Distraction is one of those things that often appears in lists on how to reduce anxiety, but allowing oneself to be distracted always seemed a bit absent-minded to me, but I’m actually finding that it’s the opposite. It’s being present-minded, allowing whatever I’m doing to distract me from the unwelcome thoughts floating into my head. It helps me let them float right out again. I suppose it’s letting what I’m doing distract me from my thoughts rather than letting my thoughts distract me from what I’m doing.
Back in February, when I was in hospital, I attended a workshop on compassion. We explored what it is and what a compassionate person might be like. At the end of the workshop, the psychologists told us to try applying what we’d learned to ourselves. Not that we should try to be more compassionate towards others in this instance, but to try to be more compassionate toward ourselves.
When you have depression or anxiety it’s easy to be critical of yourself, but we were encouraged to talk to ourselves in the way we would talk to our best friends. We’d never tell our best friends that they weren’t good enough, or that they were lazy, or rubbish or stupid. Instead, we’d encourage them, we’d build them up, help them to see their strengths and good qualities. I found this really helpful and now to try to catch myself when I’m nagging or berating myself. I can often be found talking to my reflection in the bathroom mirror and saying: come on, girl; you can do this!
“Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anais Nin
Over the course of my recovery, I’ve found boundaries more important than ever. I’ve learned to say no to things I don’t feel up to doing. For example, when I was just out of hospital a friend popped by with some flowers. I really appreciated the gesture, but I didn’t invite her in for a chat. I just couldn’t face it at the time. I felt guilty for quite a while afterward, but I knew I’d done what was best for me at that moment, and I knew my friend would understand.
There’s that saying about airplanes: in an emergency put the face mask on yourself first and then put one on your child. It’s become a cliche, but it’s true. If you want to do a good job of looking after other people, you have to look after yourself …
“Hope is the little lump of coal that sets the fire burning again.” Anon.
I’d never really considered the need for agency (or even what agency was) until I started attending workshops at the Recovery College. I guess I’ve always trusted the medical profession to make me better – whatever my illness. But it was once I realised that I could be in the driving seat of my recovery, that I started to make real progress. There was a time when I was so ill I needed someone else to make decisions for me, but that time passed, and I became able to make my own decisions once again. If I ever become that ill again I now have a crisis plan that makes my wishes known. So even if I can’t speak for myself, the doctors will have a good idea of how to go about helping me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all.”
Throughout my illness I prayed constantly, begging God to make me better, to take away my anxiety. At the height of my illness, I kept asking why, why wouldn’t he help me? But the moment I went into hospital, all that stopped. It was as if God was saying: hush, be still, stop trying, rest … which was also what my consultant said to me. As a result, I did stop. I even stopped praying, and I felt a sense of peace I’d not felt before. I believe that’s when my healing started.
Deep down, I knew God didn’t mind that I wasn’t talking to him; it was like there was a companionable silence between us. Later, the words of the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ began to play in my mind … just one phrase: till all our strivings cease. This has stayed with me ever since. I later found out that the word ‘still’ in Psalm 46:10 is better translated as ‘without striving’. I know there are things I need to do to stay mentally healthy, but I know I don’t have to strive to do them; I can rest in them with a sense of ease.
Incidentally, I am praying again, but in a different way, a more meditative way … I don’t feel I need to always verbalise my thoughts to God. He already knows what I want to say; I just need to listen.
“Hope shines brightest in our darkest hour.” Anon.
It’s been a heck of a year.
Long story short: I’ve had severe depression and anxiety, and, at the start of this year, I spent nearly six weeks in hospital because of it. I’m a lot better now, thank goodness, and that’s partly due to our wonderful National Health Service, partly due to all the support I’ve received from my awesome friends and family and partly due to me doing a lot of bloody hard work.
I almost deleted this blog, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it – I’ve put a lot of work into it, and looking back over it is like looking at a map of all the journeys I’ve been on over the last few years – so I’ve decided to keep it and use it to talk about my recent experience of mental illness and my current journey of recovery … plus whatever else pops into my head.
Catch you soon!
Love Natalie x
“There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen.
Last Friday, I spent the day with my sister on a Garden Photography Workshop run by Emma Davies at Uppark House. I booked our tickets weeks ago with no idea that I’d be on a journey into mindfulness by the time the workshop finally rolled around.
I began thinking about mindfulness after a frustrating photography session, so being able to go on a photography workshop so soon after starting to practice mindfulness was perfect. And it was perfect.
My sister and I were the only two people on the course, and Emma was lovely. She quickly assessed how much we knew about both the technical and artistic aspects of photography, gave us some appropriate tips and exercises and then let us get on with it. Together, we wandered around the gardens, meadow and outhouses, and, although we checked in and chatted a bit here and there, we gave each other the space and time to really look at our surroundings and capture what we were seeing on camera.
It was absolute bliss being able to take the time to see what was there, to frame an image, to think about the subject and its surroundings and to think about what it was I really wanted to photograph. As much as I love my kids, it’s virtually impossible to take that kind of time when they’re around which is why I usually just take pictures on my iPhone when we’re out and about together. It did take me a while to get into a mindful frame of mind though. It felt like changing down a gear, but eventually I managed to go from ‘busy mum’ to ‘mindful photographer’. I let my thoughts scud in and out of my mind without judging them and simply looked at what was in front of my lens … not for the whole four hours though, just when I wanted to.
