Sacred space

‘Wherever you are can be a sacred space, if you’re there in a relaxed and serene way, following your breathing and keeping your concentration on whatever you’re doing.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of us can probably think of places which feel special to us in some way. It could be a place of worship, which is set aside for religious ceremonies on a regular basis. Often, these spaces are designed to allow us an opportunity to step away from our everyday concerns, to become more centered and focused, and to celebrate with others who are also like-minded.

A sacred space can also be a favourite place in nature – perhaps somewhere we like to visit on a regular basis to get away from everyday stressors, where we can feel connected to something greater, ancient and more expansive than the constant stream of slightly anxious thoughts in our mind. Or it could be a place we have only been to once, but which we experienced as a significant moment in our lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to expand our sense of the sacred, to also include everyday moments where we are present. It seems that for him, the sacred is defined by our sense of presence, rather than being limited to special places and times outside our everyday lives. On the one hand, this feels very open and invitational. We’re not tied to certain dogmas, to following a set of rules and rituals, or needing to be at a defined place at a certain time.

On the other hand, it could be a challenge to find the sacred in places we don’t usually think of – in the midst of a traffic jam, perhaps, or lying awake at night, or being busy at work. Can those moments really be a sacred place for us as well – if we are aware of our breath, and focused on whatever we’re doing, and go about our tasks in a relaxed and serene way? How would it feel, to live life in this way, with the possibility of a sacred space wherever we happen to be?

What is your sacred space? Do you have one that immediately comes to mind, or perhaps a few? Take a few moments to meditate on your sacred space, and allow yourself to be present to whatever emerges for you.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each day, choose one moment, and allow yourself to be present with the breath, as much as possible in the moment. Does this feel sacred to you in some way?

Anja Tanhane

Releasing the old

There is nothing more precious to us than the breath – without it, we can’t survive for more than a few minutes, and yet we comfortably let it go hundreds of times a day. The breath flows out, there is a pause, it flows back in. Even though the breath is so terribly important to us, we instinctively know we have to release it. There is no point in holding on to the breath, in clinging to the old, stale air, just in case it might come in handy one day. We need to let go of the used-up air, so that fresh, oxygenated air can flow back in and nourish and sustain our body.

It’s a good analogy for our life, where it’s so easy to grasp on to what’s old or outdated, ‘just in case’. We do this with our possessions, of course, but more importantly, we do it with unhelpful behaviour patterns, both in relation to ourselves and with other people. It often takes someone else, a trusted friend or therapist or mentor, to point these patterns out to us. Usually we’re so caught up in them, we’re like a fish which doesn’t know what water is. Even when we do become more aware, it can be surprisingly difficult to let go. Releasing old patterns and memories requires a sense of trust – trust that the void which has been left will be filled by something which is helpful to us. It is the same sense of trust we show every time we release our breath, when we leave our body empty, having faith that the next breath will flow back in and provide us with the life-sustaining oxygen we need.

Sometimes when we’re stressed, it can be wonderfully healing to really release the breath – either with a big sigh, or, if this isn’t possible because of other people around, at least by taking a slightly deeper breath and extending the out-breath, allowing ourselves to relax into it. In a similar way, it can be helpful to consciously release something which no longer serves us. All cultures have rituals for releasing and letting go. Funerals are the most universal of these – we all understand how important it is to formally say good bye to a person who has passed away. Yet many of us live with disenfranchised grief – grief for something we have lost, but which has no public recognition, no ritual or communal coming together to mark it. Next week we will look more deeply at this ‘silent grief’, and explore how mindfulness can help us to work with it in the absence of societal rituals and support.

Weekly practice idea:

A few times a day, take three slightly deeper breaths, releasing them with a sigh. Notice how you feel after-wards.

Anja Tanhane

Taking a deep breath

One of the most effective ways we can use to calm ourselves down is to learn what’s called diaphragmatic breathing – filling the whole of our lungs with the breath. You’d think this would be fairly straight-forward – after all, we all know how to breathe, don’t we? – but in fact it’s not. Over many years of teaching people to play the oboe, which is a woodwind instrument and requires diaphragmatic breathing, I’ve never had a student who was simply able to do it. They all had to be shown, and they all had to practise it.

Yet it’s not only woodwind players and singers who benefit from learning how to breathe more deeply. Firstly, the more air we get into our lungs, the more oxygen is available to us, which is healthier for our bodies. Another reason relates directly to our stress response. When we are in fight/flight mode, feeling under threat of some kind, our breath automatically becomes fast and shallow – this is to allow us to either sprint (run away very quickly) or to fight. If our breath is also fast and shallow at other times in our lives, or throughout the day, our brain is getting signals that the body is preparing itself for fight/flight. Thus, the brain is more likely to be on the alert, on the look-out for danger, even if you’re feeling quite safe or are trying to relax.

If, on the other hand, in the midst of a stressful situation, you are able to keep your breath deep and even, you’re sending signals to your brain that everything is under control. Yes, there is a lot going on, but you’re not in fight/flight mode, and you’re managing the situation just fine. You’ll feel calmer during the stressful event, able to think more clearly and respond more effectively, but you’ll also be able to relax more easily once the crisis is over.

So, how do we learn diaphragmatic breathing? The most effective way is to lie down on the floor with a heavy book, such as a dictionary or telephone book on your stomach. When we lie down, our breathing automatically becomes deeper, and the heavy book gives us a good sense of the actions of the stomach muscles rising and falling with each breath. Diaphragmatic breathing feels as if you’re breathing into the stomach, since the full lungs push down the sheet of muscle called the diaphragm between the chest and the abdomen, causing the stomach to expand.

Once you have a sense of this lying down, you can try it sitting on a chair and eventually standing up. When we take a deep breath, our stomach expands, while the chest stays quite neutral, and the shoulders are relaxed. Eventually, with a bit of practice, you can learn to breathe like that all the time, sending reassuring signals to the brain that all is well, you’re in control.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of lying down with a heavy book on your stomach every day, and tune into your breath at other times during the day, gradually learning how to breathe more deeply throughout the day.

Anja Tanhane

 

Mindfulness And The Breath

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Berries

He had been quiet for most of the morning, thoughtfully taking part in the meditations and discussions; not withdrawn, but not very talkative either. Compared to the other carers, who had stress etched deep into their faces and bodies, he appeared quite calm. Recently, he and his wife had taken their first holiday in eighteen years. She’d been suffering from a serious mental illness for twenty-five years, and he had been there to care for her, as well as building a new life for them after emigrating from Czechoslovakia. I could only imagine how difficult his life must often have been.

Just before lunchtime, I guided the group through a meditation on the breath. Afterwards, he said,

‘I thought my breath would be deep and even, but I noticed how shallow and tight it was’.

He said he realised for the first time how stressed he was, the toll his caring role had taken on him. Tuning into his breath, sitting still in meditation, he was able to get a glimpse into the reality of his life. At the end of the mindfulness workshop, he asked the mental health worker present to link him into some counselling.

It’s not always easy to be with ‘life as it is’. In fact, quite often, escapism seems a far more attractive option! But as the great Zen master Dogen wrote,

‘If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?’

By taking the time to stop and notice his breath, the man who had cared for his wife all those years was able to get in touch with his own needs, and ask for support. It was a very simple practice, but, because the man was open to being present with his life, he was able to use the mindfulness of breath meditation in a way which would benefit both him and his wife. Rather than him becoming more and more exhausted, hopefully the counselling will assist him to continue his caring role while also looking after himself.

When we are feeling under pressure, the last thing we may feel like doing is to stop and take an honest look at the effect the stress is having on us. However, the simple act of stopping from time to time is a very powerful antidote to the cumulative impact of stress in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Every now and then, tune into your breath, without trying to change it. Where in your body can you feel the movement of the breath? The chest, the abdomen? With gentle, caring attention, take a few minutes to notice the movement of the breath in your body.

–  Anja Tanhane