Positive mindfulness – how to be grateful for the good things in life

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Kochi Castle Candle Festival - Jessica Dang

2013 was undeniably my best year so far. In the last twelve months, I have lived in three different cities, ran a marathon, graduated, moved to Japan, and got my dream job. 13 really is my lucky number.

If only I had more to remember it by…

Well, I’m not going to make the same mistake next year. My new year’s resolution will be short and sweet – to be grateful for the good things in life.

It’s easy to let one bad thing ruin a good day. Sometimes, we need to be reminded of the good things we have to realise how lucky we are. I like to call it ‘positive mindfulness’.

There are so many things that can brighten up our day. A smile from a stranger, trying something new, seeing old friends, a challenging task, giving to others, a fulfilling job, a partner’s affection, overcoming an obstacle, finishing something, family gatherings, learning a new skill, a good workout, a genuine hug… the list goes on.

Almost everything that makes us truly happy in life doesn’t cost a thing. We just have to be mindful of them. Here are some ideas…

Three practical ways to stay positively mindful next year

1. Keep a ‘Gratitude Box’

Find a shoebox or something similar and place a notepad beside it. Every time something good happens to you, or if you feel particularly grateful for something, write a note about it, along with the date, and pop it in the box. Try to write one thing a day, or at least a couple a week.

At the end of next year, hopefully you’ll have a box stuffed full of notes… and hopefully reading back on them will make you smile/cry/laugh.

2. Make an ‘Amazing Day Collage’

Make a colourful collage or simply write a few post-it notes of all of the the things you can think of that would make your day. Stick them somewhere that you’ll see every morning. The notes will remind you of what to keep an eye out for throughout your day.

You’re more likely to notice the good things if you’ve been reminded to look out for them. Add more as you notice new things that make you smile.

3. One second of every day of 2014

This is such a simple idea. It’s a video showing just one second of everyday in a man’s life. Just as he saw it, just as it happened.

It inspires me to do the same. Some might think that recording their lives is an invasion of privacy, but personally, I have such a weak memory that I would be more grateful, rather than paranoid, if I could recall all of the lovely memories I made this year. Also, I don’t have to share it publicly, and I don’t get up to that much mischief anyway!

At the same time, some moments are made to be enjoyed, not photographed. In any case, whether or not I decide to record the moment, the most important thing is that I’m having fun.

Do you have any suggestions to stay positively mindful next year? Let me know in the comments.

Happy New Year folks!

One Important Question for Life

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What happens if you follow your instincts?

Despite my best intentions to take a year off to relax, I somehow landed myself a job… at the British Embassy in Tokyo.

It seems I have found the reason why I was drawn back to Japan. My instincts were right – this is where I’m supposed to be.

I will be continuing my work from Whitehall, working to increase international cooperation on climate change. I will also be helping the UK and Japan collaborate on essential research such as neuroscience, medicine, stem sell research and aerospace, amongst others.

Advanced technology is one of our finest achievements. By working together, we can learn to use it well, so that we can save the Earth, our loved ones… and save ourselves. As I write, Egypt, of all places, is going through a ‘historic’ snow storm. To me, that’s a sign. We need to act now. Although my part in it all may be small, small changes have the tendency to turn into a big difference.

Where I will go from there? I have no idea. If this year has shown me anything, it’s that I can’t even predict three months into the future. All you can do is try to make the best decision you can at each crossroads, and hope it works out.

It has taken me time to learn this, but now I know how true it is – the best thing about life is that it’s unpredictable. 

 

The Sweetest Reward

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They say that it’s best to aim for the low hanging fruit. A lot of the time this is true, but it isn’t always the case.

In the short term, it might make sense to take advantage of whatever comes your way first. The low hanging fruit are easy to reach, but they aren’t necessarily the best fruit on the tree.

In the long term, only doing what is easy won’t get you very far. If you only go for low hanging fruit, you’ll never taste the sweetness of overcoming a difficult challenge, and achieving something worthwhile.

Learning to climb a tree takes patience and perseverance, but if you take things step by step, you can reach the top.

It helps if you’re not weighed down by stuff. Carry too much, and your burden will hinder your progress. Let go of the things that don’t matter, and focus on the things that do.

You only get one chance at life, so why not aim high? The sweetest fruit grow at the top.

 

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Wing it for all you’re worth

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A lot of changes have happened in my life over the past few months. I completed my final exams, graduated, worked in central London… and moved to Japan.

I’m here to start a new life. No, I don’t have a job waiting for me. No, I don’t have a clear-cut plan. No, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

But that’s the exciting part. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that I’ve always been up for a good adventure. My job in London was based in Whitehall, for central government. It was a great job and it paid well. I learned a lot, but it was too… safe. So instead of staying, I packed everything I owned into a suitcase and came to Japan.

