aware when we lapse into such a state. So we are unaware that we are unaware. We live on autopilot. Fortunately, there is a simple antidote: pay full conscious attention to whatever you are doing. Paying attention is the key to becoming present, to becoming grounded in the present moment, neither living in the past nor worrying about the future, but simply living life as it was meant to be lived. And when you once again begin paying attention, you kick-start profound changes that ripple across your whole life. You begin to see the world with all of the excitement, freshness, and joy that you did as a child. Anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion simply melt away in the face of such awareness.

Although meditation is profoundly important, it is but one way of cultivating mindfulness.

In many ways, the real meditation is your life.

 

Try these simple practices:

*****

The next time you catch sight of your partner or a close friend, notice five new things about them. Pay attention to the way they move, their facial expressions, and the way their voice rises and falls, with its pitch and timbre. Can you sense their aroma? And their hair? Is it the same as you expected? Do they look tired or energised? Are they wearing their normal clothes? Pay attention to what they are wearing and the way the clothes follow or hide their contours. Try not to judge them in any way but instead accept them for who they are. The aim is not to judge but to observe. You find what you find. Do they become newly alive to you?

*****

When eating or drinking, pay attention to all of its textures, flavours and aromas. Tease them apart and focus on each one in turn. Then pay attention to the flavour, aroma and texture of the food in its entirety. Tea and coffee contain many different flavours and chocolate has over 300. See if you can sense some of them, and then see how they combine to produce the overall flavour of ‘tea’, ‘coffee’ or ‘chocolate’.

*****

The next time you are in a queue (or line) notice how your body reacts. Does it take on a mind of its own? Do your arms and legs want to move of their own accord? Are the impulses surprisingly powerful? Do you feel compelled to walk to the front? Is your mind swirling with annoyance or impatient thoughts? Pay attention to all of the different sensations in your body, the ground beneath your feet, the way your chest rises and falls with each breath. Close your eyes if that helps. After a while, begin to pay attention to the world around you. What can you see? Do the people around you look angry, stressed, unhappy or perhaps serene? Pay attention to their faces and to their body language. After a while, begin to broaden your awareness to encompass the whole scene. What can you see? Pay attention. What can you hear? Chattering, the sound of machinery or a keyboard being tapped? Pay attention to the whole soundscape. What can you smell? What can you feel? Can you gain a sense of the air flowing over your skin or hair? Breathe. Pay attention to whatever surrounds you.

the-art-of-breathing-coverjpgNew Book: The Art of Breathing – The secret to living mindfully. Just don’t breathe a word of it… 

You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of? 

My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much. 

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

 

 

Should you try to get over grief or accept it with mindfulness?

I recently listened to a harrowing BBC Radio interview with Matt Briggs, who’s wife Kim was run over and killed in London by an aggressive cyclist. The killer was cycling at speed, had no brakes, and showed no remorse for the death he had just caused and the family just devastated. Kim left behind two children, barely ten and twelve at the time, whilst Matt was left with the daily struggle to care for his two children alone.

Matt was incredibly stoic about his family’s loss and talked about how grief had affected him and his young family. I was struck by his strength and wisdom but also reminded of a reassurance that we often hear in connection with grief: of the inevitability of ‘getting over’ it. People tell grieving friends and relatives that their grief will pass. ‘You will get over it,’ they say. While those in the throes of grief reassure themselves with the mantra: ‘I will get over it’.

But is this the best way of coming to terms with grief?

Grief is over-whelming. It is painful beyond measure. Grief is the realisation that you will never, ever, see, hear, touch or smell a loved-one again. It is the most painful emotion that any human can ever experience. It is far worse than physical pain. Infinitely worse than splitting up from a lover or losing your job, house, and money. All of those things can be ‘got over’. They are replaceable. But grief entails the absolute loss of someone who is unique and irreplaceable so that the very idea of getting over it is a fallacy. You simply can’t. You can suppress it though, for a while at least, but this can have devastating long term consequences because if you suppress one emotion then you end up suppressing all of them, which will leave you cut off from all that is good about life.

I lost my mother when I was 13. Even now, from time to time, I grieve for her. Just writing this has brought tears to my eyes. I can feel a yawning chasm in my life where my mother once stood. I feel for the things she will never see; my beautiful wife and two young children, the success I have enjoyed after numerous long diversions, the happiness I now enjoy. I want her to see these things. To understand that she did a good job bringing me up in very difficult circumstances. But she will never see these things and it hurts intensely. The idea that I should ‘get over’ her loss feels almost like an insult to her life. So instead, I have come to an acceptance of the loss without any false beliefs about its impact. It was an extremely long and tough process and one which I undertook the hard way because there was simply no one who could help me when I was 13-years-old and was forced to bring myself up.

So I understand why someone would want to ‘get over’ the intense pain of grief, but I don’t believe it is the wisest course of action. In our mechanistic world, grief, like all uncomfortable emotions, is seen as something that should be either got through as fast as possible or pushed away at all costs. To this end, people often go to extraordinary lengths to suppress ‘negative’ emotions such as anger, fear and grief while chasing the ‘positive’ ones of happiness and contentment. But this approach is fraught with perils and is actually the root cause of many people’s dissatisfaction with life. Life is beautiful, but painful too. You can’t have one without the other, although we desperately want it to be so.

We take this approach because we misunderstand the true nature of our emotions. They are seen as mere messages sent from the brain to the conscious mind. This leads to the mistaken belief that you can become blissfully happy by simply suppressing the bad and chasing the good. But emotions are not solid and pure entities. They are flexible entities that are both message and messenger sent from the deepest reaches of the psyche. When it comes to emotion, the medium really is the message. So in practice, if you try to suppress the message, then the dutiful messenger will keep on coming back to pester you until you have felt the emotion it is trying to convey. And each time you turn away the messenger, it will try a little harder to find another way of conveying its message. With each twist of the cycle, the message will become more and more distorted and powerful so that even the mildest of ‘negative’ emotions can become an intense spikey knot of pain.

Emotions are also mistakenly see as absolutes; as solid entities that are either good or bad, sweet or sour, painful or pleasant. But the emotions we actually feel are fusions of many different feelings. We rarely feel pure anger or happiness. Happiness might have a sad undertow, while anger might be tinged with sorrow. Grief is even more powerful, subtle, and complex. This is why it is so overwhelming. It is an amalgam of all our most powerful feelings in a distressing roiling cauldron of emotion. It is anger at the injustice, bitterness about the loss, fear for the future, regrets about the times you were less than perfect. There is loneliness, too, but also happiness at their memory, and thankfulness for their presence in your life.

Painful as it is, the only way of truly ‘getting over’ grief – or any difficult emotion – is to actually feel it. To experience it. To accept it. If you allow the messenger to deliver its message by actually feeling it, allowing it to settle into your mind and body, then it will have done its job and will begin to dissolve. Make no mistake though, this is difficult. In the long run, though, it is far easier than living a life marred with suppressed emotion and cut off from the rich beauty of life.

What does the acceptance of loss and grief entail? It means the acceptance that you are on the most difficult journey that any person can undertake. Have no illusions; grief is horrible beyond measure. Grieving means powerful emotions will periodically tear your life apart, leaving you feeling utterly lost, alone, and broken inside. In time, between the gaps in your grief, mindfulness can begin to help you (see below for some practical ideas).

Mindfulness can help with grieving but try not to rush things. There is no destination to reach. No prizes for arriving. Baby-steps are best. Over time, you will come to understand that mindful grieving means feeling your emotional turmoil rather than suppressing it. It means embracing the dead person’s life with all of their faults and failings, suffering and regrets, happinesses and sadnesses. It means embracing both their memory and the loss. It means the acceptance that life is often far shorter than we might wish; that death often appears before we are truly finished with life. It means the acceptance that the price of life is death.

If you can progressively begin to do all this, then when your turn comes, perhaps people will laugh and cry at your funeral. And perhaps people will not ‘get over’ your death at all, but will instead choke on laughter and tears at your memory.

 

Some thoughts and practices to reflect on:

*****

From time to time, remind yourself that everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way. Do not listen to people who suggest that you should be ‘over it’ in a set period of time such as one month or one year. Your grief will rise and fall. Sometimes you will feel it intensely, other times hardly at all. The intensity of your grief does not reflect how much you loved the person.

 

*****

When you feel grief arising, try not to fight it. Emotional turmoil is normal. Break down into a heap of tears if that helps. Depending on your character, you might like to allow yourself to cry in public or perhaps alone. The choice is yours. Do not be guided by culture or convention.

 

*****

Don’t try to meditate on the person you have lost until you feel ready. There is no rush. Instead, allow yourself to feel grief and to cry when you feel able. When grief becomes over-whelming, allow it to flow. You may feel more comfortable taking yourself off to a less crowded place should grief appear when you are amongst strangers or at work.

 

*****

When you do feel ready begin meditating, try this Breathing Meditation.

 

Try not to bring the person you are grieving to mind but if thoughts, feelings or emotions about them do appear, allow yourself to feel them for a while before returning to the breath. The aim of the Breathing Meditation is not to grieve but to ground you in the present moment and to see how all thoughts, feelings and emotions rise and fall. Later, if you wish, you might like to try the course in the bestselling book I wrote with Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Meditations from The Art of Breathing are a good starting point too.

 

*****

Feel free to be as gregarious as you like or to be alone as much as you want. The company of friends and family will probably help you immensely but we all need time to be alone.

 

*****

From time to time remind yourself that the price of life is death. That single sentence sums up the human condition more than any other. We are here on this earth for a short while, experience a panoply of bitter-sweet emotions, and then depart. We forget this at our peril.

 

*****

Be aware of how your mind tries to distract you from grief by conjuring up other intense thoughts and emotions. Gently remind yourself that ‘You are not your thoughts’.

 

*****

You should not feel guilty for experiencing positive emotions. If someone has died after a long and painful illness then it is OK to feel relief at their death and the fact that they are now at peace. Equally, happiness or even laughter are normal and uncontrollable features of being human. If they should arise, welcome them as the beginning of a return to normality not as a betrayal of your loved-one’s memory.

 

*****

Don’t feel the need to remove all traces of the person you have lost from your life. How you choose to deal with this is your personal choice but try not to rush into any decisions. Allow things to settle for as long as it takes. When you feel ready to begin rebuilding your life, start to remove their personal possessions from day to day life. Give away or sell their possessions if you want to. Or stockpile them if you wish. Do not rush into any decisions about anything. The future is a big place.

 

*****

When the intensity of grief begins to subside, take note of the other emotions you are feeling. There might be anger, fear, loneliness, bitterness, hatred and happiness too. Don’t try to consciously bring them to mind, just notice them as they appear and begin to subside. Notice their ebb and flow.

the-art-of-breathing-coverjpgNew Book: The Art of Breathing – The secret to living mindfully. Just don’t breathe a word of it… 

You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of? 

My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much. 

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

What is Mindfulness?

What it can do for you

Buy Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World from Amazon.com

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Keep calm… and carry on breathing: The simple exercises that can alleviate pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression

First appeared in the Mail on Sunday

  • Breathing is so ordinary – but many of us forgot how to breathe correctly
  • But this can have huge implications on our overall health and happiness
  • Mindfulness can beat depression, enhance happiness and creativity
  • And correct breathing techniques are the cornerstone of mindfulness

 

Breathing is so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. But many of us have forgotten how to breathe correctly.

And this has huge implications for overall health and happiness.

For thousands of years, people have used simple breathing exercises that, ultimately, can have profound effects on the mind and body: they can relieve chronic pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression.

Some even claim these practices lead to spiritual enlightenment.

But I am as spiritual as a housebrick. Instead, I use breathing exercises to stay positive, focused and appreciative in a crazy world (and especially when I’m stressed out by a looming deadline).

DON’T BREATHE ‘BADLY’

I first discovered the art of breathing as part of my research into mindfulness meditation, about which I have written three books, including the international bestseller Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness – the modern take on the ancient practice of meditation – has been clinically proven to beat depression and enhance happiness, clarity of thought and even decision-making and creativity. And correct breathing is its cornerstone.

My latest book, The Art Of Breathing, gathers a range of mindful breathing techniques in one little volume that will allow anyone to incorporate some mindfulness into their life.

These techniques work because of the way your breath reflects and amplifies emotions. Incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.

It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress.

Breathing then becomes a little faster and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed…

It is a vicious circle.

But there is an alternative….

A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm. Soothing hormones flow, calming negative thoughts so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply.

You begin to relax. To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this simple exercise:

  • Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Close your eyes.
  • Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in, and out.
  • Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Relax into the breath’s fluidity.
  • Within a few breaths your heart will begin to slow and beat more effectively. Your breath will start to become deeper and more rhythmic. You will begin to relax and think more clearly.

EASE ACHES AND PAINS

Most of us breathe incorrectly, especially when we’re sitting slumped at desks for far too long each day. Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work.

