"from you I receive
to you I give
together we share
for this we live"
There is no escaping the fact that since we are born we live in the world of our own mind and this mind of ours is caught in a net called the spirit of our time. The spirit of the time is our context; we do not choose it and we cannot escape from it. We can think of it as our birthright or our cross. The only choice we really have is how to live and how to cope with it.
The spirit of the time is dynamic; it changes and we change with it. As an illustration, let's take a look at an example that we are all familiar with and is very much in the foreground of our collective mind. It is said that the 11th of September 2001 heralded the dawn of a new epoch; a new age with a new message. I believe that this assessment is quite plausible and I am sure that whatever the message is it must be multi-faceted, multi-layered, multi-dimensional and will take time to unravel. The shock of the genocidal events that took place on that day have had a profound effect on the psyche and the life of each one of us. The tectonic plates that hold our world have been deeply shaken and have moved into a new position. The first person to announce publicly this shift was the president of the United States. You may remember that it took Mr Bush two full days before he could find the right words with which to address the media. When he spoke, what he said was quite simple and straightforward; he told us that the world was at war and that this was not a conventional war like the ones we had known before; it was a new type of war, an insidious one, a war without a named enemy; this new war was a war between fear and freedom. If this is the case, I can tell Mr Bush that we are all soldiers fighting this war because in one way or another we are all engaged in the arduous task of mastering and overcoming our fear of freedom. Freedom is always beckoning but it is up to us to find the necessary courage to jump through the hoops of our own nightmares.
In my opinion 9/11 is a sign, something that concretely and in a very painful way demonstrates the undeniable fact that we are now living in an interconnected world. What these shocking events have done is to wake us up a little by shaking us out of our anaesthetized complacency and releasing into public awareness, currents of energy that lay dormant and ignored under the surface. As these events are changing the world, they are also changing us, bringing up new emotions, expanding our imagination, altering our sense of identity and forcing us to redefine how we see ourselves and who we think we are.
If Cain was alive today, living within the spirit of this time, I am sure he would have hesitated and thought very deeply before giving his cavalier answer. "Am I my brother's keeper?" is no longer good enough because now is different; we have all discovered that we ignore our brother at our peril. Our brother is not just our next door neighbor, it is also the world that in its discomfort is crying out for our understanding, our good will and our capacity for reparation. Light and darkness in the world are re-accommodating themselves, they are finding new positions and as this is taking place, all manner of things are coming up to the surface and being brought into question. A potential for healing of enormous proportions has been released and is now available to us.
This powerful process of transformation is taking place right now. We are in the middle of what some have called a major "paradigm shift" which essentially means that a new panorama is emerging. This new outlook will need to be sufficiently broad, flexible and dynamic so that it will be capable of embracing and containing our growing awareness.
Growing awareness has a price tag attached; it demands that we grow up in order to accommodate it. We are being forced to dive deeper into ourselves, drawing upon resources we never even knew were there. In the depths of our being lies a treasure chest full of potential; what potential we choose to pay attention to and develop is our choice. If one draws on love and compassion, I don't think one can go far wrong; these are healthy qualities that create harmony out of disharmony and are of fundamental importance in determining the quality of our inner life and the state of our world. Compassion is an expression of the energy of love and it manifests when the judging function of our mind stops. To locate this unexplored space in the A to Z of our psyche, we need to be re-trained and learn anew how to treat ourselves with kindness; compassion that does not extend to ourselves is incomplete. We all have foibles, character defects and imperfections in our make-up. How we deal with these shortcomings is an indication of the way we treat ourselves, and the way we treat ourselves is the determining factor in the general state of our mind and the way we treat others. It is a circular process. Compassion, like happiness, takes practice and is what the Buddhist would call a "skilful response" to life events. It never presents itself alone. It is always accompanied by other characteristics like love, kindness, humor, a sense of proportion, a certain lightness and a big dose of forgiveness. We have to be prepared to forgive before we can experience true compassion. One has to be prepared to look behind the world of appearances before one can realize the underlying interconnectedness of all things. On the surface we all tend to think of ourselves as discreet entities, though in reality, we are bound together by invisible threads of hidden interconnections. We are like leaves on a tree, the tree that the Kabbalists aptly call the "Tree of life".
Compassion is a deep quality of our heart. Its very nature is integrative and has the effect of bringing all our dispirited parts together; it emanates from a wholesome part of our being and reaches out to embrace and envelop the wholeness of any situation it touches. As it comes from the heart, it always addresses the heart of the matter bringing healing as its gift. Compassion is the only way I know to heal the world and to regain our sanity. That the world we live in is in a state of confusion is beyond doubt, it needs healing but if we ourselves think one thing, say another and feel yet another, we are sowing more confusion into the world. Doing the "right thing" for the wrong reasons has never been a solution to anything, we are just perpetuating the problem.
One of the most serious problems our world has to face is that there is a lot of short sighted selfishness, greed, envy, malice and violence around, which make a lot of trouble and cause a lot of pain. Love, compassion and forgiveness are powerful antidotes, potent medicine that bring healing to our distressed and divided world. I said before that the world we know is only a reflection in our minds. If we address this reflection with love and compassion, what we are effectively doing is nurturing our own self with these qualities. There is a natural law that says that "you reap what you sow". This is true in the physical world. We all know that if you sow wheat you will not harvest oranges. What we might not know is that this also holds true in the more subtle realms of the psychological world. The heart is like a garden, it can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love; we must choose wisely what seeds we will plant.
The inner world is where the "inner person" lives. This "invisible person" or "inner me" is the one that seems to live behind the skin and inside the body; it is the "is-ness of what I am", the "real me", whatever that means. In order for the inner person to develop and mature to its full potential it needs nourishment of the right variety. Like us, it needs care, it needs time, attention and kindness. In other words, it needs what Dr Winnicott used to call a "facilitating environment". If one aspires to live in a state of harmony, peace and freedom, the outer self will have to develop a good working relation with the inner self. This relation is a very delicate one, it cannot be hurried, it will unfold at its own pace and in its own way; in the meantime, all we need to do is to remain patient and good-natured, trusting the process and giving it plenty of space and time.
In the hectic pace of modern day living, it is easy to overlook the inner me and as a consequence, one can feel impatient and cut off from the source of ones being. The road of sanity leads straight to the land of wholeness. To be whole is a holy aspiration; it is the mother of all our other aspirations. "Being whole" is our deepest hope, so deep that we can only think about it in tiny whispers; because it feels so fragile, we are afraid that it is only an unattainable dream and many people dare not dream about the unattainable lest their hearts get broken and their hopes get shattered. However, full integration is an ideal we all share whether we like it or not. Whether we can ever achieve wholeness in our human life remains an open question. Some people will argue that full enlightenment is possible and they may present Krishna, Jesus or Buddha as examples. Others will argue against this view just as vehemently. Nobody really knows and in my opinion, this is not what is important. Wholeness is an ideal, the end of a continuum, and as long as we are heading in that direction, we can be certain of being on the right evolutionary track. The self is capable of being known only after vast perseverance. To mature, individuals need to change the superficial ideas they hold about the inner self. The psychotherapist, Dorothy Row, has something to say about this interesting process of changing ones ideas. She reminds us that "ninety nine per cent. of suffering isn't caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, it is caused by the ideas we hold. And if we believe that these ideas are absolute truths, then we suffer and we force other people to suffer. But if we understand that our ideas are ideas that we have created, then we know we are free to change them.".
It is surprising how strongly we resist doing this, how easily and how often we undermine and boycott our deepest and most tender human hopes. Society doesn't help much in this regard. For example, I spent all my life living in big cities. I have observed over years an acceleration in the speed of daily living, an increase in the franticness of pace and an alarming rise in the levels of stress and emotional disfunctionality among the general population. I refuse to believe that we would be facing a 40% rate of divorce, so much child abuse, so much road rage and so much violence if people lived in peace and harmony within themselves. But the demands of modern day living are blind and relentless, they don't seem to notice all the distress and they continue to draw people further away from themselves, thus aggravating a condition that Karl Marx used to call "alienation" which effectively means that little by little a person becomes estranged from his or her own "central" self and starts forgetting who he or she truly is. It is easy to mislay oneself when one is too busy keeping up with the Jones'.
By changing the ideas one holds about oneself, one is changing the organization of the mind. This is what psychotherapy is about. Psychotherapists are highly specialized "soul doctors"; they spend their years engaged in a deep dialogue with the inner self of their patients and in so doing, they are facilitating the development of an inner relation of the "healthy-variety", which means a relationship that is fulfilling and harmonious and which is based on knowledge and trust.
