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

Wanting what we have – Part 2

‘We can eventually stop using practice in the service of a curative fantasy of being made out of stone, immune to the pain of the world.’

Barry Magid

We’re not made out of stone – it’s very normal for us to have desires which are slightly addictive, to be caught up in patterns of wanting more than is necessarily good for us. I was speaking with a worker at an alcohol and drug rehab facility recently, and he thought the next addiction they may need to treat is the addiction to smartphones. The way most of us use our smartphones may not be ruining our lives, but can easily pull us away from being in the present moment. Our addictions can be escapism, or a form of self-medication to try and cope with deep emotional pain. It’s often easy to identify addiction in others – your boss is addicted to work, or the son of a family friend is living on the streets and taking ice. It can be much harder to pinpoint it in ourselves. What mindfulness meditation asks us to do is notice the often very subtle ways in which we are pulled away from presence and into some kind of numbing – whether it’s the fourth glass of wine, the compulsion to buy more than we need, or the fact we once again spent a lot longer on Facebook that we’d originally intended.

Mindfulness can assist us in two ways. For a start, it can help us to identify the patterns in our life which pull us away from being present. These can be strong, such as in a full-blown addiction, or quite subtle. Both are challenging to work with – a full-blown addiction obviously has a great deal of power, and we need a lot of support and time in order to heal from it. The subtle addictions, on the other hand, can be very elusive. After all, there is nothing wrong with the occasional escapism, or making ourselves feel better by indulging in a treat, or avoiding something unpleasant to focus on more positive interactions. When are the escapism and avoidance just a normal part of life, and when do they become problematic? Mindfulness meditation can help us to become much clearer about what aspects of our life are helpful in the long term, and which are holding us back and limiting our potential for present-moment awareness.

The other way in which mindfulness can be helpful is by developing greater resilience, and the ability to stay with difficult feeling states instead of always having to escape or block them out. In psychological language, this is called building greater affect tolerance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers for the clinical uses of mindfulness in the West, describes a practice called ‘urge-surfing’, which will be the topic for next week’s blog.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit down for ten minutes in a quiet place, and notice the flow between presence and distraction. What does it feel like for you? Is there anything which stands out for you in particular?

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

Coming to our senses

One of the most direct, effective ways we can feel more connected is by tuning into our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. We tend to take them for granted, but people who lose one or more of these senses, whether through an accident or illness, suddenly realise how much their felt presence in the world relies on their sensory awareness. When we are busy, rushing from one task to the next, constantly bombarded with noise and stimulation, it’s easy for our senses to become dulled. It’s like a self-protective mechanism which tries to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this dulling of our senses leads to a more impoverished life, where countless opportunities for joy and appreciation are missed because we aren’t even aware of them.

In his book ‘Coming to our senses – Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness’, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:

‘The fact of the matter is that it is not so easy to come to our senses without practice. And as a rule, we are colossally out of practice. (…) We are colossally out of shape when it comes to perception and awareness, whether orientated outwardly or inwardly, or both.’

People who come to a mindfulness course or retreat often report seeing colours more brightly, tasting the food more, feeling more present in their bodies. They might have come to mindfulness because of serious stresses and difficulties in their lives, hoping to learn to deal with these more effectively, and are delighted to discover a whole world of sensory richness which previously they hadn’t even realised they were missing.

Yet coming to our senses is more than just an added bonus of mindfulness, like a free set of steak knives with our new super wonder cooker. It’s at the heart of living a mindful life. Over the coming weeks, we will explore our different senses, and how mindfulness can enrich these in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of your senses, and write down what it means to you. What would it be like to lose this sense? Think about the role it plays in your life, and how precious it is.

Anja Tanhane

Looking at the bright side

‘Always look on the bright side of life…’

Eric Idle

Who can forget the group of criminals, crucified at the end of Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, cheerfully singing and whistling,

‘If life seems jolly rotten

There’s something you’ve forgotten

And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.

When you’re feeling in the dumps

Don’t be silly chumps

Just purse your lips and whistle

– that’s the thing.

And…always look on the bright

side of life…’

There are indeed times when looking on the bright side of life is just plain ridiculous. Yet, as Jon Kabat-Zinn often says to participants in his MBSR courses, most of the time there is actually more right than wrong with us. This is not to gloss over suffering and challenges which are real and painful. However, just as mindfulness is about acknowledging the difficulties we face, it’s also about recognising the resources and gifts which are available to us in any given moment.

Some of these resources are external – perhaps we have friends and family who care for us, or we live in a civil society which is relatively stable, or we have food and shelter to nourish our bodies and protect us from the elements. Just these basics are more than hundreds of millions of people around the world are able to enjoy right now.

Then there are our internal resources – our gifts, wisdom, resilience, good humour and warmth. I’ve worked with people in hospitals or residential care who had lost almost everything, and yet they would smile with warmth when they saw a little kitten or young child come to visit. If we think about all the people we’ve met in the last few weeks, chances are that most were fundamentally friendly, decent and resilient. Not many people are completely cold and bitter. As for ourselves, we might have made a few mistakes in the past month, perhaps didn’t always cover ourselves in glory, but nonetheless we probably were often thoughtful and kind, and it’s likely we made some good choices along the way.

So there’s a lot to be said for looking at the bright side of life – perhaps not always, as the Monty Python song reminds us, but almost always!

 

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three external and three internal resources which you feel are in your life right now, and set an intention this week that you will notice times when you are drawing positivity and strength from these.

Anja Tanhane

Miku

This week’s reflection was written by Michelle Morris:

This morning

Relishing the cool morning air,

its touch; freshness.

The Cardinal, bright red breast,

flits to a small bush, then still.

Sounds of insects, then quiet pervades.

Presence of the cliff in the background.

Mikus developed when I was on retreat in Mexico. One of the activities offered was embodied journalling, a process of being given short prompts and then a few minutes to write something in response to this. I explained to the facilitator I had RSI, and was not able to write much. He suggested to do haikus. This appealed to me; I love the simplicity and focus on nature of this poetry. As we had only a few minutes to write, I decided to do my own style, without needing to conform to the particular number of syllables of haiku. We first called this type of writing a Michiku, which in haiku style became shortened to Miku.

Discovering this way of writing has been wonderful. It has greatly reduced the struggle and striving I have previously experienced with writing. The common roadblocks of perfectionism and fears of inadequacy and failure are not featured so much in my awareness. Synchronistically I just heard a radio program, interviewing performers about their experience of failures and how they can continue their “experiments” nevertheless. In a self-mocking tone Justin Hazlewood (the bedroom philosopher) spoke of “the struggle to do something brilliant “. Doing the miku I feel more ease and the critical voice is quieter. Self-judgement has taken a back seat! And it is very freeing to have more acceptance and let go of trying to express “something brilliant”. The qualities of non-striving and non-judging are core attributes of mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn reminds us:

‘Suspending judging, or not judging the judging that does arise, is an act of intelligence, not an act of stupidity. It is also an act of kindness toward yourself, as it runs counter to the tendency we all have to be so hard on ourselves, and so critical.’

In meditation and other parts of our lives, being driven by striving can be a real obstacle. Jon Kabat Zinn gives further valuable guidance: meditation ‘has no goal other than for you to be yourself’. He gives examples of common thoughts we have: ‘if I were only more calm, or more intelligent,… or more of this or more of that, if only my heart were healthier or my knee were better, then I would be okay. But right now, I am not okay’. What might our lives be like if we cultivated more kindness to ourselves and less striving?

In approaching the experience of writing mikus with less judging and striving, and greater sense of curiosity and wonder, there has been the joy of surprises. New ideas emerge as I am writing, ones I had not been aware of in the beginning–a flowing, creative process.

In relation to mikus , the facilitator of the Mexican retreat made a very meaningful comment ‘you have turned your symptom into an asset’. Reflecting on this I see RSI has helped free me to feel accepting of doing something simple and let go of strivings to do ‘something brilliant’.

When I look at all the colours

A feeling of delight.

Drawn to the world of greens,

wanting to immerse myself.

I think of Becky, blind,

in a world of shadows.

I appreciate more,

orange, pink, blue and green,

somehow they appear brighter.

Weekly practice idea: Choose something you would like to create: maybe a piece of writing, a drawing, woodwork, a garden bed, a meal. Try approaching this time of creating with curiosity and acceptance.

Michelle Morris

 

 

Sitting meditation Part 2

‘Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

When we sit in meditation, we are, as mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘falling awake’. We are still and relaxed, but our mind is attentive. Mindfulness meditation is not about ‘zoning out’ or drifting off. It’s about being present with awareness, with clarity and insight.

That’s why posture is very important in sitting meditation – some teachers say that correct posture is 50% of the meditation. The posture sends a signal to our minds about what is going on – are we striving, or avoiding? Are we slumping forward, thereby signalling to our mind that we are not all that interested in what’s going on? Or are we stiff like soldiers on parade, trying too anxiously to ‘get it right’?

Finding the right posture, however, can involve some trial and error, as we all have different bodies, levels of flexibility, old and current injuries, and so on. Ideally, our posture allows our back to be upright and unsupported, neither slumping forward nor arching back. The chin is tucked in very slightly, freeing up the back of the neck, and our hands can either rest in our lap, or we can place the left hand on top of the right, palms up, with thumbs lightly touching. Eyes are closed or else half-open, with a soft gaze downwards, not looking at anything in particular.

Many people meditate sitting in a chair, with the feet flat on the ground, legs uncrossed. Sometimes it helps to place a cushion under the feet, to take the pressure off the thigh muscles. Specially-designed meditation benches, which we can use to meditate kneeling on a blanket, can be surprisingly comfortable. There are also round meditation cushions called zafus, which are much more solid than the average cushion lying around the house. Sitting on a zafu is probably the ideal meditation posture, but it may require the support of a teacher to get the posture correct at first.

Even though the posture is very still, we don’t want to become rigid and stiff. I find it helpful to think of myself as a tree which is firmly rooted in the ground, but which sways with the slightest motion when it’s windy. This helps to keep a sense of ease about the posture, which is the key to being able to sit in meditation for extended periods.

When we meditate regularly, this sense of ease and centeredness starts to gradually infuse the rest of our lives. Over time, we bring some of the strength and dignity of the meditation posture into our daily interactions, and we may find that life flows with less resistance because of this.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, experiment with the upright posture, whether you’re sitting, standing or walking. Where is the balance for you between being disengaged, and trying too hard? What does it feel like, when your posture allows you to be both alert and at ease at the same time?

Anja Tanhane

 

Mindful communication

One of the most challenging circumstances for practising mindfulness, at least for me, is in the midst of a difficult conversation. Sometimes the other person can seem like a wily tennis opponent who is constantly hitting back your ball with plenty of spin and unexpected angles, leaving you standing in the middle of the court as the ball shoots past, with your mouth open and thinking, ‘what on earth was that?’ Apart from conventional small talk about the weather, most conversations are by their nature unpredictable, and if we’re feeling under attack, we may struggle to come up with a coherent response. Afterwards, we can think of all kinds of witty and clever repartees, but in the heat of the moment, it’s often not easy to reason clearly, let alone articulate our feelings in a skilful manner.

We can then slip all too easily into rigid communication patterns, based on what we’ve learnt in our past, both within our families and also the cultural context we grew up in. Some people are very skilled at assertive communication, where they are able to calmly express their point of view without attacking or ignoring the other person. For many of us, however, the communication patterns we learnt either involved withdrawal or aggression – or even a combination of the two in passive/aggressive behaviours. In the midst of a stressful encounter, these are the patterns we tend to revert to, despite our best intentions to try something different next time we find ourselves in this kind of situation. Decades of social conditioning and learnt behaviours are not so easy to undo.

The main way in which mindfulness can help us during a stressful encounter is by tuning into our body sensations as we are talking. This may seem counter-intuitive – who’s got time to worry about what might be happening in our bodies when we’re busy trying to think of a clever response and at the same time pay close attention to the other person, not just to their words but their body language and other non-verbal signals. And in any case, what have our bodies got to do with this conversation?

In fact, just as the other person’s body language gives you many valuable clues about what’s really going on, so does your body hold invaluable information, especially in the visceral region in the abdominal area. The well-known ‘gut instinct’ is a reality, based on our nervous system which sends particularly important information from this region to our brain. Often, if we’re feeling agitated, this information ends up in the more primitive parts of the brain, where it just makes us feel vaguely uneasy. However, by using mindfulness, we can bring the information to the front of the brain, the central pre-frontal cortex, where we are able to use it in a much more conscious and sophisticated manner. Ironically, by tuning into our own physical body sensations, we get a clearer idea of what is going on with the other person as well.

This helps us to also see their point of view, and the conversation becomes much richer, less confrontational. It may not instantly solve the difficulties, and we may never feel at our most effective when talking to this person. But anything which can take the heat out off a challenging situation, and help us be more present and grounded during the encounter, is likely to be helpful. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, sometimes the best we can hope for is not to escalate the situation.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you’re talking to someone who is mildly irritating, try tuning into your body sensations during the conversation. Notice if this makes any difference to your experience of the encounter.

Anja Tanhane

 

How hard can it be?

There are any number of good definitions of mindfulness, but one I find particularly useful to work with is this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

‘Mindfulness is an awareness which arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.’

Therefore, in order to be more mindful, all we need to do is to:

• Be aware

• Pay attention on purpose (that is, actually remember to pay attention)

• Be in the present moment

• Be open to this moment in a non-judgemental way

• And go with the moment to moment flow of experience.

So honestly – how hard can it be?

Of course, what anyone who has ever tried to be mindful for more than a few moments at a time knows, living mindfully is not easy at all. This can be frustrating, because mindfulness isn’t exactly rocket-science. It seems patently obvious that the present moment is the only one we can ever be in – where else could we possibly be? We have taste buds, so eating mindfully and really tasting our food shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the time we’re not comatose or under a general anaesthetic, so you’d think being aware should not be an issue. We were taught at school to pay attention, so we’ve already learnt how to do that. And yet, and yet…

Given the benefits of mindfulness are so well documented (better health, more positive emotions, less stress, improved interpersonal relationships, greater efficiency at work, clearer thinking etc), why didn’t our brain simply evolve to be more mindful? Why do we need to go through the rigours of a regular meditation practice and attend courses and retreats – a discipline which many people find difficult to sustain even when they’ve had first-hand experience of the benefits? There is no simple answer to this question, but our brain did evolve over tens of thousands of years to help us survive in tough physical environments rather than complex modern technological societies. What served us well on the open savannah – constant alertness, embedding negative experiences deep into the brain so they can be recalled in an instant, being able to react without thinking to perceived danger – is often less than useful in the modern office.

It is up to us to experiment with our lives, to find out, through trial and error, what works well for us and what doesn’t. However, its’ much easier for us to gain insight into this when we are mindful of our moment to moment thoughts, feelings and sensations. It would have been nice to evolve with a more mindful brain, but really we’re fortunate to have ended up with the amazing human brain we do have, and if our brain needs the occasional time out to meditate, to rest and recharge, then why not allow ourselves this space in our lives?

Weekly practice idea:

Ask yourself from time to time – why is it difficult to be present right now? Be open to the answers which emerge – there is no right or wrong answer, only a gentle but persistent exploration of what takes us away from present moment experience.

Anja Tanhane

 

Pausing

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

 

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

(Attributed to Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor)

I can clearly remember the first time I became conscious of that space and having a choice. I was feeling very annoyed with a relative who had left a hostile message on the answering machine. When I saw her a few days later, I recognised my own hostility and automatic impulse to blame and behave in a withdrawn and cold manner, an old defensive pattern. Pausing, I was also aware of an alternative – I had a moment of choice. Although the pull was to go down the old familiar way, I recognised that this would lead to further hurt, disempowerment and rupture of our relationship. I consciously chose to try and stay openhearted. In what felt figuratively like a big step, I walked up to her and approached her with affection, and the response I received with one of friendliness.

We can all remember times when we reacted in the heat of the moment, only to regret our words and behaviour, and not only that, find that the interaction has escalated the conflict, leaving us and the other person feeling more defensive and distant.

There is a Zen story about a man riding on a galloping horse. Somebody watching him yells out, “where are you going?” The man on the horse turns and shouts, “I don’t know, ask the horse.”

The horse can be likened to our habitual energy pattern that drives us into doing or saying things that not only hurt others but ourselves as well. Thich Nhat Hanh writes “if we learn the art of stopping, we can calm things down within and around us. The purpose of stopping is to become calm and solid and see clearly.” When we are calm we can look deeply within and recognise our underlying needs, and express them in ways that don’t alarm the other person and lead them to react defensively. We can also be more receptive to the other person’s needs.

Mindfulness practice helps us to calm ourselves and extend the time between the stimulus and the response, so we are not hijacked by our more primitive survival brain, leading to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. With this reaction to threat we angrily attack, withdraw in fear, or feel paralysed to do anything. The child within us is closer to our more primitive survival brain mode, so sometimes when we are challenged we implement younger coping strategies. Through mindfulness we can more readily reengage our neo- cortex, and can have thought-through responses. We can become aware we have choices and feel more empowered.

What mindfulness helps us to do is to be aware of what we are experiencing and catch the first bubblings of an emotion before it takes us over– it is much easier to manage at this point. When emotions do arise intensely, we can ride the wave, maintaining balance. Maintaining our centre and responding rather than reacting. This of course does take time and regular meditation practice. But, as Jon Kabat Zinn notes “Our relationships with other people provide us with unending opportunities for practising mindfulness and thereby reducing “people stress.”

He beautifully describes the fruitfulness of mindfulness for our relationships:

“The patience, wisdom, and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation yield fruit almost immediately because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will in all likelihood be drawn toward it because it embodies inner peace”.

Weekly practice idea:

When you notice reactivity in relationships, pause. Take a breath. With kindness and compassion towards yourself, be mindful of your thoughts, beliefs or images. Bring an attitude of friendliness and allowing to any feelings and sensations in your body. What is your underlying need? What may be the other persons underlying need? Be aware of having a choice.

Michelle Morris