One of my problems, like everyone, is that I get stuck in habits and opinions.
And these habits slow down, even sabotage, my development as I seek to become more connected, more conscious and more loving.
My opinions and my sense of self are the worst ruffians.
Just because I have a particular opinion I am attached to it. These opinions are both very shallow and very deep.
At the shallow end I have a sense of aesthetics and culture. So for example I think people should enjoy certain television series and not others, wear colours that suit their skin tone and not own motorcycles of a certain brand.
Less shallow, I am opinionated around politics, social and cultural affairs. It does not take long to identify me as an anarchic green socialist with strong tendencies to intellectual snobbery.
I also have distinct opinions about metaphysics, esoterics and spirituality. These inform much of my daily life and practice.
And then so much deeper is this sense of self, this particular William.
Being glued into any of these opinions — I use the word ‘opinion’ lightly and deeply — blocks the flow and expansion of my growth.
So a while ago I wrote a prayer-poem to help me.
I share it with you now:
EACH BREATH, NEW PATTERNS
Life within me
Unfold within me now the
Power of growth
Wisdom of love
Intelligence of being
Let me find integrity in the
Service of liberation
Let my inner life be proved in the strength of silent action
Isolation can be a recipe for anxiety and depression. Left alone people may wither.
But what about hermits and mystic loners who enjoy solitude? What is their secret?
Mystics have always had a simple answer. They experience companionship in nature. From a grain of sand, the touch of air on their skin, out to the infinity of the cosmos, mystics sense a connectedness with all that is. They also sense an invisible and benevolent presence.
Mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. (Oxford Dictionary)
Yet mystics are not cut off from cruelty and suffering. In fact, because of their deep connection with the wonder and energy of life, they can meet pain with courage, compassion and dignity.
This is one of the assets of great spiritual leaders: they model a deep connection with the wonder and energy of life yet are simultaneously fully present to suffering.
Mystics also do not need the companionship of other people. They may enjoy the company of others, but they do not need it.
But infants and children absolutely need people around them. Without other people the infant brain simply does not grow. (See Sue Gerhardt: Why Love Matters – How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain.)
Children then mature. As part of their development they gradually detach from their families and carers. They need to explore, expand and become independent.
Adults, even though independent, still experience instinctive biological needs, including those for company and touch. At its most physical there is a DNA programmed biological response. Being in a crowd can feel great. Like most animals we like being stroked. Massage and lovemaking can even be blissful.
Unhappily natural instincts can become habitual, addictive and self-harming.
We see this in cravings, from food to sex. We see it too when the instinct for human company and touch becomes needy.
So here is a stark question. In this context of the pandemic and lockdowns, how much of the current concern about solitude and restriction is based in neediness rather than necessity?
We know that children absolutely require human company and affection. But do we adults really need it too or is it just the desire to satisfy a habitual craving and not a necessity?
That may seem an unnecessarily harsh enquiry. Certainly our first awareness should always be compassion and the relief of suffering. But when the suffering is based in addiction, we may need tough love.
Desire is the memory of things that have given us pleasure in the past — Patanjali 200 BC
This is where mystics have useful strategies.
They are content in solitude and isolation because they are nurtured by a felt, benevolent presence. But to achieve that state they conduct regular spiritual practice.
Their ongoing experience of the wonder and energy of life is not serendipitous. It does not just happen. Its foundation is in commitment, perseverance when times are tough and self-discipline. Mystics have robust rhythms of taking long periods of time to give full awareness to their spiritual connection.
Self-discipline however is a sensitive subject.
When someone is vulnerable and in pain, stoic willpower can be irrelevant, insulting and harmful.
On the other hand the stoic willpower of daily spiritual practice can be beautiful, nurturing and liberating. What is better for us than a deepening experience of the wonder and energy of life?
Although entangled in the web and habits of biology, instinct and human relationships, we are still independent beings.
Solitude, even restriction, can be enjoyed. Even the poignancy of feeling alone whilst also being spiritually connected can be appreciated. The choice is ours.
Recently a research project asked me for my definition of consciousness.
Answering this enquiry philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists usually disappear down a rabbit hole of complexity. But I like a simple answer. I encountered it first in Vedic philosophy and the books of Alice Bailey.
I summarise it:
Consciousness is the innate capacity to respond to stimulation.
It is the capacity in everything to respond to stimulation.
Every time we see something responding to stimulation we are witnessing consciousness in action.
This applies to everything. I really mean everything — electron, atom, rock, plant, animal, human, planet, solar system, galaxy, cosmos, space . . .
Here are examples:
A rock responds to pressure and temperature. That response is an indication of the rock’s consciousness.
A plant may respond to temperature, gravity, sunlight, moisture and nutrients.
Animals may respond to many stimulations.
Humans respond to even more stimulations. Humans can respond to their own thoughts.
So the difference between a rock and a human is this. Human consciousness is more complex, more responsive to multiple stimulations.
Based in this interpretation we can suggest that consciousness is woven into the essential fabric of life and cosmos.
Expanding their awareness beyond the human realm mystics suggest that planets, our sun, stars, galaxies and the cosmos also have consciousness.
Space is consciousness.
This possibility can be a focus of enquiry in metaphysical meditation as human consciousness expands and experiences altered states. Sitting quietly it is the empty mind, like a receptive radar dish, that can garner insights. These insights are found in what one of the fathers of yoga, Patanjali, called ‘the raincloud of knowable things.’
Some meditators may reject the idea of any activity when sitting in silence. Others are very happy to explore inner realities, possibilities and dimensions.
I have been building on this understanding of consciousness. In meditation I have been contemplating these seed thoughts and exploring their mysteries:
— Space is an infinite ocean of consciousness with an innate capacity to respond to stimulation
— Empty space is filled with matter, energy, electricity, vibrations, beings, ideas, plasma . . . some miniscule, some galactic
Like all mystics and meditators my consciousness expands further when I am in a soft mindful state of love and bliss
Let me now add a thread that may help us address our current global crisis.
Ultimately our galaxy and all the dense matter we know will disappear. It will be sucked into the mystery of a black hole.
This event is billions of years away, but it is inevitable.
So here is an interesting possibility:
When all the matter of our galaxy disappears into that black hole, will human consciousness also disappear?
Perhaps only dense matter is sucked into the black hole. And the more subtle matter of our consciousness continues.
This kind of enquiry posed in meditation is profoundly relevant to how we manage the current global crisis.
We can only conduct these contemplative enquiries if we are deeply calm, centred in our hearts and awake.
In that state we can truly see the bigger picture.
Waves and cycles of human history come and go.
There have been many plagues and demagogues. They pass.
Calm compassionate equanimity radiates.
It can balance, stabilise and heal the suffering, distress and anxiety of our times.
Humanity’s destiny is to be loving, conscious and connected.
Reincarnation and past lives are a natural part of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Gnostic Christian, Jewish Kabbalah, some Sufism and most Pagan cultures. Even if you do not believe in it, it can provide an interesting way of thinking about and understanding people. Often, when I do not understand why someone is behaving in a certain way, I contemplate them through the prism of reincarnation. Is there a deeper and longer back story? Logically, I also believe in life after death. This belief is based in experience, mainly from a near-fatal illness in my twenties when I had a sequence of out-of-the-body happenings.
In this context of past lives and life after death, I think about my mother who died a few years back. Usually, when someone I love dies, I feel their presence or some kind of communication from them over the coming weeks and months. But I felt nothing from my mum. It was as if, once out of her body, she moved away from Earth as fast and as far as she possibly could.
Then in meditation a few weeks ago I found myself contemplating her again and wondering if she would reincarnate and where. Tuning into her soul I felt a great reluctance on her part to reincarnate. This was understandable because her last life had contained much traumatic tragedy. At the centre of this tragedy was her time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The secret police had decided that she was a spy and troublemaker because of her interest in braille — and they treated her with great cruelty. As a result of her deprivations her first child, my sister, was born deaf. This led my mother into pioneering charitable work for deaf children. My mum, Freddy Bloom, was well known for her courage. A book was written about her. She was an early subject of the television programme This Is Your Life. And she had a difficult relationship with my father.
So she did not fancy reincarnating. I felt her saying to me: If I reincarnate, I do not want to feel all that pain again. I do not want to be so involved with people. I want my sensitivity allowed and protected. I will need to be very introvert. I won’t understand relationships.
Sensing this from her, I was reminded of all the presentations of autism. The NHS describes autism in this way. Autistic people may: — Find it hard to communicate and interact with other people — Find it hard to understand how other people think or feel — Find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable — Get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events — Take longer to understand information — Do or think the same things over and over https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/what-is-autism/
Over the years in my work as an educator and carer, I have often wondered about autism and its relationship with past life trauma. I often have conversations with psychologists who also believe in past lives and contemplate whether autism might have its source in past life trauma. Imagine survivors of concentration camps — prisoners and guards; imagine folk killed or tortured in conflict; and so on — how might these souls choose to incarnate? What circumstances would provide the context for expressing their trauma and allow recovery?
Following my experience in meditation with my mother and her reluctance to reincarnate, I started to think about writing this blog. I hesitated. Would people believe it or accept it? Would it seem too weird? As part of my preparation I googled ‘reincarnation and trauma. Google immediately responded with this academic paper: ‘Reincarnation Type Presentations of Children with High-Functioning Autism in Sri Lanka.’
The abstract for this paper reads as follows:
Here we describe three children from Sri Lanka claiming memories of their past lives and later diagnosed to have high-functioning autism. The first, a seven-year-old Buddhist believes he was killed by terrorists as a soldier in his previous life and attributed his birthmark to be an injury which caused death. The second, a five-year-old Catholic girl suffering from asthma claiming she died of breathing difficulties in her previous life where she was a Buddhist grandmother. The third, an eight-year-old academically superior child claims he was a monk in his previous life and demands parents to allow him to enter the priesthood. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29602719/
Whether you believe in past lives or not, this way of looking at autism may be positive and useful. It provides a framework that reinforces acceptance, careful safety, space and time to be.
It is obvious isn’t it? If you are sensitive or empathic or an introvert, who feels easily overwhelmed by life or people, you need boundaries.
I myself am a sensitive empathic introvert and can be easily wobbled by other people’s vibes. I know very well how to self-soothe and use calming techniques. They are great and useful. They certainly work well when I am on my own.
But when I am out in the world dealing with people and everything else, I need more than self-soothing. I need boundaries.
Why? Because the self-soothing mindful calming techniques will, in fact, just make me more of a passive sponge.
That is a horrible thought — being a passive sponge. But that is exactly what happens if we self-soothe and calm ourselves when faced with hostile or difficult behaviour and vibrations. We just become receptive radar dishes absorbing all the crap. Not good.
I talked about this when I was recording the interview for The Shift’s ‘Meditation and Mindfulness Summit.’ The very experienced woman in charge of the video/audio technology said afterwards that this was the first time she had ever heard that. “I’m a sensitive empath and no one has ever told me to assert my boundaries. That makes total sense.”
Especially for women who from a very young age have had to endure unwelcome intrusions of their boundaries, it can be crucial to learn to respect and assert your space.
— I recommend books on ‘assertiveness training.’
— I suggest too that people do twelve months of a martial art so as to learn the minimal strategy of throwing a kick or punch and asserting your boundary. You may never need to throw that punch, but that attitude will be in your aura and be felt by bullies who will back off.
— Sometimes I suggest that folk should wear a watch that beeps every hour (I have a £6 Casio that does the job) and every hour they pause and assert clearly and loudly to themselves: This is my space! My boundaries! Respect! Do that sixteen times a day for a few months and things will change.
As always, do it with love and affection.
I hope that is all of the above is helpful. The huge silver lining to being empathic and sensitive is that we can also feel all the good things.
And of course — if you are strong, healthy and have clear boundaries, be chivalrous and kind.