Home thoughts from abroad…

Early this morning the clocks sprang forward one hour, symbolically reflecting this time of change and our forward movement into Spring.  I hear birdsong all around me (all the more audible for the lack of vehicle hum and city noise that usually fills the streets here).

I frequently see storks overhead, making their way to the cathedral turrets, building their nests and ‘clacking’ the news of their arrival and the blossoming of another, new, vernally-eternal season of growth and renewal.

I’m in the Northern Spanish city of Logroño, slap bang on the route of the Camino de Santiago, which I cross every day on the way to the supermarket to buy groceries and other essential supplies.  And I feel at home here.

I’m sharing an apartment with 3 fellow pilgrims from Korea who started walking the Camino on the same day as me.  Life, the ‘Coronavirus crisis’ and similar temperaments and goals threw us together at the time that Spain announced its State of Alarm and we decided to stop here temporarily, to take stock and to see what would come next.

We’re not permitted to leave the apartment to exercise (police patrol cars cruise the streets with loud hailers urging people to respect the ‘lock-down’ and motorcycle cops stop and question anyone not obviously out shopping or walking their dogs) but the weather is still beautiful and sunlight floods in through our windows each day.

Within two days of moving-in our boiler broke down, leaving us without hot water or heating.  Our landlord was profusely apologetic and did all he could to solve the problem as quickly as these strange times allowed him to.  Five days, three engineer visits, the installation of a replacement pump and several cold showers and bucket baths later, the boiler was fixed.  In true Camino fashion we made jokes about the lack of creature comforts we’d taken for granted only a few days before; were grateful for the fact we had an electric cooker, which enabled us to prepare hot meals; and savored the pure luxury of hot water again when it finally returned.

But during the ‘cold shower’ days I found myself thinking “How many people in Refugee Camps around the world would be overjoyed at the luxury of being able to just turn on a tap and have instant, clean, plentiful cold water to drink and in which to bathe?”

Thousands.  The answer is thousands.  Thousands of fellow human beings who feel sadness, joy, gratitude, frustration, pain, despair and hope, just like us; regardless of their nationality, their language or their beliefs.  People far from home and desperately in search of somewhere to call a safe and secure home once again.  It was a reality check and a sobering thought.

When the lock-down first started the people of Logroño (like people around the world I’m sure) seemed to go into a state of emotional and psychological lock-down too.  The things that I’ve come to truly love about Spain and its people (their openness to others, their enthusiasm for greeting and talking to complete strangers in the street; their relaxed and appreciative attitude to simple pleasures like food, a good cup of coffee or ‘chupito’, conversation, nature and the outdoors) all these seemed to vanish overnight.

I found people suddenly reluctant to make eye contact, unwilling to smile or return a greeting, unable to look around them and just appreciate the beauty of nature or the fine weather with which we were suddenly blessed.  It was public fear manifested on a grand, disconnecting and disconcerting scale.  But it didn’t last.

No doubt it was the shock of adjustment to the lock-down, the uncertainty about how long it would last, and the worry about what would be the ultimate cost to individuals, families, communities and the world at large.  These uncertainties remain but, being human, resilient, sociable and open by nature, people here have started to relax, to smile and to greet each other once again – as a new ‘normal’ settles in.

People seem to have quickly adjusted to this new reality, to be feeling more at home with it and this, to me, is what the word ‘home’ really represents.

‘Home’ isn’t a physical place for me (although I appreciate that for many it is), it’s the feeling that that place provides.  A feeling of safety and of ease, a place where we feel able to breathe, to relax, to kick off our protective boots, loosen our social ties and just ‘be’; knowing that we’ll continue to be loved and accepted for exactly who we are and that the sky won’t fall in.

One of the principle reasons that I’m able to feel at home here in Logroño, sharing a flat with 3 people who were complete strangers to me less than 3 weeks ago, is because I have the emotional safety and security of the love of family and friends.  Many of whom are very different to me, but all of whom accept and love me as I am.

Family members who initially were keen for me to return to the UK but who understood my reasons for staying here when I explained them after serious reflection and thought.  Friends who keep in touch with me via the miracle that is modern technology and the social media platforms that connect us.  Platforms that can be used so easily to generate and spread creative, positive messages of love, compassion, hope and understanding, or destructive messages of fear, drama, judgment and hate.  The choice is always ours.

Just as the choice for how we react to and engage with the world and the people around us is a daily and infinitely renewing choice; a metaphorical Spring if you like.  Every day gives us the choice and chance to blossom into something more, to grow into a way of being that is bigger than we were before, if we’re prepared to embrace the (sometimes painful) growing process and allow it to occur.

