One of our delights growing up as children in Kenya was to take the long trek to the coast. We would spend hours gazing into rock pools, for fish, crabs, and once a little octopus.
We are spending our last day in Sri Lanka in a beach house, which has a strip of living coral outside acting as a barrier to the large waves. As the tide has receded the coral and its rock pools have been exposed.
The trick to seeing something is to be as still as the pool, to get close to the sand and. not cast a shadow. This too has a lesson for us in contemplative awareness. We too have pools inside our mind that are still, mindful states of calm and open awareness. Too often we are just caught up in the surf of stress.
Standing barefoot in the sand, or contemplating the pools, listening to the sound of the waves we can find these mindful states of mind naturally. It is much harder in the busyness of ordinary life. It is much harder because in our Western culture we are often living in our heads, living virtually. Our ruminative patterns of mental time travel stir up the pools in our head until we are spun one way and then another.
The knack of finding the still pool within is by coming back to our embodied senses. As we enter these streams of awareness we can find the meta-awareness that contains our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
As we learn to do this, mindful states of mind emerge. With practice we can create a new tide within that has wide open mindful spaces that contain and calm the surf.
I am in the orchard in the gardens of Glastonbury Abbey, which as a guest at Abbey House Retreat Centre, you are allowed to enter. It is 11.40 a.m. And the scent of the apples is so heavy, it hangs in the air like a mantle. It is overwhelming and intoxicating.
I feel overwhelmed with wonder and tears, a garden has become Eden, nature has become creation. As I look around I wonder what century I am in, it could be 700 A.D. So timeless and English does the orchard feel.
I am reminded of other times when it feels like I have been clinging to a cliff edge, the edge of a ruin, but stubbornly hanging on, like a little plant blown to the edge of life by the wind.
Even there it is possible to blossom in the face of difficulty. The tricky thing is not to cling to the radiant moments or push away the more difficult ones. The key is to experience them as they are.
Afterwards I am often aware that God was there in the difficulties, as He is so abundantly there in the moments of epiphany and wonder.
Going on retreat enables us to see more clearly, and respond with gratitude to life and to the Giver of Life.
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.
All these mole hills have been dug by one mole! The warden of Penhurst Retreat house, and I am sure I am not exaggerating told me they recently had 82 mole hills in the lawn, and thought they had an infestation of moles…it turned out that it was just one mole!
One afflictive thought can be like that in the nicely manicured lawn of our mind. We bash it down, suppress it, repress it, try and solve it with rational critical thinking but it keeps popping up even more, just like a mole.
Paradoxically when we realise it is just a thought, notice it and name it, it begins to dissolve. We don’t need to get in a mole-thought specialist to deal with it! And suddenly the lawn of our mind is back to normal…until the next afflictive thought pops up…
These are some of the geese at Penhurst Retreat Centre in West Sussex, a beautiful and rural part of England. Sometimes when we are on retreat we realise we just need to tuck our head under our wing for a while. And that’s ok.
As we do so we can also find as an act of grace and loving kindness, that the larger wing of God tucks us over with His fearless and loving presence, like a mother hen with a chick.
Suddenly we find we can sleep and rest peacefully. And we wake remarkably refreshed by that encounter with the ‘full reality’ of God.