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My holiday notes - I think I saw you

Posted by Simon Parke, 29 September 2022, 2.49pm

The sea shifts, adjusts, invites and holds

The sun melts, warms, lights and exposes

The mountain is rock, sparse, itself and eternal

And you are the sea

And you are the sun

And you are the mountain

I had a great holiday in Rhodes, and I somehow think I saw you there.

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Shape-shifters anonymous

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 September 2022, 3.06pm

Shape-shifting among politicians is normal, if sometimes breath-taking.

Prime Minister Liz Truss, for instance, was clear and forthright against Brexit before the vote; and clear and forthright for Brexit after the vote.

There’s a thing.

But before I judge too harshly, I may need to consider my own shape-shifting antics.

Most people don’t see themselves as shape-shifters. Most think of their lives as an authentic and thought-through set of moves, driven by one consistent ‘I’ who guides all things; but this isn’t quite how it is.

Our life, like the Prime Minister’s, is many movements, driven not by one I, but various ‘I’s’; different aspects of ourselves, who don’t agree at all.

Take relationships, for example. In one relationship we are this; in another, we are something else. We behave differently depending who we are with.

You’ll know the kind doctor, loved by his patients for giving them time; and hated by his family for not giving them time.

Which is the real him? Both of them.

We are many different children, each coming out to play at different times.

Sometimes we are dread and sometimes we are joy.

We are sometimes kind and sometimes cold; sometimes generous, sometimes tight.

There is in us the one who is hurt; and the one who hurts others.

The one in control and the one in free fall.

There is our public persona, how we wish to be seen; and our private persona, which may be a little different.

And we possess different strands of experience as well. We have sometimes been lucky, for instance – so very lucky; and at other times, so unlucky, cruelly so.

We host such different strands of experience and behaviour in our bodies. And they don’t talk much, if at all.

Beyond our torrent of self-justification, if we can pause it for a moment, we are many stories, rather than one story; and no two the same.

Slowly, we become aware of other strands within us ...strands of rage, strands of calm, strands of panic and reassurance, twisted fantasy and virtuous dream.

I remember fine moments of exemplary behaviour in my life and less fine moments, when I was someone else entirely.

They were, and are, all me.

As I reflect on my life, I see no consistent me, but many me’s, all of them grabbing the steering wheel on occasion.

And these different strands of my being, often contradictory, need my kind attention if I am care for myself and others with any degree of authenticity.

And this is neither easy nor instant.

Some of the strands we don’t see because we do not allow them. We are embarrassed by them so we do not acknowledge them, we cannot acknowledge.

Instead, we banish all knowledge of their existence; our psyche hides them at the back of the drawer, in order to maintain our sense of consistency…or decency.

We push them to the back of the drawer, and cover them over, hiding them away.

In my experience, though, if we give them time, and welcome, these different aspects of ourselves, they do appear, slowly.

Not all at once, but gradually, they make themselves known, like survivors appearing dirty and dazed from a collapsed mineshaft.

They have been underground a long time. We’d almost forgotten they were there. Yet here they are!

This gradual dismantling of our self-image; this letting go of the idea that there is a consistent and single ‘me’ guiding my way through life – it can be difficult at first and bring with it, a sense of non-existence.

We might be asking: ‘If there is no consistent me, well - who am I?’

This can be unsettling; and we may wish to rush back to a more established, if brutalised, identity.

As time goes by, however, we find non-existence to be a loosening experience, liberating even. It’s a great delight not to have a set image of ourselves. It was never true anyway.

We are simply who we are now. Shape-shifting is what we do.

And as these survivors of our psyche are lifted to the surface and appear from underground, we greet them all and hug each one in welcome.

It is a community of the damaged, the well and the different – so very different, hardly anything in common; but now re-united in the sunlight of awareness.

It’s almost as if we are one.

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The conscious life

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 September 2022, 9.22am

I’d like to ponder consciousness for a moment.

Most imagine themselves to be conscious. Perhaps you do.

We talk about being ‘knocked unconscious’ or ‘recovering consciousness’ after a shock of some sort.

But the general sense is that, apart from particular incidents, we walk around being conscious.

I am less sure about this. Most, in my experience, are conscious of very little, starting with themselves.

Evidence suggests that most of the time we are acting mechanically, in tramlines of established thought and behaviour which allows for little deviation.

We gather protectively round our self-image of someone who is pretty decent, pretty thought through, right-thinking with mind of our own etc etc…and sing with Sinatra, ‘I did it my way’.

