Nourishing our spirit – Part 2

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Last week, we looked at setting aside a place in our home which symbolises our intention to nourish our spirit. Just as important as creating a place is to create time – intentional time where we put aside everyday concerns for a while and allow ourselves to be present – to shift, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, from the ‘doing’ mode to the ‘being’ mode. Many religious practices are designed to do just this – to say, in effect: During this time, our focus shifts away from everyday tasks and to a sense of something larger than our small, self-centered ego. We open ourselves up to feelings of connectedness; to a sense, perhaps, that just to be is enough for now.

There are many ways in which we can nourish our spirit. For some of us it might be walking in nature, playing or listening to music, meditating or painting. We might take 20 minutes out of a busy day to simply to sit in silence. It could be reading an inspirational book, saying a prayer, watching over a sleeping child, or playing with the dog in the park. We might be silently absorbed in a craft project, or spend the afternoon gardening.

We don’t need a formal religious practice in order to nourish our spirit. We do, however, need to set this time aside to focus mainly on whatever we’re doing, rather than spending the whole time anxiously worrying or planning or scheming. This is where learning meditation can be helpful, as it allows us to become more skilled at placing our focus where we choose it to be, rather than jumping all over the place like the ‘monkey mind’ which Buddhists sometimes talk about.

This doesn’t mean that the occasional anxious thought or planning mind won’t appear – it definitely will. Through regular meditation, we can become more skilled at noticing this earlier, and returning back to our focus more quickly. So when we do find the precious opportunity to engage in an activity which nourishes our spirits, we can be more present, and therefore allow ourselves to be really nourished by it.

Weekly practice idea:

What nourishes your spirit? Write down ten things in your life which feel nourishing for you. Looking at the list, how often to you create time and space in your life for these activities?

Anja Tanhane

Nourishing our spirit

‘Nourishing our spirit’ is the final of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. It could be considered one of the most important areas in our lives, to nourish our spirit, but what does this mean? When our lives are very busy, it’s easy to not give much time to this question, and yet when I explore the five pathways to compassion with participants at retreats, ‘nourishing our spirits’ often comes up as an area which they feel is being neglected in their lives. It seems that as humans, we respond well to rituals. Yet they need to be rituals we are comfortable with, which don’t become restrictive or a burden. There is that wonderful Zen saying – ‘don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’ Rituals are the finger which point us in the direction of our spirit, the moon, but they’re not an end in themselves. Yet with no ritual at all in our lives, we can feel adrift, rushing from one task to the next, with little time to pause and reflect.

Many cultures set aside an area in their house for religious symbols – it could be a small shrine, a cross, a statue or book. By creating this area in our home, we’re saying – this too is an important part of my life. It could be a small display of pictures, sea shells, a flower, a meaningful statue, a book of poetry or readings, perhaps a candle or incense. A place we can visit on a regular basis, where we can stop and reflect. It could be a corner in the garden where we like to sit and just be. It doesn’t need to be showy or elaborate – something simple and meaningful often works best. The Buddhist word for mindfulness is ‘sati’, which literally means ‘to remember’. Having an area set aside helps us ‘to remember’, to also give this area of our lives importance and time.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and either with pen and paper, or in silent reflection, ask yourself, ‘my spirit feels nourished when…’ Be open to what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Relating to others

‘Relating to others’ is the forth of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. We humans have evolved to be highly social creatures – in childhood we’re very dependent on caregivers for many years, and even as adults we can only function well as part of a community. This doesn’t mean we have to have vast numbers of friends and be invited to parties every night of the week. A social butterfly in a crowd can feel lonely, while someone else might like their own company and need extended periods of solitude, and still feel warmly connected to a few key people. We’re all quite different as to the type and frequency of social interaction we need, but it’s long been established that feeling lonely and marginalised is terrible for our health, both mental but also physical.

If we think back to our happiest childhood memories, they were often times when someone kind spent time with us in a way which showed care, respect, and friendliness. Perhaps we were walking along a creek with this person, or wrapping a birthday present, or learning how to flip our first pancake. They were often moments of great simplicity, but also deep emotional warmth. They may have been times when we didn’t need to prove ourselves, but where the other person was really present with us, not rushing off to be somewhere more important.

In mindfulness, the way we relate to ourselves will inform how we treat those around us. If we hold a hostile attitude towards ourselves, it’s likely that this will be expressed in some way towards others, though the way we live it out can be quite subtle, almost hidden. Perhaps we do our best to be helpful, but have a tendency to be sarcastic at times? We might spend a lot of time gossiping about the shortcomings of others, and be quick to judge and criticise. Sometimes, when people start to meditate, they’re shocked at the unfriendly tone of voice they use towards themselves. We benefit when we treat other people with kindness, and this includes ourselves as well.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, think back to a time when you shared a happy moment with someone else, either in your childhood or more recently. What were the qualities of the interaction which you really appreciated? Write down these qualities, and reflect on how you’re currently nourishing these in your life.

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings – Part 2

We’d probably like to feel happy and upbeat all the time, but mindfulness is not about getting to some mythical state where we are always happy and calm. We can spend a lot of time and energy resisting our emotions, when simply being present with them for a while may be all that is needed. There are steps we can take to lift our mood, and if we find that our ongoing low mood states are really affecting the quality of our lives, it makes sense to get professional help.

Yet for everyday emotions, sometimes it’s most helpful to just feel them. Emotions are natural responses to the changing conditions of our lives. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves if we feel that we ‘should’ be happy all the time.

One of the most effective ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to feel the emotions in our body as body sensations. Our heart might be racing, or our chest feel constricted. There may be an ache in our heart centre, or butterflies in our stomach, or our forehead may be constricted and tight. If we tune into these sensations during meditation, what we often notice is that these feelings, and thus our emotions, shift and change all the time. Sensing the emotions in our body seems to ground them, and they become something we can more easily be present with. Emotions can seem large and overwhelming, but as body sensations, they never stay the same for long, and we can allow ourselves to flow along with them rather than wasting our energy trying to build a massive sandbank in an attempt to hold them back.

I find that staying with an emotion for a few minutes is usually enough. If there is a feeling of sadness, I try to make the time to simply sit with this for a few minutes and feel it. I can then choose to do something which I know from experience will lift my mood – perhaps go for a short walk, or play with the cat, or listen to some music. There may still be a residual sense of sadness, but I usually feel free to get on with the rest of the day.

Of course, sometimes we need a lot more than this – for a serious bereavement, or a clinical depression or anxiety disorder which may require professional help, and also plenty of time and space for healing. Yet there is value in befriending our feelings rather than declaring war on them, and if we can get into the habit of being more welcoming towards our wide range of everyday emotions, we are usually in a better position to deal with the more serious emotions when they arise as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments each day to practise feeling your emotions in your body. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings

In Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’, befriending our feelings is the third step along the path. While it’s easy enough to befriend our feelings when we’re in a calm and happy frame of mind, this practice is asking us to become friendly with all our emotions, even the ones we find most challenging. To do this, it’s helpful to look at the role which emotions play in our lives.

Many of our emotions, especially the very powerful ones, are connected to the bonds we feel with other human beings. Perhaps we’re happy when we feel loved; we’re grieving when we’re parted from someone who is close to us; and we feel angry when we believe we’ve been betrayed in some way. Without emotions, we would be indifferent to our children, unmotivated at work; and whether we’re listening to a Mozart symphony or a chainsaw, it wouldn’t make any difference to us.

In this way, our emotions are really messengers who give us valuable information about what is happening for us. Theoretically, we could simply receive this information, nod wisely, and thank the messenger for keeping us informed.

As we all know from experience, it’s usually not as straight-forward as that. Our upbringing and the culture we live in determine to a large extent the approach we take to a range of emotions. Some emotions might be seen as valuable, and we might be encouraged to throw extra fuel onto these and perhaps even hold on to them when they’re trying to fade away. Other emotions might be regarded as so shameful, we can’t even allow ourselves to feel a glimmer of them. We might feel comfortable with more neutral feeling states, or we might become restless, becoming convinced we’re missing out in some way. Some cultures encourage the open expression of emotions, while other places consider this to be very discourteous to the people around us.

Emotions can also become so powerful that they take us over – when we’re highly aroused, the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain which is important for impulse control, empathy, seeing the bigger picture and being less reactive, can go off-line. We see ‘red’, and might act in ways we later deeply regret. Rick Hanson calls this the ‘red zone’, and one of the key benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is learning how to live in the ‘green zone’, where we are in charge of our emotions, not the other way around. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can help us engage more skillfully with our emotional states.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on your current relationship to emotions – either through journalling, or perhaps during a quiet time. What did your upbringing and culture teach you about emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Allowing your thoughts – Part 2

 If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent!

Pema Chödrön

We can think of our thoughts like trains which pull into a station – we can decide whether we want to get on a particular train or not. One train might be ‘planning the summer holiday’, and this is indeed the perfect time to start planning, so we get on this ‘train of thought’ and ride along for a few stops. But if the train is called ‘anxiously ruminating on something which happened three weeks ago and which I really need to move on from’, then we can decide to let this particular train go past.

Becoming aware of our thought patterns, of which train has pulled into the station just now, can take a little practice. Often, thoughts seem to have their own momentum, taking us along for a ride we don’t seem to remember signing up for. In order to get off the train before it takes us to places we don’t want to go to, it is helpful to develop our present-moment awareness.

‘What is really happening right now?’ We take a moment to pause, to tune in. We notice the breath in our body. It is quite remarkable, the way our body is continually adjusting to the breath flowing in, the breath flowing out. Where do we feel the movement most strongly? In the belly, or in the chest expanding and contracting? Or even at the tip of the nose, the cool air entering, the warm air leaving? We might listen to the sounds around us – with a sense of being open and curious. What is the temperature of the air? Perhaps we can do a quick body scan – noticing where the body might be in contact with the ground or a chair, or any strong sensations. After a few minutes of this, we will probably notice that our thoughts have shifted in some way.

It can also be helpful to place our thoughts into a larger perspective. In Buddhism this is sometimes called ‘big sky awareness’. We can think of our mind as the vast open sky, and our thoughts like clouds which float across the sky, coming and going, fleeting and ephemeral. Other helpful nature images can be seeing our thoughts like leaves floating past in a stream, or standing behind a waterfall and watching our thoughts tumbling down in front of us like water, while we remain dry and safe.

If we find our thoughts really affecting the quality of our lives, it can also be useful to seek counselling or other supports, and/or to learn mindfulness from a qualified teacher in the context of a supportive group. Strong, insistent thought patterns can be a signal pointing towards unresolved emotions, and we might benefit from skilled support as we work through these.

Our thoughts are just part of who we are. If we don’t give them too much power, but still engage with them respectfully, our thoughts can be friendly allies rather than something we need to fight against and control.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time and ask yourself – ‘what is really happening right now?’ Tune into your body, into the environment. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Allowing your thoughts

‘The cat ignored becomes the tiger.’

Carl Jung

‘Allowing your thoughts’ is the second of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five Pathways to Self Compassion’. When we are caught in unhelpful thinking patterns, it can be tempting to try and control our thoughts. Yet as the quote by Carl Jung illustrates, this can often lead to giving thoughts more strength and power instead. In fact, one of the main ways in which we can get entangled in negative thinking is by giving thoughts far more power than they deserve. As the wonderful quote from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy goes:

‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

‘Allowing your thoughts’ doesn’t mean letting our thoughts run riot and out of control. For example, if we’re obsessed with thoughts of revenge, or enmeshed in a constant stream of negative self-talk, this is clearly not helpful. Yet positive thinking, where we manically try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, also doesn’t work, because it’s not based on reality. The mindful approach to our thoughts is to avoid either extreme – we don’t suppress our thoughts, but neither do we let them run our lives.

Thoughts become powerful when we get entangled in them, when we invest them with emotional energy and a narrative. For example, we might feel that during a meeting at work, other people were listened to far more attentively and respectfully than we were. This may in fact be what happened. If we have a strong narrative in our lives about being treated unjustly, this may evoke powerful emotions in us, leading to obsess about this for days to come. And because of our strong confirmation bias, where we actively seek out evidence which supports our beliefs, any future slight, whether real or imagined, will feed the flame of unhelpful thinking.

Mindfulness helps to bring us back to earth – to be aware of what is happening right now, rather than what we might be imagining. Next week, we will look at some simple mindfulness practices which can help us to allow the natural flow of our thoughts to occur, neither blocking them, nor becoming entangled by them.

Weekly practice idea:

Take time this week to notice your patterns of thinking. Are there certain thinking patterns you seem to return to again and again?

Anja Tanhane

Nourishing our thoughts

Considering they’re ephemeral and secret, our thoughts can be amazingly powerful. We usually have pretty clear ideas about what kind of thoughts are acceptable to us, and which ones are not. Sometimes we may feel bombarded by our thoughts, to the point they become oppressive; whereas at other times, we might feel quite at ease with the way they come and go in our minds. At times our thinking can lead us astray, causing us to lose touch with what’s going on. We’ve probably all had the disconcerting experience of believing something to be true, only to find out later that it wasn’t. This can be the case with abstract facts, but can also include our judgments about people, including ourselves. We seem to be most vulnerable to being lead astray in our thinking when we are feeling stressed or under threat in some way. In those circumstances, it’s easy to mistake the rope for a snake, or the tired look on the face of a colleague for a disapproving frown which might spell trouble for us.

In the coming weeks we will look at how we can often over-identify with our thoughts, and some strategies for loosening their grip on us. In the meantime, it can be interesting to reflect on how we actually nourish our thoughts. Just as the food we eat has an impact on our bodies, so do the sense impressions we receive impact on our thoughts. This doesn’t mean we should try to become puritanical, and only allow ‘pure’ sounds, sights etc into our consciousness. Yet the sensory information we take in does make a difference. An extreme example might be someone who is locked in their room, playing violent video games for 18 hours every day. Or else listening to angry talk-back radio all day long, gradually allowing the anger and hostility to seep into their mind. We can easily see how neither of those scenarios are conducive to clear and compassionate thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, spending even ten minutes in a pleasant outdoor environment such as a nice park or garden can allow our thinking to become more calm and positive.

We don’t want to build a ‘cone of silence’ around us, but on the other hand, we often do have choices about some of the sensory information we nourish our thinking with. Nowadays, I find that I often drive without the radio on. This doesn’t mean I have a rule that I’m ‘not allowed’ to listen to the radio when I drive. Sometimes I listen to the radio, and other times I listen to music. Yet after a busy day, it’s often a relief to not add yet more information to a mind which has already been buzzing for hours at work.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pay attention to the ways in which you ‘feed’ your thinking mind. What do you notice, and what might this mean?

Anja Tanhane

Softening into the body – Part 2

Each day we have many opportunities for softening into our bodies – some of these can be formal and quite deliberate, while others are more subtle. One of the easiest way we can allow our bodies to soften is by using our breath. The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a wonderful expression – ‘let your breath be received in a softening belly.’ Our stomachs often feel stress, so the idea of softening our bellies as the breath flows into it is very appealing.

We can also breathe into other parts of the body which feel tight, or where there may be some pain. For example, if our elbow feels sore, rather than tensing the muscles around it, we can imagine that we’re sending our breath into the elbow, and soothing and softening the area around it. We might want to imagine a sensation of warmth as part of the breath, and also colours. Other meditation teachers use images like warm honey, or a clear white light, or that the muscles start to melt like water, and then evaporate like gas. We can choose the images which suit us best – and these may also change over time. One day, the healing colour may be blue, and on another day, it could be oozing and golden like honey. Once we’ve practised using our breath in this way, we can come back to it throughout the day. All we need to do is to pause for a moment, and to allow our breath, with or without an image, to soften into our body.

Other practices which are helpful are those which work directly with the tension in our muscles, such as massage, acupuncture, and similar healing practices. Stretching is also wonderful for loosening muscles – for example during yoga or Tai Chi. If we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, we can also look up office stretches online and remind ourselves to do these regularly throughout the day.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways of softening into our bodies, and something which our bodies really appreciate, is to make sure we don’t rush around from morning till night, day after day. At most workplaces now, the idea of stopping work for morning tea and afternoon tea seems rather quaint. Even lunchtime is no longer sacrosanct. Yet we only function at optimum efficiency if we take regular breaks. We’re all different in this regard – some people seem to thrive on being on the go all day long, while others would find this clearly exhausting. We can experiment with what works best for us, and then do our best to fit these regular breaks into our day. Sometimes we only need to pause for a few moments and breathe, and already we feel much rejuvenated.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of the suggestions above which resonate for you, and schedule it into your week. Notice how this feels for your body.

Anja Tanhane

Softening into the body

‘A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.’ Lao Tzu

When we are under stress, often what we notice first is the body tightening up. Whether it’s stress at work which causes our shoulders to be contracted, or a physical pain which leads us to hold that part of the body stiffly, our natural tendency seems to be to tighten rather than soften our muscles when we’re under pressure. Tense muscles may make us feel stronger, but they inhibit the natural flow of our energy and can lead to long-term musculoskeletal problems. They also send signals to the brain that our body is in ‘fighting’ mode – which doesn’t help when we want to feel relaxed and at ease.

We sometimes treat our bodies as if they should be a well-behaved and obedient servant who always follows our orders even though we underpay them, work them without rest, and have no interest in their legitimate needs. And after years of this mistreatment, we are surprised when this servant no longer gives their best, or even dares to go on strike! Instead of appreciating our body for all the gifts it offers us, we might feel resentful of its many demands. Yet what would life be without our bodies – without the gift of sight, which allows us to see beauty and love; the gift of touch, such as the feel of a child’s hand in ours; the gift of sound – wonderful music, the voices of people we care about, bird song in the forest. In every moment, we connect to the world around us through our bodies. They’re not just a mechanical vehicle designed to carry our busy minds from A to B.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’

Letting the soft animal of our body love what it loves. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which we can learn to soften more into our bodies.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments to tune into your body, and, with each breath out, soften the muscles a little. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane