Holiday favourites – precious moments

Welcome to the first of our holiday specials – republishing some of the most popular reflections from the past three years:

According to the thirteenth century Zen master Dogen, there are 6,440,099,180 moments in each day. If we multiply this by the 342 days remaining of this year, we still have 2,202,513,919,560 moments ahead of us before we get to 2015. Of course, in reality it’s impossible to calculate the ephemeral nature of moments, but in mindfulness every moment is an opportunity to become more present, and Dogen’s calculation, give or take a few moments, clearly presents us with numerous opportunities to be mindful each day.

If we look at our attitude towards the many moments in our lives, we tend to divide them into a range of categories, such as:

1. Special, important moments

2. Ordinary, less-important moments

3. Suffering moments.

Leaving suffering aside for now, as this is a topic in itself, special moments can be further divided into:

1. Special moments which are exactly as we’d hoped they would be

2. Special moments which are pretty good, but in some ineffable way slightly disappointing

3. Special moments which surpass even our expectations (1 and 3 are quite rare!).

Ordinary moments, on the other hand, can include:

1. Frustratingly boring moments

2. Ok, slightly hum-drum moments

3. Moments we can cruise through on automatic pilot, without taking much notice of them

4. Moments we rush through in order to get to the special moments we actually care about.

We have a tendency to build our lives around the special moments, such as weddings, Christmas, the birth of a child, getting to the top of Mt Everest, and so on. There is no doubt that the special moments add great richness and often joy to our lives. However, if we draw up an honest inventory of our days, it’s pretty obvious that most of our lives are actually spent in the ordinary moments – all those everyday routine tasks we could almost do in our sleep – and, in fact, often end up doing more or less in a state of sleep-walking.

One of the gifts of a regular mindfulness practice is to transform how we live the so-called ‘ordinary’ moments of our lives. There are no fireworks (which is kind of the point), but you suddenly notice the water on your skin when you have a shower. You are aware of your breath when you’ve stopped at a red light. You taste the food you spent an hour preparing – and not just the first mouthful, but the whole of the meal. You pay more attention to routine tasks at work, and enjoy them more. There are millions of processes happening within our bodies and around us in the universe which make it possible for us to be alive, which allow us to experience this particular moment right now. We really don’t need any miracles, because just to be alive is miraculous enough. The practice of mindfulness allows us to appreciate and experience these many precious ordinary moments more fully.

Weekly practice idea:

Every now and then, stop and reflect on how precious this particular moment is. Take a few breaths to savour the sense of being present.

Anja Tanhane

 

Peace

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all” is the message that is proclaimed at Christmas time.

What do we mean by peace? We may think about a state in which there is no fighting, but only tranquility, calm, stillness and quiet.

During the festive season we can feel a spirit of joyfulness. We enjoy being with people. We can witness the excitement of young children leaving food for Santa. However, it is a sad irony that this time of the year can be anything but peaceful! Often people comment on the mad rush leading up to Christmas. We may be frantically trying to get presents, meet deadlines and attend Christmas functions. Our already busy lives become even faster paced. Holiday stress!

Although this time is when families traditionally come together, in heartfelt warmth, and we hear moving examples of kindness and generosity, Christmas day can also be a time when family tensions surface and arguments erupt. We may have either experienced this for ourselves, or heard stories of other people’s experience of family fights, hurt feelings or exclusion. A friend recently told me that her last family Christmas get-together was such a debacle that she has chosen to spend this year alone. It can also be a lonely time for people who do not have family, or have experienced a recent loss.

As well as interpersonal conflict we can become even more aware of the conflicts between nations, the world conflict which is nightly reported on, in what Shinzen Young refers to as “the litany of horrors that is the 6 o’clock news. Where are peace and goodwill in the “silly season”?

Jack Kornfield explains: “The inner stillness of the person who truly “is peace” brings peace to the whole interconnected web of life, both inner and outer. To stop the war, we need to begin with ourselves.” He quotes Mahatma Gandhi:

“I have only three enemies. My favourite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man called Mohandas K.Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

As Gandhi humorously notes, it is not so easy to cease fighting with ourselves. We cannot stop the war by beating ourselves into submission, this only increases our struggle. Over time with mindfulness meditation practice we can cultivate equanimity; an internal balance, allowing sensory experience to be as it is, with an attitude of kindness and friendliness. This to me is freedom from disturbance: peace. Another wonderful benefit of mindfulness practice is that we find we are more able to respond rather than react, which leads to less interpersonal battles.

 

Many people coming to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course tell me what they would like and hope for is to find peace. Similarly, Jon Kabat–Zinn has found most people attending the Stress Reduction clinic have the goal of attaining peace of mind. Based on his years of experience he has learnt that although meditation practice is powerfully healing, some kind of personal vision is also needed for growth and change. He advises:

“To achieve peace of mind, people have to kindle a vision of what they really want for themselves and keep that vision alive in the face of inner and outer hardships, obstacles and setbacks.”

Perhaps the Christmas message and hope of peace and goodwill may rekindle your aspiration and vision for this.

Weekly practice idea:

Adapted from the book Peace is Every Breath: A Practice For Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh

Settle into a comfortable position. Focus on your breath and allow it to be easy and natural. The following verse can be recited silently breathing in you say the first line; breathing out you say the second, and so on.

Breathing in, I feel my breath coming into my belly and chest.

Breathing out, I feel my breath flowing out of my belly and chest.

Breathing in, I’m aware of some pains or tensions in my body.

Breathing out, I release all the pains and tensions in my body.

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I feel ease and peace.

 

Michelle Morris

 

Our sense of touch

Have you ever hugged a tree? For all the clichés around tree-huggers, it’s actually a wonderful thing to do. And if you can’t quite see yourself going up to a tree and giving it a hug, even just running your hand along its bark can be a great way to feel more connected to nature.

Touch is one of our most important senses – infants who are deprived of touch fail to develop normally. Even taking someone’s hand and holding it briefly can instantly help to calm and soothe them. If you’re with someone who is crying or very distressed, the natural instinct is to give them a hug or at least put your hand around their shoulder. Touch can also help us feel more connected to our environment – running our hands over smooth pebbles in the creek, walking barefoot across sand on a beach, noticing a warm gentle breeze against our skin, touching beautiful fabric such as silk.

As human beings, we need touch – we thrive when we are touched in loving and caring ways. Unfortunately, our need to be touched is also easily abused. In order to protect the vulnerable from sexual abuse, we have laws in Australia regulating the use of touch in the workplace. What touch means depends on the relationship between two people. A brief hand on the shoulder can be friendly and supportive, or creepy and exploitative. Residents in aged care homes, or people with a disability, can sometimes miss out on the benefits of being touched because of the need to protect them. Sometimes offering a hand massage, or a professional neck and shoulder massage, or a manicure, allows people to be touched in a way which is safe, and which helps them feel pampered and valued.

Tuning into our sense of touch is an easy and effective way of activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our resting and regenerating state. Even something as simple as paying attention to the sensations when we wash our hands is enough to trigger this state, especially if we use water which is slightly warm. Hopefully we wash our hands multiple times throughout the day. Each of these times is an opportunity to slow down, feel the cleansing water against the skin, smell the soap, breathe. Then we dry our hands, and tune into the sensations of this. We can then return to our activity refreshed, and feeling more present and grounded.

Weekly practice idea:

Each day, choose a different activity for tuning into your sense of touch. One day it could be washing your hands, the next running your hands over the bark of a tree, then it could be brushing the hair of your child. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Stopping to smell the roses

There are few experiences which connect us as powerfully with our past as our sense of smell. It could be a dish your grandmother cooked, the scent of a forest where you played as a child, the perfume your mother wore, or the smell of sand and ocean. The way we respond to smells is also highly individual. Most people like the smell of roses, and dislike the smell of rotten eggs or meat. In between the extremes of pleasant and disgusting smells, however, how we respond to smells is uniquely individual to us. Perhaps you had a beloved grandfather who smoked cigars, and the scent of cigars will always make you feel loved and protected even though you’re a strict non-smoker. As a child, you might have spent summer holidays in a musty holiday shack, and years later you walk into a house which is damp and hasn’t been cleaned properly for a while, and you immediately feel relaxed and at ease. One day you wake up in a positive mood, catch the train to work, and by the time you get off the train a great sadness has come over you. You have no idea why, but someone near you was wearing the same aftershave as a close friend who has recently passed away.

Many animals, of course, rely mostly on their sense of smell to help them survive, and smells are also perceived and remembered by us in the mammalian part of our brain, the limbic region. The limbic brain holds our long term memories, learnt associations, and emotional responses, and we can sometimes react to a stimulus from the limbic brain below the level of our conscious awareness. Our sense of smell can evoke emotional memories, scenes from the past, but it can also ground us very much in the present moment, into the here and now.

We’re no doubt too self-conscious to go around sniffing the air like animals do, to get important information about our surroundings, and yet we’re constantly picking up signals through our sense of smell. It’s very common for people to report an increased sensibility to smell when they go on a retreat or start regular meditation. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ – it’s a cliche, but a very powerful one. If you stand in a park or garden and allow yourself to notice the sounds around you, the breeze against your skin, and you then lean down to smell a rose, crush a little lavender between your fingers, walk up to a tree and smell its leaves – in those moments, you are completely mindful, present, absorbed in the rich awareness of your different senses.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, make a time to stop and smell a rose. Depending on where you are in the world, this could be a literal rose, or something similar. Notice how it feels to be absorbed in that moment through your sense of smell.

Anja Tanhane