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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing mindfully the ocean way

08/04/2016 at 6:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I stood on a bumpy shore in Galway, Ireland and breathed in salty cool Atlantic air. Suddenly, my lungs were filled with fresh ocean breezes. Each in-breath came with an excitement of Atlantic energy. Each out-breath took with it a thousand everyday stresses.

In a situation like that, you can’t help but be fully present. My mind wasn’t about to wander, because the experience was so vivid.

All my senses were engaged with savouring this moment. I could taste the salt in the air, feel the wind speed-weaving my hair into maritime knots, see the sunlight dancing through fast moving clouds, breathe in the tangy scent of seaweed, and hear the waves lapping against pebbles. Additionally, the wind was chilling!

The challenge is to breathe equally mindfully in familiar situations  – in our everyday life. In fact, this is one of the very best meditations to practise regularly. Simply sit in silence once a day – first thing in the morning is perfect – and focus on your breathing for 20 minutes or so. And notice what you notice.

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Here are three techniques that can be helpful.

1. Treat every mindful breathing session as though it’s the first time. You are a traveller, newly arrived at this shoreline of your breathing. Witness the air entering you as though it’s the most amazing newcomer in your life. Witness it leaving you like the life-long friend it is.

2. Focus on a particular point: such as the nostrils, the lungs or the abdomen. Notice the sensation of the air as it enters and leaves you. Witness how your muscles expand and contract rhythmically. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests focusing on the belly, and likens it to the deeper, slower moving currents of the ocean: “When we focus on our breathing down in the belly,” he writes in Full Catastrophe Living, “we are tuning into a region of the body that is far from the head and thus far below the agitations of our thinking mind. It is intrinsically calmer.”

3. At intervals during your day, whenever you remember to, briefly observe your breathing. When you next feel stressed, make a point of noticing what is happening to your breath. Focus on the belly, as it rises with the in-breath and falls with the out-breath. Sometimes this movement is subtle. In the time you take to witness it, the stress or surface agitation has often lessened. It’s as if that pause creates a tiny gap in the stressfully woven fabric of your life, and loosens every thing up so new options can emerge.

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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.

 

Sense the wisdom of the ancient stones

24/07/2015 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Standing stones are scattered over the mistiest reaches of the British Isles. Each one is different, and highly distinctive. I wonder how many you know, and whether you have a favourite?

These are the Standing Stones of Stenness, on the mainland of Orkney. They are part of what may be the oldest henge in Britain. I visited them last week with my partner, Steven, on a rare child-free holiday. We found these giants bathing in the evening sun, framed by a rainbow. They seemed magical and mysterious: reassuring presences on the landscape.

The thing about standing stones is that they predate our written history. Perhaps we can say that they are a form of writing in themselves: rocky runes, inscribing messages on our horizons.

It’s a language we don’t understand today – but it’s possible to pick up something. I walked up to the monolith on the left in the picture above and leant against it: warm sunlight at the front of me; cool rock at the back. Imagine yourself doing that now. The stone is more than three times your height. As you lean back, it supports you. Perhaps it even feels as though it is scanning and recording your energy – that’s how it seemed to me.

As you stand there, it feels easy to have a silent dialogue. What would you like to confide in this silent stone, and what subliminal messages might it give you?

At the simplest level, stones speak of continuity and the steady rhythm of change. The people who first raised these megaliths were fully aware of the annual dance of sunrise and sunset along the east and west horizons. They had a deep understanding of how sunshine brought life to crops and humanity. Bringing this awareness to our modern world of distractions is very good for us – It can keep us sane.

After a while, the sun neared the horizon. The Standing Stones of Stenness became dramatic silhouettes.

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The view reminded me of a powerful insight I received at Avebury Stone Circle: “It is not the stones themselves that matter. It’s the spaces in between.“ 

The spaces in between the Stones of Stenness reveal a most amazing landscape. You can catch glimpses in this picture. There are two lochs: one is saltwater, and the other is freshwater. They are separated by a narrow causeway, which takes you to a Stone Age collection of buildings which are thought to have been temples. Beyond them is another henge, the Ring of Brodgar, and beyond that… the sun.

The Standing Stones of Stenness from this perspective are a portal to the elements of life. They reveal to us that we and our world are composed of earth, fire, air and water. And sometimes, just sometimes, it feels good to remember that.

A young hare’s guide to peace

03/07/2015 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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When we are peaceful in nature, nature comes peacefully to us. Last spring, collecting wild garlic in the woods, I was delighted when a deer came to graze nearby. We continued to crop the spring greens, each in our own way. It was companionable. I was the one who moved away first, when my basket was full.

Harry the hare

Then, ten days ago, a young hare came to live in our garden. He wasn’t distant; he was frequently under our heels. Although we startled him, he didn’t move far away. He ate some carrots I left out for him. One day, I sat on a stone step, drinking green tea, and he sat nearby, eating grass in the sunlight. Ears upright and contented. I chatted. He listened. I loved the way his ears swivelled attentively when I spoke. If you want to learn the art of true listening, watch a hare.

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When a being so wild and natural is happy in your company, it is a wonderful feeling. Again, I was the one who eventually moved away. My human schedule beckoned. His precocial nature allowed him to simply be.

Our hare is now spending more time in the field next door. But he still visits our garden. Two nights ago, I saw him in the silver light of the full moon, grazing on the lawn.

Hares and people have a lot in common. When we are peaceful, others around us are more likely to be calm and contented. Maybe that is how we will eventually create a more tranquil world: not by telling others that they are wrong and we are right, but by experiencing a deep, numinous peace within ourselves. It’s a feeling that others can’t help but respond to.

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Spiritual: a quick definition

08/04/2015 at 4:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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People often talk about being spiritual. Others deny that the spiritual realm even exists. But what does being spiritual actually mean? Here is a definition that works for me:

Beyond the levels of thinking and feeling lies pure consciousness, which we experience as pure love. Reaching this is spiritual transformation.

Once you’ve been there – really been there – you’ll always have it. It never goes away, although sometimes we manage to forget it for a while. However, we always remember sooner or later. It has a way of reminding us.

We get there by being fully present in the moment, and thus forgetting our ego-centred worries and desires. Looking at a beautiful aspect of nature – such as a flower, or a small child – can bring us to the shores of the spiritual realm. So, too, can a regular practice of meditation. Sometimes, this happens spontaneously, especially in those moments between sleep and waking. And it can also happen in extremis, when our ego-driven policies are no longer working for us, and we find ourselves yielding to a different, infinitely vaster view of the universe.

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Next week a new, huge series of meditations begins in the Studio. Term by term, for seven terms, we’re going to focus on each of the main chakras – the energy centres that enable us to function in the physical realm, and also to develop our deeper understanding of life. This epic theme is designed to suit all levels of ability, and you can dip in and out as you wish. The intention is that we will focus ever more fully on the building blocks of our human psyche and our interface with the wider world.

This term, from now until July, we’ll be focusing on the base or root chakra, which is concerned with physical survival and manifestation. Join us whenever you can. And I hope you will experience the bliss of the spiritual, one word at a time.

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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We’re meditating on discovery

22/02/2015 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The word we’re meditating on this week is ‘Discovery’.

When we regularly sit down in quietness and allow the busy thoughts of our mind to subside, a clarity can emerge which spreads into every aspect of our life. We see things as though they are lit from the inside. We gain insights. This process of looking at the familiar and seeing it afresh is one of the best forms of discovery, and one of meditation’s great gifts.

The following is an example from this morning, when I simply looked out of a window, saw cars in the far distance, and understood on a deeper level that each vehicle contained a shining soul.

What discoveries will come your way today?

The Road to Calne

Shining beads glide

between fields of frost

under the rosy sky

of our potential.

~~~

Each bead, a soul

hiding from its light,

disturbed by the future,

wounded from the past.

~~~

If we dare see

how brightly we glow,

our heavy cloaks of fear

dissolve in the warmth.

The thing about gates

11/02/2015 at 9:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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This week, in the studio, we’re meditating on the word ‘gateway’. And the thing we discovered on Monday is that there is no such thing as a half-open gate, not really. In the fields around the studio, a gate is either unlatched and open:

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Or it’s latched and closed:

Latch closed

An unlatched gate in the country is designed to swing wide open. Cattle, sheep and people walk through. There are no half-measures. The gate is never just a little bit open. If it’s open, it’s open.

It all comes down to the latch.

When we are not living mindfully, we can kid ourselves that a gate along our own life path is open when it isn’t really. And because it isn’t really open, we never quite seem to get the job we want, or the partner, or the professional awards. We get frustrated, and can’t understand why we don’t progress.

Sitting quietly in meditation can help us to recognise that we haven’t actually lifted the latch and opened the gate to new opportunities along our path. We can also see the reason: we’re reluctant to leave the past; or we’re nervous about the future.

When we become aware of our conflicting emotions about progress, we can see more clearly how our own actions are keeping the latch closed. And then, we can mindfully choose to open the latch and walk through into the future.

Conversely, sometimes our boundaries are wide open. When that happens, we feel tugged by conflicting external demands; we don’t have enough rest time, or privacy. It can be useful then to sit quietly in meditation and tune into that gate latch once more. Why have we left the gate hanging wide open? What would happen if we closed the gate at least some of the time? That would mean saying ‘no’ to people. It would mean scheduling time in our diary for us. That would be a good feeling.

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