Nourishing our spirit

‘Nourishing our spirit’ is the final of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. It could be considered one of the most important areas in our lives, to nourish our spirit, but what does this mean? When our lives are very busy, it’s easy to not give much time to this question, and yet when I explore the five pathways to compassion with participants at retreats, ‘nourishing our spirits’ often comes up as an area which they feel is being neglected in their lives. It seems that as humans, we respond well to rituals. Yet they need to be rituals we are comfortable with, which don’t become restrictive or a burden. There is that wonderful Zen saying – ‘don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’ Rituals are the finger which point us in the direction of our spirit, the moon, but they’re not an end in themselves. Yet with no ritual at all in our lives, we can feel adrift, rushing from one task to the next, with little time to pause and reflect.

Many cultures set aside an area in their house for religious symbols – it could be a small shrine, a cross, a statue or book. By creating this area in our home, we’re saying – this too is an important part of my life. It could be a small display of pictures, sea shells, a flower, a meaningful statue, a book of poetry or readings, perhaps a candle or incense. A place we can visit on a regular basis, where we can stop and reflect. It could be a corner in the garden where we like to sit and just be. It doesn’t need to be showy or elaborate – something simple and meaningful often works best. The Buddhist word for mindfulness is ‘sati’, which literally means ‘to remember’. Having an area set aside helps us ‘to remember’, to also give this area of our lives importance and time.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and either with pen and paper, or in silent reflection, ask yourself, ‘my spirit feels nourished when…’ Be open to what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Relating to others

‘Relating to others’ is the forth of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’. We humans have evolved to be highly social creatures – in childhood we’re very dependent on caregivers for many years, and even as adults we can only function well as part of a community. This doesn’t mean we have to have vast numbers of friends and be invited to parties every night of the week. A social butterfly in a crowd can feel lonely, while someone else might like their own company and need extended periods of solitude, and still feel warmly connected to a few key people. We’re all quite different as to the type and frequency of social interaction we need, but it’s long been established that feeling lonely and marginalised is terrible for our health, both mental but also physical.

If we think back to our happiest childhood memories, they were often times when someone kind spent time with us in a way which showed care, respect, and friendliness. Perhaps we were walking along a creek with this person, or wrapping a birthday present, or learning how to flip our first pancake. They were often moments of great simplicity, but also deep emotional warmth. They may have been times when we didn’t need to prove ourselves, but where the other person was really present with us, not rushing off to be somewhere more important.

In mindfulness, the way we relate to ourselves will inform how we treat those around us. If we hold a hostile attitude towards ourselves, it’s likely that this will be expressed in some way towards others, though the way we live it out can be quite subtle, almost hidden. Perhaps we do our best to be helpful, but have a tendency to be sarcastic at times? We might spend a lot of time gossiping about the shortcomings of others, and be quick to judge and criticise. Sometimes, when people start to meditate, they’re shocked at the unfriendly tone of voice they use towards themselves. We benefit when we treat other people with kindness, and this includes ourselves as well.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, think back to a time when you shared a happy moment with someone else, either in your childhood or more recently. What were the qualities of the interaction which you really appreciated? Write down these qualities, and reflect on how you’re currently nourishing these in your life.

Anja Tanhane

Allowing your thoughts

‘The cat ignored becomes the tiger.’

Carl Jung

‘Allowing your thoughts’ is the second of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five Pathways to Self Compassion’. When we are caught in unhelpful thinking patterns, it can be tempting to try and control our thoughts. Yet as the quote by Carl Jung illustrates, this can often lead to giving thoughts more strength and power instead. In fact, one of the main ways in which we can get entangled in negative thinking is by giving thoughts far more power than they deserve. As the wonderful quote from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy goes:

‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

‘Allowing your thoughts’ doesn’t mean letting our thoughts run riot and out of control. For example, if we’re obsessed with thoughts of revenge, or enmeshed in a constant stream of negative self-talk, this is clearly not helpful. Yet positive thinking, where we manically try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, also doesn’t work, because it’s not based on reality. The mindful approach to our thoughts is to avoid either extreme – we don’t suppress our thoughts, but neither do we let them run our lives.

Thoughts become powerful when we get entangled in them, when we invest them with emotional energy and a narrative. For example, we might feel that during a meeting at work, other people were listened to far more attentively and respectfully than we were. This may in fact be what happened. If we have a strong narrative in our lives about being treated unjustly, this may evoke powerful emotions in us, leading to obsess about this for days to come. And because of our strong confirmation bias, where we actively seek out evidence which supports our beliefs, any future slight, whether real or imagined, will feed the flame of unhelpful thinking.

Mindfulness helps to bring us back to earth – to be aware of what is happening right now, rather than what we might be imagining. Next week, we will look at some simple mindfulness practices which can help us to allow the natural flow of our thoughts to occur, neither blocking them, nor becoming entangled by them.

Weekly practice idea:

Take time this week to notice your patterns of thinking. Are there certain thinking patterns you seem to return to again and again?

Anja Tanhane

Softening into the body – Part 2

Each day we have many opportunities for softening into our bodies – some of these can be formal and quite deliberate, while others are more subtle. One of the easiest way we can allow our bodies to soften is by using our breath. The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a wonderful expression – ‘let your breath be received in a softening belly.’ Our stomachs often feel stress, so the idea of softening our bellies as the breath flows into it is very appealing.

We can also breathe into other parts of the body which feel tight, or where there may be some pain. For example, if our elbow feels sore, rather than tensing the muscles around it, we can imagine that we’re sending our breath into the elbow, and soothing and softening the area around it. We might want to imagine a sensation of warmth as part of the breath, and also colours. Other meditation teachers use images like warm honey, or a clear white light, or that the muscles start to melt like water, and then evaporate like gas. We can choose the images which suit us best – and these may also change over time. One day, the healing colour may be blue, and on another day, it could be oozing and golden like honey. Once we’ve practised using our breath in this way, we can come back to it throughout the day. All we need to do is to pause for a moment, and to allow our breath, with or without an image, to soften into our body.

Other practices which are helpful are those which work directly with the tension in our muscles, such as massage, acupuncture, and similar healing practices. Stretching is also wonderful for loosening muscles – for example during yoga or Tai Chi. If we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, we can also look up office stretches online and remind ourselves to do these regularly throughout the day.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways of softening into our bodies, and something which our bodies really appreciate, is to make sure we don’t rush around from morning till night, day after day. At most workplaces now, the idea of stopping work for morning tea and afternoon tea seems rather quaint. Even lunchtime is no longer sacrosanct. Yet we only function at optimum efficiency if we take regular breaks. We’re all different in this regard – some people seem to thrive on being on the go all day long, while others would find this clearly exhausting. We can experiment with what works best for us, and then do our best to fit these regular breaks into our day. Sometimes we only need to pause for a few moments and breathe, and already we feel much rejuvenated.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of the suggestions above which resonate for you, and schedule it into your week. Notice how this feels for your body.

Anja Tanhane

Softening into the body

‘A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.’ Lao Tzu

When we are under stress, often what we notice first is the body tightening up. Whether it’s stress at work which causes our shoulders to be contracted, or a physical pain which leads us to hold that part of the body stiffly, our natural tendency seems to be to tighten rather than soften our muscles when we’re under pressure. Tense muscles may make us feel stronger, but they inhibit the natural flow of our energy and can lead to long-term musculoskeletal problems. They also send signals to the brain that our body is in ‘fighting’ mode – which doesn’t help when we want to feel relaxed and at ease.

We sometimes treat our bodies as if they should be a well-behaved and obedient servant who always follows our orders even though we underpay them, work them without rest, and have no interest in their legitimate needs. And after years of this mistreatment, we are surprised when this servant no longer gives their best, or even dares to go on strike! Instead of appreciating our body for all the gifts it offers us, we might feel resentful of its many demands. Yet what would life be without our bodies – without the gift of sight, which allows us to see beauty and love; the gift of touch, such as the feel of a child’s hand in ours; the gift of sound – wonderful music, the voices of people we care about, bird song in the forest. In every moment, we connect to the world around us through our bodies. They’re not just a mechanical vehicle designed to carry our busy minds from A to B.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’

Letting the soft animal of our body love what it loves. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which we can learn to soften more into our bodies.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments to tune into your body, and, with each breath out, soften the muscles a little. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Pathways to self-compassion

‘Although our personal experience may tell us otherwise, self-compassion is the most natural thing in the world. Deep within all beings is the wish to be happy and free from suffering.’

Christopher Germer

Are we kind to ourselves? Could we describe ourselves as our own best friend? Are we patient, understanding and supportive when we’ve made a mistake? As we practice mindfulness, we sometimes come to understand these questions in new and surprising ways. Over the coming weeks, we will look at what psychologist and mindfulness teacher Christopher Germer calls the five pathways to self compassion, from his book ‘The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion – freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions’. It’s a holistic model which we can return to whenever our life feels out of balance. The pathways he describes are:

Softening into the body

Allowing your thoughts

Befriending your feelings

Relating to others

Nourishing your spirit.

As we explore these five pathways, we may find that some areas of our life feel quite balanced, whereas other aspects have been neglected. Depending on our culture and upbringing, we may feel quite comfortable with the idea of self-compassion, or we may be a little suspicious of it. Is there a difference between being kind to ourselves, and becoming self-centered and narcissistic? Doesn’t our culture already promote the individual too much, and shouldn’t we focus our attention more on being available to others? Is it true, as Christopher Germer claims in the quote at the beginning, that self-compassion is the most natural thing in the word? And if it is, then why do we need to ‘practice’ it?

These are all very interesting questions to investigate, and we will all find our own answers. One of the most famous sayings on this topic is by Jesus – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s not ‘Love your neighbour much more than yourself’ or ‘Love your neighbour, but not yourself.’ As children, we thought the world evolved around our needs, and we needed to learn that this is not the case. Yet sometimes we may have taken this lesson too far in the opposite direction by not honouring the legitimate needs of our bodies, mind, emotions, relationships and spirit. Somewhere there is a happy middle ground, where we can be kind to ourselves without becoming self-indulgent. We can discover where this middle ground lies for us, and reflect on any changes we may want to make in our lives so that we feel more balanced and supported, both by our way of life, and also by the attitudes we express towards ourselves.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a blank piece of paper and a pen, and set aside 10 – 15 minutes where you won’t be disturbed. At the top of the page, write ‘For me, self-compassion means…’ and keep writing. Try not to censor yourself (you can always tear up what you’ve written straight after!), and see what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

The guest house

‘The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing,

And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.’

From ‘The guest house’ by Rumi


In his poem ‘The guest house’, the Sufi poet Rumi invites us to metaphorically open ourselves up to all visitors, just like a guest house which doesn’t get to choose who stays the night. Every morning, new guests arrive – ‘a joy, a depression, a meanness’; and he asks us to treat all of these unexpected visitors honourably, even if they ‘violently sweep your house empty of its furniture’. This poem seems to resonate with a lot of people, although on the face of it, what he is asking us to do appears rather strange. Why would we welcome dark thoughts, shame, malice? Surely it makes more sense to bolt the door against them and threaten to call the police if they don’t go away?

The instinct to protect ourselves against threats is very powerful, and our dark thoughts can pose a real to our lives. If we’re not able to deal with them skilfully, they can lead to depression, cause us to argue with those we love, or make us aggressive/paranoid/socially withdrawn and so on. Or we may project these feelings out, and someone else might become our scapegoat, forced to carry the burden of our shame.

Mindfulness asks us to see ourselves truthfully, to accept the full range of our thoughts, emotions, and personality quirks. This is an ongoing challenge, but fortunately mindfulness also enables us to better manage the challenge. Through mindfulness practice, we are able to create a compassionate space around our experiences, and this is really the key. Without self-compassion, we are likely to call the thought police on ourselves at the first sign of one of these unexpected visitors arriving at the door.

‘Treat each guest honourable’, Rumi tells us, ‘he may be clearing you out for some new delight.’

What are the delights of accepting ourselves more fully? What can we gain by engaging with those aspects of ourselves we’d rather turn away?

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling arises, imagine you’re the innkeeper in Rumi’s poem, inviting them into your house. Does this make a difference to how you experience this aspect of yourself?

Anja Tanhane