A 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

Calming ourselves with the breath

Last week we looked at diaphragmatic breathing, and how this can help us to calm ourselves throughout the day. We can also use the breath during meditation, and there are many methods and traditions for meditating on the breath. In some traditions, these meditations are quite structured – for example, the instruction might be to breathe in to the count of four, hold for two counts, then breathe out to the count of eight. These kinds of exercises can be very calming and soothing for the mind and body.

In mindfulness, the approach is not to control the breath in any way, but to allow it to ‘breathe itself’. We are simply observing the quality of the breath – is it long, deep and even? Or is it shorter, more shallow, uneven? We don’t judge the breath or try to change it – we simply notice what is happening right now, and allow ourselves to be present with it in friendly companionship. Over time, we often do find that our breath becomes more settled, deeper. Yet whether our breath is deep or shallow, we can bring a sense of curiosity and openness to our experience. What does the breath feel like in the body? What kind of emotions, mental patterns, are we experiencing? We can learn a lot about our current state from becoming more mindful of the breath – being a witness, a friendly observer, to the breath.

The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful poem (sometimes called a gatha) which we can use with the breath from time to time:

Breathing in, I calm the body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

The breath is a wonderful object of meditation because it is always with us, it’s rhythmical, and it connects us intimately with our bodies and our surroundings. Next week, we will look at another meditation practice which uses the breath to develop greater focus and clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Tune into the breath, both during meditation and also throughout the day, and try to simply observe it, without changing it in any way. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Embracing our challenges

Over the past two weeks we have been looking at paying attention to our emotions, and how the mindfulness practice of RAIN can assist us to work with them more effectively. Today we will explore Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s five stages of dealing with emotions, which have some additional steps to the RAIN practice which can be very helpful.

His first two steps, Recognition and Acceptance, are the same as in RAIN. However, the next step, Embracing, offers a very powerful way of engaging with emotions we might usually choose to reject. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about bringing the emotion in close and embracing it like you would a crying baby. If we think about a crying baby, that is a sound which is not usually very pleasant! We could reject it and take the baby out into the garden, closing the doors and windows so we no longer hear it as much, but that would not be very loving, and it probably also wouldn’t stop the baby from crying. Or we could get angry with the baby, yelling at it in frustration, demanding that it stop – again, neither loving nor effective. The more instinctive response is to bring the baby in close, hold it with tenderness, and try to soothe it. We can think about why the baby might be crying – is she hungry, cold, tired? – and take steps to look after her, but the most effective initial response is to simply show her that you’re close, and that you care.

If we think of our challenging emotions like a crying baby trying to communicate that something is wrong, we can see that our responses are often unloving and ineffective. How often do we try to shut our emotions down so we can no longer ‘hear’ them, or else get frustrated with ourselves for not feeling how we ‘should’. Meanwhile, the baby is still crying, feeling rejected and unheard. It may seem counter-intuitive to embrace aspects of ourself we’d rather reject, but these aspects are also a part of us, and want to be acknowledged. Some of the difficult emotions can feel quite primitive, or child-like. Once we have embraced the emotion and soothed it, we are then in a position to go to the next step, which Thich Nhat Hanh calls Looking Deeply. This is where the adult, responsible self can take charge and ensure that the needs of the crying baby are met appropriately, in a mature and constructive way. We can ask ourselves – what is really going on here, and what can I do about it?

His final step is called ‘Insight’, and this is where working with our challenging emotions can go beyond simply ‘managing’ our emotions like we might manage a tricky household budget, and lead us to increased wisdom and understanding. We will look at this final step in more detail in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try to approach difficult feelings and emotions as if they were a crying child wanting to be comforted. Notice what difference this makes to your experience of these states.

Anja Tanhane

Mindful Eating

‘Seventy-two labours have brought us this food – we should know how it comes to us.’

Zen meal sutra

At a time of year when most of us are probably eating and drinking a bit more than usual, it might be helpful to pause from time to time and think about where all this food comes from. The sheer volume of food can be overwhelming, especially if you celebrate with a big family or have been to a lot of work parties. And all this food required an incredible amount of work and effort to get to you in the first place – from developing the cultivars over thousands of years, clearing and cultivating the land, sowing the crop, looking after it, harvesting and transporting it, to the packaging, advertising and selling. Then we or someone else bought the food, prepared it, served it and cleaned up afterwards. If we’re eating meat, then animals had to become pregnant, the young ones reared, transported to a slaughter house, killed, butchered and processed, then transported, sold, prepared and cooked…

It is indeed seventy-two labours which have brought us the food, as the Zen sutra says. And many of those involved in food production, whether in farming, transport, retail or hospitality, aren’t paid very well. Much of the time, however, we eat with little awareness of the taste, let alone appreciation of where the food comes from. Yet eating connects us directly to the earth – from digesting food we get the energy of the sun, of rain, of air, of the nourishing earth, all of which went into allowing the food to grow. So by eating we are literally imbibing and staying alive through the elements of fire, water, air and earth, which make up life on our planet.

As the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes so beautifully:

‘If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.’

To offer someone food you’ve prepared is an act of kindness, of caring. It connects us to our families, whether these are biological families or families of people close to us. Eating together is at the heart of community, of celebrating together and being thankful. The more we can slow down in the midst of this often very hectic time, and appreciate the nourishment given to us by food, the more we can feel connected to our community and to our planet.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to look at one meal you’re eating, and think about where all this food comes from – some of the labours which have gone into growing it and getting it to you. Allow a few moments to appreciate the work of all these unseen hands, and let yourself feel nourished by the food.

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

 

Pausing

This week’s reflection is written by Michelle Morris:

 

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

(Attributed to Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor)

I can clearly remember the first time I became conscious of that space and having a choice. I was feeling very annoyed with a relative who had left a hostile message on the answering machine. When I saw her a few days later, I recognised my own hostility and automatic impulse to blame and behave in a withdrawn and cold manner, an old defensive pattern. Pausing, I was also aware of an alternative – I had a moment of choice. Although the pull was to go down the old familiar way, I recognised that this would lead to further hurt, disempowerment and rupture of our relationship. I consciously chose to try and stay openhearted. In what felt figuratively like a big step, I walked up to her and approached her with affection, and the response I received with one of friendliness.

We can all remember times when we reacted in the heat of the moment, only to regret our words and behaviour, and not only that, find that the interaction has escalated the conflict, leaving us and the other person feeling more defensive and distant.

There is a Zen story about a man riding on a galloping horse. Somebody watching him yells out, “where are you going?” The man on the horse turns and shouts, “I don’t know, ask the horse.”

The horse can be likened to our habitual energy pattern that drives us into doing or saying things that not only hurt others but ourselves as well. Thich Nhat Hanh writes “if we learn the art of stopping, we can calm things down within and around us. The purpose of stopping is to become calm and solid and see clearly.” When we are calm we can look deeply within and recognise our underlying needs, and express them in ways that don’t alarm the other person and lead them to react defensively. We can also be more receptive to the other person’s needs.

Mindfulness practice helps us to calm ourselves and extend the time between the stimulus and the response, so we are not hijacked by our more primitive survival brain, leading to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. With this reaction to threat we angrily attack, withdraw in fear, or feel paralysed to do anything. The child within us is closer to our more primitive survival brain mode, so sometimes when we are challenged we implement younger coping strategies. Through mindfulness we can more readily reengage our neo- cortex, and can have thought-through responses. We can become aware we have choices and feel more empowered.

What mindfulness helps us to do is to be aware of what we are experiencing and catch the first bubblings of an emotion before it takes us over– it is much easier to manage at this point. When emotions do arise intensely, we can ride the wave, maintaining balance. Maintaining our centre and responding rather than reacting. This of course does take time and regular meditation practice. But, as Jon Kabat Zinn notes “Our relationships with other people provide us with unending opportunities for practising mindfulness and thereby reducing “people stress.”

He beautifully describes the fruitfulness of mindfulness for our relationships:

“The patience, wisdom, and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation yield fruit almost immediately because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will in all likelihood be drawn toward it because it embodies inner peace”.

Weekly practice idea:

When you notice reactivity in relationships, pause. Take a breath. With kindness and compassion towards yourself, be mindful of your thoughts, beliefs or images. Bring an attitude of friendliness and allowing to any feelings and sensations in your body. What is your underlying need? What may be the other persons underlying need? Be aware of having a choice.

Michelle Morris

 

Presence

Orchid in Anglesea

‘The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

What does it mean, to be present? In one sense we are, of course, always present. Where else could we possibly be? Yet we probably all know the feeling of being present in our bodies while our minds are elsewhere.

We also know what it’s like to be with someone who is not really present with us – who nods mechanically from time to time and mutters a disinterested ‘oh really’ while scanning over our heads to see if someone more important has arrived at the party yet. Other people have the gift of making everyone they talk to feel like the most important person in the room. We flourish in the presence of someone who is listening deeply, who is attentive and kind. Just to be in the presence of a person like that can be healing for us. Continue reading “Presence” »

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” »

Happiness

White flowers

‘Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.’

Oscar Wilde

 

It is typical of Oscar Wilde that, in his witty way, he touches on a rather painful truth. There are people who simply don’t seem to have the knack of making others happy, of being pleasant company. Other people are so open-hearted and generous, they sow harmony and good-will in even difficult circumstances. The rest of us are somewhere in between – we probably have plenty of people in our lives whose faces light up when we enter a room, as well as a few who are less than delighted to run into us. We all want to be happy, we all want to be liked, and we all struggle with both.

One of the effects of regular meditation is an increase in the activity of the left pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with positive feeling states. Continue reading “Happiness” »