You can be happy too

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I woke up on the very edge of the world this morning. We arrived after dark, so I did not realise until I opened the shutters and saw that the little house we have rented clings defiantly to a mountainside, from where the land falls away to a sparkling blue lake, far below. This is Minde, a small Portuguese town high in the mountains of the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros.

One of the most coveted items on my bucket list has always been a visit to the annual Feira Nacional do Cavalo in Golegà, in central Portugal. A couple of months ago, I developed a condition that put the limited sight I have left in my one good eye at risk. I decided that I wanted to go to Golegà while I could still see. Since then, the danger has been averted or has at least been postponed, but we had already booked our trip. So here we are in Minde, less than 20 minutes’ drive from Golegà, the Portuguese “Capital of the Horse.”

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, Golegà

It is still too early for breakfast, so I have time to write a few words. I originally started writing as a daily exercise in mindfulness. Initially, I wrote morning pages, but I needed a bit of motivation to do so daily, so I started a gratitude diary. Little did I realise how much happier this simple (and often very short) exercise would make me.

Whenever I now start to work with a client, this is the very first exercise we do. I have found this exercise of enormous use with every client I have worked with. It continues to enrich my life in ways I never expected when I started. It has evolved over time, nearly beyond recognition. It is no longer just a question of listing 10 things I am grateful for every morning and evening, as is recommended in most self-help books about gratitude.

It has become a full mindfulness meditation, often only lasting 5 minutes. Sometimes longer, it all depends on what I have to cope with at the time.

Nearly every self-respecting self-help author I know has written about the benefits of making time in our busy schedules to feel grateful for our many blessings. Even in difficult times. There exists an abundance of literature on the subject so I won’t go into detail about it here. In summary, being grateful attracts more to be grateful about. The more you have to be grateful about, the happier you are. It’s no secret that mindfully being aware of what you have to be grateful for promotes health and healing. Being grateful causes biochemical changes in your body that increase your energy levels, enhance your immune system, balance your hormones and reduce stress. I have found this to be true in my own life, it is one of the most powerful stress management strategies I know. I can not recommend it highly enough, even if you just start by listing 10 things you are grateful for every morning, without writing anything down.

Writing down what you are grateful for does make the exercise substantially more powerful. Some days are so challenging that I can barely manage to list 10 things in my diary, but most days I manage to write a paragraph or two as a mindfulness meditation. It moves my focus from what is troubling me to what makes me happy.

Turning a simple gratitude list into an exercise in writing mindfully is easy. I will explain what I do during my morning (and evening) mindfulness practice below. I don’t do it every morning and every evening, life sometimes gets in the way. Occasionally I have skipped a few days. Soon I feel off-kilter, I start catastrophising and life generally becomes unbearable. So back to my gratitude diary I go, now the tangible proof of what I have survived over the last few years and proof of how much better I cope when I stick to this practice.

This is what I do:

Anchoring

First, I use my 5 senses to anchor myself in the moment.
What do I see? Four black cats in strategic positions on the bed, fast asleep on top of the duvet, making it impossible for me to move without causing serious discontent.
What do I hear? The horses calling to each other: “Is it time for breakfast yet? No? Bass, could you give us a shout when she appears? Service here leaves a lot to be desired…”
What do I smell? Freshly brewed coffee, the aroma of pure bliss.
What do I taste? As above.
What do I feel? Wide awake, no doubt due to my excessive caffeine consumption.

My new hat, my 4th cup of Portuguese coffee yesterday and my sunglasses. “There is a place where friendships start with a great cup of coffee.”

Breathing

Next, I do some “square breathing.” I breathe in, to the count of 8, hold my breath for 8 counts, breathe out for 8 counts and then wait for 8 counts before I breathe in again. This very effective breathing exercise calms my body as it calms my mind, allowing me to concentrate fully on the task at hand.

Short Listing

I usually start the exercise by making a quick list: I dot down 10 things that I am grateful for this morning/evening:

Portuguese coffee. The thoughtfulness of our Portuguese hostess, supplying us with coffee making facilities. The book I read till way past midnight last night. A warm comfortable bed in a warm, comfortable room. The extensive Portuguese breakfast I have to look forward to, flavoured by tales of local folklore and accompanied by more (absolutely excellent) coffee. Yesterday at Golegà, my dream of attending this exceptional event finally coming true. My mobile phone, allowing me to stay in contact with my friends and family (and adopted family, you know who you are.) Our much-appreciated friend who is looking after the cats and horses at home – I really must buy her some of this remarkable coffee. Today at Golegà, the opportunity to see the presentation of the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre this evening at 22h. Sharing this experience with my husband, who agrees that the coffee here is outstanding.

Adding a Paragraph

I then choose one item and I write a couple of paragraphs about why it makes me feel grateful. The easiest way to do this is to write a little story about it. Everyone loves stories, it is a great way to keep a diary. I often write about a friendship that I am especially thankful for. I usually start like this: ” I am so grateful to have a friend like X. He/she makes my life much easier. Just the other day, he/she helped me by…” More often than not, I am inspired to do something later to show my appreciation, thus putting gratefulness into action, further enhancing its power. I might buy a small gift: some dark chocolate, liquorice or shortbread biscuits. Or I might just send a quick email or text a short message.

Coping with Difficulties

If you have difficulty finding something to be thankful for, try focusing on the present moment. What are you grateful about right now? As you have probably gathered, I love the aroma and taste of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, so if I can not think of anything else, this is the first thing that goes on my list. In the evening I have a cup of soup, mushroom, courgette, tomato and seasonally, power pumpkin. One of my dearest friends makes this soup, so the soup and her generosity go on the list. On my list, the things that I can still see often feature prominently. The horses meditating in the morning mist. Autumn colours. The buttons on the espresso machine.

Why don’t you give it a try? Writing about gratitude as an exercise in mindfulness meditation might change your life too. It might make you happier too.

I am going to get up now. Golegà awaits and in any case, I need another cup of coffee.

Golegà, a great place to make new friends.

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Vintage Gratitude

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When I had to give up medicine, after many years of training and as many working as a doctor, because of an ever-worsening eye condition, I thought my world had ended. It did not. Instead, I discovered a whole new world to inhabit as a writer. I was especially grateful that I would be able to continue writing even if my sight fails completely. This last year, however, taught me a new lesson. I might be able to continue writing even if I cannot see, but I cannot write when I am in pain.

Eleven months later, I find that I have to start writing again, pain or no pain, to keep the depression that invariably accompanies chronic illness at bay. Maybe not a book as such, but I think I could manage a couple of blog posts. So I have decided to start a new series on my blog called “I am grateful for…” Listing everything in my life that I am grateful for twice a day and thanking God for every item on my list has helped me cope with not only the pain but also the uncertainty of not knowing whether the next treatment will work, whether the next operation will get rid of the pain…or make it worse.

Being grateful is one of the most empowering activities that I have ever encountered.

Sharing what I am grateful for today will also help me to figure out who I am now, since I most certainly am no longer the same person as I was a year ago.

In this first post in the series, I want to share with you my passion for all things vintage and antique. I love old things, things with a history: old houses, old cars, old jewellery, old paintings, old porcelain, old linen and especially vintage clothes.

I would much prefer to wear an ancient piece of jewellery, especially if I am lucky enough to know who the previous owners were, than a brand new designer piece. I am lucky enough to own a couple of such pieces, but my most favourite is a bracelet with two sapphires that was created during the reign of Queen Victoria. I know exactly who it belonged before it belonged to me: three powerful women whom I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for. I always wear it, it makes me infinitely happy to see the sun flashing blue on the stones, to feel the solid weight of it on my arm, to know that the three strong women who wore it before me survived and even thrived in situations much more challenging than I have to do.

Just so that there is no misunderstanding (and in case my husband reads this,) I have no objection to new things as presents. Admittedly, I am not willing to sacrifice quality for age, that is no doubt why I only have a small number of treasured pieces.

