Living life on autopilot and the power of having a mindfulness mentor


MindandMonkey

Bára is a Mindfulness mentor on a mission to teach people to live life with less anxiety, more joy, more calm and no longer on autopilot. She is a certified teacher at Insight Timer – specialising in anxiety, self compassion and self-love.

Czech born, but her journey has taken her all around the world from Maastricht, California, Berlin, London to now Zurich. Determined to make meditation and mindfulness more accessible through her platform, she co-founded MindandMonkey and recently launched her very own science-backed Mind Bliss Masterclass helping people lead life with less anxiety and more confidence. The course starts on the 28th October (online) and you can sign up here.

Beyond this, Bára has her own “The Mind & Co” Podcast, where she demystifies mindfulness, showing its accessibility to even the biggest skeptics. The podcast is full of tips, tools and strategies on how to live a more calm, balanced and thriving life.

We have had the pleasure to interview Bára about the power of Mindfulness and the ways in which it has the potential to make you happier, calmer and healthier.

MindandMonkey

Hi Bara! Thank you for taking the time to share your story and knowledge with our community. Let’s start with your MindandMonkey platform. What does Mind and Monkey mean to you, why choose this name for your platform?

Hi! I started MindandMonkey because I felt the urgency to make mindfulness more tangible and accessible. Why? Because it’s something that absolutely changed my life a few years back and as someone who suffered with chronic anxiety for many many years and depression, mindfulness practice taught me how to be present, how to live with anxiety and manage it better and overall simply helped me to see life (and myself) in a more accepting way. I chose the name “mindandmonkey” because it’s a sort of wordplay. Modern day mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism. There - but also in other Eastern cultures, the concept of the “Monkey Mind” refers to the mind at unrest, unease and constantly agitated. To me - separating these two as “mind and monkey” represents this harmony we can achieve through mindfulness, to learn how to tame our monkey mink and to befriend it. 

So ultimately, I wanted to share my journey and make the topic less mystical. Because years back, I was the biggest sceptic myself.

What’s the problem with living on auto-pilot? Why does it seem to get us into so much trouble?

We naturally default to autopilot because that’s what our brains default to for actually very sensible reason - to save energy, sort of. We’re going on autopilot quite often and it results in us being not fully aware of what we’re doing, what activity we’re practicing - yet it still allows us to perform the task quite effortlessly, most of the times. Think driving to work, every single day, think breathing - there’s a lot of things we’ve learned that we simply do by habit. And it somehow makes sense. Re-learning it all everyday is a bit of a stretch. The downside to this is, that if we do not bring awareness into this - we also end up living a life in a fairly unconscious way where our mind has taken over. And then the times flies. And we wake up and we don’t even know how we got here. 

Autopilot does not just apply to our ability to drive to work - it also applies to deeply engrained habits and conditionings.

Mindfulness practice helps us to open up to life’s experiences, move from reacting to responding and actually (as dramatic as this sounds) allows us to live life with ourselves present for it. Present for all of it and making most of our time here. When we move from reacting to responding, we actually get to choose - is this worth exploding over, or not? In the past, I’d usually just explode. And then regret it. The ability to make that choice today is truly incredible. That’s because we train our brain to stop. It’s quite miraculous. 

What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Mindfulness refers to the ability to pay attention in a certain way, without judgment or a need to change what is right now. Mindfulness meditation is simply one type of meditation out there. At the same time - meditation is one of the ways to practice mindfulness. Meditation helps us to bring stillness and presence while training our mind to remain “here”.

Traditionally - there is formal and informal practice of mindfulness:

  • Formal practice is what you can imagine by mindfulness meditation - sitting, or possibly also walking or lying down - it is about extended periods of time spent in absolute stillness while becoming the observer of whatever arises - with curiosity, non judgment and non clinging.
  • Informal practice refers to bringing mindfulness and therefore presence and awareness to pretty much anything we do - brushing teeth, showering, eating. While informal practice also helps - it’s the formal practice where the “muscle” gets trained the most.

There’s of course other approaches and traditions in meditation - some people like to use visualisations in meditations, affirmations and so on.

How did you start meditating, what led you to this path?

MindandMonkey

If someone told me 5 years ago I’ll be doing this today, I would have probably laughed. Around 4 years ago, I fell into a depression and sought out a therapist. I did not know what to expect and I just knew something was “off”. I was truly lucky, because my therapist also was/is a trained mindfulness teacher and integrated mindfulness meditation into our sessions.

I was extremely sceptical at first, but it was integral to my healing as it taught me to connect with my body (and gain understanding that a lot of my chronic pain in the past was linked to anxiety trapped in my body) and to also befriend my mind - rather than work against it. The chronic anxiety, and my lifelong struggle with PMS on especially the emotional level led me to really dark places in my mind at times. 

The biggest lesson I learned that sounds trivial, but is really at the core of mindfulness practice, is that - our thoughts are real, but not the truth. 

