Saturday 30 July 2011

The end, or the beginning?

The July river of stones finishes tomorrow.

You might have taken part this time, and you might not have. You might have religiously written a small stone every day, or had a few false starts, or written three and then forgotten about it completely.

It doesn't matter.

If you let them, small stones will help you to connect with the world one teensy moment at a time. They will work on you at their own pace.

Every time you pause to notice the exact texture of an egg, or the glittering thread of drool hanging from your happy cat's chin (yuk!), and wonder how you'd write it down, can be counted as a tiny triumph.

Even if you've had ONE of these moments this month, one that you wouldn't have otherwise experienced, then we'll be very happy.

We're always pleasd to hear from people - do let us know by email (Fiona or Kaspa) or in the comments section how you found the experience.

If you'd like to take your writing practice to another level, you could join one of our month-long self-study ecourses starting on Monday - Eastern Therapeutic Writing with Kaspa (koans, Japanese poetry and Morita therapy) or Writing Ourselves Alive with Fiona (curiosity, honesty, compassion & passion).

If you don't get a jiggle on quickly enough they'll repeat later in the year - here's the rest. 

We won't be posting here again for a while, until we've cooked up the next project for our river. We would like it very much if you'd follow us over to the Writing Our Way Home blog, and you could also try Fiona's weekly inspirational newsletter, or come and say hi at our community

Thank you for reading our blog, and for being a very important drop in the river.

Friday 29 July 2011

Can we ever really 'see clearly'? (a question, not an answer)

(photo by MontyPython)

A post from the archive by Kaspa:
By way of the grape vine I heard someone asking "Does knowing we're going to write about it take away from really seeing what's there, in the moment?".

I think that's a really interesting question, but it points to a deeper question for me "Can we ever really see what's there?" 

Years ago I used to sit a lot of zazen. Zazen is the meditation of Zen Buddhism, where one just sits. When a thought comes up, you let it go. When another thought come up, you let that go too.  I imagined that if I let everything go I would reach a place of clarity. A place where I could simply be in the world and engage with the world without my own thoughts and prejudices getting in the way.

I think that we probably can wipe the grosser stains of our wind-shields, and see through the glass into the world more clearly. But I'm no longer convinced we can get rid of the glass 

In fact I literally have to look through glass, through a pair of glasses, to see the world clearly. I think this is where the edge is for me. Along with the habits of seeing that I talked about in my last post (Walk in Someone Else's Shoes) we each have a physical body and how we receive the world is mediated by our senses and then interpreted by our brains to give our conscious mind an experience that makes sense.

So we have a uniquely human  experience of each moment, by virtue of our human bodies. And I believe we have a uniquely personal experience of each moment by virtue of our individual histories. Is it possible to let go of those stories, those traumas and celebrations, entirely? 

Today I'm leaning towards answering 'No'. But what we can do is recognise all those parts of ourselves and treat them with more care, and appreciate them as the compost from which our poetry can be fed.

None of this answers the original question of course.  This post is already quite long, so perhaps that first question deserves its own post - either that or you can argue it out in the comments below....

"Does knowing we're going to write about it take away from really seeing what's there, in the moment?"

(Have a look at what people thought last time here and let us know what you think!)

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Writing isn't always a piece of cake

Any excuse to post a picture of a piece of cake....

But it's true. Writing small stones, or anything, can be difficult. 

It certainly is for me. Some days, I'd rather do anything than sit down at my computer and begin the first sentence.

Why is this? I think a lot of the reason is that when we write, we are trying to say what's true for us. We are putting something out there that people can look at, and have opinions about. We are exposing our vulnerable underbellies, just like our cat Fatty who lies with his paws in the air and dares you to touch him...

This is also why writing is important. 

Writing gives us an opportunity to share these vulnerable parts. It gives us an opportunity to find our truth, whatever that might be.

So keep writing small stones. Keep working on your novel. Keep writing in your journal. Get support. Carry on. 

We all find it difficult. You're in good company.

Friday 22 July 2011

Can we look anew?

