Enthusiasm

‘I think the really good mountaineer is the man with the technical ability of the professional and with the enthusiasm and freshness of approach of the amateur.’

Edmund Hillary

One of the most endearing, positive qualities we can have in our lives is that of enthusiasm. It adds an extra sparkle to our day, motivates us to go the extra mile, brings us endless joy, and inspires and uplifts those around us. The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek en theos, which literally means ‘God within’, or ‘inspired by God’. Like grace and love, there is an inspired quality to enthusiasm – we all know what it feels like, but we can’t manufacture or control it.

Because enthusiasm is so beneficial, it is all too easy to try and force enthusiasm – perhaps in a work situation where everyone has to be upbeat and revved up all the time; or in religious group, where your enthusiasm is proof of your religious conviction; or in intimate relationships which operate mainly in a heightened state. Sometimes in these situation we may start out with genuine enthusiasm, but that initial flush can be difficult to sustain. Our enthusiasm may then develop a fake, pinched quality – it comes across as forced, and doesn’t really convince anyone. The strained smile, the false cheerfulness – these can be used to hide dysfunction and disengagement, to stop people from asking difficult questions or expressing doubt.

Enthusiasm is also easily manipulated – an inspirational speaker can fire up a crowd to behave in ways the individuals themselves would not, for better or worse. Add some music, balloons and colour, clapping and singing together… We can soon find ourselves being swept up in the mood of the crowd, which could be euphoric, one of the best experiences of our lives, or else it could be nasty, downright dangerous.

Enthusiasm without wisdom reminds us of the saying – ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. There are many times when enthusiasm is not warranted – where it’s much more skillful to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and either walk away or else participate in something with a high degree of skepticism and caution.

As Edmund Hillary has expressed so well, as responsible adults we need to balance our learning and experience with the childlike enthusiasm of a beginner. It’s easy to end up at one end of the scale – either heavy with world-weary ennui, or else sparkling with fireworks exploding all over the place. Next week, we will look at ways of cultivating enthusiasm which are healthy, and based in reality.

Weekly practice idea:

When completing a task which is a little tedious, imagine yourself being very enthusiastic about it. Playfully, not taking yourself too seriously, imbue the task with enthusiasm and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the bright side

‘Always look on the bright side of life…’

Eric Idle

Who can forget the group of criminals, crucified at the end of Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, cheerfully singing and whistling,

‘If life seems jolly rotten

There’s something you’ve forgotten

And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.

When you’re feeling in the dumps

Don’t be silly chumps

Just purse your lips and whistle

– that’s the thing.

And…always look on the bright

side of life…’

There are indeed times when looking on the bright side of life is just plain ridiculous. Yet, as Jon Kabat-Zinn often says to participants in his MBSR courses, most of the time there is actually more right than wrong with us. This is not to gloss over suffering and challenges which are real and painful. However, just as mindfulness is about acknowledging the difficulties we face, it’s also about recognising the resources and gifts which are available to us in any given moment.

Some of these resources are external – perhaps we have friends and family who care for us, or we live in a civil society which is relatively stable, or we have food and shelter to nourish our bodies and protect us from the elements. Just these basics are more than hundreds of millions of people around the world are able to enjoy right now.

Then there are our internal resources – our gifts, wisdom, resilience, good humour and warmth. I’ve worked with people in hospitals or residential care who had lost almost everything, and yet they would smile with warmth when they saw a little kitten or young child come to visit. If we think about all the people we’ve met in the last few weeks, chances are that most were fundamentally friendly, decent and resilient. Not many people are completely cold and bitter. As for ourselves, we might have made a few mistakes in the past month, perhaps didn’t always cover ourselves in glory, but nonetheless we probably were often thoughtful and kind, and it’s likely we made some good choices along the way.

So there’s a lot to be said for looking at the bright side of life – perhaps not always, as the Monty Python song reminds us, but almost always!

 

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three external and three internal resources which you feel are in your life right now, and set an intention this week that you will notice times when you are drawing positivity and strength from these.

Anja Tanhane

Stranded in Bali

Last week, my husband and I were among thousands stranded in Bali because of the volcanic ash cloud. It was difficult to get much sympathy for our plight from friends and family back home in Australia, especially as they were shivering through a particularly wet and icy week. ‘We’re stuck in Bali’ doesn’t really have the ring of tragedy about it. And for sure, there are worse places to be caught in. Another week in Bali, soaking up the sun, sitting by the ocean or the pool, paid for by travel insurance – poor devils!

And yet it was stressful, not knowing when we’d be able to return home. Since the beginning of July, the airport had opened sporadically for a few hours, let a few planes in and out, before closing again for the afternoon or a whole day. We were booked on a flight a week later, but of course there was no guarantee that this one would be able to depart. By Monday there was a backlog of 300 flights. There was no way of knowing how much longer this might drag on for, and it was impossible to communicate with our airline apart from filling out an online form and hoping that someone would be in touch at some stage.

In mindfulness, we’re always taught that our perception of an event plays a large part in how we experience it, and our extra week in Bali was the perfect example of this. Here we were, back from an exhausting day at the airport, which had closed only minutes before we arrived to check in. We were back in the same hotel, even the same room. We were back in the same routine of swimming, walking, reading, eating. Apart from the hours spent on the phone and computer contacting insurance, work, the airline etc, nothing had changed – and yet everything had. We were no longer choosing to spend time in Bali, we wanted to be back home, and even though we tried to make the best of the situation, it was not particularly relaxing.

At times, our external circumstances quite clearly influence our mood, but often it’s actually our perception of events which colours the glasses we view them through. This is normal, quite natural, but it helps us to be aware of this process, and our additional week in Bali was a perfect lesson for this!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pause every now and then and ask yourself – is my current mood dependent on the situation, or on my state of mind? Do you notice anything interesting or unexpected as you do this exercise?

Anja Tanhane

Training a cute little puppy

Imagine your mind is a little puppy – cute, playful, boisterous, and, above all, determined to run around and explore every nook and cranny wherever it goes. While you might have a notion that the puppy should be sitting quietly in a corner all day until you call it for a walk, the reality is that puppies just aren’t made to sit quietly in a corner, and there is no point getting angry at the puppy for simply doing what puppies do.

Our minds also love to run around, to explore, to jump all over the place, and to get excited whenever there is the slightest indication that a treat or a walk or some playtime might be coming up. In part, this constant curiosity and excitability has served us well – as a species, we’re forever searching for new and innovative ways to improve our lives, and what we can achieve. On the other hand, our minds, like puppies, do benefit from some training. Dogs are happier when they are well-trained, and our mind is also more contented when it is trained with gentle discipline.

There are two aspects to this mind training. The first is to understand that our busy, racing mind is simply doing what it’s designed to do – there is no point in getting angry at ourselves for losing focus during a meditation, just as we would be unreasonable dog owners if we started yelling at a puppy every time it moved away from its spot in the corner. We often have highly exaggerated notions of what our mind should be capable off during a meditation – as if we can simply flip a switch and our mind will go from unfocused and distracted to calm and serene simply because we happen to be sitting in a meditation posture wanting to meditate. It’s just not the way our mind is set up, both from our evolutionary history, and also because most of us live very busy, overstimulated lives.

The second aspect is that we should not be afraid of applying some ongoing discipline to ourselves and to our mind. This discipline can be gentle, loving, patient, just like a good dog owner is gentle, loving and patient with a new puppy. Yet just as a puppy which is allowed to do whatever it wants does not grow into a contented, well-adjusted dog, so we too need to bring some discipline towards our minds, and we benefit from training our mind on an ongoing basis.

This is why mindfulness meditation is more than simply learning to relax and blissing out. There are many activities which are enjoyable and which benefit us – gardening, going swimming, watching a movie, and so on. Mindfulness asks more from us than simply having a relaxing, enjoyable time. Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will increase our appreciation and enjoyment of life, and help us feel less stressed. But when we are meditating, our mind could be all over the place, and we gradually learn to bring it back, again and again, just like we might train a puppy to walk on a lead and sit on command.

Weekly practice idea:

Take some time to examine your attitude to bringing discipline into your life. You’re probably already disciplined in all kinds of areas – work, household chores, personal hygiene, diet etc. How do you feel about a disciplined meditation practice – is this something you already do, or something you find challenging?

Anja Tanhane

 

Counting the breath

Mindfulness meditation can be very free and open – for example, we might be meditating on mindfulness of sound, and simply allow ourselves to notice sounds as they come to us, hearing them as much as possible as pure sound, being curious about them but not focusing on any sound in particular. While this kind of meditation is quite unstructured, we do need a certain stability of mind before we can really allow ourselves to be present in this open way, without becoming side-tracked and distracted for most of the meditation. One of the most popular meditations for developing this concentration of mind is one called ‘counting the breath’.

For this, we begin by settling into our body, our meditation posture, and then tune into the breath entering our body and then leaving it again, noticing the subtle movements of the breath in the body. After doing this for a few minutes, we then begin to take more notice of the out-breath – the beginning, duration and end of the out-breath, the pause at the end – and then allow the next in-breath to just happen by itself. We then start to quietly, in our mind, count the out-breath – silently saying a long ‘oooonne’ with the first breath out, allowing the breath to flow back in, then a long ‘twooo’, and so on up to ‘ten’, and starting back at one again. Whenever we notice that our mind has wandered off from the counting of the breath, we simply observe this, and gently and without any fuss, start back at ‘one’ again.

We will find that we rarely, if ever, get to ‘ten’ without our mind having wandered off. This can be a little disconcerting – after all, how hard can it be to count to ten? However, the purpose of the meditation is to develop our ability to bring our mind back to the focus again and again, like training muscles in the gym by lifting weights. The key is not to get upset with ourselves for ‘not getting it right’, but to bring ourselves back to counting the breath with kindness and patience.

Sometimes it’s easier to start with counting to ‘four’ instead of ‘ten’. We can also count backwards, or in thirds – 1, 3, 2, 4 etc. Another method is to keep counting, instead of stopping at ten. I often like to practise counting the breath for the first ten minutes of my daily thirty minute meditation, to allow my mind to settle into the meditation, before moving on to other practices. Also, on extended retreats, I find it helpful to practise counting the breath in the early morning meditations.

People who are fairly new to meditation often comment that they find the structure of counting the breath very helpful. Yet it’s not just a meditation for beginners, but one which can benefit us throughout our lives, and which will help us develop greater focus and increased clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Practise the ‘counting the breath’ meditation, remembering to be kind to yourself whenever your mind wanders off.

Anja Tanhane