Being in our bodies

Welcome to the summer series of some of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this blog was first published on 24.6.2013:

‘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

 

 

Mindful Eating

‘Seventy-two labours have brought us this food – we should know how it comes to us.’

Zen meal sutra

At a time of year when most of us are probably eating and drinking a bit more than usual, it might be helpful to pause from time to time and think about where all this food comes from. The sheer volume of food can be overwhelming, especially if you celebrate with a big family or have been to a lot of work parties. And all this food required an incredible amount of work and effort to get to you in the first place – from developing the cultivars over thousands of years, clearing and cultivating the land, sowing the crop, looking after it, harvesting and transporting it, to the packaging, advertising and selling. Then we or someone else bought the food, prepared it, served it and cleaned up afterwards. If we’re eating meat, then animals had to become pregnant, the young ones reared, transported to a slaughter house, killed, butchered and processed, then transported, sold, prepared and cooked…

It is indeed seventy-two labours which have brought us the food, as the Zen sutra says. And many of those involved in food production, whether in farming, transport, retail or hospitality, aren’t paid very well. Much of the time, however, we eat with little awareness of the taste, let alone appreciation of where the food comes from. Yet eating connects us directly to the earth – from digesting food we get the energy of the sun, of rain, of air, of the nourishing earth, all of which went into allowing the food to grow. So by eating we are literally imbibing and staying alive through the elements of fire, water, air and earth, which make up life on our planet.

As the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes so beautifully:

‘If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.’

To offer someone food you’ve prepared is an act of kindness, of caring. It connects us to our families, whether these are biological families or families of people close to us. Eating together is at the heart of community, of celebrating together and being thankful. The more we can slow down in the midst of this often very hectic time, and appreciate the nourishment given to us by food, the more we can feel connected to our community and to our planet.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to look at one meal you’re eating, and think about where all this food comes from – some of the labours which have gone into growing it and getting it to you. Allow a few moments to appreciate the work of all these unseen hands, and let yourself feel nourished by the food.

Anja Tanhane

 

Accentuate the Positive

‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between’.

This song was written in 1944, during a time of wars across the world. With its rousing lyrics and upbeat tune, it no doubt helped to lift the spirits of many who were living through that time. A particularly exuberant version is by Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters – even those of us who didn’t grow up in that era, and who don’t normally listen to music from the 40s, can enjoy the energy of their performance. And while mindfulness emphasises being with life as it is, non-judgementally and without trying to deny our negative experiences, there is a wisdom in also ‘accentuating the positive’ in our lives.

Our brains are hard-wired for survival rather than happiness, which means we are more likely to worry about what might conceivably go wrong in the future than enjoy what’s going well for us right now. Because of this, for many people, anxiety rather than joy can become the soundtrack of their lives. While serious anxiety disorders require professional treatment, the kind of low-level anxiety many of us live with often responds well to efforts to lift our mood.

What can be difficult, however, is making the time to cultivate positive experiences for ourselves. It might feel selfish, or unimportant, to accentuate the positive. Or we could feel we’re resting on our laurels, rather than ‘getting on with things’, if we’re enjoying ourselves. Through my work as a music therapist, I’ve seen the deep joy and meaning which people can get from sharing positive experiences, for example by singing together. People who have every reason to be depressed – because they’ve suffered a serious permanent injury, perhaps, or because they’ve had to sell their home to move into a nursing home – can beam with joy as they sing along to songs they love. These positive experiences are important for recovery, or to minimise the risk of depression, but they’re also an important part of our lives in general. As the song goes on to say:

‘You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum

Bring gloom down to the minimum

Have faith or pandemonium

Liable to walk upon the scene.’

Weekly practice idea:

This week, listen to an uplifting song – perhaps even ‘Accentuate the Positive’, and allow its magic to lift your mood and bring a smile to your face.

Anja Tanhane

Peace and goodwill

The time of Christmas, regardless of whether we celebrate it as a religious festival or a cultural one, is meant to be the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind. Yet few of us are probably feeling particularly peaceful at this time of year, and the goodwill can also start to wear thin if you’ve been circling for forty minutes trying to find a car park at your local shopping centre, and someone cuts into a spot you had clearly indicated for yourself. Between end of year parties and Christmas shopping and getting organised for the big day, life tends to be more hectic than ever. Both our finances and our nerves may be wearing thin, and our tolerance for Christmas carols in the shops might be at an all-time low.

We can also feel we are being manipulated to buy more stuff than is needed, eat and drink more than is good for us, and generally add massive quantities of packaging, left-over food and unwanted presents to our landfills. Where then, in all of this, is the peace and goodwill?

The Christmas story is about the birth of new hope, of a new way of being in the world with kindness, love, and meaning. Regardless of whether we are practising Christians or not, most of us can appreciate the teachings of Jesus, his call on us to empty ourselves and live authentically, to follow the golden rule which runs through religions across the world – ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’ We may not like the commercialisation of Christmas, yet all cultures have festivals where normal life stops for a period of time, and people get together with their families and communities to celebrate a story which is evocative to them. We may already have rituals which make this time of year meaningful for us, but if we don’t, or if we would like to deepen our experience, we can create our own.

When do we feel most at peace, and what helps us to feel this way? What can we do, to intentionally cultivate a sense of peace? Some like to sit alone in a beautiful spot to watch the sun rise, while others feel most at peace in the midst of a large and noisy family gathering. It’s easy to get carried away with the busy demands of this season, but we have a choice to grow peace within ourselves, in whichever way is most meaningful for us. In this way, the festive season can indeed become the season of peace and goodwill for us.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take ten minutes with a pen and notebook, and write down all different ways in which you can cultivate peace in your life. Place a tick next to one or two which you will practise over the next few days.

Anja Tanhane