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Mindfulness

When I was in my early twenties I recall reading an article on meditation. Ever since then I have in various ways tried to find ways to meditate. My hope is that this blog will in some way encourage you to explore issues of mindfulness and meditation more. Whilst meditation is generally based within

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religious and Buddhist traditions, mindfulness, whilst still being based on Buddhist practices, is able to be practiced without any belief beyond the desire to be more mindful. Kabat – Zinn describes mindfulness as

 

‘paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non – judgmentally’

 

In practice mindfulness is a way of observing ourselves as we think, feel and have various bodily sensations. Unlike counselling, this way of learning to sit with whatever is going on for us is not around interpreting anything or learning to find new ways of being; mindfulness allows us to tolerate what is going for us without needing to avoid it. Over time this means we build up resilience to difficult emotional states and/or thoughts. Several years ago I decided to re energise my mindfulness practice and began with several iPhone applications. The best one that I found is called ‘headspace’ which offers ten minute guided meditations which help you understand the process and ease your way into it. I also attended a mindfulness course run by ‘the mindfulness project’ and can be found at: www.londonmindful.com. Through signing up to a course I found this helped me with motivation and also gave me people who I could talk to about how I was finding practising mindfulness several times a day. Whilst I found this course very helpful, there are mindfulness groups in most towns these days if you prefer to practice with others.

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My experience of practicing mindfulness is similar to what I hear from other people who practice it. Whilst I will often feel that it is pointless while I am sitting, over time I have learnt to see these thoughts as just thoughts. They, like any thought or feeling, are transitory and change quite quickly if we allow ourselves to sit with the discomfort for a few moments. In the meantime I have found that I am less anxious, and can tolerate complex situations far better. I also found that my sleep improved and that I had more motivation through my day. Generally, mindfulness helps with:

 

Self-control

Enhanced flexibility of body and mind

Improved concentration

Emotional intelligence

Social anxiety

Stopping addictive behaviours

 

A blog post can’t really do justice to mindfulness so I have focused on the benefits, however if you are looking for more information, then; http://www.mindfulnet.org/page2.htm may help. Within counselling there is often a focus on what is unconscious, or rather what is influencing you but is outside of your awareness. Mindfulness works with what is present and allows you to cope better with direct issues you may be facing.

 

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Exercise

 

It seems hard to write something positive around exercise that doesn’t immediately cause shame to people who don’t like their bodies or who have tried and feel they have failed to exercise well. crosscntry

I’m going to try, with the assumption that you take what I say as encouragement and not condemnation! Exercising means different things to different people, however what I don’t think is healthy is when it is used in ways that leads us to feeling worse about ourselves.

 

We are bodies, and our ability to look after our bodies both reflects something of how we see ourselves and also can help us feel much better about who we are. If we look at most animals they live fairly active lives that are a balance of excursion and rest. Sleep, eating, socialising, moving around are all part of their and our lives (for most but not all animals). What we know about exercise is that it helps promote all sorts of benefits:

Improves muscular and cardiovascular fitness

Improves bone health

Reduces risk of high blood pressure

Helps manage weight

Improves mood

Helps with socialising (if you take up a sport)

Can help with depression and anxiety

The NHS see’s exercise as one of the main things people could be doing to improve their health, and alongside counselling, exercise can help to manage difficult moods and increase self esteem. Along with this exercise actually helps brain function too when we begin new ways of exercising; our ability to learn new skills in one area of life promotes positive change in other areas.

 

I have found that whilst it helps to feel fit, exercise can be combined with other activities which again promote positive moods. Kayaking as an example allows for an hour of exercise whilst also spending time with nature. Starting a team sport quickly allows us to feel part of something and connected to others. Added to all of this, and at this point I feel I am pushing the benefits a little, most ways of exercising cost little or nothing.

 

A fast walk for half an hour three times a week can improve our fitness levels quickly whilst also having the bonus of requiring no kit and being possible for nearly everyone. As a last and more counselling related point around exercise; many forms of exercise help us to become more aware of our bodies, and more at peace with our bodies. For people struggling with body image issues of trauma, exercising helps us feel more attuned to who we are and as such more capable of loving every aspect of ourselves. So… happy exercising!

Yoga

I LOVE yoga! Over the years I have been in various therapies, trainings, and have gone through various psychological processes, but would count yoga as amongst the most helpful things I do. I am therefore utterly biased!

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We are embodied people. How we are as bodies profoundly matters to both our general sense of self and also our ability to regulate our emotional life. When we feel at home with our bodies our sense of self is generally more relaxed and more alive. Counselling can at times be seen as focussing on our minds at the expense of our bodies or our whole self, and yoga helps address that imbalance. Yoga now has had an increasing amount of research done around how it helps people. What has been shown is that alongside strengthening muscles, posture building, increased blood flow, boosts to immunity levels, a dropping in blood pressure and toning aspects of yoga, peoples mental health can be considerably improved.

 

For issues of stress, depression and anxiety attending yoga on a regular basis allows for a reduction of symptoms. Whilst we are not always sure why this happens, the evidence for yoga having a wide range of physical and mental health benefits is compelling. Through taking time to combine meditative practices, strengthening and balancing poses and a shifted focus towards ourselves as accepted, the experience of yoga can be deeply liberating. An aspect of yoga is a focus on mindful self-acceptance which goes beyond cognitive ways of trying to accept ourselves; rather than trying to tell ourselves we are ok (which rarely works sadly), yoga allows a natural sense of acceptance to come through and a gentler attitude to who we are.

 

Through being able to work at our own speed, hold postures whilst in a reflective and mindful head space, we find that negative thoughts can be quickly let go of and worked through. I remember a time when I was struggling with an aspect of my identity. As I practiced yoga I recall looking in the mirror; I was sweating a bit (I practice Bikram yoga which is done in a heated room), but I looked alert, calm and happy. As the session progressed I was able to take on board myself as someone who is at peace, able to be flexible in both mind and body, and able to sit lightly with issues that stem from earlier in my life. My experience of who I was now allowed me to let go of earlier ideas of ‘me’. The panicky feelings that we often carry from the past and can be from trauma’s or unhelpful relationships are able to be reduced as we experience something new that is positive and engaging. I am not sure that this was in any way a religious experience in the conventional sense, but rather is what happens when we take time to look after our bodies and minds in a calm and accepting atmosphere.

 

Unlike some other forms of exercise and sport, yoga works on an egalitarian basis, where everyone is seen as unique, on their own journey, and to be encouraged just as they are. This allows for issues of body image and shame especially to be explored and let go of as we accept all of who we are through careful, disciplined, relaxed movements that build up our energy levels whilst simultaneously allowing us to find peace. Our lumps and bumps and alleged imperfections and differing fitness levels are all seen as part of the incredible being that we are rather than things to be improved on or criticized. On top of this yoga is not expensive. It is possible to start at home with a DVD or a good YOUTUBE video, or attend a group for as little as £5 a time.

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Whilst theories for why yoga works are divided and range from the spiritual traditions to psychological or physical theories, I would want to add another. A large part of how we define ourselves is through what the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition understands as a split in who we are. Our bodily sensations and experiences, wants and desires are slowly pad less attention too as we develop due to how we are treated and who we are told that we are. These various early voices that we depend on for life and love help us to relate to others through language and also help us to develop what we call our sense of self or perhaps our identity. This identity is just a construct; it is the way that we come to understand who we are. Everything we have been taught about who we are due to our gender, looks, abilities, culture, whether we are a failure or success, skin colour and so on all go to form an illusion which we usually see as who we are. When our experiences and our sense of self differ, as they often do, we can become conflicted; as an example my understanding of what it is to be ‘male’ may conflict with certain desires I have for activities which may be considered less ‘manly’. This split between our experience and our identity can stifle our development and can become rigid, leading to various unhelpful behaviours and feelings of shame or incompleteness. Yoga works with our direct experience rather than the way that we have structured who we are, allowing for new ways of seeing ourselves that are more authentic to our needs. Like other activities that I have written about yoga is not a replacement for counselling, and at the same time can bring new experiences into our lives that can give us a sense of peace and ease with who we are.

 

Gratitude

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Clichés surround us that say things like, ‘look on the bright side’, or, ‘count your blessings’. Like most clichés they can end up making us feel worse rather than better. Trying to force ourselves to see past our difficult experiences to either others whose lives are worse than ours, or to what may happen in the future if we just try harder can increase our sense of guilt and shame.

At the same time, there is increasing evidence that taking time each day to reflect and experience some sense of gratitude allows us to gain more perspective in our lives. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein suggests that both envy and gratitude are very early ways of relating to the objects around us and especially those who care for us. Whilst envy for Klein is about seeking to possess, destroy, and grasp at, gratitude is the experience of open-hearted appreciation of, of love, and an ability to recognise and enjoy something or someone without needing to control. These ways of relating are always with us in various ways, and being able to notice them and slowly develop our capacity to express gratitude allows us to create space between us and those things which are important to us, whether a situation, person or object.

Developing gratitude is not easy. If a developing child is given enough in the moments when they feel most fragile, if their caregivers can respond in the ways that are needed, without giving too much, then we could imagine a child developing quickly the ability to be grateful, to allow their world around them to be without envying and seeking to control or be fearful of others. However this is rarely the case even with attentive parents who have the capacity and time to tend to there infants well, and we enter the adult world torn between envious ways of relating and grateful ways.

Ideally as adults we are able to enter into relationships where we receive what is lacking within us, and can slowly let go of the more intensely envious ways that we relate; our need for more things, people, money, praise etc. This can of course be found in counselling, and also in many caring relationships where the person can respond in ways that you can take in a sense of you being valued for who you.

gratitude

We can however also help ourselves learn to be grateful through various activities. One of these is through keeping gratitude lists. This task takes five minutes a day, and involves writing down any experiences that you have considered to be positive. This could be the smell of someone’s perfume as they walked past, someone who smiled at you, the warmth of the sun, having had enough to eat, or anything that was a positive experience. Don’t force this or twist it to become a ‘I’m grateful that my boss wasn’t as nasty to me as normal’ comment; this is just an exercise in experiencing gratitude for the mostly small moments of joy in your life.

This in no way invalidates the difficulties in life, but rather allows you to begin to relate to yourself and the world in subtly different ways, allowing you to not be as bound up in less helpful ways of thinking. Practically, this involves keeping a diary or perhaps using one of the many phone apps called ‘gratitude lists’ that are now available. Try and keep what you write short, and the list to under ten things. this means that you are less likely to struggle to remember things that have happened. Through doing this daily not only do you have a regular activity that is designed to help you broaden your experience and way of being in the world, it also means that over time you can look back over your life and remember past good experiences.

If you would like to know more about counselling and how I practice, feel free to visit my website at: http://www.richardpicklescounselling.co.uk

Journalling

 

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When I was a child I used to try and keep a dairy, it never lasted more than about a week! When I first trained in counselling, part of the training involved keeping a journal, a space for writing about the direct experiences that we have, and then seeking to explore why we experience things the way that we do. Over the years I have come to love this exercise. Unlike a diary journals are not supposed to just detail events, but rather what our emotions and thoughts are around them.

As an example I remember once being in a situation which involved a level of conflict. Like many people I can struggle with conflict. Through writing about this event however I found that I was able to work out what it is about conflict that I was seeking to avoid, and then learn to relate in more assertive, authentic ways in the future. Whilst I was aware of my dislike of conflict, through spending time writing about this I was able to focus on the difficult emotions, face myself and actively address this part of me.

Journalling works because it slows our brains down so that we can unpick what is actually going on for us without hiding from all of who we are. We are not generally good at being able to sit with difficult aspects of who we are without feeling things like guilt, shame, self recriminations and so on. Journalling allows us to compassionately look at the parts of us that we try and avoid, and so make conscious the more shadowy parts of ourselves. This allows us to accept all of who we are; those desires, fears, dreams and thoughts that we have which we see as not allowed can become part of how we learn to embrace life.

Practically Journalling involves having a secure place to write for about ten minutes a day. This could be a secure computer or a diary that you can be sure no one else will be able to get hold of. The more private you keep your journal the more honest you can be in it. I have found that writing toward the end of the day allows you to focus on the events of the day, and that writing at the beginning of the day can allow you to focus on your deeper sense of who you are, setting you up for living the day fully.

To write, whilst there are no rules, it can help to literally just write. it doesn’t need to be grammatically correct, just write about wherever your mind wanders. this is not supposed to be coherent; our minds don’t often stick to coherent narratives. Instead allow your mind to express what it sits comfortably with. You will find that past issues will often arise and that you will be able to link past experiences to the hear and now. At times you may find this frustrating, like you are ‘not getting anywhere’ – this is good! write about where you want to get too, why you become frustrated; everything that you feel is valid and can be helpful to a greater understanding. This way of writing also allows you to process difficult events, such as loss, and then be able to track your journey through this. Over time the journal can become a space where you know that your most personal experiences can be safely explored in a compassionate environment where you wont be critical of yourself, or if you are critical of yourself, you will be able to explore why you are attacking yourself. There are lots of ways of structuring your journal. I find that I have four different sections:

  • Daily journal
  • Important events (a space for more detailed reflection on whatever you feel is important)
  • Important people (a space for exploring your relationships with significant people in your life)
  • Poetry/drawing (I find that using other ways of exploring aspects of who I am such a through writing poetry can sometimes be more helpful with some strong emotions. As an example, if you struggle with shame, then try drawing it, or writing a poem about shame – this allows for a greater distance between you and the issue and more perspective).

There are various books that I have found over the years to be helpful. a good introduction though would be:

‘Journalling basics – journal writing for beginners’ – Lisa Shea

For information about the counselling I offer please feel free to visit my website on: http://www.richardpicklescounselling.co.uk

 

Happy Journalling!

Overview of this blog

I am creating this blog to offer suggestions for people who are seeking to explore life in new ways, and manage difficult emotions and experiences. I have trained in counselling, theology, psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalytic studies and philosophy. Whilst as a counsellor I believe that change comes primarily through finding relationships in which we can be seen, valued and heard within a non judgmental setting, there are also various things that we can do that help us live more creatively. Some of these ideas wont work for you! Whilst we have got significant evidence of activities which can help us in various ways, we are all different and the ideas I write about wont suit anybody. If you are seeking to try and understand or change aspects of who you are, I would always suggest talking with someone that you can trust alongside these ideas. I welcome feedback around how you have found any of these activities! If you would like further information around how I work please feel free to look at my website: http://www.richardpicklescounselling.co.uk