Our frame of mind

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It is day three of the retreat, and I’m feeling settled into the daily routine of sitting meditation, walking meditation, cooking lunch for the group, and a walk after dinner along the river nearby. My mind is calmer than when I first arrived, but with greater calmness comes increased clarity, and by day three I’m a little dismayed by what I find. Not only am I judgemental towards myself and others in the group (I’m used to that!), I’m also critical towards almost every moment which arises and falls. It’s very subtle, and doesn’t prevent me from feeling deep contentment and joy at times. But the judging mind quickly weighs up each moment, and for some reason seems to find most of them deficient in some way.

It is a strange phenomenon, this eternal dissatisfaction most of us seem to feel with our lives, even when things are going quite well for us. The Buddha called it ‘dukkha’, which is often translated as suffering, but could be more accurately described as ‘the unsatisfactory nature of existence’. It’s not necessarily dependent on external circumstances, but seems to spring from our own frame of mind. In Milton’s poem ‘Paradise Lost’, the fallen angel Satan says,

 

The mind is its own place,

                And in itself

                Can make a heaven of hell,

                A hell of heaven.

 

Most of the time, if we look at the actual moment, our lives are okay. It may not be some idealised version of paradise we’ve conjured up, but we’re not usually in immediate life-threatening danger. Of course there are times when life is anything but okay, and some people live long term with ongoing suffering, trauma or pain. Few people would get through life without experiencing times of great misery and distress. For much of our lives, however, even when our circumstances are not too bad, our minds, at a subtle level, judge our lives to be deficient in some way. What would it be like to sometimes say to ourselves,

‘What I have, right now, in this moment, is enough.’

 

Weekly practice idea:

From time to time, say to yourself, ‘it’s good to be here’. What comes up for you when you say this phrase?

 

Anja Tanhane

The Practice of STOP


Echinacea

In all the mindfulness workshops and courses I’ve taught over the years, the practice of STOP has been one that people again and again say they’ve found particularly helpful. The STOP practice is part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction curriculum, a course developed by Jon Kabat Zinn. Basically, several times a day, particularly when you are feeling a little harried or rushed, you:

S Stop and interrupt your thoughts

T Take a breath (or two or three!)

O Observe what is happening around you and inside you.

What can I see, hear, sense, smell, feel?

What am I thinking?

P Proceed and reconnect with your surroundings and activity

It is a very simple practice, easy to do during the day – at your desk, for a few minutes before getting out of your car, while your children are playing, walking to the letter box. At first, it’s probably easiest to physically stop for a few moments, but once you are used to the practice, you can even do it while walking somewhere, attending a meeting, washing dishes. You are simply grounding yourself in the physical, sensory experience of this moment in time. As Jon Kabat Zinn points out, our senses are always in the present moment, so by tuning into your senses, you are also tuning into the here and now.

Like many mindfulness tools, it is simple, easy to do, but difficult to remember when you are in the middle of a highly stressful situation. So instead of waiting for the stress levels to build up until it all seems overwhelming, you can use STOP regularly to help you ground yourself throughout the day. The problem we have with stress in our lives is not so much stress itself – a little stress is good for us, as it motivates and challenges us. It is rather the cumulative effect of stress, where we find it difficult to come back down and relax once the challenging situation is over. The practice of STOP is a wonderful way for us to ground ourselves in the here and now, rather than getting caught up in the stress response

Weekly practice idea:

Practice STOP several times a day. Try to remember it during times when you feel quite calm, as well as in the middle of more stressful situations.

 – Anja Tanhane

The Traffic Light Meditation

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How often do we say – I’d like to have time to stop and smell the roses? Yet when we do get some rare time to ourselves, we may hardly know what to do with it. Even worse is being stopped in our tracks against our will. Traffic jams, computer problems, queues at the bank, being on hold to our telephone company for forty minutes, waiting at the doctor’s. Finally, an opportunity to stop, but do we enjoy it? Once we’ve finished arguing with the telephone company, do we turn to our nearest and dearest and say, ‘gee, I needed that, forty minutes of muzak and being told my call is important, I feel quite rejuvenated now, having had that unexpected time out in the middle of the day’?

Probably not. Many of us complain about being too busy, but being forced to slow down can really annoy us, even bring us to the brink of rage. A few years ago, the health organisation I was working for had frequent problems with their computer system. There would be days and weeks where the computers worked at half their speed, if at all. I was teaching mindfulness, but did I enjoy being slowed down like this? Not one bit!

Yet a simple shift in attitude can transform the way we experience these unexpected frustrations. A great example is traffic lights, but if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with few traffic lights, you can choose any other circumstance where you’re being forced to slow down against your will – perhaps being stuck behind a slow-moving horse float up a curvy road, or trying to get your children going in the morning. Now, imagine you’re running late to something important, and you’ve just come across your fifth red traffic light (or slow-moving truck) in a row. What do you feel? When I ask this question at workshops, the answers range from ‘frustrated’, ‘annoyed’, to ‘furious’ and ‘enraged’. So you have a choice. You can either get yourself more and more worked up, until your arrive at your destination red in the face and with anger pouring out of your pores, snapping at the first unfortunate person who greets you with a friendly good morning (‘Good morning?! It hasn’t been a very good morning for me so far, let me tell you!!’). Or you can use the opportunity for some quiet mindfulness practice. Relax back into your car seat. Become aware your breath. Allow the shoulders to drop. Notice the environment, the sounds, the weather. If you have music playing, listen to it. And then, once the light has turned green, or the truck pulled over, you can proceed with your journey feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. You’ll arrive glowing with serenity, and people will say to you, good morning, you’re looking well today!

A colleague of mine recently came to her second mindfulness workshop with me, and told us a wonderful story of her traffic light meditation. She has to turn right into the car park at work, and the lights can take forever to change. Before the first workshop, she used to get really annoyed, and sometimes she even drove through a red light in sheer frustration. After hearing about the traffic light meditation, she decided to use her waiting time to send loving energy towards the traffic light, surrounding it with love. She says she arrives at work feeling great, having spent those few minutes generating loving energy. As she told her story, I had a vision of traffic lights all over the city being bathed in a loving glow by waiting commuters!

Weekly practice idea:

The traffic light meditation (or whatever frustrating circumstance you come across). With any luck, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practise this!

–  Anja Tanhane