You can be happy too

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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.

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 24/7

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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

 

How do you connect with a Horse?

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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.