I also love vintage clothes and because I am vain, I prefer designer vintage wear – from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s. During the daytime, I have spent many happy hours in vintage shops this year. My favourite vintage shops in Toulouse has got to be Le Grenier d’Anais,  Groucho Vintage and The Vintage Family. In Bordeaux I frequent Jolie Mome, Arsenic et Vielles Dentelles, Blue Madone and Marcelle. At night time, I visited similar shops online. In the early hours of the morning, pain management often consisted of reading vintage blogs, joining vintage Facebook Groups, visiting online auction sites and browsing Amazon for books on how to create or improve a vintage wardrobe. This has resulted, for the first time in my life, in a very distinct personal style – I now even buy vintage horse riding trousers and boots, when I can find them!

I am profoundly grateful that I also have access to some irresistible places in cyberspace. My nights would have been much lonelier if I did not.

For my 25th birthday, I was given a red Fiat Bertone X1/9, from 1975. Not an exceptionally expensive car, but I loved that car, passionately and eternally. I owned it for 12 years and during that time, became intimately acquainted with all its working parts as it was a temperamental beastie, liable to come down in a fit of the vapours at just about any time and just about anywhere and for absolutely no reason at all. I loved it anyway, devotedly, because when it ran smoothly, driving it was pure bliss. One day, I hope to find a suitable and worthy replacement, but not too soon, because searching for it is so much fun.

During all my adult life, I have lived in old houses. I could never live in a new house, nor in a house that has been restored to within an inch of its existence and surely resulting in the total loss of its soul. My soul would suffocate. I don’t think I could even be friends with someone who lives in a such a house. I am very grateful that the house I live in now nourishes my creativity, even though it still needs a fair bit of renovation. I sometimes run my hands along the 400-year old beams, now black with age, and I wonder about the original owners. Hundreds of year ago, some brave young man must have built this house for his precious bride, with the help of the whole village. He must have loved her very much, the evidence of his love still visible today in the thoughtful additions he added to make her life easier: somewhere for her store the salt, safe and dry, in the inglenook fireplace, bringing water from a nearby spring into the house, a state-of-the-art bread oven accessible from the kitchen, but outside the house to reduce the fire-risk, small windows to the south so that she will not be too hot in summer and a solid wall to the north so that she will not be cold in the winter…sentimentally-afflicted, I know.

Sometimes I walk through the house and marvel at how easily our furniture has settled into this essentially foreign environment. Unavoidably, each piece of furniture in this house has a history. Some pieces have travelled extensively: old trustworthies dating from the end of the 19th century, created originally to grace the interior of an elegant Cape Dutch farmhouse, nearly as old as this one. Other pieces once adorned the interiors of English castles and have now nestled in under rough but solid oak beams, their fine woodwork made even more exquisite by the contrast. For the grand piano, we had to clear one whole room, just because it deserves it. Pictures of our families jostle for space with my husband’s ancient book collection, dating from the Edwardian era. More than once, I thought I saw my husband’s great-grandmother standing at his side, a hand on his shoulder, while he plays. Must have been mistaken, can’t always trust my eyes.

I also have a thing for vintage porcelain and linen. In the summer, I while away many a Sunday afternoon at an annual flea market or at a local brocante or antique shop. I love the indestructible feel of heavily-starched table linen just as much as I love the lavender smell of pure cotton embroidered bed linen. Don’t even get me started on old porcelain (preferably Limoges) and embossed silver cutlery. How many times have I stood, fixated on the spot in the merciless summer sun, with a gorgeous silver cake slicer in my hand and wondered who “DT” or “VHK” or “MvdA” might have been?

Furthermore, collecting vintage words makes me absurdly happy – any all the languages I am privileged to speak. Take the word “scurryfunge,” which means to quickly tidy your house between the time you see a neighbour and the time she knocks on the door. Isn’t it absolutely adorable? And ” condiddle,” which means to convey away secretly. “Callipygian” means having a well-shaped or finely developed backside and “chatillionte” which means delightful. It comes from the French chatouiller – to tickle. I have an extensive collection of these and nowhere to use them! but reading them and pronouncing them does make me smile, so I am always adding some more to my old word-file.

