Paths That Return Home

This past month of April I have been writing about the different paths and stories of our lives.  Sometimes we make a deliberate decision to add a chapter to the story, like going on vacation, changing our job, getting married, committing to a long term relationship. We are aware we are turning the page of the story; we are on an adventure.  But mostly, we are living inside our stories, so we don’t necessarily have a sense of being part of one that is unfolding.  Last week I took a look at the reality of suffering, impermanence, and not-self – the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy, a path of understanding about the reality of life. This week, I thought we could reflect on how we pay attention, our relationship to what is coming into our awareness and the joy of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. 

Today I walked the same hiking trail, I have walked many times.  It is one I know very well. It’s not a particularly grand or scenic trail.  It meanders through softwood and hardwood forest and it’s not a very long trail – about two and a half miles.  I know every bend, and hill.  If I close my eyes, I can trace the trail in my head.  Being so familiar with anything, in this case these woodland paths, it’s easy to tune out and not pay much attention to the surroundings.  And I can admit, there have been times, many, when my attention has wandered away from being connected to the experience of walking.    

When I remember, to pay attention, touching in on my breathing, or the physical sensations of my body moving, I feel more connected not only to myself, but to where I am and what I am doing.  I remember what it feels like to be grateful.  In this case, to be surrounded by nature, to notice the shapes and colors of the trees, to experience the stillness, the sound of the birds and the movement of the wind passing.  I feel blessed to have this. Simone Weil in her First and Last Notebooks (1970), catches this when she says, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

This particular hiking trail is circular.  So, I don’t have to retrace my steps.  I return to where I started.  I find this interesting.  We mostly think of paths as linear, or at most meandering. How often do we think of those paths of exploration that return us back to where we started?  What have we learned along the way?  Where we started is probably not going to be the same as when we began. How has what we have experienced changed us?     

In a conversation with my sister earlier today, she reminded me of a poem by T.S. Eliot, the Four Quartets. Later, I found myself reading it again.  It is a long poem, and one that I find needs time to absorb and understand. Toward the end of the poem, in the fourth Quartet, the title of which is Little Gidding, Eliot says, 

 We shall not cease from exploration 
 And the end of all our exploring 
 Will be to arrive where we started 
 And know the place for the first time. 

Allowing ourselves the conscious practice of paying attention, allows us to be in process with what we are engaging in. It presents the experience just as it is.  We notice our relationship to what is arising and understand we don’t need to add anything to it. We can watch the movement of what is around us, what we are engaged in, what we are experiencing without needing it to be any different.  There is a joy in letting this be realized, if only for moments at a time. 

We are part of so many paths – those that are easily identified and those that are deeper, revealing themselves more slowly. Mindfulness meditation helps us to become aware of what is present, understand our relationship to it, and supports the wisdom to know that we are not alone. 

Please note:  I will be taking a short break of two weeks from writing this weekly blog.  Writing in this way has been a journey of exploration, which is what I hoped for.  It did not have any particular mission.  Having spent the past four/five years co-authoring two professional books, it is a delight to not be beholden to a project with a specific mission. The writing is freer, and I can speak to what is present for me as I write, doing my best to capture moments of heartfelt thought.  My path now, is to reflect on this process, before I continue on my way. 

To those of you who have signed up for the weekly blog – thank you.  I will be back in two weeks!    

Suffering, Impermanence & Not-self

Buddhist thought and practice has much to teach us about suffering, impermanence, and not-self as aspects of reality. These three are called the three marks of existence. 

We will all be subject to various forms of suffering. How we experience them, will depend on many things.  Not least, how old we are when we first encounter moments beyond our understanding.    

My first memory of death came when I was six years old.  I was standing on the side of small boat.  My hands holding on to the rails above me. My face looking out between the rails looking towards the quay.  It was a hot day, and I was excited to be with my father.  We were going to visit some of the small islands near the island of Penang, Malaysia, and meet some friends for a picnic on one of them.  I remember the throb of the engine starting up, and feeling the vibration through my feet. I remember I had on my favorite shoes, white trainers. And I remember the smell of the water and the people around me.

