Beginning Meditation

After unsuccessful attempts in the past I've recently returned to meditation. Looking back, my weekly meditation classes - relaxing with a group of strangers, in a room that I didn't feel totally comfortable in - were not the ideal circumstances in which to slow down my mind. 

At the time I thought I had to go somewhere to be taught meditation, and I did learn a lot, but I realise now that it can be self-taught and it can be easily practised at home. 

The problem is that although we know that meditation is beneficial for both our mental and physical health it is not that easy to find the motivation or the time to practise it. Also to the non-practising, meditation can seem only accessible to an elite who possess special techniques, super-strength concentration and spiritual awareness. 

Wanting to develop the daily habit of meditation I set about trying to understand and demystify meditation and to find easy, enjoyable ways to get started with it again. Here are some of the answers to the questions that I had. Please note I am no meditation guru and these are just my findings.

What is meditation?

Simply defined meditation means to focus the mind in order to relax your body, calm your thoughts and enable greater self-awareness. You don't have to follow any religious beliefs to practise it although its origins are deeply rooted in various religions and cultures.

Where can I do it?

I found the main thing is to be comfortable (you don't have to sit on the floor) and to find a quiet room without potential distractions. Many advise meditation should be done sitting down with a straight back and with your head up, so as to stay alert, but there is no reason why you can't try it lying down. You may find lighting a candle will add to the experience and atmosphere.

What do I do? 

I try and get as comfortable as I can whilst sitting upright (a sofa is fine) and sit with the palms of my hands open and facing upwards. Try and relax your whole body. Close your eyes and be aware of the natural rhythm of your breathing - there is no need to change it, just let it happen. To stay focused on your breathing you might want to count each breath to a count of 1-10 and then repeat. An easy way to begin meditation is to just meditate for the length of 100 breaths and then stop. 

What do I think about?

As you meditate it is natural for thoughts to pop into your mind like a game of ping-pong so try and acknowledge your thoughts and emotions but view them from a distance without pursuing them. This is the skill you are trying to develop through meditation: the art of letting thoughts pass without you dwelling on them. I find my mind is always busy at the start of a session but can be slowed down gradually. Keep returning your focus to your breath. Relaxation music may help you if you are uncomfortable with silence whilst meditating. Other ways to keep your mind still are to visualise a beautiful natural scene or to repeat a word (mantra) like 'peace' to yourself. 

How long do I need to meditate for?

When you are starting out it is easier to start with short sessions of about 5 or 10 minutes. You may want to set a timer or simply meditate for as long as you feel comfortable with. I have found that 10 minutes is quite a long time when your body and mind are still. Hopefully, the peace and energy that you will get from even a few minutes of meditating should motivate you to do it again. Feeling restless during meditation is normal and varies from day to day so stick with it. At the moment I am meditating for no longer than 10 minutes at a time as this is a manageable amount of time and I can fit it into my day.

How do I find time for meditation?
Like any other form of self-improvement meditation requires commitment. I don't practise it every day but each time I do it I feel renewed motivation to stick with it. The key is working out when is a good time/day for you and trying to make it a regular habit.

If you find the stillness of meditation doesn't work for you practising mindfulness in your daily life can have similar benefits: focus on your breathing when you feel stressed by counting your breaths or try and clear your mind when you are doing repetitive household tasks like ironing by being aware of your thoughts.

What are the benefits of meditation?

Mediation is believed to have many health benefits for both the body and mind. For example it can lower blood pressure, help with irritable bowel syndrome and improve immunity. After I meditate I feel calmer, less anxious, re-energised and more mentally alert. Meditation has been proven to alter our brainwaves with the beneficial effect of promoting relaxation, positive emotions and problem solving abilities in our subconscious mind. The discipline of controlling our thoughts that is practised in meditation can also be useful in everyday life when we need to focus on one thing and avoid distraction.

So what I have I learnt?

I have discovered that meditation is really quite simple and a useful tool I can use to help me feel physically relaxed and mentally well balanced. I think the key to making meditation work is finding an approach that suits you and not to be put off by the 'rules' or myths that surround it. 

Need further help with meditation?

This entertaining clip from Ted Talks features Andi Puddicombe, a mindfulness expert, who explains how just 10 minutes of meditation a day can help bring focus, calm and clarity to your life. 

Also see : Minimalist Monday: A Clear Mind

Do you have any experience of meditation or interest in trying it? 
I would love to hear from you.

image source



February 2013 Goals

This is my third month of goal setting. Setting goals for December and January helped to motivate me to inject some fun into these months and to give myself accountability for finishing projects and saving money. 

I deliberately kept January's list of goals short and I will do the same this month. My word/theme for the year is focus and I need to keep my lists short in order to (hopefully) achieve more.

In February my youngest son and I have birthdays six days apart and there is also Valentines Day and Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) to enjoy. As well as planning some fun I'm starting the month with renewed resolve to save money on an everyday basis. 

Righty ho here are my February goals:

1. Try a different cocktail on my birthday. This image above is my inspiration.

2. Spend less on groceries and keep a daily spending diary. Yes, this is a repeat from last month as I failed to write down my expenditure. I've analysed my current shopping habits and plan to keep costs down by buying less wine and snack food this month.

3. Cook at least once for friends or family. 

4. Finish decluttering our bedroom.

5. Buy a DSLR camera with my combined Christmas and birthday money. I've had lots of fun with my digital compact and it's been great to use for my first few months of blogging but I would love the challenge of improving my photography with a DSLR. Any advice on models/makes would be welcome.

6. Challenge myself to write something other than a blog post.

7. Celebrate Valentine's Day our way without buying anything that is being specifically marketed for this occasion.

What are your goals/hopes for February? Please share.



52 Weeks of Happy (18/52)

Happy Tuesday.

The January snow disappeared as if by magic and I don't know about you but I can't wait for February to arrive and spring to edge forwards. 

Here are my happy moments from the last dark days of January.

♥ Spicy carrot soup - a lovely warming treat today at lunchtime.
♥ My wall art taking shape with butterfly lights to brighten my work area.
♥ I can't resist daffodils at the moment.
♥ Mini cups of hot chocolate. Yum.

Hoping your week will have some happy moments too.



Minimalist Monday: One Direction

Imagine living in this room. Looking around everything is ordered and organised; there is beauty in the simplicity of the functional furniture; the lack of visual clutter makes you feel calm and relaxed; there is a feeling of space and lightness. 

Now my living space is not this perfect but this is an example of the minimalist look that first inspired my minimalist journey in 2011. I knew little about minimalism then but I gave it a try: first decluttering a drawer, then selling some things at car boots sales and on ebay. We decided to move to a smaller house and many of our big items had to go. We decluttered our spare bedroom from a study/dumping area into a fictitious fourth bedroom in order to attract buyers and we sold our home within four months. Now we're living with less in a smaller house and are still regularly decluttering. Living in a smaller house means there is less pressure to earn as much money and there is more time to develop our interests. And more time to concentrate on working towards a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

I'm not there yet – I've got many areas of outstanding clutter and many days my life seems too hectic. But the more success I have with decluttering and simplifying the further down this minimalism path I want to head. I guess I'm heading in one direction and that's a minimalist one.

I have mentioned before that minimalism isn't easy. If it was easy then we'd all be living well ordered lives in tidy uncluttered homes, we'd never be late for anything, we'd never lose anything, we'd never feel tempted to buy unnecessary things and we'd feel calm and content all the time. But minimalism isn't about perfection, it isn't a destination and it can't be easily defined because it can mean different things to different people. 

I'm not a radical minimalist but I know that I live with less stuff than a lot of people and that I feel uncomfortable with extravagant purchases. Minimalism has taught me a lot. It has made me realise that I don't need that much to be happy; it has made me understand the difference between needs and wants.  

Minimalism can work in real life and it doesn't have to be as perfect as you think. Even the smallest reduction in your possessions or your schedule can have a positive effect on your life.

Imagine that perfect tidy room and let it inspire you. Imagine your home with less stuff in. Imagine living your life at a slower pace.

Tackle that cluttered drawer, that junk room, those useless unwanted items in your home. It might lead you somewhere; somewhere you just want to be.

image source



Red Hot Céilidh Peppers

We had a great evening out last night at a céilidh to celebrate a friend's birthday - folk dancing, sea shanty singing, a barber's quartet and barn dancing. Such talent and such fun.

Today we had a robust veggie chilli for lunch. I discovered a supermarket version of quorn which is almost half the price of minced beef. As well as being cheaper than minced beef it's also quicker to cook and lower in fat too. I made the chilli and hubs made the potato wedges. He saved time too - he par boiled the cut wedges for 5 minutes and then cooked them for 30 minutes at 180C. 

Sometimes I sneak extra veggies (mushrooms and spinach) into the chilli mix but today I made a straight chilli. Everybody had to have some salad though. 

Hope you've had some fun this weekend too.



Highlighting the Happy

Just an ordinary day but there were many highlights...  
  • reading the Saturday newspaper over morning coffee
  • baked beans on toast for lunch and no moaning
  • a quick trip into town to spend our sons' HMV vouchers with no desire to buy anything for ourselves other than a cup of tea and some rocky road cake
  • hearing The Smiths on my son's ipod
  • laughing
  • singing
  • relief that most of the snow has thawed in our road
  • the beauty of the snow still covering woodlands and fields as we drove home
  • receiving an invitation
  • looking forward to an evening out with friends

Just a little record of a simple day which I have enjoyed. 
Hope you're enjoying the weekend too.



Happy Friday Tea

Hello. Hope you've had a good week with not too much Januaryness about it.

This is not the best blog to read if you are trying to save money. There are some far better examples about like here here and here. But I have learnt that menu planning before you do your weekly shop can help to save you time, money, stress and make you more aware of your everyday diet.

My approach to menu planning

The best place to start is with checking your fridge, freezer and food cupboards a day or so before you intend doing your weekly shop or having an online delivery. Any food that is close to its best before date can be incorporated into the next week's menu plan. Then check your diary and family schedule and plan meals that fit in with your schedule. There is no point planning elaborate meals if you have too much on. 

I try to balance the menu so that it allows for family favourites and also special favourites of each of our boys (one loves pasta the other isn't keen, one likes spicy food the other doesn't). We usually spend more time planning our weekend food because we have more time to cook and linger over meals then. Within the week we each take our turn at cooking and encourage the boys to cook sometimes.

One of the hardest things about menu planning is coming up with seven different meal ideas each week. We have tried and tested favourites and usually rotate them on a fortnightly basis. However, we still get stuck occasionally and that is when we might try something new or think back to a meal we haven't had in a while. Sometimes I only plan six meals and then find I can usually put together a seventh meal with leftovers. 

Once you have come up with seven days of meals you can then start compiling your shopping list or order. Like most ways of saving money menu planning can feel like a chore in the beginning but it soon becomes a natural habit. Several years ago I only planned meals in my head and on a daily basis which was a lot more stressful. Planning a menu a week ahead means there are no last minute decisions to be made and less panic trips to the shops. Also, by discussing and planning your menu one person is not solely responsible for the family's diet which I think is a good thing. Having the menu on display somewhere in the kitchen also helps and stops the endless "What's for tea?" conversations. And an added bonus is that knowing what's coming up on the menu means that you can spend all day (or all week) looking forward to something tasty (curry for me).

You can see our forthcoming week's menu in the photo above. Not the healthiest menu just an ordinary family menu. Tonight is 'Happy Friday' - we are off to my parents-in-law for tea which is something we do every few weeks. So a surprise supper tonight and an easy week to menu plan. The only thing that is home cooked will be Sunday's chiili (using quorn) and I will make more than we need so that a portion or two can be popped into the freezer. 

Hope you have a great weekend and some great food too.




image source
Small rooms and dwellings set the mind on the right path; large ones cause it to go astray. Leonardo Da Vinci

Don't you just love this light, functional, modern and small space? My vision for ideal living.

Since downsizing from a 4 bed detached to a 3 bed end terrace we no longer have any wasted space. We have lost a spare bedroom/study, a utility room, a music room/garage conversion, a separate dining room in addition to a kitchen/diner and two sheds. We have lost years-worth and room-sized-amounts of clutter. Do I miss the space? NO. Am I glad we downsized and pared down our belongings. YES.

Our new house is big enough for two teenagers to have their own space, for up to 8 to eat at our table in the kitchen/diner and for two adults to work from home. Every room is used everyday for a variety of tasks. Washing and rubbish are more noticeable in our kitchen and we have to keep on top of laundry and rubbish/recycling. We have to be more organised and ruthless with what comes into the house but that has become a normal way of living.

We still have too much but we are getting nearer to having enough. And having just enough space is a very comfortable sensation. Being happy with what I've got is a much richer feeling than the constant nag of wanting more.

I would highly recommend downsizing to anyone who is considering it. 



Natural Oven Cleaning

I couldn't put it off any longer our oven needed a jolly good clean. I won't go into detail but it was getting past disgusting. This is a job I usually put off for ever and normally only attempt in the summer when, because I  usually use commercial oven cleaning sprays, I can have lots of windows and doors open.
Not only is it too cold for having all the windows and doors open right now I am really beginning to question the chemicals used in these sprays. Many contain lye and ammonia which work very quickly but are dangerous to breathe in and can harm the skin because they are caustic (they can cause chemical burns). The smell is very toxic and lingers in the oven afterwards which is worrying. They also make a horrible mess on the kitchen floor even if it is well protected. Careful storage of commercial oven cleaners is also an issue due to the high chemical content. 

