Spiritual Disciplines

Developing a Beautiful Mind

Have you ever had to spend time with someone you just can’t stand to be with? Someone who constantly projects their toxic energy into your world? What about if that person is you, and the toxic space is your headSuicide is an extreme solution to this basic human problem: how do we live with ourselves? For many of us, there are times in our lives when the mind could be described as anything but beautiful. As the years go by, the Eden of the newborn brain gets progressively scarred by trauma, disappointed by failure, regretful of the past and fearful of the future. This increasingly neurotic mind plays the same compulsively negative theme day after day and year after year, aided and abetted by the information we download on a daily basis from the media, who have a vested interest in keeping people scared, anxious and fretful. It is no wonder that far above any other life-damaging condition; depression and mental illness are exponentially growing problems throughout the Western world.

Your Mind is a Garden

The fact of the matter is that we are irrevocably locked within the space between our two ears that we call the Mind. The mind receives sensory input from the five senses in the form of electromagnetic data which it then compares with data already held in the memory and then constructs that which we perceive as reality and projects it onto the screen of our mind. This is our world. Our garden. Our reality. And we can never escape.

 One of the fascinating studies in psychology is to try to understand how two different people can construct such radically different worlds out of the same data. One person smells curry and their mouth starts watering. Another person smells the same dish and starts retching. One person finds beauty and peace in the snowy mountains, another is literally turned cold by the very idea. This is all due to a complex interplay between the subconscious mind (wherein our memories are stored) and the conscious mind (which is that part of consciousness that we are most aware of at any time.)  The data received through the sensory organs by both people is exactly the same, but the way the mind constructs the persons reality based on that data can literally “make a heaven into hell, a hell of heaven”, as Milton quite rightly states.

“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven into hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton

Stop now and take a moment. Close your eyes and imagine a garden, perhaps even imagine you’re standing in the original Eden. Smell the flowers. Hear the birds singing. Take in the colours and feel the breeze on your face. What if your mind was as beautiful as that garden. What if your repetitive thoughts were those of peace, compassion and tranquility instead of worry, fear, insecurity and anxiety? Wouldn’t you give everything in order to dwell in such a place.

Your mind is such a garden, and you must live there every day of your life. Doesn’t it therefore make sense to cultivate it as a place of beauty, calm and love? A place of sunshine, warmth and happiness? The good news is that this is entirely possible, and is witnessed by the countless brave souls who have endured terrible circumstances and situations yet retained their inner peace, serenity and happy disposition. For that to happen, we must take seriously the overgrown nature of the mind-garden and rescue the fork and hoe from the shed and prepare to dig! Weeds have dug their deep roots down into the dark soil of our subconscious mind and at the same time we have neglected to be diligent in either pulling them out or in planting flowers in their place. A beautiful mind, like a truly beautiful garden is a lifetimes work, but it is possibly the most important task you will ever set yourself to; for I reiterate again, you’re the one who has to live there!

Every time our brain receives new data from the senses, before it constructs for you a ‘reality’ to play on the screen of your mind it takes a moment to cross reference the data with the data already stored in the memory.  The mind can loosely be divided into two parts, the first of which, the subconscious mind, is responsible for the autonomic functions of breathing, making your heart beat at regular intervals, regulating your body temperature etc. The subconscious mind is also the store, wherein every data input from your entire life is stored in seed form, waiting for the right conditions in order to manifest as a ‘thought’ in your conscious mind, which constitutes the ‘upper’ part of the structure of consciousness. We have all experienced this phenomena, when, for instance, we smell a certain fragrance and it instantly transports us back to a time in our childhood that is also linked with that same smell. To change the analogy, if the mind were a computer then the  subconscious Mind acts as the hard drive and the conscious mind as the RAM wherein present time calculations are made.  This is an incredibly simplistic way of explaining things, but it works for our purposes here.The result of this interaction means that nothing that we perceive as reality is in actual fact reality as it is – but rather a reality that is coloured by the billions of comparisons with the databanks of our memory and limited by the boundaries of our five senses. This is why when one person sees lemons and another sees lemonade.

Seeds, Seeds, Seeds…

Many years ago I lived in a terraced house and my garden was backed onto by two other gardens. As a keen gardener I was horrified at the weed infested patch that was the next door neighbours yard. More than the unsightly mess, the thought of all those weed-seeds blowing from her garden into mine was incredibly disheartening! And that’s the thing. Seeds are being shown into our subconscious through the medium of our senses 24/7. But the worst part is that many of those seeds are from the weedy garden of our friends and aquaintances. It would be hard enough just to pull the weeds that were indigenous to our garden, but to have to deal with the seeds that are blown our way by the news agencies, social media and directly by other people uploading their own insane headspace into our brains. For this reason alone one of the kindest things you can do for humanity is to learn to deal with your own headspace, taking the attitude of an expert gardener preparing for an exhibition. Every shoot that rises above ground level is inspected, every weed is pulled before it ever manages to drive a tap-root deep into the soil of our heart. Moreover, we actually take the time to deliberately sow seeds that will produce beautiful flowers, recognising that the most sure protection against weeds is good ground cover!

Doing Your Gardening

This all leads us to some very simple principles that my grandmother taught me but which in my infinite youthful wisdom I neglected for so long. I vividly remember how much I enjoyed peddling to her the latest terrible story from the news headlines or expounding to her my teenage angst regarding the latest girl to have said ‘no’ when I asked her out on a date. She would stop what she was doing (important conversations normally took place in the kitchen) and recite Philippians 4:8 to me, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.” At least half of the solution really is that simple: examine every thought as it arises from your subconscious mind and manifests into your conscious mind and ask yourself, “Will this seed produce a plant I want to propogate in my garden?” Examine every seed that blows into your consciousness from your senses and ask yourself, “Does this make my reality more or less beautiful?” and deal with it appropriately. 

This is not the same as burying your head in the sand and ignoring the desperate plight of the world around you. On the contrary, as you develop a mind that is full of peace, happiness and compassion, you will be equipped to then help others with their gardening – and you can share seeds of joy, happiness and tranquility from your garden to theirs.

Developing a beautiful life largely boils down to learning to deal with our brains; discovering how to be selective to what grows there and being diligent in spending time every day doing the weeding.  Taking 15 minutes to mediatate on your day before bed, counting your blessings and learning to transform the seeds of pain and sorrow into compassion and understanding will go a long way to transforming the landscape of your heart. Don’t be in a rush – gardens take many years to develop, but I truly believe that as we are diligent in this we create for ourselves a beautiful mind, a beautiful reality and a beautiful garden that we will gladly live in and others will want to visit.

Feasts, Fasts & Holy Days, Spiritual Disciplines

30 Things to Do for Lent

If there is a time to feast and party then there must also be a time to reflect, repent and realign our lives.  Now before you scroll to the next story, WAIT!  This is actually good news for us, and it is exactly the times of focussed prayer, gentle introspection and self denial that not only set us up to flourish as spring hits our shores, but also gives purpose to the times of celebration, festival and feasting.

All ancient cultures recognise the importance of rhythm in life; adjusting the rhythm of their human experience to mirror the natural order of things. The ancient Christian church also sought to follow this pattern, infusing and enriching nature’s cycle with fresh, deeper meaning. They observed that a hard winter sets the scene for a glorious summer and the autumnal stripping away of leaves on the trees makes way for the new growth of spring.

Herein lieth the rub. The rhythm of the seasons that is coupled with the stripping away of the excess baggage of summer are compulsory for the rest of creation. Trees are forcibly pruned by the wind. The ground is sodden with rain without ever being asked about its thoughts on the matter. Only human beings have that level of free will that, should they choose, enables them to disregard the natural rhythm of life and live as though they were in some way separate. Every year, humanity is drawn further away from such natural cycles and every year the internal psychological pressure on us increases, along with the spiritual dislocation that is inevitable when we live in such a way.  What has this to do with me this Lent season, I hear you ask?

During Lent, Christians (and many others) use their free will in order to observe what may be seen as a ‘wintering’ period before the great celebration of new life that is Easter. We set aside extra time to pray and meditate, perhaps take a mini-retreat or serve the community in some exceptional way. Always in the mix is selfdenial. Self denial is simply the joyful recognition that although I may be able to afford to live like a king,  for my spiritual growth (and physical well-being) I choose to give up some of life’s luxuries and lash the otherwise overweening flesh to the discipline of the Spirit. Perhaps I abstain from alcohol or from rich foods. Perhaps I take a day each week to fast, cleaning out not only the toxins of body, but also of mind and heart. Perhaps I go barefoot for the season (my personal favourite) as an act of solidarity with the poor. Maybe I volunteer at a night shelter, or give the money I save on rich foods to the local food bank.

All these things have a purpose, and that purpose is spiritual growth. Without self-denial, all spiritual development will stall at a certain level – perhaps this is why we in the developed world are producing so few saints compared with the developing world? Self-denial also invariable involves turning the spotlight of conscience deep into our own souls to seek forgiveness and healing for times I have hurt others, acted selfishly or harboured grudges. Maybe Lent for you will mean relationships restored, new direction realised, or the opportunity to totally de-clutter your life from all the extraneous physical and spiritual baggage we accumulate simply by living.

This Lent, I use my free will to joyfully choose to subdue my own selfish desires and physical cravings for the sake of attaining spiritual altitude. I do it joyfully with a hugely expectant heart that in so doing I will become more awake to the Kingdom of God and more aware of the Kingdom of Heaven!

JOIN ME this Lent!  Between Wednesday March 1st – Thursday April 13th, set yourself for a transformational adventure. Maybe you keep a blog of your journey. Maybe you partner with another spiritually minded person to help keep you on the wagon. Whatever you do, let me know, and we can celebrate together when spring is here!

Here’s some ideas for Lent. Pick whatever you think is going to help you, and add to the list – it’s your journey!

  1. Give up chocolate.
  2. Do a 24 Hour Fast (drinking only water) on one day each week, starting after your evening meal and continuing until the same time the next day.
  3. Forego rich and fancy foods for a month, living on nutritious, basic foods. Give the money you save to a local charity.
  4. Stop watching the news or reading the newspaper.
  5. Set your alarm to remind you every half hour to close your eyes and spend the space of three deep breaths in being grateful for all that is in your life.
  6. Go to a place of worship (or go more regularly!)
  7. Drink only water for the duration.
  8. Go to bed early – it may totally transform your life!
  9. Get up an hour earlier to pray, meditate, ponder the Scriptures or just sit quietly.
  10. Do the dishes (without being asked, kids!)
  11. Learn to chant.
  12. Set apart some time to evaluate your goals, values and direction in life. Are they taking you to a place you want to be or do you need to make a course-correction?
  13. Give up shoes and socks and go barefoot!
  14. Write a list of one thing each day that you are thankful for. Alternatively, take a photo of it/them and post on Facebook saying why you are grateful.
  15. Halve your walking speed. You will be amazed at the things you see and astounded at how it helps you to reconnect with your spiritual core.
  16. Every day, get rid of 5 things you don’t use. (Sell them, trash them or give them to a charity shop).
  17. Shave your head!
  18. Do one thing only! Give up multi-tasking. When you drink tea, just drink tea.  When you eat lunch, just eat lunch – no TV dinners. Eliminate ‘background’ noise.
  19. Walk instead of driving.
  20. Take a lonely person to lunch each week.
  21. Quit computer games and game apps.
  22. Give up TV for Lent.
  23. Don’t eat the last bite of your food.
  24. Read that spiritual book you’ve been wanting to read for so long.
  25. Spend a day at a monastery.
  26. Buy only things you absolutely need. You really CAN do without and waiting is a good discipline!
  27. Go for a long, slow walk every week. Go by yourself and let the solitude renew your spirit.
  28. Give up Social Media for the duration.
  29. Go vegetarian or vegan for the month.
  30. Stop eating out for Lent and give the extra money to the poor.

I’m sure you can add many more things to this list, but the secret is to make it something that will cost you something (in times of money, enjoyment or time). You are going to be amazed at all the wonderful new things you discover during this period and will approach Easter spiritually renewed and re-energised!

P.S.  Don’t forget that the day before Lent is Shrove Tuesday and is your last opportunity to indulge.  It’s not called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) for nothing!

Spiritual Disciplines

The Priority of the Inner Life

inner-lifeIt is a strange phenomenon indeed that though we experience life from the outside-in, it must be lived from the inside-out. Our experience of reality comes to us via the senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and sound.  These five sensory inputs, combined with the relentless (and often neurotic) processing and reprocessing of the mind can often overwhelm us with information that leaves us in a state of constant reaction, fighting fires that may or may not be there, trying to quell fears and deal with anxieties that may not have any substance in reality and obsessively dealing with regret over the past and apprehension concerning the future. This outside-in pattern of living is highly unsustainable and is perhaps an excellent definition of insanity, which explains why our current generation is more anxious than Londoners during the Blitz, more depressed than the average American during the Great Depression and possibly more fearful than at any other time in human history.

To live from the inside-out is to reverse this pattern and learn to flow from the stable, eternal source that wells up inside each one of us. For the person who has discovered this eternal source, the incessant tugging of the ‘urgent periphery’ loses its hold; for the resources discovered within are limitless, timeless and utterly without depletion. The striving is gone. The urgency has vanished. The strain is absent. The storm is stilled. The soul has come home.

The cultivation of this inner life is the greatest and most rewarding activity that a human being can engage in. That you have this source is as undeniable as the fact of your existence, yet it is perfectly possible to live your entire life on the periphery without ever coming to the heart of the matter and discover the source from whence you flow. This is where your song is born. This is where your overcoming power resides. This is where intuitive wisdom is discovered. This is where you are truly known. This is home.

Meister Eckhart once said, “God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.” As we return to this Inner Place, we find an Eden where we are welcomed to eat of the tree of life, a refuge where our weary hearts can find rest and nourishment, a sanctuary from the incessant barrage of modern life and a holy place where the screaming urgency of the world is drowned in the deafening silence of eternity and the dazzling array of sights blotted out by the softly nurturing darkness of the womb.

The doors to the Inner Life are many and have been carefully marked out over the years, yet in our days the Way has become hard to find and the markings of those who have gone before often bewildering to interpret. Many of the old paths have become overgrown and the tangle of years of neglect have made them difficult to trace. Yet for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see and a heart that yearns for something more, the ancient paths of solitude, prayer, contemplation, silence and meditation will still open for us a way back to Eden and serve as a highway to the source.

The secret was known by the Jewish Psalmist when he instructed his listeners to, “Be still and know that I am God” just as much as it was understood in 5th Century BC China by the sage Lao Tse when he wrote, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” The first step on the path home is a step that leads us away from the distracting technology, the urgent agenda, the busy life and the compulsion to keep the plates spinning and, if possible, add even more plates to the frantic dance that is our life.

There are many things we may feel we need to prioritise for a meaningful existence, but the truth is that the one thing we often forget is the most needful of all. To make time to come home to the hearth of the heart, the place of prayer, the shrine of solitude, the chapel of contemplation and the sanctum of silence is to make time to reconnect with the source of not only our own life but the life of every other being on the planet and every other thing in the universe. And coming home to this sacred space we discover that God has indeed never left home, it is truly us that have wandered…


Resolutions for 2017

This is the time of year when we all like to review the course of our lives and tweak our trajectory to help ensure our direction remains true to our heart. Here then are my personal resolutions for 2017. Please feel free to hold me to them and post your own if you feel brave!

1. Recognising that there is more to life than simply going faster, I resolve to slow down in 2017 in order to appreciate the wonder around me right now rather than pursue a future that is not guaranteed.

2. Aware that the most important thing I have to do right now is the thing I am currently doing, I resolve to live deeply in the moment. If I worship, I worship with all my heart. If I listen, I listen with all my attention. If I drink tea, I drink tea with perfect mindfulness.

3. Knowing that 2017 will bring untold suffering to millions, I resolve to live in such a way that helps relieve the suffering of those I am in contact with and helps reduce the overall burden that my life places on the world around me.

The secret with changing your life is to make small changes consistently and review those decisions continually.  Don’t wait until you’re a billion miles off course before you try to course-correct or the new direction won’t last long. Instead, make a little tweak then another little tweak until you’re lined up with where you want to go.  Don’t become obsessed with getting where you’re going though – the destination is absolutely secondary to the journey!  Review every evening.  Take a few moments before you go to bed to take a look at how you have lived your day.  Was it congruent to the decisions you made at the beginning of the year about the type of journey you wanted to take?  Do you need another small course-correction?  

May 2017 be your best year ever and may you find rest for your heart and joy in the journey.  May your path be filled with light, your valleys be filled with hope, and every step be filled with peace.

Tom & Jo  xx


Coming Home for Christmas

Spiritual Disciplines

The Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom

wisdom-epigramYou don’t have to be Einstein to see that our society is big on knowledge but lean on wisdom. Speaking of Einstein, a man who you would likely think of as above all else a towering intellect; he himself attributes his greatest insights not to moments of intense intellectual gymnastics, but to moments of inspired brilliance flowing from a deep rooted intuition.  He said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  

Knowledge is accumulated, stored and processed by the intellect. The disciplines for this are the disciplines of logic, deduction, study and debate, and take place in the study and the classroom.  Wisdom on the other hand is accumulated, stored and ruminated upon by the spirit. The disciplines for this are contemplation, meditation, solitude and silence, and take place in the vast wilderness of the heart and untamed wild places of this world.  He who gives his life to the former things will become a great intellectual. He who gives his life to the latter things will become a great sage.

Someone once said that the disciplines that bring wisdom all involve the slow chewing of the stuff of life until it is properly digested.  For this reason it cannot be hurried, rushed or flat-packed.  It cannot be taken as modules, consumed in fast-food sound-bytes or dissected as a laboratory experiment.  Perhaps this is why ever since the first Christmas story we instinctively look to the East to find wise men and women, and to civilisations that traditionally places great value on the internal disciplines.  The ancient Chinese character for wisdom shows an arrow, a mouth and a character meaning “all day”.  Literally it defines wisdom as the ability to speak and do that which is insightful and needful all day long.  It is interesting that the modern western civilisations that gave us the atom bomb and are currently showing the world how to destroy planet through insane consumption are civilisations that have no place for solitude, silence and contemplation, and therefore have little appreciation of wisdom.  As the King Crimson rock group sang in the song “Epitaph”:

“Knowledge is a deadly friend,
If no one sets the rules.
The fate of all mankind I see,
Is in the hands of fools.”

Knowledge will help you earn a fortune; wisdom will help you be content with very little.  Knowledge will gain you followers but wisdom will nurture your friends.  Knowledge will teach you about life; but wisdom will make that life worth living…


The Politics of Peace

MLK.jpgPoliticians of every persuasion need our prayers today. We elect them to bring us peace, security and happiness, and yet they are wholly unable to deliver these things because peace, security and happiness come from within and not without; they are qualities of soul and not commodities that can be bought and sold at any political price.

The presence of anger, fear and suffering in our hearts is the source of the problems we employ politicians to cure. Only by dealing with these things in our hearts first can we give our leaders a hope of achieving the goals they set out in their manifesto’s.

So guard your heart. Peace in the world begins there. Security for our world begins there. Happiness for our world begins there. And every day you do so, you cast a vote for world peace, global security and universal happiness.