Sunday, 27 January 2013

Lifting the Fog - some gentle reminders for the tail end of winter

This article also appears in Elephant Journal, published February 9th 2013

When the fog lifts...
The last week has had a bite to it. No complaints from my side of the house. I'd trade the grey and damp mundane for the drama of the Irish landscape cloaked in a thick freezing fog by morning, sun  peeking through by midday to warm the frozen fields any day. It's back to slow driving again, and frost covered windscreens in the morning. But it's magical. And bonus - the light has started to filter into the Holly Cottage kitchen by 7.30am, fading only at a generous 5.30pm evening time. I hardly know myself! Leaving the office in daylight, being able to view the Holly Cottage garden for at least 15mins when i land home every evening - it certainly lifts the spirits and makes one think that we made it through the worst of it all for this winter. 

Readers following will be aware that I wallowed in self pity last week as I bemoaned the horror of winter. Sorry for that. It was getting me down, or rather I was letting it get me down. It just seems to go on for so long, and no hint of sunshine for us lovers of the light. Urged on by the will to make it better I've been exploring buddhist philosophy to try to refresh and stir my own way of dealing with it. I was led to was is called in buddhism The Four Reminders. Apologies to those who are better versed in these matters, but I found some reminders for myself of the basic fundamentals of our human existence that really do get crowded out when we - please note I can only speak for my own dark moments - are buried in self pity and self interest.

The Four Reminders as explained in This Precious Life by Khandro Rinpoche (Tibetan nun, living in the US) are (paraphrased heavily) life is precious, life is finite, there is invariably suffering (I know - doom and gloom anyone, but wait!) and the life we lead, the decisions and actions we take all has an impact on the overall well being of the world we live our lives in - aka karma. Not so sweetness and light eh ;) Roughly translated to street speak - You get one life. It's the most precious thing you'll ever own/experience. You're completely responsible for that body and the life you live - so you really owe it to yourself to quit dallying and get living (flashback to that line in The Shawshank Redemption). There will be challenges, don't let them become insurmountable obstacles - just do it, slow, steady and consistently. And be the best you can be, it makes a difference to you and the world. In more detail...

Reminder 1: Life is precious. Think about it. The odds of you and I being here at this time, in this place. The gift of the amazing body we have that is essentially at minimum a complex of atoms and energy that can move, breathe, eat and taste amazing foods, see wondrous things and experience the world around us. And what is the world around us? Sun and moon and stars and trees and bees and ocean and coral and pandas and other people and structures living and non-living - all supporting us and there for us to experience - or ignore - whatever we choose. We get a scare every now and then, and something happens when we realise it could be taken from us at any time....leading onto.....

Seize moments of wonder ;)
Reminder 2: This life an't forever. This is the reminder of the impermanence of life. This one has the power to gather momentum. This realisation creates the urgency to live, really live. Imagine choosing to ignore this and going through your life in a haze of habit and un-thinking - ignorance I guess you call it, or taking life for granted, and then at the moment it might all be taken away, realising that it wasn't at all what you wanted it to be. It was a mistake. This is one of my own greatest fears - I admit it freely - to not pursue the chances that come, to choose the comfort and the monotony of the familiar when the unknown which is often so scary (in our minds) but so exhilarating (in reality). I did a skydive over two years - literally jumped out of a moving plane entrusting my life to my skilled tandem skydive expert. It was frightening, seemed completely ludicrous at the time as we climbed to 10,000 feet and then regardless of innate fear and self protecting mechanisms inbuilt since the dawn of human,  we flung ourselves to the mercy of the sky. As soon as it was done, I wanted to get back up there and do it again. I have a moment locked in my brain when we drifted, glided, gracefully waltzed down an imaginary skyslide and the world below was a distant dream. Beautiful.

Reminder 3: Suffering. Now, there's a whole lot of hells described in This Precious Life - my least favorite being the extreme cold hells that seem to be a living reality on some January days. I can't really relate to these ideas as described, but I take the reminder of Suffering as a form of reminding us that no matter how bad things are they could be a whole lot worse. Or that we need to examine our own suffering and realise whether it is self-inflicted - born of habit and destructive tendencies - and do we play a role in its continued existence. If we recognise that we are at least part of the cause of our own suffering, it's really our responsibility to deal with it and give ourself the chance to escape a vicious circle of self hurt. Like any form of addiction. A tough one I know. Sometimes the suffering is created completely by our own minds, and the inability to deal with it and get rid of it, a result of us preferring to hold onto the comfort of suffering and clinging again to what we know. And that's pretty sad. 

Reminder 4: Karma. This is a complex one - and please refer to more learned texts and knowledgeable teachings. I interpret Karma as us taking responsibility for our own lives, for the cause and effect of us. Being aware of how we treat ourselves and others. Our thoughts and actions impact of so many aspects of life that we really do have the power to bring peace and love (man) or that whole suite of negativity that brings no joy but anger, aggression, jealousy and pain. I know that given the choice we would all choose the positive, but how difficult is that when old hurts rise when one encounters a less than pleasant memory from the past? Or how easy it is to envy others instead of being happy for their fortune and getting on with realizing our own. These last few days I've been wishing January away and wishing for another life in a warmer climate and a Mediterranean substitute for Holly Cottage. That is so not good for the soul!

What's a gal to do? Well, I am sticking with my yoga practice - even though it's half hearted some days - don't let self criticism knock you down. Integral to the various postures (asanas) are the breathing (pranayama) and my resolve to gift myself at least 20mins every day of meditation. Some days those 20mins are calm and concentrated, and others it feels like I have a spaghetti junctions of thoughts between my ears and looping around the back of my eyes. But I see the difference already. I trust in the teachings of those who have learned before me and shared their journeys openly and honestly. I trust in my own intuition to help dissolve the myths and habits and thoughts that fool and misguide us everyday. 

And so, everyday I will remind myself how great it is to be alive and that I'm the one holding the wheel and controlling the gears. The goal is self realisation and maybe even enlightenment, and why not? Baby steps.

There is so much to learn and figure out in terms of our own habitual tendencies and behaviours, and how we owe it to ourselves to realise the best experience of living this precious life as far and as completely as possible. And so, worth exploring these Four Reminders. Taking time to remind ourselves. I know for me that it will mean changing some old entrenched habits and maybe not realising the effect for some time. Then it may be immediate. One thing's for sure, once you take responsibility for your own happiness then there's no shifting blame, no avoidance of reality and no easy way out. Surely this is the greatest challenge of our lives but the one that can transform us from barely living to joyously and blissfully-aware-experiencing?

Like lifting the fog on a freezing winter land and suddenly seeing and feeling a sun that was giving, and loving, and shining there all the time. 

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