Trust

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One of the main “benefits” of a faith journey has been those moments in my life when I have been able to trust my life and circumstances to the Divine.  In such moments I have found simplicity; all has seemed right with the world and my current problems have been just a ripple on a deep pond – not unimportant but somehow part of a grander scheme.  Those moments have felt like that pause between a deep breath and a sigh.

Different faiths encourage their believers to handle problems in different ways.  I gather that followers of Islam learn to accept whatever life throws at them as fate.  Buddhists are taught to make good decisions so that they will have peace of mind.  Christians are taught to have faith in God – but is that a job to do or is it a state of mind?

Our conscious minds are busy most of the time.  There are jobs to do, relationships to navigate and conundrums to ponder.  At times, our unconscious mind adds to the problem when it throws ideas on the table through our dreams.  How do we learn to find peace amidst the clamour?

I was re-reading something we wrote many months ago where we encouraged our readers as they started out on the road of spirituality.  In it we encouraged simplicity – a simple prayer, setting aside small moments, adopting a watchful presence.  I think that is my desire for the coming weeks.  Simplicity in my trust.

I hope you find rest and succour along your journey.

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Baboon Lessons

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Robert Sapolsky’s book, A Primate’s Memoir, describes in detail the interactions within an African baboon community.  Such communities function to enable the biggest, strongest, most-fertile individuals to flourish and reproduce so that the majority of offspring are produced by dominant individuals and carry their superior genes. This means that baboons form hierarchical societies ruled by a dominant alpha-male individual.

One of the great advantages of studying animals in their natural environment, particularly primates, is that we inevitably learn something about ourselves in the process.  We can sometimes even discern which behaviours can fairly be used to ‘mirror back’ our failure (or refusal) to develop effectively into human beings. Other observations can remind us of important behaviours common to all primates that we have unwisely left behind.  We are called back to our animal instinct and challenged to temper our overly-busy, productive, ‘sophisticated’ lifestyles.

So, what do we observe from baboons that we can learn from?  The baboon community shares the responsibility of raising young so parents are not left isolated in nuclear families.  Grooming each other is considered an important activity for all members of baboon society so that no individual suffers from the neglect of a touchless existence.  Mating is generally initiated by the female baboons. When they are sexually aroused and interested in copulation they present themselves to the males and foreplay begins.

Within the alpha-male, hierarchical community-structure of baboons, there are some behaviours that would be considered unevolved and unacceptable in human society.  These include: males grabbing babies to protect themselves from other males, alpha-males occasionally forcing females to copulate against their will, and a small number of dominant individuals consuming the lions-share of all community resources.

I will leave you to contemplate the lessons we may choose to learn from our baboon friends.

L’chayim.

A Primate’s Memoir

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We have recently finished reading A Primate’s Memoir, by Robert Sapolsky. It is an entertaining account of his time in the African jungle studying the savanna baboon. He describes his adventures as a young post graduate student becoming accustomed to the African way of life and particularly living amongst the baboons. He is studying the effect of position in the social structure on stress hormones in the body and their effect on the animals’ health. Of course he also gives insight into the ways of the baboons and describes in detail the way they interact with each other.

As a scientist he is careful to avoid anthropomorhising the baboons’ activities and trying to see human traits among them, or more dangerously, seeing baboon traits among humans. But somehow it is inevitable that the reader sees something of themselves or their acquaintances played out in the lives of the baboons.

Is that valid or is it dangerous? Of course we have far more complicated social environs than the baboons. In fact we are a part of multiple structures including family, friends, work colleagues and so on. And none of those groups would function in the same fairly one-dimensional manner that the baboons experience. And while the baboons are somehow destined to play out roles provided to them by breeding, their physical attributes and the particular circumstances of their group, we have the privilege of discernment, the ability to learn and the orientation of an in-built moral compass to affect our behaviour.

Still, it was an entertaining read and one that helped me to see that sometimes I seem to behave just like a baboon.

