I have been staying at Clowance Estate in Cornwall, where there has been a mansion house since 1380. Some of the original features are still there like a silt trap.
This silt trap is a small pond into which a stream runs via a control gate and a control exit. The control gate is used to determine how strong a flow of water from the stream comes into the pond. Most of the particles coming into the pond, soil, sand and silt, settle in the silt trap.
That means much cleaner water flows out of the pond – in this case to stew ponds where fish for the kitchen table were reared. In the photo below you can see the stream, the control gate and the silt trap pond.
Seeing this in operation gave me an analogy for the way our minds can work. Attention is like a control gate which works with the stream of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that are constantly flowing. Through mindful awareness practices we can find and enhance the pool of open awareness into which this stream can flow, where we can learn to let the thought particles settle, just as in a silt trap.
I think the thing that struck me, is that these capacities we have are natural, but can be enhanced with practice. The silt trap enables cleaner water to flow to the stew ponds where fish can be reared. But in the same way in our minds we can filter out the reactive thoughts and in the cleaner stream within our mind cultivate wise responses and creative thought-fish.
Here you can see the cleaner water flowing from the silt trap into the stew ponds. In the case of our minds we also can find we access stew ponds, a wiser and more creative ‘stew’ of mindful responses, rather than fearful, automatic reactions.
The other thing I like with this analogy is that it recognises that the stream is always flowing, and also at times the flow of the stream will be higher in winter and spring, with more particles that need filtering, because of increased rain fall.
When we are stressed there is a higher level of rainfall in our minds and bodies, with an increase in the number and speed of reactive thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Instead of being a victim of these we can learn to witness them, and allow them to settle in the pond of open awareness that works like a silt trap in our minds. This allows us to access the more creative ‘stew’ ponds that also exist in our awareness and minds.
A link to my video on You Tube about creativity, mindfulness of God and my new book Putting On The Wakeful One – attuning to the Spirit of Jesus through Watchfulness.
One of the things I’m researching is what I call natural mindfulness. One of the things mindfulness is is natural states of mind, that can also be traits, something we inhabit in our ordinary, everyday life.
In these mindful states of mind we are responsive rather than reactive; open rather than closed in our thinking; able to hold and consider a number of options; and witnesses of our afflictive thoughts rather than victims.
One of the best ways to cultivate natural mindfulness is to learn to inhabit our bodies again: one of the benefits of this is because the body is always in the present moment- a key aspect of being mindful.
Whilst I have been in Spain, first, on retreat at El Palmeral Retreat House and then on holiday I have been practising with mindful swimming.
As we swim we can come to our senses, feeling, sun, wind and water on our skin; noticing our breathing, seeing the patterns of light and bubbles in the pool, experiencing our hearing differently as our head is in the water, scenting the smell of the water and what the breeze brings to our senses.
We can feel our muscles at work in our legs and arms, the impact on our breathing of the repeated lengths. We are swimming not on auto pilot, or merely to do a certain number of lengths, but to find a mindful state of mind.
As we swim we can exercise our muscle of attention. Focusing on our senses and the body, streams of awareness within us; as we do that with one part of our aware mind we notice when another part of our mind wanders, what it wanders too, before bringing it back to our focus of attention.
I noticed that I could feel and let go of emotions like the bubbles trailing behind me. As swallows swooped down in free flight to drink, it was a symbol of drinking from the pool of awareness.
Swimming in the pool of awareness enables us to navigate our day and experience it in all its fullness.
Where can we find silence? Outer silence is difficult to find, although it is not the absence of noise. Inner silence is even more difficult because of the noise in our heads. I write this in Spain on holiday where it is possible to find both outer and inner silence.
I can hear the UK from a small patio in Spain, it seems very noisy with no one listening to anyone else. T.S. Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday wrote:
‘Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…’
(Collected Poems 1909-1962, 102.)
Today is Sunday, and it is rare for me not be in church preaching, but it is possible today for Sabbath rest, which includes silence and solitude. Sabbath rest also includes community, a chance to listen to God, to each other. For that we need to turn down our inner noise. But we don’t know how to do it…
Fr Christopher Jamison (OSB) says that ‘silence is the gateway to the soul and the soul is the gateway to God.’ I wonder if silence is the gateway to the soul of a nation?
It is not just the soul of the UK that is conflicted…it seems to be a world-wide phenomenon. Perhaps some silence in order to listen to others may help.
I am surrounded by sparrows and swallows here. The sparrows have noisy wings when they fly. The swallows fly silently. I would like to teach my mind to free run silently. The macro decisions are out of our control as individuals (most of the time), but we can make micro decisions. Silence and listening as micro decisions begin with me. A lot of micro decisions can impact the soul of a nation.
I understand that swallows fly at a lower band of the sky than swifts and martins, and are therefore, particularly adapted for flying as aerial insect catchers.
That makes sense of why they were swooping so close to me as I stood watching them in the early evening sun. As well as feeling the sun and the breeze on my face, I felt love, joy, envy, hope and most intriguingly, possibilities – feeling the swallow’s freedom within me. I call this the free running mind. According to Angela Turner, an expert on swallows, they are called ‘birds of freedom’ in Hebrew.
The swallow to me is symbolic of the spirit, the soul within, both individually but also that of a congregation, or even a nation. There is an impulse for good deep within that rises up in times of crisis, along with hate and poison for some. The swallow with its epic migratory journeys and ability to return ‘home’ is a picture of hope for us.
If something that Horatio Clare, another writer on swallows, weighs ‘little more than a full fountain pen’ can travel from Africa to the UK, then, I know I can persevere far beyond what my automatic scripts tell me. We need something to pull us out of the brain’s negativity bias!
Hope opens up the mind, whereas, fear closes it. As Shakespeare put it, ‘True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.’
On retreat at El Palmeral Retreat House one of the beautiful things was having all the swifts, swallows and house martens flying around you.
One of the intentions of this retreat was to notice the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations flying around in the sky of our minds. Often our focus, usually out of our awareness, is on a narrow threat-based band, full of birds of fear, worry and anxiety.
We were trying to expand from the narrow threat band to a wider more expansive awareness where you can pick up a bigger picture view, and also see happy thoughts, creative thoughts, responses rather than reactions. These are also flying in our minds, but are less noisy than the birds screeching ‘what if….’ We are not denying the existence of the threat birds, or trying to avoid them. What we were learning to notice, though, was to distinguish between the real worry and the hypothetical worry.
Just now I had a flock of swallows, swifts and martens swooping around me, surfing the winds and breezes…I realised in that moment that I have swallow thought-birds, swift sensation-birds and housemarten feeling-birds surfing the breezes in my inner landscape – and just for a moment I was aware of them.
These are the joyful, creative, happy thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. They have always been there…in my mind-scape they swooped around me, glad to see me and looping the loop with the fact that I had come into the larger house built by them, just for me to visit.
As we’ve created a sense of genuine community and enjoyed community life together here at El Palmeral retreat house in Spain, one of the things we’ve noticed is the different types of light as day and night unfold, and how the swimming pool keeps changing colour.
To me those changing colours and patterns of light are like the different mental states we experience. Even within mindfulness or contemplation, there are different states of mind, with a range of levels of stillness, calmness, flow and creativity – coloured by different emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations.
Mindfulness helps us recognise our different states of mind and find wiser states of mind, where we can witness our thoughts rather than be a victim of them; where we can hold our afflictive experiences rather than be held by them.
I particularly liked this early evening scene of the pool. The sheer physicality of this place also shifts my mood, and I find I am able to let go many of the things that seem so important at home, that here seem much less important.
In a mindful state of mind we see a reflection of reality as it is, much like this pool is reflecting the reality around it.