Releasing the old

There is nothing more precious to us than the breath – without it, we can’t survive for more than a few minutes, and yet we comfortably let it go hundreds of times a day. The breath flows out, there is a pause, it flows back in. Even though the breath is so terribly important to us, we instinctively know we have to release it. There is no point in holding on to the breath, in clinging to the old, stale air, just in case it might come in handy one day. We need to let go of the used-up air, so that fresh, oxygenated air can flow back in and nourish and sustain our body.

It’s a good analogy for our life, where it’s so easy to grasp on to what’s old or outdated, ‘just in case’. We do this with our possessions, of course, but more importantly, we do it with unhelpful behaviour patterns, both in relation to ourselves and with other people. It often takes someone else, a trusted friend or therapist or mentor, to point these patterns out to us. Usually we’re so caught up in them, we’re like a fish which doesn’t know what water is. Even when we do become more aware, it can be surprisingly difficult to let go. Releasing old patterns and memories requires a sense of trust – trust that the void which has been left will be filled by something which is helpful to us. It is the same sense of trust we show every time we release our breath, when we leave our body empty, having faith that the next breath will flow back in and provide us with the life-sustaining oxygen we need.

Sometimes when we’re stressed, it can be wonderfully healing to really release the breath – either with a big sigh, or, if this isn’t possible because of other people around, at least by taking a slightly deeper breath and extending the out-breath, allowing ourselves to relax into it. In a similar way, it can be helpful to consciously release something which no longer serves us. All cultures have rituals for releasing and letting go. Funerals are the most universal of these – we all understand how important it is to formally say good bye to a person who has passed away. Yet many of us live with disenfranchised grief – grief for something we have lost, but which has no public recognition, no ritual or communal coming together to mark it. Next week we will look more deeply at this ‘silent grief’, and explore how mindfulness can help us to work with it in the absence of societal rituals and support.

Weekly practice idea:

A few times a day, take three slightly deeper breaths, releasing them with a sigh. Notice how you feel after-wards.

Anja Tanhane

Balancing excitement

Most of us humans are pretty excitable creatures – we seem to yearn for stimulation, variety, frequent excitement. Sometimes our ordinary life can seem a little humdrum, mundane, and we might find it unsatisfying to be told when we learn mindfulness to do the dishes mindfully, brush the teeth mindfully, walk along the corridor mindfully. What’s the point in doing those things mindfully, when we could be daydreaming, or planning, or stewing over some perceived wrong instead?

Yet a mindful life doesn’t have to be a restrictive life, where we spend the whole day methodically doing mindful chores, one after the other, and never go to a festival or party or become part of some exciting project.

Imagine your four-year old girl goes to a birthday party for a friend at kinder. Despite your vigilance, she consumes far too many red lollies, and soon becomes overexcited and a little out of control. Next thing you know, she’s hitting one of the other children! One solution to this problem would be to drag her home and tell her,

‘Ok, that’s it, you’re never going to another birthday party ever again!’

And that’s the last party she attends, through kinder, primary school, secondary school…

Obviously such a response is very extreme, and uncalled for. What you’d usually do as a parent is put strategies in place to help your child manage her emotions better. You would monitor what she eats, teach her about not hitting other children, find ways to calm herself down. Emotional regulation is one of the most important skills children need to learn, and high emotional intelligence has been found to be a significant contributor to later success in work and relationships.

This is what we can practise through mindfulness. Like a young child who is able to happily play by herself at times, as well as manage birthday parties without the afternoon inevitably ending in tears, so we too can learn to be both comfortable in our own presence, pottering around with our domestic chores, as well as cope with crowds and intense stimulation. It is a matter of finding the balance between low stimulation and high stimulation which suits our personality. Some people naturally prefer to spend many hours by themselves, whereas others are social butterflies who feel most alive in the company of others. Seeking constant stimulation, however, can be addictive, and could be an attempt to hide from uncomfortable truths and feelings. Regardless of where we fall on the spectrum between hermit and party animal, we can all benefit from learning how to balance times of low and high stimulation, so that we’re able to feel grounded and at ease in both solitude and company.

Weekly practice idea:

How do you balance excitement and the ‘ordinary’ life? This week, when you are completing chores, check in with yourself – are you yearning for more excitement? Do you feel restless, content, anxious, impatient, absorbed? What does this tell you about your attitude to ordinary life?

