We are living in a time of great divisions and hugely polarised political disagreements. These disagreements are not just about ideology and policies, but also about the facts, including regarding the Global pandemic, climate change and migration with no real debate or conversation. Real and heartfelt conversation includes both listening to self and the other and being open to change.
During the time of the pandemic many people have found themselves entering more deeply into conversation with others, whilst others have sought only to express strong opinions, often built on misinformation and anxiety and are unable to listen to any view that doesn’t co-incide with their own. In many ways the quality of our lives in recent months has depended on the quality of our conversations and the way in which we connect with others through them. For many, the ability to hold meaningful and connecting conversations with others, in person or online has been a lifesaver. From these conversations I am sensing that there is a real hope for change.
Some time ago I listened to a CD by poet David Whyte, called ‘Life at the Frontier – Leadership Through Courageous Conversation. David Whyte suggests that courageous conversation is necessary for effective leadership. If we find ourselves, or plan to be, on the frontier of change in our own lives or in society then we need to be leaders to ourselves. We can give ourselves self-leadership through stilling ourselves enough to listen to what our hearts are telling us and holding listening and heartfelt conversations with others.
What sort of conversation do I mean? How can a conversation be creative and transforming rather than upholding the status quo or taking us down an oft – repeated track? And what would make it a courageous conversation? David Whyte suggests that it needs to be a courageous conversation.
'Courage' comes from the French word coeur or heart, and 'conversation' has in the roots of it’s meaning; "act of living with”, "to keep company with," literally to "turn about with" and to share intimately.
So a courageous conversation might be heartfelt, one that is fundamental to the way we feel and think. It often takes courage to uncover what is truly in our hearts, beyond our solely rational, logical opinions. When this heart-led conversation involves others, it means seeing “the other” not as opponents who must be won over, or valued only as recipients of our opinions. Rather they are companions on a voyage of discovery sharing or ‘living intimately with us' in conversation, with a sense of mutual learning and deep respect.
When we are courageous but also sensitive in our conversations it can deepen our relationships and improve the whole quality of our lives and connection with others.
Soon, pandemic permitting, we will be gathering with others, friends, families and colleagues, to celebrate the festive season. I wish you all many heart-warming and transforming conversations!
“When the murmur of the ocean is stilled and the tides move stealthily along the shore, I held my breath against the night and watched the stars etch their brightness on the face of the darkened canopy of the heavens. I had the sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I were one lung through which all of life breathed. Not only was I aware of a vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was a part of it and it was a part of me.” Howard Thurman
Artwork on the right by kind permission of David Arathoon https://www.davidarathoonstudio.com
Recently, I was reading about the journey of a climber in the Himalayas. I was very struck with a comment he made. He spent some time contemplating at one of the camps in the foothills, just staring at the mountain range. After a time, he had a sense that he was breathing one breath with the mountains. This is not a rare experience, many people who take the time to stop and stare report a similar sense of breathing with the one breath of the universe, of the whole. In religious terms, the mystic Hildegard von Bingen is known for her understanding “Prayer is nothing but inhaling and exhaling the one breath of the universe”.
In recent decades, the world has been subject to a process of globalisation. The world seems smaller than ever before, with travel having become easier (pre-pandemic!) and the internet bringing people together in ways which were not possible even a few years ago. At the same time and especially during the pandemic there is a growing understanding that we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of the world. We are realising that our actions have consequences way beyond our own lives and communities. Living with a consciousness of this and working for the common good is becoming a greater imperative because we are part of the whole and our actions matter.
The scale of problems the world is facing can seem overwhelming but we can take heart from the following words of an African proverb “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” The idea that we cannot influence the whole is not true as the quote below from American historian, philosopher and political writer Howard Zin demonstrates. I would like to finish by quoting his hopeful message:
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power that can transform the world.” Howard Zin
In the last newsletter I introduced the idea of living for the whole and its importance in creating a just and sustainable future for all life on planet Earth. In many ways "living for the whole" or "life for the whole" is not a completely new idea and has been expressed in many traditions in different terms. The essence of many religious and spiritual traditions and creation narratives is love for your neighbour and care for the earth.
"Science has proved we are one. All is intermingling energy..." Jude Curriven
Today scientific knowledge has expanded our idea of what loving your neighbour and caring for the earth might mean. Best-selling author Lynne Mctaggart points to the “illusion of separation”. We are all more deeply connected with each other and the whole of creation than the materialist world view, expressed in the quotation below, which has dominated science for centuries allows.
"I have described the Earth and the whole visible Universe in the manner of a machine." Descartes (Scientist and Philosopher)
This view of Nature as nothing more than a machine has focused on the idea that nothing exists beyond the material world. This has underpinned the commercialisation and commodification of Nature, allowing people to use its resources in thoughtless and destructive ways, leading to our present climate crisis.
What is sometimes referred to as the New Science presents an alternative view and suggests that we are all parts of one interconnected energy field which extends throughout the known universe.
At surface level we are separate beings but beneath this we are more deeply connected than is often imagined. Even though we may not recognise it, our decisions, thoughts and actions impact the world around us in ways we don't always understand or realise.
“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.” Fichte, The Vocation of Man
However small our actions, they can have far reaching effect as in the often quoted phrase:
“a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a tornado in Texas.” Edward Norton Lorenz
For Human and Earth flourishing for all, living for the whole needs to become a core value for humanity and in this way huge and urgent change can happen.
Our choices matter! Especially if we want to follow Gandhi's advice to "Be the change you wish to see".
These are the words that have been echoing in my mind and heart in recent weeks. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with growing polarisation amongst people and in politics as well as the enormous destructive effects of climate change. How can we remain hopeful and take positive actions in the light of the many catastrophes and conflicts?
Each time I connect with the enormity of what is going on I have a sense of grief, but from this grief arises a new sense of urgency to make whatever small contribution I can towards a world where all can flourish.
The circumstances of our world can seem overwhelming and this overwhelm can cause people to deny or close their minds to the bigger picture. My sense is that we need to shift into a consciousness of 'living for the whole'. What do I mean by this? Well, many things and in future newsletters I hope to share more about this. Here, I would like to share two inspiring stories and also some wisdom which comes from the international organisation, Rotary, which in some way represent living for the whole.
The two stories illustrate that no matter how hampered we might feel by our own personal life situation there is something we can contribute to the good of the whole.
The first story was one I heard from Gloucester Fair Shares at one of our community meetings at the Friendship Cafe, Gloucester https://thefriendshipcafe.com. A lady who was house bound wanted to contribute to her community but was not sure how. What eventually transpired was that she offered to take in parcels for her local community - receiving parcels is of course problematic for people who are out all day. This helped her community and also herself as she made friendships with the people who came to collect their parcels. Her selfless act in wanting to work for the good of others resulted in mutual good.
The second inspiration is a good friend of mine who has a real heart for the world, for nature and for good of all. She too is 'differently abled' but she uses whatever she is able to do to work for the whole. She does this by regularly posting on Facebook incredibly informative posts about climate events and other situations around the world, often things which do not hit the headlines.
Another aspect of living for the whole can be seen in some wisdom from Rotary International. They have something called the four way test, which I think is a good rule of thumb for discerning how we as individuals can live for the whole.
The Four-Way Test is a nonpartisan and nonsectarian ethical guide for Rotarians to use for their personal and professional relationships. The test has been translated into more than 100 languages, and Rotarians recite it at club meetings:
Of the things we think, say or do
These four simple questions might help each of us if we are inspired by the idea of living not just for ourselves, our friends and families but living for the whole, as the Dalai Lama suggests:
“I believe that to meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. We must all learn to work not just for our own self, family, or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace, the equitable use of natural resources, and through concern for future generations, the proper care of the environment.”
—The Dalai Lama
With best wishes,
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. - Alexander Pope
Hope is the faith that, together we can make things better. - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Much has been written about the power of hope and opinion seems to be divided on its’ usefulness and value. Some see hope as something negative – leading to apathy and inertia.
Others point to ‘false hope’ attributing to it the means of making life bearable, other see in it quite the opposite, the devastating effect when a false hope is revealed as precisely that –false.
More often I believe hope is seen as something positive, it can keep us going and strengthen resolve when times are tough or uncertainty abounds. It can be a motivating and revivifying force.
Episcopal Priest and author, Cynthia Bourgeault points out that sometimes optimism can ensue from hope, ‘In our usual way of looking at things, hope is tied to outcome. We would normally think of it as an optimistic feeling – or at least a willingness to go on – because we sense that things will get better in the future’. However as we shall see below, hope and optimism have different qualities.
However, hope like love, is a quality that is multifaceted and not always easy to put into words. I would like to consider here a few aspects of hope that I find particularly helpful and are perhaps not so commonly recognised. One aspect is described in the following quotation: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. -Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace (1986)
Here we see hope as something which is not connected to outcome but to something which seems right at an inner level. It brings with it a sense that we must be a certain way, or do a certain thing because it has intrinsic value in itself – regardless of the outcome. It is a quality of being, even a way of life, going beyond positive thinking into positive living.
Today I hear many people expressing a sense of hopelessness about the many huge challenges facing our world, from climate challenges and loss of biodiversity to polarisation and growing inequality.
Havel provides a counter to this despair: even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.
This is a crucial factor in what I think of as “participatory hope”. This kind of hope is a quality of the heart. The deep heart which sees all things, connects all things, holds all things together in compassionate love. Hope can be both a call and the fuel for action.
“Hope’s home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as an impulse of truth that shines forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this impulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives.” - Cynthia Bourgeault
In the words of peace activist, Fr John Dear, ‘to be hopeful, do hopeful things’.
There is a growing emphasis on the daily practice of expressing gratitude and how it can lead to a more fulfilled life, from religious teachings to the evidence- based insights from the field of Positive Psychology. A helpful practice might be to regularly reflect on what hopeful actions one can take no matter what the situation and then going out and doing them!