Breathing mindfully the ocean way

08/04/2016 at 6:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I stood on a bumpy shore in Galway, Ireland and breathed in salty cool Atlantic air. Suddenly, my lungs were filled with fresh ocean breezes. Each in-breath came with an excitement of Atlantic energy. Each out-breath took with it a thousand everyday stresses.

In a situation like that, you can’t help but be fully present. My mind wasn’t about to wander, because the experience was so vivid.

All my senses were engaged with savouring this moment. I could taste the salt in the air, feel the wind speed-weaving my hair into maritime knots, see the sunlight dancing through fast moving clouds, breathe in the tangy scent of seaweed, and hear the waves lapping against pebbles. Additionally, the wind was chilling!

The challenge is to breathe equally mindfully in familiar situations  – in our everyday life. In fact, this is one of the very best meditations to practise regularly. Simply sit in silence once a day – first thing in the morning is perfect – and focus on your breathing for 20 minutes or so. And notice what you notice.

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Here are three techniques that can be helpful.

1. Treat every mindful breathing session as though it’s the first time. You are a traveller, newly arrived at this shoreline of your breathing. Witness the air entering you as though it’s the most amazing newcomer in your life. Witness it leaving you like the life-long friend it is.

2. Focus on a particular point: such as the nostrils, the lungs or the abdomen. Notice the sensation of the air as it enters and leaves you. Witness how your muscles expand and contract rhythmically. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests focusing on the belly, and likens it to the deeper, slower moving currents of the ocean: “When we focus on our breathing down in the belly,” he writes in Full Catastrophe Living, “we are tuning into a region of the body that is far from the head and thus far below the agitations of our thinking mind. It is intrinsically calmer.”

3. At intervals during your day, whenever you remember to, briefly observe your breathing. When you next feel stressed, make a point of noticing what is happening to your breath. Focus on the belly, as it rises with the in-breath and falls with the out-breath. Sometimes this movement is subtle. In the time you take to witness it, the stress or surface agitation has often lessened. It’s as if that pause creates a tiny gap in the stressfully woven fabric of your life, and loosens every thing up so new options can emerge.

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One to one consultations

05/08/2015 at 2:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A little reminder that even between term-times, individual consultations are available. These sessions offer a blend of listening, guided meditation and healing. They can be helpful if you have a physical condition that is proving hard to treat, or if you’re stuck in a state of sadness or other emotional pain. Sessions typically last 45 minutes. They can make an enormous difference to your wellbeing. More info here.

A young hare’s guide to peace

03/07/2015 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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When we are peaceful in nature, nature comes peacefully to us. Have you ever noticed this? Last spring, collecting wild garlic in the woods, I was delighted when a deer came to graze nearby. We continued to crop the spring greens, each in our own way. It was companionable. I was the one who moved away first, when my basket was full.

Harry the hare

Then, ten days ago, a young hare came to live in our garden. He wasn’t distant; he was frequently under our heels. Although we startled him, he didn’t move far away. He ate some carrots I left out for him. One day, I sat on a stone step, drinking green tea, and he sat nearby, eating grass in the sunlight. Ears upright and contented. I chatted. He listened. I loved the way his ears swivelled attentively when I spoke. If you want to learn the art of true listening, watch a hare.

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When a being so wild and natural is happy in your company, it is a wonderful feeling. Again, I was the one who eventually moved away. My human schedule beckoned. His precocial nature allowed him to simply be.

Our hare is now spending more time in the field next door. But he still visits our garden. Two nights ago, I saw him in the silver light of the full moon, grazing on the lawn.

Hares and people have a lot in common. When we are peaceful, others around us are more likely to be calm and contented. Maybe that is how we will eventually create a more tranquil world: not by telling others that they are wrong and we are right, but by experiencing a deep, numinous peace within ourselves. It’s a feeling that others can’t help but respond to. Peaceful be.

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The secret of simple

06/04/2015 at 6:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Yesterday I started knitting again for the first time in over 30 years. I had a pair of vintage green needles, and some hand-me-down Aran wool, and some good female company: mother, niece and daughter.

