Friday, 29 July 2011

Alan Watts

Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in Chislehurst, he moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York. Pursuing a career, he attended Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, where he received a master's degree in theology. Watts became an Episcopalpriest but left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.
Living on the West Coast, Watts gained a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area while working as a volunteer programmer at KPFA, a Pacifica Radio station in Berkeley. Watts wrote more than 25 books and articles on subjects important to Eastern and Western religion, introducing the then-burgeoning youth culture toThe Way of Zen (1957), one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961), Watts proposed that Buddhism could be best thought of as a form of psychotherapy, not just a religion. LikeAldous Huxley before him, he explored human consciousness in the essay, "The New Alchemy" (1958), and in the book, The Joyous Cosmology (1962).
Towards the end of his life, he divided his time between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mount Tamalpais. His legacy has been kept alive with the help of his son, Mark Watts, and many of his recorded talks and lectures have found new life on the Internet. Critic Erik Davis notes the freshness, longevity, and continuing relevance of Watts's work today, observing that his "writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity."

Alan Watts - Presence Of Mind

Alan Watts - Life Is a Dance of Pattern

Alan Watts - How We Define Ourselves

Alan Watts - Let Go & Swim With It

Living the Uncalculated Life - Alan Watts

The Trap of Seeking - Alan Watts

Desirelessness - Alan Watts

The Middle Way - Alan Watts

Alan Watts - Our Image of the World

Alan Watts - Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching

Alan Watts on Being God

Alan Watts interviews Aldous Huxley

Part 1

Part 2

Alan Watts - Tribute to Carl Jung

Alan Watts - Conversation With Myself

Spiritual practices: grounding and centring

Many rituals begin with this simple practice, especially Pagan circles. It comes from the Taoist tradition originally, I think. There are several different versions of it.

Its purpose is to allow you to feel connected to the Earth (grounded), not floating away into fantasy-world, not obsessing about the past or the future, but being present in the now. The centring part of the practice allows you to feel connected to the cosmos and the four sacred directions, which are associated with the elements.

Begin by focusing on your breathing. Don't breathe in any special way, just notice how your breath comes in and out of your nostrils, and how your belly rises and falls.

As you breathe in and out, feel your feet planted firmly on the ground. Relax your hips and your knees and imagine a thread extending from the top of your head to the centre of the sky (this helps to align your spine with the axis of the Earth).

Imagine that your feet are tree roots, and extend your roots deep into the earth. Your roots push down into the earth, through the rich soil, finding their way among rocks, and down deep into the molten core of the Earth. As you breathe out, extend your roots; as you breathe in, draw up energy from deep within the Earth.

As the energy makes its way into your body, draw it up through your legs and feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus. Note the colour of the energy.

Now extend a tendril of energy up your spine. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a tree, and extend your aura at the top of your head, growing branches. Extend your branches up into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, and reach for the energy of the starlight. As you breathe out, extend your branches; as you breathe in, draw the energy down from above. Feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus, mingling with the energy from below.

Now draw energy from both above and below at the same time, and let the energies mingle in your solar plexus. As you breathe in, draw in the energy from above and below; as you breathe out, feel it spiralling and swirling.

Now allow the energy to fill your whole body, extending out to your feet, your fingertips, the top of your head. Feel how you are aligned with the cosmic axis.

Now acknowledge the four directions: North for Earth, representing the body, sensation, physicality, and structure; East for Air, representing intellect, thought, inspiration and breath; South for Fire, representing passion, intuition, and spirit; and West for Water, representing emotion, the Moon, dreams, and the blood that flows in your veins.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Dread: “A ship in the harbour is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.”

The other morning I was walking to my car, about to set off, when I saw a woman getting out of hers about to go into the large school room, for an exercise class. I looked at her, nodded, smiled and said hello. She had a terrified look on her face and then she began to speak. She said “Every week I come here and when I set off I do not know why I am coming.” She continued “Every week I have this horrendous feeling of dread in my stomach, I almost feel sick with fear” “And yet every week once I get started I really enjoy it and feel so much better afterwards.” We spoke for a few minutes about, fear anxiety and faith and then some of the other women arrived for the class, so I left and went about my business. It was interesting to note that although she dreaded coming every week, she was still the first to arrive.

Anyway I drove off and began ruminating about Dread! Like you do!

Fear comes in many forms. Fright is a vital part of our human make up, we really need it. It points to danger etc, it’s a warning signal. There are though other forms of fear which are not useful at all. Perhaps the most debilitating is dread.

Dread is a crippling form of anxiety. It is fed by our desire to control what is beyond our control, the world in which we live. We want to be safe, we want to be secure, but is this realistic? Is life really about being safe and secure? I am not convinced that it is. Sadly, it would appear, when some folk begin to see this reality they can become crippled by the dread of life itself.

Dread is the ultimate in negativity. It can make everything appear bleak. It dulls the senses, turns colours into shades of grey and takes all the taste out of life. It leads to folk projecting all their anxiety and worry onto everything that they do in life and thus takes the very life out of living. It leads to misery.

At it’s worse dread can lead to us into a pit of depression. It traps us with the very things that we believe protect us from the dangers that we see in life. As a result we go deeper into ourselves, until we become lost and trapped within our own black hole. It can be very difficult to find our way out of this black hole. We certainly can’t just dig ourselves out.

I am of course familiar with dread, it did in days gone by rule much of my life. From a young age it would often come over me on Sunday afternoons and evenings, usually when Bullseye was on or Surprise to Surprise, I think that’s why I preferred to be out of the house, so as to deny the reality of returning to school. It was the same in late teens and twenties, but by then alcohol had become a solution to that hideous feeling in my stomach and everything else for that matter. I really didn’t enjoy having to conform to reality. I am of course a much different man today. I have discovered the gift of reality, I know that this is where the joy of living is to be found.

A friend of mine recently posted this on Facebook:

“A ship in the harbour is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.”

Of course this isn’t entirely true, ships aren’t always safe in the harbour. Think about the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That said I did get her point. By living safely in what we know, the old familiar we may well remain safe, but that really isn’t what life is about. It’s about living, it’s about taking risks, it’s about being out of this state of control from time to time. We cannot protect ourselves from life’s dangers, from suffering. In fact by even trying to do so we end up suffering from something far worse “The suffering within the suffering”, we end up not living at all, we stagnate, we lose everything that makes us human, we do not make best use of the gifts we have been given. What a waste! Dread can be soul destroying and life taking. It disconnects us from life itself.

Grief can often lead to dread, whether through the loss of a loved one or through repeated failure or rejection in life. These losses, these defeats can lead us to believe that we will never know joy again. As Forrest Church highlights Dread combines the fear of death with the fear of life. It makes us fully aware of the fragility of life, but without an appreciation of its preciousness. Therefore the risk required to find colour and flavour in life is seen as hopeless. We say “why take any chance”; we say “nothing ventured, nothing lost”; we say “Why bother?” We withdraw from life, retreat into ourselves until it all looks grey and bleak again. We lose our taste for life. We live disconnected lives.

So what’s the solution? Well for me it’s quite simply to have a little faith; to not allow that feeling in your stomach to rule. The lady I met outside the large school room seemed to have it, in spite of her fear, she just needs to learn how not spoil her morning before arriving at the class. But does this truly deal with the causes of dread? No not really, it only offers a temporary solution to the immediate difficulty. It deals with anxiety one dread at a time, but it doesn’t fully solve the real problem. What about the big picture?

Well it won’t surprise my regular readers to hear that I believe Forrest Church offers a solution.

He said:
"...When suffering overwhelms hope, as it sometimes will, life’s burden feels too heavy for us to shoulder; it may in fact be too heavy to shoulder on our own. We must then turn to others and to God for strength. And for encouragement. Encouraged, we once again take heart. In the face of dread’s most persuasive argument, mustering the courage to act, love, and be, we answer fear’s no with a saving yes”.
We are not alone and we do not need to try and face life alone. By reaching beyond ourselves we can find to courage to live and to be all that we are able to be. If we do we will see life in all its colour and taste it in all its flavour. Sometimes that will mean we will get hurt and even seemingly fail, but at least we will be fully alive. We will be connected to life itself.

So yes a ship is seemingly safe if left in the harbour, but it really isn’t what they are made for.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Videos on UK Spirituality

I have just created two new categories in the Resources section - videos and captioned videos.

You can submit your own videos for inclusion on our pages. If you have captions on your video, please add them to the captioned videos section.

Captioned videos are more accessible, because the Deaf and hard of hearing can access them too.

I wondered if I should also create a category for videos with sign language, but most videos on YouTube are in ASL rather than BSL, and as UK Spirituality is mainly aimed at British audiences, maybe ASL won't be much use. I'd welcome feedback on this.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Do you have something to say?

Do you have something to say? We're looking for guest blog-posts for the UK Spirituality blog. Perhaps you would like to share your favourite spiritual practice, or talk about your spiritual journey, or talk about your spiritual tradition. Please email me with your contributions: yaburrow[at]gmail[dot]com

Remember to include your name (or pseudonym if you prefer), a title for your post, and a mini-biography. If you are registered as an event leader on UK Spirituality, we can also link to your events (please tell me your UKS login name).

So why did you enter into the ministry?

