Softening into the body

‘A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.’ Lao Tzu

When we are under stress, often what we notice first is the body tightening up. Whether it’s stress at work which causes our shoulders to be contracted, or a physical pain which leads us to hold that part of the body stiffly, our natural tendency seems to be to tighten rather than soften our muscles when we’re under pressure. Tense muscles may make us feel stronger, but they inhibit the natural flow of our energy and can lead to long-term musculoskeletal problems. They also send signals to the brain that our body is in ‘fighting’ mode – which doesn’t help when we want to feel relaxed and at ease.

We sometimes treat our bodies as if they should be a well-behaved and obedient servant who always follows our orders even though we underpay them, work them without rest, and have no interest in their legitimate needs. And after years of this mistreatment, we are surprised when this servant no longer gives their best, or even dares to go on strike! Instead of appreciating our body for all the gifts it offers us, we might feel resentful of its many demands. Yet what would life be without our bodies – without the gift of sight, which allows us to see beauty and love; the gift of touch, such as the feel of a child’s hand in ours; the gift of sound – wonderful music, the voices of people we care about, bird song in the forest. In every moment, we connect to the world around us through our bodies. They’re not just a mechanical vehicle designed to carry our busy minds from A to B.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’

Letting the soft animal of our body love what it loves. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which we can learn to soften more into our bodies.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments to tune into your body, and, with each breath out, soften the muscles a little. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Pathways to self-compassion

‘Although our personal experience may tell us otherwise, self-compassion is the most natural thing in the world. Deep within all beings is the wish to be happy and free from suffering.’

Christopher Germer

Are we kind to ourselves? Could we describe ourselves as our own best friend? Are we patient, understanding and supportive when we’ve made a mistake? As we practice mindfulness, we sometimes come to understand these questions in new and surprising ways. Over the coming weeks, we will look at what psychologist and mindfulness teacher Christopher Germer calls the five pathways to self compassion, from his book ‘The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion – freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions’. It’s a holistic model which we can return to whenever our life feels out of balance. The pathways he describes are:

Softening into the body

Allowing your thoughts

Befriending your feelings

Relating to others

Nourishing your spirit.

As we explore these five pathways, we may find that some areas of our life feel quite balanced, whereas other aspects have been neglected. Depending on our culture and upbringing, we may feel quite comfortable with the idea of self-compassion, or we may be a little suspicious of it. Is there a difference between being kind to ourselves, and becoming self-centered and narcissistic? Doesn’t our culture already promote the individual too much, and shouldn’t we focus our attention more on being available to others? Is it true, as Christopher Germer claims in the quote at the beginning, that self-compassion is the most natural thing in the word? And if it is, then why do we need to ‘practice’ it?

These are all very interesting questions to investigate, and we will all find our own answers. One of the most famous sayings on this topic is by Jesus – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s not ‘Love your neighbour much more than yourself’ or ‘Love your neighbour, but not yourself.’ As children, we thought the world evolved around our needs, and we needed to learn that this is not the case. Yet sometimes we may have taken this lesson too far in the opposite direction by not honouring the legitimate needs of our bodies, mind, emotions, relationships and spirit. Somewhere there is a happy middle ground, where we can be kind to ourselves without becoming self-indulgent. We can discover where this middle ground lies for us, and reflect on any changes we may want to make in our lives so that we feel more balanced and supported, both by our way of life, and also by the attitudes we express towards ourselves.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a blank piece of paper and a pen, and set aside 10 – 15 minutes where you won’t be disturbed. At the top of the page, write ‘For me, self-compassion means…’ and keep writing. Try not to censor yourself (you can always tear up what you’ve written straight after!), and see what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – the upside of stress

When we’re stressed, it can seem that life is running away with us, that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. There is a delightful Zen story about a farmer who sees a man on a galloping horse tear past the village, and who calls out to him,

‘Where are you going?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the man on the horse shouts back, ‘ask the horse!’

We constantly read about the harmful effects of stress on our health, our relationships, and emotional wellbeing, and many of our modern diseases are now being linked at least in part to stress. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells through the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is neurotoxic. Young children who grow up in very chaotic households can suffer permanent brain damage, to the point where they will always struggle with paying attention, forming relationships, and impulse control.

So stress is certainly something which needs to be taken seriously, yet there is also an upside to stress. We don’t thrive when we don’t need to put any effort into life, when everything is handed to us on a plate. Just like exercising causes small tears in our muscles which ultimately make them stronger, so a healthy amount of stress is crucial to developing our full potential.

One example in nature is a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. If you try to assist the butterfly by breaking the chrysalis open, its wings won’t be hardened enough, and it will be weak or even die. In the garden, if we water a young tree every day for the next five years, its roots will remain shallow and it might fall over in the first gust of wind. Our immune system needs to be exposed to a certain amount of germs, otherwise it won’t be strong. However, if a newly planted tree doesn’t get any water, or our immune system is overloaded with germs, then we get sick or the tree might die.

Getting the optimum amount of stress in our lives is not always possible, because much of what causes us stress is outside our control. When we are under considerable stress, we need to manage it the best we can, including getting the basics of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation and social supports right.

There are times, however, when a more positive attitude to stress might help us ride its waves with a more joyful attitude. Yes, we’re too busy at the moment, juggling too many balls, perhaps our stomach is churning from nervous excitement and our heart seems to be beating very loudly in our chest, but it’s great to feel engaged in life. I’ve been involved in two choirs who perform regularly in public, sometimes for big occasions. We all get nervous before the performances, worried whether the songs will work, if the audience will enjoy what we have to offer, whether we’ll make mistakes or come in at the wrong time. After the performance, however, there is a great feeling of pride and achievement, and we can bask in the positive comments from audience members who are often moved to tears, the sense of having offered something precious to the community. And the nervous tension of the morning, and all the hard work leading up the performance, have been well worthwhile.

Mindfulness is not about being calm all the time, floating serenely above the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is messy, demanding, a little crazy – but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, look for occasions where you can enjoy the upside of stress. You may not feel at your most serene, you may even be a little anxious or tense, but perhaps you can also enjoy feeling engaged in the challenge?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – planting seeds

‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.’

Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s so much easier to be aware of our failures than successes, but becoming more conscious of little moments of efficacy is a simple but effective way of increasing the feeling of agency in our lives. As the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson implies, we tend to be focused on harvesting ripe juicy apples, somehow expecting these to appear on a daily basis, when in reality it’s the patient planting of seeds and the nurturing of growing plants which sets our life in a good direction. For example, many parents have found skillful ways of containing and redirecting their children’s erratic energy, in a way which is incredibly beneficial to their children (and society at large!). Yet they tend to do this automatically, not even realising something special is going on, and only remember that time in the supermarket on a hot Friday afternoon when their toddler did have a melt-down and everyone stared at them judgmentally.

Years ago when I did some training to teach music to young children, we were told to always look for the small improvements in their playing and comment on these before going on to suggest other ways to make the playing better. It’s easy, as a music teacher, to notice what’s wrong and needs fixing. Yet the look on a student’s face when you say to them, ‘I can hear you’ve really worked on that left hand passage, it’s sounding much better this week’, is priceless. It’s empowering for the student to feel that their efforts have been noticed and acknowledged. Needless to say, they are also more likely to practise what you suggest this week, if they feel their hard work will be appreciated. Yet with ourselves, we are often more like the horror piano teacher who whacks their students on the knuckles and abuses them every time they make a mistake.

The practice of mindfulness helps us become more attuned to those moments when something did go well. It’s easy to notice the apples (our major achievements) but ignore the young plant which is simply there, quietly growing. Through mindfulness we might be aware that we’re able to think clearly in a stressful situation despite feeling a bit anxious. Or we might be able to take a deep breath and be more patient with a difficult colleague or relative. Each time we pause for a moment of mindfulness, we’ve planted another seed of efficacy. I recently sowed some salad seeds, and like to go out in the morning to see how the seedlings are going. We can do this in our own lives – celebrating the many tiny seeds we’ve planted, instead of wishing they’d all turn into salad or apples overnight.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, each day, write down three examples of being effective. It could be remembering to water the pot plant, or single-handedly restructuring your workplace to make it more efficient. Whatever it is, write it down, and allow yourself a few moments to feel good about what you achieved.

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – 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