Confucianism: “Self as Creative Transformation”

 

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Confucius, statue in Shanghai, China. © philipus/Fotolia

My Reflections on Confucianism

The goal of the Confucian project is to become fully human. Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius) understood the self as a “node” rather than an entity, a “meeting place where lives converge.” (Smith, 1991).

This resonates with my theories of the gift circle. In my PhD dissertation (when I eventually write it….) I argue that the Western concept that all possessions can be alienated from oneself is based on a system of property rights, rather than the way people really interact.

There are parts of ourselves, embodied sometimes in objects, which are sacred, which are “kept-whilst-given,” which cannot be alienated. When they are given, they simply enchain us one to another ever more strongly.

I saw that my feeling about the way people exist in relation to each other may have very old, Chinese roots. Perhaps my mother’s sub-conscious influence, through her emphasis on family, selflessness and generosity to others? Although, like China, my mother sometimes interpreted these values in sinister ways, emphasising respect for her as a parent without earning this respect. But the fundamental principles were there, and I think they continue to inform the way I see the world as a system of relationships in which people expand when they are filled with love and contract when they are filled with hate. A little Mohism (which is also quite a lot like Christology), a little Confucianism, and you get my gift theory of human relations ;-).

I have copied below some of the Confucian sayings from the Analects which resonated with me. They are largely all about learning, the importance of humility and keeping an open mind. These passages also reminded me of Duane Bidwell’s advice to spiritual counselors to take a position of “not knowing” when engaging in spiritual direction. This is an attitude of open-minded curiosity, a respect for the other and a fundamental acceptance of the unknowability of God and the ways in which others experience God, leading to a permanent sense of learning throughout life (Bidwell, 2004).

 

‘I will not grieve that men do not know me; I will grieve that I do not know men.’ (The Analects 1:16) This is a good example of Kung Fu-tzu’s humility and openness always to learning.

‘Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.’ (The Analects 2:15). This saying felt very apposite in the current political times.

‘When you see a man of worth, think how to rise to his level. When you see an unworthy man, then look within and examine yourself.’ (The Analects 4:17). Another reminder to be humble and always learning rather than judging.

‘If a man does not ask himself, “What am I to make of this? What am I to make of that?” – there is nothing whatever I can make of him.’ (Analects 15:15). I like the pithiness of this saying, and how it sums up in a humorous way the importance of always having an open mind.

‘The wise man does not appreciate a man because of what he says; nor does he depreciate what he says because of the man.’ (Analects 15:22). This saying reminds me not to “talk down” to people but to relate to people at the level of respect or “jen.”

‘When Tzu Kung asked what were the essentials of government, the Master replied, “Sufficient food, sufficient forces, and the confidence of the people.” “Suppose, rejoined Tzu Kung, “I were compelled to dispense with one, which of these should I forgo first?” “Forgo the forces,” was the reply. Suppose, said Tzu Kung, “I were compelled to eliminate another, which of the other two should I forgo first?” “The food,” was the reply, “for from of old death has been the lot of all men, but a people without faith cannot stand.’ (Analects 12:7).

‘The wise man is intelligently, not blindly, loyal.’ (Analects 15:36). There are several passages I came across in the Analects in which Kung Fu-tzu is quoted as reminding his disciples that you cannot blindly follow a master; that the virtue of loyalty is not a virtue if it is not also accompanied with constant thought and examination.

‘Love of kindness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by foolishness. Love of knowledge, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by loose speculation. Love of honesty, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by harmful candour. Love of straightforwardness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by misdirected judgment. Love of daring, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by insubordination. And love for strength of character, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by intractability.’ (Analects 17:8). This to me is a brilliant summation of the importance of always thinking, questioning and learning and avoiding dogmatic and definitive stances about anything at all. If you consider each of these imbalances which Kung Fu-tzu refers to, you can see probably 99% of the themes of fiction: the hero who has to learn to temper her willfulness with thoughtfulness; the hero who is honest out of ego instead of wisdom; the hero who is kind without thought to practicalities or reality.

‘He who does not know the force of words, cannot know men.’ (Analects 20:3). There is an earlier passage in the Analects in which Kung Fu-tzu wishes he did not have to speak, and instead he attempts to play music for someone who has come to seek his counsel. But most of the time, Kung Fu-tzu seems to accept and promote the importance of clear language and words. This saying is the last line of the Analects, and I thought it pretty much sums up the role of the teacher which Kung Fu-tzu first and foremost embodied.

Who was Confucius?

Kung Fu-tzu was born around 551 BC in Lu, which is now the Shantung province of China. He was from humble circumstances, brought up by his widowed mother (his father died when he was three years old).

After holding a few minor bureaucratic positions he set himself up as a tutor and attracted a loyal following of “disciples.” According to Huston Smith’s history of Confucianism, Kung Fu-tzu wanted to hold public office in order to reorder society, but rulers of the Chinese principalities were too wary of Kung Fu-tzu’s candour to appoint him. The ruler of his home state eventually felt compelled to give Kung Fu-tzu an honorary position, but once Kung Fu-tzu realised the hollowness of the appointment he resigned (Smith, 1991).

At the age of fifty, Kung Fu-tzu began to travel from state to state, offering unsolicited advice to rulers on how to govern better and seeking an official post from which to implement his principles. But it was never forthcoming and Kung Fu-tzu and his core of faithful disciples spent those years mocked by holy men and peasants alike.

Eventually there was a change in administration in his home state and he was invited to return. By then, Kung Fu-tzu was too old for office so he spent the last five years of his life teaching and editing the classics. At the age of 72 he died.

Huston Smith explains that Kung Fu-tzu was a failure as a politician, but was undoubtedly one of the finest teachers the world has known. He had an informal, Socratic method of teaching, conversing with his students, posing questions, citing texts. He never considered himself the “expert,” but instead behaved as a “fellow traveller,” always humble about how far he had himself progressed on the path of fully realising his humanity. He was known to be unwavering in his core values but tempered this with a sense of humour and realism.

After his death, Kung Fu-tzu’s influence increased. Huston Smith describes the historical context in which Kung Fu-tzu’s teachings gained influence. By Kung Fu-tzu’s time, the almost continuous warfare of the era (known as the Period of the Warring States) had degenerated from its erstwhile chivalrous rules of conduct to sheer brutality. Entire populations were mass executed. The social threads of custom were being destroyed by this barbarism, threatening anarchy.

Like Jesus of Nazareth, Kung Fu-tzu had a relatively unremarkable career when alive but upon his death, his messengers were effective and his ideas came at the right time. As a result of his teaching, a class of scholars arose in China. In 130 BC Confucian texts were made the basic education for government officials right up until 1905 AD. His teachings helped to cement the emphasis on family, society and community over individual; reverence for age, and a preference for the middle way of negotiation rather than the adversarial system of the West. The emphasis on wen can be seen in the contemporary Chinese government’s policy of “soft power.”

Unlike other major civilisations such as India or Europe, China did not require a person to be one religion or another. A Chinese person was Confucian in ethics and public life, Taoist in private life, Buddhist at the time of death, and engaged in shamanistic folk religion throughout. (Smith, 1991).

