Meditation at the Samye Ling international centre

I was in the Scottish borders last week and popped into the Samye Ling monastery, which is located near the village of Eskdalemuir. I had an absolutely wonderful visit, so I thought it would be good to share my experience with you.

Samye Ling is more than a monastery, it is an international centre for Buddhist training, known for its teachings and traditions of Buddhist philosophy. Founded in 1967 by two spiritual masters, Samye Ling was the first Tibetan Buddhist centre in the west. The name ‘Samye’ came from the very first monastery in Tibet.

The centre in Scotland, which is home to a community of more than 50 monks, nuns and volunteers, uphold the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, living their lives in accordance with their basic principles: doing no harm, performing wholesome actions, and training the mind through meditation.

The temple is stunning

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I talked with Ani Lhamo, a fully ordained Buddhist nun, about life at the centre and about meditation. Ani explained about the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, which were formed over 2,500 years ago. Although there are many different versions of Buddhism, they are all based on Prince Siddhartha and his teachings. Through concentrated meditation, he experienced a deep realisation of true nature and what causes unhappiness.

Buddhist meditation

Buddhist methods of meditation are aimed at calming the mind and achieving insight into how the mind works. Ani explained, through regular meditative practice, the mind gradually settles into a peaceful state. It is when we enter into a blissful state that we experience insight into our being.

“Meditation can help bring about a natural sense of peace and well-being that can extend to every aspect of our lives,” Ani said. “People who meditate regularly tend to sleep better, have better digestion of food and can handle the ups and downs of life with more clarity and ease, and they relate to others with more compassion and warmth.

“Meditation is the patient process of settling our mind in the present moment so that we are fully engaged with whatever we are doing at that time.

“In modern life, we are often left feeling like there is never enough time. Busy and over-worked, as soon as we get around to doing one thing, our mind is already thinking about something else. We collapse in front of the television to chill out. But, this is not real peace.

“When the mind is constantly agitated, it is almost impossible to be happy. However, as we become practiced at meditation, our minds become more peaceful. This is ‘natural’ happiness rather than perceived happiness.

“As our practice deepens, we become increasingly in the present. This equilibrium brings stability to our minds and it brings insight into how our minds function. This is true peace and unconditional happiness.”

Samye Ling centre

Samye Ling is open all year round to visitors. It is a beautiful place to visit; the gardens and temple are stunning. They have a shop and cafe too.

The monks and nuns at Samye Ling offer short courses on meditation and mindfulness, and they offer longer retreats for people who want to explore the benefits of living a traditional way of life.

I would like to thank Ani and her colleagues for their wonderful welcome and for talking with me about the Tibetan Buddhist centre. They made my visit enjoyable and memorable.

You can hear Ani talking on my podcast.

Visit the Samye Ling website for more information.

 

 

 

Can you beat stress with a wellbeing device?

I must admit, I am a gadget junkie. I love smartphones, ipads, fitbits and anything else I can get my hands on. But I had never really thought much about stress-relieving gadgets, until one of my clients started to wax lyrical about her ‘stress balancing bracelet’. I couldn’t resist, so I bought one to try out.

We all know that stress can affect our quality of life. But sometimes, it can be difficult to see exactly where stress is coming from. Does it peak during our daily commute to work, is it something to do with an irritating work colleague, or perhaps it is something related to home life? More often than not, it is a combination of many factors.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could track our stress levels as the day, weeks and months go by? Maybe that way we could see what, where and when our stress levels peak. Well, this is all possible with one of the many stress monitors that are on the market.

But first, a word of caution. I am a psychotherapist and, as such, would never advocate substituting professionals counselling for a device that is worn on the wrist, or on any other part of the body. Having said that, I do think these devices have their place.

Stress monitor

The Wellbe Stress Balancing Bracelet is a Bluetooth-enabled unit that integrates with a smartphone app. Basically, it uses a proprietary algorithm based on your heart rate and variable heart rate to identify stress levels, and calmness, throughout the day.

