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FROM RETREAT#7: Candles and food

It’s been two weeks since my retreat ended in Sussex – and yesterday it snowed. All across the garden, the hellebores, crocuses and snowdrops I’d uncovered with careful weeding were covered again with delicate white. A lace of fine snow.

The clarity of the retreat hasn’t dimmed too much. Perhaps also covered by a lace of forgettery here and there, but mostly intact.

I’m writing this from the train to the west country. My life on the road starts again with a bit of filming down in Plymouth. But the stability of those two weeks has stood me in really good stead for the year ahead. I really recommend a home retreat – even a couple of days – in the dead of winter. It sets up the coming year really powerfully.

The Buddhist practice I’m committed to probably had an accelerating effect but I imagine that sitting still with no distractions and no external demands for a length of time – two whole weeks in my case – will lead to a settling of the mind and an opening up of Being.

I had taken to eating in candlelight to give my meals more ceremony

The classic image is of muddy pond water in a jam jar, shaken up and then left in the sunlight to settle. Over hours, what seemed completely opaque becomes clearer and clearer until it is completely transparent to the light falling through it. The story is no longer about the mud, or even the water but about the light that illuminates it. Similarly, there was an evening right towards the end of the retreat – perhaps the penultimate night – when I was sitting at the dining room table with a warm bowl of pea and spinach soup and a glass of water. I had taken to eating in candlelight to give my meals a bit more of a frame and more ceremony, and I had just finished the last mouthful of the soup and I was looking at the red candles in the blue-and-white Danish candle holders and feeling warm and full-up and I felt OK.

Everything was OK, just as it was: the table, the food, the candle flame, this body, even the feeling of OKness itself. There were no thoughts. None necessary. Just this moment.

There’s a great quote from Trungpa that describes this state of OKness:

“We’re not particularly angry or pissed-off at phenomena, but we actually accept our world simply as it is. The World is very definitely as it is. There’s no reason either to be pissed off at it or boost it up. It’s just a simple world, which is a full world, a bright world, a shining world, a brilliant world. “

Soup, darkness, candles, food, body, feeling OK.

As soon as I am thinking about these things, as soon as I step back and separate from the experience, then there’s a problem. But I glimpsed the truth: both the thinking and the problem are extra. They are unnecessary.

The wisdom teacher Loch Kelly has a good exercise to this point. Sit comfortably, take a few breaths and then drop the question: What is here now when there is no problem to solve?

That doesn’t just apply to candle-lit dinners with soup and Danish candle holders

Try it.

Sit comfortably, drop into the awareness of your body and ask: What’s here now when there is no problem to solve?

The sole purpose of the thinking mind – in many ways – is to create and then solve the problem of the present. A problem that – in actual fact – does not exist. There is no problem. Until the thinking mind concocts one and then moves away from the simple reality of the situation. Over and over.

Sitting in that candlelight, rotating my awareness from the red candles to the feeling of being nourished, to Danish candle holders, to the smell of incense: no problem. As soon as I shifted back to thinking about people from work, comparing my reality with others, looking away from the Now into some alternative reality, then I was back in my never-quite-existing, never-quite-coming-into-focus, never-resolving problems with what is going on.

On retreat, in moments of grace, during meditation practice that black, knotted, the double-dense world of infinite problems is cracked open – if only for a moment, – and something much fresher, simpler and suddenly remembered opens up.

And that doesn’t just apply to candle-lit dinners with soup and Danish candle holders. That same problem-free Now is also present in terrible trauma, in battlefields, in illness, on the deathbed. The Now doesn’t really care what is happening. It is aware and open to it all. But in the space of the now there isn’t a problem. Just reality.

The practice is just to dwell in it:

What is here now when there is no problem to solve?

I’d love to know your thoughts about candles and the now. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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