I am often asked why I entered into the ministry; it happened several times at our denominational annual meetings. It’s a good question to ask any minister and it was particularly appropriate this year as I was being formally recognised. That said it is a question that I always feel reluctant to answer, it often fills me with dread. Why you may well ask? Well the reason is that my journey began with agonising, horrific grief; my journey began as I attempted to come to terms with a great loss. The death of my dear friend Claire’s son Ethan and all that followed it, is truly what cast me down the road to Unitarian ministry. Love and loss and finally putting the pieces back together, is what compelled me down this path. As I tried to come to terms with my own grief, while attempting to be there for Claire, I was held and supported by my own minster Rev John Midgley. He was present with a kind heart and a listening ear. He was there the day that Ethan was killed and over the weeks and months that followed. He said very little that I can remember, but he did listen. It cannot have been easy. To me this was a great example of pastoral ministry. John listened and he was there. Claire often tells me how seeing a single tear in his eye at Ethan’s funeral held her through some very dark days. He was no robot, merely going through the motions; there was deep compassion in his presence.

I have now been with the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for nearly a year and I feel that we have got to know one another quite well. From the outset I made it a priority of mine to spend time talking, but above all else listening, to them. During the worship we have shared I have encouraged openness by allowing them to get to know me. Worship for me must always be speak the language of the heart and not just feed the intellect. This may well have been a challenge for some folk, but was a deliberate decision on my part in an attempt to give those present permission to be open with me. I have pretty much spent time with everyone connected with both congregations, visiting them in their own homes and talking with them about many things. This has been a real treasure to me, personally. We have some real gems hidden away in our congregations. I cannot begin to express how deeply moved I have been by what people have shared with me. Virtually every conversation has been littered with moving stories of love, of pain, of grief and of faith. I have heard some of the most incredible tales of personal spiritual experience, something I have interest in. I have rarely left someone’s home without feeling that my life has been enhanced by the time we have just shared. I have felt welcomed into the lives of the people within both communities and for that I am profoundly grateful.

One of my favourite hymns is All Are Welcome Here which reads “All are welcome here...all are welcome to seek in spite of open wide to all our hearts...for all are welcome here.” For me the purpose our faith is to build communities of love that encourage that search for understanding and meaning, that search beyond the confines of ourselves; we are about building communities that encourage each of us as individuals to continue that search but to do so together, unconstrained. For me the key to creating this welcome and fostering it amongst ourselves is in the listening; the key is to listen with the “ears of our hearts.”

“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become one of my mantras over the last few months. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders, followed by many Christian and some Buddhist communities today. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “. What is required is deep listening, a concept proposed, in contemporary times, by the Dalai Lama.

This has become the foundation of my ministry, to “listen with the ear of my heart” and to encourage that in others. Of course I often fall short of this mark as I get wrapped up in many things, some important but many trivial. That is ok though, one of my other mantras is “progress not perfection”.

The reason I came into ministry is to keep open my own heart and to encourage others to do likewise.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Lessons from geese

There's always something new to fall in love with...

When flying in V formation each goose creates uplift for the birds flying behind it, by flapping its wings. The whole flock together creates 71% greater range than if each bird flew alone.

People who share a common sense of direction and community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are travelling on the thrust of one another.

When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to lead position.

It pays to take turns doing the hard work and sharing leadership, as with geese, people are interdependent on each others skills, talents, understanding and capabilities.

The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those at the front to keep going.

We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. Groups where the honking is encouraging work much better. The power of 'encouragement (to stand by one's core values and beliefs and encourage the core values and beliefs of others in the group) is the quality of honking we seek.

When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay until it dies or can fly again. Then they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock. .

If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

May we have at least as much sense as geese.

from a speech given by Angeles Arrien,
based on the work of Milton Olson

One of my favourite songs is “Bluebeat” by New Model Army. There is a line it that goes “There’s always something new to fall in love”. I find this to be a consistent truth of my life.

Last year I fell in love with Geese. It all really began as an antidote to anxiety.

Prayer is really important to my life, it gives me the strength and direction I need to live as openly and honestly as I possibly can and therefore fully experience all that is before me. That said I have discovered, in recent times, its limits; for whatever reason prayer did not take away that anxiety that would come a calling, every Thursday morning, just over a year ago. I can see now that it was the very stillness and solitude of prayer that may well have caused its limitations. When I was in prayer I was still alone. Solitary spiritual practise was not enough it seems, well not at that moment in my life.

So what was the cause of this over powering anxiety, what created this ghost of fear, to come knocking at my door once again?

Well it was learning to drive, something that did not come naturally to me. I let the struggles I had with it get to me at times and I have to say I never thought I would be able to learn. That said I stuck with it and eventually passed.
You may well ask, how did I overcome that anxiety that would almost overwhelm every Thursday morning?

One Thursday morning I rose from solitary prayer and stepped into the cold of winter, crossed the road and walked around Platt Fields Park. I was studying for the ministry at the time at Luther King House, which is where the Unitarian college is, is just across the road from Platt Fields Park between Fallowfield and Rusholme in Manchester. I walked and walked and connected to the simple beauty of nature, the people and the animals. Over the next few weeks and months I would continue this walk, often several times a day. I got use to the similar sights. The group of middle aged men, with their cans of beer and their dogs; the students and Asian women jogging; the BMX boys; the mothers with prams; the men fishing and on Sundays the old guys with their model sail boats. I also took friends there and we would walk and talk together. It became more than a weekly ritual; it became a daily one or even sometimes a several times a day one.
Of all the different things I encountered on these walks, it was the geese who had the greatest impact.

You see I’ve fallen in love with the geese.

I’ve fallen in love with the geese. Just as Milton Olson did in seeing them as an inspiration for how our human societies can function successfully. He observed how every individual gains in power by simply working together for a common purpose, each taking it in turns to lead.

Just by simple watching these geese in a park in central Manchester I was able to connect to the humble reality of my own existence. As I passed them and watched them as they took off and landed as they cried out and honked to one another. I would often chuckle to myself as they waddled about and I observed their funny feet. This love deepened during the spring and summer as they gave birth to their own chicks, which followed them around the lake.

Just gorgeous, yes I’ve fallen in love with the geese, not the swans, or ducks or other birds. The geese, I’ve fallen in love with the geese.

I fell in love with these simple creatures. They took me out of myself and enabled me to connect to that greater reality that for some reason prayer was failing to do at this juncture of my life. Actually that may not be quite true because it was of course in this quiet time of prayer that the voice in my gut told me get up and walk outside into that cold winter morning.

So what has this experience taught me? Well it taught me once again that I cannot exist as a solitary individual. I need to connect I need to relate. To me this is the essence of spirituality. Spirituality is about relationships and about developing a simple and loving connection to the greater reality. As I understand it spirituality is really all about developing relationships at every level.

Whatever I do in life and wherever I go if I forget this I’m in trouble. Spirituality is about relationship. Nothing in life exists alone, without something to relate and connect to life will lose its meaning. No man is an island.

I think this is why I despair at so much of what is described as “New Age” spirituality. It is also why I believe my own Unitarian tradition is open at times to appropriate criticism. It can be too individualistic. Rightly no one has authority over another’s right to a private faith, doubt, belief and disbelief. That said we can’t just believe what we want, what we feel like on a whim from one week to next. Our faith offers freedom to search and seek and to ask the difficult questions. This I believe leads to a vibrant faith without certainty. That saidUnitarians do not just simply believe whatever they want, at least not in my experience.

A few years ago my brother took a holiday, with his wife, to America. One day they were being shown around Dallas by a taxi driver. At one point they passed a church and the driver exclaimed in a mixture of bewilderment and humour “That over there is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”

Now when he initially related this story it irritated me. Why peoplemay well ask? Well it’s this caricature that is so often painted aboutthe Unitarian faith “that we can believe whatever we like”, that gets to me. As I have heard others state "It’s not so much about believing whatever I like, but about believing what I must." What life in all its mystery and wonder compels me to believe. For me this is a painful and difficult task at times. There are no easy answers.

Also if spirituality becomes a purely private affair, who’s sole aim is to relieve an individual of the pain and discomfort that life can bring, it becomes narcissistic.

Narcissism leads only to more pain and suffering and in the end merely enhances the isolation. Narcissism is the antithesis of spirituality. It is the total annihilation of our humanity. A narcissist is a person utterly absorbed and preoccupied with themselves and their own pain to the total exclusion of others. It was Sigmund Freud who actually coined the term. He was influenced by Frederic Nietzsche, who was fascinated with the Greek Myths, and how these myths told the stories of our everyday lives. Freud saw in the myth of Narcissus this common state of preoccupation with our own pain.

Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his own love, Narcissus wasted away over time and changed into the flower that bears his name. He lost his humanity.

A free religious faith cannot be narcissistic and I do not believe that Unitarianism is and I do not for one minute believe it encourages such instincts. Yes we are individuals, who often believe and disbelieve differently from one another, but we are also much more than that we are a community with a common purpose, we do have shared values. By coming together in community we strengthen one another far more than we could do by sitting alone in solitary isolation, trying to make sense of life. We learn from one another but we do more than that we open one another up to many of life's great mysteries.We share each others joys and pains. We cry together, we laugh together and we celebrate together.

Yes I’ve fallen in love with geese, why you may well ask?

Well, because they have taught me what it is to be truly human and how to live in community with other folk.