Wise hope

 

‘Everywhere I looked, hope existed – but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (…) Hope, I began to realise, was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life.’ Sr Joan Chittister

 

Hope as a quality is ephemeral, and at the same time it can profoundly impact how we experience our lives. To have lost all hope means to be in the pit of despair. On the other hand, what does it mean to have hope? We can have all the hope in the world that everything will turn out okay, yet we know this is not how life works. Things go wrong all the time, and none of us are immune from accidents, illness or other calamities.

Zen teacher and writer Joan Halifax talks about ‘wise hope’, by which she means finding value in our efforts to make the world a better place, even as we understand there is no guarantee what we’re working towards will succeed. She was writing in the context of her work with the dying, in prisons, and for social justice causes. All of these require her to remain engaged and give a lot of herself, yet may show little in the way of ‘outcomes’. The opposite of ‘wise hope’ may not be despair but apathy, a pervasive sense of ‘why bother?’ The problems are so numerous and overwhelming, what difference can one person really make?

Whenever doctors need to give a prognosis, they are navigating this difficult terrain between hope and disempowerment. It would be unethical for a doctor to tell a patient ‘don’t worry, you will be just fine’ when the patient probably has only a few months to live. On the other hand, a doctor’s words can be very powerful, and they need to somehow convey the reality of the situation without inadvertently taking away the patient’s will to live. A prognosis is only a statistical average, not a foolproof prediction, but can potentially be internalised by the patient as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether we have hope or feel resigned will profoundly influence our life, but we cannot have hope at the expense of denying reality either. If, as Sr Joan Chittister said, hope is a ‘gift of life’, then what are the conditions which can allow the ‘green shoot’ of hope to flourish in the midst of our sometimes difficult reality?

When life is very tough, we can become vulnerable to the pedlars of false hope who promise us miracle cures or ever-lasting salvation or immunity from suffering. We long for a way to control life rather than being swept up in its vagaries. Yet this doesn’t mean we should just be resigned either, or never look outside conventional understandings for innovative solutions.

Some of the core attributes of mindfulness, such as acceptance, beginner’s mind, non-judgement and trust, can be helpful qualities to explore in relation to hope. Hope can be complex, nuanced, and difficult to describe. It’s not something we can obtain and then possess, we may not even be able to describe what hope feels like, but we do feel its absence keenly. One of my favourite quotes about hope comes from Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident, written during the Russian occupation of his country:

‘I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty, that all ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.’

 

Mindfulness practice:

Set aside some time, such as ten or twenty minutes, and either through journaling or during meditation, keep asking yourself the question – ‘for me, hope means…’ What emerges for you as you keep sitting with this question? Does anything unexpected arise for you?

 

Anja Tanhane

           

           

           

 

 

 

 

Magnanimous mind





‘It is not a biased or contentious mind.’ Dogen

So far we’ve looked at joyful mind and nurturing mind, which were two of the mindsets which the Zen master Dogen Zenji recommended for the monks in his monastery.The third one he called ‘magnanimous mind’. This is the mind which contains everything – all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, the various aspects of ourselves. In Buddhism it is sometimes called the ‘big sky mind’, which, like the vast sky, is always there, even when obscured by clouds at times. It encourages us to be present to the full range of experiences, instead of saying metaphorically ‘I don’t like rainclouds, I only like fluffy white clouds and warm (but not too hot!) sunshine.’

The magnanimous mind invites us to take a wider perspective rather than getting constantly bogged down in the minutiae of everyday life. Paying close attention to detail has its place, but we can find ourselves getting caught up in the proverbial storm in a teacup, where a more open perspective may have helped us to see the issue from multiple viewpoints, offering us a lot more information to work with. This can lead us to consider a range of options to respond to a situation, rather than jumping to conclusions too quickly.

Meditation encourages us to rest in both perspectives, sometimes simultaneously, other times separately. At times, we may pay close attention to some body sensations, or thought patterns, or the sounds around us. At other times, we may rest in a sense of open, spacious presence. In our daily life, we also tend to vacillate between the different states, and we may find ourselves out of balance at times. Perhaps we’re a bit too dreamy, and could benefit from becoming more grounded in the tasks which need to be completed. Other times we may be very conscientious with our obligations, but neglect the aspect of ourselves which might yearn for a sense of something greater than ourselves.

The joyful mind invites us to take notice of the aspects of our lives which are precious, and which can increase our sense of wellbeing and joy. The nurturing mind asks us to take good care of our environment, our self, and our relationship – those aspects of our lives which keep us grounded and feeling cared for. And the magnanimous mind helps us to also live with the sense of an expanded perspective, the deeper, more open part of our lives which are always present. Dogen recommended these three minds to his monks hundreds of years ago, but they can also support us in our modern life, as qualities to remember as we go about our day to day life.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Each week, choose one of the three minds, and aim to incorporate it into your daily life in a way which feels helpful for you. In the fourth week, use what you have learnt, and incorporate all three minds into your life.

Anja Tanhane





Nurturing mind





‘Watching over water and over grain, shouldn’t everyone maintain the affection and kindness of nourishing children?

Dogen Zenji, in his ‘Instructions to the Cook’

Last month we looked at joyful mind, the first of the ‘three minds’ which were recommended by the famous Zen master Dogen Zenji for the monks in his monastery. The second mind he called ‘nurturing mind’, or parental mind. I think of it as the mind of ‘taking good care’. Dogen was the leader of a community, and he wanted to encourage a culture where people took care of each other rather than expected to be taken care of. The monks in his monastery would have been very serious about their meditation practice – after all, to become a monk requires a significant amount of sacrifice. It’s easy then to be focused on ‘my meditation’, ‘my gains’ and ‘my progress’. Yet Zen has a strong focus on community – for everyone to take good care of each other and of the buildings, grounds and belongings. Dogen was asking the cook to watch over the rice not as a task to be completed so that dinner could be served, but with the ‘affection and kindness of nourishing children’. The same would have been true of the many other daily chores around the monastery – washing clothes, sweeping the hall, raking leaves, cleaning the toilets.

How would it feel to bring this nurturing mind into the everyday aspects of our lives? To bring affectionate attention to folding the laundry, paying a bill online, filling up the car with petrol? We can bring into our day either an underlying attitude of slight impatience, or else of kindly presence. This sounds simple, but in fact reveals a lot about our basic approach to life – whether we’re holding back a little, or are really prepared to commit ourselves to being fully present.

‘The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.’

This famous speech by Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is about mercy, but we could also apply it to nurturing mind. At its best, nurturing mind is quiet and gentle, nurturing the soil of our lives with little moments of affectionate presence. While it requires a certain amount of intentionality, it’s not about trying too hard (straining) to be nurturing. Next month we will look at what Dogen called the ‘magnanimous’ mind, which is like a container providing a context for joyful and nurturing minds.

Mindful practice idea:

Pick an everyday physical task such as tidying, cleaning and so on, and for a week, experiment doing this task with either slight impatience, or affectionate presence. Do you notice a difference, and how does it feel?

Anja Tanhane





Being engaged in life





‘Who or what we are is defined by the quality of our engagement with this moment, whatever its content.’

Barry Magid

Most of us hopefully have memories of one or two teachers at school who stood out in the way they fostered a love of learning in us. When we reflect on what made these teachers special, it is often the quality of their engagement with us. They weren’t simply going through the motions of delivering the curriculum, but were really present to the class and responsive to us children as individuals. It’s likely that they kept good order in the classroom, but they didn’t withdraw or become spiteful when students acted up. To maintain a high level of engagement as a teacher year after year is quite a gift – there are usually all kinds of pressures within the classroom and the school system which can wear a teacher down. Yet to the children they teach, this consistent level of engagement can really allow their students to shine, and sometimes set them on a positive path for life.

In our own lives, the quality of our engagement with what is happening right now can fluctuate wildly from moment to moment. Sometimes we may be fully present, other times half-heartedly so, and we may also go through stages where we’re so distracted and absent-minded that we have little awareness of our lives at all. As we become more mindful, those times when we are absent can begin to feel like a loss – the loss of an opportunity to just simply be present in our lives.

Engagement doesn’t always have to be ‘over the top’ enthusiastic. Sometimes it can be more of a quiet presence, like someone sitting next to a hospital bed and keeping a silent vigil while their family member is sleeping. Engagement is really about saying ‘yes’ to our life as it is right now, rather than a conditional ‘maybe’ or even a ‘no’. And, as the quote by Barry Magid suggests, the quality of our engagement will play a part in forming the person we are.

When we are feeling disengaged, disconnected, what is really going on? A bit of escapism every now and then can be relaxing, but if much of our life is spent like this, what is it we’re actually missing out on?

Mindfulness practice:

Choose an activity you might usually do in ‘automatic pilot’ mode – perhaps cleaning up after dinner, or having a shower, or walking across a car park. Next time you’re doing this activity, pretend you’re a wonderful teacher who is teaching a child how to be curious, fully engaged and enthusiastic about this task. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane





Obstacle as path





‘The obstacle is the path.

Zen saying

We hear a lot about the negative effects of stress, so it’s easy to think that any stress must be bad for us. And it’s true that chronic stress can place great wear and tear on our bodies and minds, and eventually become a leading cause of illness. Yet a life with not enough stress can feel boring, pointless. In such a life, our abilities and talents aren’t tested and developed, and we don’t have the satisfaction of rising to a challenge and emerging stronger and wiser.

In traditional Buddhism, the human realm is only one of several realms we can be reborn into. There are others like the heavenly realm, jealous gods, or hungry ghosts, the hell or animal realms.

We can think of these various realms as psychological states which we all pass in and out of at various times in our lives. For example, the hungry ghost realm is when we feel deprived, and nothing is ever enough, no matter how many possession or achievements we accumulate, or how much others are trying to help us. It is the realm of addiction and discontentment. The jealous gods are always fighting, trying to be superior and more powerful than others. The animal realm is the space of non-reflection, being driven by basic desires only. There is hell, which is a period of intense suffering. The heavenly realm, a state of blissful contentment, certainly sounds most appealing. Yet interestingly, the heavenly realm is not considered to be a good rebirth, as the heavenly beings have no motivation to practice kindness and compassion, to alleviate suffering, and to thus develop their better qualities.

Just like our lives, our meditation practice also passes through the six realms at various times. Yet sometimes we may be caught up in an expectation, whether conscious or not, that at some stage our meditation should reach the heavenly realm and remain there. No more dissatisfaction, strive and jealousy, suffering or ignorance! No more obstacles! This desire for the contentment and peace of the heavenly realm is very understandable, yet it can potentially stunt our meditation practice if it becomes our sole focus. We can spend time in blissful states during meditation, and these can be strengthening and supportive. Yet during the next meditation we may come face to face with jealous feelings against a good friend, and this ‘jealous gods’ meditation may ultimately be much more beneficial to us, and our friendships, than the time we’d spent in peaceful bliss.

The more difficult meditations are the ones which encourage us to change, to find new ways of approaching the challenges of our lives. We develop new capacities, new inner resource and an increased resilience. We become less reactive, and are able to see the bigger picture. If our life is currently like walking along a steep, stony path, then meditation won’t suddenly turn this into a comfortable shaded avenue. Yet meditation gives us the shoes which protect us from the sharp stones, and a wider ‘big-picture’ perspective which allows us to explore other pathways, rather than simply trudging along the same narrow path forever. Seen from this perspective, the obstacles don’t block our path in life, but assist us to grow and mature in our practice.

Mindfulness practice idea:

In the next few days, note times when you become frustrated by something, and take a moment to pause. Instead of getting upset, is there an opportunity to practise a virtue you value, such as patience, or kindness?

Anja Tanhane





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