Uncovering and Living from Our True Self.

We have spoken of transforming loneliness into solitude. A further thought on that topic might be helpful. Loneliness is the feeling of being disconnected and separate from closeness with another. It can involve a sense of isolation, a sense that there is no one with whom we can be who we truly are, without defense or pretense.

Solitude involves being in touch with and at home to our inmost, truest self, the beautiful core of who we are. This core self is where we–and where all else–flows from the universe itself, even in our very uniqueness. At our very core, then, we are in touch with, connected with everything else. Brian Swimme, among, others has stressed that we are in fact stardust; that all the materials that form our makeup are from the stars. In a similar way, Wayne Muller has observed that the very fact that we are breathing means that we are part of the whole ecosystem of earth. It means that we do belong and that we are in some profound way connected with all that is.

The 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, captures this truth beautifully: “Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is within you.” A difficulty today is that many people live outside themselves and relate only to the outside of others, so both are lonely. If we are in touch with and live from within ourselves, we can more readily relate to the inwardness of others. We have a sense of connection with others, with the universe, with all that is. Dag Hammarskjold writes in a similarly striking way: “The longest journey is the journey inward to the core of one’s being.”

Yet many authors, and even western culture itself, have fed us a script that we are separate from nature and from others. As a result they have fostered an attitude of fear, and a need to control and dominate, which breeds hostility. Language of the conquest of nature then predominates, rather than an attitude of living within and being part of the natural world. In this sense, we are not placed on this earth but emerge from it as part and expression.

Citing the philosopher Hegel, Gregory Baum observes that, in removing spirit, interiority, from ourselves, our relationships, and the natural world, we have removed a sense of connection and belonging as well. We no longer see our own inwardness, our own relationships to self, others and the world as part of who we are. We tend to see them as something alien as something outside ourselves. They become unknown and possibly threatening. They therefore need to be controlled and dominated, or else they may destroy us. We then live our lives externally and, since we distrust ourselves, we therefore turn to and rely on external authority. Instead of being and becoming fully who we are, we become doers of what we are told from outside.

According to Richard Rohr and others, the key is to get in touch with our own interiority, and to learn to trust the unfolding process of life within ourselves and its outflowing from our inner home.

Thomas Merton also differentiates between the true and the false self. For Merton, the false self is the self of surface whims, opposition to others, and social roles. The surface self is the superficial, busy, compulsive, diversion-seeking self, the self of surface wants, needs and greediness. The separate self is the self seen as apart from and in opposition to others, in competition with them for survival, goods, and gratification. The self of social roles is the self filtered through the slogans, myths, prejudices of a society.

In Merton’s view, the true self is the deepest, inmost self, the inmost centre or core of our being–the heart –a unique, dynamic, spiritual centre, endowed with an irremovable dignity. It is our identity as
as a unique word, or precious gift, flowing from an infinite source, a source that is best depicted in terms of wisdom and compassion. I find the world, he insists, in my own ground, in my deepest self. It is there too that I find “the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”

In sum, our true self is a connected self, a self that is inseparably bound up with others, with the earth, and even the universe. It is best discovered in solitude, in kindness to self and others, and in sharing our unique gifts with the world.

Gabor Mate, in The Myth of Normal, states that we have two fundamental needs: the need for authenticity, and the need for belonging or attachment. For a time, even with the best will, parents may push their children to sacrifice their authenticity in order to be acceptable. While this can lead to many problems, the drive to authenticity remains, and may be awakened again by compassionate self inquiry. In effect, this approach can be translated to mean that our sacred worth remains and can be uncovered, respected, and lived from, by looking into ourselves with kindness.

May you ever more fully learn to uncover and live from the beauty of your inmost heart and home, and see and respond to that beauty in one another. To do so, as Merton insists is to alleviate the greed and cruelty of the world, to make it a home rather than a prison for each of us and for all that is.

Beauty Deeper than Sorrow

Last time, we used the story of Rapunzel to illustrate how loneliness transformed into solitude can find expression in beauty, such as in the song of Rapunzel. The beauty of the song echoes the beauty of her soul, heart, or spirit. It is this beauty that can also touch the heart of another, and evoke a response from that place in us that has never been wounded, as Eckhart has written. John Keats concludes his poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn, with the words, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

What seems to be conveyed here is the beauty of music, as well as that of all the arts, and of nature. These in turn are a reflection of the beauty of the human heart. More than that, they are an avenue to the heart of a person. If we are open, it can reach beyond all our defences and wounds to the beauty of the person hidden or hiding behind them. It is a way of saying that our identity is in our sacred beauty, not in our wounds.

