G is for Gratitude

Today I am grateful for –

a new day

all those wonderful people out there whom I might meet today

waking up pain free

a warm house


a garden with trees and flowers

tomato seedlings on the windowsill, just emerging from the compost

supportive friends


I could go on …. and all that is before 8am! (Though I confess I find this much easier first thing in the morning than later in the day.)

Those of you who are Facebook friends with me will have seen that I quite frequently use this format for my status updates. It’s a good practice for me, especially on days when a lot of things are not the way I would like them to be. I adopted the practice having been inspired by the example of a friend who has considerable health problems, but is really good at maintaining a positive attitude to life. I find that expressing the gratitude I feel strengthens it considerably.

A few years ago, among the ‘unwanted’ christmas gifts in our household was a good quality birthday book. I didn’t have use for another birthday book (one really is sufficient, and is scarcely a necessity) but I was sure that a notebook with a space for each day must have a use. I came up with the idea of a blessings book. I changed the title on the cover and challenged myself to record everyday the ‘blessings’ I was grateful for that day. Some days it was not easy, but it turned out to be a very encouraging experience. I allowed repetition. After all, I really can be grateful for sunshine every day for a week, and for friends, and so on, but I tried to record the things that specifically stood out each day.

One of the prompts that led me to think hard about gratitude was Michael Mayne’s comment near the end of his book A Year Lost and Found about his experience of ME. He observes that we are called to give thanks for everything. Not just the good things that happen to us, but everything. To be really, truly grateful for everything. I haven’t yet got to the stage where I can be truly grateful for having suffered from ME. (Having just written it, I realise that the preceding sentence contains the truth of the matter. If I was truly grateful for the illness I wouldn’t be use the verb ‘suffer’ about it.)

Another was one of the Reiki principles that I encountered when I received my first Reiki attunement. Three of the five were very much things I was already aiming to do (following ‘Advices and Queries’), although phrased differently. The other two really made me think: ‘Express gratitude to …’ and ‘Respect your elders, … teachers’. Not just be grateful, but ‘express gratitude’. I was prompted to look for opportunities to express my gratitude. Some of these are private, like the blessings book; some more public, like Facebook statuses; some, and these are really important, are face to face, thanking people directly for something they have done for me. This is relatively easy when the gratitude is for something recent (eg making me a cup of tea, serving me in a shop) and the thanks are immediate, it is more challenging to thank people for something ongoing, or something they have done in the past (eg one’s parents for all the care they gave one as a child, a teacher for ongoing support over a period of time).

Tomorrow is ‘Mothering Sunday’ when it is traditional to thank our mothers for all they do for us. It could be a good practice to broaden this and to thank other people for the help and support and love they give us. Which brings me round to the theme for Watford meeting’s all age worship tomorrow ‘a nestful of gratitude’. If you are in the Watford area you are welcome to join in, any time between 9am and 11.30. Worship will include breakfast, activities around the theme and a period of quiet together.

Who will you thank today? What will you express your gratitude for?


F is for Fruit Salad

‘Twenty years ago at a conference I attended of theologians and professors of religion, an Indian Christian friend told the assembly, “We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that does not mean we are going to make a fruit salad.” When it came to my turn to speak, I said, “Fruit salad can be delicious! I have shared the Eucharist with Father Daniel Berrigan, and our worship became possible because of the sufferings we Vietnamese and Americans shared over many years.” … I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.’

So begins Thich Nhat Hanh’s book ‘living buddha, living christ’, the first of his books that I read.

I, too, like fruit salad, and I love to learn about other people’s faiths and how they apply that faith in their lives.

I have, however, learnt that in this as in everything else, moderation is essential. Otherwise it is quite possible to end up with spiritual indigestion. I learnt this very clearly over a memorable few days when I overate physically and spiritually.


