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 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.
I have just uploaded a new video on Mindful Relationships: our relationship with our own self; our relationship with others, creation and God. You can find it on You Tube and here is the link:
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 am sitting in Abbey House, the Diocesan Retreat Centre for Bath & Wells, overlooking the ancient ruins of Glastonbury Abbey,that look like something from Tolkien’s imagination.
This afternoon in the space and time set aside for practising the presence of God, I walked up to Glastonbury Tor, for the panoramic view of Somerset. As I write this someone is walking in the grounds of the Abbey ringing a bell as it is closing time.
It reminds me why I am here teaching on mindfulness of God. The first time I came across the phrase mindfulness of God in the writings of 5th century Greek Bishop, Diadochus of Photike – the words rang me like a bell. But not a bell to leave but a bell calling me into the exploration of ‘mindfulness of God.’
The presence of God magnetically calls to my senses, to our senses as human beings. As an analogy we can talk about the way we are called magnetically to other people. At the top of Glastonbury Tor, by the tower, there is a helpful little map that points in the direction of different towns.
Twenty two miles in one direction is the city of Bath, where my son is studying at the university.
Fourteen miles in another direction is Yeovil, near where my parents live. I could feel the magnetic pull in these directions – so close to them and wanting to go and see them, but unable to. I could physically feel the tug on my heart.
Prayer remagnetises us to the pull of God. That’s why I’ve come away. As we become remagnetised to the presence of God, so we become more attentive to others, to creation, to our own self…we feel the relational pull – the interconnectedness of our lives with all that is around us. But so often we live in an unaware state. Stress and busyness demagnetise us.
As we are remagnetised we begin to live life in all its fullness. And our senses become once again instruments of grace.
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.