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?

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.

A post of happiness and joy :-)

First, something to make you smile:

Now onto the main point of the post – which was also the point of the picture: happiness.

Happiness projects

There are several different projects to increase happiness going on around the world, and  thus around the Internet.

The very first Happiness Project I ever came across was the one started in the UK by Robert Holden. I met Robert at the A Course In Miracles group that he and his then wife Miranda Macpherson hosted at their house in Birmingham (UK). At the time, he was running the UK’s only NHS Happiness Clinic.

In 1996, the BBC broadcast a documentary featuring his work, called How to be Happy, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now The Happiness Project is a joint project between Robert, Ben Renshaw, Avril Carson and Ian Lynch.

Built on the insights at the core of mystical philosophies the world over, Robert’s work focuses on choice, gratitude, clarity, forgiveness and loving relationships. The Project’s work is largely built around books and courses to enable people to implement Robert’s proven tools, to increase their own happiness and that of the people around them.

The second Happiness Project I’ve come across is that of Gretchen Rubin, based on her book The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. 

As well as the website for the book, with videos and links to local groups. An associated website is The Happiness Project Toolbox, on which you can create your own toolbox of resolutions (both individual and group), personal commandments, inspiration, lists, brief journal, ‘Secrets of Adulthood’ and ‘Happiness Hacks’.

All I know about Gretchen Rubin and her Happiness Project is what I’ve read on her websites; certainly the toolbox looks like a good, practical, daily regime for increasing your happiness. It doesn’t appear at first glance to have the depth of Robert Holden’s work, but the simplest practices can reveal surprising inner vistas and joys.

The third Happiness Project is a music project of Charles Spearin.

Charles Spearin is a multi-instrumentalist who has been an active and influential member of Canada’s independent music community since the mid 1990’s. He is primarily known as a founding member of the instrumental post-rock ensemble Do Make Say Think and an original member of the indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene. Spearin’s most recent work – his first solo album – innocently titled ‘The Happiness Project’ centers around recorded conversations with his downtown neighbours and plays with the cadence of their voices as though they were songs.”

How about you? What have you found helps you to maintain inner happiness? What tools, techniques or attitudes of mind work for you?

How connecting with the earth can open the door of heaven

Yesterday I spent most of the morning making a video for my December spiritual practice email newsletter. (Of course, then I couldn’t get it to render properly — thank you, Mercury Retrograde — but that’s not the point of this post.) December’s newsletter is about grounding, connecting oneself energetically with the earth. I demonstrated four different methods for grounding in the video, and the video took three takes, so I was well and truly earthed by the end of filming!

When I took the dogs out for a walk shortly afterwards, I felt a sense of calm, peace and joy in the environment that I’ve not been aware of feeling for a very long time. Each leafless tree, each dried up plant, each rock, the sky, the stream, all seemed filled and overflowing with life: glowing.

When I was a teenager I sang in choirs a lot. One of the choral pieces that has stayed with me from that time, and that rang in my head as I walked among life’s glory yesterday, was a setting by Brahms of Psalm 84:

“How lovely are Thy dwellings fair, O Lord of Hosts.
My soul ever longeth and fainteth sore
for the blest courts of the Lord:
My heart and flesh do cry to the living God.
O blest are they that in Thy house are dwelling:
They ever praise Thee, O Lord, for evermore.”

Everything around me, from the smallest pebble and the lowliest worm to the flowing waters and the sky itself, was clearly the dwelling place of the Divine, of Life Itself at its most complete, its most ecstatic – and these dwellings were lovely indeed.

The experience of ecstasy is often associated with escape from the ‘earthly’, a journeying away from and stepping out of the world of form. The very word means ‘to stand outside’. When I have experienced ecstasy in that way, it has always been a sublime and transformative experience, but not one that I can easily hold onto, or integrate in day to day life. My experience yesterday, though, was one of grounded ecstasy – a realisation of the Presence of the Divine within the ordinary things and activities of the day to day.

I have heard teachers of Kaballah and other mystical traditions say that “you have to go down in order to go up”. The repeated grounding practices I did prepared and enabled me to have this realisation; I went ‘down’, connecting my energy to the earth, and was thus able to go ‘up’ into the experience of the Divine-in-all, while staying fully present in the world of forms.

I already knew how useful and important grounding practices are in keeping me on an energetically even keel. I now also have a renewed respect for and commitment to grounding practices as a path to integrating the heavenly and the earthly in my interactions and perceptions, as well as in myself.

How do you ground yourself? What, for you, are the benefits?

Science Fiction Wisdom: Litany Against Fear – Dune, Frank Herbert

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear;

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past,
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing:

Only I will remain.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read any of the Dune novels; I’ve only seen the film of Dune once, and I didn’t manage to follow what was going on.

But the Litany Against Fear still had a profound effect on me when I heard it spoken by Paul Atreides as he placed his hand in a device that causes excruciating pain, at the instruction of a member of the Bene Gesserit Order.

Paul Atreides with the leader of the Bene Gesserit order.

The possibility that fear was something that one could face, and come out the other side unscathed, was one I’d been introduced to before, but the idea that “only I will remain” struck me deep.

