Buttery toast. One of life’s little pleasures. But how many of us really taste everything when we eat? Not just when we’re eating toast but with anything we consume. I try to eat my food mindfully when I can – although that’s easier said than done with a small toddler waving spoons of mashed potato around – but when I do have a meal to myself, I try to savour every moment, observe the colour, texture and taste, slowly and with full awareness. (Well, when I remember.)
I always think fondly of the delicious vegan food from the 10-day silent retreat in Dharamshala a few years ago, not just because the food was full of rich Indian flavours but because at every meal time, with no distractions, no talking, no iPhones, no television, your full attention was spent on each mouthful – just you and your plate.
Last week, my new yoga teacher read the following guided meditation during relaxation at the end of the class and I was keen to share it with you. Not only did I leave the class more focused than before but all I could think about for the next 24 hours was buying a loaf of my favourite sourdough bread from my local baker. (Ha! It worked on two levels.)
If you feel like giving this simple meditation a try then simply have a read and then the next time you make some toast bear in mind what you’ve read below. You could also ask someone to read it to you whilst you sit with your eyes closed somewhere peaceful.
The idea is to pay attention to what is happening right here and now, to be fully present during everyday experiences and extract yourself from the dreamlike stage our mind wonders in.
Toast: A Meditation
Toast a piece of bread and as it’s cooking, savour the distinctive aroma of white or brown, ready-sliced or crusty, seeded or unseeded. Note any happy mental associations that arise. Spread the toast with butter, Marmalade or whatever takes your fancy, listening to the rasp of the knife and appraising the texture of the toasted bread as you do so. Notice and accept any frustrations as they arise in your mind. Perhaps the butter is straight out of the refrigerator and difficult to spread? Perhaps some sticky marmalade has found its way onto your fingers?
When the toast is ready to eat, look at it as if you had never seen a piece of toast before. Notice the fine structure of the bread still visible around the edges where the spread hasn’t reached, the difference in colouring and texture compared with the crust, the smoothness or runniness of the butter, the glossiness of the marmalade, its contours on the bread, its colouration and constituents. Maybe there are fine strips or chunks of orange rind, tiny air bubbles, flecks of darker colour. None of this is beneath your attention.
Sniff the toast and marmalade. Take a bite. Observe how the jaws, tongue and salivary glands immediately go to work of their own accord. Don’t try to stop them or slow them down, just note the crunch of each bite and the accompanying sounds inside your head. Now that you are actually paying attention, it might be surprising how loud these sounds are. Notice the changing texture of the food in your mouth as the teeth grind it down and saliva dissolved it. Give your full attention to the sharp acidity and sweetness of the orange, the oily butteriness of the butter, the butty toastiness of the toast.
Try all the fully automated movements of the tongue, jaws and lips as you chew and finally swallow. Notice the unfolding of all these behaviours as they happen, the almost unstoppable motivation to take another bite, and then another. All your impressions are valid, both the positive and negative. You may discover that you are enjoying the toast a whole lot more than if you’d just wolfed it down without thinking. Or perhaps you find the whole experience slightly disappointing. Maybe the toast is cold and chewy, the marmalade too sweet? There may be bitter, burned bits.
Accept it all with equanimity. This is simply how the toast is.
The above meditation was taken from the book Siddhartha’s Brain – The Science of Meditation, Mindfulness and Enlightenment by James Kingsland.
And if you’re reading, Hester – thanks for sharing this!
My (Hypno) Birth-day: Sunday 26th July 2015: 4:03am
WELLBEING POST: A POSITIVE STORY ABOUT CHILD BIRTH
This post is dedicated to my little girl who turns one tomorrow and to pregnant women everywhere. I hope this helps.
When I think about this time last year I have nothing but fond memories of childbirth; it was a very happy, relaxing and euphoric time. Perhaps not the response you’d expect from a first-time Mum.
What most people don’t realise, my old self included, is that you already have all you need to have a good birth and by simply empowering yourself with the right knowledge, you can birth your baby confidently, safely and in many cases, including my own experience, you can actually enjoy your day and reflect back on the occasion as one of your fondest memories.
I read not long ago that Fearne Cotton hypnobirthed, as did the Princess of Cambridge for the birth of Prince George. It seems hypnobirthing is making its way into the mainstream and thank God for that. I really wish this was a standard practise offered by the NHS. I’m certain considerable sums of money would be saved on surgery costs, drugs and hospital beds, not to mention the sheer amount of happier and more relaxed new parents there would be. The encouraging thing is that many hospitals do recognise the technique, including our very wonderful Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital – many of the midwives there have taken hypnobirthing courses and are happy to support you in your birth choice, as the lovely Gemma did on our big day.
Of course, everyone is different, every baby is different and every birthing context is different too. Even if you adopt hypnobirthing techniques, there are sometimes circumstances out of your control, certain situations where you still might need some medical assistance. If you are at least equipped with these skills, your chances of a smooth birth are far higher. Even if you need a helping hand, you’ll be in a positive frame of mind to face any turn your birthing takes.
But hypnobirthing isn’t a new-age approach that’s just taken off. If you look back in history or even speak to women living in Asian countries today, birth is viewed as such a joyful experience. On the whole, our society in the West has got the whole thing wrong: TV, films, friends of friends, people you meet in the doctor’s surgery, it seems there are a lot of folk out there that simply give childbirth a bad rap. All you ever hear are the horror stories. Helpful. JUST what you want to hear when you become pregnant for the first time. If that happens, place your fingers deep into your ears, walk away and when you’re a safe distance, Google: Hypnobirthing courses near me.
What is hypnobirthing?
Effectively, hypnobirthing is a birth education programme that teaches simple but specific self-hypnosis, relaxation and breathing techniques for a better birth. But it’s much more than just self-hypnosis. You learn about what’s happening to your body, your baby during childbirth, what to expect so you feel in control of your situation and ways of managing in the situation.
How do you learn how to hypnobirth?
You could simply buy the book and the CD and practise at home. Or if like us, you need feel like some face-to-face reassurance, then you can either do a 1:1 course, or as we did, a group course. It was a great chance to bond with four other lovely expectant couples within a relaxed atmosphere, with evenings spent talking about and giving massages, visualisations and because we were lucky to find Jackie Heffer-CookeJackie Heffer-Cooke, there was also a good amount of light-hearted banter and fun thrown in too. It was the best £180 we’ve ever spent.
One of the visualisations I chose to use, was of hot air balloons soaring across the Himalayas, a sight that was very evocative and memory-inducing for me.
Our course was over six sessions and we were taught about what happens in childbirth, in a really positive and gentle way. The explanations used were very supportive and there’s a big emphasis on using only positive language to describe what happens. After all, the more positive you are, the more relaxed you are and the more relaxed you are, the easier it will be for your body to birth your baby. If you’re anxious or fearful this will release adrenalin, which in the childbirth context isn’t helpful. It’s all about oxytocin baby! So think, date night. Candles, soft music, dim lights, gentle words, a few caresses. Same concept, slightly different outcome.
How can it benefit you during pregnancy and birth?
From a personal point of view, these are the things that really helped us:
During the weeks leading up to my birth, my friends and family all seemed surprised at how clam and content I was
I stayed calm during the early stages of labour through to the actual birth
During the early stages of labour, I felt in control and peaceful. I relaxed in my bedroom and practised my breathing and listened to the Rainbow Relaxation CD we were given on the course, which included some visualisation techniques and positive affirmations
During my birth Matthew, Steff our doula and the midwife medicated me with nothing more than a hand fan, a cold flannel and supply of bendy straws and still energy drink. We didn’t need any intervention, no drugs or procedures, during birth
I used the golden thread breath that we’d learnt during the class in the birthing pool and went within myself, taking myself to peaceful places and happy moments from my life
It felt challenging at times but I knew every surge (contraction) would bring me closer and being armed with the knowledge we learnt during the classes, I knew when things were progressing
I was not only able to calmly face the birth, but I actually really loved the experience – yes it is possible to enjoy childbirth ladies
It was also a pretty awesome bonding experience for me and Matthew
After the birth, Matthew and the midwife reported that I was very focused during this time and it was very clear that I was listening to my body. I think they were quite surprised by the number of challenging surges I had that I breathed through calmly
I actually really enjoyed the last 40 minutes, the actual birth which I thought would be the most challenging part – but I felt so empowered
The techniques really helped Matthew stay clam too, when otherwise he reported, he would usually have found it much harder to understand what was happening and to respond accordingly.
