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

 

 

 

 

Graciousness

When I think of people who seem to embody mindfulness, something they share in common is the quality of graciousness. There is a sense of fluidity and grace to how they engage with the world – they’re not barging through the day lost in self-centred pre-occupations. They allow space for people around them and don’t use up all the oxygen in the room. At the same time, they interact with a sense of presence, not hiding behind false modesty.

Graciousness could be described as ‘good manners with a heart’ – there is a sense of courtesy, but also warmth and care. One of the many meanings of mindfulness, of course, is to be ‘mindful’ of someone else’s needs, to treat them with respect and consideration. What comes through is an attitude of caring both for others and also oneself.

 We get a sense of someone’s character when they are gracious under pressure, such as a sportsperson who is gracious in defeat, or someone who has been on hold for forty minutes and still manages to be reasonably polite to the person on the other end of the phone. Many a first date has probably been ruined when something went wrong with the meal and the dinner companion was rude to the waiter. It is challenging to be gracious when we’re exhausted, hungry or very stressed. Yet some people seem to manage it, and we can all be grateful for them when life gets chaotic.

To graciously acknowledge a mistake and make amends; to concede someone else is right and you were wrong; to look out for another passenger after the plane has been sitting on the tarmac for seven hours without moving – all these small moments have a ripple effect into wider society. None of us gets it perfect all the time, and even the Dalai Lama admits to being grumpy occasionally. To me, it feels more like an underlying mindset than a particular formula for how to behave in given situations.

At a deeper level, graciousness can be about how we approach life – whether with a sense of grace and flow, or else with the mentality that life is a battle we have to power our way through. There may be times for standing one’s ground and not yielding – but most of the time, an attitude of openness and goodwill is likely to be more productive, and allows a greater sense of possibility for ourselves and for those we interact with.

 

Mindfulness practice idea:

It is difficult to feel gracious when we’re rushing around. Take a moment to slow down and notice someone who is being gracious – perhaps giving up their seat on the train, offering a friendly smile in the shops, or showing a willingness to gracefully compromise for the greater good. Notice the sense of expansiveness in that interaction, and how it feels in your body.

 

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

Creating joy

 

‘Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We all know how galling it is when we’re going through a difficult time, and someone exclaims to us in a bright voice, ‘come on, smile, it’s not that bad!’ It’s not likely to cheer us up – if anything, it can make us feel even grumpier!

            On the other hand, we can sometimes hold on to a mood for longer than we need to, through our body posture, the expression on our face, our ruminative thoughts, and behaviours which aren’t going to help us feel any better.

            For example, we might have had an upsetting phone call, and for the next few hours we walk around with an annoyed frown on our face, with our shoulders tense, our breathing fast and shallow, and our thoughts caught up in replaying the conversation and what we should have said and will say next time and so on. These are all natural responses, and it makes sense to try and process what has just occurred, and to plan our next steps.

            However, it’s easy to become stuck in this way of being. We might feel exhausted after a day of this and so we spend five hours in the evening watching some shows on TV we’re not even enjoying, and eating too much and becoming annoyed with ourselves and the TV shows and life in general. We sleep badly and wake up with a stiff neck and feel even more badly done by. In the meantime, all kinds of potentially pleasant interactions and experiences might be around us, but we’re not available to them. Our disgruntled mood becomes a habit rather than a short-term response, closing us off from the possibility of moving beyond the annoying phone call and embracing what life has to offer us right now.

            In her wonderful book ‘Smile or die – how positive thinking fooled America and the world’, Barbara Ehrenreich describes the dark side of a relentless focus on being positive. She gives the example of a worker who has been laid off, and when he doesn’t find a new job immediately, he is blamed for not being positive enough – as if a positive attitude alone were enough to conjure up a job in a depressed employment market which no longer values his skills and training. The smile Thich Nhat Hanh talks about is very different to this – it’s not a smile which ignores the reality of our current situation and our struggles, or pretends that through the power of our mind we have complete control over our lives and can be happy all the time.

            Rather, Thich Nhat Hanh’s smile gives us choices about how we engage with each moment. Sometimes, the simple act of lifting up our head, relaxing the shoulders back and smiling can help us to feel better, to be more hopeful. It also opens us up to positive interactions with other people. Like the children’s song says so beautifully,

            ‘When someone smiles at me, I feel like smiling too.’

 

 

Mindfulness practice idea:

 

For the next week, try to deliberately smile at least once a day – taking the opportunity to pause for a moment, take a breath, and gently smile. What do you notice in your body, and in your mind?

 

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

 





Connecting with our body





In both the Buddhist tradition and in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, the practice of cultivating mindfulness starts with developing greater awareness of our body. We can sometimes think of meditation as something which happens in our head, and we might get quite caught up in the imaginary battlefield of our mind, where thoughts are not ‘behaving’ in the way we’d like them to during meditation. And yet, thoughts are only one aspect of our experience. There is also our body – the physical presence of the body, its position in space, and where it connects to the ground or chair. Our body is also how we interact with our environment, particularly through the felt experience of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We’re constantly receiving information through our body – about its physical needs, our emotional state, and how safe or unsafe we feel in a particular environment. It is a treasure trove of information, when we tune in and listen to it.

How we relate to our bodies is closely linked to how we relate to the rest of our lives. Valuing our body only if it lives up to some imaginary standard of weight, measurements and beauty is like valuing a little girl only when she is dressed up as a princess once a year. It is the ordinariness of the little girl, with all her emotional turmoils and mud-covered knees and fighting with her siblings which is precious, not some fantasy ideal which is unobtainable. Our bodies are also ordinary, and sometimes bear the scars of our life experiences, and yet, when we tune into our bodies with friendly presence and curiosity, we can feel in a sense that we have ‘come home.’

There are complex reasons why being present in our body might not be straight-forward. Our cultural upbringing may value thinking above body experiences, or have given us negative messages about our bodies. We may have had adverse experiences which could be triggered when we tune into our body. We may simply feel that we’re too busy to pause and tune in – that there’s no point when so much else is calling out to be done.

Sometimes it helps to start small – to notice the breath flowing in and out a few times, or the sensations in the soles of our feet as we walk down the corridor, or the breeze on our face as we step out the front door. A guided body scan meditation can be helpful, such as the one on this website. Most of us have a complicated relationship with our body, yet slowly becoming more present within it, and developing friendliness towards it, can help to reduce some of the anxious insecurity we can be prone to in our modern lives.

 

Mindful practice idea:

Think of a small practice which helps you feel more present in your body. It could be tuning into the breath, or noticing the contact between your body and ground, or going outside and feeling the wind against a skin. Each day, spend a couple of minutes tuning into your body in this way.

 

Anja Tanhane

 





Finding connections





‘He says he has learnt, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to ‘What matters to you?”’

In his wonderful book ‘Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’, journalist Johann Hari introduces us to the work of Dr Sam Everington from the Bromley-by-Bow Center in East London. In addition to the standard treatment available at any GP clinic, this center also is a hub for over a hundred volunteer groups. When a patient with anxiety or depression comes to see a doctor at the clinic, they may be prescribed anti-depressants, but they will also be advised to participate in one of the volunteer programs. The doctors call it ‘social prescribing’, and have found it to be remarkably effective.

One such program at the clinic was to turn a nearby wasteland full of weeds and broken equipment into a beautiful garden filled with flowers and vegetables. A group of twenty volunteers, many of whom had been socially isolated for years, were supported by a staff member to clean up the area and start learning about plants and seeds. They talked about how they wanted to park to look, discovered through trial and error what worked and what didn’t, learned about being patient and working to nature’s rhythms, and gradually saw an ugly unloved area turn into something valuable for the local community. They spent hours outside in the sun and fresh air, and slowly began to form connections to others in the group. As they worked, locals walked past and thanked the group members – who had often spent years being shut away and feeling useless – for their work. They met in a cafe after each gardening session, and discovered similarities in their stories as they slowly began to share them, at a pace which felt comfortable to them. One member was homeless, and others in the group lobbied the council until they found housing for him.

The participants in the program discovered two kinds of connections – connections to other people, and connection to nature. Yet what was important for the participants, at least initially, was the prescription by their doctor, and the support of a staff member. For someone with severe depression or anxiety, it may not be enough to be told – ‘just go out and find something to keep busy with, you will feel much better.’ This approach may work for those on the milder end of the spectrum of anxiety and depression – and we’ve probably all had the experience where we felt like collapsing on the couch but got busy with something enjoyable instead and felt much better for it. Yet when the condition is more severe and long-term, some skillful support is required while the participants start to slowly rebuild connections and develop their resilience and strengths.

An increased sense of connection is often described by people as one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and over the coming months we will explore the themes of disconnection/connection, drawing on Hari’s book and the work of others as well as our own experience, and discovering how consciously cultivating connections might help to gradually enrich our lives.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes with a pen and notepad, and finish the sentence ‘For me, connection means…’ and keep writing. What emerges from this? Another time, you may also like to start with the sentence ‘For me, disconnection means…’

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