Yin and Yang, The Scottish Referendum, and Competition and Collaboration

When many people think of the Eastern concept of Yin and Yang, they tend to think in terms of taking these opposite forces and bringing them into balance. I have thought in much the same way for a long time, but increasingly in the last couple of years I have come to think about Yin and Yang, and other such polar opposites as needing something more than balance: I think they need integration.

This is a subtle distinction, but an important one to me. The idea of balance seems to me to be a devil’s bargain where I take these apparent opposites and do my best to juggle them in my life trying never to let one or the other be too dominant, which I would suggest leads also to never fully committing to one, or the other. At the heart of this balancing act is what I consider to be a somewhat flawed belief in the first place - that polar opposites by their difference are necessarily separate.

When we introduced the idea of integration we step into an entirely different dialogue, one where opposites don’t just attract but are intimately linked, necessarily interdependent. For me this is a truth which is expressed by the Yin Yang symbol which contains a dot of white in the black and a dot of black in the white, Yin contains a seed of Yang, and Yang contains a seed of Yin. This is the essential paradox at the heart of Taoism from which these concepts originate: things which seem to be opposed are actually in support of each other. You can’t say yes to one thing without saying no to many others; to jump up you must push down; we only know there is light because we can contrast it against darkness.

This seems in some ways particularly pertinent this week where the debate in Scotland has been so hot about whether to separate or stay together with the rest of the UK. What seems to me to have so often have been lost in this debate is the fact that if Scotland chooses independence, in the turbulent and tough times we are facing in this world Scotland and the rest of the UK will need to find a way to be close allies. Equally, if Scotland chooses to stay in the United Kingdom, then the central UK government will need to be ready to give Scotland greater freedom. Either way it seems to me we will have to be ready to work together, and either way the people of Scotland who have been in such heated debate will have to be ready to live together. I think the divisiveness of this debate and the way the politicians have handled themselves has not paved the way well for either of these 2 things.

We can draw a wider application when we consider the broader positions of competition and collaboration. So often these 2 things are seen as being mutually exclusive, so often I hear competitors speak with scorn about collaboration, so often I hear collaborators speak with distaste about competition. In my opinion, as with any Yin and Yang the 2 things at their heart are completely interdependent and it is when one is exclusively heralded and the other pathologised that systems and relationships begin to break down.

I used to be very much in the collaborators camp having had a difficult time with competitive sport at school and found my home in theatre where the cast depend so much on each other. However, playing Capoeira at University, studying the Samurai Game, and discussing this with Jane Magruder-Watkins when I trained in Appreciative Inquiry shifted my perspective. In Capoeira competition is strong but playfully and joyfully held, in the Samurai Game fierce combat is conducted with total respect, and what Jane helped me to see is that in any competitive situation short of the death-match collaboration is necessary.

No matter how competitive the sport, let’s take football as an example, unless I walk onto the pitch armed with weapons ready to slay anyone who tries to stop me putting the ball in the goal then collaboration has to be a play! In even the most collaborative environments, unless we are all going to “play small” desperately trying not to be better than anyone else then some kind of competition is at play: we each bring our best game and want everyone else to do the same but some ideas will be pursued and developed while others won’t. When we can stop trying to make one approach right and the other one wrong competition and collaboration are mutually nourishing and supporting.

Let’s hope that whatever the outcome in Scotland we as nations and regions can find a supportive and nourishing integration of togetherness and apart-ness.

I invite you in your communities and organisations to consider the place of competition and collaboration and how they can be better integrated.

If you’d like to explore the integration of Yin and Yang I will be running a workshop 27th of September on this theme, and I will soon be releasing a new book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable’ which is a modern take on the most ancient Taoist text exploring the expression of Yin and Yang in the world.

A Spiritual lesson from Drama School

A learning from my past has come to the surface recently because of some work with one of my students on our Embodied Facilitator Course and I felt to share it in a blog.

It revolves around a moment of breakthrough for me when I was training as an actor at drama school. Acting was something I had always been good at, amongst the best of the people I knew, but in going to drama school I had to face a reality that I think many do: going from being a big fish in a small pond to be a small fish in a big pond. I was still good, but so was everyone else. The teachers were more granular in their feedback and by its very nature the feedback they were giving us related to our blind-spots. If we had known about these problems, if we had been aware of them, we would have changed them already have – we were all dedicated students. I remember envying my fellow students their feedback when it related to such concrete things as working with their posture or their voice. I’m sure for them that was just as difficult to change as what I was being told was difficult for me, but in the moment their feedback seemed so tangible and technical that I wished my problems were so “simple.”

My feedback took various forms. I needed to:

 

“let go”

 

“take a risk”

 

“just try something”

 

“be more spontaneous”

 

I’m certain my teachers meant well with this advice, but at the time it felt like they may as well have said “just stick the North wind in a bottle and drink it.” No problem!

So I continued to struggle with it.

What I realise now but I didn’t know then was that I was so busy trying to “get it right” that there was always a part of me sat on my shoulder watching what I was doing, critiquing what I was doing. That inner observer didn’t make me self-aware, it just made me self-conscious which made everything I did on stage seem overly considered and it therefore lacked the kind of theatrical truth that makes for a great performance.

One director I worked with said “you have the look of someone being looked at.” This was of course no more helpful at the time, but in hindsight it was an interesting comment for him to make!

What I’ve found is an interesting link to my work today teaching embodiment and personal development in that I noticed one of my students had a similar quality, like he was watching himself all the time. In speaking to him about this he found it very useful, and in some ways slightly confusing information because so many spiritual teachings talk about cultivating an inner observer - and that’s part of what he had been working on. I am sure it is the case that in the spiritual traditions that speak of cultivating that “inner observer” or a part of us that neutrally witnesses who we are and what we do, don’t intend for us to become negatively self-conscious. I’m sure it is intended to be more about non-judgemental self-awareness. However I have seen this quality in many other people on similar paths which makes me think that it is a common misunderstanding and may be causing other people difficulties too, so I wanted to offer my solution from when I was at drama school.

The solution I found came to me during my 2nd year at drama school. I was working with a director who I often clashed with because we had such different philosophies and outlooks but he got great results with some people and I was nothing if not tenacious student so I kept diligently trying to do what he asked. We were working on a scene and had been working on it for quite a lot of the afternoon session, running through it over and over again. I was heartily sick of the scene and really fed up with what felt like a litany of criticism and my own sense of trying constantly to do what the director was asking of me and constantly failing. We were nearing the end of the afternoon and I got to a point in myself where I thought “I’m just going to walk onto the stage, say my lines, and walk off again, we will have to give up at some point!”

We did. We stopped right after that run-through but the director seemed surprised and happy. The next morning I ran into him outside the drama school and he asked me:

“Do you know what you did yesterday?”

Me: “if I’m honest, I walked onto the stage said my lines and walked off again.”  (clearly I was done with being the ‘good student’!)

Director: “Right, right, brilliant. We need to work out how you do that in the rest of the play.”

This was all said without a hint of irony and was followed by the closest thing to a compliment I had ever heard given by that director. I came away frankly shocked! I also came away with a profound realisation.  This was what people had been trying to tell me for all this time but never finding quite the right words (or maybe they did and I just didn’t hear them, or they weren’t offered to me at the right time) :

“don’t give a shit, none of it really matters!”

Like I say, I think I needed the realisation not just the words, but there was something profound in this that gave me a sense of freedom, nonattachment, and relaxation. Suddenly I was able to let go, and take a risk, and try something, and be spontaneous because on some level I had found a way to just not really give a shit anymore.

So there it is, my profound spiritual realisation! If like me you have a tendency to care too much, be too cautious, or try to get things ‘right’ then you may like to try a healthy dose of not giving a shit. It could be transformational!

With love.

Death and Life

You are going to die

You

Are going to die

There is no avoiding it

Pretending it won't happen won't prevent it

And more than that,

Everyone and everything you love will die too.

There is no solace in this world, no legacy great enough to ensure your immortality.

You are closer to death now than when you started reading.

Take another step my friend,

There is no avoiding it.

There could be misery in these thoughts...

Terror,

Disillusionment,

Pain.

But there is a gift as well:

It is only by embracing the reality of death that we truly learn how to live.

There is a fierce urgency that is yours to claim,

A freeing knowledge of your own doom

That waits

Like death

Just around the corner.

Many imagine the knowledge of imminent doom

To bring a rush

Of hedonism,

A selfish 'fuck you' to the world as you pursue your own pleasure.

...But that is not what I see.

That is not what I feel in myself as I contemplate my own demise,

No.

I want to share,

to give,

to love.

I seek belonging

Not belongings,

I welcome simplicity and peace, not a chaotic feeding of my inner glutton,

I seek substance not substances,

Because.

In confronting my death

I have to confront my life,

In facing the fact that I could disappear at any moment

I have to ask the question

"What if I could appear at any moment?"

What if...?

What if...?

What if I stepped out from behind the cloud of my own inhibitions and really lived?

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

Not for fame,

Or greatness,

Or money,

Or any of the other egoic delights

I may pick up

Incidentally along the path,

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

for ordinary wonder?

What if seeing death could help me to see life?

What if the marvel of life lies not in the marvels but in the minutiae?

The light on my cup,

The moment of satisfaction after eating a meal,

Or speaking to a friend.

What if I could appear to myself at any moment?

What if I could see myself with fresh eyes now, and now, and now

And know:

This is who I am.

And tomorrow I will be someone else,

And that is wonderful and terrible.

