Being in our bodies

Eagle

‘Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.’
This wonderful quote by James Joyce, from ‘The Dubliners’, is an apt description of how probably many of us feel. While our bodies make themselves known to us when we are hungry, ill or tired, much of the time we may barely be aware of them, except perhaps for a vague sense of inadequacy, of our bodies not living up to an idealised version of what they should be. In the Buddhist tradition, the four foundations of mindfulness start with mindfulness of the body. The eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course also uses the body scan as its first mindfulness practice. We tend to think of meditation as something which happens in our head, for example the misleading notion that we should be able to ‘clear’ our mind of all thoughts during meditation, or wrestle with and tame our thinking mind. Yet mindfulness training, whether in a Buddhist centre or during a MBSR course, starts with the posture, awareness of the breath, tuning into our bodies, the body scan. We’re not trying to transcend our thinking mind or our physical bodies, but be more at home within them.

‘Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.’ Henry David Thoreau

Mindfulness is not a tool, but a way of life. Part of this way of life is to regularly tune into our bodies, becoming aware of internal body sensations, as well as the senses which connect our bodies with the outside world. I first taught mindfulness in a hospital setting, to the families of mainly young patients with a severe acquired brain injury. These families were dealing with unimaginable grief, anxiety, emotional pain and uncertainty. Many neglected themselves, focusing all their energy on trying to help their loved one, often for years on end. Yet after some Tai Chi and a guided meditation, the tightness in their faces would soften a little, and there was a palpable sense of coming back to themselves, of being able to rest, for a few precious moments, within their own bodies. I’ve seen this happen again and again, during workshops, retreats, the MBSR course. There is a deep contentment which comes from settling into our bodies, rather than living ‘a short distance away’ from it.
Our bodies always exist in the present – they are never caught up in the past or the future. We don’t time-travel with our bodies. By being aware of our senses, our physical sensations, we are automatically living in the present moment.

Weekly practice idea:
This week, become more aware of your senses. What can you hear? What can you smell, taste, touch? How does it feel, to become more aware of your surroundings, more grounded to the present moment?

Anja Tanhane

Living with ease

Arboretum

‘May I live with ease.’

This is the last line of the loving-kindness (or metta) meditation I often use during meditation classes and retreats. At first the phrase might simply sound pleasant, or even a little self-indulgent. We hear the word ‘ease’, and imagine an easy life. And yes, it does make sense to wish ourselves an easy life. We probably don’t want to go around saying,

‘May I have a tremendously difficult life’ (character-building though that may be).

Yet when I repeat the phrase, ‘may I live with ease’ during meditation, to me it also has another meaning – may I be at ease with my life, regardless of the circumstances. May I be at ease with the inevitable ups and downs of my existence, instead of constantly struggling against ‘what is’. This is not passive, or resigned – in fact, being at ease with our lives involves a very active engagement with reality, as opposed to clinging to some idealised fantasy of how life should be. Being at ease is not the same as ‘anything goes’, ‘she’ll be right’, or the ‘yeah, whatever’ attitude we’ve probably all come across.

A Christian minister who was taking part in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course found himself struggling with the idea of a life at ease. In his tradition, ongoing struggle and obligations were considered very important. It is actually possible to be very busy, work hard, even feel a little stressed, and still be at ease.  When we see sports people give the performance of their lives, there is often an ease about how they move, despite the obvious effort which goes into their achievement. They are not being lazy, but neither are they wasting energy by tensing up their bodies unnecessarily. They expend exactly the right amount of energy, in the muscles which count. Their minds are focused, and they’re not distracted by obsessing about a long list of other things they ‘should’ be doing.

When I play a difficult passage on the piano, I’ve learnt to allow my fingers to soften rather than tense as I make my way through the many notes. It is remarkably effective, and goes against our notion that extra tension = extra effort = better results. In fact the formula should probably look more like this:

Extra attention = less effort = better results

 

Weekly practice idea:

Notice times when you tense more muscles, and expend more energy, than you need to. It could be as simple as gently picking up a cup instead of impatiently grabbing for it.

