A different perspective

When I was still a student, I went for a bushwalk in the Grampians with a group of friends. It was foggy, the kind of fog which doesn’t lift all day, but sits close among the rocks and trees, ethereal and quite magical. I still remember the walk, how atmospheric it was to see the gum trees and granite boulders emerging and disappearing again into the mist. There was a sense of walking in enchanted land; of being, for the day, outside the usual sense of space and time.

A few years later, I did the same walk, but this time the sun was shining, and suddenly, to the right and left, there were stunning views – of valleys, other peaks reaching out into the distance, small towns, farms and vineyards. It was quite surreal, to know all this had been there the first time and I had been unaware of it. I’d had no sense of what was beyond the narrow path and the few trees I could see in the fog. Though I knew there was a world beyond the mist, I didn’t know what it consisted of.

When we are under stress we are often only aware of the narrow path in front of us, and we can lose all sense of the surrounding landscape. This is our survival mechanism, the fight/flight response which kicks in at the first intimation of threat. All our attention is focused on the perceived danger, whether it is someone just about to attack us, or difficulties at work or in the family. We also tend to become self-centred – fiercely determined to look after No 1 first. All these are valid responses to immediate physical threats, but less helpful in complex, ongoing stressful scenarios.

Throughout history, there have been people who have been able to step outside their own narrow self-interest in times of danger and act from a larger perspective. We probably know people like this ourselves – even when life is difficult for them they retain a sense of openness and awareness of the bigger picture. They might be the family mediators, or the colleague who smooths the choppy waters of office politics – the ones who can see where people are coming from, why they might be struggling in certain situations.

Mindfulness can help us develop this sense of greater perspective – being able to pause, ground ourselves, look around and ask – what is really going on here? What is happening in me? What can I sense in my body, what kind of thoughts are swirling through my mind? What is going on for others? By grounding our experience in the direct experience of our bodies, rather than getting caught up in abstract mental notions of how things ‘should’ be, we slowly gain the ability to see beyond the fog of stress; to get a more open, realistic perspective on what the difficulties actually are.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you are feeling stressed, take a few moments to ground yourself – feel the earth underneath your feet, notice your breath, any strong sensations in your body. Does this make a difference to how you deal with the situation?

Anja Tanhane

 

Meandering

One of the pleasures of visiting a foreign city can be the opportunity to meander through its streets, without much purpose except to look around and discover what is there. Everything is new and exciting, and we may have a list of tourist attractions we want to see but are actually just as happy wandering down a narrow laneway and coming across some hidden gem which stays in our mind long after the trip is over.

We can also do this where we live, of course, and probably do from time to time. Yet in our daily routine, we are usually busy getting somewhere. Little children are natural ‘meanderers ‘– sometimes we can see parents trying to walk their young children home from school, attempting to steer them along the path while the child wants to go in every direction except the straight line home. As we grow older our behaviour becomes more focused and goal-orientated, and this is important, of course. We don’t want a life in which we are aimlessly drifting, never fulfilling our potential or contributing to our families and society. Yet rushing relentlessly towards our goals without stopping to ‘smell the roses’ will also lead to problems. Apart from the stress caused by this way of life, we are also unlikely to have inspired ideas or deep insights, let alone meaningful connections with others, if our mind is always fixated on some imaginary goal post ahead of us.

Creeks and rivers have a natural tendency to meander – even in land which is relatively flat, it only takes a minor obstacle for the water to hit the opposite bank with additional force and slowly carve out a bend in the waterway. Because these bends are inconvenient for shipping, agriculture and building roads, many creeks and streams in Europe have been artificially straightened. However, it turned out the disadvantages of doing this far outweighed any benefits. The water was flowing much faster in the straightened waterways, which led to increased flooding in the area. Erosion increased, the natural habitat of many plants and animals was destroyed, and the groundwater level fell, which caused problems for nearby forests and farmers. So, at the cost of millions of dollars, some of these rivers are now being ‘un-straightened’, brought back into their natural, meandering state.

A meandering river is a good analogy for us – the water is still flowing, it ends up somewhere, but it takes its time and doesn’t just rush through as quickly as possible. Water which flows too swiftly can lead to flooding (feeling emotionally overwhelmed) and erosion (the wear and tear of constant stress on our bodies and mind). Rivers may have sections which bubble along energetically, parts where the water slows down and deep pools can form, and further along it may flow majestically and unhurriedly towards the sea. We can be more attuned to the natural flow of our energy, and allow ourselves to notice and appreciate life more, if we give ourselves permission to meander rather than rush through life.

Weekly practice idea:

Create an opportunity to ‘meander’ this week. Find twenty minutes or longer to explore a familiar or unfamiliar area as if you were a small child or tourist, using mindfulness to notice the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a place.

Anja Tanhane

 

The guest house

‘The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing,

And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.’

From ‘The guest house’ by Rumi

 

In his poem ‘The guest house’, the Sufi poet Rumi invites us to metaphorically open ourselves up to all visitors, just like a guest house which doesn’t get to choose who stays the night. Every morning, new guests arrive – ‘a joy, a depression, a meanness’; and he asks us to treat all of these unexpected visitors honourably, even if they ‘violently sweep your house empty of its furniture’. This poem seems to resonate with a lot of people, although on the face of it, what he is asking us to do appears rather strange. Why would we welcome dark thoughts, shame, malice? Surely it makes more sense to bolt the door against them and threaten to call the police if they don’t go away?

The instinct to protect ourselves against threats is very powerful, and our dark thoughts can pose a real to our lives. If we’re not able to deal with them skilfully, they can lead to depression, cause us to argue with those we love, or make us aggressive/paranoid/socially withdrawn and so on. Or we may project these feelings out, and someone else might become our scapegoat, forced to carry the burden of our shame.

Mindfulness asks us to see ourselves truthfully, to accept the full range of our thoughts, emotions, and personality quirks. This is an ongoing challenge, but fortunately mindfulness also enables us to better manage the challenge. Through mindfulness practice, we are able to create a compassionate space around our experiences, and this is really the key. Without self-compassion, we are likely to call the thought police on ourselves at the first sign of one of these unexpected visitors arriving at the door.

‘Treat each guest honourable’, Rumi tells us, ‘he may be clearing you out for some new delight.’

What are the delights of accepting ourselves more fully? What can we gain by engaging with those aspects of ourselves we’d rather turn away?

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling arises, imagine you’re the innkeeper in Rumi’s poem, inviting them into your house. Does this make a difference to how you experience this aspect of yourself?

Anja Tanhane

 

Identity

One of the more disconcerting effects of a regular meditation practice is the way in which it can undermine our solid sense of identity. Over months and years we notice that we are not our thoughts, we are not our roles in life, and we are not our bodies. Our emotions come and go, and something which seemed to overwhelm our entire life can be quickly forgotten as the next thought/emotion/distraction comes along. Nothing lasts, much of our experience seems to be the result of events outside ourselves, and our thoughts are often proved to be wrong or at least misguided. Most of our beliefs and behaviours are dictated by our cultural milieu, as anyone who has grown up between two or more cultures knows only too well. Who, then, are we? If you take away all these aspects of ourselves, which make us feel ‘this is me, this is who I am’, then what is actually left?

I wonder if this questioning of identity may be one of the reasons why many people, even those who’ve experienced the benefits of meditation, struggle with establishing an ongoing meditation practice. In theory it’s simple – just get up half an hour earlier, settle into your preferred meditation posture, and off you go. Twenty minutes or half an hour later you rise and continue with the rest of the day, knowing you’ve done something to improve your health, emotional wellbeing, cognitive ability, and interpersonal relationships. You appreciate life more, your brain is more active in the positive left-prefrontal cortex which elevates your mood, and you approach problems with greater equanimity and less anxiety.

In practice, however, it can be quite challenging to get into the habit of meditating every day. There may be a number of reasons for this, but a possible one could be that, for Westerners learning mindfulness meditation, it may feel like there is no framework to help us negotiate the questions around our identity which meditation can stir in us.

We do need to have a functional sense of identity in order to flourish in life, to feel grounded and present. Over time however, that sense of ‘I’ can become frozen. Meditation can allow our sense of self to flow freely, according to the conditions of life we meet. We become less rigid, and our sense of self may also feel more fluid.

It can be helpful, therefore, to be aware of activities which help to give you a strong sense of yourself, of being grounded without becoming rigid and caught in solidity. Some of these for me include writing, listening to familiar music, gardening and bushwalking. You will have your own activities which help you feel comfortable in yourself, without having to prove anything to anyone. Connecting with these activities on a regular basis, and consciously including them in your life, can go a long way towards grounding you in a sense of who you are – even as your meditation practice (and life itself!) unravels some of your more outdated assumptions.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three activities which help you feel connected to yourself. Make the time for at least one this week, and notice how you feel before, during and after it.

Anja Tanhane