As we slipped away from the busy quay, I saw a man stab a young boy.  I saw the boy double up, a red stain appeared on his shirt and he fell into the water.  The man who stabbed him, turned, and was gone. I remember not moving.  Everything was in slow motion.  There was no sound.  Then, I heard the cries of people pointing to the boy in the water.  I was released and turned to my father, appealing to him, and telling him what I had seen.

I remember my father kneeling in front of me, his warm hands on my shoulders.  I was crying, begging him to save the boy in the water. I don’t remember what my father said to me.  I do remember sitting in his lap and being enfolded in his arms.  The boat kept going. 

Death is a part of our inheritance of suffering and impermanence.  Incomprehensible to a small child; a terrible shock and an awakening. 

As a teenager, I hiked a lot.  I joined a British organization, The Ramblers Association. One of its missions then, and maybe still, was to keep open the old paths, called rights of way.  If someone documented they had walked on one of these paths once in a year, then they would be kept open for other travelers.  They could not be closed.  

There was one path I returned to again and again.  I liked the sameness of it, it’s familiarity.  There was a tree at the top of a hill, where I could look out and see the valley outstretched beyond me.  I liked to think of the people who had come before me, who had walked this path; for it was one of the old bridle paths used by farmers to take their animals and produce to market.

In my later teenage years, this same path became an avenue of escape and comfort – a way to drop into my body, and give my mind and emotions a rest. 

Several years ago, I tried to find the path that had meant so much to me as a teenager.  It was hard to find.  Homes had appeared on either side of the path.  It was still there, but the open fields had disappeared, and the tree was a stump.  Cut down.  I mourned the loss and the lack of permanence.

As a child, I imagined myself in different realities.  I was a princess, a wild animal, I lived in a magical and make believe world, and I had a different family. I wrote stories of adventure and made up plays with puppets to act out the parts.  I was the main character and able to control what happened.

We grow up, and find that the stories change.  We notice that contrary to what we wish, it is not always about us.  The stories in our heads do not match up with what is appearing in our environments, in our relationships. There is no fairy tale.  Life is a still an adventure, but … we are not the main character and our lives do not always have happy endings.   

Suppose we thought of stories as never ending?  That stories are like paths that go on and on?  That we have a part to play, but it is not about desiring more and more. It is not about us hating each other and we can wake up and out of a deluded sense of self.  Somehow or other, our job is to stay true to our essential nature of love and compassion. What can help to steady us?  

Mindfulness meditation provides a path of calm that allows us to access what is already alive inside us – compassion and insight.  We need both. 

Compassion allows us to not be afraid of bearing witness to suffering, our own and that of the world.  Compassion helps us to understand the nature of impermanence, and of letting go.  Compassion unlocks the stories we tell ourselves and reveals we are so much more than any story. 

But compassion without insight can be a path to tiredness and hopelessness; to compassion fatigue and burnout.  

Insight acknowledges the presence of suffering, the challenges of impermanence and the hold of stories. Insight steadiness us, discerning what may be needed at any given moment.  Insight offers us the capacity to see things from diverse perspectives, and as a result providing choice to act less reactively and therefore differently.

But insight without compassion lacks the warmth of love and kind-heartedness.  We need both. 

 Sweet Darkness – David Whyte
 
 When your eyes are tired
 the world is tired also. 
  
 When your vision has gone 
 no part of the world can find you. 
  
 Time to go into the dark
 where the night has eyes
 to recognize its own.
  
 There you can be sure 
 you are not beyond love. 
  
 The dark will be your womb 
 tonight. 
  
 The night will give you a horizon 
 further than you can see. 
  
 You must learn one thing. 
 The world was made to be free in.
  
 Give up all the other worlds
 except the one to which you belong. 
  
 Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
 confinement of your aloneness
 to learn
  
 anything or anyone
 that does not bring you alive
  
 is too small for you. 

Many Paths

As I sit down to write what is current for me this morning, I find myself thinking about the stories of our lives. The ones that lie in the past, the ones we are living right now, and the ones yet to reveal themselves. Stories give name to what is apparent, and have the power to name deep patterns and threads that lie under the surface.  These stories are ones we have taken alone.  They are ones we have taken with others and they are part of our cultural inheritance.