Realism and Mohism

Three main schools of thought can be discerned as responses to China’s Period of the Warring States:

  • Realism
  • Mohism
  • Confucianism

Realism

This was the dominant approach at the time of Kung Fu-tzu. The way to deal with humans was through a system of penalties and rewards. Similar to Hobbes’ conception of humanity, Realists acknowledged that ultimately, force was required to restrain humans from being completely selfish. They reasoned that a state needed a large and effective militia, clear laws and serious penalties for violations. Han Fei-tzu was one of the leading proponents of Realism and explained that laws had to be very clearly spelt out and penalties had to be heavy.

Realists believed that humans were ultimately greedy, selfish beings and that goodness had to be forced upon them. They also believed that most humans were too short-sighted to accept present sacrifices for long-term gain and that rulers had to force such policies upon them. Realists did not deny that noble sentiments existed, but argued that these would not be sufficient to keep people in check.

A realist of the fifth and sixth centuries BC was the prototypical, hard-headed Chinese mother (for those of you who have one, you know what I mean ;-). Life is hard. Deal with it.

Mohism

At the same time as the realists dominated policy making, Mo Tzu (or Mo Ti) proposed that universal love (chien ai) was the solution rather than force.

“Mutual attacks among states, mutual usurpation among houses, mutual injuries among individuals, these are [among’ the major calamities in the world. But whence do these calamities arise? They arise out of want of mutual love….individuals have learned only to love themselves and not others. Therefore they do not scruple about injuring others…How can we have the condition altered? It is to be altered by the eay of universal love and mutual aid.” (Yi-pao, 1929).

Mo Tzu believed that Shang Ti (a personal god) and Heaven “loves the whole world universally. Everything is prepared for the good of human beings.” (Yi-pao, 1929: 145).

Confucianism

Kung Fu-tzu rejected the Realist approach because it was too much outside of people’s ordinary lives and could not inspire people’s day to day ways of behaving in relation to others. The Realist approach could not inspire intrinsic motivation and purpose in people. At the same time, he thought that the Mohists were too utopian. The Realists thought that governments could enforce peace, whilst the Mohists thought that personal commitment could bring about peace. Both approaches were unrealistic.

For Kung Fu-tzu, tradition was the key. Tradition shaped people’s attitudes, ethics and actions. Kung Fu-tzu saw tradition as a powerful means of improving contemporary behaviour by harking back to the norms of the “Age of Grand Harmony.” This was a period in China’s past when China was passing from the second millennium BC into the first millennium BC, and the Chou Dynasty was at its peak. Kung Fu-tzu may have romanticised this era as a time when the Chinese were still community members before they were individuals. To apply this to his era in the sixth century BC, Kung Fu-tzu realised that he would have to create deliberate tradition supported by conscious and purposeful attention.

Kung Fu-tzu wanted a society which embodied the following five principles:

  • Jen
  • Chun tzu
  • Li
  • Te
  • Wen

Jen

This refers to the relationship between two people which is based on a feeling of humanity, respect and a sense of the dignity of human life. This leads to generosity and good faith. In public life it leads to conscientiousness, and in private life it leads to politeness, considerateness and empathy.

Chun tzu

This is the mature person, the person who is fully grounded about herself and at home in the universe. As a result, she can be a good hostess: graceful, confident, authentic and gracious. This is the “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.”

Li

This has two meanings: propriety, or the right way of behaving; and ritual; or rites which systematize social life.

LI AS PROPRIETY

Kung Fu-tzu focused on five main arenas for right behaviour: The Rectification of Names, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Five Constant Relationships, Regard for the Family and Age.

The Rectification of Names refers to making sure that everyone has a shared, right understanding of what words mean. In this way, everyone can be of shared meanings.

The Doctrine of the Mean is the “way that is constantly in the middle” between unrealistic extremes. It refers to the Confucian value of moderation in all things.

The Five Constant Relationships are the relationships between:

  • Parent-child
  • Husband-wife
  • Elder sibling-junior sibling
  • Elder friend-junior friend
  • Ruler-subject

Kung Fu-tzu described how each role should be fulfilled.

“Parents should be loving, children reverential; elder siblings gentle, younger siblings respectful; husbands good, wives “listening”; elder friends considerate, younger friends deferential; rulers benevolent, subjects loyal.” (Smith, 1991).

Regard for Family and Age

Kung Fu-tzu was building on the Chinese belief that the family is the basic unit of society. Respect for parents could also be extrapolated to respect for elders generally.

LI AS RITES

Kung Fu-tzu also understood the importance of rites and rituals as means of routinizing and embedding the mores of a society at the individual, family and social level. Rites included public rites such as the way the Emperor would three times a year answer to Heaven, and private rites about how you serve tea to a visitor.

Te

This translates as “power,” but for Kung Fu-tzu it refers primarily to a ruler’s “power of moral example.” (Smith, 1991). If the ruler is a good, righteous person, then this will seep down to local leaders and the wider populous. If people can trust and admire their leader, this leads to the “morale without which nations cannot survive.” (Smith, 1991). Such rulers must not have personal ambitions or be led by their ego, but must want to rule because they have good values. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”

Wen

This refers to the “arts of peace” – music, poetry, art and culture, as opposed to the “arts of war.” Kung Fu-tzu valued the arts because of art’s power to easily inspire people to be good. He also believed that the nation with the greatest culture would ultimately win hearts and minds.

The Goal of a Confucian Life

For Kung Fu-tzu, the individual’s purpose in life was the become ever more fully human in the context of the social group. There is no “self,” just a centre of relationships constructed through interactions with others (Smith, 1991). “Confucius saw the human self as a node, not an entity; it is a meeting place where lives converge.” (Smith, 1991).

A person becomes a “chun tzu,” a mature or fully realised human being, by infinitely expanding her empathy/sympathy, or “heart-mind,” hsin. As this expands from oneself, to include the family, community, nation, and eventually all of humanity. This shift of one’s empathy from self to family,

“transcends selfishness. The move from family to community transcends nepotism. The move from community to nation overcomes parochialism, and the move to all humanity counters chauvinistic nationalism.” (Smith, 1991).

One could add that the move beyond humanity to encompass Heaven also transcends the finite with the infinite nature of being. At the same time, the self grows deeper and richer through reflection and self-examination in this ever-broadening idea of self-in-society.

The Religious Context of Confucianism

At the time of Kung Fu-tzu, Chinese generally believed that they lived in a continuum of Heaven and Earth. The people who made up Heaven were the ancestors (ti) and they were ruled over by a supreme ancestor (Shang Ti). Heaven was far more important. Earth spoke to Heaven through sacrifices, sharing their goods with the ancestors through sacrificial fires. The ruler of China was thought of as the Son of Heaven, and oversaw the nation’s sacrifices to the ancestors.

Heaven spoke to Earth through signs and omens such as the weather, the stars, animals or bodily expressions such as rashes, twitches, stumbling, buzzing in the ears. People could also use divination techniques to seek out the ancestors’ advice.

Kung Fu-tzu taught a largely pragmatic approach towards this cosmology. He did not engage in discussions about Heaven and Earth, but simply advised people to accept that they did not know many things that were beyond Earth’s understanding. He encouraged people to look after the living first and foremost whilst still respecting and revering the dead.

Sources

Confucius. (1995). The Analects: Dover Thrift Editions. Dover Publications: New York.

Bidwell, Duane. (2004). Short-Term Spiritual Guidance. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Out Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: Epub.

Yi-pao Mei. (1929). Motse, the Neglected Rival of Confucius. Reprint. Hyperion Press: Westport CT, 1973.

Tu Wei-ming. “Confucianism.” Our Religions. Ed. By Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: EPub.

Surrender Without Submission

200314Surrender Without Submission: Reflections on Chapter 1 of Leonard Felder’s The Ten Challenges

Anokhee Yud-Hei-Vov-Hei, Eloheykha, Asheyr hohtseitikha mei-eretz mitzrayim, me-beit avadeem.

I am the mysterious and unknowable name of God (the one who is and will always be your God), who [can] bring[s] you out of a narrow way of seeing things, out of your enslavement and worries.” (Felder, 1997: 17).

Reading the first chapter of Felder’s book, The Ten Challenges, I felt as if I were in a deep contemplative state brought about by Felder’s humble guidance. I realized that I still had a number of blocks to a spiritual life:

  • I still did not have a name for God, a name that I was comfortable with, and this lack was holding me back from being able to pray
  • I still had a somewhat skeptical response to the idea of the God who appeared to Moses in the desert in book 20 of Exodus, due to a childhood version of God I was still subconsciously protecting myself from

Felder asks the reader to imagine what response s/he would have had if s/he were in the desert when Moses went to the top of the mountain and s/he, along with a few others, also felt the voice of God in her heart. I realized that my response would have been “A. I don’t know who you are or what you want for me. Is this some kind of magic trick?” I would have been skeptical and scared of being caught out believing something that turned out to be a lie. I realized that I am still embarrassed of my spirituality, and my spiritual questing.

And I am scared. I am scared that I am going to be caught out as a fool, the gull who believed in a false hope, a silly little girl who believed in God and then found out that there was no such thing, only meaningless day after day after day, in a world where only the dog who eats all the other dogs gets ahead.

Part of me is still that little girl who believed in a God that would take care of me and my family, and then found out that I was on my own and there was no sense to my sister Allison’s suffering and eventual death.

I don’t want to be caught out like that again. Even though I have announced to the world that I am on this path and taking my interfaith studies, there is still a part of me that is holding back.

And as I write this, I feel the need to say this out loud: I honour this part of me and I appreciate what this part of me is trying to do. It is trying to protect me from being hurt in the deepest most sensitive part of myself: my heart. And I want to reassure that part of me, not in a patronizing way, but in an authentic way: I want to promise it, to promise myself, that I will not do anything to allow myself to be hurt like that again. I will be careful this time.

This does not mean I will hold myself back from God. Because there is another part of me that sees the green buds of hope. There is the chance of love, Divine Love. There is a possibility that, as the Taoists write, the Tao is ultimately benevolent. That life has meaning even if it is without goals or points. The meaning is in the living, being, doing. Not the arriving or the getting or achieving.

I make this promise to myself: I will surrender, without submission.

Divine Love. This phrase came to me as I was reading the Felder chapter and it filled me with a sense of warmth and love. Yes, that is my term for God. The words to do with singularity or “One” don’t sit right me with because it is important to me to express the multiplicity in the oneness, the constant change in the eternal. Divine Love fills me with spirit because it is true for me: it expresses the idea of benevolence, sacred plenitude, constant giving and refreshing of the well, an infinite supply of heart.

Reading Felder gave me a name for God. Now I can pray.

Felder includes the Amidah or Standing Prayer of Judaism:

“Blessed are you the Eternal One, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, Rod of Rachel, God of Leah.” (1997: 25).

I think I can adapt this to my own use:

“Blessed be the Divine Love, the Divine Lover and Beloved of our ancestors, Lover of Leo, Beloved of Mary, Lover of John, Beloved of Siew Eng, Lover of Shanghai, Beloved of Rose.” I have substituted my parents and grandparents names here, to personalize this prayer to me. It makes me feel connected across time, and to remind myself in a meditative sense that despite our differences, these ancestors of mine were all humans caught in the same spiral that I am turning blessed.

Felder quotes Christ in the Book of James (2:14): “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (Felder, 1997: 29). This is affirming to me as well, because I strongly believe that faith is both an attitude of hope towards life and acknowledgement of mystery, as well as an active state towards others. Love is a doing word, and so is faith.

My next steps arising from reading this chapter:

  1. I plan to construct a method of prayer which works for me on a regular basis. Something I feel comfortable with and which reaches out to Divine Love and calls myself to be present in this world and this life. Now that I have a name to pray with and to, I think I can do this. I feel uplifted and hopeful and invigorated and not to skeptical.
  2. Try more spiritual communities. The section on a spiritual community was a call to action for me. I have not found a community with which I feel comfortable to pray. But I need to keep looking. I am inspired by the book to next visit the Baha’is, and perhaps the Friends, to keep looking for a community for spirituality which I can be a part of locally and regularly.
  3. Be open to the universe connecting me with a spiritual guide, counselor or mentor if I need one. Reading this chapter and discovering the blocks I still have around trying to protect myself from a very old, deeply painful betrayal by my childhood version of God, I recognize that I may benefit from external support to connect with a more mature, adult version of God as Felder describes it.

Sources: Leonard Felder. (1997). The Ten Challenges. Three Rivers Press: New York.

My Crib Notes on Taoism

1200px-Yin_yang.svgThere is a being, wonderful, perfect;

It existed before heaven and earth.

How quiet it is!

How spiritual it is!

It stands alone and it does not change.

It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.

All life comes from it.

It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and

Yet it claims no honour, it does not demand to

Be Lord.

I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao,

The Way,

And I rejoice in its power. (Tao Te Ching)

What is Tao?

According to Huston Smith, author of the excellent book, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions,Tao has three meanings.

Tao is the way of ultimate reality. According to Huston Smith, ‘This Tao cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom.’ (Smith, 1998).

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” (Tao Te Ching). The author/s of the Tao Te Ching recur to this theme: the ineffable, the transcendent, the primary mystery, “the mystery of all mysteries (Smith, 1998).

Tao is also immanent: it is the way of the universe, the “norm, the rhythm, the driving owner in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it assumes flesh and informs all things.” (Smith, 1998). It is also benign; infinitely generous, open and flowing.

According to Huston Smith, “Charles Darwin’s colleague, George Romanes, could have been speaking of it [Tao] when he referred to the ‘integrating principle of the whole – the Spirit, as it were, of the universe – instinct without contrivance, which flows with purpose.’”

Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe…” (Smith, 1998).

Three Forms of Taoism

In China, three forms of Taoism have arisen:

  • Philosophical Taoism
  • Religious Taoism (Popular Taoism)
  • Active Taoism (Smith calls these the “Vitalising Taoisms”)

Philosophical Taoism is not organised as a religion, but essentially is “an attitude towards life” (Smith, 1998). The core principle is that humans should live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not wasting it through friction and conflict. The concept of wu wei, literally “inaction,” in Taoism means “pure effectiveness” or “creative quietude” (Smith, 1998). Friction is minimalised. The aim is that we align our daily lives with the Tao, “to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow.”

