Walking in the rain

rainroom_sharjahThis is a photo of the Rain Room in Sharjah, taken by my friend Laura. This previously touring installation by Random International has found a permanent home in the desert and is a space of pouring rainfall that lets you experience up close and personal the sounds, humidity and visual experience of rainfall – except you don’t get wet. I’ve never experienced it personally – alas! – as I missed the exhibition, but I absolutely love the concept.

You may have heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. Have you ever gone out in the pouring rain? You probably didn’t possess the wizardry required to walk through it without any protective clothing, keeping utterly dry and untouched. So perhaps you let yourself get drenched. Perhaps you changed your plans to avoid it. More likely, you groaned a bit and wished you could stop the rain, but then you got out your wellies and jacket or umbrella and got on with your day. Maybe you factored in a bit more time to get the bus instead of walking, or changed your route to a more sheltered one. In other words, you altered how you acted in relation to the rain.

I really like this as a metaphor for difficult thoughts or emotions, or the scary stories we tell ourselves. Do you ever have problems achieving your goals because your mind is keeping you stuck? Maybe you tell yourself I can’t do it. Or I’m freaking out. Or I’m going to fail spectacularly. Pick your own favourite. 

If this strikes a chord with you, try this short exercise (adapted from Blonna, 2010).

  1. Imagine you’re about to go out but it’s just started pouring with rain. You don’t want to change your plans, but neither do you want to get drenched, and you know you can’t control the rain. So you get out your umbrella and your wellies, and you head out, and you get to where you need to be and do what you need to do. All the while the rain keeps falling, but it’s ok, because you’re shielded and the rain is bouncing off your umbrella and puddling around your boots.
  2. Now imagine that the thoughts that your mind is giving you about this task are just like the rain. You feel the drops starting and you say to yourself, I’d better get out my umbrella and my wellies.
  3. You open your umbrella and instantly you are protected from these thoughts. Like the raindrops, they bounce off your umbrella and wellies, and don’t interfere with your doing what you need to do.
  4. As you continue ‘walking in the rain’, tell yourself: Just as I can use an umbrella to shield me from the rain, I can use my metaphorical umbrella to help me live the life I want even though I am experiencing unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

The fact is, most of us would prefer to live our lives without having to walk in rainstorms. Unfortunately, life will be full of lots of bad weather, which we cannot control or get rid of. All we can really do is accept it and be willing to live our lives in the middle of it. And just like we do with the rain, we can move forward with our difficult thoughts, observing and accepting that they are there, and that that’s normal.

Here’s some rain. Here’s some fear. There’s no need to judge it or control it. You can be, and do, despite.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Blonna, R. (2010). Maximize your coaching effectiveness with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

I want to see

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I was thinking this week about something from last Sunday’s Gospel at Mass where the blind man says to Jesus, “I want to see.” I think we are all blind in certain ways, some of the time – whenever we can’t see past our assumptions, prejudices, hurts. The next time you find yourself holding a thought that isn’t helpful to you, try to take a step back. In what way can I see this differently? Am I responding to the present moment, or am I really reacting to something from my past?

Becoming a guided meditation leader

Meditation for fidgety skeptics

So I’m currently training to be a guided meditation leader. I’ve been meditating for some time and wanted to develop a new way in which to work deeply with my clients, which will become a core strand in the transformational development programme and retreats I’m planning to deliver this coming year.

It’s been really exciting to see my coaching practice develop over this past year. I originally trained with classic behavioural coaching models like GROW and later took on a career development specialism, but in finding my own identity as a coach this past year, after setting up Quiet Space last September, I have found myself making increasing use of psychological approaches alongside a growing affinity with a more philosophical style. I’m completing further training in psychological coaching later this month and am really looking forward to it!

My personal meditation practice is still in its infancy and will no doubt evolve, but right now it’s a mix of mindfulness and a way of connecting with God (I’m a practising Catholic). I find the science of it fascinating too. I’m a little way off designing and delivering my own group guided meditation sessions, but if anyone’s interested, they’re not going to involve crystals, chakras etc. as that’s not me. They will, however, involve candles, cushions, blankets and tea, and be suitable for fidgety skeptics. Probably.

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

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

Mindfulness and serendipity

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“Old sins cast a long shadow.”

I’m thinking about long-running negative repercussions of things. It’s a slightly unfortunate turn of thought, mainly because I’m sitting in a McDs in Stratford out of the rain while waiting for my son to finish his 11+ examination, about which I think I’ve been more worried than him this morning. If this were a test of mindfulness this would probably be my Becher’s Brook.

I’m reminding myself that if he doesn’t get through then it’s most likely the case that grammar school isn’t the right place for him. I find myself worrying, however, that if he doesn’t score well it will hit him hard – despite our always having consciously sought to teach him that your value doesn’t hinge on your achievements.

‘I think ‘failure’ and disappointment are lessons that it’s better to learn earlier in life. But just as instructive is the lesson that although some things may well haunt you late into life, exam results don’t need to fall into that category (incidentally, neither does redundancy, not getting the job, and other assorted career disappointments).

Whatever happens in life, what makes the real and lasting difference is what you learn from the experience and how you grow from it. All of us have a path to create, which, when we look back at it, might not remotely resemble any of our carefully-laid plans. But that’s the beauty of life – the magic of the things that happen when we are seeking other things. Serendipity 🙂

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

Copy of Action-priority matrix-2

You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Struggles with mindfulness

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On Wednesday night I was struggling to be mindful. I wrote this that night, and wanted to share my experience with you.

Took myself off to rugby training and did the best I could to work around the knee (I’ve injured it again). Was pretty pleased that I was able to engage with everything other than the team runs and a few of the drills. But I’m really quite irritated with one of the coaches at the moment.

As I write this I am stepping back to observe what I’m feeling and thinking. My conclusion is that I’m feeling quite defensive. Rugby has a way of bringing this out in me; I often feel like I’m on the periphery of the team and not good enough.

But you see, this is not actually anything to do with the team or the standard of my playing. What with having been away for so long, the old insecurities are all jostling for room beneath the surface. My passing was totally off and I’d already been feeling discouraged so when I was called ‘a bit kamikaze’ for the first time in my life it was a quick hop from defensive to bristling and protesting.

Rationally, I know he was right; it was a bit all over the place, and I did clear him out much better the next time. But I didn’t want to hear it, because as usual I feel like I should be much better at rugby by now. I feel like an outsider, just like I did in school. So the (legitimate) criticism made all my automatic barriers go up.

So I’m looking at all these thoughts right now. I have an attachment to a conceptualised self that always performs. I’m triggering memories that have no place in the present. I’m making a conscious effort, right now, to let this go.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Breath meditation and visualisation

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I’ve been thinking about breathing. It’s one of those things we do constantly, unconsciously (thankfully), but every so often we can really benefit from giving focus to what literally keeps us alive.

Take a moment to observe your breath. Is it deep and slow, or short and shallow? Stress often shortens the breath, making it more difficult for us to relax and sleep well. What is your breath trying to tell you right now?

I like to visualise walking along a beach. The sand is warm, the salt breeze just brisk enough, the waves folding rhythmically. As I walk, I consciously release the tension from my shoulders and start to follow my breath, observing as it expands my chest and how it deepens as I exhale fully. I try to surrender to the breath, not attempting to control it. As I walk on, I start to give focus to the pause between the in breath and the out breath, closing my eyes to receive the kiss of the salt air. My mind starts to wander away to the things I want to write about, the things I want to say, so I bring it back to the breath. As I try to lengthen the space between the inhale and the exhale, I remember not to hold the breath, but rather trust and receive it. My footsteps on the sand are sure, my heart full, my eyes clear.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd