Letting Go

Taking inspiration from nature, many Pagans see this season as a time of letting go. Even as leaves fall from the tree, we let go of things in our lives that no longer nourish us. In the letting go, we allow new manifestations to feed our creativity and inspire us in our journey, even as the fallen leaves feed the soil around the tree.

There are many different kinds of things we let go – ideas, relationships, emotions, material possessions. They key here is that if they are no longer nourishing, then we can softly let them go into the lengthening nights, thinking deeply about our lives and carrying within us new seeds for the coming year. They might be the vegetable garden that didn’t work, the friendship that no longer feels right, grief or anger that we have experienced or even just clutter in our houses.

We can also learn from the letting go – we can try and plant a vegetable garden in a different spot, grow different vegetables. We can focus on the relationships that we have that make our souls sing, and open ourselves to new possibilities. We remember those who have passed away, or who are struggling in the shared human journey. We learn to cherish and make space in our homes and in our lives for things that bring us joy.

The tree does not mourn the falling leaf, nor does the leaf mourn the tree. In the letting go, we simply allow for new manifestations to occur.

Blessings of Samhain.

Self-Governance

mudraFar too often we allow our emotions to control us, dictating how we react and respond to situations and perhaps not in the best way. Some would argue that our emotions are what gets things done, however, something done with anger, for instance, may not always be the best way forward.

Discipline has become a bad word in our society. What we need to do is to reclaim this word, along with duty (which I will elaborate more on in another blog). We need to sit down with ourselves and take a good, long, hard look at our emotions and the roots of these emotions, finding out why we react to situations the way we do, discover underlying patterns and unravel the threads that are loose, or about to snap, reworking them into something more harmonious.

If we work on a situation based on an emotion of anger, hate or jealousy, then the outcome will most likely not be conducive to creating compassion and harmony with the world. Exploring the roots of these “negative” emotions, we will realise that the underlying thread is one of fear. Anger is another expression of fear. We become angry at our partner for not behaving in a manner that we think he should. In reality, we may be fearful of losing our partner, or of changing feelings for him, of not having enough control in our own lives, etc. Hate is based in fear, as we fear that which is the Other, separate from ourselves, the unknown. Jealousy is based on fear of change, our own insecurities and fears created out of past experiences.

What we need to do it to sit down with our feelings, to better understand them and in doing so, better understand our selves. In creating a safe space to sit with our feelings, we can engage with them openly and honestly. Creating a haven, a sanctuary in which to perform this task, we can explore the deepest corners of our minds. For me, the goddess Nemetona helps in this exercise.

She is a goddess of sanctuary and sacred space. She is present in my home and in my heart. Human beings have such a craving for safety and security, and within this goddess we can find that wherever we are. Not only does it help with emotional discipline and self-governance, but the two are intricately woven together, with self-governance creating that safety. Let me explain.

If we are ruled by the tides of our emotions, we will never settle, never find a place that we can call a sanctuary. We are subject to the peaks and valleys of an emotional long hard slog, and never really find a good breathing space in which to find some respite. If we do not have that sanctuary, we have no place to breathe and to truly connect with our emotions. And so an endless cycle of repetition is created.

Finding time every day to simply sit and breathe is a great way to begin. In a safe, comfortable place, whether indoors or out, we focus on our breath, in and out, breathing in the air that our ancestors breathed, that all living things breathe. We breathe out into the world, exhaling even as the trees exhale in the deepening twilight. Sharing this beautiful moment, this sacred breath, we come to an awareness of ourselves, of our self and how we currently feel in the world at this particular moment. We can call upon Nemetona to hold this space while we simply sit and breathe, honouring Her for all that She is with a return to the stillness at our core.

It’s not easy, taking the time to simply breathe, to meditate on our breath. Our minds will try every trick in the book to distract us from this present moment and this one little act. It is with discipline that we return to our breath again and again, each time we find ourselves wandering off mentally, or shifting our bums restlessly. You have to really want to find stillness – it doesn’t just happen. You have to be disciplined enough to achieve it. It won’t simply suddenly appear out of nowhere, nor can it be spoon-fed. Discipline will not allow any passivity. We must take full responsibility for our selves and for our world.

After breathing, we can take some time looking at our feelings and emotions without attaching to them. Again, we can ask Nemetona to help us, to hold the space and to guide us to explore our feelings without getting too involved, wrapped up once again the in the emotion. She won’t do it for us, however. We can look at our fear, at our anger, our impatience, our joy and our happiness. We can find the roots of these if we don’t let them take control over our minds, and therefore live in better awareness.

For not only do we have to be careful of the negative emotions ruling our behaviour, but we must also become aware of the more pleasant emotions. Far too often we experience a beautiful emotion, and crave that emotion for the rest of our lives. We will never be able to recreate that experience, for it has happened and exists only in the past. All we have is this present moment, which is always changing, moving forwards. If we try to regain the feeling of joy that we had on our wedding day every time we look at our loved one, we disregard other emotions and feelings that will eventually come and bite us on our backside. We may not notice the present moment. Focusing only on positive emotions doesn’t work – we are human and we have negative emotions too. Those who deny them, who suppress them, will face some pretty hard demons at some point in their life.

So we sit, and we meditate day after day, breathing and coming to an awareness of the present moment. We are able to take the time to look at our feelings and get to know them better, thereby allowing ourselves the opportunity to break from negative patterns of behaviour into more purposefully led lives. Discipline and self-governance are not things to be afraid of, nor are they something to shun as not in keeping with our freedom of expression. We are better able to express ourselves when we are not ruled by our emotions, allowing us to see what lies at the root of our souls, and thereby what lies in others’ souls as well.

This is the heart of compassion. When we understand ourselves we can better understand others, and see their fears, their patterns being created. We can work with them to help create new patterns, or we can simply walk away with respect and not have their patterns reflected in our own. We can only help those who want to be helped, and this includes our own self.

So please do take the time to sit, every day, and be in the present moment. Become aware of your breathing. Call upon Nemetona or any other god to help you find that peace, that space to explore your feelings, should you so desire. Look at your feelings and better understand them for what they are. In doing so, you will no longer be ruled by them, but instead be able to respond in the world with an awareness and mindfulness that can only create harmony. We come to understand each other in a very deep and meaningful way when we take what we learn of ourselves and relate that to others. In this, we can see that we are all related.

We are not restricting ourselves with self-governance, but allowing ourselves to open to the world with the eyes of compassion and hearts that are true.

 

For more about the goddess, Nemetona, please see my book, Dancing With Nemetona: A Druid’s Exploration of Sanctuary and Sacred Space

World Suffering – Thich Nhat Hanh

This little gem came as a great reminder today, when the suffering of the world threatened to overwhelm me.  Bursting into tears as I watched on the BBC news children’s toys scattered in the rubble of the Gaza bombings,, their bodies being loaded together into the mortuary. Rude people at the village shop blocking other people’s cars, and making them wait until they finish shopping to move their car, even after the person has asked them to politely to move.  Loud, overbearing people in the bays next to you at the driving range.  The obnoxious amount of money spent on the World Cup Football in Brazil while people starve in the streets.

Thich’s words were a welcome reminder to find the beauty, and to nourish ourselves in order to better serve the world, in a world filled with suffering – not to be overwhelmed by it, but to find the beauty to carry on regardless. To find a community as well, of like-minded souls, who can inspire you on your journey through life.  To be out in nature, and to see the wonder and live with the awe of a child again.

Then, you will be better able to serve the world, instead of submitting to the suffering and the grief, the rage and the injustice.  Returning to the centre, finding peace and being peace is all that matters.

Dealing with depression and despair…

Dealing with depression and despair…

Being kind isn’t all that hard. Being jolly and upbeat all the time is – and is a denial of our emotions and bodily responses to certain situations.

 
I woke up yesterday in a bad mood – which has spilled over into today. The reasons for it are numerous: tiredness, frustration, a lack of compassion in the world amongst others. The Zen thing to do would be to be present in the moment, for in this moment there is all that we need. There is nothing but this moment. Feelings of despair arise when we separate ourselves from the moment, and think about the past or the future, dwelling on certain aspects and perhaps not seeing the bigger picture (or perhaps even seeing the bigger picture, which can cause us to despair even more).

 
Yes – I am quite comfortable in this present moment as I write this. I am not being shot at. I am not in fear for my life. My loved ones are safe. I have a cup of tea, and enough food to eat. My body is clean, my clothes warm. Compared to many, what on earth am I doing feeling despondent?

