Creating space

When we’re stressed, we can often feel as if we’re being hemmed in from all sides. Too many pressures are coming at us from different direction; our thoughts might feel crowded and chaotic; and even our bodies might contract, as if the muscles themselves have less space available than before. Our breathing can be fast and shallow, so there is space we have available in our lungs which is not being filled with oxygen. It’s also not unusual to develop a kind of tunnel vision when we’re feeling under pressure – to focus obsessively on one aspect of our lives, for example, while losing sight of the bigger picture.

When we feel this way, being asked to add one more activity into our lives (such as, for example, a daily meditation practice), might seem the last thing we want to hear. The days are already full enough, why add more? It’s a reasonable question, given how busy people tend to be. Yet there are reasons why some very busy people do decide to meditate daily, and one of those reasons, I believe, is that regular meditation enables us to feel a greater sense of spaciousness in our lives.

It might be quite subtle at first – perhaps that sense that in the midst of a busy day, we can pause and take a breath from time to time – and then return to our tasks refreshed. It could be that our approach towards difficulties becomes more open, so that we’re able to perceive multiple perspectives and have a clearer sense of what is going on. We might be able to prevent a challenging conversation from escalating, so there is more chance of a resolution, and less likelihood of damage from thoughtless remarks needing to be repaired.

There are more opportunities for noticing what’s going well – and this in itself, over the years, can be life-changing. A mind which is less crowded with thoughts, a body which is nourished with a deep relaxed breath, a joyful appreciation for the areas in our lives where all is well – these can support us as we deal with the challenges which inevitably arise.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Choose a day, and consciously pause from time to time to allow yourself to notice your breath. Without forcing the breath, follow it in and out of your body four times. What do you notice from having created this space?

Anja Tanhane

Sacred space

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness practice idea:

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

Anja Tanhane

Silence

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

What is the place of silence in our lives? We might call for a minute’s silence to honour the memory of someone. We might go for a walk by ourselves, and allow ourselves to fully absorb the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around us. Most meditation retreats have periods of silence, and we may also practice silence during our own meditation at home, or during a yoga class. Yet for many of us, silence is in short supply – it’s quite common to be bombarded by sounds just about wherever we go. Over time, we can become desensitised to sounds, and barely notice their effects. Yet sounds can have quite a profound impact on our bodies and minds, and can add to our level of stress and anxiety.
Of course there is no such thing as complete silence – there will always be some sounds around us. Yet we can consciously take time out from talking and interacting with people, from filling every available space with radios and TVs, and simply come back to a sense of ourselves, just as we are, without distractions or busyness. If we’re not used to being in silence, this can feel uncomfortable at first. Over time, however, we might find that these periods of intentional silence can be very nourishing for our spirit. It’s as if we open up more space in our lives, instead of feeling hemmed in by too many thoughts and words. By giving ourselves this space, we allow ourselves room to breathe and to grow.
Not all silence is beneficial. We might have been the unfortunate recipients of the ‘silent treatment’, which is really a form of aggression. Or we may have been silenced in some way when we wanted to speak out, to be heard. Some people yearn for a lot of silence in their lives, while others are content with brief periods. We may not wish to join an order of silent monks, but still find great benefit from bringing more periods of intentional silence into our lives.
Practice idea:
Choose one way in which you can bring more silence into your day. It might be driving without the radio, or setting aside ten minutes for sitting in silence, or eating one meal in silence by yourself. What do you notice?
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

Nourishing our spirit

‘Nourishing our spirit’ is the final of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. It could be considered one of the most important areas in our lives, to nourish our spirit, but what does this mean? When our lives are very busy, it’s easy to not give much time to this question, and yet when I explore the five pathways to compassion with participants at retreats, ‘nourishing our spirits’ often comes up as an area which they feel is being neglected in their lives. It seems that as humans, we respond well to rituals. Yet they need to be rituals we are comfortable with, which don’t become restrictive or a burden. There is that wonderful Zen saying – ‘don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’ Rituals are the finger which point us in the direction of our spirit, the moon, but they’re not an end in themselves. Yet with no ritual at all in our lives, we can feel adrift, rushing from one task to the next, with little time to pause and reflect.

Many cultures set aside an area in their house for religious symbols – it could be a small shrine, a cross, a statue or book. By creating this area in our home, we’re saying – this too is an important part of my life. It could be a small display of pictures, sea shells, a flower, a meaningful statue, a book of poetry or readings, perhaps a candle or incense. A place we can visit on a regular basis, where we can stop and reflect. It could be a corner in the garden where we like to sit and just be. It doesn’t need to be showy or elaborate – something simple and meaningful often works best. The Buddhist word for mindfulness is ‘sati’, which literally means ‘to remember’. Having an area set aside helps us ‘to remember’, to also give this area of our lives importance and time.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and either with pen and paper, or in silent reflection, ask yourself, ‘my spirit feels nourished when…’ Be open to what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings – Part 2

We’d probably like to feel happy and upbeat all the time, but mindfulness is not about getting to some mythical state where we are always happy and calm. We can spend a lot of time and energy resisting our emotions, when simply being present with them for a while may be all that is needed. There are steps we can take to lift our mood, and if we find that our ongoing low mood states are really affecting the quality of our lives, it makes sense to get professional help.

Yet for everyday emotions, sometimes it’s most helpful to just feel them. Emotions are natural responses to the changing conditions of our lives. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves if we feel that we ‘should’ be happy all the time.

One of the most effective ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to feel the emotions in our body as body sensations. Our heart might be racing, or our chest feel constricted. There may be an ache in our heart centre, or butterflies in our stomach, or our forehead may be constricted and tight. If we tune into these sensations during meditation, what we often notice is that these feelings, and thus our emotions, shift and change all the time. Sensing the emotions in our body seems to ground them, and they become something we can more easily be present with. Emotions can seem large and overwhelming, but as body sensations, they never stay the same for long, and we can allow ourselves to flow along with them rather than wasting our energy trying to build a massive sandbank in an attempt to hold them back.

I find that staying with an emotion for a few minutes is usually enough. If there is a feeling of sadness, I try to make the time to simply sit with this for a few minutes and feel it. I can then choose to do something which I know from experience will lift my mood – perhaps go for a short walk, or play with the cat, or listen to some music. There may still be a residual sense of sadness, but I usually feel free to get on with the rest of the day.

Of course, sometimes we need a lot more than this – for a serious bereavement, or a clinical depression or anxiety disorder which may require professional help, and also plenty of time and space for healing. Yet there is value in befriending our feelings rather than declaring war on them, and if we can get into the habit of being more welcoming towards our wide range of everyday emotions, we are usually in a better position to deal with the more serious emotions when they arise as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments each day to practise feeling your emotions in your body. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings

In Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’, befriending our feelings is the third step along the path. While it’s easy enough to befriend our feelings when we’re in a calm and happy frame of mind, this practice is asking us to become friendly with all our emotions, even the ones we find most challenging. To do this, it’s helpful to look at the role which emotions play in our lives.

Many of our emotions, especially the very powerful ones, are connected to the bonds we feel with other human beings. Perhaps we’re happy when we feel loved; we’re grieving when we’re parted from someone who is close to us; and we feel angry when we believe we’ve been betrayed in some way. Without emotions, we would be indifferent to our children, unmotivated at work; and whether we’re listening to a Mozart symphony or a chainsaw, it wouldn’t make any difference to us.

In this way, our emotions are really messengers who give us valuable information about what is happening for us. Theoretically, we could simply receive this information, nod wisely, and thank the messenger for keeping us informed.