Something irresistible pulled me back to this country. Maybe I left my heart behind when I lived here two years ago. Maybe it’s my intuition telling me that there is something important that I need to do. Whatever drew me back, I have a feeling I’ll find out the reason why soon.

tano river

From the bustling city, full of traffic and too many people, I am now living in a cosy countryside house with three tatami rooms. The view from my window is beautiful. Green mountains stand tall against the clear blue sky. Golden fields stretch far into the distance. The river by the house flows calmly towards the open sea.

Some might call my decision reckless, but I don’t care. After I find my bearings again, I might move to Tokyo or Osaka. And I can always go back to England if things don’t work out – not that I would give up that easily.

For now though, having peace to write, room to breathe and a reason to smile makes it all worth it.

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The Most Important Lesson You’ll Ever Learn About Opportunity

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Two shoe makers go to a remote village.

One of them immediately gives up and goes home, declaring, “It’s hopeless! Nobody here wears shoes.”

The other, smiling, declares “What a glorious business opportunity! Nobody here wears shoes”.

Opportunity is something that you discover, not something that you wait for

 

Whether it’s new business idea, a new career direction, a new journey, or a new friend or lover, however you define it, the opportunities in life are endless. They surround you like air.

You don’t have to have an expensive education, or special training to see them. You don’t even have to go looking for them.

You just have to keep your eyes and mind open.

Right now, there are countless problems that needs to be solved, people who need help, places to go, people to meet, and so many things to learn and discover about the world.

Most people trundle through life, blindly, on auto-pilot. Like the first shoe maker, they may see a glass, but they can’t help but think it’s half empty.

It’s not complicated. If you’re waiting for a new opportunity to come to you, you should know, it’s already there.

Can you see it?

 

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How running taught me the value of persistence

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A few years ago, I wrote about the importance of perseverance. The ability to see things until the end – it’s the difference between make or break.

Little did I know, I would one day go through one of the biggest tests of perseverance – a full marathon. I would end up putting my money where my mouth is.


lessons in starting out

When I first started running, it was to lose weight. I dragged myself to the treadmill about once a week, or sometimes just once a month. There was no ‘big goal’, and I was never really that good at it. I got out of breath, my chest hurt, and I made a hundred excuses. It took me a year to run more than three miles.

I wasn’t making much progress, especially weight-wise. Mostly, it was because I didn’t do it enough.

Then one summer, when the weather was particularly good, I went for a run. Just a gentle jog in the June breeze, and to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. I ran a couple more times that week, then a few more the week after, and within that month, running turned from a chore to a hobby.

While I was running for superficial reasons (ie. to lose weight) and not making much progress, I would be completely put off by just the number on the scales. I would think, ‘What’s the point?‘. But, after that month, I started to truly appreciate running as something fun and healthy to do, not just as a means to an end.

Once I actually got going, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, I grew to love it. Now, I run because I enjoy running itself, not because I wanted to lose weight or impress others. It gives me more energy, the opportunity to clear my mind, and a sense of accomplishment. I had persevered, and eventually, everything clicked into place.

Before I knew it, I was running a half marathon. Finishing it was one of the best things I had done in my life up until then. I felt so proud of myself, and so happy that all of my hard work had paid off. Instead of asking, ‘What’s the point?’ I came to ask, ‘What more can I do?‘.

I read into minimalist running. I took up yoga, swimming lessons and spin class. I had neglected my body for years, but now it was one of my highest priorities. Being healthier became a part of my daily life, rather than something I begrudgingly tried to fit into it.


screw it, it’s now or never

A few years after that transforming summer jog, I found myself signing up for a full on marathon.

What an idiot. Training went fine until a common cold turned into a chest infection, which turned into a check-in in the emergency centre of the hospital. It happened right when I was supposed to be running the most miles. I had probably made it worse from running outside in cold and rainy weather. The doctor told me to stay in bed.

Flash-forward to the big day. I hadn’t had a proper run in weeks. I had my doubts, but I wasn’t going to give up. I didn’t want to give up. No way. At the start line, I said to myself, ‘Screw it, it’s now or never.’

Twenty miles later, my feet felt like they were going to explode with every step. My hip had locked up, my shins felt brittle enough to snap, and if I had to go up another incline, I might didn’t think I would make it.

Despite all this, somehow, I kept going. I saw a sign that read, ‘Run as if zombies are chasing you!’ In other words, keep going as if stopping wasn’t an option. 

