Category: Reflections

Blog posts reflecting on pathways to light, simple, conscious ways of living.

What the Rocking Horse Knew

Once upon a time an old wooden rocking horse sat in the corner of a hallway in a grandmothers house. Its paint was peeling and its tail bedraggled, but it retained the refined and dignified air of a beloved toy. And there was dust. A fine layer on the head and seat, persistently replacing itself after each dusting. The grandchildren were grown and living interstate. There wasn’t much use for rocking.

One day the rocking horse overheard of a conversation that began with “Whats that!” followed by an interrogation, as if a crime had been committed; Harbouring a Rocking Horse. Why is it here? Why do you need it? Is really worth keeping? Its not going to fit where you are going.

Grandma stood her ground and kept the rocking horse, for the time being at least. But she looked sad and deflated. She was downsizing. Moving on, or so they called it.  She needed to be practical.

The rocking horse saw everything clearly, and sighed quietly, wishing they could have asked him about his future.

You see a childs wooden horse. A well crafted toy past its prime taking up space in the hallway. And its true. I am made of wood and paint and horsehair. I am from the earth, and one day I will return to the earth. But I am more than this. I am the hopes of motherhood, the joy of childhood, the fondness of a grandmother. I am a tangible link with the past, a memory of good times of family. When you see me, you see these things that you love – quality, craftsmanship, childhood, family, play, fun, laughter. And you feel the feelings you value – love, warmth, joy, appreciation. This has been my role, to hold these things for you in this corner of the hall.

But there is more to me and you than this. Those things that you love, those feelings that you appreciate, are not in me, they are in you. Its your joy, your love, your appreciation. When you see me, you feel these in yourself.  You fear these things will be taken from you, but understand that you cannot lose them. They are of you, and will always be yours.

Sitting here in the corner, I am fading from lack of use. I am willing to remain with you and hold that space for you. But realise that this is reminding you of something you already have. If you could take that and hold it in your heart, it may be that I could have a future with another family and allow them to experience their joy, their love and their appreciation. Perhaps if you can feel the joy, love and appreciation vividly enough, and claim it as your own, you could release me to that future. Not so much a letting go, but an expansion.

Its true that there may come a time when I am too old for use and restoration. Whether its now or later, you or someone else, there will be a time to allow me to return to the earth. But although I will be gone in this form, love, joy and appreciation will continue in this world. Because you don’t own it, and I don’t own it. When you feel that deeply, you will be able to truly let me go, because we will never be apart.

 

Adopting the living organism as a metaphor for a balanced lifestyle leads us to seek a natural harmony or equilibrium, so that a balanced environment becomes a space in which we can safely and comfortably dwell.

Dwelling in Balance

The various metaphors we might choose to represent balance and imbalance offer different perspectives on how we might achieve that illusive balance in life. The balance of the tightrope walker captures the experience of navigating our way forward through through time on a tight schedule. However the equilibrium of the living organism offers a richer perspective in relation to balancing objects within a space, or our lives within a living environment. This allows us to look beyond the physical stability of a single object and consider the balance of all of the interrelated components within a living system in the same way that you might think of a living cell, or the human body.

This broader view of balance offers a more complex scenario where the organism attempts to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis in the face of constantly changing conditions. Balance in this context is an attempt to maintain the overall stability of a wide range of factors in the face of constant change for the purpose of supporting life. Balance takes place across the whole system of interrelated parts, and while different aspects can be viewed independently, they dont exist in isolation. Unlike a single pointed balance, the balance of a complex system has an inbuilt ability to adapt and adjust, which means a wider range of conditions can be accommodated.

Quote form Dwelling in Balance Blog PostThis model of balance drawn from the natural world includes the concept of boundaries or membranes. The organism has a defined boundary or wall, like the cell wall or the outline of the human body, but it is permeable, allowing flows inwards and outwards. It also has internal structures and flows within the main boundary, like the organs and blood vessels within the body. These living systems depend on a healthy flow in, around and out, to survive. Some inflowing substances are life giving, others are toxic. Depending on what you take in, a little bit might cure you, but a lot might kill you. In the meantime the system strives to maintain balance across numerous variables.

There is enormous diversity in the natural world, and a wide variety of ways in which the challenges of life – such as finding food, shelter, successful reproduction and child rearing – are satisfied. What each organism has in common is the need to satisfy these challenges in a way that retains the basic integrity of their particular way of functioning.

