Pausing

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

 

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

(Attributed to Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor)

I can clearly remember the first time I became conscious of that space and having a choice. I was feeling very annoyed with a relative who had left a hostile message on the answering machine. When I saw her a few days later, I recognised my own hostility and automatic impulse to blame and behave in a withdrawn and cold manner, an old defensive pattern. Pausing, I was also aware of an alternative – I had a moment of choice. Although the pull was to go down the old familiar way, I recognised that this would lead to further hurt, disempowerment and rupture of our relationship. I consciously chose to try and stay openhearted. In what felt figuratively like a big step, I walked up to her and approached her with affection, and the response I received with one of friendliness.

We can all remember times when we reacted in the heat of the moment, only to regret our words and behaviour, and not only that, find that the interaction has escalated the conflict, leaving us and the other person feeling more defensive and distant.

There is a Zen story about a man riding on a galloping horse. Somebody watching him yells out, “where are you going?” The man on the horse turns and shouts, “I don’t know, ask the horse.”

The horse can be likened to our habitual energy pattern that drives us into doing or saying things that not only hurt others but ourselves as well. Thich Nhat Hanh writes “if we learn the art of stopping, we can calm things down within and around us. The purpose of stopping is to become calm and solid and see clearly.” When we are calm we can look deeply within and recognise our underlying needs, and express them in ways that don’t alarm the other person and lead them to react defensively. We can also be more receptive to the other person’s needs.

Mindfulness practice helps us to calm ourselves and extend the time between the stimulus and the response, so we are not hijacked by our more primitive survival brain, leading to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. With this reaction to threat we angrily attack, withdraw in fear, or feel paralysed to do anything. The child within us is closer to our more primitive survival brain mode, so sometimes when we are challenged we implement younger coping strategies. Through mindfulness we can more readily reengage our neo- cortex, and can have thought-through responses. We can become aware we have choices and feel more empowered.

What mindfulness helps us to do is to be aware of what we are experiencing and catch the first bubblings of an emotion before it takes us over– it is much easier to manage at this point. When emotions do arise intensely, we can ride the wave, maintaining balance. Maintaining our centre and responding rather than reacting. This of course does take time and regular meditation practice. But, as Jon Kabat Zinn notes “Our relationships with other people provide us with unending opportunities for practising mindfulness and thereby reducing “people stress.”

He beautifully describes the fruitfulness of mindfulness for our relationships:

“The patience, wisdom, and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation yield fruit almost immediately because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will in all likelihood be drawn toward it because it embodies inner peace”.

Weekly practice idea:

When you notice reactivity in relationships, pause. Take a breath. With kindness and compassion towards yourself, be mindful of your thoughts, beliefs or images. Bring an attitude of friendliness and allowing to any feelings and sensations in your body. What is your underlying need? What may be the other persons underlying need? Be aware of having a choice.

Michelle Morris

 

The stream of life

‘When the transient stream of life is frozen into a block of ice, the frozen block of ice no longer knows that its true nature is water. It becomes hard and unyielding and clashes up against other ice blocks. Practice is about melting the frozen block of emotion/thought in the fire of attention. When we do this we return to our original nature, the stream of life – soft, transparent, bubbly, fluid and adaptable. This moment to moment stream is happiness itself.’

Geoff Dawson (Zen teacher and psychologist)

When we are confronted with the joys and challenges of our existence, we always have a choice – we can harden ourselves against the experience, or soften into it. Different circumstances call for a range of responses, and it would be naïve to think we can always be soft and gentle. Yet even situations which require us to be strong and tough can still be met with a sense of fluidity. As the Tao Te Ching says, nothing is more fluid than water, yet nothing is stronger – over time it can wear down whole mountains.

Gradually, as we tune into our experiences through mindfulness, we might become aware of our default position towards life. We like to think we always choose the most logical and wise response to any situation, but in fact many of our behaviour patterns are habitual, and have little to do with the circumstances at hand. We may have gone through difficult times which caused us to harden up, and this might have become the way we now approach life. It takes trust to soften into each moment, and perhaps that trust went ‘walkabout’ a long time ago.

And yet, as Geoff Dawson writes, by imagining ourselves as blocks of ice, we are constantly clashing up against life – against others, and also against ourselves. When we bring the warm energy of mindful awareness to our life, some of our sharp edges begin to soften, and we no longer need to spend so much energy keeping our block of ice frozen and solid. We become more responsive to life as it is, instead of constantly hardening ourselves against imaginary threats.

The American meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach offers a beautiful meditation to help us in this. She invites us to become aware of parts of our bodies which are tight, such as the shoulders, and to imagine that this part is like ice. As we rest our awareness there, we can feel the ice beginning to melt to become like water, and then to evaporate into gas. We are left with a sense of lightness and ease – of being able to soften into the experience of meditation – which we can then take into the rest of our day.

