Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.

Why You Find Mindfulness Practice Difficult

why you find mindfulness practice difficult - Breathworks Blog                                                                                                                                                                                     Photo by Philipp Schlabs on Unsplash

Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, "Oh, this pace is terrible!" But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.”- Shunryu Suzuki Rōshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Everybody struggles with mindfulness practice at some time or another. You try your best, but don’t seem to be making any progress. You try to practice compassion, but end up criticising yourself for not doing it right. You meditate for a long time, but end up more restless and distracted than when you started. Sometimes the distance between our actual experience and the mindfulness that we had hoped to embody can seem like a measuring stick for something wrong with us.

But what do you really mean when you say that you’re finding practice difficult? There is a misapprehension underlying this sense of difficulty that the real practice, of either meditation or mindfulness in daily life, requires you to be experiencing more mindfulness than you currently are. “Difficulty”, in other words, is simply the felt sense of the difference between your current experience and your idea of how your practice “should” be going.

But the practice is very simply to understand and hold intentions in mind: in daily life, to come back to awareness of what’s happening now when you can, and in meditation to notice when your mind is wandering or about to wander, and come back to the breath. Some days you will be distracted and notice mind-wandering less frequently, but the practice remains the same, and the frustration is optional.

Imagine how unpleasant the practice of gardening would be if you thought that all of your plants should grow in a month, or a week. You could easily think that you must be doing something wrong and over-water your plants, or try to make them grow by pulling them. But nature moves in its own time, and a skilled gardener is not somebody who can force plants to grow faster, but somebody who knows how to tend to them correctly, and who can enjoy that process. Mindfulness practice is just like this.

Intentions need only be very light. Trying to force the development of mindfulness and kindness in meditation through willpower and sheer force of effort will inevitably be ineffective, and lead to more tension and discouragement. The trick is not to practice ‘hard’, but with commitment and consistency. A meditation teacher I know says that exercising these intentions is like brushing a snowflake with the tip of a feather. Like gathering moisture walking through a fog, like the seed which grows into an oak, like the trickle which carves a raging river, these intentions, if practiced consistently, will gradually change our minds completely.  But the change is directed by the way that you practice - if your practice is to wish that you were more mindful than you are, then you will simply get better at wishing.

Ollie Bray

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Shouldn't I Be Feeling Mindful By Now?

Shouldn't I be feeling Mindful By Now Breathworks blog Ollie Bray

When I was in my teens, I had a girlfriend who broke up with me. (It seemed like a big deal at the time). I had been reading lots of books about mindfulness, meditating, finding out about some of the interesting research, and I was pretty much convinced that it was the best thing since sliced bread. So I stopped, channelling the spirit of Jon Kabat-Zinn, took a moment to cultivate a little metacognition, took another moment to feel smug about knowing the the word metacognition, studiously reminded myself that thoughts are not facts… and still felt terrible.

I was watching those feelings of sadness, loneliness, and regret play out in my mind, but as mindful as I tried to be, I couldn’t lose the sense that they were just... really really bad. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, and I remember that it put a seed of doubt in my mind: I thought I was doing the whole mindfulness malarkey right, so why couldn’t I shake the wish for those feelings to go away?

Even after I was over it, that seed of doubt started to grow in the following years during some episodes of depression, and it took a while for me to accept that, although being able to apply mindfulness during difficult times is one of the most beneficial things that you can do, it won’t make all negative feelings lose their sting. Sometimes the truth of your experience is that you’re devastated, or grieving, or full of regret, and that will always feel wrong in a deep, primal way, regardless of how much mindfulness you’ve done. Feeling good, in other words, is not always a sign of good mindfulness.

Things that will help make upsetting feelings go away for a bit include: fantasising, drowning out your feelings in too much work or TV, denying, avoiding, and repressing. But the fact that nobody seems to be writing books entitled “The Miracle of Scotch and Emotional Repression” probably tells you something, and the research indeed shows that these things are counter-productive in the long-term. The fact is that when we find ourselves confronted with the most glaring downsides of being human, it takes a great deal of courage to simply sit with that, before we feel better, and before we really know whether things will be okay.

The important thing is to trust the process. If you practice mindfulness, that process will unfold, and, generally speaking, it will help you feel much better. Even though this upwards path can run through valleys of great difficulty and upset, those are the times to stay the course, and to take heart that it is indeed an upward path. You will gradually learn the extent to which our suffering is relieved simply when we don’t add to it with self-judgement, worrying about things that we have no control over anyway, blaming (others or ourselves), and generally expending energy on the multitude of ways we can wish things were other than how they are. As you become more and more familiar with your experience untinted with these things throughout life, you will develop the ability to hold more and more uncertainty and discomfort, with awareness and with self-compassion, without the need to resort to the intuitive but self-defeating strategies of running away or numbing out.

