I had a lovely retreat last week by the seaside, with mindfulness, yoga and some lovely walks along the beach.
I always forget the calming power of yoga, which I do moving and breathing in time to Tibetan Buddhist chanting. The chatter of my mind falls away and there is just moving, breathing and hearing. I have been ending my sessions with yogic alternate nostril breathing which balances my nervous system beautifully. So my plan is to continue with this in my home practice in support of my busy life, which tends to encourage the chatter.
There was some sunshine to walk under and some wonderful stormy weather to shelter from in my cosy cottage. I reflected on how fortunate I was to have the time to walk and the soothing power of the rhythmic back and forth movements of walking. I was able to rest back in the body and just allow the mind to do it’s thing. When I got caught up in thinking, it was generally to do with future planning. I would acknowledge the planning and remind myself that this was not the time to be thinking about it by saying to myself – if its not happening now then there’s no need to think about it. Again, my plan is to do a few more longer walks with the dogs than usual, as it really helps me to let go of the issues that I am finding stressful and creates space for insights to arise.
I incorporated gratitude practice into my day by having the mindfulness bell on my phone (which was in flight mode – most of the time) go off randomly during the day. When it sounded, I would stop, feel my feet on the ground for a few breaths, spread my focus out to the body for a few breaths and then remind myself how fortunate I am in my life and reflect for a few moments on three things I appreciate in my life. This was a very nourishing practice, which will also be part of my daily life routine.
I listened to some wonderful audio teachings from Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron and Lama Yeshe Rinpoche. We are so lucky that so much teaching is available to us now in books and online.
Now the challenge is to keep this going in the midst of my busy life managing a business, running a house, being a mum and a wife and teaching. Again, I am well placed to do this as much of the time I am working from home and I have the flexibility to take time out for practice and for walking the dogs and those around me are very used to odd bells going off during the day.
The main recognition for me during the retreat was how fearful I was. I noticed a very strong desire to control the future and to plan to make sure things turn out in a predictable way. I felt my sense of self flailing about repeatedly for certainty, unable to tolerate uncertainty. Intellectually, I know that this is fruitless as there are so many causes and conditions beyond my control – after all, I cannot even control what thoughts arise within my own mind. Still it is a strong habit. As I face this desire for control, acknowledge it and recognise that it is not possible to know future outcomes, fear squirms in my stomach, my heart beats faster and, if I let it, planning thinking activity spirals out of control, imagining all the possible catastrophic outcomes and reassuring myself with plans to address them. It is not so much that I want things to turn out as I want them, the issue is I want to know the outcome now. Whether the outcome is good or bad is much less important. Once I know what is going to happen I can act. Waiting to know feels like a torture.
I think that the worst thing about this fear is how it sets off and ravages my central nervous system, firing off hormones that have me in fight or flight mode on a continuous basis, which is exhausting. Time out on retreat, the yoga and walking help to bring my nervous system back into balance.
The insight comes in that it is not the outcome I am afraid of, it is the not knowing that terrifies me. So the task now is to relish the not knowing. I aim to be more curious than afraid. Now I have seen this habitual pattern – or re-seen it at a deeper level – it seems less powerful. It seems barmy to my rational mind that the problem is the not knowing rather than the outcome. It seems possible now to practice patience in the face of not knowing and to re-assure myself it is OK.
I saw repeatedly on retreat how my planning, triggered the fight or flight response and made me suffer. I have a wonderful life, which I am not able to enjoy because I am worrying about the future. I would find myself walking on the beach in the sunshine, thinking about some future eventuality that would probably never happen and that made me scared. This is madness and I experienced it repeatedly. Again and again, I need to let go of the thinking activity and just be in the moment! When I do this the moments are generally awesome, even if they are sometimes painful or tedious. This is the gift of mindfulness. Duh!
I am very happy to have seen all of this. I think that the human condition is delightfully hilarious, if also painful. I take myself far too seriously. But I am not alone in this. So let’s all smile in the face of our self-created fear, soothe ourselves, become curious, and as best we can and carry on regardless.
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