Saturday 31 May 2014

The Impermanence of Truth

"To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

Anthony de Mello

To seek the truth one needs humility and openness and enough self-esteem to see that we are wrong sometimes and of course the capacity to admit to this. If we cannot, we will not be able to see the truth, even when it is right in front of us. It is so easy to become blinded by what we think we know. We need the openness that comes with true humility, it’s a truth that will set us free.

Like most folk I can be a stubborn bugger at times; I am more like my granddad than I care to admit at times. I’m better than I used to be but there are still times when I find it hard to admit that I am wrong. And yet when I can I find it so liberating, it sets me free to a new freedom and a new truth.

The truth is that the great thing about being wrong is that as soon as you are able to admit that you are wrong about something you are no longer wrong, you are right once more. Sadly so many of us find it difficult to see when we are wrong, me included. Why on earth is this?

I agree with DeMello's claim that a truth seeker needs “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

Although he and I could be wrong about this.

I believe that this applies as much to people as ideas about life. I know I have been wrong about many people in my life. So much so that I try not to judge people by my first impressions these days. I say I try, but it isn’t so easy.

At the beginning of this blogspot is a clip from the film “The Philadelphia Story”. If you watch it you will hear the following words uttered by Katherine Hepburn.

“The time to make up your mind about other people is never!”

I find something so beautifully faithful in these simple words. They say a leopard cannot change its spots, but I’m not convinced by this. I see people change all the time. I’ve seen much of my view of life alter over the years and as a result it would not behove me to think the same of others.

Life is fluid and so are people, nothing ever really stays exactly the same. I suspect that it is the same with truth. My truth today is not exactly as it was a few years ago. How about yours? Do you see things today exactly as you always have, or have some things changed?

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 in English. It is often translated as suffering, that "all life is suffering". Now I am not convinced that this is 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. This speaks powerfully to me, especially when I think about truth. I have certainly noticed, over the years, the impermanence of truth.

So many problems in life seemingly come from our struggle against impermanence. How often do we try to grab for the seeming safety of absolutes, for certainty, instead of opening up to the freedom that comes with accepting that nothing is permanent, including how we see life and one another.

Accepting impermanence helps in the search for truth; it helps us to see the freedom that comes with changing our point of view about things. If you think about it if nothing ever stays the same then surely our point of view ought to be ever changing too. Life is always teaching us something new if we would but stay open up to it.

It’s a good thing to feel like a beginner in life, to feel lost and confused about everything, at times. It does not mean we aren’t making progress it’s just that we are taking shape, forming and re-forming over and over again. There is a false security in certainty that can end up enslaving us.

I have heard it said that God works on us like a skilled carpenter. Once God has worked on one side of us and polished it up, God immediately turns us over and begins working on the other side. I suspect it’s the same with life, once we sort things out in one area, we quickly become aware of something in another that needs improvement. By something in us changing everything else seems to come into another light and appears different. It’s the same with the world around us and the people in our lives too…nothing is permanent, nothing ever stays the same.

That’s why “The time to make up your mind about other people is never!” People change, nothing and no one stays exactly the same for ever. Nothing is permanent, the leopard is capable of changing his spots. Or at least from time to time, those spots appear to get re-arranged...

Nothing ever last forever...

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

These words have been singing a song in the ears of my heart for some time, there is real wisdom here. There have been times in my life when I have been afraid to bring forth what is within me and I have witnessed the same fear in others too. After all isn't it a little less scary  to receive our truth from elsewhere rather than to let it come forth from within ourselves:?

The key is openness, this I believe is the method for truth seeking and spiritual growth. It does not necessarily offer absolute truths, instead it shows a way that enables us to experience truth; a truth that will set us free. It will allow us to bring forth what is within us and by doing so we might just uncover what will save us from the delusion of what we think we know about ourselves, one another and life itself.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” I suspect it’s the same with truth. Is it better to be given something that will feed us for a short time or is it better to be given a way that will enable us to keep on feeding ourselves and one another? Do we want to be given a fish that will fill our bellies for now or do we want to be given a method that will keep on feeding us; a method that will enable us to seek the truth that will set us free and continue to set us free?

Do we trust ourselves enough to seek out the truth and therefore to bring forth what is within us and allow this to keep on saving us from the delusion of permanence, that things will stay the same if we will them too? Or would we just rather stick with the safety of what we think we already know?

In John’s Gospel Jesus said “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” when I first read the piece of wisdom by DeMello at the beginning of this blogspot these words immediately sprang to mind. What I have discovered is that we are only truly set free by living in the truth. Not by accepting the truth we are given but by fishing for the truth and by seeing that some of the fish that we catch are of no use at least today and throwing them back. As DeMello taught if you want to be a seeker of truth then above everything else what you need is an unremitting readiness to admit that you may be wrong. Remember nothing is permanent especially not the truth. We cannot keep on living on the fish we caught in the past, we cannot live off them today.

The key I believe comes from trusting what we unearth, what we catch, whilst not putting a fence around what we see as the truth today; the key is an open attitude whether that’s in finding our own truth or in offering truth to another. Now the challenge of course comes in dwelling in the ambiguity of truth without becoming overwhelmed or paralysed by it; the challenge comes in maintaining a deep commitment to the  openness that truth seeking requires and not allowing ourselves to become closed down by what we think we know.

This is not for the faint hearted. This takes courage. This is not the easier path, but it is definitely the one worth taking, for it is the one that will set us free to dance the impermanence dance.

You know its ok to get it wrong to make mistakes. It’s ok to feel lost and confused about life at times. That is so human. There is something both glorious and beautiful in this.

If we want to be a seeker of truth then above everything else what we need is an unremitting readiness to admit that we may be wrong; wrong about how we view ourselves; wrong about how we view life; wrong about how we view other people.

This is a truth that can set us free, if we learn to live in the impermanence of what we think we know.

As Katherine Hepburn said in “The Philadelphia Story”

“The time to make up your mind about other people is never!”

I suspect that this applies to everything, especially truth. For the time to permanently make up our minds about truth is never.

If we keep on living faithfully, casting that fishing line of truth, it will continue to set us free.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Cynicism, it aint what it used to be

I came across the following bit of wisdom by Robert Fulghum a little while back. I remember it made me smile broadly at the time. There is just something so beautifully hopeful in it,something that is so needed in these ever increasingly cynical times.

"Americans, it is observed, prefer definite answers. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Yes or no. No grays, please.

In Indonesia, there is a word in common use that nicely wires around the need for black and white. Belum is the word and it means ‘not quite yet.’ A lovely word implying continuing possibility. “Do you speak English?”

“Belum.” Not quite yet. “Do you have any children?” “Belum.” Do you know the meaning of life?” “Belum.”

It is considered both impolite and cynical to say, “No!” outright. This leads to some funny moments. “Is the house on fire?” “Belum.” Not quite yet.

It’s an attitude kin to that old vaudeville joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I never tried.”

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Not yes or no, but squarely within the realm of what might be. Soft edges are welcome in this great bus ride of human adventure.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

...I just love it...

Then a few days ago Phil posted the following little gem on the chapel’s facebook wall…

"Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say "no". But saying "yes" begins things. Saying "yes" is how things grow. Saying "yes" leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say "yes"."

These words were spoken by Stephen Colbert on his American satirical news show “The Colbert Report”

...It got me thinking about cynicism...

I noticed a little cynicism last weekend during the chapels annual Christian Aid Collection. Although despite our mutterings we got on with it and as always had a good time in doing so. The money we collected will not change the world, but it will do something. It will do something for we who participated in the collection; it will do something for the folk whose houses we collected from and engaged with and it will do something for those folk in parts of the world who do not have the privilege of living in Cheshire and go door to door in aid of a worthy cause.

Will our small acts change the world? Belum!

I’ve also heard and engaged in all kinds of other cynicism this last week. It has of course been local and European election time. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the comment over the last few days, “Oh they are all the same, so what is the point.”

Have we lost faith in the political process? Belum!

It seems that very few of us believe in progress any more, that we can make our world a better place. In fact I wonder at times if we really believe in anything at all. Sometimes in my despair I wonder where is the hope? Where is the energy? Where is the love for life? I often ask myself, am I living in the most cynical time in human history? Maybe, maybe not. Belum!

And then I heard the line of the week, the cynicism of all cynicism, a friend uttered “You know cynicism aint what it used to be” This reduced me to almost side splitting laughter. I've been chuckling along to it ever since...

So what exactly is cynicism?

Well it seems my friend was right, “cynicism ain’t what it used to be.” Originally a “cynic” was a member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed that “virtue” was the only good and that self-control was the only means of achieving it.

The cynics rejected what they saw as the falseness of the time. They were known as the “Stray dog philosophers” They rejected the luxury of home living and personal hygiene and they believed that the best way to get their message across to the general public was to verbally abuse them and expel bodily fluids on them as they went about their daily business.

The best known of the “Cynics” was Diogenes. A man who wandered through the streets in the mid-day sun squinting and holding a lantern to find his way, claiming he was “looking for an honest man” He lived in a hollowed out half barrel which he wheeled through the streets. This was his only possession except for a wooden bowl which he destroyed in protest at the fakeness of society after seeing a boy slave drinking water with his cupped hands.

The “cynics” became celebrities of a sort in Ancient Greece, even Alexander the Great was fascinated by Diogenes. Several stories are told of their encounters. It is said that one day Diogenes was philosophising to great crowds and Alexander demanded a private audience with him. Diogenes was not very impressed and ignored his request. Eventually Alexander found him sunbathing. Alexander asked him what he could do for him and Diogenese simply asked him to move a little to right as he was blocking the sun. Another version of story claims that when Alexander found Diogenes he was sifting through bones in a graveyard. Alexander asked what he was doing to which Diogenes replied “I am looking for the bones of your father, but cannot differentiate them from the bones of slaves.

Alexander was greatly humbled by Diogenes and said “if he wasn’t Alexander, he’d want to be Diogenes.”

Those “cynics” had a way of bringing the greatest down to the truly humble level, they were an antidote to the hubris of the day. Yes they had their plus points but there were negatives too, it certainly was not a pathway to friendship and community building. It seemed to me to be the ultimate in isolation and individualism.

“Stoicism” grew from the “Cynics” and no doubt modern day cynics would see this as an inevitable watering down of the original “virtues”. “Stoicism” was a kind of realistic cynicism. It didn’t require an individual to denounce all worldly goods. In fact you could be a wealthy and powerful “stoic”, even the Emperor of Rome. While it too saw little point to it all, that everything leads to nothing in the end, that all the trappings of life are just fake ornamentation. It also suggested that our task is to accept that this is reality, you’ve just got to grin and bear it. That we shouldn’t let it get us down and that we should try to be reasonable about it all. Instead of hurling abuse and muck at life, like a “cynic”, a stoic just needed to set a bit of time aside each day to think about how awful everything is so as to prepare themselves for when all is lost, as it inevitably will be, so that it won’t be missed so much.

You can see the influence of the “cynics” and the “stoics” throughout the ages, especially in the 20th century existentialists. Now while they didn’t live in barrels and hurl muck at people, they found their own way to pour scorn on the world, they entered the world of academia, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. Central to existentialism is the belief that life has no inherent meaning, no worth, no real value and that the only real meaning that life has is in that which we give it ourselves through the sheer force of our own will; that life is marked by constant anxiety about death and that we have been thrown into an absurd universe; that life is essentially meaningless and that we ought to face up to the hard reality that being reasonable about it all never really works in the end. They made the “stoics” look like “Pollyanna’s” by comparison.

I see much of their legacy in the modern day apathy and cynicism. Something I from time to time witness within myself and in others too. It certainly is a symptom of the baby boom generation and we who have followed; it is a symptom of Generation X and the “No Future’s” amongst us. If you spend a little time on social media you will hear these voices everywhere.

So are we living in the most cynical time in human history? Belum!

Thank God the cynical voices are not all that you can hear; thank God you can hear different voices and witness other forces at work too.

Not all who have followed the example of “cynic” have remained there. Not all have gone down the existentialist’s route. You see nothing in history is inevitable. I do not personally see the inevitability of progress nor do I also see that everything is going to ruin and there really is no point other than to simply grin and bear it.

You can see aspects of the “cynics” way in the life and teachings of Jesus. He chose to be homeless and encouraged his followers to do the same. - You can see these qualities in other religious greats too such as Gandhi and the Buddha - He criticised and even mocked his opponents, calling them fakers, hypocrites and religious posers.

And yet there is so much more in his teachings other than rejection and ridicule of man-made authority. Yes he broke and mocked the rules but he also taught those who followed him to play by them too. To be “Wise as serpents and gentle as doves” or in response to Rome’s occupation of Jerusalem to give to Caeser what belongs to Caeser and to God what belongs to God. He taught that the people should always follow the spirit of the law and not stick blindly to the word. That the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

Nor did he merely mock and ridicule. He loved and he blessed and accepted all, his key message was not about destruction it was about building the blessed, the beloved, community right here right now. Not just the kingdom that will come but the kingdom now in our time and space. He was about building hope in the present moment and that this hope was to grow within each individual right here right now.

It seems that Jesus was a “cynic” with hope. A hope he saw present within each of us, that like the mustard seed could grow and grow. I believe that he was right, because despite the suffering present in life, hope can still emerge. It is our task, I believe, to bring it to life.

Now there are those who will say yes but Jesus was wrong, he said that the Kingdom would soon be here and it obviously isn’t. My answer to that is simply “Belum”, Not quite yet. Does that mean we should give up on all hope, “Belum”, not quite yet.

Who knows what the future holds, nothing is inevitable, “Belum”, not quite yet.

...It seems those Indonesians may well be on to something...

I see others giving it a real go too. Others who do not merely cynically dissect life, pour scorn and cowardly opt out crying there is no hope, they don’t just say you’ve just got to grin and bear it all. They do what they can.

One thing that has touched me in recent weeks is something I’ve observed on social media called “100 Happy Days”. This is a project that encourages people to seek out positivity in life and to publish a picture on social media displaying this each day. My sister Natalie, one of the least cynical people you could meet has committed to it and it’s been a joy watching hers and others photos. The project claims that if people stick to the commitment they will “Start noticing what makes them happy every day; be in a better mood every day; start receiving more compliments from other people; realize how lucky they are to have the life they have; become more optimistic; fall in love during the challenge.”

Now I can already hear the cynics crying nonsense, it’s fantasy, it’s make believe. Well my answer to them is if it’s nonsense have the courage to give it an honest go with an open heart and mind and see what happens.

Social media also brought something else into my consciousness once again this week. Some beautiful wisdom from Alice Herz-Sommer who when she died earlier this year at 110 was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust. In 2013 a documentary was made about her life titled “The Lady in number 6”, it won the “Oscar” for best short documentary. Her story is both remarkable and uplifting. No matter what happened to her throughout her long life, she never became a cynic. What was her secret? Well here it is in her own words.

“I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.”

She also believed in the power of music: "Music saved my life and music saves me still... I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion."

Nothing new in this message perhaps, just another simple example of hope triumphing over cynicism; another example of the love of life triumphing over fear.

I try to hold a realistic view of life. I know about the suffering and the shadows, but I choose not to merely focus and concentrate on the suffering present and all around. I also choose not to throw muck and scorn on all those others who contribute to life. The days of cynically dissecting life I hope are behind me. I prefer instead to get my hands dirty in different ways and do what I can, even if that’s just to offer a smile to the next person I pass in the street.

I believe that the best preparation for death is to live our lives in such a way that they will prove worth dying for by the love we live behind (to paraphrase Forrest Church)

I prefer to live with courage rather than the cowardice of cynicism, I prefer to build hope from that little seed within me rather than pull down all that others have tried to do.

What do you prefer?

I will end this little chip of a blog with a little prayer poem titled “Origami Emotion” by Elizabeth Barrette

“Origami Emotion”

Hope is

Folding paper cranes

Even when your hands get cramped

And your eyes tired,

Working past blisters and paper cuts,

Simply because something in you

Insists on

Opening its wings.

by Elizabeth Barrette

Will we live happily ever after? Belum…Belum…Belum…

Saturday 17 May 2014

Love and Service

Last Sunday afternoon I attended the memorial service of Rev Jane Barraclough at Cross Street chapel, Manchester. Jane was both a colleague and a personal friend of mine. Many things were said of Jane during the service but what stood out for me above everything else was one comment made by the chair of Portico library. She said "that Jane believed in God and believed in humanity" and that it was these two things that informed who she was as a minister and person. When I look at all that she was and how she ministered I can see the absolute truth in this. Now although I did not always come to the same conclusions as Jane, do any of us ever do this? My faith too rests on these two same things. I believe in God and I believe in humanity. I haven’t always, I have lost faith in both at times, for long periods of my life, if truth be told I often find today that when I begin to lose faith in either I begin to lose faith in the other.

When I look at Jane as a minister I see clearly that she lived by these two principles of faith, I wonder sometimes if I do…I wonder sometimes if I do…I wonder sometimes if my works, live up to my professed faith. Generally they do, my deeds profess my belief in a loving God and in this love being present in humanity, including little old me. That said from time to time that faith can waver.

Last Monday I attended the funeral service of Eila Forrester at King Edward Street Unitarian Chapel, Macclesfield. I had got to know Eila during my time as a student on placement there. We had many wonderful conversations in which she passed on much of her knowledge to me. I remember when I qualified back on 2010 Eila asked me “Now I hope you have remembered everything I have taught you” I remember I smiled at the time. I smiled during the service as this memory came back to me.

It was a beautifully moving service in which many people reflected on Eila’s life and the contribution she had made to the Unitarian tradition over her life time. Of all the things that were said what stood out for me was that she always emphasised the primacy of worship. That worship is and must always remain central to everything that Unitarians do. That without it we could not describe ourselves as religious denomination in any way or sense. As I sat there and listened to many people speak of this remarkable and loving small framed but big hearted, highly educated and thoughtful woman it helped me to once again see clearly what I believe faith is about.

Now please do not misunderstand Eila was not suggesting that we my chosen faith is merely about worship and not about the wider the world. Quite the opposite actually. I know that she believed that it is through worship and taking care of our individual as well as corporate spiritual needs that we are then better able to carry out this faith in this beautiful world of ours.

These thoughts brought me back to the anniversary service led by Rev David Usher at our denomination's annual general meetings. It was a beautiful and moving service that certainly spoke to my spirit. He spoke of many things but one aspect that really stood out for me was a reference he made to words written at the entrance of Richmond Unitarian Church. The plaque there reads “Dedicated to the worship of God and the service of man”. The point he was trying to make was that at times we have lost sight of this aspect of tradition in our wish to just say to people you can believe what you like without any commitment to wider humanity. David was not saying that we all have be theists, more that our faith ought to inform how we live in the world. That as a denomination we have a duty to the wider world. That our spirituality is not just about serving ourselves that it ought to show in our deeds. Or to put it another way "Faith without works is dead."

“Faith without works is dead” These words from the book of James chapter 2 vv 14-20 have for many years struck me powerfully. I wonder how many times I have professed belief or even disbelief in something, but my actions have shown otherwise; while today I profess a belief in God and humanity sometime my actions prove otherwise. I fall short every day.

