mindfulness plain and simple

Book Review – Mindfulness Plain & Simple: A Practical Guide To Inner Peace (Oli Doyle)

If you type ‘definition of mindfulness’ into Google you get this –

mindfulness

This idea of focusing on being in the present moment, of actively practising and seeing what impact mindfulness and meditation could potentially have on me, is something I’ve been slowly working towards. As I’ve gone about my journey of confronting the mental issues that have plagued me for so long, of opening myself up to positive change in all forms, I’ve found that it has created a sort of snowball effect, the quest for positive change quickly moving from positive thought to manifesting itself in real events, each event having a sort of multiplying effect of positivity. There have been moments of resistance, but each time I have continued and moved through it.

Underpinning all of this in the last week and a half has been my practising of mindfulness, using the exercises and insights gained from this book. The simplest way to describe the impact reading it has had on me is to say that I’ve had a monumental increase in my mental clarity. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve taken from it is how our thoughts are just opinions, stories, the vast majority of which are unhelpful and negative. They either keep us locked in the past or project images of the future that so often do nothing but fill us with anxiety or fear or other debilitating emotions derived from a false reality (and let’s be honest, what actually transpires is actually never as bad as what our over active minds conjure up)

So the book essentially tells us to live in the now, the present moment, which is the only true reality. It gives you a framework to go beyond your normal thinking processes (see the above screenshot again for a definition of what this entails).

I think one of the biggest things I’ve taken from starting to utilise mindfulness is how, whilst it may sound like quite a passive activity, it actually manifests itself incredibly actively, from the way you interact with others in a calmer, more measured way, to the steady control you have over your mind, right through to complementing your personal goals and aims as you become more naturally focused on each task you do, rather than having the continuous running commentary or hum of the mind.

In truth there is so much more I could discuss about mindfulness and the start of the impact it is having on me, as there have been a multitude of thoughts and theories that have been sparked about the nature of happiness, our relationship with people, the world, the universe, what makes us tick, and even ideas about the nature of my bipolar.

I will though save those discussions for the future and leave this post simply by saying that if you are interested or intrigued by the notion of mindfulness and what it could do for you, I would highly recommend this book as a starting point.

As for me, I am continuing my own journey along this particular path and am currently reading The Power of Now and The Secret.

Restarting work on my novel

Over the last two weeks I’ve re-started work on my novel and my creative writing in general. The past couple of months saw me take my first significant break from writing in a very, very long time. I decided that taking a break was the best thing to do as my mind was divided in a million different directions owing to what was going on in my personal life. I needed time to take stock and analyse my life. Not surprisingly, when it came to looking at my writing goals and ambitions, I was realising how my productivity and quality had (quite obviously in hindsight) become inextricably linked to the ups and downs of bipolar. This was also true in relation to how many projects would get started but left unfinished.

I understand a lot of these issues afflict perfectly healthy writers and you could say that obstacles associated with things like motivation and discipline in relation to finishing creative projects and general management of productivity are all part and parcel of the struggle of getting things done.

But whilst this true, I can only speak for my own personal circumstances and say that for me these issues have been amplified a thousand fold due to my mental issues. The frustration for me comes from that fact that underneath the illness, my natural tendencies are ones that keep me very much on track when it comes to finishing all types of projects, whether they be creative or more personal goals. I have a strong inner work ethic and bundles of motivation. I’m naturally tenacious and focused. Again, most people can access these kinds of traits and use them effectively when they want something (although most find they fade after a while because they want instant results). All I can say is that I don’t have that problem when I am sound of mind; however long it takes for me to finish something, or get proficient at something, is how long it takes, pure and simple. Failures or problems along the way do not discourage me because you actually learn so much from difficult moments on a journey. You just have to keep moving forward.

The frustrating thing for me is that over the years, as I got steadily worse and with no idea what was going on in my head, I was only ever able to intermittently access what I call my ‘natural’ state of being. So, with everything that has happened this year, all stemming from me confronting and seeking help for my problems, it was time for a break as I began a new journey, which has involved educating myself on the effects of bipolar, looking at how it affected my life throughout the last ten years and learning about how it can be worked around so that I can live the life I want to lead.

