Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life


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Meeting This Moment

Roz Zinns: Greek Doorway, 2011 Acrylic Painting

A re-phrasing of something can often make all the difference. The other day I was wrestling with the concept of “turning towards” experience. This had up until then been such a useful way for me of describing how in every moment we have the choice whether to fully be with our experience or to turn away from it and was a key cornerstone of my practice encouraging in me an attitude of courage. Like when you stop fleeing and turn to face what’s coming after you. There’s a warrior-like quality to it, though it can be something much softer, like when you turn towards a loved one and really take them in fully.

However, on this particular day, it felt like I needed to re-frame this attitude. Sometimes in our practice we need to refresh the way we see things. “Turning towards” experience had come to feel like it was all about me and my awareness. Part of me was rebelling and saying, no I don’t want to turn towards these feelings of anger, my irritation at that person, my fears and tendencies or whatever it might be at the time.

What then popped into my mind was something more like “meeting” my experience. This might seem like a very small adjustment but this simple shift has had a strong effect on my practice both on and off the cushion. There’s still a certain courage needed to meet my experience more fully, but it has a gentler, more enquiring quality to it. There’s more of a sense of relationship between me and others, me and whatever is going on externally and internally. Meeting the moment means drinking it in, savouring it, or at least biding with it a little more when it’s something unpleasant that’s going on. I can be aware of how I am on my side, all the physical sensations linked to feelings and thoughts, emotions in the heart area or wherever they’re manifesting and also more aware of others, even without words there can be a sense of relationship and dialogue, warmly questioning what’s going on.

In this I’m reminded of a suggestion made by my meditation teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham, when working with thoughts in meditation. She recommended relating to thoughts as like guests at a party which you are hosting. You greet them, exchange some words and then like a good hostess, move on to the next guest who’s just arrived. I like this because it encourages an attitude of warmth but also the discriminating ability to retain an overall sense of what’s going on in our awareness. Then again, her advice also has echoes of Rumi’s much-loved poem – The Guest House – here it is:

 

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

 

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honourably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

 

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

 

“Turning towards our experience” is still a wonderful phrase for capturing this almost bodily sense of opening to whatever is coming up in our day to day lives or in our meditation practice. A revolutionary departure from either pushing away or grabbing onto our experience. However, as the year draws to a close and I greet the start of a new year which will bring all kinds of things – some hoped for, some not, some unexpected – I think that meeting each moment with patience and kindly interest will be the way of being I’ll try and embody, even while I’m bound often to still pretend I’m not indoors when the unpleasant or challenging comes knocking, or sometimes rudely shut the door in that particular guest’s face. In this regard here’s Amy Newell’s wonderful poem On Hospitality: A Reply to Rumi with which I’ll conclude.

 

Welcome all the visitors, you say.

Do not put bars on the windows

or locks on the doors. Do not close up

the chimney flue. Duct tape and plastic

sheeting will not keep visitors at bay.

They’ll pound on the doors, they’ll break

your windows, they’ll breach the barricades

they’ll storm the beach, swarm in like ants

through cracks. They’ll leak like water through

the walls, and creep like mice, and curl like smoke

and crack like ice against the window glass.

Keep them out? It can’t be done, don’t try.

 

Welcome all the visitors.

 

Fine. There’s all kinds

of welcoming, however.

 

I do not have to throw a house party.

I will not post flyers.

There will be no open bar.

No one will get drunk

and lock themselves in the bathroom.

No one will break furniture, grind chips

into the rug, throw anyone else in the pool

or lose an earring in the couch.

 

I do not have to run a guest house, either.

There will be no crackling fire

and no easy chairs. I will not serve

tea to the visitors. I will not dispense

ginger snaps and ask my guests

about themselves:

“Did my mother send you?”

“Why must you plague me?”

“Why not stay awhile longer?”

“Who are you, really?”

 

If I must welcome – and I am convinced I must –

Let me build a great hall to receive my guests.

Like a Greek temple, let it be open on all sides.

Let it be wide, and bright, and empty.

Let it have a marble floor:

Beautiful – and cold, and hard.

Let there be no sofas, no benches, no dark corners,

no anterooms and no coat closets.

No walls, not even a ledge to lean against.

 

I’ll welcome anyone who comes,

I’ll show them my enormous empty hall.

Come in, come in, I’ll say. I’ll even smile,

perhaps make a conversation for awhile.

 

And if someone settles on the floor, as if to stay,

or circles round and round, as if they’ve lost their way

I’ll be kind, extend my hand,

and gently show them out again.