Wonder-full and terrible

To have to face

My own death

Every day,

The possibility of my physical death

And the reality of dying to myself every moment,

Because I am not the same person now as when I started writing this,

You are not the same person who started reading this,

You are not only dying but dead.

You are dead.

You are dead already.

You don't owe anyone anything,

And you owe a great legacy in every moment

Because you are your own ancestor.

Are you going to let the million you's who died so that you could live

Die for nothing?

Knowing that you will die anyway, can you sacrifice yourself in this moment

So that the you who is being born

Might receive a legacy of choice?

 

Can you embrace death, dear one,

so that you might learn how to live?

Appreciation as a way of life

I've just released my new book 'The Little Book of Appreciation' so understandably perhaps I have been writing a lot about appreciation.  However, that doesn't come out of a pure drive for self-promotion!  The work of appreciating the people we have relationships with has proved time and again to be one of the simplest, most profound practices in my life and work.  It has improved my marriage, enhanced my working relationships and improved the effectiveness of my management, and in training numerous groups in both the 'hard corporate' and health and social care environments I have seen a relational 'warming and softening' which enables greater humanity and intimacy between people in very short spaces of time.  For efficiency of relational improvement there is nothing I have found that works better.

More than that, however, I think it has the potential when applied in a subtly different way to transform our relationsip with the world around us.  There is the potential that we can become more intimate with our day-to-day surroundings and through this visible face of spirit we walk through each moment, perhaps more intimate with the universe, with the divine - whatever you call it.

Whether what I've said above speaks to you or not, for any of you out there who are already master appreciators, if you've practiced a bunch appreciating your friends, loved, ones and co-workers and want another step, or even if you just want a slightly different way to welcome appreciation into your life here's another practice: Blanket Appreciation. 

This is an adaptation of 'blanket blessing' which has been a practice of mine for many years inspired by some of the work of Serge Kahaili King who teaches a particular school of Hawai'ian Shamanism.

In Blanket Appreciation you bring your attention to just appreciating the bejeesus out of everything you come across - not just people, things too.  In your mind, as you move through your life, this is an opportunity to more fully notice the world around you.  Each person or thing you notice, you take a moment to appreciate.

Just as with appreciation, the more specific you can be about what quality of a person or thing you are appreciating the better: a building being strong and enduring, a yellow line down the side of the road keeping people safe, a flower adding a splash of colour and delicacy to the world.  Whatever it is, you notice and appreciate its unique gifts.

In some ways, noticing and appreciating things that you otherwise wouldn't notice, those things that fade into the background, can be both the best challenge and the richest opportunity.  It's an opportunity to transform your world into one filled with wonderful things and unique gifts. Who wouldn't want to live in a world so blessed? And all the while you are doing that you are refining your skills of appreciation, perfecting your practice, honing your habit...

 

Now go practice!

 

If you want to find out more about 'The Little Book of Appreciation' then when you sign up to be a member of this website and receive my newsletter you will get access to a members area which includes a mini-version of the book as a gift.

To buy a copy of 'The Little Book of Appreciation' follow this link, it's available now a 40% discount and free delivery until 10th April:  http://www.lulu.com/shop/francis-briers/the-little-book-of-appreciation/paperback/product-21567213.html

Spiritualising the Body

Often in the modern dialogue around spirituality we can be disconnected from the body. For various reasons with roots ranging from certain periods of Christian teaching, to Descartes' philosophical mind/body divide, right through to very contemporary ideas about spiritual 'transcendence', many of us seem to have ideas that the body is somehow less spiritual or even not spiritual at all. I have observed many times in many people some version of the thought that in order to be spiritual we need to disconnect from the physical. While materialism and fear of physical threat can be traps which keeps us from really focusing our attention on our deep values and higher ideals, if we are ever to reach towards enlightenment or any other kind of spiritual development, we must do so in our bodies, with our bodies, and through our bodies. I would suggest that our dissociation with our own bodies is a large contributing factor in creating the behaviour which has damaged and is destroying our planet. If we dismiss our own bodies as 'un-spiritual' and therefore not worthy of care, then how likely are we to bring deep care and attention to the 'body' of Mother Earth? I would also suggest that while we need large scale cultural change around how we relate to our environment, large cultural change can begin with small personal change. One way to approach this is to Spiritualise the Body. It doesn't need 'spiritualising', it is full of beauty and spirit already, so really this is more about remembering that. Remembering is a wonderful word in this context. We have been dis-membered, taken apart by these ideas of an 'un-spiritual' body and it is time to put ourselves back together – to re-member. This exercise is a first step towards that by taking something we do all the time – washing – and turning it into a spiritual practice.

 

In many traditions there are ways of physically cleansing the body which are also considered to be deeply spiritual acts. This can take the form of internal cleansing or external cleansing.

 

A number of shamanic traditions from around the world feature some form of 'purging' which often literally involves spitting or vomiting up matter which is considered to be linked to negative energy. Perhaps the best example of this is the Ayahuasca traditions of Brazil where they are ingesting a 'teacher plant' which has both hallucinogenic properties and purgative properties. The plant brings the shaman or practitioner visions which are considered direct interactions with the spiritual realm and at the same time the body is purged of negative energies, sometimes through vomiting - you don't need to worry that I'm going to get you to do that! A less extreme example of internal cleansing might be the use of fasting. When you fast, typically toxins are purged from the body, that's part of why you often get headache's and bad breath during a fast – that's the nasty stuff that's collected in corners being swept out of the body. While this has physical health benefits, in some of the traditions which work with fasting, the evacuation of physical toxins from the body is also seen to have a spiritual correlation so that your spirit or energy body is being cleansed by the process of the fast as well.

 

An example of external cleansing can be seen in the First Nation (or Native American) tradition of the sweat-lodge. The sweat-lodge is one of the most common traditional ceremonies that I have come across in the North American tradition and there have been suggestions that similar ceremonies may have been used in Europe too. The sweat-lodge is a small dome built from bent branches and then covered with hides or blankets with a pit inside to put heated stones in and a fire outside to heat the stones. The precise construction of the lodge and it's alignment to the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) varies but is always considered to be of great importance. This was a sacred place, not unlike a church. The symbolism of the sweat-lodge is that it represents the womb of Mother Earth and you go into the be ritually 'reborn' after the ceremony. The emphasis that I have experienced is always on the spiritual dimensions of the 'sweat' but there is a reality that this is a very real physical cleansing process too. Not unlike a sauna, the heat makes you sweat and by sweating you are releasing toxins from the body, on top of that the steam in the air means that once you towel off after the ceremony you are actually pretty clean, not just caked in sweat! Another example of external cleansing can be found in the Hindu tradition. Within Hinduism it is considered that each of us carries a seed of the divine within us so if we don't take care of ourselves then we are failing to take care of the divine within. As such, personal hygiene (for instance) is of great importance. You have probably at least heard of Yoga, and may know it was originally a Hindu discipline. What is less well-known is that what we commonly call 'Yoga' is actually only one of the 4 primary Yogic paths. What we usually call 'Yoga' is Raja Yoga. There is also Jnana Yoga which primarily involves exploring the nature of being through certain types of dialogue and enquiry; Karma Yoga which involves engaging in good works in the world; and Bhakti Yoga which involves devotional practices (ritual expressions of loving the divine). One of the traditional devotional practices of Bhakti Yoga is bathing statues of Gods and Goddesses, sometimes just bathing the feet.

 

So... what I want to invite you to do draws on the principles expressed in all of these traditions but most directly on these last aspects of Hinduism. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a ritual out of having a bath and bathe yourself like you are bathing a God or Goddess! Once you have done one really special one, you could make your daily shower, bath, wash, teeth-brush or anything else into a small personal ritual or spiritual practice. However, I really recommend doing one really special one and setting aside time to do it with great care and attention. If you can, I suggest a bath because showers tend to be quicker and more functional so a bath lends itself more to slowing down and taking greater care. Rituals or ceremonies typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end – like a story. The beginning tells your mind and being that something special is about to happen and helps to raise your levels of awareness and attention. The end lets you know when you are done and can step back out into a more ordinary awareness. The middle is whatever journey you want to craft for yourself in this special space of heightened awareness. So for this ritual you need to find a way to mark the beginning – this could be anything. Some simple ones could be the 'ding' of a Tibetan singing bowl, playing a special piece of music, or lighting a candle. At the end you can just do this same thing again (the 'ding', play the music again, or blow out the candle) – or you can find some other way to mark the end point such as writing a list of 5 things you are grateful for, reading a beautiful poem out loud, or a moment of silence. Then in the middle your task is to make your bathing as nurturing, loving, beautiful, present, and aware as you possibly can. Light lots of candle, use scented oils, have a lovely soft towel waiting afterwards, or even without any special 'stuff' you can bring deep care and attention to how you wash every part of your body. Slow down and take sensual pleasure in it all. As you pour water over your feet, pour love over them too. As you rub soap into your hands and face, be gentle, loving, kind, and deeply attentive to how it feels and how you could make it even lovelier, more caring, and attentive. Move through it all at least a little slower than you usually would and love every part of you, encountering it as if for the first time: with fresh eyes and wonder in your heart. Allow yourself to be newly amazed at this wonderful bodied being that is you, this awesome embodiment of your consciousness, this body that does so many amazing things – moving, and healing, feeling, sensing, touching, stretching, breathing, eating, connecting you with yourself, your loved-ones and your world. Love every inch of yourself, especially the bits you usually struggle to love, with the idea that this body-being is a vessel for the divine. God, the Goddess, spirit, soul, Love, the Tao, Buddha-nature, or Christ-consciousness – whatever name you give to that ineffable thing from which all things come, all things return, and which connects all things, play with the idea that some part of that divine awareness lives in you and by this act of loving and caring for yourself, you are loving and caring for the Divine.

