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 soothing system – Part 1





The third system in Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems (the previous two were ‘fight/flight’ and ‘resource-seeking’) is what he calls the ‘soothing and affiliation system’. This system is crucial for rest, regeneration, and healing. Unlike the excitement and intensity of the other two systems, the soothing and affiliation system is quiet, receptive, and content. In the hectic busyness of our everyday lives, the soothing system is easily overlooked – and yet, so much of what we value in life springs from, and is nurtured through, this system.

It could be feelings of appreciation, of gratitude, of being grounded and present. There might be a sense of coming home to ourselves, of connecting with our deepest values. There’s little excitement in this system, but instead it allows us a deep sense of joy. Excitement has its place, but it can easily be derailed. For example, as a child you may have been very excited about getting a new bike, only to have one of your friends make a snide comment about its colour – and immediately your excitement gave way to hurt and disappointment. Contentment is different – a colleague may make a cutting remark about the compliment you received from your boss, but you are basically content within yourself, and can recognise the remark for the jealousy it probably is. We hear a lot about the search for happiness, but I find thinking about contentment more useful. We can feel sad, even a little hurt by unkind remarks, and still feel basically content.

The soothing and affiliation system is also important for kindness and compassion. We’re hardwired to be calmed down in the face of kindness. When we’re constantly in a rush, it’s difficult to find the time to sit with someone, really listen to them, respond empathetically to their distress. Deep social connections and support take time. That doesn’t mean we have to invariably spend hours listening to someone when we ask them how their day was. Yet eventually, if we’re always in a rush and distracted when we talk to our friends and family, those relationships are going to suffer.

In his book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing – Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’, Norman Doidge writes about the research by Stephen Porges, which found that activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which is our resting and regenerating system) also turns on our social engagement system, as well as the middle ear muscles. This allows us to communicate and connect with others. There are young children with sensory processing difficulties who are constantly overwhelmed by the sensations coming at them, and are therefore mostly in fight/flight mode. They may show little interest in interacting with others, until they are given the opportunity to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for example through sound therapy, as Norman Doidge describes in his book). Once they’re able to relax and don’t feel overwhelmed, they may then become very engaged socially.

The soothing and affiliation system is crucial if we want to find a way of life which is fulfilling and balanced. Yet, because it’s not related to our immediate survival needs, it can often be neglected. Next week, we will look at some ideas for nurturing this system in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside ten to twenty minutes, and reflect on areas in your life where you are currently cultivating the soothing and affiliation system. Does it feel the right balance, or do you need to spend more or less time in this system?

Anja Tanhane





Our sense of touch





Have you ever hugged a tree? For all the clichés around tree-huggers, it’s actually a wonderful thing to do. And if you can’t quite see yourself going up to a tree and giving it a hug, even just running your hand along its bark can be a great way to feel more connected to nature.

Touch is one of our most important senses – infants who are deprived of touch fail to develop normally. Even taking someone’s hand and holding it briefly can instantly help to calm and soothe them. If you’re with someone who is crying or very distressed, the natural instinct is to give them a hug or at least put your hand around their shoulder. Touch can also help us feel more connected to our environment – running our hands over smooth pebbles in the creek, walking barefoot across sand on a beach, noticing a warm gentle breeze against our skin, touching beautiful fabric such as silk.

As human beings, we need touch – we thrive when we are touched in loving and caring ways. Unfortunately, our need to be touched is also easily abused. In order to protect the vulnerable from sexual abuse, we have laws in Australia regulating the use of touch in the workplace. What touch means depends on the relationship between two people. A brief hand on the shoulder can be friendly and supportive, or creepy and exploitative. Residents in aged care homes, or people with a disability, can sometimes miss out on the benefits of being touched because of the need to protect them. Sometimes offering a hand massage, or a professional neck and shoulder massage, or a manicure, allows people to be touched in a way which is safe, and which helps them feel pampered and valued.

Tuning into our sense of touch is an easy and effective way of activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our resting and regenerating state. Even something as simple as paying attention to the sensations when we wash our hands is enough to trigger this state, especially if we use water which is slightly warm. Hopefully we wash our hands multiple times throughout the day. Each of these times is an opportunity to slow down, feel the cleansing water against the skin, smell the soap, breathe. Then we dry our hands, and tune into the sensations of this. We can then return to our activity refreshed, and feeling more present and grounded.

Weekly practice idea:

Each day, choose a different activity for tuning into your sense of touch. One day it could be washing your hands, the next running your hands over the bark of a tree, then it could be brushing the hair of your child. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane





Contentment





 Fern

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system. Continue reading “Contentment” »