Tag Archives: mindfulness

What Is The Driving Force Behind Your Actions?

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

What is usually the driving force behind your decisions and actions in life? Do you sometimes think of that?

I talked about this recently with two different people. After inquiring with them more deeply into the issues something interesting surfaced. They were both feeling bored, and that feeling was so intolerable that they were both planning for major changes in their lives.

Later on I could not resist the temptation to consult my dictionary. The English language is very rich indeed when it comes to feeling bored! Or what do you think of the list of synonyms: weariness, ennui, lack of enthusiasm, lack of interest, lack of concern, apathy, disinterestedness  unconcern, languor, sluggishness, accidie, world-weariness, frustration, dissatisfaction, restlessness, restiveness, tedium, tediousness, dullness, monotony, repetitiveness, lack of variety, lack of variation, flatness, blandness, sameness, uniformity, routine, humdrum, dreariness, lack of excitement.

My main interest here is not of course linguistic, but I want to share the synonyms with you, because I believe that as you read the words you get a better contact with the feeling of boredom.

What I actually want to say can be boiled down to the following points:

  1. Behind any uncomfortable feeling – including boredom – there is a deeper need or longing. Beyond feelings of dreariness, weariness, dissatisfaction etc. there is usually a deep longing for feeling alive.  Deep down we all know what it feels to be truly alive, but we have lost contact with that feeling, and, thereby, with ourselves.
  2. We may end up making very big changes in our lives without really knowing what we want or need! It seems that many people live their  lives like this, just drifting from one solution to another, from one goal to another, because they simply choose any strategy that saves them from facing themselves on a deeper level.
  3. Be prepared also to discover that what you are looking for in your plans may be something that is already inside you! What you look for is not something to be found outside but something that dwells in your heart, and it simply needs recognition to become manifest.

So I am not saying that one should not make decisions or find solutions to difficult situations in life. Also I am not saying that all our actions are escapist attempts to avoid something.

What I suggest is that you bring more awareness into the way you look at your life, and into decisions and strategies you use. For example you could try the following steps:

  1. When you notice that, in some situation, you begin to plan for a big – or even for a smaller – change, stop for a moment. Ask yourself if it is your own unpleasant feeling that you want to solve, or is it really the factual situation that needs a solution. Look at your discomfort. Recognize it for what it is and let it be. Allow yourself to remain in your question without even trying to find an immediate answer. Learn to love also the questions, not only the answers.
  2. Go beyond the feeling of discomfort. Behind the need there is always something positive that you long for. It can be more aliveness, it can be more freedom, more trust, more strength, more love. These feelings are your compass that guide you in finding your way forward. Based on what you long for in your heart, check if the course of action you were planning for is really taking you into the right direction.
  3. If you are able, even for a moment, to accept that life is uncertain, unpredictable and does not give you guarantee of anything, you may notice a new sense of relaxation growing. “Relax, nothing is under control”, someone posted in Facebook.  And it is from that place you may notice how your actions and decisions begin to grow out of you naturally, without forcing, and without fear. Your life begins to be a manifestation of who you truly are.

“The test of a psychologically mature person, and therefore, spiritually mature, will be found in his or her capacity to handle what one might call the Triple A’s: anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence.” James Hollis, PhD.

P.S. It is for example with issues like this I work with my clients, using Zen way of coaching. Sometimes it is far too difficult to bring awareness to one’s life all alone. Support is needed. Go check my website at http://www.maaritsuokas.com. Or click the new title “Coaching in The Now” in the navigation panel of my blog.  Zen way of coaching works surprisingly well also on Skype.

Relax, You’re Ok As You Are!

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I have been on a fascinating journey for the past nine months. During the past few weeks I have been preparing for the end of this nine months’ journey, and at the same time I have been preparing myself for another, new journey. That’s why I haven’t been writing anything for a while.

So what’s going on in my life?

In some of my earlier posts I have briefly mentioned that at the beginning of January I started Zen coaching training in Sweden. (Zen Coaching is an approach developed by Norwegian Kåre Landfald, and it is based on both Western and Eastern sources. You can read more about it in here.)

Last week my training came to an end – at least for now, because it is a lifelong journey, and I can always go deeper.

I still have some requirements to meet, but after I have received my diploma I’m planning to start working as a Zen coach. I won’t stop blogging, but there will be a new strand in the tapestry of my life: I will be working more in a direct contact with people, in personal encounters and through the Internet. I’m going to build a new website for my work. I will let you know when the site is ready.

What is Zen Coaching then? Explaining that would actually require much more than one or even several blog posts, but I try to explain what the training has personally meant to me.

First of all, despite its namel it is not only about Zen Buddhism. Actually it might be more correct to speak about Zen-inspired coaching, because there are also many other elements woven into Zen Coaching, to make a coherent whole. But the emphasis is definitely in seeing your life as it happens just now, and allowing and accepting whatever you see.

What does it mean to “see” your life? First and foremost it is not about trying to mentally, through thinking, to understand what is going on in you. Above all else it is allowing yourself to experience and feel whatever it is that is happening. Be it anger, stress, frustration, happiness, excitement and so on. It is about saying, from the bottom of your heart, a big YES to yourself and your life.

It is actually thoughts that take us away from living in the present moment. Thoughts as such are not anything bad, but they tend to shut the door to the moment that is there just in front of you. They throw you either into the past or the future.

But there is a way to experience the present moment, the present reality, and it is by looking at your feelings and emotions as they show themselves in your body and your breathing. It is the humble and undervalued instrument of the human body that is essential in connecting you to the present reality.

We tend to think that it is through thinking that we solve our problems, but it is feelings, particularly our deeper needs and longings, and the body, that carry us to a place where we find our deepest wisdom.

And what is our deepest wisdom then? It happens when we recognize how we have lost contact to ourselves on the deepest level of our being. To get to that place one has to pass through the various shields of pain that we all carry with us. If you are willing to face your own pain without resisting it, you will find your treasure under the pain, the diamond that is hidden in you.

– Ah… More images, more words and concepts. I’m sorry for that. But that is exactly what happens when one tries to distill the freely flowing, constantly changing experience of life into words that can, at best, only refer to something.

Anyway, let’s try to get a glimpse of it. Think about a small child who is less than one year old. A baby that is loved, well fed and in good health. What can you see? You see full trust, you see joy, total openness, love. That is an image of all of us in our original state. But the image of a small child is not only a personal beginning of a human being that will later be an adult, but it is also an image, a metaphor of something that I might call the transpersonal, the universal child in all of us. It is something that we all are part of, even though we don’t know or understand it.

And when you find contact to that child you understand that you can relax. There is nothing wrong with you, nothing to fix, nothing to improve. You don’t have to get anywhere, you don’t have to achieve anything. Because the diamond is still within you, though hidden under the weight and layers of the defense mechanisms – called personality – that you created in order to survive in this world.

When you find your diamond, you may realize that the problem you thought you had dissolves all by itself. Or you may find a solution. What is different now is that the solution comes from within you. It grows out of your whole being. It is not achieved through hard work of thinking or through willpower. It grows out of you like leaves from a tree.

This is what I’ve been going through during the past nine months. Of course my journey did not start only at the beginning of this year, but during the past nine months these discoveries have become conscious and very living to me. I have come home to myself.

And the journey goes on. I know I will wander off from my “diamond”, and I shall have to come back home to it again. And again. Because that’s what life is about. A never-ending journey of leaving and coming back home. A movement, a mystery, a flow to be experienced and embraced.

Late Afternoon Lethargy and How to Deal with It

Do you ever nap in the afternoon? Have you ever noticed that if your nap is a bit too long or you take it a bit too late – for example after 4 pm – you will feel sad and melancholic when you get up?

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I don’t know what it is in this combination, but for me it results in a miserable mood. If the nap lasts for 15-20 minutes, it is still ok, but if I sleep for example for forty minutes late in the afternoon, I can be almost sure that I will feel sad when I wake up.

Yesterday it happened again. I woke up from a nap that had been too long and taken too late in the day.