 

Wishing you a beautiful time!

 

This article is an excerpt of the online Spiritual Exploration course I will be releasing soon.  Sign up to the email newsletter to get access to a 30 minute guided visualization which is also part of it along with many other free resources.

The 7 Days to Spiritual Enlightenment Game!

 

OK, so the likelihood that your crown chakra will spontaneously combust with spiritual go-go juice and you’ll become an overnight guru and world-saviour as a result of playing this game is slim, but this game could help you breathe more deeply, love more fully, see your everyday world in a new light, explore life more freely and live more vividly.  If that’s not worth investing a little attention in then I don’t know what is.  Just take it one day at a time and know that as long as you put in a bit of effort, there is cake at the end of the rainbow… mmmmmm … cake…..You will need a notebook and pencil, or phone (etc) to keep note of your score on each day and the following instructions for the 7 days:

 

  1. Dolphin Breathing:  Did you know dolphin’s have to consciously breathe so they don’t drown? Crazy huh?!  So on day 1 your mission is to pause and consciously breathe as often as you can during the day (without it becoming debilitating!).  Score a point for every time you pay attention to your breath.
  2. Hello:  Day 2’s mission is to say hello to each new experience, space, moment that you can.  So, for e.g. when you enter a room, go outside (having been inside), see someone, sit down at your computer…  Just internally say a really present and aware “hello” to as many things and people as you can.  Score a point for every time you do it.
  3. Gratitude:  This one is simple, but not easy… Notice and be grateful for all the gifts in your life.  Big things like home, friends, job, etc… And the little things like lunch, the traffic or crossing light being green, a spring in your step.  Score a point for every moment of gratitude.
  4. Counter-Blessing:  People think certain words with asterisks where letters should be are curses (like F**k) but they’re not really.  The real curses are the million ways we trash-talk the world in our thoughts.  All that negativity builds up!  Today is for counter-acting that: every time you have a negative thought (even if it is a justifiable one like “Man, I hate that political policy”), counter it with a positive one (it doesn’t have to be the same thing, it’s about the balance.  So you could counter the politics comment with “look at that beautiful flower!”).  Score a point for every curse you notice and counter.
  5. Blanket Blessing:  Next step is to just bless the bejeesus out of the whole world!  Choose things as you make your way through the day and get really specific about what it is you appreciate about that thing.  What qualities make it fantastic?  It’s great practice to choose things you either don’t like or that you find mundane or boring.  Ask yourself what makes even these things wonder-full.  Score a point for each thing you bless today.  Everything has value, if can’t see it yet, keep digging until you find the gold!  Score a point for each blessing.
  6. Breaking Enchantments:  You may by this point have noticed in your mind a negative story you carry about yourself (usually some version of “I’m not good enough”).  Today is for turning these around.  Choose one of your personal enchantments and invent a phrase that’s the opposite (like “I am wonderful”).  Whenever you hear that curse in your head, break it wide open by asserting your opposite statement – your self-blessing.  Score a point every time you do it.
  7. Goodbye:  The end is here so it’s time to practice endings.  Just like the day saying hello only this time you are saying “goodbye.”  Whenever you are leaving something behind (even if it is just leaving a room) pause inside yourself and say goodbye.  Score a point for every time you do it.

 

If you score 70 points or more then you rock – go buy yourself a piece of cake to celebrate your own awesomeness!  If you score 140 points or more then you rock da house, go and buy yourself cake and ice-cream!  If you score 280 points or more then buy a whole cake, invite some friends round and share your wisdom – you are clearly a spiritual legend!  If you score more than 350 points then you are about to transcend this life, turn into a beam of light and join the enlightened masters in the heavenly realm of cake-y wonder.  Hang tight where you are, cake, and eternal life as a bodhisattva is coming to you.

For more games and resources to make life more awesome visit www.fudoshin.org.uk and check out www.ask-the-rev.net for spiritual responses to life’s questions.

A Happy Ending

Endings are important.  I find it an easy thing to forget, after all, the real stuff is done isn’t it?  Ending is just the name for… well the end, when you’ve finished what you’re doing…. No?

Well if you’re anything like me, I’d suggest it’s worth bringing some attention to how you do your endings.  My wife is a psychotherapist and I’ve learned from her and my own training and experience in Spiritual Counselling about how important it is to find a conscious way to finish working with a client.  That therapeutic space is a delicate, significant, and intimate part of people’s lives and we would be doing them a disservice, and failing to honour what I consider to be the sacredness of the work we do together if we don’t find a conscious way to bring our work to an end.  Equally, when working in ritual, whether that is in my personal life in the way I mark the turning of the year with friends, or in my formal work as a minister it is vital to bring things to a close rather than just letting it all go.  We must honour that which we call forth within ceremony and ritual whether you consider that to purely be a part of our psyche, or a spiritual or divine presence, and the place for that honouring is at the end.  That is how we finish. 

Serge Kahili King writes about the most basic structure for any ritual as being a beginning to get the attention of your whole being and say “this is something special”, a middle where the body of the ritual happens (whatever that may be), and an end which closes the ritual and releases the energies you have collected back into the world and your psyche to do their work (healing, changing, manifesting etc.).  This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s (the famous mythologist) simplest map of the Hero’s journey as an archetypal Rite of Passage: Separation, Initiation, Return.  In simple terms this means that you leave or are taken away from your community or normal environment, you go through a challenging or transitionary experience, and then you return to your community and normal environment transformed and armed with gifts from your adventures to share with others.  How amazing would it be to feel like every ceremony or ritual you attended had that quality?  How wonderful to have that ‘time-out-of-time’ and then return feeling better equipped to be present, to help, and to love than when you left.  That is what I aim to do when I hold ceremonies for people, not necessarily in a grand and explosive way (it’s not a seminar after all!) but in a gentle and subtle way to help us all step out of the everyday, to share a connecting experience that helps us to access more beauty, connection, and love (to transform perspective), and then to create a conscious gateway to return to our day-to-day lives whereby we return refreshed and awakened.  I don’t know for sure my success rate but it feels to me that I witness people leaving a little brighter than when they arrive, and I have had some wonderful feedback from weddings, and other ceremonies I have designed and held for people.

What I have recently turned my attention to is how I bring this ceremonial or ritual awareness to my every day life.  I have been doing this in various ways for years and it is part of why the core practices for my Somatic Presence work are Breathing, Standing, Walking and Talking.  However, I have been bringing some attention to my endings… 

How often have you got to the end of the day and then just rushed out of the office?  How often have you been having a meeting and run short of time, crammed as much as you can in, and then rushed to finish so people get away on time.  It is a well-known phenomenon in therapeutic work to get a “door-handle comment.”  This is where the client seems not to settle into the work for much of the session and then just as they are leaving (hand on the door-handle…) they say something that is so profoundly what they needed to be talking about for the whole session that it is both a deep frustration, and a deep joy.  The frustration comes because they’ve only just said it as you're finishing, the joy is there because you know you can start with that thing next time and maybe, just maybe you’re starting to get somewhere…  I have both heard and made plenty of door-handle comments over the years, not just in therapeutic environments but in coaching calls, meeting a friend for a coffee, and in business meetings – especially team meetings.  The good news is that the person who says it, trusts the environment enough to say it at all.  I think in many ways we are all terrified of endings because they are the little deaths that happen all the time.  Most of us have some fear of death – the ultimate end in most people’s minds – and these little endings are constant reminders of how easily and frequently things end…or die.  But just as we may fear death, a nearness to death also tends to bring out in people a willingness to reflect on our lives, our choices, and our deeper needs than we might normally have.  Many people when a loved one dies make big changes in their lives as the death has brought a certain sense of perspective.  Death can give birth to courage.  I think this may also be why we get door-handle comments – the nearness of one of life’s little deaths helps us to be brave enough to face-up to what is really going on.

Endings then can be wonderful gifts, but we need to face them consciously.  An unconsidered death will tend to indicate an unconsidered life.  I remember a conversation with a friend about an exercise they’d done in a workshop where they had designed their own funerals.  She described her own which was very simple (barely there really!) and her friend’s which had been huge, grand, even epic!  I identified with her, in my imagination at that time my funeral would have been as quiet as possible, after all, why make a fuss?  I can see the same pattern in my day-to-day habits.  I would tend to leave the office without saying goodbye to people, I would leave parties when I was done and similarly probably only say good bye to the people I was directly speaking to, I would work right up to the end of a day, chuck things in my bag and go.  Part of what my friend shared with me in that original conversation and I have come to appreciate since is that all this is representative of my not appreciating the impact I have on the world and those around me.  I fail to realise that I matter to people or that my actions – or lack of action – has a knock-on effect.  Funerals are in so many ways not about the person that has died but the people left behind.  Saying “Goodbye” is not just about my need, it is about honouring the needs of others.  I have an impact.  I matter.  If either this, or indeed the opposite is true for you, then considering endings may be a worthwhile thing for you to do.  Do you make a grand exit because you need constant affirmation from others that you are important?  Either ends of this spectrum could indicate a lack of self-esteem.  That is certainly part of the picture for me.

All these little endings give you a chance to refine and practice making a graceful finish.  All of us will one day face an ending which we can’t do again so it’s worth getting good at endings now!

