The Way of Toast

Tea pots in my kitchen

Tea pots in my kitchen

I was in the kitchen making breakfast the other day when my husband, Russell, glanced over at me and with a wry smile commented that the complicated ritual I have for making my toast should be called “The Way of Toast”, like how the tea ceremony is the Way of Tea, or calligraphy is the Way of the Brush, or any other kind of ritual art. We had a bit of a laugh about that because it is true that over the years I have created a certain ritualistic way of preparing my toast “just so”. But later I thought about what is meant by “The Way of …” and it seems to me that just about anything that you engage in in your daily life could be made into a ritual art that expresses your spiritual practice.

Although we might see tea ceremony as a beautiful but complicated ritual art shrouded in mystery and largely unintelligible to the non-initiated, it is basically simply about making a cup of tea and sharing it. Shunryu Suzuki, a much-loved and respected Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for bringing Zen in the United States, would make tea ceremony using a polystyrene foam cup and instant coffee to show that you didn’t need fancy implements or some special occasion to share the essence of tea ceremony with another person. The purpose of the ritual is in fact to practice a way of emptying your mind to such a degree that all that remains is that single, precious, present moment of connection, of communion with another person – or even if you are alone, communion with the cosmos. The ritual helps you to be fully present and engaged without the background chatter of mind interfering. The longer the process, the more you have to really concentrate and the longer time it takes to master. This long-time investment of your energy and practice is a reflection of your own commitment to perfecting a ritual art and, despite our insta-everything world, reveals slowly the peeling away of the layers of mind chatter as you continue to practice. My dear friend in Japan, a tea ceremony master who had learned the art from her parents since childhood, once told me that she looked forward to her 60s because then she thought she might have reached a stage of being able to perform the tea ceremony with a “true heart”.

Cumquats ready to pick

Cumquats ready to pick

But you don’t have to aspire to become a master at a particular ritual art – what about becoming a master of the art of your own life by just fully engaging in the small rituals of everyday life? A spiritual practice can be developed by making your whole life into a ritual art: a work of art that is ever-evolving. This ritual practice can be fully realised even when you engage in the most seemingly trivial of acts such the act of peeling a humble potato and experiencing a moment of joyful awe at how it is that you and this here spud have arrived at this very moment in time together, a moment of being fully present. Now that might sound a bit OTT but in fact it is possible to live a life deeply imbued with a sense of wonder and joy whilst engaging with any moment of your life. It begins with bringing into your consciousness the awareness of every little action of your body when it moves through the routines of everyday life – cleaning your teeth, drinking a glass of water, putting on your clothes, making a cup of tea or preparing toast! When your mind is fully occupied with being aware of what your body is doing, that is a great spiritual practice because by emptying your mind of its usual white-noise chatter, you are creating an open space – this space is the place where spiritual transformation is possible, a space within which the pure joy of being is able to flow freely.

So next time you make a cup of tea, take a moment to feel the way your body moves step by step through the actions of creating a cuppa – feel your footsteps, hear the sound of the water boiling, feel the heat of the cup in your hand, feel the weight of the cup, feel the steam rising into your face as you raise the cup, feel texture of the cup as it meets your lips… and really feel the tastes and textures in your mouth as you drink, feel your breath coming in and out in rhythm with your drinking. It might sound a bit crazy, but the moment of enlightenment might be right there in your next sip! Enjoy!

Happy Year of the Snake

2013.02.07 snakeThis Sunday is the first day of the new lunar year, commonly celebrated as “Chinese New Year”. The new year we celebrate on January 1st is the solar new year and is associated with masculine energy and lots of action, such a making new year’s resolutions and partying. But the lunar new year marks the feminine aspects of the calendar and is a time for quiet reflection.

This year is the Year of the Water Snake: the snake represents intuition and introspection, which means this is a particularly feminine energy year. Snake years are marked by a deep inner focus, concentrated discipline and careful attention to achieving your goals and developing your skills and practices. Feminine energy usually refers to stillness and quiet, but can also mean that your energy is inwardly focussed and channelled deeply rather than wide and shallow.

The Year of the Snake is the time to take a step back and review your goals and ambitions, to take stock of what is going on in your life and to reflect deeply. In taking this step back in order to get a better overall picture of your life, you naturally become quieter because you are observing your life rather than rushing forward and expending lots of energy (save that for masculine energy years such as the Year of the Dragon). In becoming still you can relish your blessings and see your challenges in a more objective light. It is a gentle and nurturing energy that is essential in the hustle and bustle of this demanding modern life where everything always seems such a rush – it’s exhausting! Give yourself a break!

The Year of the Snake emphasises the feminine energy of intuition and inner wisdom. What you need to know to live a balanced and fulfilling life is already there inside you – it is your innate wisdom. But the gentle voice of that wisdom is simply drowned out by the white noise of everyday life. Hasn’t it happened to you some time when someone gave you some really good advice and you said, “Oh yeah, of course… I knew that!” And you really did know that – it was a surprise to yourself that somehow you’d just forgotten what was staring you in the face all along? Well that’s your own inner wisdom ‘memory’ that gets drowned out in the white noise.

When you stop and rest and sit quietly in nature and in stillness, that voice of your own inner wisdom can and will be heard, naturally. Just take a moment to stop and listen and all the answers are there.

This being the Year of the Snake, I am taking the message of the snake very seriously and applying it to my own life. I feel a need to reassess my priorities and spend more time in stillness, more time in disciplining my own spiritual practice to go deeper and be more focussed, rather than spreading myself thinly and widely. I am going to take a step back and reassess what I’m expending my energies on. I have gotten very caught up in the technology merry-go-round, trying to keep up with all the latest software and apps and updates and downloads, until I feel I’m getting motion sickness because my head is spinning so much!  I need to let go of my growing techno-addiction and just sit in stillness to cool down my always over-heated, over-excited brain.

Therefore, I will be closing up my blogs.

When I started out on my Buddhist path, I read a number of books – good, old-fashioned paper books – that helped me to find my spiritual path within the everyday chaos of life. Two books in particular come to mind, and I would like to recommend them to you…
Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are”
Charlotte Joko Beck’s “Nothing Special”

Thank you for reading my blog and for all the wonderful feedback I have received. Please remember that you already know everything you need – sit quietly, feel your body as part of the natural world, spend time in nature and in silence and your deepest wisdom will reveal itself.

Wishing you many blessings for a fruitful, gentle and nurturing Year of the Water Snake.

The One-Minute Meditation

Although it’s taken me several entries to describe the why’s of this one-minute meditation (see here and here), it is really very simple to do and in fact takes less than a minute.

First of all, at the moment when you remember to do this one-minute meditation (more on ‘remembering’ later), make a note of what you are thinking about and give it a simple label, such as “what’s for dinner,” “last night’s argument,” “worrying about the kids,” etc. Keep it simple and don’t add further comments like “what the hell am I still thinking about that for – I should let it go!” No judgements, just observing what is in your mind at that moment.

2013.01.20.02Then, take a deep breath, feeling your belly expand. It is surprisingly difficult to take a deep breath correctly. Because stress is held in our bodies in an almost chronic continuity, our diaphragms and bellies are really very tight, which restricts our breathing. Here’s a tip to check if you are really taking a full deep breath: if you feel your shoulders rise as you breathe in, you are only breathing into the top of your lungs; whereas if you place your hands on your belly and feel your belly extend softly as you breathe in then you’re on the right track, as well as a sensation that your lower ribs are expanding as well, as your diaphragm expands. This is especially difficult for women because we are always being made conscious of our tummies and trying to suck it in all the time – so let it all hang out, baby!

This first deep breath works to switch off the flight-fight triggers of  your autonomic nervous system, which keeps us in a constant state of stress. Take another deep breath and let out a sigh as you breathe out. You will feel your body respond almost immediately as your whole body joins in that feeling of letting go.

Next, do a scan of your body from head to toe: check your head – is it tight, is your scalp tingling; does your head feel heavy or light; is your forehead tight; how do the little muscles around your eyes feel; are you eyes dry or moist; where is tongue resting; is your mouth dry or moist. Then move down to check your breathing – are you breathing fast or slow; does your chest feel tight. What about your stomach – does it feel full or is it gurgling with hunger… and so on down your whole body, until you reach your toes. It may surprise you to know that many people who are stressed actually cannot feel their feet and this realisation can be a little distressing, so if it that happens to you, don’t worry about it – just register it as a simple observation.

2013.01.20.04The key to this exercise is just to check your vitals in very clinical way and not to make mental interpretations such as “Oh no, my shoulders are so stiff – I should be more relaxed.” Imagine that you are a doctor in a white lab coat with a clip board, objectively taking your own vital signs; that is, treat this scan as just a simple checking exercise, without any judgement about what your body should or shouldn’t be experiencing.

When you get to your toes, take three deep breaths, deep into your belly, and feel your whole body sighing with each out breath. Enjoy the sensation of your body letting go even for just a moment – it is delicious!

Then just go back to whatever you were doing… until you remember again to do this one-minute meditation, which would ideally will be at least several times a day.

What you are doing in this deceptively simple exercise is to create a space of deep and healing rest in the midst of your everyday busyness. It momentarily breaks the stress cycle by stopping the tapes that constantly go on in your mind which contribute to this ongoing chronic state of stress because there is never a chance to switch them off and simply ‘take a breath’. This moment of respite helps you to experience the ongoing impact of your thoughts upon your body by creating a deep connection between your mind and your body, which will in turn help your whole being to come back into natural synch.

2013.01.20.01It is very important to note that no judgement is taking place, there mustn’t be a critical voice going over the top pointing out all the things that are ‘wrong’ with either what you are thinking about or what state your body is in; it is more important to develop a balanced and objective awareness that places no strain on you and this simply allows your body and mind to find a space of deep relaxed peace. After a while, you will notice that you feel so much more relaxed in a general way, have more energy, and I guarantee that this will also improve your sex life! So, ENJOY!

Next time, I’ll share some tips on how to keep remembering to do this simple one-minute meditation.

108 Blessings

2013.01.01 bell03New Year’s Eve in Japan is not an occasion for partying (that happens with gusto during the cherry blossom season!) but instead is a time for reflection upon the passing year and for honouring the arrival of the coming new year. It is not sombre, though, because it is a time for communities to get together and share in bringing in the New Year. Temples around the country ring their great bells 108 times at midnight and throngs of people gather in the freezing cold for a chance to thrust the huge log ringer against the massive bronze bell, which is said to bring good luck for the coming year.

This tradition was observed even in the small rural village where I lived. I remember vividly the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated there in 1995 because it was snowing as I walked up the mountain pathway with my young children, who were so excited about having stayed up so late, joining the other villagers and their children as we made our way up to the temple. Although now fallen into a state of aged disrepair, needing far more money than this small village could ever hope to raise to bring it back to its former glory, the temple was once a large training centre, focussed on mountain asceticism. Now there was a single priest, who had inherited his position from his father and his father before him, and who was more often to be found in the local bar than in the temple! The belfry, however, was still quite grand. It was a separate standing bell tower of wood, which held a magnificent ancient bronze bell that was rung only on New Year’s Eve or in the event of fire, using a massive log which was held by ropes and swung onto the side of the bell, creating a wonderful deep sonorous gong.

2013.01.01 bell01We huddled around a huge brazier kept stoked with firewood from the mountain forest, everyone chatting and laughing as we waited for midnight. Although a time of reflection, it is also an important community event and gathered together in the dark, in the snow, in the middle of the night, everyone was excited and in a heightened good humour. There was a great kettle over a stove that held amazake, a thick sweet beverage made with the lees leftover from making sake, with freshly grated ginger and sweetened with sugar. A perfectly delicious hot drink to have while standing in the snow at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The bell was rung 108 times, each gong made by one of the villagers. The priest insisted that my family go first because it was our first year in the village. At the base of the rickety steps the priest told us to clear our minds and hold in our hearts a feeling of gratitude for all the good things that had come our way in the past year, and that this feeling would make the bell sing. Actually, I was a little afraid that I might fall off the platform with the force needed to release the rope, but instead took a deep breath of cold snowy cleansing air and thought of all the blessings that I had received that year. I drew back the rope – let it swing in once, then back again to build up momentum, then… GONG! The deep sonorous sound vibrated throughout my body and I felt cleansed.

As I descended the steps on the other side of the tower, I was met by one of the village elders who carefully counted out and placed three peanuts in their shells into my hands. Thinking there was ritual significance to this act, I reverentially asked what the peanuts symbolised. The old man looked puzzled for a moment before saying, “It’s a snack!” I just burst out laughing because it was another good reminder to me that in Japan the sacred and mundane are not separate, yet everything you eat, thing and do can become a special moment of awareness and connection.

These days, back in Australia, with the kids all grown up and off doing their own New Year’s Eve things, my husband and I have a new tradition. We go down to a small lookout in Yalgorup National Park, from which you can see west out over the ocean, east out over a large estuary and hills, and north and south over the forest and bushland of the national park. It is a magnificent view. At sunset, watching the sun sinking into the Indian Ocean and the forest turning deep pink in the sunset, we use a prayer mala of 108 beads to name 108 things for which we are grateful. After listing these blessings I always feel filled with an enormous sense of gratitude for simply being alive in that moment, surrounded by the glorious beauty of nature, and my New Year wish is that I continue to be able to bring into my life that feeling of simple gratitude that I am able to appreciate this fact of being alive and feel the connection to the natural world of which I am a living part. Why not try it for yourself?

2013.01.01 Yalgorup

Happy New Year of the Snake to you all, and may your year be full of blessings and peace.

“How much pocket money do I have?”

After the profound sadness of the shooting at the US primary school, I was deeply shocked to hear of a horrendous backlash against young people with autistic or Aspergers syndromes. Apparently, there has been a surge of Facebook pages and other online media wherein ignorant and enflamed mobs are threatening to start vigilante groups to seek out and murder people with these conditions. The horror of this suggestion fills me with despair that our society is so easily capable of falling back into the dark days of the witch-hunts.

I follow a blog of one mother who has two lovely boys, aged 12 and 14, who are both autistic, in which she writes about the often heart-breaking challenges and more-often profound joys of raising her two very special boys, who, in their unique way of seeing the world, manage to share their deep wisdom with her and those who read her blog. Here is her entry for today, which I would like to share with you because of it’s wonderful spirit of Christmas that I hope you can pass on so that there is a positive message for those who live with the already-great challenges of these conditions and for whom the reactive voices of ignorance are truly damaging.

2012.12.19

“How much pocket money do I have?”

It’s a question Attie asks me often. Saving money is an incredibly hard thing for him to do, as I’m sure it is for any kid, so I was used to this constant line of questioning.

But this time it stopped me in my tracks.

It was late last year and I’d just spent the only money I had taking the boys to visit their grandfather in Europe, a crazy idea borne of the realization that at nearly 80 he was now officially ‘old’ and since he rarely travelled to see us they had very little idea who he was. I’m not sure what kind of magical sleep-deprived confidence came over me to make me think I could handle taking two autistic kids on a twenty hour flight overseas to a country where I don’t speak the language. Safe to say, it was an amazing, difficult and life-altering trip for all three of us and I don’t regret a single second of it.

On the evening of our last day, we sat in a little kebab shop in Germany as I tried to soak up the last moments I’d spend with my dad for who knows how long. Over ridiculously strong coffee he told me about a charity he and his wife support in Bulgaria, an orphanage where the funds are so tight that on many weeks all they have is a sack of potatoes to feed all of the children and single mothers who seek refuge there. Winters are especially harsh he said, a concept I could only now come close to understanding after having spent the week in the coldest temperatures I’d ever experienced.

I pulled my new down jacket tight around me as we walked to the car, feeling gratitude for the warmth and thinking about so many who couldn’t. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. It wasn’t until I was packing for home the next day that my brain decided to be useful, and realized that we could leave all of our winter clothes behind for my father to take to the orphanage. It was a brilliant idea, and I tried hard to ignore the fact that it also left us with more room in our suitcases to take home the obscene amount of souvenirs we’d amassed.

There was only one problem with my plan… Attie was in the grips of an intense love affair with his jacket. It was puffy and blue and as he put it “like a big winter hug”. This is a kid who has an incredibly hard time letting go of stuff – he wears his pants until they’re three sizes too small, has every piece of artwork he’s ever done stuffed into a bedroom closet and don’t get me started about the packaging that his toys come in. The trip had been full of drama and transitions and change, which only made him cling even more tightly to his jacket as the one constant amongst the chaos. But it was big and bulky and just not necessary in our Australian ‘winter’, and it could literally be a life saver for another child. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him that we would be leaving it behind.

We got to the train station and the time had come. I handed the bags of clothes to my father and knelt down in front of Attie. I explained it all to him, about the orphanage and the children and the winter that was coming. He nodded, said nothing and took off the jacket. As he handed it to me the tears began to fall. An hour into the trip they were still falling, as he stared out the window and said nothing. I squeezed his hand and he turned to look at me.

“How much pocket money do I have?”

It was a question he’d asked me three hundred times on this trip. At every store, souvenir stand, sidewalk vendor. I told him the amount, my heart breaking that now he wanted to use it to buy a replacement jacket.

He shook his head.

“It’s not enough.”
“Oh baby, I know you want your jacket back but you just don’t need–”
“No Mummy. We need to give more to them.”

He wasn’t crying for the jacket. He was crying for the children.

I was speechless. Luckily Attie did the talking for me, in fact he chatted about nothing else for the entire flight home. He made me promise to donate every cent he had to the orphanage, ‘encouraging’ his brother to do the same (nagging him constantly until Max finally gave in). When we got home I found him collecting up the rest of his clothes and toys, which prompted a long discussion about the economics of international postage and ended with a compromise to donate it to a local charity.

Last week to our surprise we received a handwritten letter from the ladies who run the orphanage. It’s in Bulgarian, but my dad explained that it’s an account of everything that they spent Attie’s money on. Blankets and food for the children. Medicine for the babies. I read it to the boys as they decorated our christmas tree, and this time I wasn’t surprised when I again heard those words.

“Mummy, how much pocket money do I have?”

You can read her blog here: http://42squeeze.blogspot.com.au