Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Tangle Heart


Last one, I promise (for a while at least). My favourite, and the shortest, from somewhere around '95-98

Tangle Heart

A pot of love
Cleft downstream
in a motion of clutter
Attention, a breath
Stroke in, Stroke out, stuck

but to what porpoise.
How hard to see
when the world floats merrily
like so much broken flotsam.

Words, fucking words


Another poem from around 98. This one written to try and express my frustration at not being able to express myself.

Words, fucking words
a passion unknown
a fruit untasted.

Everywhere I go
my ears fill with the thoughts
of others that
echo my deepest longings,
deeper than me, than mine

and yet still a haunting sound
that calls out to an unknown future
and broken platitudes flow out
to fill the gap inside
that burns with every touch of beauty
from another's lips.

And as for me my dear,
foolish knowing that weeps dry hard pebbles into sand

I cradle the ache in my belly
like a mother nurses the child
that grows inside.
A twisting panic reaches out
to express more than these feeble scratches
even in subtle nuance can convey.

So here I am,
fucking words.

Muddy Waters




While history charge on
Mad plunge of doomed humanity
Pouring over crags of grey & blasted stones
Onto the shores of lost hope
& Frustrated opportunity

I spy a glimmer
Faint light midst swirl of chaos
but down I drive.
Faint heart swept on strange current
Saved from fates of death that twist & clamour all around.

Drawn on weakly as if toward some goal
at last I see, but dimly up ahead
The well of Christ
And now my own will must I use
So nearer do I come & sure enough

Amongst this senseless life & endless calling;
All to death though it had seemed;
Is Paradise - or promise of -
Through passage small and narrow
The plughole of salvation.
-- by Michael Foord, November 1998
Written at a dark time of my life, but not the very darkest and there was some light.

Mother Nina


It was recently my mother's 70th birthday. For her birthday celebration my brother conned me into singing for my Mum, accompanied by my sister. It was the first time I've sung in front of more than two people, and thankfully no video evidence of the event exists. This video is the song I sang for her, words arranged by David Foord.

This is what I said to her before singing.

There is a cliche that says you never really understand your parents until you have your own children. The trouble is, like many cliches, it's true. Mum has been a steadfast support to me and my family, and we're very grateful to her and love her a great deal. I really enjoy being friends with my Mum.

When I think about my mum the strongest thought is that she's so obviously a good and true friend, not just to me but she loves so many people steadily and is in turn loved by us. The evidence of this is all around us right here. Now I'm aware that when you say of someone "they're a good friend" it sounds nice, but perhaps a bit of a cop out. To balance that I'd like to quote one of the most important verses from the bible, from the new testament.

This is Jesus speaking in John 15:13 "Greater love has no-one that this: to lay down one's life for one's friends". In Christian tradition we understand that "laying down one's life" means to put aside your own priorities and put other people first. I'm sure many of you will recognise this description in my Mum. What is often not commented on in this verse is here Jesus defines the greatest love. Friendship. There is no higher love than being a true friend, putting aside your own life and priorities for your friend is the best possible thing that anyone can do can do according to Jesus. And that's so easy to see in how my Mum lives and has lived for years.

Mum is very generous. One of the things she loves most is buying things. Oops, I mean giving gifts to people. Mum is highly creative, a gift she's passed onto her children. You can also see in her children another quality for which we can blame her. We're very good at being determined to get our own way. A gift I'm not so sure my Dad was ever very impressed with when we were children, but which I'm very grateful for in adult life. Although I slightly suspect my sister is better at it than I am! I think we'd all agree that Mum is the master here though and I take my hat off to her.

It wasn't just her youth, as a Jewish girl in a relatively poor family, that was difficult. Most of you will know of my Mum's struggle with bleak and dark depression many years ago and how she came through that and now uses that experience to empathise with and encourage and support people struggling in similar ways. And of course her battle with cancer last year. Something she also came through with dignity and determination. I'm so proud of her.Her own struggle has been very hard, but that's built into her a real strength and determination that it's impossible not to admire.

My Mum is a light that has shone for many years and will continue to shine in my life as long as I'm alive.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Evangelical Christianity: The Good and the Bad

The austerity doctrine is as bad as the prosperity doctrine.
During our Sunday night service, at a fairly normal (in some ways...) Evangelical Charismatic church, a lady gave a testimony of soul healing. It was a personal breakthrough for her at a difficult time, finding greater emotional wholeness through facing the fears and pain of her past brought up by present difficulties.

For her it involved not just facing and acknowledging the pain, but letting go of it and giving it over to God. In this she found an experience of love and peace, reconciliation with herself and her current circumstances through dealing with the past. It was very moving and beautiful, obviously so real and meaningful to her.

This is the conception of self and healing that is found in Evangelical Christianity. It is an understanding that the totality of who we are is in our depths and understanding the way that our character is formed by the past and our experiences. Also that understanding ourselves and finding freedom and wholeness is a journey of a lifetime and that life can bring us into this if we let it. Whilst I question the full depth of the understanding within this understanding (in a broader sense, not for this lady) it's not far from the truth and in its way very beautiful.

It's interesting to compare the similarities between this conception of self and what I've found in meditation and through my understanding of psychology: Meditation Revisited: A Conception of Self.

However, my favourite bugbear about the way Evangelical Christianity interprets the teachings of Christ follows. It seems to me that this bugbear demonstrates that within its own terms Evangelicism is not a complete mindset. It has internal inconsistencies and therefore within its own terms cannot be a full or correct understanding.

The Bible, even just the New Testament, is huge and if parts are picked skillfully enough can be used to justify almost any point of view.

However, in attempting to understand the message and teachings of scripture (what it actually means, the truth within and behind it), there are still key passages that define the core beliefs and understandings of Christianity.

Which verses you see as key, if you are a believer, will depend on your particular theological background and of course your own character. The ones I'm particularly interested in are two verses, which encapsulate two different ways of seeing "the gospel" (the gospel is the "good news" within Christianity):
1 John 4:7-8 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Here John explicitly says that anyone who loves knows God.
John 4:6 Jesus told him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.
Along with this scripture go multiple scriptures about salvation coming through confessing and proclaiming the name of Jesus. The Evangelical interpretation of this is that the only route to salvation (to being reconciled to God and able to know God) is by becoming a Christian, knowing the name of Jesus and accepting him as Lord. This appears to directly contradict what John says in 1 John 4:7-8.

The most common attempt I hear at a reconciliation of these two different ways of understanding God is something like:
"The bible contains many apparent contradictions and the truth is in the tension of these contradictions, finding the balance between the two different truths there."
In other words, "we know our understanding contradicts itself and therefore can't be right, but we'll ignore that because we're sure we're right". I'm sorry but that's not how you deal with contradictions in understanding. The right approach is to accept this means your understanding is wrong and incomplete and to search for a deeper understanding. Much as we know that the understood (and tested) rules of quantum mechanics contradict our understood (and tested) rules of relativity and more specifically the operation of gravity. We know this means our understanding is incomplete and we are searching for a deeper understanding that can explain both. This is a matter of intellectual integrity.

The other explanation I hear is that in 1 John 4:7-8 John was only talking about agape love, which is love from God. There are other kinds of love that aren't from God. Aside from the fact that dividing love into different types is a pre-Christian Greek idea, aside from the fact that this isn't how the different words for love are used in Biblical Greek (Bible scholars now think that Phileo and Agape were actually used interchangably in second temple era Biblical Greek), that would effectively render the passage as "God's love is from God". This is tautological and would be an odd and meaningless thing for John to write. It feels to me like an attempt to twist the meaning into something that fits a different understanding and not really an obvious reading of what the writer is trying to say. Plus the obvious understanding is more beautiful, and of course we all know that truth is beauty so the most beautiful understanding must be the true one.

In recent years a new movement with Christianity, called Progressive Christianity, has had a different understanding that allows the apparent contradiction to be reconciled without discarding the truth from either side. I attempt to write about this, and the beauty within it, in my article "God is Doing a New Thing". That article explores in more depth some of the well known scriptures that are problematic for a traditional or Evangelical understanding of salvation.

The topic of soul healing is, I think, in some ways central to the application of Christianity. How do we find wholeness and freedom and how do we bring other people into healing and freedom. Other aspects of Evangelical teachings on the nature of self and soul healing are generally a bit fuzzier, and seem to be an attempt to fit doctrine into a psychological framework and language rather than genuinely deep insight into human nature. This is especially true in the practise and application that I've seen of these ideas. This includes concepts like "the father wound", soul ties, binding and loosing, the discerning of spirits and "curses" or "generational issues", about which more should probably be said.

I explore the topic of soul healing in a couple of other articles:

"There are two paths to understanding, rationality and experiential. Either one alone is insufficient."

Friday, 15 September 2017

Meditation Revisited: A Conception of Self

Living without hope can make people spiteful. Hate usually comes out of hurt.
The most significant and transformative element of my "spiritual practise" in recent years has been my meditation. For about the last seven years or so I've done mindfulness of breathing for an hour a day. A 20 minute meditation followed by a 40 minute meditation.

The meditation itself is nothing magical or mystical and is the basic meditation taught by the Buddha. It is an exercise of focus, being aware (mindful) of just the breath. In focusing on the breath, feeling just for the breath itself, you have to let go of all other distractions and trains of thought that compete in your mind for attention.

So when distractions arise you let them go and return to the breath, always returning focus to the breath. Once you've stilled the ceaseless chatter of the mind, the constant need to vocalise thoughts internally, the deeper things unwindind inside yourself also rise up and also need letting go of. I found this process so healing, some days memories and feelings would just flood out of me like a river. Instead of pushing away the painful memories and feelings, as I used to, I was no longer afraid of them and I let them come and go always trying to return to the breath. As I became less of afraid of what was locked away inside, and willing to let it out, I found that there was simply more of me around. I was less afraid of me and the result was becoming a bigger person.

The goal for mindfulness of breathing is to reach a state where you are totally relaxed but totally alert and focused. There comes a point where you have pushed away the distractions far enough that they don't come back (programmers call this state "being in the flow"). The Buddhists call this Dhyana (or Jhana) and it has been described as "stepping back into the garden of your mind". The few times it's happened to me I've suddenly noticed (usually itself enough to snap me out of it) that all I'm aware of is my breath and nothing else, and time appeared to have stopped. I have no idea how long I'd been like that, it could have been seconds or hours. Very beautiful. When your mind and body are this relaxed, and you're not pushing away or interfering with the workings of your soul (psyche) it is able to unwind and relax. Such a healthy thing.

So although the goal of mindfulness of breathing is practised focus, leading to mental strength, it is also the deliberate practise of the stilling of the soul. Extraordinarily restful, like settling down into a really deep and wordless think.

It's easy to see why it is useful, but to understand how it is useful can only really come through experience and can only be conceptualised as part of an understanding of the operation of the soul (mind). Understanding the effects of meditation requires us to understand ourselves better, and in meditation you feel the effects because you are consciously encountering yourself in it! So the teaching of Buddhism is not really about metaphysics (what is the soul, the nature of self, and everything else) but is about a practical path for working that out for yourself through seeing it.

So my understanding of myself, my understanding of what self is, comes through my own encounters with myself and what is inside - what stuff am I made of and how does it work - in meditation.

The key insight, not itself a novel idea to us now since the work of Freud and Jung, is that most of who we are is submerged beneath our normal conscious understanding. The only reason this is true is that our brains are so busy and we never get quiet enough to really feel what's happening inside. So the reality of who we are is mostly subconscious behaviour and habits. The conscious, rational and thinking part of us that so likes to think it is in charge is only a very small part of us.

So if we're responsible for ourselves and responsible for who we are, then just working on and with the rational part of us (the part we often identify as "us", the ego, the conception of self and the outside world) is not sufficient. Instead we must actually change, be transformed, and the path to doing this is deliberately cultivating skillful habits of goodness. Anything we do habitually becomes a habit, becomes part of our unconscious self. We can train ourselves, in everything we do, to be good. As we do that we become actually good, that's the stuff we become made of.

A real understanding of self, a conceptualisation of how our souls actually work and what it means to be healed and whole yet still experience pain, is difficult. The only real way to get there is to unwind enough of yourself so you can really see yourself. Then you recognise the same things, acted on by different circumstances so with a different result, in other people. You can see how we're all the same, but all different. Different expressions of different aspects of life.

I also sometimes do a variant of a Zen Buddhist meditation called "zazen", which means "just sitting". The most important part here is the "just". Not sitting and thinking, just sitting. I first encountered this meditation through a Christian book called "The Other Side of Silence", an interesting if over-fanciful book. In totally stilling the mind the deeper things are free to rise. This is a harder meditation to do than mindfulness, I was only able to do it at all after several months of mindfulness, but at times I have found it even more rewarding.

Meditation has been invaluable in enabling me to experience my self directly, and therefore makes it possible for me to understand myself. As our psyche is formed through interaction with the outside world our understanding of the world, the effects of our experience of the world, are closely bound up with self - with who we really are (rather than who we imagine ourselves to be). So our capacity to understand life is inextricably linked with our ability to understand our self.

Understanding myself as the result of, largely unconscious but still me, processes makes me less worried about how to change my behaviour and become something better - the best me I can be. I am what I am, my current behaviour is the outspring of everything that has happened to me and everything I am. As I become more reconciled to who I am, less of me is hidden and inaccessible, then I am more able to change. In as much as I am able, and in as much as it is possible, I will be truly good. Just because it's the most fun thing I can imagine and the most complete way of living.

If who we are is a psyche shaped by our experiences and character, and how we see ourselves and the world around us largely comes from those around us in our formative years - the psyches that we learned from and that shaped us, then the dominant "stories of our culture" will have had a formative role. Our collective stories are a visceral, beyond the conscious, way we communicate how we really see the world. How we think we see the world, how we want to see the world, and how we actually see the world on an unconscious level can be very different. Mythological stories, our creation myths for example, have a life independent of any individual. A collective life if you like. They form the backdrop of our culture and affect you, have life within you, however you rationally and consciously treat these stories. As part of our shared reality they are part of what has shaped us. So really understanding ourselves and where we come from also involves understanding and unpicking the stories of our culture. This is the role of myth, it forms and shapes a deeper (unconscious) part of who we are and is therefore communicated and expressed in who we are and what we do. So understanding ourselves requires understanding the role and reality (psychologically) of myth. As an abstraction for some of the deeper influences that shape us it becomes a deeper way of thinking. A way of visualising and interacting with (in the abstract) the cumulative effects of society on the individual, and vice-versa.

This is why Jung concluded that the solution to most psychological problems is a reconnection to the religious. (I would rather say spiritual than religious as the word has terrible problems.) Only through connecting, in some way, with the deeper aspects of what formed us - and therefore who we are - are we able to understand ourself and resolve the more fundamental difficulties of life.

"The psychological chasm between external and internal reality is an illusion created by our minds trying to understand the world."

Thursday, 14 September 2017

To Those Who Worry

The austerity doctrine is as bad as the prosperity doctrine.
To those who worry,
And feel they ought to worry,
Because there's such a lot they care about,
And such a lot that matters,
And it really does matter and maybe if you don't worry
You'll forget to care, or not care enough,
and you need to care. That's why you're alive.
Don't worry about worrying,
Or worry about not worrying.
I promise you care enough, you won't forget to worry
and you won't forget to care.
You don't need to worry about worrying,
it happens by itself I promise you.
You just get on with the caring,
and let the worrying worry about itself.
I love you. How much you care is so very  beautiful.
My own story about worry. I worry, but not as much as I used to. I used to worry a lot but eventually I made things so bad for myself I had to stop worrying. I worried, but I didn't know how to fix it, and it wasn't actually possible to worry that much. I couldn't do it. It damn near killed me. So I had to stop worrying.

I still worry a bit. I still need to care more. But I do care, a lot, and it seems like I can care and mostly do the right thing when it matters, without having to worry. So I don't think I should worry, I don't think it actually helps at all. So when I catch myself worrying, I stop.

I hate worry and anxiety. I consider them my enemy. It was fear that got me, I've known (as so many of us have) real terror. So in as much as I'm able I'm not going to be afraid any more. Whenever I have a choice and whenever I notice a choice I'm going to choose to not be afraid. That's as much as I can do but I will do it.

A large part of anxiety can be imagining the worst, and being caught up in imagining the worst. Following possible thought trains into dark places. The images can be very compelling because it's hard to convince yourself that it's not possible, which makes it feel real. Or at least possibly real, and that's a scary thought.

Which is exactly what it is. A scary thought. I'm afraid that all sorts of terrible things are possible. But an awful lot of incredibly wonderful things are possible too. And if it makes sense to think about the possible awful, then it makes sense to think about the possible amazing too.

And if the awful we can't prevent, and you can't prevent it all you just can't. Then all we can do is be sensible, judge risks carefully and put in place appropriate mitigation where possible. We can only do what's possible and we have to balance risks against costs. But we're quite good at that, we do it all the time. Every time we get in a car we're taking a measured risk. They're pretty safe, generally, if you're careful.

So we can handle the awful, as best we can if we have to. We'll do what we need to do and try and help each other to do it. But we don't need to imagine the awful to do that. We hear such a lot about such scary things, but almost all of them are really rare and worrying doesn't help. We can be sensible about risks without needing to worry. It's genuinely hard, but it's also genuinely possible.

It's a difficult habit to break, imagining the worst. But that's what it is, it's a habit, and you can change habits. Slowly, gradually, but you can do it.

I've found meditation really helpful. In practising focus you learn to let go of other things happening in the mind. That's what helped me. Recognising thought patterns, and not pushing them away but letting them peter out helps. Recognise them as thought patterns, just ways of thinking. Watch them but don't get too involved. Resist the voice that tells you you need to get involved. You don't.

You can choose to concentrate, when you can and when you remember, on thinking about the good and imagining all the good that's possible. What you're grateful in life for. There's always something, usually a whole bunch.

That's one of the beautiful things I learned from my Mum and her own difficult struggle with depression. Part of her emerging from, and escaping from, depression was choosing to focus on what she was grateful for. As hard as everything else seemed she could always find a few things that she was grateful for, and she wrote five down a day. She still does as far as I know. She's a beautiful, caring, loving person and she found things very hard for quite a few years. But she enjoys life now, and being alive, and she's never been more alive. Such a wonderful thing to see.

There's such a lot of hope, there really is, so much hope. There's a lot of love as well. It can be hard to see, perhaps even hard to find, but it's out there. More love than you can imagine.

The full nature of humanity, all that it is possible for it to mean about being human, is a terrifying thing. We know that the most awful atrocities are possible, because we've seen them and heard about them. So we're scared of the full nature of humanity.

But what makes the terrible possible is also what makes the beautiful possible. We can see, and  experience, the fullness of what it is to be human whilst not participating in the horror of it. We can see the awfulness, even within ourselves, and not be scared. Because we can love, and as we love the horror goes, and we can choose to love. We don't have to do or be anything of the awfulness, change happens slowly but it's possible.

To not fear yourself, who you are and who you could be, is a wonderful thing. Because then, the best of whatever could become possible actually does become possible. You still have to do it though, but it's fun.

"I really like living in a country where literally nothing wants to kill you. Nothing at all. The weather might suck, but that's why Great Britain largely is a green and pleasant land."

"If you really know what hell is like you'll be determined to find heaven. I'm not talking about after death, I'm talking about here and now."