The bracelet comes in various colours; cork effect, silver and black. It is lightweight to wear and the strap comes in small, medium or large. The unit charges via a USB cable, which is provided in the kit.

Setup through the Wellbe app was fairly straightforward. Downloading the app and device pairing went smoothly. Their website is quite informative and provides a couple of good videos to get you started. The videos aren’t really necessary but they provide interesting background to the device.

Finally, after setting up the  basics, you will need to take baseline measurements, but the app and the device provide step-by-step instructions.

The smartphone app

When wearing the bracelet, measurements are taken automatically every hour, and the app updates the data quickly. Based on your heart rate and variable heart rate your stress level is measured on a 100-point scale, from ‘calm’ to ‘high’ stress.

wellbe2

You can see real-time information on the app. The really nice thing about this device is the correlation between stress levels and time/location. For example, if your stress level peaks at, say 10.30 in the morning, you will be able to see where you were at that time. Over a period of several days and weeks, and even months, you will be able to analyse when and where you are experiencing the most stress.

Another great thing about the device is the ‘alert’ function. It will notify you if you are getting close to ‘high’ levels of stress. It will even suggest relaxation exercises. I tried the ‘ambient music’ exercise and it worked really well. According to the bracelet, I lowered my stress level from high to calm in just under ten minutes while listening to the music. Ambient music is only one of many different exercises the app will suggest for you.

In addition to the exercise suggestions, there are many podcasts to download and listen to. The bracelet will prompt you when it ‘thinks’ you need a podcast! According to the Wellbe website, there are over 30 hours of content available via their app. There is the option to subscribe to a larger collection but it is not really necessary. Thankfully, the app doesn’t bombard you with prompts to pay for a subscription and there are no in-app purchases, which is good.

Disadvantage

One of the annoying things about the bracelet, which I also find with my fitbit, is the intermittent readings. I like to wear the strap quite loose around my wrist and often the data link gets lost.  If the strap is not positioned correctly it is easy to lose data.

As always, battery technology hasn’t quite kept up. The device will only last two days before needing a charge. It is not really a problem because I put it on charge everyday when in the shower in the morning.

In conclusion, I thought the bracelet was wonderful. It is more than a toy, it can give you a really good indication about stress levels and how they vary over time. The app, in my opinion, is excellent and the vast variety of content to help alleviate stress is very good too.

The main disadvantage for me was the short battery life and the data loss. However, I think the latter is more to do with how I like to wear watches and bracelets.

Overall, a nice piece of kit. Not too expensive either; it retails in the UK for about £115. Well worth the money and I would certainly recommend it.

Take a look at the Wellbe website or Amazon for availability.

Let me know if anyone has tried a stress balancing bracelet.

 

Breathe your way to greater health

When stressed or irritated by someone or something, everyone knows to take a deep breath and count to ten. That would seem to suggest that a deep breath is somehow good at calming the brain. Well, latest research has found exactly that.

For over 2,000 years, Buddhists and yoga gurus have promoted the benefits of breath-focused meditation. Modern meditation practice usually starts with focusing on inhalation and exhalation. But it was generally considered that ‘clearing the mind’ of all thoughts was the aim of meditation and that focusing on breathing was a way to help us to clear the mind. However, latest research, carried out at Trinity College Dublin, has found an interesting connection between focused breathing and brain health.

Firstly, lets deal with the science bit. Noradrenaline is an important brain chemical, which is released when we are challenged and emotionally aroused. This chemical is the brain fertilizer because it helps to promote growth of neurons and it helps our brains to form new neuro-networks.

Although noradrenaline is an essential chemical, an incorrect balance in the brain can cause us some harm. For example, too little can result in lethargy, lack of concentration and even depression.

Now comes the interesting bit. The research carried out in Dublin found a connection between the amount of noradrenaline produced, our concentration levels and our breathing.

The team at Trinity College measured breathing, reaction time and brain activity in the brainstem (the area where noradrenaline is produced). They found that levels of noradrenaline increase slightly when the subjects focused on their breathing. In turn, concentration levels and reaction times improved when noradrenaline levels increased.

It would appear that focusing on our breath can stimulate the brainstem to produce exactly the right levels of noradrenaline, which improves our attention and concentration.

By focusing on our breathing for a few minutes each day, levels of brain chemicals can get regulated and optimised, leading to an overall improvement in concentration and the ability to focus longer and deeper on tasks.

Meditation has long-term benefits too

Our brains usually lose mass as we age. However, brain mass in long-term meditators doesn’t lose as much mass when compared to brains of non-meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains are less likely to suffer from dementia and memory loss, possibly because neuro-networks stay strong and healthy.

Meditation or mindfulness is often taught to people who have suffered brain injury and the results can be very encouraging. Neurons can be stimulated to form new connections and thus achieve partial repair.

So, there really is a connection between meditation and brain health. Yogis have been advocating this for many many years and the latest research would suggest they are correct. The team at Trinity have provided a deeper understanding of the neurophysiological benefits of this ancient concept.

Perhaps the secret to a healthy brain is indeed to practice regular breath-focused meditation.

For more on meditation, take a look at my podcasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The benefits of forest bathing

What is the main similarity between sushi and forest bathing?

They are both imports from Japan!

When sushi first arrived on the shores of the UK there was much scepticism about the food. But look at how it has taken off. Perhaps forest bathing will go the same way.

What is forest bathing?

Many people might think forest bathing is something to do with swimming in a river that flows through a forest. In fact, it has nothing to do with swimming, nor bathing. Instead, it is all about using your senses to soak up the atmosphere of a forest.

Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Surprisingly, it is also one of the most heavily forested countries too. In the 1980s, The Japanese government, concerned about high stress levels, carried out research that found a two-hour forest-bathing session reduced blood pressure and lowered cortisol levels. Cortisol spikes during periods of stress and although we need this steroid, continual high levels can be detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees release phytoncides, which are antimicrobials. These help to protect them from insects and bacteria. The research in Japan concluded that phytoncides could have an anti-microbial effect on humans. In Japan, forest bathing, known as shinrin-yoku, was introduced as a national health programme.

More recently, the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Japan’s Chiba University, measured physiological effects of 280 people. Blood pressure, cortisol levels and pulse rates were measured during a day in the city and then compared with the same biometrics taken during an hour in a forest. The study found that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol and greater parasympathetic nerve activity, which is associated with stress reduction.

Scepticism

Yes, I was definitely sceptical when I first read all this stuff about tree-hugging. And then I thought, why not give it a go. I started researching shinrin-yoku a few years ago and I am now fully hooked on the concept. I have always enjoyed walks in the forest, but I have found a whole new dimension to time amongst the trees.

Forest bathing is not simply ‘walking in the forest’. Instead, it is about allowing all your senses to experience mindfulness in nature. It is a form of meditation.

I often take small groups into the forest for art and photography therapy. One of the first things I do now is to get my group to sit down and close their eyes. I ask them to concentrate and to ‘feel’ the ground beneath their feet. After a few minutes, I ask them to concentrate on their breathing and to enjoy inhaling the scent of pine trees. Next comes sound. Concentrating on the different sounds of the forest can reveal amazing things that might otherwise be missed. Finally, after about 15 minutes, I get my group to open their eyes and look up into the canopy. I challenge everyone to find at least twenty different things. Usually they spot many more than this.

Mindfulness in nature can really help to reduce stress, and to bring about a feeling of happiness and contentment.

I would highly recommend spending some time in a forest. But don’t just walk amongst the trees, instead enjoy all they have to offer the senses. You could even end your forest bathing session with a Japanese tea ceremony, which involves taking tea infused with foraged nettles, pine needles or blackberries. The first cup is traditionally offered to the forest, as a thank you.

Let me know if you have tried forest bathing and mindfulness in nature.

 

 

 

 

 

They are not laughing now

I know this an old story, but I like to keep it alive. It is a story of hope for everyone who has self-doubt and for those who hide behind a caricature they present to the world.

