Sarah Beth Hunt

writer on a journey in search of oracles, alchemists and hidden doors to wisdom

Magic comes in small packages and arrives at 4pm on Tuesday…

May 9, 2016

A strange thing happened to me this past week.  A package arrived at my house which contained a very small but very heavy little box.  The mailman had brought it late in the afternoon, so I found myself tugging at the vast amounts of tape impatiently while most of my attention was actually on my two boys who were shouting and running around the house hitting each other with paper ‘lightsavers’ (this is called ‘play’ apparently).

Then suddenly out of the box tumbled this crystal.


And it felt like Time stopped and for a moment everything around me fell away.

There was no note to say who this present was from, but my first thought was of my grandmother who had these same crystals hanging all over her house because she loved to throw rainbows on the walls.  My best friend does the same with her two boys who chase the illusive rainbows across the floor trying to capture them in their tiny hands.

My grandmother is one of the biggest inspirations of my life.  If there is anyone I know who has become immensely wise and kind and deeply compassionate through Life, it is her.  And for that brief moment, it felt like I held a piece of her in my hand, in that beautiful, clear cut crystal.  And I really felt how much I missed her…in a deep hidden place in my heart.

So I held that crystal in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, my boys hurling like the winds of a hurricane around me, and stood still like the eye of that storm.  And I felt so many things, all at once, that tears sprang to my eyes.

My grandmother and me

 

My grandma is now 88 years old, and until a year ago was still doing her own gardening in south Florida and volunteering several times a week at the local hospice charity shop.  Last year she had a fall and broke her hip, and between that and just the inevitabilities of life, she has become quieter.  She is moving into the end of her life.

We are so separated from the realities of life.  Of death.  Of aging.  We surround ourselves with people our own age, and rarely find ourselves in multi-generational groups, perhaps apart from a rare family gathering.  This would not have been our experience even a hundred years ago, I think.

We would have understood the deep pain and joy of birth, the long complex road of grief and the many shades of love.

We would have been familiar with what Time and Age does the the body…what our own future journey might look like if we are fortunate enough to grow old.

These are the deep things.

They are deeply human things.  And they connect us to all people, in all times and places and circumstances.

I live far away now, across an ocean from my grandmother and the rest of my family.  But I think another bit of wisdom my grandmother has taught me, is how little this matters when there is deep love and unconditional acceptance.

I have grown up in a close family – my mother’s sisters have been like second mothers to me, many of my cousins like brothers and sisters – with all the joy and drama and enduring love and getting into each other’s business that comes with that.  But there is something different about the way I feel close to my grandmother.  It is quiet.  And it is deep.  It is not caught up in the details of what I am doing each week, or what she’s doing, or what we think about this or that.  It just IS.  I feel a deep trust from her that is stronger even than the trust and faith I have in myself.  She is like a rock in her love.  Like a mountain.  Unshakeable.

She taught me what it means to ‘love like Christ’ – to refrain from judgement and each day try to accept people as they are.

She taught me that I have the power to determine my own happiness.  “Attitude, attitude, attitude, Sarah,” should would always tell me with her soft, West Virginian southern-ness.  “Choices, choices, choice…”

The funny thing was, I found out a few days later that the crystal in the little box was actually from my best friend.  And that also made me so happy, because these little rainbows are something I also share with her and her children.  And so I have something now that will always remind me of two women in my life who have shared their magic and their life wisdom.


So here’s to letting the magic in…

Why we should embrace our inner Wildness

April 19, 2016

Why should I care about Wildness? I ask myself.  I am not someone who feels particularly that ‘call of the wild’.  I like my town life, with its coffee shops and paved garden paths and the community of people I run into constantly on the streets.  I do not yearn to live in some rugged wilderness, beautiful though it may be.

So what does Wildness have to offer me?

“Rewilding is not going backwards, to live in the woods…It’s reconnecting to that wildness dormant inside of you,” says Lucy Purdy in her article on Rewilding Human Nature.

The idea of ‘Wildness’ brings with it fierce imagery, frightening emotions.  Uncontrollable power.  Destructive potential. Loneliness.  Survival.  And death.  These are what come to me when first the word ‘Wild’ is spoken.


And yet in my experience, it is on walks through the woods and in ‘the wild’ that all the roles and faces and identities I carry, all my expectations of others and myself, most easily fall away.  It is often in ‘the wild’ that I am allowed, briefly, to simply be myself.

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It is in those moments when I have stared up at the night sky, my face turning away from the heat and smoke of a blazing fire, and felt the stillness and space that I recognise also in myself.

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This is a kind of ‘quiet’ wildness that feels true and deep and natural to me.

 

There are two stories I read to my children.  One is called Where the Wild Things Are, and recounts the tale of a mischievous and very imaginative boy who is sent to his room as punishment and then watches as his room becomes a jungle, “his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around”.  The boy sets off in a boat to the place where the Wild Things are and, there, meets ferocious looking monsters which he tames with magic.  In the company of the Wild Things, the boy runs and plays, swings from trees and howls at the moon, but eventually he misses home and abandons the Wild Things for his mother’s love and a warm dinner.