I do not collect old books, but I never buy new books anymore either. I always buy secondhand and I return the books to be resold once I have read them. Buying books from charity and thrift shops satisfies my need to pay it forward. It is so much easier to spend money in a charity shop because I know my money is going towards a good cause. As I said in my last blog post, gratitude is not enough. It needs to be accompanied by generosity to reach its full potential and expressed as creativity, which is the reason why I am writing this blog post.

Is there something that you love as much as I love old houses, cars, clothes, porcelain, linen and words? Something that could help you through difficult times and make challenging situations easier to bear? Focussing on the happiness that my vintage treasures bring me makes me grateful, and being grateful empowers me. Defining what makes you happy, what you have to be grateful for, can empower you too.

Gratitude is not enough.

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I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that I am going to say, “Gratitude is not enough, it should manifest itself as Generosity if it is to result in a state of Grace.” I have, indeed, said this many times before and I continue to believe it wholeheartedly, but I have learned in 2017 that gratitude and generosity still are not enough.

It has been a difficult year. Pain has been my constant companion for nine months of this year. It started on the 4th of April, the day after I had attended my annual check-up at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, where the professor assured me that all was well with both my eyes. Less than 24 hours later the pain started in my left eye.

I have had corneal transplants twice in the past, thanks to two generous donors to whom I am profoundly grateful. Usually, a corneal transplant lasts for ten years and my current transplant was already more than twenty years old. I knew it would have to be replaced sooner or later, but as the two previous operations were painful experiences that I prefer not to dwell on, I had hoped that it would be later, much, much later, before I would need to undergo this operation again. As a cornea gets older, it gets thinner and thinner and mine was so thin now that I developed one corneal ulcer after another, on a background of continuous keratitis. Which basically means that I was never entirely pain-free, although the pain would increase and decrease depending on whether an ulcer was developing or healing.

Life, of course, went on, with all its demands and dramas. I was afraid to have the necessary surgery, so I kept hoping that the problem would go away of its own accord, as you do. This did not happen and by June I was desperate enough to go and see an ophthalmologist, recommended to me by a friend who is an optician. Not surprisingly, he confirmed that I needed a transplant and referred me to a specialist centre, two hours’ drive from where we live, for the operation. It took another 5 months, during which I had an urgent operation on my right eye before everything was in readiness for the transplant.

Even now, two weeks after the transplant, due to post-operative complications, I am not yet pain-free. One lives in hope.

I coped with these nine months by practising what I preach. I made a list every morning and every evening of what I have to be grateful for that particular day. My list was always long and this kept me going, one day at a time. During the day, I spent as much time as I could living in the present moment, being mindful of the gift of that moment: a mind-blowingly beautiful sunset, the laughter of friends, the taste of my first cup of coffee of the day, the inquiring whinny of one of the horses near my bedroom window, the luxurious feel of the summer sun on my skin…and I translated this gratitude into generosity, by focussing on what my friends and family needed and helping where I could. My main coping strategy was: “The busier I am helping others, the less time I have to focus on my own problems.”

There were many difficult times though, of course there were. Times of uncertainty when I did not know how much longer it would be before I would be able to undergo the transplant. Times of apprehension, when I worried about the operation itself, whether it would be successful or not. Fearful times, while I was afraid that this operation would be as painful as the previous operations. Times of despair, when my coping strategy made the pain worse. Times of intense frustration, when the transplant had to be delayed as I developed glaucoma that needed to be treated urgently. Eventually, I had to have surgery to my right eye to secure the only vision I had left (my left eye is blind.) I did a lot of praying during those endless months.

