Mindfulness, nature and a certain kind of awareness

I have mentioned before that I have friends who own a small-holding on the Welsh borders and sometimes when they go away I go and stay to look after the animals.

This year I decided to make it my annual retreat and to keep a fairly formal structure to my time there. And it turned out to be a really special time which I would like to share something of as it also relates to the retreat I am leading at Othona retreat centre in July.

Intentions.

I had two intentions for this retreat. One was to come to a place where I wasn’t quite so dominated as I usually am by my endless discursive thoughts. And the other was, perhaps from such a place, that I might get a clearer view as to the direction my life and teaching is heading in.

And whereas I do think one needs to be a little circumspect about setting intentions for a retreat (in case there is actually something completely different which needs to emerge) in this case something of both of these intentions were fulfilled in a really helpful way.

Nature

And what came to be central for me was the part of the retreat where I was consciously connecting with nature.

I set out a rough timetable for myself which included three things: meditation, being in nature and simple practical living (cooking, eating, resting etc.).    

And that was it. I did a bit of reading though not much and also a bit of journaling (probably more than helpful) but basically I did indeed come to a sense of very simple living.

And it was great! After a couple of days I was, perhaps rather romantically, thinking: I could live like this! There were challenges to come but I still carry with me that core feeling that this is life – this is living – and anything else needs to emerge out of this (rather than the other way round where we normally see such a way of ‘being’ as a break from ‘real life’).

And it was the nature connection which really helped me here. Each day I had my daily rounds with the animals: letting out, gathering in and feeding hens and ducks; feeding and watering pigs; and letting in and out of the house (several times a day!) the house cat. And, instead of simply getting these tasks done as quickly as possible, I decided to make them part of my practice. So I stopped and lingered and sat with the animals and simply paid attention to them.

And, as we teach in mindfulness, it is not just where our attention is but the quality of our attention which can help us to make the shifts we need in life. And this quality is not to get sucked into trying to understand in order to solve issues, fix problems, become more efficient or plan the next move. But it is more a case of simply catching a sense of what is here – what it is to be this animal with its largely pre-cognitive state, just living, just being.

At one stage in my journal I wrote:

Here is a cat being a cat.

Here is a hen being a hen.

Here is a pig being a pig.

Here is Tim mostly trying hard not to be Tim

in case he gets ‘found out’!

So I kept going back each day – as required of course, but also gladly, to see if I could catch just a little bit of the simple authenticity of being which these animals could not help but live, moment by moment, day by day.

Thoughts in their place.

Thoughts, of course, were ever present in my own experience: trying to work out logically the right direction for decisions that were looming. But they never seemed to resolve anything for long. There always followed another set of thoughts offering a different point of view – as there always seems to be as we reflect on this sort of level. I do think that discursive thinking has its place and is really important not to ignore. But here is the point – we need to let such thinking find its appropriate place in our lives – and leave it there – and then open up to this wider, more visceral and more primal way of simply knowing – of coming back to the simple act of living and to the authenticity of life which might emerge from this.

Authenticity.

And it was this word, ‘authenticity’ which really held me through the week. These animals seemed to have no capacity to be anything other than authentic. Whereas we human animals seem to have devised layers and layers of sophistication which threaten to draw us further and further away from such authenticity.

So, I went back again and again and watched simple authenticity at work – or was it ‘at play’ as the animals continued with the business of simply being animals.

I also made space for afternoon walks where I would spend periods of time sitting with the plants and the trees. At one point I even asked a great Oak I was sitting in front of for some advice. The oak, of course, remained silent because (as with Mary Oliver’s roses – see below) it was far too busy simply being an Oak tree!

But I had heard the message anyway – authenticity – do whatever leads you closer to this in your life – Tim coming to be authentically Tim – not trying to impress anyone or to achieve anything splendid – but just to be real. And it was from this place that the decisions are coming which are shaping my life right now. And it feels very good.

A certain kind of attention and the environment.

And this is the kind of attention we seek to learn and practice in mindfulness. A technical term I use for it is ‘non-dual’ awareness – the kind which does not seek to draw lines between us and the rest of nature but allows us to come to know the unity – ourselves as a part of and not separate from nature. And as we come to know the unity we may even find the wisdom to be able to live in this world without destroying the very essence of what gives us life and nourishment.

Roses – Mary Oliver

Everyone now and again wonders about
those questions that have no ready
answers: first cause, God’s existence,
what happens when the curtain goes
down and nothing stops it, not kissing,
not going to the mall, not the Super
Bowl.

“Wild roses,” I said to them one morning.
“Do you have the answers? And if you do,
would you tell me?”

The roses laughed softly. “Forgive us,”
they said. “But as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses.”

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