Saturday, 27 February 2016

Ikigai: As Meaning Emerges

I recently, unintentionally, attended a workshop led by a young woman who worked for Citizen’s UK. She talked about the organisation its purpose and what it can offer individuals and groups in an attempt to empower them so that they can bring about change in their own communities.

One aspect of their method was to encourage individuals to examine and talk about their stories. In this way individuals and groups can find common ground and then hopefully find ways in which they can work together.

At one point we were asked to explore the things that make us angry, that get our passion flowing. She asked where our pain came from? Explaining that this is where inspiration to act comes from. She talked of the etymology of the word anger, which as always pricks my ears up. Anger comes from the old Norse word “angr” meaning “distress, grief, sorrow, affliction” She then talked about the positives that can then grow from this pain, explaining that there are two forms of anger “cold anger” and “hot anger”. She suggested that “hot anger” consumes and controls a person, leading to irrational and ill thought out actions that can make things worse than they were originally. Whereas “cold anger” is more thoughtful and reacts to the individual rather than the other way round. She suggested that this type of anger can be harnessed positively and can lead to change.

We were then shown several methods, employed by Citizens UK, that help people to explore their own lives, to examine their own stories and to find out what really matters the most to them. We tried several of these exercises and as we did so I thought of the things in my own life that had hurt deeply and caused lingering anger. Anger and hurt that had at periods in my life been destructive and paralysing. I then thought of how these hurts and angers had in time turned into something positive and how meaning had eventually emerged from them, in the person I am today and the life I am now living. Meaning and deep love had emerged from the deepest most painful experiences of my life.

As I sat there reflecting I remembered the anger of Jesus towards the money changes from the Gospel accounts, along with images of his compassionate loving eyes and gaze. I remembered how his life was motivated by love, but not immune from anger when people moved beyond the pale. I thought of the passage of the rich young man who could not give up his love of money in order to follow what his heart truly desired. His worship of money was too great it seemed for him to give it up and lead him to follow his true bliss. I then thought of one of my favourite verses from the classic hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” the verse

“Oh Sabbath rest by galilee! O calm of hills above! Where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity interpreted by love!” “Interpreted by love!” The repeated line “Interpreted by love!” just stayed with me and dwelt in that place deep in the soul of me. I thought to myself, everything of true meaning must be interpreted by love. That this is where the true meaning in life comes. This is what must motivate all life and this is the thing of highest worth and value and meaning in life and that if you put anything in front of it that you will be consumed by it. Interestingly, as if by chance, in another workshop the following day we explored this very hymn in a more prayerful way.

Now all this awakened my “homiletic consciousness”. My mind slipped back to a word I had come across while flicking through facebook on the train journey to Worthing and the FUSE (Festival of Unitarians in the South East) earlier that day - The Citizen’s UK workshop had proceeded FUSE and I only attended it because I had arrived early - The word was “Ikigai”. “Ikigai” is a Japanese word that simply means the thing that makes your life worth living, the things that gives your life meaning, the thing that makes your life worth dying for.

I wonder what it is that gives each of our lives meaning?

Now there are of course many who will tell us that life has no real meaning, that it is essentially meaningless. I was once one of those people. When the old pleasures were gone there was no meaning left, just a life meaning no-thing, nothing. Thank God this is no longer the case.

Viktor Frankl then floated once again into my consciousness. A friend who I have witnessed awakening these last two years, had told me he had started reading his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, only a few days before. Another friend had recommended it to him a few months earlier. I did not, thank God, mention to the man that it was I who had initially recommended the book to our mutual friend. I did not need to as here was the love coming back and multiplying ten-fold. Here was further meaning growing on and on and on...

In “Man’s Search For Meaning” Frankl gives an account of his struggle to find meaning when held as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps of the “Second World War”. He lost most of his family and friends in the camps and yet he never lost hope in humanity.

Frankl was the founder of what has often been referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” Freud founded the first which was based on the central role of the libido or pleasure principle in human psychology. Alfred Adler founded the second which emphasised the importance of the will to power and the significance of the superiority/inferiority complex in human behaviour. In contrast to these two schools Frankl’s psychology is based on the will to meaning which he saw as the primary motivating force in human life. He named it “Logotherapy” taken from the Greek term logos, which means “word”, “reason”, or “meaning”.

Think of the opening words from John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The word here of course is “Logos”. For Frankl meaning had a transcendent origin.

Frankl saw a spiritual dimension beyond the biological and psychological. He saw the suppression of this spiritual dimension as the root cause of our human malady. Therefore the task of “Logotherapy” was “to remind patients of their unconscious religiousness”; to uncover the spiritual dimensions of their lives; enable them to recover the capacity to choose those values which give our lives worth and meaning.

Now this meaning is of course different for everyone, he did not see one universal meaning. As Frankl said himself:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

Frankl claimed that meaning is discovered through creative and worthwhile activities, by creating something beautiful or doing good. That meaning can be found through experiencing and sharing in the beauty of art or nature or through loving or ethical encounters with others. That even in the most horrific and terrifyingly hopeless situations we still have the capacity to choose our attitude towards whatever circumstances we are faced with. It is our response to life’s events that shapes our souls. Remember Frankl developed his theory during the utter despair and horror of the Nazi death camps.

As Frankl himself said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

I attended many other wonderful workshops throughout the FUSE weekend and experienced many more beautiful moments of connection and conversation, too many to mention now. There was one that stood out though. It was during a session about listening in which we were asked to break into threes and listen to one another in non-responsive and non-judgemental ways. Now just as I broke into a three, there were originally five groups of three, just by chance another person came in late and wanted to join in. The facilitator of the group asked if one of the threes could become two two’s and the group I was in did so. So we were now two. This meant that the whole process did not work as it was meant to, but what actually followed was deeply meaningful and seemingly exactly what my partner in the exercise required right then. He began to speak about something I had shared publicly some time ago that had helped him immensely and lead him down a path. I couldn’t even remember saying it, but it did sound like something I would say. My partner then began to open up about some pain and struggle he had been going through. We spent the whole session sharing and listening uninterrupted and he seemingly came to a place of conclusion in the time together.

The session had not gone the way it had been planned to but something far more important had emerged instead, something deeply moving and meaningful. Now some could suggest that this was “meant to be”. Perhaps this is true, nobody knows. My preferred conclusion is that this was a moment of possibility for both of us. A moment we took and meaning emerged from it due to our response to the given situation and the many situations that followed it. I believe that it is a perfect example of meaningful interchange and how the Lure of Divine Love operates. It does not control life and nothing is pre-determined but it is their offering itself constantly and it is up to us to respond. It is certainly how meaning emerges in my life. My task and I believe all our tasks is to stay open to these moments, and that by staying open to every moment our own meaning emerges from them as they pass.

There are those that say that life has no meaning, that nothing matters in life. I was once one of these people. These days I see no truth in such statements. These days I see meaning in everything, even in the most painful moments in life. In fact I have discovered that it has been through coming through these most painful moments that the greatest meaning has emerged. Not immediately always but eventually, as I have been able to give back to others from the experience of the suffering I have experienced and or witnessed. This in no way justifies the suffering please do not get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting any such thing. No what I am saying is that through living openly meaning can emerge. Meaning can merge from living by the way of the Lure of Divine Love.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Highest Form Of Love

I love language and its many nuances. You can learn a lot about a culture and what it holds as most important by its language. Iceland has for example many words for snow. Some have suggested even a hundred, although a more accurate figure is probably about 40. The Icelandic language has many subtle variations for different types of snow and the time of day and year in which the snow has fallen. The English language has just one word, snow.

