inSOUL is a regular email alert offering short inspirational meditations and reflections to people of all faiths, or none.  This page presents all the 2011 issues. To receive future issues each week, simply subscribe online with your email address.  You can unsubscribe at any time.

water splashReturn to Centre  (27 December 2011)  After one period of celebration and feasting and before the next round of parties and entertainment, it is good to re-balance and return to centre. When our lives are lived in the same way or at the same pace all the time, we lose perspective. To re-Centre is to re-turn and re-member what and who we are, amidst all the clamour of the external world.

This balance is essential to a healthy life. The balance is a both/and. We need to both enjoy the world and observe ourselves in that world; we need both action and contemplation; both community and solitude; both feasting and fasting; both doing and being.

Starter reflection: Is this the time to re-turn to Centre?

winter solsticeEverything is about to change  (21 December 2011)  This is the day. Our planet makes a momentous physical shift on its spinning axis. Imperceptibly at first, the darkness will start to recede and give way to light. The time of letting-go and dying is past and embryonic new life is about to appear. The whole and holy cycle of life and death begins again today. Upon this great re-awakening, we celebrate with candles and feasting the many rituals of Yule, Hannukah, Christ-mass, Gantan-sai and New Year; this year too there is a new moon.

This re-awakening and re-birth, this transition from death to life, is occurring both externally and internally. It is within you, perhaps unknown and unseen. The inner flame of your soul flickers with new life, calling for awareness and attention: "Follow me; leave what is dead behind; let go of the fear; let this new light lead; trust in your inner knowing." All this is needed is to welcome it.

May the new life within you be blessed, loving and fulfilled.

The deepening darkness  (12 December 2011)  And as the December darkness becomes ever longer, we are called to go deeper still. This is a time for inactivity, for rest, for waiting. Above all, it is a time of simply being, within the darkness, within ourselves, waiting. There are questions to ask in this deepening darkness. What can I leave behind, here? What is my truth, here and now? How am I drawn to be, now? The darkness is a precious time when wisdom can be more easily discerned. By exploring these questions - in our heart rather than our mind - we will be more ready for the re-awakening when the light starts to return and we are called out into action once again.

Reflection: What do I know within as this darkness deepens?

gathering darknessThe gathering darkness  (5 December 2011)  This is Advent - literally, 'towards the coming'. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, it is a time of growing darkness. In the annual cycle of life, it is a time of real and metaphorical death. In nature, the plant and animal worlds have died or are hibernating. In the physical world, the sun is disappearing. And in the world of the spirit, we are drawn inwards. In all cultures that take note of this natural cycle, this is a time for rest, for letting go, for waiting, for dying, and for hoping that life will return. When darkness covers the land, life drains away. We light candles to both preserve life and as an expression of hope that light will return. Yet this time of darkness serves a necessary purpose: we need to let go of what is already dead within us, or we will still be dragging it around when the light returns.

Reflection: What is needing to die within, now?

sensing the mysterySensing the Mystery  (28 November 2011)  Whilst exploring our various images of the Divine, notice how much we rely upon the purely visual sense to give us this necessarily incomplete awareness of the Mystery. What would it be like if we employed each of our other senses to the same extent? It's quite possible to taste the Divine. Indeed, Jesus instructed people to do this: "Eat this bread ... drink this wine ... in remembrance of me". We can hear the sound of the Divine in the wind and the rain, in 'the sound of silence', as well as in the "still small voice within". We smell the Divine each time we bring ourselves to awareness in nature and inhale that 'breath of life'. And our tactile awareness of the Divine is engaged in each intimate contact and connection with another being. Above all, it is that intuitive sense (sometimes known as 'faith') that tells us how much larger is the Mystery than our own small being, and yet how much a part of it is our Being.

Reflection: Can I know this Mystery through sight, taste, sound, smell, touch and heart?

creationBeyond the image  (21 November 2011)  Living in the West, we tend to have a very visual image of the Divine. God - as Father, Son or Spirit - has been depicted in countless paintings, windows and sculptures. This gives us a default image of God in human form. In fact, Genesis 1:27 tells the reverse: "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Taken literally, man 'looks like' God (although clearly men and women are physically different); this has become presumptive human thinking particularly amongst Jewish and Christian faiths. It's not shared by any other faiths. Islam (which shares much Old Testament teaching), forbids any visual representation of the Divine as being far beyond any human comprehension. Read mystically, the Genesis passage suggests that mankind shares the same inherent spiritual or moral qualities as God - if only we could recognise these in ourselves. We are created as whole, holy, loving and compassionate men and women, even though we have since lost our way.

Reflection: Let go of whatever image of the Mystery you hold, and allow something far larger to emerge.

hand of godChanging images  (14 November 2011)  What image do you hold of the Creator? Put crudely, is it a God of judgement, condemnation, retribution, punishment and authority, who is to be feared?; or a God of compassion, acceptance, tolerance, humility and welcome, who loves you no matter what? It is too simplistic to characterise the Old Testament as a portrayal of a God to be feared, and the New Testament as that of a loving God, but there is no doubt that the teachings of Jesus offer a new insight into the nature of this Mystery, by drawing new radical meanings from the Old Testament texts.

Our own individual spiritual awakening mirrors this same Biblical (r)evolution: we all experience judgement and fear and, and only gradually do some move into acceptance and love. If you doubt this, look inwards at yourself to find specific examples of shame, guilt and judgement as well as moments of peace, joy and compassion. We are all both/and. This is the spiritual journey, from healing to wholeness/holiness, from fear to love. Without one there is no other. The God of your understanding invites you to keep stepping forward into a different image.

Reflection: How is this Mystery evolving for me?

mind resetMind bypass  (7 November 2011)  We can't get to the Mystery by way of the mind: it's just not possible. The mind works by comparing everything, and then categorising and creating order so that it can be in control. But God is simply unlike anything that the mind has encountered before; the mind cannot begin to grasp the concept. So the mind asks for proof; it wants to apply logic, analysis, interpretation and reason. Since the Mystery doesn't "work" like this, the mind rejects the notion of God.

To get to God you have to bypass the mind. The mind is so much in control that we never stop to question why the mind doesn't have an off-switch, nor an over-ride and reset facility.

People have sought to suppress the mind by meditation or mantras. Body practices such as tantra seek to overload the mind and 'blow a fuse' to shut-off the mind. Others strive to raise greater consciousness of the heart or the soul and over-ride the mind. It's interesting to notice that these are still mental solutions to the dominance of the mind. The route to the Divine works in reverse. It is God that approaches us directly: God bypasses the human mind, and makes us aware of the Mystery - often when we are least expecting it, but always when we are 'ready' to receive.

Reflection: Am I ready to receive without mental interference?

stepping off the edgeFinding God at the edge  (31 October 2011)  As well as finding the Divine in the gaps and the cracks of our lives, we experience the Mystery when we allow ourselves to live at the edge. The notion of liminality is derived from the Latin word for a threshold, and refers to this state of living at the edge of the un/known - on the threshold between these two different situations. When we go to this edge, beyond our comfort zone and into something new, we are exposed to the unknown. Here we are on full alert, senses engaged, open, enquiring. All of creation happens at or beyond this edge. Our daily lives are so cocooned in the safe, protected, defensive and familiar that we cannot easily see the Mystery in the centre. It is when we go 'outside-the-box', to the edge of our comfort zone and beyond, and when we truly allow ourselves to experience the new of the unknown, that we encounter that which is beyond us.

