Monday, 8 July 2019

Respect for Cycles

It's been a humbling experience these past few years observing my ups and downs. As always a daily meditation practice has been great for evening out the highs and lows. It also has to be said that meditation brings greater awareness to intensity of feeling, so it can seem like we're feeling more, especially when the numbing addictions of busyness, shopping, wine or drama are not present. 

When we stop distracting ourselves from ourselves and choose instead to meditate, we actually feel feelings fully in all their glory. This can be exquisitely beautiful and, at times, horrible.

In this period, because I had purposefully stopped all the busybusy expansion of my work, I began to notice more consciously the cycles of my mood as they relate to the cycle of my body, and it has been fascinating.

I started keeping a mood diary, and it became clear that I was a very different 'me' when ovulating to the 'me' closer to menstruation. Over time this lack of consistency has allowed me to relax the inner grip of judgement more thoroughly and surrender the belief that any judgement my mind can conjure is in any way helpful. Judgements of myself and others are simply unhelpful - full stop.

So when I stopped judging myself as crazy or unreliable, I became curious instead. I began to respect my cycles and try to learn from them. I didn't read any books about the moon or look for online articles and talks on menstrual wisdom, I just observed myself - my bodymind as it unfolds in my daily mindfulness practice.

I observed my inner fluctuations with loving-kindness, meeting every softness and rigidity with tolerance and equanimity. I tried to not side with any position; I just took it all in. 

A black and white aerial view would say that I was a soft and cuddly at ovulation and a creative warrior towards bleeding, but there are variations and multicoloured areas in all the days in between. 

It is said that men are on 24hr cycles and women are on monthly cycles. I have seen that to be true, and it is probably why men have, for the hundreds of years of their domination, said that women are crazy. But we are not crazy, we are just different, and that difference is something to be learned from.

Nature doesn't make mistakes.

What I have learned from observing and respecting my cycles is that I have two very powerful forces in me that each can be expressed in helpful or unhelpful manners. To me they are Love and Creativity, and they intermingle and peak at different times of the month.

In the soft, loving cycle of ovulation my heart can meet anything that comes along with acceptance and care. My sense of being a separate self dissolves and I feel deeply connected to all of life. I know that I am meant to reach out and be kind. But if I'm not looking after myself properly I can also be fuzzy-headed and indecisive, over-giving and people-pleasing.

In the creative cycle of menstruation I am more clear-headed and articulate. I know what I want to do and say and I try to move things along for myself, others and the wider world. I feel more activated and alive. And if I'm not looking after myself I can be too detached and intellectual, unkind and distracted.

When mindfulness is put at the forefront of our lives we come out of the illusion that we can control nature - either our own, other people's or the wider body of the earth. Love naturally flows in and occupies the space that control took up, bringing with it a humility that permits learning from what is in front of us - not how we would like it to be, or how it 'should' be, but how it is.

This how-it-is-ness is to me is the secret of maintaining a steady flow of ease through all my ups and downs, my yin and yang, filling and emptying times. When I remember that my job is not to evaluate, fix or control anything I am free to do what is helpful - I can love and I can create meaningful change. 

We are in a sea-tide of change right now where we are learning to respect the feminine as it expresses in women and men, in nature and her cycles, and in the spiritual aspects of existence. My wish is that we learn to respect and honour all the cycles, because it is in their spiralling that we will find the nourishment and wisdom needed for the journey ahead.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

What Is Compassion?

The other day I was walking my two dogs towards the bog where we hike every morning. We have had the same wee ritual at the beginning of the walk for over five years now - Mighty gets into the river, I throw him his stick while Halo waits, then she launches at him as he exits for the hills.

Halo has very poor body consciousness. I've been telling her that for years, but she doesn't listen. She has nearly knocked me off my feet at this stage of the walk a few times, so I usually stand still as she launches at Mighty and they run off.

On this day, as I stood firm and waited, Halo's skull went full force into my shin. I heard a loud sound as the bones met and I felt a little dizzy and teary. I just stood there wondering had she broken my leg.

She realised something was wrong and came right up to me, ignoring Mighty and the stick. She looked so apologetic. I reminded her about body consciousness, then I moved my leg and it was not broken, but I thought it would probably become a crazy bruise.

She waited with me as I got over the shock. She was so present and caring, and I realised I was witnessing pure and natural compassion in my beloved dog.

It was a timely occurrence as this blog has been percolating for some weeks now. I wanted to express how natural compassion is - how it is not necessarily religious or even spiritual; it is biological - innate.

As stress levels fall and we enter a state of mindfulness, compassion naturally arises, because compassion is simply the capacity to be present to feeling - be it one's own feeling or someone else's.

Com means with, and passion means feeling. To feel with.

When I am compassionate with myself, I am capable of being with whatever state of mind, emotion or physical sensation has arisen. When I am compassionate with another I am able to meet whatever they are going through with them. I don't abandon them to pity or fixing. I sit with our mutual humanity, which contains the vulnerability of feeling feelings through til they pass.

And they always pass. People who are addicted to stress believe that feelings are permanent and scary; that feeling them will lead to a complete loss of control. This is partly true: feeling feelings leads to a loss of a false sense of control that says everything will be OK if I just hold on tight enough. But all that happens when we hold on so tightly is that we get exhausted - we've put our finger in a dam that is destined to eventually flow.

