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Showing posts from 2012

Walking life’s path in our own shoes

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity.” Albert Einstein
I was once asked my religion and the question certainly made me think. I am very wary of labels. We use them all the time in order to make sense of the world and our place in it – putting things into neat little boxes seems to make life’s overwhelming variety a little more manageable. We humans have been labelling things ever since we discovered words and there’s no doubt that words have contributed to our evolution. On the downside, alas, labels have also been applied, to devastating effect, to individuals, communities, nations and races. Like fire, they are a useful tool but, as a weapon, can burn stereotypes into our minds and reduce our common humanity to ashes. The danger, too, …

Learning to let go: the harvest of our lives

We are coming to the high point of the agricultural year, when corn-gilded fields ripple in golden streams of sunlight soaking the land – it is a time of gain, and sacrifice.
As the harvest of our past endeavours – agricultural or personal – is gathered in, so it is worth remembering the sacrifices we have made, in time and effort, to reach this point in our lives.
We all make sacrifices to achieve what we want, and it is good from time to time to look at what these have been and how our actions have affected others. Have they reduced suffering and increased happiness in the world? Have the sacrifices been ours, or have we sacrificed the happiness of others? If the latter, though our outer harvest may seem bountiful now, the seeds of resentment we have sown will blight our future crops – inner and outer – unless we learn to till life’s fields with a little more tender loving care. (Consider the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa which have sprung from seeds of resentme…

Redundancy: the gift of a failed harvest

Redundancy has proved to be a surprisingly positive experience in many ways.
Naturally, when a family’s wage-earner loses their job, feelings of financial insecurity and fears for the future crash like waves, one after the other, on to life’s shore – eroding that narrow and fragile coastline between our deep, inner lives and the surface of our day-to-day existence.
But it has also provided a wonderful opportunity to admire the rainbow of emotions that arise and pass away, arise and pass away. Among them are anger at being unappreciated after years of loyal and devoted service and hard work, depression and doubts about one’s abilities. There is also the grief at losing colleagues you’ve come to know and like after years of working, (sometimes) grumbling, (mostly) laughing and certainly growing together – getting to understand and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses that make each of us fascinating and lovable individuals. Confusion, too, about what to do next, like being lost in a …

Tune in to the symphony of leaves

“There is always music amongst the trees in the garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it” – Minnie Aumonier.
Nature’s gentle giants can teach us much, but only when we are still enough to hear the earth breathe. Just as outer stillness enables us to watch her shiest children – birds, hedgehogs, foxes and deer – so inner stillness allows us to hear nature’s subtle harmonies.
One summer night I was in a glade gazing across fields at a vanilla moon – almost full – melting through a smudge of cloud. High in the shimmering sky, a cone of stars wheeled around the North Star, the Great Bear rising over the circle of oaks. 
Listening to nocturnal snufflings and the symphony of leaves cleared my mind of worldly cares and reminded me how vital our woodlands, our emerald oases, are to our physical and psychological health.
Trees are an essential part of our cultural and inner landscape, and yet they are almost victims of familiarity. In Britain, they hold a special place in the hearts of…

Looking to the stars for answers at our feet

Another year has passed, another year older – yes, I recently celebrated my birthday and, like many people, looked to the stars to see how the winds of life will be blowing in the next 12 months: I read my horoscope.
Now, I have no wish here to make a case for or against astrology; my interest is in what the mind does with information presented to it. And how we can use that information skilfully to write the story of our lives – because each of us is a character (and co-author) in the human chapter of a cosmic story that has been unfolding since the beginning of time.
Last week, I wrote about how we naturally seek patterns in life, and I have long admired the way we – as individuals, societies and humanity as a whole – try to explain what we don’t understand, often using stories, mythologies or parables, until science catches up.
For example, I love basking in the starlight, watching the constellations wheel around us, weaving stories in the night sky of gods and goddesses, heroes and …

