Weekend Read and Listen and Eat – Autumn Bounty and Alan Watts on The Power of Living Your Dreams

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Apple and Blackberry Cake (Image Courtesty of Anula’s Kitchen)

The English obsession with the weather is something of of a standing joke.
Wherever us British natives travel in the world, however halting our attempts to communicate, very often when our nationality is confirmed, the conversation changes to the weather, to descriptions of a country enveloped in Victorian London smog with grey, rain washed pavements and long days spent sitting forlorn staring through raindrop smeared glass.

Being woken this morning by the insistent thrum of heavy rain, it’s a reminder that summer is waning, giving way to Autumn. The hedges are thick with blackberries and there’s a certain joy in hunting out the waterproofs, collecting logs and starting to prepare for winter, cooking and eating with friends and slowing down after the frantic excitement of the Summer Holidays.

The weekend is a precious time – and a reminder  that in slowing down a notch or two, it’s possible for even the most mundane trip to become something of an adventure Continue reading

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Simple Wisdom For Complex Lives

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Wireless Fun – Compton Beach, Isle of Wight

“Oh please, oh please, we beg, we pray,

Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Photo courtesy of my wonderful friend Anyold Abbie.

Midwinter

 

Dawn comes late in these the dark days of winter.

It was a night of howling wind, driving rain beating against weather worn creaking windows. The dog remained curled tightly in his basket ears creased and eyes crinkled, shut to the possibility of morning’s arrival.

Magic Seaweed  – the surfer’s oracle, proclaimed 30mph onshore winds with messy fierce waves battering the rugged South West Coast but to those who know, there are always waves to ride, tucked in the unpromising corners of the dusty, fading, genteel Victorian resort towns that line the shores of the East Wight, or more rarely, stealing  into the shallow sandy bays of the Northern Coast, which in the Summer play host to toddlers taking first shaky steps on sand, squealing with delight as gentle ripples tickle pink toes.

We were not alone when we arrived, the surf bush telegraph is hyper optic it appears and a handful of wetsuit clad figures were already laying seal like awaiting the next set. We made our way through the flooded carpark, sharing jittery, short, conversation as we stood watching the conditions from the shore. The swell rolling in was smooth and consistent – a legacy of stormy weather far out in the channel, shaped by the wind’s fetch – a geographic term which describes the amount of open water over which a wind has blown.

When hesitancy begins to creep into my psyche, my modus operandi is to leap into action before the fear becomes paralysing, so within minutes, I’m paddling out from the beach heading “out back” into the unbroken water, through swirling surging white foam, totally immersed, watching for gaps between the wave sets which give an opportunity to paddle out, avoiding the washing machine effect of battling through the breakers.

Once in the water I’m hooked on the complexity of riding the raw energy of an ever-changing wave. It focuses the mind like few other activities do and even after a couple of hours in the cold sea it’s still difficult to tear myself away despite aching shoulders and the promise of a hot cup of coffee. It is a completely entrancing experience, providing an intrinsic reward which closely resembles, for me at least the concept of “flow”that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as:

“an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing”

It requires persistence, curiosity and teaches humility – all characteristics which I’ve found to be helpful in creating a life that is joyful and peaceful independent of external circumstances.

I’m writing now by the fire, it’s evening, dark and quiet. The dog lies with head on the hearth and the only sound is the gentle creaking of the wood burner, flames dancing hypnotically in the darkness. One more journey outside to put the chickens to bed and then the day will be over.

The light of the dying day – anatomy of a winter run

For the past many months, each week at the same time and on the same day I’ve run the same route upwards from the far Western bay of the Isle of Wight to within a stones throw of The Needles Lighthouse. It’s argueably about as wild as the Isle of Wight gets. I’ve run it in searing heat on burnt yellowing grass with the sea below limpid blue, clear enough to see the lunar outlines of barrel jellyfish hanging in the shallows; in gale force winds strong enough to make the steepish incline feel like summiting Everest with the cliffs echoing from the heavy brunt of Atlantic storms and perhaps most often recently in disorientating dense billowing mist which threatens to lure the unwary dangerously close to the crumbling edges.

As so often in late December, this was a day where  the night never quite left, windless and eerily calm. The bay itself was grey, the sea throwing up a  large swell, given the absence of wind. A couple of brave surfers paddled out between the rocky outcrops at the Western tip, and the mist hung over stag rock on the Eastern edge – named in remembrance of a stag which supposedly leapt from the adjacent cliffs to escape from a hunt in Victorian times. These rocks on either side of the bay entrance were once the haunt of smugglers and were blasted away with explosives in 1916 to allow the ship “Carl” which was washed onto the beach in heavy storms, to be sailed free, leaving shallow ledges which provide fertile ground for snorkelling expeditions on a calm summer day.

freshwater bay ship

 

On the cliffs from which the stag must have leapt a red council sign warns “Danger Cliff Edges Can Be Dangerous”

 

Unknown

As the memorial to a 15 year old boy who feel to his death further along the path suggests, this may be something of an understatement.

