Sunday, 13 August 2017

Exquisite Risk

I was recently sent a picture of myself with my two closest, in age at least, siblings. It was taken in 1977 at a fancy dress street party during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was five years old at the time. In the picture I am dressed as Tarzan. The strange thing is though that I am standing bolt upright, like a soldier on duty. There is good reason for this. I was originally planning to go as “Action Man” (What American’s call GI Joe). I had spent the weeks before attempting to stand upright, as even at that age I was deeply self-conscious about physical problems I had and was constantly told to stand straught. As I looked at the picture I reflected on the pain and the shame I had at the time and the decades that followed. I also remembered how even at that young age I was already living a bubble of self-protection that would lead to so many problems later in life. It has taken me forty years to shed that skin, but as I write this little "blogspot" I believe I have done so. Many old ideas have drifted away over the years. I have lost so much skin that have been imprisoned in.

As a kid I was always considered overly sensitive, that I needed toughening up, to develop another layer of skin. For a long time I attempted to do so and of course it only made things worse as I attempted to be something I am not, to harden my heart. The truth is that all I needed to do was to learn not take things so personally and to allow my sensitivity to become perhaps my greatest asset. I no longer attempt to defend my heart, instead I just allow my heart to lighten my life and pour my love out. Today my sensitivity may well be my greatest asset, my treasure, it is certainly where my heart is

I regularly meet with several colleagues. We talk about ministry; we talk about where our own lives are at; we talk about our own spiritual development. One colleague often repeats the following words when we come together.

“I honour your gods
I drink at your well
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place
I have no cherished outcome
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment”

Oddly these words come from traditional Celtic wedding vows. Hardly romantic, but perhaps they symbolise something deeper.

It is the line “I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place” that resonates with me the most. It is the key I believe to living the spiritual life, to live with an undefended an open heart. This can be extremely painful and difficult at times, but I have learnt how vital it is for me. When I close down or put on my suit of armour life soon loses its flavour. I suppose that this is why I’ve always struggled with the sentiment of Ephesians Ch6 vv 10-18, the passage commonly known as “God’s Armour”. I was recently at an Anglo Catholic church where I saw an image based around this passage. I remember thinking to myself “gosh that’s the last thing I would want.”

For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict and the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own traditional Christians friends. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.

Increasingly for me the spiritual life is about “Living with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. It is the treasure though and wherever my treasure is I have come to believe that this is also where my heart is.

Just imagine what it might be like to live with an unarmoured or an undefended heart. We all have defence mechanism, things we do to protect ourselves from being hurt. I am sure we are all familiar with the fright and flight mechanism. There is another reaction that perhaps we are less familiar with, it is certainly one that is less talked about. I have come to call this the freeze mechanism. It is something I am very familiar with, for I have utilised it throughout my life. Basically when trouble strikes a frozen person appears to continue to function normally on the outside, but inside, emotionally at least, they shut down, they internally hibernate. It is something I have come to learn about myself in recent years and I see it others quite clearly at times, perhaps too clearly. When it happens to me my neck and shoulders become stiff, my throat dries up, the base of my skull seems to warm up, my skin tightens around my face, I tend to blow out a lot and it feels like someone has just dropped a great rock into the pit of my stomach. These are the moments when I build up my walls and try to keep life out. I was doing this at five years old, no child should be like that.

How many of us spend lifetime’s building these walls that we think protect us? When in fact all we succeed in doing is block ourselves off from the love present in life, a treasure of infinite value, a pearl of great price.

To live with an open heart is to live intimately with all that is life. It is to experience life through our felt experience to not be ruled by what our minds project from our past, those disappointments and fears that have been built over a life time. To live with an unarmoured heart is about connecting with all that is there. Zen Buddhism talks about intimacy with 10,000 things, meaning intimacy with all things, all phenomena, that nothing is left out.

I have discovered that I am living openheartedly when I am not at war with life, when I am not arguing with reality and not avoiding intimacy, especially with my own thoughts and feelings. I can find myself arguing with reality at times, I suppose some would call this living in denial, but thankfully by living faithfully I once again see the truth and let loose the prison of my own skin and move onto a newer and fresher reality, my heart opens up and I experience a new reality. I do not remain armoured or frozen for very long. Faith sets me free once again. I shed another layer of skin.

In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring To Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo talks about daring to live your whole unique self, to sing your authentic true song, and to be you unforgivingly. The key is to dare to slow down and to really feel life rather than merely manage it. Nepo encourages us to become quiet enough and open enough to listen to what truly matters; he encourages us to listen intimately to our own hearts, our loved ones, the wonders of nature; he encourages us to live with nothing held back. He shares his own journey including a battle with cancer which he overcame and which helped him understand how only by daring to embrace all that life has to offer can we come to a deeper appreciation of its meaning and beauty. The beauty of Nepo’s work is that he makes the personal universal. He speaks in a way that anyone can relate to, if they would only find the courage to open their own hearts.

A beautiful example of this is when he tells of a dear old friend who slowly loses her hearing. I can relate to this, mine is not what it once was. Due to this she moved beyond merely surface listening and instead listens below, she goes on a journey under the skin. He tells how one day as she grew “tired of straining so hard for all the words, (she) began to listen to eyes, bodies, to gestures, to the face behind the face.” She discovered the warmth, the deep love coming from within the other. Circumstances had forced her to change how she related to people and in so doing she discovered new and beautiful ways to relate and connect to others. Her disability had not decreased the experience of her life, instead through listening with the ear of her heart she had discovered new and beautiful things. She had shed off the skin she had been imprisoned it.

Nepo does not suggest that we have to suffer in order to draw out these beautiful gifts of the heart that are within all of us, although it seems that for most of us this is the case. It is often suffering that finally humbles us enough to open up and transcend the limits of what we think we know. The key he suggests is in self-education. Since the word “educate” means to draw out to call forth what is already present within us (if only schools and places of education would learn this). In so doing we will discover the world within us and ourselves within the world. This requires us to listen to all that the world has to say and not just the thoughts going round and round in our own little worlds. It requires us to shed the skin that we are imprisoned in, to let down the armour plating to learn to live with an un-defended heart.

The key is to become intimately aware that all of us have a unique purpose for being here, this is the “exquisite risk” that Nepo is describing. It is to become willing to be fully alive, open, available to live authentically alive with an undefended heart.

Nepo speaks powerfully to me, to my condition. The spiritual life is indeed a journey under the skin, beneath the surface. This takes courage to go beyond the limits of material life. It takes courage to truly engage in the exquisite risk, to live the authentic life, to join in the courageous conversation. I invite you to come and join with me on this journey under the skin, to lose the skin that you’re imprisoned in. Let us take together the exquisite risk.


  1. As someone who's lived in fear with a defended heart most of his life i'm really trying to change this with a faith in life and purpose and the goodness at the centre of my heart. Thanks for this post!

  2. Thank you kindly Steve. It is not easy. We will be exploring this further during our Living the Questions discussion group this Thursday evening.