Creating space

When we’re stressed, we can often feel as if we’re being hemmed in from all sides. Too many pressures are coming at us from different direction; our thoughts might feel crowded and chaotic; and even our bodies might contract, as if the muscles themselves have less space available than before. Our breathing can be fast and shallow, so there is space we have available in our lungs which is not being filled with oxygen. It’s also not unusual to develop a kind of tunnel vision when we’re feeling under pressure – to focus obsessively on one aspect of our lives, for example, while losing sight of the bigger picture.

When we feel this way, being asked to add one more activity into our lives (such as, for example, a daily meditation practice), might seem the last thing we want to hear. The days are already full enough, why add more? It’s a reasonable question, given how busy people tend to be. Yet there are reasons why some very busy people do decide to meditate daily, and one of those reasons, I believe, is that regular meditation enables us to feel a greater sense of spaciousness in our lives.

It might be quite subtle at first – perhaps that sense that in the midst of a busy day, we can pause and take a breath from time to time – and then return to our tasks refreshed. It could be that our approach towards difficulties becomes more open, so that we’re able to perceive multiple perspectives and have a clearer sense of what is going on. We might be able to prevent a challenging conversation from escalating, so there is more chance of a resolution, and less likelihood of damage from thoughtless remarks needing to be repaired.

There are more opportunities for noticing what’s going well – and this in itself, over the years, can be life-changing. A mind which is less crowded with thoughts, a body which is nourished with a deep relaxed breath, a joyful appreciation for the areas in our lives where all is well – these can support us as we deal with the challenges which inevitably arise.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Choose a day, and consciously pause from time to time to allow yourself to notice your breath. Without forcing the breath, follow it in and out of your body four times. What do you notice from having created this space?

Anja Tanhane

Sacred space

‘Wherever you are can be a sacred space, if you’re there in a relaxed and serene way, following your breathing and keeping your concentration on whatever you’re doing.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of us can probably think of places which feel special to us in some way. It could be a place of worship, which is set aside for religious ceremonies on a regular basis. Often, these spaces are designed to allow us an opportunity to step away from our everyday concerns, to become more centered and focused, and to celebrate with others who are also like-minded.

A sacred space can also be a favourite place in nature – perhaps somewhere we like to visit on a regular basis to get away from everyday stressors, where we can feel connected to something greater, ancient and more expansive than the constant stream of slightly anxious thoughts in our mind. Or it could be a place we have only been to once, but which we experienced as a significant moment in our lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to expand our sense of the sacred, to also include everyday moments where we are present. It seems that for him, the sacred is defined by our sense of presence, rather than being limited to special places and times outside our everyday lives. On the one hand, this feels very open and invitational. We’re not tied to certain dogmas, to following a set of rules and rituals, or needing to be at a defined place at a certain time.

On the other hand, it could be a challenge to find the sacred in places we don’t usually think of – in the midst of a traffic jam, perhaps, or lying awake at night, or being busy at work. Can those moments really be a sacred place for us as well – if we are aware of our breath, and focused on whatever we’re doing, and go about our tasks in a relaxed and serene way? How would it feel, to live life in this way, with the possibility of a sacred space wherever we happen to be?

What is your sacred space? Do you have one that immediately comes to mind, or perhaps a few? Take a few moments to meditate on your sacred space, and allow yourself to be present to whatever emerges for you.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each day, choose one moment, and allow yourself to be present with the breath, as much as possible in the moment. Does this feel sacred to you in some way?

Anja Tanhane

Mottainai

The Japanese word ‘Mottainai’ is one of those expressions which can convey a whole range of meanings, and which has been associated with daily life, environmental philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and a general sense of increased appreciation. One translation of mottainai is ‘what a waste!’, and it might be exclaimed when someone spills a glass of milk, or throws out food, or breaks an object by not taking good care of it.

In Japan, the term is often linked with Zen Buddhism, in particular the value which Zen puts into appreciation the efforts which have gone into producing the food we eat, and the way our bodies are nourished by food. Shinto religion, with its reverence for objects, has also embraced the philosophy of mottainai. As an island nation, Japan was for a long time isolated from the rest of the world, and largely dependent on its own resources rather than trade for survival. The older generation in particular were brought up with a strong sense of mottainai, and children are now being taught about it through a book called Mottainai Grandma by Mariko Shinju, which has such wonderful lines as:

When I throw away mandarin peels, she will come and say “Mottainai!”

“Dry them in the sunshine. Put them in the bathtub.

Mandarin peels will make you feel so good!”

“A warm and sunny mandarin bath!”

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Peace prize winner, was very inspired by the concept of mottainai, and added to the 3 R’s of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ the fourth R of ‘respect’. If we bring a sense of mindfulness and appreciation towards the food we eat and the objects we use, we are less likely to be wasteful. About one-third of the food produced world-wide is wasted each year – roughly 1.3 billion tons. It’s not just all that food which is wasted, but also the resources and efforts which went into producing it. Perhaps think back to a recent meal, and write down the many different resources which went into producing it – from the growing of the food, including the energies of the soil, sun, fertiliser and rain, to the human labour involved, and the work in distributing and selling the food. The work over generations of humans in selectively breeding plants and animals, the skills and experiences of the cook, the kitchen equipment, the billions of bacteria in your gut which break the food down and make its resources available for our bodies to use. Mottainai expresses a sense of regret at wastefulness, and calls on us to bring a greater sense of awareness to our interaction with the world.

There is another way in which we can be wasteful with our resources, and that is the resources of our bodies and our minds. In the next reflection, we will look in more detail at the way we can easily dissipate our energy, and explore ways of using it more wisely.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Next time you eat a meal, think of one of the aspects of food production listed above, and consider how it applies to your meal. Over time, how might this practice change the way you relate to food?

Anja Tanhane

Silence – Part 2

‘If you feel that your dreams aren’t coming true, you might think you need to do more, or to think and strategise more. In fact, what you might need is less – less noise coming to you from both inside and outside – so that you have space for your heart’s truest intention to germinate and flourish.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Us humans can be contradictory creatures at times. We might wish we had more ‘space to breathe’ in our lives, but then fill up every available moment with checking our smart phones, watching TV, playing online games, or endlessly rehashing old conversations in our minds and planning ahead in microscopic detail. It’s tempting to think that finding that ‘magic something’ to add into our lives will suddenly improve it. And it’s true that at times, an important ingredient might be missing – such as enough exercise, or time to read a book, or going to a workshop or a class which is meaningful to you.

Other times, however, we already have everything we need – if anything, our lives are overfull. Life is crowding in on us – there are demands coming from all directions, we’re busy rushing from one task to the next, our minds are crowded with internal and external noise, and there is little time to pause and reflect on life. When this way of life becomes chronic, we may well find ourselves asking – ‘is that all there is to life?’

We don’t always need to find new strategies for ‘solving’ life. Sometimes, simply creating some intentional silence and space might be enough. Some of the ways we fill up space are so automatic, we don’t even realise what we’re doing. Always having the radio on when we’re driving, for example, or using time in the check-out queue to quickly check social media, or reading a magazine or watching TV during meals. No matter how busy we are, most of us can probably find opportunities for decreasing noise, and creating a little more silence and space. A daily intentional practice, such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or prayer, can be very helpful. We can also experiment with other ways of decreasing stimulation – placing a curfew on our smartphone at certain times, not saying yes to every social engagement, only watching TV if the program really interests us, and then switching off…

We all have our own quirky ways in which we fill up space unnecessarily. They’re not always problematic, but can become so when we feel we have no ‘space to breathe’ in our lives anymore.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of two simple ways you can reduce excessive stimulation in your life, and experiment with cutting these out for the week. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Silence

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

What is the place of silence in our lives? We might call for a minute’s silence to honour the memory of someone. We might go for a walk by ourselves, and allow ourselves to fully absorb the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around us. Most meditation retreats have periods of silence, and we may also practice silence during our own meditation at home, or during a yoga class. Yet for many of us, silence is in short supply – it’s quite common to be bombarded by sounds just about wherever we go. Over time, we can become desensitised to sounds, and barely notice their effects. Yet sounds can have quite a profound impact on our bodies and minds, and can add to our level of stress and anxiety.
Of course there is no such thing as complete silence – there will always be some sounds around us. Yet we can consciously take time out from talking and interacting with people, from filling every available space with radios and TVs, and simply come back to a sense of ourselves, just as we are, without distractions or busyness. If we’re not used to being in silence, this can feel uncomfortable at first. Over time, however, we might find that these periods of intentional silence can be very nourishing for our spirit. It’s as if we open up more space in our lives, instead of feeling hemmed in by too many thoughts and words. By giving ourselves this space, we allow ourselves room to breathe and to grow.
Not all silence is beneficial. We might have been the unfortunate recipients of the ‘silent treatment’, which is really a form of aggression. Or we may have been silenced in some way when we wanted to speak out, to be heard. Some people yearn for a lot of silence in their lives, while others are content with brief periods. We may not wish to join an order of silent monks, but still find great benefit from bringing more periods of intentional silence into our lives.
Practice idea:
Choose one way in which you can bring more silence into your day. It might be driving without the radio, or setting aside ten minutes for sitting in silence, or eating one meal in silence by yourself. What do you notice?
Anja Tanhane

Nourishing our spirit – Part 2

(Dear reader, I am now publishing the blogs on a monthly basis. If you’re a subscriber, they will arrive in your inbox on the 10th of each month. I hope you continue to enjoy them, and that you’re finding them helpful!)

Last week, we looked at setting aside a place in our home which symbolises our intention to nourish our spirit. Just as important as creating a place is to create time – intentional time where we put aside everyday concerns for a while and allow ourselves to be present – to shift, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, from the ‘doing’ mode to the ‘being’ mode. Many religious practices are designed to do just this – to say, in effect: During this time, our focus shifts away from everyday tasks and to a sense of something larger than our small, self-centered ego. We open ourselves up to feelings of connectedness; to a sense, perhaps, that just to be is enough for now.

There are many ways in which we can nourish our spirit. For some of us it might be walking in nature, playing or listening to music, meditating or painting. We might take 20 minutes out of a busy day to simply to sit in silence. It could be reading an inspirational book, saying a prayer, watching over a sleeping child, or playing with the dog in the park. We might be silently absorbed in a craft project, or spend the afternoon gardening.

We don’t need a formal religious practice in order to nourish our spirit. We do, however, need to set this time aside to focus mainly on whatever we’re doing, rather than spending the whole time anxiously worrying or planning or scheming. This is where learning meditation can be helpful, as it allows us to become more skilled at placing our focus where we choose it to be, rather than jumping all over the place like the ‘monkey mind’ which Buddhists sometimes talk about.

This doesn’t mean that the occasional anxious thought or planning mind won’t appear – it definitely will. Through regular meditation, we can become more skilled at noticing this earlier, and returning back to our focus more quickly. So when we do find the precious opportunity to engage in an activity which nourishes our spirits, we can be more present, and therefore allow ourselves to be really nourished by it.

Weekly practice idea:

What nourishes your spirit? Write down ten things in your life which feel nourishing for you. Looking at the list, how often to you create time and space in your life for these activities?

Anja Tanhane

Nourishing our spirit

‘Nourishing our spirit’ is the final of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. It could be considered one of the most important areas in our lives, to nourish our spirit, but what does this mean? When our lives are very busy, it’s easy to not give much time to this question, and yet when I explore the five pathways to compassion with participants at retreats, ‘nourishing our spirits’ often comes up as an area which they feel is being neglected in their lives. It seems that as humans, we respond well to rituals. Yet they need to be rituals we are comfortable with, which don’t become restrictive or a burden. There is that wonderful Zen saying – ‘don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’ Rituals are the finger which point us in the direction of our spirit, the moon, but they’re not an end in themselves. Yet with no ritual at all in our lives, we can feel adrift, rushing from one task to the next, with little time to pause and reflect.

Many cultures set aside an area in their house for religious symbols – it could be a small shrine, a cross, a statue or book. By creating this area in our home, we’re saying – this too is an important part of my life. It could be a small display of pictures, sea shells, a flower, a meaningful statue, a book of poetry or readings, perhaps a candle or incense. A place we can visit on a regular basis, where we can stop and reflect. It could be a corner in the garden where we like to sit and just be. It doesn’t need to be showy or elaborate – something simple and meaningful often works best. The Buddhist word for mindfulness is ‘sati’, which literally means ‘to remember’. Having an area set aside helps us ‘to remember’, to also give this area of our lives importance and time.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and either with pen and paper, or in silent reflection, ask yourself, ‘my spirit feels nourished when…’ Be open to what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Relating to others

‘Relating to others’ is the forth of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. We humans have evolved to be highly social creatures – in childhood we’re very dependent on caregivers for many years, and even as adults we can only function well as part of a community. This doesn’t mean we have to have vast numbers of friends and be invited to parties every night of the week. A social butterfly in a crowd can feel lonely, while someone else might like their own company and need extended periods of solitude, and still feel warmly connected to a few key people. We’re all quite different as to the type and frequency of social interaction we need, but it’s long been established that feeling lonely and marginalised is terrible for our health, both mental but also physical.

If we think back to our happiest childhood memories, they were often times when someone kind spent time with us in a way which showed care, respect, and friendliness. Perhaps we were walking along a creek with this person, or wrapping a birthday present, or learning how to flip our first pancake. They were often moments of great simplicity, but also deep emotional warmth. They may have been times when we didn’t need to prove ourselves, but where the other person was really present with us, not rushing off to be somewhere more important.

In mindfulness, the way we relate to ourselves will inform how we treat those around us. If we hold a hostile attitude towards ourselves, it’s likely that this will be expressed in some way towards others, though the way we live it out can be quite subtle, almost hidden. Perhaps we do our best to be helpful, but have a tendency to be sarcastic at times? We might spend a lot of time gossiping about the shortcomings of others, and be quick to judge and criticise. Sometimes, when people start to meditate, they’re shocked at the unfriendly tone of voice they use towards themselves. We benefit when we treat other people with kindness, and this includes ourselves as well.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, think back to a time when you shared a happy moment with someone else, either in your childhood or more recently. What were the qualities of the interaction which you really appreciated? Write down these qualities, and reflect on how you’re currently nourishing these in your life.

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings – Part 2

We’d probably like to feel happy and upbeat all the time, but mindfulness is not about getting to some mythical state where we are always happy and calm. We can spend a lot of time and energy resisting our emotions, when simply being present with them for a while may be all that is needed. There are steps we can take to lift our mood, and if we find that our ongoing low mood states are really affecting the quality of our lives, it makes sense to get professional help.

Yet for everyday emotions, sometimes it’s most helpful to just feel them. Emotions are natural responses to the changing conditions of our lives. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves if we feel that we ‘should’ be happy all the time.

One of the most effective ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to feel the emotions in our body as body sensations. Our heart might be racing, or our chest feel constricted. There may be an ache in our heart centre, or butterflies in our stomach, or our forehead may be constricted and tight. If we tune into these sensations during meditation, what we often notice is that these feelings, and thus our emotions, shift and change all the time. Sensing the emotions in our body seems to ground them, and they become something we can more easily be present with. Emotions can seem large and overwhelming, but as body sensations, they never stay the same for long, and we can allow ourselves to flow along with them rather than wasting our energy trying to build a massive sandbank in an attempt to hold them back.

I find that staying with an emotion for a few minutes is usually enough. If there is a feeling of sadness, I try to make the time to simply sit with this for a few minutes and feel it. I can then choose to do something which I know from experience will lift my mood – perhaps go for a short walk, or play with the cat, or listen to some music. There may still be a residual sense of sadness, but I usually feel free to get on with the rest of the day.

Of course, sometimes we need a lot more than this – for a serious bereavement, or a clinical depression or anxiety disorder which may require professional help, and also plenty of time and space for healing. Yet there is value in befriending our feelings rather than declaring war on them, and if we can get into the habit of being more welcoming towards our wide range of everyday emotions, we are usually in a better position to deal with the more serious emotions when they arise as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments each day to practise feeling your emotions in your body. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings

In Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’, befriending our feelings is the third step along the path. While it’s easy enough to befriend our feelings when we’re in a calm and happy frame of mind, this practice is asking us to become friendly with all our emotions, even the ones we find most challenging. To do this, it’s helpful to look at the role which emotions play in our lives.

Many of our emotions, especially the very powerful ones, are connected to the bonds we feel with other human beings. Perhaps we’re happy when we feel loved; we’re grieving when we’re parted from someone who is close to us; and we feel angry when we believe we’ve been betrayed in some way. Without emotions, we would be indifferent to our children, unmotivated at work; and whether we’re listening to a Mozart symphony or a chainsaw, it wouldn’t make any difference to us.

In this way, our emotions are really messengers who give us valuable information about what is happening for us. Theoretically, we could simply receive this information, nod wisely, and thank the messenger for keeping us informed.

As we all know from experience, it’s usually not as straight-forward as that. Our upbringing and the culture we live in determine to a large extent the approach we take to a range of emotions. Some emotions might be seen as valuable, and we might be encouraged to throw extra fuel onto these and perhaps even hold on to them when they’re trying to fade away. Other emotions might be regarded as so shameful, we can’t even allow ourselves to feel a glimmer of them. We might feel comfortable with more neutral feeling states, or we might become restless, becoming convinced we’re missing out in some way. Some cultures encourage the open expression of emotions, while other places consider this to be very discourteous to the people around us.

Emotions can also become so powerful that they take us over – when we’re highly aroused, the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain which is important for impulse control, empathy, seeing the bigger picture and being less reactive, can go off-line. We see ‘red’, and might act in ways we later deeply regret. Rick Hanson calls this the ‘red zone’, and one of the key benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is learning how to live in the ‘green zone’, where we are in charge of our emotions, not the other way around. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can help us engage more skillfully with our emotional states.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on your current relationship to emotions – either through journalling, or perhaps during a quiet time. What did your upbringing and culture teach you about emotions?

Anja Tanhane