Sunday 29 October 2017

Restraint of Pen, tongue, fingers and thumb

"There is a Hasidic story about a town gossip. This fellow thoughtlessly told and retold stories about others that brought them shame. The town's rabbi met with the man and confronted him with his words. The man was stunned. He had no idea he was spreading such hurt. He broke into tears and begged the rabbi for help. 'There must be something I can do to atone for the wickedness I have done.'

"The rabbi instructed the man to take four pillows out into a field. Once there he was to slice open each pillow with a knife and shake its feathers into the wind. The man thanked the rabbi and rushed off to do as he was told. He purchased four fine feather pillows and cut them open in the field, watching as the feathers scattered in every direction.

"He returned to the rabbi to let him know he had completed his penance. 'Not quite,' said the rabbi. 'Now go back to the field and retrieve the feathers.'

“'But that is impossible,' said the man. 'The winds have taken them everywhere.'

" 'It is the same with your words,' the rabbi said gravely. 'Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.' "

To Practice: Monitor your words so that they do not set in motion harmful things. And when they do, ask for forgiveness.

From “Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity” by Rami Shapiro

I wonder how many times I’ve said the wrong thing and lived to regret it? Sometimes immediately and sometimes later as I have realised that what I have said was wrong or perhaps worse hurtful?

There is a wonderful phrase in recovery circles, I recently saw reference to it on the cover of a magazine at a friend’s house. The phrase is “Restraint of tongue and pen”. It comes from an essay on the 10th step of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 10th step reads “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Here is the extract that includes the phrase:

“Nothing pays off like restraint of tongue and pen. We must avoid quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven arguments. The same goes for sulking or silent scorn. These are emotional booby traps baited with pride and vengefulness. Our first job is to sidestep the traps. When we are tempted by the bait, we should train ourselves to step back and think. For we can neither think nor act to good purpose until the habit of self-restraint has become automatic. -pg. 91, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

These days when I say or do the wrong thing I tend to admit it quickly and try to put right what is wrong. That said sometimes it is still too late, the damage is done and some people just won’t forgive, my all too human frailties. As the Rabbi taught in the earlier story:

" 'It is the same with your words,' the rabbi said gravely. 'Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.' "

Mostly I practise restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb these days, fingers and thumb refers to comments on social media. I don’t always get it right though. Sometimes I fail to pause and respond from self-centred fear. When I do there is usually a price to pay.

That said when I am wrong I do admit and usually promptly these days. This, I have come to believe, is a sign of spiritual maturity. The spiritual immature cannot admit fault, they cannot appear weak, and they cannot lose face. We see examples of this constantly. I suspect that most of us have witnessed this several time in recent months, particularly the last week or so and from the most powerful man on the planet, who would rather bully and harass than admit that he may just well have made a human error. Apparently apology is a sign of weakness. Nonesense. Apology is a sign of strength and faith in life itself.

I know well the damage that such behaviour can bring as I was brought up by such a man. These days I just smile at such memories but I do remember well the pain of fearing to disagree especially if I came across as clever or insolent.

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by all kinds of opinion, from many sources of media. It comes at us from all directions. Not just the radio, television and press, but many forms of social media too. That said not only are we bombarded by news outlets but also a million and one opinions, often formed from that fear based reptilian mind that we all possess.

Just think about how we take in and respond to the constant bombardment of news, always bad news stirring up fear and separation, from all sides. Now in days gone by most people would just shout at the television or radio, nowadays though people respond through social media and often the responses are not thought out at all, they can be quite viscious. Yes it’s not just restraint of pen and tongue we need these days, its more restraint of fingers and thumb. Once said those feathers are spread all over the world.

This is why it is so important to pause in life, to take stock and to sit in silence. This is not easy in a world that demands our attention and instant response, in a world that is terrified of silence. Yet silence is so vital, it is said it is golden, it is also true humility. It is ok to have nothing to say, to just bear witness to life, whatever is happening. There are at least five occasions in my immensely busy week where I humble myself in silence with other people and many occasions when I pause and humble myself in silence when I am all alone. I pause in silence many times each day.

The problem is that so many of us are talking and not enough of us are listening. It is another sign of our modern hubris, our view that we are all knowing and all powerful, when the truth is we are finite human beings, with our all too human failings, whatever happened to true humility…The recognition of our human finiteness.

Silence though frightens us. How often in life do we have to fill the space we are in with noise, even if it just senseless babble? I remember as a young man how much I treasured the sanctuary of silence I would love to wander off alone in my own silent protective bubble, this though faded as I entered into adulthood. By the time I was in my late twenties I could not even sleep without the radio on. These days silence and space is once again a dear treasure.

Before breaking silence, before filling it with noise, with our words, we really ought to check ourselves, so as not to cast those feathers. But how do we do this? Well there is a test that has been around for a long time. It is referred to as the “Three Fold Test” for right speech. According to this test there are three things that we ought to ask ourselves before speaking:

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Apparently It dates back to 1835 and a poem by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold”.

"Three Gates of Gold" by Beth Day

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

Now no doubt this poem was influenced by an old Sufi tradition which suggests that we should only speak after our words have managed to pass through four gates.

At the first gate we should ask ourselves “Are these words true?” If so then we let them pass through; if not, then back they must go. At the second gate we ask; “Are these words necessary?” At the third we ask; “Are these words beneficial?” At the fourth gate we ask, “Are they kind?” If we answer no to any of these questions, then what we are about to say ought to be left unsaid.

Luminaries from Sai Baba to Eleanor Roosevelt have offered variations on the same theme over the years “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary”. There is also the “Triple Filter Test”, usually attributed to Socrates which asked if it is “true, good or useful.”

Right speech seems so be central to all traditions. I suspect that this is because of our own too human capacity to put our foot in in...

Right Speech is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.

“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from gossip, slander, lying, maliciousness and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God." In the New Testament the book of James makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all in they way that they teach about right speech.

How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.

It is ok to have nothing to say. It’s ok to not have answer to the question of others. It might not be your question, it might be there’s. Give up on other people’s questions, ask your own.

Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love, another example of that chaos theory of compassion.

The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our tongues can have a much bigger impact than those of our hands, unless of course it is our hands with which we are speaking.

I jnow I need to keep on practising restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb.

When we are about to speak we need to ask ourselves.

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

If what we are about to say fails this test, then it probably best to remain silent. That said, if we do speak and say the wrong thing then the mature thing to do would be to apologise immediately. Apology is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength and spiritual maturity.

So may what we say be kind, true, and necessary. And when we are not, lets us be humble enough to recognise this and make amends quickly. In so doing we may just be able to catch one or two of those feathers.

“Patience and Silence” by Charles A Gaines

How quiet it is when we have the patience to be silent
How much we can learn in moments like these.
We can learn to have patience with ourselves,
to better understand and like who and what
we are.
We can learn to have patience with others,
to better listen to what they say and how they
We can learn to have patience with life,
to better work with it, rather than against it.
How much do we need silence:
Silence for truth so that we may learn wisdom.
Silence for wisdom so that we may love,
Silence for love so that we may be just,
Silence for justice so that we may live fully.
May we be more patient and more silent,
so that we may proceed with courage and

Sunday 22 October 2017

Oz or Some Other Place

One of my favourite places on earth is Crosby Beach. What I love are those 100 identical sculpture’s that go by the title “Another place”. There they stand staring out to sea, perhaps looking for another place, any place but here. These naked, lonely scarecrows staring out into the great big nothing, dreaming of another place. Have you ever felt like that? I have. I have stood there staring out to sea so many times dreaming of something other than the life I was living.

There was a pinky orange glow to everything, not just the sky, on Monday morning. I heard people describing it in many different ways, one friend called it a “Vanilla Sky”, a mystical, mysterious sky, pointing to some kind of otherness. Some folk didn’t like it, I know it disturbed them, change can do that to people. The strange sky somehow tapped into the fear of the unknown that is inside each of us.

Now don’t they say “Red sky at night, shepherds delight, red sky in the morning seaman’s warning?/ I suspect that the mysterious sky was a fore warning of Hurricane Ophelia that was coming in from the Atlantic. There have been some terrible destruction caused by such winds on the other side of the Atlantic this year, there was in Ireland on Monday. Are there more storms these days than in the past? There may well be. Or is it that we just hear more about them these days? Is the news of the destructive winds merely a symptom of the fear based global news state that we currently live in? I suspect it is not an either or question, but that both are true.

On Monday as I took in the strange tint of the atmosphere I too dreamt of another place, I too became like one of those Gormley statues. I dreamt of another place, but not for long as I soon entered into the day, I felt at home in my own body and at home in the ground I found myself. As I walked through the streets of Altrincham that morning I realised I was not like those cold lifeless statues; I realised I was not a brainless scarecrow, or a heartless woodman or even a cowardly lion. As I walked through the streets words began to filter into my mind of someone else who dreamed of another place, but who too learnt to find that their treasure was found at home and not some technicolour dreamland.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney top
That's where you'll find me

Oh, somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
And the dream that you dare to,
Oh why, oh why can't I?

Dangerous words those sung by Dorothy in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”, for did they not bring the Tornado. In fact the sky that Monday morning reminded me somewhat of her Kansas sky. Dorothy dreamed of another place somewhere over the rainbow, a place away from dull, grey, flat Kansas. Is there another place that we dream about, that we Hope for, a Heaven, a Nirvana. Who knows, I don’t. Either way I do not believe that we are meant to live our lives dreaming of another place, a place beyond this life. Our task, I have come to believe is to create heaven here and it begins within each and everyone of us. I much prefer to follow that simple message in the  “Sermon on the Mount” and become the light of the world. To create the Kingdom here and now.

We bring heaven alive through our loving living or we create Hell by fearing one another, fearing life, turning away and dreaming of some other place, somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere beyond this life.

That said it is so human to dream of some other place, way over there, somewhere over the rainbow, like those Gormly statues. Sometimes to appreciate what we have, what is our heaven, we have to go away or even almost lose what we have. The Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel said of gratitude, that it was a gift of the night. It was not something that came from the good things we have in life, instead it comes almost as a sense of relief as we step outside of a living hell. Finally by almost losing everything, certainly what is dearest to our hearts, we learn to want what we have.

Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" is a wonderful example of learning to want what you have, to find the realm of love within, where ever you are. Her journey is an archetype of the spiritual quest; her journey symbolises a movement towards self-actualisation, whole-ness, atonement, at-one-ment, holiness; her journey symbolises what it means to return, to remember, to become who you are; her journey symbolises re-birth. It is important to realise that the word conversion comes from the Latin “Convertere” which meant to turn, or to return, that is what re-birth means, something that can happen a thousand times or none at all in a person’s life. Re-birth is of course never the end, it’s a new beginning.

All the great stories, especially the journeys of the heroes within them, share much in common. Dorothy is an archetype of what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey”, just like Jesus, the Buddha, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Hercules, Arthur, Jack and the Beanstalk and countless others throughout human history.

Dorothy shares many similarities with Jesus in the Gospel accounts. Both had questionable parentage; began life as very ordinary people; had to escape danger when very young; travelled a path that was laid out for them with an end that could not be avoided; battled many forms of evil and power; found imperfect companions who joined them on the way and who fled when trouble hit; travelled through wilderness; found a hidden power deep within that helped them transcend their experiences; eventually returned home leaving behind those same companions; finally they both took a stand for what is right and just, they stood against power. You will see similar characteristics in all the heroes of human mythos.

That said I suspect the characteristic that stands out about Dorothy, more than any other, is her desire to return home, how she learnt that this is where she belonged, that this was her hearts desire, rather than her dreams of some distant Nirvana, or Heaven or Oz. I suspect she is not alone. You see the true spiritual quest is to uncover the beauty where we find ourselves and to bring the love deep within alive in our lives. I believe that the spiritual journey is about learning to be at home, to create heaven here on earth, to bring the love alive in our lives, Dorothy says towards the end of the film that she was looking for her heart’s desire. Isn’t that what we are all looking for, our hearts desires? Isn’t this the spiritual journey, what Joseph Campbell called “Following Your Bliss”

Most folk begin their spiritual quest just like Dorothy did hoping, longing, desiring something more, but her desire like so much desire is aimless, a road to nowhere. So Glenda (The Good Witch) suggests that the best place to start is at the beginning, or what David Whyte describes as “Close in, with the first step”. Dorothy’s journey begins with the yellow brick road. This is the road that leads us home.

No path is ever straight. Dorothy on her journey met all kinds of people, each representing aspects of both the inner and outer life. The most obvious are the three that travel with Dorothy: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. These three were seeking brains, a heart and courage. Now don’t we all need our brains, our hearts, and to keep our nerves on our journeys? For after all isn’t it true that to live spiritually alive is to feel with all our heart, to use our minds thoughtfully and to act courageously. The spiritual life is about using our minds compassionately so that we can give our whole selves to life, in love and service for all.

The three main characters who join with Dorothy believe that they are lacking something, this is why they join her on her journey. Remember also that Dorothy misses home, something she rejected. She left home in the first place because she felt that something was missing. She ran away following some aimless desire. Now she’s in Oz though she has found an aim, to get home. In order to do so she has to find the wizard. Now don’t we all fall for the fools gold of finding a wizard or some other shinning thing that will fix our problem? Don’t we all look for answers outside of ourselves? Don’t we all miss the treasure deep within?

The four companions do eventually find the Wizard, as they arrive at the Emerald City. They ask the Wizard to give to them what they believe they lack. This he promises to do if they would kill the "Wicked Witch" and bring to him her broomstick, a task which he believes is beyond them. But of course they succeed and return to the Emerald City expecting their reward.

Despite doing all that was asked of them, the Wizard disappoints them. During a frantic scene Toto pulls back the curtain revealing the truth about the Wizard. It had all been a case of smoke and mirrors he is an ordinary man, with no magic powers. Dorothy tells him that he is a very bad man. To which he replies "Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit."

A disappointing end it would seem, there was nothing there at the end of the rainbow. But is this true? Let’s look a little more closely.

The scarecrow did indeed find his wonderful brains; the tin man did indeed find his lovely heart; the lion no longer lived as a coward. And in the end Dorothy did find her way back to Kansas as she clicked her ruby slippers and recounted the chant...“there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” She got her heart’s desire, she discovered her bliss.

Surely this is the lesson from this beautiful tale. Wherever we journey, however we get there and whatever it leads to in the end the real purpose is to uncover that pot of gold that we already have within each and every one of us. Hopefully by uncovering our own pots of gold we will help others to do likewise.

Surely this is the purpose of free religious communities. To help one another uncover our pots of gold and to let them shine.

Surely this is the purpose of the spiritual life, to learn to be at home wherever we find ourselves and to help others to do the same.

You see the truth is that Kingdom of God is already here, we just need to let it shine out of us; we just need to learn to become the light of the world; we just need to learn to follow our bliss.

So let’s stop dreaming of some other place, let’s learn instead to be at home, here now, lets learn to let out our heart’s desires and become the light of the world, the ones that we have all been waiting for.