Today is a free day, meaning that our little group chose not to meet on the beach together, but to have an unscheduled day. It’s a well-known phenomenon that too much discipline makes us rebel, so it’s wise to build in some free time before the pressure builds. In Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village, for instance, once a week they have a Lazy Day, where the community is encouraged to rest and focus on being, not doing. So how is it, after my ‘free’ day, that I feel less free?
The Buddha is clear that the only ‘freedom of mind’ is a worthwhile goal for our spiritual practice. Not ‘gain or honour or fame, nor the attainment of virtue, meditative concentration, knowledge or vision.’ (From the Discourse on the Simile of the Heartwood – thanks to Ulla Koenig)
At the end of the day, other members of our group report that they have had an ‘off’ day, that they have missed the gathering of sangha, that the day has been ‘ordinary.’ On this, at least, we are in sync!
What does it take, then, to make our days extraordinary? What does an ‘on’ day feel like? And what is so special about the gathering of sangha? This is a question I will take into #nature… A question I will discuss with the group when we meet tomorrow… And a question in which I invite you to take part…
In November, I may feel a little lost. Can I remember, then, to reach inside and outside of myself for understanding, to turn to my sangha for answers, and to open to the wisdom of my tribe?
(See previous posts for more info about this practice of The Omen Days.)
“Make a list!” she says. It’s our nine-year-old teacher again, asking us to note what we love to do. Children seem connected to play in a way we adults forget. It’s the last day we will meet on the beach. Tomorrow is a rest day and on Sunday, we will complete The Omen Days together with a silent walk in the forest and a picnic. We discuss how to create a container for our practice. One which is connected to what we love to do. After all, if there is noy joy, what motivation will there be to meditate?
As work and life commitments gather pace, it’s easy for the ‘ordinary’ world to suck up all the attention. How can we make every day a ‘holy day’?
In October, I may need to reminded what it is I love to do, and how to integrate this into both my life and my meditation practice.
Surfers ride on the energy of water, but it is air that powers the waves – a wind out at sea that creates swell. Today I have watery energy, relaxed but needing some breeze beneath my wings. So it’s great when one of our group holds a short movement practice before we sit to meditate and for a while, I can let go the reins and be led by the momentum of another.
Taking some time to sit alone, I watch light fall over the scrubland beyond our home. Breath slows, stillness pooling, when from nowhere, a dragonfly appears, finely laced wings shining golden in the setting sun. Her lower jaw moves rhythmically as she chews on a freshly-caught insect and then suddenly, she takes flight, plucks another soul out of the emptiness and lands back in front of me, munching.
In the shamen world, dragonfly’s quick and graceful movements indicate freedom and creativity, while their transparent wings are a sign of clarity and clear knowing. That this one sits still, feeding, reminds me to eat wisely and efficiently, taking care with my energy.
In September, while my vision may be clear, I might be glad of some extra motivation with creative projects.
(See previous post for information about The Omen Days practice of divining for the year ahead.)
As we head towards the finish line, there can be a loss of concentration and we can lose the flow. Climbers are more likely to fall on the descent. Drivers more likely to have an accident near their destination. Creative practitioners make more mistakes as they reach the final stretch of a project. And today, we find our minds wandering off into the coming year, more planning than meditating. Along with some anxiety, tension creeps into my body and I have to concentrate harder to bring myself back to the resting place of presence.
There’s a chilly wind, though the sun is shining as it has been throughout The Omen Days. On the beach, we huddle together, a bigger group of us this morning, offering each other shelter from the harsher elements. Come August, will we be glad of the protection of community?
New year. Warm fire. Cold air. Cold sea. Warm sun. Elements balanced as we summit the midpoint of The Omen Days. It suddenly seems appropriate that New Year is the climax of the Twelve days of Christmas. That we begin on twenty-sixth of December and end on sixth of January. Today, this Celtic practice feels ancient.
Sustained practice brings results as insight emerges. The biologist experiencing oneness as he contemplates how the atoms and molecules of people and places are universally shared. How plant growth depends on both darkness and light – on soil and on sunshine.
Seeds planted now will likely be harvested in July, but we shouldn’t worry if they need a little more time. In my garden, I have chili peppers planted last January that are still fruiting!
Retreats are a wonderful time out of time, but daily meditation adds magic to ordinary life. Diving into wintry water, members of our community emerge joyful into bright sun. We are thankful for deep connection. To ourselves, to nature and to each other.
“Tongues in trees,
Books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
As you like it – William Shakespeare
Day breaks gray, swirling mist clambering icy over hills. The world is newly woken, still in confusion of half-sleep, cloaked in beloved mystery. Invisible from this side of the house, jays announce themselves with loud screeching and moments later, in rushful flurry, a flock of starlings pass, swooping low and then high, silent except for flap of collective wing. These birds know where they are going, clear in the determination and confidence of group action. After a minute or two, the birds pass by again and I think of the way that sometimes, we get a second bite of the cherry. An opportunity we thought missed does come again, if only we can stay alert to the patterns of return.
At the beach, sun waits atop a bank of moulded cloud. Already one layer of clothing can be peeled away. Perhaps we will swim, after all. Our small group collects itself, minds tuning to the sound of waves, sensations of heat and cool on what skin shows. Appearing as those shielded from recognition, hoods protect from breeze but also from fierce sunshine. In former times, we would surely have burned for these activities!
Nature beheld, divining from forms appearing and disappearing is a lost art, but one we intend to practice. Paddleboarders with movements of ancient sea-goers. Digging dogs, sand sprayed wide under frantic paws mimics the fruitless pain of human over-activity. Or is it joyful abandon? We see ourselves reflected, fears and hopes writ large on our perceptions. The swim is less of a swim and more of a dipping, a dunking. No ducking stool, no outward agency, we act with free will, curiousity diving for unseen wisdom.
Later, after food and nap, light warms the mountains and treetops sing with companionship. Altogether, the day speaks of shrouded silence in solitude and retreat. Veiled mystery followed by gathering with intent. Hidden direction in early January may yet emerge in purposeful movement.
(See previous post for an explanation of the Celtic practice of The Omen Days)
I’m not sure if I’m a fan of Christmas but I do love fairy lights and I love bringing red plants like cyclamen and poinsettia into my home at this time of year. In folk lore, cyclamen is said to increase self esteem, love and protection. It has a brightness that speaks of happiness and hope. I love how Yuletide can conjure an air of enchantment, bringing magic to the mundane, but this mystical awakening is available every day, when I am able to slow down enough to let nature speak. This year, after a bumper harvest , I can also add threads of red hot chili peppers to the decorations!
As well as the warmth of cosy fireside and roasting chestnuts, I do feel internal pressure from a few too many social events. It’s lovely to connect with friends and family, but winter also signals a turning inward, a pause in time and space inviting reflection. There is some agitation, too, when I am asked to “set intentions” and while I’ve no doubt that making single-pointed wishes can be successful, I wonder, how can I leave space for the unexpected? The magical? The divine? When I loosen the grip on my wishes, I feel a welcome sense of leaning back, relaxation and even relief. Do I have to “get” everything I want during the coming year? What if I don’t know what I want?
Since arriving in Spain three years ago, I’ve felt a lot less clear about where life is taking me. This is very challenging! Turbulent political situations make future plans uncertain and our ecological landscape portends disaster. My spiritual practice has slowed to a kind of paso a paso approach, but what a delight it can be to live in the slow lane. The hard work of renovating our small casita home is almost complete and increasingly, I just want to remain really still and let life come to me.
In establishing a way of being that destroys neither us nor the earth we on which we depend, a transition has to be made. So many of us, like the earth, are running on empty. Over ten years of the Living in the Future project, we’ve told many stories involving outer transition – towards affordable, sustainable homes and vibrant communities. But outer transition is inevitably accompanied by inner transition and as well as enjoying stories about ecovillages and low impact living, I thrive on deep work around inner transformation.
New from Living in the Future in 2019
In an attempt to help facilitate this inner shift, in 2019 you can expect online group meditations from Living in the Future, offering support and community for the inner journey. We also have an upcoming book publication which straddles this inner/outer divide. If you have time over the holy days, take some personal space to discover our existing guided meditations on Insight Timer and for a unique Solstice celebration, I invite you to join our little group on the beach in Spain!
Wishing you all a Happy Yuletide and a Peaceful New Year.
Helen and the Living in the Future Team
PS. Use the YULE18 to claim 50% off Living in the Future online films.
