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Spirituality includes being silent and present with what is

It’s interesting how appearances can deceive. If I talk to people about religion and spirituality here in the UK, what I’m struck by is a prevailing desire, it seems, for things to be “secular”. In business for example, the two things you don’t discuss is politics and religion. It’s an unspoken assumption, and you could get a sense that that is to the great relief of all concerned! But what is really going on? Are we a nation of agnostics, or is it really something that today we simply choose to keep to ourselves?

So, in this context I was not surprised to see that spirituality, loosely defined, is very much alive and kicking, if at least beneath the public surface. According to a recent survey, 77% of people believed in the power of spiritual forces. I say “not surprised” because while there’s been a significant turning away from organised religion as traditionally conceived, most of us still hold some degree of spiritual belief, much no doubt to the indignation of the likes of Stephen Dawkins (author of The God Delusion). This keeps coming out in studies. The last census, in 2011, showed that those calling themselves Christian was now at 59%, although many dispute the validity of that figure because of problems with the question asked. Anglican (“Church of England”) Church attendance is now down to about 1.1m, in a population for England of 53m. According to Professor King of UCL, about one fifth of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. While the number who say they don’t have a belief is rising and is now around 25%.

So if we’re not (yet) a nation of agnostics, the picture as Theos say is more complex. So why do we keep this to ourselves? Is it because we don’t like getting into a discussion about something that is personal and we fear the disapproval of others? Is it because it is so complex today that what you think might not be what another does and you don’t want to get yourself into tricky territory? Certainly I’m aware personally that to use the “S” word (in hushed tones: “that means “Spiritual””), can today be seen as “Woo-woo,” as a marketing consultant recently described it to my wife. If you get up and talk about your beliefs, people fear you are going to try to convert them and back off. Images come to mind of Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door (“And how are you this morning?” “No, thank you”, etc) or a preacher in the market place ignored by everybody, who pass by with a quicker step and embarrassed. In the US, being religious is part of what people do, and they are quite open about it, which makes the contrast with the UK and I think a lot of Europe really striking. Then we also wonder at the rise of “mental health” issues like depression. Between 8 and 12% here have depression in any one year, apparently. This is also a very materialistic age, we are told, and for many religion has been replaced by science and technology and the pursuit of “more”. We also find that politicians are seeking to add to measures like GDP other metrics that measure happiness, realising that our priorities maybe need to shift.

If people don’t want to talk about it then there’s another possibility too. There’s something in this about our right to silence and to our own individual contemplation of the divine or the One, or whatever sense spirituality means for you and me. Silence does not imply consent, either to no belief or to having belief. We might also simply be present with the awe and majesty of What Is.

There was a well-known phrase attributed to Queen Elizabeth I when she re-introduced Protestantism in 1559 into the official orthodoxy which passed by the name of the Church of England after the Marian Catholic persecution of 1553 – 1558. She did not, she said, seek “to make windows into men’s souls”. The right to personal privacy in matters spiritual is a long-established tradition in the UK, as is “religious toleration”. As Theos say in the report mentioned at the beginning, it is now more complex and more interesting.

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To know the value of quiet

In trawling through a range of business articles online I came across a delight* which praised the value of quiet and affirmed the value of of introverts. As another “introvert”, I read with enthusiasm: how nice to see people being positive about introversion, and about being quiet! As the writer states, in a world seemingly dominated by extroversion and the valuing of extrovert behaviours, and the noise that ensues, the pressure is seemingly on the introvert to change. She is very clear that those of us who are quiet can also serve.

I wonder how you react when you see the word “quiet”: is it “ah,yes!” or might you be wondering about what is “wrong” about noise? Of course they are polarities, and sometimes we might be in one dimension and another time seeking out the other. However, your reaction might be a symptom of a deeper desire. What, after all, does “quiet” mean for you?

