"There was a care on my mind so to pass my time, as to things outward, that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd." (John Woolman, writing in the 1740s)
In his journal, the Quaker John Woolman writes of the temptations, or distractions, that he and his contemporaries faced. Two he mentions are spirits (alcohol) and spending money on fine apparel (clothing). Today, the range of distractions is much wider: the internet; films and box sets on demand; and planes, trains and automobiles that make it so much easier to explore the world, near and far. Our choices appear almost limitless. To quote the old Microsoft advert: "Where do you want to go today?"
But perhaps, in truth, this seeming myriad of choices can be reduced to one. Ours is the same decision that John Woolman had to make: which voice do we choose to listen to? Will we jump to the tune of our ego, or will we take heed to the promptings of Love?
The voice of my small, separate, self would have me seek "things outward" to complete me - but it is never satisfied with what it gets. If I observe its urges carefully but don't immediately act on them, I may discern another voice. This is the voice of what Woolman called the "True Shepherd", and which we might call our Greater Self. If we give that loving voice our steady attention, and remain true to it alone, it may lead us to a simpler life - one with fewer distractions. It will surely lead us to greater fulfilment and peace.
I blogged some time ago about one of my biggest outward distractions - the internet. I go on-line with good intentions, but frequently I fall down a rabbit-hole on YouTube, or check the Polish lower-division football scores. The longer I sit in front of the screen, the harder I find it to pull myself away. I wonder what Woolman would have made of the web? I expect he would reflect on whether or not it helped him to stay in touch with his Inner Guide. If he found it a hindrance, he would lay the distraction aside.
I sometimes think there should be a 12-steps programme, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, for people who are addicted to their computers, television or phones.
In the absence of such a group, I've devised my own rule (in the monastic sense of the word), which I'll try to observe from now on…
Questions for reflection
What outward things may be hindering you from paying steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd?
What rule might help you remove those blocks to Inner Peace?
In all three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), Jesus is recorded as asking his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
The disciples' response demonstrates the extraordinary effect Jesus must have had on people who he met: "Some say [you are] John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets". At a stretch, confusing Jesus for John the Baptist could have been a case of mistaken identity: John was a contemporary of Jesus who had recently been executed. But Elijah or Jeremiah? These were prophets from centuries before whose lives were recorded in the Jewish scriptures! Did people really see Jesus as a somehow a re-embodiment of one of them?
The gospel accounts then have Jesus put a direct question to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" It is Peter who answers, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God".
Jesus doesn't deny this, though in the accounts of Mark (which was the first of the surviving gospels to be written) and Luke, he does warn Peter not to speak about him to anyone - perhaps because he realised Peter's description would, very likely, be misunderstood.
It isn't recorded in the gospels, but I wonder whether, at any time, Jesus may have asked his disciples another question: "Who do you say that you are?"
If he had done, would any among them have responded in a similar way… "We are all Christ, all of us one Son of the living God"?
Such a view would be seen as heresy by many Christians. But I can imagine Jesus's lips turning upwards into a smile if any of his disciples had uttered those words.
Was the message of Jesus that he was different from the rest of us, but that we can save ourselves from punishment for our sins if we believe in his unique identity as Son of God? Or was it, perhaps, that we are not separate from one another, confined within perishable bodies; we are eternal spirit, creations of the One Spirit? Yes, we have wandered off awhile to make our own way, but one holy instant we will remember our Divine inheritance and - as prodigal sons and daughters - return Home to be welcomed back into our Father/Mother's loving embrace.
In the third in a series of blog posts, I continue my exploration of doorways to an inner state of peace.
3. If you lose touch with kindness, be present.
Being present more of the time is perhaps the one thing I could do that would most improve the quality of my life.
