O is for Opportunities

Opportunities for mindfulness

‘Woodbrooke is full of opportunities’ said Murray ‘there are stairs everywhere. Everytime you climb the stairs it can be an opportunity to do so mindfully.’

‘What if you forget?’

‘You have to go down and start again – that’s a buddhist joke’ we were told.

 

All our activities of daily living can be opportunities for mindfulness if we remember to see them that way, but this particular example of the teaching has stayed in my mind. Especially as I could immediately see that my workplace was similarly full of steps and stairs, being a converted building. That gave me a good way of continuing the practice when I got home from the retreat.

surgery

This year my workplace has moved and we are now in a modern building with full disabled access and I can avoid stairs completely if I choose to (and there are days when my walking (in)ability makes me glad to). This has meant I’ve needed to look for other reminders to mindfulness. Here are some of my current favourite opportunities:

 

Walking – to work, home from work, down the corridor at work (It may be level, but it is long and the staff toilets are at the far end!)

walk

Signing in to the computer. At work my passwords use words or reminders of phrases that remind me to be mindful. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you exactly what they are, but you can think of some for yourself I’m sure.

 

Preparing vegetables. I used to fill the kitchen with the news on the radio while I prepared food, but increasingly I prefer to just prepare food. That tends to mean I know less about what the news reports are saying and I am aware need to watch the balance there.

 

Washing up. Ditto to preparing vegetables.

 

Fruit picking, weeding, generally working on the allotment and being present and aware of the natural world. If I could cultivate this attitude to housework the house might get cleaned!

weeds

My current challenge is to remember any of these good intentions beyond 8am.

N is for Non-attachment

Recently I spent a couple of days helping Rhiannon sort out and pack her belongings in preparation for moving from her own flat back to our house for an unknown period of time. Our house is fairly small, and in her eight year absence we’ve spilled over into the extra space. Meanwhile she has accumulated many, very useful, possessions.

Now it was time to say: that won’t be needed again, so it must go; that’s worn out, so it goes too; that’s really useful, but I don’t need it while I’m sharing, so we’ll have to find somewhere to store it. The once-read never to be re-read novels went; the worn-out clothes went; the electrical kettle needs to be stored.

At my end I was finally motivated (and fortunately had the energy) to sort out boxes and boxes of guide paperwork that I’d saved for years. If I haven’t used the activity in ten years I’m not likely to now – it can go. I’d saved magazines for ideas, but I’m never short of ideas, and there’s the internet now, so the cupboard was emptied of magazines (I could hardly move the recycling bin afterwards!).

All good practice of non-attachment to things.

But non-attachment is not just about our attachment to things. It is not, I feel, primarily about throwing things out.

In considering the ‘things’, I find I’ve also been considering what else I’m attached to.

I’m attached to routines, to ways of doing things. There is nothing wrong with routines per se. They can save a lot of wasted effort and avoid me forgetting details. Getting up, washing, dressing, eating breakfast, getting to work – all hugely easier with a regular routine. But if something unusual crops up, be it a problem (eg can’t walk properly this morning), or a delight (how about a day out while the weather is so lovely), being too attached to a routine can be a problem eg I can’t go out with my friends this evening because I always go to bed at 9.30pm; eat my meal at 6pm; or whatever. I need to be able to let go. I may have a routine for housework; or food purchasing; or going to meeting for worship. But I need to be able to let go; to let someone else do it; to leave it undone; to do something different.

Then I started to think about emotional attachments, and attachments to people. Am I too possessive? Too keen to be in control? I need to let people around me have their own space. I like to think I’m available to listen, but maybe people don’t need to talk. I want to ensure that the guide unit continues, but I need to let others run the activities; devise the programme; learn by doing for themselves. I need to ask for help, but not be too demanding; to be grateful for support and company, but remain as independent as possible; to accept the disabilities that come and go without being too attached to my abilities or my disabilities.

The more I think about non-attachment the clearer it is that it’s a lot more than throwing out some old junk.

N is for News and how we react to it

This week’s news of the conviction of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of indecent assault made me think about how I react to items in the news.

I’m not generally a follower of celebrities, but I was a Rolf Harris fan, watching on television as a child and, once, being taken to see a live show – at Yarmouth Hippodrome if I remember rightly. When the accusations had become public I’d had to think through how I felt, so when friends commented on facebook following his conviction, I was able to contribute: ‘It’s very difficult. But I’m sure that people who do bad things aren’t bad all of the time, they do good things too, and those can be genuinely good things to have done. Surely nobody is totally evil or totally good.’

Much more strikingly, years ago in July 2005, I was at work when someone in the office picked up from the internet and read out the news of the shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes. Of course, we didn’t even know his name then. My immediate response was ‘I wish they hadn’t shot him’. My colleagues almost all took issue with me over this, arguing that he was clearly a terrorist, that the police knew what they were doing, that it was essential that they defend themselves and us. I, a bit surprised at the strength of my own reaction and conviction, had to argue my case. I think the initial response came from a total conviction that killing people is wrong, but I was also able to say that now he was dead he could not be questioned, could not give any more information, and that the police might be wrong, that he may not have been intent on becoming a suicide bomber. Interestingly, at least one of my colleagues remembered my reaction, when it later came out that Jean Charles de Menezes was totally innocent.

Much more usually I fail to respond at all. I’m not sure what to say, and so I say nothing.

But what is striking me this week is how powerful a situation this is, how we have the opportunity to put a different view by our reaction to items in the news that are in people’s minds, by our responses to these matters when they come up in conversation.

So, returning to Rolf Harris, an conversation began in the office about how long a sentence he would get, how long he would serve, how long people should serve. I was able to contribute some views in favour of assuming that people can change, and that people need hope. To lock someone up for life with no hope gives them no incentive to do anything positive at all. To lock someone up may protect others from that person’s actions, but does nothing to prevent any one of us becoming a child molester or murderer. We all need to try and see things from another person’s point of view, to see what really causes people to commit crimes, to understand how we need to change things to reduce the risks to everyone.

So, I shall be looking out for more opportunities in the future, and doing some hard thinking too, about all sorts of issues, so as to be better prepared to contribute.

 

M is for Mantra

Mantra – an aid to meditation, usually a word or phrase. It is repeated by the meditator, silently, or sometimes, aloud. It serves to focus the attention and to bring back the attention when it wanders off following some thought or other (and I expect anyone who has attempted meditation recognises that situation).

The idea is used by many different schools of meditation, secular as well as religious. Well known Buddhist mantras include ‘om mani padme hum’, ‘gate, gate, paragate’, ‘namo kuan sin yin pusa’. Christians may use ‘maranatha’, ‘be still and know that I am God’, or a meaningful word such as ‘Jesus’, ‘Lord’, ‘Christ’. Sufi Muslims use the names of Allah including ‘Allah akbar’. Then there is the Hindu ‘Hare Krishna’. Transcendental meditation offers each practitioner a personal mantra (though I’ve heard there are actually only a few different ones).

I use various of these at different times. To put it bluntly – I have fads for different ones. My overall favourite is ‘be still and know that I am God’, which I have learnt to be particularly effective if each repetition omits one more word from the end.

But I also view what look like other practises as variations of mantra meditation. Mindfulness of breathing uses the breath in place of the verbal mantra. Walking meditation uses my footsteps (and my breath too, if I can mange both at once).

Once I was in a group that tried knitting meditation. Each stitch is like the repetition of a mantra. (It needs to be fairly straight forward knitting.) We liked it so much that we did it every day of the week we were together. A lot of blanket squares were knitted. Someone who didn’t knit brought his embroidery along. That worked well too.

Blanket squares

Another mantra I’ve discovered is the visual ‘looking at the flowers’ mantra. While many people prefer to meditate with their eyes closed, it isn’t always appropriate (for the year or so that I took a medication that made me a bit dizzy, keeping my eyes closed, even when sat firmly still on my cushion, accentuated the dizziness and was most uncomfortable), but open eyes can wander very easily, taking the attention with them. Focussing the eyes on something such as the flowers on the table in meeting for worship, or on the shrine, or in the centrepiece, can be a good way of bringing the attention back.

flower

So what is my current mantra fad? Fruit-picking, especially blackcurrants. Like knitting there are lots of opportunities to bring the attention back. And, also like knitting, it’s gently productive.

What is your preference? What works for you?

M is for Meditation – how do I find time?

Buddhists meditate, everyone knows that. People will say, ‘I couldn’t be a Buddhist, I can’t keep quiet’, or ‘I couldn’t find time to meditate’. But ‘You don’t have to sit on the floor’ and you don’t have to be silent for long periods, or at all – some Buddhists chant, noisily, instead.

Quakers are observed to keep quiet too, and to sit still, but you don’t have to be good at those things in order to be a Quaker.

On the other hand, meditation can be a helpful tool, and sitting quietly to practise can be helpful too. It may be that everything goes better when I find time for meditation practise. But it may be that when things are going better, I find time to meditate. Or both.

So why don’t I do it more often? That is my question, but I hear the same, or similar, from other people. So maybe it would help to share some of our answers and the ways we’ve found to help overcome them.

log across path

So why don’t I practise meditation more often? Lots of reasons/ excuses:

 

I forget.

I procrastinate, although sometimes meditating is procrastinating …

I’m contrasuggestible, so much so that sometimes I rebel against what I’m told to do, even when I’m telling myself!

Things happen that interrupt me, the phone rings, someone comes to the door.

I feel I can’t sit still, or that I’ll be too aware of my aches and pains. Breathing mindfully is a lot harder with a cold when each breath hurts.

I decide something else is more important, which may or may not be true.

Changes in locations/routines that remove the ‘opportunities’ I’ve previously identified. For instance, when my walking becomes very difficult (as it sometimes does with my MS) suddenly the opportunity to step out of the house and walk mindfully to work has gone.

 meditation 2

And what helps me to practise meditation more often?

 

Knowing that other people are practising too.

Going to sangha meetings (at least occasionally) and practising with others.

Having time on my own, so that I don’t have to explain to anyone that I’m meditating (although all my family are quite understanding and respectful, and sometimes even join in).

Not allowing myself to meditate for too long (stopping while I’m still enjoying it).

Something to provide an indication of the passage of time so that I don’t clock-watch. A joss-stick burning is one way, another is to start when the clock will strike in about 15 minutes. I know to stop when the clock strikes. Or I might even use the timer on the cooker …

Remembering that I don’t have to sit on the floor, that doing what I’m doing mindfully is as good as, possibly better than, just sitting. Simpler tasks seem to be best – walking, preparing vegetables, sweeping, weeding. Someone once said to me ‘Woodbrooke is full of opportunities to practice – stairs everywhere.’ I realised that my (then) workplace was similarly endowed. I’ve since moved to a different office,where the full disabled access has many advantages, but the frequent opportunities to climb the stairs mindfully have gone, replaced by an opportunity to walk down the corridor mindfully.

Keeping it simple. I don’t have a special place, though sitting on my cushion on the floor helps, and sometimes I improvise a ‘shrine’ by putting eg a Buddha statue and/or a flower and/or a joss stick on a small table.

 dandelion clocks

What helps you?

L is for Heart of London Sangha

In 2010 at a retreat in Nottingham I formally received the five mindfulness trainings. Listening to the dharma talk later that morning I heard Thay speak of the importance of belonging to a sangha to support us in our practice. I heard the request that if we didn’t live within reach of a sangha we should start one.

‘In 2013′ I silently replied.

2013 because I knew that I was heavily committed as co-clerk of my local Quaker meeting until the end of 2012.

In the meantime I did look to see if there were Community of Interbeing sanghas meeting within reach of my home, and think about how possible it would be to start one in Watford, who might join it, what it would involve. At Nottingham in 2012 I inquired about other groups and also tried to contact others practising in the same tradition in my locality. The only people living near me seemed to be those I’d travelled to the retreat with. They were not looking to join a sangha in Watford at that time.

Of the groups meeting near to my home, the most accessible to me was Heart of London Sangha, meeting at Westminster Quaker meeting house on Saturday mornings. The timing and the accessibility by public transport made this more practical for me than other groups apparently nearer.

So it was in the back of my mind that come 2013 I might go there, perhaps to join, perhaps just to learn more about what setting up and running a local sangha may involve.

Then a facebook friend posted in his status that he’d been to the Heart of London sangha at Westminster meeting house, so I responded ‘that’s where I want to go’. A conversation ensued resulting in an agreement that we’d both go on an agreed day, and then have lunch together afterwards. This was a classic case of refinding a friend via social media, we hadn’t met for about thirty years. It was also the motivation I needed to actually make the journey into central London on a Saturday morning for the sangha meeting.

The re-establishment of the friendship has been a great delight, but that is not the point of this blog post.

This post is about my relationship with the Heart of London sangha.

I had looked at the website beforehand; I’d been to weekends at Woodbrooke led by a dharma teacher from the Community of Interbeing; I’d been on retreats led by Thay and monastics from Plum village; I’d tried to keep up some of the practise on my own; as a Quaker I’d even been to Westminster meeting House before (though a very long time before). So little in the morning of mindfulness was totally unfamiliar, though describing how I felt that morning using the weather as a metaphor was a little unusual.

On the whole I liked it. I was happy to go back another morning. I resolved to about once a month if I could (the sangha meets every week). Sometimes I would meet my friend, but my attendance at sangha meetings did not depend on that friendship.

Part of me really wants to get more involved, to get to know people a bit more. The logistics make it difficult. I am not good at standing around to drink tea and talk. By 1pm I am hungry and if I don’t eat fairly soon I get ratty and irritable. Part of me itches to learn to be a facilitator in this tradition (I do a lot of that sort of thing as a Quaker). My health limits how much commitment I can make, how reliable I can be. Some Saturdays when I don’t go, I feel a desire to be there and I may sit on my cushion to join the meditation for a while, to have the effect of being part of the sangha although I am not physically there. It is remarkably supportive. Other Saturdays I am busy with Quaker commitments and I am enjoying what I’m doing, fully involved in that and don’t miss the sangha meeting much at all.

So I remain a bit uncertain about my relationship with the Heart of London sangha. That isn’t meant as criticism, it’s just me trying to honestly explore my own position.

L is for Love and Letting go

‘… it [love] keeps no record of wrongs.’ 1 Corinthians 13:5 New International Version

 

I’ve always counted things, ever since I learnt to count (which was definitely before I went to school). Since I learnt to write, I’ve tended to write down what I’ve counted. How much money I have, how many jars of marmalade I’ve made, what I’ve sown in the allotment, what I’ve harvested from the allotment. I’m not very concerned about the size of the answer, I just like to know how much, how many.

I was at a wedding recently and 1 Corinthians 13 was read (as it so often is at weddings). It is beautiful (in part) and incomprehensible, or at least hard to understand, (in part).

On this occasion a modern translation (New International Version) was used and the phrase above leapt out at me and has stayed with me.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

It says to me: Don’t count the wrongs against you. Don’t write them down. You don’t need to know how many there are. Let them go. Forgive.

When truly I love another person, I don’t count their wrongs, real or perceived. And we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves. So I don’t count others’ wrongs, others’ mistakes, and I don’t count mine either.

God loves us and doesn’t keep a record of our wrongs. That is forgiveness.

This is also letting go and non-attachment. If I truly let go, I need no record of what I let go. If I am truly not attached, I need no record of what I not attached to.

K is for Kindling

At guide camp I’ve learnt that, if the night has been dry and quiet, sometimes the embers of yesterday’s fire can be re-kindled in the morning. It usually takes a lot of puff, or even vigorous fanning, as will as some dry twigs. On the last, but blessedly dry, morning of last summer’s camp I was first up and could feel warmth in the embers in the fire pit. So I fetched my bag of dry leaves and twigs from the store tent, along with a tray to fan the first tentative flames. As I placed the first twigs on the embers, a curl of smoke rose. I was amazed, but calmly added a few more sticks and soon had a flame, more sticks and then a fire. Then the kettle.

fire1A

In the right place, at the right time, kindling a fire is an easy thing to do. At other times, as I observed above, it can take a lot of breath and determination. Some days, when the weather is damp it is very difficult, and other days it may prove impossible.

