Tiny drops of stillness

Let tiny drops of stillness fall gently through my day.

Noel Davis

There’s nothing very dramatic about a gentle rain – sometimes it’s more like fine mist which still allows the light of the sun to shine through. Yet if we stand outside during a rain like this, in a garden perhaps or a forest, we can see the soil and the plants being nourished by the water. The soil becomes more plump, visibly replenished, and the plants shine and glow, raising limp leaves and looking much healthier.

When we reflect about what nourishes us in our own lives, we might think of something like a long holiday, which can of course do wonders for our wellbeing. Our everyday lives, however, are also filled with opportunities for being nourished, if we create the right conditions. One of the benefits of mindfulness is that we become more aware of what these conditions might be. When we are mindful, we’re also more likely to remember to cultivate these conditions in the midst of a busy day, which is the key.

There are countless ways we can be nourished during a day – a baby smiles at you as it’s being pushed past in a pram; you look up and see two birds preening each others feathers in a tree; someone in your family makes you a cup of coffee; you take a break during a long drive and walk for ten minutes in a park. We have many small opportunities for delight, for noticing something quirky or engaging which makes us smile. There is something comforting in allowing these moments to ‘fall gently through my day’, instead of needing to go searching them out all the time. Most of the time, the ‘tiny drops of stillness’ are present in our lives – we just need to slow down enough, and be receptive enough, to notice them, and to allow ourselves to be nourished by them.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each day, try to notice five small moments of stillness in your day which nourish you. It could be a quiet moment by yourself, but it could also be a delightful interaction which brings with it a sense of pausing, and taking a moment out from the everyday routine.

Anja Tanhane

Creating space

When we’re stressed, we can often feel as if we’re being hemmed in from all sides. Too many pressures are coming at us from different direction; our thoughts might feel crowded and chaotic; and even our bodies might contract, as if the muscles themselves have less space available than before. Our breathing can be fast and shallow, so there is space we have available in our lungs which is not being filled with oxygen. It’s also not unusual to develop a kind of tunnel vision when we’re feeling under pressure – to focus obsessively on one aspect of our lives, for example, while losing sight of the bigger picture.

When we feel this way, being asked to add one more activity into our lives (such as, for example, a daily meditation practice), might seem the last thing we want to hear. The days are already full enough, why add more? It’s a reasonable question, given how busy people tend to be. Yet there are reasons why some very busy people do decide to meditate daily, and one of those reasons, I believe, is that regular meditation enables us to feel a greater sense of spaciousness in our lives.

It might be quite subtle at first – perhaps that sense that in the midst of a busy day, we can pause and take a breath from time to time – and then return to our tasks refreshed. It could be that our approach towards difficulties becomes more open, so that we’re able to perceive multiple perspectives and have a clearer sense of what is going on. We might be able to prevent a challenging conversation from escalating, so there is more chance of a resolution, and less likelihood of damage from thoughtless remarks needing to be repaired.

There are more opportunities for noticing what’s going well – and this in itself, over the years, can be life-changing. A mind which is less crowded with thoughts, a body which is nourished with a deep relaxed breath, a joyful appreciation for the areas in our lives where all is well – these can support us as we deal with the challenges which inevitably arise.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Choose a day, and consciously pause from time to time to allow yourself to notice your breath. Without forcing the breath, follow it in and out of your body four times. What do you notice from having created this space?

Anja Tanhane

Mottainai

The Japanese word ‘Mottainai’ is one of those expressions which can convey a whole range of meanings, and which has been associated with daily life, environmental philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and a general sense of increased appreciation. One translation of mottainai is ‘what a waste!’, and it might be exclaimed when someone spills a glass of milk, or throws out food, or breaks an object by not taking good care of it.

In Japan, the term is often linked with Zen Buddhism, in particular the value which Zen puts into appreciation the efforts which have gone into producing the food we eat, and the way our bodies are nourished by food. Shinto religion, with its reverence for objects, has also embraced the philosophy of mottainai. As an island nation, Japan was for a long time isolated from the rest of the world, and largely dependent on its own resources rather than trade for survival. The older generation in particular were brought up with a strong sense of mottainai, and children are now being taught about it through a book called Mottainai Grandma by Mariko Shinju, which has such wonderful lines as:

When I throw away mandarin peels, she will come and say “Mottainai!”

“Dry them in the sunshine. Put them in the bathtub.

Mandarin peels will make you feel so good!”

“A warm and sunny mandarin bath!”

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Peace prize winner, was very inspired by the concept of mottainai, and added to the 3 R’s of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ the fourth R of ‘respect’. If we bring a sense of mindfulness and appreciation towards the food we eat and the objects we use, we are less likely to be wasteful. About one-third of the food produced world-wide is wasted each year – roughly 1.3 billion tons. It’s not just all that food which is wasted, but also the resources and efforts which went into producing it. Perhaps think back to a recent meal, and write down the many different resources which went into producing it – from the growing of the food, including the energies of the soil, sun, fertiliser and rain, to the human labour involved, and the work in distributing and selling the food. The work over generations of humans in selectively breeding plants and animals, the skills and experiences of the cook, the kitchen equipment, the billions of bacteria in your gut which break the food down and make its resources available for our bodies to use. Mottainai expresses a sense of regret at wastefulness, and calls on us to bring a greater sense of awareness to our interaction with the world.

There is another way in which we can be wasteful with our resources, and that is the resources of our bodies and our minds. In the next reflection, we will look in more detail at the way we can easily dissipate our energy, and explore ways of using it more wisely.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Next time you eat a meal, think of one of the aspects of food production listed above, and consider how it applies to your meal. Over time, how might this practice change the way you relate to food?

Anja Tanhane

Silence – Part 2

‘If you feel that your dreams aren’t coming true, you might think you need to do more, or to think and strategise more. In fact, what you might need is less – less noise coming to you from both inside and outside – so that you have space for your heart’s truest intention to germinate and flourish.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Us humans can be contradictory creatures at times. We might wish we had more ‘space to breathe’ in our lives, but then fill up every available moment with checking our smart phones, watching TV, playing online games, or endlessly rehashing old conversations in our minds and planning ahead in microscopic detail. It’s tempting to think that finding that ‘magic something’ to add into our lives will suddenly improve it. And it’s true that at times, an important ingredient might be missing – such as enough exercise, or time to read a book, or going to a workshop or a class which is meaningful to you.

Other times, however, we already have everything we need – if anything, our lives are overfull. Life is crowding in on us – there are demands coming from all directions, we’re busy rushing from one task to the next, our minds are crowded with internal and external noise, and there is little time to pause and reflect on life. When this way of life becomes chronic, we may well find ourselves asking – ‘is that all there is to life?’

We don’t always need to find new strategies for ‘solving’ life. Sometimes, simply creating some intentional silence and space might be enough. Some of the ways we fill up space are so automatic, we don’t even realise what we’re doing. Always having the radio on when we’re driving, for example, or using time in the check-out queue to quickly check social media, or reading a magazine or watching TV during meals. No matter how busy we are, most of us can probably find opportunities for decreasing noise, and creating a little more silence and space. A daily intentional practice, such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or prayer, can be very helpful. We can also experiment with other ways of decreasing stimulation – placing a curfew on our smartphone at certain times, not saying yes to every social engagement, only watching TV if the program really interests us, and then switching off…

We all have our own quirky ways in which we fill up space unnecessarily. They’re not always problematic, but can become so when we feel we have no ‘space to breathe’ in our lives anymore.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of two simple ways you can reduce excessive stimulation in your life, and experiment with cutting these out for the week. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – planting seeds

‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.’

Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s so much easier to be aware of our failures than successes, but becoming more conscious of little moments of efficacy is a simple but effective way of increasing the feeling of agency in our lives. As the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson implies, we tend to be focused on harvesting ripe juicy apples, somehow expecting these to appear on a daily basis, when in reality it’s the patient planting of seeds and the nurturing of growing plants which sets our life in a good direction. For example, many parents have found skillful ways of containing and redirecting their children’s erratic energy, in a way which is incredibly beneficial to their children (and society at large!). Yet they tend to do this automatically, not even realising something special is going on, and only remember that time in the supermarket on a hot Friday afternoon when their toddler did have a melt-down and everyone stared at them judgmentally.

Years ago when I did some training to teach music to young children, we were told to always look for the small improvements in their playing and comment on these before going on to suggest other ways to make the playing better. It’s easy, as a music teacher, to notice what’s wrong and needs fixing. Yet the look on a student’s face when you say to them, ‘I can hear you’ve really worked on that left hand passage, it’s sounding much better this week’, is priceless. It’s empowering for the student to feel that their efforts have been noticed and acknowledged. Needless to say, they are also more likely to practise what you suggest this week, if they feel their hard work will be appreciated. Yet with ourselves, we are often more like the horror piano teacher who whacks their students on the knuckles and abuses them every time they make a mistake.

The practice of mindfulness helps us become more attuned to those moments when something did go well. It’s easy to notice the apples (our major achievements) but ignore the young plant which is simply there, quietly growing. Through mindfulness we might be aware that we’re able to think clearly in a stressful situation despite feeling a bit anxious. Or we might be able to take a deep breath and be more patient with a difficult colleague or relative. Each time we pause for a moment of mindfulness, we’ve planted another seed of efficacy. I recently sowed some salad seeds, and like to go out in the morning to see how the seedlings are going. We can do this in our own lives – celebrating the many tiny seeds we’ve planted, instead of wishing they’d all turn into salad or apples overnight.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, each day, write down three examples of being effective. It could be remembering to water the pot plant, or single-handedly restructuring your workplace to make it more efficient. Whatever it is, write it down, and allow yourself a few moments to feel good about what you achieved.

Anja Tanhane

Hope

‘I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty, that all ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.’

Vaclav Havel

To lose hope is akin to despair, but sometimes it might also seem that being hopeful about the future is like seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses – pretty perhaps, but just not realistic. We might feel quite optimistic about our personal circumstances, but despair at where the world seems to be heading. Or we might feel trapped in our personal lives, unable to see a good way forward. Vaclav Havel was a Czech writer, philosopher, dissident, and finally the president of independent Czechoslovakia. During the communist regime he was under constant surveillance, and spent many years in prison. Like Nelson Mandela, his story has a happy ending of sorts, but neither Havel nor Mandela had any certainty, during their long years in prison, that they would ever be released and that their countries would move in a new direction. And of course, plenty of dissidents died in prison, or became broken by the circumstances.

It might seem flippant to ‘smell the roses’ when so much is happening in the world which concerns us deeply. And yet, what will riding along on the wave of despair achieve? There is a deep strength in cultivating meaning in our personal lives by being present, and authentic. It’s not about having our head in the sand, or never allowing ourselves to feel dismay or grief. But in our small, personal way, there is a lot of good we can achieve in the world. A friend of mine told me how she made an effort to smile at a Muslim woman at a café, to show her she was welcome here. A knitting club might decide to knit scarves for asylum seekers, and visit them in the detention centre to have a cup of tea with them and hand over their new scarves. A busy father might take out the bins of his elderly neighbour, and pick up milk and bread for him on the way home from work. Political activism has its place, but so do the many small and beautiful gestures which strengthen our communities and give us hope.

Sometimes, during meditation, I allow myself to feel dismay at what is happening in my country and in the world, to sit with these feelings rather than rushing around like mad trying to ignore them. I also make a conscious effort to be present in my body, to feel my breath, and to hear the morning chorus of birds outside. Our lives are complex, but we can cultivate meaning in our lives by being present, being compassionate, and by living with hope.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three small acts of kindness which are meaningful to you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try switching off the media for a day and practising these or similar gestures instead. Do it slowly, with presence, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Our mindset – Part 1

In her book ‘Mindset – how you can fulfill your potential’, Stanford professor Dr Carol Dweck talks about two kinds of mindsets which people can bring to their lives. One is a fixed mindset, which assumes that ability is inherent – you’ve either ‘got it’ or you don’t. Someone with a fixed mindset can be quite brilliant, as long as life is going well. However, they don’t tend to bounce back from setbacks very easily, and can often end up blaming other people, or circumstances, for their lack of success.

The second type of mindset Dweck calls a growth mindset, which assumes that there is always room for improvement. Someone with a growth mindset will actively seek out help and advice, as they realise there is a lot they can still learn. They enjoy being challenged, and don’t feel threatened being around people with superior abilities. When something goes wrong, they will feel upset, but will also learn from the experience and work towards resourcing themselves better for next time.

I used to notice this when I taught piano and oboe. A student would come in and play a piece which wasn’t quite polished yet, and then wait for my feedback. Some students hoped that I would say, ‘that’ll do, let’s move onto the next piece’, and didn’t like the idea of doing more work on the piece. Another type of student knew that the piece wasn’t quite ready yet, and was looking forward to learning from me how to make it better. Needless to say, the second type of student made much better progress, and enjoyed the lessons more – they were inwardly motivated to improve, rather than waiting to be told by the teacher that more work had to be done.

Like music, meditation is also a skill which needs to be learnt and practised, but sometimes we can be caught up in assumptions that meditation should be easy, it should ‘just happen’. We might do a course or a retreat to find out what it’s all about, but then get frustrated when we encounter ongoing obstacles in our meditation practice. In the coming few weeks, we’ll explore the growth mindset a little further, and how we might be able to use it to deal with some of the common obstacles to meditation which we all face from time to time.

Weekly practice idea:

Quickly write down ten words which come to mind when you think about the word ‘meditation’. As you read back over the ten words, do they give you any interesting information about your approach to meditation?

Anja Tanhane

How hard can it be?

How hard can it be, to be mindful? After all, we’re already in the present moment – we haven’t time-travelled anywhere. We are aware of the world through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and so on, and we’ve heard enough about mindfulness to know that being mindful in the present moment is very good for us. Theoretically, we should be able to decide to be more mindful from now on, walk down the street smelling the roses, and go from there into a future of mindfulness and presence.
And yet, for most of us, mindfulness is anything but easy. Again and again, we find ourselves lost in ruminative thinking, daydreams, anxieties, and a pervasive sense of not being quite here. This can be discouraging – our logical brain knows exactly what it wants, but the rest of us doesn’t seem to want to play along, at least not all the time. We may understand why mindfulness is good for us, but living it day to day is another matter.
Force of habit is probably one reason for this – it’s not easy to change ways of thinking which have been reinforced in our brain for decades. There are also evolutionary advantages to being constantly alert for danger, even if the price we pay for that might be anxiety and restlessness.
Another way of approaching this issue, however, is to simply ask ourselves – what would it mean to be truly present to my life? Not just those aspects we cherish – our loving relationships, success at work, pride in our house and garden. But also the people we no longer talk to, the times we failed others or ourselves, the jobs we lost or were bullied out of, the worries about our health, the fact we are constantly bombarded with bad news. Do we truly, honestly, wish to be present to all this? And what about the ordinary aspects of our lives – the countless hours we spend in unglamorous tasks like tidying up the kitchen, paying bills, cleaning up after others, and commuting. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to daydream our way through all this?
In the end, we have a choice. Mindfulness is rewarding, but also a challenge. If we accept that mindfulness is simple, but not easy to practise, then perhaps we can be more patient with our slow progress, more at ease with the way our brain loves to be all over the place!

Weekly practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and quickly write down, without thinking too much about it, what your experience of mindfulness has been so far. Reading back through what you’ve written can be very illuminating.
Anja Tanhane

Mindfulness in daily life

It’s not difficult to include some mindfulness into our everyday life – we just need to remember to be mindful, which sometimes is easier said than done! But there are some simple tips which can really help us to start to become more mindful during the day. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Each week, choose a new activity to be mindful of. This is best something which you do regularly, such as brushing your teeth, walking to station, or eating breakfast. Allow yourself to slow down and really notice every aspect of the activity. For example, if you’ve chosen brushing your teeth, then you can notice the feel of the toothbrush, the fresh taste of the toothpaste, the sensation of water, and the clean feeling of your teeth afterwards.
  • Drive without the radio or music, at least sometimes. This can be wonderfully restorative. Often we’re surrounded by so much sound, to have some time out can be very refreshing.
  • When you walk, notice the sensation of the ground underneath your feet. Try not to think too much ahead or ruminate about the past – just feel the sensation of walking, and enjoy it.
  • Stop for a moment and tune into the sounds around you. Often, we miss a lot of the richness of the present moment because we’re so caught up in the thinking mind. Allow yourself to hear sounds as if they’re part of a symphony.
  • Replace your frown with a gentle half smile. This smile can be very subtle, barely perceptible – but it can make a powerful difference to our day. We can get into the habit of frowning without even realising it, and this makes us look and feel anxious.
  • Tune into your breath. Your breath is your friend, and it’s always in the present moment. What more could you want?
  • Find your own little moments of mindfulness – what are some parts of the day you would love to be more mindful of?

Weekly practice idea:

This week, choose at least two of these ideas and practise them once a day. Enjoy!

Anja Tanhane

Walking meditation

‘I have arrived,

I am home,

In the here, in the now.

I am solid,

I am free,

In the ultimate I dwell.’

Walking gatha by Thich Nhat Hanh

Walking meditation is a beautiful practice which can be like a bridge between our formal sitting meditation and everyday life. There are many different ways to practise walking meditation, and the focus of our attention can be on the soles of our feet, our whole body, or the environment. Sometimes it’s done very slowly, other times quite fast, but our aim is to meditate, not to get from A to B. Even when we do have a destination (for example during pilgrimage), our focus is still on the present moment rather than the future.

My favourite form of walking meditation is done very slowly, allowing our attention to rest on the soles of the feet. We coordinate the movements with the breath, and we notice the lifting of the foot, touching the heel, transferring the weight onto the whole foot as the back heel rises, and so on. The eyes are soft, gazing downward, and our focus is on the sensations in the soles of the feet as we pay attention to the steady movements of our feet. We might notice different textures under our feet – for example from grass to a concrete path, or from the shady area into an area warmed by the sun inside a room. Sometimes it feels comfortable to have our hands resting on our abdomen, which relaxes the shoulders and deepens our breathing.

It is a very grounding practice, and can help us during the day as we walk from the desk to the photocopier, from the shops to the car, and so on. Of course in that case we may want to speed up the walking a little – we’d look slightly odd if we took five minutes to walk 50 metres! But I find even then that if I slow my walk down by 10%, and tune into the contact between the soles of the feet and the ground, I recall the slow walking meditation and feel grounded by the practice.

Sometimes, if we are restless, it can be helpful to practise the walking meditation for a while before moving into the sitting meditation. If we’re highly distressed for some reason, a mindful walking meditation can be very soothing. We might want to repeat certain phrases with each step, such as the walking gatha above, or anything else which evokes feelings of peace within us. This can enhance the practice considerably, and could be a simple word or phrase, such as ‘peace’, or ‘I walk in peace’.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 minutes to practise a slow, formal walking meditation, focusing on the sensations in the soles of the feet. Then tune into the soles of the feet as you walk at other times during the week, and notice how this feels for you.

Anja Tanhane