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This is the first talk of three talks that are sign-posts in the journey of this retreat. Before we begin any journey, we take time to deeply appreciate, to be present – with – awareness, the inner and outer places from which we begin the journey – to the outer and inner landscape through which we travel.

‘Presence-with-awareness’ begins with appreciation for the unique gift of being human – with all its paradoxes and complexities. ‘Presence-with-awareness’ to the gift our human life, gives us a wide context for and perspective on our journey. It gives us a reliable starting place.


I start many days with a practice of quiet appreciation. As the early morning light filters through the canopy, I sit on a sandstone boulder on the edge of the forest next to my house, sipping the first cup of tea of the day. The dawn chorus fills the air – the insistent staccato cheeping of the Eastern Yellow Robin is joined by the soft boom of the fruit pigeons, the twittering of the wrens, the whistle and crack of the whip birds calling each other and, high in the canopy, the harsher cry of the currawongs. A few mosquitoes whine around my head.

Below the boulder where I sit, a young ‘Small Bulwarra’ tree, struggles to survive on the edge of its rainforest habitat. Once a year a single creamy, waxy, flower blooms on the growing tip – for just one day – then falls amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor. Somewhere in the forest is a weevil I have never seen, whose job it is to fertilise the flower. ‘Small Bulwarra’ trees have been around since dinosaurs roamed the ancient continent of Gondwanaland – thanks to the mutual appreciation of flower and weevil.

Sitting in the midst of the flow of life, breathing the sweetness of the forest air, I give thanks for the life and death all around me, and for the gift of my own brief life.

Appreciation for the gift of life is a solid foundation for spiritual practice. It flowers as generosity in thought, word and action and becomes the generosity of presence. Your presence is the present, the gift you will be giving to yourself and to others during the next seven days together. It begins with touching the earth in appreciation for the flow of life in which you now exist.

Two and a half thousand years ago, a young nobleman, Siddhartha, left home on the quest that led to his awakening, to becoming The Buddha. For seven years he joined a group of saddhus, doing harsh ascetic practices of self-denial and self-mortification, in a supreme – but vain – attempt to be free of the attachments and aversions that kept him spinning on the wheel of suffering.

(We all know what suffering is – any gap between how things are now, and how we would like them to be – anything from a small dissatisfaction to the anguish of a major tragedy).

After seven years, at the end of his physical endurance, he remembered a childhood experience. As a boy, he had sat under a rose-apple tree, watching his father plough the earth. Watching the soil being torn apart, he had observed all kinds of insect life destroyed, their eggs and larvae exposed to the birds. His heart had quite spontaneously gone out to them, and this unsentimental and unselfish impulse had tipped him into a quite natural state of gentle and clear presence.

This memory gave Siddhartha a new direction to turn in his practice. Perhaps freedom could be found not by resisting happiness, not by grabbing at it, not by placing himself at the centre of it, but by allowing it to develop naturally and deepening it.

After washing his poor emaciated body in the river, he sat down on soft grass under the Bodhi Tree and gratefully accepted some milk-rice and honey offered by a village woman. With his body refreshed and nourished and his heart filled with gratitude, he turned the full force of his mind towards freedom, and made an unbreakable vow not to move until he attained complete liberation.

Of course this immediately roused the full force of the demon ‘Mara’, the Buddhist personification of the mind’s craving, aversion and delusion that endlessly turn the wheels of suffering. It is said that Mara threw at Siddhartha temptation after temptation, challenge after challenge, trying to undermine his confidence in liberation and in his ability to achieve it. Finally, in frustration at Siddhartha’s unshakeableness, Mara launched the final assault. “Who are you to think you can possibly open the path of liberation where so many others have failed?” he thundered. “By what authority do you sit here making this claim – who is there to bear witness to you?”

It was true that Siddhartha could claim no authority for what he was about to do, and for a moment his mind wavered with the enormity of his own presumption.

