Posted in Bipolar disorder, creativity, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Intellectual

In today’s Monday Matters I’ll be considering the intellectual element of the Wheel Of Wellness. This segment is all about keeping your brain active, exploring creativity and finding different ways to expand your knowledge and skills in various areas. It also includes finding ways to challenge yourself and ensuring you do activities which stimulate each area of the brain e.g. speaking and listening, problem solving, fine motor tasks and using and developing your skills of observation etc.

What do we mean by intellectual?

Sometimes when we use the term intellectual, we’re referring to individuals who come across as ‘brainy’, clever or highly educated as demonstrated by their thought processes, reflections, use of vocabulary, problem solving and factual knowledge etc. However, the term can also refer to ways in which you can stimulate your mind.

Today’s blog post is not about trying to develop a superior intellect or the knowledge of a Mastermind contestant, but more about keeping the different areas of your brain active and becoming a lifelong learner. Good mental fitness is very beneficial for your general health and wellbeing, and, as you get older, it can help to prevent signs of dementia or, at the very least, slow down cognitive decline.

Great ways to keep your brain active and expand your mind

Puzzles The term puzzle might make you think of a box of pieces that you join together to make a picture but a jigsaw is just one type of puzzle. In fact, the term is used to defined any activity that requires mental effort and has a definite ending. This can include paper puzzles such as crosswords, wordsearches, spot the difference and sudoku, board games such as Cluedo and Scrabble, guessing games such as I spy and charades and online games such as Candy Crush, Word Cookies and my favourite Angry Birds 2! Puzzling takes lots of concentration and mental effort which is great for improving both your physical and mental health. Here’s 5 benefits for you:

  • improves your problem solving skills which can then be applied at home or work
  • a wonderful stress reliever
  • reduces your risk of mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s
  • slows mental aging
  • a good form of entertainment and can be great fun!

If you are currently struggling with anxiety or depression, puzzles are a great way to distract yourself from negative thoughts, rumination and general worry about your problems. During my last period of depression, I used to dedicate a lot of time to doing jigsaws, wordsearches, arrow words and online games as it provided respite from thoughts that I wasn’t going to get better and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Learn to play a musical instrument There are so many benefits of learning to play a musical instrument that I could write a full blog post on it. According to my research, playing music uses both sides of the brain so you’re giving it a really good workout. Attentiveness, fine motor movements, memory and creativity are all required and as you get better at playing, you’ll become more confident, not just with regard to your instrument of choice, but also in general too. Setting and working towards goals and celebrating your achievements is bound to make you more positive and after a while, you will probably want to share you learning with others and impress them with your new skills – presenting a great opportunity to socialise with friends, family and even work colleagues.

In this month’s Happiful magazine, I also read that new research has found that learning a musical instrument (in the study they looked at the impact of piano practice) can protect against dementia in those over 60 as it strengthens white matter in the brain.

Read plenty of books, magazines and newspaper articles Being a regular reader is great exercise for the brain and both fiction and non-fiction have many benefits.

Fiction books can help improve your memory, vocabulary, empathy and emotional intelligence, analytical skills and tolerance of others. They can also be a huge source of pleasure and relaxation, alleviating stress and helping us to get a good night’s sleep.

Reading non-fiction books and articles (including blog posts) is a great way to improve your knowledge on a variety of topics which interest you. Whether you want to find out more about gardening, read about an interesting bird you spotted on a woodland walk, improve your understanding of a historical event or explore self help strategies for good mental health there are books and articles on every subject imaginable. And, if you join your local library, you can have access to a range of learning materials for free.

Many people also like to read a daily or weekly newspaper to keep themselves informed. Both the paper and online versions provide a source of global, national and local news, weather updates, the latest health and wellbeing advice, technological advances, entertainment and sports. You can even personalise the homepage on your computer so that news articles on particular topics appear first.

Learn a new skill Learning a new skill is a great way to fire up your brain. There are endless opportunities available for free online or you could try taking a class at your local college or doing a distance learning course. Here’s some examples which you might like to try:

  • flower arranging
  • photography
  • a foreign language
  • drawing
  • ceramics
  • watercolour painting
  • basic car repairs
  • Tai Chi
  • embroidery
  • good sleep hygiene
  • knitting
  • basic first aid
  • mindfulness
  • cooking on a budget
  • swimming
  • yoga
  • aromatherapy
  • Microsoft Office for beginners

As part of our course homework for last week, we were asked to have a go at learning something new. I chose something which I’ve been meaning to give a go for a long time which is developing the skills involved in creating wavy hair using a curling wand (which I purchased nearly a year ago and have barely tried out). My hairdresser showed me some of the basic techniques but it’s not so easy when you’re trying to do it on your own hair as you can’t see the back and you need to swap hands for each side meaning that for half of the styling process, you’re using your non-dominant hand for the wrapping. I found a few super helpful YouTube videos which used the same or a similar wand and have watched them a few times to get some tips. For next week’s session, I’m going to go to college with wavy hair to show off my new skill!

Try new things Trying something new is a great way to grow as a person. You might go to a restaurant you’ve never visited before, find a new recipe to have a go at, take a different fitness class, put on a different radio station, try listening to a different genre of music or go on a day trip to a place which a friend has recommended to you. You never know, you might discover a new favourite or create an amazing memory.

I took the opportunity to try out a new kind of exercise whilst I had access to all of the fitness classes for free. I’ve now discovered that I really enjoy doing pilates and although it’s a relatively gentle form of exercise, it’s great for toning your core muscles.

Ask questions This is something my husband and I do regularly as part of our thirst for new knowledge and greater understanding. For example, there are some swifts that come back every year and nest in one of the roofs we can see from our back bedroom. They’re fascinating birds and, being nature lovers, we always want to find out more about them. Some of the questions we’ve searched on Google this year include: When do swifts arrive in the UK? How many eggs do swifts have in a clutch? What do swift eggs look like? Do swifts pair for life?

You can also learn a lot from asking questions of friends, family, work colleagues and various acquaintances. You might want to get a different opinion or perspective or you might want to find out about something they seem to be somewhat of an expert in or at least know more about than you.

Try out a new hobby New hobbies are great for enhancing your skill set. Also, they present new challenges which can be wonderful for boosting your confidence and self esteem. Here’s a few hobbies that might appeal:

  • birdwatching
  • geocaching
  • upcycling
  • origami
  • gardening
  • calligraphy
  • scrapbooking
  • martial arts
  • astronomy
  • archery
  • camping

Keep a ‘things I want to learn’ list in your bullet journal or notebook Every time you think of something you’d like to know more about, write it down so you don’t forget. It might not be top of your to do list right now, but making a note can be a good reference for the future. When you’re ready, you can then pick something out to focus on and set some learning goals.

Watch documentaries If you’re a visual or auditory learner, documentaries are a great source of education. You can find out about anything you’re interested in, including wildlife, nature, different cultures, living with particular health conditions, environmental issues, technology, crime, history, arts and media, science, religion and current affairs. In the UK, Panorama and Dispatches are popular documentary programmes which tackle the latest issues, whilst Horizon focuses on a variety of subjects related to science and philosophy. I also find anything that Sir David Attenborough narrates to be both fascinating to listen to and incredibly informative.

Get creative Every one of us has the potential to be creative as long as regularly find the time to develop our skills. You might think that creativity is all about making a piece of art work or writing a story or poem, but you can be creative in many different ways. Here’s some examples:

  • developing a new storage system for all of your cleaning supplies and tools at home
  • finding an alternative solution to a problem at work
  • create a capsule wardrobe for your holiday abroad
  • choose a colour scheme for your living room and have fun choosing complementary soft furnishings
  • learn how to make bread dough and then have fun turning pieces into different animals
  • try styling your hair in a different way
  • create a costume for a fancy dress party
  • take a landscape photo and then recreate the scene as a watercolour painting
  • choose a new theme for your bullet journal spreads and have a go at designing different pages for the month

Final words…

Although as adults there are things that we feel we must learn to get by in life and to progress in our jobs or career, we should also make time to learn about things that particularly interest us. I love trying out different art techniques and a few years ago (before COVID struck), I joined a beginner’s ceramics course. I had so much fun and met some lovely people there and, even though we were given specific assignments, e.g. to make a pinch pot, our creations were all completely different and unique to us. Quite a few of us signed up for the intermediate class too to develop our skills further and try out different techniques. It was so exciting to see our finished projects when they’d been glazed and fired and we all felt a huge sense of achievement by the end of the course.

I would be really interested to know if you consider yourself a lifelong learner and, if you do, what you’d like to find out about next, which kind of hobby appeals the most, or which skills you particularly want to develop in the future.

Posted in compassion, meditation, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 5 Easy ways to Practice Mindfulness every day

When practiced regularly, mindfulness can have a really positive impact on our mental health, reducing feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. In today’s post, I’m going to share five simple ways to incorporate mindful activities into your day so you can enjoy the many benefits mindfulness brings.

What exactly is mindfulness?

There are lots of explanations and definitions available online but I particularly like this one from the Oxford dictionary:

a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Oxford online dictionary

Basically, mindfulness is about paying attention to the here and now, showing curiosity about what’s going on in a non-judgmental way. That’s not to say that as soon as you start practicing the various techniques that your mind won’t wander, it will, and that’s completely okay. But as you get used to paying attention in a range of simple ways, you’ll likely find it becomes easier.

So here are five ideas for practicing mindfulness every day that anyone can try.

Choose an activity you do each day and really pay attention

A great way to get started with mindfulness is to choose one activity that you do every day and bring moment to moment awareness each time you do it. Examples of suitable activities could be: drinking your cup of coffee or tea first thing in the morning, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, washing your face, getting dressed, driving to work. Whichever activity you choose, focus on knowing what you’re doing as you’re actually doing it, and what you are thinking and feeling from moment to moment too. At first, you’ll likely find that your mind wanders quite frequently, but if it does, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. With time, you’ll find it gets easier to remain mindful.

Connect with each of your five senses

Using your senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing is a great way to focus on what’s happening right now. You can either spend time exploring each one in turn or pick a particular sense to focus on in a given moment. So, for example, you might sit quietly at home curled up in your chair with a coffee, smelling the aroma, being warmed by the heat of the mug. You might then close your eyes and tune in to sounds within the room such as the clock ticking, and far away sounds such as a dog barking. As you open your eyes, you might change your focus to the colour of your drink or the patterns on your mug, before taking a sip and savouring the flavour. At another time during your day, you might focus in on just one of your senses. So, during your daily shower, you might choose to focus on smell, inhaling the scent of your shampoo, shower gel or soap and your conditioner and really appreciating each one. By doing this you will be immersed in your current experiences rather than dwelling on past events or getting stressed about all of the things you have to get done before bedtime.

The following mindful activity is also a good one to do when you’re feeling anxious to help distract from negative thoughts, judgements and physical sensations associated with a tense body.

  • Close your eyes or lower your head and soften your gaze. Take some slow and deep breaths in and out.
  • Open your eyes and take your focus outside of your body. Find the following:

5 things you can see.

4 things you can hear.

3 things you can touch.

2 things you can smell.

1 thing you can taste.

Focus on your breathing

Breathing is a key part of mindfulness practice as it’s something we do naturally out of necessity. There are many online exercises which focus on the breath such as alternate nostril breathing, square or box breathing and equal breathing where you focus on making the inhalation the same length as the exhalation, but the technique which I find easiest and most comforting is soothing rhythm breathing, which I was taught as part of my compassion group sessions a few years ago.

  • Sit comfortably in your chair with both feet on the ground and your hands resting in your lap.
  • Close your eyes or direct your gaze downwards – whichever feels most comfortable.
  • Gently bring your focus to your breathing feeling the ribcage expanding as the air coming in to your lungs and leaving your body as you exhale.
  • Try breathing a little faster or slower until you find a breathing pattern that feelings soothing and comforting.
  • Focus on the breath as it comes in and leaves your body. You might like to notice the sensation of cool air entering your nose and warm air leaving.
  • Turn your attention to your body. Sensing the weight of your body resting in the chair feeling relaxed and supported. Feel your feet touching the floor beneath you.
  • If your mind wanders, notice what has happened and gently bring the focus back to your breath. Even if your mind is bobbing about all over the place, just accept what is happening without judgement and come back to the breath.
  • As you bring the exercise to a close, gently wiggle your fingers and toes and bring the focus back to the room around you.

To ensure you commit to this short meditative practice each day, you might find it helpful to make an appointment with yourself in your bullet journal or diary e.g. 5 minutes after you’ve eaten your breakfast or as an end of the day thing to encourage restful sleep. Again, this breathing exercise is also helpful to calm yourself down in moments of anxiety.

Engage in mindful walking

Whatever the weather, cold, warm, rainy, bright sunshine, cloudy, try to find 10 or 15 minutes each day to go for a mindful walk outside. Take time to pay attention to the different aspects of your experience. Start by exploring how your body feels when you’re walking – your feet as they make each step, your legs as they move you forwards, your arms as the swing by your sides. Next, tune in to what’s going on around you using all of your senses – perhaps you can hear traffic in the distance or a bird singing, maybe you can see the sun shining through the trees, perhaps you can smell the damp earth. Be open to whatever you notice, wherever you are and whatever happens. Try to fully immerse yourself in the here and now. As you end your walk, bring your attention back to how you feel as a result of your practice.

If you want to read about mindful walking in more depth, I wrote a whole blog post on it last year which can be found here.

Be totally present during conversations

All too often during conversations, we’re either multi-tasking or our mind wanders so we’re not paying full attention. However, being fully present has so many benefits for the speaker and the listener. Not only will you both feel valued, you’ll have a better understanding of the other person’s needs and any information that you impart is likely to be comprehended more easily. You’ll also likely improve both your communication skills and your relationship with the other person whether you’re talking to a friend, colleague or family member.

If you want to be more mindful in conversations, the first step is to notice when your mind wanders and, without judgement (no berating yourself for being a terrible listener!), bring your attention back. Try to resist the temptation to make excuses for being distracted such as “I was bored by what they were saying”, “I’ve got so much to do I couldn’t wait for them to finish” or “they were just repeating themselves”. Just remember that mindfulness takes practice and you are just learning but it will get easier with time.

In today’s busy world, multitasking is very tempting and often encouraged, but studies have shown that humans aren’t really capable of focusing on more that one task at a time, and in actual fact, what happens is our brain constantly switches between the different demands on our attention. If you want to be full focused on a conversation, try to put distractions aside. Put your mobile phone away in your bag, close your emails, avoid looking at what others are up to or what’s happening elsewhere by facing and looking at the participants. Really listen with interest to what the other person or people are saying using gestures such as a nod of the head, a smile or an “I understand” as appropriate. Think about the words they are using, their tone of voice, body language and emotions to really comprehend what they’re saying. Let the other person finish before you contemplate what they have said and offer a response.

Being a mindful communicator takes practice and isn’t always easy, but it’s a great skill to have and can be really useful in social settings as well as work situations.

Final words…

Although in today’s post I’ve presented a number of simple ways in which you can start to be more mindful every day, mindfulness in itself is not always easy to master. It might be helpful to remember that it’s not all about being perfectly present at all times – it’s a way of slowing down and making a conscious decision to notice our thoughts, emotions and the world around us, intentionally accepting things as they are right now without judgement. Being mindful can help us to enjoy life, understand ourselves better and reduce stress. It’s something that everyone can try and, when practiced consistently, has been shown to have positive effects on our physical and mental health, happiness, work and relationships.

Feel free to let me know in the comments how you get on and if you have any questions, I’ll be more than happy to answer them if I can, or direct you to further resources which you may find useful.

Until next time,

Posted in lifestyle, meditation, mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: A mini guide to walking mindfully

Photo credit: Stanislav Vlasov for Unsplash

Walking has to be my favourite form of exercise and it’s something I do each day. Sometimes my walk is for a particular purpose, for example, heading to the post office with shop orders or running another errand, but mostly, my trips out are simply for the pleasure of getting outdoors and appreciating what’s there. Both are good exercise, but the later is best for body and mind.

For me, there are two types of mindful walking – one, which I was introduced to in my mindfulness classes, is a kind of meditation where the primary focus is on observing the bodily sensations of walking, the other is where you connect with your environment, paying attention to what is going on around you, using all of your senses to fully immerse yourself. Both forms of mindful walking have their benefits and I will consider each of them here as you might like to try them both.

A mindful walking meditation

Many people think that meditation is all about sitting still and trying to empty the mind. This is not the case. Rather, meditation is a set of techniques that involve focusing the attention on a particular object, thought or activity with a view to achieving heightened awareness and a sense of clarity, peace and stability. Examples include seated practices such as breathing exercises, visualisations, body scans and sound baths where instruments are used to focus the mind. Others involve movement, for example yoga, tai chi and mindful walking.

A mindful walking meditation is typically done in a small space and is taken at a slow, careful pace. You might choose to walk up and down your back garden (or in square shapes depending on the layout of your plot) or back and forth along your hallway. Anywhere where you can fit in around 10-15 paces and which is relatively peaceful so you won’t be easily disturbed. You can walk barefoot or wearing light shoes. Once you’ve decided upon your walking space, you bring your complete attention and awareness to the process of walking:

  • Start by bringing your attention to your feet. Notice any sensations there before you begin.
  • Take slow, small and intentional steps.
  • Have your hands clasped behind your back, by your sides or swinging gently – do whatever feels most comfortable for you.
  • Focus on each and every part of your step – the lifting of your foot, moving the foot forward, the placing of the heel on the ground followed my the rest of the sole and then placing your weight on it ready to move your other foot.
  • At the end of your path, pause briefly before intentionally making a 90˚ or 180˚ turn.
  • As you walk, you can focus your attention on one particular aspect of your walking e.g. your breath as it comes in and out of your body, the movement of your feet or legs, the contact of your feet on the ground, the balance of your body as it moves.
  • If your mind starts to wander, notice what has happened and then kindly and gently bring you focus back to your walking.
  • You can also incorporate a mental mantra to help you maintain focus. I like this one: Breathing in: ‘In the here’. Breathing out: ‘In the now’.
  • There isn’t a set length of time you should do your walking meditation for but around 10 minutes should be enough time to reap the benefits.

If practised consistently, walking meditations are excellent for your wellbeing. They can help to reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep, increase blood circulation, aid digestion, improve balance and even boost creativity.

Walking mindfully

If you’re off out for a longer walk somewhere, maybe around your local park, through woodland or forest, or even just for a wander around your local neighbourhood, you can still practise mindfulness techniques but in a slightly more relaxed way than the above meditation.

Defined as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations…’ (Oxford Dictionaries), the practice of mindfulness has so many benefits including:

  • improved awareness of the world around us
  • an ability to find joy in the present moment
  • better appreciation of what we have
  • feeling calmer and happier
  • more compassionate towards ourselves
  • developing a more positive mindset
  • better able to deal with difficult and unhelpful thoughts
  • a higher level of self awareness

The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Here are some wonderful ways of combining mindfulness and walking:

Checking in with your body As you embark on your walk, try spending some time exploring what’s going on for your body right now. Is it feeling stiff? Do you have any tightness or tense areas in your muscles? Are you standing upright with an open chest or are you a little slouched? Are your feet ready for a little exercise or are they already aching from a previous walk? Try to approach this in a non-judgemental way, for example if your back feels a little sore, just accept that this is the case rather than labelling it as bad and berating yourself for slouching whilst you were working at your desk.

Observing the act of walking Just like in the walking meditation, you might spend a few minutes getting curious about how you’re moving and what happens with your feet as you take those first steps. This could include thinking about which part of your foot makes contact with the ground first, how you distribute your body weight as you walk, what you do with your arms as you walk e.g. are they stuffed in your pockets or swinging gently by your sides. Do any tense areas of your body seem to ease as you walk? etc. Again, try to avoid judging your walking technique or labelling any sensations in your body as bad.

Adopting the beginner’s mind A key element of mindfulness is having what is known as a beginner’s mind. With this approach, you let go of any previously held ideas or preconceptions about what you might experience and become open to whatever happens, seeing things with a fresh pair of eyes. So, for example, on my walk in the park this morning, I could have thought about it being the same old park, with the same old water and the same old trees and bushes. Instead, I really engaged with the experience, noticing a cute baby rabbit munching on the grass, a squirrel leaping onto a tree with fright as I approached, the freshly painted benches, pairs of mallards hanging out together near the pond and a tree covered in pretty white blossom. In this way, the same walk can be very different each time and bring new joys and experiences.

Acceptance Another aspect of mindfulness is acceptance and seeing things as they really are, rather than trying to change things. This too can be applied to our walks. If, for example, you are out for a walk and the weather changes and it starts to rain, the temptation might be to grumble, hunch your shoulders, speed up your pace and try to get to somewhere warm and dry. Alternatively, you could accept the weather for what it is, observing the change of the light, the colours of the sky, the sounds of the rain on the ground or on your umbrella or coat, and maybe even enjoy the experience of the cool water on your skin or the droplets as they form of the end of your nose.

Use your senses As you walk, really tune in to the experience using your sense of touch, sound, sight, smell and even taste. So, for example, during a walk along the beach you might explore how the sand feels beneath your bare feet or what happens when your shoe takes a step. You might really listen to the sound of the waves crashing or watch the sun glinting on the water. You could savour the flavour of a cool ice cream or recognise how you can also taste the salty seaweed strewn all around. The alarming cries of gulls might take you by surprise but then fade into the background as you hear a couple of children giggling as they create a giant sandcastle. You might roll up your trousers ready for a dip in the freezing cold sea and let out a little squeal as the tide washes over your feet. Wherever you go on your walk, there are so many different experiences to be had and if you take the time to appreciate them all, I can almost guarantee that there’s lots of fun to be had as you explore. A great way to ensure you make the most of your time is to tap into a child-like sense of curiosity and wonder – explore and appreciate all of the little things no matter now many times you’ve seen or experienced them before – pick up a shell or a feather and look at all of the intricate patterns on it, watch the babbling brook, focusing in on how it travels over the pebbles and rocks and trying to spot any birds visiting the water.

Appreciating the different seasons It’s Spring at the moment in the UK and the perfect time to look out for signs of the season. From March, you might see snowdrops, catkins dangling from the trees, leaf buds forming, toads making their journey to the pond, pretty scented blossom and newborn lambs. You might hear pattering rain, the wind gusting through the trees, birds singing, sheep bleating, buzzing bees or the quiet tinkling of a stream. In Summer, you can look out for trees in full leaf creating a canopy over the woodland floor, the bright sunshine peeping through the gaps, meadow flowers such as buttercups, yarrow, cornflowers and poppies laced with pretty butterflies and ladybirds. Even on a walk around your local area, there’s so much to experience – the faint sound of a lawn mower or the smell of freshly cut grass, the cooing of wood pigeons, fledglings learning to fly a robin singing in a tree, the high pitched screech of swifts soaring in the sky or something rustling in a neighbourhood front garden. There are yet more experiences to be had in Autumn and Winter, and as long as you dress appropriately for the weather, any time is a good time for a nice, refreshing walk. At different times of year, consider the position of The Sun at different times of day, the effect the weather has on rivers and streams – sometimes almost flooding the banks, bursting and gushing with water, yet at other times almost dry and how the earth changes from being dried and cracked in the Summertime to soggy, leaf filled and musty smelling in the Autumn.

Reflection At the end of your walk, either pausing on a bench, in the car or when you get back home, try taking the time to reflect on the experience, bringing to mind everything that you noticed and all of the different experiences you had. You might also want to think about how you feel – perhaps more relaxed, energised or ready for a nice sit down to rest your weary feet.

Final words…

During the lockdown period, many of us have found ourselves going for walks more often, developing a love of the great outdoors and appreciating the benefits it brings to the mind, body and soul. We’re now seeing other leisure opportunities opening back up such as non-essential retail, cafes, bars and restaurants, and although it’s nice to have access to these, nothing beats some time out in the fresh air connecting with nature. Any brisk walk is good for your physical health but add mindfulness into the mix and your mental health can benefit in so many ways too.

Posted in lifestyle, meditation, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 10 practical tips for starting an effective daily meditation practice

This month, I decided to implement a daily meditation routine and have spent some time researching how to get the most out my mindful minutes and encourage consistency. Today’s Monday Matters post shares some tips on creating an effective daily practise and how the different types of meditation can have a positive impact on your life.

Photo credit: Ben White for Unsplash

Why meditate?

Research has shown that there are a huge number of benefits of regular meditation for mind and body. Some of the main positives are:

  • Improves your self esteem and confidence and increases your levels of optimism
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Can make you more productive
  • Improves your brain function
  • Helps you appreciate your life more
  • Increases your attention span
  • Provides a sense of calm, peace and balance
  • Reduces pain and improves the immune system
  • Makes you feel more energetic, creative and spontaneous
  • Helps to control your thoughts
  • Decreases depression and anxiety
  • Reduces cravings such as for junk food, alcohol and cigarettes
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Increases compassion towards yourself and others

but there are many more and once you start to fit meditation in your life, you will soon reap the rewards.

How can I fit meditation into my busy life?

When I attended a mindfulness class through wellbeing services a few years back, everyone talked about how wonderfully calm and relaxed they felt after each meditation. Yet, when asked if they’d used the CD full of mindful practises at home over the rest of the week, most of the participants said that they didn’t have time! However, with the benefits listed above, surely taking ten minutes each day to meditate is worth fitting in to your schedule? I bet if I’d asked the attendees if they’d had time to mindlessly scroll through social media for half hour they would offer a different response. Hopefully the following tips will help to commit more easily.

10 tips for starting a daily meditation practise

  1. Start small Like with any new habit, it’s best to start small and create a mini goal to work towards such as to meditate for a few minutes each day. There are plenty of 5 minute meditations on YouTube to choose from and a variety of different apps which offer free trials.
  2. Make it a routine There are some things you do automatically every day without thinking e.g. brushing your teeth, taking your mediation, applying your make up etc. These tasks have become a routine and you can easily add meditation to this list too. I recommend choosing a set time and sticking to it. I like to do mine first thing in the morning before I start work and then I can be sure it doesn’t get bumped off my to-do list. You could choose last thing before bed if you want to get all relaxed ready for sleep. Find out more about the science and practice of creating habits here.
  3. Choose a comfortable place Where you meditate is up to you but try to pick a place where you will not be distracted and feel at ease (not too relaxed that you begin to feel sleepy though!). You can sit in a comfortable chair, curled up on your sofa, on a cushion cross-legged on the floor or even lie on your bed. You can also use props such as a cushion, bolster or blanket to help you get nice and snug.
  4. Try out different meditations to help you with different aspects of your life There are so many kinds of meditations available – breathing, gratitude, compassion, confidence, focus etc. Think about what you’d most like to instil in your life right now and work from there.
  5. Use guided meditations at first When I first tried meditation a fair few years ago, I used to think it was all about just sitting their cross legged and completely emptying your mind. I used to get really frustrated and eventually decided it was impossible and wasn’t for me. Now I use the audio tracks from the class I attended as well as the Calm app and short guided sessions on FitBit premium. I have a free trial for both apps and I particularly love using my FitBit app as it logs all of my sessions for me so I can check my progress and how consistent I’m being.
  6. Journal about your experiences Take time to reflect on your practice, what went well, what you struggled with, how you felt during and after, if you came up with excuses to miss your session and why this might have happened etc. If you felt really relaxed, it helped you have a more productive day or you enjoyed a wonderful night’s sleep, celebrate your achievements and use them to motivate you to continue. If you found it really difficult to switch off and ended up feeling really frustrated, think about what you could do differently next time or accept that it is all part of the learning process and it will become easier with time. Or, if you forgot to do your daily meditation this time, how could you make sure you stick with it? Could you set an alarm or get a reminder from the app you are trying out? Might you attach the practise to another of your daily routines e.g. do your session straight after your morning cup of coffee?
  7. Remember repetitive activities can be meditative too If you find you’re struggling with just sitting and meditating, remember meditation is all about attention and awareness and you might find that doing a mindful activity such as colouring in is much easier for you. I wrote a post full of ideas earlier this year which you can find here. Movement meditations are also an option such as tai chi, yoga or mindful walking.
  8. Be kind to yourself Remember to treat yourself with compassion as you develop your practice. Accept that it might not be easy at first and that your mind will keep wandering. Know that it’s okay to find it difficult and you’re not doing it wrong (try not to judge yourself). Just bring your mind gently and kindly back to your breathe and start again.
  9. Apply your mindful practice to other activities Meditation is all about focus and so is a kind of mindfulness that can be applied throughout your day. For example, when you shower, really concentrate on what you’re doing and how it feels, use your senses to immerse your thoughts in your experience – inhale the scent of your shower gel, observe the water running down your tiles or the screen, listen to the sounds the water makes as it hits the bath or the shower tray. You can even get into a meditative state as you do your daily chores as I explained in this blog post.
  10. Use a habit tracker (but keep it simple) If you’re a bullet keen bullet journalist like me, you probably know all about habit trackers and have seen many examples on Instagram and Pinterest. Habit trackers are great for monitoring your progress and consistency and keeping you motivated. However, if you add too many habits, the filling in process can become an onerous task and you are likely to get sick of colouring in boxes, adding dots, ticks or crosses. I recommend tracking a very small number of habits and only choosing one or two new ones to focus on and selecting other things that you want to become more consistent with.

So that’s it, lots of reasons to add meditation to your daily routine and my top 10 practical tips for beginners that will hopefully help you develop a successful meditation habit that you can stick with. Let me know in the comments if starting a daily practice is something you’re interested in and today’s blog post has either given you the motivation to get started. If it has, I hope you are soon on your way to enjoying the benefits for body and mind.

Until next time,

Posted in creativity, life hacks, lifestyle, Mindfulness, wellbeing

Monday matters: 7 mindful hobbies for stress reduction and relaxation

Hobbies are a great way to focus on the present, reduce stress and anxiety levels, leaving you feeling calm and relaxed and with a wonderful sense of achievement. What’s more, they’re an excellent form of mindfulness which is proven to benefit you in a number of ways both mentally and emotionally. Here’s some hobbies that I currently enjoy, have tried and loved in the past and one that I would love to try in the future.

Zentangles

I had a go at producing some Zentangles quite a few years ago when they were featured in a magazine (I think in Breathe). I found information from the article that I’d cut out in one of my journals a few days ago but I couldn’t actually find the patterns that I did. I do remember that I found them really relaxing to do and was pleased with the results so I decided to give them another go.

The Zentangle method was created in 2003 by an American couple called Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. They describe it as an ‘easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structure patterns’ which they call tangles. The three and a half inch tangles are drawn on a small square of paper, and are made using a combination of dots, lines, simple curves and orbs. You have no idea what your finished piece will end up like as you focus on the process rather than worrying about the results. To find out more about the method and to see some beautiful examples visit the official website. For now, here’s some from a complete beginner (me!):

My first attempt at Zentangle in a long time. Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it creative.

Birdwatching

I love birdwatching in my own garden, whilst out for nature walks and from various hides in local reserves and parks. It’s such a relaxing activity yet one which requires plenty of concentration and patience. Although our back garden is relatively small, we have a range of feeders in a little wildlife area and have recently purchased a new covered table which the birds are just starting to take to. We also have a small pond, several bird baths, plenty of shrubs, plus a fence covered in ivy which is full of spiders and their webs. Our space has recently become really popular with a range of small and larger birds and we even had a sparrow hawk visiting last month!

I bought a pair of binoculars last year so I could see birds up close when I visit the hides in nature reserves across the North East but you really don’t need to have any equipment to enjoy birding – just your eyes and your ears, making it a cheap as well as mindful hobby.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Journalling

Mindful journalling is all about the act of expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper and is a wonderful tool for reflecting, evaluating and processing all that is going on in your life. Done regularly, journalling has many benefits including stress reduction, improved mood, emotional regulation, more self confidence, better immunity, a sharper memory, increased productivity and the ability to empathize with others.

I’ve been journaling for a long time now and it has become a part of my daily routine and something I would really miss if I stopped doing it. I mainly tend to put pen to paper in the evening as I like to reflect on my day, record what I grateful for and write about what I’m looking forward to the next day or what I’m anxious about (click here to see my previous post which describes the ‘putting the day to rest’ technique in detail).

I do sometimes do some journalling in the morning as a way of starting my day on a positive and creative note and find the book ‘Five Minutes in the Morning – A Focus Journal’ provides some great prompts to help me decide what to write about. I managed to pick it up really cheaply in my local bookshop but it’s also available on Amazon as an ebook which you could use if you bought a special notebook to write in.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

The journal is split into different sections, each with a particular focus and considers topics such as the power of writing, creating clarity, considering what’s important in your life, developing an attitude of abundance, solving problems and challenges, productivity and goal setting. It’s up to you how you use the book, you could either work through each prompt in order or you could just pick and page at random and see what you find.

Another book that I really love for prompt ideas is ‘Mindful Journaling’ by Tara Ward. The focus of this book is on exploring mindfulness in a variety of ways and then recording and evaluating your experiences of doing the different tasks. Recently, I completed an activity where you put something in front of you that you would like to eat and reflect on how the food stuff reached your bowl or plate and all of the processes involved in sourcing the ingredients and creating the product. I chose some Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and had so much to write about and it made me eat them much more mindfully afterwards too.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Sketching

I used to hate drawing as I thought I was no good at it but recently I’ve started to really enjoy developing my skills. My favourite things to draw are plants and other aspects of nature such as leaves, berries and fruit. I always really take my time and focus in on the outline shape of the objects and then add detail carefully. Apparently this style of drawing is known as a ‘Zen method’ which is all about observing and following the contours of the object with your eyes whilst letting your hands draw. You can find out more in renowned Dutch artist Frederick Franck’s book ‘Zen seeing, Zen drawing’ which I have neither seen or read but it sounds like it is focused on mindful drawing as a meditative technique for observing and discovering the world around you.

My first attempt at still life fruit sketching! Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Watercolour painting

As those of you who follow my blog will know, I got into watercolouring about 9 months ago and have enjoyed experimenting with different techniques including creating washes, wet on dry and wet on wet methods. Now I’ve learnt the basics, I’ve started to try out my skills on creating actual art pieces. This is my first try at wet on wet poppies and adding stems using wet on dry. In order to create my piece I spent some time looking at photographs of poppies and the work of other watercolour artists. I then really focused on the process of mixing colours, getting the right consistency of pigment to water and then allowing the colours to blend on the page. I wasn’t concerned about the finished look but I think it turned out well, for a beginner anyway!

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Pottery

I’ve done two ceramics courses at a local wellbeing centre and found them to be amazingly beneficial. I met some wonderful, like-minded people who I got on really well with and involving myself in playing with the clay to explore different techniques and then designing and making my own pieces was so relaxing. The sessions were three hours long and in that time, I found that my mind was fully focused on the tasks at hand and the level of concentration required helped me to switch off from my anxious thoughts and feelings. Most weeks, we also got some of our freshly fired work back and it was so exciting to see our pieces at various stages of the making process and celebrate what we had achieved as we developed our skills.

Obviously, at the moment, there are no ceramics classes available which you can attend due to lockdown restrictions still being in place but it is certainly something I would recommend looking into in the future if you enjoy getting creative with your hands.

Flower arranging

This is a mindful activity that I would love to have a go at in the future as I imagine it’s really interesting to learn the various techniques involved and you can produce some stunning pieces to decorate your home and bring you joy. There are loads of free video tutorials and tips available online from florists and expert flower arrangers if you want to discover the basics or if you sign up to Skillshare you can do a full online course at home. I know my local college usually offer beginner’s floristry sessions but it may be a while before they are able to start them up again.

Photo credit: James Coleman, Unsplash

Do you do any of the activities I’ve listed already or do you have other favourites? Have you found you have more time to do hobbies because of the lockdown restrictions?