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.
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.
The above link is to a review of Putting On The Wakeful One, my new book, by author, minister and broadcaster Richard Littledale…
‘The book is bulging with insights fascinating enough to draw the reader in and stimulating enough to trouble that reader after the covers are closed.’
Take three minutes out of clock time. Perhaps you are stuck indoors behind a desk. This is a three minute video of the sea, waves gently lapping at the beach.
Come to your senses. Let the waves and the sounds come to you. Notice your breathing, is it rhythmic like the waves? Is it fast and shallow or slow and deep like the waves?
Let the colours come to you. Notice when the clouds come over, or when the sun comes breaking through. Can you hear quieter sounds in the background.
If your mind wanders, notice what it wanders too and bring it back to the waves.
Feel the sand beneath your feet and the coolness of the water. Salt drying on your face and the cool wind and warm sun…
Notice any longings to walk on the beach barefoot, to paddle in the sea. To gaze out at the horizon in open awareness, breathing in freedom. Is there a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving for the gift of your senses…
Did you notice the light flooding in at the end? May it be a picture of wellbeing flooding into you.
Let go of whatever is troubling you. Come back to the task in hand refreshed. As the paddle boarder appears at the end, so it is time for you to journey on to your next task.
I am leading a retreat at Penhurst Retreat Centre on Mindfulness of God and Personal Transformation on 12-14 June 2015.
Here are the details below and a link to the retreat centre’s website:
The retreat will be exploring mindfulness of God and mindfulness of health, with the aim of personal transformation. Anyone interested in developing their awareness and attention would benefit from this retreat. There will be silence built into the retreat as this is an important part of the spiritual practice of mindfulness. You will be introduced to the historic spiritual practices of Lectio Divina and the Jesus Prayer, as well as secular mindful awareness practices. We will be looking at mindfulness within Mark’s Gospel, the monastic tradition and psychology. The retreat will be interactive and dialogic with experiential elements.
How do we enter the doorway of the present moment? One of the ways is by answering a riddle, says contemplative writer Martin Laird.
One of the riddles he sets is this, ‘What do thoughts and feelings appear in?’ (‘Into The Silent Land’, p.80). When I ask people that question, many people can’t answer it. The answer Martin Laird gives, based on his study of Christian contemplative writers is that our thoughts and feelings appear in awareness (p.88).
Now this is affirmed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. J. Mark G. Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn summarize this beautifully in their introduction in the book ‘Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications,’ jointly edited by them.
They define mindfulness as awareness, ‘an entirely different and one might say, larger capacity than thought, since any and all thought and emotion can be held in awareness.’ (p.15) This is something we need to become aware of. But as they go on to say, ‘While we get a great deal of training in our education systems in thinking of all kinds, we have almost no exposure to the cultivation of intimacy with that other innate capacity of ours that we call awareness.’ (p.15)
This is why people struggle to answer the riddle, ‘what do thoughts and feelings appear in?’ Williams and Kabat-Zinn go on to say, ‘Awareness is virtually transparent to us. We tend to be unaware of our awareness. We so easily take it for granted.’ (p.15) And yet it is one of our most important innate capacities.
As they conclude, ‘It rarely occurs to us that it is possible to systematically explore and refine our relationship to awareness itself, or that it can be ‘inhabited’.’ (p.15) Mindfulness is awareness but mindful practices can help us systematically ‘explore and refine our relationship to awareness’ so that it can be ‘inhabited.’
In Alister McGrath’s luminous book C S Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet McGrath talks about Lewis’s role as a literary midwife (pp.197-200).
He was especially a midwife to Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Tolkien himself said that without Lewis’s ‘sheer encouragement’ he would never have finished his masterpiece. Tolkien said of Lewis ‘He was for long my only audience.’
I remember my history teacher at school coming to every practice of mine to teach me how to bowl left-arm spin in cricket, not just for my private joy but to try and break into the school team. Because he believed in me I believed in myself.
I remember when I worked in a bank and was wondering what to do with unneeded creativity, someone encouraged me to write every day. Really encouraged me. Cried at things I wrote (not in pain but joy).
Who is it that you can be a creative midwife to? Each person only needs an audience of one to begin with. It begins with helping a child to enjoy the process of creativity before the outcome. To simply revel in pens, ink, paper, colours, nature, our nine senses, the orchard of awareness that lies within.
I have just come back from leading a retreat at Worth Abbey about shifting our mental gear from doing to being, from thinking to awareness. The beautiful Abbey Church has a visual parable built within it, that helps illustrate an important aspect of our awareness.
It is a circular church, and has windows running all around the rim of the circle (see photo). Attention is about what we do with our awareness. We can focus our attention, for example, on sounds – allowing whatever sounds are out there to come into our hearing. That is like looking through one window of the many we could look through in the Abbey Church.
Daniel Siegel in his book The Mindful Brain talks about us having a rim of awareness through which things can be attended to. We have our five senses on the rim, five windows if you like on to the world. But Daniel Siegel suggests we have eight senses: in the sixth sense we can become aware of what is going on in our body, in the seventh sense we can become aware of what is going on in our minds – thoughts, feelings, sensations, and in the eighth relational sense we can become aware of what is going on with other people around us.
I would also like to suggest that there is a ninth sense, that works with the other eight senses, which is about becoming aware of the presence of God.
We can focus our attention, just attending to one window, whether it is hearing or sight. But we can also cultivate an open awareness where we are able to allow all our senses to come into awareness. Using the Abbey Church as an example this is where light is coming in through all the windows, and we are aware of all the windows in the circular rim of the church simultaneously.
Often we live through only a few windows, the others blacked out to our awareness and attention. Mindfulness and contemplation open up all the windows of awareness to our awareness and attention. As this happens we begin to experience life in the moment as it truly is, which is whole and full of healthy possibilities, including the possibility of hearing the footsteps of the Invisible One in our life.