May 21st, 2009 by Bill
‘I Contain Multitudes’
Last week the tabloids went to town on the case of a Catholic priest who had been tricked into revealing details of his homosexuality to a journalist. Pictures of the priest in his underpants appeared in the press midweek, and the poor man has had to take temporary leave of absence, but it is doubtful that he will ever be able to return to the parish that he has served so well for so many years. ‘I’m so ashamed says gay priest’, runs the headline in the Irish Daily Mail, and inside there is the regulation stuff about homosexuals in the clergy, and the Catholic Church’s celibacy laws, plus conflicting views about whether a man who has broken his vows is fit to minister. All perfectly predictable, of course, but the debate was given an added dimension because this man (whom I refuse to name) had been an exemplary pastor, much loved by his people, who, in a high profile incident four years ago, had been a source of comfort and solace to a young family who lost a child in tragic circumstances.
The Irish Daily Mail tried to be fair – in so far as devoting the front page and two inside pages to a case like this in which no laws have been broken can ever be considered fair – by printing an article by Roslyn Dee with the headline ‘This man needs sympathy not sanctimony’ to balance the ‘I’m sorry but his actions are sinful’ rant by Hermann Kelly. But the intention of this kind of journalism is always to leave us shaking our heads as we pose the question, ‘Can a man with unusual sexual tastes be a caring and effective counsellor and friend? Can a sinner be a good priest?’ ‘Is he this, or is he that?’ The answer is, he’s both, and a good deal besides. He’s a complicated, flawed human being, neither blue nor yellow, but green, just like you and me, just like the Sun journalist who ‘exposed’ him and who now can, presumably, sleep comfortably in his bed, secure in the knowledge that he has protected the community from yet another sex fiend, while at the same time banking a sizeable cheque from his editor.
How we long to sum someone up in a sentence or two, or even a word or two. But the fact is that we can’t really give a comprehensive definition of anybody. All of us, celebrity and nonentity alike, are a complex mixture of contradictory features. Mother Theresa, champion of the poor, supped with oppressive dictators; Gandhi, dedicated to celibacy, slept with young women ‘to test his resolve’; Dickens, whose works relentlessly attack cruelty and injustice, treated his first wife abominably; Hitler, the 20th century’s most reviled man, was a vegetarian and would weep at the music of Wagner; Martin Luther King, a contemporary saint and martyr, found it difficult to keep his trousers buttoned, as did the influential theologian Paul Tillich. When I spoke on this topic before – at the beginning of 2004 – the previous day’s paper, rather coincidentally, furnished two more examples: an article about Ronnie Biggs, the great train robber, written by his son, entitled, ‘My Beloved Father, the Train Robber’, and a review of a biography of Carl Jung, which appeared under the headline, ‘A Man in Two Minds’, told us that he was ‘never quite sure which of the two versions of himself he was most impressed by, the inspired, tormented eccentric, or the respectable, assured, bourgeois professional’. Jung, undoubtedly one of the most remarkable spiritual writers of modern times, was called by Freud ‘a snob and a mystic’ and Freud was right on both counts. Jung’s lifelong quest for God did not eliminate his equally lifelong obsession with glamorous cars.
Tolstoy, whose novels delineate human motivation with unparalleled sensitivity, was, we are told, quite indifferent to his wife and family, and Tolstoy himself expresses this paradoxical quality of the human being in his last novel, Resurrection:
One of the most widespread superstitions is that every person has his or her own special definite qualities: that he or she is kind, cruel, wise, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic, or the reverse, but it would not be true to say of one man that he is kind and wise, and another that he is bad and stupid. And yet we always classify people in this way. And this is false……..Every person bears within him or herself the germs of every human quality, but sometimes one quality manifests itself, sometimes another, and the person often becomes unlike him or herself, while still remaining the same person.
To be human is to be complex and inconsistent, and one would expect that the spiritual writers of the past should be alert to such a conspicuous – and troublesome – feature of our nature. And so they are. Mark’s Gospel deals with it in the third section, what I have called the Gemini section, which would have been read and discussed at this time of the year, when the sun has entered the sign of Gemini. Gemini is the Twins, the first of those signs which modern astrologers call ‘Mutable’ – changeable – but which the ancient Greek writers called ‘two-bodied’. These signs – Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces – come in between the four seasons of the year and so each of them bears the qualities of two states of weather. Gemini comes between spring and summer, and has characteristics of both. Its symbol is the twin poles, joined at top and bottom, expressing the duality of the season and, according to the old theory, the duality inherent in all of us, but especially in those who are born at this time of the year.
