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

 

Balancing discipline and dogma

‘It seems to be human nature to take anything that works (ceremony for example) and then make it solid and rigid. It’s when we put ego and solidity and rigidity around it that we make a problem.’

Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher

 

If you would like to live as a monk in Thailand, you will be required to follow 227 precepts or rules. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as not committing murder, stealing, or slandering your fellow monks. Others, such as the injunction not to carry wool with oneself for more than three walking days, are a little more obscure. To live as a monk is to choose a highly disciplined life, one which is designed to create the right conditions for spiritual development. We may regard some of those rules with a certain bemusement, or even feel that rules are not for us – we should be free spirits, able to act in whatever way feels right to us. Yet our lives are also bound by countless rules, probably more than 227, mostly designed to help us live in peace with others. Even something as simple as driving to the shops to get some milk requires us to follow road rules, such as stopping at a red light, as well as the driving conventions of our culture, which will determine how generous we are when it comes to giving way, how respectful we are of bikes on the road, and so on. There are rules about how to behave in a supermarket queue, what we can wear at work, what we are allowed to say and when, how late we can keep the whole neighbourhood awake with our party, whether we’re allowed to check Facebook at work, and countless others.

Then there are the disciplines we set for ourselves to keep us healthy and happy – that early morning run in drizzling rain, saying no to the extra glass of wine, meditating regularly regardless of whether we feel like it. Just as religious groups work out over time which practices and ceremonies are helpful, so we too might figure out for ourselves that yes, regular exercise is important to me, I will regret getting drunk, my day goes much better when I’ve made the time to meditate in the morning. Some form of discipline seems to be essential for us to lead a ‘good’ life. Groups of people need structures and guidelines if they are to work well and efficiently together. Yet often, within a generation or two, these guidelines can become ends in themselves – rigid rules everyone has to obey, or else! There is a Zen saying which illustrates this:

‘Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’

Our rules are like fingers pointing at the moon – they are helpful, but only if we don’t forget they are simply there to point us in the right direction.

Our lives are a constant balancing act between becoming too rigid on one hand, and on the other hand lacking the self-discipline to choose those actions which will benefit us. As we grow and change, the rules which served us well two years ago may no longer be appropriate now. It’s not always easy to get the balancing act right. If I wake up with a sore throat, is a morning run in pouring rain a good idea? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Mindfulness can help us tune more deeply into our present-moment experience, and discern what is really going on – is my desire to sleep in just laziness, or do I need to be flexible with my exercise routine this morning? Hopefully, as we keep tuning in, over time we will have a clearer sense of when flexibility or discipline may be needed.

Weekly practice idea:

What are the rules you live by? Do you think you generally have a tendency to be too rigid, or not disciplined enough? Perhaps you are very disciplined at work, for example, but not so good when it comes to self-care. Stop and pause from time to time, and ask yourself – is my current action about healthy discipline, rigid dogma, or a bit too laissez-faire?

 

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

 

The stream of life

‘When the transient stream of life is frozen into a block of ice, the frozen block of ice no longer knows that its true nature is water. It becomes hard and unyielding and clashes up against other ice blocks. Practice is about melting the frozen block of emotion/thought in the fire of attention. When we do this we return to our original nature, the stream of life – soft, transparent, bubbly, fluid and adaptable. This moment to moment stream is happiness itself.’

Geoff Dawson (Zen teacher and psychologist)

When we are confronted with the joys and challenges of our existence, we always have a choice – we can harden ourselves against the experience, or soften into it. Different circumstances call for a range of responses, and it would be naïve to think we can always be soft and gentle. Yet even situations which require us to be strong and tough can still be met with a sense of fluidity. As the Tao Te Ching says, nothing is more fluid than water, yet nothing is stronger – over time it can wear down whole mountains.

