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."

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Nature of Consciousness and the Role of Myth

The spirit is the spirit of love, the essence and the substance of love.
The standard view of consciousness, the way that seems natural to many people to think of themselves, is that consciousness is a separate thing from physical matter. The "stuff of the soul" is fundamentally different from the rest of reality. This view of the world is called "dualism", more specifically "mind-body dualism". An alternative philosophy of mind is called monism, of which there are various kinds.

The kind I subscribe to is that consciousness exists in a continuum with the physical and energetic world. By this I mean that consciousness is not separate from the physical world, which includes the world of energy as well as matter as described by modern physics. You can see consciousness as one end of a spectrum, joined to the natural world because it arises from the natural world. Consciousness is an effect of the natural operation of the world. Coincidentally this kind of view of mind is taught by  the Christian writer Watchman Nee when he described the "tripartite person", consisting of spirit, soul and body none of which are separate from one another but existing as a spectrum.

My contention is that the Christian concept of "Christ within", along with both the evidence of neurobiology proving that consciousness is inextricably intertwined with the physical brain and the physical symptoms of "being filled with the spirit" (mirroring the Buddhist experience of "rapture" in meditation and the Hindu "release of kundalini") all suggest that a monist world view is more plausible.

In fact I suggest two things. First of all, a monist world view is the only one that makes sense. Through the will the conscious moves the physical, so there is clearly a connection. Almost all spiritual systems allow the interaction between the physical and the spiritual, so however the connection works a connection there is. And in understanding the connection we can conceive of the physical and the spiritual as a single combined system even if we might categorise certain phenomena separately. Unless we are to entirely disconnect the physical from the spiritual, or to disallow any understanding of the connection, a monist world view is the result.

Secondly, if we accept evolution as the path by which humanity arose from the land then we grew up in connection with and in relation to the earth. We are formed from dust. So it is only in understanding evolution, and the way consciousness formed in relation to the earth, that we are able to understand our own nature. The land from which we came shaped who we are, both genetically and psychologically. You can see this in different people groups from different lands and how both their way of lives and their very nature reflects the land they inhabit. We are an expression of nature and exist through the operation of natural laws, that's who we are.

Every experience comes mediated through our mind, so anything that seems "external" does so only because that's the picture our minds build of it. Our experience, even of the external is still subjective. So it is safe to let our experience of external reality come completely to life and yet still understand that this is only our experience not an objective view of reality. The life we invest in the external, the life we permit it to have, is still our life and part of us.

The psychological chasm between external and internal is an illusion, a way of thinking our minds create to try and understand the world. The separation between internal and external is how the world seems, but what we perceive outside ourselves is still only our perception, the operation of the mind. Our personal reality is a three-dimensional (or multi-dimensional) picture our mind paints based on our senses, thinking and past experiences. This is confirmed by many studies demonstrating that how we perceive the outside world, what appears to be unfiltered information from our senses, is actually the creation of the mind. Our imagination at work.

This is useful to understand because it means that subjective experience is as real as it's possible for something to be. That striving for the individually objective is an impossible task and that the objective is best understood as the collective subjective.

This is the approach taken by Daniel Kahnemann in empirical psychology. He makes objective deductions about the functioning of subjective minds by testing hypotheses on many people. Any individual result is subject to the whims and vagaries of the subject, yet objective results can still be extracted.

Objective reality, in as much as the concept has any meaning at all, is the composite of all subjective realities. As you affect (and effect) the subjective realities of those around you (i.e. you interact with them) you are changing reality. Therefore we can change things, we're not stuck.

Myths, legends and the stories and actors of spirituality are metaphors. They are not meant to be understood in literal ways (which says nothing about their literal truth but is about the type of truth they contain), but instead are metaphors intended to point us at a greater truth about the depths of our humanity and the world around us. The collective dreamings and imaginings of all of humanity.

Some things are just too big to contain in our minds, too big to have any conception of. The size of a galaxy, the operation of quantuum mechanics, the number of atoms in your hand, the way ideas spread and change, the ravings and raging of culture and so on. Rather than attempt a literal understanding we can paint pictures that can have life and breath within us, metaphors that point us and connect us to a greater reality too large and mysterious to understand rationally.

This is the value of myths and legends, that they allow us to imagine and think about things that are otherwise too big or strange to conceive. How was consciousness created out of dust. How do cultures get birthed, rise and atrophy. The collision of galaxies, the destruction of planets, the birth of new ideas and the death of old ones, the creation myths, how everything arose out of nothing.

All these things are incredibly complex, yet humans are skilled at finding patterns (which can potentially drive us to madness, as in A Beautiful Mind) and using abstractions to understand things. Spiritual systems and the language of spiritual systems provide a framework for dealing with these deeper and bigger aspects of reality. You don't need to "believe in them" to have faith in them, to trust them as useful ideas. Letting these ideas have life within you is actually just you thinking.

Although its easy to think otherwise, our deepest and best thinking is not in words but in concepts, imaginings, feelings and visualisation. It's only in trying to communicate to others that we must concretify concepts in words unless you are particularly skilled with painting, music or the other non-verbal arts. This is something that meditation (I particularly like "mindfulness of breathing" as taught by the Buddha) teaches you. The deepest parts of who you are are far beyond rational explanation and impossible to express with mere words. (The "groanings beyond words" of Romans 8:26.)

The catch and the question is, when you perceive and connect with something deeper than yourself are you actually connecting (and being changed by) something beyond yourself? I think there is an answer to that question and the answer is both yes and no.

Maybe it's safer to never find out. That's not the fun option though.

I describe myths, legends and spiritual stories as metaphors pointing us to a greater reality. Therefore understanding them means perceiving the aspect of reality, either present or past or future, that they correspond to. Our collective reality is our life, so the life that can be found within a mythos is the truth that it contains. For it to be alive to you is you understanding it, or at least in part. There's a difference between perceiving and having the rational clarity to describe it to yourself or someone else.

So not just how much do you understand it, but how much does it correspond to the other ways you understand the world. Can you reframe the language of spirituality in other languages, the language of the everyday. We all use many different sets of metaphors (different abstractions, different ways of thinking, different languages) to deal with the world. The depth of our understanding can be seen as how unified our thinking is. How able to express something are we in multiple different ways of thinking.

This is not unusual or different to how we normally think. Much of how we understand the modern world is through the use of abstractions. Money, as a medium of exchange representing abstract value, is the classic example. Money has no intrinsic value, it only has the value we invest in it psychologically. Because we all believe in it.

I've said that myths and legends are symbols and metaphors, understandable to humans, that point us to deeper truths about who we are both individually and collectively and about the world we live in. I've said that the measure of the life these metaphors have within us is the measure of our understanding of them, but that this is not the same as rational understanding. We can also understand the life these metaphors have within us rationally and communicate the life of them in other ways, other languages as I described it. The best way I know to get to that point is to be able to see the same thing from different points of view, and see what seems the same and what seems different from a different perspective. If you have faith or beliefs, how do they seem to others from the outside?

If myths and legends have an inner life, a life within the psyche, of many people and we have a shared experience and understanding of that life, then the myths and legends are independent of any individual. They have an objective life of their own beyond any subjective individual. Our subjective understanding and experience is carried by us, and even if subconsciously, is communicated by us and affects other people.

This is a large part of what culture does, we collectively tell stories about ourselves and the world. We dream and imagine together.

We can describe our shared imaginings and understanding, along with our shared experience, as "the realms of the psyche". As stories and ideas are passed, and changed, from person to person and from generation to generation, we can say that these stories and ideas have life. Not life that is totally independent of us, they exist in us, but they were also here before us and shaped the culture we came out of.

So our mythos, if it really does touch on something deep, has shaped who we are and continues to shape humanity. The gods we look to and the gods we create, and the stories we tell of them.

The concept of our shared, but subconscious, foundation of understand was called by Jung the "collective unconscious". Our common symbologies, and the life they have, he called "archetypes".

With our common and shared thinking defined coarsely as "the realms of the psyche" there are two different ways of thinking about it. We can either see it as an independent aspect of reality, perhaps joined to or in some way part of physical reality, but normally viewed as having a different form - operated on, both effected and affected, by a vast number of individual wills that exist within it. Alternatively we can see it as a collection of individual psyches that are both influenced by the external world (shared) and in turn influencing the external world. The "complete collection of individual psyches" is the manifestation and the manifesting of consciousness; of which we are all a part and in which we all participate.

If the individual consciousness, that certainly sprang from the physical world, truly exists in a continuum with the external world it therefore exists in a continuum with other consciousnesses. We are all joined through the external world from which we all came and which we all share. Therefore there is a way that we can conceive our collective individual consciousnesses as "linked" and conceive of them as a single system. Seeing the world of the mind, the spiritual world if you like, as having an independent existence of our own mind that forms part of it can be a useful abstraction for understanding the operation of the human soul.

In that sense it is just a different way of looking at the same thing. The two different ways of thinking, if understood correctly which of course is the great challenge, become "functionally equivalent". As all we can know of the world comes through our mind, our whole experience of life is always subjective, the abstraction of "universal mind" (spirituality) is as real as a thing can be too us. Spirituality is a construct of the mind, a way of understanding how we are connected to each other because we were formed by the outside world and are connected to the outside world. But our whole experience of life is a construct of the mind. It's the same class of experience even if it feels or seems (through unfamiliarity) to be very different.

If shared experience is possible, if we can have a mutual experience of something and be influenced by each other's experience, then it validates that an objective spiritual abstraction can be useful. Objective because it is independent of any individual participant, but only possibly experienced as the subjective. Because all we can know is the subjective our experience of the spiritual can be as real to us as our experience of anything. The life these experiences have is our life, where our is both singular and plural.

The question then becomes, although I can only ever experience things from my own perspective, if I assume that the external world and other people are real, am I really connected to something greater than myself. If my life can extend into the outside world and others (do you "bring life" to those around you?) then am I a part of more universal life that is objectively real because it exists even without my participation.

This leaves another question. This collective life of ours, that extends into everything, from which we came and of which we are a part, who's life is the same stuff as our life yet is greater than any of us and exists without any of us, the source of all life, what name shall we give it? What names does it have.

Further Reading and Background Reading

"I dreamed I was asleep. In my sleep I dreamed that I was asleep and dreaming. In my dream everyone was there and everything was normal. Yet still I wanted to awaken."

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

How to Believe (but not What to Believe)

Perfect love exists. Perfect, without blemish or flaw.
On the existence of God, it's likely I use the word God in a different way to how you understand it to mean. If you don't believe in God then I don't believe in the same God that you don't believe in. But I believe a conception of God is useful for describing an aspect of the human psyche, particularly an aspect of our common experience and shared reality.

I think it can be demonstrated that an idealised conception of universal life can be as real as it's possible for us to experience anything as being real. And I think it can be demonstrated that this is functionally utterly identical to it being completely true. We can't know ultimate truth, but the reality of universal goodness can be as real and true as it's possible for a thing to be. And if shared experience is possible then the shared experience of universal love can be real.

Furthermore, I understand how I believe and I believe I can explain it and I promise that it's safe. I don't care that you believe the same thing as me, so long as at the core you believe in life and believe life is good. That's the heart of the matter.

You just dream. That's all we can do anyway. Let's dream something beautiful into existence together. And let's fight for it. Dream life into your friends and family, dream life into the universe. Let all of reality live within you, because all that you can experience is "within" anyway. Your whole experience of life is through the psyche. It's literally all in your mind and you are imagining the whole thing. Because in making sense of your memory, your senses and your understanding you are using your imagination. Your sense and perception of the outside world is the product of your mind.

Alphonse Constant: magic is the product of imagination and will.

If love is the most important thing for you, then caring for those you love will be your highest priority. Which tethers you to reality, the here and now, what's right in front of you. So you can't get lost. But you can live as if the dream were real, but keeping your eyes wide open trying to make sense of it all whilst letting it rage.

And how do we fight? Well, any way we can. We gotta work it out.

So I look not to religious fact, but to a living experience of the sacred.The way not the destination. And my way is the way of the Risen Lord.

It's the name of a path, a way. It's just a name. The way is valid and sound. Not dogma. But it's not just any name, it's a name of hope. In my way I understand that incontrovertible truth is not a thing you can have, and that dogma is therefore always wrong. Resurrection life can only be a beautiful living metaphor, but you can know the life of it. So I don't claim or propagate it as truth, merely as a path - and a path that can lead closer to the truth precisely because it understands that it is not itself a truth merely a way. An approach to life if you like or a way of life.

I'm not asking you to believe, I'm telling you it seems to work. But name aside, if you read what I actually suggest as the path it has not nothing to do with any particular belief at all. Well, maybe I am a little suggesting what to believe but I'm not providing a map, merely perhaps suggesting a destination.

Look to whatever mythos and legends have found you and feel for the life in them. Let them have life in you, but don't be taken in by it - feel free to not believe in any of it at all as you can't know for sure anyway.  If at your core is the hope that love wins then you can sift through the life you find accepting and rejoicing in the good and reaching further into it.

But if we can have belief and faith that leads us into a closer approximation of whatever truth is then surely there are bad beliefs? Well, there are certainly bad ways of thinking. Ways that can only keep us away from truth and not lead us closer to it.
Astrology is a false god. Homeopathy is a false god. New Atheism is a false god. Evangelicism is a false god.
An explanation of what I mean follows, but first I will note that despite seeing astrology as a false god (although I will admit the fundamental interconnectedness of all things and that we are not disconnected from the heavens out of which we are made, we are all stardust) it amuses me no end that I am a Leo born in the year of the tiger.

A false god is an idol of the mind. A set of assumptions you look to instead of looking into reality.
New Atheism is the aggressive modern rational atheism of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens et al. A highly evangelistic and self assured cult. Scepticism is a good approach, but that cuts both ways and it needn't lead to this kind of atheism.

I admire the fierce rationalism of New Atheism, but on the topic of spirituality they have decided they are right and refuse to understand. The language of spirituality is used in meaningless ways by many people. Nonetheless there is rich and deep meaning and beauty in spirituality. To decide and proclaim it is all nonsense and has no meaning is a proud blindness that shows no respect to those who think differently.

Modern atheism is an effective psychological wall against irrationality. But it's a wall that keeps you inside. There are ways of letting mythology having life within your psyche whilst retaining intellectual and psychological integrity.

Mythology is part of the psychological reality and makeup of humanity. To deny it any truth is to deny part of who you are, but to allow it truth without losing yourself, and genuine understanding, requires understanding the type of truth it contains.

Holiness and sacredness have profound and extraordinary meanings, transformative meanings, that can only be understood through experience. So if you're not willing to permit them any meaning you prevent yourself from understanding.

For those committed to atheism, as many of my friends describe themselves, this discussion can either be an argument - or you can be willing to understand how someone else sees the world and admit it might have value. You don't have to believe to understand, but you can't receive the life of it into your understanding if you deny it any life at all.

To understand something new is to be changed, and many people just really do not want to change. I want to change all the time because that is really the only constant in life anyway. I want to actually understand how other people see the world (a skill I'm trying to improve) and that means being willing to drop my own assumptions and accept that they have different experiences to me and have seen different parts of life to me. I can see more of the world through their eyes so long as I'm not determined that I'm right and they're wrong. I know I'm wrong, probably about everything, but then so is everyone else. Between us all we're closer to the truth than any of us alone.

It is an unfortunate truth that what you're able to think is, in large measure, determined by the conclusions you're willing to reach. An entirely natural, but utterly pernicious, human tendency is to reason in ways that come to the conclusions you have already come to.

It's pernicious because in this, totally normal, way of thinking you're not really looking for truth but looking to confirm what you already think. This is an example of a well studied aspect of human behaviour, a cognitive bias, called confirmation bias. You will tend to notice and seek out things that confirm what you already believe.

A genuine search for truth requires overcoming yourself and these subconscious biases. It's genuinely hard.

What you're not willing to question you can't know the truth about because you're not really willing to look. You'll see your assumptions instead of being able to encounter reality, and whatever reality actually is it tends to be far stranger than we're capable of imagining. If you doubt what I say try a search for quantum tunnelling as a lovely example of just how odd reality really is.

"The best possible compliment for a philosopher is to tell her that her ideas are obvious. It means she explained them so clearly you couldn't possibly disagree."

Knowledge, Suffering and an Ancient Apple

Do you think you can fight darkness without understanding the ways of darkness?
One of the strangest myths of the bible, which also contains one of the most important secrets, is right at the start in the story of Adam and Eve. By the way, using words like myth and legend is not to make any commentary on their literal truth - it is to categorise the sort of story they are and therefore understand the sort of truth they can contain.

The interesting thing about the old testament is that it's presented as history, whilst also being a metaphor intended or understood to point to spiritual truths. We come as readers approximately three thousand years or so distant from the writing down of these stories, which themselves are much older living as an oral tradition before being codified in the Torah. The Torah was probably compiled by Ezra around the time of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Hebrew exile in Babylon and kick-starting the "second temple era" of Judaism into which Jesus was born. The books of the law would have been a collection of the teachings of prominent Jewish clerics in the preceding centuries, going back from the time the Jews were a nomadic race through their settlement in Israel and Palestine. This explains why the laws seem quite so odd to us. As an aside, the legend is that only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah returned from exile, so when I say that my grandfather is from the tribe of Benjamin, after whom we named my son, it isn't quite as impressive as it might sound.

As modern readers, long removed from the depicted events and culture, the only possible relevance the collection of books contained in the Old Testament can have to us is spiritual truth. What can these stories tell us about humanity and are they actually, as is claimed, able to teach us anything about the deeper mysteries of human existence?  Archaeological, anthropological, cosmological and geological evidence make a literal reading of swathes of the Old Testament a large and ridiculous pill to swallow. But that's irrelevant as the only possible meaning for us is the spiritual truth, not the literal truth. Who cares whether or not there was a literal Adam and Eve, what possible difference can that make to my life? The important question is what can we learn from the story. So arguing about the literal truth of the older portions of the bible is an utterly pointless exercise.

The central part of the legend of Adam and Eve is a fruit tree, never specified as an apple by the way. In fact two fruit trees, the tree of life (the central part of Jewish mysticism the Qaballah and also the central part of most occultism) and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Humanity is warned that eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil leads to death, but humanity does it anyway and evil is unleashed upon the universe in an unfolding saga still playing out today. This, according to Judaism and Christianity, is the root of all suffering. That humanity has eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In a later myth, one of my favourites, the tower of Babel it is humanity's unfettered lust for knowledge that brings the curse of confusion of communication and with it an inability to really know each other. The power of legend is that they echo through time and therefore have a timeless relevance.

If there is no knowledge of evil then evil is not possible. It is only in the understanding that evil is possible that evil has come. This is what the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents. Instead of a thirst for life we acquired a thirst for knowledge and we reap the reward of that.

Interestingly though in the legend of the fall it is the snake, evil personified, who tempts and tricks the naive humanity into disobedience. So evil, not even nascent evil, was already present in the universe. Creation had already fallen.Perhaps the most vivid rendition of this is right at the end of the bible, in the book of Revelation (chapter 12 verses 7-9):
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Although strictly it's not clear whether that refers to the original fall of Satan or his final defeat. Another, more poetic, depiction of the defeat of Satan is found in Isaiah 14:4-17
How you have fallen from heaven,    morning star, son of the dawn!  
You have been cast down to the earth,    you who once laid low the nations! 
You said in your heart,    “I will ascend to the heavens; 
I will raise my throne    above the stars of God; 
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. 
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;    I will make myself like the Most High.” 
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,    to the depths of the pit.
Many people comment, fairly it would seem, that if God really didn't want humanity to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil then why put it in the damn garden in the first place. To which the Christian will typically murmur something about free will. The senior pastor of my church once commented, in what must be true within the terms of faith but nonetheless is no answer really nor comfort, that sin and suffering must be within the sovereign plans of God. In my theodicy I explore the idea that if evil and suffering is even a possible idea in the realm of all possible ideas then it has to happen sometime. If we live in a universe where anything is possible then evil is possible, and the only way for us to live free of evil is either to never know about it or to know about it and defeat it.

And well. Now we know. Humanity has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and we can't unknow, we have to deal with it. We can still eat of the fruit of the tree of life but we know about good and evil. The right response individually is to cast evil from us. As far as the East is from the West.

Revalation 20:7-10
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
So even if the odds seem overwhelming, we have eternal fire on our side.

"The antidote to existential dread is to make existence dread you. Be a thing that happens to life rather than letting life happen to you."


To discern, to understand by perceiving. A lovely word.
Righteousness does not come from following the law, because you can't. Instead love has fulfilled and perfected the law, and love is the law. And by grace, we can love. When we love we fulfil the law, and righteousness is made complete in us for love is perfect and without blemish.

For the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Against such, there is no law.

The spirit is the spirit of love, both the essence and the substance of love.
Romans 13:10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. 
Genesis 15:6 Abraham had faith and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Grace is not given that we might follow the law, for we are no longer slaves to the law. Grace is given that we might love for when we love we fulfil the law. Righteousness, being made right, comes through grace as we are perfected by love.

What then is sin? Sin is the opposite of righteousness and since righteousness comes through love, sin is the failure to love. And that's it, that's the full list. If we fulfil the law we do not sin.

Where we do not love we dwell in darkness, for love is the light. Love is both the path and the means to find the path, both the freedom and the being made free.

Jesus speaking in Matthew 7:12 "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

There is of course a difference between what is sin and what is sensible; "all things are permitted, not all things are helpful". (1 Corinthians 10:23)

"Mysticism is an experiential alternative to the academic and intellectual pursuit of theology."

Descartes, Imagination and the Death of the Ego

Existence blossoms out of non-existence, and no-one knows why.
The essence of Descartes' second meditation and his famous conclusion Cogito Ergo Sum "I think therefore I am" is that you cannot prove to yourself that you are not actually insane in an asylum and hallucinating your whole life experience. The modern equivalent would be that you cannot prove you're not in fact a computer simulation switched on just a second ago, with all your memories pre-programmed.

You cannot conclusively prove that your memories, experiences and senses do not deceive you (and in fact your experience will be that they do at times deceive you). Therefore the only thing you can be truly certain of, to your core, is that something that you experience as self exists. Sometimes expressed as "there is thought, therefore there is a thinker". The only certainty is I Am.

Therefore, certainty cannot be the basis of our knowledge of other, and the ways of other. We just can't have it. If you think you are certain, then you are provably wrong. Thinking you are right is not a way of thinking that can lead you closer to truth. We must accept and embrace uncertainty.

This brings fear, for if anything might be, and anything could be true then the worst might happen and we know the worst is so very bad because we can imagine it.

But if the worst might happen, then the best might happen too. And the best is so very, very good. So uncertainty is something to love, for it makes the best possible. The future is, in large measure, what we collectively make it.

Let's expend our imagination on the best, and deal with the worst as much as we are required and no more.

To carry on from Descartes, and which is the assertion of Buddhism, what if when I was utterly still the experience of self disappeared completely. And then I could know nothing at all. If my experience of self is only found in motion and activity or thought. What then?

I have absolutely no idea.

The response of Christianity is that beyond ego death is resurrection life. Utterly pure life. The way to attain it is the path of laying aside self, a way of life of putting others first. The laying down of one's life. This is the way of love, the way of the Risen Lord. A beautiful metaphor. It also happens to be undefeatable.

We can participate in the mind of Christ. It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives within me. And I am made completely myself.

In this living metaphor, the Christ is the personhood of perfection itself.

To live in the perfection of it would be motion and activity and thought, but without self.
In the infinite thought-space of every possible idea, there is one that I fear above all. For in it is annihilation, the little death.
It's a tiny thought, perhaps the smallest possible, and only one in the swirling void without end of infinite mind. But it's special.
Alas and alack for me this alluring gem of the mind has a special beauty, an ineluctable draw.
This thought is the one truly infinite thought the human mind can contain. The thought of this thought has me captured.
This idea is nothing. Not even emptiness, the lack of a void. Nothing at all.
Such a simple thought, a tiny idea. But who can bear it?
Alone without even yourself.
Understanding that uncertainty is the basis of our knowledge provides an intellectually and psychologically safe way to believe. Our conception of spirituality, or any other topic, is free to have life and breath within our imagination and psyche because we are willing to let go of them if they become no longer useful or to evolve them as our understanding grows.

Spirituality in particular can be to us a rich and broad set of metaphors, a higher abstraction for thinking about, discussing and participating in the flow and patterns of life. An abstraction we find in the mythos of cultures and fiction and woven into reality around us. The collective dreamings and imaginings of all of humanity past and present.

Knowing our way back to ground we are safe to fly. Our conceptions need not be "ultimate truth" to us, but useful abstractions and ways of thinking that we can put weight on but we understand that they are only ideas and ways of thinking that inform and shape our experience. What is truly important is what is here and now right in front of us and the duty and responsibility of caring for those we love -- and that is what we hold to be most real. We are always willing to be wrong and to reevaluate our ideas in the light of new experience.

One precious thing my psychosis taught me is that the way I see the world is fallible, that my memory is fallible and my understanding is fallible. No matter how heartfelt and genuine my belief is, no matter how strong my faith, I can be wrong.

This incidentally also gives us a safe way to trust people. "Trust but verify". We can trust by default, accept by default and love by default. But we keep our eyes open, it isn't a blind faith.

"If you're afraid to hope, then dream. But keep an eye out for your dreams when you're awake. But please dream of beautiful things. Dream that we loved each other."