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Radical Rest. It’s a theme that keeps recurring. It came up during a recent retreat I held with my friend Susie on the Gower Peninsular in Wales. It was a Retreat for women, and I do feel that women, the principal carers of the world, are mostly starved of rest. But then, we all are, these days. As one woman said during the weekend, “Animals know how to rest, just look at a cat! Have we clever humans forgotten that we are animals?” If we have, then I propose that perhaps we are not so clever after all and the current state of the planet – of this home that we rely on – backs that up. If we are paying attention at all at this time, we will be asking ourselves, what can we do to redress the balance?
How can we make a difference?
It can seem that nothing will make a difference. No amount of recycling or energy-saving or eating vegan or stopping flying will help. Especially not resting. How, with the world in such a state, can it be time to rest? Surely, it is time to ACT?
I propose that resting is EXACTLY what we need. That resting in and down and staying deep in the wisdom of the inner world will bring forth, when the time comes, a kind of action that is considered. An action infused with love and self-care and compassion and patience – qualities that are sorely missing from our fast-moving, hyper-active, no-time-to-waste modern world.
It’s time. Time to call enough. To feel the pull of the earth that brings us home to rest. Home to nurture ourselves and our tribe. What is ahead of us is unknown, but we can be sure of one thing. That it will be better met after a Radical Rest.
Leaving my house, I feel the breeze whip my hair across my face. In the treetops, a gusty wind plays, spinning leaves through the air like dangerous thoughts. What on earth did we invite, when we said we would do a ritual for grief?
I’ve been feeling out of sorts all day. Activated. Unable to focus. As though something is stirring in my deep self. When I finally get to speak to Cheryl, my co-host, she says she has been thinking of cancelling, so great is her own sense of disturbance. But as well as being a little scary, it is exciting. What’s the worst that could happen? That we might feel sad? Shed a few tears? And what is the best thing that could happen? Some form of liberation? We choose liberation over comfort.
Creating a Space
Over Cheryl’s garden, the sky hovers gray and foreboding. We consider gathering our circle inside and begin to move the chairs around, but I am drawn back to the trees. To the green grass and the billowing clouds. Nature is a part of this show and will not be excluded.
We set blankets on the cool ground and our centrepiece statue in place. Recently acquired, it is a sculpture of people standing together, holding each other in circle. Flat hands against each other bodies, they touch the heart chakra where it opens in the back of the body. It will be our emblem for this evening.
As women arrive, I find myself making my singing bowl sound a long, mournful note. Mentally, I am calling in the ancestors. Calling in the spirits of this place. Calling in all those who need to witness this happening. They float in silently, taking their seat in the circle.
Gathering with Intention
The details of this ritual ceremony are unimportant. We made them up, suiting them to our purpose. For we are orphans of spiritual practice. We have grown up in traditions depleted of meaning and have sought out significance in different places, different religions, in cultures other than our own. No matter. Our intention is to gather in service of our own inner path. To give voice to that which needs to speak. To listen faithfully to what is said. These intentions are what guides hand and heart.
At the end of the evening, we stand for a moment, mirroring the statue, holding each other in a sacred circle of trust and care, before heading inside to drink hot tea and eat cake. In this way, we follow the path of witches and shamans as they ground the energies of their practice and feed life, but really, don’t all good gatherings end with food and drink? The wisdoms we seek are grown within human bodies and cannot be known outside of our embodiment. About this simple fact, the Buddha was clear, but we are not only Buddhist, not only pagan. Following the Christian tradition of Maundy Thursday, we make an offering to charitable causes and I feel a profound awareness of the cycle of giving and receiving. Without opening to give, we remain closed to possibilities of receiving.
In bed that night, I feel my heart settle into a peacefulness that comes from knowing I have been met well. I have connected. With my own deep self, with my friends on this inner path and with Mother Nature herself. The wind has dropped. The trees are still. I sleep the sleep of the blessed.
“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.
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.
“‘Ratty, please, I want to row, now!’ The Rat shook his head with a smile. ‘Not yet, my young friend,’ he said – ‘wait till you’ve had a few lessons. It’s not so easy as it looks.’ “
On the fifth day of Christmas, a nine-year old encourages our practice by reading from ‘The Wind in the Willows’, while a man in full wet suit and wearing headphones listens intently for sounds of treasure on the sea bed. Lessons come from anyone and anything, if I take time to hear them. There are so many ways to tune the attention.
Deepening into the retreat, dreams speak loudly and the world is alive with synchronicities, but also, the shadow self shows up in all her hurt and brokenness. Am I brave enough to draw close, so she can also be a teacher?
In May, I might need courage to stay open to learning from life in unexpected ways.
For more information about this thread, visit my post on The Omen Days.
“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)
A Full Cold Moon on Solstice Eve. Warm fires, friends and inspiration. A little too much mulled wine…hic! After the merriment, it’s nice to settle in, cat purring soft in my lap. Christmas Eve marks the beginning of a period of real rest.
Last year, I discovered the Celtic tradition of using the days between Christmas and January 6th for divining signs and portents for the year ahead and enjoyed it so much that we are doing it again, taking this time for retreat and renewal. Caitlin Matthews tells us how “the Twelve Days of Christmas, which mark the intercalary days of the year, are called ‘the Omen Days,’ and they have a special purpose. ‘Intercalary days’ are the days left over from reckoning up the solar year and, in calendars throughout the world and at different times, they are special because they are considered to be ‘the days out of time.’
Follow my upcoming Omen Days journey and let’s share our insights for 2019!
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?
“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!