It is the Winter Solstice: The longest night of the year is a peak Yin time, the time of the year that honours the aspects of feminine energy, embodied in quietude and deep reflection, allowing your body and mind to rest in stillness. Just breathing, just being aware of your breath and the gentle rise and fall of your chest. So still, so peaceful. And yet, within the long dark night is the promise of light to come, as the days now get longer and move towards the warmth and light of the yang warmer months.
Rituals are so important in our lives: they bring our awareness into the cycles of life and our connection to the cycles of nature. They are reminders of the ephemeral nature of our brief lives but also provide us with reminders of the importance of our relationships with one another and with the natural world and to value and honour that relationship.
Midwinter rituals appear in all cultures and very often revolve around the symbolism of fire, lighting the long night and keeping us warm in our hibernation. Do you have a midwinter ritual that helps you to connect to the season that you share with your loved ones? Here at Wabi’an, we light a fire and take some time to reflect on the past year and then to share a warm cup of mulled wine and chat about our hopes for the coming year. Midwinter marks the New Year, so I like to write down my intentions for the coming year and then burn them in the fire as a symbol of my commitment and as an offering of gratitude to my ancestors and to the spirits of this land.
Midwinter is also a peak creative time for all kinds of introspective arts. So take some time to sip something warming, pause, write a poem, whisper a song.
I remember when I first started learning about Buddhism, I was really puzzled by the idea of ‘staying in the present moment’ because if I am only experiencing what is happening to me right now and trying to remain mindfully present in this very moment… how can I look ahead, point my mind towards beyond-now to make plans for dinner, or for anything that is ‘in the future’? That seems like such a contradiction. A paradox.
I still think about this conundrum a good deal, and it continues to be the basis of one of my meditations… as I chop the carrots and prepare for dinner!
When I quietly sit in Wabi’an, watching my thoughts come and go; when I quietly sip my tea, inhaling it’s steamy fragrance; when I watch the birds in the birdbath, coming and going; when I mindfully chop my carrots… all these things I understand as being “present in the moment.” And these moments are calm and reassuring because I feel comfortable that I’m ‘doing’ it… staying in the moment.
But that’s the easy part!
However, as we get all caught up in day-to-day mundanities of planning the week ahead with our calendars full of appointments for work or leisure, the doctor or other health matters, and visits to and by friends and family; remembering birthdays and buying presents; making shopping lists which involves thinking ahead to meals; making sure we get the bookings we want for future holidays (remember those in pre-covid?!); and even planning well ahead for weddings, births, and so on to retirement and even death.
So how do we stay in the moment and plan at the same time? Isn’t that a contradiction?
As time has gone by, I have become more aware that ‘planning’ is simply an activity of my mind, in just the same way as being aware of those quiet, calming moments are activities of my mind. It is simply one thought, followed by another thought, and being mindful of those thought processes. The key is in the awareness of the transient nature of these thoughts and being mindful of what is happening to your body in those moment-by-moment thoughts that relate to “I am now planning.”
But what happens instead is that too often our thought processes get commandeered and away we go galloping off in all directions at once, to anywhere but this centre that is this present moment. We launch into full overdrive of second-guessing our unknown future and filling our minds with scenarios one after another of WHAT-IFs? Our bodies get caught up in the maelstrom of our imagination until we’re in full fight-flight mode of catastrophising. This wild thought process has nothing to do with the simply one-step-at-a-time thought process of “I am now planning”.
So planning whilst staying in the present moment means to bring your awareness to your thoughts… as you plan. Yes, it involves projection into an unknown future in your imagination: planning dinner involves mentally observing the process involved in that preparation and then moving to the fridge to see if that ingredient is there and making a note on a shopping list to add that ingredient, and so forth. All the time, the practice is bringing your awareness to that single thought and then moving on to the next thought, observing that process of your mind.