So I put one foot in front of the other. Again and again. I did it ten thousand times until I saw the finish line.

When it was in sight, I sprinted.

My foot crossed the line. I did it! I cried. I waddled. I smiled my oxygen-deprived head off.


5 lessons on persistence

What did I learn that day? That band-aids are a runner’s best friend? Well, yes, but also some great lessons on the value of persistence.

1. Persistence is what separates people who are successful and people who are unsuccessful. They persist and persist until they finish. They may adjust their course, slow down or speed up, but they just don’t give up. It’s as simple as that.

2. If you look at the most successful people in the world, the one thing they have in common is that they didn’t give up. You can look at any field, and at any measure of accomplishment, or at all their different backgrounds, but you will see that to get to where they are, they simply got started, and kept going. Their common characteristic was their perseverance.

3. It’s easy to give up, but hard to carry on. That’s what makes a ‘success’ something to be admired. Anything worth achieving is worth working hard for.

4. Finishing creates momentum. The sense of accomplishment you feel from finishing carries forward into your next project, and then the next one, and then the next one. Life is a series of ‘projects’, whether at work, in relationships, or for yourself. Whether they end in success or failure, you will never know unless you finish. 

5. It’s not about luck. People don’t just get lucky, they finish things and learn from them.  By reaching your goal, you open new doors and opportunities. You end up with more and better chances of doing more stuff. In other words, luck doesn’t find you, but if you just keep going, and you’ll find it.

What can you achieve by being persistent?

 

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Phew, now that’s crossed of my life list, where am I going from here? To my next project of course. Sports-wise, my aim is to complete a duathlon in the next year or two, and a triathlon after that. Find me on Fitocracy, if you like. My course has been set, and I’m determined to reach the end. See you at the finish line!

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Lessons learned from snow & blossoms

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Oh, snow. It’s pretty at first, but then it turns grey and slushy, getting into your shoes and freezing your toes. Then there’s the winter wind that makes your nose turn red and your eyes start to water.

In Japan, the cherry blossoms came to mark the beginning of spring. The air is warm with the smell of flowers and grass, and there’s no better way to spend an afternoon than to stroll under the trees, with the sound of a river trickling alongside you, and delicate petals falling in the gentle breeze.

Both snow and the cherry blossoms are very different. One marks winter, the bitter cold that causes things to die or hide away, and the other spring, the season of birth and life.

They are both painful and beautiful in their own way. They both mark the passing of time; a season starts, a season ends. A new year becomes an old year.

The Japanese people have a tradition of having a picnic under the trees because the blossoms only last a few days, before all of the petals have fallen and the trees are bare again.

On the other hand, I know from experience that there aren’t many things that feel better than jumping into a pile of brand new snow, soft and freshly laid, ready for you build a snowman from, or make snowballs to throw at your friends.

How often can we enjoy nature’s beauty like this?

We need to learn how to appreciate each and every moment in the same way. In spring, summer, autumn or winter. Even if it is pouring down outside, or snowing, or sunny and clear, whatever the weather. Doesn’t it make you feel more alive?

Time passes. This is the truth that a lot of people don’t like to think about. They deny it, and avoid talking about it, but ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Is it really morbid? Or, does it, on the contrary, cause you to make more of the moment? You enjoy life more, because you know that you will only get a few chances to do so. Living in denial will only mean wasting it. 

So go, my dear, play in the snow, bask in the sunshine, run in the rain. Be bold, be brave, be strong, and live.

 

Make your own future

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“Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.” - Dalai Lama

Do you keep a diary?

If you don’t, I highly recommend it. I guarantee that the stuff you write about will blow your mind one day.

Reading a past entry is like looking at a snapshot of your past self. What happened this time last year? How did you feel about it? It’s fascinating, some of the things that you cared so much about that you would dedicate so many pages and so much of your time ranting about.

But now, you read back, and  you realise that the things that happened to you back then, that seemed like such a big deal at the time, don’t seem so big any more, do they?

That’s because everything changes with time. It’s the nature of impermanence.

2012, an epic year indeed

I choose to see it as a sign of growth. People tend to say that they’re the same person they’ve always been, but the truth is, everybody changes over time. Sure, there are a few things, like core values and beliefs that are difficult to change, but all the rest of you, your likes and dislikes, how you spend your time, they way you move or speak, your knowledge, and of course your appearance, are always changing.

In 2012, I did a lot of changing. I went from only being able to run 3 miles at the most to completing a half marathon in less than 2 hours. I went on retreat to southern France, where I learned more about life in a week than I did in my entire lifetime. I travelled around China, where I met new people, and together we ate, saw, learned and experienced so many new things. I somehow even managed to throw in learning a new language and how to swim properly, amongst many other things, big and small. This year was one of the most exciting years I have been lucky enough to have.

