Saturday, 27 February 2016

The meaning of Spirituality

This has been one of the hardest posts I've tried to write yet, but the inner voice compelling me to write it is strong enough that I have persisted in my efforts to find inspiration about how to  write about this topic.

Perhaps the first difficulty with writing about spirituality is that ultimately I don't see it as a concept, nor an idea, but rather a personal experience with... something. Something subtle, intangible, immaterial, but far from inert. Words do not flow easily when thinking about this topic, but I will attempt to explain it as well as I can.

I would start by saying that spirituality is a mosaic of several different experiences, and yet somehow more than the 'sum of its parts'. Thus far I can identify spiritual belief, spiritual practice, spiritual insight, and most elusively of all, spiritual experience. I shall try to explain these one by one and see where it gets me.

Spiritual belief

I would start by explaining that spiritual belief, for me, means revering the Earth, and Nature, as profoundly powerful, living beings or entities, and then turning my attention outward, to the Moon, the Sun, the planets and indeed the Universe, in cherishing the great creation that we find ourselves living in, and wishing to protect the health and vitality of the planet I was born on and live on, despairing at its destruction and ill-treatment by profit interests, while also acknowledging that I too am part of the problem of the Earth's ill-treatment.

I can differentiate spiritual belief from religious belief in that I feel spiritual belief does not require an organised set of beliefs, and does not need to be handed down through any authority (though it certainly can be, in the experience of another). Most religions do prescribe or encourage spirituality as a method for followers to adopt.

At the age of sixteen, I found myself growing rapidly disenchanted with the rule-bound, authoritarian approach of the way the Christian religion was taught to me, having never much followed it to begin with and certainly not from the age of twelve, I began to see the destructive side of religion, or rather, the less than peaceful ways in which many people practice their religion.

My mistake, however, was to throw spirituality out along with religion, believing the two to be too intimately intertwined. Perhaps one of the biggest indignities thrust upon people is the notion that religion can have a monopoly on spirituality. I was not yet free of this assumption at seventeen, and it took me another six years, until the late stage of my 23rd year of life, to find my innate spirituality once again.

During this period I also found myself taking on an anti-spiritualist, 'rationalist', objective, overly scientific and logical, and arguably even cynical, view of the world. It was like my world had lost its magic, and I could no longer believe in miracles, astrology, the occult, supernormal abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, or indeed, the impossible. I believed that only possible things could happen. This led to a less enchanted, less special, less personal view of the world and why I was alive, and an estrangement from my purpose.

Towards the age of 23 I began to rediscover the joy of spirituality. I don't believe that I was 'converted' at any specific moment, or through the efforts of any specific person, but rather that it was a slow rediscovery, in which I woke up one day and began to see the magic of the world again. I definitely attribute some of the rediscovery to my decision to permanently cease taking any antidepressive, antianxiety or antipsychotic medication.

Studying permaculture in September 2013  helped me deepen my spiritual belief, and it was here that I saw the undeniable truth, that a deep love for Nature and a belief that all things are connected, would be an essential part of my journey in helping to make the world a better place.

Spiritual practice

I would define spiritual practice as the act of deliberately setting aside time to look inwards, connect with oneself, others and the Earth, in a mindful or sensitive way, while focusing to avoid distraction from the intention of connection.

In this way, spiritual practice can be organised, or disorganised. It can be through praying, meditation, yoga, or just enjoying a hobby that one has a passion for. It can be looking at a candle flame, humming, singing, chanting or having sex.. or through sitting in complete silence for  minutes, hours or days at a time.

Another way to practice spirituality

Basically, for me, there is no one right way to practice spirituality. It is your wish or intention to connect, and your decision to take time to do it, that makes it spiritual.

Since spirituality can be practiced, that also means that one can become more skillful or fit at it. It means that the more time is spent, the more frequently, it means that the benefits of spirituality can be achieved more strongly or thoroughly!

While I had what can be described as a slow ascent into spirituality, others have experienced much more sudden transitions, which can lead to the phenomenon of feeling 'new' to spiritual practice. Sometimes this can lead to quite a sudden fright, of feeling spiritual overload. While I haven't experienced this overload myself yet, I have seen it manifest in others. The way I would suggest managing it is to take some time to do physical exercise, e.g. running, swimming, yoga, and mental exercise, such as reading and writing, while pausing to reflect about the influence of spirituality on life.

Spiritual insight

I would delineate spiritual insight from cognitive insight, in that cognitive insight would tend to come from reading, thinking, planning or using logic. However, spiritual insight is similar to creativity in that it seldom comes from focused thinking about something, but rather seems to take you by surprise, when you're least expecting it. That is, don't practice meditation for the purpose of gaining insight - for the very nature of meditation is that it is done for its own sake, and the benefits are then seen as extras - extras that are reasonably certain to occur, but not with any predictability, regularity or pattern of depth.

This can be transcended somewhat through the use of spiritual practice.

I would feel spiritual insight relates to a kind of 'inner knowing', in which you look inwards, to the instinctual knowledge innate in your body's ancient, inherited wisdom, courtesy of four billion years of evolution, and to the embodied knowledge of the Earth, the moon, sun and the stars. Spiritual insight, I feel, is when I feel encouraged to write a blog about something. Indeed, I feel that spiritual insight is a kind of engine that drives creativity. Its two main sources that I can presently identify, are curiosity and intent. I felt the curiosity of the ecovillage Findhorn, wondering how they manage to run and enjoy their ecovillage while simultaneously benefiting the planet. And my intent, thus, is to learn from the experience of being here.

Spiritual experience

I would say that spiritual experience is thus the overall feeling of being spiritual, gaining the wisdom and insight, with the attitudes and beliefs involved in the intention to create a better world, of not allowing ourselves to become disconnected. It thus has a profound connection to our lives and their purposes! My own life's purpose, in general, is to make the world a better place by being here, especially on three fronts: social justice, ecological connection and spiritual fulfillment.
Thus far, I have seen that ecovillages and permaculture provide one of the best canvases on which to learn and create, in the words of Charles Eisenstein, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Findhorn is a deeply spiritual place. It was founded by Eileen and Peter Caddy, and Dorothy Maclean. They all had strong links to the spiritual world, in their personal lives, much through the Christian religion. Yet Findhorn is in no way a Christian, nor indeed a religious ecovillage. All faiths are welcome here, and I would dare say, so is no faith at all.

* * *

In the preceding paragraphs, I have attempted to describe spirituality as best I know how. Yet somehow, and I knew all along that this was coming, the description is not enough. It is definitely something else, something more. Something that can't be put into words.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Coming to terms with our emotions

I have had a very full, and emotionally intense, last few days.

On Wednesday morning we had two extra facilitators join us, to take us through the first part of the Awakening the Dreamer symposium, which consists of four steps:

Step 1: Where are we now? 
- Coming to terms with the state of our world, its environmental destruction, species extinction, social injustice and spiritual emptiness.

Honouring our pain - being brave enough to express what we really feel, and to know that the Earth's pain is our pain - what we do unto the Earth we do unto ourselves!

This was a highly emotional process, and I and others cried litres of tears over this, following the direction not to think about the state of the world at the moment, but to feel about it.

For an hour, we sat in a circle in the ball room (pictured in a previous post) and had each of us that wanted to, come to the centre of the circle to express which emotion best symbolised the way we were feeling - fear, grief, anger, emptiness or something else - to talk, sing, shout or cry about how we felt. This is also known as the Truth Mandala exercise.

I expressed confusion over what we can possibly do? and fear over whether we'll be able to do enough in time, to reverse the damaging trends and bring about a more regenerative way of life.

By the end of this process, I needed to spend half an hour alone in the forest to recover my composure. I can however say that it felt incredibly clearing to go through this. Even right after expressing how I felt and then going to sit down, I felt a new lightness in myself, a weight lifted.

