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Do you have too many thoughts on your mind?

People often say to me how they have such trouble with their minds, how their thoughts run away with them and they end up in places mentally where they don’t want to be. If only they could manage their thoughts, they say. You can have so many thoughts on your mind that the mind can become the source of your greatest torment, but it can also be the place of your greatest bliss. You can do something about it.

We get so caught up with our worries, problems and concerns that we don’t realise what’s really going on. Surely, we think, I need to focus on dealing with this problem. So people lie awake at night churning through the issue. It might be a stream of thoughts, and then it might be, say, a more generalised feeling, like anxiety about might happen or resentment about what has or hasn’t happened. They seem so important and real that we believe we can’t possibly let go of them. To not focus on them would feel somehow unsatisfactory. Which can point to an underlying tendency to treat life’s challenges in a particular way. For example we may have a tendency to catastrophise or see the worst in a situation. Or we may tend to blame others and find fault with them, and see them as the cause of our issues. Both these are patterns that can be challenged in themselves and dealt with.

To deal with the constant thinking however, often it is when you decide to step back from the problem and manage the process that things can start to be different, a “content to process shift”. Thus when you adopt a mindfulness approach, being aware of the thoughts you are having rather than caught up in thinking them, you can use the power of “metacognition”, seeing what’s going on in your mind. You can train yourself to observe or “witness” them: “Ah, I’m having that thought again.” “There I go with that one again.” Then, choose not to blame yourself, but rather accept. It’s what we do. It happens. Breathe, and breathe again, consciously, breathe in peace and calm, and breathe away thoughts and feelings, letting them go on the out-breath. And simply focus instead on breathing.

Over time you can choose to practice like this, and learn more about the practice of mindfulness, of witnessing your thoughts and letting them go, and learn to embrace the inner stillness that lies behind thoughts. For, when you simply sit with awareness of breath, you can find a growing calmness in your state of being. You can train yourself to have “no though” and be present with your stillness.

That way lies peace.

We seek peace in the world “out there” and think that when we’ve fixed our problems “out there” we’ll have peace. Yet real peace lies within.

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Our thought becomes reality

Thought is highly creative. Our thought becomes reality, at some level. Where we place our thoughts is what can occur, at some level, until we think differently when as a result we get different outcomes. This can be a hard one to get, until we notice how on “good” days when we’re thinking positively lots of nice things happen, and when our mind darkens we get a stream of negative things happening. The key to this is often in the feeling. Where we feel good, we get good results, and vice versa.

In Indian philosophy there’s an interesting concept, maya, illusion, where we live our lives until we become enlightened, part the 60,000 veils, know the Self and become liberated from the ego. In this tradition, the ego is the limited or illusory self, not who we are. Not surprisingly, when we feel really good, full of love, at One with life, contented and at peace, we say that this is who we are, not the miserable self we can be at other times. Yet this can be our opposite polarity in the world of duality, and it is only when we transcend this and know Oneness that we are no longer buffeted back and forwards by the world of opposites. We become anchored in contentment.

Much of the time we live in the world of opposites, good and evil, right and wrong, superior and inferior, better and worse, successful and a failure, happy and miserable, lively and dull, and so on. This is part of the pattern of limited thinking when we don’t know the nature of who we are. This, we need to find out. It can be done.

In dealing with our limited thinking, where we get stuck in a negative spiral for example, it is important to use mindfulness, to become aware that that is what we are doing and that it is not who we are. The great power of mindfulness is that it provides us with a tool to step back from the machinations of the ego, to be present, centre ourselves, and be the witness of our thoughts rather than caught up in them Then, when you are feeling calmer, less perturbed and at peace, you can choose again. Then you can affirm your vision, re-connect with purpose, and focus on what you really care to think.

This is invaluable practice. Yet it comes with one big caution, one many people don’t care to attend to. We still need to do our journeying, we still need to get familiar with what generates those negative states, and especially identify the core, root thoughts, the really prevalent beliefs we hold about ourselves, other people and life itself. Then we know what we’re really dealing with, and need to be the witness of and let go of. Till then we are shadow boxing and missing the fundamental limitations that keep tripping us up. This includes knowing our shadow self, one we suppress or deny and project on to others. Then we can really let go and be who we are. Then we can know real peace of mind and connect with who we really are.

