Sending a message

‘When I want to send a message, I go to the post office.’

Ernest Hemingway

In this era of quick sound bites, where even the prime minister has less than ten seconds to explain why he or she is sending troops to war, Hemingway’s quote reminds us not everything can be packaged up neatly into a ‘message’. Imagine a politician being able to say to the media,

‘This issue is very complex, and I really don’t know what the right solution might be.’

He or she would be pilloried by the press, and yet this is how I feel about many current issues, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Novels are about asking questions, not providing answers. The characters in novels are flawed beings who struggle to get by in a world where there is no simple solution for their problems. They make mistakes, they hurt others, and yet we sympathise with them. As we become absorbed in their lives, it is easy to feel,

‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

Yet in daily life, we often forget this, and can become judgmental towards people who haven’t got it ‘together’ as wonderfully as we have. I work in a community health organisation, which focuses on supporting people who are particularly disadvantaged. As we get to know our clients, what my colleagues and I most notice about them is how incredibly resilient they are. You could fill pages with their health and other problems, yet here they are, smiling, engaged, bemused by the latest set-back but also determined to soldier on. There is nothing sentimental about the respect which people who work in this area have for their clients. It is simply a matter of knowing a little of their story, and understanding how difficult their lives have been.

When we are confronted with the problem of social disadvantage, we can either give up and try to ignore these complex, seemingly intractable problems; or we can formulate one or two simplistic solutions and promote them relentlessly. The other alternative is to become more ‘comfortable with uncertainty’, in the words of meditation teacher Pema Chodren. When we meditate, we suspend searching for solutions and are simply present with our confused emotions, thoughts, perceptions. Do we have a message for the world, once we’ve finished meditating? Hopefully not. But we probably do understand ourselves, and therefore also others, a little better.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of an issue you are confused about – it could be a political issue, or difficulties with someone in your life, or a complex social problem. Sit for ten or twenty minutes, and, instead of trying to find a solution, allow yourself to simply be present with conflicting thoughts and emotions. How does it feel, to not go straight into problem-solving mode?

Anja Tanhane


Taking care of the minutes

‘If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.’

Tibetan saying

This saying from Tibet beautifully encapsulates the philosophy of mindfulness. When we find ourselves struggling in life, or we just have a sense of disquiet or unease, we might look for major changes, something which will really make a difference. And sometimes big changes are necessary – for example if you’re fighting an addiction and need to check into a residential rehab facility for months in order to establish a completely different way of life. Or we may retrain for a new career, or leave an abusive relationship, or move to another country as refugees or migrants.

Most of the time, however, it is the way in which we engage with the ordinary minutes of our day which will, slowly but surely, change the way we engage with life. The neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes it as turning fleeting mental states into permanent neural traits. Over time, something minor and seemingly insignificant becomes, if repeated often enough, an important part of who we are.

Imagine you’re sitting at your desk, and you’re about to get up to fetch a document from the printer. Instead of charging across the room while anxiously thinking ahead to the next task and simultaneously worrying about something from days ago, you pause a moment for a slightly deeper breath as you get up. You walk over to the printer more slowly than usual, noticing the ground underneath your feet. You’ve been sitting at your desk for a while now, so you take the opportunity to roll your shoulders back a few times, really feeling those muscles relaxing and letting go as you walk. You pick up the document and, back at your desk, allow yourself to savour for a moment the satisfaction of having completed this particular task.

Every time you choose not to rush, to instead use the present moment to ground yourself, you are stimulating pathways in your brain which allow you to become more centred, resilient, and calm. Over time, these passing neural states become your neural traits – they become the person you are. By taking care of the minutes, you are no longer buffeted about by every minor stress, but are able to feel strong and confident in the midst of the ordinary difficulties of your life.

Weekly practice idea:

Each day, choose one routine activity to do a little more slowly and mindfully than usual. Take the time to notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane


Not trying too hard

One of the most useful skills we can learn in life is how to put just the right amount of effort into whatever we are doing. We often have a tendency to either over-exert ourselves, or else complete our tasks half-heartedly and absentmindedly. We think we save energy by not giving ourselves fully to something, and that we will achieve extra by trying really hard. Unfortunately, neither of these is true – it probably takes more energy to not pay attention to what you’re doing, because your mind is in two places at once. It’s also inefficient, and we often need to go back and fix up our mistakes when we’ve tried to get by on automatic pilot.