It was a dazzling August afternoon and the whole world was smiling. But not me. I felt like I had experienced a terrible loss of some kind. I felt gloomy and lethargic. And of course I did not like the way I felt. I would have preferred to feel like that brilliant August day outside: totally happy and full of energy.

I looked at myself and my feelings. Through meditation and the practice of Zen coaching I have gained some understanding and experience of how to work with the various weather conditions of the mind from rapidly shifting moods to racing thoughts.

I know that the mind is like that – it feels and it thinks. Somehow I’m also beginning to understand, little by little, that it is actually my own resistance to my feelings that usually creates the problems.

“If you have a gloomy mood, fix it and make it bright! Escape it, go to the movies and immerse yourself in the drama on the screen! Talk to someone on the phone!” These are our usual remedies for unpleasant feelings. And as we develop these various strategies to get rid of miserable feelings, then arrives the whirlwind of thoughts. And there we are, totally lost.

So what did I then do to my late afternoon lethargy?

It was very persistent. (I think it actually was a he.) He came to the living room to sit with me on the couch. He was there even after I had a cup of coffee. He clearly had decided to stay with me.

I looked at his depressing face and said: “Ok, I see you want to stay. Let’s then spend some time together and make the most of it!”

I decided to take Lethargy for a walk with me.

We headed for a little lake that is only ten minutes walk from my home. To get there, one has to climb a small hill and then go down a road. As I climbed the hill my steps felt soo heavy, and I was out of breath when I got up. Lethargy was also huffing by my side.

When we started to descend a road towards the lake I noticed how fresh the air was. The dark green trees were casting long shadows in the late afternoon light. A solitary duckling was paddling near the shore, and a swan couple on the other side of the lake was totally lost to the world – they were busy diving for something to eat from the water.

My nose smelt the special fragrance of summer when it has reached its full maturity, just before the first cold nights. The fragrance that heralds the coming of autumn. I could hear the gravel rustle under my feet. I bent down to look closer at flower-looking mushrooms by the track. The whiteness of a birch trunk stuck out from the wood.

So I walked around the lake, sniffing smells, sights and sounds. A bit like a dog, stopping here and there, looking at this and that. My senses were completely open to the world around me.

The rest you already know. At some point during the walk I awoke to the absence of my companion. Lethargy had quietly disappeared. Maybe he had stopped to explore some interesting sight in the nature. Or then he simply had got tired of my company and had gone to look for a more interesting one.

Lesson of Late Afternoon Lethargy?

Everything changes. All the time. There is no guarantee it will last. Whatever it is, see it. Accept it. Say yes to it. Don’t think there is some other place that is better. Don’t think there is some better you you have to find. Stop trying to fix it and it will improve all by itself.

Just relax. Now.

The Beatles Were Right: Let It Be

Energy has been cumulating inside me. It hasn’t had a proper outlet because it has been boiling under the tight lid of somewhat limiting circumstances. For about a week it has made me feel like an old stuffy attic or a stagnant pool where the water is not moving.

I’m talking, of course, about my need to write, about creative energy.

I turned on the tap of words last September, after years in the world of images and visual art, and now it seems I can no longer close the tap.

Why did I start to feel like a boiling water under a tight lid?

March was a very sociable month for me. First of all, our lovely, funny and wise daughter was staying with us, and she brought a lot of fresh, young energy to our home during her visit.

At the beginning of March I spent a fantastic long weekend in Austria, visiting an old friend who is presently working in Vienna. This friend of mine is a lively person with a great sense of humor, and of course we spent those three days laughing a lot together. On the other hand we also wept tears of sorrow when we shared some sad stories of our lives.

A big social event was my trip to Sweden at the end of March. I stayed a week at Ängsbacka course centre near Karlstad, studying Zen coaching. A very intense week passed quickly in the company of inspiring people and with an intriguing topic, in a relaxed atmosphere. (Zen coaching is an approach developed by Norwegian Kåre Landfald, and it aims, among other things, at recognizing our own nature as awareness. This realization helps us to be less identified with our mental positions and judgmental attitudes toward ourselves and others. You can read more about Zen coaching here.)

After a stimulating trip to Sweden I came home at the end of March full of ideas and inspiration. My deep desire was to withdraw into my own world and mull over everything that had happened during the past month.

More than anything, I simply wanted to sit down in some quiet corner and process my experiences through writing.

But of course I could not do that.

The social life continued at home. It was Easter holidays in Finland, the usual several days’ break of springtime.

Blessed haven of privacy

Now, if I have to define myself on a binary scale of introvert versus extrovert, I am definitely more on the introvert side of the scale. Not to the point of being a misanthropist though – I do love the company of people and the exchange of views with friends and acquaintances. But I also need a lot of privacy and time in solitude, and just as I like to travel and meet people I also enjoy exploring the horizons of my inner landscapes.

From the fact that I’m now writing here – in a public library – you can conclude that I’ve finally succeeded in conquering for myself that blessed and longed-for haven of privacy and creativity. My internal and external worlds are in harmony, and I can take a deep breath.

Ah…

Kuumailmapallo

Boiling under the lid

But let us not quite finish the story yet.

You see, my suppressed energy of creativity forced me to make an inquiry into the essence of frustration. Why did I get so frustrated? Why was it so difficult to postpone my writing?

Sure, I have set myself deadlines, but my personal deadlines are very relative, and in the big picture of life there is actually only one real deadline, and it is The Deathline – which, by the way, is getting closer and closer as I age.

I was frustrated because during the past week I have felt like I had been prevented from fulfilling my need to write. That then created another kind of need – a compelling urge to kick hard against the circumstances.

I understand that the more expectations we have in life, the more we can expect to be disappointed, too. The harder we try to control life, the harder it often hits back.

“Panta rei”, said already Heraclitus. Everything flows. Life moves, changes, surprises us. It gets out of our control. – All this I tried to say to myself.

Why then didn’t these philosophical viewpoints help me when I was on the peak of my frustration?

From resistance to relaxation

I finally discovered the answer. My problem did not resolve, because I was not having an intellectual problem. My feelings were very much involved. I had become irritable and crotchety toward my closest people. And isn’t it that having an emotional state like that is not quite acceptable, is it?

So I condemned my “bad” feelings – and that made me feel even worse. On top of my crotchety frustratedness now settled another unpleasant feeling – a heavy weight of moral disapproval.

I soon realized that by means of thinking and judging myself I was not getting anywhere.

I gave up.

It was exactly then that something interesting happened. The very moment I gave up trying to understand intellectually my feelings I remembered my fresh discovery: I can allow myself to feel my feelings as they are! Accept them.

– “Let it be”, like the Beatles used to sing.

I took another look at my frustration. I wished it welcome, stayed with it, spent time with it. I allowed myself to feel its every single sharp edge in my whole being. (But please note that I no longer put that feeling into action!)

What a relief!

I have been studying this lesson with other feelings, but this time it came in the form of frustration. Again I had to remind myself of the fact that it is the resistance to my own feelings that creates my misery. It is the judgemental words of my inner talk that create the tension, whether as acceptance of feelings opens the door to relaxation, and relaxation allows solutions to come to me through intuition, without hard thinking.

My solution was right in front of my eyes. I remembered the public library, the fragrance of old books, the rustling of paper when someone turns a page, the muffled voices of people speaking to each other in the reading room. Could there be a better place for writing!

It was so simple – I just had to look at my feelings with compassion.

But that is often the most tricky part. I’ll come back to that in another post.

Chocolates and Silent Listening

“Conversation was never begun at once, or in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence to the speechmaker and his own moment of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that ‘thought comes before speech’.”

Those were the words of Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939), Oglala Sioux chief.

I remembered the chief’s words recently, probably because I have tried to pay more attention to the way I listen and talk to people. It’s the training that I’m going through that has brought about this focus. (I’ll talk more about it in some later post.)

Luther Standing Bear’s brief account gives us a glimpse to a world that feels very distant to our present reality. The contrast is actually quite staggering. It makes me think about the paradox that our whole modern world is evolved around communication – and still it often seems that there is less and less genuine connection between people, less true listening and less open talking.

Because I think you know what I mean I’ll give only a few examples:

  • We don’t have patience to wait till the other person has finished talking. Instead we interrupt them to let them hear our reply.
  • We tend to speak loud and fast.
  • We don’t even try to understand the other person while listening to them.
  • When meeting each other in groups we don’t bother to create a true connection between people; instead we tend to focus on speaking in a way that shows how smart and witty we are.
  • Even with our closest friends our conversations may completely wander off from the point. For example: your call a friend to talk about a specific problem, but your friend uses it as an excuse to start talking about their own issue, instead of trying to understand you.
  • Conversations and interaction in families… I think we all know how easy it is to misunderstand and to be misunderstood.
Painting: Hannes Scholtz

Painting: Hannes Scholtz

The various dimensions of speaking and listening

“Be careful when speaking. You create the world around you with your words.” That’s a saying of the Navajos.

Speaking and listening – we take them for granted, but they aren’t that simple. They are skills that are deeply interwoven. They are multidimensional and paradoxical phenomena. Why?

Because speaking implies also listening to my inner self. Am I honest? What am I feeling? Do I talk from my heart?

Because listening means also listening to myself as I listen to others. That is, it means being aware of my own reactions. Awareness of myself during the process of listening helps to keep my little ego out of the way.

Then there is of course that inner talk that goes on incessantly in our heads. Are we able to hear what it really says? For example, is there a judge or a critic talking to you, if you have been less than perfect? Or are you sometimes lucky and hear a voice of self-empathy and self-forgiveness?

At its best, listening to another person can resemble those forms of meditation in which we use a specific focus. In deep listening that focus is the other person.

A new approach

Let me tell you about an episode of my life that is related to listening and talking.

My husband and I had a little disagreement a few weeks ago. The cause of our dispute was not really very dramatic or big. But it had to do with my weekend routines and my longing for greater freedom and flexibility – so we ended up having a very heated conversation.

I had to call a time out. I went alone to town and found a cosy cafe where I spent an hour or so. I ordered a cup of cappuccino and three quite expensive Belgian chocolates. One was not enough.

Then I finished the book that I had been reading: The Surprising Purpose of Anger by Marshall B. Rosenberg.

After finishing my cappuccino, chocolates, and the book about anger I was not so angry any more. I decided to try a new approach.

So I went back home and suggested to my husband something that I’ve learned recently – a bit different way of talking and listening.

We agreed on the following rules before we started:

  1. We both use at least 15-20 minutes to tell each other what is going on  inside ourselves at the moment.
  2. The one who talks should only focus in their own feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the present moment. Commenting, interpreting, or blaming the other person was not allowed.
  3. The one who listens, listens in silence. To nod, to say “hmm” or “yes” was allowed, for the speaker to feel that their words are heard.
  4. After the person has spoken, the listener rephrases what he or she has just heard. This must happen again without commenting, interpreting or judging.

Looking in the same direction

As we are an old couple – we’ve been married for 25 years and known each other even longer – we no longer enjoy wasting energy in sulking at each other. We both believe that deep in our hearts we always have good intentions toward each other, even if the situation sometimes should prove the opposite.

So my husband starting talking and I listened.

While we spoke we didn’t look at each other. I’ve noticed it’s sometimes easier that way, particularly if you’re very close to someone, and if you feel very hurt.

My advice for similar situations: Look in the same direction but not at each other! (You may want to try talking in the car.)

So I looked at the painting on the wall (the one you see in the picture). It represents an African landscape, and I really love its colors and spaciousness.  That moment it also helped me to stay a bit more detached.

– Well? Did the approach work?

It did!

I was reminded of the fact that I share my life with another human being, not just with a “husband” or “father” of our daughter. I had a glimpse into this man’s soul, and into his fragility.

In everyday life it is so easy to forget the preciousness of the other person. Listening silently to my husband revived my love for him. It helped me to honour the life that is present in him.

And he, for his part, told me that now he really understands the importance of my request, and that he finds it very reasonable and understandable.

* * * * * * * * *

More paintings by my friend Hannes can be seen here.