Nourishing our thoughts

Considering they’re ephemeral and secret, our thoughts can be amazingly powerful. We usually have pretty clear ideas about what kind of thoughts are acceptable to us, and which ones are not. Sometimes we may feel bombarded by our thoughts, to the point they become oppressive; whereas at other times, we might feel quite at ease with the way they come and go in our minds. At times our thinking can lead us astray, causing us to lose touch with what’s going on. We’ve probably all had the disconcerting experience of believing something to be true, only to find out later that it wasn’t. This can be the case with abstract facts, but can also include our judgments about people, including ourselves. We seem to be most vulnerable to being lead astray in our thinking when we are feeling stressed or under threat in some way. In those circumstances, it’s easy to mistake the rope for a snake, or the tired look on the face of a colleague for a disapproving frown which might spell trouble for us.

In the coming weeks we will look at how we can often over-identify with our thoughts, and some strategies for loosening their grip on us. In the meantime, it can be interesting to reflect on how we actually nourish our thoughts. Just as the food we eat has an impact on our bodies, so do the sense impressions we receive impact on our thoughts. This doesn’t mean we should try to become puritanical, and only allow ‘pure’ sounds, sights etc into our consciousness. Yet the sensory information we take in does make a difference. An extreme example might be someone who is locked in their room, playing violent video games for 18 hours every day. Or else listening to angry talk-back radio all day long, gradually allowing the anger and hostility to seep into their mind. We can easily see how neither of those scenarios are conducive to clear and compassionate thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, spending even ten minutes in a pleasant outdoor environment such as a nice park or garden can allow our thinking to become more calm and positive.

We don’t want to build a ‘cone of silence’ around us, but on the other hand, we often do have choices about some of the sensory information we nourish our thinking with. Nowadays, I find that I often drive without the radio on. This doesn’t mean I have a rule that I’m ‘not allowed’ to listen to the radio when I drive. Sometimes I listen to the radio, and other times I listen to music. Yet after a busy day, it’s often a relief to not add yet more information to a mind which has already been buzzing for hours at work.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pay attention to the ways in which you ‘feed’ your thinking mind. What do you notice, and what might this mean?

Anja Tanhane



‘The simple life is best.’

Popular saying

If the simple life really is the best, then how come so few of us want to live it? I remember a documentary about a group of Mongolian nomads, and the excitement when they bought their first TV and installed it in their yurt. From then on, every evening, they were transfixed by the TV. No more story-telling around the stove, no more playing games or singing songs. The TV now ruled their leisure time, as it does in so many households around the world.

It seems we’re hard-wired to seek out stimulation and complexity. In fact it takes considerable discipline to choose a life of simplicity, and perhaps for that reason, a life of true simplicity can often become quite rigid. The simple life can also lean towards being simplistic rather than simple. To pretend there are simple solutions to our complex problems is usually naïve – though appealing. Short, punchy three word slogans by our leaders make good evening news, and can assure the viewer the problem is being taken care of. Later we usually find out that, somewhere behind the scenes, the ‘simple’ solution turned out to be anything but, and often caused more problems which the next generation is now having to deal with.

Yet many of us do yearn for greater simplicity. A retreat environment offers us the opportunity to simplify our lives for a few days by removing many of the common distractions. Instead, we focus on being present in the here and now. Depending on the nature of the retreat, there may be no talking, no reading, certainly no checking Facebook or emails. The structure of the retreat makes it clear where our attention should be – meditation, eating, walking, cleaning the bathroom. At the end of retreats, people often talk about a deep sense of contentment, of feeling gratitude for simple things like the trees outside the window, the ducklings they watched during a break, the gentle efforts of the cooks. Over time, if we attend regular retreats and meditate every day, some of that contentment and gratitude does tend to seep into our daily lives.

For example, instead of driving while listening to music I’m not even paying much attention to and worrying what that message on my phone I just heard might be and wondering whether I need to pull over and check it or if it can wait till I get home and ruminating about the real estate agent who still hasn’t got back to me and being anxious about the traffic at the upcoming railway crossing, I might just simply drive my car home from work. Stopping, starting, going with the flow of the traffic, feeling relaxed but attentive. That’s all I need to do right now. We enjoy complexity, and don’t want to deprive ourselves of that which makes life interesting and enjoyable. Yet, quite often, it is possible to simplify our approach to a task we’re engaged in, and to feel a greater sense of ease and contentment as a result.


Weekly practice idea:

During the week, try ‘just driving’, ‘just eating’, ‘just walking’, and so on. Notice any difference this might make to your day.

Anja Tanhane