Bitter-sweet Christmas

Image by Vicky Brok

Image by Vicky Brok

The silver grey sky was streaked with white, and darker shades of grey: slate, charcoal, gunmetal. It was the second day of winter, after a mild autumn. Most of the trees still had a few leaves clinging to them. It felt cold, but the ground was wet, not hard with frost.

I walked into the centre of town. It was late afternoon, and as the sky darkened, drifting through indigo to near black, the Christmas lights became a brighter presence. A few tubes of LEDs, shaped into stars, hung from shops where the flags hung in the summer. There were Christmas trees in the windows of all the shops; some dressed with multi-coloured lights and gaudy decorations, some with white lights and silver baubles.

I walked past the pub. A bartender dressed as an elf was having a sneaky cigarette, just outside the door. A couple of men unloaded scuffed, steel barrels from the back truck.

I walked into the park. Light from the cruise-ship look-a-like theatre streamed out of glass doors, and warmed up the dark park. It lit up trees, the bandstand, the benches and shrubs with a soft yellow glow.

A small girl in a summer dress ran past me. Her parents followed a few steps behind, carrying her winter coat.

Christmas has a bitter-sweet flavour, sometimes. It throws our greed, and the disappointment that inevitably follows, into sharp relief. We are greedy to receive the perfect gift, or to create the perfect experience for someone else. Or we wish that the year behind us had been different. The soft-focus, happy ending, made for T.V. Christmas films act as a mirror for our ordinary lives, showing where we fall short of some imagined ideal.

This is propelled by our materialistic culture, but greed as human instinct surely goes further back. We are programmed for survival, we are programmed to fear being cast out of the group, we are programmed to climb to the top of the pile and hand our genes down to our ancestors.

And yet – in the midst of all of this self-centredness – there are moments of genuine love, of real connection, of tenderness arising towards the human condition, of selflessness.

All of life is like this, of course. The mind props itself up, and desire conditions our words, and actions, and yet, it is possible to love and be loved.

This time of year is an opportunity, an opportunity to give way to greed, and an opportunity to give way to love. It is inevitable that both will happen. Perhaps the best way forward is to simply pay attention: to notice greed arising, and to notice love arising, and appreciate it when it does.

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Finding beauty

Dawn Sky by Gerry Machen

Dawn Sky by Gerry Machen

Kaspa writes: Today there is a watercolour sky. There are hints of colour in the lightening day: baby pink, bone white, champagne pink, corn silk yellow…

On Friday morning, everything was grey. There was a pale mist in the valley and dark clouds low in the sky. Wisps of mist and tales of cloud brushed against each other like ink dropped into a pool of clear water.

On Wednesday there was a hard frost, the ground was white as far as the eye could see. Trees and the roofs of houses were white. The morning sky was streaked with peach, and orange, the clouds had golden edges.

On days when the world is lit up with a clear bright sunlight, I find it easier to see the world as beautiful. On damp mornings, when everything is wet, and the colours are dull, it is a little harder to connect with that sense of beauty, and for me, a little harder to get out of bed.

This morning I padded out to see the rabbits; my indoors-only-winter-slippers slapping on to the wet muddy path that appeared in the wake of the builders renovating the coach house. The nasturtiums that wilted in the hard frost last week lay limply in the weed scattered veg patch, curled up like sleeping creatures. I brushed past the browning edges of Japanese anemone leaves, the plants tied up to a fencepost with green/brown garden string, the string beaded with mist, each bead silver in the dawn light.

The beauty of the world doesn’t break through my fog of thoughts so easily when there is also fog outside. But when I remember how beautiful everything looks in the sunlight, it encourages me to look again at the world, and when I do I find that it is still beautiful.

Poppet, our brown and white, tripod bunny, nestled into my hand when I reached down to her. Peter, her short sighted, long black haired companion, was too excited about his breakfast to enjoy being stroked this morning.

On my way back inside I noticed the lemon yellow flowers of the mahonia, a few baby pink roses on the rose that climbs over the black iron archway, and the new buds on the magnolia tree, still clinging onto one or two leaves.

Remembering that we have seen beauty once, can remind us to look again. And how often we find it, when we take the time to look.

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If you’re interested in getting some help to see the world more clearly, Kaspa is offering our self-study Journaling Our Way Home e-course for half the usual price between now and the beginning of January.

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Photo by Gary Machen

Letting ourselves be helped

interfaith-worcesterEverything and everyone around you is your teacher. ~ Ken Keyes     

At the weekend I said no to the offer of a cup of almond-milk hot chocolate.

We had been standing on the freezing cold streets of Worcester for a couple of hours with our Christian and Baha’i friends, advocating friendship amongst those of different faiths. I said that I’d share some of Kaspa’s cup instead, and when it arrived the sips I had were warming, sweet, creamy & chocolateylicious. It was only later that I realised I would have loved a cup of my own.

A lot of the decisions we make are made in the way I made this one. We find ourselves saying something (‘no thank you’), then make up some reasons why we said it (I only want a few gulps of hot chocolate) and only later discover other deeper layers (I was worried about Lorraine spending too much money on me and, underneath that, it makes me feel vulnerable to receive things).

I’m glad that I took the time to see those deeper layers more clearly. It reminds me how hard it is for me to be helped, and it gave me the opportunity to confess to Lorraine. It might help me to say yes next time. And maybe next time I’m in town I’ll buy myself a cup of that almond-milk chocolate.

Have you said or done anything recently that doesn’t sit right? Might there be some deeper layers?

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If you’re interested in getting some help to explore the layers, Kaspa is offering our self-study Journaling Our Way Home e-course for half the usual price between now and the beginning of January.

The mouse incident

baby-mouse-by-nick-harrisLast night a mouse ran up my trouser leg.

I had cornered our cat Roshi on the stairs up from our flat. He dropped the mouse, and then suddenly the mouse was nowhere to be seen.

I squealed. I felt a soft lump up near my hip, moving fast. I wailed some more.

I’m lucky enough not to feel that level of fear very often. It rendered me utterly useless. After a short while Kaspa came along and told me to take off my trousers, and the mouse came off me with them, but if he hadn’t been there I don’t know how long I would have stood there on the stairs, petrified.

Sometimes we are too preoccupied with our own needs, our own survival, to see things very clearly. This happens in very subtle ways all the time. We manipulate our friend into spending time with us because we’re afraid of being lonely, and they silently resent it. We buy stuff because we’re afraid of feeling bored. We give advice because we’re afraid of being with the other’s pain.

The more fear, the less clearly we see. This is why it’s helpful to listen to wise others. This is why it’s helpful to sleep on things, and to recognise the fear when it’s present and look after it as best we can. This is why i’ts helpful to take refuge in something bigger than us (nature, a trusted group, the Buddha…) so what-we-take-refuge-in can slowly dissolve the fear by showering us with safety and with warmth.

Little mousey was released into the garden and we both made a full recovery. I’m smiling now, remembering the squirmy little dance I did on the stairs. Go well mousey, and go well you x

(A final reminder that if you’d like your emails to start, neatly, on the 1st of Nov, sign up for my Nourishing November: Writing Towards Healing self-study e-course today.)

Foolish Satya & blooming kindness

I am a foolish Satya.

kahlua-cupcake-by-stacyYesterday I had lunch with a friend. After taking £30 out of a cash machine we pootled around second hand book shops & a posh chocolate shop then went for lunch.

After lunch and a cupcake I went to pay and discovered that the money wasn’t in my wallet. Had I handed over the wrong note at the chocolate shop? No. Had I put it in a pocket or was it hiding somewhere in my handbag? No.

On the way home I thought it was worth stopping at the bank. I confessed to the three women behind the counter that I may have done something very silly. They asked me how much money I’d taken out. I said £30, and they handed it over to me.

I’d left the money in the cash machine, and the kind woman behind me in the queue had handed it in.

I’m telling you because rosy happiness bloomed in my chest, and I hope some of it might reach you. I’m telling you because it reminds us all to treat others in the way we’d like to be treated, and hand the money in. I’m telling you because I am grateful to that woman and to all the people who look after me when I get things wrong or when wounds get poked or when I can’t do something for myself.

People aren’t all bad, you know. That includes you.

“Peace and kindness have their best shot at establishing themselves when we accept our own inadequacy, when limitation and error become aspects of ourselves we can embrace rather than strive to mask.” ~ Henry Shukman

(To practice receiving kindness, register for Nourishing November: Writing Towards Healing)

 

A moment of madness (what do you really need?)

12493855_10153426762475318_6981540583415123187_oThis morning I had a moment of madness.

We’ve had a busy year here at the temple and I am very much looking forward to a week off next week. I need a rest.

I also need to re-discover my healthy habits around the internet (i.e. checking email and Facebook once a day rather than three thousand times). I decided to re-commit to this starting next week, and then I had an idea.

Maybe I could offer something to other people wanting to do the same. It’ll help me with my resolve, and help them too. I know, I’ll write an e-course! I’ll call it Nourishing November, and I could share all the resources I’ve found, and write some essays and some daily emails…

I spent the first hour of the day madly browsing the internet and jotting down notes. And then a small voice started whispering in my ear.

Is this really the right thing to be doing? Now? Just before your break? Did you say you were tired?

