Developing Mindfulness and Staying Grounded

This is all about practice. Like everything else in life, it doesn’t always come easy but it does become easier with time. Mindfulness is a way of being. There are no set rules to becoming mindful and aware but you can begin this process by directing your attention towards simple things such as your breathing. This is probably the easiest way to ground yourself and ease yourself into a relaxed frame of mind.

We tend to lose our sense of grounding when we become emotionally stressed and by that stage, it is usually too late to act. It will be harder to come back to grounding if you do not train yourself to look for the warning signs – for instance, snapping at people without any real need to, feeling ‘worked up’ for no reason, having a knot in your stomach that stops you from eating, breathing too quickly (the body has gone into flight or fight mode as it is perceiving a threat of some kind is imminent) and racing thoughts which are usually very negative.

If we are very used to brooding and obsessing over problems, there will be a strong chance that we end up blowing things out of proportion. When we become lost in a maze of thoughts, there is something we can do to help alleviate the feelings of emotional discomfort. By focusing on the breath, we immediately divert attention from thoughts and thinking and into the body. As soon as you do this, you stop the endless cycle of repetitive thoughts. Aligning your attention with the breath is the only way to bring yourself to a centre of calmness.

You then become aware and mindful of the present moment. That is all you ever have to deal with and can deal with. Doing a thousand things at once is possible if you are very organised but if you have a thousand thoughts zooming around your mind creating varying degrees of emotional anxiety with no purpose or resolution, you experience levels of stress that you cannot deal with. Focusing on your breathing releases you from the prison of emotional anxiety and the thoughts that are related to them.

I would say that with practice, you can begin the process of becoming more mindful over time. You will have good days and bad days but the important thing to remember is that you are moving forward. It is a process that takes a lot of time and perseverance and sometimes you feel like it is pointless trying when you are having a difficult time.

Don’t let the bad times get you down! Everything you go through is an experience – it is how you learn from it and how you react to these changes that shape your future.

© Christina McDonald 2014.

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Not a morning person? A piece of dark chocolate might do the trick…

Alarm clock goes off. You feel instantly startled, fumbling with your eyes still half-closed searching for the ‘off’ button wondering what the urgent problem is until you realise ‘oh yes, time to get up..again.’ Another week is here. Not long after, I start craving something to banish the Monday morning blues. I thought it would be good to try an experiment. Instead of having a cup of coffee every morning before I go to work, I am going to have a piece of dark chocolate instead.

Apart from wanting to feel human again, you also want to feel naturally uplifted and happy if your mood is otherwise. The stimulant called ‘theobromine’ which can be considered as one of the ‘feel good’ effects of eating chocolate, can give you a boost not unlike the effects of caffeine. I’m not sure there will that much of a difference as far as feeling that happy buzz is concerned if I’m honest. I would like to see if I actually really do need that cup of coffee in the morning or if I could substitute it for dark chocolate instead without too much effort.

Addict that I am.

How do you feel when you eat a piece of chocolate? For me, I feel instantly relaxed. The entire experience begins visually and then, if I smell the chocolate before eating it, I feel as though I am already experiencing the benefits. When I am at work, just inhaling the aroma of the chocolates is intoxicating in itself and I find myself craving chocolate yet again. Strangely enough, it seems to be the dark chocolate I crave more through the aroma.

I often find myself desiring a piece of milk chocolate but it is the dark chocolate I find myself craving more these days. There are many different nuances of flavour simply found within the aroma of chocolate and it can in fact influence the entire perception and interpretation of the actual taste. There is no doubt about it. The very thought of eating a piece of chocolate does not exist in isolation on its own. How it looks, how it is presented, the aroma, etc. is just stage one of the process.

The memory of how good a piece of chocolate is that we had previously can trigger a positive reaction to future experiences. What we expect to feel and what we actually end up feeling may be of a mutual influence when it comes to tasting the food we eat and even more so when it comes to chocolate I would imagine.

Perhaps imagination is the key here. From the early creative stages of making a chocolate bar or a truffle and to how we interpret the taste and flavour, you could say that it is a work of art unfolding constantly and in a multitude of different ways. Similar to looking at a picture in an art gallery, we are all going to feel and experience something completely different to each other based to an extent on the sum of our own experiences.

And that is what makes it so fascinating.

© Christina McDonald 2014.

Music Memories….

