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RETROSPECTIVE: Plum Village

In the throes of multi-employment, I found myself stressed enough to make the decision to go on a retreat. Somewhere along the lines of being in a better place, that retreat came through for me – so last week, I got on a plane and a train and a shuttle bus to somewhere in the middle of France, to a Buddhist monastery founded and upheld by Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. I was one of forty women in Plum Village’s New Hamlet, one of the three campuses in that area.

Somewhere a few years ago, I found myself starting a vipassana practice – which was useful for me at the time, it taught me how to be disciplined and regimented in my practice. But more recently, off the cushion, I found it very difficult to work out how to be mindful in my daily life. And it turned out that Plum Village was exactly the right place for me to learn how to do that.

So, Plum Village has a few foundations – the lazy day, where meals are the only thing really planned and everything else is allowed to unfold as you want, whether that’s going to a chateau, going for a really long walk, or sleeping all day long. The visits to the other hamlets – or mindfulness days. But a regular day starts at 5am. You wake up, get ready, walk to the hamlet, and sit from 6 to 6:30am. 7am is breakfast, or exercise. Breakfast is really good – the plums are excellent. The food in general is pretty good – a little soy- and carb-heavy, sometimes, considering we didn’t get a ton of exercise, but still good. We start something else at 9:30 – usually a lecture, a talk, an activity of some kind. 11:30 is mindful walking (my favourite part of the day). 12:30 lunch, 3-5:30, mindful service, 5:30-8, dinner. 8pm, the evening sit, then noble silence from 9. When we visit other hamlets, there’s an hour-long dharma talk and a sharing session. Everything is very peaceful and very well, and even when people are emotional, it is safe (some fellow attendees definitely felt unable to relate to some of the material at times, though – which created some resistance). Every fifteen minutes there is a bell to remind us to be mindful and take a breath. We eat in silence – and at lunch, we wait for everyone to be seated before digging in. I learn to eat slowly for the first time ever – thirty to forty chews. It takes me nearly an hour to finish my oatmeal every morning. Sometimes, for fun, I sing the entire Parks & Recreation theme song in my head between taking one bite and the next. I’ve made eating slow into a bit of a competition at time.

It’s not often that what I think I need is what I do need. But in this case, I struck gold. For the first couple of days, I found it really hard – there were moments were I found myself so frenetic, seeking something to do, not sure of how to be productive or how to be. Times where I was so antsy to start my meal even though it would take another fifteen minutes for everyone to be sitting down, or to get up when I couldn’t. It’s funny, because lunch was the only really restrictive part of the day in that sense – in the sense that it seemed less voluntary than anything else, and I still wanted to get away from it. And in those moments, I had to think, ‘Why are you like this? You have nowhere else to be.’ And I guess that I’ve rarely had nowhere else to be before – I am always doing.

I think Plum Village gave me some major perspective on how to live the elements of my life that I miss more mindfully. I find myself conscious of my feet, or my breath, when I get a second. That is a good place to be in.

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WORKING ON IT: Living in the gap

A guest post by Sam Elliot

There’s space in life for imperfection. You see imperfection all around you.

Your car isn’t big enough. Your budget is too small for that new pair of jeans and your waist is too large to fit in them anyway. But that’s okay.

Things are allowed to be okay.

If you think about a scale of happiness, think of a one to ten scale, ten is on top of the world. A state where you think you can achieve anything. One is your darkest place. That place that haunts your waking dreams and you try really hard not to think about but it’s there all the same.

I’m very much an all or nothing person. I seek perfection. Sometimes this is really helpful; sometimes it drags me down.

Now I believe in living In The Gap. I accept that nothing I do will be perfect.

A lot of people like me find it hard to come to terms with The Gap.

The Gap is that space between one and ten. It’s about accepting that nothing will ever be perfect, whilst recognising how far you might have come on your own emotional journey. I know I will never be at ten. I will always live with the pain and sadness that my mental illness brings, but that’s okay. I’m not going to lecture you on acceptance but if you can try to accept that life isn’t about seeking perfection in everything, life feels like less of a challenge.

