Saturday, 16 July 2011

Enigma code

All those cryptographers working in secret at Bletchley Park during the war were honoured by the Queen this week. They weren’t the only ones working on an enigma, among them a strange Russian mystic called Gurdjieff. His writings are almost as impenetrable as that Nazi code. A relative sent me a book about him. I have tried reading it but as the sender feared I felt bound to return it with the following comment:
“You were wise to be uncertain about my reception of this book. There are many ways of encoding the truth about Being but Mr. Gurdjieff’s is not one that I can easily access. At my stage of the proceedings known as ‘life’ I have enough cryptographers to help me on what remains of my way.”

We are bound to use code when talking about ‘God’ and the meaning of life. In last Saturday’s Guardian the Archbishop of Canterbury is reported as saying, “We must get to grips with the idea that we don’t contribute anything to God; that God would be the same God if we had never been created. God is simply and eternally happy to be God.” Now that is code I cannot decipher. Could we substitute the word ‘universe’ where the Archbishop uses ‘God’? I don’t know and I cannot ask him (the Archbishop, I mean, not God).

In the same interview the Archbishop says he prefers the word ‘trust’ to ‘faith’. That I do understand. In this morning’s yoga/meditation I find myself distracted by the Archbishop’s words and other thoughts about the meaning of life. I feel pulled away by fears arising from the state of a friend now in hospital with acute depression. Nothing makes any sense. Then I come back to this present moment, just as I am, fears, intellectual doubts and all: simply accepting it all as it is, now. It’s not that I find ‘faith’. It’s just that suddenly I am at peace. It’s a kind of trust: in what? Well, I suppose simply this moment and the next and the next. Sometimes I can find words to talk about it and some cryptographers write about it in ways that make sense to me, but mostly the enigma, the mystery requires a trustful silence. I think it's what Jesus meant by the 'the Kingdom of God', or in the words of a well known hymn: 'the silence of eternity interpreted by love'.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Beauty and the afflicted

Most people suffer in silence and privately. (Was it Thoreau who said, “Most adults lead lives of quiet desperation”?) Our media, TV as well as newspapers, like to try and uncover that suffering. ‘Human interest stories’ appealing to our emotional voyeurism are good for the media business plan. So-called ‘reality TV’ programmes depend on participants’ willingness to put themselves in stressful situations when they will inevitably display emotion. Now the News of the World’s long running habit of feeding that voyeurism is about to end.
But we are addicted to pain. We enjoy it – especially if it’s someone else’s. We’ll find some other, hopefully more scrupulous, media outlet to satisfy our addiction.

Good journalism, on the other hand, also brings us another kind of silent but very public suffering: hidden only because it’s happening a long way away. Fortunately (if that’s the right word) the plight of perhaps 8 million people would be almost impossible to hide even if they all wished to avoid media attention. Even so I wince when the cameras focus on some emaciated woman cradling a dying child. Does she want that kind of intrusion? Did the reporter ask her permission before the cameras zoomed in? I don’t know but here I am a few thousand miles away in comfort unimaginable to her.

Who said,
“There is beauty and there are the afflicted and whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I wish to be unfaithful neither to the one nor to the other.”?
Google doesn’t recognise the quote as my memory has preserved it (I think it may have been a French philosopher. Anyone know?) Anyway, even if my memory is faulty it presents me with a valuable maxim. There’s a hell of a lot of human suffering around (including, I try to remind myself, the pain of News of the World reporters and executives). What can I do about it? Thanks to some reporters in Kenya I can donate to the Disasters Emergency Relief Fund. More generally I can refrain from adding to the sum total of human misery by dealing with my own so that it doesn’t spill out and infect those around me; so that I don’t satisfy my latent emotional voyeurism by buying newspapers which feed it. I can recognise my own addiction to pain and unhappiness and find beneath it the truth about myself and every other human being. You want me to spell that truth out? That’s what this blog keeps trying to do!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

How do you know?

“But how do you know?” the man kept insistently asking, “How do you know!”
I was at St. James Church, Piccadilly, in the heart of London last night to hear Simon Parke talking about living in the present. Simon had been speaking about what we are not: not our passing thoughts and emotions, not our worries and resentments and anger, not our plans for the future, not the roles we assume (husband, wife, athlete, hairdresser, executive and so on). So what are we and how do we know it? You could hear and feel the man’s anxiety in the aggressive and insistent repetition of his question. Perhaps like most of us he had always been able to identify himself with the things we can know about ourselves. We can build a personality and identity out of these things that we know. We can even measure some of them: I am chief executive of this company and I earn this much per year and I can afford this house. Other things we know about ourselves are intangible and even sometimes dangerous to us and to people around us. ‘I am this poor little person who is always downtrodden’. ‘I am this invalid’, this ‘hard man not to be trifled with’, this expert in some field or other, even this expert in myself.

But suppose we are not, essentially, any of these things. Most of them are only semi-permanent anyway: some are mere fleeting shadows. Suppose I am not anything – any ‘thing’!

Suppose I simply AM?! Suppose this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will find it.”

‘Who am I?’ is the question human beings have been asking ever since we became self-conscious. Cogito, ergo sum, is the answer the philosopher Descartes came up with: “I think, therefore I am.” Simon Parke was inviting us to approach that ultimate question from the standpoint of Jesus. Underneath all the thinking is a deeper more fundamental reality. The problem is actually talking about it which is why it is easier, and safer, to talk about what it is not. Have the courage to keep stripping away all that we think we are and the result is not (or not necessarily) a hopeless empty nihilism. It does involve emptiness, but a hopeful, creative kind of emptiness. The address of this blog is www.spacesilencestillness. Keep stripping away what we know and we find a spacious stillness. That’s who we are.