This quotation, originally by Rabbi Rami Shapiro and quoted by Ilio Delio and Richard Rohr, speaks to me, particularly at this time of year, resonant with new turnings and the possibility of new ways of seeing the world:

"Will you engage this moment with kindness or with cruelty, with love or with fear, with generosity or scarcity, with a joyous heart or an embittered one? This is your choice and no one can make it for you. If you choose kindness, love, generosity, and joy, then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, heaven, nirvana, this-worldly salvation. If you choose cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness, then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak. These are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space—these are existential realities playing out in your own mind. Heaven and hell are both inside of you. It is your choice that determines just where you will reside."

Is this the Fourth Age of life? I can identify in retrospect three previous ages - childhood, adolescence/maturing, and manhood. Now there's something quite different emerging. The physical clues are all around: letters from the pensions agencies, offers of flu-jabs, bowel cancer screening, little blue pills, public transport passes, aortic aneurysm assessment, free eye-tests, winter fuel payment. But it's the inner awareness rather than the physical and medical aspects of ageing that are most significant.

Sharing with colleagues in various networks over the past year, I've realised that we have several traits in common today. I've taken to calling these the (literal) pensioner-grandfather characteristics. These seem to mark the transition into a Fourth Age of life.

These energies are quite different to all that has gone before:

  • I'm 'economically inactive' in the official statistics
  • I volunteer instead of working
  • I withdraw into solitude
  • I tend to contemplate rather than act
  • I'm far less (dis)stressed
  • I maintain a low profile - a much-diminished sense of ego.

My partner is more than two decades younger, and it's clear that he lives in a quite different way. His age/life is one of work, earning, activity, caring, responsibility and much else.

The energies of the Fourth Age feel to be more concerned with mentoring, eldership, dawning wisdom, and a longer-term reflection. There is far more letting-go - of possessions, behaviours, responsibilities, commitments, prejudices, expectations and needs.

It makes me wonder what successive ages - if there are more to come in this life - might bring, and how my inner awareness will continue to reveal new insights and self-knowledge.

We all need a source of power - to stay warm, to cool things down, for moving around, to cook, to make things. The question is, with a global human population of 7.6 billion people, just where do we get this energy from in a way which sustains our planet? Until just 100 years ago, the answer was always simple and local: wood for burning (regenerates in 100 years); animal power with horses, oxen and buffalo; and, harnessing the wind and water power of windmills and water-races.

Then we started to be exploitative in a hunt for 'quicker' energy that could be scaled-up and low cost. We started to dig and drill for carbon fuels. These have taken millions of years to form and are therefore scarce and non-renewable in any meaningful sense of the human timescale. They also produce carbon as a bi-product which we are beginning to realise has many adverse consequences. Carbon fuels have become a 'currency' - a valuable commodity that is traded, fought over, accumulated, guarded, and stolen (by the wealthy for their own use at the expense of the poor).

Why on Earth (literally) do we need to do this? We are surrounded by limitless sources of natural energy that we can adapt and transform into usable energy at almost any time.

Our planet receives solar energy constantly. It's so strong that it burns human skin, shrivels crops, evaporates water, and creates deserts. It's limitless!

Our spinning planet generates variable atmospheric pressure which in turn generates massive air movements that move across continents and oceans. We know how to harness this naturally recurring power!

The core of our planet is an enormous heat source - calculated to be around 6,000 degrees centigrade at the boundary between in the outer and inner cores. We gain some idea of this heat reservoir from volcanic eruptions and hot springs. Even at a depth of just one metre there is sufficient heat to be harnessed every day for most human needs. Why don't we do this?

The gravitational effect of the moon creates tidal movements twice each day in the oceans that make up 71% of the surface area of the planet. Simple ebb-and-flow sluices are capable of capturing this enormous energy.

And the natural water cycle of evaporation - cloud - rain - streams and rivers produces a continuously recurring pattern for utilising water as an energy source. As a rule-of-thumb, the areas of the planet most suited to water energy are conveniently those least endowed with solar energy!

There is no need to exploit and burn fossil fuels. Nature produces limitless energy all-day every-day. It requires a change in our attitude to energy harnessing and power consumption. We could make this transition in less than one generation. And in the process, we'd make our planet so much 'greener'.

And that's before we even begin to consider the potential of "human energies" - the energy of our physical bodies and our spiritual prayers.

I find mysticism at the heart of most faiths – although often practiced in a way by only a small proportion of adherents and believers. I perceive mysticism to be the direct and personal inward experience of a transcendent, numinous God [- or Cosmos, Universe, Creator, Mystery]. This is in contrast to the rote-adherence and ritual practice of most faith traditions where adherence to the familiar creed or ritual has become more important than the direct personal and unmediated experience and connection with the Divine.

Most of the mystics that I have read about tend to describe this encounter as a single or rare experience that transforms the whole of the rest of their lives. This moment of ‘inner knowing’ of God gives them a certainty of faith that sustains them even though it may never be repeated. This seems to be the experience described by Paul, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and many others. Many – like the Sufi dancers or the Yoga masters– seek to repeat patterns of behaviour which may create the conditions for re-experiencing this mystic moment of connection. I believe we also see these moments of mystic connection leading to ‘inner knowing’ in the Buddha’s enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree or Jesus’ solitary moments in the wilderness or on the hillside or garden. In the Christian tradition, we sometimes refer to this as the ‘indwelling spirit’ within each of us. Certainly all such mystic moments seem to be characterised by solitude, revelation, and an altered consciousness.

