Being present

It was weird. I had set up the blog for while I was away with every post I would usually publish. During my absence, I still managed to visit the blogs I would usually read and answered all the comments. In fact, there was absolutely nothing to show I was not at home and at my desk. Even so, the number of page views halved. That happens every so often for no apparent reason and it is not worth even thinking about. This time, though, the stats had been that way for exactly the duration of my absence. I can understand the change when it is obvious that I am away, when posts and responses might be erratic, but on this occasion, there was nothing at all to even hint that I might not be at home.

“So, in effect,” said my friend as I pondered the enigma, “the only thing that is different is your presence.” He was right and that was an interesting idea. There was no observable alteration in my usual routine, but somehow, my lack of presence was communicating itself.

I suppose it is the same sort of thing as when you are speaking to someone who makes all the right noises at the right moments, but who is not really listening. They may be genuinely preoccupied with something else, or simply not interested, but what they are not is present… and you can feel it.

That you can feel it is easy enough to explain in terms of those infinitesimal changes in tone and body language that we learn to read from the earliest age. But you can generally feel it just as clearly even without the visual and auditory cues. Silence and stillness can communicate presence just as powerfully as they can show disinterest… so I got to thinking about the whole idea of being present.

 

We talk a lot about ‘living in the present’…as if we could ever live anywhere else. We might focus on the past or future, but we can only be in the present. Are we always present though? The answer, for most of us, is ‘probably not’. We spend a lot of our time living on autopilot… a useful knack for routine actions, but not the most effective way to drink the essence of every moment. Our attention, instead of being open wide, is either tight-beamed onto one focus or so diffuse that we take in no more than a general impression. Either way, we can miss not only the details but the heart of the moment too.

Many of us are not even present to our own professed beliefs. We say the words, without paying them a great deal of attention, but fail to put into practice what we truly believe we believe. Most of us are horrified by examples of injustice, prejudice and cruelty… and most of us will be guilty of them at some point in our lives. Teachings of love and kindness are ignored in the pursuit of success, ambition can overrule conscience and ego blinds us to our own reflection.

One of the things we do in the Silent Eye course is to share techniques to combat this lack of presence, and even the simplest exercises can dramatically increase our sense of ‘being here’ and our awareness of the world around and within us. It is surprising how small the changes need to be to open ourselves to being aware of our own presence in the moment. I wonder if it was through some trace of far memory or prescience that we learned to call a ‘present’ a ‘gift’…

For there is another kind of Presence too, that is only felt as we learn to be present. Call it what you will, define it as you must… it is heard in that still, small voice within, that echoes across eons and touches heart, mind and soul, opening the doors of perception to a wider experience of life.

The heartbeat of eternity

 

Peering at the faded remains of a dark ‘instant’ photo from the seventies, I felt both close to and distant from the young woman silhouetted against the fence. Her future is my memory. She was still a schoolgirl, yet to launch herself on the world and soon to marry. Far too soon… that would be my take from the perspective of more than four decades later. Four decades and well into a fifth…. How did that happen?

In some ways, it seems an eternity. In some ways it is… a whole lifetime, my lifetime between ‘then’ and ‘now’… and as such, it is the only eternity I really know. It is an odd feeling, that. We know history happened before we were born. Some of it is very real to us, because we know the people who made it; our parents and grandparents tell us of those days, when they too were young. We know that history went on before ‘history’, before prehistory, right back to the first swirlings in the mind-stuff that would become space and time. We know that history will continue to happen long after we are gone, both as individuals and as a species… though for now we call it ‘the future’ and are sad, or glad, that we will not be around to see it. But we only know the scintilla of eternity that exists between our earliest memory and this moment. Anything beyond that is hearsay.

In that respect, at least, we can say with truth that we are eternal. We carry eternity within us, carved into the space between conception and our final breath. Reality exists only in the moments it touches us, with past and future no more than a matter of faith and conjecture. Unseen, unreal, the future has yet to become, while the past is no more. The only moment we have is now…and whole industries have grown up around teaching us that one, rather obvious fact that we overlook when our focus is upon regret, nostalgia, worry and hope.

‘Living in the moment’ does not mean failing to look ahead or to hope, nor does it mean we must release all memories. It is matter of awareness and focus, of not missing what is by clinging to what was or imagining what might be. We forget that ‘now’ can only exist at all if there is a ‘then’… and the space between that holds them apart so that both can be.

The ‘no-thing’ can exist on its own…  but the ‘some-thing’ needs the ‘no-thing’ in order to exist at all; a degree of separation that enables being.

