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

 

The wisdom of not knowing

 

When families or communities experience a crisis, the temptation is to look for an easy solution and for someone else to blame. The unconscious thinking might be ‘if only x hadn’t done y, then everything would still be okay.’ If we can quickly ensure that x no longer does y, then the crisis is quickly resolved, and our lives can go back to what they were before the emergency.

Of course, very few crises are this easy to fix, or have only one person or group of people to blame. Usually the conditions which led to the crisis have been festering for years, perhaps ignored or hidden away, and there are many people who should have acted sooner or spoken out. It follows then that the solutions may also take years and involve everybody to some extent, and that a successful outcome is far from certain.

 This is where we can benefit from the ‘wisdom of not knowing’, what in Zen is sometimes called the ‘don’t know mind.’ For complex issues such as climate change, there is no one person in the world who has ‘the solution.’ We can make decisions based on the current best available evidence, implement changes in our own lives according to our values and encourage others to follow along, but we don’t know what the unintended consequences of our actions might be, or whether the best knowledge available now will still be correct in five years’ time. In Australia, we have plenty of examples where people thought they’d come up with a good solution, only to find the solution was far worse than the original problem it was meant to solve. A well-known example is the cane toads which were imported to deal with beetles affecting sugar production, and which have decimated wildlife in parts of Australia.

 The wisdom of not knowing lies in the humility of accepting that we don’t have all the answers and can’t single-handedly solve complex problems. The wisdom of not knowing lies in the humility of accepting that we don’t have all the answers and can’t single-handedly solve complex problems. It is not a disengaged apathy, but rather a stance of remaining open-minded and curious about new information. One of our strengths as human beings is our ability to cooperate across large complex systems. Traffic flow in a large city is one such example – apart from the occasional rogue bad driver, most people cooperate on the roads, and are supported by a vast network of road agencies, local councils, road workers, police, town planners, and many others. If a car breaks down or has an accident in a modern city, help through the emergency services is almost immediately at hand. It takes a lot of complex organisation and planning to be able to offer such a timely response no matter where we are in the city. We tend to take this for granted, but it’s just a small example of how good us humans can be at working together to find solutions.

A crisis, because of its unexpected nature, tends to bring out the best and the worst in us. In the recent bushfires, while many people were putting their lives on the line to protect their communities, others were peddling outrageous conspiracy theories on the internet, or coming up with elaborate scams to swindle people out of money. It’s easy to point the finger of blame on ‘the other’. And while people in power do need to be held accountable for their decisions, we all have a part to play in finding ongoing solutions. Meditation can help us to sit with strong emotions without trying to shift blame outwards. We can sit in uncertainty, instead of rushing into looking for easy solutions. This can be helpful when our community is going through upheaval, but also for difficult times within our families. The meditation teacher Pema Chodron calls it being ‘comfortable with uncertainty’, and learning to spend more time in this state can be a powerful way in which we can contribute to the collective wellbeing of our families and communities.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set ten minutes aside for a quiet meditation. If feelings of discomfort arise, notice how these feel in your body, being open and curious about your experience. How does it feel, to be able to simply sit with the discomfort?

 

Anja Tanhane