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A ten day guide to de-stressing your life

The gloomy days of February can be the most miserable and stressful of the year, but it doesn’t have to be this way… If you follow this ten step guide to ‘de-stressing’ your life, then the next few weeks just might become the most serene and fulfilling ones of the year.

One step should to be carried out on each of the next 10 days. They’re based on the ideas found in our bestselling book ‘Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. The book uses a unique program based on mindfulness meditation developed by us at Oxford University in the UK to relieve anxiety, stress, exhaustion and depression. It’s been proven by countless clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counseling for dealing with these conditions.

 

Day 1 Eat some chocolate

At this time of year, it’s easy to eat too much chocolate and other high-carb ‘comfort foods’. At first, all that lovely rich food is packed with flavor and totally irresistible… but after a while, you hardly notice it at all. And if you are in a rush, it tends to be wolfed down by the handful.

When you eat without thinking you miss out on so many wonderful flavors, textures and aromas. A single bar of chocolate, for example, has over 300 different flavors. How many of them do you normally taste?

Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness so why not try this chocolate meditation to help you enjoy your food again?

 

You can listen to it here:

 

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is quite simply paying full whole-hearted attention. A typical meditation involves paying full attention to the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.

Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past.

Scientific studies have 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 so that when they 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.

 

Day 2 Go for a short walk

Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. It’s the ideal way of taking a break from all of that work that built up while you were away over Christmas.

So today, why not go for a 15-30 minute walk? You don’t have to go anywhere special. A walk around your neighborhood, taken in an open frame of mind, can be just as interesting as a hike through the mountains.

There’s no need to feel that you have to rush anywhere; the aim is to walk as mindfully as you can, focusing your awareness on your feet as they land on the ground, and feeling the fluid movements of all the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs.

Pay attention to all of the sights, sounds and smells. You might see the deep red color of the berries on the trees and bushes – or perhaps the inky greyness of slushy ice and snow. See if it is possible to be open to all your senses: smell the mustiness of the winter leaves; feel the rain on your head; the breeze on your face; watch how the patterns of light and shade shift unexpectedly.

 

Day 3 Take a Three Minute Breathing Space

When you’re becoming angry, exhausted, anxious or stressed, it’s difficult to remember why you should remain calm. And at such times, it can feel as if the whole world was created just to bait you.

The Three-minute Breathing Space was created to deal with such feelings. Its impact is twofold. Firstly, it’s a meditation that’s used to punctuate the day, so that it dissolves negative thought patterns before they gain control over your life. Secondly, it’s an emergency meditation that helps ‘ground’ you when your thoughts threaten to spiral out of control.

When you are carrying out the meditation you may find that your mind repeatedly runs away with itself. This is entirely natural. It’s what minds do. They leap around and offer up thoughts to your conscious self, much as a child hold’s up its toys to an approving adult. When you find that your mind has wandered, gently escort it back to full awareness and continue following the instructions on the track as best you can.

 

You can listen to the meditation here:

 

Day 4 Do something pleasurable

At this time of year, exhaustion, stress and unhappiness can easily dominate our lives. You can start to experience ‘anhedonia’ – that is, you can’t find pleasure in life. The things you used to enjoy now leave you ‘cold’ – you feel as if a thick fog has put a barrier between you and simple pleasures, and few things seem rewarding any more.

You can counteract this by taking baby-steps towards the things that you used to like doing but have since forgotten about. You can make a start by choosing one or two of the following things to do (or perhaps come up with your own ideas):

• Be kind to your body. Have a nice hot bath; have a nap for thirty minutes (or perhaps a little less); treat yourself to your favorite food without feeling guilty; have your favorite hot drink.

• Do something you enjoy. Visit or phone a friend (particularly if you’ve been out of contact for a while); get together what you need so you can do your favorite hobby; take some exercise; bake a cake; read something that gives you pleasure (not ‘serious’ reading); listen to some music that you have not listened to in a long while.

 

Day 5 The Intensely Frustrating Line Meditation

Sometimes life can seem like one big long line… You have to line up to buy gas, to pay for the food in the supermarket, and all of the bars and restaurants are crammed with people waiting to order.

Next time you feel like screaming ‘why don’t they just get on with it!’ try carrying out our Intensely Frustrating Line Meditation instead.

When you are in a line, see if you can become aware of your reactions when something holds up your progress. Perhaps you joined the ‘wrong’ line, and are obsessing about whether to make a dash for another one that seems shorter? At such times, it is helpful to ‘check in’ with what’s going on in your mind. Taking a moment to ask yourself:

– What is going through my mind?

– What sensations are there in my body?

– What emotions and impulses am I aware of?

 

Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. Mindfulness will, however, help by allowing you to tease apart the two major flavors of suffering—primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as the frustration of being in a long line. You can acknowledge that it is not pleasant; it’s OK not to like it. Secondary suffering is all of the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration, as well as any ensuing thoughts and feelings that often arise in tandem. See if you can see these clearly as well. See if it’s possible to allow the frustration to be here without trying to make it go away.

 

Day 6 Set up a mindfulness bell

Pick a few ordinary activities from daily life that you can turn into ‘mindfulness bells’, that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. There’s a list below of things you might like to turn into bells. You don’t have to turn them all into ‘mindfulness bells’ – they are just suggestions.

