Nourishing our spirit – Part 2

(Dear reader, I am now publishing the blogs on a monthly basis. If you’re a subscriber, they will arrive in your inbox on the 10th of each month. I hope you continue to enjoy them, and that you’re finding them helpful!)

Last week, we looked at setting aside a place in our home which symbolises our intention to nourish our spirit. Just as important as creating a place is to create time – intentional time where we put aside everyday concerns for a while and allow ourselves to be present – to shift, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, from the ‘doing’ mode to the ‘being’ mode. Many religious practices are designed to do just this – to say, in effect: During this time, our focus shifts away from everyday tasks and to a sense of something larger than our small, self-centered ego. We open ourselves up to feelings of connectedness; to a sense, perhaps, that just to be is enough for now.

There are many ways in which we can nourish our spirit. For some of us it might be walking in nature, playing or listening to music, meditating or painting. We might take 20 minutes out of a busy day to simply to sit in silence. It could be reading an inspirational book, saying a prayer, watching over a sleeping child, or playing with the dog in the park. We might be silently absorbed in a craft project, or spend the afternoon gardening.

We don’t need a formal religious practice in order to nourish our spirit. We do, however, need to set this time aside to focus mainly on whatever we’re doing, rather than spending the whole time anxiously worrying or planning or scheming. This is where learning meditation can be helpful, as it allows us to become more skilled at placing our focus where we choose it to be, rather than jumping all over the place like the ‘monkey mind’ which Buddhists sometimes talk about.

This doesn’t mean that the occasional anxious thought or planning mind won’t appear – it definitely will. Through regular meditation, we can become more skilled at noticing this earlier, and returning back to our focus more quickly. So when we do find the precious opportunity to engage in an activity which nourishes our spirits, we can be more present, and therefore allow ourselves to be really nourished by it.

Weekly practice idea:

What nourishes your spirit? Write down ten things in your life which feel nourishing for you. Looking at the list, how often to you create time and space in your life for these activities?

Anja Tanhane

Excessive doubt

The final of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition is excessive doubt, sometimes also called paralysing doubt. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a healthy dose of skepticism and questioning. Without a certain amount of skepticism, we can be like leaves blown about by whatever the latest fad or miracle cure is. On the other hand, if we spend most of our meditation time double-guessing ourselves (’is this working, what’s it doing now, how come I’m feeling like this and not like that?’), then we’re really missing the point of meditation, which actually has no point except to be in non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Yes, there are thousands of high-quality studies which demonstrate that meditation is good for us, and it can be informative and encouraging to keep up to date with the latest research. Yet if we’re constantly chasing more proof, needing more validation, then we’re holding ourselves back from ‘going with the flow’ of the meditation process itself.

A long-term meditation practice is usually deep and slow-burning rather than exciting. It’s easy to read a Zen story about a monk who became enlightened when he heard the sound of a stone hitting the ground while sweeping, and to wonder ‘why does this never happen to me’? After the initial honeymoon phase, where we might observe all kinds of positive changes in our lives as we meditate every day, our meditation practice can actually become quite ordinary. Yes, over the years we may be feeling a little more calm, and perhaps we have more energy than we used to have, but that could also be because we’re taking Vitamin D supplements. Meditation is sometimes described as resting in ‘being’ mode rather than ‘doing’ mode. This goes counter to much of what often drives us in everyday life – constant busyness, striving after achievement. The reason why many of us are interested in meditation is precisely because this constant need for success feels unbalanced to us. And yet, even as we try to balance our doing mode with being mode, we might be secretly hoping for achievement and success in our meditation practice!

To meditate, we need to bring a certain amount of trust to the practice, to trust that this is a process we might benefit from. That doesn’t mean blind trust in every person who sets themselves up as a meditation teacher, or not examining what works for us and what doesn’t. But if constant doubt is at the forefront of our mind while we meditate, then, ironically, we’re unlikely to find much benefit in it.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit in a quiet spot, and observe the coming and going of experiences, making a conscious effort to remain as much as possible in the ‘being’ rather than the ‘doing’ mode. Notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind

‘Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week we looked at restlessness, which in Buddhism is considered the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation. While we don’t want to become stiff and rigid, it’s also true that an endlessly restless mind and body can exacerbate our tendency to be anxious and worried. The sitting meditation seems to be particularly beneficial for becoming more centered and grounded, and a certain amount of restless is to be expected when we practise it. If, however, our restlessness becomes a serious obstacle to our meditation practice, there are a number of different ways we can work with this.

The first approach is to accept that restlessness is occurring, and to stay with it, even when the restlessness transforms into impatience, irritation, agitation, perhaps all the way to anger. We can learn a lot about the emotions underlying our restlessness through doing this. The inability to sit calm and still may be a signal of strong emotional undercurrents we are trying to get away from. These could be anger, grief, worry and anxiety, trauma, or shame or jealousy. Of course it’s not easy to sit through the restlessness to begin with, let alone the more challenging emotions we may encounter along the way. Yet over the years, I’ve found I’ve gained many valuable insights into ‘what is really going on in my life’ through the simple practice of sitting still, and noticing what emerges.

Next week we will look at some other strategies for working with a restless mind, but for now let’s return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the beginning of this reflection, and allow ourselves the time and space to rest in the present moment as it is.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a peaceful place to sit, and silently recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha. You may like to focus on the first two lines, or the poem as a whole. Allow yourself to feel the peace, and the smile.

Anja Tanhane

Restlessness

A few years ago I offered a workshop in mindfulness for a group of people with a disability. We first went out into the courtyard and did some gentle Tai Chi together, which was enjoyed by the participants. Afterwards, we gathered in a room, where we sat in a circle for some guided meditation. One of the carers had to leave the room for a few minutes, and when he returned during the meditation he thought at first that everyone had died, because the whole room was sitting completely still. I wasn’t sure how the participants would find the sitting meditation, but they all responded really well, and communicated later that they felt relaxed after the workshop.

The ability to sit still for extended periods of time is one of the hallmarks of sitting meditation, and, over time, can help to settle our restless and anxious mind. However, ‘over time’ is really the key phrase here, as initially, sitting still and not moving might make us more aware of just how much restlessness and anxiety is finding its way into our minds.

Restlessness and worry are the forth of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, and it’s one that probably most of us can relate to quite well! One of the most basic meditation instructions is to avoid fidgeting and adjusting the posture. Some traditions take this to an extreme, where people are asked to sit in agony rather than move a muscle. To me, taking it to that extent is not only pointless but also potentially dangerous, as there are cases where people have permanently injured their knees because of rigid meditation postures. On the other hand, there is commonly some discomfort and even a little bit of pain involved in learning to sit very still. It is difficult to settle a restless mind when our bodies are constantly in motion.

We can imagine holding a glass of muddy water in our hand. If we constantly shake it about, it will remain muddy water. However, if we put it down on a table and come back half an hour later, the mud will have sunk to the bottom of the glass, leaving the water clear. In a similar way, sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes each day can allow some of the stressors on our mind to settle, so that we can approach our day with greater clarity and presence.

Weekly practice idea:

During the day, take the opportunity to notice the difference between restless fidgeting, and adjusting your posture as needed. If your body is quite restless, how does it feel to consciously reduce some of the fidgeting movements?

Anja Tanhane

Working with sleepy mind

One of the most effective (but definitely under the category of ‘don’t try this at home’!) strategies for combating sleepy mind must be sitting on the edge of a deep well during meditation, as apparently practised by some monks in Thailand. This would certainly sharpen the mind and keep us alert, but fortunately we also have less drastic (and less dangerous) approaches we can use if we find ourselves repeatedly nodding off during meditation.

The first one, which I already touched on in last week’s reflection, is to simply accept that we’re tired. Sometimes during meditation we encounter busy mind, or anxious mind, or planning mind. At other times it might be sleepy mind. Just going with the flow of this state, rather than fighting it, can be helpful at times.

Another approach, which I use a lot and find very effective, is to lift our gaze to straight ahead and open our eyes wide, while still meditating. Doing this for a few minutes, and then returning to our traditional posture of eyes closed or half open with a soft gaze downward, can really bring renewed energy to our meditation and can lift it from ‘sloth and torpor’ to a more awake, present sense of being. Sometimes doing this once is enough, at other times I might repeat it several times.

Practising some mindful movement before sitting meditation can also be very helpful. It stretches and revitalises our body, allowing the energy to flow more freely, and this can help us feel more alert when we then sit down to meditate. This could be yoga, Tai Chi, slow walking meditation, or even a brisk walk around the block.

We can also alternate between sitting and standing meditation. There is nothing wrong, if we’re feeling really sleepy, with standing up for a while, and then returning to the sitting posture when we feel ready. This is perhaps a safer variation of sitting on the edge of a well – we’re less likely to fall asleep standing up, and don’t want to fall over, so standing meditation can also be very useful.

Finally, if sleepy mind is an ongoing problem in our meditation, we can ask ourselves – is this perhaps my way of avoiding being present with life? Do I generally have a tendency to switch off when things become unpleasant, and am I using this same strategy during meditation? If this is the case, we might ask ourselves – ‘why am I meditating? Is this important to me?’ Sometimes recognising some of our behavioural patterns can help us to become more resolved in not giving in to sleepy mind when it arises.

Weekly practice idea:

If you meditate regularly, experiment this week with some movement practices beforehand, standing meditation, or meditating with the eyes wide open. Do they change your meditation in any way?

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

Aversion

So far we’ve looked at the first of what are considered the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, which is desire. The second hindrance is aversion, and in both Buddhism and mindfulness, learning a new and different approach to our aversions is considered both fundamental and also very therapeutic. On the other hand, aversion can be difficult to work with, as most of us have a normal and healthy wish to be safe and happy, and to avoid danger, pain and unpleasantness.

There is nothing wrong, of course, in trying to avoid pain and things which are unpleasant. The difficulties can arise when we choose unskillful means of escaping pain, or when we find ourselves in a situation where pain can’t be avoided. Sometimes the ‘cure’ can become as problematic as the original difficulty – for example if we choose to numb emotional pain by drinking a lot of alcohol, and end up with a whole range of social and health problems as a result.

In the context of meditation, aversion is seen as a hindrance when we try to escape in some way at the first hint that something unpleasant may be occurring. We might have settled into a comfortable position, and be enjoying watching our breath, when we notice that our left leg isn’t quite as comfortable as we thought. We remember the instruction to not fidget, so we try to sit still for a few more seconds, but eventually it just becomes too distracting and we spend quite a few minutes working out what the best position for us should be. At last we think we’ve got it, and we once again settle into watching our breath when, would you believe it, the neighbour starts up his noisy car. It is really most annoying, and we spend quite a bit of time stewing on the fact this shouldn’t be happening right now, it’s meditation time after all, and why does the engine have to be so noisy anyway, there should be laws etc etc… At last he drives off and you spend a few more minutes thinking about this neighbour more generally and other incidents in the past, which segues neatly into an issue at work, which keeps your mind occupied a little longer. At some point you recall yourself to the fact you’re supposed to be meditating, but by now your back is feeling quite uncomfortable, so once again you adjust your posture. You’ve found it at last when – ah yes, here is the bell for the end of meditation.

It’s easy to see why aversion could be seen as a hindrance to meditation. What we are really saying, when we’re avoiding/suppressing/escaping, is that the present moment is in some way flawed and inadequate. Unfortunately, in the course of a day, this can add up to a lot of flawed and inadequate moments. There is usually no shortage to things we could conceivably have an aversion to! Staying with ‘life as it is’ can be challenging, and next week we will look at some ideas of how we can practise this on the meditation cushion.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something you have a slight aversion to, such as a task at home or at work. Make an effort this week to be as present as possible during the task, performing it slowly and mindfully, and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Our mindset – Part 2

Last week we looked at the growth mindset, and how it fosters an inner motivation to learn and improve. There is the old saying about achievement being 1 % inspiration and 99 % perspiration, and the stories quoted by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset – how you can fulfill your potential’ seem to bear this out. Some children certainly learn more easily than others, but when so-called ‘poor’ students were motivated by teachers who instilled a love of learning, their grades improved markedly. Teachers would give feedback like ‘I can see how hard you’ve worked at this’, rather than, ‘clever girl’. They praised the effort rather than ascribing some inherent fixed ability to the student, and the students felt empowered to learn, and thrived.

I often hear people say ‘oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing’, or ‘I tried meditation ten years ago but I couldn’t stop my thoughts, it’s obviously not for me’. Having taught both music and meditation for many years, I know both statements aren’t true. Singing is first about learning how to listen, but people who’ve been told they can’t sing are far too nervous to relax and really listen to the tune they would like to sing. And as for thoughts during meditation – these are a given, everyone has them. In our culture, there is sometimes a mystique about both music and meditation, as if they’re rarefied endevours best left to a few select performers or gurus. This is a good example of a fixed mindset, which doesn’t allow much room for growth. Unfortunately, this means that adults who want to learn music or meditation may be easily discouraged, as they feel their slow progress reflects on their ability rather than being part and parcel of the learning experience.

In Buddhism, the five hindrances to meditation are 1) greed or sensual desire 2) ill-will or aversion 3) sloth or torpor 4) restlessness, including anxiety or worry, and 5) paralysing doubt. There are a number of different ‘remedies’ which are suggested, and over the coming weeks we will explore these five hindrances and some possible ways of working with them. However, while it is helpful to draw on the wisdom of 2500 years of investigation and knowledge, in the end the learning needs to come from within us. What does it mean for me to feel sleepy, restless, or paralysed by doubt? Does my attitude towards meditation limit me, or does it allow room for growth? Sometimes our limiting beliefs are quite subtle, yet very powerful. We all struggle with limiting thoughts, but, according to the theory of mindset, whether we see our hindrances as challenges to work with, or obstacles which block our path, can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term.

Weekly practice idea:

If you look at the list of five hindrances, do one or two stand out for you? Take ten minutes to reflect on what role the hindrance might play in your life.

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

Buddhist mindfulness

Many of the concepts and practices of mindfulness which are now taught in secular mindfulness courses come from the Buddhist tradition. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is uniquely Buddhist – all cultures have various practices which encourage a state of mindfulness. However, mindfulness, or sati, as it’s called in Buddhism, has been researched and developed for more than 2500 years in the Buddhist tradition since it forms a fundamental part of what is known as the ‘eight-fold noble path’. It is considered a key element of the Buddhist way of life, together with ethics and insight. The Buddha emphasised sati as a foundational practice, one of the keys to learning how to become less entangled in our self-centered thoughts and delusions. He also understood that mindfulness takes diligent practice – it’s not something to be learnt so much as practised again and again. In Buddhism, sati is practised not to help us feel better or become more efficient at work, but to support realisation into the fundamental nature of existence, such as impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It assumes a world view where these concepts are accepted. And although modern physics seems to show some interesting parallels with Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness are quite different to Western secular or Christian understandings of the self and the spiritual path. Sati helps to deconstruct our sense of self until we understand that there is no independently existing self – every aspect of who we are is contingent on external forces and conditions.

Sati is also closely linked to ethics in Buddhism – our speech, our jobs, our intentions and actions are all part of the eight-fold path. Buddhist teachers sometimes criticise secular mindfulness teachers for taking mindfulness out of the ethical context in which it is taught in Buddhism. My experience in teaching and practising mindfulness is that a more mindful life does lead to greater awareness of how our behaviours impact on ourselves and others. Many of my students have reported choosing their words more carefully, for example, when they’re having that difficult conversation with their teenager or their colleague, and how this led to a much better outcome for all. I do agree though with Buddhist teachers and also with Jon Kabat-Zinn that mindfulness is a way of life, not a method. When mindfulness becomes no more than a tool to achieve an immediate end, such as reducing staff absenteeism, then most of its gifts and richness are lost.

We are fortunate nowadays that we don’t need to be a Buddhist or join a sect or follow some guru in order to learn meditation and experience its benefits. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who have brought mindfulness from the Buddhist context into the Western clinical setting has made learning mindfulness accessible to many more people, and this has been of tremendous benefit. Very few of those learning mindfulness now would want to become a signed-up Buddhist, and they don’t need to be. Yet we can learn from Buddhism and allow mindfulness to be within our own ethical, spiritual and philosophical framework, rather than just something we want to learn as a quick-fix to a particular problem in our life.

Weekly practice idea:

Do you see mindfulness as a way of life rather than a method? What does this mean for you? Allow yourself twenty minutes to reflect on this question – what emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane