Connecting with our body

In both the Buddhist tradition and in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, the practice of cultivating mindfulness starts with developing greater awareness of our body. We can sometimes think of meditation as something which happens in our head, and we might get quite caught up in the imaginary battlefield of our mind, where thoughts are not ‘behaving’ in the way we’d like them to during meditation. And yet, thoughts are only one aspect of our experience. There is also our body – the physical presence of the body, its position in space, and where it connects to the ground or chair. Our body is also how we interact with our environment, particularly through the felt experience of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We’re constantly receiving information through our body – about its physical needs, our emotional state, and how safe or unsafe we feel in a particular environment. It is a treasure trove of information, when we tune in and listen to it.

How we relate to our bodies is closely linked to how we relate to the rest of our lives. Valuing our body only if it lives up to some imaginary standard of weight, measurements and beauty is like valuing a little girl only when she is dressed up as a princess once a year. It is the ordinariness of the little girl, with all her emotional turmoils and mud-covered knees and fighting with her siblings which is precious, not some fantasy ideal which is unobtainable. Our bodies are also ordinary, and sometimes bear the scars of our life experiences, and yet, when we tune into our bodies with friendly presence and curiosity, we can feel in a sense that we have ‘come home.’

There are complex reasons why being present in our body might not be straight-forward. Our cultural upbringing may value thinking above body experiences, or have given us negative messages about our bodies. We may have had adverse experiences which could be triggered when we tune into our body. We may simply feel that we’re too busy to pause and tune in – that there’s no point when so much else is calling out to be done.

Sometimes it helps to start small – to notice the breath flowing in and out a few times, or the sensations in the soles of our feet as we walk down the corridor, or the breeze on our face as we step out the front door. A guided body scan meditation can be helpful, such as the one on this website. Most of us have a complicated relationship with our body, yet slowly becoming more present within it, and developing friendliness towards it, can help to reduce some of the anxious insecurity we can be prone to in our modern lives.

 

Mindful practice idea:

Think of a small practice which helps you feel more present in your body. It could be tuning into the breath, or noticing the contact between your body and ground, or going outside and feeling the wind against a skin. Each day, spend a couple of minutes tuning into your body in this way.

 

Anja Tanhane

 

Posture

When I think about people I admire, something they share in common is that they carry themselves well. They are not arrogant or aloof, but there is a grace and dignity to the way they move. It used to be called ‘deportment’, which as a word has definitely gone out of fashion. And yet the way we sit, stand and walk has a strong influence on our mental state.

The best exercise I’ve come across to practise good posture is walking around the house with a paperback book on your head. Ladies used to do this in finishing school, and for good reason – you immediately feel taller, your head seems to be floating on top of the spine, and your limbs move with natural ease. We have a tendency to collapse into ourselves during the day, and the frequent use of smartphones and tablets has made this much worse. Young children naturally have wonderful postures, with erect spines and heads which are upright, their eyes open and curious as they eagerly explore the world. To see two-year-old children hunched over small electronic devices is a pretty sad sight.

If we were constantly admonished to ‘sit up straight’ when we were young, we may feel resistant to the idea of walking tall now. Good posture is not about being stiff, like a wooden puppet, or like being in the army marching to someone else’s beat. We don’t slump forward, but we also don’t draw our shoulders back too far. Most importantly, posture is about free-flowing movement, not stiffening into some idealised state.

Movement practices like Tai Chi and yoga can help us to feel more at home in our bodies. Also, getting lessons from an Alexander technique or Feldenkrais practitioner can support us to use our bodies more effectively. The natural state of our bodies is to be flowing, graceful and strong. Just like water can’t flow through a hose which is crinkled, so energy can’t flow freely through a body which is stiff and tense, and huddled over.

We all have a point where our bodies feel most balanced and free, and exploring our bodies, and learning what this balanced point feels like for us, can be very liberating.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of walking around the house with a light book on your head. Then try to keep some of the same sense of being upright and alert as you walk during the rest of the day.

Anja Tanhane

Stopping to smell the roses

There are few experiences which connect us as powerfully with our past as our sense of smell. It could be a dish your grandmother cooked, the scent of a forest where you played as a child, the perfume your mother wore, or the smell of sand and ocean. The way we respond to smells is also highly individual. Most people like the smell of roses, and dislike the smell of rotten eggs or meat. In between the extremes of pleasant and disgusting smells, however, how we respond to smells is uniquely individual to us. Perhaps you had a beloved grandfather who smoked cigars, and the scent of cigars will always make you feel loved and protected even though you’re a strict non-smoker. As a child, you might have spent summer holidays in a musty holiday shack, and years later you walk into a house which is damp and hasn’t been cleaned properly for a while, and you immediately feel relaxed and at ease. One day you wake up in a positive mood, catch the train to work, and by the time you get off the train a great sadness has come over you. You have no idea why, but someone near you was wearing the same aftershave as a close friend who has recently passed away.

Many animals, of course, rely mostly on their sense of smell to help them survive, and smells are also perceived and remembered by us in the mammalian part of our brain, the limbic region. The limbic brain holds our long term memories, learnt associations, and emotional responses, and we can sometimes react to a stimulus from the limbic brain below the level of our conscious awareness. Our sense of smell can evoke emotional memories, scenes from the past, but it can also ground us very much in the present moment, into the here and now.

We’re no doubt too self-conscious to go around sniffing the air like animals do, to get important information about our surroundings, and yet we’re constantly picking up signals through our sense of smell. It’s very common for people to report an increased sensibility to smell when they go on a retreat or start regular meditation. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ – it’s a cliche, but a very powerful one. If you stand in a park or garden and allow yourself to notice the sounds around you, the breeze against your skin, and you then lean down to smell a rose, crush a little lavender between your fingers, walk up to a tree and smell its leaves – in those moments, you are completely mindful, present, absorbed in the rich awareness of your different senses.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, make a time to stop and smell a rose. Depending on where you are in the world, this could be a literal rose, or something similar. Notice how it feels to be absorbed in that moment through your sense of smell.

Anja Tanhane

 

Seeing with fresh eyes

‘The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having fresh eyes.’

Marcel Proust

It is delightful to spend time with little children who are exploring the world with fresh, open, curious eyes. Their senses haven’t become dulled yet, as can happen when we get older. Often, the only time we come close to matching the fresh curiosity of children is when we go travelling, particularly if we go to a country which is very different from ours. In those places, everything is interesting – the clothes people wear, the shops, how they boil their kettle, the food, houses, even traffic signs. Yet there is nothing stopping us from walking through our own street with the same sense of interested and open curiosity.

Our senses, including sight, do not give us ‘true’ information. A stimulus connects with the part of the body set up to receive it – in the case of sight, light is sent through the cornea and lens to the retina. After this, the signal is processed in the brain, starting at the back of the head in the occipital lobe, and goes on quite a journey. One part of the brain processes peripheral vision, another spatial awareness, another visual acuity, another controls the eye muscles, and so on. In fact, if someone’s had a stroke affecting their eyesight, it’s possible to locate the part of the brain which was damaged by the kind of impairment to their eyesight. We also have a blind spot in our visual field, which we effortlessly ‘fill in’ with the picture we think should be there.

Our culture also influences what we ‘see’. Studies such as those by psychologist Richard Nisbett found that when shown pictures of objects against complex backgrounds, Westerners focused mainly on the central object, whereas Asians took in the whole picture and had a more holistic understanding of the context. A follow-up study by Masuda et al (2007) showed participants cartoons of a happy, neutral or sad person, surrounded by people with the same facial expression or a different one. Japanese people took into account the whole group when they judged the emotion of the central person, whereas Westerners only focused on the central person. What we look at also changes across cultures – in the same studies, they tracked the eye movements of participants, and Japanese spent more time looking at the whole picture, whereas Westerners focused mainly on the central object or person.

It would be interesting to do a similar study with people who’ve practised mindfulness for many years, as mindfulness allows us to step back and take into account the bigger picture, and especially to become more aware of the context of a situation.

One effect of mindfulness meditation on seeing, which is reported again and again by participants in the MBSR course and weekend retreats, is that colours seem more bright, more intense, after meditation. There is indeed a sense of seeing the world with fresh, revitalised eyes, of being able to perceive the world with new delight.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit somewhere pleasant, like a garden or a park, and close your eyes for a few minutes, tuning into your breath. Then open your eyes and look at your surroundings with a friendly, receptive curiosity. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane