Friday, 25 November 2016

Nicotine, Physical Awareness and Singing Lessons

I'm a body with a brain, that's all I am. A physical being, a small part of everything.
I've never been a very physically aware person. From a young age it was clear that I wasn't very physically gifted but that I had an extraordinary mind, so I devoted all my psychological energy into academic achievement and understanding - at the cost of empathy, social understanding and physical awareness. I focused on what I knew I could be good at and ignored the things I found difficult.

It turned out this wasn't a particularly good life strategy and a very painful decade, directed by some unfortunate external experiences and a great deal of very bad personal choices in the light of those experiences, forced me to learn empathy and character strength.

One of the things that surprised me about mindfulness meditation (an exercise of the psyche) was that it forced me to start to become more physically aware. In order to bring full focused attention to the breath I have to deliberately relax my body, including letting go of tension that I just hadn't been aware of. A very nice side effect. I've been doing an hour of mindfulness a day for five years or more now.

However, what I live for, what drives my life, my centre and my all, is to worship. I worship with passion and fury, an expression and adoration of wild love.

And because it's the centre of my life, I thought it would be nice to train myself to do it better, to become more skillful at worship. This is why I started singing lessons.

Perhaps obvious in retrospect, but it still came as a surprise to me, is that vocal training has required a new dimension in physical awareness too. Particularly singing at the higher end of my register requires me to consciously hold my body core (stomach, back and chest muscles) in tension in order to be able to reach and hold the higher notes with any precision. It also requires an awareness of posture and breathing. This is a journey I'm at the start of, but one I'm really enjoying.

On the topic of body awareness,  I've just completed a week with no nicotine at all. I missed vaping, but being constantly aware of the "need" for nicotine (the physical addiction) made it clear to me that I don't want to live any longer under "compulsion" to use nicotine (which is what addiction is).

However, I do like vaping and nicotine is a mental and cognitive stimulant that I appreciate. Nicotine itself, although addictive, is not classified as a carcinogen. Any residual health risk from vaping comes from the flavourings not the nicotine.

So I am going to try and find a way forward that lets me enjoy vaping without the compulsion. I'm not entirely sure how to do that. My current thinking is that I will vape at weekends and not during the week. I'm going to see if I can make that work without kidding myself and without slipping back into constant use. I'll probably try it for a month and see how it works out.

Dialogue with my body: I like you, now do what you're told. Tell me what I need to provide, and do, for you to be able to obey me. I listen.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Problem of Evil and Jacob Böhme

"Woe to you who teach law, who preach rules"

Conventional Christianity does not have an acceptable answer to the problem of evil. 

Typical Christian doctrine attributes evil to the fall of man and the devil, a consequence of Satan's hubris and a deceived humanity's free will. This current travail is therefore a consequence of a fallen creation. But, we are working towards the dawning of the New Age where Christ returns and creation is perfected with no possibility of sin and evil.

So, if that state of nature is possible, a perfect creation with no possibility of sin and evil, why did the all powerful creator God not start with that? Why go through all this awful horror and pain to get there? Conventional Christian doctrine offers no real answer to this beyond the "ineffable" (or inexcusable as some may say...) will of God. 

When Christians pretend to have all the answers people tend to see right through them.

Recently a dear friend told me about a German Christian mystic who used alchemical terms for his writing, and was therefore (and still is) seen as a terrible heretic. This, naturally, intrigued me a great deal.
The mystic in question is Jakob Böhme:
Jakob Böhme was a German Christian mystic and theologian. He was considered an original thinker by many of his contemporaries within the Lutheran tradition, and his first book, commonly known as Aurora, caused a great scandal.
So my thinking on sin, evil and the cross has been around this "current travail" as being the birth pangs of humanity and indeed the whole universe. Something necessary. Some of my flirting with ideas like this can be seen in "Goodness out of Chaos".

So this passage on the theology of Böhme particularly resonates with me:
Böhme saw the incarnation of Christ not as a sacrificial offering to cancel out human sins, but as an offering of love for humanity, showing God's willingness to bear the suffering that had been a necessary aspect of creation. He also believed the incarnation of Christ conveyed the message that a new state of harmony is possible.
Is it heresy? My confession is that I really don't care. Heresy is not something I care about. It's a made up concept to scare people into doing what they're told. Is that passage above real, is it true, is it helpful? Those are the questions I care about. 

