NATURE CONNECTION

BLOG: Nature Connection

What might it mean in our day, to live a balanced, holistic spiritual life – whether or not you are part of a religious institution? Institutions tend to provide their own structures and can be more or less flexible and more or less prescriptive in the way they offer them. But if I were judging for myself the value of what was on offer, or, even more, if I was trying to cultivate such a life outside an institution (which I am) then what would it look like? What would be the elements which made it feel balanced, healthy and whole?

These are the questions I have been exploring for many years both inside and outside religious institutions. And the conclusions I am coming to, which I have been seeking to share in these pages (particularly articulated in my last blog), are that such a spiritual basis for life would need to include three things:

  1. Some form of daily reflective practice
  2. Some kind of intentional commitment to community relationships
  3.  Some form of heart engagement with the rest of nature

I have written quite a lot about the first – especially how mindfulness can be the basis of a very healthy and on-going reflective practice. I have written more recently about the second, especially as we have been developing our own small community.

But, though I would not have prioritised it 15 years ago, the third, nature connection, has increasingly seemed like an absolute essential (as well as a delight and joy) if our spirituality is to be truly holistic since it completes the picture of the work of re-connection: with ourselves; with others; and with the rest of nature.

So, first a couple of reflections and then two simple nature connection practices to share.

As I have suggested before, all our spiritual practice is really about connection – or re-connection – or, more accurately, becoming aware of how we are already connected – with everything that there is. And the key word here is ‘how’ – in what way we are connected. Because there are spiritual traditions which have suggested that we are connected in a hierarchical way to the rest of nature – with the implication that we ourselves are not really part of nature but are somehow a little bit above it. I’m hoping that this, as a bald statement, will sound all wrong to most of us. But the trouble is that it has for such a long time been part of our cultural thinking that we may need to work a little harder to really let go of it and of how it affects our instincts and leanings.

So, in this sense, this aspect of spirituality really needs to be more than going for a walk in the woods or keeping pets. But rather we will need to bring to bear a particular attitude, or quality of attention, to our walk and to our pets. And this will be the attitude of what I will call egalitarian belonging to replace the utilitarian exploitation which has been the mark of our culture’s attitude to nature for so long.

And this will necessarily be a deep work of the heart rather than just an assent to an idea. It will need as much perseverance as our meditation practice and our community building because it will be a work of overturning deeply rooted attitudes and instincts.

And the reasons that this is such essential work are really quite simple. One is that we humans will never find our true sense of our humanity in isolation from the rest of nature – we are not an island even as a species – and we will ever be the poorer if we try to be. And the other is that (you may have read!) there is a climate and ecological crisis of unimaginable proportions which, in the end, is largely rooted in humanity’s isolationist attitude to nature.    

And I say all this conscious that I am a beginner myself in this territory. I see others for whom this is so natural. Whereas for me it is still very much a work I need to persevere with.

But here are two ways I seek to practice as often as I can.

  1. Animal connection.

We have two dogs in our household and I have more than once been questioned for not referring to them as part of our community venture, because of course they are – they affect our relationships, our moods, our activities, everything. One of them even joins our meditation sessions. I am, of course, aware of this on one level. But I have sought more recently to intentionally pay more attention to each of them: to their needs; what they seem to be communicating; to share in simple affection; and to talk to them without then making my own mind up as to what their reply might be. And most of all seeing if I can bring this attitude of egalitarian belonging to these beings who share our home.

Community dogs: communal eating and …. different personalities!
  1. In the field.

The other thing I have been doing for quite a long time and which seems to me so simple and yet so profound is simply sitting, and paying this same kind of egalitarian belonging attention in the midst of nature. And this is what I mean by it being more than just going for a walk in the woods – because the quality of attention we pay is everything.

So what I do is this:

half way round one of the local fields where I walk my dog there is a bench; if it is free I sit myself down on it and settle myself for a 10 or 20 minute session – sometimes longer;

I will start by closing my eyes (if I feel safe to do so) and bringing gentle attention to my own breathing and the physical sense of my body siting here – I might count four or more breaths after I feel I have settled;

and then, whilst as far as possible retaining the sense of my own body breathing, I will take time to listen to the sounds, feel the air and smell whatever the breeze is carrying in  my direction;

then I will open my eyes and shift my attention to the smallest of aspects of nature in front of me – usually this is a blade of grass;

then I will expand my vision to the patch of grass around it;

then the whole field (trying not to hurry this process but lingering with each stage);

then I will expand my vision to all that is around the field;

and finally I will take in the vast expanse which seems to contain it all. And all the time, as far as possible, retaining just some small amount of awareness of my own body breathing in the midst of it.

But the key to this practice is this: to gradually let go of the conception that I am the centre of it all (which my cognitive mind tends always to want to suggest) and gradually to allow the awareness to arise that I am simply a part of this vast, glorious and wonderful whole – and, in fact, really quite a small and relatively insignificant part.

Interestingly this is quite a liberating experience. All my me-centred thinking falls away, just for the moment and my neurotic self-survival kind of thinking fades. And I can relax and rejoice that, actually, it isn’t all about me after all – and that this landscape is looking for nothing much from me other than a degree of humility and respect – and a sense of mutual fellowship and belonging.

And, just in case you’re wondering how these sorts of practices will have any kind of effect on our ecological crisis, what we are sharing in and cultivating here is the profound shift in consciousness that the crisis will require of us. If our action to change our effect on the world is to be sustainable it must be accompanied by such a consciousness shift otherwise it will always be in danger of running out of steam in a muddle of moral and intellectual argument. So, beware! Such practices may lead to vegetarianism and eco-activism – as they did in my case.

For more, though, see Bruce Parry’s film ‘Tawai’ described in the resources section.

COMMUNITY

Meditation. Community. Nature.

Over the last few months I have been thinking and writing about three practices which can be a great support for our meditation practice as we seek to live the mindful life: Silence; Solitude; and Simplicity.

But meditation alone cannot be said to constitute a holistic spirituality. The fuller picture, for me, would need to include two other elements: community and nature.

All these three, Meditation, Community, Nature, are really about connection, or reconnection. Or even better, affirming our sense of belonging to all that is within and around us.

The story, in short, goes like this: everything is, in fact, already connected (everything already belongs to everything) but the human mind, through the less enlightened aspects of our drive to survive, has developed the compulsion to separate, to divide. Or, rather, to think and behave as though we were separate – that we do not belong. And we have done this in three ways: we have separated from aspects of our own selves by repressing those things which make us uncomfortable or which do not appear to serve our most immediate survival needs; we have separated from other humans in an ‘us-them’ mentality in order to dominate; and we have separated from the rest of nature in the sense of seeing ourselves above and better than and in this way having the right to exploit it for our own ends.

So, here then is the full richness of our spiritual work: patiently and with much perseverance, to reconnect – to re-affirm our belonging – in each of these three ways.

Importantly there will be overlaps in each of the three areas. But one might suggest that meditation is primarily about re-connection with ourselves – the work of integration of personality and of memory through embodiment and presence. And that nature connection helps us to reconnect at a heart level with the rest of nature – which I would like to reflect more on another time. But here, a word about the work of reconnection with other humans through community.

Community.

I remember from a very long time ago someone giving a talk about community and, using the metaphor of creating a garden, his suggestion that basically there were far too many people wandering around with clippers and rakes when what was needed was people with spades and forks ready to do some of the deep work of digging and laying foundations of good, rich soil.

This image has stayed with me as I have, over the years, tried to play my part in community building only to realise just how difficult it is, how resistant most of us in Western society are to the idea, but how absolutely essential this work is for the health of ourselves and our  society.

And, yes, the work is slow, painstaking and profound – it is indeed digging that is needed. But just to make a start I would like here to pose three questions for us to reflect on for our own situations in regard to community building. And these are: i) who is my community? ii) how can we work to deepen our relationships within it? iii) how can we widen it – make it more inclusive?

  1. 1. Who is my community?

There is no fixed way of expressing human community. In fact we are all part of community in some way or another, so, in the first place, rather than rushing to join something new it might be better to start by simply asking who I am already in community with – and how that plays out in my life. Is it primarily family or a small network of friends? Is it my neighbourhood? Is it some faith based or activism based community? Or is it (probably) a mix of all of these? And perhaps when I have recognised what community/ies I am a part of, the starting point might simply be gratitude, that these are the people I have been given – and who I have a sense of belonging with.  

  1. 2. How can I work to deepen relationships within it?

But then, is there anything I can do to enrich and deepen my relationships with these people? Now this is the beginning of experiencing both the joy and the messiness of community. Very often I will not want to go deeper as I sense (rightly, as it happens) that if I do I will become aware of aspects of myself which I am really trying to keep hidden. But at the same time there are riches to be uncovered here as we discover mutual acceptance and, indeed, celebration of one another in all our glorious difference.  

  1. 3. How can I widen it – make it more inclusive?

But let the work not stop there. But let us keep asking the question ‘who is left out?’ Or perhaps more enticingly ‘in what way are we the poorer because certain people do not feel included?’ And then, ‘what can we do about this?’.  

‘Intentional community’.

This is a phrase often bandied about and will mean many different things. Usually the phrase is used to refer to a group of people who have decided to live together with the intention of addressing the sort of questions I have posed above.     

But, in my mind, it may not necessarily mean actually living in the same house. The key word is, simply, ‘intentional’. And this means to deliberately bring awareness to the shape and structure of the community I am involved with and to seek to deepen, widen and enrich it.

At heart, those who are engaged in ‘intentional community’ are simply those who have recognised that this is a vital work for humans to be involved with in our day – especially in Western society which has conceded so much communal ground in the shift towards a consumerist society.

Meditation is never a solitary activity.

And anyway in the end we never meditate alone. As anyone knows who has practised for any length of time, all your relationships are there with you – in your wandering thoughts and emotions. We meditate as community whether physically present or not. And the natural outworking of this will be to pay some intentional attention to the community of which I am a part.

SIMPLICITY

I wanted to complete my series on the three ‘S’s which I reflected on through my sabbatical (Silence, Solitude and Simplicity), but to write briefly – and simply – as a very small offering in the midst of all this.
 

And my sense is that simplicity is not necessarily about having less things and doing less stuff but about being fully present with all of my being to whatever is here, whatever is now.

And then – simply – the need for many of those ‘more things’ and ‘extra stuff’ very often falls away as I sense the utter richness and wonder of just this – just what is here and now in this moment.

Many have written about this. But it is, of course (just like Silence and Solitude) a practice – something which needs to be cultivated over time.

So here is my intention through this period: as often as possible, to stop and to notice and to be fully present to just what is here – however much or however little, whether filled with joy or with sorrow – and to see how often the moment is transformed
as I discover that
actually
in some mysterious way
each moment
is
in fact
enough.

SOLITUDE

BLOG: SOLITUDE

Kindness and the path from Loneliness to Solitude

Solitude is not primarily about being alone (although it can be cultivated in this way) but about the stillness which comes from being at ease with oneself.

Principles

Last month I offered some reflections on Silence which was the first of three ‘S’s which guided my recent sabbatical/retreat. This month, then, some thoughts on Solitude.

And just as with Silence, the word Solitude can have both positive and negative connotations for us depending on our current situation and experience. So, first let me define some terms and acknowledge the negative by suggesting three related words which might be helpful here: Aloneness, Loneliness and Solitude.

Aloneness, I would suggest, is the neutral term which simply defines a situation: I am physically on my own in this moment. Loneliness, then, suggests the painful aspect of not wanting this to be the case and the suffering which comes with that. And finally, Solitude being the kind of aloneness which carries with it a sense of strength, steadiness and ease with oneself.

Henri Nouwen, in his classic spiritual guide, ‘Reaching Out’, talks about there being a path which can take us from loneliness to solitude. And that this is, in fact, an essential part of our spiritual journey. So this, it seems to me, might be of enormous value to the many who find themselves unwillingly alone much more than normal during the current pandemic lock-down. But, how can loneliness be transformed into solitude?

Well, this question requires a book rather than a blog but I hope just a few pointers might have some value – the first being as already stated: that the journey from loneliness to solitude might actually be possible. This thought alone might bring a degree of hope and purpose for us in the midst of our aloneness.

The second is to recognise, as with Silence, the role of our intention in the art of being alone. In other words, to recognise that aloneness can feel very different depending on whether it feels forced upon an unwilling participant, or is freely chosen with some sense of purpose and intention in mind. The struggle doesn’t end there by any means but it is a huge thing to recognise the role of intention and how this could be a starting point for our journey towards the more positive aspects of Solitude.

