The Finding Hope Challenge 2019

Hello! Today I’m launching the @crafting.out.loud Finding Hope Challenge 2019. For detailed info, please watch my YouTube video below, but the basics are as follows: over the course of July we’re going to journal about all the things that give us hope, that feeling of positive expectation, the things we look forward to, so that by the end of the month we’ll have built up a ‘hope bank’ from which we can make withdrawals during times when our hope needs a bit of a top-up. Also, I’ve created another craft along kit to go with this challenge. Again, details are in the video. I do hope you’ll join me in creating this really useful wellness tool. xxx

Bible Journaling Out Loud: An Introduction

Hello, and welcome to my channel! In this video I talk about my recovery from mental illness and the part my faith is playing in it. I also tell you why I’ve started Bible Journaling and invite you to watch as I create my first entry. If Bible Journaling is not your thing, feel free to skip this video and come back for usual my Plan With Me, Journal With Me and Crafting Out Loud videos. Thanks for watching! xxx

Mental Health Monday – Soul Space

It’s been a while since I wrote a Mental Health Monday post! I’ve had a lot on recently – school holidays, design team work, bespoke card-making, spring fayre preparations, overwhelming tiredness – so something had to give, and that something was my blog. Things are a little quieter and more routine now, so I should have the time to write more frequently. That’s the plan anyway …

Today I want to talk about the nitty-gritty of my morning mindfulness, meditation, prayer and reflection habit. It goes something like this:

  • 08:00 wave the kids off to school.
  • 08:05 meditate using the Headspace app.
  • 08:15 pray using the Pray as You Go app.
  • 08:30 reflect using the Simple Abundance book and my journal
  • 08:45 stretches
  • 08:50 shower …

The first thing I want to say is that I don’t really draw a line between mindfulness, mediation, prayer or reflection. It’s all one and the same to me – perhaps different facets of the same jewel. I often start my morning habits with a simple breath prayer such as, ‘Here I am, Lord (in breath) I am here (out breath)’ or ‘You are in me (in breath) I am in you (out breath).’ These prayers not only acknowledge God and invite him into this special time, but they also anchor me in the present moment – my mind is fully engaged in the here and now. It’s not rushing away into my day or ruminating over yesterday. Which brings me to the main aspect, benefit and challenge of mindfulness – being fully present.

When people talk to me about my mindfulness practice, they often ask: do you have to empty your mind? My answer is no; the clue’s in the name … it’s mindFULLness. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, letting our thoughts go and simply being. I know … easier said than done, right? Our brains are programmed to think; they’re programmed to figure out how to overcome challenges and threats – perceived and real. It’s our survival instinct. And our thinking brains do not shut off just because we live in a relatively safe environment. In fact, our brains will take any challenge and try to figure out how to deal with it, no matter how minor. Maybe your co-worker has commandeered your desk while you’ve been on annual leave. Maybe one of the kids in your child’s class has headlice. Maybe your local supermarket has run out of bread. Our brains see all these things as threats and try to think of solutions in the same way they would if you’d just spotted a sabre-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes. OK, your reaction might not be as extreme, but if you’re suffering from anxiety or stress it might well be. Your brain might not be able to tell the difference between a sabre-toothed tiger and a co-worker, and you’ll experience your Flight or Fight response as if they presented the same level of danger. At the height of my anxiety, my brain was like a game of Whack-A-Mole. Threatening thoughts would pop up in my head, and I’d try to bash them back down, but as soon as I got rid of one, another would pop up … over and over and over again. I just couldn’t stop them, and they grew and grew and grew until they were all-consuming. But it wasn’t just in my mind. Thanks to adrenaline and cortisol, it was in my body too. Imagine the stress and the strain and the wear and tear of living in code-red-high-alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. Anyhoo …

Now, however, when threatening thoughts pop into my head, my response is much calmer. I acknowledge them for what they are – just thoughts – and let them go, like leaves floating away on a stream, or clouds floating across the sky. As my husband says: you can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair. (He’s very wise!) As well as letting thoughts go, I also turn my attention toward whatever it is I am doing: cooking, painting, walking, breathing. I feel, taste, smell, hear, see. I fill my senses, and therefore my mind, with the present moment. And all this I do without judgment. I don’t label the thoughts as good or bad, and I don’t criticise myself for having them. My mind wanders. That’s what minds do – forever on the lookout for danger and opportunity. It has taken months of practice to be able to be mindful in this way. Thanks to the Headspace app, just ten minutes of practice a day for over a year now has started to hone my mind. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you get.

I almost always do my Headspace meditation before using the Pray as You Go app because it prepares me, settles and opens me for a focused time with God, just listening to his music, his story, dwelling in his love. As my mind inevitably wanders during this time, I remember to gently, and without judgment, return to prayer, to allow my mind to be filled by what I hear – not thinking, wrestling, studying, rationalising, struggling or striving, just being still and knowing and not rushing away in thought or in action.

I’m reminded of a verse from the Bible: Acts 17:28.

For in him we live and move and have our being.

After the day’s PaYG prayer, when I’m ready, I move on to the daily reading from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Joy and Comfort. This is a kind of doorway into the rest of my day, a time to read, reflect, re-engage my thinking brain. I’m very much enjoying the challenge of this book. Some days, I find myself nodding in agreement. Some days, I find myself holding the polar opposite view. Some days, I find myself amazed at how the author seems to be writing my life! Everyday, I find something to chew on, to mull over, to note down in my morning journal and take with me into the day.

Reading this back, it sounds a bit as if I think I’ve found the secret to never being depressed or anxious again. I haven’t, and I know I haven’t. I’m still a Work In Progress as much as the next person. I think what I’ve found, though, is both a tool, and more than a tool. My time in the morning, is my Soul Space. As an artist primes her canvas for the paint to come, I prime my soul for the day to come. This ordinary, sacred time is to my life, what primer is to paint – the same but different. My Soul Space trains me and hones me and reminds me that everything in my life and every moment of my life is spiritual and sacred. My Soul Space is a reminder that God is always with us, and it is God with me. My Soul Space is a time of alignment and refinement as well as stillness and silence. It is both preparation for and part of my walk with God.

To finish, I’d like to leave you with this thought from Brother Lawrence (1614 – 1691):

I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.

There is nothing new under the sun …

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mindfulness: A New Notebook

I’m writing this post on Friday, rather than yesterday because I wasn’t sure what to write about for this week’s Mindfulness, Meditation, Prayer and Planning post. Normally, ideas jump out at me, but not this week, not until today.

This afternoon, my husband returned from a week-long business trip. He always buys us little gifts when he’s away – sometimes is stroopwafels from Amsterdam, but this time it was pocky sticks (for the kids) and a beautiful, beautiful traveler’s notebook (for me) from Japan. To say I’m over the moon is an understatement.

For those not in the know, a traveler’s notebook (aka TN) is a simple leather cover strung with elastic bands which hold several notebooks (aka inserts) in place. The idea is that it keeps everything together and protects the contents from wear and tear while your out and about. I’ve had an A5 TN for about a year. For a while I kept my bullet journal (a Leuchtturm1917), a sketchbook and my Wellness Toolkit in it, but now I keep my bullet journal separate and use my A5 TN for storing sketchbooks and paper samples, so I’ve always got something to hand for drawing or painting on. It’s a neat, simple but addictive system. If YouTube is anything to go by, it’s very easy to get sucked down this particular rabbit hole – you can buy TNs in all sorts of sizes and colours, with and without stitching, with and without pockets, with and without pen-loops. The list goes on.

So what’s this got to do with mindfulness? Well, once upon a time, when I used to write a lot of fiction, I carried a little notebook around with me in which I jotted down my observations with the intention of using them in my writing. I’d see a leaf being swept along by the breeze, and I’d make a note of how it seemed to skip across the pavement like a child on its way to the park. I’d see a punnet of strawberries on a market stall and write a quick line about how they sparkled like jewels in a treasure chest. I’d hear a magpie chattering in a tree and note down how it sounded like machine-gun fire. I’ve not written fiction for quite some time, but recently I’ve felt the words calling me again, and now that I’ve got this passport-size notebook (which was created for the express purpose of being carried about) I’ve got something in which to jot down all those out-and-about observations again. And you can’t observe if you’re not paying attention, and paying attention is the very essence of mindfulness.

Not only will this notebook remind me to be mindful, it will give me somewhere to record the observations of my mindful moments.

And suddenly you know: it’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings. (Meister Eckhart)

How about you? Have you got somewhere special to jot down your obserations?

