Cultivating connections

 

‘The most precious thing we can give to another is our presence, which contributes to the collective energy of mindfulness and peace. We can sit for those who can’t sit, walk for those who can’t walk, and create peace and stillness within us for people who have no stillness or peace.’  

Thich Nhat Hanh

If you enter a room full of meditators, it might seem as if each person is caught up in their own little bubble, watching their breath and their thoughts with little awareness of their surroundings. And while it is possible to meditate in this way, my experience of meditation retreats has been the opposite – that over the days, as you drop into stillness and become more attuned to what is happening for you, you are also becoming more attuned to the people you’re sharing the space with. And even though the retreat might be in silence, there can be a strong sense of community, of supporting each other in our practice, and working harmoniously together to make the retreat experience a meaningful one for everybody.

Of course, we don’t need to be at a retreat to cultivate this sense of connection to ourselves and others through meditation. While we are often interested in learning meditation for personal reasons, such as managing stress better or dealing with illness or other challenges, over time a meditation practice will also enable us to be more present to others in our lives. As human beings we’re highly social creatures, and we can immediately sense whether someone is really listening to us, or whether their mind is elsewhere.  A particularly mortifying experience is talking to someone at a social gathering who is clearly looking out for a more interesting or important person to come along. As Maya Angelou expressed so eloquently:

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

We don’t need to be calmly floating around all the time for people to have a sense of our presence. Whether we meditate or not, we will all have our good days, our distracted days, and our downright unpleasant days. Yet it is heartening to remember, as we make the commitment to meditate more regularly, that meditation can help to cultivate connections, to add to the collective energy of stillness in the midst of busy lives. It is a simple practice, but the ripple effect does extend out to our families and to others we interact with. We might be sitting in meditation on our own, but we’re doing it both for ourselves and for others.

 

Mindfulness practice:

Next time you meditate, think of the practice as an offering to others. In some traditions, meditators formally dedicate their meditations to benefit all other beings. Experiment with a few words of your own, and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Creating joy

 

‘Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We all know how galling it is when we’re going through a difficult time, and someone exclaims to us in a bright voice, ‘come on, smile, it’s not that bad!’ It’s not likely to cheer us up – if anything, it can make us feel even grumpier!

            On the other hand, we can sometimes hold on to a mood for longer than we need to, through our body posture, the expression on our face, our ruminative thoughts, and behaviours which aren’t going to help us feel any better.

            For example, we might have had an upsetting phone call, and for the next few hours we walk around with an annoyed frown on our face, with our shoulders tense, our breathing fast and shallow, and our thoughts caught up in replaying the conversation and what we should have said and will say next time and so on. These are all natural responses, and it makes sense to try and process what has just occurred, and to plan our next steps.

            However, it’s easy to become stuck in this way of being. We might feel exhausted after a day of this and so we spend five hours in the evening watching some shows on TV we’re not even enjoying, and eating too much and becoming annoyed with ourselves and the TV shows and life in general. We sleep badly and wake up with a stiff neck and feel even more badly done by. In the meantime, all kinds of potentially pleasant interactions and experiences might be around us, but we’re not available to them. Our disgruntled mood becomes a habit rather than a short-term response, closing us off from the possibility of moving beyond the annoying phone call and embracing what life has to offer us right now.

            In her wonderful book ‘Smile or die – how positive thinking fooled America and the world’, Barbara Ehrenreich describes the dark side of a relentless focus on being positive. She gives the example of a worker who has been laid off, and when he doesn’t find a new job immediately, he is blamed for not being positive enough – as if a positive attitude alone were enough to conjure up a job in a depressed employment market which no longer values his skills and training. The smile Thich Nhat Hanh talks about is very different to this – it’s not a smile which ignores the reality of our current situation and our struggles, or pretends that through the power of our mind we have complete control over our lives and can be happy all the time.

            Rather, Thich Nhat Hanh’s smile gives us choices about how we engage with each moment. Sometimes, the simple act of lifting up our head, relaxing the shoulders back and smiling can help us to feel better, to be more hopeful. It also opens us up to positive interactions with other people. Like the children’s song says so beautifully,

            ‘When someone smiles at me, I feel like smiling too.’

 

 

Mindfulness practice idea:

 

For the next week, try to deliberately smile at least once a day – taking the opportunity to pause for a moment, take a breath, and gently smile. What do you notice in your body, and in your mind?

 

Anja Tanhane 

 

 

            

Sacred space





‘Wherever you are can be a sacred space, if you’re there in a relaxed and serene way, following your breathing and keeping your concentration on whatever you’re doing.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of us can probably think of places which feel special to us in some way. It could be a place of worship, which is set aside for religious ceremonies on a regular basis. Often, these spaces are designed to allow us an opportunity to step away from our everyday concerns, to become more centered and focused, and to celebrate with others who are also like-minded.

A sacred space can also be a favourite place in nature – perhaps somewhere we like to visit on a regular basis to get away from everyday stressors, where we can feel connected to something greater, ancient and more expansive than the constant stream of slightly anxious thoughts in our mind. Or it could be a place we have only been to once, but which we experienced as a significant moment in our lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to expand our sense of the sacred, to also include everyday moments where we are present. It seems that for him, the sacred is defined by our sense of presence, rather than being limited to special places and times outside our everyday lives. On the one hand, this feels very open and invitational. We’re not tied to certain dogmas, to following a set of rules and rituals, or needing to be at a defined place at a certain time.

On the other hand, it could be a challenge to find the sacred in places we don’t usually think of – in the midst of a traffic jam, perhaps, or lying awake at night, or being busy at work. Can those moments really be a sacred place for us as well – if we are aware of our breath, and focused on whatever we’re doing, and go about our tasks in a relaxed and serene way? How would it feel, to live life in this way, with the possibility of a sacred space wherever we happen to be?

What is your sacred space? Do you have one that immediately comes to mind, or perhaps a few? Take a few moments to meditate on your sacred space, and allow yourself to be present to whatever emerges for you.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each day, choose one moment, and allow yourself to be present with the breath, as much as possible in the moment. Does this feel sacred to you in some way?

Anja Tanhane





Silence – Part 2





‘If you feel that your dreams aren’t coming true, you might think you need to do more, or to think and strategise more. In fact, what you might need is less – less noise coming to you from both inside and outside – so that you have space for your heart’s truest intention to germinate and flourish.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Us humans can be contradictory creatures at times. We might wish we had more ‘space to breathe’ in our lives, but then fill up every available moment with checking our smart phones, watching TV, playing online games, or endlessly rehashing old conversations in our minds and planning ahead in microscopic detail. It’s tempting to think that finding that ‘magic something’ to add into our lives will suddenly improve it. And it’s true that at times, an important ingredient might be missing – such as enough exercise, or time to read a book, or going to a workshop or a class which is meaningful to you.

Other times, however, we already have everything we need – if anything, our lives are overfull. Life is crowding in on us – there are demands coming from all directions, we’re busy rushing from one task to the next, our minds are crowded with internal and external noise, and there is little time to pause and reflect on life. When this way of life becomes chronic, we may well find ourselves asking – ‘is that all there is to life?’

We don’t always need to find new strategies for ‘solving’ life. Sometimes, simply creating some intentional silence and space might be enough. Some of the ways we fill up space are so automatic, we don’t even realise what we’re doing. Always having the radio on when we’re driving, for example, or using time in the check-out queue to quickly check social media, or reading a magazine or watching TV during meals. No matter how busy we are, most of us can probably find opportunities for decreasing noise, and creating a little more silence and space. A daily intentional practice, such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or prayer, can be very helpful. We can also experiment with other ways of decreasing stimulation – placing a curfew on our smartphone at certain times, not saying yes to every social engagement, only watching TV if the program really interests us, and then switching off…

We all have our own quirky ways in which we fill up space unnecessarily. They’re not always problematic, but can become so when we feel we have no ‘space to breathe’ in our lives anymore.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of two simple ways you can reduce excessive stimulation in your life, and experiment with cutting these out for the week. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane





Silence





Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

What is the place of silence in our lives? We might call for a minute’s silence to honour the memory of someone. We might go for a walk by ourselves, and allow ourselves to fully absorb the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around us. Most meditation retreats have periods of silence, and we may also practice silence during our own meditation at home, or during a yoga class. Yet for many of us, silence is in short supply – it’s quite common to be bombarded by sounds just about wherever we go. Over time, we can become desensitised to sounds, and barely notice their effects. Yet sounds can have quite a profound impact on our bodies and minds, and can add to our level of stress and anxiety.
Of course there is no such thing as complete silence – there will always be some sounds around us. Yet we can consciously take time out from talking and interacting with people, from filling every available space with radios and TVs, and simply come back to a sense of ourselves, just as we are, without distractions or busyness. If we’re not used to being in silence, this can feel uncomfortable at first. Over time, however, we might find that these periods of intentional silence can be very nourishing for our spirit. It’s as if we open up more space in our lives, instead of feeling hemmed in by too many thoughts and words. By giving ourselves this space, we allow ourselves room to breathe and to grow.
Not all silence is beneficial. We might have been the unfortunate recipients of the ‘silent treatment’, which is really a form of aggression. Or we may have been silenced in some way when we wanted to speak out, to be heard. Some people yearn for a lot of silence in their lives, while others are content with brief periods. We may not wish to join an order of silent monks, but still find great benefit from bringing more periods of intentional silence into our lives.
Practice idea:
Choose one way in which you can bring more silence into your day. It might be driving without the radio, or setting aside ten minutes for sitting in silence, or eating one meal in silence by yourself. What do you notice?
Anja Tanhane





Revisiting the gentle half smile





This week we will revisit a post from a few years ago, about the gentle half smile:

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near.
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use in crying?
You’ll find that life is still worth-while
If you do just smile.

