SHIFTS IN PERSPECTIVE 1: SELF-COMPASSION

Last year I began a sort of series in these blogs entitled ‘A shift in perspective’. These were inspired by my musings around the course of the same name I have been developing over the last year (update on this below below).

But the more I think about this theme the more I feel it has something to offer to so many aspects of life.

The basic premise goes like this: many of our difficulties and struggles in life cannot and will not be sorted by thinking even harder about them with our current mindset but rather what is needed is a change in mindset and approach – a shift in perspective.

It’s a bit like standing in a forest and trying to see the beautiful oak tree that someone a few feet away has just remarked on. ‘It’s not an oak – it’s an ash’ you say. But your companion insists with the kind of authority in their voice that makes you look again – and harder. But to no avail – you know what an oak looks like and that is not one. And so a familiar kind of conversation without any prospect of a resolution ensues. Until … just as you are starting to doubt all you thought you knew about trees, a penny drops and your companion says to you, ‘ah, I think you need to move a few feet to your left’. And then, of course, all is revealed – there is the oak. The intractable has been resolved. But not through argument. Not through trying harder. Not through staring more keenly. But by moving.

The biggest difficulty here though is that very often we do not even see our own mindset or perspective as a thing that exists. The way I am seeing things just appears to me to be the way things are. And if the difficulty is not resolving itself then the only explanation is that someone or something must be at fault – and depending on what mood I am in or what day it is, it is either my fault – or yours. And that’s it! And so I sway from one to the another, really getting nowhere until …

Well, until what, exactly?

I’m often not sure what makes the difference – what wakes me up – where the shaft of light comes from. But I do sense that the more I bring awareness to this process and practice with it in meditation (which is all about this shift) then the more (and sooner) such shifts seem to happen.

So, what I feel drawn to do in this next series of blogs, is simply to depict instances of such shifts happening in practice and see if this resonates with people.

The self-compassion shift.

But, to start with a general steer, one of the things which I have noticed is most effective in helping me to make this shift – to see a situation differently – is self-compassion.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Nor is it self-pity. But it is simply allowing an awareness of my own vulnerability and suffering into the picture. This will never, of course, be the whole picture – others in the frame are also suffering, some of whom may have been hurt by me. But to try to pretend that my suffering is completely irrelevant – as some more ascetic strands of spirituality may suggest – is to miss a key part of the picture. And without that part the situation cannot move forward.

In fact my sense is that until my own suffering has at least been acknowledged I find myself unable to let go of my mindset of blame (of myself or the other). But when I do acknowledge it, suddenly the whole picture changes. I not only allow myself to be a vulnerable person in this situation but also I start to recognise that the same is true for everyone else here too – that we are all vulnerable, reacting out of our defensiveness which makes it so difficult for us let go of our strongly held opinions and mindsets. And it is when we finally notice this, that something can shift.

So, here is a thought – a practice – for when you feel yourself in one of those intractable conversations or email exchanges. Simply ask the question: ‘Where is the suffering here?’ You might want to place a hand over your own heart or belly in a supportive and compassionate gesture as if to start with yourself. When I have done this and finally admitted to myself, ‘ah, I am anxious’ or ‘I feel hurt, excluded, not listened to, ….’ (but without then rushing to blame someone for this), then something changes. Compassion is now present. I can even feel my body relax. And there is a new openness to myself and others – and a new mindset with which I can approach this intractable situation.

Mindfulness, nature and a certain kind of awareness

I have mentioned before that I have friends who own a small-holding on the Welsh borders and sometimes when they go away I go and stay to look after the animals.

This year I decided to make it my annual retreat and to keep a fairly formal structure to my time there. And it turned out to be a really special time which I would like to share something of as it also relates to the retreat I am leading at Othona retreat centre in July.

Intentions.

I had two intentions for this retreat. One was to come to a place where I wasn’t quite so dominated as I usually am by my endless discursive thoughts. And the other was, perhaps from such a place, that I might get a clearer view as to the direction my life and teaching is heading in.

And whereas I do think one needs to be a little circumspect about setting intentions for a retreat (in case there is actually something completely different which needs to emerge) in this case something of both of these intentions were fulfilled in a really helpful way.

Nature

And what came to be central for me was the part of the retreat where I was consciously connecting with nature.

I set out a rough timetable for myself which included three things: meditation, being in nature and simple practical living (cooking, eating, resting etc.).    

And that was it. I did a bit of reading though not much and also a bit of journaling (probably more than helpful) but basically I did indeed come to a sense of very simple living.

And it was great! After a couple of days I was, perhaps rather romantically, thinking: I could live like this! There were challenges to come but I still carry with me that core feeling that this is life – this is living – and anything else needs to emerge out of this (rather than the other way round where we normally see such a way of ‘being’ as a break from ‘real life’).

And it was the nature connection which really helped me here. Each day I had my daily rounds with the animals: letting out, gathering in and feeding hens and ducks; feeding and watering pigs; and letting in and out of the house (several times a day!) the house cat. And, instead of simply getting these tasks done as quickly as possible, I decided to make them part of my practice. So I stopped and lingered and sat with the animals and simply paid attention to them.

And, as we teach in mindfulness, it is not just where our attention is but the quality of our attention which can help us to make the shifts we need in life. And this quality is not to get sucked into trying to understand in order to solve issues, fix problems, become more efficient or plan the next move. But it is more a case of simply catching a sense of what is here – what it is to be this animal with its largely pre-cognitive state, just living, just being.

At one stage in my journal I wrote:

Here is a cat being a cat.

Here is a hen being a hen.

Here is a pig being a pig.

Here is Tim mostly trying hard not to be Tim

in case he gets ‘found out’!

So I kept going back each day – as required of course, but also gladly, to see if I could catch just a little bit of the simple authenticity of being which these animals could not help but live, moment by moment, day by day.

Thoughts in their place.

Thoughts, of course, were ever present in my own experience: trying to work out logically the right direction for decisions that were looming. But they never seemed to resolve anything for long. There always followed another set of thoughts offering a different point of view – as there always seems to be as we reflect on this sort of level. I do think that discursive thinking has its place and is really important not to ignore. But here is the point – we need to let such thinking find its appropriate place in our lives – and leave it there – and then open up to this wider, more visceral and more primal way of simply knowing – of coming back to the simple act of living and to the authenticity of life which might emerge from this.

Authenticity.

And it was this word, ‘authenticity’ which really held me through the week. These animals seemed to have no capacity to be anything other than authentic. Whereas we human animals seem to have devised layers and layers of sophistication which threaten to draw us further and further away from such authenticity.

So, I went back again and again and watched simple authenticity at work – or was it ‘at play’ as the animals continued with the business of simply being animals.

I also made space for afternoon walks where I would spend periods of time sitting with the plants and the trees. At one point I even asked a great Oak I was sitting in front of for some advice. The oak, of course, remained silent because (as with Mary Oliver’s roses – see below) it was far too busy simply being an Oak tree!

But I had heard the message anyway – authenticity – do whatever leads you closer to this in your life – Tim coming to be authentically Tim – not trying to impress anyone or to achieve anything splendid – but just to be real. And it was from this place that the decisions are coming which are shaping my life right now. And it feels very good.

A certain kind of attention and the environment.

And this is the kind of attention we seek to learn and practice in mindfulness. A technical term I use for it is ‘non-dual’ awareness – the kind which does not seek to draw lines between us and the rest of nature but allows us to come to know the unity – ourselves as a part of and not separate from nature. And as we come to know the unity we may even find the wisdom to be able to live in this world without destroying the very essence of what gives us life and nourishment.

Roses – Mary Oliver

Everyone now and again wonders about
those questions that have no ready
answers: first cause, God’s existence,
what happens when the curtain goes
down and nothing stops it, not kissing,
not going to the mall, not the Super
Bowl.

“Wild roses,” I said to them one morning.
“Do you have the answers? And if you do,
would you tell me?”

The roses laughed softly. “Forgive us,”
they said. “But as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses.”

A shift in perspective – ‘non-dual’ spirituality

I am currently trialling a new course in mindfulness which I have called ‘A shift in perspective – mindfulness, spirituality and being in the world’.

The course aims to support people in developing a daily meditation practice as a way of being in the world and responding wisely to all that we experience in life.

But I have also wanted to offer these things in the context of spirituality. And so, aware that this word is controversial for some and something of a barrier for others, I wanted to offer some thoughts here about what I mean by this word – and what I don’t mean.

And the term I have found most helpful recently, familiar to philosophers and theologians alike, is the phrase ‘non-dual’. So let me explain what I mean by this by first exploring what one might mean by ‘dualistic’ spirituality – which, one could argue has its place but is not the whole picture and can be seen as somewhat impoverished without the broader context of the non-dual. 

Dualistic spirituality.

A dualistic spirituality is when there is a tendency to divide reality into two poles: good/bad; right/wrong; secular/sacred; God/human etc. etc. The implication, of course, being that one is to be chosen and the other rejected or at least that one is superior to the other.

This kind of spirituality often comes with a clear moral framework – a set of rules – and usually a hierarchy of humans who will interpret these rules. Above and beyond this hierarchy is God who is seen as over all, separate from humanity and who is the source of the rules (and the punishments).

And it would seem to me that this approach to spirituality can be very helpful right at the beginning of a spiritual journey or when your life is in a degree of chaos – when I just need to know what to do and what not to do to get my life out of this mess – but that there are both problems and limitations with this approach if pushed beyond a certain point.

The problems include: well, reality just isn’t like that – it can’t be split into two choices all the time; it doesn’t do well with explaining suffering; it can lead to exclusion of those who don’t fit in; and also repression of those parts of ourselves which are not seen as acceptable. This last having led to all sorts of religious scandals.

And the limitations are to do with the lack of focus on inner transformation. So this approach to spirituality can end up making it feel as though it is all about fitting in with some perfect ideal which can feel very tiring after a while – a great effort constantly battling and struggling within. Notions of sin, judgement, guilt and shame can also often come into play quite heavily and can play into some very unhelpful negative feelings that many people already have about themselves. And this can often work against inner transformation.

