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March 2016

world in all its brilliance
in the world

The World In All Its Brilliance

In Paris I went to neither the art academy nor to the professors. The city itself was my teacher, in all things, in every minute of the day. The market folk, the waiters, the hotel porters, the farmers, the workers. They were enveloped in something of that astounding atmosphere of enlightened freedom that I had never come across anywhere else.

Marc Chagall

Do you ever have moments where the veil falls away and the world presents itself fresh and new?

My wife and I spent a morning running errands recently and pulled up at a stoplight outside a cafe. A woman on a bicycle was propped beside our car waiting for the light to change. A couple walked, arms linked, in front of the stopped traffic. In the cafe every table was occupied, at least those visible from the street, and on each table there was at least one laptop open. One man looked through the window, checking out the woman on the bike.

I was struck by how particular this scene was to this moment, to this corner of the city, to the people present, and the activities they were doing. It was a grey Seattle day which threw a soft light over everything, and beneath the bustle of activity everyone seemed relaxed. Things moved in slow motion.

That moment will never be repeated exactly again.

Well it’s Seattle, so the clouds will probably be repeated. Never in that exact same way, though.

The woman on the bike will never lean in just that way, in just that spot, watched by just those eyes as she waits for the light to change. The relationship between the couple crossing the road will never be quite the same again. Tomorrow it may be deeper, or fonder, more fraught, or finished. The man looking out the window might never see the woman bike-rider again. Or he may see her tomorrow, run down the road and ask her out.

The light changed and we drove off. The moment of seeing, of really seeing that little scene, dropped away and a veil slipped back over the world.

I don’t remember much at all of the rest of the trip. I was caught up in thoughts, or conversation for most of it. We probably stopped at a few more lights at which nothing really caught my eye, and soon enough we were home again.

But that small moment outside the cafe stays with me. It was just a plain moment, but bright in its plainness.

I read recently that when visitors came to Chagall’s studio they had to wait for him to throw on a pair of pants, because he painted naked. That nakedness shines through in his paintings, too.

I love this gesture of casting away what stood between him and his canvas.

Brief moments where I see the world clearly make me realise how muffled my view usually is. It makes me wonder if sometimes I walk around like a guy wearing a pair of pants over my head.

I’m not sure we’re even built to see the world in all its brilliance all the time. I’m sure we gather that mental clothing around us in self-protection, but I’m also pretty sure I go through life a little overdressed.

One payoff from building your capacity to notice, to be present, is that the discipline in showing up regularly in this way ensures you’ll hit roadblocks and stop signs that occasionally strip away your mental clothing, forcing you to see things as they really are, if only for a brief moment, before the rush to cover back up again.

presence practices

One Simple Doorway Into Presence

It makes sense that we would all want to be as present as possible. After all, who wants to fritter their life away in constant distraction?

When thinking about meaningful moments in our lives it’s easy to run off a list of the big moments-birthdays, weddings, births, promotions, achievements, retirement. We all make a special effort to be present for these moments and in many cases there are special rituals and traditions that helps us.

But what about all the small moments between the seemingly big ones. Are they any less important? A child hugging you tightly after they’ve fallen and hurt themselves, seeing the small wisp of steam rising from a cup of tea, a stranger smiling at you at the grocery store.

We dream of the big moments and expect that we will be present for them because they’re big. But if we’re unable to be there for the small moments, why do we think we’re going to do a better job of being there for the bigger ones?

Being Present Is A Practice

Somatic Coach and trainer, Richard Strozzi Heckler, says “You are what you practice.”

If you spend time being distracted, you cultivate the practice of distraction. If you spend time being present, you cultivate the practice of presence.

It’s as simple as that.

It’s a difficult truth because we are saturated in convenient and enjoyable options for being distracted. To turn away from all of this we need to make an intention to be more present.

And this ‘being more present’ becomes a new practice.

That starts with making presence something that is focused and engaging for you.

Because a practice is something that you are going to want to come back to again and again. The best way to make the door slam shut on a good intention is to make it seem like a chore.

A Simple Doorway Into Presence

There is a doorway into presence that, by its nature, wishes to stay open.

It’s the door of Curiosity.

The door of curiosity is a doorway that invites you to leave judgements behind. It encourages a sense of playfulness. There is a lightness to curiosity, and when you are deeply curious everything becomes fresh and gives you a sense of nourishment.

There’s an energy to curiosity that keeps pulling you lovingly forward. Well, it my also invite you sideways at times, which is why it helps to have a clearly focused goal to work with that will keep your curiosity on course.

We will talk about how to build that in in a little while.

Getting Curious About Curiosity

One of the root meanings of curiosity comes from the word curiosa meaning ‘full of care’. I like that the quality of ‘care’ is inherent in the concept of curiosity. It makes sense too, that care wold be a necessary ingredient that allows curiosity to remain engaged with it’s subject.

The act of remaining engaged through curiosity also deepens the sense of care. When we are with something in a curious way, care seems to naturally come up. There is this self generating quality of aliveness that also builds up over time.

Curiosity is in all of us. It pretty much ran the show when we were small children and is lying there inside you always ready to be reactivated.

The How Of Curiosity

Curiosity begins in the body.

It’s awakened by our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. The flood of information from the outside world is met at the door by curiosity, which then proceeds to hang out with them, relish, mingle and learn from then.

Our mind is awakened in this meeting, and thoughts and questions rise up as we try to process new information.

This wonderful and natural process can also get a little overwhelming if our goal is to not get carried away.

It’s important that we take some time to think about how we want to be present. This will help us find ways to harness our curiosity, to allow us to remain present  and not be pulled away.


Questions are a simple tool we can use to create a sense of focus and direction. A question gives our curiosity an agenda, a purpose. Unchecked curiosity can lead us in an infinite amount of directions, and that’s not a bad thing if that’s what you are wanting to so. But if you have a specific goal, like being present for ourselves, then direction and focus are going to be helpful.

In his book, ‘The Big Leap’ Gay Hendricks introduces the idea of wonder questions. These are questions designed to inspire a  sense of wonder in the questioner. They are open ended and yet focused at the same time. And start with the phrase “I wonder …”

A useful wonder question might be “I wonder what it would be like if I could feel my breathing whenever I wanted?”

This kind of question allows our curiosity to wake up a little, and gives it a sense of focus. Our curiosity is being given the sole task of feeling the breath.

Another benefit of the Wonder Question is the aspect of embodiment it offers. Hendricks suggests that when you ask the question to yourself, you ask the question out loud and at the end you add a humming sound.

As in, ““I wonder what it would be like if I could feel my breathing whenever I wanted? Hmmmmmm.”

This humming is something that we’ve all done when asking a question, but in this case it has a distinct effect that helps the process.

When you hum in this way after the question it sends a vibration through the body, as if you are infusing the question through your whole being.

Try it. There is something magical about humming, and it certainly gives a sense that you are bringing your whole self to the question.

And this is important, because sometimes questions can exile us from the body. Holding a question in this embodied way helps keep it engaged with the body and infused with aliveness.


Reflection is something that generally happens after the event, but this is a really helpful step and will help you to direct and get the most benefit from your rides into curiosity.

After you’ve spent some time with this question that’s designed to help you explore the present moment, it’s really helpful to scribble a few notes about your experience.

Was it interesting? Dull? Did anything new reveal itself? Did anything shift in your thinking, in your body, when you were present to your breath in this way?

Even if you don’t keep these notes there is value just from taking a moment or two to process and integrate what happened.

It also helps to build habit, ritual, and a sense of history into your presence practice.

A Presence Practice For You

Softening Into Curiosity:

Pick an activity that gives you pleasure-eating chocolate, drinking tea, sitting in front of a fire, stepping into the garden.

Think of a simple question you can ask yourself that focuses on your present moment experience of this activity.

Eg: “As I drink this cup of tea, I’m wondering if I can be aware of these sensations I’m feeling?” or “As I walk through the garden, I’m wondering if I can be aware of the smells that come to me?”

Oh, and remember to hum at the end … Hmmmm? Now that you have your activity, and a question to help you focus:


Let go of everything you know about this activity.

Let go of your previous experiences, and any thoughts about how it might be this time. Just soften so that you can be receptive for the activity.

Do this by allowing your awareness to drop down through your body. Imagine your awareness as the slowest, gentlest waterfall—the water is perfectly warm and comfortable as it moves down through your body. Allow this awareness to move all the way from the top of your head down to your feet.

Once you feel present and receptive, begin your chosen activity.

Pretend it’s the first time ever.

Allow your question to guide you, and if other sensations/feelings come up, notice them too.

Once you’ve spent a few minutes doing your activity, exploring your experience make sure to jot down a few notes.

It could be in a journal, on a scrap of paper. It doesn’t matter much, the important thing is to capture it somewhere. Doing this helps you to integrate the experience. If you do this exercise regularly your reflection notes will become valuable as you will begin to see your experience shifting over time.

You might start to notice different sensations and feelings that come up, and your relationship to this activity may deepen, or change over time.

in the world

Finding Beauty Through Simplicity

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

My father was a landscape artist and he used to carry a small piece of cardboard with a rectangular section cut out which he used as a viewfinder. Looking through this simple tool helped him isolate different aspects of the same scene and settle on a composition for his paintings.

I carry one around in the folder of my sketch book, and when using it I notice how it de-clutters my field of vision and simplifies my choices.

There are many ways we can use the idea of a viewfinder to focus our attention.

Every time I’ve attended a silent meditation retreat, I always relish the feeling when that first bell rings, signaling the beginning of silence. It’s like having a frame of simplicity placed over my life for a few days.

That single change reduces the many social interaction choices we need to make during the day and ushers in a velvety cloak of silence. This has an immediate calming and focusing effect on me.

By taking away these choices it becomes so much easier for the mind and body to settle deeply.

The writing practice of noticing works in this way too. It limits your writing choices to one: record what is happening in the present moment. It takes something infinite and provides an access point that retains a sense of expansiveness, while reducing the sense of overwhelm.

This act of framing and simplifying makes it easier to give your full attention.

Once your attention is focused and intensified; beauty, and detail, and previously hidden patterns are revealed. Curiosity is fed, and you are open to the vibrancy of everything around you.

This might be where we get that idea of attention as a form of love. When you think of the word ‘attention’ in this way, other words may float up; like ‘attending’, ’tending’, and ‘tenderness’.

As Rumi points out, when we find ourselves walking through a garden, we have our own cultural frames that guide us in how to experience that garden so we can receive it fully. Beauty is all around us but a garden acts like a frame, so when you visit a garden all your senses become attuned towards beauty, and you can’t help but find it.

Great focus and attention is required in the creation of a garden. It’s there in the act of envisioning the garden, the deliberate care given as each plant is put in the ground and nurtured along, the thoughtful placement of each element with an eye to how future visitors will experience the garden.

These all require shifting viewpoints that bring simplicity. The results of these choices then come together, like a mosaic, to bring forth an experience of beauty for us as we arrive to experience the garden.

Are there activities in your life that you frame with simplicity? that inspire attentiveness, tenderness and focus? Leave a comment, let me know.

photo by Amy Treasure via Unsplash
presence practices

Can I Meditate Lying Down?

Everybody settled onto the floor. We were swaddled by the sounds of shuffling limbs, the sighs of tired people arranging themselves, the rubbery sweat-smell of the yoga studio.

It was my first live yoga class and we’d finally arrived at the snoozy part.



शवासन !

Then came the instructor’s voice.

He started giving quiet instructions. Specific guidance on how to align our bodies, bit by bit, so that we were laid out on our mats as if we were resting. But really, we were doing a lot. He was directing us to hold our bodies in this precisely aligned way. He was asking us to hold our awareness in this precisely aligned way. And to not snooze.

It was way more work than I had expected it to be. I thought this was the resting bit, the bit where we got to blow off all the effort, and the attention, and just drift away a little. But, no.

This happened in my first live yoga class and I was being very obedient. I have since done Shavasana many times and have often occasionally drifted away. I’m much kinder to myself about that these days.

But I have never forgotten that slight sense of shock at learning that you could lie down on the floor like that and not let go into dreaminess, but have it be a very rigorous practice of paying attention.

Sit Upright, Cross Legs, Face Forward

When I took that first yoga class, I had been meditating for a while in the Zen tradition. And even though my earliest experience of meditation practice was through using guided meditation recordings, I had decided that real meditation involved sitting on a cushion in a formal posture.

I didn’t think about it much, but if you’d asked me I wouldn’t have thought of lying down to meditate as being very useful. The only time I’d seen it happen recently was on a retreat when someone had some kind of injury and couldn’t sit up straight. Otherwise, it seemed like an invitation for a nap.

The idea that meditation involved sitting upright, crosslegged, facing forward was very ingrained with me.

It’s not like my practice was going that well. Whenever I sat, my body became a battleground of stiff limbs, knots of unresolved traumas, and grinding jaws trying to clamp down on all of this as well as an unrelenting wave of useless, critical thinking.

Pushing hard made sense at the time. I thought that if I meditated hard enough, correctly enough, that some kind of awakening would wash away all my difficulties.

That experience of meditation as a fight did ease, and as my relationship with the practice softened I got a lot of benefit from it.

Then I came across yoga nidra, a guided meditation practice that you generally do while lying down.


When I began this daily practice of lying down to meditate I learned a whole lot.

The Gift Of Yoga Nidra

The reason I’ve been thinking so much about lying down to meditate is that my main daily practice for the last two years has been Yoga Nidra. In fact, a few months ago I became an I-Rest Yoga Nidra teacher in training.

Yoga Nidra is a form of awareness meditation you do (mostly) lying down, and after practicing for a while now, I’ve found that instead of lying down being a signal to my body to automatically fall asleep, it has now become a signal to wake up more.

That sounds weird, but it’s true. Hundreds of hours of Yoga Nidra has changed some set of neural pathways in my brain and now, whenever I lie down, my awareness starts scanning the body and noticing what’s going on in there automatically.

After laying down to sleep I nearly always launch into an informal body scan and often fall asleep that way. I often wake up that way too, my eyes open, I look around a little and then start noticing and following sensations in my body as the muscles wake up and I start moving around.

Yoga Nidra is about self kindness, and restoration. It’s also a very physical practice, and has completely changed my relationship to meditation. My meditation practice (sitting or lying) has become much gentler and kinder. That, alone, has been a great gift. There will definitely be plenty of Yoga Nidra inspired posts on this blog in the future, but for today let’s hang out with this idea of lying down to meditate, and what that can offer.

Some Things I learned While Lying Down To Meditate:

If you are exhausted at the end of a busy day and your mind is racing, lying down can be a great way to get grounded in the body and give your mind a chance to settle.


A great way to increase your chances of staying awake is lie down on the floor or on a yoga mat. Lying on the bed makes it more difficult to stay alert and awake.


Guided meditation is a great practice to do while lying down, and especially helpful if you are new to meditation. They were my first experience of meditation, way before I ever visited a meditation group. Think of the instructions as scaffolding for your practice. They help save mental energy that can then used to on simply maintain awareness, rather than worrying if you’re doing it right or if you should change your breathing, or your posture.


You can sense through your back! We spend so much time facing forward, concentrating all of our attention and life energy into the three feet of space in front of us, it’s as if our backs don’t even exist sometimes.


When you meditate lying down on the floor you get to feel how your back relates to the support underneath you. You can feel where your back has tensed up and lifts off the floor for no apparent reason, and the soft parts where it naturally sinks into the floor. And you notice after a while that all of this information is in flux. It’s a whole living system of tensing, and softening, and movement between. Through a regular practice of lying down meditation there is much more awareness of how you can sense things through your back, how this is a living, sensing part of you.


It doesn’t have to make you sleepy. Sometimes it will, but is that really a bad thing. Sometimes you just need to rest, and if you’re not rested enough your mediation is going to be a pretty difficult exercise in staying awake and focused. If your body needs to sleep, let it sleep a little. When it’s more refreshed, let it meditate.

Walking, Standing, Sitting, Lying Down

In Buddhism they talk about the four meditation postures as being walking, standing, sitting and lying down. So there doesn’t seem to be any problem there with lying down to meditate. Any opposition to lying down meditation has mostly been a thing in my own mind, and it’s been a great experience to get past that limiting idea.

The practice of meditation, of cultivating awareness, is more than an exercise in moulding yourself into any particular form. It’s about finding awareness wherever you can, in whatever state, posture, or circumstance you happen to find yourself.