Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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27/01/2013

God in The Moment

This week I have been spending a few hours each evening working on a training resource to raise awareness and understanding of speech & language needs amongst school students - this is both part of my day-to-day role and my continued development of my other website. In turn, I found myself on the blog of inspirational educator Patrick Higgins Jr., stumbling across the following quote:
"Be present: We learned that we needed to be present when we were home. We learned that the example we set in terms of our attention span and the gadgets that we have is of the utmost importance with our kids.
The same is true for the students we have. We wanted to make sure our students feel like they have all of us, all the time. There have been countless examples we remembered where a student wanted our attention and we just didn’t give it, or gave it with the most horrible body language.
We could see the message were sending when we were either plugged into our devices or too preoccupied with our own lives to be present in theirs, and we didn’t like it. We are consciously aware of how much they matter and that what they say has value."
(This appears to be taken from a live presentation - the video of which can be found here)

This blog post, namely the header 'be present', has stayed with me for the latter half of the week but I've not really done anything with it. I liken it to Rembrandt's philosopher - sat there patiently in the corner waiting to be heard, if only the recipient is ready and willing - and brave enough - to stop for a second and listen.


This in turn brings me to today's Quaker Meeting for Worship. I woke up early this morning, and before heading out, my wife and I decided to sit and watch another episode from the Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. At various points I found myself habitually switching attention to my mobile phone, looking up news etc., and in turn missing crucial clues from the plot. I ended up becoming quite frustrated with the story as a whole as I had lost the thread.

Having finished watching, I made my way up to the meeting house with every intention of keeping quiet and listening. Having arrived early to prepare the tea and coffee for afterwards, I had 5 minutes before the majority of Friends arrived to scan through the bookshelf, looking to see if there were any books on Quaker poetry. Instead I found a short book entitled 'Quaker Quotes' and began to read through it more or less one page at a time. There were of course many powerful quotes in there, but amongst them I came across the following which seemed to spark a light in me:
"A sudden concentration on a rainy August morning. Clusters of bright red berries, some wrinkled, some blemished, others perfect, hanging among green leaves. The experience could not have lasted more than a few seconds, but that was a moment out of time. I was caught up in what I saw: I became part of it; the berries, the leaves, the raindrops and I, were all of a piece. A moment of beauty and harmony and meaning. A moment of understanding."
The meeting by this point was only a few minutes in and I gently put the book down on the empty seat next to me, not wanting to cause a disturbance by placing it back on the bookshelf. I had come to meeting with no preconceived ideas about what it might throw up - indeed I had said to myself on the way there that I should prepare to be surprised. And in many ways this is what happened as these words took hold, and I in turn sat there becoming increasingly tuned in to the howling wind, the odd cough, the periodic discreet shuffling of Friends at either side.

During this moment, my body began to tremble rhythmically, in tune to the increasingly drum-like beat of my heart. This odd sensation occurs most meetings for me now and I have little explanation for it - maybe it genuinely is rapture, maybe it is simply a physical side-effect of sitting still and silent which could be explained away by medics, I don't know. As a side note, it is this trembling that resulted in early Friends being called Quakers, courtesy of Gervase Bennett - a Derby magistrate who prosecuted George Fox for blasphemy in 1650.

As the trembling grew more consuming, my thoughts flickered first to the experience of the last few weeks at home. My wife and I have been in lengthy, optimistic-yet-nervous discussions about our future - where we want to live, what directions we would like to take our careers to take etc. We have spent many evenings coming home and engaging in this topic. Added to many days in quiet thought, as we go about our duties in the workplace. Similarly, at work I have found myself in conversation with colleagues about career plans and organisational politics, often mainly made up of moans, doubts and fears. Today this prompted a realization that the past few weeks had not been spent in the present. Rather they have been spent in speculation and procrastination about the future, with an unhealthy measure of colluding, gossiping and griping.
 
From there my thoughts turned to this weekend. Yesterday, travelling from Manchester to see family in Sheffield, my wife and I's conversation had been interrupted by the sheer beauty of the wintry Derbyshire hills between these two cities. We stopped near a craft shop along the way and excitedly stepped out into the deep snow. What followed was a short-lived snowball fight turned playful wrestle. It struck me that at this moment we were fully present with one another and that this had become the standout memory of the past few days.

 
My thoughts then turned to the time I had spent with my family yesterday. As with all close-knit families, there are often trials and troubles that afflict one member, which in turn impacts on all members. I had been made aware just that morning that one member was having a particularly difficult time relating to their work. Yet I had been asked not to mention it on seeing them as they were wanting privacy. My natural inclination would have been to talk this through with them in an effort to help, but instead we spent a few hours simply being present with one another, chatting about trivial things, sharing something to eat and a joke or two. What struck me, as I sat there in deep contemplation today, is that this being present and fully attentive for someone - with no other distractions - was help enough.

