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

An ordinary life

‘Ordinary mind is the way.’ Dogen

‘You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.’ Abraham Lincoln

There are certainly two very different philosophies of life at play in the above two statements. Having an ordinary mind doesn’t sound very appealing – after all, what’s the point of working hard, just to be ordinary? We’re unlikely to see many ads for a product which, if we buy it, promises to make us completely ordinary. Dogen was a famous Zen teacher who founded the Soto sect in Japan in the thirteenth century. This tradition is known for its long hours of sitting meditation, zazen, and its strict, rigorous training of the monks. All this discipline and sacrifice, simply to sit with an ordinary mind?

Yet the second statement also sounds exhausting to me. Do I really need to be capable of absolutely anything I put my mind to? Out of the more than six billion people in the world, do I really need to distinguish myself by being amazing and extraordinary? And not just once, but every day, my entire lifetime – all just by harnessing the power of my mind?

‘You’re living a very ordinary life’ is not usually regarded as a compliment, and yet, what is an ordinary life? It’s essentially the life we have. In fact, we are blessed if we’re able to live an ordinary life – if we’re not one of 60 million refugees, or fighting in a war, or caught up in a natural disaster. According to Dogen, an ordinary mind is all we need in order to live well. To have an ordinary, human mind is a tremendous gift. Who could ask for anything better?

Of course we want to feel special, unique, to at least a few people in the world. We don’t want to feel trapped in a dull rut, where every day seems like all you’re doing is trudging on a treadmill. We want to have a sense of spark in our lives, of vitality. Ordinary doesn’t have to be boring. Perhaps walking down the street you walk down every day, and seeing it with fresh eyes, with a sense of joy and gratitude, can help us to better appreciate the precious ordinary life we have.

As Blaise Pascal puts it so beautifully:

‘Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.’

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something in your life which you take for granted, but which you would miss if it were no longer there. For example, sometimes people who’ve had a stroke lose their sense of smell and taste. Slow down and allow yourself to appreciate this ordinary part of your life.

Anja Tanhane

Appreciation

Yellow flowers

Karoshi, the Japanese word for death from overwork, is legally recognised in Japan and can be used in law-suits and compensation claims. In Australia, working hours are generally less extreme, but nonetheless, according to the ABS, almost 40% of us report feeling always or frequently rushed and pressed for time. People often come to mindfulness training with a sense of being so busy racing from one task to the next, they are hardly aware of their own lives. After a weekend retreat, or during the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, many report an increased sense of appreciation. The more we can appreciate what we already have, the less we need to feel driven to constantly achieve more and acquire more things. Appreciation is also a powerful antidote to feeling empty and disconnected from life. Yet sadly, the saying ‘you don’t appreciate what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is often only too true. Continue reading “Appreciation” »