Imperfect, Limited and Vulnerable

I’ve recently started working at Aro Hā, a stunning, purpose-built retreat centre in Otago, south island New Zealand.  A new chapter, new colleagues, and new expectations to put upon myself.

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It’s so exceptionally beautiful here, that I actually think it added to the pressure I felt to create mind-blowing meals. For my first retreat, our food actually way exceeded my checked expectations. As I had been anxious to make a good impression, I was supremely organised and took care to oversee as much detail as possible. I got up pre-dawn and walked home under the stars, and had plans and checklists to cover every morsel that would leave the kitchen.

But midway through that first retreat, something I had given minimal importance to started to fester. Namely, I was putting so much effort into the food that I was simultaneously suffocating and ignoring my skilled and creative colleagues. You know, the actual human beings I was spending 10 hours a day with. The shameful thing was, I hadn’t even noticed that I was doing it.  Continue reading “Imperfect, Limited and Vulnerable”

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Tea and Vegan Chocolate

I haven’t felt like writing for weeks. I felt like I have lost my voice somewhat, probably because I have not felt solid ground under my feet for what feels like the longest time (but in reality has been about 7 weeks!)

In that time, I have borne an abrupt split with my previous employer, travelled 1000km south to a new region of NZ (away from dear friends and the dog I used to co-parent), moved in with a new house-mate, started a new job, and joined a different community. Then, having not given any of these new seeds a chance to sprout, I flew ‘home’ to London for a overdue visit. Living predominantly in my parents house (with the unique challenges that brings) I feel more of an unsettled itinerant than ever.

Last week though, I had the opportunity to get out of the smoke for a while. I stayed amida2for 4 days with wonderful friends, Satya and Kaspa, who created and manage the Amida Mandala Buddhist Temple in Great Malvern. On Saturday, a small group of us did a day-long retreat; 3 hours of continual chanting in the morning, then an afternoon discussing and contemplating giving & receiving. (In the evening there was a ‘sharing circle’ which I didn’t attend because I still hadn’t found anything to say!) It was really wonderful to be in the easy, genuine and comfortable company of good friends, and to re-connect with the dharma. Listening to the dawn chorus was another highlight of the trip – in my years away from the UK I had forgotten how beautiful English bird-song is. Watching British TV comedy in the evening together with mugs of tea and Satya’s vegan chocolate was also fabulous!

In many ways, Satya and Kaspa offered me what Anne Lamott prescribes in the opening chapter of her latest book, Hallelujah Anyway:

Hallelujah Anyway jacket (Anne Lamott)When other people look hunched or pummelled, I know what to do and say, to help them recolonise their bodies and lives. I say: stop the train. Be where your butt is. I would say: Life can be painful, but I am right here, and you have a good heart… I would tell a person, “you have the right to remain silent. Would you like a nice cup of tea? Some M&M’s? Let’s sprawl, unfold those creaky wings.”

Sometimes we need to talk things through, (endlessly), or perhaps wail and scream, but also know that the ‘right to remain silent’ is an option. Continue reading “Tea and Vegan Chocolate”

Inspiration From All Directions

Our 30-day retreat with Lama Mark Webber finished last Thursday – it’s been an amazing month; I have learnt so much and feel very inspired. Of course I am inspired by the teachings, and the very presence and energy of Lama Mark, that goes without saying. But I have also been inspired by so much that has arisen in conjunction with that retreat; the people who were part of it, and the experiences that unfolded during the month as a result of my time at the Wangapeka. The vast amount & range of cooking that I wanted to offer in support stretched my imagination and repertoire in the kitchen… and as always, there were times that my patience and energy were also tested! Waking up to sunrises like the ones above and below were definitely part of the reward though!

On the evening that the retreat ended, by extraordinarily happy coincidence (whatever) there was a public talk at the Nelson Buddhist Centre given by Tara Choying Lhamo. She is a young Austrian-born dharma practitioner who has lived in retreat for over twenty years. For twelve of those, she lived and meditated in solitude, high in the mountains of Nepal in Lapchi, one of the retreat caves used by Tibet’s great yogi and saint, Milarepa.

I found her story and her presence equally astonishing. She was so clear and present, so open, grounded, poised and warm.  Continue reading “Inspiration From All Directions”

The Warmth of Autumn

Although the days are hot and sunny, I’m already conscious of the onset of autumn.

We are one week in to a 30-day retreat, and the atmosphere is calm and settled. I’m really appreciating seeing the ways that the retreatants are supporting each other; checking-in to see how everyone’s doing, having quiet conversations, sharing the chores, talking about the teachings. Everyone has slowed down (even the bumble bees) and the sun is getting up much later now too.

I was reminded of the time I was practising in one of the monasteries in Burma. Although we spent the day in total silence, around sunset we gathered in small groups of two or three and did our walking meditation outside in the cool air… and had warm conversation. In Burma I found this routine especially supportive, and I can see how the participants here are forming friendly, supportive bonds too.

Before this retreat, someone asked me what Lama Mark was like. Is he an angry person, was their first question! Continue reading “The Warmth of Autumn”

Time To Get Some Shit Done!

Last weekend I went to a fantastic ‘Un-Conference’ in Christchurch, NZ. Women Who Get Shit Done events are collaborative gatherings for those of us who identify as women. There is no upfront agenda, and the topics and sessions are co-created on the first evening and led by the participants themselves. It’s a giant event of networking and idea sharing, where you can learn, support, inspire and be inspired. It was really fantastic – if you are in NZ I definitely recommend you to apply for a space on the next event.

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I was astounded by the vast range of topics, issues and causes that the group were in to. From gender equality to local politics, environmental issues to health & wellbeing, creative writing, poetry, bee-keeping and cheese-making, there was very little that wasn’t covered!

The evening I arrived home, I felt rather humbled by the work the other 119 women were doing. They are really making the world a better place, often challenging the status quo in difficult and sometimes even hostile environments. They are truly remarkable beings! Continue reading “Time To Get Some Shit Done!”

Invincibly Happy

Sometimes it seems like Buddhism encourages us, overly, to focus on the difficult. It’s all about the dukkha, so to turn our attention to the happy and the joyful moments in life is just not the way. I spent a couple of YEARS with that misconception, thinking that to enjoy dessert just wasn’t Buddhist… (please don’t make the same mistake!)

However, the Buddha talked a LOT about happiness, how to manifest it and how to relate to it. Yes, he talked about nirvana and the heavenly realms, but he spoke often about ordinary, mundane, human happiness too. In fact, the Buddha seemed to imply that happiness is so much a part of human experience, that actually, we can’t avoid it.

So, especially after last Monday’s earthquakes which ripped the South Island of NZ (and shook much of the North Island), I am in the mood to just count my blessings. I was about 275km from the epicentre, and still it was terrifying. But I am not hurt. My power and water weren’t cut off, I didn’t go without food, I drove home from Wangapeka on smooth roads that didn’t have gigantic crevasses in them like the ones in Kaikoura did, making them impassable.

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Continue reading “Invincibly Happy”

The Most Important Point….

I’ve been living on a greatly reduced income for a couple of months. Unlike millions of people who actually never know when their next wage is coming, I knew this ‘gap’ was ahead, so I made some calculations and gave myself a meager daily budget to make sure my money would stretch.

The first 2 or 3 days were the most challenging – I felt I was in a self-imposed prison of deprivation and worry about the future. And boredom.

But before long I saw these weeks as an experiment: I have a bit of a stubborn nature, and I wanted to prove to myself that I had the discipline to live simply and renounce some very unnecessary habits (usually involving a trip to a café!) When it was reframed like that, it became more interesting. But what was the point, really? What was I trying to prove, or achieve? I have a credit card and guaranteed work ahead, why didn’t I just put a big food shop on credit?

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Suzuki Roshi taught that, “The most important point,” and here he paused to make sure he had everyone’s full attention, “is to find…out…” another pause, “what…is…. Continue reading “The Most Important Point….”

Limitless Emotion, Not One Word

I haven’t posted for a while, but my heart and mind (and the minutes of the day) have been full.

Jeremy Logan has been leading the Heart Of Understanding Insight Meditation retreat here at Wangapeka. It’s one of my highlights of the year, and I think the secret is out as this year people travelled from as far away as Auckland and Wanaka to attend. We’ve been connecting with the simplicity of present moment awareness. Last night he shared the ‘Bāhiya Sutta’, which includes the well-known pithy teaching of the Buddha: ‘In the seen is only the seen. In the heard, only the heard. In the sensed, only the sensed. In the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself…. This, just this, is the end of suffering‘.

Feeling everything, but not making a story about every experience, brings a sense of grounded-ness in the present. This is when I realise that there is a LOT going on…

The retreat ended today, and the deep silence was replaced by joyful chatter… and singing!

Here are two exquisite poems by the Japanese poet/monk Ryōkan, expressing the richness of experience that goes beyond words. And a montage of photos and links to recipes from the last couple of weeks (scroll down!) There is still snow on the mountains, but also, spring is in the air.

Continue reading “Limitless Emotion, Not One Word”

But First… Radishes.

Yesterday I felt I pretty numb. The murder of the priest in Normandy, the inconceivable violence in Germany, it all just broke my heart. So much hatred and confusion in the world right now. Classic “comfort food” can sometimes ease the heart-ache, but yesterday anything ‘man-made’ felt inappropriate in light of the man-made mess the world is in.

For lunch, in silence (aside from the crunching) I simply ate my way through a bowl of exceedingly fresh radishes. Yes, radishes. Expressing nowt but their untainted, uncomplicated, unashamed radishness. I am 100% certain that this is the first time I’d eaten solely radishes. I’d never appreciated their lipstick-pink, perfect, firm, roundness before, let alone their crunchy juiciness. Why are radishes often sliced paper thin and hidden in a salad, when devouring them whole is the only way to fully know them?

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I remember the Zen teacher Edward Brown once saying something like when radishes aren’t good enough, pretty soon nothing is good enough. Everything falls short. Nothing measures up. Yet when someone can pick up a radish and be delighted… all beings benefit.

Why has life got so complicated? Continue reading “But First… Radishes.”