Now is a time of crisis in the world but the Chinese symbol for crisis also means ‘change’ and I’ve found myself reflecting on the fact that how we choose to interpret and respond to this change will determine the lasting effects of it on us and the world around us. 

If we allow ourselves to be placed in ‘emotional and psychological lock-down’ by our fear then it will underpin all of our decisions and responses, leaving us feeling unsafe and ‘far from home’.  We’ll be more likely to experience ‘dis-ease’ within ourselves and disharmony or disconnection in our relationships with others.  And it’s my belief that the world needs less dis-ease and disharmony right now, not more.

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”

– Gandhi

I’m aware that if we begin to divide our thinking into forms of “them and us” and start to target our fear or anger (which is just the aggressive face of fear) towards any “them” that we may have created in our imagination then we’ll only be contributing to the epidemic of destructive dis-ease in the world, not helping to heal it. 

But I don’t believe that any of us want to consciously do that.  I believe we all have the ‘homing device’ of our hearts calling us to lean into our fear, to support one another and to spread harmony, compassion, understanding and connection…in any way that we can.

We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow human beings however diverse, on the surface, we may seem to be.  We bleed the same blood, we cry the same tears, we feel the same pain and we’re all on the journey that will, ultimately, lead us all home.

“I am an incurable romantic.

I believe in hope, dreams and decency, love, tenderness and kindness.

I believe in mankind”

– Leonard Nimoy

Just trying…

I’ve been told in the past that I have ‘a way with words’. Sometimes someone says it when I write something that appeals to them. Sometimes it’s when I’ve listened to what someone has said, responded with the underlying message that I’ve heard, and been told “That’s exactly what I was trying to say but I couldn’t find the words”.

But creating this blog has taught me that ‘finding the right words’ to share my true thoughts and feelings is a bit like deciphering an obscure, internal code and more challenging than I originally thought. And maybe that’s the important and personal message for me. ‘To learn how to do anything well, you first have to start doing it and then you just have to keep trying...’

Last week a friend took the time and trouble to send me some thoughtful feedback about her views on my last post (Blessed be the Navel-gazers). She included things that she agreed with and things that she saw differently. And responding to that feedback was a great learning exercise for me in how to practice what I preach.

Some points she raised immediately rang true for me and will definitely help me in writing future blogs. Others showed me the limitations of language and the many different ways that what we write and say can be interpreted by others. But one of the most interesting questions she posed was “What if being true to ourselves has the potential to hurt others?” Should we still choose the path of personal truth?

It took me a long time to find the right words to respond to this, which helped me greatly in getting to the core of what I truly believe (beyond the simple slogan ‘We should all be true to ourselves!‘). And this was the gist of my reply:

“When I talk about “Being true to ourselves” I don’t mean “Telling everyone exactly what we think of them” I mean “Not pretending to ourselves or others that we’re feeling something we don’t feel or that we’re agreeing with something we don’t agree with”.

I mean recognising that any uncomfortable feelings we might have in particular situations (eg: anger, impatience, irritation, anxiety, fear) will always have an important message for us about something we’d rather not face and are worth inward reflection (if we want to learn more about ourselves and about our relationships).  And, if we find that the message is so important that we need to give voice to our feelings, then choosing the least provocative and most respectful way of doing this. Because only by adopting this attitude can we have any hope that the other person will truly hear us (ie: speaking from a place of compassion for ourselves and for others).

I believe that we only truly learn how to do something well by actually, repeatedly, doing it and then learning from our experience.  And, I also believe, we only build true self-respect by being as congruent as possible (ie: living outwardly in line with what we believe inwardly). 

Anyone can adopt the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance, or the “I’ll agree with you just to keep the peace” stance, but it takes compassion and skill (which only comes through practice, trial and error) to learn the “I think I have something valid and worthwhile to say, but it differs from what you believe” stance.  And, importantly, to allow others to do the same. And this is the skill that I’m learning how to hone and develop in myself through my personal relationships and through my blog posts.”

I do believe that ‘finding our true voice’ in any situation is an important, respectful and honourable thing to do and that constant avoidance of this can lead to us becoming disingenuous, at worst two-faced, and more distant from our best, and truest, selves. I don’t think that we just show disrespect to others when we behave in this way, I also believe that we dishonour ourselves. Because not ‘giving a voice’ to what our heart truly feels, in the most mutually-compassionate way we can, may be a one-off choice, or it may become a habit and then our normal behaviour which, ultimately, helps no-one.

