A Shift in Perspective 3: COP26

Apologies that it has been a while since my last blog on this theme. However COP 26 has inspired me finally to write something which I had been intending as a conclusion to this series on ‘A shift in perspective’.

In short and in recap, the shift in perspective which we as individuals and we as humanity need, is somehow to get beyond seeing things just from the perspective of me/us at the centre of it all – i.e. from where I am standing and how things affect me. Of course this will be our default – there is a hardwiring in us which drives us to be concerned with our own survival and welfare. And added to this, much of the corporate world is seeking to exploit this particular aspect of how our minds work in order to hook us into their products.

On the other hand, this is not the whole story. First, survival instinct is not all there is to us as humans – we also have a strong sense of empathy and a well-developed capacity for co-operation in groups. But in addition to this we may also even be beginning to wake up to the fact that this narrow, survival (of me) perspective is not even the best way to support my own well-being – or my survival.

And this is not only true in relation to issues of mental health and of racism (see previous blogs) but also in matters of ecology and the climate crisis.

Too many religious and secular philosophies (including Christian) have allowed us to live by the belief that humanity is not really a part of nature but separate from it and even somehow above it. And even if we begin to shift on this one we find it very hard not to continue to see ourselves as still the centre of it all – that all this is here especially ‘for us’- a ‘limitless’ resource for us to exploit for our own flourishing.

But now we are seeing (though only partially) that this attitude is not only hopelessly hubristic but is actually destroying the habitat not only of literally thousands of other species but also our own. 

We are burning our own house down in this blind and frenzied attempt to keep ourselves warm.

And we have been watching this for quite a few years now – but still don’t seem to be able to respond in an effective way. Which is why I am suggesting that we don’t just need to tweak and meddle with the way we have been doing things up to now – which seems to me to be the basis for much political activity at the moment – but what we really need a radical shift in perspective on the whole issue.

And this shift in perspective on nature is very simply this:

  1. Humanity is a part of nature and not separate from it and
  2. Humanity is not the centre or pinnacle of the natural world

Humanity is but a part of an ever flowing symbiotic system where life emerges, flourishes, dies and emerges once again. This has seen the extraordinary flourishing of life for 4 billion years. But the moment we try to dominate and control the process for our own ends, we kill it. And this is what we are seeing now.     

Most of what we are hearing from Glasgow at this time is not catching this fundamental shift in perspective but instead is still trying to keep humanity at the centre and in charge of the whole life-emerging process. There are tweaks, yes, but very little in terms of radical vision. The challenge now is: can we act for the sake of the emergence of life as a whole and not just for the sake of humanity. And the beautiful irony is that if we get this we right we actually have a better chance of saving humanity along with all the rest.

My highest hope, I’m afraid, is that the tweaks will be significant ones which will make things not as bad as they might have been. And this will be good – perhaps very good.

But the real change will only come with this perspective shift which helps us to perceive humanity as part of a living system and to seek to take our place within it.

Such de-centring is a profound work, though. Often it is only desperate tragedy which helps us to make such a shift. But there are other ways and our commitment to the work of meditation, of meeting in groups, of nature connection and of activism will all play a part.

And then, when we make the shift, we may just catch a new and beautiful vision of what it is to be human in this world. And then, hopefully, we will find it much easier to align our lives with the new vision which has emerged for us.

Meditation action outside Barclays Bank in lead up to COP26

A Shift in Perspective 2: Anti-racism

For me, mindfulness and all meditation practice is not primarily about calm – though it might start there – but about awareness. Some therapeutic forms of meditation may emphasise the calm for good reason but even these will move towards awareness as being the real source of healing and growth.

But this awareness is not to do with knowing more stuff – having more information – but more about an experiential shift in perspective. Last month I reflected on this theme in relation to attitudes to mental health. In this blog I want to say something about how such a shift in perspective might be key for the anti-racism work which seems to be so vital for us to engage with in these days.

But first a little reminder of what a ‘shift in perspective’ might be about from the world of neuroscience. As Lisa Feldman Barrett reminds us in her book ‘How emotions are made’ (see review in ‘Resources’), each of us has a current view of the world which is very largely already constructed within our own minds based on past experiences together with predictions based on those experiences. Although we think we see the world as an actual reality unfolding as it happens, the truth seems to be more that we see the world more or less as we expect to see it and only take in small amounts of information about what is actually happening – merely fine-tuning what we already feel we ‘know’ to be the case. As it happens this system works pretty well and uses far less energy than the alternative of seeing every situation as if it was an entirely new experience every time we open our eyes.

But the problem with this is that we tend to be extremely locked into and dependent on our existing internal preconceptions and not, on the whole, very open to new perspectives.

And the bigger problem is that we do not even see that this is the case. So we tend to be very inclined to think that our own perspective is entirely true because, well, that’s just the way I see it – and it seems fairly self-evident to me!

But what if what I am ‘seeing’ is not actually reality as it is but my own internally constructed version of reality – close enough to enable me to negotiate the world reasonably ably but, crucially, inaccurate in occasionally life-affecting ways?

Well, first, that feels quite a lot to take in and may even feel a bit spooky. But secondly, what can I do about it?

My sense is that by far the biggest step I can take is to ‘wake up’ to this simple fact as described above and recognise the truth of it. This is what all the great spiritual masters were saying to us: ‘Wake up! You are not seeing right – not seeing things as they actually are’. But now science is telling us much the same thing.

Anti-racism.

As I suggested in last month’s blog, this ‘wake up’ is desperately needed if we are to shift to a better way of engaging with mental health. But it will also be desperately needed if we are to properly engage with the work of anti-racism.

In other words we so need to approach the subject with the sort of deep humility that what I have just said will bring. I.e. even if I feel fairly ‘right-on’ with my attitude to race I need to accept that many of my attitudes may well be internally constructed and that consequently there may well need to be a number of wake up calls as I begin to engage with the heart of the matter.

Having been brought up by rather blatantly racist colonialist parents, for most of my adult life I have felt fairly pleased with myself about having critiqued their views and moved to what I thought was a non-racist position. So, this became my own internally constructed view of the world and of race. I certainly didn’t feel the need to do any particular work in this area.

But lock-down has given me the chance to look at things more deeply. And alongside my meditation practice I started reading books and engaging more fully with others – on the basis that it just might be that I did not yet see what I did not yet see in this area.

And … goodness! Wow! Oh dear! And even, shit!

Yes, how smug my little world was (is?). How internally coherent and logical but how much it was misaligned with the world that people of colour were actually describing through their own experiences.

Some of my reading and talking was tough going. But in the end the new perspectives that have been emerging have felt life-enhancing and liberating. As many writers of colour will say, white people’s true liberation is entirely caught up with the liberation of people of all colours especially those whose ancestors we enslaved or colonised.

Mindfulness.

But what has this got to do with mindfulness? Well, mindfulness practice is strongly geared towards helping us to become aware of our own internal mental constructs. Every time you notice your mind wandering you will add to the picture of where your mind goes when ‘on auto’ – your default way of thinking and seeing things. And as we remind ourselves over and over that these default ways of thinking are just that, mental constructs and not necessarily precise representations of reality, we will gradually help ourselves to be more and more open to what really is true – which may sometimes be sharply different to what we had assumed. And this is what we mean by a ‘waking up’ moment.

So the more we practice mindfulness the more we will be ready to be open to new perspectives and the more our view of the world will actually accord with reality. In anti-racism work this will be vital.

A Shift in Perspective 1: Mental health

One of the most significant aspects of spirituality which has been emerging for me ever since I began practising mindfulness has been the possibility of – and indeed the urgent need for – a shift in the mind’s perspective.

The perspective from which we see something – anything – can utterly change our experience of whatever it is we are seeking to engage with and this can happen just as much with our mental perspective as with, for instance, the perspective from which you see an object in a room or a field.

And the story of our mental perspective goes something like this. The dominant way of thinking about and seeing things with the human mind is one of survival – my survival. There are other aspects of the mind driven by empathy and our awareness that our survival is linked with the survival of others but, either because of an absence of training in wisdom or because of life experiences, many if not most of us have developed a very narrow version of this mental survival pattern which has trained us to see almost everything from our own perspective. And we may well see this mental pattern at work when we begin to meditate and start to take note of just where the mind tends to wander off to when given a bit of space. What is happening here is that if I am not specifically and intentionally focusing on some task or other the mind will go into a kind of default mode which seems to be constantly concerned with self-referential narratives about how I am doing, how people see me, what needs to happen for me to cope etc. etc. etc.

So, in short, this is my default perspective – seeing all of life in relation to my own struggle to survive. This does not mean I am a bad person – after all who could blame me for wanting to survive? But unfortunately this narrow me-centred perspective does mean I am very often misguided – even in terms of what might give me the best chances of surviving.

So, here is the spiritual challenge for each one of us – how can we do the work of shifting perspective away from being primarily me-centred to start seeing the bigger picture. And I don’t mean by simply understanding that there is a bigger picture but by actually beginning to experience the whole of life from a perspective which does not have me at the centre.

There are, of course, many ways to help us to engage in such a shift. Meditation is one. Serious engagement in community is another. Certain books will also add to the picture. But sometimes unexpected life experiences can have a profound effect.

Which leads me to this unashamed plug for my wife Susie Stead’s new book ‘Stephen from the inside out’ which won the Impress Books new writers prize and is now available through all the normal outlets.

Essentially it is the story of her entirely unexpected long term friendship with a man (Stephen) who she met initially while he was under section in a psychiatric ward in the town where we lived.

It is part biography, part memoir and part social history of British mental health attitudes, theory and institutions over the 60 years of Stephen’s life from his childhood to his death in 2018. But significantly for Susie it is the story of her own slow but dramatic shift in perspective from her initial well-meaning but still ‘Susie-centred’ angle of wanting to ‘do good’ to a man who ‘needed help’ to, over time, the realisation that Stephen actually had his own perspective on the whole of life and that whatever healing there might be for either of them would only ever come when Susie began to get this – when she began to see and feel, as it were, through Stephen’s eyes and heart.

It is a very honest book. It is at once tragic and hilarious. Stephen is both miserable, sensitive and deeply thoughtful but perhaps most importantly, stubborn – in that vital way that meant that Susie’s perspective kept on being challenged and found inadequate.

And in the end it is deeply moving as she describes his final months, now no longer as a patient who needed help but as a friend who had profoundly changed her.

The book is not only a ‘good read’ despite its weighty subject matter but is, in my opinion, a particularly important book for our day not only for what it might have to say about spirituality but also what it has to say about our attitudes to mental health which we have got so wrong in the past – despite our good intentions.

So, do buy it and read it for yourself but also please recommend it to others who you may think will value it. Autism is a strong theme so there may be people you know who would be interested from that perspective too.

NATURE CONNECTION

What might it mean in our day, to live a balanced, holistic spiritual life – whether or not you are part of a religious institution? Institutions tend to provide their own structures and can be more or less flexible and more or less prescriptive in the way they offer them. But if I were judging for myself the value of what was on offer, or, even more, if I was trying to cultivate such a life outside an institution (which I am) then what would it look like? What would be the elements which made it feel balanced, healthy and whole?

These are the questions I have been exploring for many years both inside and outside religious institutions. And the conclusions I am coming to, which I have been seeking to share in these pages (particularly articulated in my last blog), are that such a spiritual basis for life would need to include three things:

  1. Some form of daily reflective practice
  2. Some kind of intentional commitment to community relationships
  3.  Some form of heart engagement with the rest of nature

I have written quite a lot about the first – especially how mindfulness can be the basis of a very healthy and on-going reflective practice. I have written more recently about the second, especially as we have been developing our own small community.

But, though I would not have prioritised it 15 years ago, the third, nature connection, has increasingly seemed like an absolute essential (as well as a delight and joy) if our spirituality is to be truly holistic since it completes the picture of the work of re-connection: with ourselves; with others; and with the rest of nature.

So, first a couple of reflections and then two simple nature connection practices to share.

As I have suggested before, all our spiritual practice is really about connection – or re-connection – or, more accurately, becoming aware of how we are already connected – with everything that there is. And the key word here is ‘how’ – in what way we are connected. Because there are spiritual traditions which have suggested that we are connected in a hierarchical way to the rest of nature – with the implication that we ourselves are not really part of nature but are somehow a little bit above it. I’m hoping that this, as a bald statement, will sound all wrong to most of us. But the trouble is that it has for such a long time been part of our cultural thinking that we may need to work a little harder to really let go of it and of how it affects our instincts and leanings.

So, in this sense, this aspect of spirituality really needs to be more than going for a walk in the woods or keeping pets. But rather we will need to bring to bear a particular attitude, or quality of attention, to our walk and to our pets. And this will be the attitude of what I will call egalitarian belonging to replace the utilitarian exploitation which has been the mark of our culture’s attitude to nature for so long.

And this will necessarily be a deep work of the heart rather than just an assent to an idea. It will need as much perseverance as our meditation practice and our community building because it will be a work of overturning deeply rooted attitudes and instincts.

And the reasons that this is such essential work are really quite simple. One is that we humans will never find our true sense of our humanity in isolation from the rest of nature – we are not an island even as a species – and we will ever be the poorer if we try to be. And the other is that (you may have read!) there is a climate and ecological crisis of unimaginable proportions which, in the end, is largely rooted in humanity’s isolationist attitude to nature.    

And I say all this conscious that I am a beginner myself in this territory. I see others for whom this is so natural. Whereas for me it is still very much a work I need to persevere with.

But here are two ways I seek to practice as often as I can.

  1. Animal connection.

We have two dogs in our household and I have more than once been questioned for not referring to them as part of our community venture, because of course they are – they affect our relationships, our moods, our activities, everything. One of them even joins our meditation sessions. I am, of course, aware of this on one level. But I have sought more recently to intentionally pay more attention to each of them: to their needs; what they seem to be communicating; to share in simple affection; and to talk to them without then making my own mind up as to what their reply might be. And most of all seeing if I can bring this attitude of egalitarian belonging to these beings who share our home.

Community dogs: communal eating and …. different personalities!
  1. In the field.

The other thing I have been doing for quite a long time and which seems to me so simple and yet so profound is simply sitting, and paying this same kind of egalitarian belonging attention in the midst of nature. And this is what I mean by it being more than just going for a walk in the woods – because the quality of attention we pay is everything.

So what I do is this:

half way round one of the local fields where I walk my dog there is a bench; if it is free I sit myself down on it and settle myself for a 10 or 20 minute session – sometimes longer;

I will start by closing my eyes (if I feel safe to do so) and bringing gentle attention to my own breathing and the physical sense of my body siting here – I might count four or more breaths after I feel I have settled;

and then, whilst as far as possible retaining the sense of my own body breathing, I will take time to listen to the sounds, feel the air and smell whatever the breeze is carrying in  my direction;

then I will open my eyes and shift my attention to the smallest of aspects of nature in front of me – usually this is a blade of grass;

then I will expand my vision to the patch of grass around it;

then the whole field (trying not to hurry this process but lingering with each stage);

then I will expand my vision to all that is around the field;

and finally I will take in the vast expanse which seems to contain it all. And all the time, as far as possible, retaining just some small amount of awareness of my own body breathing in the midst of it.

But the key to this practice is this: to gradually let go of the conception that I am the centre of it all (which my cognitive mind tends always to want to suggest) and gradually to allow the awareness to arise that I am simply a part of this vast, glorious and wonderful whole – and, in fact, really quite a small and relatively insignificant part.

Interestingly this is quite a liberating experience. All my me-centred thinking falls away, just for the moment and my neurotic self-survival kind of thinking fades. And I can relax and rejoice that, actually, it isn’t all about me after all – and that this landscape is looking for nothing much from me other than a degree of humility and respect – and a sense of mutual fellowship and belonging.

And, just in case you’re wondering how these sorts of practices will have any kind of effect on our ecological crisis, what we are sharing in and cultivating here is the profound shift in consciousness that the crisis will require of us. If our action to change our effect on the world is to be sustainable it must be accompanied by such a consciousness shift otherwise it will always be in danger of running out of steam in a muddle of moral and intellectual argument. So, beware! Such practices may lead to vegetarianism and eco-activism – as they did in my case.

For more, though, see Bruce Parry’s film ‘Tawai’ described in the resources section.

COMMUNITY

Meditation. Community. Nature.

Over the last few months I have been thinking and writing about three practices which can be a great support for our meditation practice as we seek to live the mindful life: Silence; Solitude; and Simplicity.

But meditation alone cannot be said to constitute a holistic spirituality. The fuller picture, for me, would need to include two other elements: community and nature.

All these three, Meditation, Community, Nature, are really about connection, or reconnection. Or even better, affirming our sense of belonging to all that is within and around us.

The story, in short, goes like this: everything is, in fact, already connected (everything already belongs to everything) but the human mind, through the less enlightened aspects of our drive to survive, has developed the compulsion to separate, to divide. Or, rather, to think and behave as though we were separate – that we do not belong. And we have done this in three ways: we have separated from aspects of our own selves by repressing those things which make us uncomfortable or which do not appear to serve our most immediate survival needs; we have separated from other humans in an ‘us-them’ mentality in order to dominate; and we have separated from the rest of nature in the sense of seeing ourselves above and better than and in this way having the right to exploit it for our own ends.

So, here then is the full richness of our spiritual work: patiently and with much perseverance, to reconnect – to re-affirm our belonging – in each of these three ways.

Importantly there will be overlaps in each of the three areas. But one might suggest that meditation is primarily about re-connection with ourselves – the work of integration of personality and of memory through embodiment and presence. And that nature connection helps us to reconnect at a heart level with the rest of nature – which I would like to reflect more on another time. But here, a word about the work of reconnection with other humans through community.

Community.

I remember from a very long time ago someone giving a talk about community and, using the metaphor of creating a garden, his suggestion that basically there were far too many people wandering around with clippers and rakes when what was needed was people with spades and forks ready to do some of the deep work of digging and laying foundations of good, rich soil.

This image has stayed with me as I have, over the years, tried to play my part in community building only to realise just how difficult it is, how resistant most of us in Western society are to the idea, but how absolutely essential this work is for the health of ourselves and our  society.

And, yes, the work is slow, painstaking and profound – it is indeed digging that is needed. But just to make a start I would like here to pose three questions for us to reflect on for our own situations in regard to community building. And these are: i) who is my community? ii) how can we work to deepen our relationships within it? iii) how can we widen it – make it more inclusive?

  1. 1. Who is my community?

There is no fixed way of expressing human community. In fact we are all part of community in some way or another, so, in the first place, rather than rushing to join something new it might be better to start by simply asking who I am already in community with – and how that plays out in my life. Is it primarily family or a small network of friends? Is it my neighbourhood? Is it some faith based or activism based community? Or is it (probably) a mix of all of these? And perhaps when I have recognised what community/ies I am a part of, the starting point might simply be gratitude, that these are the people I have been given – and who I have a sense of belonging with.  

  1. 2. How can I work to deepen relationships within it?

But then, is there anything I can do to enrich and deepen my relationships with these people? Now this is the beginning of experiencing both the joy and the messiness of community. Very often I will not want to go deeper as I sense (rightly, as it happens) that if I do I will become aware of aspects of myself which I am really trying to keep hidden. But at the same time there are riches to be uncovered here as we discover mutual acceptance and, indeed, celebration of one another in all our glorious difference.  

  1. 3. How can I widen it – make it more inclusive?

But let the work not stop there. But let us keep asking the question ‘who is left out?’ Or perhaps more enticingly ‘in what way are we the poorer because certain people do not feel included?’ And then, ‘what can we do about this?’.  

‘Intentional community’.

This is a phrase often bandied about and will mean many different things. Usually the phrase is used to refer to a group of people who have decided to live together with the intention of addressing the sort of questions I have posed above.     

But, in my mind, it may not necessarily mean actually living in the same house. The key word is, simply, ‘intentional’. And this means to deliberately bring awareness to the shape and structure of the community I am involved with and to seek to deepen, widen and enrich it.

At heart, those who are engaged in ‘intentional community’ are simply those who have recognised that this is a vital work for humans to be involved with in our day – especially in Western society which has conceded so much communal ground in the shift towards a consumerist society.

Meditation is never a solitary activity.

And anyway in the end we never meditate alone. As anyone knows who has practised for any length of time, all your relationships are there with you – in your wandering thoughts and emotions. We meditate as community whether physically present or not. And the natural outworking of this will be to pay some intentional attention to the community of which I am a part.