Coming to Rest

‘Acceptance’, it turns out, is a trigger word for me, bringing with it some strong emotions, which have made writing this blog difficult, despite several attempts to do so.

Mostly, it has brought into sharp focus, remnants of non-acceptance and feelings of grief, through remembrances of the breakup of my parent’s marriage, some sixty years ago, and also the feelings of loss that I feel for my own marriage, not through abandonment, but through the illness and decline of a spouse.

All attempts to push myself, to get the writing done, have ended in a feeling of utter misery. So, I stopped. Instead, I have brought you four things, which I have stumbled across during this time and which have helped me to accept my present state.

The first is the photograph of a tree stump that I observed over several seasons. I photographed it in various stages of erosion. but can now only find the above picture, which was probably the second one that I took. Over a period of years, the stump broke down and eventually became just a scrap of wood, upended and black from dampness. Yet, at each stage of decay, it had a beauty about it that the camera did not do justice to. I found this demonstration of dignity, in decline, quite wonderful.

The second, is “The Guest House” poem, by Rumi, which I was recently reminded of and thought appropriate, here. Rumi describes painful thoughts and feelings as the arrival of guests, to be greeted hospitably.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi

The third is a quotation by the writer, Anne Lamott, which echoes Rumi’s sentiments of welcoming all states of being, equally. In it, she accepts her own non-productiveness, as a writer, seeing it as an opportunity for renewal.

“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given- that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.” Anne Lamott

Finally, I share with you this YouTube video of the Great Bell Chant, featuring the late Thich Nath Hanh, for the reason that it had the effect of making me feel like a leaf, coming to rest, after a great storm.

Credits:

Read by Thich Nath Hanh, chanted by brother Phap Niem. The creators of this audio track were Gary Malkin, the composer/arranger, producer, and collaborator Michael Stillwater. The work came from a CD/book called Graceful Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying, and it could be purchased by going to wisdomoftheworld.com. The creator of this video is R Smittenaar. This video can be downloaded at: https://vimeo.com/6518109 Visuals taken from HOME, Earth and Baraka

Winter Wild Swimming by Chris Yeomans

This month, Dew on the Grass is featuring articles, poetry, photographs and art, on the theme of “Acceptance”. Our first post, entitled “Winter Wild Swimming” is from Chris Yeomans. If you would like to contribute, in any of the above categories, on this theme, just get in touch, using the contact form.

I step into the water. The riverbed slopes gently and I walk forward, slowly and deliberately, into the deeper water. At waist level, I pause, giving my body time to adjust. I have to remember to put my hands into the water. My instinct is to hold them high. I bend my knees and the water rises inch by inch up to my shoulders. The trick is to do everything gradually.

I have chosen to do this, so it seems to me that there is no point in screaming and protesting and fighting the cold as some others do and clearly find comforting. I stay still and quiet. This is a brilliant group. Called the Crazy Ladies, we meet up in random numbers, to swim together and keep each other company. There is no sense of competition. Each woman swims within her own comfort zone and we are totally accepting of each other. Some will swim for 20 minutes or more in this very cold water. Others, like me, accept five minutes to be their limit. Some stay within their depth.  Others strike out into the deeper water.

The water in winter is clear and inviting. Swans, not mating, not nesting, not guarding cygnets, ignore us and sail past in the opposite direction, white shapes reflected in the dazzling water. I push off and swim. It’s impossible not to gasp. Heads up breast-stroke. The water is far too cold to put your face in. We wear boots and gloves, to protect our extremities.

For that first stroke or two, the water is like tiny darts and pinpricks on the skin. I breathe slowly, inhaling deeply and puffing the breath out until the body settles and that first shock reflex wears off. The river accepts me and I accept the river. We are one. The water is both cold and not cold and certainly not unpleasant. Nothing like as unpleasant as the one minute cold shower that I make myself have as an alternative.

I check my watch. I could stay longer but it is sensible to get out. I swim into the shallow water and stand up, walk up the bank, pick up a towel and get as dry as I can as quickly as I can. I strip off wet things, pull a towelling poncho over my head. Cold skin stays damp and thermal layers, fleeces, wind-proof fleece-lined coats, even hot water bottles are all part of the kit. I like to get out before there is any danger of the shiver reflex, which can set in about fifteen minutes after you get out, as the body temperature continues to drop.

Layered up, with hat, gloves and boots, I pour hot tea into my mug. The sky is blue behind a lattice of bare winter branches. The river flows on. Today we haven’t seen the kingfisher. And that’s fine too.

Reflections on Freedom: The illumination of the night

When the Dew on the Grass team first decided upon exploring the word Freedom, my mind was straight-away drawn to the antithesis of freedom, which is to be confined in some way, either by our own feelings or by physical restraint. In particular, I thought of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, separated from her husband and daughter, through political machinations for which she has no responsibility or control. I thought of those trapped in poverty, unable to break out of a cycle of deprivation and people subject to oppression, be that someone stuck in a violent and toxic domestic situation, unable to move out of it, or a whole nation, such as the people of Ukraine, currently living under the daily threat of war ( since writing my first draft of this post, overnight, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine – we send merit to all those caught up in conflict). This is imprisonment within the physical world. My heart goes out to all in these situations. Mankind could do so much better!

Then, there is the prison that we create in our own heads; the holding onto past resentments or grasping for things we want, can’t have, or if we already have them, fear of losing or want more of. I have done all of those things and ultimately found them unsatisfying. It is liberating to throw such entrapments, metaphorically, into the air.  The things in my life that have given me the greatest sense of freedom, have mostly involved giving up something – or maybe letting go would be a more accurate description.

In letting go, there is sometimes a great shift in viewpoint, a dropping off of a heavy weight that has held me back for what seems like millennia. Mostly though, it seems I let go in increments when it becomes obvious that some change in the way I think or act, has become necessary. That hasn’t always meant that I have made a momentous decision to change, simply change has taken place and then I become aware of it. There is a light and freeing quality in being able to do this, which transcends all physical limitations.

A couple of weeks ago, when reflecting on the topic of Freedom and wondering what I should write, I woke up again, shortly after having fallen asleep and wrote these words:

Freedom is the unfurling of the hand of self,
finger by grasping finger

Feathers unfold, flutter, fly
Release into the stillness of an ocean sky

A vastness deep
Ripple upon ripple dissipates into the blue-black,
lit by an eternity of stars and moon

The warmth of coolness
The illumination of the night

Make of the words what you will but it struck me that Freedom is shaking off the self that is inhibited by our conditioning and allowing a deeper self to emerge and speak. This isn’t the type of uninhibited behaviour that leads to suffering, with no moral compass, though. There is a compassionate morality at its base. For a Buddhist, we find this through the Noble Eightfold Path, which in the beginning may seem to bind us but ultimately sets us free.

 

Space Under my Chair – a Reflection on Freedom by Anna Ayse

Today’s reflection on Freedom is from Anna. Anna is an artist and has brought a visual perspective to the theme, which is both remarkable and ‘eye opening’.

Sculpture Bruce Nauman
Space Under my Chair, Bruce Nauman

The sculpture Space Under my Chair by Bruce Nauman is a playful as well as a powerful pointer to an essential quality of reality that we perpetually seem to overlook.
The conditioned mind is such that we see objects rather than the space that holds the objects and enables them to exist. The narrowed vision that focuses on objects has advantages when it comes to survival. The ability to separate out and identify an approaching tiger instantly out of all the visual clues can mean the difference between life and death. However, adopting the narrow vision of the survival mode as the default way of looking and perceiving is limiting innate freedom.
The sculpture Space Under my Chair is focusing the attention of the viewer on what is habitually ignored, the space that enables the object to exist. Be that literal space that holds chairs, buildings, trees, mountains, or Mind space that holds thoughts, feelings, sensations, sense perceptions. Our point of view narrows and focuses on objects to the exclusion of the most essential. It takes an artist to point out our limited view and make us aware of how we are conditioned to ignore the most fundamental element of reality, boundless space, limitless potential, present in every moment.

The conditioned mind calls space without objects, empty, void, nothing, that is no-thing. Yet empty space contains everything, either manifest or potentially, so nothing in fact equals everything.

Whether in literal space or in mind space, widening the narrow, object-oriented view and perceiving objects, phenomena, not in isolation but in the context of the wider reality that holds them, is innate freedom actualized. It is the source of all creativity.

Flower of Freedom

I hardly dare comment on our second post of the week, featuring the theme of Freedom. Reading Mo’s poem gave me shivers. I find it so beautiful and insightful.

Flower Of Freedom

When the voice of freedom calls,
there is no secret prison for me.
No landscape of mind, no survival identity
born out of conditioning and habit.

 

Do you keep the wild complexity of your
True Nature hidden, buried under fixed
boundaries of fears and
desires?

 

When you see me, is there a calling,
touching a sense of unknown freedom?
Begging you to walk an invisible labyrinth,
yet the fear holds you back.
There is a gateless gate.

 

I am like the morning star, blossoming in the light
of both the seer and the seen.
Growing from my Earths ancestors to blossom
and to blossom again, always becoming.
Such is Universal life.

 

Mo Henderson

Freedom!

Over the next few days, the Dew on the Grass team will be sharing articles, poems and artwork, on the theme of Freedom.  Each of us has presented our experience of Freedom from a slightly different perspective but all of the pieces reflect the seeking mind of the Buddhist practitioner. We hope that you enjoy reading them, and should you have reflections of your own on this topic, please do get in touch, via the contact page, or in a message via the Dew on the Grass Facebook page, by Monday the 28th of February, and we will be happy to share them. Please read our editorial guidelines, by clicking the ‘About’ button.

Musings 1

A couple of decades ago, it seemed that all the usual stresses and anxieties of life had coalesced for me into one focus. I became aware that I was suffering from severe claustrophobia. The feeling of being trapped is of course the antithesis of freedom. I found I was unable to go into places where my way out was not clear: caves, basements, the London underground in crowds, trains and planes, the backseat of two-door cars. I began to sleep with a knife when in my tent so that I could cut my way out through the fabric.

Retreats at Throssel became a challenge. When I mentioned to a monk that I wasn’t sure I could sleep in the Ceremony Hall he said, with some incredulity, ‘But we don’t have a larger space, Chris.’ I explained that it wasn’t the space around me as much as my ability to get out. And to get out of that room I would have to negotiate sleeping bodies, noisy doors, clattering stairways, deal with the fear of meeting the Night Guardian in the corridor, of not being supposed to be walking around. Thus it was that I found myself allowed to sleep in the Avalokiteshvara shrine, close to my exit route, next to plastic containers of human ashes, which was almost, but not quite, worse.

But it didn’t stop there. At home, panicked by being in bed, I would go out into the garden and stand and look at the stars. And suddenly I felt trapped on the planet. Unlike the fish which doesn’t know it is in the ocean, I knew that there was nowhere else that I could survive and that gravity tethered me to the earth. It sounds obvious, but for me, it was an experiential realisation that I am one with all things and not a separate being. I am not free to leave this planet, which provides me with the very means of my existence – the air I breathe, the food I eat. I remember RM Saido once saying ‘If you have difficulty grasping the concept of dependent origination, try not breathing for a while.’ I breathe because of the infinitely complex life of this planet. I am an earthling.

Musings 2

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ Thus Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1755. And today, in 2022, I think perhaps we understand that we are not born free at all and really have no chance of ever attaining freedom if that is something that we seek. At birth, we bring with us our entire genetic make-up. Immediately, life starts to happen for us and we are affected by an infinity of sensations. We grow, we learn we relate and we become one of the indescribably complex beings that comprise the human race. Within that framework of my life and being, I have the illusion that I am free. But in reality, I have very little control over my life. Simply to start with, I cannot really affect my physical environment. In the words of the Tom Lehrer song – ‘Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.’ Except that of course I have no choice.

But beyond that, I am aware that every single thing I do and think is because I am me. I am pretty much unable to think ‘outside of myself’ because my thought patterns and my opinions are the product of my genetic nature and my experience. Even my wish to do ‘that which is good to do’ or to ‘do the next thing’ arises because of a fortunate concatenation of circumstance and predisposition that has led me to this Buddhist path. My human mind allows me to consider alternative paths and alternative courses of action, but I am deluded if I think I really have the freedom to choose to do anything that is ‘out of character.’

Chris Yeomans

Nostalgia’s not what it used to be

The late, Reverend Master Alexander Hardcastle, when he was prior of Telford Buddhist priory, often said,’ Nostalgia is not what it used to be’, and then would chuckle at the irony of his remark. He may have said this in the company of others, but my recollection is that we were usually alone, working on some project or other. I would laugh with him (though maybe not as heartily) and I knew what he meant. Nostalgia, which is essentially a sentimental view of the past and reflects discontent with the present, holds less sway over us once we become regular meditators. We become far more satisfied with our present reality, however difficult and painful that might feel, at times.

Remembrances of the past come and go. They are part of our brain’s natural function and can be helpful both spiritually and practically, in the everyday world. What happened in the past is part of who we are now; part of our current experience. The physical and spiritual realignment of the heaps of our being, in time and space, create a new reality, moment by moment. Within this shift, our memories float along with us.

Those that feel painful, we may shrug aside (although the cells of our body will still remember them unless we have done significant work on ourselves). Or we may do the exact opposite, and hold them tightly, in fear of what would happen if we let them go. Conversely, we may hold onto memories of good times, idealise them, hold them up as the epitome of existence. Of course, there are many permutations of how this might manifest itself.

As a nation, we are prone to do the latter. Hence the success of political promises to make our country ‘Great Again’ as if, in some perfect past, all ills were virtues and we stood, as a united and homogenous body, a paragon of unity and virtue, which was lost to a perceived evil, along the way, and to which, with the ‘right’ political direction, we can return. This is a deluded notion, of course. The world, its nations, and individual people exist in a constant state of flux within which, what we judge as good and evil continually arise, like ripples on a much deeper ocean.

In my younger years, when I was focused on work, family and the setting up of a priory – the time of life referred to by the social-psychologist, Erikson, as a time of ‘Generativity’, when we are at our most productive – I had no inclination to look back. More recently, having lost several of the older members of my family, during the pandemic, I have enjoyed reminiscences of those treasured people that I called, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher and friend. Some memories might even be termed ‘nostalgic’, having a sentimental or ‘rosy’ quality to them, mostly they have been part of a rite of passage, a celebratory ceremony of the mind, and have included, of course, thoughts of you, dear Rev. Alexander. I am grateful for them all.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh – in gratitude for a life well spent.

Image

The internet is currently flooded with tributes and reminiscences of his life, so I will not try to recreate them here. Suffice to say, I feel drawn to reread some of his books and, having lost six people from my life, during these past pandemic years, this quotation, posted by a Buddhist friend to Facebook, this morning, lifted me out of a fog of melancholy and raised my eyes to the sky. Thank you!

“One day as I was about to step on a dry leaf, I saw the leaf in the ultimate dimension. I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree, the following spring, in another form. I smiled to the leaf and said, ‘You are pretending’. Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die, including the leaf.

The Buddha said, “When conditions are sufficient, the body reveals itself, and we say the body exists. When conditions are not sufficient, the body cannot be perceived by us, and we say the body does not exist.” The day of our death is the day of our continuation in many other forms. If you know how to touch your ancestors in the ultimate dimension, they will always be there in you, smiling. This is a deep practice.

The ultimate dimension is a place of coolness, peace and joy. It is not a state to be attained after you “die”. You can touch the ultimate dimension right now by breathing, walking and drinking your tea in mindfulness.

Everything and everyone is dwelling in Nirvana, in the Kingdom of God,”

Professor Thich Nhat Hanh – Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995)

Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday Sleeves – or responding to changes

Saturday SleevesSaturday sleeves are long knitted cuffs, so-called because they are meant for slipping on when you need to do outside chores, on a chilly Saturday morning. They have also proved useful as a way of providing warmth to my husband’s hands, which are wracked with arthritis and unable to take regular gloves and mittens.

Adapting the simple pattern to accommodate the different size and shape of the hands, one glove was knitted on circular needles 4.5mm (32cm length), with 43 stitches and was worked (knitting every row) until it measured  25cm long, and the other on 5mm needles, with 50 stitches, until it measured 15.5cm long. I kept the tension loose so that the finished cuff didn’t drag over his painful joints. The hands and knitting both have flaws. Yet both are perfect just as they are.

I’m pleased to say, he reports that they keep him ‘toastie!’

 

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Chrismas stars and ballsEach year, when I take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away, I write a motivational note to my future self encouraging me to look up, chill out and enjoy the festive season. That might sound a bit crazy, but the truth is I have an anxiety about Christmas that borders on a phobia. The note is usually brief – ‘Relax and enjoy!’ Or ‘You can do this!’ – instructions meant to cut through the tension. Then I seal it in the box with the baubles and store it away, only to be read when I unpack it again the following December.

I have been in Buddhist training for most of my adult life. Practice helps me to understand why I am the way I am, accept the way I am, and illumines the path to necessary change. Like many of us, I have weathered some very human storms. Through Buddhism, I have come to understand that whilst our suffering is caused by our conditioning and attachments, it is also the path to liberation. I know this to be true. I know how to be still. I know how to direct myself. But then there’s Christmas!

While others happily and excitedly prepare for this seasonal event, I become increasingly aware of my building anxiety. I pledge to pace myself, take things steady. There are presents to buy and wrap, cards to write and send, decorations to put up, Christmas food to order and prepare. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Yet, as I go through the motions, a sadness descends like a grey mist and even though I make lists and organise myself so that I can get through the preparations in small, manageable chunks, I seem to be ruled by the limbic brain and struggle not to spin into utter panic.

Knowing this, I write the notes in acknowledgement of this unconverted state of suffering. Christmas Past, speaks to Christmas Future and tries to reassure this fearful being that it is not a big deal, yet for me, karmically, it really is!

Christmas 2020 was different. In a state of lockdown, due to Covid-19, the Government allowed us Christmas Day to be with our families but only three households could mix. I have three grown-up children, who usually pile back into the old family home, with their partners and children, so to choose just two households to join us for Christmas, leaving one of them out, was not something that I would countenance, even though one of my daughters volunteered to stay away. So everyone stayed at home. Things were quiet and low key and, without the usual hustle and bustle, I had time to ask more deeply just exactly what my difficulty with Christmas is.

As a result of doing this, I read a very different note to myself this Christmas. It did not chide me to be happy. It spoke not so much of a dislike of Christmas but the ambivalent feelings that it invokes. The idealism of all our hopes and dreams being pinned onto one day in the calendar year and the uncomfortable, unsatisfactoriness of that. It spoke of the love of sharing with others, set against the concern that I have for the homeless and those spending Christmas alone and how the homeless and the lonely are homeless and lonely all year round but somehow, on this day, it feels so much worse.

It spoke of how I found myself tearful and fearful for turkeys and pigs in their blankets, whilst also thumbing through the BBC Good Food Magazine and planning lunch. It spoke of the tension between the wish to be generous to others and a tendency towards excess that does not represent ‘The Middle Way’. Christmas has a quality to it that can seem to promise eternity, whilst slyly leading us away from it if we are not careful.

But the note also pointed out that, in my reflections, I had ‘touched that tender, soft spot of being’ and understood that the basis of my sadness and suffering is love. Christmas has a way of drawing up wistful melancholia that is still present but easy to miss at other times of the year. It is good to acknowledge that, to investigate it.

There is no note in the bauble box for me to read, next year. I thought about it but the need was gone. These missives have served their purpose. Christmas will continue to press my buttons, I have no doubt but I can see some of the causes, if not all and I will continue to do my Christmas training, with open-hearted curiosity, however long it takes.