How plants and vegetation can help you be mindful

Plants like these can help you be mindful at home

Nature is beautiful. I find it easiest to be mindful when I’m in nature. Being aware of the present moment seems a lot simpler when I’m on a stroll in the wood or somewhere with lots of birds singing and the sun shining. So, one of the ways I’ve managed to achieve more mindfulness in my own home is by buying plants to keep around the house. A psychotherapist once told me that she keeps plants in the rooms that her patients will come into because it, for whatever reason, leads to them being more expressive in their session. I’m not sure if this is true – but it certainly feels true. Having a live plant in my house that I care for, without the stress of a pet, in a way helps me to cultivate empathy and compassion. Being compassionate towards a plant? Sounds ridiculous, but there is some truth in it.

You can buy some great seeds and plants online, and I’d highly recommend doing so. Having plants in my house has somehow made me less stressed. Having some greenery amongst my industrial and wooden furniture is really lovely. My grandmother keeps a whole garden full of plants, with apple trees and raspberry shrubs and more. I wish I had the time to do something like that, but having a few little plants that I’ve grown myself still gives me a fraction of that feeling of satisfaction.

For the past few years I’ve wanted to own a pet, but I’m not allowed to have one where I live. That’s a shame, and honestly I’m not sure I would even have the necessary time to dedicate to a pet, but having a plant kind of acts as a substitute for a pet – an ersatz kitten. Plants can actually be kind of cute – okay, I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but I do genuinely believe there’s something to be said for the idea that having any form of life in your home will be good for your mental wellbeing.

Is mindfulness only a trend?

Is mindfulness only a trend?

Lots of people have asked me, as someone really into mindfulness and meditation, whether it’s only a trend. Is mindfulness a fad, nothing more than a metaphysical fidget spinner, or is there something inherent to the concept of meditation and mindfulness that it cannot be a fad? A lot of writers, including some in the Guardian, have argued that mindfulness is a way for people to simply sell you things and piggyback off Eastern traditions and spirituality. Some have used the term McMindfulness to describe the commercialisation of mindfulness and eastern spiritual practices.

In my view, mindfulness cannot possibly be a trend. Certainly, there will be some people out there who don’t take mindfulness seriously, and only use it to sell products or for other ulterior motives. But most people who practice mindfulness take it very seriously and have incorporated it into our lives for years. Can something that is derived from centuries old meditation practices really be considered a trend or a fad?

Some people have argued that if you divorce mindfulness from its spiritual context and make it a secular activity, it devalues what mindfulness and meditation is really about. Meditation, these people argue, comes from Buddhist traditions, and without attaching the relevant Buddhist spirituality and spiritual texts, mindfulness becomes a pale shadow of what it is meant to be.

I disagree. You don’t have to be spiritual to get benefits out of mindfulness, and indeed, many secular societies and groups have looked into the benefits of mindfulness and discovered that they still apply even when meditation practice is divorced from its context in Buddhism. Mindfulness would be ridiculously successful for a trend – hundreds of millions of people practice mindfulness and meditation, and meditation centres are established across the world. There are five in my city alone.

Either way, perhaps the real takeaway is that it doesn’t much matter if mindfulness is a trend. Who cares? If it benefits us to use it as a tool for improving our mental wellbeing, I don’t much mind if it’s a trend or if it isn’t. I’ve found a huge benefit from it, and whether people think of it as a fad or not doesn’t affect that.

How I started walking 10,000 steps every day

Walking 10k every day is good for you

Exercise is so important, for mindfulness and for our physical and mental wellbeing. It can be really hard though: establishing a routine of going for a daily jog or cycle or swim is unbelievably tough. So, I really recommend walking, especially to those who find vigorous exercise a challenge. What I really recommend is aiming to get 10,000 steps a day. There are dozens of pedometer apps you can get on your phone, and all of them will have the goal pre-set at getting that 10k. It becomes something of a game, I know I’ve got into the habit of checking the app I use (pacer) to see if I’ve reached the magic 10k. It really does motivate you, and walking is a great way to be in the moment and take note of the world around you. When I walk I noticed the blue sky and the green grass and the trees and my own emotions and reaction to the world around me.

Another reason that I think that walking is fantastic is that it allows you to take some time out of your busy life and just focus on the now, and think for a bit. I almost always come up with new ideas and solutions to problems I’ve been having while on my daily walk. It’s funny: going for a walk can allow you to come up for a solution to a problem you’ve been working on all day. They say that Einstein came up with some of his greatest work while doing a mundane job at the patent office, and I think something similar applies to me for walking. I can spend all day working on a task and then finally I’ll come up with the answer when I’m no longer working on it.

The way to start getting 10,000 steps is pretty simple: aim low. Start using your pedometer and see what your average is. If it’s 1000, that’s totally fine. It doesn’t much matter, the point is that you want to see what kind of numbers you’re hitting without putting any effort in. Then, try to increase the number of steps you take. Pretty obvious, right? Walk to work instead of driving. Get off the bus a few stops early and walk the rest. Walk to the bar instead of getting the train. These small, simple changes will allow you to rack up the steps. Of course, the big thing is making the conscious decision to go for a long walk. Go to the most beautiful part of your city and just take in your environment. Be mindful of where you are and the people around you and the sounds you hear. Listen to music if you’d like, or put on an audiobook. I’ve read that Stephen Fry lost a load of weight by walking around and listening to audiobooks for hours on end. I’ve also read that David Mitchell became much healthier by walking around, which he was suggested to do in order to help with his back pain.

Walking 10,000 steps eventually becomes a pleasure, not a chore. I find it difficult to have a day without my 10,0000 steps. Downloading a pedometer on my iPhone and counting my steps was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Why I switched to ethical coffee

Ethical coffee made a daily part of my routine guilt-free

We’re all trying to be more ethical. It can be tough. I went vegetarian a few months ago, and have written before about the best vegetarian recipe books. But here’s perhaps an unusual thing I’d like to recommend: try ethical coffee. Coffee might not be something you associate with morality, and I didn’t really either (apart from trying my best to buy Fairtrade coffee, although that was something I was not always able to achieve, and I’ve actually heard that the Fairtrade brand alone does not prove that something is completely ethical). A few months ago I heard from a friend about this ethical coffee that you can buy on Amazon. It’s great, because you can subscribe to the service so that you can get your coffee delivered with timing so that you have a constant supply of coffee that you know to be coming from an ethical source. You can then tinker with the amount of coffee you’re getting so that you get sent it exactly when you’ve finished your supply.

A year ago or so, I went to a coffee farm in Guatemala. It was an eye-opening experience. The coffee plantation I went to was an ethical one, and the work that the farmers there put in was still incredibly difficult, not something that I would want to do or honestly, would even be able to do. Some of the employees there told me about previous coffee plantations they’d worked at, and how horrendously they had been treated. That was the moment I knew that I only ought to be buying coffee from ethical suppliers.

I made the switch because I have coffee all the time, and I found a cheap service on Amazon to ship me coffee regularly. It’s a way that I can feel better about drinking so much coffee (and I’ve read that drinking coffee every day is good for you, too). I don’t want to be in a situation where a luxury that I enjoy daily is something I have to feel guilty about. It’s also much, much cheaper than doing something like buying a coffee at Starbucks every day, or even somewhere like McDonalds (the ethical coffee service on amazon tastes much better too!)

I highly recommend making the switch to ethical coffee, and you can find out all about it here.

How exercise promotes mindfulness

Exercise is a great way to promote mindfulness

Exercise. Urgh. We all know it’s good for us, and most of us really don’t like it. It’s a bit like mindfulness, in a way. At first. We’re all beginning to gradually accept that mindfulness and meditation are good for us too, but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying to get out of doing it. Something I’ve noticed is that, while you’re exercising, it’s pretty easy to be mindful. Focusing on the breath and the body becomes a lot easier when you’re quickly losing your breath and your heartrate is going into overdrive.

Different types of exercise aid mindfulness in different ways. When you’re swimming, it becomes quite simple to notice the feeling of the water on your body, and notice the escalated pulse, and experience the smells and sounds of the pool. Playing football lets you focus on the green of the grass and the feeling of the wind in your hair as you run. Exercise, in its own way, is one of the best times at which you can be mindful. And combining exercise and mindfulness is a sure-fire way to get a huge dopamine boost and feel good about yourself.

Another advantage of exercise as a form of mindfulness is that it isn’t impossibly difficult to incorporate exercise into your everyday life, which means that mindfulness is incorporated into your everyday life by proxy. If you cycle to work or school every day, and you’re able to mindfully cycle and be aware of the feelings in your body and the road ahead of you, you’ve found a simple way to add mindfulness into your life every single day. I’ve written before a list of how to incorporate mindfulness into your life every day and why it’s so important, and exercise would make a fine addition to that list.

One thing I used to do was do my daily workout, and then have a meditation session directly afterwards. The reason that this came so easily to me was because, while exercising, I was already hyper aware of the experience and the present moment, and so meditation directly afterwards felt like a natural continuation of that. When you have just woken up or whatever and go directly into a meditation session, it can often feel like you’ve gone straight from one thing (sleep, work, etc.) and into a completely different thing. Meditation doesn’t feel like much else, but I do think that when you’re exercising you do get some of that same feeling that you get from meditation and mindfulness, especially if you’re making a conscious effort to exercise mindfully.

Exercising is fantastic. It makes you feel great, it makes you healthier, and it makes you look better. There is nothing bad I can say about adding exercise to your daily routine. But if you’re able to combine that exercise with mindfulness, either by exercising mindfully or by making a meditation session the thing you become used to doing after taking up your exercise, the benefits of exercise will be multiplied.

Why spirituality is so important even if you’re not religious

Spirituality can be helpful for everyone

Are you religious? No? Me neither, honestly. I like the idea of religion and I sometimes feel envious of people who get to have a community that they feel part of, and I even often envy the idea that other people have an obvious purpose bestowed upon them by their belief in God. But one thing I don’t feel envious of religious people for is their spirituality – because I have it too. Spiritually is often portrayed as being inextricably linked with religion: you can’t be spiritual unless you believe in some kind of higher power. For me, this argument is about as persuasive as the argument that people can’t be moral without religion. That is to say, it doesn’t persuade me at all.

Spirituality is, at its core, about finding meaning in your life. It’s about believing in the important of something beyond your own self-interest. It’s about introspection and quiet moments of reflection. These moments of reflection can take the form of prayer to a God, but they can also take the form of meditation or just taking some time to think about what you’re doing with your life and how you’re planning to get to wherever it is that you want to be.

One of the best ways to find some kind of spirituality is by figuring out what you believe the end you’re pursing in life is. What I mean by that is, to figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing in your day to day life. What is it that you’re pursuing? You might be living in order to provide a happy home for your family, you might be living in order to alleviate worldwide poverty, you might be living in order to make great things that other people can enjoy. It doesn’t much matter what it is, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t immediately seem supremely important in the context of the world, what matters is that you’re able to say: this is it. This is my purpose, and I’m living to accomplish it. This is what religious people have in their religion, and you can find in something else.

Meditation is also important when thinking about how to be spiritual. Taking that time to focus on yourself and your experiences and your feelings accomplishes roughly the same thing as prayer, and that’s so important for your mental wellbeing. Meditating is a way of taking some time out and being with yourself.

Another aspect of spirituality that’s important in the lives of religious people is community: when a religious person goes to Church or Synagogue or whatever it is, they have a community of people who they know care about them and are interested in their lives. Non-religious people can find communities of friends in the form of societies, clubs, interest groups, etc. Finding a community that cares about you is a great way to bolster your mental health.

Being spiritual is important for everyone. Finding a quiet moment to reflect, finding a purpose in life, and finding a community that cares about you and loves you. If you can do these things, you can have all the benefits of spirituality that religious people have without having to become religious yourself (if you don’t want to!)

Five top tips for meditation at home

Meditation at home can be just as effective as at a centre

I’ve always found it easier to go and meditate at a meditation group than I have to meditate at home. I’m not sure why. I think it’s because the place you’ll go to partake in a meditation group will inevitably be designed to make it as meditation-friendly as possible. In my view, one of the ways you can make sure that you’re more mindful at home and are more likely to meditate regularly is by making your home similar to the kind of places you’d go to do meditation in a group. Here are some tips for how to do that.

1) Make sure that you’ll be free from distractions during your session

At a meditation centre, there are strict rules that nobody is to come in during the session. You won’t be distracted by some bozo waltzing in and asking what the code for the internet is. Not so at home. Your spouse, your flatmate, or your kids are liable to come in at any moment. Your phone could ring. So, what should you do? The obvious answer is to wait until nobody is home and put your phone on Airplane mode. If you cannot avoid meditation at a time when other people are in the house, kindly request that they give you ten or fifteen minutes without distraction so that you’re able to meditate

2) Get meditation pillows

Meditation on a hard chair is fine. Meditating on a sofa or a bed is also fine. But these things aren’t optimal. Whenever you go to a meditation centre they’ll have these pillows, and they’ll advise you on the proper posture to meditate with the pillows. I bought a couple of these pillows online and I have to say, it does make a difference. Meditation for long periods of time with comfortable pillows specifically designed for meditation is great. It makes it so much easier and I’m much less prone to be distracted.

3) Wear the right clothes

Meditation in a suit is bit antithetical to the purpose of meditating. That’s not some kind of jab at people who work in business or need to wear a suit to work, it’s a comment on how important it is to be wearing relaxing clothes while you meditate. Nobody wants to be distracted by the feeling of tight trousers pushing into your stomach. It’s so much easier to meditate properly when you’re wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes.

4) Use guided videos on Youtube

There are so many great guided meditations on youtube, I don’t need to bother linking to them because a search on Youtube for ‘guided meditation’ will give you plenty to start with. Instead of just going straight into silence, begin your meditation practice by putting on a guided video, often from a real Buddhist monk with years and years of experience, just like at a Buddhist centre or secular meditation centre.

5) Get some incense

This can be a controversial one because a lot of people don’t like smells while they’re meditating. I like them because they act as something to focus on and I’m easily distracted if I’m only focusing on my own breath. For this reason, I highly recommend buying incense and trying it for only a few of your sessions, and seeing if you see an improvement.

How watching movies can be a form of meditation

Watching movies can be a form of meditation

What exactly is meditation? When most of us imagine meditation, we imagine sitting around, perhaps with some impossibly hard to achieve posture, maybe with some incense and a few meditation pillows. This perception of meditation as a hippie-dippy new-age pursuit is pernicious, because meditation (and mindfulness) can be achieved by doing the same things that we do every day, but in a mindful way. If we brush our teeth and are fully aware of the fact that we are brushing our teeth, not lost in thought about today’s work meetings or yesterday’s arguments, we are being mindful, and we are meditating.

One of the best ways to meditate, in my opinion, is by watching movies. This can be done at home, but I think the best way to achieve a state of mindfulness is by actually going to your local cinema and watching a film. The reason watching a movie is so great as a form of meditation, especially at the cinema, is because it’s so easy to engage fully with a movie. When you’re at the cinema it’s pretty much impossible to check your phone every few minutes (I would hope! I know there are a few people who annoyingly do check their phones all the time while at the movie theatre). Distracting thoughts are less likely to permeate into your skull when you’re being blasted by a massive sound system. Okay, that doesn’t exactly sound pleasant, but you get my point.

Movies are also a good way to cultivate compassion. When we go to the cinema, most movies give us an opportunity to engage with the characters, and take on their problems and feelings for an hour or two. If you go to see a film about an Indonesian skateboarder, it’s likely that you’re entering a world you know nothing about. For a brief amount of time, you’re transported into this whole other universe and get to think about the problems of others that you didn’t even know existed.

Meditation, at its core, is about focusing on the present experience instead of being focused on the future, or on the past. Movies are a way that most of us do this very often. That isn’t to say that it’s incredibly easy to be mindful while we’re at the cinema, we can still get distracted and we can still lose track of the plot because we’re thinking about other things. But it’s easier to bring our focus back to the trials and tribulations of a character on the big screen than it is to bring our focus back to the breath during a meditation session.

I love movies. I read a study a few years ago that suggested that people who go to the cinema regularly are generally happier and calmer, and I can totally believe it. By taking the time out of our stressful lives to watch a movie, we allow ourselves to become totally engrossed in someone else’s life: this allows us to cultivate empathy and be mindful in a way that’s relatively easy, and fun!

Why pursuing creative ventures is key to mental wellbeing

Creative ventures are key to our mental wellbeing

There are plenty of things that we think of when we talk about mental wellbeing: therapy, exercise, having good relationships, maybe even mindfulness and meditation. I’m going to add another to the list that I think that too many people don’t consider, or at least usually place at the bottom of their priorities: pursuing creative ventures. Writing, drawing, singing, and so on are so important if we are to achieve a good level of mental wellbeing. They allow us to be in the moment just as much as meditation does. When I’m focusing on my writing, all of my focus is on my writing. In a way, it becomes a form of meditation. One of my best friends is a guy who makes music every day and I know that it has become a cathartic experience for him: making music and using his time creatively is a way of expressing himself and expressing his emotions.