Finally, my thoughts then briefly turned to Gautama Siddhartha, the man known as The Buddha - and how in Hermann Hesse's own retelling of his story, we see him travel from place to place in a strenuous search for Truth, only to wind up sat under a tree next to a river (which is described as smiling at him). I read this book around eight years ago and at the time felt this to be a somewhat anti-climatic, frustrating ending; Is that it? Staring at a river? I was perhaps naively looking for a more systematic, concrete explanation of Truth. However, over the years I have come to an understanding - at least to an extent - of the powerful symbolism of this scene. I just need to keep being reminded of it. Practicing being present had brought Gautama an inner peace.

The same could also be said of Jesus of Nazareth, the man known as The Messiah. It occurred to me that Jesus was someone who spent his life, or at least that which is documented by the Gospel writers, being fully present - he is said to have meditated up the mountain - being present before God, before returning to act presentfully with others. Practicing being present brought Jesus an inner peace, and crucially, enabled him to engage in 'outer peace' with those around him.

It strikes me that the common Unitarian saying, attributed originally to Thomas Jefferson, about seeking 'the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus' somehow relates to this idea of practicing being present, and of realizing God in the moment. It is a faith rested on a simple, yet nonetheless powerful, appreciation and concern for the now rather than becoming embroiled in an elaborate imagining of the past or future.

With these threads of thoughts being brought together within me, I was compelled to read the quote again - from there, the call came to rise and speak. As with other times, I tried to resist but I was eventually brought to my feet through a 'whooshing up' - the call to share the insight that had been given to me with the rest of the fellowship was too great to ignore.

From there, the ministry that followed enriched this idea of being present much further. A Friend rose to speak about a scene from The Railway Children, where one of the children becomes aware to something about to happen and runs to the station to meet her father, with her mother - fully in tune to her state - allowing her to do so. She then went on to quote Luke 4:21 in which Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” which, for me at least, points to the idea that by being in the present moment, we are thus opened and ready to receive Truth, rather than it passing us by due to our distraction. I found this related back to my experience of watching Sherlock earlier and missing the vital clues of the storyline.

After meeting, I deliberately offered to wash the cups and saucers - something Zen Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh has spoken eloquently about as being a good mindfulness practice in that rather than focusing on getting them done so we can get to dessert or a cup of tea or whatever else may come after, we instead can practice focusing on the wonder of water swirling in the wonderful things we call hands, and then use this experience to act similarly in other aspects of our lives.
"To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment."
During washing up, a Friend approached to say she appreciated the ministry given, and that it had brought her back to Jesus's instruction to consider the lilies of the field in our worry - we must acknowledge our many blessings so far, and place trust in future blessings.

The question "What Truth do Quakers stand for? And what is Truth?" has struck me numerous times this past week. I have rolled it over in my mind (along with all the other marbles!) and even foolishly made a stop-start attempt to put my initial thoughts into words. It seems to me today offered an expansive response, though not necessarily a comprehensive answer.

20/01/2013

Walk Humbly Together

Tonight I contributed, as a representative of the Quaker meeting I'm attending, to a service for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013

Although my affiliation first with the Unitarians and more recently with the Quakers places me as a descendant of peoples who paid a great price at the hands of the more dominant churches, which could in turn make me think low of them, times have obviously moved on and continue to do so.

Also, I feel, it is very much at the heart of Free Christian ideals to reach out to other Christians who share quite radically different beliefs and practices. This should not just be a matter of peaceful coexistence but of powerful convergence - the minister at the end of the service talked about the need for present-day Christians of various denomination to live together in conversation as the communities of the Early Church often did. There are things we can continue to learn from one another and which we can be enriched by.

I admittedly found bits of the service hard to connect with and my thoughts drifted - the Friend with me commented that the planning of these events often falls into theological wrangling and I can see how - but the overall theme of justice, with specific reference to the Christians of India and their fight against the caste system, struck chords with all who participated.

The contribution I made was to give the reading Micah 6:6 - 6:8. I did not choose this reading, it was provided, but it is one I think is pertinent to the idea of Christian Unity, and to my own burgeoning life as a Quaker.

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

18/01/2013

Letting Go to God

A colleague and friend of mine spoke today at our Friday morning briefing - sharing this prayer as we approach the weekend:

God, 
Please help us to rest.
Please help us to remember that You are All There Is.

I place my list of things to do in your hands.
Just for a moment, I let it go.