We like what we know and know what we like.

We may not like others putting us in a box; in fact, we get very angry about that. But strangely, it’s what we do to ourselves. 

This one-sideness of attitude, allowing access to only narrow strips of experience, is the nemesis of consciousness, blocking the flow of energy through us. 

It requires a shock of some sort to take us from mechanical human to conscious human. And the opening of ourselves to consciousness is a daily activity, for it is easily lost, easily squuezed.

One simple way to loosen some of the bricks in the wall is to observe our strongly-held beliefs and opinions – and then ponder the opposite position.

Is that possible?

This is not an attempt to change your mind; you are not asked to discard your point of view. You merely include another’s.

It is a small revolution. It frees the energy blocked by the one-sidedness of our habitual consciousness. Fresh life flows into blocked areas, increasing our awareness of colour, light, nuance.

One-sidedness is the dumbed-down version of ourselves, making us dull, over-sensitive, blind and self-righteous. 

There are hurdles. To look at ourselves and the world more truthfully, we will need to get past a twisted self-love that makes a journey into awareness feel like reproof.

Maybe this feels like reproof.

It is nothing of the sort, of course. It is a description of the journey to freedom. But our self-love can make it feels so.

And so we note the intractable thing which allows us to go so far, but no further. Something blocks further journeying – something that sulks or something that smiles coldly and says nothing. Or something that shouts, ‘I won’t, I won’t!’ Or something which quietly avoids or says ‘Fuck it.’

The commitment to ignorance has various faces; the only unifying aspect is the terror behind them.

We each possess an intractable thing, yours may differ from mine. And so each day, I remember: I am not properly conscious; nor are others.

We are too often mechanical rather than aware.

And broadening consciousness of myself and the world can only occur at the expense of my usual feelings about myself, my precious self-image, the one-sidedness of my tramline senses.

So, as much as I am able, I let go of these each day, and discover I still exist.

Each day, with a deep breath, we step out of the box we inhabit and into a more spacious place where we and others exist more colourfully, more vulnerably, more differently, more truly.

We recover consciousness.

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There is light

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 September 2022, 9.57am

There is light, still light at your centre, a strong quiet flame.

It lights your soul entire, revealing your glory like sun across the beach.

We lose it, this light.

It is not always known by us or seen by us, it becomes unknown, for life covers it over, like creeping ivy.

And we find it hidden from our senses and imagine it gone, making every dawn cold and our spirit frustrated.

No applause or achievement or belief recovers the light. It simply doesn’t.

The light existed before these, it has no relationship with them.

Nor does shame or guilt claim it back, as if they could? How can ivy save the tree? Ivy can only destroy it.

But the light remains, through it all, through every cold and aching dawn, the light remains, unextinguished, un-put-outable.

So we trim the ivy, we do our best, and when exhausted by best, we collapse in despair, still at last.

And find in stillness a window, a window on the light, a different seeing, our soul entire dancing, this flame ablaze.

Always.

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The day Vincent Van Gogh was praised

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 August 2022, 5.11pm

When Vincent was in the mental asylum in St Remy, something amazing happened in Paris.

Vincent was familiar with a sense of failure in life. At this point, his relationships and life-dreams lay in tatters. And though he was painting a great deal, no one much liked what he did.

It is possible he had sold one picture to Pere Tanguy; but probably no more.

And then Albert Aurier, the flamboyant young art critic, appeared. He took a look at the work Vincent had sent from the south to his brother Theo in Paris – and gave a stunning it review.

In excited prose, he declared that in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, he had uncovered an art ‘at once entirely realistic and yet almost supernatural, of an excessive nature where everything – being and things, shadows and lights, forms and colours – rears and rises up with a raging will to howl its own essential song.’

The review went on and it was all praise. Vincent was the talk of Paris, with rumours fuelled by Gaughin, that he was the artist who had gone mad in the south, only adding to public titillation.

So, how did Vincent react in the asylum? Was this the affirmation he needed?

Initially, he brushed it off, feeling the praise exaggerated, underserved and premature. Just as vicious attack was his first move when criticised, self-deprecation was his first move when praised.

And then, as he tells us, ‘when my surprise wore off a little, I felt at times very much cheered by it.’

But mostly, and here is the tragedy, the praise created fear. He felt exposed, under threat, a fraud. ‘I ought to be like that,’ he said, ‘rather than the reality of what I actually am…as soon as I read the article, I feared I would be punished for it.’

Why?

Vincent’s fear of reckoning welled up from his childhood, when his mother had taught that fate would always have its revenge on falsity and excess; and Vincent had learned the lesson well.

As a twenty-year-old in London, he wrote, ‘After all the sunshine I enjoy, there could be rain very soon.’

Catastrophising, which is the damaged child of fear, was baked into his cake of life early.

His letters are full of dark forebodings of the price due for underserved blessings. And shortly after the review, he had a significant breakdown in the asylum.

We might have imagined praise would be the answer for Vincent; but where shame fills our being, praise means nothing and can actually make things worse.

‘Who am I to be praised?’ says shame.

While Vincent’s light shone bright in Paris, he knew only darkness in St Remy.

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Stillness

Posted by Simon Parke, 22 August 2022, 5.34pm

Stillness.

Mary Oliver, in her poem Today, calls it ‘one of the doors into the temple.’

It is a precious space, and sounds simple enough. But as experience shows, stillness is not so easily come by; and often far from where we are.

To arrive there, should we wish it – and I say that, because we might not imagine it’s allowed, what with us having to be productive and all that.

But should we give up that compulsion, should we come to our senses and wish for stillness, we will first slow our mind; because fast mind has no chance.

The mind must slow, like a carthorse in a field after a hard days work – methodical and in no rush.

Steady, calm and watching.

Fast mind is no cart horse but a monkey swinging in the trees, rushing ahead in negative or anxious anticipation of possible harm.

‘What if this or what if that?’ Fast mind is planning to cut off danger at the pass.

When fast mind is the danger.

If we are to find stillness, fast mind must become slow mind, settled here and now and with no other agenda than what is, whatever is before us.

And the body, which keeps every score, must help too. The body must be free.

Our body becomes a thoroughfare through which thoughts and feelings pass; but do not stick or stain or make mad people of us.

They arise and depart, arise and depart, like mist in sunlight; and behind them, in the void, in the body’s silence, they leave such space.

Stillness is known for its space.

When the mind is slowed, and the body free, our breathing deepens and we arrive at stillness, a clearing in the forest.

Through the undergrowth and over-hang, we arrive at a place of strength, knowing and good decision.

And – as you’ll be aware - with the extraordinary power of a tiger ready to pounce.

Stillness. One of the doors into the temple.

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Reasons to be optimistic

Posted by Simon Parke, 11 August 2022, 11.44am

William Golding, who wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’ said he was ‘a universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist.’

He was trying to distinguish between the universe, as the sum of man’s empirical knowledge and attempts at management, and the cosmos, as the totality of all there is, including God and man.

And it has always sat sensibly with me: the power of disorder and the power of creation.

Entropy, the tendency towards increasing disorder, is the natural way of man-made things, where the routine selfishness and greed of humans – whether in government, business or elsewhere – makes for difficult things.

Like Ukraine.

Like the cost of living crisis.

Like rampant climate change.

In this universe, when you’d think action on climate change would be a no-brainer, it isn’t. It requires significant energy and sacrifice to promote it.

Just like it took significant energy to stop the slave trade. (Though, as entropy dictates, the slave trade continues in new forms.)

So, optimism that things will naturally get better is misplaced. Entropy trumps well-meaning optimism and vague future hopes of enlightenment’s arrival.

An organisation left to itself rots by degree, as a garden left to itself is slowly covered by weeds.

But it’s far from all bad news because, as history shows, there always are solutions, and it is in these that optimism rests.

Inventors, creators, reformers, social heroes, inspired leaders, good neighbours, kind people alter circumstances through what they do. They hold entropy back.

Perhaps the war in Ukraine makes us renew our love for liberal democracy.

Perhaps the present NHS crisis – no ambulances is quite a thing - renews our commitment to a universal and functioning health care system

Perhaps Covid re-awakened support for those in our community.

Perhaps the cost of living crisis will do the same; perhaps it will bring real social reform from brave government.

As we are bombarded by bad news – the default (and misleading) position of the media – we may find energy awakened in us to be part of the solution, in a way that is possible for us.

This is not the time for boosterism – the bold declaration that things will somehow be OK. That’s the optimism of the bad or insane. Or The Daily Express.

Sunny uplands are not our natural destination.

But it is the time for solutions, small and large; for a gathering of the good and the hopeful all over the world.

How shall we hold entropy back today? We have done it before, often; we can do it again.

As one famous escape artist said, ‘In every puzzle, you have to find the gap.’

There is always a gap; and in finding the gap, and having the balls…

... there lies the optimism.

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A room of one's own

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 August 2022, 5.26pm

If the flute is clogged, no air, and therefore no music, can come through.

And if we are clogged by old ways and assumptions – knickknacks from our past, stale fears, worn-out opinions - there can be no heart shrine inside, from which to hear and feel fresh things.

Jesus calls this ‘our inner room.’

Virginia Woolf called it ‘a room of one’s own’.

To create such a room, a heart shrine, requires significant de-cluttering and letting go.

How?

It might start in the heart-lung area of your body, where blood and air collaborate to let go of what’s needed with each exhalation; and to take in what’s needed with each inhalation.

If we can breathe just one conscious breath in the day, it is perhaps one more than yesterday, and something to build on. Tomorrow, it could be two.

And as the heart shrine appears - slowly, it cannot be rushed - allow the silence. Let your breathing and your heart beat create silence first of all… and peace.

Whatever the circumstance, silence and peace; you’re there.

Beneath this is pure energy and fulness of being.

But inner silence is the heart shrine, our destination, maybe once or twice a day, our inner room, a room of our own…

...from which to live, dance and love.

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My brilliant surrender

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 July 2022, 8.59am

An intruder with a gun breaks into a monastery.

He sticks the gun in the belly of a monk who is meditating.

The monk continues to meditate.

‘You don’t understand!’ says the intruder, ‘I have the power to take your life!’

‘No, it’s you who doesn’t understand,’ says the monk. ‘I have the power to let you.’

Some call it the ‘surrender practice’ – and it’s to be encouraged.

‘Surrender’ as an idea does not have a good name. In popular imagination, it’s about cowardice, white flags, losers and defeat - and no one wants those labels.

We want to be fighters! ‘We shall never surrender!’

Yet most people’s inner fights are a huge waste of energy and keep them from love and life. Whereas surrender returns us there.

You’re standing in a supermarket queue.

Part of you is constrained by circumstance. You’re judging the slow till worker, assessing the speed of other queues, tense with many thoughts, eager to be away, watching other shoppers warily, angry with delay.

And then another part of you surrenders to the moment, and allows it to be just as it is; and now something surprisingly spacious and present is experienced.

You’re in the supermarket queue; and you’re free; from ill-being to wellbeing, via surrender.

Kabir Helminski defines surrender as being ‘actively receptive to an intelligence that is greater than that of ourselves.’

Surrender takes us, just for a moment, out of our sealed-in neuroses, revealing a different and altogether larger world… though we haven’t moved at all.

We hand our self over, we cease fighting, we trust something.

This can be difficult, depending on our story and our experiences in life.

So, we notice ourselves kindly when difficulty appears. How do we respond?

Some brace themselves, harden, hunker down and resist at all costs, cry ‘No, no, no!’

Others soften, open themselves, yield and say, ‘Let it be.’

The first response sends us to our small self and old survival patterns; the second brings us to our truer self and the strange healing of the present.

It is not about becoming a doormat; the monk wasn’t a doormat. He was just free – and therefore rather disturbing.

Surrender is about leaving our neuroses and justifications and acting more freely, whether at work, home or on the beach.

So, at the beginning of the day, and perhaps several times thereafter, we relax into surrender.

It’s a different power.

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This picture of my life needs changing

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 July 2022, 7.39am

Do you have a picture of how your life should be?

Does it hang on your wall and do you look at it every day?

And if you do, how does it make you feel?

Sometimes, if we are to be happy, we need a new picture of our lives.

Sometimes we discover we’ve framed and varnished a vision of our lives that doesn’t relate to reality.

It is wishful thinking, at best; and means that we only ever experience disappointment, anxiety or despair, because our real life does not match the picture.

The picture offers a dream. But the dream is unobtainable, so our life is judged, constantly.

‘This is how I want it to be! But my life isn’t like that. So everything’s bad. I am bad.’

With only this one picture to look at, nothing is good, everything could be better…and there is neither joy nor peace.

We are framing our lives in unhelpful and unreal ways…until we decide to re-frame things.

And so we do.

If we have an old picture that we no longer like or one that doesn’t fit the décor of the room - we remove it. We take it down and replace it with another picture.

And so with our life picture.

To find joy, we may need to let go of old ways of framing our life and find new images – images more closely related to reality.

Reality is sometimes difficult, but it is also full of joy; something our old framing, an act of the desperate imagination, could never give us.

How do you frame your life today? Does the picture on your wall bring joy – or despair?

If it doesn’t make you happy, it may be time for change

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