It seems like such a long time since my days at university when I was studying for a music degree. Almost like another lifetime – the passage of time changes many things. I enjoy many things in life but I would have to say music is my absolute passion. I love it (even more than eating chocolate and that’s saying something!) Music has the profound ability to connect you to something – a feeling, a memory, your own idea of what heaven is perhaps – it has the power to unite people in celebration, joy, excitement and sadness. Seldom does it divide (unless you were part of the audience for the premier of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ in 1913 of course).

What is about music that is so moving? Is it the music itself or is it our own emotional reactions to what we are hearing? I think it is a combination of the two. There is a certain amount of nostalgia experienced when we hear certain pieces of music. If you hear a song from many years ago when you were a child, it has an almost magical ability to transport you back to how you felt when you heard it. ‘Oh, this takes me back…’

Almost like riding a bicycle – you never really forget how to do something or lose the memory of a feeling regardless of how many years ago you experienced it. Playing an instrument stays in your fingers and in your mind even if you have a break from it for a while. I still have wonderful memories of when I sang in choirs, played in concerts and (along with a great deal of stress, nervous tension and caffine), enjoyed the fact that I was able to make music. It was a dream come true.

Yes, music has a way of encompassing you entirely bringing you into a different sphere of being. Whether it is classical music, rock, listening to a choir singing in a cathedral, folk music, etc. whatever it is you enjoy listening to and playing, you can be sure of one thing – the ability of music can change the world around you. With a seemingly magical and otherworldly power to influence and move people on such a scale, it is no surprise that music spoke to me at such a young age, being the artistic, sensitive soul I am. It all started when I picked up a recorder and started playing along with T.V theme tunes by ear.

I was hooked.

Nowadays, I love listening to music more than playing. I play for my own enjoyment and it is as if no time has passed at all from when I picked up the flute at the tender age of 14 years old and said to myself ‘this is impossible, I’ll never get a note out of it’ to now when I can play hosts of scales and tunes until my heart is content. I didn’t think I would reach that point – but I did!

Now I listen to and play anything and everything – the more varied, strange and interesting, the better. I wouldn’t say I prefer one genre over the other – I just love music that has the ability to uplift and change how I feel and perhaps helps shift my increasingly stubborn perspectives somehow. Ah, growing older…

Music is all around us…

Practice, patience and perseverance are the ingredients in whatever you choose to do in life…. and not forgetting of course to love what you do!

Go be, do and enjoy 🙂

© Christina McDonald 2014

When it comes to Chocolate – what do you prefer?

This is a tricky one. Dark or milk? What are you in the mood for? Being an absolute addict, I tend not to discriminate between the two. I am a fan of both. I think as time progresses, I am leaning towards enjoying dark chocolate more. I never thought I would enjoy it but my palate has been educated thoroughly over the years. As far as tasting dark chocolate is concerned, I have learned to detect a wide variety of subtle flavours. Is it earthy, fruity or acidic? Is it sweet or sour? Is it floral or nutty? You would be quite surprised at what you can detect when you actually allow yourself to taste chocolate instead of swallowing it in one go (which I still do sometimes if I am enthusiastic enough or I have skipped a meal!)

Milk chocolate is something that I am learning not to crave so much, the simple reason being that when I start eating it, I cannot stop until the whole bar has been demolished. With a square if dark chocolate, I find that I actually enjoy and savour it so much more as for some reason, I can experience a variety of different flavour notes. This is not the case when it comes to tasting milk chocolate for me. I find the sweetness overrides the majority of the taste. Chocolate actually has well over 300 flavour notes which is even more than wine surprisingly! It is hard to believe but apparently, this is true. This would be attributed to many factors such as the kind of beans used to make the chocolate in question, how long fermentation and drying in the initial stages have affected the quality and taste of the bean, the conching time and even how it has been tempered influences the final product.

Badly tempered chocolate loses that brilliant sheen, it doesn’t have an audible ‘snap’ when you break it in two and it can bloom (which is when moisture causes the sugar in the chocolate to crystalise giving it a greyish, dusty pallor). The chocolate will still taste fine regardless. Throughout the different stages of making chocolate, whether it is from the starting point of roasting and drying the beans or in the final stages when it is being tempered, every step of the process will influence the taste. As far as taste is concerned, the natural flavours of the bean are susceptible to the entire chocolate making process and an experienced chocolatier will know how to bring the best out of the beans they have.

When you consider the cacao tree and how difficult it is cultivate, (it needs a very humid environment and only grows in the tropics with the right amount of moisture all year round), it is a wonder how we can sustain the world of cocoa production when you consider how intricate the process from bean to bar is – the threat of disease, volatile and unpredictable changes in climate and not forgetting economic and political factors, all of which can drive market prices soaring. When you eat a piece of chocolate, don’t just focus on the flavour but allow yourself to consider the journey that has transformed cocoa beans into the finished product – and what a journey it is!

© Christina McDonald 2014

Organic Produce – The cost of eating well (or not).

Is it better to buy organic food or not? I am still undecided on the issue if I’m honest. We’re always told to eat healthily but what does eating healthily really mean when push comes to shove? When we buy organic produce, our minds should be set to rest for a number of reasons. We know the food we buy is free from the majority of harmful chemicals and pesticides and the treatment of animals is safeguarded in accordance with high (and naturally healthy) animal welfare standards.

To me, when I think of the word ‘organic’, I really feel that there is (or should be) an extra level of care involved when it comes to how food is treated and sourced. That level of care should not only be in relation to the above mentioned but it should also be there to educate people about how food is grown and what processes are involved. It isn’t simply about buying food which is labelled organic: it should be a movement which helps people truly connect with the natural environment.

A way of life. It is unfortunately an expensive choice but is it the best (or the only) choice?

I had written previously in regards to how it is so easy to take the food we eat for granted. We walk into the supermarket, we select the product we want and hey presto, we buy it and take it home. The thing is – just what is it that we have taken home with us? A disregard for our own health and the natural environment in favour of keeping some spare change in our pockets or have we made a choice that supports the economic and environmental welfare of the society we live in? If we invest in organic food, it will invest in us in turn – surely?

I believe so but there is a problem – there are millions of people to feed on the earth and there is simply no way we can provide the land to grow organic produce for so many people. It is simply impossible. Economically, it costs too much money to invest in it as it is more time consuming to grow organic produce and the cost of manual labour is higher because less chemicals are used for production. Everything has an extra degree of expensive when it comes to eating organic produce and really, from what I can see, it is all a matter of practically, demand and efficiency.

I think when possible, it is always good to buy organic produce as it is better for the environment and hopefully, your own health. Supporting local farmers and buying their produce ensures you buy food that is produced naturally – that sounds a little bit too obvious when you think about it but it makes sense. When you consider how food production for mass consumerism has been treated (the amount of packaging and chemicals used for example, the pollution caused by vehicles in the transportation of food), it makes sense to buy from local farmers who are putting in the extra effort to produce food that is nutritious, tasty and good for the environment. Not only that, but it keeps community spirit and togetherness alive too.

Sounds like a ‘win, win’ situation to me. In theory, yes it is but the reality (as always) is a little bit different. There are so many mouths to feed and not enough time to produce it in a way that benefits everyone. As demand increases, all that matters is that we meet those demands in whatever way we can unfortunately. The sad truth is that there isn’t time for much else. As far as choice is concerned, it all hinges on survival really. A default response to living in a world where the freedom to choose is something of a luxury. Although, we could also say that we can make better use of the land. When you think of how much is used for the rearing of animals for slaughter, perhaps if we ate less meat, we could use the land to grow vegetables. But – we all want to have the freedom to choose, so there we have it. Some of us want to eat meat and some of us choose to be vegetarians. That’s the way it goes.

Like a balloon expanding, it also becomes weaker as it stretches. We could say the same thing is happening when it comes to the consumption of food and how we choose to live. As far as the future is concerned, we are writing it through some of the choices we make and in other ways, the choice has already been made for us – determined by the very same freedom behind making those choices. The freedom we have all come to expect and need could one day spell the demise of our general standards of living and health. You could say that we have become too successful in destroying our own lives without us even knowing it. Freedom wears a cunning disguise sometimes….

© Christina McDonald 2014

I’m not perfect (nor do I want to be)

I’m not sure if it is because I am too tired (or getting too old to care anymore) but I feel as though the pressure to be perfect is just a crazy way to feel and live. I am all for high standards – don’t get me wrong – and it is extremely important to give your very best in life. If you stopped trying, things would just fall apart. Caring about what you do is paramount and sometimes, other people’s lives and safety depend upon it.

I just hate that feeling – you know – the feeling that everything you do hinges on being absolutely perfect. No mistakes, no errors, no room for failure. I make mistakes sometimes, even when I try not to. I’m not perfect – there!

Are there people out there who simply don’t mess up? How do they do it? Do they just cover it up superbly when they do make a mistake so nobody notices? (In other words – through ‘bull****’? I’m not saying I make mistakes all the time. Not at all. Sometimes when I do, I feel like it is the end of the world and it isn’t. I say to myself ‘Why did I do that, how stupid! I should know better than this!’ (And I should and do). So, why do I make silly mistakes then? Are mistakes the be all and end all? No, of course not. But – they feel like they are sometimes.

