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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.
Contemplative awareness and prayer is like being a birdwatchers says Roman Williams (and many others). You watch patiently and then ‘something extraordinary bursts into view.’ ((Being Disciples, chapter One)
Sometimes in birdwatching as with contemplative awareness you might have to wait a long time. I am not an expert ornithologist but I do love birdwatching and was recently given a new pair of binoculars.
I have been using them in Sri Lanka which is a birdwatching paradise. Sitting on the balcony of my room at the Cinnamon Citadel hotel in Kandy I am overlooking the Mahaweli river.
You don’t have to wait long here for something extraordinary to burst into view! Kingfishers, fish eagles, flying foxes, ibis, storks, herons, parakeets, orioles…It is a great encouragement for a beginner.
I think the process is the same for contemplative prayer and birdwatching, if perhaps in a different order. In birdwatching I am just looking at the river and the sky with open awareness, able to hold it in panoramic view. And then every few minutes a bird bursts into my awareness. I can then follow it with focused attention through the lenses of my binoculars.
With contemplative prayer we normally have to begin with focused attention before we can find a place of open awareness. But once we find that place we might find a sign of the kingdom beating its wings across our awareness.
Here in Sri Lanka it has been an awareness of the sheer creativity of God as Creator.
The tree of our life can be healthy, except we are carrying burdens, and within those burdens is psychological and spiritual waste.
I came across this tree on my Camino walk, which symbolised those unnecessary burdens. One of the reasons for doing this pilgrimage is to lay down the burdens, to let go of the psychological and spiritual waste within those burdens.
I was inspired to do a longer walk through the daily practice of short mindful walks. On this longer walk I have chosen a hat, socks and shirts that can ‘wick’ moisture – move moisture away from the skin. I have found short mindful walks act like emotional ‘wicking,’ and very important in the day-to-day regulation of emotion. My belief is that the Camino walks can allow the baggage of the last seven years to trail behind me.
As I become emptied of psychological and spiritual waste, I can be filled with hope, love and faith. The evaporation of waste enables the condensation of love.
I’ve just done the first day of my six day walk along the Camino from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. At 22 kms it is the longest walk I have done since a teenager. In preparing for the walk people advised me to push enough in the training to find the hot spots, the parts of the foot that blister first.
I was then given two tips, one to use special plasters that act like second skin, and the second is to use Vaseline on your feet to stop rubbing. Both worked I’m pleased to say. Although I have found one extra hot spot.
In the stress of life we can have hot spots, certain events that makes us anxious, or sad, or angry. Mindfulness doesn’t take away stress but it acts like a second skin plaster, or like Vaseline to reduce the friction that causes us to react rather than respond to difficulties.
What are your hot spots? And how do you handle them?
I am going to do an eight day section of the Camino pilgrimage walk in Spain in May. We will be walking from 13 to 24 kilometres a day and it will be warm. I’m looking for socks, shirts and a hat that have moisture wicking abilities: equipment that moves the moisture away from your skin through the sock, for example, helping to regulate the natural processes the human body goes through in exercise and reduce the friction.
As human beings we have natural self-regulating psychological processes such as emotional regulation, and these processes wick our emotions. They notice our emotions, experience them without clinging to them and avoiding them and allowing them to move on – because our thoughts and feelings are passing mental events. This is an insight of mindfulness and these are naturally mindful processes- mindfulness practice can enhance this natural emotional wicking.
The first step is the metacognitive proposition that my thoughts and feelings are passing mental events. This proposition can then become a metacognitive insight, move from head to heart and felt experience through mindful practice. We become aware of this capacity for emotional wicking as it happens.
All our feelings are important including those generated by our amygdala, our fight and flight response. The trouble is that we live in such a fearful and anxious culture that our stress response is is on a hair-trigger, our capacity for emotional wicking gets overwhelmed.
As I learnt how to practice and restore an enhanced emotional wicking through mindfulness practice, I realised that I wasn’t an anxious person stuck in the sweat of anxiety, I was having anxious thoughts and that I could handle them mindfully and wisely through natural but enhanced emotional wicking.