I think men find childbirth hard because they want to be able to “fix things” yet they can’t. So armed with hypnobirthing knowledge, this gave Matthew insights into what would happen and how best he could support me on the day. He did all the right things! And didn’t try to fix a thing.
He was such a brave and attentive presence and kept so clam and supportive throughout, I really couldn’t have done it without his support and the things he learnt on the course. He was there for me the entire time without being intrusive or distracted, he was 100% “with me” at the right tone, volume and pace, just simply being with me and supporting me at every beat. My hero! Although that’s what he said I was to him.
Tips for your big day:
In addition to learning hypnobirthing techniques, here are a few practical things that helped us:
Dry run: We visited the hospital’s Delivery Suit and Midwife-Led Birthing Unit for a tour so I knew the environment and could visualise things and manage my expectations. Plus it helps to know where you’re going!
Fuel: Eat a good meal during your early stages of labour. Think marathon carbo-loading. I had a giant plate of meatballs and pasta which armed me for the journey ahead because you don’t feel like eating during labour but you do need energy. But not everyone will feel like eating too much. Do what feels right for you but try to eat something that will give you a slow release of energy.
Drinks: Whilst I was in the pool all I fancied was a cold drink. It was a HOT summer. Sometimes water but I needed energy. We took a cool bag filled with snacks and drinks for Matthew, a few snacks for me post-birth and most importantly, some cold energy drinks with bendy straws – make sure they are not carbonated, buy the flat energy drinks which are easier to drink, you don’t want to choke on bubbles whilst trying to focus.
Take your time: We made it slowly up to Midwife Led Birthing Unit and as taught during our hypnobirthing classes, we stopped regularly en route, practicing my breathing during each surge.
Background sounds: Matthew put the Rainbow Relaxation CD on which was a good support but the thing which really helped me during birth was half way through when he surprised me and put on the yoga music our teacher had played throughout our pregnancy yoga classes – this evoked so many lovely memories and feelings of relaxation. I’d played Evelyn the CD regularly at home when I was relaxing at home too and I like to think she could recognise the music too!
I can safely say that hypnobirthing gave me confidence, peace and calm to face my birthing day and to deal with it in the most positive and calm way possible. I look back and think of it as a beautiful day for so many reasons – the closeness I felt to Matthew, the determination and happiness I felt when Evelyn finally came. I can honestly say, I really think this experience has helped change the way I view hospitals and of course birth. We can’t thank our hypnobirthing and pregnancy yoga teacher Jackie Heffer-Cooke enough – it’s made all the difference to us and to Evelyn’s start in life and we have nothing but positive and fond memories of our birth. I look back on the experience as the proudest, most surreal, calm and triumphant moments in my life. It was like the biggest lucid dream of my life, but that’s a whole other blog post.
A few weeks ago I received an email from Sainsbury’s magazine. A rather lovely journalist – a food writing hero of mine – told me that she had selected a handful of bloggers from across the UK to write about their favourite local produce and places to eat out, that she really liked my blog and would I be happy to the blogger representing East Anglia in their July issue? I shrieked silently, double checked they had the right blog and then very cooly replied: Oh I’d love to.
I’ve always been a big fan of Sainsbury’s. My attraction started back in the 1990s around the time when they ran an iconic TV ad campaign featuring Delia Smith’s smooth and reassuring voice and lots of sharp-focused food shots that would eventually give rise to the everyday foodie. I was around ten years old at the time. It was a evocative TV ad campaign which left a imprint on my food memory banks. I can still feel the same quiet excitement as I did then when I think of this well-loved British supermarket.
Speaking of Britishness, that’s what this article is about. It’s a Best of British “Staycation” feature which includes some absolutely brilliant recommendations from some rather brilliant food bloggers in the UK. Including the inside scoop on local products such as: lemon ketchup, Kent cherries, a Welsh cheese made with whole mustard seeds “like a cheat’s Welsh rarebit”, Aberdeen rolls “dense, flakey and buttery” and a Cumbrian vodka that makes an incredible-sounding Banoffee cocktail.
So thank you Sainsbury’s for asking me to be involved. It was lots of fun and quite a difficult task just picking a handful of my favourite seasonal ingredients and places to eat out. Below is my write-up, the “Norfolk and Suffolk” page and if you’d like to read about the recommendations from the other food bloggers from around the UK, then check out the July issue available in Sainsbury’s stores from today (6th July).
You can also listen to the radio interview I did with Share Radio about the local produce featured in the article.
BEST of BRITISH
On stay cation this summer? These foodie bloggers share their favourite regional specialities and the eating out gems that you might not otherwise find…
Stock up on beach picnic supplies or bag a table inside the bakery’s bustling coffee shop. Cakes, breads and pastries change daily. The giant cheese straws and rose, raspberry and chocolate ganache cake we devoured last summer in our rented beach hut, will forever have a place in my food memory banks.
Situated on a PYO farm overlooking marshes and out to sea, Wiveton Hall Café serves wholesome locally-inspired seasonal food and a great slice of cake. The café has a homely and playful interior and the atmosphere is always convivial. With a regularly changing menu, make sure you try the crab salad when available.
A cosy and relaxed thatched coach inn steeped in history, where the chefs have a great pedigree and the staff know your name. For the ultimate experience try the tasting menu which offers the best in modern British cooking, using the best seasonal produce from the restaurant’s nearby farm.
Not only has its restaurant been a holder of a Michelin Star since 1999, in the summer the Hall also serves a scrumptious afternoon tea in the walled garden. A stunning location and Michelin-quality extra touches such as the fried potato woven quail’s eggs, gives this North Norfolk high tea the edge.
We’re lucky here in Norfolk to have a pretty sustainable supply of fresh crabs. Extremely succulent pieces with rich dark meat, you can find various sizes of dressed crabs charged incrementally from £3.50. Wonderful with fresh chilli, white wine, samphire and cream in spaghetti or with buttery new potatoes, pea shoots, boiled eggs with soft middles and good homemade mayonnaise. Cromer is the capital of crab but can also be found along the coast, in farm shops and on Norwich market.
Packed with minerals, samphire or “poor man’s asparagus” is food of the gods. Not to be confused with rock samphire, eat this marsh variety on its own with lots of butter or olive oil and lemon juice, with any fish or the old Norfolk way, with black pepper and vinegar. Found in fishmongers, on Norwich Market or in North Norfolk – just follow the roadside signs leading to small sellers.
Extra-Virgin Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil
One of the healthiest oils you can use, natural, low in sat fat and full of omega goodness, cold-pressed rapeseed oil has become a Norfolk speciality in recent years. Rapeseed has a high burn point making it great for many different cooking methods including baking, roasting, stir-frying and deep and shallow frying. Because it’s unrefined it’s also great in dressings and marinades. With cold-pressed rapeseed oil, what you see is what you get, exactly as it comes out of the seed. I love rapeseed oil from local producer, CRUSH based in Norfolk www.crush-foods.com
Cost: £308 single room, £264 twin each, £232 dorm. All inclusive rate.
If like me you’re fascinated by dreams, then this weekend trip to the Holy Isle is perfect for you. It takes place once a year, usually in the spring or summer. Spaces are limited which is why I’m posting this now so that you can keep your eyes peeled – the dates are usually released every January.
Not to be confused with the Holy Island off the Northumberland coast, Holy Isle is located in the Frith of Clyde off the west coast of central Scotland, just a short boat trip from the nearby island of Arran. Holy Isle is around 2 miles long and half a mile wide. The island is owned by Samye Ling, a Buddhist community and the island is also includes the Centre for World Peace and Health on the North of the island. The environmentally designed residential centre holds courses and retreats throughout the year and extends into the former farmhouse. It has solar water heating and reed bed sewage treatment systems.
As you approach the island by boat you are greeted by Tibetan flags and stupas and on the other end of the island is a community of people in retreat. The rest of the island is a nature reserve with wild Eriskay ponies, Sannen goat, soay sheep and the replanting of native trees. The waters are a brilliant cobalt blue, sparkling and effervescent. The pictures here only really tell half the story, there is a special energy about the place that you can only experience first-hand.
It’s a stunning place to visit. However, this particular trip will only be of interest to you if you’re keen to explore your dreams, if you are, then do read on. But this isn’t just an ordinary dream retreat, this one teaches people how to have lucid dreams.
So what is a lucid dream exactly?
Lucid dreaming is when you are aware that you are dreaming. When this happens, you’re able to participate in your dream and have some sort of conscious involvement. Some people choose to fly above the rooftops, others use it for healing and many even use it to practise a skill such as breakdancing or yoga. Author Clare Jay even used it to help write her first novel – lucid dreaming helped her develop her characters and plot her novel – all while she was dreaming!
Lucid dreaming is basically a window into your subconscious mind, where the gold lies, and an opportunity to connect with a deeper well of resource and creativity. Think about it. We only use a small part of our conscious mind. Think of an iceberg, the top 10% floating above water is our conscious mind and the bottom part the 90%, hiding under the water is the unconscious mind. There’s so much more we can tap into, whether your motivation is to use your inner well to induce your creativity, learn how to surf or to overcome a fear such as public speaking.
Here’s something I said about lucid dreaming in Red magazine earlier this year:
I’m not making this stuff up, it became a recognised term at the turn of the century, coined by Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eeden. In 1988, Snyder & Gackenback conducted a survey which found that 20% of people claimed to lucid dream frequently (every month) while 50% of people had done it at least once in their lives. It’s not as rare as you might think, it’s just that most people don’t realize that there’s a name for it.
I know what you’re thinking, how do I lucid dream?
There are lots of techniques you can read up on, too many to go into here (I feel another blog post coming). I’ve been lucid dreaming on and off since I was a teenager but it was only when I met Charlie Morley, my lucid dreaming teacher, around five years ago, that I fully realized how fascinating and helpful lucid dreaming could be. And it’s safe to say, ever since I’ve attended his workshops in London, and especially since I took part in the Holy Isle retreat, my lucid dreaming life has really began to flourish. If you’re not able to make the annual Holy Isle retreat next year, then Charlie also holds regular workshops and retreats all around the globe and in the UK too.
An incredible amount of awesomeness! Where to begin. I met some really lovely people, all very inspired by dreams, their meanings and how they can help you in your everyday life. In fact, I’m still friends with at least a handful of the people I met from this retreat. We even have our own active Facebook group three years on.
The Holy Isle retreat lasts four days, and most importantly, four nights. During the day we stayed at the beautiful retreat centre. Dorminatries are available and private rooms too. There’s a beautiful communal lounge and dinning area in the converted farm house and a lovely spot with sofas nestled around the wood burner. The vegetarian food served, uses produce from the land and the menu each day was absolutely phenomenal, cooked by a host of dedicated and talented volunteers staying at the retreat centre. I can safely say it was some of the best vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten.
During the day, there are talks from Charlie, discussions and small group exercises (I’m not usually a big fan of this type of thing, but here it was perfect and no pressure to report back unless you wanted to, but I did, and it was cool). Charlie, who is quite possibly one of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered, has a lovely approach and is extremely engaging, insightful, entertaining and inspiring – a rare combination. Everyone who meets him instantly warms to him. I only wished he taught other things too beyond lucid dreaming, you can learn so much from someone like him.
By night, now this is the most exciting part, you have the choice whether to stay in your room and practise the lucid dreaming techniques learned during the day, or you can join the “sleep over” in the main hall – a beautiful space with wooden floor-boards and a pitched roof containing skylights, perfect dream-like surroundings for lucid dreaming, and so it goes, in ancient times sleeping under a pyramid shaped roof, boosted your chance of lucidity.
During the night, should you choose to stay in the main hall, Charlie sets several alarms at one hour intervals after 3am. The idea being, that these interruptions in sleep wake you momentarily and as you slip back into sleep again, you have a better chance of gaining lucidity in a dream. There are also special techniques you learn to put into practise just as you are dropping off.
I had some incredible dreams and a handful of lucid ones too during the retreat. And picked up some very rewarding and life-changing techniques. My dream life has become quite a fascinating place to be these last few years. It’s important to have the right attitude when aiming to lucid dream, as Lama Yeshe the founder of the centre says about life in general: “Be happy to fail, have no hopes to succeed”.
I travelled by train to Glasgow and then caught a second train to Ardrossan Harbour. The train stops at the ferry terminal, which is where you catch a ferry to the Isle of Iran. A bus ride later to a different ferry from Lamlash, you catch a small boat to the Holy Isle. The journey is well worth it.