Whenever I work with a new client, particularly those who are struggling with their identity, I always send them a link to a clip on YouTube. The reaction I usually get from people who haven’t already seen the clip is incredible. Most people are moved by the shy 47-year-old who has spent her life being dismissed and written off. I have watched it many times and I am still moved by it today.

I am talking about Susan Boyle. She lived in a small town in Scotland, and she dreamed about being a professional singer since she was 12 years old. Susan was bullied at school and she suffered from mental ill-health throughout her life. Shy, retiring, and a person with massive self-doubt describes Susan. I could go on and on with words such as ‘lacking self-confidence’, ‘insecure’ and ‘reserved’ – all of these describe Susan Boyle.

But Susan had a dream, and she kept hold of that dream. In many ways, I think her desire to achieve her aim was stronger than her low self-esteem. Her dream kept her going.

Persuaded by friends and relations, Susan took the plunge and applied for the TV show, Britain’s Got Talent. When she stepped onto the stage at the auditorium in Glasgow, the judges laughed, winced and cringed as the very nervous Susan Boyle tried to introduce herself. The audience was laughing too. They were anticipating an awful performance. Judges and the audience had written-off Susan before she got started. They were looking at the outside of the person rather than anticipating what was within.

And then an incredible thing happened. Susan raised the microphone and she started to sing. Within 30 seconds the audience were on their feet. Susan delivered a stunning performance, a performance for every person who has ever felt they were robbed of hope.

At the end of the performance, Susan watched the packed auditorium deliver a standing ovation. The presenters, Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly, grinned from cheek to cheek. The judges’ expressions were of shock, surprise and wonderment.

Piers Morgan, one of the judges on the show, said: “Without doubt, that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years on this show.” Morgan told Susan, “When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said, ‘I want to be like Elaine Paige,’ everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now.”

That audition was almost ten years ago and since then Susan has gone on to release many albums and has toured the world. However, she has been suffering with health problems and hasn’t done very much, at least musically, for the last three years. But things are changing again because she will be releasing a new ‘come-back’ album before the end of the year.

I think Susan’s story is great. People who watch the clip are often inspired to do things they have been dreaming about. They give it a go regardless of what people think of them. That is the crux of this tale. Not everyone will end up with a £50 million fortune like Susan Boyle, but everyone can give it a go.

People might mock, they might laugh, and they might try to discourage you from your dream. Don’t let them. Hang onto your dream and visualise it. If you want something badly enough, give it a go. Let them laugh and mock if they want to, because deep inside you will be fulfilled and happy.

Please watch the clip and let me know your thoughts.

 

 

 

Get rid of the toxic people from your life

How many times do you get to work in a really positive mood, thinking the world is at your fingertips, only to find that your enthusiasm and energy is sucked out of you before you’ve had your first cafe latte of the day?

I worked with a woman who spent the first 20 minutes each morning ‘offloading’. I would get to work about an hour before Wendy (not her real name), and I would often sit at my desk really pleased with life and enthusiastic about the day ahead. I would dream about my successes and I would enjoy being me. Then Wendy would come in!

Wendy saved up all her troubles from the day before so that she could offload each morning. She wouldn’t talk to me or with me, no, she would talk AT me. Wendy would rant about other people and how they were stupid, incompetent and how they were making her life miserable. I would eagerly wait for Wendy to shut up. Left deflated, I would rush out for a double espresso in a full fat latte – with a triple chocolate muffin on the side.

Wendy sucked the energy from me. Wendy was a toxic person.

Interestingly, I had a psychotherapy session with a client a few weeks ago. She is desperately trying to succeed in her job and she is very ambitious. However, every day she seems to burn out quickly; her energy and enthusiasm dissipates by mid-morning. Thinking she was ill, she visited her GP but thankfully there was nothing physically wrong with her. During our session it became obvious what the problem was; she worked with a Wendy! The toxicity from her colleague was sucking the energy from her and was causing her great anxiety.

I thought it might be a nice idea to reflect on my session with my client and put some thoughts together about toxic people. They really can cause harm.

