There is something I must dwell on
because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.

— Marilynne Robinson

Recent Reflections

  • I Can’t Get no Satisfaction

    I recently came across an article by the writer Charlotte Lieberman entitled “Mindlessly Scrolling for Satisfaction. How to Navigate the Temptation of Distraction in the Information Age.” The irony of finding this article whilst scrolling through my Facebook timeline was not lost on me but I was interested to read what she had to say. 
    Read more…

  • Seeing the Blossom: Reflections on opening to the nowness of everything

    I recently had to ask a friend what day of the week it was. It’s been like this since my girlfriend Elaine died. The realm of grief which I now inhabit has taken me to a place where time and space no longer apply. Elaine‚’s recent death and my subsequent grief has stripped me of
    Read more…

  • It’s A Wonderful Life

    Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions.
    Read more…

  • Aldous Huxley’s Head & Heart

    The English author and intellectual Aldous Huxley once said you could sum up the history of every man and woman who has ever lived with the following words, “I see the better and approve it, the worse is what I pursue”. If we were merely rational beings, then our knowing would be indistinguishable from our
    Read more…

  • Love, Tears & Ginger Beer

    “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Joan Didion wrote this in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, when her husband of forty years suddenly died and this month of October sees the first anniversary of the death of my beloved
    Read more…

See all reflections

Archive of Reflections

I Can’t Get no Satisfaction

I recently came across an article by the writer Charlotte Lieberman entitled “Mindlessly Scrolling for Satisfaction. How to Navigate the Temptation of Distraction in the Information Age.” The irony of finding this article whilst scrolling through my Facebook timeline was not lost on me but I was interested to read what she had to say.  I, (like many people I’m sure) have found that when I have some spare time it can be spent mindlessly scrolling through, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds in the hope of some vague sense of satisfaction. Having observed myself regularly getting lost in the internet over many months I tried to get a sense of what lay beneath my surface behaviour.  I felt there maybe a number of reasons: a deep sense of avoiding the feeling of loneliness, sometimes boredom or finding it hard to be with difficult feelings like grief.  I found these realizations very humbling, particularly as someone who has been practicing meditation & yoga for over twenty years. I also tried not to be too hard on myself as we are all fallible human beings.

In Charlotte Lieberman’s article she explored some of the complex factors that have led to our technological crutch and desire for distraction. She shared some interesting findings including:

“Did you know that Americans spend more time on email in the morning than we do eating breakfast? A recent poll in the UK found that one in seven surveyed individuals have contemplated divorce because of their spouse’s unsettling social media activity”

I think it can be helpful to be reminded that our habits and behaviour are often contextual. An example of this is being on retreat.  This is an environment that encourages a break from social media and the internet and I often find that normally after a day has passed I have no real desire to switch my phone on and feel much more content and relaxed in my experience. Now, we may not all have the opportunity to get away on retreat so maybe creating helpful boundaries around our technology use might be beneficial to us. A friend of mine recently shared with me that she was going to buy herself an alarm clock, so that she would be able to turn off her phone and get out of the habit of late night scrolling.  I too have been exploring not listening to music on my i-Pod whilst on the bus and trying to be present to myself and the world around me when walking outside.

Technology is such a huge part of our lives and it would be unrealistic to think we are all going to throw our phones and laptops away however I do feel we have an opportunity next time we feel restless or sad to maybe choose not reach for our phone or computer and see if we can just sit with our arising feelings.  This is an opportunity to trust that if we can stay open, curious and patient something new will emerge that may meet our needs more fully.

“Enough. These few words are enough. If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to life we have refused again and again until now.

Until now.”

David Whyte

Seeing the Blossom: Reflections on opening to the nowness of everything

I recently had to ask a friend what day of the week it was. It’s been like this since my girlfriend Elaine died. The realm of grief which I now inhabit has taken me to a place where time and space no longer apply. Elaine‚’s recent death and my subsequent grief has stripped me of my defenses and left me naked, vulnerable and with an intense rawness and openness of heart.

I was trying to tidy up our bedroom this week and came across one of her cardigans in the laundry basket. As I picked it up I could smell her fragrance on it, I held it to my chest and face and began to weep uncontrollably. My knees gave way beneath me and I fell to the floor and just sat collapsed, hugging her cardigan to my chest. I began drinking in her bitter sweet fragrance with each fresh breath, I began to make noises that no longer seemed human, more of a guttural animal howl and moan that came from my belly, rising up through me like a tidal wave of loss and grief expressing itself in the world.

Even though it is very painful I feel the depths of my grief for Elaine is a reflection of how much I loved her. It is interesting that the word ‚’grief‚’ has it‚’s roots in the Latin ‚’gravis‚’ meaning ‚’weight‚’. This feels very appropriate as my experience of grief is very much like carrying a heavy weight.

In our culture, we can often feel uncomfortable with grief and loss. It maybe more helpful to see grief as a blessing, because it is a deep calling to return home to ourselves. When the experience of grief or loss enters our life, rather than seeing it as something that separates us from the world, we could try to allow it to bring us into a deeper relationship to what it is to be truly human and alive.

The Blessing of Grief
By Elaine Dunstan

Grief is a beautiful emotion, I said
She looked at me, eyes wide
how can you say that?
My grief is painful, its fearful and lonely
Yes, I said and it is in this pain
that you can begin to awaken to life
opening fully to grief, acknowledging loss
will cure you of numbness, your own deadness
it is the most courageous doorway
to being truly alive.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions. I had gone to watch a film that you can guarantee will be showing on TV or at your local cinema as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is Frank Capra’s classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Made in 1947 and starring a great cast including James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, Capra’s film has a Dickensian quality to it. James Stewart plays the role of a selfless man George Bailey who is much loved in the small town of Bedford Falls; it’s a story of redemption that follows his suicidal despair one Christmas night. Clarence the angel appears and shows George how much of a dark and sad place the world would have been without him.

I believe that the reason the film is so loved by so many people is (not only due to Capra’s masterful direction and story-telling) because it illustrates a deeper, fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The truth is: that every life is of value and is important. We can often feel powerless in our lives and insignificant, even isolated and alone. But we are all interconnected to each other and to all of life – the threads that connect us to others and the world are not always easy to see. Even after many years of practising Buddhist meditation and yoga I still find myself at times struggling to see and accept that my actions touch other people’s lives.

A small act of kindness or a harsh word or action can have a profound effect, beyond what we can imagine. We have a responsibility for the world we live in; we are not separate from it but embedded in a network of complex patterns of connection. It can be helpful to stop and reflect on our lives and all we have done through our actions – great and small. The small acts of kindness shown to others bring us into deeper relationship with the world. Think of all the different people in your life and how their lives would be without you, and then you will begin to see the profound ordinary beauty that is your life.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
Clarence The Angel from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

its-a-wonderful-life-3

This blog piece first appeared in my December newsletter 2013.

Aldous Huxley’s Head & Heart

The English author and intellectual Aldous Huxley once said you could sum up the history of every man and woman who has ever lived with the following words, “I see the better and approve it, the worse is what I pursue”. If we were merely rational beings, then our knowing would be indistinguishable from our doing.  However, we are not merely rational, we can also argue we are also creatures of desire. Our emotions can sometimes be ultimately responsible for determining our actions and behaviour. We can have an idea that something maybe good for us to do, but find it hard to galvanise the rest of ourselves into action.

If I look at my own life I can see a huge chasm at times in my inability to bring together my head and my heart. This is perfectly understandable as we not a singular being, rather we are more made up of complex, multiple parts or voices within us that may express different and even contradictory things. The idea of the human psyche being multifaceted, even split in some cases is not a new one.  Even in ancient Greece, in Plato wrote about the three parts of the psyche: ‘The rational’, ‘The appetitive’ and ‘The spirited’.

I have found that through my exploration of yoga, meditation and psychotherapy, that these practices have helped me to develop a deeper relationship between myself and my emotional body. By engaging with and bringing awareness to my emotions more fully I notice that my behaviour can change and my life can feel more congruent. I can feel a sense of bridging the gap between my head and my heart. I have an ability to be in relationship to both the complexity within myself and also the world around me.

By understanding ourselves, the landscape of our emotional bodies and by making conscious how we work with both our darkness and our light we can see more clearly that a creative dialogue can take place between our head and heart.  We are then given a larger, richer context in which to examine just what it means to experience being human.

“When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.” 

Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo

Love, Tears & Ginger Beer

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Joan Didion wrote this in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, when her husband of forty years suddenly died and this month of October sees the first anniversary of the death of my beloved girlfriend Elaine.

What do you do when the partner you loved and planned to spend the rest of your life with dies? For me, the world as I knew it was destroyed and I found myself sitting amidst an emotional tsunami of the like I had never faced before, whilst all around me life continued. I have been very fortunate to have been surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family and although they cannot take away my pain and grief, their simple acts of kindness have made my connection to being in the world a little easier.

People sometimes use the phrase, “They never got over the death of…” and I have been reflecting on this recently. I feel that embedded within the phrase could lie an unhelpful perspective of transcendence in relation to the difficulty of losing a loved one. While we may wish for the people we care about to slowly move forward and not get lost in their grief, it could be more helpful for us to try holding the perspective that they may never get over the death of their loved one.  Rather, the experience of loss is something that they will in time, learn to carry with them.  The loss is now a part of them, it never leaves them but it also doesn’t define them as they begin to look towards the future, rebuilding their life.

Love, Tears, & Ginger Beer

by Manjunaga

I stood and watched you from outside the restaurant.

It was our second date,

You looked so beautiful, long golden hair falling down over your shoulders.

I gave you a gift, a book on archetypes.

If I had known what lay before us,

Would I have opened the door and stepped in?

We laughed and drank ginger beer.

You entertained me with your impersonations and funny stories,

I knew in that moment that I wanted to be with you.

                         

The first time we made love you showed me your scars,

Where the surgeon’s knife had left its mark,

I kissed them tenderly in the hope that no part of you would feel unloved.

I look for you now in the morning bird song, your poetry, a photograph.

Then in the quiet stillness of the day, when I have exhausted all my longing

you come to me again.

Moist tears cover my body and I feel your love once more.

The Birth of “Elvis the Pelvis”: Reflections on Sex & Sexuality

On June 5th 1956 a young relatively unknown singer named Elvis Presley appeared on ‘The Milton Berle Show’ at NBC’s Hollywood studio. This wasn’t his first appearance on TV, but his performance would become legendary. During this appearance he sang, ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’ before slowing the tempo down for ‘Hound Dog’, gyrating his hips outrageously with accentuated energetic, body movements. Presley’s gyrations created a storm of controversy and newspaper critics were outraged.  Ben Gross of the ‘New York Daily News’ said “…popular music has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos”.  It was these comments that led to the moniker “Elvis the Pelvis” a term he disliked yet lived with for the rest of his career.

The following year Elvis appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and this was a huge deal.  It was America’s favourite family variety show and it was during this show a bizarre act of censorship was introduced. Elvis was deliberately filmed only from waist up only. The idea being that if the American public did not see his pelvis moving, they would be safe from any indecency.

Reflecting on this story we may initially wonder what all the fuss was about.  We could argue that we live in a media dominated world, fed on a diet of sex scandals, online pornography and Miley Cyrus swinging on her wrecking ball suggestively licking lump hammers therefore little shocks us anymore. However, in conservative post-war 1950s, where the world’s top singers were Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, Elvis moving and dancing in a sensuous manner was seen as very shocking.

I felt within this story there was a deeper theme emerging towards our relationship to sex and sexuality. The area of the pelvis in the body is a key intersection that connects our legs and lower body to our spine and upper body.  The pelvic region is also the home for our reproductive organs. When Elvis gyrated his hips and moved his pelvis in a sensuous manner he symbolically expressed his sexuality and drew focus to the area of his genitals.

Society’s views on sexuality have changed throughout history and are continuously evolving. Each society has different norms about sex, the age of sexual consent, homosexuality and other sexual behaviours. Depending on family and cultural upbringing, from an early age we have received messages about what is acceptable in relation to sex and our sexuality and what is not.

I have made a conscious choice when in my role as a yoga teacher, when leading practices such as savasana and body scan meditations to include the area of the genitals when bringing people’s awareness to their bodies. I do this to acknowledge in a holistic context that we are sexual beings. Often in spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation there can be a tendency towards transcendence that can lead to a desire to repress or cut off from aspects of ourselves such as our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies. This can lead to a kind of censorship as seen on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in which we take on the view that certain aspects of our bodies are offensive to our morality or decency. We can then become bound by the conditioned beliefs of the culture we live in and we are not free. What we do on an external level as a society or culture is a mirrored reflection of how we might view ourselves on an inner level.

We may have certain thoughts, feelings and images that arise in our experience that we deem unacceptable and this may leave us feeling uncomfortable. By coming into relationship to the whole of ourselves and allowing for a healthy and positive view of bodies and our sexuality we are able to experience a greater sense of freedom in our lives and in our relationship to the world.

Dusty Springfield & The Buddha

There are some singers who possess a voice we fall in love with. For me, Dusty Springfield is one such singer. Her rich, soulful voice makes her arguably one of Britain’s greatest female vocalists.  Her run of classic 60’s singles such as the 1963 hit ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ and ‘Am I the Same Girl?’ in 1969 are just a few examples of her vocal talent. Dusty’s last, great single of that decade was ‘How Can I Be Sure?’ and in it she sang the lyrics, “…how can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing?”

The Buddha taught that that all things are impermanent, there is nothing fixed or solid in this world. Everything including our thoughts, body and feelings are constantly changing. This truth, this experience of life can sometimes leave us feeling anxious and we may find ourselves trying to control the world around us to make us feel more secure.

But, if we can try to adopt a more spacious attitude towards our experience, we can learn to trust openness. An image sometimes given to illustrate this spacious quality of the mind is that of the vast blue sky which is limitless and which can offer hospitality to everything within it. All the various changes in the weather from storms and showers to clouds and the sun, everything can just move freely through the openness that the sky offers.

I have found it helpful to be reminded that I am more than just my thoughts, my emotions and my body. I can value and appreciate all that they offer me but learn not to over identify with them. It seems more helpful for me to see them within the larger context of relaxed, spacious awareness which offers me a possibility of a more creative response to both myself and my life.

Come Waltz with Me

I recently travelled to teach on a yoga and meditation retreat at Dhanakosa in Scotland and at the beginning of my journey I took a taxi to Manchester Piccadilly station. As I got into the taxi I was greeted by a friendly driver who reminded me of my Croatian father and we struck up a conversation about where I was travelling to. I told him about the retreat centre and that I was a yoga teacher. He asked me to explain to him what yoga was and after a brief explanation, I seemed to have satisfied his curiosity. It was at this point he excitedly passed me his mobile phone which was linked to the car stereo and said “Listen”.  He played me a piece of music called ‘The Second waltz’ by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

As the music played, the sound of the waltz seemed to fill the whole taxi. As the car drove through the streets of Manchester, I gazed out of the window.  I saw people heading to work, mums taking their children to school and people walking their dogs.  I briefly glanced down at the phone I’d been handed and noticed that the music was the score for a short film someone had created of people from various films dancing a waltz.

There was something about the music and images of the people dancing combined with glimpses of the ordinary beauty of life unfolding before my eyes that I found incredibly moving.  I suddenly felt my heart open wide and tears filled my eyes. Then as if by magic, the waltz finished just as we arrived at the station and I told the taxi driver the music was very beautiful. Over the next few days my encounter with the taxi driver stayed with me and it felt like a blessing because I allowed life to touch me. I joined the dance in all its beauty and wonder.

We often try and control our experience of life, swinging between pushing away the painful aspects, whilst trying to hold onto only the pleasurable. If we can connect to a quality of spacious awareness and be open to the present moment without trying to add to it, we can allow our bare experience to be present and we can fully attend to it.  We can taste a vitality and vibrancy from the awareness of our lives unfolding moment by moment.

I believe that by learning to relax into our bodies, being with open hearted vulnerability and allowing life to touch us, we can find creative responses to the world around us.  There is a strength that comes from abiding in the heart and in our vulnerability. It connects us more deeply to ourselves, others and brings us into a deeper relationship with the world.

Alexander & the Yogi

Ancient Greek history contains many tragedies but it also has many teachings as the following story shows…

King Philip II was an ambitious man who wanted to raise an army combining both Macedonia and Greece which would then attack and conquer Persia.  King Philip was assassinated before he could carry out his plan, but his son who was just twenty, would continue his father’s work and his name was Alexander.

Alexander was a brilliant warrior and military genius. He had a bright and subtle mind. His tutor was the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose thoughts and writings have had a huge influence on western thoughts concerning ethics, beauty and politics.

Alexander created a huge army and invaded Persia, of which he conquered along with Egypt, Phoenicia, Palestine, Babylonia, Assyria and Asia Minor. Alexander now commanded a vast empire, but was not satisfied so went on to invade India. When he was making his way through India he came to the Indus Valley.  Whilst there, he encountered a small group of yogi’s who were sitting in meditation on the banks of the river. Alexander’s party of soldiers were trying to get through but the meditating yogis were blocking their way and were refusing to move.  One of Alexander’s Lieutenants started shouting at one of the yogi’s, “This man has conquered the world! What have you accomplished?”  The yogi looked up calmly and replied, “I have conquered the desire to conquer the world” and upon hearing these words Alexander laughed; he admired the wisdom of the yogi. 

Alexander the Great created a huge empire and conquered half the world, which was an extraordinary military feat but, as the yogi had wisely pointed out, through his practices of yoga and meditation he had, “…conquered the desire to conquer the world” and now his life appeared to be one of far greater contentment.  We could imagine that he was quite happy to sit with his other yogi’s enjoying the beauty and delights of the world without desire to appropriate them.

I really like this story of Alexander and the meeting with the yogi. I feel it illustrates two of the extreme positions we can sometimes take towards life: one is that of trying to conquer the world and the other is that of completely renouncing the world.  It may be beneficial for us to see that with the right tools we can explore a middle way between these two extremes.

“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.”

  • Dalai Lama

The ‘Nature Boy’ who taught us how to Love

Everyone has a song that we love.  Maybe it evokes particular memories or touches us in some poignant way. One of my favourite songs is Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’. The story behind ‘Nature Boy’ is one of the most legendary stories of all. It goes something like this.

It was 1948 and Nat King Cole was performing at the Lincoln Theatre in Los Angeles. Whilst performing one night he noticed a strange looking man with long hair, a beard, white robes and sandals.  This man then waited at the stage door of the theatre and he had some sheet music for a song he’d wrote and wanted Nat King Cole to record.  He managed to give the sheet music to Cole’s valet who, rather than throw it away, passed it onto Nat King Cole. Cole fell in love with the song and wanted to record it but couldn’t because the strange man left without giving any contact details.  However after several weeks, Cole’s manager finally managed to track down the song-writer, a man who went by the name of eden ahbez who was living outdoors and camping below the first letter L of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.   

eden was one of the California “Nature Boys”.  He had changed his name from George to eden (insisting it was spelt without capitalisation because he felt only God and Infinity were worthy of this) and he lived a lifestyle in accordance with the “Nature Boys” movement.  They lived outdoors and ate only raw fruits and vegetables.  They practiced yoga, meditation and environmental conservation. However behind all this, eden was a talented musician and song-writer who had just given Nat King Cole the raw ingredients to create a well loved jazz and pop standard.

The final and most poignant line of the song ‘Nature Boy’ has been something of a personal mantra for me during my life: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, Is just to love and be loved in return.” It is easy to dismiss these lyrics as sentimental, but I do feel that they communicate a deeper truth of something that we all long to experience in our lives.

When I heard last year that my girlfriend Elaine had terminal cancer, our lives were turned upside down. Yet in the midst of the emotional devastation and pain, what we were left with, the only thing that truly made sense anymore, was Love. My experience of being with someone who was dying was to see everything stripped back to what was really important and real. As we shared our last few weeks together we spoke about how important it had been for us, to simply love and be loved in return.

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I come away from Manjunaga’s Saturday morning yoga class feeling relaxed yet energised.
It’s a really positive start to the weekend!

— Sarah Finan

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