Positive Groundlessness

I watched two videos this morning. The first was Luister – a documentary comprising the stories of students from Stellenbosch University where I am on the faculty in the chemistry department. The issue they are addressing is the experience of black students at an Afrikaans university which remains predominantly white. It left me feeling profoundly saddened. The woundedness of one young man in particular will stay with me for some time to come.

Another student recounted how at the start of the first year everyone seems pretty friendly, but that by the end of the first or second term, the institutional culture means that lines are drawn.

I can’t help thinking of all the young students arriving at Stellenbosch each year. They have high hopes and perhaps higher fears and insecurities – will they make it here? As ever in human culture the easiest way to show that we fit in is to exclude those who fit in less. The way we fake it is by posturing.

I don’t know what the solution is, I just know that everyone involved is losing right now. These bright, talented young people are all (regardless of skin colour and language preference) being warped in the experience.

The second video was a talk by Pema Chodron. In it she speaks of her experience of hearing about the tragedy of 9/11 on the 4th day of a 100 day silent retreat. She speaks of the possibility of what might have happened that day if those in power in the United States had not swung back. She spoke of the incident as being a massive communal experience of groundlessness.

We all have personal experiences of groundlessness periodically, and most of us fight to recover our ground as quickly as possible. The only problem is that the ground is really fake, it is a construct of our egos. Each time our identity is stripped we have an opportunity to learn to live in groundlessness, but each time we fight to clothe ourselves again in more and more certainty – and so we begin on the slippery slope to fundamentalism.

It is what happened in the response to 9/11. We live in a far more fearful, more polarised, more fundamentalist world now than we did fourteen years ago.

So my question this evening is simply – what is the invitation to the Stellenbosch University community? How do we respond? Is there a way which will lead ultimately to a better place?

I hope so! We owe it to every single student who passes through our doors.

Apology and forgiveness

I stumbled this quote yesterday

‘Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.’

At first glance it looks like a good attitude. But read it one more time and ask yourself if it doesn’t sound just a little self-righteous. I am sacrificing my need to be right (subtext: although of course I am right) because I am able to let go of my ego (subtext: I am better than you or more evolved than you!)

The problem is that apology and forgiveness require two non negotiable ingredients – honesty and humility.

If I am apologising – I may have thought I was acting in the most selfless way I could, but I screwed up. My intention and your experience are different. To truly acknowledge the truth of your experience I have to embrace the fact that I do not hold the whole truth. And if I don’t hold the whole truth, then ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is not a helpful binary classification.

I am presuming here that I am apologising for hurting you unintentionally. If the hurt was intentional then I have even less ground to stand on. But it is then that self-righteousness and self-justification rear their ugly heads.

It is for this reason, when I know my motives were a little mixed, that my only recourse is to pray for the grace of honesty and humility. That I may see the truth of my actions and my intent.

It is only when I have bathed myself in honesty and humility that I am in any state to apologise. To recognise that, in all honesty, I am no better than the person I have affronted. It is only when I have faced into the ugly truth of my own painful limitations that I can consider offering an apology.

Until then, I am playing self-righteous mind games which serve precisely no-one.

To apologise is to humble oneself – if you aren’t doing that, you aren’t really apologising at all.

What is the fruit?

The last few years have taught me that there really is nothing as important at the next step. Whatever grand plans I might have, the next step is the only one that really matters. When goals are not so clear and the outcome of a particular journey ill-defined, it becomes even more true.

This year, in particular, I have been living in a fog. That great quote from Thomas Merton has been more real to me than I care to admit.

My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

I really am living in blind faith at the moment. I don’t know where my current trajectory is leading. The path is entirely clouded. But when I still and when I allow myself to use the greatest honesty that I can muster in the moment, the next step does emerge.

It offers no greater clarity than the foot-fall I left behind, but something in me assents.

As I journey further along this path, there is one significant reassurance – in the last six months I have had the joy of reconciling three old relationships. One with someone who inadvertently caused me great harm; one a relationship which had ended awkwardly; and the third a friend from childhood whom I wounded badly.

Many years ago a wise spiritual director once suggested that the old gospel saying is worth heeding – by their fruit you shall know them. I am hoping that his wisdom holds here! I trust that these reconciliations are good fruit.

Unknown unknowns

If there is one lesson I am learning at the moment it is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

It is the unknown unknowns that blindside us.

Each phase of life has its own unknown unknowns. I have always taken pride in the fact that I have been able to direct people much older than me on individually guided retreats. I also enjoy genuine soul friendships with a number of people who are significantly older than I am.

It is with some humility then that I have to admit that I really didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know that the mid-life transition can be significant and turbulent. I genuinely thought that as I had been quite deliberate in my choices since my early twenties that I would sail through the mid-life transition relatively smoothly.

For me, it isn’t so much about the questions of what have done with my life and what I am doing. As much as it is the stripping of pretense. The sugar coating I had unconsciously used to cover my real motivations has been stripped away. I am left naked; vulnerable and defenseless.

I see my woundedness, and I am beginning to be able to name the force which drove me. I have no idea of where this journey is taking me. I have no idea what I will need to lay aside. All I know is that there is only one way through and that is to allow myself to feel the rawness and grief.

It is almost impossible to articulate because I don’t quite know what I am grieving, and yet here I am. I am in a space I didn’t even know existed. It is humbling indeed.

I am tremendously grateful that I have the time and mental space to allow myself simply to be here – my sabbatical came at just the right time!


Once in a while I will come across a book which will have a significant impact on how I view the world. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John Cacioppo and William Patrick is one such book.

My evolutionary biologist brother-in-law, who specializes in social insects, has long since convinced me of the social nature of human beings, so our need for one another comes as no surprise. The eye opening aspect of this book is the physiology of loneliness.

Loneliness isn’t just a mental state, something we need to power through or try to convince ourselves we are not feeling – it induces a physiological response. That response is so strong that over time the increase in stress hormones (among other things) in our body makes loneliness as high a risk factor for premature death as obesity! Those who scored high on a loneliness scale in a particular year of a longitudinal study were shown to be significantly more likely to suffer from depression two years later!

Of far greater concern though, is the wealth of evidence the authors provide for the theory that loneliness impairs the executive function of the brain. When someone is lonely they are genuinely less able to make good decisions. They are less able to see good things as being positive. And so loneliness rapidly becomes a negative feedback loop which results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Obviously, the sooner the feedback loop is disrupted by genuine connection the better.

I believe this is an very important message for our world today. There is growing evidence of the increase in alienation from one another (the fear of migrants is just a topical example). Pause for a moment – is there someone who have come across in the last few days who might be lonely? Is it possible to reach out to them?

Perhaps you are the one who is feeling lonely at the moment – who can you reach out to to break the cycle currently overriding your good judgement?



Modern myths

There seems to be a strange idea which has been around for at least a decade, maybe longer, that we aren’t supposed to feel pain. That somehow the goal of life is to get to some Zen place where we can take whatever life throws at us without batting an eyelid.

The more I engage with the real stuff of living the more I think it is a crock of shit.

That kind of philosophy leads to denial of what is real, not engagement. Emotions are useful guides to navigating the world. And they should not rule our actions, but we need to feel.

I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t experience grief when some precious element of my life is removed. I want to experience love, joy, anger, frustration, peace. But I want to get to a space where those emotions, particularly the negative ones, flow through me unimpeded and therefore quickly.

The only way I can think to do that is to pay attention to the areas of my life which are not free. Where is my interior freedom constrained? If there are people I would rather not interact with, how do I come to a place where I can interact and allow the emotion that may be evoked to pass quickly? If there are things I’d rather not do but which are necessary, how do I embrace the task so that it isn’t emotionally demanding.

It is about learning to feel what is real, to accept the emotion and to allow it to pass.

The image in my mind is a water pipe. When strong emotion comes and the pipe is clear, i.e. I have interior freedom, the emotion can be very strong, but it will pass smoothly and quickly through my system. Every area of my life, or relationship which I declare to be ‘off limits’ is an impediment. With every emotional surge, eddy currents are set up and the result is turbulence. The more impediments, the longer and the stronger the turbulence.

Where are the areas of unfreedom in your life?