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Our Bodies and Ourselves

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“I seem to myself, as in a dream,

An accidental guest in this dreadful body.”

Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems

Like Anna, we might sometimes have felt this way, cut off and at odds with our physical selves. One of the gifts of practising mindfulness, for me, has been a healing of this rift, through an increasing sense of the inseparability of our mental and physical states.

Take for example the physiology of stress. I think we tend to forget how bodily an experience stress is. Perhaps because when we’re stressed, though we know it feels physically uncomfortable, we’re often more preoccupied with the thoughts, the judgements, the whole mental articulation of the fear reaction and the impulses that engenders. So it can be quite humbling (and normalising) to realise what’s “simply” happening is that in response to a particular stressor, we’re caught up in a cascade of biological reactions and feedback loops involving the release of neurotransmitters in the brain and the resultant release of stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, making our heart beat faster, our breathing faster and shallower, blood to rush from the digestive system and other less immediately vital functions to our muscles in preparation for fight or flight. From our body’s point of view, it’s our survival that’s at stake here, but with modern life comes chronic stress, which left unchecked wreaks havoc with our health over time. So it helps to know how we can calm all that down, dissipate the stress hormones by activating the de-stressing ones like acetylcholine and oxytocin through a range of considered responses like deeper breathing, self-soothing, meditation, physical exercise, relating to others, and wholehearted enjoyment of our downtime.

As we practice mindfulness we learn how to feel all the effects of this interplay going on in our bodies which helps us to defocus away from the thoughts which might be contributing to the stress response in the first place.

And this doesn’t relate of course just to the stressful. There are also the other feeling states we find ourselves experiencing – love, laughter, contentment, excitement, awe, appreciation – they’re all as much physical experiences as they are emotional or mental. When we laugh we involve our body in varying degrees of intensity from a quiet chuckle or guffaw to a hilarious bout of belly laughter, doubling up – almost beside ourselves. How amazing that is!

And when we cry it can be the same, from a silent welling up of tears and reddening in the face to uncontrollable sobbing that racks our whole body. Or, the unbearable physical pain of suppressed tears, the tightness in the throat and chest, the throbbing head.

Meditative states are also very much grounded in the physical. When I first began meditating I was struck by how positively my body responded, as if appreciating the stillness, through a pleasurable sense of settling in the body and mind and then as I let go more, this tingling sensation all over, like when you hear inspiring music, which I unfortunately came to see as the litmus test of whether I’d had a “good” meditation. And when we’re not connecting our body also expresses this very palpably with agitation, restlessness, tightness, dulling out or falling asleep. This in itself teaches us a great deal about our inner drives and workings.

Recently, I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s talk on The Mindfulness Summit and in the midst of all the helpful, clarifying things he said, he spoke about how mindfulness works with (not against) our biology. At other times, for example when we run a marathon, or force ourselves to sit at a computer screen for 12 hours getting work done, we’re fighting with our body and its (our) needs. This has consequences – though as in the case of the marathon, there may be overarching reasons that make the forcing worthwhile. When we sit to meditate it can similarly feel like we’re forcing ourselves at times, but when we let go of the struggle, we will feel the body’s “Ahh” response, energy percolates through us, or ease and relaxation unfold and it feels good physically as well as mentally and emotionally.

Which is not to say we’re doing it wrong when we can’t relax. Many times we have to go through this tricky terrain before we can begin to find that place of ease. Once we’ve been there, it remains as a validating reference point for our practice. Though we have to be wary of making that a goal, or a marker of the worth of our practice, for we can equally use our experience of physical agitation, restlessness or boredom and dullness as teachers too, of the ways we might loosen up or modify our relationship to ourselves and our experience.

So our bodies have much to teach us and the more we listen the more we can appreciate and wonder at what it means to be embodied. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Coming to our Senses

“At any and every level, the human body and every living organism is truly a universe of unimagined complexity and also simplicity and beauty in its unity of functioning, in its wholeness, its very being.”


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To walk is by a thought to go

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Walking

By Thomas Traherne 1637-1674

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,

But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good

Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,

But cannot see, though very strange
The glory that is by;
Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,

Who having eyes yet never find
The bliss in which they move;
Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
Yet never see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go;

To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,

And golden fields of corn survey;
Admire each pretty flow’r
With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
The marks of his great pow’r.

To fly abroad like active bees,

Among the hedges and the trees,
To cull the dew that lies
On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,

The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
The fructifying sun;
To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,

Who,tumbling in green grass and leaves,
May rich as kings be thought,
But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk,

’Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
For we may by degrees
Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
From viewing herbs and trees


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Where the Wild Thoughts Are

Before we embark on the adventure of mindfulness practice we might be somewhat like a fish, so used to the watery medium we swim around in that we don’t even register its existence. That’s what’s particularly radical about mindfulness. We go from swimming around in the water of our minds to actually stopping and noticing it, and by “it” I mean all that goes on within our minds, within our awareness.

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Deer Forest by Andrew Cooper

Moving now to another analogy, I sometimes think of it as like a forest. At the start we sort of think we are the forest – all the different trees that grow there, the plants and the forest creatures. They are different aspects of our personality, our likes and dislikes, our habits and tendencies and also our relationship to others – who they are and what the world out there is like. We don’t at the outset realise how much all of this is in transition and how it fluctuates from day to day. How one day we wake up feeling primed for what lies ahead, cheerful, positive and good about ourselves and the whole of our day seems brighter and warmer. We feel we’re in the flow and that we’re doing ok, we are ok. Then the very next day (or maybe later the same day) it all changes, our self-esteem gets a knock from something going wrong or another’s criticism of us and suddenly everything feels hopeless, unmanageable, doomed and we’re not doing ok, we’re not ok.

Once we wake up to this going on, while the ups and downs still happen and can still be very uncomfortable, we can at least have a sense that “this too shall pass” – which is sad when it’s a lovely thing but a relief when it’s a difficult thing – thank goodness! And we can become interested, even fascinated by it all, this ever-changing kaleidoscope of conditions, inner and outer, that give rise to the phenomenon of how we experience our lives moment by moment.

So going back to the forest analogy we can become like naturalists – explorers of what exactly is going on within the ecology of our minds. The tall, stately trees with their roots reaching down so deep and wide into the forest floor, perhaps they’re like some of the long-standing facets of our being, the underlying structure to our personalities, our oldest habits and tendencies. Even these aren’t fixed however, but are in a process of change through either growth or decay. They relate to those well-worn neural pathways that are laid down over time until they seem set in stone.

Then there are the forest flowers, ferns and other plants that come and go with the seasons. For a while we might find our experience is suffused with something inspirational, like a carpet of bluebells spreading through the whole forest. At other times, it’s as if winter has set in, all is so frozen and still, or so it seems.

And there are all the creatures that live in the forest – the woodpeckers, owls and other birds; squirrels, shrews and voles, rats and mice; countless insects from woodlice to stag beetles and the bigger beasts such as foxes, badgers and deer. These creatures which come into and out of view are like the flux and flow of our everyday thoughts in awareness. Some are welcome and delightful like the roe deer running through a glade, others are relentless and unwelcome like the repetitive drilling of the woodpecker’s beak on a tree trunk, or the harsh cawing of crows, like those ruminating, negative thoughts that run amok. Some might even seem like mythic beasts – monsters – lurking in the shadows, never fully seen. Then there’s the sense of the observer, the seer of all that goes on, perhaps like a benign bird of prey hovering over the forest.

So over time we get more familiar with the forest. We recognise recurring patterns of thought and what getting sucked into them does to us, emotionally and in our bodies. We also find out how complex and multi-layered our thinking process is. There are the “top of mind” thoughts – the more obvious ones – then underneath that maybe a sub-vocal narrative response to all that’s going on that we hardly register, although it can be very powerful and might often be self-critical or fearful, ever on the alert. Then there are the thoughts of the observer, noticing all this. It’s all as dynamic and eternally manifesting as the secret life of the forest.

In writing this I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ well-known poem The Thought-Fox which is about the act of writing a poem, but also has a flavour of the aliveness and dynamism of the thinking-feeling-sensing process I’m trying to describe. Because it is such a complete and whole piece of writing, I’ve set it down in full below.

The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near

Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.

Like all metaphors, the forest one isn’t completely congruent with the thinking process and it perhaps tends to concretise what is really evanescent and ungraspable. However, I like the wholeness of the image, its physicality and emotionality reminding us that our thinking isn’t separate from our bodies and emotions but that they’re all intricately and deeply interlinked. Also, that as we explore and come to know the forest of our thoughts, feelings and emotions we feel more at home there and at ease. We can begin to befriend its inhabitants, even the monsters, and in so doing befriend ourselves.


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Practice Pieces: Talking to Myself

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My breakfast I was dreaming about as I meditated

I’d like to share an interesting experiment I tried out in my meditation practice today. It was a bit like an elaboration of the labelling thoughts practice – you know – where you notice what kind of a thought you’re having, like worrying, or planning or remembering. I was practising what is termed “formless meditation”, very much like choiceless awareness, where you are simply being aware of everything that arises in your experience, with eyes open rather than closed. At a certain point in the practice I spontaneously began a sort of inner commentary on everything that was arising in my experience, or as much of it as I could encompass, which actually helped me to become aware of it, like I was drawing it out from the shadows.

So with my eyes softly focused I first noticed and mentally commented on seeing the meditation timer in my field of vision on one side and the glass of water on the other, then the sound of some heavy machinery which reminded me of the sound of ski lifts and all the pleasant associations with being in the mountains, then of an ache in my right shoulder and of hunger in my belly and of all the thoughts I was having like how much I had to do later on and how much I would enjoy eating my breakfast. It sort of went like this “now I’m noticing the green and the shape of the money plant and now there’s the sound of an airplane. Now I’m feeling the weight of my hands on my legs, sort of warm, heavy and fizzy, and now some slight tension in my forehead and a stingy feeling round my eyes. And I’m thinking about this commentary and that’s making me want to laugh because it’s sort of funny.” What it also showed me was how rapidly one “object” of awareness would be succeeded by another and of course so much going on at the same time it was hard to keep up with it all, so I had to let go of even attempting that, but there was a lovely sense of the fullness and richness of it all going on.

This wouldn’t be something to do all the time, but trying it today it was quite remarkable how it vivified my experience and made it more fully present. So I thought I’d pass it on. It could help when you’re feeling very restless or distractible. You could also try this kind of inner running commentary when you’re feeling stressed or anxious going about your daily life, to bring you back into your body and the present moment, so something like “now I’m getting out of the chair and standing up… now I’m moving towards the fridge and opening the door…now I’m turning the tap and filling the kettle”. It may feel a little strange at first, but might just help you to climb down out of ruminating or racing thoughts.


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Those In-between Times

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sustaining mindfulness practice throughout my daily life and in particular about those transition times, when it often all seems to fall apart.

I mean, those movements from one task or activity or situation or mood to another. Some examples that spring to mind for me are at the end of the working day, especially when it’s been a stressful or demanding one, going on holiday, moving from the working week to the weekend, and just generally changes of any kind – moving between tasks, from being with others to being on my own or vice versa, from being on retreat to normal home life, getting sick, experiencing a strong mental state like excitement or sadness. The list goes on.

So what happens to make me zone out and lose focus at these points of transition? I think there’s something about how I get into a particular groove – say, like now, I’m writing a blog post and I’m in that more creative flow. I’ll be very absorbed, but then it’s time to stop and make the dinner. I’ll notice that it’s like a wrench to unhitch myself from that mode of writing to a more practical task like cooking a meal. This manifests as a kind of uncomfortable feeling, perhaps felt in my guts and I might respond by eating a snack or putting off doing the task of cooking by checking Facebook or my email instead. It’s just as if sometimes I can’t handle the change. The shift from one thing to another becomes a problem.

Holidays are a good example too. I look forward to the holiday so much, envisioning what it will be like, how I’ll do lots of yoga and meditation, go running, swim in the sea, draw, paint, take lots of creative photographs, all without resorting to overeating or drinking wine as the temptation often is. But then when I’m there, it’s all wonderful and new and a little bit, well, overwhelming. I feel sort of lost in a way, cast out of my usual routine. So it takes some time, a few days, to let go into the flow, to relax – and then the kind of holiday I have is a different one to the one I’d envisaged, perhaps in a way more mindful, more in the being than the doing mode.

In mindfulness training, working with transitions is very much a part of the practice. During the mindful movement sessions, the guidance will often be to stay with our present experience in between different movements rather than leaping ahead mentally, standing up in our minds moments before we actually do that with our bodies.

I was listening to a wonderful, rich and warm-hearted dharma talk by the well-known insight meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein last night on “Waking Up In Every Moment.” The crux of it, she said, is that we’re always in a state of transition. We never actually fully arrive at the place we’re all secretly hoping for where we can feel in charge of our lives, comfortable and in control. From birth to death, we’re undergoing all kinds of minor to major transitions – in our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our relationships, our situations. She told of how once in the same week she’d heard from two people dear to her. One was her then 5 year old grand-daughter who was anxious about starting at kindergarten – “I’m really worried I won’t know what to do when I get there” and the other was a close friend who, aged 95, had just moved into an assisted living home. She’d said of herself and some of the others there, who were still mentally very able, “we’re all having trouble adjusting to our new situation.” Sylvia concluded that in fact “our whole life we’re having trouble adjusting to our new situation!”

When we break it right down, taking life moment by moment, we see that there is a constant state of flux and change. We’re always in transition. When we imagine we’ve found some kind of sense of stability, that’s usually arising out of a sense of familiarity or engagement and focus, which inevitably has to transform into the next set of thoughts, body sensations, reactions, feelings, emotions, tasks, surroundings or whatever combination of circumstances is arising. Within this ongoing transition process, there are of course more “settled” phases which we experience as easier, or more comfortable, but it’s still very dynamic – you can’t hold on to it.

Having said all this, lest it sounds like there’s nothing you can rely upon I would suggest that there are some underlying processes that sustain us. There are our intentions, the ones most important to us, keeping us going. The intention to wake up in time to get to work and the intention to apply our energies whilst we’re there. The intention to practise mindfulness, be a supportive and kind friend or family member, for self-development and growth, fitness, self-expression – whatever it may be. These are what propel us forwards, though obviously our intentions themselves wax and wane and change, in accord with our levels of motivation and energy. So is there something underlying those intentions, that’s deeper still? You could say that’s our heart wish, our deepest values and beliefs and desires for happiness, fulfilment and well-being. Getting in touch with that deeper heart wish can enable us to see what connects us with everyone else and kindness and compassion can arise towards ourselves and towards others. We’re all in this together.

So perhaps the key to working with transitions is to see them as something in themselves, not a kind of vague filling-in time between the more important, more focused parts of our day. They represent an opportunity actually, to step back, to take a mindful pause and honour the sense of passage from one activity to another, from one situation to another.

Although we can’t control the play of events in our lives, we could even out our relationship to our experience, by cultivating a playful, curious, warm interest in it all. The “extraordinariness of the ordinary” as Jon Kabat-Zinn terms it.

In her talk, Sylvia Boorstein suggested a short practice that I think meets this purpose very well. It’s one you can do anywhere at any time, that you don’t need to adopt a special meditation posture for, and where you can keep your eyes open or closed, your focus balanced between inner and outer experience as you say to yourself:

“May I meet this moment fully” as you breathe in

“May I meet it as a friend” as you breathe out.

So now I’ve finished writing this blog post, here’s an opportunity for me to put this into practice, pausing before I move on to the next thing…


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Practice Pieces: Stop and Stand

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Yesterday, a good friend and I practised mindfulness outdoors in her lovely orchard garden. As I stood in “standing mountain” pose, I felt the uneven soft ground under my feet, the caress of the air on my skin, and with eyes closed, the whole soundscape of birds and wind in the trees seemed to swirl around me as I swayed and balanced, breathing.

It was like being a tree, the closest I could come to that experience both of rootedness and connectedness to the sky above. It was a rich and fruitful pause, as refreshing in its own way as diving into a pool of clear water. So simple though. Just standing – something we can do at any time.

“Standing meditation is best learned from trees” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go There You Are – his inspiring and accessible guide to daily life meditation practice. He suggests practising in this way alongside an actual tree, in a forest, by a stream, in your home or waiting for a bus.

We forget that we can do this – take a pause in the tumultuous flow of our day to stand and breathe. There’s something very centering, wholesome and even revolutionary in its way, about just standing, not for any other reason than to connect with ourselves and our surroundings in the bare simplicity of present moment experience.

There are plenty of potential opportunities to stop and stand. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

– Waiting on the platform for your commuter train – consciously letting go of that forward focused, somewhat impatient, waiting mentality where the present moment seems like “dead” time, and instead, relaxing and breathing and expanding your awareness out from your own body and breath to the whole swirling scene around you.

– At work or at home, when you’ve put the kettle on to boil and you’re waiting there with your mug and teabag ready, enjoy giving yourself permission to use that time to connect with the sensation of your feet on the floor, standing tall, breathing.

– On a starry night, step out into the garden or stand by an open window with the lights turned off and enjoy the different sensations of being enveloped in darkness, cool air and night sounds. Or in the morning going out to stand in the dewy grass perhaps turned towards the rising sun, feeling the warmth on your face and chest.

There are lots of other times and situations I could mention such as in queues, waiting at counters, brushing your teeth, in the shower, standing in a social group at a party, when walking the dog, or deliberately standing up when you’ve been sitting at a desk for hours.

You could even do a formal meditation period standing rather than sitting, especially if you’re feeling sleepy or the opposite – very restless. Standing we naturally tend to feel strong and grounded, when we do it with awareness.

And with all the research coming out about the harmful physical effects of our sedentary lives, you’ll be attending to your bodily health at the same time.