There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of of what people before us have thought we were looking at.
Flaubert, quoted in preface to Pierre and Jean, in Maupassant's 'The Novel'
A post from the archive by Kaspa:
James Wood quotes Flaubert in How Fiction Works. Wood attributes the rise of the modern novel to Flaubert. But what interested me was the observation above, in a section where Wood is talking about the satisfaction of specific detail. I'll come back to that in another post.

Our minds are the repositories of stories. We tell stories about people we know, we imagine we know their lives, outer and inner. We tell stories about the places we live in, and about the jobs we do. The most powerful of these stories has to do with how we feel about ourself, "...this is the sort of person I am". This most powerful of stories tends to be at the heart of all the stories we tell.

Each time we encounter something in the world, a loved one, the view from a mountain top, a favourite book in a library, we receive it through the eyes of these stories. I am the person who loves you, we have this history together... and so on.

Flaubert's point is that we not only encounter the world through these personal stories, but that we encounter the world through the eyes and memories of others. We inherit stories, from our peers, from our parents and increasingly from the media.

When we see the Union Jack flying, we have a sense of history, of an Empire perhaps and whatever feelings that might bring up, pride or shame. We are full of stories. Who amongst us would only see a few red and blue triangles, printed onto a white rectangle of fabric?

There is a part of each thing which is hidden from us. We obscure with stories, as much as we enlighten with them.

The act of really paying attention is not to ignore these stories, but to see the transparency of them, to see them but to look beyond to the mystery too.

What mysteries will you uncover today?

Thursday 21 July 2011

Writing to help us slow down and see

White moon, bright moon, pearling the air

light of the moon
moves west - flowers' shadows
creep eastward


Kaspa writes: When I look at the world, I look through a forest of thoughts. Perhaps there is a patch of clear light in the distance, but more often than not what I see is coloured by unconscious judgments. Either that or my mind is so frenetic, bouncing from worries about the future to thoughts of the past, that I don't see anything at all.

Putting pen to paper can help me cut through the forest of thoughts so that I can really see the world.

The Japanese word seijaku is usually translated simply as calmness, but perhaps a more accurate translation is 'calmness in the midst of busyness'.

It's easy to be calm when you're on a beach watching the sunset, and listening to the waves gently lapping the shore. It's less easy to find that space in the midst of our ordinary working lives. Creating a space for writing poetry in the middle of my busy life helps me to find some calm. Some seijaku.

Sit down. Take a few deep breaths and really look at the world. Experiment with writing slowly, with taking time over each letter. Ask yourself, in what direction are the shadows of the flowers falling? Slow down and fall in love with the world.

When I do this, sometimes I'm really able to connect deeply with what's in front of me.

Sometimes my thoughts are unremitting though. My experience is that if my mind doesn't settle my thoughts are usually telling me something important. In these cases I can use writing to help me unravel what's going on.

The moon, alone,
Taunts me from the heavens
With memories of you;
Should you feel the same, then
Our hearts would be as one.


In August I'll be running my online course in Eastern Therapeutic Writing again. One of the most popular parts last time was the waka module, where we looked at how using Japanese forms of poetry can help us connect with ourselves and world. We also experiment with Naikan to help with our relationships with others, and Morita to help us act in the world, as well as working with personal koans.

I got some great feedback from students last time. Find out more here.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Delicious words

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins 


This poem is calling out to be read out loud. Do it. And then hear it being read here.

Words are gorgeous. Dapple-dawn-drawn falcon. Chevalier. Gash gold-vermilion. Taste them properly. Delicious, delicious.

Today, when you notice your small stone, I'd like you to try and enjoy the lusciousness of words as much as you can. Which words sound better together? What order? Read them out loud. Do they work? Do they need to be tweaked?

Mmmm, words.

If you feel moved to do so, it'd be lovely if you shared them in the comments section below.

Friday 15 July 2011

Are you failing?

(if you're new it's not too late to start writing small stones - go here)

A post from the archive from Fiona:
Are you failing?

