Sunday 25 November 2018

Living your way into the answers

I have a love for detective stories. My favourite tv programs tend to involve mysteries and detection. As I child I was not a great reader of fiction and yet I loved Agatha Christie. Now don’t get me wrong I did read, just not fiction. I rarely read do even today. Why I am not wholly sure, I know I would benefit from doing so. That said when relaxing I do like to watch detective series, new and old. I’m just as happy watching “Murder She Wrote” as I am watching any of the high tech modern series. I’m just as happy watching Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes as I would be watching “The Code” Last year I fell in love with “The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries”, which is a modern historical Australian series, set in the inter-war years, a kind of attractive and daring cross between Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher. I also recently discovered a wonderful board game “Baker Street” based on Sherlock Holmes, myself and Sue had a lot of funny playing this a little while back. There is something in the searching for clues and answers and coming to conclusions that I suspect I love in these books, films and activities. I know I am not alone.

Now the thing I love about all these detective characters is that they pay attention. Yes they look for clues but the key is that they pay attention to the people around them. The classic example of this is of course Miss Marple. The key to her detecting was in her paying of attention and her simple down to earth understanding of people, which she had developed during her time growing up the village of St. Mary Mead. Her gift was to see things in seemingly unique ways and her ability to connect the details and stories together and relate them to people she had known during her long life. She would hear the details of a murder and say something like, “That reminds me of poor Mr or Mrs so and so …” And how this little problem that they had faced or had caused would be related to the murder. Miss Marple paid attention to people. She also paid attention to the world around her, connecting it all together. To me this is the key to spiritual living, to pay attention, to make connections and then to put them into practical application. To not merely ask questions of life but to see the connections. The key was not to merely ask questions and search for answers but to piece it together and live them as a conclusion in life. The key is to do as Rilke suggested “To live the questions” and in so doing you might just live your way into the answers. This is done in our very human and real lives; it is done by paying attention to one another and by paying attention to life.

One of the groups I host is “Living the Questions”. Each month we explore and attempt to bring to life the questions of truly living. It has been a joy and blessing to be part of this these last few years, it has certainly transformed me and I have witnessed this in others too. The inspiration for the group’s title come from a favourite passage from “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. In it the poet Rilke writes a letter to his protégé the 19 year old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus making a beautiful case for the importance of not merely asking questions, but living them, while embracing uncertainty and allowing for the development of intuition.

Rilke wrote:

“I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing, live your way into the answer.”

To me this is what it’s about, to seek and struggle and to live the questions themselves. We need to do more than just ask the questions. You have to live the questions themselves you have to experience them and then somewhere in that struggle an answer may well be revealed, or maybe not. Either way I am convinced that by doing so we will live purposeful lives for the good of all.

If we can learn to not just ask, but live the questions now we might just perhaps one day in the future, almost without noticing it live our way into the answers. This though will only come in and through life itself, through paying attention to all around us, for all life is animated by the same spirit.

Now the one thing we don’t get to choose is what is going on around us. We can’t filter this, however much we try. To live the questions faithfully means paying attention to everything. This means facing not just the beauty of life but its ugliness too and wrestling with all the challenges this brings and then acting in appropriate ways. This is not easy, sometimes it can be deeply painful to face the whole truth of any given situation. You have to do it though if you wish to one day live your way into the answers. As the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich wrote “Being religious means asking passionately the questions of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.”

Now living the questions, in the hope of one day you may live your way into the answers is not merely about logic, its not just about thinking your way into life. Actually if you live purely by your mind, your logic. you can miss so much. To live the question is a form of artful living, it is deeply creative in fact. My favourite detectives, usually the female ones all use intuition and emotion as an element of their questioning. Another favourite of mine is Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS, who always uses his gut. To truly live the questions requires us to live fully in our bodies as much as our logical minds.

We Unitarians can sometimes be accused of being too logical and to disregard our intuition. I do not see this as a fair criticism. Yes we are encouraged to doubt and ask questions, but we are also encouraged to use our whole human experience and not to merely worship the mind as if it were God.

To truly live the questions and thus therefore one day hopefully live our way into the answers requires us to pay attention, to pay attention to everyone and then relate it our own experiences, like Miss Marple did. To find the answers she paid attention to life, to other people and to her own intuition. She lived her way into the answers by merely paying attention.

