Thursday, 15 August 2013 14:12

A Sense of Adventure

It is not given to us to know what difference we can make, and perhaps we can make no difference at all. But that is no reason not to make the attempt," said Saliman quietly. "The Light shines more brightly in the darkness.
 Alison Croggon, The Crow

Do you remember the days when you'd be counting sleeps to some exciting event? It didn’t matter what it was, a birthday party, Christmas, or simply a tooth falling but you'd be busting out your skin with 'Donkey-like-are-we-there-yet' impatience. Sadly, as I've got older the only things keeping me awake at night are stress and worries. It makes me wonder what happened to that overwhelming exuberance. Where did it go? And is the joy still there?  

Curiosity is an amazing thing, it has children eating sand and bugs and driving you mad with why questions and is something we easily outgrow. The more experience we have, the more certain we become and the less time we take to explore and discover why something is like it is. We start skipping the step of actual experience and go straight to the mental computation of what we expect to happen, from either our own, or someone else's past experience.

The truth is that no two people or two situations are alike, similar maybe, but identical? No. When we start engaging with our life with a sense of adventure, a childlike curiosity, it changes. In Zen Buddhism it's called Beginner's Mind. It is having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. In coaching, that subject is you.

It is a fascinating process to spend time with yourself asking quality questions like the good old fashioned 'Why?'  Why on earth am I doing what I do, thinking what I think and saying what I say? The moment we get curious about ourselves and our life and start poking around in the dirt, so to speak, it changes everything. Sometimes, hidden within the muck of past failures and fears, or fortress like defences and sadness, we find the shining light of acceptance and kindness, our jewel of joy. This is the beauty of getting to know yourself, of living in the moment and paying attention to important things like your breath and the little moments that make life worth living.

It is a journey worth making. One that frees you from old habits that are no longer relevant. For the next few days make an effort to cultivate a sense of adventure, play with your world, do something differently, speak up if you are shy, stay silent if you are a chatterbox. Wonder, instead of decide what will happen and watch yourself to come back to life.
Tuesday, 30 July 2013 00:00

Time Flies or …. Time Lies?

Whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got
Art Buchwald

The other day, while in the shower shampooing my hair, so many thoughts and schedules were ricocheting around my head that I accidentally conditioned my arm instead of my hair. I kid you not! My first thought was thank goodness no one saw that. Then I pretended nothing had happened and put conditioner on my hair as intended.

But of course something had actually happened and deep down I knew I couldn't really ignore it. It's been a busy time with moving house, arranging a trip away and a booming coaching practice to keep me on my toes. I took this incident as a sign that I needed to slow down.

These days many of us live with a slightly pressured feeling that no matter how hard we strive there is always something we haven't got to or that isn't getting the attention it needs. In fact, the most common concern I hear from clients is that they won't have the time to do what they need to do. In coaching speak, this translates to 'not having enough time to achieve your goals and live the life you want'.

People seem to have two ways of handling this, some push harder, work quicker and get more stressed, while others give up and collapse in a demotivated heap, eating junk food in front of the TV and not bothering to even try.

Happily, there are alternatives! Firstly, as with any change, acknowledging there is a problem and that you are unhappy with the situation is the starting point. It then becomes possible to look at options and find other ways of coping.

Interestingly enough, even when I do have enough time, that niggling feeling of not having enough time is still in the driving seat, urging me to hurry up. A statement like "I don't have enough time" might seem like a fact, but it isn’t. It is a belief and merely something you have been telling yourself, possibly for a very long time. By recognising that beliefs are not facts, we give ourselves space to choose our behaviour.

Experiment by slowing down and seeing what happens. Does the world come to a shuddering halt because you took your eye off the ball? I doubt it. In fact, the opposite often happens, the more relaxed and focused you are, the fewer mistakes you make and the easier life seems to trundle along.
Let me know how it goes.
Tuesday, 16 July 2013 07:39

The Power of Habit

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
Samuel Johnson

What is it about stress that causes every bad habit you've ever had, to reappear in full strength? Moving house recently has been chaos and yet two weeks later, it is the least of my problems! The real whopper is that it turns out the patient, positive and 'easy to love' me, is only around when the going is good. The moment things get rough, the demanding perfectionist takes over and all hell breaks loose. Oy vey!