The context for the Litany is vast – far too vast for me to introduce here, even if I had read all of the Dune novels and properly understood it. What matters here, what struck home for me, was not the world created by Frank Herbert, but the lesson at the heart of the Litany itself.

Fear is a bad idea

The Litany, although short, to my mind is clearly divided into four sections.
The first is an injunction to the self: “I must not fear,” while the second is a really good reason why: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

A dead mind and total obliteration are pretty powerful negative motivators! If that’s what fear does, I sincerely want nothing to do with it!

But how not to fear? “Do not fear” seems to me rather like being told “don’t think of pink elephants.” Thankfully, the Litany doesn’t leave us hanging with the injunction and the reasons to follow it, but provides instructions to follow.

Fear must be faced

The third section gives the real heart of the Litany: the action which must be taken in order not to fear. “I will face my fear; I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”

Here, it seems clear to me that the Litany is instructing us that fear is to be treated as a separate entity. Regardless of what our experience tells us, or what psychologists discover, however much we may feel that fear is part of us, or even is who we are, in order to follow the Litany we must perceive it as something not of us, which we then face. Whether fear is or is not of us, the mental trick of displacing it to outside of us – but not projecting it onto another person or thing – allows the work of the Litany to be done.

Rather than fighting this fear which we have mentally displaced, the Litany instructs us to permit it to pass over and through us. We are to be passive in the face of fear, allowing it to flow through us, until it has gone – perhaps an appropriate analogy would be with allowing a container of water to be poured over us, and sink into the desert sands.

Fear is nothing

“And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing: Only I will remain.”

Here is the key to the Litany. Fear, which left unchecked could kill my mind and bring total obliteration, is nothing. No thing. I am real; fear is not. And it is only by allowing my fear, allowing fear to flow in me and through me, that I can come to learn for myself that fear is not real, by turning my inner eye to see its path, and seeing nothing – not even the tiniest trace.

Returning to the first line of the Litany, we see that it is perhaps not an injunction never to fear, but an injunction never to be possessed by fear, never to give it power over our thoughts, our minds, our selves.

And so endeth the first spiritual lesson from science fiction!

How do you manage fear? What spiritual lessons from science fiction (or, indeed, fantasy) have helped you through life?

Three spiritual teachers worth checking out

Today I’m giving you another recommendations post; this time, spiritual teachers.

I’ve chosen just three people to focus on, three people whose work I have experienced first hand. All three are mystics, all three live in or near the San Francisco Bay Area but teach internationally, and all three are, as far as I’m concerned, the Real Deal.

I don’t mean that they’re perfect: they’re still human beings with feet of clay. But what my experience of them tells me is that they can catalyse your spiritual development and help dramatically shift your perceptions.

Llewellyn Vaughan Lee

Llewellyn Vaughan Lee is a Sufi mystic and lineage successor in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order. His upbringing was in the UK, but he went to northern California to found the Golden Sufi Center after working for many years with Irina Tweedie, author of Daughter of Fire.

Llewellyn’s specialism is dreamwork, and he integrates the ancient Sufi approach to dreams with the insights of Jungian psychology. While Sufism traditionally eschews the concerns of the world, Llewellyn’s recent writing and teaching has focused on spiritual responsibility and global consciousness in this time of global crisis.

I have only attended two seminars with Llewellyn, and did not interact with him directly, but the quality of his presence and the simplicity of the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya meditation technique changed me profoundly.

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle is a Pagan, a mystic and an activist. Her body of work extends from teaching, mentoring and spiritual direction, to writing books and creating sacred music, to non-violent activism on social and environmental issues, to regular work in a soup kitchen.

I first met Thorn, as a teacher at a Reclaiming Witchcamp, in 2003. From 2005 to 2008, I undertook a two and half year apprenticeship with her and a group of other seekers from the UK and Europe. The work we did together coincided with a period of dramatic change in my life, and enabled me to step more fully into my life, with confidence and passion.

Thorn’s work is always shifting and developing, as she herself continues to learn and grow: the work she is doing now will not be the same as the work I did with her some years ago. But what I can say with absolute confidence is that Thorn has deep wisdom, a warm heart and a wicked cackle, and she doesn’t let you get away with anything. She knows when you need a challenge, when you need comfort, and when you just need to get down and do the work!

Miranda Macpherson

Don’t let the ‘golden girl’ picture fool you. Miranda is a power to be reckoned with, channeling grace and catalysing people’s healing process and spiritual awakening like no-one else I’ve ever experienced.

Originally from Australia, Miranda moved to the UK in the 1990s, and then to California in the mid-2000s. I got to know Miranda very well, first as a regular attender at her weekly A Course In Miracles study group during 1994-1995, then as one of the first students, mentors and trustees of The Interfaith Seminary, which Miranda founded in 1996 and led for ten years.

Although I have not worked with Miranda since her move to the States, my understanding of her current approach is that it is a synthesis of Self-Inquiry, spiritual psychology, and focus on Divine Feminine grace, embracing our everyday human experience as an entry point into the depths of who we truly are.

In my experience, Miranda has absolute clarity about the nature of reality, the purpose of spiritual practice and the nature of healing, and puts that clarity to work with amazing effect.

Which spiritual teachers have helped you along your way?