The more often we speak from a place of personal truth the more often we demonstrate the belief that this person is wise enough and strong enough to hear what I feel in my heart and, it’s my belief that, the risk of doing this with people we have close relationships with is outweighed by the potential reward of deeper, more honest and more loving relationships as a result.

BUT, and it’s a very important ‘but’, it’s the way in which we do it that will reveal the truth of what we’re feeling inside.

If we speak from a place of aggression (be it open or passive, through our tone or the use of clever, undermining words) I believe we create energy that neither reflects true compassion for ourselves nor respect for others. If I do this, what I hear (when I take the time and trouble to reflect on it) is the repressed anger or fear of my most vulnerable self, which felt that it wasn’t being treated with the respect that it deserves. Or that someone else was giving voice to beliefs that felt threatening to my own, and which I use as an anchor for my self-image, self-belief and identity.

And, particularly if I express that anger or fear in the form of judgement of another instead of asking myself “What triggered those feelings within me?”, then I’m missing a valuable opportunity to learn more about myself and about why I behave in the ways that I do.

To me, compassion is a gentle practice and discipline, a loving practice and discipline, an open-handed way-of-being rather than a finger-pointing one. And I believe that self-compassion and compassion for others are inseparably bound together, because the way that we speak to and deal with ourselves will be reflected in the way that we speak to and deal with others, and vice versa.

I think that the more we open ourselves to looking closely and compassionately at the most vulnerable and needy parts of us (which every one of us carries around inside us, whether we’re prepared to admit it to ourselves or not) the more we allow the possibility that this part will have a voice when we speak in dialogue with others. And, because we’ve given that part of us the respect of being truly seen and heard, it won’t speak in aggressive or defensive language, but rather, it will help us by finding calmer, kinder and clearer words to speak; words more likely to build bridges, rather than to burn them.

But I also feel the need to add a proviso here, about seeing things as they truly are. There will be people who deliberately choose not to hear us, no matter how compassionately, calmly or clearly we form our words. This may be because ‘not hearing others’ has become an effective coping strategy for them; amuses them in some way; or leaves them feeling that they’ve ‘retained the upper hand’, all in an attempt to, inwardly, feel more secure.

These are situations, relationships and people that are uniquely individual and personal to each of us and I believe we must each make our own decisions about how best to deal with them, from a starting point of loving-kindness for ourselves.

When I walked my first Camino in 2015 I stayed overnight in the Convent hostel of León and met a young Spanish man named Matías, at breakfast the following morning . He spoke perfect English, but was trying to encourage me to converse in Spanish, when my grasp of the language was virtually non-existent at the time. I became more and more embarrassed and frustrated with myself, at my lack of ability to converse, and more and more reluctant to continue the friendly conversation. But my reluctance, embarrassment and frustration disappeared in the presence of this young man’s persistence and gentle kindness. He simply looked me in the eye, smiled, and in very a gentle tone said “It’s OK…just try…”

I believe that, whether I´m trying to find the right words to express my true feelings in a particular situation or to build longer-term bridges of mutually-respectful and honest relationship with others, it’s always worth “just trying…” to give my true feelings a voice.

It will seldom feel easy. I may look ridiculous and be embarrassed at times. It needs acceptance that I could meet resistance, ridicule and, on occasion, aggression and rejection from others, particularly if they´re unwilling to look at and deal with their own sensitive and vulnerable selves. But, just as any of us has experienced when learning how to ride a bike or to speak a new language, the stumbling, the getting-it-wrong, the looking or feeling stupid are all just a necessary and integral part of the learning process itself.

I know from personal experience that acknowledging, respecting and giving a voice to my most vulnerable self within, repeatedly and often enough, builds my level of courage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway‘ in almost any situation in life. I believe that when we do this, hesitatingly, gradually, but more and more often, we build our sense of inner dignity, truth and strength. And I’ve learned that when others instinctively feel this within us they respond to it positively, and ultimately benefit from it, if they’re seeking the same within themselves.

But this is a slow and gradual growth process, a process that comes from within and that draws from within rather than always looking outside for acceptance, validation and love. It’s a process that requires us to ‘see ourselves as we truly are’, without judgement, and to recognise both the vulnerability and the value of that person. Only then can we begin to see every encounter with others as a new opportunity to give our truest self a voice and to silently encourage him or her with the gentle words “It’s OK…just try“…

Risk is the currency of reward”

– Chris Evans

Blessed be the Navel-Gazers…

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve tried to find an answer to the question ‘What is my purpose?’ or ‘What is my destiny?’ the infuriatingly simple and equally mystifying answer that invariably popped up was “You’re here for people like you”. Over the years I’ve tried decoding that to mean “Listening to and loving people like me”; “Writing a book for people like me”; or, even more tangibly, “Creating a hostel on the Camino for people like me”, but none of them felt like ‘my real purpose’, more like something I would enjoy doing and which would, coincidentally, also be of service to others.

