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Mindful journey, end or beginning?

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Over the last few weeks it has been a privilege and a pleasure to, with you, mindfully navigate our way through this very uncertain and daunting COVID-19 pandemic. For many of us it is still just the beginning of our COVID-19 journey and the light at the end of the tunnel is the train hurtling towards us whilst for others the light at the end of the tunnel really is day light, a new dawn, a new day and new beginnings – whatever the new dawn may be and/or mean for each one of us. As I bring my contribution to the COVID-19 mindfulness conversation on this platform to a close, it need not mean that our mindfulness conversation comes to an end, it may just mean the beginning, as we choose a different path to start the conversation.

Image of a treeI have enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you as well as some of the mindfulness teachings I thought you may find valuable during this time. Together we explored learning to surf the waves of change and we learnt that it was possible to remain resolute and preserve our own personal equilibrium in the eye of the storm. We discovered our own unique anchors i.e. our breath, as well as how often when paying attention to the breath we are distracted by our wild and untamed thoughts. We learnt that thoughts are just thoughts, they are not our reality and that we make those thoughts our reality. We came to realise that we can't stop our thoughts because thinking is what our minds do but that we can change our relationship to them.

On the matter of changing our relationship to things, we were invited to turn towards and befriend our difficulties rather than try to wish them away or avoid them. Although this felt counter-intuitive, when we tried, we noticed that our negative experience of the difficulty soon dissipated – somehow the burden or suffering seemed lighter and more manageable and we also noticed that in every negative situation there is a sprinkling of positive and vice versa.  Through our openness to change and being ok with not knowing we got to experience the shifts and tensions between 'doing' and 'being' mode, depleting and nourishing activities and reactive and responsive behaviour.

During our journey, we experienced the sensation of being grounded and we even opened-up to the idea of holding the image of a mountain in our minds eye as a symbol of steadfast presence and stillness. We learnt that is was ok to give our curiosity free reign, as if we were starting over again, this time with a beginner's mind. We experienced the joys of turning inwards, discovering our own powers of awareness, our adeptness in paying attention, shifting and sustaining attention and our innate capacity for kindness, compassion, stillness and non-judgement. We got to meet ourselves at our own front door, 'warts and all' and befriend and accept ourselves in a way in which we may not have done before – which of course is not a bad thing given that wherever we go there we are i.e. it is not about the situation but us and how we relate to it.

Most notably in our stillness we were able to connect with our senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and in a heartfelt way marvel at these wonderful gifts as they reconnected us with ourselves, others, our surroundings and the wonders of nature. In the stillness, we were also able to pause, breathe, savour our moments and find peace and calm amidst the COVID storm.

On our journey, there was some discussion and exploration of formal and informal mindfulness practices and I mentioned that we could weave what we learn from these practices into our daily lives – doing so would certainly help with reducing stress, low mood and anxiety.

We are all capable of being mindful - some of us are not interested at all, some just need a reminder, some want to be pointed in a direction whilst others are interested in more than just dabbling with the concepts and practices in the way that we have.  Wherever we are on this continuum, it is important to know that this is ok – it is what it is and we are where we are. Living mindfully is not for everyone, some people enjoy staying on the hamster wheel – this is the freedom of choice. For those who do wish to learn more than what this blog has had to offer, the options include group training such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programmes, individual consultations or studying the subject at college or university level. Please see a few links below*. Don't be afraid to take the first step – remember that beautiful poem I shared with you in the 4th article: 'Start close in' by David Whyte:

As I intentionally turn my attention to a new dawn, I do so with immense appreciation for each moment I have had on this journey with you, getting our heads around the COVID-19 epidemic. Like you, I have learnt many things – I have learnt to look at myself honestly with kindness and compassion and to really see myself and the world through my own eyes. By turning inwards, nourishing, nurturing and honoring myself I deepened my capacity to reach out and to connect meaningfully with humility and gratitude. This time has been a wonderful time for learning and growing and as we continue to do so on our respective journeys, I would like to leave you with a link to this beautiful prose written and narrated by Kevin McCormack.

Links to a few mindfulness resources:

As we close the door on this chapter, my thoughts are moving to expanding the mindfulness conversation to sport, performance and leadership in the very near future – watch this space.

Until then, just know that if you are doing your best, it is indeed enough.

Stay safe, stay well and stay mindful.

Debbie Alexander

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Mindful moments

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Edited by Debbie Alexander, Friday, May 15, 2020, 12:14 PM

Hello and welcome back! Last week my intention was to foreground a few formal mindfulness practices, whilst this week’s mindful gift is the introduction of a few informal mindfulness practices.

If we are at all interested in putting our hearts into training our minds as much as we do our bodies, even if for now it is just to weather the COVID-19 storm, to preserve our own personal equilibrium and find peace in this rather chaotic world, embracing mindfulness as a way of being in the world can be very beneficial.

Image of a sunsetMindfulness is not just about the formal practice but also about letting what we have learnt in the practice spill over into our lives – it is about being fully present in connecting with ourselves, our hearts, minds and senses. Mindfulness is about being present in our connections with family, friends, peers, colleagues, nature and the world around us. Remembering that when we speak about mindfulness we are speaking about kindness, compassion, non-judgement, curiosity, acceptance, letting be, patience and non-striving.

