Anxious and Excited

Being calm is by far the best. Yet, our biology cannot simply switch to being calm if we are stressed or under pressure. So if we find ourselves in a situation where we are anxious, the road to recovery may go through excitement.
Apparently, excitement and anxiety are very similar. When people freefall for the first time, they experience very similar symptoms: the body is agitated, heart rate increases, throat constricts, muscle tense, dilated pupils, hands are sweaty, etc… The only difference is the fear they experience. While one group imagine how wonderful the outcome will be, the other imagine things going wrong. Their level of worry is different. While it is healthy to imagine things potentially going wrong to take precautionary steps, it is equally important to imagining how wonderful things might go, to deal with an up coming challenge. A certain cocktails of chemicals have been produced in our body to respond to the perceived threat – our fight or flight mechanism has already been set in motion and may take minutes to clear our system. Trying to adopt a meditative state at this stage may be counter-productive. Instead, it may be helpful to remember that not all stress is bad, and that it can help us perform better in situations where we are under pressure to do well. The difference is that when we are anxious we imagine a terrible outcome, whereas when we are excited we imagine a positive one.
When anxiety hits us, it is usually very effective to think up of an action we can take that may help reduce the perceived threat and turn our apprehension into an healthy excitement – and follow this by some form of movements. Going for a brisk walk, or skipping in the corridor for few minutes may well play the trick in helping us recover our calm. Finally, breathing through our nose and lengthening our exhale will make us more breathful and aware.

This series of short posts are part of Incrementally – a 366 day writing challenge.

Photo by Filipe Dos Santos Mendes

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In Love with Breath

There is a causeless joy that can emerge when, like children, we wake to the moment and bask in conscious breathing. Once we let go of the crust of our conditioned ego, our thought-filled mind movie, our self-importance, we can be in touch with an underlying innocence that is content with life as it is.

When we witness the magic of every day consciousness so simply expressed in the breath, we experience a contentment that approaches unconditional love. Touching the pervading life force in everything, watching the coming and going, the eternal and the transient. Some call it meditation, what if we just called it awake breathing.

We can all be in love with our lives, when we are in love with our breath.

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To Do and Not To Do

We all have to-do-lists.
Some of us may prefer not to bother writing them down and keep them in our heads. Others may have simple lists of tasks and commitments, jotting them down on paper or electronically so as not to forget. Others still, may have more elaborate systems with priorities and calendar functions with reminders. Lastly, there are those of us who use robust time-management tools and techniques, to not only stay on top of our to-dos but also to balance our life-work responsibilities and help us focus on short, medium, and long term goals. This is all very fine, but how much do our to-do-lists define our lives? And will we ever feel fulfilled by this seemingly never ending conveyor belt of activities?

Getting things done can be quite addictive as it gives us a sense of purpose, engages our problem solving minds and feels rewarding when we become better and better at juggling and keeping up with it all. The problem lies in that we may neglect its equally important polar opposite: not doing.

Doing nothing may sound boring or even unpleasant, yet I would like to argue here that it is not only necessary for our health and wellbeing but it may actually also be highly fulfilling. Whereas ‘doing’ deals with the measurable, ‘being’ dwells in the immeasurable.

There is an art of being idle, to take the time to enjoy the simple act of breathing, to contemplate the beauty of life and to adopt a child-like carefree alertness. These ‘acts of being’ are not reserved to the poets, philosophers and religious people – they are accessible to everyone.

With practice, we quickly recognise how good it feels to give ourselves a few moments of peace each day. Once we are able to put on hold all the things we have to do, even momentarily, we may touch a sense of freedom that we use to experience as children.

There is nothing wrong with the “to-do”s so long as they leave enough space for the “to-be”s


Photo by Kai D.

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The Habit of Thought

habit-of-thoughtMost people believe that there are good and bad habits. In the last few years, I have been focusing on getting rid of bad habits and establishing ‘healthy’ ones. I have also been interested in awareness, mindfulness, and presence. Habits tend to make us mechanical, and one wonders if there is such a thing as a good habit?

At times, I wish that I had a distinct habit such as smoking or biting my nails – clearly noticeable by others and obvious – so that I could work at understanding the mechanism and attempt dropping it. Unfortunately, it would seem that I am not addicted to any substances such as coffee, tea, alcohol or even sugar. I am not claiming to be free of habits, but I would like to identify a conspicuous habit that I could focus on and tackle.

Some years back, my eldest son observed that I always seemed to start talking as soon as there was a silence. I have to admit that I am very talkative – even verging on being a compulsive talker and I wonder if that would be the right candidate?

Interestingly, I am about to embark on an experiment that is the perfect opportunity to tackle it head-on. I am on my way to Nashik in Western India where I will go on a 10-Day Vipassana Meditation retreat. It is the first time that I will be quiet for longer than a few hours! It will undoubtedly challenge my talking habit.

The real intention of the retreat, though is to go into a more deep-seated habit still: the habit of thought. Could it be the habit that ends them all?

Photo credit: Vincentiu Solomon

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All we need is…

All we need

All we need is desire!

Really? Surely not. Isn’t desire both the creator and destroyer of love? What is desire anyway? Either latent or active, some suggest that it is the unwavering spark of life. Others claim that it is the voice of the ego and therefore it should be tamed or even gotten rid of.  Whatever it is, we have all experienced it and understanding it, I believe, is key to our well-being.

It is very difficult to look at a desire, actually and factually, for it tends to be emotionally loaded and when active it tends to take over our discerning faculties. Commonly, we focus on the object of desire, not its source or how it manifests itself. A desire often feels like an urge or an itch that needs to be acted upon. The usual reaction is to either be led by the desire or to judge it, to condemn it or to repress it. Both approaches are reactions which don’t help us understand the nature of desire, but I wonder if it is possible to watch it and to pause. This is where mindfulness becomes very useful.

While practicing, I have observed that I had two types of impulses linked to desire. One which is triggered by the real world and my senses and one which is triggered by memory. Without labelling them as good or bad, I have noticed that the former opened doors while the latter tended to close them.

Let me take an example. Imagine that you find yourself in front of a waterfall, it is beautiful and inviting – you have the desire to go under it and to experience its strength and the pool that it has created. This desire may help you to overcome your initial apprehension and to go out of your comfort zone and experience something new. There may be another desire, which is to re-live the sensation and pleasure that you might have experienced under another waterfall. In this second instance, your desire may prevent you from fully enjoying the present situation.

Understanding the nature of desire is complex, but the more one looks at it without judgement the easier it is to stop turning it into a problem. In fact, desires offer opportunities to understand ourselves and many desires are guided by love. Our thoughts and possessive nature can also create desires but with the right attention, one can detect them.

Maybe, all we need is awareness!


Photo: Jeffery Workman

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Doing our best

Our best

Expectations are a plague; not only other people’s but also our very own. My impression is that we all tend to have higher expectations than what we can actually manage and very often it stops us from doing our best.

This sounds perhaps contrary to the dominant contemporary mindset. In the world of business, education, politics, sports, and entertainment, there is a general belief that competition is good and that always aiming higher will raise us above our best. In a limited way, it probably does (that is for the winners ) – but for the large majority, it leads to a feeling of never being satisfied, failure and frustration.

With this mindset, there is constantly a gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’ and this creates conflict. We often believe that this gap will motivate us to change and better ourselves, but as long as our actions are based on conflict or fear, they are bound to be fragmented and lacking. I am not suggesting that we should aim for mediocrity or accept stagnation, on the contrary, I am calling for doing our best. I don’t mean striving to do our best – I mean, actually doing our best.

There is an entirely different attitude which is based simply on ‘what is’ and on who we truly are. The moment we stop striving to be different, and move our attention away from the idea of being better, we can meet reality with a new awareness that guides us to do our best – intelligently and with care. Doing our best stops being an expectation, and becomes a way of being. That is the real Plan B(e)!


Photo: Bill Williams

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Selfless moments


Consciously or unconsciously, we think about ourselves almost all of the time, and this is tiring. We are continuously preoccupied with thoughts, and this is tedious. We know this because sometimes we have short respites and feel very present to the moment. We may be in nature or engrossed in an activity and lose our sense of self. Is it at all possible to create or reproduce these selfless moments?

For many years, my ego has battled with my ego. I have tried to still my mind, and the whole exercise of finding inner silence has been frustrating. I have sat quietly under trees, spent time alone in nature, swam in cold lakes, stood under waterfalls… always with my internal ‘walkman’ on. The chatter would slow down, and my thinking would become clearer, my heart would feel more opened, but stillness would escape me. It made me wonder whether I was wired differently from all those who claimed that they experienced true silence.

Then, I heard about mindfulness and sensory awareness and things changed. The bar was lowered, I no longer was aiming for something I had never experienced. Mindfulness, the way I understand it, is to be as present as possible to the moment. Sensory awareness is paying attention to the senses first one by one and then together. One does not have to do anything special but breathe, listen, watch, and feel. There are some exercises and practices, but I feel that it is important to start simple and not being an expert on the matter I would rather leave it at that for now.

Mindfulness is something we can do every day at all sorts of different times and locations: when we brush our teeth, when we walk, when we wait for a bus, when we eat, when we wash the dishes, when we exercise, etc. At times this awareness comes naturally, we are so taken by an activity or the environment we find ourselves in, that we lose our sense of self. These moments may be fleeting, but the more we become aware of them, the more they surprise us. We can invite them but we cannot control them.

Life would probably be very different if we spent less time protecting our images and worrying less about what people thought of us. We may be very attached to our habits of thinking and don’t fully realise that it is responsible for a lot of suffering. Experiencing moments of inner peace and oneness can open a door to another way of being. We don’t have to banish the ego, simply become more skilful at experiencing the world around us with all our senses. It is different to understand those selfless moments, for there is no active other to witness it. The only thing that can be felt is the residue of that internal quietness that resembles the rush of being by a waterfall.


One sentence journal – day 18: “I am so grateful to have persevered with this challenge; writing has never been easy for me but it is starting to become more natural.”

This is the last post of a 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Loic Lopez


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Truly grateful


Culturally, we are so result-oriented that we often forget to enjoy the journey. We work so we can play, we exercise so we can be healthy, we cook so we can eat. There is nothing wrong with planning, having objectives, and looking forward to something, unless it spoils the present moment. One way to become more alert and alive is to develop gratitude.

Last year while in Bali, we went on a small boat to look for dolphins. The moment we spent with them – witnessing them jump out of the water and swim effortlessly – was magical. But I was also grateful for the whole experience on the boat. It was not about how close we could get to the dolphins, or how much time we spent with them. Swimming in the calm sea, looking at the clouds, relating with the local boatman, enjoying each other’s company as a family. Gratitude does not necessarily need to be pointed at anything; it can be for something intangible. In fact, it would seem that gratefulness for the whole is more potent than being grateful for one thing.

We don’t have to be grateful only when good things happen to us. When we are struggling, we can become grateful for the learning process that we are going through. When we are bored, we can start looking around at our surroundings or internally and feel grateful. When we want to be finished with a task, we can pause and feel grateful – and approach the activity with a renewed attention.

Being grateful stops us taking things for granted. As I am writing these lines, there are two house flies trapped on a higher pane of my study window.  For some reasons, at the moment, this window has become a sort of fly factory. Every hour more of them appear as they hatch from their winter hibernating place. A bit like newborn lambs wobbly on their legs, it is fascinating to see them take their first flight. They do not take to the air with the same assurance as what we are normally used to seeing. I have stopped writing to look at them. It is warm, and they are quickly maturing and desperately trying to go towards the light. I opened the window to let them free and felt the Spring air on my face. I become aware of the birds singing and the sound of motorbikes in the distance.

The day seems more magical now that I have been brought to my senses. I could be annoyed at my fly infestation, but I am grateful that it has given me the opportunity to pause and to practice mindfulness. It also reminds me of a new acquaintance of mine who notices the wonder and the awe in small things. She is an inspiring lady approaching her eighties, and I appreciate her genuine gratefulness for being alive. It shows on her wrinkled face and radiates from her whole being. (Please note that apart from her  palpable humanity, my new friend bears little resemblance to the Mexican woman in the photo).

Gratefulness is an attitude; like a muscle, it can be exercised. It needs to be felt genuinely, though. It cannot be faked. To be truly grateful is not to be looking at the bright side, it is about noticing the brightness whenever and wherever we are – even in the darkest moments.


One sentence journal – day 14:
“My body is stiff, my breath is slow, and my mind is clear; it must have something to do with Ashtanga coming into my life.”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Ismael Nieto

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Cloud watching

cloud watching

When we are in a good mood, we tend to have a greater perspective on events in our lives and are overall more resilient. We are ready to take more risks, and we don’t take things too personally. Conversely, when we are in a bad mood, everything seems much worse, and the smallest bump on the road can become a source of irritation. In tempestuous emotional states, we are even capable of causing harm to people we love.  Seeing how impactful our moods are, there is a natural desire to be more in control of our them.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that moods are not easily controllable. Bottling up anger or frustration, for example, is asking for trouble. What we can do, though, is not feed them and try to release them. In the same way, as thoughts can be seen and let go of during meditation, we can watch our feelings and circumstances without being caught by them. It requires a little practice, but it is possible.

An image that is often used to help us visualise the process is cloud watching. With the right attention, we can look at what is coming our way as if it were clouds. I was reading about this last night and wondered if the practice would be made easier by actually looking at the sky. Living in England and not far from the sea, I have the advantage of the erratic British weather. A little word of warning, for those of us who are a little impatient it does not work very well when the sky is still! No matter – the act of looking up and gazing far above our heads can help us to change perspective.

Looking at clouds is often associated with children, poets, dreamers and carefree people – but it does not have to be. It does not hurt anybody to take a little break and look up. The sky is a great reminder that everything moves – even when things appear still. The worry or current problem that may overwhelm us currently will lift and pass by.

There is an important difference that is worth exploring between the real sky and our internal sky. The former is entirely out of our control, while the latter is often used as a screen or a lens on which we project our mind movies. In other words, a part of us is responsible for clouding our consciousness with old thoughts and feelings. The more we get caught in the drama that is played, the harder it will be to watch our current thinking. Internal cloud watching is best done without any screens, filters or tinted glass.

When caught in a mental tease is it possible to take a ten-minute break and practice cloud watching? First, if you can, observe the real sky and watch the movement or the vastness of it all. Then, look at the internal sky, the movement of your thoughts without being caught by them. Try to detect the projector and switch it off if you can. The problems won’t be solved, but a change of perspective and perhaps a shift in mood may occur.

Remember that life may bring some dark clouds, but everything is in constant motion, and we can expect most things to pass. Being good at watching the clouds can help us clear our inner skies.


One sentence journal – day 12:
“Going through family pictures on a computer is frustrating, pleasant, moving and also disconcerting. ”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Iren Petrova


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Life is impossible without change because life is change. Therefore, to meet life we need to embrace change. By planning and seeing the value and beauty of impermanence, we can significantly improve our ability to adapt.

Planning can be used as an adaptation tool. Things rarely go to plan and therefore we are called to readjust our course constantly. Good planning, in my view, is a balance between pragmatism and imagination: a dance between plan and play. But above all, our planning must include flexibility. Once the intention has been formulated, it can be let free to meet the real world where it may grow, flow or flounder.

The practice of developing a forward-thinking and adaptive mindset is one of our greatest potentials. I call this practice ZenPlan. We can learn to love the ever-changing nature of things as an opportunity to understand the world around us.

Everything comes and goes; everything is transient. This morphing reality is what makes life precious. Acceptance and readjustment can become a vehicle for awareness in action. The mind needs to be light and detatched if it is to be at peace with impermanence.


One sentence journal – day 7:
“I am so grateful that things are falling into place nicely; knowing that everything is impermanent, this could change, and so be it – for real contentment is unconditional!”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Demi Kwant

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