‘All Reality Is Interaction’ with Carlo Rovelli.

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All reality is Interaction’ is the title of a conversation with physicist Carlo Rovelli, recorded before the COVID 19 pandemic. In this extract, Rovelli talks with Krista Tippett about complexity, the fragility of civilisation and the value of our life together.

Krista Tippett: you have a sense of the complexity of reality and the cosmos that is so far beyond our senses. So here’s the question: How does this change the way you move through the world? Is this something you’re able to work with?

Carlo Rovelli: Well, I don’t know if I’m able, but I do [laughs] work with it. The idea that our senses can mislead us — this idea, it’s very old. It goes back to antiquity; in fact, it’s the key idea of a good part of Greek philosophy. Some philosophers took it even too strongly, saying we shouldn’t believe at all what our senses say; reality is completely different. Nowadays, of course, we rely on what we see, but we have learned, and I think we have learned deeply, that we are like children. Namely, we start with a naïve idea about the world; we start with a naïve vision about the world; and then, slowly, we learn more. We learn more because we grow. Like children grow, so society has grown, civilization has grown — and has grown by learning from experience, from other people, from books, from experiments, from all sorts of stuff.

And what we have learned is, as you say, the complexity. The world is much more complex than what it looks at first sight. I look at this glass of water, and it’s just quite transparent, but I know that, in fact, it’s a crazy zig-zagging of molecules down there, which do all sorts of stuff, and how fast they move the temperature, and so on and so forth. And this complexity, which is at all levels, guards us from being driven by too-simple-minded things. I think we should keep in mind that the world is complex. We have a good way of dealing with the world, right? Society works. Civilization works. We are alive, and we’re seven billion of us on Earth, and many more than before. And in fact, we are actually more of us on Earth which are out of deep poverty and have education and things to live, much more than in the past, so we’re not doing too bad.

But at the same time, we know that this knowledge we have, it’s fragile, and we don’t have full knowledge at all. Nothing guarantees that we do better tomorrow, at all. We’re not guaranteed by anything. Civilization could stop tomorrow. The Earth is becoming warmer, and it could be a catastrophe. We are too many on Earth, and this might lead to other catastrophes. And worst of all, we are fighting against us more and more, and this could get more catastrophe. So there is a sense of fragility, which I do have, both in the — I don’t think I know the truth. I think I know a little bit about the world, and I know deeply that I have no access to any final truth, to any absolute truth. I know deeply that my brain is limited; it’s something I understand. Sometimes I feel I understand better than somebody else, and sometimes, no, I feel that somebody else understands better than me. And I know that my life is limited. I have a certain number of years to live, and that’s it. Maybe humanity itself has a limited life. I don’t think there’s anything that guarantees us beyond that. Can we live this — with this uncertainty? Can we live with this fragility? I think we do, and we can. And even more, I think —

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To read or hear the whole interview go to Onbeing

Imagining a new kind of education

Schools and universities are closed. Lessons and lectures are given ‘remotely’. And we are all learning what is important and who is important.

In this new ‘learning environment’ here is a poem about an alternative day at school.  The poem was chosen by the poet Padraig O Tuama on his  Poetry Unbound  podcast. Padraig was one of the keynote speakers at the European Chaplains’ conference in Dublin two years ago.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade 
by Brad Aaron Modlin 

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas, 

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark. 

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s 

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else— 

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted 

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough. 

The English lesson was that ‘I am’
is a complete sentence. 

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions, 

 and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person 

add up to something. 

 

Original can be seen at OnBeing

Spirituality in the order and disorder

Extract from my mailing to the Christian Spirituality and Meditation network at Imperial.
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What does the desert of the Lent  Bible passages look like in our contemporary and often urban life?
I came across this quote that suggests to me that our contemporary desert can be found in the mess, confusion and overwhelm of our lives.
“American theological writer Mike Yaconelli calls for a ‘messy spirituality’ fitted not to the ordered life of the cloister but to the unpredictable confusion and frequent mess of ordinary people’s lives. And in a different vein Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, having between them spent 36 years in the cloister, invite us to ‘guard the chaos’ and seek an ‘active boundary living’ in which we harness the enrichment that can come from life at the margins and in states of instability and flux.”*
Here is to making the most of mess in Lent – and walking prayerfully through the chaos and the order.
*From: ‘Spirituality in Season’ by Ross Thompson.

One act of Remembrance, many faiths

The College Archivist and I started an Act of Remembrance in 2014. We invite students and staff to gather near one of the College war memorials that have the names of students and staff killed during the First and Second World Wars.

It is a simple event with a reading from the Archive written by a member of College who served in one of the world wars. We observe a two-minute silence and have a short piece of music – this year part of a Bach Cello concerto –  then we lay wreaths at the memorials.

As we are an international academic community we also lay flowers to remember those killed in other conflicts past and present.

We have designed the event to include all those who wish to take part and to acknowledge current trauma and loss caused by conflict.

Last week I was at a conference for central London clergy taking place in northern France. In the town’s cemetery there were a large number of Commonwealth War Graves from the First and Second World War. I have visited a number of these sites over the years but this was the first time I have seen graves of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers. Here is a short video.

 

 

becoming more literate – in a religious kind of way

It was good to be reminded recently of the work on Religious Literacy being done in the UK. Chaplaincy colleagues at the University of the Arts London co-hosted a debate ‘is there room for religion?’ exploring how religion informs the work of students and staff.

Religious Literacy aims to increase understanding of the positive part that faith and religion have in the lives of students and staff.

Religious Literacy seeks a better quality of conversation about religion.

Faith issues show up in Higher Education in a variety of places, like the provision of prayer facilities, exams clashing with religious festivals, appropriate catering, maintaining freedom of speech and being respectful to others, the fear of religious extremism,  personal identity and in the Equality and Diversity agendas.

The Literacy approach gives a positive way of not just finding solutions but of enriching our shared life in the process.

The Religious Literacy programme is based at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

 

 

 

“the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.”

“The church in a quite special way is the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured. The church has no monopoly on these matters. Its oddity, however, is that it takes this agenda as its peculiar and primary business. In all sorts of unnoticed places, it is the church that raises the human questions.”   Walter Brueggemann from ‘The Counterworld of Evangelical Imagination’ 1993.

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The quote captures something of why I think the Church is involved in many areas of life, including Higher Education. It is the Church’s “peculiar and primary business” to raise “the human questions.”

It might not be obvious which questions the religious practices are raising. I was thinking about the Wednesday Eucharist we hold in the parish church that sits between the university buildings. We are a group of about 10-15 drawn from the staff from the Colleges and local workplaces, students, one regular alumni, some parish members, me and the parish clergy.

The service involves the sharing of bread and wine. The Bruggemann quote reminded me of the continual exploration week by week of basic questions. These are just a few.

What is broken and what is whole?

How is one person related to the many?

What do we need to let go of in order to receive?

What might be worth a sacrifice?

What do I need to know and admit to myself and about myself?

Can these strangers be a gift to me?

the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.

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