Thanks for reading! Catch you soon. xxx

Planning Out Loud: Half-Term Holiday Habits

My current wellness tracker is looking a bit patchy. For the first half of the month, I wasn’t doing very well with not eating any junk, but I’m okay with that – what’s done is done. I wasn’t eating loads of junk anyway, just the occasional packet of crisps or ice cream. I do need to rein myself in though, so I’ve given up junk (crisps, cake, chocolate, ice cream, popcorn, biscuits etc) for Lent. I use Lent as a time to prepare for Easter, so giving up junk is not just about healthy eating, it’s about reorienting myself toward God and taking care of the body that he gave me. For this very same reason, I’m going to do better with exercise too, but it’s tricky at the moment as my back is very painful when I stand or walk for more than a few minutes. I know that the first step to increasing my exercise level must be to go back and see the doctor – it’s one of my goals this month.

The other area where my tracker is looking a bit patchy is in the Headspace and Pray as You Go app rows. There have been a few days already this month when I’ve just forgotten to do them, and I’ve only remembered when I’ve got into bed. Usually, Monday to Friday during term-time – I never forget to meditate and pray using these apps. It’s part of my routine. I get the kids up, fed, washed, brushed, dressed and on their way to school and then I spend half an hour or so in prayer and meditation. It’s the weekends and school holidays that are when I forget. I’m out of routine, and the house is full of people, so it’s hard to find a quite spot where I’ll be undisturbed. I know it’s not a big deal if I miss one every now and then – after all, I am far more mindful than I used to be, and I speak to God far more often during the day – but it’s easy to fall out of the habit of spending focused time just listening for that still, small voice of calm. I really don’t want that to happen.

So, what to do about it? Well, this morning, I was woken up by my alarm at 7.30am, and after a few minutes of waking up properly, I decided to have my Headspace and Pray as You Go time before getting out of bed. It wasn’t just a box-checking exercise; it was so that I started my day right, and didn’t just launch myself into it without a second thought. This was a much better way to begin the day – I’ll do it again tomorrow, but what about future weekends and holidays?

Towards the end of each month, I sit down with my planner and look forward at the coming month to see if there are any events or issues that may cause me stress or anxiety. I then write them in my Hazard Plan and jot down ideas for how I can manage my stress levels. I’ve realised that I could add things that may simply derail my routines too. As well as having a Term-Time Routine, I need to formulate a Weekend Routine. I could also do with having a School Holiday Routine, so that when I write my monthly Hazard Plans and see that I have a school holiday coming up, I can refer to my School Holiday Routine collection, so that I don’t forget to do what I need to do to maintain my wellness. Now, I just need to figure out what routines will work best and when …

How about you? How do you handle change of routines when it comes to wellness habits?

Thanks for reading! See you soon. x

Mindfulness: Slow Art

Yesterday, I was chatting with my father-in-law. He asked how I was, and I told him I was doing okay, although I still get very tired very easily – you know that tiredness that gets into your bones, that tiredness that has you on your knees and dragging yourself into bed at night. We talked about what might be causing it – whether it’s a hangover from what I’ve been through, or the medication I’m still taking. We decided it was probably both. Whatever the cause, the fact that I get so tired so easily has made me slow down. I can’t live life at the pace I used to. My father-in-law and I chatted about this for a bit and he said something that’s been rattling around my head all day: we’re all living life too fast and it’s not good for any of us. Everyone needs to slow down.

I’m not going to delve into the reasons why we’re all living too fast, because that’s not what I came here to write about. Instead I want to talk about YouTube and the effect it’s had on me. I know that’s a bit of a leap, but bear with me! I love YouTube. It’s got so much great content. When I’m feeling a bit glum, I can watch funny cat videos, and service men and women being reunited with their families. When I want to learn a new skill or how to use a new media, I can watch all the tutorials. But … There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there? But one thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve somehow internalised the idea that I need to do everything as if I’m living in a YouTube video: real-life jump-cutting from task to task and carrying out each one at 2x playback speed! I’ve even started doing voice-overs as I cook our evening meal!

As I’ve said, I love YouTube, but my conversation with my father-in-law made me realise that although I might not be doing as much as I used to do, what I am doing, I’m doing too fast. I’ve stopped stopping to smell the roses. Partly because I love my life right now and I want to make the most of every moment, and partly because I want to do lots and lots of art because it brings me so much joy. Still … it’s quality not quantity, as they say. I ate two mini porkpies yesterday (I know that’s a bit random!) but I woofed them down without tasting them, because I was working on my computer at the time. How much more would I have enjoyed them if I’d stopped working for a few minutes and really focused on the taste?