Catastrophising is also just a mental state, a thought process that has not been observed and has simply run away in its present moment of unawareness. But that is okay too, there is no need to berate yourself and be harshly judgemental. It is simply what is happening in that moment, and bringing your attention to that process.
And if you do find your catastrophising, then your practice is to bring your attention to what is happening and then stop a moment: take just a moment to simply observe how your body is feeling in this very moment of intense anxiety or worry. Take a deep breath and let out a sigh, take another breath and let out a sigh, bring your awareness into your feet and work your way up through your body to the tips of your fingers, to the top of your head. Take another deep breath and let out a sigh. Accept yourself wholly in that moment and be kind. Hold yourself with compassion.
Bringing awareness to whatever you are engaged in in that moment, without judgement, without trying to ‘change’ anything, that is the practice. ‘Planning’ is a mental process of one thought after another… in this present moment. Practice observing the process of how ‘planning’ thoughts follow one another, just resting in the present. And always remember to breathe 🙂
With the election of Trump, I feel a tsunami of hate has been unleashed surging around the world, in which so many acts of racism, misogyny, homophobia and prejudice have been legitimised using Trump as a role model. The fear at the root of this negative, destructive energy is swallowing up not only those who are the targets of this hate, but also the perpetrators as well. Hatred wells up out of fear, out of ignorance, out of a feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless. And yet, even if we meet this hatred with anger, then we too become consumed by its energy. So how are we to deal with these negative energies? Where do we find comfort? How do we protect ourselves?
I have often been asked how I deal with the negative energy of angry or aggressive people I encounter, or how I cleanse the energy of Wabi’an to make it clear and pure, or how do I protect myself from negativity. But spiritual practice for me is not about building armour around myself or my sacred spaces; it is about learning how to open my heart wider and wider so that negativity simply flows through. Openness is not the same as filtering; it is not that your heart becomes a strainer collecting all the crap! The practice is to open your heart until it is like the vastness of the sky.
In Japanese Buddhism, the word for emptiness is the same as the word for sky, so that when we practice “emptiness” it means to feel like your heart and mind are as vast and open as the sky. In meditation terms, this is “sky mind”: a feeling of complete expansive openness. When your heart is as wide as the sky, that ’emptiness’ is then filled up with feelings of unconditional love and compassion for all beings. And this includes unconditional love for those who are tormented by the hate that leads to harmful actions. This practice of opening your heart is the antidote to fear.
That is not to say that you shouldn’t feel anger or sadness or the need to vent and rail at injustice. I felt so sad after the news that Trump was to be president because I have many dear friends who are suffering a deep and genuine grieving at this turn of events and who fear for themselves and their children. And I also believe that there is no one who is not going to impacted by this – in Australia, as well as America, and in fact all of the world. His presidency is a harbinger of dark times.
It’s natural to feel these strong emotions, and indeed you can use these emotions as an object of meditation: when you feel angry, feel it with your whole body, feel where in your body that anger expresses itself, explore that part of your body with careful attention and mindfulness. You don’t have to berate yourself for having strong reactions to everyday life events, but it is important to use those feelings as a focal point for your attention. Ask yourself, what is happening inside me when I feel this anger? This shift in awareness is enough in itself to also dissipate the intensity of the emotion.
But after the rant, there has to be a conscious working towards collective healing. I have always felt secure and safe, ensconced in my little cocoon of isolation here in a beautiful corner of the planet, surrounded by my birds and trees and Kuan Yin blessings; and yet, I cannot ignore the burning heat of the negative energy of the anger and fear that is now corroding the peace of the people I care about and love. It is up to you and I to make a commitment to keep practicing opening our hearts because the world is suffering and our genuine, unconditional love is the only balm for our own grief and pain and it is the only antidote to hatred.
The events surrounding Trump’s election have deeply rocked me and I can no longer be complacent. I am now definitely out of retirement and I am available for spiritual counselling if you need support or guidance for your own spiritual practice. You can make an arrangement to visit me at Wabi’an or have an appointment via Skype. Let’s work together to heal all sentient beings ❤
Meditation: Breathe in beauty; breathe out gratitude
Take a moment to look around you and allow your eye to settle on something that strikes you as beautiful – the view out the window, the way the light glances off a surface, your own reflection in the computer monitor. Feel that beauty with your body, breathe it in. How wonderful it is to be touched by beauty – realising that something is beautiful fills our hearts with a deep emotion that includes peace, happiness, calm, connection, and gratitude. Feel a sense of gratitude for being blessed with the presence of beauty and, as you breathe out, feel your body respond to that gratitude in a gentle sigh. Breathe in beauty; breathe out gratitude
What are the blessings in your life – yes, count them 🙂 And with each blessing remembered, breathe out gratitude. After a short while, your whole body will be feeling a gentle soft tenderness that is simply ‘gratitude’ without an object. Rest a while in “being gratitude”. Breathe in beauty; breathe out gratitude
Gratitude is a blossoming flower of spiritual practice. When we feel gratitude, our hearts open up like a flower opens in the nurturing warmth of the sun and we are no longer isolated and alone – there is a profound recognition of connection with another person, a recognition of our interdependent relationship with something and everything that is beyond our narrow framework that defines “me”.
This is the key lesson I have gained from my own spiritual practice, and “being gratitude” was the central focus of my training in preparation for the Womb World initiation given by the Dalai Lama in Japan in April. I have tried a number of times now to write about some of the intense realisations that I experienced during that trip, but each time I have not been able to capture the essence of those experiences in words. I think it will require a book! So many small steps along the path, since I began practicing in the Buddhist way twenty-five years ago after my bout of cancer, which seemed to culminate in a profound moment of understanding and recognition of the blessing that is simply being alive. This recognition released a flood of gratitude to all the people who have helped me in my life, and all my ancestors’ labours that led up to the point of my own existence, and all the people, animals, plants, wind, sunshine, earth…all the entire cosmos somehow working together so that I might live. How profoundly humbling!
Fishes in Warrungup Spring
It has been one hundred now since the Dalai Lama initiated me into the Womb World. During that time I have continued to practice the rituals associated with that initiation, including reciting 10,000 mantras each day. Over this one hundred days I have also continued to offer the prayers that were entrusted to me and yesterday I went down to the sacred Warrungup Spring and made a ritual of reciting the names of petitioners and finally offering up their prayers, which marked the end of that prayer cycle. The sun came out just as I offering the last name and seemed to fill the world with light and blessings.
This active, yang cycle is now complete. Now it is time for me once again to withdraw into a passive, yin cycle that rests, reflects and contemplates. In honouring and nurturing our spiritual lives, it is essential to carefully balance the yang of outward-flowing energy that is active, with equal amounts of yin practice that draws energy inward and is passive and quiet: to rest in gratitude. Therefore, I will not be engaging in my usual public Wabi’an events for the time being. This means there will be no Kuan Yin Day in August. Thank you for your understanding.
Just a reminder that next Friday (18th July) is Kuan Yin Day
Kuan Yin Day is held every month on the 18th to provide a chance for women to get together and talk about their own spiritual journey, to hear stories from other like-minded fellow pilgrims, to share a meal together and spend a couple of relaxing hours in the peace and gentle energy of Wabi’an, a Buddhist chapel nestled in bushland in Bouvard.
The event starts with some chanting by Cate of Kuan Yin sacred texts and prayers, which you’re welcome to join in or just listen to, followed by some quiet time in meditation. Then we have lunch for which everyone brings along a plate of something yummy. Regardless of your own spiritual practice, everyone is welcome to come along and share in this gathering.
Friday, 18th July 11:30am – 2pm (Wabi’an is open at 10:30am if you would like to come earlier for quiet meditation)
8 Bouvard Drive, Bouvard
I look forward to seeing you then ❤