I’ve only been practicing mindfulness for a short time, but already it’s had a positive effect. I feel that my senses of smell and hearing have been heightened – I’ve been stopped in my tracks by the scent of a flower, and (although I have to be careful not to tune into my tinnitus) I hear and attend to all sorts of sounds that would hitherto have gone unnoticed. I feel calmer and less stressed even though life hasn’t become any less stressful, and I’m not jumping at unexpected sounds.
The greatest benefit though is that, on Friday, I felt as if I were actually there, in each moment, walking around a beautiful garden, looking at the flowers, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze and the warm sunshine on my skin and learning, laughing, living.
I love food. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it smells. I love the way it looks. I love the way it makes me feel inside. I love eating food alone. I love eating food with friends and family. I love food. Food is good.
But I don’t always use it for good …
Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve used food as a crutch. Because it makes me feel full inside, I’ve used it to fill the holes in my life. I’ve used it to medicate my stress, my anger, my irrationality, my grief etc, etc, etc. I became aware of this years ago and have had some success in overcoming it to the extent that for long-ish periods (months, even years) I do eat healthily – and by that I mean I eat to satisfy my physical hunger and to celebrate life! Right now, I’m mostly in that zone. I’m mostly eating healthily, but on occasion I still find myself responding to stress by mindlessly stuffing my face with high-sugar, high-calorie foods.
I think this is an area of my life that would benefit from some mindfulness, so I’m going to eat mindfully. I first came across the concept via Beyond Chocolate. It’s been a while since I read the book, but, if I remember rightly, the gist is to focus on what you’re eating – the taste, the smell, the look, the feel – and to focus on your body’s response, to listen to your body, to eat slowly and attentively so you can feel when you are not just full, but when you are actually satisfied. Also, it’s about stopping before reaching for food and asking your body if it is actually hungry or if you are eating for some other reason. Am I Hungry? defines eating mindfully as:
- Eating with the intention of caring for yourself
- Eating with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying your food and its effects on your body
They believe ‘that mindful eating encompasses the entire process of eating:
- Awareness of your physical and emotional cues
- Recognition of your non-hunger triggers for eating
- Learning to meet your other needs in more effective ways than eating
- Choosing food for both enjoyment and nourishment
- Eating for optimal satisfaction and satiety
- Using the fuel you’ve consumed to live the vibrant life you crave.’
Since starting this journey into mindfulness, a little phrase has popped into my head over and over again: one thing at a time. I believe I need to reduce the amount of time I spend multitasking and parallel processing and concentrate on one thing at a time, so for the next week, I’m going to focus on eating mindfully. I know this is not a quick fix. One week is not going to fix forty years of eating mindlessly, but it’s a start, and my first task will be to find a notebook to use as a food and mood diary …
And so, my quest for a more mindful life has begun. I’ve read two books, numerous blog posts and am at the beginning of a 40-day study guide.
Mindfulness, it seems, is both simple and difficult.
It is simple in that it is nothing more (from a psychological point of view) than intentionally paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way. Our thoughts are not who we are. They might be an expression of who we are, but they are also just habitual patterns of the mind. When we are being mindful, we not only notice the present moment through what we are sensing, we notice too the thoughts that pop into our minds, but instead of critiquing them, or criticising ourselves for thinking them, we just let them go by bringing our attention back to the present moment – what we are seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling. We let our thoughts be clouds that are scudding across our mind’s sky.
It is difficult in that this is easier said than done. I’ve done a few exercises now (from Sane New World by Ruby Wax) and am finding it hard to stay in the present moment. My mind is so used to analysing, processing, ruminating and rehearsing. But … I’m doing it. Slowly, but surely I am noticing those distracting thoughts and letting them go, and I’m focusing on being in the here and now, not exploring the past or future.
When I’m walking back from dropping Little S off at school, I’m taking five seconds here and there to focus on what it feels like to walk. I’m noticing the crows flying across the sky, the starlings yelling at me from the ridge tiles of the houses I pass. I’m feeling the wind burn my cheeks, tug at my hands and whip my trousers around my legs. When I’m out in the garden, I’m feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and seeing the pollen on the anthers of the fuchsias that I hadn’t previously noticed poking over the fence from next door.
This is going to take perseverance. It’s something I know I’ll get better at with practice. What I want from this type of mindfulness is to learn how to live my life in the present.