"I know that of what I've written so far, most are not actually small stones. Like I said at the beginning, maybe it's enough to write something every day, but I'm not even managing that. Have I failed already then? I don't think so. I am looking more closely and I am thinking more clearly, whether I write it down or not. So, I'm not going to beat myself up but be grateful for the space to reflect on such things. I've been in a pretty negative place lately and that has already changed. I'm feeling grateful for all sorts of things and a joy that has long been absent has reappeared. There are glimpses of hope and so I press on, trying to be more disciplined in my daily writing and reflecting on it's value. Perhaps other things have changed that might account for this change of heart, I don't know, but it seems to me that small stones are building new foundations."

This is from Ghost Writer at Lime Tree Legends

I wonder who else out there might have started with good intentions and tailed off. Or missed a day and given up. 

As Ghost Writer says, it doesn't matter. As writers (as people) the important thing is to begin again. 

And again.

And again.

One small stone, or even ten seconds of looking for one, is better than none. 

Do share your own experiences of perseverance (how to or how not to!) in the comments.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Writing and spirituality

“When you are present, the world is truly alive.” ~ Natalie Goldberg

When I was younger, I read Natalie Goldberg's classic, Writing Down the Bones. In it she says many sensible things about being a writer. She also talks about her practice as a Buddhist. 

I was a proud atheist at the time. But the things she talked about (mindfulness, faith) seeped into me somewhere. Seeds were planted.

Fast-forward to the present day, and I'm married to a Buddhist priest - and I'm following a similar path myself. My practice as a Buddhist is important to me on many levels. But are there links between spirituality (however you define it) and writing small stones?

I think that spirituality is good at putting us in touch with something that is larger than our 'small selves'. Something that knows better than we do. You could see this as mother nature, with her seasons and her endless recycling, or you could see it as something more mystical. Either way, connecting with what's around us can help us to find a new kind of wisdom.

I also think that spirituality and a writing practice can both help to steady us. Life is a roller-coaster. Sometimes knowing that we have a daily meditation practice or writing practice gives us a place to return to, a  structure, a reassuring constancy in the middle of impermanence. 

Finally, spirituality and writing are both good at opening us up - softening us - so we can connect more mindfully with those around us (including the planet). It helps us learn about ourselves, and others. It helps us see more clearly (including the bits we'd rather not see). Ultimately, it helps us to love.

I'd love to hear what you think about the links between spirituality and writing - do share in the comments below.

I'll leave you with another quote from Natalie - 

“Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down.”

Monday 11 July 2011

Paying attention to strangers

(it's never too late to join the river....)

Outside our conservatory windows are a mass of petunias. 

They are fuchsia pink, deep purple bleeding-at-the-edges, salmon pink, lily-white. 

They change every day. I watch them extra-carefully, because I planted them. I watered them as they grew from teensy little things into great blooming bushes. They are 'mine'. 

We are especially fond of things that we attach to our 'selves'. They are 'my' petunias, and so I have a good relationship with them. I take care of them. I appreciate them.

But what about the lemon-balm that was here when we arrived? What about the weeds blooming on the path round the back of the house?

Writing small stones encourages us to notice the things that aren't attached to our selves, and to pay them exactly the same kind of attention. To stop and wonder how strangers are, as well as our friends and family. To love them just as much.

Can you do this today when you look for small stones? Can you look beyond your self?

Friday 8 July 2011

Really seeing the other leads to freedom

A post from our archive by Kaspa:
This week my teacher Dharamvidya David Brazier has been in Israel leading some workshops on psychology. In one of them he talked about how really seeing the other can set you free.

What he describes is also the philosophy that underpins this whole project, and I owe a great debt to him, and others, for teaching me.
"...the focus is upon discerning the truth of the other and achieving spiritual maturity. One achieves liberation for oneself by releasing others from the attachment generated by one's own deluded and stereotypical perception of them. The self-construct is the mirror image of these false views of others. To see the truth of the other is to release them and thereby, incidentally, to release oneself from one's self-construct." Love and Its Disappointment blog
As we more clearly see the other, the other moves away from being what, on some level, we want it to be, and becomes more real. In this way we release the other and give it freedom to exist - and we release ourselves too. As we take away the prop to our 'small self' and grant it existence, we become liberated.

The truth shall set you free.
(John 8:32, The Bible)

Wednesday 6 July 2011

small stones as a gratitude practice

As part of our morning practice, Kaspa & I do a few minutes of something called 'Nai Quan'. 

