“When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for those two insomnias!
And the difference between them.”
Last night, awake with the stars and the moon, I was reminded of this Rumi poem about sleeplessness. Then this morning on the beach, a question arises in the group.
“Why is the sky blue?”
I’ve been told the answer many times, but fail to retain the information. The scientist amongst us tells me again, yet after descriptions of particles and light and wavelengths, still his words land on “just because.”
I like “just because”. I like the mystery of it. I don’t have to understand the is-ness of everything, but I do love to experience it. It pleases me, this falling off the edge of logic, into, I suppose, pysche. Falling off mind into soul.
The space that opens up in these inbetween days can be either scary or freeing, depending on view, current inclination and perhaps beliefs. In essence, Buddhists might call it emptiness, but it is anything but empty. The unknown is full of potential. Perhaps is it our lack of control that is troubling? Mystery demands that we surrender and, as Rumi points out, our ability to do this can be the difference between comfort and distress, between heaven and hell.
In April, in order to find comfort I may be asked to surrender deeper to the mystery.
The tree outside my window waits patiently for the dawn. It welcomes the rain, stands quiet while the snow falls. Today, I want to be this tree, calmly accepting what comes. It is the third day of retreat and time to turn even more inward.
As we head to the beach to meet with our small group, I’ve forgotten what day it is, something familiar to many people during this time out of time. Together, we ponder the nature of time – described beautifully by Satish Kumar as the clock time we adhere to in order to make our appointment, and the dream time we can sink into once we arrive. These holy days are an opportunity to explore more deeply the dream time.
I stand waist high in the sea, legs slowly numbing to the cold, face turned up to the sun. Gesturing to the shore, I call, “take a picture!” In my mind’s eye, there’s an image of calm water and human forebearance, but the photo that intrigues me most is of a fishing boat, backlit against a clear horizon. I don’t eat fish, but somehow this small vessel tells of the same endurance as the tree as it waits, nets outstretched, open to the elements.
March 2019 will have the watch words patience, endurance and forebearance, but inspiration may come from unexpected places.
As soon as I wake, I’m looking for signs, but outside the window is still and quiet. Ordinary. Just the distant sound of a tractor breaking up stony ground, reminding me that Spring comes early here. We’re heading out on a hike and I stretch my calf muscles in preparation, but there’s no stretch I can do for the tightness in my mind. Not grumpy, exactly, but wound up and in. The sun holds promise on top of hills, but for ages we walk in a valley, still and quiet and cold. Camino pilgrims three, we fall into easy rhythm.
We all want a bit of magic, don’t we? But clinging so hard makes it difficult for magic to appear. I have a vision of grabbing the throat of somebody whilst begging them to speak. Rounding a corner, I spy white feathers on the ground and next to them, a pool of black feathers. It feels significant, but how?
The day unfolds and just at our destination, a restaurant. Portuguese, like our camino. A moment where life shows herself to be not only precise, but amusing! Back in town, we bump into a friend, then two more, to whom we offer a lift. After a long day out, the cat is pleased to see us home.
Don’t be in a rush to force #February to give up her secrets. Stay balanced, putting one foot in front of the other. Trust that what you need will show up – perhaps with a sense of humour! Know that you have friends and support, should you need it.
“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!
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?
We start early, woken by the keen energy of other Camino pilgrims and greeted outside by a star, falling through crisp, dark sky. Since we began our walk, the moon has waned from a full, bright round to craggy quarter. A dirt road takes us around lanes, between village homes still quiet with sleep, until we reach an intersection where a highway, already busy at this early hour, leads us precariously onward. Spooked by huge trucks passing at fierce speed, we’re relieved to see the beckoning lights of a cafe, countertop replete with warm empanadas, fresh croissants and an almond cake named for Saint Santiago. As we offer our credential booklets for the pligrim’s stamp I wonder, are cafes the new churches?
Although there is some sadness in this being the final section in our Camino Way, my feet will be glad to finish. These past few days, I’ve been walking with the assistance of efficient painkillers that I’m pretty sure were not available to the first pilgrims in mediaeval times. Blisters upon blisters upon blisters. Ouch. I blame the asphalt roads – hard and unyielding to human feet. There are too many of these for me. I prefer the quiet of forests which, being full of eucalypts, are achingly reminiscent of our time in the forests of Tasmania. Imported to control erosion and as fast-growing timber, eucalypts are causing havoc in Portugal, covering up to 7% of the land. As in Australia, they make great fuel for forest fires, and as climate change ramps up the summer temperatures, both these countries are re-considering how to manage these magnificent trees.
Stepping aside from the path, we lie down on dry, sweet-smelling leaf litter and gaze up through the cathedral of trees to a denim blue patch of sky. After a scramble for beds at the auberge on the first two days, we took the decision from then on to book ahead and skip the stress. After all, what Way does not include time to stand and stare? In addition to soulful wayside dreamings, my companions and I make time for daily reflections. These practices add richness and meaningfulness to our journey – an inner element to weave alongside the outer scenery.
During the tough bits, I plugged one ear into my i-pod and listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent iridescently imagines rural Ireland in the 1800s when the local “doctress” – a local medicine woman – finds her ‘old ways’ outlawed by the church. Treading these ancient Galician pathways graced with autumn fruits and nuts, elderberries, blackberries and hedgerow mint, I am reminded how the land holds so many cures for our ills and how women were mostly the ones who held the knowledge of how to use them. It was a male-dominated clergy who helped push them out and a patriarchal university system which monopolised the medical profession to which women – no matter how skilled or priviliged – were not admitted. What was I doing then, walking along a Christian pilgrim route? And amongst the masculine icons, where were the peregrinas – the symbols of female power? I sit quietly in a wayside chapel to contemplate this, but am interrupted by a babble of pilgrims, bustling into the chapel to take pictures and gather a stamp for their Camino credencial. Once again I question – what am I doing here, hoping for a spiritual experience at a time when the spiritual path has been replaced by the route to the next coffee shop?
The following morning, we arrive in Pontevedra, its ancient town centre now lauded for extensive pedestrianisation. Walking the quiet streets, we are drawn into a rounded church where, to my surprise, the image of a woman gazes down at us from the vestry. The frieze above her depicts a donkey on which rides a pregnant woman. In this way, the elegant Capela da Virxe Peregrina seems to answer my question.
During the final three days, I ask my social media community to help me find purpose in my walk. “Walk for all those who can’t”, one says. “For equality and justice.” “For love”. “For justice for refugees.” “For the Earth.” Walking with these prayers in mind, a warmth spreads through my heart and for a while, I am able to forget my own sore feet.
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!