So I’ve tried asking myself, more simply, what ‘people like me’ actually means and I’ve taken detours down roads of belief that also failed to arrive at the answer. I’ve told myself “We’re all the same at heart (which is true), so that means I’m here for ‘everyone’ (which is false)”. Because we all know that “You cannot be all things to all men” and neither, I believe, are we supposed to be. Following that path just leads ultimately to exhaustion, disappointment, compassion fatigue and loss of respect for others and for ourselves.

Then last week, completely unknowingly, someone answered my question for me. In describing what I would call ‘inner reflection’ or ‘contemplation’ they used the term ‘navel-gazing’ and that’s when the penny finally dropped: “I’m here for ‘the would-be Navel-Gazers’”. And these are the people that I write for and talk to in my Blog posts, although anyone with an open heart and mind is welcome here.

I use the name would-be Navel-Gazers ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and ironically but also deliberately, because it captures beautifully the essence of what I believe. Generally, it’s not a name that’s used positively to describe ourselves or others. It implies that we’re self-absorbed, detached from reality and too preoccupied with our inner feelings, thoughts or problems. It’s not a name that contains a lot of love or genuine desire for connection, understanding or compassion, when applied to ourselves or to others. It’s a ‘closing down’ rather than an ‘opening up’ phrase.

But I write for anyone who’s open to the idea and value of contemplation, anyone who wishes to explore the part they play in co-creating their experiences and their relationships, anyone who believes in the power of Divine Love and Divine Purpose. In short, anyone who believes, as I do, that we still have a lot more to learn. Because the more open we are to exploring our automatic reactions to similar people and situations the more we come to recognise the limitations in our capacity for experiencing, recreating and sharing Divine Love.

It’s an undeniable truth that we’re all connected, as members of this diverse and beautiful species called ‘the Human Race’, but we’re also distinct and different individuals for a specific reason…and I believe it’s a Divine reason. If we ‘close ourselves down’ or try to bend ourselves or others into a shape that conforms to a set idea of how we should be, we dishonour our own selves greatly and we dishonour the individual seed of the Divine that we all carry within us. It’s a seed which has a personal message and purpose for each one of us, I believe, and for the people that we come into contact with throughout the course of our lives. But we have to be prepared to open our hearts and our minds wide enough to give it space and to let it grow.

We can look to others to tell us what our identity, purpose, or way of being should be, and then try to build our lives and personalities around the outside messages that we receive, or we can give ourselves permission to cultivate more inward reflection and discover the more open, compassionate and natural person we were born to be. In that way we stop needing to expend so much mental and emotional energy on meeting other people’s expectations and, instead, use what feels intuitively right to us in our (more open) heart.

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

There’s an interesting YouTube video that explores the balance we need to find and maintain within our lives between attachment (maintaining loving relationships with others) and authenticity (being true to ourselves) in order to grow into healthy, happy and self-respecting individual adults. It describes how so many of us largely lose our intuitive connection with our natural selves during childhood, in an effort to retain the love of those people we have close relationships with. And it explains how we unconsciously carry this ‘altered way of being’ into our adult lives.

I believe that a healthy dose of inner reflection, not about the past but about what is happening to us here & now and the automatic ways that we react to similar situations, helps us to make what is unconscious, and often unhelpful to us and others, more conscious. That way we become freer to make informed choices about ‘how to be’ as adults on a day-to-day basis, firstly in relationship with ourselves and, then subsequently, with those around us.

I’ve walked thousands of miles over the last 4 years and I’ve met hundreds of people from countries all over the world. I’ve had deep, meaningful and sometimes tear and love-filled conversations with complete strangers who were on pilgrimages of ‘reconnecting with themselves and with God ’. Many of them came to realise the inner hole that was left when they tried to be something that they believed others wanted them to be, instead of connecting with the inner source of Divine love that allows them to openly and unapologetically just be who they are. Taking time for inward reflection enabled them to do this.

The term ‘navel-gazing’ appealed to me for another reason too, because of its connection to the process of birth and the moment when we’re physically ‘cut free’ from our mothers’ bodies, becoming individual human beings in our own right. To look at our navels is to remind ourselves of a time when we needed gentle handling, valuing, love and protection, whether we received those things or not. We never lose the need for these things but, as fully-grown and independent adults, we’re now responsible for recognising that fact and for providing them for ourselves.

Cultivating gentleness and understanding towards ourselves, however we choose to do this, is a sign of self-nurturing, growing inner maturity, self-acceptance and strength.

What experience has taught me is ‘the more I live my life as the person my heart tells me to be, rather than as others might like me to be, the more I experience deep and meaningful connection with others’. I’ve learned that ‘just being myself’ acts as its own service to those I am meant to help because it somehow enables them to relax their habitual defences, to let down their guard and to share the most tender and vulnerable parts of themselves. This is an amazing expression of trust when it happens and it answers any doubts I have about ‘purpose’ or ‘destiny’ when it occurs. My purpose is simply ‘to whole-heartedly be myself’ and every day I learn new ways of doing that whilst also trying, through example, to encourage others to do the same.

I’m here to sing my individual song of Divine praise, and the words to my song are;

“Recognise absence of Love, in yourself and others, when you see and feel it. Be honest about it and don’t try to cover it up with distractions, addictions, rhetoric or denial. Find the seed of Divine Love within yourself that lies deep within your heart, underneath your fear and pain, and take your strength and validation from this…only this…because this is where God resides within you. Remove all the walls of anger, fear or judgement that you’ve built around that seed, and then watch as it grows into what it was born to be; a beautiful, fruit-bearing manifestation of faith, hope and love.

And when that fruit eventually breaks down into seed again, as it inevitably will, spread that seed as widely as you are able to, with faith that some of it will fall on fertile ground.”

So blessed be the navel-gazer in all of us, no matter how tiny he or she may be. Because that’s where, I believe, the seed of self-acceptance, true compassion and Divine Love has been planted and is waiting to grow…

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

– Rumi

The Never-Ending Story

There are few things that engage the human psyche more completely than a good story, well told. Whether it’s the story we tell ourselves about our past, our lives, who we are or who we want to be; the one we tell about other people, and their relationships with us; the story of the world and how magical or doomed we believe it to be; or the multiple and ever-expanding stories of our history, our ancestors and God…our appetite and capacity for story creation and elaboration seems universal and insatiable.

Ideas that seem too difficult, obscure, unpalatable or uninteresting can be made simple, illuminating, engaging and satisfying when wrapped up in the enticing package of a story. Everyday lives that feel immensely challenging, too rooted in ‘the real world’ or spirit-sapping in the physical, mental and emotional demands that they place on us can be softened into tolerance with the comfort of a good tale. And each of us is, in some ways, a walking, talking, acting and reacting compilation of the stories that we’ve accumulated and progressively placed our faith in during the course of our lives.

Every encounter and relationship that we become involved in carries the seed of a story within it, which we help to sow, water and bring to some sort of blossoming happy ending or tragic fruition. To be a human being is to be a lover and co-creator of stories, whether we like it or not, and our only free choice seems to be in the sort of stories that we choose to co-create.

We can tell ourselves that we are (or should be) above these things, that our level of conscious-awareness, awakening or enlightenment enables us to rise above the ‘illusory Story World’ that surround us. But the truth is that history, our dreams or any overheard conversation about a deeply personal matter will prove the lie of this self-professed belief. To be a human is to be a creator, sustainer, teller, reteller and liver of stories.

My personal storybook took an unexpectedly enlightening and enjoyable turn this week, when I was invited by my brother to make Facebook posts of 7 black & white photos, on 7 consecutive days, depicting my everyday life with no additional explanation or comments. My initial reaction was “I like the fact that you asked me, but I don’t take part in these sort of nomination challenges because they don’t fit with my internal image of who I believe I am (ie: my story of myself). But then the plot thickened…

My niece, who I love dearly, added a little ‘Love’ reaction to my brother’s invitation…and that set me thinking. My Facebook posts tend to be ‘positively-inspiring’, ‘thought-provoking’ or ‘spiritually-uplifting’ in nature and focus, with the odd ‘personal update with photos’ sprinkled in for good measure. But here was Sally telling me (in my own version of this particular story) “I’d love to see more of your everyday life”. So my internal dialogue of “I don’t do this sort of thing” became “I’ll do this one ‘viral Facebook challenge’ but I won’t nominate anyone else…because I don’t believe in these challenges in principle”.

My first post was of a picture that I have pinned up in my current home; a Spanish motivational message, printed on a paper napkin, that I made a cardboard frame for and carry with me to put up wherever I find myself.

“The best moment to be happy is now”

I have various motivational and uplifting sayings pinned up around my current home so, I thought rather cleverly, I’d post a different photo of these each day as a way of continuing to share positive messages and maintain my principle of ‘not really doing these Facebook chain-reactions’.

But, as I wandered around that day doing different things, two realisations slowly worked their way into my consciousness. The first was “That would make a good picture of what I’m seeing today!” and the second was “If you’re not going to post photos of what you’re actually seeing and doing, what are you really sharing of yourself and what’s the point in taking part?” So Day 2 wasn’t a motivational message, it was a photo of the uplifting and naturally-beautiful coastline of Fuerteventura, made all the more striking for being in black & white.

Costa Calma, Fuerteventura

By Day 3 I realised, with surprise, that I rather enjoyed taking part in this social media exercise and also that I enjoyed seeing the photos of friends’ lives, with no explanations. The experience of seeing what they’d chosen to share, admiring the creative photos that some had selected and adding a little more information to ‘my story of each person’ were all things that gave me great, and unexpected, pleasure. So my thinking about the exercise changed again into “Well, if it’s given me this much pleasure it might give other people pleasure too so, with a little tweeking of the wording (inviting some friends to take part, rather than challenging them), my Day 3 picture included an invitation to someone else to take part; as did each subsequent day after that.

And the whole experience reminded me of things that I’ve already realised in the past but, somehow, had forgotten again. Most importantly, that when I stop telling myself who I believe I am, when I stop striving to live in line with my principles and just allow myself to be, that a peaceful sense of ease descends on me and brings with it the easy joy and pleasure that comes from little, deeply-human things. I was reminded that I feel and embody genuine love for myself and others when I think, feel and act from a place of openness, gentleness, non-judgement, curiosity and ease. And, as this particular ‘windmill in my mind’ began turning again, I also remembered something about the Inuit culture and belief, which a close friend once explained to me as we walked the Camino de Santiago together. A belief best explained in the following three words…

Isuma-tu, means a sense of wisdom, a deeper knowing which, when people tune into it, allows them to become Isumatu, meaning storytellers, in their own right. And that, if they do this often enough, they eventually grow into Isumataq; people capable of creating a space for others to share and experience their own stories, without judgement, in a gentler, more self-accepting way which, in turn, allows their own inner wisdom to awaken, to reveal itself and to truly flourish.

Tefía, Fuerteventura

We are meaning-making beings and we make meaning through stories. We not only have ‘our Story’ about our past, our present and the potential of our future, stories are the cipher through which we decode everything in the world around us. Stories do not distract our mind from other things, they are the way that we assimilate information and create a functional or dysfunctional sense of ourselves, our experiences and other people.

Sometimes we use historical stories, from our own lives or from our collective human experience; sometimes we use the ‘current accepted story’ of our society, or of our secular or religious communities; and sometimes we use fictional, fantastical or mythical stories, that connect to something deeper within us, the imagination that lies within.

The mind is an immensely powerful creative gift and its fuel is the imagination. The imagination is how we, as a creative species, created every man-made thing that exists on our planet today. It is the foundation and cornerstone of every discovery and advancement in scientific thinking and of the physical manifestation of that thinking into technological progress and material reality.

Our individual imaginations are one of the ways that God empowers us to embody the force of creation within our lives. We can allow that creative force to enslave us, to ‘put the Fear of God’ into us by repeatedly belittling ourselves, and wasting the power of our imaginations on a story given to us by someone else. Or we can praise, worship and embrace ‘the Love of God’ that our imaginations represent, by honouring the unique and powerful gift we’ve been given and by using it to create our own never-ending, Life-enhancing stories.

When I allow myself to be human, when I take pleasure and joy from little things, when I think, feel and act from a place of gentleness, non-judgement and ease, these are the times when I feel I am writing and sharing a worthwhile, meaning-filled story of myself. A never-ending story of discovery, learning, acceptance, love, gradual adjustment and growing inner peace. And, in repeatedly returning to this realisation and trying to embody it day-by-day, I am also trying to create a small space where others might feel moved to do the same…

Integrate, connect, draw a line between your mind, your body and your heart. For me it’s about telling a story and those are the characters. We show up each day and we write each chapter, each page, each sentence by integrating those three things: our Mind, our Body and our Heart…Namaste”

– Adriene Mishler

Surfing the Waves of Experience….

I’m living for a few weeks in the northern part of Fuerteventura, close to the large and developed tourist centre of Corralejo, but nearer, geographically, to its lesser-developed and more charming coastal cousin, El Cotillo. Where Corralejo boasts a nature reserve, miles of sand-dune beaches, frequent English signage and a touristy ‘main drag’, El Cotillo has a smaller, rockier, wilder coastline, a more hand-painted, bohemian atmosphere and little cafes and restaurants where locals can often be seen and heard.

Corralejo is where the large surf schools congregate and little ‘tutor groups’ of students, keen to learn the challenging craft of ‘riding the waves’, are seen dotted along its beaches. Some groups are stretching their limbs in unison, others are collectively lying prostrate on their sand-beached boards, but all end up excitedly paddling out on their eventual virgin voyages to commune with the vast and endlessly-inviting waves.

El Cotillo, in contrast, is where the novices progress to, and where those ‘bitten by the surfing bug’ are seen standing at the water’s edge, sand between their toes, eyes fixed firmly on the sea before them, boards held reverently at their sides. They’re reading the wind and watching the waves, before launching themselves into the advancing tide.

The conditions there are more unpredictable, the surf is stronger, the waves are larger, and the currents can carry a hidden menace beneath their surface swell. But surfing must have the same addictive quality of any other strong compulsion because, despite the many red flags all along the beach when I visited there this week, the surfers just ignored them and, using their own internal barometers of safety, kept wading out repeatedly to meet and ride the incoming tide.

Watching them, as the light slowly dimmed, was a beautiful and awe-inspiring experience. Not just because of the skill that several of them displayed but, even more so, because of the time, effort, patience and perseverance that the majority employed. Time and time again they paddled out, sat waiting on their boards for the ‘perfect wave’ then attempted, valiantly and often unsuccessfully, to harness its power and to ride it, upright, in to shore. At first sight, it looked like ‘95% preparation and effort’ and ‘5% fun’. But, like all things, with a little more watching and a little more reflection, I began to see it in a different light.

I began to see the pleasure that the whole process gave to them, from the initial ‘reconnaissance on the beach’, right through to the final ‘catching of the wave’. How completely absorbed and committed they were to each part of it. How each phase contributed to the honing and refining of their judgment, physical strength, flexibility, balance, confidence and eventual skill. I began to understand why the atmosphere of El Cotillo, with its larger ‘experienced surfer’ population has such a laid back, contented, quietly-confident and easy-going feel.

I mentally contrasted it with Corralejo and its fast food franchises, its high street chain stores, its ‘Fish Foot Spas’, ‘Vape Emporiums’, and waves of restless, roaming tourists looking for ways to fill their attention and their time…and I began to understand. One group of holiday-makers was connecting with the natural force of Life and strengthening its force within them, and the other was seeking distraction and perhaps, in the process, subduing their spirits and souls.

I believe that when we willingly and repeatedly engage with Life, in all its natural manifestations, we slowly hone our confidence, enlarge our perspective, discover what we’re capable of and what latent potential we still have within. Some of us, like the surfers, do this by testing ourselves physically, others choose to take up the mental or emotional challenges offered to them by Life.

It reminded me of something that I’d jotted down in my journal one day, while I was still living on El Hierro:

When we loosen our tight grip on fear, we balance ourselves with Life…and when we balance ourselves with Life, fear loosens its tight grip on us.

It was a phrase that came to me from nowhere, when I was watching the sea crashing onto the rocks at the harbour town of La Restinga one day. I wrote it down and then thought “That all sounds very poetic, simple and well, but how on earth do we ‘loosen our tight grip on Fear’?”

But this week, watching the surfers, I think I saw how…

I’m a person who likes to read. My favourite topics are ones that circle around or dive straight into the ‘bigger questions’ of life. What is Love? What is God? Why are we here? How should we live? These are questions that have been posed and answered, in various and often conflicting ways, since the beginning of time, language and civilisation itself. Anyone who’s ever felt baffled, frustrated, wounded or enchanted by questions such as these – often following painful or challenging experiences in their lives – is in good company.

They’re questions that’ve been chewed over by some of history’s greatest minds (eg: Socrates; Plato; Leonardo da Vinci; Mahatma Gandhi; Leo Tolstoy; Carl Jung; Snoopy the Dog) all of whom reached their own conclusions and then tried to convey them through their theories, their writing or their established ‘schools of thought’.

Each new theory, philosophy, scientific explanation or religion adds another dimension or ‘wave’ of theology or opinion and they all contribute, in their own unique way, to forming part of the great, relentless, unfathomable ‘Sea of Knowledge about Life’. But like the ‘novice tutor groups’ on the surfer beaches at Corralejo they only really offer us the basic principles and ideas that give us the confidence to enter the water. Everything that comes afterwards, in the form of our own personal experience, is where the real learning takes place.

That’s why, by facing our fears whenever they confront us, by taking note of any warning flags but then using our own barometer of safety (our intuitive voice within) we learn how to gradually build our unique and individual strength and resilience and we slowly begin to ‘balance ourselves with Life’.

We learn, through experience, which wave of opinion we should let pass and which we should catch hold of and attempt to ride. We learn that we are not just harried by other people’s strong and strident opinions, but that we have many conflicting and bullying ones of our own. We learn to test our judgement about situations and other people, in order to enlarge the boundaries of our self-belief.

And, little by little, we learn the value of repeatedly paddling out to meet each new experience that Life sends our way. We learn how to whole-heartedly focus our attention on engaging with each experience, and on any waves of emotion that come trailing in their wake. And, over time, we begin to notice that Fear is slowly releasing the tight grip that it once held on us, and that our balance is starting to become good enough to stand up for who we are.

I’m still firmly in the ‘novice class’…but I’m slowly learning…

(If anyone is curious to learn more about surfing in general, or about the best locations for surfers of all abilities in Fuerteventura, http://ciudadsurf.com/ is a great website to visit, providing a range of information about the sport, its equipment and its mental, physical and health benefits).

Castles in the sand…

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The Endless Beaches of Costa Calma

This week I visited the South of the island and took a walk along its linked and seemingly-endless stretch of golden, sandy beaches.

I set off with the intention of exploring a little, walking to a ‘Spit’ of land I could see in the distance and then returning to my starting point to sit and soak up some sunshine before heading back home. But, like most of Life, the initial plan was only the starting point and the real meaning behind it was hidden in what I encountered and experienced along the way:

  • Little rocky outcrops to pick my way over, draped in various shades of luminous green and studded with gem-like limpets and sinister, scurrying crabs.
  • A gentle surf-line of ebbing tide that whispered “Surrender your naked feet to my tender touch and cooling flow”; a Siren’s song that I was happy to be seduced by.
  • A fortress-line of tiny sand castles being skilfully constructed by an army of tiny hands; each strategically dotted along the length of the beach. None within sight of each other, but all driven by the same tiny human need to design and construct something visible, something tangible on the endlessly-shifting sands.
  • Long, expanding rivulets of incoming tidal water that temporarily blocked my path, each one offering me the choice: ‘Wade in and get your feet wet or make a cautious, drier detour and take the long way round’.

And so the walk went on…and on.

Hotels, surf schools, sun loungers and parasols came and went, slowly retreating into the distance, as mountains, desert plains and endless ocean and sand lay waiting for me, invitingly, up ahead. Constant desert landscape to my right, vibrant, dancing ocean to my left and only beach, and more beach, the pathway in between.

It was the sort of moment where philosophical thoughts begin to form and so they did…slowly and comically at first:

“Life’s a beach and then you die…”

But then “I’ll have to let go of my original plan soon, walking out to the Spit of land, and consider heading back. I suppose I’ve failed in my objective for the day.”

“How human”, my inner voice said, “to focus on the failed objective and not the joy of the little things that surfaced in its place”.

As I retraced my steps I thought more about this, how the feeling of failure is always linked to comparison and to somehow falling short. Comparison with our original plans; comparison with other people; comparison with unrealistic standards or ideals of perfection, in behaviour, in selflessness, in appearance or in measures of achievement. And I thought about how we continually dampen our spirits and dull our inner light each time we choose to take this ‘thinking path of comparison’.

I looked out at the sunlight glistening magically on the moving water. I looked out at the solid horizon of mountains silhouetted in the distance and I felt the spirit of peace that they both convey, in their own unique way. One dancing, vibrant, life-filled kind of peace. One calm, solid, silent kind of peace. And I thought “Failure is just a meaningless human construct. Comparison is just a human and limited way of thinking, living and being, hard-wired into us through generations of conditioning and a daily ritual of repetition.

Neither of them has anything to do with this all-consuming Spirit of Life that I can feel all around me and, fleetingly, within me too. Neither of them has anything to do with finding, creating or cultivating peace within or with sharing that inner peace with others in any way.

This can only be done by accepting my ‘imperfections’. This can only be done by sighing and smiling at my human need to continually judge, myself and others, and then by letting all feelings of ‘failure’ around those judgements go.

Our whole lives are really all about letting the liquid tide of dancing light sweep in and wash away the ‘sand-castles’ that we build around who we think we are, or who we think we should be. And then looking up, looking around us, looking at the beautiful, inviting horizon…and continuing to walk the endless and unfolding beach of Life ahead…