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.

The tale of a fish

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I’ve inherited an aquarium, for the second time. The first time it was a gift when a friend’s husband passed away…she needed to re-home the fish and, knowing my younger son had a keen interest in them, she gave the tank to me. My son however, had unexpectedly acquired a lovely little flat and moved out. Which left me with a huge aquarium of which the dog did not approve.

The dog too was a recent acquisition at that time. My elder son had decided an assistance dog might be a good idea, so Ani had come into our lives. He too had found a lovely home and moved out, but the small dog had remained with me. You may detect a pattern developing here. My younger son, rather liking the tank and in the interests of appeasing the confused canine (who thought it her duty to protect me from the fish) adopted the aquarium and took it home, leaving me fishless. Meanwhile, my elder son created a huge pond for me to clean enjoy at his new home.

It should, then, have come as no surprise that when I finally moved out of the old place and into my younger son’s little flat, while he and his family went on to pastures new, the aquarium remained behind. Five years on, and although there are a number of fish in the tank, most of its original occupants have departed for celestial seas; only two of them are still with us. One is a small sucker fish whose presence I am aware of but who I have never really seen, the other is Mad Fish.

Mad Fish was a bit of a mystery. My son thought he might be some kind of tetra, but was not at all sure. There had been two, but one had died, leaving the other fish on his own. He was referred to as Mad Fish not as some vague insult, but because his behaviour was very, very strange; he spent almost all his time swimming in circles with his nose to the glass, particularly at night. “I think he’s lonely,” my son had said. “Missing his mate.” I watched him for a couple of weeks while, at the same time, learning about the various fish, how to look after them and trying to identify Mad Fish’s species. I learned a bit about fish behaviour and, when I finally found out what Mad Fish was, I began to think my son was right.

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He’s a Buenos Aires Tetra… which meant nothing to me, so I looked them up. They swim in shoals… maybe Mad Fish was trying to be a shoal with his reflection? Was he lonely? And was that just instinct… or emotion? Do fish have emotions? My relationship with the fish in the pond certainly makes me think so… but I looked up the science of if too.

Until very recently, we didn’t even know for certain whether fish felt pain, let alone had emotions.  It was discovered that they had a nervous system equipped to feel pain. Then came the next question… in order to suffer from pain, rather than simply react to it from self-preservation, there would need to be a level of consciousness. They experimented some more and found that fish could learn. Well, I could have told them that… Simon, the bubble blowing koi and his cohorts, have learned exactly how to get me to feed them whenever they choose. And anyway, it’s on Youtube… just look up ‘fish playing football’.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for the scientists, so they had to go for the labyrinth solving techniques…and found that fish can solve complex tasks, plan, co-operate and use faculties human beings don’t begin to develop until they are four years old.  Which, according to the scientists’ criteria, means they have not only a level of intelligence, but also of self-awareness… consciousness.  And science has a hard time explaining the essence of human consciouness, let alone that of creatures we have, for so long considered the epitome of mindlessness.

Consciousness and the ability to be aware…of joy and suffering, of pain and belonging… it is something we share with so many creatures in this world, many of whom were considered ‘dumb animals’ until so recently. Science does not know where consciousness comes from, nor how it arises…nor how far consciousness may extend into the natural world. We do not have the language to communicate with most of our world, we can only observe. Lives that are so very different from our own may well be showing levels of consciousness we simply cannot see or understand, but we cannot dismiss, simply because we do not see.

Do fish have feelings? If they are self-aware, then it would seem possible and must make us begin to question our attitude towards them and their treatment at our hands. After watching Mad Fish today, I, for one, am in no doubt.

I managed to find a local supplier of Buenos Aires Tetra and introduced a tiny shoal to the tank. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching Mad Fish’s reaction. He stopped, mid dash… then dived across the tank, swimming in figures of eight through the shoal, over and over again at top speed. They followed him around the tank for a couple of hours, nose to tail. He is definitely  the top fish… and a happy one. Now, they are a shoal… and he hasn’t swum in circles or looked at his reflection once. He is not alone, he belongs… and it has changed his behaviour completely. I wonder how many people suffer that kind of emotional isolation…and what would happen if we all felt  that sense of kinship and that we truly belonged to the human family…and the greater family of Life.

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Close to home #1000Speak

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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.

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Unlikely angels #1000speak

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Four days after my son was attacked and left in a coma in a hospital over a hundred miles away, we had a major water leak. It was our second trip home to bathe, change and comfort the rest of the family, and the leak was the last thing we needed. I had all but screamed down the phone to get help, desperate to get away, back on the road south. By the time there was a knock on the door, I was wound as tight as a spring.

The plumber was huge, a veritable giant of a man… a Rastafarian, who seemed to fill the entire doorway. He came in and set to work lifting floorboards. It would not be a quick job. I sat at the computer, trying to update everyone who was seeking news…and there were many. Messages, prayers and kindness were pouring in from all over the world…and kindness is guaranteed to open the floodgates when you are overwrought. I burst into tears.

Looking up from his work, the plumber said that he did not wish to intrude, but… My then-partner gave him a terse run-down of events. My son was dying. The plumber sat back on his heels and thought for a moment. I cannot remember all of what he said, but I wrote later that day, “… he gave such words of loving comfort… and he is the only one who has said that I don’t need to pray for Nick, as he is closer to God now than I am and can follow His plan for himself, but that I should pray for the 17 year old who wielded the screwdriver, who has a lifetime and more to regret this. I won’t ask why he, of all the plumbers out there, was sent, but will just thank Those who sent him.”

Many had been asking about the perpetrator, some already seething with a desire for vengeance…or at least justice. The plumber was the first to speak of forgiveness.

Friends had been waiting for my anger… concerned that it did not come. I would get angry later, at bureaucracy, at incompetence, at laws inadequate for need… but I had no space for the anger of blame, no desire for revenge; I could only imagine how his mother must feel. My sons were suffering… what good would anger do? It would not make anything better… the surgeons and doctors had done all they could. Nick’s fate was now in the hands of a higher authority and that of his own will to live. The plumber’s was the first voice of true compassion I had heard. The first who had looked beyond the acute damage to the wider picture of hurt.

His words were a clear and sparkling stream cutting through the morass of emotions and allowing me to see clearer. I did not need to conform to anyone’s expectations of anger… did not need to scream for revenge. The Law would deal with the perpetrator, not I, nor those who, in their own grief and anger offered to find a way. The voice of compassion cleared the air and allowed me to breathe.

I call it compassion, and forgiveness, but there is another name for what is behind them. A name for what my Rastafarian plumber brought into the house that day with a purity I have seldom encountered elsewhere and a joy that shone from his parting smile.

A couple of weeks later, he would come back, knocking on the door for news. Then a few months later, leaving me his phone number and texting occasionally to see how things were. A total stranger whose necessary presence I had initially resented… a Samaritan… an unlikely angel… had brought Love into my home.

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 today reading 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 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.

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.

Emotional beings

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It is the end of a long day, when not everything went right and tired is the word that springs to your mind. You know that it is not the 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 erroneous directions.

Why does it have to be like this? 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. Of course, some events may be out of 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 an unconscious choice we have been 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 our own lives in what has been called a mechanical fashion.

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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. Of course those 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, 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, nor can they 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, of course, 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 Knowing that surpasses knowledge. And perhaps it is here we will find our answers.

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Red socks and empathy

pink laundry

There it is… the almost inevitable intruder… the stray red sock…lurking within the folds of the erstwhile pristine sheets. The hot wash has leached the dye from the offending article and snowy white linen is now a distinct, if uneven, shade of rose. The whites, ostensibly laundered to clean them… whites that have been subjected to the process of detergent, hot water and multiple rinses in order to restore their brilliance… greet you with a shamefaced blush as you open the door. To add insult to injury the scarlet lurker looks as bright as ever. It has tainted everything else in the machine, yet remains, itself, apparently unchanged. You reach for the stain remover with gritted teeth…

There is always a missing red sock at some point… and it always shows up, it seems, in the white wash. Or perhaps it is the steady attrition of mixed washes that dull the whites and colour them grey. We end up reaching for the chemicals we hope will redress the damage, or simply discard the ruined items that are no longer fit for purpose. It doesn’t stop there though… unless we make a point of rooting out all future red socks and learn to separate the lights and the darks before we stuff them in the machine the problem will continue and repeat itself.

The scenario is a common one; familiar to many of us, especially in the early learning curve of domestic responsibility. It is just as common within our own minds though, as the forgotten scarlet of old wounds colours our emotions over the years.

There are events in almost any life that leave a dark stain in a hidden corner of the mind. Sometimes they remain a very conscious part of our self-definition, sometimes they are secreted far beneath the surface layers and spread their discolouration insidiously. They may be events of which we have been the victim or the perpetrator. Either way, the damage can be as difficult to remove as the spreading stain of a red sock. There is no magical product that can restore the brightness of the psyche to the purity of childlike innocence nor can we simply discard a past that is, for good or ill, part of the formative process of our today.

Such inner stains leave can run the full gamut from shame to hurt, guilt to anger, and while no individual emotion is without its possibilities to become the impetus for change or for good, the stain is present. We can take out the hurts and examine them, but unless we do something about the underlying problem the likelihood is that in such situations the best we can hope for is a steady greying of our inner brightness as the past is allowed to taint both present and future.

I was reminded of this yesterday when discussing such old wounds; looking at how healing can take place. There are many studies that show how forgiveness has a positive impact on life and health. To forgive does not mean there was justification for the event, or that there was never a need for responsibility. It does not condone or minimise the act itself. It means letting go of the hold the event has on your life.

Yet it is not, I think, enough to simply be able to say we forgive, whether ourselves or others. There is a need to find a certain level of understanding of the real cause, both of the event and our own reactions to it. In the case of those old… perhaps ancient… hurts that stay with us, hidden in the laundry hamper of the mind like a lone red sock, we are at a disadvantage as the understanding we garner today may satisfy adult logic, but fail to address the emotions of the child or youngster who sustained the hurt. We need to find a way back to that moment of feeling and empathise, not sympathise, with that younger self, as we would with a child and answer its need to understand; not pretending the hurt never happened or that, in the greater scheme of things it was perhaps not all that important. Empathy and compassion go hand in hand and are at the root of forgiveness and apply equally to ourselves and to others… and empathy is perhaps our best weapon against the stray red sock in the soul.