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Making the most of it

bees on comb

 

Here in the uplands of the Northumberland National Park, the heather is flowering at its peak. The fells have taken on their full stain of purple, great pools of deep colour, like cloud shadow passing over the landscape. In the recent fine weather, I took some moments to watch our bees flying at full capacity, to-ing and fro-ing from the heather on the fells above our house. Our six hives are situated at the edge of deciduous woodland, facing south and to the moorland  above. A shepherds hut overlooks the row of hives, which also serves as a kind of observation hide, from which I can closely observe the bees’ activity throughout the year. But on this glorious hot afternoon, I have pulled a bench out in front of the hut, so I’m sitting directly behind rank of the hives at a short distance, getting as close as I can, looking out over hives to the meadow, a sea of tall, moving grasses.

There is something deeply thrilling about watching the bees, as they are today, at the height of their activity. From deep within the hive, a huge swelling hum resonates – the intense sound of thousands of honey bees active on the combs and frames ranked side by side within the boxes, in a throng of concentrated activity. In this afternoon heat, the air in front of the hives is a kaleidoscope of flight paths, the zig-zagging of bees in and out of the hives to and from their various trajectories on the heather and meadow flowers.  The colonies are united in purpose and working to full capacity while the weather conditions permit.

Heather is the bees final and essential crop before winter and there is a urgency in their activity, to build vital stores while they can. The flowering period of heather is short and weather dependent. When the bees are working on the heather, it is best to leave them uninterrupted to get on with it. Even the most mild- natured bees get especially irritable and agitated if the hives are entered for any bee-keeping procedures during this vital period. It is not wise to thwart the bees unnecessarily. Today, in the warm, late afternoon sunshine,  they are focussed and unfussed by my presence sitting quietly behind their ranks. An occasional bee buzzes lazily before me, checking me out, but I am completely safe sitting here, facing outwards behind them.

It is inspiring to be so close to this hub of purposeful activity on this late summer’s afternoon, each bee contributing to the health and well-being of the hives, each flight an expression of their united intention, serving the colony as a whole. Today the cohesive organisation of these communities is manifesting  in its maximum glory. At the peak of their activity, the fullest potential of the colonies is being actualised from within to without and there is a sense  of complete harmony witnessing this climax of their productive endeavour. The air hangs with the scent of honey, gold bullion locked up in the vaults of the hives.

Watching the bees, I  am fascinated and  humbled by the wisdom of their  levels of social co-operation and organisation, their ability to align so completely  with the prevailing weather conditions, their absolute presence and focus in the moment, drawing from nature what is there to be drawn upon, each bee following its own flight path and completed journey to and from the hive, over and over, as long as the weather and flying conditions hold.

I reflect that as humans, the gift of mindful awareness similarly has an agency of purpose, and allows us to actualise our fullest potential as human beings, bringing us conscious connection with the world we inhabit and are part of , the breathing in of experience through the senses and the mind’s clear mirror. With mindful awareness we engage with the world responsively and with choice, opening to the limitless possibilities of life’s unfolding, in a million consciously lived moments, like the million flights of the honey bees to the heather this hot August afternoon, making the most of it, and returning with gold.

Gwennie Fraser lives in Northumberland National Park and teaches mindfulness in North-East England, including Northumberland and Newcastle upon Tyne.

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness course in central Newcastle upon Tyne

The next 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course will be commencing on 26th April on Tuesday evenings  from 6.30 to 8.30pm at the Mercure Newcastle County Hotel on Neville St, Newcastle upon Tyne, immediately opposite central Station. Booking is now open and full course and booking information can be found on the courses page of this website.

The 8 week course offers a unique opportunity to develop a strong personal foundation of mindfulness practice in everyday life. At times of stress we can feel overwhelmed and react in ways that are automatic and reinforce unhelpful patterns, leaving us feeling stuck. Bringing awareness and acceptance to our immediate experience can help us to notice stress developing, and to respond skilfully. The aim of this course is to learn new ways of handling challenging physical sensations, emotions, moods and life situations by helping us to access our own powerful inner resources, developing greater awareness, understanding and resilience.

Mindfulness practice can support us in moving from reactivity and being caught up in trying to fix or solve our difficulties, to responding to life’s challenges with greater wisdom, skill, kindness and self-care. By being present in more of our moments, we can open to more skilful responses, choices and possibilities and enrich our experience of life, reconnecting with ourselves so that we can  live more fully and clearly.

The course is completely secular and takes place in the supportive learning environment of a group, with time within sessions to share and  reflect on individual experiences of practice.No previous meditation experience is required.  Participants are encouraged to commit to a daily home practice sessions which is supported by guided practices on CDs. The cost of the course includes a full set of CDs with guided practices for use at home, course handbook, in between session practice support from your teacher if required, and the opportunity to deepen and integrate learning from the course with a day of mindfulness practice after week 7, on Sunday 19th June  at Newton and Bywell Community Hall, Stocksfield (15 miles from Newcastle).

Following the course, participants are offered the opportunity to attend monthly practice support sessions, further days of retreat and an annual residential retreat in rural Northumberland.

“Anyone can learn mindfulness. It’s simple, you can practise it anywhere, and the results can be life-changing.”

Be Mindful ( www.bemindful.co.uk)

Revisiting autopilot

In our last “Staying Mindful” practice support meeting last week, we reflected  a little on working with distraction and how we can go about renewing an interest in habitual patterns of mind and activity where we have an ongoing tendency to drift out of the present moment. At the start of an 8 week course, we begin with recognising the difference between  autopilot and mindful awareness, and what is revealed to us when we begin to intentionally bring mindful attention to our experience.

We’re all on a continuum between distraction and awareness, and the practice of mindfulness helps us to lean further towards a fuller attentiveness in our lives, and also towards  being  more readily able to recognise when and how we get caught up in habitual and preferential mind states, in the many forms this can take.

As practice becomes more established and embedded in our lives,  we develop our capacity for awareness and get used to the renewed effort, patience and intention that is required to bring ourselves back to the  present moment when we have drifted away, both in our formal practice and everyday life. But as  the process evolves over time, how can we maintain a curious, yet gentle interest in  continuing to see  how our well worn habits and patterns play themselves out? How do we open up to working with the thoughts and emotions that come round and round again instead of switching off?  How do we remain alive to the impulses and tendencies of liking , not liking and finding downright good old boring, that so readily hook us out of where we are  and that block or obscure  our ability to  experience the full vitality of life in any given moment? Where do we go when we are not here? How do we drift? What habitually hooks us out?

When we start training the mind through the small steps of practice, we embark on a journey that  requires  kindness and honesty as we begin to see ourselves and our neurotic, human patterns  more clearly. We’re such creatures of habit, that even our practice can become routine and familiar, and sometimes a bit dulled and lacking in focus at the edges. It can be helpful to refresh practice from time to time by renewing an interest in where  the camera lens habitually goes fuzzy in our lives, where  we tend to  zone out from and drift off to, the places where we get habitually hooked and entangled. Our whole life becomes an arena for wonderful and rich learning through becoming more aware of the geography of habit; the places, people, situations, thoughts, feelings, activities, things we like and  avoid, and are indifferent to.  By waking up to the force of habit, we reclaim  the vitality and colour of life from the dead space of unawareness and reel more of our moments in.

So perhaps, in daily life, we can begin to notice again, how much we still drift in to the grey zone of autopilot, and perk up and notice what it is actually like. Does it feel like a sort of inert dullness or does it take the form of busy, multi-tasking whizziness? Where do we go when our minds drift? Is it to planning or re-hashing the events of the day, or drifting towards a dreamy wanting, or analysing how things could be different? Do we surround ourselves in  subtle entangling veils of “if”, “but”, “when”, “could”and “should” and “can’t”? Do we lean forwards to the future, or lean back to the past? Are there strong areas of habit we exercise without questioning  in our daily life? When do we check email? How and where do we have our lunch? Where do we sit? What do we snack on? What do we google? What do we do if we get a free moment and nothing is happening?

Our habits are part of us and it is through our habits and learning to see them more clearly, that mindful awareness offers us different possibilities. We need to see them, to work with them.  We’re in partnership with them, whether we like them or not. But if we can begin to see the pieces of the jigsaw a bit more clearly, the picture begins to open up to something a bit more wider, spacious, giving and flexible. What we practice grows stronger. We can become part of something bigger,  less constrained and predictable. New pathways open up through the woods, small little trails leading between the trees that we haven’t been down before, but which perhaps take us somewhere new.

On BBC Winter Watch recently, I was fascinated to see how they tracked the flight patterns of a golden eagle and a sea eagle by attaching cameras and GPS technology to them, which, by some miracle, were then  linked up to computers on the ground. Sure enough, as each eagle climbed the thermals,  soaring in to the sky above the Cairngorms, squiggly patterns began to appear on the tablet screens of the researchers on the ground. “Look at those tight spirals!” they exclaimed .”Wow – she’s going at 46mph!” The information was all there in patterns and numbers  and data appearing on the screens, constellating in facts, figures and diagrams, moment by moment.

But what I found incredible was the totally new experience of being able to see the world from the eagle’s point of view as it flew – the way the mountains tipped and the sky veered and whole valleys and rivers flew like ribbons in some enormous overview rushing underneath its soaring wings, tilting, adjusting with the detailed movements of its body and head, which you could just see below the positioned camera, pointing to the hugeness of the world below its crown of chocolate-layered feathers.

Afterwards, I reflected how in a parallel way, through mindfulness practice, we’re leaving the confines of pattern and construct behind, the gathered data and predictability of our lives,  and opening to the spaces where limitless possibilities, viewpoints, and perspectives exist, that perhaps we never knew could be possible. Perhaps, just by doing something differently, we can consciously participate in creative change, rising above the drift of our lives with renewed clarity and vision. We don’t have to be down there, glued to the graphs on the  computer, we can be up there with the eagle experiencing the sky.

 

Caring Connection

The recent horrific stream of events in Paris and Lebanon  has brought us face to face with unimagineable brutality and its consequences. It seems as if this has brought a heightened awareness of both terrible human suffering in its many shocking and tragic forms, but also of human kindness  from countless strangers who were prepared to support victims of the bombings in the street, opening their doors, donating blood, comforting, and even shielding others in the face of attack. And kindness in the form of  world-wide gestures of caring connection and solidarity, the many impromptu  street gatherings and vigils, and city lights.  An image which has particularly stayed with me is the photograph of the lights from thousands of mobile phones held up in the darkness in a spontaneous vigil that took place in Trafalgar Square. Somebody had taken care to initiate the gathering through social media, and thousands responded. The light of each phone represented someone who had cared  enough to make the decision to travel to central London and attend. Collectively, they lit up the whole square with a sea of lights and a shared expression of caring humanity; a conscious wish to connect.

These simple gestures of caring connection bring meaning and hope when not much else makes sense in the midst such  of atrocity. They arise from a basic, innate human capacity for compassion, and a wish for others to be free of suffering. In the wake of these recent atrocities, the countless stories of courage, kindness, caring and empathy that have emerged,  have emphasised the power of caring connection to sustain and nurture core human values in the face of despair and unimagineable suffering. In the questioning that inevitably follows events such as these, the mixture of horror and kindness has caused me to reflect deeply again  on the value of practice,  and how the many simple moments of caring connection that we make in relation to our own experience and  and in relation to others,  resonanates immeasurably through the sphere of our individual lives. Each moment of awareness flexes the muscle of mindfulness and compassion and builds  an inner strength to deal more effectively  with our own difficulties  and to be more able to support others. These times call us to stay connected and to make conscious caring connection, rather than falling into disconnection, or  simply feeling overwhelmed and powerless.

In last Thursday’s Staying Mindful  monthly practice group meeting, held at the County Hotel, Neville Street, Newcastle upon Tyne,  we practised and  reflected together on  how our intention and motivation to practice helps us to sustain caring connection, in ways that make a difference to ourselves and others in our daily lives. It felt helpful to give space for this reflection at a time when there is so much concious unease, fear and uncertainty. Wholesome qualities of mind are developed whenever we welcome our experience with kind attention and can remain open. Each drop makes  a difference in the accumulative  flow of our  conscious lives, and brings something to the shared collective. We start with just this; conscious, caring conection in the middle of whatever is going on.   I was reminded of a beautiful passage by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, in which she talks about the value of practice:

This is why we practice meditation—so that we can treat ourselves more compassionately; improve our relationships with friends, family, and community; live lives of greater connection; and, even in the face of challenges, stay in touch with what we really care about so we can act in ways that are consistent with our values.”

(from “Real Happiness: the Power of Meditation”, 2010).

We can learn to trust the secure holding of being tenderly and mindfully present, no matter where we are, whatever is going on in our experience.  What we practice grows stronger and influences life around us in simple and meaningful ways. Perhaps, in these troubled times, our motivation and intention to practice can be strengthened, and our practice be of even greater value to ourselves and others.