Seven steps to perfect kefir

02/04/2017 at 8:23 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This is a fantastic way to look after your gut, and overall health and wellbeing too. I first discovered kefir in 2003, when I took my young son with physical and learning disabilities to see a nutritionist. “Feed him fermented foods,” was her advice. She could easily guess that he was likely to have more than his fair share of antibiotics over the following years. She knew that fermented foods are rich in probiotics that keep the gut healthy.

I went home, did a little research and have been making kefir ever since. Now every member of the family drinks it regularly. The almost-fizzy, almost-lemony, definitely vibrant taste is curiously addictive. It’s not remotely like those yogurt-style drinks that have entered supermarket shelves in little armies. Kefir is well and truly alive. And when you drink it, you get to feel that way too.

In brief, kefir is made from a complex symbiotic culture of beneficial bacteria and yeast. This culture looks rather like a lumpy spoonful of rice pudding, but feels more gelatinous than that. Sounds lovely so far! Here’s a close-up:

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You pop the culture into a pot of milk, leave it in a reasonably warm place for 24 hours, then strain the resulting creamy liquid through a plastic sieve. The rice-pudding-like culture is left in the sieve, ready to be popped into a new pot of milk. The kefir itself is ready to drink. It’s so easy.

So to make this wonderful drink, you first need some of the culture. If you’re lucky you may get this from a kefir-making friend. Otherwise, it’s possible to buy on-line. Do not, please, make the mistake of getting sachets of ‘kefir starter’. You want the real-deal lumpy, bumpy culture. Once you’ve got that, you can keep making kefir from your original culture indefinitely. It grows, and it grows.

Kefir has become increasingly popular since I first started making it. More and more friends are giving my excess kefir culture a home. Every time, of course, instructions are required. So I thought it would be useful to share those instructions on-line. Once you’ve got your culture, just follow these easy steps.

1. The most important thing: be aware that your kefir culture is a living, amazing community of beneficial bacteria and yeasts which bring great benefits to the digestive system and beyond. So always treat it kindly and with respect.

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2. Now for the practical bit. Your kefir culture has likely arrived in a small pot of semi-skimmed milk ready to do its stuff. Or it may have arrived in a small bag with just a few spoonfuls of kefir liquid. It may be small enough to fit into a teaspoon, or large enough to fill a dessert spoon. (But please keep it away from direct contact with metal – it doesn’t like it.) Say hello to your culture, put it in a plastic or glass pot, and add approx 150 ml milk: semi-skimmed, whole or goat’s milk. (Note, illustrations here show a larger quantity than you’ll likely start off making.)

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3. Rest a lid lightly on top of the pot – kefir needs to breathe, while protecting it from its environment. Put the pot somewhere reasonably warm – the kitchen may well be warm enough, but depending on where you live, you might choose to place it by a radiator, warm pipes or other heat source. The ideal temperature range is probably around 21ºC or 70ºF.

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4. Wait. In approx 24 hours it will look like the picture below. Note the little lines of whey down the sides of the jar. Depending on temperature, size of culture and volume of milk, it may look less cultured than this, or more. If left longer it could separate completely between curds and whey. It would also have a correspondingly strong, almost cheesy taste.

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5. Pour the kefir mixture into a plastic sieve over a bowl or container. Gently push the kefir mix to and fro with a plastic spoon or spatula to encourage it through the sieve. Use a scooping action to avoid squashing the culture too much (though it’s quite elastic). Make sure you’ve got all the kefir and more importantly the culture out of your original pot. Avoid having metal come into contact with the culture itself. I’ve never tested this, but over time it could distress the culture and make it less viable. (However, later, if you make a kefir smoothie or add it to your cereal, it’ll be fine to use metal utensils.)

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6. Keep sieving gently. Soon you’ll see the cute or messy culture (depending on how you view it) sitting in the bottom of the sieve. Your culture may be in one or more pieces.

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7. Carefully scoop the culture up and place it in a clean container. You can optionally add a spoon of kefir from the last batch if you wish. Pour your chosen milk over the kefir culture. You can use semi-skimmed or whole cow’s milk, or goat’s milk depending on your taste. (If your kefir formed quickly and well last time around, you could gradually increase the volume of milk over successive cycles.) Place it somewhere reasonably warm, as before, and let a new cycle begin!

