Friday, October 29, 2010

What is 'spirituality'?

Spirituality is a process rather than a state or accumulation of beliefs and practices.

It starts with a collection of concepts and convictions. In Buddhism, for example, the Four Noble Truths and how we understand them Other concepts may also be present, along with presuppositions and prejudices about, say, Ultimate Reality (God, liberation, and so on). Included in this concatenation are beliefs about who 'I' am, how this 'I' relates to others and the world around me and the purpose, if any, of these convictions.

This ensemble lead us to make choices about values, likes and dislikes and our life-style and plan. These choices are then underpinned by supportive practices, leading to our individual response experiences. What is often described as 'spirituality' refers to these practices and experiences. These do not, however, stand alone; they are contingent and dependent on the other loci.

It is these experiences strengthen or challenge our concepts and conviction, to maintain them or to change.

When I was first shown this model, I realised that it can be applied far beyond what is normally deemed 'spiritual'. Indeed, it may be seen as a description of scientific method with experiment and supportive evidence as the supportive practice locus

I am grateful for this model to Sister Ishpriya. Below is the schema she gave us on a study retreat. Whilst it refers specifically to the religious practice and experience, I believe that it has a much wider application.

It is particularly useful when we want to change (or help another to change) because we can see very quickly where we are likely to meet the strongest resistance to change and where the least

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The True Levellers

Years ago, I came across the work of Gerrard Winstanley and the "Diggers" as a result of reading a book called Ringolevio by 'Emmett Grogan'. I was struck by the coincidence that, in 1968, I had given away some 500 books of my library to a school in Weybridge where Winstanley had set up the first Digger community (1649) during the Second Civil War. Searching for more information about this strange character from our attempt to establish 'God's republic', I came across his pamphlet The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men

This extraordinary document is now online but it is its first sentences which really stuck in my head:
"In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning: That one branch of mankind should rule over another."

The notion that creation is a "Common Treasury" and that property 'rights' are a confidence trick practised by the powerful to oppress the powerless chimed with my understanding of reality. Indeed, although I have always been a great fan of the Enlightenment, I had been dubious about the third 'right' proclaimed by John Locke, the 'right to property'. It cannot be a coincidence that, despite the fact that the American Revolution was a revolution by property owners, Jefferson amended this to read "the pursuit of happiness". Winstanley understood that happiness is not a result of ownership because all ownership is an illusion. Even though it wasn't until 1840 that Prudhom declared that "Property is theft", the True Levellers had lived it out, one of the first communities since the Acts of the Apostles to hold everything in common.

Today, we are deeply concerned about the state of our planet, about climate change and about the ecological damage that is increasingly apparent, Winstanley's call to care for our Common Treasury resonates even more loudly.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


"Be still and know..."

Listening today to Something Understood on Radio 4 about the role of ways of knowing other than the rational, I am brought to reflect on reflection as preparation for both activity, including writing, and for meditation.

Saint Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises as we practised them in the novitiate and on retreat, gives a prayer to be said before each period of meditation to purify the intention and one of my earliest Buddhist teachers used to spend preliminary time focusing on intention.There is, however, more to preparation than simply intention, particularly preparation for action and for discursive or visualisation meditation. There is the 'wake up' call to the unconscious processes.

Sometimes I find that music helps to set my rational mind freewheeling, although I will turn it off for meditation time itself. I notice that surgeons (and pathologists) often work to music.

At other times, I will read a short passage over a few times. I used to use Scripture or the sutras but, today, I am much more likely to use poetry or a story (Anthony de Mello is useful) to set mood and tone.

Of course, once the task, be it writing or meditation is under way (under weigh? like a ship), there is no guarantee that the initial tone will persist but that hardly matters. This is just like an athlete warming up. Saint Paul compares the Christian to someone in a race and those of us who have done sport will know the importance of the warm-up session - and, indeed, a cool down afterwards. I have found that a pre- and post-meditation discipline has helped enormously. The addition of prostrations before sitting seems to have enable a greater quiet, although it is harder to practise this when I am in a semi-public place like Emmaus House. My solution is to try to turn up a bout ten minutes before meditation time.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I have posted a long-ish conversation about the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity on my website:

Buddhist-Xtian Synthesis: A Dialogue.
Once again, I start out in the hope that I can break away from my need to respond rather than initiate ideas. Making this part of my daily discipline, perhaps?

This is a memory piece that may start me off. I am describing
moments that remain in memory as "marked with a white stone". It is 1961, we are all around 17 and our philosophy master asks us about freedom. He was returning our essays in which we compared and contrasted Rousseau and Sartre's notions. I shudder, today, to think what trash I wrote - the content? Prothesis, antithesis and synthesis in the approved fashion, they have all have passed into the blank places of my memory. - Did we imagine ourselves free? M. Chambon asked us.
- We are subject to social, parental, school and, for some, religious structures, rules and injunctions. How can we call ourselves free? We are creatures of instinct and biological pressures (17, for God's sake! And sexual intercourse not yet invented). Is any part of our lives free?
The debate lasted nearly the whole two hours, continued through to the next day, in forbidden coffee bars and cluttered bedrooms. No internet and the 'phone rationed but gatherings of small groups. The next day, M. Chambon walked in to the classroom and wrote, in his neat, legible hand, on the blackboard (I can even smell the chalk today):

L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser: une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui, l’univers n’en sait rien.
Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. C’est de là qu’il nous faut relever et non de l’espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir. Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale ."
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1660), fragments 347-348, Éd. Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976, pp. 1156-1157.)
[My translation:
Humans are reeds, weakest thing in nature; but they are thinking reeds. It does not need the whole universe to crush them; a mist, a drop of water are enough to kill them. Yet even if the universe crushed them humans would be nobler than their killer because they know that they are dying and the universe has no understanding of its advantage.

It is clear, therefore, that the whole of our dignity rests in thinking. That is what we must understand, not space or time, neither of which can satisfy us. Let us work to think well: that is the basis of the good life.]

It is at that time that my own fascination with Christianity (a strange body of belief to a good secularly-educated boy) led me to ask the Catholic priest who came to give after-school catechism lessons: "Should we read books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?" His answer was that it was OK if they were set by our teachers - an intriguing 'jesuitical' reply, but it did give me pause to reflect on what was meant by the contemporary debate on freedom of conscience. The Pope had called the Second Vatican Council but it had yet to meet, let alone decide anything. We were very excited and exercised by the possibilities.

Over the years, I have encountered both mainstream religions and the sort of esotericism beloved of some, with their churches and lodges. At that time, I was reading Blavatsky, Steiner and Alice Bailey as well as more mainstream, canonical and deutero-canonical Christian stuff. They all have one thing in common: they have an imposable structure, rules and emphasis of loyalty. The same limitations on freedom are imposed by some of the humanisms.

To round off the memories from so long ago, I recall that we were given Voltaire's
Zadig to read with its wonderfully characteristic Voltairian episode with the angel, and to contrast it with the Book of Job. I fear that when I am told to bend the knee before someone else's 'truth' (for their own, specific definition of 'truth'), my "Inner Zadig" pipes up with "But......?" Nevertheless, I also hold to a hope, rather than a belief, a faith perhaps, that there is no such thing in the universe as waste so the time (cumulatively, probably, years) on encounters with faiths, their stories and practices, the baggage that I have acquired and which decorates the temporary mansions of my mind like the objects brought back from my travels, add up to something of use on the path, if only on my own path.