Teachings

I’ve been aware for a while that I am looking for a teacher.  Teachers perhaps.  Guides.  Mentors.  People (women, if I’m honest) that can help me navigate my way through this sometimes calm, sometimes stormy ocean of life.  The thing is, I’ve never been very good at asking for what I need, nor necessarily always recognising things that are right there in front of me.

Pema Chodron

A good friend of mine introduced me to Pema Chrodron some time ago.  And, over the last couple of weeks I have been reading some of her books, which I am finding gentle, nurturing, enlightening and deeply inspiring.

Pema Chodron, born Deirdre Blomfeld-Brown, is an American Buddhist nun, author and teacher, and a mother.  Born in 1936, she married twice and had two children before immersing herself in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-30s, eventually becoming ordained as a novice nun in 1974.

So, not only is Pema Chodron a woman, but she has lived ‘in the world’, so to speak, and has birthed children.  She knows what it means to be married, to commit living her life alongside someone else, to raise young ones, and to live surrounded by concrete, noise, busyness and craziness in the reality of a Western world city.  As such, when I read her words, I feel like maybe she’s known some of what I have experienced in life.  Perhaps she has walked a little way in my shoes, and I in hers.  I can’t say the same about the Dalai Lama or, much as I love him, Eckhart Tolle, or indeed any of the other inspirational male spiritual ‘leaders’ that speak gentle truths of love, life and compassion.

Having been scarred by Catholic schooling for most of my youth, I am very resistant to organised religion.  I know there is rebellion in me in embracing one way of seeing the world, one way of understanding how it all works, one way of explaining what happens to us after we die.  Also, I’ve never been brilliant with rules.  I have a tendency to break them.  And, as a feminist, I know I can certainly never follow a faith system that has one male entity at its head.  It just does not work for me.  Not in this truly unbalanced world we live in, where women can still be stoned to death for having been raped, or shot at for daring to speak out about a girl’s right to education.

When people ask me “What do you believe in?” I find it hard to answer.  Quite simply, I believe in what I feel.  I believe in the beauty of the natural world and the mirrors that it constantly holds up to our faces.  I believe in the power of nature to not only show us what is going on in our lives, but to also hold a space for us to always walk into, to access the power of the land, the wind, the sea, in order that we can learn to heal ourselves.  I believe in stillness, in silence, and I believe in listening to the sound of our inner knowing.  I have experienced moments of what I can only describe as complete belonging; moments in which I know, with total assuredness, that all of us, all of this, is connected.  I believe in the power of the individual, and I believe in the power of community.  I believe in the power of sitting in circle, of talking and listening from the heart.  I believe in rites of passage to mark, honour and celebrate all the transitions we make throughout our lives.  I know I need these things in order that I can make sense of it all, and I know I am not alone in this.

Pema Chodron’s teachings have come to me at a time in my life when I feel ready to open to them.  I take great comfort in her words so full of simple wisdom that I find myself nodding, saying thank you, and wanting somehow to eat them up so that they can stay within my very core always.

And then, just a few weeks ago, our Canadian friend (and soon-to-be neighbour) pointed out that the abbey Pema Chodron is the resident teacher at, Gampo Abbey, is “just down the coast” from where we’ll be living in Cape Breton come mid-July.  For me, who trusts in the natural ebb and flow of life, who struggles when it feels like things are not moving along easily, that things are being forced into being, this discovery felt like nothing less than serendipity.  Her own words about the abbey only serve to strengthen my resolve to spend some time there if I possibly can:

Gampo Abbey is a vast place where the sea and sky melt into each other.  The horizon extends infinitely, and in this vast space float seagulls and ravens.  The setting is like a huge mirror that exaggerates the sense of there being nowhere to hide.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Over the last couple of weeks I have been meditating on the question “What or who are you resisting in your life right now?”  I know now that the “who” in this question is myself.  And, I feel ready to come out of hiding.

I also believe Pema Chodron may be one of the teachers I have been waiting for to help me do this.

 

 

 

 

 

Threshold

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You will go with your guide to a wilderness place.  All you have will be the pack on your back.  A base camp will be established on the perimeter of the threshold area.  Now you are at the border of a land without borders.  You are about to enter the hallowed cathedral of the Great Mother.

