On watching another world go by

Monday, March 19, 2012

Let me start by saying I am ambivalent about zoos. I hate to see animals in cages. And yet, and yet… I think they may have a role to play in introducing people who may never stir much beyond their own backyard to the sheer amazingness of the natural world. And if that means those same people will eventually join the fight to preserve its brilliance then maybe it’s OK: the greater good and all that.

Howletts Zoo in Kent is a little bit different. Its wildlife may still be behind bars but the only reason visitors are allowed in at all I suspect is to provide the funds for a breeding programme that aims to preserve species on the critical list and repopulate some of the places in the world where future generations will otherwise never see them.

If you’re interested check out the Aspinall Foundation’s website to read why the gorilla breeding programme is so crucial. Between 1996-2006 51 gorillas have been reintroduced to reserves in Congo and Gabon and there have been 18 births from those gorilla families. Small numbers in the face of devastating losses to disease, poaching and encroachment but spend a day in the company of these wonderful creatures and you will understand why it matters.

Out of Africa
It always did matter to me, ever since I travelled through Africa and had the chance to see its amazing wildlife in its own environment. I can tell you, a giraffe may look out of place and ungainly in the confines of a UK zoo. On the African plains its spots are the same ochre as the earth and it is scaled to match the wide open spaces. I came home and read Gorillas in the Mist and began to despise the filmmakers who have turned such intelligent, gentle and fascinating creatures into objects of fear or derision.

But it matters even more since my sister and I took ourselves, two chairs, a picnic and a rug down to Howletts to spend a day in the company of the gorillas.

I’ve never ‘done’ a zoo like that before. Actually, I’ve never done an art gallery or a museum or anything else that way either. My usual style in museums, galleries and zoos is the same as my style in life:  pile in and try to see and do as much as I can.

But the relief on this gorilla-watching experdition of giving ourselves permission not to Do It All! Of just stopping in one place and immersing ourselves in the way these magnificent creatures live, eat, forrage, communicate, play, fight, and yes, even love.

It was a revelation to me that I could get so much more out of doing so much less. One I wanted to share with you, and remind myself of by writing this blog post.

Try it sometime: just stopping still and watching our wonderful world unfold. Ask yourself - as I intend to do a little more often now - are there areas in my life where I could learn more by just sitting still and doing nothing?

Believe me, there’s real freedom in that.

Posted by Jane Matthews on 03/19 at 04:31 PM
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How to mind your mind

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Understanding that it is our thoughts that create our reality, that we can think ourselves happy and at peace or think ourselves misunderstood and miserable, is one of those turning points in life. As Louise Hay says in the book that was my turning point, You can heal your life, once you understand that it’s only a thought, and thoughts can be changed, you are taking back the power to shape your own life.

You can choose to think rain puts a damper on the day or tug on your wellies and go out and enjoy that wet dusty smell that means the vegetables will swell and there will be cool water coming out of the tap on a hot summer’s day.

You can choose to think of life’s challenges as proof that you were born unlucky, or see every setback as a chance to learn a little more about yourself (and yes, it’s OK sometimes if the first reaction is to groan ‘oh no, not another learning opportunity’).

Thinking or being thought?
For most of us, however, it’s a turning point onto a path that has as many kinks and twists in it as the headphones on my MP3.

I’ve been using affirmations for almost a decade and I love the way choosing my own thoughts can bring me peace, help me stand a little taller, or let go of difficult situations (‘all is well’). But I also know there are just as many times in a day when my mind switches to automatic, replaying the thoughts I grew up hearing: it’s not safe, it’s not fair, there’s not enough.

Or when it clicks from automatic into overdrive – usually in the middle of the night – and suddenly I am terrorising myself with thoughts of failure, not being good enough, bad things happening to those I love…and on and on, out of control.

If there’s one question I am asked more often than almost any other in workshops it’s how to change the soundtrack, not just once but over and over again, each time we wake to a new day, and throughout all the hours of that day.

A guide to the power of the mind
I’m not sure the title of Barbara Berger’s book, The Awakening Human Being: a guide to the power of the mind, does justice to its simple brilliance. ‘How to think yourself happy’ might have been a more compelling title for a book that clearly answers precisely that question I’m always being asked: how do we change our thoughts?

Barbara’s aim is, first, to unpick the way our minds work, then to offer a range of simple and practical tools to help readers direct their thoughts towards a life of happiness – and to being present in life right here, right now.

Among the most powerful tools she shares is the technique of experiencing peace in every moment through staying detached. It’s a technique described by Byron Katie in the inspirationally titled Loving what is.  But in Barbara’s hands what it means to practice acceptance and non-attachment is brought home more clearly than anything else I have yet come across.

‘What happens if we drop our thoughts about the meaning of what’s going on?’ she asks, then describes how it works in her own life. ‘The first thing I always notice is that it suddenly gets very peaceful and quiet. There is this moment with whatever is going on. And I’m just in it or I am just it! For example, this moment right now, just me sitting in front of my computer…or this moment drinking a cup of tea. Or brushing my teeth…That’s about it. Life is right before me. Plain and simple. And it’s very simple.

‘Usually we don’t see this because we’re so busy living our interpretation of what’s going on…Your experience is your interpretation of what’s going on…it is our identification with our thoughts that makes us suffer.’

Beyond absence of thought there are all those thoughts and beliefs, all those interpretations, which don’t support our growth or peace of mind, and here too Barbara draws from Byron Katie’s work to replay three of the most powerful words any of us committed to choosing a new soundtrack can use: is it true?

Well, is it true I’m not good enough, is it true there is not enough time, or money, or that I am not deserving? Or any of the other beliefs that have often led me to behave in ways that prevent me loving myself, believing in my dreams, finding peace in life?

Barbara takes us through some of her own demons, demonstrating how challenging a thought such as ‘life doesn’t support me’  can be turned around into the realisation that not only is it not true, but that thinking the thought leads her to feel stressed and scared; whereas allowing the possibility that life does support her makes her feel good. Her conclusion – that it’s not life but her own thinking that’s not supporting her – is something we could all do with engraving on our walls!

I love Barbara’s personal and compassionate tone, and the careful way in which she explains and reinforces all the learning brings the book as close to actually being in one of her workshop as it’s possible to be in print.

But most of all I love the way her book brought me back again and again to the simple truth that as we mind our minds we experience for ourselves the Buddha’s truth that ‘It is your mind that creates this world’.

Choose well.

The Awakening Human Being by Barbara Berger with Tim Ray, o-books 2011

Find it on Amazon

Posted by Jane Matthews on 03/01 at 04:18 PM
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