 
Humanity’s blessing, and curse, is the ability to see the bigger picture. This can lead to glorious ideas about the direction we should take; it can also lead to despair when we take into consideration the negative aspects of our lives on this planet. Focusing on just the positive isn’t balanced – neither is focusing on the negative. As a Druid, I am constantly seeking balance and harmony, to find my place in the world and to serve this world in the best capacity that I can, being true to my nature and honourable in my deeds.

 
I sometimes fail at this. I sometimes succeed. In this, there is balance. Of course, I aim to look at things from a balanced perspective, but on the whole we are conditioned throughout our lives to try and look at things positively. However, when looking at things negatively, we need to remember that negative does not equal apathy. If there is something we do not like, we can seek a way to change it. It’s in our hands.

 
This is not denying the negative. It is living a life with intention. Creating peace is damned hard work. It requires a person to see all sides of a story and work with the ideals of compassion and empathy. If we only acknowledged the positive things in our lives, our compassion and empathy would be seriously diminished.

 
I sometimes find myself thinking that Buddhist monks have got it pretty easy, secluded away in their monasteries, not engaging with the real world. Some do. However, I remind myself that other monks have engaged with the world in ways that I probably will never be able to – think Thich Nhat Hanh helping to rebuild villages during the Vietnam War, not taking sides with anyone and simply helping people as best he could. I’m sure at some points he too despaired, seeing children dying, homes destroyed and his country torn apart. My despair pales in comparison to this.

 
This is not to say that I should not acknowledge my own despair, however. If I did, if I pushed it to one side to focus on the positive, I’m sure that it would return to bite me on the ass at the most inopportune moment. We don’t have to give in to feelings of despair, but neither should we push them aside. We normally don’t push feelings of joy aside – we like to experience these. All feelings should be felt – and then we can move on.

 
So, tired after dance rehearsals and depressed by the amount of litter that I see along the roadsides that I will have to clear (again), apprehensive about coming engagements and a workload that was supposed to be lighter this year being heavier than ever, I am feeling my despair, my depression. I am allowing it to move through me, so that I can come out the other side having had the experience, which will hopefully transform into some sort of wisdom.

 
This despair will be self-contained – I will not be taking it out on others. I will try not to snap at people even though my emotions and reactions feel more “on edge” than normal. You can despair at the world and still be kind. You can reach out a hand to friends or family if you need to. You can write about it in a blog.

 
Above all, you are allowed to feel it, in your bones and in your soul.

Reblog from Zen Habits – Emotional Independence

Here’s an extract from Leo’s most recent blog post – read the full article HERE.

Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant

We look for happiness from others, but this is an unreliable source of happiness. Other people will come and go, or they’ll be emotionally unavailable for their own personal reasons.

And here’s the thing: it’s not their job to fill our emotional needs. They are struggling trying to meet their own needs.

So instead of looking for happiness from someone else, we have to realize it’s not out there. It’s within us.

Happiness isn’t in the future, it’s not somewhere else. It’s available right inside us, right now, all the time.

How can we find this happiness? It takes some inner searching, but consider these suggestions:

  • Sit by yourself, without a device or distraction, for a few minutes. Look inside. Notice your thoughts as they come up. Get to know your mind. See how fascinating it is. This in itself is an endless source of entertainment and learning.
  • One of my sources of happiness is creating, coming up with ideas, producing something. I don’t need anyone to do those things, and they give me wonder at my own abilities.
  • I also love learning. It gives me happiness, helps me grow.
  • Curiosity is a boundless source of happiness for me.
  • Learn to fix your own problems. If you are bored, fix it. If you are lonely or hurt, comfort yourself. If you are jealous, don’t hope that someone will reassure you … reassure yourself.
  • Take responsibility. If you find yourself blaming others, tell yourself that the other person is never the problem. Of course, you can believe the other person is the problem, but then you are reliant on them for the solution. If you believe that they aren’t the problem, then you look inside yourself for the solution.
  • If you find yourself complaining, instead find a way to be grateful.
  • If you find yourself being needy, instead find a way to give.
  • If you find yourself wanting someone to help you, help yourself.

Create your own source of built-in happiness. Walk around as a whole, happy person, needing nothing.

Then come from this place of wholeness, of self-reliance and independence, and love others. Not because you want them to love you back, not because you want to be needed, but because loving them is an amazing thing to do.

Compassion for Pirates

Sometimes in this life there are people who challenge us.  It is often difficult to maintain an awareness of our reactions when we are being challenged by another, or when someone upsets us, frustrates or annoys us.  These people can often be our greatest teachers, however, helping us to learn the ways of compassion.

Compassion is not the same as blind acceptance and becoming a sort of door mat for this kind of behaviour. It is not about loving people unconditionally.  There is a social contract involved, based on circumstance, culture and society.  Compassion is trying to understand the other person before falling into a reactionary role.  It is trying to see the bigger picture, in order to act appropriately.  We can stand up for ourselves, for what we believe is right. We can also try to understand those who challenge our views, who have hurt us in the past, who continue to frustrate or upset us in the present moment.

It might not even be that person’s fault that they upset you so.  Vietnemese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book, Interbeing on how if he had grown up on the coast of Siam, there is every possibility that he could have become a pirate like so many other men that plague the waters and make it dangerous for anyone living there.  Often it is due to matters out of anyone’s control – place of birth and circumstances of living that no one can have any sort of say in.

That’s not to say that people can’t change.  It is up to each and every individual to find the path that leads to the least amount of suffering in the world.  We all know that suffering exists – what we should aim to do is to alleviate that suffering where we can, both within our own hearts and in the hearts of others.

We cannot change other people – they have to want to change themselves. We can only lead by example, with our hearts open to the joys of life, not shutting down despite how much we have been hurt. Many may say that this way of living simply invites more hurt into your lives, but I would disagree.  By closing yourself down to love, you are doing yourself a disservice, and not having the right amount of compassion for your own self.  We do not allow people to hurt us – if they do, we walk away to a safe distance, try to understand the reasons why they have behaved in the way that they did, and perhaps try to alleviate the suffering on both sides through compassionate dialogue. Where this isn’t appropriate or where it just isn’t possible, perhaps because we have been hurt too much, we can simply bow and walk away, wishing peace for them and for our own hearts to still open to the possibility of love from a myriad of sources that exist in the world.

There are people in my life that I simply do not get on with.  It is sometimes a personality clash, or they have done/said something that I do not agree with – the circumstances vary.  When we have been mistreated, it is often hard to have compassion for the person who has done you wrong.  Your mind can get so caught up in what this person has done to you that everything they do annoys you.  The way they walk, the way they talk – the way they may apparently blunder through life.  When I find myself faced with such thoughts, it offers me the opportunity to see my own reactions and emotions, to understand how my mind works a little better. This is a true gift.

Yes, this person behaved inappropriately towards me in the past. But why should I let them continue to hurt me, to annoy me, to frustrate me? This is all within my control to end whenever I feel like it.  I don’t have to attach to the past hurt – I can let that go and get on with my life.  When I find myself glaring, or sneering on the inside, when I am disturbed on any level by this other person, I stop, pay attention what is happening in my mind, and smile. I can see the reactions for what they are. They are not actions – they are reactions.  I am acting mindlessly upon something that has already happened, and I am acting again and again in a repetitive state that does not help to alleviate anyone’s suffering. We have the opportunity to really act only once in any given situation, at the moment it happens. After that, we are acting upon the memory of the situation.

I am grateful for the opportunities I am given to see how my mind works, how my emotions can override the reality of a situation.  We are emotional beings, passionate creatures.  We can live a passionate life without being ruled by mindless behaviour. When it becomes too much, we can walk away, taking time to breathe, to try to understand ourselves and the other, to see the reality of the situation. Where there is no way forward, where is there is only hurt or danger we walk away with open hearts. Where there is a chance for reconciliation and healing then we take that with gratitude.

Living with compassion is not an easy thing – it takes dedication to truly want to understand your self, and others around you.  Yet when you do, the world opens up like a beautiful lotus flower, the many petals of existence showering you with beauty.

Riding the Tides of Perimenopause

Re-blogged from my channel at SageWoman:

SistersRiding the tides of perimenopause, I find that my sense of self, ideas and concepts that I held about myself are shifting like pebbles on a shingle beach, never in the same place twice, forming new solid banks and spits jutting out into the vastness of the ocean.  I live right on the coast of the North Sea, and am finding inspiration and a sense of kinship with the ocean that I have never felt before.

Swells and surges of emotion run through me as hormones find their way to the balance point in the dance of change and impermanence.  My body is changing, the elasticity in my skin fading, laughter lines showing, cellulite appearing in new places.  The curves in my body are becoming softer, gently changing over time.  My breasts sometimes ache as my body tries to find a new way of being.  Periods are nearer to each other, sometimes only two weeks apart, sometimes light, other times so heavy I cannot leave the house.  Sometimes I feel like I did in my teenage years, without the skin breakouts!

It’s not only my body changing – emotions run deeper than ever before.  Awareness of the emotions keeps them in check, allowing myself to truly feel them without too much attachment.  They are sometimes like a knife, cutting through the dross to reveal the jewel beneath; instinct and empathy allowing me to connect with the world on a much deeper level than previously imagined.

My attachments to my body are also becoming less and less.  I am ever thankful for this healthy body, that can dance and run and sing with abandon.  Thoughts about how others relate to me are changing as my body changes. I notice people interacting with me differently – or is it that I am the one who is different?  In our dance troupe, when we are performing, I notice that the attention is gently shifting away from myself to younger ladies in the troupe.  I smile to myself as I notice this, seeing how this makes me feel.  There is a tinge of sadness, as I release the undercurrents of vanity, as well as the newer notes of joy in not being wrapped up in the notions of youth that our culture is so focused upon. My heart goes out to the beautiful young dancers in our troupe, who have to deal with the extra attention.  My soul connects with the beautiful older women in our troupe, whose sense of self pervades a solidity that wholly and utterly inspires me.  I am seeing beauty where I never saw beauty before – it is truly remarkable.

I don’t crave attention in the same way as I used to.  What others think matters a lot less than before.  What does matter is how my life is lived, inspired by the world around me and walked on a path of honour and integrity. I see this reflected in the older women in my life, how comfortable they now appear.  I wouldn’t want to be young again – in looks or age.  I am at home in my body.  Some women are blessed with this from an earlier age, others like me perhaps find it during the hormonal shift. What is important is that we find that stillness within, like a pool of water that becomes clear when all our doubts and worries about our self finally settle, allowing us to mirror the wonder of the heavens.

One beauty is not better or worth more than any other form of beauty – all forms of beauty are simply that- beautiful.  Our soul takes form in our bodies, an impermanent expression of our being.  Learning to love the impermanence allows us to see the beauty in all stages of life and death, growth and decay.  It can allow us to be comfortable with who we are, no matter our age, what condition our bodies are in, what life throws at us.

This latest journey has just begun, and I have to say, I am loving the steps along the way. I breathe with mindfulness and take each step with love and joy even as I feel sadness and release. Life is precious, and impermanent, and in our awareness of impermanence lies our ability to truly live.

Encounters with unkindness

Can you remember the last time you were unkind to someone? Or thoughtless about something? Chances are, it doesn’t make you feel all that good – it probably makes you feel smaller, inside. When I remember acts of unkindness, either done by myself or done to myself, I feel a squirming inside, an uneasiness.

Still working on thoughts with compassion, exploring  words and acts of unkindness has been an enlightening experience.  Looking deeply at how it made me feel, what my reactions were, what others’ reactions were, what the outcome was, how it could have been prevented – all these I have meditated upon these last few months.  What I’ve come to realise is that no one likes to be unkind. There is no joy from it; perhaps if you are mentally ill, or there is a function in the brain that is not working as it should, then maybe you don’t feel bad, but on the whole, unkind acts do not produce any joy, any feelings of wellness.

Through our connectivity to each other, we perhaps have a deep-rooted empathy that we can acknowledge, if only we allow our ego to fall away, to quiet down and listen to what others have to say above the racket in our own brain.  We all share a life force; we all share a space on this planet, in this universe.  We are all thinking and feeling animals – if you are an animist, you also acknowledge a consciousness and inherent value in all things.  As humans, we all breathe the same air, air expelled from the lungs of others, turned into oxygen through various other life forms, breathing and sharing, breathing and sharing, the life breath that our ancestors breathed thousands of years ago, the life breath our lover breathes right now.

The word “kind” can mean a generous, benevolent, good person or deed, act or consideration.  It can also mean to be of a like group of individuals or objects – being of the “same kind”.  What I would posit is that the two meanings are entwined – kind thoughts, acts and deeds are a direct result of and inspired by being of the same kind.

Being unkind is distancing your self from others, making a distinct split in compassion from others, sometimes even diving into self-centredness in an anthropocentric world view.  Yet this distance, this separation is false – we can never be other than another life form on this planet. Another life form – we are surrounded by others all the time. Some are seen, some unseen – some are natural forces that create and destroy with violence or beauty, others are microscopic and surreal in their manifestation.  Yet we are never alone.

I think that the natural human tendency is to be kind towards others, for we have a specific consciousness that allows us to see and feel the repercussions of our actions.  We have the capacity of forethought, yet we use it all too seldom.  We are homo sapiens, the beings that are aware that we are aware. If we truly are aware, then unkind thoughts and deeds would not ring true in our heart of hearts.  Awareness is a journey towards the cessation of suffering.  If we are truly aware, then our suffering is eased.

Awareness comes in many forms, from simply being in the present moment to an understanding of the grander scheme of things, or seeing things from outside of your own personal perspective.  For how often has our perspective been wrong?  When we have been unkind to others, chances are it is because our perspective was skewed, and we reacted badly to a situation.  If we remember compassion, and strive to see the bigger picture, then with a little discipline and a lot of love we can change or modify our behaviour to help ease the suffering of all beings.

Those people who are unkind are trapped, and it may be helpful to remember that.  When someone is unkind to us, we can act with compassion. Sometimes that may mean seeing things from their point of view. Sometimes it may be walking away from a situation with honour and integrity.  When we find ourselves being unkind, or remember past deeds that are less than glowing, we can remind ourselves that it is up to us to choose freedom over chains.  We don’t have to let our behaviour rule us.  We can be passionate and loving without allowing emotion to skew our perspective. Emotion is such a personal thing, that it’s no wonder our wires get crossed all the time. It’s all about perspective.

In all things, I try to remember two words: be kind.  x

* Sparked by a conversation I had today with a lovely chap and artist (known as Bird Radio – do have a listen, there’s some really good stuff here! https://soundcloud.com/birdradio)  about perceptions, connectivity and many other things, this blog post simply poured out of me, and reminded me of the serendipitous nature of life and reality when it comes to, well, life!

Heaven and Hell

Blending Buddhist and Zen principles into my Druidry is integral to helping me find my personal spiritual path.  There is no monopoly on wisdom, and I find the teachings of both Buddhism and Druidry are universal.

One aspect of Buddhism that I find is often misquoted or misinterpreted is the idea that you push away your feelings, in order to function with a clear mind. What I have found is that within Buddhist training and discipline, you not only feel your feelings more, you also learn more from the feeling itself.

We are not taught to suppress our feelings within Buddhist teachings. Letting go of attachments is what is at the heart of Buddhism. That includes attachments to your feelings.  So, we feel our anger, our pain, our grief acutely – we give ourselves some time and space to truly feel these feelings, to express them if we need to with honour and compassion, and then to let go. It’s not easy to do at first, but not many things in life are…

I can be very quick to anger. But I have learned to try to not to act or react on that anger without truly feeling it first. In some situations, yes, you may have to make a immediate decisions. If you see an animal being abused, you act right away to stop it. However, you can feel your anger but not allow it to control you, thereby allowing you to act appropriately.  Anger can often to lead violence, physical or verbal, which only elevates the suffering in both parties and which resolves nothing. We should act to help each other and all other living beings on the planet.

When I get angry, if I feel I cannot react to a situation respectfully or honourably and I have the opportunity to take a moment, I do.  Taking a walk, or sitting and meditating with the anger is a great tool to use in order to gain a deeper understanding of it.  Learning how your mind works is an invaluable asset to living a life with greater understanding, or compassion.  If I can, I sit with my anger, or grief, pain, suffering and really feel it. I look it over from all sides.  I try to find root causes of it.  I see that anger reflected in others around me. I then place myself in the situation of the person that I am angry with.  Why am I angry with them? What has caused the anger within me?

Buddhism teaches that anger comes from within – it is not something that is bestowed from without. This is seen in the famous Zen story of the monk and the warrior:

The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.

Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from its shoulders.

“That is hell,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent. In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

(http://nathayogacenter.com/category-blog/106-spiritual-masters/86-inspired-zen-stories-the-secrets-of-heaven-and-hell)

When our emotions control us, when they are the ones that are raising the sword and not our true minds, that is when we are in hell. When we are aware of what we are doing, and in that awareness come to understand the nature of all beings, ourselves included, then we are in heaven.  Acting with intention, instead of reactionary living, is what can make this world a better place.

 My anger can fuel my fire to fight against injustices in the world. It is kept in check, it is a sheathed sword.  I know it is there, but I choose not to use it, instead working with compassion.  It is a conscious choice. Sometimes I fail, and when I do I notice where and how I have failed, and see the opportunity to work with that. I cannot blame others for my anger.  Their behaviour is nothing that I can control. What I can work on is my own behaviour towards them and to making the world a better place.  Giving like for like can be a very damaging thing to do.  When someone hurts us, our first reaction, our first desire is often to hurt them back.  It takes a lot of work to come out of this mindset, a lot of practice.

They say that practice makes perfect. So every time I let my anger rule me, as Thich Naht Hanh said, I am practicing being angry. Every time I practice awareness, mindfulness and compassion, I get better at those ways of being and living.  I know which I would rather aim towards!

Darkness and Mystery

milton paradise lostThe evenings draw in closer, the darkness growing as we make our way towards the winter solstice.  It is a time for deep thought, reflection and understanding – thinking and understanding so deeply you are hardly doing it at all.  In the darkness our minds are much less distracted by visual stimulation.  We can explore the darkness both within and without, as well as the great mystery of the unknown.

In Zen Buddhism, along the Eightfold Path we learn about Right Mind.  At this time of year, I apply it when journeying ever closer towards the rebirth of the light. It is in the darkness that the mind is truly explored. It is in the darkness that the world outside is truly confronted.  It is in the darkness where we find the greatest mystery of all.

Right Mind requires an understanding of the self, in order to see that the self is really not all that important.  First we must learn about our reactions to the world – how we relate to it, what is automatic and what is intentional.  By studying our selves and studying our navels, we look deep within to see where we might be able to work on living in full awareness of our actions in our daily lives.  If we have an understanding that we instantly react to the person on the social networking site who criticises us, we can then work on that so that there isn’t attachment to it.  We learn that we don’t even have to react – that it is within our power as to how we behave.  When our co-worker in the office won’t help us even when we ask for it, we learn not to instantly react and let it ruin our day. We simply get on with the job at hand, perhaps asking for help elsewhere.

We are not owed anything. Learning this lesson can be of great value in our own spiritual awakening.  People do not have to act as we would wish them to. Not everyone has to agree with us. People will have different opinions.  We don’t have to comment, criticise or even give it second thought if we do not wish to.  Our emotions, our passions should be the spark of inspiration. They should not be the raging inferno that takes over.

By looking deep within to see how our passions and emotions play through our daily lives, we come to an understanding of them. We cannot ever develop a relationship with anything, be it person, tree, mountain or deity without first understanding them to a certain degree.  We often do not understand ourselves, to our detriment.  Why do we behave the way we do? How can we live more intentionally?

Through daily meditation we can come to a greater awareness of our selves.  Once we have attained that awareness, it is best to let it go.

You may ask – why spend all that time learning about our selves, only to let it go?

If we are constantly looking inwards, we will neglect to look outwards.  Druidry and much of modern day Paganism are at the risk of becoming too self-involved, too inwardly focused.  Five words remind me of this on a daily basis. It’s not all about you.

We can become so self-absorbed in looking at our navels that the world passes us by.  There is so much out there that we need to become aware of, just as previously there was so much inside that we needed to be aware of.  Once we have achieved a level of competency in knowing ourselves, the best thing we could do is to lose that sense of self in order to understand the bigger picture.

This dropping of the ego, this letting go is not an annihilation of the self. It is not negation. It is immersion, integration – utterly being.  It shows us the boundaries between the worlds, between us and other humans, between us as the natural environment. It also shows us that these boundaries are simply illusion. We are all just energy.

We can then begin to explore the greatest mystery of all, within the nurturing darkness – that of not knowing.  After learning to understand our selves and the world, we lose understanding as well, realising that we really do not know very much at all.  In such a vast landscape, both inner and outer, how can we truly know anything at all?  Often in Zen this is referred to as Mu, or nothing.  In the not knowing we are open to everything, our minds not being closed off.  The great mystery of not knowing is where the true potential lies.  In not knowing, we are free.

Deep within the darkness, the journey continues.