The last night, by the firelight, the faces of people in the group have never seemed more honest.  Defenses are down.  Conversation is real and full of truth.  Like the others, you have come to the end of a trail littered with old spoor.  Soon you will walk away from it.  You are one sleepless night away from liberation…

For the next three or four days and nights you will see no one.  In the silence of your separateness you will seek a vision… This is the time to forget time, to remember what it is you are seeking, and to take it into your heart.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

It is almost a year to the day that I came down from a mountain in North Wales, having spent four days and four nights up there, alone, fasting, praying for a vision.  And, as I make my preparations to return to that same mountain, to ‘complete’ the ceremony, if you like, the memories of that time come flooding back to me in wild and unbidden ways.

The fear, the doubts, the hunger, the dreams, the seemingly endless passage of the sun through the sky overhead.  Then the clarity, the knowing, the feeling that my heart would burst open with the love and connection that I felt for everyone and everything around me.  An openness that I have not felt anywhere before or since.  A deep, earth-reverberating, soul-aching belonging to the world that made me want to laugh and cry in equal measure.

In any rite of passage ceremony, there are three identifiable phases which must be gone through by the initiate: Severence (where we separate literally from our former worlds), Threshold (where we enter the ‘sacred world’ and so begins the time of testing), and Reincorporation (where we return to our ‘village’, our people, carrying our vision before us).  Each stage is as elemental to the whole as each other.  Each one is unique, intense, and full of medicine that keeps showing itself in wild and mysterious ways.  Each one takes an enormous amount of courage that at times can feel insurmountable.

One definition in the Oxford English Dictionary describes threshold as “a point of entry or beginning”.  Indeed, threshold marks a place between here and there, now and then.  It allows us a point in space and time to step through, shedding all that we have been carrying up to then – the point at which “(We) may face deep truths, extreme weakness and strength that (we) never knew (we) had; in order to stand in (our) naked truth and surrender into (our) uniqueness” (Pip Bondy, http://www.ancienthealingways.co.uk/vision-quest/).  We can, indeed we MUST, ask ourselves: What are we leaving behind in order to step through, past and beyond ourselves at this juncture?

Marking threshold is potent.  It can be a physical location in space, or it can be a point in our lives when we know we have reached the end of one thing, one way of being, and now we need to step into something else.  Another, different part of ourselves that we know is in there, buried deep beneath years of sorrow or pain perhaps, or simply a lack of recognition of seeing something for what it is.

sea_threshold

Now you stand alone at the gates of sacred time.  Before you lie the features of eternity.  By your own efforts you have become a worthy candidate.  Now the cord binding you to your former life must be severed.  You will cut the cord by actually entering the passage.  This is an auspicious and powerful moment.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

As I stand at that edge and ask myself “What am I willing to leave behind so that I can fully step through, in and beyond?” I feel fear, anticipation, excitement AND a deep knowing that this is where I have been coming to since I walked down that mountain a year ago yesterday, my bag heavy on my back, my vision light in my heart.

I have laughed, cried, worried, questioned,  stumbled and walked gracefully through reincorporation. I unconsciously re-entered severance during this time, and once again I find myself standing at the doorway that leads from here to there.

And I laugh too, because after two years of doing some intense self work, I promised myself that I would have a ‘year off’ this year.  Little did I know that by choosing to step up to this journey all those many months ago, all I really did was open a door.  One of many doors.

And, of course, with each new door comes a new threshold…

Facing the unknown

“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.”

Pema Chodron

The unknown.  Ah what romance and delights it holds!  What potential, what excitements, what empty, open spaces lie in wait for us to step into and uncover all those hidden mysteries!

The adventure.  The open road.  The one way ticket out of here and into there…

And yet…

And yet, how can we possibly know if we have the courage or not to face it when we don’t really know what IT even is?