We must realise that the inner self is our ever faithful life force; it has been from the very beginning, long before we can remember. It was from the moment we were tiny embryos swimming in the sea of our mother's womb and when we were young infants who didn't even know that we were "a me", it is now and will remain at least until we pass away. Our self is ageless, it lives in the "ever-present-now", it contains all the ages of our past and all of our potential future. It carries the accumulated effects of all the things we have ever experienced and the imprints of all the things we ever thought and felt throughout our life.
"Man know thyself", "An unexplored life is not worth living", "To thine own self be true" and "The kingdom of heaven lies within" are statements from the accumulated wisdom of mankind that indicate the necessity for a refocusing of priorities and a change of direction. We need to become interested in "the central self", our always present, long suffering and much neglected core. For me to know me, means to know my core. If I do not know my core, I do not know me. I will still be me, but I wont know myself, I will be acting and reacting from the surface of my being and my capacity for reflection and inner growth will suffer as a consequence.
As long as we live from the "outside-in", we aggravate the plight of the inner self; it remains in a secondary and subservient position. As long as we are more concerned with what we get than with who we are, we are perpetuating a chronic unwholesome state of affairs and compounding our problem. I rejoice with every human birth because I see it as a wonderful opportunity for "de crazification". Whether we can achieve this high goal and manage to fulfil this lofty human potential will depend on us, on how we choose to use our life-energy. We are constrained by our fate but we are also endowed with free will and once nature gives birth to us, life becomes our responsibility. The wise thing to do is to try to make it so that it is good and to remember that whatever we have done, whatever we do and whatever we will do, we do not only to others but also to the inner me, our "karma bearer".
There is a wise Jewish mind bender that expresses this rather eloquently:
"If I am I because you are you,
and if you are you because I am I
then I am not I and you are not you.
We cannot communicate.
But if I am I because I am I and
you are you because you are you,
then I am I and you are you
and we are able to communicate."
It's important to believe that life is an opportunity not just an obligation. One has to try to be oneself, that is if one wants to honour and show gratitude for the privilege of having been born and the blessings of being human.
The inner self has a dream; the dream of the self is a dream of freedom, its secret desire is to be released from captivity and allowed to express itself fully in the world in a creative, open, joyous and unencumbered way. As long as this yearning is unheeded and unfulfilled, there will always be a deep pining inside a human being, a sense of general discomfort and dissatisfaction that can be ignored but never extinguished. The presence of the self needs to be recognised, valued and understood deeply. If one wants to follow the road to sanity, one needs to pursue the path of blending harmoniously the outer persona with the inner self so that the outer persona can become an accurate vehicle of expression of the self. In our daily life we tend to live the other way around, we usually put Caesar first and we forget that existence is a mystery and that the Indivisible God may well exist. When we do this we violate the first commandment. "Putting first things first" means coming back home; rediscovering our roots. Before we can do this, we need to recognise that we have a home that we forgot about and neglected for a very long time. Once we get back home, we need to take responsibility for it, we will have to repair, clean and organise it in such a way that we can feel at home when we are at home.
The inner self is very subtle, we cannot perceive it with the outer senses; we cannot see it with our eyes, or hear it with our ears, or taste it with our tongue. We need to develop other modalities to make its acquaintance; these new modalities are what I call "strategies of the heart". An important first step in this direction is to approach the task of reconnection with a spirit of patience, hope and diligence. One should never give up because these qualities will be severely tested when we start meeting the many obstacles that stand in our way. These obstacles are our fears: fear of intimacy, fear of loss, fear of change. Fear needs to be confronted not run away from. This is easier said than done because our fears live in our soft, raw underbelly and are closely associated with the secret feelings of guilt and shame we carry within. We all feel inadequate in one way or another, that is not the problem, that is the given. The challenge we face is what are we going to do with these unexpressed and underdeveloped part of ourselves.
An old Jewish rabbi called Suzia, one day said to his disciples: "When I die, God will not ask me why I haven't been Abraham or Moses, he will ask me if I have been Suzia". It's a good question and God might well ask us that after we have died but in the meantime, while we are still alive, it is up to us; we are the ones who are in "loco parentis". It is my responsibility and yours to cut through the knots of our laziness and produce the work necessary to become integrated and at-one, in other words, atoned. To be atoned means to be in tune with our self; in touch, sensitive and responsive to the mysterious and unfathomable profundities of our being. Please understand this is not about exercising more control and becoming even tenser, it is precisely the opposite. It is about letting go and trusting the process of life; trusting oneself is trusting the natural goodness of ones being, having faith in the true self that one is and relaxing in this knowledge. Compassion and kindness are keys that unlock the door that separates us from our self. If we can dive deep enough to experience true compassion, our fears and resistances will melt away. They have to, because by their nature fears are soluble in compassion. Compassion navigates deep below the surface of the world of "I like and I don't like". Behind the scenes of the world of appearances is the "world of being"; compassion's natural habitat. Compassion lives in this impersonal world and it is the natural manifestation of love which itself is an impersonal energy that flows through our inner being. The ultimate challenge we face as human beings is the challenge of love. Are we prepared to allow our love to enter every closed door, every neglected nook and cranny of our being, and let it heal even our deepest wounds with the gentle balm of compassion? Can we trust the power of love that much?