Anja Tanhane

 

Taking care

Autumn blueberries

In the Japanese film ‘Departures’, a young unemployed cellist, Daigo, inadvertently finds himself in a job preparing recently deceased for the coffin. This is done in a highly ritualised manner, at the house of the deceased, in front of the family. His new boss, Sasaki, is an older man of few words. However, when Daigo follows him to his assignments, he sees with what care and attentiveness Sasaki prepares the bodies. Following a closely-prescribed ritual so the body is always treated with respect and never exposed, Sasaki washes the deceased, dresses them in a beautiful kimono, applies make up and arranges the hair. Family members are invited to wipe the face of their loved one with a cloth and say good-bye. Through his gentle tending of the body, Sasaki creates a space for the family to be with their loved one final time before they are locked into the coffin. Daigo witnesses the gratitude of the families at being able to participate in this ritual. Despite the stigma associated with the profession, and the opposition of his wife Mika, who thinks it is disgusting, he finds the job deeply rewarding and stays committed to it.

What is beautifully portrayed in this film is the healing power of taking care. There will be no national honours for Daigo and Sasaki, no widespread adoration, or lucrative engagements running motivational seminars.  In fact, they operate at the edge of their society, shunned unless needed, constantly dealing with prejudice and rudeness. But the service they provide, and it is a service in the deepest meaning of the word, is profoundly healing and transformative for those whose houses they enter. The healing power doesn’t lie in the job itself, but in the tender, mindful way they go about it. The ritual space they create allows the families to grieve, to express their love, and to begin the long journey of saying good-bye.

We come across people like Daigo and Sasaki every day, but often we may hardly notice them. They don’t draw attention to themselves, and their tasks can be mundane and unglamorous. But we know when we are in their presence, because the care they take when interacting with the world leaves us feeling at ease and appreciated.

 

Weekly practice idea:

 

Find an ordinary, routine task and perform it with attentive care throughout the week. Take time to notice how this feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

 

Mindfulness at work – Part 1

Maidenhair and tea pot

Just like the modern lifestyle, the contemporary work environment presents us with unique challenges when it comes to working more mindfully. We may feel we require peace, calm and quiet, not too much stress, and no one around who annoys us, before we can even think about trying to practise mindfulness at work. That is like asking for the waves to stop before we go for a swim in the ocean – we might be waiting for a long time!  As Jon Kabat Zinn puts it,

‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.

I find maintaining mindfulness at work more difficult than in other settings. It’s interesting to reflect on why this might be so. Many work environments are very busy, with constant demands coming from all directions. Each new demand pulls us further away from being able to focus on the task in front of us. Studies have shown multi-tasking is a myth, and we lose time and efficiency every time we switch tasks. Yet few workplaces are designed to allow us to focus on a job uninterrupted.

Work is also, by its nature, very task-orientated, so it’s natural to slip into ‘doing’ mode and away from ‘being’ mode. We may feel we look like a better employee if we appear busy and rushed – even though we’ve probably all worked with people who race around like a tornado all day and leave behind a string of mistakes for others to sort out.

We may also feel that, because we are being paid to be at work, the time at work is not really our own. To some extent, this is true, in that we can’t simply do whatever we want; but at another level it makes no sense. Yes, we have responsibilities at work, and often little choice about when to carry them out. But during the rest of our lives we also have responsibilities – towards our family, ourselves, neighbours and society. Does this mean the whole of our life is not our own? We may have limited choices about ‘what’ we do, but we always have a choice about ‘how’. The careful attention we bring to a task; the pleasant manner in which we interact with colleagues and clients; the way we look after ourselves by taking a lunch break, grounding ourselves using the breath from time to time; the sense of humour, joy and compassion we cultivate – these all belong to us, and make a significant difference to who we are as employers and employees, and also to our effectiveness at work.

 

Weekly practice idea:

Explore the ‘being’ mode at work or when doing tasks at home. How does it feel to be completing a task, and staying grounded and present throughout.

Anja Tanhane