Creative quietude unites supreme activity with supreme relaxation. The ego yields to the Tao. According to Smith, this is the opposite of Confucianism. “Confucius turned every effort to building a pattern of ideal responses that might be consciously imitated. Taoism’s approach is the opposite – to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behaviour flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action will follow new being, wiser, stronger being.”

Taoists reject competition and self-assertiveness, instead promoting humility and disinterest in worldly ambitions. Taoists extend this to nature; humans should not be aggressive towards each other or nature, seeking attunement with nature rather than dominance.

Taoists also adopted the Chinese yin/yang symbol which describes relativity and balance, in which supposed opposites are just phases in an endless cycle in which each eternally turns into its opposite and vice versa. Life does not follow a linear vector, but “bends back upon itself to come full circle to the realisation that all is one and all is well.” (Smith, 1998). Taoists even see good and evil as relative: “He who feels punctured must once have been a bubble.” (Tao Te Ching).

Life and death as complementary cycles in the Tao.

There is the globe,

The foundation of my bodily existence.

It wears me out with work and duties,

It gives me rest in old age,

It gives me peace in death.

For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life

Will also give me what I need in death. (Tao Te Ching)

Active Taoists aim to increase the amount of Tao that they can access. They talk about ch’i, which literally means breath but refers to the power of the Tao that practitioners experience flowing through them or being blocked. Practitioners aim to further the flow of ch’i.

Active Taoists work with matter, movement and mind. Practices have arisen such as acupuncture, meditation, Chinese medicinal herbs, and t’ai chi chuan. This last united yin yang philosophy, martial art and meditation to draw ch’i from the cosmos and remove internal blocks to the flow of ch’i.

Taoists meditators attempt to empty the mind so that the Tao can enter the self. Physical postures and mental techniques are not dissimilar to those of the Hindu raja yoga. In China, Taoists wanted to focus the ch’i they gathered through meditation and yoga, and transmit it psychically to the community.Meditators aim to cleanse and purify their minds and bodies of emotional disturbances and desires in order to reach the mind’s original purity and stillness. They aim in this way to realise the Tao, the ultimate truth. This would be experienced as a sense of joy: everything falling into place.

Religious Taoists built on China’s folk religious practices and Buddhist influences. The Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist Teachings,” emerged in the second century AD, with Lao Tzu as one of the three originating deities from whom sprung sacred texts which outline rituals for channeling the life force in ways which could be called “magical.”

My Reflections on the Tao

The Tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal Name. (Tao Te Ching)

When I first read these words, they came home to me, they resonated with me.

‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.’ I really like how the Tao Te Ching, right up front, acknowledges the unnameability of spirit. The writer gets to the heart of what it means to be talking about something that is beyond and within, that escapes language because it came before language.

It reminds me of the Huston Smith chapter about the indigenous spiritualities of the First Peoples. Smith talks about how significant it is that in, for example, Aboriginal Australian culture, spirituality was experienced in a non-written way. This intrigued me – how would we see the world if we did not write the words down? Then I reflected upon how different this is to the Christian new testament: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and Christ is the Word made flesh.’

There was something formless and perfect

Before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao. (Tao Te Ching)

But back to the Tao Te Ching, which strips things right back to their inner nature. When you do this with the universe itself, what do you have left? Nothing. Literally, no thing. So how do you talk about it? ‘For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.’

I love this line. It is so direct, and I really like how it has been written in the first person voice, which is really different to say, the Christian bible or the Quran, which are written from a third person narrative voice which gives it an aura of authority, you know, the objective voice of history. In this passage from the Tao Te Ching, the use of first person really brings it home that this is just a regular human being writing these words, doing her best to communicate something which it is impossible to communicate. The basic humour of that is something which I think really colours Taoism, with its crazy riddles and joking monks. There is something earthy about it which really resonates with me, and also something which reminds me of my Chinese ancestry – there is a matter of fact-ness, a down to earthiness, a laughing pragmatism about the Taoist way of relating to the world which I just love.

I think I also see in this use of first person the importance of developing my own personal voice and narrative when it comes to interfaith ministry. It is a profoundly uncomfortable act for me as a female, and an Australian with our deeply culturally ingrained British reserve, to talk about myself. But I am coming around to seeing how useful it will be to find a way to speak in the first person, as the author of the Tao Te Ching did.

 

The Tao gives birth to all beings,

Nourishes them, maintains them,

Cares for them, comforts them, protects them,

Takes them back to itself,

Creating without possessing,

Acting without expecting,

Guiding without interfering.

That is why love of the Tao

Is in the very nature of things.

I love this passage because when I read it, to me it sounded like an excellent set of directions for how to parent – to be like the Tao – and quite possibly, I imagine, how to minister. ‘Create without possessing, act without expecting, guide without interfering.’ That is the best way to parent a child, and I can see myself coming back to this as a guide to how to be an interfaith minister.

References

Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. (1998).

My Crib Notes on Hinduism

270px-Aum_calligraphy_Red.svg-2For my Interfaith course, I have to do homework on the world’s major religions. I thought I might share my crib notes here in case anyone else is curious about these faiths. I can heartily recommend Huston Smith’s book if you want to see where I got all these excellent insights from.

The Hindu Approach to Finding God

The Hindu journey is to realise one’s total being; to tap into infinity deep inside the self.

There are four disciplines, or methods of training, called “yogas,” which can lead to the integration of the human spirit with the God deep inside it.

“How to come to Brahman and remain in touch with Brahmanl how to become identified with Brahman, living out of it; how to become divine while still on Earth…is the quest that has inspired and deified the human spirit in India throughout the ages.” (Zimmer, 1969: 80-81).

A person chooses their preferred yoga based on their personality traits as they relate to spirituality:

  • Primarily reflective: jnana yoga
  • Primarly emotional: bhakti yoga
  • Primarly active: karma yoga
  • Primarly experimental: raja yoga

The first steps of all four yogas are to do with morality: non-injury, honesty, non-steling, self-control, cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, and a desire to reach the goal. The law of karma refers to the moral law of cause and effect from one incarnation to the next, creating a sense of total personal responsibility.

Jnana yoga: The Way to “God” Through Thought

This is the yoga meant for me. It is the path of knowledge: an “intuitive disernment that transforms, turning the knower eventually into that which she knows.” (Smith, 1997). This yoga is for people given to the life of the mind.

The three key stages towards deeply understanding that you are more than your finite self are:

  1. Learning that your essential being is Being by reading and listening to teachers.
  2. Thinking and reflecting on everyday language and metaphors which point towards the infinite Self.
  3. Shifting your self-identification to the abiding Self.

In stage 3, instead of thinking, “I am walking down the street,” the jnani might think, “There goes Jackie walking down the street.”

During and outside of meditation periods, the jnani would constantly remind herself that she is Spirit, witnessing the activities of a finite self. The objective is to split the consciousness of ego and the infinite Self, Atman. This cultivates detachment and forces decreased identification with the “surface self” and increased identification with the deeper, infinite Being. This Being is transpersonal, infinite.

The jnani is satisfied with the idea of “God” as Nirguna Brahman, “God-without-attributes”: utter reality, infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss.

