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



Mindfulness at work – Part 1

Maidenhair and tea pot

Just like the modern lifestyle, the contemporary work environment presents us with unique challenges when it comes to working more mindfully. We may feel we require peace, calm and quiet, not too much stress, and no one around who annoys us, before we can even think about trying to practise mindfulness at work. That is like asking for the waves to stop before we go for a swim in the ocean – we might be waiting for a long time!  As Jon Kabat Zinn puts it,

‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.

I find maintaining mindfulness at work more difficult than in other settings. It’s interesting to reflect on why this might be so. Many work environments are very busy, with constant demands coming from all directions. Each new demand pulls us further away from being able to focus on the task in front of us. Studies have shown multi-tasking is a myth, and we lose time and efficiency every time we switch tasks. Yet few workplaces are designed to allow us to focus on a job uninterrupted.

Work is also, by its nature, very task-orientated, so it’s natural to slip into ‘doing’ mode and away from ‘being’ mode. We may feel we look like a better employee if we appear busy and rushed – even though we’ve probably all worked with people who race around like a tornado all day and leave behind a string of mistakes for others to sort out.

We may also feel that, because we are being paid to be at work, the time at work is not really our own. To some extent, this is true, in that we can’t simply do whatever we want; but at another level it makes no sense. Yes, we have responsibilities at work, and often little choice about when to carry them out. But during the rest of our lives we also have responsibilities – towards our family, ourselves, neighbours and society. Does this mean the whole of our life is not our own? We may have limited choices about ‘what’ we do, but we always have a choice about ‘how’. The careful attention we bring to a task; the pleasant manner in which we interact with colleagues and clients; the way we look after ourselves by taking a lunch break, grounding ourselves using the breath from time to time; the sense of humour, joy and compassion we cultivate – these all belong to us, and make a significant difference to who we are as employers and employees, and also to our effectiveness at work.


Weekly practice idea:

Explore the ‘being’ mode at work or when doing tasks at home. How does it feel to be completing a task, and staying grounded and present throughout.

Anja Tanhane