Peace and quiet

Clearview sunrise

It was one of the noisiest wards in the hospital – TVs blaring from almost every room, alarms beeping urgently, nurses shouting to each other down the corridor, patients yelling out or screaming, sometimes for hours. From time to time, family members would become overwhelmed and start shouting at the staff or their loved ones. On my second day there, a mother was standing in the corridor, literally howling with despair. The patients all had severe acquired brain injuries, and some had only recently come out of a coma or post-traumatic amnesia. They drifted in and out, trying to orient themselves to their new surroundings. At the weekly multi-disciplinary meetings, the discussion was often about not over-stimulating these patients, giving them short therapy sessions and then allowing them to rest in peace and quiet, so their brains would be able to assimilate the new information. Everyone agreed this was the right treatment plan, but didn’t seem to notice that the environment offered very little in the way of peace and quiet. There were some sources of noise which little could be done about – the beeping alarms, patients yelling out. Yet did there really need to be a TV at full volume in every communal area, when patients had their own in their rooms? Did the staff really need to communicate by yelling down the corridors? Continue reading “Peace and quiet” »

Using our energy wisely


It was 11 pm on the last day of the Fifth International Martial Arts games in Melbourne, and most of the audience had already gone home. Those who’d stayed, however, were about to witness something truly remarkable. For the next thirty minutes, the North Korean taekwondo team fought, somersaulted, smashed and performed their way through some truly amazing martial arts displays. You can see them on YouTube, though that only gives you some idea of the incredible power and precision of their live performance. The North Korean taekwondo team embodies the potential of the human body and mind pushed to its outer limits (they were also quite humorous at times, which was a pleasant surprise).

Like taekwondo, Tai Chi is also a martial art, though the Tai Chi we practise at my weekly class seems a long way (several universes!) removed from what the North Korean taekwondo team were demonstrating. And yet, the basic principle is the same – the martial arts train us to harness and focus the energy we have available, expending it in the most efficient way possible. In order to achieve this, we have to learn to use our minds and bodies in a way which doesn’t waste energy, but instead cultivates and channels it effectively. Much of the time, we go through life using what Daniel Siegel calls ‘the break and accelerator’ functions at the same time. We expend far too much effort on even simple tasks, such as holding a pen or making a cup of coffee, and then wonder why at the end of the day we’re so exhausted. We get caught up in pointless office politics, when we should be focusing our energy on a family member at home. We stomp across the car park, when we could be using that time to ground ourselves using mindful walking, and notice the cool wind or the sunshine. Sometimes I find myself typing away very fast and forcefully, only to make so many typos I spend most of my time going back and correcting the mistakes. Years ago, I noticed I was tensing my stomach muscles when driving, as if my abdominal region played a part in compelling the car to move forward. Once we become aware of it, it can be disconcerting to realise just how habitually we dissipate our precious energy all over the place. Continue reading “Using our energy wisely” »

Happiness in a minor key

Pink flowers


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false and true;

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

(from When You Are Old, by William Butler Yeats)


To see the pilgrim soul of another person, to love their sorrows – we are moved by stories filled with sadness; we instinctively respect the dignity of grief; we have all suffered loss, and we know there are many more losses ahead of us, including, eventually, the loss of our lives. And yet, despite this, many of us feel we have to hide our sorrows, to be relentlessly upbeat, positive, great fun to be around. We all have different temperaments, individual ways in which we experience the difficulties of our lives. Sometimes we feel too vulnerable to show the world what’s going on with us, and the ‘sorrows of (our) changing face’ might be seen by only one or two people close to us. Yet one of the gifts of mindfulness for me has been to become much more comfortable with the full range of my emotions. Apart from sitting with difficult emotions during the formal meditation practice, I’ve learnt to allow myself to experience sadness whenever it arises.  Instead of chastising myself – ‘what have you got to be sad about, there are many people much worse off than you’ (which is quite true) – I can accept sadness as a normal part of any life. Continue reading “Happiness in a minor key” »

Suffering in silence

Walkerville 4.jpg e-mail


When we sit down to meditate, we naturally would like to have an experience which is peaceful, relaxing, and pleasant from beginning to end. However, as anyone who meditates regularly knows, this is not always the case. In fact, in addition to the distractions of a busy mind, what we often find in meditation is discomfort, difficult feelings, emotional pain. Usually in daily life, when faced with these ‘unwelcome visitors’, we try to either ignore them or else seek relief of some kind. In the stillness of a meditation, however, it is more difficult to turn away from our problems. Our normal distractions are not available, there is no one to share our experience with, no way of expressing what we’re feeling. We are, in fact, suffering in silence.

Silence, as Thomas Merton wrote so beautifully, has many dimensions – ‘it can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery.’ It’s important to reach out to others when we struggle, to talk to a friend or get professional help. Yet we can also reach out to ourselves, within the silence of a meditation, and bring kindness and compassion to our experience of suffering.

Continue reading “Suffering in silence” »