Saturday, 2 January 2016

I am not done with my changes

So here we are at the dawning of a New Year. It is hard to believe that it is 2016. Where do the years go? I wonder as I stand looking forward to the days ahead what this year will bring? What changes will occur and what will stay the same? As I look back at the year that has ended I also think about what has changed and what has stayed the same? Much is as it was then, but there has been changes. Nothing ever stays quite the same. Everything is always changing in some way or other, even if it isn’t always obvious. Or at least it appears that way.

Sometimes the changes are big and obvious. Sometimes things happen that change everything for ever. Some of those are close and personal and others are on a more global scale. There are moments in life that change everything for ever. Or so it seems.

Now last year was one of great change for me on a physical level. During the Watch Night service I led, I wrote on my piece of paper, that I burnt in the ceremony with others, that one thing I wanted to let go of was my excess weight. I had over the last few years grown heavier and heavier and I knew that something needed to be done about it. It had begun on trip to Alton Towers with some friends. I had become embarrassed during the day as every time I went on a ride I couldn’t fit into the safety harness and had to be put in the special seat for the very large. I left that day full of shame, but said nothing about it at the time. For months I made small attempts to change but could not bring it about myself. I also suffered a bout of bad health at the beginning of the year. I became quite ill, twice and became increasingly concerned about my physical well-being. I also noticed how this was impacting on my mental, emotional and spiritual health. Other people were noticing too and making comments. Well this all came to head last summer, particularly over the weekend of my nephew Joe’s wedding, when my car broke down in Devon and I experienced a kind of emotional and spiritual rock bottom. During this moment of surrender something changed within me. This opened me up to the possibility of seeking help and on returning home I began my weight loss journey, through Slimming World. I surrendered absolutely to the way of life they offered and over the next five months I reached my target weight and lost over 7 stones.

My life has changed immeasurable since. I have never felt better physically, mentally, emotionally and above all else spiritually.

Now this isn’t the first time I have had such experiences. I have known many rock bottoms in my life that have changed me. They have opened me up to new experiences, new awakenings, new beginnings. The changes never seem to come to an end. I have heard it said that the only thing permanent in life is change.

This brings to mind a favourite poem of mine, “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I am not done with my changes either, are any of us?

Yes it does seem true that the only thing permanent in life is change. Life itself is impermanent.

There is a gorgeous Buddhist saying that captures the beauty of the impermanence of life. It beautifully captures the turning nature of life, it is a call to us to live our lives fully.

“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering flame, an illusion, a dream...”

Impermanence is the beauty and the energy of life. Life is forever changing and transforming and turning into something new.

Jesus captured this idea in a gorgeous way too when he described wheat as a metaphor for the resurrected life. He taught that all must die before new life can rise again. In the same way that seeds must die and cease being seeds in order to become life giving food, so must we in order to be transformed into something new. This can happen at many stages of our lives if we allow the natural cycle to just be and don’t get in the way.

Nothing ever stays exactly the same and nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way again. This was wonderfully expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago. Who said, among many other things, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “No one ever steps into the same river twice.” And “Nothing endures but change.” He was saying that the only constant in life was and is change, that life was constantly in flux and that everything is impermanent. In more contemporary times The Buddhist Pema Chodron has said “Impermanence is the goodness of reality…it’s the essence of everything.”

Also in more recent times the now deceased Unitarian Universalist minister Elizabeth Tarbox said

“Dukkha, all is impermanence, nothing lasts. I thought of that yesterday while watching leaves come down in a shower and inhaling the smell of rotting leaves returning to the earth. Leaf to humus and back to earth to nourish the roots of the mother tree, The crows crying as the leaves fall and their nests are exposed – dukkha, all is impermanence.

Life goes by and people who were with us last year at this time have died. All souls pass on, all is dukkha, nothing lasts.”

I have for some time been fascinated by the Buddhist concept of “Dukkha”.

Now "Dukkha is one of those words that is hard to explain. It is often translated as suffering, that "all life is suffering". This though is not an entirely accurate translation, in the sense that suffering is understood in the west. I believe it is trying to teach that suffering is a part of life that nothing ever lasts for ever. That nothing stays exactly as it in its current state. Impermanence is central to the Buddhist path; the path to enlightenment is to accept that nothing ever lasts forever.

So often in life we try to cling to things, to hold on to things to maintain things exactly as they are. This seems to be going against life and the nature of things. Nothing stays exactly as it is in its current nature, everything changes from moment to moment and to resist this is to resist life. Yes everything changes but life goes on.

As I look back at my life I can bear witness to many changes. Far too many to recount now. As I look back at last year I can recount how much has changed in me and yet so much is just as it was before. As I look back at my life in some ways I am the very same man I have always been. As I look back at my life what I see is not so much a man who has kept on changing as a man who keeps on awakening. I suspect it’s the same for all of us and all life itself. In many ways this is the true essence of spiritual living. It’s not so much that we keep on changing, on and on and on. It’s more that we awaken to something new. That new layers are revealed and we continue to open up more and more. To me this is the whole point and meaning of living faithfully, because in so doing we keep on awakening to something new and suddenly everything seems to have changed again and yet everything is still the same.

What I’ve really learnt is that it’s not so much that I’m not done with my changes as I am not done with my awakenings. I suspect that it’s the same for all of us, for everyone and for all created life. So let’s keep on journeying to new awakenings…for everything changes and yet everything somehow stays the same.

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