Calming ourselves with the breath

Last week we looked at diaphragmatic breathing, and how this can help us to calm ourselves throughout the day. We can also use the breath during meditation, and there are many methods and traditions for meditating on the breath. In some traditions, these meditations are quite structured – for example, the instruction might be to breathe in to the count of four, hold for two counts, then breathe out to the count of eight. These kinds of exercises can be very calming and soothing for the mind and body.

In mindfulness, the approach is not to control the breath in any way, but to allow it to ‘breathe itself’. We are simply observing the quality of the breath – is it long, deep and even? Or is it shorter, more shallow, uneven? We don’t judge the breath or try to change it – we simply notice what is happening right now, and allow ourselves to be present with it in friendly companionship. Over time, we often do find that our breath becomes more settled, deeper. Yet whether our breath is deep or shallow, we can bring a sense of curiosity and openness to our experience. What does the breath feel like in the body? What kind of emotions, mental patterns, are we experiencing? We can learn a lot about our current state from becoming more mindful of the breath – being a witness, a friendly observer, to the breath.

The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful poem (sometimes called a gatha) which we can use with the breath from time to time:

Breathing in, I calm the body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

The breath is a wonderful object of meditation because it is always with us, it’s rhythmical, and it connects us intimately with our bodies and our surroundings. Next week, we will look at another meditation practice which uses the breath to develop greater focus and clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Tune into the breath, both during meditation and also throughout the day, and try to simply observe it, without changing it in any way. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Taking a deep breath

One of the most effective ways we can use to calm ourselves down is to learn what’s called diaphragmatic breathing – filling the whole of our lungs with the breath. You’d think this would be fairly straight-forward – after all, we all know how to breathe, don’t we? – but in fact it’s not. Over many years of teaching people to play the oboe, which is a woodwind instrument and requires diaphragmatic breathing, I’ve never had a student who was simply able to do it. They all had to be shown, and they all had to practise it.

Yet it’s not only woodwind players and singers who benefit from learning how to breathe more deeply. Firstly, the more air we get into our lungs, the more oxygen is available to us, which is healthier for our bodies. Another reason relates directly to our stress response. When we are in fight/flight mode, feeling under threat of some kind, our breath automatically becomes fast and shallow – this is to allow us to either sprint (run away very quickly) or to fight. If our breath is also fast and shallow at other times in our lives, or throughout the day, our brain is getting signals that the body is preparing itself for fight/flight. Thus, the brain is more likely to be on the alert, on the look-out for danger, even if you’re feeling quite safe or are trying to relax.

If, on the other hand, in the midst of a stressful situation, you are able to keep your breath deep and even, you’re sending signals to your brain that everything is under control. Yes, there is a lot going on, but you’re not in fight/flight mode, and you’re managing the situation just fine. You’ll feel calmer during the stressful event, able to think more clearly and respond more effectively, but you’ll also be able to relax more easily once the crisis is over.

So, how do we learn diaphragmatic breathing? The most effective way is to lie down on the floor with a heavy book, such as a dictionary or telephone book on your stomach. When we lie down, our breathing automatically becomes deeper, and the heavy book gives us a good sense of the actions of the stomach muscles rising and falling with each breath. Diaphragmatic breathing feels as if you’re breathing into the stomach, since the full lungs push down the sheet of muscle called the diaphragm between the chest and the abdomen, causing the stomach to expand.

Once you have a sense of this lying down, you can try it sitting on a chair and eventually standing up. When we take a deep breath, our stomach expands, while the chest stays quite neutral, and the shoulders are relaxed. Eventually, with a bit of practice, you can learn to breathe like that all the time, sending reassuring signals to the brain that all is well, you’re in control.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of lying down with a heavy book on your stomach every day, and tune into your breath at other times during the day, gradually learning how to breathe more deeply throughout the day.

Anja Tanhane

 

Our sense of agency – part 1

The sense of agency we are able to bring to our lives is one of the most important factors which influences our health, wellbeing and success. Yet it’s not often talked about, and usually poorly understood. Agency is the feeling of being able to make something happen, of being the cause of events rather than the effect. We’d like to believe that we, and everyone else in the world, is able to live with a sense of agency. It’s fundamental to how we see ourselves as humans.

Unfortunately, research (including some very cruel studies on animals) has shown that it only takes a few experiences of being disempowered, of not being able to get yourself out of a painful situation no matter how hard you try, to develop a sense of learned helplessness, where you give up altogether and simply accept whatever comes at you. Not only that, but it takes many more positive experiences of agency, of being able to make a difference, to counter the effect of one negative experience of helplessness.

This is where the saying ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is so fundamental. It’s all too easy to look at other people’s lives and judge them for not trying hard enough. From the outside, it might look perfectly obvious what someone should be doing to improve their circumstances. Yet really, we have no idea why this person may be struggling. Chances are they have experienced traumas we can only guess at. And yes, people who are disempowered sometimes make bad decisions, just as people with all the power in the world also make mistakes. Often, however, our society often judges people who are on benefits much more harshly than those who are materially successful, although the research would suggest it should really be the other way round.

Mindfulness practices can be very empowering for us, as they can greatly increase our sense of agency. We will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can lead to ‘learned agency’ in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you find yourself being judgmental about someone, pause and ask yourself – am I really sure I know the whole story? This is not to make excuses for the other person, but simply to acknowledge there may be aspects to the story we don’t know about.

