Oh Beautiful Sky, and The Cradling

Episodes 11 and 12 of ‘Turning Towards Life’ are now available on our new Turning Towards YouTube channel, and are also included below. We’ll be live on facebook here as usual at 9am UK time each Sunday morning.

In Oh Beautiful Sky we begin with a poem written by Lizzie’s husband Matthew for his daughter. Our conversation turned into the topic of power – how we try to have power over others and over the world, and the difficulty this brings. And how cultivating awe and connection with something bigger than ourselves – the sky, nature – can remind us of a much truer power we have, power-with, in which we turn towards others and bring ourselves in a way that brings out the possibility of mutual commitment. And what different world of organisations, family, community and politics we’d cultivate if power-with was our central commitment in the world?

And in The Cradling we begin with a beautiful and powerful meditation from the work of Joanna Macy. We ask ourselves what possibilities there are when we remember the extraordinary and unlikely evolutionary background from which all human beings come, and when we remember also that everyone – even those people we judge most or are most afraid of – arises from exactly the same background and shares with each of us the same biology. Would we respond so easily with the impulse to hurt, or distance ourselves, or turn away? And if we did not, what then?

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The Cradling by Joanna Macy

Every week Justin & Lizzie host a conversation live on facebook, at 9am UK time, as part of the thirdspace ‘Turning Towards Life’ project. Each week we begin our conversation with a source that moves, inspires or stretches us, and see what happens. We’re delighted that hundreds of people are watching and listening.

You can see us live on facebook by joining our private facebook group, or catch up with the videos later on our YouTube channel.

Our source for this week is an abridged version of Joanna Macy’s ‘The Cradling‘ meditation, from her Work That Connects. You can find more information about the Joanna Macy’s work on her website.

Lift gently your partner’s arm and hand. Cradle it, feel the weight of it… flex the elbow and wrist, note how the joints are hinged to permit variety of movement. Behold this arm as if you had never seen it before, as if you were a visitor from another world… Observe the articulation of bone and muscle … Turning the palm and fingers, note the intricacy of structure.

What you now hold is an object unique in our cosmos:  a human hand of planet Earth.  In the primordial seas where once we swam, that hand was a fin  – as it was again in its mother’s womb.   Feel the energy and intelligence in that hand  – that fruit of a long evolutionary journey, of efforts to swim, to push, to climb, to grasp.  Note the opposable thumb, how clever and adept it is… good for grasping a tool, a gun, a pen.

Open your awareness to the journey it has made in this present lifetime… how it opened like a flower when it emerged from the mother’s womb.… how it reached to explore and to do.  That hand learned to hold a spoon… to throw a ball… to write its name… to wipe tears… to give pleasure. There is nothing like it in all the universe.

Lift now your partner’s other hand and arm … Observe the subtle differences from its twin … This hand is unique, different from all other hands… Turning it in yours, feel the life in it …  And note also its vulnerability… no shell encases it, for those fingertips, that palm, are instruments for sensing and knowing our world, as well as for doing…  Flexible, fragile hand, so easy to break or burn … Be aware of how much you want it to stay whole, intact, in the time that is coming… It has tasks to do, that your partner can’t even guess at.… reaching out to people in confusion and distress, helping, comforting, showing the way.  This hand may be the one that holds you in the moments of your own dying, giving you water or a last touch of reassurance….  The world of sanity and decency that lies ahead will be built by hands like this one.  With gratitude for its existence, put it gently down; move now around behind your partner’s head.

Now hold your partner’s head, cradling it with reverence, for what you now hold in your two hands is the most complex object in the known universe… a human head of planet Earth… a hundred billion neurons firing in there… vast potential for intelligence… only a portion has been tapped of its capacity to percieve, to know, to vision.

Your hands holding your partner’s head – that is the first touch your partner knew in this life, coming out of the womb into hands, like yours, of a doctor or midwife….  Now within that skull is a whole world of experience– of memories of scenes and songs, beloved faces… some are gone now, but they live still in the mansions of that mind…. It is a world of experience that is totally unique and that can never be fully shared…  In that head too are dreams of what could be, visions that could shape our world.

Closing your eyes for a moment, feel the weight of that head in your hands. It could be the head of a Chinese worker or an Nicaraguan mother, of an American general or an African doctor. Same size, same weight just about, same vulnerability, same capacity for dreams that could guide us through this time.

Looking down at this head, think of what this person may have to behold in the times that are coming… the choices to be made… the courage and endurance needed.  Let your hands, of their own intelligence, express their desire that all be well with that head. Perhaps there is something that you want your partner to keep in mind  – something you want them not to forget in times of stress or anguish.  If there is, you can quietly tell them now, as you lay their head back down.

What we pay attention to (and what we don’t)

So often what we are doing in our lives (and hence in every activity, relationship, project) is joining the dots, stringing together the phenomena we experience into coherent narratives and explanations. In other words, we are always interpreting – and which interpretations we choose (or which choose us) is of enormous significance.

Of equal significance in this is our choice of phenomena to pay attention to. What we notice, and what we take to be meaningful, is a matter of both choice and practice. Choice – because an infinity of phenomena reach us and we pay attention only to some. Practice – because the way we pay attention (which includes what we pay attention to) is both a matter of habit (we most easily pay attention to what is familiar to us) and skilfulness (our capacity to discern and discriminate between different phenomena is something that can be learned, and cultivated over time).

The current cultural background of scientific materialism in which most of us are deeply schooled without our knowing it does not help us well in developing life-giving interpretations from which to live life, nor in learning to pay attention to what might be meaningful to us. This is not through any fault in science, itself a powerful and rigorous method for discerning deep and fundamental patterns and truths about the material universe. But looking at our lives only this way has us pay attention only to certain kinds of experience. We look only at what can be reasoned about, logically and in a detached way. We treat as true only that which can be proved, measured, quantified.

Scientific materialism, in its deep commitment to understanding the material world (and in understanding the world only as material) has little scope for understanding what’s meaningful to people, what makes our hearts sing, how we are moved by encountering or making art, what it is to love and be loved, what it is to care about life, the world, others. Or, more accurately, when it does have something to say about these topics it can only say that love is a particular firing of neurons in the brain, or an evolutionary adaptation to make it more likely that we reproduce; or that art is simply an adaptation that allows us to build social status, or that our appreciation of it comes because of the transmission of pleasure signalling chemicals to reward centres of the brain. And while all of these might well have a kind of rigorous truth about them when looked at from a materialist perspective, they tell us nothing about the meaningful experience of being human – what it is to love, or be loved, to create art, or be moved by it, to open to the mysterious and endless wonder of finding ourselves alive, or to be a whole world – as each of us are – of relationships, language, meanings, longing, desire, sadness, grief, joy, hope and commitment.

When we treat ourselves or others as mere material objects and truth as only scientific truth – as we are encouraged to do in so many of our systems in organisations, education and government – we miss out on deeper interpretations that take into account that we are subjects too, living beings who act upon the world through our ability to care and make sense, and who possess an exquisite and precious consciousness and capacity for self- and other-awareness. Precious indeed, because as far as we can tell, compared to the abundance of matter in the universe, life is rare enough. And among all the life we know about, as far as we can tell, consciousness and self-awareness (the capacity to say ‘I’ and reflect on ourselves) even rarer.

Alongside our scientific materialism, we could support our understanding and care about being human by paying attention also to the insights of those cultures and peoples who came before us, many of which we have thrown out in our elevation of reason over wisdom. In treating only reason as valid, we’ve discarded ways of encountering truth that can include beauty, meaning and goodness alongside what can be logically proved to be true. Myth, art, poetry, music, legend and spiritual practices that bind us into communities of meaning and action are all worth studying and taking seriously here. They can teach us to pay attention not only to the deep insights of our logical minds but also to the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and to our first-hand lived experience of being human among other human beings.

Which brings me back to the ‘dots’ we pay attention to – the phenomena we treat as meaningful in our lives. What we experience does not come labelled for us as important, or not, significant or not. We have to decide what’s worth noticing, and practice living lives in which we make matter what can matter. And it’s incumbent upon us to do this, by paying a deeper kind of attention to our lives and our experience, and to what we choose to care about.

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Every sorrow can be a form of love

When we’re feeling fear, sorrow, anger or emptiness at the world – or at any situation we find ourselves in the midst of – perhaps it would help us to remember:

That when we speak our fear we draw on the courage and dedication it takes to speak;

And when we express our sorrow it can arise from our love and care for what has been lost;

That we can speak about our anger best by finding the commitment to justice from which it comes;

And that our emptiness, our sense of what is still missing, is also the possibility from which something new can arise.

Every anguish, every sorrow, has its truest ground in a kind of dedication, hope and love. And when we can remember that, rather than just the anguish and sorrow, our chances of being able to contribute with dignity are deepened and widened and made more real.

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The Invisible Tug Between You and Everything

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.

– Ellen Bass

It’s so easy to feel our separateness from everything.

For a start, we always experience ourselves at the centre of our lives, right where our body is, while people and things come and go around us. We can easily conclude that we are the only solid something in the world, while everything else is transient.

And few of us live in the midst of community. We have practices that shape how we work, how we take care of ourselves, how we attend to our lives that emphasise how alone we are, and how self-reliant we must be in order to survive. It’s rare to find ourselves bound up in the midst of communities of depth, support and care that remind us in each moment how held we can be.

And then there’s the whole way our systems of knowing and learning are constructed, deeply influenced by the Cartesian view that we are essentially minds, separate from the world. And our economic system, which deems us useless unless we can prove our productivity.

It’s no wonder we can feel so alone, so afraid, so distant from everything. It’s no wonder it’s so hard for us to feel the way in which each of us matters, in which the world and we depend each upon the other.

But we do matter. And the world does depend upon each of us. And when we’re able to remember this, we have a much better chance of doing what we’re here to do.

This is the topic we took up in this week’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which begins with Ellen Bass’s beautiful poem The World Has Need of You, and which you can watch below.

We’ll be live again on Sunday morning at 9am UK time. you can join us here.

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For the sake of heaven

This week in ‘Turning Towards Life’ Justin and Lizzie began with Jennifer Wellwood’s poem “Unconditional“. We talked together about how difficult it can be to really accept our experience, how easy to run from it, and the consequences. Along the way we considered why it is that human beings so often prefer to be right than to stay in relationship, and how that’s related to our wish to defend ourselves. And we introduced the idea of an argument ‘for the sake of heaven’… which is when we disagree in a way that keeps a bigger context in view and allows us to let go of our own rigid positions.

You can find the poem, which we recommend you read before watching, here.

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