Tag Archives: retreat

clearing out for winter

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.
Jalaluddin Rumi

 

retreating

This is the time of year that many of us want to hunker down, switching off from work concerns and spending time with family.

So when I went off on retreat last week, leaving the kids to have their last week of school without me I did question my motivations. I had booked it up months ago, in the summer and back then it had seemed a move bordering on genius – going on retreat before all the Christmas madness kicks in, what’s not to love?

But of course the Christmas madness kicks in around late November so I was already in the thick of it when I left last week to Gaia House for a retreat on remembering the heart’s potential.

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I arrived one day early and had the whole house to myself near enough. I then maintained the silence as all the other participants arrived which made me feel a little out of kilter with the house but by the time the retreat started properly I was already very settled and ready to get the most out of the teachings.

There were moments of rich learning and everyday practical insights coupled with being in nature and in the silence, having time for awe and wonder at a robin tweeting nearby or a leaf falling from a tree. The simple pleasure of a hot cup of tea (with no biscuits or sugary treats) drunk outside on a crisp morning never ceases to be amongst my favourite moments when on retreat.

As I recounted some of my adventures in the mind and on retreat with my husband who had of course had a very different five days, single handedly looking after the kids, he said I don’t think I need to be in silence for five days to appreciate having a cup of tea outside. And to be fair neither do I. I love doing just that in my own garden or at the allotment but there is something very special about being on retreat. About being with people but not having to be anything for those people, about living alongside people in silence.

Top six things I realised in the silence:

  1. Do more yoga!
  2. Rediscover the body scan on a more regular basis (this was done everyday on retreat and I loved rediscovering it)
  3. Spend less time on line
  4. Spend more time with the kids
  5. Be generous
  6. Be brave

I’m not quite sure how the last 2 things will manifest. A whole new year awaits us after the winterval excitement passes by, so these are themes I will continue to explore in 2018 but for now that doesn’t seem an insignificant list of things to realise would have a big impact on my life, on which note I won’t be online again for some time.

Many thanks for following and reading my musings in 2017, wishing you a peaceful and productive 2018 xx

having a complete day of rest

Anyone who knows me well knows I have been atheist since primary school. I’m a fairly committed and unwavering atheist which comes with challenges (it’s pretty scary admitting there is no heaven, it’s even harder sharing that ethos with young children, now I have them!). But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and draw wisdom from the world’s religions – most of us need some code of ethics to live by and being a secular Christian from my upbringing I of course remember and carry with me many of the teachings from my days of reluctantly attending church.

There are many things I agree with from those teachings – love, compassion, forgiveness all sit very well with my own world view. And the idea of having Sunday as a rest day is something that for many years I neglected – won over by the opening of shops on Sundays during my youth and then having  a busy life in adulthood has meant the rest day has oft been neglected.

In the run up to Christmas, which again coming from a family of Christians, I observe but more in the spirit of pagan mid-winter festival than the co-opted capitalist version of pointless, wasteful consumption of things we all probably don’t even need, it is tempting to shop till we drop any day of the week, specially cramming it into a Sunday.

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Yesterday though I managed to do what it would be great to do every Sunday – a complete day of rest. Of course the kids still needed feeding as did I and my husband, of course the dishes still needed washing up but aside from that I did nothing. I spent large amounts of time on the sofa reading The Guardian, drinking tea – it was bliss! My phone was off, I didn’t check my emails once.

I can’t remember the last time I have allowed myself to do that and I know it’s unlikely to happen again until mid January but if we can all just give ourselves a complete (or as near as feasibly possible) day of rest even just once a month I think stress levels would decrease and well-being would be positively impacted. Such  a simple thing that costs nothing – how challenging will it be to observe?

Today’s Practice Time: 20 mins movement, 20 mins seated practice

waking up

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.

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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.

getting things done

Mark Williams writes about the importance of whittling your way through various tasks, having a little task each day policy can be so useful. Starting a task but accepting it might not all get finished in one go is also advised.

My tasks this year have sometimes felt like mountains I will never scale. First all my spare time was consumed by preparing materials for a corporate session I did earlier this year. Once that was done and delivered there were then amendments to the corporate session to be made.

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Hanging over both of these tasks was the usual whirl of recruiting for various courses, advertising for various courses, renewing my insurance and events and responding to emails. Oh and having a job, two kids and a life to fit in as well. And at the summit of my mountain was getting my application for the UK Good Practice List of Mindfulness Teachers sorted.

It was always the last thing on the to-do list each day, often getting bumped down when something needed responding too. Never quite urgent enough to make top of the to-do list.

But then Be Mindful started displaying big green ticks next to teachers who are ‘listed’ so then getting listed suddenly felt a little more urgent.

Today after much ping-ponging of emails with my supervisor and gathering of evidence – about a month’s work in total – I have finally submitted my mindfulness list application. It feels good. I am £90 worse off and I have to wait a month to find out the outcome but I put everything together as best I could and have let that go for now. The amendments to the corporate session are next on the to-do list but for today I am going to stop, breathe and reflect on the feeling of achievement we get when a looming task has been completed at last.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 40 minutes (movement and seated practice)

 

Retreating

In life we find thousands of ways to retreat from reality. As a student I used going out and drinking as a short cut from reality and this can be a hard habit to shake off. Now it’s gadgets and internet access galore that continually pulls me away from the here now.

Inexplicably when things get tough, that is when I feel compelled to google what flooring we need to buy for the bathroom. Or last weekend I spent several hours googling therapist courses, only to wake up the next day knowing it had all been some impulsive mind trick to pull me away from the kids and their constant squabbles.

Why is it so hard to be with what is? To really reside in the here and now.

The answer is simple: we humans, all of us (yes you!), are addicted to distraction. The human mind is addicted to distraction. So checking Facebook 90 times a day or whatever your ‘vice’ might be is totally normal given the addictive nature of smartphones and the way the mind loves distraction.

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However that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to this addiction, we can reassess things and set some boundaries if we want. When I told work mates I was off on a silent retreat this week the reaction was divided between ‘how wonderful’ and ‘I couldn’t do that’. Several people have said ‘wouldn’t you just chuck this away if you could’ waving the ubiquitous smartphone.

I think the answer really is to find a balance you are happy with and we always know when that is achieved or more often, when it isn’t and we feel out of sync.

Once a year I have to go on retreat to support my mindfulness teaching. When I taught in mainstream adult education my CPD revolved around how to inspire learners to use the Virtual Learning Environment or how to use a Smart board. Now my CPD is go to Devon for five days, live without gadgets, in total silence whilst being sustained on amazing veggie food (that I didn’t have to cook).

It’s a change I appreciate and one that always helps me to reset my own dial.

Today’s Total Practice Time: 10 minutes so far but a schedule of seven hours meditation each day awaits me this weekend and beyond!

 

ground hog day

Monday mornings seem to often have the same familiar pattern. We all sleep in and struggle to get out of bed even though the night before was not any later than usual. The kids grumble about not wanting to go back to school, I say something bright and cheery like hey ho, only 3 weeks to go before summer and one of them bursts into tears because they thought it was only two more weeks before summer. My husband makes a hasty exit and the kids won’t see him again until Tuesday morning.

Everyone moves very slowly, I try my best to encourage, bribe and sometimes coerce a more speedy start. It all grinds to a halt at breakfast while my daughter goes from slow mo to freeze frame. With only ten minutes to go I find her whimisically staring out the window as she is meant to be brushing her teeth. I go to brush my teeth leaving them for all of 2 minutes and then when I get back of course one of them is crying claiming the other one punched them. I am losing the will to live and it is only 8.30. I file the incident under ‘sort out later’.

We walk to school and today that part went well except when we reached the school gates I realise the kitchen clock is 10 minutes slow again (it keeps doing this and then fixing itself, which lulls you into a false sense of security) and so we have actually arrived ten minutes later than hoped.

My daughter is given a damning red slip by the school office and looks even more anxious that she is arriving late. I stroll off to my allotment wondering how I can avoid this inelegant start to our week. Being a woman I naturally assume it is my job to fix this mess.

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I lose myself for several hours while weeding and strimming and afterwards I take the blanket out of the shed and lie in the shade watching the clouds go by. Part of me wonders what the old boys might make of this left-field behaviour but a bigger part doesn’t care. I am completely in the moment, and in that moment it feels like everything will be OK.

Today’s total practice time: 10 minutes formal siting practice, 10 minutes informal practice – watching the clouds (I recommend it!)

external events

On the 8 week MBSR course I teach in week 7 we look at how we often drop our most nourishing activities at the very times when they are so needed. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Out go the yoga classes. Short on time? Cancel on your friends. Working late? Order in a take away. It seems this is part of the human condition, something we all share – it’s a struggle to look after yourself when things are going well, forget it when things are going badly.

There is no magic cure for this very human predicament and I know people with decades of meditation practice who still succumb to this phenomenon. However the best thing we can do to at least stay on top of this is to pay attention to it, perhaps offer it a friendly if rather wry smile, accompanied by the thought ‘hello old friend!’ If we are aware this is how we behave when we are stressed research has shown we are much more likely to emerge quickly from the other side of the dip.

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I can imagine many people dropping healthy ways of being in the last week, as they have become sucked into the cycle of 24 hour news and worries about the future. That has certainly been my own experience since events have unfolded in the UK. Earlier this week I halfheartedly pulled my practice back together, reclaiming the very act of self care I need most at this time, not because I felt like meditating but because I had to. Procrastination and worry have never helped me feel settled, meditation does.

It is that simple. But of course as many have observed, it isn’t easy.

Today’s total practice time: 20 minutes movement and compassion practice

Everyday Stressors

Coming into London the other day there was the unwanted and depressing announcement that due to a fatality on the line all trains would be delayed and possibly cancelled at short notice.

It seems most people’s first thought in a scenario such as this is towards the departed person that became a fatality on the line. Phones were fished out of pockets. People calmly and quietly explained to bosses and line managers dotted all over the capital that they would be late because ‘some poor beggar has bought it on the lines’, as one fellow commuter put it.

Then we proceeded to wait. It was cold. It was wet. It was the week before Christmas. It was the last thing any of us wanted to do but wait we did. For more information. For a train. For clarification.

I have yet to see a better example of collective acceptance as this. It was as though the whole platform sighed, with a nod of compassion towards the person who had died, and waited in a very stoical, polite and respectful kind of way.

Half an hour later, only after the train company, in their wisdom, cancelled and sent off (empty) a 12 carriage train only to announce a 4 carriage train would be next, did the annoyance start to be more palpable.

We were all late, for very sad reasons, but there was now a whole platform filled with disgruntled commuters trying to squeeze onto a very packed and tiny train. Some jostled and elbowed their way to the front. Others hung back. People started to moan about the logic, or lack of it, of sending off a lovely 12 carriage train at peak travelling time when the next train in line had so few carriages.

Anger was present, there was no getting away from it but still most people stayed calm. There were a few tuts, sighs and muttered swear words but as the 4 carriage train pulled away, leaving most people still waiting on the platform in the cold wet gloomy morning I felt strangely heartened. Most of us were able to face this disappointment with a sense of decorum.

Arriving at work after the forty minute wait on the platform, the forty minute slow train ride (standing up, feeling as though in cattle class rather than second class), followed by another 30 minute squeeze on the tube, I felt like I had already done a full day’s work.

But there were moments when the fog of disappointment cleared enough for me to meditate during the nightmare commute. Meditate on frustration, disappointment, acceptance and loss. The stressors don’t vanish but you see them for what they are: a string of annoying obstacles, coincidences rather than a conspiracy to ruin one’s day. And at the heart of the meditation lies compassion – for the person who died and their loved ones.

Total practice time: 20 minutes seated practice + 10 minutes walking meditation

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Stuff to do

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It’s often noted that our to-do lists can be unrealistic. Whilst it’s a good idea to have a list of stuff to do so we don’t forget all those tasks that need doing it can sometimes turn into a stick with which to beat ourselves up.

My to-do list has seemed so long this last year or so – it has often spanned 2 or 3 sheets of A4. And it’s the merging of the tasks that made me toy with the idea of giving up to-do lists altogether. On my to-do list there would be things to get from the shops alongside long term home improvement projects alongside paperwork deadlines and tax returns and room bookings and kids play dates to arrange and the whole thing seemed so amorphous and overwhelming. At times I couldn’t sit at my desk as even looking at it made me twitch!

I have now gone about two weeks without adding anything to my to-do list. I have been exercising my memory and seeing if I can just remember what needs to be done – emailing participants, replying to party invites, getting shopping has all some how been done by the power of my brain remembering it unprompted. I have at times had senior moments where I struggle to remember what needs to get done but it has also cleared the way for uncovering long forgotten projects like decluttering (still haven’t done it) sorting out a plumber (ditto) and resurrecting granny’s chair.

About a year ago I placed my late granny’s chair in the garden with the idea that it would be my meditation spot on sunny dry days. It has sat there ever since, the cushion slowly eroding despite covering it with carrier bags, the wood becoming characterful and mottled. The other day I saw a bird pecking at the wasted carrier bags and this inspired me to take action. Responding to the moment rather than doing a to-do list objective.

I dusted it down, removed the carrier bags, sponged down the cushion, removed all bird poo, let it dry off and then sat with a cup of tea feeling all aglow from having remembered a long forgotten plan without the help of the all pervading and rather stress inducing to-do list!

Today’s total practice time: 40 minutes movement and seated practice

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My fair weather meditation spot!