Category Archives: Mindfulness

Posts and guest posts about mindfulness, mindful eating, mindfulness retreats, mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness 24/7

I do not want the title of this post to be misleading. It is impossible to practice mindfulness 24/7.  We sleep for several hours out of every 24 and I do not know of anyone who can practice mindfulness during their sleep. What I am implying with this title, is that mindfulness is at our disposal 24/7 to help us cope with difficult situations.

We all have to face adversity from time to time: a challenging job, a demanding boss, an unsettled relationship, a treat to our health, a financial crisis…mindfulness can help us cope with adversity, especially in it is of an ongoing nature.

Mindfulness is all about focussing on one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time. When we face adversity, our thoughts tend to travel either into the future – we worry about the possible outcome – or into the past – we dwell on past failures, our past inability to cope with and overcome a similar situation.

Even if we are in a very stressful situation, we can take pleasure in a single moment. All we have to do, it to focus 100% of our attention on this very second and on everything that makes this single second precious, on everything that we are grateful for in this moment in time. There might be trouble ahead, but in this specific instant in time, all is well.

To handle a difficult situation, we can take 5 minutes out to remind ourselves what we are grateful for. Gratitude, profound and intensely felt, defuses stress. We can choose to be happy during these 5 minutes. We can choose not to let our fears about the future destroy our happiness during the next 5 minutes. Or the next hour. Or this afternoon. Or today. Or this weekend. If there is nothing that we can do to resolve our difficulties till Monday, we can choose to mindfully enjoy everything that the weekend has to offer, instead of miserably fretting the whole weekend long.

The funny thing about concentrating on making the most of each moment, about enjoying each minute of your life consciously and on purpose, is that it gives your creative brain the time to come up with an original solution, in its own good time. This solution is often more effective than any solution you may have tortured into life by worrying about a situation. There is a lot to be said for making time to breathe deeply and slowly during stressful periods, not only does it calm our nerves, it also re-oxygenate our brain, making it easier for our brains to come up with solutions to our problems.

For me personally, mindfulness is also an expression of my Christianity. When I face a challenge, I pray to God for help. I then leave the problem with him and focus on enjoying the next five minutes of my life. I thank Him for everything that I have that I am grateful for. I resolve not to let my current difficulties destroy the whole day’s happiness. It is not easy, my mind travels back time and again to my problem – I am only human after all – and time and again I have to stop and re-direct my thoughts to what I am grateful for and enjoying at this moment in time.

Mindfulness has very practical applications. Mindfulness can help you cope with a variety of problems that may initially look like insurmountable obstacles. This is why mindfulness is an integral part of our Connect with Horse Mindfulness Meditation Workshops.

“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

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How do you connect with a Horse?

By being present in the moment…
and by not being present in the moment.

The older I get, the better I understand that living a happy life is all about keeping things in balance. In my 50 years, I have seen fashion come and go, even in the self-improvement world. I have lived long enough to see the pendulum swing from one end side to the opposite side: the exact opposite of what is fashionable today may be fashionable in 10 years’ time.

Mindfulness is fashionable now. I am all in favour of mindfulness as a counterbalance to multi-tasking and living in the past or the future. So much so that my day-job is running mindfulness and meditation workshops.

However, as is often the case, my horses have once again taught me that jumping on the latest bandwagon, no matter how convinced I am about its effectiveness, may not be the perfect solution to the  stress of modern day living that I had hoped it to be.

My teacher on this occasion was Leo, the 14-year old ex-bullfighter that we rescued at the gate to the abattoir three years ago. Before Leo came to us, he had been very badly abused. You can read the story of this scared but courageous horse here. In the first year that Leo was with us, I asked next to nothing from hm. I spent a lot of time with him, as close as he would allow – in the beginning, 20 m was way too close for Leo – just being present in the moment with him. Over time, this tactic worked. He got used to me being there and gradually allowed me to come closer and closer.

It was during this period that  Leo taught me the importance of alternating being present with him in the moment…with not being present with him in the moment.