Blessings.

The Animals of Narnia

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In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis uses a number of different animals to bring us wisdom from the mouths of animal characters such as Aslan the lion, Reepicheep the mouse, Bree the horse and the Bulgy Bears.  Not all the Narnian animals are endowed with voice as is explained in the first book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew:

‘Creatures, I give you yourselves,’ said the strong, happy voice of Aslan.  ‘I give to you forever this land of Narnia.  I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers.  I give you the stars and I give you myself.  The dumb beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also.  Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts.  For out of them you were taken and into them you can return.  Do not so.’

And so it is that certain animals are given voice that can be understood by humans in the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia.  C.S. Lewis uses his understanding of animal behaviour and inherent animal characteristics to explore anthropomorphic allegories in order that we may learn something about ourselves.  The use of this literary device is masterful in the hands of Lewis and I will give you some examples:

‘We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want  to be one too.  In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer.  One might just as well say you’re her human.’  (Bree the horse

‘You need not always be grave.  For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.’ (Aslan the lion)

‘This is a very great adventure, and no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing … I left a mystery behind me through fear.’  (Reepicheep the mouse)

 

‘I tell you it is an animal,’ said the Bulldog.  ‘Smell it for yourself.’

‘Smelling isn’t everything,’ said the Elephant.

‘Why, ‘ said the Bulldog, ‘if a fellow can’t trust his nose what is he to trust?’

‘Well, his brains, perhaps,’ she replied mildly.

 

Treat yourself and read all seven of the Narnia series.  My favourite is The Horse and His Boy, however the most famous book in the series is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I will leave you with a quote from Prince Caspian where Aslan has been interacting with the talking mice:

Ah!’ roared Aslan.  ‘You have conquered me.  You have great hearts.  Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people . . . you shall have your tail again.’

Animal Voice

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We have completed our series on Science and Spirituality and shall now do a series on Animal Voice.  What do I mean by animal voice?  I am referring to the way many of us learn about life, the universe, ourselves and the Divine through watching and interacting with animals.  Over the next few weeks we shall explore this topic and celebrate the wisdom taught to us by other species that we share the earth with.  Here is a poem to get us started.

animals who acted

Fish, who coughed up the tax money

Donkey, who spoke the truth

Raven, who fed a depressed prophet

Bear, who mauled insolent youths

Whale, who swallowed a drowning man

Dove, who announced the end of a flood

Goat, who took away the guilt

Lions, who refused to eat

Foxes, who torched a food supply

Lamb, who provided the sacrifice

            replacing the first-born child

            enabling death to passover

            predicting the greatest act of all

Time is of the Essense

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We are currently preparing five talks to be presented on a cruise ship a couple of weeks from now.  They are discussions on Science and the title of one is ‘It’s about time’. We have been reading, thinking and talking about time. In doing so, we have realized how the way we relate to time seriously affects how we live and relate to others.  I will not dwell here on the science of time but instead share a few thoughts on the philosophy of time.

Humans have been captivated by exploring the boundaries of time since the beginning.  Our literature, art and film-making reflect a committed desire to understand time and how to relate to it in ways that create health and empowerment.  We have developed much language around our relationship with time, using verbs such as making time, losing time, wasting time, killing time, escaping time and using time (just to name a few).

‘The Sword and the Stone’ by T.H. White introduces us to a character called Merlyn who is a wizard.  He attempts to explain to Wart (the main character) what it is like to live time backwards while everyone else is living it forwards.  Merlyn remembers the future but does not know about the past which creates confusion for him when relating with others who experience time in the forward direction.  Interesting to read!  And, Norton Juster expands our thinking on time in ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ through a character called the Watchdog. As he relates to a boy called Milo, he describes what life was like before time was made and speaks with great wisdom about the different types of stillness.  It is definitely worth a read.  There is an entire genre of literature (science fiction) which explores the possibilities of how humans may, or may not, experience life in the future.  And, of course, there are whole libraries around the world with books describing all manner of versions of past human lives and activities.  Sacred texts tell of times when ‘the sun stood still’, ‘one day is like a thousand years’, ‘a thousand years is like a day’, and ‘there was silence in heaven for time, time and half a time’.  They also speak of a person called ‘the Ancient of Days’ and explore themes around timelessness and eternity.  We have poetry and songs from all over the world using lyrics to speak of the rhythms of days, tides, seasons, love and suffering.

Three of my favourite movies that contain strong time themes are: ‘Back to the Future’, ‘About Time’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.  They all encourage us to think  more deeply about time.

Well, ‘Time has run away with me’ (and I am not sure whether that’s a good/bad thing but perhaps don’t tell my husband!).  I will leave you with a quote from the Watchdog:

Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds?  But, sadly enough, no one pays any attention to them these days.  (The Phantom Tollbooth)

L’chayim (to life!), Lyn

A Walking Wonder

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Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the vast compass of the ocean, the courses of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.  (St. Augustine)

The human body!  What a wondrous thing it is.  I am reading a book called The Wisdom of the Body by Sherwin B. Nuland and this is the quote he has placed at the beginning of this masterfully written exposé of the human being.  This book can only be read slowly as it speaks to an unprotected part of my soul causing an overwhelming sense of awe.  The mind struggles to comprehend the vast number of detailed processes that the body is involved in at any moment in time.  How is it that any system can be that efficient?  I know of no other biological system that demonstrates such incomprehensible generosity.  As I read, I am totally baffled.  The rational side of my brain does not know what to do with this information so I must drop down into a more intuitive understanding of what I am reading.

I don’t know why but I find myself weeping, overcome with gratitude for the body I call ‘home’.  I am deeply honoured by how hard it works to keep me alive, healthy, balanced and happy; sometimes against fierce opposition.   And this is only in response to what we know about the human body!

Knowing and unknowing

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Knowledge can be a beautiful thing, and a wondrous thing if you stop and think about it.  How do we “know” something?  We go to school and get fed  information that we retain in our memory but can also apply in situations that we have never faced before.  We know that one and one is two, regardless if it is sheep or potatoes that we are counting.  We know that this little ‘gem’ is true no matter what situation we find ourselves in.  Besides being taught, we also learn from experience.  No matter how many times we are told that a knife is sharp and can cut us, finding out by direct experience is much more memorable.  We learn through observing others, through the culture that surrounds us, we even have instinctive knowledge that is somehow passed on to us through our DNA.

Humans possess a wonder at learning new things. We are happy to invest time in learning new skills, new languages and new facts.  We take things apart to work out how they function.  We send probes to the far flung reaches of the solar system to learn something of our place in the cosmos.

And yet there is a limit to knowledge.  Some people assume that we will continue to learn more and more and so explain all of the mysteries of the universe.  Scientists are more circumspect and know that there is a limit to how much we can actually know.  Besides the fact that there is a percentage of knowledge that we hold to be true now that will be shown to be false  within 12 months, there are some fundamental limits to what we can know.

There are limits to measurement.  Even with the best will in the world, there are limits to our ability to measure certain things.  It could be because of temperature fluctuations in the room, or the speed of light affecting how quickly a transistor can switch but there are physical limits to how accurately and precisely we can measure physical properties.

There are limits set by the laws of Quantum Mechanics to what we can know about a system.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle describes how much information we can determine about a system.  It is not, as some think, a problem with our ability to measure but is more about how much information the system is able to give up.  If we know a particle’s velocity well, then we have little idea about its position.

There are limits to our ability to predict.  Even though our computer models are becoming more and more clever, there are still huge difficulties in predicting the outcome of physical systems due to the non-linear nature of the equations being used.  If a billiard ball strikes another billiard ball then the outcome varies vastly depending on the exact initial positions velocities and angles of impact.  And the problem becomes enormously more difficult if extra balls are added to the table.

There are even limits to what we can decide.  In the highly precise field of formal logic, there are properties that are simply undecidable.  We are limited in what we can determine to be true and false.

So as we approach the new year it is time for me to marvel again at what we have learnt as human beings, and what is still left to be learnt, but also to wonder at all the things that we will never know.

A History of Science

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As was written last week, there is evidence of scientific thought in the Hebrew writings over 3000 years ago.  The Greeks then became a centre of excellence in philosophy, geometry, medicine and architecture up until about 300 BC.  In the western hemisphere it seems that not much happened until the Renaissance but the Chinese were busy inventing and building civilisations.

The second half of the last millennium saw huge developments in art, culture, music and scientific thought.  It was also the time when there was a separation of the physical from the religious.  This was probably an important stage to allow thought to develop outside of the rigid institution of the church.  Unfortunately it has resulted in a mode of thought that favours rational over mystical, and reductionism over holistic thinking.  Fortunately there has been a swing back towards a more healthy balance between the two modes of thinking, helped by the mysterious world of Quantum Mechanics and the revival and acceptance of herbal and Chinese medicine.

We now have a huge scientific industry, that unfortunately has moved beyond gathering of knowledge to seeking financial gain from whatever it learns.  At the same time we have seen people who have tired of institutional religion moving to Eastern thought as a way to make sense of this world. Or they have embraced science itself as their belief system, believing that knowledge and technology will solve mankind’s problems.

And so where does that leave us?  We must find our way in this increasingly technological world, and find meaning for its mysteries.  I wish you well with that.

Science in the Sacred Text

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Science has become an extremely sophisticated and, often exclusive and expensive, practice.  It has not always been this way.  In the past, science was based predominantly on observation and experimentation.  It was accessible to most people and the knowledge generated was used by many in practical ways relating to agriculture, architecture, food preparation and preservation, natural/herbal medicine, childbirth, cartography and navigation, philosophy and even spiritual worship.

In the ancient writings of the Hebrew/Greek sacred text, we can read of many scenarios where the scientific knowledge of the time was used in everyday situations by everyday people. Let me retell some of these stories.

If we look back to 750 BC (as recorded in 2 Kings 20), the King of Judah at that time was a man called Hezekiah.  King Hezekiah was very sick and preparing to die.  We are told that ‘Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD’ and, that in response to this, Isaiah (the prophet) then said (presumably to the King’s health attendants), ‘Prepare a poultice of figs’.  The poultice was prepared and applied to the boil and Hezekiah recovered quickly and returned to ruling his kingdom.   This is a beautiful example of natural medicine being used in the records of the Sacred Text to bring about rapid and complete healing.

Around one hundred and fifty years later when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had besieged Jerusalem, a young Israelite man called Daniel was brought into the King’s service to be trained and taught the language and literature of Babylon.  The King assigned Daniel and three of his fellow Israelites a portion of food and wine from his own table.  However Daniel convinced the chief official to allow Daniel and his friends to perform a ten-day experiment whereby they would eat only vegetables and drink water instead of consuming the rich food from the King’s table.  You can read about the outcome of this experiment in Daniel 1 found in the Hebrew Sacred Text.

Agricultural Science is described throughout the Hebrew/Greek Texts with reference to animal husbandry, leaving the soil fallow, seed planting, weed control, threshing, grafting, fertilizing, and many other agricultural practices.  In the four gospels, we read many accounts of Christ teaching spirituality and wisdom using allegories that assume  his listeners had a good understanding of agriculture and the natural cycles of the land around them.

And, of course, the record of the first Christmas describes astronomers (Magi) from the east who recognized a new star in the night sky and presumed a new king had been born.

So, let us be aware that science and the study of nature, via observation and experimentation, have been implemented by humans for a very long time, and the Sacred Text is not devoid of writings that describe such activities.