Weaving what we have learnt in the formal practices into our lives is enhanced by engaging with informal mindfulness practices. Informal mindfulness practices help to bridge the gap between formal practices and daily life. So, what is meant by informal mindfulness practices? Firstly, let me clarify that when we are talking about practice in the mindfulness context it is not the same as the practice (rehearsal of a skill or perfecting a technique) your coach is referring to – in this context the practice means intentionally being present in this moment.

When we refer to informal practices, we are talking about being awake to our experiences, and paying attention, moment by moment to what we are doing and owning our actions.

In its simplest form we can ask ourselves: ‘am I awake to this moment’ or ‘do I know what I am doing or thinking in this moment’? When we are not awake in our moments, we find ourselves doing crazy things like driving to work or the shops instead of to the track or we arrive at a competition with the wrong gear or we forget where we left the keys. When we are awake to the moments in our lives, we are aware of what we are doing, thinking, feeling and saying, our minds are not elsewhere. By asking ‘am I awake to this moment?’ we are effectively checking in to see whether we really are present.

Informal Mindfulness practices can be little pauses we create throughout our day which allow us to refocus. The pause can be taking a ‘breathing space’ which can either be scattered at intervals during the day and/or when things are feeling a little pressured or out of control. The pause allows us to check in with our thoughts, feeling and sensations and to narrow our focus onto the breath for a few moments. The idea of the ‘breathing space’ is not to escape reality but to intentionally pause, gain clarity and respond in the wisest way possible. Try the 3 minute breathing space:

Weblink icon http://franticworld.com/the-three-minute-breathing-space-meditation-is-now-free-to-download/

If 3 minutes seems to long you may want to try a 1 minute meditation by Tara Brach:

Weblink icon https://mindfulnessexercises.com/downloads/1-minute-meditation

We can of course take these breathing spaces without the guided practice – even more convenient.

Informal Mindfulness practices can include bringing awareness to our routine activities and habits. In terms of the former, Mark Williams the founder of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) advocates bringing awareness to simple actions such as brushing one’s teeth, taking out the trash, taking a shower, washing the dishes etc. – the things we don’t even realise we are doing.

So, if we had to focus on bringing awareness to brushing our teeth it would involve, amongst others, noticing the following: the colour of the tooth brush, the bristles – texture and concentration i.e. hard, soft or medium; the toothpaste – the make, level, colour, texture and patterns; holding the toothbrush; squeezing the tube; the amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush; moisture or absence thereof on the toothbrush. We could notice the action of brushing; where we start and end; the taste of the toothpaste, the texture; the sensations of the toothpaste and water against our gums, teeth, palate, floor of the mouth; gargling and spitting etc. By bringing awareness in this way to our routine activities we get a sense of how mindlessly we go about our business, on a daily basis and how much we live our lives on autopilot.

In a similar vein, by focussing on breaking habits we learn to notice how some habits can be counterproductive. To get a sense of this we can try to mix things up a bit with some of those things we are fixated on e.g. ‘my chair’. So, if we always sit in the same chair at the dinner table, we can change where we sit – by changing the smallest thing we get a different perspective of ourselves, the surroundings and we often learn something new. Go ahead pick one of your habits and try a different approach.

Informal mindfulness can amongst others, also include the following: doing a random act of kindness; abiding by the rules of the road i.e. wait for the green light to proceed; listening and noticing when we are not listening; eating in silence and paying attention to the sensation of eating, the food, colours, textures, flavours and presentation.

The more we are in relationship with ourselves and the things we do with awareness, i.e. being awake to our moments, the more mindful we become.

Life is made up of moments, seize your moments, be awake in your moments.

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Mindful Offerings

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Image of a flower in foreground with Tabletop Mountain behindDuring the past weeks, as a way of getting our heads around the impact the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic has had on our lives, I offered an introduction to mindfulness concepts and practices. I referred to formal and informal mindfulness practices and today it is my intention to foreground a few of the formal practices. The motivation for this foregrounding is informed by my firm belief that the same ‘effort’ we put into training our bodies ought to be put into training our minds, and very few of us ever do this. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to train the mind, it reduces stress and aids us in participating actively in the maintenance of our own health and vitality. Regular mindfulness practice can increase skilful action and reduce reactivity while bringing greater clarity, focus and ease to dealing with any kinds of challenges.

Formal mindfulness practices vary and include amongst others mindful meditation, body scan; mindful movement; and mindful eating – these are the meditative practices I will highlight with accompanying links.

Mindful meditation can be described as a practice in which people learn to pay attention, moment by moment, intentionally, with an attitude of open, affable curiosity. 

The founder of the Mindfulness Stress Based Reduction (MBSR) programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn, claims that that mindful meditation allows us to tap into our capacity to be in touch with our experience and be awake and aware with no agenda other than to be awake and aware’. He stresses that meditation is not about clearing the mind, but about noticing the mind’s patterns and how certain patterns can lead to intensifying emotions as well as how some actions can lead to positive outcomes in life.

Specifically, Mindfulness meditation needs no preparation and does not involve the use of any props, candles or mantras, it requires a quiet place to sit or lie, a few minutes of our time and an open, non-judgemental mind.

