Once upon a time this was my boat of anxiety with the light of mindfulness (and of God) shining on it. In fact the boat was me.
The boat was swamped with anxiety, beached with worry. The hull of my boat, which is as strong and as fragile as wood was collapsing, barely holding its shape.
I had no rudder, no sail, even if the wind was blowing and the currents flowing.
Anxious thoughts, like crows pecked at the rotting frame, as shame like worms ate away at the wood. Anxious feelings soaked into the hull, and weighed it down, stealing its strength.
Those of you who have experienced anxiety will recognise this, it doesn’t always help to have the condition explained in cold, logical, propositional language.
But in the corner of the boat I built a mindful nest, my breath, a prayer word, the practice of awareness. And then the swallows came, swooping in, and stayed making new thoughts that could fly free.
And then there came a desire for spring-cleaning, for restoration, for changing the structure and activity of the boat for better, as it was created to be. And one day the boat was drained, restored, painted, floating, able to catch the wind and the currents.
I did not just want to move from anxiety to inner freedom, although that is a good intention, a necessary intention. I wanted to become mindful of God, waiting for the wind and the currents of God’s Holy Spirit, that I do not control, but as a graced response I can be receptive and open too.
I know mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone. I’m grateful it worked for me. It might be for you – a boat yard of restoration.
I am writing this on the Camino Ingles, in Pontedeume, by the estuary of the river Eume. There are little rivulets, and wide open spaces, we can inhabit both. But first I had to step from the edge of hope, just one step into hope.
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.
I have been reading Julian Hoffman’s ‘the small heart of things – being at home in a beckoning world.’ It is a book full of epiphanies, the opening up of time to insight, understanding and a sense of unity.
One such moment occurred reading his description of seeing a pod of dolphins in a chapter entitled ‘An Accumulation of Light’. An accumulation of light is a good description of an epiphany. I don’t want to quote the whole section, because I want you to buy the whole book. But I do want to share two sentences which brings to an ecstatic climax the writer’s epiphany, but which also became an epiphany for me.
As he watches the dolphins he says, ‘I later realised how time had dissolved while we watched the dolphins. Past and future, and all the weight they carry, had folded into one clear, immeasurable moment.’
In the moment that I read this, and the moment still resonates with me, I was aware of the thoughts and feelings I was carrying, rooted in the past and the future, and how heavy those thoughts and feeling were. And then I realised I could let them go. This was an intuitively natural mindful moment.
To become aware how heavy the thoughts and feelings can be that are ruminating or worrying about the past and future is a great gift. Because then we can put them down. The lightness of being is in the present moment.
In poetic terms what Julian writes is what Edward Thomas, the nature poet, would call a ‘thought-moment.’ Edward Thomas was once called an ‘ecstatic walker.’ Julian Hoffman gets his inspiration from ecstatic walking, and in a mysterious process of alchemy, his nature writing becomes ecstatic writing. Ecstatic writing can become ecstatic reading.
Early yesterday as I went outside the car was covered with sticky ice. The sort of ice that takes 10 minutes to scrape off. Often on the school run you can see cars driving along with the driver peering out of a small cleared hole in the windscreen, with the rest of the windscreen and windows still clouded with ice.
It’s a picture of how the windscreen of our mind is much of the time and how we rush around with limited perception. Rowan Williams in his beautiful little book ‘Silence and Honey Cakes – the wisdom of the desert’ talks about this inattention, ‘the failure to see what is truly there in front of us – because our own vision is clouded by self-obsession or self-satisfaction.’ (p.26)
We rush along in the icy morning without clear vision, and we do the same in life. If we pay attention to the ice, truly pay attention to it with a de-icer we can clear the windscreen of our car. If we pay attention mindfully to the sticky cloud of self-obsession or self-satisfaction, or any other ruminative pattern that stops us seeing clearly, this mindfulness de-ices the windscreen of our mind.
Then we begin to see clearly.