THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Just recently I saw a wonderful  film called “Walk with Me” which is about the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. For those of who may not have heard of him, Thich Nhat Han (pronounced Tick Nat Haan) is a renowned  global spiritual leader, author and peace activist, who is revered for his powerful teachings and best-selling writings on mindfulness. He has travelled around the world, teaching and holding retreats. In 1975, he was refused permission to return to his native country because of his peace activities by the North Vietnamese army who took control of South Vietnam. This resulted in him setting up a monastic community in France which is now home to some 200 monks.  It’s also a centre where lay people can go on retreat to absorb the practices, learn from the teachings and unwind from the stresses of 21st century living.

Filmed over the course of three years, it shows aspects of  monastic life and some of the community activities which are offered to the many visitors who go to the centre, as well as glimpses of Thich Nhat Hahn  leading meditation practice and answering questions. There are also some beautiful shots of the changing seasons which help to instil in the viewer the powerfully calming effect that nature can have upon us. In one memorable scene, we see some young monks lying on their backs in the grass, gazing up into a night sky dotted with a million stars.  It made me want to be there as well, lying in the darkness with the infinite silence of the universe above me!

Walking home in the mizzly rain afterwards, I mused upon how important it is for us to find regular moments of peace and quiet in our lives as a respite from worldly pressures and the noise that goes on all around us daily. This din intrudes upon whatever quietness we have, disturbs our mental processes and irritates the nerves. We live with noise 24/7 in the cities and are not immune to suffering from it in the countryside.  Worse still, we are incredibly adept at generating our own inner noise with the thoughts, worries, fears and projections we have tumbling around inside our minds.

Many of us just accept the endless chatter that goes on in our heads as a normal part of life and don’t seek to try to quieten it down and give ourselves pause from its relentless activity even though we may be well aware of how this jumble of thoughts and ideas can play havoc with our emotions and make us unhappy and even depressed. We have a tendency to allow ourselves be swept along by the tide of thoughts and feelings trying to surf the turbulence.

However, there are a number of very practical things one can do to gain a sense of inner calm and be less affected by mental turmoil. EFT tapping would always be the first resort I would recommend. But there’s also meditation, though sadly, a lot of us shy away from doing this for one reason or another.

No doubt  many of you have a meditation routine already, but some of you may not.  Others may have tried it, found it difficult and given up, and some of you may have thought about it, but never tried to do it.

Wherever you fall in this spectrum, it’s good to remember that there are many forms of meditation and there’s bound to be more than one that’s right for you. Meditation doesn’t have to be about sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed mentally reciting a mantra, or following a guided meditation.  This may work for some of you but not for others. It doesn’t need to take up a lot of time either – especially in the beginning – and most people can easily slot short periods of contemplation into their daily routines however busy they are.

It may surprise you to learn that meditation is a perfectly natural practice. Yes! Here are some examples: Recall a time when you sat and looked at a beautiful view or sunset and noticed how peaceful it made you feel. Recollect how calming it is to sit and stroke a cat and listen to its purr. Remember how relaxing it is to mind and body to lie on a beach soaking up the warm sun as you listen to the waves lapping on the shore.  Do you recognise any of those moments? Well, they’re all forms of meditation!

Any time you have momentarily noticed your mind go blank as you gaze up at the moon and stars, or watched a river flowing past you is meditation. Equally, if you’ve had a hard day of physical and mental work and you get back home and flop down with exhaustion, unable or unwilling to do anything except stare into space – that’s also meditation! Even the brief focus you can give to making a cup of tea can be a meditation!

We’ve been doing it since we were born! Have you ever offered a finger to a tiny baby to hold and noticed that when it grasps it in its little fist, it seems totally mesmerised by the experience? That’s meditation. We are all capable of doing it, and we do it more frequently than we are aware.  You see, meditation is when your mind has naturally found a balance between relaxation and alertness and it happens automatically when you are one hundred per cent here and now.  Meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts and having a totally empty mind because the mind never really stops!  It’s about resting in the spaces between thoughts. And when we do that, we can experience the mind as a vast space where turbulence doesn’t exist and enjoy the sound of silence..