I coach people who want to change the results they get, address what holds them back and be more of who they are. To learn more, click here.

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Being mindful of what you are thinking feeling and sensing

I’ve recently been preparing a new mindfulness course and in the process reflecting on what for me was one of the most invaluable things I learned from mindfulness many years ago, that of what is called metacognition. This is where your mind is aware that you are thinking, feeling and sensing as it is happening. For me, this experience of being mindful, once I had learned how to practice it, was truly transformative.

At the time I knew it as “witnessing”, since my training had also been with people versed in certain traditions that integrated Eastern mysticism with Western Transpersonal Psychology. There the Witness was also Atman, the Self. However, you don’t have to be associated with any particular tradition to use this approach. Once you become more fully conversant with the witness state, you then start to discover much more profound states of being.

However, for secular mindfulness training, being the observer or witness is in itself hugely liberating. For starters it enabled me to see much more clearly into what was happening for me. It enabled me to then exercise more choice, and wiser choices, than before. It links very well with what many people call Self Awareness, the core competency of Emotional Intelligence. It has not only proved immensely useful in terms of identifying the underlying causes of my own less beneficial behaviours but also served very well in enabling me to work as a coach and group facilitator. In the latter, I trained in Gestalt and in that tradition you need to be very aware of your own process and put it on one side (the rule of epoché) to be as present and as fully aware as you can be with another. This training also involved learning to “centre” yourself, to be fully present and aware and in your body, still and focused. It was all very empowering, and there is too that sense of gaining in inner power.

Core to all this work was however the practice of meditation. When I started meditating it was in the mindfulness tradition and I used it very effectively to manage and reduce my stress as a teacher, along with doing a body scan, relaxation, yoga and exercise. Meditation really is at its most effective when practiced daily, and initially I meditated for 20 minutes in the early morning and 20 minutes after work. Only later did I get up early each morning and meditate for 45 minutes or more. It is in itself a mindfulness practice, where you can use the breath as a focus and learn to take your attention away from your thoughts and back to your breath, or a mantra. The continued practice of this is fabulous for training the mind to let go of thoughts and to direct attention to what is more fruitful. With practice too, the focus of the breath or the mantra fades and you can get to experience deeper awarenesses of being. In meditation can lie the whole practice of mindfulness, which you can practice not just in the meditation but in life as a whole.

If you want to learn for yourself how to use these techniques and to take control of your life, click here.

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Meditate even when you don’t feel like it

If your mind is off on some trip somewhere and you aren’t feeling so good, it’s a good time to meditate. Yet this can seem a hard one if you don’t feel like that either. Yet many seasoned meditators will say that this is exactly where meditation can be so beneficial.

Let’s take the example of feeling dissatisfied or discontented about something. Somehow the problem keeps hanging around in your mind and you don’t seem able to let it go or change how you feel. The fear might be that if you go and meditate with this going on, you’ll just have a “bad meditation” or “won’t be able to meditate”.

Of course there can be a bit of victimhood with the problem, where we feel sorry for ourselves, “at the effect of the problem”, like “it” has got hold of “us”. So we separate ourselves from the problem and make “it” the cause” of our woes. With meditation, we make contact with our Oneness, our essence of Being, and us and the problem are at some level one. At that level, what can be the problem if you are fully surrendered to the One? Here we can potentially see that we are creating our problem and we can dissolve it.

There is a limiting belief that we “can’t meditate”, that when we’re in the middle of a problem “it” will get in the way. Yet meditation is what happens when we sit with the intention to meditate. Sitting still, going within, and being present with our Selves, warts and all, can include everything, including noise, distraction and busy, unhappy minds. In meditation we work with acceptance, which includes accepting whatever is going on, being mindful of it and returning our awareness to the breath – and a mantra if you use one. Being still, aware and present in this way enables the problem to just be there, with us mindful of it, the observer of it, as a witness, and return our awareness to our breath, etc. What can happen in meditation is that we loosen our attachment to the “problem”, which then becomes yet another manifestation of consciousness in its contracted, egoic state, which over and over we let go of as we meditate. Then your state can become inner stillness of Being, consciousness in its true state.

Over and  over we learn how we can let go of these things and they no longer exist as a reality, except as we choose to make it one. Thus going to meditate when you don’t feel like it, when your mind is caught up in stuff that you’re not happy about, is a perfect time to re-mind yourself of what it’s really all about.

You can download an mp3 of guidelines for meditation and 2 guided introductions to meditation to help you develop your practice of meditation. Click here.

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Reality can be what we think it is and we can think again

Very often we can get stuck on a train of thought and we think life is truly like this, that it is our reality, and in thinking like this so deny ourselves the opportunity to gain different outcomes for ourselves.

There are those that think that reality is a given, outside our experience and control, and there are those that think that reality is what you perceive it to be. So it depends what you think! The interesting thing about the latter approach is that if you think it enough, lo and behold it happens, at some level. It’s important to reflect on this if you find that your thoughts are too often focused on a particular outcome that you don’t want. You might be getting something happening, or something could be going to happening, that is not where you want to go.

The self aware often get very conscious of where their minds tend to go. It comes with the territory. You start to notice a lot that preoccupies you. The danger here is, if you then start to think that that is your world, then that is how things are. This is the trap. There’s actually a choice. We hold, according to quantum physics, multiple possibilities in the present moment, all co-existing. You could go down one route, and then you could go down another. It’s your choice. You are creating your reality moment by moment.

Thus, the skill is to notice an unproductive train of thought and get off it. Yet, that presupposes you have it all clear in your own mind, for example that you know who you are, where you are going and what you really want. Then you know what to “get off it” for, what your intention is. Thus really useful personal development work can be to get clear your direction, purpose and intent, and be clear who you really are. Then you are more likely to be able to make these distinctions, to work out which is the choice that will better serve you.

Until then you are very likely to be a prisoner to your thoughts and to the results you then get.

We run courses to help people get clear who they are, what they want, where they are going and what their purpose is, so as to be far better able to challenge their negative thinking. Click here.

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Sleep problems that reflect an unhealthy mindset

One might take it as an important comment on the state of mind of many people in today’s society that one quarter of the UK population suffers from sleep problems, as this TV program showed. More that 10 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were issued last year. Just a quick look at this link will tell you what the common ones are, plus some remedies. However just watching the program brought up other ones not listed, such as sleep walking. Just consider the impact on people’s lives of this scale of problem.

As anybody who has had a disrupted night will testify, a bad night can mean a bad next day, tired, inability to think clearly, irritability, lack of energy, and probably feeling depressed too. Continued bad sleep can have a cumulative effect on the body and on health. It can become habitual, one bad night being repeated by another, and as people start to worry, a pattern sets in. Thus it is vital to have a plan of action to deal with it, sleeping pills being only a temporary palliative.

It’s worth looking at the context of disrupted nights. Are there broader health and wellbeing issues that need addressing that manifest in sleep difficulties? Is there some physical health matter that needs investigating? What is one’s state of mind before sleep and in one’s ongoing lifestyle. With the pressures people are under at present, work issues, job insecurity, money challenges, it’s not surprising that it will impact on sleep, especially if you are prone to stress and to mulling over things in your mind. Then there’s the whole question of what we’ve normalised about our lifestyles, like keeping a mobile phone by the bed and being in semi-permanent contact on socal media, heavy drinking, late night activities that keep the mind active, and so on.

For those more concerned to develop a holistic body-mind-spirit approach, it is worth considering how much a lifestyle adjustment would help whereby one attends to one’s state of mind during the evening that contributes to developing a relaxed, positive and uplifted mind set. Consider not working in the evenings after a certain hour, not eating late,  avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and allocating a certain period before sleep to a range of practices that contribute to an uplifted state. For example, some exercise, a meditation at the end of the working day, some yoga, reading something uplifting, prayer and/or contemplation, and perhaps even a focused, deep-breathing or other relaxation activity. There is also the question of how you attend to managing the mind, as yogis do, breathing, letting go, centring yourself, being present, even using a mantra, and whenever unhelpful thoughts return, breathe, let go and return you awareness to the present, the mantra, awareness of breathing or whatever supports you.

Such deliberate approaches can help prepare the mind for a more steady state that is conducive to a more relaxed sleep. You can also look at how much you relax yourself during the day, and let go of unhelpful thoughts, in other words how you manage your whole mind-body-spirit self throughout your day.

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Does your holiday serve to relieve stress for you?

This week is the traditional European holiday exit week, with hundreds of thousands flooding down to the Mediterranean and elsewhere for a couple of weeks of chill time, when they can finally get the opportunity to relieve stress. But is it really chill time if you’ve been very stressed at work? Well, you might say that the journey there is more stress, especially if you have excited children in tow, and then demands to take part in various activities when all you want to do is sit and do nothing.

Many people find that in fact they take their stress with them, finding it hard to relax, and thus getting twitchy about “something to do” or not sleeping well or just quite simply finding they “can’t” relax. Not surprisingly, they go for the cheap alcohol or find other ways to distract themselves. Or it can take your first week just to unwind. Spouses often report that only slowly do they see their “real” partner emerge.

Living in “stress reactivity” is where you get so caught up in the stress response that it has become habitual, normal even. It can feel so normal that it is unquestioned. It can creep up on us, such that we undertake more and more without asking ourselves if it is OK. Then when the pace at which we’re living becomes unacceptable and we start to notice what’s going on, it seems impossible to do anything about it. We literally get addicted to stress.

It isn’t always known that some of the stress hormones are in effect addictive, so that we “get off” on the stress “high”. It would be OK when we’re positively engaged in something, but the point about the stress response is that we don’t allow ourselves to return to equilibrium and but continue on the high, beyond when it is useful and when it starts to be harmful.

You might really be feeling it when you keep twitching your fingers, or drumming them, or your foot or leg is shaken habitually as if to a rhythm (what used to be called “Type A” behaviour), or you feel constantly tense and unable to relax, your stomach churns over for no obvious reason, you get the “runs” a lot, your teeth, hands or even feet are clenched, you get headaches, you get palpitations, you feel shaky inside, you get an urge to “flee” or get angry suddenly and get into fights with others and lash out, psychologically if not physically. This is life in what has been described as a state of hyper-arousal.

Further down the road comes illness and burn-out. Hopefully you can wake up to the symptoms before then. As they say, “Listen to the whispers. Then you don’t get the screams”.

Thus holiday can be a good time to assess how your body is doing, and reflect on how much your mind is contributing to what is going on, as well as whatever is going on in your life. Then, it really, really pays to develop a stress management and stress cure strategy, before it gets you.

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Beyond seeing the mind in terms of illness and wellness

I’ve often been struck how strong is the conventional tendency to describe life in terms of illness and wellness. Now, on the level of physical illness, this can make great sense. However, I’m often left wondering, from a holistic and developmental perspective, whether it is quite so useful from a mind and awareness perspective.

I’ve recently been designing some material for a client and one of these has been on the subject of mental health. While it’s an area I’m personally very interested in, and in which I passionately care about making a difference, I’m also aware of how much the field is dominated by what is known as the medical model, as you might gather from the name. What is meant by the medical model in the talking therapies or even coaching is that the mind can be regarded as either “well” or “ill”: we’re married to it, whether in sickness or in health, so to speak. Thus, when you are sick, you can, we hope, be treated for it via some diagnosis.

This does have very often have great value for those with severe depression or anxiety, and approaches like CBT have proved to make a big difference for such people. That is undoubtedly useful. Yet, my my mind went, what about those of us with mild symptoms, probably a much bigger number? If you’re feeling down emotionally, then you’re mentally ill?

Somehow that didn’t feel right, but I can imagine that’s where people’s minds might go. Then up comes everybody’s image of mental illness, psychiatrists, men (usually) in white coats, drugs and the rest of it. Now I know that people who work in mental health are doing great work to de-stigmatise mental health, so that having depression, being prone to panic attacks, having a phobia, etc. are now regarded as “common mental health conditions”. See for example this publication by ACAS, a government body, or the great work done by people like MIND. It’s like saying it’s quite common now and really OK, not that that is how it feels for the sufferer. What people are trying to do it get the world to be more tolerant and accepting of mental illness. Great, I think. Very positive. So, why am I feeling ambivalent about the use of the “wellness-illness” terminology in matters relating to the mind?

I think it is partly the use of terminology that classifies people who are feeling for example depressed or anxious, a very significant number today, as “unwell” (8-12% of people suffer from depression, for example. It’s a very significant number). Classing people as unwell places people into a medical framework and into the realm of science, and therefore potentially drugs, and into a monolithic and allegedly objective way of understanding the mind such as can be widely found in these fields. Its defenders will for example argue strongly that in this way, the various psychological approaches to understanding the mind can be validated, such as by the use of RCT’s, Randomised Controlled Trials, and thus be described as “evidence-based”. That which has not been so validated is implicitly not OK. As a result models like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) have become the main accepted practice in the UK National Health Service.

Thus the possibility of subjective experience, of my map of the world, of my perceptions, my life experience, my feelings, and of the inter-subjective interaction of two humans working together, and of what occurs between them and what is common to them at the essential level, if it is not deemed validated by science, in the form of RCT’s, has no validity. In one sense, this poses a good challenge for these other approaches, for example in the humanistic and transpersonal domains, to be more investigated by methods like RCT’s. Yet, it still leaves me questioning what is going on here.

I alluded just now to a monolithic approach, that something has validity only once it has been subjected to “scientific” analysis. Yet even in science, there are no certainties, only probabilities. A lot of the scientific vailidation for what is happening in the mind is due to the use of brain imaging and observation by another of how the brain behaves. Yet the mind and the brain are not the same thing, depending on your interpretation. There are those who regard the mind as the whole body at the cellular level (see “The Biology of Belief“, Bruce Lipton), if not well beyond it. According to Ken Wilber, the so-called “objective” approach is that of “flatland”, since it omits other perspectives. From a holistic perspective, there are also the domains of the “I” or subjective, and “we” or the inter-subjective (see “A Theory of Everything” and “Integral Spirituality“). In his “Integral” model, there are four domains in consciousness, or four “quadrants”: “I”, “We”, “It” and “Its”. The  scientific approach only allows for the last two, hence Wilber’s use of the term “flatland”.

From a transpersonal perspective, for example, being depressed is a state of awareness, a limited state, a function of the ego, and not who we really are. However it is state from which there are potentially great learnings and growth. To label it as being “sick” is to devalue the experience. It is a journey to be gone through, out of which can come, for example, a powerful liberation. To be “well” is to set up some other state of being, one that can mask various strategies for living that, while we feel “well”, are actually every bit as dysfunctional and undermining of our potential. This is the great problem with trying to describe the state of “wellness”. It is every bit as fraught with loopholes. What does it consist of? Very often states of wellness are idealised descriptions, often set up for analytical purposes. We might feel “well” but continue to run our rackets and patterns that screw our lives up.

According to positive psychology, there is another approach needed, that which builds up a state of well-being (still the word “well”), and which needs to be learned, for the most part. However, there is more potential here, in that we can focus on what uplifts us, and thus learn to shift away from negativity.

However, this is where the scientific world gets stuck. What is the norm, against which everything is judged? Well, it is the state of wellness, we are told. But what is “well”? Well, pardon the pun, it seems it is an absence of “illness”.

From a transpersonal perspective, unity consciousness transcends both polarities of “illness” and “wellness”. Those who experience life as pure love and joy for example, “illness” and “wellness” are simply opposite polarities of the ego level of awareness. This is described in the work of Steve Taylor (see for example “Waking from Sleep“). At the ego level, we flip from one to the other, very much as the ACAS article says referrred to above (on page 4, if you download it). In their efforts to normalise mental illness, they are in danger of finding another way to justify the ego. In the awakened state, all this is transcended.

This subject, for me, is very much work in progress, and I expect to add to or alter this article over time as I explore it further. For the moment, it might pay to investigate the work of people like Richard House.

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It’s hard overcoming low self esteem after a knock to confidence

It’s a big challenge for people at present in these difficult times, maintaining self belief, confidence and self esteem in the face of knock-backs and rejections. I’m thinking particularly of job seekers, but it can also apply to the self employed and to those with financial difficulty, illness or other challenges that life can seemingly throw at us. Overcoming low self esteem in the face of difficulty can feel like it’s too much, particularly if your self esteem wasn’t that great to begin with.

It doesn’t help when you get a bad day. If you keep getting bad hair days, it can feel like a pattern has set in. Even if you pull yourself back from the precipice, another setback can occur and it can seem like you’re back on a treadmill to nowhere. These occasions set you back and your confidence takes a drop. Then you start to beat yourself up and your self esteem falls. It’s a vicious circle.

Let’s say you’re a job seeker and you’ve been putting a lot of energy into job hunting, with not a lot of success. A bad day could be a string of rejections coming all at once, and calls and approaches you’ve been making seemingly getting nowhere. Then your health starts playing you up and you’re struggling to get going and make things happen. And it’s holiday season and those fortunate enough to be in work are taking their summer holidays, whilst you aren’t. So you feel even worse about yourself.

This is where in recession times developing your recovery and self belief skills are so important. The point of awareness is to get that you’re going back down on one of those slides, and to say “stop”, and stop yourself going back down into a pit. This takes practice, I know, but we have to start somewhere, and as good a place as any is to recognise this keeps happening, and to work to stop it keep repeating itself. What reinforces the decline is low self esteem, because we can so easily slip back into a negative pattern. It’s like it’s the ego saying, “I told you so, you’re no good”. This is where we need positive things to be saying to ourselves to challenge this negative cycle. None of it is true in any case. It’s more illusion, maya, a function of the ego, not who we really are. The mind is much bigger than this.

There’s a big point here in recognising how powerful the mind is, and how it can lead us to great positivity when we take charge, manage these mental patterns, and over and over again re-focus ourselves on to what uplifts us.

So, when you get another rejection or another set-back, this is a clue to immediately re-focus on your task and take action, and not to allow the sirens of doubt to start to get a hold over you. Working on the mind in this way is like treating the mind like a muscle that needs strengthening. Psychosynthesis says a lot about the will and how it needs to be built up. So too in these situations. When we’re in a positive, purposeful state, then we draw more positivity to us, and better things start to happen, as per the Law of Attraction. Stuck in negativity and we get nowhere and draw more of that to us.

I help people who need help with their careers. You can find out more here.

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Choose to develop well-being through a positive mind

Recently I have been using some short breaks to catch up on some over-due reading (tip to people developers: always have a recently-published book on your subject on the go) and I’ve been reading Martin Seligman’s recent book “Flourish“. Positive Psychology has lots in common with our approach, distinguishing between focusing on work that explores the negative and the positive approach which is about learning to shift your state and develop capability in that which uplifts you. Seligman advocates teaching skills that help you grow strengths and resiliency. He believes, backed up by a lot of research, that one can be taught to choose and develop positive emotion, engagement, meaning, accomplishment and positive relationships. He argues that you can take action that will raise your well-being and lower for example your depression.

Examples of positive psychology activities include gratitude exercises, thinking about what you can be thankful for in your life. This can shift you away from thinking about what isn’t working. Another related one is about counting your blessings. For example, before you go to sleep, think of three things that went well for you in the day, and why they went well. A classic exercise is available online, where you analyse your signature strengths (see search for the Brief Strengths Test, developed by Chris Peterson). A key point about focusing on your strengths is that you can boost your self belief and self confidence and gain more evidence of what works for you in your life. What Seligman makes very clear is that what we need to do to move on from our difficulties is actively deal with them. Working on the skills that I’ve referred to, and others, is a policy of actively dealing with it.

What is so useful about this approach is that it is well-researched, on an on-going basis, and is practical. We’ve had our own evidence of it through our use of laughter in our Laughter Yoga work. By teaching people how to laugh it is possible to shift moods, generate the release of positive chemicals in the body, counter illness and boost your health, get cardio-vascular exercise (yes!), and raise your positivity. Happier people are less likely to see things as problems and more likely to see opportunities. When we’re in a different, more positive state, life takes on a whole new meaning.

In all this, choice is crucial. You can’t just wave a copy of “Flourish” in front of someone and expect them to change. They (and you perhaps?) need to actively engage with it. It’s a decision to move on. Seligman has noted that we can still do this while being immersed in whatever isn’t working for us, as it’s the choice and effort that counts.