In a way, creativity combines the most important parts of mindfulness with the benefits you get from something like a therapy session. Your creative pursuits are an expression of how you feel, a way of splatting the contents of your brain onto a page or a canvas. At the same time, they allow for immense focus on what’s at hand; it’s easier to avoid distractions when focusing on a creative pursuit than it is when shopping or doing another task that doesn’t fully engage your mind.

Doing creative things is also a great way to see our own emotions and mental state through the filter of creativity when I listen to a song that my friend has written I am aware of his mental state, and the same applies to when I create my own stuff. When you go to a therapist, part of the goal is becoming aware of the exact manifestation of our own feelings and the nature of them in a way that we wouldn’t by just allowing them to fester in our own heads. Writing an article or a song allows for something similar, a different, and beneficial, way to perceive the emotions and feelings we have.

It doesn’t much matter if what you create isn’t any good, but I seriously advice everyone to have at least one creative outlet. Even if the painting you did is terrible, you’ve put aside some time to focus not on stressful work or difficult problems but a cathartic and enjoyable time of creativity. Also, if you pursue a creative venture regularly you will inevitably get better at whatever it is you’re doing. If you paint a painting and it’s terrible, your hundredth painting won’t be. If you write an article and it’s terrible, your thousandth article won’t be. If nothing else, pursuing a creative venture is a way of improving at a skill, and a skill that other people will get enjoyment out of. Being creative is so, so important for our mental health, and if you don’t do anything creative regularly I really recommend that you start.

The five most AMAZING vegetarian recipe books

These vegetarian cookbooks will ensure you never run out of recipe ideas

I went vegetarian a few years ago. It was huge for me; a way of implementing compassion and empathy into my life every day without even thinking about it. It’s something I encourage every single one of my readers to do. Often, when I raise the idea of going veggie with someone, they argue that they are the most enthused meat-lover I will ever meet, and that while they accept that for some people it will be possible to go vegetarian, they simply aren’t one of them. My answer is always the same: get yourself a vegetarian recipe book with delicious recipes, go vegetarian for one day a week, and if you really struggle on that day, don’t go vegetarian. But they won’t struggle. Most of the people I give this advice to end up looking forward to the day they get to cook from their recipe book, and many go on to become full-time veggies.

So, what recipe book should you get? Well, here are a few that I love to recommend to people because the recipes are always delicious. In truth, there are a lot of vegetarian recipe books out there that are just looking to cash in on the veggie trend. These aren’t those.

1) The complete vegetarian cookbook

This is the first vegetarian cookbook I got, and it’s still the one that I recommend to people every day. It’s dense: over 400 pages. It’s kind of like my vegetarian bible. I’m not sure that I would have been able to become properly vegetarian without this cookbook. If I have a hankering for a meat recipe I can always pick this up and find its vegetarian equivalent (and the equivalent always tastes better than whatever sloppy meat dish I would’ve cooked up). If you’re new to vegetarianism, and you can only get one book, make it this one.

2) Plenty

This cookbook by Ottolenghi is another one of my go-tos. The recipes are slightly more difficult than the ones in the complete vegetarian cookbook, so maybe only go for this one if you consider yourself an experienced cook. The photography of the food is fantastic, the book feels amazing, and the recipes are absolutely divine. I strongly recommend this book for someone looking to impress friends and show just how great vegetarian food can be.

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3) A Modern way to eat

My, my. This is an interesting book. The photos are great, and the recipes are simple. These recipes feel like the sort of recipes where you can just concentrate on the flavours and the simple ingredients really do all of the work for themselves. This is the ‘mindful’ cookbook we’ve all been waiting for.

4) Thug Kitchen

Thug Kitchen. Thugs who are vegetarian. Why shouldn’t a thug be vegetarian? They should be, and they can be, and they are. This book will give you some of your greasy fill while still keeping many of the recipes healthy, and all of the recipes vegetarian. This book is fun, and something really different from your standard veggie cookbook.

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5)The ‘Oh She Glows’ Cookbook

This cookbook is similar to the first one. It has loads and loads of recipes, all of which are delicious and healthy. If you have to get two cookbooks, get the first one I mentioned and this one. That will give you a huge, huge range of recipes to cook. These two are especially good for people struggling to come up with ideas as to what to replace the meat in their diets with.