Practicing mindful meditation has many benefits - through this formal practice we learn to become more kind, compassionate, gentle, patient and non-judgemental with ourselves. We also learn to give ourselves the time and space to make informed and wise choices and to find solutions to problems. Other benefits include reduced stress, reduced pain or discomfort, improved sleep, improved insight and improved performance. Try this mindfulness meditation of body and breath:

Weblink icon http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/

Image of a person in front of a rainbowThe body scan is designed to systematically, region by region, cultivate awareness of the body. The body scan is best practiced lying down on ones back in a place where one feels warm and comfortable and will be undisturbed. This is useful practice to explore for numerous reasons, the first is that the body often detects thoughts before we consciously register them, it then reacts as though the thoughts are real irrespective of whether they are or not. The second reason the body scan is a useful practice is because it affords us the opportunity to deepen our ability to see how reactive our minds really are and the third reason is that the body can act as an emotional sensor giving us early warning signs of stress, unhappiness and apprehension before they even arise. The body feeds back emotional information to the brain which often worsens the stress, fears and worries we already have. If we are able to decipher the messages from the body by paying detailed attention and also shifting our attention, we may notice the parts of the body that are the source of the distress signals.

The body scan is a wonderful way of integrating the mind and the body and also of developing our ability to pay attention, shift attention and sustain attention. Additionally, in this practice we come to notice how our mind creates tension in the body and vice versa. Being able to notice our minds’ reactivity is useful given that we spend so much time in our heads planning, remembering, analysing, judging, comparing etc. that it is easy to compromise our own physical and mental well-being.  Try this body scan meditation:

Weblink icon http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/

Mindful movement is likened to gentle hatha yoga with an emphasis on mindful awareness of the body in motion and in stillness. Mindful movement not only helps to release stress in the body, it also teaches us a wonderful appreciation of and respect for our bodies. This practice can feel very odd, especially for athletes who are used to pushing themselves beyond their limits. Unlike the movement you are used to, the purpose here is to focus on the physical sensation of the movement and how we relate to the sensations and to also notice our inclination to want to strive and push ourselves –  so this practice is not about striving but simply about cultivating awareness of our physical sensations. It is a wonderful way of reconnecting with our bodies in a kind, compassionate, gentle and non-judgemental way. Try this mindful movement meditation: 

Mindful eating is a practice in which we bring awareness moment by moment to what we are doing when we are eating. It is a lovely ‘exercise’ which helps to give us a sense of knowing what we are doing when we are doing it.  Mark Williams the founder of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) suggests trying mindful eating by actively attending to eating a piece of chocolate – he calls it the chocolate meditation.   Actively attending in this instance, incorporates opening the wrapper, taking in the aroma, breaking off a piece, looking at the chocolate from all angles, touching it, putting it in your mouth, noticing what happens in your mouth and with the chocolate, your tendency to bite, suck etc., noticing your thoughts about the chocolate or what you are doing, noticing the swallowing and the sensation of having eaten the chocolate and your thoughts about that.

Image of a rainbowThe mindful eating meditation practice is a powerful way of making us aware of unhelpful and sometimes destructive impulses and behaviours when it comes to food. For some of us food can provide emotional comfort especially when the going gets tough - we often hear people talking about comfort eating and comfort food. The mindful eating meditation practice affords us the opportunity to be in touch with our food and our relationship to food. We can be more mindful of what we consume, why, how, where and when. Try the chocolate meditation (of course you will need chocolate for this one):

Weblink icon http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/

The intention of these formal Mindfulness practices is for us to actively take time out of our day to check in on ourselves, to turn off our surroundings and focus inwards so that we can reflect on our own lives. Practicing mindfulness formally is not difficult or out of our reach because we all have the ability, to be mindful. In my experience, for mindfulness to be fully appreciated, understood and of value in our lives, it must be experienced and not just spoken or read about - so go ahead and give some of the practices a try.

Lastly, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn: ‘If you want to influence the future, own the present’.

Be bold, be brave and be curious.

Debbie Alexander

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Connecting with our centre

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In previous posts I touched on numerous aspects of mindfulness in the hope that it would help us navigate with ease our prolonged exposure to negative stressors associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic.  In the last post I suggested that if we want to remain physically and mentally healthy during this period of rapid change, we need to preserve our own personal equilibrium and that we could do this by acting mindfully and practicing mindfulness both formally and informally.  In that post I explored ways in which we could act mindfully and today I specifically want to pause at one of numerous formal mindfulness practices.

Image of a mountain overlooking a lakeMy offering to further enhance our inner stability, is mindful meditation and I am specifically leaning towards the Mountain Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn the founder of the Mindfulness Stress Based Reduction (MBSR) programme. For me, this meditation practice sits beautifully in the centre of all I have advocated for in sharing my thoughts about how we can maintain our inner balance.  The image of a mountain and identifying with this image brings to my mind notions of strength, solidity, resoluteness and rootedness, more importantly I see it as my centre and at the heart of my being.

In the Mountain Meditation script by Jon Kabat-Zinn he suggests that when it comes to meditation, mountains have a lot to teach us by holding the mountain image in our minds eye as a symbol of steadfast presence and stillness.

