There is a moment, fruity and hazy-afternooned, just before the sun loses its heat and falls out of the marmalade-smeared sky, when I am stopped. Arms scratched and itching from the day’s garden toil. Tweaks of sharp discomfort here and there, yet still a sigh of deep contentment escapes.
I sit on my haunches, rabbit-like and watchful. The cat picks his way over broken soil and in one leap, alights to the bannister in a clear request for food. I oblige, seizing a stolen moment to boil the kettle for tea. In a short while, tools will be downed and I will tear Husband away from his newly-planted trees and towards the cosy evening. Lemon, orange and mandarin. Tangy grapefruit and dark, sweet plums. Into this timeless pause, the citrus-blossom scented future falls.
What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. T.S. Eliot
Almond blossom in January marks the beginning of Spring in Catalunya and today it shows itself, just as we come to the end of The Omen Days. Looking ahead to December, we see the cycle of the year laid out, beginning and ending catching the tail of one another in a cosmic spiral.
And so it is with our little sangha as we end this time-out-of-time together, but not exactly as we planned. Our nine-year old teacher is in bed with flu, so we set up an online meeting, some gathered in one place, some in another. This ending, successfully and joyfully executed, proves to be a way forward. A way to keep supporting each other during the coming year and a way to bring in other sangha friends, both near and far. Perhaps one day you will join us…
In December, may we look back on the year gone by and appreciate the cycle of life, the spiral of spiritual process and the strength of community.
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.
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.
Whilst writing this post, I stumbled across the work of Geraint Rhys, a Welsh singer songwriter who has recorded a great anthem-like song, Visca la Terra. He translates this phrase, often associated with radical independentistas, as “Bless this Land”. Whatever we feel about the politics, we of the smaller nations cannot help but see ourselves reflected in these struggles to be seen and heard.
So it is that I find myself a sunny beach, with the first chill of winter in the air, meditating in solidarity with those striking over the independence question in Catalunya. As foreigners in this land, we may not feel the pain of what is happening as deeply as those who call themselves Catalan, or those who consider themselves Spanish, or both. But what we can do is to listen without judgement. We can hear their stories and bear witness, as the sun and the sea bear witness to our meditation.
It was my friend Joe who recently used the word witness. Just two weeks ago, we were in Germany on a Mindfulness Teacher Training Course and I was interviewing him about his work as an activist. He was bearing witness, he said. And now here I am on a beach in Spain, holding a meditation group for peace in Catalunya. The word comes up in my mind and sticks, like a flag or a badge I can wave or wear. If I can do little else, I can bear witness.
We sit listening to the sea lap on a sunny shore, aware that the traffic is backed up all the way to the city, that public transport is severely disrupted, that many shops and offices are closed as part of the strike. “People were on the streets this morning as I took my son to school” said one woman. “The company I work for has banned us from talking about it.” said another. The idea of witnessing seems important to me, but it is only later that I reflect that it feels good for me to have found a role in this drama.
Last week, Joe wrote to ask how it is on the ground here. I gave him a comprehensive picture of life in our small village, just one hour south of Barcelona. “To be honest,” I said, “on the ground here for us, nothing has changed. Summer is cooling into Autumn. The vineyards around are turning red and golden. Yesterday a huge electric storm shot forks of lightning into the hills around our home, the sky cracking as if the world was breaking part. Nature is far more threatening than the Guardia Civil!”
I was joking, but it was true all the same. And all the same, I wrote, “It’s hard to escape the awareness that our Catalan friends are suffering. It’s been a traumatic time and emotions are being pulled at. Those of us with less rooted connections feel empathy, but also see that folk are being manipulated on both sides.”
When the idea of being a witness pops up, the thread of thought is inextricably linked to Joe, to the Agents of Change course and to the practice of mindfulness. For what is mindfulness but kind awareness? And what use is kind awareness if we cannot find a way to bring it into the service of others? Into the service of wellbeing of humans, animals and the natural world? Into the service of peace?
It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of. When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre. I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.
A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.
In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.
Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.