Cultivating connections

 

‘The most precious thing we can give to another is our presence, which contributes to the collective energy of mindfulness and peace. We can sit for those who can’t sit, walk for those who can’t walk, and create peace and stillness within us for people who have no stillness or peace.’  

Thich Nhat Hanh

If you enter a room full of meditators, it might seem as if each person is caught up in their own little bubble, watching their breath and their thoughts with little awareness of their surroundings. And while it is possible to meditate in this way, my experience of meditation retreats has been the opposite – that over the days, as you drop into stillness and become more attuned to what is happening for you, you are also becoming more attuned to the people you’re sharing the space with. And even though the retreat might be in silence, there can be a strong sense of community, of supporting each other in our practice, and working harmoniously together to make the retreat experience a meaningful one for everybody.

Of course, we don’t need to be at a retreat to cultivate this sense of connection to ourselves and others through meditation. While we are often interested in learning meditation for personal reasons, such as managing stress better or dealing with illness or other challenges, over time a meditation practice will also enable us to be more present to others in our lives. As human beings we’re highly social creatures, and we can immediately sense whether someone is really listening to us, or whether their mind is elsewhere.  A particularly mortifying experience is talking to someone at a social gathering who is clearly looking out for a more interesting or important person to come along. As Maya Angelou expressed so eloquently:

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

We don’t need to be calmly floating around all the time for people to have a sense of our presence. Whether we meditate or not, we will all have our good days, our distracted days, and our downright unpleasant days. Yet it is heartening to remember, as we make the commitment to meditate more regularly, that meditation can help to cultivate connections, to add to the collective energy of stillness in the midst of busy lives. It is a simple practice, but the ripple effect does extend out to our families and to others we interact with. We might be sitting in meditation on our own, but we’re doing it both for ourselves and for others.

 

Mindfulness practice:

Next time you meditate, think of the practice as an offering to others. In some traditions, meditators formally dedicate their meditations to benefit all other beings. Experiment with a few words of your own, and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Valuing deeply

 

‘We must look at our life without sentimentality, exaggeration or idealism. Does what we are choosing reflect what we most deeply value?’ Jack Kornfield

 

It might sound straight-forward – to look at our life simply as it is, without embellishment or idealism. Yet when we take time to pause and reflect, we may notice that what we perceive is very much coloured by our notions of how our life should be. There is a constant dance between ‘life how it is’ and ‘life how we’d like it to be’, and if we rush through our days without much awareness, we can find ourselves caught up in stories and fantasies which are mainly in our minds, and not always connected to the reality around us. As Mark Twain expressed it so eloquently:

‘I’ve experienced some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’

This increased awareness of ‘life as it is’ does not need to be cold and harsh – in mindfulness there is also an emphasis on developing friendliness towards ourselves and our experiences. Yet it does help to be clear about what is actually going on, if we want to make choices which are informed by our values. And this can mean also being clear about the areas in our life where we struggle, which don’t come easily to us.

 

Sometimes, our apparent weaknesses can actually be a strength in a different context. For example, someone might be very sensitive to noise, and find it difficult to concentrate in a busy environment such as an open plan office. Yet this same sensitivity might mean this person is particularly attuned to others, and can work with people or animals in a way which is very intuitive and kind. Our psychological profile might make us unsuited for some jobs, but excel at others. Sometimes people with a disability can struggle to find work, yet when their strengths are matched with a suitable environment, employers often find they’re some of their best staff.

 

When we find ourselves confronted by something which challenges us, we can take a few moments to explore it in a way which opens up new possibilities rather than shutting everything down. It requires courage to stay with life as it presents itself in each moment, instead of distracting ourselves or trying to change it into something else by investing it with additional meaning. Yet by deciding to stay present in this way, we are more able to choose a way of life which aligns with our values, and this can offer us a greater sense of peace and stability among the various pressures of life.

 

Mindfulness experience:

Take ten or more minutes to sit in silence somewhere, either in a formal meditation posture or else comfortably in a quiet place, and ground yourself by noticing your breath and the sensations in your body. After a few minutes, ask yourself the question – ‘what is really happening right now?’, and notice what arises. During the day, pause from time to time to ask yourself the same question. You may like to write down any insights which develop from this practice over time.

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peace





This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all” is the message that is proclaimed at Christmas time.

What do we mean by peace? We may think about a state in which there is no fighting, but only tranquility, calm, stillness and quiet.

During the festive season we can feel a spirit of joyfulness. We enjoy being with people. We can witness the excitement of young children leaving food for Santa. However, it is a sad irony that this time of the year can be anything but peaceful! Often people comment on the mad rush leading up to Christmas. We may be frantically trying to get presents, meet deadlines and attend Christmas functions. Our already busy lives become even faster paced. Holiday stress!

Although this time is when families traditionally come together, in heartfelt warmth, and we hear moving examples of kindness and generosity, Christmas day can also be a time when family tensions surface and arguments erupt. We may have either experienced this for ourselves, or heard stories of other people’s experience of family fights, hurt feelings or exclusion. A friend recently told me that her last family Christmas get-together was such a debacle that she has chosen to spend this year alone. It can also be a lonely time for people who do not have family, or have experienced a recent loss.

As well as interpersonal conflict we can become even more aware of the conflicts between nations, the world conflict which is nightly reported on, in what Shinzen Young refers to as “the litany of horrors that is the 6 o’clock news. Where are peace and goodwill in the “silly season”?

Jack Kornfield explains: “The inner stillness of the person who truly “is peace” brings peace to the whole interconnected web of life, both inner and outer. To stop the war, we need to begin with ourselves.” He quotes Mahatma Gandhi:

“I have only three enemies. My favourite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man called Mohandas K.Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

As Gandhi humorously notes, it is not so easy to cease fighting with ourselves. We cannot stop the war by beating ourselves into submission, this only increases our struggle. Over time with mindfulness meditation practice we can cultivate equanimity; an internal balance, allowing sensory experience to be as it is, with an attitude of kindness and friendliness. This to me is freedom from disturbance: peace. Another wonderful benefit of mindfulness practice is that we find we are more able to respond rather than react, which leads to less interpersonal battles.

 

Many people coming to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course tell me what they would like and hope for is to find peace. Similarly, Jon Kabat–Zinn has found most people attending the Stress Reduction clinic have the goal of attaining peace of mind. Based on his years of experience he has learnt that although meditation practice is powerfully healing, some kind of personal vision is also needed for growth and change. He advises:

“To achieve peace of mind, people have to kindle a vision of what they really want for themselves and keep that vision alive in the face of inner and outer hardships, obstacles and setbacks.”

Perhaps the Christmas message and hope of peace and goodwill may rekindle your aspiration and vision for this.

Weekly practice idea:

Adapted from the book Peace is Every Breath: A Practice For Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh

Settle into a comfortable position. Focus on your breath and allow it to be easy and natural. The following verse can be recited silently breathing in you say the first line; breathing out you say the second, and so on.

Breathing in, I feel my breath coming into my belly and chest.

Breathing out, I feel my breath flowing out of my belly and chest.

Breathing in, I’m aware of some pains or tensions in my body.

Breathing out, I release all the pains and tensions in my body.

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I feel ease and peace.

 

Michelle Morris

 





Peace and goodwill





The time of Christmas, regardless of whether we celebrate it as a religious festival or a cultural one, is meant to be the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind. Yet few of us are probably feeling particularly peaceful at this time of year, and the goodwill can also start to wear thin if you’ve been circling for forty minutes trying to find a car park at your local shopping centre, and someone cuts into a spot you had clearly indicated for yourself. Between end of year parties and Christmas shopping and getting organised for the big day, life tends to be more hectic than ever. Both our finances and our nerves may be wearing thin, and our tolerance for Christmas carols in the shops might be at an all-time low.

We can also feel we are being manipulated to buy more stuff than is needed, eat and drink more than is good for us, and generally add massive quantities of packaging, left-over food and unwanted presents to our landfills. Where then, in all of this, is the peace and goodwill?

The Christmas story is about the birth of new hope, of a new way of being in the world with kindness, love, and meaning. Regardless of whether we are practising Christians or not, most of us can appreciate the teachings of Jesus, his call on us to empty ourselves and live authentically, to follow the golden rule which runs through religions across the world – ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’ We may not like the commercialisation of Christmas, yet all cultures have festivals where normal life stops for a period of time, and people get together with their families and communities to celebrate a story which is evocative to them. We may already have rituals which make this time of year meaningful for us, but if we don’t, or if we would like to deepen our experience, we can create our own.

When do we feel most at peace, and what helps us to feel this way? What can we do, to intentionally cultivate a sense of peace? Some like to sit alone in a beautiful spot to watch the sun rise, while others feel most at peace in the midst of a large and noisy family gathering. It’s easy to get carried away with the busy demands of this season, but we have a choice to grow peace within ourselves, in whichever way is most meaningful for us. In this way, the festive season can indeed become the season of peace and goodwill for us.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take ten minutes with a pen and notebook, and write down all different ways in which you can cultivate peace in your life. Place a tick next to one or two which you will practise over the next few days.

Anja Tanhane





Peace and quiet





Clearview sunrise

It was one of the noisiest wards in the hospital – TVs blaring from almost every room, alarms beeping urgently, nurses shouting to each other down the corridor, patients yelling out or screaming, sometimes for hours. From time to time, family members would become overwhelmed and start shouting at the staff or their loved ones. On my second day there, a mother was standing in the corridor, literally howling with despair. The patients all had severe acquired brain injuries, and some had only recently come out of a coma or post-traumatic amnesia. They drifted in and out, trying to orient themselves to their new surroundings. At the weekly multi-disciplinary meetings, the discussion was often about not over-stimulating these patients, giving them short therapy sessions and then allowing them to rest in peace and quiet, so their brains would be able to assimilate the new information. Everyone agreed this was the right treatment plan, but didn’t seem to notice that the environment offered very little in the way of peace and quiet. There were some sources of noise which little could be done about – the beeping alarms, patients yelling out. Yet did there really need to be a TV at full volume in every communal area, when patients had their own in their rooms? Did the staff really need to communicate by yelling down the corridors? Continue reading “Peace and quiet” »