Friday, 29 August 2014

Give Your Brain a Break!

Could 'Mindfulness' be the key to your serenity?

Does our modern, technology rich, and often stress-filled world leave you with an over-stimulated mind and an inability to switch off?  Then read on…

This time of year’s perhaps not so bad, many of us have had summer holidays and time to relax in the company of our family and friends, leaving us feeling refreshed and our batteries re-charged.  However, we all know those lazy hazy summer months don’t last forever, and before we know it, it’s back on the treadmill! 

So, once the tan starts to fade and the sound of the sea gently breaking on the shore feels like a dim and distant memory, when the cold, dark winter months start to set in, and the stresses and strains of everyday life begin to take their toll , you may want to consider practising a little ‘mindfulness’.

I, for one, am a born worrier!  Add that to the fact that (like most people) I have an extremely busy life, working full time,  looking after a family and home, trying to fit in exercise and hobbies, (not to mention everything else in between), and it becomes virtually impossible to ever fully unwind.

We’re also now contactable right around the clock, every single day of the week (home or away), thanks to explosive developments in technology and social media over recent years. Don’t get me wrong, I rely on my mobile as much as the next person, but every now and again when I’m in need of a little peace and solitude, I would gladly go back to the times when we didn’t even have a landline to the house!

So, how can we escape the constant mental chatter, switch off and tune out all those stresfull distractions?  Well, instead of turning to that post-work Pinot (which I’m the first to admit, does seem to do the trick), I’ve been trying to train my brain to focus on living in the moment , not worrying about the past or fretting about what might happen in the future, just concentrating on the here and now… in other words ‘mindfulness’.

Now I know the idea of Meditation is nothing new, but it’s often associated with sitting in the Lotus Position, breathing in incense and humming ‘omm’ to some weird and wonderful music.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with that if it works for you, but it’s not for everyone (believe me I’ve tried it!)

According to an article I read a few months ago, there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness.  It’s simply about making regular time for yourself (5-10 minutes a day) to do nothing, to think about nothing but the moment, in fact time to just simply be!  Easier said than done?.. yes, very much so, but it’s worth persevering.

For you, mindfulness might mean simply sitting down, closing your eyes and turning your attention to your breathing, nothing else.  Concentrating on where you feel it the most, in your nostrils, your chest or the rise and fall of your upper body?

It might be that your mindfulness works best in the shower.  Focus on the sensation of the water against your skin, breath in and enjoy the scent of your shower gel, enjoy how your scalp feels when you massage in your shampoo.

Even just a good old coffee break can turn into mindfulness. Concentrate on nothing but the wonderful aroma of the coffee and the warm soothing feeling in your mouth and in your throat, really focus on each and every sip.

Bedtime might be the time for you, as you lay there, focus in turn on every inch of your body from toes to head.  Notice any feelings of discomfort or tension and try to imagine them easing away with each breath you take.

If your thoughts start turning to ‘I wonder what’ll happen in Corrie tonight’ or ‘damn I forgot to take the meat out of the freezer for dinner’, stop, and bring your attention right back to your breathing / showering / coffee sipping (I can do this for almost 10 minutes now without my mind drifting off – quite an achievement for me!)

It really doesn’t matter how or when you practice your mindfulness, all that really matters is that you’re taking time to focus your brain on tuning out distractions.  The trick is not to try and stop thinking all together (I for one would find that impossible), but to think only about the moment and the sensations your body is experiencing.

Apparently, practised regularly, mindfulness can reduce stress (in turn sharpening memory and concentration), and lead to an all-round happier brain.  Research also shows that mindfulness may support the immune system, improve sleep, lift energy levels and help with pain management.

Why not give it a go?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

All the Fun of the Festival

This summer, at the ripe old age of forty-six, I finally popped my ‘festival cherry’!

Now I like to think of myself as a kind of fun loving gal, and am always more than appreciative of a bit of quality live music, so why have I not donned my Wellies and Daisy Dukes, thrown my tent over my shoulder and headed off for a wild weekend in a field before now?

I’ve been to plenty of music concerts and one day festivals (in fact I’ve even performed at a few), and actually love nothing more than being out in the open air, dancing and singing, with the beat of a good strong drum and bass thudding in my chest.  Add a bit of sunshine (if you’re lucky), a few cheeky drinks and, well, that’s my kind of heaven.

What’s been my problem with a weekend of ‘festivalling’ so far then, and what made me change my mind this year?  Well, for a start, my ‘kids’ have been big festival goers over recent years, and I have seen the state they come home in!  I cannot begin to describe the smell of their clothes and tents (which were so bad on one occasion, we literally just binned the lot), not to mention the grey look on their faces and bags under their eyes, due to lack of sleep and a ridiculous excess of alcohol.  They’ve regaled me with tales of their “brilliant” weekends, involving activities which I won’t go into (all legal of course – well at least the ones they’ve told me about), but which are most definitely not my idea of fun. They also seemed to take great pleasure in watching me squirm as they described what had been their toilet and washing facilities for the past few days.

I did, when my family was young, dabble in the caravan thing, but I have never been a true camper (well, apart from once in a two man tent during my late teens, which resulted in tears and a last minute check-in at a local B&B, I’ll say no more!)  In fact, up until now, the very thought of sleeping under canvas has always filled me with horror and brought me out in a cold sweat!  Anyone who knows me well would vouch for this, and I think I’ve probably surprised many by taking the plunge this year (actually, no-one more-so than myself). 

So, what did make me reconsider and go for it this summer?  Well, I've always loved live music and I guess I was just feeling adventurous, in the mood to do something I hadn’t done before, something that was way out of my comfort zone… a new experience I could tick off my list etc, etc.   Yes, I know, you seasoned campers / festival goers are probably thinking ‘what on earth’s the big deal, she’s been camping not base- jumping!’, but for me, and my anxieties around camping (in particular the loos), it may as well have been base-jumping!

Anyway, how did it go?  In a deliberate attempt to avoid scenes of teenage alcohol induced carnage (which seems to be part and parcel of many of the larger festivals), we decided to go for the small, family friendly option (remember my blog is from a post-forty point of view ;-), and eagerly booked our tickets for Wickham. Where?! I hear you say.  Well, Wickham is a beautiful little village, two miles north of the town of Fareham (near Portsmouth), so it was a bit of a treck for us from up T’North, but well worth it.

The festival site itself (covered in masses of soft, glistening, golden straw - great for soaking up the mud!) is located in a picturesque rural setting on rolling farmland, which works perfectly with the general vibe of the festival, and is what I would describe as ‘Folkesque’.  Although this festival is described as a ‘Folk’ festival, the music is by no means exclusively Folk, and there really is something to suit pretty much everyone’s taste.  You may not find big names such as Dolly Parton headlining Wickham, but you will find an absolute wealth of talent and breath-taking musicianship on the main stage, including some fairly well-known acts such as James Blunt, The Lightening Seeds, The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, and Bellowhead. There were also a few other blasts from the past including Hazel O’Conner (remember her from the 80’s?!)…  I wasn’t exactly a fan of her’s back then, but I was very impressed with what she’s doing now, which is writing some fantastic music and singing alongside two amazingly talented lady musicians, one on keys, the other on sax.  I enjoyed Hazel’s set so much that I bought the CD.  There were also two other smaller stages, one featuring new, young talent and the other dedicated to acoustic sets.

As with most festivals I guess, there were loads of craft stalls, real ale tents, an international food fayre, children’s entertainers, vintage clothes stalls, a pop-up bar, a solar cinema and so on.  As I was determined to completely embrace my first time festival experience, I wasted no time in getting into the spirit by buying (and wearing for the whole weekend) a flower headband and a ‘hippy’ style hoodie, having a henna tattoo, sampling a different culinary delight every day (with plastic cutlery, from polystyrene containers, whilst sitting on the floor), and of course drinking copious amounts of alcohol. I even bought myself some incense sticks and an ash catcher.