When I say learning about how to work around it, I guess I really mean incorporating it fully into my life by a process of fully understanding it so that I gain control of it and not have it control me. One of the aspects of this, and one I’ve spoken about previously, is the power of routines. Keeping regular, strict routines and schedules is a proven method with which to gain some control over bipolar and as with all challenges that come your way, it is best to try and turn a weakness into a strength, a problem into a solution.

It isn’t nice to have bipolar, it isn’t nice to have to keep up strict routines and change your whole relationship and interactions with the outside world and friends. But they are minor inconveniences compared to the chaos of before and compared to the joy of starting to become grounded once again in your true self and not constantly being pulled one way or the other. Of course it is all early days but best to form good habits now and have the foundations in place, the kind of foundations that are really bloody useful when it comes to tackling a piece of work that is likely to be upwards of 80,000 words.

Knowing what I know about my mind now, it’s clear that the goals I set have to be realistic, manageable and have a certain amount of wriggle room in case of any issues that arise. So in terms of my novel, which I wanted to start from scratch and work on from the ground up, I had to ask myself what sort of timeframe I had in mind to have it finished. A year sounded realistic, achievable and doable. But it wasn’t specific enough. How many words a week? A month? A day even. The figure of 2,000 words a week popped into my head (I don’t know why 2,000 specifically, it just did). That’s more than doable I thought, in fact it’s a positively simple ask. And of course, the numbers add up because 2,000 words a week x 52 weeks = 104,000 words, which is nice, I mean I don’t even think this novel will hit the 100k mark so that’s cool. As for the word per day calculation, well, 2,000 words a week/7 days a week = 285.7, so 286 words a day.

Now then, I challenge anyone not to be able to write 286 words a day, which is exactly what I have been doing. Every morning I get up at 5am, make myself a cup of green tea, and then work on my novel. I never spend more than an hour on it, and I usually do more than 286 words, but that routine, that schedule, that ritual, is something that is vitally important to me. I have to protect my writing goals and ambitions at all costs, especially when I get back to work, which is another reason for the start time I choose. Even when I’m back in work my writing time would be protected and I’d be able to ease into my day in a way that I find helps me stay in control. The point of all this is to, as much as possible, eliminate the possibility of failure. Do a small, even a tiny amount, each day. As long as it is manageable, you’ll do it. Even on a really bad day, 286 words is ridiculously easy to achieve – especially when the time is carved out to do it. Every. Day. It doesn’t even require that much patience. A year passes very quickly.

I’m also working on a short story that the first draft will be finished for by next Wednesday. I’m planning on entering it into a few competitions, hence I have a word count to work too and can say confidently when it will be finished using the same criteria above.

So yes, I’ve restarted some of my creative projects and it feels good.

eat that frog

Book Review – Eat That Frog

Within this slight, 117 page, easily read, well executed book, you are given a variety of tips, techniques and tactics which you can use to make better use of your time, become more productive and ultimately achieve the goals you set out to achieve. That is the essence of what the author hopes to impart to you and I can quite happily say that I’ve already found it extremely helpful and I know that it will be one of those books that I come back to time and again to remind myself of all the advice.


 

Before I go any further about the book specifically, I want to quickly go over how this book came into my life, because it goes back to things I’ve spoken of before, like how sometimes it seems as if the universe is trying communicate with you.

Our house is currently on the market and after not having any luck with a traditional estate agent, we decided to try out Tepilo, which, to save time, I’ll just describe as a sort of DIY estate agent.

A couple of weeks ago a guy got in contact to say he was interested. He came round, had a look and explained that he was a property investor who bought properties, turned them into flats and then sold them on. When we sat down to discuss things further, what transpired was something that if I scripted it would seem too convenient. He asked why we were moving and my mum explained we couldn’t afford the mortgage anymore and it wasn’t something that would change anytime soon because she cannot work at the moment due to having ME.

This guy then opened up about his own story, saying how his life had taken one bad turn after another for him a few years ago until he found himself practically homeless at 29, before finding a job and doing an evening course in business and slowly building up to where he was today, a spectacular difference when you consider that he has won awards for his work within property redevelopment and now had an impressive portfolio behind him. He shared all of this with us and then started talking about his belief in positive thinking, to which my mum and I both chimed in that we were the same, whatever the problems are now, they won’t be problems forever etc.

He then started talking about books that had helped him, before making a list of specific ones that he recommended we read. Eat That Frog was on the list. He looked at me and asked what my plans were. I didn’t want to go into my whole life story, we’d already been speaking for a while, so I didn’t say anything about bipolar, or being halfway through a work program or that I myself was currently building myself up from my own personal low point and had plans to be in a job soon and would be looking to be renting my own flat and staying in London when we sell the house. So I just said that I was looking for work but that I’d be OK. He asked how old I was. At it happens, I’m also 29 (in fact I turned 29 exactly two months ago today), the same age he was when he started his journey. Weird coincidence eh.

The whole thing was a strange coincidence, to have someone with the story he had come into our home at the same time my mum and I have recently been reaffirming our commitments to be open only to positivity and moving forward with our lives. There was a certain synchronicity to the meeting that took place.


 

So, back to the book, and to be honest, if you just glance through it quickly, you may see chapter headings like ‘Prepare thoroughly before you begin’ or ‘Plan every day in advance’ and think that it is purely stuff you already know, or that you don’t need a book to tell you that kinda stuff. But that would be to miss out on good, solid, proven techniques on getting more done.

As for someone like me who only recently discovered they were suffering from bipolar, this book has entered my life at exactly the right time. As I finally know what I’m dealing with, everything I do is geared towards how to deal with it, work with it and get stuff done. Time management is essential when dealing with bipolar and even in just a couple of weeks, implementing some of the things I’ve read in this book has been invaluable.

To end then, although I suppose it would appear obvious, I genuinely highly recommend this book.

As to why it’s called Eat That Frog, click on the picture below to read the blurb.

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Conflicted about counselling

My counsellor asked me what I was getting out of our sessions. I didn’t exactly know how to respond, ‘nothing’ seeming partly to be the answer, but not the entire answer, something which I would need to elaborate on, the problem being that I hadn’t felt articulate or eloquent enough when I was explaining simple things in our sessions, let alone unpacking everything behind what I would mean if I answered ‘nothing, but also something’. So I stayed silent. She said that what was happening in our current session wasn’t really therapy, and that she didn’t want me to feel trapped, or feel like I had to keep going if I didn’t feel I needed it. She said maybe it would be best to stop our sessions until I reached the point of feeling like I really needed to see her, or at the very least come back and see her after I’d had my psychiatric assessment on May 19th.

I think the issues here are varied. I think our definitions of therapy do not overlap with one another; if I were to be blunt about it, maybe hers is too narrow? Although on the other hand, what does she see and hear when she sees me? Well, someone who consistently explains things in a calm, measured manner. I can’t help that, it is the way I am. Earlier today I wrote about having made one month of good progress. I described the same things to my counsellor yesterday and I suppose the question is, what is there to provide counsel on when you’re dealing with someone who rationally explains everything. Everything I say to her is true, including how, now that I know it is bipolar that makes my brain spit out thousands of debilitating , conflicting and false thoughts every damn day, I can somewhat control my emotional and physical response.

But you see, the whole truth is complicated. It is utterly, thoroughly exhausting to have to be switched on and mentally vigilant every damn minute of every damn day to stop your mind swinging wildly. Honestly, it requires the kind of mental energy whereby you can actually feel your brain getting hot as you try and force it out of any of the thousands of loops it gets itself into.

Then there is the horrifying daily occurrence where it feels like the floor of your whole world has just given away and you drop into a cauldron of hopelessness and for a while you have to battle the deepest darkest thoughts and emotions that people shouldn’t have to deal with. And then, at the end of many days, you have that same feeling resurface just after you turn out the light and try and sleep, knowing that if you go to bed any later than the time that just works, the knock-on effect will simply not be worth it. Either it will throw you off the depressive deep-end, in which case goodbye productivity and anything getting done as you spend the next day stewing in a thick soup of hopelessness and self-hate. Alternatively, a restless night could buy you an all expenses trip to hyper city, and then it’s goodbye to rationality and any semblance of the mental peace and quiet you sometimes manage to cobble together, which really isn’t peace and quiet but is actually nothing more than being thankful that a) at least I don’t feel like killing myself or b) at least my mind isn’t racing at like a thousand miles a second or have a tune going round and round and round it, or else the feeling that I’m doing this and this and this but actually you’re doing nothing because everything in existence is happening RIGHT NOW in your brain which means you can’t actually do anything or maybe you do actually do something but you do it to excess and really tumble out of control and breathe, and breathe, oh for God’s sake BREATHE. So you resign yourself to the fact the routine trumps any of that stuff, make peace with the fact that sometimes the repetitive nature of the routine sometimes feel like a prison in itself, and go to sleep. And then tomorrow you get to do it all over again. All of this without even mentioning that you wake up a good few times during the night, every night, so you never feel entirely rested.

Now hear this and hear this well, because whilst the above is true – and even within that I’ve just thrown a few choice manifestations of symptoms out there, the joyful reality is that you’re never quite sure which specific symptoms are going to get pulled out of the hat – it is also true about being calm, measured and generally mature in my approach.

I don’t really have any issues with turning negative thoughts into positive ones. Positivity is in me, right down to my core, and along with ambition it drives me. Yes, it gets tainted, even submerged sometimes, but it happens because of an ILLNESS I have, an illness I didn’t know I had so I could never work WITH it and instead spent a decade working AGAINST it and against myself. For ten years I had it, for half a decade I became a victim blamer. I blamed myself and saw myself as weak and a failure. But I’m not. I’m smart, I’m capable, I have a multitude of talents. And now I can actually put things in place to utilise what I have. The biggest problem I had was NOT KNOWING WHAT WAS HAPPENING.

So you see, none of that discounts or displaces all the crazy shit that goes on in my head, but I guess there’s nothing she can do in terms of CBT. Maybe the psychiatrist can, maybe he’ll recommend medication and I’ll cross that bridge and make that decision when I come to it.

And it is here we get back to my point about the definition of therapy. You see, it must surely be beneficial to have a place where I can speak openly and candidly in a way that I cannot with friends. You can be open with friends to a point, and I can quite happily explain that yes, I have suicidal thoughts or yes, there are some rather weird delusions that can strike from time to time. But you simply cannot, every single time someone asks ‘how are you’, reply ‘yeah mate fine, apart from like 10 to 10:15 where shit got real and I thought about chucking myself in front of a bus but oh, that passed pretty quick, now I’m just thinking about what to have for lunch. Sup with you?’

Or maybe, maybe I don’t need any of that kind of open interaction with a therapist. Maybe I just need to keep ploughing forward. It isn’t like I’m hiding anything or repressing anything, it’s here, I’m open about it, I know what I’m dealing with and I know where I’m going.

If you made it this far, thoughts?

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Bipolar Diary – A month of good, solid progress

On Monday just gone, it was exactly a month since I received my letter giving me the details for my back to work program. I can say with confidence that not only has the last month seen real, measurable progress, it has also brought, for the first time I can remember in this whole debacle that has stretched on in total for a decade, genuine, tangible hope. The hope and belief is there that I can have a productive, successful future that isn’t dominated by mental illness*. It is realistic hope, realistic belief. Each day brings with it more clarity. Understanding the reasons behind the way I am has given me a map so that not only can I understand the past, but I can also set a course for the future. For the first time since bipolar entered my life I am working from a solid foundation of understanding and knowledge.  With this clarity comes new, real strength.

I use words like real and realistic because those are the right descriptions now; my hope and belief is concrete and based on knowledge, not the faulty thinking of a mind blinking its way out of depression or in the midst of an episode of over-optimistic exuberance.

I am also aware and comfortable – or as comfortable as I can be – with the fact that it’s still early days and that things will come along that will test my resolve and faith (an interesting counselling session for example, which I’ll be discussing soon), but being prepared in advance is a huge relief.

*That is a concept I am still getting to grips with, as there is a certain truth to the fact that actually, the future will be dominated by having and dealing with bipolar, whilst the management of it will ripple through all facets of my life: social, personal, professional. In that regard, dominate is the right word, but also, there is room enough for success and happiness in each of those fields. So I suppose, in a way, if I put all my knowledge, plans and intentions into achieving the life I want, I will be dominating it

Cooking dinner for someone is definitely one of life’s pleasures

Last Thursday one of my closest friends came round for dinner and I decided I’d cook something special. I plumped for a combination that was indulgent – Dauphinoise potatoes with duck breast – and paired that with something refreshing and healthy – a veggie and fruit juice.

Double cream, potatoes, garlic, salt and pepper, hmmm

Double cream, potatoes, garlic, salt and pepper, hmmm

The ingredients for the juice, not including the salt. There was also ginger in it too.

The ingredients for the juice, not including the salt. There was also ginger in it too.

That's what it looks like when it's done, lovely and green

That’s what it looks like when it’s done, lovely and green

I stupidly forgot to take both a picture of the duck or one of the whole dish together. My phone doesn’t seem to focus properly sometimes now for some reason either.

Anyway, I actually put some thought into the flavours; I regularly make juices for myself and there is a certain combo of greens and fruit that is incredibly refreshing, which I thought would work perfectly and cut through the heavier flavours of the potatoes and duck, all of which were things she commented on, unprompted by me, so I’ll give myself a pat on the back for that and for the fact she wanted seconds of the potatoes and loved the duck. Next time I’ll have to make a sauce to go with it.

I didn’t make a dessert, plumping instead for chocolate. I’ve never even attempted to make a sweet dish, I much prefer the idea of cooking big, bold, savoury dishes.

I cook regularly for myself but that’s always just simple, rudimentary cooking but the truth is I very much enjoy the process of cooking and it is something that I want to properly develop. I’m one of those people that is addicted to Masterchef, watches cookery programmes all the time and spends more time than I care to admit in front of Food Network.

I’m planning on taking on a prawn laksa sometime this week.

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Bipolar Diary – Out of sync

I’ve felt uneasy these past few days*. I’ve had this weird sensation of being overly vulnerable and just generally out of sync with the world around me. I’ve had this recurring nightmare for years that I’m in a field completely alone with nothing around me as far as the eye can see.** Above me the sky is oppressive, heavy, restless, violent; there’s that feeling in the air that a storm is about to break. Except it is never just a storm, it’s the storm, the one that is going to be so violent, so destructive that I’ll never be seen again. And I’m just there, at its mercy, waiting for the first streaks of lightning to signal that it has begun. As I wait I feel pure dread filling me up, from the feet upwards, slowly drowning me. I can’t bear to look at the sky and I can’t run because what’s the point, there is nothing but empty field in every direction – although I’m sure at first when I used to have this dream I would indeed run, run for my life and try and escape – so instead I stand there, paralysed with fear as the whole thing builds to a crescendo and finally, just before the storm begins, I wake up. As a child and a teenager the dream was similarly focused on being destroyed by nature but in those ones it was always tornadoes in the distance, getting closer and closer.

Normally, waking up would end the dread, but the last few days the feeling has remained, sharp and constant. It is a feeling of being rejected by Mother Nature, which is the best, and when I think about it, the most accurate, way of putting it. It is a feeling akin to being cast out. I’ve never really had that kind of emotion before. I think I’ve found it so unsettling because I usually find great solace in feeling connected to all the things around me. Usually, when all else fails, I lean on the fact that I am part of something bigger than myself, an intricate, grand tapestry of reality that is startlingly miraculous in its existence.

Last Sunday (March 30th) I could feel my mind starting to race, so I went for a run; it soon started raining. I looked up at the sky and there was a huge, dark cloud to my right and it was encroaching at pace on the clear sky to my left. It was an intimidating sight, it felt too much like my nightmare, so I went home. For two nights the wind kept me awake as it howled throughout the night in harsh, sharp bursts, my heart rate aligning itself to the to and fro of the wind sickeningly; the whole while, that feeling of being out of sync, out of place, and out of time pressing down on me. Strange, unsettling stuff.

 

*I took a few days off from blogging so this post is a little out of date; I’ve moved away from the feelings mentioned here somewhat, I certainly do not feel so out of sync.

** which is actually the basis for a poem I did about depression, which you can read here.