The problem is that paying attention is not always easy. It is easy to be distracted and sometimes it hurts too much to pay attention. It certainly does for me at times.

I noticed the other morning that I was paying attention. I noticed while sitting in meditation and then listening to others that life was touching me deeply and as a result my mind became clearer. I heard the language of the heart touch me deeply as people spoke and yet at the same time I could hear, clearly hear, all the sounds of life outside. I could hear the traffic, I could hear the dogs barking, I could hear the birds singing and I could hear the rain falling, as I did the words shared penetrated me more deeply. I listened to their questions and as I did I began to live my own and in doing so I knew I was on my way to live my way into the answers. And what is the answer you might ask? Well the answer is to pay attention, pay attention to everything. In so doing you will begin to live your way into the answers.

Sunday 4 November 2018

Lost and Found

I ended my last "blogspot" with the following words by Mark Nepo

I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from water and birds learn from sky.
If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion, it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing, it helps to know of suffering.
The strong live in the storm without worshipping the storm.

Mark Nepo

Now don’t we all feel at sea at times, Tossed around by the storms of life. The storms are not life by the way, but they are part of life.

I have felt myself at sea many times in my life; I have done so at times these last few months too; my mind has not been as clear as it could be at times. I have noticed I’ve got a little lost at times and I have lost things at times. My services have not been at the standard I would have liked too. I’ve also felt more tired than usual. Now there are obvious reasons for this as I have been experiencing deep grief and concern for my nearest and dearest. We are hoping that some healing will come now as last week we attended our Daniel’s (my step-brother’) inquest in Bradford. It was a deeply painful day. We held one another as we listened and bore witness. I also felt so powerfully, as powerfully as I have ever done, that loving presence holding us as we lived in the storm, but did not worship it. Something has changed, or do I mean awakened within me since Tuesday.

I have felt lost at sea quite a bit these last few months, it has changed me, but then it ought to. Living spiritually is not about transcendence, it is about transformation, formation, reformation. I feel that I know the sea more intimately than before and therefore feel better able to help my fellow travellers who from time to time, will get caught up in the storm and feel all at sea. We do not sail the ship alone, we travel in the ship of love together, as one and never alone.

I remember during a theme talk at this years Summer School one of the speakers stating something like. “Do not worry if you lose your car, that isn’t the problem. You are in trouble only when you forget that you have a car.” Well last week I thought I’d lost my car, I hadn’t I’d just parked on a different street than I thought near to Sue’s new house. I did though feel that horrible sensation in the pit of my stomach I have felt it a little too frequently in recent weeks. I thought I was losing my mind a little, I wasn’t I was just experiencing what it feels like to be lost. It humbled, it grounded me and it helped me to connect. It certainly brought down any of those barriers I am tempted to put up from time to time.

All you've got to do is surrender...

I have noticed, over time, a large collection of lost items appearing in the small schoolroom at Dunham Road. Items like scarves and hats and gloves and sunglasses and ordinary glasses. It is hard to know what to do with them, perhaps we need a “lost and found” box. I always remember such things as a child. I remember leaving something important on a bus and two or three days later getting it back as it was handed in and kept in the lost and found box. The same thing happened at the gym a few months ago as I had left my spare pair of glasses there on the Friday and only realised it when I returned on the Monday. Well there they were, a few days later, in the lost and found box. Sadly the same thing didn’t happen with my watch and then a little later my wallet when I left it in the post office after buying stamps. At least I remembered I had them and had lost them of course, now if I'd forgotten I had a watch or wallet that would have signified real trouble.

I find something deeply reassuring in the fact that “lost and found” are paired together. There is something very powerful  in the journey of faith in their pairing. There is something beautifully paradoxical in all of this. A bit like Nepo’s line, “If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.” Gets me to think that if you want to be found you have to first of all get lost. It is the “Hero’s Journey”.

If I have learnt anything in life, and this year has taught me this once again and more deeply, it is that the problem isn’t whether or not we will get lot at times, the question is how will we live when we get lost. Now of course the first step towards finding my way again is to recognise, first of all, that I am lost. This doesn’t necessarily mean literally lost, but lost in myself, whether that be lost in fear, self-doubt, self-pity, basically lost in my own underpants.

When I am lost in myself and find myself truly “all at sea” I find that what has really happened is that I’ve separated myself once again from what I know to be true, about what is at the heart of me and the heart of life and have blinded myself to the light both within and without and I have once again walled myself in and I begin to feel alone and utterly lost. I have cut myself off from others and the love present in life. In such a state I can really do damage to myself and or others. I have done so in the past. I know that this is exactly where our Daniel had found himself, this is clear to me right now as anything has ever been. I know when I am lost, all at sea, internally, I find myself giving in to guilt, to loneliness and defensiveness. While externally I will begin to blame others for this sense of "lostness", resentment grows as does confusion in others. Don’t we all?

So when I find myself lost, how do I once again find myself? How do I go and look in that “lost and found” box of life? Well it begins, as it did when I left that important item on the bus at the age of 11 or when I lost my glasses recently. First of all I pause and then I ask for help. I ask for help internally and externally and do you know what if life has taught me anything it is that when you ask for help so many people always come rushing. As I have heard said many times, when trouble strikes, when horror and disaster strikes always look for the helpers. When you do it shows the love that is so present in humanity. It restores my faith once again.

I am most lost when I’m uptight and frightened. They key to being found is to lighten and loosen up. It requires patience and trust, perhaps the best qualities of faith. When a person is all it sea it is no use to thrash around, you need to be calm, take a breath and solutions usually come, usually you find yourself found. Sometimes you get rescued as someone else reaches through your defences with a kind word and or gentle touch and sometimes all it needs is a gentle word of encouragement and you can once again find your way back to shore.

Here is a rather lovely poem “The Way” by Edwin Muir

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.

Is there another way?
The way is one.

I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.

Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.

Then I’ll make here my place –
The road runs on –

Stay here, forever stay.
None stays here, none.

I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.

Oh, places I have passed!
That journey’s done.

And what will come at last?
The way leads on.

Now of course sometimes when you feel lost you aren’t actually as lost as you think. What you are is actually in a place you would rather not be. I have felt that at times these last few months and I have certainly done so for my nearest and dearest. Acceptance has felt distant at times, but eventually it comes and you accept that you are where you are. This is beautifully illustrated in the following bit of wisdom form my old favourite Mulla Nasruddin

Nasruddin was sat on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side:
“Hey! how do I get to the other side?”
To which Nasruddin replied “You are on the other side!”

We are all always on the opposite side of the river to the other riverbank.

“If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.” To be found you have to first of all get lost. I have learnt that it is important to be lost at times.

Whether any of us like it or not, we all find ourselves on the wrong river bank at times, not knowing how to get to the side we would like to. We all find ourselves in an uncertain place, lost and without guidance. We all feel lost at times. By the way we don’t really get lost in the woods and wilderness. Life isn’t really like the fairy tales although they can help us see the reality. These stories have a way of revealing reality through their beautiful mystery.

This brings to mind a rather beautiful poem “Afraid So” by Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?
Did the glass break?
Was the baggage misrouted?
Will this go on my record?
Are you missing much money?
Was anyone injured?
Is the traffic heavy?
Do I have to remove my clothes?
Will it leave a scar?
Must you go?
Will this be in the papers?
Is my time up already?
Are we seeing the understudy?
Will it affect my eyesight?
Did all the books burn?
Are you still smoking?
Is the bone broken?
Will I have to put him to sleep?
Was the car totaled?
Am I responsible for these charges?
Are you contagious?
Will we have to wait long?
Is the runway icy?
Was the gun loaded?
Could this cause side effects?
Do you know who betrayed you?
Is the wound infected?
Are we lost?
Will it get any worse?

We all feel lost at times, all at sea. I have re-learnt how important that is. It keeps you connected to life and allows you to grow, to be transformed. This is the point of the spiritual life. This year I have learnt once again about vulnerability. Everyone of us is vulnerable to the troubles of life. No matter how comfortable life might be at this moment that can be quickly shaken and all can be lost. That phone call can come, that changes everything, that breaks your heart.

The problem isn’t getting lost, we all get lost at times. The problem is in losing faith that you can be found once again. The key is how we live when we find ourselves lost. Do we close down and get lost deeper in our fear, or do we pause and reach out and ask for help from those loving forces that are all around whether visible or invisible.

I’m going to end this "blogspot" with one final poem, a favourite by David Wagoner that goes by the title “Lost”


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.