The wolf of love

There is an old American Indian story about a beloved Elder, a grandmother, who was asked one day how she’d managed to become such a wise, respected and contented woman. She replied that she knew that there were two wolves in her heart, the wolf of love and the wolf of hate, and that everything depended on which wolf she chose to feed each day.

We have evolved as humans with both of the wolves, and they actually each have a place in our lives if we think of the wolf of hate as trying to protect us, and the wolf of love as trying to connect us. We might rename the wolf of hate to ‘the wolf of protection’, and we can see how we can get caught up in feeding this particular creature. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, it’s easy for the wolf of protection to assume a prominent role in our lives. We become more suspicious of others in case they try to encroach on ‘our’ territory, and might be less than kind in our responses. It’s like we lose touch with the kinder, more patient and wiser parts of ourselves, and so we might find ourselves snapping at a child who is a bit slow and befuddled; we might feel depressed and eat far more than we should; or we might bitch about a colleague although we know, in our heart of hearts, that this will do nothing to improve a difficult situation.

A regular practice of mindfulness meditation offers us the ability to have more choice about how we might respond to any given situation. Instead of reacting in the heat or exhaustion of the moment, we can pause, take a breath, engage the more empathic parts of our brain, and act in a way which is more aligned with our values and good intentions. We might notice that the slow child is caught up in some kind of stress, that his mind is elsewhere, and we might reassure him rather than snap at him. We might pause once or twice during a meal, take the time to enjoy the food, and notice that we’re actually quite full. We might bite our tongue even though another bitching session seems like a wonderful way to release frustration, and instead reflect on what some of the underlying issues at the workplace might be.

Next week, we will look at some practical strategies for ‘feeding the wolf of love’ in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of a current situation which is causing you some stress, and brainstorm a range of strategies for dealing with this situation, ranging from the sublime and wise to the awful and absurd. Where in that list do you currently see yourself, and where would you like to be?
Anja Tanhane

Mindful communication

One of the most challenging circumstances for practising mindfulness, at least for me, is in the midst of a difficult conversation. Sometimes the other person can seem like a wily tennis opponent who is constantly hitting back your ball with plenty of spin and unexpected angles, leaving you standing in the middle of the court as the ball shoots past, with your mouth open and thinking, ‘what on earth was that?’ Apart from conventional small talk about the weather, most conversations are by their nature unpredictable, and if we’re feeling under attack, we may struggle to come up with a coherent response. Afterwards, we can think of all kinds of witty and clever repartees, but in the heat of the moment, it’s often not easy to reason clearly, let alone articulate our feelings in a skilful manner.

We can then slip all too easily into rigid communication patterns, based on what we’ve learnt in our past, both within our families and also the cultural context we grew up in. Some people are very skilled at assertive communication, where they are able to calmly express their point of view without attacking or ignoring the other person. For many of us, however, the communication patterns we learnt either involved withdrawal or aggression – or even a combination of the two in passive/aggressive behaviours. In the midst of a stressful encounter, these are the patterns we tend to revert to, despite our best intentions to try something different next time we find ourselves in this kind of situation. Decades of social conditioning and learnt behaviours are not so easy to undo.

The main way in which mindfulness can help us during a stressful encounter is by tuning into our body sensations as we are talking. This may seem counter-intuitive – who’s got time to worry about what might be happening in our bodies when we’re busy trying to think of a clever response and at the same time pay close attention to the other person, not just to their words but their body language and other non-verbal signals. And in any case, what have our bodies got to do with this conversation?

In fact, just as the other person’s body language gives you many valuable clues about what’s really going on, so does your body hold invaluable information, especially in the visceral region in the abdominal area. The well-known ‘gut instinct’ is a reality, based on our nervous system which sends particularly important information from this region to our brain. Often, if we’re feeling agitated, this information ends up in the more primitive parts of the brain, where it just makes us feel vaguely uneasy. However, by using mindfulness, we can bring the information to the front of the brain, the central pre-frontal cortex, where we are able to use it in a much more conscious and sophisticated manner. Ironically, by tuning into our own physical body sensations, we get a clearer idea of what is going on with the other person as well.

This helps us to also see their point of view, and the conversation becomes much richer, less confrontational. It may not instantly solve the difficulties, and we may never feel at our most effective when talking to this person. But anything which can take the heat out off a challenging situation, and help us be more present and grounded during the encounter, is likely to be helpful. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, sometimes the best we can hope for is not to escalate the situation.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you’re talking to someone who is mildly irritating, try tuning into your body sensations during the conversation. Notice if this makes any difference to your experience of the encounter.

Anja Tanhane

 

Pausing

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

 

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

(Attributed to Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor)

I can clearly remember the first time I became conscious of that space and having a choice. I was feeling very annoyed with a relative who had left a hostile message on the answering machine. When I saw her a few days later, I recognised my own hostility and automatic impulse to blame and behave in a withdrawn and cold manner, an old defensive pattern. Pausing, I was also aware of an alternative – I had a moment of choice. Although the pull was to go down the old familiar way, I recognised that this would lead to further hurt, disempowerment and rupture of our relationship. I consciously chose to try and stay openhearted. In what felt figuratively like a big step, I walked up to her and approached her with affection, and the response I received with one of friendliness.

We can all remember times when we reacted in the heat of the moment, only to regret our words and behaviour, and not only that, find that the interaction has escalated the conflict, leaving us and the other person feeling more defensive and distant.

There is a Zen story about a man riding on a galloping horse. Somebody watching him yells out, “where are you going?” The man on the horse turns and shouts, “I don’t know, ask the horse.”

The horse can be likened to our habitual energy pattern that drives us into doing or saying things that not only hurt others but ourselves as well. Thich Nhat Hanh writes “if we learn the art of stopping, we can calm things down within and around us. The purpose of stopping is to become calm and solid and see clearly.” When we are calm we can look deeply within and recognise our underlying needs, and express them in ways that don’t alarm the other person and lead them to react defensively. We can also be more receptive to the other person’s needs.

Mindfulness practice helps us to calm ourselves and extend the time between the stimulus and the response, so we are not hijacked by our more primitive survival brain, leading to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. With this reaction to threat we angrily attack, withdraw in fear, or feel paralysed to do anything. The child within us is closer to our more primitive survival brain mode, so sometimes when we are challenged we implement younger coping strategies. Through mindfulness we can more readily reengage our neo- cortex, and can have thought-through responses. We can become aware we have choices and feel more empowered.

What mindfulness helps us to do is to be aware of what we are experiencing and catch the first bubblings of an emotion before it takes us over– it is much easier to manage at this point. When emotions do arise intensely, we can ride the wave, maintaining balance. Maintaining our centre and responding rather than reacting. This of course does take time and regular meditation practice. But, as Jon Kabat Zinn notes “Our relationships with other people provide us with unending opportunities for practising mindfulness and thereby reducing “people stress.”

He beautifully describes the fruitfulness of mindfulness for our relationships:

“The patience, wisdom, and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation yield fruit almost immediately because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will in all likelihood be drawn toward it because it embodies inner peace”.

Weekly practice idea:

When you notice reactivity in relationships, pause. Take a breath. With kindness and compassion towards yourself, be mindful of your thoughts, beliefs or images. Bring an attitude of friendliness and allowing to any feelings and sensations in your body. What is your underlying need? What may be the other persons underlying need? Be aware of having a choice.

Michelle Morris

 

Secret history

‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.’

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Last year I read the account of a young neo-fascist leader in modern Hungary who’d built a successful career out of denigrating minorities, including Jewish people. Life was going well for him – he had the respect and support of his followers, and he’d been able to use his marketing skills to spread their neo-fascist message to a much wider audience than previous leaders. So all was good – that is, until he discovered he was Jewish himself. His grandmother had been interred in Auschwitz, but after the war, his family had not felt safe identifying as Jews in Hungary, and it was only by chance that this man discovered the truth about his heritage.

Understandably, this led to somewhat of an identity crisis for him. He began to visit a rabbi and practise the Jewish religion. Because of his past actions, he wasn’t exactly embraced by his new-found Jewish community. His career in the neo-fascist movement was also finished. The story is a wonderful example of the absurdity of racism, of denigrating any group of people as being less worthy than us of empathy, of dismissing their suffering as irrelevant.

Our brain likes to make quick judgement calls. We want to know instantly – is this encounter safe for us, or dangerous? And unfortunately, because of our inherent negativity bias, it only takes a few repetitions of the message ‘this situation/person/group is a threat to you’, for us to unquestioningly start believing it. Before long, we begin to sit up and take notice of anything which seems to confirm this belief, and disregard the evidence to the contrary. We do this with groups of other people, but we also do it to ourselves.

Meditation can help to open us to our secret history – the aspects of ourselves and others we would rather forget or ignore. This process can be confronting at times, because it’s constantly challenging the more primitive parts of our brain to get out of its habitual defensive patterns and take the risk of more openness. Yet compassion and empathy are only possible if we are prepared to become more open, less judgemental. If we truly want to understand someone else’s secret history, we also need to be prepared to explore our own.

Weekly practice idea:

When you encounter someone difficult, ask yourself – what might their background story be? It’s not about making excuses for unacceptable behaviour, but to get beyond our tendency to make quick value judgements.

Anja Tanhane

 

Mindful listening

We all know people who only seem to be listening to us in order to jump in at the first opportunity and start telling their own story. Perhaps we even do this ourselves at times? For example, you might be complaining to your friend about your teenage son who is spending far too much time in front of his computer, and your friend interrupts you with,

‘Yes, I know just what you mean, my husband’s sister’s husband’s second cousin had a neighbour whose son was just like that, blah blah, actually, that reminds me a bit of the movie we saw last night, did I tell you we went into the city…’

Just as annoying can be the tendency to give advice, especially if it’s not asked for, or if the other person knows little about your situation. So your friend might say,

‘Oh, that’s easy, what you have to do is get a system where you agree on how much time he is allowed to spend in front of the computer, and then for every minute he spends over that he has to pay you a dollar, and for every minute under he gets a dollar, and so you buy this special software to keep track but you need to physically monitor it as well because these kids often know how to get around the software, so he needs to use his computer in the kitchen, and only when you’re around…’

And you’re looking at your friend and thinking of a hundred reasons why none of this would work in your family.

The art of listening can often get a little lost in our hectic lives. Sometimes there is so much to get done, who has the time to sit down and listen to every long-winded story someone wants to share with you? There is the elderly neighbour who is a bit lonely but repeats herself six times in four minutes. There is your partner who wants you to be interested in some convoluted tale of office politics when it’s the same old saga – you’ve heard it all before. There is your parent who always seems to ring up just as you’re trying to get dinner on the table and who says, when you ask to ring back later, oh no, this won’t take long – but of course it does.

And yet, when we are able to listen to someone with our full attention, without wanting to interrupt with our own story, or give advice, or wishing they’d hurry up and find a more efficient way of speaking, we know we’re offering the other person something truly precious. We can almost sense them relax, feel appreciated, know that they matter. Being listened to produces oxytocin, the feel-good hormone which is associated with particularly strong human bonding, such as during breast-feeding. There is an exercise we teach in the MBSR course where people pair up and take turns telling their partner about a difficult conversation, while their partner listens in silence and then retells the story back. It feels strange to listen while saying nothing at all, and of course in real life we wouldn’t be completely silent while listening mindfully. However, it is an interesting exercise to realise just how much of our listening can be caught up with either wanting to speak ourselves, or else offering unwanted advice. To what extent can we simply allow the other person to say what they’d like to tell us, without charging in with our own agenda?

Weekly practice idea:

Try listening to someone without interrupting with your own story or advice. See if you can relax into the listening, without rushing somewhere else, and notice how this feels for you, and for the other person.

Anja Tanhane

 

Presence

Orchid in Anglesea

‘The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

What does it mean, to be present? In one sense we are, of course, always present. Where else could we possibly be? Yet we probably all know the feeling of being present in our bodies while our minds are elsewhere.

We also know what it’s like to be with someone who is not really present with us – who nods mechanically from time to time and mutters a disinterested ‘oh really’ while scanning over our heads to see if someone more important has arrived at the party yet. Other people have the gift of making everyone they talk to feel like the most important person in the room. We flourish in the presence of someone who is listening deeply, who is attentive and kind. Just to be in the presence of a person like that can be healing for us. Continue reading “Presence” »

Tuning in

Leaves at creek

There are many reasons why someone chooses to take up a meditation practice, but an underlying motivation might be a desire to either tune out, or to tune in. While some meditation traditions encourage their practitioners to aim for ‘special’ states which help them to tune out from everyday concerns, mindfulness meditation is very much about tuning in – being attuned to life as it is right now. Musicians know all about tuning in – being in tune with their own internal physiological and mental processes during a performance, as well as being aware of and tuning into the musicians around them. Continue reading “Tuning in” »

Respect

Swan

‘Since I’ve been in a wheelchair, often people no longer talk to me. They talk to my carer instead, as if I didn’t exist.’

 

I’ve heard comments like this several times over the years from people who are in wheelchairs. Whether you were born with a disability or suffered some illness or injury later in life, unfortunately, once you’re in a wheelchair, you may not be treated with much respect. Because I’m white, middle-class and educated, I take it for granted that, most of the time, I’ll be treated with basic courtesy. Recent examples when this hasn’t been the case – talking to a website company on the phone, dealing with a real estate agent – left me feeling quite put out. How dare they be patronising towards me! In the midst of my indignation I suddenly remembered that, for many of the people I work with, being treated with patronising disdain is probably a daily reality. Continue reading “Respect” »