Becoming more connected

‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.’ John Muir

It’s one of the ironies of modern life that the more connected we become through technology, the more people report feeling disconnected. Researcher Brandon T. McDaniel coined the term ‘technoference’ to describe the way technology can interfere with close partner relationships. In one of his studies, couples whose time together was frequently interrupted through technology reported lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms, and less life satisfaction. Of course it could also be that unhappy couples use more technology to distract themselves from their problems. And on the upside, technology has also helped marginalised people feel connected to others who share their experience, through online support groups and blogs.

Nonetheless, the fast pace of modern life leads to many people reporting feeling increasingly disconnected – from themselves, from their community, and from the natural environment. It can be tempting to idealise cultures which still seem more connected – for example Indigenous cultures, or those who live more simple, communal lives. Yet there are many ways we can increase our own sense of connectedness, without having to jump ship and abandon our culture, and in the coming weeks we will explore some of these in the weekly reflections.

A good starting point is increasing our awareness of the impact our chosen lifestyle has on our mental and physical wellbeing. A lot of our difficulties stem from insidious stress – choices we make which look perfectly benign, but which over time can add up to an overcrowded and chaotic headspace. It could be checking our emails for the tenth time in an hour, going for a walk in nature with headphones blaring music, collapsing on the couch and watching five hours of TV, or getting caught up in a war of words on Facebook with a bigoted stranger. All of these may have their time and place, but can add up to precious little mental downtime. And rushing from one stimulation and distraction to the next is a pretty good recipe for feeling disconnected from ourselves.

Scientific experiments like to set up control conditions, and we can do the same with our lives. How does it feel to turn technology off for a day? To walk to the corner shop instead of driving? To read a book instead of watching TV? We are the ones who know ourselves best, and we can make good choices based on this knowledge. To do this well, we need to develop our non-judgmental awareness, which is one of the qualities we develop with regular mindfulness meditation.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose something you do regularly, which you suspect may contribute to feeling disconnected at times. Notice how it feels to take a break from this activity. What can you learn about this for the future?

Anja Tanhane

Repairing with gold

Kintsukuroi – the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken

It is a beautiful image – a broken ceramic bowl, put back together with glue of gold, so that the strands of gold weave through the bowl and it looks more beautiful than before it was broken.

In our lives, the gold we heal with is love, kindness, compassion. We sometimes come across people who seem to have a ‘beautiful soul’, who emanate kindness and strength. Usually, when we hear their story, we find out that they have been through some very difficult times in their lives. Sometimes suffering can make us bitter, cynical, disengaged from those around us. Other times, suffering can infuse our lives with qualities like love, patience, equanimity. It’s difficult to know why some people seem broken by suffering, and others are strengthened. It’s a complex interplay between our attitudes, personality, upbringing, the supports available us, the attitudes of our society to suffering, and a range of biological and neurological influences. One person might have a plethora of supports available and reject them all, while someone else might get only one brief opportunity which they grasp with both hands and use to transform their lives.

The image of the wounded healer is a person who is able to support others in their healing, because they’ve been broken and put back together themselves. When you work in the helping professions, you find that most of your colleagues have their own back story of suffering and healing. In certain shamanic cultures, the signs that someone might be called to be a shaman include – being hit by lightning, having a serious illness which nearly kills them, or having a nervous breakdown. They are broken apart and have to put themselves back together in a new, transformed way. The current shaman will support this person as they go on their healing journey, and eventually, if all goes well, that person will become the next healer of the community.

We can see the past suffering of someone as the gold which has strengthened them and made them more beautiful, rather than a shameful secret which needs to be hidden from view. It can be tempting to attempt to repair our broken lives with invisible glue, so no one will ever guess there are any cracks in us. To repair a broken bowl with gold is no doubt patient and taxing work. It’s not a matter of sticking a few pieces together and hoping for the best. Sometimes, the repair may not be successful. The bowl which has been repaired with gold does not wallow in its brokenness, but nor does it hide it. Life goes on for the bowl – it is transformed, and it has become more beautiful.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside some quiet time and reflect on what is the gold in your life which you have used to repair the cracks in you. Think of this gold as precious and healing, rather than something which needs to be hidden. How does it feel to think about healing in this way?