E.L.M.
AGED 15
HE COMETH FORTH
LIKE A FLOWER
AND IS CUT DOWN.
HE FLEETH ALSO AS
A SHADOW AND
CONTINUETH NOT.

JESUS SAID
I AM THE
RESURRECTION
AND THE LIFE

ERECTED
IN REMEMBRANCE OF
A MOST DEAR
AND ONLY CHILD
WHO WAS SUDDENLY
REMOVED INTO ETERNITY
BY A FALL FROM
THE ADJACENT CLIFF
TO THE ROCKS BENEATH
28TH AUGUST 1846
—-
READER PREPARE TO
MEET THY GOD, FOR THOU
KNOWEST NOT WHAT A DAY
MAY BRING FORTH

IN THE
MIDST OF LIFE
WE ARE IN DEATH

As with writing, quite often with running, the first few minutes are the most painful, there’s often a kind of hesitancy which allows for all kinds of distraction – on this occasion a few minutes spent watching the surfers toiling out against a turbulent ocean, before turning upwards through the well worn path into the mist towards the monument to Alfred Lord Tennyson.

My running companion always greets the site of this apparently never ending incline with considerable more enthusiasm than I do, skittering this way and that after imaginary rabbits, body taught and quivering with intensity as he prepares to launch himself.

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As we climb, the mist thickens and a steady rhythm takes hold and with foot planting firmly on soft springy turf, the run takes on its own momentum. The monument at the crest of the hill appears suddenly out of the whiteness – bringing with it a feeling of relief that the effort is over and a reminder that here, the sheer drop of the cliff is nearly 150 metres high and only metres away.

As we gently meander downwards,cattle appear out of the gloam. A white heifer heavily in calf  and ponderous shows only a passing interest in our presence.

white cow in mist

Below us the land opens up like a runway. Suddenly with the memory of the uphill trudge forgotten, I want to run – really run and dog and I take off between the strange patchwork of gorse and heather that mark the Western tip of the Island, chasing the haze of the setting sun.

Riding the waves

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Almost twenty years ago, I and a handful of other dubiously titled  “mature students” had the equally dubious privilege of completing the first two years of the Vet course in a single year.

After a relaxing spell as a Zoology student, followed by “work” as a  marine biologist in Bermuda, I found myself back in a cold, rainy city, faced with  the seemingly impossible task of passing two years worth of professional exams in a single sitting without having attended the lectures. Life was further complicated by my discomfort  and hidden insecurity at being surrounded by straight A science students – most of whom were incredulous that someone who’d started studying English, before giving Philosophy a try and finally settling on Zoology, had even been accepted onto the course….

For the first time in life thus far I actually doubted my ability to cope – I felt out of control and on the verge of admitting defeat. I could feel myself getting caught in a spiralling whirlwind of anxiety and out of control thought – and actually starting to question my sanity. With panic rising I phoned my father who somehow within the space of a couple of minutes introduced me to a life changing concept:

“You are not the voice of the mind – you are the one that hears.”

It’s an incredibly simple idea – inside our heads there’s a constant mental dialogue that never stops – a chattering chorus of monkeys commenting on everything, disturbing everything you’re doing. If you step back from the voice and watch it objectively you will see that most of what the voice says is meaningless. The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces outside your control regardless of what your mind says about it.

It’s an interesting experiment to spend a day observing the mental voice: if you watch carefully you’ll see that when there’s a build up of nervous energy, fear or anxiety, the voice becomes really active. It also acts as a narrator describing and defining your experience, judging and labelling – processing your current experiences in the context of your views about the past and expectations about the future. It helps to create a semblance of control allowing you to buffer the experience of reality as it comes in. Reality is too real for most of us and so we use the voice inside as a protection mechanism, a form of defence to make ourselves feel secure.

What I came to notice – quite suddenly, was that there were two quite distinct experiences going on in my head: the mad woman who had taken up residence and was busy telling me I couldn’t cope – and the quiet one inside who noticed the voice talking. What my father taught me was that I could choose to disengage from the melodrama being acted out by my crazy roommate – that I could simply notice the conversation without getting caught up in it – and in doing so it became clear that  even in times of extreme stress, I was able to become the quiet observer of my predicament and in doing so I could objectively watch my problems rather than getting lost in them.

In my state of crisis I was so lost in the energy of the problem that no solution could possibly exist – only once I’d realised this and objectively watched the situation rather than getting caught up in it was I clear enough to deal with what was left.

It’s not really that complicated – most of the things that we identify with as “problems” are simply fleeting thoughts and emotions, past experiences and our reactions to them. They make compelling viewing – so much so that much of the time you get sucked into the experience and are never aware of being separate from the web of intrigue and drama created by the mind – before you know it you’re believing its spin  – you’re taken over. Scary as it sounds, most of the time this is our predicament in life.

Real freedom isn’t the avoidance of suffering, it’s the ability to ride the waves of life as the conscious observer – constantly remembering that you’re the one inside that notices the voice talking……

Photo courtesy of Paul Blackley and Chris Mannion from ISurf