We can extend this metaphor to how we organise our lives within our own homes. We can think of the walls of the home as the membrane or boundary that protects us from the outside. Within the home different functions are performed, just as the different structures of the body have different roles. The house provides shelter and within that framework there are objects that support our needs for eating, sleeping, clothing ourselves, reproducing, raising children and so on. The health of this system depends on objects entering, leaving, and being internally organised in a way that one element does not overwhelm other aspects and compromise the smooth operation of the whole. An excess of objects that is traditionally described as “clutter” can be viewed as a signal of imbalance where the volume entering the space is out of proportion to the volume leaving. Or there may be a lack of definition of roles and boundaries within the different spaces of the home.

In our homes too, there is a wide diversity of solutions to the challenges of living. The issue is not how much you own, but whether the whole system is working in such a way that it supports your needs. This allows us to think of creating harmony by constructing a congruent environment that works as a whole, rather than limiting us to any particular lifestyle or ideology about what to own an how to organise it.

If the balance we are seeking has the qualities of a natural harmony or equilibrium, a balanced environment becomes a space in which we can safely and comfortably dwell. Rather than adopting the do-or-die model of balance of the elite athlete or performer, there is the possibility of creating a harmonious way of living which is spacious and accommodating. This model of balance has within it the capacity to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. There is a sense of peace, calm and generosity in having room to move and the capacity to gently shift direction or graciously accommodate change. Perhaps this image brings us closer to the essence of the balanced lifestyle that so many of us are seeking.

Frolics in the World of Form

Over the past few years, at the same time as I was studying organisation, disorganisation, and our relationship with stuff, I was also exploring different approaches to spirituality. I took an Alice in Wonderland approach to both, wandering about seeing what attracted my attention, lingering at points of interest, then moving on when the time was right. At some point in this process, the two interests began to converge, until they became inextricably linked. Just as physical objects require space in which to be and move, a sense of the mystery of life adds richness to how we handle the details.

In a secular society our personal spiritual or religious beliefs are generally kept separate from our professional work. There is good reason for this, as it allows people to meet on common ground, and carries with it a inherent respect for the differences between us. One limitation of this approach is that the safe common ground is often perceived to be the more material aspects of life. Things, money, behaviours and concrete provable facts are regarded as the neutral territory on which we can meet. Lacking a common language for the less tangible aspects of life they can be difficult to discuss, so we leave them out of the conversation. However in doing so we may be missing out on some key pieces to the puzzle, and ignoring a fundamental aspect of our common humanity.

New age thinkers talk about spiritual beings having a physical experience. Buddhists recognise the interbeing of all things. Eckhart Tolle describes the relationship between the form and the formless. Jesus tells us of a heaven where our true treasures are stored. Beyond specific belief systems, many individuals have a deep sense of the wonder and mystery of life. Although expressed differently, many of these traditions point to aspects of our experience that incorporate both tangible physical elements, and a more spiritual dimension, which is viewed as our true home. We may not have a common language that ties together the different forms that wisdom takes, but perhaps we are coming closer to understanding each other, borrowing from each others vocabulary, and recognising shared truths shining through when we see them.

We tend to take the concerns in the material world very seriously, drawing our identities from what we have, own, think of feel. However if we have a sense of residing in a deeper place, our efforts to make sense of the world and our place in it take on a different perspective. Are we each aspects of consciousness attempting to negotiate the physical world?  Are our lives essentially frolics in the world of form?

I don’t have all the answers, but a funny thing happens when I think this way. Physical objects and how they are organised begin to matter less in the scheme of things.  The essential qualities of the people I encounter matter more. Having a sense that we each have a true home that doesn’t depend on how we organise our stuff brings a playful compassion to the story.  Although it may not be spoken out loud, a sense of connectedness that extends beyond practical, material considerations brings a deeper dimension to what we are doing. How we organise ourselves in the world of form still matters, but it takes place in a wider context, which ultimately matters more.

Photo by brando.n on Flickr

A Comfortable Balance

Many of us seek an elusive balance in our lives, but what does this really mean? When applied to objects seeking equilibrium in space, the notion of balance is often associated with a single point of contact. The scales of justice, the ultimate metaphor for even judgement, is based on one of the least stable and most sensitive images of balance available to us. Scales are intentionally unstable to allow for exact weights to be measured, but its a fairly simple affair. A piece of gold is what it is, and doesn’t wiggle while its weighed. Justice and other complex human endeavours aren’t inclined to be as straightforward.

Acrobats, unicyclists, and ballet dancers make an art form of single-pointed balance to create acts of wonder and beauty. Drawing on strength, skill and momentum, they distill balance to its most critical element, this single point, this single moment. Living beings bring dynamism to the concept of balance as they activity participate in the process. The inherent difficulty, precariousness and instability of these endeavours adds excitement to the performance. But the edgy tension of the acrobat may not be the kind of balance we are seeking in our everyday lives.

Balance does not have to be precariously single pointed. The cyclist shifts their shape and weight over the two wheels of the moving bike. The butterfly poised on a flower, or the rock climber perched on a cliff face steady themselves using all of their limbs. This more stable form of balance is based on the distribution of weight and form over multiple points of contact which offers greater security, while still allowing for movement. Multiple-contact balance allows space to think and deliberate the next move, and offers more resiliance in the face of challenges.

Great feats of balance draw our attention, but perhaps the most valuable balancing acts go unnoticed. Sitting upright in a chair, moving from sitting to standing, and walking forward are everyday acts of balance that go unappreciated until we slip, trip, or suffer vertigo. Even lying in bed requires a level of spacial awareness to avoid hitting the floor. The beauty of effortless balance is that it allows us to shift our attention beyond the act of balance itself and get on with everyday affairs. It brings the restful quality of equilibrium, the state of rest when all forces are equal.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in balance, is imbalance, and ultimately a fall. When faced with a challenge to equilibrium, the aim is usually to continue, at least until an elegant exit can be achieved. But if the challenge is too great, collapse may ensue. The tightrope walker falls. The dancer twists an ankle. The cyclist slides across the asphalt. Catastrophes of this kind are less likely with multiple points of contact or a safety net, but even seemingly safe situations can come undone in extreme circumstances. These instances where control is lost shock us with their chaotic unpredictability.

Many images of success and fulfillment are based on a precarious do-or-die model of balance; and implied within them the possibility of a catastrophic fall. It may be that life pushes you to the edge, and it may be that you enjoy the challenge of extreme situations, but given the choice, its not necessary to always choose to live on the precipice. There is a time and place for feeling stable and secure with room to move in the face of the unexpected. By the same token, its not always wise to clutch at safety with every available limb.  Sometimes you need to take a leap and trust in the landing. And while we may prefer the carefully controlled exit, collapse sometimes happens, because at that moment, given the conditions, balance simply can’t be achieved.

Where human beings are concerned, awareness itself is a key ingredient to achieving balance; the sense of the body in space, the sense of self in the moment, the capacity to notice and change. Regardless of our physical abilities, if we have this capacity to be aware of the details, to learn from experience, and adapt to circumstances, we can choose the dynamic blend of stability and motion that best suits the situation. Then we can participate creating a flexible and lively balance that encompasses the total situation. Even if the worst happens and things fall apart, if we have sense of inner equilibrium there is the option to bring our awareness to the situation as it unfolds and seek a new balance from within the chaos.

 

Butterfly image from brando.n on Flickr

Tree Reflected in a Tea Cup by Linda Aitkin

Organise Kindly

Advice on organising yourself or maintaining a household tends to focus on practical matters. Whether it be a foolproof system  for sorting an entire house or random tips and tricks, the emphasis is on getting the job done. Knowing “how to” perform an activity is certainly useful information. However for many people, it’s not a lack of knowledge and skill that gets in the way of housework harmony. If they are resisted and resented, daily household activities can easily become a chore to be endured, or a guilty omission to be swept under the carpet. The experience of cleaning, sorting and tidying is then regarded as unpleasant – an annoying distraction from the important things in life.

Yet many spiritual traditions make use of everyday activities as teaching tools. Unlike practical advice for getting things done, they focus on the process, rather than the outcome. Perhaps the most famous of these is Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions on dishwashing.

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Doing a task for the experience of doing it, rather than to get it done, turns our expectations on their head. It doesn’t seem feasible to consider the washing up as a pleasurable activity, rather than an annoying impediment to watching TV or surfing the net. Yet there is something alluring about the possibility of any task being pleasurable, if approached with awareness. What is this wondrous reality awaiting us at the kitchen sink?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the idea is to wash the dishes perfectly, as this turns the chore of washing the dishes into the chore of mindfulness. The idea is to be aware of what you are doing with kind attention, without fighting it, resisting it, or resenting it, or being so distracted that you miss it altogether.

What difference would it make if household activities were regarded as an opportunity to bring your attention to the quality of your actions, rather than the quantity of work you can get done. Could the caring attention that you want to bring to your family be right there in the act of folding washing, ironing uniforms, and taking out the garbage? Could the sense of peace, calm and loving attention that you long for be right there in the midst of whatever you are doing?

 

Quote from The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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The Possibilities of Inner Space

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

~ Lao Tzu 

We can become so focussed on objects that we forget about the space. Houses, rooms, furniture, storage solutions – these are all ways of defining spaces in which activities can take place or things can be kept. The walls we construct provide the limits, but its the space that allows movement and creates possibilities. Once we fill our containers with objects their potential is used up, until we chose to empty them and use them in another way.

Our materialist culture encourages us to focus on the form of our containers and our objects, but often forgets about the possibilities of emptiness. Can we appreciate an empty shelf, a gap in the bookcase, or a clear flat surface? Can we tolerate not filling things up to capacity? In a similar way western culture encourages us to fill our minds with thoughts and ideas, allowing ourselves very little space to just be.

Even two and a half thousand years ago, Lao Tsu used simple objects such as a wheel, a pot and a house to point out the fundamental truth that without space, nothing is possible. He uses physical objects to turn our attention to the power of the ” non-being” aspect – the hole in the wheel, the emptiness of the pot, and the inner space of the house.

Quote taken from Chapter 11 of The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

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The Provisonal Nature of Labels

Labels feature widely in organising. At the most tangible level there are the literal physical labels that go on jars, folders, and boxes. Rice. Beads. Taxes. Memorabilia. Then there are the descriptive labels that are applied to people. Neat freak. Messy. Disorganised. ADHD. Hoarder.

When organising physical objects the act of labeling is a logical extension of the process of sorting and categorizing. For the sake of convenience “like is put with like”. Sometimes the category used for grouping is obvious and easy to remember, but it can be helpful to use a physical tag as a reminder. A clear label saves having to work out the category later, and allows others to understand and follow the system.

For many people there is a sense of satisfaction in creating neatly labelled categories. As humans we love to make  groups. It’s part of understanding the world to notice the similarities and differences between things. At the interpersonal level we want to join groups, and identify others as belonging to groups.

A specialised type of labelling occurs when symptoms or behaviors are grouped together into a diagnosis and applied to individuals. Expressions used to describe the way people organise themselves are often derived from diagnostic terms, such as OCD, ADHD, and Hoarding Disorder, whether or not they strictly apply. For those who understand the definitions, a diagnosis is a shorthand way of sharing information quickly. Giving a name to a confusing collections of symptoms can be helpful, because the name may be a stepping stone to understanding and treatment. However it can also feel like the label consumes the person’s identity. The risk is that we begin to relate to the label rather than the person.

And this is the dilemma we face every time we assign a label. The very thing that makes labels useful, is also their greatest weakness. When ‘like is grouped with like’ the separate items seem to lose their individuality. Features that caused them to be selected into the group are accentuated, and other features are ignored, or submerged in the group identity. Its a short journey from labelling to judging, and adjectives and expectations are easily attached to groups of individuals based on assumptions about their collective nature.

These problems with labels arise when what began as a tool for understanding starts to take on a fixed quality, as if they represented a permanent or complete truth. We need to remember that the labels began with a sorting process. Like was put with like using abstract criteria for a particular purpose. But this ‘sort’ is always provisional. Things could have been sorted differently, to create an alternative set of categories with a different emphasis. Labels are imperfect representations of reality, and there is always the possibility that categories may include too much or too little, or emphasise some factors at the expense of others, creating a distorted view.

How can we benefit from the information that comes from these grouping and labelling processes without losing sight of what is important? I may be helpful to remember that groups, categories, and labels fall into a intermediate zone between the individual and the totality. This zone is conceptual rather than actual – an idea rather than the essential truth. Ultimately each item, each person, remains unique. At the same time, each is part of a greater whole, that includes everything and everyone.

We can reduce there risk of being trapped in our own mental labelling systems by tuning in to the reality of the situation as it unfolds before us, even while keeping provisional conceptual groupings in mind.  This applies whether you are revising a filing system that doesn’t work, or seeing a person who struggles with clutter with fresh eyes. We can also retain our perspective by zooming in to focus on the inherhant nature of the individual, or zooming out to see the wider context as a whole. In this way we can handle labels with a lighter, gentler touch. Labels can be a tool for making sense of the world in a certain light, but we mustn’t mistake the symbol for the thing itself.