If you work in an office, especially an open plan office, take a few minutes to listen to people around you. How many of them, while on the phone or talking to a colleague, are negative? How many people criticize others, complain about other people and generally rant about how hard their lives are being make by other people? They are all toxic!

How many toxic people are sucking your enthusiasm?

It is not the person that is toxic – it is their behaviour

If you want to succeed in life it is important that you remain enthusiastic and motivated. It is equally important that you recognise things that might be negatively affecting your enthusiasm. It is important to recognise toxic people in your life. Sometimes you can’t get rid of them completely and rarely will you be able to change them, but it is important that you recognise them and recognise their impact on you.

Whenever I have a life coach session with one of my clients we talk about ‘developmental blockers’. These are things that are blocking you from achieving your goals. Developmental blockers can often be people – toxic people in particular.

It is not the person that is toxic, it is their behaviour. Sometimes people offload onto others because they haven’t been able to accept their particular situation, therefore everything and everyone else is to blame. They cherish the opportunity to rant to another person about their crisis. They are usually in much need of therapy but they haven’t recognised this in themselves. So, they offload onto others.

Most toxic people are indeed in crisis. They create dramas in their lives so that they can become the center of attention, thereby manipulating others. They try to get their needs met through criticism of others and through bemoaning their bad fortune. Just think about some people you work with or people you know.

Often, toxic people will leave you drained of energy, sometimes you might compromise your own values when talking to them. It is really important, for your own survival and success, to recognise your role in the interaction with toxic people, so that you can acquire defence mechanisms.

Typical traits of toxics

Do you know a toxic person? Think about people in your life who might show some, or all, of the following.

Toxic people are manipulative. They want to use other people to accomplish their own goals and objectives. Nothing is equal in their relationships though, it is all about them and their terms.

Toxic people are highly judgemental. They will be the first to criticise others while never accepting their own faults. They never apologise.

Taking responsibility for your own feelings is a wonderful trait to have. However, toxics will never do this. They will blame others for their own feelings. They are always the victim and they will use their victim status to seek sympathy from others.

One of the most interesting aspects of a toxic person’s behaviour is their ‘divide and conquer’ attitude. They will almost always want to make you chose them over someone else.

Have you ever had the feeling that you need to defend yourself and your actions when talking to a colleague at work? Well, that is not surprising because toxic people will shoot your ideas down quickly, and they will seldom be interested in your point of view.

Whenever I talk with my clients about relationships they have with other people some key phrases come up time and time again. My clients often say things life “I feel emotionally wiped out after speaking to her” and “I am left frustrated and unfulfilled”. These are common feelings when working with toxic people. They can drain your enthusiasm, leaving you feeling inadequate and unworthy.

Surviving toxic behaviour

Researchers in Germany, from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, found that exposure to negative stimuli caused their subjects’ brains to show massive stress responses. They concluded that whenever we are subjected to something negative our brains treat this as a stress. Electrical energy in our brains change, which affects our short-term mood. So, unbeknown to us, these toxic people are actually having a biological effect on us.

We can’t avoid toxics, they are everywhere. But we can develop strategies to neutralize their effect on us. Here are a few suggestions.

If you were to sit next to someone who blew cigarette smoke in your face, would you continue to sit and take it? No, of course not. Yet, you might be willing to sit and listen to a negative person while they wallow in their problems. It can seem rude to stop them but there is a fine line between being helpful by listening and getting the life drained out of you. Ask them, very directly, how they are going to fix their problem. See what happens when you do this. Toxics don’t like to come up with solutions, so asking them how they are going to solve their problem can have a dramatic effect.

I often suggest to my clients that they think of themselves as a counsellor. When listening to a toxic rant, imagine yourself as their therapist. You listen intently and try to put yourself into their world. At the end of the session, think about how different (and good) your world is compared to their one. This technique is called distancing and it helps to put a barrier between their life and your own.

Recognition of your own emotions is critical. Think about your own emotions. Are you getting wound up by the person’s rant, or are you near to breaking point? Are you praying that the floor opens up so that you can get a break from the barrage of negativity. Recognition of your own feelings while listening to others can work wonders for your own sanity. It actually puts you on a higher plane than your speaker. This is another form of distancing.