Anja Tanhane

Taking refuge

In the Buddhist tradition, people talk about ‘taking refuge’ – in particular, taking refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (their Buddhist community). This is an acknowledgment that any kind of spiritual life is not easy without support. In our individualistic culture, we might sometimes feel as if we’re supposed to work it all out by ourselves, but that’s not realistic. It’s very helpful to have teachers and other people in our lives who can guide and support us.

Similarly, it’s difficult for us to practise mindfulness if we’re constantly rushing from one commitment to the next. We need to find spaces in our lives where we can ‘take refuge’ – a space where we feel safe to stop for a while, to tune in, take stock, and have our internal batteries recharged. It could be a place where we can be on our own, or time spent with a group of like-minded people, or even a combination of the two.

The word refuge implies a space free from persecution, where we are completely safe, but if we carry unrealistic expectations into our refuge, we can unwittingly sabotage what it has to offer. A spiritual refuge is not so much a place where we can escape all our problems, but rather an opportunity to gather strength for the sometimes difficult internal work ahead. For members of religious communities, these refuges are often built into the structure of the days and weeks. Going to mass, lighting a candle, making offerings at a temple, celebrating the Sabbath or stopping five times a day for prayer – these are moments where we can pause and allow ourselves to feel supported. If we don’t belong to a religious group, ‘taking refuge’ is less automatic, and may require more intention and planning, but it can nonetheless become a regular and valuable part of our lives.

I know of someone who sits in her garden every day in a favourite spot, and quietly meditates as she notices the sights, sounds, smells and the air around her. This small daily ritual has become a precious and sustaining part of her life. Someone else with a stressful job and young children always makes the time to go for a walk along the beach by herself on a Sunday morning. A busy lawyer has noticed that if he pauses a few times a day to ground himself using the STOP practice – his work day flows much more smoothly.

Taking refuge works best when it becomes a small but regular part of our lives. Then, when we go through a difficult period, we have a familiar place where we feel safe and supported, and where we can gather the strength we need.

The shadow side of taking refuge is escapism, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down between three to ten ‘refuges’ – inspirational teachings, practices, communities or places which nourish and sustain you. Choose one of them and tick it, and plan it into your week.

Anja Tanhane

Going home

Pond at arboretum-2347

‘Going home is like turning down the volume, so I can hear myself again.’

Steve Jampijinpa, from the documentary ‘Milpirri, Winds of Change’

Where is the place you can ‘come home to’, where the noisy volume of your everyday life is muted so you can become more grounded, gather your thoughts, hear yourself? When people meditate, they often describe a sense of coming back to themselves. Life is still busy, the demands which others make of them haven’t decreased, but there is a greater sense of living out of their centre rather than simply being buffeted about by life.

Home can be a physical place where we feel comfortable, at ease, not having to prove ourselves or be someone special. We can also cultivate a sense of going home through rituals, reflection, taking time out. It is where we can reconnect with our deepest values, with what really matters to us. Yet it’s possible to rush along for months or years without ever touching base with this sense of returning home. Continue reading “Going home” »

Flourishing

Roses 2

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 sow 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. Continue reading “Flourishing” »

Balance

orchid

One of my favourite books in my early 20s was called ‘The Sacred Tree’, and it described the American Indian philosophy of finding balance in our lives. The book was written as part of a collaborative project involving representatives of forty American Indian tribes. A part of their world view which really spoke to me was the concept of the four directions – East, South, West, North – which represented different aspects of our lives. The key to a happy and harmonious life was to find a balance between all four directions, rather than favouring one over the others. For example, the fiery passion of the South can be balanced by the intellectual strength of the North. Likewise, intellectualism on its own can become cold and uncaring, drawing up pedantic rules for others to follow rather than looking at what is actually happening on the ground, and this cold intellectualism in turn can benefit from the warmth and passion of the more emotional South.

Many people who learn and practise mindfulness report it helps them find greater balance in their lives. It’s easy to read books on how to improve your life, and many of these have good ideas and strategies. However, we are still 7 billion individual human beings, with very different lives, and what might be good advice for one person might be inappropriate or even harmful for someone else. Continue reading “Balance” »

Peace and quiet

Clearview sunrise

It was one of the noisiest wards in the hospital – TVs blaring from almost every room, alarms beeping urgently, nurses shouting to each other down the corridor, patients yelling out or screaming, sometimes for hours. From time to time, family members would become overwhelmed and start shouting at the staff or their loved ones. On my second day there, a mother was standing in the corridor, literally howling with despair. The patients all had severe acquired brain injuries, and some had only recently come out of a coma or post-traumatic amnesia. They drifted in and out, trying to orient themselves to their new surroundings. At the weekly multi-disciplinary meetings, the discussion was often about not over-stimulating these patients, giving them short therapy sessions and then allowing them to rest in peace and quiet, so their brains would be able to assimilate the new information. Everyone agreed this was the right treatment plan, but didn’t seem to notice that the environment offered very little in the way of peace and quiet. There were some sources of noise which little could be done about – the beeping alarms, patients yelling out. Yet did there really need to be a TV at full volume in every communal area, when patients had their own in their rooms? Did the staff really need to communicate by yelling down the corridors? Continue reading “Peace and quiet” »