For anyone who wasn't at Yearly Meeting this weekend, audio files of all the presentations (including the Swarthmore Lecture) are available here. (You have to click on the title of the talk rather than the 'play' button to play it, confusingly...)
Yesterday (Sunday 19th May) the swifts came back. Some of them nest in the eaves of our houses, and this year, what with our awful spring, they are two or even three weeks late. The day before, we had our first community get together in each others gardens and it seemed profoundly wrong in a deeply spiritual sense that it was cold and overcast and many flowers had not yet bloomed – and the swifts were not circling above.
In meeting for worship yesterday we were reminded that it was pentecost – a celebration of new life in the spirit. Weeks earlier it was Easter – the coldest on record, but supposedly a celebration of the resurrection of life. And then on the 1st May those with pagan inclinations were supposed to celebrate new life. A friend with Finnish connections told me that there they celebrate Walpurgis Night, after Saint Walpurga, on 30th April, again to mark new life, yet northern Finland is still in the depths of winter.
What seems to have happened is that all these externally imposed festivals have disconnected us from the physical reality of the changing seasons. When we should be relating spiritually with the world as it is, instead we are encouraged to relate mystically with some imagined world where spring always arrives on Easter Sunday, or 1st May. And so it is that we become detached from the physical world as it is, and we are but a short way from exploiting it and the creatures in it, including our fellow human beings, for our own selfish ends, all justified by appeal to some disconnected ideal, whether religious or political.
When I first started to become really aware of the world-as-it-is, which coincided with first attending a Quaker meeting, I had become profoundly disillusioned with established Christianity, and came to call it the 'two thousand year ago, two thousand mile away religion'. But we do not need to have the external authority of imposed festivals to cut us off from the world, our consumer culture is more than effective by itself. It amazes me that supermarket fresh food sections, and even some greengrocers, look almost identical whatever time of year it is. And so it is that our disconnection is complete and we become lost and wander aimlessly over the world damaging it by accident as much as deliberately, so blind are we to the reality that is outside of us.
This last weekend we had asparagus for the first time in ten months, and we sat in the garden and toasted the swifts with bubbly.
There is a need to
engage with the sheer physicality of the world, to get out of our
heads and feel the resistance of the world as we do things in it. By
being taken up with ideals formed inside our heads, we become focused
on wanting solutions before we have even looked properly at the
problem, let alone understood the problem. The physical world does
not let you do this. It will bite back at you and hurt you if you do
not engage fully, with all the senses, but especially touch, paying
attention to felt experiences. This is the true meaning of
'mindfulness': it is not about the mind at all, but about getting
away from the mind and experiencing the world and being aware of the world and everything and everyone in it.
Our western culture
teaches us to be thinkers observing the world - we absorb this
standpoint like mothers milk, not even aware of how it is distorting
our perspective of reality. Instead we need to be actors relating to
the world. This viewpoint is profoundly heterocentric – in the
physical world, if you constantly pay attention to yourself, you will
trip up, so you are forced to pay attention to the world of which you
are a part.
us from the world - we think we are supermen, when all we are doing
is flicking a switch to turn on the power. We think that we can shape
the world to our own desires, hammer and chain saw our way through
any obstacle, not realizing that once something has been broken
without understanding how it works, it cannot be mended.
Engaging with the
physicality of the world teaches us to engage properly socially.
Staying with the physical problem, realizing our physical
limitations, feeling it through, accepting uncertainty and risk,
looking for the novel approach, being physically hurt by mistakes;
all this teaches us to listen to others, teaches us the value of
dialogue and interchange, and the uselessness of competition.
Realizing how puny we
are in the physical world, how fragile our bodies are, how easily we
succumb to disease and infirmity, teaches us the need to find ways of
working that use minimal force, that don't wear us out. As our
engagement with the physical world teaches us to be easy with
ourselves, so we learn to be easy with others, to listen, to engage,
As we actively engage
with the physical world, so we learn that to not get bitten back we
must relate fully to the other, to know the other and to discover
ourselves back through the other. And so in turn we learn to
empathise with others, to know ourselves through the other person we
are engaged in a relationship with. We realise that sympathy is
merely looking at the other person through our own eyes.
And so it is that we
come to walk cheerfully over the earth, feeling that earth rising up
to meet our feet, and realising that 'answering that of God' is not a
notion in our heads about some sort of essence in the other person,
but seeing ourselves through them.