 

The other story is called The Last Wild Witch.  This story is different, for here ‘wild’ doesn’t mean monstrous or dangerous, but rather natural and full of playful joy. The Last Wild Witch lives in the forest with the other animals, singing and stirring her magic brew, and “when the wind was out of the West, carrying wildness with it” it blows into the town and into the bedrooms of the children and “some of the wildness would get inside them”.  This wildness leads the children into joyful play (yes, rather than following rules).  It also brings a sense of connection with nature and a wisdom that eventually saves the forest from destruction and the townspeople from themselves.

  

What strikes me about these two children’s books is that they perfectly capture the divide in our understanding of wildness.  While one considers ‘Wildness’ destructive behaviour, which is unable to be contained and must therefore be abandoned, the other incorporates wildness as part of our joyful, interconnected nature.  Wildness as meaning ‘our true nature’ without the artificial constructs, rules, and identities we take on.

I have been reading another book called Women Who Run With the Wolves which reminds me of the other side of ‘wildness’ — keen sensing, playful spirit, great endurance and strength, deep intuition, intense concern with their young and their pack, experience in adapting to changing circumstances, and bravery.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes how we feel a ‘taste of the wild’ in pregnancy and birth, in love for our mates and our families and our community of friends.  We feel it when we grow things in our gardens and when we spend time and care cooking a meal.  We feel it when we are alone, when we gaze out to sea, across mountains or up into the eternal depths of the night sky.

This sense of natural ‘wildness’ connects us to our planet and to our uncomplicated selves.

I started this question about ‘wildness’ for myself, here, and in conversation with Clay Lowe during our weekly Havana Sessions podcast.


But I don’t know yet where it ends.

What is your understanding of what it means to be ‘wild’.  Are there times where you feel a sense of ‘wildness’ in your life? Times when you don’t?

Searching for my intuition

April 9, 2016

I had a great chat this week on Intuition with my friend Clay Lowe for the next Havana Sessions podcast.  (You can listen to our conversation here or below.)

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It was a topic Clay had suggested and turned into a conversation that I am still having with myself days later.  What is intuition? Where do I think it comes from? Is it the same as ‘body wisdom’, or is that something else? Why are we so disconnected from that inner guide?  What can we do to get back in touch with it?  I just love that, when someone brings a question or an idea to you and gives you an unexpected chance to explore how you feel about it.  Anyway, it has occurred to me how far I’ve come with the whole idea of intuition or ‘body wisdom’.  There was definitely a time when I would have dismissed the idea as illogical.  It was certainly not something I could have related to.

As you probably could tell from my previous blog on the Wisdom of Questioning, I have always tended to be sceptical about ideas that seem airy-fairy, wishy-washy, undefinable and unexplainable.

I suppose that’s the thing–many things seem airy-fairy and wishy-washy until you experience them for yourself.  Until you experience the unexplainable.


The main thing that came out of the Havana Sessions podcast for me this week was that the way I have experienced intuition is not what I thought it would be like.  It was not a thought (like: “don’t get on that plane!”).  For me, there have been a very few points where I experienced a strong sense of intuition–once when I was doing a bunch of disparate things (novel writing, yoga teacher training, reading through various topics) and didn’t know where they would lead in terms of ‘career’ but something inside me told me to just keep going and I felt very strongly without any logical reason that at some point in the future things were going to come together and begin to make sense.  Another time I had a distinct sense that something was wrong and I had to do something about it…and as it turned out, I was also right.  These moments of intuition didn’t come as ‘thoughts’ but as a deeper sense of knowing.  They were not usually focused on a minute decision but tended to be more generalised to the bigger directions and decisions in my life.

In my novel The Boatman, it is the character Tomas who must deal with this question of intuition and inner wisdom. Tomas is a boy whose childhood is marked by an unquestioned understanding of his natural inner wisdom.  He also experiences a deep connection to the natural world on the island of his birth.  On the brink of adulthood, however, circumstances challenge this inner knowing and Tomas’s journey is one of the hero searching to regain that inner wisdom and sense of self that he lost.

I think I’ve only begun this conversation about intuition for myself…

What does intuition mean to you? Is it something you’ve experienced and can relate to, or does it feel elusive? 

Come have a listen if you fancy and share your thoughts here or on the podcast comments. Would love some input on this one!

 

Why Questioning is a Wisdom Practice

April 5, 2016


We are a questioning  species, both curious and prone to wonder, but also instinctual problem-solvers.  When a question arises, we immediately begin to look for an answer.  The search for these answers–big and small–have inspire great journeys, across unknown seas, into space, and through the depths of our inner worlds.  You might say it has been Great Questions, more than circumstance or crisis that has led to the greatest Journeys of the hero or heroine.

When we think about the Big Questions of the Universe – Where did we come from? or How did the Universe come to exist? – it is the act of questioning itself that has led to our incredible leaps in knowledge about the world in which we live.  Evolution.  The Big Bang. These theories began as Questions, and despite the enormity of their proposition, these questions were pursued by people who believed they might have answers.

As children, we are infinitely curious.  We marvel and wonder and are not afraid to ask the exact same question again and again–especially if we feel we haven’t found a satisfying answer.  Yet the older we get, the more asking questions costs us.  We are afraid to ask questions and face judgement because ‘we don’t know’.  I was listening to a podcast with Michaelbrent Collings who said something very profound- “We have been taught that asking questions marks us as fools.”  (A friend, Eleanor Brown, has written an inspiring piece on the wisdom of the fool here.)

And perhaps even more fundamentally, we are afraid of asking Questions because  we are afraid of the Answers.  We are afraid to question what we think we know.  We are afraid such answers might shake our understanding of our world that we have built up around us – and whether or not that understanding has brought us happiness or not, it is what we know and it feels safe.

I imagine at a certain point in time, questioning whether the Earth was really flat or whether the Earth was really at the centre of the cosmos was not easy.  And what is even more interesting to me is that, even when these questions were being asked by some (Copernicus or Galileo or Darwin, for instance), even when the answers were known by some, there was still a long time when they were difficult questions to ask.


Still, these are questions about our external world.  Questions of science.  Questions that can be discovered through logic and data collection.  But what about questions of our purpose? The meaning of our life? Are there really Answers to these kind of Big Questions?

I have been wondering this for as long as I can remember. Why? (If you could answer THAT for me, I’d thank you!) These Big Questions hover about me like the yellow butterflies which followed Mauricio Babilonia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, beautiful and tantalising but also slightly unnerving.  For me, asking these questions can feel both incredibly inspiring on some days, and insanely daunting on many others.  Because I don’t HAVE the answers…yet…and so the search for the meaning of my life, the meaning of all life, the force that binds us to each other and the earth, requires a great deal of faith. 

There are many who believe that there are no Answers to these Questions, that life is essentially meaningless, that we are victims of luck or ill-fortune, that there is no greater depth to reality that what we see before us.  There are others who believe there are answers to such great questions of meaning and purpose, but that these answers are unknowable, shrouded in mystery.  For both, the very act of questioning what we know and searching for some deeper meaning in life is a waste of time.

But for me, I believe there is wisdom out there to be had.  And that these bits of wisdom can be used as stepping stones towards an understanding of the deeper meaning of our lives.

I was really inspired recently reading Lama Surya Das (a Jewish New Yorker turned Buddhist) who wrote a little book called The Big Questions.  In it, he suggests that everyone has a Big Question that drives them and which they yearn to answer.  Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens when I die? How can I lead a fulfilling life? What is courage? What is justice?  For himself, Lama Surya Das says, “my vital basic core question or issue is, Why am I so rarely if ever, satisfied, content or fulfilled, and if so, never for very long?” For the Buddha, it was: Is the basic discontentment and suffering we experience in life avoidable, and if so how? By asking this question and then setting off in the hope of finding an ‘answer’ or ‘understanding’, the Buddha eventually found what he was looking for–now articulated as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path.

I think there is another reason we often doubt the possibility of Answering such big life Questions (which then discourages us from allowing even these questions to exist in our lives).  And that is that we live in a world which champions science and logic above all things.  We are so used to trying to ‘measure’ everything, we are so trained to want bite-size externally provable pieces of knowledge, that we have forgotten that there are other ways of knowing.  And there are other kinds of answers.  Because of course the Answer to the meaning of your life can’t be told to you.  It can’t be written down or measured or proven.  It can only be Understood, Experienced.  I love the word ‘wisdom’ because it embraces this other kind of knowing…the kind that comes from experience, that becomes part of you deep down in your bones.

So maybe there aren’t Answers to many of the Big Questions we have about our lives…maybe we need a different word. Maybe in order to journey forth, we should know we are searching for Understandings. For Wisdom.

So now I’m asking–what Big Question sits at the back of your mind? What Questions is life asking you?  Because as Surya Das says,

“the more we seek to solve these mysteries, the more intelligently and deeply we live.”

What I know so far…

March 22, 2016

A few weeks ago a friend asked me whether the bigger questions we have about our lives have answers or whether these kind of questions simply lead to more questions…  This was part of a conversation about my recent novel ‘The Boatman’ which explores these ideas, but it made me stop and ask myself: What kind of ‘answers’ have I found? What do I ‘know’ so far?

I’ve gotten very good at asking these kind of questions–about Meaning and Purpose and What’s-It-All-For.  But after 3 1/2 decades on this earth and my years practicing yoga and meditation, do I have anything that would count as an ‘Answer’?