The stories are how we know who we are, they are part of our identity. Stories unfold all the time.  They tell us about our humanity.  They encourage us to listen.  Stories talk about fear, hate, suffering, and acts of kindness and love, even of sacrifice. They present choices, and equally, sometimes, no choice.  The stories ask, what’s here to speak to?  Where am I in this?  What does this say about me?  What does it say about us?

Stories are journeys that reveal paths of darkness and of light.  They speak to horrors, travesties of justice, hatred.  They speak to acts of courage, of honesty, a willingness to challenge systems of denial, powerful acts that illuminate an integrity of purpose, and the power of love.  They capture a moment in time, or reveal the passage of years. Stories change us.  Bring us closer to our own vulnerabilities.  They help us to listen.  To process and metabolize new horizons.  Envisage who we might be, adapting.   

Stories are journeys taken with many paths. They are multifaceted and capture the intricacy of lives. 

Mindfulness meditation can support us in revealing and uncovering the complexity of our stories.  Where we see that our story is not what defines us. We are so much more. 

As I understand it, our practice is an invitation to move into our essential nature, one of kindness, love, and compassion.  Is it easy to walk this path of heart?  Sometimes effortless, as we touch into our gentleness.  At other times, we meet obstacles, challenges, and dark moments.  We catch ourselves running away or struggling in some way with what is appearing.  Then we learn to be patient, and kind towards ourselves. We rest a while. We breath and relax, to steady ourselves, before going on.  We learn to appreciate the jewels of pausing and patience.

As by now you have realized, poems have long been constant, wonderful companions and supports in my life.  You may have poems, authors, paintings, people that have been supportive to you in some way.  Each time you visit them, I would bet you find something different to reflect on.  I know I do.   

Here is a poem that may be familiar –

 Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye 
 
 Before you know what kindness really is 
 you must lose things, 
 feel the future dissolve in a moment 
 like salt in a weakened broth. 
 What you held in your hand, 
 what you counted and carefully saved,
 all this must go so you know
 how desolate the landscape can be 
 between the regions of kindness. 
 How you ride and ride
 thinking the bus will never stop,
 the passengers eating maize and chicken
 will stare out the window forever. 
  
 Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
 you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
 lies dead beside by the side of the road. 
 You must see how this could be you, 
 how he too was someone
 who journeyed through the night with plans
 and the simple breath that kept him alive. 
  
 Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
 You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
 You must wake up with sorrow.
 You must speak to it till your voice
 catches the thread of all sorrows
 and you see the size of the cloth. 
  
 Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, 
 only kindness that ties your shoes
 and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
 only kindness that raises its head 
 from the crowd of the world to say
 It is I you have been looking for,
 and then goes with you everywhere
 like a shadow or friend.

Our lives, our stories will have moments of joy, struggle, and grief.  Can we stay as close as is possible to the voice of our hearts? Clearing the path, so that over time, it is kindness that guides us. 

Paths

For April, I thought I would explore and reflect on the paths we take; some by choice, others less intentionally.    

The reality is we are all on a journey – the journeys represented by our behaviors and actions in the world and  – an inner journey of self-awareness.  What is going on in the outer world, is reflected in our inner world and vice versa.  We leave a place, a relationship, we change our job, we grow older and take on numerous responsibilities.  As this is happening, there is a call to understand ourselves at a deeper level. We have questions about our choices, our friendships, our interests.

These kinds of questions can be unsettling and equally if we allow for this, exciting.  No matter that we think we know how to get somewhere and can see the endpoint, we don’t. No matter how much we think we know, we don’t.  No matter how secure we may feel in a moment, the next moment will change all of that.

In my early 20’s I took some time to travel.  I left England, travelled through Europe, into Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and then home to England.  The trip lasted six months.  In my travels, I met the warmth of strangers, was immersed in landscapes of beauty and harshness, saw cruelty firsthand, and at times found myself in situations of danger.  As a result, my understanding of the world expanded, as did witnessing reality. 

On my return, I found myself unsettled, even to the point of not being able to sleep in a bed, preferring the floor for a while.

I found all of those things that had anchored me previously – a serious relationship, family, old friends, places, work, seemed out of focus.  I had lost my compass, my bearings.  I would like to say that at this point, my life changed in some way.  It didn’t.  Very soon, the reality of looking after myself and earning an income became a necessary focus.    