This brings to mind a story that has stayed with me since childhood. As a small boy I had a fascination with tight rope walkers and other daredevils. I think this might stem from the fact that I was utterly useless at such things and would marvel at the ability of others. I loved Evel Knievel and remember clearly watching “Trapeze” starring Burt Lancaster and being entranced by it. Oh how I wish I could have been a daredevil, but my body always lacked the co-ordination and balance.

I also clearly remember a school assembly when I was only about 9 or 10, it was based around “faith and works”, it’s amazing how many of these stories have stayed with me more than 30 years later.

In it the teacher told the story of Charles Blondin who had been invited to travel all the way from his native France to the Niagra Falls and attempt to walk across on a tightrope. The tightrope stretched over a quarter of a mile. People came from all over North America to see this feat. It was no great obstacle to Blondin who walked across several times, each attempt was more daring than the last, as the ever growing crowd oohed and aarh’d. On one occasion he carried a sack of potatoes, on another he crossed on stilts, on another he rode a bicycle and on another crossed blindfolded. On one occasion he even carried a small stove and cooked an omelette when he arrived at the middle.

On one occasion, while pushing a wheelbarrow across, he stopped and addressed the cheering audience and asked them “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow”

To which the crowd enthusiastically yelled back “Yes! We believe in you Blondin, you are the greatest!”

To which Blondin replied “Okay, so who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?”

It seems that no one did, well no one except his manager, who he successfully carried across.

So it seems that despite what they claimed the crowd who had observed his many feats did not truly believe in Blondin, only his manager did. The crowd professed their belief, but he showed it with his actions.

Whatever it is that we claim to believe in, or not believe in for that matter it can only be proved by our actions.

What exactly is meant by works? Well I have sometimes heard it described as service. But what exactly is service? Well it can mean many things. I have come to believe that worship itself is a form of service. I do afterall call what I lead on a Sunday morning a service of worship. When people congregate together as a worshipping community they are doing so in service; service to themselves, to one another, to God and to humanity.

Worship is central to any spiritual community, but its purpose is to impact on the lives of those participating in it so that they can impact positively on the lives of those in the wider world. While we may not be able to change the whole world we can affect it in small and I believe positive ways. I strongly believe by being all that we can be in the world we do indeed change our world while not at the same time destroying it by imposing our wants and needs on it. By doing so we grow in spirit ourselves and we pave the way for others to do the same.

In classic Christian theology one sign that salvation had been attained was that it showed in your service to others. This I believe is the point that James was making.

What do our actions say about us? Do we show love for God and humanity in the way we live our lives?

Sometimes I fall short...

In Sanskrit the word for selfless service or work performed without thought of reward was “Seva” In ancient India it was believed that it aided an individual’s spiritual growth and at the same time contributed to the improvement of the whole community. Seva is the art of giving without expecting to receive individually, as all benefit from it. Seva is the art of blessed action.

Seva is about saying yes to life. It is about seeing how small acts can and do change our world and that this begins in our own hearts and minds, it is this that feeds our very actions. It is about recognising how we are all interconnected, all one. That what we do and do not do matters and affects all. By helping ourselves and or another all are aided and improved. Life has revealed to me that even a simple act of worship can affect our world in small ways, if it engaged in with openness and love.

Last Sunday and Monday I both worshipped and remembered as I listened to people speak of the lives of two Unitarians who lived their faith; their faith showed in their actions in their service for their wider human community. I feel that as a result my own faith has been enhanced, faith in God and faith in humanity. I see more clearly that this tradition I am a part of is a simple faith based on love and service and not just freedom to believe as our conscious dictates. That I am a part of a bound community held together by shared values. A community that is here to be of service to one another and to our wider world. and this service begins in time together, in sacred space and at our sacred times as we worship together.

These last few days have shown me more clearly the simplicity of my chosen faith, its about the Love of God and the service of humanity. I hope I can show this clearly in my deeds and that I can better live my belief in God and my belief in humanity.

Saturday 10 May 2014

"Anam Cara" & "The Good Friendship"

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us."

Albert Schweitzer

We meet many people throughout our lives; many of whom have the capacity to transform and affect our lives. I do from time to time give thanks with deep gratitude for those who lighted the flame within me; those who have rekindled the flame.

When I think of these people I am aware that some came into my life at a young age and have always remained. Others have come later, some have stayed for only a short time and others have remained. I am sure I have had similar impacts on the lives of others too, often without realising it. One lesson that life has taught me is that everything matters. Everything we say and everything we do matters, has some impact, even if we are not always aware of what this might be.

Many years ago I came across the following poem, it is very popular within recovery communities. I remember at the time I dismissed it in my arrogance. Over the years I have learnt to appreciate it and the truth I have discovered within it. It is by that prolific author “Unknown” and goes by the title “Reason, Season or Lifetime”

“Reason, Season, or Lifetime”

"People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
When you figure out which one it is,
you will know what to do for each person.

