There is something I must dwell on
because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.

— Marilynne Robinson

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Archive of Blog Posts

Believe to be Beautiful

I have a particular vivid memory of my first visit to Florence’s main cathedral “Santa Maria del Fioreor” or the Duomo as it is most often referred to. The cathedral stands proudly over the city with its magnificent Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. On the day of my visit to the cathedral, I entered the huge bronze main door, which is adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna and it’s scale and grandeur feels like you have just stepped onto the set of the Lord of the Rings. As I walked into the main cathedral entrance of the building, to my surprise the organist started to play and I found myself surrounded by heavenly choral music as I gazed at the awe inspiring mosaic pavements, architecture and fresco paintings. In that moment, the beauty of what I was experiencing felt almost overwhelming. I felt like I wanted to drop to my knees and prostrate on the floor, in response to it.

I share this episode with you as I have been reflecting recently on the theme of beauty.

According to the Oxford dictionary, beauty is  “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight ”  We may say things such as ‘I was struck by her beauty’ or we visited ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty’

I have always loved the quote by the English textile designer, William Morris who said. “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Inspired by the words of William Morris I have in the last few years tried to make an effort to bring more beauty into my daily life. One of my weekly rituals is to buy fresh flowers for my flat I live in and also keep my bird feeders topped up with seeds, which means that I will get some regular visitors to my window. Maybe some colourful goldfinches or a little robin. For me I find that cultivating a deeper relationship to beauty, helps draw me into life more fully. We unfortunately cannot spend our lives wandering the streets of Florence, but we can I believe take time to be open to moments of beauty in our ordinary daily lives. It may be enjoying the spring blossom on a tree on our way to work, noticing the bees on the flowers or an evening sunset. These ordinary moments of allowing the beauty of the world to touch us, may help us feel a more living, vibrant connection to being alive and connected to ourselves and the world we inhabit more deeply.   

Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies fall away like sand, creeds follow one another, but what is beautiful is a joy for all seasons, a possession for all eternity.

Oscar Wilde

The Beatles: Sgt Pepper at 50

On Thursday 1st June 1967 the Beatles released their album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and this year sees its 50th anniversary being celebrated. The album had a huge impact around the world and became the soundtrack to what was soon to be termed, “The Summer of Love”. With its iconic album cover designed by the pop artists Peter Blake and Jan Howarth it spent 27 weeks at the top of the album charts in the U.K and 15 weeks at number one in the U.S. Time magazine called it, “A historic departure in the progress of music – any music”.  Today, it is still seen by many as one of the greatest pop album’s ever made. With songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, and the extraordinary, ‘A Day in the Life’. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s created what would become a new standard within which pop music could be judged.

On the album there is a song by George Harrison called ‘Within You, Without You’. What makes the song unique is that it was one of the few Beatles songs not to include the other Beatles. Harrison recorded it with members of London’s Asian Music Circle in EMI Studio 2 at Abbey Road. They tried to create an appropriate mood by inviting the musicians to play sitting on woven carpets, with incense burning and the lights dimmed low.  In the song, Harrison attempted to explore his new found love of Hindustani music. The song was partially inspired by a lengthy suite written by the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Harrison had recently begun a friendship with Ravi Shankar and had spent the previous year in India trying to learn the sitar. “I had George practice all the correct positions of sitting and some of the basic exercises.” Shankar wrote in his autobiography, ‘My Music, My Life’. Apparently, Harrison found the new sitting postures required to learn the sitar challenging on his hips, so Shankar suggested he take up yoga.

As I began my own personal exploration of Buddhist meditation practices and yoga I was reminded of the song. Through the song Harrison explored a view of Indian philosophy and religious tradition. He also offered a critique on materialism, “the people who gain the world and lose their soul” suggesting deeper meaning and salvation could be found through an inner spiritual transcendence.  I was particularly struck by the words, “When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there, and the time will come when you see we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you”

Harrison’s song can point to an experience of our sense of self as not fixed, but rather as something open, fluid and constantly changing. The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. This is not a strange form of nihilism and it is not that we do not exist rather, that when we look at our direct experience all we observe are thoughts, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing can be said to be solid and permanent. There is no fixed, unchanging self at the centre of our experience. Everything that arises in our life is dependent on many complex conditions. Unfortunately, we sometimes suffer because we can believe the opposite to be true and spend our days trying to defend or assert a belief in a fixed identity and self.

Such teachings can seem bewildering. I have found it helpful to reflect on the basic view that you people are not fixed and that it is possible to change. People may have limiting views but are not defined by them. Maybe, as we live our lives we too can glimpse a sense of this, experiencing the fluid nature of ourselves and trust that we have the potential to be always so much more than we think we are.

Now, 50 years later, it is still possible to marvel at the brilliance of the crafted pop songs that make up ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and how the biggest pop band in the world at the time were not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of what pop music could be. The Beatles introduced musical ideas from the avant-garde and profound concepts from Indian philosophy; transforming pop music once viewed as a disposable light weight commodity to a thing of beauty, depth and art.

 

Life is not Fair, Is it?

The late comedian and writer, Victoria Wood was reportedly to have told one last joke before she died, “Life is not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597”.  In these wonderful few lines she managed, through her humour to capture the bitter- sweet nature of life and illustrate a very hard truth to swallow, which is that life is not always fair.  We are each born into our own individual set of circumstances which to certain degrees will have an impact on our experience of the world.  In my own life, as I have got older, I have tried to allow myself to accept that the life I have experienced so far has been bitter-sweet containing many wonderful moments of love, delight and laughter but also pain, loss and unhappiness.

I remember when my partner Elaine was dying, I would anxiously spend my time trying to control the situation, with a faint hope that I could control reality if I just tried hard enough. I remember breaking down and crying one day when I really understood that I couldn’t stop her from dying. In that moment, I felt a surrendering to the situation of our life together and a letting go of what I felt our life should be.  We can take initiative with our life and the events we encounter, but life is far too big and complex for it to be controlled. So what can we do in the face of difficulties when they arise?

I believe that by learning to relax into our bodies and being with our vulnerability in the world we find a creative response. This may seem counter-intuitive because when we experience difficulties, often the last thing we feel like doing is allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable. But, there is a strength that comes from abiding in the heart and in our vulnerability. It connects us more deeply to ourselves and others and brings us into a deeper relationship to the world and soul.

What to Remember When Waking

by David Whyte

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?

The Rite of Spring

On 29th May 1913, when a new ballet was first premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the avant-garde nature of the music and the new modern form of choreography caused a riot as violence broke out in the audience. The music for the ballet was composed by a young unknown composer called Igor Stravinsky, with choreography by the famous Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.  The ballet was called, The Rite of Spring (‘Le Sacre Du Printemps’) and had a pagan theme centring around a young maiden who sacrificed herself by dancing until she died.  By the following morning, the events surrounding the ballet’s opening night would become the stuff of myth and legend. Furthermore, Stravinsky’s music for the ballet later became recognised as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

I recently had the rare opportunity to see the visionary German choreographer Pina Bausch’s version of The Rite of Spring performed by the English National Ballet.  Bausch’s version was first performed in December 1975 as part of a full evening to Stravinsky and it soon became recognised as a landmark piece of dance. Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet said, “For me, Pina’s Rite is the most successful in achieving the closest feeling to the original piece of being raw, shocking and primitive”.  The dance did present an unmistakable and visceral power.  I felt it had a violent, sexual and primordial beauty to it. It was also very challenging and demanding for the dancers. A dancer who rehearsed with the English National Ballet in this production explained, “If you are not exhausted by the end, you haven’t danced it properly”

When The Rite of Spring was first performed there would have been set ideas and assumptions about the forms and tradition that existed in classical ballet and music. When artists such as Stravinsky and Nijinsky broke away and explored new forms of music and dance then something new emerged and a new art form was created. This departure from the familiar concepts of what dance and music could be like may well be what the audience in Paris struggled with when they first encountered The Rite of Spring. 

I’ve shared this story with you is because I think it illustrates that strongly held concepts or ideas we hold about situations can sometimes stop us from experiencing the naked, fresh awareness of the moment. So often we bring labels and concepts of what is happening to a situation rather than just being with the direct experience, as it is. In my own life I am trying to allow myself to hold onto more loosely fixed ideas I have about myself and my life, and learn to trust my direct experience more fully.

“All the stability in our life is conceptual, all the change in our life is experiential”. – James Low Buddhist teacher

The Search for Happiness

There is a beautiful song called ‘October Song’ written by Robin Williamson from The Incredible String Band who were a pioneering 1960‘s psychedelic folk band. From the first time I heard the song, I loved the verse:

“I used to search for happiness, And I used to follow pleasure, But I found a door behind my mind, And that’s the greatest treasure”

Happiness is something that we might all like more of in our lives and growing up, I spent a lot of time trying to find things, people and places that would make me happy. There are many books available today proclaiming ways in which we can find lasting happiness. I would argue that some of the popular psychology ideas about happiness could be misleading or even inaccurate. They could have the reverse effect of leaving you feeling less happy because your experience of life does not seem to match the idea of happiness being sold to you.  My experience of happiness so far has been a very ephemeral experience; maybe it lasts a few hours, a day or week, even a month. However, at some point it changes and another feeling emerges for example, sadness, excitement or doubt.

Over the years, as my practice of yoga and meditation deepened, I’ve noticed that by being in the world and in relation to life itself, we will hear news that touches us, and we feel sad; then maybe later, a friend makes us laugh and a lightness enters our experience. So, the idea of a state of static happiness that we can finally arrive at’ could be a very misleading view. Our experiences are constantly in flux and life is by its very nature, dynamic. If instead of chasing the idea of happiness, we could look for qualities of a life that has meaning and value.  This may then offer a more helpful perspective that can support us through our journey in life.

“There is a there is a recurrent fantasy perhaps, that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness. Who does not long to arrive some distant day at that sunlit meadow where, untroubled, we may rest easy, abide awhile and be happy? Another perspective is the assumption that the goal of life is not happiness but meaning.”

  • James Hollis, Jungian Psychologist

I Can’t Get no Satisfaction

I recently came across an article by the writer Charlotte Lieberman entitled “Mindlessly Scrolling for Satisfaction. How to Navigate the Temptation of Distraction in the Information Age.” The irony of finding this article whilst scrolling through my Facebook timeline was not lost on me but I was interested to read what she had to say.  I, (like many people I’m sure) have found that when I have some spare time it can be spent mindlessly scrolling through, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds in the hope of some vague sense of satisfaction. Having observed myself regularly getting lost in the internet over many months I tried to get a sense of what lay beneath my surface behaviour.  I felt there maybe a number of reasons: a deep sense of avoiding the feeling of loneliness, sometimes boredom or finding it hard to be with difficult feelings like grief.  I found these realizations very humbling, particularly as someone who has been practicing meditation & yoga for over twenty years. I also tried not to be too hard on myself as we are all fallible human beings.

In Charlotte Lieberman’s article she explored some of the complex factors that have led to our technological crutch and desire for distraction. She shared some interesting findings including:

“Did you know that Americans spend more time on email in the morning than we do eating breakfast? A recent poll in the UK found that one in seven surveyed individuals have contemplated divorce because of their spouse’s unsettling social media activity”

I think it can be helpful to be reminded that our habits and behaviour are often contextual. An example of this is being on retreat.  This is an environment that encourages a break from social media and the internet and I often find that normally after a day has passed I have no real desire to switch my phone on and feel much more content and relaxed in my experience. Now, we may not all have the opportunity to get away on retreat so maybe creating helpful boundaries around our technology use might be beneficial to us. A friend of mine recently shared with me that she was going to buy herself an alarm clock, so that she would be able to turn off her phone and get out of the habit of late night scrolling.  I too have been exploring not listening to music on my i-Pod whilst on the bus and trying to be present to myself and the world around me when walking outside.

Technology is such a huge part of our lives and it would be unrealistic to think we are all going to throw our phones and laptops away however I do feel we have an opportunity next time we feel restless or sad to maybe choose not reach for our phone or computer and see if we can just sit with our arising feelings.  This is an opportunity to trust that if we can stay open, curious and patient something new will emerge that may meet our needs more fully.

“Enough. These few words are enough. If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to life we have refused again and again until now.

Until now.”

David Whyte

Seeing the Blossom: Reflections on opening to the nowness of everything

In March 1994 Melvyn Bragg did a celebrated interview with the playwrite Dennis Potter, who was then dying of cancer. The interview was later published under the title Seeing the Blossom. Dennis Potter spoke of how the imminence of death gave his experience of the world a heightened intensity. “At this season, the blossom is out in full now … and instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’ … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance. Not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”

There have been times in my own life when to use Dennis Potter’s term I have experienced  “The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous”   I have often found that these moments are not big and dramatic, but quite ordinary in their beauty and wonder. I remember in the last few weeks before my girlfriend Elaine died, we had managed to get away for a weekend break at a hotel in the lake district. One afternoon we sat on a bench together in the hotel garden. As the autumn light began to fade, from the hedgerows and trees small birds flew about serenading us with their birdsongs. In that moment I felt a sense of wonder and mystery in the ordinary beauty of it all. This simple moment sitting on the bench with Elaine, felt like a calling to pause, connect and come home to myself once again. For a brief moment all my anxieties an fears fell away.  This is a quality of  just being open to the present moment without trying to add to it, allowing the bare experience to be there, fully attending to it in a relaxed open awareness, tasting an aliveness, a vibrancy from the awareness of our lives as they unfold moment by moment.

Often these ordinary moments go unseen or unacknowledged. But if we are willing to honour these simple moments then just maybe the ordinary will come alive.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions. I had gone to watch a film that you can guarantee will be showing on TV or at your local cinema as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is Frank Capra’s classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Made in 1947 and starring a great cast including James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, Capra’s film has a Dickensian quality to it. James Stewart plays the role of a selfless man George Bailey who is much loved in the small town of Bedford Falls; it’s a story of redemption that follows his suicidal despair one Christmas night. Clarence the angel appears and shows George how much of a dark and sad place the world would have been without him.

I believe that the reason the film is so loved by so many people is (not only due to Capra’s masterful direction and story-telling) because it illustrates a deeper, fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The truth is: that every life is of value and is important. We can often feel powerless in our lives and insignificant, even isolated and alone. But we are all interconnected to each other and to all of life – the threads that connect us to others and the world are not always easy to see. Even after many years of practising Buddhist meditation and yoga I still find myself at times struggling to see and accept that my actions touch other people’s lives.

A small act of kindness or a harsh word or action can have a profound effect, beyond what we can imagine. We have a responsibility for the world we live in; we are not separate from it but embedded in a network of complex patterns of connection. It can be helpful to stop and reflect on our lives and all we have done through our actions – great and small. The small acts of kindness shown to others bring us into deeper relationship with the world. Think of all the different people in your life and how their lives would be without you, and then you will begin to see the profound ordinary beauty that is your life.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
Clarence The Angel from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

its-a-wonderful-life-3

This blog piece first appeared in my December newsletter 2013.

Aldous Huxley’s Head & Heart

The English author and intellectual Aldous Huxley once said you could sum up the history of every man and woman who has ever lived with the following words, “I see the better and approve it, the worse is what I pursue”. If we were merely rational beings, then our knowing would be indistinguishable from our doing.  However, we are not merely rational, we can also argue we are also creatures of desire. Our emotions can sometimes be ultimately responsible for determining our actions and behaviour. We can have an idea that something maybe good for us to do, but find it hard to galvanise the rest of ourselves into action.

If I look at my own life I can see a huge chasm at times in my inability to bring together my head and my heart. This is perfectly understandable as we not a singular being, rather we are more made up of complex, multiple parts or voices within us that may express different and even contradictory things. The idea of the human psyche being multifaceted, even split in some cases is not a new one.  Even in ancient Greece, in Plato wrote about the three parts of the psyche: ‘The rational’, ‘The appetitive’ and ‘The spirited’.

I have found that through my exploration of yoga, meditation and psychotherapy, that these practices have helped me to develop a deeper relationship between myself and my emotional body. By engaging with and bringing awareness to my emotions more fully I notice that my behaviour can change and my life can feel more congruent. I can feel a sense of bridging the gap between my head and my heart. I have an ability to be in relationship to both the complexity within myself and also the world around me.

By understanding ourselves, the landscape of our emotional bodies and by making conscious how we work with both our darkness and our light we can see more clearly that a creative dialogue can take place between our head and heart.  We are then given a larger, richer context in which to examine just what it means to experience being human.

“When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.” 

Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo

Love, Tears & Ginger Beer

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Joan Didion wrote this in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, when her husband of forty years suddenly died and this month of October sees the first anniversary of the death of my beloved girlfriend Elaine.

What do you do when the partner you loved and planned to spend the rest of your life with dies? For me, the world as I knew it was destroyed and I found myself sitting amidst an emotional tsunami of the like I had never faced before, whilst all around me life continued. I have been very fortunate to have been surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family and although they cannot take away my pain and grief, their simple acts of kindness have made my connection to being in the world a little easier.

People sometimes use the phrase, “They never got over the death of…” and I have been reflecting on this recently. I feel that embedded within the phrase could lie an unhelpful perspective of transcendence in relation to the difficulty of losing a loved one. While we may wish for the people we care about to slowly move forward and not get lost in their grief, it could be more helpful for us to try holding the perspective that they may never get over the death of their loved one.  Rather, the experience of loss is something that they will in time, learn to carry with them.  The loss is now a part of them, it never leaves them but it also doesn’t define them as they begin to look towards the future, rebuilding their life.

Love, Tears, & Ginger Beer

by Manjunaga

I stood and watched you from outside the restaurant.

It was our second date,

You looked so beautiful, long golden hair falling down over your shoulders.

I gave you a gift, a book on archetypes.

If I had known what lay before us,

Would I have opened the door and stepped in?

We laughed and drank ginger beer.

You entertained me with your impersonations and funny stories,

I knew in that moment that I wanted to be with you.

                         

The first time we made love you showed me your scars,

Where the surgeon’s knife had left its mark,

I kissed them tenderly in the hope that no part of you would feel unloved.

I look for you now in the morning bird song, your poetry, a photograph.

Then in the quiet stillness of the day, when I have exhausted all my longing

you come to me again.

Moist tears cover my body and I feel your love once more.