Friendliness

 

Are you your own best friend, or your harshest critic? If you were a team, would you be playing for yourself, or against? Or perhaps you are a capricious friend to yourself – perfectly civilised when life is rolling along smoothly, but transformed into a snarling viper whenever you make the slightest mistake.

Many of us struggle to find the right balance between being willing to examine our motivations and actions, and giving ourselves an unnecessarily hard time, often over quite minor mistakes. How we treat ourselves depends on complex factors, including our cultural background, gender, religious affiliation and personality.

When people begin a regular mindfulness practice, they often notice an increased friendliness towards themselves. In the words of Daniel Siegel, we can allow ourselves to become our own best friend. Fortunately, this seems to correlate with being less judgemental towards others as well, becoming more patient with their foibles and vulnerabilities.

There is a significant difference between being friendly towards ourselves and becoming narcissistic. Longitudinal studies of American college students have shown a marked increase in narcissistic traits over the past few decades. Related traits such as unrealistic expectations, materialism, low empathy, and less concern for others, have also increased. We might sometimes feel that being too friendly with ourselves will encourage our narcissism, that we’ll no longer care enough about others. Interestingly, it seems the opposite is the case. Studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation have consistently shown that by tuning into our own experiences with an open, friendly acceptance, we are more able to be present and empathic with others as well. Like a well-functioning sports team which relies on good communication and encouragement, but also constructive feedback and a willingness to improve, it seems we’re at our best when we feel supported in our willingness to learn.

It is like a balm to our soul when we walk into a room and are greeted by a friendly smile. If we are greeted by a frown instead, our anxiety levels tend to rise. If we are learning mindfulness meditation to help us decrease our anxiety levels, it makes sense to not spend our lives metaphorically frowning at ourselves. As Mother Teresa said,

‘Peace begins with a smile.’

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you make a mistake, notice how you react. Are you unnecessarily hard on yourself, or do you find yourself brushing off your mistake without much thought? Are you less kind to yourself than you would be to a friend?

Anja Tanhane

 

Creativity

 

‘Creativity takes courage.’

Henri Matisse

One of the many wonderful qualities of young children is the way they spontaneously and unselfconsciously embrace creativity. Give them some coloured pencils or a drum, lend them some clothes for dress-ups or put some dance music on, and they’re off. Children don’t worry about not being the next Picasso or Shakespeare, about the fact they haven’t sung for years and their voices are a bit rusty, about wasting their time when they should be doing something more ‘useful’. Creativity comes naturally to them, yet is also crucial for their development. Through creativity, children can process their experiences, learn to externalise feelings, engage with others around them, problem-solve, and explore new solutions.

Of course, as adults, we can also benefit from all these – who couldn’t do with ways to process our experiences, express ourselves, communicate and explore? Yet how many of us feel comfortable being creative without attaching a whole range of expectations, pre-conditions, neuroses and qualifiers to the process? It’s commonplace to hear people say self-depreciatingly,

‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing.’

To which I can only say, why not – it would be wonderful to hear more people sing! But we often lack the confidence; maybe we no longer even know where to start. Sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pen or pastels, or being asked to sing when you haven’t sung in years, can be quite intimidating. And chances are, our initial efforts will look and sound pretty feeble. Yet creativity can open doors to us which pure rational thinking cannot – doors of self-expression, communication, healing, and community bonding.

As a music therapist, I’ve often worked with people who, for a range of reasons, are no longer able to communicate using words like we normally do. Music can be an incredibly powerful way for them to engage and communicate with the world, and to process feelings of loss, grief, joy, belonging. It seems a shame that, for many people, it’s not until something goes wrong in their lives that they become less self-conscious about being creative. I always feel a little sad when I hear people talking about wanting to be more creative, but lacking the confidence to begin. I’ve seen how much joy it can give to people to sing with others, draw a picture, write a short story or memoir. Dancing, making crafts, telling stories – these are all such wonderful gifts for us humans to have. Often, when people do make a start, they wonder why they didn’t do it years ago.

