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

An antidote to busyness

‘Zazen (sitting meditation) is in and of itself the alternative to our usual state of grasping, clinging, and goal-orientated life in general. By sitting down, we have arrived.’ Barry Magid

 

When I was a child, I was very keen to learn the piano. So keen, in fact, that I practised on a keyboard which had been painted onto a piece of cardboard, until eventually I inherited the piano of a great aunt who had passed away. There are studies to show that children who learn a musical instrument tend to do better at other subjects such as maths and English. Naturally I didn’t know about those studies when I was a child, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I was learning the piano because I loved playing the piano, not as a means to an end to get better marks at school.

There are now thousands of studies into the positive effects of mindfulness meditation, and the research has been useful in bringing meditation into mainstream settings, allowing many more people to benefit from the practice. Yet at the same time, when seen in this way, meditation can become a utilitarian means to an end, rather than simply a way of being we choose to engage in.

In one way, of course, it’s perfectly natural to wish for an improvement if we dedicate ourselves to a practice which requires commitment and a certain amount of discipline. Why else would we choose to get up early in the morning to set aside some regular time for our meditation?

On the other hand, at a more subtle level, practising meditation in order to achieve a certain outcome is what Zen teacher Barry Magid describes as the ‘are we there yet?’ state of mind, where a part of us is constantly asking, like a whiny two-year old in the back seat of a car, ‘are we there yet?’ And, when noticing that we’re not quite ‘there’ yet, wherever this place called ‘there’ might be, we’re left somewhat dissatisfied with our experience.

It can no doubt be helpful to notice the positive effects which a regular meditation practice may have in our lives. Yet, especially if our practice becomes long-term, it might perhaps be even more helpful to simply enjoy meditation as a time out from our self-improvement projects and striving to achieve our goals. Instead, we can simply be present, moment by moment, here in this emotional and physical body which is living and sensing and breathing, in constant relationship with the surrounding environment.

           

Mindfulness practice:

Set five minutes aside to simply be. Not to relax or do something beneficial for your wellbeing or try to gain some of the benefits of meditation. Just being for a few minutes – and noticing how this feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

           

 

           

 

 

Being engaged in life





‘Who or what we are is defined by the quality of our engagement with this moment, whatever its content.’

Barry Magid

Most of us hopefully have memories of one or two teachers at school who stood out in the way they fostered a love of learning in us. When we reflect on what made these teachers special, it is often the quality of their engagement with us. They weren’t simply going through the motions of delivering the curriculum, but were really present to the class and responsive to us children as individuals. It’s likely that they kept good order in the classroom, but they didn’t withdraw or become spiteful when students acted up. To maintain a high level of engagement as a teacher year after year is quite a gift – there are usually all kinds of pressures within the classroom and the school system which can wear a teacher down. Yet to the children they teach, this consistent level of engagement can really allow their students to shine, and sometimes set them on a positive path for life.

In our own lives, the quality of our engagement with what is happening right now can fluctuate wildly from moment to moment. Sometimes we may be fully present, other times half-heartedly so, and we may also go through stages where we’re so distracted and absent-minded that we have little awareness of our lives at all. As we become more mindful, those times when we are absent can begin to feel like a loss – the loss of an opportunity to just simply be present in our lives.

Engagement doesn’t always have to be ‘over the top’ enthusiastic. Sometimes it can be more of a quiet presence, like someone sitting next to a hospital bed and keeping a silent vigil while their family member is sleeping. Engagement is really about saying ‘yes’ to our life as it is right now, rather than a conditional ‘maybe’ or even a ‘no’. And, as the quote by Barry Magid suggests, the quality of our engagement will play a part in forming the person we are.

When we are feeling disengaged, disconnected, what is really going on? A bit of escapism every now and then can be relaxing, but if much of our life is spent like this, what is it we’re actually missing out on?

Mindfulness practice:

Choose an activity you might usually do in ‘automatic pilot’ mode – perhaps cleaning up after dinner, or having a shower, or walking across a car park. Next time you’re doing this activity, pretend you’re a wonderful teacher who is teaching a child how to be curious, fully engaged and enthusiastic about this task. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane





Being here now





‘At any moment you have a choice,

That either leads you closer to your spirit,

Or further away from it.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of us tend to experience a wide range of emotions over our lifetime – sometimes even in the course of a single day. Yet I find that underneath all these varied and colourful emotions, there is what I call an underlying ‘feeling tone’. And this feeling tone tends to be either one of patience, gracefulness and presence (which I call the feeling tone of love), or else one of impatience, ragged movements, and absentmindedness (which I call the feeling tone of rejection). This feeling tone is like the floor at the bottom of the ocean, and may have little in common with the stillness or tornadoes raging in the waves high above. We might be feeling fairly calm, with no major stressors to preoccupy us, and yet we are rushing through our tasks with a sense of impatience, choosing, on some level, to not be quite present. Or we might be under a lot of strain, feel quite agitated and exhausted, and yet the smile we bring to someone who is suffering is warm and compassionate.

We often have little awareness of this feeling tone, and yet, in my experience, it’s something we can easily influence for the better. Intuitively, it might seem that the opposite should be the case – that we should be able to influence the waves of our superficial emotions more easily than the feeling tone of the ocean floor. Yet, in fact, we always have a choice about how we choose to engage with each moment. Mindfulness, at its heart, is about taking good care of our lives, living it with a sense of presence and love.

The real work of mindfulness is mostly at the level of the feeling tone. We don’t try to transform ‘bad emotions’ into ‘good emotions’. Instead, we choose to bring a sense of kind presence to our lives, whatever happens to be going on right now. A regular practice will make us more aware of the level of engagement we bring to our lives – whether, in each moment, the underlying feeling tone is one of love, or one of rejection. This can be quite subtle, but the influence on our life is very powerful. Mindfulness is life-affirming – it’s about saying yes to our lives, not ‘yes, but only if… and when…’, while waiting for the perfect conditions. If we wait for the conditions to be perfect before we say yes to life, we could be waiting for a very long time!

We don’t usually go to the beach and tell the ocean – ‘I can’t accept you today, your waves are bit too choppy, sorry!’ And yet, unconsciously, this is how we often choose to live our lives. Saying yes to our lives doesn’t mean we don’t work at improving ourselves and our life. It’s like the love we may have for a child or a pet – hopefully we don’t only love them when they’re perfect, or else we think they’re so wonderful that we never offer them any guidance. We can engage with our lives with gentle discipline, seeking the guidance of mentors and teachers, and at the same time fully embrace the life we have, bringing a loving presence to each moment, making the choice to be fully here now.

Weekly practice idea:

Make the intention this week to tune into your underlying feeling tone from time to time. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane





How hard can it be?





How hard can it be, to be mindful? After all, we’re already in the present moment – we haven’t time-travelled anywhere. We are aware of the world through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and so on, and we’ve heard enough about mindfulness to know that being mindful in the present moment is very good for us. Theoretically, we should be able to decide to be more mindful from now on, walk down the street smelling the roses, and go from there into a future of mindfulness and presence.
And yet, for most of us, mindfulness is anything but easy. Again and again, we find ourselves lost in ruminative thinking, daydreams, anxieties, and a pervasive sense of not being quite here. This can be discouraging – our logical brain knows exactly what it wants, but the rest of us doesn’t seem to want to play along, at least not all the time. We may understand why mindfulness is good for us, but living it day to day is another matter.
Force of habit is probably one reason for this – it’s not easy to change ways of thinking which have been reinforced in our brain for decades. There are also evolutionary advantages to being constantly alert for danger, even if the price we pay for that might be anxiety and restlessness.
Another way of approaching this issue, however, is to simply ask ourselves – what would it mean to be truly present to my life? Not just those aspects we cherish – our loving relationships, success at work, pride in our house and garden. But also the people we no longer talk to, the times we failed others or ourselves, the jobs we lost or were bullied out of, the worries about our health, the fact we are constantly bombarded with bad news. Do we truly, honestly, wish to be present to all this? And what about the ordinary aspects of our lives – the countless hours we spend in unglamorous tasks like tidying up the kitchen, paying bills, cleaning up after others, and commuting. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to daydream our way through all this?
In the end, we have a choice. Mindfulness is rewarding, but also a challenge. If we accept that mindfulness is simple, but not easy to practise, then perhaps we can be more patient with our slow progress, more at ease with the way our brain loves to be all over the place!

Weekly practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and quickly write down, without thinking too much about it, what your experience of mindfulness has been so far. Reading back through what you’ve written can be very illuminating.
Anja Tanhane





Presence





Orchid in Anglesea

‘The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

What does it mean, to be present? In one sense we are, of course, always present. Where else could we possibly be? Yet we probably all know the feeling of being present in our bodies while our minds are elsewhere.

We also know what it’s like to be with someone who is not really present with us – who nods mechanically from time to time and mutters a disinterested ‘oh really’ while scanning over our heads to see if someone more important has arrived at the party yet. Other people have the gift of making everyone they talk to feel like the most important person in the room. We flourish in the presence of someone who is listening deeply, who is attentive and kind. Just to be in the presence of a person like that can be healing for us. Continue reading “Presence” »