Mottainai

The Japanese word ‘Mottainai’ is one of those expressions which can convey a whole range of meanings, and which has been associated with daily life, environmental philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and a general sense of increased appreciation. One translation of mottainai is ‘what a waste!’, and it might be exclaimed when someone spills a glass of milk, or throws out food, or breaks an object by not taking good care of it.

In Japan, the term is often linked with Zen Buddhism, in particular the value which Zen puts into appreciation the efforts which have gone into producing the food we eat, and the way our bodies are nourished by food. Shinto religion, with its reverence for objects, has also embraced the philosophy of mottainai. As an island nation, Japan was for a long time isolated from the rest of the world, and largely dependent on its own resources rather than trade for survival. The older generation in particular were brought up with a strong sense of mottainai, and children are now being taught about it through a book called Mottainai Grandma by Mariko Shinju, which has such wonderful lines as:

When I throw away mandarin peels, she will come and say “Mottainai!”

“Dry them in the sunshine. Put them in the bathtub.

Mandarin peels will make you feel so good!”

“A warm and sunny mandarin bath!”

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Peace prize winner, was very inspired by the concept of mottainai, and added to the 3 R’s of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ the fourth R of ‘respect’. If we bring a sense of mindfulness and appreciation towards the food we eat and the objects we use, we are less likely to be wasteful. About one-third of the food produced world-wide is wasted each year – roughly 1.3 billion tons. It’s not just all that food which is wasted, but also the resources and efforts which went into producing it. Perhaps think back to a recent meal, and write down the many different resources which went into producing it – from the growing of the food, including the energies of the soil, sun, fertiliser and rain, to the human labour involved, and the work in distributing and selling the food. The work over generations of humans in selectively breeding plants and animals, the skills and experiences of the cook, the kitchen equipment, the billions of bacteria in your gut which break the food down and make its resources available for our bodies to use. Mottainai expresses a sense of regret at wastefulness, and calls on us to bring a greater sense of awareness to our interaction with the world.

There is another way in which we can be wasteful with our resources, and that is the resources of our bodies and our minds. In the next reflection, we will look in more detail at the way we can easily dissipate our energy, and explore ways of using it more wisely.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Next time you eat a meal, think of one of the aspects of food production listed above, and consider how it applies to your meal. Over time, how might this practice change the way you relate to food?

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

Holiday favourites – precious moments

Welcome to the first of our holiday specials – republishing some of the most popular reflections from the past three years:

According to the thirteenth century Zen master Dogen, there are 6,440,099,180 moments in each day. If we multiply this by the 342 days remaining of this year, we still have 2,202,513,919,560 moments ahead of us before we get to 2015. Of course, in reality it’s impossible to calculate the ephemeral nature of moments, but in mindfulness every moment is an opportunity to become more present, and Dogen’s calculation, give or take a few moments, clearly presents us with numerous opportunities to be mindful each day.

If we look at our attitude towards the many moments in our lives, we tend to divide them into a range of categories, such as:

1. Special, important moments

2. Ordinary, less-important moments

3. Suffering moments.

Leaving suffering aside for now, as this is a topic in itself, special moments can be further divided into:

1. Special moments which are exactly as we’d hoped they would be

2. Special moments which are pretty good, but in some ineffable way slightly disappointing

3. Special moments which surpass even our expectations (1 and 3 are quite rare!).

Ordinary moments, on the other hand, can include:

1. Frustratingly boring moments

2. Ok, slightly hum-drum moments

3. Moments we can cruise through on automatic pilot, without taking much notice of them

4. Moments we rush through in order to get to the special moments we actually care about.

We have a tendency to build our lives around the special moments, such as weddings, Christmas, the birth of a child, getting to the top of Mt Everest, and so on. There is no doubt that the special moments add great richness and often joy to our lives. However, if we draw up an honest inventory of our days, it’s pretty obvious that most of our lives are actually spent in the ordinary moments – all those everyday routine tasks we could almost do in our sleep – and, in fact, often end up doing more or less in a state of sleep-walking.

One of the gifts of a regular mindfulness practice is to transform how we live the so-called ‘ordinary’ moments of our lives. There are no fireworks (which is kind of the point), but you suddenly notice the water on your skin when you have a shower. You are aware of your breath when you’ve stopped at a red light. You taste the food you spent an hour preparing – and not just the first mouthful, but the whole of the meal. You pay more attention to routine tasks at work, and enjoy them more. There are millions of processes happening within our bodies and around us in the universe which make it possible for us to be alive, which allow us to experience this particular moment right now. We really don’t need any miracles, because just to be alive is miraculous enough. The practice of mindfulness allows us to appreciate and experience these many precious ordinary moments more fully.

Weekly practice idea:

Every now and then, stop and reflect on how precious this particular moment is. Take a few breaths to savour the sense of being present.