So if you’d like to take your first steps into meditation, spend some time reminiscing about what sort of things you’ve experienced in the past which have brought you to a tranquil place along the lines given above.  Then make a commitment to practice recalling how it felt it to be in that space at regular intervals every day. Think of several examples when it’s happened so you can chop and change from time to time and prevent yourself from getting bored! To recap: you don’t have to go out and find a view or a river to look at or a beach to lie upon. You can close your eyes and remember times when you did that (or other similar things) and simply allow yourself to re-experience how it made you feel. You may only be able to do this for a few moments at first.  But if you make a commitment to repeating it several times during the day, you can build up to meditating for any length of time between 3 and 10 minutes. When you get better at this practice, you could then move on and try other techniques. In this way, you will grow your ability to meditate an be able to go deeper with it over time.

Meditation moments take us to a place of peace.  And when we’re at peace, we don’t have negative thoughts.  We’re in a state of pause and neutrality, not pulled one way or another – and such balance can generate equilibrium and happiness which is incredibly good for our health and well-being. But you have to do it a few times each day to begin to make it work for you.  The change is subtle – but noticeable over time!

For those of you with a more seasoned practice, why not branch off from your usual routine occasionally and try simply observing your thoughts as they pop up like bubbles rising to the surface of water? Just watch the thoughts arise and then let them go. This way, you can prevent yourself from getting caught up in them and following wherever they may lead.  Be kind and compassionate to yourself about how restless the thoughts are and just accept that this is what the mind does. Notice it flitting around but don’t chase after it! Try doing this at intervals throughout the day and let yourself come in and out of it, again – meditating for anything between three and ten minutes. Do it several times a day. Over a period of time, you will begin to notice changes in your well-being which is very helpful in engendering a state of balance, stability and content.

One of the best books I’ve read about meditation is called “The Joy of Living” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche who is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and master. It’s a fascinating and very easy read, covering many things like the way Buddhist practices mirror scientific findings about the nature of the mind to echoing the Dalai Lama’s belief that all beings are essentially striving towards happiness. In the second part of the book, Rinpoche takes the reader through a number of different meditation practices – and there’s a lot of them, so plenty to choose from!! I recommend it highly for anyone from a wannabe meditator to those who have been practicing for some time, as it provides a whole new view of what the practice can do for you. I have personally been working with various meditation practices for over 40 years now, and  found the book gave me plenty to think about and I benefitted hugely from trying new forms of  meditation.

So why not consider either beginning to meditate, or trying some new ways of doing it to refresh the practice you already have? Embarking upon something different is a great way to get the energies flowing and a wonderful way to start a new year!

And if you have a chance to catch the film “Walk with Me”, do go and see it.  Here’s a link to the trailer on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuCtNK0DLQw

Also, if you’d like to find out more about Thich  Nhat Hahn and Plum Village, here’s a link for that:

https://plumvillage.org/about/thich-nhat-hanh/

Wishing you all a very happy and fulfilling new year!

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REFLECTIONS

It’s hard to believe that 2017 has almost finished.  We are now fast approaching the Winter Solstice which takes place this year on Thursday 21st December, and, as many of you already know, marks the turning of the sun – a time when our great golden orb begins to climb higher in the sky, bringing with it the longer, lighter days and the coming of spring.

For our pagan ancestors, Winter Solstice was always associated with joy, feasting and celebration for it signified the passing of the lean days of winter, and was known as the Re-Birth of the Sun. This event harmonises beautifully with Christmas, our great Festival of Light and celebration of the Birth of the Son (which is an interesting play on words vis a vis the ancient celebrations of the Re-Birth of the Sun!)  But whatever your religion or spiritual path, this is certainly a very powerful time of year.

December, January and February are recognised as being the coldest months in the western hemisphere so this means we are really into winter now, as evidenced by the freezing temperatures we’ve been experiencing of late up and down the country!  All that coldness quite naturally promotes in us feelings of wanting to go out less and “hibernate” to a degree, and this mirrors Nature’s own retreat into herself before she embarks upon creating new life in the spring.

Now is therefore an ideal period for us to give ourselves time to reflect on the passing year so that we can look back over the months to see how our journey has unfolded and contemplate any changes we would like to make in 2018. This is a very useful and worthwhile practice which can be repeated annually as it helps us to clarify things on an inner level allowing us to find a sense of completion as we move towards a brand new year.

For quite a while between about now and just after Christmas, I’ve found it helpful to make time to look back over the past 12 months and see where I’ve grown and what I can learn from everything that’s happened.  Many people do this in January, but I feel that the time to do it is NOW, before the new year arrives, so that we can approach the  coming months with a greater clarity about what we’d like to achieve and/or change. It’s a very useful exercise to help you see any patterns that have emerged, to remind yourself of aspects of your journey this year, and to feel gratitude not only towards people who may have helped you, but also to feel appreciation for yourself and your own efforts.

I really recommend that you spend a while thinking along these lines yourself.  To help you, I’ve listed some questions below which you can ponder upon regarding how it has been for you in 2017.  Why not give yourself some space and work through them?  It needn’t take very long and you might find it’s quite enlightening!!

  • What have been the happiest times for me this year?
  • What are the things I’m most grateful for (this year)?
  • What are my main achievements for this year (these don’t have to be big things! It can be, for example, noting that you’ve been able to listen more to your intuition than before , or that you’ve  spent more time in Nature, rather than work/career achievements, etc.)
  • What do I want to improve/change in my life?
  • What have I learnt about myself this year?
  • What would be my personal affirmation to guide me through the coming year?

I hope you enjoy musing upon these points and that they help you towards an overall view of 2017.  Then, if you like, you can use your answers to formulate plans and ideas for the New Year.

Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Solstice/Festive Season.

And may the New Year bring you good health, fulfilment, abundance and joy

With love and blessings

Sally

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PLAYTIME AND THE ART OF HAPPINESS

I’m reading the Dalai Lama’s book (written with Howard C Cutler) at the moment called “The Art of Happiness”.  It’s been on my list of books to read for a long time and it’s a classic guide to a fundamental tenet of Tibetan Buddhism.

His Holiness is quoted in the book as saying:  “ I believe that the very purpose of life is to seek happiness.  That is clear……. whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life.  So I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness…..”.

There are those of us who might respond to that statement by saying that seeking happiness is self-indulgent and self-centred, but surprisingly, the massive amount of research that has been conducted over the last twenty or more years on happiness has shown that in fact it’s  the unhappy people who are most self-focussed and/or self-obsessed..  They are also sometimes socially withdrawn and antagonistic.  Conversely, happy people are generally found to be more sociable, flexible and creative. Furthermore, studies have shown that they weather life’s challenges better than unhappy people. Most of all, they’ve been found to be more loving and forgiving.

One of the core principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that there’s an inextricable link between one’s personal happiness and showing kindness, compassion and caring for others. Interestingly, quite apart from the two and a half thousand years of practice and experience by the Buddhists in this respect, the link  has now been borne out by many studies and experiments conducted in the West.

Kindness has been found to be a big factor in feeling happier as it releases a powerful energy which helps to build up relationships and fosters positive feelings for yourself and those around you. Kindness is about being friendly and open and being able to listen and help where you can.  It’s more than just being “nice”.  Nice people are often motivated by a need for approval whereas genuinely kind people have no ulterior motives.

Compassion is defined as being ‘sympathetic pity and concern for the suffering or misfortunes of others.’  It’s a quality that can be improved with practice by being mindful of the feelings and situations of others in a concerned and kindly way.  Self-compassion is important for happiness also.  This is about treating yourself just as you would treat your friends and loved ones – even when they might be screwing up! Self-compassion can help us towards greater self-esteem and self-worth as it comes from judging oneself positively.  This in turn can enhance motivation and resilience.

Wayne Dyer famously said:  “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”, and it’ so true. Your state of mind is governed by how you think, which informs how you approach and manage all the things you have to contend with in your relationships, the families you were born into, the jobs you do, and the myriad experiences that life brings you.  Happy people know that happiness comes from within. They’ve developed certain habits and attitudes which create a sense of peace in their lives and an equanimity to everything that comes their way. Even when facing challenges or ill-health, they still manage to be happy!

Focusing on beliefs that you’re hard done by, misunderstood, or that generally luck, abundance and good times don’t seem to happen for you, will inevitably damage your confidence, drag your spirits down and lead towards low-self-esteem, feeling sad, unappreciated and very possibly, depressed.

There is a whole field of psychology which is devoted to studying the science of happiness. It’s called Positive Psychology and it was developed by the American Psychologist, Martin Seligman.  (You’ll find plenty of information on Seligman, his books and his courses online if you want to know more.)

A study of the habits of happy people by the Pursuit of Happiness Inc. in 2016 suggests that certain aspects of life are key areas which should be explored in order to learn how to lead a happier life.  They are:

‘Co-Operate in activities and share your personal feelings with a friend or relative. Expressing genuine interest in what people say, and responding in encouraging ways is a powerful way to enrich relationships and cultivate positive emotions.

‘Cultivate kindness.  People who volunteer or simply care for others on a consistent basis seem to be happier and less depressed.  This can be as simple s reaching out to a colleague or classmate who looks lonely or is struggling with an issue.

‘Keep moving and eat well.  Regular exercise has been associated with improved mental well-being and a lower incidence of depression

‘Find your flow.  If we are deeply involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well-suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called “flow”. Many kinds of experiences like sports, playing an instrument, or teaching can produce an experience of flow.   It can also be attained through artistic and creative expression. Most simply, it’s achieved from doing an activity which brings you pleasure.

‘Discover and use your strengths. Studies have shown that the happiest people have discovered their unique strengths (such as persistence and critical thinking) and virtues (such as humanity) and use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals.

‘Cultivate gratitude, mindfulness and hope.   Grateful people have been shown to have greater positive emotion, a greater sense of belonging and a lower incidence of depression and stress.’

I would personally add one more thing to this list – and it’s this:

Re-find your ability to PLAY!  This is an activity we all did when we were children and we did it so easily and beautifully.  Remember?  We could happily play on our own or with other children at any time and it was effortless! Sadly, as we got older, we lost the ability to play and life got too serious.  But we can get it back!!  Playtime doesn’t have to cost anything – think shuffling through the leaves, skimming stones on the sea, flying kites, football in the park, reading, painting, stroking the cat, walking with the dog, etc. etc. Many of these are what I would describe as “Boxing Day” pursuits. In other words, for some people, the day after Christmas Day is possibly the only day in the year when they’ll allow themselves the time to engage in such activities.

But why wait till Boxing Day? Why not make a commitment to allowing yourself the time and space to PLAY more  – on a regular basis – NOW! – and just see what a difference that can make to your lifel!!!

Enjoy!!!

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INNER SPACE

Two television programmes have taken my interest lately: one is “Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery” (BBC4, Tuesday), and the other is Sue Perkins’ most excellent documentary series about her journey down the great Ganges river in India (BBC1 on Thursdays).

Each programme is divided into three parts and although they’re quite different from each other, they both have a very spiritual aspect to them. “Retreat” (first shown last Tuesday)  gives the viewer a peep into monastic life which  sensitively steers away from a spoken documentary, and instead gives the audience  details of the monks together with their contemplative existence by putting type-written information on the screen. This way, one can share the silence of the monks as they go about their daily routines in a quiet and mindful way, rather like doing a meditation.

“The Ganges with Sue Perkins” is full of the spectacle of India and is an insightful and probing look at life along the banks of the Ganges River which plays such a key role in the spiritual lives of all Hindus.  Sue Perkins shares her thoughts and experiences throughout and shows a heart-warming honesty and openness about herself and the powerful effect that India is having upon her. In the second episode, shown this week, she was exploring Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

This took me back immediately to my own visit to Varanasi in 2004.  I remember stepping off the plane and instantly receiving a palpable hit from the incredibly powerful vibrations that pervaded the atmosphere. Later, as I began walking around the city, I felt almost overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity that swarmed around me for Varanasi was more of an assault upon the senses than any other part of India I had visited previously.  Wherever we went, the smell of incense hung on the air which did little to obliterate the other more offending smells of ordure (both animal and human).  A mass of hot sweating humanity seethed endlessly through the narrow streets.  Here one had to navigate between the inevitable cows which wandered freely everywhere, cope with urchins who grabbed your hand or your clothing to beg for money, and try to dodge the regular funeral processions on their way to the burning ghats for a cremation. (For Hindus, to die in Varanasi is considered a great blessing, for it guarantees smooth passage into the after life and less time on the wheel of re-birth.) On top of all this, there is the incessant noise of rickshaws, motor bikes, cars, horns honking, conches being blown to summon the faithful to some sacred ceremony, and people shouting and hawking their wares.

I found the noise and bustle everywhere made me long for silence and solitude and pushed me inwards. Thus I discovered it was a great inducement to meditation –  as many others have  realised before me! This is part and parcel of the powerful spiritual atmosphere of the city which paradoxically, though outwardly an onslaught to the mind and senses, can ultimately lead you to a space of deep calm and silence within.

We stayed in a tiny ex-palace set right beside the river, which had the hardest beds in the world and served the best and most delicious Indian vegetarian food I’d ever had in any hotel on the sub-continent. I was thankful that up on the rooftop terrace of our little hotel, one could find much needed peace and quiet. There, surrounded by pots of  multi-coloured flowers,  one could enjoy a cup of chai (Indian spiced tea) or a nimbu pani (lime water) in blessed quiet  and gaze upon the mighty river flowing past below. Somehow, the noise and hubbub was miraculously muffled up there which allowed for conversation, or sitting and writing, or simply contemplating the view.  For me, it was a welcome opportunity to close my eyes, retreat into my inner space and meditate.