Looking for patterns in life is only natural

My wife and I were lying on the grass the other day, gazing up at daubs of clouds drifting across a canvas sky – we were looking for shapes. “Look, look, over there,” she said, pointing an excited finger at a splash of cloud. “A bird.” Sure enough, there it was, soaring cotton-wool white in the shifting sky. “A phoenix!” I gasped. In the blink of an eye, the shape had altered. Then, almost as quickly, it dissolved again into the heavens so it could be reborn, arising later in another form. We saw a host of worldly and mythical faces, animals and abstract forms – sometimes spotting them together, at other times needing a guiding finger to point the way. I’m sure a psychiatrist could make something of the patterns we drew in the sky with our minds. I suppose the game was similar to the inkblot test devised by Hermann Rorschach to reveal patients’ unconscious thoughts.
What I like most about this game is that you play it best by not trying: it is essential to let your mind relax and become rec…

“Only that day dawns to which we are fully awake”

With these words of wisdom by poet, naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau echoing in my mind, I set off into the warm midsummer morning to watch the sun announce the dawn of the longest day.

Walking mindfully along the tree-lined path leading into the countryside, I stepped appreciatively into each precious moment. Each oak, ash, sycamore and horse chestnut bore witness to my gentle pilgrimage to take part in a cosmic drama that has inspired people for millennia: the summer solstice sunrise, when the earth, because of the tilt of her axis, seems to bow to the heart of our solar system.
Clouds sailed effortlessly towards the horizon, briefly unveiling a waning moon still gracing the dawn sky with her reflection of the sunlight to come. Early birds blessed the breeze with song. On reaching the brow of the hill, I gazed in awe upon the earth undulating towards lands where morning had already yawned, stretched and sat down for breakfast. Meanwhile, here, the only evidence of the su…

Celebrating life in the Goldilocks zone

As the wheel of the year turns, we turn towards its longest day, its midday, midsummer, when our nearest star, our life-giving sun, holds us in his longest embrace.

In an age of central heating, ready meals, all-night electric light, fire at the flick of a switch, it may be hard to appreciate how important the sun was to our ancestors – and easy to forget how vital his warmth and light still are to us today. We are children of the sun and earth and, like babies, still rely on our cosmic parents for our survival. Despite all our modern conveniences, if the sun’s light were to go out tomorrow, we would die. Having said that, however, astronomers calculate the sun will still be able to support life here for another billion or so years. 
So no need to panic just yet.
In fact, there is only life (as science currently defines it) on earth because our planet’s orbit is in what is known as the Goldilocks zone – neither too cold, nor too hot. The sun accounts for 99.9pc of the mass of the sola…

Let’s celebrate all the fathers in our lives

“Every father should remember that one day his son will follow his example instead of his advice.”
Now, I’m not trying to drop a subtle hint – it’s not subtle at all – but it will soon be Father’s Day here in Britain (Sunday, June 17 this year).
Becoming a dad has helped me to understand and appreciate my own father more deeply. The sacrifices he made for me throughout my life never went unnoticed. But it took becoming a stepfather and father myself for the extent of his generosity to sink in. His quiet selflessness and devotion to the people around him (and his voluntary work) has been an inspiration, as has his super-human patience in helping me, as a child, to understand my maths homework.
I think fathers do a lot for their families that goes unnoticed, probably out of sight and out of mind, behind the scenes, not seeking reward or recognition. And that’s even more reason why it’s worth making an effort on Father’s Day.

Fathers – good, bad, indifferent, absent, or surrogate – play a …

A fairy good way to learn about nature

We basked in rainshine dripping through leaves, then bathed in streams of sunlight - from the delicious squelch of mud to the dazzle of dawn dew, Britain’s ever-changing weather wove its glorious magic around the Fairy Fair this year.

Walking among the enchanting woodlands at Holt Hall in Norfolk and blessed by raindrops slipping through the canopy of greens, I found my soul-feet again on the sacred path of feeling alive... step by awakening step.

Nature loves to be touched, body and soul, and it is by caressing her with each footstep, each breath, each fingertip on bark, that we find ourselves back in intimate touch with the inmost part of ourselves - the space where possibilities dwell, the well of inspiration and deep connection.

Many years ago, I would camp in a field with about 100 fellow rat race escapees for a few days free from TV, radio and other electronic interference. We would dig our own toilet, gather and chop wood to cook over a campfire, collect water, explore the woods, …

Nature, celebration and the value of community

Community woodlands are being planted – living legacies to future generations – and soon jubilee celebrations will begin. In a society where competition has been the religion for so long, it is reassuring to see that we can still celebrate our capacity for co-operation and community.

In one of my son’s favourite stories, Stone Soup by Jon Muth, three monks come across a town where people have become distrustful, selfish, frightened and divorced from the world. The monks start to make stone soup, and the townsfolk become curious. When the trio suggest adding carrots, a woman fetches some. Then one by one each person contributes something different, and soon they are all enjoying a feast with music, dance and storytelling. By honouring one another's unique gifts and learning to share and co-operate, the people rediscover their sense of community.

“Community” is precious on so many levels: families, friends (Facebook and face-to-face) and neighbours, co-workers and customers, shop sta…

Our brains are so much bigger than we think

Our brains are possibly the most baffling, mysterious, amazing, incredible, impossible organs ever to have evolved – and they are far bigger than we think.
Let me start by inviting you to imagine yourself standing in a beautiful, sunny garden caressed by a gentle breeze. The whisper of wind on your face has kissed millions of cheeks before; it is born of gases that have swirled around the world since before humans walked the earth. The warm touch of sunlight has travelled across space about 93 million miles (slightly fewer in January and more in July); we absorb it through our skin and, via food, through our digestive system. In the lilac’s scent is the blossoming, so far, of evolution – of the flower, of our ability to smell it, and of the many species that have appeared and transformed or disappeared as nature explores alternative forms of life. And in each lung full of sky, we breathe in harmony with the earth – the oxygen (about 20pc of what we inhale and 16pc of what we exhale) a …

The mind is a garden

I am the garden
I am the scented rose, the bumblebees' hum; I am the spider weaving her delicate song;
I am the breath of air, the wind in the trees; I am the soft mushrooms pushing through leaves;
I am the grass between toes, the embrace of the Earth; I am the sun soaking through the skin of rebirth.
I am the garden I roam, this nemeton, this moment, right here, I breathe with my soul and am never alone.

By Andrew Smith, 2011

I was sitting the other day, just sitting, and letting thoughts wander in and out of my mind like visitors to an art gallery, when a robin landed on a fence post.
The wind was combing his feathers up towards his chin like a rippling ruff, his head flicked from side to side; then he darted off into the breeze, lifted by natural forces invisible to the naked eye. He flitted around the garden, from lawn, to post, to clothes line, to wind-ruffled tree. It was a joy to watch.
The mind, I find, is often like this robin, flitting from one distraction to another. In fact, the mind is…

Clear out the drain - unclog the mind

I was clearing out the drain again the other day. It’s not the most pleasant of tasks but it’s necessary and only gets blocked from time to time.
As I was scooping out the rotting leaves, vegetable matter and other smelly detritus, it struck me how very similar this task is to the task of developing our spiritual (or psychological, if you prefer a word with fewer religious connotations) potential as fully awake human beings.
One feature of the evolving human brain which seems to set it apart from other animals is that it has developed self-awareness: animals can think but humans can think about themselves thinking. In short, we can consciously examine our lives. The Greek philosopher Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
It is perhaps when life goes unexamined that all the detritus of our day-to-day annoyances, disappointments, frustrations, past hurts, resentments, etc get backed up and block the natural flow of our minds. Left to build up, our anger…

Religion is knowing which shoe you took off first

After many years of study of religious texts and long nights of revision, a young monk felt ready for his final examination. He approached his teacher’s room with confidence, took off his shoes as was the custom, entered and sat down. “I am ready,” said the student eager to impress. “I know our holy writings off by heart, chapter and verse, and can recite any passage for you. Ask me any question.” The teacher pondered for a moment and then asked: “Which shoe did you take off first?” The young monk was baffled.
Having been a student very similar to this one, I can’t help smiling whenever I think of this story. He had a head full of other people’s words but little awareness of his own experience of the world.
There is no doubt that books, including religious ones, have brought great benefits to humanity, but it is a great tragedy when people cling blindly and without question to a particular book or set of beliefs, then try to impose them on themselves and/or on others.
“Idealism is a…