It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. ee cummings

In the long descent into the dark fungus I forgot who I really was. I thought that courage was all about burying the stuff. Locking it up. Not going there. Shutting down. In that place the fungus took over and spread, sapping the energy of courage and who I was. Slow strangulation.

Funny how the act of burial meant I was addicted to self, preoccupied. The opposite was not true.

Not sure where I found the courage to go to the burial ground of my emotions and dig them up. But I became the archaeologist of my own soul. It’s not always been nice and I am not all grown up yet and who I really am is being worked on. There are bits of the dark stuff hanging around but that’s ok.


More fathoming of the not self

This has been inspired by a talk I heard on the notion of anatta, the Buddhist idea of the not self. It is my feeble attempt to understand from someone who knows way more than me and I urge you to go to the original talk on the website which I quote below.

Martin Aylward in his teaching on the website Worldwide Insight * invites us to put aside ideas about self; we are encouraged to not take up a fixed position and instead he talks about freeing up the self. Interestingly though, he does not negate self and goes to some lengths to underline that in ordinary experience there is self, giving us examples of when self is paramount (we shut out the world) and when it plays less of a role because we open ourselves up to the senses whilst say, watching a sunrise or looking at a mountain.


The teaching centres on how we can learn to recognise, allow and make room for the sense of self and then inhabit the feeling of the hereness of ourselves. This is not about whether or not we have a self. Instead rather we begin to investigate the ambiguities and mysteries of the self because the sense of self is undeniable.

Aylward urges us to hang out with and investigate the ambiguity.

Here’s the thing. If we fill up our space with a sense of self, he says, it will become solidified; if we think about it the ‘I, me and mine, the question of how good or bad we are or how others see us’ makes us what he called ‘self-enveloped’. Robert Wright+, in the same vein, quotes Rahula, a Buddhist monk about how a focus on the self can be harmful. It is the source of all troubles in the world, he posits.

On the other hand we could experience a radical change to the idea of the self and tempt to switch the self away from the drama, the struggle and the messy old stuff of self. It is, Aylward says, very seductive to put this aside but not something we should do. He turns though to what he sees about the importance of where we are located in body, heart, mind and organs because this ground, location, this uniqueness of place is undeniable. He asks a series of questions:

  • How am I, right now, right here?
  • How is the one who appears here?
  • What’s it like to be here right now?

So we frame it in the following way. If we fixate in our thinking of how we are then we become insular but if we lose the uniqueness of our hereness then we negate ourselves. All the time though we have a willingness to doubt, to keep alive our ambiguity and keep on finding out more about the vastness of ourselves. He emphasises how we are available to experience instead of being trapped in the world of the binary existence / non-existence. Ambiguity, he suggests, allows us a certain creative engagement. This, for me, is perhaps the key point about how we widen the lens if we are open this way.

Aylward continues by posing the question which I love because it makes such sense: how is this collection of habits I am emerging with right now? What habitual reactions are being brought up right now? How can I engage with this moment, this situation?

He gets me to think differently and looks at the following sentence – ‘you are beautiful just the way you are’ and turns it upside down by saying ‘you are not beautiful and you are not ugly’. Instead he says, ‘You are just the way you are’. Absolutely! Saying it this way opens up possibilities when you consider the questions:

  • How are you right now?
  • How and where is the experience landing right now?

This helps us to avoid rigid views about the self.

Camping in Dorset 028.jpg

Aylward offers practical advice on how to proceed. Naturally, he turns to meditation as the way towards a deeper insight by saying that this is the way to sharpen our curiosity about who, what, is here.  In meditation we ask ourselves – How is the experience landing right now?

This, it is suggested, is the invitation to allow any experience of the appearance of self or what I think myself to be, the myriad nature of who I am:

right, wrong, angry, happy, clear, confused

In this way we become comfortable with all our expressions of our humanity and how we are full of possibility. It provides more room and space and we are enabled and willing to include more wisdom response.

The results are a more attuned and aligned self and, in the process, we don’t need to take things so personally and we don’t have to believe that as me any more. We start to see it as an expression of the non-self and the non-fixedness of self. In making room for our non-self existence there are more possibilities as we navigate in the world, remembering we do not exist by ourselves becuase we exist in a context.

So when we consider our roles as lover, friend, employee, meditator we exist for others in our various roles. Aylward gives the example of when we show up at work which I find particularly helpful. Here, we may squash ourselves into a particular role and then experience a kind of anxiety, righteousness or defensiveness in trying to protect, sustain or feel comfortable in the role because the role becomes representative of who I am.

Certainly our various roles reflect back to ourselves our very ambiguity.

The question is asked. Is there a way we relate to the role? Is there a friction in the role? Is the friction related to how we have picked up the role and made too much of it with the result we have hardened the view of the role of who I am, of who you are? Perhaps we have used this to see how we have taken ourselves to be. And these end up to be accumulated assumptions of who we are and really does say out loud, ‘I want you to show up in a particular way’. We cannot have an idea of self without being filtered through by an other but the chance for more fluidity means we can break out of fixedness and give us space about how we see ourselves and the other.

In living in the world and dealing with stuff there is the sense that a lot of contractions happen around yourself are that you blame yourself. Or that there is a competition to be a certain way.

Flip this on its head and show up in the world with the ambiguous sense of self, remembering everything is within yourself. When we accommodate all the senses of self, we begin to have a changed relationship with feelings of anger and aggression and help us to move away from fixed positions. Wright says the same thing: with this work you begin ‘to feel a new sense of connection with your fellow creatures and a new sense of generosity towards them’.


Aylward’s teaching turns towards our place in the world. He provides several examples. ‘He is wrong’, we say, makes us feel right and better. Anger with another can be habitual and reactive and SELF making. These destructive urges mean that we are locked into being a SELF and the other into a SELF.

If we flip this on the head and are more ambiguous and open to a full kind of experience and all those senses of selves we will no doubt have a wider view: all people are trying their best. We stop making them into a SELF that is wrong and bad because we are connected to the nature of self and aware that we are standing on the same earth. This is powerful stuff.

Appearances of senses of self allows room for a greater awareness that we are all experiencing and all feeling the same things like love and fear. Then – and this is an important then – when we do this we can stand up for ourselves and stand up for all the company of beings. Even those, yes, even those who are drawn into a rigid sense of self share the same earth.

Wright argues that we should think of ourselves as having the power to establish a different relationship with our feelings on the road to understanding our not self and, in many ways, Aylward says the same thing although, to my mind, he says it differently.

Aylward talks about the heart of our being which is knowing our non-difference and knowing ourselves in the company of everyone, making room for a myriad of selves.

This is important stuff as we go deeper and understand the way in which we exist in the world and how we relate to the other. I love the way he ends by quoting something from Ram Das, who acknowledged the difficulty of loving some people: do what you need to do with people, but never put them out of your heart.

This is called liberated activism and we now it seems we are grounded to be where we are.



Why Buddhism is True

Building tree houses in our minds

Just been listening to a podcast* with Dan Harris and Jeff Warren in conversation about their new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book and they started to talk about how we build tree houses in our minds, climb up and stay there – all we can see is the forest. Apparently it was an image from Saul Bellow. Anyway, the imagery got me thinking …

About how we can become so fixated on our stuff and begin to live in a tree house. As Jeff Warren says in the podcast, we start paving the tree house with mirrors and reflect back on ourselves our own thoughts, ideas and obsessions about whatever. This tree house becomes our world.

The way to get down out of the tree house is to meditate, the book argues. Then you can see the ‘figure inside the ground’ – the tree house against the backdrop of a mountain or other parts of our landscape. Ah, perspective which is liberating and helps us to get unstuck from our trance, our tree house of the mind.

Meditation helps us notice how we are feeling right now and we can pop out of the trance as Jeff Warren says.

I find this imagery very helpful and a great steer about how to get an altogether different angle on the figure inside the ground.


You can find Jeff Warren at The Consciousness Explorers Club

and at





Darkness Examined: Making a start


“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

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.


Compassion Examined: beyond the start


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.


Compassion Examined: a start

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.

The Vatican