Holiday favourites – nourishing ourselves

We are continually nourishing ourselves – each next breath in brings a fresh supply of oxygen; most of us eat several meals a day and often plenty of snacks in between; we nourish ourselves by spending time with like-minded people, pursuing sports and hobbies, walking in nature, or listening to music.

If we live in an affluent society, there is usually no shortage of nourishment to choose from, and yet, ironically, the quality of our nourishment is often quite poor. For example, very few people breathe in a way which fills up our lungs fully. Most people habitually take a shallow breath, high in the chest, and never get the health benefits, relaxation, and the nourishment of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. The food we eat may also give us more empty calories than valuable nourishment. It can take considerable discipline and planning to ensure we have a healthy meal, when there are so many quick, easy, unhealthy alternatives about.

If we’re feeling stressed and time-poor, the quality of our interpersonal relationships can suffer. And by the time we collapse exhausted on the couch in the evening, who has the energy to read a novel or poetry or philosophy? Instead we might find ourselves flicking restlessly between TV channels, all 2000 of them, without finding anything we actually feel like watching.

Even when we do eat a healthy meal, we might wolf it down so fast we get indigestion. We might have finally found the time to go for a walk in nature, but barely notice our surroundings because we’re thinking about work. We’ve finally opened that novel which has been sitting on our bedside table since Christmas 2003, but by page 7 we find ourselves reading the same paragraph again and again as our concentration wanes.

How we nourish ourselves depends both on the quality of nourishment, and on our openness to allowing ourselves to be nourished. We can be like hydrophobic soil which is so dry and depleted, when it does actually rain the water runs straight off because the soil can’t absorb it. A healthy soil will absorb the water, a depleted soil rejects it. That’s why it’s so difficult to help some people, often those who need the most help. Their inner resources are so depleted, they either reject the water, or the water runs straight through them like through a pipe, with little impact on their wellbeing.

Regular mindfulness meditation can help us become more receptive to the nourishment which is present in our lives. The nourishment of a ten minute tea break, the kind smile from the girl at the supermarket check-out, the piece of music which lifts us up. We can also become more attuned to when nourishment is needed, to when our inner resources are becoming depleted, and so take steps to replenish ourselves before we collapse in exhaustion.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick something you find nourishing, and set some time aside for it. During this time, allow yourself to be open and relaxed, and really absorb the sense of being nourished. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Feeling relaxed

Who in your life is very relaxed – it could be an Elder, a baby, a friend, perhaps a pet? In my life, I’d have to say that my cat seems most relaxed. It’s not that she doesn’t have any stress in her life. She and the neighbour’s cat don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes she’s locked inside at night when she’d love to be outside instead, exploring and hunting. And as for visits to the vet…

Still, when she’s curled up on the couch, or under the bed on a rainy day, it’s hard not to feel more relaxed just looking at her.

I’ve met babies who seem to gaze into the world with serene eyes, and Elders who have learned, over the years, to live with an open perspective to life which doesn’t get them bogged down in every small little stressor. Just as stress can be infectious (we all feel it when someone’s having a bad day at the office), so can relaxation. I feel more relaxed just looking at my cat when she’s fast asleep, and I feel more at ease when I’m in the presence of someone who radiates calm and compassion.

Sometimes we might feel – ‘I don’t have time to be relaxed, there’s just so much to do.’ Yet even when life is busy, we can benefit from slowing down the pace a little; and we can also choose to build little ‘relaxation moments’ into our day. We might not be able to linger for an hour over our afternoon cup of coffee, but perhaps we can take three minutes to pause, breathe, and really savour the drink. If we notice our breath is becoming shallow and our shoulders are really tight, we can roll our shoulders back a few times, and say to ourselves in a kind voice, ‘breathe, relax.’ Perhaps a bird is singing outside, and we can pause for a moment in whatever we’re doing, and allow ourselves to feel nourished by the bird song. In our everyday life, there are countless of these small opportunities for building more relaxation into our lives. They may not seem like much, but over time they make a noticeable difference to how each day unfolds. It is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves – and it’s not only we who benefit, but those around us enjoy the contagious effect of being around a more relaxed person as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one small relaxation practice (either one of the ones mentioned above, or a practice of your own choosing), and commit yourself to pause for this practice at least three times a day for the next week. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Finding our balance

We humans are complex creatures – we crave excitement but also yearn for peace; we want life to flow smoothly but get bored when we don’t have any challenges; we want to fit in and belong, but prefer to feel unique and a little bit ‘special’ at the same time; we want intimacy and also our own space. Life is a constant balancing act between these contradictory drives, as well as our obligations to others, and the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. Because we’re being pulled in different directions both internally and externally much of the time, we can find ourselves a little dissatisfied with life even when all seems to be going well for us. In Buddhism this is known as dukkha – the unsatisfactory nature of existence. Even when everything is going to plan, a part of us already knows that it won’t last. Within each moment of happiness, there is the knowledge that sadness will follow sooner or later.

Far from being a defeatist attitude, the concept of dukkha can be quite liberating. For example, a few days ago I was in the garden, pulling out the last of the old tomatoes and preparing a vegie bed for winter. It was a job I’d been wanting to get around to for a while, and here I was, on a cold but sunny autumn day, finally doing it. Yet I was constantly distracted by seeing other jobs which needed to be done – all those weeds to be pulled out, and leaves raked, and the roses tidied up, and the azalea not looking the best. Not to mention the unanswered emails and countless other tasks inside the house! Part of my mind was also mulling over work.

I love gardening, but in the garden I tend to be a half-glass full person – more likely to notice what needs to be done than what is growing well. Gardening is a perfect opportunity for mindfulness – it’s quiet and in nature, and we can use all our senses to tune into our environment. I find it helpful to remind myself from time to time – ‘this is what I’m doing right now’. Right now I’m clearing out the vegie bed, and if I can focus on that, my experience of gardening becomes much more satisfying and peaceful.

There are many aspects to mindfulness, but I find that the ability to centre ourselves into what we are doing, rather than feeling ourselves pulled in all directions, is one of the greatest gifts of mindfulness. For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems, which describes some of the reasons why we are often distracted away from the present moment. These reasons are powerful, because they’re hard-wired into our brain. They are designed to help us survive, which is one of the most powerful drivers there is. Fortunately, we can change some of the ways in which our brain has evolved, through regular practices which help us to ‘remember’ to come back to the present. This provides a powerful counter-balance to our fears and drivenness, and can indeed help us to find greater balance within our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose something you will do for ten or more minutes each day to re-balance your life. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

The soothing system – Part 2

We’re probably all pretty familiar with the stress response (sometimes it might seem like our whole lives are spent responding to stress!), but perhaps we are less well acquainted with the relaxation response. This response has been described by scientists such as Dr Herbert Benson, who found that people who meditated had the opposite of the fight/flight response – the meditators had decreased heart rates, slower brain waves, and a slower rate of breathing. Dr Benson found that two key factors were involved in evoking the relaxation response – repetition, and disregarding other thoughts when they come to our mind. 95% of the stressors most of us face in modern life are in our mind, not a sabre-tooth tiger about to eat us. Yet these anxious thoughts can keep us trapped in the stress response, which places a huge allostatic load on our bodies, meaning our minds and bodies wear out more quickly.

Dr Benson looked at cultures around the world, and found that every single culture had practices which involved repetition, and were designed to interrupt the train of everyday thinking. These could be rituals, prayer, singing, dancing, making offerings, meditation. What’s more, recent research by scientists at the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine found that the very first time we switch on the relaxation response, genomic gene expression changes occur. We are born with a set of genes which we carry throughout our lives – these never change. However, our lifestyle and external factors determine which genes are expressed, and which ones are switched off. As Dr Craig Hassed says in the documentary The Connection by Shannon Harvey (which explains all this really well):

‘I just think it’s fascinating to be thinking you’re sitting in a chair practising a mind-body technique like meditation, and you’re doing genetic engineering at the same time. I find that extraordinary.’

There is one caveat – in order to really benefit from techniques which evoke the relaxation response, we need to practise them often, preferably daily. And rather than trying to ‘find time’ for these techniques, we’re much better off creating this time – consciously structuring them into our everyday routine. After a while, doing practices to evoke the relaxation response becomes part of our life – like having a shower, for example. Most people take a shower or bath quite regularly, not just when we ‘find’ the time for it or are in the right mood.

Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, prayer and religious ritual can all be powerful ways through which to evoke the relaxation response. Think about activities you enjoy which leave you with a deep feeling of contentment. For me, this might be meditation, Tai Chi, gardening and bush walking. I enjoy watching TV, but can’t say I feel deep contentment afterwards – more likely a slight feeling of irritation.

Because our soothing and affiliation system is not related to our immediate survival, it is easily neglected. Yet so many of the aspects of life we value, such as contentment, close interpersonal relationships, healing, gratitude, appreciation and spirituality, all need this system in order to flourish. If a good life is a balanced life, then it makes sense for us to cultivate the soothing system, through regular practices which evoke the relaxation response and leave us feeling rested and regenerated.

Weekly practice idea:

What practices do you currently have which evoke the relaxation response? Do you do these regularly, or only intermittently? Would you benefit from more regular practices, and what might this look like in your life? What are some steps you can take this week towards a more balanced life?

Anja Tanhane

Living in balance

A good life is a balanced life – we have the right amount of work and rest, of company and solitude, of stimulation and peace, of food, exercise, meditation, and also of rights and responsibilities. It’s impossible to get this balance perfect, and learning to live with imperfection is one of the signs of maturity. Yet living a life which is very out of balance is also going to put strain on our resources, and can potentially leave us depleted. I’ve worked a lot with carers, who often put their own needs aside to focus on the loved one they’re caring for. Carers, as a group, have some of the worst health statistics in the population, and often suffer financially as well. Many are very good at caring for others, but not so good at caring for themselves. If we look at rights and responsibilities as a continuum, most carers would lean heavily towards the responsibility end. Other people in our society are very conscious of their rights, but less aware they also have responsibilities to society. Depending on our upbringing, culture and gender, we may feel more comfortable being aware of our responsibilities or our rights. Yet for all of us there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where we can balance a healthy sense of entitlement with awareness of the needs of others.

Living in balance involves making choices – sometimes major ones, such as whether to have another child, go back to study or find a new job – and also small choices, such as whether to log onto Facebook or sit in the garden with a cup of tea for ten minutes after work. Sometimes there’s not much we can do to change the major circumstances of our lives. For example, parents of a child with a severe disability may be stressed but coping, until one of their own parents also becomes unwell and requires care, really putting the family under strain. We may have a job which involves working long hours, but nothing else is available and it pays the bills. Yet even within those circumstances, we often have more choice about living in balance than we might think.

It could be a conscious choice to slow down, take a few deep breaths and notice our surroundings when we feel stressed. It could be a walk around the block instead of checking the news online. We might spend less time with an acquaintance who is always complaining and leaves us feeling depleted, and more time with our friends or pets or ourselves. We could join a community choir instead of sitting at home watching TV. Or we might curtail our overly busy social life to spend more time at home watching TV!

Over the next few weeks, I will look at a model by Professor Paul Gilbert about our three emotional systems (fight/flight, resource-seeking, and soothing/affiliation) which I’ve found very helpful when thinking about why we’re often not that good at making choices to bring our lives more into balance, even when the opportunity is there.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and in a notebook write ‘Living in balance for me means…’ and keep writing and see what emerges. Journalling can be a wonderful way to discover ways to re-balance our lives.

Anja Tanhane

Relaxation mindfulness

We’re all familiar with aspects of the stress response – perhaps our heart is beating fast, our chest feels tight, we might feel nauseous or irritable or overwhelmed. Stress affects us differently – some people suffer more physical symptoms, others struggle mentally or have difficulties with interpersonal relationships. When stress becomes chronic, it’s likely to impact on all areas of our lives – our bodies might show a range of stress-related symptoms, our mind isn’t thinking clearly and we might feel teary or anxious, and our relationships can become increasingly strained as we feel overwhelmed by the demands of others when we’re barely managing our own.

Yet stress isn’t all bad – the right amount of stress can motivate us to focus, achieve and develop new skills and resilience. It’s when stress becomes chronic and relentless that it starts to have a negative effect on us. Fortunately, even though we might be more familiar with the stress response at the moment, we can also learn what has been called by Herbert Benson the ‘relaxation response’ – our body’s ability to relax and regenerate.

There are quite a number of different techniques which can induce the relaxation response – some of the best known are progressive muscle relaxation, where we systematically tense and relax groups of muscles throughout our body, and also guided imagery, where we are guided on an imaginary journey to a beautiful, restorative place. Focusing on a word during prayer (such as peace or shalom), practising yoga or Tai chi, even knitting and running, can all activate the relaxation response.

Mindfulness, in its meaning of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, doesn’t try to directly evoke the relaxation response. For example, rather than going on an inner journey to a beautiful place, a mindfulness meditation might involve an open, accepting awareness of difficult emotions and painful body sensations. However, because mindfulness has become a buzz word and is ubiquitous now, the distinction between practices involving the relaxation response and those involving mindfulness has become blurred. This is a shame, because mindfulness is only one aspect of what can be helpful for us – there are ancient traditions of contemplative prayer, mantra meditation, visualisation and so on which also deserve our attention and respect. Also, by throwing just about everything under the banner of mindfulness, we dilute what mindfulness can actually offer us.

Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will also help us to be more relaxed, as we become less caught up in the difficult aspects of our lives. Yet I wonder if some people might actually be more interested in learning the relaxation response – it meets their needs for managing day-to-day stress more directly, and gives immediate positive feedback.

Mindfulness is a particular way of approaching the world – to develop its non-judgmental stance requires good teaching and regular practice. We can all have experiences of mindfulness as part of our everyday lives, but to make mindfulness one of the central aspects of how we live requires more than a little dabbling here and there. On the other hand, we can all benefit from increasing our experiences of the relaxation response, by including practices in our lives which balance the stress response with the relaxation response.

Weekly practice idea:

What helps you feel relaxed? Write down a list of five or more activities you find relaxing, and choose one of them to practise this week. How does it feel to make time for the relaxation response in your life?

Anja Tanhane

Right effort – Part 2

We often hear inspiring stories of people who took on a challenge everyone thought was impossible, and who succeeded through sheer determination and persistence, and broke new ground in our understanding of what humans can be capable of. Sometimes you hear people say – ‘if you work hard enough, anything is possible’, but of course that’s not true. What we hear less about is the people who become obsessed and invest everything in a dream which doesn’t work out, and who are left broken as a result. At what point is an obsession inspiring, and when does it become pathological? Often, success has more to do with external factors (right place, right time) than just the personality of the individual concerned. Yet we can be quick to praise ‘heroes’, and condemn ‘losers’, without taking into account that their roles could easily have been reversed. For example, by all accounts Winston Churchill was a very effective prime minister during the war, but not afterwards in peacetime. His particular qualities suited one set of conditions more than another, and this applies to all of us. When is our effort heroic, and when does it become deluded and obsessional? And how do we know the difference?

Right effort is about finding the sweet spot between trying too hard, and giving up too easily. It’s a particularly complex area in our interpersonal relationships. I’ve worked with people who lost everything, including the family home, because they had a child with a drug addiction who kept taking and taking until it was all gone. Others stay in abusive relationships year after year, forever trying to fix something which show no signs of changing or is actually getting worse. We might feel we just need to try harder and everything will be alright, but all the effort in the world can’t fix someone else’s brokenness unless they themselves want to change. They say it takes two to tango, but sometimes we just need to walk off the dance floor and go home.

Right effort can be about persistence and hard work, but it can also be about accepting our limitations, and being at peace with those. Not everything is doable or fixable. We can also ask ourselves – is the prize worth it? A lot of heroes have families who’ve hardly seen them for years.

Sometimes the real heroism may lie in coming to terms with the life we have, with all its broken dreams and limitations, without becoming bitter, or jealous of other people’s success. Of course we can admire people who’ve achieved greatness, but we can also admire people who’ve attained equanimity and peace of mind. There is a place for incredible effort and persistence, just as there is a place for surrendering and letting go.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a quiet place to sit, and take 10 minutes to think about a dream you had which didn’t quite work out. What kind of thoughts and emotions come up for you as you reflect on this dream? Perhaps it transformed into something else which you appreciate, or you’re still in the grieving phase, or you feel it’s time to let go. What can you learn from your reflection?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – Flourishing

This is the final of the holiday favourites – thank you for your positive feedback about these posts! New mindfulness reflections will begin again next week:

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “grow, grow.”

The Talmud

The desire to grow, to flourish, is one of the most basic drives in nature. When we see a fragile seedling emerge from the ground and strive rapidly upwards, or watch a young child take its first steps, we are witnessing the desire of every living being to establish itself in the world and maximise their potential. After we’ve sown lettuce seeds, we don’t expect any of those seeds to deliberately sabotage themselves, to grow more slowly so that seeds 45 to 55 may thrive instead. Yet we as humans frequently hold ourselves back, often with the intention of assisting others. Much of this is essential in order to live in harmony with others, to ensure the protection of more vulnerable people.

We learn to reign in our desires so they don’t harm others or ourselves. A gentle self-discipline seems to be crucial for a ‘good life’, a flourishing life. And yet the pendulum can swing too far the other way, where we deprive ourselves in ways which may lead to a poverty of spirit, to feelings of resentment, disillusionment, isolation. Sometimes these feelings are obvious, but more often they can be quite subtle.

One of the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is the ability to attune to our internal signals when they are more subtle, rather than only becoming aware of them once we’ve made some harsh sarcastic comment at a wedding and everyone is staring at us in horror. It is natural to feel resentment at times, to not always be a saint who is happy for everyone else (and who never once asks, ‘but what about me?’). Yet these subtle feelings of resentment or jealousy can be a message to us that our life is out of balance; that perhaps we are not allowing ourselves to flourish as we should.

It is natural for us to want to be fulfilled. There may be external circumstances holding us back which we have little control over, but we do have a choice when it comes to the more insidious, internal self-sabotage we can all engage in from time to time. Sometimes, like that blade of grass with its angel, we just want to grow into our potential.

Weekly practice idea:

What do you need in order to flourish? Think of one small act you can do this week, which will give you a sense of thriving. Set some time aside for it, and reflect afterwards on what it meant to you.

Anja Tanhane

 

Holiday favourites – Living with Ease

‘May I live with ease.’

This is the last line of the loving-kindness (or metta) meditation I often use during meditation classes and retreats. At first the phrase might simply sound pleasant, or even a little self-indulgent. We hear the word ‘ease’, and imagine an easy life. And yes, it does make sense to wish ourselves an easy life. We probably don’t want to go around saying,

‘May I have a tremendously difficult life’ (character-building though that may be!).

Yet when I repeat the phrase, ‘may I live with ease’ during meditation, to me it also has another meaning – may I be at ease with my life, regardless of the circumstances. May I be at ease with the inevitable ups and downs of my existence, instead of constantly struggling against ‘what is’. This is not passive, or resigned – in fact, being at ease with our lives involves a very active engagement with reality, as opposed to clinging onto some idealised fantasy of how life should be. Being at ease is not the same as ‘anything goes’, ‘she’ll be right’, or the ‘yeah, whatever’ attitude we’ve probably all come across.

A Christian minister who was taking part in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course found himself struggling with the idea of a life at ease. In his tradition, ongoing struggle and obligations were considered very important. It is actually possible to be very busy, work hard, even feel a little stressed, and still be at ease. When we see sports people give the performance of their lives, there is often an ease about how they move, despite the obvious effort which goes into their achievement. They are not being lazy, but neither are they wasting energy by tensing up their bodies unnecessarily. They expend exactly the right amount of energy, in the muscles which count. Their minds are focused, and they’re not distracted by obsessing about a long list of other things they ‘should’ be doing.

When I play a difficult passage on the piano, I’ve learnt to allow my fingers to soften rather than tense as I make my way through the many notes. It is remarkably effective, and goes against our notion that extra tension = extra effort = better results. In fact the formula should probably look more like this:

Extra attention = less effort = better results.

Weekly practice idea:

Notice times when you tense more muscles, and expend more energy, than you need to. It could be as simple as gently picking up a cup instead of impatiently grabbing for it.

Anja Tanhane

 

Nourishing ourselves

We are continually nourishing ourselves – each next breath in brings a fresh supply of oxygen; most of us eat several meals a day and often plenty of snacks in between; we nourish ourselves by spending time with like-minded people, pursuing sports and hobbies, walking in nature, or listening to music.

If we live in an affluent society, there is usually no shortage of nourishment to choose from, and yet, ironically, the quality of our nourishment is often quite poor. For example, very few people breathe in a way which fills up our lungs fully. Most people habitually take a shallow breath, high in the chest, and never get the health benefits, relaxation, and the nourishment of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. The food we eat may also give us more empty calories than valuable nourishment. It can take considerable discipline and planning to ensure we have a healthy meal, when there are so many quick, easy, unhealthy alternatives about.

If we’re feeling stressed and time-poor, the quality of our interpersonal relationships can suffer. And by the time we collapse exhausted on the couch in the evening, who has the energy to read a novel or poetry or philosophy? Instead we might find ourselves flicking restlessly between TV channels, all 2000 of them, without finding anything we actually feel like watching.

Even when we do eat a healthy meal, we might wolf it down so fast we get indigestion. We might have finally found the time to go for a walk in nature, but barely notice our surroundings because we’re thinking about work. We’ve finally opened that novel which has been sitting on our bedside table since Christmas 2003, but by page 7 we find ourselves reading the same paragraph again and again as our concentration wanes.

How we nourish ourselves depends both on the quality of nourishment, and on our openness to allowing ourselves to be nourished. We can be like hydrophobic soil which is so dry and depleted, when it does actually rain the water runs straight off because the soil can’t absorb it. A healthy soil will absorb the water, a depleted soil rejects it. That’s why it’s so difficult to help some people, often those who need the most help. Their inner resources are so depleted, they either reject the water, or the water runs straight through them like through a pipe, with little impact on their wellbeing.

Regular mindfulness meditation can help us become more receptive to the nourishment which is present in our lives. The nourishment of a ten minute tea break, the kind smile from the girl at the supermarket check-out, the piece of music which lifts us up. We can also become more attuned to when nourishment is needed, to when our inner resources are becoming depleted, and so take steps to replenish ourselves before we collapse in exhaustion.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick something you find nourishing, and set some time aside for it. During this time, allow yourself to be open and relaxed, and really absorb the sense of being nourished. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane