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My word of the week: trauma

Posted by Simon Parke, 30 January 2023, 1.11pm

‘Death by blunt-force trauma,’ is a common assessment in crime fiction. And rightfully so; the word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek word for ‘wound’.

Like our crime stories, the Greeks used it in the physical sense, but these days, trauma can also describe a mental and emotional wound, as in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, (PTSD) which describes the lingering and disturbing effects of a shocking experience.

Trauma can reveal itself in many ways: depression, anxiety, flash backs or recurring nightmares.

And because it arises from moments or times when we did not feel safe – trauma is everywhere.

Perhaps it is a soldier back from the front line or the victim of a sexual assault or someone once trapped in a burning building.

But there are other unsafe places in the world, unsafe experiences whether deep under water or in our home when growing up. Anxious parents, depressed parents, inconsistent parents all offer a traumatic experience to the powerless child.

Divorce, bereavement, rejection or financial worries can be powerful triggers.

There is good news. As Der Kolk observes in his book, The Body Keeps the Score ‘As human beings we belong to an extremely resilient species.’

We bounce back from endless wars and disasters, and the difficult experiences of our own lives.

‘But traumatic experiences do leave traces,’ he says, ‘whether on a large scale, (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations.’

We know its trauma when it continues to affect our lives, long after the historical event. It may have occurred twenty years ago, fifty years ago – but it leaves traces on our minds and emotions and on our capacity for joy, happiness and intimacy; ‘even on our biology and immune systems’.

Unresolved emotional trauma often brings illness, the body still in distress.

And clearly it affects others as well. The traumatised pass the trauma on. Traumatised soldiers – exhibiting rage and emotional distance on their return home - may make their partners depressed or frighten their children. 

An anxious mother, seeking to control life in the home - because of her own experiences of un-safety - passes on her internal fear to her children.

Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. And so the traumatised will often attempt to blank it out, act as if nothing has happened. Why would they wish to visit again the terror and the shame of their weakness and vulnerability?

There is the natural desire to ignore and move on.

But deep below our rational brain is the part of our brain devoted to ensuring our survival. And long after the traumatic experience itself, it can be reactivated at any hint of perceived danger.

Disturbed brain circuits are awakened and stress hormones released, making for intense physical sensations and impulsive behaviour. Suddenly, we are out of control.

‘The fear then is that we are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.’

Trauma is a continuum of experience. There is big ‘T’ and small ‘t’ trauma. As someone said to me recently, ‘It’s not like I was on the front line in the Ukraine. But I do now recognise my childhood as small ‘t’ trauma – an experience, over many years,  that still impacts on my decision making and happiness today.’

The beginning of the end for trauma is our recognition of it; some acknowledgement of difficult things. Then comes the slow reclamation of mind, physiology and spirit; the journey back to safety.

This is not just a soldier’s story.

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My word of the week: Contentment

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 January 2023, 1.36pm

Contentment is a simple idea which can feel impossible.

The word describes the emotional state of being at ease with our situation, in body and mind.

It is a present condition, describing this moment, which finds us satisfied with what we have, who we are and where we are going.

It’s an unusual state, however, because of our inner climate, often polluted by our plans.

A significant source of human discontent is the gnawing sense that things could be better. We just need this to happen or that to occur and then we’ll be happy.

But because things we desire don’t always happen or occur, because our plans don’t work out, we are denied contentment.

Happiness is always round the next corner; and it’s the corner we never quite reach.

But contentment is not round the next corner. It’s here and it’s now. And at the heart of contentment is the outrageous sense that right now, things could not be better.

The ego screams at this suggestion. The ego has plans that have not worked out, so the very idea is absurd: ‘Only if our plans work out can we be content,’ says the ego. ‘If our plans do not work out how can there be contentment? That’s ridiculous.’

I can understand. Plans that don’t work out are difficult. In my considerable experience of failed plans, it often feels like annihilation.

But it’s the land beyond such annihilation that the ego doesn’t tell us about. There is land beyond. And it is here that perhaps we find contentment.

Marcus Aurelius wrote ‘Live with the gods. And he who does so constantly shows them that his soul is satisfied with what is assigned to them.’

How?

We let go of our plans; we even let go of our longings, which swirl beneath our surface. (This is a harder task.) And find, for a moment, gratitude in what is. Contentment always involves gratitude.

A line from my diary: ‘My book has flopped but this is a very good cup of tea.’

A First World problem, I grant you. But it’s a longing, nonetheless, and a transferable principle. We begin to re-order the furniture of our souls, to create a different space from which to live.

In words attributed to the Buddha,

‘Health is the most precious gain and contentment the greatest wealth.’

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Word of the week: Power

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 January 2023, 3.36pm

So, what is your experience of power? Perhaps it has been both good and bad. Perhaps you’ve met good power and damaged power. 

The word comes from the Latin potis meaning able, capable or possible.

It became podir in Old French, poer in Middle English (14th century) and then its present form power.

It would be cheering, if rather fanciful, if all power was able and capable – or at least able beyond the ability merely to serve itself.

We’re all familiar with this sort of egoic power; and it is dismal.

Imagine how different the work place would be, the country would be and your home would be, if power was used well.

There’d be little work for therapists, who are so often working with the abuse of power – discreet or overt – in the early years of life.

Vincent Van Gogh described himself: ‘A young sapling caught too young in the frost.’ The emotional cold is a discreet but terrible power.

Jesus knew all this instinctively and so encouraged people to allow children to come to him, because they embodied the vulnerability and innocence of the kingdom of God.

This move, which even offended his followers, was all about power - who has it and how it is used.

Children have no power - so this is where he starts. And we note he gave harsh warnings - involving necks, millstones and deep water - to those who abused their power over the vulnerable.

Or we could step away from children and into into an adult relationship and note the transactions there. The woman questions the man’s behaviour, which humiliates her again and again, and what does he say? He says, ‘That’s the way I am.’

Is that an answer? It’s certainly a lazy assertion of self-serving power.

And manipulation, silence, the sulk and physical violence can also be used to the same ends; significant weapons in the ego’s power grab.

But I come today to celebrate power as well as question it. Yes, I come in merry celebration, I am a fan of power, for power can be a glory.

The third word in our definition of the Latin word potis was possible. Those with power possess possibilities, which is exciting. 

Imagine power used well – power which makes good things possible. So many wonderful things exist in the world because of power used well down the centuries – power which holds people, frees people, strengthens people, protects people, affirms people.

You’ll have your own favourite examples of healthy power doing good. It may be a person, an action, a movement, an institution, an event or a story.

And the word possible also gives hope to those who feel themselves to be the victims of power.

Beyond victimhood – which can beset us - is the invitation to access your own power, to ally yourself with the possibilities present in your situation and see where the road leads.

In the end, people only have power if we give it to them. They exist, sure. But we also exist. We can forget this.

And as I close, I find myself humming a Paul Simon song, the haunting Silent Eyes from his ‘Still crazy after all these years’ album. (1975…showing my age.)

Worth a listen, a particular favourite of mine and here are the closing lines:

We shall all be called as witnesses, each and everyone
To stand before the eyes of God and speak what was done.

And if this is so – who can say? – but if it is, I sense we’ll speak mainly about the transactions of power on earth.

How was it for you?

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Word of the Week: Really

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 January 2023, 3.43pm

My word of the week is Really.

It comes from the real – ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ - and means ‘in actual fact’.

But sometimes it’s really unnecessary, as in this sentence.

It’s adding nothing here because either it is necessary or it isn’t. Adding really to the sentence is like someone raising their voice because their argument is weak or entirely unbelievable.

It all feels a bit insecure and it can be very irritating.

And there’s the cousin of really - very. There’s no need for the very in that sentence. Either it is irritating or it isn’t.

As Jesus said, in one of his greatest lines, ‘let your yes be yes and your no be no.’

There’s no need to swear an oath that what you are about to say is true. And saying really or very doesn’t make it more so.

In other words, we can rely on the simple truth of what we say, on the fact of what we say, without resort to hysterical pleading.

It can be difficult to calm our language down. I wanted to say it can be really difficult, but that would be me being insecure again.

And as our language calms, perhaps we will also calm. We will trust our experience, trust our truth and become more believable in the process.

But before we go, really has another use.

Sometimes it is used with a question mark – and probably in italics - to create a climate of disdain. This can work in a number of situations. 

Like with those who still claim ‘Brexit is working.’

Or the church saying ‘Gay clergy may co-habit but must abstain from sexual relationship.’

Or anyone saying, ‘Least said, soonest mended.’

Really?


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My late Christmas

Posted by Simon Parke, 30 December 2022, 2.20pm

I did not spend long in the stable.

I arrived late, you see, a few days late, due to ‘events beyond my control’, I think they say.

Expectations, other peoples’, have sharp elbows and will not take no for an answer, they really won’t.

Though I did in the end say no, which was the best no ever, a no becoming a yes…because every no to something is a yes to something else.

And so I arrived there, arrived at the stable, arrived at Christmas in the glowing silence which is there beneath the noise.

Quite a surprise.

And I didn’t stay long, as I say, but from there, stepped happily out into the dark, quite without fear.

You know what they say: you cannot travel on, if you have not first arrived.

And now I have, it only takes a moment.

It’s the light I remember as I make my clueless way.

It bruised my eyes with hope.

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My special word for 2023

Posted by Simon Parke, 27 December 2022, 5.46pm

Do you have a word for the New Year, for 2023?

My word is unfolding.

It has echoes of Christmas, of course. Opening a present is an unfolding – the folded wrapping around the gift, unfolded to reveal something we may never have guessed at.

I like the word because it carries with it no agenda.

It is quite different from a plan, for instance, which definitely has an agenda and around which expectations can gather.

Expectations have a fixity which can hurt us terribly.

This is a truth brought home to many by the uncertainty of these past few years.

Who saw Covid coming? Who saw Ukraine? Who saw a revolving door of ministers and Prime Ministers? Who saw these fuel prices and devastating inflation? Who saw such present uncertainty with regard to travel and health care?

So many plans - and so many good plans - up in painful smoke.

An unfolding is different. It speaks of a gradual revelation over which we have little or no control. But which can, in some manner, be trusted.

Instead of expectations it brings the kinder and more generous hope.

A good detective story is an unfolding mystery. There are clues along the way but also confusion. We just have to trust the narrative; trust the unfolding.

Like me, you may already be suspicious of plans; you may have discovered that plans don’t often work out.

And they don’t work out because they assume a control we simply don’t have.

We live in fragile days where we have today and maybe tomorrow. And that’s all of the adventure we know….or need to know.

So, we stay present and one day at a time, like extraordinary heroes, we live the unfolding.

And along the way, we find the strength for today, the only strength we need.

As the old blessing has it,

Give to the wind your fears
Hope and be undismayed
God hears your sighs and counts your tears
He shall lift up your head

 

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The Four Gates of Advent: No.4 - The Gate of Focus

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 December 2022, 11.49am

Sometimes in the day, we need to step away from our current mind set in order to find fresh possibilities. We are locked into a negative sense of things that is taking us nowhere, creating nothing.

On difficult days we may need to do this more than once. So we push at a gate which leads off our beaten track, which is leaving us beat, to a different path; and our day feels different.

One such gate is the Gate of Focus, remembering the opposite of focus is distraction.

No generation of human beings has been so vulnerable to the debilitating titillation of distraction.

‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ writes TS Eliot in his poem, ‘The Love song of J.Alfred Prufrock.

But perhaps now we measure our life in ‘clicks’...and listless minutes passed in scrolling social media sites.

Yesterday’s scroll (already forgotten) becomes today’s scroll (forgotten as I read) and then tomorrow’s scroll (waiting to be forgotten).

And where am I in this netherworld of disparate information? I feel myself disappearing; I am ceasing to exist.

I read of other people’s news, other people’s views and other people’s feuds – ‘so much info! Oh, and here’s another story!’ - and find myself distracted into personal extinction.

My remains, such as they are, are a flitting mind and vague unease.

The gate of focus, on the other hand, invites us onto a path of intentional action. We set aside ninety-nine things that crowd this moment and give our attention to the one thing necessary.

Focus is an act of will, like anchoring a boat in a storm; and is rooted in the gut from where all true action emerges.

On this path, our breathing deepens; we can feel it, reaching down inside us, creating different awareness. Now we’re earthed, stable; we’re thinking from our body.

Our flittery mind stills; fast mind becomes slow mind; instead of distraction, energy for action gathers, we will do this.

So, whether it’s cleaning the kitchen, sorting the finances, dealing with a difficult issue, speaking with the person we need to speak with, writing a blog, making that decision, putting in that boundary…we do it.

Once through the gate of focus, we let go of aimless multiplicity – many things adding up to no thing - and simply get things done.
   

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The Four Gates of Advent: No.3 - The Gate of Assent

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 December 2022, 9.55am

Sometimes in the day, we need to step out of our current mind set in order to find fresh lands of possibility. On difficult days we may need to do this more than once. So we push at a gate which leads us off our well-beaten track to a different place. And suddenly our day can feel different.

One such gate is the gate of assent.

When we push at this gate, we leave behind complaint at how things are. Do you recognise this state? It’s quite common. But instead of complaint at how things are, with a few deep breaths, we give our assent to them; allow things their present shape.

‘I allow this reality.’

Our complaint at life may be spoken to many; or it may be silent, in quiet resentment or heavy despair. But however experienced, it sets us at odds with our circumstances where nothing is perceived to be right. It sets us in battle-mode with reality, we commit to frustration - and there is no peace here.

‘If only this or if only that, then things would be so much better.’

We set our hearts on change; though strangely, a complaining spirit is the least effective way to achieve it.

Although it’s counter-intuitive, to accept things as they are is the beginning of true change. I think of the Ukrainian salsa teacher, who continued her class even when bombs had taken light from her studio.

Instead of raging against the darkness, and saying, ‘if only’…she allowed it, played in it - and allowed others to play too.

Her playfulness echoes across the land and becomes the change.

Assent brings more fruitful change than complaint, with my ego and its endless carping taken out of the equation.

My internal judge changes nothing for the good. Nothing and no one is blessed or changed by my negative take on circumstances. 

As we enter the gate of assent, however we arrived here, we allow what is. ‘Here I am and this is OK.’ It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

The gate of assent embraces our life rather than setting us against it. We befriend our reality.

And the embrace makes all things well.

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The journey to Christmas

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 December 2022, 8.24am

We do not need to speak everything on our walk to Christmas.

We do not need to organise the mystery into words.

Or to rely to heavily on plans made… because life takes place in the cracks between our plans.

We do not need to speak everything; a little silence is allowed.

Instead of reacting with words, we can respond with our heart.

There is a pressure in a social media world to tell everything, as soon as it happens. Pressure to react.

‘This is my news!’

Plus photos.

Mary would have struggled obviously.

‘Pondering these things in her heart,’ would not have gone down well.

‘Hey, what’s all the secrecy and silence, Mary!? You in a mood or something?’

But hold on to your birth right. You don’t have to speak everything; you don’t have to react.

I say this on retreat sometimes, on the last night.

‘Important things have been taking place inside you. When you go back home, you don’t need to speak it all. You can keep the oven door closed. Keep opening the oven door and nothing is cooked well.’

There’s great pressure sometimes to tell our story, to entertain with it…perhaps people expect it.

You see it in churches with people’s testimonies…or on chat shows.

People get their story out, get confessional in a polished sort of way…and something dies.

We do not need to speak everything; we are not legally obliged to put the wonder into words.

Words are not designed for glory; they can make its subtle textures harsh.

The very telling of glory, the attempt to put it between commas, separates us from its presence, like a parting couple on a station.

Goodbye!

One becomes two. Our story becomes a thing, something apart from us, brutalised in the speaking and in the (unhelpful/ecstatic/carping) reactions that emerge.

It becomes our brand, our calling card, our obligation…and not our simple fragile evolving ever-changing substance.

It ceases to be our experience, the only place where it has value.

Our story becomes like the chat show anecdotes, sharp, shallow and polished…and a wall around the celebrity soul rather than a doorway into it.

It becomes like meat thrown to calm a dangerous dog; we tell our story on the phone, on instagram, on the sofa, on whatsapp, in the pulpit, in the Christmas circular, to keep our public happy.

And lose it along the way.

We do not need to speak everything on our walk to Christmas. Some things, but not everything.

We may, like Mary, simply ponder, stay present, keep the oven door closed.

Should wonder unfold, and daily it will, you do not need to speak it.. it’s always a choice.

You are a mystery… not a megaphone.

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The Four Gates of Advent: No.2 - the Gate of Gratitude

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 December 2022, 1.22pm

Sometimes in the day, we need to step away from the tram lines of our current mind set in order to find fresh possibilities, different space.

On difficult days, we may need to do this more than once.

So, we step off our well-beaten track, which can leave us beat, and plunge into the rich undergrowth of our consciousness discover a gate which might save us.

On such gate is the gate of gratitude. 

Meister Eckhart said that if the only prayer you ever say is, ‘Thank you’, that is enough, and his reasons are plain to see. Gratitude is an inwardly expansive emotion.

Like an unfolding flower in the sun, eased from the tight bud, so gratitude releases us from self-obsessed doom and catastrophising into something more open and outward.

Suddenly, we are looking around ourselves, looking beyond ourselves, with surprised delight.

I do not speak here of determined positivity, which is a great strain for everyone concerned: ‘We should all be more grateful! Why aren’t you more grateful? Shame on you! Everyone must be grateful! Be very ashamed!’

Rather, I speak of that spontaneous feeling of thanksgiving that arises within us, quite unbidden; the noticed blessing.

Here is the momentary state of knowing that right now, there’s nothing else in the world I either need or want.

And it’s no work of ours. The gate of gratitude cannot be forced. Rather, it swings open and invites us through – though we’ll need to leave regret behind.

The gate doesn’t allow it through, and it may well be a burden happily discarded. Regret can weigh heavy, if allowed.

From here, we proceed with a lighter spirit and our spirit is best when it’s light.

And so, we leave our beaten track; but only to see and feel it in a different way. Maybe it’s not as beaten as we imagined; maybe we aren’t.

Maybe there is life here.

This gate opens daily, hourly, along the way. It’s possible we could notice it more often than we do.

Our only work here is to notice this delightful entrance along our speckled way.

 

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