Excessive doubt

The final of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition is excessive doubt, sometimes also called paralysing doubt. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a healthy dose of skepticism and questioning. Without a certain amount of skepticism, we can be like leaves blown about by whatever the latest fad or miracle cure is. On the other hand, if we spend most of our meditation time double-guessing ourselves (’is this working, what’s it doing now, how come I’m feeling like this and not like that?’), then we’re really missing the point of meditation, which actually has no point except to be in non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Yes, there are thousands of high-quality studies which demonstrate that meditation is good for us, and it can be informative and encouraging to keep up to date with the latest research. Yet if we’re constantly chasing more proof, needing more validation, then we’re holding ourselves back from ‘going with the flow’ of the meditation process itself.

A long-term meditation practice is usually deep and slow-burning rather than exciting. It’s easy to read a Zen story about a monk who became enlightened when he heard the sound of a stone hitting the ground while sweeping, and to wonder ‘why does this never happen to me’? After the initial honeymoon phase, where we might observe all kinds of positive changes in our lives as we meditate every day, our meditation practice can actually become quite ordinary. Yes, over the years we may be feeling a little more calm, and perhaps we have more energy than we used to have, but that could also be because we’re taking Vitamin D supplements. Meditation is sometimes described as resting in ‘being’ mode rather than ‘doing’ mode. This goes counter to much of what often drives us in everyday life – constant busyness, striving after achievement. The reason why many of us are interested in meditation is precisely because this constant need for success feels unbalanced to us. And yet, even as we try to balance our doing mode with being mode, we might be secretly hoping for achievement and success in our meditation practice!

To meditate, we need to bring a certain amount of trust to the practice, to trust that this is a process we might benefit from. That doesn’t mean blind trust in every person who sets themselves up as a meditation teacher, or not examining what works for us and what doesn’t. But if constant doubt is at the forefront of our mind while we meditate, then, ironically, we’re unlikely to find much benefit in it.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit in a quiet spot, and observe the coming and going of experiences, making a conscious effort to remain as much as possible in the ‘being’ rather than the ‘doing’ mode. Notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind – Part 2

There are times when meditation can no doubt be quite challenging. The idea of sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes might seem almost impossible, and certainly not enjoyable. Fortunately, mindfulness offers us a whole range of practices which can be very helpful when we are dealing with ongoing restlessness and anxiety.

One which many students have found very useful over the years is doing a mindful movement practice such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Kum Nye. These can often be very helpful before moving into sitting meditation, or they can be simply practised on their own. When we focus on our bodies, stretching and moving them slowly and with attention, our minds quite naturally seem to settle. Walking meditation can also be helpful, really concentrating on the sensations on the soles of the feet as we take one slow step, and then another, and then another.

A variation on this would be to do some vigorous exercise before meditation – getting some of the excess energy and anxiety out of our system before we sit down for sitting meditation. We could also go for a walk in the forest or a quiet park, and sit for ten minutes meditating among the trees or by a creek. Or go for a walk along a beach, and meditate on the sounds of the waves coming in and out.

Another option is to lie down on the floor and allow ourselves to be guided through a meditation by using a CD or an app. Sometimes, just having someone else to lead us during the meditation can feel very supportive and nurturing. An even better option would be to find a regular meditation group, with a teacher you feel comfortable with. There can be a profound sense of peace in the room when a group meditates together, and people often comment on how much deeper their meditation is when they are with others who are also meditating.

Sometimes it can be helpful to incorporate simple gestures or practices which help to soothe us during the meditation. This could be placing a hand on the heart centre, or on the belly. We might do some gentle chanting, or listen to music, or quietly repeat a word to ourselves such as ‘calm’ or ‘peace’. We could imagine a kind person standing behind us and placing their hands on our shoulders, so that the shoulders can really relax and let go.

Finally, if strong emotions are repeatedly coming up during meditation, it may be a sign that we could benefit from some counselling. We all have strong emotions from time to time, and sometimes we’re quite happy to deal with these on our own. However, persistent strong emotions which interfere with our day-to-day functioning or our peace of mind are often a sign that some deeper underlying issues are demanding to be addressed, and this might be more effective with the support of a skilled professional therapist.

