Shooting the messenger

We all have emotions we’d rather do without – fear, shame, anger, resentment. Often there seems to be no good reason for having these emotions except to make our lives, and the lives of those around us, a misery. Yet if we look at these ‘negative’ emotions more closely, we can see they actually have a story to tell us. It may not be a story we want to hear, but just like the king who shoots the messenger because he doesn’t like the message, we’d be foolish to reject our emotions just because they’re telling us a truth we may not be comfortable with.

When we see how much harm is caused in the world by negative mind states, it’s easy to confuse the expression of the emotion with the emotion itself. Anger is the classic example – retaliating out of anger never brings out the best in us, and can cause terrible harm. Yet if we imagine anger as a messenger standing before us, passing on a message, what is this message actually about? In the case of anger, it usually arises because our boundary has been crossed in some way. It might be a gross violation, such as abuse or discrimination, or it may be more subtle. But in one way or another, our boundary has been violated, and if we want to act with wisdom, it’s worth knowing the full story of what that was about.

Once we explore this story, we may find that a person in our life has been taking advantage of us for a while, and it’s time to have an honest conversation with them and be clearer about your boundaries. Or we may realise that yes, what this person did wasn’t nice, but that our anger is in fact an over-reaction, based perhaps more on past experiences than the current situation, and this realisation can allow us to let the anger go.

At other times, our anger might propel us to protect someone who is vulnerable; or to take a stance against injustice, joining a campaign or starting your own. The great movements for social change, such as the abolition of slavery or the end of apartheid, didn’t begin with people sitting about feeling happy and content. This is why we admire people like Nelson Mandela so much, because he acted out of a sense of righting an injustice, but wasn’t consumed by his anger despite everything he had suffered.

Of course, managing emotions such as anger, resentment, shame is not easy, as is summed up beautifully in this quote by Aristotle:

‘Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.’

Over the next few weeks, we will look at a range of mindfulness approaches to working more skillfully with some of our challenging emotions.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you feel yourself experiencing an unpleasant emotion, take the time to pause and ask yourself – what is the story behind this emotion? What message may it be telling me? Notice if this approach changes your experience of the emotion in some way.

 

Anja Tanhane

Our beliefs

Nasrudin, the Sufi sage and holy fool, was once in his flower garden sprinkling bread crumbs over everything. When a neighbour asked him why, he said, ‘To keep the tigers away.’ The neighbour said, ‘But there aren’t any tigers within a thousand miles of here!’ To which Nasrudin replied, ‘Effective, isn’t it?’

We’re probably all like Nasrudin at times, ardently engaged in activities we think will keep us safe and make us happy, when in reality we’re merely spreading bread crumbs around the flower bed. Our beliefs are very precious to us, and throughout history people have been prepared to die for their beliefs. They form a key part of our identity, and to respect someone else’s beliefs even if you don’t agree with them means to respect their dignity as a fellow human being. Yet we’ve all known what it’s like to believe something which turns out to be quite wrong. And some of our deepest beliefs about our place in the world come from our childhood, when we were engaged in magical thinking rather than considered reasoning.

Young children commonly believe that it’s their behaviour which causes their parents to act in certain ways. When a family is struggling, children often take the blame on themselves: ‘I was naughty, so Daddy left’. We can see that the fact little Tommy didn’t tidy his room has nothing to do with his Dad walking out on the family, but Tommy might carry this burden for years, well into adulthood, and often subconsciously. Sometimes parents even add to this when they say to their young child, ‘look at what you’ve made me do!’. Children, unfortunately, take this quite literally.

When we work with our thoughts in mindfulness, we learn to become less attached to them, to let them flow in and out of our minds without clinging on to them as we used to. After doing this for a while, we may begin to notice certain thought patterns we often fall into, particularly when we’re feeling stressed or bored. These thought patterns are often associated with beliefs about how things ‘should be’ for us. Some of those beliefs might even be quite childish, along the lines of ‘I should be able to get what I want’.

As we become more familiar with our habitual thought patters, we can begin to distinguish between beliefs which go to the heart of our value system, and beliefs which come from a more child-like, self-centered place. It’s always a good idea to question our beliefs, even the ones based on strong values – to see each situation with fresh eyes rather than outmoded ways of thinking. When it comes to beliefs about our place in the world, about how things ‘should be’ for us, we can allow ourselves to be quite generous with the extent to which we question our beliefs.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments here and there to ask yourself – ‘what is really happening here?’. This can be done quite playfully, like a game.

Anja Tanhane

 

The upside of stress

Recently we’ve been looking at our sense of efficacy and agency, and what is helpful to developing these in our lives. There’s no doubt we often feel least effective when we are under stress. It can seem that life is running away with us, that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. There is a famous Zen story about a farmer who sees a man on a galloping horse tear past the village, and who calls out to him,

‘Where are you going?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the man on the horse shouts back, ‘ask the horse!’

We constantly read about the harmful effects of stress on our health, our relationships, and emotional wellbeing, and many of our modern diseases are now being linked at least in part to stress. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells through the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is neurotoxic. Young children who grow up in very chaotic households can suffer permanent brain damage, to the point where they will always struggle with paying attention, forming relationships, and impulse control.

So stress is certainly something which needs to be taken seriously, yet there is also an upside to stress. We don’t thrive when we don’t need to put any effort into life, when everything is handed to us on a plate. Just like exercising causes small tears in our muscles which ultimately make them stronger, so a healthy amount of stress is crucial to developing our full potential.