For me, and yes I’m an introvert (to the extent that, with hesitation, I accept labels for the purposes of communication), “quiet” means inner stillness as much as it might be quiet around me. It conjures up a sense of inner peace, and the beauty that might be found in the present. I visualise peaceful rural scenery, mountains, and trees. Nature can however be very far from “quiet”. What I’m referring to is the inner sense that is there, that process of going within to find inner stillness that seems to meet the soul’s longing, where the heart responds with a gentler, warmer, more loving, reverential beat, and all feels complete.

As the article above points out, the introvert “quiet” person has every bit as much to contribute to society, organisations, etc. In fact, once when I was doing a survey of senior managers in a high profile project team, they turned out, most of them, to be introverts! And there’s a certain group of them that do actually run organisations. So!

To savour the inner journey is not to be unusual, at odds with the generality. Rather it meets a deeply felt need that many of us have, even extroverts too. It needs to be taken care of. As the writer points out, it is here that we can reflect, take stock, assess, get insights and be creative. For many of us, I’d suggest, it is the very fact that we find our anchor within that we are how we are on the world’s stage.

In fact I’d suggest that to be disconnected from Source once consciously gained can in itself be a stressor. Once we’ve built a more deeply-sensed connection, then to try and “extrovert” too much, especially where what you do is in some way contrary to your values at Source then there’s a tension that is really only resolved when the connection is reasserted. What can be tricky is to be aware, to notice when a disconnection has occurred. Such is the way of the Ego, with it’s security knee-jerk behaviour for example, that we can otherwise cut off before we notice. In fact we can get lulled into a false sense of security (!) and think we can cope. But until our connection is very strong that’s not so easy.

So, in the middle of whatever is going on, and for many of us at the moment it’s a very great deal, everybody seems to say, it is all the more important to have your own practice of inner reflection and stillness. It can be so easy to let it drop and then there’s all the more effort needed to restore it. My guru calls it “sweet effort” but it can seem hard work at times! But we have to do it. Staying on purpose requires commitment and steadfastness. We need to keep treading the path. Yes, difficulties may come along, but continuing the path is key. Gradually, whatever has distracted us is healed away and back comes that sense of inner stillness and peace, that inner wholeness and completeness that reminds us, re-minds us, that this is truly Life.

Because It never really went away!

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Being who you are brings others closer to you

It can be a big step to share of yourself but it brings others closer to you. If you are being who you are and truly share of yourself others are more likely to trust you. Why is this?

When we learn what is really going on for another, we can potentially get the “real” person. It’s like nothing is hidden, it’s all out there in the open. That’s why organisations often encourage openness, because it helps people to work together better. We feel safer with it. We know what we’re dealing with. Also we can more easily relate to it. We can identify with it, because we can see an aspect of ourselves in it. This is where mirroring is at work, where others reflect back to us an aspect of ourselves.

Thus there’s great power in authenticity. Although it is not so easy to work out which bit of you is the authentic one, especially if in the past you have done a good job of concealing it from others, and even from yourself. So the one who shares of him or her self may seem pretty convincing and people seem to buy into it, but possibly not really. I’ve seen people get lots of endorsements from others as one they trust and believe in, and yet I’ve seen the same person do a good of concealing their real self. It can be such a good act that people believe it. Maybe they want to. But underneath they don’t really. It is a collective act of denial. This can particularly be so of narcissism. Thus I’d suggest that today, where there’s a lot of “me” out there in the public domain, there’s an element that isn’t quite true. People can even do all the right things, down to tears and all, and we can feel really with them. But not all of them.

Because it isn’t so easy as it seems, knowing who we really are. I think we’re better at it than we were, but there’s more work to be done. Really being authentic means knowing who is the “I” that I’m being authentic about. That’s the real challenge.

When we learn to connect with our deeper Self within, there is then no need for posturing and trying to “be” someone, and the rest of the narcissistic stuff. The authentic, real inner Self has nothing to be, and in a sense isn’t anyway. Because there is no longer a sense of a seperate self, which is in any case Ego. We’re all One, and there’s nothing to prove, nowhere to go, nothing to do, just Being, for It’s own sake, in pure humility.

