Feeling alive – Part 2

When people in affluent societies are asked about their stressors, being time-poor is often near the top of the list. Of course there are also stresses like illness, job insecurity, mental health issues, accidents and so on, but nonetheless there are few people who would say they are able to do everything they need to do in a day and still have plenty of time left over. A few decades ago we heard about labour-saving devices and the four hour working week, but the opposite seems to have occurred. Computers were supposed to save us time, but many of us seem to spend an inordinate amount of time each day wading through emails and logging in and out of various websites to pay bills and make bookings and so on.

So finding the time and space for those areas in your life you’re passionate about isn’t always easy. To say ‘just do it’ might not be enough – many of the limitations are real and need to be considered. Perhaps you’re a single parent juggling two jobs, and a child with a disability, who loves reading, but by the time you get to bed with your precious novel you’re so exhausted you can’t even get through a paragraph without falling asleep. You might dream of owning and training a dressage horse, but can barely afford to feed the cat. Your vision is to paint a ten foot panoramic depiction of the sea, but your living room is so small even your visitor’s chair is a fold-up.

All the wishful thinking in the world won’t make these limitations go away, at least not in the foreseeable future. Yet there is also a cost in abandoning your dream altogether – life can start to feel dutiful and dull. So we need to get creative, adapt, and find a way of keeping the spark alive in the midst of our many other demands.

An artist friend of mine did have a studio, but not much time between work and family. So he used his daily commute on the train to sketch post-card sized portraits of other passengers, and then held an exhibition at the end of the year. It was one of the most moving exhibitions I’ve been to – hundreds of portraits of people sketched with humanity and compassion. The famous novelist Kafka wrote his masterpieces in the morning before going to his job as an insurance lawyer. Even if you only write for 20 minutes a day, by the end of the year you’ve gathered 118 hours worth of writing. How often do we fritter away 20 minutes on Facebook, or watching something on TV we’re not really interested in, or trying to find the car keys yet again?

Perhaps your passion is gardening, but you live in an apartment? You might be able to volunteer once a month in the therapeutic garden at your local hospital. You didn’t end up becoming an astronaut, but can explore space travel through websites and magazines, and teach your granddaughter about the galaxies and nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity in her. A wholesome passion brings out the best in us, and as long as we’re not rigid about it, with a bit of planning and prioritising we can allow that passion to enrich our lives and nourish us year after year.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something you love but have been neglecting. Plan one way of bringing it into your life this week, even if it’s only for ten minutes, and notice how you feel afterwards.

Anja Tanhane

Music and mindfulness

We feel music in our bodies – whether we start to tap our toes, move with the rhythm, get up and dance; or else sit more quietly, at a classical concert perhaps: listening to music is never just on our heads, in our thoughts. Playing a musical instrument, or singing, involves the whole of the body, but even just listening to music is never a purely intellectual exercise.

Music also involves emotions – emotions which may have nothing to do with how we felt before the music started. Sometimes, music can seem to validate our existing emotional state, but other times it can transform our emotions, sometimes significantly. Music can provide a safe container for working through difficult emotions – a space from which we can explore our emotions and come to develop a new relationship to them.

Like music, mindfulness is an embodied way of living, and like music, mindfulness can help us approach our emotions in a new way. Music and mindfulness have a beneficial effect on our brain functioning and physiology – increasing the connectivity between the left and right brain hemispheres, improving executive functioning, and strengthening the immune system, for example. Listening to music or playing music can also help us step outside our small sense of self, into a larger, more expansive awareness, just as meditation can.

In our society, we place a lot of emphasis on intellectual problem solving, on figuring things out and coming up with solutions. This has its place, but is generally more limited than coming from a more embodied, experiential perspective. Music therapy, and the use of mindfulness in clinical applications, have both been validated through extensive research studies. We can all find ways of including some of these principles into our day to day life – going for a walk in the park perhaps when our mood is low, or baking a cake, singing along to music, or doing some yoga stretches. Sometimes, we just need to ‘be’ for a while, and our perspective will shift. Our life doesn’t necessarily improve because we’ve managed to solve a problem – sometimes simply stepping outside our heads, and making time and space for beneficial activities, can help us to deal with our life much more effectively.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one activity you enjoy, which gets you out of your head and back into experiencing life? This week, set aside half an hour for this activity, and notice how you feel before, during and afterwards.

Anja Tanhane

The music of now

‘The only thing that is constant is change.’ Heraclitus

Life is fleeting, ephemeral, forever transforming and changing. We might feel as if we’re living solid lives in solid bodies, with a solid value system and a strong sense of ‘this is me’, but in fact the cells in our bodies are continually dying and being renewed; our solid lives are highly vulnerable; our values change throughout our lives; and as for our sense of self – are you still the person you were at 12? Two years ago? Two breaths ago?

One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism is that much of our suffering is caused by our attempts to live solid lives in an ephemeral world. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a sense of being grounded. We don’t need to live like tumble weeds, forever blown about by the wind, at the mercy of the slightest breeze. Yet even the Himalayas, which look so solid to us, are forever growing and transforming.

Music is the most ephemeral of the art forms – even a single held note is nothing more than ever-changing vibrations. By its nature, music can never be static. Each note is unique in its expression, and flows inevitably into the next. There is nothing we can hold on to in music, nothing we can own or pin down. By the time our brain registers a sound, it’s already gone.

Yet as human beings we love music, often passionately. With one or two exceptions, there are no societies which don’t have music as a fundamental part of their cultural identity. As a music therapist, I’ve been privileged to witness how sometime people can express more about themselves and their identity through music than through words.

And, despite its ephemeral nature, or perhaps because of it, music can ground us deeply into the present moment, to give us that sense of being alive right here, right now. We give ourselves over to music, without a desire to cling onto it, to own it or control it. We do this easily with music; often less comfortably with the rest of our lives. Next week, we will look at other similarities between music and mindfulness, and how these might be helpful for us.

Weekly practice idea:

Lie down on the couch and listen to a piece of music. Notice the sense of flow which music has, its ever-changing nature.

Anja Tanhane

Miku

This week’s reflection was written by Michelle Morris:

This morning

Relishing the cool morning air,

its touch; freshness.

The Cardinal, bright red breast,

flits to a small bush, then still.

Sounds of insects, then quiet pervades.

Presence of the cliff in the background.

Mikus developed when I was on retreat in Mexico. One of the activities offered was embodied journalling, a process of being given short prompts and then a few minutes to write something in response to this. I explained to the facilitator I had RSI, and was not able to write much. He suggested to do haikus. This appealed to me; I love the simplicity and focus on nature of this poetry. As we had only a few minutes to write, I decided to do my own style, without needing to conform to the particular number of syllables of haiku. We first called this type of writing a Michiku, which in haiku style became shortened to Miku.

Discovering this way of writing has been wonderful. It has greatly reduced the struggle and striving I have previously experienced with writing. The common roadblocks of perfectionism and fears of inadequacy and failure are not featured so much in my awareness. Synchronistically I just heard a radio program, interviewing performers about their experience of failures and how they can continue their “experiments” nevertheless. In a self-mocking tone Justin Hazlewood (the bedroom philosopher) spoke of “the struggle to do something brilliant “. Doing the miku I feel more ease and the critical voice is quieter. Self-judgement has taken a back seat! And it is very freeing to have more acceptance and let go of trying to express “something brilliant”. The qualities of non-striving and non-judging are core attributes of mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn reminds us:

‘Suspending judging, or not judging the judging that does arise, is an act of intelligence, not an act of stupidity. It is also an act of kindness toward yourself, as it runs counter to the tendency we all have to be so hard on ourselves, and so critical.’

In meditation and other parts of our lives, being driven by striving can be a real obstacle. Jon Kabat Zinn gives further valuable guidance: meditation ‘has no goal other than for you to be yourself’. He gives examples of common thoughts we have: ‘if I were only more calm, or more intelligent,… or more of this or more of that, if only my heart were healthier or my knee were better, then I would be okay. But right now, I am not okay’. What might our lives be like if we cultivated more kindness to ourselves and less striving?

In approaching the experience of writing mikus with less judging and striving, and greater sense of curiosity and wonder, there has been the joy of surprises. New ideas emerge as I am writing, ones I had not been aware of in the beginning–a flowing, creative process.

In relation to mikus , the facilitator of the Mexican retreat made a very meaningful comment ‘you have turned your symptom into an asset’. Reflecting on this I see RSI has helped free me to feel accepting of doing something simple and let go of strivings to do ‘something brilliant’.

When I look at all the colours

A feeling of delight.

Drawn to the world of greens,

wanting to immerse myself.

I think of Becky, blind,

in a world of shadows.

I appreciate more,

orange, pink, blue and green,

somehow they appear brighter.

Weekly practice idea: Choose something you would like to create: maybe a piece of writing, a drawing, woodwork, a garden bed, a meal. Try approaching this time of creating with curiosity and acceptance.

Michelle Morris