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

 

Just for now

Just for Now,
Without asking how, let yourself sink into stillness.

by Danna Faulds

It’s such a liberating phrase – ‘just for now’. We don’t say to ourselves often enough – ‘just for now, this is what I’m doing. Just for now, it is enough.’ Instead there can be this sense of ‘Yes, I’m doing this task, but there are plenty of other things I should be doing right now as well.’ Even though we haven’t yet worked out how to clone ourselves and actually carry out all these different tasks simultaneously, we may still feel as if we should. And this way of living can be the cause of a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and angst.

I’m aware of this when I’m in the garden and notice all the work to be done, instead of (just for now) enjoying the plants which are growing well, and listening to the insects and birds. I’ve even caught myself, when I’m doing an essential task like bringing in the washing, feeling guilty for not doing something else. Perhaps it’s because many of us are trying to cram so many things into our lives – somehow it doesn’t all quite fit, and so we’re constantly playing catch-up. Whatever the reason, it can cause a low-level anxiety which is quite exhausting over time.

We might pride ourselves on our multi-tasking, but research shows that there is actually no such thing as multi-tasking – we’re constantly switching our attention back and forth, and for each switch we pay the price of losing a little bit of energy and efficiency.

The opposite of ‘just for now’ is a sense of ‘what if’ or ‘it’s never enough’. How would it feel if, throughout the day, we could instead say to ourselves.

            ‘Just for now, I’m doing this,’ or

            ‘Just for now, I will allow myself a few moments of peace and stillness and contentment.’

Mindfulness practice:

Take a moment to pause several times throughout the day, and say quietly to yourself – ‘just for now, I’m doing this’, or ‘just for now, I pause and rest’. Notice how this feels – could this be something worthwhile to incorporate into your everyday life?

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

 

Back to basics

 

For the past few months, I have gone back to focusing on counting the breath during my meditation, which is a form of meditation I probably first learnt more than thirty years ago. For this practice, the focus is on the breath out, and to help with concentration, I count a slow, silent ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’ and so on during each outbreath, up to ten, and then start back at one again. It sounds pretty straight-forward, but can actually be surprisingly difficult to do, as my mind would much rather be busy planning or strategising or fantasising than simply being present with the breath.

It can be very grounding and reassuring to go back to basics, whether in meditation or in other parts of our lives. There is a sense of ensuring a strong foundation, on which we can then place the many often complex components of our lives, like the wooden beams and bricks of a well-built house. Ensuring a strong foundation is not nearly as exciting as choosing curtains or buying new furniture, but a house with unstable foundations can soon start to show the cracks. Sometimes, we can be tempted to look for complex or high-tech solutions, while neglecting the fundamentals such as nourishing food, exercise, sleep, and rest.

I often find myself unwittingly doing this – trying to devise intricate systems for managing my life when much of the time, what I need to be doing next is actually quite simple and straight-forward. Our lives are filled with countless tasks we dismiss as ‘chores’, but these chores are like our foundation. When they’re taken care of, there is hopefully still room for excitement, creativity, for the new and the stimulating. It’s about finding a balance which works for us – some people are quite content at home, whereas others love travel and excitement. It is terrible to be caught in a life of endless drudgery, but it can also be destabilising to be constantly in search of new excitement. When I was backpacking around India in my twenties, I sometimes met travellers who had been on the road for years. They often seemed a bit lost, as if they’d spent too long in the company of strangers, without the familiarity of a community and routine.  

We’re often encouraged to search for external solutions – buy this, subscribe to that, go to this workshop to turn your life around. All these external resources can be helpful, but they can also become excessive, superfluous, an end in themselves. I recently heard the meditation teacher Ayya Santacitta talk about how we can ‘leak’ our energy through our thoughts and behaviours if they’re too uncontained. Going back to basics could be about reducing some of those leaks, developing a stronger container to be filled with essentials rather than living like a sieve which barely notices what passes through.

It is one of the aspects I used to enjoy about going camping – all your essentials could be carried in a backpack, and a single rubber band become a valuable commodity to be stored with care. Going back to basics is not about being simplistic, but it can help to ground us, and to nurture that which is most sustaining in our lives.

 

Mindfulness practice:

Think about an area in your life which is feeling overly complex. Is there an activity you could do to bring this area ‘back to basics’? Set aside some time to do this activity in a slow, mindful way, and notice yourself becoming more grounded and focused as you do this. What did you notice?

 

Anja Tanhane

Exploring colours

 

When Europeans first came to Australia and started painting the landscape, they used the colours they were familiar with from their training in Europe. We can look at these paintings now in art galleries, and although they are meant to depict Australian scenes, to our modern eye they don’t look Australian at all – the colours and even the shapes of the trees seem to come straight out of Europe.

Humans vary in the number of colours we can distinguish, but estimates range from 1 million to 100 million different colours. Artists are particularly highly trained to differentiate and reproduce a wide range of colours, but as the example above shows, not even an artist can necessarily ‘see’ true colours without the influence of their cultural upbringing.

 It is an interesting exercise to look around and notice just how many different colours and shades of colours there are in our environment. Some of the questions we can ask ourselves as we explore colours might be:

  • How different do colours look in sunshine and in shade? In the morning, or at noon?
  • What do I notice when looking at man-made colours, or colours in nature?
  • Do I have different emotional responses to different colours?
  • How many different gradients of colours does a single flower have?
  • What colours do I enjoy wearing, and which ones do I feel uncomfortable in?
  • If I were to do a meditation breathing colour into my body, what colour would I choose today?

People often comment that colours seem brighter after a meditation retreat, and I have noticed this for myself as well. We can explore colours through painting, crafts, fashion or photography. Or we can sit in front of a painting, or in a park or at the beach, and allow ourselves to become absorbed in the different colours and notice the effect they have on us. There are psychological theories about the impact of various colours on our moods and our health which are interesting to learn about. However, we can also explore these as a mindfulness practice for ourselves – becoming more aware of the great richness of colours around us, and of their impact on us.

            As the painter Wassily Kandinsky said once,

            ‘Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.’

 

Anja Tanhane

 

Cultivating connections

 

‘The most precious thing we can give to another is our presence, which contributes to the collective energy of mindfulness and peace. We can sit for those who can’t sit, walk for those who can’t walk, and create peace and stillness within us for people who have no stillness or peace.’  

Thich Nhat Hanh

If you enter a room full of meditators, it might seem as if each person is caught up in their own little bubble, watching their breath and their thoughts with little awareness of their surroundings. And while it is possible to meditate in this way, my experience of meditation retreats has been the opposite – that over the days, as you drop into stillness and become more attuned to what is happening for you, you are also becoming more attuned to the people you’re sharing the space with. And even though the retreat might be in silence, there can be a strong sense of community, of supporting each other in our practice, and working harmoniously together to make the retreat experience a meaningful one for everybody.

Of course, we don’t need to be at a retreat to cultivate this sense of connection to ourselves and others through meditation. While we are often interested in learning meditation for personal reasons, such as managing stress better or dealing with illness or other challenges, over time a meditation practice will also enable us to be more present to others in our lives. As human beings we’re highly social creatures, and we can immediately sense whether someone is really listening to us, or whether their mind is elsewhere.  A particularly mortifying experience is talking to someone at a social gathering who is clearly looking out for a more interesting or important person to come along. As Maya Angelou expressed so eloquently:

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

We don’t need to be calmly floating around all the time for people to have a sense of our presence. Whether we meditate or not, we will all have our good days, our distracted days, and our downright unpleasant days. Yet it is heartening to remember, as we make the commitment to meditate more regularly, that meditation can help to cultivate connections, to add to the collective energy of stillness in the midst of busy lives. It is a simple practice, but the ripple effect does extend out to our families and to others we interact with. We might be sitting in meditation on our own, but we’re doing it both for ourselves and for others.

 

Mindfulness practice:

Next time you meditate, think of the practice as an offering to others. In some traditions, meditators formally dedicate their meditations to benefit all other beings. Experiment with a few words of your own, and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Waiting times

 

‘What do we want?’

‘Patience!’

‘When do we want it?’

‘NOW!!’

 

As this joke so cleverly illustrates, we have, by and large, become a rather impatient culture. Many of us do yearn for a sense of stillness among all the rushing around, some time for quiet reflection and rest, but we often want it now, quickly and easily, available to us whenever we need it, like flicking a switch on and off. Busy. Stillness. Busy. Stillness.

Yet the times which call on our patience, at a deep, psychological and even spiritual level, tend to come when we least expect them, and mostly not by invitation. Often these times occur at those crossroads in our lives where we move from one life stage to another. The teenager taking her place in the world of adults, the young carefree man who grows into the responsibilities of fatherhood, the woman whose children have left home and who is now maturing into a new sense of self. Other times might be an extended period of study, where we are developing towards a new career but are still unformed in our knowledge and competency. Pregnancy is a long wait towards the birth, and recovery from a serious illness or trauma can take months or years.

These are slow, deep processes of development, much of it happening below the level of our everyday consciousness, but all too often we want to transition straight from being a caterpillar into the butterfly, without the waiting time of the cocoon. Like the characters in ‘Waiting for Godot’, we’re waiting around with no guarantee that Godot will ever come. Shouldn’t we be going somewhere, doing something, ticking a few boxes on our endless lists of things to do and, while we’re at it, get the bucket list happening as well?

Waiting can seem disempowering, as if we’re a damsel in distress waiting for the prince to rescue us, rather than taking responsibility for our lives. It is certainly true that we can spend too much time in waiting, getting stuck at a point in our lives while opportunities pass us by. Yet there are certain processes which can’t be rushed. We sow some seeds in a pot and then wait weeks for the seedlings to emerge. We want to make some changes in our lives but need to be patient with the deeper processes of transformation.

While the act of growing seedlings can’t be rushed, we can provide optimal conditions for the plants to emerge and thrive. Similarly, in our own lives, we can endeavour to create opportunities for the waiting times to develop in their own natural rhythm, so they can bear fruit when the time is right. In the modern world we don’t always have a narrative which honours times of waiting, of being in the cocoon for a period of time.

For a while now I’ve been trying to teach myself to be more patient with the need to wait. One small example is when I’m in a hurry and find myself stuck behind someone slower (a slow car, an elderly person, a family with little children). Instead of getting impatient, I pause to silently thank them for slowing me down. It’s a small gesture, but it turns around for me that constant imperative to rush. As Milton said in his famous poem ‘When I consider how my light is spent’:

‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’

 

Mindfulness idea:

What are some of the waiting times in your life? Can you slow down a little, for example through meditation, and find a way of consciously valuing these times?

 

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

           

           

An antidote to busyness

‘Zazen (sitting meditation) is in and of itself the alternative to our usual state of grasping, clinging, and goal-orientated life in general. By sitting down, we have arrived.’ Barry Magid

 

When I was a child, I was very keen to learn the piano. So keen, in fact, that I practised on a keyboard which had been painted onto a piece of cardboard, until eventually I inherited the piano of a great aunt who had passed away. There are studies to show that children who learn a musical instrument tend to do better at other subjects such as maths and English. Naturally I didn’t know about those studies when I was a child, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I was learning the piano because I loved playing the piano, not as a means to an end to get better marks at school.

There are now thousands of studies into the positive effects of mindfulness meditation, and the research has been useful in bringing meditation into mainstream settings, allowing many more people to benefit from the practice. Yet at the same time, when seen in this way, meditation can become a utilitarian means to an end, rather than simply a way of being we choose to engage in.

In one way, of course, it’s perfectly natural to wish for an improvement if we dedicate ourselves to a practice which requires commitment and a certain amount of discipline. Why else would we choose to get up early in the morning to set aside some regular time for our meditation?

On the other hand, at a more subtle level, practising meditation in order to achieve a certain outcome is what Zen teacher Barry Magid describes as the ‘are we there yet?’ state of mind, where a part of us is constantly asking, like a whiny two-year old in the back seat of a car, ‘are we there yet?’ And, when noticing that we’re not quite ‘there’ yet, wherever this place called ‘there’ might be, we’re left somewhat dissatisfied with our experience.

It can no doubt be helpful to notice the positive effects which a regular meditation practice may have in our lives. Yet, especially if our practice becomes long-term, it might perhaps be even more helpful to simply enjoy meditation as a time out from our self-improvement projects and striving to achieve our goals. Instead, we can simply be present, moment by moment, here in this emotional and physical body which is living and sensing and breathing, in constant relationship with the surrounding environment.

           

Mindfulness practice:

Set five minutes aside to simply be. Not to relax or do something beneficial for your wellbeing or try to gain some of the benefits of meditation. Just being for a few minutes – and noticing how this feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

           

 

           

 

 

The middle way

The story told about the Buddha’s life is that he grew up indulged and sheltered as the son of an Indian ruler, living a life of luxury and ease. His father didn’t want him to be exposed to some of the harsher realities of life such as sickness and death, and it wasn’t until Siddhartha left the palace gardens as a young man that he encountered someone who was sick, someone old and near death, a poor person, and a monk. Having never been faced with the realities of life before, these meetings left a deep impression on him, and he decided to leave his old life behind, including his wife and young son, and become a spiritual seeker. He joined a group of ascetics living in the forest, but after a number of years of harsh practices such as extreme fasting which brought him close to death, he felt no nearer to understanding the causes of suffering.

 

After his insight experience under the Bodhi tree, he spent the rest of his life teaching what he called ‘the middle way’ – a life of balance between the extremes of indulgence and deprivation. He taught that our bodies are precious vehicles which we should appreciate and take good care of. On the other hand, in Buddhist psychology, the root of our suffering is our tendency towards greed, aversion, and ignorance, and we need to be aware of our impulses which are always wanting more of what we like, and avoiding that which is unpleasant to us.

 

The middle way is like a perfectly tuned violin string – not so taut that it produces a shrill sound, but also not too lose so it can’t be played on. We can easily hear whether a violin is in tune or not. It’s more difficult to be attuned to our lives, and where we stand in regards to the middle way. There is always someone more indulgent or more disciplined than us, so it’s difficult compare ourselves to others. There are no rules as such – the lifestyle of a monastic living in the forest will be very different to that of a working parent with five young children. And while the middle way would avoid extreme lifestyles, it is also a state of mind. Someone might be living a moderate life which comes across as harmonious and balanced on the outside, but actually be quite harsh in their thinking, constantly striving to get it ‘right’, and never at ease. Whereas the life of another person, say the busy working parent, might appear chaotic and hyper-stimulated, but somehow at the end of the day everyone’s needs in the family are met, and there is a sense of contentment underneath all the turmoil.

 

I find the middle way a very helpful concept when I try to balance my life between becoming complacent, and constantly striving to achieve. I like to think of it as a reasonably wide road, which gives me some leeway to move in either direction without immediately falling into a ditch. If we’re too anxious about ‘getting it right’ all the time, the middle way can feel like a narrow mountain track in the mist where the smallest misstep will have us sliding down the slope. On the other hand, the middle way does have some limits – it’s not a carte blanche to do exactly as we like.

 

We usually have a sense of when we’ve strayed too far from the middle – and meditation or prayer or a quiet time of reflection can help us to tune into that sense of unease, and become clearer about what feels right to us. It’s like driving a car, where we are constantly making small adjustments, but know immediately when we’ve strayed onto the verge. Once this happens, we have a choice to carefully pull back onto the road, or blithely set off cross-country in the car and hope for the best. The middle way is knowing what the road looks like in our life, and making the small adjustments needed to stay on the path and not wander too far off track into the metaphorical swamp.

 

Mindful practice idea:

Think of one area in your life where you might have a tendency to over-indulge, or else deprive yourself unduly. What would the ‘middle way’ look like here? Set the intention to bring the idea of the middle way into this part of your life, and take note of how it feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

 

Uncertainty

‘The first thing that arises when we open up to each other is a great sigh of relief. We realise that we’re not the only one who feels bewildered.’

 

Pema Chödrön

Australia is currently heading towards an election campaign, and the media is full of politicians who are trying to sound convinced that they are the only ones who have all the answers to the complex problems affecting this country. Of course, no one person can be an expert on everything or have the solution to all our challenges, but to express uncertainty on any issue would be considered political suicide. We may cringe when we hear politicians sound like a ‘know-it-all’ as a result, but in our own lives, how comfortable do we feel with uncertainty? It’s not usually a pleasant space to spend much time in. Yet as the social psychologist Erich Fromm has written:

‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.’

Uncertainty can open us to curiosity and wonderment. It is always refreshing when a teacher or presenter is asked a question they don’t know the answer to, and instead of becoming defensive, their face opens up in delight as they exclaim,

‘Now, that is a really interesting question!’

When we approach uncertainty as an opportunity for further exploration, it becomes a place of creative possibility. A songwriter doesn’t know what the song will sound like before she starts writing, just as the artist is faced with a blank canvas. Creativity can be just as much stilted by great success as by miserable failure, when the desire to reproduce the success means the artist is no longer willing to delve into the unknown.

Some uncertainties are very difficult to bear – when we’re waiting for the results of an important medical test, or are no longer sure if our partner wants to be with us, or have lost contact with a family member. Uncertainty like this can cause a lot of suffering, and we can’t just offer glib assurances to someone in these situations.

Yet even our more ordinary everyday life is filled with uncertainty – we never know what the next moment will bring. We can respond by becoming paralysed with anxiety, or else being rigid and exuding an air of being overly confident. As Yeats wrote in his famous poem ‘The Second Coming’: 

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

Somewhere in the middle between those two extremes there is an opportunity of acting with agency and confidence, while at the same time being open to having our viewpoint and solutions challenged by new learnings. In mindfulness meditation, we often develop a greater sense of trust in ourselves, in acting from our values and inner knowing. Yet most meditation, by its nature, tends to also take us to places of uncertainty for what can seem like a very long time. This can be frustrating, but also liberating. 

The voice of uncertainty is more quiet than the booming sound of pompous conviction. What it lacks in charisma, however, it more than makes up for in authenticity.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes with the intention of deliberately sitting in uncertainty. Perhaps there is a topical issue you can’t make up your mind on, or there is an area of uncertainty looming in your current life. For the set period of time, try not to come up with any solution. Notice how it feels in your body, as well as emotionally and mentally, to simply sit with this uncertainty.

Anja Tanhane