How many times have you listened to a colleague or a spiritual speaker rave about her “morning mantras” and vowed – once again – to give daily meditation a go, before remembering that you can’t sit still for longer than ten seconds most days without trying to count how many minutes you’ve got to go?
Still, you want that elusive sense of calm – and it’s certainly needed, with women’s stress levels soaring to new heights. According to the American Institute of Stress, 44 per cent of Americans feel more stressed that they did 5 years ago and 1 in 5 Americans experience extreme stress. It’s no wonder yoga and meditation practice has surged in popularity, but I know I’m not the only one who just can’t get in the zone to meditate at times, even though I know that the moments I’m resistant are always the moments I most need it. However, there are lots of ways to stop a churning stomach without adopting the lotus position, or getting dizzy in a downward dog, including activities that you may have never associated with inner calm. Popular culture has defined relaxation as any Zen-type activity, but the reality is we all find peace in different ways. I went on a quest to find the best ones for me…
Since dance involves your mind and body concurrently and the repetitive movements trigger your brain to get so involved, it’s impossible to focus on anything else. Initially I found the experience quite overwhelming, since everything from the shoes to the music reminded me of my adored childhood dance teacher, Sarah, who passed away recently. During the class, though, I became absolutely absorbed and at the end, whilst stretching, I felt quite emotional at the sense of ‘belonging’. It’s not surprising that so many spiritual traditions use dance in one way or another – or that successive studies have demonstrated the positive effects of dance on our wellbeing. I find the effect of movement to be therapeutic and relaxing. It triggers something nothing else does. I also find a real sense of spirituality in watching dancers perform on stage. The whole experience genuinely takes me out of myself. I did a ballet class, a tap class and a lyrical class but many people prefer ballroom or salsa, which I’d love to try, too. I think we all know which dance style suits our personality most. Yours might be Irish, country or hip hop.
After a lovely, long walk, I find there’s much less room for worrying about things. I can be physically exhausted, but it’s completely different to being on a treadmill, instead of being sweaty and static, I’ve been on a journey, both physically and emotionally. We rarely think of walking as a spiritual activity even though health benefits are well documented. It’s the perfect peace- inducing activity as I can do it anytime, anywhere and it doesn’t cost a coin. I walk miles, watching the scenery change. My body will be physically engaged, and that makes it easier for my mind to switch off and recharge. The woods are full of bluebells not crime, venture in and see flowers, birds, wood anemones and bunnies and don’t languish in fear, refusing to leave the pavements/side-walks.
Gardening and visiting gardens
I am obsessed with Hamilton Gardens in New Zealand, a few hours from where I currently live. I could go there every day, and just investigate the different gardens and smell the flowers.
I also started helping at an allotment. Horticultural therapy is a process in which gardening is used to improve mind, body and spirit. Gardening allows you to use your body but also become detached from it. You’re doing something physical, simple and repetitive, yet you’re also using your imagination. At the same time, there are lots of elements of chance, which is liberating as you have to relinquish control, trust the process and also delay gratification in a way that’s completely at odds with the modern world. You’re entering into a dialogue with the unknown. It’s generally work that’s done in solitude but doesn’t feel remotely isolating.
Gardens and gardening – which bring together exercise, creativity and the natural world – have a role in a host of religions, from the herb gardens of Christian monasteries to Japanese Zen gardens; all places of contemplation.
The trust, acceptance and practice of relinquishing control are crucial to feeling centred and at peace. Even a tiny inner-city garden can offer break from normal life. If I can’t get to the allotment, I can buy a bunch of flowers and arrange them at the end of my bed, so that they’re the first thing I see when I wake up.
People use knitting for everything from creating their own peace and quiet, to working out a problem, by knitting through it, and then giving away the garment they’ve put their love and time into. It’s rhythmic, repetitive and physical; you become focussed and absorbed in what you’re doing. This was a strange experience as once I started doing it I was transported back to my eight-year-old self doing the same thing with the same coloured wool. I had completely forgotten that my granny taught me to knit when I was little and I absolutely loved it. I pride myself on my insane elephant memory so I was taken aback that I’d forgotten this and that the memories came back so clearly and that it felt so spiritual. It’s meditative but you’re also creating something, which is fulfilling.
This is another childhood activity revisited. On the surface, it would seem that meditation and riding a horse would have little in common. The first activity takes place on a stationary cushion or chair generally and the other occurs on the back of a moving animal. One, eyes generally shut and the other where you need a full view and focus on moving landscape. In riding, your eyes must be able to see the entire field of vision while looking ahead, where in meditation, it’s more about the inner eye. The principles of posture, breath and awareness for meditation can and do apply to horseback riding. In riding, breathing can be used to stabilize both rider and horse. Horses can mirror and respond to human behaviour. Being herding animals, they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger; they can also hear the human heartbeat within four feet, and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronise their own heartbeat with that of human beings. Because they are huge and intimidating, the size and power can become metaphors for life issues and confidence building. It is magnificent to be on the back of a horse but it’s also amazing to walk side by side with one, or even to just visit a field and feed some. The connection is something that’s hard to articulate.
To some people reiki is mysterious or just made up. When you experience pain, what do you do? We all naturally perform fundamental or reiki on a daily basis. It is instinctual. When you have a headache where do your hands go? You cradle your head with your hand. When you hurt yourself what do you do? You touch the area and don’t stop until the pain eases. If a child comes and shows an injury, we touch the hurt area and kiss it better. Why? Our body is energy; we exist in universe of energy. We are using our hands to focus energy. Reiki is the transfer of healing energy from one human to another. It promotes balance and harmony in mind, body and spirit. It is natural and extremely powerful, in my experience. I am completely re-energised by reiki. I feel ‘well’ for days afterwards and it reduces symptoms of my autoimmune condition ten-fold. I highly recommend it.
It has been a joy to find so many activities that bring peace and serenity and help me to live a more fulfilling life, but my quest continues… so please let me know what activities you’ve found peace-inducing, I’d love to hear them and try them out for myself!
This post was written by me for, and was first published on Teresa Palmers Your Zen Life blog.