Feeding the wolf of love

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the story of a wise American Indian Elder, who explained how each day she chose to feed the wolf of love. When we hear the idea expressed in those terms, it makes perfect sense to us. Yet in the rush and stress of everyday life, we can unwittingly find ourselves becoming impatient, unkind, or acting out old habitual patterns which we already know won’t bring us any happiness, let alone feed the wolf of love in our lives.

There are many reasons for this, and one of the ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to allow us to become more aware of what in our lives pulls us away from being more loving and connected.

When we’re stressed, our thoughts and bodily sensations can move along with a strong momentum, almost as if they take on a life of their own. It can feel like we’re caught up in a compelling narrative which has its own logic, and which demands our full attention and engagement. Mindfulness is about stopping and asking ourselves – what is really going on right now? Is this current direction helpful, or unhelpful, or neutral?

Interrupting the powerful momentum of stress can be very hard to do – it’s almost like we feel it’s rude to interfere with something which is moving along so swiftly with a life of its own. Yet if we start to make a habit of regularly pausing, breathing, and tuning in, we might soon notice that we have a lot more freedom to choose the direction we want to go in. The more stressed we are, the more difficult it is to stop and pause, and at the same time, the more worthwhile the effort to do so is likely to be.

This is where a daily meditation practice can be helpful. You get into the habit of stopping on a regular basis, and noticing the benefits of doing this. After a while, a positive feedback loop is created – you become aware how good it feels to pause, and are therefore more likely to make the time to briefly pause during busy times as well.

Other opportunities for pausing and tuning into the here and now of our breath and our body can be: as we make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee; washing our hands; walking to the photocopier or the car; when we arrive home from work; between finishing one task and starting the next; or just before we start eating. It may feel a little odd at first to do this, even though the pauses don’t need to be very long. It’s worth experimenting with this technique, to see if we notice a difference in how we respond to the demands of our life. If we feel we are more patient, feel more grounded and connected, then we’re also likely to find that we are in a much better position to feed the wolf of love in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

For the next week, decide to set aside a couple of minutes three to five times each day to pause for a moment. This can be a time to tune into your breath, how you’re feeling in your body right now, perhaps also noticing sights, sounds and smells around you. At the end of the week, review the practice and note whether you have found it helpful.

Anja Tanhane

Revisiting the gentle half smile

This week we will revisit a post from a few years ago, about the gentle half smile:

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near.
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use in crying?
You’ll find that life is still worth-while
If you do just smile.

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons

This famous song has no doubt brought a smile to many faces over the decades. From a mindfulness point of view, we may not agree with the line ‘hide every trace of sadness’, since we don’t want to deny our feelings. However, there is a practice which the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls a gentle half smile, which can indeed brighten our day, without needing to pretend that life is all wonderful.

When we look at advertising we are bombarded with ecstatic smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, giving the impression of a fully realised human life. In the past we may have been told ‘come on, smile!’:) when we’ve been having a bad day, and we probably rather resented this! It’s quite galling to be told to smile when you’re feeling lousy. And we have all come across the compulsory professional smile, which depending on the person may still be friendly, but in the wrong hands can feel cold and arrogant.

The gentle half smile is a way of bringing positive energy into our day, of lifting our spirits without necessarily trying to radically change our underlying feeling state. We can feel sad, or anxious, and still find our outlook improves if we sit with those feelings while we have a gentle smile on our face. It’s quite easy to habitually frown without even noticing we’re doing this. It’s a good practice to start our meditation with a reminder to gently smile, but we can also bring this half smile to our face throughout the day.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely way of extending this practice. During some of her guided meditations, she suggests feeling the gentle half smile behind the eyes, behind the face, in the heart centre. We can also send the half smile to parts of our body which may be hurting, or which feel tense. It’s easy for us to metaphorically frown at various parts of the body, either because of pain, or because of a sense there is something ‘wrong’ with our bodies. It’s so much more friendly to bring a gentle smile to different regions of our bodies instead.

When we are talking to other people, it may not always be appropriate to be beaming a wide smile at them. They may be talking about something which has distressed them, or criticising you, and a big smile would look out of place. But even in those situations, you can still imagine a gentle half smile behind your eyes, and you will look more open and receptive to the other person, and they may feel you are being warm and friendly towards them.

It is a wonderful habit to cultivate, and encapsulates what mindfulness meditation is about – not pretending that life is other than it is, but choosing small actions which will gradually infuse our days with more positive states of mind.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try the gentle half smile, when you are by yourself and also with other people. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Enjoyment

I recently gave a presentation on the community choir which I conduct, and as part of this talk, I was able to show a slide show of photos of our performances which one of the choir musicians had kindly put together. What struck me when seeing these images, apart from the wide range of performances (nearly forty in just over two years!) were the many photos where people are smiling. We’re clearly having a good time, and when choir members talk about the choir, they often say things like, ‘it lifts me up, I always walk out with a big smile on my face.’

One of the pleasures of spending time with young children is their seemingly boundless ability to revel in enjoyment. Similarly, a dog chasing a ball, or a cat stretching out in the sun, is happy to be having a good time. There are no guilt feelings attached, no sense of ‘perhaps I should be more serious’. Some people go to the extreme of a hedonistic lifestyle, where the only thing which matters is how much fun they’re having. This is self-centered and immature, and often the hallmark of narcissistic personalities. Others go through life with a permanent frown, constantly anxious about not taking life seriously enough. This can be the glass half-empty phenomenon, where all we ever see is problems and things to worry about, rather than appreciating the gifts we have been offered.

Somewhere in the middle there is probably a happy medium, where we are not just chasing from pleasure to pleasure, but we’re still able to enjoy the blessings which life is offering us. Much of the time, these can be the simple pleasures – a cat purring on our lap, watching children play, hearing a favourite song, going for a swim in the ocean or a walk in the park.

Different cultures have very differing attitudes when it comes to the amount of enjoyment we’re ‘allowed’ to have. Sometimes, these can unconsciously make us feel guilty for enjoying life – perhaps it feels frivolous, or selfish, to be taking pleasure in something. We all have to find the point on the continuum between narcissism and excessive guilt which feels comfortable for us. Yet enjoying life is good for our bodies and our minds, it has a positive flow-on effect on those around us, it’s a way of appreciating our blessings – perhaps we could benefit from allowing ourselves to have more enjoyment in life?

Weekly practice idea:

Take the opportunity to watch a child or a pet at play. How does it feel for you, when you see their simple enjoyment?

Anja Tanhane

Working with aversion

One of the challenges we face in our often busy lives is that many of our habitual patterns and coping strategies are happening below the level of our conscious awareness. We might promise ourselves, for example, to cut down on sugar, and yet suddenly here we are, an ice-cream in our hands, and we barely know how it happened. Or we have every intention of being more patient with Aunty Frieda next time she rings, and yet the conversation finishes with the usual recriminations and blame games. To change those patterns which are unhelpful to us, we first need to be aware of them, then we have to notice what our usual coping strategies are, and then we need to have the internal recourses to come up with, and implement, new ways of being with our discomforts and distress. In psychology this is known as affect tolerance – being able to tolerate a range of emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Mindfulness meditation, and in particular the sitting meditation, helps us with all four steps of this process. One of the questions we can ask ourselves from time to time during meditation is – ‘what is really happening right now’? Often we might notice, for example, feelings of anxiety. These could be subtle, or quite intense. Anxiety is one of those feeling states we’d do almost anything to escape from. And yet what happens if we don’t reach for our usual coping strategies, and sit with the anxiety instead? Where do we notice it in our bodies? We can take the time to really tune into the physical sensations of anxiety. Sometimes it might be the stomach churning, or a tightness of breath, or the heart seeming to beat very fast. Over time, as we practise meditation regularly, we can gain confidence in sitting with anxiety for a while, rather than immediately needing to reach for that glass of wine or spend the rest of the evening watching mindless TV. This can be very empowering, and is often one of the benefits of meditation which those who are starting out often appreciate the most.

There are times when meditation, or at least meditation by itself, is not going to be the answer to our problems. We might have suffered significant trauma, or a profound loss, and need counselling and other supports for a while before we can begin to sit quietly with our pain and anxiety. The coping strategies we use are there for a reason – they’re the best we could manage at the time. We need to do this work in our own time, with the right supports in place. Yet it’s probably fair to say that there are few of us who wouldn’t benefit from learning more about our usual coping strategies, and finding new and more skillful ways of being present with ‘life as it is’.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside twenty minutes for a quiet meditation. What kind of emotions, thoughts and body sensations do you notice during that time? What happens when you don’t react to unpleasant feeling states, but simply remain present with them?

Anja Tanhane

Aversion

So far we’ve looked at the first of what are considered the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, which is desire. The second hindrance is aversion, and in both Buddhism and mindfulness, learning a new and different approach to our aversions is considered both fundamental and also very therapeutic. On the other hand, aversion can be difficult to work with, as most of us have a normal and healthy wish to be safe and happy, and to avoid danger, pain and unpleasantness.

There is nothing wrong, of course, in trying to avoid pain and things which are unpleasant. The difficulties can arise when we choose unskillful means of escaping pain, or when we find ourselves in a situation where pain can’t be avoided. Sometimes the ‘cure’ can become as problematic as the original difficulty – for example if we choose to numb emotional pain by drinking a lot of alcohol, and end up with a whole range of social and health problems as a result.

In the context of meditation, aversion is seen as a hindrance when we try to escape in some way at the first hint that something unpleasant may be occurring. We might have settled into a comfortable position, and be enjoying watching our breath, when we notice that our left leg isn’t quite as comfortable as we thought. We remember the instruction to not fidget, so we try to sit still for a few more seconds, but eventually it just becomes too distracting and we spend quite a few minutes working out what the best position for us should be. At last we think we’ve got it, and we once again settle into watching our breath when, would you believe it, the neighbour starts up his noisy car. It is really most annoying, and we spend quite a bit of time stewing on the fact this shouldn’t be happening right now, it’s meditation time after all, and why does the engine have to be so noisy anyway, there should be laws etc etc… At last he drives off and you spend a few more minutes thinking about this neighbour more generally and other incidents in the past, which segues neatly into an issue at work, which keeps your mind occupied a little longer. At some point you recall yourself to the fact you’re supposed to be meditating, but by now your back is feeling quite uncomfortable, so once again you adjust your posture. You’ve found it at last when – ah yes, here is the bell for the end of meditation.

It’s easy to see why aversion could be seen as a hindrance to meditation. What we are really saying, when we’re avoiding/suppressing/escaping, is that the present moment is in some way flawed and inadequate. Unfortunately, in the course of a day, this can add up to a lot of flawed and inadequate moments. There is usually no shortage to things we could conceivably have an aversion to! Staying with ‘life as it is’ can be challenging, and next week we will look at some ideas of how we can practise this on the meditation cushion.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something you have a slight aversion to, such as a task at home or at work. Make an effort this week to be as present as possible during the task, performing it slowly and mindfully, and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Urge surfing

I’m sometimes asked by students whether they ‘have’ to practise sitting meditation, or whether doing yoga or Tai Chi is enough. The answer really depends on why someone is choosing to do a mindfulness practice in the first place. Yoga and Tai Chi are both ancient practices which are whole and complete in themselves. Anyone who practises them regularly will benefit enormously – physically, mentally and spiritually.

The benefit of a sitting meditation is that it teaches us to remain still and centered in the midst of our countless different thoughts, emotions, body sensations and desires. Most of the time, we have a tendency to move away from unpleasant experience – we try to avoid it, or pretend it’s not there, or distract ourselves, or do our best to numb ourselves so we don’t have to feel the full impact of what is happening. There are times when any of these strategies are quite appropriate, but if they become our main way of dealing with life’s challenges, the solution can sometimes become as problematic as the initial problem we were trying to solve.

Say for example that you’ve had a shocking day at work, and when you come home you’ve just got to have a glass of wine. You instantly feel a little better about life. The situation at work deteriorates further, but in addition you’re now also having to deal with an elderly aunt who is no longer able to live independently, but refuses to even discuss a nursing home. Soon that glass of wine becomes three or four, but then you don’t sleep well, and so you drink one coffee after the other to get you through the next day, which is making you even more anxious. You know you’re in a pattern which isn’t helpful or sustainable, but when you get home you’ve just got to have that wine, and the thought of getting through a day at work without regular coffee breaks seems unbearable.

A regular sitting meditation teaches us the skills to notice the arising of unpleasant thoughts, body sensations and emotions, without needing to get up and implement our usual coping strategy. When we sit regularly, we soon notice that every sensation comes and goes. Even the most intense experience doesn’t actually last all that long – sooner or later it abates, transforms, or we start to think about whether we should have bought more milk.

In the practice called ‘urge-surfing’, we approach each desire like a wave coming into the beach. We notice the wave by tuning into our physical sensations. Where in the body do we feel the urge – is it large or small, what sensations are associated with it, how does it change? We notice the sensation becoming more intense, like riding the crest of a wave. But instead of being overwhelmed by the wave, we simply follow its journey to the shore and then get on with the rest of our day. We can practise becoming more familiar with the urge by also noticing the kind of thoughts and emotions associated with it. After a while it will become familiar, and we will have developed greater internal strength by learning how to stay with the urge without giving in. Sometimes it might be easier to practice urge surfing with something simple, like the urge to fidget during sitting meditation, before moving onto more powerful desires like smoking or whatever else is particularly challenging for us.

Sitting meditation teaches us that we don’t always have to instantly respond to every feeling, thought or urge which life brings us. So instead of saying – ‘don’t just stand there – do something!’, we might sometimes say instead – ‘don’t just do something – sit there!’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick a small habit you would like to change, and practise urge surfing with it this week. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Wanting what we have – Part 2

‘We can eventually stop using practice in the service of a curative fantasy of being made out of stone, immune to the pain of the world.’

Barry Magid

We’re not made out of stone – it’s very normal for us to have desires which are slightly addictive, to be caught up in patterns of wanting more than is necessarily good for us. I was speaking with a worker at an alcohol and drug rehab facility recently, and he thought the next addiction they may need to treat is the addiction to smartphones. The way most of us use our smartphones may not be ruining our lives, but can easily pull us away from being in the present moment. Our addictions can be escapism, or a form of self-medication to try and cope with deep emotional pain. It’s often easy to identify addiction in others – your boss is addicted to work, or the son of a family friend is living on the streets and taking ice. It can be much harder to pinpoint it in ourselves. What mindfulness meditation asks us to do is notice the often very subtle ways in which we are pulled away from presence and into some kind of numbing – whether it’s the fourth glass of wine, the compulsion to buy more than we need, or the fact we once again spent a lot longer on Facebook that we’d originally intended.

Mindfulness can assist us in two ways. For a start, it can help us to identify the patterns in our life which pull us away from being present. These can be strong, such as in a full-blown addiction, or quite subtle. Both are challenging to work with – a full-blown addiction obviously has a great deal of power, and we need a lot of support and time in order to heal from it. The subtle addictions, on the other hand, can be very elusive. After all, there is nothing wrong with the occasional escapism, or making ourselves feel better by indulging in a treat, or avoiding something unpleasant to focus on more positive interactions. When are the escapism and avoidance just a normal part of life, and when do they become problematic? Mindfulness meditation can help us to become much clearer about what aspects of our life are helpful in the long term, and which are holding us back and limiting our potential for present-moment awareness.

The other way in which mindfulness can be helpful is by developing greater resilience, and the ability to stay with difficult feeling states instead of always having to escape or block them out. In psychological language, this is called building greater affect tolerance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers for the clinical uses of mindfulness in the West, describes a practice called ‘urge-surfing’, which will be the topic for next week’s blog.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit down for ten minutes in a quiet place, and notice the flow between presence and distraction. What does it feel like for you? Is there anything which stands out for you in particular?

Anja Tanhane

Wanting what we have

‘Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.’

Anonymous saying

When we look at our lives, most of the time we have fairly clear ideas about what we’d like more of, and what we’d love to do without. All cultures and religions have guidelines about which desires are considered acceptable, and which are strictly forbidden. There are usually also some grey areas, where the rules are less clear. And of course, in a rapidly changing world, within even one Church congregation there can be a wide range of views on subjects like same-sex marriage, corporal punishment, women as priests and so on.

Many of our desires are survival-based – the desire to have enough to eat, adequate shelter, to be safe from harm and so on. Usually we also have a desire to be free from pain and suffering, though this desire might be subjugated to a higher purpose, as in the case of a marathon runner who chooses to endure quite a lot of pain and suffering in order to reach her goal.

Desires motivate us to not only survive, but also to prosper and flourish. The downside of our desires can be that they tend to be addictive. If we meditate regularly, we can be quite surprised at the constant array of various desires parading through our mind. Some of these might be lofty – ‘I want to reach enlightenment so that I can liberate all other sentient beings’. Some are a little more prosaic – ‘I’ve really got to have some chocolate, NOW!’ Other desires might feel shameful, or at least somewhat embarrassing. One of the reasons why sensual desire is seen as a hindrance to meditation in traditional Buddhism is the way in which desires pull us away from simply being present in the moment. Sometimes this can be very intense – when we fall in love, for example, and can’t think of anything other than our beloved. Yet even if we are meditating with great concentration, really being mindful of the moment, we can still be engaged in what Zen teacher Barry Magid calls our ‘secret practice’ – our deep, often well-hidden wish for life to be somehow other than it is. And while our more obvious sensual desires can make it more difficult to remain present during a meditation, our ‘secret’ desires about what meditation should be can be a significant hindrance in keeping our practice going long-term.

Next week we look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can be used to work more skillfully with our desires – not through denying them, but by being more clear about their place in our life, and the various directions they want to pull us in.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit for ten minutes in a quiet place, and watch the range of desires emerging in your mind. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

The soothing system – Part 1

The third system in Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems (the previous two were ‘fight/flight’ and ‘resource-seeking’) is what he calls the ‘soothing and affiliation system’. This system is crucial for rest, regeneration, and healing. Unlike the excitement and intensity of the other two systems, the soothing and affiliation system is quiet, receptive, and content. In the hectic busyness of our everyday lives, the soothing system is easily overlooked – and yet, so much of what we value in life springs from, and is nurtured through, this system.

It could be feelings of appreciation, of gratitude, of being grounded and present. There might be a sense of coming home to ourselves, of connecting with our deepest values. There’s little excitement in this system, but instead it allows us a deep sense of joy. Excitement has its place, but it can easily be derailed. For example, as a child you may have been very excited about getting a new bike, only to have one of your friends make a snide comment about its colour – and immediately your excitement gave way to hurt and disappointment. Contentment is different – a colleague may make a cutting remark about the compliment you received from your boss, but you are basically content within yourself, and can recognise the remark for the jealousy it probably is. We hear a lot about the search for happiness, but I find thinking about contentment more useful. We can feel sad, even a little hurt by unkind remarks, and still feel basically content.

The soothing and affiliation system is also important for kindness and compassion. We’re hardwired to be calmed down in the face of kindness. When we’re constantly in a rush, it’s difficult to find the time to sit with someone, really listen to them, respond empathetically to their distress. Deep social connections and support take time. That doesn’t mean we have to invariably spend hours listening to someone when we ask them how their day was. Yet eventually, if we’re always in a rush and distracted when we talk to our friends and family, those relationships are going to suffer.

In his book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing – Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’, Norman Doidge writes about the research by Stephen Porges, which found that activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which is our resting and regenerating system) also turns on our social engagement system, as well as the middle ear muscles. This allows us to communicate and connect with others. There are young children with sensory processing difficulties who are constantly overwhelmed by the sensations coming at them, and are therefore mostly in fight/flight mode. They may show little interest in interacting with others, until they are given the opportunity to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for example through sound therapy, as Norman Doidge describes in his book). Once they’re able to relax and don’t feel overwhelmed, they may then become very engaged socially.

The soothing and affiliation system is crucial if we want to find a way of life which is fulfilling and balanced. Yet, because it’s not related to our immediate survival needs, it can often be neglected. Next week, we will look at some ideas for nurturing this system in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside ten to twenty minutes, and reflect on areas in your life where you are currently cultivating the soothing and affiliation system. Does it feel the right balance, or do you need to spend more or less time in this system?

Anja Tanhane

The resource-seeking system Part 1

So far, we’ve looked at the first of Paul Gilbert’s three emotional systems – the fight/flight system. Over the coming two weeks we will explore the second system, which he calls the ‘drive- and resource-seeking’ system. While the fight/flight system is all about here-and-now survival (trying not to become the tiger’s lunch, so to speak), the second system is also survival-based, though not quite as immediate. We’ve managed to avoid becoming the tiger’s lunch, but we still need to find lunch for ourselves, as well as shelter, medicines to keep us healthy, protection for our children, and so on. This second system is all about ensuring we get the resources we need in order to survive and prosper. When our distant ancestors lived in the savannah, food and shelter were the main priorities. Nowadays, in order to thrive in our society, we may also need a car to get to work, a smartphone to stay in touch, a computer, a house and so on. While there may be legitimate debate about just how much ‘stuff’ we actually need, the reality is that we can’t hold down a job if we only have one item of clothing made of old sacks, can’t wash ourselves, have no way of getting to work, or can’t keep in touch with the world around us. And of course we also want the best for our children, and to give them every opportunity to feel safe, to thrive, and to belong.

The resource-seeking system is what motivates us to get out of bed each morning, to work hard, to accomplish our tasks, whether small or large, and to strive for excellence. We can derive a great deal of our meaning in life, as well as joy and a sense of achievement, from this system. It is based on rewards – each time we achieve something, or get something, whether it’s a promotion, a like on Facebook, a new car, or praise from a family member, our brain releases a little rush of dopamine to help us feel good, and to motivate us to keep trying. The resource-seeking system is a very active and engaged system, and it can be highly energising. It’s certainly a wonderful part of our life, and, like all three emotional systems in Paul Gilbert’s model, it plays an important part in helping us live well. However, there are also some potential pitfalls when we invest too much of our life into this system – when our life becomes out of balance. Next week, we will look at some of the shadow sides which the resource-seeking system can bring with it.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down a list of potential problems that an over-reliance on the resource-seeking system might bring about in our life.

Anja Tanhane