So… what have I done about it?  Well to start with I have started making use of a little ritual from the martial arts – bowing when you leave a place.  Usually upon entering and exiting the Dojo (training hall or ‘Place of the Way’ to give it the poetic translation) you bow.  This is to show respect to those more senior to you in the room, but in my mind, more importantly to the spirit of the place.  Obviously doing this everywhere you go may get embarrassing or even be inappropriate but I have started bringing my attention to it more and one way I do it is to take the moment as I leave to look back into the place I’m leaving and offer up some gratitude for it’s sanctuary - an internal bow if you will.  In my own office, I can bow as I leave and I take pleasure in that quiet moment.  That’s one thing I’ve re-focused on and I’m enjoying that.  The big thing though is that whenever I’m in my office working (rather than off facilitating a group or delivering training or something), I finish my main work a little early and take the last half-hour to work on my book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable.’  Because this is a translation of contemplative wisdom into modern language, I read a bit, ponder a bit, and then write a bit in a notebook (strictly non-computer time).  I love this time.  I am finding I leave the office feeling refreshed, inspired, and energised.  Instead of arriving home preoccupied and weary, I get back ready to have fun with my son and to help my wife.  It really is better for everyone.  This is my ending ritual for my days and it is helping me to feel lighter and more consistently connected to my purpose in life (which can get lost amongst the email mountain sometimes).

So, I’ll leave you with a question:  How do you do endings (big and small), and how could you engage with them more consciously? 

Obsession, Artistry, and Faith

Some of you who read this regularly may remember me posting an article called 'The Right Costume' which was inspired by a quote from the Hagakure - the Book of the Samurai, which I often quote from when I am running The Samurai Game.  Well, I dug up another one!  I've re-worked it a bit but I like it and I hope you enjoy it too.  As the title suggests, this is about Obsession, Artistry and Faith.  Funnily enough, while I haven't seen this article for a few years, it really resonates with the book I published earlier this year which I posted an excerpt of here.  It would seem my thinking has at least a little consistentcy...I'm either on the right track or a very slow learner!  Anyway, here it is:

 

“It is bad when one thing becomes two.  One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai.  It is the same for anything that is called a Way.  Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai.  If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

-  Hagakure, First Chapter. (Trans. William Scott Wilson)

 

 

                        It is rare in our modern world for people to speak of having a Way, or a ‘Calling,’ which is probably the English equivalent.  To have a Calling was most commonly associated with joining the church and becoming a minister but could be applied to many paths.  I suppose the modern equivalent is ‘having a career,’ but I seldom encounter this having for people the kind of unreserved commitment that is associated with a Calling or a Way.  Also, in my understanding of such things it is quite possible to follow a Way that is not necessarily directly associated with one’s career.  To pursue a Way is like a path of healthy obsession, it is where a mere technician becomes an Artist.  This kind of obsession takes skill to balance with the rest of one’s life and is also not generally considered very ‘cool!’  Discovering and embracing our own personal Way requires us to connect with our inner ‘geek,’ to find that thing which takes no effort to be completely focused on for hours, days, and years of our life – not so that we are cut off from the world and become exclusive in our attitudes, but so that we have an arena to fully embody and exercise our passion.  We can achieve a high degree of focus with discipline as our motivating factor, but the image of “discipline,” can fall into some very unhealthy traps.  For years I practised martial arts with a great deal of discipline, but my version of discipline back then involved internally beating myself over the head until I got up and trained.  My discipline was based on anger and as such was unsustainable and essentially self-harming.  In this way, my entire practice was built on a foundation of anger and it has taken a lot of work since realising this to break that foundation up and put a new one in place.  It’s not a process I would recommend duplicating!  You will be best served to find a Way that you keep going back to just because it brings you a quiet inner sense of pleasure and satisfaction to do it. 

            Anything can be embraced as a Way, it is just a matter of asking yourself what you are obsessed enough with to explore it that deeply.  When we really commit to such a course of study there comes a point where everything in our lives is automatically related to this Way; it becomes a lens through which we view the world and a forum for us to develop ourselves.  I have studied many things but only 3 things to anything approaching this depth:  Acting, Martial Arts, and Shamanism.  What I have realised over the years is that none of these is really my Way.  They are all a part of the picture but my Way is the Way of Presence.  I am completely and effortlessly obsessed with Presence.  So I continue to study several arts but with the clarity that all the time I am using them as tools to develop my commitment to the Way of Presence.

            The Ascetic or Hermit’s path (referred to in some shamanic traditions as the ‘via negativa’) of enlightenment is to keep shedding attachments, constantly letting things go, removing oneself from the world to enable total non-attachment to anything whatsoever so that nothing distracts the Ascetic from being totally free.  The Warrior is involved with the world and as such has to take a different path of realisation (sometimes called the ‘via positiva’):  the Warrior becomes completely involved with the world to the point of love and obsession, so completely invested in the present moment that they pass out the other side of obsession and find freedom.  The destination is essentially the same but the path is different.  This is a fine example of structure leading to freedom.  This is similar to the Zen arts of Chado (Way of Tea – the tea ceremony) and Kyudo (Archery).  2 everyday activities (in the time they were developed) which have been heightened to the level of an Art through structure and ritual.  Once a practitioner is so well versed in the formal ritual of the practice that they can do it without thinking, they can completely surrender themselves to each and every tiny moment knowing that the ritual, the structure will take care of the bigger picture.  The practice provides a framework for us to practice emptying ourselves and totally trusting.  In practicing such arts, or any martial art with Kata or Forms (solo patterns of movement) there comes a point where the ritual is so familiar it is essentially boring; then, having become that familiar with the form you can forget about where you are going next and become obsessive about the details within each movement and moment; finally once the detail is sufficiently refined you can pass out the other side of obsession into a freedom where the form (or pattern, or ritual, or Kata) is ‘doing’ you rather than you doing it.  There spontaneously arises a mindful effortlessness.

                It seems to me that mostly in our modern world we just keep giving up when we get to the boredom stage so we never develop a Way and everything seems “too much like hard work.”  We just have lots of fragments of knowledge and no understanding, no sense of an underlying structure – no faith.  What is faith if not an underlying structure, or a sense of being supported and held?  In practicing standing meditation I found a benefit I had no idea I would find there.  I found such a profound awareness of my connection with the ground that I began to feel totally supported by the Earth – by Mother Earth -  all of the time, as indeed I am! In this way Faith seems to me to be a practice, not a passive waiting for something to fall in our laps.

 There is nothing wrong with trying things out and letting them go if they are not what we want, but if we stick at nothing, or do everything mindlessly then we end up with what my Mum used to call a ‘readers digest knowledge’: small facts about many subjects and no real understanding of anything.  By gaining a deep understanding of one subject, this subject can serve as a microcosm for us to learn about the macrocosm of our lives.  This is wisdom.  Through practicing something until it is the structure that underpins our lives, we learn faith.  It is not a matter of randomly picking a pursuit and blindly sticking to it, but of connecting with our heart’s passion to find out what nourishes us.  I have had 3 main paths of study and each of them have served me well in their time. With each of them I felt that maybe there was something that would suit me better, but without being sure what, it was a matter of sticking with something until it led me somewhere else.  That ‘somewhere else,’ is my Way.  It is a Warrior’s Way and having found it I feel more confident and centred in myself and in my life.  From this place of confidence I don’t need to justify or defend my way of life, so I can have experiences and learn from all Ways, and be more and more in accord with my own. 

 

Things my friend taught me…

A friend of mine died recently, left this world for the next and while I feel strongly that she is nearby, just over the border into the spirit world I miss her.  Whatever the larger truth of the spiritual life, I cannot now go and sit with her while she makes things out of clay, or have dinner with her and her family, or share a hug.  I learned many things from my friend.  She carried such a powerful commitment to love and being loving in the face of every situation.  That’s not to say she was perfect – part of what made her so much fun to be with was her humanness, and humour – but I saw some amazing social transformations as she stubbornly radiated love towards awkward or obnoxious people.  She was a witch, an artist and a mother, and in all these things (along with many others, I’m sure) she was incredibly skilled.  I learned a great deal from her about myth, magic, creativity, and parenthood, but the learning that stands out for me most is to do with yearning.

 

            I’m going to offer this story with an open heart.  If you have particular beliefs about the way the world works or doesn’t work, whether it is a magical place or an entirely pragmatic one, I invite you to lay them aside for a little while and see this story as just that – a story.  It’s my story and in my own small way and my own life it is part of my personal hero’s journey.  So please, if necessary, suspend your disbelief for a while and join me on my adventure with an open mind and open heart for a little while.

 

I’m a yearner.  I think I probably always have been and certainly I have been for many years.  I couldn’t have told you what I was yearning for, precisely but it most commonly found expression through my falling in love.  As the band ‘My Life Story’ say in one their songs, “I don’t so much fall in love, I dive”.  I don’t know if you who are reading this know that feeling of yearning, that ache in the heart, the melancholy of the stargazer, but it’s painful.  It is an aching which is hard to be with.  Through my studies in theatre, personal development, shamanism, spirituality, meditation and other fields I had tried to find the centre of this yearning, the cause so that I could face it and relieve the pain.  The most common guidance I received from teachers was to do with looking underneath the yearning, to find where it came from.  I think this was essentially good advice - therapeutically sound – but when I looked underneath the yearning all I found was…. More yearning!  I continued searching, questing, healing, growing and developing and still the yearning was there.

Then, after many years of having been out of contact, my friend and I were back in touch.  Our families are connected so there was a sense of parallel tracks and shared history that meant we could be close again quickly – like family.  She was soul-family.  She had deeply studied witch-craft and I had studied shamanism so there was lots of common ground.  So one night after a party we were sat on her sofa talking and I talked of my yearning, how I had never found the bottom of it, and she offered a different perspective.  She said that in her tradition that yearning simply meant that I had a soul-mate.  The yearning was my compass to keep me on track, to keep me seeking for the companion of my heart.  This was a revelation to me!  For the first time this yearning was not a pathology to be healed or fixed, it was a sacred gift: a guiding light in the darkness.  There was a subtle permission in this view to let the yearning be – even to embrace it.  There was also the promise of the possibility that there was someone out in the world waiting to meet me too, just as I wished to meet that someone. 

From this turning point conversation many good things in my life sprang.  I got clear in myself that while I had no evidence that the concept of ‘soul-mates’ was true, I refused to live in a world where it couldn’t be possible.  As such I began to engage with the world as a magical place where profound and miraculous things can happen in a much deeper way than I had before.  I opened my mind to possibility and I opened my heart to love.  In the coming months I received numerous omens (magical signposts from the world) which helped to lead me to the relationship which blossomed into my marriage, to my beloved, and much more recently the birth of our son.  That’s another story, as JRR Tolkein liked to say “to be told another time”.

That alone would be learning enough, but there has been more to it than that.  The yearning has not gone away… it has become a great gift.  That yearning I have learned is a kind of bitter-sweet melancholy which holds within it the possibility for great joy and deep grief.  In the holding of these apparent opposites I have found a state where I can deeply embrace mystery and have a real experience of loving the world just as it is – broken and perfect.  Embracing this yearning rather than trying to fix it has become the gateway for me to be more present, flowing, compassionate, connected, human, and loving than at any other time.  The yearning was my gateway to the divine.  Smack-bang in the middle of my yearning is where I am most creative and most effective.

So… my friend taught me many wonderful things, but more than anything she helped me open the doorway to living life in Love.

 

Thank you dear one.  May your spirit fly freely and your body rest in peace.

 

Love

God is a difficult word

God is a difficult word…

It is loaded with so much cultural baggage, so much heaviness of meaning, so much poe-faced seriousness – both from those who love the word and those who hate it.  God has become this figure of judgement, marker of seriousness, and symbol of patriarchal oppression.

I feel sad about that.

I have a relationship with the divine that I really enjoy and because I grew up with a Christian mum, God is the word I most comfortably use for that divine presence.  When I talk to myself, I say God.  But… I sometimes feel uncomfortable using it even with my friends because it is so weighted with meanings I don’t agree with, and don’t want.  My sense of it is that I’m not the only one. 

I read this poem today from Daniel Ladinsky’s ‘Love Poems from God’ (a beautiful book of translations and transliterations of devotional poetry from many traditions, although Ladinsky is best known for his Sufi poetry) and it inspired me. 

 

First He looked Confused – by Tukaram

 

I could not lie anymore so I started to call my dog “God.”

First he looked

confused,

 

Then he started smiling, then he even

danced.

 

I kept at it: now he doesn’t even

bite.

 

I am wondering if this

might work on

people?

 

 

It feels to me like many of us have abandoned the word God, but what if we didn’t?  What if we reclaimed it instead and used it for our own purposes? 

 

What if it became once more the most beautiful thing you could say to someone, a gift so great it even stops dogs biting?

 

What if, like the Sufi’s, God became for us the name of our beloved?

 

What if the word God could drip from our mouths like sweet nectar from exotic flowers overflowing with sticky abundance?

 

What if there was no confusion in our minds about God and we each lived in a personal and glorious relationship with a sense of wonderous un-knowing-ness and love of the great and mysterious nothing-that-is-everything?

 

What if, when making love, we cried out “Oh God” and really meant it because sex felt divine and the divine felt so tantalisingly, viscerally sumptuous?

 

What if in prayer, we spoke to God like one of our best friends who can’t always change the situation for us, but it feels great to talk to them about it anyway?

 

What if no book could tell us what God thinks because it’s so sublime and subtle?

 

What if, once in a while, a piece of poetry, or art, or something in nature seemed to nudge us towards an understanding of how God feels about the world?

 

What if speaking of God wasn’t controversial but was joyful?

 

What if God wasn’t masculine or feminine?

 

What if God was common ground where we could all connect rather than where we come into conflict?

 

What if loving-ness was the closest thing to Godliness?

 

What if we could build a bridge of my “What if’s” and dance out across it together with joyous, clamorous shouting that comes right up from our bellies and out through our hearts?

 

What if…..?



The Real Meaning of Taboo

Magic hidden in the Shadows

The contemporary use of the word ‘Taboo’ is usually meaning something we shouldn’t do or speak about.  In some contexts it is referring to something which is socially unacceptable in a specific environment, but in common usage it has a definite flavour of something being a bit grubby or unmentionable.

The word ‘Taboo’ has its origins in referring to something deeply sacred.  I think that this original meaning and the way the word has come to be used today may offer us an insight into how the human psyche relates to the divine and the sacred, and that is what I want to un-pack a bit here.

In order to do this unpacking, I need to give you a bit of information on the history of Polynesia and its languages because ‘Taboo’ is an anglicised version of a Tahitian word.  So here goes…

The Polynesian people were pretty awesome seafarers who colonised a number of islands including Tahiti (known as French Polynesia), The Hawaiian islands, and New Zealand.  Those who are now referred to as the ‘native’ inhabitants of these islands had travelled there, and in some studies of New Zealand it is thought that the Maori’s may have arrived in New Zealand only a few generations before Europeans arrived.  Because of this common heritage there is also a commonality in the language of these peoples.  In some instances as the words are written in Roman script (conventional European letters rather than image based pictographs) it is just a matter of switching some consonants and you have basically the same word with the same meaning.  For instance:

In Hawaiian, a Shaman or someone who has achieved a transcendent level of mastery in something (like herb-gathering or surfing) is called a ‘Kahuna.’  Apparently the same word in Tahitian is ‘Tahuna’, and the same word in Maori is ‘Tahunga.’

So you can see that there is a very close relationship between these languages.  Now, back to ‘Taboo’…

‘Taboo’ was originally translated into Roman script as ‘Tabu.’  I’ve not studied Tahitian culture, but I have studied Hawaiian spirituality and the Hawaiian equivalent word is ‘Kapu.’  When something was labelled as ‘Kapu’ this made it ‘out of bounds’.  At first glance this may suggest a similar usage to the common contemporary one, but when we explore why the place or activity was out of bounds the word takes on quite a different meaning.  Something was designated ‘Kapu’ when it was so sacred, so magical, and so energetically potent that it was considered dangerous for people to mess around with it unless they knew what they were doing.  Clearly any restriction on behaviour can be abused if the authorities applying it are lacking integrity but if we stay with the original intention of ‘Kapu’ then I think it has something to teach us.

Let’s take an example.  A particular glade in the forest could be designated Kapu because it has a particularly strong spiritual energy (whether you believe in this or not, it was a concrete understanding for the ancient Hawaiians so go with it for a minute).  One possibility if someone went there unconsciously is that it could harm them.  As the Hawaiian teacher Serge Kahili King says “there’s no such thing as bad energy, only too much, or a kind you haven’t learned to blend with yet.”  With this outlook maybe it is possible for a human being to not be harmed by nuclear energy but we have to learn to shape-shift our energy field in order to blend with the energy and have sufficient skill to deal with the amount of energy present.  If you have not yet learned to blend and work with nuclear energy then it’s best to follow the guidance when a sign in a power-station says ‘No Entry’ (the modern equivalent of ‘This area is Kapu’)!  So if the glade in the forest I mentioned had a particularly strong spiritual energy that could be really useful to a skilled Shaman, but harmful to someone who doesn’t have the skills or equipment to manage that amount or quality of energy.  It could make them ill. 

Another example might be a particular ritual which is used to communicate with a God or Goddess.  Let’s say it’s the Hawaiian Goddess Pele – the Goddess of fire, lava, and the volcano on the big island.  If you skilfully call on Pele and ask politely for her help then she could be a powerful ally.  If you mindlessly poke her to get her attention then she could get irritated and burn the village to a crisp!

These are examples from within the belief-system of ancient Hawaiian tribal culture so they will be more or less easy to digest as fact depending on your own beliefs, but what I hope they do adequately is illustrate that things were made ‘Kapu’ (or Tabu) not because they were dirty and bad, but because they were powerful, sacred, and magical.

This then, for me is the message: 

That which we cast into shadow, that which we see as unspeakable is probably a great place to go looking for the powerful, sacred and magical.

One description of the Shaman’s role in tribal communities was to speak the unspeakable.  I’d say one version of the role of therapists – especially in the Jungian tradition – is to help people become conscious of their shadow and make peace with it.  What we have made ‘Taboo’, either personally or culturally, may be a rich mine of untapped power, magic, and even beauty and joy.  In the UK, USA and I’d say probably many countries that have been influenced by some versions of Christianity, sexuality has become ‘Taboo’.  If we can welcome this vast and powerful aspect of our being out of the shadows and into the light of consciousness then not only can we reclaim a beautiful and potent part of human life but I think we could also make our cultures safer places to be.  It has long been understood within psychology that what gets repressed will leak out somehow.  If I repress anger then eventually it will either leak out through passive/aggressive behaviours or I will manage to bottle it up for a while but will eventually have some kind of emotional explosion.  Sexuality has been repressed for so long in many places that it has understandably begun to leak into our culture in what I would judge to be less than healthy ways.  There are other cultural models where sexuality is both more sacred and more ordinary – broadly speaking, more accepted.  In this way sex is appropriately ‘Kapu’ – held in trust as a sacred thing to be fully explored once you have the capacity to manage the powerful energies involved i.e. once you are an adult and have been educated about it.  This is as opposed to the authoritarian version of it being ‘Kapu’ where it’s an unacceptable topic for discussion, everyone is embarrassed about it, there is a dearth of proper education and people stumble on it’s power but have no idea where to turn to for advice – after all, it’s taboo.  Rant?  Moi?  Joking aside, my intention is that this serves as an illustration of how Taboo or Kapu applies today.

