The coffee moment

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

I was in my element. I got to potter around half a dozen rooms packed to the gills with mementos, curios, antiquities and furnishings that belonged to the great Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. It took me right back to my psychology studies at university and as I listened to the audio guide and wandered through each room, I marvelled at how one man and his ‘couch’ (below) could remain so relevant for so long – his methods are still at the heart of many of the ways and means we use to handle the world we live in today.

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Two hours later, and with a head full of Freud (make of that what you will), I headed back down to the main road to have lunch, enjoying a tasty meal then settling in to read for a bit while I drank my coffee.

But the coffee was awful. Bitter and watery and absolutely undrinkable. So I returned it to the waitress, paid the bill (sans coffee but I did leave a tip – after all, my return was well-handled and the rest of the meal was great) and walked down to the bus stop.

I’d been standing there for a few minutes when it occurred to me that I had let the ‘coffee moment’ go.

It might seem a strange thing to say. There had been no shouting nor were there any angry exchanges and the whole thing was dealt with very smoothly.  But I’d had a plan – to enjoy some reading time over a nice cup of coffee – and that had been thwarted. I did not get a nice coffee and I’d left rather than stay to read. If things had been handled in a similar way previously, by now I would have be stewing over the whole incident, despite telling myself not to. And even though I’d try to get over it, past it or whatever, it would have put a definite dent in my day.

But it didn’t. I’d let it go. Even thinking about it again did not wind me up. It was just something that had happened.

I got on the bus and as we trundled along Finchley Road I found myself wondering, could there really be something in this mindfulness caper?  Let me explain.

About five weeks ago, I went to an Introduction to Mindfulness workshop. It was offered as part of my outplacement and it turned out to be quite interesting: Lots of discussion about what it was, questions about what we thought we might get from it (or not for the cynics among us) and information about the science of it.

Just in case you’re wondering, here’s a definition:

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgementally    Jon Kabat-Zinn

We also tried a couple of short meditations. I liked the calmness that I felt afterwards and thought ‘maybe this something I should try’. But I have a tendency to get charmed by something, go hard after it then not be able to sustain it in the face of all of the other interesting things life has to offer. (The peeps-who-know-me-well will be nodding – or even chuckling – knowingly at this point.)

So I set myself a challenge: If I could do the 8-minute Body and Breath meditation – the one that we’d done in the workshop – every day for a month, then I would consider buying the book and committing to its 8-week mindfulness program.

Every morning I sat on the couch with a soothing, gentle voice in my ear that encouraged me to pay attention – to my body, then my breath and then to my wandering mind. Some days it was noisy in there – thoughts, memories and feelings clambered insistently over each other in their eagerness to get my attention, shouting at me to plan, to remember stuff, to dwell on things. Other days they just drifted around aimlessly, taking me away from the thing I was supposed to be paying attention to – the moment and my breath. Yet when the gong sounded at the end, there was always a stillness, however brief.

No-one was more surprised than I when I reached my 1-month target. But did a month of 8-minutes-a-day really make a difference? I have noticed that I am generally calmer and also paying attention better and for longer. However I’m also enjoying my out-of-the-rat-race time while I look for what’s next so was not totally sold that this daily practice was the cause.

Today convinced me otherwise. It was that blinding flash at the bus stop – a mental ‘holy s**t’ – that made me realise that it’s possible, that the shift is palpable and that it’s pretty awesome and worthwhile when you notice it. I observed the moment and let it go. That’s definitely worth practising.

So I’ve embarked on week 1 of the 8-week program. There’s a range of tasks to complete and one is choosing an activity to do mindfully every day.  I’ve chosen brushing my teeth and let me tell you, it’s really hard to keep paying attention to it – and only it – for the whole two minutes that it takes. I have to close my eyes so I don’t get distracted by myself in the mirror or the sink that needs wiping down or the dehumidifier switching on and off in the background.

It also has me continuing with the 8-minute meditation but now twice a day. And I’m to do one Habit Releaser: Changing a habit is meant to make us realise how automatically and unthinkingly we do things – so this Habit Releaser is to change where I normally sit. For the last month, my comfy couch has been the place of stillness so now I sit in my new quiet place – the second bedroom – for 8 minutes when I get up in the morning and 8 minutes before I go to bed at night. And I’m changing my position on said comfy couch too.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this all will lead. My coffee moment was so unexpected that I’m wondering what stumbling about in this new wilderness will uncover.

Path - Dollis Green Walk (Hendon Golf Course)

What will I confront and will I even make it through the 8-weeks?

I’m curious to find out.


Resources I’ve referred to (in case you are interested):

The book – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman

The website – www.franticworld.com – which also contains the Body and Breath meditation, among others.

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

Let’s begin by establishing that my second full day in York was a wet one. The skies grizzled ominously and gushed forth in turn so it was just as well there were plenty of indoor activities to keep me amused.

After a bracing walk along the river, I spent the morning at the York Castle Museum. Located just by Clifford’s Tower, it’s comprised of two buildings – the old Female Prison to the left and the old Debtors Prison to the right – with a gift shop (there’s always a gift shop) and cafe in between. The museum weaves an eclectic route through York society and culture during the 1800s-1900s and all it takes is a tenner to get amongst it.

I began with the Female Prison Building – containing exhibitions covering the changing nature of homes and living – and a nod to one of York’s great pillars of commerce, chocolate.

York Castle Museum - chocolate montage

The Rowntree’s company in York invented the Kit Kat and the Terry’s Chocolate…Apple?

I wandered through the toys exhibit…

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…passed a number of rooms set up to show life in York’s different social circles…

York Castle Museum - Cottage 1 (sml)

A single room cottage – cosy!

…and ended by meandering around the museum’s indoor streetscape, Kirkgate.

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There was also an exhibit called Shaping The Body covering the history of body shape and size, the advent of fashion and food trends as well as an overview of various exercise fads over the last 400 years. I had a little chuckle at the irony of this given York’s chocolate connection!

Next I headed across to the Debtors Prison Building for the exhibition on The Great War (World War I). If you like war history this would be right up your street. I spent 45 minutes or so wandering through but to be honest, I struggled to stay interested.

I also visited the old prison cells in this building and learned about some of the people incarcerated there – you can actually stand in the cell where highwayman Dick Turpin was held before his execution and hear ‘him’ speak.

As I was heading out to the museum exit, I saw a sign pointing to a ’60s exhibition. A peek outside confirmed that it was still raining buckets so I dashed across to the annex and enjoyed a brush with a replica lunar module, pondered fashion and homewares from the decade and listened to a blast from the past – the theme tune from Doctor Who.

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At this point more than three hours had passed and I was well and truly ready for lunch. Brolly up, I emerged into the downpour and headed over to Castlegate for a pleasant (and dry) spell at Source.

With the rain looking like it was going nowhere fast, I decided to spend the afternoon at the National Railway Museum. This is free and contains an extraordinary number of trains and related exhibits. I am no trainspotter and I still managed to spend just under three hours here…

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I especially liked the display on the warehouse mezzanine floor which showed all of the technologies used to manage the rail network. Of particular interest was the signalling system – anyone who uses the tube and train network in the UK is familiar with ‘signal failure’ being a cause of disruption in their journey. But for the life of me, I could not work out how to read the computer screen showing the real-time ‘ins and outs’ of York Station. Best I stick to my day job.

The damp squib continued outside and the thought of a pint of something somewhere warm was growing in appeal. While strolling down Stonegate a couple of days earlier, I’d come across a sign pointing to an intriguing alleyway so that was where I headed – to Ye Olde Starre Inne, one of York’s oldest (and supposedly haunted) pubs…

It was here that, as I relaxed by the open fire and sipped my pint, I read the news about the Westminster terror attack. Feeling thankful that I was well away from it all (and that I could reassure family and friends I was safe), I was taken back five months when that very place had been part of my daily commute. I shed a few shocked tears at the horror of it all yet tucked safely in a warm and cosy corner of an historic city that had survived so much, it felt like I was in the perfect place to reflect.

And as I fell into an(other) exhausted sleep that night, I thought about the importance of living life to the fullest and being present to life’s many joys every day.

Then Thursday dawned, crisp and sunny…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

Photo tour: A walk in York

I went to York for three days in March. It’s a city that’s absolutely chock full of history – which I love – and is wonderfully walk-able – which I also love. Quite frankly, I’m astounded that it’s taken me thirteen years to get there.

True to form, the English weather prevaricated between gloriously crisp blue-sky days and a grey drizzle that bordered on menacingly unfriendly from time to time.  Needless to say there were lots of layers-off-layers-on moments as I adjusted to these changes. But that did not stop me doing loads of great stuff and taking oodles of photos.

To whet your appetite for the posts to come, I thought I’d share some of the pics that take me back and even now, take my breath away. Enjoy!

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