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.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

24/07/2013

Start of a sabbatical...

Having just started my six-week summer sabbatical, I am currently experiencing the now familiar drop in energy levels and mood. This roughly 2 to 5 day drop as soon as a school holiday starts, which I know many educators experience, is one of the reasons I feel the current model of school holidays in Britain needs some kind of reform. I also believe it is why the current styles of leadership and methods of accountability within schools needs to change (see here, here and here for insights into this).

I believe the collectively-adhered-to cycle of rushing towards deadlines and targets, borne primarily out of a fear of not reaching them, and then suddenly stopping creates an unhealthy working culture (the same could be said of the NHS). I am not sure how credible the research base is, but I have often heard it said that the incidence of teachers dying within the first 18 months of retirement is higher than other careers. Again, I wonder if this is a result of the sudden and permanent drop in activity for a mind & body tuned into highs and lows of adrenalin?

Whilst I use the half-termly breaks for work, I spend most seasonal holidays (Christmas and Easter) and the summer break catching up with family, travelling, re-engaging more seriously in sport and reading. Work in schools can be so consuming, so regimented, so intensely-focused that it feels like your own life has been put on hold and so these periods feel like a re-emergence. I even have one colleague who sends his family away for a week (somewhere nice!) then from there stops washing, grows a beard etc. until the time comes when he says he feels he can 'resurrect himself'! I have another colleague who takes to his bike in the first week or so stopping off at silent monasteries (Buddhist and Christian) along the way.

In terms of my own experience, after a few days of feeling at a sudden loose end matched equally with a distinct lack of desire to get tied up in something, I tend to start cleaning the house, exercising and reading - taking in a mix of weighty and more light-hearted material - and at some point head off abroad. This will be the pattern this year.

My first book this summer is 'Mindfulness Plain and Simple' by Oli Doyle. As regular readers of this blog will have noted (if, that is, there are regular readers!), I have a longstanding interest in aspects of Buddhist practice although my theology is still very much rooted in Christianity. 

I try to quietly practice Buddhist-rooted mindfulness everyday - and ultimately I would argue the benefits come from the practice, not the philosophy. However, from time to time I do read a book on the subject to freshen up my focus and understanding. This is important particularly so this summer having left one teaching post, with all of its high and low points becoming memory, and awaiting a new teaching post in September. It is particularly important in this transition phase to avoid slipping into fearful narratives about what lies ahead. This is what Oli Doyle has to say about fear:

"Fear of the future is seen as a normal and natural part of being human, but if we pay close attention, we can see some scary, painful thoughts at the roof of that fear. Without these stories, there is no fear, but if you believe those stories, you will scare yourself stiff! Fear, which includes tension, nervousness, anxiety and worry, is seen as helpful by many people, who believe that without it we would lack motivation, becoming listless and lazy. This is partly true: fear motivates many people to do many things, it is the driver behind much of our activity. Some of us continue to go to work out of fear of losing our job, we buy our partners gifts, scared they may leave us and as a species our fear of losing economic wealth drives the continuing push for growth at all costs. I believed that much domestic violence is driven by fear, as people who use violence try to maintain control of their partners and children because they are terrified of losing them. This example shows the destructive effect of action that is motivated by fear, but because our fear of negative consequences motivates so much action, it seems logical to the mind that this fear is needed and useful. This is based on the assumption that without fear, we would not be motivated to do things, which is not the case in my experience. 

What if your best, dearest friend invites you over for dinner? You know that they will completely understand if you can't come, so there is no fear. Will you go, or will you lie at home on the couch? No fear is needed for motivation here, but fear might drive you to go to that boring, dry work dinner instead of seeing your friend, worried about what the boss would say if you weren't there. In my experience working with mental health issues, in particular anxiety, it appears that fear is what keeps people from doing things they want to do. Fear of negative consequences keeps people in the house, keeps them in the same job, keeps them from talking to new people and making new friends. Fear of the future is a limiting factor, not a driver for growth and activity, and it is also absolutely unnecessary. 

Without this fear, you can pursue activities not to avoid unpleasant consequences but to enjoy yourself, which fundamentally changes the character of life..."

Obviously, this does not mean the complete abandon of practically weighing up the consequences of our decisions and actions, but there is a need to avoid overly-detailed projection. All this kind of internal storytelling ultimately achieves is, apart from tiring your mind out, the habitual avoidance of adventure - and in turn, long-term frustration and regret.

Going further, one of my favourite dip-in, dip-out texts is 'Plain Living' by Catherine Whitmire, a collection of reflections from various Quakers. I recently found myself struck by the following quotes on fear:

"[W]hat is characteristic of human beings is that we do not live in the moment. We look before and after. We carry our past experience with us and project it on the future. And if the past has frightened us, we carry that with us and project it ahead... I wonder if you ever catch yourself, as I do sometimes, feeling anxious, and looking for something to be anxious about? But mostly we don't catch these fears at work. They have become habits and we are quite unaware of them...

The person who is fear-determined is always on the defensive. You will recognise these people when you meet them because either they hide from you behind a facade of pretence or formality, or else they try to dominate you. They are either submissive or aggressive.... They can never be themselves. They have lost their freedom: and losing their freedom they have lost their lives." - John Macmurray

~

"The Hebrew slaves had imagined that freedom from physical captivity would allow them to live as free people. But they discovered that they had brought their slavery with them. They were enslaved to fear...

The wilderness wandering, this season of repeated failure and renewed stripping, was their time of learning... In the wilderness the people recognised that their food came from God. Their drink came from God. Their very survival came from God. Only as they gave up reliance on their own power did they come to trust God's faithful leading. Paradoxically, it was this detachment from their own power which made them strong enough to enter the Promised Land." - Sandra Cronk

~

"Christ's major point
throughout the Sermon on the Mount
is to get rid of fears and anxieties.
It might also be said that
the substance of his mission
as a teacher was to
set us free from the slavery of our fears
"Why are ye so fearful?"
he keeps saying.
Stop your unnecessary worries.
Cut out your excessive anxieties.
It has been well said that
the most ruinously expensive
of all our emotions is fear.
It is that very emotion of fear
that has thrown our world out of joint
and brought us to this unspeakable calamity..."
- Rufus. M. Jones

During a conversation with a Unitarian Christian minister this week, he mentioned how Christianity has a psychological value in that the stories of the New Testament point to a metaphorical, rather than literal, dying to aspects of self and process of rebirth. I think if Christianity is to have a future in The West, this is one of the messages - as well as its social & communal messages - that needs to be proclaimed louder.

23/07/2013

Great Dictation


My brother pointed me towards this video today. I know little of Charlie Chaplin, I am ashamed to say - despite some academic background in Film Studies - but I was both surprised and stirred by this.

21/07/2013

Work upwards...

Following my recent post, I happened upon the following from Quaker Faith & Practice, which bears some relation to the issues and themes discussed:

"I speak not against any magistrates or peoples defending themselves against foreign invasions; or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders - for this the present estate of things may and doth require, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end and its use will be honourable ... but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and to travel towards. There is to be a time when 'nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more'. When the power of the Gospel spreads over the whole earth, thus shall it be throughout the earth, and, where the power of the Spirit takes hold of and overcomes any heart at present, thus will it be at present with that heart. This blessed state, which shall be brought forth [in society] at large in God's season, must begin in particulars [that is, in individuals]."

-- Isaac Penington, 1661

White Envelopes

This week I watched with interest, and a lingering sense of anger, as the murderers of Alan Greaves were sentenced. 

The brutal, senseless Christmas Eve attack on a community man, a man of principles, a humble family man shocked Sheffield - a city which prides itself on being relatively low in the violent crime league tables, a city which refers to itself as 'The Big Village'. Coming from Sheffield myself, it naturally hit home more than other murders (right or wrongly) as I reflected on the fact this could have been my father, my grandfather, my uncle, my neighbour...

The family of Alan Greaves sat in the gallery throughout the trial which eventually led to a 25 year sentence being handed to one young man and a 9 year sentence, for manslaughter, handed to another. The people of the city also watched via the media and, at least on some internet message boards, there were cries for harsher sentencing.

The dignified, clear response of Maureen Greaves went against such cries for what would become an act of retribution rather than a justice more-fulfilled, commenting that she welcomed the conviction and sentencing but had also forgiven them. Maureen Greaves said forgiving her husband's killers had been a laboured process rather than a singular act.

 "It seems so easy to say I've forgiven them, but it's probably one of the hardest things in my life that I've had to do and yet having done it and repeatedly seeking to do it, I've found I've benefited... I've not gone to bed with them on my mind, I've not gone around with shocking feelings over them, I've not gone over and over in my mind the replay of what happened to Alan..."

“It has to be a daily act of saying ‘I place them in your hands, God’, so that I don’t have to worry about them, I don’t have to hate them. After the massive shock and heartbreak, this was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, to go down the path of forgiving them... It has been a wonderful release that I have not had the burden of hatred towards them. I have to do it every day so I don’t lapse..."

It is also worth noting that one of her husband's killers tried to hand Maureen Greaves a 'letter of remorse', just before sentencing, which she has so far refused to read saying it would be 'inappropriate' after so long.

At times I find myself frustrated at the media portrayal of lives lived according to a faith - it's usually a case of reducing religious belief and practice to a spectacle, as something to provoke and to threaten or something exotic and quirky to coo at. The recent case of Channel 4's Ramadan coverage springs to mind here (see Nesrine Malik's on-point critique of this here). Yet in Maureen Greaves we see faith in its most complex, simultaneously at its rawest and most sophisticated, at its most beguiling.

In particular, Maureen Greaves offers us an example of what we, regardless of which belief system we follow, each have to do in our own lives when we feel wronged, no matter how big or small. And it is a delicately-laid uphill path, rather than an abracadabra miracle, in which justice and peace are carried by either arm.

Today I gave ministry on this theme at Meeting for Worship, talking through a recent experience - far, far less in its scale and permanence than the experience of Maureen Greaves - but nonetheless one in which I have had to walk a similar tightrope between wanting to address an issue of injustice in some way - injustice that has hurt me personally and will continue to hurt others if ignored - yet not wanting to be consumed by anger and vengeance.

This six month journey culminated in a 'crossroads moment' this week - in the form of a white envelope containing two pieces of paper competing for airtime; the charges I wanted to lay at someone's door on one versus a short statement positive statement on how good things sometimes are, and should be more, on the other. After much deliberation, and some last minute decisions, I opted for the latter - doing so having critically examined my motives, recognising the first paper was designed primarily to hurt the reader rather than help them.

These past six months have involved a struggle - an often faltering, begrudging struggle - yet also a learning curve of sorts. And on this Sunday, this traditional day of sabbath for Christians, it's a struggle I now feel I can rest from rather than continued to be burned up from the inside by. Certainly my own growing Christian faith and Quaker practice has helped reach this point.

14/07/2013

Killing your Buddhas...

Over the years I have heard and read so many times the instruction, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" - it habitually strikes me at face value as an odd phrase, I find myself instinctively going down the line of "...why would Buddhists wants to kill their beloved founder?"

Certainly, we wouldn't likely hear Christians singing "kill the Christ!" (atonement theology notwithstanding) or for that matter, Muslims reciting "kill the Prophet!" (indeed, in some countries, this would probably lead to you being killed for uttering such a phrase).

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his typically accessible and inspirational way, explains this odd phrase in 'Zen Keys':

""lf You Meet the Buddha, Kill Him!"

One of the greatest potentialities of the skilful means is to free beings from their prison of knowledge and prejudice. Man is attached to his knowledge, to his habits and to his prejudices; the language of Zen must be capable of liberating him. In Buddhism, knowledge constitutes the greatest obstacle to Awakening. This obstacle is called the obstacle of knowledge. What is referred to here is knowledge based on concepts. If we are trapped by this knowledge, we shall not have the possibility of realizing Awakening in us.

The Sutra of the Hundred Parables tells the story of a young widower who was living with his five-year-old son and who, one day, returned home to find his house burned down and his child lost. Near the destroyed house there was the charred corpse of a child that he believed was his, and in this belief he wept over his child, then set about the cremation of the body, according to the Indian rites. He kept the ashes of the child in a bag which he carried with him day and night, whether he was working or whether he was resting. Now, his son had not perished in the fire but had been taken off by brigands. One day the child escaped and returned to his father's house. He arrived at midnight, when his father was about to go to bed, still carrying the famous bag. The son knocked at the door. "Who are you?" asked the father. "I am your son." "You lie. My son died some three months ago." And the father persisted in this belief and would not open the door. In the end the child had to depart, and the poor father lost forever his beloved son.

This parable shows that when we have acknowledged a certain thing to be the absolute truth and cling to it, we can no longer accept the idea of opening the door, even if truth itself is knocking at it. The Zen practitioner must therefore strive to liberate himself from his attachment to knowledge and to open the door of his being in order that truth might enter. His Master must also help him in these efforts. Zen Master Lin Chi once said: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet the Patriarch, kill the Patriarch." For the one who only has devotion, this declaration is tenable; it confuses him completely. But its effect depends on the mentality and capacity of the one who hears.! If the man is strong, he truly will have the capacity to liberate himself from all authority, whatever it might be, and to accomplish in himself ultimate truth. Truth is reality itself and not concepts. If we cling to a certain number of concepts and consider them as being reality, we lose reality. This is why it is necessary to "kill" the concepts of reality in order that the reality itself can be realized and reveal itself. To kill the Buddha is without doubt the only way to see the Buddha. The concept that one has formed of the Buddha impedes one from seeing the Buddha himself.

"My friends of the Dharma Way, if you wish to acquire a correct view of reality, do not allow yourself to be deceived by anyone. When you meet someone, either going out or returning, you must kill him. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet the Patriarch, kill the Patriarch. If you meet the Saint, kill the Saint. This is the only way by which you might be liberated, free and independent.""

The Quakers speak in similar terms about the danger 'notions' - fixed ideas which get in the way of the real truth. My understanding of Free Christian thought is it shares a similar view with regards to moving beyond of theology, fossilized in creedal statements, to experience authentic faith.

Whether we hold a particular faith or not, the idea of routinely challenging our fixed ideas of past, present and future - and of people - is clearly a healthy one.

11/07/2013

Time ramble!

Following the recent post I made about the potential stress of change, I found myself in discussion with a colleague (one who seems to always casually and inadvertently hit me with a bit of wisdom) about this issue in-between a series of fairly perfunctory meetings we were joint chairing. He mentioned the extract below - well, he mentioned it as something he had a faint memory of, and from there, we raced each other to search it up on the internet!

"The Station by Robert J. Hastings
The station is an illusion - it constantly outdistances us

Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey that spans an entire continent. We're traveling by train and, from the windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row upon row upon row of cotton and corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our conscious minds is our final destination--for at a certain hour and on a given day, our train will finally pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving, and bands playing. And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true. So restlessly, we pace the aisles and count the miles, peering ahead, waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

"Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it!" we promise ourselves. "When we're eighteen. . . win that promotion. . . put the last kid through college. . . buy that 450SL Mercedes-Benz. . . have a nest egg for retirement!"

From that day on we will all live happily ever after. Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion--it constantly outdistances us. Yesterday's a memory, tomorrow's a dream. Yesterday belongs to a history, tomorrow belongs to God. Yesterday's a fading sunset, tomorrow's a faint sunrise. Only today is there light enough to love and live.

So, gently close the door on yesterday and throw the key away. It isn't the burdens of today that drive men mad, but rather regret over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.

"Relish the moment" is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, swim more rivers, climb more mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener. Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough."

I think, on reflection, our belief in a perfect final destination emerges from our traditional Judeao-Christian culture - the longstanding vision of heaven as an afterlife, the premise of a final day of judgement. We, growing up in this culture, naturally tend to take a wholly linear view of time. Whether we believe in a heavenly afterlife or not (as it happens, I do not), we are indoctrinated into the idea of journeying - and struggling - from one fixed point to another fixed point. In our increasingly hypo-capitalist culture, as Robert J. Hastings perhaps alludes to, this spiritual journey has seemingly become fused with primarily materialistic milestones. We become fixed on getting to each milestone, on the idea that we must grab each opportunity on our fixed route or it will be forever left behind, on the belief that if we do X and Y in Z amount of time we will reach our utopia and be forever happy.