On a Saturday evening during a course at Woodbrooke learning about Islam, our group went to a mosque in Birmingham and then on to a Sufi gathering nearby. At the mosque we were shown round and given plenty of opportunity to ask questions, and offered refreshments (we managed not to consume too much, we were already well fed since we were staying at Woodbrooke). The Sufis welcomed us to their evening of chanting and recalling the name of Allah. We were encouraged to join in if we wished (I did wish) and I felt very much at home (if I lived in Birmingham I probably would have found a way to go there again). This was followed by an opportunity to talk and ask questions very informally over delicious tea, pakoras, and lots of other food. It was impossible not to eat while listening and learning in fascination.

Having returned home, Monday evening was our regular monthly SGI Buddhist discussion meeting. After the chanting, teaching, discussion and entertainment, there was (you’ve guessed) tea and cake. It was someone’s birthday so there was more cake than usual, which could not politely be refused. Lots more spiritual experience and learning, lots more cake.

Tuesday evening was the appointed time for our local Interfaith association AGM. An interesting speaker giving more food for thought, followed by refreshments and a chance to talk and listen to one another. All thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating, but I was beginning to feel overloaded by it all. Just so much to take in. Physical and spiritual indigestion.

Fortunately the rest of the week was rather quieter. Overall I don’t regret any of this. It may have been easier if it had been more spaced out, but it is often necessary to seize the opportunities to share and learn (and eat) together when they occur.


Like the opportunity I had a few years ago to attend a meeting at the Zoroastrian centre at Rayners Lane. There are not many Zoroastrians, and hence they have very few centres outside India,and we are blessed that this one is so close to us. There was a formal large scale interfaith meeting in the afternoon, with an invitation to stay afterwards for a fire ceremony and then a meal (yes, more food). I was able to accept the invitation to stay into the evening, and it was a delight and privilege to experience the ceremony, even if I had little understanding of what was happening. Sharing the meal afterwards gave us a chance to get to know a few of the other visitors and some of the Zoroastrians, to learn more about their traditions and what had happened during the ceremony. After the meal, we were privileged to be taken upstairs to the worship area, at the top of this converted cinema,where a flame is kept burning continuously and people can pray privately as well as participate in community ceremonies.

I confess that my regular spiritual practice is a form of fruit salad. I like to sit on the floor, and often use an incense stick or a candle as an aid to meditation (though the meditation may become expectant waiting or upholding prayer). The prayer beads that I was given by a Krishna devotee (with a lesson in how to chant Hare Krishna) are another favourite aid to centring down, or are wrapped round my wrist as an aid to remembering all those who need to be prayed for and upheld. I try to be mindful as I walk, wash the dishes, prepare food and generally go about my daily life (though I forget very frequently). I attend meeting for worship once or twice a week, sangha meetings when I can, intefaith gatherings likewise, and, yes, will chant almost anything with any group that practises that way. As a Buddhist friend once commented to me (having just suggested to one person in our discussion group that the practice was there, she was welcome to ‘suck it and see’ if it suited her) ‘the trouble with you is that you don’t just want taste one sort of sweet, you want to try one from every jar in the shop!’ He was right,and that’s probably why I still get spiritual indigestion from time to time. But I’m unrepentant about liking fruit salad (and cake too!).


Following Luanne’s example, and since this post has been all about food, here are some recipes:


Fruit Salad


Take a selection of fresh fruit (you can use fruit that is slightly damaged or bruised, just cut those bits out), about one serving per person.

Eg for four, 1 apple, 1 banana, 1 pear, 1 orange.

Clearly this works well for 4 people or more, if there are only one or two people, you do need to make enough to serve them several times. One sliced apple for one person really isn’t a fruit salad.

Any fruit that you would eat fresh is fine. Cut into pieces and mix in a bowl with some fruit juice.

