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

Feeding the wolf of love

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the story of a wise American Indian Elder, who explained how each day she chose to feed the wolf of love. When we hear the idea expressed in those terms, it makes perfect sense to us. Yet in the rush and stress of everyday life, we can unwittingly find ourselves becoming impatient, unkind, or acting out old habitual patterns which we already know won’t bring us any happiness, let alone feed the wolf of love in our lives.

There are many reasons for this, and one of the ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to allow us to become more aware of what in our lives pulls us away from being more loving and connected.

When we’re stressed, our thoughts and bodily sensations can move along with a strong momentum, almost as if they take on a life of their own. It can feel like we’re caught up in a compelling narrative which has its own logic, and which demands our full attention and engagement. Mindfulness is about stopping and asking ourselves – what is really going on right now? Is this current direction helpful, or unhelpful, or neutral?

Interrupting the powerful momentum of stress can be very hard to do – it’s almost like we feel it’s rude to interfere with something which is moving along so swiftly with a life of its own. Yet if we start to make a habit of regularly pausing, breathing, and tuning in, we might soon notice that we have a lot more freedom to choose the direction we want to go in. The more stressed we are, the more difficult it is to stop and pause, and at the same time, the more worthwhile the effort to do so is likely to be.

This is where a daily meditation practice can be helpful. You get into the habit of stopping on a regular basis, and noticing the benefits of doing this. After a while, a positive feedback loop is created – you become aware how good it feels to pause, and are therefore more likely to make the time to briefly pause during busy times as well.

Other opportunities for pausing and tuning into the here and now of our breath and our body can be: as we make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee; washing our hands; walking to the photocopier or the car; when we arrive home from work; between finishing one task and starting the next; or just before we start eating. It may feel a little odd at first to do this, even though the pauses don’t need to be very long. It’s worth experimenting with this technique, to see if we notice a difference in how we respond to the demands of our life. If we feel we are more patient, feel more grounded and connected, then we’re also likely to find that we are in a much better position to feed the wolf of love in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

For the next week, decide to set aside a couple of minutes three to five times each day to pause for a moment. This can be a time to tune into your breath, how you’re feeling in your body right now, perhaps also noticing sights, sounds and smells around you. At the end of the week, review the practice and note whether you have found it helpful.

Anja Tanhane

The gardener – Part 2

There is no much point in gardening if we only ever walk through the garden looking out for potential problems. Apart from noticing what’s not going well, we also want to take the time to enjoy and appreciate the plants which are flourishing. Sometimes in our garden, or in our meditation, we can become fixated on real and potential problems. On the one hand, we’re not very good gardeners if we simply glide around from flower to flower, enjoying their beauty and ignoring the knee-high weeds almost overwhelming them. On the other hand, never making the time to ‘smell the roses’ seems to defeat the purpose of looking after a garden in the first place. Why have a garden if we’re never relaxed enough to enjoy and appreciate it?

Gardening is about our relationship to the garden – how much we notice, in what way we take care of it, whether we allow it to nourish us. In the same way, our life is also about the relationship we have with our life. To live is to be in relationship with everything around us, including our life. And this relationship depends a lot on what we choose to notice, and what we choose to ignore.

A good gardener will create the best possible conditions for the plants to flourish, and then be philosophical about the outcome. You might have spent weeks cultivating the soil, then bought a healthy-looking seedling, planted it in the right position in the garden, at the right time of year, and watered and fed it regularly, and still the plant might not survive a heatwave, or a hailstorm. Even professional gardeners have their fair share of failures. Sometimes, we might feel our meditation practice should be different, that we’ve worked hard enough to deserve a certain outcome. Just like the vagaries of the weather, the ever-changing conditions of our lives and our minds mean that no one can draw a clear line from A to B and tell you – ‘if you meditate in this way, for this long, then you will experience this’.

Still, we can enjoy being present in our meditation, just like we might enjoy wandering through a park or garden. The gardener and the plants are doing their best, as are we during meditation. No one can expect more of us, including ourselves.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to walk through a garden or a park, and try to notice as many details as possible. Just noticing and being curious has a wonderful quality to it.

Anja Tanhane