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Ten breaths meditation

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I was moody today. On Wednesday and Thursday I talked to people about self-care recipes, and today I had to think about mine. I’d have liked to spend the entire day alone, but instead I had two kids, entrance exam prep and piano and violin practice to battle through – which took most of the afternoon – so, you know, gah. Also, I’m not speaking to the husband. Such fun! Good thing the weather was sublime so I sat in the garden and stared at the grass while getting agitated about how these Maths questions would be simple to solve IF YOU WOULD ONLY READ THE QUESTION PROPERLY AND DO IT STEP BY STEP LIKE I TOLD YOU.

See? Everyone has off-days. At times like this, when you feel steamed up and need headspace, try this meditation. It only takes a minute, so after that you can carry on with your bad day if you want. Or, you know, you can take a deep breath and remind yourself to get some perspective.

Ten Breaths Meditation
1) Start by stopping, whatever you’re doing, wherever you are. Keep your eyes open, but don’t stare manically at the cat.

2) Breathe in really deeply, to the count of five, and see if you can hold it for three counts, then breathe out to the count of seven. This is Breath One.

3) Repeat for three further breaths, counting each breath. Each time, on the exhale, let it be a release. Imagine you’re breathing out all the frustration, all the annoyance, all the irritation. Make the exhale really noisy if you want.

4) How patient can you be with each breath? How long can you make your inhale? The pause in between the inhale and the exhale? The exhale?

5) The fifth time around, let your breathing return to normal. Keep counting each breath, but this time, focus on the sensation of breathing. The rise and fall of your chest, the rhythm, the feel of the air you breathe out on your hand. If you forget what number you’re on, that’s ok – just restart from wherever you remember.

6) When you get to ten, you can stop. Tune back into your surroundings. How do you feel? (If you still want to strangle someone, you may want to continue for a bit. Or drink some gin, you know, whatever floats your boat, but meditation’s probably better for you.)

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

The problem of pain

I’ve been thinking about pain. A number of things have converged in recent weeks to cause this: my reinjured knee (currently waiting for MRI results and follow-up with the orthopod), my mother’s grief over the loss of her beloved cat, Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (if you haven’t read this, I thoroughly recommend buying it), and the daily catalogue of unhappy news from around the world. (On a lighter note, also the individuation report that I idly signed up for a while ago that told me I thrived on suffering. Apparently I have a ‘strange appreciation for pain’, although they did go on to clarify that they didn’t mean masochistically, which was helpful.) It seemed quite fitting that while participating in a group guided meditation a couple of weeks ago, one of the messages that came into my head was ‘pain is a teacher.’

In my more philosophical moments, I have mulled over the ‘problem of pain’ and why God allows suffering to happen. I am no theologian or philosopher, but you see, I think pain is part of life in all its fullness.

A few questions occur to me. Is pain necessary? What would life be like without it? What happens when you fight or run from pain? I’ll be clear upfront – I have no definitive answers to any of these questions. But it strikes me that these are worthwhile things to consider.

Is pain necessary? What would life be like without it?

Whenever I mull over what a life without any pain would be like I’m reminded of two things. The first is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and its citizens getting high on soma, which, as Huxley comments, has “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”. Except does it? People blissed out on soma are dull and torpid. The second is the childhood memory of when I learnt about leprosy and discovered that because lepers don’t feel any pain they end up losing parts of their extremities because of repeated and unnoticed wounds and infections. Pain, then, is a natural signal to us to stop and take stock of our reality.

I think pain allows us to become fully human. Is pleasure all we want in our lives? How can you value happiness if you never know anything else? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think suffering is necessary in order to find meaning and happiness. Seeking it out would just be masochistic. I just think that if it does find you, you have to embrace it, and find out what it’s teaching you, and then discover that your joy, whenever it comes, is all the more precious because of the contrast.

The Indian poet Rumi said this: “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter.” And then there’s one of my favourite verses in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

What happens when you fight or run from pain?

I think that often our first instinct, when confronted with pain, is to control or get rid of it somehow. Fight it, run from it, suppress it, avoid it. Sometimes this is reasonable and sensible to avoid unnecessary suffering, like anaesthesia during operations or pain relief in childbirth. Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to figure out what control we have over our situation, or indeed whether we should be trying to exert control over it in the first place.

If you’re in an unhappy position, I think you first have to ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do to change the situation or get away from it?” If there is, however, there then comes a second question: “Does it help me to do so?” If the answers to both of these questions are yes, then you take the necessary and appropriate action. But what happens if either or both answers are no? I think the key word for what I want to talk about here is acceptance.

Eh? Acceptance?

I often tell my clients that acceptance is not the same thing as resignation. It’s not about some sort of reluctant acquiescence or passiveness in the face of defeat. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in “Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness”, phrases it beautifully: “Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is – especially when you don’t like it – and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.”

I also love the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: “When there is no way out, there is still always a way through.”

Surrendering like this – letting go of resistance and working with rather than against your situation – may not come naturally, but I think learning how to live in this way is so worth it. You start by acknowledging that you are resistant, and then step away from yourself to observe what’s going on in your mind and what the pain is like. Then you allow the pain and the resistance to just be there, rather than pushing it away or trying to escape.

Here’s a little exercise* to show you what I mean. Pick up a large book (the heavier the better) and imagine that it represents all the pain and tears and unhappy thoughts that you’re fighting. Now grip it as tightly as you can, as if you’re trying to stop someone taking it away from you. Hold it up in front of you, gripping tightly all the while, and keep doing that for three minutes.

Done?

Now, place it against the wall, and push the book away from you, as hard as you can. Just keep pushing away all that pain. You’re managing to keep the pain at arm’s length, great. How long do you think you’ll be able to keep going?

And if I were to ask you now, while you’re pushing hard, to have an important conversation, or hug someone you love, how easy would you find that?

Every time you push something away, it’s at a cost to you. It may seem that the situation you’re in is causing your pain – and this may well be true – but the truth is, your resistance (and fear, and resentment, and anger) is also making it worse.

If you’re hurting, and if I were to ask you what you were running from, what would you say? Our personal demons come in all shapes and sizes. The trouble with running is that as long as you are doing this, your demon has a much greater capacity to hurt you. The key is in changing your relationship with it, understanding that you don’t necessarily have to identify with it, fight it, or get rid of it. It’s part of life right now. It is what it is.

So face the demon, and be tender with it. Hold it lightly, acknowledging its presence, and then put it to one side. Think about all the things you can do after you stop gripping that book and simply place it gently on the table next to you. It’s there, in the background, like some soft soundtrack that no longer demands you listen to it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

*adapted from ACT Made Simple, Russ Harris

Belief, perspective and creativity

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In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”

I love this for a number of reasons. Firstly because of the huge impact it can have when someone believes in you and your potential. Secondly because it illustrates beautifully how perspective can change everything. And finally because of the power of creativity – that amazing vision that we all have (even though so many of us need to teach ourselves to relearn it), through which we make connections between the previously unconnected and come up with something that no one has seen before.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Big I/Little i

Have you come across the big I/little i? The big ‘I’ stands for the self, and the little ‘i’s are everything about you that you could potentially rate (your looks, career, relationship status, level of fitness, how well-read you are, your education level, your weight, etc.).

The key mistake lots of people make is to equate the little ‘i’s with their complex self – “I failed that test; I’m the stupidest one in the class”, or “I can’t hold down a relationship; I am unlovable”, or “I put on 5 pounds; I’m disgusting”.

You start to see the absurdity of this if you flip the situation around and say “I came first in the test; I am superior to everyone else”, or saying that giving money to the homeless makes you a virtuous person (even if the next day you cheat on your partner).

You don’t rate yourself globally based on your ‘good’ behaviour, so why do it on the basis of your ‘bad’? When you focus on the big ‘I’, you are often in attack mode. When you focus on the little ‘i’s, knowing that none of them in themselves define you, self-acceptance is teaching you how to recognise and improve upon your shortcomings without labelling yourself and that label becoming your identity.

That inner critic? That label? That thing you think you did badly yesterday? That’s not you.

Big I/little i diagram from Neenan and Dryden, Life Coaching: A cognitive behavioural approach.

Card from the ACT deck, Timothy Gordon.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Pain is a teacher

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At Mass last week, I lit some candles today and prayed about pain, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A number of things have converged to cause this: the knee, my mother’s grief over the loss of her beloved cat, Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (if you haven’t read this, buy or borrow it), and the daily catalogue of unhappy news from around the world. (On a lighter note, also the individuation report that I idly signed up for a while ago that told me I thrived on suffering. Apparently I have a ‘strange appreciation for pain’, although they did go on to clarify that they didn’t mean masochistically, which was helpful.)

It seemed quite fitting that while participating in a group guided meditation recently involving the ‘ancestors circle’, one of the messages that came into my head was ‘pain is a teacher.’

In my more philosophical moments, I have mulled over the ‘problem of pain’ and why God allows suffering to happen. I am no theologian or philosopher, but you see, I think pain is part of life in all its fullness.

I’ll write more about my thoughts in my next article, but for now, if you’re experiencing pain I’m sending you love and praying that you find inner peace.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Be tender with your pain

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While meditating today I was visualising a companion by my side, just being there and being exactly who I needed. I was being bathed in the intense warmth and light of the sun and my companion was my guardian angel. He had huge wings, enfolding me when I needed to be comforted or simply held, lifting me when I needed to be carried or raised up, and racing alongside me in the wind when I was strong and filled with energy. (I don’t feel either strong or energetic right now, so carrying it is, mate.)

If you’re going through pain or difficulty, have faith. You can always deal with what is happening in this moment, and you can make the best of whatever situation you’re in. Remember you are loved. You can do this!

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Leave your ego at the door

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A little while ago I attended a webinar on coaching leaders ‘beyond their ego’. The material was based on the premise that IQ and EI are not sufficient for 21st century leadership, and that values, purpose, instinct, intuition and ethics are crucial in enabling one to operate beyond self-interest in order to become a truly radical, ethical, authentic and successful leader.

My summary: “Leave your ego at the door.”

It made me start thinking about my own ego in coaching. The role of the coach is to hold the reflective space and create a catalysing environment within which the coachee can gain greater awareness and be appropriately challenged in order to learn and grow. It’s not about the coach – the coachee creates the agenda, and is their own expert problem-solver.

When I was first training as a coach, I frequently found myself getting in the way. I was anxious about coaching well, but the paradox of this is that the more determined you are to be a good coach, the worse you get. What often happens is that you start listening with an ear to speak, in order to plan an incisive and profound question – just the one that will make your coachee have an ‘aha!’ moment. Of course, that means you stop actually listening to your coachee, and start following your own agenda rather than theirs. Oops!

I have learnt a great deal as a coach over the past seven years, but we all need reminders every now and again. In reflecting on my coaching sessions over the past few months I can see that I have been my clients’ best coach at precisely those times when I have left my ego at the door, with no attachment to the outcome.

I like that about yoga and mindfulness too – inhabiting a space without judgement, with compassion, in the present, full of heart. That’s the kind of coach I continually strive to be.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What is forgiveness?

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A little while ago, I had a coaching session in which a key theme was reconciliation. We talked about forgiveness and what that really meant. What was the motivation in seeking reconciliation? What outcomes were desired? Was it for the other person to apologise and admit they had been in the wrong? Or to say I value your friendship and I would very much like to make things ok between us again. Can we talk?

This is what I think forgiveness is about. You can’t control how other people will act, and if you allow their actions to dictate your responses, you can end up becoming resentful and bitter.

I think forgiveness is for your own peace, to allow yourself to move forward. If it’s conditional on the other person being sorry, what happens if they aren’t? If you make forgiveness a contract, you bind yourself to only being able to give if the other person does their bit. It doesn’t need to be reciprocal. It is, I think, fundamentally about saying: “I send you peace. I let go of this pain.”

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Quiet space

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I wanted to share with you why Quiet Space is called Quiet Space.

If you’ve read the Quiet Space blurb you’ll have read this: “Quiet Space is all about that space in our heads that we need for equilibrium and some preservation of sanity, and evaluation of the things that really matter to us. Quiet Space Coaching creates that space so you have room to think, talk, be listened to and understood.”

Inner space and stillness is an incredibly important element in our wellbeing. Yet so many of us spend our lives rushing from place to place, filling our days with busyness. And then social media often fills the gaps that remain in our schedules. Everything is always on the ‘on’ setting – and it’s exhausting.

In coaching, it is often in the spaces in between – the silences – where the real power resides. It’s where the magic often happens: the space of the ‘aha’ moments; the space in between words and thoughts. In those moments the tumblers of the lock fall into place and what may have been just out of reach suddenly takes on a marvellous clarity.

Wishing you calm, quiet space and amazing clarity of thought today.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd