On being prepared to die

Embroidery Sample by Allison Giguere(Write Yourself Alive during March for half price.)

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. ~ Mark Twain

Lately I have been a little preoccupied with death. It started when my therapist asked me whether I was ‘preparing to die’. Her question burrowed into me.

She was reminding me that we all have a limited stretch of time remaining. More importantly, she was reminding me that I love to paint, and grow vegetables, and write, and to look after this temple. She was encouraging me to do more of those things, and to do them with my senses wide open.

This image of a vibrantly embroidered skull has been haunting me. It hangs around as if it is a message for me – the gorgeous flowers growing over the forehead and through the eye sockets, the rich lusciousness of colour, the clean lines of bone.

Of course, real death involves a lot of mess before the flowers come up. Mess and loss and pain. Life does too – when we bring ourselves into closer relationship with ourselves, others, and the world, we can’t flinch from the stinking compost that nourishes the Spring flowers.

The skull seems to be saying to me – strip it all back. Don’t get waylaid by petty worries or concerns about what other people think about you. Don’t go to sleep when things get difficult. Stay awake. Relish stroking Peter bunny’s soft fur. Taste sorrow deeply. Drink in the pink cherry blossom. Keep your frightened heart open.

What is it saying to you?

If you’d like to spend March opening your heart and living more fully, my self-study e-course is half price until the 3rd – more information here.

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Image by Allison Giguere via CC, source of the embroidery sample unfortunately unknown.

You do not have to be good

 

sunflowers by yovko(Writing Ourselves Alive, our self-study e-course, is half price for a few days.)

Satya writes: All week my husband has been on Buddhist business in India.

I had planned a solitary retreat day on Monday. I had it all worked out – virtuous food, no television, reading holy books, gazing wistfully into the distance as I contemplated the great mysteries of life… you know the sort of thing.

Here’s how my retreat day actually looked. Glued to email and Facebook. Far too many muffins. Trashy television (I’m ashamed to tell you what I watched). Agitated. In denial. To bed too late, fizzing with caffeine from all the chocolate I’d guzzled. 

Before I went to bed I emailed Kaspa a long confession, detailing the extent of my failure. When I woke in the morning he’d sent me a single line. 

“You don’t have to be good.”

We think we do. We think that in order to be acceptable, we need to try harder. Do more spiritual practice. Be nicer. Build up multiple passive income streams. Post more beautiful photos of our beautiful lives on Facebook. Get rid of all those snitty and mean-spirited thoughts. Work out every last psychological tangle. Improve improve improve!

We don’t have to try and be good. We just need to notice what is there, offer it up, and turn towards the light. 

We can be curious too – that helps. Oh, I’m eating another muffin. Oh, I seem unable to stop myself from checking my email. What is that about? Does this relate to the dream I had last night where there was garbage covered over with plastic? 

What process am I currently engaged in? Where is my soul heading? How can I be kind to it as it transforms? How can I be more patient, more understanding?

Oh, I’m checking email again. There’s a feeling in my stomach too. Is it loneliness?

Let me remind you – real change is slow. Deep down transformation – not the change of affirmations and stuck-on smiles. For it to happen, we need to get out of the way. It’s counter-intuitive, I know. But it’s a great relief. We can hand it all over, and get on with the job in front of us. Do the washing up. Call a friend. Write in your journal. Weed the garden. Chop wood, carry water. 

In the meantime, you do not have to be good.

True grace comes when we let go of this endless self-building project and allow the love of the universe to enter us. It’s just there – take your eyes off yourself for a minute and you’ll start to feel it.

Deep bow _/\_

(PS This post is from my archives, but it feels like it could have happened last week! Change is slow… and change has happened.)

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And here is Mary Oliver reading the beautiful poem from which the title of this email is taken. Much gratitude to her, for her luminous and loving presence in the world. 

Do you need a sacred conversation?

mugs of teaRecently I’ve had some complicated interactions with people that have triggered all sorts of reactions in me, some of them strongly emotional.

So what’s new?! This seems to be how life is – we think we’ve solved a problem, things go quiet, and then a new complication rears its head. Sometimes it’s not new complications, but old patterns that come back over and over and over again.

How do we work with these tricky situations? Where we don’t know what to do about a relationship, when we get stuck with our creative work, when we can’t make sense of what’s going on, where we feel powerless?

I’m lucky enough to have several sacred spaces in my life where I can look at these complications. Every Sunday we gather together in the shrine room and share from our hearts. I’ve just finished a year’s worth of therapy (over my life I’ve dipped in and out of therapy when I need to). I write in a journal. I do Buddhist practice. I have a supervisor who helps me look at tangles or confusions with my clients. I have supportive conversations with Kaspa.

What all these spaces have in common is a taking care, a respect of the people involved including me. I might do a little bit of moaning or blaming in these spaces to let off steam, but mostly I’m interested in what I’m contributing to the situation, what I can change from my own side, and what I have to hand over to the other person and learn to live with. They are safe spaces, where I can allow myself to become a little vulnerable. They are spaces where I can move towards honesty, and clarity follows.

Do you have enough sacred space in your life? Where could you find more?

If you’d like to book some sacred space with me, I have a couple of Skype slots for coaching, psychotherapy or supervision at the moment – read more by clicking on the words or get in touch to see if we can find a time that works for both of us.

Go gently.

 

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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Journaling January – special  offer price for Journaling Our Way Home e-course – sign up now and pay just £9.99 or $11.99, instead of the usual price of £19.99 or $24.99

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.