Five Second Choices

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step! Walk of the Gods, Amalfi Coast Italy.

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.

Conscious Awareness

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!

Questions:

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?

Breaking open story

Sunrise over Auckland Harbour

In my very first blog I spoke about story as it is ultimately my belief in the power of story that motivated me to begin the blog. That first blog was probably a bit of an introduction and it has dawned on me that I really need to deepen and break open story more. What is story and why does it mean so much to me?

In my work, I often find myself in a situation where I have ‘no idea’ – where I feel blocked, stuck and just do not know where to go. In each of these times I have learnt to share story, to invite story, listen to story, listen for story and then allow the spirit of the Universe to do its work.

Too often in my life I have been struck by people and circumstances where one group have labelled another group, or one person another person and everything in me is screaming, “But you don’t know them!” I have worked with young people for most of my life. If I had a dollar for every time a young person has labelled another a ‘loser’ or some other term and then – after spending time with them and getting to know them says to me, “Wow, he is a wonderful person!”

Working with the homeless and refugees

For some fifteen years I had the privilege of sitting at the side of a city square and together with young men from the Brothers’ school where I was working – listen to and share story with the homeless of our city. They were sacred times. Every tired, lined face that made its way to the back of ‘Eddie’s Van’ had a story. No-one freely chooses to live on the streets – no-one freely chooses to sleep under a bush with the back wall of the toilet block in the Botanical Gardens as your half cover from rain and cold. When those same students came onto the streets with me and met and chatted with and spent quality time with those same homeless people – especially over a longer period of time – labels faded away and were replaced with friendships and more importantly understanding.

For another eight years of my privileged ministry as ‘Brother’ I broke open story with recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers released from detention centres. Despite barriers of language and vast differences in life experience – we could laugh and cry our way into relationship based on the sharing of story. Balghais (an Iranian asylum seeker) as she proudly, in broken English, shared with me her excitement that little Ali might finally have a chance of a schooling in a world not surrounded by fear – and Hussain (her husband) who patiently and with some degree of humour – shared with me that I had dropped him off, some months earlier, at a Mosque for a Muslim holy day that belonged to a different branch of Islam – and yet was so grateful as he saw the goodness of my intent.

Story is sacred

Story is sacred. It is our narrative – our reflection on our life’s journey. Our story (who I am) is innately good; not that there have not been difficult times in that story and on that journey – but beneath these things – there is an innate beauty and goodness. Our story is the sum of the myriad people and life experiences that have come our way and in good times and in bad, in good ways and in bad – made us who we are today. As I said in the very first post, story is neither good nor bad, better nor best. I can’t say, “My story is better than yours!” I can’t say, “Your story is wrong!” Sure, someone may confuse the facts of ‘a story’ – but that is not the meaning of story as we are engaging with it here. Each and every story – because it is you – is noble and wrapped in dignity. Story is that inner map – that inner journey – those footsteps through a world of the refugee camp, or the substance abusing ‘care-giver’, or the absent father, or the co-dependent adult, or the loved and loving figure who was truly free and allowed your story to gain its own wings.

Every person’s story has its ups and downs, its cross road times, its times of agony and loss and its times of ecstasy! Our stories begin with mystery. It is a mystery that each of us is born into a particular time and culture, a particular family and context. None of us had a choice in that. It is gift. Our story is made up of the millions of small choices of what we have done as we have journeyed our story.

Refugee Rally in Melbourne, Australia.

Forms of Story

Story has many forms. There is the story which is us at our deepest level. There is story which is fable – a lesson that someone wishes to teach and they wrap it in the magic of make-believe. There is the story of any community or club or organisation with its faces and names, its rituals and events, its triumphs and its defeats, its heroes and it’s behind the scenes ‘little people’. There is story shared around camp-fire which tells and shares that tribe or family’s journey. There is story expressed in art, in poetry, in dance, in song. We share story at special times; when a loved one has died, at the birth of a child, when relationship and commitment are celebrated, when we recall significant people and events from our journey.

Story Tellers

Often – communities and extended families have their ‘story tellers’ who pass on through myth and legend the significant people and events that have led them as family or community or nation to this point in time. Many Indigenous communities have their story tellers and it is a sacred role within the tribe or community. Some of my most precious family times have been when the extended family is home in Proserpine at Christmas and we sit under the mango trees for hour after hour and we share story. My mother Zena was our story teller and now my two older brothers are.

Who in your life – whether in family or some group you belong to – has been the story teller? How important are they? Why?

The Universe Story

One of our profound realisations at this time in history is that we are all part of a much bigger story – the 13.7 billion year journey of our Universe. We, each of us, is stardust and is intimately interconnected and interdependent upon all of life – all the stardust around us. We are part of this web that we call life – we are not above it or superior to it but intimately part of it. For thousands of years our Indigenous brothers and sisters have walked gently on the Earth, gathered around campfire, listened to the seasons and through myth and legend, poetry, song and dance told the story of mother Earth. Sadly too many of us have forgotten this sacred story.

The Power of Story

When we get in touch with our own story – we understand self and the world better. We begin to understand why that person hooks our anger and why that person inspires us to be our best selves. Story is the bridge to understanding. Prior to the sharing of story we can be trapped in labels – relating to labels. We label the other as refugee, trouble maker, feminist, greenie, religious, fanatic ….whatever and the second we do that we limit them and we limit ourselves. Our label blocks understanding. Our labelling traps us in our prejudice, in our prior understandings linked to media portrayals, the bleat of the pack, the influence of family, the bias derived from one off situations and experiences and more. Once we find the time and the courage to break open the story of our lives with the other whose label limits our understanding of them we discover so much in common. We begin to see that beyond our preconceptions and our limited knowledge of who they really are – there is much in their life journey that speaks to mine. This sharing – to be liberating – does NOT require the other to change. All that is important is that by our listening to their sacred story we grow in understanding and appreciation of who they are and where they have come from. It may not lead to us agreeing with them – in fact it often does not – but that is not the point; it is the growth in appreciation and understanding that is important.

While all of us have had our share of pain and suffering on our journeys those times do not define us. We are not victims of our story – especially when it has much pain and loss. We can re-story. You cannot undo the past: it is as it is. But we can deliberately choose to be totally present in and to the present moment and in that moment choose life, choose self – free and loving and forgiving. To re-story is a psychological technique sometimes used in counselling. We have ALL had times of hurt and rejection and failure in our lives – sometimes deeply – but we are NOT trapped by these. It is not fatalistic. That is the beautiful thing about story – we can choose to write the next chapter using the pen of courage and determination.

I am not sure if it is reality or fiction but I was once told the story about an American researcher who worked with fifty Jewish mothers and fifty Palestinian mothers whose shared history had taught them to hate and fear one another. The researcher gathered the women for several days at a Conference Centre. At first the tension in the air was palpable. But then the researcher invited them to spend time reflecting on several key questions; What was it like when they first got pregnant? What was it like when they held their first child in their arms? What was it like the first time their child walked or spoke a word? What was it like to bring up a child in a context of fear? The researcher then divided the women in pairs and then in fours – one Jewish and one Palestinian woman – and invited them to share their answers. They were sharing story – NOT as Jew or Palestinian but as women, as mothers. The labels of Jew and Palestinian quickly gave way and the energy in the room was significant as mother shared with mother. Quickly there were photos been exchanged, laughter in the room, tears and more. Over the days of their time together the energy of shared story centred on motherhood worked magic and created a bond way beyond history and prejudice to a shared intimate experience of their humanity.

Think of the really significant people and events in your lives. Was there an element of ‘story’ there?

Why is story so powerful?

Story has credibility; you can question someone’s beliefs or thinking but you can’t question their journey – their experiences – their story. We listen to story – it captures us – almost without exception when we hear another’s story it will TOUCH something in ours. When you share story you ‘go beyond’ – go past – go deeper. Past the surface. By sharing story we are saying, “This is me!” There is no pretend in REAL story. Story – however told or shared or engaged with [movement, journaling, art, poetry, a personal letter, photos, yarning, silence etc] gives a coat-hanger for a better expression of meaning. Story moves you from the head to the heart – and it is “only with the heart that one can see rightly!” {The Little Prince}

Story has no BEST and BETTER and WORSE – my story, your story is THAT – it is my / your story and therefore it IS SACRED. Sadly too many people want to ‘compare’ stories. Story has no expectations – other than that which others may place upon it – then it can become manipulation. Story of its nature – has an inbuilt sense of JOURNEY. Story takes us into the sacred ground of feelings – whether it be humour or pathos or intimacy or sadness or relief. Remember a time at a wedding or funeral when the story is shared?

Story releases energy. Story will unblock energy. When a group is locked into the head or a relationship is locked in the head – the sharing of story will often unblock this. This brings me back to my dictum, “When in doubt – share story!” When you are blocked – especially in a relationship and you just share how you are feeling – your story at that point in time – wonderful things happen, especially when the sharing of story is reciprocal.

We must come as GUEST to the sharing of story and to the listening to story. We don’t come with answers, with our quick response. Often the doorway to story is FEELINGS and behind that story is another doorway of feelings leading to another level of story and so on. When you are in the sacred place of sharing story you don’t have to do anything, especially don’t manipulate it, use it, twist it to your own ends, evaluate it – if you find yourself judging the other as they share story you are not neither coming as guest nor being present. Just be in the space of story; be present for story simply IS.

Story loses its power when we THINK we know what is ‘coming next.’ Story must be allowed to surprise us. We must constantly choose again to be present to the story teller and the story. Whether the story is true or not in some cases does not matter.

You can’t force story and the sharing of story. It is always invitational – our role is to create the environment where it can be shared safely and willingly. But there is always the element of RISK in the sharing of story – but to venture out to the edge of our comfort zone is where life will truly be lived. This invitational space of deep listening will at times require some self-emptying – to create space for mystery, for letting go, for more, for other, for surprise, for unlearning and for true learning. This journey will be a slow one – more a dance than a journey – a deep, sensitive, sensuous being with the other and with the music within self. The dance itself, like the story or the journey – has a truth and rightness in itself.

When we share story or are present to another’s story it is the relationship, the listening and the presence that are important. In so many ways the facts of what is being shared are not that important; provided the other feels heard – feels listened to. When working with the students as they were going out to be with the homeless or refugees or asylum seekers I would always remind them that each person they were to meet has a sacred story that has brought them to be who and where they are today. Our role was NOT to get to know the facts of their story but just to know and sense that there is one there – that was all that mattered. When we did this – not prying into their personal lives but simply being present – they (the other) sensed this and their crap detector did NOT go off – they felt heard even if they had not said a word.

Sure there are times when there are aspects of our story that we need a professional to walk beside you and unlock some element of story. Sometimes a trauma from our childhood needs professional help to unblock and heal, sometimes a complex series of painful events can do the same and lead us to seek professional help. But while this is true never underestimate the power of the friend who listens with the heart.

Story silences ‘ego’. Story shared invites compassion and empathy. Story leads to true understanding. Story breaks a dualistic response that wants to label interactions as ‘us-them’, ‘right-wrong’, ‘good-bad’, ‘saved-damned’, ‘in-out’ and more.

Sometimes as we gently break open story there will be need for silence, for holding – holding self or the other. There will be the need to take a different path than the one planned in the freshness of the morning and at times even to stop the journey and rest awhile; all is good – for it is the heart that is doing the listening and the story telling and the heart beats to its own unique drum.

The response of one heart to the story of another will be as varied as the stories themselves. Some will respond with deep respect filled silence, others through touch, others through honouring the still voice that arose within them as they heart listened, others through tears and some through laughter; all are the strings and instruments of the orchestra. But respond we must – for the sharing story heart puts itself out there and is vulnerable. That heart has a need to be honoured and heard.

As I said earlier it is the sharing of story that matters not the words – the fine phrases or the crafted word. The heart will hear the heart and that is all that matters. And one heart will – always – touch another’s heart! Story is a cosmic pilgrim. It is forever ‘on the go’ – it is always coming from, sitting with and going – all at the same time. Story though is timeless. Story is never ‘set in stone’; one cannot say “I know their story” – or “this is my story”. Perhaps at one given moment one can be invited to a window into another heart story at that moment – but even as you share the story weaves and heals, let’s go, empties, shifts, learns and unlearns.

As a pilgrim story will invite us to heal and let go as we share from the heart. Other times it will invite us to dance and celebrate. My friends – when in doubt – trust and have the courage to share story; you will never regret it.

Questions:

What in this blog did you strongly agree with and why?

What in this blog did you struggle with and why?

What did you think of the idea, “When in doubt share story?” Why?

Discussion: Take the ideas from this blog and discuss them with someone significant in your life OR make a comment on the blog site.

Liberation

Charlie Scott with our friend on the street Ray.

Our story, the heart articulation of our journey towards self understanding is a sacred thing. Built on a profound sense of the innate dignity that we all share, this story just is; neither right nor wrong, better nor best. When we share story, when we approach another and invite the sharing of story in its myriad of forms something special happens. Bridges are built, understanding and empathy grow, friendships are forged and the sense of our common humanity becomes a glue that can build community – locally and globally. When we come to the sacred space of another as guest – humbly, slowly, respectfully and open – and in that space choose to be deeply present to the other our hearts naturally will open in compassion.

Have you ever met someone who is deeply in love? Have you ever met someone in love with life, with the natural world around them and seeing those they encounter with eyes of acceptance and compassion? On all of our life’s journeys you do meet these people from time to time. They have a sparkle in the eyes, a lightness of step, a warmth, a softness (often despite great pain) and a presence that just speaks welcome. These people, people who have made the choice for love and compassion a life long choice are deeply and genuinely free! The fruit of compassion is freedom!

This freedom is special. It is not the adolescent freedom of believing that I can do what I wish to do when I want to do it. It is not the false and morning after empty freedom from substance abuse or sexual exploitation. It is not the false freedom of no responsibility. It is not the mirage of freedom when surrounded by wealth and luxury – too often purchased on the backs of the poor and the powerless directly or indirectly.

No, this freedom – the fruit of compassion and presence – to self, other and planet Earth itself is a deep inner freedom. It is a freedom to ‘be’; not to have to do. It is a freedom that allows you to see and celebrate your own innate dignity. It is a freedom that means you do not have to compete, nor march to someone else’s drum, nor compare nor complain. It is an annoying presence for the other who is trapped and tied and unaware as they see and sense this freedom in the other than means that all the criteria and benchmarks that they live by mean little or nothing to the one who is truly free.

Of course we quickly label these people as crazy. History has a long list of lovers that society named as crazy. Francis of Assisi embraced the freedom of lady poverty and walked out of that small Italian city naked to the shame of his family and the laughter of his peers. Francis’ embrace of poverty, of simplicity, of the purity of nature all around him led to a freedom from possessions and an awareness of both people and the natural world around him that was profound. Francis could then freely embrace a leper, dance in the meadow, go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and sit with the Muslim Sultan seeking mutual understanding. Bonhoeffer, Ann Frank, Mandela, Helen Keller, Hafiz, Gandhi, Teresa of Kolkata, Tagore, Rumi, Damien of Molokai (who lived with and embraced the lepers of the Hawaiian Island of Molokai) and thousands of others shared this freedom.

When one is deeply present and this presence leads to profound compassion you grow eyes that truly see, ears that hear what others cannot hear and a reckless abandon that takes risks to hug and sit with, cry with, mourn with, dance with the other in the midst of their story. This freedom does not make rational sense. It is not logical. It is a space where you forgive when the rational mind says don’t, you accept when the cultural norm says reject, you put your time and energy into matters of the heart before the tinsel that our materialistic world worships at altar.

The freedom born from compassion makes a mockery of labels. Labels mean nothing to it. I have a treasured memory of the Governor of Queensland – Leneen Forde – visiting my hometown of Proserpine and my mother who knew Leneen’s first husband Gerald in Canada waltzing into the shire chambers to the official welcome morning tea uninvited to shake her hand obliviously to protocol and security. That same wonderful mother of mine would sit in our kitchen having morning tea with an Aboriginal woman who helped with the washing and ironing and a elderly man who lived in a shanty on the edge of town who used to come and do our garden once a week – sharing tea and cake on our finest china. As a little boy the laughter and conversation spoke to me of a freedom way beyond societal norms.

While this freedom is the fruit of compassion its other foundation is awareness. Awareness is a life long journey. It is a skill and choice to be daily worked at. Awareness is built on silence and stillness. As you grow in awareness you see things you did not see, hear what the ego noise of your mind had blocked out and sense a deeper energy in and all around you. Awareness when coupled with compassion built on presence allows, liberates, unbinds, births – a way of being that is a channel to your deepest and most profound true self.

A snack on the Travers Sabbine Tramp in New Zealand

One of the hallmarks of the truly free person is that they ‘hold lightly’. By hold lightly I mean that they do not place too much energy into any ego fight, any label, any narrative, any reaction – any false battle that you want to fight. Holding lightly leads to a balance and a perspective that allows truth to surface and find its rightful place. Holding lightly does not allow the criticism of others to piece our personal armour – in fact, holding lightly does not even need that personal armour. Holding lightly does not invest too much energy into where the ego wants to place it – but rather trusts truth to find the time, the place and the person to trust that energy to.

No one of us is totally free. Deep inner freedom is a life long journey that we are all called to walk and like all journeys will be walked one step at a time. Our prejudices, our blind-spots, our ego reactions and over reactions, our labels (for self and other) our dependencies and fears all point to those areas of our lives where we are not free. These should not cow us for they are part and parcel of our humanity; our feet of clay – that which makes us human and never perfect. But while we do not cow down before these lacks of freedom we are also called to face them, embrace them, grow awareness around them, seek professional help where we need to and ultimately trust our deepest selves as we grow through them into freedom.

You can’t purchase this inner freedom. It is the gift of the journey walked with fidelity, courage, generosity and trust. it is the fruit of compassion built on presence.

But you feel it deep within, you experience it in a lightness of heart, a natural sense of what is really important, an ability to let go and a natural response in presence to both people and nature. This inner freedom has no titles nor is it the possession of anyone nor anything because of their status. For freedom the only criteria that matters is humility, presence and trust – and these qualities are as at home and as available to the poorest pauper as to the greatest King.

Questions:

Who do you know in your life who is genuinely free – has that sparkle of the eye and lightness of step that means that know what is truly important? What is their secret?

How are you not free? What holds you back? What do you hold on to or cling to? Why?

Compassion

Refugee and Asylum Seeker march Melbourne, Australia

I believe deeply in the innate dignity of all. Innate is a beautiful word; it means of one’s essence – of one’s core – one’s deepest self. Each one of us has a worth, a dignity, a uniqueness that is not earned – it is simply gift. Linked to this belief in the innate dignity of each one of us logically flows my love of story; our story – our stories. Story is our heart articulation of our journey. Journey has its ups and downs, its twists and turns; it is rarely straight and uncomplicated – but within its mystery there is much beauty. Like you I have had the privilege of sharing thousands of story sharing times – times when we have gathered in two or three or thousands and broken open story. Those times are special.

We come to each story and story teller as a guest. We come slowly, respectfully, with open hearts and open minds – to encounter the gift of the other and of ourselves. This guest-ness is HOW we come to the encounter. The other senses it. In that sacred space we choose to be deeply present and our presence – more than anything else – says to the other, “You are special, you are beautiful, you are gift!” The other intuits this in our presence and if we choose to do all of this from an inner space of freedom, free from ego, we mysteriously experience this same sense of our own gifted-ness and beauty.

When we choose to weave guest-ness and presence through our lives our hearts grow, they expand, our eyes grow more clear and our ears are unencumbered. With guest-ness and presence an intimate part of who we are and how we walk our day, we grow in compassion. Compassion, from Latin means “to suffer with” and is the cousin of empathy. The choice to enter a space as guest and to choose in that space to be as deeply present as we can changes us. As these two choices become a part of us – our heart set and our mindset – we find ourselves labelling less and less. We find that we focus more on the person and their story than on the media driven narrative or our ego wrapped layers.

I have had the privilege of working with homeless men and women, with refugees and asylum seekers and with young people and families who are struggling. I can clearly remember the first time I truly engaged with homeless people. Armed with my preconceived ideas of the homeless being “smelly, lazy, violent, a threat” and more, my very first encounter was a huge smile. Our van – Eddie’s Van – pulled in to the side of the street and immediately we were surrounded by smiling faces, offering to help us with tables and containers and to set up our coffee and snacks. Many of these homeless people came to be dear friends of mine and when, some ten years later, I was moving for some time from Brisbane to Melbourne in Australia, the send off that they gave to me was truly special.

I am often not proud to be an Australian. I believe we – a nation of immigrants – treat refugees and asylum seekers – very poorly. One time I was working in Melbourne and I was making short Social Justice films. We had a drop-in centre for Asylum Seekers at Richmond. The young man who coordinated the centre was called Liam. We made a short film about the centre and in that film interviewed Liam. In the course of the interview I asked Liam, “If you could have a politician visit you for a short time – what would you say to them?” Liam surprised me by his answer, “Nothing!” “I would not say anything – but I would invite them to sit down with the asylum seekers and listen to their stories!”

No one risks life and limb and travels across thousands of miles of sea simply for the smell of salt air. No asylum seeker seeks safe harbour in Australia or elsewhere – leaving behind family, culture and kin on a whim. They set out on a journey to ‘freedom’ because of fear, violence, poverty, cruelty and more. But the eyes to ‘see this’ and the ‘ears’ to hear story free of ego don’t just happen. Too often we are unconsciously trapped in our ego driven narratives and world views. Hence the importance – the constant importance for ALL of us to constantly work on self awareness. When we are self aware in a truly open way (as distinct from a pseudo awareness where we are actually just listening to our own bias and prejudice) and when we choose to come as guest and be present then our hearts respond with a depth of compassion that often surprises us.

How often have we heard of someone with a particular bias / prejudice and they ‘experience’ relationship with the very people or group they are against and they appear to change. This experiencing of relationship is of course the various forms of breaking open story. I have worked with young people who over several months of sitting with the homeless have gone from “they are lazy bludgers” to “Jim is a great bloke but life has dealt him some almost impossible cards – you know he was abused when he was 8!” – and a hundred variations of that narrative.

In compassion your eyes soften and you begin to see beyond labels. Your labels are brought into question and what was ‘fact’ becomes opinion and then in time – uninformed opinion and then even prejudice. In compassion your mind quietens the incessant ego noise of labelling and judgement and you hear the voice whisper of pain and story, fear and loss, difference and gift that was always there but you just could not hear it. In compassion you disarm and the ‘I – IT’ modality gives way to an openness to hear and share story – I – THOU. In compassion you don’t have to compete or win. In compassion you are able to sit with and feel with and feel for the pain and loss of the other – but do so in such a way that their ‘crap detector’ does not go off – for you are authentic, you are genuine, you truly are brother or sister with and beside them on life’s journey.

In compassion you go into a space of sitting with the other in their feeling space. I have never liked the phrase, “Walk in the shoes of your brother for a mile!” I do not believe we can walk in another’s shoes – no one can KNOW another’s experience – but, and I am sure you will shake heads at this, you can aspire to wear their socks! By ‘aspire to wear their socks’ is to say that while we can’t walk in their shoes we can – as far as humanly possible be there with them; not to solve, not to fix – but just to be there and to be there in such a way that they feel empowered to claim their lives back. We walk beside them as they walk this journey (for we are walking our own journey at the same time), they know we are with them and for them – we truly are brothers and sisters together.

In compassion you cry with, are silent with, are helpless with – are in the space beside them. Where we can, our compassion will lead to action with. In the Christian Scriptures there is a passage in the letter of James where he says, “If one of the brothers or sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty’, without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that?” James 2: 16

Terry and Steve, two of our friends on the street with Dr Julia Kelly

There are times when the other (and ourselves) does not need us to do anything. Just to be in the present with presence is all that is needed. But at other times compassion calls us outward in solidarity, in advocacy or in action with and for the other who is hurting. We do this in such a way and from a space of inner freedom and deep respect so that it is not ‘charity’. In this instance I am referring to ‘charity’ as some form of pity. Our compassion goes way beyond any form of pity and comes from such a heart space that the other knows we are with them as far as is humanly possible and in a mysterious way it invites the other to be with us too. This call outward is risky. The call of compassion may mean risking our own reputation, our safety and security, our comfort – it will cost us.

One of the litmus tests of true compassion is that the other is called into an empowered space of claiming control over their circumstance as far as it is possible. While the circumstances surrounding them may not have changed, their inner heart disposition and thinking about their circumstance will have, and left them more at peace. Compassion is a truly reciprocal relationship – of giving and taking – of pilgrims together on life’s journey.

True compassion may at times lead us into a powerless place. Those places of powerlessness are never easy and often ask of us a surrender, a trust and a presence that can leave us empty. But even in this place – if we come (often to self in this instance) as guest and be present – we will discover an ever deeper place of one with – of brother and sister beside, of one heart – on the same heart journey.

I would like to leave you with the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton;

“Do not depend on the hope of the results when you are doing the sort of work you have taken on. Essentially, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no results at all, if not results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And there too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real. In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Thomas Merton

Questions:

How truly self-aware am I or am I just listening to my own preconceived prejudice?

Who are the ‘others’ in my life that I label in such a way that it prevents me from hearing their story?

What action of compassion can I make today?

Innate Dignity

Sunset over Fairhaven, Victoria, Australia

I began this blog journey by talking about story and that ultimately when we share story magic happens. I reflected that story just is; it is the articulation of who we are – it is neither right or wrong, better or best – story just is. I have spoken about the importance of each of us coming to the other and to their story as a guest; simply, slowly, humbly, open and ready to receive and give. I have then suggested that from our HOW of coming to the other and to their sacred story as guest – that in that space our primary task is to be profoundly present and that our presence says, “You are beautiful, you are special – just as you are!” From these reflections I have suggested that at this time on planet Earth the nature and scope of our presence is needing to be stretched to embrace all of life.

Underneath all of this is my profound belief in the innate dignity of all. I love the word innate. Innate means of its essence, of its core, of its nature. You and I and all of life have dignity and worth as central to our core, to our essence, to our very being – we are worth, we are love, we are lovable, we are gift, we simply just ARE and that is special. We don’t earn this worth and dignity – we just have it, are it and our call is to grow to more and more live and be aware of the worth intrinsic to us.

[Who is your life has treated people with a great sense of their dignity and worth? What was their secret?]

Now I am the first to acknowledge that what I have just written is ‘easier said than done!’ I can clearly remember going through my late 20’s and 30’s and having people affirm me thousands of times and yet none of this affirmation ‘stuck’. It was almost as if I had a filter in front of my face and when the affirmation hit it – something in me either deflected it, deleted it or rationalised it away. All I know is that my sense of self worth could not be given to me by others. Sure others helped and their belief in me and affection for me helped but ultimately I had to do the work; the heart work. Something in me had to firstly become aware of the filter and then clearly and deliberately choose to go beyond it.

Again – this is a journey and you don’t just make the choice and immediately it is a part of your framework for life – at least this was certainly not my experience. For me this has meant a hundred thousand small choices to believe in myself and believe in my self-worth day after day, on cloudy days, rainy days and sunny days. After some time those thousands of choices become an inner pattern – a heart set and mindset and then one day – something clicks, something changes and the filter begins to lose its power.

Being loved by another certainly helps on this journey. As much as any human being can – when another looks at you and totally and unconditionally loves you through thick and thin, in good times and in bad – their presence to you tells you that you are lovable. This is the power of presence. Presence can cut through the crap. Presence talks to the ‘gut’ to the intuition beyond the reasoned mind that wants to plays games and cloud all affirmation with shoulds and coulds and whens and maybes. But even the love of another human being can only go so far. There is still that space where you – at your deepest level – have to choose to believe in what THEY see, in who they love. Like all I am engaging with, this too is a journey. As Baz Luhrmann – the director of the movie ‘Strictly ballroom’ once said, “We do not live for our opening nights but the richness of the journey!”

[Who is your life has treated people with a great sense of their dignity and worth? What was their secret?]

The world of children teaches us so much. It is not rocket science to know that when a child is surrounded by love, by affection, by presence, by love centred boundaries they grow in a secure sense of self. It is like putting money into the bank of self esteem. When we engage with another and our engagement – our presence – says to them that they are lovable just as they are – we reach out and put a coin of self esteem in to their piggy bank of self. But of course we need to ensure that the entrance to that piggy bank is not clogged by trauma, by ego, by pain and more. And the time will come that after the obligatory teenage rebellion and other adventures to claim their own identity they too will have to make the the choice to believe in the piggy bank within.

I have had the privilege to know and journey with many people who have suffered significant childhood trauma or significant times of trauma in their adult lives. If there is one thing that I have learned it is that we are not prisoners of our pain. We are not trapped in our narratives. We are not powerless victims of our stories. Sure our story is sacred. Sure our story like all stories has its ups and downs, good and bad. But within all of this, in the midst of trauma and pain we still have the noble ability to choose life, to choose the ‘road less travelled’ – to choose to believe and honour self despite everything in our pathology shouting at us that we are a failure or victim or wrong. This is the energy and power of our innate dignity.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference!” Robert Frost

Again, easier said than done. Again, a challenge that can at times be lonely and painful. But without being trite to quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!”

