Saturday 11 July 2015

Emptiness & Fullness: How to Live Spiritually Alive

23rd Psalm, Japanese Translation

The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush;
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness,
which restore my serenity.

He leads me in ways of efficiency
through calmness of mind,
and His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things
to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here;

His timelessness, His all importance,
will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal
in midst of my activity,

By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows,
surely harmony and effectiveness
shall be the fruits of my hours,
for I shall walk, in the pace of my Lord
and dwell in His house forever.

Translated by Toki Miyashina

I seem to have had an exceptionally busy few weeks. This has occasionally been a little overwhelming and I have certainly felt exhausted at times. That said it has not been a negative kind a tiredness, the kind that comes from a weariness with life. Quite the opposite actually it has been a tiredness that comes from living a full life. A kind of satisfied tiredness. Maybe it’s the kind of tiredness a man is meant to experience.

The other evening I laid out on my settee, feeling tried but at the same time satisfied. You may remember the evening it was the first night of those powerful storms we have been experiencing. What a powerfully electric experience it was. I closed my eyes for a few moments and a lovely feeling came over me. I experienced a beautiful sensation around my brow and also in the pit of my stomach, the place where the intense fear used to inhabit. After a while two beautiful images came over me as I lay there listening to the thunder. There was a wonderful sense of connection and satisfaction in my heart. The images that came to me are two of my favourites. One was of an empty cup and the other of a cup that is overflowing.

Now when I think of these images my understanding is that the empty cup is symbolic of a clear mind, a completely empty and open mind and one that is able to be used to its best purpose. While the overflowing cup symbolises a heart that is filled to overflowing; a heart that is filled with abundant love; love that is being poured out on the world. Now for me these images symbolise the spiritual life. True spiritual living is about having a clear, empty and open mind and a heart that is so full that it is overflowing.

Now you often hear the question “Is the glass half empty or half full” it is symbolic of a person who is either an optimistic or a pessimistic person. I have been both at different times in my life. These days though I am neither, I am no longer a glass half empty or glass half full kind of man. These days I am completely empty glass kind of man, while at the same time I am also a cup that is so full it is overflowing kind of man. Now some folk tell me that you can’t be both, you have to be an either or and my answer to them is, says who? I am both and so can you be too, stop being so literal, open your mind, use your imagination and fill up your heart to overflowing.

This brings to mind a story I have heard in many different forms over the years…

There is a story of a university professor who visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The professor began to ask questions while the master just sat quietly, listening. After a while the master began to pour tea into the professor’s cup. The cup soon filled up, but the master did not stop pouring. The tea soon began to spill over on to the table. Initially the professor just sat there in stunned silence, he did not know what to do. Eventually he could take no more and shouted out “It’s overfull. No more will go in!” The master stopped pouring and simply said “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

This story teachers that a full cup, one that is overflowing is not a good thing to have. It teaches we need an empty cup, which symbolises and empty mind. What the Buddhists call a “Beginners Mind”. A mind that is open to new ideas. It is a humble mind that results in an open mind. Think of the image of the Buddhist monk with his begging bowl held out, an act of humility and interdependence.

The image of an overflowing cup also brings something else to my mind. A line from the 23rd Psalm. In the Psalm King David sings of God as a shepherd who will see him safely through the Valley of Death. At the beginning of this "blogspot" is a wonderful Japanese translation of these familiar words. The translation I believe helps us to make sense of these ancient words in our contemporary time. There aren’t really many shepherds about these days and it can be hard for 21st century boys and girls to relate to this metaphor.

The more traditional translation states that “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In the psalm the overflowing cup is depicting an excess of goodness, a symbol of abundance, a source of joy. A heart full of Love. Can you ever be too full of love?

Here we have two images of cups overflowing: One depicting a mind that is too full and therefore unable to focus or to learn something new; the other depicting a cup overflowing with love that will enable us to live full lives despite the presence of fear.

So you see it is not a problem to have both an empty cup and one that is overflowing at the same time. This only becomes a problem if you get lost in the metaphor, the curse of the literalist. The two images are of course depicting different aspects of our humanity.

The Zen story is describing the mind, whereas the Psalm is depicting the heart. It is talking of God’s infinite love. So yes we can be full abundantly with love and yet still have an empty mind. I suspect that it is the full heart that enables us to clear our minds, or perhaps it’s the clear mind that enables us to have our hearts filled.

Maybe, maybe not!

It’s a bit like the old riddle “What came first, the chicken or the egg” Do you need to fill your heart in order to clear your mind, or ought you be focusing on clearing your mind in order to allow your heart to be filled to overflowing? Why not try both at the same time.

