Every Season…

I have just started reading a book by Jack Kornfield titled, After the Ecstasy, The Laundry. It was recommended to me by quite a few people, and while I have owned it for the 6 months or so, I am only getting to it now. However, picking up this book in the month of January feels like providence. Like the spiritual laundry that Kornfield speaks about, January can feel a bit humdrum. In fact, I feel sorry for January-it cannot be easy following the ‘ding-dong merrily on high’ magic-filled month of December.

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Like the holiday season, Kornfield explains that “[e]nlightenment does exist. It is possible to awaken. Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the Divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace—these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: They don’t last” (p.xiii).

‘What??’ I can hear people gasp. It doesn’t last? Well, what he means is that anyone who has experienced these enlightened states doesn’t just remain in a state of un-adulterated bliss. Indeed, life gets in the way. Like any meditation where one has moments of clarity alongside periods of chaos, ecstatic spiritual awakenings are followed by the monotony of everyday life. Even the Buddha returned to monastic life after reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

Moreover, for many, January can feel a bit similar. While December has the propensity to deliver good will and images of ‘silent nights’ filled with hope and light, January can be grey and disappointing. So how can we cope with this pile of laundry? This aftermath?

Simply being aware of our emotional landscape helps– alongside treating each visiting emotion like a guest in a guest house. Rumi wrote a famous poem that helps to remind us that being human means experiencing a range of cyclical emotions. If we can learn to allow our changing moods to exist within us, their power over us dissipates. And as their power dissipates, these emotions slowly move on, making room for our next moment of awakened enlightenment. Every season has a turn….

-Jane

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Finding a deeper silence – Meditation and Tinnitus

Happy New Year to one and all!

2018 has stopped me in my tracks- literally! I have been in bed sick with the flu for the last week. However, and thankfully, my wonderful colleague Alan Hughes has stepped up to the plate for me and has written this week’s challenge and blog post. Alan writes about practicing mindfulness with sound as a support- even while living with Tinnitus. I Have a read and if you feel up to it, why don’t you try using sound as your support this week!

-Jane

Finding a deeper silence – Meditation and Tinnitus

 Alan Hughes

When I first started on the path of mindfulness, one of the first meditations I was taught by Rob Nairn was to simply let the awareness of sound hold my attention in the present moment.  Many people on the course I was on reported feeling calm, focused and relaxed, and all the experiences we might expect when we meditate, but what I was most aware of was the humming noise in my head.  I’d known for a few years that this sound was there, and would notice it for example if I woke up in the middle of the night, but it was generally quiet enough that I could ignore it.  When I settled down to meditate, however, it seemed to grow louder and came to dominate my experience.  I also had a definite preference for the noise to not be there, despite the clearly wise suggestions of Rob to accept whatever sounds presented themselves.  Of course, this gave my inner self-critic plenty of ammunition to beat myself up with, and I soon came to the conclusion that I was probably just not cut out for this meditation malarkey.

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I soon learned that I had tinnitus, which is often referred to as an “inner ringing in the ears”, and when I started discussing it with other people I soon realised that I wasn’t alone in this.  Indeed, the NHS reckons that approximately 10% of the population have persistent tinnitus, although for most people, such as for myself, this is simply a minor irritation.  For other people, however, tinnitus can be more troublesome, and when it’s particularly bad it can lead to depression, insomnia and problems with concentration and emotional regulation.

There have now been a number of studies that have looked at the effects of mindfulness on tinnitus, and the good news is that there is emerging evidence that cultivating mindfulness can lead to long-term reduction in its severity.  While evidence about this is still emerging, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scans indicate altered connectivity in brain areas that appear to be involved in the maintenance of tinnitus, which may be modified by cultivating mindfulness.  Apart from directly influencing the causes of tinnitus, mindfulness also helps reduce the distress we might feel when we have this – as it does with other difficult experiences – by helping us to open up to whatever is present in that moment, even if it is unpleasant.  We can learn to develop a new relationship with the tinnitus based around acceptance, without embarking on an inner struggle of trying to avoidance or suppress it.  Unsurprisingly, several research studies have recommend mindfulness in the treatment of tinnitus.

Despite my initial struggle, over the years I have repeatedly returned to using sound as my meditation support, and this is something I now teach.  Of course – all things being equal – I’d rather not have tinnitus, but with time there has been a definite change in my attitude towards it.  I now enjoy using sound as my meditation support, as I find it has a different quality compared to, for example, watching my breath, as I find that resting with ambient sound tends to have a more expansive feeling.  When I do this, I simply use natural, ambient sound to gently hold my attention in the present moment, and don’t put on music to try to distract myself, or to drown out other noises.  Inevitably when I do this, I immediately become aware of my tinnitus, but now I find it quite fascinating to notice how the tone can vary from ear to ear, moment to moment and day to day.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s become an old friend, but I have come to accept that it is part of me that’s here to stay.

With sound meditation, we learn that there’s never really such as thing as complete silence, and indeed we don’t need this to settle our minds, or find an inner peace.  When we allow ourselves the opportunity to notice the more subtle aspects of our experience, we may begin to notice sounds that we may not have been aware of before, such as traffic in the distance, or the creaks and groans of our home as it warms up or cools down.  Even if we don’t have tinnitus, we may start to notice more subtle noise within our bodies: the sounds of our breathing, our tummy rumbling, our heart beating, or even more subtle vibrations, such as the noise of the blood flowing through our ears.  We can then give ourselves permission to accept whatever is present in our experience at that moment, without having to judge or label whatever we become aware of, or preferring one sound over another.  This isn’t easy, but with time we can come to experience whatever sounds present themselves to you simply as sensory objects.  Whether it’s a humming in our head or the wind in the trees outside we’re not trying to block these sounds out, but as we deepen our practice we might occasionally find a place of deeper calm and tranquility; a deeper silence, which isn’t influenced by more ephemeral sounds.

[It is recommended that you should see your GP if you continually or regularly hear sounds such as buzzing, ringing or humming in your ears.  It is rarely a sign of a serious condition, but it is important to seek medical advice to see if an underlying cause can be found and treated.]

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All is Calm…

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine gave me a book on hygge, or the Danish art of living well. Hygge has become almost a contemporary pop-culture phenomenon; however, the little book tells me that it is based not only in Danish history but also in ancient Norse mythology.

So, what exactly is hygge? Well according to Louisa Thomsen Brits, the author of “The Book of Hygge”, it “draws meaning from the fabric of ordinary living…it’s a way of acknowledging the sacred in the secular, of giving something ordinary a special context, spirit and warmth and taking time to make it extraordinary”.

Christmas blog

Now, previous to reading this book, I associated hygge with warm fires, mugs of hot drinks, fluffy blankets, cosy homes. It’s no wonder as this is what the media has perpetuated. However, hygge is about so much more. It’s about being mindful, feeling connected and safe, feeling at ease. It’s about the daily rituals that we all have that make us feel comfort, that anchor us and really instil a sense of well-being.

In short, it’s the little acts that can bring us into a deep presence with life.

It’s Thich Nhat Hanh exclaiming, “the dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”

Or, Alice walker’s beautiful poem ‘Grace’…

Grace

gives me a day

too beautiful

I had thought

to stay indoors

& yet

washing my dishes

straightening

my shelves

finally

throwing out

the wilted

onions

shrunken garlic

cloves

I discover

I am happy

to be inside

looking out.

This, I think,

Is wealth.

Just this choosing

of how

a beautiful day

is spent.

Hygge is about turning inwards and coming home to the beauty that surrounds us in each moment. It’s found in the earthy aroma of the day’s first cup of coffee, the quietness of an afternoon with a good book, the soft squish of hands kneading dough, a conversation with a dear friend at a warmly lit table.

Interestingly, even though hygge is timeless, hygge seems to become more popular at Christmas time. There are countless articles referring to how one can “have a very ‘hygge’ Christmas” or one can find “hygge Christmas gift guides” with a quick search of Google. And I might even argue that elements of hygge can be found in the tradition surrounding the ‘spirit’ of Christmas.

For instance, Christmas lands at the darkest time of the year- a time for turning inwards. It’s a time for “giving something ordinary a special context, spirit and warmth and taking time to make it extraordinary”. Meals are specially prepared, time is spent with those we hold dear, fires are lit, books are exchanged, and coffees are spiced. Special care is given to the ordinary, making the season feel extraordinary. However, this all comes with a price. Instead of ‘all is calm’, Christmas can feel hurried, busy and even cluttered with the chaos of excess.

This got me asking the questions- How can we truly feel peace and joy during the holidays? How can we bring in a sense of safety, connection and ease? How can we be mindful? How can we practice hygge and truly embody the spirit of season?

Dim Bathroom with Lit Candles Casting Shadows (2)

Perhaps, we might do this by being present and finding the miracle in washing the dishes, as Thich Nhat Hanh describes. Or, through the mundane task of slowing down to clean and pare the brussel sprouts that will feed the visiting neighbour. Perhaps, we might find peace and ease by taking our days one task at time. Or, by setting aside a day or two between Christmas and New Year to stay in pajamas- to read, to eat, to take a bath by candlelight, to shut the noise off and to watch the fire. Safe, connected and at ease.

This is my intention for the next week or so- to slow down, to take my days one task at a time and to find the sacred in as many moments as I can be present for. And this is my wish for you and yours during the coming days.

Merry Christmas!

-Jane

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O’ Christmas Tree

This past weekend was set aside for putting up the Christmas tree. I have all sorts of wonderful childhood memories of decorating the tree with my family. My mother would make snacks and hors d’oeuvres and there would be carols playing and everything seemed perfect. Although, I am beginning to think I may have had rose tinted glasses on!

FullSizeRender (11)I had great imaginings for this to be my experience this year; however, my kids did not. When I asked them if they would like some special snacks for putting up the tree, they looked at me like I was a mad woman. Instead, as I scrambled to get dinner on in order to make time to do the tree, they went ahead of me and put up the lights. Now, my need to be in control was kicked into overdrive- they were trying to put the lights up without me! There is no way that they could put the lights up without me.

I was starting to feel flustered. They were moving too fast. I hollered for them to wait for me to get the dinner on, but they hollered back that they were fine. I couldn’t let this go. I hastily turned on the oven and ran into the living room. Sure enough, the lights were up- and they looked all jumbled. They would have to come down. They groaned.

The lights came off fine, but they came off in a ball of crazy. We started to try to untangle them and I was starting to hot, bothered and real low. Low and overwhelmed. What is worse, my mood was spreading to all in the room. We kept trying- and the lights kept getting more and more tangled.

I said something like ‘How did they get so tangled?’

And my daughter looked at me with a deadpan face and said ‘Are you serious? You did it, Mom’.

My mood continued to drop and I started to think of all the ways I had messed up- never mind just with the Christmas tree! Again, my mood was sinking even lower, and tension spread all throughout my body. I wanted to leave the lights, leave the house and go hide.

But I knew that I couldn’t.

Everyone was feeling low. We were forcing the moment and the trimming of the tree was turning out to be a nightmare. But I persisted- and I remembered my Tonglen practice. Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of taking and sending. Briefly and very basically, Tonglen is to simply recognize and breathe in the suffering of others or yourself, allowing your compassionate heart to transform this suffering into compassionate light and healing and then sending out that light as you exhale. I started to breathe in my angst and breathe out a sense of soothing into my body.

And then, I did all I could- I let go. I stood up from the hunched position and lightly shookFullSizeRender (12) the lights and they began to fall away from one another. When I stopped trying so hard, when I loosened my grip, the lights sorted themselves out. We then put the lights back up, draped spaciously, put some carols on and we all felt a relief. Thankfully, the mood lifted, and we happily decorated the Christmas tree.

Dinner was soon ready and as we sat at the table, we laughed heartily about old memories of how I have embarrassed my kids in times of Christmas past. We laughed so hard that the tears were coming down our faces. Ok- so this year’s tree trimming was not the picture perfect memory of my childhood, but it was full of all that makes us human. And it doesn’t get more perfect than that!

-Jane

Take a look at a small video where I explain Tonglen for Self at Christmas:

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Beyond Expectation

Last weekend, I started my Christmas shopping. I was really excited and had this expectation that I was going to head up to the city, soak in the lights, get my whole list done and maybe even stop for a mince pie and some mulled wine.

I was wrong.

The signs of this ‘wrong’ were apparent on the drive in. The congestion of cars and lane crossers cutting others off was an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come. The streets and shops were no different. People were shoulder to shoulder, clothes that had once neatly been piled were strewn any which way, the queues were intimidating, and I was sweating. It was all too much. I couldn’t think. I had to take myself off to a café, sit down and breathe.

This breath– it was as simple as this breath that moves through me that gave me the opportunity to feel the ground beneath my feet and connected into the moment. I sat quietly with my cup of coffee, feeling the breath and sensing in to the heat of my drink- the crowds still moved around me, the noise was still incessant, but my breath had given me the space to collect myself, slow down and feel clarity. (I was Resting in The Midst of it All– a practice that we teach on our Mindfulness courses (click here for more information).

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What came was that it was CLEAR that I could not brave the crowds. I could not have an effective shopping day with this amount of chaos all around me. So, I asked myself what could I brave? And the answer came quite quickly – order what you can online!

So, I pulled out my phone and found the EXACT Christmas stockings that I had been looking for on a specific shop’s website (they had been sold out, not surprisingly, in the actual shop), and started to do what I could online from the position of my coffee’d seat.

Rather than completely give up in the face of overwhelm, my breath gave me the space to choose something different. It gave me the space to work more skilfully with the state of mind that I was in. No, I didn’t have the experience of basking in the glowing lights and finishing off my list, whilst framed by mulled wine and mine pies- but I did get a lot done while keeping my balance.

What is more, I had purchased tickets for a friend and I to go see a post shopping Christmas play in my favourite theatre. However, when I was feeling the overwhelm and the panic of the crowds, I suggested to my friend that we forgo the play, and instead, retreat to my house for a quiet evening with a DVD. We were very tempted. However, because of this small pause with the breath, this resting in the midst of it all, we felt that maybe we could stay for the show after all.

We skipped past all of the shops and got to the theatre early; where indeed, there was mulled wine and mince pies. Once in the play, there was no where else to go and nothing else to do but enjoy the theatrics. The best part is that the production was magical, mystical, absurd and poignant- just as the season can be and we both walked out of that theatre feeling grateful.

So- this week’s challenge is for if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or over stimulated, can you practice focusing on the breath, whilst resting in the midst of it all? Can you rest your attention on the breath while allowing all of the sounds, smells and thoughts to swirl and to just be there? Can you create the space to recognize that actually there may be something you can do, rather than giving up all together?

-Jane

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One Gift at a Time…

So, it is the cusp of the Christmas season and I have been making lists and girding my loins and getting ready to brave the shops. No matter how many ways that I try to minimize the commerciality of Christmas in my life, I still have three kids and a family in Canada to seek out and buy gifts for. All of the shops and lists can be so overwhelming, not to mention the early December postal deadline for parcels overseas. My head feels crazy.

Vintage mechanical monkey toy with santa hat and beard

Then as I was speaking with a friend this morning, I mentioned my crazy Christmas head and they said ‘OK, but don’t let crazy Christmas head ruin your weekend-  Be kind to yourself, take one step at a time and enjoy it!’

Crazy Christmas head froze like a deer caught in the headlights, as the words rolled around in my brain- “Be Kind? One step at a time? You mean like practice being mindful and compassionate?”

Once again, my practice had slipped between my fingers and the stories of long lines, crowded malls, not enough time…not enough time… I will never get it done…I will fail and ruin Christmas…Blah Blah Blah… had overrun my thinking thoughts. It’s Nov. 30th– of course there is enough time.

So, I got off the phone and asked myself the question:

Within reason, what preparations for Christmas can I undertake this weekend and this weekend alone?

The answer was simple, short and very doable. This weekend, I will create the space to build my parcel and I try to simply be with that one task. If I feel my crazy Christmas head bubbling, I will try to notice this and bring my attention back to the one task I am doing with a kind gentleness. And you know what? It will get done and by being present for it, by reducing the panic of the season, I might even enjoy it.

So, this week’s challenge is to see if we can single task our days. Can we take one job at a time and simply be present before moving on to the next? Can we resist the temptation to allow the whole cacophony of the day’s jobs to invade our space? Instead, can we be with our lists one item at a time? It doesn’t mean we will get any less done, only that we may feel a little less frazzled.

This is an act of self -compassion. And hopefully, I will be able to take this self-compassion with me throughout the Christmas season. In fact, I am setting an intention to have a Compassionate Christmas- why don’t you join me?

-Jane

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Meeting The World’s Deep Hunger

After I wrote last week’s The Final Straw challenge on creating and cultivating an ‘outer’ practice,  I thought it might be a good idea to change up the format of our challenge this week and record a conversation that I had with Kristine Mackenzie Janson on ‘outer’ practice and how we might start moving towards Engaged Mindfulness. Kristine then offered a wonderful challenge for us all to take with us over the coming weeks…

Have a watch!

click here

Please find the practices that Kristine mentions in the challenge below:

 

Rick Hanson’s Taking in The Good

Rick Hanson teaches a practice that we often use on our courses called ‘Taking in The Good’. He explains that through the cultivation of the ‘felt sense’ of contentment and the soothing sensations of ‘feel good’ moments or by simply noticing and enjoying these moments, we can go from recognizing to actually integrating and absorbing joyful experiences. This, in turn, has the potential to actually change the physiology of the brain from one that is programmed to hold on to negative experiences, to one that identifies and rests in positive ones, instead.

He approaches this process in a three-fold way : “(1) take some time to notice a positive experience; (2) enrich this experience by appreciating it, not just drifting off into thinking; (3) then actively absorb the experience. So, for example, notice the spring blossom, stop and appreciate it, and allow yourself to take in its fragrant and delicate beauty. In this way, practice focusing on what feels right and good on a moment-by-moment basis”.

Self-Compassion Break

Put your hand(s) on your heart, or hug yourself

Breathe deeply in and out

Speak kindly to yourself, really letting yourself experience what is behind the words:

  • This is a moment of difficulty
  • Difficulties are part of everybody’s life
  • May I respond with kindness

These three phrases can be seen as a self-compassion mantra, a set of memorized phrases that are repeated silently whenever you want to give yourself compassion. They are most useful in the heat of the moment, whenever strong feelings of distress arise. You might find these phrases work for you, but it’s worth playing with them to see if you can find the wording that works best for you. What’s important is that all three aspects of self-compassion are evoked, not the particular words used.

The first phrase, “This is a moment of difficulty” (or suffering) is designed to bring mindfulness to the fact that you’re in pain. Other possible wordings for this phrase are: “I’m having a really hard time right now,” “This is really difficult,” “It’s painful for me to feel this now,” etc.

The second phrase, “Difficulties are part of everybody’s life” is designed to remind you that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. Other possible wordings are: “Everyone feels this way sometimes,” “A lot of other people probably feel the same way,” etc.

The third phrase “May I respond with kindness” is designed to help bring a sense of caring concern to your present moment experience. Other possible wordings are: “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time,” “Poor thing, it will be alright,” “Know that I’m here for you and care about you,” etc. This final phrase firmly sets your intention to be self-compassionate. Other possible wordings are “I am worthy of receiving self-compassion,” “I need to give myself compassionate care”.

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