Sea of Love…

I believe that our experience of God is like an endless Sea of Love and, in that sea of love, God will send us perfect storms in an effort to perfect us to his own design. I believe his common design for all of us is that we think, speak, live, love and act from a place of compassionate truth. But, within that Grand Design, I believe there´s also a personal and unique design inscribed within each of our hearts.

I think the more we try to shape ourselves to a given model of authenticity, normality, conformity, goodness or perfection, the less we give ourselves the opportunity to gaze upon and contemplate the singular blueprint of our own unique design. And the more we try to limit, constrict or fit ourselves into stereotypes that others offer to us, with their expectations and their judgements of criticism or praise, the less we allow the will of God to work through us in a way that feels sacred and true to that unique, divine inscription we hold within.

To me, our unique design is one that gradually reveals itself to us throughout the course of our lives, through the situations we experience, the feelings they stir within us and the level of courage we display in accepting the truth of the messages that they bring to the surface from the deep. Messages about the truth of God´s love and how it manifests itself here on earth.

For the Sea of God´s Love encompasses everything: love for ourselves, love for others, romantic and erotic love, spiritual and divine love, maternal and paternal love, filial love, love of creation and expression, love of passion, love of nature, love of community, love of peace. It is not a constant and static entity. It is continually moving, continually shifting, continually growing and expanding and it gives and takes its different shapes and forms in its invitation to us to understand, trust, accept and willingly enter its life-giving ebb and flow.

Love rests on no foundation. It is an endless ocean, with no beginning or end.

– Rumi

Sometimes the storms God sends to us will physically break apart the vessel of security that we were given, fashioned for ourselves or chose to board; a significant relationship; a state of health; a much-loved job or profession; a family; a community; a place we thought was home. And sometimes the storm will wreck the internal image we were carrying of ourselves, and the external identity that came with it; the one which gave us status, confidence, a feeling of security about the future and a sense of calm.

´The Tempest´ – John William Waterhouse

These internal storms are the most challenging to weather, I believe, because they call into question everything we thought about ourselves and leave us feeling adrift in a sea of emotions that threaten to sink us and everything we took for granted about who we were. They can leave us feeling ship-wrecked, exhausted, half-drowned in confusion, anger, frustration and despair. But, I believe, these painful and challenging moments are the ones that truly form us and offer us the opportunity to become the ´all´ that we were designed to be.

There is truth in the age-old saying that “God never sends us anything we´re not strong enough to bear.” We only have to look around us at the countless number of those who´ve experienced, been humbled by, learned from and grown stronger from seemingly catastrophic events in their lives. These are the people that we admire, are inspired by and learn from; the ones who energise us and show us the healing power of hope.

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms ,
to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances, 
to choose one´s own way"
Viktor Frankl (Neurologist, Philosopher and Auschwitz Survivor)

They have taken what the experience taught them (after allowing themselves time, with love, to grieve for what they lost) as an invitation and gift to seek something different, something more in their lives. They don´t allow themselves to become embittered, they find enough love for themselves to learn and grow and, in doing so, they create for themselves lives of meaning and they shine the light of love, hope and possibility which acts like a beacon for us all.

It´s only lack of faith in ourselves, lack of true love for ourselves, and lack of trust in the mysterious and endlessly-challenging ways of God that stop us from discovering and living this self-same truth.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.

Rainer Maria Rilke 
(The Book of Pilgrimage)
Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Boat, Muxía, Galicia

A Hymn for our Times…

“O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.”

- G K Chesterton

Be the Change…

There´s a Celtic folklore belief in something called ´Thin Places´. These are places around the world where the gap between Heaven and Earth is so thin that the magical quality of Heaven can be actually, physically felt.

Clarity; perspective; sudden recognition of what really matters in life; feelings of immense peace and great joy; a profound sense of spirituality…all of these are things that people have described in Thin Places.

I have my own theory about this. I believe that they really began as Thin Spaces, rather than Thin Places. I think that when people are open enough to experiencing the universal love that is God, and to living a life of acceptance, tolerance and respect for the differences of others, they begin to experience more and more of these spaces. Time momentarily stands still, everything becomes suddenly simple and clear and, when enough people have these Thin Space moments in one particular place, they leave a legacy of this pure and positive energy behind…eventually creating Thin Places.

The Camino de Santiago is one such place…the whole length of it. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (both pagan and Christian) have walked this route throughout the ages in search of love, peace, faith, hope and God. Each left their own personal trace of positive and Thin Space energy and that´s why so many people who walk it today have similar, inexplicable, life-altering experiences.

I´ve always loved to welcome in the New Year by listening to the sound of ´Big Ben´, broadcasting from London across the world. Before the new hour of the New Year strikes, the smaller bells of The Palace of Westminster ring out ´The Westminster Quarters´ and then there´s a pause. I believe that pause is a Thin Space. A moment when time stands still and we can wish whatever we want for the New Year, knowing that God and the Universe will be listening to what´s in our hearts.

Imagine if all of us wished to be the change we want to see in the world in this coming year…and then did all we could to support that wish in the year ahead. Imagine how even more wonderful this world could be.

It´s easy if you try…

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade and Happy Año Santo (Holy Year) to all of you. And if 2021 is the year you choose to walk the Camino de Santiago may God guide and bless you all the Way. And may this be the year when you also have many Thin Space moments.

 
 Celtic Blessing
   A Morning Offering
  
 I bless the night that nourished my heart
 To set the ghosts of longing free
 Into the flow and figure of dream
 That went to harvest from the dark
 Bread for the hunger no one sees.

 All that is eternal in me
 Welcomes the wonder of this day,
 The field of brightness it creates
 Offering time for each thing
 To arise and illuminate.

 I place on the altar of dawn:
 The quiet loyalty of breath,
 The tent of thought where I shelter,
 Waves of desire I am shore to
 And all beauty drawn to the eye.

 May my mind come alive today
 To the invisible geography
 That invites me to new frontiers,
 To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
 To risk being disturbed and changed.
 
May I have the courage today
 To live the life that I would love,
 To postpone my dream no longer
 But do at last what I came here for
 And waste my heart on fear no more. 
  
 -  John O´Donohue 

Where there´s a will…

Another young man knocked at the door of the church hostel this week, Julien, a French pilgrim who has spent the last few years living in Japan and is now walking the Camino backwards towards Lourdes and then onwards to his parents´ home in France. He´s hoping to arrive in time for Christmas and is making his pilgrimage now because he wants to reflect on his last few years´ experience of living abroad and to decide how he wants to shape his life over the next few years.

“I´m here to think about what I really want to do” he said as we were sharing a cup of tea after he´d settled in “but I also want to ask God what his will is for me too. It doesn´t feel right to make a decision like this without taking his wishes into account”. The open, honest and slightly embarrassed way in which he said these words was both touching and admirable at the same time. “My father said to me before I started ´You may not receive an answer to your question you know´ and I know he´s right, but I´ve got to ask anyway”.

Julien´s timing was perfect as, coincidentally, the priest´s sermon at Mass that evening was all about making time for silent prayer, to listen to what God´s will is for each of us as individuals. The part of his dream that relates to us, was how he put it, and not being too impatient to receive a quick answer; having faith that if we just keep living our daily lives as actively and positively as we can, whilst also making time, space and silence for God, the answer will eventually make itself known to us.

As we were eating dinner together later the priest joined us briefly to ask Julien about his Camino and how it was going. “I try to pray when I´m walking, but it´s hard” he said “I keep being distracted by everything around me”. The priest smiled and said that nature IS God talking to us. He advised the young pilgrim to look to the mountains, to stop at the rivers and to listen to the birdsong as he walks and eventually, he said, Julien would hear what God is trying to tell him.

What do you say when you pray to God?” “Nothing…I just listen…” “Then what does God say to you?” “Nothing…he just listens…”

Interview with Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Later Julien told me that he had tried to Google God´s Will but that all the sites he found said similar things…”Read the Bible, all the answers are in there”, which made me smile because it brought back two significant and valuable memories, which I shared with him. The first was a conversation I had with a young Italian peregrino, when I was volunteering at a pilgrim hostel in the city of Ponferrada earlier this year. His view, based on personal experience, was that becoming too enmeshed in trying to figure out the meanings contained in all of the Scriptures has the potential to distance us from ourselves and other people and (in some cases) to even threaten our mental health…and I agree.

The second, equally valuable but slightly more positive memory, is what a priest in Fuerteventura said during a Mass that I attended there in January of this year:

“Take whatever speaks to you from the Bible, when you hear it or come across it by chance, and feel free to ignore the rest. You’ll know when you hear words that are truly meant for you because your heart will respond to them and you won’t need anyone else to interpret them for you. That’s your job, using your heart not your head. If it doesn´t speak to you, don´t worry about it, because it wasn´t meant for you”.

…and I agree.

I felt for Julien because “What´s my purpose?” has been a question that´s travelled with me throughout my life. Sometimes it´s travelled silently, when I was entertained or distracted by other things for a while, and sometimes it´s spoken (or at times even shouted) when I´ve spent too much time ignoring it. I believe it´s the question that my spirit was asking continually and the one that weighed down my soul when I tried to convince myself that it wasn´t there.

I would never have described it as God´s Will for me, I would only have said that it was a deep sense of knowing that…”there´s more to life than this”. And the answers that other people offered to me (ie: having as many different experiences as possible; having as much pleasure and fun as you can; there is no purpose, life is just a game; or the ultimate… life has no meaning at all) just never felt right to me, in my heart-of-hearts.

The more we talked openly and honestly about our thoughts and feelings, the more Julien and I seemed to say things that helped each other and, recognising this, he asked if he could stay another night in the hostel, which the priest agreed to, and so we continued our conversations over breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.

I explained to Julien what the last 5 years of my life have taught me; namely, that I had to recognise and hear the voice of my own heart before I could truly hear and respond to the hearts of others. I believe that if we do something because we feel we should, or we´re told by others we ought to, or we´re shamed or made to feel less-than-we-are because we don´t, we´ll never do it with our whole heart and, over time, we´ll become resentful about doing it at all. And that resentment will slowly start to leak out in different ways, doing damage to ourselves and hurting others in the process.

I believe that, as a collective human race, we thrive when we live, work, celebrate, love and learn from each other, in community. BUT…and this is a vital and essential part of the human equation…not as clones of each other. We were each born with unique gifts, interests, passions, natural skills and abilities and we were born this way for a reason. If we never explore what our special gifts are by listening to the voice of our hearts, we never develop sufficient self-respect to live happily and fully as that person (God´s Will for us, if you like) and we become easy targets for other strong-willed individuals who try to dominate us with the force of their own personal agendas and wills.

“I rejected my Catholic faith at the age of 16” I told Julien, “because I couldn´t accept the message that other people´s needs and wishes mattered more than mine. It just never felt true in my heart. Now, for the first time, I´m hearing a Christian and Catholic message that says Love God first, and then love others as you love yourself. The three work together. They´re equally important. And because I believe God IS love, that means doing everything that I choose to do with love or, if I can´t, then choosing not to do it at all.

I don´t believe that God´s will for me is to do anything spectacular, impressive or particularly memorable. I think he just wants me to live compassionately but unapologetically and fully as the person he created me to be; listening to my own heart always and trying to listen and respond to the hearts of the people that I come into contact with each day. We have the unique strengths that we each have for a reason, and I believe that reason is that we´re supposed to share them with others. I really think it´s just as simple, and as challenging, as that”. And that seemed to strike a chord with Julien who said he´d been concerned that, whatever choice he made about his future, it needed to consider and include the Will of God.

When he was preparing to leave the next morning I asked him how he´d slept. “Really well” he said. “And how do you feel now?” I asked. “Relieved” he answered, with a smile. “Whatever I decide I´ll just try to share God´s hope and love wherever I am and in the way that I do things. I don´t have to decide anything else right now…” And, in saying that, he reminded me of the importance of dealing positively with what is, in the here and now, and not over-thinking or worrying about things that still lie far ahead and unknown in the future.

Because, where there´s a will to truly live with love, and faith that it can be done, a way will always appear…

“There are as many ways to finding God as there are individual rays of sunshine and they all begin and end in a search for love”

– Anonymous

“Start here, start now…”

Two people inspired me to start writing my blog again this week and they did it subtly and unintentionally, just by telling me their stories, which came straight from their hearts. Talking to both of them felt a little bit like looking in a mirror because, although we had different views and experiences in relation to some things, there was enough similarity and respect between us to find light in the reflections. One of them was Robert (shown outside Logroño´s church hostel in the photos above), a pilgrim from Germany, who had walked more than 2,700km from his hometown of Leipzig (through Switzerland, France and now Spain) and who arrived in Logroño on day 114 of his long-distance trek, looking for somewhere to stay.

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I first came to the city in March of this year, also walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, and when I finally reached that destination several months later, I turned round and walked back here again. Because the last 6 years have taught me the value and wisdom of listening to the quiet but insistent voice of my heart and my heart told me to return. It´s six months since my last proper ´blog´post and I shared it just before leaving Logroño, Santiago-bound. I´d spent the first period of the Coronavirus lock-down here, gradually growing to love this beautiful and historic place; and also having most of my prejudices about Christian communities and Catholicism challenged by what I saw and experienced at that time.

For the initial part of the confinement period I lived in a rented apartment which happened to be right on the Camino path through the city; a fact that I was unaware of when I booked it on-line through Airbnb . And again by pure coincidence, I soon discovered on my daily walk to the supermarket that, in the street next to the apartment, was the church of La Iglesia Santiago El Real. When I saw that the church was open I began to go there each day in search of some spiritual connection and solace because, despite being a lapsed Catholic who turned her back on organised religion and belief in God as a teenager (many years ago) church buildings have always felt, somewhat paradoxically, like places of sanctuary to me.

When the priest noticed a regular, solitary stranger sitting quietly in the semi-deserted pews each day, he asked me who I was and why I was here and, discovering that I was a peregrina he invited me to move into the pilgrim hostel which is attached to the church, until the on-going state-of-alarm and its related confinement came to an end.

If I believed in the holy spirit of God (which I do and have used many different names to refer to in the last few years: the Universe, Life, Love etc) I would say that the coincidences that occurred were the Spirit at work. But I also believe that the Spirit doesn´t work in isolation, it needs the force of our trusting cooperation, our loving choice (for ourselves and others) and the conscious use of our own free will. I chose to stay in Spain and to wait as long as it took to be able to continue my Camino because the quiet voice of my heart said “It´s important that you stay”. And staying brought me shelter, a small but welcoming community, and a great big challenge to face the arrogance of my ´blanket prejudice´ against the majority of practicing Christians and the Catholic Church as a whole.

Because that´s the thing I find with this troublesome Spirit that moves us…it doesn´t just move us into peaceful places filled with harmony, endless birdsong, rainbows, love and light. If we´re prepared to truly surrender ourselves to it and to see things through its unrelenting ´eye-of-truth´, it will also take us to dark and challenging places on occasion, to show us the error of our ignorant, loftily-superior, naive, unforgiving and often self-defeating ways.

So here I am, living once again in the church hostel, which has a long tradition of offering safe refuge to pilgrims who request it. There haven´t been many other pilgrims passing through the city lately, which is understandable, as a second wave of movement and service restrictions is currently affecting both the city and the country as a whole. But, in spite of this, two intrepid souls did appear on the hostel doorstep on different evenings last week; the first a young man in his early 20’s, who´d walked more than 800kms from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France, and the second was mild-mannered but highly motivated and quietly-inspiring Robert from Leipzig in Germany.

Although it´s officially closed (and has been for most of this year) the pilgrim hostel´s guiding principle of Christian hospitality (which it actively lives, rather than just preaches) has always been: “No-one will be left to sleep on the street…there will always be room here for those in need”. And so room was found for each of them and dinner and breakfast were provided too.

That gave me a wonderful opportunity to share meals with them, to talk about the profound life questions that many pilgrims often find themselves discussing and to hear their stories about why they’d decided to walk now. The young pilgrim from France said he wanted to challenge the culture of fear that seems to be sweeping through the world. “At home people told me that it wouldn´t be possible to walk the Camino now” he said “but I have no problems. People welcome me and I find somewhere to sleep every night. I find that when I listen to other people´s opinions my world becomes small and unhealthy, but when I decide to find things out for myself, I see that they´re not the way others say they are.”

He talked about his frustration that many people seem to just accept whatever they see on television, and the more sensational and pessimistic the news, the more willing he felt they were to absorb it and to pass it on. “I don´t waste my time anymore talking to people who have no direct experience of something and just repeat what they see on television believing that it´s the truth.” he said. “There´s no point in trying to tell them otherwise, they just don´t listen”. He also had an interesting question for me, and for the priest, before he left.

“Why don´t Christians believe in miracles anymore?” he said. “If they truly did they would accept that this is all part of God´s plan and they would have more faith, but they seem to believe more in fear and wanting to spread that fear to everyone around them. No-one seems to believe in miracles anymore”.

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Robert´s story was an unfolding one. He told me that he left Leipzig with the initial intention of walking to Switzerland but that, when he got there, his heart told him to keep on going. He´d had the desire to walk the Camino for some time and that had prompted him to start his epic journey but it was people´s reactions to him, and the good fortune and kindness that he experienced on the way, that had motivated him to keep going. “I´m keeping a diary” he said, “of all the things that people give to me and do for me to help me on my way. Look!” and, with that, he showed me a little notebook, its pages filled with neat, individual entries. “Every one is an individual act of kindness” he said with a smile.

“In Switzerland I only had to pay for one night´s accommodation, all the other times people invited me into their homes or offered me somewhere sheltered to stay. They trusted me, a complete stranger, because I´m having the courage to do what I´m doing. They were interested in hearing my story and I learned something valuable from my experience of spending time with each of them.”

He talked about more things uniting us as human beings, despite our different languages and cultures, than dividing us. He said that what we all want, deep down, is connection, humanity, contact with each other and love. “I don´t want to live in a new normal of social-distancing and wearing masks all the time” he said “I refuse to live with that culture of fear…and part of this pilgrimage is sharing that message of hope with others, because I´m finding many, many people who feel the same way”.

And his words lit a little light of hope inside me, because I also feel the same. This camino has taught me to be respectful of other people´s fears because I´ve come to understand that, in many cases, they´re acutely felt. But what I won´t accept is other people´s pessimism or their attemps to stifle genuine actions or expressions of hope because it feels threatening to their own circumstances or beliefs.

I´m a firm believer in optimism. I believe that there will be many, many pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago next year, but I´m in a staggering minority in that belief. Someone said to me recently “It´s fine being an optimist, but we have no idea what will happen next year. You have to be a realist too.” I am. I fully accept that I may be wrong and, if I am, that that will be part of God´s plan for us all too. But thinking as I do, and taking action now to help prepare for what I believe, is not being blindly optimistic or unrealistic, it´s doing something positive and creative to manifest a little hope in the midst of all this uncertainty and fear.

Today is the first day of Advent, a massively symbolic period of hope for a brighter future, regardless of individual belief. There is a Spirit that fills this Universe and that touches all of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. One of the ways that it manifests itself positively and noticeably is when we cultivate an inner sense of Hope, but it doesn´t work in a vacuum…it has to be invited in.

On my first Camino five years ago I met an Englishman called Christopher. He was on his third attempt to reach Santiago, his previous pilgrmages having come to unexpected and premature ends. He became a symbol of hope personified for me and he left me with some memorable words of wisdom:

You have to be prepared to believe in miracles before they can happen Michele. It never works the other way around”

Just trying…

I’ve been told in the past that I have ‘a way with words’. Sometimes someone says it when I write something that appeals to them. Sometimes it’s when I’ve listened to what someone has said, responded with the underlying message that I’ve heard, and been told “That’s exactly what I was trying to say but I couldn’t find the words”.

But creating this blog has taught me that ‘finding the right words’ to share my true thoughts and feelings is a bit like deciphering an obscure, internal code and more challenging than I originally thought. And maybe that’s the important and personal message for me. ‘To learn how to do anything well, you first have to start doing it and then you just have to keep trying...’

Last week a friend took the time and trouble to send me some thoughtful feedback about her views on my last post (Blessed be the Navel-gazers). She included things that she agreed with and things that she saw differently. And responding to that feedback was a great learning exercise for me in how to practice what I preach.

Some points she raised immediately rang true for me and will definitely help me in writing future blogs. Others showed me the limitations of language and the many different ways that what we write and say can be interpreted by others. But one of the most interesting questions she posed was “What if being true to ourselves has the potential to hurt others?” Should we still choose the path of personal truth?

It took me a long time to find the right words to respond to this, which helped me greatly in getting to the core of what I truly believe (beyond the simple slogan ‘We should all be true to ourselves!‘). And this was the gist of my reply:

“When I talk about “Being true to ourselves” I don’t mean “Telling everyone exactly what we think of them” I mean “Not pretending to ourselves or others that we’re feeling something we don’t feel or that we’re agreeing with something we don’t agree with”.

I mean recognising that any uncomfortable feelings we might have in particular situations (eg: anger, impatience, irritation, anxiety, fear) will always have an important message for us about something we’d rather not face and are worth inward reflection (if we want to learn more about ourselves and about our relationships).  And, if we find that the message is so important that we need to give voice to our feelings, then choosing the least provocative and most respectful way of doing this. Because only by adopting this attitude can we have any hope that the other person will truly hear us (ie: speaking from a place of compassion for ourselves and for others).

I believe that we only truly learn how to do something well by actually, repeatedly, doing it and then learning from our experience.  And, I also believe, we only build true self-respect by being as congruent as possible (ie: living outwardly in line with what we believe inwardly). 

Anyone can adopt the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance, or the “I’ll agree with you just to keep the peace” stance, but it takes compassion and skill (which only comes through practice, trial and error) to learn the “I think I have something valid and worthwhile to say, but it differs from what you believe” stance.  And, importantly, to allow others to do the same. And this is the skill that I’m learning how to hone and develop in myself through my personal relationships and through my blog posts.”

I do believe that ‘finding our true voice’ in any situation is an important, respectful and honourable thing to do and that constant avoidance of this can lead to us becoming disingenuous, at worst two-faced, and more distant from our best, and truest, selves. I don’t think that we just show disrespect to others when we behave in this way, I also believe that we dishonour ourselves. Because not ‘giving a voice’ to what our heart truly feels, in the most mutually-compassionate way we can, may be a one-off choice, or it may become a habit and then our normal behaviour which, ultimately, helps no-one.

The more often we speak from a place of personal truth the more often we demonstrate the belief that this person is wise enough and strong enough to hear what I feel in my heart and, it’s my belief that, the risk of doing this with people we have close relationships with is outweighed by the potential reward of deeper, more honest and more loving relationships as a result.

BUT, and it’s a very important ‘but’, it’s the way in which we do it that will reveal the truth of what we’re feeling inside.

If we speak from a place of aggression (be it open or passive, through our tone or the use of clever, undermining words) I believe we create energy that neither reflects true compassion for ourselves nor respect for others. If I do this, what I hear (when I take the time and trouble to reflect on it) is the repressed anger or fear of my most vulnerable self, which felt that it wasn’t being treated with the respect that it deserves. Or that someone else was giving voice to beliefs that felt threatening to my own, and which I use as an anchor for my self-image, self-belief and identity.

And, particularly if I express that anger or fear in the form of judgement of another instead of asking myself “What triggered those feelings within me?”, then I’m missing a valuable opportunity to learn more about myself and about why I behave in the ways that I do.

To me, compassion is a gentle practice and discipline, a loving practice and discipline, an open-handed way-of-being rather than a finger-pointing one. And I believe that self-compassion and compassion for others are inseparably bound together, because the way that we speak to and deal with ourselves will be reflected in the way that we speak to and deal with others, and vice versa.

I think that the more we open ourselves to looking closely and compassionately at the most vulnerable and needy parts of us (which every one of us carries around inside us, whether we’re prepared to admit it to ourselves or not) the more we allow the possibility that this part will have a voice when we speak in dialogue with others. And, because we’ve given that part of us the respect of being truly seen and heard, it won’t speak in aggressive or defensive language, but rather, it will help us by finding calmer, kinder and clearer words to speak; words more likely to build bridges, rather than to burn them.

But I also feel the need to add a proviso here, about seeing things as they truly are. There will be people who deliberately choose not to hear us, no matter how compassionately, calmly or clearly we form our words. This may be because ‘not hearing others’ has become an effective coping strategy for them; amuses them in some way; or leaves them feeling that they’ve ‘retained the upper hand’, all in an attempt to, inwardly, feel more secure.

These are situations, relationships and people that are uniquely individual and personal to each of us and I believe we must each make our own decisions about how best to deal with them, from a starting point of loving-kindness for ourselves.

When I walked my first Camino in 2015 I stayed overnight in the Convent hostel of León and met a young Spanish man named Matías, at breakfast the following morning . He spoke perfect English, but was trying to encourage me to converse in Spanish, when my grasp of the language was virtually non-existent at the time. I became more and more embarrassed and frustrated with myself, at my lack of ability to converse, and more and more reluctant to continue the friendly conversation. But my reluctance, embarrassment and frustration disappeared in the presence of this young man’s persistence and gentle kindness. He simply looked me in the eye, smiled, and in very a gentle tone said “It’s OK…just try…”

I believe that, whether I´m trying to find the right words to express my true feelings in a particular situation or to build longer-term bridges of mutually-respectful and honest relationship with others, it’s always worth “just trying…” to give my true feelings a voice.

It will seldom feel easy. I may look ridiculous and be embarrassed at times. It needs acceptance that I could meet resistance, ridicule and, on occasion, aggression and rejection from others, particularly if they´re unwilling to look at and deal with their own sensitive and vulnerable selves. But, just as any of us has experienced when learning how to ride a bike or to speak a new language, the stumbling, the getting-it-wrong, the looking or feeling stupid are all just a necessary and integral part of the learning process itself.

I know from personal experience that acknowledging, respecting and giving a voice to my most vulnerable self within, repeatedly and often enough, builds my level of courage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway‘ in almost any situation in life. I believe that when we do this, hesitatingly, gradually, but more and more often, we build our sense of inner dignity, truth and strength. And I’ve learned that when others instinctively feel this within us they respond to it positively, and ultimately benefit from it, if they’re seeking the same within themselves.

But this is a slow and gradual growth process, a process that comes from within and that draws from within rather than always looking outside for acceptance, validation and love. It’s a process that requires us to ‘see ourselves as we truly are’, without judgement, and to recognise both the vulnerability and the value of that person. Only then can we begin to see every encounter with others as a new opportunity to give our truest self a voice and to silently encourage him or her with the gentle words “It’s OK…just try“…

Risk is the currency of reward”

– Chris Evans

Blessed be the Navel-Gazers…

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve tried to find an answer to the question ‘What is my purpose?’ or ‘What is my destiny?’ the infuriatingly simple and equally mystifying answer that invariably popped up was “You’re here for people like you”. Over the years I’ve tried decoding that to mean “Listening to and loving people like me”; “Writing a book for people like me”; or, even more tangibly, “Creating a hostel on the Camino for people like me”, but none of them felt like ‘my real purpose’, more like something I would enjoy doing and which would, coincidentally, also be of service to others.

So I’ve tried asking myself, more simply, what ‘people like me’ actually means and I’ve taken detours down roads of belief that also failed to arrive at the answer. I’ve told myself “We’re all the same at heart (which is true), so that means I’m here for ‘everyone’ (which is false)”. Because we all know that “You cannot be all things to all men” and neither, I believe, are we supposed to be. Following that path just leads ultimately to exhaustion, disappointment, compassion fatigue and loss of respect for others and for ourselves.

Then last week, completely unknowingly, someone answered my question for me. In describing what I would call ‘inner reflection’ or ‘contemplation’ they used the term ‘navel-gazing’ and that’s when the penny finally dropped: “I’m here for ‘the would-be Navel-Gazers’”. And these are the people that I write for and talk to in my Blog posts, although anyone with an open heart and mind is welcome here.

I use the name would-be Navel-Gazers ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and ironically but also deliberately, because it captures beautifully the essence of what I believe. Generally, it’s not a name that’s used positively to describe ourselves or others. It implies that we’re self-absorbed, detached from reality and too preoccupied with our inner feelings, thoughts or problems. It’s not a name that contains a lot of love or genuine desire for connection, understanding or compassion, when applied to ourselves or to others. It’s a ‘closing down’ rather than an ‘opening up’ phrase.

But I write for anyone who’s open to the idea and value of contemplation, anyone who wishes to explore the part they play in co-creating their experiences and their relationships, anyone who believes in the power of Divine Love and Divine Purpose. In short, anyone who believes, as I do, that we still have a lot more to learn. Because the more open we are to exploring our automatic reactions to similar people and situations the more we come to recognise the limitations in our capacity for experiencing, recreating and sharing Divine Love.

It’s an undeniable truth that we’re all connected, as members of this diverse and beautiful species called ‘the Human Race’, but we’re also distinct and different individuals for a specific reason…and I believe it’s a Divine reason. If we ‘close ourselves down’ or try to bend ourselves or others into a shape that conforms to a set idea of how we should be, we dishonour our own selves greatly and we dishonour the individual seed of the Divine that we all carry within us. It’s a seed which has a personal message and purpose for each one of us, I believe, and for the people that we come into contact with throughout the course of our lives. But we have to be prepared to open our hearts and our minds wide enough to give it space and to let it grow.

We can look to others to tell us what our identity, purpose, or way of being should be, and then try to build our lives and personalities around the outside messages that we receive, or we can give ourselves permission to cultivate more inward reflection and discover the more open, compassionate and natural person we were born to be. In that way we stop needing to expend so much mental and emotional energy on meeting other people’s expectations and, instead, use what feels intuitively right to us in our (more open) heart.

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

There’s an interesting YouTube video that explores the balance we need to find and maintain within our lives between attachment (maintaining loving relationships with others) and authenticity (being true to ourselves) in order to grow into healthy, happy and self-respecting individual adults. It describes how so many of us largely lose our intuitive connection with our natural selves during childhood, in an effort to retain the love of those people we have close relationships with. And it explains how we unconsciously carry this ‘altered way of being’ into our adult lives.

I believe that a healthy dose of inner reflection, not about the past but about what is happening to us here & now and the automatic ways that we react to similar situations, helps us to make what is unconscious, and often unhelpful to us and others, more conscious. That way we become freer to make informed choices about ‘how to be’ as adults on a day-to-day basis, firstly in relationship with ourselves and, then subsequently, with those around us.

I’ve walked thousands of miles over the last 4 years and I’ve met hundreds of people from countries all over the world. I’ve had deep, meaningful and sometimes tear and love-filled conversations with complete strangers who were on pilgrimages of ‘reconnecting with themselves and with God ’. Many of them came to realise the inner hole that was left when they tried to be something that they believed others wanted them to be, instead of connecting with the inner source of Divine love that allows them to openly and unapologetically just be who they are. Taking time for inward reflection enabled them to do this.

The term ‘navel-gazing’ appealed to me for another reason too, because of its connection to the process of birth and the moment when we’re physically ‘cut free’ from our mothers’ bodies, becoming individual human beings in our own right. To look at our navels is to remind ourselves of a time when we needed gentle handling, valuing, love and protection, whether we received those things or not. We never lose the need for these things but, as fully-grown and independent adults, we’re now responsible for recognising that fact and for providing them for ourselves.

Cultivating gentleness and understanding towards ourselves, however we choose to do this, is a sign of self-nurturing, growing inner maturity, self-acceptance and strength.

What experience has taught me is ‘the more I live my life as the person my heart tells me to be, rather than as others might like me to be, the more I experience deep and meaningful connection with others’. I’ve learned that ‘just being myself’ acts as its own service to those I am meant to help because it somehow enables them to relax their habitual defences, to let down their guard and to share the most tender and vulnerable parts of themselves. This is an amazing expression of trust when it happens and it answers any doubts I have about ‘purpose’ or ‘destiny’ when it occurs. My purpose is simply ‘to whole-heartedly be myself’ and every day I learn new ways of doing that whilst also trying, through example, to encourage others to do the same.

I’m here to sing my individual song of Divine praise, and the words to my song are;

“Recognise absence of Love, in yourself and others, when you see and feel it. Be honest about it and don’t try to cover it up with distractions, addictions, rhetoric or denial. Find the seed of Divine Love within yourself that lies deep within your heart, underneath your fear and pain, and take your strength and validation from this…only this…because this is where God resides within you. Remove all the walls of anger, fear or judgement that you’ve built around that seed, and then watch as it grows into what it was born to be; a beautiful, fruit-bearing manifestation of faith, hope and love.

And when that fruit eventually breaks down into seed again, as it inevitably will, spread that seed as widely as you are able to, with faith that some of it will fall on fertile ground.”

So blessed be the navel-gazer in all of us, no matter how tiny he or she may be. Because that’s where, I believe, the seed of self-acceptance, true compassion and Divine Love has been planted and is waiting to grow…

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

– Rumi

The Never-Ending Story

There are few things that engage the human psyche more completely than a good story, well told. Whether it’s the story we tell ourselves about our past, our lives, who we are or who we want to be; the one we tell about other people, and their relationships with us; the story of the world and how magical or doomed we believe it to be; or the multiple and ever-expanding stories of our history, our ancestors and God…our appetite and capacity for story creation and elaboration seems universal and insatiable.

Ideas that seem too difficult, obscure, unpalatable or uninteresting can be made simple, illuminating, engaging and satisfying when wrapped up in the enticing package of a story. Everyday lives that feel immensely challenging, too rooted in ‘the real world’ or spirit-sapping in the physical, mental and emotional demands that they place on us can be softened into tolerance with the comfort of a good tale. And each of us is, in some ways, a walking, talking, acting and reacting compilation of the stories that we’ve accumulated and progressively placed our faith in during the course of our lives.

Every encounter and relationship that we become involved in carries the seed of a story within it, which we help to sow, water and bring to some sort of blossoming happy ending or tragic fruition. To be a human being is to be a lover and co-creator of stories, whether we like it or not, and our only free choice seems to be in the sort of stories that we choose to co-create.

We can tell ourselves that we are (or should be) above these things, that our level of conscious-awareness, awakening or enlightenment enables us to rise above the ‘illusory Story World’ that surround us. But the truth is that history, our dreams or any overheard conversation about a deeply personal matter will prove the lie of this self-professed belief. To be a human is to be a creator, sustainer, teller, reteller and liver of stories.

My personal storybook took an unexpectedly enlightening and enjoyable turn this week, when I was invited by my brother to make Facebook posts of 7 black & white photos, on 7 consecutive days, depicting my everyday life with no additional explanation or comments. My initial reaction was “I like the fact that you asked me, but I don’t take part in these sort of nomination challenges because they don’t fit with my internal image of who I believe I am (ie: my story of myself). But then the plot thickened…

My niece, who I love dearly, added a little ‘Love’ reaction to my brother’s invitation…and that set me thinking. My Facebook posts tend to be ‘positively-inspiring’, ‘thought-provoking’ or ‘spiritually-uplifting’ in nature and focus, with the odd ‘personal update with photos’ sprinkled in for good measure. But here was Sally telling me (in my own version of this particular story) “I’d love to see more of your everyday life”. So my internal dialogue of “I don’t do this sort of thing” became “I’ll do this one ‘viral Facebook challenge’ but I won’t nominate anyone else…because I don’t believe in these challenges in principle”.

My first post was of a picture that I have pinned up in my current home; a Spanish motivational message, printed on a paper napkin, that I made a cardboard frame for and carry with me to put up wherever I find myself.

“The best moment to be happy is now”

I have various motivational and uplifting sayings pinned up around my current home so, I thought rather cleverly, I’d post a different photo of these each day as a way of continuing to share positive messages and maintain my principle of ‘not really doing these Facebook chain-reactions’.

But, as I wandered around that day doing different things, two realisations slowly worked their way into my consciousness. The first was “That would make a good picture of what I’m seeing today!” and the second was “If you’re not going to post photos of what you’re actually seeing and doing, what are you really sharing of yourself and what’s the point in taking part?” So Day 2 wasn’t a motivational message, it was a photo of the uplifting and naturally-beautiful coastline of Fuerteventura, made all the more striking for being in black & white.

Costa Calma, Fuerteventura

By Day 3 I realised, with surprise, that I rather enjoyed taking part in this social media exercise and also that I enjoyed seeing the photos of friends’ lives, with no explanations. The experience of seeing what they’d chosen to share, admiring the creative photos that some had selected and adding a little more information to ‘my story of each person’ were all things that gave me great, and unexpected, pleasure. So my thinking about the exercise changed again into “Well, if it’s given me this much pleasure it might give other people pleasure too so, with a little tweeking of the wording (inviting some friends to take part, rather than challenging them), my Day 3 picture included an invitation to someone else to take part; as did each subsequent day after that.

And the whole experience reminded me of things that I’ve already realised in the past but, somehow, had forgotten again. Most importantly, that when I stop telling myself who I believe I am, when I stop striving to live in line with my principles and just allow myself to be, that a peaceful sense of ease descends on me and brings with it the easy joy and pleasure that comes from little, deeply-human things. I was reminded that I feel and embody genuine love for myself and others when I think, feel and act from a place of openness, gentleness, non-judgement, curiosity and ease. And, as this particular ‘windmill in my mind’ began turning again, I also remembered something about the Inuit culture and belief, which a close friend once explained to me as we walked the Camino de Santiago together. A belief best explained in the following three words…

Isuma-tu, means a sense of wisdom, a deeper knowing which, when people tune into it, allows them to become Isumatu, meaning storytellers, in their own right. And that, if they do this often enough, they eventually grow into Isumataq; people capable of creating a space for others to share and experience their own stories, without judgement, in a gentler, more self-accepting way which, in turn, allows their own inner wisdom to awaken, to reveal itself and to truly flourish.

Tefía, Fuerteventura

We are meaning-making beings and we make meaning through stories. We not only have ‘our Story’ about our past, our present and the potential of our future, stories are the cipher through which we decode everything in the world around us. Stories do not distract our mind from other things, they are the way that we assimilate information and create a functional or dysfunctional sense of ourselves, our experiences and other people.

Sometimes we use historical stories, from our own lives or from our collective human experience; sometimes we use the ‘current accepted story’ of our society, or of our secular or religious communities; and sometimes we use fictional, fantastical or mythical stories, that connect to something deeper within us, the imagination that lies within.

The mind is an immensely powerful creative gift and its fuel is the imagination. The imagination is how we, as a creative species, created every man-made thing that exists on our planet today. It is the foundation and cornerstone of every discovery and advancement in scientific thinking and of the physical manifestation of that thinking into technological progress and material reality.

Our individual imaginations are one of the ways that God empowers us to embody the force of creation within our lives. We can allow that creative force to enslave us, to ‘put the Fear of God’ into us by repeatedly belittling ourselves, and wasting the power of our imaginations on a story given to us by someone else. Or we can praise, worship and embrace ‘the Love of God’ that our imaginations represent, by honouring the unique and powerful gift we’ve been given and by using it to create our own never-ending, Life-enhancing stories.

When I allow myself to be human, when I take pleasure and joy from little things, when I think, feel and act from a place of gentleness, non-judgement and ease, these are the times when I feel I am writing and sharing a worthwhile, meaning-filled story of myself. A never-ending story of discovery, learning, acceptance, love, gradual adjustment and growing inner peace. And, in repeatedly returning to this realisation and trying to embody it day-by-day, I am also trying to create a small space where others might feel moved to do the same…

Integrate, connect, draw a line between your mind, your body and your heart. For me it’s about telling a story and those are the characters. We show up each day and we write each chapter, each page, each sentence by integrating those three things: our Mind, our Body and our Heart…Namaste”

– Adriene Mishler

Surfing the Waves of Experience….

I’m living for a few weeks in the northern part of Fuerteventura, close to the large and developed tourist centre of Corralejo, but nearer, geographically, to its lesser-developed and more charming coastal cousin, El Cotillo. Where Corralejo boasts a nature reserve, miles of sand-dune beaches, frequent English signage and a touristy ‘main drag’, El Cotillo has a smaller, rockier, wilder coastline, a more hand-painted, bohemian atmosphere and little cafes and restaurants where locals can often be seen and heard.

Corralejo is where the large surf schools congregate and little ‘tutor groups’ of students, keen to learn the challenging craft of ‘riding the waves’, are seen dotted along its beaches. Some groups are stretching their limbs in unison, others are collectively lying prostrate on their sand-beached boards, but all end up excitedly paddling out on their eventual virgin voyages to commune with the vast and endlessly-inviting waves.

El Cotillo, in contrast, is where the novices progress to, and where those ‘bitten by the surfing bug’ are seen standing at the water’s edge, sand between their toes, eyes fixed firmly on the sea before them, boards held reverently at their sides. They’re reading the wind and watching the waves, before launching themselves into the advancing tide.

The conditions there are more unpredictable, the surf is stronger, the waves are larger, and the currents can carry a hidden menace beneath their surface swell. But surfing must have the same addictive quality of any other strong compulsion because, despite the many red flags all along the beach when I visited there this week, the surfers just ignored them and, using their own internal barometers of safety, kept wading out repeatedly to meet and ride the incoming tide.

Watching them, as the light slowly dimmed, was a beautiful and awe-inspiring experience. Not just because of the skill that several of them displayed but, even more so, because of the time, effort, patience and perseverance that the majority employed. Time and time again they paddled out, sat waiting on their boards for the ‘perfect wave’ then attempted, valiantly and often unsuccessfully, to harness its power and to ride it, upright, in to shore. At first sight, it looked like ‘95% preparation and effort’ and ‘5% fun’. But, like all things, with a little more watching and a little more reflection, I began to see it in a different light.

I began to see the pleasure that the whole process gave to them, from the initial ‘reconnaissance on the beach’, right through to the final ‘catching of the wave’. How completely absorbed and committed they were to each part of it. How each phase contributed to the honing and refining of their judgment, physical strength, flexibility, balance, confidence and eventual skill. I began to understand why the atmosphere of El Cotillo, with its larger ‘experienced surfer’ population has such a laid back, contented, quietly-confident and easy-going feel.

I mentally contrasted it with Corralejo and its fast food franchises, its high street chain stores, its ‘Fish Foot Spas’, ‘Vape Emporiums’, and waves of restless, roaming tourists looking for ways to fill their attention and their time…and I began to understand. One group of holiday-makers was connecting with the natural force of Life and strengthening its force within them, and the other was seeking distraction and perhaps, in the process, subduing their spirits and souls.

I believe that when we willingly and repeatedly engage with Life, in all its natural manifestations, we slowly hone our confidence, enlarge our perspective, discover what we’re capable of and what latent potential we still have within. Some of us, like the surfers, do this by testing ourselves physically, others choose to take up the mental or emotional challenges offered to them by Life.

It reminded me of something that I’d jotted down in my journal one day, while I was still living on El Hierro:

When we loosen our tight grip on fear, we balance ourselves with Life…and when we balance ourselves with Life, fear loosens its tight grip on us.

It was a phrase that came to me from nowhere, when I was watching the sea crashing onto the rocks at the harbour town of La Restinga one day. I wrote it down and then thought “That all sounds very poetic, simple and well, but how on earth do we ‘loosen our tight grip on Fear’?”

But this week, watching the surfers, I think I saw how…

I’m a person who likes to read. My favourite topics are ones that circle around or dive straight into the ‘bigger questions’ of life. What is Love? What is God? Why are we here? How should we live? These are questions that have been posed and answered, in various and often conflicting ways, since the beginning of time, language and civilisation itself. Anyone who’s ever felt baffled, frustrated, wounded or enchanted by questions such as these – often following painful or challenging experiences in their lives – is in good company.

They’re questions that’ve been chewed over by some of history’s greatest minds (eg: Socrates; Plato; Leonardo da Vinci; Mahatma Gandhi; Leo Tolstoy; Carl Jung; Snoopy the Dog) all of whom reached their own conclusions and then tried to convey them through their theories, their writing or their established ‘schools of thought’.

Each new theory, philosophy, scientific explanation or religion adds another dimension or ‘wave’ of theology or opinion and they all contribute, in their own unique way, to forming part of the great, relentless, unfathomable ‘Sea of Knowledge about Life’. But like the ‘novice tutor groups’ on the surfer beaches at Corralejo they only really offer us the basic principles and ideas that give us the confidence to enter the water. Everything that comes afterwards, in the form of our own personal experience, is where the real learning takes place.

That’s why, by facing our fears whenever they confront us, by taking note of any warning flags but then using our own barometer of safety (our intuitive voice within) we learn how to gradually build our unique and individual strength and resilience and we slowly begin to ‘balance ourselves with Life’.

We learn, through experience, which wave of opinion we should let pass and which we should catch hold of and attempt to ride. We learn that we are not just harried by other people’s strong and strident opinions, but that we have many conflicting and bullying ones of our own. We learn to test our judgement about situations and other people, in order to enlarge the boundaries of our self-belief.

And, little by little, we learn the value of repeatedly paddling out to meet each new experience that Life sends our way. We learn how to whole-heartedly focus our attention on engaging with each experience, and on any waves of emotion that come trailing in their wake. And, over time, we begin to notice that Fear is slowly releasing the tight grip that it once held on us, and that our balance is starting to become good enough to stand up for who we are.

I’m still firmly in the ‘novice class’…but I’m slowly learning…

(If anyone is curious to learn more about surfing in general, or about the best locations for surfers of all abilities in Fuerteventura, http://ciudadsurf.com/ is a great website to visit, providing a range of information about the sport, its equipment and its mental, physical and health benefits).