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?

Difficult feelings: dealing with shame

Photo credit: Gabriel (http://flickr.com/photos/cod_gabriel) used under Creative Commons license

Of all the difficult feelings we can experience, shame is perhaps the most devastating.

I know for myself that nothing spirals me down into anxiety and depression faster.

This is not surprising. Shame can be described as judging oneself as having done something unacceptable, and finding not only one’s actions and their consequences, but one’s self wanting.

It is possible to feel shame without anyone else knowing about one’s actions or their consequences, but for myself, shame most often results when my mistakes and their consequences are on public view, and are judged by others as being unacceptable.

When I make a mistake but nobody else witnesses it, I can stay calm and correct things as far as is possible. In that situation, I may feel guilt about my actions and their consequences, but I do not find myself wanting.

When I do something that others find unacceptable but I disagree that it’s wrong, or I know things didn’t happen that way, I may feel angry that I am being misrepresented, or surprised at another’s moral compass, but it doesn’t affect how I feel about myself.

But when I make a mistake and am witnessed in the act, and those witnessing me make their anger, disgust or disdain clear, I feel ashamed, and am overcome by a desire to cover myself, for the ground to open up and swallow me, to disappear from public view.

Photo credit: Marc-Andre Lariviere (http://flickr.com/photos/marcandrelariviere) used under Creative Commons license

This feeling, rather than supporting me to get on and do all within my power to correct the mistake I have made and to mitigate its consequences, gets in the way of any action on my part. Instead of reaching out to right things, my urge is to contract inwards and shrink away from everything outside myself

So what can we do, when feelings of shame arise, to enable us to stay open and carry on engaging?

I had the opportunity (ahem) to consider this question just a couple of days ago. I made a mistake which could have had serious consequences for those around me, because my attention wandered for a moment. With the help of others, the situation was brought under control, but not without their anger and frustration with me being freely expressed.

I felt an intense feeling of shame, followed by strong anxiety and depression, and a desire to hide under the bed covers for the rest of the week, and possibly the rest of my life.

By observing myself through this experience, and noting what helped and what hindered me in my response to the situation, I came to the following list of actions to help us through shame.

The first thing is to keep breathing.

Constricting and interrupting our natural breathing pattern is one of the most common reactions to difficult feelings, yet nothing blocks our ability to process emotion and take positive action more effectively than when we stop breathing.

The easiest way to keep breathing is to concentrate on breathing out; when we reach the end of our out breath, our lungs fill naturally, gradually re-establishing a natural breathing rhythm.

The second thing is to find someone we trust and who is reliably non-judgmental, and get what has happened off our chest.

The emotional and mental relief and the physical release this enables allows our feelings to shift, and opens up the possibility of viewing our situation objectively.

The third thing is to think of how we would react if a dear friend had made the mistake we have just made, and offer that reaction to ourselves.

We are usually much more forgiving, supportive and helpful when faced with the mistakes of someone else who we love than we are when looking at ourselves.

Offering ourselves gentleness and forgiveness – without denying our responsibility for what has happened – can free us to respond to our situation constructively, and to look at how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

The final thing is to consider whether others’ reactions to us reflect our own beliefs about ourselves.

This is perhaps something best done some time after  the event, so may not be much help in the moment, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise.

Knowing ourselves better is always, in my view, a good thing. This kind of consideration can also help to interrupt the cycle of anger and resentment at others for their reactions to us, which can be so destructive of relationships and of our own peace of mind.

The repercussions of my actions, what might have happened, others’ reactions to me and my own reactions to the whole thing are still ricocheting about my body, my heart and my mind. I’m continuing to breathe into my feelings, to offer myself love and support, and to explore my beliefs about myself, as well as putting in place rules and routines for myself to prevent that particular mistake happening again.

I know I will make mistakes in the future; I know that some of them will be made in public, and may have serious consequences; I know that others will judge me, as I will myself. But I also know that, when this kind of situation happens again, I have a list of solid practices to enable me to respond constructively, and right things again as far as I can, without crumbling.

What is your experience of shame? Do you have a set of practices which help you maintain equilibrium and take positive action when shame arises?

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.

The power of failure

Back in November, I launched my course, Journey to the Heart of Faith. Straight away, I had two sign ups. I was really excited: a sixth of my goal for participants reached in the launch week! It looked like my course would be a success.

A month later, one of the sign-ups dropped out. Oh well, I thought, plenty of time still to reach my target of twelve participants. I advertised my course with Wild Sister magazine, pimped it out on Twitter and Facebook, and extended the Early Bird offer for my newsletter subscribers.

What response did I get? Nothing. Ne’er-y a single new participant signed up for the course.

A week before the deadline for course sign-ups, I reconciled myself to the idea that I might only have one sign-up for the course. And even more disheartening, that sign up had indicated in the sign-up message they’d sent that they weren’t even that interested in the focus of the course!

So I made a decision to see this failure as an opportunity. I emailed my one participant, and asked what appealed to them most about the course as it stood. Based on the reply, that their real interest was in Pagan spiritualities, I rewrote the course. I pared it back to its skeleton, its key themes and the process linking one to the next, and hung on it new flesh, exploring those themes through various Pagan paths, traditions and spiritualities. I passed the new outline past my participant, and they were delighted.

I started writing. And do you know what? I realised that this new course was fun for me, in a way I couldn’t have imagined happening with the original course. Through accepting my failure, and asking, “How can I serve?” in relation to the one participant who had signed up, I had unwittingly given up struggle, and stumbled into the flow.

The Universe had conspired to offer me an opportunity to let go and be carried on the wave of my own energy, flow and joy, through my failure at what I had set out to do.

This was a situation in which it was easy for me to do this: there was not a lot at stake – other than my ego – and while I had invested some time and energy into the direction of the initial course plan, I had not invested so much that it was hard for me to let it go. But I’m hoping that this small step of trust, in relaxing into what is, rather than what I wish would be, will act to strengthen my ability to trust, to relax, to let go in situations where much more is at stake.

There are situations where hanging in there, gripping on and keeping going is needed; then there are situations like this one. In the words of the Serenity Prayer:

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to the know the difference.

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?

More ‘negative’ feelings: ANGER!

The other night I received an email asking me to do something that someone had assumed I’d be up for. It would have involved a 700+ mile round trip, with probably no expenses payable, to do a job that I didn’t need to be there for, followed by another job that would probably take a full working week out of my life, all for free.

What was my immediate response? **** right off!

Of course, that wasn’t what I wrote in my reply; I do have an operational brain-mouth filter, even if it does sometime goes on the blink. My reply was polite, if to the point, and took account of the fact that the request was made in all innocence, with no awareness of my health, geographical or financial circumstances. But my immediate, gut level, outraged response was vitally important.

‘Negative’ feelings and self-knowledge

Our immediate emotional response to situations gives us valuable information, if we learn how to absorb it. My outraged response to the email I received told me that someone else had overstepped a line. Whether or not it was the sender’s intent to do so is irrelevant to my self-protective emotional reflexes – and rightly so.

Anger, like fear, is governed by the amygdala, which responds to immediate threat; it isn’t concerned with how I can navigate a situation maintaining friendly relations, only in flashing a great big red light telling me that something isn’t right, and could be about to go very wrong – for me.

I have learned to listen to and respect my anger. My anger lets me know when I am, or am about to be, taken for a ride, or treated like a doormat. It lets me know that my values or my dignity are about to be, or have already been, breached. In this way, it acts as a signpost to greater self-knowledge, showing where my boundaries are, and guiding me on whether, perhaps, those boundaries need to move.

My anger is not nice or pretty, but it is strong, and it demands that I respect myself.

Anger as information

I have also learned to treat my anger as one piece of information – important information, but only one piece among many – in making decisions and taking action.

Because it’s part of a threat alert system, it’s usually the first piece of information to reach my consciousness, all horns blaring.

When I was a child I would react immediately, not waiting for any further information, and as a result had the most spectacular temper. Any slight to my dignity, real or imagined, would get the same all out reaction. I was a very satisfying person to play practical jokes on.

As I grew up a little and realised that this kind of temper reaction was counter-productive, I took to sitting on my anger, squashing it so effectively that I would even deny having any. This fitted well with my ‘spiritual’ self-image, but did me absolutely no favours in terms of emotional and psychological health.

Now, finally, I’ve begun to learn to treat anger as what it is – neither a good basis on its own for action, nor a ‘bad’ or ‘unspiritual’ emotion, but part of my body’s survival system. As such, it is neither good nor bad, but simply is. It’s what I do with it, or because of it, that matters.

“Let fury have the hour, anger can be power; D’you know that you can use it?”Clampdown by The Clash

Anger can be powerful fuel for action. It points to areas that are out of kilter, whether within ourselves, in a relationship or in a society, and drives us to do something to put things back in order. But anger only gives us power if we give it space, and use it wisely – neither acting on it rashly and selfishly, in only our own narrow interests, nor squashing it down and denying it.

Like fire, anger can be dangerous – it can hurt or even kill if used carelessly or without skill, or left to its own devices. But it can also enhance life, even make life possible. Like fire, anger must be smoored – raked, banked up and covered over so that it does not burn out, nor die out, but retains its core of heat – to be fanned into life when it is needed, as fuel for action.

Fire, managed in this way, is always available to be used to cook a meal, heat water, give light, or scare away wild animals. It becomes the hearth, the centre of the home. Anger managed in this way can transform into focus, drive and energy for action and needed change. It can become a pathway to awareness of our deep connection with one another and with all of Life – a pathway to the heart.

I’d love to know your thoughts. What have your experiences been with skillful – and unskillful – anger and its effects?

The Meditatrix: meditation’s downside

I while back I found this very useful article by Douglas Todd, on the potential downside of meditation. Todd asks:

“But can meditation, contemplation and related practices encourage people to detach too effectively from their so-called negative thoughts, leading them to actually detach from life itself?”

To which my answer is, “Yes, but that can be remedied.”

Detachment and non-attachment

It’s important to remember that the purpose of meditation is not detachment. Even the most hardcore of Buddhists will use the term ‘non-attachment’ rather than ‘detachment’ – and, by the way, apply it to both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ thoughts.

The distinction between non-attachment and detachment a subtle but vital one. For me, the purpose of meditation is to still my mind in order to enhance my awareness. In my experience, detachment does not enhance my awareness, but blocks it; detaching is what I do when I feel overwhelmed, when I cannot cope with feeling, when life becomes too painful. Non-attachment facilitates awareness by making it possible to feel everything without overwhelm; non-attachment, in fact, reconnects me.

So how can we avoid falling into detachment?

Firstly, we can love ourselves, and not beat ourselves up about it. Our complexes can twist anything – including spiritual practice – into serving our fears.

Secondly, we can address whatever it is in our lives that’s making detachment and disconnection feel like such an attractive option right now. It’s (just about) possible to do this alone, but not recommended. Find help. Help can be in the form of a friend, especially an anam cara or soul friend, someone who may not be on exactly the same path as you, but who gets you, and what your path is about. Or you can find a counsellor or therapist who accepts the spiritual aspect of your life, and/or look for a spiritual counsellor.

Spiritual direction

Thirdly, we can seek support from a spiritual teacher, guide or director, who can keep returning us to what is important, what will truly serve our spiritual journey. One thing that I have found helpful in falling on the non-attachment rather than the detachment side, is being consistently brought up by my spiritual teachers against not only the first Grail question, “What is the secret of the Grail?” which points to our inner seeking, but also the second question, “Whom does the Grail serve?” which points us beyond ourselves, not to serving our own peace of mind only, but to serving God, the Divine, the Universe, Life, which requires us to connect deeply, with ourselves, with other humans, and with all other beings.

I’d love to know about your experiences with these questions. What has led you to wanting to disconnect, to detach? What has most helped you to reconnect?