Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Wellness, Stress & Capitalism

In my writing I am interested in exploring the edges of spiritual practice. Lately, as I've been reflecting on changes in my work, I have uncovered some surprising insights about the stress response, the rapidly growing wellness industry, and the capitalist culture we all find ourselves in.

So, I am a mindfulness teacher. My job is to help people ease out of survival mode and into the relaxed, alert mode of mindfulness. My primary purpose in life, though, is to keep myself right - to maintain my own mindful presence.

I knew when I began teaching eight years ago that my mindful presence would do most of the work for me - setting a tone in the room, mirror neurons connecting, compassion allowing a transmission of wisdom to occur. I knew this because I had experienced it with my own teachers.

Of course the meditation techniques and a friendly delivery were part of it, but I could tangibly feel shifts happen the more present I was.

On the edges of this presence I have always been conscious of another, more socially encouraged, mode available to me. I could have played the capitalist game. I could have presented myself as  impermeable and 'perfect', and capitalised on other people's sense of lack. I could have taught like I was filling people up rather than igniting their individual fire within.

In such a mode of perfectionism we are physically present, but really just information delivery devices. We are stalled, and energy is not flowing. When we teach from that place it all seems very simple...

I know something + I give the info to you = you will know what I know.


Except it doesn't work like that. If it did, then why, with all the amazing information we have at our fingertips these days, are we not all enlightened and multi-talented?

Why don't we eat, sleep, love, exercise, work and play perfectly? Why do we not just sort ourselves out and behave in healthy ways?

For years I have been telling people that we meditate daily because our culture is unhealthy. In a harmonious, connected, culture, mindfulness would permeate every moment. Children would learn through osmosis how to 'be' and when to 'do' in a peaceful manner. They would grow into adults who self-regulate as easily as my dogs. They would be content most of the time, and when a problem arose work through it peacefully, then go back to contentment.

But we don't live in a mindful culture. We live in a stress-driven one. Everything from our health services to our education system puts people (both workers and users) under undue pressure, which forces, threatens and destabilises their mindfulness.

There is no time or space - to breathe, to notice, or to just be. Stress is running the show - literally. From the length of the work day and week, to the rising prices of good and services that have us scrambling to make money to afford to keep up. Bigger, faster, newer, busier, better, more... never safe, and never secure enough to exhale.

The culture of mindfulness is a remedy to all this. Mindful practices are changing the stress-culture  of our institutions from the inside out. We are re-orientating back towards the centre - towards compassion. But we can do better. We can speed up this slowing down.

When I teach (or provide any therapy) and I'm not mindful I am operating on a very shallow level. Everything I say will go in one ear and may well sound wonderful, exciting or intelligent, but it will eventually go out the other ear.

Nothing will change on a cellular level, and you will probably keep coming back to me because you think I have perfected it and you simply aren't getting it.

When I teach and am mindful - whether feeling happy, sad, annoyed, peaceful, lonely or blissed out - when I am mindful, others feel it in their bones and it resonates on a deep level. They 'get it'.

And that knowingness helps you transform mere intellectual data into experience. Change occurs, and you probably won't need to see much more of me because you are remembering how to self-regulate, how to heal yourself.

We, as teachers and students creating wellness culture, can speed up the healing process that mindfulness initiates by prioritising the maintenance of our own presence. There are too many therapists, coaches and teachers running themselves into the ground in the name of healing.

If you are burnt to a crisp you are facilitating the nourishment of no one.

When we in wellness culture are stressed we unconsciously feed dynamics of codependency, competitiveness, manipulation and perfectionism. And when present we co-create a wellness culture that is fully life-sustaining; one that isn't yet another facet of the capitalist drive for infinite growth on a finite planet.

Any healing practice that doesn't have compassion for self and others at its core isn't healing anyone. It may well be successful in capitalist terms, i.e. it may generate income and hype. But is it actually helping make the world a more peaceful place? Is it relieving suffering?

How about we choose now to be compassionists rather than capitalists. How about we grow a wellness culture that eradicates stress altogether - moment by moment, session by session, class by class...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Is Confidence a Good Thing?

I've been thinking a lot about confidence lately as I emerge from a four-year-long descent in self-confidence. It feels like these years have been an invaluable lesson, and as I continue to distil the gold amid the pain of it, insights come strong and steady.

As the light grows I've been taking the time to observe myself and others, and think back on old beliefs around confidence - within my family, the Northern Ireland I grew up in, and the media to which I have been exposed.

When I was a teenager I was not one of the confident girls. I was pretty much the lowest of the low in the pecking order. I just didn't understand the girls who were loved and supported at home. They were very confident in themselves, but overall weren't very nice. Although compassion isn't a word I knew back then, it was the only thing I really needed from anyone. And most of them didn't have it.

I feared the confident girl's competitiveness above all, and as soon as a girl pitted herself against me I just stopped playing and walked away.

I remember the point at which the resigned acceptance of my fate as lesser than everyone else turned into anger and I became a rebel. I mitched school, told lies, and stuck two fingers up to the lovely, respectful, grammar school I attended.

They expelled me. And although this was a blow, a kind of confidence grew in me as I said 'fuck it' to the whole damn thing. This defiant confidence got me through the next fifteen years, helped me recognise my own beauty, took me safely on my travels all around the world, and eventually away from my psychotic family.

Then I found 10-day silent meditation retreats and relaxed for the first time in my life. Within the practise of meditation I found true self-confidence. This confidence felt like an inner container in which I was completely safe. It was a container with integrity, i.e. it was whole and secure, with no holes.

This confidence wasn't reliant on what anyone else thought of me or how anyone treated me. It was unshakeable. It was God/dess given. Competitiveness ran off it like water off a duck's back. In fact any harmful judgements either within my own mind or from others just fell away with ease.

It was bliss.

Then, five years later, when I was guided to start teaching meditation to the people of Donegal, enormous inner resistance arose. I did not want to put myself out there because I didn't want other people to be competitive and horrible to me. I wanted to remain in the safety of my gardening job and at home with my plants and animals who are innately compassionate.

Around this time me and a friend went to see the spiritual powerhouse who is Marianne Williamson speak in Dublin. I wanted to ask her what I should do. Really I wanted her to tell me not to teach because I wasn't experienced enough and didn't have an institution behind me. 

In the hall full of hundreds of people I put my hand up and waited as she answered others' questions. Then Marianne was standing next to me, and signalled to the woman in the row in front of us.

This woman was all... 'I've done my training with such and such, I've got my business cards all ready, I've got my room ready. Everything is ready, shiny and sparkly... now how do I get the clients?'.

I sank in my seat and lowered my hand. This woman had her shit together and I was about to be exposed as a mess. She was doing it right and I was living in la la land. I had never even thought about 'getting clients'. I lowered my hand and waited for Marianne to tell this woman how to get her clients.

Marianne paused and sighed. Then she pointed her finger at the woman and said something like, 'You are not ready to teach anyone anything. This is all about you, and there is no space for the Divine to work through you. I suggest you go back to your spiritual practice and wait for guidance.'

I was wide-eyed and stunned. I put my hand up again, but she was already looking at me. I said, 'Well I am the exact opposite of that. I don't want to teach because I'm afraid people will be horrible to me. To be honest I don't think I really like people. I just want to hide. But I love meditation, it has transformed my life completely and I know it could benefit so many people where I live. This calling is strong, yet I really don't want to do it.'

She pointed at me and I braced myself. She said, 'You are exactly what is needed now. Who are you not to do this? We need you.' I smiled and nodded. Then she moved on and I felt like my Fairy Godmother had just bedazzled me from head to toe for the ball.

I began teaching a little for donation, and two years later full-time for payment. That unshakeable confidence made the first years very productive and enjoyable. But then, as I met competitiveness in others, the old patterns of feeling lesser than began to arise. It felt like I was being rugby tackled to the ground by the confident girls and had no power to stop it.