Now in my case it would seem that it was only when love began to take over my heart that my mind began to clear. My head used to be full of so much that there was no space for anything else. My thoughts would just swirl round and round and round and go pretty much nowhere. These days my head is pretty much empty most of the time. My head is clear, even when I’m really busy and my diary gets too full. This is good thing as my mind can be used for what its true purpose is. I thank God that it is no longer held back by the regret of the past or the fear of the future. As a result I have peace of mind these days, even in the most difficult of times. The cup (my mind) is no longer overflowing and yet at the same time I experience the cup that runneth over, I know that everlasting and eternal love of God. As a result I can experience this abundant love present in life.

That is not enough though. I have also learnt that it is my task to pour this love out onto the world. To bring this love alive. In many ways I suspect it is our task not so much to seek and find God, but to let God out and pour this love on our world, whilst allowing and inviting that love to be poured out on us. Again like the Buddhist bowl this is symbolic of our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We each fill one another’s bowl.

From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.

These two images also bring something else to my mind about the spiritual life. This is of course the phrase “faith without works is dead”. For me these two cups also symbolise both faith and works. The empty cup is the faith and the overflowing cup is the works, or maybe it’s the other way around. By working these two together, we become spiritually alive. In order to do the works we need the faith. We need to be still and to connect spiritually, we need to clear our minds and fill our hearts and then to truly bring this to life we need to do the works and pour out this love on the world. By the way if we do this the love will grow and the peace we feel will become realised. That said we must also remain appropriately humble and let others serve us too. We need to accept the love and help of others. We must never think that we can live by ourselves alone. To be fully alive is to understand, accept and embrace our interdependence.

The spiritual life is simple, but it is far from easy. It needs two simple things. One is emptiness and the other fullness. Now this requires an empty mind and a heart that is full to over flowing. How is this achieved you may well ask? Well quite simply actually, through faith and good works. All we need to do is spend time in stillness allowing our minds to become empty and clear and also spend time giving of ourselves to one another and life itself, pouring out our love. That said we must also spend time in silence allowing our hearts to be filled, acknowledging our interdependence and allowing others to serve us too.

It really is that simple.

So let us become like tea cups, empty and ready to filled. And when we are filled to overflowing lets pour out that love on our world.

Let’s follow the advice of “the lads” in those Tetley Tea Bag adverts lets “Let flavour flood out”

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following extract from "The Book of Words" by Lawrence Kushner

From “The Book of Words” by Lawrence Kushner

Energy in the form of light is trapped in gross matter. Sparks of holiness are imprisoned in the stuff of creation. They yearn to be set free, reunited with their Source through human action. When we return something to its proper place, where it belongs, where it was meant to be; when we use something in a sacred way or for a holy purpose; when we treat another human being as a human being, the captive sparks are released and the cosmos is healed. The liberation of light is called the Repair of creation.

The process occurs also within each individual. According to one legend, once there was a primordial person as big as the whole universe whose soul contained all souls…

This person is identical with the universe and, for this reason, each human being is at the same time both riddles with divine sparks and in desperate need of repair. Each person is the whole world. And every human action therefore plays a role in the final restitution. Whatever we do is related to this ultimate task: To return all things to their original place in God. Everything a person does affects the process.

Saturday 4 July 2015


“Touch” by David Whyte

Touch is what we desire in one form or another, even if we find it through being alone, through the agency of silence or through the felt need to walk at a distance: the meeting with something or someone other than ourselves, the light brush of grass on the skin, the ruffling breeze, the actual touch of another’s hand; even the gentle first touch of an understanding which until now, we were formally afraid to hold.

Whether we touch only what we see or the mystery of what lies beneath the veil of what we see, we are made for unending meeting and exchange, while having to hold a coherent mind and body, physically or imaginatively, which in turn can be found and touched itself. We are something for the world to run up against and rub up against: through the trials of love, through pain, through happiness, through our simple everyday movement through the world.

And the world touches us in many ways, some of which are violations of the body or our hopes for safety: through natural disaster, through heartbreak, through illness, through death itself. In the ancient world the touch of a God was seen as both a blessing and a violation - at one and the same time. Being alive in the world means being found by the world and sometimes touched to the core in ways we would rather not experience. Growing with our bodies, all of us find ourselves at one time violated or wounded by this world in difficult ways, and still we live and breathe in this touchable, sensual world, and through trauma, through grief, through recovery, we heal in order to be touched again in the right way, as the physical consecration of a mutual, trusted invitation.

Nothing stops the body’s arrival in each new present, except death itself, which is intuited in all cultures as another, ultimate, intimate form of meeting. Nothing stops our ageing nor our witness to time, asking us again and again to be present to each different present, to be touchable and findable, to be one who is living up to the very fierce consequences of being bodily present in the world.