So, today, I made a conscious effort to slow down. In particular, I slowed down while I was paining. I took my paintbrush, chose my paints, selected my paper and painted mindfully, fully focused on what was emerging on the paper in front of me. I hardly thought about what to paint, I just let my hand take the brush across the page. It was a wonderful experience, watching the different colours merge and blend and run and become something new, something wild and uncontrolled. I spent maybe an hour laying down colour and shape and texture on a single piece of A5 paper, and I enjoyed every minute. The piece isn’t finished. I’ve set it aside to come back to tomorrow, and I’m excited about what will else will appear on the page.

My daughter tells me that people love watching speed art – videos of people painting or drawing at twice (or more) the normal speed – and I know she’s right, and I know there’s nothing wrong with that … blimey, I make speed art videos myself, but I think it’s important to remember that when we’re actually doing art, it’s best not to approach it like we’re watching a speed art video. We can slow down, savour the process, enjoy what we’re doing. We can be fully present, present-minded rather than absent-minded, making art that’s saying something about the moment and everything that’s brought us here.

Mental Health Monday: Unhelpful Thinking Habits

Before falling ill at the end of 2016, I’d not really given much thought to my thinking habits and the impact they were having on my mental health. We all know it’s better to think positively rather than negatively – who doesn’t prefer to spend time with a glass-half-full person rather than a glass-half-empty one, right? – but I guess I hadn’t realised how negative my thinking had become and how vulnerable to mental illness that had made me.

In hospital, I attended a workshop called ‘Anxiety Management: Your Safety System – A User’s Guide’. It took us through the impact anxiety can have on our lives; our threat system and survival instincts; the vicious cycles we get into; the role of memory and avoidance; some relaxation and mindfulness exercises, and finally unhelpful thinking habits. To quote from the handout:

Over the years, we tend to get into unhelpful thinking habits. We might favour some over others, and there might be some that seem far too familiar. Once you can identify your unhelpful thinking styles, you can start to notice them – they very often occur just before and during distressing situations. Once you can notice them though, you can challenge them and distance yourself from them and see the situation in a different and more helpful way.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not so easy, though, when you’re in the midst of depression and anxiety. I totally understood what the psychologists were telling us, but it wasn’t until my mood was more stable that I started to see how I could achieve this ‘challenging and distancing’ thing. Before I talk more about that though, I’ll share some unhelpful thinking habits with you.

  • Mental Filtering. We notice only what our mental filter allows us to notice. It’s like we’re wearing gloomy glasses. We dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with our outlook. We only notice the bad stuff.
  • Mind-Reading. Assuming that we know what others are thinking.
  • Predicting. Believing we know what is going to happen.
  • Comparing and Despairing. Comparing ourselves negatively to other people.
  •  Criticising Ourselves. Putting ourselves down. Blaming ourselves.
  • Shoulds and Musts. Putting pressure on ourselves and setting up unrealistic expectations.
  • Catastrophising. Believing that the worst is going to happen.
  • Emotional Reasoning. Believing our feelings: I feel anxious, so something bad must be about to happen.
  • Making Mountains out of Molehills. Exaggerating the risks of danger or likelihood negative outcomes.
  • Making Molehills out of Mountains. Minimising risks and the importance of feelings, tasks or events.
  • Evaluating and Judging. Making judgments about ourselves or others rather than describing things as they actually are.
  • Black and White Thinking. Believing that something or someone can only be good or bad, right or wrong.
  • Ruminating. Thinking things over and over in the belief that by thinking about them, you’re actually solving problems. Reliving memories over and over.
Image Credit: Pixabay

Do you recognise some of them in your own thinking? I definitely do. Especially Mind-Reading, Shoulds and Musts and Ruminating. As I said, it wasn’t until my mood was more stable (thanks in large part to medication) that I started to see how I could challenge and distance myself from these habits. The first step, obviously, was to become aware that I was doing them. The workshop was great because it gave me the language to label my thinking habits and thus become aware of them. I really got to grips with it, though, through meditating using the Headspace app. The app introduced me to a technique called noting. During meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, you simple note that it has wandered, note what distracted it – a thought or a physical feeling – and then gently return your attention to the breath (or whatever the focus for your meditation is). There’s more detail here and here. I’ve been practicing this technique for a year now, and it has spilled over from meditation into the rest of my life, so much so, that I often find myself noting and labeling my thoughts. It hasn’t stopped me having unwelcome thoughts, but it has allowed me to step back from them and see them for what they are – just thoughts. Sometimes I even chuckle at them. What a relief!