I later reflected how natural the emotional sharing process should feel vs. how it does feel, especially when you chat privately with a therapist. I have definitely experienced benefits from participating in therapy, but it often feels isolating, just you and the therapist, and ultimately I found the group sharing process to be less alienating and isolating than one with a therapist (I do think you need to have very close trust with your group, but bear in mind we all only met each other on Saturday).

 Even typing this, and remembering how I felt when I and the others went through this, is bringing a few tears to my eyes.

Step 2: How did we get here?

In this part of the process, we examined how, through a culture of unexamined assumptions, that we have arrived at this juncture in our human history, where we have lost 50% of our forests, 90% of our fish and 90% of our large predators in 300 years, how factories, mines and landfills pollute the air, ground and water, and how people need to take antidepressants, antianxiety, antipsychotics, and other substances just to cope with their daily lives.

Step 3: What is possible now?

We learned about all the different organisations in the world that are encouraging a change in the way things are (Paul Hawken explains that there are over 2 million such groups) and discussed among ourselves which activism groups we are involved in - for example, local exchange trading systems (LETs), animal rights groups, climate activism groups, food security activism groups. I myself am a member of the Cape Town Talent Exchange, the largest LETs group in the Western Cape of South Africa, but presently do not use it as much as I could...

One thing that I did share in this group, is that it can be quite hard to be an activist and try to help your community when you are labelled 'privileged', which is certainly a struggle I face back home in South Africa. While I do acknowledge that I was born with several privileges and have also accumulated several more as I have lived, I also think it is quite insulting to refer to someone else as privileged (or unprivileged), especially in the context of rejecting their well-meaning offer of assistance outright, before really hearing what they are trying to say. It's actually far more complicated than that, there are many grey areas and nuances when it comes to this issue, and there are times when I have felt silenced on account of privilege I may be assumed to possess (and am therefore supposedly unqualified to comment). I can actually say that the thing I currently miss least  about South Africa is hearing the world privilege every single day, unthinkingly and unconsciously applied to people.

Step 4: What do we do now?

Our group then participated in an extremely life-affirming task, in which we wrote and drew our visions for a better world on paper, then also wrote down what we felt were the biggest obstacles to our visions. Then we symbolically associated the barriers and obstructions with arrows, and participated in a ritual in which several of us broke arrows with our throats!

My vision for a better world

A broken arrow

I definitely felt a renewed sense of purpose behind my objectives and the objectives of others.

We tore up our 'obstacle' pieces of paper and then put them in a hugelkultur bed that we constructed as a team, leaving them there to rot and feed the new seeds that we planted in the bed.

Our hugelkultur bed up close

The same, from afar

* * *

That evening (last night) I felt a small amount of depression and considered spending the evening alone, but I was due for kitchen duty, and was once again amazed at how quickly my depression evaporated when I had the chance to do something useful for others (and myself too). I helped to clean the stove surfaces and the counters.

I ended up chatting until late in the night with another friend over two warm cups of tea, and slept peacefully.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Gardening in the snow

Last night, I learned about a good method for getting to know people in your community, or classroom, or space: the Survey method, in which you have people arrange themselves spatially according to a given scale, such as

level of education
introversion and extroversion
experience in gardening

I found I learned a lot about people very quickly, and would definitely use this in a classroom space.

We ended off the evening  by associating the four Elements with a compass direction and listening to Craig's didgeridoo music.  It was very relaxing, although when I went to bed last night, I couldn't sleep. I think the excitement of being here is finally starting to sink in, which is leading to a very active mind. It reminds me to make enough time to meditate and be calm through the excitement - for there is much to be done and much to be learned.

This morning, our group went off to The Park, Findhorn's other campus.

We learned about the local climate of the Findhorn village and Forres area, which is very cold, yet still has a surprisingly high amount of sunlight, and also has plenty of water. The soil is very sandy,  which means that you must add extra fibre to it and use lots of mulch.

Despite the fact of the snow covering the soil, we managed to harvest two baskets and two sacks of potatoes and artichokes, because of the way they had been planted and looked after by chickens over the winter.

Midwinter Harvest? Snow Problem...

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Dancing the cynicism away

 This morning, the course group took part in a dance session! It was one of the things I have been most skeptical about in my life, since I’ve always been quite a self-conscious dancer (when not under cover of darkness at least). 

The Ballroom

My favoured form of dancing has tended to be trance music, often well over 120bpm, in which the tempo of the music lends itself to quick movements, and I’ve generally stayed away from dancing with partners, as I certainly don’t want anyone seeing if I get it wrong. Also, I’ve never favoured anything called ‘folk’ dancing, most likely because I had the idea that if I did it wrong, I would not only embarrass myself but also be insulting the culture that the dance is from?

Trust Findhorn to put me in a situation where I need to do exactly this  - although the session was actually so well-structured, that I didn’t once feel self-conscious or embarrassed (though I certainly did make a fair few ‘mistakes’, what worked well was that the dances were new for everyone except the teacher, so we were all in equal footing and step, so to speak).

After the session I felt wonderfully cleared, and I’m seeing even that small bit of cynicism inside of myself evaporate. I have no doubt that there will be difficult times ahead, in the course and thereafter, but If I can manage to dance for 90 minutes without feeling bad about it, I’m already learning that nothing makes us suffer more, than fear of suffering itself.

Later, we went on a tour of the property, however, I do confess that I was not able to pay as much attention as I would have liked, as today was the coldest experience of my adult life. I was wearing almost as many layers as I would have liked, but perhaps I should have worn two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants and a scarf as well… 

In the afternoon we sat in the meditative Sanctuary and chose Angel cards to represent our journey. As a group we chose the Creativity card, which I think is appropriate as we need to be very creative to solve the problems of the world.
For myself I chose the Respect card, which means that I recognise that I can be very abrasive and critical of others, and their methods. I’d like to learn how to respect, without giving up my ability to be analytical and scientific – in that the word ‘science’ has ‘sci’ in it, which is the Latin word for cut – sometimes being hit with cold, hard facts at the wrong time, can feel very cutting.

I’m not sure how to get there yet, but I’m sure if I apply creativity to the process,  I’ll be well on my way…

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Cynicism and Faith

I arrived at the Findhorn Foundation's Cluny Hill Hotel today at around 11am.. and what a place it is!

Cluny Hill College

 But first, a little history, and self-examination.

I have long considered myself an introspective, introverted, sometimes shy person. I do not make friends easily (although when I do, I will stay loyal to them no matter what). I tend to find small talk awkward, and have some not inconsiderable resistance to some social rituals, especially those connected to spirituality and eating, when I'm not yet sure I want to participate, and am encouraged perhaps a little too readily by others - I need to pick up such things at my own pace.

One could be forgiven for wondering how this is connected to ecovillage creation.

At the New Year's festival called the Learning Man that I participated in over 2015/2016 at the Riviersonderend, Western Cape campsite 'Circle of Dreams',  there was a request for all people to participate in community events and community volunteering. The atmosphere was wonderful and inviting and the people were super friendly.

However, at this time in my life I was feeling particularly cynical over any sort of personal relationships, owing to a separation from my romantic partner around two weeks before then. I did not feel ready to give myself fully, nor to receive fully, what this event had to offer. For this I am sorry  - I know I broke the event guidelines by keeping to myself for a fair majority of the time I was there.

And it was at this point that I began to see what some of the problems present in any kind of group activity or  community. It is related to people's inherent 'animal' selfishness, and I, in possession of an unusually large load of avarice, am least inclined to give of myself, and receive, when I feel a sense of loss or disappointment in life.

Perhaps this is one reason why we can't just 'jump' into community, but have to transition into it. This is why we can't give up money, all at once, and rely entirely on word-of-mouth and trust for exchange of value. Because there will be times when I, and others, feel that our natural altruism is overshadowed by our avarice, our disappointment, our anxiety.