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons

This famous song has no doubt brought a smile to many faces over the decades. From a mindfulness point of view, we may not agree with the line ‘hide every trace of sadness’, since we don’t want to deny our feelings. However, there is a practice which the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls a gentle half smile, which can indeed brighten our day, without needing to pretend that life is all wonderful.

When we look at advertising we are bombarded with ecstatic smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, giving the impression of a fully realised human life. In the past we may have been told ‘come on, smile!’:) when we’ve been having a bad day, and we probably rather resented this! It’s quite galling to be told to smile when you’re feeling lousy. And we have all come across the compulsory professional smile, which depending on the person may still be friendly, but in the wrong hands can feel cold and arrogant.

The gentle half smile is a way of bringing positive energy into our day, of lifting our spirits without necessarily trying to radically change our underlying feeling state. We can feel sad, or anxious, and still find our outlook improves if we sit with those feelings while we have a gentle smile on our face. It’s quite easy to habitually frown without even noticing we’re doing this. It’s a good practice to start our meditation with a reminder to gently smile, but we can also bring this half smile to our face throughout the day.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely way of extending this practice. During some of her guided meditations, she suggests feeling the gentle half smile behind the eyes, behind the face, in the heart centre. We can also send the half smile to parts of our body which may be hurting, or which feel tense. It’s easy for us to metaphorically frown at various parts of the body, either because of pain, or because of a sense there is something ‘wrong’ with our bodies. It’s so much more friendly to bring a gentle smile to different regions of our bodies instead.

When we are talking to other people, it may not always be appropriate to be beaming a wide smile at them. They may be talking about something which has distressed them, or criticising you, and a big smile would look out of place. But even in those situations, you can still imagine a gentle half smile behind your eyes, and you will look more open and receptive to the other person, and they may feel you are being warm and friendly towards them.

It is a wonderful habit to cultivate, and encapsulates what mindfulness meditation is about – not pretending that life is other than it is, but choosing small actions which will gradually infuse our days with more positive states of mind.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try the gentle half smile, when you are by yourself and also with other people. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane





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





Stilling the mind





‘Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week we looked at restlessness, which in Buddhism is considered the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation. While we don’t want to become stiff and rigid, it’s also true that an endlessly restless mind and body can exacerbate our tendency to be anxious and worried. The sitting meditation seems to be particularly beneficial for becoming more centered and grounded, and a certain amount of restless is to be expected when we practise it. If, however, our restlessness becomes a serious obstacle to our meditation practice, there are a number of different ways we can work with this.

The first approach is to accept that restlessness is occurring, and to stay with it, even when the restlessness transforms into impatience, irritation, agitation, perhaps all the way to anger. We can learn a lot about the emotions underlying our restlessness through doing this. The inability to sit calm and still may be a signal of strong emotional undercurrents we are trying to get away from. These could be anger, grief, worry and anxiety, trauma, or shame or jealousy. Of course it’s not easy to sit through the restlessness to begin with, let alone the more challenging emotions we may encounter along the way. Yet over the years, I’ve found I’ve gained many valuable insights into ‘what is really going on in my life’ through the simple practice of sitting still, and noticing what emerges.

Next week we will look at some other strategies for working with a restless mind, but for now let’s return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the beginning of this reflection, and allow ourselves the time and space to rest in the present moment as it is.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a peaceful place to sit, and silently recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha. You may like to focus on the first two lines, or the poem as a whole. Allow yourself to feel the peace, and the smile.

Anja Tanhane





Walking meditation





‘I have arrived,

I am home,

In the here, in the now.

I am solid,

I am free,

In the ultimate I dwell.’

Walking gatha by Thich Nhat Hanh

Walking meditation is a beautiful practice which can be like a bridge between our formal sitting meditation and everyday life. There are many different ways to practise walking meditation, and the focus of our attention can be on the soles of our feet, our whole body, or the environment. Sometimes it’s done very slowly, other times quite fast, but our aim is to meditate, not to get from A to B. Even when we do have a destination (for example during pilgrimage), our focus is still on the present moment rather than the future.

My favourite form of walking meditation is done very slowly, allowing our attention to rest on the soles of the feet. We coordinate the movements with the breath, and we notice the lifting of the foot, touching the heel, transferring the weight onto the whole foot as the back heel rises, and so on. The eyes are soft, gazing downward, and our focus is on the sensations in the soles of the feet as we pay attention to the steady movements of our feet. We might notice different textures under our feet – for example from grass to a concrete path, or from the shady area into an area warmed by the sun inside a room. Sometimes it feels comfortable to have our hands resting on our abdomen, which relaxes the shoulders and deepens our breathing.

It is a very grounding practice, and can help us during the day as we walk from the desk to the photocopier, from the shops to the car, and so on. Of course in that case we may want to speed up the walking a little – we’d look slightly odd if we took five minutes to walk 50 metres! But I find even then that if I slow my walk down by 10%, and tune into the contact between the soles of the feet and the ground, I recall the slow walking meditation and feel grounded by the practice.

Sometimes, if we are restless, it can be helpful to practise the walking meditation for a while before moving into the sitting meditation. If we’re highly distressed for some reason, a mindful walking meditation can be very soothing. We might want to repeat certain phrases with each step, such as the walking gatha above, or anything else which evokes feelings of peace within us. This can enhance the practice considerably, and could be a simple word or phrase, such as ‘peace’, or ‘I walk in peace’.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 minutes to practise a slow, formal walking meditation, focusing on the sensations in the soles of the feet. Then tune into the soles of the feet as you walk at other times during the week, and notice how this feels for you.

Anja Tanhane





Peace





This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all” is the message that is proclaimed at Christmas time.

What do we mean by peace? We may think about a state in which there is no fighting, but only tranquility, calm, stillness and quiet.

During the festive season we can feel a spirit of joyfulness. We enjoy being with people. We can witness the excitement of young children leaving food for Santa. However, it is a sad irony that this time of the year can be anything but peaceful! Often people comment on the mad rush leading up to Christmas. We may be frantically trying to get presents, meet deadlines and attend Christmas functions. Our already busy lives become even faster paced. Holiday stress!

Although this time is when families traditionally come together, in heartfelt warmth, and we hear moving examples of kindness and generosity, Christmas day can also be a time when family tensions surface and arguments erupt. We may have either experienced this for ourselves, or heard stories of other people’s experience of family fights, hurt feelings or exclusion. A friend recently told me that her last family Christmas get-together was such a debacle that she has chosen to spend this year alone. It can also be a lonely time for people who do not have family, or have experienced a recent loss.

As well as interpersonal conflict we can become even more aware of the conflicts between nations, the world conflict which is nightly reported on, in what Shinzen Young refers to as “the litany of horrors that is the 6 o’clock news. Where are peace and goodwill in the “silly season”?

Jack Kornfield explains: “The inner stillness of the person who truly “is peace” brings peace to the whole interconnected web of life, both inner and outer. To stop the war, we need to begin with ourselves.” He quotes Mahatma Gandhi:

“I have only three enemies. My favourite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man called Mohandas K.Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

As Gandhi humorously notes, it is not so easy to cease fighting with ourselves. We cannot stop the war by beating ourselves into submission, this only increases our struggle. Over time with mindfulness meditation practice we can cultivate equanimity; an internal balance, allowing sensory experience to be as it is, with an attitude of kindness and friendliness. This to me is freedom from disturbance: peace. Another wonderful benefit of mindfulness practice is that we find we are more able to respond rather than react, which leads to less interpersonal battles.

 

Many people coming to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course tell me what they would like and hope for is to find peace. Similarly, Jon Kabat–Zinn has found most people attending the Stress Reduction clinic have the goal of attaining peace of mind. Based on his years of experience he has learnt that although meditation practice is powerfully healing, some kind of personal vision is also needed for growth and change. He advises:

“To achieve peace of mind, people have to kindle a vision of what they really want for themselves and keep that vision alive in the face of inner and outer hardships, obstacles and setbacks.”

Perhaps the Christmas message and hope of peace and goodwill may rekindle your aspiration and vision for this.

Weekly practice idea:

Adapted from the book Peace is Every Breath: A Practice For Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh

Settle into a comfortable position. Focus on your breath and allow it to be easy and natural. The following verse can be recited silently breathing in you say the first line; breathing out you say the second, and so on.

Breathing in, I feel my breath coming into my belly and chest.

Breathing out, I feel my breath flowing out of my belly and chest.

Breathing in, I’m aware of some pains or tensions in my body.

Breathing out, I release all the pains and tensions in my body.

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I feel ease and peace.

 

Michelle Morris