What is mindfulness for you?

‘While mindfulness, a once obscure term, has quickly become a coin of the realm, I prefer to call it affectionate attention. Whatever its name, this quality of attention is profoundly liberating. ‘ John Prendergast

In the last few years, the word mindfulness has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to know what it means anymore. It has come to describe almost anything which involves pausing for a moment, sometimes for no more than a minute. There seems to be a heartfelt longing for more mindfulness in the lives of many people, and there are many different pathways to cultivating a greater sense of being mindful. So rather than trying to find one ‘correct’ definition of mindfulness, it could be more useful to ask ourselves what mindfulness actually means for us – for each of us as unique individuals. Why did we become interested in mindfulness in the first place, and why are we intrigued enough to stay engaged with the idea?

For me, one of the aspects of mindfulness which I appreciate most is having a greater sense of connectedness to my life – feeling more present within my life, rather than rushing through it on automatic pilot ticking off a never-ending list of ‘things to do’ as I go. There’s also a greater sense of friendliness, appreciation, and engaging with challenges rather than avoiding or inflating them, and these are all welcome benefits of a regular mindfulness practice. So mindfulness for me could mean ‘being present rather than absent from my life’. Music, gardening, walking in nature – these all help to cultivate this sense of presence as well.

When I teach mindfulness, it’s not uncommon for participants to share that they somehow feel guilty for not being ‘mindful’ enough, for not making the time to meditate regularly, for finding themselves caught up in unhelpful patterns. Rather than trying to attain some idealised state of mindfulness it might be more useful to ask ourselves – where does my yearning for more mindfulness come from? What does mindfulness mean to me? What practices are helpful for me, and what seems to easily lead me into a sense of mindlessness? Sometimes there are powerful reasons why we may struggle with mindfulness. We may have experienced traumatic events, including being bullied, spending time in hospital as a child, or having a parent who was moody and unpredictable. Or our current life may be so demanding there seems no room left for us to pause and reflect.

It is our inner motivation, our inner call, which can best guide us on our mindfulness journey. What is this inner yearning about? And if we didn’t call it mindfulness, what other word or phrase might best describe it for us?

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes or longer to explore the place of mindfulness in your life. You could start a sentence, ‘for me, mindfulness means…’ and go from there, either through journaling, meditation, or some other form of creative expression. What did you discover? Which words stood out for you?

Anja Tanhane

Being mode

‘If we’re not careful, it is all too easy to fall into becoming more of a human doing than a human being, and forget who is doing all the doing, and why.’  Jon Kabat Zinn

We are known as human beings, but, as Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, life can sometimes feel more as if we’re ‘human doings’. Our days are filled with tasks we need to accomplish, often with a fair bit of time pressure, and even as we’re ticking off one task we’re already thinking about the next. Where, in this hectic hive of activity, can we find the time to ‘simply be’?

A mindful life is not just about stopping to pause from time to time, grounding ourselves for a few moments in the here and now – although those times are certainly valuable. Mindfulness is about bringing a sense of ‘being’ into all the ‘doing’ aspects of our lives, regardless of whether life is relaxed or hectic right now. So rather than rushing through our tasks half-heartedly, caught up in thoughts about something completely different, we commit to being fully present with whatever we’re doing, whether it’s writing an email, washing the dishes, or crawling along in a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment. Whatever it is, we bring our full attention to the task – we become fully embodied within it.

So what are the challenges to living in this way? It can be interesting to explore these for ourselves. Sometimes we literally have a lot ‘on our minds’, such as anxious thoughts which keep intruding. We may have people who keep distracting us, or constant notifications from our electronic devices. Other times it might feel easier to do something we don’t particularly enjoy with only minimal attention, as if this makes the unpleasant or boring task less real. To be a human ‘doing’ might feel like the path of least resistance, but if we spend a lot of time in this mode, we run the risk of feeling a sense of absence from our own lives.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each day, choose one unexciting task and turn it into a mindfulness exercise. It could be brushing your teeth, folding and putting away your laundry, or washing the dishes after a meal. Slow down, and allow yourself to experience every aspect of the task, to embody it fully. How does this feel?

Anja Tanhane

Being engaged in life

‘Who or what we are is defined by the quality of our engagement with this moment, whatever its content.’

Barry Magid

Most of us hopefully have memories of one or two teachers at school who stood out in the way they fostered a love of learning in us. When we reflect on what made these teachers special, it is often the quality of their engagement with us. They weren’t simply going through the motions of delivering the curriculum, but were really present to the class and responsive to us children as individuals. It’s likely that they kept good order in the classroom, but they didn’t withdraw or become spiteful when students acted up. To maintain a high level of engagement as a teacher year after year is quite a gift – there are usually all kinds of pressures within the classroom and the school system which can wear a teacher down. Yet to the children they teach, this consistent level of engagement can really allow their students to shine, and sometimes set them on a positive path for life.

In our own lives, the quality of our engagement with what is happening right now can fluctuate wildly from moment to moment. Sometimes we may be fully present, other times half-heartedly so, and we may also go through stages where we’re so distracted and absent-minded that we have little awareness of our lives at all. As we become more mindful, those times when we are absent can begin to feel like a loss – the loss of an opportunity to just simply be present in our lives.

Engagement doesn’t always have to be ‘over the top’ enthusiastic. Sometimes it can be more of a quiet presence, like someone sitting next to a hospital bed and keeping a silent vigil while their family member is sleeping. Engagement is really about saying ‘yes’ to our life as it is right now, rather than a conditional ‘maybe’ or even a ‘no’. And, as the quote by Barry Magid suggests, the quality of our engagement will play a part in forming the person we are.

When we are feeling disengaged, disconnected, what is really going on? A bit of escapism every now and then can be relaxing, but if much of our life is spent like this, what is it we’re actually missing out on?

Mindfulness practice:

Choose an activity you might usually do in ‘automatic pilot’ mode – perhaps cleaning up after dinner, or having a shower, or walking across a car park. Next time you’re doing this activity, pretend you’re a wonderful teacher who is teaching a child how to be curious, fully engaged and enthusiastic about this task. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Six simple ideas

Sometimes, a small adjustment can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term. Today I’d like to share with you six simple ideas you may like to try out sometime – I’ve had great feedback about them all. They are, in no particular order:

1. If you find yourself frowning, try a gentle half-smile instead. This is not about putting on a fake happy face when you’re not in the mood. Rather, the gentle half smile is very subtle, but can do wonders to lift our mood. You can think of it as being ‘behind’ the face, even in the heart centre or the abdomen. Play around with it – experiment with what feels right for you.

2. Practise (perhaps in the privacy of your home) walking around with a paperback book on your head. While this may feel like being in a deportment class in a girl’s finishing school, it’s actually the best exercise I’ve come across to really get a sense of where your head should sit in relation to the neck. Our heads are very heavy, and being slightly off-centre may cause tension in our neck muscles and shoulders. The book lifts your head up and into exactly the right position. You will walk like an Egyptian princess, and the rest of your body will send you grateful thanks. It’s also wonderful for those who practise sitting meditation – try it during meditation, and you may be surprised at the difference it can make to your posture, and to how long you can sit comfortably.

3. Learn diaphragmatic breathing. You might have heard the instruction ‘breathe into the belly’, but your lungs are in your chest – so how does that work? The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle below the rib cage. When your lungs are fully filled with air, the diaphragm is pushed down and the stomach expands. The easiest way to get a sense of this is to lie on the floor with a heavy book on your stomach, and to feel the book rise and fall. Later you can try it sitting and standing (without the book this time!). Diaphragmatic breathing is great for a number of reasons – firstly, we get more oxygen into our lungs, and thus also into our body. Diaphragmatic breathing also signals to the brain that you’re not in fight/flight (i.e. high alert and stressed) mode. So there can be plenty going on in your life, but your brain is receiving messages that all is well, and that you’re comfortable and in control.

4. Notice the ground under your feet as you walk. Whether it’s crossing the car park, walking to the photocopier, or strolling in a park – noticing the contact between the soles of your feet and the earth is wonderfully grounding. It connects us to our body and to the earth, and stops us from being so caught up in our thoughts. It’s worth practising this somewhere quiet, walking really slowly, where you notice the touch of the heel on the ground, the transfer of the weight onto the foot, then the weight onto the other leg. Once you’re familiar with this feeling, you can use this technique in everyday life, at your normal walking speed. Which brings me to idea number 5…

5. Slow everything down by 10%. Some people are naturally steady and well-paced in their activities, but most of us can do with slowing down a little. You don’t have to go from frenetic super-achiever to the pace of a zombie. But even a small decrease in speed might give you a lot more opportunity to simply be present with what is happening right now, rather than always mentally rushing ahead of yourself.

6. Start a gratitude journal. If you’re not already doing this, I would highly recommend it. Each night, I write down three good moments I experienced during the day – just a few words for each. They tend to be very simple, such as the opportunity to go for a short walk at lunchtime, or eat some vegetables from the garden, or have a nice chat with a colleague or neighbour. We’re hard-wired to be constantly on the look-out for perceived dangers or ways we in which we might be missing out. Taking the time to remember three good things which happened that day helps us to appreciate what we have, and to become more aware of the times when life is actually blessing us in many small ways.

I hope you find some of these ideas beneficial – let me know how you go with them!

Anja Tanhane

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