So, whether you are someone who tends to be very at ease on your own (or even prefers it) or whether you feel you hate it and spend most of your energy trying to avoid it (neither type being at an advantage in the journey towards Solitude, in  my view), then actually making the choice to be alone for, perhaps initially, just small parts of the day would be a key place to start. This could be done through meditation practice. But it could just as well be done while clearing the kitchen, cooking a meal or going for a solo walk. The key is not what I do but that I deliberately decide to do it alone. Even if I am one of those who feels they have no choice but to be alone, then the business of bringing intention can help us as we choose to move towards the whole experience of aloneness rather than a sense of putting up with it or distracting myself from it. For there are riches here which will only emerge through my somehow finding a sense of having a choice – a sense of agency.   

And then, as ever with a mindfulness based practice, I simply pay attention to what is here – how it feels, what happens in my mind, in my body and in my emotions, whether I find myself liking it or not in this moment. And also noticing my impulses – both the desire to stay longer than planned and the impulse to end it sooner or avoid it altogether.   

I may find, for instance, that the very fact that I have decided to do this – that I have a sense of my own agency here – is what shifts the whole experience from something that might have felt oppressive to something which has a richness and a depth to it.

But it may, on the other hand, be a difficult experience for me. There may be a sense of foreboding, of dark clouds gathering or of feeling a bit lost.

This sort of thing, I suspect, is what many of us might be afraid of in being alone. And indeed we may well be  coming close to something which does have a dangerous edge to it. Which is precisely why we humans operate best within some degree of community. We do need others’ comfort, encouragement and perspective. But at the same time we can become dependent in the wrong sort of way on these things coming from others, to the extent that we miss the opportunity also to cultivate a healthy relationship with ourselves – an ease with ourselves. In fact, at worst we can not only become dependent on others but we can end up allowing ourselves to be defined by others and their reactions to and opinions of us. And this is not freedom. And this will not help us when we are alone.

At such times the first thing to remember is that, since I have chosen to be here alone I can at any stage choose not to be here – to end the aloneness either by initiating conversation with a friend (electronically or face to face) or through some other activity which makes me feel connected with others. Or even by simply engaging in some ‘distracting activity’ just to get me through.

But equally, even though it is uncomfortable for me right now, I can also choose to stay just a bit longer and begin to explore what this experience of being alone is for me. But if I do this, there is one ‘friend’ I will need and that is an attitude towards myself – of friendliness, gentleness and kindness. It might be that there is anxiety, fear, loss or grief lurking behind what initially just seems like an ‘uncomfortable feeling’. In which case kindness and gentleness will absolutely be the qualities I need until I can see more clearly what is here and then respond to it appropriately. In time and with practice, I will gradually learn to move from harsh judgements of myself to gentle compassion which is one aspect of what we might mean by journeying from Loneliness to Solitude – coming to be at ease with myself, whatever my experience is in this moment.

Experience

During my own sabbatical I deliberately chose to spend two weeks alone looking after a friend’s smallholding while they were on holiday. I wasn’t quite alone as there were the pigs, ducks and chickens to feed (and talk to) as well as guests to welcome into the self-catering barn nearby. But the vast majority of my days were spent alone – as in, without other humans to talk to.

And I found these two weeks both wonderful and challenging. During the times when I felt untroubled and peaceful there was nothing like it – especially as there was nothing and no one between me and simply being in the midst of nature and sensing myself a part of it. My sense of connectedness with all that was around me deepened considerably especially when I took regular afternoon walks through and around the 60 odd acres of woodland and sat for sometimes 40 minutes in one spot simply ‘being present’ and being aware.

At other times, though, it did feel as though a dark cloud had descended and I felt agitated, uncertain and restless. Normally such moments would send me looking for someone to engage with – to offer me much needed support, encouragement and perspective. But this time I had decided not to do that (i.e. I had decided not even to ‘phone a friend’ if at all possible) and so I would continue to feel quite exposed. Indeed there were moments when I sensed all my thoughts turning negative and going on a downward spiral – but without anyone to break the fall.

During one of these periods I began to feel completely lost and very uncertain even about my decision to spend this time alone: meditation felt like a threat; going for a walk felt too exposing; and I couldn’t concentrate on reading. It all felt quite dark. In the midst of it all, though, I vaguely remembered the principle of kindness. It felt a bit like just a bit of theory to me at that point but I did know how powerful kindness can be – especially how a stranger’s kindness can turn around a mood or even a whole day. So, still struggling to find some enthusiasm, I decided to explore kindness in some way.

Just the thought of kindness wasn’t enough though. I realised I had to do something – to embody a sense of kindness towards myself. I wondered what I could do that I felt I could actually manage. So I went to the kitchen, made myself a warm drink, sat on the porch overlooking the beautiful valley and just drank it all in. And it was important that I was just doing this as a kindness to myself. Like something I might offer a friend who is suffering – but now I was doing it for myself. It felt good.  

And, sure enough, something did shift in me and gradually I began to see a bit more clearly what was really happening and what was present. I began to see that behind what had seemed like an impenetrable dark cloud was lurking the presence of some very negative thoughts about myself and my life – thoughts that were secretly plaguing me, undermining my confidence, keeping me locked in. Until they showed themselves up it all simply felt like a ghastly awfulness. But when I finally saw what was there it was still difficult but very much more manageable – and finite  – and actually really helpful to see. Because once I had become aware of them I was reminded of something vital we teach in mindfulness, that your thoughts are not facts but may simply be decades old habitual reactions to long past experiences in life – especially experiences of past stress, trauma or suffering.

And, as soon as I remembered this, kindness evolved into compassion and I began to experience more of a sense of caring support and empathy for myself – someone who was suffering – rather than a battle with or against the thoughts or, worse, a harsh judging of myself for having them at all.

An ease, a gentleness and a peace returned – the promised ease-with-myself of Solitude. But now deeper than before because it was somehow based not on avoiding myself and my thoughts but on having chosen to be present to myself, to be with what was here and to find that this was, actually, OK. In fact I was actually OK – after all.

So, two aspects of intentional Solitude, then. There are indeed wonders and joys to be discovered here. But there will also be dark clouds. So it will always good to remember that:

‘the hooded stranger emerging from the mist is not necessarily the bearer of ill’.

(All photos taken at ‘Garn Farm’: https://www.warmthandwonder.co.uk/)

SILENCE

BLOG: SILENCE – IN THE MIDST

‘Here’s an award for silence’

So Robert Fisher announces on his posthumous album, Untethered (Willard Grant Conspiracy).

And this is such an arresting phrase – presumably because we know there has never been and never will be an award for silence. Which is the point, I suppose – as with other ‘awards’ referred to in the same song, for ‘chasing rabbits’, for ‘running blind’, for ‘kindness’ and for ‘the moment the breath leaves your lungs’. ‘Chasing rabbits’ is a beautiful song written in the shadow of Fisher’s own dying and celebrating some of the undervalued but quietly beautiful things in life. And echoing Lou Reed, Fisher suggests these are the things which will lead to ‘a perfect day’.

So, yes, silence is undervalued in our contemporary culture, certainly, but what is its value – what good will it do – and how can we practice silence in the midst of ordinary life?

In my recent sabbatical period, I set myself three key intentions, neatly all beginning with ‘S’: Silence, Solitude, Simplicity. So I thought I might offer some reflections on each over the next three months. And although these three ‘S’s are all usually associated with ascetic or spiritual traditions, I want to explore what value they might have in the midst of an ordinary life. So, starting with silence.

WHY SILENCE?

Words totally dominate our world today. And it is possible that we are not even fully aware of this, so accustomed are we to every single life experience being accompanied by words – mine or someone else’s. And we know this because even if we do manage to turn off all our devices and sit in the quiet it is not long before we find all the words, and more, resonating around our minds. They’ve got inside us and we find we can’t turn them off even when we want to.

Authentic experience. But words are only one way of engaging with the world and possibly not the richest, the deepest or even the truest. Before any words, there was silence. In fact, all words emerge out of a sort of primordial soup of silence which we might call our authentic experience. Yes, we need words to communicate something of our experience to others but, as the poets, musicians and artists know, words not only change but very often lessen experience. I may have had the most profound, life changing experiential moment. But the moment I try to explain it to you I feel deflated – that’s not it, I feel. And yet how much I want to share it.

And so I return to silence, partly in my despair at ever being able to give words to what is most profound in me but partly because silence is where I engage with my experience most fully, most completely, so that possibly at some point I may find words to express at least some of it.

Silence as subversion. Words are not only inadequate and often reduce experience but also, so often, and especially in these days of so called ‘post truth’, they deceive, they manipulate and they distort – for somebody’s gain and often not yours. Silence can, of course, be collusion (for instance with an unjust status quo) but it can also be a sort of subversive activism: a refusal to accept as normal an oppressive system, agenda or paradigm; a refusal to use the dualistic language of those who hold power; or at very least, a refusal to add fuel to the fire. Instead silence can be a first stage in shifting the paradigm – witnessing to the fact that we need to see differently – from a different perspective. If words are all too often just adding to the confusion, then first stop is silence. And then it might be possible that the kind of words which actually do shift things, communicate authentic experience, contribute to new understandings may emerge in time. This was Jesus’ silence at the height of his trial for sedition. In response to the pernicious questions put to him, his silence ‘spoke’ about something which simply couldn’t be reduced to the language and mindset of his accusers.  

An antidote to reactivity. Words are also designed to get us to react. Every item on the news page is designed to trigger us in some way or another. Sometimes for good, very often for bad and always seeking an automatic reaction from us. Mindfulness practice at its heart is teaching us a way of non-reactivity – and instead training us in wise response. And this needs the practice of silence – a deliberate choice not to use words – just for the moment, until my reactivity has calmed and the elusive quality of wisdom has once again emerged.  

Listening. Finally, silence teaches us to listen. Not to more words but to that which comes before words and out of which words emerge – to start with, simply the sensations in my own body, the pressure on the soles of my feet, the tingling in my hands. Then to the sound of the birds and the wind in the air. But also to the stirrings in my own heart, to the wounds, joys and longings in yours and, through all this, to the silent yearnings of a universe aching to come into its own. 

PRACTICE

But all this takes practice. And this is why I want to explore the idea of silence as a practice in the midst of life – just as meditation, music and sport all need practice.

  Silence is not the absence of noise – but the space in which noise is transformed into sound.

Silence is not just about stopping talking and turning the radio off (although it may start with that) because it is equally possible to be fully immersed in silence while speaking, listening and fully engaged in life. But rather it is the cultivating of a spaciousness around the words whilst recognizing that words, though of value, are in the end provisional, incomplete and often deceptive. Whereas the authentic experience we may come close to in silence is of eternal and infinite value.

Outer silence. But, yes, as we begin the practice of silence, it will help to stop talking, to turn the off radio and to leave my phone out of hearing in another room. This naturally happens every time we sit in formal meditation but it can also happen at other times as we intentionally take shorter or longer periods to engage with silence. It could be sitting quietly in the kitchen. It could be choosing to have a meal in silence – or even the first 5 minutes of a meal. It could be a silent evening or a silent walk. And the difference between this and the unwanted silence that many who live alone often feel they have far too much of is that this is a chosen silence – an intentional silence. This is a silence that we have decided for and which may, counterintuitively, help us to feel more connected with ourselves and with others, not less. 

Inner silence. And whether we are formally meditating or simply sitting quietly, this is our chance to take note of all the reactivity which is going on in our minds. For it will immediately be there. And as we notice the incessant ‘noise’ in our heads, the aim is not to get caught up with it but just to notice it and recognize it for what it is – our automated reactions to everything that is going on; our minds’ ‘running commentary’, if you like, on everything from the most serious news item to the seemingly trivial (though actually not so trivial) matter of my next meal. Focus on breath or body as we do in meditation will be the core for most of us but the point is to begin to connect with the spaciousness of the silence which surrounds and holds the noise. And this is how noise is transformed into sound; reactivity into wise response.

Silence in the midst. And so, as I make my commitment to silence and to making it part of my practice, ever so gradually I begin to notice that the quality of my conversation changes. This is gradual and I have regular setbacks where I realise the conversation I just had was full (on my part) of reactivity, half-truths, mini-deceptions, micro aggressions and blandness. But sometimes, (and even if only sometimes then all this is worth it), I sense a depth, a quietness, an authenticity of shared experience and an integrity to my words and my listening. Yes, this is it, I think. I want more of this!