As I say, although some will argue that dualistic spirituality is not a good approach at any stage of the spiritual life, others may say that there is a place for it as long as it is seen for what it is and that the limitations and problems are understood.

The other thing is that many have rejected any kind of association with spirituality on the basis that this is the only kind on offer – which, in popular western religion, often it is.

Non-dual spirituality.

This is the kind of spirituality which, rather than dividing things up and prioritising one aspect over the other, instead seeks the unity in all things – seeks the relationship between different aspects and, if this relationship is wounded in some way, seeks healing, integration, wholeness.

So, this is the spirituality which seeks to make space for the whole of human experience without judging any aspect as intrinsically good or bad but instead trusting in the essential goodness at the core of the human person. 

And God (if, indeed, ‘God’ is the best term) is not some distant figure at the top of a hierarchy but rather a presence, a stillness, a space where human wholeness and flourishing can come into being. The ‘divine’, then, is more a way of being, of knowing – beyond rules, and hierarchies as well as beyond images, ideas and concepts. There is both a quietness and a vibrancy here. We are catching a deeply wholesome flow in life and, when we do, some might simply want to affirm ‘ah, maybe this is what we mean when we talk of God’. Or others, equally reasonably, might want to suggest that this is so different an experience from that of dualistic spirituality, that the word ‘God’ hardly seems appropriate.

And, for fear of it all sounding rather lovely, cosy and wonderful, I should remind us that there is real struggle, difficulty and, indeed, suffering in this path. The mystics called this ‘The dark night of the soul’. And this aspect of non-dual spirituality should not surprise us: when that which is not whole (not integrated) approaches that which is, then that which is not will be exposed and challenged. The suffering comes as we try to cling to our familiar but nonetheless un-integrated ways of thought and behaviour. This is natural, of course, because these ways have enabled us to survive up to now – and so naturally we have become attached to them – they feel safe to us – and many of these ways were even taught to us in religious contexts (what I am now calling dualistic spirituality). But the trouble is that  now these mental and behavioural habits are no longer helping us to grow and some are even actively getting in the way of growth. So, what can seem like a painful purging may need to take place.

But these ‘dark nights’ are not the norm but doorways, if you like, to greater wholeness – the wider spaces where our souls can truly flourish.

I get the sense that this ‘non-dual’ way is what many are yearning for in our day – especially in the second half of life but actually young people are looking for this too. And the difficulty is that it is not well represented in our western traditions. It seems to be much more naturally present in some eastern forms of religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. But you have to work harder to find it in the west. It is there in Christianity – often known as ‘contemplative spirituality’ or ‘mystical theology’ (though even these can drift towards dualism) – but it is usually not mainstream and it seems to me we have not managed to find a way to make it available and accessible.  

In my view, we need to rediscover this strand of spirituality in the west. It needs to be much more foregrounded and made much more accessible.

And the reason I have turned to mindfulness as a support for this quest for non-dual spirituality is that the modern mindfulness tradition seems to have found a way of teaching it in an accessible way – making it a possibility for ordinary people.

So, in essence I suppose this is what I am seeking to offer with this current course – using the insights and practical accessibility of contemporary mindfulness as a doorway to this ancient, non-dual spiritual tradition.

(See my events page for updates on my running this course.)

Christmas Presence

I had a curious but enlightening brief conversation with the bride at a wedding recently which went something like this:
     Me: how are you doing?
     Bride: I don’t know – just trying to stay present to it all
     Me: what a wonderful thing – to be present at your own wedding!

Perhaps a strange response from me. But I think she understood what I meant.

For my own part I often find in the midst of activity, social gatherings and the planning of such, as well as now wondering whether they can happen at all, plus additional Covid uncertainty/anxiety, the first thing I lose is my presence – my awareness of the preciousness and strange beauty of just this moment – whatever it is bringing me.

This loss of presence is probably something of a survival strategy. When so much is going on whether in life around me or in my head I can feel slightly less in control and a bit more vulnerable to potential threats and challenges. So, naturally, in order to feel a bit safer, I close down – just a bit, or a lot, depending on how I am and just how much is happening.

Survival, of course, is a good thing. But if it is too dominant or stronger than it needs to be in a particular moment then something can so easily be lost too. And that something will be the quality of my presence to what is here, to the people I encounter, and to the moments of beauty which can so easily pass me by.

And there is a sense that all meditation practice is about being present – with our whole beings – to whatever is here. Our minds though constantly pull us away – to the future or to the past or to some kind of analysis of the present (weighing up threats and opportunities).

And hence the often mentioned encouragement from mindfulness teachers to ‘just keep coming back’ to what is here, now – starting with the breath but then opening to our whole experience. We may wonder why we are doing this ‘just coming back’ over and over again. But this is precisely why – this present moment is the most precious thing there is. Many would say the only thing.

The wonder, of course, is that so often I find that being present is not what I feared it would be – that in fact the fear of the present was the worst bit and actually being present, even if what is here is deeply challenging, has an aliveness and a beauty to it which can transcend whatever it is I may have been afraid of. 

So, here is my intention for this Solstice and Christmas period – in the midst of the presents, can I simply be present and see each moment transformed?

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
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