Recreational mindfulness

About ten years ago I worked as a recreational therapist in a hospital unit for patients with severe acquired brain injuries. Many of them could no longer walk, communicate verbally, eat food or look after themselves. While within the hierarchy of the hospital system, the job title ‘recreational therapist’ doesn’t carry quite the same weight as ‘neurosurgeon’ or ‘consultant’, I know that my role was important to the people I was working with. They often lived in this unit for years as they slowly tried to improve through slow-stream rehabilitation, and my job meant the difference for them between spending most of their time alone in a room with a blaring TV, or taking part in activities like wood work, gardening, cooking, sharing their favourite music with others, singing, going to a café or the zoo, celebrating special events and interacting with students, animals, and the general public. Their rehabilitation goals were integrated into the the therapy program, but, perhaps just as importantly, they had opportunities to interact, express themselves, participate in meaningful activities, lift their spirits and feel happy. There was a lot of sadness and grief in this unit, but also joy and resilience.

This experience gave me a wonderful insight into the importance of recreational activities, both individual and group-based, for our health and wellbeing. Adult colouring books are something many people clearly find helpful, and I think it’s great they’ve become so popular if it helps people to calm their mind and feel more relaxed. Nonetheless, as a mindfulness teacher I do cringe when I see them being marketed as ‘mindful colouring’ books, or even ‘Zen colouring in’! Colouring in can be done mindfully or mindlessly, as can gardening, cooking, playing sport, or any of the other recreational activities we enjoy. Just because something is beneficial doesn’t mean it’s mindfulness. We all have mindfulness within us, and some people can spend quite a bit of their lives in a mindful state without ever learning and practising it formally. Yet it’s misleading to call something ‘mindful (…)’ when the activity doesn’t actively develop non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.

When the word mindfulness becomes a marketing tool for colouring-in books, we’ve come a long way from Buddhist mindfulness and therapeutic mindfulness. If we want mindfulness to be an ongoing part of our lives, rather than something which appears and disappears by chance, we do need to challenge ourselves through a commitment to an ongoing, formal practice. It’s when we step outside our comfort zone and try a new approach to our difficulties that the changes mindfulness can make to our lives begin to happen. It’s not easy to learn this through books and apps alone, which is why I always recommend attending courses or retreats with an experienced teacher. Mindfulness is simple, but not easy – regardless of what the marketing tries to tell us!

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on what mindfulness means to you, based on the four meanings of mindfulness we’ve discussed – you could do this sitting quietly somewhere, or perhaps through journalling. What emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane

Who cares?

A few years ago, I was coordinating community recreation groups for adults with an Acquired Brain Injury. One of the participants, I’ll call him Bill (not his real name), had a wonderful way of shrugging his shoulders whenever something went wrong (which was quite frequently) and saying with a philosophical smile, ‘Who cares?’

I told myself that I could really learn from Bill. Because most of the time, he was quite right – who cared if something hadn’t quite worked out? You simply did your best to fix it and moved on. While it’s good to be conscientious, it’s certainly easy to over-exaggerate the importance of getting stressed over every minor hiccup. It might make us look and feel caring, but what is the right balance between being a caring person, and bringing a sense of equanimity into our lives?

In the helping professions, it’s well known that those who are most caring are also most likely to burn out. Yet for the people they’re working with, the simple sense of feeling ‘cared about’ (’I’m not just a number to this person.’) can be enormously healing. Most of us are helpers – whether we work in a helping profession, coach our son’s basketball team, take our elderly parents to the doctor, or volunteer for a good cause. It can give us a real buzz to feel we’re making a positive difference, but it’s also easy to exhaust ourselves in the process. And while there are certainly people who seem completely self-centered and don’t care much at all, many of us have the opposite problem of caring too much, and often feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world we want to heal.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about for work, I might have lunch in a café. I’m entitled to a lunch break, so it’s a perfectly legitimate break, and yet I’ve noticed that I feel I should be slightly anxious during lunch, as if I’m about to rush back to work, being a busy little worker bee. Of course this makes no sense. One day I suddenly realised – who cares what my state of mind is while I have lunch? The reality is, no one cares at all. The whole world is completely indifferent to whether I eat my lunch quickly, with a serious look on my face, or whether I enjoy the break and the different surroundings and make the most of the experience. And of course I’m more likely to be effective at work in the afternoon if I’ve allowed myself a relaxing lunch break.

So, who cares? Perhaps those of us who tend to be at the over-caring end of the spectrum can all learn from Bill. I still picture him from time to time, with his philosophical shrug, and the way he reminded us,

‘Who cares?’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one day where you will pause from time to time and ask yourself, ‘who cares’? Where are you, in that moment, on the spectrum of over-caring vs indifference? What would a happy, balanced amount of caring look like in this situation?

Anja Tanhane

Right effort – Part 1

One of the eight components of the eight-fold path in Buddhism is called ‘right effort’. When we hear the phrase ‘right effort’, we may immediately sit up more straight and feel that we have to work harder. And while this may well be the case in some parts of our lives, it could also be that in other areas, we are trying too hard. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and learning to use it more wisely can make a very positive difference to our health and wellbeing. Yet knowing when to push ourselves harder, and when to ease off, is not always easy. Between the two extremes – barely bothering to get out of bed vs driving ourselves to the point of a mental and physical breakdown – lies a large grey area where there are few rules. Trying too hard, or not hard enough, can both become habits which are difficult to break. And what was true for us on Monday may not be the case on Tuesday. Perhaps on Monday we really did need a day at home to rest, but by Tuesday we would have been better off dragging ourselves to work. When our mood is low (as opposed to clinical depression, which is different), we might like to rest on the couch for a while and feel better for it. But other times, forcing ourself out of the house and going for a brisk walk in fresh air may quickly lift our mood 100%.

Right effort also applies to our meditation practice, whether it’s a formal practice, such as daily sitting meditation or yoga, or a more informal way of including mindfulness into our everyday life. One of the core attributes of mindfulness is non-striving, and it’s certainly true that we can’t strive for results during meditation – it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, it’s very easy to drift off into daydreams or convoluted thought patterns during meditation. We might be sitting still in a beautiful erect posture for thirty minutes, but are we actually meditating, or simply stewing over something a colleague said four days ago and organising our shopping list?

There is no doubt that a considerable amount of effort is required if we want mindfulness to become part of our lives. Yet there is also a sense of ease, of flow, about being more mindful. On the one hand, we hold the intention to be mindful, and remind ourselves regularly to be more present. On the other hand, we don’t want to go around muttering to ourselves, ‘come on, be mindful, okay now, mindfulness remember, are you paying attention here, mindful, mindful, BE MINDFUL!’

Right effort can apply to so many areas of our lives – how we use our bodies, what we focus on, how resilient we are, whether we are fulfilling our potentials or frittering them away. It’s a complex area, but reflecting regularly on right effort, and how we use it in different areas of our lives, can really help us to live more effectively and with more ease.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one hour where you are engaged in a regular activity, and during this hour pause from time to time and ask yourself – am I putting in too much effort, or not enough? What would right effort look like for this activity? And how might that apply to other areas of your life?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – New Beginnings

‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Yet physiologically and mentally we still respond as if we’re standing opposite a tiger about to pounce. Not only is this exhausting, it also limits our ability to remain aware of the bigger picture. We can spend months and years staring at a door which was shut in our face, and in the meantime life goes on, filled with new resources, new delights, new opportunities we barely notice.

The other extreme is to pretend nothing affects us, as if we were somehow immune from the normal processes of grief. Or we may give up too easily – at the first indication that a door might be closing, we’ve already dashed off to look for something new.

During meditation we learn, over time, to rest somewhere in the middle – to loosen our fixations, so our outlook becomes broader; but also to feel our grief when there has been a loss, to allow ourselves, with kindness, to feel hurt. To ‘always look on the bright side’ can be absurd when we are caught up in devastating circumstances. However, even in suffering, there can be opportunities for appreciation – for the caring gesture of a friend, the compassion someone has shown you.

When we watch our breath during meditation, we notice the outbreath coming to an end, a pause, and the beginning of the next breath in. The pause between each breath is the pause before the next new beginning. Resting in that pause can feel like a neutral space pregnant with new possibilities. The breath teaches us that we can’t hang onto the outbreath, to what has gone. Yet we also don’t need to rush immediately to the next breath in.

Perhaps, if we pause from time to time, we find new beginnings emerging by themselves, without much effort on our part. When we feel very stressed, it can be difficult to pause. We might fear getting stuck in the distressing sensations if we don’t rush headlong ahead. In fact, people usually report the opposite – that pausing during stress opens up new possibilities, a different approach, a sense of new beginnings.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to notice your breath, and allow yourself to rest in the pause between breathing out and breathing in. Notice the spaciousness before each new breath begins.

Anja Tanhane

 

Holiday favourites – precious moments

Welcome to the first of our holiday specials – republishing some of the most popular reflections from the past three years:

According to the thirteenth century Zen master Dogen, there are 6,440,099,180 moments in each day. If we multiply this by the 342 days remaining of this year, we still have 2,202,513,919,560 moments ahead of us before we get to 2015. Of course, in reality it’s impossible to calculate the ephemeral nature of moments, but in mindfulness every moment is an opportunity to become more present, and Dogen’s calculation, give or take a few moments, clearly presents us with numerous opportunities to be mindful each day.

If we look at our attitude towards the many moments in our lives, we tend to divide them into a range of categories, such as:

1. Special, important moments

2. Ordinary, less-important moments

3. Suffering moments.

Leaving suffering aside for now, as this is a topic in itself, special moments can be further divided into:

1. Special moments which are exactly as we’d hoped they would be

2. Special moments which are pretty good, but in some ineffable way slightly disappointing

3. Special moments which surpass even our expectations (1 and 3 are quite rare!).

Ordinary moments, on the other hand, can include:

1. Frustratingly boring moments

2. Ok, slightly hum-drum moments

3. Moments we can cruise through on automatic pilot, without taking much notice of them

4. Moments we rush through in order to get to the special moments we actually care about.

We have a tendency to build our lives around the special moments, such as weddings, Christmas, the birth of a child, getting to the top of Mt Everest, and so on. There is no doubt that the special moments add great richness and often joy to our lives. However, if we draw up an honest inventory of our days, it’s pretty obvious that most of our lives are actually spent in the ordinary moments – all those everyday routine tasks we could almost do in our sleep – and, in fact, often end up doing more or less in a state of sleep-walking.

One of the gifts of a regular mindfulness practice is to transform how we live the so-called ‘ordinary’ moments of our lives. There are no fireworks (which is kind of the point), but you suddenly notice the water on your skin when you have a shower. You are aware of your breath when you’ve stopped at a red light. You taste the food you spent an hour preparing – and not just the first mouthful, but the whole of the meal. You pay more attention to routine tasks at work, and enjoy them more. There are millions of processes happening within our bodies and around us in the universe which make it possible for us to be alive, which allow us to experience this particular moment right now. We really don’t need any miracles, because just to be alive is miraculous enough. The practice of mindfulness allows us to appreciate and experience these many precious ordinary moments more fully.

Weekly practice idea:

Every now and then, stop and reflect on how precious this particular moment is. Take a few breaths to savour the sense of being present.

Anja Tanhane

 

Peace

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all” is the message that is proclaimed at Christmas time.

What do we mean by peace? We may think about a state in which there is no fighting, but only tranquility, calm, stillness and quiet.

During the festive season we can feel a spirit of joyfulness. We enjoy being with people. We can witness the excitement of young children leaving food for Santa. However, it is a sad irony that this time of the year can be anything but peaceful! Often people comment on the mad rush leading up to Christmas. We may be frantically trying to get presents, meet deadlines and attend Christmas functions. Our already busy lives become even faster paced. Holiday stress!

Although this time is when families traditionally come together, in heartfelt warmth, and we hear moving examples of kindness and generosity, Christmas day can also be a time when family tensions surface and arguments erupt. We may have either experienced this for ourselves, or heard stories of other people’s experience of family fights, hurt feelings or exclusion. A friend recently told me that her last family Christmas get-together was such a debacle that she has chosen to spend this year alone. It can also be a lonely time for people who do not have family, or have experienced a recent loss.

As well as interpersonal conflict we can become even more aware of the conflicts between nations, the world conflict which is nightly reported on, in what Shinzen Young refers to as “the litany of horrors that is the 6 o’clock news. Where are peace and goodwill in the “silly season”?

Jack Kornfield explains: “The inner stillness of the person who truly “is peace” brings peace to the whole interconnected web of life, both inner and outer. To stop the war, we need to begin with ourselves.” He quotes Mahatma Gandhi:

“I have only three enemies. My favourite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man called Mohandas K.Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

As Gandhi humorously notes, it is not so easy to cease fighting with ourselves. We cannot stop the war by beating ourselves into submission, this only increases our struggle. Over time with mindfulness meditation practice we can cultivate equanimity; an internal balance, allowing sensory experience to be as it is, with an attitude of kindness and friendliness. This to me is freedom from disturbance: peace. Another wonderful benefit of mindfulness practice is that we find we are more able to respond rather than react, which leads to less interpersonal battles.

 

Many people coming to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course tell me what they would like and hope for is to find peace. Similarly, Jon Kabat–Zinn has found most people attending the Stress Reduction clinic have the goal of attaining peace of mind. Based on his years of experience he has learnt that although meditation practice is powerfully healing, some kind of personal vision is also needed for growth and change. He advises:

“To achieve peace of mind, people have to kindle a vision of what they really want for themselves and keep that vision alive in the face of inner and outer hardships, obstacles and setbacks.”

Perhaps the Christmas message and hope of peace and goodwill may rekindle your aspiration and vision for this.

Weekly practice idea:

Adapted from the book Peace is Every Breath: A Practice For Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh

Settle into a comfortable position. Focus on your breath and allow it to be easy and natural. The following verse can be recited silently breathing in you say the first line; breathing out you say the second, and so on.

Breathing in, I feel my breath coming into my belly and chest.

Breathing out, I feel my breath flowing out of my belly and chest.

Breathing in, I’m aware of some pains or tensions in my body.

Breathing out, I release all the pains and tensions in my body.

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I feel ease and peace.

 

Michelle Morris

 

Our sense of touch

Have you ever hugged a tree? For all the clichés around tree-huggers, it’s actually a wonderful thing to do. And if you can’t quite see yourself going up to a tree and giving it a hug, even just running your hand along its bark can be a great way to feel more connected to nature.

Touch is one of our most important senses – infants who are deprived of touch fail to develop normally. Even taking someone’s hand and holding it briefly can instantly help to calm and soothe them. If you’re with someone who is crying or very distressed, the natural instinct is to give them a hug or at least put your hand around their shoulder. Touch can also help us feel more connected to our environment – running our hands over smooth pebbles in the creek, walking barefoot across sand on a beach, noticing a warm gentle breeze against our skin, touching beautiful fabric such as silk.

As human beings, we need touch – we thrive when we are touched in loving and caring ways. Unfortunately, our need to be touched is also easily abused. In order to protect the vulnerable from sexual abuse, we have laws in Australia regulating the use of touch in the workplace. What touch means depends on the relationship between two people. A brief hand on the shoulder can be friendly and supportive, or creepy and exploitative. Residents in aged care homes, or people with a disability, can sometimes miss out on the benefits of being touched because of the need to protect them. Sometimes offering a hand massage, or a professional neck and shoulder massage, or a manicure, allows people to be touched in a way which is safe, and which helps them feel pampered and valued.

Tuning into our sense of touch is an easy and effective way of activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our resting and regenerating state. Even something as simple as paying attention to the sensations when we wash our hands is enough to trigger this state, especially if we use water which is slightly warm. Hopefully we wash our hands multiple times throughout the day. Each of these times is an opportunity to slow down, feel the cleansing water against the skin, smell the soap, breathe. Then we dry our hands, and tune into the sensations of this. We can then return to our activity refreshed, and feeling more present and grounded.

Weekly practice idea:

Each day, choose a different activity for tuning into your sense of touch. One day it could be washing your hands, the next running your hands over the bark of a tree, then it could be brushing the hair of your child. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Mindful eating

‘When walking, walk. When eating, eat.’ Zen proverb

To eat more mindfully is one of the most powerful ways we can transform our lives. In the delightful German/Japanese movie ‘Enlightenment Guaranteed’, Gustav meditates every morning and works as a Feng Shui consultant. We see him visiting a new client, discussing how to harmonise the flow of energy in his apartment, using all kinds of elevated and spiritual phrases, and minutes later we see him standing on the street wolfing down a hamburger. From these two scenes, we get the impression that Gustav has an idealised notion of enlightenment, but hasn’t yet found a way of integrating it into his daily life.

Most of us have probably heard about the benefits of mindful eating – we tend to eat the right amount rather than over- or under-eating, it helps us make better food choices, get away from emotional or stress-related eating, and also assists with our digestion. Another clear benefit is that we actually get to taste the food! We often spend considerable time and money organising a meal, and then might consume it mindlessly, barely noticing the taste. I’ve worked with people who for medical reasons were unable to swallow food, and had to be fed a nourishing liquid through a peg tube directly into their stomach. Their grief and loss at no longer being able to eat and taste food was immense.

Yet there are many complex reasons why mindful eating may be a challenge. Often we are distracted by the people we eat with, and our attention is on them rather than the food. We might feel guilty a lot of the time about what we eat, so by paying less attention we can ignore the feelings of guilt more easily. We might just be very busy, and feel we have no time to stop and eat properly. Perhaps we had to eat everything on our plate as children, and so didn’t learn to listen to our body when it tells us it’s full. Or we might be exhausted, and regard food as petrol to fuel our body rather than a source of nourishment and joy.

If you struggle with mindful eating, it’s worth starting small, and not being overly ambitious. You can choose to eat one meal or one snack mindfully each week. Eating a whole meal by yourself in silence is a great practice, but you may find you’re always eating with other people, either at work or at home. So you could choose to eat an apple mindfully. You might sit down somewhere, take a breath, look at the apple, smell it, think about where it came from. If you can, close your eyes. As you take the first bite, imagine that you’ve never eaten an apple before. What does it taste like? What is the texture? What do you feel in your mouth as you begin to chew and swallow? Eat slowly, stopping to pause and take a breath every now and then. Afterwards, notice how it felt to eat the apple mindfully. If you do this regularly, you will find yourself also eating meals more mindfully – slowing down a little, tasting the food more, having a greater sense of nourishment and enjoyment.

Weekly practice idea:

Eat one meal this week in silence, mindfully, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Selective hearing

‘Old pond

Frog jumps in-

Splash’

Basho

We all know people who seem to have selective hearing – who hear only what they want to hear. At times these people can drive us to distraction, and yet in fact we all have selective hearing. Most of the time, we pay little attention to the sounds around us. This is adaptive, because if we listened to every sound with our full attention, there wouldn’t be much time left for anything else in our lives.

Yet the practice of mindful listening can greatly enrich our lives. We can do this during meditation, and also at other times. Mindful listening simply involves opening ourselves to the soundscape around us, and hearing each sound as individual, unique, without attaching some meaning, judgment or storyline to it. As a trained musician, I’m used to making continual judgments about the sounds which I and the other musicians produce. In the context of musical training and performance, this has its place, but it’s liberating for me to open myself up to the sounds around me, without a running commentary of good sound, bad sound, want more of this sound, want less of that. Where I live, I can hear both bird song and also traffic sounds, including trucks. It’s quite a challenge to be just as open to the traffic noises as to the birds. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to practise non-judgmental awareness, which is one of the core attributes of mindfulness.

Sound is waves travelling through the air and hitting our ear drums. The range of sounds we can hear is quite extraordinary (though limited compared to many animals), and each sound has unique properties. We also tend to become quite habituated to ongoing sounds, taking less and less notice of them. This gives us an opportunity to practise another core attribute of mindfulness – beginner’s mind. We can be open and fresh to each sound – the low humming of the fridge as well as a sudden arpeggio of bird song outside our window. This gives us a wonderful sense of resting in the present moment, of being right here, right now.

We can underestimate the effect which sounds have on our bodies and our psyches. Sound is used to torture people, and also to sing a crying baby to sleep. Supermarkets use certain music to slow you down and have you lingering in the aisles so you end up buying more than you need. One train station near me plays classical music over the loud speakers to discourage teenagers from hanging out there. To me that’s a rather sad use of classical music (and I used to love getting off the train and hearing the Mozart oboe concerto in all its joy and glory), but apparently it’s very effective!

Mindfulness of sound can open us up to the present moment, and it can also allow us to be more in tune with how the sounds around us affect us. It’s a simple but powerful practice we can easily incorporate into our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and sit with your eyes closed, allowing yourself to hear as many different sounds as possible, without judging them or getting caught up in story-lines about them. Open your eyes again, and notice how you feel.

Anja Tanhane

Coming to our senses

One of the most direct, effective ways we can feel more connected is by tuning into our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. We tend to take them for granted, but people who lose one or more of these senses, whether through an accident or illness, suddenly realise how much their felt presence in the world relies on their sensory awareness. When we are busy, rushing from one task to the next, constantly bombarded with noise and stimulation, it’s easy for our senses to become dulled. It’s like a self-protective mechanism which tries to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this dulling of our senses leads to a more impoverished life, where countless opportunities for joy and appreciation are missed because we aren’t even aware of them.

In his book ‘Coming to our senses – Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness’, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:

‘The fact of the matter is that it is not so easy to come to our senses without practice. And as a rule, we are colossally out of practice. (…) We are colossally out of shape when it comes to perception and awareness, whether orientated outwardly or inwardly, or both.’

People who come to a mindfulness course or retreat often report seeing colours more brightly, tasting the food more, feeling more present in their bodies. They might have come to mindfulness because of serious stresses and difficulties in their lives, hoping to learn to deal with these more effectively, and are delighted to discover a whole world of sensory richness which previously they hadn’t even realised they were missing.

Yet coming to our senses is more than just an added bonus of mindfulness, like a free set of steak knives with our new super wonder cooker. It’s at the heart of living a mindful life. Over the coming weeks, we will explore our different senses, and how mindfulness can enrich these in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of your senses, and write down what it means to you. What would it be like to lose this sense? Think about the role it plays in your life, and how precious it is.

Anja Tanhane