Anja Tanhane

Nourishing ourselves

We are continually nourishing ourselves – each next breath in brings a fresh supply of oxygen; most of us eat several meals a day and often plenty of snacks in between; we nourish ourselves by spending time with like-minded people, pursuing sports and hobbies, walking in nature, or listening to music.

If we live in an affluent society, there is usually no shortage of nourishment to choose from, and yet, ironically, the quality of our nourishment is often quite poor. For example, very few people breathe in a way which fills up our lungs fully. Most people habitually take a shallow breath, high in the chest, and never get the health benefits, relaxation, and the nourishment of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. The food we eat may also give us more empty calories than valuable nourishment. It can take considerable discipline and planning to ensure we have a healthy meal, when there are so many quick, easy, unhealthy alternatives about.

If we’re feeling stressed and time-poor, the quality of our interpersonal relationships can suffer. And by the time we collapse exhausted on the couch in the evening, who has the energy to read a novel or poetry or philosophy? Instead we might find ourselves flicking restlessly between TV channels, all 2000 of them, without finding anything we actually feel like watching.

Even when we do eat a healthy meal, we might wolf it down so fast we get indigestion. We might have finally found the time to go for a walk in nature, but barely notice our surroundings because we’re thinking about work. We’ve finally opened that novel which has been sitting on our bedside table since Christmas 2003, but by page 7 we find ourselves reading the same paragraph again and again as our concentration wanes.

How we nourish ourselves depends both on the quality of nourishment, and on our openness to allowing ourselves to be nourished. We can be like hydrophobic soil which is so dry and depleted, when it does actually rain the water runs straight off because the soil can’t absorb it. A healthy soil will absorb the water, a depleted soil rejects it. That’s why it’s so difficult to help some people, often those who need the most help. Their inner resources are so depleted, they either reject the water, or the water runs straight through them like through a pipe, with little impact on their wellbeing.

Regular mindfulness meditation can help us become more receptive to the nourishment which is present in our lives. The nourishment of a ten minute tea break, the kind smile from the girl at the supermarket check-out, the piece of music which lifts us up. We can also become more attuned to when nourishment is needed, to when our inner resources are becoming depleted, and so take steps to replenish ourselves before we collapse in exhaustion.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick something you find nourishing, and set some time aside for it. During this time, allow yourself to be open and relaxed, and really absorb the sense of being nourished. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Resting in the pause

In the past few weeks we have been looking at the breath – in particular releasing the old breath, letting go of what is no longer needed in our lives. At the end of the out-breath, before the air flows back in, there is a pause. In the breath, the pause between the out-breath and the new air flowing in is usually quite short – most of the time we’re not even aware of it. In life, however, the pause between letting go of something, and allowing something new to enter in, might be very long indeed. And this in-between period can be quite difficult to live with. There is no longer the drama and effort associated with letting go, but nothing new has appeared to take its place. We can feel quite bereft, at sea. People around us may be telling us it’s time to ‘move on’. Perhaps they’re right, perhaps they’re wrong. Sometimes this can be very difficult to discern.

We all have a sense of giving people some space after a bereavement, not expecting them to fill up their lives with new diversions immediately. It would be a little insensitive to say to someone at the funeral of their beloved life-partner – ‘never mind, there’s plenty of other fish in the sea, how about I set you up with an Internet dating site?’ However, there is a wide range of opinions about how long this pause should be. How long does someone need before their natural grief becomes a clinical depression, before they’re stuck in a bitterness which could ruin the rest of their lives? Sometimes the pause becomes a habit, as if our pause button has become permanently stuck, and we’d really benefit from some diversion, from finding a new interest to focus our attention on. My experience at work has been that families often want someone to move on more quickly than they’re ready for, out of a natural concern for the wellbeing of their loved one. This can be more about the need of the family members to feel comfortable, than what the person actually needs. As a society, we’re often not that good at allowing people to withdraw for periods of time to lick their wounds.

On the other hand, I’ve also met people who are stuck in something which happened ten years ago, who talk with the same anger and emotion as if this incident had occurred just then. Needless to say, the sympathy of their family members and friends has worn a bit thin after ten years of listening to the same unchanging anger and bitterness. We do need to let old wounds heal and make the best of the life we have, even if it turned out different to what we’d hoped for. However, there is no formula for how long it should take someone to ‘move on’, before their natural and healthy grief becomes a dysfunctional trap. It is helpful, in our own meditation, to rest consciously in the pause between the breath, to allow ourselves to feel comfortable with this in-between space, where nothing much is happening, where we simply rest in the present moment without the usual diversion and stimulation we enjoy so much.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, think about an area in your life where you might be in between letting go and moving on. There is a natural discomfort in this state, but perhaps also a sense of healing. Notice how it feels, and come back to this sensation from time to time.

Anja Tanhane

Silent grief

Most of us carry within us some kind of ‘silent grief’ – a disenfranchised grief for something we’ve lost which isn’t publicly recognised, but which may still burden us. Sometimes this grief is quite minor – a slight yearning, a small sense of loss. Perhaps your childhood home, which hasn’t been in your family for years, is being demolished. You feel a little sad about this, knowing you will never be able to see the house you grew up in again, but you’d hardly travel to the address to stage a public funeral on the footpath.

Other forms of silent grief, however, cut us far more deeply, and can over the years lead to feelings of bitterness and isolation. Having a parent with dementia is one form of disenfranchised grief – the person you knew is no longer there, they are no longer acting as your parent, but on the other hand there’s usually been no ritual to mark this transition. Each society has its own forms of disenfranchised grief – losses which aren’t validated by the community. One example, which is slowly changing in some places, is the disenfranchised grief of a same-sex partner who has no say in end-of-life decisions or funeral arrangements. The silent grief can also be the loss of our hopes and dreams, being incapacitated in some way, a past injustice, or historical wrongs which haven’t been acknowledged.

Immigration is another form of loss which isn’t generally validated by the new host country. Immigrants are supposed to be delighted and happy they’ve been accepted into their new home, and there is usually an expectation of rapid assimilation. Yes, by all means bring some of your wonderful cuisine along and open a restaurant where your whole family can work long hours to feed us. But apart from this, do make sure you quickly learn how things work here. And please don’t go hankering after the ways of your old country…

A regular mindfulness practice will, sooner or later, open us up to the silent grief within us. At first this might be vague, a generic form of Weltschmerz, feeling the pain of the world. Over time, however, we become more attuned to the losses inside us, and what might trigger feelings of grief. Do you feel very moved by the online footage of the teenage Syrian refugee who has brought his puppy with him to Europe? ‘I love my dog’, he says, ‘everyone told me I couldn’t bring him along. But I have water, and food for him. I love my dog.’ Maybe you had to leave a beloved family pet behind when you moved countries? Maybe you are unable to keep a dog where you live? The Internet, the news, daily life, they are full of triggers for our silent griefs. Grief is just a natural part of life – there is nothing wrong with grief. But it helps to understand where it comes from, how it affects us, what might trigger it. It helps to hold the silent grief with mindful compassion, to honour and respect it, so it’s no longer a disenfranchised grief but simply becomes part of our common humanity.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one of your silent griefs? Perhaps you can invent a small ritual to mark it? It doesn’t need to be elaborate – a simple gesture to acknowledge the grief, such as lighting a candle, or placing a flower in a stream and watching it float away, can be very powerful.

Anja Tanhane