 

One of the analogies we use in the Silent Eye is that of the mother and child.  The child in the womb can be said not only to be one with the mother, but to be made from her… though she is not all that the child is, or will become. The child has no life of its own, no possibility of independent action, until it is separated from the mother at birth. In that separation there is possibility, growth and a dawning awareness. Yet, at the end of physical life, both mother and child will return to the earth that can be regarded as our Mother and with whom we share the physical elements of existence. Those elements will, in turn, give rise to new life in an endless and beautiful cycle that renders us eternal in yet another manner. Perhaps that is one reason why the image of the Mother and Child has been seen as sacred in so many cultures.

Nature is a mirror for wider realities. The matrix for our beliefs, knowledge and life itself is held within the pattern of the natural world, while the fragment of nature that governs our tiny planet is but a child of a greater and universal nature. If that pattern holds true to itself, then the Cosmos is itself but a fragment of a greater Whole, separated to enable it to be, to grow and to realise itself. If that is true, then we are indeed eternal, both ancient beyond imagining and younger than new-born babes.

I look back at the old Polaroid, an instant photograph that captured an instant of a life I think of as mine, but which runs through every living being, past, present and future…if time itself even exists. It is no longer just a photograph of a young girl on the brink of womanhood, but a pause in the heartbeat of being, allowing me to look back on ‘then’ from ‘now’ and know that it is the space between that enables me to see beyond the moment to eternity.

Saving for a rainy day …

The fish need feeding… their food cannisters need refilling too. The bird feeder needs completely restocking…and it is freezing outside. Not only is it cold enough to make a snowman shiver, it is raining… the kind of rain that falls as stinging darts making the presence of each drop sharp and immediate. I shiver, watching the blood withdraw from my fingertips, feeling them shrink and stiffen with the cold and I wrestle with the frozen metal of the lock. Raindrops trickle across my scalp, slithering down my neck. It is not a day to be outdoors… but the fish and the birds need to be fed, regardless of my misery.

Opening the shed, I squeeze past my son’s wheelchair to reach the feed. I remember, just for a moment, coming onto the hospital ward one day and seeing the longing on his face as he watched the raindrops on the window pane. I’d give anything to be out there, he had said. To feel the rain on my face again. Back then, we had no idea if he would ever be able to do so…at least, not without help.

What if, I wondered, this were the last time I ever felt the rain? I know, all too acutely, how life can change between one moment and the next. How normality, freedom…even life itself… can be snuffed out without warning. Such thoughts may seem morbid to some, but I have found that an awareness of the finite nature of the life we know only enhances our ability to appreciate its beauty. Yet, here I was complaining.

I asked myself the question once again. What if this were to be the last time I ever felt the cold of winter or the rain on my skin? Would I really want to remember it through a veil of misery? Or would I want to remember the clarity of the moment? The sparkle of rain on the first, burgeoning leaves of a nascent spring… the ever-expanding circles drawn by the raindrops on the silver surface of the pond… the aliveness of my skin, tingling beneath the touch of winter… the freshness of the rain-soaked garden and the smell of wet earth…

Some ‘last times’ we are aware of… we know they will be the last. We see them coming and they make an indelible impression on memory. I will never forget my last, tear-blurred glimpse of the Sacré-Cœur as we left Paris, thirty years ago. I didn’t know then that it would be the very last time… I still do not yet know if it was, for that matter… but it was the end of a chapter in my life and the beginning of a new story. I remember the final hug shared with a friend and his final words to me, hours before he died, as clearly as I recall the last time I closed the door on the family home.

Sometimes we only realise it was a ‘last time’ once the moment has passed… and those memories too entrench themselves, kept alive by emotion. But most ‘last times’ only become clear in retrospect… we will not know until it is too late to give them our attention and store them up in memory.

As we grow older, any farewell, no matter how temporary, takes on a new layer of meaning; as the years pass, the chances that some of these farewells will be ‘last times’ cannot help but increase. I would not wish to waste such moments in sentimentality, regret or in the imagining of some dire future… I want to enjoy them, storing them up in a treasure house of memory where life, love and laughter are the true riches of living.

There is a reason we are here, in this life, in these bodies and with these senses. Our lives are short… seconds, minutes and hours tick by, heading towards an unknown point, for few know the span of their days. For any one of us the world can change at any moment… yet we live our lives taking so much for granted or, as I was doing, railing against the downside instead of carrying away with us all the moment has to offer.

Living in England, the chances are that I will see and feel more rain than I could possibly wish for… but I do not know what the future holds. Would I really wish to be stuck behind glass watching the rain fall beyond my reach… and knowing I had wasted my ‘last time’ grumbling?

I fed the fish and the birds, smiled at the Indian airline label still attached to my son’s wheelchair… and went out to enjoy the rain.

All images in this post were taken in India by my son…where he felt the rain.

The value of change…

Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
– Omar Khayyam

“I wish….” How many times have I heard that phrase? How many times have I said it, with irony or with longing… or both… wishing that the world was somehow different? Wishing it would shape itself more conveniently… just for me? From that big win on the lottery we do not play to the weather over which we have no control, wishing things would change seems to be part of the human outlook.

There are many who make that wish and revisit it wistfully from time to time, still hoping vaguely that things might change, but doing little or nothing to make it come to pass except relying on life to arrange itself for them. This passive wishful thinking is not the same as trusting that life will bring us what we need, it is a hankering born of dissatisfaction… an uneasy state of mind and heart in which to live.

There are others who will take this desire for change and move heaven and earth to make it happen, spending all their focus on that goal. In one respect at least, success or failure matters little, either way they…we… are missing something.

 

“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”
Omar Khayyam

Change is happening all around us, all the time. We do not have to go out looking for it…it is occurring with utter disregard for our desires or our wishes, right here, right now.  From the life cycle of the cells which make up our own bodies, to the ticking of the clock as it slides present into past with regulated inevitability, everything is changing. And we change with it.

Whether change appears to us as good, bad or indifferent…whether we accept it with grace or rail against it, making resistance drag us along unwilling, we cannot escape. Most of the time, we do not even notice it is happening, because we are so accustomed to our entire lives being built upon it and we live within an ever-changing world. It is only when we notice change occurring that we develop an opinion and choose how we will face it.

If we start to take note of that continuous state of change in which we live, we begin to notice the details. Dissatisfaction with the state of what is becomes a little pointless when now is already in the past before we can even name it. And those details begin to take on new depth and meaning when we are aware of how transient they may be.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
– Omar Khayyam

The last day of the holidays, the last mouthful of dessert, the last kiss… as soon as we know that something is finite, it takes on greater importance and touches our emotions at a deeper, more visceral level. We savour those moments, investing ourselves in them wholeheartedly and carrying away an emotional memory of joy, delight, pleasure or pain, that etches itself on consciousness. Good or bad, those moments are lived with a vividness that makes them stand out from the grey routine of our days.

When we learn to become aware of our surroundings as a continually changing chain of finite moments, each a mere scintilla, unique in the vastness of eternity, then each detail takes on that same depth and meaning, stirring something in heart and mind into acute and thrilling awareness. From the beauty of a sunrise, to the spots on a ladybird’s back… from a small act of kindness to an unprovoked smile, we begin to take note of the richness of life and experience.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.

– Omar Khayyam

Prediction

supermoon-012

We had the supermoon a few days ago. On the night when it was forecast that we would see the phenomenon at its best, the moon was hidden by a thick pall of cloud which, though beautiful to watch as the moonlight lit it from within, did not exactly give ideal conditions. Luckily, though, the previous night had been beautifully clear and I had watched a golden glow surround the moon in her rising and seen her unveil silver beauty low in the sky.

It had been the same with the meteor showers. When they were supposed to be at their best, the cloud was impenetrable.Yet I had seen shooting stars cross the sky as lines of white fire in the nights before and after…and one glorious meteor that was as bright as a firework flash across the blackness.

The predictions had been wrong. While the moon and shooting stars were evidently doing their thing above the clouds, the best nights to see them were not the nights foretold. Or at least, not here and not for me.

supermoon-016

Scientific predictions are like that though…uncertain. They can only ever take into account known factors. Not the random stuff the universe has a habit of throwing into the mix. They may build into their calculations a random element of uncertainty in an effort to offset the unpredictability of reality, but even so, you can only be guided by them, never rely upon them.

During the course of one bit of randomness, I was talking to my son about the death counters that are available online. They are supposed to offer a countdown facility to the predicted date of your death. Most come with a disclaimer that, should they get it wrong, they accept no responsibility. Either way.  Most simply allocate a fixed lifespan, subtract the days you have already lived and count down to that date. Others at least try to add in those factors known to lengthen or shorten the average lifespan…though there is no guarantee there either…and calculate your date of death accordingly.

One that I looked at had, at least, the benefit of being amusing. When a date had been entered in the wrong format, the programme had simply replied, ‘you are already dead. Have a nice day.’ They are not designed to be taken seriously. Or are they?

supermoon-018

If you look at one of these lifetimers, you can see the seconds ticking away. If you looked long enough, you would note that you had just wasted a minute. Perhaps two. Minutes that have been and will never be again, subtracted from the total ticking away on the timer. Were you also to look at one of the lists of statistics that detail the time we spend sleeping, working, doing housework, cooking and all the other necessities of life and subtract those from the total too, you would probably find the whole process both depressing and even a little morbid.

On the other hand, you might find it motivates you to enjoy, rather than lose, that indefinable span of time that is your life. To be aware of it and treasure its gifts, rather than allowing it to slip away, drowned in mediocrity.

Had I waited to look at the sky until the time was ‘right’, I would have missed the shooting stars. Had I closed the curtains to the night that was not that of the supermoon, I would have missed the beauty of its being almost there. Had I chosen to see the clouds, rather than the light within them, I would have missed the shafts of moonlight that lit the earth and cast shadows across the wet grass.Waiting till the time is ‘right’ for anything may mean missing the best moment…. and those moments are fleeting, ephemeral and fragile. Easily missed unless we are poised and ready to be with them.

It is not a case of settling for some nebulous idea of second-best or might-have-been, but about accepting the gifts that any moment can bring, making the most of them in full awareness and knowing that right here, right now, for you, this is the best.

supermoon-019

 

One moment…

scotland trip jan 15 001

“One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One moment, of the Well of Life to taste–”
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

It was one of those thoughts that flash through the mind in a millisecond. The kind that leaves behind a flood of understanding so complete that you instantly know the whole story… and just as instantly lose your hold on it at the thought passes, as insubstantial as a rainbow. You are left with no more than the conviction that you have realised and understood an important concept… and you couldn’t put it into words to save your life.

I had been leafing through a book I haven’t read in years and was thinking about it on the drive to work. Nothing special, just an old favourite that held a phrase I wanted to put in context. Skimming through the text I was aware that in the years since I had read it first, I had learned a good deal more about the subject. That accumulated knowledge, now brought to bear upon the page, changed my own understanding of what I was reading. I suppose that’s what started me thinking.

I had understood the book perfectly well when I had first read it. It had sent my thoughts off into several directions and made a huge impact on me at the time. Yet I now realised that I had only understood it to the limit of my knowledge. When you think about it, that is as far as we can ever go. It was only in revisiting the book later with greater knowledge that it could open the doors to further understanding. Obvious really, so obvious that we never think about it.

You can see it in action all the time. We are constantly doing things we have done before and with practice, we learn more and we get better at them. We know this and simply don’t question it. What we don’t seem to bear in mind is that the same thing applies to more abstract skills, like thinking and understanding. We get better at that too. The mind ties itself in less knots and even learns to unravel them. The more off-the-wall the thoughts, the more possibilities we can see opening up for us as we bring everything we have earned so far to what we are doing.

But… and this is where it went off at a bit of a tangent…if it applies to everything else, it has to apply to living too. How often do we feel overwhelmed or seem to face insurmountable problems? How often do we feel too small to count in the greater scheme? Or face a moment too hard to contemplate? And it was the whole ‘in the moment’ thing where it all seemed to click into place.

Experience is gleaned over a lifetime but an experience lasts from moment to moment. We deal with each one as it comes, with nothing in our armoury except what we have learned in our own lives to this point. But… whatever we have learned, everything we have lived, whatever we have understood… we bring into this moment. We have the weight of our entire existence behind us and every second we have lived and therefore learned, at our fingertips. That is a formidable thing. How many moments, how many seconds, how much have you lived and learned so far?

Living in the moment does not mean leaving past or future to fend for themselves… it means, for me at least, bringing ourselves complete and whole into every instant… and that includes all we have known until now and all we might hope for in the future.

With every second that passes we see more, hear more, learn and understand more… on levels we may not even know exist yet within the limit of our knowledge. There are realms in the mind science has barely touched. There are the abstract aspects of human nature that are hard to pin down… things like courage, love and compassion.There are our immeasurable dreams and hopes.  There is our essential connectedness and belonging within the universe…and that which we may call the soul or the spark of divinity within. And if we have the insubstantial weight of all that behind us, then we bring eternity itself into every moment…

Too small to matter? I don’t think so.

We are enough for anything.

Place and time

heather 2015 derbyshire, higger tor, beeley circle, edensor, bak 045
I looked around and was silenced mid-sentence. Fingers halted in empty air over the keyboard, I was doing a fair impression of a goldfish. It was not what I expected to see. But it just goes to show how much our inner world can influence the outer and how complex the chain of events can be that lead from ‘cannot’ to ‘can’.

There is much written these days about the power of positive thinking; some from a scientific and psychological perspective, some bordering on the lunatic fringe… and just about every possible shade in between from the sleekly professional, to views as fluffy as an angora rabbit. What most of us will come across hangs somewhere in the middle and takes a common sense approach to how we can make our daily life a better place to be.