But, unknowingly, under the surface, a path was opening.  Replicated by my travels, I was searching.  A tug, a desire to explore and understand myself not tethered by custom, race, or gender, nor indeed by the external environment.

One of the paths that opened, was the practice of mindfulness meditation.  A solo journey undertaken, without a defined ending. 

This became a practice of intimacy, of familiarity, and a desire to be a part of something, that initially I could only catch glimmers of.  A turning towards myself and into openness.  

This path is now many years long.  It is a path of joy and contentment and one that touches woundedness and vulnerability.  It is a walk into the many acts of betrayal.  To know them and to feel a heart that has experienced the deep wound of brokenness.  It is to hold this wounded heart with compassion and to understand the need we all have to be accepted, to be loved, to be seen and heard, to be connected, and to be forgiven. It is to feel the softness of imperfection. 

It is to wonder how did I get here? And in that acknowledgement, to breathe into the next step along the path, moving with the moment.  

An excerpt from a poem by David Whyte - Santiago
 
The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
 hiding then revealing the way you should take,
 the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
 to walk in thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
 when you thought you would fall,
 and the way forward always in the end 
 the way that you followed, the way that carried you
 into your future, that brought you to this place, 
 no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
 no matter that it had to break your heart along the way: 

What path is calling you?  

The valley, river and mountains

Remembering Change

All this month of March I have been reflecting on change; the wonder and mystery of it, and also how it can reveal our vulnerabilities.    

Today, the sun is shining, the air is warm, my window, closed tight against the cold of winter, is open. Outside the ice on the surface of the pond is retreating.  And yet, as I sit down to reflect on what is a current for me in this moment, I am reminded of those people in my life who are no longer here.  The loss and vacuum that creates.

Lying on a cold steel table.  The body stiff, rigid – no life. Your features still and your face changed.  No breath here, you had gone.  Whatever essence we call life had left.  There was no chance to meet here in the basement of the hospital – this unimaginative room of four walls. A sheet draped over your body; a tag on your big toe, identifying who you were.  But you, this essential being, was gone.  And yet, as I stood beside your body, words arose, feelings surfaced, memories appeared.  I reached out to touch you, and to wish you peace and comfort. 

I wrote those lines many years ago, after the death of my mother.  I wonder how many of us, have lost a parent(s), loved ones in this past year.  

The process of remembering is not static, it changes over time.  Memories and their stories can act as reminders, as prompts – beckoning us, pointing toward deeper reflections, as we acknowledge the currents from our past, and their arising in the present moment.

Sometimes, this is not easy.  For many of us, relationships with those near to us can be complicated. For those memories and the trauma that have caused deep wounds, seeking professional help and the support of others is so very important.

Remembering is a call to clear a space.  To make room for the memories, the stories, to watch them come and go.  Some reminiscences will be happy and joyful, others less so.  Remembering is a call to your deepest self.  To step into your heartbreak, your joys, and into your longings.  Ultimately, it is a call to the place in your heart where you are a loving friend to yourself. 

There are many ways we can start this process, as we take steps into a loving presence that provides an environment of support. It means finding the time to slow down, to be patient, so that you can explore all that you are, trusting in yourself so that the memories and stories arrive safely.    

What is helpful is to take time to be with yourself and to be in compassionate situations that speak to you – in nature, in parks, with friends you trust, in therapy, in writing, in painting, in reading, in walking, in hiking, in singing, in dancing, in meditation. 

Mary Oliver in her poem reminds us to go easy and to remember how precious we are, as is the world around us.

 When I am among the trees 
 Mary Oliver
  
 When I am among the trees,
 especially the willows and the honey locust,
 equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
 they give off such hints of gladness.
 I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
  
 I am so distant from the hope of myself,
 in which I have goodness, and discernment,
 and never hurry through the world
 but walk slowly, and bow often.
  
 Around me the trees stir in their leaves
 and call out, “Stay awhile.”
 The light flows from their branches.
  
 And they call again, “It's simple,” they say,
 “and you too have come
 into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
 with light, and to shine.”