R is for Rules

Following on from my recent post about questions and their value in our spiritual lives, I’ve been thinking about rules.

Rules can also be a useful tool in progressing in the spiritual life. I’m not thinking of rules imposed by outside agencies, but ones that we develop for ourselves (though we may choose to discuss what they might be with a group of people we trust).

Our spiritual lives need discipline to progress, just like an athlete or musician needs discipline to practice regularly; a student needs discipline to study consistently and to submit essays on time; a gardener needs discipline to dig and to sow and then to wait for the fruit and flowers in due course.

apples

So what rules am I imposing on myself at present?

 

To remember to walk mindfully

To have some quiet time every day – ideally meeting for worship or sitting meditation, but it might be a mindful activity

No more than 15 minutes sitting meditation at one time (there are times when I could just go on sitting for an hour or more and it’s a temptation I feel I need to resist)

No more than an hour sat at the computer (at any one time)

Some practical, hands on, activity everyday (eg food preparation, washing up, gardening, knitting, cleaning – depending on what needs to be done and my physical ability that day)

allotment

Write a blog post every week

Go to sangha meetings once a month

To be gentle with myself – if in doubt, rest

 

What rule might be helpful to you?

 

R is for R S Thomas

I have just spent a glorious few days at Woodbrooke immersed in the poetry of R S Thomas. R S was a clergyman and poet who lived and worked and spent his retirement primarily in North Wales. Born in Cardiff in 1913, his was privately educated in English, but money ran short and he entered the church because that gave him the opportunity of a university education. He did his best as a pastor, though it does not seem to have been his natural calling. He always regretted that he had not learnt Welsh as a child (though it was his mother’s tongue), but learnt as an adult to communicate better with his parishioners. Though he spoke and wrote prose in Welsh, his poetry is written entirely in English. He was a loner, an introvert, a keen bird-watcher and walker. He was a pacifist and campaigned for nuclear disarmament.

Much of the poetry is very bleak, observing the harshness of life in the welsh hills and the loss of the welsh language and culture. But the real attraction for me (and many others) is the poetry where he expresses his searching for God. He grasps the emptiness; the absence that is yet, somehow, also a presence; the tantalising, passing experience that God is there, or was here a moment ago. He glimpses Eternity/Heaven/Paradise and then loses it again. And, depending on our backgrounds, the members of our group said ‘but clearly he was a Quaker/ Buddhist/Sufi/Mystic.’

As an taster, here is one of his poems that really struck me:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

Bardsey

And one that gives some context as well as recounting a fleeting, yet eternal, experience:

The Moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot, breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cessation
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

Q is for Questions

As I have been dwelling on the topic of ‘questions’ over the last few weeks, wondering what to write, I’ve remembered a song I learnt as a young Guide (aged about 11) which we knew as ‘Canadian Taps’ and sang to the tune ‘Tannenbaum’:

 

Softly at the close of day

As our campfire dies away

Silently each Guide must ask

Have I done my daily task?

 

Have I kept my honour bright?

Can I guiltless sleep tonight?

Have I done and have I dared

everything to be prepared?

 

I have a distinct memory of my grandmother banning the singing of this, but she had heard the tune (which is perhaps best known as the tune of the Red Flag) not the words. My sister and I protested strongly that what we were singing was something quite different to what she thought. However, it is little used in Guide circles for just that reason.

 

I still find the idea of reviewing the day and asking myself how well I have done is appealing. Though I have to remember that it should be without berating myself. I need to forgive myself and then resolve to do better tomorrow. And I have to remember to ask the question – the end of the day is not my best time!

fire 3

Much more recently (a year or so ago), I pinned up, where I saw it every morning:

‘what am I going to do today to make the world a better place?’

That is a big question, though small answers are allowed, especially since it is a one day at a time sort of question.

 

What questions am I working with now?

 

How can I reduce my carbon footprint?

What is stopping me taking action to reduce my carbon footprint?

How can I help myself and others to overcome these barriers (many of them emotional, some of them practical) so as to become ‘a low carbon, sustainable community?

 Leeds MH

What new activities should I undertake? (If any.)

What activities should I lay down?

What should I be prepared for?

 

Of all my outstanding tasks, which should I do first?

How can I clear some of the clutter from my life? (Both physically and spiritually.)

What did it feel like to fall in love for the first time?

 

Am I doing my best to live by my guide promise and the five mindfulness trainings?

Am I taking heed of the promptings of love and truth in my heart?

Am I trusting them as the leadings of God?

 

What does Love require?

goose path

 

Q is for Quagmire

Quagmire – noun:

  1. a soft boggy area of land that gives way underfoot
  2. an awkward, complex, or hazardous situation

Different traditions use different words. These may or may not be expressing different experiences. Words are always inadequate for expressing deeper spiritual truths, we have to use metaphor and poetry because we are not speaking of material things. Shared experience and shared cultural background is assumed when we use language in these ways, but it may not actually exist. Even between people from a very similar background any given word may have particular overtones that result in it having a subtly, or grossly, different meaning for each of them. When we use emotionally loaded words like God we step into a quagmire. Lots of other basic religious terminology is fraught with the same difficulties. When talking with people from different faith backgrounds the problems can be particularly acute.

We may become fearful of saying anything at all for fear of being misunderstood. Just as we may fear to step into a quagmire, a bog.

quagmire

As an example of the sort of difficulties that can be encountered, I recently attended a discussion meeting of my local SGI Buddhist group. I know many of the people in the group and have chanted and discussed with them fairly regularly over many years. On this occasion the group included one person who first language is Spanish and two (from Brazil) whose first language is Portuguese. The question before the discussion group was:

‘How can you apply the lion’s roar of ‘nam myoho renge kyo’ to develop the dignity of life in your environment?’

We had to have the question repeated several times in order to begin to grasp what it meant. The question had probably been asked originally in Japanese, the translation into English does not read very comfortably to a native English speaker. Even more difficult, I guess, when English is not your first language. And then, the emphasis of the discussion is to speak from our own experience, so we all need to use words that we, personally, are comfortable with. Some of us were puzzled by the meaning of ‘lion’s roar’, ‘dignity of life’ and ‘your environment’. Is ‘your environment’ my personal environment; the physical environment (locally or the whole planet) that we are may be working to protect; my emotional environment; my workplace environment? Does ‘dignity of life’ refer to not killing anything; to treating life with respect but accepting death as part of life; is it about war or about being vegetarian? Then there is the word ‘develop’ – I won’t explore that one, because I’m not at all sure that I’ve remembered the correct word!

Some spoke of the strength that they gain from chanting ‘nam myoho renge kyo’ and clearly understood something of the metaphor of the ‘lion’s roar’. Others talked about how their environment, their immediate surroundings, are part of the wider environment, and linked this to experiences where a change in themselves, in their attitude (however small), actually led to changes in their surroundings, in their environment. I spoke about seeing the dignity of life in political leaders with whom I disagree, leading to my being able to feel compassion for them (see last week’s post). One person felt the need to speak in her native Portuguese and her friend translated. It is very hard to speak of deeper experiences in a language that does not come easily to the tongue.

Despite all the difficulties, I felt that we were actually sharing well on a deeper level, because everyone listened very attentively and tried to hear beyond the specific words to what the speaker really meant.

Now I’m going to risk the quagmire of translating. In the Community of Interbeing we call this ‘deep listening’, among Quakers we speak of ‘hearing where the words come from’. At least, that is my understanding of the experience.

P is for Palestine, Israel and Gaza

The situation in Palestine/Israel and especially Gaza was very much in the news as Quakers gathered in Bath for YMG. There was much concern among Friends and a huge desire to DO something. Quakers have taken a lot of interest in the situation in the region over many years, administer the EAPPI programme on behalf of Churches Together and support the Friends School at Ramallah. In 2011 we took the more controversial step of announcing our support for a boycott of goods from the occupied territories. While doing this we have tried, nationally and locally, to maintain good communications with Jewish and Muslims groups. In my own small way I am involved in my local interfaith group for whom I arranged a speaker from the Friends of the Bereaved Families Forum and I try to buy products from Zaytoun (olive oil etc) to support positive trade relations with Palestine.

That’s the background, but here we were in Bath with a huge crisis in Gaza and it was too late to put the issue on our agenda because we hadn’t time to ensure that we all had the facts to hand to consider the matter properly.

Fortunately an opening was created. We were offered a time in the big top to hold a meeting for worship to ‘hold in the Light’ the situation in Gaza and in other areas of conflict in the world, of which there are too many, some of which have considerably worsened since.

