Monday, 22 August 2011

What is spirituality?

Spirituality has memorably been described by Lucy Bregman as "a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning".

So, what is it? Does it imply the existence of a spirit or a soul, or of deities? No, not necessarily. You can be spiritual without being religious (and you can be religious without being spiritual). Religion is often regarded as outward conformity to a particular religious system, its beliefs, practices and values, whereas spirituality is the inner sense of connection, a more instinctive and intuitive way of life.

I regard spirituality as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. It can be inspired by nature, science, art, poetry, liturgy and ritual. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys.

We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a community setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the spiritual community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.

Practising spirituality in community could be called religion (a word that simply means to reconnect, or to reinterpret). In liberal religion, where the "divine" is usually viewed as immanent in the world, or as so diffuse that it's not a person, the source of authority is viewed as the self (as in one's conscience) and not a "higher power". Adherents of liberal religions (such as Unitarians, Pagans, Quakers, Buddhists, Liberal Jews and many others) regard differences of belief as interesting and stimulating, challenging us to broaden our minds. Mysticism, spirituality and spiritual practices are encouraged in these traditions.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

New resources on UKSpirituality

New resources in Atheist Spirituality:
A new addition to the Buddhist quotations section:
Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that it agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

~ Gotama Buddha
It would be great to add more to the atheist spirituality section, so if you have a suggestion, please send it in.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Hope not Hate: A Universalist's Response

“You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
John Murray
These words by John Murray have been ringing in my ears these last few days.

We need hope more than anything at this moment and we need courage. We are all being challenged by despair and at times hatred.

We have all witnessed the rioting and looting and wanton destruction in some of our cities, although not all. Watching the news last week you would think the whole country had gone up in smoke, when in truth it was isolated to certain areas.

We all witnessed the horror of the gunning down of children in Norway; we have seen the phone hacking scandal and the corruption of journalist, the metropolitan police as well as politicians and public figures; we continue to see war and conflict in north Africa, violence in the middle east and famine in the Sudan, exacerbated by its own government;

We have seen the death of a talented singer, to the disease of addiction. It would be so easy to turn away and give up on life... I know I have been tempted to do so from time to time.

I have also felt, as I am sure we all feel sometimes, the need to condemn to blame to turn again to hate. And then I look in the mirror and remember the words of Jesus “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”; and then I have to be honest and say that yes I too have hated and I too have hurt others. This is not me condoning what has happened, just remembering that I share a common humanity with these rioting youths and corrupt politicians, and terrorists and journalists and soldiers, and addicts and the homeless and the mentally ill. I could be anyone of them and know at times I have been some of them. I have certainly lived in despair and perhaps even hated enough to kill. I am human I am not immune from such emotions, I share a common humanity with these very same people. We all do.

In the very same cities where the violence erupted we have seen people coming together; people from all walks of life, at one, in community. There have been peace vigils in all the major cities where rioting took place; people from all walks of life, sharing in their common humanity.

I would imagine only someone completely lost in their own hatred could have failed to have been moved by the example of Tariq Jehan, father of one of the three young man who were mowed down in Birmingham attempting to protect their community. This man did not speak of retribution or reprisal; yes he obviously wants justice, but not revenge. Instead he spoke of our common humanity and the need for communities to come together. Here is a man of faith and love and compassion and his light has definitely shone brighter than any flame this week.

The Norwegian response to the killing of 77 people, 69 of them young activist on a summer camp is another example of hope triumphing over hate. What do we see from Norway’s politicians? We see them uniting together in partisanship for the coming election. The aim of the killer was to attack Norwegian multi-culturalism and tear the nation apart. How have the people responded? They have come together in unity and mutual support in response to the violence and horror. It will not bring the lost lives back, of course it will not, but it would seem that love and hope is prevailing in the aftermath of such horror.

It would be easy to despair at humanity and yet I see hope everywhere.

I am a Universalist, in both the old meaning of the word and its more modern incarnations. I both believe and experience a God of love who accepts all and rejects none; is present in all life and yet is greater than the entirety of all. I also believe that there are many ways to understand and experience this universal love. I do not believe that there is only one way. Universalism has given me a code of hopefulness that I can live by. It sustains me through the vicissitudes of life.

My Universalism is a living breathing faith and helps me make some sense of the world in which I live. It helps me to make some sense of both hope and despair, emotions that are with us all. Universalism does not separate them. They are joined at the hip; they are like Siamese twins, who depend on one another for life.

In the French language hope (espoir) and despair (d├ęsespoir) share the same root. From this it seems reasonable to conclude that the opposite of hope is not actually despair but indifference. Indifference is to live without feeling or passion or care, to fail to respond to the pain and or suffering around, to deny our link to one another, to fail to feel another’s pain, to care less. Yes people in the midst of despair struggle and may even want to give up, but they keep on, hope is never too far away. Hope and despair are two branches formed from the same root of the one tree.

Universalism is a hope filled faith, but that does not make it an easy path. It is not about sitting back and waiting to be rescued by the God of Love it promotes. Instead it declares that salvation, in this life, can only be achieved by facing up to the suffering present in all our lives and dealing directly with the despair that accompanies it.

There are those who accuse we hope filled Universalists as being nothing more than “Pollyannas”, I have had this accusation thrown at me. Is this true? I certainly do not deny the pain of life, quite the opposite I have learnt that love and beauty can only truly be found in the very muck of life itself, this is where the pearls and diamonds are found. Hope is found through honestly living through the vicissitudes of life.

We are all responsible for creating the world in which we live. We bought the newspapers that tapped into the phones of people; we all played our role in creating the current financial crisis. can any one of us truly claim innocence? I know that I can not.

I believe that the Brahma Kumaris hit the nail on the head in this recent public response to the rioting:
“Greed, inhumanity, and lack of integrity in the pursuit of financial or political gain are hardly the preserve of the young rioters. Young people are particularly susceptible to the myth peddled to them by society that happiness lies in material gain; this has left a huge vacuum inside with nothing to fill it.”
We can all point the finger and blame others for the current state we are in, but we all share a common humanity. We are all responsible for the state we are. I will certainly hold my hand up and accept my responsibility. Therefore we are all responsible for the solution, which has already begun by communities coming together. In the very despair of our current situation there is hope.

I have felt incredible sadness at times these last few weeks as I have witnesses the many horrors we inflict on one another, but I live with hope which I believe can fill the vacuum in our world. I will not turn away and sink into depression, which these days I understand differently to sadness.

Sadness is an emotion which any fully connected and therefore awakened human being must feel. If a person never feels sadness or pain, then they never feel love either. Depression on the other hand is something very different. More often than not it is the result of becoming trapped in self pity or crippled by despondency. Sadness is a naturally occurring irremovable part of our humanity, where as depression can be lessened and even totally eliminated, if correctly treated. Sadness can bring us together in our shared humanity, where as depression keeps us apart and in isolation. Sadness breeds hope; depression suffocates it.

Sadness is an emotion that we need as we look out at some of the terrible destruction and corruption witnessed over these last few weeks. It is an emotion I myself have felt many times, but it has not brought with it hopelessness. I have also felt it during conversations with those nearest and dearest to me; people struggling with the pain of their own lives. I have tried to be with my loved ones but I have not found it easy at times and I know that I have failed them on occasion, I am not immune from diffidence. Sometimes other people’s pain can be just too much.

I also know what it is like to live without hope. I have been the slave of addiction and I have been constrained and trapped by depression. I have hated myself and I have hated my world, but not anymore. I have found love and I have found hope, in the midst of despair. I found it by searching the through the muck of my own life. That great reality deep down within every single one of us.

So to echo, but to slightly alter, the sentiments of John Murray. Let’s give our world hope and not hate. Let’s follow the examples all around us in our own cities and our towns, lets live lives of love and connection.

Love will prevail...

“What the world needs now, is love sweet love"

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A New Mexico Journey

Feel your heart and follow your feet

I’d never heard of New Mexico until it was brought to my attention by a
woman selling beautiful silver and turquoise jewellery at a spiritual
holistic fair in London back in 1996. I discovered that it is nestled in
between Arizona and Texas, a High Desert Mountain State blanketed in sage,
sprinkled with cactus and wild flowers, inhabited by Native American
Indians for hundreds of years. I was intrigued by her stories of an area
of New Mexico called Taos. The jewellery was made by the Tiwa Tribe,
living on Taos Pueblo. I came away from that conversation wanting to know
more about this wild and wonderful place. I bought a book about the
history of New Mexico and the transition in my own life had started.

