EMERGING FROM SABBATICAL
PEACE, AWARENESS AND ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD.
I usually write a blog about once a month on themes around mindfulness, meditation and living a more mindful life. However I have been deliberately quiet this summer while taking time for what I have termed a ‘sabbatical/retreat’ – a term which both tries to describe the mix of what I have been doing as well as trying to sound reasonably impressive when people ask. So, a few words this month on what this has been about and what is emerging from it.
It was around November last year when I began to realise that, having left my career at least in part so I would be able to stop racing around without a real awareness of what I was racing around for, I was now in danger of doing it again even though I was now self-employed and had more control over my life. So it was then that I decided to take a term off teaching all forms of mindfulness and to give myself the space perhaps to get in touch with something both deeper and wider. ‘Deeper’ would be about connecting more deeply within and ‘wider’ would be about sensing more acutely the context in which I wanted to teach. My time would be spent in meditation, reading and in the simple practical business of living. I would be mostly home based but I would also spend some time in solitude.
So, in terms of ‘deeper’, yes I did feel that I came much closer over time to an awareness of some core patterns of my own thinking and reacting. Some of these were quite challenging for me and at times I felt I was truly ‘facing my demons’. But I never felt I got lost and very much attribute this to my meditation practice which trains us in keeping some degree of perspective as we allow ourselves to experience all that is within. There is a huge difference between getting sucked in or lost in our thought processes and being able to see them happen in real time, however difficult they may be. There were some difficult and unpleasant moments, yes, especially during a two week period I spent alone, but these moments usually came just before I began to recognise what it was that was here. Unlike some brands of cheap furniture, the veneer almost always being worse that the thing itself.
I would like to say more on this in time but just to say for now that my feeling is that something quite deep has shifted in me and that new possibilities seem to be here as a result.
And in terms of ‘wider’ I have had the growing sense that I don’t want to be just teaching mindfulness but I want my teaching to be in the service of some aspect of life which I feel deeply committed to. Mainstream mindfulness has the admirable aim of reducing people’s experience of suffering both physical and mental and I completely support this aspiration and the vital work which is being done here. But for my own part I find my heart is drawn to a wider context than this. Over the years I have been involved in environmental protest, in nature connection, in homelessness and other social issues as well as in spirituality and also find myself deeply moved and disturbed by much of what is going on in the political world these days. But, despite my own privilege, I also feel vulnerable and somewhat anxious when I reflect on these things today. So I do want to engage meaningfully with the world but I also recognise the need for honesty, knowing our limits and support from both personal practice and from community. So, will it be possible to practice and teach mindfulness in a way which relates to these kinds of things? This is my hope – or my wondering. So, to give myself more time to reflect on this and have some conversations and do some planning, I have decided not to set up courses for this autumn but to set my sights on the new year instead.
Looking for a central theme though, I have been wondering about two key aspects which mindfulness is often associated with and which we also find in the spiritual traditions. These are Peace and Awareness. And then I want to add a third word, Engagement.
Peace, in terms of a calmness within, may be absolutely what you need right now to deal with significant anxiety or turmoil. And that is good – mindfulness can support us with this. But even Jesus had an ambiguous relationship with the word, at one point telling his followers that he had not come to bring peace but the sword – and as he turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple he was not exactly contributing to calmness. Old testament prophets were also known to attack those they considered false prophets for declaring there was peace when in fact there was no peace. This last links with others who have declared that there can be no peace without justice. And finally I am told that the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ (usually translated ‘peace’) has much more the sense of ‘a wide open space where the people can flourish’. So the term ‘peace’, at least in these traditions, carries a much wider meaning than calmness.
The other thing both mindfulness and the spiritual traditions talk about, though, is variously described as ‘seeing’, as ‘spiritual insight’, and particularly in the Buddhist tradition as ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’. And, although peace within is such a precious thing, it would seem to me that it will only ever be genuine peace if it is also linked with awareness – awareness both of what is within me as well as what is going on around me – and how they relate. And I think it is this aspect of mindfulness teaching which really draws me: mindfulness in the service of waking up to ourselves and to the world; mindfulness in the service of creative engagement with the issues around us; mindfulness in the service of helping us to reflect on just how to live in these times; mindfulness as a way of shifting perspective and then, and only then, deciding how to act.
So, this is as far as I have got and what I will be wondering about through the autumn. I would be interested in thoughts, ideas, connections and others who are thinking along the same lines. And then, hopefully, setting up groups for January – some just basic mindfulness but some exploring how mindfulness can support our engagement in the world. And, yes, for those who have asked, I do hope to be able to offer some on-line stuff if that is the only way. I’ve even got around to buying a web-cam!