Creating space

When we’re stressed, we can often feel as if we’re being hemmed in from all sides. Too many pressures are coming at us from different direction; our thoughts might feel crowded and chaotic; and even our bodies might contract, as if the muscles themselves have less space available than before. Our breathing can be fast and shallow, so there is space we have available in our lungs which is not being filled with oxygen. It’s also not unusual to develop a kind of tunnel vision when we’re feeling under pressure – to focus obsessively on one aspect of our lives, for example, while losing sight of the bigger picture.

When we feel this way, being asked to add one more activity into our lives (such as, for example, a daily meditation practice), might seem the last thing we want to hear. The days are already full enough, why add more? It’s a reasonable question, given how busy people tend to be. Yet there are reasons why some very busy people do decide to meditate daily, and one of those reasons, I believe, is that regular meditation enables us to feel a greater sense of spaciousness in our lives.

It might be quite subtle at first – perhaps that sense that in the midst of a busy day, we can pause and take a breath from time to time – and then return to our tasks refreshed. It could be that our approach towards difficulties becomes more open, so that we’re able to perceive multiple perspectives and have a clearer sense of what is going on. We might be able to prevent a challenging conversation from escalating, so there is more chance of a resolution, and less likelihood of damage from thoughtless remarks needing to be repaired.

There are more opportunities for noticing what’s going well – and this in itself, over the years, can be life-changing. A mind which is less crowded with thoughts, a body which is nourished with a deep relaxed breath, a joyful appreciation for the areas in our lives where all is well – these can support us as we deal with the challenges which inevitably arise.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Choose a day, and consciously pause from time to time to allow yourself to notice your breath. Without forcing the breath, follow it in and out of your body four times. What do you notice from having created this space?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – the upside of stress

When we’re stressed, it can seem that life is running away with us, that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. There is a delightful Zen story about a farmer who sees a man on a galloping horse tear past the village, and who calls out to him,

‘Where are you going?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the man on the horse shouts back, ‘ask the horse!’

We constantly read about the harmful effects of stress on our health, our relationships, and emotional wellbeing, and many of our modern diseases are now being linked at least in part to stress. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells through the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is neurotoxic. Young children who grow up in very chaotic households can suffer permanent brain damage, to the point where they will always struggle with paying attention, forming relationships, and impulse control.

So stress is certainly something which needs to be taken seriously, yet there is also an upside to stress. We don’t thrive when we don’t need to put any effort into life, when everything is handed to us on a plate. Just like exercising causes small tears in our muscles which ultimately make them stronger, so a healthy amount of stress is crucial to developing our full potential.

One example in nature is a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. If you try to assist the butterfly by breaking the chrysalis open, its wings won’t be hardened enough, and it will be weak or even die. In the garden, if we water a young tree every day for the next five years, its roots will remain shallow and it might fall over in the first gust of wind. Our immune system needs to be exposed to a certain amount of germs, otherwise it won’t be strong. However, if a newly planted tree doesn’t get any water, or our immune system is overloaded with germs, then we get sick or the tree might die.

Getting the optimum amount of stress in our lives is not always possible, because much of what causes us stress is outside our control. When we are under considerable stress, we need to manage it the best we can, including getting the basics of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation and social supports right.

There are times, however, when a more positive attitude to stress might help us ride its waves with a more joyful attitude. Yes, we’re too busy at the moment, juggling too many balls, perhaps our stomach is churning from nervous excitement and our heart seems to be beating very loudly in our chest, but it’s great to feel engaged in life. I’ve been involved in two choirs who perform regularly in public, sometimes for big occasions. We all get nervous before the performances, worried whether the songs will work, if the audience will enjoy what we have to offer, whether we’ll make mistakes or come in at the wrong time. After the performance, however, there is a great feeling of pride and achievement, and we can bask in the positive comments from audience members who are often moved to tears, the sense of having offered something precious to the community. And the nervous tension of the morning, and all the hard work leading up the performance, have been well worthwhile.

Mindfulness is not about being calm all the time, floating serenely above the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is messy, demanding, a little crazy – but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, look for occasions where you can enjoy the upside of stress. You may not feel at your most serene, you may even be a little anxious or tense, but perhaps you can also enjoy feeling engaged in the challenge?

Anja Tanhane

Feeding the wolf of love

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the story of a wise American Indian Elder, who explained how each day she chose to feed the wolf of love. When we hear the idea expressed in those terms, it makes perfect sense to us. Yet in the rush and stress of everyday life, we can unwittingly find ourselves becoming impatient, unkind, or acting out old habitual patterns which we already know won’t bring us any happiness, let alone feed the wolf of love in our lives.

There are many reasons for this, and one of the ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to allow us to become more aware of what in our lives pulls us away from being more loving and connected.

When we’re stressed, our thoughts and bodily sensations can move along with a strong momentum, almost as if they take on a life of their own. It can feel like we’re caught up in a compelling narrative which has its own logic, and which demands our full attention and engagement. Mindfulness is about stopping and asking ourselves – what is really going on right now? Is this current direction helpful, or unhelpful, or neutral?

Interrupting the powerful momentum of stress can be very hard to do – it’s almost like we feel it’s rude to interfere with something which is moving along so swiftly with a life of its own. Yet if we start to make a habit of regularly pausing, breathing, and tuning in, we might soon notice that we have a lot more freedom to choose the direction we want to go in. The more stressed we are, the more difficult it is to stop and pause, and at the same time, the more worthwhile the effort to do so is likely to be.

This is where a daily meditation practice can be helpful. You get into the habit of stopping on a regular basis, and noticing the benefits of doing this. After a while, a positive feedback loop is created – you become aware how good it feels to pause, and are therefore more likely to make the time to briefly pause during busy times as well.

Other opportunities for pausing and tuning into the here and now of our breath and our body can be: as we make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee; washing our hands; walking to the photocopier or the car; when we arrive home from work; between finishing one task and starting the next; or just before we start eating. It may feel a little odd at first to do this, even though the pauses don’t need to be very long. It’s worth experimenting with this technique, to see if we notice a difference in how we respond to the demands of our life. If we feel we are more patient, feel more grounded and connected, then we’re also likely to find that we are in a much better position to feed the wolf of love in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

For the next week, decide to set aside a couple of minutes three to five times each day to pause for a moment. This can be a time to tune into your breath, how you’re feeling in your body right now, perhaps also noticing sights, sounds and smells around you. At the end of the week, review the practice and note whether you have found it helpful.

Anja Tanhane

Our internal alarm bell

Some years ago, I worked in a hospital unit with people who’d suffered a severe head injury. Many of the patients were in wheelchairs, dependent on others to get around, and in order to keep the patients safe, the smoke detectors in this unit were set at a very sensitive level. We couldn’t have candles on birthday cakes, for example, as blowing out even one candle would have set off the fire alarm.

There were a couple of occasions when the fire alarm was activated, the unit was evacuated and the fire engine arrived within minutes. Both times it was a false alarm – the first time the smoke detectors had picked up someone using talcum powder, and the second time it was steam coming from the shower. Of course it was a major undertaking each time the unit was evacuated, and costly for the hospital, but the motto was (understandably) ‘better safe than sorry’.

Unfortunately, our brain also has the same motto – better safe than sorry, better to set off alarm bells too often than to miss something which could potentially be dangerous for us. The amygdala, deep in our limbic brain, functions a bit like our alarm bell – it sets off alerts readying our bodies for fight and flight at the slightest signs of danger. Sometimes this functions very effectively, but unfortunately, there more stressed we are, the more sensitive the amygdala becomes to perceived signs of danger. In the end, just like the hospital smoke detectors, it sets off a whole series of emergency responses at the first sign of a birthday candle, talcum powder, or steam from a shower. And while ongoing stress is neurotixic, in that it kills of brain cells, it has the opposite effect on the amygdala – it just becomes bigger and more sensitive. And studies have shown that this lasts long after the stressors are over. So even if the external circumstances are less stressful, our brain may still be on hair-trigger alert. Which is why anxiety can become a chronic condition, rather than a short-term response to a particular event in our lives.

This is where mindfulness meditation has been shown to be particularly effective. Regular meditation shrinks the amygdala, so that it can do its job of keeping us safe without overreacting to every minor stressor, and without developing a chronic anxiety condition. Many people come to mindfulness because of chronic anxiety, and even during an eight-week course they may already find some relief from debilitating anxiety. If the anxiety is severe, most people will benefit from counselling and perhaps medication along with learning mindfulness. There are additional ways of reducing anxiety, including exercise, engaging in activities which are enjoyable, and fostering close interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness is not the whole solution, but by setting our internal smoke detector to a more useful level, it can play a major role in reducing anxiety in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you’re feeling a bit stressed, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath or two, and ask yourself – ‘what is really going on right now?’ Is your internal alarm bell functioning appropriately to the situation, or is it perhaps being overly sensitive?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – New Beginnings

‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Yet physiologically and mentally we still respond as if we’re standing opposite a tiger about to pounce. Not only is this exhausting, it also limits our ability to remain aware of the bigger picture. We can spend months and years staring at a door which was shut in our face, and in the meantime life goes on, filled with new resources, new delights, new opportunities we barely notice.

The other extreme is to pretend nothing affects us, as if we were somehow immune from the normal processes of grief. Or we may give up too easily – at the first indication that a door might be closing, we’ve already dashed off to look for something new.

During meditation we learn, over time, to rest somewhere in the middle – to loosen our fixations, so our outlook becomes broader; but also to feel our grief when there has been a loss, to allow ourselves, with kindness, to feel hurt. To ‘always look on the bright side’ can be absurd when we are caught up in devastating circumstances. However, even in suffering, there can be opportunities for appreciation – for the caring gesture of a friend, the compassion someone has shown you.

When we watch our breath during meditation, we notice the outbreath coming to an end, a pause, and the beginning of the next breath in. The pause between each breath is the pause before the next new beginning. Resting in that pause can feel like a neutral space pregnant with new possibilities. The breath teaches us that we can’t hang onto the outbreath, to what has gone. Yet we also don’t need to rush immediately to the next breath in.

Perhaps, if we pause from time to time, we find new beginnings emerging by themselves, without much effort on our part. When we feel very stressed, it can be difficult to pause. We might fear getting stuck in the distressing sensations if we don’t rush headlong ahead. In fact, people usually report the opposite – that pausing during stress opens up new possibilities, a different approach, a sense of new beginnings.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to notice your breath, and allow yourself to rest in the pause between breathing out and breathing in. Notice the spaciousness before each new breath begins.

Anja Tanhane

 

Taking a deep breath

One of the most effective ways we can use to calm ourselves down is to learn what’s called diaphragmatic breathing – filling the whole of our lungs with the breath. You’d think this would be fairly straight-forward – after all, we all know how to breathe, don’t we? – but in fact it’s not. Over many years of teaching people to play the oboe, which is a woodwind instrument and requires diaphragmatic breathing, I’ve never had a student who was simply able to do it. They all had to be shown, and they all had to practise it.

Yet it’s not only woodwind players and singers who benefit from learning how to breathe more deeply. Firstly, the more air we get into our lungs, the more oxygen is available to us, which is healthier for our bodies. Another reason relates directly to our stress response. When we are in fight/flight mode, feeling under threat of some kind, our breath automatically becomes fast and shallow – this is to allow us to either sprint (run away very quickly) or to fight. If our breath is also fast and shallow at other times in our lives, or throughout the day, our brain is getting signals that the body is preparing itself for fight/flight. Thus, the brain is more likely to be on the alert, on the look-out for danger, even if you’re feeling quite safe or are trying to relax.

If, on the other hand, in the midst of a stressful situation, you are able to keep your breath deep and even, you’re sending signals to your brain that everything is under control. Yes, there is a lot going on, but you’re not in fight/flight mode, and you’re managing the situation just fine. You’ll feel calmer during the stressful event, able to think more clearly and respond more effectively, but you’ll also be able to relax more easily once the crisis is over.

So, how do we learn diaphragmatic breathing? The most effective way is to lie down on the floor with a heavy book, such as a dictionary or telephone book on your stomach. When we lie down, our breathing automatically becomes deeper, and the heavy book gives us a good sense of the actions of the stomach muscles rising and falling with each breath. Diaphragmatic breathing feels as if you’re breathing into the stomach, since the full lungs push down the sheet of muscle called the diaphragm between the chest and the abdomen, causing the stomach to expand.

Once you have a sense of this lying down, you can try it sitting on a chair and eventually standing up. When we take a deep breath, our stomach expands, while the chest stays quite neutral, and the shoulders are relaxed. Eventually, with a bit of practice, you can learn to breathe like that all the time, sending reassuring signals to the brain that all is well, you’re in control.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of lying down with a heavy book on your stomach every day, and tune into your breath at other times during the day, gradually learning how to breathe more deeply throughout the day.

Anja Tanhane

 

The upside of stress

Recently we’ve been looking at our sense of efficacy and agency, and what is helpful to developing these in our lives. There’s no doubt we often feel least effective when we are under stress. It can seem that life is running away with us, that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. There is a famous Zen story about a farmer who sees a man on a galloping horse tear past the village, and who calls out to him,

‘Where are you going?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the man on the horse shouts back, ‘ask the horse!’

We constantly read about the harmful effects of stress on our health, our relationships, and emotional wellbeing, and many of our modern diseases are now being linked at least in part to stress. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells through the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is neurotoxic. Young children who grow up in very chaotic households can suffer permanent brain damage, to the point where they will always struggle with paying attention, forming relationships, and impulse control.

So stress is certainly something which needs to be taken seriously, yet there is also an upside to stress. We don’t thrive when we don’t need to put any effort into life, when everything is handed to us on a plate. Just like exercising causes small tears in our muscles which ultimately make them stronger, so a healthy amount of stress is crucial to developing our full potential.

One example in nature is a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. If you try to assist the butterfly by breaking the chrysalis open, its wings won’t be hardened enough, and it will either be weak or even die. In the garden, if we water a young tree every day for the next five years, its roots will remain shallow and it might fall over in the first gust of wind. Our immune system needs to be exposed to a certain amount of germs, otherwise it won’t be strong. However, if a newly planted tree doesn’t get any water, or our immune system is overloaded with germs, then we get sick or the tree might die.

Getting the optimum amount of stress in our lives is not always possible, because much of what causes us stress is outside our control. When we are under considerable stress, we need to manage it the best we can, including getting the basics of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation and social supports right.

There are times, however, when a more positive attitude to stress might help us ride its waves with a more joyful attitude. Yes, we’re too busy at the moment, juggling too many balls, perhaps our stomach is churning from nervous excitement and our heart seems to be beating very loudly in our chest, but it’s great to feel engaged in life. I’m involved in two choirs at the moment who perform regularly in public, sometimes for big occasions. We all get nervous before the performances, worried whether the songs will work, if the audience will enjoy what we have to offer, whether we’ll make mistakes or come in at the wrong time. After the performance, however, there is a great feeling of pride and achievement, the positive comments from audience members who are often moved to tears, the sense of having offered something precious to the community. And the nervous tension of the morning, and all the hard work leading up the performance, have been well worthwhile.

Mindfulness is not about being calm all the time, floating serenely above the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is messy, demanding, a little crazy – but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, look for occasions where you can enjoy the upside of stress. You may not feel at your most serene, you may even be a little anxious or tense, but perhaps you can also enjoy feeling engaged in the challenge?

Anja Tanhane

A different perspective

When I was still a student, I went for a bushwalk in the Grampians with a group of friends. It was foggy, the kind of fog which doesn’t lift all day, but sits close among the rocks and trees, ethereal and quite magical. I still remember the walk, how atmospheric it was to see the gum trees and granite boulders emerging and disappearing again into the mist. There was a sense of walking in enchanted land; of being, for the day, outside the usual sense of space and time.

A few years later, I did the same walk, but this time the sun was shining, and suddenly, to the right and left, there were stunning views – of valleys, other peaks reaching out into the distance, small towns, farms and vineyards. It was quite surreal, to know all this had been there the first time and I had been unaware of it. I’d had no sense of what was beyond the narrow path and the few trees I could see in the fog. Though I knew there was a world beyond the mist, I didn’t know what it consisted of.

When we are under stress we are often only aware of the narrow path in front of us, and we can lose all sense of the surrounding landscape. This is our survival mechanism, the fight/flight response which kicks in at the first intimation of threat. All our attention is focused on the perceived danger, whether it is someone just about to attack us, or difficulties at work or in the family. We also tend to become self-centred – fiercely determined to look after No 1 first. All these are valid responses to immediate physical threats, but less helpful in complex, ongoing stressful scenarios.

Throughout history, there have been people who have been able to step outside their own narrow self-interest in times of danger and act from a larger perspective. We probably know people like this ourselves – even when life is difficult for them they retain a sense of openness and awareness of the bigger picture. They might be the family mediators, or the colleague who smooths the choppy waters of office politics – the ones who can see where people are coming from, why they might be struggling in certain situations.

Mindfulness can help us develop this sense of greater perspective – being able to pause, ground ourselves, look around and ask – what is really going on here? What is happening in me? What can I sense in my body, what kind of thoughts are swirling through my mind? What is going on for others? By grounding our experience in the direct experience of our bodies, rather than getting caught up in abstract mental notions of how things ‘should’ be, we slowly gain the ability to see beyond the fog of stress; to get a more open, realistic perspective on what the difficulties actually are.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you are feeling stressed, take a few moments to ground yourself – feel the earth underneath your feet, notice your breath, any strong sensations in your body. Does this make a difference to how you deal with the situation?

Anja Tanhane

 

New beginnings

Beginnings-1541

‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Continue reading “New beginnings” »