I learned that New Mexico and in particular Taos, was and still is a
deeply spiritual place. The concept of spirituality has many different
meanings for many different people. I could not even begin to say when I
started on my own spiritual path, a long time I feel. Surrounded by the
books, knowledge, and people I loved, I sensed that great changes were
heading my way. I started to dream about Buffalo, Eagles, land unfamiliar
to me, Indians; sun sets that I could not do justice to no matter how I
tried to describe them. I put it all down to the content of the book which
was somehow re-enforcing the need for me to go and visit this incredible
part of the world.

I followed my intuition, that gut feeling that is telling us to do things
that seem quite ludicrous at the time but we can’t quite resist. I got on
a plane in April 1996. I am a well travelled individual but had never
been affected by a landscape the way I was when I got to Taos. Huge open
powder-blue skies greeted me and my life changing journey had begun. I’ve
always believed that openness of mind and heart can lead to us to life
experiences we could never have imagined.

I spent a couple of weeks doing the visitor thing, getting to know the
locals, embracing the gorgeous landscape, allowing the universe to guide
me. I returned home to London excited about going back to Taos, the pull
for me to spend more time there was powerful and resistance of any
description wasn’t on the agenda. The idea of going back fairly soon felt
quite natural to me. Another part of the bigger picture to come. October
1996, I am in another season, in Taos. Sunflowers are everywhere proudly
showing their brilliance of colour to all. I have made connections with
the Taos Pueblo. I went in one day as a visitor and left that same day
with an opportunity to work for the Tiwa People. I have a background in
Psychiatric Health Care. It came up in conversation with a group of tribal
members who asked if I could help them with Health Care Programmes they
were trying to set up. I thanked them profusely for the honour of being
asked but said I couldn’t possibly leave my comfortable life in London, my
home, my work, my friends. Surely? Living in New Mexico became a part of
my daily thought process, consciously and unconsciously.

I went back again in 1997. I wanted clarity that I would be doing the right
thing by letting go of everything familiar to me to come and live in a
place I knew little about. Prayer, mediation, trust, and overcoming the
fears I’d acquired during this period of my life were the tools I had to
take the plunge. I announced to all who I loved that I’d be heading to
Taos in Spring of 1998. The reality of change was firmly planted in my
heart now. The unknown is scary, exciting, and thought provoking. I
couldn’t imagine for a minute what my life would look or feel like when I
got there. All I knew was that I was doing what was meant to be. The
goodbyes were said and I left London in comfortable assurance that I
would never be the same again when this next part of my life was over. I
started working at the Pueblo soon after my arrival in Taos. I was living
in two worlds and knew that every day when I drove past the sign "you are
now entering Indian lands", I was entering a place of tremendous spiritual
energy and power. I witnessed some of the most beautiful ceremonies,
dances, and festivals done to honour Mother Earth that I’d ever seen
elsewhere in the world. I was taught how to shawl dance by the women of
the Tribe. I was taken on many occasions to observe their Buffalo herd,
gracious gigantic beasts with their own air of pride and dignity. Bald
eagles were a daily sight, wing spans you could do nothing but be in awe
of. I had to slow my car down more times than I can remember to let a
lone Coyote cross the road in front of me. That very special few seconds
when they look you in the eye before going about their own daily
business. Many of the Tiwa people became my good friends and teachers. I
worked with them for 14 months and left feeling that I’d done all I was
meant to do with the Tribe in that time. I stayed on in Taos for almost
12 years. All of the other incredible spiritual, life-changing
experiences I had then will one day need to become a book, I feel.

My core message about what I’ve written here is this: never tell yourself you
can’t do something you want to do. Find the reasons to make it happen
instead of finding the excuses to make it not happen. With a fearless
open heart, you can turn your dreams and wishes into your own realities.
I am now back in London finding that my 12 years in New Mexico has in
fact changed me in many ways and I’m ready for the next life adventure
wherever it may take me.

Blessings to you all
Ellie Blair.

Ellie Blair is originally from Scotland. She has travelled the world and feels she is a better person for having done so. She has been on her Spiritual Path for as long as she can remember. She is inspired by inspiring people and situations. The above is a short piece she has written since returning back to London a few months ago after living in Taos, New Mexico for 11 years.