The two stars of the constellation Gemini are Castor and Pollux which, in mythology were said to be the protectors of sailors. Homer wrote a poem to the ‘great twin brethren’, who, he said, would swiftly come to the aid of sailors in distress, lulling the storm and enabling the mariners to ‘plough the quiet sea in safe delight’. Now we can understand why Mark introduces this third section of his Gospel with the story of the Calming of the Storm. But this is not the story I want to concentrate on today (I’ll be dealing with it next week). Today I’m more interested in the episode which follows it, the story of the man possessed by 2000 demons, which I read earlier, since this deals with the idea of human inconsistency in a particularly vivid way.
This man, often referred to as the Gerasene Demoniac, had been living among the tombs, and no one could bind him or restrain him. ‘What is your name?’ asks Jesus. The man’s reply is strange: ‘My name is Legion, for we are many,’ he says. Jesus casts out the demons, sending them into two thousand pigs which go hurtling down the steep bank and drown in the lake.
This incident with the pigs always used to trouble me, especially in former times when I believed that the Gospels were history of a sort; the story would probably vex animal rights activists even now. But I no longer waste my energies asking mundane practical questions of spiritual stories. The story has no historical basis, but it does have a psychological one: this man with the demons is you and I. Each of us has a number of warring elements within our psyche, and the pig, which, according to the Book of Leviticus (chapter 11 verse 7) is unclean to Jews because it has a split hoof, completely divided, symbolises this fragmentation; the division of the pig’s foot mirrors the multiple divisions in the human mind.
With the benefits of modern psychiatric knowledge, we cannot fail to see in the man with the two thousand demons an example of that most Geminian of conditions, schizophrenia, or split‑personality. In fact, the term ‘multiple‑personality’ would be a better description. This is an actual mental disorder, but we do not need to restrict the use of the term to describe those in whom the symptoms manifest so dramatically. We are all ‘split‑personalities’, since, as Aldous Huxley tells us, the complex human personality is made up of ‘a quite astonishingly improbable combination of traits’. He goes on:
Thus a man can be at once the craftiest of politicians and the dupe of his own verbiage, can have a passion, for brandy and money, and an equal passion for the poetry of George Meredith and under-age girls and his mother, for horse-racing and detective stories and the good of his country – the whole accompanied by a sneaking fear of hell-fire, a hatred of Spinoza and an unblemished record for Sunday church-going. (Huxley, page 48).
The character and career of British publisher Robert Maxwell (born 10th June, 1923) provide a spectacular example of this. Following his death in November 1991, The Guardian newspaper printed an assessment of the man by British journalist Geoffrey Goodman. Goodman asked how it had been possible for Maxwell to fool so many people for so long. He continues:
My own theory from observations of the man at close quarters during the year and a half I worked for him at the Daily Mirror is that he was at all times at least 20 different people at once. It was usually impossible to know which one I was dealing with at any one moment ‑ and I later came to the conclusion that he wasn’t sure either. The 20 different personalities were in constant struggle with each other….. (Dec 6th 1991, page 21)
The practitioners of Assagioli’s system of personality integration, Psychosynthesis, often refer to the crowd‑like nature of the human psyche. And Geminian Salman Rushdie (born 19th June, 1947), writes:
O, the dissociations of which the human mind is capable, marvelled Saladin gloomily. O, the conflicting selves jostling and joggling within these bags of skin. No wonder we are unable to remain focused on anything for long; no wonder we invent remote-control channel-hopping devices. If we turned these instruments on ourselves we’d discover more channels than a cable or satellite mogul ever dreamed of. (Satanic Verses, page 519).
Peter Ouspensky, who was a disciple of the Russian mystic Gurdieff, likens the ordinary human being – you and me – to a house full of servants without a master or a steward to look after them. ‘So, the servants do what they like; none of them does his own work. The house is in a state of complete chaos, because all the servants try to do someone else’s work which they are not competent to do. The cook works in the stables, the coachman in the kitchen, and so on. The only possibility for things to improve is if a certain number of servants decide to elect one of themselves as a deputy steward and in this way make him control the other servants. He can do only one thing: he puts each servant where he belongs and so they begin to do their right work.’ This, says Ouspensky, is the beginning of the creation of a ‘controlling I’; until that time we are a great many disconnected I’s, divided into certain groups, some of which don’t even know each other.
Walt Whitman (born May 29th) puts it more succinctly than all of them:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We can all say, ‘My name is Legion’ with the demon-possessed man, or ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ with Walt Whitman. ‘When a man lacks discrimination, his will wanders in all directions, after innumerable aims,’ says the Hindu classic The Bhagavad Gita. But the spiritual writers do not stop at mere observation; the object of all spiritual practice, whatever the tradition, is the transformation of Legion into Union, the reduction of the many to the one, the fashioning of singularity and simplicity from duality and complexity. This difficult movement towards simplicity, and not the pleasant cultivation of ‘nice feelings’ is what, in large part, any genuine spiritual practice attempts to effect. Aldous Huxley maintains that the saint is characterised by simplicity and singularity of purpose, qualities which are completely at odds with the lifestyle and appetites of sophisticated and mentally active people like ourselves, who constantly seek novelty, diversity, and distraction. The actions of the saints, says Huxley, ‘are as monotonously uniform as their thoughts; for in all circumstances they behave selflessly, patiently, and with indefatigable charity’. Their biographies, he goes on, are of no interest to us because ‘Legion prefers to read about Legion’; complexity and contradiction fascinate us; simplicity leaves us unmoved. (The Perennial Philosophy, page 55)
Becoming ‘simple’, or becoming saintly, requires effort, and it may well be that, for most of us, it is an unappealing prospect. I seem to be quite content in my diversity, so I cannot recommend that you take inordinate steps to reduce your own. I’m not ready to cast out my demons, so maybe I’m not ready for sainthood yet! (It is important to point out, I think, that we need to control our diverse elements, not destroy them.) But Ouspensky, who devised a complicated system specially designed to bring about a psychic unity, tells us that the first stage on the way to transformation is the realisation of one’s own fragmentation, and the acceptance of it as a reality, and this can only come with constant self-observation. I am certainly prepared to do this. Learn to become aware of your own inconsistency, your own automatic reactions to circumstances, because each time we make ourselves aware of these things, says Ouspensky, their hold upon us is weakened. We may not wish to go further than observation, but this is probably enough to make a significant difference to our self-understanding, and it will certainly help to check our tendency to make simplistic, partial, unkind, and hypocritical judgements about the behaviour of others.
27th May 2007
Gemini 2: Waking Up
The story I wanted to tell the children this morning is the story of the world’s politest man. It’s the very first story in my book The Shortest Distance, and so I thought that they – and you – would all be familiar with it. But for those who aren’t, or who have forgotten, let me refresh your memory.
It takes place in the City of Fools, where a lecture is to be delivered by the politest man in the world. He is to talk about the importance of politeness, the development of etiquette, and how he gained the prestigious title of The World’s Politest Man.
Some citizens of the City of Fools are taking the morning air when they spot a stranger sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper. ‘I’ll bet that’s him,’ says one citizen to his companion. ‘I’ll bet that’s the politest man in the world, the man who is going to give a lecture tonight. I think I’ll go and ask him.’ He goes up to the man and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, but are you the politest man in the world, the one who is going to give us a talk on the importance of politeness?’
The stranger looks up from his newspaper and says, ‘How dare you interrupt me when I’m quietly reading? Why are you bothering me with your impertinent questions? If you don’t get out of my sight this minute I’ll punch you on the nose, you ignorant oaf!’
The citizen leaves as instructed and returns to his friend who asks, ‘Well, was he the politest man in the world?’
‘I don’t know, he didn’t say.’
This story comes from the Sufis – Islam’s mystics – and, like so many Sufi stories, it seems like a joke. But it makes an extremely serious point – as does the story of Shaydoola, which I actually did tell the children. The City of Fools is everywhere. It’s where human beings live. And we are fools because we can’t read the signs. We are oblivious to the very simple and obvious messages that are presented to us daily, but we are so immersed in the irrelevant minutiae of life that we constantly miss them. It’s as though we are half asleep.
In fact, one of the clearest and most emphasised teachings of the world’s spiritual traditions is precisely this: we are asleep. Even the busiest and most energetic among us is walking in his sleep; indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of the spiritual life, that those who seem to be the most active are often the sleepiest of all. Expressions like, ‘24/7’, ‘work hard, play hard’, ‘burning the candle at both ends’ – expressions which one may be encouraged to use in a job interview just to impress potential employers – are clear indicators of people who are asleep. Another sure sign is the human being’s apparent willingness to surrender control of his or her life and thought to inherited and largely unexamined belief systems – secular and religious – which ensures that we think, act, speak, and aspire within narrow, culturally sanctioned parameters.
It’s also emphatically taught by our spiritual mentors that unless we do something about our sleepiness we’ll never even begin to sort out our problems. This is what distinguishes the spiritual approach to life from the purely secular, political one. The political and economic solutions to human problems from right and left suggest that by increasing our gross national product, redistributing wealth, making serious noises about peace, increasing education, making life more comfortable, we will contribute substantially to the sum of human happiness. The ambiguous results of that approach are everywhere in evidence around us. There is as much war as there has ever been. Slavery, outlawed by Britain 200 years ago, is as prevalent now as it was in days gone by; we may have got rid of child labour and sweatshops in the developed West, but we’ve simply removed them to China and India where they no longer offend our delicate sensibilities. Prosperity brings its own problems, as does peace. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in one of those short scenes which we tend to ignore, two minor characters – ‘Servingmen’ – are discussing the relative merits of war and peace. One says, ‘Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s sprightly, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible…..’ ‘Aye, and it makes men hate one another,’ says a second. And why, ‘Because they then less need one another,’ says a third. Why are there wars? These minor characters in Shakespeare know very well that it’s because in some way, deep down, in our unawakened state, we actually like them.
Happiness has not kept pace with material advances in the developed world – recent surveys suggest that British people are no happier now than they were in the fifties, and the 31 million prescriptions for antidepressants issued in Britain in 2006 would seem to support this conclusion. Why are these things so? Because economic and political agendas are, according to the human race’s spiritual teachers, merely cosmetic attempts to solve a much more radical problem. And the radical problem is that the vast majority of the human race is asleep, lulled into slumber by numerous cultural soporifics which effortlessly seem to discourage us from behaving, thinking, or speaking with any measure of depth or originality. To quote the Hindu sage Krishnamurti, many of our earnest political efforts are ineffective simply because they are devoted to ‘decorating the prison walls’. Jesus puts it simply, too. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God,’ he says, ‘and everything else will be given to you.’ And where or what is the kingdom of God? Well, it’s certainly not some imaginary economic utopia brought into existence by a political saviour, either divine or human. It’s the awakened, enlightened state. When we reach it – or when a significant number of people reach it – our political and economic problems will take care of themselves.
‘Awakening’ is central to all forms of Buddhism, which postulates that each of us has a Buddha nature, buried deep within, which needs to be aroused. Buddhists tell the story of how the Buddha himself was questioned by some seekers after truth:
‘Are you a god,’ they asked him.
‘No, I am not a god,’ he replied
‘Are you an angel, then?’
‘I am not an angel.’
‘Well, what are you which makes you so different from the rest of us?
‘I am awake.’
The word ‘Buddha’ simply means, ‘one who is awake’. Buddha-hood is a state of consciousness potentially attainable by us all. Gautama – the one we call ‘The Buddha’ is just one of many who have attained this exalted state.
Henry David Thoreau expresses this need for awakening in less overtly religious terms in his book Walden:
Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep………. The millions are awake enough for physical labour, but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.’
The Christian stories also warn us of the dangers of sleep. Two stories in this third section of Mark’s Gospel – what I call the Gemini section – are concerned with awakening. Why should they occur here? One reason is that Gemini represents the lively, butterfly mind of the intellectually curious and the perennially busy; people who are strongly Geminian are constantly active, nervously restless, betraying that very busy-ness which is often a counterfeit of genuine alertness; the externally hectic life is frequently a sign of interior turmoil. In addition, as we said last week, Gemini is associated with lack of focus, fragmentation, splitting within the psyche, from which we are all in differing measure suffering, but of which most of us are blissfully unaware.
The first of the Gospel’s ‘sleep’ stories occurs right at the beginning of the section, at the end of chapter four. It’s the account of the Stilling of the Storm. The Geminian elements within this story are so numerous that I won’t even try to list them – you’ll have to wait until September to read my book! Suffice it to say that the twin stars of the constellation Gemini were considered the patrons of seafarers in the ancient world, and mariners would pray to these gods when they were in distress. Mark is capitalising upon his reader’s ability to make this connection; but, of course, he is doing more than this. He is showing how………well……….think about it for yourself. You don’t need me to spell it out for you! Ask yourself, who or what is the ‘master’ who is sleeping in the stern of the boat? Is it the historical Jesus of 2000 years ago? Is it the heavenly Jesus of much Christian preaching today? Or is it a power which lies deep within your own psyche which can be roused and which can help to calm your own life’s turbulence?
The second story is the story of Jairus’ Daughter, which I read earlier. The first thing to notice about this story is the strange way in which it is told: it is the only miracle story in the Gospels which is broken into by another miracle story, the story of the Woman with the Flow of Blood. Two stories told together, a clear indication of Gemini. Mark (or whatever he or she was called) was so clever! This Gospel, which is almost universally considered to be the least sophisticated of the four Gospels, is actually a masterpiece of construction.
However, more pertinent to our present purposes, the story introduces us to Jairus, whose name means ‘Jehovah Enlightens’. This should make us think. Names are never accidental in Mark; whenever someone is given a proper name, it is significant, as we shall see on other occasions. Jairus is the ‘ruler of the synagogue’, so he is an important figure within he Jewish community, and his daughter is moribund. Indeed, as the story proceeds, we learn that she is dead. But Jesus goes into the girl’s room, takes her by the hand, and says, ‘Talitha Koumi’, an Aramaic phrase which means, ‘Little girl, I’m telling you to wake up!’ The girl duly awakes, and Jesus tells her parents to give her something to eat.
This story is conventionally interpreted as yet another miracle story, another incident which demonstrates the amazing power of Jesus, but such an interpretation generates numerous problems, especially in these sceptical times. But what is a problem to the intellect is a delight to the imagination. Let your imagination play with the story and what does it yield? Mine yields this: the daughter of the synagogue ruler is dying, maybe she’s dead already. Judaism, represented by Jairus, is in danger of losing its soul, its ‘feminine’, intuitive side. It is controlled by ‘masculine’ laws, rules, and regulations which are strangling the life out of it. The feminine needs to be revived, and needs to be fed if Judaism is to be a source of spiritual nurture to the people. Jesus uses the Aramaic phrase ‘Talitha koumi’, not as some have sentimentally proposed because Peter or some other figure was remembering the actual words of Jesus, but because the author of the Gospel wants to emphasise them. What he’s saying is, ‘I’m putting these words in a different language to draw your attention to them. This message is to everyone: ‘Wake up!’” As we shall see, Mark does the same thing in the next section of the Gospel.
When we awake, what then? Ralph Waldo Emerson says, ‘When the torpid heart awakes it will revolutionise the world….(it) will give new senses, new wisdom of its own kind; that is, not more facts, nor new combinations, but….direct intuition of men and things.’ Awakening the ‘torpid heart’ – not filling our heads with metaphysical gunk – is the function of all true religion. We are here to help one another to wake up.
Waking up the feminine, intuitive, poetic side of the psyche, the side that has been dormant for so long, which has been outlawed and suppressed for so long, is the urgent religious task of our time, as it was the urgent task of Jesus’ time. When we rouse it from slumber we will gain a comprehensive, rounded and complete response to life. It will transform the City of Fools into the City of God.
June 2nd, 2007
Gemini 3: How do we wake up?
Last Sunday I was speaking about the story of Jairus’ daughter in the Gospel of Mark, and I said it should be understood as an exhortation to us to ‘wake up’, to cast off the slumber induced by habit and respond to life in a new way. I said that this was the consistent testimony of all the spiritual traditions, and that ‘waking up’ was the primary objective of the spiritual life. Naturally, such statements prompt the question, ‘Well, what is the awakened state, and how exactly do we reach it?’ – the very questions I was asked over coffee by Annie, and so important are these questions that I have decided to postpone the topic originally announced for today’s sermon – Stories and Truth – and to address the practical issues involved in the process of waking up.
I’ve dealt with this topic before, on numerous occasions, and those of you who have been attending for some time will be familiar with what I am going to say, but this is so important a topic that a little bit of recapitulation will not go amiss. We can all do with a little gentle reminding about something so central to spiritual living.
