Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tonglen in the Lady chapel

It's an open secret that whenever I get a chance, I slip into the Lady Chapel for a few minutes at lunch to light a candle and say a quick prayer.

This afternoon, unusually, I was on my own, so I decided to try something different. As I've mentioned recently, I've been reading Pema Chodron's When things fall apart and The places that scare you (with a strong preference for the second) - and the first was on loan the minute I finished it. Brilliant, brilliant books - and they've totally transformed my spiritual practice.

There are different ways of using the practice, but the structure is always the same: you stop and find a moment of stillness/spaciousness; then you explore and work with the texture of the feeling you are going to breathe in - which is most often a negative, such as fear, anger, doubt, claustrophobia - whatever is there; you begin with yourself or someone you love; you make the circle bigger: yourself ==> someone you love ==> someone neutral ==> someone difficult ==> all beings. You breathe in the pain and breathe out spaciousness (or anything that would be healing/calming - I've been known to breathe out coffee, as did one of Pema's students, and chocolate!)

You can do it for your suffering and difficult feelings at the moment, initially breathing in your feelings, exploring them, holding them in maitri - or loving kindness and compassion for yourself - and then breathing for all those feeling like you at the moment and expanding the circle. You can do it for another's suffering and all those like them. That is classic tonglen.

But you can do it for all or any of the following, known as the four immeasurable truths - Love, compassion, joy and equanimity - these are the classic phrasings, though I've been known to change them. Use what holds the essence and works:

May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.*

*I actually think that living our lives fully requires passion, so I specify it as 'passion that gives rise to aggression'.

Today, for me, smouldering over Glenn Beck and other things, Door #2 - 'free from suffering and the root of all suffering' was the right answer.

God was clearly smiling down on me, as when I got to Taylors, there were plenty of pastrami and emmental sandwiches left, so I grabbed one and headed into the cool semi-darkness of church, and the deeper sub-darkness of the Lady chapel. I didn't light a candle and stand or even pace as I prayed, as is my usual wont. I sat down and started to breathe.

May I be free of suffering and the root of all suffering.

*Squirm* I absolutely HATE praying for myself. And I DO mean *HATE*. Three breaths was pushing it, four was too far, but I stayed with it.

May he be free of suffering and the root of all suffering.

A good friend I'm really worried about. I could have stayed with that one for ages, but did it till it felt complete and moved on to neutral:

May the people in this church at this moment be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.

No resistance, only slight connection, but a disinterested kind of well-wishing. Ok, that's where I am, but need to work up from there to feel more engaged. But where I am is fine. Now for the toughie:

May Glenn Beck be free from suffering and the root of all suffering. No, edit that, may Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.

Resistance but managed to slip past it. Just as I was feeling spiritually smug, a voice whispered, 'It's easy when it's abstract. Pick someone you know.' Allah damn it. Just when I thought I was home free...ok, you pussy, woman up. Who's it going to be? Ah, yes. Someone who reminds me of a controlling mother.

May SHE be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.

NOW it was hard to breathe, the resistance and tension were so high, but I kept pushing - gently, in keeping with maitri, more like stretching, but I finally broke through - and found a compassion for her fear that I'd never expected to find. I'd always known she was afraid, but now I ached for her in her fear, rather than hardening in response to it.

Then I lined us all up and said it for us all together, spreading to Oxford, the South, England, the UK, the world and all beings.

Finally, I stood up and lit a candle to Our Lady. I have NEVER felt so grounded in my own centre, in my own strength. For the first time, I fully understood Kris' words to Talia in Mercy Lackey's Arrow's Flight:

"Ground and centre, greenie!"

In that moment, I fully knew what it felt to have slightly overlapping versions of yourself with fuzzy edges snap into one, with sharp, crisp boundaries. I knew nothing could shake me.

Then I turned around and nearly started laughing - not 5 steps away was a parishioner I find very difficult, because I perceive her as a mother who is 'too good' in the sense of 'this is what good is, let's be it' - and I experience her as very controlling through that 'I'm so good' way. She sets my teeth on edge. I smiled as I passed her and I thought, 'Come on, girl, breathe. Or colloquially, 'SUCK IT UP, BABES. THIS IS YOUR PRACTICAL.'' So I started breathing for her - and it wasn't easy.

Fifteen steps later, I passed by a regular asking for the sacristy key. As I'd just seen the sacristan go up the side with the above parishioner, I poked my head through and said, 'X, the sacristan has just gone up the side.' I got told, in no uncertain terms, to piss off and got totally blanked as he passed me. Normally, that would have led to annoyance, but I knew that was just the way he is, and what I'd done could have been seen as controlling rather than helpful. So now it was time to start breathing for him, as well.

Out the church door and into the sunlight, with an uneventful walk back to the office, also a church. And as soon as I sat down, who should sail to my desk but yet another difficult customer.

By now, I knew the laughing Buddha was glancing cheekily in my direction and was finding it hard to keep from giggling myself. There was no question that Our Lady was laughing richly, Joseph's lips were twitching, and Jesus was grinning like a boy who had just put a whoopee cushion on Mum's favourite chair, as the Father and Holy Spirit looked down and said, 'If you're gonna talk it, hon, you gotta learn to walk it.'

Ain't that THE spiritual truth? Being real?

And so, as I continue to breathe in and out for all of us, this time from Stephen Cope:

May you be protected and safe,
May you feel contented and pleased:
May your body support you with strength -
May your life unfold with ease.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Exodus, slavery and freedom

Every Monday, I have a standing appointment at church, one that has only been interrupted over the last decade by jobs that meant I couldn't get there by 17.15 - and it has absolutely nothing to do with holiness. It does, however, have everything to do with crossword puzzles and deep mutual affection.

My friend, John Lynam, has had the Monday afternoon shift on the Oratory Lodge since its inception - or near enough so. It took us a little while to meet, but once we did, those Monday meetings where we do the Telegraph general knowledge crossword (I have the upper hand here) and the cryptic crossword (I'm getting better, but he still has the upper hand here. However, texting Alexander has always been the way forward - he's downright scary good) were almost as set in stone as the Ten Commandments. This has been interspersed with political and religious chat, as well as my reminding John where things are (years after I had to give up the lodge).

It makes Monday one of the best days of the week.

At around 17.45, he shuts up shop and we scoot into church for the evening mass, which ends with the veneration of St Philip's relic at about 18.35 or so. Occasionally a sermon, usually not, either way it entails discussion such as...

'Fr Richard finished mass in 18 minutes - caught most of the community flat-footed there. I didn't think it was possible!'

Today, we waxed lyrical over the rarely heard EP4 (only Fr JB ever does it, and even he, rarely) and talked about the sermon, which was about Exodus.

The reading was the complaining of the Israelites:

And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.

So: it would be better we had died enslaved and certain of what our life was, than to die free, uncertain and responsible for our choices.

The preacher focused on sin, which was understandable - but I think this passage goes far deeper than that; it goes to the core of one of our deepest struggles.

This passage was very synchronous for me. I have recently been reading Stephen Cope's Wisdom of Yoga, Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart, and most recently, Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart and The Places that Scare You.

Every one of them speaks of understanding uncertainty and groundlessness as part of the path to freedom - that certainty is what we chase to avoid reality - the reality that everything changes and is impermanent, that nothing is certain. I am healthy today, but I could be dead of an aneurysm tomorrow. My world is stable and appears unchanging at the moment, but everything could shift in the blink of an eye. I see myself in a certain way, but even THAT isn't the truth - there are so many parts of me that are hidden and unexplored. One thing I realised yesterday is that the distance I've experienced in intimate relationships mirrors the distance I keep from myself - my whole self.

Freedom is about truth. Freedom is about intimacy - first and foremost with ourselves, and then with others. And freedom is about the certainty of uncertainty - and the adult responsibility of navigating it.

We think our feelings about freedom should be unmitigatedly positive, so we push away any suggestion of fear, struggle, or doubt when it comes to freedom. Of COURSE we want to be free - we wave freedom like a banner. But do we truly understand what it means? Every country that claims freedom is a slave to something: fear, addiction, competition, materialism, being powerful - the list goes on and on.

No, freedom means meeting every situation as it is in the moment, with full awareness, and with our full self (not our limited image of who we are) at our disposal - knowing that even as we make choices, they may not turn out as we planned. People may not stay - they die, they leave, relationships change. Things disappear - and so we must treasure what we do have, even as we do not depend on it for our happiness/joy - even as its presence may bring us great joy. Nor do we use it as a barrier to what scares us or to the truth.

You see, the dirty little secret is that certainty and safety makes us feel better - even as it enslaves us. To quote Kahlil Gibran:

...have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.

Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.

It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh.

It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.

Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

So we grasp and we cling - not because we truly love, but just so that we know for sure, so that we have comfort.

Letting go of certainty doesn't mean we change relationships or our ideas as often as we change our clothes, mistakenly believing that we are being fluid or loving ourselves: staying with what is real, forming a relationship with it and being able to meet uncertainty requires steadfastness, not yet another form of running away.