The English language also only has one word for Love, love. Love it is clear comes in many forms and yet we only have one word that seems to cover every single type of love going. The love I have for language is not the same love I had for my grandfather who died a couple of years ago or other forms of love I held and hold for other people. Dear friends I have known, family members who have loved me unconditionally, lovers I have known and brothers in arms. My love for Yorkshire cricket and all things Yorkshire or the music of New Model Army. My love for the congregations I serve and this work I have been given. All these loves come under the same umbrella of “Love”, but they are not the same kind of love, no not at all. That said “Love” is the only word I have to use, thanks to limits of the English language that I profess to love.

Now unlike the English language of the 21st century the ancient Greeks had at least six, perhaps even more, different words for love. The main six were “Eros”, which was primarily sexual or passionate desire. This may surprise some but the ancient Greeks did not always hold a positive view of Eros, It could be seen as fiery and irrational. It involved a loss of control that was feared. Just think of the story of Helen of Troy, “the face that sailed a thousand ships.” Plato saw it as “Divine” madness. The ancient Greeks understood what it meant to “fall madly in love”. I have been consumed by this kind of overpowering love many times in my life, I hope to goodness I will again. It is a part of our humanity, but not the only part.

The Greeks viewed “Philia” as a higher form of love than “Eros”. This is the type of love that develops through deep friendships. When they spoke of “Philia” they were often talking of the kind of love that was formed on the battlefield between comrades in arms, brotherly love. It’s the kind of love that compels a person to go to any lengths to protect the person or persons they love; it’s the kind of love that inspires self-sacrifice. In many ways it is similar to “Storge” which the ancient Greeks described as the love parents feel for their children. When I look at my life this is a love that has grown and developed in me in recent years. It’s the kind of love that is formed in 12 step fellowships and religious communities, you see it in sporting teams too and other communities where people bind together and look out for one another.

Another form of love that the Ancient Greeks spoke of was “Ludus”. This is a kind of playful or flirtatious love. It comes alive in friendly banter, around the people we feel comfortable with or when we dance and flirt with others. It’s the love that comes alive when I joke with members of the congregations I serve during worship. It’s the wink of the eye and the knowing smile.

Another form is Agape love. This is a love without prejudice, a selfless love, some call it religious love. In Christianity it is seen as the highest form of love. When translated into Latin it became Caritas from which comes the word charity. This is the love that is spoken of by the Epistle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 13 “4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Agape has parallels with the Buddhist concept of “metta” or “universal loving kindness”. The Buddha’s word’s on loving kindness, the Metta Sutta says. “So with a boundless heart; Should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world:”

Another form was “Pragma” or longstanding love. This is a form of mature love that develops over long-term relationships say between married couples. Pragma was about making compromises and developing patience and tolerance so that relationships could mature over time. It was not so much about the madness of falling in love we find in “eros” and more about standing and holding in love. I suspect that this is the kind of love we see less and less of these days. People of my generation seem to be inspired by the need to be free and have their personal needs met, rather than this kind of love. It’s not something I’ve ever been any good at myself, I must admit.

The final form was “Philautia” or self-love. Now for the ancient Greeks this manifested in two ways. It had both a light and a shadow side. Its negative aspect was a form of narcissistic self-obsession, which was motivated by vanity and greed and self-absorption, to the total neglect of others. Think of the story “Echo and Narcissus”. Yet the other aspect of “Philautia” “self-love” was, perhaps the most important, and from which all forms of healthy human love grew. It is what today we would describe as positive self-regard, although actually I believe it runs much deeper than that. It is the kind of experience that is vital in order to deeply and appropriately love others and for that matter all life. Without this sense of love being at the core of who we are we are never going to offer “Agape” love to others, or not in a positive way. This is because we will love our neighbour as ourselves, in the sense that we will hate them as we hate ourselves, if we do not experience this form of love at the core of our being.

We need to love our reflection as we look at it in the glass, “warts and all and beauty spots too”, although we need to guard against becoming self-absorbed. Remember we are formed from the same stuff as everyone else and in everyone is a reflection of the divine. We are formed from the divine spark.

The ancient Greeks considered Philautia to be the highest form of “Love” and I believe that they were right.

Have you heard of Philautia before? Have you ever tried to practise it? For most folk true Philautia is the area where there is perhaps the greatest potential for growth and yet it is the one area that most of us feel least comfortable exploring. The ancient Greeks believed that when philautia was practiced appropriately (in a healthy, blanced and non-narcisisstic way) it provided the foundation upon which all other love could be built. You see the better your self-love-foundation is, the more brilliant loving life you could build.

If you do not experience and express the love within you, the love that you are formed from, you cannot offer real love to others. It is often said that before you can give to others you need to take care of yourself. If you give too much from your cup, your well will soon become dry and you will be unable to help others. It is said that you’ve got to look after yourself first, before you can help others. This to me is an expression of Philautia, real self-love. The aeroplane analogy is often used, which goes something like the following. If you are in an aeroplane and it gets into distress, so much so that the cabin becomes de-compressed, leading to the oxygen masks having to be deployed, before you can help anyone else you must first secure your own oxygen mask. This is not a selfish act, but it is an act of self-love, taking care of yourself so that you can then take care of others. We need to take care of ourselves if we are to be of use to anyone or anything. If we do not take care of our basic human needs, it means we end up depending on others to do so for us. This I believe leads to unhealthy and needy expressions of so called love.

This brings me back to thoughts around “The Golden Rule”, the core principle of all good religion and philosophy. It is for me the core of everything and the true expression of God manifesting in human life, for God is love. I believe that we all live by the golden rule, we do in fact love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The problem being that often we do not truly recognise the love we are created from. We can feel shame about loving ourselves. We somehow see this as being selfish or narcissistic, when that is the last thing that it is. In fact philautia, self-love, is essential to truly loving our neighbours as the very same children of love, children of God that we ourselves are. By failing to love ourselves we are actually separating ourselves from the rest of the creative life. We need to respect and celebrate our own beautiful uniqueness in order to recognise this in others.

We need to let go of the idea that loving ourselves truly as we, warts and all and beauty spots too is in any sense a selfish or narcissistic act. Please remember that a selfish person is interested only in himself wants everything for herself; can see nothing but her or himself. A selfish person does not love herself too much, but too little. You see the truth is that a truly selfish person is incapable of loving others because they are seemingly unable to love themselves.

To truly love yourself is to follow that greatest commandment, it is to acknowledge that love is at the root of all that we are. If we do not love ourselves, then we cannot love our neighbour.

Parker Palmer said that:

“Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.”

Taking care of ourselves, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually is not a selfish act, it is the opposite it is loving act. In fact I would suggest to not do so is actually more like selfishness as we usually understand it. It is our responsibility in fact to take care of the life we have been given. Each life is unique and is there to be used for the purpose of all. To truly achieve this we need to take care of ourselves and to express our joy in life. You see to be joyful, to be happy, is to express all that you are; to be all that you can be is neither selfish or greedy, it is a true expression of love in all its forms.

It is what we are here for and it inspires others to love both themselves and each other too.

So my message to you on Valentines Day, on this festival of Love is simply this. Love all life, love all that you are, warts and all and beauty spots too…Fill your heart with the love that surrounds you and pour out this love on our love starved world, for it surely needs it…

I’m going to end this little "blogspot" with a blessing by Barbara Pescan, taken from “Morning Watch”

“Blessing” by Barbara Pescan from “Morning Watch”

We spend so much time running from ourselves
Fleeing from what we know
about the goodness in our hearts
we think we can escape
the intelligence of our loving.

Imagine you are standing before a bodhisattva—
Jesus, Buddha, the first mother
it does not matter what you call the holy one—
he has dust on his shoes
chaff clings to her
the smells of being alive—
Shining from their faces is the beam of
all their questions
the compassion of their living

Can you see yourself through those eyes?
Can we know each other like this?
(We, who no longer believe in messiahs
can hardly believe in each other.)