Again, I find my dipping-of-toes into Eastern philosophy helps challenge this. In Eastern cultures, particularly those finding root in Buddhism and Hinduism, time is at least in part cyclical.

From here, we can reflect that we are perhaps each locked in a spiral of opportunities for creation & fruition and unavoidable points of destruction, at a universal level, communal level and deeply personal level. We can approach opportunities for change more reasonably, feeling fairly confident they probably won't be the last and similar ones will come again, whilst also being realistic enough to know that even the greatest fruit any opportunity might bare is bound for destruction. We must, as much as we can, simply appreciate and enjoy being part of this process.

09/07/2013

Change = growth

As I have alluded to in previous posts, I am now on the verge of a new chapter in my working life - and in turn, I expect this to mark broader changes. Periods of change, and perhaps more strikingly the immediate period just before change kicks in, can cause anxiety. It can even make us consider stepping back, retreating from the change (if we can) - and in turn stifle new experiences and opportunities.

I experience this now both on a personal, inner level and in my observations of people I work with who are heading towards a similar point and process.

This anxiety stems greatly from how we view change, being as much fuelled by our perspective as the realities we face. I have found the following extract from 'Anam Cara' by John O'Donohue helpful in reflecting on this time.

"The Eye Celebrates Motion

The human eye adores movement and is alert to the slightest flicker. It enjoys great moments of celebration when it beholds the ocean as the tide comes in, and tide upon tide repeats its dance against the shore. The eye also loves the way light moves; summer light behind a cloud crawling over a meadow. The eye follows the way the wind shovels leaves and sways trees. The human is always attracted to motion. As a little baby, you wanted to crawl, then to walk, and as an adult you feel the continuous desire to walk into independence and freedom.

Everything alive is in movement. This movement we call growth. The most exciting form of growth is not mere physical growth but the inner growth of one's soul and life. It is here that the holy longing within the heart brings one's life into motion. The deepest wish of the heart is that this motion does not remain broken or jagged but develops sufficient fluency to become the rhythm of one's life.

The secret heart of time is change and growth. Each new experience that awakens in you adds to your soul and deepens your memory. The person is always a nomad, journeying from threshold to threshold, into ever different experiences. In each new experience another dimension of the soul unfolds. It is no wonder that from ancient times the human has been understood as a wanderer. Traditionally, these wanderers traversed foreign territories and unknown places. Yet Stanislavsky, the Russian dramatist and thinker, said that "the longest and most exciting journey is the journey inwards."

There is a beautiful complexity of growth within the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is helpful to visualize the mind as a tower of windows. Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn, and walk around the inner tower of the soul and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity. Complacency, habit, and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends on the frame of vision – the window through which you look.

To Grow is to Change

In a poetics of growth it is important to explore how possibility and change remain so faithful to us. They open us to new depths within. Their continual, inner movement makes us aware of the eternity that hides behind the outer facade of our lives. Deep within every life, no matter how dull or ineffectual it may seem from the outside, there is something eternal happening. This is the secret way that change and possibility conspire with growth. John Henry Newman summed this up beautifully when he said, "To grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often." Change therefore, need not be threatening; it can in fact bring our lives to perfection. Perfection is not cold completion. Neither is it avoidance of risk and danger in order to keep the soul pure or the conscience unclouded. When you are faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth, you are engaging your life. The soul loves risk; it is only through the door of risk that growth can enter."

01/07/2013

Rest in peace brother François


The mainstream media seem to be overlooking the martyrdom of François Murad, a Catholic priest working in Syria. His life is one of thousands lost in this horrific civil war. But it is in some ways more deeply disturbing, bringing to full light the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict

It also raised a huge point of concern, and protest, in that the beheading shooting of brother François was at the hands of Syrian rebel militia, to whom the UK government would like to send arms. Of course, William Hague insists we are only sending guns and bombs - and maybe even knives - to 'good' rebels. I don't see how they can really control their use given the amount of cross-pollination that is probably occurring between the various groups opposed to the Assad regime.

This persecution of religious minorities is part of a growing trend across the Middle East from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Israel-Palestine to Egypt. Who will speak for them?