Tinned fruit (and the juice it comes in) or fruit that has been preserved by freezing can be used alongside the fresh fruit. A splash of liqueur is a good addition if alcohol is acceptable to all who will be eating it. Serve alone, or with cream, ice cream, custard or Swedish Glacé (for vegans)

teabreadPhoto: P Grant www.petespcs.co.uk


Fruit Teabread or Bara Brith

A reliable contribution for Quaker teas, study groups, interfaith AGMs, school fêtes, cake stalls and all manner of other occasions (especially as you get 2 loaves each time and it improves with keeping in an airtight container for up to four weeks)

Soak 1lb mixed dried fruit (use as wide a mixture as you like or have to hand) and 6oz sugar (any sort) in ½ pt warm tea over night or about 8hours.

Then mix in 1lb flour (I use ½ & ½ wholemeal/plain and 1 teaspoon baking powder, but all wholemeal works well too, or use self-raising and omit the baking powder), 1 egg (or use ‘no egg’ for a vegan version) and 2 tablespoons marmalade. Mix well, divide between 2 greased 1lb loaf tins and cook for about 1½ hours at gas mark 3. Allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tins before turning out on to a wire rack to finish cool. When cool store until required ,or just slice and eat, with or without butter.


Interfaith Pilgrimage – a Spiritual Fruit Salad


Westminster Interfaith organise excellent day long pilgrimages for peace in early June each year, visiting 5 or 6 different places of worship, often including the chance to participate in worship in at least one of them. Different places are visited each year. A good lunch is traditionally provided by a Sikh organisation from Birmingham. Travel may be by coach or by public transport, depending on the location.

Watford Interfaith Association run a smaller scale version each November visiting a synagogue, a mosque, 2 churches and a gurdwara, all within walking distance of each other for people of average fitness. It is good to walk together and talk along the way, but a car can be used if necessary. The fire brigade usually accompany the party, to learn and to support rather than because we are at risk of fires. The synagogue provide tea and cakes to set us up for the walk, the mosque will provide sweets and drinking water to sustain anyone who is flagging, and at the gurdwara a meal awaits the pilgrims at the end of the day.

F is for Four, Five, Fourteen

Four noble truths, five precepts, five mindfulness trainings, five contemplations, fourteen mindfulness trainings, the list could easily go on. I remember Jim Pym observing that Buddhism is a religion of lists, though I’m sure the lists are just intended as a way to help people remember the key points, and some people’s memory does work that way (mine does, at least to some extent) and others does not.

You can easily look up versions of these lists, so I’m not repeating them here. What I’d like to share is something of my own responses to the five mindfulness trainings, a modern version of the five precepts for lay Buddhists. As evidence that they are not necessarily to be taken as a word for word precious thing, the exact wording is changed fairly often and you may well come across different versions. I have more than one in front of me as I write.

My first real encounter with the five mindfulness trainings was at the Nottingham Retreat that Thay led in 2010. An evening session early in the retreat was devoted to five people sharing their personal experience of working with one of the trainings in their everyday lives. I came out of the session realising that what the way the mindfulness trainings were asking us to live was completely in line with the way I had long been trying to live my life guided by Advices and Queries, and with the very clear idea that I could take the step of formally receiving the trainings. The trainings can read as very prescriptive, but in preparatory discussion in my dharma sharing group we were assured that they were like the North Star, they guide us in the right direction although we will never actually get there.

A requirement placed upon those receiving the trainings is that they should study and recite them regularly, preferably with a sangha, and at least once in three months, to maintain the effectiveness of the transmission. Not seeing a way at the time to join a formally organised sangha, I took up my daughter’s offer of support in this. We agreed to read the trainings together once a month, on or about the anniversary of the transmission I’d received (she went on to formally receive the trainings in 2012). This we have done, and occasionally I’ve been able to do so in a wider group, especially during a few days at Woodbrooke in 2011 which were devoted to considering the Five Mindfulness Trainings and Advices and Queries*, and, during 2013, at meetings of the Heart of London Sangha.

