Missing the point

I came across a blog post a few days ago. In the post the author described his experiment of living as a recluse for 10 days. As someone who goes on retreat for 8 days roughly every year or so I was interested to see what he had discovered.

He locked himself into his basement for 10 days. He allowed himself access to email, social media and the internet but chose not to make any response.

Well – it was clear from his post that he won’t be repeating any time soon.He had clearly not bothered to explore any of the spiritual traditions which support periods of isolation. I wonder how different his experience would have been if he had found an isolated cabin and cut himself off from all internet access.

I suspect with sunlight, fresh air and the ability to exercise his experience may have been more positive.

The other crucially important aspect of a silent retreat is cutting oneself off from mental stimuli – no reading, no internet, no conversations or other contact with anyone other than your spiritual director.

This environment fosters a useful space where I can sort my thoughts out. Over the days I can slowly discern what is truly important. The experience is always powerful and occasionally it can be truly transformative.

I have no doubt though, that if I were simply to shut myself in a basement with no possibility of real exercise, with no sunlight, and with a continual stream of external stimuli that the experience would be rather on the more soul destroying end of the spectrum.

But it got me thinking – Do I pick up and run with ideas before really understanding what is meant or intended? When I try something and it fails miserably, is it always because the idea is a bad one – or is it sometimes because I failed to research sufficiently to understand the essence.

And in another way, what of the growing popularity of meditation practices? There is a strong movement at the moment some business communities to encourage mediation as a practice which will enhance productivity. Given that most meditation practices are formed in order to aid one towards detachment or freedom or indifference, I can’t help but wonder where this fad is going.

I hope that the meditation does eventually achieve the end for which it was developed. If the highly flying world of business becomes slightly more detached, non-violent and compassionate through the practice of meditation there may just be hope for our world after all!

Don’t wait for inspiration

I began this blog a year ago today. So the main purpose of this post is to celebrate the year.

I have gained tremendously through this blog. Firstly, I have made some wonderful connections in different parts of the world. Secondly, I have really enjoyed the challenge of writing something every four or five days.

When I began the blog I thought that it’s main purpose was to provide a following for my writing – so Rooted in Love would not be launched in a vacuum. But it has taken on a life of its own. At the time I began something I read suggested that you need to blog with some regularity. Within a few weeks I settled on a routine of Monday, Friday, Wednesday – three posts in two weeks. The routine has worked well.

As I was thinking about what I would write today, it struck me that the most important lesson the blog has taught me is not to wait for inspiration. I post what I have – sometimes it is pretty good, other times, rather insipid – but I keep showing up and doing what I can.

I have long followed a similar idea in my prayer – following the Ignatian tradition I show up to pray whether I feel like it or not. Sometimes it is great, other times far less so, but I keep going, and the discipline of the routine keeps me going.

In some ways I feel that the blog has been a cross-over space. The content often emerges from prayer, but it is expressed in the public domain. This particular idea of simply showing up whether I feel inspired or not is a something I wish to carry into other life spaces. There is a particular aspect of my working life which may well benefit if I begin to practice this kind of showing up.

The continual creation of this blog has yielded an unexpected grace for me – and I am deeply grateful for it.

Grace and gratitude

Earlier this week I was struck by Andy Otto’s piece on grace. He writes “This is a kind of prayer, but by using the grace language, we acknowledge it only as a gift”

(you can read Andy’s post here http://godinallthings.com/2013/11/18/asking-for-a-grace/)

I have written elsewhere about grace and there is a chapter of Rooted in Love devoted to the idea of praying for a grace. But in reading Andy’s post I was struck by the connection between grace and gratitude.

Gratitude is perhaps the most important mental orientation we can cultivate. It shapes how we view everything. It is the lens through which we view our daily reality.

When I look around at the various aspects of my life – my family, my friends, the people I interact with in different circles, those who come to me for spiritual direction, my job, my colleagues, my living space, my education, the things I have done, the places I have lived and worked…. and so on, and so on, and so on…. I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and wonder.

There are things which I could view as being ‘unfair’ or that I somehow drew the short straw. I am not the most well off among my siblings, my odd career trajectory means that my contemporaries are further along the road than I am, a car accident in my youth has left my right leg slightly misshapen…. and some other ridiculous things I could choose to focus on. But this kind of attitude is simply not helpful to me. It doesn’t get me anywhere and it just encourages dissatisfaction. Given the richness of my life – this just seems poor form!

Living through gratitude makes it far easier to celebrate the small things in life. To feel both rich and blessed, with no need for any comparison. But in the absence of gratitude one can feel hard done by or that one doesn’t have enough (yet!) even in the midst of plenty.

In my understanding gratitude and grace are inextricably linked. I am far more able to see graces when I am more grateful. And I am more grateful for graces when they appear.

The practice of gratitude is something that can be cultivated. I found it very helpful posting one thing that I was grateful for on Facebook every day for a month or so made a big difference to me. My life feels more succulent although nothing has actually changed.

The importance of ritual

Many years ago I read ‘From beginning to end: Rituals of our lives’ by Robert Fulghum. I can’t remember terribly much of the content now, but it prompted a conversation between my sister and I which has stuck with me. We both agreed that ritual is important and that we should take care to honour significant moments.

I think it is important that we mark the beginnings and endings in our lives. That we take time to show gratitude for opportunities, celebrate success and to grieve failures.

It doesn’t have to be a big ceremony, although the big moments are worth honouring with something substantial and intentional. Nowadays it is relatively easy to mark those significant transitions – whatever the transition, be it moving house, or getting a new job, starting a new relationship – you can bet that someone out there has figured out some kind of ritual and written about it. Use google and happily adapt to suit your own purposes.

I remain tremendously grateful for the Robert Fulghum book and the conversation with my sister. I have become much better at marking transitions and I think it helps me to live more consciously and a little more in the present.

For the transitions which you can see approaching from a little way off, it is good to plan a little. Assemble the members of your ‘tribe’ who you would like to bear witness. Whatever else you choose to do I’d strongly recommend a bit of food and a glass of bubbly. Finally, a very short speech – you don’t need to say much, but it is good to verbally acknowledge the importance of the occasion.

For the occasions which take you by surprise – always keep an emergency bottle of champagne/prosecco/methode cap classique in the fridge. You never know when you will need it and it is always better chilled.

Learning to say no

I have been reasonably settled in the last few years – more so than I have ever experienced before. One of the things I have enjoyed in being settled has been the capacity to step up into positions of service which I wouldn’t have taken on before. I wouldn’t have taken them on because I couldn’t guarantee that I could see them through.

Not one of them is particularly onerous. Each costs at most 10-15 hours a month. But when I look at all of them together suddenly I realise that I am adding an extra 40-60 hours to my schedule. Perhaps more importantly for me – these kinds of commitments occupy maybe two to three times that in mental space.

I have felt both pressurised and a bit knackered in the last six weeks or so and haven’t been able to work out what was going wrong. Then I remember that the other major challenge this year has been the launch of ‘Rooted in Love’. Being both highly introverted and coming from a culture which frowns on self-promotion, trying to promote the book I have written is not exactly within my comfort zone. It has been something of the perfect storm of fatigue.

With a little distance – I recognise the problem, or at least a part of the problem – it is the mental/emotional equivalent of ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’.

Okay – so the ‘death’ bit is a tad melodramatic. But it has really got me thinking about the next few years. Up until now the temptation to take on too much has been moderated a little by the fact that I haven’t stuck around too long in any place. There really is only one option – learning to say no.

My Ignatian roots tell me that I need to learn to let go of those things which are seemingly good to make room for that which is better. I have learnt to apply that to my life in terms of the big decisions like whether to take a particular job or not. But I think I am entering a new era where I need to learn to apply that to the smaller choices, like whether to sit on a committee or not.

I feel like I need that to be tattooed on my right hand so I never say yes when I should say no. Maybe for now my rule for thumb should be to take 24 hours before I agree to anything which will have sustained demands. That way I can guarantee it’ll have to go through at least one decent prayer period and a spot of discernment before I make a commitment.

My challenge for the next few weeks will be choosing which activities I need to let go of.

Being present for others

In the last few weeks four different people in my circle have been going through different sorts of challenges. I have been able to respond to some more generously than to others, but I have been thinking about the general idea of being able to be present to others.

Some months ago I saw a great diagram on Facebook. It was a series of concentric circles. If my memory serves me correctly the post was on how to help people with serious illness. So in the centre was the person with the illness. The first circle was perhaps the spouse. The second circle the immediate family. The next close friends, followed by more distant friends and perhaps co-workers. The message of the diagram was very simple – if you are really trying to be supportive in a time of difficulty you should not burden someone who is closer to the centre with your own feelings of shock or distress or whatever else.

The point is simply, too often we react without thinking out of our own needs, desires or even pain. In so doing we can completely unintentionally create an additional burden for someone who is already struggling to cope. That can come in different forms – oversharing our own pain is one aspect; but overempathising with the pain of the other will mean that they cannot turn to us for support. Likewise needing to be ‘helpful’ when there is no real help to be given. It isn’t kind or caring it is burdensome.

If you are struggling, find someone further out from the centre to support you. So that you can simply be present to the person you are intending to support. That presence may require a conversation about the situation; it may require a conversation which is far lighter and happy distraction; it may require respecting their need for privacy and retreat.

The only time you get to dictate any terms is when you are in the centre. And the people in the centre should not be held to any of the social niceties of ‘ordinary time’. Perhaps the most important forms of support come in the guise of compassion and generosity of spirit.

I find some people are easier to stand alongside than others. Given the variety of responses I have witnessed from others, I think that is true for most people.There are others who show up wonderfully for those who I struggle with. If you are able to show up and be compassionate and generous do so. If not, it is probably kinder to gently keep your distance.