  
So I sat down with a cup of coffee and I am sitting down with you.  This is what I know so far…

  
I know that sometimes at night when I go to check on my children before I head to bed, a thought comes to me like the breath of a ghost and I become very still.  In these moments, I feel like I am peering through a veil of Time, into a moment that will never exist again… A moment when both my children are little and healthy and happy and asleep in their beds. I watch them sleeping.  Breathing.  With their perfect skin and their perfect little selves.  But in these moments the Veil of Time trembles, and it feels like I can see them grow old, I can feel the pain that will inevitably touch their lives if we move from this frozen moment.  I can see their perfect selves wrapped in the bodies of old men, and sometimes I have to stop myself from crying because, I know I will not be there to take care of them then.  And I know that is the best case scenerio.

These moments when Time seems to waver like the shimmering edges of a bubble, I am very still because I know the deepest truth…it is only Time that keeps these things at bay.  And I am still because I am overwhelmed by the simultaneous beauty and pain of Life.

I know that we are all born beautiful beings, full of love and creative potential.

I know that no matter what we achieve or how we live, we will all eventually die.

  
I also know that the goalposts for what will make me happy are always moving.  The things I really really want–stuff like new boots or a shiny car or a delicious cup of coffee and a croissant, but also goals like gaining a degree or publishing my novel or getting that new job–also won’t keep me happy forever.  These things will make me feel elated for a period of time but ultimately the novelty will wear off and I will want something else (another cup of coffee!).  This has happened with everything I have ever bought or earned or won, so I assume this will continue to be the case in the future.

I look back at all the stuff I’ve earned, especially the things I achieved that I really really wanted to achieve.  Most recently it’s been publishing my novel, which I am still totally buzzing about.  But before that I did a 3 year yoga teacher training course.  Before that I finished my Ph.D.  These were life dreams of mine.  But even on achieving them, I’m not ultimately and permanently happy now.  I remember walking with a great friend of mine through the backstreets of London, listening to her talk about her work in environmental conservation.  At university together,  it had been her dream to work in a big conservation organisation, and now she had achieved it.  But, she explained, it wasn’t everything she had thought it would be.  And although I have no way of knowing what her personal experience of that was, the thing I took away from that conversation was this thudding, slam-in-your-face realisation that you could achieve your dream and it still wouldn’t be enough.

And that doesn’t mean these things weren’t worth doing!  Of course they were AMAZING things to do, and really important achievements.  But what I know is this, they weren’t ultimately satisfying.  We hold these ‘dreams’ up in our minds as the thing that will give our lives Meaning.  But while they may be an important part of creating meaning in our lives, they aren’t the whole answer.

I know that the things I think I want will always keep changing.

I know that the things we think will make us happy don’t fulfill that promise in any permanent way.

  
I look at the window of this coffee shop and see the world.  The wind blows with things I can’t control.  Other people’s actions and decisions which will affect my life.  Kindnesses and cruelties that will change how I feel inside.  Weather.  Disease.  Accidents.  There is so much of life that is beyond us, and yet affects us greatly.  A lot of our energy goes into trying to control these ‘other’ factors in our lives, trying to get other people to do the things we want them to do, or trying to prepare ourselves for ‘potential’ situations.  But although so many aspects contribute to our current state of happiness–our health, for one, but also our relationships with the people around us and a thousand unnameable factors–and although we can influence these things by our own actions, I know ultimately there are so many things I have no control over.

I know things will happen to me that I cannot control.

  
This all might seem really depressing but to me, these great truths about life have a secret ‘answer’ hidden under and beneath and behind them.

There is a story from the Native American tradition–in order to protect your tender feet, you can either try to cover the whole earth in leather mats, or you can simply cover the soles of your own feet.  

In this journey of life, we can continue to try to control everything and everyone around us…or we can learn to control our own minds.  We can either look outside for meaning and happiness, or we can search within.

I am only scratching the surface of that thing I might call ‘the answer’, the thing I think of as real Wisdom.  But what I know so far and what I know for sure is this…the journey to the answers is Inside.

What Stories can teach us that ‘facts’ never can

March 17, 2016

 

“Human beings have always been myth makers…from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.” (Karen Armstrong A Short History of Myth)

Stories can be magical things.  They can transport us to other times and places.  They can send us on adventures, transform us into heroes, into villains, allow us to live other lives.


Sometimes the power of a story is that is shows us what it is like to be someone else.  What it feels like to live in another’s skin and under very different circumstances.  Stories like The Help by Kathyrn Stockett show us the emotional experiences of black women who raised white babies in the American South during the 1950s.  Stories like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana reveal the experiences of Nigerians living abroad in the USA and UK, and what it is like to return to Nigeria with those experiences of the ‘west’.

But other times the power of a story is that it reveals something about ourselves.  Something hidden that we hadn’t realised before.  Stories that tell of the hero or heroine’s journey and reflect the path we are all on to overcome adversities and grow in ourselves.  Stories that explore our human predicament and reflect our most basic questions — where have we come from? Where are we going?  Who are we in our heart of hearts, in our deeper self?  How can we explain those magical moments that transport us from our ordinary concerns and show us a world that is expansive and sublime?

This is the most powerful role of stories.

And this is, of course, what stories can do that nothing else can.  In a world reliant on ‘facts’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘proof’, stories operate on a different plane where things are never ‘true’ or ‘false’ but simply ‘explorable’.  “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time,” writes Armstrong.

This has been the role of stories and myths throughout the ages.


For a long time, in our ancient human past, it was not Religion that helped people examine the Great Questions of existence, but Myth.  Long before monotheistic understandings of spirituality, human beings gathered around evening fires and gazed at the stars overhead and told stories that explained how they related to this great universe and how they felt the sacredness of the earth also within them.

 
“A myth…is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.  If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed.  If it ‘works’, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.” (Karen Armstrong A Short History of Myth)

In recent times, mythical ways of relating to the world have fallen by the wayside in favour of Renaissance logic which corresponds with facts.  The thing is, when we wonder about the Bigger Questions, about the ‘meaning of life’ or ‘our purpose’ or ‘what is our relationship to the natural world’ or anything like that, we are now looking for ANSWERS which fit into our understanding of facts.

Our understanding of ‘Answers’ is that they must be definable, explainable (and if they come with an equation, oh joy!).  We have lost the ability to understand that these Bigger Questions don’t have answers like that.  They have ‘understandings’, ‘wisdoms’, and these can often only be communicated from one person to another through story or myth, where the meaning is deep and spoken in that other language that Paolo Coelho called the Language of the World, a language based on archetypes and meanings that exist deep within our bones.


We need these powerful kind of stories.

They help us identify with our fellow human beings, not just those of our national or religious or ethnic identity.  They help us remember that our earth is not just a pile of ‘resources’ but a sacred system of which we are a part.  They help us come to terms with the inevitability of death–perhaps the greatest challenge of all.  And they show us how we can live a ‘better’, more meaningful life…not by giving us ‘facts’ but by showing us what such a life can look like.

Life as we know it is Busy. Everyone I know is working hard, busy with their jobs and their families, paying their bills, getting food cooked and on the table, doing the million little things it takes to (pleasantly) survive our day.  And trying to squeeze in moments for fun, joy, relaxing.  But there are other moments, rare moments, when another kind of thought creeps in. Not a thought even…a feeling. A sense that comes without words. A sense that our life is supposed to be more than this.


Maybe this thought comes upon us during the holidays, when we step back from the routine of work and experience a glimpse into how our life ‘might be’. Or maybe it comes slowly upon us as we walk in the quiet of the woods, or along the shore of the sea. Or maybe it comes unbidden, in a random moment driving home from work or doing another load of laundry.  It whispers in our ear, What is the Point? What is the Point of your Life?

Surely Life should be about something more than simply getting through each day, surviving, working, buying shiny new things that grow dull in time.

This other kind of thought doesn’t come upon us often. In fact, we try really really hard to drown it into the background noise of our busy lives. Because it makes us sad, uncomfortable. It makes us feel like we are drowning. Because we know we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what the Point is. We don’t feel the bigger meaning of our life. We feel the stress of work, of papers that need to get filled in by a certain date, of all the expectations other people in our lives have of us. We are afraid to ask ourselves what will survive when we get old. We don’t contemplate how we might feel about our lives when we are about to die.

What is the Point? Shouldn’t life be about more than this?


 
For me, this other kind of question has been a shadow at my back. Unshakeable. Instead of disappearing when I ignore them, the questions just multiply. What is the purpose of my life? Is there a ‘meaning’ out there? Is there a Point to it all? Can I find a way to be okay with the knowledge that one day, I am going to die? If everything is going to change in time, where can I find lasting happiness?

I know that I am far from alone in wondering/worrying/trying to avoid these thoughts. Underneath our skin and down deep in our hearts, we all wonder these things–and try not to think about them.  But finally, instead of trying to ignore these thoughts or push them away, I turned around at began to follow them. Instead of treating them as the enemy, as something that made me worry and disrupted my happiness, I tried treating them like a friend instead. Like a friend trying to tell me something important.

Following the footsteps of Indie…A LEAP OF FAITH



The Boatman is a story I wrote about what happens when a girl called Isla turns around and begins to follow those questions about the meaning of her life. It is the result of my own search for answers within various traditions including yoga and Tibetan Buddhism–traditions which have also searched for the answers to these questions. It is the result of the inspiration I have found in other stories–The Alchemist, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zorba the Greek, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Waldon and many more stories we love because they dared to ask the important questions and search for the answers.  And it is the result of my own efforts to understand my life.


If I’m honest, I wrote The Boatman for myself. Writing is the way I think. Telling stories–which to me means trying to understand how these life questions play out in people’s lives–is the way I understand things.

But as time went on, it became just as important to tell this story for others as well. For YOU, whoever you are… To share my own thoughts on life and be another voice that, in the madness of our Busy Busy World, says–it’s okay to think about the meaning of your life. It’s okay to ask–What is the Point? It’s okay to feel afraid that one day you are going to die–I am afraid of that too. You aren’t alone.

And there is a possibility that there are actual answers to these questions. Not answers in the way we think of answers. Not answers I could write down as answers to a ‘test’. But there is an Understanding about life we can work our way into. And that greater Understanding, which I guess we could call Wisdom, is the way to be truly happy.

So really, I wrote this book as a way to join together with everyone who also feels these Bigger Questions nagging at the edges of their mind or following at their back. I want to travel together with everyone else who also dares to turn around and follow these other kind of questions.

I really hope you’ll join me, because this journey is a massive leap of faith, and it only feels possible to travel it with friends…

Is it possible to Slow Down?

February 23, 2016

We live in a time of Multi-Tasking, a time when the average Working Week has crept up to 45-55 hrs (at least), a time of Super Parenting and trying to Have it All.  But these demands are taking their toll on us all, and so we have also recently seen the rise of Mindfulness as a common aspiration.  The app Headspace has become incredibly popular.  And so the question I’ve been asking lately — which is, How Do I SLOW DOWN? — is the question a lot of us are asking.  

  
Personally, I feel like I’ve got a thousand-and-one things going on.  I’m teaching three classes, plus a weekly yoga class.  In between I’m parenting my 2 and 5 year old boys.  I’m trying to write my next novel, market my first one, keep up with family and friends, give my children enough outdoor time, remember people’s birthdays, and basically try not to bump into people as I rush around in my day.  This busy life is not what I want.

Because what I also want is time to practice my meditation.  Time to do yoga.  Time to feel chill.

The life I imagine in my head…the life I strive for, isn’t that much different than what I have now.  Only in my ideal life, I have more TIME.  I am not rushed.  I am chilled out, move from one activity to the next with a sense of calmness. With MINDFULNESS.  I have time to stop and talk to my neighbour.  I have the presence of mind to notice when I need to slow down and let someone out in traffic.  And I am not rushing my kids around, pushing them into shoes and coats because we’re late for school or hurrying them down the pavement because we’re late for an appointment.

Am I alone in this?  Am I alone in feeling like life is just a BIT TOO FULL?  A bit too hectic?

And the even more important question — is there a way out of this hectic lifestyle?  Is it possible to slow down?

These thoughts have been spinning around in my head, mostly I’ll admit, as I’m rushing somewhere.  And so at first I decided that I was just going to have a goal to try to be more mindful.  Especially during the school drop off and pick up.  Be mindful.  Leave plenty of time.  (Mainly–don’t yell!).  Now having practiced meditation in a tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for many years now, I should have known there was a fundamental problem with this idea.  Because of course, as I quickly remembered, you can’t just DECIDE to be mindful.  If I could do that (*snaps fingers), I wouldn’t need years of yoga and meditation training.  

  
So, once I remembered that I couldn’t just decide to bring more mindfulness into my life, and I remembered that I had to ‘practice’, I thought maybe I had figured it out for myself.  I would just try, in small moments, to practice mindfulness, and hopefully my life would slow down.

But it didn’t.  Because the realisation I’ve had recently is this–you cannot be slow and mindful when you are multi-tasking the shit out of your life!  In order to multitask, my brain has to be going full-steam ahead.  And that momentum builds (with the help of adrenaline and just a little bit of coffee!).  Being mindful while busily multitasking feels like asking yourself to sprint and stroll at the same time.  It is physically impossible.

  
So my realisation this week is this — the only way I’m going to bring mindfulness and a sense of chill back into my life is if I stop trying to do so much.  I have to start saying NO to things that sound fun.  I have to take a serious look at all the stuff I’m calling ‘essential’ and really decide if all these things have to get done.  (And if they do, then maybe I need to accept the reality that I’m not going to be able to live very mindfully!).  The same probably applies to all these mindfulness trainings and Headspace Apps everyone is using…They are only going to work if the rest of your life doesn’t demand you run around like the old ‘chicken with its head cut off’.

Maybe the incredibly obvious secret to slowing down is:  Just stop doing so much!  There isn’t a magic technique we can learn to be mentally sharp, focused and mindful while performing 10 different tasks in the space of an hour.  We have to create a life that is less demanding.  And in order to do that, we have to be willing to give some stuff up.  

I’ll keep you posted on what I’ve decided to do.  And as always I’d love to know your thoughts…does this ring true for you as well? Are there things you can give up or does everything seem essential?
(And Btw –  I’ve just sunk another muddy foot into the world of podcasting, so I’ll start posting the link for the 10 min podcasts on this blog each week. Thanks for reading and sharing this journey with me.)

The Life Road Trip: 5 steps that will take you from where you are to where you WANT to be

February 18, 2016


Journeys–long or short, they can fill us with excitement and trepidation in equal measure.  Whether it’s a holiday to an island resort or a journey to reach your work goal or walking a spiritual path towards greater happiness and peace of mind, all journeys have some basic elements in common.  And these basic steps can mean the difference between having an enjoyable journey or a disastrous one, and can even become the difference between reaching your goal or not.

My meditation teacher is a big fan of ‘car metaphors’–so here is one.  If you are going on a road trip from your house, there are some basic things you have to do before you leave.  First you have to clean your car (enough so that you can fit yourself and your luggage in it), fill the car with petrol/gas, check that the engine etc. is working, and pack your stuff.  This is called the Groundwork, all the stuff that you have to do before leaving on any journey.

We also need certain Skills for our journey, in this case, the skill of driving the car, of knowing the Highway Code etc.

And then we can start the car and head off.  We can start our journey.  But at the beginning of any car journey, there are a lot of Nitty-Gritty Negotiating of small back roads that must be done before we reach the highway.  And of course this is true of the beginning of any journey.  The start is often slow and slightly annoying as we get the details of the new journey right.

There is also another very important part of Journeying that it is easy to forget–and we often do.  And that is knowing how to get along with others on the journey, how to behave in our surroundings and with the other beings in our surroundings.  Without this Moral Code, we could certainly physically get from our house to our destination, but the journey would be very unpleasant (for us and for others).

And so, if we’ve packed well, know how to drive, gotten ourselves to the highway and are getting along with those difficult backseat drivers, we’re doing pretty good so far!  But here’s where journeys can get really tricky, because the large, fast highway beckons…but if we don’t have a Map to show us how to get to our destination, we are pretty unlikely to get there.  And this is what trips people up because of course it is tempting to take roads that look nice, roads that are clear of traffic, roads that pass by beautiful scenery.  It’s easy to get distracted on our journey, but if we are trying to get somewhere specific, it’s not always that helpful to follow our intuition.  Sometimes we need to follow a map laid out by people who have travelled to that place before us.

 
Groundwork

Skills

Nitty-Gritty Negotiating

Moral Code

Map

Understanding these are separate steps on our journey can help us prepare well or even help us figure out where we are going wrong.

       

For me, this metaphor was originally used by my teacher to explain the path of Yoga.
The groundwork we must do as yoga practitioners includes purification practices (cleaning our car), basic care and nutrition for our bodies (filling the car with energy and making sure things are working).  Then there are certain skills we need to learn to do yoga correctly, in terms of postures but also our awareness while we practice.  Initially, it is easy to get mired down in the nitty-gritty details, such as posture alignment, or when is the best time to practice.  This phase can sometimes feel annoying, as we struggle to work yoga into our lives and get things ‘right’.  And of course, in the yoga tradition there are the yamas and niyamas that provide the moral code for how we should behave out in the world.  But after all this detail, at some point in yoga practice we reach the highway, and it is really wonderful.  You start cruising along with your practice, the physical postures feel great, and it is tempting to just stay on this lovely scenic road.  And of course you can.  It’s YOUR journey.  But if you want to reach the destination of the yoga path–to ‘calm the restless mind so that the self can abide in what we really are’ (Yoga Sutras)-then you need to keep going.  When a road has served its purpose and it’s time to get off, you need to be able to see the signs and get off at your exit.

This metaphor has stuck with me because it is not just true of following a spiritual path.  It seems pretty true for any journey we are trying to take.

 
If our journey is leaving a bad job and trying to find one that is more fulfilling, then of course we need to do some Groundwork, which might be getting clear about what we like/don’t like about the current job, what our skills currently are, and even taking care of ourself physically by sleeping and eating well so that we have the courage to do all the scary/brave things that will be required of us.  Then once we identify the destination (new type of job), we will need to assess whether any new skills, new training etc. are required.  And without a doubt, we should reflect on our own moral code, what do we feel good about and what we absolutely don’t want to get pressured into doing.  In the early days, there will undoubtedly be a lot of nitty-gritty crap to sort out.  The learning curve will feel steep, and so we’ll need a lot of patience and perserverence to keep going.

But the most important part of this whole metaphor is having the right Map.

Which is also the hardest part.

There have been so many moments for me recently where…I know where I want to get to, feel like I have the skills, the interest, the passion, the commitment to work hard to get there.  But it’s not clear HOW to get there, which step to take next.  This reality slammed into my face last year as I began trying to publish my novel without any clue how to publish it, much less how to market it to people beyond my group of family and friends.  There were times (and still are…practically every day!) that I felt completely overwhelmed at what seems an impossible dream goal of becoming a published author.  But…there have been people who have done this before me.  So I have spent the last year reading and listening to podcasts by writers who have gone before me and been successful in their journeys.  And for the moments I feel like I don’t know what to do next, I clutch at the map I’ve been given by these other writers who have gone before me and try to have faith that if they can do it, so can I.

And honestly, let’s admit that we are not all reinventing the wheel.  Often the place we want to get to is a place other people have journeyed to before us. (Even when that’s the lofty goal of Enlightenment!)  The difficulty then becomes trying to get their advice, identify their actual steps, and slowly begin to piece together a map that might work from the specific place we are standing.

As for me, I am totally mired in the ‘nitty-gritty’ stage…in my journey as a writer, a yoga practitioner, a meditator…but for each of these things, I’m beginning to piece together a map that I think might work.  And what I’ve noticed is that having a map (even if it’s just the beginning of one, even if it’s just a rough sketch) can give you a tremendous boast of confidence to keep going.