Some of the core attributes of mindfulness, such as being more non-judgmental and patient, more open and accepting, and cultivating trust and a beginner’s mind, can help us engage with our creativity. Having studied both classical music, with its emphasis on perfectionism and high technical skill, as well as music therapy, where we engage musically with people in a very open, non-judgemental way, has helped me to appreciate both approaches. There is a place for striving for high achievement in the arts, but there is also a place for simply being present with a creative process, regardless of the skill levels of the participants, just because it is so enriching and rewarding.

Henri Matisse is right, creativity does take courage. Perhaps this quote by Goethe can help us make a start:

‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’

 

Weekly practice idea:

How comfortable do you feel being creative? If you would like to have more creativity in your life, can you bring some of the core attributes of mindfulness to the process to assist you?

 

Anja Tanhane

 

Boys don’t cry

‘Now I would do most anything to get you back by my side.

But I just keep on laughing, hiding the tears in my eyes,

‘cause boys don’t cry.’

The Cure

 

Can you think back to a time where you sabotaged your chance at something which was important to you, such as a relationship or an opportunity, because you were hiding your ‘tears’ behind a fake smile? There are times for putting on a brave face, for not letting everyone around you know the exact minutiae of all your feelings. It’s part of being an adult, yet we can get into the habit of putting on a false smile to ourselves and to those close to us. There is something very vulnerable about tears, whether we’re actually crying or expressing our hurt and pain in some other way.

We can put ourselves under a lot of pressure to be positive – after all, positive people tend to be more popular, successful, healthy. And it’s true that a positive outlook on life does come with many benefits. However, there is a world of difference between a positive outlook which is based on reality, and the false good cheer we can feel compelled to resort to. To paraphrase the Ecclesiastes, there is a time to laugh, and there is also a time to cry. Participants in the eight week MBSR course often report becoming more comfortable with the full range of their emotions, rather than the narrow ‘approved’ range of emotions they might have allowed themselves before. At the same time, they talk about being increasingly able to take a step back in challenging situations, get a bigger-picture view, and to calm themselves down in the midst of challenging situations. Regular mindfulness practice will take some of the extreme edges off our emotions, but that doesn’t mean emotions aren’t still intense. In fact they may be experienced more intensely, and yet, at the same time, we feel less overwhelmed by them.

Grief which is not expressed can fester in our lives, like the worm in William Blake’s poem ‘The sick rose’:

O Rose thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

 

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Men in particular have often been brought up not to cry, and may not feel comfortable shedding tears. There are other ways to express grief, or at least to be present with it whenever it arises. Music can be especially powerful, and the best music is often tinged with sadness. It is helpful to know what our feelings are; how we can best live with them. Mindfulness helps us become more familiar with, and less anxious about, the full range of our emotional life.

Weekly practice idea:

What is your attitude to grief, to expressing when you feel hurt? Where do you sit on the scale between complete repression, and letting it all hang out (perhaps inappropriately at times)? Where would you like to be?

Anja Tanhane

How hard can it be?

There are any number of good definitions of mindfulness, but one I find particularly useful to work with is this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

‘Mindfulness is an awareness which arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.’

Therefore, in order to be more mindful, all we need to do is to:

• Be aware

• Pay attention on purpose (that is, actually remember to pay attention)

• Be in the present moment

• Be open to this moment in a non-judgemental way

• And go with the moment to moment flow of experience.

So honestly – how hard can it be?

Of course, what anyone who has ever tried to be mindful for more than a few moments at a time knows, living mindfully is not easy at all. This can be frustrating, because mindfulness isn’t exactly rocket-science. It seems patently obvious that the present moment is the only one we can ever be in – where else could we possibly be? We have taste buds, so eating mindfully and really tasting our food shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the time we’re not comatose or under a general anaesthetic, so you’d think being aware should not be an issue. We were taught at school to pay attention, so we’ve already learnt how to do that. And yet, and yet…

Given the benefits of mindfulness are so well documented (better health, more positive emotions, less stress, improved interpersonal relationships, greater efficiency at work, clearer thinking etc), why didn’t our brain simply evolve to be more mindful? Why do we need to go through the rigours of a regular meditation practice and attend courses and retreats – a discipline which many people find difficult to sustain even when they’ve had first-hand experience of the benefits? There is no simple answer to this question, but our brain did evolve over tens of thousands of years to help us survive in tough physical environments rather than complex modern technological societies. What served us well on the open savannah – constant alertness, embedding negative experiences deep into the brain so they can be recalled in an instant, being able to react without thinking to perceived danger – is often less than useful in the modern office.

