Thursday, 31 March 2011

HELP!! ?

I live near Lambeth North tube station in central London. Visitors often emerge on to the complicated road junction here, on their way to a local hotel or the Imperial War Museum. They stand, bemused, unsure which way to go. Sometimes I smile and ask, ‘Can I help?’ I get a mixed response: the name of a hotel, spoken in broken English, or ‘no, thanks, I’m fine’. It occurs to me that, as a visitor in a strange city, it can be an enjoyable challenge to do your own route finding, and anyway a smiling stranger might be seen as a possible threat. Whose needs am I satisfying? - my own to be a helpful person, or theirs to be given useful guidance? Suspecting my own motives, I’ve more or less given up trying to be ‘helpful’ in this way.

There are plenty of ‘beggars’ on the streets in this part of London. Last night I gave £1 to a young woman carrying a copy of The Big Issue who obviously wasn’t a registered vendor. Later another young woman accosted me. It’s always obvious if they are going to ask for money. Thinking that she might be the same young woman I walked on. “Won’t you be a gentleman and help me?” she called after me. Should I have helped? I know all the arguments for and against ‘helping’ those who call for it on the streets. Somehow they don’t add up to a hard and fast rule that I can apply in every situation. Of course there isn’t one. What matters is that I ‘see’ this person here in front of me, without pre-judgement, and respond accordingly.

Then there’s a neighbour of ours who lives in appalling conditions in a rent protected house. This winter she has been getting more and more ill. She refuses all offers of help, official and unofficial, to be re-housed. We do what we can, dropping by most days to make sure she’s ‘all right’ (whatever that might mean in such dreadful housing conditions). I am reminded of an amusing postcard from the 1970s which said, “If things don’t improve soon I shall have to ask you to stop helping me.” There's often an element of control in the desire to help ("Better to do it my way rather than yours.") Thank God for the old adage, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ which means that officialdom is very reluctant to step in and force people to do things they don’t want to. But, as with those on the streets around here who ask me for money, what really is the best way to help? Leaving people alone can induce guilt but it does leave open the possibility that they will find a way out of their problematic situation; provided always that my leaving them alone is not simply avoidance but emerges out of 'seeing' them; out of some real human encounter no matter how fleeting.

Hmmm! Come to think about it – isn’t that not just an issue between one human being and another but also between nations? Libya?!!

Thursday, 10 March 2011


The season Christians call Lent has begun. I have a problem with it (What? Only one?) I can’t fit my personal, human experience into the church’s calendar. Lent is supposed to be a preparation for Easter. So it tends to encourage a looking forward to Easter forgetting that everything we do happens after that mysterious event which Christians have labelled the Resurrection. Easter didn’t happen two thousand years ago (a mere historical event): it is happening, now, timelessly in us. The final stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, contains the following line:
“Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,”
I like that: Easter as a verb, an activity happening now.

What comes next in this blog is going to sound like a massive digression but – patience, dear reader – the connection with Easter will emerge.

The brain is an astonishing storage system. It’s all up here in my head: that row I had with my mother/father 20, 30, 50 years ago; the way I snubbed that poor woman last week. And it’s not just a bare record of the facts: it’s the accompanying feelings. Post traumatic stress syndrome is not something which happens only to soldiers home from Afghanistan. There are a fortunate few human beings who have never had any really unpleasant experiences but most of us have not been so lucky. Most of us have stored away in our brains some unpleasant experience which can wake up and trip us up at any unexpected time. It’s no wonder the ancient Christian prayer speaks of ‘your adversary the devil,’ who goes about ‘like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.’ Lions sometimes come roaring out of our sub-conscious and swallow us up. Some people have to spend a lot of their time and most of their energy dealing with wild beasts of one sort or another.

Lent is supposed to be a time for dealing with lions but, like I said, mine don’t wait meekly until the appropriate slot on the Christian calendar. Now, here’s the good news: Easter doesn’t wait either (this year for example, until April 24th). Easter isn’t an historical event, it’s a process, going on now. Just as coping with lions can become so much a part of someone’s ‘normal’ living, so can Eastering. We’re talking about states of being – processes. The brain is not only a brilliant storage system, it is also infinitely plastic, adaptable. The neural pathways leading to lions dens can be by-passed (slowly, slowly, with persistence and patience) so that Eastering becomes more and more the dominant mode of our being. The lions are still there but even they can become part of the Eastering process: one roar and we are reminded (yes! Re-minded!) to find the vast, vibrant, expectant stillness of the Easter garden within us: both an absence and a presence. The practice of meditation is part of that process. In the stillness of our centred prayer, even when nothing seems to be happening and it all feels pointless, new pathways are being gently trodden out: new ways to the depths of who we truly are. We are Eastering people. That truth about us trumps all the lion aces our brains hold. Happy Easter – Now! Today!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Anti-freeze treatment.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman. For sheltering Jews she and her sister Betsy were consigned to a Nazi concentration camp. Corrie survived. Her sister did not. Sometime after the war Corrie visited Cologne cathedral. Imagine her consternation as she was confronted by the smiling face and outstretched hand of one of the camp guards – now presumably a worshipper at the cathedral! Corrie froze and in her heart said, “Jesus, I cannot forgive this person. You must do it for me.” She felt herself relax and was able to take the proffered hand.

Two things are essential to mindful living in the present moment: they are encoded in the Christian words ‘confession’ and ‘forgiveness’. Decoded, these words reveal a more or less universal experience, summed up in Eckhart Tolle’s words, “Enlightenment is saying ‘yes’ to what is.” Corrie’s frozen arm was thawed because she tapped into that centre of conscious awareness available to every human being underneath any words we might use to describe it. In practice it is a process of simply noticing what is going on in us at any given moment: especially a stressful one. With practice we begin to recognise, not only thoughts but also emotions and the physical sensations that accompany them (raised pulse rate; ‘butterflies in the stomach’, etc). Christians have labelled this simple, but not always easy, process ‘confession’ – ‘this is how things are for me at this moment’: no pretence, no avoidance of the reality, just unadorned, non-judgemental, witnessing acceptance.

The miracle known as ‘forgiveness’ seems to happen almost simultaneously. Result: unfreezing, fresh flow, a real choice about how to respond. Given a choice, a real choice, how might Corrie have responded? As she took that person’s hand she might have said, “You don’t recognise me do you?” and so initiated a conversation that might have been healing for both of them. Almost anything was possible, and still is.

But suppose we miss the moment and stomp off filled with unresolved emotion? All is not lost. As soon as we recognise what has happened we can witness what is now going on in us. The original anger, resentment, or whatever, might now be mixed with regret or guilt or annoyance with ourselves about having missed the opportunity. There is always the miracle of the Now. Any aspect of our experience, fully acknowledged becomes anti-freeze treatment.