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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Mindfulness and cupcakes at the Women’s Refuge

08/03/2016 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Ghossiya brought the cupcakes, and she came up with the idea too.  How can mindfulness help mothers? How can it help young children? She was planning to put her findings into a  dissertation for a degree course in early childhood studies which she is soon to complete at Oxford Brooks University.

A group of us – mothers, children, refuge key workers, Ghossiya and I –  looked at three principles:

• Be here now

• Notice what you notice

• Be kind to yourself.

We ate cupcakes mindfully, using our senses, and discovered that the experts at this were the young children present. They explored with fingers in icing, and fingers in mouths. What happens, thought one, when you drop an icing flower into a glass of water? (Answer: it sinks to the bottom of the glass, where it stains the water a delicate pink.)

Afterwards, we did a body scan relaxation exercise, focusing on our breath, then toes and feet and legs, and so on, upwards through our bodies. We visualised a golden white light, spreading outwards from our heart, filling our whole body with light, giving every cell the chance to pause, and rest, and renew.

When we opened our eyes again, after the exercise, everyone in the room seemed visibly more relaxed. Even the very young children had noticed the change in atmosphere, and were contented. One was stroking the soft shiny hair of a toddler friend sitting nearby:  mindfulness in action.

During our session, we also talked about the fact that mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve health and slow down ageing. And we discussed how a body scan visualisation is ideal for young children, especially at bedtime, to help them to calm and slow down.

Free body scan audio

We discussed how the mums could talk their children through this. Or, if they preferred, they could play the audio that’s available to all who’d like it, through this blog (please just contact me, putting BODY SCAN in the comment box).

Ghossiya shared a cupcake recipe (see below). Cooking, it was agreed, it a great way of being in the zone, along with walking in the countryside, relaxing in a candle-lit bath, doing yoga … and any other enjoyable activity in which we are fully present, using our senses. And if we are ever in any doubt, all we ever have to do is enter the world of a young child. They know how to explore this moment now better than anyone else on the planet. They are not rushing on to the next activity. They are masters of the present moment. We can learn so much from them.

Mindful cupcake recipe

115 g caster sugar

115 g self-raising flour

115 g margarine (at room temperature)

2 eggs (at room temperature)

Any one of the following optional flavourings: 100 g sultanas or raisins; 100-150 g chocolate chips; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 1 tsp cinnamon.

  1. Set the oven to 150º C/Gas 2.
  2. Put caster sugar, flour, margarine and eggs in a bowl and mix thoroughly until smooth.
  3. If using optional flavouring, add to the bowl and mix in gently yet thoroughly.
  4. Place cupcake cases in a muffin tin and spoon in the cake mixture.
  5. Bake in preheated oven until risen and golden brown.

Decorate as liked with icing or simply lightly sprinkle with icing sugar though a sieve.

 

 

 

How to achieve balance in your life

03/02/2016 at 1:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Here is a picture of three perfectly balanced stones.

It is also a symbol of how we humans can lead a balanced life.

Imagine, now, that you consist of three stones, one on top of the next.

Get your base right

The base stone, the biggest, is all important – nothing’s going to happen without it. This represents your physical needs: income, security, survival. We need to spend solid time every day ensuring that physically we are thriving. Are you exercising every day? Do you care for your body? Do you eat healthy foods, maybe even grow some of what you eat? Do you have a steady income, however humble? The message of the base stone is a simple one: take time to look after your physical body.

Keep heart at the centre of all that you do

The middle stone is the heart stone. This represents our feelings for others, and ourselves. Do you have plenty of healthy interactions with others: good friends, colleagues, family members? Do you nurture your relationships and spend solid time catching up with family and old friends, and meeting new friends by building your interests and activities?

At the very centre of the heart stone there is a special place devoted to your relationship with yourself. You are the friend who is always with you, every minute of your life. It may as well be a great friendship. Do you spend solid time checking in with yourself, seeing how you really feel, and caring about the answer? Do you give yourself praise when you’ve done well? Do you give yourself encouragement when you’re flagging? Do you, above all, love and accept yourself just as you are, while also being open about change? The message of the heart stone is this: take time to care about yourself and others. Value your feelings.

Do not be afraid to think

The top stone is the head or crown stone. This represents our mental and spiritual life. The crown stone, being that much higher than the other stones, can see the big picture. It prevents us being overtaken by our feelings. It introduces a note of caution when we fall in love with a person, or a project, that ultimately looks likely to harm us. The crown stone is the aspect of us that is wise, calm and measured. It is our intelligence.

The crown stone is the smallest stone. This reminds us that a little thinking goes a long way. Intelligence is a valuable gift. But without the heart and the base, it can easily get unbalanced. The connection between head and heart needs to be really stable. Otherwise, we can develop delusions and other mental illnesses. We might also invent things that do not serve the highest interests of humankind.

The crown stone, alone of the stones, has air above it. This reminds us that there are links between us and the invisible. Thus, it also represents our spiritual life.

The message of the crown stone is this: it is our birthright to be able to think for ourselves, to see things as they really are, and to be bold enough to speak the truth.

Keep these three aspects of yourself in balance, and you will lead a balanced life.

 

How to visualise during meditation

27/01/2016 at 6:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Here is a photo taken on a recent sunny, frosty day…

 

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And here is another photo taken from the exact same spot…

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The only real difference between them is that in one, I decided to focus on the big picture. In the other, I zoomed into a tiny, beautiful detail.

Visualisation during meditation is exactly like that. We choose what to think about – focus on – in our mind’s eye. Then we close our eyes and reconstruct our chosen image in our mind.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes it can seem really hard. But if that’s the case, stick with it, as you are building up new ‘muscles’ in your mind. It gets easier with practice.

It helps a lot if you study a real image first…

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Notice all the tiny details that you can, then close your eyes and imagine them all over again. Pretty quickly, this process can feel calming and restful. This is the first gift of visualisation.

The second gift of visualisation is that you can use it to imagine things you’d like to have in your life. The rambling house in the country; the fulfilling work; the happy family….

Practise visualisation in meditation because it feels good, lowers your blood pressure, calms and revives you. Then, if you choose, practise visualisation with things you haven’t yet seen, but would like to. Imagine them as though they are as real and detailed as the images on this page. Allow meditative feelings of calm and happiness fill you as you do so.

In time, you will reduce the time you worry about what you don’t have, and increase the time you spend enjoying what you do have, which will encourage the good things to proliferate in your life, and increase your wellbeing, one meditative step at a time.

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Saying ‘cheers’ with elderberry cordial

30/12/2015 at 4:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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My blog was viewed 19,000 times in 2015. WordPress worked it out. “If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House,” they write, “it would take about seven sold-out performances for that many people to see it.”

For a not-very-frequent blogger, the numbers are amazing. I’m grateful that these pages have been viewed, and commented on, so many times. Thank you!

The subjects of these pages include meditation, healing, intuition and nature. It’s about living an authentic life. Many of us have a real thirst for that – and it often takes a practical turn. The most popular posts here are often recipes of one sort or another.

So in 2016, when I gather wild food for the cooking pot, make soaps from the hedgerows and blend fresh herbal teas from the garden, I will share these activities with you.

The most viewed post in 2015 has been a recipe for  elderberry cordial.  I adore elderberries, from their vibrant colour to their delicious, healthy juiciness.

One of the best things about writing that post has been the many comments from readers who have tried out the recipe and/or come up with their own variations. When that happens, there’s a special magic between WordPress, blogger and reader/commentator.

To all who have visited over the past year… I’m drinking to your good health, with a glass of elderberry cordial.

 

 

 

Sense the wisdom of the ancient stones

24/07/2015 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Standing stones are scattered over the mistiest reaches of the British Isles. Each one is different, and highly distinctive. I wonder how many you know, and whether you have a favourite?

These are the Standing Stones of Stenness, on the mainland of Orkney. They are part of what may be the oldest henge in Britain. I visited them last week with my partner, Steven, on a rare child-free holiday. We found these giants bathing in the evening sun, framed by a rainbow. They seemed magical and mysterious: reassuring presences on the landscape.

The thing about standing stones is that they predate our written history. Perhaps we can say that they are a form of writing in themselves: rocky runes, inscribing messages on our horizons.

It’s a language we don’t understand today – but it’s possible to pick up something. I walked up to the monolith on the left in the picture above and leant against it: warm sunlight at the front of me; cool rock at the back. Imagine yourself doing that now. The stone is more than three times your height. As you lean back, it supports you. Perhaps it even feels as though it is scanning and recording your energy – that’s how it seemed to me.

As you stand there, it feels easy to have a silent dialogue. What would you like to confide in this silent stone, and what subliminal messages might it give you?

At the simplest level, stones speak of continuity and the steady rhythm of change. The people who first raised these megaliths were fully aware of the annual dance of sunrise and sunset along the east and west horizons. They had a deep understanding of how sunshine brought life to crops and humanity. Bringing this awareness to our modern world of distractions is very good for us – It can keep us sane.

After a while, the sun neared the horizon. The Standing Stones of Stenness became dramatic silhouettes.

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The view reminded me of a powerful insight I received at Avebury Stone Circle: “It is not the stones themselves that matter. It’s the spaces in between.“ 

The spaces in between the Stones of Stenness reveal a most amazing landscape. You can catch glimpses in this picture. There are two lochs: one is saltwater, and the other is freshwater. They are separated by a narrow causeway, which takes you to a Stone Age collection of buildings which are thought to have been temples. Beyond them is another henge, the Ring of Brodgar, and beyond that… the sun.

The Standing Stones of Stenness from this perspective are a portal to the elements of life. They reveal to us that we and our world are composed of earth, fire, air and water. And sometimes, just sometimes, it feels good to remember that.

Be of good heart with hawthorn blossom tea

14/05/2015 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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In late spring there’s a plentiful blossom in the hedgerows that makes an unusual health-giving tea. Hawthorn blossom and leaves alike are good for all aspects of the heart. Rich in tannins and bioflavonoids, it’s a great alternative to green tea. But harvest it wrongly, and you may never want to touch it again.

Hawthorn fragrance is an intriguing mix of sweet and… well, not so sweet. When it’s ultra-fresh, the sweetness prevails. When it’s wilted, there’s a lingering whiff of something rank.

And yet when hawthorn has completely dried, it becomes again a delightful, drinkable tea – rather like a lightly fermented green China tea.

Simply collecting the blossoms on a dappled sunlit day is therapy in itself. I like to follow Lucinda Warner of Whispering Earth’s advice and pick miniature sprigs of young flowers surrounded by a few leaves.  You have to watch out for the thorns, but they’re easy to avoid.

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To drink hawthorn blossom fresh

A single fresh sprig, plucked straight from the tree, makes a lovely cup of tea for one. Place one fresh sprig in a cup of boiled water, and brew for a few minutes. It’s fun to drink while the sprig is still in the cup. If wished, add a squeeze of lemon and a small teaspoon of honey.

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To drink hawthorn blossom dried

Place your sprigs of hawthorn blossom complete with their leaves on a tray in a well-ventilated place to dry. Cover with paper if you need to protect your harvest. Sometimes I simply place them so they can lie in a single layer inside a large paper bag, then leave them on a shelf in a warm and airy place. If you have a dehydrator, you can speed up the process dramatically and produce dried sprigs on a gentle setting in just a few hours.

To drink, place one to three dried sprigs in a tea filter, inside a cup of boiled water, and brew for a few minutes. Remove filter and enjoy.

Why it’s good for you

Hawthorn blossom, leaves and berries have all been long used as a tonic for the heart, helping with irregular heart beats, tiredness associated with poor heart function, and lowering of blood pressure. It’s also helpful for the whole circulatory system. And it’s been used as a tonic for the emotional heart, helping alleviate anxiety and bring calm. The feeling after drinking is as if your heart is basking in a warm, reassuring glow of wellbeing – that’s how it always feels to me.

Herbalist Nina Nissen suggests that it’s best drunk daily in small dosages over a period of 2-3 months, but it can safely be taken continuously if required.

If you are taking other medicines, particularly heart pressure ones, check with your doctor before drinking hawthorn infusions.

Hawthorn, a member of the rose family, has been viewed as a sacred medicinal plant for millennia. It’s a plant of many dimensions, endlessly fascinating to those who take the time to hear its teachings. The blossom is a wise and beautiful addition to any tea collection – and it’s free.

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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.

Intuitive mindfulness is a match made in heaven

03/01/2015 at 1:06 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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“Never do something because you feel other people expect you to do it, do it because you have that feeling of absolute certainty that what you are doing is right for you, because you have taken the time to be still, to listen and find out from within what you should do.”

The words are by Eileen Caddy, co-founder of the the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. The poster here is shared with thanks to that spiritual community.  Eileen Caddy’s book of inspirational writings, Opening Doors Within, was a major influence on me when I first thought about running meditation workshops in a Wiltshire studio.

The principle of noticing what you notice is central to mindfulness. When we are mindful, we focus on our breath, our pulse, the position of our body, the feel of the chair beneath us, the temperature of the air entering and leaving us, and so on. We notice what we are doing in the present moment, without rushing on to the future, or dwelling in the past.

When we mindfully wash dishes at a sink, for example, we take our time noticing the rainbow colours in the detergent bubbles, the feel of water against the surface of our hands, the sound and movement of dishes within a bowl of warm water.

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches through his many writings on mindfulness, when we are fully present, we experience peace.

What is less widely talked about is that when we are mindfully present, we allow the quiet inner voice of our intuition to be heard. This is what Eileen Caddy understood fully, and Findhorn still encourages this in myriad ways today.

Noticing what you notice is an integral part of receiving intuitive guidance. Being mindful is essential if we want to understand what we truly feel, and the direction that we fundamentally wish to go.

Lemon verbena tea – the recipe

27/08/2014 at 4:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 15 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.

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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, finding it both peaceful and refreshing.

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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 try to 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 that I’ve had for many 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 45ºC or 115ºF 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.

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