I decided to do a little experiment the other night while I was working on setting up the Facebook page for this site. I recorded myself as I went through some very basic mindful steps to meet and bring some kindness to the unpleasant sensation that had been gnawing at the edges of my concentration. I noticed that I was batting away the thought that I had promised myself a relaxing evening but was also feeling driven to get some work done and that a feeling of resistance was building in my body… resulting in an upset tummy!
I hope it might be of some use. Often we read steps for mindful practice but might wonder how they would actually work in the midst of a messy or strong emotion. This is an example of quite a brief process of coming home to my body and getting in touch with self-compassion. There are times that call for a deeper practice, but in everyday life this set of steps, repeated often, will help to rewrite self-defeating habits with more resilient, kind and caring ones that give us a solid foundation for dealing with life’s difficulties. The steps I took:
Stopping what I was doing with the intention of bringing some curiosity and kindness to seeing what was happening for me
Placing my hands on my body with kindness
Following my breath as a bridge to the sensations presenting themselves in my body at that moment
Bringing my awareness to the sensations, taking appropriate action to honour what I saw needed my help (eg. I stood up to relieve my tummy)
In the silence that following my breath in and out gave me, I could notice the thoughts and as with the sensations/emotions, simply acknowledge and allow them
Recognising the turmoil I smiled and felt kindly towards myself, knowing that I had been acting out of habit.
I’m happy to report that I left the work down then and there and got an early night!
This is just one example, I would love to hear your observations or questions on it in the comments below or on the Facebook page. I realise also that there is a whole lot of fascinating stuff to share about what ‘taking a few breaths’ means and that can be the subject of its own post.
Starting by touching the earth, being aware of the earth beneath that is holding us, it’s stability. We might breathe in and out three times while we touch, coming home to our body, checking in with the present moment. What is happening right now? The earth is here for me, I am here for whatever is happening inside and outside. Just present, allowing. If I notice I am nervous, or afraid that I am not good at this, or preoccupied with thoughts about some issue… then I notice kindly, I smile, all this can be here for my walk. I will walk with the solidity of the earth, the openness of the sky, the flow of the river, the breath of the trees. They are showing up for me and I will do my best to show up for them.
We can then set an intention. We could address this to the path we are about to take, to God, to ourselves, to whomever we would like to address it, but it is important to decide on the sentence in our mind and then to say it, perhaps even a few times, to be very clear for ourselves. Some examples of intentions for a medicine or healing walk might be:
May I open to the healing and beauty that is offered to me by nature on this walk.
May I have an insight into the issue that I am facing at present (naming the issue).
May I be supported in bringing kindness and love to myself, just how I am, on this walk.
May I receive the teaching that would most benefit me at this time.
Once we have said our intention we can let it go completely. The thinking mind, the furrowed brow, does not produce our answer or our healing. We can let go of that and any other problems, stories or distractions and walk just to walk. Walk freely, walk to appreciate, to become really present for what we see, what we feel, what we hear. We use our senses to ‘tune in’ to what is around us more deeply. It is present for us, offering life and beauty, so now we make the conscious decision to show up for it.
Remembering to stop when we see something that calls to us. The beauty around us can be a cue to remind us to come back to the present moment, to our body and our gentle steps.
The mountains are a queue for us to remember our own inherent solidity when we practice, the trees, like lungs, make fresh air for us and can remind us to breathe. The water beside us can remind us to let go. To let the shape of this walk fill out whatever way it wants to fill out, like water takes on whatever shape it is poured into. To let anything we want to let go of be carried along and be cleaned by the water. Stopping to notice the gift of the sound of water, we can savour it for three breaths.
Noticing the patterns in the trees and in the stones, you can see secrets that were only meant for you to see, that will show themselves to you, when you look, again and again. That is your conversation with what is around you and it is the willingness to lean into that conversation again every time you realise that you have gone into thoughts or a habit energy of feeling that you need to move faster. Stopping to be with the tree covered in Lichen – to see more deeply you need ten breaths. Not searching, just embracing, noticing what’s there. See if you can stay looking, there is no end to seeing. Notice how you calm as you follow the breath in and out. If there are strong emotions, it may not be the time for this practice, if so, return to the feeling of the feet in rhythm on the path that is holding you.
Incorporating gratitude practice.
Sometimes when walking we may find ourselves deeply gripped by a strong negative emotion or story that is very hard to be with. To bring us out of the thinking and more into our heart (bringing us into a more relaxed, receptive state) we can name five things we are grateful for as we walk. At first, we may only be faking the gratitude, but after a few attempts, it starts to become easier. We might notice how we are supported by the people around us, that someone laid this path for me, that someone keeps it clean. That we have healthy eyes to see the birds in the sky, that there are grass and trees in the place that we live…
Teachings, insight, understanding.
Often on a walk our attention may be drawn to something in particular. Give this thing your full attention, just looking and being with it. There is no need to puzzle anything out or strive. In fact, with any difficulty in our minds, the only true answers come when we are calm and receptive, when we can give a little space to ourselves and our difficulty. Say for instance after speaking with a friend and ‘sleeping on it’. Taking ourselves on a healing walk can offer a similar experience. We acknowledge and name our difficulty or need as best we can (this can be done when setting our intention) and then we offer it to the walk to take care of. We let ourselves off the hook. For this 30 minutes at least I am here, I am free, I can walk with freedom on this beautiful earth. I can breathe and see and smile at all the beauty and life around me and allow my mind to rest in the rhythm of my footsteps and breath, in the songs of the birds, the rumble of the cars, the burbling of voices. I let all things be as I walk. I don’t need to struggle. I don’t need to be anything or change myself in any way. I can just allow myself to walk and breathe and enjoy. In this kind, spacious contact with our own awareness and the beauty of what is around us, a shift in perspective can occur. A wee thoughteen can drop in, pop up, slide across, wave out from our heart and suddenly: AH! Or more gentle, ohhh, oh. I see.
We have no control over what comes. But we can trust that if we come to nature with an openish mind and an openish heart, no teaching will ever come back that does not feel good in our stomachs, safe in our hearts. Even if it is an insight about something we may want to do differently, there is never a feeling of judgement. In fact, that is the ready reckoner – insight has the colour and vibration of allowing, non-judgement, ease, love, acknowledgement of our inherent goodness. Often there is a blend of our own thoughts and rationalisations with our heart-understanding. This is okay too, we learn and learn as we lean into our own deeper wisdom. We access this wisdom by setting the intention that we wish to engage with it on our walk. Nature is our ally in this attempt. An always present, always beautiful, refreshing friend that will welcome us in all our ways of being. There can be no walk attempted in self-care that will not result in some lifting of our burdens, some light to loosen our knots.
I took a preparatory walk several days before I was to conduct the public walk that the above notes were written for and made an audio recording of what came to me as I walked. It was just a way of taking notes for myself at the time but it has a nice raw, spontaneous quality to it that you might enjoy 🙂
On my desk, a shaft of early autumnal sunlight indirectly and gently picks out the details of the pine cone and feather I brought home yesterday morning. I have been walking again, I didn’t really stop, I mean long walks, up to the top of the lane walks. An hour or so in the morning and again in the evening.
The lane is a magical place. I have come to know it with a kind of intimacy I would never have known possible years ago. Years ago I only revelled in the theatrical kinds of beauty, storm waves pounding a wild and dangerous drum dance on this north western coast, soaring cliffs standing sentinel to sprawling vistas. Annie Dillard describes this wonderfully, ‘After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness… The whole show has been on fire from the word go”. I love these dramatic flourishes very much, but now I love the little, simple, plain things as much, if not more.
At the beginning of my walk on the lane this morning I knelt down, touched one hand to the cool, moss and grass-laced tarmac of the road beneath me and positioned myself in the morning sunlight. I had a simple intention for this walk, I just wanted to walk in the beauty, in full consciousness and presence for all that was arising within and around me. I always do, I always try to walk consciously, this started quite a few years ago now, greatly aided by my love of photography which has helped me to see deeply ‘the miraculous under my nose’. But this morning was a little different and I feel like a thirst has been quenched. My heart had softened enough to be with it all with more ease and to be quite honest, I love autumn and she spoke to me this morning, bright, fresh with that little cool edge and alive with transformation. All around me spilled a bouquet of rusts and dark greens, heathery faded purples, thistle, clover, soft and deep magenta hues, some spiky and defined, others soft-petalled and floral, others cloud-like, pink froth of dew and ephemeral geometries.
My heart was full of a corner turned. Of possibilities. I have been trapped in a painful story and sought help this week from my friends and they met me with such love and grace that my eyes are filling writing this. The communities we make around us are a miracle. The smell of meadowsweet dew evaporating in morning sunlight is a miracle. The fact that I am here and able to write from the heart like this on this morning is a miracle. The fact that you are here and hear me is a miracle.
The painful story was an old friend of mine – ‘not enough time’. I am writing a piece of academic work and have become exhausted. Unwittingly and despite my best efforts at self-care, (something I am grateful to be able to say I have learned a lot about and practice diligently), my mind had become my own sergeant major, fear and tiredness had coalesced into a dry concrete run, blinkers, strict routine, every day the deepening feeling of not being quite good enough and less confident. I hit the wall last week and realised I needed to call on my supports.
Speaking with a deeply wise and loving friend during the week I realised that this is a time of great change for me. His grounded and stable perspective helped me zoom out. The reality I had weaved is transforming, work is changing, the community and the beautiful space that we created together I have to leave behind and with a great deal of uncertainty as to what comes next. My beautiful dog friend is dying, a new relationship has blossomed, the program of study I have applied myself to for three years is coming to an end and the professional direction I had begun to dream has been cast in a new light, perhaps mercifully.
I don’t have answers to many things at the moment. I probably never do really, just think I do. But it is an interesting time and this morning I had rested enough for my heart to have softened and my mind to have settled enough to just be. To breathe with one of the many fear stories and actually hold it with a real feeling of compassion, not just bear it. And out of that softening, standing watching the fog lifting over the lake in that golden light, berries and birdsong, horses and cows grazing and a bright, cloud streaked sky holding us all in it’s Claddagh like embrace… I let the pain be and I asked, what new thing is trying to speak to me. And sure enough within a few minutes, the memory of a dream that I told Patrick about yesterday evening came back. I have had a strange recurring dream throughout my life about cycling to Dublin and when I told him he said, well sure we can do that. I loved the spontaneity of his offering. Feelings of possibility, excitement, anticipation welled up, sparkling into being and full of playful potential. Under the blanket of fear that I was too tired to lift, out of the shell of the flower that has bloomed and is returning to the earth for autumn, these new little seeds showed themselves. Possibility, I can cycle. I can cycle today, just a little bit and start to get fit again. Excitement of doing that with P, sharing something he loves. Openness, allowing, the taste of freedom.
The lane that I walk on is a great teacher and a great healer. I only have to go and breathe deeply, open my eyes, feel my feet upon the earth and I always feel healed, to whatever extent it is possible for me to allow it. My friends are great teachers and healers, I only have to ask for their help and they shower me with love and wisdom and presence, they help me to see when I am caught up in the fog of my own stories, help me to gently open my heart when it has contracted. I include as my friends those teachers living and dead that help me to stay connected to my heart and to my truest self, Tara Brach, John O’Donoghue, Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hahn – there have been and are so many more. I am so grateful to those people who write, who share their wisdom and their hearts and their joy and pain and love and appreciation for beauty.
That is why I am writing this now. I was standing under the pine in my back garden with Ollie, after the walk, smiling at the text I had just read from John O’Donoghue and that phrase ringing in my ears – the call to beauty. The truth of it, the centrality of it to my own encounter with this life, the possibility for healing within it. Another spark of possibility lit in my heart. I want to give back, I have been nourished and lifted up by all those wise hearts that have travelled with me, before me, I want to be one of those voices that reassures and offers solace and points to the beauty too. It is time to join my voice with the vast, intricate, beautiful network of hearts that are offering love and support while we navigate this beautiful and difficult life together. And just as all the tiny wild flowers and grasses and ferns are so perfectly balanced and deeply interconnected I know that my voice will find its place, my heart will serve its purpose and the hearts to whom I speak will find what they need in our sharing of truth through these words.
With much love and looking forward to the journey,