‘Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
We all know how galling it is when we’re going through a difficult time, and someone exclaims to us in a bright voice, ‘come on, smile, it’s not that bad!’ It’s not likely to cheer us up – if anything, it can make us feel even grumpier!
On the other hand, we can sometimes hold on to a mood for longer than we need to, through our body posture, the expression on our face, our ruminative thoughts, and behaviours which aren’t going to help us feel any better.
For example, we might have had an upsetting phone call, and for the next few hours we walk around with an annoyed frown on our face, with our shoulders tense, our breathing fast and shallow, and our thoughts caught up in replaying the conversation and what we should have said and will say next time and so on. These are all natural responses, and it makes sense to try and process what has just occurred, and to plan our next steps.
However, it’s easy to become stuck in this way of being. We might feel exhausted after a day of this and so we spend five hours in the evening watching some shows on TV we’re not even enjoying, and eating too much and becoming annoyed with ourselves and the TV shows and life in general. We sleep badly and wake up with a stiff neck and feel even more badly done by. In the meantime, all kinds of potentially pleasant interactions and experiences might be around us, but we’re not available to them. Our disgruntled mood becomes a habit rather than a short-term response, closing us off from the possibility of moving beyond the annoying phone call and embracing what life has to offer us right now.
In her wonderful book ‘Smile or die – how positive thinking fooled America and the world’, Barbara Ehrenreich describes the dark side of a relentless focus on being positive. She gives the example of a worker who has been laid off, and when he doesn’t find a new job immediately, he is blamed for not being positive enough – as if a positive attitude alone were enough to conjure up a job in a depressed employment market which no longer values his skills and training. The smile Thich Nhat Hanh talks about is very different to this – it’s not a smile which ignores the reality of our current situation and our struggles, or pretends that through the power of our mind we have complete control over our lives and can be happy all the time.
Rather, Thich Nhat Hanh’s smile gives us choices about how we engage with each moment. Sometimes, the simple act of lifting up our head, relaxing the shoulders back and smiling can help us to feel better, to be more hopeful. It also opens us up to positive interactions with other people. Like the children’s song says so beautifully,
‘When someone smiles at me, I feel like smiling too.’
Mindfulness practice idea:
For the next week, try to deliberately smile at least once a day – taking the opportunity to pause for a moment, take a breath, and gently smile. What do you notice in your body, and in your mind?
One of the delights of working with young children is their unabashed joy in being creative. Whether it’s music group or drawing or dress-ups or story time, the children are right there, lively and engaged. For too many adults, however, creativity has become something they no longer have time for, or are not ‘good enough’ at, or feels childish to them. As a music therapist, I’ve often heard people say ‘oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing!’ To which I always reply, of course: ‘I would love to hear you sing!’
Sometimes it’s only through tragedy that people find their way back to creativity. I’ve worked with stroke survivors who were members of an aphasia choir. There was so much joy in that choir, despite the terrible circumstances they were dealing with. Other times, people in hospital or recovering from trauma might work with an art therapist, and find new ways of expressing themselves when words can seem inadequate. Creativity can help us to express our more difficult emotions, and it can also be a wonderful source of joy. Whether we’re belting out a tune in a gospel choir, or sitting quietly on the couch at home absorbed in a craft project, these creative times can give us a sense of coming home to ourselves, feeling deeply content.
Like mindfulness, creativity helps us feel present in the here and now, less caught up in ruminative thinking. Some people describe their creative times as a form of mindfulness – it is their opportunity to ‘simply be’. And as with meditation, starting out in a new creative endeavour can be difficult if we approach it with unrealistic expectations. Here are a few suggestions if you’d like to have more creativity in your life, and it feels a bit daunting:
Start small. Instead of planning to write the first two chapters of a brilliant novel, set the timer and write down whatever comes into your head for ten to thirty minutes. If you do this regularly, you will begin to hear your voice in the writing, and it will start to take shape.
Be inspired by children and enjoy your creativity – notice how even a few minutes of drawing or dancing can help you feel re-energised.
Sometimes, constraints are good. Drawing a circle on a blank page could be the start of a mandala, which can be easier than being faced with an empty page. And adult colouring-in books have helped a lot of grown-ups get their coloured pencils out again.
Join a group or a class, or find a teacher. Some of my most enjoyable interactions over the years have been with fellow creatives.
There are many ways to be creative. Cooking, woodwork, gardening, pottery, sowing, teaching children using games and stories – creativity is not an end product, but a state of mind.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside a period of time for a creative activity, and consciously bring mindfulness into the experience. Can mindfulness enhance creativity, and creativity enhance mindfulness?
‘If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.’ Rainer Maria Rilke
Staying close to the small things hardly noticeable – this is one of the gifts of children, to be enraptured just as much by an ant cautiously making its way across a slippery leaf as by a magnificent sunset which lights up the sky. If we try to approach nature from an intellectual level, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Nature exists on scales which can be difficult for us to comprehend. There are the infinitesimal dimensions of the elements which make up a single cell, and then there is the vastness of space which we can’t really understand. Geological time moves over tens of millions of years, and some insects only live for a few hours. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than people on earth. For so many aspects of nature, the human scale is either too large or too small.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why as humans we sometimes want to place ourselves apart from nature, leading to a sense of disconnection. Our education often encourages us to approach life intellectually, trying to make sense of the world through ongoing learning. Yet as Albert Einstein said,
‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’
Mindfulness can help us to feel more connected by allowing ourselves to simply be present with the experience of being in nature. The Japanese call this shinrin yoku, forest bathing, and they have developed therapeutic ‘forest bathing’ centres where trained guides assist people to be more mindfully present in a forest. We can develop our own ways of ‘forest bathing’ by turning down the volume of our thinking mind, being aware of the vitality of our bodies through our senses, and engaging with our environment with openness and curiosity.
Even ten minutes of being in a natural environment such as a garden or a park can make a positive difference to our sense of wellbeing. Our mind and body will thank us for looking at flowers or trees instead of a screen. As Rabindranath Tagore said,
‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’
Those moments of feeling connected with nature can also become our ‘time enough.’
For the next week, set the intention to connect every day with nature in a way you hadn’t done before. One day it could be taking notice of any trees in your area, the next listening for the birds, another time going for a walk at lunchtime. Notice each time how this feels.
‘Komorebi (Japanese)– the interplay of the light and the leaves when sunlight filters through the trees’.
How delightful that the Japanese have a word for the play of sunlight in a forest! Regardless of where we are in the world, when we stand in a forest, the light has a special quality to it. There are also the sounds of nature – complex sounds which our bodies enjoy hearing, unlike the mechanical sounds of much of city life. Trees give out chemicals called phytoncides, which they use to fight of pests and diseases. Just being near trees means we’re also breathing in phytoncides, which has been shown to increase the activity of our natural killer cells in the immune system. Our bodies are biological systems, and for most of our evolution we lived in close connection to the natural world. It makes sense that we find being in nature relaxing and restorative, and through mindfulness we can deepen this experience even further.
One of my favourite mindfulness practices is called ‘walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ I often include it on retreats or in workshops, and it is very simple, but can be quite profound. We simply spend twenty to thirty minutes walking outside by ourselves, tuning into our different senses. We use sight to look at the landscape as a whole, or the softness of the tips of branches against the sky, or the delicate detail of a single leaf. We hear the sounds around us – birds, the wind, sometimes insects, or a falling branch. We notice the ground under our feet as we walk – the softness of grass, the different feel of a path or stones, the way the ground is undulating. At times we may feel a gentle breeze against our face, or the warmth of sunlight on our skin. I invite people to use their sense of touch to explore the different textures of leaves, bark, stones or grass. Smell, of course, is one of our most powerful senses, and highly evocative. When we close our eyes, we may find that our sense of smell is finer, and picks up the scents in the breeze as well as stronger scents like a rose or eucalyptus tree. And sometimes we can also use our sense of taste, if there is something which is safe to eat.
When we walk outside in this way, with a sense of discovery and delight, we notice how rarely we look at something closely, or are really present within it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently:
‘The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.’
Set aside twenty minutes to practice ‘Walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ It could be in your garden, a park, or out in nature. What do you notice, when you are present in this way?
In both the Buddhist tradition and in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, the practice of cultivating mindfulness starts with developing greater awareness of our body. We can sometimes think of meditation as something which happens in our head, and we might get quite caught up in the imaginary battlefield of our mind, where thoughts are not ‘behaving’ in the way we’d like them to during meditation. And yet, thoughts are only one aspect of our experience. There is also our body – the physical presence of the body, its position in space, and where it connects to the ground or chair. Our body is also how we interact with our environment, particularly through the felt experience of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We’re constantly receiving information through our body – about its physical needs, our emotional state, and how safe or unsafe we feel in a particular environment. It is a treasure trove of information, when we tune in and listen to it.
How we relate to our bodies is closely linked to how we relate to the rest of our lives. Valuing our body only if it lives up to some imaginary standard of weight, measurements and beauty is like valuing a little girl only when she is dressed up as a princess once a year. It is the ordinariness of the little girl, with all her emotional turmoils and mud-covered knees and fighting with her siblings which is precious, not some fantasy ideal which is unobtainable. Our bodies are also ordinary, and sometimes bear the scars of our life experiences, and yet, when we tune into our bodies with friendly presence and curiosity, we can feel in a sense that we have ‘come home.’
There are complex reasons why being present in our body might not be straight-forward. Our cultural upbringing may value thinking above body experiences, or have given us negative messages about our bodies. We may have had adverse experiences which could be triggered when we tune into our body. We may simply feel that we’re too busy to pause and tune in – that there’s no point when so much else is calling out to be done.
Sometimes it helps to start small – to notice the breath flowing in and out a few times, or the sensations in the soles of our feet as we walk down the corridor, or the breeze on our face as we step out the front door. A guided body scan meditation can be helpful, such as the one on this website. Most of us have a complicated relationship with our body, yet slowly becoming more present within it, and developing friendliness towards it, can help to reduce some of the anxious insecurity we can be prone to in our modern lives.
Mindful practice idea:
Think of a small practice which helps you feel more present in your body. It could be tuning into the breath, or noticing the contact between your body and ground, or going outside and feeling the wind against a skin. Each day, spend a couple of minutes tuning into your body in this way.
‘He says he has learnt, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to ‘What matters to you?”’
In his wonderful book ‘Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’, journalist Johann Hari introduces us to the work of Dr Sam Everington from the Bromley-by-Bow Center in East London. In addition to the standard treatment available at any GP clinic, this center also is a hub for over a hundred volunteer groups. When a patient with anxiety or depression comes to see a doctor at the clinic, they may be prescribed anti-depressants, but they will also be advised to participate in one of the volunteer programs. The doctors call it ‘social prescribing’, and have found it to be remarkably effective.
One such program at the clinic was to turn a nearby wasteland full of weeds and broken equipment into a beautiful garden filled with flowers and vegetables. A group of twenty volunteers, many of whom had been socially isolated for years, were supported by a staff member to clean up the area and start learning about plants and seeds. They talked about how they wanted to park to look, discovered through trial and error what worked and what didn’t, learned about being patient and working to nature’s rhythms, and gradually saw an ugly unloved area turn into something valuable for the local community. They spent hours outside in the sun and fresh air, and slowly began to form connections to others in the group. As they worked, locals walked past and thanked the group members – who had often spent years being shut away and feeling useless – for their work. They met in a cafe after each gardening session, and discovered similarities in their stories as they slowly began to share them, at a pace which felt comfortable to them. One member was homeless, and others in the group lobbied the council until they found housing for him.
The participants in the program discovered two kinds of connections – connections to other people, and connection to nature. Yet what was important for the participants, at least initially, was the prescription by their doctor, and the support of a staff member. For someone with severe depression or anxiety, it may not be enough to be told – ‘just go out and find something to keep busy with, you will feel much better.’ This approach may work for those on the milder end of the spectrum of anxiety and depression – and we’ve probably all had the experience where we felt like collapsing on the couch but got busy with something enjoyable instead and felt much better for it. Yet when the condition is more severe and long-term, some skillful support is required while the participants start to slowly rebuild connections and develop their resilience and strengths.
An increased sense of connection is often described by people as one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and over the coming months we will explore the themes of disconnection/connection, drawing on Hari’s book and the work of others as well as our own experience, and discovering how consciously cultivating connections might help to gradually enrich our lives.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes with a pen and notepad, and finish the sentence ‘For me, connection means…’ and keep writing. What emerges from this? Another time, you may also like to start with the sentence ‘For me, disconnection means…’