The last week has had a bite to it; no complaints from my side of the house. I’d trade the grey and damp mundane for the drama of the Irish landscape—cloaked in a thick freezing fog by morning, sun peeking through by midday, to warm the frozen fields—any day.
It’s back to slow driving again, and frost covered windscreens in the morning. But it’s magical. And, bonus—the light has started to filter into the Holly Cottage kitchen by 7:30 a.m., fading only at a generous 5:30 p.m.
I hardly know myself!
Leaving the office in daylight and being able to view the Holly Cottage garden for at least 15 minutes when I land home every evening—it certainly lifts the spirits and makes one think, we made it through the worst of it all for this winter.
Readers following my blog are well aware, I wallowed in self pity last week as I bemoaned the horror of winter. Sorry for that. It was getting me down, or rather, I was letting it get me down. It just seems to go on for so long, with no hint of sunshine for us lovers of the light.
Urged on by the will to make it better, I’ve been exploring Buddhist philosophy in an attempt to refresh and stir my own way of dealing with winter. I was led to what is called in Buddhism, the Four Reminders.
My apologies to those who are better versed in these matters, but I found some reminders for myself on the basic fundamentals of our human existence which truly do get crowded out when we—please note, I can only speak for my own dark moments—are buried in self pity and self interest.
The Four Reminders, as explained by Khandro Rinpoche, a Tibetan nun living in the U.S., are (paraphrased heavily):
1. life is precious;
2. life is finite;
3. there is invariably suffering (I know, doom and gloom anyone? but, wait!);
4. the life we lead, the decisions we make and actions we take all have an impact on the overall well being of our world (aka karma).
Not all sweetness and light, eh?
Roughly translated to street-speak: You get one life, and this one life is the most precious thing you will ever own/experience. You alone are responsible for that body, and the life you live; so you really owe it to yourself to quit dallying and get living (flashback to that line in The Shawshank Redemption).
There will be challenges. But don’t let them become insurmountable obstacles—just do it, slow, steadily and consistently.
And be the best you can be. It makes a difference to you and the world.
In more detail…
Reminder 1: Life is precious
Think about it. The odds of you and I being here at this time, in this place. The gift of the amazing body we have, which is essentially, at minimum, a complex organism comprised of atoms and energy. This body can move, breathe, eat, taste amazing foods, see wondrous things and experience the world around us.
And what is the world around us? The sun and moon, the stars, trees, bees, the oceans, coral, pandas, other people and structures, living and non-living—all supporting us, and there for us to experience, or ignore—whatever we choose. We get scared every now and then; something happens which makes us realize it could all be taken from us at any time….leading to…..
Reminder 2: This life ain’t forever
This is the reminder of the impermanence of life. This one has the power to gather momentum. This realization creates in people, the urgency to truly and fully live. Imagine choosing to ignore this and going through your life in a haze of habit and un-thinking—ignorance, I guess you call it, or taking life for granted, and then at the moment it might all be taken away, realizing it wasn’t at all what you wanted it to be. It was a mistake.
This is one of my own greatest fears—I admit it freely—to not pursue the chances which come, and instead, choose the comfort and the monotony of the familiar, because the unknown is often so scary (in our minds), but so exhilarating (in reality).
I did a skydive over two years ago. I literally jumped out of a moving plane, entrusting my life to my skilled tandem skydive expert. It was frightening, and it seemed completely ludicrous at the time, as we climbed to 10,000 feet and then, regardless of innate fear and self-protecting mechanisms inbuilt since the dawn of human, we flung ourselves to the mercy of the sky.
As soon as it was done, I wanted to get back up there and do it again.
I have a moment locked in my brain, when we drifted, glided and gracefully waltzed down an imaginary skyslide, and the world below was a distant dream.
Reminder 3: Suffering
Now, there are a whole lot of hells—my least favorite being the extreme cold hells which seem to be a living reality on some January days. I can’t really relate to these ideas as described, but I consider suffering to be a reminder that no matter how bad things are, they could be a whole lot worse. Or, that we need to examine our own suffering and realize whether it is self-inflicted—born of habit and destructive tendencies—and do we play a role in its continued existence?
If we recognize we are at least part of the cause of our own suffering, it is then our responsibility to deal with it and give our selves the chance to escape a vicious cycle of self hurt. Like any form of addiction.
A tough one, I know.
Sometimes the suffering is created completely by our own minds, and our inability to deal with it and get rid of it, a result of us preferring to hold onto the comfort of suffering and clinging again to what we know. And that’s pretty sad.
Reminder 4: Karma
This is a complex one—and please refer to more learned texts and knowledgeable teachings. I interpret Karma as us taking responsibility for our own lives, for the cause and effect of us; being aware of how we treat ourselves and others. Our thoughts and actions impact so many aspects of life; we really do have the power to bring peace and love, or that whole suite of negativity which brings not joy, but instead, anger, aggression, jealousy and pain.
I know, given the choice, we would all choose positive thoughts and actions, but how difficult is that to do when old hurts arise when one encounters a less than pleasant memory from the past? Or how easy is it to envy others instead of being happy for their fortune and getting on with realizing our own?
These last few days I’ve been wishing January away, and wishing for life in a warmer climate and a Mediterranean substitute for Holly Cottage. That is so not good for the soul!
What’s a gal to do? Well, I am sticking with my yoga practice—even though it’s half-hearted some days—don’t let self-criticism knock you down. Integral to the various postures (asanas), are the breathing (pranayama), and my resolve to gift myself at least 20 minutes of meditation every day.
Some days those 20 minutes are calm and concentrated, while others, it feels like I have a spaghetti junction of thoughts between my ears and looping around the back of my eyes.
But I see the difference already. I trust in the teachings of those who have learned before me, and shared their journeys openly and honestly. I trust in my own intuition to help dissolve the myths, habits and thoughts which fool and misguide us everyday.
And so, everyday, I will remind myself how great it is to be alive, and how I’m the one holding the wheel and controlling the gears. The goal is self-realization and maybe even enlightenment. And why not? Baby steps.
There is so much to learn in terms of our own habitual tendencies and behaviors, and we owe it to ourselves to realize the best experience of living this precious life, as far, and as completely as possible. And so, it is worth our time to explore these Four Reminders, and remind ourselves.
I know for me, it will mean changing some old entrenched habits, and maybe not realizing the effects for some time.
Then again, it may be immediate. One thing’s for sure: once you take responsibility for your own happiness then there’s no shifting blame, no avoidance of reality and no easy way out. Surely this is the greatest challenge of our lives, but one that can transform us from barely living, to joyously and blissfully-aware-experiencing.
It’s like lifting the fog on a freezing winter land, and suddenly seeing and feeling a sun that was giving, loving and shining there all along.
Catherine Wilkie is an ecologist and yogi working in the real world, trying to raise awareness of the role of biodiversity and the significant value the Earth’s natural capital provides for us humans. She recently started a blog to allow her to express her joy in working in the Holly Cottage garden with her partner in crime and their little canine beauty, Holly. She loves to cook, garden, write, stand on her head and muse on life.
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Assistant Ed: Jennifer Spesia
Ed: Bryonie Wise