Anyone following my Inner Smile Challenge on Facebook will know that the low point came the other day when I knocked an OPEN Coke Zero into my OPEN handbag…. while in the car… two hours drive away from home. Honestly, what are the chances of that happening in real life? I suspect the absurdity of the situation created a tiny gap which allowed me to remember I actually had a choice. I could freak out or mop up! I chose to start mopping.

Habits, especially bad ones, limit us. They have a way of narrowing down our options and trapping us in the past. Often the emotional reaction we have to a situation has more to do with the memory of a similar past event than with what is actually happening right now. The wave of emotion the similarity triggers, can knock us off balance and straight into a vortex of negative thinking that makes a bad situation even worse.  This is the point at which many of us reach for food, alcohol, computer games, or anything that will comfort or distract us from the awfulness of what we are feeling.  

So what are some healthier alternatives in times of stress? Think of yourself as someone recovering from serious illness. As when we are physically weak, we need to take extra care until we get stronger. Be gentle with yourself, rest enough, take time to relax and spoil yourself. Do anything that builds an inner sense of well being, whether it is having fun, a good laugh or even a good cry if that is what you need.

Learning to resist the power of old habits is a lifelong task. It takes mindfulness to recognize what is happening, courage to face your feelings and patience while you attempt to do it differently. If you find yourself in a sticky moment like I did, it helps to remember you have more resources to cope with than you might feel!

Monday, 01 July 2013 20:38

Positive Thinking: Method or Madness?

Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
Lao Tzu

Recently I have been pondering the whole topic of positive thinking. Is it fact or fiction? Helpful or harmful? And the bottom line for me, does it work or not? Being insatiably curious I decided to run a personal, and please be warned, very unscientific experiment to see what conclusion I came to. The thing about a daily meditation practice is that some days I love taking the time to settle and sit quietly and other days I would really rather swallow razor blades than be locked in a small room alone with my wayward mind. So daily meditation was the chosen subject and the experiment would be to see how positive or negative thinking, about meditation, influenced the actual experience of it.

On Day 1, I dug out my recipe for success and cheered my way into the session, reminding myself how beneficial meditation is, how good I would feel afterwards and I sat down feeling enthusiastic and relaxed.

On Day 2, I grumbled my way onto my cushion thinking about how hard it was to be me, how I unfair life was and all the thoughts that make up my personal recipe for failure.

The results were surprising and not at all what I expected. Day 1 was a good day, I was in a good space and positive thoughts lead to positive action and a happy outcome. Day 2 however was very interesting. The simple act of doing something that I believe is beneficial, even though I didn’t feel like it, got me feeling good about myself! Hmmm, food for thought! The negative expectation I had about how awful it would be did not influence the actual experience.

The Buddhists believe that mind is the master, and body and speech are the servants. In order to change our words and actions, we therefore need to change our minds and thoughts. In the experiment above, what struck me is that the real positivity came from morality, from honouring what was right and beneficial.

So here is my conclusion, it is not so important whether positive thinking is method or madness, what's important is whether, with positive thinking, there is method in your madness!
Thursday, 13 June 2013 08:47

Guilty Pleasures

They that seldom take pleasure, seldom give pleasure.
Fulke Greville

Have you ever done something that felt good and then you felt bad about it afterwards? I woke up at 4am the other morning, and may I just mention it was a freezing winter's morning and the very last thing I wanted was to be awake.  But there I was, having made the startling discovery of just how far down the road of feeling-bad-about-feeling-good I had meandered, completely unaware.

A coaching client and I had been discussing guilt and I honestly thought we were talking about her. It was quite a surprise to realize we were also talking about me! Years of watching my weight mean that no matter what I weigh, I feel slightly guilty about every delicious and oh-so-naughty treat I indulge in. Rising expenses mean that spoiling myself with a facial or new clothing comes with a vague sense of unease, a question mark as to whether I am doing some thing good or something bad. It is this question mark that causes the trouble.

The age of information can have us bouncing up and down like a ping-pong ball with all the opinions available at our fingertips: soya, eggs, parabens, to name a few of the more contentious issues. After a while of doubting the goodness or badness of our actions, many of us start to skip the phase of feeling good and go straight to the feeling bad or guilty. Before we know it, we are going through the motions but there is little joy left in our lives.

Obviously the ideal approach would be to simply stop feeling bad about good things. However, to cut a long and unsuccessful story short, let's just say that's not as easy as it sounds. The thing about feeling bad is that it becomes a habit, and habits are like… well, think 'Colorado River carving the Grand Canyon', except in our neural pathways. Changing direction is like trying to change the course of history.

So I came up with a Plan B and here it is. Start by becoming aware of this pattern of thinking within you. When you catch yourselves spoiling a moment of pleasure with guilt, ask yourself whether feeling bad is making you happy or not? Then do what makes you happy. Once you are happy, start sharing that happiness with the world because remember, you have to have it, to give it!
Monday, 03 June 2013 20:00

Keeping Balance

It is not so important whether you walk on water or walk in space.
The true miracle is to walk on earth.
Thich Nhat Hanh

In this funny old life, you can be happily going about your business when something outside of your control happens that completely derails you. Maybe it's an angry customer, a traffic jam, a mistake you made or a hurtful comment from a friend or family member that bursts your happiness bubble. But the bottom line is, our mood goes from happy to upset in the space of a few seconds.

The life we lead in our imaginations is often very different to the reality we experience on the ground. Books, movies, advertising and good old fairy tales have all played a role in creating some pretty universal, but none-the-less unrealistic, expectations about what to expect from life. And who doesn’t want the glossy airbrushed version compared to the rather messy awkward reality we sometimes find ourselves immersed in?

The tricky thing about unrealistic expectations is that they lay the groundwork for feeling awfully disappointed with our lot. We end up unable to enjoy and appreciate the many joys and blessings we have because our minds are so focused on what is wrong, or what is missing from the fairytale version of how it should be.

Restoring the balance in our thinking is a long term project that starts with noticing what is currently happening within us. At the end of the day, spend a few minutes quietly reflecting on your day. Ask yourself, 'Was today a good day or a bad day?'  Jot down your answer and then go through the day in more detail, recalling what went well and what didn’t. Categorize what happened quickly, according to your first response, without thinking too much about it.

You should start to notice that your initial emotional impression is not an accurate assessment of the day. When you look closely with a more mature systematic reflection, you discover that the day was a mixture of good and bad. Keep doing this exercise and gradually your balance will improve. You get better at remembering to respond rather than react. The magic comes when, instead of taking over the world and ruining your day, small irritation stay just that, small.

No matter how bad things are, paying attention to the good things that are already happening just outside your awareness, has got to be one of the best ways to cheer yourself up. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
Tuesday, 21 May 2013 08:07

Focus on what you want

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
Mahatma Gandhi

Focus on what you want sounds like such a simple instruction that I'm tempted to put a full stop and leave it at that! However, a glimpse at Ghandhi's quote gives an inkling that there is more to this story than originally meets the eye. The first session of coaching is wonderful, we sit together and talk about what you want to change or achieve in a specific area of your life, and the trouble often starts right here.

It's an interesting phenomenon but the moment we ask ourselves what we want, we immediately start thinking of reasons why we haven't got it. The first and very important step of the change cycle is realising we are unhappy with a current situation. Once we acknowledge this, the second step is to spend time thinking and deciding what changes to make and planning how to make it happen. Unfortunately, this is where we can so easily get bogged down in negativity. Instead of getting clear and connecting deeply with what we want, we often digress into thinking about what is wrong, why we haven't got it, how unfair it is or how it is definitely not our fault.

To really uncover what we want for our lives, our body, speech and mind need to be in harmony, or at least vaguely going in the same direction! Instead we often find each of these parts of ourselves has their own agenda and we become our own best friend and worst enemy in one confusing package. While inner peace is a bit beyond my scope in this short blog post, there are a few tricks of the trade that can help get you started in the right direction. How can I put this? Um... well, you really need to focus on what you want!

Pay close attention to the response you give when you ask yourself what you want in a particular situation. If it goes something like, I want my boss, husband / wife, metabolism, local government etc. to be different, it's a clue that you are focusing on what is wrong and not on what you want. Taking responsibility for our lives is a mammoth undertaking and the more clarity we have on how we want to live, the better chance we have of keeping our lives on track and moving in the right direction.
Monday, 06 May 2013 20:10

The Ups and Downs of Life!

Compassion is where the sunlight of kindness meets the tears of sadness
and a rainbow is formed.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche

Life certainly has its moments with some undeniably being better than others. Generally speaking the ride up doesn't cause half as much trouble as the down ride, so let's bravely tackle the enormous topic of negative emotions with the hope of bringing sunlight and rainbows into dark places!

I have a teeny problem with much of the wonderful, often uplifting good advice out there. It is fabulous and works brilliantly right up until the moment I have instantaneously transformed into either a seething mass of anger, a quivering wreck or been reduced to nothing but a puddle of tears. At which point, I entirely forget everything useful I have ever heard, or worse, find myself shrieking, sometimes out loud, "HOW exactly am I meant to relax / let go / cheer up / forgive and move on or focus on the positive etc.?"

It's incredibly hard to bear strong emotions without feeling you won't survive the tidal wave of sensations raging through your mind and body. Our instinct to fight or flee is deeply embedded in our neural pathways (or wherever these sorts of deeply embedded things lurk) and it takes practice to change the habits of a lifetime.

Luckily we come equipped with the perfect counter balance, our intelligence. Although there is an unfortunate design fault I should mention: there is a slight delay before it kicks in. This means that if we can buy some time before launching our reactive response into the world, we give our intelligence, our capacity for more mature, reasoned reflection, time to come to the party.

In moments of real danger, our bodies' defences can save our lives. The problem comes in with the long term effect of daily stress which can devastate our health and well being. By slowing our reactions down, we give ourselves time to think more clearly and through that, hopefully make better choices.

The solution is simple, take a deep breath in, exhale and repeat until you feel better! Funnily enough, when our defences are focused on preparing us physically for danger, by voluntarily changing our pattern of breathing, we influence the messages the body is sending to our brain and in that way, change the way we think and feel.

So next time your neck is knotted with tension and your jaw clenched, give it a try. I mean, honestly, how difficult can it be to remember to breathe!
Wednesday, 10 April 2013 12:31

Become your BFF!

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A little while ago I was having a "Do I have to?" sort of day. I finally had time to do a task I'd been putting off for ages and still didn't want to settle down to it. After much procrastination, I slumped down at the computer to get started and to my delight there was a complete power failure. Making the most of a very lucky reprieve, I popped the dogs and husband in the car and went for a lovely walk on the beach. It was a beautiful day and I came back recharged and in a much better frame of mind to complete what I needed to.

The whole experience got me thinking about chores, those everyday things that we have to do whether we feel like it or not: cooking, cleaning, the admin part of our job, or anything we may love doing, just not right now and certainly not everyday. The question is, how can we overcome our resistance or resentment and fulfill our "must do's" in a joyfully enthusiastic way?

Human beings are driven by deeply instinctive forces to move away from pain and towards pleasure and the key is learning when to push and when to indulge ourselves. It's about finding the balance, and one way to do that is to become a trusted friend to yourself. Who doesn't want the kind of friend who is there for you, who listens and comforts you when you need a hug, but will gently and firmly tell you when you are losing the plot?

By becoming your own best friend you create the space within yourself to explore what is really holding you back. The diagnosis is all important; taking every cough medicine on the market is not going to help a headache, nor will tidy cupboards pass an exam! We spend so much time dodging or avoiding what we dislike when sometimes all we need is to sit ourselves down with a cup of tea and have a friendly chat, with ourselves, about what's going on.

Of course if that fails, I highly recommend bribing yourself with a fabulous reward. It doesn't have to be big or expensive, just something that associates pleasure with your task. It's the perfect time to do as Gandhi suggests, be the change you want to see in the world and become your best friend forever!
Tuesday, 09 April 2013 14:40

Getting the best out of yourself!

“In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels.”
Daniel Goleman

So here we are, we've taken a good look at our lives and come to the rather startling conclusion that we are not quite living the life we want. Maybe you are one of the over achiever types who constantly strives to be good at everything, or you have swung to the other extreme and don't do half of what you need to because quite honestly, you don’t give a damn anymore. Or perhaps you are one of those creative types who has come up with a personalised programme of self-defeating behaviour unique to you and your life?

Whatever your modus operandi is, living the life you want starts with learning how to get the best out of yourself. And what does that mean? We all have bad days where nothing goes right and fabulous days where we are inspired and magnificent, but on many of the in-between mundane sort of days we are more likely to notice what is going wrong rather that what is going right. We mess up one small task, forget something important, or snap at an undeserving person and it is all too easy to remember every mistake we have ever made and berate ourselves for being a hopeless failure.