Bhakti yoga: The Way to “God” Through Love 

This is the most popular of the four yogas, designed for people who are best motivated by emotion. The bhakta will not conceive of “God” as one’s deepest Self, which is what the jnani does. The bhakta conceives of “God” as other. The bhakti’s goal is not to identify with God, but to love God.

In bhakti yoga, people utilise images of God, rituals and myths. Huston Smith quotes a common invocation used by Hindu priests:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:

Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;

Thou ar without form, but I worship you in these forms;

Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.

Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations. (Smith, 1998).

The bhakta will engage in a number of useful practices which cultivate this selfless love of God such as:

  • Japam: the practice of repeating God’s name all day long
  • Ringing the changes on love: utilising different relational images of God to cultivate the various modes of love e.g. parental, sibling, friend, lover
  • Chosen ideal: developing a lifelong devotion to an ishta, one of the manifestations of God

The bhakti utilises the Saguna Brahman, “God-with-attributes”: a personal conception of God.

Karma yoga: The Way to “God” Through Work

This yoga is suited to people with an active procilivity. God can be found by throwing yourself into work, which becomes a “vehicle for self-transcendence” (Smith, 1997).

The type of karma yoga you choose to practise will depend on temperament. For those who are reflectively motivated, karma yoga can be practised via jnana (knowledge). For those who are emotionally motivated, karma yoga can be practised by bhakti (devoted service).

For the jnani practising karma yoga, working without thought of the self helps to cut away her egotism until she is no longer separate from God. She works in detachment from her surface self, as the eternal Self observing the action. She does not work for gratification of the ego.

“The knower of Truth, being centres in the Self should think, ‘I do nothing at all.’ While seeing, breathing, speaking, letting go, holding, opening and closing the eyes, he observes only senses moving amongst other sense objects.” (Swami Swarupananda, 1933: 125).

For the bhakti practising karma yoga, work is done for God’s sake rather than for the self. “Each task becomes a sacred ritual.” (Smith, 1998).

Raja yoga: The Way to “God” Through Psychophysical Exercise

This yoga is for those with a scientific mind. The raji will experiment on her own mind by conducting prescribed mental exercises and then observing what happens. The meditator tests the hypothesis that the human self is made up of layers: the physical body, the mind, the sub-conscious, and Being.

The meditator will abstain from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality and greed in order to make it easier to engage in introverted investigation. She will also observe cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the divine.

She will then practise the asanas, which are physical postures of balance and ease somewhere between drowsiness and discomfort, creating a physical state of relaxed attentiveness. The lotus position is the most well-known of these meditative postures.

The meditator will train her breathing to prevent disruptions of concentration. She will also train her single-pointed concentration so that she is not disrupted by external stimuli such as noises, or internal thoughts.

Concentration then deepens into meditation, and the object which she concentrates on becomes merged with her self, making self-concsciousness disappear.

The final state which the meditator may gain is samadhi, which means “together with God,” or “comepltely absorbed in God.” In this state, form itself falls away. The mind continues to “think,” but of no thing. It is “filled with that which is separated from all qualities, neither this nor that, without form, without a name.” (Smith, 1998).

Stages of Life

In Hindu thinking, people’s lives follow four approximate stages:

  1. Student: a period focused on cultivating habits and practices
  2. Householder: In this stage, a person focuses on satisfying human wants: pleasure (through marriage and family), success (through vocation), and duty )through participation in the community)
  3. Retirement: Withdrawal from social obligations to engage in spiritual exploration
  4. Sannyasin: Return to the world as a person who has discovered the difference between the finite and infinite self, often as a mendicant or economically independent person who has no more interest in the body

My Reflections

“God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.” (Sri Ramakrishna, 1903).

I really like the inclusive spirit of Hinduism, which seems to embrace Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, even Christianity as different paths to God. Naturally in a social and cultural context this does not always play out as religious tolerance – witness Gandhi’s assassination, or anti-Moslem riots. But the philosophy itself (as with most world religions, when you get under their cultural surface) is incredibly open-hearted and open-minded.

The ideas of the different yogas for different personality types in Hinduism really makes sense to me. I have always tried to shoehorn myself into a devotional model, as that was all that was ever offered in my Catholic upbringing (I didn’t have any exposure to Christian mystics in suburban Australia!).

Reading about the jnana yoga approach, I felt like I was seeing a place for myself in a religious framework for the first time. As Hindus acknowledge, we all utilise various aspects of all the paths, and I also get a lot from meditation and work (the raja yoga and karma yoga). But I have never felt comfortable “naming” God or praying to a He, or She for that matter.

The chapters in the Bhagavad-Gita which seems to outline the jnana yoga approach for me best are “Religion by the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery” and “The Manifesting of the One and Manifold” (Trans. Arnold, 1993).

“Receive and strive to embrace

The mystery majestical! My Being –

Creating all, sustaining all – still dwells

Outside of all!

 

“See! As the shoreless airs

Move in the measureless space, but are not space,

(And space were space without the moving airs);

So all things are in Me, but not I.”

 

I also like the following passage, because of Arjuna’s reaction, which is a beautiful way of describing how humans cannot stand to behold the Unnameable for long.

“So did Pandu’s Son behold

All this universe enfold

All its huge diversity

Into one vast shape, and be

Visible, and viewed, and blended

In one Body – subtle, splendid,

Nameless – th’ All-comprehending

God Of Gods, the Never-Ending

Deity!

 

But, sore amazed,

Thrilled, o’erfilled, dazzled, and dazed,

Arjuna knelt; and bowed his head,

And clasped his palms; and cried…”

Key Texts

There are a LOT of Hindu texts. The “Vedas” are “revealed texts” which include four main parts:

  • Samhita or Mantra (prayers and devotional hymns)
  • Brahmanas (commentaries and priestly texts)
  • Aranyakas (rituals)
  • Upanishads (esoteric philosophical texts)

The Upanishads are the most influential amongst these, and in modern Hinduism the Bhagavad-Gita is the primary scripture. For a more detailed account of these texts, take a look at Arvind Sharma’s book.

References

Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Edwin Arnold (trans.) The Bhagavad-Gita. (Toronto: Dover Publications, 1993).

Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, 1951. Reprint. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1969).

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Swami Swarupananda, trans., Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita (Mayavati, Himalayas: Adavita Ashrama, 1933).

Swami Abhedananda, The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: The Vedanta Society, 1903).

Interfaith ministry

I have just been accepted by The New Seminary into the ministerial program. I’ll tell you about it.

I have been looking for a way to pray in community for years. I guess you can take a girl out of Catholicism, but you can’t take the Catholicism out of the girl. A long time ago I started questioning the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and Karen Armstrong’s books helped me immensely to understand Catholicism and other religions as ways of translating the unknowable into terms humans can deal in.

Unfortunately religion gets caught up in culture and power, and you end up with institutional disagreements and simplified, mass messages about ‘truth’ which have nothing to do with genuine spiritual exploration.