But the secondary muscles are designed to shoulder only 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed. If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

You can counteract such tension by using a simple breath-based meditation. All you need is a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

HERE’S HOW…

Sit erect in a straight-backed chair with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.

  • Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. Stay in touch with the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath.
  • When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the sensations of breathing.
  • Shepherding your awareness back to the breath is central to mindfulness.
  • After a few minutes, or longer if you can manage, open your eyes and soak up your surroundings.

After this, you’ll probably be feeling less tense. Maybe any aches and pains you have will be less bothersome. Hopefully, you’ll have gained a bit of clarity and started to realise that your breath is one of your greatest assets.

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published by HQ, rrp £7.99.

How to Embrace Life’s Difficulties at Christmas and the New Year

First appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

Christmas and New Year may be the most stressful times of the year but they also offer countless opportunities to become more mindful. So use these ideas from my new book Mindfulness for Creativity to embrace life’s difficulties and become more adaptable, creative and resilient. And when you do so, you will gain as much peace and contentment as any number of weeks spent in a meditation retreat.

 

Drink a glass of wine (or beer) mindfully: At this time of year it’s easy to drink too much while barely tasting a drop. So try drinking a glass of wine or beer with mindful awareness by following these steps:

1) When you ask for your drink (or pour it yourself), briefly ask yourself why you chose it. Is it your genuine favourite or was it out of habit?

2) Take a few moments to soak up the smell of the drink. Close your eyes if that helps. Flick through the aromas, noticing as many as you can without trying too hard. Connect with them and soak them up. Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness.

3) Take a sip. What’s the first taste that you notice? And the second. The third…. Wine has scores of different flavours. Other drinks can be similarly complex. Try to gain a sense of the different flavours washing over you. How many of them do you normally taste? When you drink without paying attention you miss out on so many wonderful flavours, textures and aromas.

4) When your taste is saturated, swallow and take another sip when you feel ready.

5) You may feel the need to drink the whole glass, or you might feel satisfied part way through. Either way, tune into the thoughts, feelings and emotions that may be pushing you one way or the other. Notice how compulsive they feel.

6) Carry on repeating steps two to five for about five minutes or until you’ve finished your drink. Did it taste different to normal?

 

Go to the cinema with a friend at precisely 7pm: Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected – the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these. Most of us only go to the cinema when there’s something specific we want to watch. However, if you turn up at a set time and date and only then choose a film you will discover that the experience is totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally consider. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness. Once you’re inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film.

 

Only give gifts to children: Everyone else can be given a card where you explain your rationale and how much you appreciate them. You could even make your own cards and write the greetings with a calligraphy pen. And while you are writing, feel the pen gliding over the paper. Try not to make anyone feel guilty about giving gifts but simply explain why you have chosen to focus your energies on children and on making and writing the cards. How does this make you feel? Creative, stingy or relieved?

 

Watch adverts: Research carried out by former ‘Mad Man’ Dr Robert Heath at the University of Bath suggests that the best way of evading the influence of advertising is to pay it full conscious attention. If you try to ignore it, your deep subconscious will latch on to the adverts and soak up their seductive emotional messages. Paying full mindful attention undermines this and helps you to spot the tricks that are played upon you. So one day this week actually watch the adverts on TV and pay attention to the ones in newspapers and magazines. Notice the sounds and images used. Pay attention to each element of the advert. Deconstruct it. What emotions are aroused? Can you notice any flickerings of sexual desire, humour, or perhaps wonderment and awe? Some latent fear? Fear that you might miss out, or that you are not young or attractive enough? Shame even. Can you notice the overwhelming pull of these emotions? Now pay attention to your body. Can you notice how each emotion is localised in different parts of the body? Fear or shame might be found in the tightness of your stomach. Desire in your hands or face. The precise location isn’t important. Each time you become aware of your emotions, return to paying attention to the adverts. Do you feel immune to them or a little annoyed that they influence you at such a deep and visceral level?

 

If you’re a party animal – don’t go to ANY parties over the coming week. If you’re normally shy and retiring, or simply hate parties, go to one (or even arrange an impromptu one). Any disturbance to our normal social life can feel unsettling. So pay attention to how you feel when you are ‘deprived’ of your normal social life – or thrust into the centre of a new one. Do you feel a little nervous or relieved? Disappointed or uplifted? Remember this isn’t a permanent change, just a taste of a different way of approaching the world.

