Misconceptions about Mindfulness

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In each book I write, I write about mindfulness. It becomes difficult not to repeat myself, so in my latest book, Coping with Change – A 10-Step Strategy to manage Stress Successfully during Transitions, I decided to write about mindfulness from a different perspective. Instead of explaining what mindfulness is, I explain what mindfulness is not:

  1. Mindfulness is not easy, but it is not complicated. Mindfulness is simply about being present in the moment, observing our thoughts and emotions without judgement and without allowing our thoughts and feelings to dictate our actions.
  2. Mindfulness is not effortless. Mindfulness requires work: an investment of time, effort and energy.
  3. Mindfulness is not a religion, though being mindful is fundamental to several faiths, incl Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Taoist teachings. Mindfulness is a mental practice unrelated to any specific religion.
  4. Mindfulness is not meditation. Meditation is just one mindfulness practice.
  5. Mindfulness is not about disconnecting from the world around you. It’s about being fully aware of what you are thinking where you are right at this precise moment.
  6. Mindfulness is not just another item to add to your to-do list. It is a mindset, a lifestyle, an integral part of your every day.
  7. Mindfulness is not just about stress reduction, although it can significantly reduce stress. Mindfulness enables you to cultivate awareness, tolerance, acceptance, kindness and compassion. Mindfulness increases resilience by rewiring your brain to respond to experiences positively and productively, instead of reacting in a way that can increase stress.
  8. Mindfulness is not a waste of time. Yes, it takes time to master, but as it involves being present in the here and now, it saves a lot of time, time we usually spend ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
  9. Mindfulness meditation is not about escaping reality. Mindfulness is about being fully aware of our reality without our views being influenced by our emotions, assumptions or preconceived ideas.
  10. It does not take a long time to benefit from mindfulness. You can make significant progress in just one week of daily mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness can make you feel more relaxed, sleep better, worry less and cope better with challenges after only one session.
  11. Mindfulness is not time-consuming. If you can find 10-15 minutes/day to practice mindfulness, you can make significant progress and dramatically reduce your stress levels. Even as little as 5-10 minutes a day will yield noticeable results.
  12. Mindfulness is not for everybody. Mindfulness is not a “one-size fits all” approach. Although anyone can be more mindful, not everyone finds mindfulness useful. That’s fine; there are other ways to increase well-being.
  13. Mindfulness is not therapy. It can be an adjunct to a variety of treatments, but it is not a cure for all ills.
  14. Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind. Mindfulness is about noticing, accepting and letting go of your thoughts.
  15. Mindfulness does not always make you feel better. It is about noticing your thoughts, even the distressing ones, without judging yourself for having them. It is about acknowledging and accepting your negative thoughts, without allowing them to alter your mood or induce you to act in unhelpful ways. Mindfulness enables you to work through your feelings, positive as well as negative.
  16. Mindfulness is not something you do; it is something you are – an essential and intrinsic part of you.
  17. Mindfulness is not a shortcut to happiness. Mindfulness can help reduce and even eliminate depression, anxiety and stress but only if we are willing to work at re-training our minds so that we can cope with whatever comes our way.
  18. Mindfulness is not the only method you can use to cope with change, but it is one of the most effective ones. Mindfulness enables you to see more clearly what is happening in your life. It will not eliminate stress, but it can help you respond in a stress-diminishing way. It helps you to recognise and avoid habitual, often unconscious and unhelpful reactions to everyday events, thus improving your quality of life.

Extract from Coping with Change – A 10-Step Strategy to manage Stress Successfully during Transitions

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My latest book has not been published yet, I will let subscribers to my mailing list know as soon as I publish it. Have you subscribed to my blog’s mailing list yet? If you are already a subscriber, thank you so much! If not, please do. My blog aims to assist you in making the most of yourself and in providing you with the tools to do so. The blog has a distinctly French flavour, as I also share with you our life here in the south of France. You can subscribe by clicking here, and you will receive my 10 Steps to Instant Self-Confidence guide – straight from the horse’s mouth! as well as a copy of the Cope with Change Cheatsheet and Checklist.

Walking, Writing and Stress Management

Walk to cope with change
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After the operation, my surgeon told me that I had to take things easy for a while, so no long walks, no running and certainly no horse riding. Since I was quite determined that the 4th operation in 18 months was going to be a success, I decided to keep to the rules.

I missed not riding, especially as I have only recently started to ride one of the bravest Lusitano stallions I have ever had the privilege of knowing, at Le Domaine de Passage, a Lusitano Stud not far from where I live. I also missed running. I can no longer see well enough to run outside, so I run on my treadmill 4/5 times per week, for about 30 minutes. It keeps me fit. I could, however, survive without walking or riding.

What I really missed, more than anything else, is my long, slow walks. I walk nearly every day, on my own, with a friend or with one of my horses. I don’t walk for fitness; I get enough exercise from running.

  • I walk to spend time communing with nature, to feel the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, the fresh air flowing into my lungs…
  • I walk to get out of my head and away from demands upon my time and attention.
  • I walk to spend time with someone who is important to me.
  • I walk as an exercise in mindfulness. When I walk with one of my horses, the horse teaches me how to be mindful in exchange for regular pitstops to sample the tastier-than-in-their-paddock grass along the way.
  • I walk along the edges of the horses’ paddocks, to check the fencing.
  • But mostly, I walk because walking helps me to think.

Ask Aristotle, who insisted that he did his best thinking while walking, if you don’t believe me. Ask Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Walking improves not only my thinking but also my writing. Just ask walking-writers Rimbaud, Dickens, Woolf, Kant, Hemmingway, Rousseau, Blake, Thoreau, Wordsworth and Jane Austen if it isn’t true.

“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.” Orson Scott Card said that it’s “worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better.” According to Charles Dickens, “The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy.” Hemmingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, “I would walk along the quays when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something…”

Two Stanford walking researchers, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz* found that students tested showed markedly heightened creative abilities while walking. Walking increased their creative output by an average of 60 per cent. Oppezzo and Schwartz speculate that “future studies would likely determine a complex pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the cognitive control of imagination.”

As I could not walk while I was getting better after the operation, I had the impression that writing was much more difficult. I got stuck more frequently, and it took longer to get unstuck. I did manage to put the finishing touches to my latest book, Coping with Change – Ten Steps to Successful Stress Management during Transitions and I wrote an 11-page Coping with Change Cheatsheet and Checklist, but it took much longer than it usually does.

You may not be an artist, so why is it useful to you to know that walking increases creativity? It is because creativity is an essential part of practical problem-solving. Author and athlete Christopher Bergland wrote, “Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious.” So next time you are struggling to cope with a challenge generated by desired or undesired change, consider going outside for a walk of at least 5 to 15 minutes. That’s the length of time Oppezzo and Schwartz found most useful.

I live close to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim’s route. It is one of my favourite places to walk for inspiration. I am very much looking forward to going there for a walk again! For this very reason, walking the Camino is an integral part of the Walking, Writing and Wine Tasting Workshops I host here in the south of France. We have two 5-day residential spring workshops scheduled this year:

  • 26-30 April 2019 and
  • 20-24th May 2019

You are, of course, very welcome to join us! You can find out more about the benefits of walking and about these workshops here: Walking, Writing and Wine Tasting Workshops in the south of France.

 

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*J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 Jul;40(4):1142-52. Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Oppezzo M1, Schwartz DL

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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 him. 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.

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Stress Addiction

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I have been thinking a lot about stress lately. Mostly because I have recently been introduced to a new concept: stress addiction.

Those of you who know me, know that I have always considered stress as the number one enemy of my patients’ mental and physical health. After all, 75% of all GP consultations, in one way or another, has something to do with stress.

I have always accepted that a certain amount of stress is essential if we want to realise our potential. It is only when the amount of stress exceeds our ability to use it to our advantage that stress becomes our enemy rather than our ally.

Stress addiction, however, is a concept I have not come across before. It appears that there are now people who are getting high on stress. People who wear their high stress levels like badges of honor, drawing their peers’ attention proudly to how little sleep they are getting, how their downtime is spent racing to meet deadlines and how they are too busy to take time off.

