Resting in the pause

In the past few weeks we have been looking at the breath – in particular releasing the old breath, letting go of what is no longer needed in our lives. At the end of the out-breath, before the air flows back in, there is a pause. In the breath, the pause between the out-breath and the new air flowing in is usually quite short – most of the time we’re not even aware of it. In life, however, the pause between letting go of something, and allowing something new to enter in, might be very long indeed. And this in-between period can be quite difficult to live with. There is no longer the drama and effort associated with letting go, but nothing new has appeared to take its place. We can feel quite bereft, at sea. People around us may be telling us it’s time to ‘move on’. Perhaps they’re right, perhaps they’re wrong. Sometimes this can be very difficult to discern.

We all have a sense of giving people some space after a bereavement, not expecting them to fill up their lives with new diversions immediately. It would be a little insensitive to say to someone at the funeral of their beloved life-partner – ‘never mind, there’s plenty of other fish in the sea, how about I set you up with an Internet dating site?’ However, there is a wide range of opinions about how long this pause should be. How long does someone need before their natural grief becomes a clinical depression, before they’re stuck in a bitterness which could ruin the rest of their lives? Sometimes the pause becomes a habit, as if our pause button has become permanently stuck, and we’d really benefit from some diversion, from finding a new interest to focus our attention on. My experience at work has been that families often want someone to move on more quickly than they’re ready for, out of a natural concern for the wellbeing of their loved one. This can be more about the need of the family members to feel comfortable, than what the person actually needs. As a society, we’re often not that good at allowing people to withdraw for periods of time to lick their wounds.

On the other hand, I’ve also met people who are stuck in something which happened ten years ago, who talk with the same anger and emotion as if this incident had occurred just then. Needless to say, the sympathy of their family members and friends has worn a bit thin after ten years of listening to the same unchanging anger and bitterness. We do need to let old wounds heal and make the best of the life we have, even if it turned out different to what we’d hoped for. However, there is no formula for how long it should take someone to ‘move on’, before their natural and healthy grief becomes a dysfunctional trap. It is helpful, in our own meditation, to rest consciously in the pause between the breath, to allow ourselves to feel comfortable with this in-between space, where nothing much is happening, where we simply rest in the present moment without the usual diversion and stimulation we enjoy so much.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, think about an area in your life where you might be in between letting go and moving on. There is a natural discomfort in this state, but perhaps also a sense of healing. Notice how it feels, and come back to this sensation from time to time.

Anja Tanhane

Counting the breath

Mindfulness meditation can be very free and open – for example, we might be meditating on mindfulness of sound, and simply allow ourselves to notice sounds as they come to us, hearing them as much as possible as pure sound, being curious about them but not focusing on any sound in particular. While this kind of meditation is quite unstructured, we do need a certain stability of mind before we can really allow ourselves to be present in this open way, without becoming side-tracked and distracted for most of the meditation. One of the most popular meditations for developing this concentration of mind is one called ‘counting the breath’.

For this, we begin by settling into our body, our meditation posture, and then tune into the breath entering our body and then leaving it again, noticing the subtle movements of the breath in the body. After doing this for a few minutes, we then begin to take more notice of the out-breath – the beginning, duration and end of the out-breath, the pause at the end – and then allow the next in-breath to just happen by itself. We then start to quietly, in our mind, count the out-breath – silently saying a long ‘oooonne’ with the first breath out, allowing the breath to flow back in, then a long ‘twooo’, and so on up to ‘ten’, and starting back at one again. Whenever we notice that our mind has wandered off from the counting of the breath, we simply observe this, and gently and without any fuss, start back at ‘one’ again.

We will find that we rarely, if ever, get to ‘ten’ without our mind having wandered off. This can be a little disconcerting – after all, how hard can it be to count to ten? However, the purpose of the meditation is to develop our ability to bring our mind back to the focus again and again, like training muscles in the gym by lifting weights. The key is not to get upset with ourselves for ‘not getting it right’, but to bring ourselves back to counting the breath with kindness and patience.

Sometimes it’s easier to start with counting to ‘four’ instead of ‘ten’. We can also count backwards, or in thirds – 1, 3, 2, 4 etc. Another method is to keep counting, instead of stopping at ten. I often like to practise counting the breath for the first ten minutes of my daily thirty minute meditation, to allow my mind to settle into the meditation, before moving on to other practices. Also, on extended retreats, I find it helpful to practise counting the breath in the early morning meditations.

People who are fairly new to meditation often comment that they find the structure of counting the breath very helpful. Yet it’s not just a meditation for beginners, but one which can benefit us throughout our lives, and which will help us develop greater focus and increased clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Practise the ‘counting the breath’ meditation, remembering to be kind to yourself whenever your mind wanders off.

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

New beginnings

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‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Continue reading “New beginnings” »

Mindfulness And The Breath

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Berries

He had been quiet for most of the morning, thoughtfully taking part in the meditations and discussions; not withdrawn, but not very talkative either. Compared to the other carers, who had stress etched deep into their faces and bodies, he appeared quite calm. Recently, he and his wife had taken their first holiday in eighteen years. She’d been suffering from a serious mental illness for twenty-five years, and he had been there to care for her, as well as building a new life for them after emigrating from Czechoslovakia. I could only imagine how difficult his life must often have been.

Just before lunchtime, I guided the group through a meditation on the breath. Afterwards, he said,

‘I thought my breath would be deep and even, but I noticed how shallow and tight it was’.

He said he realised for the first time how stressed he was, the toll his caring role had taken on him. Tuning into his breath, sitting still in meditation, he was able to get a glimpse into the reality of his life. At the end of the mindfulness workshop, he asked the mental health worker present to link him into some counselling.

It’s not always easy to be with ‘life as it is’. In fact, quite often, escapism seems a far more attractive option! But as the great Zen master Dogen wrote,

‘If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?’

By taking the time to stop and notice his breath, the man who had cared for his wife all those years was able to get in touch with his own needs, and ask for support. It was a very simple practice, but, because the man was open to being present with his life, he was able to use the mindfulness of breath meditation in a way which would benefit both him and his wife. Rather than him becoming more and more exhausted, hopefully the counselling will assist him to continue his caring role while also looking after himself.

When we are feeling under pressure, the last thing we may feel like doing is to stop and take an honest look at the effect the stress is having on us. However, the simple act of stopping from time to time is a very powerful antidote to the cumulative impact of stress in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Every now and then, tune into your breath, without trying to change it. Where in your body can you feel the movement of the breath? The chest, the abdomen? With gentle, caring attention, take a few minutes to notice the movement of the breath in your body.

–  Anja Tanhane