I have spent the few months considering the connections between people. Discovering that my own growth and development is inextricably linked to my relationships with others was something of a shock.
This wasn’t some nice theory I had read but emerged from very clear life experience, and once I had seen it, I couldn’t help but look back at all that had gone before and recognise the truth. I am who I am today far more because of the web of relationships that have framed my life more than anything else.
The question which has been tugging at me – What if the idea of the autonomous individual is a myth?
The final nail in the coffin of my faith in individualism occurred about a month ago as I listened to Mary Evelyn Tucker describe the ecological state of the world. Alongside her words I had swimming in my mind pictures of Syrian refugees and the dawning recognition that Brexit had actually happened. The ideal of the ‘self-made man’ pulling himself up by his bootstraps is at best joke and at worst a cruel impossibility held up to the poor as a shaming spectre.
As I sat in a hotel ballroom filled with 500 people all signed up for a course in mysticism I found myself toying with the idea that either we are all transformed or none of us will make it. Either we all choose to participate or humanity will kill itself off along with a huge swathe of the current diversity of life.
We are in a new phase of violent protests at South African higher education institutions. My social media feed is filled with anger and outrage on all fronts. Over and over, different groupings believing another group is the source of the problem wanting to get rid of them. And over and over, I can’t help but think that if we don’t find a way which truly makes room for everyone then we are all sunk.
I have no idea where the answer lies. But I hope that this current outflowing of anger is in fact a step forwards. We can’t move forward together if we don’t face into the real pain at the heart of our society.
For now I sit and watch and grieve. I grieve for the ocean of trauma that has flooded this country from generation through generation. I grieve for both the perpetrators and the victims of violence. I grieve for those who sit smugly saying ‘I told you so’.
I don’t know where the answer lies but I am becoming more and more convinced that if we are to find one at all, we will all need the courage to sit with the pain.
Jim Finley has a offers a useful caution against ‘spiritual escapism’. As I pursue my desire to engage in a conscious spiritual path, what is my motivation?
I know as I look back on my own life that there have been periods when I used spirituality as an escape. There have been times when I have justified my neglect of other things on basis of the importance of my spiritual work. At the time, I would have resisted strongly any suggestion that what I was doing was a form of escapism.
I don’t think we should delay the pursuit of things spiritual until our motives are pure. If we do so we will be waiting forever. And sometimes we really do need a ‘port in the storm’.
I think there are some useful things to look out for
- Is your journey leading you to face challenges within yourself?
- Is your journey leading you into more real relationships with others?
- Is your journey leading you to confront your own image of God?
- Is your journey leading you to greater engagement with the ordinary things of your life?
- Conversely, is the story you tell of your life the same one you would have told a year ago, two years ago, five years ago?
As you consider these questions are you aware of any ‘stuck’ places? Is your current spiritual practice able to help you work with them?
Don’t panic if you realise that actually a good part of commitment to spirituality is escapism. Recognising that it is so is half the battle. Just be as honest as you can with yourself about what it is that you are avoiding, and then begin the process of re-engaging. You may need to find some support!
I went for a walk with a friend yesterday. She and I have know each other for a long time. We first met nearly eighteen years ago. But our friendship dates really back to my return to Cape Town in 2007.
I don’t remember now how it began, but I do recall a conversation on a walk, very similar to the one we took yesterday, where we decided that we would meet regularly for ‘spiritual conversation’.
This particular friendship has been and remains a real treasure. Our social circles do not intersect. This is not a connection that would have thrived if we had not both intentionally committed to it. And yet this friendship is one I treasure deeply.
Not all spiritual friendships endure. Some have a specific season. Some occur by virtue of circumstance.
As I reflect on this particular relationship – almost immediately a parade of others appear in my mind’s eye. A long established close friendship with a fellow Ignatian enthusiast; the friends with whom I shared lunch this same day; my Living School companions; friends I encountered at a book launch a few days ago; etc. etc.
I have been inordinately blessed in my companions on The Way.
A Facebook friend posted this meme last week. I confess for a trivial meme it has occupied an inordinate amount of my head space over the last few days.
