I want to see

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I was thinking this week about something from last Sunday’s Gospel at Mass where the blind man says to Jesus, “I want to see.” I think we are all blind in certain ways, some of the time – whenever we can’t see past our assumptions, prejudices, hurts. The next time you find yourself holding a thought that isn’t helpful to you, try to take a step back. In what way can I see this differently? Am I responding to the present moment, or am I really reacting to something from my past?

Ten breaths meditation

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I was moody today. On Wednesday and Thursday I talked to people about self-care recipes, and today I had to think about mine. I’d have liked to spend the entire day alone, but instead I had two kids, entrance exam prep and piano and violin practice to battle through – which took most of the afternoon – so, you know, gah. Also, I’m not speaking to the husband. Such fun! Good thing the weather was sublime so I sat in the garden and stared at the grass while getting agitated about how these Maths questions would be simple to solve IF YOU WOULD ONLY READ THE QUESTION PROPERLY AND DO IT STEP BY STEP LIKE I TOLD YOU.

See? Everyone has off-days. At times like this, when you feel steamed up and need headspace, try this meditation. It only takes a minute, so after that you can carry on with your bad day if you want. Or, you know, you can take a deep breath and remind yourself to get some perspective.

Ten Breaths Meditation
1) Start by stopping, whatever you’re doing, wherever you are. Keep your eyes open, but don’t stare manically at the cat.

2) Breathe in really deeply, to the count of five, and see if you can hold it for three counts, then breathe out to the count of seven. This is Breath One.

3) Repeat for three further breaths, counting each breath. Each time, on the exhale, let it be a release. Imagine you’re breathing out all the frustration, all the annoyance, all the irritation. Make the exhale really noisy if you want.

4) How patient can you be with each breath? How long can you make your inhale? The pause in between the inhale and the exhale? The exhale?

5) The fifth time around, let your breathing return to normal. Keep counting each breath, but this time, focus on the sensation of breathing. The rise and fall of your chest, the rhythm, the feel of the air you breathe out on your hand. If you forget what number you’re on, that’s ok – just restart from wherever you remember.

6) When you get to ten, you can stop. Tune back into your surroundings. How do you feel? (If you still want to strangle someone, you may want to continue for a bit. Or drink some gin, you know, whatever floats your boat, but meditation’s probably better for you.)

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

The problem of pain

I’ve been thinking about pain. A number of things have converged in recent weeks to cause this: my reinjured knee (currently waiting for MRI results and follow-up with the orthopod), my mother’s grief over the loss of her beloved cat, Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (if you haven’t read this, I thoroughly recommend buying it), and the daily catalogue of unhappy news from around the world. (On a lighter note, also the individuation report that I idly signed up for a while ago that told me I thrived on suffering. Apparently I have a ‘strange appreciation for pain’, although they did go on to clarify that they didn’t mean masochistically, which was helpful.) It seemed quite fitting that while participating in a group guided meditation a couple of weeks ago, one of the messages that came into my head was ‘pain is a teacher.’

In my more philosophical moments, I have mulled over the ‘problem of pain’ and why God allows suffering to happen. I am no theologian or philosopher, but you see, I think pain is part of life in all its fullness.

A few questions occur to me. Is pain necessary? What would life be like without it? What happens when you fight or run from pain? I’ll be clear upfront – I have no definitive answers to any of these questions. But it strikes me that these are worthwhile things to consider.

Is pain necessary? What would life be like without it?

Whenever I mull over what a life without any pain would be like I’m reminded of two things. The first is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and its citizens getting high on soma, which, as Huxley comments, has “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”. Except does it? People blissed out on soma are dull and torpid. The second is the childhood memory of when I learnt about leprosy and discovered that because lepers don’t feel any pain they end up losing parts of their extremities because of repeated and unnoticed wounds and infections. Pain, then, is a natural signal to us to stop and take stock of our reality.

I think pain allows us to become fully human. Is pleasure all we want in our lives? How can you value happiness if you never know anything else? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think suffering is necessary in order to find meaning and happiness. Seeking it out would just be masochistic. I just think that if it does find you, you have to embrace it, and find out what it’s teaching you, and then discover that your joy, whenever it comes, is all the more precious because of the contrast.

The Indian poet Rumi said this: “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter.” And then there’s one of my favourite verses in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

What happens when you fight or run from pain?

I think that often our first instinct, when confronted with pain, is to control or get rid of it somehow. Fight it, run from it, suppress it, avoid it. Sometimes this is reasonable and sensible to avoid unnecessary suffering, like anaesthesia during operations or pain relief in childbirth. Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to figure out what control we have over our situation, or indeed whether we should be trying to exert control over it in the first place.

If you’re in an unhappy position, I think you first have to ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do to change the situation or get away from it?” If there is, however, there then comes a second question: “Does it help me to do so?” If the answers to both of these questions are yes, then you take the necessary and appropriate action. But what happens if either or both answers are no? I think the key word for what I want to talk about here is acceptance.

Eh? Acceptance?

I often tell my clients that acceptance is not the same thing as resignation. It’s not about some sort of reluctant acquiescence or passiveness in the face of defeat. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in “Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness”, phrases it beautifully: “Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is – especially when you don’t like it – and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.”

I also love the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: “When there is no way out, there is still always a way through.”

Surrendering like this – letting go of resistance and working with rather than against your situation – may not come naturally, but I think learning how to live in this way is so worth it. You start by acknowledging that you are resistant, and then step away from yourself to observe what’s going on in your mind and what the pain is like. Then you allow the pain and the resistance to just be there, rather than pushing it away or trying to escape.

Here’s a little exercise* to show you what I mean. Pick up a large book (the heavier the better) and imagine that it represents all the pain and tears and unhappy thoughts that you’re fighting. Now grip it as tightly as you can, as if you’re trying to stop someone taking it away from you. Hold it up in front of you, gripping tightly all the while, and keep doing that for three minutes.

Done?

Now, place it against the wall, and push the book away from you, as hard as you can. Just keep pushing away all that pain. You’re managing to keep the pain at arm’s length, great. How long do you think you’ll be able to keep going?

And if I were to ask you now, while you’re pushing hard, to have an important conversation, or hug someone you love, how easy would you find that?

Every time you push something away, it’s at a cost to you. It may seem that the situation you’re in is causing your pain – and this may well be true – but the truth is, your resistance (and fear, and resentment, and anger) is also making it worse.

If you’re hurting, and if I were to ask you what you were running from, what would you say? Our personal demons come in all shapes and sizes. The trouble with running is that as long as you are doing this, your demon has a much greater capacity to hurt you. The key is in changing your relationship with it, understanding that you don’t necessarily have to identify with it, fight it, or get rid of it. It’s part of life right now. It is what it is.

So face the demon, and be tender with it. Hold it lightly, acknowledging its presence, and then put it to one side. Think about all the things you can do after you stop gripping that book and simply place it gently on the table next to you. It’s there, in the background, like some soft soundtrack that no longer demands you listen to it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

*adapted from ACT Made Simple, Russ Harris

Belief, perspective and creativity

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In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”

I love this for a number of reasons. Firstly because of the huge impact it can have when someone believes in you and your potential. Secondly because it illustrates beautifully how perspective can change everything. And finally because of the power of creativity – that amazing vision that we all have (even though so many of us need to teach ourselves to relearn it), through which we make connections between the previously unconnected and come up with something that no one has seen before.

Pain is a teacher

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At Mass last week, I lit some candles today and prayed about pain, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A number of things have converged to cause this: the knee, my mother’s grief over the loss of her beloved cat, Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (if you haven’t read this, buy or borrow it), and the daily catalogue of unhappy news from around the world. (On a lighter note, also the individuation report that I idly signed up for a while ago that told me I thrived on suffering. Apparently I have a ‘strange appreciation for pain’, although they did go on to clarify that they didn’t mean masochistically, which was helpful.)

It seemed quite fitting that while participating in a group guided meditation recently involving the ‘ancestors circle’, one of the messages that came into my head was ‘pain is a teacher.’

In my more philosophical moments, I have mulled over the ‘problem of pain’ and why God allows suffering to happen. I am no theologian or philosopher, but you see, I think pain is part of life in all its fullness.

I’ll write more about my thoughts in my next article, but for now, if you’re experiencing pain I’m sending you love and praying that you find inner peace.

Timelessness

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Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century philosopher, theologian and mystic, said this: “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time.”

I was talking with a good friend last week about nothing existing outside the Now. If you are forever attached to the past or the future, how will you ever live in the time that is ever truly available to us? Right Here you can access quiet space and silence. Right Now you can have inner peace. In the eternal present your consciousness can be alert and alive. You can always cope with the Now. Let tomorrow take care of itself, and leave the past in the past. Realise that you are strong enough and resourceful enough to get through whatever life situation you are in.

Sit with me for a moment. Close your eyes and feel the breeze on your face. Take a deep breath and feel your chest expanding, and the air entering and leaving your lungs. Release the tension that you are holding in your brow, your jaw, your shoulders, and listen to the sounds of the world around you. Is your mind crowded with thoughts? Are you worried or apprehensive about the future? Witness those thoughts, hold them and accept them, and then let them go. In this moment you are free of time, and you are holding the light.

“Salvation is not elsewhere in place and time. It is now.” – Eckhart Tolle

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Endings

Have you ever ended a friendship? Not in the sense of drifting apart, but actively, intentionally. I’ve never had to before, but stepped back from this friendship several weeks ago, telling myself that it was just a break and that in time we would be able to be friends again. Right now, though, I’m thinking that this is more final than I originally envisioned. That makes me quite sad, although I believe it’s the right decision.

I’m reminded of when I broke up with my first love – we’d been together five years but I’d been too afraid to end it when it should have ended (which is to say much, much earlier). Basically I was a bit of a doormat and wanting to be loved; to belong to someone. I didn’t value myself and was too scared of losing him to reject the emotional blackmail. It ended messily, dramatically.

Back in present day I’ve checked out from the drama. Much older, and thankfully wiser, I am no longer willing to invest in relationships where there cannot be genuine trust and mutual support.

Endings are difficult, but sometimes necessary. Cherish the good memories and learn from the unhappy experiences. Always remain respectful and fair, no matter how others choose to act or what they might say about you. I am reminded of the saying “live in such a way that if anyone should speak ill of you, no one would believe it”.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

The eternal present

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“The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Life is now. It has to be. All we are able to do happens in the now. If you are are forever focused on the past or future, you get locked in time, always reliving a memory or rehearsing what is only an imagined possible future. Either condemn you to never truly living.

If not now, when?

Artwork from @timothygoodman

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Letting go and embracing the present

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There’s a quote from Lao Tzu that goes like this: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Growing often requires letting go. It’s when we stop clinging on to the past that we are able to harness the opportunities of the present.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd