“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 13 May 2022

Every Moment Meaningful

 The 19th century Russian novelist Turgenev, once advised, "You have to arrange life so that every moment is meaningful."

And yes, I agree that this ought to be something towards which we aspire. I have blogged about it here. But I also believe that it is probably not possible to spend "every moment" of our lives in a meaningful way. Perhaps it may be, for some who are very far advanced on their spiritual journey - people like the late Thich Nhat Hanh, for example. But I (and I guess most of us) am still very far from achieving that total mindfulness which Turgenev seems to be recommending.

I try to be spiritually awake and to be present for as much of my waking time as I can, so that I can appreciate the world around me, the people around me, more. But sometimes, I just want to blob. To turn off my brain and sit in front of something entertaining on the TV. 

Or lose myself in a wonderful book. And I have found that it is nearly impossible to do this "mindfully". I sit with my eyes flying across the page, filling my mind and heart with the story that is going on in front of my eyes. I guess that at such times, I am fully present to what is happening in the book. But I don't *think* that is the same thing as making every moment meaningful. For me, mindful reading is when I detach slightly from the story and admire what the author is doing with their words and phrases. Or maybe that's just the writer in me.

Or am I misunderstanding what he meant? Does arranging our lives to that every moment is meaningful mean something else? Is it more about being present to what we're doing, whatever that is, whether or not it has meaning for us? 

I don't know... what do you think?

Friday, 6 May 2022

Step by Step

 The French moralist and essayist, Joseph Joubert, once wrote, "Completion is made up of little things." Interestingly, the German translation of the word "completion" is "die Vollendung", which may be translated as either "completion"or "perfection". Which to me are quite different things... it is possible to complete something by doing many "little things" but perfection is rarely attainable.

It is a well-known maxim that any journey starts with a single step. Which is often the most difficult one to make. Think about driving a car: it takes more engine power to move the car from stationary to moving, than it does to move it from slower to quicker. And, once we have taken that vital first step, subsequent steps somehow seem easier.

It can be both exciting and daunting to begin a new project. On the one hand, we are excited about the new idea that has seized our imagination and are full of enthusiasm to get on with it. On the other, if we make the mistake of looking up from what we are doing at that moment and see how very far we still have to go, we may become discouraged and wonder whether we will ever get there.

So perhaps it is best to concentrate only on the next step, whatever the next step might be - to walk an extra 500 steps today, or write a scene of the novel, or find some readings or prayers for a service (to use some common "next steps" from my own life). 

And yet, once we reach the last part of a project, we can be infused by an impatience to complete it. Which may mean that the last few "things" are scamped, rushed, not done with as much care as the rest. Which I believe is a mistake. It can be difficult to bring the same amount of concentration and dedication to each step as we did to the previous one (or hundred, or thousand) but if we are to attain a good completion, it is worth it.

And, if we are lucky, the prospect of a solid finish line may restore some lost enthusiasm. I can remember running the London Marathon in 2004. My running partner and I were struggling from miles 17 to 23, and wondered whether we would ever get there. But once we got near the end, I can remember how excited I felt and found the energy from somewhere for a final burst of speed to take me over the finish line.

Truly, any completion is built on many little things. Our job is to do each little thing as well as we can, so that when we reach the completion point, we can rest, knowing that we have given it our best.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Balancing Self-Care, Spiritual Nourishment and Creativity

 In last month's Writing Magazine, there was an interview with Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, to mark the 30th anniversary of its publication. And the main practice she recommends is Morning Pages. 

I had tried Morning Pages before, years ago, and had not managed to stick with it. And I already had three items on the to-do list that is my morning routine. I was struggling to do the three I had - morning sit, write and walk - consistently. In the last few months, I have skipped the walk more often than not, because it didn't seem to follow on from writing - work did. How on earth was I going to shoehorn in a fourth? 

Yet, the person who had interviewed Julia Cameron was enthusiastic about Morning Pages, so I decided to give them another go. After breakfast, I would check my e-mails, go on Facebook for ten minutes, then sit, write the Morning Pages, do some creative writing, then go for a walk before starting my working day.

But Julia Cameron insisted that Morning Pages be tackled as soon as possible after waking, so I shifted checking my e-mails & Facebook to the end, and wrote the Morning Pages immediately after my morning sit.

Still no joy. I was struggling to write the Morning Pages and was still skipping a walk regularly. Which was making me miserable, because being up in the Forest nourishes my soul. What to do?

Then, at the beginning of this week (Sunday to be precise) I had a complete Eureka moment. I finally realised why my morning routine was looking less like Lark Ascending and more like Lark Shot Down in Mid-flight. 

I was chopping and changing between creativity, spiritual nourishment, creativity, self care/spiritual nourishment. No wonder it felt unsatisfying. No wonder the walk often got skipped. Because after writing, my natural inclination was to check my e-mails.

And so, since Sunday (conveniently the 1st of the month) I changed the order again, and this time it's working and it feels as though I'm flying. I've paired my two spiritual nourishment practices (sit and walk) and my two creativity practices (Morning Pages and writing). So I sit, then walk, then do Morning Pages, then write.

It's working like a dream. I have chosen to disregard the advice Julia Cameron gives about having to do Morning Pages first thing.  It wasn't working for me. Now, I come back from my walk buzzing, and eager to sit down with pen and paper, then fingers on keyboard. The whole routine takes about two and a half hours, and as I am an early bird, I rise at six and eat breakfast before I begin.

Which means I'm usually ready to check my e-mails and begin my working day by 9.00 or 9.15. Sorted. It may seem daft, that this has given me so much satisfaction, but it really has. And I am grateful.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Twixt Optimist and Pessimist

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, "Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them." And I have found this to be so true. I am an optimist, married to a pessimist (although he would call himself a realist...)

It reminded me of the old rhyme, "Twixt optimist and pessimist, the difference is droll: the optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole."

(Aside: don't those look fabulous? One of the many losses of being coeliac is that I can no longer eat doughnuts. Which is a pessimistic way of looking at things, because there are so many nice things I *can* still eat. Interesting!)

So it depends on your point of view. I honestly believe I am happier when I "lean into joy" as Brené Brown puts it. It is a more vulnerable way of living, because (perhaps) optimists are more prone to disappointment. But I would many times rather be disappointed sometimes than to expect the worst all the time.

Tolstoy has a more serious point to make. Because if we pin our happiness on outward things, we become dependent on those other things *for* our happiness. And if something external to ourselves, which we don't have any control over, goes wrong, it can ruin our whole day.

Whereas, if our outlook is determinedly positive, we might be able to find some grain of goodness, happiness, in most things. Like he said, it's all about "how we see them."

Let me give you an example. It so happens that I'm re-reading C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, and have just started Book 6, The Silver Chair. In which one of the main characters is that arch-pessimist, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle. Who says things like, "The bright side of it is, that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we're safe from being drowned in the river." Reading the children's conversations with him always makes me laugh.

But the realist side of his pessimism sometimes comes in useful, as his cautious approach to life saves Jill and Eustace from falling into scrapes, and keeps them grounded. For example, "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one."

And they come to value his wisdom and bravery. As Jill says towards the end of the book, "You're a regular old humbug. You sound as doleful as a funeral and I believe you're perfectly happy. And you talk as if you were afraid of everything, when you're really as brave as - as a lion."

So I guess it does depend on your point of view - we optimists need pessimists to keep us grounded and the pessimists need optimists to cheer them up, or to walk compassionately alongside them. There is room for both kinds of people in the world and in truth, most of us are a mixture.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Living Consciously

 The French-born American novelist and short story writer, Anaïs Nin, once wrote, "One's own life, lived consciously, carries one beyond the personal."

Which is an interesting way of looking at it. I have recently (a couple of weeks ago) started the practice known as Morning Pages, outlined by Julia Margaret Cameron in her brilliant book, The Artist's Way. I had tried to do it years ago, but the habit didn't stick. What prompted me to try again was an interview with Cameron in this month's Writing Magazine. She explained that "they are written through the heart and hand - as the pages are written by hand. Because when we do that, we are much more connected to our authentic selves. ... The morning pages are done first thing in the morning and are done longhand.... So they're an effective form of prayer and meditation."

I have realised that they are also a good tool to help us live consciously, authentically. These days we are so used to writing everything (except shopping lists and to-do lists in my case) on the computer rather than longhand. Using pen and paper is a far more meditative practice (or so I have found). I write very much more quickly on a computer and writing by hand forces me to slow down, to be with the process in a more conscious way. 

And I'm so glad I started when I did, so I have been able to record the wonderful experience of being at this year's Unitarian General Assembly meetings - our first meeting in person since 2019. It was fabulous to be back in the company of so many Unitarians - listening together, learning together, worshipping together, making decisions together. After so many months of comparative isolation, it was marvellous to be back in community.

And in my morning pages, I have a permanent record of my impressions, thoughts and feelings, which will help to ground me in the days and months ahead, as I step up to the role of GA President - such a huge honour.

Friday, 15 April 2022

Finding True Rest and Peace

 In this frantic century of ours, it can be difficult to find true rest and peace. Ferdinando Galliani, the 18th century Italian economist, who was also a leading figure of the Enlightenment, once wrote, "True peace can only lie in the truth."

Perhaps he means that we can only be at peace when we allow ourselves to be our truest, most authentic selves. When we are not trying to put on a show, put our "best face forward" and hide what we are really feeling. As though it is not allowed for us to feel tired, edgy, out-of-sorts.

Brené Brown has this to say about perfectionism: "Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. It's a shield.... Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance... Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect."

I am a recovering perfectionist and a striving good-enougher. I have come to understand that perfectionism is exhausting and debilitating, and that good enough really *is* good enough, 99.99% of the time. If I had not learned this lesson, by trying and failing, and learning to receive feedback without falling apart, I would not have become a published author, for example. I would not have dared to submit anything less than a perfect MS to any publisher. 

Authenticity matters. Being our true selves matters. Letting go of what other people think matters. To quote Brené Brown again, 

"Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means
    * cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable
    * exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle
    * nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough."

Ever since I discovered her book, The Gifts of Imperfection,  more than a decade ago, I have done my best to live authentically. It ain't easy, but oh my goodness, it has made me feel so much more whole. So much more at home in my skin. As Galliani says, "True peace can only lie in the truth."

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Embracing Digital Minimalism


I only bought Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism, on a whim, because it was on offer as a Kindle daily deal for 99p. But I have found it to be a fascinating and challenging read, which has caused me to reflect seriously about how much time I spend mindlessly browsing on my smartphone – usually either on Facebook or Pinterest – or playing time-consuming games like Match 3D. In fact, I would guess that the total time I spend on social media or playing games is not far short of the ten hours a week Newport mentioned as a typical time spent feeding a Twitter habit. Which has shocked me. I agree with him that “this cost is almost certainly way too high for the limited benefit it returns.”

Although I am not of the generation which grew up with smartphones (those born in the nineties and later) I, like many people of my age, have embraced the possibilities that a smartphone offers – the ability to stay in contact with Unitarians all over the country on Facebook, for example, or to discover wonderful new crochet patterns on Pinterest. And the ability to text my family and close friends to stay in touch when I am out and about is very useful (it would have been marvellous in the days when my husband was delayed on his evening commute from London and I was at home, wondering when he would get back). And I find the alarm and timer and weather forecast functions very useful. And have three prayer or meditation apps, which I use during my morning sit (not all three!)

 My phone and I are not inseparable… when I am out walking, I only pull it out of my pocket to take a photo of something beautiful, that fills me with wonder. And it spends quite a bit of time sitting silently in my handbag. Unlike some people, who seem to have their phones in their hands all the time and seem to prioritise connecting with the digital world almost more than connecting with the people they are with. It always makes me sad when I see people allegedly out for a meal together, who spend more time texting absent friends or scrolling through news feeds than in talking with their dinner partner. Or someone walking with a child, who is trying to engage their attention, but they are too busy looking at their phone to notice. Yet who am I to judge? If I had grown up with a smartphone, as the younger generation has, I would quite possibly have done the same.

Newport’s book has made me uneasily conscious that my relationship with my smartphone is not an entirely healthy one. It is not simply my servant, enabling me to do things I could not otherwise have done, like letting my husband know I’ve arrived somewhere, or staying in touch with my adult children. Slowly, insidiously, my phone has become my go-to method of filling odd moments of time. I find myself checking Facebook or scrolling through Pinterest in the evenings, when Maz and I are watching something together on TV. Digital Minimalism has made me conscious of this, has made me ask why I’m doing it.

Reading the book has made me understand that I am not living in consonance with my values. I have allowed the ever-present “convenience” of my smartphone to distract me from being fully present to those I am in the same room with. It has made me appreciate that I have been allowing it to invade my life and to hijack time when I should enjoy space and silence and being in community with my loved ones.

So it is time for me to do a re-set. I have deleted some apps from my phone and silenced all notifications except phone calls and texts. I have announced on Facebook that I will only be checking it once a day, for ten minutes, and have asked that anyone who needs to get in touch more urgently to ring me, e-mail me or text me. Because I want to live my life well, to be completely present to my family, my friends and what I am experiencing in the present moment, to make sure that each of my todays is “well lived”. I have decided to relegate my phone to a back seat, and only bring it out when using it adds some real value to my life.

 What might “living today well” look like for you?