Seeking to understand

I went to a talk recently that I found profoundly disturbing. When I say that I felt like my mind needed a ritual cleanse afterwards, I’m not exaggerating. What amuses me though is my response. The very next day I sent a message to fellow attendee who is well schooled in the subject matter. I asked him for some good reading material to balance the perspective.

What amuses me is that for the first time I realise how powerful and reflexive the drive to seek information is. I know that I gain security from knowledge and understanding, but I had never before seen it for what it was almost as it was happening.

I know many people are driven by the desire to control. That’s never been my thing, and I have never really understood it. Until now. I still don’t have a felt sense of need to control, but I do see how the compulsion works now. I recognise my own version – the need to understand.

Illuminating and amusing… I’m still going to read the material that I asked for…

Whale watching

Whale watching is really such a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life. I spent a good part of the weekend gently watching Walker Bay. As I walked along the cliff paths; as I sat having brunch; as I sat watching the sun go down. And I was rewarded frequently with a water spout, a bit of flipper action, a full tail, and just occasionally a breach or two.

What struck me this time was that the whale sightings were wonderful, but not essential to the deep joy of being there. Simply gently watching the ocean was the thing that was working its magic on my soul. I probably wouldn’t have been watching if the whales hadn’t been a possibility, but the sightings this time weren’t particularly spectacular. But this time even the odd water spout was enough to retain my attention. Because actually the thing that was proving balm to my soul was watching the ocean.

I used to need much more to keep my attention. I think I used to need more in prayer too. Now the possibility of encounter is enough to keep me showing up. Because the thing that really matters, the thing that is really shaping me is the showing up.

What if…

Let’s presume we accept the idea that most religious traditions are trying to uphold something which is quite beautiful, inspiring and potentially truly transformative. Certainly as I pause and think of most major religions and most Christian denominations I can think of particular examples of people who are genuinely beacons of light. And the people I am thinking of would all say unequivocally that their practice of faith and prayer had been instrumental in making them the people that they are.

Let’s presume we also accept that most religious traditions have a shadow side. In most major religions and in most Christian traditions I can think of people who have been profoundly wounded by institutional religion. And likewise the people I am thinking of will all say unequivocally that it was the church that caused the problem.

And I know that this is why many end up choosing the ‘spiritual but not religious’ route.

But what if take seriously the possibility of a shadow side of the institution. What if those of us who have chosen to remain also choose to acknowledge the shadow. What if we open ourselves to the possibility of working with the shadow in the institution. In the same way that any committed relationship will require work with shadow material.

I guess part of the reason we haven’t so far, is that I have to be open to dealing with my own shadow material. If we use the analogy of committed relationship – the shadow material I really have to confront is my own. Maybe far to many of us who persist in institutional religion are there because it promises an escape from work we’d rather not do.

Ken Wilber talks about the ‘cleaning up’ aspect of spirituality – by this he means the psychological work of facing the shadow. I hope we can begin this work in our churches. So that the beauty which is there can once again be brought to the light.

The power of the persistent drip

Take a moment and image yourself pushing your hand through water. It doesn’t take much effort and the water yields.

That image seems a little incongruous with the image of stalactites and stalagmites. Or potholes carved into rock by the persistent drip, drip, drip.

It is time which is the factor which is hard to perceive. We know this place has been here a long time, but we have no experience of that passage of time in this place.

I spent some time recently browsing through the blog posts herein. It’s been nearly five years since I began this endeavour. The average word count per post is just under 350. With a little over 330 posts in that time that washes out at just under 115 000 words, just under 250 typed pages. I’m astounded I really didn’t think I had created that much!

But it is not the number of words which really moves me. It is the fact that in these brief snapshots, I can see that I have grown. I can see that I have learnt some good stuff along the way. It is a relief I suppose. When I am in the midst of the craziness of life, I hope things are shifting and occasionally it feels like they are. But in these posts I finally see it is true.

Writing a few hundred words a couple of times a week doesn’t feel like much effort. And yet over time, it has become something substantial.

 

There is a peace…

Jim Finley speaks of ‘a peace that can be found that does not depend on the conditions of peace.’ It is an interior condition which doesn’t require external circumstances to look like anything.

When we are searching for peace or interior freedom it is often relatively easy to find the source of our disquiet. Happily located outside of ourselves. And I am tempted to think one of two things. ‘I will not find peace until that changes’ or ‘If I can just change that then I will at peace’.

One aspect I love about Ignatius’ teaching on discernment is that it is clear that most things are in themselves are actually neutral. What is significant is what happens in me when I come into contact with that thing. Couple this with Jim’s idea that there is a peace that can be found which transcends my interaction with that thing, and I realise that the source of my disquiet may not be the thing, but my reaction to it.

The question then becomes why I am reacting to this thing which is not inherently harmful. What is it in me that is activated in an unhealthy way? What is my ‘hook’? When I can identify that the spectre of the thing loses much of its power. I may still need to be cautious, but I can be cautious and peaceful. I can be cautious and interiorly free.

Diversity is necessary

I have just come to the end of a two year spirituality course. Centering prayer is the method of prayer most strongly endorsed by the leaders of the course. My own formation has been in Ignatian spirituality – a very different lineage and method.

The immersion in the course taught me that both these systems are good. Both lead to encounter with God, both lead to deep inner transformation.

In a sense this is a pluralist view – there are many paths and all paths may be good.

But in recent weeks this has shifted to a more unitive position. For us as humanity to get a full sense of God the different paths are not simply good, they are necessary. I, as an individual, cannot walk all the paths. I will always favour one method over another, but for the glory of God to be revealed we need people to walk different paths. Between us we have the revelation of God.

For the whole to be revealed, I must be true to my path, you must be true to your path, and we must learn to have a conversation.

Diversity is necessary and we need to learn how to engage with deep curiosity about the gift the other has been given through following their path.

The symphony requires each instrument to be true to their part.

Facing the past

The idea of exploring our past to come to some kind of inner healing is not that old. Depending where you are in the world, it is probably only those who are just now becoming grandparents who really began to explore in a systematic or therapeutic setting how the past has shaped them.

That process tends to follow a similar pattern to grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

We seem to be at a new phase now where we are having to face into the way the past has shaped us collectively. We seem to be caught in a perpetual loop of denial and anger. For some the pain is too evident to deny and the anger drips from every word. For others, the individual response – ‘I wasn’t there’, ‘It wasn’t my action; my choice’ predominates.

The question I have is how do we learn to move through all of this as a society together? Each country, each community has its own pain. This is work for humanity. This seems to me to be the work of the 21st century. Who will be our leaders?

Low expectations

Over the last year there have been three instances where I have been blessed with low expectations. I know that we are accustomed to thinking of that in a negative sense. But what I am trying to convey is that I have been willing to simply show up and let the experience and interactions unfold as they may.

The three instances I call to mind are all significant. Not one is trivial in any sense. All were potentially fairly high stakes. And yet, I was able to simply show up and let it unfold.

There is tremendous freedom in low expectations. I guess as I reflect on the essence of the attitude, I realise that it is that I don’t need anything in particular from the encounter. I am willing to receive whatever comes my way.

Such an attitude is a grace – I cannot will myself to desire anything other than that which I desire.To be open to receive whatever comes in the absence of specific desire is a real gift. I can be present to what unfolds as it is, without it needing to be other. As a result I am able to notice the gifts of what is, without regretting that which I hoped for.

I hope the grace of low expectations will take root in my life.

Honesty

David Whyte is a writer of poetry and prose. He writes on things which deeply move the human spirit. In his book ‘Consolations’ he writes about honesty.

‘Honesty is reached through the doorway of grief and loss…┬áThe ability to speak the truth is as much the ability to describe what it is like to stand in trepidation at this door, as it is to actually go through it and become that beautifully honest spiritual warrior, equal to all circumstances, we would like to become. Honesty is not the revealing of some foundational truth that gives us power over life or another or even the self, but a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence, where we acknowledge how powerless we feel, how little we actually know, how afraid we are of not knowing and how astonished we are by the generous measure of loss that is conferred upon even the most average life.’

a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence

This certainly rings true for me. It seems to me that there are two different levels at which we can engage with honesty. The simpler level at which we can choose to reveal what we know to be true or we can conceal it or actively deceive. This is not complex.

But it is clear, to me at least, that there is also a subtler level. And here there is a spectrum. The degree to which I am able to be honest is the degree to which I am willing to enter my own wounded spaces, my own vulnerability. It speaks directly against any kind of ‘brutal honesty’. Whyte goes on to write:

‘Honesty is not found in revealing the truth, but in understanding how deeply afraid of it we are. To become honest is in effect to become fully and robustly incarnated into powerlessness.’

I pray for the grace of courage, I desire to be ever more honest. This quality of honesty cannot help but be clothed in compassion.

Asking questions

I’m not quite sure why I find asking questions difficult. I have a theory, but mostly it is a story I have told myself to make sense of some of my quirks.

In the last year I have begun to ask questions. The last month or so has taught me that my default of trying to operate out of my assumptions is just a recipe for distress.

I am beginning to recognise that actually whatever I may have to say will be far better received if I begin by inquiring about the current paradigm.

Before I offer my solution, to say: I think we have a problem, what do you see?

Before I offer my insightful advice, to ask: where do you think you are?

It is ridiculously simple, but sometimes subconscious messaging can mean we overlook the glaringly obvious.