Doesn’t that sound a whole lot easier suddenly?!

And people are then totally at ease around you. In fact they want a bit of it!

I give coaching to help people be themselves in public situations and thus be more effective. Click here.

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Between science and religion can we find a middle ground?

It might be a sign that there is not a uniform atheism in the world of science that a group of scientists have been meeting with theologians and philosphers to debate the implications of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. I say “might be” since clearly not all are happy to associate such a meeting with the idea that they might be about to recant long-held scepticism about religious interpretations of the origin of the universe. Science and religion have long been polarised.

This might not be surprising. Does one necessarily have to leap from a Big Bang theory to conclude that God did it? As one participant in the above-mentioned meetings indicates, you can’t disprove the theory of God. He didn’t add, or wasn’t quoted as such, that you can’t prove it either, or at least not to the satisfaction of much of science, as Richard Dawkins keeps reminding us.And here lies an interesting possibility

It would be wrong to assume that scientists and allied disciplines are uniformly sceptical. As the above article suggests, there are those who do hold religious views. Moreover quite a number of quantum physicists have concluded from their work that forces are at work that can’t be dismissed by science, such as Hal Puthoff and the Zero Point Field, where he suggested that there is a “kind of self-regenerating grand ground state of the universe” where “we and all the matter of the universe are literally connected”, or Max Planck who said “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.”

In all this, there seems to be a rather limiting juxta-position of science and religion, like it is either one or the other. As Max Planck also said, “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature.” This either-or thinking tends to leave out the possibility of mystery, and of mysticism, and a reverence for mystery. For example, you might not be all that into God, but you might have a sense of the Oneness of Life, or feel totally connected with nature, or totally in love with Life. This is a form of spirituality that many would agree with in the sense that it means something to them, without having to sign up to any dogma or belief system or put a label on it. In fact some Eastern spiritual traditions would have it that once you do put a label on it, you create a duality, a subject-and-object perspective and have a separation between you and It.

And it can even feel good to honour the not-knowing, to be at One with It, and feel great peace.

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To keep going could be to have blind faith

Keeping going despite the apparent odds – that’s what life can sometimes seem to be like. It’s a moot point whether to decide to abandon what you’re doing because it’s getting difficult, or whether to soldier on, as they say, in order to somehow accomplish your goal.

You might for example be really feeling up against it at the moment. You might be in a state of fear or panic and be really concerned that it’s all going to go belly up. People doing business start-ups, or people in a new product launch, would recognise this frequently at various stages in the process. So too would travellers way out on some journey and things are going wrong, or people out of work and the cash is running low. What about when you’re really running short of money? Should you abandon your venture, give up on your goal, your dream,  and accept second best? “Get a sensible job!” the sirens wail.

This situation can also apply to one who has come up against their own dark night of the soul, when lets say in the middle of the night you awaken from a very bad dream, in which your fears were somehow being acted out, or when some state of depression takes you off down some black hole. Our so-called ordinary (what’s ordinary?) life can bring us into face-to-face contact with our own despair, when we can’t see any hope, and all life offers seems to be going nowhere.

Wherever we are in our minds is wherever we are in our minds. It’s important to remember that. Faced with adversity, another person may view the same situation differently. The perception of lack of hope and faith is just that, although it doesn’t feel like that. It can feel utterly real, like that is reality, that is how things are. Somewhere inside we need to access our resources that tell us that this is a perception. It is not reality, since there is no one reality in the world of illusion, of maya. This is where the will is so important, and the will may need to be cultivated.

Developing one’s inner resources, the inner awareness of Self, of Oneness, of love, of the state of bliss, of inner peace and contentment, all that practice in awareness, brings us into contact with a Presence that shows that what can occur in extreme states of negativity is still not real. It is a state and we need skill in shifting our state, on re-focusing on that which uplifts us.

