Good ? Bad ? Who knows

parable

How many times have you contemplated an event in the future, work or social  and judged it before it even happens?, only to find out that your judgement wasn’t even close to the reality. The social event you judged to be awful turned out to be great, the work meeting you thought would achieve nothing was actually constructive.

Equally, when events happen in our lives unexpectedly we often rush to assess its negative aspects before we consider the positive aspects of a situation. That is not to say ‘bad’ things do not happen and we may be right to judge them as such but too often our minds are engaged in excessive habitual judgements. One of the best illustrations of the fallacy of this tendency is the parable of the chinese farmer. It reads

Once there was a Chinese farmer who worked his poor farm together with his son and their horse. When the horse ran off one day, neighbors came to say, “How unfortunate for you!” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

When the horse returned, followed by a herd of wild horses, the neighbors gathered around and exclaimed, “What good luck for you!” The farmer stayed calm and replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
While trying to tame one of wild horses, the farmer’s son fell, and broke his leg. He had to rest up and couldn’t help with the farm chores. “How sad for you,” the neighbors cried. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the farmer.
Shortly thereafter, a neighboring army threatened the farmer’s village. All the young men in the village were drafted to fight the invaders. Many died. But the farmer’s son had been left out of the fighting because of his broken leg. People said to the farmer, “What a good thing your son couldn’t fight!” “Maybe yes, maybe no,” was all the farmer said

The farmer rebuffs the natural tendency to label a situation good or bad. He is the ‘voice’ of the space that develops as we become more mindful and start to drop the traditional and constant narrative of judgement of our experience. As my  mindfulness practice  develops and my awareness has increased I have found that there is an ability to see an emerging judgement for what it is… ‘a thought’.  To let it emerge, dissipate or maybe become something more substantive but to avoid the need to immediately react.

The practice is not easy and we can all slip into habitual panics as we approach new situations and judge them .  In reality though the habitual judgement has no legs and mindfulness encourages us to be open to the present moment experientially . The benefit? To approach situations more openly, with a lightness, as we are freed of the ‘defense’ of the thinking mind. To see that experience rarely falls between the extremes of good and bad, but has an ambiguity and a beauty more open than the narrow limitations of good luck or bad luck.

 

 

Unconditional Friendship To Ourselves

One of the things I continue to be struck by, and have been reminded of through conversations recently, is how tough we can be on ourselves.

I talk about it as a follow on to my recent post on  meditation and mindfulness, because when we stop our busy lives, even for a moment, difficult things come up in our ‘thinking’. Not least what I call ‘RADIO-ME’ the background hum of our internal dialogue, much like a radio, that isn’t positive about where we are in the present moment.

We are often aware of it and in meditation it can sound a lot louder and sometimes will put people off committing to a regular and committed practice.

So what does this voice sound like? It differs from person to person but usually it will have a core pattern. It is a voice of judgement, of what we did or didn’t do right in the past. It is a voice of unrealistic expectation, asking us to push ourselves in a way that is not good for our wellbeing. It is the opinionated voice of ‘facts’ about who we are- I am selfish, I’m not clever enough etc etc, I shouldn’t have done x y z.

It’s existence is detrimental to our wellbeing. To be clear here, we are not talking about the gentle voice of reflection, the supportive voice of learning or the encouraging voice that wants to see you do well but rather the gnawing voice of what we commonly call ‘our own worst critic’

There is though a way to counteract this tendency we have. The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron, who turned 81 this last week, is one of the best exponents of the process of ‘maitri’ (pronounced my tree). It is the practice of loving kindness or as she calls it beautifully Unconditional Friendship to Ourselves. 

It is a practice of developing a loving kindness for ourselves. I have practiced it for a number of years and still sometimes I find it hard, particularly when times are challenging and uncomfortable, and the old negative voice begins to take hold. Yet like any loving kindness it requires cultivation and commitment. So how do we do that? There are a number of ways to develop a practice of ‘maitri’:

  1. By acknowledging the existence of a sometimes negative voice but not engaging with it ‘negatively’. It is inevitable that sometimes we will feel bad  about ourselves and to some degree this can have some benefit where we may have behaved for instance in anger but engaging and ruminating with internal negative dialogue is draining and damaging. Instead we can acknowledge it, trust ourselves to learn from it where appropriate and replace it with…
  2. Positive affirmation. I am good enough for this. I do deserve that to happen. I have worked hard and done well to achieve x. It doesn’t have to be some over the top recited mantra, unless that’s your thing, but to find it consider the voice you use to talk to friend when they think they have screwed up and use that more to talk to yourself because guess what..
  3. The voice of negativity is not always right, so surround yourself to help you with people who will help counterbalance sometimes our own internal negative bias. As well as these people you will need moments of..
  4. Self care. I am not talking here about retail therapy or distraction therapy (gin being my choice on that one) but genuine moments of quiet and time for ourselves when we can learn to accept and love who we are.

I have found all of the above useful in developing a good relationship with myself. We are not perfect, we will screw up but that is part of the deal, the rich vista of life. Our understanding and learning from that should feel positive and grounded in compassion for ourselves. For it is that self compassion which is the basis of our care and love for others.

the things we need facebook

My 5 ways to make your meditation practice stick

meditation

I wrote in my last  post about my journey into meditation and mindfulness. My practice began with taught classes at a local Buddhist Centre and in many places, those classes are still available. Others are now accessing meditation tutorials through apps such as Headspace.

Like many things starting a meditative practice is one thing but continuing it is something else. Below are my 5 ways to make your meditation practice stick:

  1. Manage your expectations– Meditation is not an elixir or panacea. It is true that many people come to it because they want to improve their quality of life but ‘life’ unfolds pretty much the same way it always did even after you start meditating. You will still have days where life is hard, stressful, emotional, and tiring. If you want a transformative high, where you look like all the smiley pics of the Dalai Lama, you are also likely to be disappointed! Even he has had his bad days. If you come to practice with a simple expectation that meditation will be ‘of benefit’ and with an open mind as to how, you are more likely to keep at it.
  2. Do it– meditation is called a practice because we are committing to continually practising meditation. Whether it be for 3 minutes a day or 30, whether we choose to sit for all our practices or whether we approach some of our daily activities such as eating more mindfully we will  make progress if we commit to regular practice. We can be creative in the ways in which we build our practices up to support sticking with it. Something as simple as the mindful drinking of a cup of tea in the morning all adds to our immersion and appreciation of the value of meditation in our lives.
  3. Avoid Judgement and Labels– Meditation cannot be bad or poor or all those other words we are used to using when we talk about ourselves and our performance of activities. The merit of the experience continuing is beyond what we may see as a ‘bad session’. If we see meditation as one of the few experiences in life where we make progress every time we sit then we are more likely to continue even when we take a view that a session has not gone well
  4. Celebrate it– I approach this one carefully given 1 and 3 but whatever you discover or the awareness you gain as you meditate should be acknowledged and celebrated. These moments however fleeting should be accepted for what they are and seen as the true delight of meditation
  5. Benefit will come for you and others– We must be cautious about goals and objectives with meditation but this is what I would call a ‘universal promise’- there is a reason the practice of meditation has endured for over 2000 years and that is, it will have a positive impact on your life and others. It will not always be comfortable or predictable but after time as the experience unfolds you will acknowledge the positive impact it has had on your life and through your practice the life of others.

 

Mindfulness

A few months ago I had coffee with a friend and told her that I had started a blog. ‘What is it about?’ she asked? ‘Travel, life, journeys’ I told her. ‘OK she said as long as its not about that rubbish mindfulness, I’ll have a read’. I laughed out loud and admitted there probably would be some discussion of the subject.

Mindfulness is increasing in popularity among those interested in self and personal development. Organisations too are using it as part of their work to support employees. The benefits of increasing awareness of the present moment and its benefits on wellbeing are being written and talked about. Healthily, there are those who challenge the benefits of practice and wonderfully there are some very humorous takes on its meaning and impact, most notably the Ladybird Book On Mindfulness.

mindfulness

Ultimately though all the views and evidence have to sit alongside experience to understand how mindfulness might benefit us.

My experience of mindfulness started almost 20 years ago when I read my first Buddhist text and attended a Buddhist centre to learn meditation. Anyone expecting a ‘quick fix’ or indeed a ‘fix’ through meditation and mindfulness is probably in for some disappointment.  In the early days of sitting and being aware of the breath I felt like i would go crazy as the random thoughts entered my head…..last years holiday…agenda for next weeks meeting……why am I thinking of cheese and onion crisps now? .

But there is a reason why its called ‘practice’ and over time meditating daily started to bear fruit. The pace of my thoughts slowed, I felt less inclined  to ‘engage’ with them, to ruminate and act upon them. When I did act on my thoughts it was more ‘conscious’ and less harmful.

There was a spread of benefit from the periods of practice to life more generally.  The way I have described it to friends is that I became more meditative generally, my practice of meditation had evolved into a more expansive mindful practice. The ‘skill’ developed too, I was more generally ‘aware’ of my thoughts, and some very habitual thought patterns decreased significantly, I let them go.

With the ‘noise’ of my mind increasingly quietened I found my awareness and acceptance of the present moment increased. It is a misconception that mindful thinking means never thinking about the past or the future, but it does mean that being in the present is the most important thing of all. It is what is in front of us at this very moment that is truly the only ‘time’ we have.

