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A god in ruins

Posted by Simon Parke, 28 September 2020, 10.22am

I am presently enjoying ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson. It is another masterclass in the novel art form from the author; but that is not why I am here.

The title is from a Ralph Waldo Emerson line – ‘A man is a god in ruins,’ which could, I suppose, sound negative, could sound a bit down, though not to my ears.

I am fond of ruins, sometimes better than the carefully-maintained originals. As I walk the site, here still is the shape and sense of everything that was; but also sky.

You don’t need every stone in place, every wall left standing, to sense past glory or hear the voices of those who travelled through.

If we listen, the present is so full of echoes; and imagination, a quick builder, restores instantly what was.

So if, today, I am a god in ruins, I take heart - for all is in place, the shape and the sense, the foundations of primitive sanity deep in my soil.

In days I could never have imagined, and in uncertain winds, I’m a ruin on solid ground, where ancient contours still hold me.

And every decision, a small restoration.

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Pray silence for...silence

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 September 2020, 3.09pm

Silence, she calls us, quiet as a mouse, but she calls

Though sometimes we pretend not to hear and imagine words and noise more crucial

Our rituals of distraction, carefully observed, make sure the noise never stops, they resist her calls

And she is terrifying, there’s no question, some say an abyss, though gorgeous too, with such capacity, quite fathomless

This silent space, with no agenda but ours, no narrative but ours; where all can be dissolved and all re-clothed

If only we stay

She welcomes us in, brushes us down, and if only we can not look back, but enter her home, put space between our thoughts, settle at her fire

All can be dissolved and all re-clothed

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From self to soul

Posted by Simon Parke, 11 September 2020, 11.02am

There is a theme in many different teachings that invites us to forget ourselves, to do away with ourselves – as if who we are is somehow getting in the way.

The truth is, we cannot do away with ourselves for much of the time, for there are things that only our selves can do – like organising a baby sitter, or planning a trip, or sorting out the shopping, paying the gas bill, sending that birthday card, structuring a sermon, negotiating a change in our work patterns or reorganising the company.

The self knows its way around the world, knows how to do these things. We couldn’t function without it.

So the self is no demon – and it’s doing its best.

But its best is quite limited and the self can drift easily into self-importance which is where the trouble begins. ‘I’m so busy/indispensible/right etc.’

Behind and beneath this self, holding it discretely, is our soul; and it’s best we visit our soul as often as possible.

We can’t always be there, as we’ve noted. But is a homely place for the self to retreat to, when the moment allows.
Meister Eckhart wrote helpfully, if ruthlessly, about this.

‘The soul is a strange land, a wilderness, being more nameless than named; and more unknown than known.

If you could do away with yourself for a moment, then you would possess all that this place possesses in itself.

But as long as you have regard for yourself in any way, or for anything, then you will not know what God is.

As my mouth knows what colour is! And my eyes what taste is! This is how little you will know what God is!’

It is generally unwise to start with God. Better to start with our selves and our relationship to our soul, this nameless place, more unknown than known, arrived at with a few deep breaths and a letting go of labels, achievements, diaries and dreams.

If we can do away with ourselves for a moment, a deeper adventure begins.

We find we possess more than we imagine.

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Talk of suicide

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 September 2020, 12.55pm

In a week when we are remembering the pain and the trauma around suicide, I recall a meeting with someone close to the edge; someone who had given up on life....

We talk of suicide.

Rhona has tried a few times and failed…a source of some irritation to her.

She has lived week by week of late.

Stay alive until Christmas…stay alive until the New Year.

Stay alive until Mary’s birthday.

And she’s still alive… and never late for our appointments.

No one understands her, she says. They don’t realise how bad things are.

They just look at the external things, her house, her job, her horses etc..

They think because she’s having a meal out with them she’s getting better.

‘You’re obviously getting better!’

She’s not getting better.

She couldn’t care less whether she has a meal out or stays at home.

‘I have a broken brain,’ she Rhona. ‘There’s no mending that.’

‘A broken brain? That’s a strong image,’ I say.

And then she tells me of a friend whose mother committed suicide.

‘He doesn’t understand why she did it, he really can’t understand, but I totally get why she did it. It makes complete sense.’

We sit in silence. There’s quite a lot of silence today.

‘It makes complete sense inside their particular bubble,’ I offer. She nods.  ‘But it’s very small bubble,’ I add.

She changes direction. She considers different ways of killing herself. She doesn’t want to be a burden.

She doesn’t want to ruin a train driver’s day, for instance; or trouble a fisherman, having to pick her body out of the sea.

Does that rule out a cliff jump?

And she wants to donate her organs, so wishes to limit the overall damage to herself.

I ask her why, if her brain is so broken, and talks so much shit, she listens to it quite so avidly.

It’s a risk, I know it’s a risk, but my sense is that it’s time for a risk.

‘What else have I got to listen to?’ she asks. ‘It’s who I am.’

I can’t agree and suggest that it’s a poor impersonation of who she is…what Ted Hughes would call her ‘secondary self’ rather than her ‘primary self’.

‘The primary self would speak with a very different voice… is a different voice.’

That’s the voice that’s been getting her to our appointments, I say; the voice that wants her to be well; the voice that makes me laugh with some of her stories; and the voice which has spoken with such awareness about the rage inside her.

‘I’m more raging than depressed,’ she had said in our first meeting.

That had been a pretty good notice.

But she skates away from that now, skates away from her awareness with a clever explanation from her broken brain.

Yes, I watch as her over-thinking takes control again, easing her away from difficult feelings.

‘I’m not sure I am angry really, and if I was, who would I be angry with? It’s no use going round shouting at everyone. I mean, what’s the point of that?’

The secondary self is so clever, so convincing…and one thing is clear: she doesn’t want to look back. She resists any engagement with her past.

‘Your secondary self does seem to have the run of your playground,’ I say.


‘But it’s not the only voice. It’s the dominant one but not the truest one.’

Each week, I’m aware of the fragile state of our relationship. Each week, I’ve been surprised to see her again. We’ve laughed quite a lot along the way – there is a comedy in despair.

But I’m aware I might be losing her now.

I’m pushing her harder, drawn into an encounter with her secondary self, which is feistier today - but still a latrine of self-hate and clever life-denying explanation.

‘I read about people who have been depressed and come through it,’ she says dismissively. ‘You read them on the internet - but they’re not the same as me, not at all. The ideal would be for a truck to hit me when I leave – no need for anyone feel guilty then or wonder if they could have done more for me. Just a road traffic accident. I mean, I’m quite at peace.’

‘You’re not at peace - you’ve just given up on life. That isn’t the same. You’re neither at peace with yourself nor the world around you.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘Which of course makes me sad.’

‘No reason to be sad.’

‘Plenty of reason to be sad because I believe in you.’

I name some of her attributes, some of her glory. I find her very easy to like.

‘It doesn’t matter if other people believe in me,’ she says. ‘I have to believe in myself.’

They are her last words to me today.

‘Yes, nothing makes much sense until then,’ I admit, feeling useless.

For the first time, she doesn’t make another appointment before leaving. We shake hands, she goes to her car; later, I write up my notes and light a candle.

Outside, a cold wind blows.

I don’t know if we’ll meet again.

Post Script: We did meet again. Rhona is now out in the world, contributing greatly.

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How to disagree

Posted by Simon Parke, 27 August 2020, 5.49pm

Disagreements, like the poor, are always with us.

But is some disagreement better than others? Can we apply some sort of quality control as we listen to a dispute unravel?

Various models have been offered to help us discern the quality of argument. Here I draw on Paul Graham’s helpful ‘Hierarchy of disagreement’...though it differs a little from his.

So as we listen to disagreement at home, online or in political speech, what is the gold standard to aspire to – and what is fit only for the sewer?

Working from the sewer upwards, from base to pure….

6) Name-calling. My answer to my opponent is to call them ‘an odious fool’ or ‘misguided activist’. I don’t touch on the issue itself.

5) I attack the characteristics of the person. ‘This poor fellow hasn’t got a lot of friends. I think he’s trying to get attention! Is he a bit lonely!?’ I don’t touch on the issue itself.

4) I criticise the tone of the person. ‘I could do without the self-righteousness, thank you very much!’ I don’t touch on the issue itself.

3)  I state the opposite case with little or no supporting evidence. This could be on the side of a bus or wherever.

2) I offer a counter-argument to my opponent’s, backing it up with some evidence.

1) I answer the question directly. I address the issue itself and explicitly refute my opponent’s central point. 

Not all disagreement is the same.

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Starting again

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 August 2020, 5.45am

And so I start again

Clean sheet of paper, anything can be written

All baggage thrown to the wind, sailing away like a balloon in the sky

I’m starting again, starting afresh, anxiety binned, it joins despair

Their flimsy power torn into a thousand pieces by a few deep breaths, by the sight of the sea, by a moment of hope

A surprising dawn of the soul, which may appear at night, it just arrives whenever it does

This starting again, these first steps, like those men on the moon

A sacred letting go, all cherished dreams abandoned here – they make me blind to what is, when what is, is enough

And all fears released, like ashes tipped into the sea - they nibble and gnaw at my spirit no more

I’m starting again, fresh and free for this moment in time; pristine, like some kind of Eden, it’s never gone away; though sometimes I have, calcified by the limescale of life

But not today, fresh grass, springy and damp, beneath my shoe-less feet, with energy for all things

This starting again, my only prayer today

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Just where to begin with Covid?

Posted by Simon Parke, 17 August 2020, 3.26pm

It’s hard to know where to begin with Covid.

It’s changed the world, simple as that; changed the way countries work and relate.

And it’s changed your world, in a hundred ways small and large; and some of the changes have not been easy.

It’s brought lock down - long queues, long hair, long nights; lost holidays, lost jobs, lost income - lost lives… lives we couldn’t always grieve for as we wished.

It has exposed the fault lines in our leaders; brought economies to a stand still; become a nightmare of injustice for many young people taking exams; for many abused at home.

(On the plus side, it has shown that saints still exist; and water and air can be cleaned.)

We talk of unprecedented times, though, the new normal and wonder if anything will be quite the same again.

Who’d have thought we’d all be wearing masks in Tescos? And singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as we wash our hands? Has the world gone mad?

As I say, it’s hard to know where to begin with Covid.

Though I’d begin you and your journey through these events. How does that sound?

It may have touched you lightly; it may have hit you hard.  But whatever your experience, before moving on, note what has helped you; and it may be a surprise.

Pause for a moment and notice what you have treasured during these months, what (or who) has brought life to you - and then breathe this wisdom deep into your body.

We have many miles to go; the long and winding road.

But we’re learning so much as we travel; and with every step, even Covid steps, we learn.

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Why my personality is like the Tory government...oh shit

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 August 2020, 5.22pm

The human personality is a prolific liar and an incompetent manager of life - which is why it so reminds me of the present Tory government.

This government proceeds along its cheerless way with both the suppression of truth and with active untruth.

And it is busy with all this because of its clear and present incompetence.

Cover-up is essential.

There’s no great panic in Whitehall, however; even a few smug smiles perhaps.

Of the people it governs, it says to itself, ‘Don’t worry, no damage done – they’ll forget. There’ll be another news story tomorrow. The important thing is to move their attention around. They will forget the lies today.’

And this is so reminiscent of the human personality; embarrassingly so, if yours is like mine.

All the anxiety it has fed us down the years; all the paralysing fears - most of which turned out to be nonsense; and destroyed so many moments of possible beauty.

Not to mention the suppression of true feelings that could have saved us. Oh yes, like the Russia report, it really buried those!

This is clear and present incompetence by our personality – and it’s mis-managing each of us.

Yet somehow we get up, brush ourselves down and choose to believe it all over again, on a daily, hourly basis.

We somehow forget the bullshit; and like the government, it is happily amazed to get away with it. It says, ‘Don’t worry, no damage done – they’ll forget!’

I believe in a government and a personality that is accountable, daily. My soul demands it; my freedom depends on it.

So I will not forget the performance of either.

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Please avoid a positive self-image

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 August 2020, 4.52pm

It is helpful if you do not have an image of yourself, positive or negative.

An image of our selves causes nothing but trouble for our lives.

The issues with a negative self-image are not difficult to see. They might stop us getting out of bed in the morning, for instance; or, cause us to erect a wall to keep people away.

If ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m a fraud’ is my view of myself, I will want to hide from both others and myself.

So protective walls are built around us, which others can find hard. It doesn’t make for an openness of spirit.

The fact that this negative view of our selves is entirely mistaken only deepens the tragedy of these transactions.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we don’t like who we are, we stop being honest with ourselves. It’s how we survive.

So when someone says, ‘I like to think I’m non-judgemental’, it is rarely true. The clue is in ‘I like to think’...

They would like it to be so, but it isn’t and that is unacceptable to them. So they cover their tracks with a self-image that better suits them.

It would be healthier to say, ‘I am judgemental and feel uncomfortable with it. Is there anything I can do?’

Such honesty is like light streaming into a dark room. But admitting to the shadows inside us takes courage…or the experience of kindness, which some call grace.

But strangely, a positive self-image can also cause problems. This might seem counter-intuitive, because positive self-images are often spoken of as the Holy Grail.

‘Think positivity!’

But we do need to be careful.

There are the obvious false declarations in this cause. Perhaps someone aggressively declares ‘I think I’m great!’ - when clearly, by all other psychological metrics, they do not. The pressure towards positivity or purity can make liars of us. (Which is why there is so much dishonesty in church communities.)

But there are other more fundamental issues when we self-identify as ‘non-judgemental’ or ‘wise’ or ‘compassionate’ or ‘funny’ or ‘self-aware’ or ‘loyal’ or ‘reliable’ or whatever. Perhaps someone once told us this, whispered it in our ear. Perhaps we felt it was something we should be.

But what happens the day I am not so? I have set myself up to be this particular version of myself – but these labels bring responsibilities I won’t always be able to meet.

Contortions, cover-ups and anxiety can follow.

‘Was I wise enough in that meeting?’ or ‘Oh dear, I wasn’t very compassionate today – did they notice?’ or ‘Was I funny/loyal/reliable/self-aware enough? I’m a fraud! But I can’t let anyone else know!’

So we stay free and don’t attach to any labels about ourselves. They are neither true nor helpful; we don’t self-identify.

Labels, both positive and negative, kill life. I am nothing but this present moment and the transactions occurring here and now. We we look after this moment; we won’t crush it with a label.

This moment is the only identity I possess. I may have been very wise yesterday, but I will probably be stupid today.

So what do we do? We simply notice ourselves kindly and keep the identity space free, no labels allowed.

And here, I suspect, is joy, freedom…

... and endless and resourceful creativity in the world.

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The most brilliant acorn story

Posted by Simon Parke, 06 August 2020, 5.47am

The human personality, a construct of our early-years development, is sometimes compared to an acorn.

It can be a shiny acorn.

It can be a tough acorn.

Sometimes it may be a merry little acorn.

It can even be polished and treated and looked after religiously.

But it can never be more than acorn until it cracks.

To become an oak tree, it has to give up its present existence – which is quite a thing.

This is why there is no growth in the human personality. There are things we can do. We can helpfully develop coping mechanisms to deal with issues; we can polish the little marvel, pamper it a little.

These can help.

But there is no growth within its boarded-up structures, no change. Only when something gives, something cracks, some permission is given, some surrender occurs does human growth begin.

Some say we only change when we get bored of our own unhappiness. For others, it might be crisis that releases a different spirit.

Either way, we’ll not fear the crack in our acorns side; it’s how oaks grow.

As Hafiz memorably wrote,

‘Light will some day split you open

Even if your life is now a cage.

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,

Is hidden and sown on an ancient fertile plain,

You hold the title to.’

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