When I feel that I have come close to such a moment, it is always an experience that embodies presence, wholeness, communion, stillness, unqualified acceptance, and peace. In some writings, this seems to be called ‘Now/Here’. It is certainly associated with the ‘biggest picture’ view of everything. Rohr calls this a state where “everything belongs” – a certain knowing that everything that is happening in and around us in this world is right and perfect and intended, no matter what the consequences, nor the judgement or dislike or discomfort that we may experience towards it in that moment.

I wonder whether all other living creatures exist in a natural state of connection with such unitive consciousness; whilst humans (seemingly alone of all life forms) have a disconnect from such awareness because of our thinking consciousness that leads us to differentiate and separate all things from each other.

In my own practice, I have found contemplative mysticism to be the most helpful path, often found in the three-fold approach of silence, stillness and solitude. This of course is not that far removed from contemporary Quaker practice. It does though tend to reinforce the notion that mystics are men and women who have set themselves apart from others – as hermits, or the desert abbas and ammas, or monastics. Mysticism is thus perceived as an individual searching for inner knowing, rather than a collective or communal approach to living. In this respect, I’m struck by Rohr’s notion that Contemplation and Action are the two necessary opposites of the same coin: the true response to any action is a time of contemplation (and not an intemperate reaction); and right action can only arise from inner contemplation. Again, I feel this is close to our sense of discernment as a way of seeking right action and response.

Long before religious and sacred texts were written, our ancestors around the world referred to Natural World for guidance and teaching. They studied the patterns of the daily, seasonal and annual cycles, as well as the movements of the planetary constellations and the natural phenomena all around them. Nature - Creation - can be referred to as the 'First Bible'. To this day, we appreciate the soothing, reflective and inspirational benefits of being out in Nature, whether that be by water, amongst mountains, or in the woods. When we take time to observe and listen, Nature speaks to a deeper, interior self within each of us.

What we observe today is a natural world that is increasingly disturbed: more storms, greater flooding, rising air and sea temperatures, spreading deserts, melting polar icecaps and glaciers.

And, at the same time, we are experiencing greater social, political and economic disruption than we have known for several generations: increasing wealth inequality, intolerance of diversity, rising nationalism, populist votes, protectionism, unaccountable globalisation, fragmentation of states, more extremist political movements.

No matter which is the chicken or the egg, it is clear that the one is mirroring the other.

There are powerful pan-continental processes at work that are driving these disruptions:

  • A near-exponential growth in the global human population to 7.6 billion people today. That's more than 4 times greater than just 100 years ago.
  • A continuing loss of other plant and animal species around the world.
  • A headlong rush for the perceived benefits of materialism, consumerism, capitalism and communism
  • Continuing expansion in the rate of extraction and exploitation of the planet's finite resources (minerals, rocks, oils, gases), and including the rapid burning of all forms of fossil fuels.
  • The continuing deforestation of indigenous forests and jungles for both mineral extraction and farming.
  • The over-production of large area of commercial land leading to land degradation and desertification.
  • The rapid growth in pollution and despoilation - of the land, the seas and the atmosphere - with slow-degrading, toxic or irradiated materials
  • The attempts by some research bodies to 'engineer out' those aspects of natural diversity that are perceived to be 'unwanted'.

These and other factors result in the social, political and natural worlds that we witness around us every day - a planet showing clear evidence of disturbance on many levels.

As the dominant species on Planet Earth, it is not hard to see the consequences. We can see them on our TV screens each night. The mass migration of peoples moving away from war, violence, hunger, ethnic cleansing, poverty, persecution, and disease - in search of a 'better life'. The fight for land between those who control land and resources, and those who want at least some for themselves. Outbreaks of war and violence, not just between countries, but between tribes, ideologies, ethnic groups, and those of different wealth. The building of physical and legal barriers in the name of 'defending' states but which actually seek to 'protect' and enshrine the advantages of those who are creating them.

The disturbances of Nature occur on a macro scale. They are already in train. There is almost nothing that we can do - as individuals, groups or states - to exert any control over them. Nature - Creation - is, as all faith doctrines have argued, something great and mysterious that is beyond our comprehension.

The disturbances of our social, political and economic realms begin on a micro scale. They arise in very understandable human responses - fear, greed, self-preservation, competition, survival, hoarding - until they aggregate into the mass movements outlined already.

Across both these mirrored contexts, there is a consistent pattern of change:


All Ordered system break down. We know this as entropy. A phase of Disorder begins, often experience as great uncertainty or chaos. And eventually, some new structures emerge as a Re-Order of the world.

In Nature, we witness this every time a forest burns, a volcano erupts, a hurricane or tsunami hits, or a star burns up.

In our social and political history, we have witnessed this in periodic revolutions, uprisings, and economic/industrial advances.

In reflecting on these recurring patterns of disorder, disturbance and disruption, I have been repeatedly reminded of the classic archetype for all such waves - Noah's Flood, or the Great Flood. Whether this event is historical or mythological doesn't matter: it occurs in the sacred writings of all three Abrahamic Traditions, and similar stories can be found in other faith texts. The teaching is consistent: there comes a time when the existing order of things becomes so dysfunctional that nothing short of wholesale change will suffice to reset the underlying systems. Noah's Flood is based on a Nature example. In our own human history, we have recorded momentous disturbances and disruption in events that we have labelled as the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and many others.

Whilst we all tend to experience our individual fear in this present time of great uncertainty and disturbance, and seek our own survival strategies, we can also gain strength and learn from the mirroring processes of Nature and Creation. Disorder tends to feed upon itself until a re-ordered path emerges.

Taking a lead from Nature, I find myself wondering whether the epoch we're moving into might come to be called the Environmental Revolution.