It was a concept I had some difficulty taking on board. Mindfulness is supposed to be good for you. It IS good for you, my clients and retreat participants thrive when they incorporated mindfulness into their busy schedules.  Horses are by nature mindful animals. As prey, they have to be present in the moment at all times, to detect the approach of a predator. So why could Leo tolerate it only in such small doses?

When you are standing right next to a horse that has been mistreated by people in the past, in the field or in the school, it is not particularly difficult to remain mindful. You quickly learn that one too sudden move could result in a very painful kick. As Leo used to be a bullfighter, he moves extremely quickly, and even if you can see the kick coming, you rarely have time to get out of the way. So you pay acute attention to what is happening at the moment, while at the same time, staying as calm as you possibly can.

It was on a day that I have loads of other things on my mind that I discovered the effect of not being mindful had on Leo. As time went by, the kicking stopped and I one day found myself making a shopping list in my head, as you do, while scratching Leo’s favourite spots. Until then I had always been very careful to remain mindful in his presence. The effect on Leo was interesting. No doubt I was now more relaxed in his presence, relaxed enough for my mind to wander into the future, and he responded by relaxing as well.

I thought about it afterwards and decided to alternated mindfulness and multitasking while I was with Leo. The effect was noticeable. When I was present in the moment, he was alert, when I was not, he was relaxed. As I spend a lot of time trying to find ways of communicating with Leo, a horse that was mentally totally shut down and unreachable when he came to us, this was a precious new way of getting through to him.

For example, when I work with Leo, I remain present in the moment. When our work is done and I am grooming him, I let my mind wander. He is used to this pattern now, so much so that it can be used in threatening situations to calm him down. Recently, while out on a walk, we suddenly found ourselves in a position where we had to confront an aggressive, wildly barking dog. Luckily the dog was no real threat as it was behind a sturdy fence. Leo went into hyper-alert I-am going-to-bolt-back-home-any-moment-now mode and I calmly went into I-wonder-what-I-should-cook-for-supper-tonight mode. Leo noted my distraction and calmed down somewhat. We managed to walk past the hysterical dog without too much prancing and eye-rolling.

Obviously, mindfulness is not the only factor at play here but in my opinion, being mindful and not being mindful does have a noticeable effect on Leo’s behaviour.

What I am really trying to say is that mindfulness is good as long as it is balanced by non-mindfulness. There is nothing wrong with spending time in the past, some of our memories are pleasant after all and from others, we may learn something useful. Nor is there anything wrong with spending time in the future, we do after all have to plan our days. Problems arise when we spend too much time rehashing the past or when we spend too much time worrying about the future. Multitasking is a useful skill to have, as long as we do not spend all our time multitasking.

The trick is to keep everything in balance and this includes mindful and less mindful periods.

If you would like to meet Leo, please join us for a Connect with Horses Workshop here in the south of France. If you would like to follow Leo’s progress, please subscribe to this blog and to our newsletter at the top right of this page.

Mindfulness: the infinite value of each moment

I get up early every morning to admire the sunrise. I am a morning person, so this is no hardship.  I can never get enough of it, maybe because it never lasts longer than a few minutes. The extravagant beauty of the sunrise in this part of the world is evanescent. The good news is that even though it does not last, it will be back in its full splendour tomorrow morning. For that, I am infinitely grateful.

As you may know, I teach mindfulness. Not because it is the newest trend, but because I believe that mindfulness can make us happier. We spend so much time in the present, fretting about past failures and in the future, worrying about what may happen in the future that the present moment fades into insignificance. So I teach my students to be mindful of the precious present moment, now here, soon gone forever.

I often invite our Equine-guided Mindfulness Meditation workshops participants to join me for an early morning walk, to watch the sun come up over the majestic Pyrenées mountain range. In this breathtakingly beautiful part of south-west France, each morning’s spectacular sunrise remains one of the most compelling and profoundly meaningful sights of all.

Why do I find a sunrise here such an intensely emotional experience? Because it floods my whole being, every cell in my body, with gratitude.

