Being an expat is tough, but it’s even tougher to be the expat’s partner, no matter how we would call them (my preferable term is “a trailing spouse”, but I know that for some people it sounds belittling). When I train, mentor or coach accompanying partners I encourage them to incorporate mindfulness practices into daily life. The purpose is to bring one’s attention to the present moment. There is no judgment involved, your present is neither good, nor bad – it just is. You learn to accept it, but it doesn’t mean that you stop being proactive, by the way. The perfect summary of this practices can be found in the Serenity Prayer, which is known by many:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.Reinhold Niebuhr
Even though I mentioned a prayer here, there’s no need for you to believe in any supreme being, as a matter of fact some people find it easier if they don’t. You should not judge your present, after all, and with most religions there is usually the element of assessment involved. Some form of spirituality is still appreciated, though not required. Ultimately, the roots of mindfulness are hidden deep in religious practices of the Far East.
You need to be aware of the fact that mindfulness is not a panacea for your troubled thoughts, which is the statement seen on many websites trying to sell you the knowledge. If you think you cannot cope with your problems, go and seek medical help first. You would not try to heal your broken bone with positive thinking only, would you? Mindfulness will not cure you, it may help with maintaining a healthy balance in your life, though. And regular practicing makes you a more fulfilled person. As simple as that.
There are plenty of learning options available all over the internet or in your local library. If you start your journey, it may be better to join a group or maybe even a basic course. The more you learn at the beginning, the easier it will be, and the more proficient you will become. The aim of this post is to give you several simple exercises to choose from. Some of them would work better, others are maybe for someone else. And it’s absolutely OK, we are all different. Feel free to mix and match, you can invite your family members and then share your thoughts. Perhaps you will even create your own exercises.
Let’s start with my favourite breathing exercise, slightly different than you may think. It is great for a short break, as well as for introducing mindfulness practice into your daily routine. All you need is a sheet of paper, preferably blank and a marker (I always use a brush pen, but any felt tip would do, just make it thicker rather than thinner). Start breathing like you normally do and at some point, when inhaling, move your pen upwards; when exhaling, move it downwards. Breathe in. Breathe out. Remember, focus on breathing, not drawing.
When you finish, after a minute or two, think of what was drawn. What does it say about your breathing? Is it short and shallow, or long and deep? Keep it for your reference and compare with other drawings you made. With practising, you can see the difference. This exercise is great to calm you down, it works well in case of panic attacks, but also if you just need to focus. It’s simple and helpful, eventually you wouldn’t need tools to relax. Forget about pen and paper, just imagine.
The second exercise I would like to share with you has been “discovered” by chance. During the pandemic lockdown I shared mindfulness sessions with my colleagues. I was sitting on the floor facing, apart from a tablet, my living room green wall. At some point my mind drifted away, and it is normal if you’d ask, so no worries when it happens to you during practice. I’ve realised that some of the plants required a bit of TLC so later that day I decided to clean the leaves, something people normally do once in a while with big leafy house plants. That’s when I incorporated mindfulness.
When cleaning leaves you need to be delicate and tender. Even if the plants are more robust, like my ficuses, you need to pay attention to what you are doing. You take a delicate cloth; you spray it with water and start cleaning. I sometimes add few drops of plant nutrients or liquid soap to make sure the plants will be stronger and healthier. It takes time and patience to verify that there are no pests hidden in the foliage and every single leaf is taken care of.
And every time one is forced to act slowly, it’s amazing how mindfulness can help. These are the chores you do anyway, there is no additional time taken off your precious schedule, so why not killing two birds with one stone (this is the idiom I probably hate the most using, by the way, is there any other option available?) Both, your plant and your mind, will thank you for that.
Smell of freshly baked bread is a well-known and welcomed aroma. Unlike the previous ones, this exercise requires a little more preparation beforehand. Not everyone has all the ingredients ready at hand and enough time to actually manually make the dough. Trust me, it’s definitely worth it! So, the next time you do your weekly shopping, why won’t you add a bread-mix to your basket? It’s normally just a simple mixture of flour, dried yeast, salt and sometimes seeds and herbs, so the expiry date is usually quite long ahead (and it works easily even 6 months later, trust me). You do not need to worry about using it immediately. Buy it and let it wait for perfect timing.
Using a pre-made mix is very convenient. All you need to do is add some warm water, maybe a bit of oil, some special ingredients to your taste and that’s all. It’s what you do later is mindful. Kneading bread dough takes time and is essential to its look, flavour and taste. Why? It adds strength to the dough and provides structure because of gluten. It’s pure chemistry. Flour contains proteins which well combined expand during the fermentation process and then bind making the dough elastic. When you knead, you add volume and distribute evenly all the ingredients. Your hands work with raw ingredients (remember to take off your wedding ring if you wear one, I’ve learnt it the hard way, removing dough off the jewellery is a nightmare), your moves are repetitive and slow, and yet, the process is simple enough for you not to think too much about it. You can focus on sensations you can feel, touch, smell. And later you can mindfully eat what you made, but it’s a story for another post 😉
One of the first mindfulness exercises people learn about is “the raisin exercise”. You would need a raisin or any other dried fruit, because it is partially dehydrated so lasts longer. I prefer apricots because of their size. Start with sensing its surface. You place it on a palm of your hand, look at it, check the wrinkles and any other details. When you touch it, notice how it moves. Do you feel any difference depending on a side it is? Smell it. Is it pleasant? Do not judge, just state the facts. Put it into your mouth and play with it a bit using your tongue. How does it feel? How does your body react? Do you salivate? Start chewing and notice the changes before you eventually swallow the fruit.
Write a letter to yourself focusing on what’s positive. Get into details. Write about the things you love, appreciate, cherish. Pamper yourself with words. If you feel anxious and stressed, this exercise will help your body to relax accordingly.
Take a shower and think of the sensation of water touching your body. How does it feel? Does it change when you add some soap and lather the foam all over? You can massage your scalp. Do you like it? When you rinse the foam, does it come off easily or you need a stronger and longer shower to remove all the froth?
Close your eyes and perform a body scan. You can start at any end and move towards another. Can you feel the muscles? Tighten them up and then relax. Does the feeling change? What about the organs? In what way is your heart beating? So many questions, I know, but have you ever paid attention to the signals your body sends you? Without being extensively worried that you are ill, that is, obviously. You may decide that you want to focus on one particular part of your body instead of doing the thorough scan. In such a case, why is it so?
The last exercise is loved by many of my colleagues with whom I practice. When one feels overwhelmed with work and deadlines, it is easy to enter a panic mode. To leave it, not so easy, unfortunately. I invite you to go for a walk, then; hopefully there is a park in your neighbourhood, because this exercise is practiced best being surrounded by nature. Some people say that you need to burn your stress with strenuous physical activities, but I actually suggest something completely opposite. Walk as slowly as possible focusing on every step you make. Pay attention to your moves. You may realise that the more you try, the more effort is needed. Sometimes you may even feel like you are going to trip. Do not feel discouraged. After a while you will realise that your thoughts are slowing down and your stress is leaving your body; even your heart starts moving more regularly. Because you deliberately slowed down, your body adjusted accordingly. Try keeping a good posture, it would allow your body to get more oxygen which will make you feel more fresh. That’s why you’d need a park rather than a busy street; you don’t want to inhale car fumes. Oh, and one additional benefit, you are not as tired as you would be after a session at the gym.
I hope these few examples will help you to start practicing mindfulness on a regular basis and soon you will be able to notice the results of a calmer self. It really helps in moments of stress and anxiety and, even from my own perspective of being a trailing spouse, there are plenty of those in our lives. Good luck!