I love ‘The Outrun’.

‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot

I love ‘The Outrun’. I read it over two years ago and it still prompts me to pay attention to what I see.

Amy Liptrot describes her growing dependency on alcohol in the years after graduation. After three months in a rehab clinic she returns home to Orkney for ‘a few weeks’. Weeks turn into a year. She remembers and explores her descent into addiction. She also maps for us the elements of her recovery – a new and expanding awareness of her environment and her own body.

The physical labour of repairing the stone walls on her Dad’s farm gave her something to do as she practices  the new disciplines of a recovering alcoholic. Outside all day, in the rain and wind, she began watching the clouds, and then learning their forms and types.

She explores in every direction around her. Long walks around the islands for exercise increasingly turn into a detailed investigation of the coastline and its geology, then visits to the pre-historic settlements and standing stones.  Liptrot lands a night time job counting Corncrakes, shy birds rarely seen and who can only be heard at night, ‘the perfect job for a recovering alcoholic and clubber’. The job extends her awareness, not just to birds but to the stars and satellites. Awareness of the natural world is combined with awareness of human interaction with the natural world. She visits old deserted crofts on outlying islands and ponders the experiments for tidal electricity generation. Liptrot takes her  immersion in the environment to the next level and joins the wild swimmers of Orkney.

There is much concern in Universities about student mental health, and a growing awareness of the part that digital culture plays in the rise of anxiety and dis-ease.

In The Outrun Liptrot uses the digital world to enhance and extend her vision and observation. She shows how the digital world mapped her journey of recovery and gave new connections to people and to the world. Her digital life includes a Facebook group has alerts for sightings of whales and eagles. The star gazing apps open up a new night vision to the veteran clubber. Her phone GPS tracker charted then change in her movement from long walks around the island to in-depth exploring of each inlet. She is interested in the passing space station  as well as the stars. In the routes of shipping and airplanes passing and crossing the island. As her day to day relationships slowly develop so too does a way to handle the online and digital relationships.

She shows us the daily learning and never ending discipline of being a recovering alcoholic. This is vivid nature writing that explores  the natural world and human life within it. It also her story of moving from illness to a new form of health – physical, mental, relational and digital. And all are connected.

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Prof Richard Davidson on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation.

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Here is the link to an OnBeing podcast interview with neuroscientist Prof Richard Davidson. He has worked on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation. Davidson talks here with Krista Tippett about how mind, body and emotions are more closely integrated than we conventionally understand them. He also refers to research showing a human predisposition towards kindness.

My Buddhist colleagues and I have been talking about these issues in relation to our various meditation programmes – Mindfulness, Buddhist and Christian meditation – that we offer each week.

There is more discussion of research studies in the  long unedited version of the interview, which is not the one with the transcript.

Full link

 

 

“I’m not busy”

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“You must be very busy?”

‘I am not busy’  is a website and a book by Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge. He argues,

“Busyness has become a disease.

The developed world is suffering from an epidemic of major proportions, and the disease at the heart of it is busyness.

We are addicted to doing one thing after another with as little down-time as possible. This is a sickness, a spiritual sickness.”

‘I am not busy’ is his response to our hyperactive working culture. He is an academic and a priest. He runs an organisation, writes books, broadcasts, offers  pastoral  and I assume does much more besides. But he chooses to see himself as engaged rather than busy.

This thinking might be useful for those of you concerned about high levels of stress or working with student mental health.

It is a bonus for those following the Christian season of Lent (but please don’t be put off by that if that’s not your world view).

“I am not busy” offers ten tips for responding to our ‘busyness’ culture’. It’s not only applicable to the Higher Education sector of course.

The personal response is one part of the answer. It is also good to ask about the structural causes of stress as well.

If you find it useful, let me know. I would be interested to hear your reflections.

 

 

Mindfulness/Bodyfulness

cropped-p1000688.jpgAfter many years of running weekly mindfulness sessions I keep being struck by how little the mind features in ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is mostly a ‘return to the body’. The mind is notoriously elusive concept in philosophical and scientific language.

In the Chaplaincy we start each Mindfulness session with some simple stretching exercises to help people physically settle after a morning’s work. Today my colleague asked the group if there were any particular exercises that they wanted to do. One person asked for something for neck ache. This elicited the disclosure of neck and back ache throughout the room. Not a surprise I guess from a group of people in academia sitting at pc’s all day every day.

The comments reminded me of Bessel van der Kolk’s argument that most of us can do more to befriend our bodies. Here are some quotes from Bessel’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’.

“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

“Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.”

“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”

“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

Long term fruits of silence

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Here is a great observation by Thomas Keating, founder of Contemplative Outreach. It shifts the focus away from the experience of one meditation session to the “long-term fruits” of silence. How long is ‘long-term’?

In my experience, and listening to others, a week or two of short daily practice is likely to be enough to give you a personal data trend you can start to notice. But that is just the begining…

“Don’t judge centering prayer on the basis of how many thoughts come or how much peace you enjoy. The only way to judge this prayer is by its long-range fruits: whether in daily life you enjoy greater peace, humility and charity. Having come to deep interior silence, you begin to relate to others beyond the superficial aspects of social status, race, nationality, religion, and personal characteristics. (OM, 114)”
Thomas Keating, The Daily Reader for Contemplative Living

Prayer, saying Hello, and Padraig O Tuama.

Padraig ;tbxPadraig O Tuama was one of the key note speakers at the European Chaplains’ Conference in Ireland this summer. He came to speak to us during our visit to Glendalough. Padraig is a poet, theologian and the leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland.  Corrymeela has been building understanding between people on different sides of the divided communities of Northern Ireland since 1965.

This is a great passage on prayer and meditation. You can also see here his practice of saying ‘hello to…’ He says ‘hello’ to the full range of experience. It’s both observing and befriending.

“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder. I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege, I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognise and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body. I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day, and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.

Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of North Belfast.

Hello.”

Padraig’s description of his morning prayer reminds me that the mind wandering in meditation is the prayer itself and not a distraction. All things that arise in silence are  our essential prayers.

I also love the way he talks of God. “I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet”. A way so completely part of the Christian tradition of contemplation, and also very Zen.

This is passage is from his book ‘In the Shelter’ and he reads it out loud near the end of the podcast of his conversation with Krista Tippett for “On Being”

Spirituality: a useful and inclusive definition

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I often hear the distinction made about being spiritual but not religious. However, spirituality is hard to define.

I came across a useful working definition of spirituality by Simon Robinson;
‘Awareness and appreciation of the other (including the self, other person, group, environment or deity)
Capacity to respond to the other
The development of significant life meaning based upon these relationships’

This kind of meaning, Robinson argues, includes ‘the development of faith and hope, both in a generic sense, life purpose and reconciliation.’

This rings true for me when I think of the many conversations with students and staff who are reflecting on their growing understanding of how they relate to the full range of their own experiences, how they relate to others, and how they are making sense of God, nature, or the cosmos (for this definition the ultimate ‘Other’ does not have to be God).

Religion, Robinson argues, involves ‘a particular, systematic practice of spirituality, with shared doctrine which focuses on the Divine’. The difference is having ‘shared doctrine’. Of course, ‘doctrine’ can be secular as well as religious.

Simon Robinson is Professor of Applied and Professional Ethics at the Leeds Metropolitan University.

Robinson, S and Katulushi, C (eds.) (2005)Values in Higher Education. Leeds: Aureus & The University of Leeds.
Robinson, S. (2008) Spirituality, ethics and care. London: JKP.

‘Celebrating the vocation to science,engineering, medicine and business’

Here is the text of a sermon I preached at the Choral Evensong this week sung by Imperial College Chamber Choir in Holy Trinity Church, South Kensington. The questions for pondering about vocations in work or volunteering that were in the service sheet are at the end of the post.

Vocation

The theme of this evenings service is ‘Celebrating the vocation to science, engineering, medicine and business.’

My conversations as a Chaplain with students and staff are often about what people enjoy in their work, the challenges and problems. It’s also often about whether their work is a good fit with how they see their skills and experiences. I want to continue these conversations tonight with a few reflections about vocation and calling.

‘Calling’ is a term that is applied to some professions – medicine, nursing teaching. But I would like to extend it to cover most work. Some of the features of a calling or vocation might be;

  • a sense of the work being a good fit with our skills and abilities;
  • service to others
  • making the world ordered, safe or more connected
  • bringing creativity to bear on problems
  • the need for determination
  • application over time

 

These features could all apply to work within business, engineering, administration, and support as much as in medicine or ordained ministry in the church.

Reflection on our calling might also be about discerning how to keep going at a role or project when times are tough. It could be about learning when to look for new direction in work or how to let a deep passion and interest flourish outside work.

Events can shape these decisions. For example. George Dyson who composed the music for parts of tonight’s service, was a soldier during World War One. He wrote a pamphlet about the use of grenades in warfare before suffering with shell shock. After the war he followed a career in music eventually becoming the Director of the Royal College of Music across the road. Following a calling and finding a vocation is often not straightforward. George Dyson, for all his success as a musician once applied to be the organist of this Church – unsuccessfully!

There is encouragement in many of the Bible stories. There is often a sense of unexpected people being called. So, David the youngest son who has to be fetched from tending the sheep when the next king of Israel is being chosen from among his brothers. It is David who becomes the greatest king of Israel.  Saul was persecuting the new followers of Jesus when he hears his call during his conversion on the road to Damascus. He then becomes Paul, one of Jesus’ most dedicated followers. The idea is that others, including God, might see things in us that we cannot see ourselves, and that there is more to be called out from within us.

All this is talk about vocation and calling is against the background that most of us have to work by necessity to provide shelter food and warmth for ourselves and our families.

Sometimes our passions outside of work might be our calling. In the 19th century this was called an ‘avocation’ – a pursuit followed with passion and determination over time that fits our skills and the deep sense of who we are. Examples of avocation that I know include an IT technician who draws with great skill, medics who sing and compose music, a guy who works in a factory and who does amazing youth work in the evening.

Olivier Messiaen the composer of our last anthem tonight had a lifelong interest in birdsong and birds. His passion for ornithology often led to the sounds of birdsong being incorporated into his compositions.

The Canticles, the Song of Mary and the Song of Simeon, are sung at every evensong and also speak of ‘calling’ (and thanks to George Dyson for the musical setting for these tonight). These Canticles are the songs of a young woman accepting a calling, and of an old man who finally sees his calling come to fulfilment. For Mary it’s the beginning of intimacy with Christ. For Simeon it is the practice of looking out for Christ in daily life.

The readings we are going to hear from Isaiah and Matthew set work in the context of God’s love. For Isaiah it is a love that leads to the practical justice where everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of their work. In Matthew we hear the call to set our minds above all on the values of God’s kingdom.

To help our reflection tonight there are some questions to ponder from John Adair, an army officer and management consultant. The questions are around vocation or calling in the widest sense. They might be good ways to reflect on our work or how we might slowly recognise the emerging call to new projects or commitments.

My God’s spirit of wisdom be present in all our reflections tonight. Amen.

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 65:20-23

New Testament Reading: Matthew 6:24-34

 

 

Text from the service sheet.

 

Reflecting on Vocation

During the service you might like to look at the questions below.

Which question captures your attention the most?

Which one is ‘the question to live with’ for a period of time?

 

Do you feel a long-term commitment to your present occupation or field of work?

Has anyone used the adjective ‘dedicated’ to describe you or the way you go about your work or voluntary work?

Do you feel that your abilities match the requirements of your particular role?

Can you think of another profession, trade or field that you would rather be in?

Does your present work give you scope for creativity?

Are you always seeking new and better ways of doing things?

Have you discovered work or volunteering that you can be really enthusiastic about, in spite of its ups and downs?

Has your enthusiasm for your work or volunteering been tested and sustained over a period of years?

Do you have a sense of being, as it were, at the call of your work, and through your work to others?

Are you learning about yourself through your work or volunteering?

Is there something else you would rather be doing that gives life to others?

What helps you keep going?

(adapted from John Adair’s ‘How to find your vocation: a guide to discovering the work you love’)

 

 

 

Celebrating the vocation to science, engineering, medicine and business.

The next Choral Evensong at Imperial will explore the connections between faith and work. We will be celebrating the vocations to do science, engineering, medicine and business. Here is an extract from some conversations about vocation.image

Christianity talks about ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’. It starts with the idea that people are ‘called by God’. Often this means unexpected people are ‘called’ by God to do surprising things. Moses, for example, was a Hebrew raised by an wealthy Egyptian princess, who leads the enslaved Hebrew people to freedom. Saul is persecuting Jesus’ followers when he has his Damascus Road experience and becomes Paul a disciple of Jesus.   In Christianity everyone who is baptised is ‘called by God’ to follow Jesus.

‘Vocation’ and ‘Calling’ are also closely linked to our working world. ‘Calling’ expresses something about each person’s unique skills, gifts and personality.

We also talk of some careers as being ‘callings’, for example, nursing, medicine, and teaching. But what about other forms of work, like running a business, administration, catering? Can these be callings?

The religious language of calling can prompt some practical questions about how we see our work.

How much of our deepest self goes into our work? Too much, not enough?

If work is what I do to pay the bills, is my  ‘calling’ something I do outside of my work?

How much enthusiasm or passion do I have (or still have) for my work?

Does my work or voluntary work ‘fit well’ with my skills, temperament and talents?

Is my work or voluntary work making the world a better place for others? Does it bring life or hope?

Am I being ‘called’ to something new? How would I recognise that calling?

 

Every person has their vocation. The talent is the call.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Love doesn’t sit here like a stone; it is to be made like bread, remade all the time, made anew’.
Ursula LeGuin

‘In the Gospel, vocation means being a human being, now, and being neither more, nor less, than a human being now…And, thus, each and every decision, whether it seems great or small, whether obviously or subtly a moral problem, becomes and is a vocational event, secreting, as it were, the very issue of existence.’
William Stringfellow

 

 

Intersection of religion, sexuality and transgender.

Screen shot from Imperial's Diversity page

I have been invited to join the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Form at Imperial.

It has been four years since I have been involved in EDI groups in HE. Coming back into the structures I notice the increased interest in how religion is just one of often several ‘protected characteristics’ in a person’s life.

The overlap of diferent aspects of identity is now being talked about as ‘intersectionality’.

Intersectionality considers that the various forms of what it sees as social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are complexly interwoven. (from Wikipedia)

As the College is preparing a policy to improve the experience of students and staff who are transgender, I gathered some links to UK-based LGBT+ groups for different world faiths. These are some of the places where religion ‘intersects’ with sexuality and transgender. Please share the links with those who might find them useful.

Imaan  is the long established Muslim LGBT+ network and support agency.

The national Jewish LGBT+ organisation goes by the local title Gay Jews in London.

For the intersection of Christian faith with transgender and sexuality check out:

Diverse Church  is an LGBT+ support network originating from HE Chaplaincy and a university LGBT+ student society

And there is a wealth of information and links at Transgender Christians.