Weekly practice idea:

If you find you’re often restless during meditation, experiment with one of the suggestions above, and notice if this is useful.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind

‘Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week we looked at restlessness, which in Buddhism is considered the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation. While we don’t want to become stiff and rigid, it’s also true that an endlessly restless mind and body can exacerbate our tendency to be anxious and worried. The sitting meditation seems to be particularly beneficial for becoming more centered and grounded, and a certain amount of restless is to be expected when we practise it. If, however, our restlessness becomes a serious obstacle to our meditation practice, there are a number of different ways we can work with this.

The first approach is to accept that restlessness is occurring, and to stay with it, even when the restlessness transforms into impatience, irritation, agitation, perhaps all the way to anger. We can learn a lot about the emotions underlying our restlessness through doing this. The inability to sit calm and still may be a signal of strong emotional undercurrents we are trying to get away from. These could be anger, grief, worry and anxiety, trauma, or shame or jealousy. Of course it’s not easy to sit through the restlessness to begin with, let alone the more challenging emotions we may encounter along the way. Yet over the years, I’ve found I’ve gained many valuable insights into ‘what is really going on in my life’ through the simple practice of sitting still, and noticing what emerges.

Next week we will look at some other strategies for working with a restless mind, but for now let’s return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the beginning of this reflection, and allow ourselves the time and space to rest in the present moment as it is.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a peaceful place to sit, and silently recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha. You may like to focus on the first two lines, or the poem as a whole. Allow yourself to feel the peace, and the smile.

Anja Tanhane

Restlessness

A few years ago I offered a workshop in mindfulness for a group of people with a disability. We first went out into the courtyard and did some gentle Tai Chi together, which was enjoyed by the participants. Afterwards, we gathered in a room, where we sat in a circle for some guided meditation. One of the carers had to leave the room for a few minutes, and when he returned during the meditation he thought at first that everyone had died, because the whole room was sitting completely still. I wasn’t sure how the participants would find the sitting meditation, but they all responded really well, and communicated later that they felt relaxed after the workshop.

The ability to sit still for extended periods of time is one of the hallmarks of sitting meditation, and, over time, can help to settle our restless and anxious mind. However, ‘over time’ is really the key phrase here, as initially, sitting still and not moving might make us more aware of just how much restlessness and anxiety is finding its way into our minds.

Restlessness and worry are the forth of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, and it’s one that probably most of us can relate to quite well! One of the most basic meditation instructions is to avoid fidgeting and adjusting the posture. Some traditions take this to an extreme, where people are asked to sit in agony rather than move a muscle. To me, taking it to that extent is not only pointless but also potentially dangerous, as there are cases where people have permanently injured their knees because of rigid meditation postures. On the other hand, there is commonly some discomfort and even a little bit of pain involved in learning to sit very still. It is difficult to settle a restless mind when our bodies are constantly in motion.

We can imagine holding a glass of muddy water in our hand. If we constantly shake it about, it will remain muddy water. However, if we put it down on a table and come back half an hour later, the mud will have sunk to the bottom of the glass, leaving the water clear. In a similar way, sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes each day can allow some of the stressors on our mind to settle, so that we can approach our day with greater clarity and presence.

Weekly practice idea:

During the day, take the opportunity to notice the difference between restless fidgeting, and adjusting your posture as needed. If your body is quite restless, how does it feel to consciously reduce some of the fidgeting movements?

Anja Tanhane

Working with sleepy mind

One of the most effective (but definitely under the category of ‘don’t try this at home’!) strategies for combating sleepy mind must be sitting on the edge of a deep well during meditation, as apparently practised by some monks in Thailand. This would certainly sharpen the mind and keep us alert, but fortunately we also have less drastic (and less dangerous) approaches we can use if we find ourselves repeatedly nodding off during meditation.

The first one, which I already touched on in last week’s reflection, is to simply accept that we’re tired. Sometimes during meditation we encounter busy mind, or anxious mind, or planning mind. At other times it might be sleepy mind. Just going with the flow of this state, rather than fighting it, can be helpful at times.

Another approach, which I use a lot and find very effective, is to lift our gaze to straight ahead and open our eyes wide, while still meditating. Doing this for a few minutes, and then returning to our traditional posture of eyes closed or half open with a soft gaze downward, can really bring renewed energy to our meditation and can lift it from ‘sloth and torpor’ to a more awake, present sense of being. Sometimes doing this once is enough, at other times I might repeat it several times.

Practising some mindful movement before sitting meditation can also be very helpful. It stretches and revitalises our body, allowing the energy to flow more freely, and this can help us feel more alert when we then sit down to meditate. This could be yoga, Tai Chi, slow walking meditation, or even a brisk walk around the block.

We can also alternate between sitting and standing meditation. There is nothing wrong, if we’re feeling really sleepy, with standing up for a while, and then returning to the sitting posture when we feel ready. This is perhaps a safer variation of sitting on the edge of a well – we’re less likely to fall asleep standing up, and don’t want to fall over, so standing meditation can also be very useful.

Finally, if sleepy mind is an ongoing problem in our meditation, we can ask ourselves – is this perhaps my way of avoiding being present with life? Do I generally have a tendency to switch off when things become unpleasant, and am I using this same strategy during meditation? If this is the case, we might ask ourselves – ‘why am I meditating? Is this important to me?’ Sometimes recognising some of our behavioural patterns can help us to become more resolved in not giving in to sleepy mind when it arises.

Weekly practice idea:

If you meditate regularly, experiment this week with some movement practices beforehand, standing meditation, or meditating with the eyes wide open. Do they change your meditation in any way?

Anja Tanhane

The greenhouse

One of the most common questions people ask when they are first introduced to mindfulness is ‘can I practice mindfulness without having to do a formal practice, such as sitting meditation?’ The answer is, ‘yes, you can’, and ‘no, you can’t’. It depends on why someone became interested in mindfulness in the first place. Some of the mindfulness practices, like eating a meal in silence and tasting every mouthful, or walking down the street and feeling the contact between the soles of the feet and the ground, or pausing every now and then and tuning into the different senses, are easy to do, and they do have a positive cumulative impact over time. Even just slowing our life down by 10 percent, or learning to take deeper breaths from the diaphragm rather than shallow ones from the chest, will improve our wellbeing.

Just taken by themselves, however, these practices aren’t really what mindfulness is about. If we think of mindfulness as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, we can see that simply noticing that the birds are singing as we walk to the station isn’t going to help us develop this non-judgmental attitude. In fact, we might get caught up in the idea that only the birds should be singing, and that the car noises and lawn mower have no place in our walk to the station. We might get precious about our ‘mindful lunch’, and become annoyed when someone interrupts us. Simply stopping to smell the roses isn’t going to help us develop some of the core attributes of mindfulness such as non-judging, non-striving, letting go, patience, trust, and so on.

In order to develop these qualities, we need the protective setting of a formal mindfulness practice such as sitting meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or the body scan. The formal meditation practice is like a greenhouse where the tender young shoots of these qualities can be nurtured and protected before being exposed to the more challenging weather conditions of our everyday lives.

Because of how we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, our brains don’t just naturally become more mindful simply because we’d like them to be so. Trying to be mindful in the midst of a crisis without having done a regular practice is like facing championship point at Wimbeldon as an amateur tennis player. It’s only the years of hitting forehands and backhands in training which give a tennis player any chance of hitting a winning return under that pressure.

A greenhouse is an artificial environment, just as sitting still in the meditation posture for half an hour is a purposefully-created space. The encouraging aspect is that it doesn’t take long for meditation students to notice the benefits of protecting and nurturing the mindfulness qualities in the greenhouse setting of formal practice.

Weekly practice idea:

If you already have a formal meditation practice, take a few moments to appreciate the protective nurturing this offers you. If not, make a commitment to spend at least twenty minutes this week in a formal mindfulness activity such as meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.

Anja Tanhane

Sitting meditation Part 2

‘Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

When we sit in meditation, we are, as mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘falling awake’. We are still and relaxed, but our mind is attentive. Mindfulness meditation is not about ‘zoning out’ or drifting off. It’s about being present with awareness, with clarity and insight.

That’s why posture is very important in sitting meditation – some teachers say that correct posture is 50% of the meditation. The posture sends a signal to our minds about what is going on – are we striving, or avoiding? Are we slumping forward, thereby signalling to our mind that we are not all that interested in what’s going on? Or are we stiff like soldiers on parade, trying too anxiously to ‘get it right’?

Finding the right posture, however, can involve some trial and error, as we all have different bodies, levels of flexibility, old and current injuries, and so on. Ideally, our posture allows our back to be upright and unsupported, neither slumping forward nor arching back. The chin is tucked in very slightly, freeing up the back of the neck, and our hands can either rest in our lap, or we can place the left hand on top of the right, palms up, with thumbs lightly touching. Eyes are closed or else half-open, with a soft gaze downwards, not looking at anything in particular.

Many people meditate sitting in a chair, with the feet flat on the ground, legs uncrossed. Sometimes it helps to place a cushion under the feet, to take the pressure off the thigh muscles. Specially-designed meditation benches, which we can use to meditate kneeling on a blanket, can be surprisingly comfortable. There are also round meditation cushions called zafus, which are much more solid than the average cushion lying around the house. Sitting on a zafu is probably the ideal meditation posture, but it may require the support of a teacher to get the posture correct at first.

Even though the posture is very still, we don’t want to become rigid and stiff. I find it helpful to think of myself as a tree which is firmly rooted in the ground, but which sways with the slightest motion when it’s windy. This helps to keep a sense of ease about the posture, which is the key to being able to sit in meditation for extended periods.

When we meditate regularly, this sense of ease and centeredness starts to gradually infuse the rest of our lives. Over time, we bring some of the strength and dignity of the meditation posture into our daily interactions, and we may find that life flows with less resistance because of this.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, experiment with the upright posture, whether you’re sitting, standing or walking. Where is the balance for you between being disengaged, and trying too hard? What does it feel like, when your posture allows you to be both alert and at ease at the same time?

Anja Tanhane

 

Sitting meditation – Part 1

‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day, unless you are too busy – then you should sit for an hour.’

Zen saying

There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in our lives – practising yoga or Tai Chi perhaps, or doing some minutes of mindful walking. We can lie down and do the guided body scan, or tune into our breath as we wait in the supermarket queue. Perhaps on the walk back from the station we stop for a moment to admire some apple blossoms, or we choose to eat a meal in silence, really taking the time to taste the food and appreciate it.

All these are wonderful practices which greatly enrich our lives, but the heart of mindfulness for me has always been the sitting meditation. There is something about the sitting posture – centred, strong, grounded and upright – which seems to signal to our mind that this is a time to simply be present. We are not leaning into anything, wanting more; nor are we backing away, trying to avoid what’s there. Our mind may be impatient but our body is still, having a rest from our eternal fidgeting and distraction. An image which is sometimes used is that of a glass of muddy water which is constantly being shaken, so the water stays murky. If you place the glass down for half an hour, however, the mud sinks to the bottom, and we are left with clear water.

In a similar way, the sitting posture encourages clarity of mind. We become like a mountain, which sits solid and strong amidst the changing weather conditions around it. Thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky. Emotions can be like fierce burning sun or a gentle summer day or a wild blizzard – they too will eventually pass and make way for different weather patterns. Over time, we realise we don’t always have to react to every external stimulus, or to our thoughts or emotions. When we sit, there is nowhere to go, no-one to be. We are simply present with the miracle of each precious moment.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit quietly somewhere, noticing perhaps how pleasant it can be to take time out from the ‘doing’ mode we so often get caught up in. Allow yourself to feel grounded and steady among all the changing conditions of your life.

Anja Tanhane

 

Our internal balance sheet

Sherbrooke forest

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

George Orwell, Animal Farm

We all know people who bestride the world with an exaggerated sense of entitlement, as if they’re somehow special and the world owes them something. Others seem to be apologetic for their very existence, anxiously striving to ‘make up’ for the fact they were born and are still around. Whether we have a positive balance sheet (the world owes me, and I’m simply calling in the remuneration I’m entitled to) or a negative one (I guess it’s okay I’m here, as long as I’m conscientious about continually ‘paying off’ my original debt) depends on a complex interaction between the societal values we grew up with, our family environment, our life experiences and personality. Continue reading “Our internal balance sheet” »

Dignity

Kangaroo paw

Do you know a person who embodies both dignity and humility? It could be someone you’ve met, or a well-known public figure, or even a historical or fictional person. They carry themselves well, don’t often look harried or put upon, but are also warm and approachable. If you can’t think of a particular person, perhaps imagine someone. Get a sense of what spending time in their company might be like. Is it relaxing being around them? Do you feel like you can let your guard down a little, and perhaps feel more at ease about who you are?

The meditation posture, where we sit with our back upright but relaxed, our eyes closed or half-open with a soft gaze, and our shoulders at ease but not slumped forward, is a posture of centeredness, strength, and dignity. Continue reading “Dignity” »