Always running

Wild Cherry blossom at Beacon Hill Country Park. Photo by Fiona Phillips.

I wrote last week about the mindfulness class I’m taking with Plum Village UK. I was sitting recently practicing when these words floated into my awareness, “always running.”

They felt different to my usual distractions, like whether I have enough cat food, what someone meant when they said a particular thing two years ago at that meeting, whether I am doing meditation “right” and so forth.

As I was breathing I could see myself fixed in this spot in space and time on my cushion. I could see myself in the past hurtling towards this moment, and I could see how my brain was always busy hurtling me onwards into the future. I was always running. I was either running from something or desperate to get somewhere else. This moment never featured.

I have been working with the ideas of being versus doing now for maybe twenty years, but I still get caught in the habit of doing. When I recently left my job I immediately wanted to know what I would “do” next. People often ask this too, “what are you doing now?” And I feel like I need to have an answer, well, I’m taking that course, or I plan to start up this project, or I am applying for this or that role. It is a hamster-wheel of never ending action.

I began to wonder where this came from. Some of it I can see arises out of my culture and upbringing. But some of it comes from a different place.

Around fifteen years ago I was having some health difficulties. After assorted tests and scans I was told, very directly, that a small part of my brain was dead, most likely as the result of a small stroke.

I was thirty five years old at the time, with two young children. It was the first time I had ever had reason to believe I was mortal. For some time after a stroke your risk of a second attack is high. I spent several years living with a lot of fear. I was determined to make the most of my life, to live it as fully as possible, to “make a contribution” to do something worthwhile. I would like to say that this was rewarding and nourishing, but, if it were possible, I became even more driven than I had been before. The clock was ticking, and now I could hear it!

This sense of death shadowing my steps has persisted through a decade and a half. While I told myself that of course none of us know the day or hour we will cease this form of existence, and that life is precious and brief, this didn’t help me to live with greater joy. I saw, in my meditation, that I had set off running, in two directions at once. I was running away, as fast as I could, from the idea of my own demise and health issues. And I was running as fast as I could to this unknown outcome of achieving my “life’s purpose”.

This is an exhausting state to live in. I have not known much peace during these years, fearing missing the as yet identified boat of my life’s work and dying with this elusive thing unknown or unachieved.

Mindfulness has given me a gift; it has shown me that there is another way, and I am allowed to stop running! There isn’t anywhere to get from, and there isn’t anywhere to get to. I am already here. As Thay says, “I have arrived, I am home.”

This has been an enormous shift.

And I find for the first time in many years, that I have genuine moments of peace.

Learning to Walk

I started taking the Be Calm, Be Happy class with Plum Village UK this week. In the first class we received some input on walking meditation.

I have tried this before but realise after some instruction that I have been going way to fast!

Yesterday morning, like a good student, I set off to a local park to practice. This park is small and has a long loop of winding path perfect for some mindful steps. It was strange to be there with other people, children on their way to school, early morning dog walkers. I felt a bit self conscious (mindful moment!).

I worked with trying to time my steps to my breath. The minute I thought about breathing it seemed very slow, my steps too, were therefore very slow. In the class I had noticed that once I thought about walking, once I focused on it in a conscious way, my steps became very unsteady, I was unbalanced and wobbly, like a toddler. It seems that when I walk to get somewhere momentum carries me without the wobble. When I think about my steps, though,the whole process becomes much more complex.

Of course sometimes I would begin to think, wondering if people were wondering what I was doing, thankful that Simon had come with me so I didn’t feel like a complete loon…then I would catch myself and return to the breath. In, out, left foot, right foot.

Time slowed down and it felt like I had, on some level, been walking forever. I walked in the drizzly, cold morning, noticing the bird song, and gradually enjoying the process, the steady flow of breath, step, breath, step. There was a gentle rhythm that felt soothing.

I had to slow right down. And take very small steps.

Which feels like a metaphor for life.