To my surprise, I quickly fell into a peaceful rhythm of softly clicking needles. There was a satisfaction in knowing that a very simple garment – a scarf, or snood – was being made. Something soothing was happening to the neural pathways of my brain as I repeated the same intricate knotting movement over and over.  It reminded me of the repetitious nature of meditation, and how that creates a pool of calm in the mind. But there was something else too.

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It was as if the endless knotting was tapping on the door of an ancient racial memory: of women making garments with the simplest of tools: needles of wood or bone. In clothing their families, they were also creating the fabric of society, through the mingled act of cloth-making and conversation.

I thought, then, of the times I have been caught up in the hamster wheel cycles of a ceaselessly questioning mind. And I understood that doing the simple things that pertain to survival can help any of us stay sane. I’m talking about activities like making bread by hand; or building and lighting a fire; or sowing and growing lettuces to eat… or, of course, creating a garment with two softly clicking needles.

What is your choice of simple today?

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A rose for hard times

31/03/2015 at 7:52 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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There’s a simple meditative technique we can use in hard times. I call it the Rose Meditation. You can do this anywhere: cleaning the house, ploughing through work, undergoing medical treatment, in a high-voltage meeting….

All you do is this: focus, in your mind’s eye, on a rose. The example shown here was photographed after rain, in the sunshine of the Dordogne.

Picture the feather-light, velvety smoothness of the petals. Imagine yourself miniaturised, resting between the scented petals as though they are the softest bed in the world. Breathe in their heavenly fragrance.

Notice the variations in colour between the inner and outer petals. Absorb the beautiful colours with every cell of your body.

Touch the raindrops; taste their sweetness.

Explore the petals, going inward towards the nectar, and outwards again towards the sun and fresh air.

Do this visualisation any time you feel the need. The rose contains powerful therapy, and simply thinking about it in this way can be soothing, and healing.

Lemon verbena tea – the recipe

27/08/2014 at 4:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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If I had to choose one herbal tea to drink for the rest of my life, I would probably choose lemon verbena, also known as Aloysia citrodora. When you brew it strong, it’s zingy, health-enhancing liquid sherbet in a cup: a light and warming drink that lifts the spirits unlike any other. When you brew it weaker, it is a delicate, uplifting citrus-scented beverage. But there is a catch: it has to be harvested and stored with love and respect. If you find a bargain packet of 20 lemon verbena tea bags, walk on by. The aromatic oils will not be present. Without them, you are left with dried and empty leaves.

I first discovered the magic of lemon verbena when travelling with my family through Northern France, eight years ago. We stayed in a guest house with big, bare rooms and botanical books on the shelves. We arrived late, and slept soundly between crisp white cotton sheets. At breakfast the next day, the herbal tea on offer was verveine, which I knew was the French name for this popular tisane. So I asked for verveine. It arrived as a small twig of dried leaves in a pot. The fragrance was heavenly. I was already falling under its spell.

When I drank the brew, I tasted a zingy, lemony lightness. The flavour was so vibrant. It seemed extraordinary that so much could be packed into a small, dried sprig.

The next time I asked for verveine, in an Alpine resort, it had been made with a tea bag, and was a dull disappointment. I discovered then that processing destroys this herb.

Back home, I tried ordering loose leaves from herbal suppliers, but they were never as lemony as that first, fragrant brew. So I experimented with harvesting my own.

My parents had actually been growing an Aloysia citrodora in their greenhouse for years. My mother put a few leaves at the bottom of cake tins for a subtle zingy additions to her bakes. But no one was making tea with it. So I started harvesting their surplus. I made the tea with fresh leaves, four or five chopped roughly per cup. I dried many of the leaves for winter use, as the plant dies down in colder weather. And so I continued for several years.