Where you focus your attention will determine your emotional state. If you think negatively, your brain’s neurons will make connections that store those negative thoughts. This is why cognitive behavioural therapy is a wonderful tool, because it changes your thought process – more on this later. You can use a similar technique while listening to a toxic. While they moan and groan in their negativity, you need to turn those thoughts into positives. For example, while they go on about a colleague, in your own mind you should picture the colleague and think about positive things about her, things that you like and admire about her. You could reflect these back to the toxic to see how she reacts. Distancing yourself and your world from the toxic’s world is a crucial element of maintaining your sanity.

Toxic folk can be good for us

You know, I actually learned a lot from working with Wendy. I certainly learned how to distance myself so that her world was kept very separate from my (nice) world.

I need to catch up with my client to see how she is getting on with her colleague.

I would love to hear your tales about toxic people you might know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have a rare personality?

According to the Myers-Briggs personality model, the INFJ is thought to be the rarest of personality types. INFJs read people very well and they can easily see ‘behind the mask’ that some people unconsciously wear. They are people with many layers, they can be mystical and very private and, above all else, they are rare. Sound familiar?

Firstly, let’s look at what I mean by the Myers-Briggs personality model. During the early part of the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung, an early psychologist, came up with a theory that each one of us falls into the category of ‘introverts’ or ‘extroverts’. Introverts tend to focus on their internal world while extroverts prefer to focus externally.

In the 1920s, Jung’s theory was further worked on by Katherine Cook Briggs. She was a teacher and had a fascination with personality types. Together with her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, they developed a 16-personality model, now known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (trade marked in the US).

The Myers-Briggs model is based on the idea that we have basic preferences, and these can be categorised into four main areas. These are:

Do we prefer to focus on the outer world or do we prefer to focus on our own inner world: Extroversion (E) or Introversion (I)?

Do we prefer to focus on basic information we take in or do we prefer to interpret and add meaning to the information we get: Sensing (S) or Intuitive (I)?

When making decisions, do we prefer to look for the logical or do we prefer to consider the people element: Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)?

And finally, do we prefer decisiveness or do we prefer to remain open and procrastinate for a while: Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)?

Now then, if we put all of the above together, we get 16 variations. For example, an ISTJ person is someone who is systematic, factual, organised and pragmatic, while an ESFP is a person who craves excitement, is energetic and sociable.

Back to the rare people

You might think that, because there are 16 personality types or combinations, there would be an equal amount of each in the population. However, this is not the case. The most common personality type is the ISFJ, with just over 13% in the population. The least common, with only 1.5%, is the INFJ.

INFJs are gentle and caring but intensely complex individuals. They look for hidden meanings in things and they rarely take situations at face value. One of their greatest strengths is their ability to ‘feel’ things and to intuitively understand other people. INFJs have been known to experience psychic intuition. Their sixth sense can often be difficult for them to explain, so they give up trying, which can leave them feeling isolated and misunderstood.

It is not unusual for INFJs to absorb other people’s emotions. They don’t just sense the emotions of others, they can actually feel them in their own bodies. No other personality type does this quite like an INFJ. They truly have superpowers!

Shallow and one-sided relationships don’t usually work for INFJs. As introverts, they have limited social energy therefore finding their true soulmate can be difficult. When they do find that person, they will feel like a miracle has happened.

A word of caution

As a professional psychologist and counsellor, I sometimes use Myers-Briggs as a starting point at my consultations. I know from doing the tests myself that the results can be consistent, so I am a great fan of the theory. However, I must stress that there is an awful lot of misrepresentation online about personality traits. I have come across websites that claim to predict how unstable each personality type can be and how some are more susceptible to mental health problems than others. Let me assure you, there is no conclusive research so far that shows specific traits are more or less likely to suffer from mental illness.

Having said the above, discovering your personality trait can be good fun. There is a great free test at http://www.16personalities.com.

Let me know if there any other INFJs out there!