We hear a lot about the negative effects of stress, so it’s easy to think that any stress must be bad for us. And it’s true that chronic stress can place great wear and tear on our bodies and minds, and eventually become a leading cause of illness. Yet a life with not enough stress can feel boring, pointless. In such a life, our abilities and talents aren’t tested and developed, and we don’t have the satisfaction of rising to a challenge and emerging stronger and wiser.
In traditional Buddhism, the human realm is only one of several realms we can be reborn into. There are others like the heavenly realm, jealous gods, or hungry ghosts, the hell or animal realms.
We can think of these various realms as psychological states which we all pass in and out of at various times in our lives. For example, the hungry ghost realm is when we feel deprived, and nothing is ever enough, no matter how many possession or achievements we accumulate, or how much others are trying to help us. It is the realm of addiction and discontentment. The jealous gods are always fighting, trying to be superior and more powerful than others. The animal realm is the space of non-reflection, being driven by basic desires only. There is hell, which is a period of intense suffering. The heavenly realm, a state of blissful contentment, certainly sounds most appealing. Yet interestingly, the heavenly realm is not considered to be a good rebirth, as the heavenly beings have no motivation to practice kindness and compassion, to alleviate suffering, and to thus develop their better qualities.
Just like our lives, our meditation practice also passes through the six realms at various times. Yet sometimes we may be caught up in an expectation, whether conscious or not, that at some stage our meditation should reach the heavenly realm and remain there. No more dissatisfaction, strive and jealousy, suffering or ignorance! No more obstacles! This desire for the contentment and peace of the heavenly realm is very understandable, yet it can potentially stunt our meditation practice if it becomes our sole focus. We can spend time in blissful states during meditation, and these can be strengthening and supportive. Yet during the next meditation we may come face to face with jealous feelings against a good friend, and this ‘jealous gods’ meditation may ultimately be much more beneficial to us, and our friendships, than the time we’d spent in peaceful bliss.
The more difficult meditations are the ones which encourage us to change, to find new ways of approaching the challenges of our lives. We develop new capacities, new inner resource and an increased resilience. We become less reactive, and are able to see the bigger picture. If our life is currently like walking along a steep, stony path, then meditation won’t suddenly turn this into a comfortable shaded avenue. Yet meditation gives us the shoes which protect us from the sharp stones, and a wider ‘big-picture’ perspective which allows us to explore other pathways, rather than simply trudging along the same narrow path forever. Seen from this perspective, the obstacles don’t block our path in life, but assist us to grow and mature in our practice.
Mindfulness practice idea:
In the next few days, note times when you become frustrated by something, and take a moment to pause. Instead of getting upset, is there an opportunity to practise a virtue you value, such as patience, or kindness?
‘A good meditation is one you have done.’ Shinzen Young
When we reflect on the expectations we have of ourselves, we might notice that we often tend to set the bar pretty high. This can be true for meditation, where we might feel as if everyone else in the world is meditating like little Buddhas, with their minds at rest in perfect peace and equanimity, and it’s only us who is struggling with intrusive thoughts, physical discomforts, an inability to focus for more than a few seconds, and general feelings of restlessness and frustration. In fact, virtually all meditators have experiences which are far removed from bliss and calmness, and each tradition has techniques for working with our inherently restless mind, and systems of thought for putting these experiences into context. This is why it can be difficult to learn meditation on our own, without a teacher – we don’t know what to expect, and how to work with the challenges which inevitably arise when we meditate regularly. It can be helpful to regularly be in touch with more experienced meditators who can guide us, by attending courses or meditation evenings or retreats. And if we’re fortunate enough to find a teacher we trust long-term, this can be wonderful opportunity to deepen our meditation practice.
Meditation is about seeing clearly what is actually going on – not getting caught up in avoidance or projection or excessive drama. Sometimes, what is going on are strong emotions such as frustration, sadness, resentment. We might sit down to meditation with the idea of gaining some relief from these, and then find ourselves confronted with the current state of our mind, with nowhere to escape to. Mindfulness meditation cuts off our usual escape routes, the many ways we might have at our disposal to avoid being with ‘life as it is’. We are left instead with the bare bones of our existence.
These bare bones can become the building blocks for a less reactive life, a life where we are more present, more grounded. Regular meditation involves simply showing up to the practice, and staying as present as we can during the time we have set aside for it, whether it be five minutes or thirty or an hour. Some days we may notice sensations of peace, whereas other days we realise that our mind is really quite busy today. As Shinzen Young says, a good meditation is one that you have done. Sometimes the most challenging meditations are the ones which are ultimately most useful to us, as they invite us into a different way of responding to the challenges of everyday life.
Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, and on the left hand side, write down your expectations of how meditation ‘should’ be, and on the other side, some of the experiences you’ve had during meditation. What do you notice?
Sometimes, a small adjustment can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term. Today I’d like to share with you six simple ideas you may like to try out sometime – I’ve had great feedback about them all. They are, in no particular order:
1. If you find yourself frowning, try a gentle half-smile instead. This is not about putting on a fake happy face when you’re not in the mood. Rather, the gentle half smile is very subtle, but can do wonders to lift our mood. You can think of it as being ‘behind’ the face, even in the heart centre or the abdomen. Play around with it – experiment with what feels right for you.
2. Practise (perhaps in the privacy of your home) walking around with a paperback book on your head. While this may feel like being in a deportment class in a girl’s finishing school, it’s actually the best exercise I’ve come across to really get a sense of where your head should sit in relation to the neck. Our heads are very heavy, and being slightly off-centre may cause tension in our neck muscles and shoulders. The book lifts your head up and into exactly the right position. You will walk like an Egyptian princess, and the rest of your body will send you grateful thanks. It’s also wonderful for those who practise sitting meditation – try it during meditation, and you may be surprised at the difference it can make to your posture, and to how long you can sit comfortably.
3. Learn diaphragmatic breathing. You might have heard the instruction ‘breathe into the belly’, but your lungs are in your chest – so how does that work? The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle below the rib cage. When your lungs are fully filled with air, the diaphragm is pushed down and the stomach expands. The easiest way to get a sense of this is to lie on the floor with a heavy book on your stomach, and to feel the book rise and fall. Later you can try it sitting and standing (without the book this time!). Diaphragmatic breathing is great for a number of reasons – firstly, we get more oxygen into our lungs, and thus also into our body. Diaphragmatic breathing also signals to the brain that you’re not in fight/flight (i.e. high alert and stressed) mode. So there can be plenty going on in your life, but your brain is receiving messages that all is well, and that you’re comfortable and in control.
4. Notice the ground under your feet as you walk. Whether it’s crossing the car park, walking to the photocopier, or strolling in a park – noticing the contact between the soles of your feet and the earth is wonderfully grounding. It connects us to our body and to the earth, and stops us from being so caught up in our thoughts. It’s worth practising this somewhere quiet, walking really slowly, where you notice the touch of the heel on the ground, the transfer of the weight onto the foot, then the weight onto the other leg. Once you’re familiar with this feeling, you can use this technique in everyday life, at your normal walking speed. Which brings me to idea number 5…
5. Slow everything down by 10%. Some people are naturally steady and well-paced in their activities, but most of us can do with slowing down a little. You don’t have to go from frenetic super-achiever to the pace of a zombie. But even a small decrease in speed might give you a lot more opportunity to simply be present with what is happening right now, rather than always mentally rushing ahead of yourself.
6. Start a gratitude journal. If you’re not already doing this, I would highly recommend it. Each night, I write down three good moments I experienced during the day – just a few words for each. They tend to be very simple, such as the opportunity to go for a short walk at lunchtime, or eat some vegetables from the garden, or have a nice chat with a colleague or neighbour. We’re hard-wired to be constantly on the look-out for perceived dangers or ways we in which we might be missing out. Taking the time to remember three good things which happened that day helps us to appreciate what we have, and to become more aware of the times when life is actually blessing us in many small ways.
I hope you find some of these ideas beneficial – let me know how you go with them!
Let tiny drops of stillness fall gently through my day.
There’s nothing very dramatic about a gentle rain – sometimes it’s more like fine mist which still allows the light of the sun to shine through. Yet if we stand outside during a rain like this, in a garden perhaps or a forest, we can see the soil and the plants being nourished by the water. The soil becomes more plump, visibly replenished, and the plants shine and glow, raising limp leaves and looking much healthier.
When we reflect about what nourishes us in our own lives, we might think of something like a long holiday, which can of course do wonders for our wellbeing. Our everyday lives, however, are also filled with opportunities for being nourished, if we create the right conditions. One of the benefits of mindfulness is that we become more aware of what these conditions might be. When we are mindful, we’re also more likely to remember to cultivate these conditions in the midst of a busy day, which is the key.
There are countless ways we can be nourished during a day – a baby smiles at you as it’s being pushed past in a pram; you look up and see two birds preening each others feathers in a tree; someone in your family makes you a cup of coffee; you take a break during a long drive and walk for ten minutes in a park. We have many small opportunities for delight, for noticing something quirky or engaging which makes us smile. There is something comforting in allowing these moments to ‘fall gently through my day’, instead of needing to go searching them out all the time. Most of the time, the ‘tiny drops of stillness’ are present in our lives – we just need to slow down enough, and be receptive enough, to notice them, and to allow ourselves to be nourished by them.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Each day, try to notice five small moments of stillness in your day which nourish you. It could be a quiet moment by yourself, but it could also be a delightful interaction which brings with it a sense of pausing, and taking a moment out from the everyday routine.
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?
‘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?