Yes, you should seek happiness and try your hardest. But happiness and constant tens aren’t always achievable.

Look where you’ve come. I hope most of you are far from your ones. Look at what you have achieved, and how you got there.

Looking back is the first step in moving forward. Explore what took you out of your ones and try to use that information to bring you up even higher. Live In the gap. Be grateful that you’re not at a one anymore and try not to be obsessed with getting to a ten. Somewhere in the middle is okay. Let your life be just okay.

RETROSPECTIVE/HOW TO: Creativity as therapy

I make a lot of things. I have been for a really long time. So I wanted to talk about creativity as therapy – and how making things can help, hinder, and where it can take you (or where it took me).

I started making things really young – I think I loved cross-stitching as a kid (and have been playing with the idea of learning to sew for real this year). I made a lot of things with paint, and kind of sucked at it. I’ve always been someone who writes – and has been quite lauded for it. In my adult life, I have over 20,000 people looking at my creative work. This has certainly added a different dimension in some capacity, but I think in a lot of ways, I still think of creativity as something I just do and then push online to say, ‘Hey! I made a thing! Let me know what you think, maybe!’

I think, as I’ve mentioned, zines are my favourite way to get my feelings out in a creative capacity. But I worked a lot with writing, and for a long time, that was both a way of doing something artistic and really summing up a situation. My poetry professor in university, Ruth Padel, said, ‘Poetry is the most beautiful and efficient way to express a message.’ So for me, I found compressing life events into something that was pretty gave me the capacity to process hardship and see the beauty in it.

That’s a bit about how art helped me – and I don’t think it’s a good summary, because I didn’t get a lot from writing stuff down. I get something out of it – I think there’s connection – but for me, it’s more about moving on than it is about processing. Like yelling at someone and then walking out and being okay. I think writing can help you process your feelings when done in a specific way, as I mentioned in a post about writing to your feelings – and I think there’s also a lot of development in journaling and developing a voice where you don’t feel judged. A lot of art is difficult in a sense because you often create twice – for yourself, and then for others. There’s a sense of being looked at – and it’s hard not to care when people don’t like your work, I think.

How would I recommend starting an art as therapy practice? Similarly to journaling, I would say that it’s important not to care too much about the quality of what you’re making and just to get something down for the sheer sake of achievement. You don’t need to be able to rationalise or explain the things you are making, because that might come in time, or not at all, or immediately – you just need to make something, even if you think it’s trash at the time. You can layer on top of stuff, as well.

I think a lot of what people find appealing in art is the busyness and meditativeness of the activity – you’re focusing on something beyond your feelings, or on expressing your feelings in a very specific way, so I would recommend keeping an eye on your emotions and physical sensations throughout the process – if your breathing’s getting shallow, if you have a stiffness in your chest, if you feel heavy or sad and can’t say why. It’s not about explaining, but exploring.

For some ideas:

BOOK CLUB: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

This book sucked. I wish that people who wanted to write self-help books in a narrative format would just write a blog post. I know this is a blog about mental health, but I feel like the framing devices involved in this kind of format are really obtrusive and boring, and make the actual lessons more difficult to unpack. Worry not, though, because Sharma definitely included summaries at the end of each chapter – unfortunately not detailed enough summaries.

Let me tell you what I did get from this book, aside from the fact that it sucked. In fact, here is a four minute summary, so you don’t have to read it.

The main premise, numero uno – your mind is like a garden, to be cultivated or left to run awry. True enough, and ever since my first therapist visited my house and talked to my parents, my dad has been super fond of the phrase, ‘Bad thoughts are weeds and I want them out.’ This is a fine premise, except that it gives no advice for how to achieve this in the moment aside from increasingly ominous messages about how you can’t afford a single bad thought. There are some exercises and tips, as follows:

  • The Heart of the Rose – look at a rose for as long as you can every day. I think the implication is that you build up to twenty minutes. This seems kind of like a nice externalising meditation. I cannot buy a rose every few days to look at, but it’s a cute idea. I just do insight meditation instead. I think the point is that you focus on something for a period of time longer than twenty seconds.
  • Listen to music so as not to get stuck in a bad place.

Other things this book talks about:

  • Dedicating your time adequately – I think this is important, so I can’t fault it, but again, very little advice on how to do it. In this day and age, calendars and to-do lists are pretty failsafe, and I enjoy colour-coding. If you’re up for it, try out Fantastical.
  • Be lonely/alone for a bit in the morning. It isn’t a bad idea to be alone, I guess, and also to have the time to clear thoughts.
  • Remove unnecessary things. Sharma doesn’t really talk about how to overcome sentimental attachment, just that you should do this, like, somehow.
  • Always follow your principles (thanks for the vague advice).
  • Engage in personal reflection.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Always think about how you can do good.

Other advice in this book that I don’t think is great – don’t eat dead food (or do, but be aware that it’s killing you?). I’m not particularly preachy about vegetarianism, but I guess if you want to, it’s nice to ease in – I mostly try not to eat anything that isn’t raw until dinner anyway, so 2/3 of my meals are vegetarian by default and then I also aim to eat a vegetarian dinner four days a week. Mostly what I found myself doing is replacing meat with halloumi, to be honest. Also, this isn’t really important – meat might not be great for you (or something), but in your quest for a healthy mind, choose your own dang diet.

Basically, if you want to read a more interesting version of this, maybe read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and learn to meditate. Or read this blog post again. You’d probably waste less time.

DIY: Write to your feelings

So, I was journaling this morning and I started doing something I’ve never done before. But to really set the scene, I need to talk about my life, so here goes:

I have seldom woken up without a large dark feeling in my stomach for the past ten to fifteen years. That is an overwhelmingly large portion of my life. Just constantly waking up with a pervasive feeling of dread. Morning meditations helped it, and journaling kind of helped it too, but I found something this morning that people had recommended I do in my meditations but not in my journaling.

I wrote a letter to that feeling. I didn’t name it ‘dread’ or ‘fear’. I called him heavy and dark, but not necessarily bad – just there. And I said to him that he could stay as long as he needed. But weirdly enough, as I neared the end of my three pages, he was quite different, larger and looser and less of a knot than a rod. I’ve noticed similar effects with meditation, but it was almost more fun and obvious to do the writing, and it made it easier to feel like the feeling wasn’t just me and I didn’t have to claim it so much as that it was a visitor and I was just hosting it for a while until it figured out where it wanted to go. I kinda tried to make it feel at home.

This really helped me – both to explore that feeling more objectively, with words like ‘heavy’ rather than ‘bad’: and gave me some power in being able to welcome it rather than wish it were gone without any way of achieving that. It made me able to say ‘you can stay’ without having to necessarily have the thought and believe the thought and maintain an unwavering acceptance and lack of questioning for the thought (sometimes meditation is like that, and accepting it is a battle in itself). Because it was written, and that takes the pressure off a bit. And the feeling wasn’t gone, but it looked a bit different, and I could hold it and hold other things at the same time, and that helped – I could hold what I’d called fear and hold excitement and motivation and calm all at once. It was interesting and a very cool exercise that I will be doing more and am glad I decided to try out today.

So, how do you do this?

I guess you sit and think about how you feel and where that feeling is in your body – which is quite a visceral process in itself. And you check that, that feeling, and call it non-judgmental words like ‘heavy’ and ‘dark’ or ‘light’ or ‘fuzzy’. Nothing good or bad, not horrible or unmanageable or pleasant – just adjectives that don’t convey that. And then write to the feeling – tell it it’s welcome as long as it needs to be, ask if there’s anything you can do to be a good host while it’s around. Be a friend to it, and watch how it changes, and write to it about how it changes, too. I wrote to mine in quite a Victorian voice because I’ve been reading A Little Princess and I have a weird affinity with 19th century children who aren’t like other children and kind of want to be one, an overly polite storyteller with the conviction of a soldier. But you don’t have to do that. So things like, ‘I feel you expanding out’, ‘you’re getting heavier’. I think it’s important to say ‘you’ and not ‘it’. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it helped me separate that feeling entirely from myself – ‘you’ cannot exist within me, whereas ‘it’ can, so that semantic change helped me a lot.

