14 December 2012

Recently I have been having an enjoyable time flower arranging a conference. No, I am not referring to the floral bouquets that you may find on the stage or in reception areas. I am talking about arranging the timetable and the speakers.

I first heard this phrase from a close friend who worked for the United Nations when we were organising the schedule for a conference at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. I was trying to decide which speaker should go first and who should go next, and what would be the best flow for the participants.

‘Flower arranging,’ my friend said. It was a perfect way to describe the process. Get the timetable and the sequence right and the whole conference becomes an enjoyable bouquet.

Behind the scenes, this flower arranging can go on almost until the last moment depending on the personal schedules of the speakers. All may look very calm at the front, but backstage organisers can be desperately juggling times and sequence.

But as well as flowing well and looking good, a conference bouquet must have a fragrant aroma too. It has to have a good atmosphere. And that is why I am really enjoying scheduling this conference on Spiritual Care in Glastonbury next May, because all the speakers are both knowledgeable in their own field and also have a loving vibration.

If I mention the names of just two of the speakers you will understand what I mean. One is David Hamilton, author of ‘Why Kindness Is Good For You’ and ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’. Another is Sister Jayanti, the inspiring United Nations wisdom keeper and European leader of the Brahma Kamaris.

Yes, the conference has a good aroma! (All right, I know that some of my readers are now saying that they have had enough of the floral metaphor. But let me have just one more. How about Sweet William Blooming? Sorry.)

Our conference is all about how spiritual care can best be integrated into education and healthcare and has been inspired by all the emerging initiatives to bring spirituality into the mainstream. One of these, for example, is the recent initiative promoted by Jane Cummings, the Chief Nursing Officer for England, and Viv Bennett, Nursing Director of the Department of Health, to in their words, ‘develop a culture of compassionate care.’

In fact, all across the British Isles in healthcare, in social services and in education, there is a clear understanding that good practice must always include spirituality. Some of you may be surprised to learn that the biggest interest group in the Royal College of Psychiatrists is the spirituality group.

Most of you though will, I am sure, be aware of the recent moves to integrate mindfulness meditation into healthcare and psychotherapy, because of the valuable benefits of being able to pause, step back and witness our thoughts and feelings.

To be truthful though I have always been a bit suspicious of the word ‘mindfulness’ and would much rather that we used a new word like the one I have just made up: ‘kindfulness’.

I’m suspicious of mindfulness because I associate it with some harsh attitudes that I met in my early years of spiritual enquiry. When I first started exploring meditation I once sat in a group for example where the teacher hit my back with a stick in order to sting me into the right posture. I also experienced meditation teachers who harshly barked at students that their minds must be completely empty and silent, not realising the spiritual benevolence and acceptance that permeates true silence and emptiness.

I have often wondered about this harshness and think perhaps that it may be because over the centuries men — not women — have mainly taught meditation; and that many of these men were associated with martial arts traditions, so approached meditation as if it were a fighting skill, requiring discipline, determination and internal ruthlessness.

Also in this particular approach to meditation I have often encountered a rudeness and elitism. For a while in my twenties I too carried this unpleasant attitude, believing that my ability to be a detached witness of all my thoughts and emotions, and a detached witness too of other people, made me superior. Yes of course, the ability to step back and witness is a fundamental tool of meditation, mindfulness and consciousness expansion, but obviously it needs to be done with compassion, wisdom and a warm heart.

From a purely selfish perspective, cold detachment is a damaging trait, sending messages of punishment and anxiety through our neuro-endocrinal system, causing tissue tension and depleting our immune system. And when directed towards others, it can frighten and intimidate.

Hence I prefer my made-up word kindfulness. As a young man, having learned the discipline of mindfulness, I now had to learn to surrender to love and so then gravitated to the many teachings of compassionate meditation.

During this long process I also learnt something hugely important and which will I hope bring a great sigh of relief to many readers. To achieve a state of benevolent and compassionate detachment does not require the discipline of a formal daily meditation practice. A kind and wise heart will also take you to the same place.  I have met many lovely people who through having a good heart and a kind attitude have slipped instinctively into being able to step back and observe what is going on with a loving and wise temperament.

So I suggest here that there are two parallel paths that entwine, balance and plait.

The first path is that of meditation and mindfulness, which then has to learn to develop and surrender to compassion and love.

The second path is that of the compassion and love, which then has to learn to be wise and mindful.

Of course they may happen simultaneously and they both take us to the same beautiful and enlightened place of spiritual development: awake, connected and loving.