I have yet to meet someone who can really love themselves, warts and all, and can express this love in an open, consistent and non-defensive way. This is a task of Herculean proportions because as human beings, we have been brought up in a world where we learned how to judge. In our minds, we are all very experienced lawyers and at the apex of our unsettled minds sits "the judge", the one that passes sentence on our every thought, feeling and action. This "great judge" presides over an "inner court" that is in permanent session and passes sentence all the time. Sometimes we are acquitted, sometimes we are condemned and the judgments never ends; there is always a big backlog of untried and unresolved cases. In this way we carry on living with a pending state of doom and gloom, each case waiting for the next one that could prove definitively our guilt and unworthiness. These secret verdicts and the ghostly shadow of the verdicts to come, constitute the basis of the guilt and shame that we carry inside. This unstable situation creates a condition of inner turmoil that makes us feel not good enough and inadequate; as a consequence we build strong defences around our imagined vulnerabilities in the hope that we will be safe. We harden ourselves and we hide inside a protective armour much like the knights used to do in the middle ages. This defensive attitude means that in our minds we are always on our guard, judging everything as being either good or bad. In this way, reality which is originally one, gets chopped up and divided into two. In our heads we live in a world of twos, a world of opposites: life and death, night and day, man and woman, you and me. These are learnt distinctions; we learnt them from our parents, they are deeply imbedded in our psyche and they refer to the appearance of things. We have much to be grateful for because these worldly categories are very useful and we couldn't function in our ordinary life without them. But we must realise that there is infinitely more to life than the appearance of things. Eastern traditions have a well known concept called "Maya". It can be roughly translated as "illusion". From this perspective, life as we know it is not "real reality". It has something of dream-like quality and we are advised not to take it too seriously. The fact that life is seen as an illusion does not mean to say that what happens is not real for us and sometimes very painfully real. But the suffering and problems that arise are like passing clouds, they are not permanent and whatever the situation of the clouds, the sun continues to shine and we are advised to keep this in mind. The sun in this case stands for the self beneath the self, the one that sustains the whole edifice of life; our original, unconditional and unblemished self.
To gain conscious access to the deeper dimensions of our psyche, we need to change our mental habits. We have to stop focusing so much on the effects, the things that happen to us and start to pay attention to the underlying causes. In this way we avoid getting lost in our becoming and our being will once again emerge into the foreground. Let me remind you that the healing journey to sanity take place behind the world of habitual learning and on the other side of the mirror of appearances.
The struggle between what is really me and what I appear to be is part and parcel of the human condition. As human beings we are facing this puzzling situation all the time and of course we all respond to it in different ways because we have freedom of choice. Some of us might choose to address this with the front burner of their minds and others will prefer to leave it to simmer slowly in the back burner; each one to their own. In psychotherapy these questions of authenticity and of "Who Am I?" become very much issues to be dealt with in the front burner.
This brings me to the second part of this article which is about how this evolutionary process takes place in a life. Let me share with you a story because stories can convey things with a clarity and directness that defies our natural ingenuity and can by-pass our established defences. This is the story of Anna.
Anna and I met some years ago when she came for a consultation. She was a young woman in her late twenties. She was married, she owned her own house, she was well educated, she was intelligent, she was articulate, she was pretty and she was dreadfully unhappy. It seemed as if her life and all the dreams she held for herself had turned into ashes. Because she was a high achiever, she managed to get for herself everything she ever wanted. The problem was that when the time came to collect, she found that none of the things she was collecting gave her any real joy and peace. She walked out of a well-paid job that she hated with the impeccable excuse that her back was killing her. She returned home to ponder and remained there, depressed and miserable, wondering why things had gone so wrong and what could her next move be. Her husband, it transpired, wasn't in a much better state either; he was also going through something rather similar.
Anna had run out of script and was in a real muddle inside. She knew too much about all sorts of thing but all her knowledge was in tit bits, not properly integrated and organised into a coherent whole. She was suffering from a very English cliché called "stiff-upper-lip" in which feelings are not meant to be taken too seriously and are thought of as a weakness. She came into therapy and we embarked on an interesting journey that lasted for several years.
An important aspect of her therapy was the way in which her sensitivity to the self developed and matured. Anna had been interested in self-help, psychology, religion and spirituality long before she met me. The fact that she came into therapy didn't mean the end of her interests. On the contrary, she used our relation as a crucible in which to test, explore and work through her existential quest. She had embarked on an enterprise of "in search of the real me". Her main problem in this undertaking was that due to her strict upbringing, she held the strong belief that she had to be a "good girl" which meant that she had to please everybody around her all the time. She could easily be torn to pieces by conflicting demands and she would loose sight of her self and her own needs. Anna worked very hard on what I called the "goody-good-pecker" aspects of her personality and she gradually learnt to relax and value the wisdom of letting her heart speak freely and listening carefully to what it had to say.
It was some years into therapy when Anna discovered a little book called "Christ in You". This book had a great impact on her. She read it and re-read it several times over a period of years, after all it was only a small book and she could do it easily. Periodically, she would bring the subject of the book into our sessions. I asked her in all ways to try to explain or discuss what it was about, and she always felt unable to articulate and put it into words. This was most unusual for her because she could be very articulate on any subject she chose, as one would expect from a university graduate in Philosophy and Economics. But this little book seemed to be rather different, it seemed to be more an experience of the soul than fodder for the mind. I can remember that one day, half jokingly, I challenged her. "Why don't you try to write about it?". Anna took the challenge quite seriously. She had the habit of taking any dare seriously. She thought about it for several months and still she felt she couldn't do it justice, so we both dropped the idea and this is how things were left.
Time passed and the time came when her therapy was beginning to come to an end. At the eleventh hour, Anna decided to rise to my challenge. "I have decided", she said boldly, "that I don't want to write a précis of "Christ in You". I want to write the Gospel according to me with the light of my own understanding. True to her word, some time later, she handed me a copy of "The Gospel according to Anna" which I am pleased to share in the hope that you might find it helpful in your own journey.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANNA
(or how not to be a donkey)
This paper was going to be easy to write. Like a true Virgoan, I even had a list of all the themes that I was going to cover. The whole idea was for me to write about my current thoughts and feelings about my spirituality. And then I completely lost the plot. For months, I was unable to face writing anything.
Rather than follow the original plan, I decided to try to understand what happened when the lights went out and how I managed to switch them on again. Funnily enough, I have ended up with what was originally intended with one major difference. If I had written this when I planned to, this would have been a second-hand version of somebody else's thoughts. But what you get now is me!
I really struggled last winter. I was promoted at work to a senior management position, but this was, to some degree, a poisoned chalice. My two immediate predecessors had failed and I had a dog's breakfast to clear up. I was by far the youngest of my colleagues, all of whom seemed to have well-established and smooth running "empires". I felt overwhelmed and inadequate. The Christmas break did not help - I had the most traumatic time I could remember, having made the rather ill-advised decision to spend a few days with my parents. Added to that was another strange decision to continue my Diploma in Management to MBA level - this was guided by my desire for credibility rather than any heartfelt desire. On one of those lists of stress factors, I must have been scoring highly, so I decided to add on a few more points by attempting to move house. On top of that, winter always stresses me out. And I got flu.
Well, at one level, it was no big deal. I have had equally difficult patches in recent years. However, unlike previous occasions, all the tools and techniques that I had discovered to help myself through difficult times failed me. In my worst times, I had always enjoyed reading soothing spiritual books and writing in my journal. Now, it felt bland and tasteless. I could not even get out into nature - foot and mouth saw to that. I had often read that the answer was to stare the pain in the face, talk to the emotions and seek to understand them. Don't panic when you feel bad and accept that like all other emotions, this too will pass. Don't identify too closely with the feelings. Rather than finding these notions comforting, I seemed to be going further into the depths and feeling even worse. I felt that life was draining out of me. I seriously wondered whether I had been deluded in pursuing a spiritual path.
There was such a heavy feeling of stuckness and heaviness about me. The final insult was a dream about some giant snails invading my vegetable patch. This was some dark night of the soul! In retrospect, it is easy to see that what was being called for was a quantum leap in consciousness. That is why none of the old tricks would work!
And so, I gave up. I surrendered to the fact that nothing that I had tried had helped and that I had no idea what to do.
I gave up on spiritual books and turned to novels to get my conscious mind on something else. I think that I had got to that point that Buddhists refer to as the "beginner's mind". I had to be in a state of total emptiness before the new spiritual insights that I needed could find a space. Aha! So this is what Jesus was going on about when he exhorted his listeners to be as little children and why the poor old Pharisees got it in the neck all the time for thinking that there was nothing more for them to learn. I also recalled the Zen story about the master who kept pouring tea although the cup was overflowing in order to demonstrate the importance of being open to new teachings.
Once I had allowed some space, new insights started to emerge, sometimes in the most unexpected places. One such place was a tennis court. Anybody who knows my tennis will know that I have the most vicious groundstrokes, in particular a killer backhand. But serving is another thing - my mind gets in the way and I have to play all sorts of tricks on myself to get the damned ball over the net. I have tried everything - Zen and the inner game of tennis, visualising the ball going over, pretending that I'm just practising etc, but somehow, the demons always return. One Sunday, I started playing and the usual sinking feeling came up, "Oh God, I am serving like a dog today". That is normally my cue for becoming even more cautious, when ping - I had a realisation. Just when you are feeling at your most nervous is just the moment to open your shoulders even more and really go for your shots. Now that's a great notion. That one realisation was enough to get me off the bottom. More significantly, it arose out of my own experience, expressed in my own way.
I then decided that I'd had enough of feeling rough. I did not care whether it was suppressing my sadness, but I went on a brief diet of positive thinking. Louise Hay and even Norman Vincent Peale came off the bookshelf. To emulate Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, I would spend time deliberately thinking of my favourite things. At the end of each day, I would ask myself what had been a nice moment - feeding the birds in my garden, blubbing over a costume drama or seeing a rabbit and even a mole on a walk. I made two discoveries from this exercise.
First, I found it reassuring that even on the most miserable day, it was impossible not to find some moment of happiness. Again, this is what the great spiritual brains have been telling us from time immemorial, but I tested it according to my own personal experience. Aha! This is what the 23rd lesson of "Christ in You" means when it says, "Nothing outside can ever help you or reveal anything until it finds its answer in yourself'.
The second needs yet another sporting analogy to express it. I used to row as a student. I can remember waking up one day, feeling terrible and dragging myself down to the river. My inclination was to sleep. Certainly the idea of serious physical exercise was all too much. I thought that I'd probably die in the boat and have to be rescued! By the end of the session, not only was I still alive, but I was feeling marvellous. Hard physical exercise was just what I needed. So there are times when you go with the feeling (sleep) and there are times when you go in the exact opposite direction to the feeling (hard labour). It made me realise that you can't make hard and fast rules or live according to a formula - life requires constant awareness and mindfulness. You have to look at every new situation with fresh eyes and use the knowledge that you have wisely and intelligently. I realised that a dogmatic, autopilot-like approach to life would simply not work. What a headache! But actually, headaches are a good example of where I don't work by a formula. There are times when I don't use medication and work with the underlying causes, while at others, I have no hesitation in blitzing the pain as quickly as possible with painkillers.
The insights above all seemed to have a common thread of inner guidance. This then led on to a rich vein - working with me. Second hand knowledge wouldn't do. I would have to know this thing called me. Because it was my only way of being in the world, there was no way that I could know or understand anything else unless I knew myself first. This was my most valuable resource. Nobody else could know my reality like I could, so I was the one who could look at all the great spiritual ideas and determine whether and how they should be accepted. This was a truly empowering concept. The other nice thing was the thought that I didn't have to go anywhere or do anything as such. All the material that I needed was right there on my own doorstep, so to speak. All my previous efforts had not been a waste. It was like reading the guidebooks and maps before setting off on holiday … but it was now time to get going!
As a boss, I have to appraise people and write reports about them. I decided to write one on myself so that I could understand myself better. I deliberately homed in on all those aspects of myself that tripped me up repeatedly. I tried to write my report in as dispassionate manner as I could, as I didn't want to beat myself up. I managed to identify seven characteristics:
• Self-confidence and belief vanish;
• Hair-shirt and self-denying tendencies come to the fore;
• Start procrastinating and become very passive (I'll just wait for God to tell me what to do);
• Become terrified of over-committing myself;
• Start retreating into a shell;
• Become very shy;
• Completely lose sense of humour.