I place any thoughts about how things should be different in your hands.
Just for a moment, I let them go.

I place any thoughts about how anyone should be different in your hands.
Just for a moment, I let them go.

I place any thoughts about how I should be different in your hands,
Just for a moment, I let them go.

Right now, just for a moment,
I allow things to be exactly as they are,
I allow myself to be exactly as I am,

And so I rest.

A simple but powerful prayer, it has stayed with me all day.

13/01/2013

Quaker Communion

It has been a long yet enriching day today. We (as in my wife and I) spent our time at the local Quaker house for the usual Meeting for Worship - if it can ever be called 'usual' - followed by a sharing meal and a short session of singing folk-style Christian hymns, to the tune of an acoustic guitar.  It was, what I termed as we drove home tired afterwards, 'a Quaker Marathon'.

It has struck me several times today that this way of doing things is very much in line with the Free Christian principle I have come to hold dear - in the sense of keeping Christian belief and practice simple, welcoming different people and their perspectives, and quite crucially, remaining open to the movement of the Spirit however it may come.

I have expressed a view previously that the two things I missed since joining in regular fellowship with the Quakers is taking part in communion (Baptist style) and singing (well done, to pianos and acoustic guitars rather booming organs or a praise band). Funnily enough, this had become a bit of a lingering question or doubt in my mind about whether I could ever move from being a 'roaming Christian' to 'fully paid-up Quaker' (becoming convinced, as traditional Quakers would say). I have felt cautious at signing up to a singular, exclusive way of 'doing faith', in terms of silent worship, which could eventually become limiting.

In many ways today answered this, at least in the respect of feeling fully part of the meeting house I've been attending. Following the more solemn, structured Meeting for Worship, today's gathering became a much more quirky, somewhat haphazard affair. But in many ways, each person bringing a contribution to a shared meal and then eating with one another, with many of us sat with someone we wouldn't usually connect with, is arguably a more authentic act of communion than the more formalized  ritualistic versions seen elsewhere. Similar sentiments could be drawn from a group of people sat in a circle singing and laughing together rather than lined up in pews.

From today's experience, the words of James Martineau on 'Untrammeled Fellowships' came back to mind:
Among the Nonconformists who were left unchurched by the Act of Uniformity, not a few learned the lesson of persecution aright; and when permitted to build their own "conventicles," and constitute their own societies, refused to put the yoke on others which they had been unable to bear themselves, and dedicated their chapels to Christian worship without specification of usage or of creed. Scope being thus left for natural development, their descendants became familiar with successive doctrinal change, and with simultaneous doctrinal variety, without interruption of continuous religious life. 
To them, therefore, it can be no new thing to consign the articles of theology to the realm of individual opinion, and put to trust, as societies, to a purely spiritual bond. They do not, like the Catholic-minded Churchmen, find themselves members of a body, and under a constitution, far narrower than their own spirit, and obliged to break bounds in order to claim the full measure of Christian fellowship.  
In the congregations to which they belong, everything is possible which the largest piety can desire, and the latitude of communion which elsewhere is a dream of the future, foreshadowed by the brave catholicity of exceptional men, is the legal rule and corporate principle. There is nothing, therefore, to hinder a society thus constituted from bearing, in its collective capacity, the same witness to the comprehensiveness of the Divine relations which the scattered exiles and the noble malcontents of less open churches individually bear. 
Unfortunately, these Nonconformist communities have not always worked out persistently their own historical principle, but have fallen into usages which have arrested the natural growth and limited the spiritual freedom left possible to them at their birth.  
There is no breadth of intellectual basis, no depth of spiritual union, which the Independence of Bobinson and the Presbyterianism of Baxter might not have reached. But each has parted with its early promise, and settled on its selected dogmatic lands, duly fenced or labelled; the one fixing itself in Trinitarian orthodoxy, the other in Unitarian heresy; the former guarding its position by precautionary tests, the latter content, for the most part, with the warning of a doctrinal name. Explain it as we may, there would seem to be something transient, and incapable of passing into institution, in the higher action of God's Spirit in history. 
Again and again religious movements, springing from an impulse truly Divine, and proclaiming the purest spiritual trusts, prove unable to sustain themselves at the height of their first inspiration, and, like Quakerism and Methodism, descend to a lower ground, — a ground which, with or without the originating fervour, they can permanently command, - viz., that of a specific creed and an established discipline. And so that which is 'born of the spirit’ dies down into a theological school, or a philanthropic habit, or an ecclesiastical organization. 
Still, among those who inherit the traditions of the age of Milton, Hale, and Baxter there are many who have caught the spirit of their aims, while outgrowing the forms of their belief; who honour them for not having embarrassed their successors by names and standards of their own; who look upon every new doctrinal element built into the structure of a church as an impertinence insulting to the great Master-builder; and who feel bound to leave the future tenants of their sanctuaries free to think their thought and pray their prayer, without the pain of breaking with the past, of erasing its inscriptions, and declaring its identity gone. Such persons are ready for a religious fellowship not based upon doctrinal conditions. It is happy for them that often they may have it in their own worshiping society by simply recalling that society to its half-forgotten Catholic basis. 
Among all these persons there is, and there has long been, the movement of a common spirit. They are all averse to both the Sacerdotal and the Atheistical view of the world. They none of them insist on any form of orthodoxy, though it be their own, as essential to the pious union of men or their filial relation to God.
The "unattached," who find the place of public prayer uncongenial, and have gone “up into the mountain alone," are willing to return when the devotion shall speak what they can truly say.  
The "broad-churchmen" are ready to widen their communion with the expanding limits of national piety, not excluding the fullest doctrinal theology, but requiring the least. The liberal Nonconformists, weary of sectarian interests, wanting more room for their faith and affections, and finding that companionship in the school of divinity is no guarantee of spiritual sympathy, are longing for a larger fellowship and a freer use of their right of growth.
What is the essence of this common spirit pervading such different classes? — Is it intellectual agreement ? Is there any sort of creed which these people could club together to propagate ? By no means: unless you call it a creed to have a fearless respect for intellectual freedom, and to trust the bonds of piety, righteousness, and love amid large varieties of thought. 
This trust you may, no doubt, if you must convert into a dogma everything which the human mind can hold — express in a proposition to be believed. But this is your work at the end, not its way of beginning. Its birth is in the moral and spiritual nature: and those whom it possesses have been carried towards one another, not by deliberate steering to or from the same lines on the logical chart, but by those silent changes in the moral currents beneath, and in the winds of heaven around, which sometimes mysteriously turn the drift of human affairs.
Hopefully, this is what I have now found.

06/01/2013

Brain Taming

Today's Meeting for Worship was an arduous one, not due to the ministry, but  due to my own state of being. With the pressures of work beckoning, my mind had started to race. It was working at high speed to bring up potential problems that might occur over the coming weeks and months ahead - and then in turn, seeking to find potential solutions for those potential problems, and in turn attempting to evaluate further potential problems that might occur as those solutions are sought. An exhausting - and faintly ridiculous - trap to fall into!

I was very much taken by a quote that occurred on my Twitter feed ahead of going to meeting this morning which said: "You have to be willing to give up the life you've planned for in order to live the life that's waiting for you." The quote was by Joseph Campbell, who I later found out was an Irish-American academic of comparative religion.

I was also taken by the one piece of ministry given at meeting, focusing on the ongoing Quaker work towards peace in Northern Ireland and calling on members to take time to search out for the good news even when things appear bleak - which I felt in some ways linked in with the ministry I gave last week. The Friend giving ministry spoke quite simply, yet nonetheless poetically, about "the Quaker cottage sat upon the hill outside of Belfast" and the work it was doing to bring opposing communities together, often by providing activities for children.

I guess from the hour of meeting for worship, I had 10 - 15mins maximum where I felt settled and opened. The rest of the time I felt crunched up, tense, thoughts whizzing. I could have left the meeting feeling like I had somehow failed, but rather, I left more aware of my state of being - which in turn made the day easier.  

Two further observations came from the meeting, of which I have little explanation for but feel are worth noting. First was momentarily observing a Friend of many years sat still across the room and being aware she will have done this for decades, and feeling in some way steadied by her still, assured demeanour. Secondly, an observation of how my posture, particularly my hand position, changed during meeting from clasped to open and then back to clasped and then back to open (with the odd checking of the watch inbetween!). These things may well be nothing, or may well be something.

This evening I have written a short poem (of sorts) to reflect my experience of meeting today - I have titled it 'Brain Taming', with slight reference to the Buddhist idea of a Monkey Mind, and I have published it on AllPoetry.com. I have recently purchased a book on writing poetry and I'm hoping it might enable me to begin to write poetry more creatively and variously. We'll see!

05/01/2013

Voices of The Light

Since joining in fellowship with the Quakers, a few people have asked what this means for my relationship with Unitarianism. 

Although I no longer regularly attend a Unitarian church, I feel I haven't really turned my back on the Unitarians in the sense I still have a sense of deep connection with the philosophical / theological current I term as 'Classical Unitarianism and Free Christianity'. 

By this I mean the stream of radical Christian thought that came primarily out of Boston and the surrounding American East Coast in the 19th Century with William Ellery Channing as its figurehead, which ran more or less parallel to a shorter-lived, less documented 'Free Christian' project undertaken by Liverpool's Unitarian-minister-at-large, James Martineau.

