The Ferocious Healer

Healing can be gentle and tender; but certain healing acts on an inner level of the self, racing like a cold wave to resolve us, before washing us up on the beach called tomorrow, but under a different sun…

(1000 words, a ten-minute read)

We all progress through an inner journey in our lives. We may not work with any specific system of self-development, but we come to the same perspective about ourselves. We come to know, with certainty, that there are things about us that have far more importance than anything else. These are qualities, rather than things. They do not relate to things; to what we might have, how secure we are. They are concerned with an ‘easiness’ (or not) of our inner state, our ‘me-ness’.

When we enter this awareness, usually in our middle years, we are on a path to self-knowledge, whose gravitational force becomes stronger as we age. True, there is a contest between bodily health and focus at that point – as shown by the increasing take-up of combined Eastern systems, such as Yoga, or derivates like Pilates. A daily walk confers much of the same benefits. Whatever method we adopt, the gains are reflected within as a calmer interior.

If we inquire into where unease comes from, we are pointed at a many-coloured quilt of mind and emotions, made from pieces of our experience, solidified as responses. There are desires, regrets, resolutions and powerful insights woven into this fabric. The whole of it comprises the self, the personality, and, although it feels complicated, it really isn’t – once we find the dynamic states in there, and begin to separate the dross from the real.

The real is vitally important, and we are compelled to approach it in stages. These stages reveal a pattern of ‘really important things’ – things with a power to change that interior state and make us renewed, within – which then changes the without…

The real is based on truth. Our relationship to truth is subtle, and, initially at least, learned. We are brought up in societies where many of the most important ‘powerful people’ lie. They lie all the time, carving and shaping the societal world in a way that protects their existence as liars. We all lie, but becoming aware of our lying is a key part of putting real life, as opposed to illusion, back into our interior state. We may not have the power to make our societies true, but we do have the power to make ourselves true.

We don’t want zealots here. There’s nothing as deadly as a zealot, clinging to his or her first vision of real truth and preaching how important it is to give up our present lives. We want gentleness, we want sharing and, above all, we want compassion…

Compassion is one of the great discoveries of the land inside us. Like anything else we presume to know, compassion has hidden depths. Compassion has two apparent faces: the one that soothes the friend who is going through illness, providing a reassurance that things will be okay, when we know they will not; and the the other, deeper face, that acts like a silent twin of truth.

If we have any ‘spiritual’ intentions, we must find our own truths. I’m not talking about the methods of development we may choose. I’m referring to an interior capability to ‘feel’ the truth of any situation. It can come as a shock to find out that we have an inner organ that knows when something is true or not; that knows when we are bending our complex and sophisticated past to accommodate something that is really an indulgence, rather than what we have set ourselves to do.

This is hard, really hard. But it is the way forward, and no amount of false compassion, the pat of self-reassurance that we have lots of life left to get it right, will substitute. Conditions arise in our lives for a reason. Life is an interior school of self-development, as millennia of wisdom has taught. People on a path of self-development are wise, no matter how far along that path they are. They listen to life, reading in its events, good or bad, what they should be learning on their individual journeys.

And it is here that the little-known power of real compassion comes into play. Compassion for ourselves will help us face the truth of our lives. It acts like a ship that reveals a bigger world. But its direction can only be towards the Truth, and in that powerful voyage, its engines have to be merciless in carrying us forward.

Once we face truth, nurture it and and learn to make it our constant advisor, we are set on a course, and the mighty engines of self-compassion, matched to the compass of truth, assume their real power, which is to make the brave happen… eventually healing the wounds that seem less and less important as we gaze out on a truly new day.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a modern journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being

Awkward Questions

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I was asked a question the other day with which I am intimately acquainted but for which I had no answer. “What does it mean to lead a spiritual life?” It is not strictly true to say I have no answer. I have my own answers, but those I recognise to be subjective, not definitive. It is, I think, one of those questions to which there are as many answers as there are querents and all will hold at least part of the truth.

To begin with it begs the question of what we mean by ‘spirituality’ itself. In this day and age it is often a term held to be quite distinct from religious belief and many will say they are ‘spiritual, not religious’, yet I am not so sure you can really make that distinction. Religion is generally defined as a formalised and organised set of beliefs, where spirituality is usually seen as a personal relationship with the non-physical life. Yet a religious belief that seeks a personal relationship with God, whatever Name is used, surely, by that definition, is spiritual? For me the choice of path matters little, it is how we choose to walk it that makes the difference between whether we embrace a particular path or merely pay lip-service to an outer form; a spiritual life should be a personal journey towards understanding regardless of the route taken.

For some religion provides the structure and the guide that they need. For others that very structure is anathema. Many forget that the underlying message behind most paths that is not so dissimilar when stripped of doctrine and tradition. They can all be paths to the Light. That is up to the traveller.

If I were to seek to express an answer to that original question and say what I personally mean by living a spiritual life, I would have to say that it is to live without blinkers.

I would have to consider the blindness that can make us the last to see our faults and flaws, the last to see our personal, inner barriers and the excuses we make for ourselves and say that the spiritual life leaves us naked with nowhere to hide. It demands that we look at ourselves, both in our weakness and in our strength, recognising the problems and screwed-up bits equally with the gifts, glories and beauty we all possess; as a rule we are not very good at that, tending to see only one side or the other.

To live a spiritual life is to live, fully… and to live in the world, alive to the world, in the moment we are given; and through knowledge and experience to seek the understanding that can be born of them.

For me, it does not mean being a saint or becoming perfect. It is about living in awareness and harmony, both within ourselves and within the world. It means recognising the perfection that already exists within each of us… within each other… and within which we all exist. It means aligning ourselves, little by little with that greater perfection and with who we are in the world. It asks of us that we live in compassion and love, obeying that golden rule that transcends all the religious and spiritual barriers we have created; to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated, and to do so in the knowledge of our ultimate kinship as part of a single stream of life.

Out with the Old?

It is not my intention to talk non-stop about my current health problems. But, even just a few days into what promises to be a rather long haul, so many things have been brought to my attention that I feel need to be highlighted. I’ve already mentioned the hospital food, albeit briefly compared to what could have been said, but that… although nowhere near as minor as it might seem… is as nothing compared to some of the other concerns that were raised.

Let me say straight away that I am not blaming the grossly overworked nurses; the care from individual to individual was, in most cases, superb. I am questioning a shift in our attitude as a society that allows unnerving changes in the way we deal with older and more vulnerable people.

After spending time in the Rapid Response unit and then in Resuscitation, I was eventually wheeled into a private room for the night, which was most welcome. Next day, I found myself on a ward. There were several other patients whose stories I could relate, but the saddest case was the old lady in the bed opposite mine.

Scrunched up into a little ball, the old lady barely moved. She would not speak, would not eat or interact… or so it seemed. But, just after two, her husband came in… and she came to life. The two of them were as much in love as when they had first met, nearly half a century earlier. They had shared a bed for forty seven years and the separation now was almost killing them both.

He had walked into a village dance one evening, caught her eye and winked at her. She winked back… and they were both lost to a lifelong love.

We learned how close they had become when a car had ploughed around a corner, ripping into her legs…and killing their children in the pushchair. We learned how their lives had been lived for each other from that day onwards…and how very deep the love between them still ran.

It was beautiful to see them together. She, all girly, wearing the special earrings the nurses had been forbidden to remove, he, dapper and smart, dressed for a date, bullying and cajoling the girl he loves into swallowing a little water or lunch. Honestly? They glowed. Both of them.

But that brief hour together was all they had… not even that much at weekends, thanks to Covid. He hoped to take her home… we could see him making plans for holding her in that bed together… and were worried that her almost catatonic state would prevent that.

It was the care of one or two of the nursing staff that made all the difference. In particular, the ones who took the time to talk to her, treating her like a human being with hopes, emotions and memories… talking about her husband, the cruise they had shared, the things they had done and life they had built. It was all it took to turn the silent, closed-in mannequin into a shyly proud bride, flashing a cheeky eye at her love.

Is there always time for this on our wards? No, of course not… but there should be. Perhaps with fewer managerial tiers and less red tape there would be more funding for sleeves-rolled-up nursing staff with time to help heal a patient through loving and personal care.

On Tuesday, I was told there was nothing they could do for me. That it would be a case of making me comfortable… no more. I could not speak to my family or see them. Could not comfort them. I could not be held. I could not cry on any shoulder or rail against the verdict. A lonely and impersonal death… separated from all I love…that was hard to deal with. I can’t even begin to imagine how it felt for that poor old lady.

I am so grateful that verdict seems to have changed for me at least, but this is the reality Covid is imposing in our hospitals. At a time when warmth, humanity and compassion are most needed, restrictions are pushing us further apart, and when hopelessness is added to despair, there can seem little left to live for. It does not seem right that policy is doing this to our oldest and most vulnerable people at their most vulnerable moments.

It is from our elders that we learn… have always learned. It is from them we see how to treat others, how to cherish life and love and laughter, how to value toil and continuation and courage. It was, I believe, Gandhi who said that ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. If that small cross-section of people is representative, I can only say that if we were to have been measured we would have been found wanting.

For many, especially older patients, technology is a mystery to be accessed only with the help of those visitors who are now banned. With no ability to leave the ward, thanks to Covid, no books or even television screens, there is nothing to do except sit and wither away. I felt it myself and I am lucky. I understand how to use technology. My granddaughters waved to me over the telephone, my email and messages were seldom quiet and although there would be no hugs, the voices I love were never more than a call away.

Surely, after all our older generations have done… the least we can do is warm their final days with a little love and compassion?

A silver cord

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As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.

Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.

Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.

And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.

Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.

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It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.

I was reminded of all this when I read an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.

Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.

We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.

I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.

The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered in very many cases and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.

And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.

There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.

Close to home

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I had occasion recently to talk with someone whose actions had once caused me a good deal of pain. I was asked, in the light of later maturity, if I could ever forgive them.

I found that I could not.

I could not forgive because I had never really blamed. I cannot blame what I can understand. That does not mean that I condone, accept or agree with harmful actions. It simply means that if I can see why it was, for that person and at that moment, the only thing they felt they could do, I cannot truly blame. If I were them, I would be in their shoes at that moment and would I have acted any differently? Probably not.

It is something none of us can know. We will never be in their precise position and can only hope that if we were in a similar situation, we would do otherwise. That does not make any of us better than another, or any more likely to take the best course instead of a reactive one. It just means that we approach each moment with a different arsenal of experience with which to make our own choices… and our own mistakes.

“I forgive you.”

The word sounds like the giving of a gift, doesn’t it? In some respects, that is true. But what exactly are we giving… and to whom?  A full pardon for an offence? An assurance that we will put the memory of that offence behind us? Or a complete forgetting of all that the offence engendered? Whatever those words mean for each of us, the simple fact of choosing to forgive implies that we feel a wrong was done and that some aspect of that injury remains. If not, there would be nothing to forgive.

By offering forgiveness, there is also an implication there has been an admission of guilt… a mutual accord that wrong has been given and received.

Is it even humanly possible to choose true forgiveness and forgetting in a single moment? To wipe the slate clean with three words, leaving no trace of hurt, resentment or guilt? I don’t think it is. We may be able to maintain an attitude of forgiveness and genuinely act from the heart, as if it were true, but all hurts take time to heal and memories need time to fade.

The only way I have found to really forgive a perceived injury is to change my own relationship to it. Sometimes a little human understanding is enough and the old platitudes about ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ and ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ can be enough to create that change. Many injuries are not what we feel them to be but have their cause rooted somewhere beyond the obvious.

Sometimes the change may come with a flash of understanding sparked from an outside source, like the words of a friend or a chance phrase you have read. Most of the time, though, you have to dig deeper, realising that in hanging onto your resentment, the only person who is suffering may be yourself.

We learn such a lot through our interactions with each other. When someone has harmed us in any way, we will, in an ideal world, learn from that experience and not allow ourselves to be in that position again. In reality, we tend to meet variants of these same situations over and over again, each of them dressed differently so that we are fooled into thinking them something new. It is only in looking closer that we see a common thread…and that thread may be traced back through the labyrinth to its source, which is often some aspect of our own personality.

That is not to say that we are to blame for the actions of others, but it is we ourselves who open the doors of experience and any repeating pattern holds a clue to who we are, how we show ourselves to the world and how others will see us… including those who would hurt us.

Learning to really understand ourselves and what is behind our actions can be one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake…and the most rewarding. Systems such as the one we use in the Silent Eye can help give a structure to that quest and hold up a mirror in which we can begin to see ourselves more clearly, identifying the cracks and vulnerable spots in our characters and emotions and allowing us to address them. There is no blame where there is understanding…and the empathy and compassion that leads to real forgiveness must start with ourselves.

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 3 – Sorrow ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues the tale of her experiences with the Silent Eye in Derbyshire:

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part three of my account, parts one and two can be found here…

We travelled through Eyam, the road taking us higher and higher, the valley opening away to our right. And as we did so the air began to clear, the strange weight that had burdened me lifting. We continued along a narrow track edged with tangled brambles and tall nettle, a fairy-tale barrier between us and the view. Taking a fork in the road among tall trees, Sue pulled the car onto the narrow verge to park.

And all was still.

The day remained bright, the sky a curving dome of blue, the air fresh and clear. We stood on a curving path bounded by a moss-covered wall, a rolling green hillside to our left. And, upon the green, a small enclosure waited. It was what we had come to see. The Riley graves.

 

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

Growing emotional…

It is the end of a long day; one of those days when many small things have seemed to go wrong and a few bigger things cast dark shadows on your horizon. You are tired…not the pleasant kind of snuggle-up-in-bed-with-a-book tired either, but the kind that begins to question and ask ‘why does it have to be like this?’

It comes to most of us at some point; that emotional bone-weariness. Chances are, you are too tired to even begin looking for answers and past thinking about them if you fell over them. But you are going to find things that look like answers wandering through your mind just the same.

Under stress, they will probably be the wrong ones. Anxiety and fatigue cloud thinking, and what may appear to be a perfectly logical train of thought can begin from a single skewed idea, from a slight misapprehension or misunderstanding. Pursue them and you could end up very far from the truth and casting blame in all the wrong directions, even, perhaps, where there is no blame at all. Life just throws things our way sometimes.

Why does it have to be that way? The most likely answer is that this is a path we have chosen for ourselves. Not, perhaps, with any conscious volition, but through the gradual shaping of our worlds over a lifetime, allowing it to become what it is today. Some events may be beyond our control; there may be no choice in whatever it is we are facing at any given moment. But how we react to it is a choice and one we may have been unconsciously making for a long time.

Our very earliest interactions with the world around us begin to shape how we will react throughout our lives. The nurture or lack of it that we receive as we grow, the people in our lives, our circumstances, all combine with the raw materials of who we might become to make us who we are. Our reactions to any given event are born from this accumulated and integrated input of experience. Our character and the way we walk through life devolves and evolves from the life we have lived so far and therefore we shape many facets of our own lives in what has been called a mechanical fashion.

That is a cold way of expressing it. We could equally and simply say that our reactions are determined by who we have become. It may sound like a negative assessment, yet it is not necessarily so. Reactions that lash out at the world in hurt or anger stem from here, but it is also from here that the means to express the generous impulse is born; the act of kindness and empathy, the outstretched arms… We all know someone who is, or perhaps hope we are, that person who instinctively reaches out to others when they are hurt or in need. What is that if not reaction?

 

For those who seek to understand a little more of how they themselves have come into being there are many systems, beliefs and paths available. Within the Silent Eye we use the enneagram, placing upon it archetypal figures that express the basic ways in which we function… the chief impellers of our choices. These are not cold caricatures…they cannot be, for all we do stems from emotion. Whatever is behind our public face, whether we are creatures of laughter and tears or intellectually focussed, emotion is the prime mover at the root of all we are.

Imagine working backwards from the very tip of a branch, retracing the intersections from the finest twig, back to the bough and eventually to the heartwood of the tree. The deeper we consider what moves us to be who we are, the fewer possibilities we are left with. The closer we get to the source, the more I am convinced that even from a purely psychological standpoint, love can be seen as the root of all we are. Whether we know it or lack it, feel it or feel its absence and a yearning towards it, whether we feel it must be earned or deserved, or run from it in fear of the demands it might make… whether we clothe it as a need for admiration and respect… even whether or not we feel love for ourselves…Whichever way you look at it, love seems to be the central fact of our existence.

From a spiritual perspective, many have never doubted that this is so. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “The truth is, indeed, that love is the threshold of another universe.” When you see that the Source of all Being, and the source of our being as one and the same, it changes the way you see the world, yourself and your fellow man… and leads you towards a threshold of understanding that surpasses knowledge. And perhaps it is here we will find our answers.

Shine…

Have you ever thought how fragmented we are most of the time? Bits of our attention are given or called here and there, certain of our skills and talents required but seldom more than that. If I am asked to hang a picture, for example, it has no relevance that I can bake a fabulous chocolate cake or speak decent French, and (unless they have an urgent desire for cake with a little je ne sais quoi while I hang the frame) the person who asks me will have no interest in those talents at that moment in time.

How seldom is it that we are asked to give ourselves whole to any task or area of our lives? Even rarer, perhaps, are the occasions when we choose to do so, simply because we can, plunging head first into the moment at hand as if it is all there is in the whole of eternity?

I wonder if anyone is ever really known, except in a fragmentary way, through the facet of the self in action in a particular arena or relationship? Even our nearest and dearest have things they do not share with us, facets of themselves we may never see… and that is as it should be… we too have faces we may not show or share with everyone.

Even we seldom consciously know and accept our entire selves. We readily admit our flaws to ourselves, once we have become aware of them. Yet, while we may admit, nay boast, even, of the glories of our respective chocolate gateaux, few of us will admit to those personality traits which are seen as ‘good’.

We may admit to the socially acceptable ones… the type we put on job application forms… flexible, adaptable, good with people… but the really good ones, we seldom admit to seeing in ourselves. Possibly in part because those who voice that recognition of their own better qualities rarely seem to actually have them. ‘I see myself as compassionate/empathetic/generous’ … the vast majority of the time, these things are said by those who aren’t and we have all known those who voice them and yet wouldn’t know true humility or compassion if it hit them in the face with the proverbial wet fish.

But voicing it is different from feeling it. To speak of compassion and to feel it working through the layers of your being, reaching out, that is a different thing. Compassion is not pity… pity looks with a sad smile from on high… compassion reaches out in empathy from the level ground of a shared humanity.

Perhaps we need to take that scintilla of time to simply recognise the good within us as we feel it, in exactly the same way as we recognise the darker facets of ourselves in action… the ones that make us cringe and squirm occasionally. We all have those. Because unless we are prepared to admit who we are to ourselves… the good equally with the less good, accepting our wholeness in all its balanced beauty, how can anyone else ever see that in us too?

Don’t we all wish to be loved and accepted for who we are in our entirety? Yet we hide the good, even from ourselves, behind a socially acceptable modesty while brandishing our flaws and frailties as if they alone define who we are. They do not. We define who we are. As much by how we choose to see ourselves as by anything else. If we see ourselves whole, perhaps others may too. They cannot until we do, as we project outward only a fragment of who we are. The saying ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ comes to mind. Maybe if we love our whole selves we can love others wholly too.

We are told that the very physical fabric of everything we know, including our own bodies, is made of the matter from which the stars were formed. Our physical forms exist because somewhere, aeons ago, a star died. If that is so, why should we not simply shine?

The quiet ones…

The computer decided to play the fool, doing unmentionable things with no provocation. I’d only just sorted the email that had blocked me from answering anything, even though it let me see all the emails piling up. And, to make matters worse, I have one of these horrid winter bugs that turn your brain to mush. By the end of the day, I had tried everything I could think of… it was time to ask for help.

That can be a difficult thing to do sometimes… not for a technical problem like mine, when we are all too ready to scream for any help we can get, but for the real things that affect how we can live our lives. My son and I have been talking about this a lot since his return from India, where the kindness and compassion of the people he met there allowed him to experience many things he would otherwise not have been able to access, and indeed, had it not been for a complete stranger, a ‘knight in shining armour’, his trip could have been a disaster from the start.

What does a knight in shining armour look like? They are everywhere, hidden in plain sight, quietly ready to take up the quest and tilt at windmills on our behalf. People are often ready to go to extraordinary lengths to help each other, as long as we ourselves are able to admit a need and accept the help that is offered. Compassion may see the need before we are ready to admit that it is there. It never makes a noise about itself, but simply gets to work to do what it can.

How do you define compassion? We all understand the word, but how often do we think about what it really means… both in fact and on a personal level? Looking up the definition in a dictionary, especially glancing at the synonyms, is a bit of an eye-opener and produces everything from pity to empathy. The latter is probably the best definition, as the word itself comes from the ecclesiastical Latin compati… ‘feeling with’. And that, to me, defines what motivates any act of compassion. Pity is a cold and distant thing. Sympathy looks on kindly from a distance. Compassion takes things to heart and carries them very personally. Compassion understands, if not through personal experience of the cause, then empathy and an opening of the heart. Compassion is love in action.

It is this awareness of the problems of others that allows us to place ourselves in their shoes, feeling their pain, sorrow or worry as if it were our own, just for a moment, and which allows us to act in some way that feels right. It may be something practical… a cup of coffee, sleeves rolled up to help, even good advice… or it may be something more ephemeral, like a hug or a smile or a simple word that acknowledges both presence and need.

There is a selective blindness sometimes to the hurt we can see lingering in another’s eyes. If we see, we have to acknowledge and then we feel… and must act. It is, perhaps, in self-defence that we have become able to insulate ourselves and we can be good at ignoring pain. So good, in fact, that we often cover our own and pretend it isn’t there. Part of that comes down to pride… few of us like to admit we cannot cope, regardless of the problem. Some of it has become ingrained… many children are taught not to whine. Boys are still taught not to cry… girls too, though it is still seen as more acceptable. Those who do speak and air their inner hurts often make us uncomfortable, whether we care to admit it or not and we may take refuge in some kind of moral superiority, feeling that we would not have said/written/shouted that… or else we try and ignore them; pretend we don’t see… like failing to meet the eyes of a tramp in the street.

While it is undoubtedly good to learn that tears should not be a first recourse when things go wrong, that there are things we can do, choices we can make, actions we can take, it is not, in my opinion, a good thing to teach our children to stifle their feelings. To learn a modicum of control, to learn not to be enslaved by reactive emotion is a different matter, but the ability to recognise, accept and express emotion lies at the heart of compassion. How can we ‘feel with’ if we do not first learn how to feel?

There is a huge difference between the tears shed in frustration or sentimentality and those that prick our eyelids when our hearts ache and bleed for the plight of another. When we can feel at least the shadow of their pain and heartache. It is these that can move mountains and change the world. And it starts with the small things.

What does a knight in shining armour look like? He looks like the man who opens a door for a young Mum struggling with a pushchair. He looks like the woman who smiles at the beggar in the street. He looks like the child who rescues an injured bird and brings it home. He looks like the granny who puts on the kettle or the friend who sits for hours on the phone. He looks like the guy who stands by you when you tilt at windmills. He looks like anyone who meets the eyes of another with an open heart in acknowledgement of a shared humanity.

He looks like you.