Anja Tanhane

 

Mindful eating

‘When walking, walk. When eating, eat.’ Zen proverb

To eat more mindfully is one of the most powerful ways we can transform our lives. In the delightful German/Japanese movie ‘Enlightenment Guaranteed’, Gustav meditates every morning and works as a Feng Shui consultant. We see him visiting a new client, discussing how to harmonise the flow of energy in his apartment, using all kinds of elevated and spiritual phrases, and minutes later we see him standing on the street wolfing down a hamburger. From these two scenes, we get the impression that Gustav has an idealised notion of enlightenment, but hasn’t yet found a way of integrating it into his daily life.

Most of us have probably heard about the benefits of mindful eating – we tend to eat the right amount rather than over- or under-eating, it helps us make better food choices, get away from emotional or stress-related eating, and also assists with our digestion. Another clear benefit is that we actually get to taste the food! We often spend considerable time and money organising a meal, and then might consume it mindlessly, barely noticing the taste. I’ve worked with people who for medical reasons were unable to swallow food, and had to be fed a nourishing liquid through a peg tube directly into their stomach. Their grief and loss at no longer being able to eat and taste food was immense.

Yet there are many complex reasons why mindful eating may be a challenge. Often we are distracted by the people we eat with, and our attention is on them rather than the food. We might feel guilty a lot of the time about what we eat, so by paying less attention we can ignore the feelings of guilt more easily. We might just be very busy, and feel we have no time to stop and eat properly. Perhaps we had to eat everything on our plate as children, and so didn’t learn to listen to our body when it tells us it’s full. Or we might be exhausted, and regard food as petrol to fuel our body rather than a source of nourishment and joy.

If you struggle with mindful eating, it’s worth starting small, and not being overly ambitious. You can choose to eat one meal or one snack mindfully each week. Eating a whole meal by yourself in silence is a great practice, but you may find you’re always eating with other people, either at work or at home. So you could choose to eat an apple mindfully. You might sit down somewhere, take a breath, look at the apple, smell it, think about where it came from. If you can, close your eyes. As you take the first bite, imagine that you’ve never eaten an apple before. What does it taste like? What is the texture? What do you feel in your mouth as you begin to chew and swallow? Eat slowly, stopping to pause and take a breath every now and then. Afterwards, notice how it felt to eat the apple mindfully. If you do this regularly, you will find yourself also eating meals more mindfully – slowing down a little, tasting the food more, having a greater sense of nourishment and enjoyment.

Weekly practice idea:

Eat one meal this week in silence, mindfully, and 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

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

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 1

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

Zen saying

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

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

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

Weekly practice idea:

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

Anja Tanhane

 

Mystery

‘Our practice is not to clear up the mystery, but to make the mystery clear.’

Robert Aitken, Zen teacher

 

Mystery can be expansive and deeply meaningful – gazing up at the night sky for example, and wondering how such a vast universe can exist, where our planet is the only one we’ve found so far which supports life. Or thinking about the millions of processes which are involved in keeping our bodies alive, this complex system which rarely breaks down. We can study our bodies through science in the minutest details, but still it is difficult to understand how it all holds together. How, for example, do all our cells and hormones and neurotransmitters and antibodies and neurons know what to do, and when? So much needs to happen just for us to take the next breath, let alone find and eat and digest food and so on, and yet the system is able to work seamlessly for decade after decade, keeping us alive if not always in perfect health.

And then of course there is our mind, this extraordinary creation which can be mysterious to us much of the time. When we meditate and become more familiar with the workings of our mind, it can be astonishing to discover where this mind likes to roam. A school excursion in Grade 2, something we read in the paper five weeks ago, still worrying about that discussion with a colleague, and now suddenly here we are in fantasy land, some rich drama is unfolding, we are caught up in that but then before we know it a brilliant solution to a problem which has been nagging us pops into our heads seemingly out of nowhere and we suddenly know how to proceed with a project – and all this within the space of a few minutes. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Yet mystery can also be unsettling, or even distressing – the more we delve into how mysterious life is, the more random it can all seem. If your great-great-grandfather hadn’t had an argument with his sweetheart and gone to the village festival where another girl smiled at him, and after years of ups and downs they did end up getting married, and he was often away and four of their children died in infancy but two survived and one of them fought in a war where he met a girl and after the war he found her and they moved to a nearby town where their seventh child, which almost didn’t survive the birth, became your grandmother… So much had to happen for us to be born. And at any point, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, something different could have occurred which meant that you, or I, never got to exist at all.

We can spend our lives trying to clear up one mystery after the other, or we can, as Zen teacher Robert Aitken suggests, become more clear about the mystery of life. Yes, it can seem random, but at the same time, here we are. Just the fact we exist is wonderful – sometimes we can sit in meditation and just appreciate this simple truth.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a moment to look around you and notice what’s there, and allow yourself to be filled with a sense of mystery. What does it feel like, to be more clear about the mystery?

Anja Tanhane