Softening into the body – Part 2

Each day we have many opportunities for softening into our bodies – some of these can be formal and quite deliberate, while others are more subtle. One of the easiest way we can allow our bodies to soften is by using our breath. The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a wonderful expression – ‘let your breath be received in a softening belly.’ Our stomachs often feel stress, so the idea of softening our bellies as the breath flows into it is very appealing.

We can also breathe into other parts of the body which feel tight, or where there may be some pain. For example, if our elbow feels sore, rather than tensing the muscles around it, we can imagine that we’re sending our breath into the elbow, and soothing and softening the area around it. We might want to imagine a sensation of warmth as part of the breath, and also colours. Other meditation teachers use images like warm honey, or a clear white light, or that the muscles start to melt like water, and then evaporate like gas. We can choose the images which suit us best – and these may also change over time. One day, the healing colour may be blue, and on another day, it could be oozing and golden like honey. Once we’ve practised using our breath in this way, we can come back to it throughout the day. All we need to do is to pause for a moment, and to allow our breath, with or without an image, to soften into our body.

Other practices which are helpful are those which work directly with the tension in our muscles, such as massage, acupuncture, and similar healing practices. Stretching is also wonderful for loosening muscles – for example during yoga or Tai Chi. If we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, we can also look up office stretches online and remind ourselves to do these regularly throughout the day.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways of softening into our bodies, and something which our bodies really appreciate, is to make sure we don’t rush around from morning till night, day after day. At most workplaces now, the idea of stopping work for morning tea and afternoon tea seems rather quaint. Even lunchtime is no longer sacrosanct. Yet we only function at optimum efficiency if we take regular breaks. We’re all different in this regard – some people seem to thrive on being on the go all day long, while others would find this clearly exhausting. We can experiment with what works best for us, and then do our best to fit these regular breaks into our day. Sometimes we only need to pause for a few moments and breathe, and already we feel much rejuvenated.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of the suggestions above which resonate for you, and schedule it into your week. Notice how this feels for your body.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind – Part 2

There are times when meditation can no doubt be quite challenging. The idea of sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes might seem almost impossible, and certainly not enjoyable. Fortunately, mindfulness offers us a whole range of practices which can be very helpful when we are dealing with ongoing restlessness and anxiety.

One which many students have found very useful over the years is doing a mindful movement practice such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Kum Nye. These can often be very helpful before moving into sitting meditation, or they can be simply practised on their own. When we focus on our bodies, stretching and moving them slowly and with attention, our minds quite naturally seem to settle. Walking meditation can also be helpful, really concentrating on the sensations on the soles of the feet as we take one slow step, and then another, and then another.

A variation on this would be to do some vigorous exercise before meditation – getting some of the excess energy and anxiety out of our system before we sit down for sitting meditation. We could also go for a walk in the forest or a quiet park, and sit for ten minutes meditating among the trees or by a creek. Or go for a walk along a beach, and meditate on the sounds of the waves coming in and out.

Another option is to lie down on the floor and allow ourselves to be guided through a meditation by using a CD or an app. Sometimes, just having someone else to lead us during the meditation can feel very supportive and nurturing. An even better option would be to find a regular meditation group, with a teacher you feel comfortable with. There can be a profound sense of peace in the room when a group meditates together, and people often comment on how much deeper their meditation is when they are with others who are also meditating.

Sometimes it can be helpful to incorporate simple gestures or practices which help to soothe us during the meditation. This could be placing a hand on the heart centre, or on the belly. We might do some gentle chanting, or listen to music, or quietly repeat a word to ourselves such as ‘calm’ or ‘peace’. We could imagine a kind person standing behind us and placing their hands on our shoulders, so that the shoulders can really relax and let go.

Finally, if strong emotions are repeatedly coming up during meditation, it may be a sign that we could benefit from some counselling. We all have strong emotions from time to time, and sometimes we’re quite happy to deal with these on our own. However, persistent strong emotions which interfere with our day-to-day functioning or our peace of mind are often a sign that some deeper underlying issues are demanding to be addressed, and this might be more effective with the support of a skilled professional therapist.

Weekly practice idea:

If you find you’re often restless during meditation, experiment with one of the suggestions above, and notice if this is useful.

Anja Tanhane

Working with sleepy mind

One of the most effective (but definitely under the category of ‘don’t try this at home’!) strategies for combating sleepy mind must be sitting on the edge of a deep well during meditation, as apparently practised by some monks in Thailand. This would certainly sharpen the mind and keep us alert, but fortunately we also have less drastic (and less dangerous) approaches we can use if we find ourselves repeatedly nodding off during meditation.

The first one, which I already touched on in last week’s reflection, is to simply accept that we’re tired. Sometimes during meditation we encounter busy mind, or anxious mind, or planning mind. At other times it might be sleepy mind. Just going with the flow of this state, rather than fighting it, can be helpful at times.

Another approach, which I use a lot and find very effective, is to lift our gaze to straight ahead and open our eyes wide, while still meditating. Doing this for a few minutes, and then returning to our traditional posture of eyes closed or half open with a soft gaze downward, can really bring renewed energy to our meditation and can lift it from ‘sloth and torpor’ to a more awake, present sense of being. Sometimes doing this once is enough, at other times I might repeat it several times.

Practising some mindful movement before sitting meditation can also be very helpful. It stretches and revitalises our body, allowing the energy to flow more freely, and this can help us feel more alert when we then sit down to meditate. This could be yoga, Tai Chi, slow walking meditation, or even a brisk walk around the block.

We can also alternate between sitting and standing meditation. There is nothing wrong, if we’re feeling really sleepy, with standing up for a while, and then returning to the sitting posture when we feel ready. This is perhaps a safer variation of sitting on the edge of a well – we’re less likely to fall asleep standing up, and don’t want to fall over, so standing meditation can also be very useful.

Finally, if sleepy mind is an ongoing problem in our meditation, we can ask ourselves – is this perhaps my way of avoiding being present with life? Do I generally have a tendency to switch off when things become unpleasant, and am I using this same strategy during meditation? If this is the case, we might ask ourselves – ‘why am I meditating? Is this important to me?’ Sometimes recognising some of our behavioural patterns can help us to become more resolved in not giving in to sleepy mind when it arises.

Weekly practice idea:

If you meditate regularly, experiment this week with some movement practices beforehand, standing meditation, or meditating with the eyes wide open. Do they change your meditation in any way?

Anja Tanhane

Posture

When I think about people I admire, something they share in common is that they carry themselves well. They are not arrogant or aloof, but there is a grace and dignity to the way they move. It used to be called ‘deportment’, which as a word has definitely gone out of fashion. And yet the way we sit, stand and walk has a strong influence on our mental state.

The best exercise I’ve come across to practise good posture is walking around the house with a paperback book on your head. Ladies used to do this in finishing school, and for good reason – you immediately feel taller, your head seems to be floating on top of the spine, and your limbs move with natural ease. We have a tendency to collapse into ourselves during the day, and the frequent use of smartphones and tablets has made this much worse. Young children naturally have wonderful postures, with erect spines and heads which are upright, their eyes open and curious as they eagerly explore the world. To see two-year-old children hunched over small electronic devices is a pretty sad sight.

If we were constantly admonished to ‘sit up straight’ when we were young, we may feel resistant to the idea of walking tall now. Good posture is not about being stiff, like a wooden puppet, or like being in the army marching to someone else’s beat. We don’t slump forward, but we also don’t draw our shoulders back too far. Most importantly, posture is about free-flowing movement, not stiffening into some idealised state.

Movement practices like Tai Chi and yoga can help us to feel more at home in our bodies. Also, getting lessons from an Alexander technique or Feldenkrais practitioner can support us to use our bodies more effectively. The natural state of our bodies is to be flowing, graceful and strong. Just like water can’t flow through a hose which is crinkled, so energy can’t flow freely through a body which is stiff and tense, and huddled over.

We all have a point where our bodies feel most balanced and free, and exploring our bodies, and learning what this balanced point feels like for us, can be very liberating.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of walking around the house with a light book on your head. Then try to keep some of the same sense of being upright and alert as you walk during the rest of the day.

Anja Tanhane

Going with the flow

Flow is the antidote to trauma.’ Dr Peter A. Levine

One of the challenging after-effects of trauma can be a sense of being stuck in the past – whether it’s in the form of flashbacks which take us right back to the event, or else a sense of bitterness or hardening creeping into our lives. Anything which interferes with our sense of wholeness and control can be traumatic – this includes being attacked or being caught up in a natural disaster, but it can also be surgery, divorce, being unemployed, or being discriminated against. While we’re in the midst of an emergency we may need to be very strong in order to survive, whether literally or metaphorically, and we find ourselves toughening up. This allows us to get through the event, and of course we need a certain amount of hardiness in order to get by in life. Yet over time, this toughness can become a shell which keeps us trapped, and which prevents us from fulfilling our potential. The strategies we used in order to survive can become our prison, and they can control our lives long after the need for them has passed.

It is the difference between stagnant water trapped in a barrel, and a bubbling brook of clear spring water flowing through a forest. When we begin to flow again, the traumas of our past can gradually be released. The progress may be slow, and we may need a lot of support, but there is a sense of movement rather than entrapment.

There are many ways we can cultivate a sense of flow in our lives. Anything which involves moving our bodies, whether it’s Tai Chi, playing sport, dancing, yoga or walking, allows our energies to start flowing again. Sometimes even just a brisk walk around the block can be enough to lift our spirits. Moving our bodies in whichever way feels joyful to us is wonderfully therapeutic, and we can easily underestimate just how beneficial it is for our bodies to simply be moving.

Music also helps us to experience a sense of flow – whether we’re listening, or else singing or playing music, it never stands still. Music has this beautiful quality of allowing us to be engaged with it even as it is constantly changing and flowing. When we are present with music, it carries us along – neither feeling stuck nor direction-less. It is constantly changing, yet has its own internal logic and structure which holds and supports us.

Meditation can help us to experience this sense of flow and support as well. When we meditate regularly, we soon notice that no thought, emotion or sensation remains the same for very long. Everything is constantly changing, and with practice we can learn to relax into the flow of experience, rather than fighting it, or wanting to grasp onto it and hold it. We learn to go with the flow, rather than constantly putting up blockages and dams which take a lot of energy to maintain, and which prevent us from being freely in the moment.

Weekly practice idea:

What in your life helps to give you a sense of flow? Make a commitment to yourself to experience this activity this week, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

The body-mind connection

butterfly

Today, let’s try a little experiment – as you’re sitting here, clench your fists very tightly. Really experience what that feels like – in your body, but also in your mind. Hold it for about 30 seconds.

Next, open your hands palms up and have them resting on your lap. Again, take a few moments to tune into the sensations this gesture evokes in you.

Then, bring the palms together in front of your chest, in the gesture of prayer or greeting. Maybe do a little bow. How does this feel?

It’s likely that the three hand positions led to quite different responses in your body and mind. Continue reading “The body-mind connection” »

Balance

orchid

One of my favourite books in my early 20s was called ‘The Sacred Tree’, and it described the American Indian philosophy of finding balance in our lives. The book was written as part of a collaborative project involving representatives of forty American Indian tribes. A part of their world view which really spoke to me was the concept of the four directions – East, South, West, North – which represented different aspects of our lives. The key to a happy and harmonious life was to find a balance between all four directions, rather than favouring one over the others. For example, the fiery passion of the South can be balanced by the intellectual strength of the North. Likewise, intellectualism on its own can become cold and uncaring, drawing up pedantic rules for others to follow rather than looking at what is actually happening on the ground, and this cold intellectualism in turn can benefit from the warmth and passion of the more emotional South.

Many people who learn and practise mindfulness report it helps them find greater balance in their lives. It’s easy to read books on how to improve your life, and many of these have good ideas and strategies. However, we are still 7 billion individual human beings, with very different lives, and what might be good advice for one person might be inappropriate or even harmful for someone else. Continue reading “Balance” »

Using our energy wisely

tulips

It was 11 pm on the last day of the Fifth International Martial Arts games in Melbourne, and most of the audience had already gone home. Those who’d stayed, however, were about to witness something truly remarkable. For the next thirty minutes, the North Korean taekwondo team fought, somersaulted, smashed and performed their way through some truly amazing martial arts displays. You can see them on YouTube, though that only gives you some idea of the incredible power and precision of their live performance. The North Korean taekwondo team embodies the potential of the human body and mind pushed to its outer limits (they were also quite humorous at times, which was a pleasant surprise).

Like taekwondo, Tai Chi is also a martial art, though the Tai Chi we practise at my weekly class seems a long way (several universes!) removed from what the North Korean taekwondo team were demonstrating. And yet, the basic principle is the same – the martial arts train us to harness and focus the energy we have available, expending it in the most efficient way possible. In order to achieve this, we have to learn to use our minds and bodies in a way which doesn’t waste energy, but instead cultivates and channels it effectively. Much of the time, we go through life using what Daniel Siegel calls ‘the break and accelerator’ functions at the same time. We expend far too much effort on even simple tasks, such as holding a pen or making a cup of coffee, and then wonder why at the end of the day we’re so exhausted. We get caught up in pointless office politics, when we should be focusing our energy on a family member at home. We stomp across the car park, when we could be using that time to ground ourselves using mindful walking, and notice the cool wind or the sunshine. Sometimes I find myself typing away very fast and forcefully, only to make so many typos I spend most of my time going back and correcting the mistakes. Years ago, I noticed I was tensing my stomach muscles when driving, as if my abdominal region played a part in compelling the car to move forward. Once we become aware of it, it can be disconcerting to realise just how habitually we dissipate our precious energy all over the place. Continue reading “Using our energy wisely” »

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