What struck me most forcibly in the moments after I first saw it was the trajectory of my thoughts. Almost immediately I began ‘Yes, but….’ followed by an litany of sections of chemistry that I feel I should understand better.
For those who haven’t quite registered this – I teach organic chemistry at a very well respected university in South Africa.
My reaction was interesting to me: Whichever way you configure the statistics, few would argue I understand more chemistry than most people (unless you want to take a very small sample size of professional chemists!). But what was immediately foremost in my mind was the areas of understanding that I lack!
Now, the enneagram savvy may recognise a compulsed 5 in operation. (The 5 on the enneagram is the personality who gains a sense security through having knowledge). That may well be true.
But it alerted to me to a much bigger social problem – my compulsion to shore up my security through knowledge doesn’t appear to hurt anyone, but what if I found my security in financial resources? What if I found my security in being able to identify those who don’t belong? What if I found my security in owning firearms? What if I found my security in being found likeable by others? What if I found my security in being seen to be successful?
Suddenly my kneejerk response is far more sinister. I cannot claim a greater morality because my response is apparently less harmful. It is simply the way we are wired.
In unveiling my own compulsion I am both deeply grateful it is relatively neutral (at least as far as I can see), and I see those whose compulsions are necessarily potentially more destructive with far less judgement. It isn’t my path, but the reason it isn’t is not because I am fundamentally a better person, it is just because I am wired to be soothed by a different stimulus.
I had the extraordinary experience last week of being Albuquerque for the start of my second year of the Living School. It is hard to be in the presence of Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Jim Finley, Carolyn Metzler, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Jack Jezreel and not come away feeling enriched.
Not only was I on the receiving of these wonderful teachers, but I was surrounded by people who have become friends. People who are searching for something more. People with whom I can speak a common language.
Jim Finley keeps coming back to the idea that we cannot achieve encounter with God through our own efforts. We cannot enter contemplation. We cannot touch ‘unknowing’. Choose your favourite metaphor for the sweet experience which does not leave us the same. All we can do is put ourselves in the path of least resistance.
Much to my surprise I am beginning to discover that my own path of least resistance requires, in part, hanging out with those who are seeking a similar thing. Having conversations that are deeply real and yet words cannot quite get to the essence of what we are trying to communicate.
The spiritual journey is not a solitary one, although the moment of encounter is never shared. I am left in awe of the mystery, deeply grateful for each person who shared my journey last week.
My eldest sister sent me a short presentation on the retirement of my grandmother. I had no idea of the influence she had had. There were newspaper articles celebrating her contribution, in particular founding the school library at Roosevelt in what was then Rhodesia.
I knew she had been a well loved teacher. But I was completely unaware of the influence that she did have. She retired at 71 – four years before I was born.
In this month when we celebrate the contribution of women, it is perhaps fitting for me to salute this woman. She clearly had great courage and great strength of will. She came out to Rhodesia from Scotland when she was 25 in 1925. No small move in those days.
She worked as a teacher for several years before marrying and having children. When she returned to full time work she took a position as an income tax assessor – the first woman in the country to have that role! She returned to her passion – teaching – ten years later.
She raised three children on her own. And took on this task of building this library when my mother was still a teenager.
As I look back now I recognise there must have been so much more to her than I ever realised. But families are never simple and she died when I was 15.
It is decades too late to speak in person, but I salute my Granny Appleby – my mother’s mother – nonetheless.
Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of Centering Prayer as a practice of kenosis. A practice of surrendering one’s thoughts through the use of the centering word.
Richard Rohr and Jim Finley are both slightly more pragmatic – it is an opportunity to encounter failure and keep on trying.
James Alison would frame it as allowing our desires to be shaped by the desires of God.
How one understands what happens is almost immaterial. It remains true for most of us that for the vast majority of time we cannot sustain not getting caught by any particular thought for a 20 minute period.
We can try, and the attempt is valuable. It is in the attempt that consciousness is rewired. All we can do is to show up and try. The rare occasion it actually does give way to contemplation is not in our hands to achieve. All we can do is place ourselves in the path of least resistance.