 

Watch the traffic for 15 minutes whilst driving: Begin by broadening your awareness and paying close attention to the vehicles around you. Do they travel in straight lines or weave slowly from side to side, speed up or slow down without rhyme or reason? Do some push in aggressively while others passively give way?

 

After a few minutes of watching the traffic, take a moment to ask yourself:

What is going through my mind?

What sensations are there in my body?

What reactions and emotions am I aware of?

 

If you are feeling angry, stressed or frustrated then your mind has switched on its emotional autopilot. You can defuse these unpleasant emotions by teasing apart the two major flavours of suffering – primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as being stuck in traffic. Secondary suffering is the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration. You have no control over primary suffering but you need not make the situation worse by reacting to it and creating secondary suffering. It’s akin to being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink. If you instead pay attention to your frustration, by accepting its unpleasantness rather than struggling against it, then it will tend to melt away of its own accord.

 

Continue paying attention to your reactions to the traffic for another ten minutes. In this way, you can learn to respond rather than react.

 

Go on a Creative Date: this is a block of time for you to nurture your inner spirit or creative flame. It can be a visit to a museum, art gallery, or perhaps a trip to the theatre. You might like to climb a hill, visit a castle or perhaps watch a murky sunrise or sunset… or perhaps learn how to be a fire-eater, a circus clown or how to ride a unicycle. If you can’t think of anything to do, think back to a time when you were half your current age, what did you enjoy the most? Why not do that? Try to approach this Creative Date with a spirit of open-hearted playfulness. Set aside the time to do it now, otherwise it will get squeezed out by seemingly higher priorities.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers here:

You can download free meditations from ‘Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World’ from here:

Can Mindfulness Really Enhance Problem Solving and Decision making?

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

Mindfulness has become such a buzzword in the fields of health and wellbeing that it’s easy to forget it has many other benefits too. For example, recent research shows that it also helps with decision making by clarifying the mind and enhancing creativity. According to Dr Natalia Karelaia, Assistant Professor of Decision Sciences at the INSEAD Business School in Paris, mindfulness is being incorporated into ‘every area of business where strong decisions are required’.1

Mindfulness enhances creativity largely by encouraging divergent thinking. But the benefits run much deeper. According to Dr Karelaia mindfulness not only helps decision makers reach conclusions, it also impacts the way decisions are identified, made, implemented and assessed.

There are four main stages to making an effective decision and mindfulness helps with all of them:

  1. Framing the decision: sometimes, the best course of action is to not make a decision at all, but instead simply to observe while events take their course. Mindfulness gives you the insight, courage and patience to follow this course of action (when it’s the most appropriate one). If a decision is required, then mindfulness can help you clarify your objectives, generate options and avoid irrationally aggravating a previously flawed decision. Mindfulness is extremely effective for avoiding the so-called ‘sunk-cost bias’.2 This is the irrational tendency to continue with a course of action simply because you have already made an investment of time, effort or money. A classic example is the refusal to sell a failing company’s shares simply because you hope the price will recover. In other words, it’s when you throw good money after bad. Mindfulness can also help you make more strategic decisions too – those that are more in keeping with your long-term goals and underlying ethics.
  2. Gathering ideas and information: mindfulness can help you avoid information overload by enhancing working memory and cognition.3 It can also help you to focus your efforts on gathering the most relevant information available; that which is more likely to be in accordance with a correctly framed decision and your long-term aims. It helps you to avoid habitual search patterns too. This will increase the likelihood of discovering new or unexpected ideas. In addition, mindfulness can help put information in context by enhancing your overall perspective. According to Dr Karelaia: ‘Mindful decision makers are also more likely to recognise the limits of their knowledge and to objectively assess uncertainty. In fact, research has found that people who are more mindful have a greater tolerance of uncertainty and are more decisive when faced with making a choice despite many unknowns.’
  3. Coming to a conclusion: mindfulness reduces ‘cognitive rigidity’ – the tendency to make decisions using habitual thought patterns.4 Such cognitive rigidity can seriously impair decision making and force you to ‘think inside the box’. Mindfulness also helps you to make more rational – and less emotionally biased – decisions. It does this by helping you to sense your emotional landscape and to gauge when it is beginning to bias your decisions.5 Mindful people also tend to be more intuitive. Intuition arises from unconscious thought processes and can be very effective in helping you to deal with complexity and ambiguity. It often lies behind creative ‘Aha!’ moments.6 But equally importantly, mindfulness enhances the courage and resilience necessary to implement decisions.
  4. Learning from experience: the final stage of decision making is arguably the most important – learning from experience. Accepting mistakes can be particularly difficult. Mindfulness can make this process a little easier because it reduces defensiveness and promotes courage and resilience.