When I searched for 'best oven cleaner' on line only the commercial products came out at the top of the search lists. Interestingly these products are not cheap. Yet many people rate natural and cheap products such as bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar and lemons as being just as effective. Aren't natural and cheaper oven cleaning products better? Better for our health and safety, the environment and our pockets. The fact that most of us loathe cleaning our ovens is a weakness that seems to have been seized upon and exploited by the commercial world. If it costs a lot of money it must be good, right? Well I decided to give these commercial products a run for their money by testing these natural products on my repulsive oven. It was relatively easy. 

This is how.

Natural oven cleaning method

  • remove the shelves from the oven and put them in the dishwasher on a high temperature cycle. 
  • spray the bottom of the oven with water
  • sprinkle a light layer of bicarbonate of soda over the area
  • leave this for a couple of hours or longer
  • add a small amount of white vinegar over the same area (which will cause the mixture to fizz excitedly) 
  • leave this mixture for another hour and then use a scourer to scrub the bottom and sides of the oven with the mixture
  • then remove the gunk like mixture with wet cloths 
  • clean the glass door separately with a small about of bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar
fizz fun...

You can use essential oil mixed into this mixture to give a wonderful smell. Lemon juice and halved lemons squeezed into a small bowl of water baked at a medium temperature for about 30 minutes will also help loosen grease and fragrance your oven.

Other tips for making this job more manageable are to line the bottom of the oven with foil or a liner and to clean your oven little and often.

The results were good for a first attempt. Maybe not quite as perfect as using commercial oven cleaners but the experience felt much safer and more pleasant. Cleaning my oven this way will be less of a chore and one I'm more likely to keep up with.

Ta-dah! One cleaner oven and one effervescent blogger.



52 Weeks of Happy (17/52)

Week 17 of 52 Weeks of Happy and it has been a week of simple pleasures, kindness and thoughtfulness. Here goes... 

♥ Neighbourhood snow clearing. Also, my Mum and Dad have been touched by their neighbours offering to do a little shopping for them. Thank you.

♥ Snowy walks and the beauty of nature. I have taken so many photos it's embarrassing.

♥ The hug in a mug that is homemade hot chocolate with a dash of brandy. Delish. 

♥ Quiche Lorraine (more cream, oh dear). I finally made a dish from Rachel Koo's The Little Paris Kitchen. Somewhat improvised as I ran out of plain flour and so used a combi of gluten free flour and SR flour and also substituted double cream/crème fraiche with whipping cream. Other than that I did follow the recipe and it worked out well. Phew... happy relief.

Oh and thank you for all reading and leaving such kind comments recently.



Minimalist Monday: Ways to Boost Your Mood

Today - 'Blue Monday' - is believed by many to be the most depressing day of the year for many reasons:

  • Christmas is over and forgotten.
  • We are back to work and the next holiday seems a long way off.
  • There is media pressure to loose weight and look fabulous.
  • Exams are under way.
  • Money can be short after the excesses of Christmas.
  • Pay day still seems a long way off.
  • Daylight hours are short.
  • The weather can be at its most disruptive.

It can be a real challenge to be happy in the depths of January. Spending money, even if it is an option, is not a solution to long lasting happiness. There are many simple things you can do to boost your mood without spending money or accumulating more stuff. Here are some suggestions to find a little happiness every day.

1. Start a gratitude diary - be grateful for what you have rather than what you don't have.
2. Plan something to look forward to.
3. Think positive thoughts - display a positive affirmation in a prominent position.
4. Do a random act of kindness.   
5. Enjoy a daily task or activity - a morning coffee, a chat with a colleague or make your journey to/from work more pleasurable.
6. Don't expect perfection from yourself or others.
7. Force yourself to smile (it works!)
8. Do something that makes you laugh.
9. Get out for a walk in the fresh air.
10. If you've got a big dream start taking taking steps today, (no matter how tiny), towards that goal.
11. Contact a friend.
12. Eat healthily but allow yourself a small indulgence.
13. Cook a meal from scratch.
14. Cook for others.
15. Write down your worries if they seem out of control.

Choosing a simpler life over a materialistic life does take time, discipline and a steely determination to resist the persuasive powers of media and advertising. I need to remind myself regularly to practise these actions. 

However, slowly but surely they are becoming more habitual. The happiness I get from spending time with a friend or cooking a meal is more long lasting than the quick rush of happiness I used to get from buying new clothes or things for the house.

I guess I am making progress on my minimalistic and simple living journey and that is something to be grateful for and happy about alone.



