Tori Amos and Terrorism

Working on my new book, The Stillness Within – Finding Inner Peace in a Conflicted World has really given me the opportunity to delve deep into my own soul. This book is taken from writings on this blog and updated, collated and revised into a little book that will hopefully be a guidepost on the roads we travel to a place of peace.

I apologise if my posts here the last few weeks have been a bit scarce – I’m in full-on editing mode, and sorting out the cover this week too. One thing that I am exploring deeply this week, however, which may or may not make it into the edit of this book (time restrictions) is the notion of how much we fight ourselves, as well as each other. Watching some interviews with music artist Tori Amos the other day, she spoke of how we find our own personal power, which can defeat notions of terrorism. This terrorism is not in the conventional sense, however, but a personal terrorism that comes from within that seeks to obliterate rather than negotiate.

She stated that the song The Power of Orange Knickers, that deals with the theme of terrorism, kept drawing her in, deeper and deeper into different meanings of the word. “It’s easy to see the enemy in another country, it’s easy to see the enemy in another culture: find the enemy in your own culture, then find the enemy in your own being… we all have this part of ourselves that would choose to obliterate an idea instead of negotiate, because it takes a lot of skill to negotiate, but it doesn’t take a lot of skill to obliterate.”

Her words struck a chord with me. How often do we not allow for understanding to bring about a resolution to a conflict? In my book, I talk a lot about how compassion is understanding, trying to see the other side, trying to see the bigger picture. But in doing so, we may have to admit that we have a limited viewpoint, and worse still, that our viewpoint may actually be wrong. Our egos get in the way all the time, trying to save face, with bitter, hurtful words, bad or destructive behaviour or any other myriad ways which we employ to ensure that the façade that we are “right” is kept intact. But what happens when that is happening from within, not only doing it to others, but when we are doing that to ourselves?

For the most part, when we have been hurt, we often try to obliterate the person who has hurt us, punishing them in some way to make ourselves feel better. In severe cases of abuse this may not be the case, but in our day to day interactions with others, when someone does something we do not like, when they say something we disagree with, when we allow past events to influence the present moment, perhaps even dredging up old hurts and projecting them onto the current situation, we seek to annihilate the person whom we believe to be the current source of all our pain.

But what if that person is ourselves? What if we do as Tori states, and look to find this person within? We all have aspects of ourselves that are less than glowing, “darker” aspects that we would rather not face. We spend so much time deluding ourselves, our egos constantly chattering inside our heads convincing us that we are right, that they are wrong, that they are the enemy. The enemy is often lying within, silent and deadly, slowly and steadily killing all chances of peace and compassion.

We have to learn to negotiate with that aspect of ourselves, to talk with it, to try to understand it. In understanding this aspect, we find compassion, for ourselves and for others. In seeing the demons in our own soul we can better understand the demons in others. We have to become skilled negotiators, finding the right words that will cut through the pride and the ego, that will get to the heart of the matter in kindness and in love. We can’t just wade into our psyches and try to obliterate that aspect of ourselves; when we do that, we are just perpetuating the suffering in ourselves and in the world. We have to learn the deep art of communication, to open up the pathways of resolution. There are many choices we can make, if only we are able to see them.

Work towards an ending of the war within. Learn the arts of negotiation and communication. Take the time to look deeply, past the walls of the ego and through the memories of the past and the worries of the future. Look to the person you are right now. Find how you can heal her. Stop the cycle of hurt, pain suffering within and you will also stop that cycle without. It’s never too late.

For the full interview in which Tori Amos discusses the different songs on her album, The Beekeeper, please see below.

Touching the Earth

Imagine my delight when I read how practices I am currently doing in my Druid tradition are also being done by the venerable Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh (you will notice quite a few blog posts dedicated to his teachings on this blog!). In his book The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology  he provides some lovely daily practices (gathas) to honour the earth that we can fit into our everyday life. Some of these I was doing already in various forms, such as prayers before meals, washing hands/body, drinking water, etc, and some were new and equally poignant, to be incorporated in my daily practice. But what really struck a chord with me was the Five Earth Touchings that he described after the Earth gathas and how similar they were to my daily prayers.

He recommends to Touch the Earth each and every day, to establish our deep and abiding connection with the earth and to give thanks for all that we have, reminding ourselves of who we are, where we came from, our ancestors of the future and living a life filled with compassion and peace.

He states “The practice of Touching the Earth is to return to the Earth, to our roots, to our ancestors, and to recognize that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We are their continuation and with them, will continue into the future generations. We touch the earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind us that we are the Earth and part of Life.

