Wanting what we have

‘Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.’

Anonymous saying

When we look at our lives, most of the time we have fairly clear ideas about what we’d like more of, and what we’d love to do without. All cultures and religions have guidelines about which desires are considered acceptable, and which are strictly forbidden. There are usually also some grey areas, where the rules are less clear. And of course, in a rapidly changing world, within even one Church congregation there can be a wide range of views on subjects like same-sex marriage, corporal punishment, women as priests and so on.

Many of our desires are survival-based – the desire to have enough to eat, adequate shelter, to be safe from harm and so on. Usually we also have a desire to be free from pain and suffering, though this desire might be subjugated to a higher purpose, as in the case of a marathon runner who chooses to endure quite a lot of pain and suffering in order to reach her goal.

Desires motivate us to not only survive, but also to prosper and flourish. The downside of our desires can be that they tend to be addictive. If we meditate regularly, we can be quite surprised at the constant array of various desires parading through our mind. Some of these might be lofty – ‘I want to reach enlightenment so that I can liberate all other sentient beings’. Some are a little more prosaic – ‘I’ve really got to have some chocolate, NOW!’ Other desires might feel shameful, or at least somewhat embarrassing. One of the reasons why sensual desire is seen as a hindrance to meditation in traditional Buddhism is the way in which desires pull us away from simply being present in the moment. Sometimes this can be very intense – when we fall in love, for example, and can’t think of anything other than our beloved. Yet even if we are meditating with great concentration, really being mindful of the moment, we can still be engaged in what Zen teacher Barry Magid calls our ‘secret practice’ – our deep, often well-hidden wish for life to be somehow other than it is. And while our more obvious sensual desires can make it more difficult to remain present during a meditation, our ‘secret’ desires about what meditation should be can be a significant hindrance in keeping our practice going long-term.

Next week we look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can be used to work more skillfully with our desires – not through denying them, but by being more clear about their place in our life, and the various directions they want to pull us in.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit for ten minutes in a quiet place, and watch the range of desires emerging in your mind. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Our mindset – Part 2

Last week we looked at the growth mindset, and how it fosters an inner motivation to learn and improve. There is the old saying about achievement being 1 % inspiration and 99 % perspiration, and the stories quoted by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset – how you can fulfill your potential’ seem to bear this out. Some children certainly learn more easily than others, but when so-called ‘poor’ students were motivated by teachers who instilled a love of learning, their grades improved markedly. Teachers would give feedback like ‘I can see how hard you’ve worked at this’, rather than, ‘clever girl’. They praised the effort rather than ascribing some inherent fixed ability to the student, and the students felt empowered to learn, and thrived.

I often hear people say ‘oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing’, or ‘I tried meditation ten years ago but I couldn’t stop my thoughts, it’s obviously not for me’. Having taught both music and meditation for many years, I know both statements aren’t true. Singing is first about learning how to listen, but people who’ve been told they can’t sing are far too nervous to relax and really listen to the tune they would like to sing. And as for thoughts during meditation – these are a given, everyone has them. In our culture, there is sometimes a mystique about both music and meditation, as if they’re rarefied endevours best left to a few select performers or gurus. This is a good example of a fixed mindset, which doesn’t allow much room for growth. Unfortunately, this means that adults who want to learn music or meditation may be easily discouraged, as they feel their slow progress reflects on their ability rather than being part and parcel of the learning experience.

In Buddhism, the five hindrances to meditation are 1) greed or sensual desire 2) ill-will or aversion 3) sloth or torpor 4) restlessness, including anxiety or worry, and 5) paralysing doubt. There are a number of different ‘remedies’ which are suggested, and over the coming weeks we will explore these five hindrances and some possible ways of working with them. However, while it is helpful to draw on the wisdom of 2500 years of investigation and knowledge, in the end the learning needs to come from within us. What does it mean for me to feel sleepy, restless, or paralysed by doubt? Does my attitude towards meditation limit me, or does it allow room for growth? Sometimes our limiting beliefs are quite subtle, yet very powerful. We all struggle with limiting thoughts, but, according to the theory of mindset, whether we see our hindrances as challenges to work with, or obstacles which block our path, can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term.

Weekly practice idea:

If you look at the list of five hindrances, do one or two stand out for you? Take ten minutes to reflect on what role the hindrance might play in your life.

Anja Tanhane

Our mindset – Part 1

In her book ‘Mindset – how you can fulfill your potential’, Stanford professor Dr Carol Dweck talks about two kinds of mindsets which people can bring to their lives. One is a fixed mindset, which assumes that ability is inherent – you’ve either ‘got it’ or you don’t. Someone with a fixed mindset can be quite brilliant, as long as life is going well. However, they don’t tend to bounce back from setbacks very easily, and can often end up blaming other people, or circumstances, for their lack of success.

The second type of mindset Dweck calls a growth mindset, which assumes that there is always room for improvement. Someone with a growth mindset will actively seek out help and advice, as they realise there is a lot they can still learn. They enjoy being challenged, and don’t feel threatened being around people with superior abilities. When something goes wrong, they will feel upset, but will also learn from the experience and work towards resourcing themselves better for next time.

I used to notice this when I taught piano and oboe. A student would come in and play a piece which wasn’t quite polished yet, and then wait for my feedback. Some students hoped that I would say, ‘that’ll do, let’s move onto the next piece’, and didn’t like the idea of doing more work on the piece. Another type of student knew that the piece wasn’t quite ready yet, and was looking forward to learning from me how to make it better. Needless to say, the second type of student made much better progress, and enjoyed the lessons more – they were inwardly motivated to improve, rather than waiting to be told by the teacher that more work had to be done.

Like music, meditation is also a skill which needs to be learnt and practised, but sometimes we can be caught up in assumptions that meditation should be easy, it should ‘just happen’. We might do a course or a retreat to find out what it’s all about, but then get frustrated when we encounter ongoing obstacles in our meditation practice. In the coming few weeks, we’ll explore the growth mindset a little further, and how we might be able to use it to deal with some of the common obstacles to meditation which we all face from time to time.

Weekly practice idea:

Quickly write down ten words which come to mind when you think about the word ‘meditation’. As you read back over the ten words, do they give you any interesting information about your approach to meditation?

Anja Tanhane

How hard can it be?

How hard can it be, to be mindful? After all, we’re already in the present moment – we haven’t time-travelled anywhere. We are aware of the world through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and so on, and we’ve heard enough about mindfulness to know that being mindful in the present moment is very good for us. Theoretically, we should be able to decide to be more mindful from now on, walk down the street smelling the roses, and go from there into a future of mindfulness and presence.
And yet, for most of us, mindfulness is anything but easy. Again and again, we find ourselves lost in ruminative thinking, daydreams, anxieties, and a pervasive sense of not being quite here. This can be discouraging – our logical brain knows exactly what it wants, but the rest of us doesn’t seem to want to play along, at least not all the time. We may understand why mindfulness is good for us, but living it day to day is another matter.
Force of habit is probably one reason for this – it’s not easy to change ways of thinking which have been reinforced in our brain for decades. There are also evolutionary advantages to being constantly alert for danger, even if the price we pay for that might be anxiety and restlessness.
Another way of approaching this issue, however, is to simply ask ourselves – what would it mean to be truly present to my life? Not just those aspects we cherish – our loving relationships, success at work, pride in our house and garden. But also the people we no longer talk to, the times we failed others or ourselves, the jobs we lost or were bullied out of, the worries about our health, the fact we are constantly bombarded with bad news. Do we truly, honestly, wish to be present to all this? And what about the ordinary aspects of our lives – the countless hours we spend in unglamorous tasks like tidying up the kitchen, paying bills, cleaning up after others, and commuting. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to daydream our way through all this?
In the end, we have a choice. Mindfulness is rewarding, but also a challenge. If we accept that mindfulness is simple, but not easy to practise, then perhaps we can be more patient with our slow progress, more at ease with the way our brain loves to be all over the place!

Weekly practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and quickly write down, without thinking too much about it, what your experience of mindfulness has been so far. Reading back through what you’ve written can be very illuminating.
Anja Tanhane

Our internal alarm bell

Some years ago, I worked in a hospital unit with people who’d suffered a severe head injury. Many of the patients were in wheelchairs, dependent on others to get around, and in order to keep the patients safe, the smoke detectors in this unit were set at a very sensitive level. We couldn’t have candles on birthday cakes, for example, as blowing out even one candle would have set off the fire alarm.

There were a couple of occasions when the fire alarm was activated, the unit was evacuated and the fire engine arrived within minutes. Both times it was a false alarm – the first time the smoke detectors had picked up someone using talcum powder, and the second time it was steam coming from the shower. Of course it was a major undertaking each time the unit was evacuated, and costly for the hospital, but the motto was (understandably) ‘better safe than sorry’.

Unfortunately, our brain also has the same motto – better safe than sorry, better to set off alarm bells too often than to miss something which could potentially be dangerous for us. The amygdala, deep in our limbic brain, functions a bit like our alarm bell – it sets off alerts readying our bodies for fight and flight at the slightest signs of danger. Sometimes this functions very effectively, but unfortunately, there more stressed we are, the more sensitive the amygdala becomes to perceived signs of danger. In the end, just like the hospital smoke detectors, it sets off a whole series of emergency responses at the first sign of a birthday candle, talcum powder, or steam from a shower. And while ongoing stress is neurotixic, in that it kills of brain cells, it has the opposite effect on the amygdala – it just becomes bigger and more sensitive. And studies have shown that this lasts long after the stressors are over. So even if the external circumstances are less stressful, our brain may still be on hair-trigger alert. Which is why anxiety can become a chronic condition, rather than a short-term response to a particular event in our lives.

This is where mindfulness meditation has been shown to be particularly effective. Regular meditation shrinks the amygdala, so that it can do its job of keeping us safe without overreacting to every minor stressor, and without developing a chronic anxiety condition. Many people come to mindfulness because of chronic anxiety, and even during an eight-week course they may already find some relief from debilitating anxiety. If the anxiety is severe, most people will benefit from counselling and perhaps medication along with learning mindfulness. There are additional ways of reducing anxiety, including exercise, engaging in activities which are enjoyable, and fostering close interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness is not the whole solution, but by setting our internal smoke detector to a more useful level, it can play a major role in reducing anxiety in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you’re feeling a bit stressed, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath or two, and ask yourself – ‘what is really going on right now?’ Is your internal alarm bell functioning appropriately to the situation, or is it perhaps being overly sensitive?

Anja Tanhane