Using too much effort to achieve something can be more insidious, as we may not even notice we’re doing it. Take, for example, a simple action such as picking up a cup. We can do it carelessly, and drop it or spill it. Or we can grab at it and hold it with a tight grip, although it’s not very heavy. We can type using a lot of effort with our fingers, or hold the phone with more force than is needed, perhaps with a great deal of tension in our shoulders as well. There are many daily actions where we might notice ourselves doing this, once we start to pay attention. Years ago I became aware of tightening my stomach muscles while I was driving, as if my body were propelling the car forward rather than just my foot on the accelerator.

Another problem with using too much effort is that we tend to look terribly busy and important while we rush around expending our energy all over the place. The adrenaline kicks in, and we can feel quite elated and enthusiastic. We might get positive feedback from colleagues or managers, and if someone asks us how we are, we can say quite truthfully (with a little sigh),

‘Very busy.’

When we are having a challenging conversation with someone, we can also easily fall into the trap of either becoming overly aggressive (raising our voice perhaps, or trying to hammer home our point by repeating ourselves and bombarding the other person), or else becoming avoidant (not speaking clearly, mumbling something vague and avoiding eye contact before wandering off).

Daniel Siegel, who has written extensively on the physiology of mindfulness, has a nice phrase to describe how mindfulness can assist us to regulate our arousal levels by ‘balancing the break and accelerator function’. There are times in our lives when we need to give every ounce of energy we have, and other times when we can relax a bit and let ourselves be mindlessly entertained. We can save ourselves from wasting our precious energy, and from drifting through life on automatic pilot, if we become more aware in each moment of the amount of energy we’re using, and regulating ourselves to whatever is appropriate under the circumstances.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a moment to stop from time to time, and ask yourself – am I using too much energy here, too little, or just the right amount? Simple actions, such as chopping up vegies or making the bed, can be illuminating – how often do we end up performing these tasks with either little awareness or else far too much effort?

Anja Tanhane


The second arrow

The parable of the second arrow is a well-known Buddhist story about dealing with suffering more skilfully. It is said the Buddha once asked a student,

‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?’

He then went on to explain,

‘In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.’

This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I’m not sure I would go this far – to my mind there are clearly situations where to experience suffering is the only human response. However, it is true that our interpretation of events plays a large role in how we experience them, and that we do have a tendency to overdramatise much of what happens to us. Let’s say someone at home or work leaves a pile of dirty dishes on the bench. You notice it, and have an immediate reaction of annoyance. So far, so good. But what often happens next is we think – he/she is always leaving a mess for me to clean up, how many times have I said blah blah, they clearly don’t care for me at all, why am I always unappreciated; it would have been better had I not been born at all…

So that last bit is probably (hopefully!) a slight exaggeration, but we can go quite quickly from a situation – someone annoys us, our arm hurts, we’re coming down with a cold – to extrapolating all kinds of emotions and thoughts from it which have little to do with the original stimulus. This can be seen as the second arrows of suffering – the ones we add onto the original arrows which life is already flinging at us in any case. I was talking about this recently on the phone to a friend who was at home with his sick family – he, his wife, and their four young children had all been struck down with the flu and were at various stages of sickness and recovery. What he’d noticed was his own reaction to being ill – it felt wrong and unfair, he was young and had been riding his bike to work to get fit and he shouldn’t have been saddled with this illness. His children, on the other hand, played when they had a bit of energy, and slept when they felt unwell. They took the illness in their stride and simply responded to how they were feeling at the time. Of course they didn’t enjoy being sick, but they didn’t beat themselves up mentally with dialogues of what should or shouldn’t have been. They were dealing with the first arrow, but not the second one.

We probably find ourselves dealing with the second arrow of suffering many times in the course of a day. The story is not about denying our initial reaction, to pretend we are immune from pain. It is about having a choice in how to proceed next. Over time, having an awareness of this choice, and refraining from flinging endless second arrows at ourselves, can help to liberate us from much unnecessary suffering.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you have a strong response of pain or annoyance at a situation, ask yourself – what is my story line here? Am I still dealing with the first arrow of suffering, or have I well and truly moved into the second one?

Anja Tanhane