One example in nature is a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. If you try to assist the butterfly by breaking the chrysalis open, its wings won’t be hardened enough, and it will either be weak or even die. In the garden, if we water a young tree every day for the next five years, its roots will remain shallow and it might fall over in the first gust of wind. Our immune system needs to be exposed to a certain amount of germs, otherwise it won’t be strong. However, if a newly planted tree doesn’t get any water, or our immune system is overloaded with germs, then we get sick or the tree might die.

Getting the optimum amount of stress in our lives is not always possible, because much of what causes us stress is outside our control. When we are under considerable stress, we need to manage it the best we can, including getting the basics of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation and social supports right.

There are times, however, when a more positive attitude to stress might help us ride its waves with a more joyful attitude. Yes, we’re too busy at the moment, juggling too many balls, perhaps our stomach is churning from nervous excitement and our heart seems to be beating very loudly in our chest, but it’s great to feel engaged in life. I’m involved in two choirs at the moment who perform regularly in public, sometimes for big occasions. We all get nervous before the performances, worried whether the songs will work, if the audience will enjoy what we have to offer, whether we’ll make mistakes or come in at the wrong time. After the performance, however, there is a great feeling of pride and achievement, the positive comments from audience members who are often moved to tears, the sense of having offered something precious to the community. And the nervous tension of the morning, and all the hard work leading up the performance, have been well worthwhile.

Mindfulness is not about being calm all the time, floating serenely above the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is messy, demanding, a little crazy – but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, look for occasions where you can enjoy the upside of stress. You may not feel at your most serene, you may even be a little anxious or tense, but perhaps you can also enjoy feeling engaged in the challenge?

Anja Tanhane

Efficacy

‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.’

Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s so much easier to be aware of our failures than successes, but becoming more conscious of little moments of efficacy is a simple but effective way of increasing the feeling of agency in our lives. As the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson implies, we tend to be focused on harvesting ripe juicy apples, somehow expecting these to appear on a daily basis, when in reality it’s the patient planting of seeds and the nurturing of growing plants which sets our life in a good direction. For example, many parents have found skillful ways of containing and redirecting their children’s erratic energy, in a way which is incredibly beneficial to their children (and society at large!). Yet they tend to do this automatically, not even realising something special is going on, and only remember that time in the supermarket on a hot Friday afternoon when their toddler did have a melt-down and everyone stared at them judgmentally.

Years ago when I did some training to teach music to young children, we were told to always look for the small improvements in their playing and comment on these before going on to suggest other ways to make the playing better. It’s easy, as a music teacher, to notice what’s wrong and needs fixing. Yet the look on a student’s face when you say to them, ‘I can hear you’ve really worked on that left hand passage, it’s sounding much better this week’, is priceless. It’s empowering for the student to feel that their efforts have been noticed and acknowledged. Needless to say, they are also more likely to practise what you suggest this week, if they feel their hard work will be appreciated. Yet with ourselves, we are often more like the horror piano teacher who whacks their students on the knuckles and abuses them every time they make a mistake.

The practice of mindfulness helps us become more attuned to those moments when something did go well. It’s easy to notice the apples (our major achievements) but ignore the young plant which is simply there, quietly growing. Through mindfulness we might be aware that we’re able to think clearly in a stressful situation despite feeling a bit anxious. Or we might be able to take a deep breath and be more patient with a difficult colleague or relative. Each time we pause for a moment of mindfulness, we’ve planted another seed of efficacy. I recently sowed some salad seeds, and like to go out in the morning to see how the seedlings are going. We can do this in our own lives – celebrating the many tiny seeds we’ve planted, instead of wishing they’d all turn into salad or apples overnight.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, each day, write down three examples of being effective. It could be remembering to water the pot plant, or single-handedly restructuring your workplace to make it more efficient. Whatever it is, write it down, and allow yourself a few moments to feel good about what you achieved.

 

Anja Tanhane

Asking for help

There are many ways of increasing our sense of efficacy, the feeling that we can make a positive difference in life, but one of the most important is actually just knowing when to ask for help. People who have been through situations where they felt powerless are often reluctant to seek help, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they may have asked for help in the past and been disappointed (or worse, abused by the person who was supposed to help them). They may feel ashamed, blaming themselves for what is happening. They may not trust enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable, or have no faith in the institutions which are supposed to protect and look after us. Sometimes the help available is not culturally appropriate. For example, writer Andrew Solomon was told by Rwandans critical of Western counsellors trying to help after the genocide:

“Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

So while counselling is certainly often very beneficial, some people respond better to other forms of healing which may not be offered, or at least not at a price they can afford.

It’s not always easy to ask for the help we need. Yet if we look at people who are successful (not in the sense of accumulating a lot of money, but those who are leading a rich and fulfilling life), we invariably find they’ve had many teachers, mentors, helpers on the way. Usually they’ve been through some tough times, but sought advice, support, counselling, whatever was needed to get them through.

The myth of the lone warrior who single-handedly saves the entire planet from destruction is ridiculous, but quite pervasive in popular culture. Most detective books and action movies seem to end with the hero locked in one-on-one combat with the villain instead of waiting for back-up. We live in a culture where people are often made to feel ashamed when they ask for help. There are some positive initiatives to counter this – for example, raising awareness of anxiety and depression as common, treatable conditions rather than a sign of personal failure. Yet there are still too many examples of people asking for help, and being made to feel judged and blamed instead.

Asking for help appropriately is a simple acknowledgment of our common humanity. There are times for standing on our own two feet, but if we don’t allow ourselves to be supported when we need it, we are less likely to be able to help others later on.

Sometimes we might be effective in small ways, but may not even be aware of these. Next week, we will look at how we can notice moments of efficacy through mindfulness.

Weekly practice idea:

What is your attitude to seeking help? Do you rely on others too much, or are you reluctant to seek help when needed? Think of a small action you can do this week to balance the scales.

Anja Tanhane