Nowadays I still harvest from my parents’ greenhouse plant. But recently I bought a plant of my own from Foxley Road Nurseries near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, UK. Co-owner Carol Hinwood is a huge fan of lemon verbena tea, and always keeps a good stock of plants there. All summer long my new Aloysia citrodora has been sitting in my front yard, soaking up the sunshine in a large earthenware pot. It grows quickly, and has even flowered profusely with tiny, fragrant blooms. I cut a stalk at a time, put it in water indoors, and use it successively for three or four cups of tea. It is just beautiful. Before the weather gets too wintry, I will bring it into a cool garden room, to protect it from frost.

Lemon verbena blooms

Health benefits

The essential oil in lemon verbena is uplifting, de-stressing and relaxing. The plant has anti-viral and anti-fungal properties – studies have shown it to be effective against Candida albicans, or thrush. Lemon verbena is also rich in youth-promoting anti-oxidants. The meditators who come to my studio love it. The combination of meditation and lemon verbena might even be the world’s best kept beauty secret.

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The recipe

First, locate your nearest lemon verbena plant. You may be lucky and know someone who is already growing it. If not, herb nurseries should have young plants available.  It can’t cope with frost, so plant it in a large pot in a sunny spot, and bring it into a cool indoor space in the winter. Or grow it in a greenhouse.

Harvest the leaves by pruning the plant when the stalks are around 25 cm or longer.  Cut the stalks fairly low down with scissors or secateurs.

For fresh tea:

Roughly chop four to six leaves and place in an infuser, in a cup, preferably covered. Leave to steep for five minutes. Then strain the leaves and drink the resulting, fragrant infusion.

For dried tea:

Dry the leaves by hanging the stems upside down in a large paper bag in a warm space for a few days or weeks until completely dry – the stalks should snap when you bend them. You may put them in a jar or bag as they are, or crumple them slightly, to fit more into your jar. I generally remove the leaves from the stalks (easy to do) and just store the leaves. Other people keep the stalks. Either way seems to keep the all-important essential oils intact. Put an air-tight lid on your jar, and store in a cool, dark cupboard. When you are ready to drink the tea, take a few dried leaves, or about one teaspoon of the crumpled herb, and steep in a cup, preferably covered, for five minutes. Strain and drink!

If you are seriously into herbs, as I am, it’s worth investing in a dehydrator. I use an Excalibur: expensive, but reliable, and lasts for years. In this case, I take the fresh leaves off the stalks, discard the stalks, and place the leaves on trays in the dehydrator. I dry at a setting of around 115 ºF for a couple of hours or so until the leaves are crispy dry. (It’s wise to keep an eye on them. At times I have over-dried and lost some of the essential oils.) Then I place them in a jar, as before.

I believe that to make your herbal tea from nature is to connect with your own true nature. And the nature of lemon verbena is one that’s truly worth connecting with: happy, vibrant, healthy and serene… and absolutely fragrant.

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PS For a refreshing summer health drink, simply pop one or two leaves of fresh lemon verbena into a glass of cool water. The herb infuses the water with a deliciously light citrus note.

What I wish I’d said to Anita Moorjani

26/08/2013 at 1:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 58 Comments
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There’s an autumnal edge to the air, and outside the leaves are speckled brown in places. The apples are reddening on the trees, and children’s school shoes are flying out of the shops. I’m about to plan the meditation themes for a new term in the Studio. So, all in all, I have that ‘going back to school’ feeling. The weather is cooling off and it’s time to learn again (as if we ever stop).

Instead of working, I keep thinking about a ‘nearly’ conversation I had with Anita Moorjani at the Hay House ‘I can do it!’ London conference last autumn. It keeps playing on my mind. I haven’t thought about it for months. So there must be a reason why it’s coming up now.

I heard Anita speak about her near death experience at the conference. I had previously read her book, Dying to be Me, and loved it. Last year, Anita was still fairly new to public speaking, and she was accompanied on stage by Dr Wayne Dyer. I liked her lack of ego. She wasn’t trying to prove anything. She simply had an amazing experience to share. Anita’s essential message seemed to be: Live your life fearlessly. You are always loved. You are magnificent. You are meant to be you, no one else. Live your life to the full. Enjoy being you.

At the end of the conference, I saw Anita again. I was standing in a long queue on the stairs, waiting for luggage from the cloakroom. Anita walked up the steps with her husband Danny. I said a quiet, heartfelt ‘Thank you’.

To my surprise, in all that noise Anita heard me and stopped. She looked at me, waiting for more. I didn’t know what to say. So I opted for: “Thank you for your talk. I really enjoyed it.”

“Why, thank you so much,” said Anita, and carried on her way.

Now the thing is, I wasn’t being honest. There was more I could have said. Much more.

What was I really thanking Anita for?

The clue is in this photo.

Timothy and Steven

It’s a picture of my teenaged son, Timothy, with his lovely, supportive dad – my partner Steven. You will notice that Timothy is disabled. He has an undiagnosed condition which means that he cannot walk, except for a few wobbly steps. He cannot talk, beyond a few basic words. “Ready, steady go!” is his favourite expression. He uses signs to communicate. He is holding his ‘taggy’, a favourite soft shape covered with labels that he likes to play with.

You may also notice that Timothy is smiling. Timothy smiles a lot. He loves people. When I’m with him I always have a sense that I am unconditionally loved and accepted. Other people experience the same thing. Timothy feels good to be around.

So what does this have to do with Anita Moorjani?

A vision of bliss

Unlike Anita, I have not had a near death experience. But the year before Timothy was born I had an experience which was very like one. I call it a vision, but it involved other senses too.

In my vision, I wasn’t in my body. It felt to me that I was pure energy. Somehow, I was occupying the space between matter, between the particles of matter. Matter itself, our physical world, appeared insubstantial, like a movie image that you could put your hands through.

The feeling I had was pure, absolute bliss. I was known, and witnessed and absolutely loved by the overriding intelligence that was everywhere in that space. For want of a better word, I called that intelligent being, ‘God’. But I knew it had nothing in common with external views of God.  I was unconditionally loved. I was incapable of sinning. I was this shining, wondrously loving consciousness in which I bathed, and it was me. There was no separation. And these same truths applied to every being on this earth.

It’s hard to put my vision of 18 years ago into words. Harder still in a blog post where I’m conscious I don’t want to go on too long.  I’m writing more fully about it in a book, called This One is Special, which I hope to publish when it’s ready.

Hard lessons

My vision of bliss has never completely left me. It sustained me when Timothy was born with complex and life-threatening issues, which became more apparent as he grew older.

As every parent of a disabled child knows, it is incredibly difficult dealing with the complex medical decisions for someone you adore, whose survival may at times seem fragile at best. It took me a while, and I stumbled many times, but gradually I learnt to trust my intuition – the inner voice of wisdom. And I believe this has helped Timothy immeasurably, many times over.

Not only that, after the vision it was as if a door remained open to the Other Realm. I have had, and continue to have, other visions that teach, sustain and delight me. Increasingly, I share these with others.

To me, it seems that Timothy himself occupies a space between this world and the Other Realm. He can appear immensely intuitive. He can sign an answer to me when I’ve only just framed the question in my mind – before I’ve spoken it aloud. And his unconditional love, his lack of judgement, is powerfully like the energy I experienced in my original vision of bliss.

 

So what exactly was I thanking Anita for? 

In a word, validation.

Anita appeared to be terminally ill with cancer, on the verge of complete organ failure, when she had her near-death experience. In her book, Dying to be Me, she describes how she experienced a state of extreme bliss while also being aware of what was going on in the hospital, and also where her brother was, many hundreds of miles away. She describes how she understood that she was completely loved, and magnificent. And when she returned, her body healed within days.

What Anita describes corresponds to my own vision, although our circumstances were very different. I am grateful that Anita worked hard to share her experiences in a thoughtful and balanced way. Eighteen years ago, when I experienced my vision, these things were less talked about. I have always felt that I live two lives: the physical one here, and the blissful one, in the space between the particles.  The first I talked about; the second, I did not.