At sangha meetings we tend to simply read the trainings aloud, allowing each person to respond to themselves whether or not they have made progress in applying that trainings in their own lives. Unfortunately, time is sometimes short and the reading is rushed. Personally, I’d like a little more quiet between each one to consider more fully (there speaks my Quaker self, I think).

With Rhiannon, I find we usually need about an hour. We read each training and then discuss any aspect of it that has struck us anew as we read it, or has caused us difficulty recently, or we feel we don’t understand, or we have seen in a new light. Yesterday we did this month’s practice. We decided to read them in a different order, which ended up being third, fifth, first, fourth, second. This showed up very clearly the links between them. When we’d discussed them in my dharma sharing group at Nottingham in 2010, someone had asked ‘do you have to take all five?’, to which the response was ‘no, you can receive one, two, three, four or all five – but be warned, each of them actually encompasses all the others’. Reading them in a different order really highlighted that to us. For example: ‘generosity in my thinking, speaking and acting’, ‘cultivat[ing] openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment’, ‘cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness’, ‘speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy and hope’, ‘cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening’, ‘coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me’ – all leading to a positive attitude that helps to promote and ‘preserve peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth’.

Parts that particularly and persistently challenge me include ‘not to possess anything that should rightfully belong to others’ – how far can I go with this? I ask myself, I have clean water to spare (enough to flush my toilet with) while others do not have clean water to drink – ‘do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse’ – what more could I do? And how? I certainly should get on with ensuring that children’s meeting helpers are DBS checked, help those children and young people I am in contact with to be able to speak out about things that concern them, but what else may be ‘in my power’? In other places I am irked by the very specific detail of the wording, there can be more power in the understatement and openendedness of the Advices and Queries. Though I remind myself also of the first of the fourteen mindfulness trainings ‘… we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as guiding means that help us develop our understanding and compassion. …’

And then there is the key difference between these two sets of guiding words, Advices and Queries also talks about God, but maybe that difference will be the subject of another post another day.


* I have a lovely little booklet that puts the five mindfulness trainings alongside extracts from Advices and Queries which I purchased in response to an item in Here and Now. It also has a brief introduction to both traditions, but the author has not included her name except for ‘Lesley’ on the hand-written note that accompanied my copy, so I can’t now tell you how to obtain a copy.

E is for Enlightenment

This I have heard:


When I breathe in, I know that I am breathing in

When I breathe out, I know that I am breathing out


When I breathe in, I know that I am alive

This is enlightenment, a little enlightenment



I heard this in one of Thay‘s dharma talks at Nottingham in April 2012 and it has stayed with me. The idea of a dharma talk is just to listen, to let the words sink into you, not to take notes – you will hear what you need to hear, which will be different for different people.

So, this bit has stayed with me. Clearly ‘know’ here is not know as in I can regurgitate for the examiner, it is something much deeper. Like the psalmist’s ‘know’ in ‘be still and know that I am God‘. When I truly know, I won’t be aware of my knowing, I will just be.

So, I just sit with it and, maybe, let it sink into me a bit deeper.

E is for (touching the) Earth

After our relaxation, and a little sleep, I awoke refreshed.

We were now offered a short explanation about how we ‘Touch the Earth’ (prostrate) in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, reassured that we need not do so if we were not comfortable doing so, but invited to participate if we wished to. I was happy to join in, I like to actually participate in the activities of other faith groups, to get a feel for how it may be to belong to that tradition.

allotment trees

Think about your ancestors, your blood ancestors, we were invited. Your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and their parents and grandparents before them. See them as people with ideals and problems just like everybody else. They all did the best they could for you, but they also made mistakes, knowingly or unknowingly, just as we do for our children and their children. Keep the best things they did for you and let the mistakes go. Let the mistakes return to the earth. At this point we prostrated ourselves (cushioned by the sleeping mats) and spent some time in silence with our feet, knees, hands and foreheads on the ground. Touching the Earth.