It is up to us to experiment with our lives, to find out, through trial and error, what works well for us and what doesn’t. However, its’ much easier for us to gain insight into this when we are mindful of our moment to moment thoughts, feelings and sensations. It would have been nice to evolve with a more mindful brain, but really we’re fortunate to have ended up with the amazing human brain we do have, and if our brain needs the occasional time out to meditate, to rest and recharge, then why not allow ourselves this space in our lives?

Weekly practice idea:

Ask yourself from time to time – why is it difficult to be present right now? Be open to the answers which emerge – there is no right or wrong answer, only a gentle but persistent exploration of what takes us away from present moment experience.

Anja Tanhane

 

Balancing discipline and dogma

‘It seems to be human nature to take anything that works (ceremony for example) and then make it solid and rigid. It’s when we put ego and solidity and rigidity around it that we make a problem.’

Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher

 

If you would like to live as a monk in Thailand, you will be required to follow 227 precepts or rules. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as not committing murder, stealing, or slandering your fellow monks. Others, such as the injunction not to carry wool with oneself for more than three walking days, are a little more obscure. To live as a monk is to choose a highly disciplined life, one which is designed to create the right conditions for spiritual development. We may regard some of those rules with a certain bemusement, or even feel that rules are not for us – we should be free spirits, able to act in whatever way feels right to us. Yet our lives are also bound by countless rules, probably more than 227, mostly designed to help us live in peace with others. Even something as simple as driving to the shops to get some milk requires us to follow road rules, such as stopping at a red light, as well as the driving conventions of our culture, which will determine how generous we are when it comes to giving way, how respectful we are of bikes on the road, and so on. There are rules about how to behave in a supermarket queue, what we can wear at work, what we are allowed to say and when, how late we can keep the whole neighbourhood awake with our party, whether we’re allowed to check Facebook at work, and countless others.

Then there are the disciplines we set for ourselves to keep us healthy and happy – that early morning run in drizzling rain, saying no to the extra glass of wine, meditating regularly regardless of whether we feel like it. Just as religious groups work out over time which practices and ceremonies are helpful, so we too might figure out for ourselves that yes, regular exercise is important to me, I will regret getting drunk, my day goes much better when I’ve made the time to meditate in the morning. Some form of discipline seems to be essential for us to lead a ‘good’ life. Groups of people need structures and guidelines if they are to work well and efficiently together. Yet often, within a generation or two, these guidelines can become ends in themselves – rigid rules everyone has to obey, or else! There is a Zen saying which illustrates this:

‘Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’

Our rules are like fingers pointing at the moon – they are helpful, but only if we don’t forget they are simply there to point us in the right direction.

Our lives are a constant balancing act between becoming too rigid on one hand, and on the other hand lacking the self-discipline to choose those actions which will benefit us. As we grow and change, the rules which served us well two years ago may no longer be appropriate now. It’s not always easy to get the balancing act right. If I wake up with a sore throat, is a morning run in pouring rain a good idea? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Mindfulness can help us tune more deeply into our present-moment experience, and discern what is really going on – is my desire to sleep in just laziness, or do I need to be flexible with my exercise routine this morning? Hopefully, as we keep tuning in, over time we will have a clearer sense of when flexibility or discipline may be needed.

Weekly practice idea:

What are the rules you live by? Do you think you generally have a tendency to be too rigid, or not disciplined enough? Perhaps you are very disciplined at work, for example, but not so good when it comes to self-care. Stop and pause from time to time, and ask yourself – is my current action about healthy discipline, rigid dogma, or a bit too laissez-faire?

 

Anja Tanhane