Enemies. And love…

Of course, we all know the injunction: spiritual (‘good’) people should love their neighbours, even their enemies.
I’ve done those practices where you send loving kindness to those you love, and then those you are pretty neutral to, and then those you dislike. I was never much good at those practices, and never really convinced they were going to work, at least for me.
Where my love was willing to go, and where my enmity was willing not to go, seemed very powerfully set, and not very susceptible to my attempts at conscious control.
Still, I recognised the importance of the problem – and that, for my spiritual health, it needed a solution. So, I’ve wrestled for years with the power of anger and aggression within me, and with my capacity to be wounded by aggression (of all kinds) coming at me, and where love fits in to all this. What on earth to do?

A few weeks ago, in the Hall at Swarthmore, in a two-hour Quaker meeting for worship, something new emerged, something that felt important, like it might be a solution, or at least a next step along the road to a solution…

I was practising being closer to the mind of Jesus, where the light and love of God comes in and out of the wounds in my being; I was with other people who were sitting with issues of God’s love, and the presence of Jesus; the Hall is a place soaked in centuries of worshipful contemplation; etc etc.

I saw again (I’d known this but forgotten) how we need to separate the views that people hold from the person that holds them. We can disagree with every view that someone expresses, and still value them as a person, still love them. After all, we are all unique. It’s not possible for us to be the same. It’s easy to find points on which we disagree. There are zillions of ways in which we disagree. I disagree with myself. I disagree profoundly with Pete from 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, on some matters. My views shift and change. Whose views do not? (As the old joke has it: If you can’t change your mind, are you sure you’ve still got one?)

So, what emerged? I apologise in advance for what I am about to say: it’s always going to be less than the God I experienced.
I saw all of us as expressions, as manifestations in physical and subtle form, of God, of God’s love. I saw that when we speak, then a mixture of thought and energy and feeling emerges from us in a particular pattern, and hangs around for a while, then fades away.
I saw that both we as individuals, and the particular expressions we might make, are perfect manifestations of God’s love in the world.
And that those perfect manifestations of God’s love are easy for me to love. There is no difficulty, no effort, in loving God, in loving whatever particular ways God might manifest. So even those who try to hurt me with what they express (my ‘enemies’), I love them, and what they do, as manifestations of God.

This is not the same kind of love as I feel for my children, or my wife. This is what has confused me in the past, I realise, when I thought I was supposed to feel that kind of love for all. It seems there’s a different, more ‘disinterested’ but still powerful, kind of love available. As is the way, experience lends flesh to the theory, often in surprising and unexpected ways.

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Three Forms of Beauty

I sit with my friend William West in a side chapel of Manchester Cathedral, a place we are both fond of, and visit together when we meet up in Manchester.

I find myself contemplating the nature of beauty: in relation to a particular person, but it has relevance to us all.

There is the beauty we are born with, the inner grace(fulness) that comes from – is an expression of – God, or Love, or All-that-is. We see this particularly in babies and young children.

Secondly there is the beauty we develop as we grow, that which shines in the world, that which forms our attractiveness to others. It may be primarily outer, or primarily inner beauty, or a mixture of the two. We, and those around us, can help that beauty to develop, or we can hinder and destroy it. We see this particularly in young people.

And there is the beauty that may emerge if we manage to transcend the suffering that life inevitably makes us go through. How do we handle it? Will we survive it?

If we transcend that suffering – if we learn, maybe with support from others, how to deal with it without running from it, without being swamped by it; if we learn maybe how to transform it within us so that we shine in a new and more comprehensive way – then a new and precious form of beauty will manifest in us and be appreciated and loved by those who recognise it.

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On the nature of the cross, and of suffering

I decide to focus upon ‘the cross’ as my object of meditation. I have not done this before.

As I enter the meditational space within which this contemplation can take place, I realise that there is a choice to be made between the cross with Jesus upon it, and the simple cross as a symbol in its own right.

I opt for the cross alone as a symbol. That feels simpler, and easier for a first attempt.

But my being has other ideas, and as I open to God and the cross, I find myself with a close-up view of Jesus being crucified upon the cross. I find my perspective on him is swinging close to him, and around him, and near his face, in startling detail.

He turns to me and says, ‘You know, suffering is also a gift from God.’

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On the burden of suffering

In my meditational space, I have a conversation with Christ. I am asking him, as I have done before, to help me with some of the burden of my suffering. He is always compassionate and loving with me, and always helps me when I ask. He is always clear that it is no burden to him – that because he is part of the Infinite, then the suffering that he accepts from me just passes into the Infinite and transforms.

This time however he says something a little different. He says, ‘I can relieve you of this bit of suffering, but are you sure that is what you want? If you have none of your suffering left then you are a different person.’

I immediately understand the implications of what he is saying.

Firstly my suffering is an integral part of who I am. If it were all gone at once I would be like a stuffed toy losing a lot of its stuffing. I would lose definition, lose strength, lose capacity. I would be weak and floppy.

And secondly, I realise I would no longer have excuses to be less than I truly am. I would be able to be fully present in myself and in the world. I could act fully from Love in a way that my current burden of suffering ‘prevents’ me from doing. I find this prospect deeply disturbing…

I say, ‘You are right. I need to think about this and be realistic. For the time being though, your help with this little bit of suffering is fine.’

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Returning to the Anglican church

Returning to Christianity (the Anglican Church) after nearly 50 years away…

How does it work to come back – what has changed? What are the benefits? What have I noticed?

I was confirmed when I was 13 and went to church and took communion regularly. I was committed. It all ended in late adolescence, when rationality kicked in and traditional faith succumbed to reason. No-one was around to help me through this particular barrier, so I left.
Over the last 20 years or so, Ken Wilber’s Integral map in particular opened my eyes to other ways of understanding traditional religion. And Thich Nhat Hanh, from his Buddhist perspective, helped me see the value of Christianity as my root spiritual tradition.
I saw that I had a fractured relationship with God. And a fractured relationship with God, I realised, was a barrier to my spiritual life – whether or not I was involved in Christianity. I spent maybe ten years gradually working through various issues that helped heal that fracture, and enable me to take the next step.
Paul R. Smith’s book ‘Integral Christianity’ was an important guide in being able to take that next step.
A couple of years ago I started attending our local Anglican church.
Here are a few points to ponder.

(NB In ‘Intimate Devotion’ below I use some Integral terms: ‘first person, second person, and third person aspects of God’. Also ‘Infinite, Intimate, and Inner God’ which are Paul Smith’s version of these terms. The context should help you understand them even if you are unfamiliar with them.)

Intimate devotion
Church is really, really good at second person God: the intimate direct personal devotional relationship with God, with Spirit. The Buddhist and Quaker practices that I have done focussed on third person (the infinite out-there nature of Spirit) and first person (I go within to discover my Buddha nature, or ‘that of God’ within). Not much on devotion, particularly in present-day Quakers.
In church, we communicate a lot directly with God. The emphasis is on love and devotion. It’s just what you do. It’s a relief and a joy to be able to do this so naturally with other people. It brings a fullness and rightness to my spiritual practice. There had been something important missing. I can now connect with God, with Spirit, in all three faces: infinite (3rd person), intimate (2nd person), and inner (1st person).

The Church considers itself to be like a family – and acts like a family. There is a lot of love around, in a grounded, understated, undemonstrative English kind of way. It feels genuine, and appropriate. The community knows its limits, and recognises and mostly handles the inevitable minor conflicts with good humour and forbearance.
In some religious environments it is sometimes possible to observe an intellectual commitment to compassion that is not necessarily matched by personal action.
When I am within a loving community like this, then I feel my heart starting to melt more. Slowly, slowly…

The hymns of my childhood, that I sang so often, bring me joy and delight as I sing them again. They help re-awaken the innocence and love of that time.
Singing opens our hearts. Singing with others connects us to them and takes us past words and opinions and differences. We are more as one when we sing together.
And now there are new hymns, and praise songs, and Taize chants, and all sorts of other new, and reworked old, and developing musical delights. All praising God, praising and celebrating the life of the Spirit. Finding joy, creating joy. Marking grief, and gratitude, and greatness. How great Thou art!

There are skilled, experienced, and permanent leaders. They take responsibility. What a relief!
I’ve experienced a lot of ‘non-hierarchical’ organisations, including spiritual ones: ‘democratic’, ‘we can do all this for ourselves, let’s share out the tasks, we don’t need leaders’ stuff. It can be exhilarating and liberating. And annoying, inefficient, exhausting, conflict-inducing. There are opportunities to take on facilitation and leadership roles very early, but sometimes way too early.
So priests are great. They handle all that leadership stuff (thanks guys, great work!), leaving me free to concentrate on my spiritual life, and contribute in the right way at the right time.
And nowadays some of them are women… Awesome! Organised religious and spiritual life that includes a powerful loving feminine presence. So right, so full.

