Finding our balance

We humans are complex creatures – we crave excitement but also yearn for peace; we want life to flow smoothly but get bored when we don’t have any challenges; we want to fit in and belong, but prefer to feel unique and a little bit ‘special’ at the same time; we want intimacy and also our own space. Life is a constant balancing act between these contradictory drives, as well as our obligations to others, and the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. Because we’re being pulled in different directions both internally and externally much of the time, we can find ourselves a little dissatisfied with life even when all seems to be going well for us. In Buddhism this is known as dukkha – the unsatisfactory nature of existence. Even when everything is going to plan, a part of us already knows that it won’t last. Within each moment of happiness, there is the knowledge that sadness will follow sooner or later.

Far from being a defeatist attitude, the concept of dukkha can be quite liberating. For example, a few days ago I was in the garden, pulling out the last of the old tomatoes and preparing a vegie bed for winter. It was a job I’d been wanting to get around to for a while, and here I was, on a cold but sunny autumn day, finally doing it. Yet I was constantly distracted by seeing other jobs which needed to be done – all those weeds to be pulled out, and leaves raked, and the roses tidied up, and the azalea not looking the best. Not to mention the unanswered emails and countless other tasks inside the house! Part of my mind was also mulling over work.

I love gardening, but in the garden I tend to be a half-glass full person – more likely to notice what needs to be done than what is growing well. Gardening is a perfect opportunity for mindfulness – it’s quiet and in nature, and we can use all our senses to tune into our environment. I find it helpful to remind myself from time to time – ‘this is what I’m doing right now’. Right now I’m clearing out the vegie bed, and if I can focus on that, my experience of gardening becomes much more satisfying and peaceful.

There are many aspects to mindfulness, but I find that the ability to centre ourselves into what we are doing, rather than feeling ourselves pulled in all directions, is one of the greatest gifts of mindfulness. For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems, which describes some of the reasons why we are often distracted away from the present moment. These reasons are powerful, because they’re hard-wired into our brain. They are designed to help us survive, which is one of the most powerful drivers there is. Fortunately, we can change some of the ways in which our brain has evolved, through regular practices which help us to ‘remember’ to come back to the present. This provides a powerful counter-balance to our fears and drivenness, and can indeed help us to find greater balance within our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose something you will do for ten or more minutes each day to re-balance your life. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Buddhist mindfulness

Many of the concepts and practices of mindfulness which are now taught in secular mindfulness courses come from the Buddhist tradition. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is uniquely Buddhist – all cultures have various practices which encourage a state of mindfulness. However, mindfulness, or sati, as it’s called in Buddhism, has been researched and developed for more than 2500 years in the Buddhist tradition since it forms a fundamental part of what is known as the ‘eight-fold noble path’. It is considered a key element of the Buddhist way of life, together with ethics and insight. The Buddha emphasised sati as a foundational practice, one of the keys to learning how to become less entangled in our self-centered thoughts and delusions. He also understood that mindfulness takes diligent practice – it’s not something to be learnt so much as practised again and again. In Buddhism, sati is practised not to help us feel better or become more efficient at work, but to support realisation into the fundamental nature of existence, such as impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It assumes a world view where these concepts are accepted. And although modern physics seems to show some interesting parallels with Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness are quite different to Western secular or Christian understandings of the self and the spiritual path. Sati helps to deconstruct our sense of self until we understand that there is no independently existing self – every aspect of who we are is contingent on external forces and conditions.

Sati is also closely linked to ethics in Buddhism – our speech, our jobs, our intentions and actions are all part of the eight-fold path. Buddhist teachers sometimes criticise secular mindfulness teachers for taking mindfulness out of the ethical context in which it is taught in Buddhism. My experience in teaching and practising mindfulness is that a more mindful life does lead to greater awareness of how our behaviours impact on ourselves and others. Many of my students have reported choosing their words more carefully, for example, when they’re having that difficult conversation with their teenager or their colleague, and how this led to a much better outcome for all. I do agree though with Buddhist teachers and also with Jon Kabat-Zinn that mindfulness is a way of life, not a method. When mindfulness becomes no more than a tool to achieve an immediate end, such as reducing staff absenteeism, then most of its gifts and richness are lost.

We are fortunate nowadays that we don’t need to be a Buddhist or join a sect or follow some guru in order to learn meditation and experience its benefits. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who have brought mindfulness from the Buddhist context into the Western clinical setting has made learning mindfulness accessible to many more people, and this has been of tremendous benefit. Very few of those learning mindfulness now would want to become a signed-up Buddhist, and they don’t need to be. Yet we can learn from Buddhism and allow mindfulness to be within our own ethical, spiritual and philosophical framework, rather than just something we want to learn as a quick-fix to a particular problem in our life.

Weekly practice idea:

Do you see mindfulness as a way of life rather than a method? What does this mean for you? Allow yourself twenty minutes to reflect on this question – what emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane

Four meanings of mindfulness

Mindfulness has certainly become very popular – when the US army, Capitol Hill, major corporations and Silicon Valley all embrace mindfulness, you know it’s gone mainstream. On the whole, this is positive – a wonderful antidote to our overly busy and hectic lives. Yet, as with anything which becomes popularised, there is the risk that mindfulness is becoming increasingly superficial. From mindful colouring books to thousands of mindfulness apps, suddenly everyone is doing mindfulness. More disturbingly, mindfulness is sometimes taught by inexperienced teachers to vulnerable people in a way which may do harm. I’ve heard staff members say, ‘oh yes, we teach mindfulness to all our mental health clients’, but when I talk to the staff about mindfulness, they have no idea what it is. And while mindfulness can be taught to clients with mental health issues in certain contexts, the teaching needs to be done by highly qualified and experienced practitioners.
It occurred to me that we really need to start using different words for mindfulness, depending on how it’s used. Part of the problem is that mindfulness is an English word which means ‘paying attention’ or ‘being thoughtful and considerate’. It was then appropriated to also describe sati, the Buddhist concept of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Then, when the practice of mindfulness became legitimised in the West based on thousands of scientific studies, its meaning broadened to include different kinds of meditation. We used to talk about the relaxation response, guided imagery meditation, transcendental meditation and so on, but suddenly all we ever seem to hear about is mindfulness meditation. From there we come to mindful colouring books and apps, which have their place, but are a world removed from sati.
So we have Buddhist mindfulness, or sati, which needs to be taught by a Buddhist teacher. Then there is therapeutic mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and similar programs, which is usually (though not always) taught by experienced meditators who have been trained to deliver these programs safely. We then come to relaxation mindfulness, which can be taught through CDs and apps and the occasional workshop. This way of using mindfulness can be helpful for stress management, but it doesn’t really explore key mindfulness concepts such as non-judgmental awareness, non-striving and acceptance. In the field it’s sometimes called Mindfulness Lite or McMindfulness. As for adult colouring books, they help to slow people’s minds down, which is beneficial – but they really have nothing to do with mindfulness as such.
In the next four weeks, I will explore these different categories of mindfulness. I’ll describe them as Buddhist mindfulness (sati), therapeutic mindfulness, relaxation mindfulness, and recreational mindfulness. Of course these categories are not distinct – they overlap, and within the various streams there are many variations. But perhaps, over time, we can come up with new words to describe the different ways of using mindfulness, and acknowledge the skills of those who have been trained to teach Buddhist and therapeutic mindfulness.

Weekly practice idea:
Which aspects of mindfulness do you feel most drawn to? You might well be using mindfulness in these four different ways, or you may be exploring one area in particular. Are the four categories meaningful to you, or can you come up with your own description of mindfulness?
Anja Tanhane

Right effort – Part 1

One of the eight components of the eight-fold path in Buddhism is called ‘right effort’. When we hear the phrase ‘right effort’, we may immediately sit up more straight and feel that we have to work harder. And while this may well be the case in some parts of our lives, it could also be that in other areas, we are trying too hard. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and learning to use it more wisely can make a very positive difference to our health and wellbeing. Yet knowing when to push ourselves harder, and when to ease off, is not always easy. Between the two extremes – barely bothering to get out of bed vs driving ourselves to the point of a mental and physical breakdown – lies a large grey area where there are few rules. Trying too hard, or not hard enough, can both become habits which are difficult to break. And what was true for us on Monday may not be the case on Tuesday. Perhaps on Monday we really did need a day at home to rest, but by Tuesday we would have been better off dragging ourselves to work. When our mood is low (as opposed to clinical depression, which is different), we might like to rest on the couch for a while and feel better for it. But other times, forcing ourself out of the house and going for a brisk walk in fresh air may quickly lift our mood 100%.

Right effort also applies to our meditation practice, whether it’s a formal practice, such as daily sitting meditation or yoga, or a more informal way of including mindfulness into our everyday life. One of the core attributes of mindfulness is non-striving, and it’s certainly true that we can’t strive for results during meditation – it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, it’s very easy to drift off into daydreams or convoluted thought patterns during meditation. We might be sitting still in a beautiful erect posture for thirty minutes, but are we actually meditating, or simply stewing over something a colleague said four days ago and organising our shopping list?

There is no doubt that a considerable amount of effort is required if we want mindfulness to become part of our lives. Yet there is also a sense of ease, of flow, about being more mindful. On the one hand, we hold the intention to be mindful, and remind ourselves regularly to be more present. On the other hand, we don’t want to go around muttering to ourselves, ‘come on, be mindful, okay now, mindfulness remember, are you paying attention here, mindful, mindful, BE MINDFUL!’

Right effort can apply to so many areas of our lives – how we use our bodies, what we focus on, how resilient we are, whether we are fulfilling our potentials or frittering them away. It’s a complex area, but reflecting regularly on right effort, and how we use it in different areas of our lives, can really help us to live more effectively and with more ease.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one hour where you are engaged in a regular activity, and during this hour pause from time to time and ask yourself – am I putting in too much effort, or not enough? What would right effort look like for this activity? And how might that apply to other areas of your life?

Anja Tanhane

Taking refuge

In the Buddhist tradition, people talk about ‘taking refuge’ – in particular, taking refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (their Buddhist community). This is an acknowledgment that any kind of spiritual life is not easy without support. In our individualistic culture, we might sometimes feel as if we’re supposed to work it all out by ourselves, but that’s not realistic. It’s very helpful to have teachers and other people in our lives who can guide and support us.

Similarly, it’s difficult for us to practise mindfulness if we’re constantly rushing from one commitment to the next. We need to find spaces in our lives where we can ‘take refuge’ – a space where we feel safe to stop for a while, to tune in, take stock, and have our internal batteries recharged. It could be a place where we can be on our own, or time spent with a group of like-minded people, or even a combination of the two.

The word refuge implies a space free from persecution, where we are completely safe, but if we carry unrealistic expectations into our refuge, we can unwittingly sabotage what it has to offer. A spiritual refuge is not so much a place where we can escape all our problems, but rather an opportunity to gather strength for the sometimes difficult internal work ahead. For members of religious communities, these refuges are often built into the structure of the days and weeks. Going to mass, lighting a candle, making offerings at a temple, celebrating the Sabbath or stopping five times a day for prayer – these are moments where we can pause and allow ourselves to feel supported. If we don’t belong to a religious group, ‘taking refuge’ is less automatic, and may require more intention and planning, but it can nonetheless become a regular and valuable part of our lives.

I know of someone who sits in her garden every day in a favourite spot, and quietly meditates as she notices the sights, sounds, smells and the air around her. This small daily ritual has become a precious and sustaining part of her life. Someone else with a stressful job and young children always makes the time to go for a walk along the beach by herself on a Sunday morning. A busy lawyer has noticed that if he pauses a few times a day to ground himself using the STOP practice – his work day flows much more smoothly.

Taking refuge works best when it becomes a small but regular part of our lives. Then, when we go through a difficult period, we have a familiar place where we feel safe and supported, and where we can gather the strength we need.

The shadow side of taking refuge is escapism, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down between three to ten ‘refuges’ – inspirational teachings, practices, communities or places which nourish and sustain you. Choose one of them and tick it, and plan it into your week.

Anja Tanhane