How illness holds within it an opportunity for awakening

Pandemic outbreaks of highly infectious disease like the Plague, Cholera, Influenza and now Coronavirus, sweep through human consciousness like a hurricane. They are like auguries of awakening, not always welcome ones, as the disease and suffering is not welcome, but they have a way to get us to address that from which we have been hithertoo averting our gaze. At the political level they have so often in the past heralded, accompanied or driven major change. At the personal level we might think we can after a while get back to life as normal but so often this is not so: such shocks to our sense of wellbeing can be lasting and profound. Our collective and individual cage has had a violent and unsettling shake. It is our choice whether or not we have an awakening and choose to pay attention and learn the lessons that beckon.

Powerfully existential

In one way, such an event impacts our very survival. The disease could kill us, or our loved ones. It thus directs us to reflect, if we can allow ourself, on the prospect of dying. It might flit tangentially on our awareness, and then we may look directly at the possibility. Many avoid it, not surprisingly, given the core human driver to survive.

I wonder how many of you have been making wills, or discussing with others the practical aspects of your departure. It’s an uncomfortable subject, one that many avoid entirely. In the UK around 54% of people don’t have wills. Also many don’t make practical arrangements for what they would want to happen if they were incapacitated, like a living will. It can be a useful, if unsettling, question to ask oneself: what if I die?

There’s not surprisingly an emotional side to this, to contemplate leaving the earth plane and what that might mean. It can be very scary. Some say that such existential dread underlies the human condition, and explains a lot about human behaviour. There are those who’ve nearly been there, who’ve had Near Death Experiences (NDE’s), or who have had to cope with and come through an event that threatened their survival. There are those who have done this who now have no fear of death. I have before in these pages recommended the work of Steve Taylor who has researched people who have had these or related experiences, and the bliss, joy and contentment that they have found as a result. See for example Out of the Darkness. At some point, many of his subjects broke through to another level of awareness.

Existentialists say that death is a “given”, something we will all face sooner or later. Our challenge is how we do that. We each find, or don’t find, our strategies for coping. It might for example be religion, spirituality, philosophy, or rationality. We might adopt a spiritual or mental practice. Then again, addiction, media and other stimuli can provide substitutes.

Perhaps this pandemic is one of those invitations for us to reconcile ourselves with our ending.

Alone in a lockdown, it’s hard to use others to help us avoid these issues. We’re in danger of being left alone with ourselves. As Oriah Mountain Dreamer says at the end of her poem The Invitation,

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

Fear and anxiety are a wake-up call

A lot of us in today’s world live in various states of fear and anxiety. It’s endemic in modern living. Existential anxiety is often linked with other reasons for us to feel anxious, like our job, our relationship or financial issues. Thus, while we might focus on the content of the anxiety, like what we fear might happen and the disaster scenarios that churn around in our minds, we might also use such occurrences as a reminder of what’s really behind this seeming regular visitation from the angel of fear. What has this fear to teach us, probaby one we’re resisting?

Thus visitations of fear and anxiety may also have something useful, much though it can be highly unpleasant to experience. We can use it to learn what positive potential might lie behind the fear. After all, as said in a recent post, fear is simply False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s an illusion.

I have often taught people to use fear in meditation, or simply when we wake up afraid, or encounter it during the day. This is to use it as a tool. What?, you might think, are you crazy?! We’re all crazy in this world! It’s a perception.

Breathe!

In this practice, we use the breath.

With fear you can breathe into it, let go of the thoughts, be present with the fear, focus on the feeling, feel it, and let it dissolve. It’s just an energy. Let it go. Then do this.

Breathe!

Sit if possible, and you could stand if need be. Focusing on your breath, take a deep breath and breathe in deeply, down as it were into your belly, such that you move your belly out, expand it, using the diaphragm. You breathe as it were “into” the stomach, where feelings are often felt. Then breathe out long. Then do it again several times. Not too often as you can get dizzy. As you breathe out, let go and relax. In fact you could say to yourself as you do this

Breathe in (breathe in deep)…(Slight pause)….Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…Let go (and relax)

(Very slight pause)

Breathe in (breathe in deep again)…(Slight pause)…Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…(and when you’ve breathed out and relaxed) And I am good.

Be present with with the understanding that you are good.

Then breathe naturally and in a relaxed state for a few minutes.

Thus in this practice, you focus on your breath and breathing, come into the present moment and simply be aware of your breath. You intentionally leave each end breath with a positive affirmation.

Focusing on the breath is a mindfulness practice, explained on this website. You can practice using breathing as a tool to let go of anxiety and have a positive focus.

Meditators use tools like the breath and they also use a mantra. Often mantras contain some positive element. So’ham or Hamsa (I am That) is a well-known one. If you look at the pages on this site on various mindfulness practices, you can practice using the breath and a mantra. Practice is essential. The benefits come in time.

It’s hard to intentionally focus on the breath and be anxious. Anxiety is a mental process. It is thoughts we don’t need and can let go of. Conscious breathing is a great tool. We do it all the time! So why not be aware that we doing it!