Gradually, as we tune into our experiences through mindfulness, we might become aware of our default position towards life. We like to think we always choose the most logical and wise response to any situation, but in fact many of our behaviour patterns are habitual, and have little to do with the circumstances at hand. We may have gone through difficult times which caused us to harden up, and this might have become the way we now approach life. It takes trust to soften into each moment, and perhaps that trust went ‘walkabout’ a long time ago.

And yet, as Geoff Dawson writes, by imagining ourselves as blocks of ice, we are constantly clashing up against life – against others, and also against ourselves. When we bring the warm energy of mindful awareness to our life, some of our sharp edges begin to soften, and we no longer need to spend so much energy keeping our block of ice frozen and solid. We become more responsive to life as it is, instead of constantly hardening ourselves against imaginary threats.

The American meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach offers a beautiful meditation to help us in this. She invites us to become aware of parts of our bodies which are tight, such as the shoulders, and to imagine that this part is like ice. As we rest our awareness there, we can feel the ice beginning to melt to become like water, and then to evaporate into gas. We are left with a sense of lightness and ease – of being able to soften into the experience of meditation – which we can then take into the rest of our day.

Weekly practice idea:

When you become aware of tension in a part of your body, visualise it as a block of ice, which begins to melt as you bring the warmth of mindfulness to it. Over time, we can also soften into the rest of our lives, both the joys and difficulties.

Anja Tanhane

Silence

‘A religious spirit in which one feels there is nothing to which one is not related… This is the experience of silence.’

John Cage

The first performance of John Cage’s seminal piece, 4’33’’, was met by outrage and dismay. It took place at Woodstock, New York, in 1952, in front of an audience which supported the contemporary arts. Yet even for this avant garde crowd of modern artists, the performance, in which virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note (though marking the three movements by opening and closing the piano lid), proved too provocative. They began to whisper among themselves, and some people got up to leave. Thus, along with the wind in the trees outside, and the sound of rain on the roof, they became part of the music. John Cage famously said, ‘there will never be silence’, and the concert hall setting, the prestige of the composer and the performer, the cultural expectations of the audience, created the ideal conditions for a group of people to sit quietly for almost five minutes and simply listen to the ‘sounds of silence.’

There is ongoing debate whether 4’33’’ can be considered music. It is still widely performed, by orchestras, pianists, other instrumentalists. Nowadays the audience, of course, knows the piece, so the performance doesn’t confound their expectations as the original one did.

When we are in silence, we are better able to come face to face with our pre-conceived ideas, biases, our judgemental thinking mind. Everything about a formal concert performance pre-disposes us to take our seat and wait for the performance to start with a clear set of expectations. If a concert pianist is listed as the performer, we expect to listen to accomplished piano playing, not the ambient sounds inside and outside the hall. In a similar way, we take our seat in everyday life, look forward to a mostly predictable day, and therefore often miss much of what is happening.

John Cage was influenced by Zen, and said at one point,

‘Everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.’

Is it possible for our intention to go down to zero, as John Cage suggested? Zero is a big number (ironically!). Yet we can definitely open our attention during meditation, to become aware of a greater range of subtle sensations, thoughts and experiences, to be less selective in what we perceive. And yes, there is a certain magic in simply being aware of life as it is unfolding.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 or 20 minutes (or even better, 4’33’’!) to listen to the ‘sounds of silence’. What is that experience like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

Precious moments

red berriesAccording 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. Continue reading “Precious moments” »

Dignity

Kangaroo paw

Do you know a person who embodies both dignity and humility? It could be someone you’ve met, or a well-known public figure, or even a historical or fictional person. They carry themselves well, don’t often look harried or put upon, but are also warm and approachable. If you can’t think of a particular person, perhaps imagine someone. Get a sense of what spending time in their company might be like. Is it relaxing being around them? Do you feel like you can let your guard down a little, and perhaps feel more at ease about who you are?

The meditation posture, where we sit with our back upright but relaxed, our eyes closed or half-open with a soft gaze, and our shoulders at ease but not slumped forward, is a posture of centeredness, strength, and dignity. Continue reading “Dignity” »