Darkness ~ by Chris Yeomans ~ part of the Darkness Series

This week, as part of our ‘Darkness’ series, Chris Yeomans writes a beautiful reflection on the experience of being  “a terrestrial, and part of this creation”.

I am not too keen on total darkness.  In strange houses, I often need to open the curtains when I go to sleep, to catch the faint light from the night sky.  Years ago, I suffered from bouts of claustrophobia, and darkness pressing against my eyeballs felt as if I was being smothered or suffocated.  I don’t think I’d do too well in one of those flotation tanks where you are supposed to experience weightlessness and some sort of total sensory deprivation.

Night Sky by Colin Lloyd
Night Sky by Colin Lloyd

I remember very clearly, one winter night, finding the bedroom and the house itself to be a prison.  I wanted to break out. To see.  So I got up and went out into the frosty garden, where there was the glimmer of stars, the faint glow of streetlights.  I looked up at the sky and, rather unhelpfully, panicked that I was trapped on planet Earth.  I couldn’t get off it.  I could only survive within the oxygen bubble that surrounds us.  I felt very much like a fish in a pond – trapped in water, unable to climb out and walk away.  It was bizarre but extraordinarily powerful.

The experience has stayed with me, but the claustrophobic intensity has gradually faded.  I remember talking to a monk about it, who seemed bemused: ‘That’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it?’ After all, it is rather a weird thing and not easy to put into words to share.

Over many years though, I have come, I think, to a greater understanding.  This experience was actually the experience of being one with all things, not a separate being.  At the time it was frightening.  I wanted to scream and struggle and escape. I had no idea how or to where.

But gradually what I felt then has become a comfort:  a very clear awareness that I am a terrestrial, and part of this creation.  That I have no separate existence.  This is a concept that sometimes we struggle to understand, but over time I have been lucky enough to realise that what I felt that night was actually to experience it, to feel it in my blood and bones, rather than to intellectualise it. It was a gift.


This week, we begin a series of posts on the theme of Bright. Here, Chris Yeomans explains how the adjustment of bodily postures, helps us to maintain a bright mind, even in the midst of grief.

There often occurs in the teaching the injunction to ‘sit with a bright mind’ and I find myself wondering what we can do to help ourselves to embrace this.  And this is particularly relevant at a time when we are all feeling such sadness that we have, this week, lost a great teacher and a friend with the death of a dear monk of our Order.  How to be bright and sad at the same time without devaluing our mourning?

What I have found helpful is to remind myself that body and mind are one and indivisible.  If we relax the muscles of our face, we can manage a small smile.  If we open our eyes a little wider, perhaps lift our eyebrows, then we do indeed feel brighter.  It helps to ‘walk tall’ or, on the bench, to sit tall.  And to feel an openness in the chest and back, which enables our mind to be more accepting.  These are all little things which I was also taught to do when fighting sleep during the meditation and which I have found really do help.

In my experience, this does not diminish the sadness.  But it allows me to hold it, as it were, in the circle of my arms, with a lightness and a tenderness that no longer pulls me down.

Brightness is a part of our practice and we can look for those things that help us, both in ourselves and in the world around us.

The colour blue

Our second post, on the theme of Blue, is by Chris Yeomans. In it, she explores human perception and experience of the colour. Enjoy!


This morning when I looked out of the window in the semi-darkness everything was shrouded in soft grey mist, white frost outlining roof tiles and branches.  The air was still.

Yesterday, in contrast, there was a clear blue sky, the frost sparkling, the light dancing, lifting the spirits, putting energy into my step.

I am reading a book called ‘The Flow’ by Amy-Jane Beer, essentially about rivers and water courses.  By chance in the current chapter, she explores the idea of blue, starting with the etymology of the word.  ‘Blue, it seems, is consistently last among the primary hues to be named.  Many old languages and some modern languages fail to separate it emphatically from green.’  Just as Arctic cultures have many more names for snow than we do, it seems that, in some cultures, blue has far fewer and she suggests that ‘humans can see colour In different ways and these seem to relate to language.’