Which brings me on to the other type of minfulness I’ve been reading about: mindFullness. In his book, A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness, Shaun Lambert explains how being mindful (or watchful) is a universal human capacity, something that God wants for all His people and something the followers of Jesus should take seriously. Here are a few snippets:
The central insight of mindfulness – and Buddhists, Christians and psychologists all agree on this – is that we are bigger than our thoughts and feelings. (Loc 374)
In Romans 12:2, Paul tells us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Our thoughts and feelings are often shaped by our culture into narcissistic, competitive, fearful or consumerist patterns. This verse enables us to witness our thoughts and enables us to decenter from them … Paul follows this us in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he says, ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (Loc 381)
Christian mindFullness is awareness of the presence of God at work within our own God-given capacities for attention and awareness. (Loc 489)
There is so much wisdom in this book that I could happily quote the whole thing, but I won’t as that would be an infringement of copyright! Instead, I’ll leave you with one last pearl:
The way we take our thoughts captive is to disarm them. That’s Christ’s method, as with disarming the powers and authorities (Colossians 2:15) … We make our thoughts obedient to Christ by treating them much as Jesus treated people … We notice them with compassion and love, accept them for what they are, and then let them go, send them on their way saying, ‘Go and sin no more.’ (Loc 629)
As well as general mindfulness practice, Shaun Lambert advocates the mindful reading of Scripture à la lectio divina. Now, I’ve been a Christian for most of my life (I turned 40 last year!) and didn’t have a clue what that meant, so that’s something I’ll be exploring and reporting back on.
There’s so much more I want to write about today – I want to talk about eating mindfully, about teaching my kids to be critical of adverts that ‘tell us we are empty unless we fill ourselves with their product’, about offering our bodies as living sacrifices, about using mindfulness to help Little S with her anxieties, about replacing icons of grace with idols to fill the space within us that God is supposed to fill, about writing mindfully, about using what I’ve mindfully noticed in my writing – but I’ve gone on long enough and my tummy’s rumbling again. It’s time for lunch.
A couple of weeks ago, I organised an HBC Photographers trip to Froxfield. One of our members has an aunt who lives in half an acre of woodland there, and she kindly invited us to visit so that we could take photos of the bluebells growing in the wood. She’s moving home soon, so this was our last chance to go. How could we say no?
It’s a beautiful place. Magical even. As well as bluebells, there are shacks and sheds and sculptures scattered throughout the woods. The cottage is thatched and surrounded by vegetable and fruit gardens. There’s a pond, a pagoda, and a bridge stretching over a patch of marshy land. It’s not hard to imagine the famous five having an amazing adventure there.
Unfortunately, we were up against the clock a bit, and as we walked through the woods snapping away, we chatted away to one another too. I left with a few nice pictures but also with a feeling that I’d just been skimming the surface of what was there.
Despite the rain and grey skies, I would have loved to have spent all day in Froxfield, wandering around with my camera, crouching amongst the foliage, taking pictures, and looking … really looking at what was around me. I’d loved to have had the time to smell the leaf mould, feel the drizzle on my skin, listen to the birds and the squelch of soggy soil under foot.
This experience got me thinking. For a while now, I’ve had this feeling that I’ve just been skimming the surface of life, bobbing along fairly happily, but not really taking the time to stop and appreciate things.
I don’t lead a particularly busy life; I’ve slowed down a lot in recent years, but I have a butterfly mind and often have so much going on in my head that I don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of me, or what’s going on inside of me. I’m better at this that I used to be though. By paying attention to my moods, I’ve learned to spot depression’s advance and can usually head it off at the pass.
But I’d like to slow my mind down even more, to stop thinking about so many different things at the same time, to stop flitting from thought to thought, to stop and smell the roses more than once in a while.
Which brings me onto mindfulness and how it’s funny how things come together. Last week, I saw a tweet about a course in mindfulness for writers and was reminded that mindfulness actually existed! I think I’d read something about it a while ago, but hadn’t looked into it any deeper.
This reminder came just at the right time, just after the trip to Froxfield and that skimming-the-surface frustration I’d felt there. So, I looked into this course and had one of those light bulb moments. It sounded right up my street, although it wasn’t. It was in Brighton which is over an hour and a half away. I tweeted the instructor to ask if they ever ran courses near me, but they didn’t.
Oh well, I thought, I’ll just have to read about it then. So, after a couple of days being distracted by life, I downloaded a copy of ‘Sane New World’ by Ruby Wax onto my Kindle. Why this book? Because I’d heard of the author and know Ruby is the ‘poster girl’ for mental health.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found the book inspiring. I really like the idea of mindfulness (a way of paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way, a way of mastering your mind instead of being a slave to it). I loved all the science that explained how the brain works – it took me right back to my university days and my degree in Biochemistry.
And I could relate to much of Ruby’s own struggles with depression. There are lots of exercises to try too, and I’ve already given some of them a go. The first thing I noticed is how judgmental I am about my own thoughts and how much time I spend rehearsing conversations that I might have in the future and ruminating over things I’ve said and done in the past. So much of the present is passing me by because I’m focusing elsewhere.
So, what next? Well, I’ve already downloaded my next ebook on mindfulness: A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian Mindfullness by Shaun Lambert, a Baptist Minister from NW London. It’s a 40 day (We Christians do love our 40 day programmes!) journey into Christian Mindfulness based on Mark’s Gospel (which I’m currently studying using NT Wright’s Mark for Everyone – another funny-how-things-come-together moment) so I’m going to work through it, one day at a time.
Expect more posts on mindfulness in the near future!
(You can see more of my Froxfield visit photos over at Flickr.)