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Going inside

This is a time when one gets really aware of the changing seasons here in the Northern hemisphere, as autumn deepens, the leaves turn gold and start to fall, it gets colder and the nights draw in.

Sometimes to me it can feel a sad time. I think that is an association with the return to school after the summer holidays, especially when I went to a boarding school and thus was away from home. But I think there’s also a sadness with the summer ending more generally, things coming to an end. After all, the fruit is ripening, food is stored, and we prepare for the coming winter. The seemingly relaxed time of being out in the open, here in the UK is replaced by being inside, wrapped up against the cold outside.

More recently, I’ve come to welcome the approach of autumn and winter as a time of drawing inside in the spiritual sense. As the nights are longer, so the house is darker and it feels more like it is a very good time to draw the senses inward. So, rather than a defensive shutting down, I like to think of attending to the deeper recesses of the mind, the stillness that dwells inside. Just as nature encloses itself and hibernates.

It’s a very good time to meditate. So, as it gets dark at the end of the working day, or before the working day starts as it gets light, here is a great place to be still. At the end of the day, the energy is dropping downward, or before sunrise it’s about to get going. These are still points. Meditation is particularly good to do just at the end of the night, in the last hour before dawn, as the energetic cycle has reached a still point. So it’s more practicable now!

Try it. Get up early (“My God, must I do that!!!?”), when it is dark. Maybe have some water or tea, stretch, do some yoga poses if you do yoga, or some tai chi. Now, wide awake, you can light a candle in your meditation space if you have one. Settle down and, as you take some deeper breaths to start your meditation, really become attentive of the darkness and the stillness of the last part of the night, knowing it is about to start getting light. Feel the stillness of nature. Get very much into the present moment with the stillness. Hear the stillness, letting go of attachment to sounds. See the blackness around the light of your candle. And take that stillness inside with your in-breath. Become aware of your inner stillness. Now feel, hear or imagine your inner stillness. And rest your awareness there, as you meditate.

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Expectation of good things to come

Right now, I’m sitting in “Costa Coffee” in the old market town of Devizes in Wiltshire, UK. People are coming in with their families or friends and there’s the sort of talk that sounds like people are catching up with one another. I like writing here because I find the buzz stimulating – and I like the coffee! Devizes at this time actually feels like a market town, even though this function of rural towns has been in decline. People are coming in to town to stock up for Christmas, because here in the UK we really go for Christmas. It’s a real feast and can go on for days – I remember as a child eating four Christmas dinners with different members of my family. So Devizes at the moment is really busy.

There’s an excited air of expectation. For me, Christmas has had a mix of the material and the spiritual. There was, as a child, the expectation of presents! What goodies would I get? Of course as I got older and wiser, I’d probably had a peep in a cupboard while my parents were out to see what was coming, and so probably spoiled the expectation a bit. Then there was the feasting and the meeting up with family members, with lots of warmth and laughter. It seemed very dark and mysterious, partly because the house was lit differently with Christmas lights and decorations and the main lights turned down to emphasise them.

I was brought up an atheist, or at least that was my father’s position, having himself had Catholicism beaten into him by a convert father, probably literally, and monks at his Catholic boarding school. My mother was more ambivalent. However there were other influences, partly the media – the 1950’s BBC had a solemn educative role – and partly school, so that I also had, and still have, a mystical expectation. I never took to religion; after various flirtations I eventually decided that I didn’t “do” religion but certainly “do” spirituality. But the cultural tradition of Christianity that I grew up in has a pervasive influence across the population, overlapping historical influences of an official religion – we still have a state church, the Church of England. It is perhaps hard to escape both the current experience, eg, Christmas carols, images plastered all over the place, Christmas cards with religious imagery, and the experience of times past, of memory.

The Christian teaching is that the mother of Christ travelled to Bethlehem and there in a manger gave birth to a child whom his followers later hailed as the son of God. Whatever you may think of both the story and the underlying doctrine, the emotional power of the story on our consciousness is immensely powerful. Do you feel it? It certainly affects me as I write these words. As we approach the Christian feast day of Christmas, there is more than just the material expectation of festivity, gathering, friendliness and warmth of contact. There is also the expectation of the anniversary of a birth, which historically and culturally has had immense significance for huge numbers of people. For as long as I can remember, that sense of expectation of a coming event of mystical significance has lain at the back of my awareness, enough to give the days leading up to Christmas the background sense of being hallowed.

Of course, you don’t have to buy into any doctrine or belief system in order to have a few days be hallowed. All days can be hallowed, and treated reverentially. But while the collective energy of people builds in expectation, for those of us who like to tune into the deeper significance of things and ourselves, this is a great time to be aware, to sense the atmosphere of celebration, to celebrate, to connect with joyousness and to allow ourselves to feel joyous. I believe that joyousness is part of our natural state. So, it is a great time, as I said in an earlier posting, to go within and meditate.

Also, today is Winter Solstice day and, for some reason, it’s very calm here, right at the sun’s lowest point on the horizon. Appropriately it’s been very frosty, with deep mists and a faint sun later in the day. And so there is another reason that I strongly recommend to those of you who meditate to take some time today to do just that, to connect with people’s energy and also to tune in to the earth’s energy. We’re following the energy down to its still resting point, very much as one does in meditation, pausing between breaths, pausing in the flow of thoughts, stilling ourselves for some moments. If “tuning in” doesn’t mean anything to you, just say to yourself that you are connecting to the earth’s energy and have the intention that that is what is happening. Then be present to the moment. Let thought go, and just have the sense that you are looking at the present, “witnessing” it, or being with the present, or being attentive to the present. It’s like everything goes into suspense and all there is is awareness.

And, if you’ve got a lot of shopping to do, and journeys to make, and people to see, you can of course do that too. Just take your awareness with you – that’s one great benefit of meditation – with the added ingredient of joyousness.

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Calming the mind

Those of you living in the Northern Hemisphere will by now be really noticing the evenings drawing in, daylight hours getting shorter, the temperature falling, night-time frosts, morning mists, the leaves turning golden brown and falling too. This is a time when nature starts to draw within and close down while it regenerates itself. It’s very good time to meditate. But we humans tear around in a great hurry, being very busy. So let’s give some time to quietening the mind and going within.

At one time this blog had “meditations” in the title and you might have wondered what meditation actually had to do with it since much of it seems to be about thinking. Yet for me one beauty of meditation is that it is a time when I can notice my mental activity as a witness and not be attached to it, as I allow myself to centre myself in a state of inner calmness. While I have a clear spiritual objective in my meditations, I am very aware that I am also managing my mind. And I do have a very busy mind – bit like all those busy people. Meditation is a way of reminding me that there is more to me and my life that all this busy activity.

For me, my process is to settle into meditation, to breathe deeply initially, to relax and tune through my body releasing tensions and noticing what’s there for me – what my body is telling me – how I’m feeling. Then, as I become stiller I notice my mental activity. Sometimes I’m slow to do that, being absorbed in whatever in life is currently absorbing me. At some point I become aware of my mind. Thus I become detached from it, noticing it as a witness to my mind. “I am not just my mind, I am more than just my mind”. I might at this point repeat my mantra, although I think a lot of meditators focus on their breathing. I let go of my thinking, and although it may carry on with its meanderings, it’s more in the background, I’m not absorbed in it, caught up in it.

Now, for me this is great training in the use of the mind in everyday living. Another of the beauties of meditation is that what one learns in meditation, one applies in life. It takes time and regular meditation to discover that but I think it is true. Here, detaching myself from my mental activity, letting go, is a crucial skill. It is this way that I have learned to drop what is going on for me that isn’t serving me. Yes, literally drop it. I might be caught up in some pointless internal dialogue and I become aware of it and choose to let go, to drop it. Similarly it is possible to do that with some feeling or some internal drama, although more about that next time.

It’s very simple. Going within, stilling the mind, letting go, re-focusing on what is worthwhile, following the vision, getting back on track with what life is really about. Try it. It’s a practice, so you’ll need to persevere. Let me know how you get on, maybe by posting a comment.