Mindfulness is a million times more meaningful in the presence of gratitude.
Margaretha Montagu

 Being mindful of each individual moment can be beneficial in many different ways. Adding gratitude to the experience amplifies these benefits a million times. In each and every moment we can find something to be grateful for, even if we are simply grateful to be alive.

I do not teach mindfulness during our equine guided mindfulness meditation workshops by lecturing participants. Focussing alternatively and collectively on visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, olfactory and gustatory mindfulness, we practice mindfulness together by taking part in a variety of activities: a tutored wine tasting, walking part of the Camino de Santiago, attending a typical Gascon fresh food market, eating a gourmet Gascon dinner, visiting a nearly 1000-year old abbey perched on a hilltop etc.

Mindfulness is a very important part of my workshops, but if these is one thing that I have learned living in this part of the world where inhabitants are famous for their long, happy and healthy lifestyle, it is that balance must be preserved in all things.

Mindfulness is beneficial only when it is balanced by giving equal amounts of attention to the present and the past. 
Margaretha Montagu

In my humble opinion, our problem is not that we are not mindful enough, but that we are unbalanced. We spend disproportional amounts of time in the future and in the past. The ideal is to spend equal amounts of time

  • in the past, to appreciate past events we are grateful for,
  • in the present, to appreciate the moments evanescent beauty and what we have here-and-now
  • and in the future, to manifest our dreams and desires.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Always hold fast to the present. Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”

I am grateful for the infinite value of each moment.

I would also be very grateful if you would subscribe to my mailing list (see top right), so that I can share more moments of infinite value with you, once a month.

Mindfulness Made Easy

One of the best online stress management with mindfulness courses is the free Palouse Mindfulness-based Stress Management Course. This course was a turning point for me, it helped me put mindfulness into practice, formally and informally. I finally understood what it was all about and was able to benefit fully from the extended list of beneficial effects that mindfulness can have on your physical and mental health. I highly recommend this course. If you are attending a Connect with Horses mindfulness meditation workshop with us, I suggest that you count the workshop as the first of the 8 weeks of the course and complete the other 7 weeks once you get home.

As a medical doctor, I did not believe in the value of these benefits without scientific proof. If you are like me, you will find ample proof of the effectiveness of mindfulness here.

You will not be surprised that I have incorporated a lot of what I have learned while taking this course into our mindfulness and meditation workshops here in the south of France.

The main benefit of mindfulness, as far as I am concerned, is that it reduces stress and thus significantly lowers your chances of getting stress related diseases like high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, heart attacks and strokes. It has many other benefits – Mindfulness is an awesome tool that helps us understand, accept and process our emotions in healthy ways. It helps us to change our usual automatic responses by enabling us to stop and think before we choose how we are going to act. It also

  • increases our ability to focus and concentrate, making us more productive
  • makes us more objective which helps us handle crisis situations more effectively
  • gives us more cognitive flexibility which can increase our creativity
  • makes us less emotionally reactive and more tolerant which enhances our relationships at work and at home
  • boosts our working memory
  • reduces rumination (worrying) and helps us to sleep better
  • increases our self-awareness which often leads to us taking better care of ourselves by getting regular health check-ups, getting regular exercise, eating healthily, using seat belts and avoiding nicotine, drugs and alcohol

In short, mindfulness can dramatically increase the quality of our lives.

It is definitely a habit worth cultivating. However, just reading about mindfulness will not enable you to benefit from it. You are going to have to start practicing mindfulness if you want it to enable you to cope better wth stress. Daily.

During our workshops, we divide mindfulness practice into two parts: formal and informal practice. We encourage our workshop participants to practice mindfulness formally for 20 to 30 minutes every day, using the body scan method as introduced by Prof Kabat-Zinn. We suggest to our workshop participants that they choose a time of day to do this practice that they will be able to continue with once they get home.