In this meditation we are invited to bring to mind an image of a mountain that resonates with us. As we sit, we are guided to take in forms and shapes of the mountain and breathe with and observe the image of the mountain, seeing all its qualities. We are then invited to bring the mountain into our own body so that our body becomes one with the mountain, a breathing mountain, unwavering in our stillness, centered and rooted.

Throughout this guided meditation, whilst the mountain just sits being itself, we embark on a journey of observing day turn to night, light and shadow, colours, fauna, flora, the seasons flowing into one another, changing weather patterns, temperatures, calmness descending into storms. We get a sense of freshness, dullness, vibrance, fog and clarity, whilst all the while the mountain just sits unmoved by the changes around it.

Kabat-Zinn suggests that as we sit holding this image in our mind, we can embody the same unwavering stillness and rootedness in the face of everything that changes in our own lives over seconds, hours, and years. As in meditation practice, in life we experience the continual changing nature of our own internal and external worlds.

He proposes that by becoming the mountain in our meditation, we can link up with its strength and stability. We can also draw parallels between the things that happen to us and the weather on the mountain. Lastly, he reminds us that the mountain meditation is only a device to point us in a direction, it is up to us to see and respond keeping in mind that although the mountain image is useful from a stability perspective we are human and as much as we can be rock solid we can also be soft and gentle and continue to grow and transform.

I have included this link to a meditation script https://palousemindfulness.com/docs/mountain%20meditation.pdf which is an adapted version of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s absolutely beautiful Mountain Meditation. I know that if you take the time to read it you will find something in there that will deeply resonate with you too.  Make the time – it is worth it. I have also included this link to Jon Kabat-Zinn Mountain Meditation:

It is not the complete meditation but gives you a taste of connecting with your mountain. There are numerous other versions of the mountain meditation on youtube so go ahead, explore and find your mountain.

Reference: Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion Books, 199457

Go with strength, balance and heart!

Debbie Alexander


Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/4EwI7yI5Q_8

unsplash-logoAndrea Ledda

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Change

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In my previous posts I explored subjects such as choice and taking care of oneself. For now, my thoughts are moving in the direction of change. I am thinking about a changing world and our own change, which extends beyond, albeit still incorporating kindness and compassion. With the world as we once knew it changing at a rapid pace, courtesy of COVID-19, we are going to have to adapt by changing the way we engage with it, each other and ourselves. Now for some of us the thought of change may be rather scary, whilst others may find it quite exciting. If you are thinking that change is not for you, that you hate change and can’t change, well then, I have a little surprise for you, as our lives are indeed about change.

Image of clouds over water with mountains in the backgroundIn life, change is inevitable, it is evident in our transformation from infancy to toddlerhood, to preadolescence, adolescence and adulthood. We are constantly evolving, growing and learning and- eventually change even leads to old age and death – nothing is permanent. Change constantly occurs in our bodies mostly without any conscious interventions from ourselves. Within our bodies change is largely protective, if change did not take place, our bodies would not be able to heal broken bones, cuts, bruises and infections. Even in times of great stress or threat our bodies respond in either fight, flight or freeze mode and once the ‘danger’ has passed our bodies return to a state of homeostasis.

Of course, change in our bodies can also be negative e.g. if, amongst other things, we abuse our bodies by the excessive intake of alcohol or prohibited substances or by limiting food intake (anorexia or bulimia) or if we fail to curb prolonged excessive levels of stress resulting in excessive biological wear and tear.  When our minds and bodies have been stretched to the maximum over a long period of time chronic mental or physical ill health can result. This is where change can make a difference, where we have some control and where we can exercise our power of choice.

Knowing that change is part of our being and that our minds and bodies are adaptable should be hugely encouraging when the subject of embracing change is broached in the context of adjusting to a new world order associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

How we experience this pandemic will depend on how we perceive change itself. The definitive impact on our physical and mental health from the prolonged experience of negative stress will depend largely on how we adapt to the rapid on-going changes whilst still preserving our own personal equilibrium. Adding to the impact the prolonged experience of negative stress will be our beliefs about the world and ourselves, the meanings we assign to occurrences in our daily lives, our awareness or lack thereof of our reactions to situations and our mindlessness tendencies.

High achievers are often thought of as resilient because of their ability to endure on-going high levels of stress - they just grit their teeth and push through. However, if they fail to see the positive side of stressful situations, eventually when faced with sustained challenges and disappointments they too wither and succumb to ill-health.

So how, even if we are resilient, can we keep changing whilst still preserving our own inner equilibrium and sense of wholeness?

One way of maintaining our own inner balance is to be mindful of our perceptions, behaviours and lifestyles, it is only when we have some awareness of (have insight into) our own blunders, gaps and blind spots that we can, if necessary, effect change.

Keeping in mind that our perceptions become our reality, so if we perceive the impact of the pandemic to be extremely stressful, this will be the reality we respond to.  Alternatively, if we perceive this stressful situation in a positive light and an opportunity for new growth and learning this will be our reality. Do you remember, when times were tough, your parents’ saying the following: ‘when life gives you lemons make lemonade’ or ‘turn that knot in your tummy into a beautiful bow’ they were encouraging you to look on the brighter side of life. If it is difficult for you to look on the brighter side, you may wish to try the following when you notice yourself making a negative comment, immediately back it up with 3 positive ones – eventually you will change your mindset. If you are unaware of how your perceptions impact your actions, ask a family member or friend to point out these moments to you. You can also reciprocate this gesture if the other is open to it so that we all start a positive rather than a negative spiral in changing our perceptions.