MindandMonkey

This was my start - from there, I’ve participated in many courses and trainings and eventually realised, this is more than just “something” in my life, I wanted to make it my mission to bring this to other people, too. That’s why earlier this year I started MindandMonkey and I’m constantly learning, growing and deepening my practice - which - I truly believe, is a lifelong journey.

Just like everyone - I started at the beginning. With not really knowing how to sit properly, with being fidgety, stopping halfway through many times, and and and. We all go through this. And I found a lot of comfort in that - my busy mind was not my personal pathology.

Meditation can be intimidating for some people. What is your advice to anyone that has difficulty sticking to the practise and finding comfort in it?

Start where you are! Start with 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes. Start with an app, a guided meditation. For me, a recovering perfectionist - I always thought I had to start with 45 minutes of meditation, else it ain’t gonna work. But it’s pretty much like with sports - it’s better to go in small increments regularly, rather than go once a month full on. The mind/brain is a muscle, too. So take it step by step.

Additionally - I truly, truly recommend to get a mentor. It can be very confusing at first. When you start with mindfulness practice, the mind (and the autopilot) go into resistance mode. The ego gets loud. Having someone to guide you along and to normalise these experiences for you is a great way to overcome some initial hurdles.

How many times a week should people meditate and is there a best time?

The thing is - ideally, a daily practice, however long - would be a great approach. As I said above - it is way better do to 5 minutes each day, rather than 20 minutes every 3 days. I personally prefer meditating in the morning, before eating. It allows you to start you day centred and grounded. However - throughout my mindfulness journey, I also had a more “irregular” routine in terms of daytime - I would sometimes meditate in the middle of the day or the evening. Ultimately, it is about building a healthy habit - so sticking to the same time may be the best way to go about it. I want to emphasise that it’s a highly personal practice - so listen to your body and mind.

What happens if your mind starts to wander during the practise? Is it normal and can we get better at not letting it distract us?

You gently bring it back. It will happen a million times and it happens to everyone - from day one meditators to seasoned practitioners. That’s because our brains have been designed to constantly scan for danger and to constantly scan for pretty much anything. So naturally, when you sit down, make yourself be still - the mind will start running. 

This is actually one of the first exercises in the practice of mindfulness meditation - learning to observe when you wonder off and learning to bring yourself back by bringing awareness to the physical sensation of being (our breath, for instance). This is traditionally done through body scans - guided meditations that teach us to bring awareness to our bodies, and to constantly keep coming back anytime our mind finds something more interesting to do. It’s all about unlearning the autopilot.

Part of embodying mindfulness is to learn that this is normal and it will always happen. Instead of judging it, instead of beating ourselves for it and feeling like we “suck at meditating” we learn to approach it without judgment. And have more of a “it’s ok, I am aware now” attitude.

In what way is meditation good for us? Why should we practise it?

Mindfulness meditation in particular helps us with regulating our nervous system. The thing is - our brains were designed to help us develop habits that help us survive, not to make us happy. This is something we have to learn. As I said earlier, for this reason our brains also constantly scan for danger. The problem is - the “danger” our brain was designed to detect was very different thousands of years ago as opposed to today.

Back then - we’d see a tiger, our sympathetic nervous system would get activated and would trigger a stress response (fight or flight mode) - meaning - everything our body does that is not in that moment needed to help us fight or flee the tiger shuts down (digestion, hair growth, reproductive hormone production etc) - while a lot of chemicals get created so that we have as much energy as possible to escape (cortisol, adrenalin). The reality is - then we would either get eaten or if lucky not. In which case - the parasympathetic system would kick in, the moment we saw the danger was gone. This would restore balance to our nervous system - the stress hormones would no longer be produced, digestion returns to normal, all returns to normal - and we’re happy, relaxed (serotonin and other calming chemicals get produced shortly). 

Now the problem is - danger today isn't the same as danger back then. Luckily we live in advanced societies - which however also means - danger presents itself in ways which we’d never expect. Our stress response occurs with regards to things like: deadlines, e-mails from a toxic boss, relationship problems, you name it. One thing those have in common is that they’re not usually lasting just 1 minute. They may last days, months, or more. This also means that - often times, our parasympathetic nervous system never kicks in and we end up in a sort of “limbo” of the stress response and chronic stress kicks in. At some point, we don’t even know what is stressing us. It’s simply there. The issues is - this also means we’re in a mild “fight or flight mode” ALL THE TIME. Meaning - we’re full of cortisol - the stress hormone. This in turn messes with our immune system - shuts it down (remember - when a tiger chases you you don’t need your immune function to be top notch), hormones become a mess - and in turn - it becomes a vicious cycle because we’re completely disregulated. We also become more reactive to everything and see danger in everything, because while on this stress autopilot, our brain constantly thinks something is up. So we’re vigilant and our amygdalam (the part of the brain which helps us recognise something as danger or not) is working overtime and is hyperactive. 

Now - when we meditate, may studies show that by bringing our awareness to our emotions, by learning to not judge what is, to simply be and observe - long term meditator’s amygdala’s shrink. This means - the part of the brain responsible for us to be highly reactive even in situations that do not ask for it - becomes smaller, less active, more balanced.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to impact other parts of the brain too - helping to regulate the nervous system by helping our brain produce more serotonin - the chemical that calms and soothes us. So to me - this is really a matter of life quality - I’ve lived anxious, reactive and on this stress autopilot most of my adult life. It literally feels like someone hijacked you, at times. And to me that’s good enough of a reason to argue that in some way, mindfulness practice helped me reclaim my life.

Do you see meditation and mindfulness helping with period pain or PMS symptoms, such as sleeplessness or anxiety?

MindandMonkey

Absolutely!!! Mindfulness practice is often use in clinical settings to help patients with chronic pain. This is not to say that mindfulness practice is a painkiller. What happens however - is that pain becomes often worse, when we cling on to it, anticipate it - and develop also a sort of resentment with regards to it. Mindfulness practice has shown that people with chronic pain manage it way better by learning to accept it, in a certain way - and by developing more self-compassion towards themselves. 

When it comes to anxiety - it applies pretty much the same way like I mentioned before. This is particularly close to me, since my PMS symptoms were always more on the emotional level, rather than physical (although they’ve changed over the years). I would have entire days of what I called “having a dark cloud above my head”, low motivation, anxiety episodes and overall mini panic states. It was dreadful. Through mindfulness, I first of all became aware of it and learned that it is part of my life and that resistance is somehow futile (remember - what we resist, persists). At the same time, I also learned that all is temporary and that it will pass - even if it is extremely unpleasant. When I would become aware that my PMS is starting, I would double down on self care, meditation and also a focus on self-compassion practice (that also gets developed within mindfulness practice). Why? Because during this time, my mind would get dark, insecure, and hurtful - especially towards myself. So I practiced being present, worked with self-compassion affirmations and really tried to set up a sort of ritual for myself that worked. Whether it also meant taking a bath, lighting up candles…trully learning to listen to my needs through awareness. This made the whole process simply much more manageable and less more damaging, as opposed to the past where I would start fights during PMS time, I would get into a dark place internally and prolong those few days to like a week.

You have recently created the “Mind Bliss Masterclass” a 4-week masterclass that “helps you lead life with less anxiety and more confidence”. I am really looking forward to this because knowing your story and the depth of knowledge and expertise you have, I am confident this will help a lot of people. Tell our readers a bit more about the Mind Bliss Masterclass:

  • Who is this for?

It’s for anyone who is today at a point in their life where they’d love to learn more about mindfulness, but never really knew where to start. I have built the course with my past self in mind. What would I have wished to know? Which tools I would have needed? I believe everyone of us deserves to live life consciously and not have someone hijack it and live it for us. So this course is for those who want to get to a place where they realise that maybe that they have anxiety - but they are not anxiety. It does not define their life. Rather, they can access this infinite pool of tools already within themselves to live their life with more joy and calm.

  •  What is the time commitment?

The course starts 28th of October (online) and has:

    • weekly modules and content that one can follow at their own pace
    • one live class in the middle of the week of around 90 minutes where we practice meditation and do exercises to train to switch off the autopilot
    • The course itself runs for 4 weeks - and is the perfect way to get into mindfulness practice in these quite unprecedented times.
You can sign up for the MindBliss Masterclass here
  • What can people expect to take away from this course? 

Confidence that they can be in control of their life and not let their thoughts and emotions run it for them - and foster an inner sense of peace, resilience, self-compassion and joy. Because we all can! But ultimately - it truly is a stepping stone. My hope and wish is, that it shows people the beauty of this practice and excites them to explore their spiritual life even more.

Before we end our interview, I like to ask our guests some questions for inspiration. Are there any podcasts you would recommend to our readers on the topic of female health, wellbeing and/or meditation?

Absolutely. I only listen to a few podcasts - but the most favourite to date is the Sakara Life Podcast, and if you cherry pick - some episodes of the Goop podcast. I only record my own podcast - called Mind&Co. Podcast. Where I talk mostly about mindfulness and topics related to our mind.

Do you have any quote/saying or mantra you tell yourself to keep yourself grounded?

I usually keep it super simple. When I sense that a panic or fear is taking over me, I place my hand on my heart and repeat to myself - it’s ok, you are safe - while breathing slow and deep (this calms down our nervous system - when you breathe short and fast - you can actually ramp up the sympathetic nervous system and get into a fight or flight mode).

What are you most proud of?

That after many, many, many, years of not the most supportive inner self-talk - to say it nicely - I’ve learned to foster a kinder relationship with myself - and to become the support network I always needed. I just never knew I could have it in me. And the credit goes to self-compassion practice within my mindfulness journey. Spoiler alert: it works.

We are excited that Bara Calda has agreed to partner with us and bring our Femvie community 10 min morning meditations. We will continue to share Bara's research and practises around anxiety and stress management, to help you navigate throughout your cycle. For more information visit us on Instagram @femvieorganic

 


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