Why this is a great time to become more serene

23/08/2017 at 6:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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When I saw this photo I couldn’t resist asking to ‘borrow’ it. It’s an image of my niece, Sophie, canoeing along a tributary to Loch Morlich in Scotland’s Cairngorm National Park.

For me, this image sums up the best of serenity.

To make progress, there’s generally some effort involved. There are always bound to be a few rocks along the route. But the best approach is to cultivate a calm manner – to do your best to remain balanced whatever lies in your path.

It’s good to see distractions for what they are: side shows that are not and never will be your true path. That way we don’t become over-reactive, or allow ourselves to be carried along by events.

At the same time, it’s important to be prepared, yet not overly so. It’s wise to take a few useful items with you for your safety and wellbeing, and to help you move forwards. However, it’s also ok to trust that your needs will be met, and to travel light.

I’ve been meditating on serenity daily since the start of the summer. Through busy times it’s frankly been a life-saver. This regular practice actually appears to make life’s challenges… well, less challenging. Which is why this moment, right now, is a great time for you to focus on being serene. Try it and see what happens.

What Westerners can learn from Eastern meditation

13/06/2017 at 10:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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When meditation goes well, it’s brilliant. Blissful. Calming. However, many people, especially beginners, struggle to reach that point. They talk about ‘failing’ and ‘not being able to meditate’, as though it’s an exam they’ve somehow flunked.

I’ve heard this despondent comment many times over the nine years that I’ve been running meditation groups in the UK. When newcomers turn up, they often say, “I can’t meditate, but I want to try and give it another go”. Or “I tried meditation once before, and I couldn’t do it.”

And, of course, I regularly meet people who wouldn’t go anywhere near a meditation group, believing that they are doomed to failure so it’s not even worth ‘trying’. But there’s something wistful in the way they tell me this. It’s as if they suspect they’re missing something, and they just don’t know what to do about it.

There is an interesting reason why Westerners may sometimes find it more difficult to meditate than their Eastern counterparts. It all comes down to the name itself: ‘meditation’. Or, to be exact, the origins of the name.

The Western approach

We can trace the verb ‘to meditate’ back to Latin. It meant: to ponder, reflect, consider, devise. In the old European languages it also meant: ‘to measure’, ‘to judge’, ‘to protect’, ‘to provide for’ and ‘to deliberate’. Go further back in time, to the original ‘seed’ language that early humanity shared, and it meant ‘to take appropriate measures’, ‘to give advice’ and ‘to heal’.  This was the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) seed word, ‘med’, which also evolved into ‘mediate’ and medicine among other words.

The historical Western approach to meditation is therefore driven by a well-intentioned desire for results: the solving of a problem, the righting of a wrong, the mending of an ill.

The Eastern approach

In the East, the Sanskrit for meditation is ‘dhyana’. Other Eastern languages have variants on this. The PIE seed word for dhyana is ‘dheie’ meaning ‘to see, to look’. The word ‘Zen’, signifying an aspect of Buddhism with a deeply contemplative approach to life, shares the same seed word.

So in the East, ‘dhyana’ is the practice of simply being, simply witnessing without judgement.

Western meditators broadly follow the Eastern tradition. We sit in silence, simply being… but we also have a cultural legacy which whispers to us that we need to get results from our quiet time.

A happy fusion

Of course, we can’t really divide the world into neat East-West packages. Wherever you live, whatever your origins, you’re pretty well guaranteed to experience the ‘monkey chatter’ of your mind during meditation. And this can do a great job of distracting you with wide-ranging thoughts.

But your approach to the monkey chatter can make the difference between frustration and happiness during your practice – and that’s where an awareness of meditation’s ancient definitions can be helpful.

If we accept that we have chosen to sit in silence, focusing on a particular word, or concept, or image, or sound, simply to witness without trying to change anything, then we are much more likely to enjoy our meditation sessions. Each time we notice that our thoughts have strayed, we calmly remind ourselves that we are here to meditate, and we return to our point of focus.

No judgement. Just practice.

To summarise, we meditate simply to meditate. There is no end result we are looking for.  So we cannot ‘fail’. We are simply being conscious witnesses of the moment.

And yet, when we make a regular practice of meditating in this way, with no expectation of reward, the insights and inspiration do come. Meditation focuses and refreshes the mind like nothing else.

So if you really struggle to meditate, take heart. You are not alone. Now that you know the ancient secret buried in the very name of meditation, you can choose to let go of the striving and, instead, embrace the serenity.

 

Three ways to be blissful at Beltane

25/04/2017 at 10:12 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Beltane is the blossom-scented traditional festival that falls on 1st May, also known as May Day. However, as a state of mind, it’s available to us throughout the year – whatever the season.  This is how.

First, let’s unpack the meaning of this beautiful word with its clear, musical tones. ‘Beltane’ comes from an ancient seed word meaning ‘shine’ , ‘flash’ and ‘fire’ – a reference to the fact that by late spring/early summer in the Northern Hemisphere the sun stays with us a little longer every day, warming living beings and the land.

The shine of Beltane is not the reflective gleam of a cool surface, such as the moon or water.  It originates from within and radiates outwards. The 1st of May marks the point at which the light has become significantly stronger. By this stage in the year the sun can invoke warmth-loving seeds to shoot upwards towards its radiance. Yet the late spring sun also has the potential to burn bare skin and parch seedlings. A Beltane sun has a power that can be used for good or ill, a power we need to respect and use wisely. We are energised by it – and it can remind us of our own inner power.

Here are three things you can do at Beltane to focus your inner power and use it for good. These can be used just as they are or adapted for any time of the year when you wish to stoke your own inner fire to increase your wellbeing and your energetic impact on the world.

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1. When you wake in the morning, count your blessings. This is especially easy to do when the mornings are light and sun-filled. The practice reminds you of all the great good that is in your life. As a consequence, gratitude radiates outwards from your centre, effortlessly burning away subtle detritus from your personal energy, such as resentment and old griefs.

2. Go orchard bathing. Walk among trees laden with flowers. Breathe in their subtle fragrance. See or sense their vibrant shimmer in the air. Enter the canopy of a blossoming tree and feel uplifted by the sense of life and potential that the tree embodies. Absorb that energy and let it apply to your own upcoming projects and dreams. At other times of year you can revisit the orchard trees to witness the natural cycles of life and regeneration, and gain a sense of how these manifest in you.

3. Become a student of light. Notice how light travels through a leaf or a forest and develop a sense of how light rays pass through the skin of a living being, and how shafts of sunlight penetrate a community. This matters not just because sunlight can be beautiful and healing, but also because it transforms. Even the darkest places receive light photons, bringing with them energy, information and, symbolically, hope. Be aware of those energies. Work with them. The more you get to know them, the more benefits you will discover.

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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.

Random acts of wheelchair kindness

17/02/2017 at 11:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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This year, Friday 17th February is Random Acts of Kindness Day. But I would like to make the case that for some members of our society – such as my disabled son – kindness from strangers is an every day part of life. It always has been, in all of his 21 years.

In an age of austerity cuts and the resurgence of prejudices, I feel it’s important to say that many people of every political persuasion and indeed none are routinely compassionate and caring, every day of every year. In our family’s direct experience, kindness is the norm. Sure, we get tactless stares and thoughtless comments – but these are cancelled out by generous deeds and unexpected favours, from all directions.

My son Tim has always looked disabled. He has always needed a wheelchair. From the age of 16 he has needed oxygen therapy, which means a cylinder, tube and small mask wherever he goes. There is no question that Tim looks different from the norm – whatever that might be. If Tim’s disabilities were invisible, I understand from other special needs parents that his experience might have been less rosy. I can only write of our own experience. And that is, on balance, clearly positive.

When Tim was younger, strangers would routinely offer him cuddly toys which were sometimes bigger than him. Countless others – the most unlikely characters – would give him smiles. I remember wheeling Tim into a rather rough-looking pub in Cornwall. The proprietor was a middle-aged woman with a craggy face – austere and tough. She looked at Tim. Her face broke into a wide, kind smile. She became utterly transformed… actually beautiful. Thousands of others have smiled at Tim, but she stays in my mind because her kindness transformed her so completely.

At this point I have to confess that Tim has jumped many queues, and got into places without paying – because kind officials have ushered him through. From Blackpool Pleasure Beach to Disneyland, Tim has received VIP treatment. He even once got into the VIP enclosure at Brands Hatch to see a Formula One race without flashing a ticket. In some of these places the policy has been an official one. In others, it’s come down to the kindness of an individual at the gate.

When Tim was 14, he became very poorly while on holiday in Florida. We were offered family accommodation at the local Ronald Macdonald House near Wolfson Children’s  Hospital in Jackonsonville, where Tim battled for his life in Intensive Care. His sister remembers receiving at least one present every day, and I remember that kind strangers booked up six months ahead for the privilege of cooking fabulous meals for all who stayed there. I’m personally sure that the kindness we received contributed to Tim’s speedy recovery.

Tim’s own attitude has to be mentioned. He smiles easily: a wide, generous smile that tells strangers he enjoys life and he doesn’t judge others in any way. He is visibly comfortable with the fact that he receives help from people. Again and again I have witnessed that Tim’s fun-loving and relaxed outlook makes it easy for strangers to be kind around him.

Advocates of equal rights for disabled people – and I am one of these – might argue that disabled people don’t want special treatment. They just want equal treatment.

Of course that’s true. Maybe all these favours could seem patronising. But I don’t choose to look at it that way. The truth is, being a physically, learning and health-challenged young person is unfathomably difficult, for the individual and the whole family. Tim lives at the edge of what is medically possible. So I look on him, and others like him – as something of a hero. And it’s perfectly reasonable for society’s heroes to receive accolades. The key is to accept the well-meant gestures gracefully.

This kindness even extends to those who care for him. Not so long ago Tim and I were sitting in the square next to Bath Abbey when a woman came up to me, holding a bouquet of scented flowers.

“These are for you,” she said to me. “Because I think what you’re doing is amazing.”

Recently Tim celebrated his 21st birthday with a restaurant meal. His friend and carer Bonnie was busy helping Tim to eat his puréed version of Sunday Roast. Her gentle patience was witnessed by a stranger in the bar. The young man secretly delivered an envelope to our group, to be handed to Bonnie after he had left. Our group got the timing wrong, and Bonnie received the envelope while the man was still present. Inside was a £20 note. Visibly moved, Bonnie went to thank the man, and the two hugged.

That hug between two kind strangers is what Random Acts of Kindness are all about. Who benefitted most: Bonnie, the kind stranger, or even the rest of us, looking on? The truth is, kindness given generously and accepted with genuine appreciation connects and benefits us all.

This article has also appeared in The Huffington Post. 

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