Catching the news

It’s evening, I’m sitting on the couch, and my cat is fast asleep on my lap. While I’ve been rushing about all over the place, she has spent most of the day dozing on the chair. Not that her life is completely free of stress – a new cat called Boots has moved into the house behind us, and Tashi is not happy. She’s often perched at the back gate, anxiously glaring underneath for signs of Boots. Still, she is relaxed now, and she has no idea of what’s been happening in the houses further down the street, let alone the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, I also want to relax, but it’s not easy to let go of the of the images and stories happening around the world. I don’t want to live in a Pollyanna bubble of willful ignorance, but so many of the stories currently making the news are truly upsetting. Tashi has no idea what’s happening in the Middle East, Nigeria and so on, and her life does seem better for it.

Mindfulness is about awareness, noticing the effects of something on our lives. It is also about making choices. For many of us, it’s finding the balance between being over-invested in every tragedy we hear about, and being apathetic and uncaring.

In the helping professions, it’s well known that the people who are most empathic and caring are the most vulnerable to burn-out and compassion fatigue. Workers can also suffer from vicarious trauma, where they start to experience some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety of the clients they’re working with. The key is finding a way of maintaining the positive qualities of caring and empathy, while also looking after ourselves. And looking after ourselves might mean set times away from thinking about other people’s problems – the problems of the people we’re working with, or of people in other parts of the world.

I find it helpful to make conscious choices about how and when I consume the news. This is not always easy, as the novelty-seeking part of the brain loves to quickly click onto the online news or listen to the radio, just to see what’s happening. And what if there’s some really important story developing that I should know about? Perhaps there’s a gunman loose in my neighbourhood, and I need to stay inside and lock the doors and pull down the blinds – which could happen, though it’s unlikely…

Staying informed is important, but there is a cost. We are so used to being bombarded with news, it’s easy to forget that every terrible story we hear has an impact on us, especially if we’re someone who feels for other people. Making conscious choices about our exposure to this might help us reduce some of our anxiety and worry.

Weekly practice idea:

Look at your pattern of consuming the news. How much conscious awareness do you bring to this process? Could you experiment with changing some of your patterns and noticing if this makes a difference for you?

Anja Tanhane

Our distracted mind

‘Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’ Daniel J. Levitin

In his book ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes the many challenges our brains face in the modern age of information overload, social media, and multi-tasking. We might feel efficient juggling numerous balls in the air as we complete thousands of small tasks each day, but in fact we’re easily distracted, often quite inefficient, and at the same time increasing our levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Many people complain of feeling under constant time pressure, finding few precious moments to relax and just be. Chronic stress has been implicated as a key factor in a wide range of health and emotional problems. So the question arises – if this way of life is so bad for us, then why are the majority of us in thrall to it?

It turns out that the ‘thousand little sugar-coated tasks’ we rush through are, in fact, quite addictive. Each time we send an email, check our social media updates, look up something on the Internet, or send a text, we stimulate the pleasure- and novelty-seeking parts of our brain, giving ourselves a little hit of endogenous opioid. Before too long, we get used to getting ourselves through the day with the aid of regular opioid hits. Just like the sugar in our food, the boosts provided by these opioids are short-lasting, leaving us more depleted in the long term, but they are also difficult to resist.

In the same way we all make choices about our sugar consumption (some have quit sugar altogether, while others drink litres of soft drink every day, and most fall somewhere between those two extremes), so we can also make choices about how often we allow ourselves to be distracted during the day. Some distractions are inevitable – many jobs don’t allow us to work uninterruptedly, or we may be looking after children or someone with high care needs – yet many distractions we also bring upon ourselves. Levitin quotes research which shows that even just one unread email in our inbox can reduce our effective IQ by 10 percent. It’s in our interest to create times when we can become mindfully absorbed in a task – whether it’s tidying the kitchen after dinner, writing a report for work with the emails and phones turned off, or practising a new skill. We may miss out on the occasional sugar hit of opioids, but will be rewarded by increased efficiency, and the satisfaction which comes with a job well done.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one task from which you’re easily distracted, and choose to do it mindfully this week. Notice how it feels – in your mind, your body, and emotionally. Is there also anything different about how the task got completed?

Anja Tanhane

Just in case mind

When my grandmother died, she had a cellar full of old nails, pieces of string, tools she hadn’t used in years, old clothes, shoes, crockery and books. Having lived through two world wars and the depression, she did not like to throw anything away. Her flat upstairs was neat and tidy, but downstairs in the cellar was a different story. Hers was an era before ‘planned obsolescence’, where she used the same record player and radio she’d bought as a young mother after the war, right until her death. She valued her possessions and looked after them, treating everything with care and respect so it could last as long as possible. Yet she also had a cellar full of rusty nails she’d never use, old clothes which could have gone to someone else – all these possessions stored below, just in case.

Our mind is often the same – storing old information and memories ‘just in case’. We evolved like this to give ourselves the best chance of survival in an environment full of threats out in the open savannah. Anything with a hint of danger had to be remembered, and to be readily retrievable. I hear a funny rustling sound? I spin around in panic just in case. Perhaps it is the wind in the bushes, perhaps it is a tiger about to attack. But I’d better react immediately and instinctively, just in case.

Most of us would like to be able to move on more quickly from past hurts, to let bygones be bygones, to enjoy a beautiful afternoon walk in the park instead of stewing over something which happened days or weeks or even months ago. Our mind is full of rusty old nails we’ll never use, but which we cling on to in case they might come in handy one day. These patterns are hard-wired into our brains, and they’re designed to keep us safe. Unfortunately, this just in case mind can also bring with it a great deal of unnecessary suffering, and can significantly reduce our ability to enjoy life.