Compassion is the most powerful healing tool I know. When I bring compassion to any experience I or others have, it's like a tight bud blooming before my eyes. What was tense becomes soft; what was despairing becomes happy; what was hateful becomes loving.

I spent the rest of the walk compassionately aware of the pain in my leg. I noticed a slight temptation to turn it in to a big deal and freak out, but I let those thoughts pass away without reaction. When I got home I massaged it with arnica. It is still very slightly sore, but no bruise ever appeared. I know this is because from the moment the damaged occurred I was immersed in the most powerful healer in the world: compassion.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Mindfulness and Making Noise

I have been studying the ancient art of Feng Shui for the past few months, having read many books on it over the years. As I'm such a homebird it's been lovely to dive into understanding this wider body that is my home. I am beginning to really know it as deeply as I know my own inner world.

One of the 'fixes' for problematic areas in this particular school of Feng Shui is the use of brass wind chimes. They break up stagnant ch'i and harmonise spaces. In one little damp corner, at the darkest part of the house, I decided to look for a chime to see if it shifted things. This corner is in the prosperity section, which is my dressing and yoga room. 

So off I went to Letterkenny in search of wind chimes. There wasn't much of a selection, but I did find some little twinkly, wonky ones, and then eventually came across a vast array of big garden ones in TK Maxx.

As I untangled and tested the chimes a lot of feelings came up. Embarrassment at making noise in a public place being the main one. But the noise was unavoidable. I needed to test those chimes! I found myself in a state of growing dis-ease as I shook each one. A huge butterfly had nearly twenty little chimes, sweetly ringing. Then long dull, sober chimes came from an owl with a big bell at its feet. A big smiley sun who looked like he had jumped right out of one of my drawings had bells dangling off his rays. He was my favourite.

I was aware of other women looking over at me. Some were smiling, some were not. I jangled away. Part of me was thinking, 'This is ridiculous, buying something so frivolous'. Another part was thinking, 'Wow, they're all so lovely. I can't decide!'. And the greater part, 'Just get out of here, this is soooooo embarrassing!'. As I got more looks my whole body began heating up, and then I was actually full-blown blushing for the first time in years. I decided upon the dull owl. It was the sensible choice.

I was able to subdue the owl's bell as I walked to the tills, and there I met some of the unsmiling ladies. I stood and waited in line. Feeling into my body there was a sadness, and the old familiar feeling of defeat. I had talked myself out of joy yet again.

So I took a deep breath and marched back up the stairs to the garden section. There I found the toddler I had smiled at earlier with her enduring father hanging over her like a big tree. She was beside herself with delight at the chimes, and kept banging her wee hands off the big sun and looking at me.

Was this baby going to steal my sun?! No, she was telling me to buy it. She banged it and looked at me a few times to see that I was getting the message, then waddled off as the dad redirected attention.

I untangled the sun and decided very consciously that it would be good for me, and impossible not to anyway, jangle my way all the way down to the tills. And that is what I did. As I lifted each foot, as I swayed, even as I breathed, the sun beams chimed loudly to announce my arrival. I cringed.

With each step the embarrassment lifted a little more, and I began paying more attention to how beautiful and uplifting the sound was. Without my reaction of judgement and taking it all so personally I was able to appreciate just how lovely it was to contribute something sparkly and light to the shop. Why would I want to deny other people this lovely noise?

I got to the tills and one of the smiling ladies greeted me saying, 'I could hear you coming all the way down'. We laughed. I jangled even more. Life was good. 

The sun chime is now up in the damp corner, and I placed a bright lamp there too. I jangle the sun every day, and I  have to say that I do feel very differently since. I find myself less defended when I'm in public, less like I have to put up a front. I can see how deeply the conditioning to keep my mouth shut has affected me, how being a 'good girl' has killed my spirit. And I know now that it's all the more important I keep using whatever voice I have - to not be so afraid to make some noise.

I have had a few less pleasant situations lately where I spoke up against unfairness and it didn't go down well. These unpleasant interactions taught me the same lesson as the chimes. Just like in our meditation practice, whatever comes along, be it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral - feel it honestly. Let it pass through without taking it personally, and recognise its impermanence. The outcome will always be positive. It may take some time, but eventually things will be better for any action taken from a place of awareness and compassionate empowerment.

If we don't jangle our joy, if we don't speak truth to ignorance, then what is the point of our meditations? We meditate to create more peace and prosperity the world, to shine light into darkness. When we hide in the dark, damp corners of fear and shame everything just stays the same.

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 full time 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 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 others.

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 we are 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 three-year-long dip 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 where I was inspired to start teaching meditation ten years ago.

I had just spent the previous week snowed in, participating in the World Tapping Summit, releasing 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. 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, and I am probably way more relaxed than most people, but for the past few years the calm, unshakeable feeling strong in my first years of meditation had been rapidly giving way to a feeling of persistent agitation. 

I lost my ability to relax when I began encountering the challenges of teaching and reached out for support in the only way I knew how - codependently. 

I eventually reached rock bottom, then found the Al-anon 12-step programme, which is committed to freeing people from codependent patterns created in childhood. My relaxation is now supported and encouraged, as I do the work to repair my damaged self-esteem. It feels like I have a scaffolding around me, building me back up to how I am meant to be.

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.

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 my 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.

I am learning that it is possible to ask for help and not be treated like a slave. It is possible to set boundaries and still love people - and still have their support.

It is not only possible that you will succeed if you go there now, 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 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...