Fifty breaths: count them in and out I often found that getting into a meditation was much harder than actually meditating: I’m often too fidgety or distracted. But breathing 50 times and counting the in- and out-breaths is an effective way to enter the state. When we’re relaxed we breathe around eight times per minute, so this practice also amounts to a five-minute reset.
Flâneur: go for a walk with no destination. Turn back once you get there. A way of letting go of the idea of a destination, and to help you get lost in the moment. Most of the walking we do is destined: there’s usually an arrival or a goal at the far end of it. Walking in this destination-less way can be disorientating – but that’s the point. Allow yourself to get lost in sights and sounds for a while. Give the mind a break from ceaselessly striving.
Smile: Not because, as they say, it will make you happy (this is known as the “facial feedback hypothesis”). But smile because it’s more likely to connect you to other people and instigate conversations.
Cultivate patience : It’s a virtue, after all. Impossible as it is to imagine any other reality when you’re in the bleak winter of a depressive episode, it’s a fact that things change, often without our being much involved in the process. Night always turns into day, eventually.
Ask: what’s out of balance? I used to pull a face when people solemnly told me that striving for balance was wise; I’d long thought that life was most interesting at its extremes. These days I see the value in spotting excess and then avoiding it. Change begins with awareness, and recognizing that there’s too much of one influence, force or presence in your life is the first step to restoring balance.
Non-attachment: what can you let go of? One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that attachment causes suffering (loving always entails the risk of heartbreak). This practice isn’t to advocate a complete mortification of desire, but instead to become more aware of the things we attach to – objects, outcomes, destinations, dreams and wished-for situations – and gently release ourselves from their grip. It’s not easy to do and takes practice – probably a lifetime’s worth.
How to stop stopping (plus, randomizing your recovery)
There’s a bit more to say about this Practice idea. Firstly, that the emphasis is on positive doing – building and adding to a helpful routine, tinkering with it – whereas the emphasis in much of the available health advice is on renunciation and denial: don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, drive too fast, eat saturated fats, stay up late, sit on the sofa all day, and so on. These all make sense. However, I also found that habits can be changed by adding more of them into the same 24-hour space, and then forcing them to compete. For example, knowing I need to get up early because I’ve committed to going walking with friends is a great way to stop me staying up too late the night before and fruitlessly pondering the meaning of life.
According to one study by academics at UCL in London, it takes 66 days to build a new habit: just over two months.17 So, if you’re trying to stop some unhealthy habits, one of the fastest ways of doing that is to add in some new and healthier ones.
The second thing to say is that, for me at least, rigidity can instill anxiety. And while the benefit of generating routines doesn’t need much more explaining, it’s also good to switch things up and surprise yourself. Which is why, one day toward the end of 2015, I took another tack with the expanding library of practices I’d gathered. I went into town and bought a pack of index cards and a set of watercolours, then came home and painted each practice on a card. From then on, I shuffled the pack each morning, picked two cards at random and tried to carry out at least one practice every day. It turned out that often, one was enough – sufficient, at least, to know that I was doing something to energize and accelerate my recovery, while also ensuring that it never became too repetitive. After all, having to decide what to do every morning is tough and sometimes it helps to be told, even when chance itself is the only available authority. When life is random, it makes sense to randomize recovery too, turning it into a game.
In 2017 these index cards turned into something Enver and I published alongside the Torchlight book we’d made. They’re called “Practice Cards”: a pack of 56 playing cards that list all of these things that helped me through the toughest times, and which keep helping me today. From what I’ve heard from people who use a pack, they help them too.
There are two kinds of card: yellow “Action” cards (suggestions such as performing the sun salutation, shadow-boxing, getting into nature and so on) and blue “Idea” cards: those epithets and ideas harvested from the stock of popular wisdom, along with some consoling thoughts from philosophy, faith and spirituality. There are some general themes within the cards that reflect what we’ve talked about in previous chapters – ways of connecting with others, methods for reimplanting yourself back in your body, suggestions to develop a practice of self-reflection. And there’s one final card with an extra, very important idea: to take a day off from practising. The card shows a slice of pizza, because sometimes spending a day on the sofa is, paradoxically, the way of well-being.
