contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Compassion

WELL-BEING: CONTEMPLATING ACTION

“In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett put inequality at the centre of public debate by showing conclusively that less equal societies fare worse than more equal ones across everything from education to life expectancy. The Inner Level explains how inequality affects us individually, how it alters how we think, feel and behave. It sets out the overwhelming evidence that material inequities have powerful psychological effects: when the gap between rich and poor increases, so does the tendency to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority. A deep well of data and analysis is drawn upon to empirically show, for example, that low social status is associated with elevated levels of stress hormones, and how rates of anxiety and depression are intimately related to the inequality which make that status paramount.” (1)

What links contemplation and action? My answer is creative and powerful ideas. In a recent post (2), I cited Brendan Myers (3) proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good (a powerful, creative idea), and that it depends on us supporting each other’s well-being and that of the biosphere and the Earth itself (another powerful creative idea). The Spirit Level and The Inner Level concern ‘developed’ countries in the 21st century and to an extent the last two decades of the 20th. They paint a depressing picture, especially for the U.K. and the U.S.A, and for me it shows the need to champion a social ecology that supports health and well-being.

For some years I worked at the interface between public health (i.e. population-based health, largely concerned with prevention work and the creation of more supportive environments) and mental health. So, I am interested in the recent publication of The Inner Level (4) and may write further about it. Thinking about ‘health’ in the bigger picture (with service provision as only one aspect) is a positive way into social justice work, where powerful ideas can (in principle) be realised through ethical passion and political will informed by scientific evidence. It is a notion of how to do public policy that needs to be kept alive.

I know this doesn’t happen much, now, in a culture like ours with high levels of bullying, confusion, distraction and misinformation. We seem to be living with an orchestrated dumbing down of political discourse in the service of oligarchic interests. So, my first action – not always recognised as action – is personal resistance to any onset of cynicism, numbness and despair within myself. My second action – also not always recognised as action – is to work at maintaining an adequate level of knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world, using the lens of ‘powerful ideas’ to make sense of the information I digest. This includes having an historical perspective – both backwards and forwards – on current events. My third action is to place myself within networks that share my concerns and are responding to them in diverse ways – hopefully modelling cultures of: compassion (including ruthless compassion); openness and creativity; curiosity about the world; and criticality (deconstructive where necessary and appreciative where possible) in the realm of ideas and action. Further developments will come from there, and I will write about them within this blog.

Over time my contemplative life has moved towards a blend of energy work and meditative connection to source, with the practice forms kept simple. It is also the clear, awake space out of which I act in the world.

(1) https://www.equalitytrust.uk/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(4) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being

COMPASSION FIRST

“KING: Venerable teacher, I have summoned you here to teach me non-dualism.

“TEACHER: Very well, Your Majesty. But first, please allow me to teach you compassion.

“KING: I want to learn non-dualism first, then compassion.

“TEACHER: Your Majesty, I heard that you weren’t happy with your previous teacher and that you had him put to death. If I teach you non-dualism first, you might do the same to me. And then you wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn compassion. But if I am able to teach you compassion first, you will learn both.”

Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016 (Non-Duality Press is an imprint of New Harbinger Publications, Inc.)

MAKING PERSONAL VOWS

On Monday I completed a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course (1). It was not strictly Buddhist, but the teachers and all the participants were sufficiently Buddhist influenced to have had existing experience of both of mindfulness and loving-kindness practices. At the same time I believe that the overall approach can offer something for anyone concerned with the issues addressed.

One of these is making and living with vows. In this context, we make the vows to ourselves and there are two key criteria. The first is that the vow anchors an intention, rather than operating as a binding contract. The second is that vows flow out of our core values. Hence, we need to get clear about these values before making any vows.

The process for checking core values is a simple one. Bringing warm-hearted awareness to ourselves and our experience, we imagine being near the end of our lives and looking back. We ask ourselves what has given us the deepest satisfaction, joy and contentment. What values did we embody that gave our life meaning? In other words, what core values were expressed in our lives? Possible examples given by the people who developed the MSC programme are: compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature.

Having done this, we select a core value that we would like to manifest for the rest of our lives and write it in the form of a vow. In the construction of the vow, ‘May I …’ language is recommended. This strengthens a kind of commitment which is about working towards, and deepening into, the expression of the core value, rather than getting tied up in a drama of binary obedience/disobedience.

When making my own vows, I found it good to remember that they are personal and not set in concrete. They can be further changed and developed – or even dropped, if they cease to sit well. They are tools rather than rules. With the two below, I found that care with language was key to the credibility of the vow. Worded to be both simple and demanding, such vows can allow for degrees of fulfilment, and provide a kind of coaching.

May I be loving and compassionate in my personal interactions

Mindful Self-Compassion begins with ‘self’ but doesn’t – and couldn’t meaningfully – stop there. One of its merits is to resource loving-kindness and compassion to others and in the wider world. It is a preventative measure against cold charity and compassion fatigue. In the context of this vow, loving-kindness and compassion are specific terms. Loving-kindness is a basic stance of positive regard, not necessarily fuelled by natural empathy or emotion beyond a basic inclination to warmth. Compassion is loving-kindness in a situation where the other person or being is suffering. MSC, and the wider culture of Buddhist lovingkindness, provide working methods that include being kind to ourselves when we struggle with the stance of loving-kindness and compassion towards others. In working with this vow, I am not dependent on factors like self-image or passing sentiment. I have practices to support me in making the vow meaningful.

May I experience abundance in simplicity

This vow depends on a dance between two qualities that might be thought of as pulling in opposite directions. To the extent I might experience a tension myself, I am challenged to develop my understanding both of ‘abundance’ and of ‘simplicity’. One synthesis, an important one, finds a path through living lightly on the Earth as a personal witness in the face of world-pillaging and climate crisis. There’s a set of lifestyle choices to be made here, finding riches within apparent frugality. But for immediate experience, I go straight to simplicity. By this I mean slowing down, and opening to the simple now. I immerse myself in the texture of what is abundantly here and freely given. I look out of my window at late summery yellow-green ivy … abundance-in-simplicity comes in and sits on my shoulders. The point of the vow is to remind me of the miracle of being alive and to open me more fully to the gift.

(1) https://centerformsc.org/

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

POEM: THE JOURNEY

This poem by Mary Oliver is included in the material for my Mindful Self-Compassion course. I wonder how many readers feel some resonance with it.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations……

though their melancholy

was terrible.

 

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

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