Be curious and caring – I think it’s easier to do it in writing than in sitting meditation. And do what you want with the letters, too.  Mine so far are in my journal so I doubt I’ll burn them, or anything, but that might be the way for you. This is a very new tool to me, and when I tried to google it I got more about talking about your feelings than directly to them. But we’ll work it out as we go along, yeah?

DIY: Affirmations and Self-Talk

I’ve been thinking a lot about positive self-talk and affirmations lately, as someone who has a tendency to vent a lot and then feel a bit better for a while and then kind of fall into that cycle. Lately, I actually have liked affirmations – both as a way of setting my intention and as a way of calming me down. Plus elevators have totally been waiting for me lately, so that’s a good sign.

So, what is an affirmation?

I think of it as a conscious way of controlling your thoughts, and redirecting them to a message. Having one is a good way to stop a thought spiral, in terms of having somewhere for it to go. And I like the ones that are process-focused, because they can always be true, even when you’re being really down on yourself and negative. So, one of mine is, ‘I am being guided in the right direction.’ I use that as a way of looking at setbacks or negatives as mere redirections, geared to point me at something way better and more suited to me (which is a nice way of just being positive about something).

At this point, I do have to say – I don’t want to advocate that you don’t grieve for things you need to, for people you could have been or could have been friends with, etc. It’s important to feel for those things, but in the same way that you have to look where you’re driving or you’ll crash, you have to look at where you want to be or you’ll get stuck on the negatives without understanding the opportunities they open up in other ways. After all, Thomas Edison something something lightbulb something?

I’m also hyper-aware of how trite this can sound, how motivational-postery it can seem. Affirmations aren’t about faking it ’til you make it (I don’t think). They seem to me to be more about saying positive things you know to be true – and a good way to approach things from a growth mindset. For example, every experience I have contributes towards my sense of self because I build my opinions, I build my knowledge banks, and I develop patterns. So I can always say, at any given time, ‘I am growing towards being more myself than ever before.’ Which isn’t one of mine, but it definitely could be.

How do I use affirmations?

I like to say them whenever I’m not saying anything else in my head, or sometimes to take control of nerves. It doesn’t often actually help me to feel calmer, though when I do them and I’m calm it makes me feel really good. But it’s a way to redirect those things I’m not thinking about or thinking about to something that makes sense and is positive. So it’s about repeating them – in your head, out loud, however you like. I don’t think one method is more powerful than the other, though some people do. I think it’s about finding something that works for you – that may even be writing it out over and over.

How do I craft an affirmation?

So, this is harder, but I think it’s taking the focus of a problem, and stating it as something you’re working on, or seeing the positive in things. So, when I’m having a frustrating day, it’s, ‘I choose to address this with love, rather than with fear or anger.’ When I feel unconfident (a lot right now!), it’s ‘I am working hard on my growth, and it’s paying off.’

You can think about your negative self-beliefs and write positive ones instead, but that might not feel true to you at all, and this process is about finding something you can believe, or believe yourself believing. And in my case, it’s all about loopholes. You can believe anything if you word it the right way. I may hate queuing, but I certainly appreciate the opportunity to develop patience. I don’t like being upset, but I appreciate the opportunity to see my heart grow and figure out my own boundaries. Affirmations are, at least partially, about seeing setbacks as an opportunity, and having the chance to correct that consciously and then repeat it allows you a go at developing those messages more unconsciously.

What are your affirmations?

Currently:

  • I am being guided in the right direction. I appreciate redirections; they add intrigue.
  • People want to help me!
  • I can handle anything that comes my way with love and honesty.
  • My enthusiasm is infectious.
  • Opportunity seeks me out.

