Enthusiasm for life

Throughout our daily work as doctors, we see the body’s “enthusiasm for life”.

Dr Tamara Mackean, Australian Aboriginal doctor

This is a beautiful expression – the body’s ‘enthusiasm for life’. Our bodies, and also our minds, do seem to carry within them a wonderful potential for healing. Occasionally people exaggerate this internal healing potential, as when someone claims that thinking the right kind of thoughts, or uttering a particular prayer, will automatically heal someone from a serious illness. This can potentially mean that the patient doesn’t follow up on more conventional treatment, and they can become very ill or even die as a result.

Yet to dismiss our inner healing potential altogether is also misguided. As Dr Mackean goes on to say,

‘For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors, healing goes beyond treating the disease. It is about working towards reclaiming a sense of balance and harmony in the physical, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual lives of our people, and practising our profession in a manner that upholds these multiple dimensions of Indigenous health.’

Such a holistic view of health does indeed allow us to unfold our full potential for healing – whether we’re healing from illness, past hurts and traumas, or simply the exhaustion which can come from living an overly busy life. We can become active participants in our own health and wellbeing rather than a passive patient, by making choices in our lives which allow this healing potential to flourish.

Living a busy and engaged life is good for us – but so is finding times for resting and rejuvenating. We know best what the right balance is for us, and mindfulness can be one of the ways in which we can keep touch with what our needs are, and learn to live a more balanced life.

Weekly practice idea:

Most of us probably think about our physical and psychological health, but what about our social, cultural and spiritual health? Take twenty minutes to reflect on these dimensions of health in your life, either during a meditation, or by journalling, and see what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Finding our balance

We humans are complex creatures – we crave excitement but also yearn for peace; we want life to flow smoothly but get bored when we don’t have any challenges; we want to fit in and belong, but prefer to feel unique and a little bit ‘special’ at the same time; we want intimacy and also our own space. Life is a constant balancing act between these contradictory drives, as well as our obligations to others, and the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. Because we’re being pulled in different directions both internally and externally much of the time, we can find ourselves a little dissatisfied with life even when all seems to be going well for us. In Buddhism this is known as dukkha – the unsatisfactory nature of existence. Even when everything is going to plan, a part of us already knows that it won’t last. Within each moment of happiness, there is the knowledge that sadness will follow sooner or later.

Far from being a defeatist attitude, the concept of dukkha can be quite liberating. For example, a few days ago I was in the garden, pulling out the last of the old tomatoes and preparing a vegie bed for winter. It was a job I’d been wanting to get around to for a while, and here I was, on a cold but sunny autumn day, finally doing it. Yet I was constantly distracted by seeing other jobs which needed to be done – all those weeds to be pulled out, and leaves raked, and the roses tidied up, and the azalea not looking the best. Not to mention the unanswered emails and countless other tasks inside the house! Part of my mind was also mulling over work.

I love gardening, but in the garden I tend to be a half-glass full person – more likely to notice what needs to be done than what is growing well. Gardening is a perfect opportunity for mindfulness – it’s quiet and in nature, and we can use all our senses to tune into our environment. I find it helpful to remind myself from time to time – ‘this is what I’m doing right now’. Right now I’m clearing out the vegie bed, and if I can focus on that, my experience of gardening becomes much more satisfying and peaceful.

There are many aspects to mindfulness, but I find that the ability to centre ourselves into what we are doing, rather than feeling ourselves pulled in all directions, is one of the greatest gifts of mindfulness. For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems, which describes some of the reasons why we are often distracted away from the present moment. These reasons are powerful, because they’re hard-wired into our brain. They are designed to help us survive, which is one of the most powerful drivers there is. Fortunately, we can change some of the ways in which our brain has evolved, through regular practices which help us to ‘remember’ to come back to the present. This provides a powerful counter-balance to our fears and drivenness, and can indeed help us to find greater balance within our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose something you will do for ten or more minutes each day to re-balance your life. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

The soothing system – Part 1

The third system in Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems (the previous two were ‘fight/flight’ and ‘resource-seeking’) is what he calls the ‘soothing and affiliation system’. This system is crucial for rest, regeneration, and healing. Unlike the excitement and intensity of the other two systems, the soothing and affiliation system is quiet, receptive, and content. In the hectic busyness of our everyday lives, the soothing system is easily overlooked – and yet, so much of what we value in life springs from, and is nurtured through, this system.

It could be feelings of appreciation, of gratitude, of being grounded and present. There might be a sense of coming home to ourselves, of connecting with our deepest values. There’s little excitement in this system, but instead it allows us a deep sense of joy. Excitement has its place, but it can easily be derailed. For example, as a child you may have been very excited about getting a new bike, only to have one of your friends make a snide comment about its colour – and immediately your excitement gave way to hurt and disappointment. Contentment is different – a colleague may make a cutting remark about the compliment you received from your boss, but you are basically content within yourself, and can recognise the remark for the jealousy it probably is. We hear a lot about the search for happiness, but I find thinking about contentment more useful. We can feel sad, even a little hurt by unkind remarks, and still feel basically content.

The soothing and affiliation system is also important for kindness and compassion. We’re hardwired to be calmed down in the face of kindness. When we’re constantly in a rush, it’s difficult to find the time to sit with someone, really listen to them, respond empathetically to their distress. Deep social connections and support take time. That doesn’t mean we have to invariably spend hours listening to someone when we ask them how their day was. Yet eventually, if we’re always in a rush and distracted when we talk to our friends and family, those relationships are going to suffer.

In his book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing – Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’, Norman Doidge writes about the research by Stephen Porges, which found that activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which is our resting and regenerating system) also turns on our social engagement system, as well as the middle ear muscles. This allows us to communicate and connect with others. There are young children with sensory processing difficulties who are constantly overwhelmed by the sensations coming at them, and are therefore mostly in fight/flight mode. They may show little interest in interacting with others, until they are given the opportunity to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for example through sound therapy, as Norman Doidge describes in his book). Once they’re able to relax and don’t feel overwhelmed, they may then become very engaged socially.

The soothing and affiliation system is crucial if we want to find a way of life which is fulfilling and balanced. Yet, because it’s not related to our immediate survival needs, it can often be neglected. Next week, we will look at some ideas for nurturing this system in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside ten to twenty minutes, and reflect on areas in your life where you are currently cultivating the soothing and affiliation system. Does it feel the right balance, or do you need to spend more or less time in this system?

Anja Tanhane

Living in balance

A good life is a balanced life – we have the right amount of work and rest, of company and solitude, of stimulation and peace, of food, exercise, meditation, and also of rights and responsibilities. It’s impossible to get this balance perfect, and learning to live with imperfection is one of the signs of maturity. Yet living a life which is very out of balance is also going to put strain on our resources, and can potentially leave us depleted. I’ve worked a lot with carers, who often put their own needs aside to focus on the loved one they’re caring for. Carers, as a group, have some of the worst health statistics in the population, and often suffer financially as well. Many are very good at caring for others, but not so good at caring for themselves. If we look at rights and responsibilities as a continuum, most carers would lean heavily towards the responsibility end. Other people in our society are very conscious of their rights, but less aware they also have responsibilities to society. Depending on our upbringing, culture and gender, we may feel more comfortable being aware of our responsibilities or our rights. Yet for all of us there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where we can balance a healthy sense of entitlement with awareness of the needs of others.

Living in balance involves making choices – sometimes major ones, such as whether to have another child, go back to study or find a new job – and also small choices, such as whether to log onto Facebook or sit in the garden with a cup of tea for ten minutes after work. Sometimes there’s not much we can do to change the major circumstances of our lives. For example, parents of a child with a severe disability may be stressed but coping, until one of their own parents also becomes unwell and requires care, really putting the family under strain. We may have a job which involves working long hours, but nothing else is available and it pays the bills. Yet even within those circumstances, we often have more choice about living in balance than we might think.

It could be a conscious choice to slow down, take a few deep breaths and notice our surroundings when we feel stressed. It could be a walk around the block instead of checking the news online. We might spend less time with an acquaintance who is always complaining and leaves us feeling depleted, and more time with our friends or pets or ourselves. We could join a community choir instead of sitting at home watching TV. Or we might curtail our overly busy social life to spend more time at home watching TV!

Over the next few weeks, I will look at a model by Professor Paul Gilbert about our three emotional systems (fight/flight, resource-seeking, and soothing/affiliation) which I’ve found very helpful when thinking about why we’re often not that good at making choices to bring our lives more into balance, even when the opportunity is there.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and in a notebook write ‘Living in balance for me means…’ and keep writing and see what emerges. Journalling can be a wonderful way to discover ways to re-balance our lives.

Anja Tanhane

Balancing excitement

Most of us humans are pretty excitable creatures – we seem to yearn for stimulation, variety, frequent excitement. Sometimes our ordinary life can seem a little humdrum, mundane, and we might find it unsatisfying to be told when we learn mindfulness to do the dishes mindfully, brush the teeth mindfully, walk along the corridor mindfully. What’s the point in doing those things mindfully, when we could be daydreaming, or planning, or stewing over some perceived wrong instead?

Yet a mindful life doesn’t have to be a restrictive life, where we spend the whole day methodically doing mindful chores, one after the other, and never go to a festival or party or become part of some exciting project.

Imagine your four-year old girl goes to a birthday party for a friend at kinder. Despite your vigilance, she consumes far too many red lollies, and soon becomes overexcited and a little out of control. Next thing you know, she’s hitting one of the other children! One solution to this problem would be to drag her home and tell her,

‘Ok, that’s it, you’re never going to another birthday party ever again!’

And that’s the last party she attends, through kinder, primary school, secondary school…

Obviously such a response is very extreme, and uncalled for. What you’d usually do as a parent is put strategies in place to help your child manage her emotions better. You would monitor what she eats, teach her about not hitting other children, find ways to calm herself down. Emotional regulation is one of the most important skills children need to learn, and high emotional intelligence has been found to be a significant contributor to later success in work and relationships.

This is what we can practise through mindfulness. Like a young child who is able to happily play by herself at times, as well as manage birthday parties without the afternoon inevitably ending in tears, so we too can learn to be both comfortable in our own presence, pottering around with our domestic chores, as well as cope with crowds and intense stimulation. It is a matter of finding the balance between low stimulation and high stimulation which suits our personality. Some people naturally prefer to spend many hours by themselves, whereas others are social butterflies who feel most alive in the company of others. Seeking constant stimulation, however, can be addictive, and could be an attempt to hide from uncomfortable truths and feelings. Regardless of where we fall on the spectrum between hermit and party animal, we can all benefit from learning how to balance times of low and high stimulation, so that we’re able to feel grounded and at ease in both solitude and company.

Weekly practice idea:

How do you balance excitement and the ‘ordinary’ life? This week, when you are completing chores, check in with yourself – are you yearning for more excitement? Do you feel restless, content, anxious, impatient, absorbed? What does this tell you about your attitude to ordinary life?

Anja Tanhane

Catching the news

It’s evening, I’m sitting on the couch, and my cat is fast asleep on my lap. While I’ve been rushing about all over the place, she has spent most of the day dozing on the chair. Not that her life is completely free of stress – a new cat called Boots has moved into the house behind us, and Tashi is not happy. She’s often perched at the back gate, anxiously glaring underneath for signs of Boots. Still, she is relaxed now, and she has no idea of what’s been happening in the houses further down the street, let alone the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, I also want to relax, but it’s not easy to let go of the of the images and stories happening around the world. I don’t want to live in a Pollyanna bubble of willful ignorance, but so many of the stories currently making the news are truly upsetting. Tashi has no idea what’s happening in the Middle East, Nigeria and so on, and her life does seem better for it.

Mindfulness is about awareness, noticing the effects of something on our lives. It is also about making choices. For many of us, it’s finding the balance between being over-invested in every tragedy we hear about, and being apathetic and uncaring.

In the helping professions, it’s well known that the people who are most empathic and caring are the most vulnerable to burn-out and compassion fatigue. Workers can also suffer from vicarious trauma, where they start to experience some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety of the clients they’re working with. The key is finding a way of maintaining the positive qualities of caring and empathy, while also looking after ourselves. And looking after ourselves might mean set times away from thinking about other people’s problems – the problems of the people we’re working with, or of people in other parts of the world.

I find it helpful to make conscious choices about how and when I consume the news. This is not always easy, as the novelty-seeking part of the brain loves to quickly click onto the online news or listen to the radio, just to see what’s happening. And what if there’s some really important story developing that I should know about? Perhaps there’s a gunman loose in my neighbourhood, and I need to stay inside and lock the doors and pull down the blinds – which could happen, though it’s unlikely…

Staying informed is important, but there is a cost. We are so used to being bombarded with news, it’s easy to forget that every terrible story we hear has an impact on us, especially if we’re someone who feels for other people. Making conscious choices about our exposure to this might help us reduce some of our anxiety and worry.

Weekly practice idea:

Look at your pattern of consuming the news. How much conscious awareness do you bring to this process? Could you experiment with changing some of your patterns and noticing if this makes a difference for you?

Anja Tanhane

Balancing discipline and dogma

‘It seems to be human nature to take anything that works (ceremony for example) and then make it solid and rigid. It’s when we put ego and solidity and rigidity around it that we make a problem.’

Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher

 

If you would like to live as a monk in Thailand, you will be required to follow 227 precepts or rules. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as not committing murder, stealing, or slandering your fellow monks. Others, such as the injunction not to carry wool with oneself for more than three walking days, are a little more obscure. To live as a monk is to choose a highly disciplined life, one which is designed to create the right conditions for spiritual development. We may regard some of those rules with a certain bemusement, or even feel that rules are not for us – we should be free spirits, able to act in whatever way feels right to us. Yet our lives are also bound by countless rules, probably more than 227, mostly designed to help us live in peace with others. Even something as simple as driving to the shops to get some milk requires us to follow road rules, such as stopping at a red light, as well as the driving conventions of our culture, which will determine how generous we are when it comes to giving way, how respectful we are of bikes on the road, and so on. There are rules about how to behave in a supermarket queue, what we can wear at work, what we are allowed to say and when, how late we can keep the whole neighbourhood awake with our party, whether we’re allowed to check Facebook at work, and countless others.

Then there are the disciplines we set for ourselves to keep us healthy and happy – that early morning run in drizzling rain, saying no to the extra glass of wine, meditating regularly regardless of whether we feel like it. Just as religious groups work out over time which practices and ceremonies are helpful, so we too might figure out for ourselves that yes, regular exercise is important to me, I will regret getting drunk, my day goes much better when I’ve made the time to meditate in the morning. Some form of discipline seems to be essential for us to lead a ‘good’ life. Groups of people need structures and guidelines if they are to work well and efficiently together. Yet often, within a generation or two, these guidelines can become ends in themselves – rigid rules everyone has to obey, or else! There is a Zen saying which illustrates this:

‘Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’

Our rules are like fingers pointing at the moon – they are helpful, but only if we don’t forget they are simply there to point us in the right direction.

Our lives are a constant balancing act between becoming too rigid on one hand, and on the other hand lacking the self-discipline to choose those actions which will benefit us. As we grow and change, the rules which served us well two years ago may no longer be appropriate now. It’s not always easy to get the balancing act right. If I wake up with a sore throat, is a morning run in pouring rain a good idea? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Mindfulness can help us tune more deeply into our present-moment experience, and discern what is really going on – is my desire to sleep in just laziness, or do I need to be flexible with my exercise routine this morning? Hopefully, as we keep tuning in, over time we will have a clearer sense of when flexibility or discipline may be needed.

Weekly practice idea:

What are the rules you live by? Do you think you generally have a tendency to be too rigid, or not disciplined enough? Perhaps you are very disciplined at work, for example, but not so good when it comes to self-care. Stop and pause from time to time, and ask yourself – is my current action about healthy discipline, rigid dogma, or a bit too laissez-faire?

 

Anja Tanhane

 

Our internal balance sheet

Sherbrooke forest

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

George Orwell, Animal Farm

We all know people who bestride the world with an exaggerated sense of entitlement, as if they’re somehow special and the world owes them something. Others seem to be apologetic for their very existence, anxiously striving to ‘make up’ for the fact they were born and are still around. Whether we have a positive balance sheet (the world owes me, and I’m simply calling in the remuneration I’m entitled to) or a negative one (I guess it’s okay I’m here, as long as I’m conscientious about continually ‘paying off’ my original debt) depends on a complex interaction between the societal values we grew up with, our family environment, our life experiences and personality. Continue reading “Our internal balance sheet” »

Contentment

 Fern

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system. Continue reading “Contentment” »

Balance

orchid

One of my favourite books in my early 20s was called ‘The Sacred Tree’, and it described the American Indian philosophy of finding balance in our lives. The book was written as part of a collaborative project involving representatives of forty American Indian tribes. A part of their world view which really spoke to me was the concept of the four directions – East, South, West, North – which represented different aspects of our lives. The key to a happy and harmonious life was to find a balance between all four directions, rather than favouring one over the others. For example, the fiery passion of the South can be balanced by the intellectual strength of the North. Likewise, intellectualism on its own can become cold and uncaring, drawing up pedantic rules for others to follow rather than looking at what is actually happening on the ground, and this cold intellectualism in turn can benefit from the warmth and passion of the more emotional South.

Many people who learn and practise mindfulness report it helps them find greater balance in their lives. It’s easy to read books on how to improve your life, and many of these have good ideas and strategies. However, we are still 7 billion individual human beings, with very different lives, and what might be good advice for one person might be inappropriate or even harmful for someone else. Continue reading “Balance” »