I don't know the answers but it's definitely interesting to think about.
"Dogma is not an attitude capable of finding truth. It chooses to be blind and is therefore always wrong."

Thursday, 10 November 2016

An Evolutionary Spirituality: Goodness out of Chaos

"No fate but what we make" -- Sarah Connor, Terminator
The ideas in this article are an attempt to reconcile science, psychology, religion and philosophy. A lofty, perhaps too lofty, goal and an extension of the ideas I was reaching  for in "Evolutionary Spirituality: A Personal God".

Modern physics tells us that uncertainty and chaos are fundamental properties of the universe we inhabit. Evolution tells us that, in regards to life, change is driven by randomness. Specifically changes are the result of random mutations. Which changes persist is not random, but the driving mechanism is random and chaotic. Evolutionary biologists will tell you that success, fitness, is not "progress" (which they would say is an illusion) merely the accumulation of random changes that are more fit to survive in specific environments and circumstances.

Yet given the arc of history (and human culture as part of history) it looks and feels like progress is being made. I think the reason for this is that on average, what we see as more "progressed" (more complex, capable of rationality etc) is likely to be more successful. On average, given enough time more advanced life and better ideas will arrive and if they occupy the same niche will push out lower lifeforms or worse ideas.

So in that sense, even driven by the "raw material" (the natural law) of chaos and randomness, progress can be seen as inevitable. Nature tries every possible combination and permutation randomly, which is why life on this planet is so diverse and so downright weird in places. Nearly everything you can imagine has been tried somewhere in history. It's also why just about every oddity of belief, idea, perversion and strangeness of character can be found somewhere in humanity. But on average, the "good" ideas are "better" (more fit, more advantageous) and gradually replace "worse" ideas. On average, good wins.

Here's where it gets interesting and we can draw from Descartes ontological argument, perhaps slightly modified. We are psychological beings - all our experience is mediated through and exists in our psyche. We are our psyche. The best possible idea, is pure unadulterated love that is for us and through us. If humanity is capable of experiencing this - if a love this strong and pure is something that could dwell within the psyche of humanity (and ecstatic experiences from all faiths and no faith say that it is) then it is the very best possible idea. And therefore, over enough time, that idea will win. Not "the idea of God" (which is almost entirely the problem of modern Christianity), but the psychological reality of pure love.

And if, as Jung suggested and developmental psychology also suggests based on the way our psyche forms, our psyches are connected (compare this with Indra's Net from Hindu mythology which I reference in "Soul Healing: Empathy") - then that idea, the reality of pure love, can dwell amongst us. And that's an even better idea!

And then leaping off the diving board altogether, what if (as religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity from a certain perspective) consciousness is connected to physical reality - even perhaps forms what we experience as physical reality (which quantum physics perhaps obliquely hints at in the role it ascribes to "the observer"). Then not only can that idea, infinite love, dwell within the collective psyche of humanity - but it can dwell in and inhabit and shape the whole universe.

Of course I can't demonstrate that. It's merely a nice idea, perhaps even a good idea.

Another way to see it would be that believing and knowing the power of love, as healing and transforming, is therefore a mind virus trying to make you believe in God. And, as a good atheist, love must therefore be opposed at every turn... Personally speaking, I think this would be a bad idea.

What I really like about this, is that it allows the raw material of the universe, the base natural law, to be chaos and randomness and still produce goodness. Merely because love wins. It's simply a better idea than evil.Out of nothingness, perfect goodness can arise. Slowly. Just because it's the best possible idea - and the universe has been gradually trying them all out. It would be nice to be able to prove it rather than merely hypothethise about. The only theory worth a damn is the theory of the practise.

This way of thinking offers an explanation for evil, which Christianity lacks, at the cost of implying that God is evolving - something that really doesn't sit well with traditional Christianity at all. And if our psyches are formed by and in contact with other psyches, then other people "live in us" (our life is formed partially from their life), so other people live on in us even after the physical body dies. All we are is the product of all that has been before. Again, veering into the outlandish but kind of reassuring nonetheless. Who we are persists through what we do; specifically the way we touch and form other lives around us.

For what it's worth, for reasons rooted in the experiences of my past, I enjoy calling that raw chaotic creative potential of the universe "psychedelic reality". It expresses itself and is "formed" (given shape) through consciousness. Well, maybe anyway.

Humanity is merely an expression of the universe and culture an expression of humanity. The universe expresses itself through human culture.

Magnificent Woman

Life is so much more fun when you master your desires.
So, this is probably highly sexist but it's a small peak into the inner workings of my strange psyche. Sorry.

I notice that I have certain "labels" that I use to express how I feel about certain people, and I do this much more frequently for women than I do for men. I don't really know why but I don't *think* it's a particularly bad thing. I mention this now because whilst meditating I just thought of a new one and a handful of women it applies to (names withheld to protect the magnificent).

Here are the labels I use (obviously a one dimensional summation of someone's character, a gross generalisation of any individual and all generalisations are wrong):
  • A good person (speaks for itself)
  • A capable person (implies good but adds skill and capacity for getting things done)
  • An impressive person (implies capable but with great skill or capacity)
  • A formidable person (implies impressive but with a stronger element of fierceness)
  • A magnificent person
One of my greatest joys of the last few years (late to the party I know) is that I'm now able to appreciate and enjoy formidable women. I used to be scared of them, but now I'm not. Heck, I love them, even if we argue sometimes. It takes a bit of fierceness to get things done sometimes.

So hurrah for formidable women, especially if you can help undo some of the horrible mess the men have been making of things.

And as for magnificent women. Well.

Love is not weak. Love is strong and love is fierce.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Stop Searching for God

To be able to love people, what a delight and a privilege
God is love. Love is all around us. That's God! Stop searching for God and search for love. And bam, there he is. Everywhere! So close. He was there all the time. In everyone you meet.

In the love of a mother for her children, in your family. So love love. Worship love. Adore love. Love the love of your friends, love the love of your family. Hold it as sacred and precious. That's God! And when you love love, it grows! And the darkness simply cannot hold.

And fuck other people's rules, other people's ideas of what you have to do to know God. Fuck it all. Just love love.

I'm a bit hard to cope with, so full of intensity. I salute those who manage to get close, I love you all! With a fierce and passionate love if you'll let me.

God wants us to be happy. Unhappiness is not his plan. But you don't find lasting happiness by searching for it. Pleasure, happiness and certainty - none of these things do you find, in their fullness, by seeking them. They're all the side-effects of a life set on finding God and truth and pushing aside all else.

And we don't find God in other people's ideas. We don't find God in doctrine, we don't even find God in the bible. These things point us in the right direction (maybe). But the danger is, and the biggest problem with modern Christianity, is that we hold fast to an "idea of God". We believe in our idea, we harden our minds as much as we can to really believe in our idea no matter how things seem. We're willing to reject reality if it conflicts with what we're trying to believe in. And that just isn't the same thing as actually knowing God.

(Note, it's clearly more nuanced than this - God clearly speaks through people, through ideas and through the bible. But my point stands.)

Don't take anything I say too seriously, take what you can from it. Feel free to disagree with me. Always think for yourself. There's no other path that works anyway.
 In the kingdom of heaven everyone does what they want.
Enjoy life, enjoy love, do your best to help. Test all new ideas and experiences in the light of what you already know, and always be willing to be wrong. Hold  your beliefs lightly. Reality doesn't need us to believe in it. We can happily interact with reality, even learn to trust it, without having to believe anything.
Do what you want, believe what you want, think what you want, be what you want. But love, and learn to love with every fibre of strength you can muster.
The idea that faith is the same thing as certainty is another big mistake of modern Christianity. Nothing in life is certain and the only thing we really know is that we don't know anything. Not really. Faith is an ability to trust. The measure of your faith is the measure of your capacity to trust even what you're not certain of.

The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure. If you're not engaged in a furious search then you haven't really found it. Life has to be a struggle for truth, a struggle for meaning. There's no other way. (A challenging idea for Christians, we only have the measure of the kingdom amongst us in the same measure as we have the reality of the substance of Jesus amongst us.) Let's work it out together.

And if you're concerned about potentially leading other people into error, teach them to think for themselves, to check their beliefs against reality and not to believe anything just because you say it. Haven't we had enough experience to know that "doctrinal error" is not the biggest problem we face, why are we so afraid of making mistakes? The only thing that matters is that the love amongst us is real, deep and strong. We can work everything else out from there.

So how did "the church" end up where we are now? The sweep of history, the wide arc bringing us to where we are today. (Another challenging idea for Christians; would it come as a surprise if I said that the church of Jesus and what we call church are different, but hopefully overlapping, things? By the way, to my mind a good definition of "church" is "the operational wing of the kingdom".)

For centuries, since 300AD (or so) when Christianity became a state religion and therefore a means of power, Christianity has been a tool of control and oppression. Traditional doctrine has been shaped by that. Evangelical Christianity, which began in love in the house church movement of the seventies alongside the hippie movement, was God breaking out of that. It's interesting to note that most of the old hippies are just as disappointed with the way things have gone as evangelicals who were around when the charismatic movement began.

But (my belief) is that evangelicalism is largely dead and fake now (and often awful - with many exceptions of course). Evangelicalism settles for so little yet claims it has so much. Progressive Christianity, with its focus on "only love", is a genuine new movement of love though. And God is so much in that.

There were certainly beautiful aspects of Christianity along the way though. The Christian mystics, the Christian ethic that prompted Wilberforce to abolish slavery, the foundation of hospitals and charities by Christianity. History, reality and people are complex. Much of western liberalism owes a heritage to Christianity, not that it would ever admit it!

So what about evangelism and saving souls? Oh people need saving alright, so lost, so hurting. People live in such small dark worlds, full of fear. Unfortunately that includes many Christians, they think the world is dark and doomed! They need saving into the light!

The only thing that works is love. Focus always on loving people, not "saving" them. When you do, people start to believe again (or more) in love. And you know what, I don't think it even matters whether they think they believe in God or not. If you believe in love, in the power of love then you believe in God whether you know it or not. What matters is not what you think you know with your head, but what you really find with your heart.

And when people believe in love that means they believe in God! In Jesus who is God and who is love. If your love is strong enough, different enough, or just because they love you, they'll ask about your faith. I have so many conversations about my faith and I start almost none of them. "Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary".

Love saves. Go around loving people!

Much of this post was inspired by a conversation with my beautiful friend Nathan Britten

I don't want to argue, I just want to dance.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Soul Healing Part II: Empathy

"Love's heart breaks. Love's heart bleeds. Love's heart even dies, yet lives."
In "Soul Healing" I looked at the process of soul healing (finding psychological wholeness) for the individual; allowing your personality to "unfold" through a determination to face yourself. In this article I explore the edges of some "technical" aspects (practical techniques) for bringing soul healing to others.

Being able to help one another psychologically is one of the promises of faith. Bringing soul healing is a great confirmation of the reality of our faith, "Crossing the Soul Gap" as I term it, but also potentially a beautiful way of being able to make a positive difference to people's lives, always treading carefully of course.

I'd like to discuss two aspects of soul healing, and they're both based on empathy. These techniques have at their heart "just being a decent human being". The motivation must always be genuine love, it can only work within a relationship of trust, and you never go anywhere uninvited. All of this is easier said than done.

To explain the first aspect of healing that I'd like to explore it's worth taking a minute to understand what empathy in action is. This is something that I think that women are largely better at than men, mostly but probably-not-entirely because of the very different social pressures women are under. In general women are socialised to care more, and to think less of themselves for it. Empathy isn't something that only women do though, and it isn't magic; empathy is an innate part of what it means to be human.

Empathy is an ability to feel what other people are feeling, to really understand what they mean, to hear the heart. In practise you demonstrate empathy when someone is speaking by "reflecting back" their emotions to them. When they say they feel sad you reflect back at them the sadness that you feel in them and they can see that you understand. This is different from merely telling people you understand, it is emotionally proving that you understand. Empathy is clear sight, and when you observe someone's real feelings, however gently, you touch them.

Reflection, or mirroring, is a key technique in psychotherapy by the way. Reflecting back what people say, perhaps in different words, so people can see themselves and then giving them the space to deal with this.

Mirroring, as well as being the basic element of genuine human relationship, can be extremely powerful If we can find the beauty in another person, and there is beauty in everyone, and reflect it back to them then they can see that they are beautiful. This helps to unmake peoples' negative self-image. Life in general, particularly negative experiences, lie to us about what we're really like. We build up a negative self-image, a belief that we're ugly or worthless for example or that our past mistakes determine what we'll be like in the future, and this shapes our experience of life. If we can see that it's not true, if we can see the beauty that's genuinely inside each of us, then the lie starts to fall away. So actively seek out the beauty in people and seek to reflect it back to them. Aim to prove to people that they are beautiful and have value.

I have a maxim about love along these lines:
Find the love in people and love it. When you do you'll find this is their true nature and you're loving them.
Unfortunately we often reflect people's negative self-image back to them, which reinforces it. This idea that much of our personality is (or can be) based on what we see of ourselves reflected from other people reminds me of a beautiful metaphor from Hindu mythology; Indra's net.
Our shared reality is an infinite connected net. At every join is a gem that reflects every other gem. We are the gems.
If you're careful you can observe this facet of human nature behaviourally. You can see how we use each other as "mirrors" to see ourselves - judging ourselves, particularly our appearance and how we come across, by how people respond to us.

This also hints at some of the mystery of how our psyches may be connected. That's a topic worthy of more exploration if it can be demonstrated and not merely hypothethised about.
The only theory worth a damn is the theory of the practise.
Our self-image, inextricably intertwined with our world view, is our "ego". Transcendent experiences, ecstatic spiritual experiences, involve going beyond the ego. So in a sense all of our self-image needs to be unmade ("I am a new creation"), but a good self-image and a bright (positive) world view are useful tools, they are the essence of what psychological health means.

The second aspect of soul healing I'm interested in is sharing in people's pain. This is also based on empathy, and it is something we all do instinctively as we listen to the problems and difficulties of someone we care about. Sharing people's pain is the natural response of love. I think we can do it more intentionally and more powerfully. We can learn to love more effectively.

If someone trusts you, and you have genuine love for them, then you will be able to feel their sadness and their inner pain. We all have inner pain, everyone hurts. We're all slightly broken. This isn't as bad a thing as it sounds; an inner pain is the engine of empathy. Because you hurt, because you've felt alone, you can understand and love those who hurt and feel alone. The key thing is to not be afraid of the pain. The more you're able to face your own inner pain without turning, the more you can face it in other people too.

If, within a relationship of love, you can reflect someone's pain back at them then it will resonate with them. They then have a choice whether to retreat or open up. This is why you proceed carefully, and only with permission. If someone is uncomfortable with this, you STOP. Inner pain is extremely intimate, you start gently being mindful of people's response. Only if they trust you will they open up and let you share their pain. If you get there, if you can share in another person's pain and show them that you're not afraid of it then you help them to bear that pain. They also may even be able to let go, to stop holding on, pushing it down, and that is an element of freedom. Underneath the pain is a part of them, a part of their personality usually bound up in unpleasant and difficult memories. If they can face the pain of it and let go, then a part of them is freed, they no longer have to reject themselves because they're no longer afraid of that aspect of themselves. This is obviously a process, it can take a long time to get there and maybe many times to get to the root of an issue. But this I'm sure is the basic idea.
The only way any of us can bear it is if we hurt for each other.
In Christian terms, when we share in the pain of another person we actively participate in the wounds of Christ. This is the suffering of love.

Of course the important thing with these ideas is not the ideas themselves, but to prove that they work. That, I suspect, will be my journey for the next several years.

Tremendous gentleness requires tremendous stillness, which requires tremendous strength. Gentleness is the real face of strength, hardness is the lie.