It occurs to me that perhaps love between two people is not dissimilar (and I mean any kind of relationship from close friendship to spouse). In recent years I have made a commitment to be as honest as I can be in my close friendships. The result is not always comfortable.
What is most evident is how often misunderstanding and miscommunication are in play. The attempt to show up as most fully myself is a business of trial and plenty of error.
Mostly I fail.
But the attempt to show up is the act of love.
There is miscommunication and there is misunderstanding, but if we are both able to presume generosity of spirit, then all is grist to the mill.
The me that is showing up is not the socially conditioned me, it is version of me which is closest to my True Self as I am capable of today. I’m not sure there is anything else.
I’m grateful to those those who have been willing to enter this space with me. And I am grateful that occasionally it does break open into a feeling of loving and being loved.
On Saturday I wandered into Greenpoint Park and walked the labyrinth. While I was slowly making my way out, a family came along. The two little girls, aged about 5 and 7, joined me. They rushed around jumping through gaps, the elder instructing the younger on what not to do. Both were slightly wary of the woman slowly walking around and around.
After successfully getting to the center (several times, using multiple ‘routes’) they left. As they departed the older one commented decisively ‘This maze is useless!’
She was right. As a maze it was utterly pointless.
Her declaration was useful to me though – it got me wondering…
When we get caught up in being successful and achieving and reaching goals that only have status meaning in the microcosmic world which we inhabit, life can feel a bit like a maze. But what if it is actually a labyrinth…
How many of us are desperately trying to solve the riddle rather than simply being present?
When we begin the labyrinth we don’t the exact path we are going to take, but we know we’ll get to the center eventually, and then we will walk back out. If we take each step slowly and deliberately, and if we try to remain present (even with interruption of little people) something will happen.
If we take each step through life slowly and deliberately, putting in the effort we should, some successes may well come. There will be a few curve balls, and perhaps some unexpected crushing disappointments. But I am sure my success is more likely with this approach than trying to ‘solve the maze’ anyway.
So I am left asking myself where am I still trying to conquer the maze when I am really called to walk the labyrinth?
I am on day six of my 30 days of beauty challenge. It is well worth doing. I have become significantly more aware of the beauty in my life.
I am much more aware of the astounding scenery which frames my daily commute from Pinelands to Stellenbosch everyday. The changing light and the beauty of the formation of the clouds. Obviously I can’t capture any of this share as I am driving, but it sets me up for my day in a wonderful way.
I am more likely to read poetry and to listen to a song which has been shared precisely because I am wanting to find beauty. And I do, over and over again.
The practice of the search for beauty is making every day significantly richer. It isn’t that I am ignoring the pain and suffering, it is just holding the tension of the entire spectrum of life rather than focusing just on one aspect.
I shouldn’t be surprised that this has been the effect, although I confess that I am. Several years ago I started a 30 days of gratitude challenge – the effect on my life has been lasting. I am more grateful as a result. And I think I am genuinely more content.
Where we choose to focus our energy really does matter. And we really do have a choice. Maybe it is time to start your own 30 day challenge – it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it has the capacity to draw you into awe, wonder and gratitude.
We need to practice savouring the good because our minds do discard the good if we don’t. We need to hold something we appreciate for at least 15 seconds or it will slip away (the teflon mind). Negative interactions require no such effort we cling to those like velcro. (You can read more about this http://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/)
I came across this picture on the Charter for Compassion Facebook page. It appeared just a day after I had posted a beautiful picture of some giraffes on my own page adding the caption ‘A little beauty goes a long way…’
With all the senseless terror
With all the hateful political rhetoric
With all the ridiculous shaming of those who dare to hold an opinion other than our own
With the terrible violence
I feel a strong draw to intentionally focus on beauty for a little while. I’m going to commit to a challenge to find one thing of beauty every day and to share it.
I’m going to do this every day for the next thirty days. Why don’t you join me?
Simply post something beautiful to your social media account every day. If you aren’t on social media – just share your object of beauty with one other person.
If you want to see what I am finding beautiful you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
I’m starting with Jessye Norman singing Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pg_EHUGRgos).