My confidence plummeted, I slowly self-sabotaged, and eventually withdrew from the game. 

Until now. I can see how in this long dark night of the soul, I have actually been untangling myself from that pattern of defiant, fake self-confidence. I have also been liberating myself from the illusion that people 'having their shit together' in appearances, means anything. Appearances mean nothing in spiritual terms.

Compassion is rarely shiny and clean, and compassion is the basis of all spiritual growth.

So I have decided I don't want to have my shit together any more. I just want to love myself more and follow the divine guidance that will lead me towards personal growth and making the world a kinder, healthier place. What others think of that, or me, is non of my business. 

Going forward, above all else, I want to deeply honour the robust thread of compassion that got me through my childhood as being my greatest strength, my superpower.

Compassion for self and others creates a kind of unshakeable confidence, both in oneself and the wider world. It is not transactional, it cannot be bought or sold, and you will only find it deep in the container of your own personal being. It is in all of us, awaiting permission to flow...

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Are You Addicted to Othering?

When we grow mindfulness good feeling also grows. We relax, get spacious, and there seems to be more time to do what needs done. We notice more... of the little beauties of life that are overlooked when stress is in the driving seat, and we also begin to notice patterns in our behaviour - many of which are pleasing, and some... not so much. 

Othering is a term I first heard from one of my main teachers, the women's health pioneer Christiane Northrup. It describes a habit of obsessively focusing on other people at the expense of oneself. It is people-pleasing, codependency, manipulation and an inability to look at one's 'own stuff'', all rolled up into one.

I love the term 'othering' because it sounds like the lovely, warm word 'mothering', but it is not that. Othering masquerades as mothering, pretending it is kind, nourishing, comforting and promoting of safety, but the feeling tone around it is controlling, lonely and transactional.

I am naturally a very mothering person. I love to nurture others. And I am also a recovering othering addict, having spent much of my life at it. Throughout childhood, terrified by my parents mood-swings, I watched their every move to find out what mood I would have to deal with next. I watched because I wanted to know when I could relax, but I never did relax because I was always watching, always othering. 

Then in early adulthood, even when I wasn't around others I would be thinking about them all the time. Do they like me? Are they going to leave me? Are they OK? Why did I say that? Why did they say that? If only I had said this... or that. What's wrong with me? Why can't I just be what they want me to be? Why can't I just do it right?

In the midst of othering the one question that is never asked is: What do I want? Because in the world of othering what I want is of no consequence. 

Othering is exhausting. Both for the person othering and the person receiving it. It is a state of agitation that spreads agitation. Even if someone doesn't consciously know you are hammering away stress thoughts about them in your head, I believe that on some level they can feel it.

So how do we stop othering?

Thankfully, the answer is super simple. Admit that you have a problem and want to change. Then engage in practices every day that unwind you from the othering-agitation loop. Meditate on the breath, body and senses. Cultivate compassion for your present moment experience. Ask yourself what you want, and ask this as an integral part of your daily spiritual practice. Be kind to yourself, and as much as you can only be in situations that are nourishing to you.

Get serious about self-care and othering will naturally start to fade away to become a thing of the past.

When we're not exhausting ourselves by othering; when we stop tolerating othering thoughts in our head, there is so much more energy to focus on being properly loving - to oneself, family, dear friends and colleagues, and to whoever we find in front of us.

It is possible to have a lovely, calm mind full of creativity and compassion. And it all begins with how we choose to proceed in this moment. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step....

Sunday, 7 October 2018

A Discipline of Self-Kindness

I used to be very good at discipline. Probably the best I have ever been was back when I judged myself as being a mess. It seems that the more of a mess I was the more disciplined I was. 

For the ten years before I learned how to meditate I did a two hour yoga practice every other night without fail. I did my yoga hungover, between studying for exams, after nights out, watching movies, with friends waiting in the other room, with friends drinking wine beside me chatting...

When I look back I can honestly say that at the root of all this discipline was a pure love and care for myself. I wasn't interested in perfecting my body, I was only interested in sanity. Yoga calmed my mind and made my every tomorrow more bearable. This discipline was fuelled by self care. Yet somewhere along the way I began remembering it as me being a 'mess' and needing to be 'fixed'.

In the early years of my meditation training I meditated for at least five hours every day without fail. I woke up before 5am and sat up in the bed. It was a very cold house so I often slept with a few jumpers on. I refilled my hot water bottle and meditated in the bed until the light came up. I never questioned this and it was never ever a chore. My heart dictated the discipline and I followed it.  

As I healed the childhood trauma from which my pain originated everything got easier and it became clear that my discipline would need to change. This necessitated moving away from the tradition I had learned meditation in, which advocated the boot-camp mentality of 'if you just try hard enough you will sort everything out'. 

I knew deep in my heart that if I kept on using the tools of force that had created the bodymind tensions in the first place (back when I was a child) I would only succeed in creating brand new tensions inside myself. I realised that it was surrender that was now called for and not will.

So my new discipline, still centred on kindness, was asking me to sleep longer and more deeply, to relax and smell the flowers, to sometimes not wash the dishes before bed, to let the dog hair lie a little longer on the floor before hoovering, to play and create... This new soft discipline was just as difficult as the rigid discipline, but it didn't look like hard work from the outside and I mourned the loss of kudos from others I had enjoyed before. 

In a culture that congratulates people for working themselves into the ground, for exerting a personal will over life's ups and downs, softness is seen as weakness and the easy option. But letting go, softening and trusting really isn't easy. It's often excruciating.

Walking into my first jiving class late, with everyone already partnered up. Standing alone on the edges, taller than everyone else, single, clueless about dancing... give me a ten day silent retreat any day over that!

It has taken me years to untangle the rigidity of those early years of healing and relax the belief that there is always something wrong that I need to fix. 

They say that a bit of the poison that has harmed you will heal you. I know that I needed that rigidity  to heal back then, and I would not encourage anyone to be soft when what is needed is to be firm. But what is always needed is to be kind.

What I continue to learn is that softness from a place of fear, and rigidity from a place of dominance are not helpful, but softness from love and firmness from care are both deeply kind. These are the disciplines that propel us very quickly towards experiencing the joy and unshakeability we all want.

I recently began another new dance form and it is just as strange and uncomfortable as the jiving was to begin with, but I continue to go because I know that it is the next loving thing to do. It is the next thing to expand my comfort zone and provide more space around me.

My heart will lead me to the next thing after that, and the next... and I will continue my daily meditation and yoga practice as I have done for years, sometimes missing a session here and there. And that's OK. A discipline of kindness is constantly reminding us that Everything is always OK.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Freeing the word God

When I first moved to Donegal I couldn't drive. I had chosen a very rural location right by the roaring Atlantic because I wanted to be as far away from the disappointing Masters degree I had left and the chaos of the city as possible.

Being so rural limited my transportation options considerably, yet a few times a day the Lough Swilly bus passed by my door enabling me to either go to Falcarragh or Dungloe and back again.

I got the bus once a week to do my shopping. It was old and cold, and quite fumey. Inside were the smells of the older people who rode along with me - germolene, sudocreme and tcp. These people were warm and full of craic, and I loved how every single time we passed especially beautiful scenes they would point and say, 'Galanta'. Beautiful.

One phrase I noticed over and over was 'Oh mo Dhia', which I guessed meant Oh my God. I listened and delighted at how many times this was said, my limited Irish language skills keeping exact details of the stories inaccessible. OMG became a wee anchor in a sea of indecipherable chatter.

The tone of how Oh mo Dhia was said was always the same - full of soft compassion and clarity. It actually felt like an invocation, and a relationship with an actual God. It really struck me how healing and genuine it was, and I remember so wanting some of that connection.

Those years of retreat by the sea healed me enormously, and prepared me for the years of intensive meditation retreat that followed. The bus trips have flooded back into my memory recently as I have been exploring my own relationship with the word 'God', and getting more clarity on who or what my God actually is. So much damage has been done to it, and it feels so tainted at times I just want to forget all about it. Yet, it comes back, wanting to be healed, wanting to not produce a reaction in me when I hear 'that' word.

I experienced a very science-based education, in Catholic convent schools, living in a violently divided Christian Protestant/Catholic society. Is it any wonder I have been confused?

The scientific, religious and societal education was as reductionist and divisive as it gets - limiting everything to right and wrong, good or bad, liberation and damnation, smart and stupid.

On the one hand God was a white man with a lightning bolt who punished us for our sins, and the best we could hope for was to eventually 'get it' by being saved. Then He and all the other saved ones would be our best friends and we would be safe.

On the other hand the whole concept of God was a ludicrous fiction created by human machines who were basically just stupid and hadn't 'got it' yet that everything is just a giant machine and essentially meaningless. When we figured all that out intellectually we would have access to a gang of superior smarties to hang out with and then we would be safe.

Add to that the parent I lived with was a communist, who believed that God was actually the devil, and a tool of the rich to oppress the poor and righteous people...

Yes, things were weird. And no one seemed particularly happy.

So here I am today. I meditate and practice yoga every day, and have done for many years. I dedicate myself to compassion and awareness. I want my life to be helpful, and I know that what has helped me heal from all the violence I experienced in childhood is my ability to surrender to a higher intelligence, whatever that may be. 

For a long time it has been unnecessary to name my God, and part of me does still feel that it isn't helpful. What has been clearly helpful though is to release the web of inherited beliefs and opinions that are standing in the way of the only thing that has ever really helped me.

As I release what God is not, everything that's left behind is My God, and I do hope that one day I can reclaim the word as completely as many of my favourite spiritual teachers have.

Right now my God is manifest in my ability to Love my experience, myself and others whether what is happening is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

My God is Heaven and Earth - when I am clear and my head is high above the water, and when I am deeply grounded and moving through change.

My God is alive and active all the time, whether I am aware of it or not, and sometimes remembering that brings me back to God... 

My God is Love. My God loves me as I am, and doesn't need me to be saved. I am already perfect. There's just some stuff standing in the way, that I can, through time, remove.

My God is in science, in my biology, and is the function of my calming, insight and healing.

In mindfulness terms, my God is the part of me saying 'everything is ok'. It is when I come out of the fight/flight/freeze mode and into the rest and digest mode. 

My God is the motivation in me to respond compassionately and set myself and any difficult others in my life free from condemnation.

Yes, this is my God. My God takes the words sinner, stupid and evil  into itself and transforms them into beauty, light and wholeness. My God is a force of nature, and therefore genderless - calling my God he or even she limits and reduces the vastness of it all.

My God wants me to be happy, delighted, safe and successful. And by stating all this I am feeling better about the word 'God' already...

I am here, breathing... and here, breathing... and...

Even though I practice and teach meditation all the time, I still at least once a day have the dawning realisation that focusing on my breath is really quite miraculous. This recurring eureka moment, every time I experience it, expands me that little bit more, and I think, 'wow, how lucky am I to know this simple, life-changing thing.'

Sometimes I have a really big eureka moment about the breath, and two weeks ago was one of those times. I had spent the few days after my Easter retreat/workshop feeding and following more and more thoughts about the workshop itself, about my future, about the possibility of moving to Findhorn, about this and about that - and I was getting very thinky about the whole thing.

This went on until I felt so awful that I knew it was time to call in the big guns, which for me is to make a commitment to spend a full day focusing on my breath. Within 5 minutes I was back to normal, and instead of spending the whole day focusing on my breath I have been gently and determinedly inclining my attention there ever since. Of course my mind wanders, but every time I realise it has gone I very simply stay with my breath once again.

There is something very necessary about this back and forth between awareness and unconsciousness, between the light and shadow, between being lost and found. The poet Rumi says that in order to remove dirt from our skin we introduce a new dirt we call 'soap', allow it to mingle with our own dirt and then both get washed away leaving us clean.

Realising we are lost is the dirt that brings about the cleansing which brings us back to ourselves and wholeness.