Anja Tanhane

Curiosity and mindfulness

Being curious in an open, non-judgmental way is one of the key differences between relaxation and mindfulness. The relaxation response is the opposite of the fight/flight mechanism which is activated under stress, and relaxation can help to repair and regenerate our bodies and mind when we’re under pressure. While the regular practice of mindfulness does lead to increased relaxation, in the short term, mindfulness can mean we become more aware of tensions or discomfort.

Our brain has sometimes been described as an ‘anticipation machine’ – we unconsciously predict people’s behaviours based on what we’ve experienced in the past. It is our shortcut mechanism to help us filter and sort the countless stimuli we are bombarded with every day. Up to a point this is necessary. For example, we predict that when the traffic light turns green, the cars in front of us will probably begin to move, and we get ready for this. Not keeping an open mind, however, can really limit our effectiveness at work, as well as lead to impoverished relationships. One of the most toxic statements we can make to our family is ‘you never…’ or ‘you always…’. These statements are rarely true, and limit our family member to a caricature rather than a complex, flesh and blood human being.

We can also apply this curious, open mind to the workplace. A very useful questions when talking to someone might be ‘ can you tell me a little more about that?’ Doctors in busy public hospitals are under great pressure to diagnose quickly, but there are some preliminary indications that mindfulness training can be useful for doctors, allowing them to keep an open mind and ask a few more questions before jumping to a conclusion based on the most obvious symptoms. This has been associated with a decrease in misdiagnosis.

A few years ago I was driving down a quiet side street when I saw a man standing next to a car, gesticulating wildly to a woman driver who was sitting in the car with her window down. I immediately assumed the man was being aggressive in some way towards her, towering over her, using his gestures to intimidate her, perhaps even preventing her from driving off. As I slowed down to see if she needed any help, I suddenly realised they were both talking in sign language. Their conversation was animated, but perfectly friendly.

Mindfulness is about slowing down enough to notice what is really going on, rather than jumping to conclusions. This is helpful in our interactions with other people, but also in dealing with ourselves. We often make outrageous assumptions about ourselves – I’m a failure, everyone else manages to be happy all the time except for me, most people probably take twenty minutes to put an Ikea kitchen together and here I am, three hours later…

It’s delightful to talk with someone who is genuinely curious about you, who loves to hear about your job or a recent holiday or your little children. It’s one of the most precious gifts we can offer to another human being. It quickly bypasses notions of racism or sexism – once we’re curious about another person and take the time to get to know them, we soon realise they’re complex and unique.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, choose something you don’t usually pay much attention to, and apply some mindfulness and curiosity to it. It could be another person, something in your environment, an action you perform frequently. Notice how it feels to engage with mindful curiosity.

Anja Tanhane

Curiosity

‘I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.’

Albert Einstein

Some of the best mindfulness teachers are young children – with their open, fresh approach to life, their ability to become deeply absorbed in what they’re doing, the way they seem to live mostly in the present moment. One of the most distinctive qualities of young children, which can drive their caregivers slightly insane, is their insatiable curiosity. A UK survey of 1000 mothers of children aged 2 – 10 years found that four year old girls ask about 390 questions a day – that’s one question every 2 minutes and 36 seconds, or a remarkable 105 120 questions a year.

It would probably be a little odd if, as adults, we continued to ask questions every 2 minutes and 36 seconds. On the other hand, we can often go to the other extreme, becoming surprisingly incurious about other people, strange symptoms in our bodies, what our government is up to, our emotional state, and what plants are flowering in our street right now. We might not even be aware which birds regularly visit our garden, that our colleague looks distracted and a little upset today, that we’re once again feeling irritable, or that we’re speaking in a breathless and anxious voice.

A common meditation instruction is to ask ourselves – what is actually happening right now? To simply be attentive to what’s going on, without immediately going into ‘fix-it’ or condemning or denial or ‘I want more of this, please’ mode. During a body scan, we might tune into different parts of our bodies, such as our toes, and simply be curious about any sensations there – are they feeling warm or cold, are there any tingling sensations, can we notice the contact with socks or the floor? As we practise this non-judgmental, accepting and curious state of mind, we can then also apply it to other areas of our lives, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

Be curious about the change of season, whether it’s spring or autumn in your part of the world, and notice its effect on the plants in your neighbourhood, the behaviour of animals, the length of daylight or quality of light. Also, notice the effect on your mood – do you like this time of the year, or dread it in some way?

Anja Tanhane