Musing upon these memories made me think that inside us all is a sort of Varanasi which is also noisy and chaotic. A well-known analogy about the restlessness of mind is that it behaves like a monkey, (there’s plenty of those in Varanasi by the way!), jumping and swinging from one place to another. The monkey mind is agile, often agitated and always on the go. Above all, it’s endlessly inventive, building thought upon thought and is highly adept at creating mountains out of molehills and making a drama into a crisis.

Another analogy comes from Jack Kornfield, the best-selling American author, Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, who likens the mind to a puppy which has to be housetrained. This analogy accurately conjures up the mind’s ability to charge around out of control, or to seize upon something and chew it to bits!

So here we all are, living inside our heads with our individual variations of chaos. Which, when you think of is mad because, with such generally untamed thoughts, the last thing we need is a relentlessly manic undercurrent humming through our environment as well! But that’s what life is like for most of us for we all live in a very speedy and pressured culture. Within this frantic pace, the media bombards us daily with an endless stream of information and images, and technology adds to the pressure by providing instant accessibility from anyone anywhere with mobile phones, emails, and social media.  On top of that we are fed non-stop information via the internet, and through news coverage.  Most of us are goaded into fast forwarding though life, never feeling we have enough time and frequently wondering where each day has gone.

Sadly, this doesn’t tend to create in us a need to pause and retreat.  Instead, we mostly allow this tsunami of pressure and speed to sweep us up and forever onward. We get so used to it we think  it’s “normal life”, but there’s nothing normal or natural about it.  It’s bad for our health and we can end up like hampsters running on a treadmill, if we’re not careful! Unlike the colourful commotion and spectacle of Varanasi, it doesn’t inspire spiritual reflection and contemplation. Generally speaking, all it does is to cause an enormous amount of nervous tension. Hardly surprising therefore that medical research has found over 90% of all illness and disease is caused by stress.

But there is a very effective antidote we could all use to help ourselves with this endemic problem – and it’s meditation.  Interestingly, studies conducted into its beneficial effects  have produced literally thousands of scientific papers about how it can help our health and well being. Experiments have shown that setting aside a short period for meditation each day can have favourable effects on stress-related problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems, poor immune system function, depression and general anxiety and that it has proved effective  in lowering cholesterol and reducing chronic pain.  Additionally, recent research has shown that regular meditation can increase the length of telomeres in the brain (telomeres are the DNA and protein caps that protect the end of each chromosome during cell division).  A study published in 2013 on newbies to meditation found that just 15minutes of contemplation per day was enough to affect the expression of many genes in the body including increasing the activity of a gene that makes telomeres. This has led to speculation that meditation can help promote longevity and may prevent the loss of brain tissue which usually comes with ageing.

So, if you’ve been wishing you could find a way to press the ‘pause’ button and give yourself a little oasis of tranquillity from the madness all around you, then meditation can help you. It’s a wonderful antidote to the roller-coaster effects of stress in our lives and I very much urge you to give it a try.

If you’re interested in beginning, or resuscitating a previous meditation practise, do look out for the many meditation classes which are held all over the country and try joining a class. It’s always helpful to work within a group for guidance, support and trouble shooting.

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INNER SPACE

Two television programmes have taken my interest lately: one is “Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery” (BBC4, Tuesday), and the other is Sue Perkins’ most excellent documentary series about her journey down the great Ganges river in India (BBC1 on Thursdays).

Each programme is divided into three parts and although they’re quite different from each other, they both have a very spiritual aspect to them. “Retreat” (first shown last Tuesday)  gives the viewer a peep into monastic life which  sensitively steers away from a spoken documentary, and instead gives the audience  details of the monks together with their contemplative existence by putting type-written information on the screen. This way, one can share the silence of the monks as they go about their daily routines in a quiet and mindful way, rather like doing a meditation.