On the morning quoted above I was as thrilled as the young guide the evening before who had lit a fire for the first time (and she’d been to scared to even light a match previously).

I also knew that in a couple of month’s time I’d be attending the ‘Kindlers’ conference at Woodbrooke. This experience made the metaphor of ‘kindling’ was very real to me.

The ‘Kindlers’ are an informal Quaker group working to rekindle the depth and passsion of Quaker worship. Their workshops encourage a greater awareness of what we are doing in worship, increased knowledge as to how to do it (instead of assuming that we’ll all just pick it up as we go along) and a deeper level of sharing than most people are used to. I find that I come away from a workshop enthused to share something of the experience with others. If we all do that then the fire will spread.

fire2

In the process of being a Quaker and a Buddhist, I find myself asking if there is a place for some ‘kindling’ amongst the Buddhists I know, as well as amongst the Quakers.

I sense that there could be, but I’ll remember to breathe mindfully as I blow on the warm embers!

K is for Karma

Karma, that’s a good Buddhist word and it begins with K – maybe I’ll write about that this week. That’ll be easy.

Except that I have a problem with karma. I just don’t believe in it at all. It makes perfect sense to me that what we do now affects what happens later. Simple cause and effect. Or, in most cases, not quite so simple, because most things in life are over-determined – caused by more than one factor.

What I don’t believe is that anything I’ve done in a past life is having an effect on my present life. I certainly don’t believe that the illnesses and other troubles I have and have had are caused by something bad I did in a previous life (or even in this one). I believe that these problems just are. Stuff happens, end of.

Why? In part because I don’t believe in past lives or future lives. This life is the only one I’ve got. I know a lot of people who believe otherwise and it really matters to them. That’s fine, and they may be right. But, as far as I’m concerned, when I die my atoms are going back into the universe (though hopefully some are going via the MS Tissue Bank). Just the same way they are swapping in and out of me all the time. Sometimes me, sometimes not me.

And the universe just goes on. Earth quakes quake. Storms wreak havoc. Floods soak and drown. The sun shines. Heatwaves happen. None of this is wrought by the hand of an angry god. None of it is caused by what the individuals who suffer it’s effects did in their non-existent past lives.

It may, at least in part, be caused by what human beings have done in the past. I do, for instance, believe in climate change and I do believe that human activity is a factor in it. I also believe that we might be able to reduce it’s effects by the actions we take now. At least we need to try.

I do my best to do the right thing now, for myself, but also for the community, the human race, the planet. Well, at least as far as I can figure out what that is. My incentive is just because that is the right thing to do, and because that way aligns me with that positive, loving, creative force that I call God.

And if it is true that my positive actions in this life will generate good karma that’s all to the good. Even if I don’t believe in it.

J is for Jumble

J is for joy, jargon, jokes, jewels (three), Jim (Pym), Jehosophat, joining, jobs …

 

I had plenty of ideas lined up for this second J in my Buddhist Quaker alphabet, but somehow none of them was quite becoming a post. None got further that a sentence or two. Not that I’m aiming at any great length, but it needs to say something to make it worth posting.

 

Then, as I sat in meeting last Sunday, I saw these words, these happening to begin with J words, as being a jumble, like a jumble of threads in the mess my sewing basket sometimes is, or the mess we used to see when emptying out the bags of donations for our annual guide jumble sale. When the jumble was sorted there would be a very few gems, lots of could be useful to somebodies, and loads of probably complete rubbish. But it was always hard to be sure quite what might sell. What’s rubbish to one person could be just what is needed to another.

 

Sometimes my spiritual life is like that pile of jumble waiting to be sorted. So many ideas coming in, from many different sources, that I can’t see any way forward. But time and patience, looking at each one, maybe trying it for size for a while, eventually create some degree of apparent order.

 

Until someone (probably me), accidentally or deliberately, tips the table over ….