The gardener – Part 2

There is no much point in gardening if we only ever walk through the garden looking out for potential problems. Apart from noticing what’s not going well, we also want to take the time to enjoy and appreciate the plants which are flourishing. Sometimes in our garden, or in our meditation, we can become fixated on real and potential problems. On the one hand, we’re not very good gardeners if we simply glide around from flower to flower, enjoying their beauty and ignoring the knee-high weeds almost overwhelming them. On the other hand, never making the time to ‘smell the roses’ seems to defeat the purpose of looking after a garden in the first place. Why have a garden if we’re never relaxed enough to enjoy and appreciate it?

Gardening is about our relationship to the garden – how much we notice, in what way we take care of it, whether we allow it to nourish us. In the same way, our life is also about the relationship we have with our life. To live is to be in relationship with everything around us, including our life. And this relationship depends a lot on what we choose to notice, and what we choose to ignore.

A good gardener will create the best possible conditions for the plants to flourish, and then be philosophical about the outcome. You might have spent weeks cultivating the soil, then bought a healthy-looking seedling, planted it in the right position in the garden, at the right time of year, and watered and fed it regularly, and still the plant might not survive a heatwave, or a hailstorm. Even professional gardeners have their fair share of failures. Sometimes, we might feel our meditation practice should be different, that we’ve worked hard enough to deserve a certain outcome. Just like the vagaries of the weather, the ever-changing conditions of our lives and our minds mean that no one can draw a clear line from A to B and tell you – ‘if you meditate in this way, for this long, then you will experience this’.

Still, we can enjoy being present in our meditation, just like we might enjoy wandering through a park or garden. The gardener and the plants are doing their best, as are we during meditation. No one can expect more of us, including ourselves.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to walk through a garden or a park, and try to notice as many details as possible. Just noticing and being curious has a wonderful quality to it.

Anja Tanhane

The gardener – Part 1

‘The best fertilisers are the footsteps of the gardener.’ Chinese proverb

Most gardeners have probably had the experience of being too busy for a few days to check on the garden, and suddenly finding themselves confronted with a plant covered in insects or drooping with a fungus. It might seem as if the damage appeared overnight, but most of the time there would have been some early warning signs – a few insects exploring the plant, a couple of leaves which were changing colour. Whether we have elaborate watering systems or use a hand-held watering can; whether our garden has been landscaped by a famous designer or has been cobbled together by waves of tenants renting the property, the basic principle is the same – if we don’t take the time to notice what’s going on, we’re likely to miss the early warning signs. This applies to the rest of our lives as well, of course, but could also be said for our meditation practice.

We might feel as if we need to constantly learn new meditation techniques, buy the latest book, go to the workshop of a famous teacher, spend thousands of dollars on a retreat, and continually have a sense of progress and learning something new. A certain amount of this can be beneficial – just like a garden does need some fertilisers apart from the gardener walking through. But we can throw a lot of money at expensive fertilisers and gardening tools, and expensive meditation courses, yet without the commitment of walking through the garden every day, or meditating every day, taking time to notice what’s really going on, much of this can be wasted.

The best fertiliser for our meditation practice is simply showing up to the meditation, day after day. We may not learn anything, or solve our problems, or become more spiritually advanced. Yet like a gardener, we can observe and make little adjustments – pulling out a few weeds, adding fertiliser to a plant which is wilting, squashing some aphids on the roses, pruning spent flowers and making room for more to grow. Slowly, over time as we meditate regularly, we are making choices about what we want to nourish in the garden of our lives, and what we want to let go of. No one is going to do this work for us, though there are people around who can help, such as teachers and meditation groups. In the end, however, it’s up to us to show up – to be the gardeners of our lives, walking through, noticing what’s going on, making small adjustments here and there.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to sit in a garden or a park, and notice of how much work has gone into creating this particular space over the years. What are some of the fruits and flowers you would like to cultivate in your own life?

Anja Tanhane

Being here now

‘At any moment you have a choice,

That either leads you closer to your spirit,

Or further away from it.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of us tend to experience a wide range of emotions over our lifetime – sometimes even in the course of a single day. Yet I find that underneath all these varied and colourful emotions, there is what I call an underlying ‘feeling tone’. And this feeling tone tends to be either one of patience, gracefulness and presence (which I call the feeling tone of love), or else one of impatience, ragged movements, and absentmindedness (which I call the feeling tone of rejection). This feeling tone is like the floor at the bottom of the ocean, and may have little in common with the stillness or tornadoes raging in the waves high above. We might be feeling fairly calm, with no major stressors to preoccupy us, and yet we are rushing through our tasks with a sense of impatience, choosing, on some level, to not be quite present. Or we might be under a lot of strain, feel quite agitated and exhausted, and yet the smile we bring to someone who is suffering is warm and compassionate.

We often have little awareness of this feeling tone, and yet, in my experience, it’s something we can easily influence for the better. Intuitively, it might seem that the opposite should be the case – that we should be able to influence the waves of our superficial emotions more easily than the feeling tone of the ocean floor. Yet, in fact, we always have a choice about how we choose to engage with each moment. Mindfulness, at its heart, is about taking good care of our lives, living it with a sense of presence and love.

The real work of mindfulness is mostly at the level of the feeling tone. We don’t try to transform ‘bad emotions’ into ‘good emotions’. Instead, we choose to bring a sense of kind presence to our lives, whatever happens to be going on right now. A regular practice will make us more aware of the level of engagement we bring to our lives – whether, in each moment, the underlying feeling tone is one of love, or one of rejection. This can be quite subtle, but the influence on our life is very powerful. Mindfulness is life-affirming – it’s about saying yes to our lives, not ‘yes, but only if… and when…’, while waiting for the perfect conditions. If we wait for the conditions to be perfect before we say yes to life, we could be waiting for a very long time!

We don’t usually go to the beach and tell the ocean – ‘I can’t accept you today, your waves are bit too choppy, sorry!’ And yet, unconsciously, this is how we often choose to live our lives. Saying yes to our lives doesn’t mean we don’t work at improving ourselves and our life. It’s like the love we may have for a child or a pet – hopefully we don’t only love them when they’re perfect, or else we think they’re so wonderful that we never offer them any guidance. We can engage with our lives with gentle discipline, seeking the guidance of mentors and teachers, and at the same time fully embrace the life we have, bringing a loving presence to each moment, making the choice to be fully here now.

Weekly practice idea:

Make the intention this week to tune into your underlying feeling tone from time to time. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Excessive doubt

The final of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition is excessive doubt, sometimes also called paralysing doubt. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a healthy dose of skepticism and questioning. Without a certain amount of skepticism, we can be like leaves blown about by whatever the latest fad or miracle cure is. On the other hand, if we spend most of our meditation time double-guessing ourselves (’is this working, what’s it doing now, how come I’m feeling like this and not like that?’), then we’re really missing the point of meditation, which actually has no point except to be in non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Yes, there are thousands of high-quality studies which demonstrate that meditation is good for us, and it can be informative and encouraging to keep up to date with the latest research. Yet if we’re constantly chasing more proof, needing more validation, then we’re holding ourselves back from ‘going with the flow’ of the meditation process itself.

A long-term meditation practice is usually deep and slow-burning rather than exciting. It’s easy to read a Zen story about a monk who became enlightened when he heard the sound of a stone hitting the ground while sweeping, and to wonder ‘why does this never happen to me’? After the initial honeymoon phase, where we might observe all kinds of positive changes in our lives as we meditate every day, our meditation practice can actually become quite ordinary. Yes, over the years we may be feeling a little more calm, and perhaps we have more energy than we used to have, but that could also be because we’re taking Vitamin D supplements. Meditation is sometimes described as resting in ‘being’ mode rather than ‘doing’ mode. This goes counter to much of what often drives us in everyday life – constant busyness, striving after achievement. The reason why many of us are interested in meditation is precisely because this constant need for success feels unbalanced to us. And yet, even as we try to balance our doing mode with being mode, we might be secretly hoping for achievement and success in our meditation practice!

To meditate, we need to bring a certain amount of trust to the practice, to trust that this is a process we might benefit from. That doesn’t mean blind trust in every person who sets themselves up as a meditation teacher, or not examining what works for us and what doesn’t. But if constant doubt is at the forefront of our mind while we meditate, then, ironically, we’re unlikely to find much benefit in it.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit in a quiet spot, and observe the coming and going of experiences, making a conscious effort to remain as much as possible in the ‘being’ rather than the ‘doing’ mode. Notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind – Part 2

There are times when meditation can no doubt be quite challenging. The idea of sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes might seem almost impossible, and certainly not enjoyable. Fortunately, mindfulness offers us a whole range of practices which can be very helpful when we are dealing with ongoing restlessness and anxiety.

One which many students have found very useful over the years is doing a mindful movement practice such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Kum Nye. These can often be very helpful before moving into sitting meditation, or they can be simply practised on their own. When we focus on our bodies, stretching and moving them slowly and with attention, our minds quite naturally seem to settle. Walking meditation can also be helpful, really concentrating on the sensations on the soles of the feet as we take one slow step, and then another, and then another.

A variation on this would be to do some vigorous exercise before meditation – getting some of the excess energy and anxiety out of our system before we sit down for sitting meditation. We could also go for a walk in the forest or a quiet park, and sit for ten minutes meditating among the trees or by a creek. Or go for a walk along a beach, and meditate on the sounds of the waves coming in and out.

Another option is to lie down on the floor and allow ourselves to be guided through a meditation by using a CD or an app. Sometimes, just having someone else to lead us during the meditation can feel very supportive and nurturing. An even better option would be to find a regular meditation group, with a teacher you feel comfortable with. There can be a profound sense of peace in the room when a group meditates together, and people often comment on how much deeper their meditation is when they are with others who are also meditating.

Sometimes it can be helpful to incorporate simple gestures or practices which help to soothe us during the meditation. This could be placing a hand on the heart centre, or on the belly. We might do some gentle chanting, or listen to music, or quietly repeat a word to ourselves such as ‘calm’ or ‘peace’. We could imagine a kind person standing behind us and placing their hands on our shoulders, so that the shoulders can really relax and let go.

Finally, if strong emotions are repeatedly coming up during meditation, it may be a sign that we could benefit from some counselling. We all have strong emotions from time to time, and sometimes we’re quite happy to deal with these on our own. However, persistent strong emotions which interfere with our day-to-day functioning or our peace of mind are often a sign that some deeper underlying issues are demanding to be addressed, and this might be more effective with the support of a skilled professional therapist.

Weekly practice idea:

If you find you’re often restless during meditation, experiment with one of the suggestions above, and notice if this is useful.

Anja Tanhane