Welcome to the final of the summer specials of favourite mindfulness reflections. New reflections will be published from Monday, 2.2. This reflection was first posted on 14.10.2013:

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system.

We’re all pretty familiar with the self-protection system of fight/flight, which activates the stress response. Most of us are also used to living much of our lives in the drive system, constantly striving to achieve more and more. The point about the model is that all three systems are important – we certainly need to protect ourselves, and without drive we’d just stay in bed in the morning and hope that someone will be kind enough to bring us a cup of tea and some toast at some point. However, all three systems need to be in balance, and in our hectic modern lifestyle, the soothing and affiliation system can easily miss out. And yet this is the system which promotes deep contentment, where we can feel most deeply ourselves, where we can rest in the simplicity of being present rather than getting caught up in chasing endlessly moving goal posts.

Although we all strive for happiness, I often find contentment a more useful concept to think about. It is more stable than happiness, less dependent on external triggers. There are times when I’m a little melancholic or anxious, but still deeply content. Like a beautiful Baroque Adagio, which can be yearning, complex, sad, yet still leaves us calm and at peace when we listen to it, so contentment can help us feel in the deepest sense ourselves. It is at the core of us, when we slow down and allow ourselves to be. Contentment is the state we touch more and more during meditation, and which over time infuses the rest of our lives. It balances the fight/flight and drive systems, without diminishing their importance in our lives.

A baby which grows up in a loving household learns from its caregivers to regulate its own emotional states through self-soothing. But even if we didn’t learn these skills in childhood, we can still develop them as adults – through learning practices which activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the resting and regenerating state); through our relationships with other people; and through an understanding that our three systems need to be in balance, even if this doesn’t seem to suit the dominant paradigm of our consumerist culture. Meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, prayer, gardening, walking, listening to music, playing with pets, holding a sleeping child, cooking with love – all these can help to ground us, to bring us back to ourselves. Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to bring with it a long list of benefits, which are all excellent, but essentially they all come down to just one factor – mindfulness meditation helps us self-regulate and balance our three emotional systems, so we live in greater harmony with ourselves and the world around us.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a piece of music which evokes feelings of contentment, and set aside a quiet time when you can listen to it – perhaps lying on the couch with the phone turned off, or with headphones in a park if your home is very busy. Allow your muscles to relax, and your breath to slow with the music. Over the coming months, come back to this piece of music from time to time when life gets overly hectic.

Anja Tanhane



Cultivating mindfulness

Welcome to the fourth in our summer series of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this post was first published on 9th September 2013:

In a 2012 survey of British young people (16-23 y.o.) about the origins of the food they eat, 40% were unable to link an image of a dairy cow with milk. 7% instead thought milk comes from wheat. A survey this year also found that 30% of UK primary students thought cheese was made from plants, and a quarter believed fish fingers came from chicken or pigs. Nearly one in three British adults had no idea how potatoes were grown, and one in five thought that parsnips thrived on trees. Hopefully Australians are a little more knowledgeable about growing food, but the link between cultivating food, and grabbing it off a supermarket shelf, is certainly more tenuous than for past generations. A counter movement has been the increasing popularity of home vegie gardens, farmers markets, and taking food miles into account when shopping.

The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’, which means ‘to cultivate.’ To cultivate something implies ongoing effort and attention. It’s easy to stick a seed into the ground, and at the time of planting, you feel pretty good. This is like going to a workshop on mindfulness, or reading an inspirational book – you might feel you’ve done something important that you will benefit from. Yet most of the time, simply planting a seed isn’t enough. We also need to nurture it – by watering it, providing compost and other nutrients, and keeping the area free of weeds. Young plants also need to be protected against pest and diseases. All this has to be done on an ongoing basis, whether you feel like it or not. You might be in a rush to get to work but have to water the garden in the morning before a hot day. You might yearn for a lazy Saturday afternoon, but instead find yourself out in the drizzling rain weeding the vegie patch. This is like having a regular meditation practice – you just do the meditation, regardless of whether you are in the mood for it or not, whether you’d really prefer to be doing something else with your time.

Seeds also require the right growing conditions – to be planted at a certain time of year, in sandy or rich soil, in full sun or shade, protected against wind or supported with a trellis. This is akin to the conditions of our lives around the meditation practice, in particular our ethical behaviour, and how we relate to other people and the environment. Seeds don’t grow in isolation, and neither does our meditation practice. We rely on the guidance of teachers, the support of other meditators, and our own good intentions, if we would like to establish a meaningful meditation practice in our lives.

Once we have planted a seed, it will grow according to its own nature. We can tend it and protect it, but there is nothing we can do to force the process – it simply unfolds according to its latent potential. Similarly, during meditation, we have to put our goals aside, and trust that the process will unfold in its own way. For example, we might be learning meditation to help us with our anxiety, but the initial practice might involve sitting with very acute feelings of anxiety. Eventually, with regular meditation, the anxiety will decrease, but there is no point in sitting down to a meditation determined to make the anxiety go away – meditation is a process, not a result.

In our modern society, we’re not always in touch with cultivating what is important to us – be it knowing where our food comes from, or making time for practices which develop equanimity and a calmer mind. We can flit from one workshop to the next, always looking for ‘the answer’, when mindfulness is actually always with us. All we need to do is cultivate it, provide the right conditions, observe what else is required, and tend to it day after day, regardless of the external conditions and the lure of more exciting pastimes. There is nothing glamorous or exciting about meditation, but if we commit to a regular practice, it will provide our soul with the nourishment we need.

Weekly practice idea:

What are the conditions which allow mindfulness to flourish in your life? Choose one, with the intention of ‘cultivating it’ this week.

Anja Tanhane



The traffic light meditation

Welcome to the third in our summer series of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this post was first published on 14th May 2013:

How often do we say – I’d like to have time to stop and smell the roses? Yet when we do get some rare time to ourselves, we may hardly know what to do with it. Even worse is being stopped in our tracks against our will. Traffic jams, computer problems, queues at the bank, being on hold to our telephone company for forty minutes, waiting at the doctor’s. Finally, an opportunity to stop, but do we enjoy it? Once we’ve finished arguing with the telephone company, do we turn to our nearest and dearest and say, ‘gee, I needed that, forty minutes of muzak and being told my call is important, I feel quite rejuvenated now, having had that unexpected time out in the middle of the day’?

Probably not. Many of us complain about being too busy, but being forced to slow down can really annoy us, even bring us to the brink of rage. A few years ago, the health organisation I was working for had frequent problems with their computer system. There would be days and weeks where the computers worked at half their speed, if at all. I was teaching mindfulness, but did I enjoy being slowed down like this? Not one bit!

Yet a simple shift in attitude can transform the way we experience these unexpected frustrations. A great example is traffic lights, but if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with few traffic lights, you can choose any other circumstance where you’re being forced to slow down against your will – perhaps being stuck behind a slow-moving horse float up a curvy road, or trying to get your children going in the morning. Now, imagine you’re running late to something important, and you’ve just come across your fifth red traffic light (or slow-moving truck) in a row. What do you feel? When I ask this question at workshops, the answers range from ‘frustrated’, ‘annoyed’, to ‘furious’ and ‘enraged’. So you have a choice. You can either get yourself more and more worked up, until your arrive at your destination red in the face and with anger pouring out of your pores, snapping at the first unfortunate person who greets you with a friendly good morning (‘Good morning?! It hasn’t been a very good morning for me so far, let me tell you!!’). Or you can use the opportunity for some quiet mindfulness practice. Relax back into your car seat. Become aware your breath. Allow the shoulders to drop. Notice the environment, the sounds, the weather. If you have music playing, listen to it. And then, once the light has turned green, or the truck pulled over, you can proceed with your journey feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. You’ll arrive glowing with serenity, and people will say to you, good morning, you’re looking well today!

A colleague of mine recently came to her second mindfulness workshop with me, and told us a wonderful story of her traffic light meditation. She has to turn right into the car park at work, and the lights can take forever to change. Before the first workshop, she used to get really annoyed, and sometimes she even drove through a red light in sheer frustration. After hearing about the traffic light meditation, she decided to use her waiting time to send loving energy towards the traffic light, surrounding it with love. She says she arrives at work feeling great, having spent those few minutes generating loving energy. As she told her story, I had a vision of traffic lights all over the city being bathed in a loving glow by waiting commuters!

Weekly practice idea:

The traffic light meditation (or whatever frustrating circumstance you come across). With any luck, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practise this!

Anja Tanhane



Taking care

Welcome to the second in our summer series of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this post was first published on 10.6.2013:

In the Japanese film ‘Departures’, a young unemployed cellist, Daigo, inadvertently finds himself in a job preparing recently deceased for the coffin. This is done in a highly ritualised manner, at the house of the deceased, in front of the family. His new boss, Sasaki, is an older man of few words. However, when Daigo follows him to his assignments, he sees with what care and attentiveness Sasaki prepares the bodies. Following a closely-prescribed ritual so the body is always treated with respect and never exposed, Sasaki washes the deceased, dresses them in a beautiful kimono, applies make up and arranges the hair. Family members are invited to wipe the face of their loved one with a cloth and say good-bye. Through his gentle tending of the body, Sasaki creates a space for the family to be with their loved one final time before the deceased is locked into the coffin. Daigo witnesses the gratitude of the families at being able to participate in this ritual. Despite the stigma associated with the profession, and the opposition of his wife Mika, who thinks it is disgusting, he finds the job deeply rewarding and stays committed to it.

What is beautifully portrayed in this film is the healing power of taking care. There will be no national honours for Daigo and Sasaki, no widespread adoration, or lucrative engagements running motivational seminars. In fact, they operate at the edge of their society, shunned unless needed, constantly dealing with prejudice and rudeness. But the service they provide, and it is a service in the deepest meaning of the word, is profoundly healing and transformative for those whose houses they enter. The healing power doesn’t lie in the job itself, but in the tender, mindful way they go about it. The ritual space they create allows the families to grieve, to express their love, and to begin the long journey of saying good-bye.

We come across people like Daigo and Sasaki every day, but often we may hardly notice them. They don’t draw attention to themselves, and their tasks can be mundane and unglamorous. But we know when we are in their presence, because the care they take when interacting with the world leaves us feeling at ease and appreciated.

Weekly practice idea:

Find an ordinary, routine task and perform it with attentive care throughout the week. Take time to notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane