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Life - in three words

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 January 2021, 2.06pm

What is life in three words?

Life is process - and therefore a changing shape before our eyes, with nothing fixed.

We cannot grasp it, for that would be like grasping water; like taking hold of air.

By the time our mind locks onto an image, the image has changed; if we stay with that image - and make of it a god or a demon - we stay with something unreal, something now past.

In short, we stay with a casket of bones.

We have only the emptiness through which change occurs, only the space through which life passes; this space is our ground, our place of being…our place to return to when we can.

This space holds everything but controls nothing; it has no power over outcomes.

It is the stage on which these actors perform - but don’t give them a script, don’t insist on certain lines; the play is not yours and they are travelling players, passing through.

We cannot claim them as ours or claw at them to stay; we cannot demand they become the answer to our needs - though our joy at their coming, and our delight at our meeting, may be immense and quite lovely.

And then they must go; and that is lovely too.

Each day, we give up ownership of what is before us and around us; we ease our claws from each moment and allow it to be a living fluid thing; for life is process and we can relax with that.

Today, we own nothing but the space, the emptiness through which all manifestations pass.

Though some say such emptiness is best called fullness…

... for that is how it can feel.

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Home-working. Is this the future?

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 January 2021, 10.39am

What are your feelings about working from home? Are you missing the office? Or delighted to be away?

Some of those I work with, like nurses and doctors, would like to see a great deal less of their work place currently. The ‘luxury’ of home-working is not available.

While one commuter is enjoying being given back his twenty hours of travel every week. ‘I can’t believe the extra time it gives me!’

But others, working eight hours a day on laptops in their bedrooms, may like to see more of the office; and more particularly, their friends there.

‘The office relationships are what make work worthwhile for me. Team meetings on Zoom are not the same.’

And if the human solidarity of office life is one of the victims of home-working, is creativity another?

Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, spoke about this last year. ‘Exposure to new and different experiences — sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people — is a key source of creative spark,’ he said. ‘Homeworking can starve us of many of these creative raw ingredients — the chance conversation, the new person or idea or environment. Homeworking means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom.’

For many, it seems, the office - formerly the butt of jokes and source of so much frustration - has suddenly become a paradise lost, which leaves Professor Rehn unimpressed. 

“We love it when we don’t have it any longer. For years we complained about coming to the office, now we are free from the office, we complain.’

And that’s true, of course; and a typical human response to life: our struggle to be happy with what is; the tendency to find the grass greener in the next door field.

And some companies have tried to get round the ‘creativity thing’ with techy replacements for casual encounters.

But Paul Levy, senior lecturer at Brighton Business School, is sceptical about attempts to create virtual serendipitous spaces, such as ‘lounges’ or ‘break out rooms’ at online conferences.

‘Whenever we try to design spontaneity in the digital world, we lose the serendipity because we designed it. I very much doubt we will ever discover an algorithm for serendipity.’

So there are questions ahead for organisations when this is all over. Office space is expensive; but is it also priceless?

Is it possible that all the tech in the whole-wide-world cannot replace the chance encounter by the coffee machine?

Or the smile across the room?

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A refreshing lockdown walk with Hildegard

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 January 2021, 4.55pm

In these lockdown times, I am allowed to take a walk with one person from another household.

And so, with due social distancing, and wary of police, I take a walk with Hildegard of Bingen, nine centuries outside my support bubble; though still somehow part of it. (It’s OK - ghosts are quite legal in support bubbles.)

And I discover along the way that one of her favourite words is veriditas – greenness. She comes back to it a few times before we break for a well-earned coffee and doughnuts.

Greenness, for Hildegard, is the principle of life, whether on earth or in heaven; it is the life which moves freely in-between, easing us away from a retarded dualism which separates the two.

The spirit of life is one, she says; it is just the manifestations which vary.

So greenness is the fertility of nature; it is the celestial sunlight in a daffodil; it is the divine magic of the hoar frost; it is the love and courage in humanity.

It is one spirit, one life.

So, as I walk with Hildegard - and she maintains a good pace despite her old sandals and flapping nun’s habit - the outer world around me becomes a continuum with my inner world - one life.

I’ve always been told walking is good for my mental health; but I have to say, I’ve never found it quite so refreshing as today.

In a lockdown season of restraints and separation, I am caught up in a story of life, which wonderfully includes me.

‘We can walk and talk, by all means,’ says Hildegard, as we reach the top of the hill. ‘But we can also walk and see. Sometimes that’s even better.’

I think she’s referring to the greenness, which sometimes I miss…

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My 2012 talk on solitude at Greenbelt - Part 4

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 January 2021, 8.59pm

So here we are, in our final episode, thinking about the quality of our solitude because solitude is not a place but a quality.

And one way to test our solitude is to reflect on the nature of our silence. So as we listen to our silence now, what are we identifying with? Are we identifying with our sulking, our anxiety, our resentment, our desires for vengeance, our rage, distraction?

If we are, then we’re tight balls of negativity and there’s no receiving place in us.

This isn’t solitude but loneliness because it’s separating; loneliness is separating but solitude is never separating – solitude is always joining.

So if our silence is separating us from someone else, it’s not solitude – though it might become solitude as soon as this truth is acknowledged.

Our time is running out but we’re considering the quality of our solitude; what’s for it and what’s against it.

Like a flame, solitude is dependent on internal and external conditions.

It’s dependent on the way we were parented, the media, our self-image. How important is our self-image? If you don’t like yourself very much, if you’ve received the message that you’re not good enough, you are not going to want to spend time with yourself, you will not want silence.

And we’re back with Wayne Rooney’s hoover and my friend and the TV in his bedroom.

And here’s an interesting question: who kills solitude in us and who nurtures solitude in us?

You might have a friend who calms your panic inside. Lovely. Or, you might have a friend who’s afraid of solitude and who draws you into their fear: ‘Let’s go out tonight!’

It sounds a bit desperate on the phone and even as they’re saying it, you’re thinking: ‘This is more about your fear than your desire to see me.’

It’s good to consider once a year at Greenbelt: which friends are worth keeping? That’s me off a lot of lists…

We’ve reached the end, so here’s a beginning. How do I start solitude? Sometimes the beginning of solitude is simply saying ‘No’.

You don’t have to pick up a magazine at the doctors surgery. You don’t have to ogle your phone at the bus stop. You don’t have to judge others in the supermarket queue.

You can calm your itchy thoughts and hands. You can say ‘No’.

And, of course, the still small voice within is not a voice at all but silence; and it speaks with an authority, hope and intelligence that has not been learned from another but is innate in you.

We start by carving silence out of our life; and finish by carving our life out of silence.

Reflection on ideas in this talk. This where we slow down.

Solitude’s bad press. ‘It’s like loneliness, isn’t it?’...No, loneliness is being unhappily alone. Solitude is being happily alone.

A definition of solitude: A path towards the clearing of stillness and silence; and awareness of the foliage of emotion and thought that sometimes makes the path difficult…

We thought about solitude helping us towards our true identity: Finding an identity there beyond circumstance and relationships, something original, hopeful, strong. The life beneath our life, which, of course, is what gave colour to the snake.

We discovered that solitude can be found in a crowd, found in the presence of others, in job interviews, giving truth to the roles we play.

We noted the different voices inside us all determining our relationship with solitude, an inner conversation.

Finally, we reflected on the quality of our solitude, because solitude is a quality not a place. It is a path towards being happily alone, a path towards oneness with ourselves, our god and our world.

Solitude is never separating – and sometimes it starts with a simple ‘No’ in the doctor’s surgery, or at the bus stop or in the supermarket queue.

So in solitude, we’re looking to exchange tat for gold: we’re looking to exchange confusion for identity, busy for still, fear for discovery, urgent for important, machine for human, separation for union.

We start by carving silence out of our life and finish by carving our life out of silence.

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My 2012 Greenbelt talk on solitude - Part 3

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 January 2021, 5.19am

This is part three of my 2012 talk at Greenbelt on solitude.

And we start with a further irony about my book on the subject: it’s a conversation. Really?

It didn’t start out that way, but by the third draft it was a partial conversation and by the 4th draft, all conversation.

It was still all conversation after the 8th draft; and this is true to life. There’s always a conversation going on inside us:

‘How about some solitude today?’

‘Can’t do today – I’m too tense/angry/frightened.’

‘OK, you could bring those into your solitude.’

‘Maybe – we’ll see. I’ve also got a lot of things to do.’

‘That really isn’t a reason.’

So we begin to notice some of the dominant voices inside us determining our relationship to solitude.

Even as you read this, there are different voices inside you reacting. The contemplative voice is loving it; but the busy voice is not - and the frightened voice is screaming.

The book is a conversation because we are. And I wonder which voices you’re listening to now?

Perhaps it’s the controlling voice, ‘Why doesn’t he just cheer up a bit? Cheer up for God’s sake!’

The curious voice, ‘Is there something important here?’

The distracted voice, ‘It’s half-interesting so I’m half-watching a movie at the same time.’

Or the voice of low self-worth, ‘I don’t need this, I need action. Let’s have some noise. Where’s the hoover?’

Or the Contemplative voice, ‘This sounds like home.’

We begin to listen to the different/dominant voices inside us determining our relationship with solitude.

Not all solitude is the same, of course, it varies in quality.

In a few months’ time, we’re going to be choosing our mince pies. Which pies will you choose? I ask because they’re not all the same; like solitude, mince pies are on a continuum of quality.

They’re all mince pies but they’re not all equally good. Interestingly last year, Waitrose and Greggs came top equal. But you didn’t have to sell your house to buy the Greggs pies.

In the same way, not all silence is the same. If you’re sulking, that’s not solitude though it might become solitude. Or if you like to be alone ‘because you find people so irritating’ that’s not solitude - that’s judgment, avoidance, escapism.

And you may have learned to fear silence. Some silence is damaging to everyone around. Think of those who lived in homes where the rage and the fury was never expressed but lived there in the silences.

My God, wouldn’t you just hate silence then? Someone who has experienced that as a child is going to find solitude difficult, too many bad memories.

Part 4, the final episode, will be along soon…

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My 2012 Greenbelt talk on solitude - Part 2

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 January 2021, 3.29pm

We are thinking about people who are afraid of silence; who fear space in the day, in their lives, and seek to fill it.

These people seek disturbance because they fear the silent clearing in the forest.

But beyond these fears, if we can make our way through them, are some important discoveries. And one of the discoveries in that clearing is our identity.

This is not the identity that the world gives us, which is a rather changeable and random thing; but our true identity, the life beneath our life.

I don’t want to be defined by circumstances or relationships. Sometimes I have a bit of success but usually I don’t, so circumstances aren’t a good source of identity; they are a rickety construction, not secure home for anything.

Neither are relationships a good source of identity. Sometimes people like me but sometimes they don’t - and often they change their minds, from ‘for’ to ‘against’ or ‘against’ to ‘for’, it swings both ways - so this is not a stable or wise source for self-definition.

Relationships are granted and withdrawn, they are beautiful and poison – and certainly not a sure or secure foundation on which to build my identity.

Instead, we seek the life beneath our life, our true originality which we knew before we were born and will know after we die - but which we can lose sight of it in life.

Solitude is the path to your true identity, our life beneath our life. Can you sense it now?

Isak Dinesen tells a story from her time in Africa. One day she was out in the bush and saw a snake of great beauty with a glistening skin full of wonderful colours.

She was in awe of what she’d seen and spoke of little else on her return home.

In an attempt to please her, the house servant then went out into the bush, killed the snake, skinned it and made it into a belt for Isak. She now had a snake skin belt.

But for Isak, there was no beauty there now. The vibrant skin had become dull and grey, because its beauty hadn’t been in its skin - but in its life, its livingness. It was this life that had transformed and permeated this skin.

And for me, that’s a story about identity. Our identity is not what we do or the reputation we have or the name we possess but the life beneath the life.

I remember when I worked in a supermarket and I lost my name badge and had to wear another one for six months while waiting for a new one.

The store manager was panicking. The Area Manager was coming, we all needed name badges. I was initially given ‘Wendy’ – but it was taken off me, girls’ names weren’t allowed for blokes, so I ended up with ‘Omar’ on my badge, a previous employee.

I was surprised how easily I gave up Simon - which I’d been called for 50 years - and became Omar.

So who or what is defining you?

In solitude we walk through the foliage of emotion and thought towards the clearing of stillness and silence. And it may be that there we recover a truer sense of identity.

When I die, five minutes before, I don’t want to look back on a life defined by my circumstances or defined by others.

When I die – and it feels surprisingly close - I don’t want to look back on a life defined by my parents or by the church, mosque or temple – I want to look back on a more original definition.

I’d like to look back on a life that knew who it was and was secure in that. And we learn solitude to find that life.

So in solitude, we’re looking to exchange tat for gold: we’re looking to exchange confusion for identity, busy for still, fear for discovery, urgent for important, machine for human, separation for union.

There are a couple of ironies here; two large elephants in the room. One elephant is this: Here we are considering solitude in a group.

It does sound odd. A friend of mine went on a house party in Wales. One evening someone got up and said, ‘I’m going out. I need to be alone.’ And then one of the others said, ‘So do I. I’ll come with you.’

But reflecting on solitude in a group is nothing odd. We’ll need to learn solitude both alone and in company. It’s important you can know solitude even as you sit here now.

Mother Sycletica was an abbess in the deserts of Middle Egypt in the 4th century. She was suspicious of the whole hermit charade, desert one-upmanship. You know the sort of thing:

‘I live 40 miles from the nearest living soul.’

‘Really, Gavin? Well, I live 80 miles from the nearest living plant! I’m much more into solitude than you!’

But Mother Sycletica, in her wisdom, knew that not all hermits were true hermits. Oh, they might live miles from anyone in a cave – but their minds were so busy they might as well have been at the amphitheatre in Rome!

‘It’s possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd,’ she said.

We take ourselves off on retreat but our mind is so full of people and incidents we might as well be stood in Piccadilly Circus. This is not solitude – though it could become solitude.

But just as those alone may know nothing of solitude, those in a crowd may know plenty. It’s possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; possible to be our silence into the market place.

I was at a job interview a while ago. It was apparent the 2 people interviewing me were aware of my book on Solitude.

I hoped this might help me, because in interview I need all the help I can get; but it actually seemed to present them with problems.

‘There’s not much chance of solitude here!’ one of them said. ‘It’s much too busy!’

The other one agreed, a bishop, interestingly, famous for his Radio 4 ‘Thoughts for the day’.

‘It’s all about performance from the start of the day to the end of the day,’ he said, fingering his large cross. ‘Believe me this is not a place for solitude!’

I said to them: ‘You don’t need to be alone to experience solitude: I’m sitting here talking to you now. But on another level, I’m sitting here aware of my inner silence, the free space within me. I’m with you and I’m not with you.’

Quizzical looks from the two interviewers as the bishop fondled his cross in an irritated fashion. I was aware they didn’t understand, aware I was creeping off traditional interview territory. But I didn’t want to give any nourishment to their dull and self-important activism.

I didn’t get the job.

But amid the disappointment, I calm my rage - for let’s name it accurately, it is rage - with the thought that Jesus wouldn’t have got the job either.

Disappointingly, he used to disappear off early in the morning – when he could have been doing something useful. His disciples come looking for him: Remember the scene? His disciples come looking for him:

‘We didn’t know where you were!’ they complain.

‘Good’ says Jesus – or words to that effect.

And, of course, that’s all of us all the time. We may not be at a job interview or even the messiah, but we’re all out there playing various roles and some of them are very demanding ones.

What demanding roles some of us have!

But whatever we’re doing, we’re also trying to stay in touch with ourselves, with who we are, with our inner flame, with our inner space - because it’s easy to forget.

And when we forget who we truly are, when we run from that space, we become posturing puppets on the twisted strings of our own self-importance.

If you wished to mock society today, you might say that with our splendid technology, we’re in contact with everyone…except ourselves.

And people who lose contact with themselves are dangerous. Because when you lose contact with yourself you become a posturing invention.

We practice solitude both alone and in the company of others so that the roles we play are growing out of something substantial, real, true.

‘It’s possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd,’ said Mother Sycletica.

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My 2012 Greenbelt talk on solitude - Part 1

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 January 2021, 5.43am

This talk was given at the Greenbelt Arts Festival in 2012

We’re here to reflect on solitude but I’m aware it doesn’t have a good press.

First line in Wikipedia on subject: “Solitude may stem from bad relationships, infectious diseases, mental disorders, neurological disorders – or circumstances or situation. See ‘Castaway’”.

So beware. The person sitting next to you is either socially awkward, ravaged by disease, mentally disturbed or thinks they’re Robinson Crusoe.

This negative picture is quite widespread. Last year I wrote a book on solitude, called ‘Solitude – recovering the power of alone’ and when I eagerly told people what I was doing, I naively thought it was a good news story, I expected excitement; but from their reaction, it was like I was writing a book about the pros and cons of leprosy.

One of the problems is that people equate solitude with loneliness. This is very common. You hear it in reactions like this: ‘Twenty years on my own - I’ve had enough quite enough solitude, I think!’

No, my friend, you’ve had quite enough loneliness. The two are different. If you’d had twenty years of solitude, you’d have a very different spirit inside you, a rather happy one.

Loneliness is being unhappily alone while solitude is being happily alone. Loneliness feels harsh, feels like a punishment while solitude feels like a gift, a path to stillness, awareness and delight. Loneliness feels like it’s done to us; solitude is choice made by us.

So a definition of solitude. For me it’s an active word. Solitude is the active path to inner stillness or silence. It’s like a walk through the woods to towards a clearing and this is the clearing that Meister Eckhart would call the ‘emptiness’ that God must fill.

There is a hint of it in the normally loud and shouty Old Testament:

I Kings 19.11. The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.

After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

You have to be in a silent place to hear that.

So, solitude is not an end in itself – but the path towards something, the path to inner stillness or inner silence, this inner place of receptivity. A full hand grasps nothing.

It’s a continuum, not either/or. In solitude we set off towards stillness and silence, sometimes we make it, sometimes we don’t. That’s OK, we’re allowed to fail. The foliage we struggle through, the foliage of emotion or thought can feel quite impenetrable sometimes. We may not always make it to the clearing.

But when we want to reclaim ourselves, when we want to reclaim our light and our glory, when we want to reclaim our very own Olympic flame, we set off on the path of solitude and see where it leads.

We know the difficulties.

If we don’t like ourselves very much, why would we desire solitude? Why would we want to be with someone we don’t like?

We’ll want to keep away from that. Some people like to be with other people not because they like them – but because they don’t like themselves and avoid their own company whenever possible.

And, of course, if we fear silence, why would we desire solitude? Wayne Rooney, apparently, used to sleep with the hoover on. My friend must have the TV playing in his bedroom - the need for noise to fill the darkness, to kill the terrible space, which lurks like a monster in their home.

These people fear the clearing; they prefer the foliage in which there is strange self-protection. The space must be kept at bay.

Though the space might heal.

We’ll continue with this adventure next time..

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A quiet yet persistent new year revolution

Posted by Simon Parke, 31 December 2020, 4.46pm

The past is stale bread

The future is no bread

The present is fresh bread

So as 2021 unfolds we will give the past its due but not its power

And we shall nod to the future but refrain from undue attention because it doesn’t exist

Instead - like children to an ice cream van - we return again and again to the present whether sad, serene, joyous, bleak or a wild-horse-throwing-me-sideways moment

We shall be here now in 2021

And we shall be quiet creators of good, for this is how change occurs, whether in others or ourselves

Quietly and kindly - and always one day at a time

For only in this place is there life

The past being stale bread

The future, no bread

And the present, fresh bread

So here we are

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Advent with Meister Eckhart Day 24

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 December 2020, 5.20am

‘What does it avail me if the birth is always happening, if it does not happen to me?’

And Eckhart continues: ‘That it should happen to me is what matters!’

The physical birth of Jesus in the stable is one thing.

But for Eckhart, even at Christmas, the birth of God in his soul is a more pressing matter; and much of his writing is concerned with creating an inner stable where this birth can occur.

He continues: ‘Why did the indescribable God take on flesh? In order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God.

That is why the whole of scripture was written and why God created the whole of the world and all the orders of angels: so that God could be born in the soul and the soul in God.’

This cracked and crying Christmas, you are the stable; you are the divine union and you, the deep mystery of joy.

And things such as this, concerning our inmost selves, they cannot be locked down.

Thank you for your company on this Advent journey with the Meister. Strange times.

And now strength and soul this Christmas; and through the cracks, light.


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Advent with Meister Eckhart Day 23

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 December 2020, 5.33am

The years of Eckhart’s posting in Strasbourg coincided almost exactly with the social and meteorological crisis of 1315 – 22.

Heralded by the ominous appearance of a new comet in 1315, northern Europeans experienced a series of savage and extended winters, followed by severe and sustained spring and summer downpours.

The people looked to the heavens in vain.

The Baltic Sea froze over in 1315 with sub-zero temperatures; while widespread floods and wind storms during the warmer months led to famine, uncontrollable inflation, malnutrition and mass starvation.

Hordes of homeless and hungry beggars roamed the land and crime rates rocketed. Chroniclers record multiple cases of cannibalism and infanticide.

Religious processions of barefoot self-flagellating penitents begged God to change his mind and restore good weather and prosperity.

Many believed the comet and other celestial signs indicated the Last Judgement was at hand.

These were also the days of Meister Eckhart’s popular sermons on the divine birth in the human soul.

Amid social despair and extraordinary turbulence – and whether you consider it timely or irrelevant - Eckhart spoke of the soul.

‘Why did the indescribable God take on flesh?’ he asked. ‘In order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God.’

This was the reason for the stable scene in Bethlehem; for God becoming us - a theme he often returned to.

And, on the very edge of Christmas, and in fractured times ourselves, we’ll return to it tomorrow.


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