Category Archives: Spirituality

Snow in the Middle East

Of course one must not snitch photos off the internet, but my excuse on this occasion is that I just can’t be in Jerusalem to take the shots myself. If only I could.

There was something moving about seeing what I was brought up to call The Holy Land under a thick blanket of snow last week. I don’t call it the Holy anything any more, but plenty do. If you care to go googling you will find photos of smiling Palestinians throwing snowballs, and Israelis too.

It makes a wonderful change from the usual images beamed out of the disputed territory.

Funny how snow, like love, changes everything – if only temporarily.

Praying at The Western Wall, Jerusalem

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Miracle Street?

It’s not every day a tall Californian turns up in the road you live on. I suspect it’s even less often that such a man is offering to pray for the people on your street, for a whole year.

But that’s how, a few months ago, I made the acquaintance of a stranger on my street. Let’s call him the Prayer Man. I had heard from a friend and neighbour a week or two beforehand that he had knocked on her door posing an unusual question. Did she need any prayers for her, or the people that lived in that house. I must confess to feeling a little put out that this generous offer had not come my way yet, despite not considering myself to be a fully paid-up Christian. I was brought up a Catholic, which I realise is Christian, so I have a thorough grounding in that which I reject, and in the last year I have asked certain people to pray for others, not feeling qualified to do so myself. Still, I remember to count my own blessings, say thank you for them as often as I remember to and I do consider the power of a positive intention sent out for others to be a secular version of what others might call prayer. I am, therefore, not against prayer per se. However, I am still uncomfortable being prayed for, which was what we called intercession when I went to church as a child. The list of names of the sick and old being read out every week at mass by the priest. Some things stick in the head.

In the end, I finally met the Prayer Man, a few weeks after my friend’s encounter, on the street a few yards from my house. He was on a bike, wearing jeans, and what I might now call a Californian tan. He explained that he was praying for the street for a whole year. He was praying for people, not bricks and mortar, he could only pray for needs not wants and he asked if there was anything that I needed. I replied that I didn’t but mentioned someone else also on the street. The Prayer Man thanked me and rode off on his bicycle. Some days ago a letter was delivered through the letterbox. I read it. I read it again. I put it away thinking it might be nice to mention it on here sometime. I had it in my hand only yesterday. Now I come to write about the Prayer Man and his words to the street he is praying for, I cannot find it.

What I remember is that he compared believing in the word of God to diving into a swimming pool and surfacing into an ocean. What can I say? Good imagery sticks in the head. I also remember he quoted a line from the film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ a film I have never seen.
The line was what the man who is saved by his guardian angel says to the angel.

Well, you look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.

It’s not every street that gets a Prayer Man, no matter what they look like. He came to a gathering in the street yesterday to meet more people and say goodbye, for now. Again, he turned up on a bike, but this time instead of sunshine it was in between bursts of torrential rain and great gusts of wind peculiar to the British summer. I remember when we first spoke that first time he had assured me he was ‘not mad,’ not that I had asked. Yesterday’s appearance felt a little surreal, but I still can’t shake the feeling there is more to all this than meets the eye. The Prayer Man is returning home to California and I feel compelled to notice and record in some way what happens during the period of the intercession intervention. Something will happen, after all, because something always does…

Not that far from a British summer on our street

I have rather dramatically entitled the post Miracle Street. For the record, no-one is expecting miracles round here, but they may be some hoping and praying for them.

Practising non-attachment to things

Warning: this post contains metaphysics that might be irritating to some readers.

It’s not easy to do, but when one experiences suffering it can act as a signpost that we are too attached to things: objects, thoughts, feelings, outcomes, even people. I went to some Buddhist classes (last year now) and this is what we were taught: attachment causes suffering. I don’t follow Buddhism especially, but this is one teaching that has stuck; the other was that of observing the mind through mindfulness.

Anyway to illustrate the point in the case of objects, today, when I dropped my phone, face down, in the supermarket car park and cracked the screen, I immediately began to suffer. I felt angry with myself, with the phone. Then I was upset because it looked spoiled, with a big spider crack across the top of the screen. Then I rang someone to moan, and they didn’t say the right thing, so then I was cross with them too, and after a couple of minutes of making this big ball of anger and upset and frustration and the whole why is life just so damn unfair? shebang… I caught myself at it.

I was causing myself to suffer all these feelings simply through attachment to an object. Ok, it’s a nice object, and I use it a lot, and I wouldn’t want to be without a phone for the rest of my life, but still… phones break if you drop them, and people drop things (I drop things a lot). It’s just what happens.

I looked at the crack again. It struck me that I go round taking photos of rusty things and old things and dead things and generally say that imperfection is more interesting than plain old perfection, so why was I freaking out about a crack? As cracks go, it wasn’t that bad. And it could be fixed, if I wanted.

Now, I must admit at this point that the phone had not lost all functionality. I think I would have suffered a little longer over that, but maybe one day I’ll be able to let that go too. Now that really would be some proper non-attachment to something. It might sound odd, but it helps me step out from the old suffering loop, which in turn keeps the mind in balance, so I just wanted to pass it on.

Soul Catch Up & the Sit Spot

It’s been a ridiculously intense week; both here and so tragically around the world. It’s so much so that I’ve lost (or gained) a day already. Yesterday I was confused because I thought it was Tuesday, today I’ve been thinking it must be Wednesday. It was a jolt to the system to realise that the paid working week ends tomorrow and I feel like I’ve really not done any work at all.

Of course it looks like I’m busy and things have been done, hopefully as they should have been. But inside? No, no actual work has been done at all. I realise that I am at that point in my life where my purpose and my work are more and more enmeshed. Maybe that is what they call a vocation. It’s sounds horribly pompous; it’s not meant to. It’s actually more a source of confusion. How can I be so busy doing things that are in the diary, teaching, writing, trying to plan but not actually feeling like it’s work. Work, to me, is that thing you leave when you walk out of the door at that place called work. I suppose it’s partly a by-product of working out on the community, seeing your learners on the street, doing a lot of keyboard-based work after the school run, or before I leave the house in the morning. I suppose it’s because my interest is not confined to a professional one. People, how they tick, how they learn, the stories about their lives… is there anything more engaging? For me, it seems not.

Given that seems now to be the case, it is even more necessary to carve out time where I am not actively thinking which brings me to the title of the post. I was describing my recent experience on a street corner in Chicago, where I had to just sit for over an hour to get my life back together. I was explaining how in that hour, I experienced myself and the world in a very different way. She said that is like the story of the Aboriginal man who, after his first ever trip in a car, got out and sat on the ground. When asked what he was doing, he replied, ‘I am waiting for my soul to catch up.’

Now, after everything I’ve experienced, I get that. And I am sure there are many other people out there who do too. I also now get the idea that the self we create and come to know is deeply rooted in a sense of place. I learned by accident today that there is a name for that: embodied situated cognition. Of course, that is just a fancy name for things indigenous tribes practised long before we came along with our jargon. I know I am not describing anything new or controversial, I am just experiencing something ancient for myself. The sit spot is a place you pick out to go, out in your part of the world, in nature and go to sit and just be every day. Like meditation, or learning, this is not a passive process, or vegging out in the cabbage patch; it is an active intention to get to know every aspect of your sit spot in all the seasons, in all weathers. Which way the sun catches it, depending on the day. Whether lichen grows on the stones and where. The stones themselves, for they all have a name, even if you don’t speak their language. If there is water nearby, the songs it sings, drop by drop. Birds: resident and tourists. Insects, grass, flowers. The trees’ conversation through the leaves or the short snap of brittle branches. All of it and everything, under any circumstances.

The sit spot and the the soul catch up.

Off to find mine…

Detail from Public Park with Weeping Willow, Vincent Van Gogh

Detail from Public Park with Weeping Willow, Vincent Van Gogh

Workers Returning Home by Edvard Munch, 1913-15, Oil on canvas

I went to see the Munch exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday. The last one I went to was a Damien Hirst retrospective and, of course, the differences between the two are so marked that it makes you wonder about the broad church that is labelled ‘art’. The similarity is in the preoccupation with death. What I complained was lacking in Hirst’s work, a sort of soulful introspection, was there in spades in the Munch; in fact there was almost too much, making the experience a tough emotional one for the viewer and left me feeling claustrophobic and quite ready to dive out of the solid wooden double doors marked ‘exit – no re-entry’.

On the other side of those doors was a nice view of St Paul’s across the Thames and the obligatory exhibition shop. I just sat in a chair and watched people escaping from the clutches of Munch. Exit? No re-entry? Is heaven or hell going to end up being no more, or less, than an exhibition shop.

Anyway, of all the work, and don’t go there if you want to see a version of ‘The Scream’ because, like Macavity the Mystery Cat, It’s. Not. There. Of the whole exhibition, I was most struck by this painting; it’s not just its sheer size, over two by two metres, but the perspective of the viewer. Stand in the middle and face this painting and it feels like the crowd is lurching towards you, ready to trample you underfoot. I experienced the same later that day, walking in the shadow of St Paul’s, with city workers rushing, apparently like automatons, to the tube. Sad to say there was more humanity in the faces of Munch’s workers than the Square Mile drones. I did scream then.

At one point, in the great rushing river of commuters, a man over-reached himself and clipped the back of a woman’s shoe. Her leopard print pump catapulted itself in the air and landed, incongruous like an eel out of water, on the street. I waited for the Cinderella moment, where the man in the City’s regulation suit of armour retrieved the shoe and was transformed into a prince, but it was all dirty looks and the shoe shuffled back on. I went and drank a Princess Sparkles cocktail at The Anthologist (worth a click through for the butterflies alone) to help the situation in my mind some. It didn’t work. The City is wrong.

I see them on the streets. The junior bankers, drinking coffee at five in the afternoon, looking hunted because they are working on some deal that’s going down the pan. No hometime for them today. I see the middle-aged ones, carrying a few spare tyres, who have at least survived and I wonder which one of them is thinking of never going home again: exit – no re-entry.

More science versus religion

I don’t feel like writing this, and I am sure most people won’t want to read it either, but that’s ok. I am going to write it anyway in the hope of finishing a thought, one that’s been hanging around taking up mental space for days. What will probably happen is that it will just lead to another thought or three. Are we ever really done thinking? Really? I think that we’re not, and that’s why meditative practice is essential, just as a brief intervention to stop all those cogs and wheels that constantly whir away wearing themselves out. For years I have ‘meditated’ over a glass of wine, I know others take a moment with a cigarette, but I am realising finally that still, quiet calm is the goal, not slamming on the mental brakes with a depressant. Having said that, I realise that alcohol for me sometimes stands in for my lack of religion and will probably always be with me… my drug of lazy choice one might say.

Back to the thought. I was following the science and religion discourse last week through Jonathan (Chief Rabbi) Sacks’, recent round of media publicity linked to a book he has out. He and Professor Richard Dawkins appear to have been more or less joined at the hip in the last week, appearing on television, on radio and then midweek in a live discussion at a BBC Festival called REthink. It would seem that Professor Dawkins also has a book out too.

I think I find this a little disappointing, as if the public is only being treated to a clash between these two old stags high up on the intellectual crags because they both have book publicity to do. For the record, Lord Sacks’ book is called The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning and Professor Dawkins’ is called the Magic of Reality. I also found the discourse frustrating, because it seems to me that it is ultimately circular in nature.

I am happy to be corrected but what I think I hear is something that goes like this: Yes, we all agree that science works on theory backed up by empirical evidence; and at this point in time there is less than there was, but still plenty in the world, in the universe, in the human experience that has so far defied the reach of science. That was where faith in a God might kick in, if you were that way inclined. Or not. To paraphrase, or even quote, Lord Sacks, ‘science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean.’

So the scientists who seek to explain things up to the point of their evidence-based knowledge are permanently left on the back foot when a religious bod hops in, where the rest of us might fear to tread, to cover the gaps with the all-encompassing reach of a ‘God’, an intelligent designer, a universal force.

Sacks suggested he was not a fan of this ‘God of the Gaps’ approach, he said that his God is a gardener. When he was asked by a scientist something to the effect of is his God a sower of seeds that then allowed the garden to go wild, or an obsessive Sunday lawn mower, Sacks’ answer was inconclusive. He said something about God being currently ‘non-interventionist’. God as a gardener on holiday, a multiverse cruise?

I am agnostic, I suppose. I am not quite brave enough for atheism. Perhaps I aspire to it. I have found the religious position frustrating though, because what can’t be answered directly out of their various interpretations of the various religious books, can always be attributed to the mystery of God and the faith in that of those lucky enough to have worked it all out.

When Lord Sacks ended the Start the Week programme by intoning, ‘Without God we are without hope’ I felt he diminished his argument, possibly irredeemably in my case. I was disappointed because I believe there are alternatives. What really would have helped is for a religious scientist, Sir Robert Winston say, to have jumped in and saved a fascinating question, perhaps the most important of all, from turning those of us trying to engage with the debate into something akin to testy drivers queueing round the circular M25 into infinity (and beyond?).

Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

Some Ogden Nash with a brief detour through cornflakes, science and religion

I cannot convey how bored I am with the sound of my own thoughts at the end of this week. The closest I can do for now is to reflect that the bowl of dust, masquerading as cornflakes, that passed for breakfast this morning pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.

I was going to write about the Chief Rabbi’s, Jonathan Sacks, recent programme on BBC, about the science versus religion ‘gap’, wherein he debated his position with the scientists Baroness Susan Greenfield, theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili and the notorious atheist Professor Richard Dawkins. I found it compelling viewing, but did wonder, if in his summation, Lord Sacks had wrapped Dawkins views up a bit neatly onto the side of those with religious faith.

I also observed that Lord Sacks seemed more interested in finding the common ground than the scientists did, Al-Khalili seemed a little bemused for instance. Still, it was the Rabbi’s programme, so perhaps it’s not so surprising he was doing the legwork… Now I am going to have to listen to the subsequent encounter between Sacks and Dawkins on Start the Week before making any more observations.

I was left though, with the impression that two of the scientists would have, if not for politeness and being filmed, pointed out that religious faith is mainly based on *one big book and that perhaps people should not believe all they read.

I have a book by Ogden Nash and I enjoy his poetry, when I am in the mood. I don’t always agree with him though. For me making a living is a saving grace. Without out it and the structure it imposes on me, I have no doubt I would quickly disappear up my own arse. Some might say I am halfway there already. They might be right.

Introspective Reflection by Ogden Nash

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

*which book depends on your faith

Don’t be fooled by the smile, this boy is forcing them down

Be the change

All that blog ranting has messed with my karma, man, so I’ve drafted in a message from the Dalai Lama to straighten it out round here.

Whatever, and whoever, goes on in the world, this is the most important thing, surely.