Perhaps the well-known Indian work on mindfulness and meditation, the Bhagavad Gita, says it best: “On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.

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The Mindful Jigsaw Puzzle

Katy Owen - The Mindful Jigsaw Puzzle

This Christmas I did my first ever jigsaw puzzle. For some of you it may sound bizarre that I’ve never done a jigsaw puzzle before, but in the past the mere thought of a jigsaw puzzle filled me with boredom and frustration. Obviously, it’s not entirely true that I’ve never done a jigsaw before. A few weeks previously on the request of my friend’s 2 year old I had attempted a jigsaw puzzle for children aged 3 to 6. It had 9 pieces. I failed to complete it. After checking the picture on the box (which I had previously been told by a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast was ‘cheating’) ensuring that yes, it did only have 9 pieces, and yes they were all present, I had to enlist the help of the 2 year old’s mummy. All I can say is that she’d clearly had practice. So, the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a very beautiful garden scene both excited and terrified me! In particular the large expanse of blue sky, how was I ever going to piece that together?

What Changed?

I came to mindfulness about 5 years ago in the midst of a stressful period at work. Despite my inability to complete children’s jigsaw puzzles, I was actually quite successful in my career (fortunately jigsaw puzzles are not part of the assessment process). Pre-mindfulness I would describe myself as a Type A personality – someone who was very busy all the time, rarely slowing down, let alone stopping to breathe! I had a busy job in London, was a competitive rower training 6 days a week with a busy social life. There was barely enough time to sleep, let alone meditate, or do a jigsaw puzzle for that matter!

However, following a mindfulness taster session by a colleague at work, I developed a mild interest. Then, after a period of insomnia worrying about work I decided action was needed. I recognised that I might not be able to change the external environment that was causing me stress, but I could change my relationship to it and mindfulness might help with that.  

I participated in an online 4-week introduction to mindfulness course and quickly started to experience the benefits, not least a good night’s sleep! On the completion of the online course I knew I needed to keep practising to ingrain the habit, so I read the excellent ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, a self-taught 8-week course in mindfulness with a CD of meditations. I was hooked. I felt refreshed and happy with a better sense of perspective over what was worrying me.

Meditation became as important to me as sleep, healthy eating and exercise. Over time I started to prioritise better, slow down, become more self-reflective, and do what my mum had been telling me to do since I was a child – stop and take a moment before reacting. In tandem my previously high levels of irritability decreased and my patience and compassion (towards myself and others) increased. I really liked this new person I was becoming.

Relishing in Being Mode

Fast-forward 5 years and now I can sit still long enough to do a jigsaw puzzle without getting bored or frustrated. Instead, I was ready and up for the challenge, even the endless blue sky which looked pretty impossible. After the initial panic of where to start, I discovered what seems to be a well-known jigsaw strategy, do the edges first… And then as if by magic, I found two pieces that connected! I experienced a significant moment of delight, relief, achievement and satisfaction. It also very quickly became apparent, that the ‘blue’ sky in the jigsaw contained lighter and darker patches, just like the real sky.

It dawned on me, that the jigsaw was a very mindful activity, I was in the ‘being mode’. Exploring the colours and shape of each piece created a sense of care and curiosity in me; just like the quality of awareness we create in our mindful meditations. The jigsaw became a very satisfying, relaxing and enjoyable activity. I was able to observe my emotions come and go – frustration, satisfaction, achievement, joy.

It may sound crazy, but I learnt a lot from doing the jigsaw puzzle and it became a reflection of where I was in life. I was going through a major life transition and the jigsaw helped me to see that things almost ‘fall into place’ when other key pieces are present; a good reminder to be patient and have faith even when I can’t yet see the full picture. I also found it very helpful to turn the jigsaw puzzle around, and look at it from another angle. Literally changing the way I saw the puzzle enabled me to piece together bits that previously didn’t seem to fit; a helpful reminder of the benefits of changing my perspective to find solutions.  I also learnt that, even if it is ‘cheating’, it’s helpful to look at the box to see the ‘big’ picture every now and then to remind myself of where I’m going.

The Dangers of Doing Mode

However, no one warned me how highly addictive jigsaw puzzles were! It became very clear that I needed to finish it before the holidays were over, otherwise I would struggle to prioritise work! My self-imposed deadline pushed me from ‘being mode’ into ‘doing mode’. My addiction grew worse as I stayed up late drinking wine and eating chocolates desperate to finish the jigsaw.

Again there were lessons for me in life. Whilst I tried to push past my ‘hard edges’, I could also clearly see when it was time to stop. My mind would go fuzzy and I’d become frustrated that I couldn’t place a piece. A helpful reminder of the importance of taking a break to look after myself and be at my best.

