Darkness Examined: Making a start

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“The great James Baldwin said ‘You will never fix what you don’t have the courage to face.’ Perhaps one of the best expressions of courage is to honestly face the ugliness of life.”

Kevin Cosby quoted in http://www.onbeing.org

Unexamined darkness can lead to all sorts of problems. We all want to block out pain which very much inhabits darkness; we all want to run and hide from things, which include coming to terms with ourselves and there is nothing comfortable about this. This is most certainly not about inflicting pain on ourselves but simply doing the face up and being curious.

Richard Rohr says that success teaches you nothing. You only feel good. I wish he was wrong but more often than not the obstacles, the tricky stuff are the greater teachers. Dark places, if you allow them, also teach something.

I know, I know. I also hate the dark places. They are not much fun and usually when I have been there I feel closed in with no horizons and outlook. It’s like a small, dark room where we are held prisoner. Just sheer terror.

What is your choice of terror that expresses itself physically? Palpitations? Sore stomach? Numbness? We all have one and we feel the unpleasantness.

How do we make these dark places wake us up to what is going on, instead of us wanting to shut down? How do we shake the darkness to allow a tiny bit of light in? How can we become curious instead of running a hundred miles? How do we stop and turn around and stay there just for a bit to allow the darkness to actually help us?

We don’t have to be completely certain as we take the opportunity to take the first step. We may stumble and even fall because we are groping in the dark – darn, it’s dark in here – to find the chink of light and part of this entire waking up bit is to become curious about what we are feeling rather than being terrified. Not easy at all – and I know that this is not a short, non-stop flight out of that place in first class seats on the fanciest airline to a tropical island. It’s more like a swamp and mud and smelly water and, just for good measure, throw in a couple of props like crocks and crawly things that bite.

The first thing we will look for are the duckboards so we don’t get into the swamp. You and me both. Why get our feet muddy and bitten, I ask you? The bad news is that we have to walk through it to get to the other side. Trying to use the duckboards on the edge will only get us back into that dark room again. No short cuts outta here. No little walk in the park. I think when we get this on our first step that’s when we start to wake up.

The swamp is the brave part, the facing up, the accepting bit and saying, actually ‘I am OK. I am all I’ve got. Everything is here.’

The swamp is the place that the bully in your head will tell you that you can’t do it. The swamp is the place that says you are not OK and you are nothing and you are not enough. The trick is to stay awake, stare the bully in the face. Grab her or him by the collar and say, ‘Look, buster. You are blocking the path and – sure you have had a lot to say for yourself. Just step out of the way. I’ve got a swamp to walk through.’

And one of those props – maybe an Egyptian swimming cobra – do they swim? Yeah, this one does – will scare the pants off you, but remember that they are only props to scare you and a little dash of bravery – you don’t have to be Spiderman all in one day – goes a hellava long way as you wade through the slush and muck of the swamp.

The bully will follow as sure as the sun rises in the morning. That’s the nature of the beast. Acknowledge their presence but don’t believe a word that they say because they are liars and cheats and thieves and not very nice people. (Funny how we give them entry into our head but we do do crazy things at times.)

Remember this swamp only gets the better of you if you listen to the bully saying you can’t do it. Sure, you will be terrified. I hate crocks too. But they are only crocks – cardboard cut outs – and the swamp is not a great place to be. It’s not a carnival I know but keep walking, stumbling and falling and keeping awake and saying ‘I am OK and I will find the shore and dry land. Gosh, it will be sweet. But first I’ve gotta swamp to walk through.’

Next time, on SchoolOfBlue: what happens when we emerge from the swamp. Hope is much about memory and so it is probably a good idea to remember and to get curious as to why we ended up in the dark place in the first instance – a way into helping us to keep awake, self-aware and open and receptive to our feelings as we make our way on dry land: we do this in the glare of the examined darkness. I suppose it’s part of the process of dealing with stuff that we now have the courage to face.

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Compassion Examined: beyond the start

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In a recent blog, Compassion Examined: A Start, I made reference to the inspirational words said by Dr King in 1967 and, as I set them out, I suddenly became completely overwhelmed by the enormity of  re-building the road to Jericho: “It comes to see,” he said, “that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” This transformation and re-structuring is massive: it takes in a universal understanding of compassion at every level and in every cell. Its breadth is breath-taking.

I want to apply it to our personal and professional lives and to give a new dimension to the ‘good Samaritan’ so it is well worth re-quoting:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (“A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church, Martin Luther King)

Initial acts are fine and we have to make a start but, I think, our personal journeys down the road to Jericho probably need large doses of re-imagination. Our personal will intersect with our professional and if we claim to be compassionate, then there must be alignment between what happens in both spheres.

However, before we bring in the heavy equipment and the land-surveyors and the road experts to re-build the road, we possibly need a chance to think carefully about what we are needing to do. The task is daunting.

We start by considering our human condition: ‘here we suffer grief and pain and next door they do the same’ is probably the best way to become aware of what this means at the very basic level. Simply acknowledging that we all, in our own way, suffer and struggle is a clear and simple act of openness and being receptive to a wider view of our shared humanity. Its the opportunity to ventilate and allow oxygen in. Put simply, it is about being expansive.

We start too by considering what compassion means and how it is beyond empathy and that it requires boundaries. Just saying this is huge.

In the TED talk, Krista Tippett renews her faith with the word and colours it correctly so with kindness.

Compassion is a piece of vocabulary that could change us if we truly let it sink into the standards to which we hold ourselves and others, both in our private and in our civic spaces. So what is it, three-dimensionally? What are its kindred and component parts? What’s in its universe of attendant virtues? To start simply, I want to say that compassion is kind.

And then there is curiosity:

Compassion is also curious. Compassion cultivates and practices curiosity.

She makes reference to the work of others who talk about “curiosity without assumptions.” This is a lovely way to indicate receptiveness without judgement and wanting to know the other.

But this part of the understanding reaches into the very heart of the harder work, generosity and being present with the other.

Compassion can be synonymous with empathy. It can be joined with the harder work of forgiveness and reconciliation, but it can also express itself in the simple act of presence. It’s linked to practical virtues like generosity and hospitality and just being there, just showing up.

But Krista doesn’t leave it there – she is able to go into its very heart where beauty and mystery inhabits this universe.

I think that compassion also is often linked to beauty — and by that I mean a willingness to see beauty in the other, not just what it is about them that might need helping. I love it that my Muslim conversation partners often speak of beauty as a core moral value. And in that light, for the religious, compassion also brings us into the territory of mystery — encouraging us not just to see beauty, but perhaps also to look for the face of God in the moment of suffering, in the face of a stranger, in the face of the vibrant religious other.

This seems to be the shared humanity and it seems key that it happens when get the idea of suffering. 

Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion, towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others.

If I have learned anything, our problems are our greatest teachers and the richest source of rising to all the virtues.  Life is the guru. We learn from our brokenness and the difficult, tricky stuff – that is where we learn compassion.

However, this spiritual pathway, this road to Jericho, this whatever … has to be curated with great care because as Krista warns, “Compassion can’t be reduced to sainthood any more than it can be reduced to pity.” It inhabits a much wider space and it is here we can begin to re-imagine, re-build and to transform.

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Compassion Examined: a start

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The Pantheon, Rome

Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity – Pema Chodron

Shane Claiborne mentioned a reference to Dr King in a recent conversation with Krista Tippett and I felt compelled to investigate it. It comes from Martin Luther King and it throws light on the word compassion that deserves a hearing:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

“A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church

This is a massive challenge and will require considerable thought – the speech can be applied to all kinds of situations where the ‘edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring’. It is huge and the arc of Dr King’s vision a little overwhelming at this stage.

So where to start? Possibly by going to the default that most people are trying to do their best. Brene Bown refers to her husband in Rising Strong: “Steve says his life is better when he assumes people are doing the best they can. I think he’s right.”

A great way to start. It states it simply and although the living of this is hard at times, I suppose we can stop ourselves and return to this original thinking.

Trying to get to purchase on this huge topic of compassion, I also went to Pema Chodron and this is what I read from her book The Places that Scare You.

“When we practise generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently towards what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion, to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.”

This demonstrates that compassion is more than a gooey feeling. It involves work and digging down and not moving away. It takes clear thinking to allow ourselves to go to ‘places that scare us’ and ‘let fear soften us’. My reptilian brain wants to do the opposite usually. These next lines also place compassion on a new kind of footing altogether:

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others.

Again, it requires us to examine the darkness. I think that there is a book in there somewhere – The Examined Darkness: what happens when it is unexamined.  I think it means that we accept suffering and that we are open to it and don’t hide behind the sofa. “Without justifying or condemning ourselves,” Pema continues, “we do the courageous work of opening to suffering.” And this takes huge courage. The other chapter in The Examined Darkness  will have to be subtitled Battalions of Courage. 

Krista Tippett in her TED talk illuminates a new understanding of compassion and casting light and openness, saying out loud:

Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion, towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others.

Like all these thinkers and wise people they urge us to to ‘start where are and then expand our capacity’. The trick of expanding our capacity is where the battalions come in. We can start small, I suppose and ‘contact compassion where ever we find it’.

Karen Armstrong, also speaking about compassion, brings in a wonderful story in a TED talk:

There’s a famous story about the great rabbi, Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus. A pagan came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it … 

And “go and study it” was what he meant. He said, “In your exegesis, you must make it clear that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the Golden Rule.” 

Ah, yes, the Golden Rule … treat others as you would like to be treated. Perhaps it is as simple as that: recognising our shared humanity.

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The Vatican

Brooding Cargo II

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This is based on a piece that I wrote nearly three years ago. It is an African memory.

I am a brooding cargo transported from a past that had privilege based on the colour of my skin.

Is it possible to reject the context of a childhood and yet, somehow, still inexplicably have the sweetest of memories of a time that seemed to last forever?

I think it is.

When I look back – probably too often – I am pulled and punched by a land and a time that, for me, has a wonderment and a deep and lasting pain.

I grapple with the paradox.

The time that I cast my mind to is most probably rose-tinted: I want to say out loud that the land can never be – for it has been there for eons and its beauty is beyond the saying of these words; millions of eyes have surveyed it; they, too, have been transported of an evening by the sight of the sun falling into a land with a night sky that is now every inch my cargo.

Raw-Red Bone of Memory

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He called out in a distress forged in the tangle-metal of an accident. Only the songbird-needle of morphine could ever so briefly-fleetingly extinguish the misery of the wide-open unhealed wound, gaping with flesh and blood.

I lay in the next bed to him in the hospital, having been admitted in the morning, doubled over with my own pale version of pain. An emergency had whipped out a fetid appendix (yes, I know, I am being dramatic) and my only experience then was of post-anaesthesia dullness and the odd stomach muscle smarting slightly in a sudden movement.

Summoned, the nurse was unable to ease his pain. He half-shouted out that he didn’t care about being addicted to that songbird in a vial. He simply needed the sweet relief, even if it only glanced him, took the edge off.

Until today, I had completely forgotten about those midnight hours lying in a hospital bed listening to a man who sobbed in his pain, and who cursed and swore at the world. I had been  remembering my own pain, gliding in on a songbird of hope, blowing away the awful what-have-beens that sometimes fester in the raw-red bone of memory when, startled, I thought of that hospital ward thirty four years ago.

You can also access this piece at https://shorttrouseredyouth.wordpress.com

The past in lines

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England’s green and pleasant land, a universe away 

I draw on the past – its shape and form becomes the terrain to understand experience. It is my scout as I enter into the unknown territory.

The landscape of memory is drawn in crayons of a child who runs down the road towards the past and says the unsaid. It sings in a dream.

The rocks balance in the wide-blue of the skyline of a countryside that cartwheels into my dreams in a playful grin of teenagers out veld-bashing. This is the Matoba Hills.

Records play on the turntable, singing my life. I ride on a song back to another country where an awkward youth scowls back at his old self. He is alienated from the group. Wide collars and big hair somehow still don’t make him cool enough.

I flinched. He told me, trying to belittle, I was gun-shy. Too fucking right. I can still feel the hard kick of the rifle. I shudder in memory. I am not made for this.
This piece also appears in placesthatsing.wordpress.com