I’d offer to you that what I’ve just described culturally applies just as well personally.  It may not be sex for you, but all of us have things which we keep hidden away, stuffed into the cupboard under the stairs in the house of our psyche.  I’m not saying you should go out and share these things with all and sundry, but for many of us these things are hidden away because we are embarrassed about them or have labelled them in some way ‘Bad and Dirty’ (to use my own phrase from earlier on).  I would suggest that if you can find it in yourself to re-look at that which is concealed in your personal shadow, you may find some buried treasure or hidden gold.  It may be worth having some support while you do this exploration, whether from a friend, partner, minister or therapist, but it can be awesome and beautiful work.

Just as the lotus flower grows from the muck of the swamp, and a candle’s light is only visible in darkness, the divine spark is most often found in the shadows.

 



My Taoist Foolish Heart

I have had lots of good feedback about the first chapter of  My Tao Te Ching - A Fool's Gide to Effing the Ineffable which I posted a little while ago so I thought I'd share some more.  So... Here's one of my other favourite chapters of the 30 I've written so far.  For those of you who didn't see the last post and want to read the intro follow this link.  The short version is that I'm re-writing a thousands of years old chinese text for modern times, in my own admittedly slightly eccentric language!  I'm hoping to get the book published in the coming year.  You can read an excerpt of the book I have just published which is also Taoism inspired and is called 'A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff.'  It's not on full release yet but will be early next year.  To get an advance copy click on this link.  Anyway, here's the Chapter!

 

Chapter 13

You are going to lose and look a Fool time and time again - get used to it.

Life is painful and often hard work - deal with it.

It's the way of the world:as soon as you gain something you're at risk of losing it.

If you didn't have a body you couldn't feel pain or do work, but being human entails having a body.

Trying to deny these things is like trying to arm-wrestle the moon:

It's way bigger than you....

....and....

....It has no arms.

 

Accept the world on it's terms and compassion will come naturally.

Love the world - and yourself as part of it - just the way it is, and you are truly ready to be trusted.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I'm feeling like spoiling you so here's one more chapter as a treat!

 

Chapter 22

 

Heart broken... open

Confusion and mystery lead to clarity.

To fill up, empty out.

Embrace dying to foster living.

Give to receive.

 

The wise fool lives from the Tao, listening to the still, small voice in her heart.

Quietly blossoming, people see her beauty.

Like the sun behind a cloud: Her brilliance is hidden but people feel her warmth.

When she makes a point, there's no arguing: she's got nothing to prove.

She offers an open heart and people see themselves in her eyes.

With no ideas of good or bad she's wonderful at everything!

 

When the ancients said "Embrace dying to foster living," was that crazy?

 

Surrender to the Way and find yourself where you are

Here and now

Here and now

Here and now.

 

Stop trying to be something and be something.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I hope you've enjoyed this 'borrowed poetry.'  The Tao Te Ching is such a rich and beautiful tome.  If you'd like to know more about my books, be on the mailing list for our courses, or be told when a new book or the online Spiritual Exploration course is available then please get in touch and we can put you on the mailing list.

 

Thanks for reading y'all.

TV as Spiritual Practice

TV has a bad rap.  That’s not a new thing, when I was young and liked watching TV probably more than average my parents were concerned about it.  I have since found out that it was particularly my Dad that was worried about it and when I went on to train to be an actor he realised that maybe there was some wisdom at play – I had started studying acting young!  When I wrote this poem in my 20’s my mum thought it was pretty funny:

 

My Televisual Youth – a taste of things to come

Oh lovely TV set

You’re so warm and crumbly

Like a moist current bun

Just baked by my mum

Filling my tum

With a wholesome satisfaction

Playdays or World in Action

It’s all the same to me

From my extra surrogate parent

That is the TV

 

Even the generation before my parents talked about the TV as the ‘goggle-box’ and said you’d get square eyes if you watched too much.  In ‘alternative’ circles TV is often considered a very poor activity and if you say you don’t have a TV you’re celebrated!  I should know: I don’t have a TV – but… I do watch a fair amount of TV programs online.

Now I can understand disparaging TV for the amount of advertising shown and the way that breaks up the programs (although we’ve all gotta pay the bills right?), I also have to say I don’t really get the huge flood of ‘reality’ shows there are going.  Some have a kind of story arc I can understand, and Big Brother originally had a kind of psychological experiment cachet about it but now?  Still going?  Really?  All that said, some people love it and just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

What I want to offer here is a different perspective on fictional TV – dramas, comedy, series, films, the whole bit, because I think they are often underappreciated.  The reason I think this is because I consider TV as a form of theatre.  If you went and watched a play each evening, you would be considered fortunate indeed and pretty high-brow.  If you watch TV each evening it’s generally considered low-brow, if perhaps not unusual.  One of the things that I think is underappreciated is that many of the best theatrical writers today are writing for TV, some of them exclusively.  Equally, many of the finest actors around are now working in television.  It has been an increasing trend in the last 5 years or so that even actors who previously only worked in film have started working on TV series’.  Some of the writing in TV series’ is really powerful, deeply human, and very moving if you invest yourself in the story, engage with the characters and really allow yourself to be involved.  David Mamet whose background as a writer is in theatre is one of the creators of ‘The Unit’, an American military action drama (which I have loved watching!).  Tim Roth, one of the finest British actors of his generation (in my opinion) and successful film actor including working on cutting-edge pieces like the film version of Tom Stppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are dead’ is now the star in ‘Lie to Me’ a drama series drawing on Paul Ekman’s psychological research.  It is an excellent series, brilliantly written, characterised, acted and directed.  This is some of the best contemporary story-telling going on. 

I think the problem with TV is not the medium itself but how we use it.  All too often I think that TV just serves as a background noise in the house to ensure there isn’t silence.  It can be a way not to spend time ‘in my own company’ and not to sit with thoughts and feelings on the inside.  To quote from ‘The Invitation’ by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

The negative use of TV in my opinion is a way of ensuring I never have to answer this question.

This doesn’t mean I’m against using TV for escapism.  It can be wonderful to immerse myself in another world and someone else’s cares, concerns, joys and adventures for an hour or two – so long as I don’t do this all the time and lose touch with myself.  What I would propose is that by committing more fully, and escaping more deeply into the stories within your favourite TV you can find a path to a fuller and deeper relationship with yourself. 

There is a technical term from theatre ‘Suspension of disbelief.’  This is something that as performers you have to work for.  You have to create a world on the stage that is so inviting and immersing that the audience commit to suspending their disbelief for the duration of the play.  They commit internally to believing in the world you have created on the stage so that the story lives as a theatrical truth for a while and has the power to move people emotionally rather than just being a body of lies.  In the theatre however, numerous ritual ties have been made to support suspension of disbelief before the play even begins: you have paid for a ticket, you have come together with lots of other people at a special time, many people dress up to go to the theatre, it’s often a treat so you’re invested in enjoying it, you come together in a special room and everyone makes an implicit agreement to be quiet while you all watch, at the end people know to clap their hands to show appreciation… when you think about it, going to the theatre is a highly ritualised act.  From the point of view of the illusion of the story, TV today is better equipped than theatre ever has been.  It is on set’s that are indistinguishable from day-to-day life and with the production budgets, lighting, and special effects it’s completely believable.  But the ritual isn’t there.  The TV gets thoughtlessly switched on and off, ignored, talked over, and spotting continuity errors seems for some people to virtually be a sport… really it doesn’t stand much of a chance!  There is no commitment to suspension of disbelief.  When you’re creating a play you’ve got to do a good enough job to support people in suspension of disbelief, but in TV they’ve done the work.  If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, but if you like watching something then do the artists who have put the work in to create this whole other world a favour and commit to the experience: Suspend your disbelief.  Once you do this I genuinely believe that magic can happen.  You can be transported to other worlds, but you can also vicariously experience emotions that you otherwise might leave buried. 

In therapeutic work we talk about ‘catharsis.’  This is when someone has an experience of fully being in an emotion in a way that releases something for them – often something connected to a traumatic or difficult past experience.  This kind of cathartic release can be very healing and can free up energy and attention in a way that no amount of talking about a life occurrence ever will.  Not a lot of people know that the word Cathartic has it’s origins in classical Greek theatre.  The ancient Greeks considered theatre to be a potentially healing experience and catharsis was when someone was able to allow themselves to feel something when they saw a character feeling it, that they couldn’t feel on their own.  I can certainly identify with some emotions felling almost too big for everyday life – if I am engaged and invested in a story about God’s, Goddesses, Hero’s and Heroines, then the context for the emotions is larger and it can feel safe to experience big emotions.  Sometimes it is less painful to connect with a character’s grief than it is to connect with my own, but that doesn’t mean the tears I shed for the character are not also an emotional release for me.  When my mother died, not long afterwards I saw a film called ‘The Family Stone.’  It is a beautiful film, very funny in places and the mother in the film (played wonderfully by Diane Keaton) really reminded me of my mum.  It helped me to connect with my grief when I was at home, in my own space and snuggled up in a comfy jumper – the perfect environment!  My experience with grief is that it can surface at any moment, and in response to the strangest things so it was a real relief to let some of my grief come, and to shed some tears after that film.  It was much gentler for me to have those feelings in that moment than for them to suddenly surface while I was at the office or in the supermarket (both of which have happened).

The picture I’m trying to paint here is of Television as a true artistic medium, much like stage productions.  For us to find the real benefit of it we need to engage with it more consciously.  What TV requires of us is a commitment to suspension of disbelief.  What TV offers us is the potential to really connect with that which is human within us and potentially to have a healing cathartic release of emotion.

So, “The Rev’s” recommendation for spiritual and emotional exercise for today: curl up in front of your favourite TV program and immerse yourself in the world of the characters.  Make a ritual of it, put on your favourite jumper, get a glass of your favourite drink (whatever floats your boat), and maybe some chocolate or ice-cream, switch off the phone, and get comfy.  Spiritual practices don’t have to be hard work!  You never know what you might learn about yourself or what healing may happen as you sink into the world of the characters...

The Right Costume

"It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one's sleeve.  It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor.  At such a time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge."  -  Hagakure, 2nd Chapter.  (Translation by William Scott Wilson)

                         There are many ways this passage could be interpreted.  It could be seen as an admonition not to let your enemies see you looking anything other than entirely healthy - even if that means a little artifice - although that strikes me as rather a paranoid and fearful stance to take. 

In the film "Ghost Dog," by Jim Jarmusch the lead character has to go and tackle his enemies and in order to fake his way in, he steals a posh car and a rich mans suit.  In this way he finds the appearance that best suits his purposes so that he can achieve his ends.  This is perhaps a little closer to what I see in this teaching. 

A very dear friend of mine was with me once when I was giving myself a particularly hard time about wanting to have more money.  At the time (young fool I was) I saw this as a deeply un-spiritual desire!  In this particular instance I had been pretty broke for a while and wanted to have some spare cash to buy a new pair of jeans - something "superficial" and therefore even less spiritually necessary.  My friend listened while I tied myself in knots simultaneously wanting and not wanting more money and then simply said:  "You know, sometimes when you're trying to be the person you dream of being, it just helps to have the right costume."  I think she's right. 

It is not uncommon in spiritual development to forget that while the body may not be the entirety of our being it is a part of it.  Even for those of us who incorporate the body in our practice and care for it as a part of caring for ourselves, how many of us take as much care over our clothes?  I am not just talking about being "smart" here, or wearing nice things - although both of these things are totally valid - I am talking about the essential way we express ourselves in the world.  Our clothes are a fundamental part of that.  What divine expression of being do you wish to offer up when God looks your way?  I like to take it a step further. 

It is common knowledge in the theatre that costume can sometimes be an excellent method to help you getting into character.  When you are working on period pieces (set in a particular era), wearing the right shoes makes a huge difference to how you create the world of the play.  It substantially changes the way you move and therefore, the physical expression of the character.  Other items of clothing can prove vital in forming and understanding the character and not just because of the way they may affect your posture.  When you see yourself in the mirror wearing the right hat or wig or jacket it can go a really long way to helping realise the existence of the character in you.  So who or what in life do you want to be?  I'm not suggesting you pretend to be something you're not, but then it is a common misunderstanding that actors 'become someone else.'  One of my teachers at drama school used to like to remind us "You've got nothing but yourself" and as a film director (who's identity I'm afraid I do not know) once said:  "Acting is not about being someone else, it is about being yourself under imaginary circumstances."  So I ask you again, who or what in life do you want to be?  We are always wearing some kind of mask so we may as well choose which one we want to wear.  What do you aspire to? 

I like to dance 5 Rhythms (which is personal development movement practice).  For a while a few years back I decided that I wanted to wear clothes with words or images that I wished to invoke in me instead of just my baggy sweaty clothes.  I had a t-shirt with the horned God on, and made t-shirts with hearts on and phrases like "Passionate Creature," and "Radiant, but easy on the eyes."  What is the costume of the character you wish to embody?  Maybe start by looking at the costumes of people you admire in films - not the ones you identify with, the ones you admire and aspire to be like.  This all becomes particularly relevant when we are not feeling at our best.  When we are low we tend to collapse and sag physically. If you adjust your posture to a more positive, aligned and self supportive shape this can have a knock-on effect on your emotional state.  It works the same way with clothes.  It can be great to snuggle up in a comfy jumper when I am low and this kind of comfort is really necessary sometimes.  However, when I need to get out there and face the world -  even though I might not feel at my best - sometimes the right costume can really help me shift my consciousness and state of being. 

One native American tribe used to wear their special ceremonial clothes every day, helping them to bring a heightened, ritual awareness to every moment of their lives.  In many cultures a warrior would traditionally always carry his sword even in times of peace.  I think this is a ritual reminder to keep ones senses sharp and maintain a constant state of readiness.  I have found certain clothes and items which, when I have them, help me to feel ready to face the world.  I am not dependant on them, but they are useful tools and wonderful allies.  In this way I can "apply some powdered rouge" when I need to, supporting myself in growing into the person I dream of being.  On good days, rouge or no rouge, I look in the mirror and he's already there looking back at me.  I hope that’s true for all of you too.

First Chapter: Finding your Way

I wanted to share with you all the intro and the first chapter of my forthcoming book "A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff."  I've been really enjoying writing it for the last 6 months or so.  It is going to be a short book (hence the title) but I think it 'has legs'.  So short book, but a long journey ahead of it!  I hope you enjoy this except and perhaps it will whet your appetite for the whole thing when it's ready (should be in print by December this year).  Thanks for reading this and joining me on the journey...

 

Introduction: The Way

 

          We all want to be good at something.  Let's face it, most of us who haven't had all the passion squeezed out of us want to be really good at something. It almost doesn't matter what the thing is – just to be that good, to be able to say “I'm World-class.”  But how do we envision this goal?  I'd say that in the western world we have a pretty limited idea of what achievement really means.  It mostly seems to mean Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller, just plain MORE!  I think there's another way...

          It's a way that has been around in the West forever but has only been applied to certain disciplines (primarily the arts).  It has been suggested by certain modern and progressive psychologies.  But I think it has been best explored and expressed in the Far East where it has been inherent in some of their oldest philosophical approaches.  What is that way?  Good question.

          It is The Way.  It has it's roots in Taoism (an ancient Chinese religion and spiritual path) and found further expression in Japanese Zen Buddhism.  'Tao' (sometimes Dao) in Chinese or 'Do' in Japanese translates as 'Way.'  So when I say it's The Way, that's what I mean.  And this book is not just about doing stuff it's about Do-ing stuff: taking something you do and making it a Do (see how beautifully I've set up that pun?  That's part of my Way, I learnt it from my Dad).

          The Way is not about Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller or More.  It is about someone expressing their essential nature.  It is about blossoming into the fullness of your being – and not in an 'I'm the most beautiful blossom ever' kinda way – in a finding out who you are and living that kinda way.  When you really do that, as the song says, nobody does it better.

          This is not about converting you to some religion, making you shave your head, selling you a line of 'The Way'TM T-shirts, or selling your Soul to Santa.  It could be described as a spiritual path but only in so much as it is a path and if you want to you can involve your spiritual self in the journey.  That's all up to you.  My personal experience is that by taking certain activities and bringing a special mindset to them I have learned about myself and found a deeper sense of who I really am.  It's not any kind of objective truth (if such a thing exists) but it has brought me joy in the good times and peace in the tough times and that's good enough for me.

          The Way is not really about the activities that help to cultivate it. The Way is your unique path in the world.  When that's really written in your heart then you can experience all kinds of Ways and all kinds of people and they all help to feed you in your own Way.  In the words of the Hagakure[1]:

 

 “It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

  


Chapter 1: All Zen Masters are Geeks and Anoraks!

 

          I think one of the reasons why we view mastery as we do in the West is because of school.  In school it's not cool to be good at stuff unless it's mainstream.  This will probably depend on the school but at my school, being good at football was cool.  Sports were generally a cool thing to be good at but Football was top of the pile.  Music could be cool to be good at... guitar was cool, oboe was not.  As we got towards driving age, knowing a lot about cars was cool.  Being academically strong was not cool, but particularly maths, the sciences and history were not cool.  Religious Studies didn't even get on the radar.  These are mostly examples from the boys side of the fence and from my school in particular but most of us develop a sixth sense about what's cool and what's not when we are at school and I'm sure you can fill in your own examples. 

          In this environment where only certain activities are safe to be enthusiastic about, is it any wonder that many of us loose our way?  In the rarefied social environment of the playground or the sports field or the canteen you just didn't say “You know what?  I love renaissance poetry!”  If you did you were a geek.  Likewise, it would have been a special kind of social suicide to say “This algebra stuff is brilliant, I could just play with numbers and letters like this all day!”  If you did you were an anorak.

          Most of us will have had relatively little safe space growing up to explore what really excited us.  We have been socially educated to hide away any passions which don't fit the mould.

          I think that to find our Way we have to love something.  It's not always the case but I've often found that the things I fall in love with are things I have some natural talent for.  That doesn't mean I find them easy – the challenge is part of what gets me really hooked long term – but when I first try it there's a zing of recognition like I've done it before and the process of learning is more like a remembering.

          I never really learnt to love football, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of my school friends did.  They learnt to love it but I suspect only a handful loved it straight off.  In my heart there were other things I loved straight away, and some of them have taken years to discover.  Most of the things I love would have definitely placed me in the Geek camp at school.  Karate for instance, but not the high kicking kind of cool 'Karate Kid' Karate, no.... A rare form of old Okinawan Karate that is compact and probably not that impressive to watch.  Another example would be a love of world religions and philosophies.  Definitely not cool.  My most recent discovery is 'Card Scaling'.  “What?!” I hear you cry.  It is the skill of throwing playing cards with enough power to stick in a water-melon or fly for hundreds of feet.  Throwing playing cards like a ninja!  Sound kinda geeky?  Fair enough, but I love it.

