Thursday, 23 October 2014

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

I don't think I had realised how much in need of this break I was.  To realise something is to recognise it.  So, for whatever reason (and there are probably a few of those) I had avoided seeing it.  I developed an aptitude for 'ostrich-ing' some time ago.  I've come a long way, but it's still progress rather than perfection!

The last two days have been so deeply nourishing for mind, body and soul.  I have walked, and walked, and walked.  I could not stay in bed.  The waves called, and the sunshine beckoned.  I set off shortly after 7:30, and headed up the coast.  I almost had the beach to myself.  I encountered only a couple of joggers, one or two people making their way to work (what a commute!) someone busy with a metal detector, and someone else attending a poised fishing rod.  
I cannot remember the last time I walked barefoot on a beach.  It was heavenly.  Not too hot.  Certainly not too cold.  The temperature was better than clement.  And I felt deeply content.  In that moment, all was well.  For the first time in a very long time, I can truly say, I wanted for nothing.  In that moment, I breathed deeply, and discovered a sense of profound gratitude with which it has felt difficult to connect to in a while.

I am forever walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain
Khalil Gibran

Walking alongside the ocean is, for me, tremendously restorative.  Living in London I can, all too often, forget this.  I become detached from that part of me that needs to see the horizon.  That vast spaciousness both delights and grounds me.  The limitless scene and the ever changing nature of the waves as they meet and then depart the shoreline serve as vital reminder that nothing, ever, stays the same.

In this fleeting moment, what extravagant respite as Promethean sunsets blossom, blaze and secede from splendour to mystery.

In this fleeting moment, what extravagant respite, as booming surf speaks its mystical passage across the undreamed depths.

Raymond Persinger

Let me live in a house by the side of the sea,
Where men and women wander by
Where there is beauty and grace and excitement that's free
On the beach, in the sun let me lie
Let me listen to ocean's melodious roar
And its rhythm, so soothing to hear
As the foam-covered waves seem to reach for the shore
Under skies that are sunny and clear.

Joseph E. Brown

Sunday, 19 October 2014

In it together

It occurred to me whilst sitting in the departures lounge how very strange most of us looked as we prepared to board... Families, going on long awaited, and presumably much needed breaks, looking frantic and stressed.  Those travelling on business mostly looking mildly irritated that, like the rest of us, they would not be turning left as they got onto the aircraft.  I felt like a 'fly on the wall', quietly sitting there, observing this extraordinary scene.  

It's half term.  There are likely 400+ of us getting ready to spend nine and a half hours together.  We will, all of a sudden, be sharing a space and the oxygen within it as we cruise at 35,000ft.  Yet, beyond the members of our immediate party, we are unlikely to know another's name at the end of the flight.  On thinking about it, this strikes me as peculiarly strange.  We are, for the time that we are airborne, a community, and yet few beyond the cabin crew perhaps are thinking along these lines.  I wonder what difference it might make, were we to do so...

How strange is this combination of proximity and separation. 
 That ground - seconds away - thousands of miles away.  
Charles A. Lindbergh

The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing.  The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together.  
Bill Gates

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


A recent visit to see my mother went surprisingly well.  Such occasions have become rare, and for these happier times I am most grateful.  The afternoon was shared with a couple of dear friends, whom she has known for over 30 years.  The impact of their presence cannot be overstated and, if I have learnt anything of late, it has been to bring along with me the past, and leave behind any reference to the present.  

They having not seen Mum for several years, I spent the our journey there pre-warning them both as to what we might find and who might, or might not, meet us as we arrived.  I am getting better at expecting the unexpected.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I have been forced to adjust by expecting very little of my visits.  I am not, nor do I wish to ever be, a gambler, but I now know the odds involved and have worked out that, these days, they're rarely in my favour.  

As it happened, that afternoon she could not have been on better form... There she was, alone in her room, sitting in her chair, facing the window which overlooks a magnificent copper beech.  Her eyes were closed, as they now so often are.  She was dozing.  On stirring, she not only recognised me, but seemed delighted to behold me as I stood there, tentatively greeting her before announcing the company I brought with me.

She recognised them both and, as we sat down with the cups of tea (in plastic beakers) brought to us by helpful staff who buzz around whenever I visit, proceeded to respond to each of the multiple references from the 'good old days'.  People, places, and things all came to mind.  Our interactions were calm and blissfully uncontentious.  

Within moments of hearing, and apparently absorbing, that we'd travelled up together, she insisted we leave.  We were dismissed.  "You are bricks for coming", she said.  Again, and again.  She repeated this, a known (though long forgotten, having not been heard for some time) term of endearment.  They knew well what it meant.  And received it as such.

For, to be called a brick, is high compliment indeed.

This year, I have got to know who the bricks in my life are.  I am fortunate to have a few.  My friendships are the cement that, often times, hold me together.

Those visits that do not go so smoothly have a knack of ripping me apart at the sides.  I need bricks, and I cannot help but depend on mortar of the highest quality.  Resilience comes from within but must, I think, be supported and sustained by others.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Uninvited Guests

The Introduction to Mindfulness courses I run continue to attract the attention of diverse groups looking to explore the benefits they might derive from mindfulness meditation.  I am currently teaching the fourth 4 week course I have taught this year and have thoroughly enjoyed the journey thus far.  

The first half of any course often feels like an uphill struggle for those coming to mindfulness for the first time.  Those I teach are commonly struck by the effort involved in placing attention on a particular object, and sustaining that attention.  Whilst intention is rarely lacking, mindfulness is not often something people experience as easy.

But it is reasonably straight forward.  The discussions that follow the practices reveal several key themes that run throughout the programme and by the time we approach the middle of the course, many of these feel familiar.  The basic vocabulary has been mastered, and the understanding begins to deepen.

Which isn't to say that the difficulties disappear.  Far from it.  The closer we look, the more we see.  And the more sharply those patterns of mind that are apt to drag us down come into focus.

I never tire of reading The Guest House, and considering with the group, the enduring relevance of Rumi's words...

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jelaluddin Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks).  

My most recent reading of the poem revealed a new dimension that I had not previously given thought to.  The idea of the persona adopted by a host when entertaining.  

To open one's home to guests may well involve a degree of planning and preparation.  Taking their needs into account may well prompt an expectant host to get ready and, in so doing, make alterations or adjustments, which will depend on the nature or duration of the anticipated sojourn.  

Supplies may be obtained, to ensure adequate refreshment is available to offer to guests.  Cleaning or tidying may take place.  

What happens will, of course, depend on who is coming.  

And herein lies the point I happened across in class:  we adapt in anticipation to a mindset, or an emotional experience.  And this adaptation may or may not be skillful, or helpful to us in the long run.  

For those of us who have a relationship with depression, we may be able to recall what it was we did, when we last felt an episode looming.  

For those of us for whom anxiety is a familiar visitor, we may remember what it was that happened as we saw it approaching and making its way up the garden path.  

It occurs to me that depending on our relationship with a particular thought or emotional weather pattern, we may react differently to their arrival - and that this response may itself influence the experience of its onset. 

Rumi's invitation, to treat each 'guest' honourably is indeed a radical aspiration and one that might cause us to baulk at the idea.  This even-handedness towards all of our experience, no matter how unwanted, is an ideal.  And even the most tentative movement in the direction of equanimity will likely lead to a wholly different house party.  

You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you 
as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you 
as by the way your mind look at what happens.  
Khalil Gibran