Another technique for changing thinking habits, is asking yourself questions when you find yourself thinking in negative ways. Am I noticing only the bad stuff? Am I assuming what so-and-so is thinking? What is the evidence? How likely is it that X will happen? Am I comparing myself to others? Would I talk like this to my best friend? Am I expecting too much of myself? What is most likely to happen? Am I being realistic? Is this way of thinking helping me or hindering me?

This was just a whistle-stop-tour of where I am with thinking habits and how I got here. I hope you’ve found something helpful here, but if you need help with your thinking habits, please seek professional counsel. I’m not an expert! Just someone who’s been through some stuff.

Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx

Mindfulness Exercise: Writing Slowly

One of the things I experience when I’m anxious is an increase in the speed of whatever I’m doing. It doesn’t matter whether that’s talking, walking, eating or even writing – it all just gets faster and more frantic. I guess the adrenaline rush is preparing me for flight or fight.

Funnily enough, I’ve found writing to be really helpful in getting me through such moments. When I notice my handwriting speed up so much that I can no longer read what I’m putting on paper, I stop, take a few deep breaths and then start again, but with a conscious effort to write slowly, neatly, thoughtfully. This not only slows my physical response to adrenaline, but it also helps distract my mind from whatever thought it was that set me off in the first place. Sometimes, that will have been the topic I was writing about. If that’s the case then I might choose to write something else: a letter, a poem, a bible verse, an affirmation, the words to a song – whatever helps.

Incidentally, the tools I write with have become really important to me. Beautufully smooth, colourful paper … a weighty fountain pen … the sensations I feel when writing with these lifts my spirits and helps ground me in the physical world, and can help make writing a mindful and calming experience.

How about you? What helps you get through those anxious moments?

Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx

(Image source: Pixabay)

Journaling Out Loud: A Sacred Space

For as long as I can remember, I have loved stationery. As a young girl, I collected notepads, bookmarks, pencils, pens, sharpeners and erasers. I used to keep a old biscuit tin full of them under my bed. I can still remember the smell that puffed out of it every time I opened the lid – a sweetly warm combination of fruit-scented erasers and leather bookmarks. Even today, I am at my happiest when perusing the shelves in stationery stores.

Given all that, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that today has made me very happy because today was the day that I started my new artful journaling notebook. Now, I’ve tried lots of papers and notebooks over the last few months, but I’ve finally settled – unsurprisingly – on 68gsm tomoe river paper. It’s thin, delicate and robust. It can take watercolour, inks, sprays, dyes, acrylics and all sorts of pens. You can smear stuff on it and rub stuff off it, yet it’s still beautiful to write on with a fountain pen. My only problem with tomoe river paper is that it is expensive and not readily available in the UK – you pretty much have to order it from Amazon and wait for it to arrive from Japan, or rummage around Etsy to find a supplier. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been really pleased with all the paper and notebooks I’ve acquired this way, but, because I write so much, I go through it all like the clappers, and it makes journaling a pricey pastime. This new notebook wasn’t cheap either – it cost £30, including shipping, from Taiwan, but it is going to be worth every penny, as it has 384 A5 pages in it, which makes it excellent value for money at 7.4p per page. (To put that into context, my current bullet journal is a Leuchtturm 1917 which cost me £20 and has 240 – that’s 8.3p per page.)

But I wasn’t just thinking about cost when I chose this notebook. When I write in smaller journals, such as travelers notebook inserts, I find myself getting bored about half-way through and rushing to fill the rest so that I can start a new insert – there’s nothing quite like that new notebook feeling! I won’t be doing that with this one though. There’s no way I’ll be able to rush through 384 pages! I’m also hoping this notebook’s larger size will not only help me slow down, but also help me decorate my pages more mindfully too. I want to savour every spread, to enjoy the process of painting and smooshing and spraying,  and to think carefully about what tipins and ephemera to include – the notebook could easily become unwieldy otherwise.

I gave up journaling when I was severely depressed because it became detrimental to my state of mind – I was just ruminating on paper – but artful journaling has got me going again. The act of decorating my pages has given me so much joy and allowed me to unleash my creative, playful side which, in turn, has made journaling a positive experience once more. I’m ready for even more now though. I’m ready to care for this journal in a way I haven’t cared for my previous journals. I’m ready to slow down and for it to become a beautiful, sacred space for both thinking and praying on paper.