Going with the flow

Flow is the antidote to trauma.’ Dr Peter A. Levine

One of the challenging after-effects of trauma can be a sense of being stuck in the past – whether it’s in the form of flashbacks which take us right back to the event, or else a sense of bitterness or hardening creeping into our lives. Anything which interferes with our sense of wholeness and control can be traumatic – this includes being attacked or being caught up in a natural disaster, but it can also be surgery, divorce, being unemployed, or being discriminated against. While we’re in the midst of an emergency we may need to be very strong in order to survive, whether literally or metaphorically, and we find ourselves toughening up. This allows us to get through the event, and of course we need a certain amount of hardiness in order to get by in life. Yet over time, this toughness can become a shell which keeps us trapped, and which prevents us from fulfilling our potential. The strategies we used in order to survive can become our prison, and they can control our lives long after the need for them has passed.

It is the difference between stagnant water trapped in a barrel, and a bubbling brook of clear spring water flowing through a forest. When we begin to flow again, the traumas of our past can gradually be released. The progress may be slow, and we may need a lot of support, but there is a sense of movement rather than entrapment.

There are many ways we can cultivate a sense of flow in our lives. Anything which involves moving our bodies, whether it’s Tai Chi, playing sport, dancing, yoga or walking, allows our energies to start flowing again. Sometimes even just a brisk walk around the block can be enough to lift our spirits. Moving our bodies in whichever way feels joyful to us is wonderfully therapeutic, and we can easily underestimate just how beneficial it is for our bodies to simply be moving.

Music also helps us to experience a sense of flow – whether we’re listening, or else singing or playing music, it never stands still. Music has this beautiful quality of allowing us to be engaged with it even as it is constantly changing and flowing. When we are present with music, it carries us along – neither feeling stuck nor direction-less. It is constantly changing, yet has its own internal logic and structure which holds and supports us.

Meditation can help us to experience this sense of flow and support as well. When we meditate regularly, we soon notice that no thought, emotion or sensation remains the same for very long. Everything is constantly changing, and with practice we can learn to relax into the flow of experience, rather than fighting it, or wanting to grasp onto it and hold it. We learn to go with the flow, rather than constantly putting up blockages and dams which take a lot of energy to maintain, and which prevent us from being freely in the moment.

Weekly practice idea:

What in your life helps to give you a sense of flow? Make a commitment to yourself to experience this activity this week, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Music and mindfulness

We feel music in our bodies – whether we start to tap our toes, move with the rhythm, get up and dance; or else sit more quietly, at a classical concert perhaps: listening to music is never just on our heads, in our thoughts. Playing a musical instrument, or singing, involves the whole of the body, but even just listening to music is never a purely intellectual exercise.

Music also involves emotions – emotions which may have nothing to do with how we felt before the music started. Sometimes, music can seem to validate our existing emotional state, but other times it can transform our emotions, sometimes significantly. Music can provide a safe container for working through difficult emotions – a space from which we can explore our emotions and come to develop a new relationship to them.

Like music, mindfulness is an embodied way of living, and like music, mindfulness can help us approach our emotions in a new way. Music and mindfulness have a beneficial effect on our brain functioning and physiology – increasing the connectivity between the left and right brain hemispheres, improving executive functioning, and strengthening the immune system, for example. Listening to music or playing music can also help us step outside our small sense of self, into a larger, more expansive awareness, just as meditation can.

In our society, we place a lot of emphasis on intellectual problem solving, on figuring things out and coming up with solutions. This has its place, but is generally more limited than coming from a more embodied, experiential perspective. Music therapy, and the use of mindfulness in clinical applications, have both been validated through extensive research studies. We can all find ways of including some of these principles into our day to day life – going for a walk in the park perhaps when our mood is low, or baking a cake, singing along to music, or doing some yoga stretches. Sometimes, we just need to ‘be’ for a while, and our perspective will shift. Our life doesn’t necessarily improve because we’ve managed to solve a problem – sometimes simply stepping outside our heads, and making time and space for beneficial activities, can help us to deal with our life much more effectively.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one activity you enjoy, which gets you out of your head and back into experiencing life? This week, set aside half an hour for this activity, and notice how you feel before, during and afterwards.

Anja Tanhane

The music of now

‘The only thing that is constant is change.’ Heraclitus

Life is fleeting, ephemeral, forever transforming and changing. We might feel as if we’re living solid lives in solid bodies, with a solid value system and a strong sense of ‘this is me’, but in fact the cells in our bodies are continually dying and being renewed; our solid lives are highly vulnerable; our values change throughout our lives; and as for our sense of self – are you still the person you were at 12? Two years ago? Two breaths ago?

One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism is that much of our suffering is caused by our attempts to live solid lives in an ephemeral world. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a sense of being grounded. We don’t need to live like tumble weeds, forever blown about by the wind, at the mercy of the slightest breeze. Yet even the Himalayas, which look so solid to us, are forever growing and transforming.

Music is the most ephemeral of the art forms – even a single held note is nothing more than ever-changing vibrations. By its nature, music can never be static. Each note is unique in its expression, and flows inevitably into the next. There is nothing we can hold on to in music, nothing we can own or pin down. By the time our brain registers a sound, it’s already gone.

Yet as human beings we love music, often passionately. With one or two exceptions, there are no societies which don’t have music as a fundamental part of their cultural identity. As a music therapist, I’ve been privileged to witness how sometime people can express more about themselves and their identity through music than through words.

And, despite its ephemeral nature, or perhaps because of it, music can ground us deeply into the present moment, to give us that sense of being alive right here, right now. We give ourselves over to music, without a desire to cling onto it, to own it or control it. We do this easily with music; often less comfortably with the rest of our lives. Next week, we will look at other similarities between music and mindfulness, and how these might be helpful for us.

Weekly practice idea:

Lie down on the couch and listen to a piece of music. Notice the sense of flow which music has, its ever-changing nature.

Anja Tanhane

Silence

‘A religious spirit in which one feels there is nothing to which one is not related… This is the experience of silence.’

John Cage

The first performance of John Cage’s seminal piece, 4’33’’, was met by outrage and dismay. It took place at Woodstock, New York, in 1952, in front of an audience which supported the contemporary arts. Yet even for this avant garde crowd of modern artists, the performance, in which virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note (though marking the three movements by opening and closing the piano lid), proved too provocative. They began to whisper among themselves, and some people got up to leave. Thus, along with the wind in the trees outside, and the sound of rain on the roof, they became part of the music. John Cage famously said, ‘there will never be silence’, and the concert hall setting, the prestige of the composer and the performer, the cultural expectations of the audience, created the ideal conditions for a group of people to sit quietly for almost five minutes and simply listen to the ‘sounds of silence.’

There is ongoing debate whether 4’33’’ can be considered music. It is still widely performed, by orchestras, pianists, other instrumentalists. Nowadays the audience, of course, knows the piece, so the performance doesn’t confound their expectations as the original one did.

When we are in silence, we are better able to come face to face with our pre-conceived ideas, biases, our judgemental thinking mind. Everything about a formal concert performance pre-disposes us to take our seat and wait for the performance to start with a clear set of expectations. If a concert pianist is listed as the performer, we expect to listen to accomplished piano playing, not the ambient sounds inside and outside the hall. In a similar way, we take our seat in everyday life, look forward to a mostly predictable day, and therefore often miss much of what is happening.

John Cage was influenced by Zen, and said at one point,

‘Everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.’

Is it possible for our intention to go down to zero, as John Cage suggested? Zero is a big number (ironically!). Yet we can definitely open our attention during meditation, to become aware of a greater range of subtle sensations, thoughts and experiences, to be less selective in what we perceive. And yes, there is a certain magic in simply being aware of life as it is unfolding.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 or 20 minutes (or even better, 4’33’’!) to listen to the ‘sounds of silence’. What is that experience like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

Tuning in

Leaves at creek

There are many reasons why someone chooses to take up a meditation practice, but an underlying motivation might be a desire to either tune out, or to tune in. While some meditation traditions encourage their practitioners to aim for ‘special’ states which help them to tune out from everyday concerns, mindfulness meditation is very much about tuning in – being attuned to life as it is right now. Musicians know all about tuning in – being in tune with their own internal physiological and mental processes during a performance, as well as being aware of and tuning into the musicians around them. Continue reading “Tuning in” »

Our Top Ten Tunes

purple flower

Remember that annoying tune you couldn’t get out of your head? It might have been some inane advertising jingle, or a pop hit from the 80s you thought you’d outgrown long ago. Even if the tune was a little loftier, there are only so many times we want to hear the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th before we get tired of it!

Sometimes our thoughts can be just like those tunes – they get caught on some repetitive loop which can range from being slightly irritating to becoming so obsessive they seriously interfere with our lives. Continue reading “Our Top Ten Tunes” »

Contentment

 Fern

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system. Continue reading “Contentment” »