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Essence

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 May 2019, 11.01am

Essence

Essence is our innermost psychology and distinct from personality.

Our personality is good at operating in the world and important for this reason. It gets us places and pays the bills along the way.

But essence is our essential nature, our truest identity. The poet Philip Larkin called it our ‘primary self’ while the contemplative Julian of Norwich called it our ‘substantial self’.

Different words…but they all try to grasp the same elusive experience - and why not? For the seven wonders of the world become an irrelevance in comparison to one’s experience of this phenomenon.

Tradition describes our essence as more radiant than the sun, purer than the snow and subtler than ether.

And while it can become hidden, and disappear from view, it is quite indestructible.

It can be mislaid, it can be smothered or ignored… but it cannot be killed.

Essence is the truth about yourself, the headline news, irrespective of time and setting.

It is something ages old, though as present as your breathing.

It is a prowling lion, a surging flood, all-powerful possibility, untutored in the world but connected to eternity.

When we touch our essence, it is a moment of grace… something melts; old walls fall down; horizons expand.

Our personality washes the clothes, mends the mower, buys tickets for the show.

While our essence is.

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Beyond 'Nature or Nurture?'

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 May 2019, 6.10am

I’m in favour of awareness because of the hope it brings, but I start with an often-asked question:

‘Are we the result of nature or nurture?’

The answer, of course, is that it is not either/or.

There will be some predispositions from your genetic formation, most particularly physical. Two parents over six foot will tend to have tall children.

(Clearly mine weren’t.)

But no gene has ever been shown to carry an emotion or feeling from one generation to the next. 

A parent recently told their child, ‘Depression runs in the family. Just take the medication.’

But this is a myth for which there is no scientific evidence.  There is no evidence for depression running in the family through our genes - only through the quality of the nurture offered.

What’s more truthful is that parenting models are often passed down through families. But this is behaviour, not genes.

From our earliest formation in the womb, through to our early years, our brain is responding to external stimuli, to external behaviours, for good or for ill.

The neuro-scientist Doug Watts calls them the ‘unrememberable but unforgettable years’. We can’t usually access them through memory. But they live still in our bodies, unforgotten in the hard-wiring of our brain.

So in relation to our feelings, we are not a product of history, but a present adventure.

And as we grow, the plasticity of the brain, now a well-established truth, means that even our childhood experiences are not the end of the story.

These experiences are powerful and life-shaping. We will not change everything; and some will struggle more than others. The degree of damage in humans varies.

But neither our genes nor the early hard-wiring of the brain need be a prison.

The plasticity of the brain, the evidence for neuro-genesis, ensures we are not machines in the traditional sense; not a clock set to tick in some pre-determined manner until we stop ticking.

Our brain is open to adjustment, to response and to change. Old hard-wiring can be mended; new neural pathways made, fresh tracks made through the forest.

As I say, we are an adventure.

This is challenging, of course. It asks a response from us. We cannot comfortably hide behind determinism or the failings of others.

But more than challenging, it is hopeful. There are things we can do. Life can be better. It won’t be perfect, but it can be better - our decisions, our habits and our mind sets.

And awareness is the start: to live in our bodies with more awareness of our responses is helpful, and often life-changing.

We notice not only the decisions we take, but also our reasons for taking them, which often reveals unacknowledged and now inappropriate fears.

These repeated decisions form our habits; and our habits, through the brain’s plasticity, shape the mind set we bring to the world.

If we are to be kind to ourselves and the world, we best be aware of these things.

Would you like to be more mindful, more resilient, more emotionally attuned?

Would you like to be less self-punishing, less full of shame, more free?

Would you like to live more happily in your own skin and therefore punish others less?

Then, in a way that is possible for you, seek the healing qualities of kind awareness.

Kind awareness shines a gentle light on our inscape; and what we can see, we can begin to change.

‘The observer changes the observed.’

You are not a given…you are an adventure.

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Holding the Space

Posted by Simon Parke, 14 May 2019, 10.51am

On occasion, we are all called to ‘hold the space’.

We’re called to de-centre a little and hold a space for others.

It might be at work or at home…it could be an online space we host in some way.

And we do it, we hold a space, so others can be safe and thrive; and while sometimes it can bring joy, it can also bring a heavy spirit and a sense of being overwhelmed.

On the retreats that I host, I will hold the space for all the anger, terror and shame in the group, as well as the joy.

These are forceful energies, and as the space holder, it must all pass through me. And some of the emotions will stay in my psyche and in my body after everyone has gone.