Winter Weekending

Yay! We've had proper snow and at the weekend. The roads have been quiet but our neighbourhood gardens and park have been a hub of snowy excitement: sledging, snowball fights, snowman building, slipping on the ice and screaming (me). Young and not so young out and about having some simple fun. Sadly we didn't create this handsome snowman but we were asked to take a photo of him and got our chance for a photo too. Cool snowman - huh? Who wouldn't want to be his friend? 

We've been for plenty of snowy walks - schlepping through the snow is great exercise. 

Past our local park, the pool and into the city park. This little chap looked like he wished he was in warmer climes.

The landscape was beautiful and couples walking through the snow added a touch of romance to the air. 

Everything looked magical as if we'd stepped into the wardrobe and arrived in Narnia. 

Have a safe, warm and happy week xo



January Goals Update

As we're more than halfway through January I've been reflecting on the goals I set myself at the beginning of the month. I'm so glad I chose less than ten goals because my progress has been slow. Going public should hopefully spur me into action. There have been some stirrings of activity though.

1. Set up my home office space in our bedroom. Yes, almost - I am now using my new desk, lamp and chair and finding that it is helping me to focus on my work. My wall art project is coming along and I am going to make a hoop pinboard inspired by the image above. Snow stopped play yesterday though as it was too hazardous to go out to the shops to buy the materials. 

2. Spend less on groceries and keep up spending diary on a daily basis. Yes/No - I still haven't set pen to paper and used my spending diary, although my spending is under reasonable control. I would like to spend less on groceries this year and I need to focus on this more. 

3. Buy a good pair of evening/smart day-wear black trousers. Yes, almost - I had a Boden gift voucher (yah) for Christmas and have ordered some black trousers but there is a stock shortage so delivery is delayed.

4. Cook at least one recipe from new cookbook The Little Paris Kitchen. No hubs has been cooking like a pro this month and I have happily let him. Hopefully, I will produce something from this book by the end of the month.

5. Declutter wardrobe post Project 333. Donate excess to charity. Yes the bedroom and clothes declutter is coming along and I have already donated quite a lot to charity this month.

6. Book a music/festival/comedy event for the summer. No action here.

7. Plan mine and youngest son's birthdays (February). Still undecided on this. Apparently hubs has organised an experience for me for my birthday so that means no. 6 could be ticked off.

So some unfinished tasks and a surprise in store...



Stop Spending

The snow finally decided to shake its booty and settle here in the Midlands today. School opened then closed and those lucky enough to be working at home had to carry on...

My plans for getting out and about were frozen but, hey-ho, that gave me the benefit of 

a) more time

b) spending no money

If I had ventured out I would have spent money on parking, diy materials for a cheap craft project I'm planning and a few extra items of food for tonight's meal. I may well have bought more than I planned and the trip would probably have taken half an hour longer than I estimated – at least.

Instead I've had a more relaxed day, made a plan for tonight's meal - veg curry, rice and onion bhajis (after doing a stock take of our food supplies) and put my craft project on hold. 

I may be heading towards a simpler life but I still think I need to rethink my attitude to spending money. I thought I didn't have enough food for our evening meal but in fact I did. I've learnt today that I can live with less, do less and be happier for it. I need to stop myself before spending money more often – not just on snow days.

Some photos of my schlep through the snow...

it's a cold business this photography lark
time to head home

for homemade onion bhajis - nom nom

I hope you are all warm and well.
Happy Friday xo



Soup for the Soul

A simple supper of celery and Stilton soup with bread. The boys quite often go to their grandparents for tea after school on a Thursday so we like to have something cheap, easy and generally low fat/low calorie for our dinner à deux. A snack-meal like scrambled eggs on toast or soup ticks the box most weeks. 

For our celery and Stilton soup we used

a knob of butter
2 small onions 
3 or 4 potatoes 
1 litre of veg stock 
a head of celery 
75ml of double cream 
leftover Stilton cheese (from Xmas) 
chopped parsley (we're definitely using more herbs at the moment)

in a medium saucepan 

sweat the onions, potatoes and celery in some butter 
add veg stock and simmer for about 20 minutes
then set aside and leave to cool slightly
blend carefully until smooth 
return to pan with 2 tablespoons of parsley
add 75ml of double cream and black pepper
then reheat it gently until it nearly boils 
crumble some Stilton onto it with some chopped parsley and black pepper

Our soup did include cream and cheese but it still had all the nutritional benefits of using fresh vegetables. You can add as much or as little Stilton as you have or like - I love its tangy taste but the rest of my family isn't so keen. Today we had a glass of white wine each on the side - as I say January is not the month for self-deprivation.