Standing again, we were invited to think of our land ancestors, those who had been in this place before us, in the place we have come to make our home, even if it was not the place where we were born. In so many ways the people who have lived here before us have made the land the way it is now. They too did their best, but they too made mistakes Keeping the best that we can learn and accept from them, we touch the earth and let the rest go.

When we are standing once more, we are invited to think of our spiritual ancestors. They may come from the tradition we grew up with, from one we have joined, from others we have learnt about. Some examples were offered: Jesus, Moses, Gandhi, George Fox, … space left to add our own. They too were not perfect, but they did their best. We touch the earth again.

The meditation continued through two more earth touchings, though I don’t now remember the content of the guidance.

I had heard of this profound way of connecting with our ancestors, but not experienced it before. It made a deep impression on me.

I have since participated in similar exercises several times. One in which the guidance invited us to remember of ourselves as a five year old child. Then to remember our parent, to think of them as a five year old child, to see things through their eyes then.

I wasn’t sure how this affected me, until I went out with my camera later that day. As I looked through the viewfinder at the plants in the garden, I realised that I was looking through my father’s eyes. He who photographed me so often in my early years; who taught me not only how a camera worked and how to use it, how to process the film and print the pictures, but also how to see the world through the lens and hope to capture something of it.

father's eyes

Besides this formal touching the earth practice, I have become aware of the spiritual importance of actual contact with the earth in my daily life. In meditation we are encouraged to sit with buttocks and knees firmly on the ground (or a cushion), or, if sat in a chair to be aware of our seat on the chair and both feet flat on the floor (many Quakers find this helpful in settling into worship). In walking meditation we are aware of our feet on the floor, or the ground outside (I love to do a walking meditation barefoot in Woodbrooke’s labyrinth). I find this very helpful when walking in my daily life (though I go somewhat faster than in formal walking meditation), it keeps me grounded in the present time and place. At least, it does when I remember to do it. However, since I tend to trip if I forget, I get a lot of reminders.

I have also come to understand that practical activities that actually, or almost, involve touching the physical earth can be deeply spiritual, and spiritually, as well as physically, grounding. I call them ‘getting my hands dirty’ activities. Actual gardening is probably best, weeding, sowing, harvesting, digging (when I can). Cooking, especially straight forward meal preparation, preferably with plenty of vegetable washing and chopping, is excellent too. Mixing bread dough by hand and washing up are good. Other hands on activities such as knitting and sewing are also helpful. I’m sure you can find your own examples. Incorporating some of these into my daily routines is important, rather than getting too involved in writing, reading, thinking, talking, discussing and other ‘head stuff’ all the time. Keeping my feet, literally and metaphorically, well grounded.

garden tub

Now to go and wash the kale and mushrooms for our supper …

D is for Deep relaxation

I came into the room and there were sleeping mats, pillows and blankets everywhere. People were sitting and lying down on the floor. The sight reminded me of a girl guide sleepover, though there wasn’t nearly as much noise.

So I got a mat and a blanket and joined in. I’ve done a lot of different things in Woodbrooke‘s quiet room over the years. Quaker Worship most mornings that I’ve been there, lots of sessions led by tutors, lots of sharing and listening in pairs and small groups, some drawing, a party and some circle dancing, but nothing quite like this.

The guided meditation that followed began in a fairly familiar way with thinking of parts of our bodies and consciously relaxing them, but I soon found myself falling asleep to the sound of the facilitator singing ‘twinkle, twinkle little star’.

When I awoke, another new experience was to follow … but that is the subject for my next post …

still reflectionIt still amazes me how this practice actually sends nearly everybody right off to sleep. Even in a conference centre hall with 400-500 people, when I woke a bit sooner than most, I realised how many of us had slept. Very refreshing it is too.

There are also some simpler relaxation meditations (see The Blooming of the Lotus) that I have found easy to use lying in bed at home when everything has felt a bit too much to cope with.