Please see attached link for details!
a link to my article in the Baptist Times!
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.
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 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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.