Fuller community
Our current church community is mostly older. But it’s wide: it contains people from a variety of different backgrounds and occupations, with different political and cultural leanings. Again, I feel a sense of relief at this. Partly it’s just that a narrower alternative of, for example, a homogeneous post-modern left-wing consensus can feel suffocating. But partly it’s because I am back once more with people like the family and friends I knew from my childhood – and I like it. I can relax and be appreciated for who I am, not accepted for the opinions and views I might (temporarily) possess.
In my deeper moments I know that God is love, and love is God.
But even in my shallow moments I know God is not a left-winger. Nor a right-winger. Nor both, nor neither. (Just to be complete.)

Greater freedom
I’m big on freedom. It’s one of my core values. Oddly, I feel freer in the Anglican church than I did or do within the Buddhist or Quaker communities I was or am part of. I did not expect this. Especially as the view from the outside is that the conventional Christian church is ‘credal’ (not like us outside) and has strong (primitive) belief systems that you have to sign up to.
But I have realised that the Anglican church has got tremendous form in being a broad church. It has often had to seek clever ways to enable people of very different perspectives to live and worship together. Sure, there are Anglican churches that will emphasise a traditional approach, or a rational, liberal approach, or a post-modern approach. But plenty of others that just do their best, being broad, translating between the approaches where they can.
So I am the beneficiary of this. I feel free to experiment with my own (slightly unorthodox) theological interpretations. Nobody is requiring me to describe, justify, or defend my position. I am free to be positionless. At this stage in my spiritual life this is incredibly valuable.

Every week I sit with my fellow worshippers and confess my sins, state that I am not worthy. What’s not to like?
None of us are perfect. Here we say it to each other in public. What a relief. No one is pretending to be perfect, or even perfectible. It’s not possible. We just acknowledge that, and then we can all get on with our lives in the knowledge that we are all human and fallible, and mess up sometimes. Yes, folks, that really does include me. And you. And everyone else.
And there’s a mode of forgiveness for this human fallibility. There’s compassion from God, compassion from the priest, and compassion from the congregation. We are forgiven, we forgive ourselves, we forgive each other. It’s a start in dealing with the crushing burden that guilt can load on us – on me!
From these beginnings, new insights start to flow for me. The role of suffering in the world, and the importance of a transcendent element in trying to deal with it, starts to become clearer to me. What next?

The words. The liturgy.
Ah the words. The beautiful words of the King James bible. The lovely language of the Book of Common Prayer. The familiarity from childhood of the Creed. The poetry of the hymns. The Iona invitation to communion. All the contemporary attempts to use inclusive and welcoming language…
When I am not wedded to a particular interpretation, or even the need to have a particular interpretation, then the words provide me simply with access. Access to the shades of meaning beyond the surface. Access to a closer connection with God. I can sink into ever-deeper realms of meaning, and truth, and mystical connection which transcends my everyday world. Phrases that I thought I knew all about turn out to be alive, and changing, and inspiring in unexpected ways. They take me by surprise sometimes, make me cry, so I have to stop singing, or praying, or listening. They say, ‘Keep coming in, there is even more here if only you will let go of your prejudices; what joy awaits…’

There’s something very satisfying about ritual. As humans we tend to like and value it – as far as we can tell, we’ve been doing it since we started being humans. If our rational worldview denies the validity of ritual then something important goes missing in our lives. We may or may not notice that.
Over many years some of my friends and contemporaries have worked to bring back ritual into contemporary life, recognising its importance. Sometimes these rituals work well, are powerful; sometimes not so well, and end up empty and hollow.
The church does ritual. As a matter of course. Sometimes powerful, occasionally a bit hollow.
I have experienced communion, being marked with ashes, having my hands washed, being anointed with oil. I have been part of baptism services, and weddings.
The ceremonies are familiar, and they prepare the ground. But, for me, it’s the awareness of the preciousness of this moment shared with others which makes them powerful and meaningful.

Our local church is a building that has housed a worshipping community for hundreds of years. Wow. And it is just down the road and I can pop in any time. Bliss. No more driving hundreds of miles a year just to get together with fellow travellers in whatever important but small-scale outfit I was currently engaged with.
And my ‘fellow travellers’ now are also local. I see them in the street, or in the shops, or driving around. I’m not as isolated as I once was. This is a big deal.
We have limited energy, especially as we get older. How can I avoid wasting my energy and instead use it most effectively for supporting the spiritual life? Staying local helps a lot.

The Anglican church is Big
The Anglican church may be shrinking, but to me it’s still very, very big. The Christian church in the UK as a whole is even bigger. And Christianity in the world is just huge…
I’m aware of Christianity in the mainstream of history. I’m aware of two thousand years of heritage. I’m aware of 400 plus years of the Anglican church. I’m aware of its established position in English institutional life. It can look after itself. It doesn’t depend on my puny efforts to keep it going. I can relax into its massiveness. I don’t have to defend its boundaries against scepticism. I don’t have to limit myself in case I upset it. I could explore its territory for a long time before hitting any edges. And I know it has had mystics who go all the way up.
If you exist in a non-mainstream sub-culture, you have to expend a lot of energy defending boundaries. What a relief not to have to do that. What joy to be able to go with the mainstream flow, and feel the nourishing, supportive aspects of that. From that particular broad base, new insights, new love, new creation emerge just that bit more easily. Thanks be.

These points to ponder are some of the headlines. I could have written more detail on all of them, and one day maybe I will. I would like to describe examples of how you can translate the words in different ways depending on your stage of consciousness. I would like to describe how mystical awareness often lurks unnoticed in some of our familiar hymns. I would like to describe how powerful feelings and insight arise in me both in and out of church. But all that can wait for another time.
Till then, farewell!




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Looks like it was a 3 year retreat…

So I’ve had a third gap year… not writing, but just allowing whatever was happening to happen. Lots of useful retreats, practical work and insights alongside a much more robust physical health (thanks Ingleton gym…).

Now I can feel that things are coming back together in a new pattern that will bring my work more into the world again.

I’m feeling the energy to do this, and it’s starting to happen!

So look out for blog posts on insights into the nature of the spiritual life.

And look out too for an initiative where, developing what I’ve been doing locally, I feel called to work more with individuals who want to reflect upon and develop their spiritual lives…

Love to all

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Another gap year

Ha! I seem to be on another gap year. Physical energy is now much better but I’m only inching back towards more writing/publishing/posting. Not there yet.

A very interesting process in terms of what seems to be about clearing the decks for something new: not only without my conscious volition but pretty much against my strong resistance… hence some trouble!

Maybe I’ll write about that one day…

Till then, love to all!

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A gap year

I’ve been struggling with health issues for about a year. Some kind of post-viral tiredness that’s left me unable to do my usual stuff – like write, meditate, or look after my website… And also therefore some kind of transformation that has stripped me of a lot of the aspects of self that I identified with. Useful, I guess, but not particularly enjoyable. Still, how the unknown emerges will always be in its own way.

So it looks from the date on my last post like I’ve had a gap year. Given I’m feeling a lot better (like maybe 75%) I’m hoping to resume some (presumably different) relationship with the world and you. Let’s see what happens…


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Radical Lover

Thich Nhat Hanh says that if we wish to manifest love and compassion for others, we must first be able to love ourselves. Our capacity to love others is limited, in effect, by the extent to which we can also love ourselves.
How might we do this? Some of his meditation practices demonstrate ways and means. We can sit in meditation and go through a body scan, smiling at, and appreciating, each part of our bodies.
Have you ever expressed love for your liver? Do you even know where your liver is? But it does vital work for you, keeping you alive! Surely it’s worthy of a little love now and then?

Here’s a poem to complement the teachings:

Radical lover

He searches out all parts of himself
and loves them.
He searches out his flaws and his failings
and loves them.
The parts others do not like,
the parts he does not like,
he loves them.
His spasming back, his decaying knee,
his secret shames, his worrying mind,
he searches them out and loves them.
No part too bad,
no part too small,
for love.

Too late, too old, now, for change, for improvement.
Too long the wait now for someone else to love them.
No saint exists that holy, that perceptive.

Only he, radical lover, can do the work.
Only the Radical Lover can do this work.

The poem says that only you can do the work of radical love on your own being. Don’t wait for anyone else to do it, because they cannot know the intimate details of your being. Only you can know them.
And don’t just wait for any parts you don’t like to change. You may wait for ever. Go to the root, and be radical, and love yourself as far down as you can get.
And in doing this work you do change. You become skilled at radical loving – skilled enough to move occasionally beyond your normal self and become a manifestation of a universal Radical Lover.
Go on. Just do it!

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Holy places

Holy places make it easier to feel holy.
Sit in an empty church and the atmosphere of devotion usually makes it easier to be in touch with your own holiness within you.
It’s not guaranteed: you can come out of a church as busy in your mind as when you went in.
But neither is a holy place required. Your connection to that which is beyond your everyday mind is within you. Your holiness is within you.
Holy places, like churches, or temples, or monasteries, can support you. But so, in the right circumstances, can an empty bus station or a park bench by the dustbins or a bridge over the motorway in the twilight.
I hope that you may be a little more in touch with your own holiness wherever you find yourself.
Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of calm reflection to be more in touch with that which is deeper within us.
Sometimes, in a surprise to us, we are also granted a few moments of revelation, and the world never quite looks the same again.
Here’s an account of one of those moments of insight.

East London was not a monastery

On my way to a monastery in Germany
I stopped off in East London.
As I entered a coffee shop there
I knew that a monastery was a monastery
and that East London was not a monastery.

I sat in a window seat
with my daughter and her friend
working quietly on their laptops alongside
soft music playing
cake and coffee before me.

I watched the busy street outside.
I saw some people hurrying and others dawdling.
I saw them working towards joy.
I saw them living according to their values
and loving each other as best they could.

I could not see that East London was not a monastery.

Instead I saw my own error
for now I knew that the world before me
was a special kind of monastery
and the monastery I was going to
was a special kind of world.

I wept quietly at the ending of my error
for the ending of my error was the joyful start
of my living in a monastery
wherever I was.

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This morning’s stillness

When we go within ourselves no-one else can see what’s happening there. If we want to know what someone else’s inner experience is like then we have to rely on their reports.

Meditation is a particular kind of ‘going within’, and while there are lots of sets of instructions and guidance on how to meditate, reports of actual experiences are less common.

In case it is useful to you, here’s a report from me – this morning’s meditation report:

I sat outside in the early morning, wrapped up in blankets to keep warm. This morning was a very cloudy, grey English morning.

I was aware of noises and activity around me: the birds fluttering, the cool of the breeze on my cheeks, noises from the farm across the fields.

As I went inward, I was aware of various activities within – memories of childhood, plans for the day, mild political ranting, echoes of things said yesterday, a dream from last night.

After a tricky and confused period of negotiating my way past these by returning to my awareness of my body and my breathing, I gradually came to a sense of stillness. This was both a little familiar, and a little fresh, unusual. The stillness was tentative, and easily disturbed. I noticed that tiny shifts in my awareness could stimulate little surges in feeling which would knock me off balance.

It’s often my practice in meditation to allow words to arise in the process and shape themselves, with some help from me, into a poem. When the poem is formed as a whole in my mind, I write it down.

This morning these words formed themselves into this poem about this morning’s stillness. Here it is for you now, very fresh!

I hope your own meditation enables you to find your own version of this morning’s stillness.

This morning’s stillness

Sitting in the world this morning
the world flutters around me
in bird wings and breezes and nodding flowers

while, within me, I descend past
the flutterings of my mind
to find a level of stillness

that is not the stillness
of a table or a bowl of fruit

but the stillness of a vortex
the stillness of a gyroscope
the stillness of constant flux
finding a pattern and holding it

for a while until it collapses,
until I collapse,
back into flux,

and then, descending past the flux,
I find that pattern of stillness
reforming itself
again and again.

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Bringing Better Benefit

Came across someone the other day who really didn’t ‘get’ meditation. They thought it was essentially indulgent, and an alternative to action.
When I thought about it I realised that there’s a little part of me that thinks the same! And that when I’m with people who don’t meditate I mostly stay silent on the subject because I’m a bit embarrassed about it.
So here, for the benefit of all, is some holybloke chapter and verse on the relationship between meditation and action, showing not only that they are not alternatives, not only that meditation is not separate from action, but also that meditation is essential for effective action. Yes!

When we meditate, particularly if we do it regularly over a long period of time, we get in touch with a deeper, clearer part of ourselves.

• From that place of greater clarity we are more likely to know what we are called to do in the world.
• From that place, we are more likely to see how the world is working and where we can intervene effectively to make a difference.
• From that place, we are more likely to know what we realistically can do, and what we realistically cannot do. We neither batter ourselves to a standstill over the immoveable, nor back off in fear from the overcomeable.

We are more likely to know the difference between action that is like a lot of froth on top of a coffee (a lot of fuss about nothing very much), and action that is like the coffee beneath: strong, flavoursome, particular, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter.

No meditator I know meditates to avoid action in the world: either personal action, or wider community action. Every meditator I know brings a certain presence, a certain indefineable depth, with them into the world and into whatever they do. Whatever they do.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Bhuddist teacher, meditates a lot, for example. Not just sitting meditation, but walking meditation, eating meditation, washing up meditation, going to the toilet meditation… He’s basically in meditation mode most of the time. What an enormous beneficial impact he has had on the world!

One of my favourite pieces of advice from him is this: ‘You should meditate for half an hour every day except when you are really busy. Then you should meditate for an hour!’

And here’s a poem that emerged for me a while back that addresses this issue:

Bringing better benefit

how deeply we apprehend reality
how close we come to God
how aware we become of all
how far we open our hearts to love

will shape the results
of our actions in the world

if we deepen the place from which we act
we bring better benefit to all

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As with dog, so with meditation

It’s a common, standard, ‘problem’ in meditation. There you are, meditating happily away, and a distracting force – for example anger – comes up. What do you do? Classic answer: as little as possible. You become aware of it, and then let it go. You are practising non-attachment: not suppressing, but not getting caught in it either.

Sometimes this works for me, but sometimes it really doesn’t! The truth is I’m curious about myself and want to know more. And sometimes parts of me really want to be better known! They keep coming up more and more forcefully. How to handle this?

I like watching ‘The Dog Whisperer’ on TV. Cesar Milan is a truly extraordinary teacher – of dogs, for sure, but also of people. This example caught my attention. He was instructing someone about how to handle difficult dog behaviour. He threw in this advice, pretty casually: “Imagine the dog behaviour you’re trying to correct is on a scale of 1-10. Scale 1-5 you ignore it; scale 5 -10 you gotta deal with it.”

Wow! That makes so much sense. If you pay attention to minor stuff the risk is you get caught up in it. If you fail to deal with major stuff  the risk is it takes you over.

As with dog, so with meditation.

So now I’m experimenting with this guidance. Minor irritation – notice and let go. Big anger and fury: move into a different mode of inner work. Stuff in the middle: judgement call one way or the other.

The different mode of handling big anger? Well that will have to wait for another post. In the meantime here is a poem on anger that emerged in a meditation session.

Whose anger do you trust?

I know a guy who’s spent a lifetime
transmuting anger (and other stuff) into love and compassion.
I like him. I trust him. I’m a little bit like him.

I know some other guys
who’ve tried to do the same but failed.
Instead they fake it:
the compassion, the spiritual presence.
Their anger is shunted off within and buried
but it leaks out in a smeary kind of way.
I quite like them. I don’t trust them. I’m a bit like them.

I met a guy once who deliberately drove his car
as close as he could to my bike to express his anger.
I caught him up at the lights and we had an argument.
I don’t like him. I’d like to beat his head in.
I don’t trust him, but he’s not a fake.
I’m a bit like him.

I’m this guy whose anger comes and goes.
who tries to transmute it into love
and sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails.
Whose anger gets in the way.
Whose anger makes the way possible.
I mostly like him. I mostly trust him.
I’m a lot like him.

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The voices of contraction

Sometimes the voices of contraction speak very loudly in us. Those voices assume that being shrunken, fearful, and anxious is the only option. It’s a painful place to be.

Do you recognise these voices? Do they speak in your life?

Here’s an example of what it’s like for me.

I’m a trustee of a charity. Recently the organisation’s finances have meant we have had to face difficult decisions impacting on people’s jobs. There has been a lot of conflict and strong feelings on all sides. The voices on the outside have been echoed in my own internal conflicts over what is the correct course of action.

The situation has triggered a strong contracting response in me. I’ve been more stressed, shrunken and fearful than normal. In that space my usual capacity to meditate, to write, to be open, to connect, has been curtailed.

Another way to describe this is to say that I’ve been in a mess! I did at least know I was in a mess, and I was working to get beyond the mess. The trouble is that in that place the voices of contraction are very strong. It’s so easy to stay bogged down.

I should also say that despite my fear, I have also been able to access my more forceful energy and drive forward the difficult decisions I knew were needed. We’re in the area of fight or flight here.

This recent experience of the voices of contraction was only the latest in a long line for me.

Here’s how I wrote about it one previous time:

How to enjoy the voices of contraction

The voices of contraction may be very loud.
Round the table confusion reigns.
In the democracy of your being
fear and neediness may carry the majority vote.

Invite the Buddha to the table.
He may say nothing but his presence brings calm.
From that space the way forward becomes clear.
Even the voices of contraction may start to sing.


The poem says that when we get stuck in contraction we may need ‘outside’ help because it’s so hard, if not impossible, to extract ourselves from a place of contraction from within that contraction. An analogy would be that we are bogged down in a quicksand and the more we struggle with it, the deeper in we go. We become obsessed with the anxiety and that makes us more anxious, which increases the obsession, which then…

The suggested move (the ‘turn’) is that we invite the Buddha in.
It doesn’t have to be the Buddha. It could be whatever has meaning and strength for you: a vision of nature, the image of Jesus, angels, the faces of your children. It could be that you talk to your friends about the situation and they bring that sense of Buddha nature, or God, or equanimity, to you. Another way of saying this is that we step beyond the confines of the immediate (relative) truth and connect a little with the absolute.

Then who knows what will happen? You’ve brought a step change to the situation. It doesn’t guarantee a ‘solution’ but something different starts to happen. To continue the analogy with quicksand – when people get bogged down in the quicksands of Morecambe Bay near where I live, the rescuers have a special bit of kit. They poke a nozzle down next to your trapped legs and pump air or water in and that releases the tight grip of the quicksand, and out you come.

Maybe as the hovercraft scoots back across the sands you can all start singing with relief.

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Pondering the urge to be egotistical

‘What about me!’

Ever wanted to shout that? Or at least whisper it so no one will quite hear?

For most of us, that urge pops up from time to time. Perhaps when we’re feeling low in the middle of the night. Or feeling low in the middle of someone else getting praised…

So, perfectly normal –

But what to do?

Ignore it?
Usually the urge just comes back sometime soon and you have the same problem.

Repress it thoroughly?
It comes back but in sneaky and unforeseen ways.

Avoid doing anything that might make people think you’re egotistical, even if you’re not?
Hmmm. It’ll still come, but you will have wasted your talents in the meantime. Still, kudos for an attempt at noble (but ineffective) self-sacrifice.

I recommend
not those ways but this way: welcome the urge and study it. Give yourself a private space to play with it. Amplify it and let it manifest in the world in a way that gives you and that urge a chance to get to know each other. Be friendly. Be creative. Have fun.

In the end that egotistical urge will transform. Because if you practise enough, everything transforms into something more useful, into something less likely to trigger your suffering, or others’ suffering. Exactly what it transforms into for you is part of the great unknown.

We might think about the reasons for doing this kind of transformation work. We might say it’s because, underneath, we are all great people with wonderful stuff to offer the world and we don’t help anyone if we hold back through a (false) fear of being seen as egotistical. And that’s true.

But there’s another reason beyond that.

I invite you to pause a moment, take a breath or two, and then read this poem to check out a suggestion. Maybe you’ll agree.

‘Look at me!’

Fear of being seen as egoic
can make us run away
from our talents, our life, our obligations.

We can lock our ego safely in a box.
But in that sacrificial prison we also lock up
our songs and our poems
and the wings
that we need to spread in order to soar.

From a dead space comes death, mostly.

Only if we know how our self inflates
can we know how to let ourselves
expand with love for all.

Only if we know how we sing our own praises
can we know how to compose hymns
to the glory of all that is.

Only if we know how we say ‘Look at me’
can we know how to say
‘Look at all this, and rejoice.’

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Two Christmas poems for you – and you – and You

My sixty-first Nowell

At midwinter, bearing my gifts,
I set off in search of you and peace.

The first church I tried was locked
with an apologetic note pinned to the door.
I sat on a bench in the pale sunshine
and tried to open to you.
The heat of your star entered me
and warmed my frozen heart a little
so that I knew I was not as alone as I believed.

The second church I tried was open
but full of mourners for a funeral.
I felt there was no room inside for me
so I stood at a distance and watched
as the coffin was lifted from the hearse.
Your breeze fluttered the vicar’s surplice
then, as it passed by me, breathed on me
so that I knew I was not as deathless as I believed.

Under the broad tent of the midwinter sky
I took my gifts and journeyed home
where I tried to open myself to your presence.
A joyful old woman appeared to me
and helped me give birth to a future self
the one with two thousand years of devoted practice
who stood before me and looked upon me
with infinite love and the understanding of the ages
so that I knew I cannot help but live more in that likeness.

These were my gifts at Christmas.
These I now pass on to you, dear readers, with love.


Gifts of Christmastide

What happens if we sit and open to the presence of God?
If we really sit, really open?
What happens?

What happens if we sit and open to you, God,
beloved, friend? What happens?

An infinite number of paths appear,
a million moments streaming forward
twisting, braiding, forming the future.

Amongst the infinite, here’s a path
that appears one Christmastide
as I sit with you all.

A rush of feeling shoots up my body and springs from my eyes.

Then you are here with me, within me.
There is no love so loving
no innocence so innocent.
There is no purity so pure
no sweetness so sweet.

You are the spirit of my children when they were little,
infinitely creative, playful, trusting,
writ large within me and around me.

I let you come and now I let you go.
I cannot hold on to you
for that is not how it is.

I am birth in every moment.
I am the gifts of Christmastide
here shared and spread and multiplied.

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Irritate, how you irritate me!

Irritate, how you irritate me!
At four in the morning, my legs ache with you
my guts writhe with you.
And you’re not even here.
You’re just an image in my mind
and a voice endlessly whining and complaining
while I endlessly replay scenes real and imagined.
You are my Teacher
and I bow to you in gratitude.

Wrestle, how I wrestle with you!
Our prolonged struggle
forces smugness and complacency from my being.
I’m desperate to pin the whining and the ignorance
on you, over there, out there,
somewhere else, on a bad person.
But you force me to look within
and find you there
find me there.
I submit, I admit you.
You win, you win.
You are my Teacher
and I bow to you in gratitude.

Up my nose, how you get up my nose!
You probe away at my equanimity
and it cracks under the strain.
You test my compassion and find it wanting.
Your obsessive presence shatters
my self-satisfied self-image
and reveals my pettiness
in all its small-minded glory.
You are my Teacher
and I bow to you in gratitude.

Resist, how I resist your lessons!
You, and all the other irritating Teachers I dislike
waiting out there to bring the next lesson
exposing what I need to see
challenging me to face up to the truth.
All available, any time, all free,
all perfectly attuned to my weaknesses.
I bow to you in gratitude.

This poem and the next three are a selection of poems I read out at a Buddhist family retreat I taught at in Dorset recently. This one is especially for Liz, who liked it so much!


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All that I utter

I apologise in advance for what I am about to say
because all that I utter is less than God.

The bread that I bake
and the cakes I provide:
the ingredients include chaff, and a little grit.

As a jeweller, the gold rings that I make
carry a tiny stamp:
also contains fool’s gold.

Welcome to my living room.
It’s warm and comfortable.
Did I mention the hawk?
He’s not really tame.

This sheet of paper has a watermark.
Hold it up to the light and see:
‘Shot through with limitations, frailties, and stuff.’

I apologise for what I have just said.
All that I utter is less than God.

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A recipe for happiness

when beauty arises from your being
be happy with that
when ugliness arises from your being
be happy with that
when nothing arises from your being
be happy with that

when the world says yes
be happy with that
when the world says no
be happy with that
when the world says nothing
be happy with that

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A regular heart check-up

I was running up the hill and my heart was pounding.
I became concerned and so I checked out my heart.

‘Is this too much?’ I asked. ‘Are you OK.’

‘I love it’, my heart answered with laughter.
‘I like hard work. I love a good burn-up.
I was made to run, and sing, and dance.
I come from a long line of ancestors
who like their people to run around.’

‘When I came into this life with you
we raced into it together as fully as we could.
We had such fun.’

‘Please don’t leave me to slump in a chair
or vegetate by a screen.
I get sad and lonely, and fed-up.
Then I give up, and then I die.’

‘And by the way, when I die, so do you.’

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