This is life…

Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering and sets out a path we can choose to follow that eases the suffering, somewhat. One of the fundamental teachings is simply; it is what it is. That isn’t to mean we become passive and accept whatever comes our way without any emotion – we are human and truly that’s what causes the suffering. What it means is that life is what it is – we can’t control everything that comes into our lives day by day. We are surrounded by billions of other humans and on a daily basis, hundreds and thousands of others who come and go around us. Each with their own thoughts, feelings, behaviours and actions. In addition, nature does its thing and in every second billions of tiny things happen. It would be an absolute impossibility to even comprehend how we could control all of that. Not to mention exhausting!

What we can control is our response to it. Buddhism teaches us to remain centred whatever the weather, so to speak. For a long time I always thought of this more in times of trouble – so when there’s a storm and life is flinging you about and blowing you this way and that. What I’ve come to realise, experientially, is that being centred is just as important when life is up as it is when it is down.

Life doesn’t differentiate between good and bad. It is the meaning we place upon things that make it so – that make our experience what it is. If we are always striving for the highs, the lows become unwanted and harder to manage. That isn’t to say we can’t be happy or content – it is more about accepting that life is not intended to be that way all of the time. When you can truly accept that deep within, you begin to see that when bumps in the road occur – or back to my weather analogy, when we get blown about a little or experience full on storms, they’re easier to deal with. They’ll come and they’ll go.

This week I was quite hard on myself about something I did – not involving anyone else, just an experience I had that I deemed not good for me. A friend said to me that a couple of days before I was on a high and just to remember that. Suddenly it was as though I was transported somewhere high above and given a different perspective. One where I could see my experience on both occasions – both what I had deemed high and then low were simply experiences – they were not good or bad, they just were. My perspective or the meaning I had placed to each experience is what made it so – what made it good or bad to me.

I’ve got several situations going on in my life right now that are challenging – as we all have at points in our lives. This is life and if we can remain centred – whatever that is for each of us, we can weather the storms without immense suffering. Experiencing emotions is normal – but being overcome and dragged along by them daily is what creates suffering. There are varying degrees to suffering – losing someone and grieving is suffering we often must endure and go through. However, suffering to life’s ups and downs is a choice. For example, worrying creates suffering that is most often totally unnecessary. We worry about things don’t even happen, yet in our minds the worries have become very real. There are times when this incessant worrying actually brings about what we are most worried about!

So what is being centred?

It isn’t so much about being in the middle because what is your middle may be different to mine or the next persons. It is about finding that ‘centre’ within, that place of peace or knowing, belonging where you feel centred. In my experience most people have to practice at this because to know that place is to know yourself. Finding time to be quiet, still and look within.

Meditation and mindfulness is a tool you can use for raising your level of self awareness, allowing you to create space to see the way you think, behave and act in a way that is objective. Meditation connects you with your ‘true self’ that can only be found within and truly the place of centredness. Seek and you will find – start a regular daily meditation practice. Over time as your self awareness grows and you create space, being able to bring yourself back to centre becomes something you do naturally.  It becomes a sanctuary and a place of peace where you can rest and restore from whatever life brings your way.

[Thank you for this beautiful image…Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash]

Where do I start?

One of the most commonly asked questions when talking about mindfulness is, “where do I start?” The answer is simple; start where you are. If you have no understanding of mindfulness (although that in itself is a paradox in terms) then there’s this lovely little story I heard that explains it perfectly…

A Buddhist master is walking with his student in the mountains one day.

” Master, I want to practice mindfulness as you do, but although I have been practising for 6 years, I don’t know where to start.”

“Can you hear that stream?” the master replied.

The student couldn’t and stopped for a moment to listen.

“Yes,” he said, “I can hear that now.”

“Then start there.” said the Buddhist master matter of factly.

They continued to walk and a little further on the student turned again to the master.

“Master, might I just ask, what would you have said if I had said I couldn’t hear the stream?”

The master simply smiled and said to the student, “start here.”

Mindfulness is nothing more than immersing yourself in the present moment and each moment as they happen. Through your senses, taking in everything you hear, see, smell and feel in any moment. Often we can’t grasp it because of the simplicity. We need to see something to understand it or we need an explanation to grasp something.

There is nothing to see, nothing to grasp, just being with what is. When you attempt to describe the ‘is-ness’ you have lost it because it is nameless, without form and indescribable. We use words because that’s how we communicate and if I were to publish a blank page everyone would assume I had done so by mistake.

So to begin to meditate or to practise mindfulness, start here. Where you are at, in this moment…and the next, and the next. There is only ever one moment.

[This mountain stream photo is by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

“Life is like a slice of pizza…

…it looks delicious in an advertisement, but when we actually have it, it is not as good as we imagined.

If you envy someone’s life, remember the pizza in the ad.

It always looks better than it is.”

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

Photo by Nicolás Perondi on Unsplash

Be kind, be humble…

I have always tried to remain a student – this could apply to literally everything in life from yoga to parenting. I am qualified to teach yoga for example, but I remain a humble student, practising under my own teachers when I can. I work as a brand expert and yet I am continually learning from clients, colleagues and others around me. I can teach others how to meditate and practise mindfulness and yet I aim to remain in my own practice as if I am sitting for the first time. I have worked hard to be a good mum and yet I am constantly faced with new parenting challenges, even though now one of my children is actually an adult and the other is almost there.

Everything and I mean everything is in a constant state of flux and so even when you do feel you know or understand something, it changes. Seeing things with fresh eyes as if for the first time then often enables you to gain a completely new understanding or perspective.

There is a spiritual teacher who I hold in extremely high regard. He has a wonderful sense of humour and adds a lovely chuckle to his speaking when amused. However, after listening to him on a recent retreat he talked to the audience a lot about how those who are ‘unconscious’ go about their lives. The way they perceive this and that, behave and think about themselves and others, fixate on problems and spend their lives stuck in patterns of dysfunctional behaviour. Although I could totally see the point he was making and the examples to which he referred, the fact that he was joking about it in a mocking way and the audience laughing in response, made it seem rather derogatory. It felt very much a ‘them’ and ‘us’ – a ridiculing for the masses of ‘unawakened beings’.

I am aware of course this is my perception and perhaps hitting a trigger within me to bring up those feelings. Nevertheless, it was present while I listened and I was struck by a sudden feeling of sadness for those who aren’t fully ‘aware’ or ‘conscious’. Not so much, ‘poor them’, but just in that, it is what it is. You can only know what you know, right?

I recently experienced what I have since learnt to be ‘innocent perception’, the fourth and final stage of mindfulness, which in of itself is incredibly difficult to articulate because it is completely experiential. For several days afterwards I was struck with a surreal perception that was something akin to the movie, Matrix, where you are wandering around and everyone else is completely unaware of what is going on. After a short time I accepted what had happened and slowly resumed some level of normalcy in my day to day life, without feeling completely separated from myself and everyone else around me. However, it left me with a huge sense of empathy and compassion for other people. People can only be who they are and act and behave upon their own experiences, thoughts and feelings. Until something triggers in your own life to where you embark on a different path, you continue as you are, simply because you don’t know any different.

The point of my post today, and there is a point – just getting there – is that no matter where you are on your own journey of self development and spiritual fulfilment, keep it real….don’t ridicule or judge others. This is not to say that you do, but enlightenment is not entitlement. Be present but know from where you came and the journey that bought you here. Obviously keep yourself out of harm’s way, but accept that people can only be who they are and act accordingly….

I was once completely unconscious, oblivious of my thoughts and actions and the effect they were having on myself, my family and the world at large…it isn’t good or bad, it simply is, it was the way it was for most of my life. Just because I am now ‘awakened’ does not mean I am any better than anyone else and my recent experience of listening to the spiritual teacher talking about those who are ‘unawakened’ brought up within me a much stronger sense of compassion for others who are not spiritually awakened. It has grounded me and I continue to aim to practice kindness above all else and remain a humble student…

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash I love this photograph – I see kindness and humility.

The Butterfly Effect

You may have heard of this before; in chaos theory where one small change causes much more dramatic changes further down the line. In simple terms, where an action causes ripple effects that go on and on. There is a brilliant little book, of the same name, I read that introduced the theory, by Andy Andrews. He gives some brilliant and utterly surprising examples of the butterfly effect in action. If something so tiny hadn’t happened, something so huge would not have occurred. The tiny flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a typhoon on the other side of the world.

You could then look at this in many ways. If you were able to choose to go back and eradicate seemingly negative events or experiences from your life, would you? Most people could probably think of a few things they wish they hadn’t experienced and could erase from their lives. However, in doing that there are so many other things that wouldn’t be in your life right now had it not been for those experiences, let alone the infinite number of things that your’ event or experience caused for others. So you can see that these experiences we have in our lives not only affect what happens further down the line for us, but for others, our environment and who knows humanity and the world at large too. The book explains some of those gargantuan types of examples.

These days, when I am going through something that would from the outside be perceived as negative, I try to see it differently. It is just so – not good or bad, just simply as it is. That isn’t to say I don’t suffer through it – all humans suffer, that’s part of what makes us human. However, looking at experiences through a different lens, one where I am accepting of what is, means that I am not interfering with what is meant to be – the butterfly effect. It also makes you see that we are as we were originally born to be, part of a bigger whole that works in complete harmony, perfectly well without our interference. Often times our suffering comes from trying to change what is, from going against the grain or seeking to control what is out of our control.

This way of living, where you accept and let go, surrender to each moment and experience what is happening isn’t giving up. In fact it is more about actually being present in your life as it unfolds, to witness and experience each day fully, rather than being in a constant state of worrying or feeling anxious about what is happening and what you can (or can’t) do about it. When you live that way you spend your time either ruminating over the past or being fearful of what is coming. You miss the present moment entirely and that’s where you life is. That’s where your life matters, right now, in the moment, this moment, creating those tiny ripples or the small flapping of wings that spread far and wide….trust that and be present.

“By your hand, millions – billions of lives will be altered, caught up in a chain of events begun by you on this day.”

– Andy Andrews from the Butterfly Effect

[Image – years ago, when I first began writing, I wrote a series of stories called Rainbow of Love and this image was used for the story around the colour blue; Blue Butterflies…]

Jumping to conclusions

I was driving with my daughter in the car the other day and we drove past a church. We both laughed at the sign on the side of the building, not only was it quite funny but incredibly true…

“Sometimes the only exercise people get is jumping to conclusions.”

Obviously it went on to say that God is good and can save you from doing that. No doubt!

Although I am always an advocate for exercise, in this case avoid jumping to conclusions…and the good news is that you can save yourself from doing it.

Do you jump to conclusions? Do you assume something to be a certain way based on your perception of that something? Assume that someone meant this or that but really not know fully or at all what they meant? Is it possible that all the conclusions you make are just based on your own perceptions?

I am sure that most of them are the latter. As humans beings we enjoy suffering, just the way we roll and one way to ease that suffering is to stop jumping to conclusions. This is easier said than done. When you really start to become aware of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours you begin to realise that a lot of what you think about others and the world at large is based on your own reality and not actual reality. The way you perceive the world, rather than what it or a situation/person etc actually is.

For a week, try noticing the conclusions you jump to. The assumptions you make about others and what they say or do towards you. Notice everything you perceive about anything. That absolutely includes what you think about yourself. The conclusions or judgements you make about yourself.

In a short space of time, if you are honest with yourself, and let’s face it if you aren’t then you are really only lying to yourself, you will notice that most of what you think is not based on fact at all.

Once you become present, you bring conscious awareness to your thoughts, feelings and actions. Be gentle and just go with the flow. It isn’t possible to be present all the time. When we have lived most of our lives on autopilot, ruminating over the past or speculating the future, we skip the most important time – NOW. So it takes a little time to start to learn to become present. When you do, however, you will begin to notice, with super sensitivity, what you think about yourself and those around you. When you are faced with a conclusion or assumption ask yourself if that is true? Could it possibly be based on your own skewed perspectives? Most likely.

The trick is to drop those conclusions and assumptions. This shifts your perspective to one that seeks out truth and that begins to base your own thoughts and behaviours on what actually is – you begin to RESPOND, rather than REACT. When we draw conclusions or assumptions that are not based on realty we are constantly reacting. He or she must have meant this or that….and so on it goes.

Something else happens. You drop the need to be so judgemental of yourself and others too. When you can accept others more for how they are, you will find that you no longer jump to conclusions about them or make assumptions. Why do you need to?

Try it…

[Brilliant Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash]

7 daily practices to change your life

It doesn’t matter the area of your life, if you strip things back to basics you will find that life just becomes easier. When I was thinking about writing this article, I thought about skincare and how going back to basics always works. I thought about diet and healthy eating; keeping things simple gets results. Exercise and keeping it simple means you can sustain a regime that works. Clothing is another example I thought of and the notion of, essentials. Keeping things simple, stripping back to basics and working on essentials gets results. When we over complicate things, start adding in too much our lives become chaotic. The mind, therefore, is no different and I started to think about the basic practices I apply to my daily life that makes a difference…

What I have learnt over the years on my own journey of self development is that consistency in any area of your life is the key to success. That and being persistent. So doing the same thing but doing it regularly. That isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t change something if it isn’t working, but to truly get results you have to keep practising.

Creating healthy habits don’t just apply to diet and exercise, they apply to the mind too. Ultimately, everything comes from mind because it dominates our being and drives our body, so to speak. Cultivating a healthy mind is, therefore, paramount if we are to live a happy and peaceful life.

Here are my basic, essential and simple 7 daily practices that if practiced consistently, every day, will change your life. They are in no particular order and so it isn’t that you have to do them in the order in which they appear. I do have times of day when I prefer to do some practices and have outlined those and why that is below, but truly find what works for you and remember, they are intended to be basic and so keep it simple.

1. Yoga

Although at first this may be perceived as just an exercise, yoga goes way above and beyond any conventional form of exercise. Indeed, the physical practice does have its benefits, truly it is a spiritual practice; a moving meditation and a daily practice or discipline if you like, where you are unifying your mind, body and spirit with universal consciousness. Even if your intention is just around the physical, you will benefit on all other levels regardless.

For me, yoga is a self discipline and one that sets the tone for the day. It cleanses and detoxes the body from the inside out and leaves my body feeling lighter, stronger and energised. My mind is calmer and overall I feel balanced. The physical practice of yoga (hatha) is traditionally the foundation for meditation (raja) and so naturally once I have practised yoga I move into my daily meditation practice.

It doesn’t matter really what time of day you practice yoga. I practice at 5 am simply because that is I have found the most beneficial time. Traditionally yoga is practiced in this way and really does set you up for the day. If your schedule doesn’t allow it, then practice at a time that suits you. It took me years to be able to get up at 5 am and just roll out of bed onto my yoga mat. There are days when I don’t want to do that and days when my body feels like lead, but this is the practice. Getting to the mat regardless of how I feel and taking myself, warts and all as the saying goes, to the mat. Yoga is a practice of self development and a great teacher.

Yoga has become so intrinsically woven into my life that if I have days where I rest from practice it is my body that calls for me to return. I am a better person when I practice yoga. My body feels better and my mind is clearer. Yoga is breath and breath is after all life. Yoga is life.

2. Meditation

By the absence of grasping one is set free. – Buddha

If we can surrender to the present moment we will experience freedom. Meditation allows that space where we can be ourselves, surrender to the present moment and let go of our attachments. In that space we are free and over time the practice spills into our lives in such a way that things just aren’t the same again. Meditation is the foundation to live each day mindfully. It is like turbo boosting your ability to be mindful throughout the day.

It can take time to learn to meditate but simply if you can breathe in and out you can meditate. Once again, we often overthink it so much that it becomes impossible. Truly all we are doing is allowing ourselves to just sit and just be. Focusing on the in breath and focusing on the out breath.

Meditation is the focused awareness of something so that we become at one with it. Truly this becomes consciousness itself but in the beginning it is a case of just sitting and focusing on ones breath. Noticing the thoughts that come and go, sounds and other ‘distractions’ around us and returning focus to the breath. The practice itself is the constant returning to the breath. There is no need to force thoughts away or be carried off with them. We are simply a silent watcher, focusing on our breath and noticing what comes and what goes. Witnessing the arising and falling of whatever comes into consciousness in each moment.

3. Mindfulness

There is no difference between meditation and mindfulness. The two terms are used interchangeably. It is often easy to differentiate them by thinking of meditation as a sitting practice and mindfulness as a daily practice; being mindful of each moment as it happens.

We live most of our lives unconsciously. This is not to mean we are KO’d on the floor, but it does mean we spend most of our time on autopilot. It is our past, conditioned responses that drive how we think and act. This is our ego. We spend most of our time either ruminating over past or dreaming about the future. We rarely spend time in the only time there actually is, and that is now. Be in the now. Be present, fully, in each moment. When you are present to each moment as it is happening you undergo an awakening. You are free from ego. You experience life with a much deeper connection and from a much richer perspective.

This way of being, of living mindfully, takes time. We are not used to being conscious, of being in the present moment. When you spend time in the here and now you are experiencing consciousness as it happens. You are the creator of your own life. You are experiencing each moment and making decisions based on the now, ultimately consciously creating your own life.

To do this, be present as much and as fully as you can throughout the day and your waking life. Bring your attention to the present moment. Experience each moment as it happens.What can you hear, what can you smell, see, touch, taste? When you open yourself up to the present moment you feel alive and your senses revel in what they are being flooded with. The more you become present, the more you will experience and your life becomes fuller and richer from it.

You will begin to notice your thoughts and behaviours and over time change these. You will begin to feel compassion and empathy towards others. You will notice when your emotions shift and you experience anger or other negative emotions. Again, over time being mindful enables you to start to choose how you interact and respond to those around you. Truly there is tremendous power in the now. This is where you always want to aim to be.

4. Gratitude

Gratitude is not something we say with a, thank you. It is something we feel. Gratitude is a daily practice that on its own will change your life. When you are grateful for all that you have now, you are opening yourself up to receiving more. When you spend your life complaining about what you have, or don’t have, what is missing and what you need more of, you create more of the same. When you truly feel grateful for all that you have now, you invite more into your life naturally. The more gratitude you can practice, the more you will have to be grateful for.

This again is a practice you need to do daily. I sometimes write my list of gratitudes down and sometimes I play it through my mind. Either way I am feeling grateful. For all that I have and throughout my day as I experience each moment.

Even when we experience something seemingly negative or ‘bad’ we can practise gratitude. There are always lessons in everything sent our way. Find the gratitude in every experience, good and bad. Be grateful for everything that comes through your life, whatever it is. In this way you will find over time you become less rocked by the good and bad, simply accepting the ‘isness’ of everything. When you have this acceptance of what is and being grateful for that you will begin to experience more joy in your life too.

5. Loving Kindness

In Buddhism loving kindness is the expression of the true nature of Buddha and called ‘metta’. I was first introduced to the idea of practising loving kindness by Chade Meng Tan who is a brilliant thought leader and author of the book, Joy on Demand. He used to be a software engineer and motivator at Google.

Practising loving kindness literally takes seconds and I would encourage you to do this as often as possible. Sometimes at night before I go to bed I practice loving kindness for longer but really it just needs you to bring your attention to the present moment and think about someone to send loving kindness to. In his book, Meng relayed the story of a woman who took his course at Google and who agreed to take part in his loving kindness exercise. He asked everyone to simply wish someone well every hour. It could be anyone and in the case of this woman she simply noticed whoever was passing her at the time and wished them well. She said that at the end of the day it was the best day she had experienced for 7 years!

Often times the best way of getting out of our own head and moving away from your own problems is to wish someone else well. Transferring our attention onto someone else is a sure fire way to make us feel better. I absolutely guarantee that if you practice loving kindness every day for a month you will notice a massive difference in your life. Try it.

6. Contribution/Service

Oprah Winfrey says that service + significance = success. We are born to serve. We are here to help our fellow humans with whatever talents, gifts and skills have had bestowed upon us. You may not know your purpose, but whatever you do, every day, ask yourself, what you can do to serve today? What can you do to contribute to others today? Truly the meaning of a happy and fulfilled life is to serve others and as with loving kindness, serving and helping others makes us feel better.

Contributing to something greater than yourself is your purpose, whatever that might be. Asking this each day will open up opportunities every day for you to serve and help others. Ways that you can contribute for the good of humanity. These might not be gargantuan things, but unless you are open to them you won’t see them. If you are being mindful throughout your day you will notice far more than you did before. In this way, ask this question and be present enough to notice what comes up.

You might not choose to take up everything that comes your way to help others, but there will be opportunities that align with your soul and you just feel moved to do. Service to others will make a massive difference to how you feel and what comes into your life. Take the spotlight off yourself and put it out to the world. Ask yourself, how can I serve or be used to help others today and do it every day…

7. Compassion

Compassion is something I have felt I don’t struggle with towards others, but enormously towards myself. However, over time I realised that you cannot be compassionate truly to others unless you first show compassion to yourself. This daily practice then is as much to you as it is to be practised outwards to others.

Compassion is showing kindness to others. If it is not a daily practice for you now, try incorporating it into your day. To be giving to others is a form of compassion and so coupled with your daily desire to serve and contribute to others will naturally cultivate your compassion practice.

With all of these practices it is about including them in your day in a way that isn’t contrived. Although there is an element of faking it until you make it when it comes to believing in yourself, especially when you start out and are new to self development practices, you can’t fake true kindness or compassion. You can’t fake helping someone or being giving of your time to someone, otherwise it is not true giving.

As with any practice, the more you do something, the better you become at doing it. Over time these practices will become your natural habits – how joyful to have such positive habits! Be patient and simply practice…