It’s that time of year when we need to face winter square on. As time has passed I am getting better at preparing for my least favourite season. I realised a few years ago being in denial about winter is not helpful and creates more suffering. So instead these days I embrace winter – I dig out my winter coat and start wearing warm clothes as I know it will help me accept that it’s here – those dark long (frequently grey and wet) British winter months are part of my life, just like summer is and so I need to celebrate the arrival of winter as best I can.
At my allotment after a bumper crop of apples, middling crop of pumpkins and disappointing crop of spuds I have now cleared the decks ready for winter. My moto during a busy term this autumn has been to visit the plot little and often. I have been rocking up to the plot at 4pm on a Sunday sometimes – clearly in denial that, since the clocks went back, I will only get half an hour at best but actually quite enjoying this.
By making it so time limited I get to keep on top of things but not miss out on family life (no one else can be tempted to accompany me now the weather has turned). And today I finished weeding one last raised bed and then got the satisfaction of covering three raised beds in readiness for spring. All cleared of weeds, I covered it in thick black membrane, so each bed is now tucked up away from the cold, like an animal hibernating until the weather gets better.
There are two active beds still – for garlic and broad beans (yet to be planted) and a few odd jobs that mainly involve lopping (the apple tree and the fruit bushes) but aside from that I feel like I have cleared out for winter. This morning as I thought of that line I was reminded of a Rumi poem we use when teaching mindfulness that I had read the day before at a silent practice session and the lines about ‘clearing you out for some new delight’ resonated as I cleared the decks for winter, knowing this act means I am also, in a way, preparing for new life and spring.
The Guest House
Translated by Coleman Barks
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’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
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 whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
It’s often said that when we start to practice mindfulness we wake up to our lives. So it’s seems right to also say that when we lose mindfulness it can often feel like everything is a bit hazy, like being asleep. But with regular practice we come through the haze and gain awareness once more.
For many years I have tried to practice mindfulness with varying degrees of success. At first I was holding the commitment too loosely, if I have time I have time, really taking that gentle message a bit too close to heart. Then when training to be a teacher there was rigidity: must. practice. every. day. And this was useful, this was necessary but it really isn’t a boot camp.
Now I feel I hold the practice in my life with the right amount of lightness and commitment, the rigidity has softened and I can be flexible with whatever each day brings. Some days, like today, I get a glorious stretch of space in which to practice for an hour undisturbed. But in reality this might only happen twice a week. The other days will be a mixed bag – 40 minutes here, 30 minutes there – each day. Sometimes I can do that all at once, other times it might be 2 or 3 slots of 10 minutes.
Whatever form it takes I find it all equally beneficial and welcome whatever I can manage each day. Letting go of should’s or any sense of guilt is a very liberating part of the practice. Each moment spent meditating is a moment of real wakefulness, constantly interrupted by the haze of thoughts, thinking and busy minds. But that is the practice – we fall asleep and then we wake up. Again and again.
Today’s total practice time: 30 minutes movement, 30 minutes seated practice.
As a dyslexic I have often relied on to do lists and being super organised to get me through the working week. Being organised isn’t a natural default setting for most dyslexics and so it is something I have had to cultivate over time. This can lead to a rather rigid approach to life that for me feels rather unnatural.
A while back I started toying with the idea of letting go of to-do lists, and instead embarked on the idea of doing things as the need arises. It’s been about three months since I ventured down this experimental path and I can report back that life has been more chaotic than usual. I have been late for things, something us perfectionist dyslexics who have spent a lifetime cultivating strategies to hide their dyslexia, find really difficult. I have forgotten things. And as for a Christmas shopping list – forget it, it all went free form this year.
The surprising thing about all of this though is that none of the above stressed me out, I found myself bathing in the chaos and quite enjoying it. I knew things seemed a shambles at times but I somehow managed to meet it with a friendly curiosity. How do I feel when I am not quite so in control? How late, chaotic and shambolic can I let things get?