And so it is an invitation to get up each day and to take THAT step. It is an invitation to get up each day and to believe – in small apparently insignificant ways – even though we do not feel like it.

The Universe wraps us in arms of love. We live in a universe of beauty and awe and it is unfolding and evolving into life and creativity and colour, interconnectedness and interdependence. At its core the Universe is benign – it is with us and for us for it is us and we are it.

Obviously this blog engages with the spiritual. One of the biggest challenges in my life has been to find ways to break down walls that put a false divide between spirit and life. All is one. Our spirituality is how and where, our when and our why of finding meaning and purpose and celebrating this, ritual-ising this and forming community around this. So central for me is a belief that at my deepest sense of self I am held lovingly and unconditionally.

Who or what holds me? Does it matter? I personally have no need for this ‘holding energy’ to have a name; it just is. Whether I call this energy love or life or God or Jesus or the essence or karma or spirit I do not believe ultimately matters. Sure, I walk this journey nurtured in my Catholic Christian tradition and that has its gift and like all spirituality has its pain and brokenness. But what is important is that I walk the journey into knowing – beyond the head to the heart and to the ‘gut’ that I am lovable – in my core, as I am and that this love in unconditional.

When we grow into this profound and intimate sense of our innate dignity – a journey and not a destination – then story and guest-ness and presence all make more and more sense. These words and the experiences that wrap them become our language of the heart that lead – to profound encounter – and that encounter is truly liberating.

Questions:

Who is your life has treated people with a great sense of their dignity and worth? What was their secret?

What is the single step you may be invited to take today?

Presence for this time

In my last blog I spoke about presence. Presence, this deliberately choice to be totally with and for another. A way of being in a space that our mere ‘presence’ says to the other that they are beautiful, special, loved – just as they are. We all know, possibly all too well, what it is like when someone is NOT present to us. So, Encountering the Heart means being deeply aware of the innate dignity of self and the other, choosing to come into the space of encounter as guest and then in that space to go further in choice to be totally for and with the other; presence.

There can be little doubt that we live in a unique time on planet Earth. Recently I was watching footage of teenagers walking through the streets of my home city Brisbane chanting Climate Change slogans. In my teenage years the term climate change was not even in the language let alone the science, spirituality, politics and economics of it all. Who would have believed that a virus originating in a market in a city in China could hold the world captive and change our lives dramatically? Who would have thought that ‘the war’ of the early 21st century would have been a war with terror the symbol of which may well be the twin towers burning in New York City in 2011? And who would have thought that a depreciation in the subprime mortgage market in the United States in 2007 – 2008 would have led to the greatest financial downturn globally since the years of the Great Depression?

About twenty years ago I was engaged in a conversation with a dear friend and they told me they were attending a Miriam MacGillis weekend down in Melbourne. I said, “Who?” Miriam MacGillis is an American Dominican Nun who is passionate about Eco-Spirituality and co-founder of Genesis Farm in New Jersey. At the time I was working with young adults in the Brisbane area inviting them into various forms of Social Justice activism and to live in deliberate / intentional community. So I shared with some of the young adults about this weekend and we registered for it; several weeks later found myself and eight others driving south in a minibus to an experience I knew very little about.

The first night and most of the Saturday of the weekend Miriam broke open the ‘science’ of our intimate, interdependent and interconnected relationship with the Universe and our planet Earth. The input was pretty scientific – not one of my strengths. But at the end of the day I was very aware that there is a roughly 13.7 billion year story or journey of our Universe and that ultimately every single thing we see around us is made up of the same molecular material; star-dust. So in a molecular way all we see is ONE. Many scientists and spiritual writers (eg Sallie McFague, Matthew Fox, Brian Swimme and more) have broken open this story and awareness that the Indigenous of every continent knew intrinsically within; that we are ONE with all that is. The insight of our Indigenous brothers and sisters was that this oneness was far more than molecular but a ‘spirit oneness’ – a complete whole oneness! On the Saturday night Miriam had us walk a ‘Cosmic Walk’ a huge spiral of rope on the floor of a very large space with candles placed at various places along the rope to represent significant events on that 13.7 billion year adventure; the first life forms, the first microorganisms, the first water droplets and more. Slowly over the course of that Saturday and night I was beginning to ‘get it’.

During morning tea on the Sunday I grabbed my coffee and cake and walked outside and found myself looking across a fence to a field next door that had a herd of dairy cattle munching away. Suddenly – I found myself crying – profoundly feeling the pain of the Earth and what we humans (unconsciously) had done to it. Since that time I have grown slowly in my awareness of the intimate interconnectedness and interdependence of all of life.

The other great theme that so many writers, poets, musicians and other artists are turning their energy to in our time is that of conscious awareness. Obviously the two areas are intimately linked; the interdependence and interconnectedness of all of life and the call to grow in conscious awareness. Eckhart Tolle (the Power of Now), Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittester and so many other writers are all, in one way or another, reflecting that we as a species on planet Earth at this time are called to be profoundly aware of the present moment and from this awareness to seek ways to be in intentional reciprocal relationship with all of life. The American Indian chief – Seattle – writing in 1854 expressed much of the mind and heart set we are called to have at this time. While there is much conjecture as to whether Seattle actually wrote this piece it does not really matter; it is an excellent reflection on our relationship with all of life around us. I recommend you access the entire speech. One section of the address to the President in Washington reads;

“So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition – the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers. I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be made more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected. You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all”.

Here in my native Australia we have a similar narrative deep within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality. Two words belonging to different Aboriginal language groups speak to what we are saying here. Uncle Bob Randall from Central Australia would say that his people speak about Kanyini. Kanyini is this deep interconnectedness and interdependence of all of life that we are talking about. But Kanyini goes a little further inviting us to care for Earth – for the whole and know we are responsible to it and for it.

“Kanyini is the principle of connectedness through caring and responsibility that underpins Aboriginal life, linking four main areas of responsibility: tyukurrpa (philosophy, Law and religion), ngura (country), walytja (kinship and family) and kurunpa (spirit, soul and psyche).

There is us, as humans who have been given the Laws of tjukurrpa to apply kanyini to all people. But this was never a restricting thing because the term ‘people’ means all of us. Right throughout my life, old men would point to a forest of trees or a grove of trees or just one tree and refer to it as people. ‘See that mob over there.’ This way of thinking could be referring to the kangaroos, trees, hills or humans. Any of us could be ‘that mob’ or ‘us mob’ could include the totality of that. Throughout my life I discovered, from other Aboriginal groups with whom I have lived, that having that idea of connecting with all things was quite common through the different Aboriginal nations.

Tjukurrpa is creation, the one time in the beginning when all things were created, and which we need to keep alive in the present. This includes not only the landforms and the original plants, insects, reptiles and birds, but also the social laws, the lore, which we have to live by. All this comes from tjukurrpa. This is the bigger consciousness of something that was and is the way to live, the way to live in harmony with all things. Living this is a matter of how we do things in the present. So when we think about time, it is only the now, the present, that is important. In each and every moment of ‘now-ness’ is where we live out the truth of the connectedness of kanyini”.

The other term comes from the people of Daly River. Here Auntie Miriam Rose and her community have coined the term, ‘Dadirri’. Dadirri is a profound, deep heart listening – a listening way beyond sound, a listening to earth, to energy, to feeling, to deep yearning – an all round all pervasive listening and in turn invites a heart response of respect, honour and walking gently upon the Earth – our mother.

So at this time on planet Earth the energy and spirit of the planet itself – the energy of life, is calling us to an expanded awareness and an expanded sense of presence beyond the human to all of life. Truly, all things are connected. In another blog I refer to Martin Buber and his I – Thou, I – It. For too long we have seen the environment, the web of life within which we live and move and have our being – as being an ‘it’ – something ‘out there’ that we can use and abuse to suit us. The planet itself is trying to teach us that all is connected, that the way we treat Earth ultimately effects us – we are not immune or separate from it.

My small home town is Proserpine, a sugar cane growing community in the north of Queensland. For decades my family have grown sugar, have fished on the Great Barrier Reef and run cattle. But now, even my farmer cousins are realising that to get the most from the land they must treat it gently and wisely. The fishing stocks on the reefs are depleted and in some cases coral reefs resemble a desert – a marine desert and they are learning to fish responsibly with a real sense of being ‘stewards’ of the whole.

One of natures great gifts is that it brings us into the now, into the present moment. Nature does this in a way that a computer or video game cannot. Have you ever found yourself in ‘awe’ at a sunrise over the ocean and beach, being carried to some higher place at the crystal clear sound of a bird in the early morning, been caught in wonder at the beauty of a flower or forest? Nature has this beautiful gift of bringing us to the now and helping us encounter the sacred. It is no accident that our forebears legislated for National Parks and Parks in the inner city.

Passion-fruit vine at my community residence.

So, if we are to truly encounter the heart we have to dance the awareness of presence beyond the human to all of life. We are called to walk gently, respectfully and with great awareness upon the Earth. We are called to wise stewardship living the words of Ghandi,

“Life simply – so that others may simply live!”

and seeing the ‘other’ as beyond the human. This exciting adventure begins with growing awareness that all is ONE. This is the starting place – a sacred starting place. I get annoyed at the term ‘Greenie’ – in fact someone reading this could label me a ‘greenie’. The label greenie continues the dualism that has got us into this precarious place. Dualism is a mindset that sets up polarities of us – them, in – out, win – lose and one of the greatest polarities is that of nature and human. We are the domineering power and energy that has dominion over the ‘it’ – the land, the sea, the sky. This is the very mindset that has led to the pain of the planet at this time. We are all called to be profoundly green! We are all called to transition to a mind and heart set of oneness with all.

This mind and heart set will invite us into a presence that is extraordinary. You will experience in this presence a wonder and awe beyond anything that you could imagine – something like that experienced at the birth of a child. As you grow in this awareness you will develop new eyes and ears. You will see the interconnectedness of all, you will experience it. You will hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the people of the Earth as one cry. You will begin to experience the interdependence of all of life, all part of the web of life and each with their own beautiful and unique part to play within it. If we can grow into this mind and heart set then our children and their children will truly grow to see the Earth as home in the most profound sense of the word.

Presence

I began this blog by talking about the sacredness of story. I suggested that when we are in doubt or confused or stuck – turn to story, to focus on the story of the other or share story ourselves. I suggested that story is the great connector. Story is neither right nor wrong, better or best – it just is. In my last blog I broke open the concept of ‘guest’. Guest-ness is HOW we come to an encounter. The guest comes to the sacred ground of encounter, of story – slowly, gently, respectfully, open and trusting. This guest-ness creates a space of safety for true and profound encounter to occur.

If guest-ness is HOW we come to an encounter then presence is what we do once we are there. It is no accident that so many spiritual writers; Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittester, Eckhart Tolle, Jean Pierre de Caussade and more – speak of the power of presence.

Just as guest-ness is a choice we deliberately make of how we will come to encounter so too is presence. Presence is a choice we make to be totally and profoundly there with and for the other. It is other centred-ness. Presence is the choice to focus on the other – their voice, their body language, their silence, their journey, their story in such a way that they feel held, heard – at the gut level – within. Presence is powerful. Presence says to the other – speaks to their heart and says, “You are beautiful! You are special! You are honoured! You are gift – just as you are!” Our presence says this – we don’t need to use words. In fact some of the most powerful experiences of presence are wordless.

This is one of the gifts of presence. The other ‘hears’ with the gut, they intuit that we are there for them, that we believe in them, that we respectfully want to walk beside them. There are so many words out there. There is so much talking. So often the person we are in relationship with, are encountering, has heard too much, has been let down too often – so when we are truly and deeply present to them – they get it, they hear it intuitively – it speaks to them within. In a profound way they KNOW in a knowing beyond the head or the intellect – to their self, their very spirit.

Presence is a way of being with that says (beyond words) “I am with you, I am not above you, I am not even for you – I am with you!” But presence says this in a way that is disarming. This choice to be present does not come from a patronising place, it does not come with pity or charity. Presence simply comes and sits with and does so in a way that the other senses oneness and peace, senses non-judgement and acceptance, senses genuine relationship and reciprocity, senses a heart desire to just be with.

Presence is a choice. It must be freely given and freely received. Presence must come from a free inner space – anything else and it is not authentic. Presence, like guest-ness senses the sacred ground of encounter, knows deeply the innate dignity of self and the other and now chooses to be there for the other. The intuition of holy ground leads us to take off our shoes (our shoes of dominance, or holier than or better than or saviour or ego) and walk gently in this sacred space. Presence is not allowing the ego thinking to focus on;

  • the truthfulness or not of the other’s story
  • the facts of the story
  • the inconsistencies
  • the they ‘should have’ or ‘could haves’ of the story and more

No presence – is simply, deeply in that space of encounter totally with and totally free.

The elements I spoke about with guest-ness are all a part of presence too. Each element – eg listening – is part of HOW we come to the other (guest-ness) and what we DO in the encounter (presence). Each element does the tango of guest leading to presence; a mind and heart set of HOW we come and what we do. So in presence we;

  • Listen deeply – often beyond the words
  • Touch respectfully
  • See with non-labeling eyes – truly see through the lens of innate dignity
  • Hear the deeper cry, hear the silent cry – hear the whisper of hope and love and risk and trusting
  • Speak words that come from our trusting of our heart – and these words with en-courage (give courage to) and have a power and a magic that is beyond us – in this trusting space linked to presence we will be in awe and ‘surprised’ by what our heart articulates through our words (“Wow, where did that come from?”)
  • Allow and choose to be deeply in and within silence in the encounter
  • Wait at the door of encounter with the other – knocking gently and celebrating whatever the response of the other is

Hold Lightly

Part of presence is to hold lightly. In my work possibly my most often asked question is, “Whose needs are getting met here?” Too often we are too invested in the outcome that we want. Too often we are ego driven and not aware of it. Too often we are kidnapped by our unaware needs. Too often we are ‘present’ as a role we are playing or part of the act we are performing – because it is what we are meant to ‘do’. Too often we place far too much emotional investment into an ego driven outcome. Presence invites us into awareness – self awareness – and from this space to hold whatever comes to the surface and to hold it lightly. Holding lightly means not reading too much into something, it means not over reacting, it means not overly focusing on something – but to allow the spirit action present in the dynamic to do its work regardless of us.

Self-giving

None of this can occur unless we let go, allow and give. Presence comes from the space of total other centred-ness. Presence invites total self-giving and complete focus on the other. But the paradox – the paradox present in all love – is that in this very giving we receive. In this very giving we find life. In this very giving we move into a space of peace and joy – a joy that is way deeper than being ‘happy’.

This self-giving, this focus on the other within the dynamic of encounter leads to a deep inner freedom. When you give from a free inner space where you are ‘ego aware’ and thus the giving really has no strings attached – you paradoxically experience even more inner freedom. This freedom is so all encompassing that you are almost not even aware of it. You are just free! Others see it, others sense it – and especially the other in your sacred encounter will sense it. It is the freedom of the lover of life and earth and other. It is the freedom that is not even thinking of image or effect or even the dynamics within the encounter but is so deeply trusting of the integrity of their own journey and their free choice to be present – that they just ‘are’.

Crap Detector

One term that I use in my work is ‘crap detector’. This Australian term refers to what the other senses when we are not authentic, when we are playing a game, when what is happening is all show. When we are not honest (with self or other), when we are performing or playing a game, when we are not authentic / genuine – then the other will sense it and their inner ‘crap detector’ will go off. In presence the crap detector does not go off because the other senses intuitively that we are real, we are genuinely in this space of encounter in a reciprocal / respect filled away. This is deeply liberating for both parties in the encounter.

The Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber made famous the concept of I – Thou as distinct from I – It. The I – Thou approach to encounter and to relationship is deeply linked to presence. The I – It approach sees the other as ‘different’, as an ‘it’ – a thing to be dominated, a box to be ticked, or victory won over whereas the I – Thou approach invited intimacy, dialogue, true encounter and personal liberation. The I – Thou approach to life, to relationship, to the planet itself will lead to a sense of the ultimate oneness of all and of the unity, rightness and beauty of love.

So presence, based upon the how of approaching dialogue and encounter as guest – is a deliberate choice to enter into people’s lives, onto their sacred ground. In this space you choose to be totally present – you choose to be totally in that space with the other. This requires the sacrifice of ego, of any win – lose dynamic.

Natural

This dynamic of presence is all around us. Have you ever watched a mother or father holding their baby. So often that dynamic draws the mother or father totally into the presence of the baby. They are totally there. They are not thinking “Have we got any milk in the fridge?” Have you ever been present not long after the birth of a child. When the mother or father holds their child for the first time? It is total presence. It is awe inspiring. It is powerful.

Powerful experiences of nature can have a similar effect. I can remember being on an outdoor adventure camp with a group of 14 year old boys and we got them out of their tents at about 4 am and amidst much grumbling led them up a nearby mountain by torchlight. We got to the ridge line summit about thirty minutes before dawn. We invited them to just ‘sit’ in the silence of the morning. Slowly the dark turned to grey to reds and yellows and purples and there was absolute silence – an awe filled silence – as the sun came up. When we reflected with the students several days later they named this as one of the highlights of the camp experience. During this time the students were drawn into the moment – they were deeply present. It had a magic to it.

One of the great gifts of the writer Eckhart Tolle and his work, ‘The Power of Now’ is that presence draws us deeply into the present moment – full stop. It is not going back into the past, it is not wishing into the future. Presence is fully in the NOW. The present moment is complete unto itself. The invitation and the challenge of course – is in-spite of our humanness to be in that moment, to be self aware and present. This is an adventure and a life long journey. I don’t know that any of us ever perfect presence – in some ways when we think we have it is a litmus test that we surely have not!

We are not a door-mat

In true presence we are not a door-mat. We don’t become some sort of mat that others walk on and over. It is not a place where we, as martyr allow ourselves to be used and abused. That space is not presence for presence builds up both self and other in a way that is mutually enhancing, empowering and liberating. Through true presence we both – us and the other – grow to be more liberated and more our best selves. That is the fruit and the gift of presence. Through presence I come to know that I am lovable, I am special, I am gift – just as I am – and the other is too!

Presence will gift us with this message – at the level of the ‘gut’ – the deepest inner self (the true self) beyond our ego, beyond our layered narrative, beyond our ‘history’. True presence will unbind us and let us go free. True presence will silence the ego, re-story our narrative and allow us to know profoundly that none of us is a victim of our history nor trapped in it forever more.

This whole adventure of presence is a journey. We never fully arrive – but it is not about arrival. It is not about getting there. It is all about getting up each day and choosing where we can and how we can to be present to self, to other and to the Earth itself. It is about a thousand little choices all through our day – to be in that present moment, to be present to the other, to celebrate life warts and all.

Each morning and each evening I try to have a twenty minute ‘sit’. Many call this centering prayer. I simply sit and just ‘be’ and be present. I try to allow the Universe to hold me and honour me as I try to hold and honour it. Sure I am distracted a hundred times during that twenty minutes – but that is not the point. I simply try to choose to come back to my centre – through the use of my sacred word – and be present in that space and stillness. In the seconds when I find myself in that space – something special happens – I am wrapped in a presence and it is gift and it is good and it is love.

When the chimes sound three times at the end of my sit I try to do three actions. With the first chime I slowly take my arms is a large all encompassing circle. As the second chime sounds I take my arms into the Namaste pose and honour my sit. With the third and final chime I fold my arms across my chest and my heart. Presence – to all, to other, to self. One step at a time!

In my next blog I want to break open compassion. When one chooses to come as guest to the innate dignity and sacred story of the other – choosing to be deeply present to them – our hearts will naturally open in compassion; a compassion this world is so desperate for!

Coming as guest

The concept of ‘guest’ is one that I engage with often. So often we think of the ‘guest’ as that person who we invite for a meal on a Friday night or to a BBQ on the weekend. In this blog I want to engage with the concept of ‘guest’ as a mindset and heart-set; a way of approaching another and their sacred story.

Guest is a mindset and heart-set when approaching another that knows deeply that they have an innate dignity, that we can only glimpse the ‘truth’ of their story and their inner truth and hence we come to that encounter in an open, humble, respect filled way ready to give and receive, to learn and to break open story.

Awareness

So, step one in guestness is to grow daily in self-awareness. Self-awareness like guestness itself is a life long journey; we never truly get there – but it is the journey that counts. When we grow in self-awareness we become more aware of our own bias, our preconceptions, our blocks and more. Self awareness clears the space for true and deep encounter.

Taking off our shoes

Guestness is a taking off of one’s inner shoes. It is a clearing of the space for true encounter. It is first of all built on a deep belief in the innate dignity of self and of the other. We truly believe in the innate worth of all. We see their value as a person – for who they are.

Seeing and sensing the innate dignity of the other we come to their sacred space – to the holy ground of encounter slowly. We don’t rush in. We don’t invade their psychic space. We don’t rush opinions, views, our language, our beliefs etc and we don’t impose them, dump them on to the other. When we enter the space slowly, there is a gentleness about the encounter. When you are ‘slow’ you can be more attuned, you hear more, you see more – you see and hear more clearly. When you are slow you are more aware of the ‘invitation’ of the other – sometimes verbal, sometimes non-verbal to engage with and enter their sacred space. You may also become aware that that invitation is NOT there and then you gently and respectfully withdraw and remain outside but with an openness of heart that should they one day be ready – they may then invite you ‘in’ and you will be ready to break open story with them.

The guest comes respectfully. The word respect is from the Latin respecere / respectus – which means to ‘look again’. The guest encounters beyond labels, beyond stereotypes, beyond preconceptions. Labels limit. They limit myself and they limit the other. When we come respectfully we see and engage with the other as they are. We see ‘them’! The energy and the focus is on THEM and their sacred story. We look again, we listen again to the person beyond the presenting ‘data’ or layers of pain / hurt etc.

For many years I worked with young adults working with the homeless of my city Brisbane. We would talk to the students about ‘coming to the homeless as guest’. The homeless sensed that the students were just with them; as fellow travellers on life’s journey and it gave the encounter a magic. One night a student was chatting with one of the homeless and I could see that the homeless man was a little agitated. Concerned for the safety of all concerned I gently passed by asking, “Is all OK?” The student smiled and said yes. Later on I asked him what was going on. The student simply told me that the homeless man had a degree of mental illness – some paranoia and that he was pointing out to the student that we were constantly being watched by cameras on the tops of the city buildings and in some cases by army marksmen. The student inwardly noted that there was a degree of mental illness present and then made a deliberate choice to stay engaged with the man – taking off his inner shoes – and coming as guest to the mental state of this homeless man – being with HIM as he was.

Part of guest-ness is a profound sense of equality as brothers and sisters on life’s journey. We don’t enter the sacred space of encounter with an underlying belief that I am superior, that my story is more whole and complete, that I am their saviour, that I will fix them up. No, there is a deep sense that we are coming to the other and to their story as they are – to break open story and to be in that space in a reciprocal way. Yes, in true encounter we give and we receive.

This concept of ‘guest’ relates equally with the Earth itself. We see the beauty and the dignity of the planet itself. We are ONE with it; we are all of us made up of the same stardust that constitutes every part of all that we see. We are intimately interconnected and interrelated. From this space of intimacy we are invited to walk ‘gently on the Earth’, to walk with awareness of the interconnectedness of all, to respect and to live as wise stewards of all. This guest-ness leads us to be deeply aware of our footprint; our carbon footprint – our impact upon all around us.

As I mentioned earlier guest-ness is HOW we come to the encounter. It is the mindset and heart-set that we bring with us. It is a deep honouring of the encounter. Guest-ness asks deep listening of us; a listening to body language, to the verbals and non-verbals, to what is not said. The Aboriginal people of Australia – and especially the people of Daly River in the Northern Territory have a word DADIRRI. Dadirri is deep, inner, heart listening. The people of that Aboriginal community would walk country and sit in country – whether in a dry creek bed or under trees and just ‘be’ and come with a deep listening to the earth upon which they walked. This dadirri asked of them a profound heart attitude that they were part of all that they could see, hear and sense and that as part they were invited to be in that environment gently and respectfully – as guest.

Eyes: When you come as a guest your eyes are soft. Your eyes sparkle welcome and non-judgement. The guest brings ‘one-with’ eyes, beside eyes (I walk beside you as brother or sister). The eyes of the guest invite healing. Touch: The guest will touch gently, softly and in a way that honours the other. It is a sensitive touch, a respect filled touch, a touch that nurtures and can heal. But they who touch do so from a profound sense of guest and importantly – of invitation from their ‘host’ – the other. Listen: When we guest we listen to the whole, to the body language, to the verbals and non-verbals. As guest we listen with the heart. Ours is agenda free listening. We are not listening waiting for the moment when we can pounce in with OUR answer to their question (even if they have not asked a question). Guest listening is ego aware and ego hushed. Our ego wants to ‘win’ in any encounter, to have the power and the control. In the encounter space of guest we become aware of this, let go of it and come to the encounter more freely. The listening in the guest space is focused and humble; it is not about us. Words: If we do the work of encounter guest-ness the words will just flow or the silence will flow – our role will be to trust our heart and trust the gentle, slow, respect filled space that is other centred – then the words will come from the heart. The guest is NOT trying to find the ‘right’ words – there are none and often the ‘right’ words will come from the ego space or from a head space that is struggling to be in this space as a guest. It is NOT that we don’t trust our professionalism, our skills or life wisdom – but that will all emerge and be gift naturally from the inner well of silence and being there for the other.

Some of what I am sharing here comes from the work of a Catholic priest – Fr Henri Nouwen. Nouwen wrote about host and guest and about the wounded healer (The Wounded Healer 1972, Reaching Out 1975). Henri Nouwen broke open the concept of us being invited into the space of the other – the host. That it is an invitation. We are called and invited, we come and are welcomed (much of this may not be verbal). In this sacred space there is a blessing of the other.

Silence: Silence is an important part – almost an essential part of guest-ness. To truly be in the encounter space as guest we need an inner silence – so we can deeply listen and be there. Within the space of encounter there will be times of silence – when one just sits with the other. This silence space is profound. I once worked in a school as the school counsellor. I discovered that some of my best work was done when I was with a student and they were sharing and then stopped. Often at that point – I would simply sit in deep guest-ness and silence. Often what followed was profound as the space of silence invited them into a deeper space of self awareness – a doorway into their pain, a door that the silence helped them to open. When they were ready, they would often break the silence with profound insight. My role was simply to honour the space and the silence and the integrity of their sacred journey.

In my next blog I will break open the twin of guest-ness – presence. Guest-ness leads to presence. The whole purpose of this blog is not to impose my views on anyone but to invite a dialogue from which we both grow. I would value your responses.

Story

It is April 1st 2020 and I am immediately asking myself, “Why begin a blog?” I suppose because my experience of the last twenty years is that I, like all of us, have something of worth to say and that what I share – whether people agree or not – gets discussion going. If this engagement builds a better world for all then it is gift. I suppose my hope for this blog is that it invites myself and those who read it to engage more deeply in story. I am a big fan of story. Over many years of working with individuals and groups I have come to a space and time in my life where I often find myself saying, “When in doubt – share story!” So often, hundreds of times, I have found myself in difficult situations or confused as to what to do and in those times, when I have asked the other to share something of their story or I have focussed on the story they are sharing and them as story teller – magic has happened. There is an energy shift when we share story. Story just is. It is neither right nor wrong, better or best – it just is. Story is authentic. Story is my heart expressing itself. When I get in touch with the sacred story within myself and I share it with another I am creating a sacred space – holy ground. When the other does the same and feels safe to do the same – then one is often called to ‘take off our shoes’ for the ground upon which we walk is holy.

The sharing of story and the listening to story requires that I come as a guest both to the story and to the story teller. The guest comes gently, the guest comes humbly, the guest comes open, the guest comes not with answers or ‘I told you so’ or lecture or talking ‘at’ the other. The guest comes gently, slowly and humbly into the sacred space of the other and brings a heart open and willing to listen – to create space. This ‘guest-ness’ is a life long journey and requires life long learning – we have to work at it.

But when we come as guest – the other senses it. They sense that we are in that sacred space, that we are there ‘for them’ and that we are holding them and their story in our hearts; not to change us, not to transform us, not to correct us – but just to be with us on our journey. This relationship invites a reciprocity – for the other to be there for us too.

The reason for this blog – the reason I am passionate about it – is that I am convinced that so much of the pain of our world comes down to people putting up labels for the other, people building walls instead of bridges, people seeing ‘us’ and ‘them’ and not seeing the person and their story. My experience, experienced thousands of times, is that simply when I come as guest, when I deeply listen to the story of the other, letting go of labels and the ego voice in my head that tells me I must be right and they must be wrong – then the energy, the dynamic shifts – and our ability to truly meet as brothers and sisters on life’s journey increases. This space leads to solidarity. This space and dynamic leads to acceptance and understanding. This space can lead to peace! What a gift!