I remember an English teacher who would sometimes arrive late for class, pop his head around the door to say “I’m here” and then immediately disappear again for another five minutes. Too often, I am like that teacher – here but not really here. I’m present in body, but not in mind. While eating breakfast, I’m thinking of other things: the latest developments on Brexit, the implications of last night’s football scores, a project at work. I rush through my porridge, which could be a simple pleasure to savour at the start of the day. Before I know it, I’m brushing my teeth, then in my car driving to the station, fretting over whether I’ll have enough time to buy my ticket and what I’ll do if the queue is too long and I miss my train. I’m either looking forwards or backwards, but am rarely right here now with what is.
Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly called this surface living. He observed that living in this way has brought on the world’s tragedy. This is because when we’re not conscious of our thoughts, those thoughts become our masters. Without awareness, they drive our actions – “Hurry up! I want it now! Got to look out for myself!” – and take away our freedom to choose how we respond. We experience stress and anxiety, symptoms of a lack of inner peace. And, as we act without consideration or care, we contribute to disharmony in the world.
There is a quality in some things – fresh snowfall, an encounter with a fox or badger near my home – which stops me in my tracks, interrupts my thought-stream and brings me back to the here and now. In that state of present awareness, wonder can enter and peace returns.
We can cultivate presence by practicing mindfulness as we go about our daily activities. Here are some examples:
Mindfulness lessens stress and increases wellbeing. It nourishes our relationships – how different is a conversation with someone who is fully present, compared to one with a person whose mind is elsewhere, or who is simultaneously checking their phone?
Finally, presence allows our Inner Guide to make Itself known. How can Spirit speak to us, or through us, if we don’t give It a word in edgeways because of the constant chatter in our head? How can we sense the promptings of Love and Truth in our hearts if we’re not aware of the subtle feelings in our bodies, being identified completely with our thoughts?
To hear the music rather than the static, we need to be tuned in. Presence leads us toward inner quiet; inner stillness. I’ll explore this further in a future post.
In the second in a series of blog posts, I continue my exploration of doorways to an inner state of peace.
2. If you lose touch with Christ, be kind.
In a state of unity consciousness, Love requires no conscious effort. It simply is. In the physical world, our experiences of Oneness are fleeting, “for now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But when awareness of True Self fades, we can still make a conscious decision to be kind.
The Dalai Lama famously said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Imagine if that were everyone’s creed.
After a tough day at work recently, I stopped off at a café that I visit from time to time and bought a slice of carrot cake to enjoy on my way home. When I got on the train and opened the box I discovered... TWO slices of cake. (I'd only paid for one.) This little act of kindness from the waitress brightened my day. I really could have my cake and eat it!
Being the recipient of an act of kindness feels great, but being the one who offers kindness is equally rewarding. As I reflected in the booklet Things to Remember, “When I warm to people, it warms my heart. When I offer love, I expand; I feel more fully alive. When I give of myself, I do receive. This I know experientially”.
Conversely, when I’m not kind – when I show a lack of care or consideration for others – I retreat further from my True Self. Physically, I experience this as a shrinking; a hardening or clenching within my body; a tangible lack of ease.
Being kind to others brings me joy, and a sense of peace. I don’t have to believe in oneness to experience its effects.
As an important aside, we need to be kind to ourselves too. Remember, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31). At a deep-seated level we may think ourselves unworthy of love and compassion. (Have you ever chided yourself as “stupid”, or metaphorically beaten yourself up, when you’ve made a mistake?) But if God Loves me – and God must, for “God is Love” (1 John 4:16) – who am I to disagree?
Next time: The way of presence.
I blogged recently to share some guidance for a perfect day which came to me during a period of reflection. It suggested four doorways to an inner state of peace: being Christ, being kind, being present and being still. I want to explore each of these doorways in a little more depth.
1. First, be Christ
As noted in the original post, “Christ” in this context refers to Our True Self, which is Love. It is that in us which remains forever as It was created. Instead of “Be Christ”, we could equally say “Be Whole. Remember your oneness with all, and live in that Light.”
As long as I identify with my small separated self - which I do every time I judge; every time I think only of my own needs - I deny my true nature.
How can I shift from separate self to awareness of oneness? My physical eyes testify to a world of separation: situations I judge as good or bad, things I delight in and others I fear. But this is perception, not reality. It is the out-picturing of my inner state of mind. I look on separation because I have chosen to. But I have freedom to make another choice.
To experience my Christ-Self, I must see as Christ. Eyes of Love see beyond appearances. “Christ’s vision… does not look upon a body, and mistake it for the Son whom God created. It beholds a light beyond the body; an idea beyond what can be touched, a purity undimmed by errors, pitiful mistakes, and fearful thoughts of guilt from dreams of sin. It sees no separation. And it looks on everyone, on every circumstance, all happenings and all events, without the slightest fading of the light it sees.” (A Course in Miracles, Lesson 158. 7:1-5.) When A Course in Miracles speaks of forgiveness, this is what it means. For me as a Quaker, these words also provide a clear and poetic description of ‘answering that of God in everyone’.
At the start of a period of contemplation, I find it helpful to remind myself that “My mind is not in my body. My body is in my mind. My mind is part of God’s.” By letting go of my false identity as an ego and as a body, I am freed from narrow self-interest and fear. My function becomes to shine forth the Love that I am.
If I use Christ’s vision and that alone, judgement falls away. I find “a peace so deep and quiet, undisturbable and wholly changeless, that the world contains no counterpart” (ACIM Lesson 305). In this peace, I experience my True Self. I know this state, but only fleetingly. Most of the time I lose touch with it and revert to body/ego-identification. That is why I need other doorways back to peace. One of these is kindness.
Next time: The way of kindness.
A friend sent me this text this morning:
Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
"You owe me."
With a love like that.
It lights the whole sky.
(Poem by Hafiz.)
A good friend who knows that I’m studying A Course in Miracles (ACIM) asked me whether I disagree with any of its teaching. Put another way, do I believe that everything ACIM teaches is true?
I start from the position that the highest truth is Love. True Love expresses itself as kindness, compassion and forgiveness (non-judgement). It lays down no conditions. It is experienced by the giver as Joy and a sense of Peace. It is a well that never runs dry.
“The Course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance.” (From the Introduction to the Text of ACIM.)
Since A Course in Miracles is all about what Marianne Williamson has called “a return to Love”, I find it a powerful signpost to Truth. If I’m visiting China, I may see a signpost by the side of the road. But that sign will only be helpful to the extent that I understand what is written on it - if I don’t know the Chinese language, I’ll be at a loss. So it is with ACIM (or other spiritual teachings). I need to understand not only the language, but also the Spirit in which it was written. Otherwise I’ll misinterpret it, and apply it in an unhelpful way.
To illustrate this, I’ll focus on Workbook Lesson 136 - perhaps one of the ‘hardest’ lessons in ACIM. When I approach it from an intellectual standpoint, I find it problematic. The idea for this lesson is that sickness is a defence against the truth: “Sickness is a decision. It is not a thing that happens to you, quite unsought, which makes you weak and brings you suffering. It is a choice you make, a plan you lay, when for an instant truth arises in your own deluded mind, and all your world appears to totter and prepare to fall. Now are you sick, that truth may go away and threaten your establishments no more”.
This appears to be saying that we are so afraid of our Oneness with God - full acceptance of which means surrendering our separate identity - that to reinforce our separateness a part of our mind engenders illness and pain. We do this subconsciously. We do it even to the point of physical death, which ‘proves’ we were right (in our belief in separation) and God/Love was wrong.
Immediately I object. What about babies with life-threatening illnesses? Or, for that matter, kind and spiritually-aware people who get ill? To say that, on some level, they chose disease sounds uncaring, nonsensical or even abhorrent.
Later in the same lesson, we are given an explanation: “You can but choose to think you die, or suffer sickness or distort the truth in any way. What is created is apart from all of this. Defences are plans to defeat what cannot be attacked. What is unalterable cannot change.” (My emphasis.) In other words, our body gets sick and dies but Spirit - the truth of what we are - is unharmed. God thought us into being and we remain in God’s Mind. As God is eternal, so are we.
When I reflect on ACIM teachings, I can listen to one of two inner voices. If I listen to the part of me that delights in separation, I react against the teaching - or I may accept it on a superficial level, but don’t let it touch me in a way that would affect how I am in the world. If I allow Spirit to interpret the words, then perhaps I may see them in a different light - and what was problematic begins to make sense.
It is my continuing identification with the body (mine or another’s) and my belief that it is real which makes the Course’s teaching so hard.
My true Inner Guide (as well as experienced teachers such as Ken Wapnick and Robert Perry, to name but two) can help me understand what ACIM is saying. It can also guide me when to share a particular teaching with another person - and when it would be kinder not to use words. Sickness may be “a defence against the truth” - but it is part of our experience in this world. Those who suffer need compassion, not doctrine - however well-intentioned.
In any case, purest truth is not found in words, but in kindness. The ultimate test of truth is love. That is because Truth is Love.
Let me, then, show compassion for those experiencing physical or emotional pain. Let me acknowledge that these are part of the human/physical condition. But let me also hold in my mind an awareness of Spirit; of the Divine Essence in all of us which is beyond pain and death. I need not “answer that of God” in others by using words. Instead, let me trust that my unspoken faith in their Wholeness will, on some level, reach their soul.
The ship of Theseus is said to have been moored in the harbour at Athens for a thousand years. Over time, its wooden parts wore out (you couldn’t buy Ronseal in ancient Greece). One by one, the parts were replaced with identical-looking ones. Eventually, no part of the original ship remained. The question is, was it still the ship of Theseus?
What if, theoretically, a family had collected the original parts as they were removed and, over the years, used them to reconstruct a whole ship? Would that be the genuine ship of Theseus?
For a humorous take on this conundrum, have a look at this Only Fools and Horses clip: Trigger’s broom.
What is identity? Is it defined by physical factors, which change over time? Or is it more to do with an ‘essential’, or non-material, quality which persists?
The question can be asked in relation to human beings too. If I shave my beard and then it regrows, I’m still me. If I had a kidney transplant, most people would say that I’d continue to be ‘me’. So what is it that makes me who I am?
The ship of Theseus conundrum assumes the ship exists as a physical object. But what if the ship was merely a thought that someone had made up? The ship as it was when it first sailed, the 1000-year-old ship with all its panels replaced, and the ship reconstructed from the original’s retired parts would all be simply thoughts. In other words, the problem would be only in the mind.
A Course in Miracles says in its introduction "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God". (These are the words that Arkadiusz Kogut has displayed on the wall of his study in my novel Escape to Redemption.)
Theseus’ ship could be 'threatened' – so it fails the ACIM test for being 'real'. The same goes for Theseus himself. Or Brexit, or the endangered giant pandas, or pretty much any material thing.
What if all the things we perceive are images made by our mind? And what if, ultimately, there is only one Mind in which those thoughts have their being?
In this world, there will always be problems - whether personal or global challenges or philosophical conundrums which the rational mind may never be able to solve. But perhaps there is only one 'problem' that needs to be answered: "Who am I?"
If I identify with my physical body, my personality or my story, then I'm saying I’m a separate self. I'm affirming the reality of separation, and in doing so I'm denying Oneness. Whenever I experience any lack of peace, it’s because in that moment I’m believing in my separateness from God, from my neighbours and my environment. I feel I can be ‘threatened’. We might call this a state of exile from Love.
For that one problem there is but one solution: opening to the awareness of the One Reality which cannot be threatened and accepting It as the truth of Who we are.
Now, where can I buy a new handle for my broom?
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer, A Course in Miracles student and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)