Opportunity

It might be hard to see this pandemic as an opportunity for an awakening and humans, being humans, might not use it as such. My take is that it offers us a painful way but a great way to see through how we are living on this planet and make real, lasting positive changes for all of us. One way is to experience consciousness and aliveness differently, for ourselves, for our planet, for our wellbeing, and for our relationships. As Lao Tzu said,  If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

In the end is a beginning

There’s a poignancy to autumn at this time, damp, wet, a chill in the air, sun shining low through golden leaves that cling forlornly to thinning trees. The summer is replaced by autumn and winter beckons. All is decaying – but then all is also preparing for the next spring. The end of October is, it is said, a time when the veils between the two worlds are thinner, at the time of the feast of Samhain. No wonder many often choose to leave. This time of ending, of closure, is a sad time, but it can also contain the seeds of new birth. How often can a person’s leaving this world also be when a new one is born, and in what form? It’s to see the beginning in the ending.

Court of the Lions, Alhambra
Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada

We have just had a nice break in Andalucia and went on a long-promised pilgrimage to the Alhambra in Granada. I don’t know if it happens for you but when we stepped through the doorway of the Nasrid Palaces we felt a powerful energy charge, like moving to another zone. It’s an awesome place, literally! Then, we also soaked up Andalucia, and spending time on the coast was wonderfully restful and warm.

Then on the last night we learned that a neighbour and friend had died and Akasha had to spring into action to lead a funeral ceremony. The next week was frenetic since in France funerals come quickly and there was masses to do and people to support. Now it’s over and we are relaxing back into “normal” life. Except that it isn’t. A lot has happened. And we feel sad, tired and listless, a bit devoid of direction, a bit disorientated. So what’s all this?

It can be useful to be aware of what happens, if this is something that has happened for you, in some way. According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross there are five stages to grief. Put in my layman’s terms based on masses of work with people who experienced loss, there’s very roughly a series of phases, very much depending on the individual. There’s shock; then a temporary phase of denial or minimising of what’s happened; then a period when the tough emotions kick in, like sadness and anger, and their variants like blame, resentment, hurt, pain, and so on; then bargaining, where we might avoid the truth of a situation; depression, what I often called the pits, when it really hits home over time and we have to find a way to process and move on; and then acceptance, where we start to heal, come to terms with what’s happened and find meaning and new purpose. It’s in the last-mentioned that the real potential lies, but let’s be brutally clear: you can’t avoid or rush the others, though, believe me, I’ve seen masses of attempts!!

I’d hazard a guess to say we’ll all of us have this experience in one form or another with major life events, and accidents, being robbed, moving house and many other stress events too. Death and dying though are truly existential: we’ll all have it. So we need to find ways to cope, to see what’s there to learn from it, and, dare I say it, to gain the real meaning we are meant to derive from it. I wonder what yours is?

Which brings me back to our friend and neighbour. As friends we may not be so emotionally involved, but we are impacted nonetheless. There’s a person we knew and spent time with who’s gone, is there no more. Of course it stirs up our own stuff around death, dying and loss. Then there’s the sense of things coming to an end, an end of an era, people leaving, things changing, the familiar replaced by the unfamiliar, an emptiness, nothing where there was someone, a vacuum. No longer the craic (he was Irish), the jokes, the long conversations, the plentiful supply of liquor, the warmth and friendliness, the hospitality. When it’s gone, you notice it.

Then we hear of other changes in train. Somehow other events seem to be happening. They aren’t caused by the loss, but somehow we notice it more. As a Brit in France, we are impacted by Brexit. Then there’s news of other friends leaving, people moving on. So what now for us?

With such endings, we are left with our own meanings to make. What now for our own future? What needs our attention? What have these events taught us that we need to attend to? What does it all mean? Or, as I would say, what meanings do I choose to make of what’s been happening? Where is there a beginning in the ending?

The poet TS Eliot has wonderful words about ending and beginning at the end of his masterpiece, The Four Quartets. To quote selectively:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The End is where we start from…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We progress on life’s path, often unknowingly or unaware, and yet it has purpose, even if we don’t consciously know it. Each ending offers us the chance, once again, to bring what is unaware into conscious awareness, to know and feel that which is our truth, that which our soul is calling us to.

During the funeral service, Akasha asked us to reflect while one piece of music chosen by our friend was played. What happened for me was a palpable sense of love, glowing in my heart centre, and with it a contented sense of peace. Maybe that was where our friend was. Certainly that was important for me. That is what I will take from these turbulent last months of his life, a blessing on him, and on all of us.

That’s something to go for!

In memory of a very special person

I was very sad to learn recently that a major inspiration in my life, a very special person, has just died of a heart attack. Graham Browne led a very powerful program, Turning Point, that I attended at a very low point in my life in 1989 and it was through the work that followed that a very rapid transformation occurred for me. Many people have come out of seemingly nowhere to confirm what this man, with his fellow teachers, has achieved for them too.

It’s one of those very big occasions when people sense another turning point. When someone important for us like this dies, or for comparison a present or past leader or other major figure, we are likely to be very impacted and to stop and think very seriously about what the person has meant for us. How many of us for example had a sense of a major transition when Princess Diana died? It’s about what that person meant for us.

In Graham’s case, he was for me a very charismatic workshop leader who had a rare capacity to facilitate people’s process in a group such that he could identify exactly what was their “growing edge” in their personal growth. It was a brilliant example of insightful coaching in a group situation, well before the term was commonly used. Except that Graham’s work was more like therapy than what we might conventionally call coaching, although there is no clear or agreed demarcation. Rather like Fitz Perls’ “hot seat” approach in Gestalt, the work he would do impacted not only the person concerned but the group as a whole. Such is the power of this kind of group work. It is as if this person’s journey is our journey too. It was through watching Graham work that I was inspired to change my career from teaching and learn what I now do. What I learned and what I do isn’t the same. Graham’s skill was arguably unique to Graham, as each of us has their own style and way of working, although he very successfully trained his successors in his approach. I went my own way, but what I’m saying here is that it was Graham’s work that got me thinking.

I want to stress that it is very important to watch others at work and see how they do things. NLP would call this modelling. In turn you might then go on to explore and use other ideas too. I went on to study Gestalt, which also powerfully uses “in the moment” processing.

Graham also worked with the group as a whole from a Transpersonal perspective, and without going into detail, he accessed a whole range of techniques to help people to get in touch with and release emotional blockages and learn more of their real potential and of who they really are. It was during one of those processes that he led, a guided visualisation, that I had a extremely powerful spiritual experience, and it was perhaps this that has stayed as the most powerful moment I had in working with Graham. I had the enormous sense of God’s love beaming down, a great big massive ball of deep gold, vibrating with energy, with great strands of energy powering out all around, beams coming on every side of me, and such that All there Was was this deep, unconditional love. Everything seemed to dissolve into this love.

What more is there to ask for?

I feel tearful now, in a very positive way, remembering that moment, which seemed to go on for ever.

Thus can people be gifts for us, angels that come, as they come in many forms, and so did Graham that day.

So I thank him from the bottom of my heart, a true gift, acting in pure service, unconditionally, in love, for so very many evidently very grateful people. What more could people ask for?

So, let’s just pause and remember the gift of our fellow humans, and perhaps for yourself bring to your mind some special person who has been of service to you or helped you in some powerfully positive way, and give thanks to them, and give your love to them.

Om shanti.

To make an end is to make a beginning – a farewell to our friend Mary

It’s been a bit of a week. It started with being in Dublin when Ireland was learning its fate at the hands of the EU and IMF and ended with the death of one of our friends. Sometimes life seems to go like this, a bunch of momentous events. Where we make an end of something we also make a beginning.

Our friend who just died was 82 and had just written and published her autobiography, which it had taken her 4 years to write. I was really impressed that she, Mary, chose to wrap her life up in this way. One, to write an autobiography having never written a book before, and two, no sooner was it published than she got sick and died. It’s like she had brought things to a fitting close.

She was a courageous person. Not all that long ago she organised and carried out her own world circumnavigation, staying with various women in different parts of the world under a reciprocal arrangement and despite breaking her ankle at one point. She had a gritty, gusty way that we might say characterised those raised during the Second World War, blitz and all. A gruff, reserved exterior, she could be shockingly blunt and rude even, but she was kind, caring and heart-felt in her own way.

When people around us die, it can feel strange and unreal at first, perhaps the shock phase of the grieving cycle described by Elizabeth Kubler-Rosse. One moment, there she is and the next, gone.

Of course, from my understanding, she has simply left her body for her next phase in re-connecting with the Whole, but as a human grief is a real and palpable experience, about me and her other friends, and her family, as humans coming to terms with someone going in a totally final way.

The two certainties, existentialists say, about life is that we are born and we die. They are “givens” and some say it is up to us what meaning we make of that. To them however, life ceases at that point. Not for me it doesn’t. But each death still raises once again the challenge of facing the finiteness of life in its material form. To connect with that is to face the fear of ending. No wonder so many of us fear and avoid endings.

TS Eliot wrote,

“To make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from….
We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
(extracts from Little Gidding)

To me, that’s it: we need to do the journey to really know who we are, which is where we started.

So it somehow seems really fitting that right after, we got this YouTube video clip from a friend, one that is no doubt doing the rounds. Thank you, Richard for this. So I thought you might like to watch it (see the link below). Whatever your religious perspective, there’s to me an affirmation of joy in this chorus from the well-known choral work by Handel, “The Messiah,” in a very unlikely setting.

Joy is who we are. Death is sad and, sure, is feared by us but what we need to do is see beyond the fear to what it has to teach us, through the tears, about life and about what lasts above and beyond the illusion of finiteness.

For the love of our friend Mary. I wish you well on your journey. Enjoy.