When someone is in your life for a REASON,
it is usually to meet a need you have expressed.
They have come to assist you through a difficulty;
to provide you with guidance and support;
to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually.
They may seem like a godsend, and they are.
They are there for the reason you need them to be.

Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time,
this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end.
Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away.
Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand.
What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done.
The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

Some people come into your life for a SEASON,
because your turn has come to share, grow or learn.
They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh.
They may teach you something you have never done.
They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy.
Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons;
things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation.
Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person,
and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.

It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant."

I am a very blessed person in so many ways. I have been loved by many people in my time on this earth. I have had and have known many friends. Now I’ve not always appreciated the friends I have known in my life, I have neglected the love offered to me. I have many friends in my life today, that said I wonder sometimes how many truly know me intimately, know me warts and all and beauty spots too. Well one or two do and these are the one or two I always turn to in my darkest moments when I need someone to just listen.

We all need someone or some people who we can truly be ourselves with. Everyone needs a good friend; we need friendship. By this I mean real physical, living breathing friendship.

One criticism of modern living is that we lack deep and meaningful friendships. While we claim to have many friends, our friendships lack real intimacy it is claimed. I suspect the reason for this is that the word "friend" itself has lost some of its depth of meaning. My facebook account says that I have 945 “friends”, but truth be told most of these people are not truly my friends. There are a number I have never physically met in the flesh and others that are merely passing acquaintances. That said there are also some of the most important people in my life on their too.

Please do not get me wrong I am not decrying social media it has its place, it fulfils a really important need in life; it allows people to communicate in intimate ways who cannot physically contact one another. That said it cannot fulfil some basic human needs that can only be filled by physical human interaction.

Yes I wonder sometimes if we have reduced the meaning of the word "friend". Certainly in terms of social media we have done so. When we talk about a friend in such an environment it has become almost a verb and not a noun. After all don’t we ask one another to “friend” each other? We don’t so much become friends, we ask if we can “friend” one another.

I have a confession to make and I’m afraid it’s a little embarrassing. I have a love for American situation comedies. I especially like the ones that are based around groups of people. Like so many others I loved “Friends” and these days I adore “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother”. All three follow a similar format and are based around a group of six or seven friends and their trials and tribulations. These are referred to as “Flock” rather than “Family” comedies.

Something else that you may or may not know about me is that I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Caffe Nero in Altrincham to be exact. I spend time both working and socialising there. I wrote this blogspot while sitting there only the other day. I also spend time meeting and chatting with friends there too, much like I used to in pubs in my drinking days. I have got to know many people while sitting there. It brings to mind an old Chinese proverb “It takes five cups of tea to know a person”, or in my case it takes 5 caffe latte’s to get to know a person.

I recently got into a conversations with a delightful young woman while sitting and working in cafe nero, we got into a fascinating conversation about friendship. She explained to me that she had been to a talk where a person claimed that we need to have five kinds of friends and that this is why there are 6 characters in “sit coms” like “Friends”

I can’t remember exactly what was said but it went something like the following. The first is a kind of soul mate, someone we connect with on a deep level like a blood brother or spirit sisters. Another is someone who we can turn to in times of trouble. A third is someone who can stimulate us intellectually, who we can share ideas etc with. Another is someone who we can just be crazy with, someone to have fun with. Finally we need someone who will stretch us and encourages us to be more than we can be.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation a lot these last few days and tried to work out if this is the case today or whether it has been the case at different times in my life. I hope I fulfilled these kind of friendships in the lives of others too. How about you? Do you have these kind of friends? Have you had such types in the past? Have you been one or other of these types of friend?

Now it seems that this idea of breaking friendships into types is not a new observation, it has been around since ancient times. It may not surprise you to hear that the ancient Greeks had a word for the love that exists between friends. They called this “Philia”. Now just to complicate matters this form of love was broken down into three subsets. The first being known as “friends of utility” such friends today would probably be business associates or acquaintances. The second type were known as “friends of pleasure”, these friends tended to share a common interest which when it came to an end so did the friendship. Neither of these two types were considered long-lasting or particularly intimate. The third type of “Philia” love though was different. It tended to be formed from the love of another’s character. It’s the type of friendship that endured and involved a deep intense intimacy and trust. Such friends were known as “The Good”. For such friendships to last they had to be mutual, free of expectations and characterised by honesty and trust.

"Everybody needs a good friend!"

Now “The Good” type of friendships seem hard to live up to and as such I suspect were rare in ancient times and perhaps even more so these days. If I honestly look at it I suspect that I have had only a handful of such friends in my life. I suspect that this is perhaps what is lacking in many people’s lives these days.

Maybe this is why so many people feel lonely these days, they lack such intimacy. For there is something deeply spiritual and soulful about such love. I suspect that it brings us close to God’s love, it is one way to know the “Love that is Divine.”

In “Four Loves” C.S. Lewis described such friendship love in the following way:

“It seems no wonder if our ancestors regarded Friendship as something that raised us almost above humanity. This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.”

This got me thinking of the Celtic concept of “Anam Cara”. Anam Cara means “Soul Friend”. Anam being the Gaelic word for soul and Cara the word for friend. Now in the Celtic tradition an Anam Cara is a teacher, companion or spiritual guide. They are someone who you can share your inner most self with and thus unearth some of those hidden gems that we rarely let out in life and let shine. The two parties break through the usual human barriers to a deeper soul level, there is a deep sense of belonging and recognition involved in the relationship, both in the present moment but also the eternal. Such relationships tend to be mutual, they are two way, both parties grow from them; such relationships have the capacity to transforms and take us to deeper experiences of who we are and what life can be.

In my life there have been several people that have affected me in such a way, that I have connected with on a deeper level. They have allowed me to cross the threshold where the Divine and human ebb and flow into one another. They have taken me to places I never knew were possible. Not physical places, but spiritual places.

I am told that an Anam Cara is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free you to the undreamed of possibilities deep within you. I am blessed to have known some of these souls in my journey through life.

Some of them have been with me from my earliest memories; some have been in my life for a short time; some were old and wise and some were oh so young, their light shone for only a short time; some died far too soon and I wish it were not so. So many are no longer physically with me, they are “as the other side of the air”, but their soul is still alive in my soul, I know this to be true.

I am very blessed to have known so many of the people I have met in my life. They have touched me so deeply at times. They have become soul friends. This is why I know that everything we say and do and do not say and do not do is oh so important. Everything matters. We effect people’s lives in oh so many ways.

I’ve been thinking about this these last few days, ever since that encounter I had in the coffee shop. I ask that you do the same. Think about those people who you have connected with in a deep way, even if it was just for a very short time. Think about the people that have awakened something deep within you; think of those who have helped you know that love that is Divine, God’s love. Then think of those who you have touched deeply who you have helped awaken.

There are encounters that can shape us and change us forever. Some are for a reason, some for a season and some for a lifetime. We cannot know this when we first begin communicating with someone, although sometimes instinctively we do. Such encounters can lead to unknown transformations, for they reveal the love that is Divine. Let us stay open to them. You never know the next person you meet may become the “Good Friend” that transforms your life and you theirs.

I will end with the following "Friendship Blessing" by John O'Donohue, taken from his book "Anam Cara"

"A Friendship Blessing"

May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where
there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
may they bring you all the blessing, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your anam Δ‹ara.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Can there be a right kind of selfishness?

I recently came across the following taken from "The Fear of Freedom" by Eric Fromm...

"Selfishness and Self-love"

"Selfishness is not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

Close observation shows that while the selfish person is always anxiously concerned with himself, he is never satisfied, is always restless, always driven by the fear of not getting enough, of missing something, of being deprived of something. He is filled with burning envy of anyone who might have more.

If we observe closer still, especially the unconscious dynamics, we find that this type of person is basically not fond of himself, but deeply dislikes himself.

Selfishness is rooted in this very lack of fondness for oneself. The person who is not fond of himself, who does not approve of himself, is in constant anxiety concerning his own self. He has not the inner security which can exist only on the basis of genuine fondness and affirmation. He must be concerned about himself, greedy to get everything for himself, since basically he lacks security and satisfaction.

The same holds true with the so-called narcissistic person, who is not so much concerned with getting things for himself as with admiring himself. While on the surface it seems that these persons are very much in love with themselves, they are actually not fond of themselves, and their narcissism - like selfishness - is an overcompensation for the basic lack of self-love."

It got me thinking about selfishness and self love. I have heard it said that you have to love yourself and that this is a right kind of selfishness. But is it? Is self love, selfishness as all?

"Can there ever be a right kind of selfishness?...Some people tell me so...As is often the case the first place I turned to is that "Holy Fool" Nasruddin...This tale spoke to me...

Nasruddin was once engaged in a spiritual conversation with a monk. The monk told Nasrduddin:

“I have achieved an incredible level of dis-attachment from myself—so much so that I only think of others, and never of myself.”

Now Nasruddin paused for a while and then he replied:

“Well, I have reached a more advanced state than that.”

The Monk a little surprised by the Holy Fools response asked:

“How so?”

To which Nasruddin answered:

“I am so objective that I can actually look at another person as if he were me, and by doing so, I can think of myself!“

An interesting take on the “Golden Rule”, maybe? Maybe not?

Now is Nasruddin engaging in Narcissim, in self-absorption, self-obsession here? Is it all about him? Is he displaying selfishness? Or is he unearthing an interesting truth, something that we can often miss?

When you hear the word “Selfish”, what thoughts does it conjure up in your mind?

Can there ever be a right kind of selfishness?

Generally it breeds only negative images. We are told that we should not be selfish; that it is selfishness and self-absorption that is at the root of all of society’s ills; that we need to learn to give to life and that in doing so, we all benefit. When we hear someone described as being selfish we picture only negative connotations. Selfishness is usually considered the worst kind of character flaw that we could ever suffer from.

It’s a powerful word to use to describe another. Think about the last time you were in an argument. Think about the last time you called a person “selfish”, how did they respond?

“Selfish”, it is a very powerful word indeed. A word we use often. Do we always use it appropriately?

Now before exploring whether there can ever be a right kind of selfishness I think we need to first of all understand what it means to be selfish.

Well my dictionary defines it as being “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, etc…, regardless of others. It is “characterised by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself, to be consumed by selfish motives” It’s synonyms are as follows “ self-interested, self-seeking, egoistic; illiberal, parsimonious, stingy.”

I would also add to be selfish is to be both “greedy” and “narcissistic”

None of these sound like great qualities and not something the spiritually inclined amongst us ought be aspiring to, you would think. Well maybe, maybe not?

But is selfishness always wrong? Can there be a right kind of selfishness?

It is 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; it is said that there is a right kind of selfishness and that we all need it.

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.

But is this selfishness? Is taking care of yourself, practising self-care being selfish? I’m not convinced that this is true selfishness. Of course we need to take care of ourselves if we are to be of use to anyone or anything, but is that acting selfishly? Not as I understand it. Actually I believe that that if you do not take care of yourself you are actually being selfish. Why? Well because if we do not take care of our basic human needs, it means we end up depending on others to do so for us. Now that sounds selfish to me.

I think the mistake that we often make is that we equate self-care or self-love with selfishness. Now of course there are forms of self-love “Narcissism” that are selfish, but true self love is not selfish at all. The ancient Greeks named this Philautia, which they saw as the highest form of love. They believed that without it a person could not offer the other forms of love in a positive sense.

Self-care and or self-love is not a right kind of selfishness, because it is not selfishness at all.

Does this mean that there can’t be “A right kind of selfishness” though?

What about greed itself, is greed bad? Can greed be good? Can it be the right kind of selfishness?

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of humankind and greed, you mark my words, will … save …”

These words were uttered by Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglass in the 1987 film Wall Street. The speech has often been shortened to “greed is good,” And became a philosophy for many during the 1980’s and beyond.

Is Greed good? Can greed ever be good? Well certainly Erich Fromm did not think so. Neither do the great faith traditions either. Jesus certainly saw it as an obstacle to the spiritual life. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now I don’t believe he was decrying wealth per say, more the worship of love or money, or to put it another way “Greed”, which is certainly a powerful force and master that gets in the way of one serving God.

From a Buddhist perspective “Greed” can be understood as “Desire”, perhaps the most intense form of desire. The Buddha saw desire as the root of all suffering. Judaism points to something similar. Rabbinic literature warns against the dangers of the “Yetzer ha-Ra.” This is translated as evil inclination or selfish desire or sometimes just simply desire. Illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve in which they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, resulting in the fall from innocence and alienation from God. Lao Tzu said "Manifest plainess, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires.

Yet there is a philosophy, perhaps even a spirituality behind “greed is good”. Some see greed as a creative force and not a destructive one. This is probably best articulated in the writing of philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. Her work had a powerful influence over many in positions of power and came to prominence during the last American presidential elections. I remember a year or so back the Rev Bill Darlison struggling with one of her novels. He had decided he wanted to explore it in worship and was finding it hard work. I have not read anything of her work but I recently heard it described as “morally repugnant and literally weak and yet somehow deeply compelling”. I suspect that it taps into that reptilian mind in all of us. You see greed is a powerful force, it’s kind of sexy in so many ways. Greed is fuelled by “Eros.”

Eros, a different kind of love to Philautia and Agape. It is the force that drives creativity as well as desire and greed and even the will to live itself. Eros often gets a bad name it does not always deserve. The truth is that we need Eros. We need this creative force to continue creating life. We need to be careful not to cage this force. We need it just as much as we need the other forms of love. The problems arise when these forces develop beyond their proper proportions.

That said I do not believe that "Greed is good", it can easily become violent, destructive and all consuming. We only need look at most of the troubles of our world to see the horrors of greed. The recent financial crises are a direct result of it as are most of the troubles caused by expansionism. That said we need to be careful not to cage those aspects of life that lead to that glorious creative force, that can grow from within us. Without it there would be no life.

The other problem with greed and excessive individualism for that matter is that it leads to separation. In many ways it leads to us failing to see ourselves in the eyes of our brothers and sisters.

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.

As I have said many times before 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, 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 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. 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.

I’m going to end with this wonderful little quote I recently came across by Gretchin Rubin from “The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, read Aristotle, and generally Have More Fun”

“The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It's more selfless to act happy. It takes energy, generosity, and discipline to be unfailingly light-hearted, yet everyone takes the happy person for granted. No one is careful of his feelings or tries to keep his spirits high. He seems self-sufficient; he becomes a cushion for others. And because happiness seems unforced, that person usually gets no credit.”

Enjoy all that is life, it is the least selfish thing you could ever do.