My revolution: only connect

Photo credit: Katherine Pangaro (katypang at flickr.com)

This week, Danielle Laporte asked another really great question: “what do you want to revolutionize?”

This question could not be more timely for me. For the past two months, I have felt a drive to clarify and refine my mission: why am I here? what is my practical purpose in this lifetime?

Over the past week, the penny has dropped: I am all about deep connection, within the self, with other people and beings, with Life itself; not as an action, but as a way of being, a way of unfolding.

We often experience ourselves as separate. We seem apart from one other, and from other beings and things: ‘I’ am separate from ‘you’, from this bed, from my pet dog, from the ground on which I walk; you and I have different backgrounds, religions, genders, skin colours, abilities, desires, so different that we find it difficult sometimes even to imagine how to connect with one another.

We even experience ourselves as separated from ourselves, into different personae: this is the ‘me’ that shows up at work, this is the ‘me’ that goes to bed with my lover, this is the ‘me’ that goes to dinner with my parents. Or we think of ourselves divided into ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ traits, some of which we embrace and some of which we try to get rid of, or into ‘me then’ and ‘me now’. Too often, we feel fragmented, lonely, frustrated and angry.

Above all, if we’re honest with ourselves, we feel unsafe and afraid.

Photo credit: openDemocracy on flickr.com

But this separateness is not true. Deep connection is the natural state of affairs, even if that’s not how we experience life. We can see the truth of that in our breathing: we breathe in air, and all the organisms and molecules in it; we breathe out carbon dioxide, which enables trees and plants to breathe and live; the trees and plants in turn breathe out oxygen, which enables us to breathe and live. We can see it in our eating: we incorporate other lifeforms into ourselves, literally into our bodies.

We can see it in our society, economy and culture: as much as the dominant way that each of these three operates seems to keep us separated, fragmented and unable to connect with one another, in fact they all rely completely upon our deep interconnection, not only locally, but globally. Through the work of scientists, we now know that deep connection is even the truth of how physical reality itself is made up at the most fundamental level.

Deep connection is our birthright.

It is as natural as breathing, as essential to our well-being and as central to our existence.

Looking back over my life, I realise that everything I’ve done that has meant a thing to me, everything has been about recognising, deepening and living connection: from protesting nuclear weapons, to co-founding Birmingham Bi Women’s Group, to being in a workers’ collective delivering locally grown organic vegetables, to working as an aromatherapist, to teaching, to writing poetry, to celebrating the changes of the seasons, to learning with NCBI, to working in community development, to marrying and burying people. Connection, connection: only connection.

No-one can give you deep connection, nor take it away. It is yours, irrevocably. But the experience of deep connection can sometimes be blocked.

The core of my mission, my revolution, is to find and release the blocks to deep connection. I’m doing okay with that myself, these days, doing my healing work, committing to practices that bring the experience of deep connection into my everyday reality.

My next step is to help you to do the same.

What does deep connection mean to you? Where do you feel it flowing freely in your life? Where is your experience of it blocked?

The difference between religion and spirituality. (Identity, authenticity, action.)

Back when I was a mentor at The Interfaith Seminary, the question came up again and again from the students I was supporting of the difference between religion and spirituality.

For some of them, this was a matter of having rejected religion and embraced spirituality; for others, they were strongly committed to their religious faith and community, and could not imagine separating spirituality out from that.

In an era when mainstream religion appears to be declining, while both spirituality without religion and fundamentalist ‘our way or the highway’ religion appear to be on the increase, this question about the differences and relationship between religion and spirituality is an important one.

As a mentor, in order to help my own understanding and thus better support the students, I came up with two sets of questions:

Am I a good…

Christian?

Muslim?

Jew?

Buddhist?

Taoist?

Student of A Course In Miracles?

Sikh?

Pagan?

Hindu?

For it to make sense to answer ‘yes’ to these questions, one would have to identify as a member of that particular religion, faith or spiritual tradition, and – where necessary – accept its tenets and dogmas.

This is the core issue with religion that I see both in people who reject religion in favour of spirituality, and those who seek to impose their faith and dogma on the whole world:

Group identity and individual authenticity are pitted against one another.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the many things I learned from my training in Interfaith Ministry was that there is a deep well of wisdom and spirituality at the heart of each and every religion, regardless of how it has been practiced by its followers over the centuries, and what has been done in the name of its God(s).

So here is the second set of questions to consider:

In this moment…

Do I love God/the Source of All/the Universe? Do I love and forgive my neighbour and myself? What fruit do I bear?

Am I surrendered to God/the Source of All/the Universe?

How am I expressing my humanity? Do I have a living relationship with God/the Source of All/the Universe?

Do I practice loving-kindness?

Do I allow everything its own nature?

Am I willing to be as God/the Source of All/the Universe created me?

Do my deeds sing a love song to God/the Source of All/the Universe?

Do I relate to humans, animals, plants, minerals and spirit beings with reverence and love?

Am I free of ego-attachment?

Each question or set of questions relates to the equivalent faith in the previous set of questions, but these questions can be answered freely by anyone, regardless of their religious identity.

They are a set of questions not about identity, but about emotion, action, integrity and authenticity.

When we look beyond the identity of a religion or faith group, and instead look to the roots of its spirituality, we see that at the core of each faith there is fruitful wisdom and a challenge to each one of us as human beings.

This does not mean that we can ignore the injustices carried out in the name of religion, but it gives us the tools to challenge the people who carry them out in the terms of what they say they are, and what they claim as the source of their values.

Science Fiction Wisdom: ‘Nusuth’ – The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula le Guin

” ‘The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a god or not… It was an introverted life, self-sufficient, stagnant, steeped in that singular “ignorance” prized by the Handdarata and obedient to their rule of inactivity or non-interference. That rule (expressed in the word nusuth, which I have to translate as “no matter”) is the heart of the cult, and I don’t pretend to understand it… Nusuth, the ubiquitous and ambiguous negative of the Handdara…”

Ursula le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is an incredible novel. Written in 1969, in the year of the first human steps on the surface of the moon, and at the height of the early second wave of feminism, its setting and story address questions of the dual and the non-dual through climate, gender, sexuality, political complexity, political oppression, and spirituality.

The story begins when Genly Ai, an envoy of The Ekumen – a sort of intergalactic League of Nations – travels to the planet Gethen, which is in an ice age, to invite the nation of Karhide to join The Ekumen.

The residents of Gethen are genderless, until it comes time for them to mate, when they may take on either female or male reproductive physiology, depending upon the dynamics of the relationship between them. The nation of Karhide is a monarchy, while their neighbour, Orgoreyn, is a totalitarian state.

The Handdarata

The Handdarata are adherents of the Handdara faith of the nation of Karhide, which le Guin apparently based upon Taoism. The title of the novel is part of a Karhide Handdara poem, which begins “Light is the left hand of darkness”.

The central concept of their religion, according to Genly Ai’s narrative, is nusuth – a word which he translates as “no matter”, which could imply that to the Handdarata nothing matters, and all is of no consequence. However, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that nusuth is a much deeper and more profound concept than this surface translation indicates.

There are other aspects of the Handdara religion which relate to the concept nusuth: firstly, “ignorance”, which in the Handdara context is regarded as a positive quality, an act of shifting attention away from abstract notions towards things themselves; secondly, inactivity or non-interference, rather like the Taoist concept of wu wei, which can be thought of as “doing without doing” –  simply following the natural unfoldment of the Universe, as a tree growing does.

Nusuth, peace and right action

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness, I was in the process of immersing myself in spiritual teachings – from Sufism to Shamanism, from Tarot to Taoism – which supported and drew one towards a surrender to Ultimate Reality and unconditional love. Nusuth and its associated concepts made an enormous impact on me.

At that stage in my life I was moving from a very rigid, fixed idealism based in political certainties, towards a more pragmatic but no less radical politics based on love, connection, and embodying the change I want to see in the world. The idea of nusuth – that nothing matters, that everything is, without need for my interference – was a pointer for me towards a brand new way of thinking.

To me, nusuth is not, as it might seem at first sight and as Genly Ai states, an invitation to stagnation, a giving up on the world, a counsel of despair. On the contrary, nusuth presented me then, and still presents me now with the possibility of complete freedom in inner thought and in outer action.

To know that ultimately nothing matters, that everything unfolds according to its nature, that no action from me is required, allows me inner peace and clarity. For the Handdarata, this inner peace and clarity enables them to see the future; for me, this inner peace and clarity enables me to engage in right action, in the flow of the natural unfoldment of my self, and in alignment with love.

What is your take on this Handdara idea? Does peace give you clarity for action, or do you need outrage to fuel you to do the right thing?

Science Fiction Wisdom: Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace – Battlestar Galactica (2000s)

The spiritual lesson from science fiction that I’m going to write about this week is not as simple, clearcut or easy to apply as the Litany Against Fear.

In fact, it’s downright disturbing, so disturbing that, if you are triggered into dissociation, PTSD, anxiety or any other unpleasant and life-limiting experience by talk of physical and mental abuse of children or (possibly) delusional mental states, I suggest you don’t read it.