What stories are you telling yourself today? What are you reading, hearing, thinking about, and passing on? If you started your day with newspapers – whether print or online, it’s likely you were bombarded with bad things that have happened. For me, wildfire, murder and political chaos dominate my headlines today and while it’s possible that my social media feed offers some light-hearted relief, I might need to scroll past the shouting in order to find it. In this kind of environment, it’s no wonder our mental health is suffering. Hope is an emotion that lifts heart and mind, but in a world smothering in greed, hatred and mounting CO2, hope is fast disappearing.
So when I got a call to help edit a film for the Permaculture Association about a programme of theirs called Thriving Communities, I leapt at the chance to be part of a different story. The film brings together clips from projects around the UK using permaculture principles to address community needs. Though permaculture is often thought be only relevant for rural dwellers, many Thriving Community projects are urban- based, showing that the values of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share are relevant, practical and can make a difference just about anywhere.
Contrary to popular understanding, permaculture is much more than gardening, though growing food is a good place to start. Planting and nurturing seeds brings us into relationship with the earth and if we do it in a group, with other people as well. What’s more, it’s hard to miss the parallels between our own well-being and that of the plant, so growing food is educational as well as nutritional. Somehow, in addition to looking after soil and seedlings, we end up looking after ourselves, too.
Living in the Future has always been about telling positive stories, but we need them more than ever now, as the clock counting down towards runaway climate change and species extinction ticks relentlessly towards ground zero. In the face of this, taking personal action can seem like an overwhelming task. Sorting the recycling, whilst important, seems too small a response.
Given the enormity of the task we face, you may be drawn to take part in some way in the growing protest movement that is Extinction Rebellion. Organised on a grass roots level by activists calling time on government apathy and inaction, XR invites contributions in all sorts of ways, from engagement in non-violent direct action and associated support roles, to writing, artwork, and more contemplative practices. The question for us personally might be – how can I express my own response to this devastating global situation, in a way that feels both possible and sustainable? For instance, as I write this, my email is pinging notices from companies advertising Black Friday deals – is there a way we can make seasonal giving more earth and people-friendly? Can we show our love without buying more unwanted and unnecessary stuff?
As our leaders charge headlong and blindfolded towards who knows what, my own experience of grief, anxiety and disempowerment has led me deeper into my own spiritual practice. Gardening is undoubtedly a part of this. Movements like the Permaculture Association and the Transition Network have long recognised that as well as positive actions, the alignment of our outer/inner worlds is an important and crucial part of the work and storytelling can really help with this. By bringing our expectations more in line with reality and suggesting new ways of dealing with challenges, stories help align our inner and outer worlds, helping us move more easefully through times of change.
So let me ask again, what stories are you telling yourself today?
In the Anglo-Saxon calendar, September is known as Hāligmonath, or “holy month,” when traditionally, people came together to celebrate the bounty of summer. I remember Harvest Festival from my childhood, bringing ripe plums and crisp apples to school and church, piling them up on the table amongst pumpkins and sunflowers. I was thinking about this last week whilst clearing and tidying our garden beds. After the crazy abundance of July and August, it’s satisfying to see things clear and fresh again, but it’s also time for taking stock – what worked really well for us this year and what might need re-thinking? In gardening, as in life, you tend to get out what you put in and once again, we’re considering which vegetables and fruits give the best value for our time and money. This summer, aside from the reliable abundance of tomatoes, we’ve been lucky with the squash family – not only courgettes but also pumpkins, butternuts and delicious, sun-ripened melons. As a result, we’re looking forward to an autumn of soups, tarts and warm salads, generously sided with this year’s chutneys and relishes.
Gardening as a spiritual practice
Gardening is often used as an analogy for inner work. Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hahn has this to say :
“When I am experiencing a difficult feeling, I often choose to bring to mind a beautiful, positive memory to comfort me and to water the seeds of hope in my consciousness.”
Back in my own garden, whilst pulling up deep, far-reaching weeds, I contemplate how I need to keep working at the root causes of anger and fear, preparing the ground for the seeds of peace and contentment. One of my teachers, Christopher Titmuss, has a meditation he likes to do with children. Holding a biscuit, he asks the children to tell him where the biscuit came from. Initial responses are obvious. “From the packet”, “from the shop” or maybe, if they are lucky, “from the oven.” If the biscuits are home made, it might be easy to see who put the ingredients together, but they still need to look deeper to identify the work of transporting the grain, making and selling the butter, shipping the sugar. Looking deeper still, they eventually see the farmers, but even deeper inquiry shows them the earth, the sun and the rain. Growing food gives us this kind of connection on a daily basis, along with a healthy dose of humility when attempting to manage the elements of sun, rain and wind!
Here in Catalunya, harvest time means grapes. Last weekend, we took a meditation group to the vineyards and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering mindfully amongst rows of juicy fruit. When we came to taste the wine, we paused to remember the rich, red soil; the smell of ripe grapes and the many farmers who have tended the vines over generations. With focussed awareness, we were able to taste in the wine the lightness of air, the freshness of rain and the heat of summer sun. In addition to feelings of joy and gratitude, we were able to connect with our own deep knowing – sowing seeds of hope and wisdom for when we next meet difficult times.
“Nowhere to go and two weeks to get there.” Meditation teacher Denis Robberechts smiles as he addresses a group of a hundred or so people, remembering the slogan on the side of the vans they used for transporting equipment for one of the first Dharma Yatras. This pilgrimage through French countryside is in its eighteenth year and the duration now 10 days, but the idea is the same. To walk with intention, but without destination.
On the penultimate day of the 2018 Dharma Yatra, I take time to talk to a few of the people I’ve met, asking them to tell me something of their experience. Around the kitchen table, a wooden bench structure under a large tarp walled by neatly labelled plastic containers, I meet up with Marÿke Hovenier, Anke Birkner and Trina Dillon. After a moment’s reluctance, they can’t really contain their enthusiasm for the yatra.
Nature and Silence
“I’ve been 5 times now.” says Marÿke. “I like to dive into nature and it gives me some entrance to meditation. For me it’s easy when I’m in nature like this to open up and to see some other things. In normal life, it’s difficult to really make that mix. It reminds me that nature really is that important for me, so it would be good for me to go in nature more…in my head I know, but I tend to forget. And it’s lovely to spend time in silence with other people. You can be on your own in silence but that’s a whole different thing.”
The Dharma Yatra fills up soon after bookings open each April and is popular with people of all ages. The youngest is a toddler of less than a year and amongst the eldest is one of the teachers, who is over seventy. What is its appeal?
Community and Simplicity
Trina is part of the kitchen crew and as a British person amongst many particpiants from France, Germany and elsewhere, she’s been my go-to contact for the cups of hot tea we British seem to need more than most. She agrees about the nature and silence and adds that the simplicity of life on the yatra is a big aspect for her. “You have less need for things, because you’re more nourished inside by nature, by the teachings, by the community.”
Anke is one of the teaching team. She is nodding energetically “I agree! I also crave less things. At home I’m much more like “Oh I should buy some chocolate now, but here, it’s not available and I actually don’t think about it. Because I know ok, now this is the time to eat, this is the time to do this and the rest covers my other needs.” Trina adds “I think that helps with going inside as well, because you have less distractions and less things to think about practcally. So then you can just dive inwards, with more ease.”
If you’re used to traditional silent retreats, you may be surprised by the amount of conversation that happens on this retreat. It’s partly this way becuause there are many families – there are twenty-two children amongst the participants – but also because discussion and depth of inquiry is a key part of the Insight tradition of meditation of which the teachers are a part. Though there are group meditation sessions, walking is the main practice and takes place in silence. We walk in a long snaking line, slowest at the front to set the pace. “I just feel much more with myself.” says Anke. “And I see much more, absorbing what’s around and not so distracted. My presence increases because everbody else is really attentively present. There’s more energy in it. In the outside world, people go walking together but talking. It’s different. You don’t get to see anything. You are not really there. You spend hours in the dunes and then, “ah yeah. Actually where am I?”
Nature as teacher
Some discussion about “the outside world” takes place and it’s true that over these 10 days, it has felt as though we are in our own little bubble. Meals are prepared and served on site and all infrastucture such as toilets and showers are organised by the on site crew. The group walks up to 8 hours every day, but engages little with people outside of the group beyond a passing “bonjour”. The look on some of the faces of local residents and farmers as 100 or more people file past their property is precious! I wonder aloud how some of this, of all the things we’ve been talking about could be brought a little more into the outside world.
“When we went for the sunrise walk this morning,”” says Trina, I was thinking that you don’t need to do anything because nature is the teacher. All you have to do is bring people to that place. It’s such a simple thing, even just to take people out for a day or a few hours, and it’s so powerful. You feel like you are bigger than your small self. You are part of something bigger.”
Photoset from the walk available below. Participants please feel free to download.
For commercial use, please contact me regarding permissions. Thanks!