Being mindful of our behaviour requires us to slow down, pause, be still and honestly and openly reflect on our actions towards ourselves, others and the environment. Some questions to consider: Do we respect ourselves, others, nature and our environment? Are we kind, caring, compassionate, charitable, empathic? Are we tolerant, understanding and patient?  Do we nourish and nurture ourselves and others? What difference are we making in this world?

Being mindful of our lifestyle involves appraising whether we are: getting sufficient sleep and rest; managing stress appropriately; considering our food choices carefully in relation to a healthy diet, appropriate nutritional supplements and avoidance of harmful substances; balancing training, exercise, recovery, work, recreation and fun activities; engaging in healthy relationships; seeking and providing appropriate emotional support; making use of physical and psychological therapies; engaging in sustainable practices; – and last but not least engaging with formal (mindful breathing, eating, movement, etc.) and informal mindfulness practices (noticing habits and routine daily activities).

Another way of maintaining our own inner balance, especially when the going gets tough is to spring into action to take care of ourselves in the best way possible in this moment.

Generally, when one is grounded through the practice of mindfulness, the most adept way to deal with difficult and stressful situations is to remain mindful, i.e. pause, breathe, consider what one can and can’t control. If the circumstances are out of one’s control, allow them to resolve themselves, whilst taking care of the things that one can control. Sometimes, however, especially in very difficult times when one feels down, very stressed, exhausted and anxious the wisest thing to do, instead of moping and feeling sorry for oneself, is to effect change i.e. get into action – drive (motivation) follows action, i.e. just do it!!! Even if you don’t feel like it, don’t think about it, just do it!!! When you start, the motivation will follow. The best action at this point is to do something that brings you great joy and something that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment and/or fulfilment. Lastly whatever you do, do it mindfully - ask yourself: is this necessary, is this helpful, is this kind and am I making a difference?

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Emotional Pain

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In my last post, I stressed that now, more than ever, we need to cultivate kindness and compassion towards ourselves so that we can extend the kindness and compassion to others.  I also briefly touched on topics such as pain and suffering. Today I want to pause for a moment at the subject of pain and specifically emotional pain.

Whilst some may be weathering this COVID-19 storm with ease, others may not be. Those that are struggling may be wrestling with their own thoughts, feelings, behaviours and discomforts, unsure of whether what they are feeling and experiencing is normal or whether there should be cause for concern.

Image of a flowerIf you are feeling:

  • Frustrated
  • Irritable
  • Angry
  • Afraid
  • Sad (low mood)
  • Stressed
  • Worried
  • Numb
  • Uncertain
  • Guilty
  • Shame

Your behaviour is:

  • Bad-tempered
  • Argumentative
  • Impatient
  • Intolerant
  • Abrupt

And you are:

  • Over-eating
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Restless
  • Exhausted
  • Tense
  • Experiencing aches and pains,

you need to know that these are normal experiences, so please, cut yourself some slack. We are all human and it is perfectly ok to experience unpleasant feelings, just as it is fine to have positive and neutral feelings and experiences. Take grieving for example, a mental, physical, social or emotional reaction in response to loss - this is accompanied by ‘negative’ responses such as denial and feelings such as deep sadness, numbness, irritability and anger. Amongst others, these are perfectly normal responses to loss. Those of us who have lost loved ones can certainly identify with some of these responses. I know that some of you are thinking: ‘but I have not lost a loved one, so why am I having some of these feeling right now’?

When we talk about grief, the word does not only refer to the loss of a loved one, loss can mean many different things to each one of us. For some, loss may mean the ending of a significant relationship (a break-up), being retrenched, loss of income, loss of ability to train, loss of freedom of movement etc. During this COVID-19 crisis period and especially during lockdown we are all experiencing losses.

Negative feelings, behaviours and experiences in isolation or in combination, in small doses, are normal responses to stressful situations, including loss, so don’t fret. However, when they persist, affect your day to day life and cause significant distress in your relationships, in family, social and occupational settings, there may be cause for concern.

What should cause you to be concerned and what should one be looking out for? 

Feeling depressed:

If you have had a depressed mood for most of the day, every day for 2 weeks or more, and you are struggling with a number of the following:  difficulties with sleep or appetite (either sleeping and/or eating too much or too little, e.g. not wanting to eat or get out of bed or the converse), feelings of sadness, no desire to participate in fun activities or socializing, struggling with concentration and remembering, feelings of hopelessness and thoughts that the world will be a better place without you, and you (or your loved ones) notice that all these struggles have a significant impact on your day to day life – please seek help from a local mental health professional like a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Feeling anxious:

If you have been worrying excessively (e.g. about what may or may not happen in the future or about something bad happening to you and your family or a loved one), and these worries consume most of your day, every day for a number of months and they impact on your day to day life, causing you and those around you significant stress because you are constantly on edge, fatigued, tense and irritable, then you should seek help from a local mental health professional as alluded to above.

Additionally, it is important to note that if you have an existing mental disorder, this current crisis may well exacerbate the condition and cause you further distress, especially if you do not have sufficient support - please in this instance, also reach out to your mental health professional, as above.

Some mental health professionals around the world are offering on-line assessments and interventions. For help: search on-line for Clinical Psychologists, Counselling Psychologists, Counsellors, Psychiatrists, Mental Health Services, Depression and Anxiety Groups or for your nearest clinic or hospital.  

Whatever the challenges, small or big, in your reaching out for comfort and support, make your first port of call family and friends, especially now, even if it is only via on-line means. I am aware that for some of us, especially in difficult situations we find it hard to reach out because we do not want to be a burden to others or perhaps, we think that others will see us as weak and not able to cope. We are all human and we all go through periods of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope – it’s ok, this is perfectly normal and nothing to be embarrassed about. Reaching out to others may just be the difference between lightening our loads or worsening our situations. One of the positive outcomes of reaching out is that we discover that we really are not alone in our distress and that others too are experiencing difficulties – remember this is new for all of us. 

We are social beings and relationships are key to our existence and survival, we need the contact – make the contact!!  Make the contact, if not for you, for the other person because the other person may be needing the contact more than you and more than you realize.

Remember kindness and compassion to yourself first and then to others. In her book Loving-Kindness, Sharon Salzburg  https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/lovingkindness/ has a wonderful way of guiding one to extending loving kindness to oneself first, then to close family and friends, to strangers, to difficult people, if this is difficult then to ourselves again, and then to all beings. Phrases she uses are: ‘May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, and may I live with ease’.

For our purposes, as we get our heads around the Coronavirus, COVID-19, you may wish to, in your quiet moments (e.g. whilst settled and grounded, using the breath as an anchor), repeat the following phrases:

May I stay safe

May I stay healthy

May I stay strong and connected, and

May I ride this COVID-19 wave with ease

 

My wish for you is:

May you stay safe

May you stay healthy

May you stay strong and connected, and

May you ride this COVID-19 wave with ease

Embrace the ride,

Stay strong, stay well and stay connected.

 

Debbie Alexander

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Start Close In

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In my previous communications, I very briefly touched on topics such as choice, acceptance, pausing, reactivity versus responsiveness, opening to new possibilities, cultivating awareness and attention, riding the uncertainty wave, mindfulness, using the breath as an anchor, reconnecting with our being mode and returning to our senses in a kind, compassionate, non-judgemental way. I am aware that for some people even the thought of turning towards and/or changing the way we relate to the COVID-19 challenges may be easier said than done.

I am conscious of the fact that some of us are already in the teeth of the devastation, having suffered great losses i.e., personal, family, financial, professional, occupational, whilst others are fearing and anxiously anticipating these realities. I am also mindful that all our contexts and experiences are different. Some of us are still in lockdown, others have just entered lockdown whilst others are yet to experience lockdown when some are coming out of lockdown. Some people are more fortunate than others in terms of their environments, resources and support structures. For some, the pain associated with the COVID-19 challenges may be physical or emotional or both. Whichever scenario we find ourselves in, there we are, and for each one of us our coping will be different, shaped by our previous life experiences (environment/nurture) and who we are as individuals (innate being/nature). Some may experience the ‘pain’ as suffering whilst others may not. Pain and suffering are different, pain (physical and mental) is unavoidable, it is what it is, whilst suffering is our response to pain, the meaning we attribute to is. Suffering, more so than the pain, is the thing that really gets us down and leaves us feeling miserable.

None of us is exempt from experiencing pain but we can avoid suffering. Whether we experience the mental or physical pain of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis as suffering will depend on our relationship to the pain. Some people get caught up in their own story and thoughts around the pain, by ruminating about the specific incident or manifestation or circumstances and eventually they become victims of their own reactions. Our reactions to the pain itself, is our biggest challenge.

By practicing mindfulness, we learn to notice how our reactions affect our emotional well-being and we also learn ways in which we can avoid being caught up in the stories we build around pain which further compounds our suffering. 

So, when I set out to put us in touch with ourselves, through suggesting we pause and bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and senses and how we relate to ourselves, I did so intentionally. I wanted us to notice our reactivity to things and people around us, the busyness of our minds, the busyness of our lives, our lack of truly knowing and understanding ourselves and the impact thereof on ourselves and others.

If we are not able to reduce our reactivity in situations and respond in an informed, intentional manner with kindness and compassion towards ourselves, we will struggle to extend this way of being in the world to others, and right now the world needs kindness and compassion more than ever. Cultivating kindness and compassion starts with each one of us. It starts by bringing awareness to our thoughts and actions and awareness to our tendency to react rather than respond.

If you have not yet tried being kind and compassionate to yourself, this is an invitation to return and ponder on to my previous messages.

On that note of extending an invitation, I would like to leave you with this beautiful, thought provoking poem by David Whyte.

Be safe, Be healthy,

Be kind, Be compassionate,

Be mindful.

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'Choice'

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Edited by Debbie Alexander, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 12:28 PM

Remember that word, ‘choice’ in the earlier episodes? Well, here it is again, we can choose to allow isolation to defeat us, or we can choose to rise above it, in it and through it. These are my thoughts around embracing this challenge:

Given that our lives are generally go, go, go, with a focus on faster, higher, further, more, more and more, it is rare that one is forced to stay at home, get off the hamster wheel, bow out of the rat race and switch off the automatic pilot. This isolation, therefore, for many of us may feel like a blessing in disguise but for others a curse.  When one is relentlessly pursuing a goal, isolation because of Covid19 can be hugely frustrating and disappointing. The first thoughts that come to mind for many athletes, are around training, fitness, shape, refocussing, build up to the Games and filling their days.  We are so programmed to do, that the thought of not ‘doing’ and not knowing is completely terrifying.  

During the first few days stuck at home we busy ourselves with catching up with all the things we have been meaning to do for the last year e.g. admin, sorting out the cupboards, putting all the old, unused clothes and shoes aside for charity, disposing of the expired spices and non-perishables, servicing the bicycles, cleaning the car – the list is endless. We make those phone calls to family and friends we had been meaning to call but were far too busy to do so. We read the books and journal articles we had stacked away for a rainy day. We follow our planned structured programmes and yet slowly but surely, some of us start feeling restless, trapped, frustrated and miserable. People around us are on-edge, jittery and worried, the apartment feels like it is slowly closing in on us and our moods and sense of humour start going south.

One reason we may start feeling so miserable, angry and frustrated with this isolation may be that we do not know how to just be with whatever is, in the present moment. We spend most of our lives in the ‘doing’ mode and rarely ever slow down enough to appreciate the ‘being’ mode. We have forgotten how to be because being, unless it is being busy, is sometimes perceived as lazy, unmotivated or slack. ‘Doing’ in sport, academia and business is also applauded and rewarded and ultimately keeps us striving. However, I am sure you will agree, it often comes at a huge cost. Now I am not for one minute suggesting you stop ‘doing’ because doing your job/work (whatever this means to you) may be your only means of survival. What I am suggesting though is that there are other ways of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ in the world. Learning how to be, hugely impacts ‘doing’ in ways you cannot begin to imagine – I speak from experience. By merely changing my ‘being’ I have become more centred, open, curious, awake, efficient and effective in my daily life and in my ‘doing’.

Isolation due to the spread of the Coronavirus brings with it some wonderful opportunities, it gives us time to pause and reflect. It gives us a once in a life-time chance to step off the hamster wheel and put the brakes on our automatic pilot. It reminds us that we can choose to make ourselves miserable by desperately trying to kick start the automatic pilot gain or that we can take the time to become reacquainted with the ‘being’ mode of life - we are after all human beings not human doings.

SunriseOne way to rediscover the being mode, is to reconnect with ourselves - we can do this through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness means intentionally, paying attention to the present moment (the moment can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), in a kind, compassionate and non-judgemental way. Mindfulness teaches us awareness, it teaches us to sustain attention and shift attention, it teaches us awareness of our thoughts, feelings and sensations. When we are in touch with our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensation we are more easily able to register distress signals, make sense of them and consequently instead of reacting to situations, we can respond in an informed and appropriate way.

We can start our mindfulness journey by getting in touch with our senses through bringing awareness to the senses of taste, hearing, smell, seeing and touch. If sight or hearing is not possible for you, focus on the other senses.  

You may wish to try the following: intentionally waking up early to watch the sun rise - there is nothing more exhilarating and uplifting than intentionally welcoming in the day.

Get out of bed and stand at an open window or door or go outside, if you can. Take a few deep breaths, fill your lungs with the morning air and when you are ready to do so, take a moment to, just where you are standing, settle and ground yourself in the moment, bring your awareness to your feet making contact with the floor, notice the pressure, the texture, the temperature. When you are ready, shift your awareness to your posture, notice whether it is dignified, upright. Notice the sensation of just standing, bringing awareness to the whole body, it’s energy and status.  No need to adjust anything, simply bring a gentle awareness and curiosity to the experience of just being, in this moment, in a kind, compassionate, non-judgemental way.

As night turns into day bring your awareness to the wonders of sight. Gazing into the distance, notice colours and textures on the horizon, notice the landscape, the presence of clouds or the moon in the sky – notice as things shift and change moment by moment.   No need for interpretation or trying to make sense of anything or your experience, simply bring awareness to the sensation of sight.  When you are ready, shift the spotlight of attention to noticing sound or the absence of it. Notice the silence or perhaps the sounds in the distance or close by, notice the sounds of the birds, dogs barking, the wind in the trees, the cars, trucks or trains. Allow yourself to rest in the incredible sensation of hearing. Next, shift the spotlight of attention to sensing smell. Notice the odours in the air – notice the freshness of the morning, the smell of the neighbours’ breakfast, the scent from the family bathroom or the staleness of the garbage bins left outside – simply notice any and all sensations of smell. When it is comfortable for you, shift the focus of your attention to the sensation of taste. Notice this experience whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, notice any after taste from the early morning coffee, the toothpaste or the garlic from last night’s meal. Simply register the sensation, without getting caught up in any thoughts around the taste experience. Lastly, bring your awareness to the sensation of touch - notice the warmth of the sun on your skin or the temperature of the surrounding air, the cool breeze or the bite of the wind, the texture of the fabric of your clothes against your skin – and simply allow yourself to rest in awareness of the sensation of touch, again, without any need to unpack the experience.

Notice the experience of coming home to your senses and this profound way of honouring the gift of direct sensory contact with yourself and the world. When we create a space where we intuitively can connect with our inner and outer worlds, we create an opportunity to engage with ourselves and subsequently others in a different and more meaningful way. Learning to engage with ourselves and others in a more meaningful way will go a long way to lifting our isolation burden. The change starts with each one of us - we can carry on running from ourselves or we can choose to stop, ‘be’ and reconnect with ourselves.

Be thankful; Be kind; Be compassionate

Be mindful


Image Source: Dr Debbie Alexander

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Make the breath your anchor!

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Edited by Debbie Alexander, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 11:58 AM

Previously I wrote about choice and I reminded you to breathe.

On the matter of choice, central to my life, is the phrase: "the choices we make will determine the life we lead". How we ride this Coronavirus wave is up to each one of us – after all, we do have the freedom of choice no matter what the circumstances.

On the matter of remembering to breathe, it is not so much about remembering to breathe as it is about bringing an awareness to the breath because ultimately the breath happens without any intervention from ourselves (‘it breathes itself’ – that’s what lungs do). In the same way that our lungs breathe our minds think – it just happens.

Image of mist over a lakeBringing awareness to the breath has some advantages. One of the good things about drawing our attention to the breath is that it reminds us that if we are still breathing there is more right with us than wrong, so we have a great deal to be thankful for. We can either embrace this blessing and make the most of every moment in our lives, or we can choose to be alive and miserable and make everyone around us miserable too.

The second thing about bringing awareness to the breath is that we can use it as an anchor to steady ourselves when things feel just that little bit out of our control.

Because the breath happens on its’ own accord, I am not for one minute suggesting you interfere with this process. I would, however, like to invite you to become acquainted with the wonders of your breath, this life given force that we take for granted. Seek out a quiet place in your home, a place where you feel most safe, comfortable and where you will not be disturbed. Find an area where you can either sit upright on a chair or on the floor or you can lie down. Take a moment to settle and ground yourself, you can close your eyes or lower your gaze if you wish and just for a moment bring your awareness to your whole body, starting with your toes and moving up towards your head, shifting your attention from one area to the next, noticing any and all sensations that are present in the here and now – no need to adjust anything, simply just notice. When you are ready, move the focus of your attention to the breath, simply noticing the inbreath and the outbreath – just notice! There is no need to adjust or change in any way, the way you breathe – simply notice the inbreath and the outbreath.  Do this for a few minutes.

You will notice that after a while your mind starts to wander, you get distracted by thoughts. It’s ok, it’s just thoughts and it is what the mind does (just like the lungs breath, the mind thinks) – no need to beat yourself up about this. Thoughts are just thoughts, we can’t halt thinking but we can remind ourselves that thoughts are not our reality, we make them our reality – remember the word, choice. We can choose to get caught up in the content of our thoughts or we can choose to notice that they are a little crazy and make the choice to shift our attention. So, when you become aware that the focus of your attention has shifted to your thoughts, notice where it has gone and gently escort your attention back to your breath. Each time you get distracted, gently escort your attention back to the breath. Try doing this for 5 minutes on your own. If it is difficult to do this unguided practice you might want to try Mark Williams, mindfulness meditation track 1, Body and Breath on YouTube.   

Make the breath your anchor!


Image Source: Dr Debbie Alexander

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Getting our heads around the Coronavirus is all about choice

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Edited by Debbie Alexander, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 11:59 AM

We have 2 choices:

  • Option 1: We can allow it to get us down by choosing to get angry, frustrated and depressed (negative option)
  • Option 2: We can accept that the situation is what it is (positive option)

Keeping in mind that what we think (our thoughts) influences what we feel (emotions) and how we behave in the world.

SunsetIf we choose option 1 our negative thoughts will transition into negative feelings and negative behaviour – these fuel each other taking us on a downward spiral. For example, if we think that we can’t cope, we start feeling helpless, our confidence goes out the window and we make mistakes.

Whilst, if we choose option 2 we can initiate an upward spiral.

Option 2 speaks to acceptance of the situation.  Now, acceptance does not mean giving up, becoming detached or simply not caring. Acceptance means being attached, taking hold of something no matter how difficult and embracing the true, deep understanding of how things really are.

In Mindfulness practice we see acceptance as a pause, a period of allowing things to be just as they are, a period of seeing clearly and of turning towards the difficulty rather than trying to avoid it.

When we pause and acknowledge and accept our negative thoughts, feelings and sensations it breaks the initial link in the chain that leads to negative downward spiral and prevents the mind’s automatic aversion pathway from kicking in.  

Therefore, when we pause we give ourselves more time and space to respond in the wisest and most creative way to difficult situations.

If we choose to accept the situation as it is, we open ourselves up to new possibilities which could include the view that this crisis too shall pass.

Imagine you are a surfer, no wave is ever the same, sometimes the conditions are rough and sometimes calm, sometimes the waves are small and sometimes enormous. This is much the same in life, we never know what challenges we will face and often circumstances are out of our control. As in life and in surfing, we can’t control the waves but we can learn to ride them. So rather than fear the wave, harness the power and energy of this force and have the ride of your life.

Enjoy the ride and remember to breathe.


Image Source: Dr Debbie Alexander

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