Over the years, I’ve learned that freedom can be a slow arrival after such experiences.

We hold the space between a vision of health and the reality before us. We are here, in this position of honour, because we have a sense of life and health; yet also know the damage that distances us from that.

So we hold a kind and compassionate space in between the two.

Such practice lies at the heart of the word ‘intercede’. Literally, it means ‘between yielding’, holding the struggle between two realities seeking a relationship.

Jesus on the cross is a particular example of this – nailed between heaven and earth, between hope and damage; between the dream of a free soul and a fearful soul.

But we do not need Jesus to know this. We feel it ourselves each time we hold the space at work or at home…or in ourselves.

(Yes, we’ll need to hold this compassionate space for ourselves sometimes, or we will struggle to hold it for others.)

Holding a space in which others are free to struggle, lash out, explore and grow is possibly the most creative act in the world; though it may not feel like this.

And while it may seem strange, if we do give ourselves in this way, it is important that sometimes we don’t.

There’s a price to pay for such holding and sometimes we’ll need to put the role down for a while, to allow for some emptying, some freeing, some letting go, some self-kindness.

Our psyche and our body demand this.

Sometimes, we’ll need simply to hold our own space. You’ll need a long walk in the hills…or whatever you do to recover yourself.

Space-holders are a wonder and a glory; the beating hearts of a creative universe.

But every heart needs looking after.

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A story of outrageous courage

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 May 2019, 10.22am

I contemplate the flower.

Yet more than delighting in its beauty today, I find myself admiring its courage. Truly, here is a story beyond the call of duty.

I remember it when it was a seed, you see; a rather hard, self-contained little object. And in that state, there was nothing to link it with the colourful glory I now view.

It had stayed hidden in a seed packet at the back of my drawer for years, showing no signs of anything.

And if I hadn’t come across it when looking for some matches, it would have stayed there a good deal longer.

But here’s the thing: once taken from the drawer and put in the soil, a remarkable thing happened – it chose its own death.

After years as a seed in a packet, it allowed the soil to dismantle its boundaried little existence.

It meant the end of everything it knew of itself; a terrible void, change and struggle; overwhelming fears for its future.

Who would have thought it would become this wonder?

Such courage, such beauty; and I have to say – such trust.

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The chains that set us free

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 May 2019, 9.53am

David Brooks, an American writer, has reflected on some of the cultural lies he believes we are told.

One of the lies he names is this: ‘Keep your options open – and everything will be better.’

He writes that in adulthood, everyone is encouraged to go on a personal trip, rack up a multitude of experiences, ‘and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.’

Here is the butterfly, always on the run from one thing to another; passing through but never engaging deeply.

In reality, says Brooks, the people who live best and happiest tie themselves down.

‘They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.’

By planting themselves in one neighbourhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust and deepen relationship. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference.

I’m put in mind of the sonnet, a restrictive poetic form – yet which gave us some of Shakespeare’s most liberating lines. 

‘It’s the chains we choose that set us free,’ says Brooks.

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Insane behaviour

Posted by Simon Parke, 02 May 2019, 2.35pm

So I put down my phone.

Carefully does it; it’s like removing an arm.

I place it out of view.

Oh, and I switch it to silent.

I turn off the radio.

This is insane,

And the telly.

I sit alone, without the safety net of noise and information.

Bloody hell!

I feel restless.

This is clearly a complete waste of time.

A thousand thoughts spring to mind; two thousand anxieties.

Did I lock the car door?

I remember I forgot the milk.

And is it next weekend Geoff’s coming or the one after?

I then interrupt the anxieties. I try listening to my breathing, which is apparently what keeps me alive.

‘And your breathing is always present,’ they say.

So can I be present?

Gradually I become aware of the little universe who is me, and which I look after today.

It’s a remarkable discovery, a new land, my precious life.

Some mad thoughts arrive in my head and busy themselves for a while, supporting each other like a group of drunks at midnight.

I allow them through

My hand wonders about reaching for the phone, just to check…it’s been a while.

But instead, I stay listening to my breathing…my present breathing.

It’s a discipline, yes, here on my sofa, alone.

But also a discovery.

And if I can’t be alone with myself; if I cannot exist without distraction -

Am I fit to be with anyone else?

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'Career success is fulfilling' - truth or lie?

Posted by Simon Parke, 29 April 2019, 1.39pm

David Brooks, an American writer, claims we’ve created a culture based on lies.

The first lie he names is this: ‘Career success is fulfilling’.

‘This is the lie we foist on the young,’ he says. ‘In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the centre of their lives.’

Here begins western culture’s life-long mantra — ‘If you make it, life will be good.’

But the mantra’s faulty, says Brooks. ‘Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that isn’t true.’

This resonates with my experience of the successful. Their inner drive to succeed is often the creation of something unresolved inside them they are trying to escape.

Success might spare us from the shame or sense of inadequacy we might experience if we feel ourselves a failure.

But while it can mask it, it doesn’t resolve it; so career success alone cannot provide peace or fulfilment. This human life is a tapestry involving many interwoven strands… not just one.

‘If you build your life around success,’ writes David Brooks, ‘your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.’

And sometimes it’s failure we need. When something has died, and something else needs to live, failure can be the best of guides to help us take the next step.

Career success is a buzz; but never the stuff of fulfilment.

This being human, this tapestry of story and colour that is your life, is much richer than that.

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The exception

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 April 2019, 3.59pm

They can take everything from us.

They can smash our doors, break our windows and take what they want.

They can use our bodies - cut, break or rape.

They can possess our minds with a few well-chosen drugs.

They can use slogans and lies to gain power over us.

They can take everything by force, by cleverness, by smiling deceit, by pressure applied.

Except our love, of course.

No one can take that.

Not even God.

Love, we have to give.

And we give it carefully.

And sometimes we give it wonderfully.

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Below the waterline

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 April 2019, 3.40pm

There’s more of the iceberg below the waterline than above it.

The tree’s roots burrow further down than its branches climb skywards.

And the oceans are deeper than the mountains are high.

And more hidden, more buried and deeper than all three are the memories from which my present struggle to love must grow.

So I will be gentle on myself, for a moment.

There’s so much within I know so little about.

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An uncommon answer

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 April 2019, 2.14pm

‘What should I do to be happy?’

It’s a common question and the uncommon answer is:

‘Do nothing.’

Mmmm….this doesn’t go down well.

It’s a disappointing proposal…not to irritating. We have answers to find.

So we nod politely and ignore.

‘Yeh, right.’

After all, striving is self-help’s second name.

Ours is a solutions-based culture in which we need to find solutions, to be doing more to be well, not less.

‘How can doing less work? I’m doing a six-week training course to fix me. I’m taking back control!’

Endless striving is available at a wide range of outlets.

Though the shock of doing nothing, experiencing absence – and I can feel my body tense at the thought of it – might be the better way.

It may be an awkward reunion, of course:

‘Hello nothing, my old friend.’

‘Old friend? Huh! You’ve been avoiding me! I mean, how many of my calls left unanswered?!’

‘I know, I know.’

‘So do I!’

‘But, well – here I am…have you got a moment?’

When we do nothing, when we experience the absence of distraction, we notice things.

We may start by noting our panic.

When I worked in a supermarket, we kept a two minute silence in the store at 11.00am on November 11th.

The first minute was really difficult, people felt angry at having to stop, feeling for their phones to check they were still alive, getting out shopping lists, trying to find
distraction, checking the dates on the coleslaw.

Gaunt-eyed panic in the aisles.

But the second minute, it was different. It was as if people submitted to the silence, to the stillness, to the nothing…and actually began to enjoy it.

When we do nothing, when we experience the absence of distraction, we sit for a wonderful moment with our own canvass, without other people’s colours splashed onto it; without other people’s graffiti or other people’s noise.

And somehow, we’re still alive, still breathing… more conscious even?

And we might now notice other feelings.

Perhaps an anger emerges…or a gratitude…

Or perhaps we notice the buckled gate post which looks bent and tired, like we feel.

The world starts to speak now our canvass is blank, now there’s space; now we can receive.

And we’ll notice things amid absence which may surprise, shock, delight or beguile us.

We’ll certainly inhabit our body more consciously, aware of our breathing… and our body is a bit of a wonder.

We may even inhabit our life more consciously, without other people’s graffiti scrawled across our existence.

(Other people’s graffiti can really leave a mess, and it’s hard to remove.)

And perhaps a vague sense of non-existence (we don’t like to consider this) is replaced by a tentative or bubbling, ‘I am!’

These things can happen.

We’re not ‘taking back control’ or any needy talk like that.

Instead, we’re simply facing a fundamental fear, the fear of no thing, the fear of absence - from which we will walk away quite free.

Free to be ourselves rather than a canvass for others.

We can never be in control, that’s a myth…and giving this up is sweet freedom.

From no thing, some thing.

The freedom to be.

And nothing is one of the paths there.

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