A regular mindfulness meditation practice can help us become more aware of these patterns, and to become less caught up in them. We do need some of this threat-based information, and it pays to look after it, just as my grandmother looked after her radio and other possessions all her life. We want to learn from our mistakes, to ask ourselves next time we find ourselves in a similar situation – ‘now remember what happened last time, that didn’t go so well, what might you do differently today?’ Yet much of our stress is caused by our just in case mind, that cellar full of rusty nails, and a regular mindfulness practice can help us clear some of that junk out, and choose to keep what’s actually important.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down some of the rusty old nails you keep in the cellar of your mind. In what situations do they mainly arise? By writing them down, you bring them out from the cellar of old memories into the living space of awareness upstairs, where it’s much easier to find an appropriate place to keep them (which may well be the rubbish bin!).

Anja Tanhane

The greenhouse

One of the most common questions people ask when they are first introduced to mindfulness is ‘can I practice mindfulness without having to do a formal practice, such as sitting meditation?’ The answer is, ‘yes, you can’, and ‘no, you can’t’. It depends on why someone became interested in mindfulness in the first place. Some of the mindfulness practices, like eating a meal in silence and tasting every mouthful, or walking down the street and feeling the contact between the soles of the feet and the ground, or pausing every now and then and tuning into the different senses, are easy to do, and they do have a positive cumulative impact over time. Even just slowing our life down by 10 percent, or learning to take deeper breaths from the diaphragm rather than shallow ones from the chest, will improve our wellbeing.

Just taken by themselves, however, these practices aren’t really what mindfulness is about. If we think of mindfulness as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, we can see that simply noticing that the birds are singing as we walk to the station isn’t going to help us develop this non-judgmental attitude. In fact, we might get caught up in the idea that only the birds should be singing, and that the car noises and lawn mower have no place in our walk to the station. We might get precious about our ‘mindful lunch’, and become annoyed when someone interrupts us. Simply stopping to smell the roses isn’t going to help us develop some of the core attributes of mindfulness such as non-judging, non-striving, letting go, patience, trust, and so on.

In order to develop these qualities, we need the protective setting of a formal mindfulness practice such as sitting meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or the body scan. The formal meditation practice is like a greenhouse where the tender young shoots of these qualities can be nurtured and protected before being exposed to the more challenging weather conditions of our everyday lives.

Because of how we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, our brains don’t just naturally become more mindful simply because we’d like them to be so. Trying to be mindful in the midst of a crisis without having done a regular practice is like facing championship point at Wimbeldon as an amateur tennis player. It’s only the years of hitting forehands and backhands in training which give a tennis player any chance of hitting a winning return under that pressure.

A greenhouse is an artificial environment, just as sitting still in the meditation posture for half an hour is a purposefully-created space. The encouraging aspect is that it doesn’t take long for meditation students to notice the benefits of protecting and nurturing the mindfulness qualities in the greenhouse setting of formal practice.

Weekly practice idea:

If you already have a formal meditation practice, take a few moments to appreciate the protective nurturing this offers you. If not, make a commitment to spend at least twenty minutes this week in a formal mindfulness activity such as meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.

Anja Tanhane

View from the window

This week’s reflection was written by Michelle Morris:

Blue sky,

space,

tiny clouds pass,

unhurried.

 

A visitor has come to the garden.

A glimpse of black feathers,

darting movement.

What was your experience?

I feel very grateful that my office has a bay window that looks out to the garden. I have developed a practice of sitting in the morning and writing a miku, taking in the environment, the sky, the trees, the plants, the colourful flowers that bloom for a time. And the sounds of the birds singing, and people working and talking. During the day I like to pause, sit quietly and observe the view from the window. These mindful moments are deeply fulfilling and replenishing.

Focusing on external sights, sounds, and physical body sensations helps to anchor ourselves in the present moment, into ‘the power of now’. It helps to shift our focus away from stress, pulls us out of ruminations of the past, worries about the future and enables us to have more equanimity.

This mindfulness approach is based on a practice often given to novice monks in Zen temples, enabling them to sustain a meditative state while doing their daily work. It is a practice which also helps cultivate connection with nature, and the outside world.

Psychology Today reported on research which found that pausing to view scenes of nature helps us to refocus our attention, and people who sit near windows are healthier, happier, more tolerant, and more enthusiastic toward work. One study showed that prisoners whose cells offered views of nature were sick 24 percent less frequently than others.

De Young, an environmental psychologist, recommends sitting near a window and putting a small timer on your desk to remind you to take “microbreaks,” a quiet moment or two to “reflect and stare out the window, to bring your mind to a quieter place.”.

David Ponta writes what he calls “the world’s least ambitious daily newspaper”. A daily blog in no more than 140 characters about his observations from his porch while drinking his morning coffee. He notes:

“This daily habit of quiet observation is very important to me. Even if the rest of my day is taken up with busyness and distractions, at least I’ll have had a short period of attentiveness to the natural world to keep me grounded …”

Another inspiring example is Etty Hillesum and her writing. Her diaries convey her experience living in Holland during the Second World War, during which she volunteered to help inmates in the camps.

“The sky is full of birds, the purple lupins stand up so regally and peacefully, two little old women have sat down for a chat, the sun is shining on my face – and right before our eyes, mass murder… ”

This young woman did not deny the horror she came face to face with, nor did she complain, but continued to observe and enjoy the beauty of nature. If even in extreme conditions a person can have this kind of awareness, maybe in the midst of our often busy lives we can also find moments to pause, observe, and be replenished by nature.

Weekly practice idea: Sit for a few minutes in the morning in a place where you have access to nature, even if it is only one pot plant, and bring mindful attention to external sights and sounds.

Michelle Morris