What we have done is taken the small ember of painful feeling in our heart and fanned it into a raging forest fire with our thoughts. Our mind that thinks and our mind that feels have worked together to take us in a direction that harms and weakens us. Instead, take a moment and imagine using the intelligence of your mind to balance and calm the emotions in your heart: how your life would be then?

It works both ways: at times when we get too critical or results focused, our hearts remind us to be kind and gentle with ourselves and others; we encourage ourselves to move forward, to take that next step. When we get too emotional, the coolness of our head calms and steadies us by reminding us of the consequence of our actions. So to get the best out of ourselves, we want our left and right brain, or heart and mind working together in a way that supports and benefits not only us but also the people around us.
Wednesday, 03 April 2013 00:00

Is what I am doing making me happy?

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone.
The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.
Lin Yutang

The question is simple, is what I am doing making me happy? Answering it however, is not! In fact it opens up a can of worms that, honestly, most of us would really rather not think about. In order to change something that we are unhappy with in our life there is a critical first step. We have to admit to ourselves that our life or an aspect of our life is not how we want it to be. "What me? Not coping? Don’t be ridiculous." my inner perfectionist grumbles in the background!

Sadly, the truth of the matter is that if we are going to make a change, and it doesn't matter what area of your life needs some attention: health, weight loss, taxes, procrastination, or too much on your plate, we have to start by truly deeply wanting to change. Otherwise you can read every self help book or article ever written, agree wholeheartedly but never take the steps needed to actually make the change.

Luckily, we have the most powerful resource to help freely available right within ourselves. One that if we allow it, will help us become far more amazing than we can comprehend right now. This resource is our own mind! However, to tap into and harness its power is a bit like, well… trying to ride a wild horse, or cage an untamed monkey. Marching up and giving yourself a piece of your mind won't work, for obvious reasons! Instead skill is needed, we have to get very clever, learn to become 'mind whisperers' to start getting the best out of ourselves.

One way to do that is to start building trust by gently and kindly asking the question, "Is what I am doing making me happy? Is it making the people around me happy?" Then, and this bit is important so please don’t forget to do it, you need to answer the question! Take five minutes before you go to bed at night to reflect on your day: what went well, what you can do better next time and what would be better not done at all? We have spent years doing things that harm us in the mistaken belief they will make us happy. By spending a few minutes of quality time with yourself, you create the space to discover what is meaningful to your life and what isn't.
Tuesday, 26 March 2013 10:48

Start where you are…Do nothing!

'What makes you worthwhile is who you are, not what you do'.
Marianne Williams

Do nothing! Pretty strange advice coming from a Life Coach whose business ethos is 'Action-orientated coaching to live happy, healthy lives', but I assure you there is method in my madness!

Most of us are bombarded by a rush of thoughts from the moment we wake up in the morning to when we collapse exhausted into bed late at night. Our days are packed with activities, meetings, appointments, deadlines and to-do lists that drive us relentlessly. More often than not, we are so busy just getting by that we don't take the time to stop and assess whether the many the things we are doing in our pursuit for happiness, are actually taking us in the direction we want to go. We forget that it is not all about taking action. To move forward and to live the lives we want, we need to take focused, effective, action.

Surprisingly, the first step in doing that is slowing down. Our instinct is screaming at us to hurry up, go faster, do more, try harder when instead, what we really need to do, is slow down, take a deep breath and look at what is going on inside and around us. Unfortunately this is not something that comes easily to many of us unless we are ill or craning our necks to peer at a passing roadside accident!

So, for this week, I would like to suggest you don't do anything differently... yep, I really meant it when I said DO NOTHING! Instead put moments of waiting or transition from one task to another to good use. If you start to pay attention you will notice natural breaks in activity as you go about your day.

While you wait for the kettle to boil, take a moment to look out the window, notice the first rays of sunlight filtering through the trees, feel the weight of your body as you stand and breathe in deeply. As you sit at a red traffic light, instead of drumming your fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, use that moment of stillness to get in touch with your body. Feel your back resting against the seat, notice the air moving across your face and connect with the sense of being alive.

Take it easy and let me know how it goes!
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