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

Urge surfing

I’m sometimes asked by students whether they ‘have’ to practise sitting meditation, or whether doing yoga or Tai Chi is enough. The answer really depends on why someone is choosing to do a mindfulness practice in the first place. Yoga and Tai Chi are both ancient practices which are whole and complete in themselves. Anyone who practises them regularly will benefit enormously – physically, mentally and spiritually.

The benefit of a sitting meditation is that it teaches us to remain still and centered in the midst of our countless different thoughts, emotions, body sensations and desires. Most of the time, we have a tendency to move away from unpleasant experience – we try to avoid it, or pretend it’s not there, or distract ourselves, or do our best to numb ourselves so we don’t have to feel the full impact of what is happening. There are times when any of these strategies are quite appropriate, but if they become our main way of dealing with life’s challenges, the solution can sometimes become as problematic as the initial problem we were trying to solve.

Say for example that you’ve had a shocking day at work, and when you come home you’ve just got to have a glass of wine. You instantly feel a little better about life. The situation at work deteriorates further, but in addition you’re now also having to deal with an elderly aunt who is no longer able to live independently, but refuses to even discuss a nursing home. Soon that glass of wine becomes three or four, but then you don’t sleep well, and so you drink one coffee after the other to get you through the next day, which is making you even more anxious. You know you’re in a pattern which isn’t helpful or sustainable, but when you get home you’ve just got to have that wine, and the thought of getting through a day at work without regular coffee breaks seems unbearable.

A regular sitting meditation teaches us the skills to notice the arising of unpleasant thoughts, body sensations and emotions, without needing to get up and implement our usual coping strategy. When we sit regularly, we soon notice that every sensation comes and goes. Even the most intense experience doesn’t actually last all that long – sooner or later it abates, transforms, or we start to think about whether we should have bought more milk.

In the practice called ‘urge-surfing’, we approach each desire like a wave coming into the beach. We notice the wave by tuning into our physical sensations. Where in the body do we feel the urge – is it large or small, what sensations are associated with it, how does it change? We notice the sensation becoming more intense, like riding the crest of a wave. But instead of being overwhelmed by the wave, we simply follow its journey to the shore and then get on with the rest of our day. We can practise becoming more familiar with the urge by also noticing the kind of thoughts and emotions associated with it. After a while it will become familiar, and we will have developed greater internal strength by learning how to stay with the urge without giving in. Sometimes it might be easier to practice urge surfing with something simple, like the urge to fidget during sitting meditation, before moving onto more powerful desires like smoking or whatever else is particularly challenging for us.

Sitting meditation teaches us that we don’t always have to instantly respond to every feeling, thought or urge which life brings us. So instead of saying – ‘don’t just stand there – do something!’, we might sometimes say instead – ‘don’t just do something – sit there!’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick a small habit you would like to change, and practise urge surfing with it this week. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Sitting meditation Part 2

‘Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

When we sit in meditation, we are, as mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘falling awake’. We are still and relaxed, but our mind is attentive. Mindfulness meditation is not about ‘zoning out’ or drifting off. It’s about being present with awareness, with clarity and insight.

That’s why posture is very important in sitting meditation – some teachers say that correct posture is 50% of the meditation. The posture sends a signal to our minds about what is going on – are we striving, or avoiding? Are we slumping forward, thereby signalling to our mind that we are not all that interested in what’s going on? Or are we stiff like soldiers on parade, trying too anxiously to ‘get it right’?

Finding the right posture, however, can involve some trial and error, as we all have different bodies, levels of flexibility, old and current injuries, and so on. Ideally, our posture allows our back to be upright and unsupported, neither slumping forward nor arching back. The chin is tucked in very slightly, freeing up the back of the neck, and our hands can either rest in our lap, or we can place the left hand on top of the right, palms up, with thumbs lightly touching. Eyes are closed or else half-open, with a soft gaze downwards, not looking at anything in particular.

Many people meditate sitting in a chair, with the feet flat on the ground, legs uncrossed. Sometimes it helps to place a cushion under the feet, to take the pressure off the thigh muscles. Specially-designed meditation benches, which we can use to meditate kneeling on a blanket, can be surprisingly comfortable. There are also round meditation cushions called zafus, which are much more solid than the average cushion lying around the house. Sitting on a zafu is probably the ideal meditation posture, but it may require the support of a teacher to get the posture correct at first.

Even though the posture is very still, we don’t want to become rigid and stiff. I find it helpful to think of myself as a tree which is firmly rooted in the ground, but which sways with the slightest motion when it’s windy. This helps to keep a sense of ease about the posture, which is the key to being able to sit in meditation for extended periods.

When we meditate regularly, this sense of ease and centeredness starts to gradually infuse the rest of our lives. Over time, we bring some of the strength and dignity of the meditation posture into our daily interactions, and we may find that life flows with less resistance because of this.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, experiment with the upright posture, whether you’re sitting, standing or walking. Where is the balance for you between being disengaged, and trying too hard? What does it feel like, when your posture allows you to be both alert and at ease at the same time?

Anja Tanhane

 

Sitting meditation – Part 1

‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day, unless you are too busy – then you should sit for an hour.’

Zen saying

There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in our lives – practising yoga or Tai Chi perhaps, or doing some minutes of mindful walking. We can lie down and do the guided body scan, or tune into our breath as we wait in the supermarket queue. Perhaps on the walk back from the station we stop for a moment to admire some apple blossoms, or we choose to eat a meal in silence, really taking the time to taste the food and appreciate it.

All these are wonderful practices which greatly enrich our lives, but the heart of mindfulness for me has always been the sitting meditation. There is something about the sitting posture – centred, strong, grounded and upright – which seems to signal to our mind that this is a time to simply be present. We are not leaning into anything, wanting more; nor are we backing away, trying to avoid what’s there. Our mind may be impatient but our body is still, having a rest from our eternal fidgeting and distraction. An image which is sometimes used is that of a glass of muddy water which is constantly being shaken, so the water stays murky. If you place the glass down for half an hour, however, the mud sinks to the bottom, and we are left with clear water.

In a similar way, the sitting posture encourages clarity of mind. We become like a mountain, which sits solid and strong amidst the changing weather conditions around it. Thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky. Emotions can be like fierce burning sun or a gentle summer day or a wild blizzard – they too will eventually pass and make way for different weather patterns. Over time, we realise we don’t always have to react to every external stimulus, or to our thoughts or emotions. When we sit, there is nowhere to go, no-one to be. We are simply present with the miracle of each precious moment.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit quietly somewhere, noticing perhaps how pleasant it can be to take time out from the ‘doing’ mode we so often get caught up in. Allow yourself to feel grounded and steady among all the changing conditions of your life.

Anja Tanhane