To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength, and betrays a strange misunderstanding of an abiding, foundational and necessary reality: that untouched, we disappear.

Excerpted from ‘TOUCH’ From "CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words" by David Whyte

On Monday morning I conducted the funeral of a man, of a similar age to myself, who had taken his own life after many years of struggle. I arrived at Manchester crematorium very early, an hour before the service was due to begin. I always like to be early for funerals that I lead, so I can prepare myself in the setting. I sat in the car park reading over the service so as to get it into the soul of me and to come to terms with the emotion that such things bring up in me. As I was sat there absorbing the words and feeling the sorrow I noticed all the individual rose trees all around me. Each marking a loved one whose life had ended. Each flower unique in colour and complexity of shape. Each had its own identity. Yes everyone was a rose, much like any other rose and yet each one had its own personality. I got out of my car and examined each one. I touched a few, with just my finger tip and took in their uniqueness. Just as I had invited the congregations I serve to do, the day before, during the “Flower Communion” Service. As I did so I felt a sense of connection to all those lives that had been and gone before me. I understood at an even deeper level that sense that everything matters, that each life is unique and sacred and deep and rich in meaning. That every feeling, every thought, every breath, every action really does matter. That life is not indifferent that there is a love present in life and that it is our task to bring that love alive, for however long we flower. That however brutal life maybe at times it is our task to bring the love alive.

As I keep on saying. “Either everything matters, or nothing matters. Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred. Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” Whatever anyone else says I know that everything matters. No matter how it makes me feel, it matters. We have to let life touch us, just as we have to truly touch life. You see if nothing touches and we touch nothing then we truly are living in hell, in a state of non-being.

To touch nothing and to never be touched is to live in hell. Of all the human needs I suspect the one that we cannot live without is touch. We need to touch one another. We need real flesh and bone contact, we are interdependent creatures. We cannot live wholly from ourselves, self-reliance is a myth. When we look at our lives, the moments that really matter, that really count, are those when we have touched and been deeply touched by another person, or by life itself, when love has come alive deep in our souls and is incarnated in lives. The world, our lives, are not changed by big ideas or even big events, not really, but by the moments of deep intimacy when we touch or are touched by one another, or something more...

In “Anam Cara” John O’Donohue writes that “Our sense of touch connects us to the world in an intimate way.” It is with our hands that we reach out and touch the world. Of course it matters how we touch and the intention behind why we touch. We are so frightened to touch these days because people of power have touched and hurt others in their care or who are vulnerable. This has helped to create a distance between people and it is a distance that I believe is causing spiritual harm. We live in an age that is terrified of intimacy. I see it in my own life and in my profession too. People are terrified to touch because of the damage it can do, well what about the deep emotional and spiritual damage we are doing to ourselves and others by keeping our distance from each other?

I remember speaking to a mother recently whose daughter attends a local school. The daughter had only been attending for a couple of weeks when she told me that she had received a letter from school about her daughter’s behaviour. The girl had been deeply upset one day and had reached out her arms to the teacher looking for consolation. The teacher had told her "no" and had then reported the incident. The mother received a letter saying how inappropriate this was and that the child needed to understand that this was not allowed. The mother was upset by this and obviously worried about her daughter’s capacity to cope, as she was a “very sensitive girl”.

Now while I fully understand all of the safeguards that are in place to protect children and teachers these days I do wonder what we are creating. Children are often equipped academically for life, but I wonder if they are equipped to live full human lives. What about our souls, our spirits, our hearts?

Again in Anam Cara John O’Donohue writes:

“It is recognised now that every child needs to be touched. Touch communicates belonging, tenderness, and warmth, which fosters self-confidence, self-worth, and poise in the child. Touch has such power because we live inside the wonderful world of skin. Our skin is alive and breathing, always active and present. Human beings share such tenderness and fragility because we live not within shells but within skin, which is always sensitive to the force, touch, and presence of the world.”

I suspect that it is this vulnerability that we fear the most and this is why we are afraid to touch.

In recent history we have seen, on a mass scale, what happens when this basic human need to touch and be touched is denied. You may remember images that appeared on our television screens some twenty years ago, following the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. When he came to power in the mid 1960’s, in an attempt to force population growth, a policy named “leagane” which translates as “cradles” was introduced. These were basically institutional homes for the infants and the very young. Policies were introduced that coerced people to marry and for families to keep on producing children. When Ceausescu was deposed in 1989 the results of this was revealed to the world as images of infants and children growing up with seriously underdeveloped basic human skills. Research has shown that this was due directly to sensory deprivation and the fact that the babies rarely experienced human contact, they were deprived of touch.

These children were nothing more than a commodity to creating the state that Ceausescu dreamed up. It was just one example of many that occurred in Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century where basic human emotional and spiritual needs were rejected for what some believed was a greater good.

When we reduce everything in life to a purely materialistic level and humanity to a mere commodity anything is justified. When we fail to recognises one another’s sacredness we begin to brutalise one another and life itself.

Now of course this is an extreme example but I do wonder if in our increasingly secular age we are doing this very same thing to ourselves. Yes we have the technology to contact one another, anywhere, in an instant, these days and yet so many people feel utterly alone and untouched by life.  How do I know this? You may well ask. Well because people tell me so. They tell me how alone they feel and how utterly cut off from real intimacy they are. On the surface these people appear to live full lives and yet inside they feel completely empty. There are people in society who walk around being untouched, there are seeming untouchables found all around us. How many of us are cut off from deep, intimate and meaningful contact?

This sense is described beautifully in the following poem “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher

“THE HUG” by Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street and another woman stops to listen.
We stop too, with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to out here in the open.

Behind us no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I am giving it to you,
like a variable star shooting light off to make itself comfortable, then subsiding.
I finish but keep on holding you.
A man walks up to us and we know he has not come out of nowhere, but if he could, he would have.

He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?’ he asks you, and I feel you nod.
I am surprised, surprised you don’t tell him how it is – that I am yours, only yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to its face.

Love - that’s what we’re talking about.
Love that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.
So I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to hug him like I mean it.
He’s got an overcoat on so thick I can’t feel him past it. I’m starting the hug and thinking.
“How big a hug is this supposed to be? How long shall I hold this hug?”
Already we could be eternal, His arms falling over my shoulders,
my hands not meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in.
I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes into him.
He stands for it. This is his and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s getting it.
This Hug. So truly, so tenderly, we stop having arms and I don’t know if my lover has walked away
Or what, or if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses - what about them? - the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button on his coat will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek when I walk away.
When I try to find some place to go back to.

This poem really struck me, deep in the soul of me. It describes a stranger, probably a homeless man, who asks the couple who he sees hugging, “Can I have one of those?” This is a truly audacious request. How often in life do any of us express our naked vulnerability to others, in such a way? It is one thing to ask for change but to ask such nice respectable middle-class people to touch and hold him, to give their love away is seemingly beyond the pale.

At first the narrator is shocked and angered by the request. Here she is enjoying a private moment of intimacy with her lover, only to have it interrupted by this stranger. Her response is No. Don’t you realize that my partner’s love is for  alone? That it’s exclusive, "like a nose to a face?” and yet she cannot resists the strangers raw need and eventually she puts her arms around this strange, large man. She tries to hug him, falteringly at first and then she melts into him and the hug becomes deep and rich in meaning. She snuggles right into his thick coat, pressing her face into his button which leaves an imprint on her face. It would seem that the loving embrace was not so exclusive after all.

The beauty of this poem is in its universality. I’m sure that most of us can identify with both characters. I’m sure that most us have experienced that sense of emptiness and that feeling of being utterly devoid of love that the homeless man feels, so desperate that you would ask a stranger to hold you. And also be too afraid to give your love away, as it is only for your beloved. And then the moment of magic as you give in and you become transformed by giving your love away.

The poem brings to my mind images of Jesus from the accounts in the Gospels. One example is of Jesus healing a man suffering from Leprosy. He touched someone considered untouchable, unclean. The touch itself is an act of compassion and of recognition of their shared humanity. In so doing he recognises him as a man and he recognises his sacredness. Now for me this is where the power lies in the account, this is the universal lesson, that speaks through every generation. Who are the untouchables in our society? Who are the ones who are rejected? Who are the ones who wander around, homeless, alone and untouched by love?

To touch nothing and to never be touched is to live in hell. No one should have to live like this. We are all part of the one human family we all need to love and to be loved, or we just merely wither away and die, not necessarily physically but emotionally and spiritually. When we do we live a life of deadness, no one should be left to live this way. We all need to touch and we all need to be touched. So what do we do? Well I suppose we begin where we stand. We begin in our own lives, our hearts, our own families and our own communities, we begin there. We begin with our next simple human encounter. We begin by reaching out to one another. We begin by being open to one another, by allowing our lives to truly touch one another.

I’m going to end this chip of a "blogspot" with some words of blessing by John O’Donohue “A Blessing for the Senses”…

"A Blessing for the Senses" by John O’Donohue, from “Anam Cara”

May your body be blessed.
May you realize that your body is a faithful
and beautiful friend of your soul.
And may you be peaceful and joyful
and recognize that your senses
are sacred thresholds.
May you realize that holiness is
mindful, gazing, feeling, hearing, and touching.
May your senses gather you and bring you home.
May your senses always enable you to
celebrate the universe and the mystery
and possibilities in your presence here.
May the Eros of the Earth bless you.