Somehow, getting my report down on paper felt like a huge relief. I realised that these were all ways in which I personally manifested "not loving myself'. But it also dawned on me that when these traits were in the ascendant, I was in a non-spiritual place despite the fact that I had believed these things to be more "holy". These characteristics actually cut me off from "God" and drained me of life and energy. They were my very own seven deadly sins! Worries about rituals and the right religious path to follow were a sideshow compared to understanding myself in this way. Only when one does start to do this can one actually read a spiritual text in a discerning and meaningful way. Otherwise, there is a danger of using spiritual teachings as an excuse and reinforcement for one's "bad habits". For example, it is quite easy to find justification for passivity and humility - but that is the last thing that I need in a "down" phase. At such times, what I need is an injection of courage and stirring into action. And there is plenty of that in the great spiritual texts as well. So, having cleared away some rubbish, I moved on to more positive things. What brought this about was going to France for a holiday. There is nothing wrong with France except for one thing. It just does not grab me very much. I do not share the English middle-class passion for all things French. I don't go misty-eyed over croissants and coffee for breakfast and despite a couple of years' formal training in wine-tasting, I am of the firm opinion that all other wine-making countries of the world produce better wine than France (and Spain makes the very best). Heresy! Somehow, France has the effect of making me well and truly bad-tempered - I become the kind of Anglo-Saxon who thanks God for the Channel. So, why on earth have I spent so many holidays there when I would prefer to be somewhere else? I somehow managed to give myself exactly what I didn't want when I actually had a choice … 1 realised that perhaps it was time to focus on giving myself what I did want and forget the rest! What was "spiritual" about denying myself when I didn't actually have to? There didn't seem to be much going for that approach. The real crunch was when I realised that by denying myself, I became a bad-tempered, miserable pain in the neck who was no fun to be with (ask my husband). If l had done something that grabbed me, I would have been full of fun and life and a real joy to be with. Surely, that would be more godly. The thought that really struck me was this. The logical conclusion of my belief system was that if God gave me £500 to go on a holiday of my choice, I would determine what I wanted and then go and do the opposite and be miserable but believe that I had been more "spiritual and holy". How mad was that? I could just imagine God saying, "You stupid donkey. I give you £500 to enjoy yourself and you choose to be miserable. What a waste of good money. You can stay at home next year."
The happy outcome of this miserable saga was that I came home, made a list of all the places that I did want to visit and promised myself that no holiday would be taken in any place not on the said list. And I am about to embark on ticking off the places … it feels very good! What is important about the list is that I allowed my own heart to dictate it. No judgmental thoughts were allowed e.g. what sort of place is that for a holiday, wouldn't people think you were a bit strange for going there etc. etc.
There is no doubt in my mind and my experience that there are other things in life that we have to do whether we feel like it or not. In those cases, the challenge is liking what you have to do. A current example of this is my experience of looking after my mother. My father was at death's door a few weeks ago in a hospital an hour from his home in Lancashire and my mother does not drive. The problem was that I had last seen my parents at Christmas in very acrimonious circumstances. I had vowed that I would never step foot in their house again and I had barely spoken to my mother since. However, at the most critical point of the crisis, I dropped everything and went straight up to Manchester to support my mother. I even stayed in the house that I was never going to enter again! I found the whole experience difficult and exhausting; more often than not, I found my mother so tiresome that I could have strangled her. This was not something that I "wanted" to do. I could have chosen not to do it. So why did I make this choice? Was it just the same thing as choosing to go to France in spite of really wanting to go somewhere else? I really don't think so. I wondered what made the two situations so different.
Perhaps one might think that the hospital visit would be different because I could come away feeling virtuous and saintly. This would make the whole effort worthwhile. Well, I will confess that there was an element of that involved. The thought did cross my mind that it would be very difficult for my parents to accuse me ever again of being ungrateful, unfeeling and all the other things that had been heaped on my head at Christmas. In their eyes, I had ridden to the rescue when the chips were down. But I felt that there was much more to it than that. In the end, I concluded that the two examples I have described were connected. The "France episode" had given me an important lesson. By accepting my own heartfelt desires and learning to give myself what I truly wanted when I was able to do so, I was able to liberate myself. Paradoxically, far from being a selfish thing to do, the result was that I was less bound up with myself and more able to accept others as they were. This created an environment where I felt free and happy to perform service, even when it was not something that I would normally want to do. So, even though I did not find it easy, I was able to go and help my mother with a willing heart and without any sense of resentment. I am glad that I did.
Yet again, I had drawn some very profound lessons from the raw material of life that was in front of me. So much of what we are taught points us in the opposite direction. Most advertising is built on the premise of getting us to seek bigger, better experiences and ever more choice which leaves us with perpetual dissatisfaction. I have so often felt bewildered by the array of things that I could do that I ended up doing nothing for fear of missing out on the things that I had not chosen. By working with the stuff right in front of me and making choices based on what appealed to me without any judgement, I was finally able to start dealing with this fear of missing out. Ultimately, the lesson is one of self-acceptance. Here is an example. As an 11-year old, I wrote a school essay about how I wanted to own a Volkswagen and tour Central and Eastern Europe. This can only be described as one of those desires for which there is no rational explanation, but which demands fulfilment. For many years, nobody apart from me and Miss Taylor at St Margaret Girls' School knew about this dream. It lay tucked away because I judged it as a strange ambition and too embarrassing to admit. Every year, the torture of deciding where to go on holiday came up even though the answer was staring me in the face. Only when I finally opened my heart again to this dream did it occur to me that the problem of choice and missing out on the other possibilities was simply not an issue.
Here is another example. One day, I was prowling round the house, feeling very restless and bored. I was agonising over the usual stuff - what was my purpose in life and why couldn't I discover what it was that I really wanted to do? At this point, I suddenly became aware that I was looking outside myself. What was more, that was just the wrong place to be looking. I had often read that all you need to do is go within and discover the contents of one's own heart. It dawned on me that, up until that moment, I had had no idea what that really meant. What did it feel like to go within? Very simply, it seemed that one's focus became very defined and clear rather than diffused and unsettled. In the same way that we can find the one familiar face in a large crowd of people, I zoomed right back into the present moment and focused all my attention on the one thing that I wanted to do at that moment - which was to write. No distracting, judgmental voices were allowed - the sort that question why you should bother, how on earth could you make a living at it etc. etc. In other words, I focused on what I had to do at that moment without getting hung up on the outcome.
It made me realise how I had to discipline my mind not to go wandering off all over the place and to keep it focused on the present moment. So that is why such practices as meditation were so important. Another aha moment!
To draw matters to a close, I have probably not said anything that has not been said before about how important it is to rely on one's inner guidance. However, I feel that I have at last been able to express this in my own words, rather than quoting others. Mind you, I am going to do just that to end this paper. I can do no better than to repeat my earlier reference to "Christ in You" - "Nothing outside can ever help you or reveal anything until it finds its answer in yourself'.
I do not know what effect Anna's Gospel has had on you. All I know is that for me it represents a hymn of hope and I am sure for Anna, it was triumph of the spirit, a giant leap in authenticity in being herself and in trying to give an accurate expression to the self she was.
Becoming mature, growing up, can only really be achieved if we are able to bring all of ourselves with us. We cannot afford to leave bits and pieces behind in the hope that one day they may catch up, because they invariable don't and what is worse, they will drag us back until we recognise, embrace and accept them. Only then will they be able to find their rightful place in the jigsaw of our being. We are all students in the academy of life, learning from experience about ourselves and the world. Some of us can be more diligent and some more lazy, as students often are, but the fact remains that all human beings are attempting, whether consciously or unconsciously, to solve the eternal riddle of who we are, where we are and what this is all about. Our life is our task, it's our unique contribution and our own personal account to totality for our presence and existence.
Compassion is a mature feeling. We need to have a certain amount of emotional development before we can experience it. The reason is simple; compassion means "feeling with" and one can not feel with unless one can feel fully. First we must feel then we can feel with. We need to stop running away from ourselves so we can gradually become sensitised to the mysterious subtleties of our feelings. They are the language that is constantly speaking inside us.
By paying attention to our inner language we gradually start understanding what it is saying. Through the language of feelings one enters the "kingdom of the heart", the place where all the feelings live together. As we spend time playing and paying attention to feelings, we become more familiar with them and we get to know them a bit better. In this way, the awareness of oneself gradually changes; it becomes wider, deeper and more sensitive.
Feelings are the lifeblood of the inner self, they are always circulating and moving like an ever-changing ocean. We cannot possess them and make them ours any more than a wave can possess the sea. As human beings, all we can do is navigate and explore them in the hope that we can make some tiny gain in self-understanding. If the outcome is just a small increase in our capacity for compassion, I will say like the Jews in Passover, "Dayenu" (it is sufficient).