It’s really healthy and a big part of the MBCT course to nudge ourselves out of our comfort zones. So often that gets translated as eating a curry when really we want chips, which is a great place to start but as a practice can we allow ourselves to go deeper with this and start to challenge the very way we interact with and meet the world?
I like to present as calm, competent and in control and I used to feel discombobulated if I couldn’t present that side of myself to the world. But letting go of to do lists has helped me embrace the chaos that is life, especially life with two young(ish) kids.
I bought the kids a book called ‘beautiful opps’ which teaches every mistake is a chance to learn and grow. I’ve been battling against the chaos of parenthood for a long time but now I feel ready to embrace the mess and the chaos, confident it won’t completely submerge me.
As I finished off my Christmas shopping today – yes the 23rd December – amid the crowds that would normally have annoyed me while I cursed myself for leaving it so late, I found myself instead doing a wry smile and wishing all the lastminute.com shoppers like myself well, us chaos prone types need to stick together!
Today’s total practice time: None so far but I plan to hide in the kitchen at some point and do 10 minutes breath meditation!
I came out of retreat more than two weeks ago, blinking like a mole in daylight for the first time. Travelling through London on the tube at rush is almost too surreal an experience after five days of silence and stillness. Suffice to say it felt slightly psychedelic, like the colours and noise were cranked up just a little too much.
The retreat itself was a delight. It was very different to any retreat I had done before. I found myself comparing it to previous experiences and finding it didn’t quite measure up. It was too short, too easy and too still and yet I knew it was exactly the right retreat for me at that moment. I found myself judging the Qigong (often with the words ‘this is so lame’ ringing in my mind), unspoken they felt all the louder.
I arrived late and was put on lunchtime pot washing detail for my work hour which meant I was out of sinc with most other retreatants and I lamented not getting that lazy lunch hour that was such a celebrated part of my previous retreat.
For some of the time I was holding on to that previous retreat, remembering one sunny afternoon when after a lovely veggie lunch a load of us lazed around on the grass in the sunshine. People I would never see again, many of whom’s names I didn’t know, and yet in that moment I felt so utterly and wordlessly connected to them. It was pure joy.
By day 3 I shed the old retreat and made friends with this present one. It was a much easier retreat in many ways, for a start I had only one room mate (not three) and she didn’t snore or use the toilet twice each night. I was sleeping well, I came out of the retreat feeling more revived not less.
And the Qigong was pretty still and I struggled with that – with boredom, with stiffness and restlessness. But it gave me so much to work with. I had to be with the body and all its aches and pains, whether I wanted to be or not. I had to do the dull movements for eight hours each day because I was there and I might as well take part. And I grew to love them and the breath works we were taught.
Two weeks later, even though life has been one busy blur since coming home, I still do those movements and the breath work everyday and my practice has never felt more stable.
Today’s Total Practice Time: 1 hour (Qigong, movement and breath work)
At the risk of sounding akin to a celebratory hypnotist, ‘the power of mindfulness’ has become something of a catch phrase in my house. As my practice deepens and I draw on mindfulness more and more to steer me through everyday life I find myself saying well of course of, it’s all thanks to the mindfulness that I did this or didn’t do that. In short, that I am breaking through overused and very old, tired behavior patterns.
For many of us who practice there is that sense of (while being very kind to yourself and living in the moment and not dwelling in the past as best you can) why didn’t I take this more seriously many years ago? A few courses ago I had a very youthful participant and I found myself thinking how wonderful : to be so in touch with yourself at such a young age.
The video clip that the Mindfulness in Schools project made recently shows this so clearly as year 8 children say sagely, it’s only ten minutes, you might as well do it. How wonderful to be in the habit of mindfulness at such a young age, the closing comments from the teacher sums it up, I wish I’d been taught this at school (my words not hers)!
But I also know that at what ever age participants come to mindfulness, it is rarely a life skill that one regrets acquiring.