Yet in the story of Rapunzel, it is only after he passes through pain, loss, and struggle, that the young man is able to come to see truly and to be healed. In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the young man must also pass through a hedge of thorns at the right time and with the right motives, not in a grasping or aggressive way. His response is evoked by someone who is sleeping. It is called forth, it seems, by who someone is, not by what they have or do. The beauty that is in each of us, and by which call forth the beauty in one another, is deeper than, yet may be hidden behind the thorns of hurt, fear, or hostility.

In another poem, Ode to a Nightingale, Keats appears to contrast the beauty of the bird’s song with the awareness of the brevity of life. His poem raises a perennial question: Does the reality of death take a way the meaning of life?

Susan Cain offers a response in a thoughtful book, Bitter-Sweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. “Bittersweet is about the recognition of the both/and of life–that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet, are forever paired. We need both to accept that reality and also in some way transcend it. This is our inmost longing which can be seen as a longing for home. …We need to transform the sorrows of life into something that nourishes the soul, otherwise we will inflict them on others. She concludes: “This idea–of transforming pain into creativity, transcendence, and love–is the heart of this book.”

She refers to the music of Leonard Cohen as an example. Two lines of his songs come to mind: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He also sings of a “cold and lonely hallelujah.” A black spiritual echoes the same words: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, Hallelujah.” The thought here is that light can emerge from darkness, joy can flow from sorrow. As Viktor Frankl maintained, our life can be meaningful, no matter what the circumstances.

Cain concludes: “We’re drawn to the sublime domains, like music, art, and medicine, not only because they’re beautiful and healing, but also because they’re a manifestation of love, or divinity, or whatever you want to call it. … These are just manifestations of the perfect and beautiful world, of the people we long to be with, the place we want to be. … We’ve come into this world with a sense of exile from our true home, that we feel the pain of separation from the state in which we loved and were loved beyond measure, and that the sweet pain of longing helps us return there, We crave beauty because it reminds us of that home, it calls us to that journey.”

I recall a conversation with an elderly volunteer guide at Canterbury cathedral in England. He commented on the defacement and destruction of statues in this cathedral in an earlier century. No religion that destroys and fails to honour beauty can be authentic was his conviction. That conviction, I believe, applies also to the beauty of persons.

Perhaps, as John Keats understood, the fundamental and deepest truth about life is beauty. It is the beauty of the universe that shine through in the beauty of a sunset. It is the beauty of a song or a painting. It is the beauty of the light that shines through in the crack in everything. It is the beauty of a person that ever remains, however obscured by hurt or fear or hostility. It is the beauty of the place in each of us that has never been wounded. It is the beauty of home when we unveil it within ourselves or with another.

May you have today and every day an experience of beauty that calls you home to the beauty of your own soul, to the beauty of others, and to the beauty of earth and the universe. And may that experience reinforce your underlying sense of hope and increase your compassion for yourself and others.

Living with and beyond Loneliness

I have been speaking lately of attuning to our heart space, our true home, our authentic self. And I suggested that this path may lead through and beneath a whole variety of feelings, some of which may be initially disturbing. I also suggested that attention to breathing, and other forms of meditation, reflection, reading, and listening to beautiful music may also be helpful. Such solitude is distinct from the loneliness that afflicts so many people today.

In thinking of this topic, I am drawn to another story, which I have perhaps mentioned frequently, the story of Rapunzel. Among other things, the story tells of the prince who climbs the tower with the aid of Rapunzel’s hair, only to find himself on this occasion confronted by the witch. She tells him that he will never see her again. In his despair, he leaps out of the tower. He does not die, but falls among thorns which pierce his eyes and blind him. He then wanders about, lonely and lost, and barely surviving on roots and edible plants.

These images suggest that when we lose someone close to us, the loneliness that follows can take away our vision and leave us utterly lost and in survival mode. Such blinding loneliness can also come from lack of meaningful contact as well as from loss.

Earlier in the story, we are given a portrait of Rapunzel, alone in the tower, who sings out of her loneliness. The beauty of her singing rings out throughout the forest and reaches and attracts the young prince. The image suggests that in the solitude, even if lonely, a person is able to return to the core of themselves. What emerges from that core is beautiful, illustrated by the music of her voice. This image suggests, in turn, that the core of the person is beautiful. The place within that has never been wounded is beautiful. We are more than any hurts received or even inflicted.

It is not an outer image, not a projection of the defensive ego, that is able to reach another and build community, but it is who we are and the expression of who we are. Perhaps all too often relationships remain an exchange of outer images and not a sharing of persons. A genuine communication in depth, in the words of Erich Fromm, “is possible only if each person experiences himself or herself from the centre of their being.” Such communication does not take a way the loneliness that is part of the human condition, but shares that loneliness. It takes away the debilitating forms of loneliness that corrodes the soul. As medieval mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg puts it: “When my loneliness becomes too great, I take it to my friends.”

The loneliness that comes from loss or separation, from transitional periods in our lives, from enforced isolation, or lack of connection, can be alleviated by even slight contacts. Recent studies have shown that even a brief contact, if sincere, can enhance our experience of life. Such gestures may include a brief comment to a stranger in a bank, a supermarket, or a waiting line, or a small kindness to someone.

Dr. Ben-Shahar comments that the greatest threat to happiness is loneliness, which has become nearly epidemic in our time. As a corrective, the Dalai Lama observes that if you want both yourself and others to be happy, practice compassion. I have suggested before compassion may be understood as a respectful, and never condescending response to another person who is experiencing some kind of pain or suffering. I have also suggested that to do so requires a sense of our own worth, so that we may approach another as they are and not in terms of a need or a threat. Compassion also requires a sense of our own vulnerability, so that we can identity or see ourselves with another who is in pain.

Clark Moustakis, who has written extensively on the loneliness that is part of the human condition. I might add that the recognition and acceptance and being with of this inescapable loneliness can lead to a creative solitude. In Moustakas words, it can “bring into awareness new dimensions of self, new beauty, new power for human compassion, and a reverence for the precious nature of each breathing moment.” Persons may then “discover life, who they are, what they really want, the meaning of their existence, the true nature of their relations with others. … Loneliness paves the way to healing, to true compassion, to intimate bonds with all living creatures and all aspects of nature and the universe.”

Blaise Pascal, a 17th century scholar has written: “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In her book, Bitter-Sweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Susan Cain, writes: “Bittersweet is about the recognition of the both/and of life–that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet, are forever paired. We need both to accept that reality and also in some way transcend it. This is our inmost longing which can be seen as a longing for home.” We need to transform the sorrows of life into something that nourishes the soul, otherwise we will inflict them on others. She concludes: “This idea–of transforming pain into creativity, transcendence, and love–is the heart of this book.”

In other words, a certain painfulness is an inescapable part of every life. Happiness and a meaningful life do not demand a lack of suffering. They do require an overcoming of unnecessary isolation, self-pity, self-rejection, comparison with others, and inflicting pain on others. They also require clinging to a sense of self-worth even if not felt, and developing compassion for self and others. It involves not denying the pain of life, but not identifying with it, yet seeking to learn and grow from it. We may perhaps entrust it to caring and trustworthy others. And we may ourselves be the caring and trustworthy person to whom another may entrust their own sorrow. I really appreciate the words of Henri Nouwen that the true friend is not the person with the answers, but the one who sticks it ou with you when there are no answers.

May you more and more feel at home to and accept and cherish your core self. And may you be more and more present and a home to those who, in some way, great or small, share your life.
Norman King

Experience as Gift and Call to Life-Giving

Last week, I suggested that our inmost longing for truth and beauty, goodness and love, is best grounded in an underlying sense of gratitude. This is gratitude for the gift of self, of others, and for life itself, all of which have an enduring sacred worth.

We have spoken before of the both/and, the bitter/sweet of life, and suggested that life is a wondrous gift, even though it sometimes hurts. I recently heard a podcast in which a person sustained a sense of that gratefulness even though his son had died because of a medical mistake. To have had his son for 21 years was a gift that outweighed his premature death. I also had a younger brother who died at 26 owing to a heart defect incurred at birth. The wrenching sadness of his death remains. Yet the lasting impact of who he was and its shaping of my thinking and attitudes is an invaluable gift. Again, in Leonard Cohen’s famous words: There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.

From this perspective, I developed a model for interpreting experience, related to the Grimm Brothers story, The Old Man and His Grandson. The four-year-old child in the story sees how his parents treat his grandfather for spilling some of his food, and send him from the table to eat behind the stove. The child makes them see the hurtful effect of their treatment. As a result, the young couple are moved from seeing the grandfather as a nuisance to be reluctantly tolerated, to recognizing him as a valuable person to be cherished. As a result of seeing him in a new way, they began to treat him differently. A new way of seeing was given to them and a new way of acting was called from them. This experience–and I would suggest–every experience involves a gift and call.

The story suggests a further dimension to every experience. If they had continued to treat him dismissively, they would have killed something of his spirit. By welcoming him positively, they would have enriched his final days. In effect, the gift and call concerns the choice of either bringing something to life or putting something to death in ourselves or others. An obvious sense of bringing to life is to procreate and love a child. An equally apparent sense of putting to death is to abuse, reject or neglect a child. A still more profound possibility is to bring that suffering child to life, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, artistically, spiritually, or in any way.

In this light we may approach every experience–although certainly the more crucial or deeper ones–as involving the gift and task to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. It is to let the light enter all the cracks in life.

I would suggest further that every story contains a certain way of looking at life, yet may be open to different interpretations. In his retelling of the story of Pandora, for example, the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, appears to blame women for all the evils of the world. In his version, Pandora is given a jar and told not to open it until her wedding day. When she opens it beforehand, she releases all the ills, and shuts it in time only to keep hope inside.

From a different perspective, however, the name Pandora means all the gifts or the gift of everything. In this context, it can express all that is given with human life both pleasant and painful, the bitter and the sweet. It can also suggest that, while life contains both positive and negative elements, it remains a gift, and can be received with gratitude. The same thought is expressed that life can be lived with hope. There is also the undertone of humour, in the sense that, when the injunction is given not to open the jar immediately, we know that it will be opened. Humour contains a sense of hope if it has the form of being able to laugh gently at oneself (rather than derisively at others).

This ambiguity of life leaves us with a question as to how we interpret it–as a glass half full or half empty. Expressed differently, the question becomes what story we tell around any experience. The philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, told how, as we was travelling by train to deliver a lecture, he discovered that his wife had forgotten to include the talk in his brief case. His first reaction was not annoyance or concern, but a sense of sadness that she would feel badly about it. At this level of growth, his instinctive response was compassion.

Sometimes an event that is initially viewed one way comes to be seen differently at a later date. I am not sure how I responded to my experience at the age six of being hit by a truck. I do recall my response after I was released from the hospital and allowed to get out of bed after a few days at home. I took a few steps and fell over. I remember an acute sense of anxiety at being unable to walk right away. Years later, as I looked back on this experience, I realized that I had a profound experience both of the precariousness and the preciousness of life. That understanding was profoundly reinforced by the friendship with my younger brother, who I mentioned above,was born with a chronic heart condition that led to his death at the age of 26.

The challenge here, as spoken of often before, is to uncover and then possibly change the script which we have inherited, grown up with, or even forged on our own. One script I would suggest–easier in theory than practice–is the precious worth of life as a sacred gift and call to bring something to life within us and around us, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. It is the script of compassion and generosity. It is a story of an unfolding of life that involves insight, hope, and love. The story of Pandora reinforces that life is a valuable gift even though it involves pain.

May you discover a script, a life story that unveils your own worth and that of others; and may it become a life-giving tale of wisdom and compassion.

Norman King, June 11, 2023

The Still Small Voice

Last week, I referred to Erich Fromm’s conviction that people should experience themselves from the centre of their existence. Only then can they communicate with one another from that centre. Such communication in depth is, for him, the essence of love. It may be interesting to explore the connection between being present to ourselves and being present to one another. In a noisy and scattered age, often swallowed up in externals, noise, and busyness, this is quite a challenge.
Fromm emphasizes that the ability to be alone with oneself is the condition for the ability to love–that is, to relate meaningfully to others. He cites meditation as one practice that fosters this presence to self. He goes on to say that a person must be concentrated on everything they do, “in listening to music, in reading a book, in talking to a person, in seeing a view.” If a person is fully present, whatever they are doing takes on  a new dimension of reality.
This notion of being present to ourselves and present to our immediate situation, and to others with whom we are at the moment, is a recurring theme, in many traditions. It is often expressed as living fully in the present.
I like the image of tuning in to our deepest inner voice. We hear many voices, as well as a great deal of chatter, within us. We do hear voices both of affirmation and of put-down. It can be helpful to try to name these voices, to discover who is the speaker. Often the speaker of negative voices within ourselves may come from a harsh voice heard in childhood. The more positive voices may come from those who have been kind to us. Beneath all of these is our own voice, which may take time to tune into.
This inner voice is often characterized as a still small voice. This expression indicates that it is a quiet voice. It can easily be drowned out by louder voices. It is best heard in stillness. These would be times without agitation or much motion or emotion. They would be times of quiet, of silence. I believe that these are the times when we can hear that inner true voice of ourselves.
I may have mentioned before my experience of a spontaneous writing session, in which emerged for me the image of a child behind walls. The following morning, on awakening, I had the vivid sense that I needed to speak to that child. I asked, “Who are you?” I was astounded to hear what came immediately to mind. “You cannot find out all at once. You must visit me often, and as you do, the walls will gradually come down and you will learn to speak with my voice and love with my heart.”
That image had emerged from a kind of poem to my younger brother, Mike, who had died many years earlier from a chronic heart condition. It had ended with the words: “Perhaps your death and my sorrow/ and your friendship and mine/ and all the friendships and sorrows since that time/ will lead a path behind the wall/ and free the child within.”
The walls are perhaps the hurts, and fears, and hostilities, and the feelings connected with them that surround our core self. If we live within those walls, we will be forever homeless, absent from our true self. In silent solitude, in stillness, we may allow ourselves to feel all our feelings, and to name them as truthfully as possible. Yet we may sense beneath and behind these walls is our inner self, the core of sacredness. When I reflected a little further on the image of the child behind the walls, it struck me that the voice of that child is the voice of our inmost self, and precisely of that self as it emerges from the universe, and whatever energy is behind and within the universe.
I once heard a talk by David Steindl-Rast who is at once a psychologist, a Benedictine monk, and a Zen master. He looked at the Latin roots of two words, “obedience” and”absurdity.” In its roots, obedience does not mean to do what one is told. It means to listen fully, to listen with our whole being and to listen from our heart, our core. It means tuning in to the meaning of each given moment. Absurdity, in its root sense, means to be totally deaf, to fail to find the meaning of our life at this moment. It is to experience life as meaningless.
Steindl-Rast further stresses the importance of silence. Silence, he says, creates space around things, persons, and events. It allows us to consider them gratefully, one by one, in their uniqueness.
Here again, we see the inseparability of listening to ourselves and listening to others. Listening to all our own feelings and naming them truthfully, without being trapped by them or seeing our identity in them, allows us to experience our sacred and worthy core beneath them. So also listening to others involves us to tune in to their inner sacred core, to listen to the person beneath the words and body language. It is a listening that lets go of our agendas, our preset responses. It is the attempt to be totally present, beyond the baggage or needs and threats. As St. Benedict expressed it, it is listening with the ears of the heart.
May you learn to listen to your own inmost sacred and worthy core, and tune in to that of others. May you learn more and more to respond from that inmost place, even when you are in opposition to yourself or others. May you uncover and dwell in your own inner home, and also be a home for others.
Norman King, May 8, 2023.

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Speaking from the Heart

Last week, I wrote about listening from the heart. It has the threefold sense of tuning into our own inmost core, to one another, and to the sound of the universe. The counterpart to listening from the heart is speaking from the heart. It means speaking as truly and deeply as possible. It is possible only to the extent that it is preceded by listening from the heart. To speak superficially or falsely is to speak off the top of one’s head or out of the side of one’s mouth.
The inability to communicate emotionally, and so to be unable to love, is reflected in the sixties song by Simon and Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence. It sings of people talking without speaking, and hearing without listening. Physician Gabor Maté speaks of a toxic culture and of how even well-meaning people are pushed to sacrifice their authenticity for what is socially acceptable, and to push others to do the same. He speaks of compassionately listening to and trusting our own heart as a path to refinding our authenticity.
I have often referred to Erich Fromm. He writes: “Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the centre of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself or herself from the centre of their existence. … Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves.”
What these comments suggest is that we can only speak from the heart if we are in touch with our heart, with the core of centre of our authentic self. This is what Thomas Merton calls our true self as distinct from our false self. The false self for him is the self that lives only on the surface of life, the self that sees itself only in competitive opposition to others, and the self that identifies with the ideological image portrayed by society.  A challenge of a lifetime is to come into touch with our true or authentic self, beneath all else, and let that sacred self, as much as possible, flow in to our words, our actions, our lives. Perhaps this is most basically seen as a flow of wisdom and compassion, a flowing from a listening heart.
We have in English the expression: “Don’t breathe a word.” It is an implicit recognition that speaking is a form of breathing. In many languages the words, breath, wind, and spirit are the same. It suggests that where we breathe from and where we speak from are similar. Words, spoken or sung, can move us only if they come from deeply within, from the heart, from the guts, rather than the surface. The Hebrew prophet, Isaiah once spoke of people who honour the divine with their lips, but whose hearts are far away. The king in Hamlet says similarly “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Certainly, from one perspective, words are most simply vibrations or sounds in the air, flowing on the outward movement of breath. Yet, they may have quite a different impact if they are sung rather than spoken, if they come from our deepest silence rather than our surface noise, or if they express something of who we are rather than the information we possess.
A young student once told me of her experience of working with people who were unable to walk, to feed themselves, or to speak. But nonetheless, she sensed a profound contact simply through the eyes. This example gives a sense of the tremendous energy that may be present and embodied in some way when we communicate with one another. When we say goodbye to someone who is leaving for a time or who is dying, we want our words to contain us, to hold all our feelings, so that we can give them to another. It is as if we took our whole self and wrapped it up in words, as we would wrap a gift, and offered it to another. (We may of course do the same with our hostility.) We may perhaps think of words in terms of the underlying energy that flows into and through them.
That energy will be different depending on where it originates within us. If our words are not “off the cuff,” but well up from the deepest level of our being, we may be said to be speaking from our heart, from the centre of our existence. They may be said to come from that place in us where we flow in our uniqueness from the life process and even from the universe.
Lawren Harris, the Canadian “Group of Seven” painter, spoke of painting, not the branch of a tree, but the urge to its growth. By this I think that he meant that he tries to convey a living reality, the life energy that flows through the tree, not merely an inanimate object. Harris also wrote, “I try to get to the summit of my soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings.”
Perhaps our deepest and truest words are those that echo the song of the universe, a truth that sings through us but is not our own. Perhaps this truth energy that flows through all that is–but so often fails to reach into and through our words and actions–is best described as compassion, a respectful furthering of life, even at its most vulnerable. In this sense, each of us is a unique word, sung out of the immense Silence. Our life task could then be described as one of hearing, respecting, and responding to the unique and sacred word that is each of us.
May you tune into the deepest truth and value of who you are and may that truth flow into your life in words and melodies of compassion.
Norman King, December 27, 2022

Trust in Self, Others, Life

Last week I spoke about a safe place within ourselves or with another. Such a safe place seems to be essential if we are to be open and vulnerable. A key component in this process is trust–trust in ourselves, in at least some others, and in life itself.

We need to be able to trust that what is deepest within us is not negative or destructive, but positive, something good and sacred. We can admit difficulties only if they are not the last word on us. If we sense that who is are is wrong or totally flawed, we will run frightened from ourselves or, as Richard Rohr says, inflict or transmit our pain to others. We can trust ourselves only if we feel that our core identity is positive; only if any negativity is outside our core identity. That is true as well if we do not see our identity in what we own (reducing us to human havings); or in what we do (reducing us to our occupation or profession, in effect, to human doings). These can then be lost, without losing the sacred core of who we are, a unique human being.

If we see our identity in who we are, and have a sense of the essential sacred worth of who we are–or at least are moving in that direction–we can come to trust what is deepest within us. As I like to put it, we can come to trust the unfolding process of life within us. Our life is in fact not something static but is an ongoing process, an unfolding from within. I have also mentioned though that, although our core self is sacred, around that core self are what may be called walls of hurt, fear, and hostility. While the sacred core self is our true home, we can sometimes live within the walls of hurt, fear, or hostility. We then, so to speak, act as a sniper to others from these alienating places.

The process of uncovering and getting in touch with that core self, and living out of a sense of our own and others sacred worth is a slow process. As Dag Hammarskjold’s has written in Markings: “The longest journey is the journey inwards to the core of one’s being.” The process has, I believe, three interrelated components: creative solitude, personal friendship, and social outreach.

To the extent that we come to trust ourselves and our own inmost script, we become free from the weight of inherited scripts, and social and cultural images. At the same time, we become free from a distrust of self that leads us to turn to outside authority for our marching orders. Meaningful language is then understood as words that name our experience, It is no longer orders barked from outside. We look to literature, music, painting, and all the arts to help us uncover who we are rather than telling us what to do.

In a similar way, learning to trust another, is to discover someone with whom we can unveil ourselves without the threat of rejection or put down. Rather, it would be someone trustworthy, who at once tunes into and accepts who we are, beneath our hurts, fears, or hostilities. At the same time, it is someone who invites us and even challenges us to become who we can be, who helps us uncover our own authentic script and assists in its unfolding. The important counterpart is for ourselves to become a trustworthy person, a person who is a safe place for another. Once again, of course, there is the realization that this is not an easy process, that it involves time and effort, and perhaps some setbacks.

Authoritarian persons and regimes attempt to hook into and prey upon our fears, anxieties, insecurities, and hostilities. They seek to control us and make us subservient by inculcating more fear and guilt in us, which readily flow into hostility, usually toward stereotyped groups. They teach mistrust of what is within so that we will turn outward to them.

At the same time, we need not look upon our own sacred core as a dead end, so to speak, but as the point which open up to and flows from the universe and whatever is most within and behind the universe. Thomas Merton writes: “At the centre of our being is … a point of pure truth. … [It] is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”

Years ago, I read a science fiction story by Theodore L. Thomas, called The Far Look, published in 1956. It tells of two men on a space station and their life-threatening experiences. Upon returning to earth, their minds are transformed by a kind of seeing from deep inside. They uncover a wisdom that is cleansed of the baggage of the past and become “men of untrammeled mind.”

A similar reflection is found in two astronauts, Ron Garan and Yuri Gagarin. “The orbital view gives you a whole new perspective. You realize that each and everyone of us are interconnected and in this together. When you see the planet from space, it puts the common challenges faced by all humans into perspective.” (Garan) “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People let us preseerve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”(Gagarin)

We may also recall Albert Einstein’s letter to his daughter. “There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE. … This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will. … If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.”

More concretely, these authors are suggesting that this universe (in which everything is connected), is trustworthy. Behind these assertions, we witness the unfolding of the universe, which results in the stars. The stars in turn contain all the elements found in the human body, such that we are, literally, stardust. We also see the bonding of mammals to their offspring, the development of language, and the extended care needed by the prolonged childhood of humans. All these are an intimation that the thrust of the universe, its inner energy, impels in the direction of wisdom and love, of understanding and compassion.

Theologian, Karl Rahner, in speaking of childhood, says that the young child has to trust, because he or she is dependent for survival upon those charged with their care. He adds that the mature childhood of the adult is a basic trust in the meaningfulness of life, despite the conflicts within and threats from without that push us to close ourselves. “I can either reject myself in radical protest” he writes, “or accept myself in the total and concrete reality of life, even though … it remains full of pain and obscurity. However, I can accept it in hope.” Theological writer, John Magee insists that only a vision of life as ultimately meaningful and supportive of the human endeavour, coupled with a living trust in its foundation, source, and goal, can give rise to a maturity of personhood and life.

In sum, the path to a meaningful life unfolds in trust in the unfolding process of life from within our sacred self, in the experience of trustworthy caring from another human being, and in the underlying trust that life itself impels toward a healing and fulfilling wisdom and compassion.

May you come more and more to uncover and live from your inmost sacred self. May your life contain the caring presence of trustworthy others, and may you experience the ultimate trustworthiness of the universe itself. May you, as a result, become a more and more a trustworthy and caring person.

Norman King, December 12, 2022