The magic of silence

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Do you immediately turn on the radio every time you get into the car? Do you often have the TV on at home when no-one is watching it? Do you have your earphones in when you go for a walk? Sometimes it feels as though we are afraid of silence, or that we find it uncomfortable. Every time there is a gap between sounds, we have an urge to fill it with something. This need to avoid silence can even spill over into our conversations. How often do you feel an urge to jump in with a comment the second the other person stops talking?

But when we avoid silence in this way, we deny ourselves the opportunity of enjoying its benefits. In our everyday lives, our ears are constantly bombarded by sounds, and our minds have to work overtime trying to process that constant influx of information. When we allow the sounds to stop for a few minutes – when we pause to cherish silence – we give our minds a chance to rest, to reflect, to recharge.

In practicing mindfulness, we learn to value silence and to be comfortable in its presence. We can also learn to be mindful of the small sounds that are all around us, which we all too often drown out with sounds of our own making. As I am writing this, the only sounds I can hear are the wind in the trees, birds singing in the garden and the soft trickle of running water. It’s beautiful. And I should pause to appreciate it far more often than I do.

During mindfulness meditation I sometimes practice mindful listening – instead of focusing on my breathing, I open my ears and focus on the sounds that I can hear around me. Not thinking about the sounds, not analysing what they signify or wondering when they will start or end, but just listening – really, actively listening without thinking or interacting with the sound in any way. One of the most magical things I hear during mindful listening is silence. The stillness of silence has this amazing calming quality that never fails to leave me feeling both relaxed and energized.

I wonder whether our urge to fill every moment with sound comes from a reluctance to be alone with our thoughts. Are we afraid to have time to think and reflect? Or is it that we equate silence, the absence of auditory stimulation, with boredom? Are we so used to the constant influx of information that it feels strange – even uncomfortable – to be without it for just a few minutes? Whatever the reason, I think we are missing out on something special when we seek to avoid silence. So, the next time you are tempted to play some music or turn on the TV just to fill a quiet space, stop and think – do you really need all that extra stimulation right now? Or would your mind be grateful for a few minutes break to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet?

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Gluten-free tuna pasta bake

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Over the last few days, I’ve been using my spiraliser to experiment with some pasta alternatives. I’ve written before about how I’m blessed with three wonderful children who all have quite different tastes in food. One of the more tricky differences for me to deal with is having one daughter who loves pasta and another who hates it. I’m reluctant to cook two completely separate meals, so I’m experimenting with using spiralised vegetables to replace the pasta in a way that allows me to cook most of the rest of the meal all together.

Today, I decided to experiment with one of my son’s favourites – tuna pasta bake. I was wondering how complicated it would be to make regular tuna pasta bake for two of my children and an alternative – pasta-free – version for my daughter and me.

00 SpiralisingFirst, I spiralized a very large sweet potato. Then I microwaved the sweet potato noodles for about four minutes. The purpose of this was not to cook the noodles completely, but just to soften them enough to be able to stir them into the tuna mixture easily without them breaking up. Then I left the noodles to stand while I prepared everything else.

I cooked a small amount of pasta in the normal way. 00 Tuna mixWhile it was cooking, I made a white sauce with butter, milk and cornflour. I normally use ordinary plain flour when making a white sauce, but given that I was going to try an alternative to pasta, I decided to experiment with making the whole dish gluten-free. I’m glad I did! I discovered that by dissolving the cornflour in a little cold milk before adding it to the pan, it was much easier to make a sauce with no lumps. Once the sauce had come up to the boil and thickened, I added tinned tuna and frozen sweetcorn. I adjusted the thickness of the sauce by adding a little more milk, until I had a good coating consistency.

00 Noodles added

When the pasta was ready, I drained it, returned it to the pan and added half the tuna mixture. Then I added the spiralised sweet potato to the other half of the tuna mixture. It was a bit tricky to mix in, and I think next time I might cut the sweet potato into shorter lengths before microwaving it just to make it a bit easier to deal with. I transferred each mixture to a separate ovenproof dish and topped them with a little grated cheese. I baked the sweet potato version at 220 degrees C for about 15 minutes (until the noodles were soft). The pasta version just needed five minutes under a hot grill to brown the top.

I served the tuna pasta-less bake topped with some halved cherry tomatoes and a sprinkling of samphire. My daughter and I were both quite impressed with my first attempt at a tuna pasta bake without pasta.00 Final result

*Note: I’ve deliberately written this post without stating the exact quantities or timings I used because I was experimenting and did most of it by eye without measuring anything. However, I hope I’ve given enough detail to enable you to have a go at recreating this recipe if you want. Once I’ve made it a few times, I hope to revisit this post and add a proper recipe-style section with ingredients, quantities and a step-by-step method.

Why we procrastinate

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We all procrastinate. Usually procrastination involves putting off something we have to do but don’t want to do. We know we have to do it. We know we will feel better once it’s done. But we still don’t do it. Why?

The blocking power of procrastination goes beyond the fact that the task may be unpleasant. We do lots of things every day that we don’t particularly enjoy, but which we don’t procrastinate about. I hate flossing my teeth, for example, but it’s part of my morning routine so I just get on and do it. In fact, sometimes we procrastinate about tasks we enjoy. I like watering my houseplants, but I procrastinate about it, because I have a tendency to tell myself that I should be dealing with my email or I should be hanging the washing out, or some other task that I convince myself is more important, albeit less enjoyable, than watering my plants.

Procrastination is, really, a failure to prioritise – in the present moment – the task that is most important. You might know, logically, that writing your report is more important than checking your email, but when you sit down at your computer something inside you – your inner rebel – convinces you that, right now, you just have to check your email. You prioritise checking your email over writing your report, even though you know logically that writing your report is more important.

I recently watched an enlightening TEDx talk by Nic Voge [Self Worth Theory: The Key to Understanding & Overcoming Procrastination] in which he describes procrastination as an impasse between two opposing forces. On the one hand, you have the necessity or desire to do the task, which provides a motivating force. On the other hand, you have a fear or reluctance to do the task, and this creates an opposing resistance force. For a while the two forces balance out and you procrastinate. However, what usually happens is that, as the deadline approaches, you add in the fear that the task won’t get done. This provides the extra force needed for your motivation to overcome your resistance, and you finally get started. The problem is, in the context of looking after your mental health, by the time you start the task, you typically haven’t left yourself time to complete it properly. So you end up dissatisfied with what you manage to do. You may have completed the task, but you haven’t done it to your satisfaction, or you’ve caused yourself more stress than you needed to, so you resolve to do better next time. But when you resolve to do better next time, you are effectively telling yourself that – right now – you aren’t good enough. And so your self-esteem and sense of wellbeing suffer.

Nic Voge suggests a strategy to overcome procrastination that involves reminding yourself of all the reasons why you want to do the task. A lot of the things we procrastinate about are things we originally chose to do, or at least were happy to do. The problem is that as more and more time passes and we continue to procrastinate, we start to feel under more and more pressure, we start to question whether we have left it too late to complete the task, we wonder whether we are going to have to cut corners, or, worse, admit we can’t get it done. All this stress that we put ourselves under adds to the resistance force that is stopping us from doing the task. If we remind ourselves of why we want or need to get the task done and of all the benefits we will get from completing it, we add to the motivational force, and increase the chance it will overcome the resistance force and enable us to move forward.

I think there is also benefit in being mindfully aware of why we don’t want to do the task. Usually there is some kind of fear involved. Fear of not doing the task perfectly. Fear of what others will think if we don’t do the task to their expectations. And more subtle fears, such as the fear of success or the fear of stepping out of our comfort zone. By mindfully acknowledging those fears, accepting them without letting them paralyse us, we weaken the resistance force, which is another way of allowing the motivation force to dominate and bring an end to the procrastination.