When you pay for something that you've bought, in money, and in full, you are ending your obligation to the other party.  There are times when I feel I need to be entirely free of any obligation to anyone else. Sometimes even for days or weeks on end. This is a reason I can say I'm not willing to give up using money entirely (although I would jump at the opportunity to rewrite every last inequitable 'law' of commerce currently applicable today - and most of the laws of commerce are indeed inequitable, designed to empower the already powerful and further disempower the downtrodden).

Towards the end of the Learning Man festival, I began to take notice of the unhelpful attitudes that I possess, regarding communality.
I had begun asking the question: Can this work? Is it possible for us to adopt a tribal, fully equitable model of community, value exchange, law and society? In which we are accountable to one another and to the Earth, yet still able to reserve participation at times when we do not feel ready?

I was far from willing to give up hope, but I had certainly hit upon one of the largest stumbling blocks. Most communities that are started (90%) fail and fall apart (as do roughly 90% of businesses, which are also communal ventures). And almost all of those 90% that fail, fail because of human reasons, not because of crop failure or building or technology. For an explanation of why this is so, and a method for doing better than those 90%, see Diana Leafe Christian's book 'Creating a Life Together'.

I mentioned some of these thoughts at the festival, and mentioned to a permaculture teacher, Buzz, that I was thinking about travelling to New Zealand for a permaculture course that I had applied for (and been accepted into).

He told me that New Zealand sounded great and very interesting, but that the Findhorn foundation was also hosting a course around this time, that was to last four weeks.

Knowing that Findhorn was in northern Scotland, during February and March, I knew it would be too cold to be asked to camp for accommodation there. And after the festival, which was a burning 43 degrees Celsisus on the hottest day there, and 38 degrees every other day, I was just about over camping for a lifetime.

And then, of course, Findhorn's reputation as one of the most respected ecological centres in the world, was no small attraction to wanting to attend.

So I registered for the Findhorn course, full of excitement, and spent the next month getting ready to travel.

Last night in Forres, I stayed in a very charming B&B full of fairy lights, owned by a sound healer, Jill who patiently listened to all my misgivings and reservations about community, and anger over my delayed payment at the corporation I was working for back in Cape Town,  and reaffirmed for me that I had come to the right place. This is about a journey.

This morning, as I listened to the resonant hum of the crystal bowls and walked through the beautiful Sanquhar forest in Forres, I began to find the full measure of my faith again.

Now I am in Cluny, and my course starts at 14:00...

Our first meeting room

As the day came to a close, snow fell

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The journey to Findhorn begins!

I first heard about the Findhorn Foundation in early 2014, when I met their (South African) PR Manager, Geoff, in our Cape Town ecovillage group.

We were beginning our process of Visioning, in which we would eventually come together to write our 3-page-long Vision Document, that the group could stand by to say that this is why we have come together - to form an Ecovillage.

In our Visioning process, we looked to Findhorn and its Common Ground agreements as a good basis to build our thoughts on Visioning, and importantly, to build a Vision that resonated for us in South Africa. By July, we had our Vision, but thoughts of Findhorn remained...

How did they do it?
And are they really a slice of paradise unto themselves, or are they overrated?

I'm off to Findhorn to find out for myself.

This morning at 06:00 I arrived in London, feeling like a starry-eyed tourist - the airport is so huge! And the city, from the air, seemed to go on forever... although I noted the conspicuous absence of a mountain in the centre of the city :P

While the visa application (R5,000 later) process and travel preparation processes were fraught with difficulty, I can also say that everything seems to be proceeding as it should. Everyone I've spoken to about my plans is excited and encouraging!

It reminds me about The Alchemist, a short story by Paulo Coehlo, in which the central character learns about Personal Legends, or Destiny: you know you are on the right journey in life, when it seems that the entire universe is conspiring to help you reach your goal. Random good luck, kindness from strangers, unyielding support from family and close friends....

Watch this space, more content is on the way...