We recognise negative thought as a limiting behaviour… our thoughts narrow our focus and refuse to move from their problem at hand. We react to specific situations and fail to see the other possibilities around us, creating a downward and inward spiral that effectively blocks us from finding a solution to the problem; either that, or we are so engrossed in taking immediate action that we are blind to all else.

Positive thinking has many well documented benefits for health and wellbeing. In one test, two groups were set up in order to control the experiment where the main group were asked to write about an intensely positive experience every day for just three days. Three months later their health and emotions were measurably better than the control group. It isn’t just writing that helps; anything that lifts the mood is a step in creating that positive mindset. Doing something you love, being with people with whom you are happy, creating art, music or craftwork, maybe riding a bike… or simply playing, allowing yourself to take time out just for fun.

Meditation, one of the techniques used in the Silent Eye‘s course, has also been shown to have a rapid effect on stress levels, health and on the brain itself.

One recent study looked at how and why a positive mindset could bring specific and long term effects. The findings showed that, amongst other measurable benefits, positivity enhances creative thought, by widening the focus so that all manner of possibilities can be admitted into the moment.

But possibilities are not concrete realities… and to translate the one into the other there is another ingredient, that is required and one not so simple to create… belief in ourselves. We are very good at hiding the cracks in the way we value ourselves. Buried deep, there is often something akin to the impostor syndrome, where we simply don’t think we really deserve the happiness, health, love, success…or any number of other states our surface mind strives to achieve. It is a belief which may have grown though out our lives, with small incidents and large adding strength to its presence.

Many are aware that they are not as confident as they may seem to others, but this elusive lack of belief is hard to pin down and often goes unnoticed. While it lurks in the shadows, we are entirely capable of sabotaging our efforts without even knowing it. We may also choose not to make an attempt for fear of not succeeding as we feel we should… a fear rooted not in any real assessment of our capabilities, but in an invisible and insidious belief that we are bound to fail.

Conversely, when we do believe in ourselves we are capable of achieving great things. That belief too tends to be something that has built up slowly over a period of time and with the confirmation of innumerable small successes. It is something we can encourage, by acknowledging those things we have achieved… from the small to the large… from evicting a spider from the bathtub to getting that promotion or publishing a book. We build a portfolio of associations that make us feel confident and bolster our belief in ourselves and what we can do… and who we are.

And sometimes everything just comes together. Time, place and mindset combine to produce the perfect moment for big things to happen. Take this weekend, for example. My son was out on his trike and chose to turn up at my door after a very long ride. Ani, who sees him rarely, had been ‘singing’ for several minutes and doing the ‘postman dance’, a very specific circular prancing that alerts me when we are going to have visitors or ‘intruders’ (like postmen…). I parked the trike and helped him inside. As we reached the door to the living room, with the dog bounding around him joyously, he said he felt he ought to be able to just walk across the room. I too, against all logic, felt that it ‘should’ so.

I helped him to the sofa, with the ecstatic dog bringing him balls faster than he could throw them. She has a habit of dropping them too far away when she is excited. I needed to look something up on the computer…and turned round to see my son walking across the living room to the table. This was where the goldfish impression came in…because, of course, my son can’t walk unaided…except on May Day… and, apparently, here…

When my mouth had finally closed and settled into an inane grin, we talked about what had happened. He had ‘just thought he could’; the room had that effect… a place that had been the scene of many moments of progress and triumph, large and small, when he came back home after the brain injury and our days were entirely focussed on his recovery. We had adopted a consciously optimistic stance, even while we acknowledged the more dire and official prognosis. We chose, here in this place, to believe he would recover and the association of place is positive… I could understand why he had felt that way. Then too, he had just arrived under his own steam, on a trike that was allowing him freedom to explore without someone pushing a wheelchair; something that cannot help boosting his self-belief. If ever there was a time and place to try, this was it. And he succeeded, placing yet another link in the chain of belief that will allow him to walk unaided again.

I think we underestimate the power of place and time. It is easy to recognise the effects of being somewhere that makes you feel good… a heather strewn dawn on the moors will do it for me, every time. Asking ‘why’ may throw some light on the associations we have with a location; it doesn’t matter to me which moor, for example… they all take me back to childhood, happiness and being with people I have loved. To be in such a place, with such associations, is always uplifting and opens the doors of possibility. Such a place is the ‘right’ place to find belief and embrace our hopes and dreams, opening ourselves to whatever possibilities the universe might offer. And the right time… whenever that feeling surfaces that you can be who you were always meant to be…is now.