An antidote to busyness

‘Zazen (sitting meditation) is in and of itself the alternative to our usual state of grasping, clinging, and goal-orientated life in general. By sitting down, we have arrived.’ Barry Magid

 

When I was a child, I was very keen to learn the piano. So keen, in fact, that I practised on a keyboard which had been painted onto a piece of cardboard, until eventually I inherited the piano of a great aunt who had passed away. There are studies to show that children who learn a musical instrument tend to do better at other subjects such as maths and English. Naturally I didn’t know about those studies when I was a child, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I was learning the piano because I loved playing the piano, not as a means to an end to get better marks at school.

There are now thousands of studies into the positive effects of mindfulness meditation, and the research has been useful in bringing meditation into mainstream settings, allowing many more people to benefit from the practice. Yet at the same time, when seen in this way, meditation can become a utilitarian means to an end, rather than simply a way of being we choose to engage in.

In one way, of course, it’s perfectly natural to wish for an improvement if we dedicate ourselves to a practice which requires commitment and a certain amount of discipline. Why else would we choose to get up early in the morning to set aside some regular time for our meditation?

On the other hand, at a more subtle level, practising meditation in order to achieve a certain outcome is what Zen teacher Barry Magid describes as the ‘are we there yet?’ state of mind, where a part of us is constantly asking, like a whiny two-year old in the back seat of a car, ‘are we there yet?’ And, when noticing that we’re not quite ‘there’ yet, wherever this place called ‘there’ might be, we’re left somewhat dissatisfied with our experience.

It can no doubt be helpful to notice the positive effects which a regular meditation practice may have in our lives. Yet, especially if our practice becomes long-term, it might perhaps be even more helpful to simply enjoy meditation as a time out from our self-improvement projects and striving to achieve our goals. Instead, we can simply be present, moment by moment, here in this emotional and physical body which is living and sensing and breathing, in constant relationship with the surrounding environment.

           

Mindfulness practice:

Set five minutes aside to simply be. Not to relax or do something beneficial for your wellbeing or try to gain some of the benefits of meditation. Just being for a few minutes – and noticing how this feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

           

 

           

 

 

The middle way

The story told about the Buddha’s life is that he grew up indulged and sheltered as the son of an Indian ruler, living a life of luxury and ease. His father didn’t want him to be exposed to some of the harsher realities of life such as sickness and death, and it wasn’t until Siddhartha left the palace gardens as a young man that he encountered someone who was sick, someone old and near death, a poor person, and a monk. Having never been faced with the realities of life before, these meetings left a deep impression on him, and he decided to leave his old life behind, including his wife and young son, and become a spiritual seeker. He joined a group of ascetics living in the forest, but after a number of years of harsh practices such as extreme fasting which brought him close to death, he felt no nearer to understanding the causes of suffering.

 

After his insight experience under the Bodhi tree, he spent the rest of his life teaching what he called ‘the middle way’ – a life of balance between the extremes of indulgence and deprivation. He taught that our bodies are precious vehicles which we should appreciate and take good care of. On the other hand, in Buddhist psychology, the root of our suffering is our tendency towards greed, aversion, and ignorance, and we need to be aware of our impulses which are always wanting more of what we like, and avoiding that which is unpleasant to us.

 

The middle way is like a perfectly tuned violin string – not so taut that it produces a shrill sound, but also not too lose so it can’t be played on. We can easily hear whether a violin is in tune or not. It’s more difficult to be attuned to our lives, and where we stand in regards to the middle way. There is always someone more indulgent or more disciplined than us, so it’s difficult compare ourselves to others. There are no rules as such – the lifestyle of a monastic living in the forest will be very different to that of a working parent with five young children. And while the middle way would avoid extreme lifestyles, it is also a state of mind. Someone might be living a moderate life which comes across as harmonious and balanced on the outside, but actually be quite harsh in their thinking, constantly striving to get it ‘right’, and never at ease. Whereas the life of another person, say the busy working parent, might appear chaotic and hyper-stimulated, but somehow at the end of the day everyone’s needs in the family are met, and there is a sense of contentment underneath all the turmoil.

 

I find the middle way a very helpful concept when I try to balance my life between becoming complacent, and constantly striving to achieve. I like to think of it as a reasonably wide road, which gives me some leeway to move in either direction without immediately falling into a ditch. If we’re too anxious about ‘getting it right’ all the time, the middle way can feel like a narrow mountain track in the mist where the smallest misstep will have us sliding down the slope. On the other hand, the middle way does have some limits – it’s not a carte blanche to do exactly as we like.

 

We usually have a sense of when we’ve strayed too far from the middle – and meditation or prayer or a quiet time of reflection can help us to tune into that sense of unease, and become clearer about what feels right to us. It’s like driving a car, where we are constantly making small adjustments, but know immediately when we’ve strayed onto the verge. Once this happens, we have a choice to carefully pull back onto the road, or blithely set off cross-country in the car and hope for the best. The middle way is knowing what the road looks like in our life, and making the small adjustments needed to stay on the path and not wander too far off track into the metaphorical swamp.

 

Mindful practice idea:

Think of one area in your life where you might have a tendency to over-indulge, or else deprive yourself unduly. What would the ‘middle way’ look like here? Set the intention to bring the idea of the middle way into this part of your life, and take note of how it feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

 

Uncertainty

‘The first thing that arises when we open up to each other is a great sigh of relief. We realise that we’re not the only one who feels bewildered.’

 

Pema Chödrön

Australia is currently heading towards an election campaign, and the media is full of politicians who are trying to sound convinced that they are the only ones who have all the answers to the complex problems affecting this country. Of course, no one person can be an expert on everything or have the solution to all our challenges, but to express uncertainty on any issue would be considered political suicide. We may cringe when we hear politicians sound like a ‘know-it-all’ as a result, but in our own lives, how comfortable do we feel with uncertainty? It’s not usually a pleasant space to spend much time in. Yet as the social psychologist Erich Fromm has written:

‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.’

Uncertainty can open us to curiosity and wonderment. It is always refreshing when a teacher or presenter is asked a question they don’t know the answer to, and instead of becoming defensive, their face opens up in delight as they exclaim,

‘Now, that is a really interesting question!’

When we approach uncertainty as an opportunity for further exploration, it becomes a place of creative possibility. A songwriter doesn’t know what the song will sound like before she starts writing, just as the artist is faced with a blank canvas. Creativity can be just as much stilted by great success as by miserable failure, when the desire to reproduce the success means the artist is no longer willing to delve into the unknown.

Some uncertainties are very difficult to bear – when we’re waiting for the results of an important medical test, or are no longer sure if our partner wants to be with us, or have lost contact with a family member. Uncertainty like this can cause a lot of suffering, and we can’t just offer glib assurances to someone in these situations.

Yet even our more ordinary everyday life is filled with uncertainty – we never know what the next moment will bring. We can respond by becoming paralysed with anxiety, or else being rigid and exuding an air of being overly confident. As Yeats wrote in his famous poem ‘The Second Coming’: 

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

Somewhere in the middle between those two extremes there is an opportunity of acting with agency and confidence, while at the same time being open to having our viewpoint and solutions challenged by new learnings. In mindfulness meditation, we often develop a greater sense of trust in ourselves, in acting from our values and inner knowing. Yet most meditation, by its nature, tends to also take us to places of uncertainty for what can seem like a very long time. This can be frustrating, but also liberating. 

The voice of uncertainty is more quiet than the booming sound of pompous conviction. What it lacks in charisma, however, it more than makes up for in authenticity.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes with the intention of deliberately sitting in uncertainty. Perhaps there is a topical issue you can’t make up your mind on, or there is an area of uncertainty looming in your current life. For the set period of time, try not to come up with any solution. Notice how it feels in your body, as well as emotionally and mentally, to simply sit with this uncertainty.

Anja Tanhane

Connecting with our creativity





Where words fail, music speaks.’

Hans Christian Anderson

One of the delights of working with young children is their unabashed joy in being creative. Whether it’s music group or drawing or dress-ups or story time, the children are right there, lively and engaged. For too many adults, however, creativity has become something they no longer have time for, or are not ‘good enough’ at, or feels childish to them. As a music therapist, I’ve often heard people say ‘oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing!’ To which I always reply, of course: ‘I would love to hear you sing!’

Sometimes it’s only through tragedy that people find their way back to creativity. I’ve worked with stroke survivors who were members of an aphasia choir. There was so much joy in that choir, despite the terrible circumstances they were dealing with. Other times, people in hospital or recovering from trauma might work with an art therapist, and find new ways of expressing themselves when words can seem inadequate. Creativity can help us to express our more difficult emotions, and it can also be a wonderful source of joy. Whether we’re belting out a tune in a gospel choir, or sitting quietly on the couch at home absorbed in a craft project, these creative times can give us a sense of coming home to ourselves, feeling deeply content.

Like mindfulness, creativity helps us feel present in the here and now, less caught up in ruminative thinking. Some people describe their creative times as a form of mindfulness – it is their opportunity to ‘simply be’. And as with meditation, starting out in a new creative endeavour can be difficult if we approach it with unrealistic expectations. Here are a few suggestions if you’d like to have more creativity in your life, and it feels a bit daunting:

  1. Start small. Instead of planning to write the first two chapters of a brilliant novel, set the timer and write down whatever comes into your head for ten to thirty minutes. If you do this regularly, you will begin to hear your voice in the writing, and it will start to take shape.
  2. Be inspired by children and enjoy your creativity – notice how even a few minutes of drawing or dancing can help you feel re-energised.
  3. Sometimes, constraints are good. Drawing a circle on a blank page could be the start of a mandala, which can be easier than being faced with an empty page. And adult colouring-in books have helped a lot of grown-ups get their coloured pencils out again.
  4. Join a group or a class, or find a teacher. Some of my most enjoyable interactions over the years have been with fellow creatives.
  5. There are many ways to be creative. Cooking, woodwork, gardening, pottery, sowing, teaching children using games and stories – creativity is not an end product, but a state of mind.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside a period of time for a creative activity, and consciously bring mindfulness into the experience. Can mindfulness enhance creativity, and creativity enhance mindfulness?

Anja Tanhane

 





Connecting with nature – Part 2





‘If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.’ Rainer Maria Rilke

Staying close to the small things hardly noticeable – this is one of the gifts of children, to be enraptured just as much by an ant cautiously making its way across a slippery leaf as by a magnificent sunset which lights up the sky. If we try to approach nature from an intellectual level, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Nature exists on scales which can be difficult for us to comprehend. There are the infinitesimal dimensions of the elements which make up a single cell, and then there is the vastness of space which we can’t really understand. Geological time moves over tens of millions of years, and some insects only live for a few hours. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than people on earth. For so many aspects of nature, the human scale is either too large or too small.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why as humans we sometimes want to place ourselves apart from nature, leading to a sense of disconnection.  Our education often encourages us to approach life intellectually, trying to make sense of the world through ongoing learning. Yet as Albert Einstein said,

‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’

Mindfulness can help us to feel more connected by allowing ourselves to simply be present with the experience of being in nature. The Japanese call this shinrin yoku, forest bathing, and they have developed therapeutic ‘forest bathing’ centres where trained guides assist people to be more mindfully present in a forest. We can develop our own ways of ‘forest bathing’ by turning down the volume of our thinking mind, being aware of the vitality of our bodies through our senses, and engaging with our environment with openness and curiosity.

Even ten minutes of being in a natural environment such as a garden or a park can make a positive difference to our sense of wellbeing. Our mind and body will thank us for looking at flowers or trees instead of a screen. As Rabindranath Tagore said,

‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’

Those moments of feeling connected with nature can also become our ‘time enough.’

Mindfulness practice:

For the next week, set the intention to connect every day with nature in a way you hadn’t done before. One day it could be taking notice of any trees in your area, the next listening for the birds, another time going for a walk at lunchtime. Notice each time how this feels.

Anja Tanhane





Connecting with nature – Part 1





‘Komorebi (Japanese)– the interplay of the light and the leaves when sunlight filters through the trees’.

How delightful that the Japanese have a word for the play of sunlight in a forest! Regardless of where we are in the world, when we stand in a forest, the light has a special quality to it. There are also the sounds of nature – complex sounds which our bodies enjoy hearing, unlike the mechanical sounds of much of city life. Trees give out chemicals called phytoncides, which they use to fight of pests and diseases. Just being near trees means we’re also breathing in phytoncides, which has been shown to increase the activity of our natural killer cells in the immune system. Our bodies are biological systems, and for most of our evolution we lived in close connection to the natural world. It makes sense that we find being in nature relaxing and restorative, and through mindfulness we can deepen this experience even further.

One of my favourite mindfulness practices is called ‘walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ I often include it on retreats or in workshops, and it is very simple, but can be quite profound. We simply spend twenty to thirty minutes walking outside by ourselves, tuning into our different senses. We use sight to look at the landscape as a whole, or the softness of the tips of branches against the sky, or the delicate detail of a single leaf. We hear the sounds around us – birds, the wind, sometimes insects, or a falling branch. We notice the ground under our feet as we walk – the softness of grass, the different feel of a path or stones, the way the ground is undulating. At times we may feel a gentle breeze against our face, or the warmth of sunlight on our skin. I invite people to use their sense of touch to explore the different textures of leaves, bark, stones or grass. Smell, of course, is one of our most powerful senses, and highly evocative. When we close our eyes, we may find that our sense of smell is finer, and picks up the scents in the breeze as well as stronger scents like a rose or eucalyptus tree. And sometimes we can also use our sense of taste, if there is something which is safe to eat.

When we walk outside in this way, with a sense of discovery and delight, we notice how rarely we look at something closely, or are really present within it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently:

The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.’

Mindfulness practice:

Set aside twenty minutes to practice ‘Walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ It could be in your garden, a park, or out in nature. What do you notice, when you are present in this way?

Anja Tanhane

 





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





Enjoying meditation





There is no doubt that meditation is not always enjoyable. Sometimes it can be hard work, even confronting. The aim of meditation is not necessarily to feel relaxed at all times, yet our meditation practice can also become a bit too earnest, involving too much striving for some desired outcome. Different times in our lives may call for varying emphasis in meditation. We don’t want to discover one way of meditating and then stick to that for the rest of our lives. It can be interesting to look at our personality and tendencies, and to consider how these might impact on our meditation.

If we have a personality which likes to take it easy and prefers the path of least resistance, then perhaps during meditation we can balance this out by being more willing to stay with difficult feeling states. On the other hand, if we tend to drive ourselves quite hard most of the time, then meditation could be an opportunity to practise being more gentle, less compelled.

Even on days when we feel quite stressed, we can make a conscious effort to enjoy one aspect of our meditation. This can also be true for any other time when we take the opportunity to pause for a few moments. For example, our mind might be quite busy with anxious thoughts, but the feeling of the breath in the belly might be pleasant. There may be a bird which sings from time to time. Our face might be at rest, or the ground may feel solid underneath our body. We might be aware that the sun is shining outside, or there could be the yearned-for patter of rain.

There are many opportunities for resting in a small area of enjoyment, even when our life is far from easy. Most of our moments, if we become more attuned to them, are like a painting with many different colours and shapes. There may be a dark corner, but also shimmering light, and a section in the left which is intriguing but doesn’t quite make sense.  We’re complex beings, and we can live more embodied lives when we embrace the full range of our experiences.

This includes enjoyment – enjoyment of the simple fact that we are alive and breathing and able to perceive the world through our senses. That is by no means the whole of meditation, but sometimes, perhaps, it is enough.

Mindfulness practice:

Sit for ten minutes, and allow your mind to rest on enjoyable experiences – something very simple, such as the softness of clothing against the skin, or a sound which is nice to listen to. Notice how it feels to turn the mind towards enjoyment.

Anja Tanhane





Being mode





‘If we’re not careful, it is all too easy to fall into becoming more of a human doing than a human being, and forget who is doing all the doing, and why.’  Jon Kabat Zinn

We are known as human beings, but, as Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, life can sometimes feel more as if we’re ‘human doings’. Our days are filled with tasks we need to accomplish, often with a fair bit of time pressure, and even as we’re ticking off one task we’re already thinking about the next. Where, in this hectic hive of activity, can we find the time to ‘simply be’?

A mindful life is not just about stopping to pause from time to time, grounding ourselves for a few moments in the here and now – although those times are certainly valuable. Mindfulness is about bringing a sense of ‘being’ into all the ‘doing’ aspects of our lives, regardless of whether life is relaxed or hectic right now. So rather than rushing through our tasks half-heartedly, caught up in thoughts about something completely different, we commit to being fully present with whatever we’re doing, whether it’s writing an email, washing the dishes, or crawling along in a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment. Whatever it is, we bring our full attention to the task – we become fully embodied within it.

So what are the challenges to living in this way? It can be interesting to explore these for ourselves. Sometimes we literally have a lot ‘on our minds’, such as anxious thoughts which keep intruding. We may have people who keep distracting us, or constant notifications from our electronic devices. Other times it might feel easier to do something we don’t particularly enjoy with only minimal attention, as if this makes the unpleasant or boring task less real. To be a human ‘doing’ might feel like the path of least resistance, but if we spend a lot of time in this mode, we run the risk of feeling a sense of absence from our own lives.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each day, choose one unexciting task and turn it into a mindfulness exercise. It could be brushing your teeth, folding and putting away your laundry, or washing the dishes after a meal. Slow down, and allow yourself to experience every aspect of the task, to embody it fully. How does this feel?

Anja Tanhane





Love the question





‘Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart

And try to love the questions themselves.’

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

A common question we might ask ourselves during meditation from time to time is simply – ‘what is actually happening right now?’ We pause, and bring awareness into our moment by moment experience. What is happening right now? Often there’s quite a lot going on. There are many layers of sound – everyday sounds, unusual sounds, sounds we perceive as pleasant or unpleasant, sounds we usually don’t notice at all. What is happening in our bodies? Perhaps our back is sore, and that’s all we are aware of. But there is also the contact between skin and clothing, between our face and the air around, there may be a slight feeling of hunger, and subtle sensations in the face. Where is our mind? How long since we were aware of the content of our mind? Is it focused, or jumping all over the place, or a bit of both? Are we experiencing any emotions? If yes, are there one, or two or more? Are they changing or fairly stable? Where do we feel them in our body, in our mind?

Another question we could ask ourselves is – ‘what is the point of all these questions? I just want to meditate, and then feel a bit more calm and relaxed…’

And yet another question – ‘why meditate?’

We can read about the benefits of meditation, and nowadays there is no shortage of research to indicate a wide range of positive effects. And yet, to start a meditation practice, and to keep it going, we usually look within. Yes, the research can seem compelling, but plenty of people live perfectly happy lives without meditation. Meditation is not so much an answer – ‘this is what has been shown to happen when people meditate’, but instead a curious, often playful, and sometimes challenging exploration of the state of our lives. What is really happening right now? Is it helpful for me to explore this, to sit with it, to be present to it? As Rilke said in his letter to the young poet:

‘Live the questions now

And perhaps without knowing it

You will live along some day into the answers.’

Mindfulness practice idea:

A few times a day, pause for a moment and ask yourself – what is happening right now? Try to be present to multiple aspects of the experience – physical, sensory, mental and so on. Notice how it feels to tune in like this.

Anja Tanhane