The gardener – Part 2

There is no much point in gardening if we only ever walk through the garden looking out for potential problems. Apart from noticing what’s not going well, we also want to take the time to enjoy and appreciate the plants which are flourishing. Sometimes in our garden, or in our meditation, we can become fixated on real and potential problems. On the one hand, we’re not very good gardeners if we simply glide around from flower to flower, enjoying their beauty and ignoring the knee-high weeds almost overwhelming them. On the other hand, never making the time to ‘smell the roses’ seems to defeat the purpose of looking after a garden in the first place. Why have a garden if we’re never relaxed enough to enjoy and appreciate it?

Gardening is about our relationship to the garden – how much we notice, in what way we take care of it, whether we allow it to nourish us. In the same way, our life is also about the relationship we have with our life. To live is to be in relationship with everything around us, including our life. And this relationship depends a lot on what we choose to notice, and what we choose to ignore.

A good gardener will create the best possible conditions for the plants to flourish, and then be philosophical about the outcome. You might have spent weeks cultivating the soil, then bought a healthy-looking seedling, planted it in the right position in the garden, at the right time of year, and watered and fed it regularly, and still the plant might not survive a heatwave, or a hailstorm. Even professional gardeners have their fair share of failures. Sometimes, we might feel our meditation practice should be different, that we’ve worked hard enough to deserve a certain outcome. Just like the vagaries of the weather, the ever-changing conditions of our lives and our minds mean that no one can draw a clear line from A to B and tell you – ‘if you meditate in this way, for this long, then you will experience this’.

Still, we can enjoy being present in our meditation, just like we might enjoy wandering through a park or garden. The gardener and the plants are doing their best, as are we during meditation. No one can expect more of us, including ourselves.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to walk through a garden or a park, and try to notice as many details as possible. Just noticing and being curious has a wonderful quality to it.

Anja Tanhane

The gardener – Part 1

‘The best fertilisers are the footsteps of the gardener.’ Chinese proverb

Most gardeners have probably had the experience of being too busy for a few days to check on the garden, and suddenly finding themselves confronted with a plant covered in insects or drooping with a fungus. It might seem as if the damage appeared overnight, but most of the time there would have been some early warning signs – a few insects exploring the plant, a couple of leaves which were changing colour. Whether we have elaborate watering systems or use a hand-held watering can; whether our garden has been landscaped by a famous designer or has been cobbled together by waves of tenants renting the property, the basic principle is the same – if we don’t take the time to notice what’s going on, we’re likely to miss the early warning signs. This applies to the rest of our lives as well, of course, but could also be said for our meditation practice.

We might feel as if we need to constantly learn new meditation techniques, buy the latest book, go to the workshop of a famous teacher, spend thousands of dollars on a retreat, and continually have a sense of progress and learning something new. A certain amount of this can be beneficial – just like a garden does need some fertilisers apart from the gardener walking through. But we can throw a lot of money at expensive fertilisers and gardening tools, and expensive meditation courses, yet without the commitment of walking through the garden every day, or meditating every day, taking time to notice what’s really going on, much of this can be wasted.

The best fertiliser for our meditation practice is simply showing up to the meditation, day after day. We may not learn anything, or solve our problems, or become more spiritually advanced. Yet like a gardener, we can observe and make little adjustments – pulling out a few weeds, adding fertiliser to a plant which is wilting, squashing some aphids on the roses, pruning spent flowers and making room for more to grow. Slowly, over time as we meditate regularly, we are making choices about what we want to nourish in the garden of our lives, and what we want to let go of. No one is going to do this work for us, though there are people around who can help, such as teachers and meditation groups. In the end, however, it’s up to us to show up – to be the gardeners of our lives, walking through, noticing what’s going on, making small adjustments here and there.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to sit in a garden or a park, and notice of how much work has gone into creating this particular space over the years. What are some of the fruits and flowers you would like to cultivate in your own life?

Anja Tanhane

Being here now

‘At any moment you have a choice,

That either leads you closer to your spirit,

Or further away from it.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of us tend to experience a wide range of emotions over our lifetime – sometimes even in the course of a single day. Yet I find that underneath all these varied and colourful emotions, there is what I call an underlying ‘feeling tone’. And this feeling tone tends to be either one of patience, gracefulness and presence (which I call the feeling tone of love), or else one of impatience, ragged movements, and absentmindedness (which I call the feeling tone of rejection). This feeling tone is like the floor at the bottom of the ocean, and may have little in common with the stillness or tornadoes raging in the waves high above. We might be feeling fairly calm, with no major stressors to preoccupy us, and yet we are rushing through our tasks with a sense of impatience, choosing, on some level, to not be quite present. Or we might be under a lot of strain, feel quite agitated and exhausted, and yet the smile we bring to someone who is suffering is warm and compassionate.

We often have little awareness of this feeling tone, and yet, in my experience, it’s something we can easily influence for the better. Intuitively, it might seem that the opposite should be the case – that we should be able to influence the waves of our superficial emotions more easily than the feeling tone of the ocean floor. Yet, in fact, we always have a choice about how we choose to engage with each moment. Mindfulness, at its heart, is about taking good care of our lives, living it with a sense of presence and love.

The real work of mindfulness is mostly at the level of the feeling tone. We don’t try to transform ‘bad emotions’ into ‘good emotions’. Instead, we choose to bring a sense of kind presence to our lives, whatever happens to be going on right now. A regular practice will make us more aware of the level of engagement we bring to our lives – whether, in each moment, the underlying feeling tone is one of love, or one of rejection. This can be quite subtle, but the influence on our life is very powerful. Mindfulness is life-affirming – it’s about saying yes to our lives, not ‘yes, but only if… and when…’, while waiting for the perfect conditions. If we wait for the conditions to be perfect before we say yes to life, we could be waiting for a very long time!

We don’t usually go to the beach and tell the ocean – ‘I can’t accept you today, your waves are bit too choppy, sorry!’ And yet, unconsciously, this is how we often choose to live our lives. Saying yes to our lives doesn’t mean we don’t work at improving ourselves and our life. It’s like the love we may have for a child or a pet – hopefully we don’t only love them when they’re perfect, or else we think they’re so wonderful that we never offer them any guidance. We can engage with our lives with gentle discipline, seeking the guidance of mentors and teachers, and at the same time fully embrace the life we have, bringing a loving presence to each moment, making the choice to be fully here now.

Weekly practice idea:

Make the intention this week to tune into your underlying feeling tone from time to time. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Sleepy mind

Most people who meditate would be very familiar with ‘sleepy mind’ – this feeling that you’re drifting in and out of meditation, perhaps even asleep for significant chunks of it. Or you might be ambling along in a dreamy haze which has little to do with mindful awareness of the present moment. In Buddhism this is known as the third hindrance to meditation, often described with the wonderfully evocative words ‘sloth and torpor’. These old-fashioned words really seem to sum up what meditation can be at times, when I feel more like a sloth draped almost comatose across a branch than a bright little meditator. And as for torpor – that is the perfect description of the state of my mind on the first afternoon of an extended meditation retreat. The mind feels sticky and heavy, like a steamy jungle just before a downpour, and there are all kinds of noises and movements in the undergrowth but you can barely rouse yourself to notice them, you’re so sleepy, just really really sleepy… The meditation becomes a desperate battle to stay awake, to not fall asleep and keel over on your meditation cushion onto someone else’s lap. And you’re probably not the only one in the meditation room who is struggling – sleepy mind is a very common phenomena.

Sometimes, the reason why we feel so sleepy is simply because we are just really tired. We might have been stressed, run off our feet, rushing from one commitment to the next for so long, the moment we stop, all we notice is exhaustion. While we don’t want to fall asleep during meditation if we can help it, we may just need to accept ‘sleepy mind’ for a while, and not struggle too hard against it. We may also be used to associating relaxation with sleepiness, and it might take us a while to learn how to relax, but also be alert and present at the same time. This is very common when people first begin to meditate, and is part of the normal process.

However, sleepy mind can also be a way of avoiding ‘life as it is’, in the sense of zoning out rather than tuning in. Next week, we will look at some tips and strategies for working with this sleepy mind of ours.

Weekly practice idea:

Notice your patterns of sleepiness and alertness during the day. How does it feel to be sleepy during the day, and how do you usually respond?

Anja Tanhane

Four meanings of mindfulness

Mindfulness has certainly become very popular – when the US army, Capitol Hill, major corporations and Silicon Valley all embrace mindfulness, you know it’s gone mainstream. On the whole, this is positive – a wonderful antidote to our overly busy and hectic lives. Yet, as with anything which becomes popularised, there is the risk that mindfulness is becoming increasingly superficial. From mindful colouring books to thousands of mindfulness apps, suddenly everyone is doing mindfulness. More disturbingly, mindfulness is sometimes taught by inexperienced teachers to vulnerable people in a way which may do harm. I’ve heard staff members say, ‘oh yes, we teach mindfulness to all our mental health clients’, but when I talk to the staff about mindfulness, they have no idea what it is. And while mindfulness can be taught to clients with mental health issues in certain contexts, the teaching needs to be done by highly qualified and experienced practitioners.
It occurred to me that we really need to start using different words for mindfulness, depending on how it’s used. Part of the problem is that mindfulness is an English word which means ‘paying attention’ or ‘being thoughtful and considerate’. It was then appropriated to also describe sati, the Buddhist concept of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Then, when the practice of mindfulness became legitimised in the West based on thousands of scientific studies, its meaning broadened to include different kinds of meditation. We used to talk about the relaxation response, guided imagery meditation, transcendental meditation and so on, but suddenly all we ever seem to hear about is mindfulness meditation. From there we come to mindful colouring books and apps, which have their place, but are a world removed from sati.
So we have Buddhist mindfulness, or sati, which needs to be taught by a Buddhist teacher. Then there is therapeutic mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and similar programs, which is usually (though not always) taught by experienced meditators who have been trained to deliver these programs safely. We then come to relaxation mindfulness, which can be taught through CDs and apps and the occasional workshop. This way of using mindfulness can be helpful for stress management, but it doesn’t really explore key mindfulness concepts such as non-judgmental awareness, non-striving and acceptance. In the field it’s sometimes called Mindfulness Lite or McMindfulness. As for adult colouring books, they help to slow people’s minds down, which is beneficial – but they really have nothing to do with mindfulness as such.
In the next four weeks, I will explore these different categories of mindfulness. I’ll describe them as Buddhist mindfulness (sati), therapeutic mindfulness, relaxation mindfulness, and recreational mindfulness. Of course these categories are not distinct – they overlap, and within the various streams there are many variations. But perhaps, over time, we can come up with new words to describe the different ways of using mindfulness, and acknowledge the skills of those who have been trained to teach Buddhist and therapeutic mindfulness.

 
Weekly practice idea:
Which aspects of mindfulness do you feel most drawn to? You might well be using mindfulness in these four different ways, or you may be exploring one area in particular. Are the four categories meaningful to you, or can you come up with your own description of mindfulness?
Anja Tanhane

Counting the breath

Mindfulness meditation can be very free and open – for example, we might be meditating on mindfulness of sound, and simply allow ourselves to notice sounds as they come to us, hearing them as much as possible as pure sound, being curious about them but not focusing on any sound in particular. While this kind of meditation is quite unstructured, we do need a certain stability of mind before we can really allow ourselves to be present in this open way, without becoming side-tracked and distracted for most of the meditation. One of the most popular meditations for developing this concentration of mind is one called ‘counting the breath’.

For this, we begin by settling into our body, our meditation posture, and then tune into the breath entering our body and then leaving it again, noticing the subtle movements of the breath in the body. After doing this for a few minutes, we then begin to take more notice of the out-breath – the beginning, duration and end of the out-breath, the pause at the end – and then allow the next in-breath to just happen by itself. We then start to quietly, in our mind, count the out-breath – silently saying a long ‘oooonne’ with the first breath out, allowing the breath to flow back in, then a long ‘twooo’, and so on up to ‘ten’, and starting back at one again. Whenever we notice that our mind has wandered off from the counting of the breath, we simply observe this, and gently and without any fuss, start back at ‘one’ again.

We will find that we rarely, if ever, get to ‘ten’ without our mind having wandered off. This can be a little disconcerting – after all, how hard can it be to count to ten? However, the purpose of the meditation is to develop our ability to bring our mind back to the focus again and again, like training muscles in the gym by lifting weights. The key is not to get upset with ourselves for ‘not getting it right’, but to bring ourselves back to counting the breath with kindness and patience.

Sometimes it’s easier to start with counting to ‘four’ instead of ‘ten’. We can also count backwards, or in thirds – 1, 3, 2, 4 etc. Another method is to keep counting, instead of stopping at ten. I often like to practise counting the breath for the first ten minutes of my daily thirty minute meditation, to allow my mind to settle into the meditation, before moving on to other practices. Also, on extended retreats, I find it helpful to practise counting the breath in the early morning meditations.

People who are fairly new to meditation often comment that they find the structure of counting the breath very helpful. Yet it’s not just a meditation for beginners, but one which can benefit us throughout our lives, and which will help us develop greater focus and increased clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Practise the ‘counting the breath’ meditation, remembering to be kind to yourself whenever your mind wanders off.

Anja Tanhane