I suppose we all have our favourite quotations. One of mine is from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!” I am very conscious as I write about innate dignity, about coming as guest and being present and more that it can all sound too difficult; a bridge too far. The other challenge I have discovered about writing a blog is that some readers seem to assume that the writer has mastered what they write about; in my case nothing could be further from the truth.
We all have feet of clay. That is to say that we all share weakness, vulnerability, foibles, blind spots and more. Sometimes I give professional development days on spirituality to the staff of schools and every now and again the participants think I really know what I am talking about and some kind of a holy person. I always make sure I say, “Before any of your begin thinking I am some sort of holy person just speak to the Brothers I live with in community – they will give you the true picture!”
Being fallible, being weak, making mistakes and having blind-spots are all part of who we are. None of us is perfect and that is our greatest strength. We grow from our imperfections! Our brokenness produces our best fruit. When we are weakest it is then that we will find true strength. This is the paradox of spirituality; the paradox of the heart. Brene Brown often writes and speaks about the power of vulnerability – and that true leadership comes from the vulnerable space. Knowing our weakness, being at home with our feet of clay, realising that we don’t have the answers – this is THE starting place for wisdom.
All of this brings me back to where I started from. The spiritual journey – the heart journey is all about two simple but profound things. Firstly it is about awareness; conscious awareness. It is no mistake that over the last forty or so years writers like Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittester and others – have all written over and over again about the importance of conscious awareness; about the power of the present moment.
Tolle reminds us constantly that all there is is NOW; the present moment. Too many of us live trapped in the past with regrets, hurt, anger, disappointment and more or we live in the future and one day we will be fit and one day we will forgive and one day we will accept and one day we will embrace opportunity when it knocks on our door. Life cannot be lived in the past or the future – all there is is NOW; the present moment. Before Eckhart Tolle put pen to paper this concept had been beautifully explored by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1989) in his book, “The Sacrament of the Present Moment!”
The present moment – the NOW – is all that we have. It is where and when we will find life. It is ultimately the absolute simple moment. It is complete – it is NOW – it is all there is and in that moment, in that now – we will find all that we will ever need for love, peace and happiness. But whispering constantly into our ear is the ego. The ego voice loves fights, loves conflict, loves to create a world of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or ‘me’ versus the world; it thrives and gets its energy from conflict real or imagined. The ego voice coupled with the noise and rush of life block our access to the present moment. So the first battle (but don’t make it into a battle – just an awareness) is to face the ego, name it, unmask it and in so doing take away its power. When we stop, when we pause – when we become aware of the egoic voice in our ear it immediately loses its power over us. The great skill here is to almost step outside of self and see the egoic voice as apart from self; you are observing it – you are looking at it as if it were some sort of extension of you but separate from the real and authentic you. It hates this.
What is YOUR way of going within – of finding that place of stillness and silence that you can best hear the wisdom voice within?
What is an ego voice that seems to be forever in your ear and has power over you?
Five second steps and choices
The second simple but profound task in the spiritual life – in heart encounter is from conscious awareness to choose to take small five second steps and choices. Life is ultimately made up of millions of small five second choices.
The story is told of Sir Edmund Hillary reflecting upon climbing Mt Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Hillary claims that the moment he and Sherpa Tenzing ‘conquered’ Mt Everest was when they came to a point about 200 m below the summit and were confronted with a steep rock face. It was that moment – at some 28,000 feet with oxygen really low that he achieved what no one else had achieved. It was a five second moment of decision, faced with a rock wall, he simply reached for a metal spike and began to look for a foot hold and then another. It was that five second moment of decision that ultimately mattered when faced by cold and fear and pressure. That place has now come to be known as Hillary’s Step!
Life is like that. Every day we are faced with hundreds of small five second choices. Do I react to that person’s putdown? Do I perform that random act of kindness that no one will ever know about or see? Do I pick up the phone and contact the person whose face just came into my heart? Do I forgive myself for some past failing and do it (the forgiving) again and again? There are a thousand similar questions. The spiritual life is made up of these awareness’s and these choices.
How many of us have been stuck in pain or fear or a rut? How many of us feel that the wall in front of us is insurmountable? In my heart journey I often find myself asking for or seeking the courage for the next step. Can I get up and take that next step? Can I trust my next step? Can I focus – concentrate on the next step. When one takes that next step, and then the next, and then the next – before you know it you have journeyed a mile!
I love to hike. I am so at peace when I am up in the New Zealand Alps doing a tramp with a group of friends. Often I will set out on a three night 95 km tramp across the Alps and beautiful valleys of the South Island. But often after 6 hours of a 9 hour day, with a heavy pack on my back, perhaps rain falling, or a steady uphill climb everything in me wants to give up. It is at those times that I will focus on a tree or trek corner 20 m in front of me and aim for that. When I reach that corner or that tree I re-focus on the next. That night, in front of a fire in the cabin, all those 20 m victories make the cup of tea even more enjoyable!
The five second choice and the awareness go hand in hand. The conscious awareness is the compass in the midst of the five second choice because you can bet your last dollar that the ego is shouting in your ear to defend or attack or blame or run away or dump or whatever! The five second choice is so simple. Don’t go looking for the great choices or the ‘life changing’ choices or the roll of drums or blare of trumpets! No, it is the simple small choice to get up again. The simple small choice to start again. The simple small choice to forgive or accept or welcome or heal …whatever!
When awareness becomes a part of your life you will begin to find that there is more clarity around the five second choices that you need to make. Awareness creates space around the choices. Awareness helps you know what choice is THE one you need to make. Awareness will quieten the doubting voice that wants to compromise your choice or lead you to second guess. Awareness helps make the choice simpler and more real. Sometimes you will need a whole series of five second choices – almost one after another – and here again – after some time the choices begin to become second nature to you, part of who you are – almost an auto-reaction.
When you have made a series of five second choices – celebrate them! Enjoy that coffee or beer or wine with a friend. Enjoy that slow walk around the garden. Snuggle up to a loved one – allow them to give you a hug – ask for one!
You will fail
One of the key things about five second choices is that ONE of the key ones will be to get up again when you have failed. AND YOU WILL! As sure as the sun will come up tomorrow you will fail at times; that is our feet of clay and that is what makes us human. I have never worked with a young adult who needed me to be perfect – but they long for us to be real, to be authentic, and to be credible. That is one of the most important choices – that five second choice to get up again. For example I often speak about being present. Yet, so often I find myself not being present with a thousand thoughts running through my mind as I rush from one thing to the next – and as a result I react with a snap comment or I sulk – rather than taking a deep breath, being aware and perhaps walking away. Yes, I failed – but in so doing the second I am more aware of my failing I am growing in awareness and am more and better prepared to be truly present next time.
My experience is that the first five second choice is the hardest one. It is almost as if I am attempting to roll a stone or push a car or whatever. I have to overcome the inertia.
A friend of mine used to have a problem with alcohol. He would drink too much in social situations and felt that he made an absolute fool of himself. He was part of a group of friends who would go out socially after work on a Friday. So one Friday night – he just said ‘no’ to the offer of a beer and had a juice instead. He got teased and mocked! Half an hour later – same offer, same response – same teasing and mocking. Before he knew it he was up on the dance floor – the life of the party. He repeated it the following Friday night. When talking to me several years later he recalled that it was the first night – and perhaps the one that followed that were the hardest ones. Pretty soon people just knew that Casey did not drink on a Friday night – decision made, choice made – game over!
A friend of mine played football for Australia. He recalled one time that he hated playing New Zealand because the kiwi crowds would get in your ear, they would be yelling at you questioning all sorts of things about your family. He was the goal kicker for the team at one point and he said that lining up for the shot at goal was painful, the crowd deafening and he began to lose confidence. So with the help of a mate he initiated several five second choices for the following test match. Just before placing the ball on the kicking tee he would deliberately look around at the crowd. He made the decision to ‘enjoy’ the shouting at him – welcome it. Then he would make the decision to go into his zone – a ritual of lining the ball up, pulling up his socks, lifting his head, breathing in deeply and then, head over the ball – go through with his kicking motion. His success rate lifted remarkably!!! All because of his five second choices!
I don’t want to sound too simplistic here but if we break our lives down, especially in the true matters of the heart – to hundreds of simple five second choices that make us the best me I can be – then we grow in confidence, we develop powerful positive inner tapes, we build on positive steps taken. Can we break down some of the struggles and questions into small, doable five second choices?
Skills of Awareness
As part of all of this I have discovered that I need a reflective rhythm to my day and to my life. To grow Conscious Awareness one of the key five second choices you will need to make it to find YOUR way to reflect, your way to be still and to be silent. It will be in your times of stillness and silence that you grow in self-awareness, you begin to hear YOUR inner wisdom, you begin to distinguish between your false ego and your true self. You begin to KNOW what five second choices you need to make.
With your reflective rhythm you must do what suits you. Some people love yoga – others hate it; the form your stillness and silence takes does not matter – what matters is that you do it. I have a mate who goes surfing with his father every Saturday morning – winter or summer. It is one of his prime thinking / reflecting times. My mother Zena used to garden – it was her space. Some go walking, some listen to music, some paint. Another friend of mine goes for an early morning cycle.
There are libraries of books out there about posture and breathing exercises linked to awareness. There are so many teachers of one ‘art’ or another. Find what suits your spirit and ultimately the master you must most listen to as you seek some way into inner awareness is yourself. Trust you!!!
I do a twenty minute Centring Prayer sit – one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. I used to try to pray during this time – now I just sit. I have an app on my phone – it has a chime at the start of the 20 minutes and three chimes at the end. During this time I do NOTHING. I simply sit. I have a sacred word and each time I am distracted (which is about 8 times each minute) I simply gently return to the sacred word and then let the distraction go and sit with my nothingness again. I am not sure but my hunch is that I may manage three or four minutes of nothingness each time I have a twenty minute sit. But the effect on my life has been extraordinary. I seem to be able to quieten faster, I can hear more deeply and despite my feet of clay I sense I am beginning to grow in an inner peace.
If we are to grow the heart to truly encounter we will need to grow in Conscious Awareness; grow the eyes and ears of the heart to truly see and truly hear. This awareness will invite us to claim possession of our lives – to claim our own voice and journey. This claiming will lead us to a whole series of small five second choices to believe in self, to choose courage, to forgive, to accept, to risk, to dance, to get up again, to walk away and more.
Ask not for the courage to climb a mountain nor fight the biggest of all battles nor run five marathons but rather – as you listen to the whispering of love – as your heart longs to truly and deeply encounter – ask for the courage to take that next step, then another and then another. Enjoy the journey!
What is a simple five second choice that you have made that has made a profound difference in your life and why?
What is a five second choice you want to make, know you need to make? What is stopping you from making it?