In addition, says Dr Karelaia: ‘Heightened awareness ensures that mindful individuals may be more likely to learn the right lessons from experience. It’s a well-known phenomenon in psychology that we often attribute our past success to our own skill and our past failures to some external circumstance. This can lead to overconfidence, which can be quite disastrous in organisational or entrepreneurial situations. More mindful individuals are more likely to disengage from their ego, making them more open to negative feedback. So mindfulness helps decision makers learn in an unbiased way.’

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

References

1  Karelaia, N. (2014), ‘Why mindful individuals make better deci- sions’, INSEAD Knowledge, 23 July, at http://knowledge.insead. edu/leadership-management/why-mindful-individuals-make-better- decisions-3479.

2  Hafenbrack, A. C., Kinias, Z. and Barsade, S. G. (2014), ‘Debiasing the mind through meditation: mindfulness and the sunk-cost bias’, Psychological Science, 25(2), pp. 369–76.

3  Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B. and Schooler, J. W. (2013), ‘Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering’, Psychological Science, 24, pp. 776–81; Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L. and Gelfand, L. (2010), ‘Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience’, Emotion, 10, pp. 54–64; Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J. and Baime, M. J. (2007), ‘Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention’, Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, pp. 109–19; Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z. and Goolkasian, P. (2010), ‘Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training’, Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), pp. 597–605.

4   Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z. and Goolkasian, P. (2010), ‘Mindfulness meditation improves cogni- tion: evidence of brief mental training’, Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), pp. 597–605; Greenberg, J., Reiner, K. and Meiran, N. (2012), ‘“Mind the trap”: mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity’, PLoS One, 7(5): e36206, doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0036206

5   Hafenbrack, A. C., Kinias, Z. and Barsade, S. G. (2014), ‘Debiasing the mind through meditation: mindfulness and the sunk-cost bias’, Psychological Science, 25(2), p. 369; Kirk, U., Downar, J. and Montague, P. R. (2011), ‘Interoception drives increased rational decision-making in meditators playing the ulti- matum game’, Frontiers in Neuroscience, 5:49, doi: 10.3389/ fnins.2011.00049.

Ostafin, B. and Kassman, K. (2012), ‘Stepping out of history: mindfulness improves insight problem solving’, Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), pp. 1031–6.

Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of mindfulness – so try this meditation to soothe your frayed nerves

Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of mindfulness. If you’ve practiced meditation for any length of time, then you will know of the intense frustration that can arise as soon as you close your eyes. And that’s assuming you’ve actually found the time to meditate. When you’re under pressure, it can seem difficult – and sometimes impossible – to make time for mindfulness. After all, why would you meditate when you have other, seemingly more important things, to worry about? But it is in precisely such times that the need for meditation is greatest.

We all know this, of course, but it’s a lesson that has to be relearned from time to time. I relearnt it for the umpteenth time yesterday – in a traffic jam just off the A4.

The pressure had been building for weeks. My new book had just been published which meant that I was having to devote a huge amount of time to giving interviews, engaging with social media and writing articles and blog posts. I had also been ill with one of those hacking coughs that wakes you up several times each night. Our young daughter had been violently sick with a stomach bug – as had my heavily pregnant wife. This was compounded by four out of my five computer backup systems failing within days of each other, a meltdown on my website, and being repeatedly locked out of Twitter, Facebook and Hootsuite. And then there was the problem with the water pump on my van… and our cooker giving up the ghost.

Whilst none of this was earth-shattering, dealing with it meant that I had found it very difficult to find the time to meditate over the previous week (I’d probably managed it only three times). So I was feeling under pressure and promising myself that I’d make up the time at the weekend. But the real world had other plans for me. And typically, it began after I was pushed for time after driving our daughter to nursery and my wife to work. I was fully aware of the pressure and was making allowances for my shortening fuse by trying to be extra courteous to other road users.

Everything came to a head when a rubbish truck appeared in front of me, when I was half way down a steep hill on the outskirts of town. I stopped opposite a road so that the truck could easily get past me. Except it didn’t. It stopped in the middle of the road about a third of the way up the hill – and waited for a group of men to get out. The driver could have parked at the side of the road but decided not to. He then got out of the van and watched the traffic build up around him. Within a few moments dozens of cars had stopped behind me. Then dozens more…. Then scores more began backing up behind the truck. It was almost comical – but I wasn’t in the mood for laughing.

‘This is the perfect argument against altruism,’ I muttered to myself (along with a few choice Anglo-Saxon expletives). Except it wasn’t. It was actually a gift of time. The time I’d spent most of the past week trying to find. Time I could use to re-engage with my mindfulness practice. As the chaos of the traffic around me continued to mount, here were a few minutes where I could do nothing at all apart from wait. I couldn’t drive anywhere. I couldn’t dematerialise. I couldn’t even get out of my van. So absolutely nobody could blame me for simply sitting there and watching the scene play out in front of me. So that’s what I did. I switched off the engine and breathed deeply. I focused on the sensations the breath made as it flowed into and out of my lungs for a minute or so and then began to monitor the to-ings and fro-ings of my own mind and body.

I began to silently ask myself:

What is going through my mind, right now? 


What sensations are there in my body, in this moment?

What emotional reactions and impulses am I aware of?

I noticed the rise and fall of my frustration and anger. As I paid attention to these powerful emotions other, more subtle ones, began to appear. Disappointment and a sense of fractured idealism came to the foreground. I was stuck in my mind’s automatic Doing mode. That was fine, I reminded myself. My mind wasn’t making a mistake. It was simply doing its best.

Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. 


This acceptance allowed me to tease apart the two major flavours of suffering – primary and secondary. Primary suffering was the initial stressor, the frustration of being in a traffic jam. It was OK to acknowledge that it was not pleasant; it was OK not to like it. Secondary suffering was all of the emotional turbulence that followed in its wake, such as the anger and frustration, and the ensuing thoughts and feelings that they triggered.

I allowed all of my frustration to remain with me, without trying to make it go away. I sat tall in the cab of my van. Breathed. Focused on the breath. I allowed myself to remain just as I was. These moments, too, were moments of my life.

After a while, the powerful emotions began to subside and I started to relax. I began to notice the early morning sun bouncing off windows and rooftops. I could see the docks and the river snaking away into the distance. I realised that the flashing lights of the rubbish truck had an unexpected and hypnotic quality to them. I noticed the filthy jackets of the binmen – and the huge loads of rubbish they were carrying.

It took ten minutes before the truck finally passed me and another five for the traffic to clear. But that was 15 minutes of mindfulness that I might not have otherwise had yesterday.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

What Exactly is Creativity?

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

When I was researching Mindfulness for Creativity it proved to be surprisingly difficult to pin down a workable definition of creativity. It’s one of those things that we all know when we see it but is difficult to describe in words. After a while I decided that trying to pin it down was the antithesis of creativity itself. It’s like trying to describe a beautiful picture, a breathtaking view, or a song that moves the soul… You can do so but only at immense cost to the underlying whole.

Nevertheless, this is what I settled on: Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena and to generate solutions. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.1

Creative people tend to be more open and enquiring, while being less constrained by existing categories and boundaries. They are generally more autonomous and value curiosity and exploration as ends in themselves. They have flexible minds and ideas are their currency. They value expertise and enjoy pushing their own boundaries and those of others. They love ideas for their own sake and will happily tinker with existing ones or use them as building blocks for entirely new ones. Creative people are not only artists, writers and academics, but are also to be found in science, engineering, business, finance and the law. In fact, creativity is so important – and so innately human – that there is no aspect of life that it can’t play a part in.

There are two broad styles of thinking associated with creativity:

 

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking is normally logical, rational, deductive and focused. It aims to produce the single best answer to a problem with little or no ambiguity.2 It emphasises speed, accuracy and logic and concentrates on recognising the familiar, reapplying techniques and accumulating stored information. It is most effective in situations where an answer readily exists and simply needs to be either recalled or worked out using decision-making strategies. The solution that is derived at the end of convergent thinking is generally the best possible answer the majority of the time.

Convergent thinking is linked to knowledge as it involves manipulating existing information or wisdom using standard procedures. Knowledge can be an important aspect of creativity. It is a source of ideas, suggests pathways to solutions and provides criteria for effectiveness and novelty. When you use convergent thinking to solve a problem you will often consciously use standards or probabilities to make judgments. (This contrasts with divergent thinking, where judgment is deferred while looking for and accepting many possible solutions.)

