Saturday, 17 January 2015

What is this life? - Day 49

Day 49 (18th January 2015)
49 - the number of days Siddhartha (the founder of Buddhism) sat under
the Bodhi tree before attaining enlightenment.
Above image - The Enlightenment (2nd Century BCE) - a fine example of 

Gandhāran carving - part of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.

Today's piece is by a wonderful lady, Katharine Bourke, who was a former colleague of mine over 20 years ago. I have very fond memories of our times together during the pioneering days of the recruitment industry. She stood out from the crowd for being ethical, honest, proactive and quick, without any hard-sell. She was very good at her job. We renewed contact through Twitter in 2014 (her handle is @katharinebourke). We met in London, but Katharine is a country girl at heart (she was born on a farm on Dartmoor). She now lives and works in Devon and Cornwall, looking after her family and helping local businesses thrive (she is a business growth specialist and takes delight in helping organisations and people to achieve their true potential).


When Kate invited me to write for this blog, she mentioned the story I told earlier in the year about Pirate Joe. 'Pirate Joe' was my attempt to engage two typically boisterous children (aged 2 and 4) in spending a quiet moment sitting looking out to sea, so that we could catch our breaths during whole days spent together at the beach, when they were little. 

Rock Beach, Cornwall, UK
There were always stories to tell, often collaboratively, based around the little yacht with the red sails which was sailed by 'Pirate Joe'. It usually involved consideration of where the boat was going, what it was doing, and who was on board. To this day (they're both teenagers now) if I mention 'Pirate Joe' they still remember the story of Pirate Joe, even if they don’t remember all that much about those moments by the sea. Moments which I will always treasure and which made me first recognise the power of storytelling.

The picture above of that little boat with the red sails was taken on July 16th 2014, which would have been my father’s 88th birthday. Having booked the day off to spend it with my Mum, we took the opportunity to head across to Rock in Cornwall to visit St Enodoc’s Church and in particular Sir John Betjemen’s grave, somewhere she’s always wanted to visit. In the process we came across a beautiful poem which had been put there in Sir John’s memory and which read:

30th Anniversary 19th May 2014
If you can look for a silver lining,So that others around may see,And you show them the sun is shining,You’re the fellow for me
We shall arise from the times of sorrow, To a world as it ought to be,Lend a hand for the new tomorrow,And you’re the fellow for me.
Written by the late Ralph Reader CBE (1907 – 1981)

So, in the spirit of storytelling and with 2015 upon us, I would like to share with you what was possibly the most profound experience of 2014 for me. And even thinking about it now brings me to tears – in a good way! 

I received some information about a Zen Leadership course being held at Sharpham House in Devon. The place and the subject resonated with me so powerfully I decided that I had to take time for it and booked myself a place.

To spend three days learning about Zen Leadership, including learning how to ‘sit’ Zazen style, in silence, eyes open and without moving was a powerful experience for me. I have enjoyed learning about mindfulness and have meditated off and on for many years, but never with my eyes open and never all that regularly. On the second day, as the first morning meditation started at 6am I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. 

Tears poured down my face, I wept, and amidst all the chaos going on in my head, I managed to keep it to myself. Seemingly no one noticed. I was silent, unmoving, not even raising a hand to wipe tears from my cheeks. Quietly observing the tears running down my face, keeping still, and focusing on my breathing. Counting 1, 2, 3 and on up to 10 with each breath. Then back to 1 again.

For 45 minutes I managed to keep that to myself, finding myself back in the room aware of my wet face, then observing so many thoughts flitting past and which the counting enabled me to dismiss so that I could return to that peaceful, quiet, place in my mind. The wooden blocks that signalled the end of the meditation brought me back into the room in more ways than one and I know I moved pretty fast out through the door beside me to wash my face before returning to the next session!

Before you ask, I do know what was behind that powerful surge of emotion, a part of which is to do with allowing my work life to take over my personal life, and constantly feeling frustrated at not having enough time and always feeling like I’m either wading through treacle or just running to stand still. I love my work but it is all consuming, I’d lost my enthusiasm for cooking, I was not exercising regularly, and I was definitely not taking any time for myself in the midst of being a working mother with a husband who works away a lot, teenage children, and an elderly Mum who is in need of support and who often takes priority over my children, not to mention my dear husband!

And it’s not that I’m unaware of my emotions. I’m one of the many people who will cry when there is a sad news story, I often shed a tear when I hear stories of personal sadness or tragedy, as well as stories that I find touching, heartwarming. I’m very comfortable with my emotions now, which I’ve realised quite probably goes back to the day when I was presenting my strategic plan to the directors of the company I used to work for in Oxford, and when challenged on something that I really cared passionately about, I burst into tears. The first time I’d done that in business. At the time I suggested that it was because I was 6 months pregnant and emotional, but on reflection I think there was more to it than that!

Since that weekend, things have changed. I made myself a promise, that I would keep an hour a day for myself. And surprising myself, I have kept to it much better than I’d expected. Mostly an hour at the beginning of the day, often a short (15 minute) Zazen meditation followed by a walk, or an hour spent on my ‘shenanigans’ – the only possible word to describe my version of a daily run which is more like 80s-style aerobics in a straight line, where it is all about the music!

Dawn Zazen, by artist, poet & potter Lawrence Barrow
Several of us on the course observed that we rarely keep the promises we make to ourselves. Since the course, I have found that I have been much more consistent with taking that time for myself in a day. It enables me to clear my head and focus on those things I need to do that day which are the most important. I certainly notice the days when I don’t make time to ‘sit’ at the start of my day and if the pace of the day gets too much (that feeling of having so much to do that you really don’t know where to start?), I will take a few minutes to reframe what is going on around me.  And those few minutes are usually the best possible investment I’ve found.
Sharpham view through the autumn leaves
I am so very grateful for the shared experience of the course at Sharpham. It has provided me with much needed head space to reflect on what it is that is important to me. The challenge I’m setting myself for 2015 is to harness the energy I have and the connections that I have been fortunate to make along this path to rebalance my life and enable me to support the businesses in my community that it is such a privilege to spend my working time with.

View from Sharpham window
With that thought I’d like to leave you with this poem which my wonderful grandmother introduced me to many years ago. Seems apt for my experiences in 2014, and will be a focus for my 2015.
Leisure by William Henry Davies (1871 – 1940)

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

 Reflections at Devil's Point

Louis Armstrong singing What A Wonderful World


  1. Beautiful and truly inspiring. A reinstatement on what is most important - you. Thank you

  2. There has been quite a theme in this series of gaining balance and focus on what matters. It's something that has been occupying my time over the last few weeks. Thank you

  3. Wow, such a beautiful post in every way. So true that in this age of fast living, we forget to take time to stand still, appreciate our own selves and the beauty of everything around us. Thank you. X

  4. Thank you all for your very kind comments. This is the first proper blog post I've written, although in publishing this comment I uncovered an identity I'd set up to share thoughts and experiences like this in 2012! Three years later, KateGL has started something as I am inspired by your responses to begin blogging. Let's see how that develops... :)