In this series of photographs, I try to capture in visual two-dimensions some of the experience of contemplation from our recent group retreat into the Saharan Desert.

Endless dunes

A vast space, stretching into endless distance, seemingly empty yet surprisingly full of life-forms, creation and energy when you look closely.

desert mountains

A place to which men and women have been 'retreating' for millenia in order to find simplicity, meaning, themselves and the Divine.

moon at sunrise

Here, life is seemingly unchanging in its basic simplicity of survival, searching for food and water, following the cycles of each day, each year.

sand dune and tree

Here is space and time to sit, to contemplate, to wonder, to be. Here is awe, majesty, infinity and space. Life exists between the sand beneath and the cosmos above.

sand

Look closely. Each grain of sand is unique. No two grains are alike. Amongst this infinity of desert, how can this be? What does this teach me?

sunset

And in the heavens above, a cosmic panoply of stars shines down on me each night, mirroring the grains of sand in their variety and infinity. Where am I in this cosmos? Who am I in this universe? What is my Divine purpose?

sand dunes

Here I am both lost and finally found. I am not that important. All that of which I am an insignificant part is what is significant.

sunset

Here am I. In my wonderousness, my uniqueness, my insignificance, my emptiness, my whole.

I know here who I am.

I discover my purpose in this life.

Writing a journal of my 'inner life' has been one of my most significant spiritual practices over the last eight years. Whenever I feel stuck or lost or unbalanced (or joyous and ecstatic!) the practice of writing has always brought me home again. The journal is a section within my looseleaf diary that I can constantly add more pages to, and remove older pages into a growing archive of this journal journey.

The form of journal is immaterial; it is the practice that is so helpful. Most days I write a page or two. Usually, I have no idea what I'm going to write before I sit down and still myself. Some days I find myself writing on multiple occasions covering many pages. At other times, a week can go past without any entries. I am reminded that - like prayer - it is not the quantity of writing but the reflective quality that matters.

I have only two rules in journalling:

  1. Write only what feels true when I'm writing, and
  2. Write in the conviction that no-one else will ever read what I am writing
These are important. If I can't be truthful to myself, then my life journey is pretty worthless. However unpalatable or shameful, what I write needs to be the truth; even if I can't say it out loud to anyone else, I can acknowledge and record the truth to myself. And the assertion of privacy supports this intention of absolute truth. I am not writing this journal to appear clever or wise to anyone else - I am doing it to grow myself. This gives me permission to not-hold-back. I can write without any self-censorship or guarded references. I can write my truth.

Whilst the journal is often expressed in words, many other forms of expression find their way in. There are a lot of diagrams, flowcharts and particularly mind-maps in which I can explore the inter-relationship of things. There are lists and bullet-points. Spelling and grammar are employed only to the extent that they directly serve the journal writing (and since no-one else is going to read it, they are pretty irrelevant!) There is a particular style for writing prayers that are entirely formative in their creation. There are quotes from people and books that I have found inspirational. I've been experimenting with a Q&A format in which I pose a question to myself and then rest in the stream-of-consciousness that often comes by way of answer from within. Sometimes keywords and phrases get underlined, or boxed, or highlighted. Passages get marked up is 'Insight' or 'Question'. More recently, I've been including a lot of blank spaces within the pages, as a recording of the empty spaciousness that I have been finding and experiencing in my life.

The journal is 'live'. It's not pre-planned. I'm not writing it to make it look good nor intelligible to anyone else. It's a 'present moment' recording of my own inner awareness. Very little of the text records the external events and circumstances of my life. Sometimes there might be a note to the location where I was staying or writing, if this feels significant; but mostly, it is a reflective commentary on the workings of the mind, the heart and the soul.

Over the years, I've developed a habit of re-reading entries that are a month old, usually just before archiving those pages. It's wonderful to notice where ideas came from, and to observe comments that have grown in significance as well as many that have fallen away. There is a lot of repetition of insights and awarenesses - and this repetition serves to strengthen my self-awareness as well as adding greater depth. At some point, I anticipate re-reading journal entries that are several years old, to gain a longer-term perspective on my own awakening.

Yet this is not about history. As with any spiritual practice, it is very much concerned with the present moment. The act of writing causes me to be still, become centred, and reflect on what is happening within me right now. It is a journal of that inner world that is being lived, now.

After more than a year of preparation, R-Day has arrived. Retirement Day. The last day of my professional career after 42 years of adult work, study and earning. A career that has spanned teaching, youth work, project management, consultancy, writing, publishing, company director, web services, and latterly community facilitator. For over half this time I have been self-employed working with over 300 different organisations in the public and not-for-profit sector.

The Death Lodge experience in May has been a major part of my preparation, helping me to ritualise this latest transition. More recently I have been undertaking some completion work with my current staff team at One Spirit Interfaith Foundation, and only a few days ago I returned to the site of my first employment as a teacher at Ghyll Royd School in 1970 to complete this cycle with another small ritual. Today there have been several symbolic elements to complete this final career assignment including some housekeeping, phone calls to colleagues, and disconnection from various electronic networks.

My ministry will continue as before - with retreats, ceremonies, clients and contemplative meditation. As the 'doing' diminishes, I trust there will be more opening into simply 'being' - to being more present and Present. As has been the custom of the past year or more, this ministry through receiving donations rather than fixed fees.

I also anticipate having more opportunity for writing and publishing into the future, on the themes to which I am most drawn.

Whilst my professional career is ending today, I am still responding to invitations to use my professional consulting skills with individuals and organisations, when approached, and rather than contracting in the way that I have done in the past, I will respond to such invitations in a similar manner to my ministry, and discuss with clients any appropriate pro-bono or contributory arrangement to suit all parties.

Perhaps you too have been experiencing the winds of change in recent weeks and months. These winds can be strong and unpredictable: they transport us into new landscapes and unfamiliar terrain in our lives. In my own case, I have been laying down and leaving behind 42 years of a professional career, with all its many jobs, roles, achievements, status and earnings. I've chosen to step out again, over another threshold, and into an "uncertain void". For a long time I've been drawn into a more contemplative life where I can serve others without the pressures of work. In this issue, I'm sharing some responses to the changes in life that affect us all.

Self Portrait, by David Whyte

This poem from David Whyte's collection, Fire in the Earth, speaks of the transformations within me, and amongst many with whom I work.

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong -- or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying "this is where I stand."
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the centre of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.

In the rest of this newsletter, I focus on some of the ways in which I am offering service to you, and the wider community, through retreats, spiritual mentoring and counselling, and writing and publishing.

RETREATS

Entering the Silence: a desert experience  There are still a couple of places available on next month's adventure into the amazing stillness and silence of the desert. This is the experience of the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers. In the empty spaces of the timeless desert, we begin to clear ourselves out. The day-to-day anxieties fall away as we experience the world in the cosmos and the world in a grain of sand. With comfortable accommodation, good food, and compatible company, our retreat takes you across the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the Sahara Desert. Full details and a booking form available here.

MENTORING AND COUNSELLING

The experience of being deeply listened to by someone who has travelled along similar paths in life can be profoundly reassuring and supportive. More and more men and women and now working with me as a mentor, counsellor or spiritual director to explore the fears, anxieties, uncertainties and experiences of their lives in order to deepen their insight and find a more reassuring meaning and connection. Through reflecting back, through mirroring, through companionship and spiritual guidance, together you can open to greater insight and awareness.  Click here for more ideas and information about this approach.

WRITING

I plan to spend more time in reflective writing. A couple of recent articles include Retirement Bi-pass exploring all the limbo experience of preparing for retirement, and the various ceremonies created to ritualise and mark this transition.  On a related theme, The Sagacity of Transformation examines the patterns within each cycle in our lives, and how these can be seen with hindsight but not foresight, whilst the wisdom that comes with age provides reassurance about these cyclical patterns without revealing their form and content.

As you navigate your own winds of change, I hope you find some reassurance here; and if I can accompany on the way or support you from my own path, please do get in touch.

In peace, Tim

I am struck just now by the confluence of cycles coming to an end simultaneously. Last week I attended the final year-end retreats for our seminary students, culminating in the sacrament of ordination. These are the final days in my role as community facility for One Spirit Interfaith Foundation, before I step back into the holding circle of our peer community. This move also marks the end of my 42-year professional career, and the entry into retirement. And whilst not strictly a 'cycle', Saturday was also the 90th birthday of my mother, with a series of parties and rituals to mark this landmark in a long life cycle.

When we look back over any cycle in our life, we can see the patterns within it. We can identify the signposts and waymarks that were often barely visible when first encountered. Yet when we look ahead from the outset of any new phase in life, all seems uncertain: we cannot know the length, nature or form of that cycle. We see clearly with hindsight, nor foresight.

A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering of 'spiritual companions' and for part of that time we met as two groups of Crones and Sages. These words have fallen out of common usage and yet they may be helpful in affirming the acquired wisdom of those of a certain age and experience who have travelled long on the spiritual path of awakening. In our discussions we made a light-hearted observation that few people under the age of 60 would be likely to approach the status of crone or sage. We even coined the words 'cronette' and 'sageling' for those still on the approach path to such wisdom. As someone who crosses the threshold of my sixth decade in a few months time, perhaps I might aspire to being a 'sageling'.

It seems to me that the Sage points to two fundamental aspects of all transitions in the cycles of our lives. First, that the form, nature and content of each new cycle can never be foreseen with any accuracy. No matter how much we seek to exercise self-control, the great Mystery of this universe will always shape the experiences we receive. Yet secondly, despite this unknown form, the pattern of each cycle will always be the same. The cycle begins with the crossing of a liminal threshold where all seems new and undefined. The cycle then carries us incrementally towards its centre, where there is greater comfort and familiarity in all that is happening. Until eventually, the cycle approaches its end, discomfort increases, and we move out towards the edge where another liminal threshold awaits to transport us out and into the next cycle.