We focus on our breath then wander off, refocus then wander off, then refocus... and it is the wandering off that reminds us of the value of what we temporarily lost.

The murkiness is just as important as the clarity.

Carl Jung puts it this way... 'Life itself flows from springs both clear and muddy. Hence all excessive 'purity' lacks vitality. A constant striving for clarity and differentiation means a proportionate loss of vital intensity precisely because the muddy elements are excluded. Every renewal of life needs the muddy as well as the clear.'

So, the important thing in our mindfulness of breath meditation is not to be perfectly clear, but to be growing kindness with whatever is happening.

Whether we are as clear as a Himalayan wind chime, or as chaotic as a soap opera, the intention is to be compassionate and equanimous, remembering that everything is changing and that our true identity already is perfect.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Relax Away... Distraction, Laziness and Stress

I had a lovely surprise last week. I won two  free tickets to a retreat in Findhorn, Scotland, the Eco-Spiritual Centre that inspired me to start teaching meditation eight years ago.

I had just spent the previous week snowed in and participating in the World Tapping Summit, during which I released masses of tension and tears around a core belief that: I cannot relax, it is not OK to relax, I will never be able to relax, and relaxation is just not for people like me...

It felt like winning the competition was a prize for all the hard work I had done. Life was saying to me, 'Well done, Aoife, now here is your reward for relaxing...'.

Of course I am a much more relaxed person than I was ten or twenty years ago, but for the past few years the calm, unshakeable feeling strong in my first years of meditation had been rapidly giving way to persistent stress. 

I lost my ability to relax deeply because the people and institutions I looked to for guidance and support when I began teaching meditation were stuck in codependent dynamics. On the one hand I knew they were bad for me, and on the other I just felt so lonely and isolated in my new role...

Eventually I reached rock bottom and found a worldwide community committed to serenity and freedom from codependency. My relaxation is now supported and encouraged, as I do the work I want to do. There are elders in this community way ahead of me, and I so enjoy learning from them.

As relaxation grows and fear subsides I am observing how much of the modern world is run by people who are unable to relax, and how this hovering, unsettledness manifests in everything - even spiritual and healing practices.

Words are powerful. How we phrase things means so much. There is something about the word RELAX that is very threatening to modern conditioning. It brings up all the FEAR we have inside to meet it. 

Relax = Fear. If I relax I will have to meet all that fear. If I don't ever fully relax then I can put it off.

This is where distraction, laziness and stress come in. If I keep myself numbed by under or over eating, eating processed foods, by under or over exercising, by regularly taking drugs and alcohol, by focusing on things that have nothing to do with me; if I never challenge things by following my inner guidance, or keep pumping up dramas in my personal and work life... Basically if I maintain a cloudy web of unresolved noise around and inside me, if I remain comfortably numb, I will never have to face the fact that life really is actually very simple...

Relax into fear and it will go away, and then - and this is the bit that people are avoiding at all costs - I will have to change.

When you relax, and fear falls away, you will be moved to change yourself, your habits, and most importantly of all - your relationships with all the people in your life. You will set boundaries, say no when you mean it, only say yes when you mean it, you will do things you want to do and stop doing things you don't want to do. You will potentially piss off a lot of people, especially if you've been maintaining a disempowering status quo for a long long time.

All of this is terrifying to codependent people. They would rather get sick, stay in hopeless relationships or work environments, and keep swirling around in distraction, laziness and stress, than stand up for themselves and risk the backlash.

Yet the truth is that the only thing to do is to go there... to relax, face fear, and become a whole adult person.

It is possible to set boundaries and still love people. It is possible to live a healthy lifestyle fuelled only by self-compassion.

It is not only possible that you will succeed if you go there, it is probable. There has never before been so much support available for this kind of personal freedom.

If you are stuck in the merry-go-round of stress, I urge you to meet it with relaxation. Meditate and Tap deeply into those very real feelings of fear. Let them rise up and release. Let yourself become who you are meant to be, and give up the crusty old conditioning that keeps you suffering.

Who knows what prizes await you...

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Relief of 'I Don't Know'

A feeling I am coming to experience and appreciate more and more these days is relief. The shoulder melting, jaw easing and eye softening kind of relief of knowing what I know and can do, and what I don't know and therefore need to give way to. 

When we've been on a path of awareness for a while old thought-patterns of over-knowing, of fear and control, can morph into spiritual speak - what the Buddhists call the 'near enemies'. This is when a quality looks like something healthy but is actually the exact opposite. Compassion is actually pity, detachment is coldness, and love codependency. These qualities appear the same but the feeling tone is not life enhancing; it drains rather than gives energy, and disconnects rather than connects.

We can label anything as spiritual, healing or liberating. That's how sneaky and baffling fear is. Fear shape shifts and takes us over, and we're just so used to it that we keep on moving without really knowing what is propelling us forward. Because most institutions of the modern world are still fuelled by and promote fear it's quite difficult to remain immune to it.

This is where 'I don't know' becomes your best friend, and a torch to bring light to the shadowy corners of the fear-created crazy. When we respond to fear in a non-threatening way it disappears and healing occurs. I don't know is one of the most disarming statements there are.

I've been meditating every day for many years now, and the bulk of my meditation practice is to feel deeply into my body in a peaceful way, easing away the imbalances that manifest as pain, tension and dis-ease. I am used to facing old habits of fear, and welcome the opportunity to empty it out of my bodymind. I teach this is my classes and retreats; it's what occupies every day of my life. What I have realised recently though, is that a tiny little subtle over-knowing had crept in and was keeping me stuck.

I experienced extreme physical violence throughout childhood. My body has been through a lot, and much of these past decades has been devoted to recovery from this. As I've been meditating into the current layers of pain and tension in my lower back I've been delighted to remember the power that an attitude of 'I don't know what is going to happen next' brings to my body scanning meditations. It's like a magic spell that creates instant ease.

When we think we know what's going to happen next, when we think we've got it all figured out, either within the framework of our own bodies, in relationship, or work situations, we are vastly limiting the creative power of the present moment to bring inspiration, ease and healing. This over-knowing is a form of fear-fuelled control.

My subtle little 'been here, done this before' was keeping pain trapped in my body. It was binding me to the past. As soon as I shifted my attitude to 'I simply do not know what this is, or what is going to happen now, but I am choosing to relax into it and feel it fully', I got what I wanted: relief, and a feeling of expansion and joy.

Life presents us with moments such as this every single day. Let's meet them all with I don't know and see what happens next...

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Who are you when you're not thinking?

Who are you when you're not thinking?

What does it feel like to really, consistently, know the difference between stress-thoughts and inspiration?

When we learn how to regularly relax into present moment experience without resistance or control, a whole new world opens up... a world of intuition, ease, purpose and friendliness. A world of knowing who you are, what you're meant to be doing, when to wait, when to take action, and when to lie back and smell the flowers.

This world is the place where all systems of the body operate optimally - the nervous, hormonal, and digestive systems are in rest and restore / healing mode. In this world the mind is open, fresh and curious... creativity is awake and problems are resolved easily.

The problem is not that we don't know this world. We've all had moments, and even long periods, of such enlightenment. The problem is that we are so conditioned to let stress override our experience of it and so surrounded by others doing the same, that it is very difficult to maintain. 

We may glimpse the light then check Facebook and it's gone; we may find the groove then chat with someone who subtly knocks us out of it. We are in the zone then all of a sudden we are not.

So, what can we do? How is it possible to remain mindful in such a mindlessly driven world?

I spent quite a few years studying and going on silent retreats in the Buddhist tradition. Although as a religion it is as imperfect as all the others, there are some very helpful concepts that I find myself understanding and valuing more deeply as the years go by. 

Buddhists 'take refuge' in something called the Three Jewels or the Triple Gem:
The Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Put simply this means devoting oneself to:
The Buddha - the possibility of becoming free from all suffering, i.e. enlightened.
The Dhamma - the spiritual teachings passed on by the Buddha, including meditations and a personal code of conduct.
The Sangha - the other people devoted to awakening in the same way, including monastic orders and lay people. 