The next time you are procrastinating about something, take a few minutes to reflect (yes, you can procrastinate for just a few more minutes!). Ask yourself why you want or have to do the task, what benefits will it bring you? Then ask yourself why you don’t want to do it. What do you fear? Why is your dislike of the task so powerful? Hopefully you will find that the task becomes less daunting to the extent you are able to get started on it, and hopefully in the process you will also learn something valuable about how your mind works and what does and doesn’t motivate you.

Depression – you can’t reject it, you can’t ignore it, but you can nurture it

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Often we talk about “fighting our depression” or “getting rid of our depression” as if our depression is something toxic that has invaded our minds and needs to be flung out like unwanted trash. But if we view our depression as something horrible that we need to get rid of as fast as possible, we miss the valuable messages it is sending us. In a previous post, I described how depression can be a sign that something in our life is not as it should be. If we see our depression as the problem instead of the alarm system, we shouldn’t be surprised when it gets worse. Our depression is trying to alert us to a deeper problem and if we don’t listen – or we try to silence our depression with medication – it’s not surprising that our depression has to shout ever louder to try to get our attention.

I find a more helpful way of thinking about my depression is to think of it as a part of me. A small, childlike part of me that desperately wants to be loved but which feels rejected, unwanted and unbearably lonely. My depression is the pain of the little girl inside me who has to spend her whole life doing things she doesn’t want to do, dealing with other people’s demands and trying to live up to other people’s expectations. And as far as that little girl is concerned, I am one of those “other people” – so sometimes it can be the demands I place on myself that can cause her pain, whether I’m being too much of a perfectionist, not living true to my values or just not taking time to nurture myself.

When I think of my depression as a little girl inside me, the last thing I want to do is get rid of her. I want to nurture her, care for her, help her find a path to a less painful existence. When you think of your depression as a frightened lonely child that is trying desperately to keep you safe, your whole attitude changes. You wouldn’t punish a child for trying to help you. You wouldn’t try to get rid of them or drown out their voice. You’d comfort them, care for them, do everything you could to protect their wellbeing. And if you were successful, you’d eventually be rewarded by seeing their smile and hearing their laughter. Sometimes we can be afraid that if we stop fighting against our depression, it will be with us forever and we will never feel any better. But actually, if we stop fighting our depression and learn to accept it, honour it, and listen to what it’s trying to tell us, we can integrate that lonely child into the rest of our personality. We can show her we are grateful for her insights, we can learn to see the world through her eyes, we can change our lives to accommodate her needs. And, yes, in one sense that means our depression will be with us forever, but it won’t be a burden any more and we won’t always feel bad.

We can’t find true inner peace while we are rejecting a part of ourselves, even if that part of us makes us feel miserable most of the time. We can’t just throw our depression away – even if we could, we shouldn’t, because that would leave a big empty space in our hearts. Instead, we should nurture our depression – treat it with gentleness, gratitude and love. When we do that, we give our depression a chance to grow into something beautiful – into joy, hope and peace.

Learning to listen to your subconscious

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Sometimes we overthink our problems to the extent that we blind ourselves to the solution. Often, when this happens, our subconscious already knows the solution, but our conscious mind isn’t listening. There are various reasons why our conscious mind doesn’t hear or chooses to ignore the messages from our subconscious. Sometimes we think the solution can’t really be that simple. Sometimes we don’t want to accept the solution because it’s too difficult, or too inconvenient, or it wasn’t what we were expecting. Sometimes acknowledging the solution our subconscious presents forces us to confront something about ourselves that makes us uncomfortable, so it’s easier to search for an alternative solution. But when we ignore or deny what our subconscious mind – our intuition, if you prefer – is telling us, we set up a conflict between our conscious mind and our subconscious mind. And that leads to stress, to not feeling good about ourselves, to not feeling authentic.

The first step in resolving this inner conflict is to clearly understand what our subconscious mind is telling us. If you have been ignoring your intuition for a long time, this may be easier said than done. What I find helpful in these situations is to ask yourself one question that sums up your problem – pick the first question that comes into your head, and listen to the first answer that comes into your head. Don’t think about your answer, don’t worry about finding the right answer, just ask the question and see what pops into your mind. When you do that, you’re giving your intuitive subconscious mind a chance to answer before your more analytical conscious mind overthinks the problem and gets in the way.

If possible, ask yourself questions that force you to look at the problem in a different way. Some questions you could try are:

  • What am I afraid of?
  • What am I gaining by not solving this problem?
  • What does this problem give me an excuse not to do?
  • How does my problem keep me safe?

There’s a theme here. You need to discover if you are actually hanging on to your problem because some part of you doesn’t really want to get rid of it. That might not be something you are aware of consciously, but your subconscious knows, and it won’t let the problem go if some part of you isn’t ready to be without it yet.

When I was on my journey out of depression, I once asked myself: “what would I have to do if I wasn’t depressed?” Immediately, my subconscious replied “I’d have to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.” That was illuminating. I’d never thought of my depression as giving me an excuse not to move forward in life, not to make difficult decisions. I knew I wanted to grow and learn and make a difference in the lives of the people I care about. But I hadn’t known how; I hadn’t known what specific things I wanted to do to challenge myself and to make a difference. And I had allowed that indecision to paralyse me. I hadn’t realized that part of me was scared of change, scared of committing to something that might push me outside my comfort zone. It wasn’t until I let my subconscious talk to me that I was able to acknowledge and address those fears. My depression had been my way of avoiding those fears, my excuse not to address them. Realising that didn’t magically make everything better, but it did help me to see the problem in a new way, give me new avenues to explore, and it was a significant step on my journey out of depression.

What question do you need to ask your subconscious?

 

Half term – the joy, the indulgence and the stress

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I’ve had the children home on half-term this week. While it’s been lovely to spend time with them, it’s also meant the total disruption of my usual routine. And I don’t cope well with that. I haven’t found time to write, and I’ve really missed it – writing has definitely become one of the ways I clear my head and find solutions to my problems.

So, why is being out of routine so difficult? I think it’s because our routines give us a structure that enables us to do all the things we need to do to support our physical and mental wellbeing, and when we don’t have our routines, we lose a lot of our support strategies. For example, this week I haven’t been setting the alarm and have been getting up when I feel like it. Although I’ve enjoyed the luxury of being able to read in bed for a bit before I get up, it’s meant that I haven’t been exercising in the mornings, and breakfast has been a quick piece of toast and marmalade, rather than my usual fruit, yoghurt and homemade museli. So, with no exercise to wake me up, and with a more sugary breakfast than I’m used to, is it any wonder I’ve been feeling sluggish until mid-morning?

With a later start in the morning, and frequent breaks to spend time with the children, whereas I’d normally have all my work done by mid-afternoon, it’s been taking me until early evening to get through everything. I’m really lucky to be able to work from home and take a break whenever I want to, but when work drags on later in the day, it’s harder to find time to go to the allotment, or to exercise, or to cook a healthy meal.

On a superficial level, it’s been a really nice week. I haven’t had the stress of rushing around, I’ve been able to spend time with my children, and the weather has smiled on us almost the whole time. But, when I woke up this morning feeling frustrated and tearful for no obvious reason, I took a few minutes to look a little deeper. And I realized that when I’m out of routine, a lot of things don’t get done. I’ve had the joy of spending time with my children, but that time had to come from somewhere, and so some parts of my normal routine were going to have to be skipped for a week. But, by not thinking this through in advance, the things that have been skipped are all the things that I do to nurture me – my writing, my exercise, my time at the allotment, my time in the kitchen focusing on healthy food. Because I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve done this week, I didn’t think it mattered, but when I woke up this morning feeling rubbish, I realized it does.

I’ve fallen into the trap that we all fall into sometimes of putting our own needs behind those of the people around us. But, the thing is, the people around us want us to be happy; they don’t want us to always be neglecting our own needs. And we are better able to support our families when our own needs are met. We have to find a balance, a way to care for those around us and also to nurture ourselves. Our routines help us find this balance, which is why when we’re out of routine, we risk being out of balance too.

I don’t think it does us any harm to be out of routine from time to time. Taking a break from everyday life can reinvigorate us and give us the opportunity to try new things or do things that don’t normally fit into our day. But in fitting these extra things in, we need to be mindful of what we are leaving out. We have to make sure that we continue to nurture ourselves, so that we don’t end our break more stressed than we started it and so that we can slot easily and comfortably back into our familiar routine when the time is right.

My top ten stress busters

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Stress is really really bad for us. So when we start to feel under pressure, the best thing we can do for ourselves and for those around us is to tackle the stress – fast. It may not always be possible to address the cause of your stress, so when you need to take action and feel better quickly, I recommend trying one of the following:

1. Exercise

Exercise is my number one stress-buster. Going for a run, or just doing a quick 15-minute burst on the exercise bike, never fails to energise me, restore a positive outlook, and give me the motivation to tackle whatever is on my mind.

 

2. Mindfulness

When I’m under so much stress that I can physically feel it in my body, that’s my signal to stop and do a quick 3-minute breathing space. It helps me to understand and process my stress and get back in touch with my more centred calmer self. My regular daily mindfulness practice is also crucial to the way I manage any long-term stress in my life.

 

3. Get out into nature

Going for a long walk in the woods or the local park calms me. The gentle exercise gives me energy, and the peace and quiet gives my mind the space it needs to work on my problems in the background in a way that is productive without being agitating.

 

4. Spend time in the garden

If I don’t have time to go for a walk, a few minutes in the garden or the greenhouse can be almost as good. Taking time to nurture my plants forces me to slow down. As Lao Tzu said: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished”.

 

5. Cook a special meal

The very act of getting into the kitchen and focusing on food gives my mind a more attractive alternative to ruminating on my problems. Putting together a colourful and vibrant salad, or cooking a fragrant Thai curry from scratch, not only gives me the promise of a delicious meal to look forward to, but is a relaxing and calming activity in itself.

 

6. Play

Playing with my children grounds me and reminds me of what is most important in my life. It gives me a chance to connect with the people I love the most, and it helps me to tap into their innate sense of fun. Like mindfulness, playing is a way to live more in the present moment without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

 

7. Housework

This might sound like an odd one, but most housework is fairly mundane and doesn’t require a lot of thought, so it’s a great way to let my mind mull over a problem in the background while I get a few things done. And a tidy house makes me feel in control, which is empowering and uplifting.

 

8. Relax in a warm bath

A warm bath is the ultimate in easy pampering. Taking half-an-hour (or an hour) for myself is my way of showing myself that my time and my wellbeing are valuable and that sometimes the best thing I can do for everyone around me is to look after me.

 

9. Go to bed early

When I’ve got really angry or frustrated over something, I’ve learned to accept that I’m unlikely to achieve anything productive until I’ve calmed down. Sometimes the best thing to do is to draw a line under today and start afresh tomorrow. It’s amazing how much better things can look after a good night’s sleep.

 

10. Chocolate

When all else fails there is always chocolate! When I’m feeling really stressed, treating myself to a little bit of something I would normally avoid placates my inner rebel and makes me feel better.

We all have our own ways of relieving stress. While I’m willing to bet that at least one of the above suggestions would be helpful to you, it’s much better to figure out what really works for you. If you have a go-to stress buster that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know via the comments below. Lets build up a list of all the things we do to nurture ourselves when life gets tough.