Then he realised that the only authority he could claim lay beneath him – in layer after layer of individual acts of kindness, understanding and generosity of countless beings over countless lifetimes. Without moving from his seat, Siddhartha reached down and touched the earth he loved. It is said that as he did so, the earth goddess herself rose up to affirm him, and Mara fled.

That act of appreciation, of faith in the living body of the earth that had witnessed all comings and goings since the beginning of time, opened the final doors of complete liberation. Through the rest of the night, insight followed insight until his mind was completely clear and free.

In the dawn light he saw again the beauty of the earth. All things spoke to him of reality and truth. Every single thing, every thought, was a particular miracle, and had its own fragrance, its particular melody, to be cherished. He was now fully present, open-heartedly responsive to each gift of life in each moment. He was The Buddha.

After the Buddha’s awakening, he taught the wise and skilful use of the human capacity for reflexive thinking. Amongst the diversity of life, humans have the apparently unique gift of being ‘homo sapiens’ – the being who knows – or, more accurately, it is ‘homo sapiens sapiens’ – the being who knows they know – the gift of reflexive thinking.

Christian theologian Thomas Berry says the human capacity for reflexive thinking demonstrates that we humans are those beings in whom the universe reflects on itself.

The gift of our human knowing, our capacity for reflexive thinking, like all precious gifts in the great folktales of the world, is a double-edged sword.

Use the gift well, and you have the ability to reflect on yourself, both as one facet of the wondrous jewel of all creation and, within that, on your individual participation in the flow of all being. This leads to the unsurpassable gift of choice: you can choose to change your perception, to change your identity, to change your mind, to change your behaviour. Wise use of this gift leads towards the end of suffering, towards complete liberation.

The downside of this marvellous gift of reflection is that Mara tempts us to look into his distorted mirror, where we see only our individual self. Like Narcissus, we become obsessed with a limited reflection of reality. Our small fragment looms so large, it obscures the vast interconnected flow of being in which we exist – the web of life into which we were born, and from which we can never fall. With our gaze riveted to the false self, we fall into the absolutely terrifying delusion that we are separate from life; alone, alienated and unloved, adrift in an indifferent universe.

Then, you can bet that the first thing we do is to create some kind of identity that is going to reassure us we exist. But all identities arise from passing views and activities. However useful they are in the world, in our personal or professional lives, no created identity is ever going to feel absolutely authentic to us – because it’s not the whole of who we are. So we’re always going to be beset by doubts. In Buddhism toxic doubt is one of the 5 mental hindrances, and it directly attacks the mental power of Saddha or ‘trust and confidence’ – “that which lifts up the heart” and allows us to keep going.

In meditation language Saddha is ‘the clearly confident mind’ that arises when we reach a stage of practice where the usual mental turbulence and shallow conceptualisation of our every-day mind is pacified. Even if they only occur for a nano-second, each moment of clarity or insight makes the mind stronger, more confident.

Toxic doubt is not to be confused with healthy doubt. Healthy doubt is often the catalyst for positive change. It encourages us to ask useful questions, and to hold the questions, without prematurely grasping for answers and certainties. As Voltaire said, “Doubt may be an uncomfortable state of mind, but absolute certainty is ridiculous.”

The Buddha encouraged the reflections on impermanence, on uncertainty, because all things are impermanent, are uncertain and beyond our control.

Toxic doubts debilitate us and make us fearful. Fear and doubt stop clear thinking and clear seeing. Hafiz, the Sufi mystic poet said: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”

What most of do in that cheap room of fear is this: we lock the doors, pull down the blinds, and pick up a weapon. Internally and externally many of us spend a lot of our lives doing just that – whether we own a door lock or a weapon! We lock down on our identity. We arm ourselves with opinions and beliefs, and set up the barricades between ‘self and other’. In short, we close our minds.

But there’s no real security in locks, or weapons, or even identities. These things amplify our fears and lead us down the road of insecurity. In any case, most of our fears are about something that hasn’t happened yet. Mark Twain said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened”.

Fear and self-doubt are neuroses – the bad habits of the mind that have served us so poorly in the past, but which we trot out again and again to see if just perhaps, just maybe this time, they’ll achieve some good results. Our neuroses end up taking on a life of their own, of becoming identities.