Meanwhile, enjoy your kefir straight from the fridge, or follow the recipe suggestions below.

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Foodie tip

Make your kefir over the normal cycle – about 24 hours. Then put it in the fridge for 2 to 3 days. Then sieve as normal. Kefir made this way has a creamier consistency.

How much kefir should you drink?

A small glass of kefir once a day is ideal, but it’s fine to drink more (or less). If you’re new to kefir, start with small portions ( up to 100 ml a day) then build up.

Recipe suggestions

You can drink kefir unsweetened, as we do, or with a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup if you prefer. Many people like to add it to cereal in the morning, instead of milk or yogurt. I love it in a small bowl with fruit. It’s also good to drink just before bed. Don’t heat kefir up or cook with it though, as then it will no longer be alive – and it needs to be alive to do its magic in your digestive system!

What to do with your excess culture

Your culture will grow with each new cycle. When it’s doubled in size or more, you can divide it. You can store spare culture in a spoonful or two of kefir in the freezer as back-up in case your original culture fails or you lose it; you can whizz it up in smoothies; you can compost it. You can also store spare culture in the fridge in a small pot of milk – change the milk weekly.

A final note

Kefir is very easy and inexpensive to cultivate. Although it’s important to keep your kefir equipment clean, the culture itself quickly creates a mildly acidic environment that deters unfriendly bacteria.

Enjoy your kefir, and just ask if you’d like to know anything else. Or feel free to share your recipe ideas below.

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Six steps to perfect prediction

20/03/2017 at 9:15 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Prediction is a popular pursuit in many areas, including business, politics, weather, economics, and (of course) the field of intuition. This article is about channelling one’s own intuition to gain a sense of what is likely to happen in the future. Perhaps the following tips will be useful for economists and weather forecasters too. Here they are, in six not always straightforward steps.

  1. Let go of any personal agenda. If you can’t do that, your best predictions will be no better than guesses, and often far worse. If you secretly want a certain outcome, you will distort your interpretation of everything you see, or sense. If you are not aware of this personal bias, or even in denial about it, your attempts to predict will fail. It’s good to work at knowing yourself. What, for example, do you fear? Unless you deal with your fears, they will pop up and distort your intuitions about the future.
  2. Make a life-long practice of being an observer of people, of life, of events. The more you observe, the more consciously aware you become of patterns. Patterns are everywhere. We tend to believe that we have self-determination – that we can shape our own future. That is true. But beneath the conscious level we ourselves are a part of many overlapping and interweaving patterns. This means that our choices are not always entirely our own. They are an expression of our family, our community, our country, our culture. Even when we rebel against these influences, they still work on us in unconscious ways. When we see the many patterns of life clearly, we are more likely to notice breaks in the patterns, and the effects of those disturbances to the general order of things. Observing the pattern of cause and effect is in itself a life-long discipline.
  3. Understand the process of prediction. Think of yourself as a channel. To be more precise, your conscious mind is the conduit through which unconscious information flows. You might think of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung here: he suggested that beneath the realms of our individual unconscious are vast realms of collective unconscious knowledge that we all share. When predicting, it’s useful to think of yourself drawing on this vast well of unconscious knowledge.
  4. Be clear about what you are aiming to predict. Ask a question. Consider whatever comes up in relation to that question.
  5. Use tools in moderation. Understand that no tools are essential, but they can be helpful. Tools might include scrying instruments, such as a crystal ball or a blank mirror, that you gaze into with a lightly unfocused gaze – a tv screen for the mind. Tools might also include oracle cards, or simply watching the sky or land and noticing what you notice. What comes forward for your attention? What relevance does it have to your question?
  6. Relax. Let go. Answers may come quickly, slowly or not at all. Sleep on it. Keep a dream journal. Be open to answers in your dreams, which can cut right to heart of an issue and reveal the psychology of a person or a nation. When you wake in the morning, pause… and sense the beautiful fresh blankness of the new day, like an empty slate on which your intuition can write. Take the whole process lightly. Be grateful for insights.