When I read the keynote speeches and articles from this era, I personally sense that the Spirit (or Inner Light, as Quakers often call it) was very much at work through their work. William Ellery Channing's 1819 Baltimore Sermon on Unitarian Christianity has been described as 'The Pentecost of American Unitarianism' and it perhaps the most familiar and still-treasured work. However, there are many others from William Ellery Channing and his contemporaries which take this initial opening much further in various directions, not without a degree of controversy and conflict with one another.

In terms of the work of James Martineau, I have to admit to finding him very difficult to read - his keynote text in relation to Free Christianity, 'The New Affinities of Faith: A Plea for Free Christian Union' is immensely difficult to get through (so much so I genuinely think it needs somehow translating!) yet underneath it I again think there is a sense of him being moved by the Spirit to put such thoughts and proposals to print. It was not lost on me when I saw James Martineau described as 'The Teacher of Teachers' in terms of his role as a leading theologian and senior minister. I know very little about why his Free Christian Union did not gather momentum but I wonder if perhaps he had been more accessible / 'layperson focused' in his communications and actions, say like the 20th Century's Billy Graham or today's Rob Bell, then history may have turned out differently.

I would also be interested to know if there was much cross-pollination between Unitarians and Quakers during the 19th Century - perhaps more so in America - as their understanding of Christianity and the religious life appears, to me at least, very similar.

Which leads me to now. I read somewhere recently a Quaker commenting something along the lines of "the Quaker path enables me to be a better Christian" and I would tend to agree with that sentiment - although I might say "the Quaker path enables me to put Classical Unitarian thought into practice, and in turn pursue a Christian life."

A final point in terms of Unitarians and Quakers, based on my limited experience so far, is that present-day Quakers seem to collectively display far more knowledge of and reverence for the works of their founding figures than present-day Unitarians do. Not slavishly so, but certainly an understanding of their roots, and an appreciation of the legacy entrusted to them. Maybe this is a result of the Quakers keeping a 'Book of Discipline' as a running record of their standout voices, spanning seamlessly and beautifully  over the centuries, and maybe it is because they have not really embarked on a whole scale revision of their faith as many Unitarians have. 

I do think present-day Unitarians would be enriched by returning in some way to study their past. Not to somehow resurrect it, but rather to maintain a connection with it - after all, as with Quakers, many ancestors of Unitarianism paid a very heavy price (can we honestly say we would do the same?) to keep upright the banner of faith the current generation now stands under. It is also interesting to note that the Quaker meetings I have attended seem to have a rolling programme of sessions to introduce newcomers to their community, including a substantial part on the history of their movement. Again, a similar initiative might lead Unitarians to have a clearer sense of identity and community, which in turn may well heal some of the fragmentation that has occurred in recent decades.

The final three quotes, I think, are fitting in reflecting on these issues:

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." - L.P Hartley

Given the scale of science and social change, to what extent are we a continuation or break from the past?

"No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house." - Matthew 5:15

To what extent can we, and do we, celebrate our ancestor's voices?
"The Truth is one and the same always, and though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the living God endures for ever, and is the same and never changes." - Margaret Fell

To what extent can we speak of eternal truths?

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For those who are interested in reading some of the texts from Unitarianism of times gone by, I suggest the American Unitarian Conference website as a good starting point. In addition, I have also started collecting together and re-formatting my favourite Classical Unitarian and Free Christian sermons and articles, and sharing them on Scribd.  The collection is open source in that others can add documents - I would just politely ask any contributors to try follow similar formatting (the Arial font, 1.5 line spacing etc. have been used to increase readability). 

For more at a glance reading, I have also started creating themed reflections which reflect a Unitarian-Quaker perspective  - so far, these are:

03/01/2013

Negation Mysticism vs Affirmation Mysticism

Following on from my previous post, which touched a little upon what I see as the differences in approach between Zen Buddhist practice and contemplative Christian practice, I thought it would be useful to share the following passage by Rufus Jones, from his book 'Essential Writings'. It is not a direct comparison of Buddhist thought with Christian thought, as it comes from a Christian perspective and uses overtly Christian language, but it does make useful reading.
Two Paths

There are two very diverse types of mystical attitude which come out of the testimony of consciousness to the soul's relation to God. I shall call the two classes, respectively, "negation mysticism" and "affirmation mysticism," although these words are used merely for purposes of description.

Negation Mysticism. The sense of the divine presence will naturally work very different results upon different persons. If one discovers he is a partaker of the divine life, what shall he do next? Why, answers the mystic of our first class, he shall make it his goal to become absorbed in God - swallowed in the Godhead.