• Preparing food: Food offers a host of opportunities to become more mindful. If you’re preparing food, particularly if they are rich in flavors, smells and textures, then try and pay full mindful attention to all that you are doing.

• Washing the dishes: This is a great opportunity for exploring physical sensations. If you normally use a dishwasher, do them by hand for a change. When your mind wanders, shepherd it back to the present moment. Pay attention to the texture of the dishes, the temperature of the water, the smell of the detergent etc.

• Listening to friends: If you are planning to meet a friend, or bump into one unexpectedly, it’s easy to lapse into the same tired-old conversations. So why not turn a friend’s voice into a ‘bell’ that’s a signal to pay full attention to what they are saying? Notice when you are not listening – when you start to think of something else, what you are going to say in response etc. Come back to actually listening.

 

Day 7 The ten-finger gratitude exercise

To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in your life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you should bring to mind ten things that you are grateful for, counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to ten things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after three or four! This is exactly what the exercise is for – intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.

 

Day 8 Do the sounds and thoughts meditation

Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. Certain songs might cheer you up – or send you into an emotional tailspin. Sensing the power of sound – and its relationship to thoughts and emotion – is central to mindfulness and to becoming a happier, more relaxed and centered person.

Today, why not try our sounds and thoughts meditation? This elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this – deep in your heart – then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes.

The Sounds and Thoughts meditation gradually reveals the similarities between sound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere and we have no control over their arising. They can easily trigger powerful emotions that run away with us leaving us feeling fragile and broken.

 

You can download the meditation from here:

 

Day 9 Reclaim your life

Think back to a time in your life when things seemed less frantic, before the time when some tragedy or increase in workload took over your daily existence. Or it might be more recent than that, before the run-up to Christmas say, or perhaps a relaxing break in the summer. Recall in as much detail as you can some of the activities that you used to do at that time. These may be things you did by yourself (reading your favorite magazines or taking time to listen to a track from a favorite piece of music, going out for walks or bike rides) or together with friends or family (from playing board games to going to the theatre).

Choose one of these activities and plan to do it today or over this weekend. It may take five minutes or five hours, it might be important or trivial, it might involve others or it could be by yourself. It is only important that it should be something that puts you back in touch with a part of your life that you had forgotten – a part of you that you may have been telling yourself was lost somehow, that you could not get back to. Don’t wait until you feel like doing it; do it anyway and see what happens. It’s time to reclaim your life!

 

Day 10 Visit the movies

Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies – but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only when you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected – the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.

Before you go, notice any thoughts that may arise such as, ‘I haven’t got time for pleasure’, or, ‘What if there is nothing on that I’ll enjoy?’ They undermine your enthusiasm for taking action and discourage your intention to do something that might nourish your life in important ways. Once you’re inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film!

 

Sounds and Thoughts Meditation

Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favourite as it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realise this – deep in your heart – then a great many of your troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes.

 

Because it is such a powerful meditation, I feel that it should be shared with anyone who thinks they can benefit from it. Feel free to download it and begin using it as part of your daily practice. So far we’ve given away the Three Minute Breathing Space, which serves as a wonderful ‘de-stresser’, and the Body and Breath Meditation, which forms the core of Week One of the Mindfulness course. Over the coming weeks we’ll be giving away as many of the meditations from our book, Mindfulness, as possible. All of the meditations are from the core Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme co-developed by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University. As you know, I wrote Mindfulness with Mark. MBCT has been proven by countless clinical trials to treat and prevent anxiety, stress, depression, unhappiness and exhaustion. For these reasons, we want to make as much of our Mindfulness course as accessible as possible. If you find the meditations useful, please let all of your friends and family know where they can get them (and feel free to Tweet or blog about them and our book too).

 

Why meditate on Sounds and Thoughts?

We are immersed in a soundscape of enormous depth and variety. Just take a moment to listen. What can you hear? At first you might sense a general pulsating, all-encompassing hubbub of noise. You might be able to pick out individual sounds. You might recognise a friendly voice, a radio elsewhere in the building, a door slamming, cars hissing past, a siren in the distance, the hum of air conditioning, an aircraft overhead, tinkling music. The list is endless. Even when you’re in a quiet room, you can still pick up muffled sounds. It might be your breath as it moves through your nostrils, or the creaking of the floor or a heating system. Even silence contains sounds.

 

This constantly fluxing soundscape is just like your thought stream.

 

It’s never still or silent. Our environment fluxes constantly like the waves on the sea and the wind in the trees.

 

The Sounds and Thoughts meditation gradually reveals the similarities between sound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere. Both can seem random and we have no control over their arising. Both are enormously potent and carry immense momentum. They trigger powerful emotions that can easily run away with us.

 

Thoughts come as if from nowhere. Just as the ear is the organ that receives sounds, the mind is the organ that receives thoughts. Just as it is difficult to hear the raw sounds without activating a corresponding concept in the mind, such as ‘car’, ‘voice’ or ‘central heating’, so the flicker of any thought activates a network of associations. Before we know it, the mind has leaped and bound into a past that we had long since forgotten or a future that’s been entirely dreamed up and has little basis in reality. We might start to feel angry, sad, anxious, stressed or bitter – just because a thought triggered an avalanche of associations.