How to Build Your Own Road

February 9, 2016

What do you do when you feel like the path you are on isn’t right? And you don’t know what to do because there doesn’t seem to be any other way to go?

What do you do when you have these dreams of where you want to be…these great ideas and passions, but absolutely no idea how to get there?  When you can see where you are now, and you can see your goal, but it doesn’t feel like there is any clear road to get from point A to point B.


What do you do when you feel like you are lost in the woods with no obvious path?

I imagine this is a pretty common experience, especially nowadays–after the economic crash when so many people lost their jobs just-like-that, and were (are) faced with a massive Now What? staring them in the face.  And in our society where there is a whole lot of rhetoric about fulfilling your dreams, about just ‘putting the intention out there’.  As if in our new age, wishing really can ‘make it so’.  It’s certainly a familiar feeling for me as I wade through the swampy, seemingly path-less, waters of my own life as a stay-at-home parent, and a ‘trying-to-make-it’ writer.

So, what do you do when you can’t see any clear path that leads to where you want to go?  Faced with this situation–literally–a man named Calum MacLeod built his own road.

Calum lived on the island of Raasay, off the coast of Skye in Scotland, and over the course of his grandparents’ and then parents’ lifetimes, his community was deprived of their farm land and driven to the margins (a time aptly named the Highland Clearances).  Families abandoned their homesteads due to such extreme hardships until by the time Calum was a grown man, his community on Raasay consisted of a few small villages on the far north of the small island.  The island that he loved, his home and his culture were disappearing.

And Calum found himself without a road. 

Only a single cart track linked north Raasay with the rest of the island and the ferry crossing, which meant that many things of the modern age became impossible.  Cars could not drive within two miles of these villages.  Children could not reach the high school and had to leave home and attend boarding school on Skye.  One family after another left, until Calum and his wife were the only family remaining in their village.

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What Calum valued was his community, his island.  And he knew without a road connecting his village to the rest of the island and the mainland, his community would not survive.  When it became clear that the Council in Edinburgh in charge of such matters wasn’t never going to build a road, Calum decided he couldn’t wait any longer for someone else to build the road.  He would build it himself.  And so, as his biographer Roger Hutchinson writes, “One spring morning he set off with a pick, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, and alone in an empty landscape began its his bare hands a romantic, quixotic venture that would dominate the last twenty years of his life.”

 

I first heard the story of Calum’s Road through the beautiful piece of Gaelic folk music inspired by this story.

I visited Calum’s Road in the summer of 2011.  Having been inspired by the story of ‘the man who build his own road’, my husband and I crossed over on the ferry from Skye in our campervan.

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I was interested to see this road which had been built by a single man, and I don’t honestly know what I was expecting…but I guess generally it was a straight-ish, short-ish road.  Even building a short, straight road over boggy rough terrain would have been impressive enough.  But I never expected to find this.

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Calum’s Road winds and curves and grows so steep in places that our VW camper was occasionally somewhere between serious strain and holyshit mode. (There are no pictures of the steepest bits because I was too freaked out to remember the camera!)  And it went on…and on…and on… And we were DRIVING.

It is one of the most impressive, humbling places I have ever been to.  Knowing that, although the day we were on Raasay the sun shone in rare spectacle, in fact most of Calum’s days on this road would have been spent in the cold driving wind and rain.  And for twenty years…TWENTY YEARS, he kept faith and worked with his pick axe loosening rocks, and with his wooden wheelbarrow shifting earth to create a 9 ft wide, smooth path that could potentially be paved.  So that he could achieve his goal and save his community.

In his famous poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost gave us a beautiful image: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…And I, I took the one less travelled by…”  But I find my life calls for a different metaphor.  Because for me, the difficult moments in life are not those where two clear roads diverge and we have to chose one over the other.  The really tough moments for me have always been the times when there seems to be no path to follow and I have to make a road on my own.

Building your own road isn’t ever going to be easy.  Not many people would choose to do it…and certainly Calum built his own road because he HAD TO, not because he wanted to or thought it would be fun.  So, yes there will always be plenty of stones to clear and earth to shift.  Plenty of days working through the wind and rain when we wish we were home on the couch with a cup of coffee and some cake.  Plenty of times where we will wonder ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘Will I ever succeed?’  But rather than getting discouraged when there are stones, we should simply know to expect them.  When building your own road, expect stones to be there.  Expect to have to shift massive amounts of earth.  Expect days of wind and rain.  And sunshine.  And if you stick with it, success.

Above all else, the Story of Calum’s Road reminds me that it is possible. If you are true to your vision and remember your larger goal while you work at that single patch of earth in front of you. IT IS POSSIBLE TO BUILD YOUR OWN ROAD.

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me writing on the edge of Calum’s Road 

Does this feeling resonate with you? If so, I’d love to know what road you’re building for yourself and how it feels to build it.

 

 

 

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