It seems that the colour blue has absorbed and inspired humans for centuries.  For us in our climate and our culture, blue is everywhere, day and night.  Van Gogh’s night sky was a startling navy. ‘Ice’ says Robert McFarlan, ‘has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.’  ‘Fresh snow is white,’ says Amy-Jane,’but it sinters into blue.’  (Interesting choice of word here.)

The race and culture to which I belong can ‘see’ blue in many shades and guises and we can name many of them.  It is the fabric of the natural world for us, so it is hardly surprising that my heart lifts when I see blue sky, the reflection of it in a dazzling blue sea and a sense of peace as it fades in the evening through the spectrum into a darkness which is not black.




Spider Webs ~ part of the Spider Web series ~ by Chris Yeomans

This week, we begin the theme of Spider Web on the Dew on the Grass blog. Our first offering is from Chris Yeomans and in it she describes how the practice of meditation changes our relationship with everything, including the spiders that live in our bathroom.

I have an affectionate relationship with one, or maybe more than one, spider in my bathroom.  When I say spider, I think it may not technically be a spider.  Wikipedia tells me that it is an arachnid or spider-like creature.  It is supposed not to spin silk.  There are definitely no spider webs around it, but when it moves about, it looks as if it is using a silken line to suspend it against the wall.  The bathroom has no window and no foliage, and I wonder what on earth it lives on.  It thrives, and I may have established a relationship with several generations of this creature that I have always thought of as a harvestman spider.  Perhaps it lives on things we call house dust mites.  There’d be plenty of those in our house.

To me, the distinguishing feature about this creature is its utter fragility.  It is so fine and delicate that I wouldn’t even think of touching it. I am astounded that such a creature even has life.  What a miracle its legs are.  When I meet with it, I look upon it with wonder that such a thing could even exist.  I am struck by the tenderness and protectiveness that I feel towards it and realise too that I have come to feel like this (if not quite so acutely) about other living creatures such that I liberate them from buzzing in windows or hastening across carpets.

It has not always been thus.  Decades ago, I would have been influenced by my mother, who did not hesitate to swot flies, stamp on ants, kill wasps.  These things were regarded as a nuisance, unclean and to be eliminated.  I didn’t think too much about it.  Then I got involved with Buddhism and began to think more carefully about such things.  Did it matter if I washed a stranded spider down the plughole instead of relocating it?  What about drowning rats?  Shooting grey squirrels.? All taken for granted in my childhood.

Then one day I watched a monk rescue an ant, which had strayed onto the dining table at a place where we were having a weekend retreat.  He spoke to it, brushed it into his hand, and put it out through the window onto the border.  Seeing this compassion in action was a game-changer.  I was at the ‘trying very hard’ stage of practice, and this seemed like something I could manage to do.  And over many years now, thanks, I am sure, to the practice, this compassion towards all living things has grown, almost regardless of any effort I might make, until it has become second nature.

As any senior monk will tell you, ‘Meditation works.’


EngineeringTemporality byTuomas Markunpoika
EngineeringTemporality byTuomas Markunpoika

I was interested to catch, on BBC Sounds recently, a programme made by William Miller about his father Jonathan.  (Radio 4, Archive on 4: Lost Memories).  Jonathan Miller was fascinated by the human brain and in particular the workings of memory.  It was a cruel irony that in the end his own brain was destroyed by Alzheimer’s.  Making the programme was clearly cathartic for his son, who was trying to come to a better understanding of his father’s life work.  And it was, of course, of particular interest to me as I watch my partner struggle with the same disease.

While listening to a talk on the Throssel website, I wrote down the following quote by Reverend Jishin. (These may not be her precise words). “We are inextricable from all that’s gone before. Our sense of being as an individual is based on that.  (…) There is no separated off and permanent me.”

And in the programme, William Miller says that ‘Memory is what makes us who we are.  Our memory of our lives is what ties us together.’  (I think he meant into a coherent personality.)

I think, until watching someone else struggle, I had not fully understood the enormity of this; that ‘There is then nothing more than this.’  Hearing quotes from a string of academics, I learned that memories do not in fact exist per se; that memory is a suite of different systems which our brain organises into recognisable recollections.  Memories themselves are processes or actions and have no separate existence in the brain.  The brain is constantly editing memory and this edited version becomes the story of our lives. And, of course, we have all experienced instances when even shared events will be remembered differently by different individuals, leaving us to ponder whether there can be such a thing as verifiable ‘reality.’

And so, with the loss of the sense of our own past, what is left?  The answer of course must be ‘nothing.’  The body will persist, maybe for quite a while, but that which made the recognisable person is no more.  What I think we do is to project onto that body our own memories of how the person used to be.  It is so hard really to comprehend and to accept that the person has ‘checked out’.

William Miller asked his mother, in an interview before his father died, whether she felt that she still had a relationship with him.  Her answer was that they did have a relationship. ‘He is able still to recognise me as someone who is different (from the carers).  But it is not a proper relationship.  It is not a meeting of minds in any way.’

That’s a good description.  Slowly the person, this unique collection of memories, recedes.  My partner remembers almost nothing of anything we have done over the five years that we have been together.  He still remembers a lot about life well before that and is therefore able to establish some sort of conversation with his family that he cannot do with me.  But what he does say, and this fits with what William Miller’s mother said, is that he remembers love and happiness, in the abstract, even if he can’t remember anything about the things we have done, places we have been, trips we have had.

And so I often remind myself of the famous Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb’ whose much quoted last line ‘What will survive of us is love,’ offers some modicum of comfort.  Perhaps that awareness of love, however it is formed, is one of the last parts of the brain to disappear.

Live in the present – but it’s so hard

Living, as I do, with a partner whose brain is deteriorating is fruitful territory for reflections about life, training and relationships.  My husband and I got together six years ago but he has, now, no memory of anything much of that whole time.  

On a minor level, his condition makes daily living challenging.  He can’t actually change what he does, since to change your behaviour means that you have to remember what it is that you wanted to do different.  So he goes on making the same ‘mistakes’ in small things, like for example where to put things away.  But on a more important level (or it seems more important to me), he actually doesn’t retain much information about me either and regularly asks me things about my past life that I have told him a lot of times. This makes me feel ‘not known’.  And yet he is certain (and I do accept this as a truth) that he knows me very well.  Which raises the question – what or whom is it that he knows?  It’s certainly not the sum of my history, not my ‘stories’, and he seems to have a ‘knowing’ that is separate from my stories.  Which is a surprise to me as I would normally say that, without our stories, we are not the people we believe ourselves to be. 

So J doesn’t know any of my ‘stories’, but, more than that, of course he doesn’t know any of ‘our stories’ either.  He knows this is a loss for him and he feels sad about it.  And it is a loss for me, as I realise more and more what comfort and pleasure there is in looking back at good times and re-living shared moments.  Thus a walk with J very often starts with the words ‘I have never been here before in my life’.  It all becomes a new source of pleasure for him.  But for me, walking beside him, it is also a palimpsest of all the other times we have done that walk together, and inevitably that includes the sadness of remembering how different it was, maybe two or three years ago.  

For me these days, much of life is a return to familiar and loved places, and for him it is a host of new experiences.  Except that it’s not as easy as that, as he is aware of all that is lost in terms of memories.  As well as being sad, it also makes me reflect, and raises for me the question of why we do things at all.  Big events – our wedding, his 80th birthday party, holidays, trips, visits – have all gone.  I guess they were pleasurable for him at the time, but they have now simply disappeared for him.  And it so often comes to me to recognise how much of our everyday conversation refers back to a past event.  I trip and stumble, trying to start a perfectly innocuous exchange, to talk about something and then suddenly I am asked ‘Do I know her?’ ‘Who is that?”  Even trying to make future plans runs into the same challenges. ‘Have we been there?’ ‘Did we do that before?”

And so I try to sit still, breath slowly, think ‘This is the moment.  This is all we have.’  And who can deny this?  Except that as humans, in our minds at least, we do have memories of the past and they do inform our future.  And life without memory of that past is a challenge to all of us.

Increasing not decreasing not?