It also contains spoilers for seasons 3 and 4 of BSG, so if you’ve not watched that far yet, you might want to bookmark this post to come back to when you have.

Now the warnings are out of the way…

What we know about Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace

Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace’s story through the five seasons of BSG is not a pretty one. For all that she’s a strong and in many ways admirable character, she is also seriously messed up. As far as I’m concerned, this messed-up-ness reached its apotheosis (reference intentional) in season 3 episode 17 (Maelstrom).

Kara’s story is long and convoluted. At this point in the series, we know that she has been captured by Cylons twice, and subjected by them to mental torture. We know that her mother subjected Kara to repeated physical, mental and emotional abuse from an early age, and that nothing Kara did was ever ‘good enough’.

The ancient mandala.

We know that a picture that Kara has been painting since she was a child is a close copy of a 4000 year old mandala of concentric rings, connected to the fleet’s mission of finding Earth. We know that she has been told by the Cylon Leoben Conoy – who is also one of the Cylons who subjects her to awful mental torture – that she has a special destiny, for which her mother, through the abuse, was attempting to prepare Kara. We know that Kara did not visit her mother in the two months before her mother’s painful death from cancer.

Destiny, vision or delusion?

The eye of the storm.

Near the beginning of the episode, while the fleet refuels, Kara, ‘Hotdog’ and Lee Adama fly over a gas giant planet, where Kara sees a Cylon raider, invisible to Lee and the crew back on the Galactica. Kara chases the Cylon fighter, which may or may not exist in reality, over the eye of a storm, which is identical to both Kara’s paintings and the ancient mandala. On a second visit to the planet, with Lee Adama flying on her wing, Kara again sees and follows a Cylon raider invisible both to Lee and to the instruments of the Galactica.

This time, her Viper is hit by the Cylon raider, and she is knocked unconscious. A series of dreams, memories and visions/delusions, guided by someone or something with the form of Leoben Conoy follows, focused around her mother and her death.

Kara’s painting

Kara goes to her mother’s deathbed, and holds her hand as she dies. Next to her mother on the bed a scrapbook of Kara’s life: all of her childhood drawings, school certificates, every single record of evidence of achievement in Kara’s life, large and small is there. Kara’s mother – according to this vision, or delusion – abused her daughter and withheld her approbation in order to make Kara strong enough to face the challenge of this moment, in which Kara finally faces and accepts death, flying down into the planet and allowing her Viper to be crushed, with her inside it.

Abuse and forgiveness

And that is what I find so disturbing about this particular and (almost) final episode in Kara’s story. How many times have abusers told children that what they are doing is “for your own good”? Is that ever true? No. Even if the abuser genuinely believes that, does it ever justify the abuse? Absolutely not. Even if the abuse leads the child to develop survival tactics, skills or other aspects of themselves that are useful and important in life, does that make the abuse okay? No, no, and no.

In Kara’s case, her experience could have been a genuine spiritual visitation, both from her mother’s spirit and from whatever spiritual agent was using the form of Leoben Conoy. Her experiences of Leoben and her mother could have been constructs created by Kara’s own mind, to make sense of and reconcile her past in the face of her destined death. The whole experience could have been a series of delusions allowing Kara to give in to suicidal urges.

Whatever the case, I am left questioning the message the writers intended us to take away. This is clearly a make or break point for Kara’s soul, one to which the rest of her life, all of her experiences, good and bad, and all of her own actions, effective and mistaken, have led her. The inner experiences she goes through immediately before she is crushed by the planet’s gravity seem to enable her to forgive both her mother for the abuse, and herself for her abandonment of her mother in her painful, lonely death to cancer.

But that does not make the abuse okay.

Too often, looking for the meaning and lessons in the difficult events that happen in our lives can become a way of side-stepping the very real experience of pain, loss, anger and grief which they raise within us. Forgiveness is vitally important, but it does not mean that what was done to us was okay, or, as Marianne Williamson puts it, that we need to go have lunch with an abuser and make nice.

Forgiveness and levels of experience

At the level of our day to day experience of pleasure and pain, and our childhood memories of the same, we are a separate being, acting on and acted upon by other, separate beings. There is individual praise, recognition, fault and blame, and individuals can and must be held accountable for their actions and inactions. At this level, forgiveness does not make sense unless it is accompanied by regret and remorse on behalf of the individual who has caused pain, and/or who is responsible for it.

At the level on which all beings are not only interconnected, but inseparably part of each other, forgiveness is a matter not of accepting another’s apology, but of cleansing and healing a wound in the body of the whole – there is no separate self to be attacked and hurt, no separate self to be singled out and held responsible and accountable.

At the level of Spirit, the meaning of forgiveness is different again. At this level, forgiveness is a recognition that the truth of who and what we are, individually or interconnected, has not been harmed – indeed cannot be harmed – and that therefore there is nothing to forgive; forgiveness becomes a recognition of the reality of wholeness, regardless of physical, emotional and mental circumstances.

But great harm can be done by trying to apply this Spirit-centred forgiveness to the other levels of our experience. To tell a victim of childhood abuse that not only should they forgive their abusers, but that in reality ‘nothing happened’ is to silence them and invalidate their experience.

Conversely, to try to bring someone who is working on the Spirit-centred level of reality back to an experience of victimhood and blame that they have already successfully worked through is deeply inappropriate and potentially harmful.

And to leave out work on our collective wounding and healing, which manifests itself through institutions, groups and interpersonal relationships, is to leave in place systems which have a tendency to encourage abusive and harmful behaviour even in individuals who are focusing deeply on personal responsibility and inner work, allowing blindspots around, for example, racism, sexism and able-ism to stay in place.

Kara’s situation

Coming back to Kara Thrace, given her reappearance later on in the BSG saga, I am willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt that Kara was, indeed, being guided by a force greater than herself to a destiny necessary for humanity as a whole; that in the face of such a destiny, forgiving her mother became a matter not only of necessity, but of simple acceptance of the truth of the situation. But I wouldn’t want to use Kara’s experience as a primer on forgiveness.

What is your take on Kara’s story? What is your experience of forgiveness? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Let us be truly with each other

You may have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet this month, as far as blogging goes. I’ve been working on several posts, but my energy is heading inwards, not spreading out. So instead of my own thoughts, I give you this prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh, which I found at the website of fellow Interfaith Minister Lisa Sarick:

As we are together, praying for peace,
let us be truly with each other.

Let us pay attention to our breathing.
Let us be relaxed in our bodies and our minds.
Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.

Let us be aware of the source of being

common to us all and to all living things.

Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,
let us fill our hearts with our own compassion
towards ourselves and towards all living beings.

Let us pray that all living beings realise
that they are all brothers and sisters,
all nourished from the same source of life.


Photo Credit: Premasagar Rose

Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the
cause of suffering to each other.
Let us live in a way which will not deprive other beings
of air, water, food, shelter, or the chance to live.


With humility, with awareness of the existence
of life and of the sufferings going on around us,

Let us pray for the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.

Know I am aware of you, breathing with you, praying with you. Blessed be. ♥

Equal marriage – because freedom of religion matters

I first ‘met’ Jane Carnall many, many years ago through an APA we were both members of (Amateur Press Association – a bit like a blog ring before the public Internet existed). I have always found her clarity of thought and her measured tone incredibly helpful.

Here, as a guest blogger at Heathen Hub, she turns her attention to the consultation on equal marriage in Scotland, and the support and opposition to it from different religious groups. She sums my feelings up exactly when she says:

Let the Bishop of Paisley and the Archbishop of Glasgow and the Cardinal of Scotland agree together that they must not, under any circumstances, enter into a same-sex marriage themselves with anyone, nor allow any Catholic priest in Scotland to celebrate a marriage between two men… or two women… That’s their right in a free country: to declare that such marriages are not valid in a Catholic church, no more than a marriage of two divorced people.

But it’s not their right in a free country to tell the Religious Society of Friends or the Humanist Society of Scotland or the Unitarian Church or the Pagan Federation or Sukkat Shalom or any other religious body what they should do.

A very enjoyable Saturday

Handfasting at Wickerman Festival, 2010

Happy couple, Ruth and Carol, under the Wickerman sculpture

Yesterday I got to conduct a handfasting somewhere I’ve always wanted to – at a festival!

The festival in question was Wickerman, a fabulous, friendly, family festival, which I’d always wanted to attend, especially given how close it is to home. The lovely Ruth and Carol gave me the most wonderful reason to go this year: conducting their handfasting.

We were all accompanied to the wedding stone, right underneath the Wickerman sculpture – which is set on fire as the highlight of the festival every year, as a tip of the hat to the 1973 film from which the festival takes its name. Family and friends gathered in a circle, as well as members of samba band Kings of Macumba whom Ruth had met just the evening before. That’s how friendly the festival was.

Despite low-lying cloud and competing sound from two of the music stages below, the weather stayed dry, everyone could hear, and the ceremony went off without a hitch – scripted and impromptu elements both.

At the end, another welcome stranger at the table appeared in the shape of a photographer for the Sunday Herald, Rob McDougall, who took the lovely shot above (that’s me at the back holding the quaich – click the photo for the story in the Herald).

Here’s to more festi handfastings!