Softening into the body

‘A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.’ Lao Tzu

When we are under stress, often what we notice first is the body tightening up. Whether it’s stress at work which causes our shoulders to be contracted, or a physical pain which leads us to hold that part of the body stiffly, our natural tendency seems to be to tighten rather than soften our muscles when we’re under pressure. Tense muscles may make us feel stronger, but they inhibit the natural flow of our energy and can lead to long-term musculoskeletal problems. They also send signals to the brain that our body is in ‘fighting’ mode – which doesn’t help when we want to feel relaxed and at ease.

We sometimes treat our bodies as if they should be a well-behaved and obedient servant who always follows our orders even though we underpay them, work them without rest, and have no interest in their legitimate needs. And after years of this mistreatment, we are surprised when this servant no longer gives their best, or even dares to go on strike! Instead of appreciating our body for all the gifts it offers us, we might feel resentful of its many demands. Yet what would life be without our bodies – without the gift of sight, which allows us to see beauty and love; the gift of touch, such as the feel of a child’s hand in ours; the gift of sound – wonderful music, the voices of people we care about, bird song in the forest. In every moment, we connect to the world around us through our bodies. They’re not just a mechanical vehicle designed to carry our busy minds from A to B.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’

Letting the soft animal of our body love what it loves. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which we can learn to soften more into our bodies.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments to tune into your body, and, with each breath out, soften the muscles a little. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Who cares?

A few years ago, I was coordinating community recreation groups for adults with an Acquired Brain Injury. One of the participants, I’ll call him Bill (not his real name), had a wonderful way of shrugging his shoulders whenever something went wrong (which was quite frequently) and saying with a philosophical smile, ‘Who cares?’

I told myself that I could really learn from Bill. Because most of the time, he was quite right – who cared if something hadn’t quite worked out? You simply did your best to fix it and moved on. While it’s good to be conscientious, it’s certainly easy to over-exaggerate the importance of getting stressed over every minor hiccup. It might make us look and feel caring, but what is the right balance between being a caring person, and bringing a sense of equanimity into our lives?

In the helping professions, it’s well known that those who are most caring are also most likely to burn out. Yet for the people they’re working with, the simple sense of feeling ‘cared about’ (’I’m not just a number to this person.’) can be enormously healing. Most of us are helpers – whether we work in a helping profession, coach our son’s basketball team, take our elderly parents to the doctor, or volunteer for a good cause. It can give us a real buzz to feel we’re making a positive difference, but it’s also easy to exhaust ourselves in the process. And while there are certainly people who seem completely self-centered and don’t care much at all, many of us have the opposite problem of caring too much, and often feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world we want to heal.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about for work, I might have lunch in a café. I’m entitled to a lunch break, so it’s a perfectly legitimate break, and yet I’ve noticed that I feel I should be slightly anxious during lunch, as if I’m about to rush back to work, being a busy little worker bee. Of course this makes no sense. One day I suddenly realised – who cares what my state of mind is while I have lunch? The reality is, no one cares at all. The whole world is completely indifferent to whether I eat my lunch quickly, with a serious look on my face, or whether I enjoy the break and the different surroundings and make the most of the experience. And of course I’m more likely to be effective at work in the afternoon if I’ve allowed myself a relaxing lunch break.

So, who cares? Perhaps those of us who tend to be at the over-caring end of the spectrum can all learn from Bill. I still picture him from time to time, with his philosophical shrug, and the way he reminded us,

‘Who cares?’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one day where you will pause from time to time and ask yourself, ‘who cares’? Where are you, in that moment, on the spectrum of over-caring vs indifference? What would a happy, balanced amount of caring look like in this situation?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – Flourishing

This is the final of the holiday favourites – thank you for your positive feedback about these posts! New mindfulness reflections will begin again next week:

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “grow, grow.”

The Talmud

The desire to grow, to flourish, is one of the most basic drives in nature. When we see a fragile seedling emerge from the ground and strive rapidly upwards, or watch a young child take its first steps, we are witnessing the desire of every living being to establish itself in the world and maximise their potential. After we’ve sown lettuce seeds, we don’t expect any of those seeds to deliberately sabotage themselves, to grow more slowly so that seeds 45 to 55 may thrive instead. Yet we as humans frequently hold ourselves back, often with the intention of assisting others. Much of this is essential in order to live in harmony with others, to ensure the protection of more vulnerable people.

