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This ageing game

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 January 2019, 6.24pm

Daniel Holland recently initiated a merry exchange of tweets on the subject of getting old.

‘What are the signs of the passing years?’ he asked - and started the ball rolling with ‘I think the most ‘old person’ thing I do is feel brave and reckless if I begin watching a film after 9pm.’

And other suggestions followed, the tell-tale signs of age:

‘I have “a spot” on the couch,’ says Rebecca, while for Denise, it’s all about slippers:

‘Slippers…slippers on as soon as I get in…slippers with me for an overnight stay anywhere. Slippers.’

Roger finds himself thinking about weekends differently. Sign of getting old? ‘Getting excited when weekend plans are cancelled,’ he declares and others share in this particular joy.

‘I don’t have to go out!’

Then there’s a new relationship to the sofa. ‘I hobble when I walk after getting up from the sofa,’ says Lloyd. ‘I’m 51.’

While involuntary noises - the ‘Ooohs’ and the ‘Ahhhs’ - when rising from the sofa or sitting down on it, are also well documented. Ageing appears to be about grunting when you didn’t used to grunt.

The owning of a cardigan gets equal coverage and electric blankets are much applauded, declared by one person, ‘an endless joy’.

So many new considerations as each year begins a new conversation with our bodies.

For instance, Kerry now sits down to sneeze, ‘so I don’t throw my back out,’ while for Sally, ‘When dropping something on the floor, I consider “How much do I need it?” before deciding whether to pick it up or not.’

And new requirements appear in the home. Dave says, ‘I have a stick just for stirring paint.’

Crucial.

While Vanessa now has ‘special shoes for gardening.’

Yep, she doesn’t use them for anything else…that wouldn’t be on at all.

And of course waning sight is an issue. Michael finds himself saying, ‘“Wait, let me get my glasses” whenever someone hands me something to read. I used to make fun of those people,’ he adds.

Ah yes, sadly we find ourselves greeted by each of our amusing/barbed asides from our past - hoist by our own petard, as Shakespeare would say.

While we discover Lydia ‘squinting at tiny cooking instructions on packets and then holding them at arm’s length where my focus is better before admitting defeat and getting my glasses.’

Randy? Randy is changing his travel routine. ‘It’s never too early to get to the airport,’ he says, an important truth he has come to in the third half of life.

While for Jane, there are new delights to be found in TV drama. ‘When I watch a sex scene on telly,’ she says, ‘I find myself paying more attention to the soft furnishings.’

Something lost, something gained.

While Steven says he now only has two jokes which he repeats endlessly. The best one is the second of the two. ‘When I heard there was a cure for dyslexia it was like music to my arse.’

Though I feel someone under fifty could find that funny; good comedy isn’t age-specific… but our body is.

Cardinal New man said, ‘Life is change and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

This is true and delightfully, a number of surveys record those in their late sixties as the ‘happiest’ people in the UK.

But living in a body one neither recognises nor particularly welcomes is one of the more difficult adjustments along the path to heaven.

Every year, a fresh conversation with our miraculous but aching body.

‘What shall we agree on for now?’

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The appeal of emptiness

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 January 2019, 9.43am

We live in an era of techniques, courses and qualifications.

‘If you want to improve yourself, use this technique.’

‘If you want to better yourself, go on this course.’

‘You’ll need this qualification if you want to progress, if you want a top job.’

The insecure energy behind all this, is the idea that to be better – whether in business or self-development - you must add things to your life…add letters after your name, add information, add certificates…

...when the utter opposite is true.

Deep creativity is not in acquiring new ideas but in releasing ourselves from the old ones; those that have seeped silently and drip-fed our consciousness down the years, disabling it.

The poet RS Thomas asked to be delivered from ‘the long drought of the mind.’

Health, wisdom and happiness is about removing things from our life; removing those influences that make us blind, stupid or restless.

This is why teachers speak of emptiness…space into which fresh life can be poured each day.

Until then, it will be a needy rush after techniques, courses and qualifications; filling rather than emptying…a desperate mind-stuffing.

It might appear mad, but today we’ll be open to emptiness, to space.

After all, it’s how the world began.

From no thing, some thing.

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The confessions of a cello player

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 January 2019, 4.54pm

‘I think, therefore I am,’ declared Descartes, famously.

But Buddha, 2500 years before him, would have drawn the opposite conclusion.

For him, the human race was in fact lost in thought, comparing us to a monkey swinging his way aimlessly if effortlessly through a forest, grabbing at one branch, then another – one thought, then another.

Thought, in Buddha’s view, was neither enlightenment… nor even existence.

Such things were the privilege only of those who successfully dismantled their ego and lived a life of active compassion.

Rohan de Saram is a world famous cello player. I lived round the corner from him in London for number of years.

And one day we sat with a cup of tea and talked.

He’s a man who straddles east and west, having spent the first ten years of his life in his native Sri Lanka, before his musical genius brought him to the west, where he has lived ever since.

It seems he is with the east on the nature of awakening, however.

‘Very few reach their highest potential and become truly awakened. There are so many things in life which attract, or perhaps distract, one’s attention.’

As he says this, I remember that Buddha believed no householder, with a family and business responsibilities could become enlightened.

You have to leave such things, he said, for they provoke unhelpful and damaging desires. Rohan, however, is less sure.

‘There is the same tension in Christianity, with so many leaving the cities for the desert in the 4th century, escaping the world and its pressures, in order to find themselves in harsher but purer climes. And perhaps some achieved that. But the Bhagavad gita (Hindu scriptures) tries to harmonise the worldly and the spiritual.’

I ask him if he can think of someone who has harmonised the two – worldly responsibility and spiritual creation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he suggests a musician, whose work he has often played.

‘I think of Bach. You could not find a more wide-ranging or spiritual artist, yet at the same time, he was a man playing a most practical part in day to day existence, earning his living in various churches and courts, with often unimpressive employers.

So one begins to wonder whether it is not in fact the mind and spirit which does one’s work – that is significant.

The Bhagavad gita says it is not what you do, but how you do it that matters – whether a lavatory cleaner, hermit or king.’

He sits back before adding, ‘It is important not to be attached to the results of one’s work.’

It’s possible therefore that we don’t have to leave our job to find enlightenment. We might just stay where we are and ‘do a Bach’, as they say.

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The Christmas tree - a lament

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 January 2019, 3.12pm

You may have long forgotten about your Christmas tree.

It may have been back in its box or out in the street a while ago.

It’s only a tree, after all.

But the truth is we found it pretty hard letting go of ours.

It was the last aspect of the season we dismantled, an activity that was twice postponed as January 6th rapidly progressed.

It felt like we were putting the dog down, a mix of guilt and sadness. No vet… but there were tears.

We bought it from the garden centre, where it was ‘netted’ by the nice man, to make it manageable, followed by a difficult car journey with a tree top in the driver’s ear.

The only rear view was Norwegian pine.

And then it sort of settles in to the home, blocking the way past the sofa, but such a scent, and sparkly, with decorations gathered down the years, each a story in itself.

And there it stands in the front room like a maitre d’, doing nothing, but somehow presiding over everything, gatherings small and large…and solitude.

Sometimes one has to sit alone with this tree.

And now I stand for a while remembering all the people who have enjoyed its aura over the last four weeks…young and old, name by name by name.

It is like contemplating angels, only more interesting.

Until suddenly and too soon – and where has the time gone?  - it’s time for it to go.

The neighbours are removing their tree from the window, the wise men have finally arrived, (apparently) and there is a rude pressure to have all light, glow and sparkle dismantled.

And so we say goodbye to it all - the wreaths come down from doorways, the cards from the shelves, the various nativity scenes, where a baby Jesus (woolen) is discovered to be missing… the tree’s baubles are boxed, and finally the lights…they go out for the last time.

Gone.

And you may tell me this is a first world problem, which is what people usually say when they don’t feel something…their lack of connection somehow made grand, as though they are ambassadors for international concern.

But we’ll let them be and ponder instead the space left behind.

The tree is in the garden, waiting for the Easter fire; while inside, mere space, sparse space, a genius of emptiness, waiting to begin again.

The genius of sadness is the space it leaves in its wake.

And the fact that we can now get past the sofa again…

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A daily epiphany

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 January 2019, 10.13am

How to describe your essence - the reality at the centre of your being?

It’s difficult, for beautiful states are not best served by words. Who, after all, can describe the scent of a hyacinth?

While an interviewer once asked the dancer Pavlova what her dance meant.

‘If I could speak it, I wouldn’t have danced it,’ she replied.

People paint pictures, compose music and sculpt stone because words are inadequate for the expression of profounder truths.

What chance of words describing our essence, therefore?

We have one ace in our pack, however – our experience. We know this creature already. We sense inside ourselves this prowling lion of powerful possibility.

Our essence, or our substantial self, is not an abstract and elusive idea like some portrayals of heaven. Rather, it is something we already know. We have all experienced our essence, and are acquainted with some of its attributes. 

We may wish to know it better, but we are certainly acquainted.So as we contemplate it now, we’ll be struck by significant recognition.

For our essence is like a vast expanse of water, a reservoir of attributes like warmth, kindness, empathy, clarity, intelligence, steadfastness, subtlety, openness, curiosity, courage, detachment, justice, spaciousness, contentment, depth, initiative, identity and generosity.

These are startling qualities and the primary energies within us.

But like graffiti scrawled across a masterpiece, secondary energies, created by our personalities, often overwhelm us.

Energies like despair, pride, judgement, negativity, shame, resentment, separation, anger, fear, vanity, cynicism, jealousy, depression and anxiety have their own bleak force within us.

We learnt these things well when young, and unlearning childhood lessons is difficult, (so we’ll be kind to ourselves). But these energies, which can be a terrible force, remain secondary to who we are.

Primary to who we are is our essence.

To seek, glimpse, breathe and touch our essence is the most fruitful of meetings.

We breathe our true selves…a daily and quite possible epiphany.

(The substance of this piece is taken from my book, ‘The Journey Home’,published by Bloomsbury.)

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The soul window

Posted by Simon Parke, 04 January 2019, 11.18am

Let us talk of things not much talked of, soul and personality.

They are closely related, yet behave differently.

Your soul is the window through which your essential self sees, knows and understands both itself and the world.

Your personality is like shutters across this fine window, protecting it from the dangers of the street, ensuring survival.

But while the shutters protect, they also deny light, shrouding it in dust and gloom. Seeing, knowing and understanding is now more difficult.

There are glimpses of light through the cracks in the shutters; light does get through, sometimes surprising and significant light –

But everything is partial, even the light, for the shutters are buffers, obscurers…and on occasion, the darkness they bring can be almost total.

The development of the human personality, through childhood and teenage years, builds protective shutters… and the grand window of the soul loses its transparency.

We cease to see reality as it is; neither our own nor that of the world beyond.

Instead of the soul window being our outlook on ourselves and the world, the shutters are our outlook, and much is opaque.

This is why we know little of ourselves; why we create and perpetuate narratives that aren’t true.

It’s just too dark to see; we’re struggling for clarity.

The human soul, free of the shutters, is transparent, colourless and clear. It sees both outwards and inwards with terrifying clarity and inspired openness.

Imagine a clean window within, the soul window.

Here is the infinite vulnerability of true perception, the fearless soul let out to play, a clean view on all things…and personality dissolved in that moment.

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What does good leadership look like in 2019?

Posted by Simon Parke, 02 January 2019, 11.12am

What will good leadership look like in 2019?

My primary wish for the country this year is the discovery and experience of good leadership – a privilege we don’t presently enjoy.

And should the chance of change be offered, a choice between Mrs May or Mr Corbyn is not a choice which excites.

Mrs May’s clunky psyche moves like a crab - awkward, determined, unresponsive to touch and nuance, cut off from relationship.

Her absence of relationship with others has brought us to where are.

The lone furrow of psychological separation has trumped explanation, conversation and alliance in the Brexit journey. Her pursuit of a Brexit deal hidden from others, kept safe behind her airless shell, has brought no one with her.

Without relationship, only terror can persuade, which is the path she presently pursues – ‘my way or nothing.’

Mr Corbyn should have had the easier ride as a leader – holding power to account is a great deal less challenging than wielding it.

But in the three major challenges that confronted him last year – the response to the Salisbury poisonings, the anti-Semitism row in the Labour party and Brexit –
‘Disingenuous’ was his middle name.

And this is no name for a leader.

He adopted shape-shifting, evasion and absence as his modus operandi; when in politics and business, integrity and trust is at the heart of all good leadership.

Both these party leaders have beauty within them.

But like graffiti across a masterpiece, secondary energies, created by their personalities, swamp their leadership.

In the case of Mrs May, resentment, fear and self-punishment are particularly at play behind the shell.

In the case of Mr Corbyn, vanity, rage and cynicism are more to the fore.

Leadership will always be a frail and human affair. We bring our inadequate selves to the task and leadership will find us out, exposing every crack.

And this is fine, for no one is the messiah, or need imagine themselves so. We bring our speckled selves to the role, we can’t be someone else; we do our best with who we are and lead in our own way, warts and all.

But beyond the stain and graffiti of our secondary energies, our personality, there are some primary energies which will always be evident in the good leader - energies like clarity, openness, courage, connection, curiosity, identity and depth.

And these are not beyond any of us, should we wish to nurture them.

My primary wish for the country this year is the discovery and experience of good leadership.

Any takers?

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Happy New Year?

Posted by Simon Parke, 02 January 2019, 8.59am

And so we start again, that’s what the calendar says.

Everything in the media is about hopes for the New Year, the plans we have.

‘Best wishes for the new year,’ people kindly say and the exuberant fire works flash and fizz.

We’re allowed to look back over our shoulders at things done – ‘That was the year that was’ - but only briefly. History is not encouraged.

The stronger social media tide (and what other tide is there?) carries us forward into the new year, 2019.

And there’s something exciting about the new, a wonderfully free space where anything can happen.

A fresh start even? Some of us dream of that as we clear away the colourful debris of Christmas.

Though the new can also scare.

‘How will I survive?’ will be the thought in other minds. The new can appear a frightening void until we have found our place in it.

We may not feel as excited or as hopeful as those around us.

Some may feel the years rushing by, sand through their fingers, nothing achieved -and turn on themselves in despair.

Calendars can be cruel in this way.

So return, again and then again, to your beating heart and the breath in your lungs. They anchor us.

The truth is, we are all beginners at this time of year, absolute beginners. No one knows anything.

It’s the time when people speak most about the future; yet know nothing about it. Prediction merchants are only guessing.

So we pause, speak kindly to our beginner’s soul, open the curtains on another year, and walk half-knowing but wholehearted into its arms.

Here we’ll find sadness, failure and delight; we’ll find fear and such comfort; we’ll find strength, weakness and refuge.

And we’ll discover the deepest creativity which is a fresh start every day.

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The Darkling Thrush

Posted by Simon Parke, 31 December 2018, 5.22pm

My end of year, start of year poem of the week, ‘The Darkling Thrush’.

It was written by Thomas Hardy, on December 31st, 1900: the sorryness, the darkness of the season, stripped and bare…and the grandeur of the unexpected.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

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A Christmas message

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 December 2018, 11.16am

I don’t know if you’ve ever played the game: ‘Which century would you most have liked to live in – and why?’

If it helps, I can tell you a century to avoid: the 14th century.

It did see the birth of the English language in the hands of kind yet flinty writers like Chaucer.

But away from that, it was a dreadful time, which mere words can’t honour – a time of terrible famines and starvation; a century of plagues like the world had never seen; a time of social inequality and people’s revolt; of the misuse of power, state violence and repression – and a church obsessed with money, guilt, fear and hell.

Really, unending awfulness.

Yet it was in this century that a woman – known now as Julian of Norwich – spoke these famous words of optimism:

‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

So was she criminally shallow, stupid or deluded?

She herself had almost certainly lost a husband and child in the plague…and watched helpless as two thirds of her beloved city was massacred by the rat’s fleas and horrid boils of the Black Death.

So how was all going to be well? How was such trauma to be mended? It was her constant scream, and she both received an answer and didn’t receive an answer.

Someone said to me recently, ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas because suddenly the world is a better place. It isn’t. I celebrate Christmas because it’s the story of God with us in the world as it is.’

This echoes another conversation Julian had with God in the impossible 14th century.

‘‘He did not say, ‘You will not be troubled, or, you will not be wearied, or you will not be distressed’ – but he did say, ‘You will not be overcome.’’

You will not be overcome, which is Julian’s way of saying ‘Happy Christmas’.

There was little that was right in the stable that first Christmas, and much that was right…and all shall be well.

And all manner of things shall be well.

 

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