Sunday, December 29, 2013

A POWERFUL TRANSFORMATIVE RITUAL FOR THE NEW YEAR: THE BURNING BOWL CEREMONY

The late American Protestant minister and author Dr Norman Vincent Peale once wrote, ‘There is a spiritual giant within you, which is always struggling to burst its way out of the prison you have made for it.’ That spiritual giant is a power---a potentiality---of which perhaps you are not even aware. This power can, however, remake you in every way. Call it God or the spirit of life, or Being itself, there is an almighty power and presence that lives and moves and has its being within you, and as you, which is capable of making all things new. (Note, I said all things.) That power and presence can indeed recreate each one of us in both mind and body, and fill us with new life. It can even transform our whole world.


Life is, or at least ought to be, a continual process of ‘letting go and letting be’. There is a certain ‘rhythm’ to life and Nature, and that rhythm is one of … letting go ... and letting be. Yes, letting go---so that the ‘new’ may manifest. The ‘old’ must go. As we approach the New Year, I ask you (and myself) this, ‘How willing are you---and I---to let go of all that is holding us back?’ I am thinking especially of bad habits, addictions, negative thoughts and emotions, and unhealthy relationships. 

You see, most of us resist change, largely because we fear it, but also because change---real, meaningful change in our lives---is never easy. We make so many excuses for giving up what is bad for us. We even say, ‘I can’t change. That's just the way I am’ Rubbish! That is nonsense. The way you are now may well be the way you have been for quite some time but in truth it is not the real person that you are. Actually, each of us is changing all the time. The problem is that as soon as we see we have changed (shock, horror!) we tend to revert quickly to our old selves, because that feels safer and more secure. But is it really good for us? You know the answer to that.

Now, there is a transformative ritual known as the ‘Burning Bowl Ceremony.’ It is a ritual that I have often performed both individually and in various fellowships. The performance of this ritual helps us to let go of old hurts, grudges, resentments, regrets and suffering, indeed, to relinquish anything that is holding us back and which we wish to relinquish. The ritual is commonly performed on New Year’s Eve, but it can be performed on any day of the year. (Most recently, my home congregation performed the ritual at the start of the current financial year. Not that I wanted greater prosperity ... although that might assist me in some respects.)


In most religions fire is a symbol of purification and transformation--and power! In the Burning Bowl Ceremony you write down on a small piece of paper whatever it is---it may be more than one thing---that you want to be free of. The act of committing to writing what you want gone from your life is a very important part of the letting go process. Indeed, there is great power in so doing. Then gently fold (or, if you like, roll) the piece of paper. Now, before placing the piece of paper in the ‘burning bowl,’ the latter being a fairly large, safe and unburnable bowl containing one or more lit candles to enable safe and quick burning, spend a moment or two in quiet prayer or meditation by way of personal commitment and surrender. If there is anything else holding you back---there almost always will be, you know---become aware of what it is, and let that go as well. Now set alight your piece of paper, and quickly drop the paper into the burning bowl ... before you burn yourself in the process. (I don't recommend or endorse the latter.)

Please perform this transformative ritual, either alone or with others. If you do so in a sincere, meaningful way, the ritual will help you to effect real, deep change in your life---and we all need that. And if you and I change, then others, after seeing the change in us, may decide to change as well. That is the only way to change the consciousness of our world. So please take all that I've said in this post very seriously indeed.


Saint Paul wrote ‘be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Rom 12: 2). That is what the Burning Bowl Ceremony is all about---transformation and renewal. It all begins in the mind, and takes place in the mind, before it manifests elsewhere.

May the fast approaching New Year be a great one for you and your loved ones---and may it be a time of real, meaningful spiritual growth as well.


Note. In the Burning Bowl Ceremony some people and fellowships use what is known as ‘flash paper’---available from magic supply stores---which burns in a flash and leaves no ash or residue. Flash paper is, however, ordinarily quite expensive to buy, although you can make it yourself but I don’t recommend that. I prefer to use regular but extremely thin and easily combustible paper---not tissue paper but something similar (eg crêpe paper). Then, having placed the lit paper in the bowl, I watch the flame and smoke as I ‘let go’ of whatever it is I want ‘out’ of my life forever. IEJ.




Monday, December 23, 2013

MINDFULNESS, SUPERNATURALISM, THEISM AND SPIRITUALITY

Mindfulness, whether of a Buddhist or non-Buddhist kind, does not depend for its efficacy upon any notions of supernaturalism or of a creator or interventionist God. In other words, mindfulness is entirely naturalistic and in that sense secular and non-religious (but not inherently anti-religious). I call it 'transreligious,' but that's another matter.

Naturalism and ‘supernaturalism’

For what it’s worth, my world view is entirely naturalistic and non-theistic. By ‘naturalistic’ I am referring to the rejection of any notion of there being different levels or orders of reality, irrespective of whether those levels or orders are higher and lower or otherwise of two or more kinds in some way co-existing or interpenetrating each other. By naturalistic I am also rejecting any appeal to so-called supernatural revelation or authority. By naturalistic I seek to desupernaturalize but at the same time remythologize those parts and aspects of traditional religion that are couched in supernatural terms, language and thought forms. (Years ago I read some of the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and it changed my whole approach to religion and stance on life. Ditto the writings of Professor Samuel Angus.) 

I make no apologies for saying, or doing, any of the foregoing. If religion is to survive ansd have any meaning at all for future generations, then the choice is clear what we have to do---in the light of the discoveries of modern science, the damaged state of our planet, the divisive and tribal nature of much of traditional religion, and otherwise. Supernaturalism is the enemy of all true religion and all that is good and meaningful in it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is impossible to validate supernaturalism empirically. Why? Well, for a number of reasons, perhaps the main one being that supernaturalism---whatever that term actually means (assuming it can be given any intelligible meaning at all)---has no distinctive or even special empirical traits that would enable us to distinguish ‘it’ from naturalistic alternatives. In addition, despite the efforts of Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig (pictured below right), it is also impossible to validate supernaturalism philosophically. Why? Again, for a number of reasons, perhaps the main one being that any quality, trait or attribute that supposedly pertains to the purportedly supernatural that is asserted by proponents of belief in the supernatural to be ‘necessary’ to account for some naturalistic occurrence or event can always more reasonably be said to be attributable to the natural world itself or to be simply not necessary at all. 

I will have a bit more to say about the so-called supernatural later in this post. Suffice to say I have spent a fair bit of my life arguing against the idea of supernaturalism, and my PhD thesis sought to establish, among other things, that there can be real and meaningful religion without supernaturalism.

Non-theism

By ‘non-theistic’ I am referring to the rejection of all notions of traditional theism including the idea of a supernatural personal or super-personal being who, supposedly, is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and everywhere present. (According to the Christian scriptures, this Being is said to have taken human form uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ, who, it is asserted, was both fully human as well as being divine.) I am, however, open to the idea of panentheism and what is known as predicate theology. I accept an amalgam of those ideas as a working hypothesis, but nothing more than that.

Allowing for such a worldview, what, then, is of ultimate importance or significance, assuming for the moment that there is anything that is! Reality, that’s what. What is reality? Well, reality is … what is … that is, life … that is, living things living out their livingness from one moment to the next. What could be more ‘ultimate’ than that? You see, if, as I think is the case, there is nothing over, beyond or outside of life itself (in the sense just described), and nothing against it or in any way in opposition to it, we must be dealing with something of supreme, indeed, ultimate importance, which transcends everything else in terms of importance and lasting value.

The ‘spiritual’

Now, the word view I have just described can, for the most part, be described and explained by reference to psychological mechanisms. I say ‘primarily’ because I take the view that there are some processes in the human psyche and go further---I did not say ‘beyond’---psychology as that term is ordinarily understood in Western psychology (but not Buddhist psychology). I refer to those processes as being ‘spiritual’ in nature.

Now, please understand that when I use the word ‘spiritual’ I am not referring to the so-called supernatural. Not at all. The word ‘spiritual’ is used, perhaps for want of a better word, to refer to those processes that cannot be described, or fully described, by a rational mind alone. Spirituality refers to non-physical and non-transient things such as faith, hope and charity as well as states of affairs or human consciousness which, going ‘beyond words’, are only partially (if at all) graspable by human concepts. We are talking about ‘things’ that cannot be seen but which are otherwise capable of being apprehended, if not fully understood. 

Here are some spiritual ideas. Perhaps the most important one, at least insofar as personal growth, transformation and recovery are concerned, is the idea that ‘self cannot change self.’ Then there’s the associated idea that only a ‘power-not-oneself’ can overcome the bondage of self. Even more fundamental is the idea that ‘self is an illusion.’ Traditional Western psychology has great problems with that idea. Indeed, the idea would appear to be inconsistent with the general thrust of Western psychology. 

Now, none of the ideas to which I have just referred, and which are the subject of many posts on this blog, require or depend upon any notions of ‘supernaturalism.’ Listen to these words from the late Australian Liberal Catholic bishop Lawrence W Burt (pictured left):
 
In a universe of LAW there can be no supernatural. There may be the super-physical, or super-normal, but there can be no super-natural. You cannot transcend Natural law, nor suspend it. [Original emphasis]

I don’t particularly like the words ‘super-physical’ and ‘super-normal,’ but I think I understand what the bishop is saying. I prefer the words ‘transnatural’ and ‘transrational’ [see below], but the important thing is that we need to eliminate the word ‘supernatural’ from our vocabulary. As I have said many times, it is simply impossible to conceive of there being any existence, or other order or level of reality, other than our ordinary ‘natural’ existence, that is, the way in which ordinary things exist in space and time. Any notion of there being different orders or levels of reality or truth is contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse. It is unspeakable. Even the evangelical Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N T Wright takes the view that the word 'supernatural' is highly problematic and dubious. Indeed, Wright has sought to avoid altogether notions of supernaturalism because he is so acutely aware of their inherent problems. He has written:

The great divide between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, certainly in the way we use those words today, comes basically from the eighteenth century, bringing with it the whole debate about ‘miracles’.

Wright went on to say that anything that occurs or that is capable of occurring, whether perhaps under some conditions but not others, must be said to be ... natural! Even a so-called 'miracle' (not that I'm a believer in the latter, but that's another story).

The notion of a ‘higher power’ … or a ‘power-not-oneself’

Many people, especially those in 12-step programs, use the expression ‘higher power’ to refer to the ‘power-not-oneself’ that is invoked to relieve a person from the bondage of self. I personally dislike the term 'higher power' for two main reasons. First, because the term implies, if it doesn’t expressly necessitate, the existence of higher and lower levels or orders of reality---a concept which, as already mentioned, I find myself unable to accept. Secondly, the concept of a ‘higher power’ carries with it overtones of both supernaturalism and traditional theism although I accept that the concept certainly need not be construed in those terms nor do all who use the term accept or embrace those ideas.

Call it a ‘higher power’ or a ‘power-not-oneself’ (I prefer the latter)---in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. As J.Krishnamurti (pictured right) said many times, ‘The word is not the thing.’ It is the reality behind the word that is the important thing. You can call ‘it’ God if you like, but the problem with a word like ‘God’ is that the word has many unfortunate overtones for a great many people.

The ideas to which I refer are not in any way ‘supernatural’ as that idea is ordinarily understood. The ideas may, if you wish, be described as being transnatural or transrational. In that regard, Sir Julian Huxley, in an essay entitled ‘The New Divinity’ in his compilation book Essays of a Humanist, had this to say about the word ‘divine’, after first reminding his readers that ‘the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret [our] experiences of this quality’:

For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural---it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.

I like Huxley’s description of the ‘divine’---something that is ‘transnatural’ in the sense that it ‘grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it.’ The spiritual ideas to which I have just referred pertaining to the self and a power-not-oneself come from a ‘place’ (ugh) that is much more powerful than the rational mind, Call it transnatural or transrational, it is anything but irrational or (heaven forbid) ‘unnatural.’ The ideas ‘work’ psychologically, that is, in and through the medium and mechanisms of human consciousness, even if some aspects of the ideas or mechanisms involved are or at least appear to be oxymoronic or at least counter-intuitive in nature.

Now, what if it be the case that you, the reader, embrace supernaturalism and maybe also the concept of a traditional God or gods? Can mindfulness ‘work’ for you? Of course, it can, if you are prepared to do what is required to live and act mindfully. If you choose to believe in the 'supernatural', that does not prevent you from practising mindfulness. The latter does not require any beliefs at all. For what it’s worth, I think mindfulness works best without any beliefs at all, as beliefs operate as a barrier to what would otherwise be a direct and immediate experience of reality---but that’s a matter for each individual to grapple with.

Don’t try---let!

Recently, a friend of mine---let’s call her Nancy (not her real name)---said to me, ‘I’ve tried mindfulness---it’s not my cup of tea.’ Now, Nancy is very well-educated and extremely skeptical (which is OK with me), but I’m not sure she really understands what mindfulness is all about. You see, mindfulness means simply being and staying awake at all times ... from one moment to the next. Mindfulness is living---and being aware at all times that you are living, and not just existing. Another thing---you don't ‘try’ mindfulness. If you ‘try’ to do this sort of thing you will fail. You must let it happen. It's a spiritual process. For Nancy to say, 'I’ve tried mindfulness---it’s not my cup of tea,' is like saying, 'I've tried living---it’s not my cup of tea.' Mindfulness is simply living in the moment, from moment to moment. I said to Nancy, ‘Mindfulness is actually just living---with your eyes open at all times---and any sensible, rational person like yourself would want to do that at all times.’

Actually, in a very profound sense mindfulness is not something you ‘do.’ It simply happens when you remove the barriers to it happening (eg judging, analyzing, etc). Mindfulness is not a 'thing' at all. It is 'no-thing', that is, letting life unfold from one moment to the next. All you have to do is ... stay awake ... watch ... observe ... and be choicelessly aware of what is unfolding as your life experience. It means being aware that you are actually aware. 'To be awake is to be alive,' wrote Henry David Thoreau. I love those words.

I also love what the Zen master said to his then not so-enlightened student (who had asked the master what he had to do in order to become enlightened), 'Whatever you do, don't think of the white monkey.' Of course, you know what happened then. All the poor student could think of was---yes, the whote monkey. You see, thinking about not thinking about the white monkey is the same as thinking about the white monkey. Trying not to think about the white monkey results in your thinking about the white monkey. Now, how did I get onto that? Forgive me.

So, never, never ‘try’ to ‘do’ mindfulness. Just ‘let’ it happen---and ‘let go.’ Few things are more important than that.



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BETTER TO NOT BELIEVE AT ALL




Tuesday, December 17, 2013

WILL YOU LET THE CHRIST CHILD BE BORN IN YOU?

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Is 9:6)


I have written in an earlier post on my understanding of The Nativity Story. To those who have read anything I’ve written over the years on matters spiritual it will come as no surprise that I construe the Bible, along with other pieces of sacred scripture, as writings on psychology and metaphysics.

Now, consistent with the view taken by many progressive scholars and mystics over the years the story of the birth of the Christ Child is much, much more than an account of the birth of Jesus. The birth of the Christ Child is the coming into conscious and full activity within our souls---that is, in our minds, bodies and lives---of the Spirit of God. This birth, or rebirth, can happen anytime, for Christmas, properly interpreted, isn't just one day of the year. You see, we always have an opportunity to bring forth a rebirthing of our awareness of the Christ Child, irrespective of date or season. Indeed, the Christ Child is continually awaiting manifestation in and through our consciousness. Once again, I am not talking about Jesus---no, it is something more universal, but also more personal, than that ... and him. The birth or rebirth of the Christ Child in you is nothing less than the outworking in you of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6 the text of which appears at the very top of this post. (By the way, the word 'prophecy,' in a Biblical context, means 'forth-telling,' not 'fore-telling'---in other words, the Bible is speaking forth or telling forth on some topic or principle which is true right now.)

What do I mean by the ‘Spirit of God,' an expression I used in the paragraph above? Well, call it the Spirit of Life if you prefer. (I do.) I am talking about the very livingness (or Self-livingness) of life itself manifesting itself in us as an all-encompassing and all-providing Presence and Power, bringing with it peace, a tranquil stillness, joy, love, and healing at one or more levels. I am talking about the very ‘seat’ of inner power and causation that is the very ground of your be-ing. I am talking about your very ‘I Am-ness,’ the life that is in you and as you---a life that will survive the dissolution of your form, indeed all forms. It is forever a case of the Spirit of Life moving upon Itself, 'imaging' Itself to be this and that---undifferentiated Consciousness, or formeless awareness, forever taking shape and form.


In truth, each one of us, as a unique individualization of the Spirit of Life, lives in the ‘secret place of the Most High’ (Ps 91:1). Sadly, the majority of people spend most if not all of their lives in ignorance of that fact. Be that as it may, the birth of the Christ Child has everything to do with the coming forth in you, as you, of the ideal person---an inner power and potentiality that the Bible mystically refers to as 'Christ in you, the hope of glory' (Col 1:27). (Please don't confuse the latter with Jesus, at least not in any unique or exclusive sense. In that regard, read on.)

The birth of the Christ Child within us is an experience that we all can enjoy, and please don’t confuse it with the so-called ‘new birth’ (that is, being ‘born again,’ or ‘born from above’) spouted by fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who divide people into the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved,’ with the latter category including, in the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical view, many, many Christians who are not of an evangelical persuasion as well as most if not all non-Christians. (In that regard, I once asked the superintendent of the Sunday school of the Baptist church I attended as a youth if, in his opinion, he thought Roman Catholics were 'saved' and would go to heaven. His reply? 'It would be very difficult indeed for that to occur.' See what I mean?) If that be the truth, it would be simply appalling. What sort of God do these people purport to worship? Certainly not a God of love.

Now this is important. You may not even be a Christian. You may not even believe in a traditional God at all. You may not even consider yourself religious in any way. That doesn’t really matter. (At least you have a lot less to unlearn than those who have indoctrinated from an early age to believe this or that religious dogma.) The real ‘good news’ is that the Christ Child can still be born within you. The point is, we are all human beings, and the experience to which I refer is a very human one. It is an experience in which we become more fully human such that we come to embrace and enjoy a newly born awareness of the Presence and Power of life manifesting itself in us and as us.


Here are a few other thoughts of mine on the subject.

First, we read in the Bible that the Angel Gabriel is sent by God to the Virgin Mary to announce the imminent birth of the Christ Child. The Angel Gabriel represents an exalted thought or idea in your consciousness. You see, the birth of the Christ Child generally happens whenever you decide, against all odds, that you want real change in your life and are prepared to go to any length to get it. The birth happens when you face the seemingly impossible and say to yourself, and really believe it, ‘That which is in me is greater than that which is in the world’ (cf 1 Jn 4:4). But first you must come to accept the fact that your mind and body are the bearer of the ‘Divine,’ that is, that all-encompassing and all-providing Presence and Power I referred to above. We need to say ‘yes’ to this Power which is in us, but also not-us. It is a power-not-ourselves, for we are in bondage to self, and that is why we need a power-not-ourselves to overcome our toxic self-centeredness and self-absorption.

The Virgin Mary represents a pure, unadulterated state of consciousness. Bishop C W Leadbeater penned these lovely lines:

For holy Mary’s grace,

her wondrous glowing love,
we thank thee as a pattern set
to lift our thoughts above.

However, in order to be able to 'lift our thoughts above,' so that the Christ Child can be born, or born anew, in us, we must be cleansed and give up all limiting thoughts and emotional attitudes. Are we prepared to be a radiating centre of divine love? I hope so. We also need to centre our mind on the reality of the spiritual and psychological truths to which I have referred. In short, we need to say ‘yes’ to life, truth, and love (the triune God).

Where was the Christ Child born? In a stable, not an inn. You need to make room for the Christ Child in your life. You need to open the ‘door’ of your minds, that the Christ Child may be born in them. In order to do that, there must be humility. As the Bible says, you need to seek first the kingdom of God (cf Mt 6:33). That kingdom is within you (cf Lk 17:21), within every person. It is your ‘higher self.’ It is not a ‘place’ as such, but a state of consciousness in which the ‘Divine’ Power and Presence I referred to above rules, that is, is sovereign and supreme in your life.


The Wise Men---by the way, the Bible does not say there were three of them---searched diligently for the Christ Child. Apparently, they followed a Star in the east for many months, and over deserts, mountains and seas ... until that Star came to rest over a certain little town (Bethlehem) in a certain little country (Judea). The 'meaning' of all that? Here's one 'take' on it---real, deep change in our lives is never easy. We need to 'travel far' and work for it---and it may take some time before we see the results of our hard work and self-sacrifice. In particular, we need to release all old thoughts and worn-out beliefs---indeed, everything that holds us in bondage to our ‘lower self’ (that is, all those tendencies in us that are selfish and self-centered in nature). That is, at least in part, what is meant by 'following a star.' If the Wise Men---scholars who represented the intellectuals of the world of that time---could find the Christ Child then there is hope for those well-educated and intellectual people who, I have always find, have the greatest difficulty grasping these spiritual truths. 

It is significant that the Shepherds---those who, traditionally, are led well-educated but who live and work closer to the ground, the working people of the world---are the first who are ‘chosen’ to know of the birth of the Christ Child. In the Bible, shepherds often became great rulers and prophets. They are the really intelligent ones among us.

The word ‘Jesus’ has more than one meaning. In Hebrew it means ‘Joshua,’ and that word denotes salvation, saviour, one who saves or solves, and solution. The word ‘Jesus’ also means your 'I Am-ness,' that is, your consciousness or awareness of your innate Be-ing-ness. Metaphysically, the word ‘Jesus’ refers to the solution to your problems, either generally or particularly, whatever form or forms that may take. (If, for example, you are sick, 'health' is your saviour or the solution to your ill-health; in other words, health is 'Jesus' for you.) Conservative Christians think the word refers uniquely and exclusively to the man Jesus of Nazareth, but they are wrong on that.


Now, what about the conjoint expression ‘Jesus Christ’? Well, those words collectively represent the ideal or perfect human being. (Again, conservative Christians think there has only been one such person, namely, Jesus. They overlook the fact that Jesus never---I repeat, never---claimed anything for himself that he did not also claim for you and me and every other person as well.) Please keep this in mind---‘Christ’ refers to the ideal, Jesus the actual, that is, the fulfillment of the ideal. The birth of the Christ Child is the meeting-place of the ideal and the real (or, in Biblical language, of ‘God and man’). 

Expressed slightly differently, the words ‘Jesus Christ’ mean ‘I am illumined,’ or ‘I am awakened.’ (‘Anointed’ is the more Biblical word, but nothing too much turns on it for present purposes.) No wonder Jesus said, ‘What I say to you [his disciples] I say to all: Stay awake’ (Mk 13:37). Also, when the historical Buddha was asked, ‘Who are you?’ he answered, ‘I am awake.’ It is essentially the same idea. Wake up---and stay awake. When the Christ Child is born, or born anew, in you, you are awakened, you are illumined. You are no longer in bondage to your lower or false self, you have ‘died’ to all false beliefs, prejudices and limitations. Your whole consciousness is illumined. You are … free! You are … unlimited! Remember this---the only chains that bind you are the ones you have shackled yourself with. So often in life we fall asleep to the spiritual truth of our be-ing, that there is within each of us that ‘true light, which lighteth every person that cometh into the world’ (Jn 1:9).


Well, my friends, let the real you come forth. Let the Christ Child be born within you---this Child that comes to you not as a child in swaddling clothes nor as some sort of resurrected Jesus. Whatever be your status in life, whatever be your problem, know this---there is always a way out! Follow that Star. Then, when the Christ Child is born, or born anew, in you, make sure your life bears witness to that fact. You see, the birth of the Christ Child is much, much more than just some inner event that is for your own personal benefit alone. No, far from it. The birth of the Christ Child is, and always has been, about giving, giving, and giving. When the Christ Child is born in you, you will want to give various gifts to others---gifts such as the gifts of peace, light, truth, and love.

Christmas---in the sense in which I have described it in this post---began at the moment of the Big Bang, or perahps even before then. It began when the Spirit of Life first gave of Itself ... to Itself, so to speak ... so as to give birth to more life, and then even more life, and so on. Christmas is, however, only complete when it reaches your heart---and mine. So, 'let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, that the Lord has told us' (Lk 2:15).


'I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.' -- Rev. Dr Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), in My Christmas Treasury (1991).



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Saturday, December 14, 2013

HOW TO USE MINDFULNESS TO HANDLE EMOTIONS


At the outset, I need to say that any concept of ‘using’ mindfulness for this or that purpose is, well, misplaced. One doesn’t really ‘use’ mindfulness at all. Mindfulness just is. And what is it? A reality that lies beyond words. A reality that is not words. Enlightenment---that is, an ongoing spiritual awakening, from one moment to the next … with choiceless awareness of what is.

Having said that, there are a considerable number of benefits that flow from living mindfully, and one of those benefits is an increasing ability to handle, even master, difficult emotions.

Here are some tips for handling emotions, especially ‘hot’ emotions such as anger and bitterness.

First, step ‘outside’ of yourself, so to speak. Imagine, without actually imagining or envisioning this, that you’re not there (that is, with the occurrence of the emotion and its effects). Don’t personalize the emotion. This is simply something you’re watching on a TV screen. Watch ‘it’ as if it were happening to someone else. In the courtroom, the judge often applies the ‘objective bystander’ test, that is, what would an ordinary man or woman think of the situation. However, with mindfulness, you don’t think---at least not in that sense---but you can be that objective bystander more often than you think.

Secondly, look at the emotion. Look at it. Really look at it. Notice. Observe. Feel it---fully---but remember it is just happening. It is not ‘yours’ unless you choose to identify with it---that is, ‘own’ it.

Thirdly---well, I just said it. Don’t identify with the emotion. Apply the ‘objective bystander’ test I referred to above. It really helps. Also, don’t analyze the emotion. Don’t judge it. If you do those things you have well and truly identified with the emotion.


Fourthly--and this is the hard one. Don’t do anything to ‘make’ the emotion go away. (That sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it?) Wait, there's more---don’t fight the emotion in any way. You know why---'whatever you resist, persists.' Right. You see, the more you fight an emotion, the more power you give it, and we need all the power we've got. It’s as simple as that, yet we take a long time to learn that. I often quote this line from J. Krishnamurti, ‘In the acknowledgement of what is there is the cessation of all conflict.’ They are very powerful words---and the spiritual principle behind those words is stronger still. Let it be. Yes, that’s right. Let the emotion be. You see, in order to let something go, you must first let it be. That’s bedrock. It’s metaphysical law. Stop fighting against the emotion. Accept it as it is. In time, the emotion will dissipate. And remember this, no emotion has any power to hurt or harm you unless you choose to identify with it. Now, when you fight against an emotion, you are well and truly identifying with it---you now own it, lock, stock and barrel.

Fifthly, be willing to get on with your life---despite the emotion. In 12-step recovery programs you hear a lot about willingness. Twelve-steppers say, for example, that if you are not now willing (to change, etc), then you’d better start praying for the willingness to be willing. Now, can you be willing---perfectly willing---to go on with your life while this emotion passes through you and in time disappears? Of couse, you can. (You know right now that would be the right thing to do.) The emotion will disappear, you know. Even people who are more often than not bitter and resentful aren’t always bitter and resentful, strange though that may seem. Emotions do come and go, and if we don’t hold on to them, they can disappear quite quickly indeed. So, make a decision to get on with your life. Then do so.

Well, it’s over to you---and all power to you.




Friday, December 6, 2013

NELSON MANDELA---YOU’VE GOT TO BE TAUGHT TO HATE AND FEAR


'Our great fear is not that we are powerless,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.'
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).
 

That great liberator and beacon of light, Nelson Mandela [pictured above, and below centre], whose death is being mourned and life is being celebrated around the world today, is enough evidence for me---not that I needed any more---that people are … basically good.

There’s an inspiring and greatly moving song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific entitled You've Got to Be Carefully Taught (sometimes referred to as ‘You've Got to Be Taught’ or ‘Carefully Taught’). Here are the lyrics of that song:

You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Nelson Mandela said something similar:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Yes, you have to learn to hate, and in order to learn to hate, you’ve got to be taught to hate. I reject, in its entirety, the Christian doctrine of original sin, namely, that people are born … totally depraved. Yes, the words ‘total depravity’ belong to Calvinism---even though they are derived from the Augustinian concept of original sin---and not all Christian churches have a Calvinist theology, but even the Roman Catholic Church---which is hardly Calvinist---accepts the doctrine of original sin. (Interestingly, the idea of 'original sin' is not a teaching of Judaism. Jews cannot find the idea in the Hebrew Bible ... because it isn't there.) It’s a monstrous and most silly idea, and it's done a lot of harm over the centuries, and it is an idea that has to be learned, and in order for it to be learned, it has to be taught. You know, almost all, if not all, Christian doctrines depend upon the notion of original sin. The spiel goes like this ... if there were no original sin, then there was no need for Jesus to come into the world in order to die to save us from our sins, etc, etc. No wonder I reject the lot of it---except the ideas of education, changing attitudes and perceptions, and the development of character based on following the teachings of Jesus (and other great way-showers). That’s why I am an inclusive Unitarian minister of religion. I embrace people of all religions and none, provided there is genuine love in their hearts. 
 

