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‘Presence is the bare awareness of the receptive spaciousness of our mind.’ Daniel Siegel, The Mindful Brain

This is the story of three cups of coffee, enjoyed sitting in the same place (a tucked-away corner of my courtyard) in three very different states of mind. Like many people around the world I have been spending a lot of time at home this year – since March it has been my workplace, the place where I meditate alone but often connected with others through Zoom, a mindfulness workshop centre, even a meditation retreat space. 

For many years now I have spent four days at the beginning of November at a Zen meditation intensive in a beautiful retreat centre, set among trees and near the Yarra river. This year, because of our public health laws, the retreat took place online, with a mixture of group meditation on Zoom, individual practice, and quietly spending time in nature. Usually when I’m at the retreat centre, I like to go outside with a cup of coffee after breakfast each morning and sit by a little pond, observing the bees coming to drink, the lorikeets feasting on the grevilleas, the way the morning sunlight bathes the indigenous plants with a warm golden light. It’s always a favourite part of the retreat, and I decided to follow the same routine at home, sitting in a corner of my courtyard next to a small fountain, surrounded by ferns, palm trees and succulents. I noticed the softness of the light through the ferns. A spider was literally hopping around the jade plant, and when I looked more closely I saw many little spiders tucked among the leaves, surrounded by elaborate spider webs. 

Not only did I notice more, but the whole experience felt tangibly different to cups of coffees I’ve had sitting in the same spot before and since. There was that quality of receptive spaciousness Daniel Siegel talks about, which is cultivated by regular meditation, and which can become particularly strongly felt during times of more intensive meditation. Since the retreat I’ve gone back to work (still from home), and although I do take little breaks in the garden during the day, and might even sit in that same spot with a cup of coffee, the experience feels quite different. There’s not quite the same openness, the receptivity to the beauty around me. Even on the weekend, when my mind is not in work mode, I might still be thinking about housework and gardening, and although I’m more relaxed than when I’m ‘at work’, drinking a cup of coffee in the courtyard doesn’t feel quite as enriching as it did during the retreat.

Of course we can’t spend our entire lives in a ‘retreat’ space of mind. During the retreat I was meditating for many hours each day (which is a little hard to fit around your average workday), not checking emails or the news, not watching TV. Yet having the experience of drinking these different cups of coffee in the same place, I was struck by how rich the experience was during the retreat – and that I am always surrounded by this richness. It felt very nourishing, and this nourishment is actually available to me all the time, if I am able to be more open and receptive to it.

Mindfulness practice:

Take some time out to create a ‘mini retreat’ in your life – it could be a morning, or half day or full day. Spend the time in meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, or being quietly present in nature. What do you notice about the quality of experience? Is there an increased sense perhaps of receptive spaciousness?

Anja Tanhane