Eventually I completed the puzzle and the satisfaction was immense, promptly followed by sadness and loss. What would I do with my life now?! I didn’t dare buy another puzzle having seen my addiction! I would have to wait until next Christmas before I took on another jigsaw…

Katy Owen

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Twelve Questions with Vidyamala

12 Questions with Vidyamala

Breathwork co-founder Vidyamala Burch recently did an interview with the Malaysian magazine 1Twenty80, on the topic of mindfulness and its health and professional benefits, as well as how to best practice mindfulness to feel its extraordinary value in your own life.

1. Could you kindly explain what mindfulness is?

Mindfulness is, in essence, awareness. Through training, traditionally by practising meditation, we learn to become aware of what is happening mentally, emotionally and physically in each moment. This then gives us the tremendous skill of choice in how we respond. So rather than feeling a victim of our thoughts, emotional states or physical experience; we can learn to choose to respond rather than react and feel much more of a sense of power and control in life.

(For more on this:

2. How does being mindful benefit one’s health?

Mindfulness can have a hugely beneficial impact on health. When we have pain or illness the chances are the body will have some unpleasant feelings - parts of the body will be hurting. If we aren’t mindful we will almost certainly have some unhelpful habits such as tensing against the pain and holding the breath. This will make the pain, fatigue or other symptoms more severe.

With mindfulness we learn to acknowledge the pain with kindness and acceptance but to let go of the tension, breath-holding and resistance. This means that the overall experience of pain or fatigue or other symptoms will ease.

We use a model of dividing pain, discomfort or illness into two components: Primary and Secondary Suffering. The Primary Suffering is the actual unpleasant sensations or feelings in the part of the body which is hurting. Secondary Suffering is caused by the resistance and struggle and includes things like secondary anxiety, depression, fear, physical tension.

We essentially teach people mindfulness skills to accept the Primary Suffering and reduce/overcome the Secondary Suffering by letting go of the resistance and struggle. When this skill is developed people often report a significant improvement in quality of life and reduction in suffering/pain.

3. Besides health, what are the other benefits of being mindful?

Mindfulness can be applied to any area of life as it is a universal quality of mind/awareness/consciousness.

It comes from the 2500-year old tradition of Buddhism where a key teaching is that human beings increase our suffering in life by resisting and pushing away things we find difficult and grabbing hold of things we like. These twin poles of aversion to pain and clinging to pleasure lead to all kinds of distress. With mind training, through learning meditation and mindfulness, we can learn to let go of these reactions and live with a much more open, kind and confident attitude.

In the UK there has been a major Government report into the benefits of mindfulness across Healthcare, Education, the Criminal Justice System and the Workplace.

There are also people teaching mindfulness in myriad contexts globally through all stages of life from mindful childbirth to mindfulness in elder care and mindfulness with the dying.

Many people are discovering the tremendous sense of freedom that comes with being more mindful in all activities.

4. How can one practice to be mindful?

Meditation is the ideal way to cultivate mindfulness. It is a space and time to train the mind, a little like training the body by going to the gym.

In meditation we turn our awareness inwards to get to know our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without the usual distractions of daily activities. We sit quietly and close the eyes and put our inner world in the laboratory of awareness.

In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism the word for meditation is ‘familiarisation’ which I think is a very good description of what is happening when we meditate. We are going within and ‘familiarising’ ourselves with the inner world so we can learn to gradually let go of automatic reactions and to bring much more space to our experience. The behavioural outcome of meditation and mindfulness is choice. It is amazing to feel that we can have some control over out minds and emotions and to respond with kindness, love and a sense of connection to ourselves and all the people we come into contact with.

5. Does being mindful make a person a better individual and leader? How?

Yes, definitely. For all the reasons above being mindful means that one is more mentally and emotionally spacious and flexible. One is more empathetic and connected with others and less stressed and reactive. This makes one both a better individual and a better leader. People want to see qualities of calm, confidence, resilience, clear thinking and non-reactivity in a leader and mindfulness helps build qualities such as these.

6. As a leader, how can one encourage his or her employees to be mindful too?

I think the most important thing is to ‘walk the talk’. To exemplify the qualities that come with mindfulness. Sometimes it is said that mindfulness is ‘caught, not taught’ and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s not enough to talk about mindfulness without exemplifying it as it just becomes another fad and people won’t be enthusiastic.

So the most important thing is for leaders to develop their own effective mindfulness practice if they want their employees to take it on.

I got this article today that beautifully expresses this from the CEO and Chairman of Aetna, a company in the US healthcare market that employs 49,000 people.

7. How does being mindful improve teamwork and the atmosphere at a workplace?

Work atmospheres and workplaces often deteriorate when workers are stressed, unhappy, unmotivated. They can start to feel like cogs in a machine and there is no ‘heart’ in their work. It becomes a grind.

Mindfulness ideally would come ‘from the top’ where the leaders become more aware of their own tendencies and stress and start to become more fully present, calm and kind. They would start to relate to their employees as rounded human beings rather than productive units. As the atmosphere changes employees in turn learn to take responsibility for their mental and emotional states and to learn to be more focused and effective in their work.

In my opinion a mindful work place would also value things like making sure employees get reasonable breaks so they don’t get over-tired or stressed; and social interactions would be valued through creating a warm and harmonious working culture.

8. Could you share with us what Breathworks UK does?

Breathworks UK was founded by myself way back in 2001. Initially I just ran a few mindfulness courses a year explicitly for people living with pain and illness. I injured my spine 40 years ago; mindfulness has been a big part of my healing journey and I wanted to share these skills with others.

In 2004 I formed a company with two colleagues and in 2005 we started our Teacher Training Programme - we realised the most effective way to offer our programme to the billions in the world who could benefit was to train others. This exponentially increased the number of courses being run around the world. We now have teachers in 25+ countries.

Along the way we have expanded our programmes beyond the explicitly health focus and we now also run a very successful ‘Mindfulness for Stress’ programme and we are developing an adaptation of this for the Workplace

9. How can this method help others to manage their stress levels?

It helps people cultivate calm, focus and to STOP. Meditation is a fantastic way to calm down if we have become stressed. Even stopping for just a few moments and focusing on breathing can interrupt the escalation of stress. There’s lots of evidence about how the brain and stress chemicals are beneficially affected by mindfulness. Cortisol and adrenaline production decreases and oxytocin and endorphin production increases. These are naturally healing. Vagal tone improves and studies show a reduction in inflammation markers with meditation, amongst many other benefits.

10. Does it also help them to understand themselves better? How and why?

Meditation involves a turning within to directly get to know your thoughts and emotions - crucially without any harsh judgement. Maybe you notice a tendency to harsh speech, to insecurity, to anxiety. This is all really good information if you don’t then add a layer of thinking there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You’re just human, with a human mind with all the trickiness that comes with that!

Through recognising harshness, insecurity or anxiety, etc. you can then do something about it with mindfulness by learning to let go of identifying so strongly with these habits and cultivating new, more positive habits.

It’s very simple, in essence. Though hard to practice of course as some of our habits are very strong indeed. But meditation and mindfulness are profoundly optimistic in the recognition that, with careful training, we can change our minds in fundamental ways.

11. Being mindful takes practice; what is your advice to people who are giving up on practicing mindfulness?

There is a great phrase in relation to this question that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it!” I love that. So often we only do what we ‘feel like’ in life which can lead to an undisciplined and whimsical existence.

Mindfulness is a discipline and I think of it like cleaning my teeth, having a shower, eating and sleeping. I consider these things essential to my ability to function and to stay well and clean. I don’t do them because I ‘feel like it’. They are just part of my daily routine no matter my mood or motivation.

I think we should take care of our minds in the same way we take care of our bodies. Our minds are so precious! And yet we pay so little attention to keeping our minds in good shape.  So I would encourage people to ‘just do it’ every day and not get too caught up with the immediate results. Sometimes it takes quite a while to notice real changes in how we respond to things: maybe we still get really stressed and anxious. But, slowly, slowly you will start to see small changes if you keep up your daily meditation. And, over time, these small changes will become big changes and you will start to feel very different: more whole, alive, loving, and less stressed.

Even 10 minutes a day will have an effect. I think it’s better to do a shorter practice every day, rather than a long practice more infrequently. Of course ideally you would do 20-40 minutes a day but that is hard for some people with very busy lives. So just do what you can manage but make sure you do it regularly.

Here are some meditations to try, for stress, and for pain.

12. In your opinion, why is it important to be mindful of oneself?

To be fully alive! Life is precious and fleeting and I want really live my life while I have it and not to dwell in some kind of grey half-life. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret not having made the most of it. With mindfulness and kindness practices I have some moments that are vivid and bright and full of wonder, which is wonderful!

I also want to feel more connected with other people and the world around me. The more I practice the more connected I feel and this is very important to me. Mindfulness isn’t just for me, it’s not a self-centred endeavour just so I can be a bit happier. It is great to feel happier, but it is more important to me that it helps me be a better person in the world and, hopefully, to make the world a better place.

Vidyamala Burch

 You can find out more about our Mindfulness for Health Courses and Mindfulness for Stress Courses here.

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How Mindfulness Techniques Can Help with Stress and Anxiety

How mindfulness techniques can help with stress and anxiety

Breathworks teacher Donna Brown was recently asked to write a magazine article in Northern Life Magazine on the topic of how mindfulness can help with stress and anxiety. She wrote a wonderful article, which you'll be able to find in the latest edition. Click here to read the online version.

Donna will be teaching the Mindfulness for Stress Courses in London starting 9th May, 11th June, and 4th July. Take a look here for more information about the course, and to book your place!

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