 

The Sounds and Thoughts meditation helps you to discover this for yourself. It also helps you to discover – at the deepest of levels – that you can relate to unsettling thoughts in the same way that you relate to sounds. Your thoughts can be likened to a radio that’s been left on in the background. You can listen – or rather observe – but you need not elaborate on what you receive or act on what you feel. You don’t usually feel the need to think or behave in a way that a voice on a radio tells you to, so why should you blindly assume that your thoughts portray an unerringly accurate picture of the world? Your thoughts are thoughts. They are your servants. No matter how loud they shout, they are not your master, giving orders that have to be obeyed. This realisation gives you immense freedom; it takes you off a hair trigger and gives you the space to take more skilful decisions – decisions that can be made with your mind when it’s in full awareness.

 

There are two key elements to the Sounds and Thoughts meditation – they are receiving and noticing.

 

Receiving

We receive sounds as they come and go. We see the body as if it were a living microphone that indiscriminately receives sounds as vibrations in the air. We tune in to the raw sensations of each sound with its own volume, tone, pitch, pattern and duration. In the same way, we move from receiving sounds to ‘receiving’ thoughts and any associated emotions they carry – seeing the very moment they appear, seeing how long they hang around and the moment when they dissolve.

 

Noticing

We notice the layers of meaning that we add to the experience of sounds. We may find that we habitually label them, pursuing those we like or rejecting those we dislike. We see if we can notice this as soon as we become aware that we are doing it and then return to simply receiving the sounds. In the same way, we notice thoughts and feelings and remain fully alive to the way in which they create associations and stories, and how easily we get sucked into their drama.

 

Sounds and Thoughts Meditation

Although it’s best to follow the guidance on the downloadable track while actually carrying out the meditation, you’ll find that reading through the details of the following meditation will help enormously. Please try and remember to not get hung up on the specifics; as we’ve said, the spirit is more important than the detail.

 

You can download the track from the ‘Free Meditations from Mindfulness’ page of the ‘Resources’ section or follow the link HERE.

 

Settling with breath and body

Find a sitting position, in which the spine can be self-supporting, with your back straight but not stiff.

1. Sit as described and with your shoulders relaxed, head and neck balanced and chin tucked slightly in.

2. Bring your attention to the movements of the breath in the body for a few minutes, until you feel reasonably settled. Then expand your attention to take in the body as a whole, as if the whole body were breathing, helping you to be aware of all the sensations in the interior landscape of the body.

3. Spend a few minutes practising mindfulness of the breath and body in this way, remembering that in the practice that follows you can always come back to the breath and body to anchor yourself if your mind becomes too distracted or over-whelmed.

 

Sounds

4. Now, when you are ready, allow the focus of your attention to shift from sensations in the body to hearing – open to sounds as they arise.

5. There is no need to go searching for sounds or listening out for particular sounds. Instead, as best you can, simply remain open, so that you are receptive to awareness of sounds from all directions as they arise – sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below. In this way, you are opening to the whole space of sound around you: the ‘soundscape’. Perhaps notice how the obvious sounds can easily crowd out the more subtle ones; noticing any spaces between sounds – moments of relative quiet.

6. As best you can, be aware of sounds simply as sounds, as raw sensations. Notice the tendency we all have to label sounds as soon as they are received (car, train, voice, air conditioning, radio), and see if it is possible simply to notice this labelling and then refocus, beyond and below the label, on the raw sensations of the sounds themselves (including the sounds within sounds).

7. You may find that you are thinking about the sounds. See if it is possible to reconnect with direct awareness of their sensory qualities (patterns of pitch, timbre, loudness and duration), rather than their meanings, implications or stories about them.

8. Whenever you notice that your awareness is no longer focused on sounds, gently acknowledge where the mind has moved to and then retune the attention back to sounds as they arise and pass away from moment to moment.

9.Then, after you have been focusing on sounds for four or five minutes, let go of your awareness of sounds.

 

Thoughts

10. Now shift your focus of attention so that your thoughts are centre-stage in awareness – seeing them, as best you can, as events in the mind.

11. Just as with sounds, where you were noticing their arising, lingering and passing away, so now, as best you can, attend to thoughts that arise in the mind, noticing when they arise, seeing as they linger in the space of the mind (like clouds moving across the sky of the mind). Eventually, see if you can detect the moment when they dissolve.

12. There is no need to try to make thoughts come or go. In the same way that you related to the arising and passing away of sounds, just let thoughts come and go on their own.

13. Just as clouds moving across a vast spacious sky are sometimes dark and stormy, sometimes light and fluffy, so thoughts take different forms. Sometimes clouds fill the entire sky. Sometimes they clear out completely, leaving the sky cloudless.

14. Alternatively, you could pay attention to thoughts in the mind in the same way that you would if the thoughts were projected on the screen at the cinema – you sit, watching, waiting for a thought or image to arise. When it does, you attend to it, so long as it is there ‘on the screen’, and then you let it go as it passes away. Notice when you get drawn into the drama, finding yourself up there on the screen. When you become aware of this, congratulate yourself for noticing, then return to your seat and wait patiently for the next sequence of thoughts to arise, as they surely will.

15. If any thoughts bring with them intense feelings or emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, as best you can, note their ‘emotional charge’ and intensity and let them be as they already are.

16. Remember, that if at any time you feel that your mind has become unfocused and scattered, or it keeps getting repeatedly drawn into the story created by your thinking, see if it is possible to come back to the breath and a sense of the body as a whole, sitting and breathing, and use this focus to anchor and stabilise your awareness back in the present moment.

 

If you find the Sounds and Thoughts meditation useful, then please tell your family and friends where they can download it from. Feel free to blog or Tweet about it too. It’s a powerful meditation tailor made for our frantic world and we want as many people as possible to benefit from it.

 

If you’ve found it especially useful, or are feeling anxious, stressed, exhausted, unhappy or depressed, then it might be worth doing the full eight week course detailed in the book Mindfulness. This book is now the recommended text for the Oxford University Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Course. And remember that Mindfulness is also a great ‘vaccination’ to many of the stresses and strains of our increasingly frantic world.

Free Mindfulness Meditation of the Body and Breath

Meditation is so overwhelming good for mental and physical health that it should be freely available whenever you need it.

 

With this in mind, we’re giving away as many of the meditations from our book, Mindfulness, as possible. All of the meditations are from the core Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme co-developed by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University. As you know, I wrote Mindfulness with Mark. MBCT has been proven by countless clinical trials to treat and prevent anxiety, stress, depression, unhappiness and exhaustion. For these reasons we want to make as much of our Mindfulness course as accessible as possible. If you find the meditations useful, please let all of your friends and family know where they can get them (and feel free to Tweet or blog about them and our book too).

 

Last week we gave away the Three Minute Breathing Space, which serves as a wonderful ‘de-stresser’. This week we’re making available the Body and Breath Meditation, which forms the core of Week One of the Mindfulness course.

 

Every meditation tradition begins with daily practices that help to focus a scattered mind. The most common way to start is by focusing on a single object that is always with you: the movement of the breath in the body. Why the breath?

Firstly, the breath is something that you probably take for granted despite the fact that you cannot live without it. You can live without food for weeks, without water for days, but you cannot survive without the nourishment that the breath provides for more than a few tens of seconds. The breath really is life.

 

Secondly, there is an important way in which the breath does not need us to make it happen. The breath breathes itself. If it was up to us to remember to breathe, we’d have forgotten long ago. So tuning into the breath can be an important antidote to the natural tendency towards believing that we have to be in control. Attending to the breath reminds us that at the core of our being, something is happening that depends very little on who we are or what we want to achieve.

 

Thirdly, the breath provides a natural, gently moving target to focus on in your meditation; it grounds you in the here and now. You cannot take a breath for five minutes ago, or for five minutes’ time. You can only take a breath for now.

 

Fourthly, the breath can be a sensitive monitor for your feelings. If you can sense more clearly when the breath is short or long, shallow or deep, rough or smooth, you can begin sensing your own internal weather patterns, and choose whether and how to take skillful action to look after yourself.

 

Finally, the breath provides an anchor for your attention, so that you can see more clearly when your mind has wandered, when it is bored or restless or when you are fearful or sad. During even the shortest meditation on the breath, you may become aware of how things are for you, and, returning to the breath, let go of the tendency to fix things straight away. The breath opens up a different possibility, that of allowing life to live itself for a while, to see what wisdom emerges when you don’t rush in to ‘put things right’. This can be an important antidote to emerging feelings of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness.

 

We suggest that you practise the meditation of the Body and Breath shown below for six out of the next seven days (you can download the track from the ‘Free Meditations from Mindfulness’ page of the ‘Resources’ section). The meditation takes just eight minutes and we recommend that you do it at least twice each day. You can do it sitting or lying, and feel free to experiment with whichever posture best supports your intention to stay awake for the period of the practice. You can also choose the times to do it. Many people find that the best times are in the morning and in the evening, but it’s entirely up to you when you carry it out.

 

At first, you might find it difficult to make the time, but meditation ultimately liberates more time than it uses. And don’t forget that this meditation, along with the others in our book, have been proven in numerous studies around the world to help people deal with a host of problems including anxiety, stress, exhaustion, unhappiness and depression. It will, however, work most fully if you put in the required time each day. It may not appear to have instant benefits; you have to practise. Ideally you would carry out the full eight week course detailed in our book Mindfulness. However, even the little taster provided by the download will begin the process of putting you back in control of your life. And some people report feeling more relaxed and happy almost from day one.

 

There will be times when you will miss out on one of the practice sessions; since life can be busy and often frantic, it’s not unusual for this to happen. If it does, there is no need to criticise yourself in any way. Likewise, you might be forced to miss out a day or two. If you do, then don’t chastise yourself – instead, see if you can make up the time later in the week.

 

You may wish to read the meditation through first. It’s very detailed and gives you many pointers of what to become aware of when you’re meditating. But see if it’s possible to focus on the spirit of the meditation, rather than becoming hung up on the specifics. Even after you’ve read it through, it is best to do the meditation following along with the guidance on the downloadable track, so that you are taken through the meditation on a moment-by-moment basis, and don’t have to worry about when the time is up.

 

Mindfulness Meditation of the Body and Breath

Although it’s best to follow the guidance on the downloadable track while actually carrying out the meditation, you’ll find that reading through the details of the following meditation will help enormously. Please try and remember to not get hung up on the specifics; as we’ve said, the spirit is more important than the detail.

 

You can download the track from the ‘Free Meditations from Mindfulness’ page of the ‘Resources’ section or follow the link HERE.

 

Settling

  1. Settle into a comfortable position, either lying on a mat or a thick rug, or sitting on a chair, cushion or meditation stool. If you use a chair, it is best to use a firm, straight-backed chair (rather than an armchair), so you can sit away from the back of the chair and the spine can be self-supporting. If you sit on a cushion on the floor, it is helpful if your knees can actually touch the floor, although that may not happen at the beginning. Feel free to experiment with the height of cushions or stool until you feel comfortably and firmly supported. If you have a disability that means that sitting in this way or lying on your back is uncomfortable, find a posture that is comfortable for you, and which best allows you to maintain your sense of being fully awake for each moment.
  2. If sitting, allow your back to adopt an erect, dignified posture; neither stiff nor tensed up, but comfortable. If sitting on a chair, have your feet flat on the floor with your legs uncrossed. Allow your eyes to close if that feels comfortable. If not, lower your gaze so it falls, unfocused, a few feet in front of you. If lying down, allow your legs to be uncrossed, with your feet falling away from each other, and your arms lying alongside and slightly away from your body, so that the palms can be open to the ceiling, if that feels comfortable.

 

Bringing awareness to the body

  1. Bring your awareness to physical sensations by focusing your attention on the sensations of touch in the body where it is in contact with the floor and with whatever you are sitting or lying on. Spend a few moments exploring these sensations.
  2. Now focusing your attention on your feet, starting with the toes, expand the ‘spotlight of attention’ so it takes in the soles of your feet, the heels and the top of your feet, until you are attending to any and all of the physical sensations you become aware of in both feet, moment by moment. Spend a few moments attending to the feet in this way, noticing how sensations arise and dissolve in awareness. If there are no sensations in this region of the body, simply register a blank. This is perfectly fine – you are not trying to make sensations happen – you are simply registering what is already here when you attend.
  3. Now, expand your attention to take in the rest of both legs for a few moments, then the torso (from the pelvis and hips up to the shoulders); then the left arm; then the right arm; then the neck and head.
  4. Spend a minute or two resting in the awareness of the whole body. See if it is possible to allow your body and its sensations to be just as you find them. Explore how it is to let go of the tendency to want things to be a certain way. Even one brief moment of seeing how things are – without wanting to change anything – can be profoundly nourishing.

 

Focusing on the sensations of breathing

  1. Now bring your awareness to the breath as it moves in and out of the body at the abdomen. Notice the changing patterns of physical sensations in this region of the body as the breath moves in and out. It may help to place your hand here for a few breaths, and feel the abdomen rising and falling.
  2. You may notice mild sensations of stretching as the abdomen gently rises with each in-breath, and different sensations as the abdomen falls with each out-breath.
  3. As best you can, follow closely with your attention, so you notice the changing physical sensations for the full duration of each in-breath and the full duration of each out-breath, perhaps noticing the slight pauses between one in-breath and the following out-breath, and between one out-breath and the following in-breath.

10.  There is no need to try to control your breathing in anyway at all – simply let the breath breathe itself.

 

Dealing skilfully with mind-wandering

Sooner or later (usually sooner), your attention will wander away from the breath. You may find thoughts, images, plans or day-dreams coming up. Such mind-wandering is not a mistake. It is simply what minds do. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on the breath, you might congratulate yourself. You have already ‘woken up’ enough to know it, and are once more aware of your experience in this moment. Simply acknowledge where the mind had wandered to. Then gently escort your attention back to the sensations in your abdomen.

 

The mind will likely wander over and over again, so each time, remember that the aim is simply to note where the mind has been, then gently escort your attention back to the breath. This can be very difficult, as you may find it frustrating that the mind seems so disobedient! Such frustration can create a lot of extra noise in the mind. So, no matter how many times your mind wanders, allow yourself on each occasion (without limit) to cultivate compassion for your mind as you bring it back to where you had intended it to be.

 

See if it is possible to view the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to nurture greater patience within yourself. In time, you may discover that this quality of kindliness towards the wandering mind brings a sense of compassion towards other aspects of your experience – that the wandering mind has been a great ally in your practice, and not the enemy you supposed it to be.

 

Continue with the practice for around eight minutes, or longer if you wish, perhaps reminding yourself from time to time that the intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment. As best you can, use the sensations in your body and breath as anchors to gently reconnect with the here and now each time that you notice that your mind has wandered and is no longer in touch with where you had intended it to be.

 

If you find the Body and Breath meditation useful, then please tell your family and friends where they can get it. Feel free to blog or Tweet about it too. It’s a powerful meditation tailor made for our frantic world and we want as many people as possible to benefit from it. If you found the meditation beneficial, or are feeling anxious, stressed, exhausted, unhappy or depressed, then it might be worth doing the full eight week course detailed in the book Mindfulness. This book is now the recommended text for the Oxford University Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Course.

The Three Minute Breathing Space meditation is now free to download

Meditation is so overwhelming good for mental and physical health that it should be freely available whenever you need it.

 

With this in mind, over the next few weeks we’ll be giving away as many of the meditations from our book, Mindfulness, as possible. All of the meditations are from the core Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme co-developed by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University. As you know, I wrote Mindfulness with Mark. MBCT has been proven by countless clinical trials to treat and prevent anxiety, stress, depression, unhappiness and exhaustion. For these reasons, we want to make as much of our Mindfulness course as accessible as possible. If you find the meditations useful, please let all of your friends and family know where they can get them (and feel free to Tweet or blog about them and our book too).

 

The first meditation that we’re making available is the Three Minute Breathing Space. It’s a mini-meditation that can put you back in control of your life when it starts to slip between your fingers.

 

One of the great ironies of mindful awareness is that it often seems to evaporate just when you need it the most. When you’re becoming increasingly burned out, you tend to forget just how useful it can be for dealing with the feelings of being overwhelmed by the world’s seemingly relentless demands. When you’re becoming angry, it’s difficult to remember why you should remain calm. And when you’re anxious or stressed, you feel far too rushed to squeeze in a twenty-minute meditation. When you’re under pressure, the last thing your mind wishes to be is mindful – tired, old thinking habits are infinitely more seductive.

 

The Three-minute Breathing Space was created to deal with such situations. It’s a mini meditation that acts as a bridge between the longer, formal meditations detailed in our book Mindfulness and the demands of everyday life.

 

Its impact is twofold: first and foremost, it’s a meditation that’s used to punctuate the day, so that you can more easily maintain a compassionate and mindful stance, whatever comes your way. In essence, it dissolves negative thought patterns before they gain control over your life – often before you’re even aware of them. Secondly, it’s an emergency meditation that allows you to see clearly what is arising from moment to moment when you feel under pressure. It allows you to pause when your thoughts threaten to spiral out of control, by helping you to regain a compassionate sense of perspective and to ground yourself in the present moment.

 

The Breathing Space meditation concentrates the core elements of the Mindfulness programme into three steps of roughly one minute each. It’s best that you practise the Breathing Space twice a day. It’s up to you when you do it, but it makes sense to find regular times each day to set aside and stick to them, so that this becomes part of your daily routine. You may wish to do the actual practice while listening to the track (available in the Resources section of this Franticworld.com website). You may wish to listen to the track the first few times that you do the Breathing Space, but then feel free to do it on your own, silently guiding your own practice for about three minutes, keeping the three-step structure. It’s also worth reading the printed version of the meditation detailed below, so you can familiarise yourself with its hourglass pattern.

 

You can download or stream the meditation from HERE.

 

Three-minute Breathing Space meditation

Step 1: Becoming aware

Deliberately adopt an erect and dignified posture, whether sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes. Then, bring your awareness to your inner experience and acknowledge it, asking: what is my experience right now?

 

  • What thoughts are going through the mind? As best you can, acknowledge thoughts as mental events.
  • What feelings are here? Turn towards any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them without trying to make them different from how you find them.
  • What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing, acknowledging the sensations, but, once again, not trying to change them in any way.

 

Step 2: gathering and focusing attention

Now, redirecting the attention to a narrow ‘spotlight’ on the physical sensations of the breath, move in close to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen . . . expanding as the breath comes in . . . and falling back as the breath goes out. Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Use each breath as an opportunity to anchor yourself into the present. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.

Step 3: expanding attention

Now, expand the field of awareness around the breathing so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture and facial expression, as if the whole body was breathing. If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, feel free to bring your focus of attention right in to the intensity by imagining that the breath could move into and around the sensations.  In this, you are helping to explore the sensations, befriending them, rather than trying to change them in any way. If they stop pulling for your attention, return to sitting, aware of the whole body, moment by moment.

 

The hourglass shape of the Breathing Space

It is helpful to view your awareness during the Breathing Space as forming the shape of an hourglass. The wide opening at the top of an hourglass is like the first step of the Breathing Space. In this, you open your attention and gently acknowledge whatever is entering and leaving awareness.

 

The second step of the Breathing Space is like the narrowing of the hourglass’s neck. It’s where you focus your attention on the breath in the lower abdomen. You focus on the physical sensations of breathing, gently coaxing the mind back to the breath when it wanders away. This helps to anchor the mind – grounding you back in the present moment.

 

The third step of the Breathing Space is like the broadening base of an hourglass. In this, you open your awareness. In this opening, you are opening to life as it is, preparing yourself for the next moments of your day. Here you are, gently but firmly, reaffirming a sense that you have a place in the world – your whole mind–body, just as it is, in all its peace, dignity and completeness.

 

If you find the Breathing Space useful, then please tell your family friends where they can get it. Feel free to blog or Tweet about it too. It’s a powerful meditation tailor made for our frantic world and we want as many people as possible to benefit from it.

Beyond chocolate

Although our chocolate meditation always causes a stir, we’re often asked for a healthy alternative. If you’re feeling a little virtuous today you could try this raisin meditation instead.

 

Set aside five to ten minutes when you can be alone, in a place, and at a time, when you will not be disturbed by the phone, family or friends. Switch off your mobile phone, so it doesn’t play on your mind. You will need a few raisins (or other dried fruit or small nuts). You’ll also need a piece of paper and a pen to record your reactions afterwards. Your task will be to eat the fruit or nuts in a mindful way.

 

Read the instructions below to get an idea of what’s required, and only reread them if you really need to. The spirit in which you do the meditation is more important than covering every instruction in minute detail.

