I am the main cook in the house – I enjoy cooking but there is a member of the family who loves to cook more than me. She is just passionate about it. Excited to be trying new recipes. Excited to be learning new ways of preserving, baking, or simply planning meals the family can share on days she’s home. The joy of cooking, she says, is the miracle of the transformation– the change from the single, raw ingredients into tantalising, appealing and delicious things to eat.
Such a transformation occurred last summer when the old, wild fig tree at the bottom of the garden came back to life, laden with fruit
Most years the figs ripen and we have the fun of discovering them in passing – picking one or two and enjoying their juicy, sweet and meaty texture. But one or two are enough, leaving the rest to the birds.
Not this year. For she who loves to cook had other plans…figs for jam!
Learning to make jam is not easy. After first experimenting with batches of marmalade, there was the frustration of it being just a little bit runny. The next marmalade experiment was with pectin and it came with the disappointment of the marmalade being a little too hard.
It often can be this way when learning to do new things- arising frustrations and disappointments – the strong emotions that come when our expectation are different to our experience.
Some people’s first experiences of mindful meditation can be similar. The distraction of a busy mind wandering off again and again as we try to watch our breath, leaving us frustrated instead of relaxed. So when we expect meditation to transform our stress – we find it initially can enhance it! Yet it is said that practice makes perfect. And so it is with jam as much as it is with meditation. This is because the purposes of the meditation is to be mindful and observe the frustrations as they come and go – not react too them – for its in those moments of observation that we gain insight into our old habitual patterns of reaction and have the choice to change our responses – and that’s what transforms us.
The mixture that emerged from the saucepan transformed the raw notes of the wild figs into something wonderful. A delicate pink, sweet caramelized fig jam now graces our morning toast allowing the summer flavours to linger well beyond the season. And even more, provide a sweet reminder and happy memories that were ‘cooked up’ that day that warm our hearts.
So for us this year we were blessed by the practice, practice and more practice of one dedicated young jam maker and by a bountiful fig crop. The transformation of our raw figs into jam, meant they had a new life way beyond their usual short season. With mindfulness practice, the raw moments that cause our usual suffering can be transformed and create a new life for us too.
“So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives.” Douglas Coupland
Nature reminded me of this yesterday when I was out for my daily walk.
It was dusk as I walked around the bank of the Cudgegong River. The river meanders through the bottom of our farm as it heads towards town. As I rounded the curve I was met by the sunset in the western sky. The hills that cradle our valley were alight with the setting sun and the sky full of the crimson flames that meets us so often at end of our day. I observed a blaze of magnificent glory and wanted that moment to last forever.
I had a camera but no shot comes near capturing the beauty. When I’m out walking these moments are common: The small black wallabies that live on the bank that are disturbed as I walk by – the rustle of the long grass, the thud, thud of their hop and then the “splash” as they scramble and swim across the river, away from the perceived danger. The wombats who come out forging at dusk or the cheeky little thrush as she guards her territory – a log in the middle of the river- they are moments I want to hang to forever.
Mindfulness reminds us that moments arise, stay and pass away.
Whether it is a beautiful scene, a beautiful mouthful, or a beautiful sonnet. All things observed in a moment arise, stay and pass away.
Some moments are fleeting. Others like the jonquils I find seeded on the side of the road while out walking, or the wattle coming into bloom, may last longer. But they too will, in their own time, pass away.
The mouthful of tiramisu, a signature dish of The Wineglass, will stay in my memory forever, although it is from a table long since cleared away.
There was no possibility of seconds, it was just that mouthful…in that moment.
A mindful eating moment that will last in my memory forever.
Imagine if each time we ate, or engaged or lived – we lived it like this?
No clinging, no attachment, no desire for more. How much freer our spirits would be.
The magical moments of life when there is no camera, no other way of trying to capture it. All that’s to be done is observe it, be enveloped by it. Enjoy it arise. Behold it and let it fall way.
I can be truly grateful though – that I was there – not lost in my head, in some conversation past, or lost in thought about some meeting to be had in the future. That I was there, awake in that moment. Aware and alive.
For this is the only moment we can be sure we’ll ever have. Moments are fleeting and they can only become memories if we’ re mindful enough to be awake to them. Awake enough to the moment to capture it- and make it a memory – for then it can truly last forever.
“People form habits and habits form futures. If you do not deliberately form good habits, then unconsciously you will form bad ones” Albert Gray
I have a terrible admission to make. An active lifestyle is something I had to learn. It had to become a habit. Since being unwell for the past few weeks I am struggling to get back into a good routine. I have found my shadow ‘couch potato’ self is alive and well. Why is that?
Habits are actions that we do so often that they become automatic.
We may have to learn the action the first time. Like cleaning our teeth. Then after a few times the brain decides it no longer has to pay attention and it becomes subconscious. It’s a habit – whether you like it or not!
And let’s face it, we all know habits can be either good or bad – depending of course if they help us or harm us. And regardless most habits go unnoticed – even the good ones – unnoticed until someone (like our doctor) or something (like our tight jeans) points them out!
When habits no longer benefit us – or worse – habits that we still may like begin to harm us- like smoking, over eating or drinking – we might begin to think about change.
And that’s when the seemingly intractable nature of habits can frustrate us each time we try to say no.
New neurobiological research is showing us that changing habits is hard because the behaviours we routinely repeat become strong neural pathways in our brain. Like a path worn through the grass that is a short cut home.
The neuronal pathways ‘fire’ each time we repeat the action. And if we frequently repeat the action in similar circumstance (e.g. having a cigarette with coffee or eat in response to stress) the behaviour and the circumstance link together – what ‘fires together wires together’ so the place, time or emotional states reinforce each other.
Its not all bad news though because our brains can change themselves and we can work to build new habits by practicing it – again and again.
And this is where mindfulness can help: Mindfulness is conscious awareness. Focusing on how we think, eat or respond to emotions is a way to see the habitual patterns we live in. And becoming aware is the first step towards change.
Next formulating an intention or goal helps guide the new actions and provides motivation to keep doing it. Our intention to engage in the new behaviour is the single best predictor of doing it.
So if mindfulness is part of what’s needed what is the other part? Actions! Doing it – not thinking about it – reading about it – talking about it…or writing about about it – but doing it! A new habit needs us to do it – again, again and again.
Hmm, so I guess that’s my cue – out with my shadow friend and off for a walk.
Just one last thing…if you want to change a habit it helps to remember the benefits.
So what are the benefits of being active? Many.
For me it’s the feeling of ‘well-being’ that comes from moving the body. Also it is the love of ‘being’. The experience of spending time mindfully in nature – the touch of the breeze, the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the scene and the joy of the sounds.
Ahh…there are just some habits that you hope never take on the true anatomy of a habit – unnoticed, automatic or unconscious. This is because an afternoon walk, like eating delicious food, brings such a harvest of sensory rewards that you want it to be mindful. Not just a habit – but more. A series of wonderful, mindful moments – lived again, again and again.