I don’t know about you, but I feel as though the drive for constant perfection in society is maddening. High standards, yes. Perfection – no (and it can sod off). The perfect body, the perfect image, the perfect holiday, the perfect relationship. The perfect amount of money, (Yeah, right).

The problem is when it comes to perfection, enough is never enough especially when it comes to materialism. You always think you can do better and have more, improve this, change that. To me, perfectionism is an illness perpetuated by fear that quietly resides in the psyche waiting to pounce the moment you feel just a little bit insecure or unsure of yourself.

(The fear of not/never being good enough – that is the driving force behind perfectionism – so we keep striving at all costs to prevent a realisation of this truth…that we might not be what other people think.

Who cares?????

I am not perfect and I don’t think anybody should feel guilty for it and feel as though they should apologise for their own perceived ‘failures’ and weaknesses. Realising you have a weakness is actually a strength because (if you feel you need to), you can then become aware of it and can change it.

When painting a picture and your paintbrush slips across the paper, do you score it all out, tear it up and put it in the bin? No. You simply include the ‘mistake’ as part of the creative process. You are the one defining what that mistake is. Perhaps I am also defining my mistakes – I am self-critical to the point where I can sometimes lose perspective of what really matters – the fact that I am human….

I remember years ago when I was applying for jobs after university, going through endless application forms and reading the requirements – ‘must have superb attention to detail, must be proactive, dynamic, a leader, a visionary, presidential material, quite simply – awesome, amazing and magical (of course, not forgetting to demonstrate excellent customer service, blah blah etc. Must, must, must must. Fine – I get it. You want someone who will try hard and do their best.

Reading those kinds of things just makes me not want to bother – why? Perhaps it is some kind of false sincerity on my part – having to care when I didn’t actually care that much. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think I’m alone here – most people want to do their best, earn their money and go home at the end of the day and forget the fact that in their 9-5 jobs, they are actually superhumans in disguise of a person who makes mistakes from time to time.

At least now I have a job I love and really do enjoy – thank goodness. Even when I went for flute lessons as a student, my teacher told me once when I was auditioning for an orchestral vacancy – ‘you cannot make a mistake at all here, there are over 300 candidates going for this seat and there is no room for error.’ Well – I went to the audition, made one tiny mistake and hey presto, that was that. (I tried not to, but I did). So myself, and 298 other candidates bit the dust. That’s the way it goes….

So, I guess the theory is – try not to make a mistake but if you do, just let it go and try not to let it ruin the rest of your life….it doesn’t matter if you screw up. Having high standards is perfect enough. Striving for perfection in my case is very self-limiting and completely soul destroying. I cannot do that but I am sure there are others who can.

Be creative, make music, paint and write, even though people may never appreciate it and be joyful for the sheer sake of it. Life is short and very precious. Don’t make unnecessary sacrifices for nothing. Just be and do.

In life, it only matters if you stop trying. Whatever happens, do it for you.

© Christina McDonald 2014.

Persian Cuisine – here I go!

I’ve just bought a Persian Cuisine cookery book! I was thinking about the food I really do enjoy eating and I thought I would enjoy making it in equal measure. The recipes are delicious and too tempting for words.

I think what attracted me to Persian food (still being a total beginner as a cook) were some of the ingredients used in the cooking – saffron, pistachios, cardamom, rose water, lime, etc…simply delicious! I don’t think I have felt this positive about cooking food in a long time so I feel I am finally on the right track. I once had a boyfriend years ago now who used to spoil me with some of the most amazing Persian food and dining when we were in the throes of our new relationship together so even that could be influencing my decision – is there anything more nostalgic than food?

Interesting, sensually appealing, exotic and so appetising! What’s there not to like? It is interesting and different and that’s what I’m looking for.

I will ease myself in gradually with something simple to start with! One step at a time. In all honesty, I don’t understand why it has taken me this long to become so interested in preparing something like this – tiredness, stress and empty excuses I think – no more of that! If you find something you’re passionate about doing, then the rest doesn’t matter – you make room to pursue it if your heart is in it.

I want to use recipe books as a guideline for now but I hope one day soon that I will be able to make dishes by simply following my intuition as to what I feel would work well together. I am sure there will be some interesting combinations selected along the way (and the occasional slip up – ahem!)

Nothing ventured, nothing gained! I’ll try my hand at my own creations soon and let you know how I get on but for now I have a great incentive which will hopefully inspire my creativity in the kitchen.

© Christina McDonald 2014