Veil nebula-Hubble Space Telescope
Veil Nebula – Courtecy Hubble Space Telescope

I very much enjoy listening to a BBC Radio 3 progamme called ‘Private Passions’ presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. It’s a sort of upmarket Desert Island Discs which you can find via the wonderful BBC Sounds App.  A few weeks ago, it featured Patricia Wiltshire, who turned out to be a rather engaging forensic ecologist.  I was struck by what she had to say about her beliefs, which were emphatically not religious.  

“The only life after death is what you leave behind, which becomes incorporated into life. So you are decomposed, you break down into your constituent little bits.  The energy all drains away because it dissipates.  You can’t do much about that. But the bits of you that are left, and all the molecules that make up your body are dissipated and then they are recycled.  So you will be recycled.  So that’s the only life after death that I can imagine.  I don’t have any spiritual feelings.  (…) This is the natural cycle and of course there is only so much matter, so if it weren’t recycled we couldn’t have birth at all.”

It was the throwaway phrase ‘There’s only so much matter,’ which set me wondering, as it seemed to resonate with the words in ‘The Scripture of Great Wisdom’.  The matter which makes up this planet must indeed be ‘Increasing not, decreasing not’.  And all things (being pure or empty) ‘are neither born nor do they wholly die.’ 

And so we talk of finite resources; we say that our planet is a ‘closed system.’.  And, I wondered, with the ever increasing numbers of human beings (matter) does this inevitably mean fewer of other beings (also matter.)  Thus as we watch animals, plants, birds, insects disappearing from the earth, is it because there isn’t enough matter left for them to be born and sustained?  And as we convert resources into non-recyclable materials like plastics and burn fossil fuels and convert them into damaging gases, are we gradually and not so gradually reducing the amount of matter that can sustain life and putting it into forms which are effectively dead? Such that in the end there can be no birth?

Perhaps this is all obvious, but that little phrase somehow gave me a different sort of insight into what is happening.  It didn’t really cheer me up.

More mending


My favourite summer walking jacket, many years old, soft and beloved. Another one ripped by the dog as he tried to get treats out of the pocket as the coat hung on the hook. I have mended previous damage with iron-on tape, effective but unsightly. So this time I have tried my hand at an amateur imitation of Japanese ‘sashiko’ mending – where the mend itself becomes a treasured part of the garment.

I have had to let go any idea of perfection, and accept that my first attempts are a touch on the rough and ready side. But what joy it has brought me! First of all it was a pleasure to do it, secondly it has given more life to an irreplaceable garment, thirdly it gives me joy to see this mend each time I put the jacket on. My own little contribution of crafting to the world, something special for my jacket. I can even be grateful to the dog for providing the opportunity to do the repair.


I sit and I sew

I’ve just finished reading a very soothing book called ‘Craftfulness’ by Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin which, as you might surmise from the title, recommends various forms of crafting as a useful adjunct to mindfulness and meditation. I needed no convincing. I am a fairly regular crochet and knit person. But one thing caught my attention. The idea of decorative mending, referring to the Japanese art of Sashiko stitching.

Cut to another day and another time. My dog has ripped out the pockets and/or the linings of several of my coats in search of the treats in the pockets. I’ve cured this now, no long keep treats in my pockets, and had mended or arranged to be mended, two out of the three damaged items. The third seemed to be beyond my ability to repair, so I decided to charity shop it. But first I washed it, as I didn’t think I could send to the charity shop a coat all covered in dog slime and dried biscuits.

Having washed it, I then thought I couldn’t send the coat to the shop with the lining hanging in rags. It was actually torn into strips, reasonably clean rips, so I tacked the edges together with matching thread so it was at least tidied up. But I was attached to the coat, and it sat in the bag, waiting to go, but not being taken.

And then I read this article. And I began to wonder. Could I embroider along the joins and make them obvious, but beautiful? And yes, I could! I used a mixture of herring bone stitch and running stitch (the true Sashiko stitch) in pale pink embroidery silk. This created a different effect on either side of the join, as the herringbone on the back gives two rows of running stitch, which are very strong. Where the fabric was too thick for the needle, I used running stitch on its own.

And here is the result. I am so pleased with it! I almost prefer the mend to the coat!

Dew on the Grass
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