Embracing Mystery

We are, Sartre told us, doomed to be free. “Essence precedes existence”, which is to say there is no essence of human calling us to be human. No other animal has such freedom. If a wolf ignored the essence of wolf and tried to live as a haddock, he would soon die. A haddock trying to live even as a different fish would be doomed. But we humans have a huge range of choices on how to live. Anyone who finds freedom on this scale unbearable has an easy way out: just sign up for the voluntary slavery offered by any religion. Hand your unwanted freedom the men in funny hats (and it nearly always is a man).

With unanswerable questions, I can see two obvious choices but I’m going to recommend the third. The obvious choice with difficult questions is to rely on the men in funny hats again, a popular option for religious people. Not only can they be relied upon to answer the unanswerable, many will even insist on obviously incorrect answers and perhaps stone you to death if you disagree. The second option, typically chosen by atheists, is to ignore unanswerable questions, deny they exist or insist asking them is futile and absurd. This may leave some atheists looking rather cold, having intellect but little emotion about them.

I’d like to recommend a third option: embrace Mystery, even come to love it. Ask the impossible questions. Embrace the beauty of the questions and embrace the Mystery of not knowing the answers. If you find the knowledge that your questions will never be satisfactorily answered, acknowledge the fear, embrace it and live with it. If you genuinely believe a question to be worth asking and yet unanswerable, is it not wiser to embrace Mystery than to pretend to know the answer?

What is love for? I don’t know. Are there different kinds of love, or are they all variations of the same experience? I don’t know. What happens to me after I die? Probably nothing, but I’m not sure. Is there a god? Unlikely, but I can’t be certain. What is the purpose of life? I don’t even know that it has a purpose. Do I have a soul? Probably not, but I can’t be sure. Is there intelligent life on other planets? I don’t know, and if there is, they could be so far away we would never meet them or even know they exist.

Training & practice: reaping the rewards

I noticed something rather lovely on Monday, something that’s been building for several years. I’m effortlessly happy, even in challenging situations. I was happy while waiting to see a vascular consultant about an ancient leg injury that’s limiting my mobility at the moment. A few years ago, I might have been resentful of the time waiting to see the consultant and the probable many months wait for surgery to improve my ruined knee. On Monday, without making any conscious effort, I noticed how kind the nurses were, how amazing the medical technology is compared to what was around when I injured my leg in 1977. The delight was easy and genuine. It’s the result, I think, of several years training and practice in several areas including NVC, Positive Psychology and mindfulness.

Last year, I completed an on-line Positive Psychology training course with Dr Chris Johnstone and Miriam Akhtar. The practices I learnt on the course were valuable, simple to use ideas like optimism, daily gratitude and savouring. I practice most days and they’ve become habit. It might seem that pessimists are most realistic and least likely to be disappointed, but evidence based studies have shown that optimists tend to be happier. Just so long as over-optimism doesn’t lead to extra risky behaviour or repeatedly attempting failed strategies.

Why am I so angered by homoeopathy?

I get angry, really angry when people try to press their opinion that homoeopathy is a form of medicine on me. And I get angry if someone tries to insist my preference for evidence based medicine is “just an opinion” and is just as valid as their opinion that homoeopathy is true.

I’m going to take a step back from the homoeopathy argument and concentrate on why I get angry when I hear it defended. Quite simply, homoeopathy and other forms of “evidence light” thinking scare me. My reason for finding these ideas so frightening is that I fear another dark age. There are signs of a desire for such an age everywhere; not just the theatrical barbarism of ISIS, but the science denying Christians, particularly in the USA.

According to a Wikipedia article on Age of Enlightenment, the Enlightenment began 300 years ago. Humanity began to shake off the horror of theocracy, to replace it with democracy and to prefer humanist values (which the church has sometimes tried to take credit for!). We began to do away with superstition, to embrace the scientific method and to look for evidence to support beliefs, or to discard those beliefs. This work isn’t complete and won’t be until religion has been cured. And the work is becoming a fight as the forces of darkness push back and claim the hearts and minds of many.

Any belief that has been shown to be incorrect, and this includes homoeopathy, but which people continue to cling to belongs with the dark side. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”. Homoeopathy isn’t a harmless eccentricity, it’s an example of deluded thinking, a failure of reasoning and a symptom of an enthusiasm to descend back into darkness and ignorance. It’s as ghastly as religion and belongs in our past, our history, not the 21st Century.

If any homoeopathy enthusiast has read this far, please don’t try and persuade me with your anecdotal evidence or by raising your voice. I’m not impressed by your anecdotes and shouting doesn’t make you sound any less foolish. Show me the proper randomised trial (not the amateurish rubbish from Bristol). Don’t waste too much time looking for that trial — it doesn’t exist. And remember, in the immortal works of Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary  evidence”. Make no mistake, the claim that homoeopathy is a form of medicine is extraordinary, and the evidence is pitiful.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment Wikipedia article on Age of Enlightenment, viewed 25/12/15.

http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2008/01/extraordinary-c.html an informative article about the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary  evidence” which apparently didn’t originate with Carl Sagan.

Paper House revisited

House of Peace & Love

This morning I revisited a project from 10 years ago, my paper houses. I had the idea of making a house by printing it with a pattern and colouring it in. I used a pattern I found on the web. I’d like to know who really owns the copyright — I’ve seen several different sites asking to get paid to use the image commercially. I’d be happy to pay a reasonable fee to the real owner. The house is cut from light (160gsm) card and measures 5x5x5cm.

Peace Love blankI coloured the pattern using Kuretake Zig Clean Colour Real Brush Pens from Cult Pens. These pens are lovely to use and have strong bright colours. I used to cut the houses out using a craft knife. These days I use my Graphtec Silhouette Portrait which saves a lot of time. The houses are stuck together using double sided tape.

(Graphtec have one of the worst web sites I’ve seen in recent years. I don’t think the Silhouette is made any longer).

Heartbreak

Over the last year, several things have happened that lead me to reflect on the nature of love & heartbreak.

Last autumn, I lost connection with my closest friend. This happened suddenly and without warning. It was an intensely painful and frightening time. Without realising it, I had come to rely on the close connection we had created. Before this friendship, I hadn’t experience such close connection or even known it was possible.

In May 2015, I went to Chicago to attend the Leveraging Your Influence  retreat lead my Miki Kashtan. In one session, Miki told us that if we committed ourselves to living NVC and to spreading it to a wider audience, “know this, you will fail”, a reminder that such commitment really requires resilience and the knowledge that we won’t always succeed.

A few weeks later, I stumbled across a David Wyte audio book When the Heart Breaks at Sounds True. Whyte reminds us of the inevitability of heartbreak: love is rarely symmetrical.

At Spirit of NVC camp in summer 2015, during a heart connection exercise, I remembered a fragment of a poem or prayer that suggests “Love like you’ve never been hurt”. My heart immediately replied “I can only love as though I’ve never been hurt, I will return broken hearted again”.

A transforming experience, taking leadership of myself

In the summer of 2015, I went to John Dawson’s public speaking workshop Taking Your Place in the World in Bristol. I was aware that speaking in front of an audience was a problem for me and perhaps obstructing progress in other areas. Speaking while sitting, in a group such as an NVC practice group, had never been a problem. As soon as I stood before an audience, fear and panic rose, my throat constricted and a thin voice poured out an incomprehensible stream of words.

John invited each of us to stand in front with the other participants acting as audience, sitting with blank faces. Three times I stood there, the fear, if anything, getting worse. I was shaking and getting out a few words to describe the experience. I think John may have been getting concerned about me. Towards the end of the second two-minute spell at the front, I half remembered the invitation to listen, not only to my inner critic, but also to my inner ally (an inner voice like a supportive, encouraging friend). If I gave words to the thoughts that arose from this idea, my ally might say something like “I see your belly full of fear and I love your fearless heart”. It’s a valuable lesson from Focusing that, when I’m afraid, it’s only part of me that’s afraid, there are other parts that aren’t.

Some way through my third spell in front of an audience, rooted to the spot and trembling with fear, I had one of those “ah ha!” moments. I realised I was waiting for someone to give me permission to be there. What would it be like to claim the space, to give myself permission? Without planning to, the deed was done. I took leadership of myself. Perhaps this is what NVC trainers mean when they talk about “being in our power”. As I claimed the space, I realised I wasn’t rooted to the spot and was able to move about the space as I spoke to different members of the audience.

Afterwards, I thought (and hoped) this was a breakthrough. And so it proved to be — after that, each time I took time in front of the audience, I was enjoying myself more and more. By the end I was loving it.

Even if life and career don’t involve public speaking, being fearful and unwilling to speak to an audience is likely to be holding us back. If you live in the UK, I recommend John highly (and don’t get paid for doing so).

Where next gentle soul?

I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Byrds songs of the 60s for the first time in a while. I was a child in the 60s and a teenager in the 70s. The music of the late 60s and early 70s had a huge effect on me. I was probably too young to appreciate the Summer of Love in 1967, but the sentiments of the time continued into my formative years. Bob Dylan had a label on his guitar which said something like “This machine defeats fascists”. We really believed folk music had overcome dreary conformity and obedience, and that Rock n Roll would soon liberate everyone. When America’s war in Vietnam ended, I imagined the end of all war and a time coming soon when no nation would see the need for an army. I imagined that everyone would live in peace, that everyone would have enough to eat and somewhere to live, that no one need be scared of their neighbours or their government. I know I wasn’t the only one.

The “counter reformation” was a lot stronger than I expected. The forces of dreary conformity reasserted themselves. By the time Thatcher & Reagan came to power, I’d all but forgotten these values and got swept up in the greed of the 80s. Music became, for the most part, disposable fluff. I actually stopped listening to popular music radio in the late 80s as I realised I was listening to hours of dross in the hope of hearing something with a bit of passion. No one wrote songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Chimes of Freedom” any longer, not even Bob Dylan.

I believe our values come from two sources: some we learn from family, school and peers. These we would change if we chose to. I believe we also have core values we are born with and these we can repress or ignore, but cannot change. The music of the 60s still speaks to what I believe to be my core values. Perhaps I sound hopelessly idealistic or foolishly optimistic. I still believe it isn’t too late for peace, that humans could share the Earth’s gifts fairly, that everyone could have enough to eat and somewhere to live. I know I’m still not the only one, but these values are rarely expressed and seem less mainstream than they did 50 years ago. The music of the 60s speaks more loudly to these values than ever and I’m loving hearing it again.