Wickham itself (which we visited one day for some more cash – no cash machines on site), is a lovely little village and well worth a trip. There was also a local Farm Shop and Tea Rooms right next to the campsite – very handy!

If we had one complaint about our festival experience, it would be on the subject of our wrist bands.  On arrival at the festival site, we joined a fairly lengthy, snake-like queue to receive our bands.  We were expecting this to be the case though, and the queue was dealt with pretty quickly and efficiently by the friendly and welcoming festival staff. We were however rather hoping for a nice colourful fabric wrist band, as we’d seen the kids come home with from other festivals (and then not take off for six months or more!) Instead we got plain, plastic bands that scratched every time they brushed against your skin (a bit like the ones you get when you’re admitted to hospital!).  Sorry Wickham, but at £150 each for a weekend ticket, we were expecting wrist bands with a little more style and comfort… yes I know, nit-picking!

So, we thoroughly enjoyed the whole festival experience, but what about the camping?  Well, we were greeted in Wickham on day one by lashings of rain, thunder and lightning… great!  Nevertheless, we zipped up our rain coats and got on with erecting the tent (I didn’t have a clue, and it was hilarious!) Luckily, my husband is a dab hand at this camping malarkey, so I was in safe hands.  In no time at all, the rain had given way to the sunshine, and we were pumping up the air bed to the sound of the kettle boiling away on the cute little camping stove (all quite a novelty to me!)

Even though I do say so myself, I think I coped well with my first camping experience.  I’d taken a hot water bottle so I wasn’t cold and miserable at night (one of my biggest camping anxieties was the lack of central heating!), and in fact found our tent to be really quite cosy and comfortable.  I wasn’t looking forward to struggling with a camping stove either, but was to be taken aback at how territorial my hubby was over his camping gear and how he insisted on cooking our bacon and eggs in the mornings (the only other time he cooks really is when we barbecue, although he can do a mean Sunday Roast when he puts his mind to it).  However, keen to fully involve myself in this new experience I insisted that I had a turn at cooking breakfast too… just the once though!

And so, to what was without doubt my biggest camping fear and anxiety of all… the loos!  On arrival at Wickham we had opted for the ‘quiet’ campsite, one of the reasons being that on this site you could park your car next to your tent, much more convenient than hauling your belongings over half a dozen fields.  However the quiet site did not have the ‘Posh Wash’ toilets and showers that were advertised on the festival website.  Instead our site had just four, 'Loos R Us' cubicles (you know the type I mean), and no showers. The loos were fine for the first day or two, but by day four were quite literally stomach churning!  Did I cry? no, not once.  Instead, armed with my own loo roll, wet wipes, and taking a very deep breath before I entered the cubicle, just got on with the job in hand.  Although we had read that the other campsite had “posh” loos and showers, it was a little bit of a walk away from our site, so we decided to just make do with the facilities at hand.  That is, until the last day when we decided on our way to the arena, that we’d check out these so-called posh toilets … wow, sheer luxury!  Beautifully clean, serviced toilets and showers equal to the standard of your average budget hotel, we had missed out, big time!  Ah well, lesson learned for our next visit, and I could take pride in the fact I had conquered my anxieties and survived the grotty loos!  In fact, speaking to one lady (who was a regular at Glastonbury), and said the toilets that we had been using were some of the worst she’d ever seen, strangely left me actually looking forward to my next festival and camping experience (not even the loos will spoil my enjoyment!)

And so, my new motto in life is going to be ‘to never again close my mind to anything, however fearful I am, without first giving it a go’.  Actually, I have tried to adopt this philosophy on life before and it’s not easy, but this time I’m determined… bring on the next new experience!

If you're looking for a gentle, family friendly, talent packed introduction to summer music festivals, Wickham could be just for you!

Thanks for reading