A question of joy…

“You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions.
Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not.
‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’”

The Bucket List (2007)

Not bad questions are they? Together they might sum up the whole of the deeper truth of human aspiration. There is no mention of what car you managed to acquire, nor the level of material success you achieved in your life. Not pleasure, not even happiness… Just joy.

Like any word pertaining to our perception of emotion, the definition of joy is a difficult one. The dictionary attempts to define it by using superlatives of other emotions, yet those feelings are personal and their experience both subjective and subject to causative events in our lives.

Joy is something different somehow, transcending reactive emotion and welling up from a deep place, flooding the being from without and within like a clear, sparkling stream of bubbling, laughing Light. Yet though we seek the words, there are none that encompass it. Those who feel it will know it, those who have yet to feel its touch have joy to come.

It is a strange emotion, if emotion it truly is. Its touch comes in a single, blazing moment, yet the light it sheds seems to linger a lifetime, untarnished by sorrow or pain, undiluted by the cares of everyday. Once there it takes up home in the heart and whilst the surface of the mind and emotions may feel the storms and be battered by our very human lives, the kernel of joy seems to become an eternal flame, a sanctuary light at the very core of being. It is always there, underlying the ripples and tumult of emotion, no matter how terrible life and events may appear. Its presence is not dimmed by them. For this reason perhaps we might hesitate to call joy an emotion… and see it instead as a grace.

Joy comes when we are open to the full experience of life. It may touch you when you stand in a summer meadow and see the sky arcing over the hills, when you hold a newborn child, when you stand drenched and laugh at the rain clouds or when your heart feels the touch of the divine… for each of us it is different, unique in its beauty. Once felt, it never leaves, though we may choose to shut it out, turn our backs and walk away.

The second question is curious, ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’ It is not something we can give to others through choice, no matter how hard we try. It cannot be bought, gift wrapped or engendered no matter how desperately we might like to think it possible. We can, perhaps, consciously create the circumstances in which joy might be found through our actions, through our empathy, kindness and love for each other, yet we cannot be the sole cause of joy. It is akin to alchemy where the presence of certain elements can cause profound change, bringing something into being through our own being, through who we are, that may enable a response in joy from another. Perhaps it can be likened to music… where a simply melody can be picked out on a single instrument, but the full glory of the symphony can only be heard when the orchestra plays in harmony. Then the music lifts you and carries you beyond yourself to beauty.

What would you answer to those two guardians of the otherworld should they ask those questions? ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’

Full Circle: Sunset

After our recent workshop in Cumbria, we took the last of our companions back to Castlerigg for the sunset. It would be our third visit of the day…and three is a magical number. The three gentlemen who had been there that morning, and who had joined us then as we greeted the dawn, had also returned at dusk. They stood silent as the three of us joined hands and sang the sunset and then we introduced ourselves.

Six people, from thousands of miles apart, joined in a moment of unity, sharing the magic of place and time. Our backgrounds vary, the beliefs in which we were raised are different, the paths we have chosen are diverse… and yet, in that moment, we shared peace. Nothing mattered beyond the bond created by the Light within.

Image courtesy of Wayne

We shared an impromptu ceremony, and one of the gentlemen, who follows a shamanic path, spoke the words of a native American blessing.  It was perfect for the moment, and, later, seeking the words of the prayer online, I came across a Lakota prayer that I found beautiful in its all-embracing simplicity.

Great Mystery,

teach me how to trust

my heart,

my mind,

my intuition,

my inner knowing,

the senses of my body,

the blessings of my spirit.

Teach me to trust these things

so that I may enter my Sacred Space

and love beyond my fear,

and thus Walk in Balance

with the passing of each glorious Sun.

The prayer begins with trust… something we seem afraid to do far too often these days. We do not trust ourselves, let alone those around us. We seek the reassurance of approbation, rather than trusting heart, mind, body and spirit. But one line stood out for me more than the rest: To love beyond my fear…

For Christians, this season celebrates the birth of Jesus, who loved beyond fear and who taught “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Solstice celebrates the moment when the year turns from dark to light… as we would if we could ‘love beyond fear’.  It matters little what beliefs we hold, there is something in these words worth considering.

If we trust, and love beyond our fears, we may end up disappointed. If we choose to live in fear and distrust, we start from that position, leaving no place for light and hope.

As the sun set over Castlerigg, the casual observer, had there been any, might have seen half a dozen hippy-types holding hands and doing ‘weird stuff’ in a stone circle. Within the circle, strangers came together, in a moment of grace, offering and receiving blessings, in love, trust and acceptance… and it was beautiful.

The Elusive Shrimp

Caridina-multidentata-ingestion.jpg Shrimp by Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak via Wiki. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Image: Richard Bartz

They seek him here, they seek him there...” I couldn’t help thinking about Baroness Orczy’s Elusive Pimpernel as I watched the translucent creature foraging in the corner of the aquarium. He’s not exactly scarlet, being more of a watery pink, but he could certainly be the ‘shrimpernel’ of the tank.

Quite where he came from, or how long he had been in there, I’ll never know. I can only assume that he hitched a ride on one of the plants I brought home from the fish place. I didn’t even know I had him until he was discovered, lurking in the bottom of the old tank when I transferred the fish to their new home some months ago, and it had been months before that when I had last bought plants.

I saw him again the following morning, swimming merrily across the glass of his new home and really hoped I would see more of him; they are fascinating to watch. I even bought another half dozen shrimps to keep him company, knowing them for social creatures. But, despite cleaning the tank at least once a week, I hadn’t seen him or his fellow crustaceans since. They just disappeared into the undergrowth, never to be seen again.

Until last night, that is, when, bold as brass, a shrimp sauntered out to raid the fish food that had fallen at the front of the tank. I had been convinced for some time that I had lost them all. I had seen the vacant exoskeleton on the sand one day, just after I had medicated the tank. Invertebrates are not good with many aquarium treatments and I was convinced he had been a casualty of the war on white spot. And shrimp are a delicacy for bigger fish too.

No matter how carefully I look, though, or how assiduously I peer into the plants, nooks and crannies, there are no shrimp to be seen. It is nice to know he is there, though, quietly working behind the scenes, doing what nature intended. I only know he is still in there because he allowed me to catch that one, fleeting glimpse. It was enough to reassure me that he is alive and thriving, but it also makes me wonder what else might be in there, present but unseen.

There is something about the tranquillity of watching fish that can induce a meditative state. Or maybe I just indulge in weird trains of thought. But it seemed to me that the presence of the invisible shrimp could serve as an illustration for other unseen presences.

We cannot see love or hope, but we feel them, and see their effect on the world around us and in our own lives. We cannot see the wind, but we watch the trees bend before it and their leaves dance in its breath. We cannot see yesterday, but we know it was there… and we trust that tomorrow will come. We live our lives trusting in the presence of the invisible.

Neither deity nor the soul are visible to us, even when we have faith in their presence and existence. Without direct experience, we may trust that they are there, but we cannot know for certain; that is the very nature of faith. But, every so often, we are granted a fleeting glimpse of something beyond the scope of the everyday world.

It may be the beauty of a sunset or the first rosy blush of dawn, the perfection of a newborn babe, an act of love, or the whisper of that still, small voice within that holds a wisdom far beyond our own. These things can all be explained away as mere manifestations of a prosaic reality, but when they touch your heart and fill your being with wonder, you are gifted a glimpse beyond the mundane realms of fact and know that you have been touched by grace.

Fire from heaven

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There was supposed to be a meteor shower. The young moon would not be bright enough to drown the display of cascading stars with its light and the skies over the village are but gently lit. The light pollution here is perhaps as minimal as you will find close to the homes of a densely populated land.

It seems odd speaking of light of any kind as a pollutant. This, however, is not a natural phenomenon, but the fabricated, sulphurous pall that hangs over our habitations. It is a paltry imitation of the light of the heavens that, by a strange irony, prevents us seeing the sky. The delicacy of the stars is drowned by the glow of the city. The greater the volume of our invention, the less we see the source of our inspiration.

I stand at the back door, staring into the night, pondering. The dog patrols the garden, checking for the intrusion of stray cats and nocturnal mammals. Her focus is on the ground, protecting the perimeter she has designated as her own. Yesterday a fat fox ran across my path; the woods and fields around the house are teeming with wildlife. Beyond the fence shadows flit through the darkness… yet Ani ignores them. Her attention is fixed on that which she calls her own.

The sky is overcast; the thick blanket of cloud hides any trace of night, reflecting back only the projected and sickly orange of the earthly radiance. There will be no shooting star tonight. Beyond the clouds I know the light shines with its own purity, unaffected by our risible imitation. Streaks of light will traverse the heavens whether I see them or not. The gold of the sun will robe the moon in silver with that nightly alchemy we forget. The moon sheds no light, it is a celestial mirror, merely reflecting and limited by its own nature.

I see the old adage of the Mysteries played out around me… ‘as above, so below’ and realise that I stand in a hall of magical mirrors. Each aspect of the scene around me reflects aspects of a wider life. The dog seeks only to guard her own, just as we cling to our familiar beliefs, secular or spiritual. She knows there is a world beyond the fence… walks within it daily… yet this tiny patch of earth is where she patrols ceaselessly, watching her borders and repelling intrusion. We too hold to the familiar, even when we know it is an incomplete reflection… even when we have seen that there is a greater reality beyond… and we too repel anything we believe may intrude upon the safe familiarity of the known.

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We have seen those we call the Lightbringers… those great Teachers who have walked the paths of history… and our recognition of their inner Light gave rise to emulation. Faith was illuminated by their presence… religious movements sprang from our quest for understanding of the wider life they sought to show us…yet would those Teachers now recognise their own teachings, clouded as they are by centuries of human politics? I wonder how much of what we are taught is now only the reflection of artificial light on the belly of an overcast sky… and what that fabricated glow might hide from vision.

The light, however, is real. Whether captured within the glass of an incandescent bulb, or making pictures on a screen… we are only fooling ourselves if we think we create it. We have bent it to our will and service, created the means to display it…but light itself is itself… pervading every aspect of our lives by its presence or apparent absence.

And yet… we would not have sought flame without the knowledge of light. Without seeing it cast its rays upon the earth and realising its central role in our existence. We would exist in perpetual darkness … or rather, we would not, for without the life-giving rays of the sun there would be no life on earth. It is hardly surprising that we have sought to harness this most precious of gifts. Whether by need or greed mankind has sought to steal fire from heaven and turn it to his own service, and in his use of the enslaved light has veiled his own vision of the stars.

There are, however, those Prometheans who seek another kind of fire, beyond the spectrum of visible light; an inner sun that eradicates the darkness of doubt with perfect flame. They see beyond the clouds, beyond the reflected pall of earthly light to the heavens beyond. They come from all faiths and none, seeking only to see that nameless, formless light within which they live, move and have their being. They seldom burn with blinding passion that sets them ablaze on the world stage, but shed a gentle, quite radiance as they move through the shadows of the world, their footsteps illuminating the lives of those they touch. They do not grasp or seek to harness the light, but to serve it … and thus, the flame they carry is not stolen, but a grace.

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