DIY: Meditation Practice

Oh boy, this is a post and a half, isn’t it? I talk to people about meditating seldom these days – I don’t want to seem preachy, and it usually gets a response like, ‘I could never meditate, it’s too hard, I go to the gym instead.’ To which I’m like, for one thing, you can definitely pay a mindful visit to the gym. But also, as someone who cannot spend regularly engage in solo exercise to save their life, that is a great example of being way more disciplined than me. And about four-fifths of the battle with meditating is discipline, so, there we are. But I want to talk about meditating and the different types of it there are.

I think meditation is about engaging with yourself deliberately and noticing your patterns, but there are all sorts. At the heart of it it seems to be about finding a way to stay calm and develop acceptance towards all things – negatives, positives, pain and pleasures. So, I’m guessing you already know some of the benefits of meditation, but just in case you don’t, here they are:

  • Reduces stress
  • Improves concentration
  • Increases self-awareness
  • Increases happiness
  • A bunch of other things

So, you know, it’s definitely good for you. How do you begin?

STEP ONE: Dedication

It starts with time. With dedicating the time and space to meditate – some people do it on the train, some people have altars in their home. Some people use guided meditations, whether they’re breath-based or visualisations. It’s a very personal process. But if you don’t establish the space for it in your life, as with developing any habit, it won’t happen. I recommend setting aside ten to fifteen minutes a day to find a place where you can be quiet and alert.

Using a habit tracker can help, but can also make it a weird obligation that you resent or that you have to drag yourself to. It’s more about doing it at a certain time – and not dragging yourself to fulfil it at the end of the day, at the expense of your sleep cycle. So make sure you set that time and commit to it, and have a secondary time in mind in case you don’t fulfil that commitment the first time.

STEP TWO: Sitting

Posture is only important insofar as you need to be alert, but not uncomfortable. Recommended positions are sitting cross-legged with your back straight, sitting on a chair with your arms on your lap and your feet on the floor, or lying on your back with your arms by your side. I lie on my side, but straight, because I’m comfortable that way but I’m unlikely to fall asleep.

STEP THREE: Time

How long do you meditate? I think the important thing is to do it at all. Goenka recommends two one-hour sits a day. I usually shoot for forty minutes, but some days I do ten, and that’s okay too. But it’s really important to do the sit, even so. Additionally, if I feel myself getting stressed, I try to focus on my breath carefully, even if I have to multitask it. So that isn’t formal meditation, but it’s practice nonetheless.

I think any commitment is better than none – start with one minute. My mum starts people off with three breaths. Start small if you’d like – I started with two hours a day and moved to forty minutes. It’s about what suits you. Ten minutes a day can really make a huge difference!

STEP FOUR: Picking a method

I like using a variety of methods, but my first love was vipassana. I think these things can be used in a complementary way, and it’s about finding what works for you. Doing anything mindfully or reflectively can be meditation – writing, driving, brushing your teeth. But also, there are so many ways to sit – guided meditations, compassion focus, visualisations, repeating affirmations, repeating mantras, focus on energy, kundalini, yoga and movement meditation, walking meditations, zen, stoic – what you dedicate yourself once you’ve made that time and space is really up to you. It can be quite overwhelming to pick – Gaia has a helpful quiz here if you need a direction, but don’t feel limited. If you don’t get along with today’s method, there’s always tomorrow to try a new one. It’s worth mentioning that ‘get along with’ doesn’t mean ‘find pleasant’. It’s about figuring out where you feel you can make the most progress and movement, and what serves you best in that time. Do research on your method – here is a long list of types to get you started.

It can help to get into your meditation by focusing on your breath for a short period of time, just to calm down and get into a concentration frame of mind.

That’s it – you make the time, and you do it, and you do it every day or regularly, and that’s it, you’re meditating! In the same way that you make the time to shower every day (and there’s no reason you can’t meditate and shower at the same time). Demystify meditation!