There’s still growing up to do, but before I die…

As another year passes by, I realise one more change. It happens every year, but many of us don’t seem to notice.

We have one less year left to live. 

There are still so many things I want to see, people to meet, relationships to deepen, skills to learn, goals to achieve, places to go, experiences to have, new things to try, it’s unbelievable how much I have yet to do.

It would be such a shame to let a moment go to waste.

Like a lot of people, I keep track of all of these things with a bucket list. It’s simple, if I keep it somewhere obvious and I see it almost every day, I will be reminded about the goals I’m aiming for, the things that really matter. Then, as I accomplish each one, I proudly draw a big black line through it.

For 2013, I have decided to publish my list. I have created a page to make myself publicly accountable for my lifetime goals. Hopefully, this will motivate me to get out there and just do it! Feel free to check it out The List.

Screw it, just do it

“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” – Abraham Lincoln

Who knows what the future has to bring? The best thing you can do is take control of it yourself. Decide for your own what you want to happen, then make it happen.

I have been working on it for a few years now, and I’ve managed to cross off a few things already. Even so, the list keeps growing, and at a much faster rate than I can keep up with. Even if I can’t complete every single thing on the list, I wouldn’t mind, as long as I know that I’ve truly tried to. Some of the things will take a long time, years even, but as long as I keep in mind my reasons, I’m sure I can do it. Some of the things will take an immense amount of time, effort and courage, I hope I can live up to the challenge.

 

Nevertheless, I will never forget what an amazing year this has been. Both the good and bad things that have happened have made me a stronger and better person. I know that when I read back on my diary for the past twelve months, I’ll be happy to know that I have already experienced so much.

Thanks 2012 for being such an epic year, and here’s hoping 2013 will be even better!

Zen in a cup of tea

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How easily can a cup of tea be taken for granted?

Before I went to Plum Village, I had no idea that I never knew how to truly enjoy a cup of tea, water or coffee. I used to gulp it down without a second thought.

It’s the same with every breath. We all know how to breathe, we can even do it unconsciously, but what happens when we take a moment to do it intentionally?

What happens if we take the time to drink it all in?

Drink tea and breathe

Every morning, I have a cup of coffee. Every afternoon, a cup of tea. But, for every cup, I don’t take the time to enjoy it, I am too busy doing something else at the same time.

Every moment, I am breathing. But, for every breath, I don’t take the time to appreciate it, I am too occupied by distractions that cause my mind to wander off into the past or future.

However, in reality, everything I need to do, or think about, is in the present moment. Only when I am in the present, does life become real.

No longer is my life just another distraction, another figment, another ghost.

Have you ever meditated on a cup of tea? When you meditate, first, you direct your concentration on an object, like the cup in your hands. Then you sustain and intensify your concentration on it, step by step. You will see things that cannot normally be seen.

For example, did you know that to see the clouds, you do not have to look up at the sky? There is a cloud, right there, in your tea. The water in your cup used to fly high in the sky. It used to run down mountains and along rivers and seas. It has been around the world a million times and back again. Now, it is in your hands, and in the air you are breathing right now. It may not look exactly like a cloud right now, but it is in there, do you see it?

When you realise this, your connection with your tea, your breath, and therefore the rest of the world, becomes deep and meaningful.

To be able to have a cup of tea is a wonder. To be able to breathe is a miracle.

Sip your tea. Take a deep breath. Come back to life.

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Minimalism & The Noble Eightfold Path III – Mental Development

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Greetings everyone! If you follow my twitter you might know that I just spent some time on retreat to Plum Village in France, learning about the teachings of one of my heroes, Thich Nhat Hanh.

I’ve taken away so many great lessons from this trip, and I can’t wait to explore it all with you guys in the coming posts.

In the meantime, here’s the final instalment about the Eightfold Path. In the last two posts, Wisdom and Ethical Conduct, I have talked a lot about the practical applications of each step. With Mental Development, the focus is more about all the work that happens behind the actions.

Right Effort

Having Right Effort means cultivating the self-discipline needed to follow through with the Eightfold path and other teachings of the Buddha.

It’s not always easy to do the right thing. Indeed, in a lot of cases, doing the wrong thing is easier. It’s easier to steal something than to earn it. It’s easier to exploit the weak rather than fight the strong.

However, although doing these things can lead to short term gain, in the long run it cannot last. If you steal you could be caught and punished and if you selfishly continue to exploit those around you, you will be resented or eventually run out of vulnerable things or people to take advantage of. In time, you will become more and more insensitive to your negative impact on others as desire, envy, aggression and perhaps even violence takes over.