Finally, remember that prediction is always based in the present moment. It is subject to change. If a person starts thinking differently, they behave differently and the future changes. So we can only really tell what is likely to happen if people continue as they are. Above all, be kind. We always have the power to shape the future for the better.

The powerful need to think for ourselves

27/01/2017 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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There’s a footpath that passes close to where I live. It’s a direct route between local communities. It’s as old as you care to think. In places, it runs adjacent to a busy main road which no doubt is just as ancient in origin.

Go back far enough in time, and the footpath and the road were probably equal partners. Each would have been wide enough for humans and animals to travel along. However, over centuries, one became a busy thoroughfare, and the other remained a quirky, winding path. But they each get you to your destination.

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A society’s collective thinking is very like those routes. It makes sense for us to put things and people into categories – to put ideas into highways of collective thought, as it were.

It’s easier to say “I am Christian/Jewish/Muslim” for example, than it is to think exactly what your personal, unique experience of spirituality might be.

It’s easier to say, “Science is always right” for example, than it is to think about those countless times that scientific research is bent towards the commercial concerns that fund experiments.

And it’s easier to believe that we vote freely than it is to delve into the murky waters of psychometric social media advertising that can suppress or encourage votes for the benefit of a particular party or individual.

Well-trodden highways are practical in many ways. I’d rather use my car when I’m in a hurry than put on my boots and walk the fields. But it absolutely behoves us to think for ourselves – to be willing to walk the less travelled route, at least some of the time. That way, I believe, we are  more likely to be able to look into the hearts and motives of others, and understand for ourselves our own best direction.

An extended version of this post can be found at The Huffington Post.

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This is what I learned, living in an Intensive Care Unit

23/05/2016 at 7:21 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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This post has also been published on the Huffington Post. 

Recently I had the rare and shocking privilege of living in an Intensive Care Unit, or ICU, for three months. I was not a patient, nor a member of staff. I was there because my teenaged son became critically ill. Tim’s learning difficulties meant that he needed his dad or me to be with him virtually all the time. I stayed every night for the first month, and then around five nights a week thereafter.

It had happened with frightening speed. We had been at home, about to eat supper, when Tim collapsed with breathing difficulties and an ambulance was called. Tim’s resourceful younger sister speed-packed overnight bags while the paramedics administered huge amounts of oxygen.

By the time we reached the hospital, Tim was drifting away. He was put on a ventilator, then transferred to the ICU. Tim’s dad and I sat in the waiting room. Fear. Waiting. Fear. And so, although I didn’t know it then, our three-month sojourn began.

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In this life and death situation, my choice, as a mother, was binary. I could choose love or fear. Love meant seeing the good in every particle of this unwanted experience. Fear meant resisting it. Fear would drain me of energy. Love would enable me to channel all my energy into helping my son.

I resolved to choose love. That didn’t mean I wasn’t frightened. It’s just that at every point of awareness, I chose love. I decided to view the experience as a retreat, in which I would learn from the kindness of nurses and the alchemical wisdom of doctors.

During those three months, I learned that crisis means looking after yourself as well as doing your best to help others. Specifically, I learned the following five insights.

1. Appreciate and care for your body.

Of the three groups of people who passed through the ICU – patients, relatives and medical staff – the fittest group were the medical staff. They drank lots of water. In their spare time, they went to the gym, did yoga, meditated, cycled, danced, played tennis, rode horses, ran marathons…. They weren’t obsessive. Chocolate and crisps were regular treats, especially during long working shifts. However, there was a belief that exercise was important, and that it might help them to avoid ending up in a hospital bed on life support.

2. Pause, breathe. Sit still in silence every day. 

Meditation can be done among beeping machines, and it calms turbulent emotions like nothing else. Even in extremis, the mind can become clear and calm, like a deep mountain pool.

The first night, sitting with my son, I found it helpful to breathe in a silent ‘I am here’, and breathe out a silent, ‘now’. It enabled me to ground myself in the shock of this new situation – to accept it. Consequently, I became a calmer presence for Tim.

Meditation enables us to pause before we blindly follow external voices of authority. I felt that, deep down, Tim resolutely believed that he could recover, even though the medical staff had little hope. So his dad and I chose to support him assertively in his belief.

3. Give healing when you are drawn to do so. 

Call it what you will: healing, prayers, love. Just do it. You’ll be in good company. A recent Gallop survey showed that nearly 90% of Americans have prayed for healing for others. A quarter have practised laying on of hands. Every day in the ICU, I sensed the presence of major disturbances in Tim caused by pain, drugs and fear. When I consciously directed love to him, it seemed to me that the disturbances lessened. At the same time, I sensed that many other people were praying for him and sending healing.

I massaged my son’s limbs with lavender and sweet almond oil, and visualised golden white light entering my son’s inert body, energising and healing every cell.

4. Choose uplifting language. 

On Day 3, a time of minimum hope, I drew a good health mandala picture for my son, with encouraging words among brightly coloured flower petals and leaves. I wrote a note below it: `Deep down, you are healthy and well, and have the energy, determination and love that you need to thrive. I love you very much, always’.

5. Adopt a mindset of wellness. 

As Tim thankfully began to recover, he was keen to leave his room and explore the hospital by wheelchair. We visited the maternity ward’s pretty garden. We went painting in the children’s ward. We danced with dementia patients. We circled a small peaceful lake in the grounds. One day, ten family members went for a walk around the hospital, with Tim frail but determined at the front. We also discovered a rehab gym, and Tim developed a reputation among the doctors for visiting the gym every day.

All these deeds created an impression around Tim that he was on his way to being fit and well. The collective thinking around him changed, from scarcely any hope to cautious optimism. In turn, that spurred him on to become more adventurous. In short, he was acting like a young man who, despite his disabilities, was used to leading an active, even sporty life.

On Day 96, Tim was discharged from hospital. Our family was so thankful. I now understand that crisis is a natural part of life. Sooner or later, stuff happens. Our challenge is to choose those moments, as much as the long calm periods in between, to live life to the full – however long it lasts.

To be a gardener of the mind

05/05/2016 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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L1090747The Studio garden is warming up.  Wild cherry blossoms are opening in the sunlight. Cowslips and primroses are mingling with bluebells and forget-me-nots. There’s plenty of gardening to do, even in this semi-wild space. The earth always brings new insights into nature and human nature.

Today, I’m removing weeds to create space for cultivated plants. Weeds are ok. Many are edible: dandelions, bramble, chickweed and nettle are harvested elsewhere in the garden for herbal teas, salads, pies and the cooking pot. Others are beautiful: bindweed throws white trumpet flowers over the hedgerow that separates garden from field.

But I’m not letting any wild plants take over the entire garden. I am choosing where they can thrive, and where they cannot.

This choosing of what may grow and what may not is very like the way we tend our minds.

Thoughts we think habitually are like plants with long, tenacious roots.

Thoughts that are more transient are like annual plants, with shallow roots.

The annual plants are easy to pull up, should we wish to. Chickweed pretty well lives on the surface, and can be scooped up for salads. Annual plants resemble topics that grab our attention for a season, and then vanish.

The most established perennial plants, however, are deeply entrenched. Bindweed and bramble have roots that travel horizontally long distances underground. Horsetail has roots that can grow a full two metres deep! These can be likened to long-held family beliefs that have been handed down through many generations.

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We can choose to be gardeners of the mind by doing these three things:

• Become aware of our thoughts and beliefs, through techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and gardening.

• Witness these thoughts with non-judgmental loving kindness.

• Cultivate the thoughts that make sense, that support and nourish us; let go of the thoughts that don’t.

And then we need to keep doing these things, season after season. That’s how we become gardeners of the mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness and cupcakes at the Women’s Refuge

08/03/2016 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Ghossiya brought the cupcakes, and she came up with the idea too.  How can mindfulness help mothers? How can it help young children? She was planning to put her findings into a  dissertation for a degree course in early childhood studies which she is soon to complete at Oxford Brooks University.

A group of us – mothers, children, refuge key workers, Ghossiya and I –  looked at three principles:

Be here now

Notice what you notice

Be kind to yourself.