We learn to reign in our desires so they don’t harm others or ourselves. A gentle self-discipline seems to be crucial for a ‘good life’, a flourishing life. And yet the pendulum can swing too far the other way, where we deprive ourselves in ways which may lead to a poverty of spirit, to feelings of resentment, disillusionment, isolation. Sometimes these feelings are obvious, but more often they can be quite subtle.

One of the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is the ability to attune to our internal signals when they are more subtle, rather than only becoming aware of them once we’ve made some harsh sarcastic comment at a wedding and everyone is staring at us in horror. It is natural to feel resentment at times, to not always be a saint who is happy for everyone else (and who never once asks, ‘but what about me?’). Yet these subtle feelings of resentment or jealousy can be a message to us that our life is out of balance; that perhaps we are not allowing ourselves to flourish as we should.

It is natural for us to want to be fulfilled. There may be external circumstances holding us back which we have little control over, but we do have a choice when it comes to the more insidious, internal self-sabotage we can all engage in from time to time. Sometimes, like that blade of grass with its angel, we just want to grow into our potential.

Weekly practice idea:

What do you need in order to flourish? Think of one small act you can do this week, which will give you a sense of thriving. Set some time aside for it, and reflect afterwards on what it meant to you.

Anja Tanhane

 

Nourishing ourselves

We are continually nourishing ourselves – each next breath in brings a fresh supply of oxygen; most of us eat several meals a day and often plenty of snacks in between; we nourish ourselves by spending time with like-minded people, pursuing sports and hobbies, walking in nature, or listening to music.

If we live in an affluent society, there is usually no shortage of nourishment to choose from, and yet, ironically, the quality of our nourishment is often quite poor. For example, very few people breathe in a way which fills up our lungs fully. Most people habitually take a shallow breath, high in the chest, and never get the health benefits, relaxation, and the nourishment of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. The food we eat may also give us more empty calories than valuable nourishment. It can take considerable discipline and planning to ensure we have a healthy meal, when there are so many quick, easy, unhealthy alternatives about.

If we’re feeling stressed and time-poor, the quality of our interpersonal relationships can suffer. And by the time we collapse exhausted on the couch in the evening, who has the energy to read a novel or poetry or philosophy? Instead we might find ourselves flicking restlessly between TV channels, all 2000 of them, without finding anything we actually feel like watching.

Even when we do eat a healthy meal, we might wolf it down so fast we get indigestion. We might have finally found the time to go for a walk in nature, but barely notice our surroundings because we’re thinking about work. We’ve finally opened that novel which has been sitting on our bedside table since Christmas 2003, but by page 7 we find ourselves reading the same paragraph again and again as our concentration wanes.

How we nourish ourselves depends both on the quality of nourishment, and on our openness to allowing ourselves to be nourished. We can be like hydrophobic soil which is so dry and depleted, when it does actually rain the water runs straight off because the soil can’t absorb it. A healthy soil will absorb the water, a depleted soil rejects it. That’s why it’s so difficult to help some people, often those who need the most help. Their inner resources are so depleted, they either reject the water, or the water runs straight through them like through a pipe, with little impact on their wellbeing.

Regular mindfulness meditation can help us become more receptive to the nourishment which is present in our lives. The nourishment of a ten minute tea break, the kind smile from the girl at the supermarket check-out, the piece of music which lifts us up. We can also become more attuned to when nourishment is needed, to when our inner resources are becoming depleted, and so take steps to replenish ourselves before we collapse in exhaustion.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick something you find nourishing, and set some time aside for it. During this time, allow yourself to be open and relaxed, and really absorb the sense of being nourished. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Flourishing

Roses 2

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “grow, grow.”

The Talmud

The desire to grow, to flourish, is one of the most basic drives in nature. When we see a fragile seedling emerge from the ground and strive rapidly upwards, or watch a young child take its first steps, we are witnessing the desire of every living being to establish itself in the world and maximise their potential. After we’ve sow lettuce seeds, we don’t expect any of those seeds to deliberately sabotage themselves, to grow more slowly so that seeds 45 to 55 may thrive instead. Yet we as humans frequently hold ourselves back, often with the intention of assisting others. Continue reading “Flourishing” »

What nourishes us?

Wilson't prom beach

Another year draws to a close, and chances are most of us are feeling pretty exhausted by now. Once we’ve survived Christmas, we might be looking to the year ahead, and perhaps start forming some New Year’s resolutions – to lose weight, exercise more, learn Spanish, de-clutter the spare room. All these are no doubt worthy aims, but there is another question which doesn’t tend to make our list – how can I nourish myself better in 2014? Continue reading “What nourishes us?” »