Where can God be found? Not in our world of sense anywhere, answers this mystic. Every possible object in our world is a mere finite appearance. It may be as huge as the sun or even the Milky Way, or as minute as the dust speck in the sunbeam; it makes no difference. It is a form of finitude. It is, in contrast to the Absolute, an illusion, a thing of unreality. It cannot show God or take you to Him.

No better is the situation when you can fix upon some event of history or deed of a person in his social relations. The event is a mere finite fact. Cut off and treated by itself, it is not a true reality. God cannot be found in it. The same thing applies to inner states. They are no better than finite activities. Every state of consciousness is sadly finite. It always seeks a beyond. Consciousness is the symbol of restlessness. It is like the flight of a bird which has not found its nest. When the soul is perfectly at home in God, all thought will be quenched, all consciousness will cease.

"Believe not," cries one of these mystics, "those prattlers who boast that they know God. Who knows Him - is silent." He proceeds therefore by process of negation. Everything finite must be transcended. He must slough off not only the rags of his own righteousness, but the last vestige of his finitude. Union with God, absorption in His Being, so that "self" and "other" are unknown is the goal of his search:

Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was - and then no more of Thee and Me. 

He is seeking for an immediate experience which shall fulfil every finite purpose and leave nothing to be sought or desired - a now that shall hint of no beyond. One sees that this mystic is asking for something which cannot be granted, or at least something which could not be known if it were attained. The Absolute who is postulated as precisely the negation of all finiteness turns out to be for us mortals only an absolute zero - a limitless sum-total of negation...

One sees at once the logical and practical outcome of the mysticism of negation. It ends in contraction and confusion or at least would end if the person were faithful to his principle. "It is," as one of our rare American teachers had said, "as if the bud, knowing that its life is in the life of the parent tree should seek to become one with the tree by withering and shrinking and letting its life ebb back into the common life. Seeing it we should not say, Behold how this bud has become one with the tree; we should say, The Bud is dead."

Then, too, it has been the tendency of this type of mysticism to encourage men to live for the rare moment of ecstasy and beatific vision, to sacrifice the chance of wining spiritual victory for the hope of receiving an ineffable illumination which would quench all further search or desire.

Affirmation Mysticism. We turn now to the affirmation mystics. They do not make vision the end of life, but rather the beginning. They are bent on having an immediate, firsthand sense of God - but not just for the joy of having it. More important than vision is obedience to the vision. There are battles to fight and victories to win. God's Kingdom is to be advanced. Error is to be attacked and truth to be established. There who would have a closer view of the Divine must seek it in a life of love and sacrifice.

Instead of seeking the Absolute by negating the finite, the mystic of this class finds the revelation of God in the finite. Nothing now can be unimportant. There is more in the least event than the ordinary eye sees. Every situation may be turned into an occasion for winning a nearer view of God. The most stubborn fact which fronts one in the path may be made a revelation of divine glory, for to this mystic every finite fact may become an open window into the Divine.

It is a primary fact for him that he partakes of God, that his being comes out of the life of God and that he is never beyond the reach of God. Who is his source. But this true being is to be wrought out in the world where he can know only finite and imperfect things. His mission on earth is to be a fellow worker with God - contributing in a normal daily life his humans powers to the divine Spirit who works in him and about him, bringing to a reality a kingdom of God.

His life with its plainly visible tasks is always like the palimpsest which bears in underlying writing a sacred text. He is always more than any finite task declares, and yet he accepts this task because he has discovered that only through the finite is the Infinite to be found. His mystical insight gives him a unity which does not lie beyond the transitory and temporal, but which includes them and gives them their reality. The slenderest human task becomes glorious because God is in it. The simplest act of duty is good because it makes the Infinite God more real. The slightest deed of pure love is a holy thing because God shines through it and is revealed by it.

It is because beauty is a unity that any beautiful object whatever may suffice to show it and any object that does show it has an opening into the infinite. It is because God is a complete unity that any being who partakes of Him may in measure manifest Him. The whole purpose of the one who holds this view is to make is life the best possible organ of God.

He too, like our other mystics, seeks union with God, but not through loss of personality. The eye serves the body not by extinguishing itself but by increasing its power of discrimination; so too the soul is ever more one with the Lord of life as it identifies itself with Him and lets His being expand its human powers...

The prayer of the affirmation mystic will be:

Leave me not, God, until - nay, until when?
Not till I am with thee, one heart, one mind:
Not till thy life is light in me, and then
Leaving is left behind.
- SL 131-33, 134-37, 138
Having first encountered this a few years ago, I have read this over and over today, in part to check for typos, and my response time and time again is 'wow!'.

Change Communities

As we head into 2013, many of us will have made New Year resolutions. It can be a positive time of year as people seek to become healthier and happier - though not necessarily for regular gym goers or partners of smokers! There is also a communal aspect, as with most 'special seasons', with various organisations such as Weight Watchers and Quit offering support networks (some for purely altruistic reasons, others for profit).

I have to confess, I have made no New Year resolutions. There are things I am generally aiming at, such as completing a fixed number of projects at work and making a decision about my longer-term career direction. But in terms of concrete, deadlined intentions to change specific parts of my life, I have none that spring immediately to mind. However, on reading about other people's resolutions, it has got me thinking about change and how people commonly have a deep-seated desire to change, to address perceived weaknesses and to improve themselves - and they often require a support network through which to do this.

This in turn has got me thinking about joining a religious community, as I have recently in my regular attendance of a Quaker meeting, and what people expect when they do so.

For some affiliation to a religious community comes via their upbringing. It would appear that such affiliation is maintained due to a sense of inheritance and stability gained from 'the norm', even when the individual finds themselves increasingly out-of-synch.

However, Western societies are increasingly becoming a 'marketplace of religions' and compared to previous generations, people are making more active choices about their participation or lack of. Although Islam is often reported to be the fastest growing religion in Western societies in terms of numbers, it is worth noting that this is largely due to Muslim migration and higher birth rates amongst Muslim communities. In fact, it is generally recognised the fasting growing religion in Western societies in terms of conversion is Buddhism.

Around 2006 / 2007 time, I dabbled in Buddhism for six months, regularly attending a Zen group and practising sitting in silent meditation. I fell out with it for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, I found the particular group I joined to be mildly cultish in terms of leadership and hierarchy with a chosen few gathered tightly around a sage-like figurehead - and as a newcomer, being summoned mid-meditation into an office for an interview with the leader during the first few sessions seemed to confirm this. Secondly, I found the group to be cold in terms of the relationship between members - it was very much reserved and formalised, not unlike the atmosphere you get when candidates are sat together in a room ahead of a job interview. However, I persisted with it because I could see the very real benefits of meditative practice as part of a group.

Ultimately, it was a relatively minor event that led to my departure. The group were moving buildings and I arrived early on a Sunday helping throughout the day to carry items between the two locations and clean the new premises. I found myself being ordered around by the 'certified monnks' and at the end of the day received no thanks or acknowledgement whilst the inner clique congratulated one another.

Of course this is just one Buddhism community of many, but the experience proved definitive.

The reason I initially approached a Zen Buddhist group was out of curiosity, having reading a number of books on Buddhism recommended by a friend who had become interested in it during a visit to Japan, but also I think, out of the deeper desire for betterment. The big benefit from practising Zazen was the way it strengthened my awareness and attention to the present moment (I recall the time I found myself noticing tiny dew drops on the trees whilst out running as feeling like a direct result of my practice). I also found it allowed the 'dust to settle' in terms of my thoughts and feelings from the previous week, a bit like when a pond is stirred up and then allowed to clear as the mud returns to the floor. Often in this I would find a particular thought or image surface and take it's place within my mind's eye. In short, I found meditation to be calming and affirming. I left with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose.

But of course, I had kind of missed the point in this, in that Buddhism is not necessarily about affirming one sentiment over another but rather, about banishing them completely as illusions.

On reflection, I think this was also a source of deeper tension that eventually led to my departure from Buddhism. It was a fundamental conflict, or 'out-of-stepness', with the majority in terms of what I was seeking and how I was approaching things. I also simply could not entirely reject my sense of being a Christian - during teaching sessions following meditation, sat circled around the leader, I would often find my responses to the questions raised to be rooted in my Christian mindset rather than a burgeoning Buddhist one.

Since that point I returned back to an on-off relationship with the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination. However, again in hindsight, I now realise that although I was seeking a supportive community through which to develop with others, there were issues in this. I have talked before at my dismay over the fissures within modern-day British Unitarianism between those who emphasise Christian roots and those who seek to build a 'post-Christian' religion, and how I felt it distracted me from why I was really there.

I have come to realise that there are sizable amount of liberal-minded seekers, and this includes myself, who come to Unitarianism out of that deep urge to explore truth and experience 'the other', to affirm what is good already whilst also bettering themselves further. The problem is we sometimes come out of this urge but misinterpret Unitarianism (or just 'fit in' with the prevailing culture, depending on how you view things) and seek to change the community rather than be changed by it. We tend to bring our pet projects and seek to make them everyone's. It feels Unitarianism has become just this, a movement under seige from a variety of folk who want to move it in one way or another - rather than being moved by it. Although I say this with the qualifier that Unitarian communities within Unitarianism will of course naturally vary.

(My experience of Quakerism, in 3 pictures)

Since joining the Quakers, I have felt the tide flow the other way. I liken the profound wave of holy silence that hit me when I first walked into a Quaker meeting as akin to when a large droplet hits the water and there are circles that ripple outwards. Since then, having sat now for over 24 hours in silence (not that long when compared to older, wiser Friends), I feel as though whatever that ripple was has seeped into me further, is slowly soaking me and changing me. In purely practical terms, I am being taught to listen carefully to others - to both the voices of the present and those of the Quaker past.

In turn, there is also a requirement to 'flow back' which I will probably write about at another point.

The whole process is difficult. I have found the last two meetings to be particularly challenging. A warm embrace, yes, but also something that shakes your inner core. I have found certain values affirmed but in such a way you feel compelled not just to nod approvingly, but to act on them. I have found myself challenged to re-look at things. This brings me back again to an extract from Experiment with Light I quoted on this blog a few weeks ago, of which I think Margaret Fell's words are most striking:
"It began to be clear to me that the light, for them, could be harsh , because it showed them everything, warts and all. In particular it highlighted their self-centredness, 'self-will' as they called it,  which they saw as their main obstacle to an awareness of God. No wonder they were distressed and 'ripped up' before they came to an experience of peace. They had to face the hard truth about themselves before they were able to let go of the self and put their trust in God. Margaret Fell urged them to stay with the process: 'Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal light search you... for this will deal plainly with you; it will up you up and lay you open... naked and bare before the Lord God, from whom you cannot hide yourselves. Therefore give over deceiving of your souls.' (Works, pp. 65, 136).

But the same light that struck awe and dismay into them also healed them, gave them new life and showed them the way to go. It could do this because it freed them from the narrow bounds of the self-centred view and opened them up to a vision of what they really were in God's wide world, releasing them in feelings and energies that had been repressed by their narrow and fearful egos."
And isn't this the kind of process of change that any religion, at least in part, is ultimately meant to embark its adherents on?

As we now move into the New Year, and the mood for change is more pronounced amongst people, my hope is that others find their urge for betterment leads them forwards through a path and into a support network that bears fruit in a similar way the Quakers have recently for me.

02/01/2013

God - A Working Definition

I've been reading quite a few Quaker blogs recently via the QuakerQuaker website - whereas usually in the past my main source of online religious thought was UUpdates, which I still call upon from time to time.

Looking at the Quaker blog Through the Flaming Sword today brought me across this 'definition' for God, which I share pretty much wholeheartedly (and wholemindedly):
I use “God” as a placeholder for the Reality Mystery behind our spiritual or religious experience, whatever that experience is. I say “Reality” because our spiritual or religious experiences are real—they transform us; they bear fruit. They may be completely interior and subjective, but we know they are real because they bring changes that we, and often others, can recognize as real.
And yet our spiritual and religious experiences are a Mystery. They transcend our understanding. Often they transcend our senses. And they transcend usual consciousness. Behind the Reality of our experiences we can sense something deeper that we cannot fully articulate or comprehend. At best we can only glimpse in part where the experience comes from, or why it came, or what it will do to us, or what it means. Its fullness remains a mystery, even after it seems to have stopped unfolding. Some spiritual and religious experience never stops unfolding. I’ve said all this before.

So here it is: for me, “God” is whatever lies behind, or beneath, or inside this experience of unfolding transformation brought on by spiritual or religious experience.

I could elaborate, and many people do. For many people, the Mystery does unfold a bit. They know who their God is. They know where their experience comes from. For myself, I can see through the window of my own experiences some distance into a metaphysical landscape that I can describe and in which “God” does have names. Names, plural—different experiences that have taken place in different contexts, that have come a little bit clearer in different ways, and that engage me in relationships with some “who”s.

But even so, some Mystery remains. God works in mysterious ways. Which is to say that we never fully understand our spiritual or religious experience. This is one of the things about religion that drives secular scientists nuts.

But whatever our experience is, whatever our spiritual or religious tradition, these two dimensions remain in common: we know it is real and yet it remains mysterious. So I try to return always to these core definitions based on the commonalities of our experience.

I love elaborating on what my experience—and our shared experience—means. In fact, I love speculating about them, venturing into the territory known to early Friends as “notions”. But that’s because it’s fun, it’s intellectually exciting for me. But it’s not necessary, and it isn’t even very useful a lot of the time. And it can lead to trouble.

So, back I go to the reality and the mystery of real experience."