We ate cupcakes mindfully, using our senses, and discovered that the experts at this were the young children present. They explored with fingers in icing, and fingers in mouths. What happens, thought one, when you drop an icing flower into a glass of water? (Answer: it sinks to the bottom of the glass, where it stains the water a delicate pink.)

Afterwards, we did a body scan relaxation exercise, focusing on our breath, then toes and feet and legs, and so on, upwards through our bodies. We visualised a golden white light, spreading outwards from our heart, filling our whole body with light, giving every cell the chance to pause, and rest, and renew.

When we opened our eyes again, after the exercise, everyone in the room seemed visibly more relaxed. Even the very young children had noticed the change in atmosphere, and were contented. One was stroking the soft shiny hair of a toddler friend sitting nearby:  mindfulness in action.

During our session, we also talked about the fact that mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve health and slow down ageing. And we discussed how a body scan visualisation is ideal for young children, especially at bedtime, to help them to calm and slow down.

Free body scan audio

We discussed how the mums could talk their children through this. Or, if they preferred, they could play the audio that’s available to all who’d like it, through this blog (please just contact me, putting BODY SCAN in the comment box).

Ghossiya shared a cupcake recipe (see below). Cooking, it was agreed, it a great way of being in the zone, along with walking in the countryside, relaxing in a candle-lit bath, doing yoga … and any other enjoyable activity in which we are fully present, using our senses. And if we are ever in any doubt, all we ever have to do is enter the world of a young child. They know how to explore this moment now better than anyone else on the planet. They are not rushing on to the next activity. They are masters of the present moment. We can learn so much from them.

Mindful cupcake recipe

115 g caster sugar

115 g self-raising flour

115 g margarine (at room temperature)

2 eggs (at room temperature)

Any one of the following optional flavourings: 100 g sultanas or raisins; 100-150 g chocolate chips; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 1 tsp cinnamon.

  1. Set the oven to 150º C/Gas 2.
  2. Put caster sugar, flour, margarine and eggs in a bowl and mix thoroughly until smooth.
  3. If using optional flavouring, add to the bowl and mix in gently yet thoroughly.
  4. Place cupcake cases in a muffin tin and spoon in the cake mixture.
  5. Bake in preheated oven until risen and golden brown.

Decorate as liked with icing or simply lightly sprinkle with icing sugar though a sieve.

 

 

 

How to achieve balance in your life

03/02/2016 at 1:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Here is a picture of three perfectly balanced stones.

It is also a symbol of how we humans can lead a balanced life.

Imagine, now, that you consist of three stones, one on top of the next.

Get your base right

The base stone, the biggest, is all important – nothing’s going to happen without it. This represents your physical needs: income, security, survival. We need to spend solid time every day ensuring that physically we are thriving. Are you exercising every day? Do you care for your body? Do you eat healthy foods, maybe even grow some of what you eat? Do you have a steady income, however humble? The message of the base stone is a simple one: take time to look after your physical body.

Keep heart at the centre of all that you do

The middle stone is the heart stone. This represents our feelings for others, and ourselves. Do you have plenty of healthy interactions with others: good friends, colleagues, family members? Do you nurture your relationships and spend solid time catching up with family and old friends, and meeting new friends by building your interests and activities?

At the very centre of the heart stone there is a special place devoted to your relationship with yourself. You are the friend who is always with you, every minute of your life. It may as well be a great friendship. Do you spend solid time checking in with yourself, seeing how you really feel, and caring about the answer? Do you give yourself praise when you’ve done well? Do you give yourself encouragement when you’re flagging? Do you, above all, love and accept yourself just as you are, while also being open about change? The message of the heart stone is this: take time to care about yourself and others. Value your feelings.

Do not be afraid to think

The top stone is the head or crown stone. This represents our mental and spiritual life. The crown stone, being that much higher than the other stones, can see the big picture. It prevents us being overtaken by our feelings. It introduces a note of caution when we fall in love with a person, or a project, that ultimately looks likely to harm us. The crown stone is the aspect of us that is wise, calm and measured. It is our intelligence.

The crown stone is the smallest stone. This reminds us that a little thinking goes a long way. Intelligence is a valuable gift. But without the heart and the base, it can easily get unbalanced. The connection between head and heart needs to be really stable. Otherwise, we can develop delusions and other mental illnesses. We might also invent things that do not serve the highest interests of humankind.

The crown stone, alone of the stones, has air above it. This reminds us that there are links between us and the invisible. Thus, it also represents our spiritual life.

The message of the crown stone is this: it is our birthright to be able to think for ourselves, to see things as they really are, and to be bold enough to speak the truth.

Keep these three aspects of yourself in balance, and you will lead a balanced life.

 

Introducing naturecraft

25/04/2015 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Balm, Chickweed, Dandelion, Nettle, Wild Strawberry, Blackcurrant and Lungwort make a fabulous spring tea.

Balm, Chickweed, Dandelion, Nettle, Wild Strawberry, Blackcurrant and Lungwort make a fabulous spring tea.


Nature plays a huge, much loved part in the meditation activities here in the Studio. But did you know that all year round at the Studio, I harvest from nature to make culinary dishes, herbal teas, flower and fruit cordials, natural skincare products, and a host of other lovely products?

I’ve shared some of these recipes on my blog already. In fact, they’re usually my most popular posts 🙂

But from next week onwards, I’m offering regular hands-on naturecraft sessions here in North Wiltshire. We’ll be based at the Studio, but we’ll also go out into the neighbouring countryside, so bring your wellies!

You’ll be able to make your own natural skincare products, eat yummy wild foraged dishes and drinks, and even do some creative willow weaving.

Naturecraft sessions will often be arranged at fairly short notice to catch harvests at their very best.

I hope you’ll join me soon at a naturecraft session. After all, we all need to know the difference between inedible lily of the valley and yummy wild garlic!

And of course, I’ll be including more naturecraft blog posts over the coming seasons, to share with you wherever you live.

Bookmark your intention

10/04/2015 at 8:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Not so long ago, I was doing a lot of caring for others, and forgetting to care for myself. Therefore, I was running on empty: constantly tired; crabby. My caring for others had become a monster that went through the motions and denied my loved ones the true energy of compassion.

This went on for several days. Then, one morning, in that dreamy state between sleep and awakening, I saw a bookmark hovering in front of me. You know, the long, thin rectangular sort that you put in a proper card-and-paper book.

“Bookmark your intention for today,” said a wise teacher who was invisibly beside me. And at once I saw words appearing on the bookmark. I understood then that I was choosing a simple, uncomplicated intention for the day. My intention – far shorter than a typical ‘to-do’ list – was to help a particular relative in a specific way, and also to care for myself. That was all. Sure, there would be other activities in the day, but my intention was just those two things.

And with that knowledge, I stopped feeling tired and overwhelmed. The energy of life and compassion returned to me.

Additionally, I understood that each new morning benefits from a fresh bookmark, spelling out an intention for that particular day.

What is your intention for today? Keep it simple. There’s only room for a few well-chosen words on a bookmark.

The secret of simple

06/04/2015 at 6:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Yesterday I started knitting again for the first time in over 30 years. I had a pair of vintage green needles, and some hand-me-down Aran wool, and some good female company: mother, niece and daughter.

To my surprise, I quickly fell into a peaceful rhythm of softly clicking needles. There was a satisfaction in knowing that a very simple garment – a scarf, or snood – was being made. Something soothing was happening to the neural pathways of my brain as I repeated the same intricate knotting movement over and over.  It reminded me of the repetitious nature of meditation, and how that creates a pool of calm in the mind. But there was something else too.

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It was as if the endless knotting was tapping on the door of an ancient racial memory: of women making garments with the simplest of tools: needles of wood or bone. In clothing their families, they were also creating the fabric of society, through the mingled act of cloth-making and conversation.

I thought, then, of the times I have been caught up in the hamster wheel cycles of a ceaselessly questioning mind. And I understood that doing the simple things that pertain to survival can help any of us stay sane. I’m talking about activities like making bread by hand; or building and lighting a fire; or sowing and growing lettuces to eat… or, of course, creating a garment with two softly clicking needles.

What is your choice of simple today?

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