Weekly practice idea:

When you become aware of tension in a part of your body, visualise it as a block of ice, which begins to melt as you bring the warmth of mindfulness to it. Over time, we can also soften into the rest of our lives, both the joys and difficulties.

Anja Tanhane

Secret history

‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.’

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Last year I read the account of a young neo-fascist leader in modern Hungary who’d built a successful career out of denigrating minorities, including Jewish people. Life was going well for him – he had the respect and support of his followers, and he’d been able to use his marketing skills to spread their neo-fascist message to a much wider audience than previous leaders. So all was good – that is, until he discovered he was Jewish himself. His grandmother had been interred in Auschwitz, but after the war, his family had not felt safe identifying as Jews in Hungary, and it was only by chance that this man discovered the truth about his heritage.

Understandably, this led to somewhat of an identity crisis for him. He began to visit a rabbi and practise the Jewish religion. Because of his past actions, he wasn’t exactly embraced by his new-found Jewish community. His career in the neo-fascist movement was also finished. The story is a wonderful example of the absurdity of racism, of denigrating any group of people as being less worthy than us of empathy, of dismissing their suffering as irrelevant.

Our brain likes to make quick judgement calls. We want to know instantly – is this encounter safe for us, or dangerous? And unfortunately, because of our inherent negativity bias, it only takes a few repetitions of the message ‘this situation/person/group is a threat to you’, for us to unquestioningly start believing it. Before long, we begin to sit up and take notice of anything which seems to confirm this belief, and disregard the evidence to the contrary. We do this with groups of other people, but we also do it to ourselves.

Meditation can help to open us to our secret history – the aspects of ourselves and others we would rather forget or ignore. This process can be confronting at times, because it’s constantly challenging the more primitive parts of our brain to get out of its habitual defensive patterns and take the risk of more openness. Yet compassion and empathy are only possible if we are prepared to become more open, less judgemental. If we truly want to understand someone else’s secret history, we also need to be prepared to explore our own.

Weekly practice idea:

When you encounter someone difficult, ask yourself – what might their background story be? It’s not about making excuses for unacceptable behaviour, but to get beyond our tendency to make quick value judgements.

Anja Tanhane

 

At the tennis

It was the beginning of the fourth set, and the veteran tour player was finding it increasingly difficult to control his frustration as the young upstart broke his serve and then held with ease. Week one of the Australian Open, and the stakes were high for both players. It had been a pleasant day of tennis so far, not too hot, watching some great players, but this was the first match of the day which hadn’t been decided in straight sets, and the crowd, stirring itself out of the early afternoon stupor, was beginning to get involved. The veteran had plenty of fans in the crowd, but there was also enthusiasm for his young opponent, and the clean and confident shots he was playing.

In the row behind me, a woman in her sixties and her younger relative, who was about twenty, began to discuss staying on to watch the end of this match. They both agreed it was getting exciting, and it would be a shame to miss it, but their decision to stay on involved a change of plans, and there was now the problem of which train to catch home. As relentlessly as the tennis ball being belted back and forth below, they tossed this question between them for the next forty minutes. Which tram should they catch, and which train? Who would know? They texted people and told each other the responses, they suggested other people to text who might know, one person wasn’t replying so they wondered if her phone battery was flat or she might have run out of credit or perhaps she’d lost her phone. Every twenty minutes or so they turned their attention to the match and briefly commented on its progress before returning to the vexed question of which tram, which train, and who to call. Eventually their conversation drifted to other topics, but before long I once again heard them discussing which tram, which train, to catch.

I was irritated, astounded and fascinated. They saw virtually nothing of the match, which was now in a closely fought fifth set. It was clear either player could easily win it – the younger player hadn’t faltered under pressure and was playing as strongly as ever, and the older one had plenty of experience and energy to throw back at him. The women behind me had clearly travelled a long way from a regional area in order to watch some tennis, they were changing their plans in order to see the end of the match, and yet, because of their relentless worrying, they paid almost no attention to it. It was annoying to hear their conversation go on and on during points, but it was also a brilliant exposition of how our worrying mind can rob us of enjoying the experience right in front of us.

The tennis centre, tram stops and train station were dotted with staff who would have been happy to point them to the right train once the match had finished. For a major international event like the Australian Open, the city of Melbourne was well prepared to assist visitors who were unsure where to go. They could have enjoyed the match, asked for help to the train, and spent the train trip home discussing the match, and in particular the closely-fought fifth set. Instead, they barely took notice of the occasional point being played.

We have all done it – been too busy worrying about a future which will probably take care of itself, to enjoy whatever is on offer in the present moment. Sometimes we have every reason to be concerned about the future. But more often than not, we know we have the capacity to deal with what the future is likely to bring, and we have friendly guides all the way from the tennis centre to the train station to help us on our way.

 

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you find yourself worrying about something, ask yourself – is the extent of my worry justified? Or is it simply preventing me from enjoying the present moment?

Anja Tanhane