When we touch the Earth we become small, with the humility and simplicity of a young child. When we touch the Earth we become great, like an ancient tree sending her roots deep into the earth, drinking from the source of all waters. When we touch the Earth, we breathe in all the strength and stability of the Earth, and breathe out our suffering- our feelings of anger, hatred, fear, inadequacy and grief.

Our hands join to form a lotus bud and we gently lower ourselves to the ground so that all four limbs and our forehead are resting comfortably on the floor. While we are Touching the Earth we turn our palms face up, showing our openness to the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the community). After one or two times practicing Touching the Earth (Three Touchings or Five Touchings), we can already release a lot of our suffering and feeling of alienation and reconcile with our ancestors, parents, children, or friends.”

The first Earth Touching is “In gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family.” Here we honour our blood ties, the stories that brought us to where we are today, the generations of love and suffering in our bloodlines that help to create our story today. By opening ourselves to our ancestors we acknowledge all this, and can ask for their protection, love and support. In Druidry, we honour the ancestors, and in my own tradition I state “I honour the ancestors of blood, whose stories flow through my veins”.

The second Earth Touching is “In gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my spiritual family.” Here we honour the teachers who have shared their wisdom and insight, throughout the years, whether we have known them personally or not. We can see ourselves in these people. These are the people who can help us to transform our suffering and bring about peace, both in our own hearts and in the world. In my own tradition, I state “I honour the ancestors of tradition, whose wisdom flows through the teachings.”

The third Earth Touching is “In gratitude, I bow to this land and all of the ancestors who made it available.” Here we honour the spirits and/or ancestors of place, who have made this world that we live in. They are in the soil and wind, all those who have lived and died and now exist in another form. It is the energy of the land upon which we live, that we can feel humming in our bones, if we only open ourselves to listen. In my tradition, I state “I honour the ancestors of place, whose songs flow through this land”.

The fourth Earth Touching is “In gratitude and compassion, I bow down and transmit my energy to those I love.” Here we share the wisdom and insight gained from our practice and spread that out to all our loved ones in a form of prayer. The energy we have received from the earth is given freely, and so we too give freely to those we love. We can ask our ancestors for their protection and aid in this matter. In my tradition, I state “May there be peace in the hearts and minds of all those I hold dear, my family, friends and loved ones.”

The fifth Earth Touching is “In understanding and compassion, I bow down to reconcile myself with all those who have made me suffer.” Here we learn that the earth gives of her energy without discrimination or prejudice, and we can learn to live magnanimously in all that we do. We understand that people who cause us to suffer do so through their own wrong perceptions, and we pray that they find a way to relieve their suffering. We work towards not holding any anger or hatred towards these people, instead trying to understand in order to better work in the world. Again, we can ask our ancestors for help in this matter. In my tradition, I state “May peace be in the hearts and minds of those who cause me and others around them to suffer, may they know loving kindness.

The similarities between what I currently do as a Zen-minded Druid and these Buddhist practices absolutely delight me, and could to transform much of the world’s suffering if done with mindfulness and loving kindness. Try to take some time each day to recite the Earth Touchings above, or something similar – it could change your life, or at the very least ease some of the suffering and provide a path to peace that is yours and yours alone to walk.

Perception, assumption and suffering

How much of our lives are based around incorrect perceptions? How often does our emotional state and relationship with others fall apart based on incorrect perceptions? And just what is perception?

Perception is how we interpret the world, through our own subjectivity. We have a store consciousness built on our past experiences and those experiences related to us by others. We use this store consciousness to help inform us on our view of the world. It helps us to survive. We know that fire burns, so we don’t touch it. We know that cougars are dangerous, so we don’t approach. We look both ways (hopefully) before crossing the street. However, as our perception of the world is so subjective, how often do we get it wrong?

This is not to say that we should throw out all useful perception and experience. What we need to do is to become aware of our perceptions, and to see if we are making assumptions that aren’t based on actual fact. So much of our lives are built upon this, which is a rather shaky foundation.

Incorrect perception can lead to all sorts of problems and can create a huge amount of suffering. We might have the incorrect assumption that we are alone, which gives us the false perception that we are completely isolated from the rest of the world. We may react to a situation based on what we think someone said, rather than what they actually said, and thereby create a false perception of the actual event. We may assume from past experience that all politicians lie, and create a false perception that we cannot trust anyone, much less bother to vote. We might get angry at someone for their behaviour, without seeing the root causes behind it. Changing your perception leads to understanding, which is the essence of compassion.

We will still make mistakes, however. We have habits, ingrained learned behaviour that is difficult to overcome if we are not aware of it. However, once we see the patterns formed in learned behaviour, we can unlearn it. We can break free of negative, destructive cycles, beginning to heal ourselves and then work towards healing our community, our world.

By nature I judge everything – it’s simply a part of my personality. While it’s worth having to some extent, it’s also a detriment. What I have had to learn is how to judge without being judgemental. It may not sound like that great a difference, but really it is the foundation of trying to understand the human being.

Daily meditation helps with this on so many levels. Practising awareness for 10 to 20 mins a day in mindful meditation begins to seep into every aspect of your life. Once you become aware of your thought patterns and behavioural patterns, you can then learn to break free of these in order to live with more intention. Everyone can meditate to some extent – you just have to want to. You have to want to spend time with yourself, and thereby doing some pretty deep examination, coming to terms with the less than glowing aspects of your self, as well as embracing those parts of your self that nourish and bring peace. It’s very simple and sometimes very difficult. However, if you want to get off that treadmill of constant running, out of that vicious cycle you feel trapped in, it’s well worth the effort.

Next time you are angry, depressed or sad, take the time to look deeply into your perceptions. If you find that they are based on incorrect or unsubstantiated views, perhaps they are not perceptions but assumptions. You will have to let go of the anger, depression or sadness as well as the ego in order to fully see – things we like to cling on to for various reasons, ie. because we know we are right, because we know we are not good enough, etc. This knowledge is not true knowledge, but assumption based on false perception.

Doing this work can lead to a life filled with less suffering, and in doing so even bring more joy into the world. May we do the work with a peaceful heart and with pure intention.

World Suffering – Thich Nhat Hanh

This little gem came as a great reminder today, when the suffering of the world threatened to overwhelm me.  Bursting into tears as I watched on the BBC news children’s toys scattered in the rubble of the Gaza bombings,, their bodies being loaded together into the mortuary. Rude people at the village shop blocking other people’s cars, and making them wait until they finish shopping to move their car, even after the person has asked them to politely to move.  Loud, overbearing people in the bays next to you at the driving range.  The obnoxious amount of money spent on the World Cup Football in Brazil while people starve in the streets.

Thich’s words were a welcome reminder to find the beauty, and to nourish ourselves in order to better serve the world, in a world filled with suffering – not to be overwhelmed by it, but to find the beauty to carry on regardless. To find a community as well, of like-minded souls, who can inspire you on your journey through life.  To be out in nature, and to see the wonder and live with the awe of a child again.

Then, you will be better able to serve the world, instead of submitting to the suffering and the grief, the rage and the injustice.  Returning to the centre, finding peace and being peace is all that matters.

The Present Moment

mudraThe present moment – it is a gift, and that is why they called it the ‘present’.

This quote is true on so many levels.  When we are awake, when we are aware to the present moment, we can see it for the very real blessing that it is. For the majority of people who aren’t living in fear through war or famine, who aren’t suffering from chronic pain or disease – simply being in the present moment is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves. Being aware of the present moment, even when faced with such conditions, may help to alleviate suffering.

When we wake up in the morning, we can become fully aware of that moment upon waking. We can lie in bed, feeling our selves in our bodies, listening to any sounds around us. We can do a mental body scan, to see how we feel, if there is any pain or stiffness, any tightness held through residual stress. We can consciously work to try and let that go, in order to start the day right.

We get up, we go to the bathroom.  We can do this with full awareness. When brushing our teeth, we hear the water flowing through the tap, we give thanks that we have clean water at our disposal when so many others do not.  We brush our teeth while concentrating on the simple task of brushing our teeth. So often our minds are already in a meeting at work, that when we brush our teeth, the whole meeting is there brushing our teeth with us!

Concentrating on one task at a time not only does a better job at the task itself, but can also help us to overcome areas in our lives when we are not at the best we can be – say, due to stress perhaps, or depression. If we focus on one task at a time, taking it and really being in each moment, we do not have the opportunity to be stressed, for to be stressed we need to be thinking ahead.  We alleviate our own suffering by being fully aware – in the case of depression, we may not see an end to the suffering, which brings it about in a continuous cycle. By being in the moment, we are not looking forwards or backwards, inwards our outwards – we are simply being.

By being, we are not mindless zombies – we are, in fact, more fully aware than most people by using concentration and focus in order to move about our daily existence.  We will make less mistakes, we will be less clumsy. We will brush our teeth so much better. We will be mindful of each step we take, and so we will trip less, stumble less, walking in total awareness to wherever it is that we need to go.

We eat our breakfast mindfully, thankful for having food to eat. We close the door to our houses, thankful  that we have a home, a sanctuary from the elements in which to live.  We drive our cars mindfully, thankful that we have such luxurious modes of transportation. We work, thankful that we have a job to provide us with the means for food and shelter, as well as the opportunity to work with others, be creative, make the world a better place – whatever it is that your job entails. We do our work with full attention, whether it is sweeping a floor or updating a database. We are mindful of our posture during the work, of our breathing – we take moments to simply be, to assess our bodies and our minds.

Try doing this for an hour or so a day, then a full morning.  Try to maintain awareness for as long as the sun is shining, or the rain is raining.  Become more aware not only of yourself but of your environment. By doing so, you will find that life may flow more easily and that you see where you can fit in more harmoniously.  Your actions will become more graceful, your movements filled with awareness and intention. Let your thoughts follow your body, flowing gracefully and with intention instead of running rampant through the mind.

Notice how this makes you feel – and if it feels good, keep doing it! May you all be gifted with the present.

The Blame Game

I’ve recently watched Dan Snow’s latest expedition, to travel down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in three boats from the late 19th century, just as Powell did. It was a really interesting show (not just because of the equally gorgeous and intelligent Mr Snow) that not only demonstrated the awesome power of the elements, but also those of human nature.

Each boat has three people in it – an experienced helmsman, an experienced boatman and a novice. The three novices were Dan, Mike (you may know him from Springwwatch) and another chap whose name eludes me – historian, ecologist and geologist respectively. They all had to work together as a team to see it through to the end – 18 days of incredible physical and mental challenge amidst one of the world’s most beautiful and dangerous environments.

Each person had to pull their own weight, despite their experience, and each person did so without fail.  They all tried their hardest and it was inspiring to see. What was not so inspiring was another aspect of human nature that arose from one of the boats – namely, the blame game.

In one of the three boats, Mike was having a harder time than the other novices. Whether that was simply his lack of skill and learning, or insufficient support and teaching from his colleagues, is up for debate – we could not see everything that happened in this edited television show. What I did see however, was an aspect of human nature that really opened up my eyes not only to how other people treat each other, but how I’ve treated others in the past as well.

It started with the “expert whitewater kayaker” beginning to complain to the camera about Mike and his lack of ability. It would seem that instead of taking extra time to help the novice and support him, he would rather complain to the camera away from the group.  He blamed Mike for the difficulty their boat was having in the rapids. However, what we all saw was at the first set of rapids, the kayaker falling out of his seat pretty much at the first bump. Whether this started off something in his mind that needed to help him save face, changing the focus from his own inability, mistake or accident, and blaming someone else for it we can never know for certain. It certainly appeared that way to me.

Since then, he complained on several occasions to the camera in isolation.  Then his helmsman made a mistake, taking the boat down backwards in the hopes of having better steering in one section of rapids.  The boat that went through before managed it. I’m not an experienced boatman, but I could see in those churning waters that the oar would snap like a twig if caught on a rock, which it did. After that, the helmsman began to complain to the camera as well about Mike, who was simply doing his best to row and keep the boat going straight and bail when he needed to – there really was nothing else he could do. At one point we saw the helmsman shout at Mike to bail, and Mike’s pail got caught up in part of the boat’s rigging – not that it would have mattered, for bailing in the middle of those rapids was, to me, pointless – the boat was already full at and the mercy of the river. Mike began bailing as fast as he could, but another wave just crashed right in. He would have been better off rowing, but he still got yelled at.

This all made me very uncomfortable.  I hate seeing people getting picked on when they are trying their best. But I was also inspired by Dan’s boat, which seemed to have some sort of Zen Master at the helm.  This chap was brilliant – he was so calm, so peaceful, never shouting orders and seeming at one with the river – when he took his boat down the rapids, he steered it down the path of least resistance, without effort. A beautiful thing to witness. Soft spoken and mild-mannered, and an accomplished musician, his calming influence was a gentle reminder to me to keep my Zen on and have compassion, even for those who were irritating the hell out of me on the show.

That’s not to say that the Zen Master Helmsman’s boat didn’t make any mistakes.  His boat came the closest to capsizing in one of the most difficult rapids.  They didn’t make the line they were going for down between the rocks, and got swept away down a fast sluice heading straight towards the canyon’s rock walls. His oar got ripped from his hands in the roiling water, and they were at the mercy of the river.  The other helmsman would have shouted his head off at this point, but Zen Master Helmsman kept his cool – it was a beautiful thing to behold.  He had lost his oar, all manner of steering, and the boat swept into the curve of the canyon (you can see it on the video).  The boat kept to the curve, the water sweeping it close but not up against the canyon wall. Then the boat began to tip over on its right side. Dan lost his seat and fell into the right side wall, nearly out of the boat. ZMH calmly reached for the left side of the boat, push against it with his body weight, counterbalancing the tipping boat, and it righted itself. You can’t hear it on the video, but he was also calmly talking and encouraging his fellow crewman throughout, saying “Stay calm, just stay in the boat, take it easy”. They made it through, without yelling, without panic, without blame.

Everyone makes mistakes. With three people in a boat, you cannot blame one person for the boat going wrong. Everyone is in it, working together to try and go in the same direction.  There are so many variables that to blame one person it pointless. Staying calm, looking out for your crew members and acting with compassion is the way forward. By observing this, the three simply followed the river’s flow. There was nothing else they could do, so why increase suffering?

Compassion is all about reducing your suffering. The two complainers in the other boat did not seem to grasp this.  Instead of helping they made things worse. I hate to think what would have happened had it been their boat that nearly capsized. However, their boat did not escape unscathed of a terrifying experience.

On the next section of these last, and most dangerous rapids, Mike’s boat lost their helmsman as he was washed away in a giant wall of water that hit the boat.  No one’s fault – you cannot blame crew or wave or river any more than you can blame the sun for shining.   The helmsman managed to hang onto his oar under the water, and pull himself back to the boat, floating down the rest of the rapids with it, finally being pulled back into the boat at the first opportunity.  This was the changing point for that crew.

The fragility of human existence hits hard when confronted with the very sudden realisation that you or someone you know could have died in a certain experience or circumstance.  This realisation did indeed hit Mike hard, as we saw when the camera was on him when they were on the beach after these rapids – he was brought to tears by the whole experience.  It also brought the crew together – the kayaker who originally tried to blame Mike for everything saw Mike’s suffering, and came up to give him a hug.  Petty blame games mean nothing when you realise just how precious and precarious life really is. Alleviating suffering is much more conducive to peace than creating more suffering in this lifetime.

What I realised from this show is that blaming people does not solve anything. It does not even make you feel better – it increases your own suffering, because everything that person does upsets or annoys you from then on. Also, when you blame someone, you instantly block out any form of objectiveness in the situation.  You have established a truth for yourself that blinds you to seeing the bigger picture. Believing in this truth is dangerous. Believing that one person is wrong and that you are right is what has caused innumerable amounts of suffering in the world. Opening your heart and mind in compassion, in trying to see the bigger picture and in trying to make the world a better place would be far more beneficial to all.

I looked back at the times in my life when I had played the blame game, making others the culprit for everything that had gone wrong. Like those boats in the river, there were so many variables that one person could not be responsible for everything.  The only thing we can be responsible for is ourselves in this life.  If we try to help others instead of break them down, if we see our own failings before we blame others, we might change our behaviour into something that is more compassionate.

Driving to the RSPCA today to visit a cat that I am adopting, I was cut off by a car speeding in a residential area.  My reaction to it was simply to keep driving, and hope that the person in the speeding car finds peace within him or herself that could be reflected in their driving.  Getting mad at the other driver would not solve anything except to make me suffer. (On the way home, I did see that they are now installing speed cameras along that stretch of road, for which I am glad).

We all make mistakes.  We can blame others for what we perceive to have gone wrong with our lives.  Or we can simply get on with making this world a better place, communicating with compassion towards everyone, even our enemies. We may then realise that we do not have enemies in the first place.  We can even wallow in guilt, blaming ourselves for everything that has gone wrong instead of working out best to improve the situation – I know which I would rather engage with.  We stand strong, we act responsibly – like ZMH we have the ability to respond to a crisis situation with calmness and grace, even when faced by enormous odds and potential life-threatening situations. We are all simply boats on a river, either working together or alone to stay afloat, at the mercy of the elements and each other.

I am taking a leaf out of Zen Master Helmsman’s book.  He was a total dude.

(To see more videos and read more about the expedition, see the BBC Blogs here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/posts/Operation-Grand-Canyon-with-Dan-Snow)