Nourishing ourselves

We are continually nourishing ourselves – each next breath in brings a fresh supply of oxygen; most of us eat several meals a day and often plenty of snacks in between; we nourish ourselves by spending time with like-minded people, pursuing sports and hobbies, walking in nature, or listening to music.

If we live in an affluent society, there is usually no shortage of nourishment to choose from, and yet, ironically, the quality of our nourishment is often quite poor. For example, very few people breathe in a way which fills up our lungs fully. Most people habitually take a shallow breath, high in the chest, and never get the health benefits, relaxation, and the nourishment of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. The food we eat may also give us more empty calories than valuable nourishment. It can take considerable discipline and planning to ensure we have a healthy meal, when there are so many quick, easy, unhealthy alternatives about.

If we’re feeling stressed and time-poor, the quality of our interpersonal relationships can suffer. And by the time we collapse exhausted on the couch in the evening, who has the energy to read a novel or poetry or philosophy? Instead we might find ourselves flicking restlessly between TV channels, all 2000 of them, without finding anything we actually feel like watching.

Even when we do eat a healthy meal, we might wolf it down so fast we get indigestion. We might have finally found the time to go for a walk in nature, but barely notice our surroundings because we’re thinking about work. We’ve finally opened that novel which has been sitting on our bedside table since Christmas 2003, but by page 7 we find ourselves reading the same paragraph again and again as our concentration wanes.

How we nourish ourselves depends both on the quality of nourishment, and on our openness to allowing ourselves to be nourished. We can be like hydrophobic soil which is so dry and depleted, when it does actually rain the water runs straight off because the soil can’t absorb it. A healthy soil will absorb the water, a depleted soil rejects it. That’s why it’s so difficult to help some people, often those who need the most help. Their inner resources are so depleted, they either reject the water, or the water runs straight through them like through a pipe, with little impact on their wellbeing.

Regular mindfulness meditation can help us become more receptive to the nourishment which is present in our lives. The nourishment of a ten minute tea break, the kind smile from the girl at the supermarket check-out, the piece of music which lifts us up. We can also become more attuned to when nourishment is needed, to when our inner resources are becoming depleted, and so take steps to replenish ourselves before we collapse in exhaustion.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick something you find nourishing, and set some time aside for it. During this time, allow yourself to be open and relaxed, and really absorb the sense of being nourished. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Calming ourselves with the breath

Last week we looked at diaphragmatic breathing, and how this can help us to calm ourselves throughout the day. We can also use the breath during meditation, and there are many methods and traditions for meditating on the breath. In some traditions, these meditations are quite structured – for example, the instruction might be to breathe in to the count of four, hold for two counts, then breathe out to the count of eight. These kinds of exercises can be very calming and soothing for the mind and body.

In mindfulness, the approach is not to control the breath in any way, but to allow it to ‘breathe itself’. We are simply observing the quality of the breath – is it long, deep and even? Or is it shorter, more shallow, uneven? We don’t judge the breath or try to change it – we simply notice what is happening right now, and allow ourselves to be present with it in friendly companionship. Over time, we often do find that our breath becomes more settled, deeper. Yet whether our breath is deep or shallow, we can bring a sense of curiosity and openness to our experience. What does the breath feel like in the body? What kind of emotions, mental patterns, are we experiencing? We can learn a lot about our current state from becoming more mindful of the breath – being a witness, a friendly observer, to the breath.

The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful poem (sometimes called a gatha) which we can use with the breath from time to time:

Breathing in, I calm the body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

The breath is a wonderful object of meditation because it is always with us, it’s rhythmical, and it connects us intimately with our bodies and our surroundings. Next week, we will look at another meditation practice which uses the breath to develop greater focus and clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Tune into the breath, both during meditation and also throughout the day, and try to simply observe it, without changing it in any way. What do you notice?

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