I started reading more theologists and philosophers and began to understand the World in terms similar to philosopher and writer Marilynne Robinson:

  • Faith is an attitude towards life, rather than belief in a specific set of facts
  • I embrace the presence of mystery
  • Faith is a process, an attitude of wonder, an openness to joy as well as the experience of deep suffering

Recently I finished the second draft of my novel, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (working title – yes, it’s a Psalm). The day I returned home from writers retreat I felt this weird sensation which I soon identified as happiness. I was free of the book which had been my companion for the last five years. Suddenly I found myself following my nose, so to speak, and this meant researching how to become a celebrant for funerals. In this process I stumbled across the interfaith ministry course which Stephanie Dowrick had done in 2005. After researching some more and attending the interfaith service at Sydney’s Uniting Church, I decided it was the course of action.

Today I was accepted into the interfaith ministry program of the New Seminary. I had a chat with Dr Jay Speights, who is the convenor of the course and sounds like a really genuine friendly fellow who during our conversation kept discounting my tuition fees unprompted. I will do the course largely online, with two group sessions per month in real time on a Monday morning here, Sunday evening in the USA.  I also participate remotely in a number of intensives. Next June I am required to attend a group retreat in New York (such an imposition 😉 and then upon completion, I will be ordained as an interfaith minister.

The course focuses on world religions, pastoral care and interfaith service. Every month I am required to make site visits to various religious sites of worship, and the course is run by ministers of various faiths. For pastoral care I study and do practical exercises, and am required to find a local practice which can supervise my activities.

I have also enrolled in a celebrancy course in Australia so I can learn about and be qualified to conduct life ceremonies – deaths, births and marriages, so to speak. I am most passionate about funerals, forgiveness and naming ceremonies – I REALLY, REALLY think that everyone should have access to meaningful ceremonies which mark life’s key moments. I think these ceremonies make a difference to us.

I don’t really know where this will all take me. I don’t really care. It just feels 100% like the appropriate thing for me to be doing.

I look forward with excitement and trepidation to sharing what the courses offer with anyone who might be interested.

 

 

Second draft

Well, Varuna The Writers House delivered. I have a second draft of my novel! I even have a working title: Fearlessly and Wonderfully Made.

At first I panicked at the idea of producing something in a week. Then I called my husband who gave me permission to sleep in, shop and get massages and do no writing at all, if that is what I needed. So I did that for a day, and then I found myself writing until the not-so-bitter end.

Hurray for Varuna! Thank goodness Mick Dark made this incredible gift to writers: space and time and quiet.

 

 

In memory of Ally

Today is the anniversary of my sister Allison’s birthday.

In honour of Ally I would like to share the children’s story which my talented niece and I are working on. We want to help kids understand that disabled kids are just like them: heroes in their own minds.

IN MY WORLD

(by Jackie Bailey with illustrations forthcoming by Sophie Cooke)

Hello! I am Ally.

In your world:

I use a wheelchair to move around
A tube helps me eat food (mostly brown :-( )
My mouth doesn’t always make the right sound

But people don’t know what adventures abound

In my world:

‘Take that!’ I shout at the Sea Monster Snail
Who is trying to eat Queen Ellie’s tail
I catch him in netting of strongest seaweed

The Queen gives me treasure for my great deed!

Then to the sky to Sophie, Queen Fairy,
Prince Andy and Cam, who are fighting Witch Scary
‘No you don’t!’ I shout and lasso her wand

They present me with a chocolate pond!

I fly to help King Elliot the Brave
Trapped by Dragon McDread in a cold and dark cave
I sneak in and tickle the Dragon’s round belly

The King thanks me with rivers and rainbows of jelly!

Now to Lord Kyle and Lady Jacinta
Who are being attacked by Shriek Owls of Winter
I brandish my sword and away the birds hoot

The gracious pair thank me with a train that goes, ‘Toot!’

I race to find Princess Bec and her brothers
Hiding from Ghosts of Shivers and Shudders
‘Whoo-whoo!’ I cry – the ghosts runs away

We celebrate with cake and we run, dance and play.

To Elves Maddi and Isaac’s assistance I swoop
They’ve been locked in a cage by a Very Mean Brute
I flick them the key and wrestle him down

They place on my head a golden crown!

But now…..

In your world and mine it is time for bed;

Mummy sings me a song and kisses my head;

Daddy tells me a story of queens and foul foes,

And brave girls like me, who are always heroes.

You and I look and sound different, it’s true
But we’re really the same;
We’re kids, through and through
If we ever meet, just look in my eyes
You’ll see a

fairy
knight
princess

up, up, up
I fly!

The power politics of (under-) funding the arts

Image appears on Www.education.nswtf.org.au

Image appears on Www.education.nswtf.org.au

I have had this question bubbling around in my head for weeks (months, years). Why do Australian governments fund the arts so poorly?

It’s not an economically rational decision. There is ample evidence of the value of the arts to the economy. Politicians are intelligent and educated people, and can understand the concept of investment in an industry at certain nodes of influence having a catalytic effect, leading to much greater returns.

Cuts to the arts are often post-rationalised as an economic decision. In much the same way as I can rationalise buying yet another black cardigan (I’ll always use it, it goes with everything), the government uses economic reasons to rationalise selling pretty much anything. 20% cuts to higher education – ‘hard economic decisions’; freezing the Medicare payment schedule – ‘hard economic decisions; cuts to CSIRO, the ABC, and pretty much every other public institution which Australian people still actually have some faith in and respect for – ditto, ditto, ditto.

‘Hard economic decisions’ sounds paternal, responsible, vaguely Calvinistic, appealing to our epigenetic belief that pain is noble and necessary for the greater good. In reality of course, economic rationalism is just a marketing strategy for conservative government agendas. There is literally no economic sense in cutting the arts. There is even less economic sense in cutting something as essential as higher education or under-funding schools (the latter is increasing in the 2016 budget, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of quality education that was derived from actual research and evidence).

How do you argue with irrational people?

There are a few, barely visible factors which I think it might be useful to observe and unpack, which might help us to come to some sort of answer to this question.

  1. The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda.
  2. Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens.
  3. The end of democracy is nigh.

The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda

This is not exactly a state secret I am revealing here. But it is worth bearing this in mind. A free market, to some, means total laissez faire capitalism (think pre-GFC America) and to others (think Keynes, the economist darling of the arts) a market regulated to protect competition for the benefit of ‘consumers.’

At the moment in Australia we are finding out just what a free market means to our newest Prime Minister. So far, it seems to mean, ‘This government is not paying for anything that someone else will eventually cough up for.’

It seems sensible until you realise what it means in practice. For example, you can count on parents to work their fingers to the bone to send their children to university, even if the fees become astronomically high. When you love someone, that’s what you do. In the process, the parents may sacrifice their health and housing security to do so; and ultimately there will probably end up being far fewer Australian students at university from less affluent backgrounds.

The government can also count on artists practising their art despite not being funded to do so. When you love something, that’s what you do. Of course, there will be far fewer artists making art, and far fewer artists from less affluent backgrounds. But so what? It’s still taking place, right?

And then there is the argument – why don’t philanthropists pay for the art?

The problem with philanthropy is that it is not a meritocracy, as public funding is (meant to be). Philanthropists can donate to whatever they like, and so they should – but greater reliance on this purse means a greater concentration of funding in the hands of artists who can access power. It is the same problem as raising fees in higher education – a meritocratic system which enabled people like me and my siblings to escape poverty and ‘economically participate’ is less and less accessible to the scrappers, the underdogs, the people on the outside looking in.

wish things worked the way that the free market philosophers believe they do. I wish they did.

But they don’t. Free market politicians in this day and age are as dangerously innocent of reality and as frighteningly fanatic as communists in agrarian Russia, 1917. Just look at America to see how well free market economics works out for the little guy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Foucault was on to something. Politicians use their power to entrench the status quo for themselves and the class they identify with. Cuts to education, freezes to Medicare, and cuts to the small-to-medium arts sector are all manifestations of this primitive act. They might even believe in it as they do it. Missionary zeal is never not zealous.

That’s why you have to elect a government which identifies with the class of the majority of people. With the working and middle-class, who like choice and enterprise but also like education and health care. Who like sport but also want their kids to be able to go to the library or the gallery or learn an instrument at school, public school.

I don’t think there is a political party in Australia which currently identifies with the class of the majority of people. I think the current government markets itself well in an aspirational sense – you know, the classic ‘if you buy this car you’ll get the beautiful girl’ – ‘if you vote for me you’ll be well off and have good-looking white friends who accept you.’ It has convinced people it represents who they want to become, as opposed to who they are. By comparison, I have no idea who the ALP represents. The ALP seems to have been experiencing the kind of identity crisis reminiscent of my teenage years (patched overalls, bandannas and brand name sunglasses. I was young. The ALP has no such excuse).

Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens

The other point I want to make is that the arts are viewed through a gendered lens, and whenever your industry or sector is viewed through the G-lens, you are under-valued. Social service sectors associated with the feminine virtues – childcare, social work, nursing, teaching – are amongst our poorest paid professions. Within sectors there are gendered hierarchies – criminal law or corporate law vs community law centres; brain surgeons vs paediatric surgeons; the big arts companies, associated with power and old money and status, vs the rest of the arts. Then of course there are gendered hierarchies within hierarchies – school principals and CEOs of social service companies – still mostly blokes, despite the majority of their workforce being women; heads of major arts companies still mostly men.

My husband gives me hope, noting that sectors like banking and finance will be disrupted via technology over the next decade or so, but it will be much harder to disrupt the social services sectors, in which humans will be ‘much harder to disrupt.’

I think arts are seen through the G-lens. This is because it is not seen as a ‘productive’ sector (even though we know it actually is – but like much of feminine-gendered work, the outcomes seem indirect or invisible to the gendered eye).

Because of the G-lens, arts work is not viewed as ‘real’ (i.e. men’s) work by people outside the arts. Consequently arts is stuck with a bad image as the ‘pretend’ work of ‘people who’ve never known a day’s real work.’ As soon as you say ‘I work in the arts,’ people roll their eyes. It’s like you just said, ‘my biweekly mani-pedi in Toorak.’ Because the ‘arts’ are seen as a nice to have, as something fun, as something you might do because you love it but not for the money, then you are immediately identified as someone who is either a ‘bludger’ on the tax payer (i.e their) coin, or a member of the moneyed class. In reality, most of the arts sector is impoverished and many are attempting to speak truth to power and other culturally necessary acts of resistance.

The other thing about gendered sectors is that the work they do and the value they create makes positivists like free market believers uncomfortable. The exchange involved in arts is about people, relationships, connection and spark. It is an energy transfer and by nature its impact is largely unseen. Arts experiences are gifts and cannot be made more efficient or productive. The value of an arts experience is like the value you derive from a teacher who actually cares about you, or a counsellor who genuinely responds to where you are at right now. It saves you. It changes your life. Authentic connection is so hard to come by in this free market age, where everything has a price and everything can be made more cost-effective (I was just reading that funding cuts will see callers to mental health helplines asked automated questions so they can be directed to the appropriate mental health area. This is an attempt to streamline helplines rather than fund specialist helplines. Imagine calling a helpline and getting asked to dial 1 for suicidal ideation, 2 for loneliness, 3 for eating disorders…? You don’t have to be that imaginative to see that helpline might not be very helpful). But in this era, the ineffable is dubious.

The end of democracy is nigh (well not entirely, but come on, got your attention)

Since the late 1990s, we have seen a contempt for the ethics and norms of public service arise in the corridors of power. I don’t mean everyone in parliament – there are lots of good people working for their electorates. But I think that there is a clique of political types who learned under Howard’s tutelage (SievX, children overboard, ‘I was not informed’) just how much room there really was to manoeuvre before you actually broke the law.

In the arts, this was brought home in 2015 when the Australia Council unceremoniously lost a huge chunk of its funding. I and others were speechless at the sheer audacity of such an act, flouting long-valued conventions of arms-length funding and the norms of policy-making in consultation with the sector and based on evidence.

It’s not so much the end of democracy I am talking about here, as the end of the concept of public service. 2015 highlighted for me that there is, amongst some decision-makers, a lack of respect for the norms of public service – evidence-based policy making, careful consideration of the public interest, transparency and accountability of ministerial funding decisions….It’s seems as though there are some decision-makers who hold us, the people they are supposed to serve, in contempt. These decision-makers behave like a passive aggressive friend who calls you at 6.00 am on a long weekend to allegedly wish you a happy birthday (you know who you are). How do you call them on it? It’s not illegal. But it’s clearly not right.

 

Top ten tips for responding to a mourner

Today I bundle under my new doonah cover, bought for its primary colours in a nod to the need for cheering up. My husband has taken our daughter to the playground, which she was unimpressed about, sensing perhaps that mummy’s retreat to bed reflected more than a sore throat (although there is that of course, too – the low immune response of grief taking its daily toll). Or perhaps she was just hungry. Who knows. She left the house swathed in a red and white check sheet which her father also used to wear as a boy, both generations emulating superheroes ready to fight off the baddies. She is my little hero, but sometimes I need a break. I feel the need to apologise for this to the gods that be, in case they think I no longer deserve her.

It has been what, three weeks? I can’t tell – since my sister died. I have started to feel guilty for still feeling bad. Shouldn’t I have moved on by now? Shouldn’t I be getting on with things? I read about one woman’s explanation, several years after losing a child – she still misses her everyday, but sometimes she is happy. I know losing my sister cannot be compared to losing a child, but I felt like I knew the sentiment.

I have begun to dig in a little, not wanting to forget my sister, not wanting to be happy just yet, as it would somehow dishonour her, mock my own grief, belittle her importance to me. I get angry at people who want to cheer me up, as if they are saying, it doesn’t matter that much. Of course that is not what people are saying – I know that. But that’s how it feels. The best responses are when friends don’t ask, how are you, but ask, how was this week – acknowledging the context, the different set of benchmarks you are operating within. But we in the West encounter death so rarely nowadays, that we don’t know how to sit with it; we don’t have the experience to know what a mourning person might need.

I don’t want this to sound like a complaint – I have received love and kindness from numerous sources, and I am lucky for this. Perhaps it is just the nature of grief, that you cast about, looking for something to fill the gap of the love you have lost. I do think it is also the lack of some kind of acknowledging ritual, or a period of mourning, something to dignify this loss, something to socially ‘see’ it.

The other thing that happens is, some people seem to think you should be less sad if the person who died had been ill or are elderly. Like it should be easier to lose someone who clearly was on the way towards death anyway. And maybe there is truth in this – the grief for Ally is for me somehow cleaner than it was for dad, whose death was a shock. But I want to scream to the world (and I think I and my siblings did this at her funeral): just because Ally was disabled does not mean I miss her less now. She was a whole person to me, right to the end.

When someone dies, you lose everything of them and you together. You lose the person  who you knew as a child, as an adult; you lose your history with them even if you still have your memories. You lose their complex presence inside your life, your skin, your flesh and mind. You don’t even know exactly what warmth they provided until it is gone. I suppose this is why I am drawn to quantum physical explanations of the soul. Because the loss feels so very very physical.

I have wonderful friends and loved ones taking care of me right now viagra india. Drawing on their sweet actions, I offer the following advice to people wondering how best to relate to a mourner in their lives.

Even if you have little experience with grief yourself, I hope the following will give you a few simple ‘ins’ so that seeing a mourner does not make you feel helpless.

Tips for responding to a mourner

1. When you hear of the loss, even if belated, I recommend that you send a card, call and/or better yet, send a small caring gift or token. Don’t SMS – or if you do, follow it up with something more tangible – eg even just an email, if it is a loving one, preferably more than one line.

2.  If the mourner does not return your calls, you can send an email or a card or persist in trying to call go on. Keep trying. It’s just that they don’t have any energy, but your thoughtfulness in persisting will make them feel loved.

3. A physical gift or token as I mentioned above, can be really appreciated. It could be chocolate, your favourite relaxing tea blend, or perhaps a massage oil. Whatever it is, as long as it is something you have thought about and want to share with the mourner – as long as it represents that you care – it doesn’t matter what it is or how small.

4. The mourner might not want to talk about it. That’s not about you, it’s about their process. I recommend occasionally offering subtle openings to talk about it if they want to – even if they said they don’t – they might change their mind half way through your conversation, once they have dealt with the initial discomfort of being re-submerged in their loss.

5. If you can, attend the funeral. Even if you think, I didn’t know the person who died all that well, it is a much, much appreciated show of support at a time when the mourner is feeling a great rent in their usual fabric of love.

6. Your mourner might still be feeling up and down, occasionally sad, depressed or angry, for many months and years. Give them a bit of rope, but you should not have to be on eggshells around the mourner, and if they take their anger out on you, it’s best if you tell them that is what they  are doing – they should not do that and if they feel angry, they need to find ways to let that out. It is never OK to let a mourner make you their doormat.

7. Be aware that some of the mourner’s moods are not about you; you don’t need to (nor can you) fix them; all you need to do is be present and acknowledge the pain. Often your mourner is just looking for permission to feel whatever they are feeling, even after time has passed, because our society denies the mourner that permission. But you can support the mourner with the permission to grieve, and you may find the mourner starts feeling better sooner as a result.

8. I think I want to reiterate that point: it is not your job to make the mourner feel better. Don’t take that on. We tend to try to fix things in our society, but grief cannot be fixed. It has to be lived through and loss has to be integrated into who we are after someone has died. It is up to the mourner to tell you what they need, and it is up to you to make sure they are not milking you dry emotionally.

9. If a mourner doesn’t know what they need, you might be able to suggest things (like time off – the main things we need are time and permission). If you think the mourner is becoming maudlin (ie re-traumatising themselves for no benefit), try distraction, fresh air, sun and light exercise. Bringing up politics and things happening in the wider world can also provide perspective, and anything which gets the mourner laughing is good for them. But don’t force these things – just bring them up gently, into conversation or activities. Let them take effect rather than didactically (or self-importantly) telling someone to get out of their rut.

10. Hugs, physical touch, and checking in as time passes – these should all be top of the list really. I think this is why I talk about gifts – most of my close friends live a long distance away, so gifts are a substitute for visit and touch.  If you live near a mourner, try to squeeze in a few drop-ins more than usual, and check in as time goes on too, even just a phone call here and there. Hugs generate oxytocin and connection, which the mourner desperately needs. And checking in is a great way of letting the mourner know you care, and that they are still allowed to be sad if they need to be – you acknowledge this each time you offer your open arms or ears.

Thank you to all the excellent souls who have done all of the above for me. You know who you are. xxxx

 

Grief and pain

The pain has hit.

Today was the first day I did not think to myself, ‘I can’t believe she is gone.’ Now that the buffer of shock has dissipated, the pain can be felt, as if the body was waiting for the mind to be ready to handle it. Just.

Grief feels like a weight on my chest, a nauseating swill in my gut. Today it hit me in the car driving to the shops with my darling husband and daughter. I felt like I could not move my head, or get up from the chair until it let me. It hit again later, when we got home – luckily it was nap time for my little person, so I went to bed and slept for two hours, then got up and waited for the lead to leave my system whilst I watched my husband do all the chores and play with our daughter.

I wanted to know why this happens. When Dad died, the Internet was still in its unreliable infancy. This time, I could ask Dr Google.

Scientists have documented the following physiological impacts of bereavement:

  • neuroendocrine activation (cortisol response)
  • altered sleep (electroencephhalography changes)
  • immune imbalance (reduced T-lymphocyte proliferation)
  • inflammatory cell mobilisation (platelet activation and increased vWF-ag)
  • hemodynamic changes (heart rate and blood pressure)

This explains why I feel exhausted but can’t sleep when I would normally like to. Why my fuse is short and my heart shakes. Why I have been fighting various lurgies and allergies this week. Why my stomach clenches as if something terrible or wonderful is about to happen – or I am about to throw up. The heart genuinely aches; the body is truly labouring with less air and under more strain. Doing the daily chores feels like acclimatising to high altitude mountain climbing, because you essentially are doing exactly that.

According to the research, these physiological responses are greatest in the early months after bereavement. In spousal bereavement or the loss of a child, the survivors experience increased mortality (particularly if they are elderly and so have less immune response in the first place): dying of a broken heart is real.

I wonder why the sorrow waited until now, when I am preparing to get back to work on Monday. Unfortunately, you can’t dictate to your body or your spirit a clear schedule; a project management approach to grief.

There are websites which provide advice about living with and through the physical pain of grief (I won’t list them here, but just google grief and you will see loads of heartfelt advice and suggestions). Practcal advice includes having massages, eating well, snuggling, and listening to sympathetic music. The advice I will try to take regarding working – instead of making to-do lists, make a list of everything you got done at the end of each day; say no to things you don’t have the capacity for; get more sleep if you can, and exercise.

When my dad died 15 years ago, I was very hard on friends whom I didn’t feel responded the way they should have. I was young, and they were young, and I was sensitive and in shock. Everyone responds differently – as one website suggested, one should not expect to get the reactions one wants, but be open to forgiving and accepting this. I was not, last time around. I want to be this time, because I know my own pain last time made me lose more than I needed to when my dad passed away.

I have received some beautiful and really interesting replies about my soul searching posts. People have given me their own insights and I am hugely grateful. Does anyone else have any ideas, or experiences to share? I am so intensely curious – what do you think happens after death, based on your experience? And if you don’t think there is a ‘soul’ or ‘energy blueprint’ after death, how do you find meaning for your life?

I may have seized on quantum physics and the soul as a way to avoid feeling the full terror of there being no point at all to each individual life. If you have a different solution to this, please share it.