Sadly (in my opinion), it is almost impossible to experience the complete unknown in our modern world.  Think of a place.  Any place.  Someone has already been there.  They probably stuck a flag in the ground just to prove they got there first.  And then they went home and wrote a book about it.  It is probably a very ‘interesting’ book.  It might even be the best book you’ve ever read! And I can totally understand that desire to share something you’ve done, something you’ve seen, something you’ve heard, something that feels so extraordinary that you just HAVE to share it with someone else just so that they, too, can get just the tiniest glimpse into just how extraordinary it really was.  (I am a blogger after all…)

And yet (again)… in that very action we take something away.  Not only from the other person, who was not there when said extaordinary thing happened, but actually we take something away from ourselves too. In the very moment that those first words are spoken, we have lost a bit of the preciousness of our experience. We have released it, and, therefore, imperceptible as it may seem at first, we no longer fully, selfishly own it.

Luckily (and frustratingly), we know that no retelling of a story will ever pass on to the listener the true, unique magic of the moment from which our story evolved.  We have all seen and felt that missing ‘something’ in our listeners as their eyes glaze over, their attention drifts, they start to ask irrelevant questions.  How can they possibly see what we’ve seen?!  How can they possibly feel how we feel? We saw it with OUR eyes, we walked it with OUR feet.  And so, always, they will be OUR stories and no one elses.

So perhaps, after all, even with all the maps, books, songs, stories and far flung tales that are out there of lands already discovered, seas already sailed and dragons already spied, it still IS possible to visit new places and discover a whole new story just for ourselves.

Any new adventure takes true courage, yes.

This, I am learning in abundance at the moment, as the unknown beckons me into her mysterious, tempting and delectable depths.  I am teetering on the edge of complete surrender and at times I feel truly afraid.

Simple pleasures

I like to think I’m actually quite easy to please. (Yes, I appreciate this might not seem 100% true 100% of the time but…)

Take my latest source of deep and divine (yes really) pleasure…

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Yes, it’s a sofa.  But it’s not just ANY sofa.  THIS sofa is in what I like to call my new ‘snug’.

I really wish I’d taken a before AND after photo now, but to be quite honest with you, BEFORE made me deeply unhappy.  I’d even go as far as to say despondent, hopeless and despairing. And why would I want to take a photo of something that had such an effect on me?! Well quite.

So, all I have is the after photo.  It may not seem like much to anyone other than me, but what it represents brings words like calm, serenity, quiet creativity, order, beauty, and MINE to mind.

This is a space I’ve carved out for myself in amongst the piles of stuff and things to do and general chaos and mess that I feel takes up most of the rest of our house most of the time.  And I have decreed this ‘snug’ a whinging/complaining/arguing/shouting and above all mess-free zone.

Kids (and farmers actually) make unbelievable mess!  I am still amazed, after 9 years of parenting, at just how much of a mess they can make.  I’d like to say I’m totally zen with it all, that it washes over me like a Himalayan waterfall of enlightened non-attachment.  However… I do struggle with mess when it is EVERYWHERE, and in a farmhouse with 1 farmer, 1 basketmaker, 2 home-educated kids, 1 dog, 2 cats (one of whom brings in a semi-consumed dead offering at least twice a day) I feel like there is mess everywhere all of the time.

So, this little niche is a place for me to escape to when I need to remember what it is like to feel clutter-free.  Somewhere I can go to to escape the chaos of everywhere else.  Somewhere to meditate.  Somewhere to dream.  Somewhere to turn soul-pleasing things like this…

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…into things like this… (more on the delight of mandalas soon…)

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I believe everyone needs space like this.  Whether it’s a whole room or a corner of a room, a window sill or a special place outside somewhere. One friend disappears into a caravan when he seeks reconnection. For some people it’s their car.  Or their bed.  For others, it’s a particular cafe that they go to for escape and to connect into the part of them that they know is buried deep beneath all that chaos. And for others it’s not even a place, but a time in the day or week where they can carve out that space and give back to themselves the love and nurturing that we all, on one level or another, really, really need.

I know that the stillness and centring I seek when I spend time in my snug can be found within my very self.  I know that through yoga, meditation, mindfulness and conscious practice I can tap into this part of myself more and more easily.  And yet I’m not sure even the Buddha himself could have attained enlightenment if he’d been surrounded by hungry, demanding children, a throwing-up dog and a god-forsaken mess to tidy up first.