It is an ironic fact of modern life that as nature slows down to its most dormant point, with the days shortening and dwindling hours of daylight, that human activity is on a rising surge of activity in the lead up to Christmas. I was aware of this contrast driving down from Bellingham in Northumberland National Park towards Hexham one afternoon recently, noticing the starkness of all the winter trees against a marbled winter sky, and the light already sinking into the deepening shadows and recesses of the landscape.
It is a time of year when everything is thrown up in vivid contrast. The Metro Centre is the largest shopping centre in the UK and yet only a few miles away, Newcastle upon Tyne’s West End food bank is the largest in the UK, and where only this week, the demand for Christmas dinners doubled on one of the days it was being served. I found that Hexham was jammed with traffic tailbacks, and there were long queues in all the shops and the carpark exits were in gridlock. So how do we practice mindfulness in a world that is hurrying nowhere, and how can we can access it in the headlong Christmas rush? How do we balance all the activity with what matters most?
The truth is that awareness is a natural part of us, with us, wherever we are, at any place and at any time. So it is right there in the traffic and supermarket queues that we can lean in with awareness to the feelings and thoughts spinning within us, the sounds of cars and voices and jingle music, the bright lights, the swish of the windscreen wipers, the feel of the car seat and the pedals, edging forward in the traffic queue, acknowledging the faint smile as someone lets us out of a side lane into the main line of cars heading for the exit. Why not allow a few moments to slow down, connect, find the ground in the moment exactly as it is, as things are slowed down already, and much as we may wish otherwise, there is nothing to do in this moment, nowhere we can rush to, as the rushing has already been incapacitated by the sheer volume of traffic, and everyone else is in the same boat, waiting to get home, heading for the same exit? The opportunity to access spacious awareness isn’t somewhere at the end of a shopping list, it is right here, leaning into the moment with the rain sluicing across the windscreen, the intermittent thud of the wipers, and the huddled figures dodging between the cars to cross the road, picked out in the headlights from the oncoming traffic. We easily forget when inconvenienced, that practising with inconvenience is the heart of the practice in that moment, and that the qualities of patience, trust, kindness, non – striving are being excercised right there at the driving wheel in the middle of the pre-Christmas chaos. And so ironically again, in the middle of a car park jammed with stationary traffic, some felt moments of quiet and peaceful breathing as the car inches forward in first gear, and a there is a sense of wider and shared connection with the other drivers also going nowhere.
It is as well to remember that Christmas is not a great time for everyone moving in that slow queue – there will be hidden sadnesses, isolation, sickness amongst family and friends, recent loss, financial worry, job insecurity, not to mention a shared fear for the world rising in moments of reflection as scenes from Aleppo surface in the mind from last night’s news. And it is often in the most unexpected, yet simple moments, that some sense of inner peace and meaningful connection is experienced, in those bare, open moments of allowing things to fully be just the way they are, the way things have constellated in to the particular human mosaic of circumstances in the car park on this particular afternoon, just as, eventually, driving out in to the rural dark, the trees are imprinted in detail in the indigo light of a fading, evening sky: each trunk, limb, branch, and twig etched in its own precise, and unique outline. Manifesting in spaciousness, just as everything arises in awareness itself.