Our mindset – Part 2

Last week we looked at the growth mindset, and how it fosters an inner motivation to learn and improve. There is the old saying about achievement being 1 % inspiration and 99 % perspiration, and the stories quoted by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset – how you can fulfill your potential’ seem to bear this out. Some children certainly learn more easily than others, but when so-called ‘poor’ students were motivated by teachers who instilled a love of learning, their grades improved markedly. Teachers would give feedback like ‘I can see how hard you’ve worked at this’, rather than, ‘clever girl’. They praised the effort rather than ascribing some inherent fixed ability to the student, and the students felt empowered to learn, and thrived.

I often hear people say ‘oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing’, or ‘I tried meditation ten years ago but I couldn’t stop my thoughts, it’s obviously not for me’. Having taught both music and meditation for many years, I know both statements aren’t true. Singing is first about learning how to listen, but people who’ve been told they can’t sing are far too nervous to relax and really listen to the tune they would like to sing. And as for thoughts during meditation – these are a given, everyone has them. In our culture, there is sometimes a mystique about both music and meditation, as if they’re rarefied endevours best left to a few select performers or gurus. This is a good example of a fixed mindset, which doesn’t allow much room for growth. Unfortunately, this means that adults who want to learn music or meditation may be easily discouraged, as they feel their slow progress reflects on their ability rather than being part and parcel of the learning experience.

In Buddhism, the five hindrances to meditation are 1) greed or sensual desire 2) ill-will or aversion 3) sloth or torpor 4) restlessness, including anxiety or worry, and 5) paralysing doubt. There are a number of different ‘remedies’ which are suggested, and over the coming weeks we will explore these five hindrances and some possible ways of working with them. However, while it is helpful to draw on the wisdom of 2500 years of investigation and knowledge, in the end the learning needs to come from within us. What does it mean for me to feel sleepy, restless, or paralysed by doubt? Does my attitude towards meditation limit me, or does it allow room for growth? Sometimes our limiting beliefs are quite subtle, yet very powerful. We all struggle with limiting thoughts, but, according to the theory of mindset, whether we see our hindrances as challenges to work with, or obstacles which block our path, can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term.

Weekly practice idea:

If you look at the list of five hindrances, do one or two stand out for you? Take ten minutes to reflect on what role the hindrance might play in your life.

Anja Tanhane

Stranded in Bali

Last week, my husband and I were among thousands stranded in Bali because of the volcanic ash cloud. It was difficult to get much sympathy for our plight from friends and family back home in Australia, especially as they were shivering through a particularly wet and icy week. ‘We’re stuck in Bali’ doesn’t really have the ring of tragedy about it. And for sure, there are worse places to be caught in. Another week in Bali, soaking up the sun, sitting by the ocean or the pool, paid for by travel insurance – poor devils!

And yet it was stressful, not knowing when we’d be able to return home. Since the beginning of July, the airport had opened sporadically for a few hours, let a few planes in and out, before closing again for the afternoon or a whole day. We were booked on a flight a week later, but of course there was no guarantee that this one would be able to depart. By Monday there was a backlog of 300 flights. There was no way of knowing how much longer this might drag on for, and it was impossible to communicate with our airline apart from filling out an online form and hoping that someone would be in touch at some stage.

In mindfulness, we’re always taught that our perception of an event plays a large part in how we experience it, and our extra week in Bali was the perfect example of this. Here we were, back from an exhausting day at the airport, which had closed only minutes before we arrived to check in. We were back in the same hotel, even the same room. We were back in the same routine of swimming, walking, reading, eating. Apart from the hours spent on the phone and computer contacting insurance, work, the airline etc, nothing had changed – and yet everything had. We were no longer choosing to spend time in Bali, we wanted to be back home, and even though we tried to make the best of the situation, it was not particularly relaxing.

At times, our external circumstances quite clearly influence our mood, but often it’s actually our perception of events which colours the glasses we view them through. This is normal, quite natural, but it helps us to be aware of this process, and our additional week in Bali was a perfect lesson for this!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pause every now and then and ask yourself – is my current mood dependent on the situation, or on my state of mind? Do you notice anything interesting or unexpected as you do this exercise?

Anja Tanhane

Training a cute little puppy

Imagine your mind is a little puppy – cute, playful, boisterous, and, above all, determined to run around and explore every nook and cranny wherever it goes. While you might have a notion that the puppy should be sitting quietly in a corner all day until you call it for a walk, the reality is that puppies just aren’t made to sit quietly in a corner, and there is no point getting angry at the puppy for simply doing what puppies do.

Our minds also love to run around, to explore, to jump all over the place, and to get excited whenever there is the slightest indication that a treat or a walk or some playtime might be coming up. In part, this constant curiosity and excitability has served us well – as a species, we’re forever searching for new and innovative ways to improve our lives, and what we can achieve. On the other hand, our minds, like puppies, do benefit from some training. Dogs are happier when they are well-trained, and our mind is also more contented when it is trained with gentle discipline.

There are two aspects to this mind training. The first is to understand that our busy, racing mind is simply doing what it’s designed to do – there is no point in getting angry at ourselves for losing focus during a meditation, just as we would be unreasonable dog owners if we started yelling at a puppy every time it moved away from its spot in the corner. We often have highly exaggerated notions of what our mind should be capable off during a meditation – as if we can simply flip a switch and our mind will go from unfocused and distracted to calm and serene simply because we happen to be sitting in a meditation posture wanting to meditate. It’s just not the way our mind is set up, both from our evolutionary history, and also because most of us live very busy, overstimulated lives.

The second aspect is that we should not be afraid of applying some ongoing discipline to ourselves and to our mind. This discipline can be gentle, loving, patient, just like a good dog owner is gentle, loving and patient with a new puppy. Yet just as a puppy which is allowed to do whatever it wants does not grow into a contented, well-adjusted dog, so we too need to bring some discipline towards our minds, and we benefit from training our mind on an ongoing basis.

This is why mindfulness meditation is more than simply learning to relax and blissing out. There are many activities which are enjoyable and which benefit us – gardening, going swimming, watching a movie, and so on. Mindfulness asks more from us than simply having a relaxing, enjoyable time. Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will increase our appreciation and enjoyment of life, and help us feel less stressed. But when we are meditating, our mind could be all over the place, and we gradually learn to bring it back, again and again, just like we might train a puppy to walk on a lead and sit on command.

Weekly practice idea:

Take some time to examine your attitude to bringing discipline into your life. You’re probably already disciplined in all kinds of areas – work, household chores, personal hygiene, diet etc. How do you feel about a disciplined meditation practice – is this something you already do, or something you find challenging?

Anja Tanhane


Our distracted mind

‘Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’ Daniel J. Levitin

In his book ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes the many challenges our brains face in the modern age of information overload, social media, and multi-tasking. We might feel efficient juggling numerous balls in the air as we complete thousands of small tasks each day, but in fact we’re easily distracted, often quite inefficient, and at the same time increasing our levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Many people complain of feeling under constant time pressure, finding few precious moments to relax and just be. Chronic stress has been implicated as a key factor in a wide range of health and emotional problems. So the question arises – if this way of life is so bad for us, then why are the majority of us in thrall to it?

It turns out that the ‘thousand little sugar-coated tasks’ we rush through are, in fact, quite addictive. Each time we send an email, check our social media updates, look up something on the Internet, or send a text, we stimulate the pleasure- and novelty-seeking parts of our brain, giving ourselves a little hit of endogenous opioid. Before too long, we get used to getting ourselves through the day with the aid of regular opioid hits. Just like the sugar in our food, the boosts provided by these opioids are short-lasting, leaving us more depleted in the long term, but they are also difficult to resist.

In the same way we all make choices about our sugar consumption (some have quit sugar altogether, while others drink litres of soft drink every day, and most fall somewhere between those two extremes), so we can also make choices about how often we allow ourselves to be distracted during the day. Some distractions are inevitable – many jobs don’t allow us to work uninterruptedly, or we may be looking after children or someone with high care needs – yet many distractions we also bring upon ourselves. Levitin quotes research which shows that even just one unread email in our inbox can reduce our effective IQ by 10 percent. It’s in our interest to create times when we can become mindfully absorbed in a task – whether it’s tidying the kitchen after dinner, writing a report for work with the emails and phones turned off, or practising a new skill. We may miss out on the occasional sugar hit of opioids, but will be rewarded by increased efficiency, and the satisfaction which comes with a job well done.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one task from which you’re easily distracted, and choose to do it mindfully this week. Notice how it feels – in your mind, your body, and emotionally. Is there also anything different about how the task got completed?

Anja Tanhane

Our beliefs

Nasrudin, the Sufi sage and holy fool, was once in his flower garden sprinkling bread crumbs over everything. When a neighbour asked him why, he said, ‘To keep the tigers away.’ The neighbour said, ‘But there aren’t any tigers within a thousand miles of here!’ To which Nasrudin replied, ‘Effective, isn’t it?’

We’re probably all like Nasrudin at times, ardently engaged in activities we think will keep us safe and make us happy, when in reality we’re merely spreading bread crumbs around the flower bed. Our beliefs are very precious to us, and throughout history people have been prepared to die for their beliefs. They form a key part of our identity, and to respect someone else’s beliefs even if you don’t agree with them means to respect their dignity as a fellow human being. Yet we’ve all known what it’s like to believe something which turns out to be quite wrong. And some of our deepest beliefs about our place in the world come from our childhood, when we were engaged in magical thinking rather than considered reasoning.

Young children commonly believe that it’s their behaviour which causes their parents to act in certain ways. When a family is struggling, children often take the blame on themselves: ‘I was naughty, so Daddy left’. We can see that the fact little Tommy didn’t tidy his room has nothing to do with his Dad walking out on the family, but Tommy might carry this burden for years, well into adulthood, and often subconsciously. Sometimes parents even add to this when they say to their young child, ‘look at what you’ve made me do!’. Children, unfortunately, take this quite literally.

When we work with our thoughts in mindfulness, we learn to become less attached to them, to let them flow in and out of our minds without clinging on to them as we used to. After doing this for a while, we may begin to notice certain thought patterns we often fall into, particularly when we’re feeling stressed or bored. These thought patterns are often associated with beliefs about how things ‘should be’ for us. Some of those beliefs might even be quite childish, along the lines of ‘I should be able to get what I want’.

As we become more familiar with our habitual thought patters, we can begin to distinguish between beliefs which go to the heart of our value system, and beliefs which come from a more child-like, self-centered place. It’s always a good idea to question our beliefs, even the ones based on strong values – to see each situation with fresh eyes rather than outmoded ways of thinking. When it comes to beliefs about our place in the world, about how things ‘should be’ for us, we can allow ourselves to be quite generous with the extent to which we question our beliefs.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments here and there to ask yourself – ‘what is really happening here?’. This can be done quite playfully, like a game.

Anja Tanhane