Happy Year of the Snake

2013.02.07 snakeThis Sunday is the first day of the new lunar year, commonly celebrated as “Chinese New Year”. The new year we celebrate on January 1st is the solar new year and is associated with masculine energy and lots of action, such a making new year’s resolutions and partying. But the lunar new year marks the feminine aspects of the calendar and is a time for quiet reflection.

This year is the Year of the Water Snake: the snake represents intuition and introspection, which means this is a particularly feminine energy year. Snake years are marked by a deep inner focus, concentrated discipline and careful attention to achieving your goals and developing your skills and practices. Feminine energy usually refers to stillness and quiet, but can also mean that your energy is inwardly focussed and channelled deeply rather than wide and shallow.

The Year of the Snake is the time to take a step back and review your goals and ambitions, to take stock of what is going on in your life and to reflect deeply. In taking this step back in order to get a better overall picture of your life, you naturally become quieter because you are observing your life rather than rushing forward and expending lots of energy (save that for masculine energy years such as the Year of the Dragon). In becoming still you can relish your blessings and see your challenges in a more objective light. It is a gentle and nurturing energy that is essential in the hustle and bustle of this demanding modern life where everything always seems such a rush – it’s exhausting! Give yourself a break!

The Year of the Snake emphasises the feminine energy of intuition and inner wisdom. What you need to know to live a balanced and fulfilling life is already there inside you – it is your innate wisdom. But the gentle voice of that wisdom is simply drowned out by the white noise of everyday life. Hasn’t it happened to you some time when someone gave you some really good advice and you said, “Oh yeah, of course… I knew that!” And you really did know that – it was a surprise to yourself that somehow you’d just forgotten what was staring you in the face all along? Well that’s your own inner wisdom ‘memory’ that gets drowned out in the white noise.

When you stop and rest and sit quietly in nature and in stillness, that voice of your own inner wisdom can and will be heard, naturally. Just take a moment to stop and listen and all the answers are there.

This being the Year of the Snake, I am taking the message of the snake very seriously and applying it to my own life. I feel a need to reassess my priorities and spend more time in stillness, more time in disciplining my own spiritual practice to go deeper and be more focussed, rather than spreading myself thinly and widely. I am going to take a step back and reassess what I’m expending my energies on. I have gotten very caught up in the technology merry-go-round, trying to keep up with all the latest software and apps and updates and downloads, until I feel I’m getting motion sickness because my head is spinning so much!  I need to let go of my growing techno-addiction and just sit in stillness to cool down my always over-heated, over-excited brain.

Therefore, I will be closing up my blogs.

When I started out on my Buddhist path, I read a number of books – good, old-fashioned paper books – that helped me to find my spiritual path within the everyday chaos of life. Two books in particular come to mind, and I would like to recommend them to you…
Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are”
Charlotte Joko Beck’s “Nothing Special”

Thank you for reading my blog and for all the wonderful feedback I have received. Please remember that you already know everything you need – sit quietly, feel your body as part of the natural world, spend time in nature and in silence and your deepest wisdom will reveal itself.

Wishing you many blessings for a fruitful, gentle and nurturing Year of the Water Snake.

The One-Minute Meditation

Although it’s taken me several entries to describe the why’s of this one-minute meditation (see here and here), it is really very simple to do and in fact takes less than a minute.

First of all, at the moment when you remember to do this one-minute meditation (more on ‘remembering’ later), make a note of what you are thinking about and give it a simple label, such as “what’s for dinner,” “last night’s argument,” “worrying about the kids,” etc. Keep it simple and don’t add further comments like “what the hell am I still thinking about that for – I should let it go!” No judgements, just observing what is in your mind at that moment.

2013.01.20.02Then, take a deep breath, feeling your belly expand. It is surprisingly difficult to take a deep breath correctly. Because stress is held in our bodies in an almost chronic continuity, our diaphragms and bellies are really very tight, which restricts our breathing. Here’s a tip to check if you are really taking a full deep breath: if you feel your shoulders rise as you breathe in, you are only breathing into the top of your lungs; whereas if you place your hands on your belly and feel your belly extend softly as you breathe in then you’re on the right track, as well as a sensation that your lower ribs are expanding as well, as your diaphragm expands. This is especially difficult for women because we are always being made conscious of our tummies and trying to suck it in all the time – so let it all hang out, baby!

This first deep breath works to switch off the flight-fight triggers of  your autonomic nervous system, which keeps us in a constant state of stress. Take another deep breath and let out a sigh as you breathe out. You will feel your body respond almost immediately as your whole body joins in that feeling of letting go.

Next, do a scan of your body from head to toe: check your head – is it tight, is your scalp tingling; does your head feel heavy or light; is your forehead tight; how do the little muscles around your eyes feel; are you eyes dry or moist; where is tongue resting; is your mouth dry or moist. Then move down to check your breathing – are you breathing fast or slow; does your chest feel tight. What about your stomach – does it feel full or is it gurgling with hunger… and so on down your whole body, until you reach your toes. It may surprise you to know that many people who are stressed actually cannot feel their feet and this realisation can be a little distressing, so if it that happens to you, don’t worry about it – just register it as a simple observation.

2013.01.20.04The key to this exercise is just to check your vitals in very clinical way and not to make mental interpretations such as “Oh no, my shoulders are so stiff – I should be more relaxed.” Imagine that you are a doctor in a white lab coat with a clip board, objectively taking your own vital signs; that is, treat this scan as just a simple checking exercise, without any judgement about what your body should or shouldn’t be experiencing.

When you get to your toes, take three deep breaths, deep into your belly, and feel your whole body sighing with each out breath. Enjoy the sensation of your body letting go even for just a moment – it is delicious!

Then just go back to whatever you were doing… until you remember again to do this one-minute meditation, which would ideally will be at least several times a day.

What you are doing in this deceptively simple exercise is to create a space of deep and healing rest in the midst of your everyday busyness. It momentarily breaks the stress cycle by stopping the tapes that constantly go on in your mind which contribute to this ongoing chronic state of stress because there is never a chance to switch them off and simply ‘take a breath’. This moment of respite helps you to experience the ongoing impact of your thoughts upon your body by creating a deep connection between your mind and your body, which will in turn help your whole being to come back into natural synch.

2013.01.20.01It is very important to note that no judgement is taking place, there mustn’t be a critical voice going over the top pointing out all the things that are ‘wrong’ with either what you are thinking about or what state your body is in; it is more important to develop a balanced and objective awareness that places no strain on you and this simply allows your body and mind to find a space of deep relaxed peace. After a while, you will notice that you feel so much more relaxed in a general way, have more energy, and I guarantee that this will also improve your sex life! So, ENJOY!

Next time, I’ll share some tips on how to keep remembering to do this simple one-minute meditation.

One Minute Meditation Pt2

I’m writing today from Wakayama City in Japan where I am currently doing some research for my Japanese course at university. It’s going well and I am inspired by the glorious autumn foliage putting on a fabulous show in the temple gardens and mountains. But let’s get back to the one minute meditation… now where was I – oh yes, I said I’d talk about the relationship between meditation and the autonomic nervous system. Say what? Don’t tune out just yet – you’ll know what I mean…

Okay, it’s the middle of the night and you suddenly hear an unfamiliar noise – what do you do? If you are like me, you’ll suddenly freeze with all your senses suddenly on high alert as all those scary thoughts rush through your mind – a burglar? Did I lock the door? Am I safe? And just before those thoughts flood in, you will probably take a sharp intake of breath and hold your breath for a moment while you listen intently. Then you realise that it’s just a branch scratching the window or the cat coming in or some other innocuous reason. Whew! You let out a sigh of relief and your body relaxes and after a bit of a chuckle to yourself for being so jumpy, you’ll hopefully drift off back to sleep. Does that sound familiar?
Well that’s your autonomic nervous system kicking in: when your body senses danger it goes into flight-or-fight mode – adrenalin gets released to get you ready to flee quickly, the blood rushes to your vital organs, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, all actions that will help you escape the perceived danger. All this action is triggered by your fearful thinking which switches on all the flight-fight reactions. But when your thoughts register safety and you realise that you are actually not in danger, it is that deep sighing breath that is your body’s signal to switch it all off again and allow your body to return normal. Not only that, but the sighing signals to your body that it needs to repair and heal from the trauma of the sudden changes experienced by your en

docrine system (adrenalin), blood flow and blood pressure, so at this point your body will begin to heal itself, which is most effective when you are resting or asleep.

The body’s response to perceived danger in this case is natural and if you’re able to go back to sleep then your body has again quite naturally dealt with the stress caused by the possibility of harm, and naturally continues to heal and replenish. But the problem these days is that we keep flipping that switch on and keeping it on, so that our bodies don’t have time to recover. For example, every time you think about whether you can pay all your bills this month, it switches on to alert mode, and every time you’re late for something, and every time you get a red traffic light, and every time you are rushing to get dinner prepared, and every time you think about all the things you didn’t get done today, and so on and on and on. The problem is made worse because we tend to keep our bodies in a constant state of tense alert, and eventually our bodies forget to take that deep healing breath that switches off the flight-fight mode, leaving the body perpetually with the ready-to-flee-danger switch ON, even when there is actually no danger. Until in the end you feel exhausted and stressed out and unable to relax because the autonomic nervous system is on hyperdrive! And that’s when your health becomes compromised and you can easily get sick. It is well-known that stress is certainly the root of many of the diseases in modern times.

BUT…

If you are able to help your body to switch off it’s flight-fight fixation, then you will be able to help it to heal naturally and you’ll find life in general a whole lot less stressful. And it all starts with, and centres upon, the breath. I’m sure you will have noticed that all yoga and meditation exercises work with the breath in some way or other, and this simple physical explanation about how your nervous system works is the reason why. There isn’t anything particularly mystical about all this – it comes down to simple scientific facts… yet the yogis and yoginis and wise men and women throughout the ages knew that already, didn’t they! I think we are just a bit slow on the uptake! So, next time I’ll move on with the nuts and bolts of the one minute meditation and you’ll see how your body, your thought processes and your breath can be used together to strengthen your body’s natural healing powers. Until then… don’t forget to BREATHE!

One Minute Meditation Pt1

At last all my university exams are over for the year, and I have one more year to complete before getting my BA in Japanese. But now I can enjoy a bit of a break and share some more chats with you.

Basically, the one-minute meditation is like checking your vital signs. It is an awareness exercise through which you scan your mind and body in a particular way from top to toe and then finish by taking three deep breaths. It is very simple once you understand how it works. But before going through the meditation in detail, I want to explain why this is such an effective meditation, even though it is less than a minute.

As I’ve said before, in my experience, most people are too busy to commit themselves to the longterm discipline of lengthy meditation practices such as 30 minutes a day, every day, at the same time, same place, with samurai dogged determination. I do admire those people, but it seems just too unrealistic for us mere mortals. Also, in my experience, there are people who are natural meditators, in just the same way that someone is a natural athlete or artist. And I think that my teacher in my home temple in Japan is an Olympian Gold Medallist! But, in the same way that you don’t need to be an elite sportsperson to enjoy playing tennis or going for a walk, you can enjoy meditating and benefit from meditation very quickly. The trick with one-minute meditation is to simply remember to do it, and to do it whenever you remember. But more about those tips later. Let’s just look first at why it is so effective.

Okay, when we’re going through our day, we all have these tapes running in our heads – familiar favourite mind-tunes that we are largely unaware of, but which determine so much about how we respond to the events of the day as we encounter every moment. These mind tapes are what cause us to feel stressed out and tired, but it’s hard to keep tabs on it because it’s happening in such a familiar and automatic way. It’s just like breathing, which is going on all the time but we are largely unaware of each breath coming in and going out, unless we’re out of breath from too much strenuous exercise (rarely, in my case!) It’s the same with our minds – just tootling along without being aware of it. However, every thought that you have does have an immediate impact on your body.

For example, say your sitting at the table having a quiet cuppa, grabbing a moment of respite by yourself and you’re just chilling, letting your thoughts wander. But what if you had an argument with your partner the night before – sure enough, while sitting there sipping your tea, thoughts about that argument will pop into your head and you’ll start going through it all over again, usually with a sense of indulgent self-righteousness – after all, you were in the right, right? What you’re probably unaware of, though, is that when you think about the argument and how angry you felt, your body will be responding as if it is really happening all over again. So in that moment, when you think that you are relaxing with a cup of tea, your body is actually responding as if you are in the middle of an argument and experiencing a stressful adrenalin rush, which in turn puts a great deal of unnecessary stress on your nervous system.

Try this exercise… next time you go over an event in your mind, whether it’s about an argument or a sad movie you watched or the excitement of a first kiss, take a moment to bring your awareness into your body and feel that emotion physically. What is interesting about this exercise is to realise that although you are not actually in the reality of that situation – after all, it is a memory of something that happened in the past and is not really happening right now – your body is responding not to what is happening in the present moment but instead responds to the memory of something that is no longer happening. Give this exercise a go and let me know what you find. Next time I’ll look at just how this mind-body connection works through your autonomic nervous system (sounds scientific, but actually the basics of meditation really are just working with these kinds of scientific processes – there isn’t anything particularly spiritual or otherworldly or metaphysical about it… that comes later!)

The C word

No, not that one! I’m talking about “Cancer” (complete with the requisite capital letter to give it the gravity it deserves!) I remember reading a bumper sticker once that said “Cancer is a word, not a sentence” but when that word is spoken to you by a doctor, platitudes like this are utterly meaningless. I was living in Japan when I was told I had cancer and, as was the custom there at that time (still is as far as I know), it is not  the patient who is first told. This is because there is a belief that if a person knows they have a terminal illness, then they just give up and lose the will to live. So it was my husband who was told first and then he and the doctor discussed whether it was the right thing to tell me or not. Happily for me, because I was a foreigner they agreed to tell me.

I remember the moment so well because I suddenly felt like I was in a TV soapie. I mean, it was so cliched – the doctor in hospital whites keeping his face a suitable blend of concern and neutrality as he announced my “sentence”, while my white-faced husband looked at the floor and nervously twisted his wedding ring round and round, for once, lost for words. An awkward silence followed as if someone had just farted and we were all trying to pretend no-one heard it. I’m not being flippant, but it really felt so much like a stage set that I almost started to giggle while I waited anxiously for the punchline.

The prognosis, however, was very good, and with surgery and radiotherapy I was told that I should be okay, but it was difficult to know until after the operation. When we left the doctor’s surgery my husband thought it would be a good idea to take my mind off the bad news (and his I suspect). So we went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. I was feeling numb and didn’t care what movie we saw – my husband chose Batman Forever. When I look back now, I think it was a hilariously inappropriate choice but perhaps he needed the noise and fast-paced action to drown out the voices that might rise up inside him. For a person who was always in control, it was a great shock for him and he felt utterly helpless. I think a lot of men are like him. As for me, I couldn’t stop the tape that just kept going round and round…”I’ve got cancer, I’ve got cancer…” trying to make it real somehow by chanting this over and over like a mantra. After some time I suddenly realised that, just as The Riddler was laughing maniacally in the midst of mental breakdown, I was saying this mantra out aloud but because the movie sound was so deafeningly loud no one could hear me. I remember so clearly how everything – the crazy Riddler, Batman in his mask, the scarred, damaged Two Face…and me – all seemed like a surreal dream. And it seemed to stay surreal right through the hospital and recovery time, until the day when I got the all-clear and I felt utterly overwhelmed with gratitude just for the blessing of being alive…and truly knowing it.

That’s when I first started to learn about meditation, which was what I was going to share with you before I got sidetracked with the background story! Sorry about that – I will share more about actually learning to meditate soon. But I just want to add, I feel really committed to sharing with you about how to meditate because I know that it can be a tremendously helpful tool in times of personal crisis. If I had known how to meditate when I went through my treatment and recovery for cancer I would have had more energy to focus on healing. However, I used a lot of energy trying to stay calm but not knowing how, trying to stop the tapes that kept whirring around my mind but not knowing how to, trying to suppress my anxiety and fear but not knowing how to. Yet now, many years down the track, life still throws the odd curve-ball but having spent time meditating (and I’m not talking about hours set aside every day – really just several minutes a day is enough) I know that I have so much more energy to focus on getting through the tough times without being so distracted by energy-draining negative thoughts. I’ll explain more about what I mean by this next time…