The great value of the dark nights of the soul is to point out to us that which we need to learn order to re-connect. Sometimes you might just need to be aware that this is a simple shift that’s needed, and sometimes a big effort is needed. And effort is part of the journey. Despair is ego, love isn’t. Despair and loss of hope and faith is being ensnared in maya. Love, bliss and joy isn’t. And it is something for all of us, while also being compassionate with our tough times. They are teaching us something really important.

No wonder faith is often called “blind faith”.

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There are always reminders of our inner presence

Yesterday we went out to visit a friend for her birthday and took the chance of this “re-birth” day too to go to a local architectural beauty, Tewkesbury Abbey. Inside the building was decorated with yellow spring flowers and it was filled with incense from the morning Easter Sunday service. The incense hung in the building as a thin mist, which gave an even more ethereal feel to the place. It was suitably mysterious but full of energy from the earlier celebration.

Tewkesbury Abbey altar and choir
Tewkesbury Abbey altar and choir

Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Christ, and whatever your views about this or other aspects of Christian beliefs, it still felt good to be around a celebration of a major event in people’s lives. The event has  symbolised for so many people the conquest of death, and offered immense and reassuring hope to people despite the difficulties of their lives that in the end, if they stayed with their faith they would live for ever in paradise, that life is everlasting.

This aspect runs through much of religion and spiritual practice around the world, that if you change direction, or keep on your path, you will be rewarded, that the current dispensation is prone to suffering but that it doesn’t have to be like this, that humans are liable to go off down some unhelpful side alley but they can return to truth and awaken to what is really there for them. However, to do this, they need to challenge the devil within them and re-focus on that which uplifts them.

How we interpret this, and what gloss we put put on it is down to us, unless you buy into those that insist that their particular version is the only way.

I walked around the building in the mist. It was a quite dark day and so very dark inside, despite the subdued lighting, which helped create the particular mystery that these buildings have. The Abbey is very old, dating back to the 12th Century, and has lots of chapels built for the local medieval aristocracy. It was a monastery until the 16th Century but clearly well-endowed by those well-heeled who needed prayers to be said for their departed souls, as they saw it.

The darkness of the building took my awareness within and the lofty heights raised it upwards. In these places the eye is almost naturally drawn up, which was no doubt intentional for its creators. The smell of the incense penetrated my lungs and has stayed as a sense of the spirit of the place. The presence in these places stills my mind and remains as an image reminder of inner stillness for hours afterwards.

Whatever we do and wherever we go, there are always reminders of our inner presence. It’s a matter perhaps of noticing them and re-membering.

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A time to leave your past behind and open to a new self

A Course in Miracles describes the notion of resurrection thus: “Your resurrection is your awakening.” Re-birth is potentially an awakening to “the best which is within us” (Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love). We leave our past behind, we open to a new Self. The Christian tradition will for the past few weeks have been focused on purging that which limits us during Lent. This is a time for letting go, discipline, self-denial, and spiritual growth. As was pointed out in this blog earlier, it’s not very fashionable. In the Christian tradition it is also a time for penitence, in preparation for re-birth into the new. Involved in this purging is forgiveness, forgiveness for our past but also forgiveness of others.

Forgiveness is not something people find easy, since it feels like “letting someone off”, with an implicit finger-wagging. What is not so obvious is that we are really forgiving ourselves. One very useful definition of forgiveness is this: to give up your right to punish and to truly let go of all resentment. In other words it is a process within us, involving letting go. Thus the purging traditionally associated with this time in the west can be taken as a useful time to deliberately, in our minds, let go of that which binds us, especially with regards to the past.

So it might be useful to ask yourself how much you allow yourself to be bound by the past, and your assumptions and interpretations of what occured, what you did and what others did (which might not be how they see it). To let go in this way is to let go of our burdens, useless legacies of the ego that we get attached to.

So, to make good use of this time can also involve thinking about what we hold on to that isn’t serving us and that we can let go of. What pattern have I been living out of, let’s say over this last winter (if not my life), that I can usefully dump? And forgive yourself for it.

The power of a really deep letting go is to open the pathways to consciousness and we can at times experience a powerful release and a connection with something far more vast and deep and joyful within us. That’s why so many people who go through this kind of experience find that they are filled with a deep love, for everything, themselves, other people and life.

So, this time is a powerful time, all the more so because many people are engaged in similar processes at this time. So you’re tapping into a big energy, whether you’re Christian, religious in another way, spiritual, or none of these things and are up for growth.


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Devotion to a spiritual practice may not be easy

The idea of following a spiritual practice is one that is likely to be an instant turn-off to the “I must have it now” culture. Yet, the real fruits of a turn-around at the level of consciousness tend to come after long periods of focused devotion to that which uplifts you.

I say it’s a turn-off for many and it’s therefore important to ask what that’s about, since even a new devotee to adopting a practice needs to be aware of what can get in the way, so as to be able to counter it. We’re many of us used to the idea of instant gratification: it’s all around us, for example in the click of a mouse, the flick of a switch, grabbing the remote, the purchase of food and drink, the use of drugs, buying some new gadget, even a quick break, and many of us can quickly distract ourselves. I gave a talk recently about how we create our own reality, and one of the attendees, among several, paused from his absorption in texting or whatever he was doing with his smartphone to ask me, “Is there any quick fix?” When I said, “No”, he lost interest and returned to his phone.

However, people who have raised their levels of consciousness have usually dedicated themselves to the path, in whatever way suits them. A spiritual practice will involve things like regular silent time, meditation, prayer or contemplation, reading uplifting material, singing or chanting, work or voluntary activity that involves stepping outside the constraints of the ego often by service to others, care over what they eat and drink, attention to what they “take in” from their environment, the careful attention to their mind’s activities, keeping “good company”, a focus on the object of spiritual devotion, and so on. In more general terms, one who is working on their own personal development could take out the more overtly spiritual aspects of the above and still follow pursuits that ensure their minds are focused on what takes them forward, studying material that helps them know more of who they really are, engaging in new activities that help them learn new more empowering skills that takes them beyond limitation, challenging that in the ego which holds them back, taking care of themselves, and acting in other ways that help support their development.

To the “instant society”, this is boring. To take our awareness beyond the material is scary and actually sounds negative. Yet the careful cultivation of the purity and clarity of the mind is to recognise that the “instant society” is cluttering up and distracting the mind and keeping it firmly in the domain of the ego. Thus we lose the possibility to open our minds to the joy and beauty of the Self. Cultivation of the inner Self means to practice in ways that stills this “mind stuff” and negativity, quietens incessant thinking, and allows the peace and joy of who we really are to be present. Spiritual or personal development practice is about being present, aware, still, silent, connected, at One. It requires effort and devotion. It’s the paradox of finding lightness through doing something that’s not to be taken lightly.

So Easter and re-birth is a good time to reflect on where we’re going with all this and can we really commit?

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What part of you now needs to open up?

No doubt many people are now either on holiday or preparing for one, or at least looking forward to a little time off over Easter next weekend. Does it feel like it’s well-deserved?

Traditionally at this time in the west we’re coming up to Easter and the celebrations to mark Christ’s execution and resurrection. As a feast, it’s partly pagan in origin in connection with fertility and in religious terms seems to have roots in such areas as the Jewish Passover. More broadly, we could look at this time as one of re-birth  or re-awakening. After the winter, spring is now in the air and nature is opening up, trees are in blossom and here in the UK the woods are full of bluebells, like what you can see on our homepage.

I guess many of us look forward to this time, with its anticipation of the arrival of summer and all the positive associations that go with it. For some people, we might notice it but part of us is metaphorically still stuck in winter. So, odd though it may seem, it can be hard to shake off the habits of thought from wintertime. Then we have colder spells still and the weather here in the UK can suddenly switch back into cold. So there’s reason still to keep hold of our winter clothes for a while yet.

So the notion of re-birth can be treated with caution by some. Has it really happened, is it true and can I trust it? Or is this something “happy clappy” people do? There’s a big part of us that is reluctant to open up and let in the spring. It’s like we even think we don’t really need it, that we’ve got by OK so far and why do anything different. Old habits die hard, they say.

So it can be difficult for some to imagine that there’s a new possibility out there or that there’s a fresh, new part of us that is getting ready to emerge. We can get so sceptical that we even cut off its possibility.

Yet, having fresh interest, enjoyment and satisfaction can be really good to have. We perhaps need a leap of imagination, to think so being a way to bring it into being, a new way of Being.

So, it might be worth using this upcoming time of Easter to reflect on shifting your state. Maybe spend time with uplifting books or other media and deliberately focus attention on what might uplift you. And set some intentions for living in a more uplifted way. And challenge the old tendency to slide back into wintry thoughts.

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In longing for inner peace don’t neglect its polar opposite

The longing for peace is as ancient as you can get: it’s called “Shantih” in Sanskrit and part of the practice of yoga was, and is, to focus on inner awareness in order to open up the pathways to the peace of the Self (Atman).

I wrote in an earlier posting about meditating on the mantra Om Shantih.

It’s interesting therefore that our current perceived reality is often very much the reverse, busy lives, busy minds, busy environment, conflict, aggravation. It’s a polar opposite. In this way, as in other ways, we humans experience duality, in this case between the desired objective and current perceived reality. In fact it may seem that the more you focus on what you want, you actually get the opposite, if not in your own life then in the lives of those around you.

It’s a very contemporary issue. The marketing people say that what people want now is peace and calm after the turbulence of the past couple of years and thus for example are furnishing their houses to create peaceful-seeming environments. The trouble is, what you resist, you get. The more you try to move away from something, the bigger it gets. So we need to transcend it. Hence the value of looking at what the turbulent bit is about, what it means, what it represents, why we are creating it.

So, if you want peace in your life, do by all means look at developing the experience of peace, but do not neglect its polar opposite. This feels like a paradox and it is. How on earth, you might think, do I get inner peace by looking at all this negative stuff?! Firstly, by being aware of what we are creating, and how we create it, we can grow our self-awareness, manage our minds, more effectively let go and connect. Letting go is important. However, secondly, and I’m being more subtle here, by embracing what you resist you transcend it. The point here is that the world of opposites is an illusion. All is really one. So, if for example I am afraid, and I am really hooked on that, right there in my fear is my salvation.

I have written in my book, “Connecting to Inner Peace”, how by focusing on the feeling of something, and letting go of the thoughts, you can dissolve fear. It’s by facing it, that’s the point. It’s by facing fear that we release ourselves from its hold over us. While we resist it, it persists, and hangs around or keeps coming back.

That’s why I find meditation so useful. Take whatever is going on into your meditation and sit with it. Breathe deeply into the feeling, let go of thoughts, as one does in meditation, and allow things to be. Become the Witness of the experience. It is not who you are. Through the fear, love is shining. It is beckoning to you, like a long lost old friend. If you allow yourself to transcend fear, with the knowing that Reality is love, love will gently and gradually emerge. It is a letting go.

That’s where we meet inner peace. When we contact the love that is who we really are, we have the potential to cultivate an awareness that leads us to the “love that passeth all understanding” as the Bible says (Phillipians 4 :7), where there is often the sense of coming home, of feeling complete, of utter satisfaction, complete contentment, supreme bliss (Ananada).

Thus it is vital, as my guru Swami Chidvilasananda said, “for a seeker of the Truth, a seeker of peace, to cleanse his or her heart. Not just once, not just from time to time or whenever you happen to think of it. The heart must be purified continually. it is a constant sadhana.”

That is why we do self-enquiry and personal development.