When we find ourselves in stressful situations, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released and circulate our bodies. However, when cortisol and adrenaline remain present in our system for prolonged periods of time rather than reducing once the perceived threat has passed, this hormonal “high” can get us hooked — and looking for more. We find ourselves craving additional boosts of adrenaline on top of the adrenaline already chronically present in our bloodstream.

This lifestyle seems now to have reached epidemic proportions. In an attempt to escape boredom and make themselves feel more important, people are getting addicted to stress. The problem is that chronic stress causes a variety of long-term physical and mental problems, that much has not changed. The only difference is that where we in the past were the unwilling victims of stress, we are now actively chasing it.

Sigh.

Obviously, I shall have to adjust my stress management workshops with horses to address this new trend. I have no idea what our horses are going to think about this – hoses use the release of the stress hormones to help them escape dangerous situations – it is essential to their survival and in that sense more of a friend than an enemy. I have been teaching workshop participants these last 5 years how to manage stress so that they can use it to perform better than ever before.

This approach will certainly not help anybody who is addicted to stress, quite on the contrary!

So I have decided that it is time for a major and in-depth update of my knowledge of stress. I had barely formulated this decision when the perfect solution landed in my lap: attending The Global Stress Summit. According to the host, Dr Heidi Hanna, “during this summit, 35 thought leaders will teach you about the “new” science of stress.” I have to admit, she has gathered together a most impressive group of people who shared their knowledge with us from the 24th of April to the 1st of May.

I have attended many virtual summits in the past – there recently was an excellent mindfulness summit. My problem is that it is just too much information to take in at once, so for the first time ever, I am actually going to pay to have access to all the videos online so that I can listen to each in my own time and digest the information in bite-sized portions.

So everyone attending our stress management workshops with horses this summer is going to benefit from my up-to-date knowledge. I will be teaching participants how to

  • Recognize stress-related signs, symptoms and conditions
  • Understand historical and present-day stress/resilience research
  • Learn how stress can be harmful or helpful
  • Practice important stress-management skills
  • Gain simple, practical tools to build a more resilient brain and body

Stress Addiction

Money can buy Happiness

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Do you hate Mondays?

Or maybe my question should have been, “Who doesn’t hate Mondays?”  Apparently there are a small number of people who actually do NOT hate Mondays.

Really?

We work to earn money to pay for and buy the things that we need. Money pays our rent, our mortgage, our insurance, our loans. With money, we can buy clothes, groceries, cars, services etc.

To earn money we have to work even though many of us dislike or hate our jobs. Some of us feel entirely indifferent towards our jobs. We get through Monday to Friday on automatic pilot and only really come alive during the weekend.

We have all been told and most of us firmly believe that money can not buy happiness.

It turns out that this is not true. Money CAN buy happiness:

If we were wrong about money and happiness, maybe we are also wrong about having to work despite hating our jobs?

Some people jump out of bed every Monday morning. I do. I love my job. I didn’ t always feel this way about work. I use to have a very stressful job and it took several cups of strong black coffee to get me out of bed, not only on Mondays, but on most days.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that life was too short, that I did not want to live my life this way anymore. Now, when I am working, I lose track of time. An hour feels like 5 minutes to me. What I do looks easy and effortless because it makes best use of my talents, training and experience. I love equine-assisted experiential learning specifically and personal development in general so much, that I could talk about it the whole day long. My work is a source of intense joy and it gives meaning to my life. I believe in what I do. I feel like I’m making a difference and I do it with all my heart, mind and soul.

Getting here has not been easy, I had to make several painful sacrifices. I was worth it though, a thousand times over.

How about you? Do you also feel that life is too short to spend 5 out of 7 days feeling miserable because your too stressful job does not inspire you?

Secure Your Future ebookIf so, I can help. Come and spend a few days with us here in the south of France. Or read my book, Secure Your Future.

I would like to hear from you. If you could do any sort of job at all, if you were free to choose a job that you loved, what would you choose? Please get in touch at margrethamontagu@gmail.com  or post a comment below. I am seriously interested in your choice!

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