Daily joy

What brings us joy? During a time of pandemic, when many of our favourite pastimes have temporarily been suspended, this question may have taken on a new sense of importance in our lives.  Many have discovered new activities which bring them joy, such as baking, or bike riding, or playing board games with their family. For some people, very little has changed during this time, while for others, their whole lives might have been upended. Whatever our circumstances, for many of us it has been a time for taking stock of our lives, and maybe re-evaluating some of our priorities.

Joy can be like a spark, bright and bubbly; or like a mountain lake, calm and deep. It can be a fleeting moment, barely a wisp, or something which permeates our life for days. Sometimes it can come upon us randomly, seemingly out of the blue, and at other times we may have done a lot of work and preparation for our moment of joy, such as when we are graduating with a degree or getting married.

 The practice of mindfulness can help us to discern which aspects of our lives bring genuine joy rather than a brief distraction. Perhaps one of the reasons why Marie Kondo’s book ‘The life-changing magic of tidying up’ and the related TV series have been so popular is because she encourages us to ask the question – ‘does this spark joy for me?’ She invites us to tune into our bodies and become attuned to when that spark of joy is present, and when it’s not. Moreover, she then suggests that we let go of what is no longer needed with a sense of gratitude, for what it has given us while it was part of our lives. Noticing what sparks joy, and being grateful for whatever comes into our lives, even if only briefly, are both wonderful practices, and they remind me of a quote by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:

            ‘Joy comes from touching things that are refreshing and beautiful, within and outside of ourselves.’

Years ago, I came across another way of regularly bringing a sense of joy into life, when I worked through the twelve-week program in Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way’. This course is designed to stimulate our creativity, and one of the key practices is the ‘artist’s date’. This is a commitment to take the ‘inner artist’ out on a weekly date to somewhere quirky and slightly unexpected. It could be visiting a little shop you’d normally just walk past, like a train enthusiast shop or tiny art gallery. Or perhaps stopping and walking through a park you often drive past, attending a lunchtime student concert at a conservatorium, visiting a community festival at the local temple, booking into a star gazing evening or a behind the scenes tour – whatever awakens our curiosity and openness to the unexpected. Pretty soon, after a few of these ‘dates’, we find that sense of curiosity and delight spilling over into the rest of our lives, and notice moments of delight in all kinds of places we would have usually just rushed past.

 During these times of disruption, tuning in to what ‘sparks joy’ for us, and setting aside regular times for those joyful activities, can be one way to strengthen our internal resources in a way which is most true for us.     

Mindfulness practice:

Take yourself on an ‘artist’s date’ – somewhere quirky and delightful. It may be local to start off with, and as restrictions lift, somewhere further afield. You could even, for now, make use of the many online offerings to explore a new unfamiliar area. Notice what ‘sparks joy’, and how this feels for you.

Anja Tanhane

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Crafting moments of tranquility

 

The Japanese expression wakei-seijyaku is made up of four characters – wa means harmony, kei is respect, sei stands for purity, and jyaku for serenity and appreciation. It means taking the time to deliberately ‘craft’ an experience of inner tranquility, to rest in the present noticing a moment of beauty.

During a time of a global pandemic, such a concept might seem sweet but irrelevant, better suited to happier times when it made sense to stop and smell the roses from time to time. And yes, there is a lot to be anxious about, on a personal but also a global level. The impact of the pandemic has been massive, and no one knows what the long-term effects of this upheaval will be. This is not a sprint, not even a marathon – there are likely to be some permanent changes to our way of life, but it will be some time before we have a sense of what this may look like.

One of the strengths of the human species is our adaptability to changing conditions. We can’t control everything which happens to us, and we have complex interpersonal and emotional lives which mean that our reactions to a crisis are also complex and deeply-felt. Yet we do have some choice about how we respond to our circumstances. For most of us, a certain amount of anxiety during this time is a given. It’s not helpful to ignore it, but neither do we need to add extra fuel to the fire. In the same way that a skilled craftsperson takes time and care to create a valuable object rather than a cheap piece of throw-away junk, so we can take the time and care to create some beautiful moments rather than just rushing through the days. We can use the skills of mindfulness and attention to enhance the fleeting special moments which are already there, and to also create some new ones.

I like the idea of ‘crafting’ some moments of beauty and tranquility, instead of just hoping they might suddenly arrive in our lives. To craft an object means to collect the necessary materials, to practise certain skills, and to set aside time and mental space to create new objects. We might ask ourselves – ‘what are the materials which I could gather for my moments of tranquility’? These are different for all of us – for some it might be time in nature, listening to music, baking bread, knitting, meditating or praying. Once we have these materials, how often can we practise with them? Who can guide and teach us, as the master craftsperson used to teach the apprentice? What helps me to create the time and mental space to consciously craft a few moments of calm, harmony and appreciation?

The Japanese tea ceremony creates a setting where every detail is designed to enable those who participate to experience it richly and fully. It has evolved over many generations, as have the rituals of other cultures which enable people to stop and simply experience the preciousness of the moment. We don’t need elaborate rituals, but it can help to deliberately cultivate the conditions which lead to moments of peace.

An aspect of wakei-seijyaku is that of appreciation, of having respect for what we have, and I have found that mindfulness often brings out these qualities in us. We may not have a Japanese garden with its own tea hut, but the act of making a cup of tea or coffee can become a mini tea ceremony in our lives, if we bring to it some of the qualities of wakei-seijyaku.

Mindfulness practice:

Set aside some time and reflect on what the ‘materials’ in your life are which can give you moments of inner peace. Without aiming to be ‘peaceful’ all the time, how can you use these ‘materials’ to cultivate small sanctuaries of tranquility in your life?

Anja Tanhane

 

Finding balance

This is a difficult time for all of us – within a relatively short time, life as we knew it has come to a halt. For many, there is the added anxiety of financial hardship, or knowing someone who is ill, or being separated from loved ones in circumstances where normally we would be celebrating or grieving together. Many of our assumptions have been swept aside, and the future looks uncertain. At the same time, we may also be aware that we are still better off than many others around the world, and we may take strength and comfort from things like cooking a delicious meal, connecting with others online, having more time to explore long-neglected interests, and being less busy in general.

For me, what has been important during this time is trying to find a good balance – and what this looks like will change from day to day, sometimes even moment to moment. There are times for acknowledging feelings like grief and anxiety, for feeling overwhelmed and exhausted; and there are also times when I can focus on looking after myself, temporarily switch off from the bad news, and enjoy the many blessings I still do have. It’s easy to think of one of these as being the norm and the others as aberrations, but it’s probably more balanced to vacillate between a range of feeling states, allowing each to have its place in our life without going to an extreme with any of them.

What we are going through requires a massive mental adjustment, and for us in Australia, the pandemic follows a very confronting summer of devastating bushfires. There are no glib easy solutions for any of this, but even in the midst of these insecurities, the small gestures of kindness, the fleeting moments of connection, the presence of mindfulness, can help us to navigate this time with a measure of balance and grace. I’ve been heartened by the rainbows which have appeared on footpaths and in people’s windows, with encouraging messages and thanking those working on the front lines. We need to keep our distance from others, but we can still smile and say a friendly hallo from a few metres away. Last week I sowed a lot of seeds for winter vegetables, and I look forward to peeking into my mini greenhouse each morning to see if they have sprouted yet. At the same time, I’m more tired than usual, and I have moments of feeling quite overwhelmed by it all. I’m also aware that for people who are already vulnerable, this will be an incredibly challenging time – there is no getting away from that, and there is only so much that we, as individuals, can do about it.

Simple moments of mindfulness, of taking the time to tune into the here and now, can make quite a difference, both in that actual moment and also for the long term. There’s a place for escapism, for wanting to forget all about it for a while. And it’s also natural that we want to check the news, particularly as the laws change from day to day. However, spending most of our time either escaping the news or obsessively reading them is not helpful for our sense of health and wellbeing.

I’ve appreciated having my regular meditation practice, and I also make time throughout the day to pause for a moment and tune in – tuning into my body, and what I can see, hear, feel, smell, and touch. I notice the golden light of the autumn sun, the movement of the breath in my body, and I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle half smile, and it’s easy to smile when I look at my cat. Washing our hands activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the resting and regenerating system, and so I try to make washing my hands an opportunity for mindfulness rather than stress. They’re little moments, but they all add up. I’ve quoted this line by the  Australian poet Noel Davis in a previous blog, and would like to offer it again as a blessing for these difficult times:

‘Let tiny drops of stillness fall gently through your day.’

Anja Tanhane

 

Just for now

Just for Now,
Without asking how, let yourself sink into stillness.

by Danna Faulds

It’s such a liberating phrase – ‘just for now’. We don’t say to ourselves often enough – ‘just for now, this is what I’m doing. Just for now, it is enough.’ Instead there can be this sense of ‘Yes, I’m doing this task, but there are plenty of other things I should be doing right now as well.’ Even though we haven’t yet worked out how to clone ourselves and actually carry out all these different tasks simultaneously, we may still feel as if we should. And this way of living can be the cause of a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and angst.

I’m aware of this when I’m in the garden and notice all the work to be done, instead of (just for now) enjoying the plants which are growing well, and listening to the insects and birds. I’ve even caught myself, when I’m doing an essential task like bringing in the washing, feeling guilty for not doing something else. Perhaps it’s because many of us are trying to cram so many things into our lives – somehow it doesn’t all quite fit, and so we’re constantly playing catch-up. Whatever the reason, it can cause a low-level anxiety which is quite exhausting over time.

We might pride ourselves on our multi-tasking, but research shows that there is actually no such thing as multi-tasking – we’re constantly switching our attention back and forth, and for each switch we pay the price of losing a little bit of energy and efficiency.

The opposite of ‘just for now’ is a sense of ‘what if’ or ‘it’s never enough’. How would it feel if, throughout the day, we could instead say to ourselves.

            ‘Just for now, I’m doing this,’ or

            ‘Just for now, I will allow myself a few moments of peace and stillness and contentment.’

Mindfulness practice:

Take a moment to pause several times throughout the day, and say quietly to yourself – ‘just for now, I’m doing this’, or ‘just for now, I pause and rest’. Notice how this feels – could this be something worthwhile to incorporate into your everyday life?

Anja Tanhane

Our frame of mind





Prayer flags in light.jpg website

 

It is day three of the retreat, and I’m feeling settled into the daily routine of sitting meditation, walking meditation, cooking lunch for the group, and a walk after dinner along the river nearby. My mind is calmer than when I first arrived, but with greater calmness comes increased clarity, and by day three I’m a little dismayed by what I find. Not only am I judgemental towards myself and others in the group (I’m used to that!), I’m also critical towards almost every moment which arises and falls. It’s very subtle, and doesn’t prevent me from feeling deep contentment and joy at times. But the judging mind quickly weighs up each moment, and for some reason seems to find most of them deficient in some way.

It is a strange phenomenon, this eternal dissatisfaction most of us seem to feel with our lives, even when things are going quite well for us. The Buddha called it ‘dukkha’, which is often translated as suffering, but could be more accurately described as ‘the unsatisfactory nature of existence’. It’s not necessarily dependent on external circumstances, but seems to spring from our own frame of mind. In Milton’s poem ‘Paradise Lost’, the fallen angel Satan says,

 

The mind is its own place,

                And in itself

                Can make a heaven of hell,

                A hell of heaven.

 

Most of the time, if we look at the actual moment, our lives are okay. It may not be some idealised version of paradise we’ve conjured up, but we’re not usually in immediate life-threatening danger. Of course there are times when life is anything but okay, and some people live long term with ongoing suffering, trauma or pain. Few people would get through life without experiencing times of great misery and distress. For much of our lives, however, even when our circumstances are not too bad, our minds, at a subtle level, judge our lives to be deficient in some way. What would it be like to sometimes say to ourselves,

‘What I have, right now, in this moment, is enough.’

 

Weekly practice idea:

From time to time, say to yourself, ‘it’s good to be here’. What comes up for you when you say this phrase?

 

Anja Tanhane





The Practice of STOP






Echinacea

In all the mindfulness workshops and courses I’ve taught over the years, the practice of STOP has been one that people again and again say they’ve found particularly helpful. The STOP practice is part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction curriculum, a course developed by Jon Kabat Zinn. Basically, several times a day, particularly when you are feeling a little harried or rushed, you:

S Stop and interrupt your thoughts

T Take a breath (or two or three!)

O Observe what is happening around you and inside you.

What can I see, hear, sense, smell, feel?

What am I thinking?

P Proceed and reconnect with your surroundings and activity

It is a very simple practice, easy to do during the day – at your desk, for a few minutes before getting out of your car, while your children are playing, walking to the letter box. At first, it’s probably easiest to physically stop for a few moments, but once you are used to the practice, you can even do it while walking somewhere, attending a meeting, washing dishes. You are simply grounding yourself in the physical, sensory experience of this moment in time. As Jon Kabat Zinn points out, our senses are always in the present moment, so by tuning into your senses, you are also tuning into the here and now.

Like many mindfulness tools, it is simple, easy to do, but difficult to remember when you are in the middle of a highly stressful situation. So instead of waiting for the stress levels to build up until it all seems overwhelming, you can use STOP regularly to help you ground yourself throughout the day. The problem we have with stress in our lives is not so much stress itself – a little stress is good for us, as it motivates and challenges us. It is rather the cumulative effect of stress, where we find it difficult to come back down and relax once the challenging situation is over. The practice of STOP is a wonderful way for us to ground ourselves in the here and now, rather than getting caught up in the stress response

Weekly practice idea:

Practice STOP several times a day. Try to remember it during times when you feel quite calm, as well as in the middle of more stressful situations.

 – Anja Tanhane





The Traffic Light Meditation





succulents

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





Mindfulness And The Breath

Image





Berries

He had been quiet for most of the morning, thoughtfully taking part in the meditations and discussions; not withdrawn, but not very talkative either. Compared to the other carers, who had stress etched deep into their faces and bodies, he appeared quite calm. Recently, he and his wife had taken their first holiday in eighteen years. She’d been suffering from a serious mental illness for twenty-five years, and he had been there to care for her, as well as building a new life for them after emigrating from Czechoslovakia. I could only imagine how difficult his life must often have been.

Just before lunchtime, I guided the group through a meditation on the breath. Afterwards, he said,

‘I thought my breath would be deep and even, but I noticed how shallow and tight it was’.

He said he realised for the first time how stressed he was, the toll his caring role had taken on him. Tuning into his breath, sitting still in meditation, he was able to get a glimpse into the reality of his life. At the end of the mindfulness workshop, he asked the mental health worker present to link him into some counselling.

It’s not always easy to be with ‘life as it is’. In fact, quite often, escapism seems a far more attractive option! But as the great Zen master Dogen wrote,

‘If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?’

By taking the time to stop and notice his breath, the man who had cared for his wife all those years was able to get in touch with his own needs, and ask for support. It was a very simple practice, but, because the man was open to being present with his life, he was able to use the mindfulness of breath meditation in a way which would benefit both him and his wife. Rather than him becoming more and more exhausted, hopefully the counselling will assist him to continue his caring role while also looking after himself.

When we are feeling under pressure, the last thing we may feel like doing is to stop and take an honest look at the effect the stress is having on us. However, the simple act of stopping from time to time is a very powerful antidote to the cumulative impact of stress in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Every now and then, tune into your breath, without trying to change it. Where in your body can you feel the movement of the breath? The chest, the abdomen? With gentle, caring attention, take a few minutes to notice the movement of the breath in your body.

–  Anja Tanhane