Over the past few months I have realised even more the deep quality of that present moment, it is beyond the joy of the good times and the sadness of the bad it is the value of the equanimity  of our experience. It is the realisation of the opportunity we have in front of us in every second to live fully in whatever way we choose to do that.

 

 

A pause before Paros

Sometimes it is essential to pause, to take a break from something and continuing a journey sometimes takes longer than anticipated.  The journey to Paros from Naxos was not a long one, it has just taken longer to tell it. Paros is typical of many of the islands in the Cyclades, peppered with whitewashed buildings, blue domes and Taverna tables. It is one of the lesser known and comparatively  quieter islands but its hub at Parikia is a vibrant port, a key transportation route and fishing base for the island.

It was down the road from here, close to Livado beach,  that I stayed in a modest but beautiful boutique hotel, owned and managed by two brothers and their father who had fished the seas around Paros for over 30 years. He still dressed in the uniform of the seas and every morning as he served breakfast he looked like any minute he was off to captain a boat.

 

I should have known that with his experience and probably his sons too, their understanding of what might be regarded as choppy seas might be different from mine. I do not have good sea legs but I wanted to take the opportunity to see other islands. The short boat ride to Anti- Paros had probably lulled me into a false sense of security. But still I found myself  making my way to Naoussa for a ‘cruise’ to Delos and Mykonos.

The boat looked substantial which reassured me and as we sailed away from the harbour I took comfort from the gentle waters.  Inside the music played as we lounged in something reminiscent of the 1970s Loveboat. As we took to sea though, the calm changed as we crashed over the seas. Soon the sick bags were out and I was hoping for the destination to arrive quickly. It truly was a surreal moment as Zorba the Greek played through the boat and a Mr Bean film played on the TV.

Delos, the first stop for the boat was an island that felt like a living an evolving museum, a place of artefacts and emerging excavations. In its heyday, the houses would be filled, the markets full of traders, theatres packed during celebrations. Now it has no inhabitants, just a steady flow of archaeologists and the curious. If this was as an island of celebration of Apollo in years gone by,  its nearest neighbour Mykonos is now an island for present parties. It was a pleasant place for lunch and a few hours but I was glad that I had stayed on the more authentic Paros.

Scent

#World Poetry Day

scent

Scent

I recall you never taking the apron off.
You didn’t work but your ‘work was never done’.
Food on the go, a hot crease in the trouser, 24 hours on- demand!

And there was the fun we had.
Summer Days sat in the garden.
Late nights listening to the radio,
Dancing at the back of the sofa.

The fights were epic.
Always ending in tears, hugs and sorry
Cos ultimately who else did we have, except each other.
And yet I now know that when I slept you must have felt you had no one

We laughed when the dark shadows that frightened us turned out to be the boys returning home!
Smiles all round
But there must have been days when you longed for ‘a bit of peace’.

It came of course as it does for us all.
In a sunlit room, after a cup of tea, unusually not made by you
No worries now.

We spent a lot of time talking, reminiscing, memories important
Indeed they are!
Of crinkled golden hands squeezed tight
Of the smells, the scent of a new day
Of hugs
Of love
‘I think I’m dying’ you said
You were right, you were always right

Naxos

There is something beautiful about arriving to an island by boat. Obviously flying into Santorini was stunning, the island spilling out beneath me as we came into land.

Naxos appeared in the distance,  its white buildings lifting from the sea. As we got closer my eyes were drawn to the monument of Portara.

naxos sunset

Portara is a huge doorway  (and its literal meaning)  made of blocks of stone. An entry to a temple that was never complete, facing towards the island of Delos.

Its emotion is in the story of ambition which never quite reached fruition. Its beauty is in its framing of the island,particularly in the evening,  the sunset and sea on one side and the lights of the harbour restaurants and bars on the other.

naxosnaxos view

The harbour itself is busy, working from the fisherman of first light. If you go at various times of the day you can almost see the circle of fish from sea  to restaurant to table, including the sight of octopus legs hung to dry in the Greek sun.

It is the starting point for some winding walks to the old town. It appears from some of the history that these pathways would have been dangerous in times past, the castle at the top of the island offering warning of, and refuge from,  invaders. Now though, the only danger is the slip after a cocktail on the shiny cobbled walkways or the temptation of ice cream. They wind and you duck  beneath the stone archways and at every turn there is something else to explore.

naxos octopus

The excess can be slept off the next day on any of Naxos’ beaches. I stayed close to one for all but one of the nights I was there. I forgot to book one nights accommodation but error became advantage as on the last night I booked into a hotel on the harbour and sat on the baclony, drinking and thinking of the days ahead.