I slowed down for long enough to listen to the voice. I realised immediately that taking on the work of writing a new course and marketing it was completely crazy. And, as often happens when we say ‘no’ to one thing, a ‘yes’ appeared – an alternative plan. I could update our full-of-good-stuff Writing Towards Healing e-course and offer that to people who want to have a Nourishing November instead. And that’s what I’ve done.

Often, when we’re in need of rest and nourishment, we reach for our tried and tested comforts. Mine include workaholism, the internet, and sugar. Of course, our tried and tested comforts aren’t necessarily the ones that will help us to heal. They unfortunately often have the opposite effect. (Although I think sugar is a perfectly healthy coping strategy……!)

For my Nourishing November I’m going to prescribe myself time off the internet, books, cat-stroking, good food, lots of Buddhist practice and time to paint. Pause for a moment and listen for a kindly voice whispering in your ear. What do you need to prescribe yourself? How can you make it happen?

Keep me company during November. Go easy on yourself. _/\_

Radical acceptance = relaxation

Bamboo by Arneliese

Bamboo by Arneliese

Deeply accepting yourself leads to relaxation, and better writing

A few days ago I helped my brother move house.

We drink from throwaway cups – water beads on the clear surface, catching the mid-summer, mid-day light.

For about three weeks I have had a knot of tension about half way up my back, on the right hand side. I don’t notice it much, apart from when I’m bending over, or when I press my thumb into it and it sends a shooting pain through my body and makes me feel slightly sick.

I had mentioned this to a friend, and at the beginning of moving day he reminded me to be careful of my back.

Underneath the sofa, the extension lead is a still eel, coiled in a deep sea of dust

I said that if I was honest, I probably wasn’t going to be, and that if I saw something that needed lifting, I would just lift it up, regardless. This wasn’t recklessness, but extreme honesty.

Ironically, if I had paid too much attention to his advice; I might have ended up making my back worse. I know that if I set myself an ideal I can’t reach, or will struggle against, I unconsciously introduce tension into my body. More tension means it’s much easier for me to injure myself. When my body is relaxed, I’m more at ease in the world, more in touch with sensations in the body that might be telling me to slow down, and more aware of my environment – less likely to bump my head or stub my toe. When I’m tense, the opposite is true, and of course I’m much more likely to damage a muscle. Flexibility is more robust than firmness. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it anti-fragile.

I used to have sleepless nights. They are rare these days, but still happen once in a while. If I try hard to get to sleep, it makes the sleeplessness worse. The conflict between reality – I am having a sleepless night – and my ideal – being asleep – pushes more energy into the sleeplessness, wherever it comes from – and I get frustrated. If I say to myself, “It looks like I’ll be awake for a while”, I begin to relax, making it more likely I will fall asleep, and in the meantime, because I’ve accepted the situation, I make the best of it: make a cup of deep-green mint tea, read another chapter of my novel, sit with the Buddha…

The half turned on light hums and crackles. We have bought the wrong bulb again.

When we tune into our real situation, when we accept what it, moment to moment, we stop struggling against what is true and relax. We open ourselves up to the world. We notice what we couldn’t notice before, when we were busy trying ourselves in knots. We can write more clearly about the world, because we are touching more of the world, and we can write more clearly about what it means to be human, because we are touching more of our humanity.

The first five days

A Summers Evening, by Darren Flinders

A Summers Evening, by Darren Flinders

What a wonderful first five days of Awake August! It’s been very special to see so many people engaging with the world, and with the written word.

There have been some days this week when I have encountered something in the world and I have known straight away that it’s what I’ll be writing about.

On Monday morning Satya and I walked alongside the River Severn, heading towards Worcestershire. There were many things that caught my eye; some unusual wildflowers that I hadn’t seen before; a female blackbird, feather’s all puffed up, sitting on the arm of a canal lock; snuffling dogs; water rushing over the weir; a beautifully painted narrowboat chugging along the river more slowly than we were walking; but when I saw the skeleton-like ruins of an old boat, half-hidden under the overhanging trees, I knew that’s what I would be writing about:

the dirt coloured bones of an old narrowboat
brambles with white/pink flowers, nettles
a swan turns in the dark water

There have been some days when I reached the evening and my notebook page was still blank. Once, I cast my mind back over the day, searching for something to write about; once I wrote about the wall in front of me; and once, as the day drew to a close, I saw a fox playing in the garden:

In the twilight, half-light, quarter-light, we watch a young fox in the bottom of the garden. He’s chasing his tail, or something I can’t see, a moth maybe. He rolls on the lawn. Then back on to his feet, playing or hunting, or both. The sky darkens, the fox becomes a deeper shadow in the night. Then suddenly he’s gone, the white spot on his tail disappearing into the dark.

Every day I have checked in with the small stones group on Facebook, and the #AwakeAugust on Twitter, and have been deeply impressed by some of the writing I have seen. I have connected with other people’s lives, and with places on the other side of the world. I have seen beautiful things that I wouldn’t have seen, and I have seen mundane things made beautiful through your writing.

pre-dawn, the desk lamp throws its light into the room casting long shadows
my morning tea, the banana plant, a stack of notebooks
they lighten as the sun rises

Reconnecting with small stones, has also allowed me to reconnect with beautiful writing in general. As I was setting up this month’s challenge, and over the past five days, I’ve sought out good poetry, and beautiful creative non-fiction. I’ve slowly sunk into these longer pieces of writing; I’ve entered the eye, the ear, the nose, or the mouth, of the text; I’ve touched the writer’s world with their skin, and my skin together; I’ve steeped myself in their words, and come out differently the other side.

Thank you to everyone that’s written even just one small stone this month, I hope you are getting as much from this practice as I am. I look forward to spending the rest of Awake August with you.

 

 

Preparation is key – mindful writing

by Calgary Reviews

Image by Calgary Review

Kaspa writes: I didn’t notice the sun streaming in through the frosted window until I felt too hot.

I was crouching down, squeezed into the bottom of the shower cubicle of one of our resident’s bathrooms here at the temple. The silicone between the tiles and the tray was black. It was dry to touch, with fine white cracks. As I scraped away the old silicone, ribbons of it coming away at the edge of my knife, I found a pink/orange layer too. A mineral deposit? Or the pink slime of Serratia marcescens?

The job was to re-seal the shower tray. It took me an hour to prepare – injecting the silicon around the tray took around ten minutes.

What’s all of this got to do with mindful writing?

If we spend most of our time preparing to write well, then the act of capturing a beautiful small stone only takes a few moments.

If we make being in contact with the world, rather than our own preoccupations, a way of living, aiming to clearly see, hear, taste, feel and touch whatever is in front of us, and immerse ourselves in writing that we love, the words for our small stone will rise up from the blank page, or form themselves around our encounters with the world, without us having to do really very much at all.

Of course it isn’t always like this.

This morning, the silicone had hardened up inside the nozzle of the tube. I cut the top off, and dug down inside with the knife (don’t try this at home) trying to clear the blockage. I squeezed hard on the trigger of the sealant gun, hoping it would push out the solid gel at the end, but knowing that it wouldn’t. I squeezed, and the nozzle came off, and great gobs of clear silicone swelled up out of the tube covering me and the gun.

Once I had finished sealing the shower tray it took me an age to wash my hands. Someone recommended sugar and washing up liquid. The abrasive, sticky, lemon-scented soap cleared most of the gel off, but I’m not convinced it’s all gone.

Sometimes writing is like this: hard work, moment to moment.

But sometimes the words appear like magic – especially when we put in hours of preparation.

Join me in August and deepen your contact with the world. Write a small stone every day in Awake August.


liquid meadow
the wind disturbs the grass into waves
a single tree leans towards us, twisted and spare
we don’t even notice the noise of the combine harvester, fields and fields away

 

 

reconnecting with mindful writing

Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.

Franz Kafka

Writing by Bianca Moraes

Writing by Bianca Moraes

Kaspa writes: I am reconnecting with writing small stones

marigold dawn – cardinal red poppies  

We have been in the temple for 20 months. We never really know a place, of course, but there are shallow and deeper ways of knowing, and I feel like the temple and I are close to each other. We know each other’s rhythms, and foibles, and it’s easier to rub along now than it was in those first few weeks, and months. Not just easier, but a joy.

alice blue clouds in a powder blue sky

Satya and I have just returned from Buddhafield. A festival in the hills of Somerset, two or three thousand people, camping together for a few days, taking part in workshops, listening to music, eating good food and walking barefoot in the grass. A couple of people mentioned mindful writing to me. My teacher recently mentioned it to me, as well.

dry petals – slivers of finger nails – around the vase of wildflowers

I have been writing. Satya and I wrote a book. I have written articles for local magazines, and my journal is full of words that no one will ever read. But my small stone practice has slipped, and I feel poorer for it.

The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.

Edward R. Murrow

I’m starting up my small stone practice again. I’m running Awake August so that you can join me, and I can have some support. It helps me to write knowing that you are writing too.

Writing takes me out of my own small concerns and brings me into the world. It lets me see myself from a distant place, in the context of this vast, beautiful, universe. I’m looking forward to mindful writing again.

the echo of a coffee stain on this old carpet – red pen on the side of the chair – cat hair sticks to my damp hand