We sit quietly and ask ourselves three questions - over the past 24 hours, what have I received from others, what have I offered in return, and what trouble has my existence caused others?

This morning I decided to focus on the first question, and my immediate surroundings. 

After feeling thankful for my zafu (the cushion I sit on), I turned my attention to the lamp we bought from IKEA last year. The photo above really doesn't do it justice. 

It has a double layer of golden woven rattan, in an elegant tulip curve. It sits on top of a silver 'bud' and a simple stem, and the light makes warm patterns on the walls as it passes through the weaving. 

After thinking about receiving the beauty of this lamp, I went on to think about who had made it. Who wove the shape? Where was the rattan grown and picked? The sun shone on it, and someone watered it. Where did the metal come from? How was it made? Where is the smelting factory? Who made that? Who works there?

And then, the light-bulb. What an astonishing invention. The electricity that comes through the wall into our house. Who laid the lines underground? Where is the electricity made? 

I could go on. All this, so I can press a button and let golden light into our shrine room. 

Today, see your small stone practice as a gratitude practice. Look around you. What have you received in the past 24 hours? What can you notice? What are you thankful for?

Tuesday 5 July 2011

For when you get scared

A post from the archive by Fiona:
Writing can be a thorny business.

I've been doing it for many years now. I have four completed novels behind me, a book of poetry, a book of small stones, and a book of questions

The blank page still scares the bejesus out of me. I sit down to write my work-in-progress and think 'what am I doing thinking I can write? of all the deluded (mumble mumble)....' I have avoided writing poems for almost a year now. 

Maybe your small stones will leap eagerly and willingly into your laps, but if you're like the rest of the human race you might also have occasional thoughts like this. 

How can we continue when we're convinced the whole project is pointless and that everything we ever write is utter rubbish?

By taking a pen and writing a single word. And then another.

Thank your doubts kindly for their input, and continue anyway. Reassure your critic that you WILL allow them out, when you have written your small stone and you want to start polishing it, but not until then.

Writing can be a thorny business. But then so is life.

We are all in it together. The river of stones, and the river of life. We can encourage each other (do visit each other's blogs next month and say what you like). We can take comfort in the knowledge that every single writer ever has had terrible doubts about what they're doing. We can learn how to encourage ourselves, and get better at this as we go along. We can eat chocolate. We'll be JUST fine.

Monday 4 July 2011

First day of our sesshin

As you read this, we will be in the afternoon of our first day of sesshin in our Buddhist retreat centre in the middle of France. We might be sitting in front of this Buddha right now. 

We might be sitting quietly in the bamboo grove, or walking slowly and silently through the beautiful countryside, or chanting or bowing or singing. Maybe we'll be drinking a cup of lemongrass tea, slowly and mindfully.

We won't be talking to each other. We won't be on our laptops or our mobile phones. (Wish us luck!)

This will give us the perfect opportunity to look out for small stones. We'll be catching them all in our notebooks and putting them online at the end of the week. 

But you don't have to go on retreat to find small stones. The whole point of the practice is that it fits into all kinds of lives, no matter how busy they are. Who doesn't have five minutes to spare in a day? If you don't have five minutes, then just NOTICE your small stone instead - thirty seconds should do it. 

Try not to get too caught up in whether your small stone is any good or not (although I'm sure most of you will, because you're human). Just notice. Just write them down. 


While we're away we won't be sharing these articles anywhere - do help us out if you can by sharing the links with your friends and on Twitter and Facebook if you enjoy them. And do support each other in your small stone practice. Deep bow. 

Friday 1 July 2011

The river begins!

(to find out about joining our July writing challenge click here)

This is how we begin today.

We notice one thing properly. We write it down.

It doesn't matter how long it is, or how clever it is, or whether you've spelt it right.

It matters that you pause for a moment. It matters that you really hear the whirr of your lap-top, or the squeaky wheel as the cyclists passes you. It matters that you smell those tomatoes-on-the-vine and notice their earthy sweetness. It matters that you take a minute to skim your fingertips over your smooth silk shirt. 

We notice one thing properly. We write it down.