So on the evening of Thursday 7 August several hundred of us gathered to uphold those in Palestine, Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere. Despite tiredness and many fascinating alternative activities I felt that attending this meeting for worship was an important thing to do. There was much heartfelt spoken ministry, but what I was most aware of was a change deep in myself.

I went to this meeting distressed by the human suffering: death, maiming, bereavement, fear. As I sat in the silence I realised that while these things are very upsetting and people need support to cope with them, they are part of the human condition. Dying is part of life, injury is part of life, though it being inflicted in war and conflict should not be. They are not good things, but they are not evil, not inherently wrong in and of themselves. The infliction of suffering by shooting; firing rockets; dropping bombs; ordering the use of weapons; sending troops into war; planning attacks; manufacturing and selling armaments – these are all wrong, they are evil. They are evil because of the damage they do to the perpetrators as well as to those killed and injured. I suddenly saw the need for love and compassion for those who do these things, especially the leaders. I found that I could send love and compassion to the fighters, leaders and politicians as well as to the injured and bereaved. And, as the days have gone by, I continue to send love, compassion, metta to those people in my daily upholding prayer. It’s a small thing, but better than nothing, and a valuable addition to sending money, via the DEC, to help relieve the suffering.

In Quaker terms I yielded my concerns to God’s guidance, held them in the Light, and they and I were transformed. In Buddhist terms I looked deeply into the situation, meditated on it and saw it more clearly. There is clearly room for more transformation, for deeper understanding, but each small step encourages me to continue the journey.

The day after the meeting for worship, Yearly Meeting Gathering was able to agree a public statement (subject to a careful, Quakerly rechecking so that we didn’t cause any unintended offence to any party) on the situation in Gaza. So now I need to contact my MP to encourage action by our government in line with our requests in the statement. And to uphold our politicians as they are pressured towards supplying arms, and possibly military intervention, in other places too.

P is for Preparation

I was thinking about this as I prepared to go to YMG (Yearly Meeting Gathering of the Relgious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain held in Bath 2-9 August 2014). Preparation at all sorts of levels was much in my mind.

I was to co-facilitate a couple of group sessions during the week. My co-facilitator and I had exchanged some emails and then had a long detailed telephone conversation, so that our sessions were prepared in detail and we had ideas about how to be flexible to accommodate differing needs and variable numbers.

Then there were the other practicalities from packing enough clothes to not carrying anything unnecessary on the train, from booking accommodation to buying tickets. Some of these were done months in advance, others can only be done close to the last minute.

Alongside this was the spiritual preparation and we had been sent some questions to mull over, discuss and attempt to answer ,to help us consider the theme ‘what does it mean to be a Quaker today?’. A particular focus of our thinking was what it means to each of us to be a member (or not) of the Religious Society of Friends and whether coming in to membership (if we had) was a transformative experience.

For me my first attendance at meeting for worship was transformative. By the time I had crossed the room and occupied one of the empty seats that were placed in a single square around the sides of the room, I was certain that I was in the right place, that this was my spiritual home. Over the next couple of years I moved, geographically, several times, and did not apply for formal membership until I was in a locality where I expected to stay for the foreseeable future (I’ve actually stayed in that meeting for over 30 years). My sense at the time of becoming a member was that it was a matter of acknowledging publicly the truth of my relationship with my meeting and with the Society. I understand that I share that experience with others.

Although the process of becoming a member did not feel transformative at the time, it has had long lasting effects. In particular, one of the visitors appointed, the one I’d never met before, became a good friend and has been a gentle mentor to me ever since. Some years later, when we were both in the same local meeting, she and I served as overseers. Neither of us being ‘natural overseers’, we learnt a lot together as we tried to fit what we could offer to what the meeting wanted.

With the benefit of hindsight I see many of my previous experiences as preparation for things I have done since, especially service I have given in the Society. In the 1980s I spent some time as a community service volunteer and was hosted by a Quaker family. When I became clerk of my meeting many years later I realised how much I had learnt while living with the clerk of another meeting and his family all those years ago, about dealing with the very assorted inquiries that come to the clerk of a meeting. I’d also learnt a great deal about clerking by going to business meetings at local, area and yearly meeting levels, hearing and seeing how business was done, how minutes were written, and generally by participating in the process. On the clerks’ training course at Woodbrooke we were told that e already knew what we needed to be clerks and I found that to be true (but I was very glad to have the course to show me that).

So what I am now being prepared for? What might my Buddhist experiences be preparing me for? I think that they may offer other ways of facilitating learning for others, improve my listening, help me to understand more deeply the causes of suffering. I hope they enable me to offer something more to help someone in some way.

Deep down I’m a girl guide, I’ve promised to ‘… help other people …’ and I’ve taken on board the motto ‘Be Prepared’.

O is for Open

The word open seemed to keep cropping up this week, maybe it’s because I’ve been looking out for an ‘o’ for this blog post.

I was at a Kindlers’ workshop ‘fruits of the Spirit’ last Saturday, making some notes as part of the process and the word ‘open’ occurred repeatedly. Early in the day we were asked several questions, with the opportunity to make brief notes of our responses, and then to share as much as we wished to with another member of the group.

‘When did you feel affirmed?’ we were asked. ‘When really listened to. Listening well requires openness from the listener (and the sharer)’, I noted.

open6

‘What does hope feel like in the body?’ My quick response was ‘relaxed, open’. Someone else offered ‘ready to sing’.

‘How have you cultivated the qualities of the Spirit in your life?’ we were asked. ‘Listening, practising, responding, being open’ I noted.

open1

We also considered what we meant when we use gardening metaphors for growing the fruits of the Spirit. In looking at what it may mean to wait for fruition and harvest, it was suggested by members of the group that we need to:

be open to the process of growth;

recognise that we can’t achieve perfection (there will be some bad apples as well as some sound ones);

recognise the fruits wherever we find them (the blackberry in the hedgerow is as good a blackberry as the one from the plant in the garden);

acknowledge the results in ourselves and others (the potatoes have done really well, but we need to think again about how we protect the lettuces).

open9

As I thought about openness and being open during the course of the week, I remembered several references in Advices and Queries:

Are you open to the healing power of God’s love?

Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?

open7

As we wait patiently for divine guidance our experience is that the right way will open and we shall be led into unity.

open3

When experiencing great happiness or great hurt we may be more open to the working of the Spirit.

open8

It was also the week for my monthly reading and consideration of the five mindfulness trainings, and I particularly noticed:

I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

open4

As I prepare to go to Yearly Meeting Gathering next weekend, it comes to me that I need to be open to what that will bring, what others will bring to it, what I can offer. I need to be:

open minded

open handed

open hearted

open spirited

open5

O is for Opportunities

Opportunities for mindfulness

‘Woodbrooke is full of opportunities’ said Murray ‘there are stairs everywhere. Everytime you climb the stairs it can be an opportunity to do so mindfully.’

‘What if you forget?’

‘You have to go down and start again – that’s a buddhist joke’ we were told.

 

All our activities of daily living can be opportunities for mindfulness if we remember to see them that way, but this particular example of the teaching has stayed in my mind. Especially as I could immediately see that my workplace was similarly full of steps and stairs, being a converted building. That gave me a good way of continuing the practice when I got home from the retreat.

surgery

This year my workplace has moved and we are now in a modern building with full disabled access and I can avoid stairs completely if I choose to (and there are days when my walking (in)ability makes me glad to). This has meant I’ve needed to look for other reminders to mindfulness. Here are some of my current favourite opportunities:

 

Walking – to work, home from work, down the corridor at work (It may be level, but it is long and the staff toilets are at the far end!)

walk

Signing in to the computer. At work my passwords use words or reminders of phrases that remind me to be mindful. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you exactly what they are, but you can think of some for yourself I’m sure.

 

Preparing vegetables. I used to fill the kitchen with the news on the radio while I prepared food, but increasingly I prefer to just prepare food. That tends to mean I know less about what the news reports are saying and I am aware need to watch the balance there.

 

Washing up. Ditto to preparing vegetables.

 

Fruit picking, weeding, generally working on the allotment and being present and aware of the natural world. If I could cultivate this attitude to housework the house might get cleaned!

weeds

My current challenge is to remember any of these good intentions beyond 8am.

N is for Non-attachment

Recently I spent a couple of days helping Rhiannon sort out and pack her belongings in preparation for moving from her own flat back to our house for an unknown period of time. Our house is fairly small, and in her eight year absence we’ve spilled over into the extra space. Meanwhile she has accumulated many, very useful, possessions.

Now it was time to say: that won’t be needed again, so it must go; that’s worn out, so it goes too; that’s really useful, but I don’t need it while I’m sharing, so we’ll have to find somewhere to store it. The once-read never to be re-read novels went; the worn-out clothes went; the electrical kettle needs to be stored.

At my end I was finally motivated (and fortunately had the energy) to sort out boxes and boxes of guide paperwork that I’d saved for years. If I haven’t used the activity in ten years I’m not likely to now – it can go. I’d saved magazines for ideas, but I’m never short of ideas, and there’s the internet now, so the cupboard was emptied of magazines (I could hardly move the recycling bin afterwards!).

All good practice of non-attachment to things.

But non-attachment is not just about our attachment to things. It is not, I feel, primarily about throwing things out.

In considering the ‘things’, I find I’ve also been considering what else I’m attached to.

I’m attached to routines, to ways of doing things. There is nothing wrong with routines per se. They can save a lot of wasted effort and avoid me forgetting details. Getting up, washing, dressing, eating breakfast, getting to work – all hugely easier with a regular routine. But if something unusual crops up, be it a problem (eg can’t walk properly this morning), or a delight (how about a day out while the weather is so lovely), being too attached to a routine can be a problem eg I can’t go out with my friends this evening because I always go to bed at 9.30pm; eat my meal at 6pm; or whatever. I need to be able to let go. I may have a routine for housework; or food purchasing; or going to meeting for worship. But I need to be able to let go; to let someone else do it; to leave it undone; to do something different.

Then I started to think about emotional attachments, and attachments to people. Am I too possessive? Too keen to be in control? I need to let people around me have their own space. I like to think I’m available to listen, but maybe people don’t need to talk. I want to ensure that the guide unit continues, but I need to let others run the activities; devise the programme; learn by doing for themselves. I need to ask for help, but not be too demanding; to be grateful for support and company, but remain as independent as possible; to accept the disabilities that come and go without being too attached to my abilities or my disabilities.

The more I think about non-attachment the clearer it is that it’s a lot more than throwing out some old junk.

N is for News and how we react to it

This week’s news of the conviction of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of indecent assault made me think about how I react to items in the news.

I’m not generally a follower of celebrities, but I was a Rolf Harris fan, watching on television as a child and, once, being taken to see a live show – at Yarmouth Hippodrome if I remember rightly. When the accusations had become public I’d had to think through how I felt, so when friends commented on facebook following his conviction, I was able to contribute: ‘It’s very difficult. But I’m sure that people who do bad things aren’t bad all of the time, they do good things too, and those can be genuinely good things to have done. Surely nobody is totally evil or totally good.’

Much more strikingly, years ago in July 2005, I was at work when someone in the office picked up from the internet and read out the news of the shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes. Of course, we didn’t even know his name then. My immediate response was ‘I wish they hadn’t shot him’. My colleagues almost all took issue with me over this, arguing that he was clearly a terrorist, that the police knew what they were doing, that it was essential that they defend themselves and us. I, a bit surprised at the strength of my own reaction and conviction, had to argue my case. I think the initial response came from a total conviction that killing people is wrong, but I was also able to say that now he was dead he could not be questioned, could not give any more information, and that the police might be wrong, that he may not have been intent on becoming a suicide bomber. Interestingly, at least one of my colleagues remembered my reaction, when it later came out that Jean Charles de Menezes was totally innocent.

Much more usually I fail to respond at all. I’m not sure what to say, and so I say nothing.

But what is striking me this week is how powerful a situation this is, how we have the opportunity to put a different view by our reaction to items in the news that are in people’s minds, by our responses to these matters when they come up in conversation.

So, returning to Rolf Harris, an conversation began in the office about how long a sentence he would get, how long he would serve, how long people should serve. I was able to contribute some views in favour of assuming that people can change, and that people need hope. To lock someone up for life with no hope gives them no incentive to do anything positive at all. To lock someone up may protect others from that person’s actions, but does nothing to prevent any one of us becoming a child molester or murderer. We all need to try and see things from another person’s point of view, to see what really causes people to commit crimes, to understand how we need to change things to reduce the risks to everyone.

So, I shall be looking out for more opportunities in the future, and doing some hard thinking too, about all sorts of issues, so as to be better prepared to contribute.