If you are participating in one of our workshops, to get the most from your workshop, you will want to answer each of the following questions:

Why am I starting this practice? (What do you hope to gain from practicing mindfulness? Have a look at the benefits listed above.)
When will I practice? (Be specific, e.g., 6:30am M-F, 7:30am Sat/Sun)
Where am I going to practice? (e.g., in my bedroom, sitting room, garden, study etc.):

This is the recording we use for formal mindfulness practice:

It is difficult (though not impossible) to start and sustain a daily mindfulness practice your own. It is easier to do so during a workshop, as you have all the time you need and there are few distractions to sabotage your efforts. In addition, we also create opportunities for you to practice mindfulness informally by taking you on field trips. Unlike the formal practice, you don’t have to choose a specific time of the day to do this. All you need to do is to decide to become more aware, first during the field trips and later, when you get home, to the activities that you already do every day. During the workshop, at the end of each day, spend five minutes reflecting on your informal mindfulness practice that day. Continue doing this once you get home. You will benefit most from this practice if you make a few notes each evening.

Although this may look less valuable than the 20-30 minutes of formal practice, it is by doing the informal practice that you will notice the benefits of practicing mindfulness.

If you can not attend one of our Connect with Horses Mindfulness Meditation Workshops here in the south of France, I suggest you give the Palouse Mindfulness-based Stress Management Course a go. In short, it is mastering mindfulness made easy and 100% free.

4 Best Walking Meditation Aids

On the second day of our stress management mindfulness meditation workshops, we introduce participants to walking meditation. We do a two-part walk. During the first half of the walk, we walk through the surrounding vineyards, woods, meadows and sunflower fields, in the company of one or more of our horses. During the second part of the walk, at the farm, each participant practices mindful walking meditation individually, as described below, either by walking our meditation labyrinth or the meditation stations on the island in the middle of the lake. They can also choose to walk around the pond surrounded by medicinal herbs or around the lake.

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. The creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were travelling rather than making.
Rebecca Solnit

Walking meditation is an excellent way of incorporating meditation into our daily life.

We start with a very simple introduction to walking mindfully:

Once you have taken the basic principles of walking mindfully on board, you can move onto the more structured practice of walking meditation. This video is useful because you can listen to it while you are walking:

“In summary, the walking process involves four stages: lifting, raising, shifting, and dropping. Your inhalation is coordinated with the lifting movement of the heel of your foot and your exhalation with keeping your foot lifted, while your toes are still touching the ground. Your inhalation is coordinated with the raising and shifting movements and your exhalation with the dropping of your foot. While you are coordinating your breath with your physical movements, remember to pay bare attention to what is taking place; avoid making judgements, decisions, or comments.

Observe the impermanent nature of your walking experience: the intention that precedes each movement, the movement itself, and every breath which rises and falls from moment-to-moment. When your mind shifts to another object of awareness, focus on seeing that it is also impermanent. Then, gently but firmly, place your attention back on your walking movements, coordinating them with your breath.”
Matthew Flickstein, Journey to the Center: A Meditation Workbook.

In this video, Mindah demonstrates physically exactly how to do a walking meditation:

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, “This brings your attention to the actual experience of walking as you are doing it, focusing on the sensations in your feet and legs, feeling your whole body moving, ” Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains. “You can also integrate awareness of your breathing with the experience. One thing that you find out when you have been practicing mindfulness for a while is that nothing is quite as simple as it appears, ” says Dr. Kabat-Zinn. “This is as true for walking as it is for anything else. For one thing, we carry our mind around with us when we walk, so we are usually absorbed in our own thoughts to one extent or another. We are hardly ever just walking, even when we are just going out for a walk.”

As you progress, you will be able to walk and meditate for longer periods. The video below is a guided walking meditation that lasts 30 minutes:

dr_margaretha_montagu_v3If you would like to know more about walking meditation with horses, you can click here or read my book Mindfulness and Meditation in the South of France. 

In my book, I explain how we use different meditation methods like walking, writing, working, music and of course equine-guided meditation to help our workshop participants cope with stress more effectively. Available from Amazon.

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