Finding connections

‘He says he has learnt, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to ‘What matters to you?”’

In his wonderful book ‘Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’, journalist Johann Hari introduces us to the work of Dr Sam Everington from the Bromley-by-Bow Center in East London. In addition to the standard treatment available at any GP clinic, this center also is a hub for over a hundred volunteer groups. When a patient with anxiety or depression comes to see a doctor at the clinic, they may be prescribed anti-depressants, but they will also be advised to participate in one of the volunteer programs. The doctors call it ‘social prescribing’, and have found it to be remarkably effective.

One such program at the clinic was to turn a nearby wasteland full of weeds and broken equipment into a beautiful garden filled with flowers and vegetables. A group of twenty volunteers, many of whom had been socially isolated for years, were supported by a staff member to clean up the area and start learning about plants and seeds. They talked about how they wanted to park to look, discovered through trial and error what worked and what didn’t, learned about being patient and working to nature’s rhythms, and gradually saw an ugly unloved area turn into something valuable for the local community. They spent hours outside in the sun and fresh air, and slowly began to form connections to others in the group. As they worked, locals walked past and thanked the group members – who had often spent years being shut away and feeling useless – for their work. They met in a cafe after each gardening session, and discovered similarities in their stories as they slowly began to share them, at a pace which felt comfortable to them. One member was homeless, and others in the group lobbied the council until they found housing for him.

The participants in the program discovered two kinds of connections – connections to other people, and connection to nature. Yet what was important for the participants, at least initially, was the prescription by their doctor, and the support of a staff member. For someone with severe depression or anxiety, it may not be enough to be told – ‘just go out and find something to keep busy with, you will feel much better.’ This approach may work for those on the milder end of the spectrum of anxiety and depression – and we’ve probably all had the experience where we felt like collapsing on the couch but got busy with something enjoyable instead and felt much better for it. Yet when the condition is more severe and long-term, some skillful support is required while the participants start to slowly rebuild connections and develop their resilience and strengths.

An increased sense of connection is often described by people as one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and over the coming months we will explore the themes of disconnection/connection, drawing on Hari’s book and the work of others as well as our own experience, and discovering how consciously cultivating connections might help to gradually enrich our lives.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes with a pen and notepad, and finish the sentence ‘For me, connection means…’ and keep writing. What emerges from this? Another time, you may also like to start with the sentence ‘For me, disconnection means…’

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind – Part 2

There are times when meditation can no doubt be quite challenging. The idea of sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes might seem almost impossible, and certainly not enjoyable. Fortunately, mindfulness offers us a whole range of practices which can be very helpful when we are dealing with ongoing restlessness and anxiety.

One which many students have found very useful over the years is doing a mindful movement practice such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Kum Nye. These can often be very helpful before moving into sitting meditation, or they can be simply practised on their own. When we focus on our bodies, stretching and moving them slowly and with attention, our minds quite naturally seem to settle. Walking meditation can also be helpful, really concentrating on the sensations on the soles of the feet as we take one slow step, and then another, and then another.

A variation on this would be to do some vigorous exercise before meditation – getting some of the excess energy and anxiety out of our system before we sit down for sitting meditation. We could also go for a walk in the forest or a quiet park, and sit for ten minutes meditating among the trees or by a creek. Or go for a walk along a beach, and meditate on the sounds of the waves coming in and out.

Another option is to lie down on the floor and allow ourselves to be guided through a meditation by using a CD or an app. Sometimes, just having someone else to lead us during the meditation can feel very supportive and nurturing. An even better option would be to find a regular meditation group, with a teacher you feel comfortable with. There can be a profound sense of peace in the room when a group meditates together, and people often comment on how much deeper their meditation is when they are with others who are also meditating.

Sometimes it can be helpful to incorporate simple gestures or practices which help to soothe us during the meditation. This could be placing a hand on the heart centre, or on the belly. We might do some gentle chanting, or listen to music, or quietly repeat a word to ourselves such as ‘calm’ or ‘peace’. We could imagine a kind person standing behind us and placing their hands on our shoulders, so that the shoulders can really relax and let go.

Finally, if strong emotions are repeatedly coming up during meditation, it may be a sign that we could benefit from some counselling. We all have strong emotions from time to time, and sometimes we’re quite happy to deal with these on our own. However, persistent strong emotions which interfere with our day-to-day functioning or our peace of mind are often a sign that some deeper underlying issues are demanding to be addressed, and this might be more effective with the support of a skilled professional therapist.

Weekly practice idea:

If you find you’re often restless during meditation, experiment with one of the suggestions above, and notice if this is useful.

Anja Tanhane

Working with aversion

One of the challenges we face in our often busy lives is that many of our habitual patterns and coping strategies are happening below the level of our conscious awareness. We might promise ourselves, for example, to cut down on sugar, and yet suddenly here we are, an ice-cream in our hands, and we barely know how it happened. Or we have every intention of being more patient with Aunty Frieda next time she rings, and yet the conversation finishes with the usual recriminations and blame games. To change those patterns which are unhelpful to us, we first need to be aware of them, then we have to notice what our usual coping strategies are, and then we need to have the internal recourses to come up with, and implement, new ways of being with our discomforts and distress. In psychology this is known as affect tolerance – being able to tolerate a range of emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Mindfulness meditation, and in particular the sitting meditation, helps us with all four steps of this process. One of the questions we can ask ourselves from time to time during meditation is – ‘what is really happening right now’? Often we might notice, for example, feelings of anxiety. These could be subtle, or quite intense. Anxiety is one of those feeling states we’d do almost anything to escape from. And yet what happens if we don’t reach for our usual coping strategies, and sit with the anxiety instead? Where do we notice it in our bodies? We can take the time to really tune into the physical sensations of anxiety. Sometimes it might be the stomach churning, or a tightness of breath, or the heart seeming to beat very fast. Over time, as we practise meditation regularly, we can gain confidence in sitting with anxiety for a while, rather than immediately needing to reach for that glass of wine or spend the rest of the evening watching mindless TV. This can be very empowering, and is often one of the benefits of meditation which those who are starting out often appreciate the most.

There are times when meditation, or at least meditation by itself, is not going to be the answer to our problems. We might have suffered significant trauma, or a profound loss, and need counselling and other supports for a while before we can begin to sit quietly with our pain and anxiety. The coping strategies we use are there for a reason – they’re the best we could manage at the time. We need to do this work in our own time, with the right supports in place. Yet it’s probably fair to say that there are few of us who wouldn’t benefit from learning more about our usual coping strategies, and finding new and more skillful ways of being present with ‘life as it is’.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside twenty minutes for a quiet meditation. What kind of emotions, thoughts and body sensations do you notice during that time? What happens when you don’t react to unpleasant feeling states, but simply remain present with them?

Anja Tanhane

How hard can it be?

How hard can it be, to be mindful? After all, we’re already in the present moment – we haven’t time-travelled anywhere. We are aware of the world through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and so on, and we’ve heard enough about mindfulness to know that being mindful in the present moment is very good for us. Theoretically, we should be able to decide to be more mindful from now on, walk down the street smelling the roses, and go from there into a future of mindfulness and presence.
And yet, for most of us, mindfulness is anything but easy. Again and again, we find ourselves lost in ruminative thinking, daydreams, anxieties, and a pervasive sense of not being quite here. This can be discouraging – our logical brain knows exactly what it wants, but the rest of us doesn’t seem to want to play along, at least not all the time. We may understand why mindfulness is good for us, but living it day to day is another matter.
Force of habit is probably one reason for this – it’s not easy to change ways of thinking which have been reinforced in our brain for decades. There are also evolutionary advantages to being constantly alert for danger, even if the price we pay for that might be anxiety and restlessness.
Another way of approaching this issue, however, is to simply ask ourselves – what would it mean to be truly present to my life? Not just those aspects we cherish – our loving relationships, success at work, pride in our house and garden. But also the people we no longer talk to, the times we failed others or ourselves, the jobs we lost or were bullied out of, the worries about our health, the fact we are constantly bombarded with bad news. Do we truly, honestly, wish to be present to all this? And what about the ordinary aspects of our lives – the countless hours we spend in unglamorous tasks like tidying up the kitchen, paying bills, cleaning up after others, and commuting. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to daydream our way through all this?
In the end, we have a choice. Mindfulness is rewarding, but also a challenge. If we accept that mindfulness is simple, but not easy to practise, then perhaps we can be more patient with our slow progress, more at ease with the way our brain loves to be all over the place!

Weekly practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and quickly write down, without thinking too much about it, what your experience of mindfulness has been so far. Reading back through what you’ve written can be very illuminating.
Anja Tanhane

Therapeutic mindfulness

One of the most exciting developments in mindfulness over the past four decades has been its increasing use for therapeutic aims – to support people who are dealing with chronic health issues, life-threatening illnesses, depression, anxiety, trauma and a range of other physical and mental challenges. There are thousands of studies which validate the use of therapeutic mindfulness, and countless people have been helped by learning mindfulness as part of their treatment plan. From better pain management, improved immunity and decreased inflammatory response to improved mood, lower anxiety and improved relationships, there is clear evidence that mindfulness can be used therapeutically. It’s not a replacement for medical treatments, counselling or medication, but it can support these other therapies and enhance their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, this is also an area where mindfulness can do more harm than good, if it is taught by inexperienced practitioners to people with certain vulnerabilities. Learning mindfulness can initially increase our experience of pain, difficult thoughts and negative emotions, as we slow down enough to really become aware of them, and this can be unsettling. Even people who are not dealing with major difficulties are often quite dismayed when they start to meditate and realise just how frantically busy their mind always is, and how little, if any, time they actually spend in the present moment. With the right support and guidance from an experienced and trained practitioner, these early stages can be worked with and can lead to increased affect tolerance, personal growth and resilience. Often people learn mindfulness while also supported by counselling and/or medication, and this can be very effective. Yet, at the moment, anyone can call themselves a mindfulness teacher, whether they’re highly qualified, or whether they simply like the sound of it and are making it up as they go along (I’ve met a few people in the second category!). Mindfulness may also be contra-indicated for people who are experiencing psychosis, schizophrenia, or other conditions where dissociation may be present.

When taught by someone suitably qualified, therapeutic mindfulness has the potential to significantly shift our relationship to the difficulties of our lives. As we practise non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, beginner’s mind, letting go, we slowly and gradually learn to become less caught up in emotional reactiveness and unhelpful thought patterns. I’ve been teaching the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for eight years now, and consistently, by week four or five, participants report significant shifts in how they are approaching the challenges of their lives. They describe being more calm, less reactive, less caught up in painful emotions, being able to see the bigger picture. They find they often have a choice of how to respond to difficulties, and they talk about exploring new and better options, which is very empowering.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten to twenty minutes to sit somewhere quiet and notice your breath coming and going. When the mind wanders off, gently bring it back to the breath. What do you notice in your thoughts, your body sensations, your emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Catching the news

It’s evening, I’m sitting on the couch, and my cat is fast asleep on my lap. While I’ve been rushing about all over the place, she has spent most of the day dozing on the chair. Not that her life is completely free of stress – a new cat called Boots has moved into the house behind us, and Tashi is not happy. She’s often perched at the back gate, anxiously glaring underneath for signs of Boots. Still, she is relaxed now, and she has no idea of what’s been happening in the houses further down the street, let alone the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, I also want to relax, but it’s not easy to let go of the of the images and stories happening around the world. I don’t want to live in a Pollyanna bubble of willful ignorance, but so many of the stories currently making the news are truly upsetting. Tashi has no idea what’s happening in the Middle East, Nigeria and so on, and her life does seem better for it.

Mindfulness is about awareness, noticing the effects of something on our lives. It is also about making choices. For many of us, it’s finding the balance between being over-invested in every tragedy we hear about, and being apathetic and uncaring.

In the helping professions, it’s well known that the people who are most empathic and caring are the most vulnerable to burn-out and compassion fatigue. Workers can also suffer from vicarious trauma, where they start to experience some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety of the clients they’re working with. The key is finding a way of maintaining the positive qualities of caring and empathy, while also looking after ourselves. And looking after ourselves might mean set times away from thinking about other people’s problems – the problems of the people we’re working with, or of people in other parts of the world.

I find it helpful to make conscious choices about how and when I consume the news. This is not always easy, as the novelty-seeking part of the brain loves to quickly click onto the online news or listen to the radio, just to see what’s happening. And what if there’s some really important story developing that I should know about? Perhaps there’s a gunman loose in my neighbourhood, and I need to stay inside and lock the doors and pull down the blinds – which could happen, though it’s unlikely…

Staying informed is important, but there is a cost. We are so used to being bombarded with news, it’s easy to forget that every terrible story we hear has an impact on us, especially if we’re someone who feels for other people. Making conscious choices about our exposure to this might help us reduce some of our anxiety and worry.

Weekly practice idea:

Look at your pattern of consuming the news. How much conscious awareness do you bring to this process? Could you experiment with changing some of your patterns and noticing if this makes a difference for you?

Anja Tanhane

At the tennis

It was the beginning of the fourth set, and the veteran tour player was finding it increasingly difficult to control his frustration as the young upstart broke his serve and then held with ease. Week one of the Australian Open, and the stakes were high for both players. It had been a pleasant day of tennis so far, not too hot, watching some great players, but this was the first match of the day which hadn’t been decided in straight sets, and the crowd, stirring itself out of the early afternoon stupor, was beginning to get involved. The veteran had plenty of fans in the crowd, but there was also enthusiasm for his young opponent, and the clean and confident shots he was playing.

In the row behind me, a woman in her sixties and her younger relative, who was about twenty, began to discuss staying on to watch the end of this match. They both agreed it was getting exciting, and it would be a shame to miss it, but their decision to stay on involved a change of plans, and there was now the problem of which train to catch home. As relentlessly as the tennis ball being belted back and forth below, they tossed this question between them for the next forty minutes. Which tram should they catch, and which train? Who would know? They texted people and told each other the responses, they suggested other people to text who might know, one person wasn’t replying so they wondered if her phone battery was flat or she might have run out of credit or perhaps she’d lost her phone. Every twenty minutes or so they turned their attention to the match and briefly commented on its progress before returning to the vexed question of which tram, which train, and who to call. Eventually their conversation drifted to other topics, but before long I once again heard them discussing which tram, which train, to catch.

I was irritated, astounded and fascinated. They saw virtually nothing of the match, which was now in a closely fought fifth set. It was clear either player could easily win it – the younger player hadn’t faltered under pressure and was playing as strongly as ever, and the older one had plenty of experience and energy to throw back at him. The women behind me had clearly travelled a long way from a regional area in order to watch some tennis, they were changing their plans in order to see the end of the match, and yet, because of their relentless worrying, they paid almost no attention to it. It was annoying to hear their conversation go on and on during points, but it was also a brilliant exposition of how our worrying mind can rob us of enjoying the experience right in front of us.

The tennis centre, tram stops and train station were dotted with staff who would have been happy to point them to the right train once the match had finished. For a major international event like the Australian Open, the city of Melbourne was well prepared to assist visitors who were unsure where to go. They could have enjoyed the match, asked for help to the train, and spent the train trip home discussing the match, and in particular the closely-fought fifth set. Instead, they barely took notice of the occasional point being played.

We have all done it – been too busy worrying about a future which will probably take care of itself, to enjoy whatever is on offer in the present moment. Sometimes we have every reason to be concerned about the future. But more often than not, we know we have the capacity to deal with what the future is likely to bring, and we have friendly guides all the way from the tennis centre to the train station to help us on our way.


Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you find yourself worrying about something, ask yourself – is the extent of my worry justified? Or is it simply preventing me from enjoying the present moment?

Anja Tanhane