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.
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover,’ sang rock n’ roll pioneer, Bo Diddley. These words were acutely relevant to me when I was a young man learning yoga and simultaneously working with the severely disabled.
On one side of my life there were these toned, flexible and vibrant yoga teachers. On the other were teenagers and young adults confined to wheelchairs, bodies crunched up and completely dependent on the physical help of others.
But which of these two groups enjoyed spiritual health?
Thirty years on and I am leading a team pioneering the first mainstream vocational qualification in spirituality and health. Its development, as you can imagine, has involved long discussions about the nature of spirituality and health. We have also had to anchor it all down into a coherent language that could be approved by the government education watchdog, Ofqual.
Our working definition of good healthdescribes it is as a state of comfort and flexibility, which applies to our physical and mental wellbeing as well as to our spiritual selves. Bad health is the opposite. Pain and rigidity. Movement hurts. Nothing flows.
What is particularly interesting here is that we can be physically flexible, but hurting mentally and spiritually. Equally we can be spiritually strong and physically weak. In Taoist philosophy, authentic good health is to be in harmony with the benevolent flow of the universe. So our physical bodies can be wrecked – but our spiritual and mental health can be fantastic.
But what on earth do we actually mean by spirituality? I like to encourage people to develop their own definition of spirituality. What’s yours? Working in an educational charity we have had to clarify and articulate our own stance. After much consultation we drafted a definition that seems to work for most people regardless of their beliefs.
Spirituality is everyone’s natural connection with the wonder and energy of life.
We also had to clarify and explain the meaning of spiritual health. For this we identified three crucial elements: connection, peace of mindand compassionate care. When assessing my own spiritual health these are the crucial issues. Am I connected? Do I have peace of mind? Am I caring and compassionate?Those questions apply whether we are in a wheelchair or teaching yoga.
It is worth repeating, isn’t it? The first of the crucial elements of spiritual health: Are you connected to the wonder and energy of life?
In the new Your Spiritual Health Programme, readers are guided through a series of questions to help them discover how best they make this spiritual connection. People have so many different ways. Yoga. Reading. Nature. Art. Caring. Worship. Song. Sport. Cooking. Meditation. And so on.
Then when people have identified what circumstances and activities work best for them, they are guided to practice them regularly. Through mindfulness, grounding and breath they are supported in deepening the experience and fully enjoying it. For many yoga practitioners that happens at the end of a session, in corpse pose just lying there, soaking in the deep connection.
PEACE OF MIND
Spiritual peace of mind is not apathy, or a relaxation exercise, or a brain wave state. It arises from a deep and wise way of looking at life. This wise attitude guides us to take regular reflective pauses.
In these mindful pauses we observe and monitor our lives with detached good humour and compassion. We recognise that all our circumstances and experiences – good and bad, health, illness, success, failure, loneliness, community – are always opportunities to develop love and consciousness. This development of love and consciousness is surely the true purpose of our lives. Understanding this brings us meaning and coherence, a deep calm.
The third foundation of spiritual health is compassionate care or love in action. If we are not actively caring we block the harmonious flow of the natural world, causing congestion for others and ourselves. Energetically, being compassionate pays forward the good energy we receive from being connected and having peace of mind. Selfishness, egoism, narcissism are all prime symptoms of spiritual bad health.
Fortunately Mother Nature has evolved us very shrewdly. When we give care our endocrine systems are stimulated in a positive and beneficial way, relaxing tissue. Doing good, feels good.
The wonderful thing about spiritual health is that we are not dependent upon anyone else for our ‘medicine’. We also always have access to a wonderful doctor who knows us better than anyone else, our own consciousness. So my fellow doctors, shall we all look at the state of our spiritual health?
People who are engaged or interested in spirituality often think that mainstream thinking is hostile to spirituality. But do some research and you will be surprised by the number of authoritative bodies that publicly assert the value of spirituality. They may not be clear on how to put spirituality into action, but they have public statements about spirituality and good practice.
For the students on the Diploma in Practical Spirituality & Wellness we have a reassuring handout. It is evidence that we do not have to persuade the mainstream that spirituality is beneficial and important. Below is the text of the handout. I hope you find the statements interesting and inspiring. And if you know others, please add them in Comments at the end of this page
Royal College of Psychiatrists ‘Spirituality and Mental Health’ 2014
‘Spirituality emphasises the healing of the person, not just the disease. It views life as a journey, where good and bad experiences can help you to learn, develop and mature.’
World Health Organisation May 1984
The Thirty-Seventh World Health Assembly adopted resolution WHA37.13, which named the “spiritual dimension” as an integral part of WHO Member States’ strategies for health.
United Nations – The Earth Summit Conference 2002
‘Health ultimately depends on the ability to manage successfully the interaction between the physical, spiritual, biological and economic/social environment.’ Agenda 21, 6.2
The Nursing and Midwifery Council
‘The Nursing and Midwifery Council expects newly qualified graduate nurses to be able to: In partnership with the person, their carers and their families, makes a holistic, person centred and systematic assessment of physical, emotional, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual needs, including risk, and together, develops a comprehensive personalised plan of nursing care.’ (2011)
Scottish Executive Health Department ‘Spiritual Care and Chaplaincy’ 2009
‘Chief Executives are asked to ensure that this guidance is brought to the attention of all appropriate staff and, in particular, to ensure that: They have appointed a senior lead manager for spiritual care.’ ‘Spiritual care is usually given in a one-to-one relationship, is completely person-centred and makes no assumptions about personal conviction or life orientation …. Spiritual care is not necessarily religious. Religious care, at its best, should always be spiritual.’
General Medical Council ‘Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice’ 2013, p.1
‘A doctor must adequately assess the patient’s conditions, taking account of their history (including the symptoms and psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors), their views and values.’
Education Reform Act of 1988
The opening sentence ‘The curriculum for a maintained school (must be) a balanced and broadly based curriculum which — promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society.’
Education (Schools) Act 1992
‘The Chief Inspector for England shall have the general duty of keeping the Secretary of State informed about … the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at those schools.’
Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, Jan 2015
The word ‘spiritual’ appears 20 times – Para 128: ‘Before making the final judgement on the overall effectiveness, inspectors must also evaluate: the effectiveness and impact of the provision for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development . . .’
British Association of Social Workers ‘Code of Ethics for Social Workers’ 2012
Upholding and promoting human dignity and well-being ‘Social workers should respect, uphold and defend each person’s physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual integrity and well-being.’
If you know other authoritative and useful statements, please post them in the Comments below. Thanks.
Glastonbury Abbey is a place of Christian hospitality. In that spirit, we welcome people of all faiths and of no faith. And we invite you to enjoy our Prayer and Meditation Moments.
For hundreds of years this beautiful abbey was a place of worship, of learning and of sanctuary. As you enter its grounds, you may want to contemplate that your life is a spiritual journey.
Wherever you approach one of the areas indicated on the map, slow down and pause. Take the opportunity to breathe calmly and find peace within yourself. Then, if it feels right, follow the brief instructions.
You can do as many or as few of these Prayer and Meditation Moments as you choose. There is no particular sequence to them so you can do them in any order that works for you. We have however mapped two walks – a short one and a long one – which you might want to explore.
ST PATRICK’S CHAPEL
Many people came to Glastonbury Abbey for healing. Sit quietly in this chapel. As best you can, breathe calmly and allow your body to sink and be at ease. Quietly say this prayer:
I am open to receive the gift of healing. May all people and creatures be blessed with good health.
This Glastonbury Thorn tree flowers twice a year in Winter and in Spring, like a Middle Eastern thorn. Legend suggests that it is a cutting from an ancient line of trees that dates back to the visits of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus. Quietly contemplate:
How wonderful that the cells of this tree carry its history and its future. May I always see the connections and wonder of all life.
LADY CHAPEL Upper Level
This chapel is dedicated to the worship and celebration of Mary the mother of Christ. The divine female can be found in many spiritual traditions. Quietly say this prayer:
Mother of the world, help me to love and care for all beings.
ST JOSEPH’S CHAPEL Lower Level
There are legends that Joseph, the uncle of Jesus, came to this very spot bringing the chalice from the Last Supper. Walk slowly and mindfully towards the altar. Quietly say this prayer:
I am grateful that I am safe and have a home. May all people have a safe home.
Legend states that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried here. Their court was home to the Round Table of chivalrous and brave knights. Quietly say this prayer:
In a world of injustice may I have the strength, courage and wisdom to support and champion the weak and vulnerable.
Here in the cloister the monks walked slowly, praying and contemplating life. See how slowly you can walk around the cloister and at the same time calm your breathing.
May I be slow and calm. May I be wiser and more loving. Help me understand life’s difficulties and guide me into clarity.
In this kitchen food was prepared daily for the Abbot’s visitors. Quietly say this prayer:
The food I eat comes from nature, plants, animals, farmers, transporters, traders and cooks. I give thanks to all of them. May everyone be fed and well.
A monastic Herb garden would have supplied medicines, aromas and flavours. Quietly say this prayer:
I give thanks for the beautiful diversity and healing power of nature; and I give thanks too for the gardeners and their care.
Every year this beautiful orchard gives an abundant harvest of apples. Quietly say this prayer:
Thank you mother nature for your beauty and your abundance. May I always remember and care for you.
FISH POND (Lower)
Water is one of the four ancient elements. Earth. Water. Air. Fire. This beautiful pond is cradled by earth. It is filled with water.Airand wind play on it. Light from the fireof the sun reflects from its surface. Quietly say this ancient prayer:
Earth my body. Water my blood. Air my breath. And Fire my spirit. I am one with All That Is.
WILDLIFE POND (Upper)
‘Ask the animals,’ said St Francis, ‘and they will teach you the beauty of this earth.’ At this pond we find fish and fowl. Pause. Calm your breath and be at ease. Notice the fish, the birds, and the insects. Be aware too of the sky and the hills around you. Feel the air against your skin. Quietly say this prayer:
I give thanks for the blessings and gifts of all animals. May all creatures be treated with care and respect.
PARK AREA – BODY PRAYER
There is a beautiful tradition of moving your body in tune with a prayer.
Slowly raise your arms above your head and stretch upwards:
The universe is filled with mystery and love.
Slowly bring your hands down and place them over your heart:
I too am filled with mystery and love.
Lower your hands so that your palms face the earth – or kneel down and touch the earth:
I bless the Earth and all living beings.
Repeat the action as many times as you like.
In this area we celebrate untamed nature – God’s garden. Be quiet. Imagine our whole planet and humanity living in complete harmony with the natural world. Quietly say this prayer:
From the tiniest insect and wild flower, out to the greatest ocean and mountain, may I celebrate the beauty of all creation.
Choose any tree that you like. In many spiritual traditions, trees are a symbol of strength and wisdom. Pause and imagine that you are a tree. Imagine and sense that you have roots growing deep into the ground. Feel the strength of your trunk. Feel the flexibility and movement of your branches.Quietly say this prayer:
In a world of endless change and noise, may I be like this tree – strong, flexible and wise.