And so, this inability to admit our mixed feelings about freedom leads us to roll our eyes at the Israelites, perhaps even condemn them, as they complain to Moses and even suggest that they were better off in the land of Egypt. But perhaps we condemn them as vociferously as we do because we know it is our truth - that we would rather go back to the addictions that keep us from true freedom - money, work, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy emotional patterns, drink, drugs, extreme forms of religion or anything that offers us escape or absolute certainty.

Perhaps if we could find compassion for the Israelites, we could find it for ourselves, and begin the long, slow walk to freedom.

In one of my favourite books, My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Remen, the young Rachel and her grandfather have the following conversation:

"Are they [the Israelites] very happy [about escaping], Grandpa?"

"No, Neshumeleh, they are not. They told Moses they did not want to go. They asked many questions. Where are we going? Who will feed us? Where will we sleep? Moses was deeply surprised. He could not answer any of these questions and he did not know what to do. How could he tell G-d that after all He had done to make freedom possible, they did not want to go?"

"But they were suffering, Grandpa. Why didn't they want to go?"

"They knew how to suffer," he told me. "They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free."

And this is the crux of the human condition, isn't it? We know our stories, we know our suffering, we know our wounds. We know how to survive. What we don't know how to do is how to live. But this little box is comfortable enough, right? I'm doing just fine. Who knows what will happen if I leave it?

But a gilded cage is still a cage.

So how do we move towards freedom, take that first wingbeat out of our cage into the exhilaratingly, yet frighteningly, open and infinite skies? As Rachel's grandfather reminds us, "...the choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown."

And the unknown is bloody scary. It's enough to make you slam that gilded cage door, peck birdseed and flap the odd half-wingbeat every once in a while for the rest of your life.

But again, the rebbe offers us hope if we dare to leave that door open and just flap those completely unfurled wings once, when Rachel asks, "Why does G-d come himself, Grandpa?"

"Ah, Neshumeleh, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for G-d to leave to others. And this is so because only the people who become free can serve G-d's holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them."

Freedom isn't a turning away. It is a turning toward, as any true vocation should be - a turning toward truth, integrity and love, and a continued acting from it. We may be in the wilderness for a long time; perhaps we will die in sight of the Promised Land, not quite reaching it - but through our continued acting from truth, perhaps we have helped others reach theirs.

Frightening? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. Uncertain? To be sure.

But if we stand in that cage door and make that first wingbeat into open sky, we know this: in our move toward freedom, none other than G-d Himself will lead us.

Knowing that, perhaps we can find the courage to begin the journey, for...

...there are many paths to tread,
through shadows to the edge of night
Until the stars are all alight.

Friday, 15 July 2011

High mass...

…Irim-style. The celebrant, deacon and subdeacon watch, bemused, as the altar servers fight over who gets to play with the thurible - which is the baby rattle you can just see between pig and gorilla. The tissues are supposed to be birettas; they're all I had to work with. And ja, the one in PVC is me as MC.

The wolf would totally have been the deacon if he hadn’t been in the room that was in use for the full 3 hours…the leaning forward and watchful look would have been truer to life.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


It was after one more incomprehensible interaction with a longstanding male friend that I finally (via chat) threw up my hands at Ari and said, without knowing what was going to come out,


It's almost never women. My issues with female friends are few, but the ones I do have revolve around helplessness, playing the victim and neediness. The overwhelming majority of my female friendships are strong, vibrant, healthy - ja, we're all wounded but we're having heart-to-hearts, talking things through, cheering each other on as we move forward.

That's not to say that my relationships with men are all unhealthy. I've got some of the best guys in the world amongst my male friends, and I challenge anyone to say otherwise: they've manned up, take responsibility for their lives, care for others, live and love as best they can. They rock.

But Christ almighty, do I have a pattern amongst the men. There is a not inconsiderable swath amongst my male friends and acquaintances who fall under the 'angry, trapped men living unlived lives'.

Now, I get it. I get that it reflects something in me that feels trapped and is living an unlived life - that it's a mirror. That it's about my father and my brother - that these are men I know how to relate to; men who feel deeply familiar - who are the substrate to my enzyme, creating the perfect induced fit; men, at some level, I'm desperate to save.

But I can't.

Just like I couldn't save my father. Just like I couldn't save my brother - and the latter, God, I've harboured that guilt for years. When I left, why didn't I go back and get him once he was of age? Why didn't I help him GET OUT? Why did I fight with him on his brief visit here, and write him off as my parents' Stepford son? And yes, I've often thought he paid the price for my leaving, and the guilt over that is immense.

But it's NOT MY FAULT. They're both big boys, they could have made choices. Might I have mentored my brother differently? Maybe. But I DID THE BEST I KNEW HOW AT THE TIME, and the rest was UP TO HIM. TO THEM.

The guilt? The need for redemption and forgiveness for not having saved the first, most important, men in my life?

It ends now.

To those in that space, here's what's going to happen/stop happening:

1. I am not your whipping post, the person you get angry at (rather than share anger WITH, which I can do till the cows come home) because you can't get angry at your situation. Talk to me about it all you want, let's find a way through, but you don't get to take it out on me.

If you do, I'm calling you on it. If you don't hear me, I'm walking away.

2. I am not going to channel your anger if you can't deal with it yourself. I'm happy to help you admit it, face it, deal with it, accept it if it's legitimately directed at me - but I'm no longer doing it for you because you think I'm 'an angry person' - which, by the way, is usually what you give me a hard time for. You can't have it both ways.

3. If I'm trying to tell you what I see, and particularly about your situation, if we've been discussing it/you asked - which is different from my being provocative where, if I get an argument, I deserve/expect it - listen, as I will try to do for you. If stuff comes up for you around it, let's talk about it. But you don't get to lash out because at some level, you know what I'm saying is true - and that you hate me for questioning your comfortable world.

4. I am happy to try to articulate why I am still in the Catholic Church to those who do not genuinely understand. *I* don't genuinely understand. But give me the space to work it out. I KNOW I'm in a contradictory space, that it doesn't make sense. But please don't push - if and when I'm ready, I'll move. And if I'm not ever? That's ok too.

5. On the other side, I refuse to deal with those questioning whether or not I am really a Catholic or trying to make me a 'real Catholic' - essentially using that as a way to feel better about their own holiness. On FB, this manifests as people who are silent as death through emotional posts, political posts, funny posts, anywhere I need support, positive posts about the Catholic Church - but then suddenly appear, and volubly, when a post that shows my dissent with the Church or that might even SLIGHTLY challenge the Church, to 'set me right'. If you can't be there for the fun, for the positive, for when I need you - but only pop on to tell me what a crap Catholic I am (I do NOT mean authentic discussion/dissent) - Houston, we have a problem.

6. I am going to make you angry. There are no two ways about that, especially if we're close - and you're going to fuck me right off. We deal with anger in our own ways. Need some time to cool off? Fine. But then come back and talk to me. Your feelings, your responsibility. My anger? MY responsibility. I will NOT be frozen out for months on end, expected to know why I upset you and to come grovel. I know it's scary; but cutting off communication for considerable lengths of time increase the likelihood that the relationship won't recover. If our friendship matters, let's talk. I'll try to hold the space - I may not do it well, but I will do it. If, however, freezing people out is about manipulating them and making them chase you? Don't look behind you. Won't be anyone there.

7. Don't expect uncritical adoration. If you need a prop for your ego, find someone else. I will love fiercely, but I will see clearly.

8. The drama llama: if you're on it, I'm going to slap its ass and make it run in a random direction. Away from me. Have fun.

9. The unpredictable moods, usually found in addicts/alcoholics: I got really good at walking on eggshells - but now I like the crunch under my feet. Feel like trying the unpredictable snaps of anger for no reason that used to make me chase my alcoholic ex to make him feel better? I'm just going to be pouring myself another drink and looking at you over my glass.

10. Oh, and the mockery that one can back away from, claiming, 'I was just kidding'? That's not about me and I know that. So I'm holding up that mirror to you. Genuinely angry with me? Man up and talk to me about it. Way to make yourself feel better? Find a more authentic one.

Trust me, I recognise these things because I DO them in more variations than I care to admit to and because I know how to chase them, how to fix them, how to placate them. Doing all those things feels comfortable, familiar.

But comfortable isn't where I want to be. It's too small; too deadening.

So what will happen is that I will try to hold the space, however imperfectly and humanly I do it. I will try to listen, however imperfectly. I'm learning.

I don't promise you the perfect friend. I don't promise to always get it right. I don't promise I'll never push your buttons. I don't promise you a rose garden.

What I DO promise you is that I will be real. That I will be here through darkness and light. That I care, passionately - which is why you'll get the full range of emotions. And that if you're angry, trapped and want to find your way out, I will stand right by you, though I may tell you things in ways you don't want to hear them: "Look at yourself! In the mirror, in pictures! What are you trying to tell yourself? Clue phone, babe, emergency ring tone. IT'S FOR YOU."

But I can't, and won't try to, do it for you.

I can't save you, just like I couldn't save my father or my brother. The only person I can save is myself - though I'll need a little help from my friends.

That's my promise; that's what my friendship will look like.

Whether or not you choose to accept it is up to you.