“The Ganges with Sue Perkins” is full of the spectacle of India and is an insightful and probing look at life along the banks of the Ganges River which plays such a key role in the spiritual lives of all Hindus.  Sue Perkins shares her thoughts and experiences throughout and shows a heart-warming honesty and openness about herself and the powerful effect that India is having upon her. In the second episode, shown this week, she was exploring Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

This took me back immediately to my own visit to Varanasi in 2004.  I remember stepping off the plane and instantly receiving a palpable hit from the incredibly powerful vibrations that pervaded the atmosphere. Later, as I began walking around the city, I felt almost overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity that swarmed around me for Varanasi was more of an assault upon the senses than any other part of India I had visited previously.  Wherever we went, the smell of incense hung on the air which did little to obliterate the other more offending smells of ordure (both animal and human).  A mass of hot sweating humanity seethed endlessly through the narrow streets.  Here one had to navigate between the inevitable cows which wandered freely everywhere, cope with urchins who grabbed your hand or your clothing to beg for money, and try to dodge the regular funeral processions on their way to the burning ghats for a cremation. (For Hindus, to die in Varanasi is considered a great blessing, for it guarantees smooth passage into the after life and less time on the wheel of re-birth.) On top of all this, there is the incessant noise of rickshaws, motor bikes, cars, horns honking, conches being blown to summon the faithful to some sacred ceremony, and people shouting and hawking their wares.

I found the noise and bustle everywhere made me long for silence and solitude and pushed me inwards. Thus I discovered it was a great inducement to meditation –  as many others have  realised before me! This is part and parcel of the powerful spiritual atmosphere of the city which paradoxically, though outwardly an onslaught to the mind and senses, can ultimately lead you to a space of deep calm and silence within.

We stayed in a tiny ex-palace set right beside the river, which had the hardest beds in the world and served the best and most delicious Indian vegetarian food I’d ever had in any hotel on the sub-continent. I was thankful that up on the rooftop terrace of our little hotel, one could find much needed peace and quiet. There, surrounded by pots of  multi-coloured flowers,  one could enjoy a cup of chai (Indian spiced tea) or a nimbu pani (lime water) in blessed quiet  and gaze upon the mighty river flowing past below. Somehow, the noise and hubbub was miraculously muffled up there which allowed for conversation, or sitting and writing, or simply contemplating the view.  For me, it was a welcome opportunity to close my eyes, retreat into my inner space and meditate.

Musing upon these memories made me think that inside us all is a sort of Varanasi which is also noisy and chaotic. A well-known analogy about the restlessness of mind is that it behaves like a monkey, (there’s plenty of those in Varanasi by the way!), jumping and swinging from one place to another. The monkey mind is agile, often agitated and always on the go. Above all, it’s endlessly inventive, building thought upon thought and is highly adept at creating mountains out of molehills and making a drama into a crisis.

Another analogy comes from Jack Kornfield, the best-selling American author, Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, who likens the mind to a puppy which has to be housetrained. This analogy accurately conjures up the mind’s ability to charge around out of control, or to seize upon something and chew it to bits!

So here we all are, living inside our heads with our individual variations of chaos. Which, when you think of is mad because, with such generally untamed thoughts, the last thing we need is a relentlessly manic undercurrent humming through our environment as well! But that’s what life is like for most of us for we all live in a very speedy and pressured culture. Within this frantic pace, the media bombards us daily with an endless stream of information and images, and technology adds to the pressure by providing instant accessibility from anyone anywhere with mobile phones, emails, and social media.  On top of that we are fed non-stop information via the internet, and through news coverage.  Most of us are goaded into fast forwarding though life, never feeling we have enough time and frequently wondering where each day has gone.

Sadly, this doesn’t tend to create in us a need to pause and retreat.  Instead, we mostly allow this tsunami of pressure and speed to sweep us up and forever onward. We get so used to it we think  it’s “normal life”, but there’s nothing normal or natural about it.  It’s bad for our health and we can end up like hampsters running on a treadmill, if we’re not careful! Unlike the colourful commotion and spectacle of Varanasi, it doesn’t inspire spiritual reflection and contemplation. Generally speaking, all it does is to cause an enormous amount of nervous tension. Hardly surprising therefore that medical research has found over 90% of all illness and disease is caused by stress.

But there is a very effective antidote we could all use to help ourselves with this endemic problem – and it’s meditation.  Interestingly, studies conducted into its beneficial effects  have produced literally thousands of scientific papers about how it can help our health and well being. Experiments have shown that setting aside a short period for meditation each day can have favourable effects on stress-related problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems, poor immune system function, depression and general anxiety and that it has proved effective  in lowering cholesterol and reducing chronic pain.  Additionally, recent research has shown that regular meditation can increase the length of telomeres in the brain (telomeres are the DNA and protein caps that protect the end of each chromosome during cell division).  A study published in 2013 on newbies to meditation found that just 15minutes of contemplation per day was enough to affect the expression of many genes in the body including increasing the activity of a gene that makes telomeres. This has led to speculation that meditation can help promote longevity and may prevent the loss of brain tissue which usually comes with ageing.

So, if you’ve been wishing you could find a way to press the ‘pause’ button and give yourself a little oasis of tranquillity from the madness all around you, then meditation can help you. It’s a wonderful antidote to the roller-coaster effects of stress in our lives and I very much urge you to give it a try.

If you’re interested in beginning, or resuscitating a previous meditation practise, do look out for the many meditation classes which are held all over the country and try joining a class. It’s always helpful to work within a group for guidance, support and trouble shooting.

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AUTUMN IS A SECOND SPRING

September 22nd was the Autumnal Equinox which heralds a time when the lengths of day and night have become more or less equal. We have left behind the long summer evenings and are moving towards the lengthy winter nights, which means that right now, we’re in a time of transition.

The moving from one state to another can often feel uncomfortable, and there’s no denying that apart from anything which may have been happening in your personal lives of late, Nature has been giving us a rough ride recently what with all the terrible hurricanes and recent earthquakes. It’s almost as if that last solar eclipse in August stirred things up and unsettled the natural harmony of our planet, for certain areas in the world have been savagely wrecked and there have been plenty of disasters to unsettle us and cause trauma in people’s lives. On top of that, we’ve also witnessed the plight of the Rohinja people, the ongoing wars and the continuing danger signals radiating from North Korea.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there have been some solar flares emanating from the sun which are known to provoke feelings of anxiety and general discomfort in sensitive people, so if any of you have been suffering from unaccountable feelings of overwhelm, anxiety or negativity recently, it may well be related to these occurrences.

Last month I wrote about change which is well and truly exemplified by Autumn – the season into which we have now undoubtedly plunged. Leaves, flowers and plants are dying back, and the familiar greens and bright shades of summer are changing to red, brown, yellow and orange. It’s a time of gathering the harvest and shoring up the dykes against the onset of winter before a proportion of foliage fades and falls leaving us instead with a vista of bare branches against the winter sky.  In the olden days, our ancestors saw the drawing in of autumnal nights to be a reminder of the forces of darkness and the evils of men.  This caused them to focus more on Light as an antidote and a reminder that good can triumph over evil. And in these uncertain times, I think it’s good for us in this day and age, to focus more on the Light, and not dwell  too much on its opposite..

There are many things which can help you prepare for autumn and here are two I’ve always found to be very helpful :

  • Clearing out clutter entails letting go of stuff you don’t need on an outer level which then encourages the same process on an inner one
  • Doing some Space Clearing: For those of you unfamiliar with this technique it’s basically the art of cleansing and consecrating spaces. Certain rituals can be easily performed which are usually a synthesis of native rituals for clearing negative forces from your environment, and also using Feng Shui principles to lift the positive energy (known as Chi) in your home. (You’ll find masses of information about Feng Shui online if you want to discover more about this fascinating subject.)

Both clutter clearing and space clearing echo traditions regarding preparing to bring in the energies of Spring, (hence the title of this piece from a quote by Albert Camus), but the difference is that in Spring, we’re clearing out old stuff to make way for new growth, whereas in the Autumn, we’re letting go of old stuff in order to make space in ourselves for some inner personal reflection which chimes so well with Nature drawing in her energies for the winter. At this time of year, we can very much benefit from giving ourselves the time to pause and contemplate the past year so we can begin to see what changes we could try to implement in ourselves in order to help improve our lives and general well-being.

A very simple way of seeing areas in your life which need changing, is by drawing what’s known as a “Life Pie”.  This is what you do :

Take a clean piece of paper and on it draw a circle of about 2-3 inches in diameter.  This is your “pie”. Then look at the following headings which are the main areas of focus and activity for the average person:

*Work         *Family        *Play         *Romance         *Exercise         *Adventure (i.e. new activities)    

*Friends/Social Life        *Spirituality

Using these headings, allocate a segment of your pie to each of them, but draw each segment proportional to the amount of focus you give to each area.  You’ll almost certainly discover that your “pie portions” will be of varying sizes.  For example, “work” might be a very large portion and “play” very small.

This gives you a graphic overview of which areas of your life are taking up most space and where you may need to find ways of balancing things up.

Use this exercise to consider what you might do to let go of particular things that are causing an imbalance in your life and start thinking of ways you can change them with a real view to taking action and trying to make a beneficial difference in your life.

Gratitude lists are also a useful practice at this time of year.  We can always do with reminding ourselves of the things for which we can be grateful. Appreciating the good things in our lives, however small, makes it easier to change pessimistic attitudes towards challenges and setbacks. This is what you do:

Before you go to sleep each night, try to recall anything that’s happened during the day for which you feel gratitude.  Always include the simple things (as well as anything major for which you are grateful) e.g. enjoying some sunshine in your lunchbreak, a welcome phone call or email from a friend, or delighting in the sight of some pretty flowers in somebody’s front garden.  Remember, the more you begin to think in terms of gratitude, abundance of every kind is drawn towards you.

And finally, as we creep towards the end of 2017, do all you can to help yourself relax and de-stress using NATURAL aids like massage, meditation and giving yourself as much “me-time” as possible. Give yourself lots of Reiki if you’ve learnt it or treat yourself to a session or two with a professional practitioner to help re-balance your energies. Likewise, if there are difficult issues which are holding you back in life, consider seeing a practitioner of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Energy Tapping as many people call it now, to help you let go of  any intensity around your personal challenges and/or emotional problems. Now is the time for laying the ground for making positive adjustments to your life and really making a difference to your well-being.

Above all, remember to be compassionate towards yourself and others and work at letting go of judgement and criticism. Make a commitment to learn to love your life, love who you are, and love those around you, for the power of love is the most potent healing force in the world.

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ALL THINGS MUST PASS

They say that change is the only constant in life for all things must pass.  But many of us don’t find the idea of change something to relish. Instead, we often prefer to maintain the status quo rather than undergo alterations to life-style and places which are new and perhaps, alien.  Periods of big change can be challenging and daunting, and on the whole, the majority of people prefer not to be pulled out of their comfort zones if they can avoid it, especially when they know they’ll have to find their way through the shadowy world of uncertainty and the unknown.

That being said, we need to acknowledge the fact that life itself is always full of uncertainties, packed as it is, with challenges, twists and turns. All of our existence on this planet is about change because nothing ever stays the same.  We’re born, we live and we die.  All living things go through this cycle.  Even the mountains and rocks are subject to change for they, too, grow, erode and decay.  Mini-cycles of birthing and dying are happening all the time within each of our lives.  We see this in the ending of relationships and other attachments, in things that manifest into our lives only to disappear once again and in the way that the physical body changes over time.

Nothing grows, nothing develops, and nothing matures without going through change.

Changes come in many guises.  Sometimes it may feel as though the Universe has thrown us a curve ball which arrives out of the blue and knocks us sideways. Sometimes it comes because we actively want to make alterations to an aspect of our lives because we believe that if we can do that, a particular situation will look and feel different, and we will feel happier, easier, and  more at one with ourselves.

However change appears in your life, generally speaking, it often feels uncomfortable, although it has to be said that sometimes a transformation can feel graceful and easy. If we’re seeking to alter a situation and are able to hold a firm vision of what we want to manifest, this can facilitate a much more relaxed transition from one state to another.

Any desire to bring about change usually also involves letting something go. We can make things much harder for ourselves if we harbour any resistance to altering how things are as this can prevent us from making any adjustments to the issue in hand. Very often we have anxieties around making the changes in the first place. Sometimes we need support and aid in moving through these concerns, and there is absolutely no shame in that. Better to reach out for help and overcome disquiet and unease than let that fear remain inside you, preventing you from moving forward in your life.

Our experiences with change mould us into who we are, inform our beliefs and become the foundation of the road we ultimately travel.  We never know when we set out in life exactly where we might end up, even though we may be aiming for a particular goal or destination.  Paradoxically, it’s actually all right to feel uncertainty, because when you don’t know about something, it means you have an open mind!  And if you have an open mind, then this gives you a greater ability to be flexible and a desire to be curious, both of which can spur you on in your quest for change. It can also give you the opportunity to let go of judgement which then enables you to develop greater understanding and compassion.

Coping with change and uncertainty becomes easier if you can practise ways of staying in the present without a jumble of thoughts about past or future running through that stream of consciousness which is your mind. Change also becomes less challenging when we allow things to unfold and learn not to have rigid attachments to outcomes (which is an area where many of us cause ourselves even more problems and difficulties!)  As Deepak Chopra, doctor and spiritual teacher says: “… (when we develop) a willingness to step into the unknown, the field of all possibilities, we surrender ourselves to the creative mind which orchestrates the dance of the Universe.”

Ultimately, change is the gateway to all our opportunities, and potential.  By learning to trust the process of change, we find, amazingly, that all kinds of things can start falling into place.  When we step into that field of opportunity, we can discover the possibility of having the freedom to create whatever we want.

As it says in the book “A Course of Miracles “:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Begin it now

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