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Posts from the ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ Category

Is Awe Our Most Under-Rated And Powerful Emotion?

Awe calms the mind and soothes the spirit. It defuses anxiety, stress, and unhappiness, while also inspiring curiosity and enhancing creativity. And yet, it is being snuffed out by our increasingly homogenised world. Thankfully, awe is easy to inspire….

 

Close your eyes. Imagine that you are standing atop a tall craggy mountain. Wind whistling through your hair. Sun shining on your face. Feel the immensity of the mountains around you. See their snow-capped peaks streaming off into the distance in every direction. And there… over there… is an immense storm barrelling towards you. You are held in awe by nature’s power.

Awe is that feeling you get when confronted with something vast that transcends normality, and that you struggle to fully understand. It’s amazement tinged with an edge of fear. Your senses are sharpened and fuse into one over-arching sense of being. The mind is stilled and you lose your ego-centric sense of self. You become lost in the scene that you are surveying. The heart may skip. Goosebumps might appear. And, for a short while at least, everything pauses as if balanced perfectly on the head of a pin; your spirit, the world, time itself.

Awe creates a vanishing self. All negative traits simply evaporate. That nagging voice in your head, anxious self-consciousness, self interest… they all disappear in the face of awe. You begin to feel more connected to a greater whole; to friends and to family, to society, to the physical world, and to the universe itself. Awe is immense, infinite, and ultimately, indescribable. It can only be feltby the deepest reaches of the soul.

Awe cultivates generosity, compassion, and selflessness. It calms the mind and diminishes selfishness and narcissism. It lowers stress, sometimes for weeks afterwards, and enhances happiness and quality of life. Awe enhances the immune system by cutting the production of inflammatory cytokines. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, soothes the body’s stressful fight or flight response. And it alters our sense of time, so that it feels as if you have more it, so you feel less busy and more willing to devote some of it to helping others. Awe can help break habitual patterns of thought – especially negative ones. It also enhances memory. You see, our memories are not fixed databanks that store objective facts about the past. They are far more fluid than that. They are coloured by our assumptions and expectations. Awe counteracts this tendency by enhancing mental clarity and freshness. It also ushers you back into the present moment so you can focus with renewed vigour on what is actually happening in the moment rather than being absorbed by your preoccupations. So it decreases negative rumination and enhances mindfulness. Curiosity and creativity also increase. Research has discovered that people shown awe-inspiring pictures of the Earth produce far more creative solutions to problems, find greater interest in abstract paintings, and persist longer on difficult puzzles.

Despite its power to move the soul, awe is one of our most under-rated and under-explored emotions. Nor is it likely to get any better; for technology is killing awe. Always-on connectivity can trap us inside a small and slowly diminishing, world. Those carefully constructed information silos crafted by the algorithms that underpin social media can all too easily create a ‘small world’ that is the antithesis of awe. You can disappear down a rabbit-hole of your own making (with a little help from your phone). The Internet may contain countless opportunities to become inspired by awe, but the corporations that control many of its gateways don’t want that. Awe is dangerous. It has the power to liberate you. And free spirits’ endanger profits.

Our education systems, too, are slowly killing awe. They have become too focused on achieving benchmarks and results at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and awe. To get a feel for this, look at how science, maths and art are taught. Children are no longer allowed to explore and risk ‘failure’ but are instead force-fed facts. There is a checklist of items that they need to know to pass exams, so that is what they are taught. It means they learn to jump through the necessary hoops rather than gain true knowledge and wisdom. Great art, science, technology and maths are genuinely awe-inspiring. Learning facts is not. Discovering something new to you through experimentation is thrilling. Being told that something is ‘great’ or ‘important’ is not. But not only that, such an approach closes down the mind and stifles curiosity. Awe never gets a look in.

And this is compounded by identikit housing, bland workplaces, ‘safe’ architecture and our increasingly homogenised cityscapes. Sometimes we need to be slapped in the face as we walk down the street. Say what you will about 60s architecture and town planning, but it was anything but bland. British Brutalism and its equally terrible global architectural spin-offs was truly awful, but it’s a great conversation-starter. You come alive when faced with the ugly and the brutal. A frisson of annoyance anyone? Sometimes exasperation is good for the soul (but only if you take the time to pay attention and to savour it).

We need to rediscover the messy, the dirty, the disorganised, the non-sensical and the completely bonkers. We need to go berserk and enjoy life in all of its chaotic beauty. We need to experience the bigger world that lies just beyond our fingertips. In short, we need to feel a little awe each day.

Thankfully, awe is an easy emotion to cultivate. You simply need to pay attention, become a little more mindful, and very quickly you will begin to feel the prickle of awe as it rises from the heart and washes over the soul. So today, do the unexpected, take a risk, and march off into the unknown. Dare to be inspired by awe. You could drive into the hills, to a lake, or to the sea. Or perhaps take a bus or a train ten miles from your home and then walk back. Whatever you do, pay attention to what you find. Open your eyes and ears. Notice any sights, sounds or smells that are around. Feel everything. And when you find the unexpected, feel a sense of awe washing over you.

Or try this, my favourite little exercise, to rekindle your sense of awe…. It’s taken from my recent book ‘The Art of Breathing’. You can adapt the principles to just about any situation.

 

Go outside on a starry night.

  • Take off your shoes and socks. Feel the ground beneath your feet.
  • Look upwards….
  • See the stars streaming off into infinity in every direction. Not just unimaginably big but true, never-ending, ever expanding, infinity.
  • Focus on your breath as it flows in and out. Feel the soles of your feet touching the ground, the cool night air washing over you. Feel the stillness, the expectation, infinity itself . . .
  • Look at the stars as they twinkle. Those twinkles may have taken billions of years to reach you.
  • Breathe . . . Love, love the arriving of the light . . .

 

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published in the US by Conari Press

Buy the Art of Breathing from Amazon US.

Buy it from Amazon UK.

 

What is Mindfulness?

What it can do for you

Frantic World Home

 

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.

 

 

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:

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:

How to breathe yourself happier: This week doctors claimed meditation can beat pain and depression. I’m living proof…

  • William Bankes-Jones had horrific para-gliding accident in Norfolk
  • Was in terrible pain for weeks afterwards – until he tried meditation
  • His suffering reduced by around 90 per cent after only 20 minutes
  • Meditation gaining recognition as a way of treating pain and depression

William Bankes-Jones had spent the entire morning para-gliding above the Norfolk countryside. At one point he’d reached 1,000ft, held aloft by nothing more than powerful currents of rising air, but now he was sinking slowly back to earth. Anxious to fly for a little longer, he tried to catch a thermal rising from a nearby field, hoping it would lift him back towards  the clouds. But as William turned towards it, he noticed a line of tall trees blocking his path. Too late. He smashed into the tallest tree, hung in mid-air for a few agonising moments, then plummeted to earth.

‘The pain was excruciating,’ says William. ‘It was so intense that I blacked out. Every time I regained consciousness, the pain would knock me out again. It was horrific.’

Doctors soon discovered that William had broken his back in three places and one of his vertebrae had burst wide open. But this was just the start of the 55-year-old’s ordeal.

‘In the weeks that followed, I was highly stressed and in severe pain. I was facing the possibility of paralysis,’ he recalls. ‘I couldn’t feed myself or go to the toilet without help. I knew I was going to spend the rest of my days in constant pain and my career as an NHS physiotherapist was probably over. It felt like my life was in ruins.

‘The hospital had given me a morphine drip to help me cope with the intense pain, but it had unpleasant side-effects, so I decided to try what’s called mindfulness meditation instead. I’d learned how to meditate many years before, but never expected to use it under such extreme circumstances.

‘After I started, within a few minutes the pain had reduced by about half. After about 20  minutes, it had reduced by around 90 per cent.’

Treating pain with meditation may seem like a desperate — and unlikely — measure but it is gaining widespread acceptance. A study published online this week in the prestigious online medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine claimed meditation can indeed be a powerful painkiller. Not only that, it also said that practising mindfulness for just half an hour a day can offer people with depression as much relief as popping a pill. This review of previous studies found regular meditation could alleviate symptoms of depression as well as conventional anti-depressants.

The same study also highlighted its power to help people cope with the after-effects of cancer treatment, such as exhaustion, nausea and systemic pain. It does this by dissolving anxiety and stress while also boosting the immune system.

Dr Madhav Goyal, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who led the team carrying out the research, says: ‘It was surprising to see that with so little training we were still seeing consistent effects.’

Another study published recently in the journal Neuroscience suggests mindfulness can reduce the ‘unpleasantness’ of pain by around 60 per cent. Experienced meditators can reduce it by 90 percent.

Dr Fadel Zeidan, lead researcher of the study, carried out at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina, says: ‘Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs.’

A typical meditation used in the studies involved focusing on the  sensations the breath makes as it flows into and out of the body. This allows you to ‘see’ your mind in action, to observe difficult thoughts and painful sensations as they arise, and to let go of your struggles with them. This creates a relaxed state of mind that reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body. Such deep relaxation enhances healing and boosts mental and physical health. In the case of pain, it encourages the brain to turn down the  ‘volume’ control on its suffering.

Don’t believe it? I can personally vouch for its effectiveness as a pain and stress reliever. Seven years ago, I also had a  terrible paragliding accident that shattered my right leg. The impact drove the lower half of my leg up through the knee and into my thigh. I needed three major operations and intensive physiotherapy to repair the damage.

Throughout my ordeal, I used mindfulness to help me cope with the intense pain and stress, which was accompanied by more than a little anxiety. And it worked to an astonishing degree. My pain gradually subsided and I was able to reduce my intake of painkillers by two-thirds. I also developed a more contented outlook, seeing my injuries as temporary problems that would gradually subside, rather than as limb-threatening ones that might confine me to a wheelchair. Equally, it gave me the mental  stamina and clarity of purpose to persevere with the more conventional treatments such as physiotherapy.

Mindfulness meditation is, I’m convinced, why I recovered in double-quick time. My leg actually healed in six months rather than the predicted 18. I became so convinced by the power of the technique that I began to train as a meditation teacher, and then  co-wrote the bestselling book  Mindfulness, with Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University.

This has now sold almost 200,000 copies in 19 languages and is  currently America’s bestselling meditation book. One of the reasons for the book’s popularity is, I believe, because of its focus on sound science and medicine, rather than spirituality. Although mindfulness meditation has its origins in ancient Buddhism, it is now an entirely secular practice. It is no more religious than yoga. This allows people of all faiths, and atheists, to follow the simple practices with a clear conscience.

This secular approach was begun in the late Seventies by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. He saw the potential healing power of meditation and was determined to bring it into the medical mainstream. Professor Williams, and his colleagues in Cambridge and Toronto, then turned it into a powerful  treatment for depression known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive  Therapy (MBCT). This is at least as effective as drugs or counselling for severe depression. It is so powerful that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

Professor Williams says: ‘Scientific studies have now shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability. This means that when distressing thoughts arise, they dissolve away again more easily.

‘Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves,  creativity increases and reaction times become faster.’

Nor do you need to meditate for hours each day to gain these  benefits. According to Professor Williams: ‘Just 10 to 20 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation can have a significant benefit on overall mental health and wellbeing.’

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these benefits is that you can actually see them taking root in the brain. Imaging studies show that the brain lays down extra connections and tissue in areas associated with attention, memory and empathy in proportion to the hours of meditation practised. You can also see stress reactions in the brain dissolve once people begin to meditate.

Variants of MBCT are proving to be effective for treating a wide range of other mental and physical health problems. Hospitals have now started prescribing it to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side-effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

It is also now used for back  problems, migraine, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and even multiple sclerosis. Mindfulness appears to help IBS sufferers by reducing inflammation. With MS, meditation seems to promote healing while reducing such distressing symptoms as pain, pins and needles, balance problems, anxiety and depression.

Professor Lance McCraken, clinical psychologist at King’s College, London, says: ‘It has now become a vital part of our treatment  programme at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals. Mindfulness infuses everything we do.

‘Our patients tend to become very keen on it. When they have a little taste of mindfulness, and see how it can transform their lives for the better, they become very committed to meditation.’

It’s not just beneficial to adults; when applied in schools, mindfulness increases both children’s self-esteem and performance in class. This is largely because it reduces stress and enhances clarity of thought.

With all of these benefits, it’s hardly surprising that many businesses have begun offering in-house mindfulness classes. Apple and Google are the most prominent. Apple’s co-founder the late Steve Jobs was a Zen Buddhist who encouraged his employees to take up meditation.

Google offers its employees a mindfulness-based training programme called Search Inside Yourself, that aims to enhance kindness, integrity and compassion. And it’s not all about the individual: the programme’s founder says these qualities are also beneficial to the corporate bottom line.

William Bankes-Jones has experienced  all of these benefits first hand. He made a surprisingly good recovery from his 2010 para-gliding accident. When he returned to work, he began to teach mindfulness to his physiotherapy patients.

‘It can help them heal faster,’ he says simply. ‘The more at ease you are within yourself the better you heal.’

HOW TO DO IT IN FIVE EASY STEPS

 Meditation can be simple and does not require any special equipment. This meditation demonstrates the basic technique and takes just a few minutes. It should leave you profoundly relaxed.

1 – Sit erect but relaxed in a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. Or you can lie on a mat or blanket on the floor, or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to be as relaxed as possible.

2 – Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on the breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows through your mouth or nose, down your throat and into your lungs. Feel the expansion and subsiding of your chest and belly as you breathe. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are strongest. Stay in contact with each in-breath and out-breath. Observe them without trying to alter them in any way or expecting anything special to happen.

3 – When your mind wanders, gently shepherd it back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. The act of realising that your mind has wandered — and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath — is central to the practice of mindfulness.

4 – Your mind may or may not become calm. If it does, this may only be short-lived. It may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. These may also be fleeting. Whatever happens, observe without reacting or trying to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.

5 – After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings.

You can download or listen to this and other free meditations at franticworld.com/dailymail

Dr Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide To Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress And Restoring Wellbeing is published by Piatkus.

Buy now from Amazon US (Sold as You are Not Your Pain)

 

Why I’ve Gone On A ‘Media Diet’

I’ve been feeling quite miserable lately for no apparent reason. Not depressed – or even desperately unhappy – just a little lacking in enthusiasm for life and feeling ‘stuck’ and ‘trapped’ in some indefinable way. I knew that this state of mind, like all others, would eventually pass. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace the feelings and probe their origins. It led me to a surprising conclusion.

Whenever I’ve felt unhappy in the past I’ve cheered myself up by listening to my favourite music (techno always makes me smile) and then going for a walk. It never fails to cheer me up. But for some reason, this time it only lifted my spirits for a while, which is why I looked a little deeper. If you’ve read our book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World you’ll know that thinking about your state of mind can easily tip you into a downwards spiral that can create an awful lot of mental distress. This does not mean that you should avoid your troubles but rather that you should not dwell or ruminate over them excessively.  As with everything else in life, a balance has to be struck. Avoiding your troubles can be just as toxic as endlessly churning them over in your mind.

Last week I decided to mindfully follow my negative states of mind as they waxed and waned through the day. I found that they began as soon as I opened my eyes (which was a little worrying to say the least). Once I realised this, the origin became blindingly obvious; the radio news was making me miserable and angry – and this set the tone for the rest of the day.

The most hard-hitting news programme in the UK is BBC Radio 4’s Today. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a bear pit where the brightest and fastest thinking politicians, thinkers, and business leaders are torn to shreds on a daily basis (usually by John Humphys or Evan Davis). Both journalists are without doubt brilliant and a credit to the BBC. Without them, and the rest of the Today team, the UK would be a far worse place.

My day would typically begin at 7am with the sound of a politician being crucified by John Humphrys. My mind would click into gear with a phrase such as: “What have those idiots done now?!

Or, ‘Are they stupid?…’

Or perhaps: ‘Do they think we’re stupid?…’

‘Bloody bankers…!’

‘People are turning into cattle…. Why do they put up with this…’

You get the picture.

And so I’d begin the day with an argument. Not good.

The rest of breakfast time would proceed in a similar vein. Perhaps there’d be a story of a factory fire in a third world country that had killed hundreds of desperately poor workers. Or maybe a plane had crashed in a fireball over a primary school. Or perhaps cornflakes had been contaminated with hospital waste…. After such cheery news the politicians would return for a re-match and would end up slinging meaningless and contradictory statistics at each other.

Last week it all started to get a bit overwhelming so I switched to the BBC World Service only to hear that there had been an upsurge in acid attacks on women in India. Lovely. Still, the Indian Parliament was going to make it illegal (‘Shouldn’t it have been illegal already!’ I shouted at the radio).

I realised that it was time to take a break from the news. Trouble is, I’m a news journalist. You see the problem.

Nevertheless, I decided to bite the bullet and abstain from broadcast news for one month (I still read newspapers and websites). Although that was only a week ago, I’ve already seen the benefits. I’m far happier. My bubbling anger has run into the sand. Life seems less bleak. The world doesn’t seem beset by intractable problems. Political wrangles no longer dominate my day. In short, I made the correct diagnosis and the cure seems to be working.

In a few weeks I’ll return to Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s essential that we know what is going on in the world and try to uncover the truth. Equally, we must remember that news is biased towards the negative. That is, negative news is always far more ‘newsworthy’ than good news. This isn’t just a bias in the media. Journalists aren’t seeking to depress us. They are simply reflecting our own natural negativity bias. We naturally seek out negative news because our mind is hardwired to spot danger (negative news) so that we can try and avoid it. So the media is simply a reflection of our own mind.