Now, I can hear readers say, 'Ellis-Jones, are you blind to all the evil and suffering in the world? Were not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and so many others, evil beyond belief?’ Yes, dear readers, they were indeed evil beyond belief, and there are many like them in the world today, but they learned to be evil, and to do evil, because they were taught to be evil. My approach? I remember some words from the Bible, 'Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good' (Rom 12:21). That was also the approach and philosophy of Nelson Mandela. Non-resistance. And non-violent protest. (Yes, he did support armed struggle---against, relevantly, the grossly immoral and sinful apartheid regime (which regime was an appalling and veritable 'crime against humanity')---at times throughout, and perhaps even before, his imprisonment, and perhaps also on occasions thereafter, but only in rare situations where violence was inevitable and overwhelming in its intensity and brutality, in circumstances where governments or other instrumentalities continued to meet peaceful demands with brutal force, and even then only when 'all other forms of resistance were no longer open.')

Nelson Mandela suffered terribly beyond belief, yet he did not turn to hate. Instead, he loved … and forgave those who treated him so wrongly. Yes, he forgave---totally. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke today described Mandela's philosophy and acts of forgiveness as 'rational forgiveness.' I like that. It's very much consistent with the philosophy of rational humaneness to which I try to adhere. Back to the subject of forgiveness, here's another gem from Mandela: 'Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.' Mandela was truly unique. What a noble, decent, dignified, upright, compassionate, courageous, and inspirational human being! His likes we may never see in our world again. He's irreplaceable.

One Christian minister I loved and admired greatly was the late Dr Norman Vincent Peale [pictured right]. Some say he preached a 'theology of man,' and to a considerable extent he did, although it was always in the context (sometimes more implicit than actually or fully expressed) of a spiritual worldview presided over by God and Jesus whose help was always available to those who humbly sought it and who surrendered to the Divine Will. Even the power to believe was predicated upon the surrender of one's life to God, wrote Peale. Anyway, to the extent that Peale preached a 'theology of man,' it is, in my considered view, the only theology worth preaching. Now, for that, and other, reasons, Dr Peale was, and remains for more than a few, a controversial figure in Christianity---especially for those narrow-minded, blinkered and dogma-bound conservative Christians who have been taught in their homes, schools and churches to hate and fear.

Why mention Norman Vincent Peale in this particular post? Well, it's like this. Dr Peale was once asked if people were inherently good or bad. He replied, 
They are inherently good---the bad reactions aren’t basic. Every human being is a child of God and has more good in him than evil, but circumstances and associates can step up the bad and reduce the good. I’ve got great faith in the essential fairness and decency---you may say goodness---of the human being.’ So do I … and so did the societal and moral transformationist Nelson Mandela. Rest in peace, Madiba.


Yes, you've got to be taught to hate and fear. You've got to be carefully taught.



Postscript. Shock, horror! Today, in Roseville, New South Wales, Australia, not far from where I live, the minister of St Luke's Presbyterian Church, the Rev Cornelius P. J. Nel, an Afrikaner Australian (I assume the latter, the former is beyond doubt), stated in an address to his congregation that, despite all the good that Nelson Mandela did---Mr Nel did mention that---we gloss over the fact that he (Mandela) was a 'convicted terrorist.' OMG! Did I hear you right? You must be kidding. That's like saying Lindy Chamberlain was a 'convicted murderer,' without telling the rest of the story (namely, that, among other things, the poor woman was wrongly convicted). Yes, Rev Nel, Mr Nelson Mandela was indeed convicted of terrorism---assuming, for the moment, that it was a lawful charge and offence, which it certainly wasn't---for his strong opposition to a monstrous crime against humanity (immoral and sinful apartheid) which far too many Afrikaner South Africans (and the Dutch Reformed Church) shamefully, indeed wickedly, supported for far too long a time. (As an aside, it's amazing how many Afrikaners have left their beloved country and come to countries such as Australia---after their country became a democracy. Funny, that ... and quite unique.) Now, back to Mr Mandela, I see his purported 'conviction' as a badge of honour, Mr Nel. Yes, a veritable badge of honour. His conviction was as grossly wrong and false as the horrible, evil apartheid regime as well as the illegitimate, oppressive, brutal and violent white minority government he so rightly, morally and lawfully (yes, lawfully---under international and human rights law) opposed. Thank God Mr Mandela did what he did---and if he was a terrorist then so was George Washington and a hell of a lot of other people we remember and revere. Come, now! As I say, did I hear right? I'm afraid I did. Jeez, you've got to be taught to hate and fear. You've got to be very carefully taught, but it seems to come easier to some than others. Ian Ellis-Jones, Lawyer and Minister of Religion. Sydney, Australia, 8 December, 2013.
 

Friday, November 29, 2013

MINDFULNESS AND METHOD ACTING

Mindfulness and memory, or rather the act and state of remembering, are inextricably connected. When we practice mindfulness we remember what is present, we remember to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, and we remember in the present moment what has already happened. In other words, mindfulness is all about remembering the present ... that is, 'keeping' the present in mind. Put simply, mindfulness is remembering to be 'here' ... and to stay 'here' ... now.

Mindful awareness is a form of meta-cognition in which there is an awareness of awareness and an attention to intention. What is ‘awareness of awareness’? Well, mindfulness remembers awareness as well as the objects of awareness. When we practise mindfulness we are constantly reminding ourselves, not just to be aware, but also that we are now aware, that is, that we are already aware.

A lifelong student and chronicler of the performing arts, especially the musical theatre as well as the cinema, I have a fascination with so-called ‘method acting.’ Now, I hate that word ‘method,’ as well as the word ‘system’ coined by the progenitor of method acting, Constantin Stanislavski [pictured left]. Some of you will have heard the Zen story that goes like this. A disciple says to the master, ‘I have been four months with you, and you have still given me no method or technique.’ The master says, ‘A method? What on earth would you want a method for?’ The disciple says, ‘To attain inner freedom.’ The master roars with laughter, and then says, ‘You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of the trap called a method.’ Even Stanislavski wrote something similar about acting: ‘Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.’

So, my friends, I have a real aversion to all so-called ‘methods’, ‘systems’ and ‘techniques.’ Mindfulness, which takes meditation (awareness) and applies it to one’s whole day, indeed one’s whole life, has been described as the ‘method of no method.’ Now, when it comes to method acting, I have always sensed that attempts to substitute a ‘real-life’ emotion for that required in a particular scene has a strong element of artificiality about it, and even borders on the mechanical. Yet some of the world’s greatest actors have taken full advantage of the ‘method.’ To what extent their greatness is attributable to their use of the ‘method’ is perhaps a matter for further reflection and study. Many great actors have proudly confessed that they used no method at all.

Method acting is a number of things, one of which is that it is an eclectic but fairly systematic collection of techniques designed to assist the actor to ‘become,’ and even ‘live’ the character they’re playing. One such technique is sense memory, in which the actor remembers (recalls) by the five senses the sensory (that is, physical) impressions surrounding some emotional event experienced by the actor in their own life. This is largely done by concentrating on the various stimuli associated with the sensory impressions. Then there’s affective memory (otherwise known as ‘emotional memory’ and ‘emotional recall’), in which the actor calls on the memory of details from a situation with similar emotional import to the one the actor is being called upon to act out. The actor searches their memory for some parallel event before proceeding to create its ‘reliving.’ (This may or may not be therapeutically good for you. At the risk of being provocative, I don't think it did any good for Marilyn Monroe, and may even have harmed her. Method acting is not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for those with deep and unresolved psychiatric problems. That's my considered view. Take it or leave it.)

‘Acting isn't something you do,’ wrote Lee Strasberg [pictured right], the man who further developed Stanislavski’s system. ‘Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you're going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.’ I think that mindful living is like that. It is not so much something that you do. Rather, it is something that---occurs. Well, it occurs when you are alert, vigilant, open (even open-ended), patient, curious, flexible, interested, receptive (but detached), aware, and aware that you are aware. It is not, however, a matter of concentration (heaven forbid), and the attention required is described as being ‘bare,’ that is, it is just enough attention to ‘wake up’ to the present moment, to ‘stay awake’ (and 'here and now'), and to observe what is taking place---in other words, just enough attention to be able to discern, and remember to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, without discriminating or judging. I recall Stanislavski’s definition of ‘talent’ as being ‘nothing but a prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation.’ I like that. That’s bare attention.

Further, the awareness required is something you 'bring', effortlessly, and continuously, to each moment of the day. Awareness is also something 'in' which we 'live', in the sense of living in awareness of the present moment. I am talking about an awareness of all that the present moment 'contains' (thoughts, perceptions, assumptions, tendencies, memories, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc). Something Strasberg said about acting seems pertinent to the practice of mindfulness: ‘To give words meaning, you must first know the reality, the thoughts, sensations and experiences that the words stand for. If you don't understand the meaning of a line and why you say it, you may have missed the key to the scene.’

I mentioned above that awareness of the kind required by mindfulness is not a matter of concentration, at least as that word is ordinarily construed. Rather, it is a matter of being fixed and focused on the action of the present moment---including when remembering in the present moment what has already happened (eg sensory elements of some past emotional event)---without concern that the experience we are remembering (recreating) will appear. This is also the essence of concentration as used in method acting, in that the actor concentrates on the sensory elements of the presently remembered emotional event without concern that the emotion the actor desires to produce will actually appear. As Lee Strasberg pointed out, it is not something you do, but something that happens or occurs. It’s the result of an effortless effort. Note those words.

One of the most famous method actors of all time, James Dean [pictured left], had this to say about acting: ‘An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.’ That’s the essence of living mindfully.


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