There are grooves in the driveway at Penhurst Retreat Centre where the gate drags, like a scar.
We are here on retreat to help open the doors, the gateways into awareness, relational, embodied, spiritual. What we often become aware of is that the capacity for attentiveness is there, but that there is resistance, the door, the gateway drags as we begin to open it.
That can stop us opening the gate into our awareness and attention fully. But it is quite normal. We might be trying to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings – we might be trying to escape or bypass reality. But in mindfulness and Christian contemplation we are turning to face reality – and bring that reality into God’s light so that it can be reexamined and reperceived.
And so gently we work on the opening of the gate, the doorway. The contemplative and mindful practices begin to oil the hinges, and straighten the gate posts – and the groove left behind, the scar reminds us of our human vulnerability and that becomes a mark of grace rather than shame. The knowledge that self-awareness, that attentiveness to others costs something – it does not come automatically or easily.
I was teaching about mindfulness at a conference earlier this week and someone asked if there were other meditations like the compassion one that begins…May I know happiness. I have written a compassion one called the Ananias Prayer but what came to mind was to write one about ‘wonder.’
One of my favourite verses in the New Testament Gospel of Mark in the Bible is chapter nine and verse 15, ‘As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.’
This came to mind as a good inspiration for composing a meditation about wonder.
May I know wonder.
May I see with wonder.
May I hear with wonder.
May I touch with wonder.
May I taste with wonder.
May I sense with wonder.
May I feel with wonder.
May I be overwhelmed with wonder.
May I run with wonder to greet this world.
May I walk with wonder.
May I be still with wonder.
May I know God and resonate with wonder.
May all my senses resonate with wonder.
May I fly in my imagination with wonder.
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.
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.’
Here I am at El Palmeral Retreat House in Spain, which is a very friendly house. Before I came out I dreamt that there were orange trees here, and when I came out and found there were I was delighted.
Wandering around the little orange grove I was struck by the picture of oranges on the floor, decaying and drying out, and the vibrant ones still on the tree.
I know there are times when I felt like the orange on the ground, isolated and lonely and in need of friends and community. I also know what it is like to feel like the orange on the tree, connected vitally to sources of life. Those sources of life include friends, family, community and God.
We don’t always feel able to re-connect because of our state of mind. Then we often need someone to reach out to us, who has mindfully noticed what we are feeling. But also mindfulness practice can help us find another state of mind where we can see more clearly ourselves.
One of the ways we can find more mindful states of mind, contemplative and open states of mind is to come on retreat. The hope is that we have opened the door enough on retreat to keep it open when we return home.