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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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.

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