Walking mindfully

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I’m walking through the woods.

Or am I?

Who is it that is walking?

I’m thinking about something someone had said to me earlier, worrying about something I'd forgotten to do, and I have fleeting thoughts that undermine me.

But my feelings and thoughts come and go like the dark clouds I can see in the distance.

It is a great relief to realise that none of them are ‘me’.

Science tells me that the ‘self’ is just a ‘construct', an invention of the brain working to hold together all of our experiences in a meaningful way.

I find that going for a good walk is a great way of letting go of the burden of ‘me’.

It gives me a rhythmical time for sorting out my thoughts; for coming to terms with my humanity - mortal, afflicted with doubt, feelings of vulnerability and clouded with confusion.

I don't walk away from my problems, I simply put them in perspective. I see them for what they are, and don't allow them to dominate my life with guilt, worry or anxiety.

When walking mindfully I can sometimes find it to be a challenge to let go of my thinking. 

So I concentrate on just walking, one foot after the other.

So long as I let my head and heart become clear I know that, later, things will begin to sort themselves out naturally, without effort.

I look outwards, noticing the sounds around me: the rustle of leaves as a squirrel searches for food on the ground; a barge on the canal revving its engine in the distance.

I stop and watch a robin flit from branch to branch.

My head and my heart become clear.

I consciously breathe the air and feel it give life to my  body.

The practice of mindful walking, says Thich Nhat Hanh, is a profound and pleasurable way to deepen our connection with our body and the earth. We breathe, take a mindful step, and come back to our true home.


Thoughts floating by...

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I’m out walking and I stop. In doing so I silence the sound of the heather and dead bracken being crushed by my feet, an almost soothing, familiar sound as I walked. I stop near a lake and watch the movement of the clouds reflected in the water. I think about how it is getting dark and that I should get back to the car.

I’ve stopped and I’m thinking...no...it’s not me that’s thinking...my mind is chattering to itself. I listen and notice this chatter: ‘Beautiful scenery’, ‘The colours are lovely’, ‘What’s the time?’, ‘I must remember to call at the supermarket on the way home’, ‘What time do they shut?’ ‘I should’ve brought my coat, it’s very cold’.

Gradually my jostling thoughts fall silent. I become aware of my own breathing and heartbeat. My attention is held by a cloud reflected in the water. I simply see it. I also see all the other clouds. I have no desire to move. I just stand there. Every now and then a new thought crosses my mind. I hear it in the same way as I see the clouds. Presence and distance. One thought whispers “Your thoughts are like the clouds, there are a lot of them, let them pass you by and float away, that’s fine. This moment is perfect. You don’t need or expect anything more than what you are experiencing here and now.”
 
Then my thoughts fall silent.
 
A glimpse of eternity.

Staying calm and open to the world

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This is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by. It changes second by second as the mist moves along the valley. I hear sounds in the distance...a car...a magpie...the wind in the trees. I’m reminded that mindfulness is not relaxation (where we need silence, or quiet at least), but meditation (where we are trying to cultivate a calm relationship with the world).

In the meditative state of mind one is simply aware of being conscious at the very moment, or, to be more precise: one experiences oneself as this very moment of consciousness.

There are many definitions of consciousness and the simplest is simply ‘being aware’. 

So, as I sit here my mind flits from one silliness to the next, the same as the bird in the tree next to me flits from branch to branch. It can do nothing else. The main thing is not to feel stable on any one of them. Our minds need transitory certainties, just as birds need branches. 

I am aware that I (the real ‘me’) sit behind the voices in my head, silently listening. 

The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, ‘Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.’ This serene encounter with reality cannot be had to order. We must consciously use our breath to calm ourselves and patiently examine our experience of the moment, with gentleness and determination, even if that experience is painful, complicated and confused. We just keep on breathing and looking into ourselves. We accept that which we do not clearly understand or control, but we keep on feeling and observing. In this way we learn to look more clearly outwards, at this world that is also painful, complicated and confused. We learn to think better, more accurately and clearly. If we were all to test these fleeting thoughts we have against interdependence, emptiness and impermanence, we would suffer less, and cause others less suffering too.

And so I stay calm and open to the world.


We are nature

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“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  Albert Einstein.

In a world that is becoming increasingly noisy and fast-moving, with technological advances promoting virtual worlds, fast food and sedentary lifestyles, I believe that a new breed of human is developing and countering this way of life. They are part of a movement that invites us to reclaim our place in the universe and remind us that we are organic rational beings who influence, and are profoundly influenced by, the natural world. They recognise our essential quality as a part of nature and that any separation we have from nature is no less than a separation from ourselves, leading to a sense of disconnection and feelings of loss and loneliness. 

For all our sophistication we are nature, we are still wild, and I believe that the recovery of that vitality will itself set us right in the world.

The interdependence of everything reminds us that nothing on earth has absolute existence as a fixed, isolated entity. I don’t exist as an autonomous subject, independent of my environment. I owe my life and its continuation to an infinite number of other people, along with many other natural phenomena including plants, the sun, other animals, the universe. The acts and judgements I call mine and which seem to me to stem from my own will, are in reality determined by many other factors. There is a dance between dependence and interdependence as my impulses and initiatives, in turn, influence the world around me. Unless I can understand and recognise all these relationships of interdependence, and embrace them, I will be unable to see things clearly and will regularly fall into the traps of ego, pride and suffering. Accepting them will teach me humility in relation to my own undertakings and beliefs.

 
Many aspects of modern life have distanced us from the natural cycles within and around us. Technology has reduced the amount we have to do to adjust to, for example, the seasons. Our lives have become more consistent over the course of the year with food that used to be seasonal now available all year round, central heating and heated cars meaning we barely have to brave the elements, and online communities making us feel that we no longer need face-to-face human contact or time in nature. While this might seem to make life easier in the short-term, in the long-term it can cause problems with both our mental and physical health.
 
Rediscovering our ‘natural self’ and recognising our dependence and interdependence on the world around us can nourish our mind, body and spirit, and Nature can be our wise teacher on this journey.

A brand new day

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“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Marcus Aurelius.

I love the early mornings when things are very still. I stand outside my door and look out across the fields, over the house roofs and treetops, at the glorious colours in the sky. Behind all the worries we have, the things (and people) we complain about, and the disapproval we have in our minds, the sun is always coming up in the morning, it always moves across the sky and goes down in the evening. The birds are always there collecting their food and flying overhead. The grass is always being blown by the wind, or it is still. Even now, in wintertime, flowers are blooming in my garden. There is so much abundance all around us. As I breathe in the early morning air I appreciate being alive. Some people overnight will have taken their last breath. They will not have realised at the time that it was their last, but their lives will have silently ebbed away. We are so fortunate to have another day here on our beautiful planet. 

The Navajo teach their children that every time the sun comes up, it’s a brand-new sun. It’s born each morning, and each evening it passes on, never to return again. As soon as the children are old enough to understand, the adults take them at dawn and they say, “The sun has only one day. You must live this day in a good way, so that the sun won’t have wasted precious time.” 

Acknowledging how precious each day is, is a good way to live, a good way to reconnect with our basic joy and appreciation.

“The fastest way to bring more wonderful examples of abundance into your personal experience is to take constant notice of the wonderful things that are already there.” Esther Hicks.


Just breathe

Nothing is happening. There’s no message, no story, just the wind blowing the blades of grass. We feel the breeze catch our hair and the fine strands moving in unison with the grass.

Nothing is happening. We hear the rustle of crisp fallen leaves. On our skin we feel the movement of the early morning breeze that is tossing the leaves as they float down from the tree. Soon they will be on the ground, but for now they are high in the sky valiantly fluttering and soaring.
 
Nothing is happening. Wind. Emptiness. But this passing moment makes our mind breathe a little easier. The wind is present, yet invisible. Like our breath, present in our body, but invisible.

When you walk through a wood, what do you see?

November

“The miracle is to walk on Earth.“ Thich Nhat Hanh

It's now, right now. In a little while it will be something else - the leaf barely hanging onto the branch will have fallen, the robin will have flown away, the sun will briefly flicker through the gold autumn leaves. It won't be better, or not as good, it will just be different. So now is the time to stop walking, to feel the cold damp air on our cheeks, to listen to all the muffled sounds and admire the extraordinary colours. We must stay here as long as we can, not waiting for anything in particular - in fact, it would be the opposite. Just stay here, doing our best to perceive the countless riches of the moment: the small movements of the nuthatch looking for food, the rays of sunlight briefly shining through the branches, the rustle of dry autumn leaves. Everything is perfect. Nothing more is needed for this moment to feel complete.

“Now the mind looks neither forwards nor backwards. The present alone is our happiness.“ Goethe

Mindfulness enables us to simply be present in this ordinary moment in time.


Nature is not outside us. We are nature.

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“I think that we are like stars. something happens to burst us open; but when we burst open and think we are dying, we’re actually turning into a supernova. And when we look at ourselves again, we see that we’re suddenly more beautiful than we ever were before.” C. Joybell C.

Hydrogen is formed into helium, and helium is built into carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, iron and sulphur - everything we're made of. When stars get to the end of their lives, they swell up and fall together again, throwing off their outer layers. If a star is heavy enough, it will explode in a supernova.

Our bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies.  Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.

The residual stardust finds its way into plants, and from there into the nutrients that we need for everything we do—think, move, grow. And every few years the bulk of our bodies are newly created.

We tend to think of our bodies changing only slowly once we reach adulthood. In fact, we're changing all the time and constantly rebuilding ourselves. 

The skin, for example, is our largest organ. To keep alive, our cells have to divide and grow. We're aware of that because we see children grow. But cells also age and eventually die, and the skin is a great example of this. It's something that touches everything around us. It's also very exposed to damage and needs to constantly regenerate. It weighs around eight pounds and is composed of several layers. These layers age quickly, especially the outer layer, the dermis. The cells there are replaced roughly every month or two. That means we lose approximately 30,000 cells every minute throughout our lives, and our entire external surface layer is replaced about once a year.

Very little of our physical bodies lasts for more than a few years, something we might find hard to grasp each day as we look in the mirror. But we're not fixed at all. We're more like a pattern or a process. 

The spiral in a snail's shell is the same mathematically as the spiral in the Milky Way galaxy, and it's also the same mathematically as the spirals in our DNA. It's the same ratio that you'll find in very basic music that transcends cultures all over the world. Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Every tissue recreates itself, but they all do it at a different rate. We know through carbon dating that cells in the adult human body have an average age of seven to ten years. That's far less than the age of the average human, but there are remarkable differences in these ages. Some cells literally exist for a few days. Those are the ones that touch the surface. The skin is a great example, but also the surfaces of our lungs and the digestive tract. The muscle cells of the heart, an organ we consider to be very permanent, typically continue to function for more than a decade. But if you look at a person who's 50, about half of their heart cells will have been replaced.

Our bodies are never static. We're dynamic beings, and we have to be dynamic to remain alive. This is not just true for us humans. It's true for all living things.

Cells die and rebuild all the time. We're literally not what were a few years ago, and not just because of the way we think. Everything around us does this.

Nature is not outside us. We are nature.

Read more: Living with the stars: how the human body is connected to the life cycles of the Earth, the planets, and the stars. Karel Schrijver and Iris Schrijver.


Nothing is born, nothing dies

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Sometimes people ask you: "When is your birthday?" But you might ask yourself a more interesting question: "Before that day which is called my birthday, where was I?"

Ask a leaf: "What is your date of birth? Before you were born, where were you?"

If you ask the leaf, "How old are you? Can you give me your date of birth?" you can listen deeply and you may hear a reply. You can imagine the leaf being born. Before being born it was the meristem in the mother oak. Or it was the acorn that had fallen onto the soil. It was also the sun because the warmth from the sun helped the acorn grow. The rain is there too, helping to nourish the mother tree and help it thrive. The leaf does not come from nothing; there has been only a change in form. It is not a birth of something out of nothing.

Sooner or later, the leaf will change into decaying organic material. If you look deeply into the ground you can see the leaf. The leaf is not lost; it is transformed into compost, and the compost is transformed into grass and the grass into cows and then to milk and then into the latte you drink. Today if you drink a latte, give yourself time to look at the latte and say: "Hello, leaf! I recognise you.”

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Only when we touch our true nature can we transcend the fear of non-being, the fear of annihilation.

Nothing is born, nothing dies.


The caterpillar and the rock

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I had work to do so my daughters headed out for a walk on their own. They climbed one of the mountains alongside the campsite we were staying at. The steep climb to the top took them just over an hour. They had climbed fast and felt pleased with their efforts. On the top they went to the rock that signalled the highest point and were delighted to see a caterpillar climbing to the top of the rock. They photographed it and relayed the story to me on their return. It reminded me of a story called the caterpillar by Andreas Fay, a storyteller known as the Hungarian Aesop.

A caterpillar climbed with great effort to the top of a milestone. “Goodness me, what a mountain!” he shouted with joyous self-satisfaction. “How amazed the world will be to discover that I could climb so high!”

“Yes, that’s a long way for a caterpillar,” said a fox standing nearby. “But that still doesn’t make it a mountain!” and with a light spring ne jumped over both the caterpillar and the milestone.

Just because something is easy for someone else doesn’t mean it will be for us, but every mountain top is within our reach so long as we keep climbing.

“Victories in life come through our ability to work around and over the obstacles that cross our path. We grow stronger as we climb our own mountains”. Marvin J Ashton.

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