Can we
know ourselves seen
and know each other this same way
until our restless hearts
learn to abide
in this knowing and this love?
Can we live in this gaze of blessing?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

If Only

In “Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow”, a book written while he knew that he was dying, Forrest Church wrote,

“The only way to reconcile yourself, make peace with yourself, make peace with your neighbor, make peace with God, find salvation, is to break through and love — to forgive and to love. You don’t change the person you forgive. You change your own heart. So anything that you can do to reconcile also means that at the end of your life, when you’re given a few months to live, you can look back without regret.

The two saddest words in the English language are “if only,” and they ring with the most poignancy at a time that a person gets word that he or she has a terminal illness: “If only I had stopped drinking; if only I had dared to change careers when I could; if only I had reconciled with my father when I had a chance.”

I agree with Forrest. I believe that “If Only” are the saddest two words in the English language. I would add also that they are loneliest too. How many of us live with this sense of regret for the things we have done, or just as painfully failed to do? How many of us live in isolation from people we have known and loved in our lives because of our pride? How many of us have let past wrongs done, or perceived to have been done, stop us living the loving and connected lives we are capable of?

So why do we find it so hard to seek and give forgiveness? Why is reconciliation so challenging? Why does pride hold us in this sense of regret? Why are so many of us visited in the darkest night with the ghosts that whisper “If Only”

Well because it is not easy. It requires us to rise above and beyond our small selves to a larger way of being. As Sara Moores Campbell has claimed. “There is incredible power in forgiveness. But forgiveness is not rational. One can seldom find a reason to forgive or be forgiven. Forgiveness is often undeserved. It may require a dimension of justice (penance, in traditional terms), but not always, for what it holds sacred is not fairness, but self-respect and community. Forgiveness does not wipe away guilt, but invites reconciliation. And it is as important to be able to forgive as it is to be forgiven.”

No it is not easy, but it is vital. Not only for ourselves but for the greater good also. Forgiveness is about reconciliation it is about bringing wholeness and healing to all. This is why, in my experience, failing to offer forgiveness and failing to atone for our own wrongs and mistakes makes reconciliation impossible and I have come to believe that it is this that breeds a sense of isolation and loneliness, deep within us. It is not by chance that atonement can be broken down to at-one-ment. For it is such acts that bring about oneness in life.

I recently spent a few days away with a group of people exploring the subject of forgiveness. We were together in a beautiful and loving setting and it was an open environment in which we all talked about our struggles with forgiveness of others and of ourselves. I believe that we all gained a great deal from our time together and I hope it renewed us in our efforts to reconcile ourselves with our pasts and those we have shared our lives with, so as to live better lives in the future. One thing that came strongly out of the weekend was this sense that forgiveness is not about forgetting. Yes it is about healing and reconciliation, but not about simply abandoning the past and passively letting go. In fact if anything real forgiveness is a true act of remembrance. It is about growing from the past and becoming increasingly whole people.

Again as Sara Moores Campbell said, “No, we do not forgive and forget. But when we invite the power of forgiveness, we release ourselves from some of the destructive hold the past has on us. Our hatred, our anger, our need to feel wronged – those will destroy us, whether a relationship is reconciled or not.”

Our varied struggles with forgiveness showed how difficult it was to truly reconcile ourselves with our pasts, with ourselves and with those we have shared and share our lives with. Forgiveness is not easy. It is easy to say perhaps “I forgive you”, but those are just words, it is far from easy to truly mean them though. We cannot just simply will ourselves into it and it certainly isn’t an overnight matter. The key, as in all things, is to be open to it. Here lays its power and its love. Here lays the key to be freed from that aching loneliness of regret and the ghosts of “If Only”. Not only for ourselves but for the good of all. I have come to believe that all our lives depend upon it

Again to quote Sara Moores Campbell,

“…we cannot just will ourselves to enter into forgiveness, either as givers or receivers. We can know it is right and that we want to do it and still not be able to.

We can, however, be open and receptive to the power of forgiveness, which, like any gift of the spirit, isn’t of our own making. Its power is rooted in love. The Greek word for this kind of love is agape as “Love seeking to create community.” This kind of love is human, but is also the grace of transcendent power that lifts us out of ourselves. It transforms and heals; and even when we are separated by time or space or death, it reconciles us to ourselves and to Life. For its power abides not just between us but within us. If we invite the power of agape to heal our personal wounds and give us the gift of forgiveness, we would give our world a better chance of survival.”

At one point during the weekend we discussed the limits of forgiveness and whether there were any. A friend said that he didn’t know how he would react if someone did anything to his son and many people agreed with him and then I shared an example of this and the power forgiveness. I recounted my dear friend Claire’s reaction to witnessing her son being killed in front of her on a crossing. The driver did not stop at the crossing and took Ethan’s life. A power from within or beyond her compelled her to forgive him there and then. I know from watching her piece her life back together since that if she hadn’t have done so there and then she could not have survived herself or if she had she would have lived with an aching bitterness for the rest of her life. Not that the last nine years have been easy, she has been to hell and back many times, but that power, the power of love, has held her through it all and I believe that it was that same power that compelled her to forgive the driver of the car that day on the side of the road. A love that passeth all rational understanding, but one that can hold and sustain us through whatever happens in life, if we would let it have its way and bring it to life in our being.

Forgiveness is a true act of Love, in the purest Agapeic sense of the word. It is an act of the heart, it takes real courage, Remember that courage comes from the French word for heart “Coeur” In the Hindu sacred poem “The Bhagavad Gita” you hear this reflected “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive, If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.” You see it reflected in the dying words of Jesus on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This same loving courage was expressed in the way that both Martin Luther King and Gandhi led their movements of non-violent resistance. These were powerful loving soul forces that inspired healing and reconciliation taken up by the likes of Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa and “The Truth and Reconciliation Hearings” that took place there following the end of Apartheid. It can be the same with our individuals lives and our individual hearts. At some level I think we all need to reconcile ourselves with someone or something, even if it is just our own pasts.

This is why I have come to believe that forgiving is not about forgetting at all. In fact what it is really about is remembering. Actually it is more than that, forgiveness is an act of remembrance. It is about bringing the memory alive and creating something from the past. Reconciliation is not just something that occurs between us, but also within us. In each of our hearts and minds and souls. If we can make something from our past hurts we can create meaning from even the hardest moments of our lives and bring a new wholeness and openness to our lives. In so doing we won’t live out our lives with that aching lonely feeling of regret and be visited by the ghosts of “If Only”. In so doing we will leave something to pass on to those who follow and our lives will have truly proved worth dying for, by the love we have left behind.

Below is the full version of Sara Moores Campbell's reflection on "Forgiveness" quoted above

“Forgiveness” by Sara Moores Campbell, from “Into the Wilderness”

There is incredible power in forgiveness. But forgiveness is not rational. One can seldom find a reason to forgive or be forgiven. Forgiveness is often undeserved. It may require a dimension of justice (penance, in traditional terms), but not always, for what it holds sacred is not fairness, but self-respect and community. Forgiveness does not wipe away guilt, but invites reconciliation. And it is as important to be able to forgive as it is to be forgiven.

No, we do not forgive and forget. But when we invite the power of forgiveness, we release ourselves from some of the destructive hold the past has on us. Our hatred, our anger, our need to feel wronged – those will destroy us, whether a relationship is reconciled or not.

But we cannot just will ourselves to enter into forgiveness, either as givers or receivers. We can know it is right and that we want to do it and still not be able to.

We can, however, be open and receptive to the power of forgiveness, which, like any gift of the spirit, isn’t of our own making. Its power is rooted in love. The Greek word for this kind of love is agape as “Love seeking to create community.” This kind of love is human, but is also the grace of transcendent power that lifts us out of ourselves. It transforms and heals; and even when we are separated by time or space or death, it reconciles us to ourselves and to Life. For its power abides not just between us but within us. If we invite the power of agape to heal our personal wounds and give us the gift of forgiveness, we would give our world a better chance of survival.