Well, that is changing. Now I am talking about my experience of bliss – why ever wouldn’t I? Seeing Anita stand up and speak her truth, with dignity, on a stage before  hundreds of people has got a lot to do with that.

The autumn term begins here in one week’s time. There’s one thing I’m sure about, whether I’m learning, or sharing what I’ve learnt: I will speak my truth.

A walk to the compost

02/08/2013 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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It’s time to take the peelings out, to the compost bin at the end of the garden. My body is weary. It’s the end of such a busy day. In the kitchen, I pick up the dark green caddy. It’s full of richly odorous vegetation.

At this moment right now, I have two choices. I can do this task resentfully, feeling my tiredness every step of the way. Or I can choose to enjoy the experience, choose to be fully present and notice my short walk to the compost bin with all my senses.

Today, I choose to be present.

I step barefoot into the yard. Above me, I hear the tall poplars whispering in the breeze. I feel the warmth of stone beneath my feet, a spa-like sensation. Then, I step onto cool lush grass. The soles of my feet are thrilled. It feels like ancient reflexology for body and soul. My tiredness has vanished – so fast!

I walk by small trees laden with young apples, bursting with life and vitality.

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Beyond, on the hill, I see cows grazing in the sunlight. Image

I reach the compost bin. I tip the contents of the green kitchen caddy into it: onion and garlic peelings tumble with tomato stalks and marshmallow leaves into the pungent abyss below. The odour of vegetation returning to nature is unmistakable. In a year’s time, it will all be rich, brown earth.

And then I turn back, treading over that lush, cool green grass, my bare feet still revelling in the sensation. I look skywards, at towering clouds just masking the sun. My daughter, as a small child, used to say that unicorns played in the white cloud light of the evening sun. I can and do imagine them there, invisible in the brightness.

Can you see them?

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That, then was my walk to the compost. It could have been awful. It was idyllic. The choice was only ever mine to make.

What choices did you make today?

What did you do today?

07/07/2013 at 10:36 pm | Posted in Happiness, Inspiration, Nature, Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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Yarrow“What did you do today?”

I breathed. I lived. I put my bare feet on the earth.

“Yes, but what did you do?”

I’ve just told you what I did.

“What else did you do?”

I had a laugh with ones I love. I ate almonds under a wild cherry tree. I breathed the sweet scent of a pure white rose.

“Sounds nice. Anything else?”

Yes, now that you come to mention it, I gathered yarrow under a cloudless sky. I touched a silver birch whose leaves were shimmering in the breeze. And I watched the red sun go down, while a handsome man held me close…

That’s what I did today. And what about you; what did you do? Don’t tell me the stuff you didn’t really care about. Tell me what mattered to you.

Thankful, optimism, support

01/02/2013 at 5:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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purseThis is a special bag: a beaded evening purse; handed down through the generations of my family. My mother gave it to me one day last December.

I typed out a list of positive, uplifting words, and printed several copies on card, then cut them up and popped them in the bag. During the Solstice, I invited many people, upwards of 80, to take a word out of the bag and keep it with them as guidance for the year ahead.

During the Solstice get-togethers I drew a total of  three words for myself: ‘Thankful’, ‘Optimism’ and ‘Support’. I looked at them, felt their specialness, then put them down and forgot about them.

January came, with snows, then wind and rain. There were winter bugs in my household, which meant I didn’t get to the gym, or go walking, or swimming. I reduced my daily yoga… gradually, imperceptibly, I was putting my wellbeing on hold. This is never a good idea, I know. But still, it happened.

And then, just yesterday, I found my three words once more: ‘Thankful’, ‘Support’ and ‘Optimism’. I hugged them like old friends. How could I have forgotten them?  The truth is, I need those words every day. Each word is a tiny, effective dose of wellbeing.

If you would like me to draw a word for you out of the bag, just ask, and I’ll be happy to send you your own little dose of wellbeing.

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