Meeting someone brilliant

I had a great experience yesterday. I had a conversation with a visiting organic chemist. He was very easy to talk to. Friendly, interesting, and interested in my work. And he was truly brilliant. It was a fabulous conversation.

He is orders of magnitude smarter than I am. I have met many people who are better chemists than I am, and people who I think are probably smarter than I am. But within the last four or five years since beginning my independent academic career, I have had a conversation with anyone who so clearly was playing in a completely different league.

The extraordinary thing about the conversation is that he didn’t make me feel stupid. I didn’t feel that he needed me to be less good in any way. I also did not feel that he in any way felt like he was wasting his time talking to me. He was just tremendously excited to talk about chemistry, and gave me a couple of great ideas.

I found it uplifting and inspiring. It has left me wanting to work harder and to do better. Not because I want to compete with him in any way – it very clear that he is way out of my league, but because his excitement and enthusiasm was infectious.

In the competitive world of academia, it was such a refreshing experience.

Some wisdom from Thomas Merton

I have been reading ‘The Ascent to Truth’ by Thomas Merton. In the book he discusses the theology of St John of the Cross. The following is an excerpt from the chapter entitled ‘Concepts and contemplation’

‘…there are two dangers to be avoided. First, we must not take our knowledge of God for what it is not. Second, we must at least take it for what it is. It must neither be underestimated nor overestimated. Both these excesses end in a practical atheism. If we attribute too much power to out “clear ideas” of God, we will end up making a god of our own image, out of those clear ideas. If we do not grant concepts any power to tell us the truth about God, we will cut off all possible contact between our minds and Him.

I do not know which of these paths is the more fatal weakness. Both are path to false mysticism.’

It seems to me that Merton’s invitation is to a middle way. A path where certainty of any kind is problematic precisely because there is no room for surprise in certainty. There is no humility in certainty. And yet we must build on some foundation.

It is the path of discernment. Each day stepping forward in faith, but each day being open to the possibility that I may be wrong.

With the attack on faith by the new atheists, there can be a temptation to try and nail down what faith is. To be drawn into the mire of ‘proofs’ – but such a path leads to what Merton calls practical atheism. The ‘proof’ will be an abject failure – it will never satisfy the scientist, and it will lead the person of faith up the blind alley of false mysticism. Here prayer will be the echo chamber of human projection, rather than encounter with God.

Slaying dragons

Last night I was chatting to a young friend who has just submitted his PhD thesis for examination. Clearly the process of writing up has been tremendously taxing for him. And he is certainly not unique in that experience. His supervisor had said to him that writing your thesis is one of the most taxing processes you will ever experience. And I know that has been true for many people I know across all disciplines.

Except it wasn’t for me. And I know it isn’t that taxing for everyone. But I have huge respect for those for whom the process is so demanding.

I’d be very surprised if a reader could pick up on the extent of emotional effort it had taken the author to write. My point is that the quality of the product is not dependent on the emotional cost. We just seem to be wired differently.

Over the last few days I have felt as though I have slain some of my personal dragons. By this I mean I have managed to deal with a few situations which are a big deal to me with relative ease and with little procrastination. I know that those same situations would be seen to be mildly irritating to another person. More like swatting a fly than slaying a dragon.

It fascinates me that similar events can be experienced so radically differently by two people.

It occurs to me that we need to be true to our own experience, but to hold it in perspective of what we know to be true for others. We should celebrate the dragon slaying moments. Regardless of the objective magnitude of the situation – if it has felt like a big deal to us, then we should celebrate those times when we have stood up and done what needed to be done. Likewise, when we have done something with far greater ease than others, gratitude seems like an appropriate response.

We also need to be compassionate to those we are walking alongside. To recognise that even if something isn’t a big deal for me, it doesn’t mean that the other person is somehow at fault. Likewise, to know that the person walking alongside me may not really understand quite why I am donning my armour and pulling out my best Georgian sword to face the fruit fly they are seeing.

Non-dual consciousness and discernment

I’ve been reading and listening to a fair amount of Richard Rohr’s teaching in the last few weeks. The emphasis has been on non-dual consciousness. I’m still not convinced I know what non-dual consciousness is, or indeed, how to get there, but I think I do recognise it when I see it.

I think part of the problem is that most people who have experienced non-dual consciousness can only really describe their own route into it. For Richard Rohr, that seems to have been principally through centering prayer. For Cynthia Borgeault, the entry was through a relationship of conscious love. For Joan Halifax, through the practice of Buddhism.

But, the experience of non-dual consciousness must be accessible through any tradition which has given rise to mystics. The question that has been playing through my mind for the last week or so has been the link between discernment and non-dual consciousness.

I think, for me, the link is present. Discernment is not an objective process of judging i.e. this external thing is good or bad. Rather it is a subjective process of choosing. That is to say, that the thing is itself neutral. What I am assessing in discernment is what happens when I am in relationship with this thing.

It is a subtle process, and one that needs to be constantly revisited. My discernment with respect is something in particular may change with time as I change or as my circumstances change. There is no certainly in discernment, rather a greater or lesser sense that this does seem the better choice. There is also the recognition that choices which lead me towards God, may not be the choices my neighbour makes.

I’m not sure that I can say that the daily practice of discernment leads to non-dual consciousness. But I am fairly sure that it supports the process.


On pain and suffering

I’ve slowly been reading my way through Being with dying by Joan Halifax. I’m finding it to be a thought provoking read. The last chapter I read was on pain and suffering. Joan Halifax is a well known Buddhist teacher so those who follow that tradition will possibly not find this to be a novel thought, but it certainly was to me.

In our culture we are terrified of pain. We avoid pain (physical and emotional) at all costs. Usually by using some kind of numbing behaviour, or indeed a numbing substance! For many us, perhaps even the vast majority of us, there is no distinction between pain and suffering. If we are in pain we must be suffering.

But Halifax makes an interesting separation: ‘Pain is physical discomfort, while suffering is the story around the pain. …. The first arrow, the sensation of pain, is bad enough. But it’s the second arrow–the story we tell ourselves about our pain–that’s the real trouble.’

This idea is fascinating to me. I’ve struggled with physical pain for the last 16 months. It is nothing too dramatic, mostly it is rather mild, with occasional escalations. The most recent variant has been situated in my hip which had made walking (my favourite way to unwind) uncomfortable.

Just in the last few days, since reading this chapter, I have been watching myself. When I am able to separate pain and suffering I am far better able to cope with the pain. It is much more manageable and much less threatening. When the pain gets worse, I am more able to simply accept that it is worse, rather than immediately considering the potential implications. In noticing the variation in the pain, I am also able to see, far more quickly when it diminishes as well.

I suspect that it will take me a long time to really begin to live with what is, rather than immediately creating a story around it.

Towards an integrated spirituality

I find myself profoundly grateful for the image on the cover of Rooted in Love.

Rooted in Love

I explain the image on the first page of the book:

‘In early 2012, I was giving spiritual direction to a person who had been through a very difficult period but had worked through their pain, confusion and internal chaos. There was a sense of Spring in the conversation, of life beginning to emerge from an emotional wintertime, and an image began to develop in my mind – of a small shrub held in the soil; held in the hands of God. The shrub symbolised the person’s life, and the soil their life experience. The soil was composted with processed life experience. The detritus of pain, confusion and chaos had been broken down into something which now nourished the plant.

What struck me most forcibly about the image was that the more that life experience is processed, grappled with and understood, the richer the soil becomes, and the greater the strength of the shrub, the more beautiful its flowers and the more plentiful its fruit. So the beauty and the plenty do not arise from the shrub doing anything, but come simply from its being.’

But in the last few days it has struck me that this image represents a truly integrated spirituality. A spirituality in which suffering, growth and fruitfulness are inextricably intertwined. As such it represents a spirituality which is deeply embedded in our human experience. It is a spirituality which is more immanent than transcendent. It is a spirituality which seeks God in the ordinary, everyday fabric of our lives, rather than using God as an escape mechanism.

When I was going through the process of publishing the book, I was unequivocal about both the title and the image on the cover. But it is still both surprising and delightful that this image is continues to speak to me in new ways.