It is an aspect of the mind’s Doing mode (see page 35 of Mindfulness for Creativity).

 

Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is spontaneous and free-flowing. It lies behind the ‘purest’ forms of creativity and in many ways is true creativity. Divergent thinking generates ideas by exploring many possible solutions, often in parallel. Ideas may arise in an emergent cognitive fashion as epiphanies or ‘Aha!’ moments. Many possible solutions are explored and unexpected connections are drawn. A high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, traits that promote this style of thinking are more important, and it is commonly found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, courage, persistence and resilience.

Divergent thinking is cultivated by the mind’s Being mode (see page 39 of Mindfulness for Creativity) and arises most often when the body’s soothing-and- contentment system is ticking over (see page 23).

Creative thought often involves both convergent and divergent thinking. Neither is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other, and each has its own qualities. The most creative solutions or ideas, be they in art, science or business, often involve multiple phases and iterations of convergent and divergent thinking. So although the finished idea will often arise in an ‘Aha!’ moment, divergent thinking shouldn’t take all of the credit; convergent thinking might have accumulated the knowledge, wisdom and ideas necessary for divergent thinking do to its unconscious work.

Experiments have shown that mindfulness boosts creativity largely by enhancing divergent thinking, but many of the qualities associated with convergent thinking are also enhanced by mindfulness. Such things as working memory, clarity of thought and mental fortitude, resilience and courage are all boosted by mindfulness and are important features of convergent thinking. Happiness also increases both convergent and divergent thinking. Mindfulness enhances happiness and dissolves anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of exhaustion. It is through this additional route that mindfulness also boosts creativity.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

1 See https://www.creativityatwork.com/2014/02/17/what-is-creativity/

2 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convergent_thinking; Cropley, A. (2006), ‘In praise of convergent thinking’, Creativity Research 
Journal, 18(3), pp. 391–404.

Stuck for ideas? Struggling with a problem? Go for a walk and everything will fall into place…

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

There is something about the fluid nature of walking that encourages the mind to flow freely and feel at ease with new ideas. Research suggests that ‘creative output’ can increase by 60 per cent after a short walk.1 Countless generations of poets, writers, philosophers and artists have known this, and often walked for inspiration. Walking also encourages clarity of mind and purpose, which is why Steve Jobs hiked in the hills above San Francisco with his designers and board members before making important decisions. And he wasn’t unique – Aristotle, Einstein, President Obama and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg all walked to clarify their ideas.

For these reasons, another great Habit Releaser is to go for a walk for thirty minutes or more (you can find more in my new book Mindfulness for Creativity). You can walk more or less anywhere. Your neighbourhood is as good as the wild mountains if you walk with the appropriate frame of mind. If you are feeling a little more adventurous, then go somewhere a little wilder such as a nature reserve or the seaside. The important thing is to soak up the surroundings as mindfully as you can, so try to approach the walk with open-minded, playful curiosity. If you are not physically fit, don’t worry. The aim is not to push your physical boundaries, but to open up your awareness to new (or perhaps forgotten) states of mind and to notice the effect that walking has on your thought processes.

Before you start walking, spend a few minutes absorbing the scene. What can you see, hear and smell? Does the air have a taste? Focus on the sounds. Soak up the different ones. Can you hear the wind? Or perhaps the notes of different car engines in the distance? Can you hear insects, birdsong or the scampering of small animals such as squirrels? Notice the rise and fall of each individual sound. Mentally flick between them. How does the pavement, earth or grass feel beneath your feet? As you walk, notice the movement of your muscles and joints. Feel the gentle swaying of your limbs. Can you feel the movement of the breath in your whole body – at the front, the back and the sides? Can you feel how the breath is always changing, just as the sounds do?

If you are walking through the city, look up and pay attention to the buildings. Can you see any wildlife such as nesting birds? Are there any trees or grasses growing out from walls or roofs? What details can you see on the buildings? You might see sculptures, or perhaps dates carved into stonework or even a gargoyle or two. Simply observe with playful curiosity whatever you find.

When you finish your walk, how do you feel mentally and physically? Tired or energised? Achy or pleasantly relaxed? Whatever you feel is what you feel.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

1 Oppezzo, M. and Schwartz, D. L. (2014), ‘Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), pp. 1142–52.