As we all know from experience, it’s usually not as straight-forward as that. Our upbringing and the culture we live in determine to a large extent the approach we take to a range of emotions. Some emotions might be seen as valuable, and we might be encouraged to throw extra fuel onto these and perhaps even hold on to them when they’re trying to fade away. Other emotions might be regarded as so shameful, we can’t even allow ourselves to feel a glimmer of them. We might feel comfortable with more neutral feeling states, or we might become restless, becoming convinced we’re missing out in some way. Some cultures encourage the open expression of emotions, while other places consider this to be very discourteous to the people around us.

Emotions can also become so powerful that they take us over – when we’re highly aroused, the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain which is important for impulse control, empathy, seeing the bigger picture and being less reactive, can go off-line. We see ‘red’, and might act in ways we later deeply regret. Rick Hanson calls this the ‘red zone’, and one of the key benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is learning how to live in the ‘green zone’, where we are in charge of our emotions, not the other way around. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can help us engage more skillfully with our emotional states.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on your current relationship to emotions – either through journalling, or perhaps during a quiet time. What did your upbringing and culture teach you about emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Pathways to self-compassion

‘Although our personal experience may tell us otherwise, self-compassion is the most natural thing in the world. Deep within all beings is the wish to be happy and free from suffering.’

Christopher Germer

Are we kind to ourselves? Could we describe ourselves as our own best friend? Are we patient, understanding and supportive when we’ve made a mistake? As we practice mindfulness, we sometimes come to understand these questions in new and surprising ways. Over the coming weeks, we will look at what psychologist and mindfulness teacher Christopher Germer calls the five pathways to self compassion, from his book ‘The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion – freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions’. It’s a holistic model which we can return to whenever our life feels out of balance. The pathways he describes are:

Softening into the body

Allowing your thoughts

Befriending your feelings

Relating to others

Nourishing your spirit.

As we explore these five pathways, we may find that some areas of our life feel quite balanced, whereas other aspects have been neglected. Depending on our culture and upbringing, we may feel quite comfortable with the idea of self-compassion, or we may be a little suspicious of it. Is there a difference between being kind to ourselves, and becoming self-centered and narcissistic? Doesn’t our culture already promote the individual too much, and shouldn’t we focus our attention more on being available to others? Is it true, as Christopher Germer claims in the quote at the beginning, that self-compassion is the most natural thing in the word? And if it is, then why do we need to ‘practice’ it?

These are all very interesting questions to investigate, and we will all find our own answers. One of the most famous sayings on this topic is by Jesus – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s not ‘Love your neighbour much more than yourself’ or ‘Love your neighbour, but not yourself.’ As children, we thought the world evolved around our needs, and we needed to learn that this is not the case. Yet sometimes we may have taken this lesson too far in the opposite direction by not honouring the legitimate needs of our bodies, mind, emotions, relationships and spirit. Somewhere there is a happy middle ground, where we can be kind to ourselves without becoming self-indulgent. We can discover where this middle ground lies for us, and reflect on any changes we may want to make in our lives so that we feel more balanced and supported, both by our way of life, and also by the attitudes we express towards ourselves.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a blank piece of paper and a pen, and set aside 10 – 15 minutes where you won’t be disturbed. At the top of the page, write ‘For me, self-compassion means…’ and keep writing. Try not to censor yourself (you can always tear up what you’ve written straight after!), and see what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – the upside of stress

When we’re stressed, it can seem that life is running away with us, that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. There is a delightful Zen story about a farmer who sees a man on a galloping horse tear past the village, and who calls out to him,

‘Where are you going?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the man on the horse shouts back, ‘ask the horse!’

We constantly read about the harmful effects of stress on our health, our relationships, and emotional wellbeing, and many of our modern diseases are now being linked at least in part to stress. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells through the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is neurotoxic. Young children who grow up in very chaotic households can suffer permanent brain damage, to the point where they will always struggle with paying attention, forming relationships, and impulse control.

So stress is certainly something which needs to be taken seriously, yet there is also an upside to stress. We don’t thrive when we don’t need to put any effort into life, when everything is handed to us on a plate. Just like exercising causes small tears in our muscles which ultimately make them stronger, so a healthy amount of stress is crucial to developing our full potential.

One example in nature is a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. If you try to assist the butterfly by breaking the chrysalis open, its wings won’t be hardened enough, and it will be weak or even die. In the garden, if we water a young tree every day for the next five years, its roots will remain shallow and it might fall over in the first gust of wind. Our immune system needs to be exposed to a certain amount of germs, otherwise it won’t be strong. However, if a newly planted tree doesn’t get any water, or our immune system is overloaded with germs, then we get sick or the tree might die.

Getting the optimum amount of stress in our lives is not always possible, because much of what causes us stress is outside our control. When we are under considerable stress, we need to manage it the best we can, including getting the basics of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation and social supports right.

There are times, however, when a more positive attitude to stress might help us ride its waves with a more joyful attitude. Yes, we’re too busy at the moment, juggling too many balls, perhaps our stomach is churning from nervous excitement and our heart seems to be beating very loudly in our chest, but it’s great to feel engaged in life. I’ve been involved in two choirs who perform regularly in public, sometimes for big occasions. We all get nervous before the performances, worried whether the songs will work, if the audience will enjoy what we have to offer, whether we’ll make mistakes or come in at the wrong time. After the performance, however, there is a great feeling of pride and achievement, and we can bask in the positive comments from audience members who are often moved to tears, the sense of having offered something precious to the community. And the nervous tension of the morning, and all the hard work leading up the performance, have been well worthwhile.

Mindfulness is not about being calm all the time, floating serenely above the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is messy, demanding, a little crazy – but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, look for occasions where you can enjoy the upside of stress. You may not feel at your most serene, you may even be a little anxious or tense, but perhaps you can also enjoy feeling engaged in the challenge?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – planting seeds

‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.’

Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s so much easier to be aware of our failures than successes, but becoming more conscious of little moments of efficacy is a simple but effective way of increasing the feeling of agency in our lives. As the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson implies, we tend to be focused on harvesting ripe juicy apples, somehow expecting these to appear on a daily basis, when in reality it’s the patient planting of seeds and the nurturing of growing plants which sets our life in a good direction. For example, many parents have found skillful ways of containing and redirecting their children’s erratic energy, in a way which is incredibly beneficial to their children (and society at large!). Yet they tend to do this automatically, not even realising something special is going on, and only remember that time in the supermarket on a hot Friday afternoon when their toddler did have a melt-down and everyone stared at them judgmentally.

Years ago when I did some training to teach music to young children, we were told to always look for the small improvements in their playing and comment on these before going on to suggest other ways to make the playing better. It’s easy, as a music teacher, to notice what’s wrong and needs fixing. Yet the look on a student’s face when you say to them, ‘I can hear you’ve really worked on that left hand passage, it’s sounding much better this week’, is priceless. It’s empowering for the student to feel that their efforts have been noticed and acknowledged. Needless to say, they are also more likely to practise what you suggest this week, if they feel their hard work will be appreciated. Yet with ourselves, we are often more like the horror piano teacher who whacks their students on the knuckles and abuses them every time they make a mistake.

The practice of mindfulness helps us become more attuned to those moments when something did go well. It’s easy to notice the apples (our major achievements) but ignore the young plant which is simply there, quietly growing. Through mindfulness we might be aware that we’re able to think clearly in a stressful situation despite feeling a bit anxious. Or we might be able to take a deep breath and be more patient with a difficult colleague or relative. Each time we pause for a moment of mindfulness, we’ve planted another seed of efficacy. I recently sowed some salad seeds, and like to go out in the morning to see how the seedlings are going. We can do this in our own lives – celebrating the many tiny seeds we’ve planted, instead of wishing they’d all turn into salad or apples overnight.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, each day, write down three examples of being effective. It could be remembering to water the pot plant, or single-handedly restructuring your workplace to make it more efficient. Whatever it is, write it down, and allow yourself a few moments to feel good about what you achieved.

Anja Tanhane