This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme of the week is kindness.
According to the dictionary, kindness means the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Are you friendly, generous, and considerate to yourself, I wonder? My article is about how kindness starts with being kind to yourself.
I qualified to facilitate mindfulness in 2018, after attending a one year immersion programme. I was brought up with a strong work ethic, a please others driver, and a desire to Be Perfect. This is a great combination for lack of self kindness! The one year retreat programme made me realise just how important self kindness is to my all round health. It has been a journey for me to become aware of how learning self kindness has been key to building my resilience in life, developing stronger mental health skills, and drastically reducing the effects of anxiety on my life.
I knew from my psychology degree that psyche (mind) and soma (body) worked hand-in-hand, yet most of the tools we were given were thinking tools. Mindfulness is an experiential, lifelong journey, which for me enables me to cultivate awareness of thoughts, and feelings, as they happen. It is hugely powerful to notice, observe, and release thoughts and beliefs that are just not kind to keep hold of.
The first retreat
I realised I was exhausted on the first retreat I attended. I’d worked really hard in my business to give myself the luxury of a week off. On day two of the retreat, having been up since 6am, sat from 6.30 to 7.30, taken part in mindful movements, had breakfast, attended teaching, experienced a guided mindful walk, eaten lunch and helped the washing up team clear up after 36 other people, I walked to my bedroom, aware of an inner battle I was fighting. On the one side, I craved sleep, an afternoon nap before the evening teaching session started, and yet I was aware of harsh thoughts berating me: “Going for a nap on a lovely day!”, “What a waste of time, you should be reading the book you brought with you.”, and “How lazy am I?”. I had a knotted stomach, and my emotions were tearful, depleting me.
My strong work ethic taught me the greatness of being busy, always doing something, and these thoughts and body reactions were causing tension. I was activating my brain when my body needed sleep. As I walked the stairs, I had gone from sleepiness, anticipating the feel of the bedclothes on my skin, to confused distraction. “Should I go for a walk?”, I was asking myself. I was now debating in my mind, aware of the telling off I was given myself. My heart was racing, and we know from the work of the Heart Math Institute that the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. I knew if I could slow down my heart, I could slow down my thoughts.
What I did – an exercise to try the next time your thoughts are racing, and an inner battle is depleting you.
How do you feel right now? Write down one emotion.
What are you thinking about?
Are your thoughts slower, or faster, than usual?
Sit, with your back straight, and with an upright posture. Feel the touch points of your body – if I am seated on a chair, these will include my sitting bones on the seat, my feet flat on the floor, my hands resting in my lap.
Breathe, with an awareness of the heart, making no adjustments to how you breathe. The breath knows what to do to look after us. Rest in the breath, and ask your breath to take care of your heart. With your back still alert, soften into your belly and breathe. If it feels comfortable, close your eyes, and focus on your breath coming in and out of your body. You may say to yourself, “I am aware I am breathing in; I am aware I am breathing out.”.
Try this for one or two minutes, longer if you can. When you feel you wish to return to the room, take 3 longer restorative breaths, and come back to your body with an awareness of your senses – your clothes touching your body, the sounds in the room, the colours around you.
Ask yourself the same questions:
How do you feel right now? Write down one emotion.
What are you thinking about? Have awareness of the thought without getting caught up in the storyline.
Are your thoughts slower, or faster than before?
There is no right answer, however, for me during the first retreat, returning to my breath helped me slow my heart down, which slowed the responses to the brain, and allowed me to quieten the harsh chatter that I was berating myself with. This allowed me to be kind to myself. I was physically tired, and needed a nap. My body intuitively knew this. If our thoughts are listened to, and we “just do a bit more”, or “they will be unhappy if…”, or “I should/ shouldn’t do this…”, or a judgement such as “I am so lazy”, then I may deplete myself.
My question to you for our mental health: How can we be kind to others if we cannot be kind to ourselves?
It is worth considering this. When I coach someone, I often challenge their harsh words about themselves with “You’ve just said you are not the best Manager. Imagine if your best friend was listening to this. What might they say when you say that?”. Imagine yourself as your best friend softens our heart to ourselves.
Challenges we face right now:
Lockdown has raised many fears for us all. Even a simple walk raise emotions we’d never imagined we’d experience on a simple country walk.
Thoughts can emerge, such as “they are so selfish, they are making no attempt to move away from me”. What happens is the heart rate may increase, as we perceive this action to be a threat. Our body tenses, and, as our body contracts, we look harsh and stern, and our feelings become harsh. We will then carry that on and our walk, rather than nourishing us, becomes a depletion activity.
Heart focused breathing
The heart has its’ own nervous system, and the heart is the signaller of higher emotions – such as kindness, love, care, appreciation, and compassion. When we tune in to our heart intelligence, we activate these emotions. Learning to observe the harshness of our thoughts in the moment allows us the insight to decide – from a kind place – whether this pattern is nourishing us, or depleting us.
When we learn to be kind to ourselves, we act from a place of nourishment more often. Just as choosing a healthy breakfast such as porridge rather than a cream cake is a kind choice for the physical heart, kind thoughts and kind emotions are equally as important for heart health.
Activity (based on heart math institute techniques):
Think of a situation that is on your mind at the moment, a situation that is depleting you. It may be a health worry, anxiety about a situation, relationship stresses, money concerns, or disappointment.
Sit upright, with your feet on the floor. Breathe as normal, and have awareness of the area around your heart. Breathe into the area around your heart. Place your hand on your heart, and imagine the feelings for someone you love. Imagine those feelings emanating from your heart, and around your body. When you are ready to come back to now, take three longer restorative breaths, and slowly bring movements to your hands, and feet. Open your eyes if you closed them.
How do you feel about the situation now? There is no right answer – you may feel the same, but the more times we can fill our lives with restorative feelings such as love, appreciation, and kindness, the more often we will nourish our body and mind. I choose to be kind today, because there doesn’t seem much sense in anything else.
“We cannot have a kind world without a kind heart.” Kay Buckby
Thank you for reading. I will carry you all in my heart.
Kay is an experienced coach, trainer and facilitator with The Development Company. She is dedicated to enabling people to be the best they can be. Kay is qualified to deliver the 8 week Mindfulness for Life programme. Contact her if you want Leaders, Managers and staff who work in a mindful way. I deliver virtual training. Kay wrote The Mindful Trainer series for Training Zone during 2019, a series intended for trainers, coaches and facilitators.