Six simple ideas

Sometimes, a small adjustment can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term. Today I’d like to share with you six simple ideas you may like to try out sometime – I’ve had great feedback about them all. They are, in no particular order:

1. If you find yourself frowning, try a gentle half-smile instead. This is not about putting on a fake happy face when you’re not in the mood. Rather, the gentle half smile is very subtle, but can do wonders to lift our mood. You can think of it as being ‘behind’ the face, even in the heart centre or the abdomen. Play around with it – experiment with what feels right for you.

2. Practise (perhaps in the privacy of your home) walking around with a paperback book on your head. While this may feel like being in a deportment class in a girl’s finishing school, it’s actually the best exercise I’ve come across to really get a sense of where your head should sit in relation to the neck. Our heads are very heavy, and being slightly off-centre may cause tension in our neck muscles and shoulders. The book lifts your head up and into exactly the right position. You will walk like an Egyptian princess, and the rest of your body will send you grateful thanks. It’s also wonderful for those who practise sitting meditation – try it during meditation, and you may be surprised at the difference it can make to your posture, and to how long you can sit comfortably.

3. Learn diaphragmatic breathing. You might have heard the instruction ‘breathe into the belly’, but your lungs are in your chest – so how does that work? The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle below the rib cage. When your lungs are fully filled with air, the diaphragm is pushed down and the stomach expands. The easiest way to get a sense of this is to lie on the floor with a heavy book on your stomach, and to feel the book rise and fall. Later you can try it sitting and standing (without the book this time!). Diaphragmatic breathing is great for a number of reasons – firstly, we get more oxygen into our lungs, and thus also into our body. Diaphragmatic breathing also signals to the brain that you’re not in fight/flight (i.e. high alert and stressed) mode. So there can be plenty going on in your life, but your brain is receiving messages that all is well, and that you’re comfortable and in control.

4. Notice the ground under your feet as you walk. Whether it’s crossing the car park, walking to the photocopier, or strolling in a park – noticing the contact between the soles of your feet and the earth is wonderfully grounding. It connects us to our body and to the earth, and stops us from being so caught up in our thoughts. It’s worth practising this somewhere quiet, walking really slowly, where you notice the touch of the heel on the ground, the transfer of the weight onto the foot, then the weight onto the other leg. Once you’re familiar with this feeling, you can use this technique in everyday life, at your normal walking speed. Which brings me to idea number 5…

5. Slow everything down by 10%. Some people are naturally steady and well-paced in their activities, but most of us can do with slowing down a little. You don’t have to go from frenetic super-achiever to the pace of a zombie. But even a small decrease in speed might give you a lot more opportunity to simply be present with what is happening right now, rather than always mentally rushing ahead of yourself.

6. Start a gratitude journal. If you’re not already doing this, I would highly recommend it. Each night, I write down three good moments I experienced during the day – just a few words for each. They tend to be very simple, such as the opportunity to go for a short walk at lunchtime, or eat some vegetables from the garden, or have a nice chat with a colleague or neighbour. We’re hard-wired to be constantly on the look-out for perceived dangers or ways we in which we might be missing out. Taking the time to remember three good things which happened that day helps us to appreciate what we have, and to become more aware of the times when life is actually blessing us in many small ways.

I hope you find some of these ideas beneficial – let me know how you go with them!

Anja Tanhane

Restlessness

A few years ago I offered a workshop in mindfulness for a group of people with a disability. We first went out into the courtyard and did some gentle Tai Chi together, which was enjoyed by the participants. Afterwards, we gathered in a room, where we sat in a circle for some guided meditation. One of the carers had to leave the room for a few minutes, and when he returned during the meditation he thought at first that everyone had died, because the whole room was sitting completely still. I wasn’t sure how the participants would find the sitting meditation, but they all responded really well, and communicated later that they felt relaxed after the workshop.

The ability to sit still for extended periods of time is one of the hallmarks of sitting meditation, and, over time, can help to settle our restless and anxious mind. However, ‘over time’ is really the key phrase here, as initially, sitting still and not moving might make us more aware of just how much restlessness and anxiety is finding its way into our minds.

Restlessness and worry are the forth of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, and it’s one that probably most of us can relate to quite well! One of the most basic meditation instructions is to avoid fidgeting and adjusting the posture. Some traditions take this to an extreme, where people are asked to sit in agony rather than move a muscle. To me, taking it to that extent is not only pointless but also potentially dangerous, as there are cases where people have permanently injured their knees because of rigid meditation postures. On the other hand, there is commonly some discomfort and even a little bit of pain involved in learning to sit very still. It is difficult to settle a restless mind when our bodies are constantly in motion.

We can imagine holding a glass of muddy water in our hand. If we constantly shake it about, it will remain muddy water. However, if we put it down on a table and come back half an hour later, the mud will have sunk to the bottom of the glass, leaving the water clear. In a similar way, sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes each day can allow some of the stressors on our mind to settle, so that we can approach our day with greater clarity and presence.

Weekly practice idea:

During the day, take the opportunity to notice the difference between restless fidgeting, and adjusting your posture as needed. If your body is quite restless, how does it feel to consciously reduce some of the fidgeting movements?

Anja Tanhane

Posture

When I think about people I admire, something they share in common is that they carry themselves well. They are not arrogant or aloof, but there is a grace and dignity to the way they move. It used to be called ‘deportment’, which as a word has definitely gone out of fashion. And yet the way we sit, stand and walk has a strong influence on our mental state.

The best exercise I’ve come across to practise good posture is walking around the house with a paperback book on your head. Ladies used to do this in finishing school, and for good reason – you immediately feel taller, your head seems to be floating on top of the spine, and your limbs move with natural ease. We have a tendency to collapse into ourselves during the day, and the frequent use of smartphones and tablets has made this much worse. Young children naturally have wonderful postures, with erect spines and heads which are upright, their eyes open and curious as they eagerly explore the world. To see two-year-old children hunched over small electronic devices is a pretty sad sight.

If we were constantly admonished to ‘sit up straight’ when we were young, we may feel resistant to the idea of walking tall now. Good posture is not about being stiff, like a wooden puppet, or like being in the army marching to someone else’s beat. We don’t slump forward, but we also don’t draw our shoulders back too far. Most importantly, posture is about free-flowing movement, not stiffening into some idealised state.

Movement practices like Tai Chi and yoga can help us to feel more at home in our bodies. Also, getting lessons from an Alexander technique or Feldenkrais practitioner can support us to use our bodies more effectively. The natural state of our bodies is to be flowing, graceful and strong. Just like water can’t flow through a hose which is crinkled, so energy can’t flow freely through a body which is stiff and tense, and huddled over.

We all have a point where our bodies feel most balanced and free, and exploring our bodies, and learning what this balanced point feels like for us, can be very liberating.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of walking around the house with a light book on your head. Then try to keep some of the same sense of being upright and alert as you walk during the rest of the day.

Anja Tanhane

Dignity

Kangaroo paw

Do you know a person who embodies both dignity and humility? It could be someone you’ve met, or a well-known public figure, or even a historical or fictional person. They carry themselves well, don’t often look harried or put upon, but are also warm and approachable. If you can’t think of a particular person, perhaps imagine someone. Get a sense of what spending time in their company might be like. Is it relaxing being around them? Do you feel like you can let your guard down a little, and perhaps feel more at ease about who you are?

The meditation posture, where we sit with our back upright but relaxed, our eyes closed or half-open with a soft gaze, and our shoulders at ease but not slumped forward, is a posture of centeredness, strength, and dignity. Continue reading “Dignity” »

Thoughts are not the enemy

Gum leaves

 ‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

Segal, Williams and Teasdale

 

 

A young woman dressed in a white outfit sits cross-legged, on grass or near water, a calm expression on her face. We imagine she has cleared her mind of thoughts, and is resting somewhere between bliss and enlightenment. If you google ‘meditation’ on google images, this is the photo which will come up for most of the first page. It is one of the most enduring images of meditation in our culture, and it is misleading. First of all, she is not sitting in a good meditation posture. Her legs are crossed, but her knees are up in the air, and anyone who has tried to sit in this position for more than two minutes quickly finds it is very uncomfortable on the back. That’s why experienced meditators usually sit on a firm meditation cushion, or use a chair or meditation bench.

The other misconception is that meditation is about clearing your mind of thoughts. Over many years of running mindfulness workshops, I have heard this again and again,

‘I tried meditation ten years ago. I sat down on the bed and tried to clear my thoughts but couldn’t do it. Obviously meditation is not for me.’

Even in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, where we emphasis from the first night that meditation is not about trying to stop your thoughts, participants often come back week after week, frustrated they still have thoughts going through their mind. Continue reading “Thoughts are not the enemy” »