Saturday 18 October 2014

Bonkers for Conkers: Spirituality & Joy

Last week I was trawling through my collection of anthologies and meditation books for suitable material for the service I created on “Autumn: Impermanence & Change”. As is always the case I found far more than I needed for the task. One piece I chose not to share was “Conker Time” by Elizabeth Tarbox. I will share it with you now...I think it is gorgeous...

"I picked up a horse chestnut Friday, right on the street in Cambridge near Harvard Divinity School.

Imagine that, a perfectly new horse chestnut. There were more for the picking had not my shyness and the stares of passersby prevented me from darting and pouncing to gather them up.

When I was a child, horse chestnuts were currency. Conkers, we called them. Better than a sixpence or even a shilling: a new conker had market value. Kids couldn’t wait to harvest the green prickly cocoon with its polished mahogany prize. We’d climb the branches and knock the conkers off with a stick. No adult would’ve gotten near a bonanza like the one I found on Friday.

Funny the things we value: a new coat or a new car, a job that pays better, a best friend, or a good night’s sleep. Me, I have always valued gifts from the earth. I hold this horse chestnut as I write about it. The warm brown nut fits my palm like a thumb in a baby’s mouth, and the rich shiny skin gives my eyes something worthy of their sight. So I stare at it as if it were a crystal that could show me not the future, but the past; autumns of childhood and wading in Wellington boots through rustling leaves and playing with conkers on my way home from school."

...I love it...Isn't it beautiful...

Now although I had originally rejected it I carried so much of the beautiful wisdom contained with it with me, it has been tapping me on shoulder ever since.

Well a little later I was chatting with a friend who was recounting tales from her childhood. She was telling me how so much of her view about her own life had changed in recent times and how so many of her memories were now so joy filled. She spoke of growing up in Ireland and after a while she began to recount a tale about going conkering and how conkers became currency among her friends. As I was listening to her images of my own childhood came back to me. What was truly beautiful was that my friend’s memories, Elizabeth Tarbox’s memories and my own memories were almost identical, we shared the same autumn rituals, even though we grew up at different times and in different places.

I then told my friend that I had just read a short piece that was almost identical to what she had just recounted to me. We were both blown away by the synchronicity of it all. It was one of those beautiful, magical, moments that living open heartedly can bring.

After the conversation lots of childhood memories came flooding into my mind, my heart and my soul. Memories of Sunday afternoons and going down to Briar Wood with my grandma and brother and sister and hunting for conkers and being totally immersed in the activity. After the harvest we would then take them back to the farm and try to select the best ones and create the champion conker. We would try all the different techniques that we had heard of to create the one that would be able to beat the one of legend that someone at school had, "someone said they had a ‘hundred’er’, someone said they had a ‘thousand’er’."

When I look back at it the whole process was a mindfulness practise, as we became totally absorbed in what we were doing and the people we were engaging in it with.

Think about it…

We became totally absorbed in the thrill and anticipation as we walked down to Briar Woods and as we told tales about the woods and how they came to be and all the mythology about and the place, there were history lessons thrown in too as well as lessons about biology, geography, mythology and a little theology too. The whole enterprise was Hope filled, this time we were going to find and create the champion conker. As we gathered the conkers in we became increasingly connected to the process, filling our bags as we gathered from the ground and throwing up sticks to try and reach the ones that had not yet fallen. Then there was the thrill and connection and conversation as we walked back up the hill, listening and telling stories and dreaming of creating the champion conker. We would then empty our bags onto my grandma’s kitchen worktop and she would add the ones she had obviously lovingly spent time collecting all week. She would tell us of her and friends trip to Harrogate and of them all going collecting conkers for their grandchildren, such loving action.

We would then set about trying all the different techniques to create the champion conker. Again discussing all the myth and mystery in it. Then came the hardest bit of skewering them and putting a strong shoe lace through. I wonder how many potential champions I ruined in my attempts to get the skewers through. Eventually, with a little bit of help, I managed to get a few decent ones.

Then it would be Monday morning and thrill and buzz of conversations in the playground as we became absorbed in our stories about our own conkers and then battle would commence. Yes there was a little pain as we would miss and wrap one another on the knuckles. So we would shorten the string for more accuracy but less power. This would go on for weeks it seems until someone became champion, well at least for one year.

I never became champion, but by golly I never felt happier and never felt more connected to the world in which I lived and the people I shared my life with.

Just beautiful, beautiful memories…

Apparently this year is a bumper year for Horse Chestnuts (the official name for conkers) This is due to the mild weather and lack of rain this year. So you would expect to hear of great stories of conkers and conkering, but alas this is not so. It seems that conkering is another one of those activities that has waned in popularity over the years as children have found other things to do and schools have become afraid of children injuring themselves with these apparent “deadly weapons”. I cannot imagine though that whatever these activities maybe they engage holistically to exactly the same extent as conkering did.

Oh well I have enjoyed remembering happy childhood times these last few days and several friends have also shared similar memories with me of their own childhoods. It has been wonderful for us all as it has brought us closer together both to one another and to our pasts. Something that I believe is vital to those who wish to live in the present moment.

Memory is a funny thing. It is amazing what we remember and what we cannot remember, how memory can be so very selective. Memory also changes over time. My memory or do I mean my perspective on past events in my life, have changed over time. It happened again only this week.

My friend and colleague Rev David Shaw says this about memory...

“The dictionary reminds us that ‘remember’ literally means to ‘re-member’; to put back together that which has been torn apart. In some way remembering has a similarity to ‘religion’, which means ‘to rebind together’.

Both are about seeking after a wholeness, and isn’t that what we are about most of the time?”

Well that again has been happening this week, this autumn. I have been rebinding so many memories and this has allowed me to connect to life on a much deeper level. It has been great. It has certainly brought a deeper sense of wholeness to my life and I hope to the lives of others who I have engaged with.

Playfulness and joyfulness are essential elements of a deep and meaningful life. Sometimes this is an aspect of spiritual life which can easily get lost as we take it and ourselves too seriously. God though surely wants us to be happy joyous and free and not live life glumly, as if it were a veil of tears. Yes there is suffering present in life and there is a time for everything under the sun. Well the last few weeks have reminded me how vital play is, as I have re-membered so many joyful and joy filled times, throughout my life. A couple of weeks ago I even spent a day at Alton Towers going on all the rides and been thrown about and thrilled and exhilarated. It was wonderful and wonder filled time as I let go absolutely. I will be making sure I make more time for play in the future.

Play is vital. It does not have to be physical either, the best kind if play can often be found in conversation or sometimes just the look someone can give. We must play though if we are to live a fulfilling spiritual life.

We each of us have inside us, no matter how old we are, that child who knows how to play, with complete abandon. Our whole world needs us to be playful, God needs us to live playfully. It is a vital aspect of creation and I firmly believe that we are co-creators in the dance that is creation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” It is playfulness that sets us free and enables us to use our natural creativity as best we can.

Playfulness often leads to laughter. Laughter is not only the best medicine it can also lead us to deeper truths about ourselves and the mysteries of life. Every spiritual tradition has it Holy Fool. Every Sunday, during worship, I share at least one story from our human canon, often there is great humour and playfulness within them, but there is also a serious message, that the humour helps to deliver.

Humour is so vital, it helps us to connect spiritually...It is vital to live in good humour...

To be in good humour means to be in good health. Linguistically humour has its roots in the ‘old’ French word ‘humor’, derived from the Latin ‘umere’. Physicians of medieval times believed that we had four different types of internal fluids that they called ‘humors’ and it was these that determined our physical and mental health. Therefore if a person became ill it was believed that their humors were out of balance. I do so love etymology, language has had such a fascinating journey and an amusing one at that.

So to be in good humour literally means to be in good health. This is why playfulness and humour is so vital to a healthy spiritual life. Humour is best enjoyed with others in the company of others who want to really let go. It is so easy to get caught up in the seriousness of life and to worry about what might be or to live with regret of what has been in the past. This is not healthy you know and I don’t think it helps us or anyone else. Sometimes we need to let go and have some serious fun, to be childlike once again, so that we are then better equipped to live with the serious issues of life.

John O' Donohue said of humour and laughter...

“There’s something really subversive in laughter and in the smile on the human face. It’s lovely and infectious to be in the company of someone who can smile deeply.

I think a smile comes from the soul. And I also love its transitive kind of nature—that if you’re in the presence of someone who has a happiness and a laughter about them, it’ll affect you and it’ll call that out in you as well.

Your body relaxes completely when you’re having fun. I think one of the things that religion has often prevented us from doing is having really great fun. To be here, in a way—despite the sadness and difficulty and awkwardness of individual identity—is to be permanently invited to the festival of great laughter."

So I invite you this autumn to bring alive both within yourselves and one another a festival of great laughter, to bring some joy to our world and to have a little fun…Remember life is too serious a business to be taken too seriously.

To end I'd like to share another childhood memory "The Wombles: A Conkering Hero"

Saturday 11 October 2014

Autumn: Impermanence & Change

Some folk tell me that Spring and maybe even Summer are the seasons for falling in love. Perhaps they say the same to you. I am not convinced. I think it’s Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year. Everything just seems that bit more precious at this time of year. Maybe the reason for this is because this is the time when things come to an end, or begin to come to an end. Maybe everything is that bit more beautiful at this time of year, because everything is dying. Or at least it seems that way. It’s an awareness of this, a real sense of this in my blood and in my soul, right down in the marrow of my soul, that helps me fall in love with life in a much deeper way. I feel a sense of love for every leaf as it falls. For every leaf is a letter from God. Every leaf teaches us something about life. We are leaves ourselves. Everyone precious; everyone unique; everyone will one day fall.

Autumn is the season for falling in love; Autumn is the season for falling in love with life in every sense. Autumn is the season when we once again see just how precious everything is. Everything matters…Everything matters...

Everything matters because it does not last for ever, it is finite. You know there was a time that I used to think that nothing mattered for this very same reason. Now I understand that everything matters. Every drop of rain, every thought and feeling, every word and every action matters. I hope and pray that you know that. Everything matters, because nothing ever lasts forever.

Autumn I love you, I pay homage to all that you teach me…Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year…

Autumn is the season of change. It reveals to us the impermanence of our finite lives. Here in lays the beauty of life, but also its fear…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In “Everyday Spiritual Practice” James Ishmail Ford talks about the lessons he has learnt from practising Zen Buddhism. He tells the tale of Achaan Chah Subato and the story of broken glass. Which he recalls goes something like this:

“One day some people came to the master and asked 'How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?' The master held up a glass and said 'Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.'"

Here lies the lesson of impermanence. Knowing that the glass is already broken we can enjoy it in all its finite beauty.

Those falling leaves that signal Autumn’s arrival remind us of the cycle of nature that is mirrored in our own lives. They are love letters from God reminding us that we too must let go and let the spirit flow in and through us and take charge of our lives, so that we can be at one with all life.

Now the way to do this is to live openhearted. We have to be open to all that is. How do we do this? Well in “Awake Mind, Open Heart” Cynthia Kneen suggest the following Autumnal practise:

"When you are brave and have an open heart, you have affection for this world — this sunlight, this other human being, this experience. You experience it nakedly, and when it touches your heart, you realize this world is very fleeting. So it is perfect to say 'Hello means good-bye.' And also, 'My hope, hello again.' "

It’s about being open to all that is. It is prayer and meditation that allows me to do this. Simple time alone in silence enables me to be open to all that is as I walk through life, slowly but surely noticing all that is, understanding that everything matters. Experiencing that same spirit, God, in everything. And thus receiving love letters from God in every falling leaf.

Autumn is the season for falling in love; Autumn is the season for falling in love with life in every sense. Autumn is the season when we once again see just how precious everything is. You see everything matters…Everything matters because it does not last for ever, it is finite. Every drop of rain, every thought and feeling, every word and every action matters. I hope and pray that you know that. Everything matters, because nothing ever lasts forever.

Autumn I love you, I pay homage to all that you teach me…Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year…

I’m going to end with some beautiful words on Autumn by Robert T Weston

“Autumn Speaks” by Robert T Weston

Out of doors
the colors of bright autumn and the bright sun
tell of the beauty of that which dies
But always comes again.
They speak directly to the heart
of the eternal which outlives all moments
and yet lives only in them,
outlives all forms, yet comes again in them as in ourselves.
It is said that there is nothing new in the world,
no thoughts, even, which others have not thought
yet every thought is new to him who for himself
thinks it for the first time.
Each miracle of life is also rebirth, life born again,
though every individual be new,
existing at his birth for his first time.
Life in each one, as in leaf and flower,
accepts and yet cheats death.
There is a sadness in the autumn leaf: I feel a sorrow that its beauty dies
and feel its message for the lives of those,
as of myself, whom I have known and loved.
The leaf comes not again, though other leaves
and flowers will bloom, and other lives,
richer that we have been, shall take our place.
Perhaps the autumn teaches us a wiser grace
through which we live, by learning to let go.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Lessons from the Animals

Please watch this wonderful animation based on "Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings From Our Dogs And Cats" by Eckhart Tolle and Patrick McDonnell before reading the rest of this blogspot...

I was talking with a friend recently about the animal service that the congregations I serve host annually We were talking about animals and spirituality and got into deep conversations about the soul etc. This is the kind of thing that ministers are supposed to engage in (tee, hee, hee!).

The friend told me how much their dog had taught them, about how to live spiritually, particularly how to live in the present moment and how not get lost in regrets about the past or fears about the future, how walking with their dog allowed them to connect to life and to be set free from the million and one thoughts that can swarm around in their mind. As we walked together with their dog I really got what they were saying, I connected deeply to it. It also reminded me of the time when I was a student minister when I would walk in Platt Fields Park Manchester and watch the geese there and how they helped me connect to life in a deep way. I fell in love with geese during my time, it is a love that has never diminished and whenever I see them flying overhead I always feel a deeper sense of connection and belonging. I feel at one with all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. I feel alive and awake.

Mary Oliver captures this beautiful in her poem “Wild Geese”.

"Wild Geese"

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

The conversation also brought to mind the following words from Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6 vv 26-28

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

...Worrying certainly never added a single hour to my life...

Now a little while later I was recounting this conversation with another friend who recommended a book to me. This was by Eckhart Tolle. It wasn’t “The Power of Now” or “A New Earth” but something completely different that he had co-authored with the illustrator Patrick O’Donnell, author of the comic strip “Mutt’s”. The book goes by the title “Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from our Cats and Dogs”.

Reading the book and getting caught up in the delightful artwork, brought a huge broad beaming smile right across my face. It brought back lovely moments when I myself have become caught up in nature and the way that animals just be. Meanwhile the joy and humour in the pictures somehow enabled me to connect at a heart level with the thought provoking and soul-searching words of Tolle.

In the book Tolle writes

“Millions of people who otherwise would be completely lost in their minds and in endless past and future concerns are taken back by their dog or cat into the present moment, again and again, and reminded of the joy of Being” (pg 60) This is delightfully accompanied by an illustration of a dog taking his owner for a walk and another dog appearing from behind a rock asking “Where are you taking him?”…where are you taking him indeed? well out of himself.

Or another example “Nature will teach you to be still, if you don’t impose on it a stream of thoughts. A very deep meeting takes place when you perceive nature in that way, without naming things.” (pg 98) Again this is delightfully accompanied by an illustration of a cat sitting in nature surrounded by the words “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass goes by itself. Zen Proverb”. There are countless other examples throughout the book also, such as “I have lived with many Zen masters all of them cats”.

In describing the form of the book Tolle says it is like “the oldest from of spiritual teachings: the sutras of ancient India. Sutras are powerful pointers to the truth in the form aphorisms, or short sayings, with little conceptual elaboration…the advantage of sutra form lies in its brevity. It does not engage the thinking mind more than is necessary. What it doesn’t say – but only points to – is more important than what it says,”

“Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from our Cats and Dogs” is a wonderful book that speaks a deep universal truth. The pets in our lives and all the animals do not worry about what might happen. Instead they just simply eat and play and love unconditionally. They just are, they just be. They can teach us how we could better live this beautiful gift of life that we have been so freely given.

Finally what it left me thinking and feeling as I next walked with my friend and their dog was, it’s not we who take the dog for a walk, but the dog who takes us for a walk and if we let him he will enable us to see the world in a whole new light. 

I'm going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with three little pieces of wisdom on the spiritual lessons that our pets can teach us...All three were shared in this Sundays worship service...enjoy...

“Dog Days” by Gary A Kawalski

Everyone needs a spiritual guide: a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, or wise friend. My wise friend is my dog. He has deep insights to impart. He makes friends easily and doesn't hold a grudge. He enjoys simple pleasures and takes each day as it comes. Like a true Zen master, he eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired.

He’s not hung up about sex. Best of all, he befriends me with an unconditional love that humans would do well to imitate.

Of course my dog does have his failings. He’s afraid of firecrackers and hides in the closet whenever we run the vacuum cleaner. But unlike me, he’s not afraid of what other people think of him or anxious about his public image. He barks at the mail carrier and the newsboy, but, in contrast to some people, I know he never growls at the children or barks at his spouse.

So my dog is a sort of guru. When I become too serious and preoccupied, he reminds me to frolic and play. When I get too wrapped up in abstractions and ideas, he reminds me to exercise and care for my body. On his own canine level, he shows me that it might be possible to live without inner conflicts or neuroses: uncomplicated, genuine, and glad to be alive.

Mark Twain remarked long ago that human beings have a lot to learn from the Higher Animals. Just because they haven’t invented static cling, ICBMs or television evangelists doesn’t mean they aren't spiritually evolved. Let other people have their mentors, masters, and enlightened teachers.

I have a doggone mutt.

“Cat Calling” by Elizabeth Tarbox

The cat entered our lives with her tail up and her eyes alert for possibility, stalking her calling in our home, in our chairs, up the chimney, in every closet, and behind every impossible obstruction.

She stares with magic eyes, inscrutable, all-knowing. She is all cat: stealthy as a winter breeze that skims the top of the snow bank, impertinent as the sudden blast that blows smoke down the chimney and out into the room.

She seduces, lying back in our arms with the wanton abandon of Aphrodite. She exhorts, rumbling like an old volcano or yowling like an exorcised poltergeist.

I am seduced by her unabashed affection, mystified by her eyes which steal my secrets, envious of her unquestioning delight in the warmth of an armchair. It is serious, this partnership between the cat who stalks her calling and we who are called. I am in the presence of Isis, our home is her temple, and we are called to serve.

...And finally a little bit more of Mary Oliver...

“How it is with us, and how it is with them” by Mary Oliver

We become religious,
then we turn from it,
then we are in need and maybe we turn back.
We turn to making money,
then we turn to the moral life,
then we think about money again.
We meet wonderful people, but lose them
in our busyness.
We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Steadfastness, it seems,
is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much.