Reflection: What will it take for me to go beyond my comfort zone and experience the unknown?

cracksFinding God in the gaps  (24 October 2011)  Do you remember that childhood game of walking carefully along the pavement to avoid treading on any cracks in the surface? Finding the Divine is the same - only in reverse; you need to step into those gaps and experience them fully. Our encounters with God are most easily found in those very gaps that we so often seek to avoid or cover over: the gap between completing one task and starting the next; the gap between the end of one out-breath and the reflex start of the next in-breath; the gap between each discrete sound that we hear; the gap between two stars in the sky; the gap between one thought and the next; the gap between one relationship and the next; the gap between life and death. When everything is merged together, we lose any awareness of the Mystery. We need to dwell in those gaps and cracks. To put this another way, we cannot experience our heart centre whilst it is whole; only when it is broken open and cracked can we discover the beauty within.

Reflection: Let me notice and enjoy the cracks and gaps.

sinai desertFinding the Divine  (17 October 2011)  How and where do we find our awareness of God? Sacred writings teach us that the Divine is both everywhere and anywhere; in everything and beyond anything. We have more opportunity to encounter this presence when we are in our being, rather than in our doing. The activities of life distract us from such awareness. It is in the stillness, the contemplation, the reflection, the silence or the prayer that we encounter the Divine more easily. These techniques are simple to practice; they merely ask for time and perseverance.

Traditionally, the desert and the wilderness have been places for men and women to encounter this presence with less distraction. I have recently returned from a week of silent contemplation in the desert. Here there is starkness, stillness and silence during the day and an infinite celestial canopy at night. Life is simplified to its raw essentials - warmth, water and wonder. The 'God of my understanding' is present here as everywhere, when we choose to look and see.

Reflection: May I pause today to be aware of the presence around me and within me.

footprintsKnowing God  (3 October 2011)  "I don't believe in God" says my friend. "And neither do I", I reply.

For this is not about belief. All religions, all sacred works and teachers point to the Mystery of creation and of life and how these cannot be explained nor understood. Our minds strive to understood God - with words, with images, and with concepts - and since none succeed in giving us a rational explanation, we are left with a choice as to whether to believe or not believe. Yet this Mystery does not ask for belief. God asks only to be known. And knowing comes from the heart and soul, not from the head. I know God from my inner experience, though my inner eye and ear, by this indwelling presence. When this heart receives, I know God.

Reflection: Tell me the God you know.

radio receiverRadio Head and Radio Heart  (26 September 2011)  When we start to perceive ourselves as receivers rather than controllers in this world, we must ask "from where do I receive the impulses that influence my actions?" 

It's as though we stand as human beings in the midst of a giant field of noise. There is an incessant, loud, strident and demanding radio broadcast from one corner. This broadcaster is forever changing stations, intent on capturing and sustaining our attention with a non-stop stream of bite-sized gobbets of ideas, thoughts and comments. This is Radio Head. It's noisy, brash and over-whelming. We think it's the only broadcaster and that this incessant chaotic chatter is entirely normal. But when we can allow ourselves to pull back from it - even if only for a few moments - we might notice another and very different broadcaster in the other corner. This is Radio Heart, and it sends out a very different message. Radio Heart carries no advertising nor jingles nor celebrities; it speaks quietly and gently; it doesn't compete; and yet it's message is one that calls and resonates. Although frequently drowned out, Radio Heart never stops broadcasting.

Reflection: Can I retune my dial from Radio Head to Radio Heart?

Human receivers  (19 September 2011)  Perhaps the greatest myth for humans is our belief that we are in control. The striving of the mind is directed solely towards establishing and maintaining a sense of control over all that is happening; and then buttressing those controls whenever a threat is encountered. So much energy is invested in striving to control our tiny individual world that we lose sight of how illusory and futile this is. The forces around us (physical, natural, social, economic, emotional, spiritual, energetic) are so very much greater.

At the heart of contemplation, meditation and prayer is a call for a radically different perception: "Your will be done". Here is an invitation to relinquish the futility of control and welcome the unfolding of the universe around us. Truly, we are receivers of all that is happening. We receive beauty, life, circumstances, upset, knowledge, love, hurt. Even when we create, we first receive inspiration.

Reflection: How will it be if I simply receive?

imagineHeaven on earth, now?  (12 September 2011)  For many people, praying for 'peace on earth' is regarded as a hope or an aspiration, but with little conviction that it can come about. Yet there are clearly people who have lived on earth and experienced 'heaven': Buddhist masters have reached enlightenment; Sufi mystics have described paradise; arguably Jesus of Nazareth lived in peace despite the conflict and oppression that characterised his life.

These guides indicate that heaven-on-earth arises from an inner way of perceiving the world, rather than an external circumstantial state. This inner way relinquishes all dual-thinking (good/bad, right/wrong, you/me) and perceives the world as already whole and complete and perfect just exactly as it is. The Lord's Prayer expresses it clearly: "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." In other words, when we let go entirely of our desire to be in charge and accept totally the way it is, we will experience peace. Our prayer for 'peace on earth' is then expressing a desire that we - and everyone else - might come to perceive the world in this light.

Reflection: am I willing to surrender my control, my judgement, my right-ness?

lighteningPeace on earth  (5 September 2011)  The contemplation of suffering leads to awkward questions. "Why does there have to be suffering in life?" "If there is a God, why does he allow such suffering to occur?"

The Divine neither creates nor prevents pain and suffering; the Divine neither punishes nor rewards. It is our judgemental mind that likes to ascribe blame to an external source; this makes it easier to protect the mind's constant self-justifying refrain, 'I'm right; you're wrong'. And herein lies the clue. The origin of all such judgements of right/wrong, good/bad, should/shouldn't, lies within  - and is then projected out onto the world as our individual point-of-view, and which in turn, we like to defend and justify. We deny our own responsibility for making such judgement by assigning responsibility to an external source. Suffering is neither created nor prevented by the Divine. Events happen. Period.

What is invited in response to each such event is a creative expression of our humanity - literally, the deepest quality of being human. Instead of projecting judgement, the Divine invitation is one of generating 'peace on earth, goodwill to all'.

Reflection: When do I project judgement? When do I generate peace?

human sufferingThe nature of suffering  (29 August 2011)  We've developed an expectation that life should be happy; and then we're upset or angry when it's not. Our individual lives are a mixture of happiness and suffering; we never know when we will move from one to the other state. And all the time we are surrounded by suffering. Watch any TV News programme; such programmes could more realistically be called 'The Sufferings Show'. But their presentation of suffering is distorted because suffering is shown to be episodic and time-limited. Wars, famines, poverty, ill-health, natural disasters, man-made disasters, death are all continuous. The suffering around Chernobyl, Fukushima, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iraq, Gaza, New Orleans, Tottenham, Iceland, Auschwitz, West Cumbria, Sichuan, Mumbai, ... does not end, just because the TV cameras have moved on to another crisis. The 'volume' of suffering in our world is increasing.

Suffering is an inevitable part of life. The Lord Buddha left his palace to discover real life and encountered illness, poverty and death. The Genesis metaphor describes man's exodus from paradise into a world of toil and hardship because s/he had chosen to recognise both good and evil. Both these stories tell us that suffering is inevitable.

What, then, is the appropriate human response to our own suffering and that of others? Wisdom teachers offer three answers: acceptance (rather than denial or avoidance); compassion (rather than fixing); and prayer, as a route to transforming the experience of suffering.

Reflection: what do I do when I encounter suffering?

crossInner and outer  (22 August 2011)  The two axes of the cross are also representative of the duality of life. The vertical axis (soul-spirit) is our inner world - that personal inner awareness of belonging, love, fear, peace and presence. The horizontal axis (connection-relationship) represents our outer world - those external events, encounters and emotions that happen between us and around us.

The inner and outer worlds are intimately connected through our experience. Our inner state reflects the outer; and the outer reflects the inner. When we feel discomforted in any situation, it's helpful to look into the other world to the one where we initially experience the problem. This is "working with duality". When the outer world feels disturbing, pay attention to your inner world to recognise what is out-of-alignment within. Turmoil within our inner world manifests as disruption in the external world.

Reflection: How does the upset I experience in the 'real' world today reflect my own present inner state?

The Cross  (15 August 2011)  In Christian symbolism, the cross has many meanings, particularly around the suffering and transformation of humanity. It is a simple and powerful metaphor for exploring our place in the universe. The vertical axis of the cross is the infinite soul-spirit dimension. The soul roots us deep into the ground, to nature, to physicality, to our maternal and paternal ancestors. The spirit flows into us from above, from the cosmic energies of love and healing, from light, from the creation of the universe. We live and die on this vertical axis. The horizontal axis of the cross is one of connection and inter-relationship with all of humanity. We stretch out our arms to touch the living community all around us. The horizontal axis is the human context of our lives; we are surrounded by diversity. Jesus was crucified between two criminals, one repentant, the other mocking - mirroring the range of human response.

Reflection: Where am I on this cross today - and how may I stretch out further in all directions?

eternal soulThe eternal soul  (8 August 2011)  The root of all our knowing is the soul. Medieval scientists tried and failed to locate the soul in the physical body by dissecting corpses. The nature of the soul is different. It derives from the eternal world of void and energy, and becomes incarnate temporarily in human form. This is the wonder of birth when matter is transformed into animate life. Look at a new-born baby and you see a soul appearing in this world whose potential is yet to be revealed through life. And after a short time, the soul departs this transient world and returns to the eternal world in a process that we call dying. Again, simply witness the transformative moment of death when the familiar physical body becomes devoid of life energy and yet the presence of that soul can still be known. This is our soul - that deepest sense of knowing, stretching back over timeless eons, giving us inherent wisdom to guide this earthly life. We associate this soul knowing with the heart but really it transfuses more than our whole physical bodies to fill our being-ness. More than anything else, our soul connects us directly to all that is and was and will be.

Reflection: As my soul, what do I know today?

love's knowingLove's knowing  (1 August 2011)  So many words and poems and notes have been written on the subject of this great universal energy of love and still we do not understand it. Yet we know it with wonder when we experience it. We know it because it is indefinable. Something is present within us, around us and between us that cannot be captured nor held nor invented. It is experienced in our bodies and emotions and hearts - beyond the reasoning of our minds.

How do we know that this is love? We only truly recognise and know anything when it forms part of our lived experience. In love, we experience a reminder of that love which our soul knows from before this conscious life. Our soul is created in the pool of eternal and unconditional love - the 'big bang' of love - and the soul longs to live in this love again. When we experience the joy of human love, we re-member and re-awaken that deep unconscious creation of the soul in love. Love's knowing of itself is our recognition of the experience of being in love. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The choice we face is whether to know this love.

Reflection: Am I willing to love and to be loved?

love spiralLove is all there is  (25 July 2011)  Like light, which travels invisibly through space and only becomes visible when reflected off an object, the energy of love is unseen and intangible until it is activated within our human heart. This energy of love fills the universal void but unless we allow our heart to be open, it remains inert, and we remain separate and isolated in our individuality.

Heart opening works in two directions. Some trigger may crack the heart and allow love in, giving rise to a feeling of warmth, joy, acceptance and connection. Receiving love is often a surprise, catching us unawares, and then delighting us. More difficult for most, is simply to let our love out by letting go of the fear of exposure and vulnerability, and opening our heart to whoever is within our attention. The world is full of people who have locked their heart and remain in fearful isolation. Their presence is not just neutral: their presence helps sustain a world of distrust and separation. Yet when we choose to open our heart, and let out that light and that love that is within us, we help change the energy of the world. This is the meaning of 'making love'.

Reflection: To whom might I open my heart today?

love and fearLove and fear  (18 July 2011)  Like friends and enemies, the two core emotional feelings of love and fear exist in a yin-yang polarity. All our emotional relationships derive from either love or fear. Fear of someone or something leads us into judgement, criticism, distrust and avoidance. Fear is the desire and power of the mind to create differentiation and separation in order to sustain the mind's control in each and every situation. Love of someone or something draws us into compassion, humility, joy and simple humanity. Love opens the heart to joining and sharing with another.

The world we see and experience around us if full of fear - and it can easily engender a fear response within us that closes us down and shuts us off. The world we desire to live in is one filled with love. We call this paradise, nirvana, heaven, eden. The love world begins with our willingness to show only love to others, no matter what their attitude towards us. When we give love, we open ourselves to receiving love.

Reflection: When did I last give love; and when did I last receive love?

love enemiesFriends and enemies  (11 July 2011)  We choose our friends. Our friends are the people we trust, respect, enjoy, nourish ... and love. Where do enemies come from? We withhold that same trust, respect, enjoyment and nourishment from our enemies - and usually they reciprocate in like measure. Who creates the friendship? All friendships begin within us - with our willingness to open ourselves to another. And in like measure, our enmities begin within us - and our fear and refusal to welcome the other, no matter what they are giving us. We can opt out of responsibility and blame the other for this enmity - yet this denies our responsibility for co-creating or sustaining the withholding.

In our true wholeness and integrity of being, we have nothing to fear from anyone else. We require neither their approval nor their disapproval; neither their love nor their fear. "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). This is not a game or competition in which 'I like you if you like me'. To stand in our own defenceless authenticity, we can help rid this world of enmity by quite literally holding those who disapprove and judge in the same love as our friends.

Reflection: Which enemy needs my loving today?

pointing fingerRelinquishing control  (5 July 2011)  The opposite of trust is control. When we are fearful we resort to trying to control the situation; and if we can't physically control it, then we engage in insurance protection or contingency planning to mitigate the potential risks. These are head-games. Fear is in the mind and our control response derives from the ego-mind's need to be in charge.

The truth is that we are not really in control of anything - and certainly not for any length of time. Does this mean that God is in charge of all that happens? Is everything pre-determined? That is another head-game. In reality, life is, creation happens. And when we simply allow creation and life to unfold naturally, our experience of the world is at its greatest ease. The Divine Mystery is incredibly wonderful in allowing human beings to attempt to exert control over specific situations - and we devote enormous energies to exercising such attempted control. And the opposite choice remains of simply trusting that what is unfolding all around us is pure nature and needs no control.

Reflection: Can I allow what is unfolding to just be?

swirlsTrust in the Mystery  (28 June 2011)  Since we are unable to 'understand' the Mystery, we are left with three options. We can believe the Mystery is benevolent, neutral or malevolent. In resolving this choice we depend on two human attributes: first, our day-to-day experience of living in the world - whether life feels as though it is 'good' or 'bad'; and second, our faith - what we believe about the nature of life and the universe.

The truth of the greater whole is that life simply is; the Mystery IS. It does not come with value-judgements of 'good' or 'bad'. It just IS. All our judgements about what happens are simply that - judgement and prejudices that we have created individually and internally. Our experience demonstrates time-and-time again, that when we take the long view, "things work out for the best". What seems like a disaster or a major trauma or an unwanted circumstance today, will inevitably change and we will find ourselves, usually with a different perspective, on the other side. This is the Mystery: we can trust that what is happening now - even when we don't want it - is occurring in order to equip us transport us to whatever comes next.

Reflection: Can I relinquish some of my control and increase my trust that all will be well?

candle flameUnderstanding is the booby prize  (20 June 2011)  When we are "in this world" we rely upon our understanding; and when we are "not of this world" we use our knowing. We can never understand God - we can only know God. In the Christian calendar, yesterday was the celebration of the Trinity: God as creator (the mother/father of all); God in human form (accompanying us in life); and God as spirit (aflame within each of us). Trying to 'understand' this Trinity as a single unifying whole seems to me to be beyond our capacity. It is a mystery - the Mystery of the Divine. Yet we can each 'know' this Mystery. The wise teacher, Werner Erhard, memorably wrote: "In life, understanding is the booby prize". We understand from what we are taught or figure out, but learning is not the same as truth. Knowing always comes from our own experience and our experience is always truth. What I experience, I know. Our experience is what happens moment-by-moment in life. This life is our knowing, and this knowing is the Mystery of the Trinity.

Reflection: How may I experience more knowing and less understanding?

not of this worldBalancing between the worlds  (13 June 2011)  All of this life is a recurring invitation to encompass ever more within our Being. To grow in both the horizontal and the vertical planes of the cross; to go inwardly deeper and also outwardly further; to experience both our yin (female) and our yang (male) energies; to see both the big picture and the small picture within each situation; to hear our head/mind whilst also listening to our heart/soul. When we step back from our everyday living and take the cosmic view, this invitation is to live our lives such that we are "in this world, but not of this world". Such a balance transcends our experience of life because it takes us beyond the day-to-day experience of living. This is the Tao - that which encompasses everything. It is a place of non-attachment and freedom; the awakened state of the Bodhi; and the Christ Consciousness of mystic reality.

Reflection: What does it feel to be 'in this world, but not of this world'?

communion

Two Communes  (6 June 2011)  When we start to connect with our Soul, we begin to see that our lives comprise the two dimensions of the cross, and that these two axes are representative of two different communes within which all life is manifested. The lateral mind/heart axis is the physical and earthly community in which we each live. As well as our bodies, it includes our feelings and emotions, and our relationships with others. When we stretch out our arms we are touching and connecting with this physical community; when we pick up the phone or meet with others, we are in this community. The vertical soul/spirit axis is our more inward and intimate communion with God. Within this communion we know our being and the place of our being within all-that-is; this is an eternal communion. Most of us live our daily lives in the lateral physical and earthy community. But without that vertical communion, all life is meaningless, and no more than a series of events punctuated by birth and death.

Reflection: What truly gives meaning to my life?

woven cross designThe Soul Dimension  (30 May 2011)  The bookshop categorisation of 'Body, Mind and Spirit' omits one essential aspect of our human nature - the Soul. Early anatomists spent a long time dissecting the body in vain to find the soul; yet when we are still and attentive, we can connect with and know our own soul.  For me, these four essential aspects of my being relate as a cross. The infinite vertical axis stretches from the deepest sense of my soul to the highest awareness of spirit; the more restricted horizontal axis encompasses my mind to the right and my body to the left. In each moment in time, these two axes intersect and here are my feelings, emotions and attitudes at that moment; this is my heart-centre. It is no wonder that the cross has become such a powerful symbol of the human condition and a means of contemplating our true being.

A healthy inner life requires awareness of all four aspects, in the same way that other traditions pay due attention to the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, or the four direction of North, South, East and West.

Reflection: How do I know my connection to my deepest Soul?

heart with handsRemembering  (23 May 2011)  Sacred texts and great teachers regularly remind us to 'see differently'. Notice all the stories and metaphors about blindness. And seeing differently is the invitation behind the repeated invocations to 'awaken' and to 'remember'. To awaken is to wake up and see the world as if for the first time, as it truly is - without the filters and prejudices of our belief system and point-of-view. To remember is to begin to recollect and see who we truly are as conscious created beings: to remember where we came from and where we are going; to remember our purpose in life. This remembrance is always to know ourselves beyond our bodies (our physical experiences) and beyond our minds (our thoughts). It is a remembering and a reminding of our soul.

Reflection: When I forget my thoughts, what do I remember of my soul?

apple orangeSeeing differently  (16 May 2011)  I wrote last week that prayer is often a call to see [ ... this situation] differently. In our growing up and our busy social and professional lives, we become addicted to our point-of-view. It takes less effort to just repeat our opinions, attitudes and behaviours than to look afresh at whether they remain relevant and appropriate. We defend our own point-of-view. We delight in knocking down another person's point-of-view - usually by criticism, judgement, or dismissal. I'm right. You're wrong.

Notice how every point-of-view is incomplete. It is a view from one point only, when there are always an infinite number of points around any situation. Earth looks boundless when you stand on the ground; enormous, from an aeroplane; and pretty insignificant from space. A crisis is all-consuming today; has faded within a week; and is probably forgotten in a year. What makes us stubbornly attached to our particular point-of-view? Prayer and contemplation lead us to perspective, and a less addicted to being right in the dramas that crowd our lives.

Reflection: How can I see [ ... this situation] differently?

prayerLiving prayerfully  (8 May 2011)  Many of us have difficulty with prayer. Perhaps we've grown up with the idea that it's a symptom of weakness. Often prayer is no more than a rather selfish petitioning to meet some personal desire.

We pray at moments of extreme need: "God help me!" At the heart of prayer is a request for help usually in relation to suffering, pain, fear, anxiety, loss or uncertainty. It may be in relation to our self or someone else. Prayer does not change the circumstance; rather, prayer seeks to transform our perception of that situation: "Help me to see [this situation ...] differently". It is we who create our experience of the world - not the world doing it to us; and prayer is an opening to transforming that perception.  Prayer opens us to compassion, humility, gratitude, forgiveness and surrender when we are faced with such needs.

Reflection: What do I want to see differently, today?

love not hateYou shall not murder  (3 May 2011)  What is your response to recent international killings? Is it shock, jubilation, anger, relief or sadness? For many people their 'head' demands retribution and revenge for previous attacks. But how does the heart feel? When one human being ends the life of any other human being, how do you feel? The sixth commandment received by Moses (and thus to all people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith) is: "You shall not murder". There are no exceptions ("except in the case of ...") and no caveats ("but if the person you murder has done something bad then ..."). All spiritualities teaches us that all life is sacred; and that when we destroy life, we are destroying part of ourselves.

Throughout the history of mankind on this planet, violence has never succeeded in defeating hostility and opposition; it can only displace it for a time.

Christian teaching is counter-intuitive: "Love your enemies"; "Do to others as you would have them do to you". Jesus' response to his own killers exemplifies this: "Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" implying that those who condemned and killed him were really hurting themselves. Murder diminishes us all.

Reflection: How does murder persist in my own thoughts and actions towards others?

I have recently published a longer article on aggression and violence.

Dying to Live (25 April 2011)  In the Christian tradition, Easter is a story of death and resurrection. Many interpret this only as physical death leading to some re-birth in another 'place'. Most faith traditions convey this teaching though in quite different forms. It's at the heart of all rites-of-passage, transformations and enlightenment.

In order to enter into my true nature, this false identity must die. I must give up who I think I am in order to discover who I truly am. The identities we are so busy maintaining are illusory and actually dead; only by choosing to release all such egos and attachments can we begin to live freely, now.

Reflection: What aspects of me need to die?

vulnerability

Recognising my real Self  (18 April 2011) My Self is not myself. The identity that I describe as me is made up of a diverse collection of roles, behaviours, attitudes and projections. It's familiar, well practiced and strongly defended. It's also selfish, judgemental and small-minded. Beneath this skin of self-made personality lies the deeper vulnerability of my true Self.

We see it in small children and in those close to death. Sometimes it escapes when we allow our vulnerability to be expressed - in tears, in tenderness, in anger, in sorrow, in humility. But mostly we strive hard to conceal such evidence of vulnerability and preserve this false self.

The connection with our true deep inner Self comes when we are naked and vulnerable - in nature, in beauty, in helplessness, in love, in aloneness, in the big picture - and when the false self is allowed to fall away.

Reflection: what do I fear discovering in my real Self?

soul compassThe Soul Compass  (11 April 2011)  When we spend time with our Self we have the opportunity to tune into our soul compass. A magnetic compass points unerringly to the North in our travels; our moral compass distinguishes right from wrong in our actions. Our soul compass is the inherent and natural internal guide to our authentic life and our heart's desire. The soul compass cannot lie. Like the other compasses we can choose to ignore it and wander off in some other direction chosen because it looks easier or more attractive - but the consequences are always frustration, dissatisfaction and suffering.

Very young children are naturally attuned to their soul compass; so too are many of those approaching death. But in-between, we follow the directions of our hyper-active and inconsistent minds instead of the gentle, loving promptings of our soul compass. This is why we need to spend regular time with our Self.

Reflection: where am I deviating from my soul compass?

contemplationTime for my self (5 April 2011)  How much time do you give each day to yourself? I don't mean self-indulgent time, or sleep time, or distraction time such as watching TV or surfing the internet. I mean time where you choose to do nothing else - just time given to yourself, for your self. In our busy lives, we are so reluctant to do this; perhaps you regard 'doing nothing' as a waste of time. But it's in these moments (or minutes or hours or even days) that you meet the person you truly are.

All the great mystics, prophets and teachers spent regular time alone with themselves. It's where they looked deeply inside to see their selves. Henry Thoreau wrote "The true measure of a man's wealth is the amount of time he has left when everything that has to be done each day, has been done" (in Walden).

Most people are afraid to sit with themselves for any length of time. They fear boredom; they seek mindless distraction; usually they are frightened of what they might discover. So this fear rules them and they never know their true Self - the person they are when pretence, illusion, and self-deceit is stripped away. They are wiling to settle for the fake self instead of the gold.

Reflection: am I willing to discover my true Self?

Life is Suffering (29 March 2011)  The evidence for this is all around us, in sickness, poverty, brutality, bereavement, trauma, hurt and loneliness. This was one of the early insights of the Lord Buddha as he travelled the country seeking answers to the questions of his life. And yet we still persist in thinking it should be otherwise: "Life's not fair", "I deserve better", "Something's wrong".

On my travels, I witness a great deal of poverty, ill-health and struggle. Yet in the main, these people are far happier with their everyday life than we are in the West. I am surrounded by smiles, laughter, open faces, playful children, helpful men and women. This is particularly true in the isolated villages where living conditions are basic. There are no expectations of 'fairness' and 'deserving'. The people I spend time with do what is necessary to live each day and look after each other. I am reminded of a sentence in the Lord's Prayer: Give me this day what I need to live today. Not, give me this day what I want / deserve / expect / desire.

Reflection: Have I been given all that I need to live fully today?

alone by the oceanTransforming Aloneness (22 March 2011) During my current travels through SE Asia, I am conscious of a recurring phrase in the way some of the people I encounter are describing themselves: "I am alone". To be alone is not the same as to be lonely. Loneliness is a feeling of isolation; aloneness is a situation of being on one's own. Loneliness is usually temporary; aloneness can be terrifying.

We strive to avoid loneliness by immersing ourselves in community. Yet growth requires being alone and being in community. We veer from one state to another; often when we experience one, we desire more of the other. Being alone can be a truly frightening place. It implies we are isolated human beings, totally dependent on our own resources (or lack of them) to survive. This is the heartfelt cry of 'I am alone' that seeks companionship and comfort on the journey through life.  Yet being alone is where we discover a greater source of sustenance.  This is the solo journey, the grail, the vision quest, that is described in so many mythic stories. It is also the experience of our spiritual teachers who "went alone into the desert" or "went up onto the hillside alone". The insights that come from being alone - in the desert, on the mountain, by the ocean, or simply with our own undistracted company - are what equip us to be in community.

It is by going into our aloneness we discover we are not alone. Our isolation is transformed from 'being alone' to 'being all-one' as we become more consciously aware of the inner sustenance that holds us and connects us always; in one, we are never alone.

isThe Presence verb  (14 March 2011)  For the last few weeks I have been learning and practicing Thai. As a language, it is completely different from western communication systems. For a start, the singular and plural of a noun are the same; and all verbs are used in the present tense; it is the context which provides the additional meaning.

One of the first words to learn is 'pben' meaning 'to be' and 'to be able to', as well as 'am', 'are', 'is', and 'was'. We can contemplate this remarkable verb for deepening insight. Being always brings us into awareness of presence. The presence and the truth always simply 'are'.

Life is. Nature is. The Tao is. Love is. I am. Whatever word is appended reflects a perception or judgement that comes solely from within us; it may be our view of our 'truth', but it is not THE truth, which is simply: Pom pben. I am.

sunsetMystery and Mysticism 2 (7 March 2011)  The greatest Mysteries call forth our greatest questions: where did I come from?; what is my purpose in being here?; what happens when I die?; who am I? Whether we contemplate these questions or not, we know them to be true, without being able to understand them or resolve them in our minds. In the face of any such Mysteries, we have two responses.

First - and most commonly - we experience fear. We fear the unknown and the unpredictable. This leads us into contingency planning, what-if thinking, and insurance strategies, all based upon an assumption that anything we don't control is inherently dangerous to our interests. We look back into our personal history and use this to project a future disaster that our minds strive to avoid.

Second - we can relax and Trust. The mystic sees that there is no threat in this present instant. Instead, we welcome the Mystery of the moment, allowing it to be whatever it is. We live in a universe that is filled with ceaseless creation, with boundless energy, with infinite diversity. Our cosmos thrives on creation, not destruction. Without comprehension or control, we have the choice to trust that all is well.

May I live in the Trust of this soul, not the fear of this mind.

mystic wheelMystery and Mysticism 1 (28 February 2011)  These two words share the same Greek root ‘musterion’, meaning a hidden thing or a secret ceremony; a mystic (‘mustes’) is someone who is seeking to enter into this secret.  In our contemporary world, a mystery is something that we know to be true without an understanding of how that can be so. A mystery is something that we know intuitively in our soul – our ‘gut’ – whilst our minds cannot work it out. We know a thing is beautiful, but we cannot say why; we know something feels right, yet we cannot say how. This is the nature of the Divine in all cultures and traditions; we refer to is as a Sacred Mystery. This Mystery gives us comfort and reassurance without being understood.

Being hidden and beyond the workings of the mind, there is nothing that we can do that will reveal this Mystery to us. No human action or thought will make it visible nor comprehensible. Rather the reverse is true: when we are open and receptive – and sometimes also when we are resolutely confronted – we may become aware of this Sacred Mystery through experience.  It finds us.  We are all mystics as we patiently await such moments of Enlightenment, Non-Duality, or Grace.

May I open this day to a Grace-filled Mystery.

Gratitude stonesGratitude (21 February 2011)  One of the simplest paths to contemplation and mindfulness is to express gratitude for anything or everything in this life we are living now. And the simplest experience we can be grateful for is the experience of life itself. Consider for a moment what it might be like to be non-life and just what you would miss.

It is another paradox to observe that those who have least in life are often the most grateful and generous; whilst those who have most in the way of material wealth can often be the least thankful. Quantity obscures quality. When external physical circumstances are stripped away, we all share this same life. The less ‘stuff’ we have, the more readily we can experience the true value of what we do have, and be thankful.

True gratitude requires humility because its expression comes from our essence; it has no need for proof. We recognise it in a look, a touch, a kiss. Gratitude that is dressed up in words, gifts or effusion serves only the giver. As you sit, consider ten things from the day for which you are grateful. You are likely to discover they are simple happenings that would have gone un-noticed otherwise. Their grateful remembrance now is mindfulness.

stone opening to the sunThree Steps to Mindfulness (14 February 2011)  We live in a busy, active world of ‘doing’. Just how do we find the time and space to live differently? The great teachers have given us three steps, each of which is very simple – although we find all manner of reasons to resist them.

First, Pause. Take a time-out. Stop doing. Step back from the action, no matter how briefly, detach from it. Breathe. Remember who you are. At moments of stress Jesus “took himself a short way off” or often “went out to the hill”. A pause in the drama of life is an opportunity to return to your-Self.

Second, Contemplate. This is Richard Rohr’s word from the simple process of noticing what is happening, without getting involved in it. It’s watching yourself from your Self – when I see me. Quakers sit in silence each week and contemplate. Lord Buddha finally sat beneath the bodhi tree to contemplate until enlightened. Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days to contemplate. In contemplation, we move beyond our limited selves and begin to see the Truth in which everything belongs.

Three, Mindfulness. This is being consciously awake and aware of our-selves in each moment. It is the integration of the contemplative mind into daily life. Eckhart Tolle calls this ‘living in the now’. Rohr calls it ‘action and contemplation’. Contrary to contemporary thinking, mindfulness is single-tasking: attention to the one thing that we are doing in this present moment with an undivided mind. With mindfulness we enter our own Presence.

There are many practical techniques for walking these steps including conscious breathing, mantras, prayer, yoga, chanting, observing nature, and naming each passing thoughts. One simple centring prayer is based on a line from Psalm 46, spoken slowly and quietly:

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
Be

meditating manOur blindness (7 February 2011) Wake up! Look! See differently! Such exhortations are a recurring refrain in great spiritual teaching. Have you noticed how many Biblical stories are concerned with blindness - either people becoming blind as they undergo transformation, or more commonly people being cured of blindness as they come to see their true nature. View these stories as referring to spiritual insight rather than physical sight.

We see with pre-judgement. We compare everything with what we have seen before. We fail to notice our familiar blinkers. We jump to judgement. We project our own perceptions, and accept them when they are mirrored back to us. This is our blindness. No wonder the teaching is to "first take the plank out of your own eye".

Our perception of everything is filtered by the unrecognised plank that obstructs our vision. Instead, we literally think what we see. We rarely see what is, without thought, without pre-judgement, with wonder. When we open ourselves to 'seeing differently' we experience more of this wonder of truth and our blindness diminishes.

A Paradox of Time (31 January 2011)  The mystics say that one sign of a growing spiritual awareness is our ability to live with paradox rather than certainty and understanding.

Time passes - or so it seems. All experiences come and then go, whether they be 'good' experiences such as a relationship or a holiday, or 'bad' experiences, such as a trauma or bereavement. No matter what we feel now, it will pass. Time appears linear. Each moment of time is unique: it is never repeated and can never be returned to. We think we move out of yesterday into today and towards tomorrow. We have a sense of moving through time, as if time were independent of our existence. Yet consider whether this is really so. Or whether time moves through us; that our true nature is stationary and the sensation of time moves past us (as water in a shower passes over our still bodies, or the landscape moves past a train window).

When we look deeply into our Soul, we may notice that our essence, our nature, is the same today as it was last week, last year, or 20 years ago. Our Soul is present now as it always has been and always will be. Our Soul is timeless. Who we are lives beyond time.

Being Present (24 January 2011)  Becoming Present is the centre of our spiritual journey. As the verb indicates, it is not something we can 'do'; rather it asks us to 'be'. A present is something given and Presence is something received.  It is, literally, pre-sent or pre-sensed.  It is being conscious of the Sacred Mystery that surrounds us in this present moment. (For 'sacred mystery' you might choose to substitute great integrity, tao, god, source, oneness, love ... or another words that captures All That Is for you.)

We wander through our lives forgetful of all that is within us and surrounds us: breath, gravity, air, digestion, the earth's rotation, light, love, the cosmos. We mistakenly think we are fully alert because our hyperactive minds are engaged in reliving the past or planning the future, when, in reality, this is sleep-walking through a graphic life fiction, complete with all manner of special effects.

The repeated instruction of both the Buddha and Jesus is: "Wake up". Wake up to what is present now. The name Buddha means 'I am awake'. Being present to this moment is to be enlightened. There is nothing to do to get here; just a willingness to be now.

The Beauty of Tears (17 January 2011) When did you last cry? And what makes you cry? Loss, beauty, music, upset, intimacy, grief, poetry, landscape? Our tears are such a rare and precious fluid that in any other context they would be a perfume of extraordinary preciousness. Yet all too often we are embarrassed or ashamed of our tears, hiding our faces to conceal this beautiful, natural gift.

Faced with the sisters' grief at Lazarus's death, Jesus was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" and at seeing his body "Jesus wept". He experienced human sorrow and cried, whilst also knowing that "Your brother will rise again" (John 11:17-37). Our tears are a heart-centred physical response to helplessness - to those moments when we know deeply that we are not in control and that a greater mystery is at work in our lives. Tears render us speechless. It seems that only such deep emotions have the power to take us beyond our tiny self-control and into this greater presence.

May we cry more.

The Micro View (10 January 2011)  As we fail to comprehend the Big Picture of the Universe, so too do we struggle with the other end of the spectrum - the Micro View. A single egg or sperm holds our entire genetic code and ancestral history. A single atom holds vast potential energy. Our planet is but a single insignificant dot in the cosmos. Yet each Micro View holds all of life.

Quantum physics reveals how the atomic micro-world mirrors the infinity of the universe. Both comprise vast expanses of space with minimal physical matter. The atomic world of seemingly solid objects is composed of fluid micro elements that are held together in a constantly changing and immensely powerful invisible field of energy - a micro-version of the galaxies.

How do we experience this universal energy? Energy can always be transformed but never destroyed. This infinite energy field is named in sacred texts as the Word or the Presence of God. The only means by which we know that it can be created is by 'making love'; hence the teaching to "love thy neighbour". This Love exists at both the Micro View and the Cosmic View - and everything in-between. This Presence is visible to us in each cell, each snowflake, each grain of sand, each droplet of water, and each tiny dot in the night sky. Without knowing it or understanding it, we are surrounded by Presence, here, now.

The Big Picture (3 January 2011)  Throughout our lives, especially when we struggle, we are invited to "see things differently" - and, in particular, to see the dramas of our lives within the context of the Big Picture. It is not possible for us to perceive the 'Biggest' Picture for, like the infinite cosmos, this is beyond our comprehension. Yet by stepping back from our own narrow and pre-judged view we have the capacity always to open ourselves up and see a little more of this Bigger Picture.

In different cultures and traditions, the Big Picture is know by different names - the Tao, the Enlightenment, the Kingdom. The Big Picture opens the way to an end to our judgemental and self-damaging dualistic thinking. The Tao expresses it in a beautifully simple way, uniting the polarities of yin and yang within a single whole. To step back is to move away from our perceptions of good/bad, male/female, right/wrong, dark/light, death/life, me/them, and to seek the unity that encompasses all. It is in this Big Picture that we find "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth".

In 2011, may we step peacefully aside and 'see things differently'.

View 2010 editions of inSOUL

After thirty years of a stressful freelance consulting career and twenty years of stewarding a large Grade II listed house, this recent move to a new apartment creates more physical freedom and offers the long-desired opportunity to bring all the aspects of this life together into a more coherent whole. I have needed to listen deeply to those inner desires in order to make some of the decisions required.  There were opportunities to relocate to other continents, other countries, and other cities - each with their own attractive pulls. As one director offered me: "you need to discern between your head speaking and your heart speaking - only one will satisfy you - and ensure you make the right choice". So here I am, still in Keswick, embarking on the next phase of this life.

The transition involves moving "huge slabs of energy" as another colleague expressed it. This is not just the physical energies of moving house, nor the emotional energies of changing home, but also the spiritual energies of loss, bereavement, death, re-birth and creation.  Detaching from previous commitments, disposing of long-held possessions, saying good-bye, and then starting again with a new canvas in a new context - all require spiritual energies. And these flow alongside the continuing uncertain ill-health in my family and the pending loss of our family home and possessions.

Through all this transition, there is a deep excitement about what is calling me in this next phase. It's a wonderful opportunity to live here, now, as I have been increasingly wanting to do. I can discern several themes that are coming together.

My heart-felt desire, arising from the ordination vows, is to live in a sacred space that is still, silent, simple and sometimes solitary; to be free from attachment; and to be able to hear that ever-present, guiding voice within. This space achieves that. Physically, it is between earth (some floors below) and the universe (always visible through these wonderful large skylights in the roof above). It is surrounded by community, and yet set apart slightly. It stands before the majestic Mystery of Nature - the first sacred scripture - panoramically visible in all its changing glory from every window.

Here I can feel all the major recent influences in this life. This is a space for both contemplation and action. These are the two unifying yin/yang themes so espoused by Fr Richard Rohr in his work.  We need that inner time for deep contemplation and connection - in order to be effective in our action and our ministry in the community. From this space, I can journey out to teach, mentor, counsel and witness in communities both local and distant.

Another colleague recently described our work as church-less ministers by naming us as 21st century priests. She saw this ministry in contemporary terms, both recreating the ancient biblical traditions of wandering prophets and priests, without formal organisation and building, bringing teaching and counsel to people in their own communities, whilst also developing a modern-day approach to people's hunger for meaning and recognition in a world growing hungry with materialism and status.

Recently I have been adopting the phrase urban hermitage to capture the essence of this approach. There is a long history of the desert fathers, hermits and others seeking the contemplative life through relative isolation in nature. Some of this tradition survives in the monastic tradition. Yet in the East we see also the various temple traditions offering the spiritual seeker both a space for contemplation and oneness, and a practical role within the community serving others. This is akin to Rohr's marriage of contemplation with action. Wilderness experiences still exist and are often immensely powerful (in the form of retreats, vision quests, desert or mountain treks). And I can foresee the growth of a network of urban hermitages, located in villages, towns and cities throughout our communities, where individuals and small groups pursue their spiritual awakening through prayer and contemplation, whilst also responding to the needs of those communities with whom they feel affinity, through practical action and ministry.

It has taken me many years to realise that what others call variously God, Allah, the Source, the Mystery, the Divine, Father, the Beloved, the Tao is most present to me in the Void.  This emergent essay seeks to illustrate aspects of how I have come to know and experience the Void.

Although we are familiar in the West with numerous pictures and icons of God, such depictions cannot capture or convey the nature of God with any accuracy since ‘God is beyond our knowing’. In Islam, there are no images of Allah for this reason.  In Christianity, the reference to ‘God created man in his own image’ has been taken literally by some to imply that God has a human-like form; metaphorically and mystically, this phrase suggests that man has the inherent capacity to live divinely – although our human nature and mis-perceptions cause us to fall far short of this eternal state. Many eastern traditions offer a more holistic approach to God. Hinduism presents the diversity of the whole cycle of life and death; Buddhism and Taoism encourage the practitioner to seek the unified whole that encompasses everything.

the voidThe notion of the Void encapsulates many of these attributes – timeless, infinite, formless, whole, and beyond understanding – but this is to seek to understand the Void in concrete and rational terms. To know the Void is an internal experience of soul discovery, insight and revelation, not an external act of understanding, rationality and analysis.

Experiencing the Void

I have no idea when I first experienced the Void. Certainly it would not have been consciously; probably it was as an infant when everything was connected and I had not begun to separate, differentiate and judge all that I saw and experienced.

I remember clearly when I first clearly named an experience of the Void. I was in the Netherlands, participating in a training programme of Taoist massage that involved heightening the energies of the physical body to such a degree that the ordinary senses were over-loaded (like blowing a fuse), the mind could no longer cope with processing all that was happening to it, and a whole new dimension of consciousness became apparent to me. I was lying on the table oblivious to the table and the physical surroundings. I was beyond my body. I no longer knew where my body ended; all boundaries had dissolved. I was weightless in some limitless space that was neither dark nor light. Wherever I was, I was safe and held and deeply peaceful. There was no need to think; my awareness was of the wonder that infused and surrounded me. All this was experienced without effort, thought or control. It was as though I had been transported there and this was being done to me.

I now recognise that I experienced this Void earlier in life (without the same circumstances) and that I have access to it in many different situations. I can be transported to the Void when in the presence of great beauty (from nature, art or music). A deep and peaceful meditation enters the Void. Writing from my soul opens the Void. My tears open a window to the Void. Sensual love-making occurs in the void that is beyond time and space.

The Biblical Void

The Void is nothing new! Two great passages from the Bible convey a rich feeling for the Void.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

and

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

These are wonderful mystical metaphors for the creation of our universe and of all things. They describe a situation preceding the ‘big bang’. They offer a glimpse of infinity, even though the human mind is unable to grasp the concept of infinity. Here is an ancient account of the time-less, space-less void that predates history.

The Void is the space of creation. Everything is created from nothing, and returns to nothing. No-thing is the source of every-thing.  From dust you came, and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19).  The teachings within the Bible - and particularly within the New Testament - could be called the 'Gospel of the Gap' because they teach how to live and grow within this void of creation.

The metaphysical void

But this void is not just a metaphorical image from sacred texts. It is also real in our physical universe.  And it is real at both the cosmic scale and the micro scale.

Astronomy shows us the immense magnitude of our cosmos. We cannot envisage what existed before the big bang but what we do now know is that for 14 billion years since that event, our universe has been creating and expanding in an explosion of galaxies and suns, each of which occupies a tiny amount of physical space relative to the limitless cosmic universe. What exists between these galaxies and stars? At first sight it is an empty space of nothing, a void. Yet, when observed more carefully, this void is far from empty. Whatever else it might contain, it is certainly filled with energy in the form of heat and light.  We cannot see this energy within the space but the heat and light travel through the void continuously to be felt and seen here on our planet.  When we see sunlight, it is light that has travelled through the void until it becomes visible to us by its reflection from physical landscapes and objects.

At the other end of the visible scale, atomic physics is revealing a world that is utterly different to how we might have imagined it. Solid objects are not solid at all. All physical matter is composed of tiny atomic particles bound together with electrons but in a very fluid manner. Within each atom there is vast space around the nucleus.  This arrangement mirrors – at an entirely different scale – the physical arrangement of suns and plans.  There is a void within the atomic nucleus.

Our universe at every level comprises a massive void, with occasional lumps of matter!

The Void as nothing and everything

The void is seemingly empty yet contains everything. It is both no-thing whilst holding every-thing.  When de-void of all physical matter is remains filled with energy. And from this energy, all light and matter is derived.  It is ‘formless’ and filled with potential.  It is in darkness whilst transmitting the energy of light.

This is the original and universal energy of the cosmos at every level and scale. It is an energy that we call ‘light’ and which we also experience and name as that mystical power that we call ‘love’.  It is the light and the love of creation that fills the void. This is the energy of Love that suffuses our true nature. When we 'make love' we are entering this space and creating from the pure energy of love.

Void, not vacuum

It is important to distinguish between these two states that are often confused in everyday speech. A void, as described here, if filled with the light and energy of creation and potential life.  A vacuum, by contrast, is a sterile and empty condition that seeks its own destruction by filling itself with something. A vacuum comprises nothing. It is detrimental to life, since without the basic elements life cannot survive in any form.  A vacuum implies death, whilst a void transmits the possibility of sustainable life.

The unconscious void

A common example of the void is our  physical unconsciousness. We experience this daily in sleep. Sleep is the time when healing occurs, when dreams play out, and when the day-time thoughts and activities are integrated and sometimes transformed.  In the unconscious, our ego-mind has less control over us, and our soul can speak to us more clearly. One interpretation of dreams is that they demonstrate what the soul is telling us about our true nature and desires.

Being in liminal space

To live in liminal space is to live at or just beyond our comfort zone. It is the very edge of our familiar world and a threshold (the literal meaning of literal) into another domain.  When we live in our familiar comfortable world our patterns and belief and experiences repeat themselves - they remain very similar. When we allow ourselves to move beyond this comfort (or when circumstances take thrust us into something totally new and unfamiliar), then we enter into liminal space.

Liminal space is the space of dis-comfort, of growth, and of transformation. It both challenges us, and offers us new perspectives, in-sights and in-tuition.  We need liminal space in order to keep growing humanly and spiritually.  Each time we hear that inner voice saying "oh, make this easier, give me a break, let me just get back to the familiar", it's the voice of caution, self-control and, status quo; it leaves us in our comfortable 'lostness' of disconnection and separation.

edge of the  voidLiminal space is the threshold to the Void. It's like standing on the edge of a high cliff, with all the familiar territory behind us, looking out over an unknown landscape. Do we go back? Do we just stand still? Or do we risk going forward and over the cliff, trusting that "all will be well".  Our mind screams: "don't do it - it's too risky - you'll die - stick with what you know".  Our heart knows that what lies behind us was not that wonderful and satisfying, and that what lies ahead offers the possibility of real change and transformation.

There is no route to the Soul via the head.  Only our heart feels the existence of the Soul-Spirit dimension.  Our heart has a deeply imprinted memory of that original spiritual source; our heart knows that it wants to return to that peace. When we allow ourselves to live for a time in liminal space - to stand on the edge - we are faced with the choice of backwards or forwards, head or heart, known or unknown, body or soul, this world or Void.

Entering the Void

Entering this Void is, for me, an entering into the Presence of God. Without form, yet filled with love, the void is the space beyond body, beyond thought, where I am one with all of creation. I am upheld in this space without effort. I am home.

Is there a route-map for getting there? No. In one sense, we are all already there, except we don’t know it.  All the world’s great spiritual teachers offer pointers to finding this space.  In my studies and practices, the best manuals have been the Tao Te Ching, the Hua Hu Ching, the Dhammapada, and the Christian gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A receptive and open-minded study of these texts can help us find the way.  All these teachings use koans, stories and parables to illuminate the way to the Void because there is no step-by-step process. The way is beyond the mind. Indeed the way is often in the contra-direction. Most teachings talk about divesting ourselves of all that we have. Jesus talks about becoming ‘like children’. All describe a condition of patient waiting until the Void is revealed.

What works for me? I sense the presence of the Void around and within me. Sometimes this awareness is strong; often it is barely conscious. What has helped me to know this Void has been, at different times:

  • Longer periods of silence, seeking to still the body of all sensation and the mind of all conscious thought
  • Observing nature, and being open to letting that nature speak to me what it will
  • Placing myself into entirely new situations and places, watching my fears arise, and allowing myself to fully experience what is happening with fresh eyes.
  • Energising my body (or having someone do it to me) to an extreme degree where I lose consciousness of the individual sensations and physical components
  • Making love deeply and sensually by the unconditional giving of myself to another person’s bliss
  • Describing my interior state in writing that flows, without censorship, and that starts to open a connection with my heart-centre and soul
  • Entering a deep shared communion, with God and/or with others, where I am vulnerable and defenceless in every meaning of those words.

The Void is a joyous and entirely peace-full space of no-thing and every-thing. I know that it sustains my life and brings me home. It is the space where I long to be.

Some years ago, on a faerie retreat, I talked quietly around the fire with a wise old man known to me as “Tuff’ol’ bird”.  I recall him saying: “You’ve experienced the Void? Then you are lucky and need nothing more. It can take a lifetime to get there.” I feel both emptied and filled in this Void.

male tendernessAre you ready for a short time-out in the company of like-minded gay men? There are a few places still available on the two remaining Gay Spirit retreats this year.

Gay Spirit Retreat - Peak District - 22-24 July
The theme this year is Encountering Gay Soul - an opportunity to look more deeply at the nature of your true and authentic self, the place from which you come, the source of your creativity and insight, the way in which your sexuality manifests in who and what you are.  Come and join us in gay space - time to be still … to reflect … to walk in nature … to share your journey … to talk with other gay or bisexual men … to laugh … to be nourished … simply to be. This retreat is open to all gay or bi men, whether they have a faith or none.

Gay Men's Rites of Passage - Lake District - 6-9 September
Come and celebrate your identity as a sexual man.  Step into your full authority as a gay man.  Receive the acknowledgement and honouring for who you are, in your true fullness, in a way that was probably denied to you before. Through ritual and ceremony we will mark and sacralise our major life transitions: puberty, coming out, adulthood, relationship beginnings and endings, elderhood, death. Early-bird discount still available to 10 June.

10 best books on gay spirituality
Take a look at our recommendations for the ten best reads on gay spirituality.  And if you want to buy any, you'll find them all listed on Amazon.

We look forward to spending time with you at these events.  You are welcome to contact us with any questions.

Tim Pickles and Andrew Woodgate

For more online information, see www.gayspirit.org.uk

coming homeEarlier this month I spent four days at an  aFIRMing event in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, organised by the Male Spirituality movement.  It was another powerful series of rituals and processes designed to deepen the experience of initiated men, affirm their soul identity, and support the journey into both authentic son-ship and the true meaning of elderhood.  This event is available to those initiated men who have completed the male rites-of-passage.

The dominant theme of the rituals is ‘coming home’: coming home into the deepest sense of who-we-are; coming home into our true authority and integrity; coming home to our soul’s desire; coming home into the eternal love and affirmation which is always available to us, if only we are still enough to hear that voice.

This return home does not depend on what we have done previously in our lives. It does not require us to be ‘right’ or ‘moral’ or ‘just’ or ‘good’.  Indeed, the very opposite is true: it is in our imperfection, our mistakes, our flaws, our woundedness that we are accepted and validated.  We are called to be vulnerable (not defensive or justifying), open and receptive (not closed and pre-judging), heart centred (not rational and analytical), humble (not righteous).

The human condition is one of being lost. In Biblical terms, we are ‘lost’ from the Garden of Eden; we are ‘lost’ in our suffering, hurt and dissatisfaction; we are lost in our isolation and disconnection from one another; we are lost from the deep meaning and purpose at the centre of our lives.  And most people have no awareness of their own lost condition.  The journey back home into our true connected nature is one of being found.  Being Found is not something that we do to ourselves. There is no activity or path that leads to being self-found.  Our meaning, our connection, our belonging finds us – when we are ready to recognise our own hurt and our own humility.  Being Found is done to us, not by us.  This is the journey home – and the significance of the events and rituals of the male aFIRMing.