For years this was my daily focus. I meditated, read and listened to talks. I was 100% devoted to freeing myself from the traumas of the past, and was friends with people who were focused in the same way.

Eventually though, as I became disillusioned with Buddhism, I let the idea of Sangha go. I settled back into 'normal' life.

I continued to meditate every day. I continued to read and listen to spiritual teachers. But the third leg of the stool - the Sangha - was gone.

And so I began to wobble. My two-legged stool couldn't support me. I lost my focus, my zone, and bliss. All those years of hard spiritual  work got covered up by my culture's film of hazy, grey, making-do-ness.

This making-do-ness is the primary problem of our western world. Call it auto-pilot, unconsciousness, or living in the shadow, it is an old foggy getting-by that people put up with while waiting for something to happen that will save them... waiting to meet 'the one', waiting to win the lottery, waiting for that inheritance, for retirement, that better job, bigger house, fitter body, shinier car or more positive personality... even waiting to be more spiritual.

We wait and wait and wait... distract, force, get busy, zone out... Lost in the fog we forget that we're not our thoughts and that it is actually those thoughts that stand in the way of what we truly yearn for.

I realised that who I relax with is who I will become. Us human beings really are that socially sensitive. I had begun waiting just like everyone else... putting off happiness until I got my new house so I could run silent retreats from it, waiting for sufficient income to expand my business, waiting for my new man who would make everything alright...

I understand now why the Buddhists call them jewels. These days I have a Sangha again and am more often in bliss than not. This is because I look inside for everything, and can be consistent in doing so because I'm supported by and aligned with people who are doing the same.

I am not my thoughts, and neither are you. If you want to live a life of ease and growth then find your version of the Triple Jewel... Find a daily spiritual practice that grounds you in the present moment. Find teachings or a teacher that really speaks to you and align with them. And finally choose to spend quality time with people who are devoted in the same way, limiting time spent with people who pull you back into unconsciousness.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Why Soul Care?

Why Soul Care?

Anyone who has been following me for a while will have noticed a few branding shifts over the past three years.

I went from Inner Haven, to Mindfulness with Aoife, to Wee Owl Soul Care, to just Soul Care with Aoife, which feels most comfortable and seems to have stuck.

I knew that the word 'soul' would be a challenge to some, but it felt like the only word that fully describes what I am doing in my work.

Mindfulness is the main thing I offer, and it is such a buzz word and a draw, but it has been so diluted to fit into our busy-shallow culture I often feel quite disconnected from it.

Real mindfulness to me is incredibly deep and life altering. It isn't just about noticing a few things here and there, it's about sustaining attention, and seeing so clearly that we actively shift our lives to something better.

It's about change and building resilience, long-term, and in doing so helping create a more stable and loving world.

It's powerful stuff.

Underneath all our busyness, stress and complaining, sits our life purpose - what we're meant to be doing, and how we're meant to be living our lives. When I use the word soul, I refer to that inner knowing, that alive and awake presence in all of us that could be guiding our lives with ease and grace, if we just got out of the way and let it.

This mindful, soulful presence is the opposite of living life as a perpetual emergency and drama. To inhabit this presence swims against the tide of modern culture, yet it is also the natural way to be, so has all the forces of nature supporting it.

So many problems we face worldwide find their root in panicked, unhappy minds. The only sane response to such a situation is to meditate daily; to take responsibility for our own minds and thereby become able to contribute something helpful. My own personal daily practice is to stick with my own soul, as best I can, one day at a time.

I know from many years of intensive silent meditation retreat just what is possible in terms of joy and delight in each day. It is this joy that keeps me meditating, and it is my compassion for others that motivates me to teach what I have learned.

So, when you come to me for individual support, a meditation class, or a retreat, I will help you care for and connect with your own soul. When I do my drawings it is my soul that creates and wants to speak with your soul.

This is what soul care means to me.