          Where in the East people who obsessively train in obscure disciplines are given titles of respect, in the West they are called Geeks and Anoraks.  Take a Zen master as an example.  He (or she) spends years sitting still.  Their other key activity is contemplating ancient pieces of short and confusing poetry.  It sounds like a geek and smells like a geek, it's a geek!  Ancient poetry that doesn't have any immediate or obvious meaning?!  What an anorak!

          If you want to master something, if you want to find a Way that will nourish you and help you grow it's got to be something that lives in your heart; and that means that by the world's standards it might not be cool. 

          There are Ways already defined and laid out for you to pick up: the martial arts; zen flower arranging; calligraphy; brush painting; pottery; carving; the Japanese tea ceremony.  That's not what this book is about.  What I'm looking to do here is set out some principles so that you can take any activity and turn it into a Way.  Hell, if the Samurai and monks of ancient Japan could turn making the tea into a Zen art then why shouldn't we do the same with anything?  Cake baking, accountancy, wine tasting is virtually there already, the application of make-up, dog walking, throwing stones into the sea – anything!

          If you're going to undertake this task and find a Way for yourself you'd better get in touch with your inner geek.  Revere the anorak in your heart.  These are the parts of you that are capable of completely investing themselves in the deep deep detail of their activities no matter what anyone else thinks.  And remember that all Zen masters are Geeks and Anoraks.

 

          Some of you who have an altruistic outlook and want to take care of others or even change the world may be wondering if this isn't all a bit self serving.  Isn't it a bit selfish to dig deep into myself and find what I like to do and really invest time in it regardless of whether it is an activity which serves others?  I would say no.  If you don't take care of the vessel doing the work (that's you) then the work won't get done.  One of my favourite quotes at the moment is this one from Howard Thurman:

 

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

 


[1]     Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Translated by William Scott Wilson



My Tao Te Ching - Chapter 1

One of the books I'm working on at the moment is my own version of the Tao Te Ching.  For those of you that don't know, the Tao Te Ching is the central text of Taoism.  It is thought to be the oldest complete sacred text dating back to something like 500 years BC and is said to have been written by a mysterious figure called Lao Tzu.  Whether Lao Tzu was a real person or is a mythical figure, no-one is sure and some say the text is an amalgamation of several philosophers writings.  I don't know about all that, but I do know that the Tao Te Ching is a wonderful text full of beautiful poetic subtlety (when well translated) and profound lessons about the nature of life the universe and... well, everything!

"So," I can hear you thinking "...why are you writing your own version of a profound, ancient Chinese text?  Do you even speak Chinese?  Who the hell do you think you are anyway??!!" 

All fair questions.  It is in the nature of translation work - especially in a language which is so different in it's nature to English (Chinese being made up of pictograms which have image-based significance as well as linguistic) - that the translator is not a mere technician swapping one bolt for another in the machine of language, but is an artist re-creating the original work in another medium.  Imagine getting a Picasso painting and then asking a contemporary artist to re-create it as a piece of music.  It's not quite the same thing but translation is closer to this metaphor than we often like to think.  There are some wonderful translators out there (one of my favourites is Daniel Ladinsky who has translated a lot of the Sufi mystics - check out his book 'Love poems from God').  There are also some wonderful translations of the Tao Te Ching - I've read about 6 or 8 cover to cover over the years, some many times, and dipped into a further 5 or more that weren't as good in my opinion.  To be clear, my opinion is based not on being a scholar of the Chinese language but on having studied and lived with Taoist arts for much of the past 10 years or so.  The ones that I feel really capture the essence of the Taoist outlook are the translations by: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English; Stephen Mitchell; and Ursula LeGuin.

There are some great translations out there... and I feel there's space for another one!  I wanted to write one in language that doesn't lose the wonderful sense of the mysterious but is in slightly more 'modern-friendly' language.  There is also, in the Taoist tradition, a great sense of humour and rogue-ishness.  The other versions of the Tao Te Ching seem to me to be missing this quality.  It's probably the case that the original text didn't have this quality so they are accurate translations.  None-the-less, I wanted a version with a sense of humour so as no-one else seemed to be forthcoming in writing such a thing, I thought I'd do it!  I've written the first chapter below for you to have a read, I hope you enjoy it.

The Tao Te Ching is written in 81 'Chapters' and each chapter is a kind of poem.  The first chapter is considered by many to contain the essence of the entire book.

My Tao Te Ching - A Fools Guide to Effing the Ineffable - By Francis Briers

Chapter 1


I'm going to talk about something

I'll call it Tao (which means 'Way').

By Talking about it I'm only going to confuse matters,

But if I don't,

This will be a very short book.

 

Even by calling it "Tao" I've taken something amazing,

Limitless

And wonderfully mysterious,

And reduced it to a 3 letter word.

 

Direct experience, no matter how confusing, is the real deal.

 

As soon as I give it a name it's just another thing

Like the toaster,

Or the train,

Or Auntie Maureen,

Or the Jelly mold...

 

Sometimes

When we let go of our need to pin things down

Our confusion can be very beautiful.

 

When we get obsessed with having all the answers

All we can see is the toaster.

 

Strangely: Beautiful confusion and the toaster come from the same place.

This place is called "The Dark."

It's so dark you can't see anything,

But if you want to understand

Then "The Dark"

Is the only place worth looking.

 

 

If you like this and you'd like to be kept up to date on this and other books I will soon be publishing then drop us a line and we can put you on the mailing list.  There is also a spiritual development course coming up in October which has a Taoist element and we will be offering other Taoist influenced workshops in the future - please do get in touch!

Karate begins and ends with 'Rei'

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Karate defined 20 principles of Karate.  There is much debate in the hard-core Karate fraternity about how true to the original form of Karate Funakoshi was, and others have questioned how great a figher he was when compared with the likes of Kano (founder of Judo) or Ueshiba (founder of Aikido).  However, whatever we think of  Funakoshi's physical prowess, I consider him a true Warrior because of his commitment to his Way - his Do; and because he was a great philospher and teacher.  He was a Confucian scholar and, as was the case with many of the great martial teachers (including Kano and Ueshiba) he sought to teach his students a harmonious and compassionate way of life, not just a physical skill.

I wanted to 'unpack' the 20 principles of Karate so that they can be applied to the whole of life and not just to Karate.  I will do this 1 at a time and will drop them into this blog over the coming weeks and months.  Here is the first:

Karate Begins and ends with Rei

Rei is the word used to denote the formal Japanese bow that you will see a lot in traditional Dojo's (Dojo is the name for a training hall and means 'place of the Way').  Rei also means respect.  Karate classes literally begin and end with a bow, as do all engagements with an opponent, but what I think we are being reminded of here is more relating to the symbolic aspect of this practice than the literal.  The constant bowing in martial arts classes can be seen as just cultural garnish, keeping the art 'Japanese flavoured.'  However, I see it as a vital part of our practice.  Bowing is a practice of humility.  We are bodily offering deep respect and gratitude to whoever and whatever we are bowing to.  I say whatever, because traditionally the Dojo would have had a shinto shrine which would have been the first and the last thing we would bow to.  This shrine was, amongst other things, the home of the spirit of the land and building it was in.  As such, when we bow to this shrine, we are offering our respects to the place we are training in, and in my mind, this also means the land itself.  Indeed, with Shinto being a religion which recognises many spirits of nature, I think that this respect would traditionally have extended out to the land and the natural surroundings.  This reminder of respect for our environment is perhaps more important now than ever.  With the damage that has been done and continues to be done to the natural world, we must bring this awareness to every day of our lives if we are going to leave an inhabitable world for our children and their children. 

          The other bow that comes at the beginning and end of the class is to the sensei.  They are the teacher but with some subtle differences.  Sensei means 'one who has gone before' so it is someone who has walked the path we are setting our feet on so they can help us find our way safely and can set the pace so that we are constantly challenged.  Of course it is important to respect our teachers, but also, my feeling is that when we bow to the outward sensei, we also have the opportunity to bow to our inner sensei.  There is a part of us which is naturally connected to a deep wisdom and it is this part of ourselves that makes our learning possible as much as any external teacher or guide.  There is also the opportunity to remind ourselves to be grateful for all our teachers, even the people and events in our lives which are difficult.  It is a reminder that all experience has something to teach us.  

you

          So when we bow, when we rei, we are physically reminding ourselves of our gratitude for the beauty of the world around us; the challenge and learning offered by all of our opponents in life (internal and external); the humbling wisdom which lies in the teaching we receive from others and ourselves; and we are reminding ourselves to bring the quality of respect to every moment.  Gratitude, humility, respect:  Karate-do begins and ends in rei.

You don't need to go to a Karate class to practice Rei.  If you have a meditation practcie you can begin that and end it with a bow of some kind and bring this awareness to your practice.  If you don't have a practice already then you could take up bowing as a practice.  It only takes a few moments and it is a wonderful way of bodily invoking these qualities of gratitude, humility and respect.  So, maybe when you first get up in the morning, or when you enter and leave your house or living room you could take a moment to centre yourself and make a really conscious bow.  Remember, you are bowing to the world, your immediate environment, yourself as you are, the 'master' that lives within you, and all those opponents you have faced and will face who are teachers for you if only you can discern the lesson.