Five years ago today I was in hospital in Leeds. I had been diagnosed with cancer of the kidney, and so extensive was the cancer that the doctors in Tallaght hospital thought that an operation would be pointless. I was given just over a year to live, but it was thought that immunotherapy just might work (there was a 1 in 10 chance) and so I found myself in St. James’ hospital in Leeds on the weekend of my birthday, preparing to receive this relatively new treatment. I remember asking the nurses on the evening of the 10th June if it would be okay for me to go for a few pints to the pub across the road because, I said, this might be the last birthday I ever celebrate.
It’s strange to be told that you are going to die quite soon. It doesn’t quite register in the way that you think it will when you are well. There is dreadful sadness at the prospect of leaving the people you love, of course, and those expected feelings of regret for lost opportunities, but something else occurs, something perhaps that one doesn’t quite expect. How do you think you would respond?
This was a question that was posed in the summer of 1922 by a Parisian newspaper, which invited its readers to consider how they would react to the news that some great cataclysm was about to destroy the world.
The responses to the question were just as one might suppose. One man said that the news of impending calamity would drive people either into the nearest bedroom or the nearest church; a woman correspondent thought that people would lose all their inhibitions once their actions had ceased to carry long-term consequences; and a third person declared his intention to devote his final hours to game of bridge, tennis, or golf.
All very predictable, and some variation on these conventional responses I would have given myself before I was told of my impending death. But, in the event, I responded quite differently and quite surprisingly. In fact, I responded pretty much as Marcel Proust had predicted in his reply to the newspaper’s question. This is part of what he wrote:
‘I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it – our life – hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly………But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! The cataclysm doesn’t happen, (and) we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.’
(How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alan de Botton, page 5)
‘Life would suddenly seem wonderful…..how beautiful it would become again!’ This exactly mirrors my experience. Watching the sunrise, experiencing the intense colours of the flowers – as if for the first time –, talking with friends, standing on the pier at Whitby with Morag, listening to the birds, all of these things and countless more took on an incredible freshness. The commonplace became thrilling; dross was transformed into gold; a new mind was born within me, a new aliveness which was overwhelmed by the beauty, the strangeness, and the mystery of even the most ordinary sight, the most humdrum experience. This is the paradox of grief: as we feel our own life – or the life of one who is close to us – ebbing away, we become aware of life’s depth and its delights with a new intensity. This is why the Sufi mystic Jelaladin Rumi says that ‘grief is a gift’. He doesn’t mean that grief is pleasant, or even that it is to be desired; he means that it inevitably sharpens our perceptions, breaks the deadening power of habitual thought and action, and brings us to a new level of awareness.
It is this new level of awareness that the spiritual life calls us to nurture, without having to rely on tragedy or grief to confer it briefly. This is ‘the awakened life’, ‘the resurrected life’, ‘eternal life’, ‘the kingdom of God’, ‘abundant life’, as opposed to the dreary, sleepy, and unsatisfying life that most of us lead most of the time; lives, in the words of Thoreau, of ‘quiet desperation’. Life is not – or should not be – as some have suggested, cynically, a long process of dying; it is, rather, a long process of becoming awake.
We may never reach this state. Some suggest that it takes many lifetimes to reach it. Some people think that we can only reach it by arduous spiritual practice necessitating withdrawal from the world into some sort of monastery, and the renunciation of normal human activity – frugality in diet, celibacy, hours and hours of prayer and meditation. If this is the case then it is foreclosed to all of us here. But the Sufis, and others, tell us that this state is not beyond the reach of the ordinary person pursuing the normal activities of life. We don’t need to change our life circumstances too radically; we just need to change our attitude to our life circumstances.
There are numerous ways of doing this, and, as I said last week, a significant part of why we come to this church is so that we can teach each other how to do it. One way is to make a conscious effort to break the habit patterns which blunt our perceptions. After all, it was sheer habit which caused the man to throw the magic pebble into the sea. ‘Habit,’ says Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, ‘is a great deadener’. A contemporary Buddhist says that we should try to do some of the following:
Look at the stars
Listen to the rain
When in company act as if alone
When alone act as if in company
Spend one day without speaking
Spend one hour with eyes closed
With eyes closed, have someone you are close to take you on a walk
Think of something to say to someone particular. Next time you see them, don’t say it.
Go somewhere particular to do something. When you get there, don’t do it.
Upon awakening, immediately get up
Get dressed to go somewhere, then don’t go
Just go out immediately, as you are, anywhere
Do what comes next
Walk on! (Pebbles on the Road, by Stephen Cassettari
Here are three more things we can all do which will take us a little further on the road towards awakening.
The distinguishing characteristic of the awakened life is that it is a grateful life. The awakened person is one who readily gives thanks, who appreciates the giftedness of life, whatever its circumstances, whatever its vicissitudes. But we live in a culture of comparison, and instead of expressing thanks for the incredible gift of life, we spend our time lamenting that we are not taller, richer, thinner, younger, more intelligent than we are, blighting our experience with envy and dissatisfaction, and fomenting all manner of personal conflict and communal strife. Learning to appreciate what you have and what you are is the foundation upon which the spiritual life is built. Stop worrying about the deal the other person is getting. God has been gracious to you; accept the gift and resist the petulant response of the spoiled child who is constantly complaining that his sister has received a bigger slice of the pie. Your day should begin and end with a moment of thanksgiving. Immediately upon waking I say the first line of E.E. Cummings’ ode to spring: ‘I thank you God for most this amazing day!’ and I end the day with these lines from G.K. Chesterton:
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands,
And the great world about me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
The awakened life is also a reflective life. Thoreau advises that part of our reflection should involve just ‘sauntering’. How strange that a word associated with purposeless meandering should be employed to describe a positive spiritual practice! But ‘sauntering’ comes from the French ‘Sainte Terre’, Holy Land, and ‘saunterers’ was a name applied to certain people in the Middle Ages who would beg money to take them to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. Whether they ever got there, or whether they even intended to go, is doubtful, but, says Thoreau, we must go there. Every day we must be ‘saunterers’, headed for the Holy Land, in a daily walk, in the countryside if possible, and free from the distractions of the personal stereo and the desire simply to stretch our legs. This is not entertainment, or passive relaxation, or exercise, but a conscious, determined, and deliberate attempt to become aware of the sights and sounds of the world which is full of the life of God, but which we are ordinarily too busy to imbibe. Some time, too, should be spent in quiet contemplation. This does not mean drifting into reverie; still less does it mean thinking about our problems or trying to puzzle out the meaning of existence. It simply means striving to be aware, learning to pay attention.
Thoreau says that he was for many years a self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and he did his duty faithfully. What can you appoint yourself an inspector of?
One of the problems of the contemporary busy world is that we don’t take our silence seriously. It embarrasses us. Radio and television dominate our lives, and we don’t know what to do with quiet. Anne Morrow Lindbergh says that even those of us who practise some form of silent contemplation don’t take it seriously enough to make it sacrosanct. ‘If one sets aside time for a business engagement, a trip to the hairdresser, a social engagement, or a shopping trip, that time is accepted as inviolable. But if one says, “I cannot come because that is my time to be alone”, one is considered rude, egotistical or strange. What a commentary on our civilisation, when being alone is considered suspect; when one has to apologise for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it – like a secret vice.’ Honour the quiet time is good advice for one who wishes to awake.
The awakened life is also a compassionate, generous life. I’ll have more to say on this when we look at the next section of Mark’s Gospel, but it is important to mention it in passing here because every day we should make an opportunity to behave in a way which expresses our concern for others. This does not mean interfering in peoples’ lives like some busybody, and it is best done anonymously anyway. Each day try to do something for which you cannot possibly be rewarded, even if this means picking up some litter from the street and putting it in the bin, smiling at babies, saying ‘thank you’ to shopkeepers, giving money to those in need. These are ways in which we can flex our social muscles, make ourselves more aware of those who share the joys and sufferings of life with us.
Finally, and above all, the awakened life is a joyful life; not always happy. One doesn’t have to go around with a ridiculous beaming smile all day, pretending to be free from problems, but gratitude, reflection, and generosity work a silent magic on our psyche and enable us to cope with life’s vicissitudes, and to radiate a sense of peacefulness and calm which can have extremely positive effects on those around us.
I can’t promise you that doing these things will bring you to a state of nirvana, but I can confidently assert that practising these simple things faithfully will raise your level of awareness, and will have a dramatic effect on the way you live your life.
10th June 2007