If everything I’ve said here makes you think that there’s isn’t a single, ultimate, fail-safe, silver-bullet-style secret method of getting better, a magic solution to all torment and misery, then once again: apologies. There isn’t, or at least I haven’t found it yet.
The good news is that instead there are hundreds and probably thousands of methods for incremental improvement, and when they’re found, configured, arranged and discarded the way they best suit you, then you’ll be left with something that can’t be bought or found anywhere else, something no one else can tell you: your own practice. Something that will grow and change as you do too. So, find what works for you and keep doing it, every day.
If you’ve got some practices already, make a note here and add them to your story.
An Idea: ________________________________________________________
An Action: ______________________________________________________
Morning ritual: the basics
Morning rituals are popular these days, with good reason: the first 20 or 30 minutes of the day can offer a moment in which to centre yourself, reflect, make a plan and begin carrying it out, aiming your day in the direction you’d like to see it go. It’s probably no coincidence that people with faith, from monks and nuns through to recovering addicts and yoga practitioners, are strict about the first half hour after waking. Don’t be put off by the word “ritual”: it just means a habit you practise every day, or as often as you’re able.
Some elements of a useful morning ritual are described below. These can be adapted or added to suit your own rhythm or taste. However, don’t let a failure to achieve the perfect morning ritual every single day turn into another reason to beat yourself up. It’s not a competition.
1. Make your bed. A useful trick that has helped a lot of people struggling with mental illness. Get up and make your bed, and by the time you get back into it at the end of the day (which could be as little as a few hours later if you’re really unwell), at least you’ll have achieved one thing. All things considered, a made bed can be a massive achievement.
2. Meditate. At its most basic, mindful meditation is non-judgemental moment-to-moment awareness: settling the body, stilling the mind, focusing on the breath as it enters and exits the body, noticing what you’re noticing and then letting it pass, seeing thoughts for what they are – just thoughts. Often, it’s helpful to have a simple image in your mind: a river flowing past or a hot-air balloon rising into the skies, for example.
Try counting the breath 50 times, or reading a passage from a book of proverbs, some poetry or a text that says something meaningful to you. Perhaps speak a few words or send up a prayer, devotion, mantra or affirmation. The key thing is to allow the mind to wake up and settle rather than bombarding it with social media, urgent emails and other stimuli. So: avoid your devices for a while.
3. Move. Serotonin is thought to cause the feeling of well-being and moving helps it circulate. Try walking for 15 minutes, or perform a series of stretches or, if you feel dynamic, go for a jog or workout session or do some dancing. Above all, it’s important to remind yourself that you are not your thoughts alone: you’re a body too.
4. Eat and drink something. But beware strong coffee and tea first thing. Stimulants might put you in a state of alertness (which can also be enjoyable; try as I might, I can’t break the habit of an unctuous espresso or five several minutes after waking) but too much can cause anxiety and a boom-and-bust cycle in mood.
Fat- and protein-based breakfasts (eggs, yoghurt, nuts and so on) have overtaken starchy cereals and pastries in popularity, partly because they don’t cause the spike in blood sugar that produces an insulin response that can in turn cause drowsiness.
5. Journaling. What used to be called “keeping a diary”. Many people find it helpful to spend some time turning thoughts into text by writing, for example, thoughts and feelings from the day before, visions for the day ahead and dreams from the night in between. This can be useful to look back at from some point in the future, as a way of recording your natural fluctuations in mood. Don’t worry about whether the text is spelled correctly or makes any sense. Just allow it to flow out.
6. Ring someone. Just for a chat. Using the voice is a way to remind yourself that you have one, and speaking is a way of entering the world beyond your skin. Nor does it need to be a deep and meaningful interaction. Perhaps call someone and wish them a nice day. They’ll appreciate it.