 

You should spend about 20 to 30 seconds on each of the following eight stages:

 

1. Holding

Take one of the raisins (or your choice of dried fruit or nut) and hold it in the palm of your hand, or between your fingers and thumb. Focusing on it, approach it as if you have never seen anything like it before. Can you feel the weight of it in your hand?  Is it casting a shadow on your palm?

 

2. Seeing

Take the time really to see the raisin. Imagine you’ve have never seen one before. Look at it with great care and full attention. Let your eyes explore every part of it. Examine the highlights where the light shines; the darker hollows, the folds and ridges.

 

3. Touching

Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture. How does it feel between the forefinger and thumb of the other hand?

 

4. Smelling

Now, holding it beneath your nose, see what you notice with each in-breath. Does it have a scent? Let it fill your awareness. And if there is no scent, or very little, notice this as well.

 

5. Placing

Slowly take the object to your mouth and notice how your hand and arm know exactly where to put it. And then gently place it in your mouth, noticing what the tongue does to ‘receive’ it. Without chewing, simply explore the sensations of having it on your tongue. Gradually begin to explore the object with your tongue, continuing for 30 seconds or more if you choose.

 

6. Chewing

When you’re ready, consciously take a bite into the raisin and notice the effects on the object, and in your mouth. Notice any tastes that it releases. Feel the texture as your teeth bite into it. Continue slowly chewing it, but do not swallow it just yet. Notice what is happening in the mouth.

 

7. Swallowing

See if you can detect the first intention to swallow as it arises in your mind, experiencing it with full awareness before you actually swallow. Notice what the tongue does to prepare it for swallowing. See if you can follow the sensations of swallowing the raisin. If you can, consciously sense it as it moves down into your stomach. And if you don’t swallow it all in one go, consciously notice a second or even a third swallow, until it has all gone. Notice what the tongue does after you have swallowed.

 

8. After-effects

Finally, spend a few moments registering the aftermath of this eating. Is there an aftertaste; what does the absence of the raisin feel like? Is there an automatic tendency to look for another?

Now take a moment to write down anything that you noticed when you were doing the practice. Here’s what some people who’ve attended our courses have said:

 

‘The smell for me was amazing, I’d never noticed that before.’

‘I felt pretty stupid, like I was in art school or something.’

I thought how ugly they looked . . . small and wrinkled, but the taste was very different from what I would normally have thought it tasted like. It was quite nice actually.’

‘I tasted this one raisin more than the twenty or so I usually stuff into my mouth without thinking.’

 

As far as you feel able, try and carry this ‘raisin mind’ attitude of full conscious awareness with you throughout the rest of today.

 

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available from Amazon and elsewhere.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

The Benefits of Mindfulness meditation

Earlier in the week I wrote about the myths surrounding Mindfulness. It’s also worth bearing in mind the countless proven benefits of Mindfulness (more specifically Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which lies at the heart of our book). In essence Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life again.

 

Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing. Scientific studies have 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 so that when they 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.

 

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average. These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life. Here are some of the main benefits:

  • Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation;
  • Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increases;
  • Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships;
  • Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress including hypertension;
  • Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence;
  • Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.

 

These to me suggest that Meditation is pretty good for you! What do you think?

 

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available now.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

Dispelling the myths surrounding Mindfulness meditation

Countless myths surround Mindfulness meditation, so it’s worth occasionally reminding yourself what it is not.


  • Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practise meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are keen meditators too.
  • You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV) but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practise bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing, on buses, trains or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
  • Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
  • Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus have benefited psychologically.
  • It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving towards important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things which need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realising your deepest values.

 

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available now.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

The joy of sneezing

A sneezing fit is probably one of the most emphatic ways of interrupting a meditation. This happened to me a little earlier. I was deeply engaged in a breathing meditation, following my breath into and out of my nostrils, when I felt that telltale tingling at the tip of my nose. I knew where it was heading – there is nothing quite so compelling as a sneeze. The nose starts a tingling, the world momentarily stops spinning, the head leans back – and bamm! It hits you like a train.

 

It’s the height of the hay fever season so sneezing fits are only to be expected. I’ve been in this situation so many times before that I’ve lost count, but today I decided to play things a little differently. Instead of a sneezing fit interrupting the meditation, I made it a central feature of the meditation. Sneezing itself became the meditation. So next time you feel compelled to sneeze why not follow these ideas for meditating on your snuffles?

 

Here goes:

  • Focus your attention on where the sensations seem to be the most powerful and compelling. This may be on the tip of the nose or deeper inside, or perhaps near the upper lip or the back of the throat. There may be one sensation or a whole bundle. Consciously observe them. Try not to judge, describe or alter them in any way. Allow the feelings to be themselves and to do whatever they wish.
  • Your mind may become completely wrapped up in the sneeze. You might find feelings of distaste, embarrassment, annoyance, or even fear bubbling up. Accept your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Allow them to be just as they are. Gently shepherd your awareness back to the raw sensations of sneezing.
  • If the feelings begin to ebb away, consciously follow them as they dissipate. Again try not to judge or alter anything in any way.
  • If the feelings begin to build, follow them as they spread. The head may roll back of its own accord, twist to one side, or remain static. Every sneeze is different. As best you can, try not to change anything at all. With full awareness accept your body’s sensations and reflexes.
  • As consciously as you can, follow the sneeze as it builds to a crescendo and then dissipates. A second or third sneeze may start to build. Again, try to consciously accept whatever happens.

 

This sneezing meditation can be adapted to any scenario your body might conjure up. Aches, pains, cramps…. they can all act as work benches for the meditative mind.

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available now.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

The intensely frustrating queue…

It’s funny how Mindfulness can sometimes desert you when you need it the most. I was reminded of this earlier today when I went to post a parcel. I was in a bit of a rush… when I arrived at the Post Office I was greeted with an enormous queue snaking majestically out of the door. My heart naturally sank, and settled somewhere around my knees.

I muttered to myself: ‘Why don’t they just get on with it!’

Almost as soon as the words had left my lips I remembered that phrases like that are often signs of stress – not statements of fact. How often have you felt yourself thinking such things as ‘Why am I not enjoying this any more?’, ‘What’s the matter with me?’, ‘I can’t give up’ or ‘Something has to change!’

Again, often as not, these are signs of anxiety, stress, or the first stirrings of mental exhaustion.

As I remembered this, I also recalled the antidote: the Intensely Frustrating Queue Meditation (or Intensely Frustrating Line Meditation, if you’re American). The trip to the Post Office had turned into an unexpected opportunity to practice my Mindfulness meditation.

For those who don’t have a copy of our book ‘Mindfulness’, here’s the meditation:

 

The Intensely Frustrating Queue meditation

When you are in a queue in a supermarket or post office, see if you can become aware of your reactions when something holds up your progress. Perhaps you joined the ‘wrong’ queue, and are obsessing about whether to make a dash for another one that seems shorter? At these times, it is helpful to ‘check in’ with what’s going on in your mind. Taking a moment to ask yourself:

 

– What is going through my mind?

– What sensations are there in my body?

– What emotional reactions and impulses am I aware of?

 

Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. Mindfulness will, however, help by allowing you to tease apart the two major flavors of suffering—primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as the frustration of being in a long queue. You can acknowledge that it is not pleasant; it’s OK not to like it. Secondary suffering is all of the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration, as well as any ensuing thoughts and feelings that often arise in tandem. See if you can see these clearly as well. See if it’s possible to allow the frustration to be here without trying to make it go away.

 

Stand tall.

Breathe.

Allow.

Be here.

 

This moment, too, is a moment of your life.

You may still feel pulses of frustration and impatience while you are in the queue, but these feelings will be less likely to spiral out of control. You may even become, for yourself and for others around you, an oasis of stillness…

After fifteen minutes or so of meditating, I finally reached the front of the queue. In the past, I would have been hot and bothered, but today I felt far more serene. My time in the queue could hardly have been described as ‘pleasant’ but neither was it particularly unpleasant. It was fifteen moments of my life in which I had been fully aware of being alive in all it’s majestic glory. And that is infinitely better than the alternative.

Mindfulness makes you ‘tougher’ too…

Mindfulness training has been proven to help relieve anxiety, stress and depression whilst boosting intelligence and creative thinking. It also enhances feelings of compassion and empathy. Some have claimed that these changes can make us ‘better people’. Obviously this is all good news, but it’s also necessary to have a degree of ‘toughness’ (we prefer the term ‘resilience’) to withstand life’s knocks and kick-backs.

Can Mindfulness help with this too? Or will regular meditation make you ‘too’ nice?

There’s good news on this front. Mindfulness has been found to boost resilience to quite a remarkable degree. Hardiness varies hugely from person to person. Some people thrive on stressful challenges that may daunt many others, whether these involve meeting ever-increasing work performance targets, trekking to the South Pole or being able to cope with three kids, a stressful job and mortgage payments.

What is it that makes ‘hardy’ people able to cope where others might wilt? Dr Suzanne Kobasa at City University of New York narrowed the field down to three psychological traits which she termed control, commitment and challenge. Another eminent psychologist, Dr Aaron Antonovsky, an Israeli medical sociologist, has also attempted to pin down the key psychological traits that allowed some to withstand extreme stress while others did not. He focused on Holocaust survivors and narrowed the search down to three traits which together add to having a sense of coherence: comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness. So ‘hardy’ people have a belief that their situation has inherent meaning that they can commit themselves to, that they can manage their life, and that their situation is understandable – that it is basically comprehensible, even if it seems chaotic and out of control.

To a large degree, all of the traits identified by both Kobasa and Antonovsky govern how resilient we are. Generally speaking, the higher you score on their scales the more able you are to cope with life’s trials and tribulations.

As part of their ongoing evaluation of the impact of their eight-week mindfulness training course, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s team at the University of Massachusetts Medical School decided to see whether meditation could boost these scores and thereby enhance hardiness. And the results were very clear cut indeed. In general, not only did the participants feel happier, more energised and less stressed, they also felt that they had far more control over their lives. They found that their lives had more meaning and that challenges should be seen as opportunities rather than threats. Other studies have replicated this finding.

But perhaps most intriguing of all is the realisation that these ‘fundamental’ character traits are not unchangeable after all. They can be changed for the better by just eight weeks of mindfulness training. And these transformations should not be underestimated because they can have huge significance for our day-to-day lives. While empathy, compassion and inner serenity are vital for overall wellbeing, a certain degree of hardiness is required too. And the cultivation of mindfulness can have a dramatic impact on these crucial aspects of our lives.

Overall ‘hardiness’ can be boosted by following the eight-week Mindfulness programme in the book: ‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman.