Magnanimous mind

‘It is not a biased or contentious mind.’ Dogen

So far we’ve looked at joyful mind and nurturing mind, which were two of the mindsets which the Zen master Dogen Zenji recommended for the monks in his monastery.The third one he called ‘magnanimous mind’. This is the mind which contains everything – all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, the various aspects of ourselves. In Buddhism it is sometimes called the ‘big sky mind’, which, like the vast sky, is always there, even when obscured by clouds at times. It encourages us to be present to the full range of experiences, instead of saying metaphorically ‘I don’t like rainclouds, I only like fluffy white clouds and warm (but not too hot!) sunshine.’

The magnanimous mind invites us to take a wider perspective rather than getting constantly bogged down in the minutiae of everyday life. Paying close attention to detail has its place, but we can find ourselves getting caught up in the proverbial storm in a teacup, where a more open perspective may have helped us to see the issue from multiple viewpoints, offering us a lot more information to work with. This can lead us to consider a range of options to respond to a situation, rather than jumping to conclusions too quickly.

Meditation encourages us to rest in both perspectives, sometimes simultaneously, other times separately. At times, we may pay close attention to some body sensations, or thought patterns, or the sounds around us. At other times, we may rest in a sense of open, spacious presence. In our daily life, we also tend to vacillate between the different states, and we may find ourselves out of balance at times. Perhaps we’re a bit too dreamy, and could benefit from becoming more grounded in the tasks which need to be completed. Other times we may be very conscientious with our obligations, but neglect the aspect of ourselves which might yearn for a sense of something greater than ourselves.

The joyful mind invites us to take notice of the aspects of our lives which are precious, and which can increase our sense of wellbeing and joy. The nurturing mind asks us to take good care of our environment, our self, and our relationship – those aspects of our lives which keep us grounded and feeling cared for. And the magnanimous mind helps us to also live with the sense of an expanded perspective, the deeper, more open part of our lives which are always present. Dogen recommended these three minds to his monks hundreds of years ago, but they can also support us in our modern life, as qualities to remember as we go about our day to day life.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each week, choose one of the three minds, and aim to incorporate it into your daily life in a way which feels helpful for you. In the fourth week, use what you have learnt, and incorporate all three minds into your life.

Anja Tanhane

Obstacle as path

‘The obstacle is the path.

Zen saying

We hear a lot about the negative effects of stress, so it’s easy to think that any stress must be bad for us. And it’s true that chronic stress can place great wear and tear on our bodies and minds, and eventually become a leading cause of illness. Yet a life with not enough stress can feel boring, pointless. In such a life, our abilities and talents aren’t tested and developed, and we don’t have the satisfaction of rising to a challenge and emerging stronger and wiser.

In traditional Buddhism, the human realm is only one of several realms we can be reborn into. There are others like the heavenly realm, jealous gods, or hungry ghosts, the hell or animal realms.

We can think of these various realms as psychological states which we all pass in and out of at various times in our lives. For example, the hungry ghost realm is when we feel deprived, and nothing is ever enough, no matter how many possession or achievements we accumulate, or how much others are trying to help us. It is the realm of addiction and discontentment. The jealous gods are always fighting, trying to be superior and more powerful than others. The animal realm is the space of non-reflection, being driven by basic desires only. There is hell, which is a period of intense suffering. The heavenly realm, a state of blissful contentment, certainly sounds most appealing. Yet interestingly, the heavenly realm is not considered to be a good rebirth, as the heavenly beings have no motivation to practice kindness and compassion, to alleviate suffering, and to thus develop their better qualities.

Just like our lives, our meditation practice also passes through the six realms at various times. Yet sometimes we may be caught up in an expectation, whether conscious or not, that at some stage our meditation should reach the heavenly realm and remain there. No more dissatisfaction, strive and jealousy, suffering or ignorance! No more obstacles! This desire for the contentment and peace of the heavenly realm is very understandable, yet it can potentially stunt our meditation practice if it becomes our sole focus. We can spend time in blissful states during meditation, and these can be strengthening and supportive. Yet during the next meditation we may come face to face with jealous feelings against a good friend, and this ‘jealous gods’ meditation may ultimately be much more beneficial to us, and our friendships, than the time we’d spent in peaceful bliss.

The more difficult meditations are the ones which encourage us to change, to find new ways of approaching the challenges of our lives. We develop new capacities, new inner resource and an increased resilience. We become less reactive, and are able to see the bigger picture. If our life is currently like walking along a steep, stony path, then meditation won’t suddenly turn this into a comfortable shaded avenue. Yet meditation gives us the shoes which protect us from the sharp stones, and a wider ‘big-picture’ perspective which allows us to explore other pathways, rather than simply trudging along the same narrow path forever. Seen from this perspective, the obstacles don’t block our path in life, but assist us to grow and mature in our practice.

Mindfulness practice idea:

In the next few days, note times when you become frustrated by something, and take a moment to pause. Instead of getting upset, is there an opportunity to practise a virtue you value, such as patience, or kindness?

Anja Tanhane

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