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

Stopping to smell the roses

There are few experiences which connect us as powerfully with our past as our sense of smell. It could be a dish your grandmother cooked, the scent of a forest where you played as a child, the perfume your mother wore, or the smell of sand and ocean. The way we respond to smells is also highly individual. Most people like the smell of roses, and dislike the smell of rotten eggs or meat. In between the extremes of pleasant and disgusting smells, however, how we respond to smells is uniquely individual to us. Perhaps you had a beloved grandfather who smoked cigars, and the scent of cigars will always make you feel loved and protected even though you’re a strict non-smoker. As a child, you might have spent summer holidays in a musty holiday shack, and years later you walk into a house which is damp and hasn’t been cleaned properly for a while, and you immediately feel relaxed and at ease. One day you wake up in a positive mood, catch the train to work, and by the time you get off the train a great sadness has come over you. You have no idea why, but someone near you was wearing the same aftershave as a close friend who has recently passed away.

Many animals, of course, rely mostly on their sense of smell to help them survive, and smells are also perceived and remembered by us in the mammalian part of our brain, the limbic region. The limbic brain holds our long term memories, learnt associations, and emotional responses, and we can sometimes react to a stimulus from the limbic brain below the level of our conscious awareness. Our sense of smell can evoke emotional memories, scenes from the past, but it can also ground us very much in the present moment, into the here and now.

We’re no doubt too self-conscious to go around sniffing the air like animals do, to get important information about our surroundings, and yet we’re constantly picking up signals through our sense of smell. It’s very common for people to report an increased sensibility to smell when they go on a retreat or start regular meditation. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ – it’s a cliche, but a very powerful one. If you stand in a park or garden and allow yourself to notice the sounds around you, the breeze against your skin, and you then lean down to smell a rose, crush a little lavender between your fingers, walk up to a tree and smell its leaves – in those moments, you are completely mindful, present, absorbed in the rich awareness of your different senses.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, make a time to stop and smell a rose. Depending on where you are in the world, this could be a literal rose, or something similar. Notice how it feels to be absorbed in that moment through your sense of smell.

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

How hard can it be?

There are any number of good definitions of mindfulness, but one I find particularly useful to work with is this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

‘Mindfulness is an awareness which arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.’

Therefore, in order to be more mindful, all we need to do is to:

• Be aware

• Pay attention on purpose (that is, actually remember to pay attention)

• Be in the present moment

• Be open to this moment in a non-judgemental way

• And go with the moment to moment flow of experience.

So honestly – how hard can it be?

Of course, what anyone who has ever tried to be mindful for more than a few moments at a time knows, living mindfully is not easy at all. This can be frustrating, because mindfulness isn’t exactly rocket-science. It seems patently obvious that the present moment is the only one we can ever be in – where else could we possibly be? We have taste buds, so eating mindfully and really tasting our food shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the time we’re not comatose or under a general anaesthetic, so you’d think being aware should not be an issue. We were taught at school to pay attention, so we’ve already learnt how to do that. And yet, and yet…

Given the benefits of mindfulness are so well documented (better health, more positive emotions, less stress, improved interpersonal relationships, greater efficiency at work, clearer thinking etc), why didn’t our brain simply evolve to be more mindful? Why do we need to go through the rigours of a regular meditation practice and attend courses and retreats – a discipline which many people find difficult to sustain even when they’ve had first-hand experience of the benefits? There is no simple answer to this question, but our brain did evolve over tens of thousands of years to help us survive in tough physical environments rather than complex modern technological societies. What served us well on the open savannah – constant alertness, embedding negative experiences deep into the brain so they can be recalled in an instant, being able to react without thinking to perceived danger – is often less than useful in the modern office.

It is up to us to experiment with our lives, to find out, through trial and error, what works well for us and what doesn’t. However, its’ much easier for us to gain insight into this when we are mindful of our moment to moment thoughts, feelings and sensations. It would have been nice to evolve with a more mindful brain, but really we’re fortunate to have ended up with the amazing human brain we do have, and if our brain needs the occasional time out to meditate, to rest and recharge, then why not allow ourselves this space in our lives?

Weekly practice idea:

Ask yourself from time to time – why is it difficult to be present right now? Be open to the answers which emerge – there is no right or wrong answer, only a gentle but persistent exploration of what takes us away from present moment experience.

Anja Tanhane

 

Precious moments

red berriesAccording to the thirteenth century Zen master Dogen, there are 6,440,099,180 moments in each day. If we multiply this by the 342 days remaining of this year, we still have 2,202,513,919,560 moments ahead of us before we get to 2015. Of course, in reality it’s impossible to calculate the ephemeral nature of moments, but in mindfulness every moment is an opportunity to become more present, and Dogen’s calculation, give or take a few moments, clearly presents us with numerous opportunities to be mindful each day. Continue reading “Precious moments” »

Mindfulness moments

Koala 1

It’s the 31st December 1900, and the English writer Thomas Hardy is not looking forward to the new century. In his poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he describes the wintery landscape as the ‘Century’s corpse outleant’, the wind is the ‘death lament’, and every spirit on earth seemed ‘fervourless’ as himself. Suddenly he is jolted out of his gloomy reverie by the bright and ‘full-hearted’ song of a frail and gaunt thrush. It comes so out of the blue, seems so unconnected with what he’s been experiencing, that Thomas Hardy sees the ‘happy good-night air’ of the bird as a sign of ‘blessed Hope’.

The time is 5.30 pm, and I’m sitting in heavy traffic at a red light. It hasn’t been a great day at work, and when I get home, I’ll have to spend a few more hours at the computer catching up on admin. I’m in no mood for the cars pressing in around me, the smog, the thumping stereo of the ute behind. And then I look up and see a group of black cockatoos, flying with their slow, distinctive majestic wing beats towards the nearby bushlands. It is a moment of magic, of delight, of feeling connected to nature in the midst of peak hour traffic.

It’s the day after 9/11, and everyone is walking around looking stunned. Continue reading “Mindfulness moments” »

Being in our bodies

Eagle

‘Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.’
This wonderful quote by James Joyce, from ‘The Dubliners’, is an apt description of how probably many of us feel. While our bodies make themselves known to us when we are hungry, ill or tired, much of the time we may barely be aware of them, except perhaps for a vague sense of inadequacy, of our bodies not living up to an idealised version of what they should be. In the Buddhist tradition, the four foundations of mindfulness start with mindfulness of the body. The eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course also uses the body scan as its first mindfulness practice. We tend to think of meditation as something which happens in our head, for example the misleading notion that we should be able to ‘clear’ our mind of all thoughts during meditation, or wrestle with and tame our thinking mind. Yet mindfulness training, whether in a Buddhist centre or during a MBSR course, starts with the posture, awareness of the breath, tuning into our bodies, the body scan. We’re not trying to transcend our thinking mind or our physical bodies, but be more at home within them.

‘Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.’ Henry David Thoreau

Mindfulness is not a tool, but a way of life. Part of this way of life is to regularly tune into our bodies, becoming aware of internal body sensations, as well as the senses which connect our bodies with the outside world. I first taught mindfulness in a hospital setting, to the families of mainly young patients with a severe acquired brain injury. These families were dealing with unimaginable grief, anxiety, emotional pain and uncertainty. Many neglected themselves, focusing all their energy on trying to help their loved one, often for years on end. Yet after some Tai Chi and a guided meditation, the tightness in their faces would soften a little, and there was a palpable sense of coming back to themselves, of being able to rest, for a few precious moments, within their own bodies. I’ve seen this happen again and again, during workshops, retreats, the MBSR course. There is a deep contentment which comes from settling into our bodies, rather than living ‘a short distance away’ from it.
Our bodies always exist in the present – they are never caught up in the past or the future. We don’t time-travel with our bodies. By being aware of our senses, our physical sensations, we are automatically living in the present moment.

Weekly practice idea:
This week, become more aware of your senses. What can you hear? What can you smell, taste, touch? How does it feel, to become more aware of your surroundings, more grounded to the present moment?

Anja Tanhane

Our frame of mind

Prayer flags in light.jpg website

 

It is day three of the retreat, and I’m feeling settled into the daily routine of sitting meditation, walking meditation, cooking lunch for the group, and a walk after dinner along the river nearby. My mind is calmer than when I first arrived, but with greater calmness comes increased clarity, and by day three I’m a little dismayed by what I find. Not only am I judgemental towards myself and others in the group (I’m used to that!), I’m also critical towards almost every moment which arises and falls. It’s very subtle, and doesn’t prevent me from feeling deep contentment and joy at times. But the judging mind quickly weighs up each moment, and for some reason seems to find most of them deficient in some way.

It is a strange phenomenon, this eternal dissatisfaction most of us seem to feel with our lives, even when things are going quite well for us. The Buddha called it ‘dukkha’, which is often translated as suffering, but could be more accurately described as ‘the unsatisfactory nature of existence’. It’s not necessarily dependent on external circumstances, but seems to spring from our own frame of mind. In Milton’s poem ‘Paradise Lost’, the fallen angel Satan says,

 

The mind is its own place,

                And in itself

                Can make a heaven of hell,

                A hell of heaven.

 

Most of the time, if we look at the actual moment, our lives are okay. It may not be some idealised version of paradise we’ve conjured up, but we’re not usually in immediate life-threatening danger. Of course there are times when life is anything but okay, and some people live long term with ongoing suffering, trauma or pain. Few people would get through life without experiencing times of great misery and distress. For much of our lives, however, even when our circumstances are not too bad, our minds, at a subtle level, judge our lives to be deficient in some way. What would it be like to sometimes say to ourselves,

‘What I have, right now, in this moment, is enough.’

 

Weekly practice idea:

From time to time, say to yourself, ‘it’s good to be here’. What comes up for you when you say this phrase?

 

Anja Tanhane