Instead, you have to learn to encourage your positive mental states, such as honesty, benevolence and kindness. As long as you put in the Right Effort to be compassionate towards others, your practice of the other steps such as Right Speech, Action and Livelihood will be fuelled by your positive energy.

The practice can be broken down into four steps which can be basically summarised as:

1. To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states. In other words, try not let yourself get angry or hurt so easily. You have full control over these emotions, it is not others that upset you, it is you who allows them to.

2. To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen. If you do find yourself getting angry, it is best not to act immediately. Instead, take a moment to breathe, and you’ll find that a lot of your anger will dissipate quickly. Your mind will become clearer and you can make better judgements about how to handle the situation instead of making it worse.

3. To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen. The third step is to intentionally be compassionate towards others. Smile and complement people, even strangers. Give generously to others, whether it is your material resources, time or effort.

4. To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen. Avoid lying as much as you can. Either keep promises, or don’t make ones you can’t fulfil. Be patient and forgiving. Listen deeply to your family and friends and love them unconditionally.

 

Right Mindfulness

Right Mindfulness is simply the ability to see the world clearly as it is. We should try to clear our minds of delusion and judgement, because they lead to discrimination which inevitably leads to hurting others.

We may only be half conscious of it, but we spend a lot of mental energy categorising, interpreting and distorting things. We fail to recognise the importance of some issues or blow others out of proportion.

When our view is being obscured we don’t see the other side’s perspective. We don’t realise that there must be a reason why people do or think in certain ways, if it is not ‘our way’ it doesn’t mean it’s the ‘wrong way’.

Right Mindfulness enables us to be aware of ourselves and the world around us. It doesn’t stop or make us do anything, instead it is just the non-judging acknowledgement of our thoughts and actions. When we know we are doing something hurtful or helpful, Right Intention and Right Effort will guide us to stop or continue our actions.

Practising Right Mindfulness builds a mind of tranquillity and equanimity. You will find yourself much more emotionally stable and with a much better ability to remain composed under tension or stress.

The best way to practice is simply just to sit down in silence and close or half close your eyes. Once you stop moving your body and stop being distracted by information going into your eyes and ears, you can think more clearly about things the things that are on your mind.

Right Mindfulness (combined with Right Concentration) leads to insight. With clarity of conciousness, almost anything can happen. You may find a solution to a problem or make an important observation about a relationship, your past actions or realise that things aren’t as bad as you had thought. If you sit regularly and patiently, you will experience the miracle of mindfulness. 

 

Right Concentration

Right Concentration is developing the ability to direct all of your mental energy towards a single object and maintain that focus for a period of time.

In the context of the Eightfold Path, it means concentrating on wholesome thoughts and actions such as those under Ethical Conduct – Right Speech, Action and Livelihood.

It might be very difficult at the beginning to maintain focus and not be distracted by all the things going on around us. But what most people don’t know is that concentration is a skill, just like tennis – nobody is naturally born already amazing at it, they have to learn the techniques and practice consistently.

The best way to learn is, again, to practice meditation. I cannot emphasize how important this is. You don’t have to go on retreats, the Dalai Lama himself says you don’t have to be vegetarian, but meditation is an essential component to Buddhist practice. Even if you do not wish to be Buddhist or a Buddhist practitioner, meditation (like eating healthily or taking up yoga) is immeasurably beneficial to everyone.

One way of practising Right Concentration is to try, for 20 minutes, in whatever you are doing, to pour your entire concentration into doing it. Immerse yourself. Don’t stop until you are done with the task at hand or 20 minutes are up. Try to ignore or postpone any distractions until you have finished. If you can do this, try it again for an hour, a day or even a week.

You will find that you are able to complete the task not only more quickly, but with better quality. Each person has enormous amounts of concentration within them, which also means each person has huge potential to achieve great things. Unfortunately, it gets spread out and diluted as we allow things to distract us from our goals.

Concentration is a powerful tool. Being present and focussed is the difference between being a participant of life and being and merely being an observer.

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It’s taken me a little while to write these posts, partly because I was busy preparing for my travels but partly because although the Eightfold path is a simple concept, it is complex in it’s teachings.

There’s so much to say (believe me, I read a lot of literature before writing these posts) but the most important point of all is not just reading about the theory but the actual practice of the path itself.

These posts have been an introduction, a guideline, a gift from me to you. However, it’s up to you now to choose where to go from here. Remember the saying?

“Imagine what you could achieve if you put your mind to it”.

Now, you don’t have to imagine. May the Eightfold path lead the way!

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