| July Journal|

I am blind.
My eyes deceive me.
For where I see hardship and pain, some see harmony.
Where I am weighed down by fear, others only experience joy.
Where I am intent upon survival and success,
Others express heart-wrenchingly sincere humility.
What do they have that I don’t?
They protect no secret.
They foster no prophecy.
They simply have clear vision.
Where there is mist in my eye,
There is unfractured light in theirs.

~ All landscape paintings featured this month are from a collection by Zhang Daqian ~

Wiping the Mirror: Getting Out of Your Own Way

“For true love is given to mirror and manifest God on earth, and not for self-realisation and personal happiness. With the acceptance of those terms, the path comes into being.”
- Cynthia Bourgeault

Just as a plant confined to a small pot can only grow so big, so experiential growth will be limited by identification with the body. The eternal soul has a capacity far greater than the temporal body could ever dream. Yet the majority of us live well within the confines of flesh and bone. We see everything through the lens of our bodily identification. We are so heavily reliant upon labels to define who we are that, were this rhetoric abandoned, we would be stripped of our identity. The mirror has become so encrusted with conditioning that we don’t even see how these personal and group identifications are purely constructions of the false ego, and ultimately are hugely damaging. They are damaging not only in their divisive means of breaking society down into ever increasingly isolated minorities, as opposed to recognising our shared state of ‘being’, but because they are distracting us from what is Real.

A clean mirror reflects what is really there. It reflects the truth. No distortions or constructions. The Zen discipline of ‘wiping the mirror’ is a practice of constantly watching the patterns of the mind. Noting where the attention drifts to and where it does not. Our own stream of consciousness can block us from recieving love, from communing with the Divine, and from understanding who we really are at the core. We cannot cultivate grace or be situated in acceptance until we have witnessed the warped lens of the ego and rejected it in favour of conscious awareness. Of Truth. We all share a common vocation, which is to love. To love God. To love our fellow man. All sentient beings. Creation in its entirity. 

This is the path most of us are busily searching after. Some of us are more active in the search than others, but we are all seekers nonetheless. The reality is that what we are seeking is right in front of us, we simply lack the clarity of vision to see it or the strength to overcome the conflicting voices of the ego in the mind. In this way, we are standing in the way of our own growth. We put too much of ourselves into our actions, hoping to become somehow defined and refined through what we do as we still lack a sense of who we are.

To wipe the mirror clear of the ego is central to all spiritual practices and religious faiths. This is a life-long (for most of us) process of purification and disillusionment. It is a journey of total surrender to the divine, which requires us to give up all concepts, judgments and desires. To become fully present, compassionate and humble. To relinquish visions of control or material affluence, and to trust fully in the cosmic unfolding. For so long I looked at the enlightened state as something to be acquired, or at least realised. But in actual fact the journey is one of shedding, letting go, and ‘un-learning’. A journey of remembrance. The rekindling of a lost bond with ourselves and our maker. 

“A lot of times we can get caught up in the need to achieve something spiritually, forgetting that our connection is to each other, the Earth and Spirit are inherent. We needn’t become good. Goodness is in our nature. We have merely to rest in our truth. Disconnection is ego. Connection is Truth. It really is that simple. And connecting to the self, Nature or to others is very easy. You just need the space to rest in the heart, which is already connected.”
- Wu De, Tea Medicine

“[the Master] finds deep in her own experinece the central truths of the art of living, which are paradoxical only on the surface; that the more truly solitary we are, the more compassionate we can be; the more we let go of what we love, the more present our love becomes; the clearer our insight into what is beyond good and evil, the more we can embody the good. ... Unencumbered by any concept of sin, the Master doesn’t see evil as a force to resist, but simply as an opaqueness, a state of self-absorption which is in disharmony with the universal process, so that, as with a dirty window, the light can’t shine through.”
- Stephen Mitchell, Forward, Tao De Ching

Intuition: Understanding Below Consciousness

Intuition is a great example of what we are capable of once we have ‘wiped the mirror’ and got out of our own way in order to see clearly. The mind, constructed by the ego, serves a mighty function in physical preservation, but it too often stands in the way of our connection with the true Self and with Reality. In our pure, conscious and present form, we are sure-footed. When we reach a divergence in our path, we know which avenue to take. We know this not through rationalization or intelligence, not through future speculation or past memory, but because it is part of us. It is a knowing far deeper than the deductions of the mind and therefore often beyond a capacity to comprehend. As is the case with most universal truths, it is a matter of great trust, faith, and a wisdom that exceeds human justification. For some this makes intuition highly suspect in the same way some regard matters of faith. This is only natural, for it is very difficult for the conditioned soul to surrender to an innate wisdom that cannot be framed within a scientific context. But if we limit ourselves to the knowledge of mankind, we are robbing ourselves of divine insights and the transcendence of mundane experience.

As we are now well into the season of Fire, we can truly appreciate it’s ethereal, light, bright and fast qualities. John Kirkwood compares the summer season to lightening, as ‘it moves with rapid brilliancy’. Another of the attributes of the Fire element is its great awareness of all that is. Much of the practice of harnessing our intuition is a matter of heightening awareness. Intuition is the name given to our capacity to have instantaneous understanding or insight of something without conscious reasoning. This is not to say that the intuitive body is irrational, or lacks any common sense, but the understanding comes very quickly and with no effort on the part of the thinking mind. It is as though the wisdom has slipped in below the level of the conscious mind, and having done so, has avoided egoic contamination.  

This flash of insight is known by the Zen masters as ‘satori’. This is a moment of total presence. A fleeting taste of the enlightened experience. This is only possible through a state of total awareness. A stilling of the mind so focus can be placed on what IS. We cannot truly experience beauty or have profound experience without first relinquishing our hold on our personal baggage. Sweeping the mind clear of our problems, memories, fears, desires, preconceptions, and even our knowledge. Only once we become totally present can we experience this deep inner essence shining through.

Meditation: Revealing the Conscious Mind

Understanding the nature of the illusive, conditioned mind from a conceptual level is the start. But we cannot truly know through thought process alone. We must feel it from a much subtler level. Below language. Pure consciousness is presence. The reclamation of consciousness from the mind, from the world of form and of attachments to the past and future. Residing fully in the present is the only way to become situated in pure consciousness. This cultivation of presence goes hand-in-hand with deep awareness of the inner body, the subtler layers of our being. Knowledge and recognition of the inner body is a means of remembering the soul’s origin and the return to ultimate source.

The practice of meditation is really a resensitisation of the body. Many of us are so societally conditioned that we have become desensitized to the deeper levels of our being, and ultimately this results in a confused sense of self and false identification with the mind. Only by becoming very still and quiet and turning the senses inwards can we begin to understand the subtle nature of the self. Only by recognition of the soul identity can we begin to differentiate between the processes of the conditioned mind and the Truth that we all inhabit.

We are all originally conscious and enlightened beings. We have it all within us. It is simply forgotten or shrouded in misconception, false identity, fear, and restricted vision. We give all of our attention to the mind and the external world, depriving ourselves of real insight and connection. The meditation practice is simply a means of allowing ourselves the space to peel back layers that are clouding consciousness. To reacquaint ourselves with the intuitive intelligence and deep spiritual knowing that we have lost touch with.

Practice… Take a comfortable seat, perhaps upright on a chair or sitting cross-legged on the ground, the hips slightly propped by a cushion or blanket. Alternatively, this practice can be done lying prone on the back in savasana. Closing down the eyes and resting the hands face down on the thighs, in the mood of introspection, begin lengthening the breath in and out through the nose. Focus on the sensation of the breath. How it feels on the nostrils. The rising and falling of the belly and chest. Expansion and retraction of the rib cage. Keep the breath very deep but also loose and unforced. Allow any thoughts or emotions to simply slip from the conscious mind and the attention becomes fully engrossed on the breath. Follow the inhale as it saturates the body, flowing down the limbs, nourishing each cell. You may feel a tingling sensation in the arms and legs, perhaps even in the belly as you witness the sustaining life force enter and then cleanse and depart the body with each cycle. If you find it helpful to visualise the breath, imagine the inhale entering as golden light, flooding the body, and the exhale as pushing pure white light out into the environment. Continue this way for several minutes until the whole body and mind is suffused with clear and harmonious light. Once you feel situated with the whole inner body as one single field of energy, keep giving you attention to it. See the entire being glow on the inhale, and on the exhale the light extends out beyond the skin, breaking down the boundary and extending the energy field. Feel the body become very light and borderless. Try to maintain this soft awareness and presence for several minutes. When you are ready to come out of the meditation, do so very gently and with a soft smile bring the focus back to the physical body, moving the fingers and toes. Finishing with the hands in a prayer position at heart centre. Breathing in deep gratitude. Try to maintain this connection as you softly open the eyes and continue into your day.

Prānāyāma: The Heart of Expansion

Summer is the months of ‘expansion’. The cleansing of our inner lens, the wiping of the mirror, is the expansion of consciousness - the cultivation of a subtle understanding of the different layers of the mind and body in order that we not become distracted by them, but are able to utilise them to pursue our higher spiritual goals.  

Prānāyāma tends to be a much neglected category of the yoga practice within the Western world. When I started yoga, I regarded the practice of breath control as something tedious to get through in order to find balance in a handstand, and none of my teachers ever really attempted to convince me otherwise. But over the years my relationship with the breath has entirely shifted. Prānāyāma has now become the most integral part of my yoga practice and I find myself spending at least double the amount of time breathing as in asana. I have had a very committed asana and meditation practice for many years now, yet I have never felt so profound a shift in consciousness as that experienced by harnessing the transformational power of prāna, the life force energy.

We are made up of so many layers. The Taittiriya Upanishad categorizes these layers into five “koshas”, most often defined as ‘layers of Being’. From the grosser, outer layers of the body, the inner tissues, and the subtlest integrated layers that compose not only this venerable vessel in which we reside, but also the deeper being, the eternal self. Most of us are only in touch with the first two koshas, the outer physical body, and the energetic body within. We have very little time or awareness of the deeper sheaths of the mind, intelligence and ultimate bliss. Prānāyāma practices use the breath to penetrate these deeper layers and bring them to the fore of our consciousness. By commanding our focus, the illusory mind is quietened so we can sink into a deeper space of awareness. Awareness of our external, internal, and subtle environment. As we feel the body expand and cleanse, so too do we experience the shedding of limiting patterns of the mind and a mindful dis-identification with the body.

On the most fundamental physical level, breath is life. It is the only element of nourishment that we cannot do without for more than a couple of minutes. As we are reliant on breathing more than 20,000 times per day, it is astonishing that we don’t look at the health of breath in depth. Disease thrives in an acidic climate. This climate is created by the build-up of carbon dioxide and subsequent lack of oxygen that is caused by not breathing properly. Therefore, learning how to breath optimally is essential not only for spiritual advancement but for general overall health.

Practice… I have recently been returning to the fundamentals of the breath practice, starting each day with 30 minutes of deep, cleansing breath, serving to centre and cultivate deep seated awareness. So this month, rather than recommending a particular prānāyāma exercise, I encourage you to really explore your relationship with the breath, right from the fundamentals. Whether this means lying on your back and feeling the breath fill the belly, ribs, and chest, or sitting and practicing maintaining a deep and steady focus on the nature of the inhales and exhales as they enter, nourish each cell, and depart. Be soft, be gentle, be curious, but most of all, be aware and awed.

Daily Retreat: The Sphere of Influence

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
- Reinhold Niebuhr

With the theme of expansion and the outward stretching energetic nature of the summer months and the Fire element, it becomes easier than ever to fall into the trap of over-extending ourselves. This can manifest in a number of different guises – often it is the inability to say “no” or a feeling of responsibility for people or situations that are beyond your control. The first step to overcoming the stress incurred by putting ourselves under pressure to please or influence is learning to recognize the things we have the power to change and the things we don’t. From this place of gentle recognition, we can respond rather than react to situations and either come to a place of healthy acceptance or make changes accordingly.

The mind will try to convince us of the importance of all of our actions, but when we look beyond the ramblings of the ego, we can come to a place of understanding that our sphere of influence fluctuates – sometimes we are able to implement great change in our own lives and the lives of others, and other times our sphere of influence is very small and we have little effect on anything. Neither of these states should be considered in a positive or a negative light. It is simply Reality. The more we are able to cultivate awareness and acceptance, not becoming attached to the waves as they pull in and retreat, the more we can be in a space of truth and act in the highest interest.

“There is perhaps no greater skill necessary for navigating human life than recognizing the limits of one’s influence and then staying within them.”

- Wu De, Tea Medicine

This is no easy task and it is precisely for the purpose of heightening awareness that the contemplative ‘retreat’ to re-centre and reconnect. This can be seen in Japanese and Chinese culture through the construction of private Tea huts in gardens where one can withdraw as regularly as necessary, to find the space and peace to expand into the revealed conscious mind. Mystics and yogi’s take the notion of the retreat to extremes and withdraw to mountain caves for years at a time to develop and hone their relationship to the eternal self and the Divine. But on a more practical level, we must learn to find our own means of retreat. Committed meditation and prānāyāma practices are examples of a daily retreat that we can form a relationship with without dramatically altering our lifestyle. Yoga practice can also be a retreat, if we use it as such and not as a means of exercise or socialization. Retreat is deeply intimate and can only truly be found in isolation. This doesn’t mean you cannot meditate beside someone else who is meditating. But it does mean that the experience is delicately personal. It is not shared, nor should it be. The retreat is about our connection to ourselves, to the creative energy, and to our spiritual guidance. Only when we start to live in a state of perpetual connection can we truly transcend the mind and conditioned fears and desires.

Practice… taking time every day to sit quietly, close the eyes and take several rounds of deep breath. Scan the body from bottom to top and back again. Feel the energetic sensations within the body and become deeply present and aware. After cultivating this state, take some time to journal, noting areas where you seek to control or influence. After listing these things or people, take some time to establish the motivation behind this desire to influence. Is it coming from a rooted and well-intentioned space, or from a position of fear or stubbornness? If you find that your desire to influence is in fact a construction of the ego, take gentle note and without speaking harshly to yourself, begin to release the attachment to this thought pattern. If you find that the need to influence is coming from a space of truth and awareness, then it is time to consider your sphere of influence and whether you have the ability to make the changes you see necessary. If the answer is no, consider ways in which you could begin to make peace with your current reality. If the answer is yes, take a little more time to situate fully in the present and peaceful mind, and consider the optimal way in which you could go about implementing change.

Practice… some form of retreat daily. This could be a committed daily meditation practice, journaling session, tea ceremony, self-lead yoga practice, or any other way you find of coming back into contact with the self. Make sure to become very still, very present, and very aware. Become a witness to the emotions and mental recitations at play, allowing them to flow from the detached mind, wiping the mirror clean so we can glimpse into our depths and revel in a state of heightened consciousness.

Tea Meditation: Cultivating the Four Virtues

“These bowls know when to be empty and when to be full, something we often forget. Everything in nature knows that there is a time for action and a time for stillness […] Take the time to empty your bowl everyday, so that it can be filled again…”
- Wu De, Tea Medicine

The sacred practice of Cha Dao is a deeply rooted meditation practice that encourages us to strip back the layers, look within and establish ourselves in pure consciousness. Tea ceremony has become one of my forms of daily retreat. A time dedicated to silent introspection, surrender of the conditioned mind, and a chance to establish pervasive humility and desire to serve. The above quote by tea master Wu De is a beautiful reminder of the great importance of creating space in our daily lives to find stillness, and return there often to clear out the cluttered mind and make space for new growth. The idea of emptiness can be daunting and is certainly counter to the material urge to accumulate. We have become gatherers, seeking things outside of ourselves in a vain hope that they will provide the medicine we need. However, sitting in tea meditation brings us back to the gentle realization that we don’t need to gain anything to become spiritually elevated. On the contrary, we must discard in order to reveal the knowledge that is already there. This underlying love and reverence for the divine that we have forgotten due to our conditioning.

In Zen philosophy, Cha Dao is infused with Four Virtues. These virtues are pillars upheld by all spiritual delineations but often forgotten or ignored. The great sages of all Eastern traditions defend these virtues as providers of the humility and discipline essential to finding ultimate freedom.

The first virtue of Tea is Harmony. Without harmony we are left with discord and disease. Health of body, mind, and spirit can only be achieved by the development of harmonious relationships with Nature, Self, and other. Only through connection with God and all earth residing entities can the highest potential of human life be reached. There are many ways we can look to cultivate greater harmony in our lives. Many of them will come naturally when you begin to connect more deeply with the authentic self, listening to the intuitive consciousness and resisting the urges of the contaminated mind. Drinking Tea ceremonially will bring a harmony of its own, as we create the time and space to empty ourselves and establish situation in the present reality. We learn calm, clear awareness and are able, even if just for a moment, to retreat from our sphere of influence and rest in the stillness of what really is. We become clear, bright, and united as internal conversations are silenced and we are centered in the heart.

The second virtue of Tea is Respect; however, some prefer the translation “Reverence” as this seems a more saturated understanding. The Tea philosophy is that as Tea instills harmony it is health giving, and one should always revere spiritual medicine. To show real reverence requires great humility – a quality not greatly stressed in western culture. Eastern and indigenous cultures have a very grounded understanding of reverence. Reverence towards Nature, towards God. Healing plants, elders, prayers, and even the physical body are treated with the respect shown to the sacred. For fundamentally everything is sacred to a degree. Many people have a negative response to notions of the scared, however, without some recognition of the divine and the creation of sacred space within our day, we cannot live a fully contented and connected life. Prayer and ritual are important not because God or the Earth require them, but because we do! We often fail to recognize the entrenched psychological need for connection to the Divine. So whether you have a strong faith in God or no religious tendencies at all is beside the point. Some form of daily communion with the Sacred is essential for our health and understanding of the world, teaching us to express ourselves from a place of kindness, gentleness, and respect.

The third virtue of Tea is Purity. In order to demonstrate our reverence for the Divine, we must take great care to nurture, cleanse and purify our space, bodies, and minds. We show respect for our altars by keeping them clean, fragrant, bright and with fresh flowers, and this practice should extend to how we do everything. The whole notion of ‘wiping the mirror’, discussed above, relates to the virtue of purity. By keeping the body externally clean by bathing and internally clean by eating respectfully and intelligently, we optimize our situation. It is important to care for the body as it is the source of all of our experience in this life. If we do not maintain the purity of the mind and body, we have very little chance of connecting to the higher self. Therefore, we should not see cleaning as a chore but as a gift to delve deeper into a practice that will assist in the cleansing of the conditioned mind, allowing the authentic self to shine through.

The fourth virtue of Tea is Tranquility. This tranquility is represented by feelings of wholeness or completeness – a recognition that we contain all that we need and nothing is lacking. The difference between this virtue and the first three is that it cannot be cultivated, only experienced when we are able to penetrate the inner layers of our being. Harmony, Reverence, and Purity can all be practiced. We can actively promote more of these qualities within our daily lives. But Tranquility, on the other hand, has to find us. However, we are far more likely to achieve this state when we are actively pursuing the first three qualities. We could compare Tranquility to a state of Samadhi, or deep bliss. When we finally detach from false identification and immersion in the time complex of past and future, becoming totally present and clear. We may perhaps experience glimpses of tranquility during meditation, ceremony or sadhana. But we must be careful not to become attached to the idea of ‘attaining’ it. Tranquility will arise in us when we are ready for it and not before.

Practice…sit with some leaves in a bowl. Allow the attention to dive deeply inwards as you draw the focus away from the external and in to the energetic body. Maintain stillness and silence while the Tea brews. When it is ready, drink the Tea liquor with reverence, and with great care and attention witness the sensation of the medicine moving through your body. Try to maintain this state of calm, heightened awareness. Between bowls, take some time to journal on the following:
-      In what areas of my life do I lack harmony?
-      When was a time I experienced harmonious relationship either with another person or with Nature? How did this experience feel on a bodily and a subtle level?
-      What does ‘Reverence’ mean to me?
-      How do I relate to the Sacred in my daily life? How can I honor the Sacred even within situation that I do not find agreeable?
-      How do I currently purify myself and my surroundings? How could I cultivate more purification practices with an energy of reverence?

Once you have completed journaling, sit in meditation for several more minutes and perhaps have a few more bowls of tea. When the Tea is completed, take the time to clear up very respectfully, incorporating the purification of the space into the ceremony. 

This month is all about expansion on a very deep and purificatory scale. We can work hard to achieve material success or amass knowlegde, but it is all superfluous if we are not moving any closer towards our shared goal of liberation. Learning to engage our awareness of the inner body is first step to expanding our consciousness beyond the limiting conditioned mind. 
I would really like to stress the fact that I most certainly haven’t got any of this worked out personally, but by sharing the lessons of my teachers, I hope to be of some small service on your path.

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