It was only towards the end that I, purely by accident, found out that gratitude and generosity are not enough. Not for me, in any case. I spend a lot of time and energy every year making advent calendars for the people closest to me. I usually start the hunt for the twenty-four perfect little gifts for each calendar mid-October. It is one of my all-time favourite Christmas activities. I wrap each small gift individually, adding a card with a quote chosen especially for the day and the recipient. This year, I was surprised to find just how beneficial this burst of vigorous creativity was to my state of mind.

Being grateful and generous was helpful, to me and to the people around me, but being creative was my saving grace.

It seems to me, that just as gratitude can be expressed as generosity, it can also be expressed as creativity. I find creativity as beneficial to my well-being as gratitude and generosity. My main creative outlet these past few years has been writing. I have done very little writing over the last 9 months. Reading and writing had been too painful. Now I am thinking this may have been a mistake, that it is time to start writing again. As motivation and for inspiration, I have just downloaded a book from Amazon: “Called to Create: A Biblical invitation to Create, Innovate and Risk” by Jordan Raynor and I am looking forward to reading it as the old year makes way for the new.

Here is to a 2018 filled with Gratitude, Generosity and Creativity!

No More Meditation

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Meditation is no longer working for me. Especially not sitting meditation, but then I had never taken to that. I used to practice two types of moving meditation: walking and writing, but I no longer find either of much use. I have practised meditation for many years now, I have even taught it. I know how to do it and I have listed the benefits of meditation on this blog time and again. I just no longer experience those benefits. Until now, my Connect with Horses Workshops were all about meditation. The workshops introduce participants to various different meditation methods, including meditation with horses, by far the most popular part of these mindfulness and meditation workshops.

Meditation – the end of an era

I stopped meditating at the end of the summer. Did the world come to an end? Not really. Am I worse off now that I no longer meditate? Cannot say that I am. The reason for this might be because I have replaced it with something else, something that works better for me, as a kinaesthetic interpreter and learner. I never took to sitting meditation, as to make sense of my environment, to interpret it, to understand it and to learn from my experiences, I need to move. I learn by doing, unlike most others who learn by seeing and talking, the visual and auditory interpreters. I can still meditate, I just no longer want to.

Morning Pages – starting something new

Looks as if I shall have to design a new workshop for summer next year. Instead of meditating, I know practice free writing. It is similar to writing meditating in many ways, different in others. I have been playing around with this idea since I first read Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, many years ago now. I could see the therapeutic benefits that this practice might have. That was before I started writing books. Now that writing is a daily activity, I revisited Julia’s book and decided that free writing might suit me better than writing meditation. At this stage of my life, it fits me like a hand in a glove. I love writing, so the activity is nearly effortless. It clears my mind at the beginning of the day. It helps me focus during the day, it helps me process my emotions, it helps me to make decisions. I have learned a lot about myself since I have started free writing. As Julia so eloquently says: “Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.”

Freewriting, and specifically morning pages, has boosted my creativity in a variety of surprising ways, more than meditation ever did.

You may be wondering what morning pages are. Julia explains, “Morning pages are three pages of longhand (about 750 words,) a stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. Morning pages are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.”

Mindfulness – always present

Julia Cameron advocated mindfulness long before mindfulness became a buzzword. I entirely agree with her when she says, “In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me.” I will never tire of practising mindfulness. It is my number one coping strategy. When I feel overwhelmed, I attend to the moment and specifically to what I have to be thankful for in said specific moment. I also include a list of things I feel grateful for that happened to me in the last 24 hours when I write my morning pages. I have always believed in the power of gratitude to transform people’s lives, and I always will.

It is my intention to base next summer’s Connect with Horses workshops on writing morning pages, mindful gratitude and of course, on connecting with horses. Because this is what is working for me at the moment, in the run-up to yet another serious eye operation, a corneal transplant to my left eye. I can not teach something that I no longer believe in. Teaching what I do believe in, on the contrary, feels more or less effortless.

I shall keep you updated on my progress.

If you would like to try writing morning pages yourself, I would recommend you visit Julia Cameron’s website: JuliaCameronLive.com. Another website I found very useful is 750words.com – it will help you get into the habit of writing every day.

Mindfulness: the infinite value of each moment

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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.