Saturday, 31 July 2010

On-board flight announcement.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. This is your cabin steward speaking. Welcome aboard this Planet Earth Airways, long-haul flight to an unknown destination.

Please listen carefully to the following safety announcement.
All the emergency exits are now being indicated by our cabin staff .....
Some exits can only be operated with cash or a credit card; others are colour coded for the convenience of those who prefer to stick with their own racial type in an emergency. We have provided buckets of sand at convenient points in the cabin where you can bury your head if you prefer that when you are frightened.

One of the cabin staff will now demonstrate the brace position which you should adopt in the event of an emergency. ... As you can see this involves a considerable amount of muscle tension. We recommend that you keep your seat belt buckled and adopt the brace position at all times during the flight – it's bound to be turbulent.

Planet Earth Airways Plc earnestly desires your safety and comfort, so we will be providing you with endless entertainment, food and drink, and er.... drugs just to take your mind off things.

Thank you for your attention. Thank you for flying Planet Earth Airways. Please now sit back and try to enjoy the flight.


Friends, this is one of your fellow passengers speaking. As the cabin steward said, this is a long haul flight and we are in it together so I feel I should tell you that there is bad news and good news about our situation.

Let’s start with the bad news. That safety announcement is, I am afraid, seriously misleading. There are in fact, no exits. There is no way we can get off even if the oxygen runs out. The so-called exit doors lead to oblivion of one sort or another, whether drink or drug induced or through endless shopping and entertainment. I realise that in telling you this bad news there is a risk that some of you will be overcome by air rage or other forms of selfish or self indulgent panic behaviour; but wait! Here’s the good news.

Planet Earth Airways Plc may think it has all the answers but it is mistaken. For starters, it doesn’t even own the flight. It is attempting a take-over but it doesn’t understand how to run an airline of this sort. The truth is that the flight has been designed for our maximum safety and comfort provided we follow a few simple rules.

One word sums up the first rule: trust. I have to be honest with you and say that, given our current level of knowledge, we don’t really understand how the whole thing works. Indeed the flight seems to be on auto-pilot. There’s no one on the flight deck! However, what we have begun to discover is that in some mysterious way we are part of the control system. We are responsible for a lot of what happens on the flight. You might even say, we are the pilot.

Unfortunately Planet Earth Airways plc has made it very difficult for us to appreciate this simple but stupendous fact. The brace position they recommend makes it impossible to trust anything or anyone. So forget it. Never do anything while in the brace position. I recommend instead the trust position which is much more relaxed. Just try standing still for a moment and then start, very slowly, to raise your arms, turning your palms up as you do so. Notice what happens to your mental and physical condition.

The second rule for comfort on this flight is don’t judge. It’s helpful to put this rule in a positive way with just one word – YES. Always begin by saying yes to what is happening here and now, inside you and around you.. Don’t censor. Don’t label some things ‘good’ and others ‘bad’. Just observe them, without judgement. Once you start looking you will see that we do an awful lot of judging – our thoughts, our actions, our feelings, other peoples’ actions, words. Most of the time we hardly realise that’s what we are doing. The trick is not to try and stop judging. That only seems to make things worse. The trick is to observe, calmly, without judgement. That seems to put us in touch with a deep well of peace. You might even say it puts us in touch with our inner pilot! Then what to do in each situation (emergency or otherwise) becomes much clearer

So I recommend the trust position, or the relax-and-stop-judging position.

Friends, we are now travelling at the speed of love.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The narrow gate

I go to hear Tim Parks at the London Review Bookshop, talking about his latest book, ‘Teach Us To Sit Still’. It describes, in brilliant and entertaining detail, how he eventually found relief from years of intense pain by learning to meditate at an Italian vipasana. Later in the question and answer session he is asked how he coped with what the questioner describes as the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of Buddhist belief (in re-incarnation for example). With a dodgy microphone I am a bit hazy about Park’s reply: it is something like, ‘given the relief which this form of meditation has afforded me, who am I to worry about the wrapping it comes in?’

The audience’s level of ignorance about meditation surprises me. I am used to the assumption that only Buddhists or Hindus meditate - not Christians – but apparently no one in this well read and intelligent group of people knows about the manifold forms (wrappings!) in which we Europeans now practice the art.

I say ‘art’: ‘discipline’ is an equally appropriate word. The wrapping, the religious and cultural assumptions surrounding forms of meditation, are secondary. What matters: matters profoundly, is that we practice the discipline. Another questioner begins by saying, “I tried meditation a few years ago but.....”

William Leith, reviewing Parks’ book in The Observer, writes,
“About now, Parks has his spiritual breakthrough. He realises that, as a writer, he hardly ever lives in the moment – up to now, he's spent the vast majority of his time thinking about how to translate his experiences into words. He's been living in the past, and in the future, but never quite in the present.”
Precisely. Without the discipline of a meditative practice we are always going to be seduced, sucked away, into the past or the future. That’s why Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate....” Sometimes only severe pain gives us the motivation to persist in the search for that gate into the present, the Now.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The cheapest room in the house

I began last week’s posting with Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Let’s just pick up that concern again briefly. If you haven’t heard of the Avaaz website it’s worth a visit. Having organised a petition against Sakineh’s stoning, they are following it up with more pressure on the Iranians to try and stop this medieval punishment altogether.

Is there an onward flow of human progress: a growth in right brain consciousness? This blog, The Now Show, arose out of my discovery that there is much more to life than left brain, ‘logical’ thinking. I am just one among many thousands (millions?) who are making a similar discovery, but it isn’t clear yet whether enough of us humans will develop this discipline soon enough to stem the tide of madness which sometimes threatens to engulf us.

People get frightened when the rules, as they understand them, are being challenged (the elder son for example in last week’s post about Jesus’ parable). Fear drives people to tighten the rules: to be less compassionate: less aware of our solidarity with all other humans on the planet: less able to exercise wisdom. It’s all perfectly logical of course; that’s the power of left brain thinking and it is essential for our humanity to survive and flourish. It’s just very dangerous when it isn’t tempered by right brain disciplined insight and wisdom.

The Vatican has just amended the Roman Catholic Church’s code of canon law. Law codes are left brain documents by definition: very logical. So now, apparently, it is a crime for any Roman Catholic priest to be involved in the ordination of a woman. What is it with religion and women?!! I know, I know – it’s just sex and us men have always had a problem with it. So maybe this is another example of men getting frightened and tightening up the rules.

The first example in Christian history came within fifteen years of the birth of the church. Jewish law said that all males must be circumcised and at first all converts were Jewish, so there was no problem. Paul, however, was making Gentile converts without demanding that they comply with Jewish law. Fortunately he won the argument with Peter and the rest of the new community in Jerusalem. Not that Paul was without prejudice: women, he thought, should not speak in church and should keep their heads covered ‘for fear of the angels’!

In Christianity, and I suspect in most religions, there has always been tension between law and grace: between left brain and right brain disciplines. I hope that we are living through a period of profound readjustment of the balance between the two. Christina Feldman, in her book, ‘Compassion’ quotes a Sufi saying,
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house and I’d like to see you in better accommodation.”
Well, amen to that.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Coming home : to non-violence

So we hope that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will escape death by stoning in Iran, though they still might find some other way to kill her.

John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus confronted by a righteous mob about to stone a woman accused of adultery. “The law says we should stone this woman,” they say to Jesus, hoping to trap him, “what’s your opinion?” Jesus says nothing, just sits there doodling in the sand. They press their question until Jesus finally looks up, says, “That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone,” then returns to his doodling. Sheepishly they all drift away until Jesus and the woman are left together. I can imagine Jesus looking round with mock surprise before saying with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh! Where are they all? Haven’t they condemned you?” “No, sir,” she replies. “Nor do I,” says Jesus, “Go, and do not sin again."

What is not so well known about this story is that the early Christians were worried about it. They didn’t know what to do with it. These days it appears in the 7th chapter of John’s Gospel beginning at verse 53 but in some of the very earliest manuscripts it is missing, or is placed in chapter 21; in others you find it in Luke’s Gospel at chapter 21, verse 38. Fortunately most of them were too honest to cut it out but clearly the startling moral liberality of Jesus was a problem for them. Of course, the story lacks the depth and subtlety of the actual human encounter between Jesus and the woman. A little bit of explanation might help us anxious moralists. What we’ve got are clues in some of the stories or parables Jesus told, like the one usually called ‘the prodigal son’. (Luke’s Gospel chapter 15 verse 11)

The ‘prodigal’ goes off to a foreign country and squanders his inheritance in riotous living. When he reaches rock bottom he has a change of heart and decides to go home. On his way he rehearses what he’s going to say to Dad when he gets back: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” His father, who has been longing for his home-coming, rushes out to greet him with hugs and kisses. Son tries to go through with his stiff, formal, rehearsed statement but Dad interrupts him with delighted preparations to celebrate his return.

At one level the point of the story is pretty clear: God loves us and will always welcome us when we ‘repent’ and return. However, it’s not ‘the parable of the prodigal son’: it’s the story of two sons. The second one never left home and he resents the celebrations laid on for his feckless brother. Dad says to him, “Look, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” So apparently, you can stay at home physically and just not get it: just not understand what home really is. There you are, keeping all the rules (even ones which say that adulterous women should be stoned to death) and somehow it’s not a happy place to be. Sticking to the letter of the law sows the seeds of resentment and anger because others are ‘getting away with it’. “I have to be hard on myself to keep these rules and there you are going off and just doing what the hell you like!”

No wonder they crucified Jesus! You can’t live like that can you!

Or can you?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Lost in translation?

For the next edition of A History of the World in 100 Objects, they are going to translate something from English into French, from French into Greek and finally from Greek back into English using a standard internet translator thingy. The idea is to show how garbled things can get in such a process.

I ended my last blog with the word ‘compassion’. I’m reading a book with that title by Christina Feldman who is a Buddhist. It occurs to me that perhaps ‘compassion’ is more a Buddhist than a Christian word so I turn to my New Testament Greek lexicon. My computer skills don’t run to printing the Greek word which is translated ‘compassion’ so here’s a rough transliteration of it: splagxnizomai. It occurs five or six times in Matthews Gospel, four times in Mark and three in Luke (for example the Good Samaritan in the famous parable has compassion on the mugged traveller). There’s a dramatic use of the associated word ‘splagxnon’ in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter one) where some unfortunate has a serious fall so that ‘he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out’! So compassion in New Testament Greek is a matter of the guts: it’s visceral. When Oliver Cromwell said, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”, he was trying to have an argument in a compassionate way.

Now, the writer of John’s Gospel is not interested in the guts – never once uses the word. He’s your man for ‘agape’: one of the New Testament Greek words for ‘love’. Two of the others are, ‘eros’(from which comes our word ‘erotic’) and ‘philia’ (sort of ‘family love’). So you might be forgiven for thinking that love in the Christian tradition is somehow more of a mental attitude than a response of the whole person – body as well as mind and spirit; and you’d be in good company. Down the ages us Christians have been suspicious of our bodies; treacherous things leading us into lust; not at all helpful when it comes to loving our neighbours (never mind ourselves). But suppose we got it wrong from the beginning? Jesus spoke Aramaic not Greek. What was his word for love? Did we lose something in translating it into Greek? If there’s an expert in Aramaic out there who can help me I’d be very grateful.

Does it matter? It matters to me because, as my body begins to remind me that I am entering old age, I am coming to appreciate more deeply that it’s the only one I’ve got. With my discovery of contemplative prayer has come a much more respectful attitude to my body, including its aches and pains. I realise that there is no other way to the 'eternal' than through this transient physical form. It’s the only way to the attitude Wordsworth was exploring in the poem I quoted last week:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”

Is that best described by the word ‘love’ or by ‘compassion’? Given our mangling of the word love, I prefer compassion.