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

Going with the flow

Flow is the antidote to trauma.’ Dr Peter A. Levine

One of the challenging after-effects of trauma can be a sense of being stuck in the past – whether it’s in the form of flashbacks which take us right back to the event, or else a sense of bitterness or hardening creeping into our lives. Anything which interferes with our sense of wholeness and control can be traumatic – this includes being attacked or being caught up in a natural disaster, but it can also be surgery, divorce, being unemployed, or being discriminated against. While we’re in the midst of an emergency we may need to be very strong in order to survive, whether literally or metaphorically, and we find ourselves toughening up. This allows us to get through the event, and of course we need a certain amount of hardiness in order to get by in life. Yet over time, this toughness can become a shell which keeps us trapped, and which prevents us from fulfilling our potential. The strategies we used in order to survive can become our prison, and they can control our lives long after the need for them has passed.

It is the difference between stagnant water trapped in a barrel, and a bubbling brook of clear spring water flowing through a forest. When we begin to flow again, the traumas of our past can gradually be released. The progress may be slow, and we may need a lot of support, but there is a sense of movement rather than entrapment.

There are many ways we can cultivate a sense of flow in our lives. Anything which involves moving our bodies, whether it’s Tai Chi, playing sport, dancing, yoga or walking, allows our energies to start flowing again. Sometimes even just a brisk walk around the block can be enough to lift our spirits. Moving our bodies in whichever way feels joyful to us is wonderfully therapeutic, and we can easily underestimate just how beneficial it is for our bodies to simply be moving.

Music also helps us to experience a sense of flow – whether we’re listening, or else singing or playing music, it never stands still. Music has this beautiful quality of allowing us to be engaged with it even as it is constantly changing and flowing. When we are present with music, it carries us along – neither feeling stuck nor direction-less. It is constantly changing, yet has its own internal logic and structure which holds and supports us.

Meditation can help us to experience this sense of flow and support as well. When we meditate regularly, we soon notice that no thought, emotion or sensation remains the same for very long. Everything is constantly changing, and with practice we can learn to relax into the flow of experience, rather than fighting it, or wanting to grasp onto it and hold it. We learn to go with the flow, rather than constantly putting up blockages and dams which take a lot of energy to maintain, and which prevent us from being freely in the moment.

Weekly practice idea:

What in your life helps to give you a sense of flow? Make a commitment to yourself to experience this activity this week, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

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