One of Jung’s definitions of neurosis is “a failed attempt, on the part of an individual, to heal a problem of society, as it manifests in that individual’s life”. The great problem of our society in these times is its fragmentation – the alienation of one part of society from another – and of humans from nature. Feelings of alienation, separateness and lack are one of the major causes of both war and environmental destruction.

The logical outcome is a society of neurotic individuals, either succumbing to or over-compensating for toxic self-doubt. Of course the ego’s response to self-doubt is to try and make itself feel safe, loved and connected in some way.

At best, we may seek love and connection in religious gatherings, in a committed relationship or in service to the community. But at worst we seek love and connection through grasping on to status and possessions – either things or people. Surrounded by possessions, we may feel secure for a time, but always there is a lingering fear; deep down we know the impermanence of status and possessions; that they offer no real security, real connectedness, or real love.

D.H. Lawrence wrote,
“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when love was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.”

This is a matter for our self-compassion, not our self-judgement. It is a tricky thing, this being a self-aware human being. Our self-reflexive consciousness so easily isolates us from each other, from our common humanity, our fellowship with other beings, the earth. The choices we have to make on a daily basis can be confusing. The questions we continue to ask ourselves “Am I good enough?” “What is enough?” “How am I to live?” etc – are exhausting.

Aaaaahhhhhh……poor humans. “Where to from here?”


Ancient word wisdoms:
Dhghem, the Earth
Indo-European Mother word.
Humus, Humility, Human
Her children.

Persona – Greek mask,
People, Person, Personality.
Masks, illusions and veils.
Concealing who?
Obscuring what?

‘Dghem’ (no I’m not clearing my throat) ‘dghem’ is the ancient Indo-European root word for earth.

Dhghem, humus, humility, human. Somewhere there are particles of soil that felt the bare soles of our ancestor’s feet, knew the touch of her hand, the warmth of her fire, the sound of his voice singing songs of praise to the wholeness of life. We are all indigenous to somewhere on this blue-green jewel of a planet.

Many of us here have Celtic ancestry. Here are some words from the Celtic Shaman, Amergrin:

I am the wind on the sea,
I am the wave on the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a powerful ox,
I am a hawk on the cliff,
I am a dewdrop in the sunshine,
I am a boar for valour,
I am a salmon in the pools,
I am a lake in a plain,
I am the strength of art…. (2)

And from the ancient continent, the Warramirri people of Arnhem Land reply:

I am the reef God.
I am the crayfish; I am the octopus;
I am the sea creatures.
I am the calm water; I am the red
cloud; I am the north wind. (3)

In these verses we hear spoken an identity large enough, fluid enough to contain everything, including each of us, including the various identities that make up each of us. These verses are not expressions of concepts, or conceits of the ego. They are ecstatic declarations of an inclusive identity, celebratory expressions of an intimacy that only comes from a certain kind of attention – attentiveness of the heart-mind. They celebrate the indivisible intimacy of this life we share with all beings on this beautiful blue-green planet of ours.

They are expressions of an ‘attentive love’, of a wonder that dissolves the boundaries of dualistic thinking, dissolves the self/other boundary that is the source of all other dualities – the dualities of ‘this is me/ that is not me’, this is mine / that is not mine’. Dualities that manifest in the destruction of earth’s life-sustaining systems, in the destruction of human by human, in the cycles of greed and poverty.

In these words we hear a celebration of the beauty inherent in the being-ness, the ‘such-ness’ of each thing. Each thing, no matter what it is, is revealed as beautiful by the quality of attention in the one beholding it. Thus beauty is not a static thing, but a dynamic interplay between viewer and viewed. To behold beauty is to participate in the mystery of connection, of restoring wholeness.
When we pay attention, we see the spark of beauty in everything – even when most odiously disguised. Appreciative attention is a beautiful quality of the mind – a quality of non-resistant presence. If there is no resistance, there is wholeness – no separation between things, no making this “I, me and mine” and that “Not I, not me, not mine”. We don’t try to pin this beauty down, to own it. We flow with it as it arises. There is no resistance to the ephemeral, transparent and unreliable nature of the world; there is an appreciation of the fleeting reality we are given to behold – whether that’s in the world or in our minds.
As Rilke said:

“All things want to float.
yet we go around like burdens,
settling ourselves on everything,
ravishing them with our weight.
What deadly teachers we are,
when things, in fact, have the gift
of forever being children.” Rilke

Appreciative attention is intimately connected with humility, because it is possible only when the distorting effects of Narcissus’ false mirror have been overcome. This kind of attentive humility leads us through compassion to open-ness, curiosity, and participation – rather than domination. It leads away from fear of difference and towards an appreciation of diversity, towards welcoming strangeness, welcoming the stranger.

Appreciative attention reconnects us to the timeless rhythms of life and death.

The fullness, the deep ecology of ‘now’ contains all moments, present, past and future, all dimensions of time and space. Or, as science tells us, “The time we think we inhabit is neither simple, linear nor objective. We are immersed in pools of time and timelessness, in a sea of causality…..” (1)

Without awareness of the many layers of continuity that lead to and from this ‘now’ moment, we ‘privatise’ our insights, our awakenings, and settle for a shadow of their fullness. Without this depth we flail in the shallow ‘now’ so beloved of markets and advertising agents. Appreciative attention awakens us to the web of causality in which we inter-exist, to an active, compassionate awareness of our dynamic inter-existence with all life over all times.

As Zen teacher, Taigen Dan Leighton, says: “The point of time for the Bodhisattvas [Shambahla warriors] is to enter into and inhabit time, in all its temporal aspects, and not to escape into some timeless state.”


The practice of appreciative attention allows us to feel blessed, simply because we are alive, and is a powerful antidote to toxic doubt.

We weave ourselves deeply into the fabric of life through appreciation – through being present to every breath, every ray of sunshine, every tiny movement of your own holy body, every smile, every breath of the breeze, every being you meet.

To participate in the sacred mystery of these moments is to know what it means to be human; to know with humility that we are of humus, the earth.


I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.

I have been circling for thousands of years,
and still I don’t know:
am I a falcon, a storm,
or a great song?
Rainer Maria Rilke

Every day, while we’re here together, use all encounters as an opportunity to practice appreciation and generosity. Here are some suggestions:

First, look around this room at all the other people here. Know that by the end of these five days you will have received some gift from every one of them – whether that’s a smile, a gesture, a kindness, something they said. And know that you will also have received a different gift from them; something they do or say, or the way they look or dress, will probably annoy you in some way. Accept that as a gift too – the gift of the diversity of life. By the end of the retreat you will know that the experience would not have been as rich, as deep, as exciting if everyone else was exactly like you. We will have formed a community of diversity – the community of life. Practice loving it.

Secondly “count your blessings”. This old saying has survived over countless years for the very good reason that it’s a practice of appreciation. Take a moment to count a few blessings now.

You may also like to keep an “appreciation list” in your journal – noting moments of appreciation, as you encounter them.

At mealtimes practice the appreciation and generosity of being fully present to the delicious food. As well as savoring the delights of the food, give thanks to the earth that nurtured it, to the sun that warmed it, to the rain that watered it, to the people who grew it, to the trucks that transported it, and the truck drivers, and to the shopkeepers who sold it…..make as many connections as you can, and give thanks for all of them. If you get caught up in judgmental thoughts about roads and trucks, let those thoughts go. This time is just for practicing non-discriminating appreciation of what you are now eating, and the myriad connections that have enabled you to eat it.

Be generous in your speech, express appreciation, thanks, praise. As the Christian mystic, Master Eckhardt says: “if the only prayer you say in your entire life is “thank you” it will be enough.

* For the section on The Buddha’s enlightenment experience, I have drawn heavily on Jinanda, Warrior of Peace: the life of the Buddha (2002) Windhorse Publications, Birmingham.