Dreams, Dawns, Dying, Inspiration
The last Chapter looked at clearing the shadows: This one is about bringing more light into your life, finding a sense of purpose and inspiration. That may sound grand, but it doesn’t need to be: if you can find a sense of purpose for tomorrow, or next week, it’s progress. You could choose to help a friend, or try a morning volunteering: small steps are a vital start. Especially if you’re digging yourself out of depression or other major problems, finding purpose and meaning even on a small scale will lift your mood and move you forward.
This Chapter explores various ways of finding inspiration, and bringing a sense of opening up and new dawns into your life. You may be surprised to see dying covered here: facing up to death can really help you to value life, and enjoy it fully. This Chapter also explores how a spiritual path and practice could help you, and how time in Nature can be a deep source of inspiration and understanding.
One of the biggest pleasures in my life over the past fifteen years has been seeing many men over 50 emerging from their pain, finding a sense of pleasure and purpose again – including myself. This may be a zig-zag journey, with many ups and downs, but have faith: it does happen.
Spiritual dawns: worth a try
For some men beyond 50, their spiritual path is a vital inspiration, a way of keeping centred, a big resource in facing problems. For others, the very idea is threatening or meaningless. I’m in the first of these groups, and I have friends in both of them. You should make your own choices, but if you don’t have a spiritual path, it’s worth exploring the possibility, and seeing if it could help you.
If you’re hostile or sceptical about this topic, ask yourself why? Are you confusing organised religion or cult gurus with spirituality? Are you alarmed at the idea that there is some power beyond the individual? Trust that you won’t be conned or brainwashed: give it a try.
The term spiritual path means a set of beliefs and values, and a spiritual practice means ways that you affirm and anchor them. Typically the central belief is in some power or presence which is not material or measurable, which is bigger than individuals. My path combines elements from several traditions, especially Christian, Buddhist, Celtic and Sufi. A key Sufi belief is that there is a divine presence in all forms of life, so we are all part of divine unity.
One of the ways my spiritual path helps me is when I am upset or overwhelmed. Instead of being completely identified with the hurting part of me, which is usually the inner child, I can find my connection with my higher self: the divine spark in me which connects to the divine spark in all life. Another way it helps is in finding direction and purpose. I believe we each have a soul that chooses the life we come into, including its blessings and problems. One of my most frequent prayers is to ask to be guided so that my soul can serve the highest good of all, and align with divine purpose.
In his excellent book, The Power of Modern Spirituality, William Bloom poses three questions which can help you recognise the spiritual aspects already in your life:
?In what kind of circumstances do you most easily connect with the wonder and energy of nature and all existence, and feel your heart touched and your consciousness awakened?
?When is it easiest for you to retreat from activity, pause and reflect on your life, so as to manage your life and next steps?
?What are your highest values and how do you express them as a form of service for the community of life?
He goes on to suggest three behaviours at the heart of all spiritual paths, whether or not these fit within a named tradition:
Connection – sometimes, surely, your heart is touched and you connect with the wonder and energy of life.
Reflection – sometimes already, you pause and reflect on your life and actions, and ponder how to change and improve.
Service – and sometimes, of course, you have a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong, and you act so as to do good for others.
Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with organised religion. There are priests who abuse their position, and organisations who may manipulate you with guilt or shame. Don’t let this cut you off from the deep wisdom and superb teachers you can find in many religions and other, less formal spiritual paths. If you are wary of being told what to do, explore paths like Buddhism, Sufism, Quakers and Unitarians.
The set of values in a spiritual path could be a code that’s set down, like a Christian creed or Buddhist precepts. The Twelve Steps, described in Chapter 7, are a spiritual path, with a code. However, many people evolve their own set of values. Either way makes you more aware of how you want to live, and of the positive or negative effect you can have on other people. Choosing and naming your values, affirming them regularly, can help you to live by them.
A spiritual practice can take many forms. Going to a church service or a meditation group is one. I find it’s helpful to do some practice daily, so I start with a half hour of silent meditation and prayers every morning. Some spiritual paths include a periodic review with a mentor, who can help you take stock of your progress, and can suggest specific practices. When I started my Sufi path, I was struggling with low self-confidence, and my mentor suggested using sound mantras to affirm the positive qualities I needed.
How do you find a spiritual path? It’s a wonderful field to explore: you can meet some extraordinary people, make new friends, and learn a lot. Try out some different paths before you make a choice. Start by asking people around you: they may not talk about their beliefs until you ask them. Go to a few services, social events, or retreats. Read a few books. You’ll find more pointers in Resources.
Choosing a spiritual path is really more a matter of letting it choose you. Try to get your logical mind and your ego out of the way, open up to a sense of where you’re drawn to, what inspires you, and someone you can learn from. I have had superb individuals as teachers in all the four traditions which are woven into my path.
Face your dying to enrich your living
Are you finding it hard to read this section? Do you wonder what’s the point of thinking about death? Maybe you’re in fine health now, so it seems irrelevant. There’s a good reason to consider death now, which is: you can enrich every day of your life by your awareness of death.
If you talk to those who work with dying people, or read books like Stephen Levine’s, you’ll see that many experience dying as a gentle transition, a release. If you find death scary, dig into the reasons: they may just be the general taboo on this topic in our society. If you have real fears, the sooner you can face them the sooner you’re free to enjoy life fully.
Can you say that you have faced up to death, in a practical, and emotional, and spiritual sense? It’s liberating to do so. If you have a partner or adult kids, talk to them about your will, and your funeral preferences. This helps to normalise the topic of dying: and if you start with practicalities, it makes it easier for you and those close to you to talk about the feelings too. This section should help you to start engaging with this big topic. Here are some initial pointers:
- ?Look at the animal or plant world – death is a natural part of the cycle. What are your hang-ups about it?
- ?Realise you cannot control the time of your death. Yes, you can take care of your health, but you could be hit by a bus, a heart attack, or cancer, tomorrow. It’s better to face the prospect of dying now: this makes it easier when it does happen.
- ?Let go of the illusion that you’re in control of your life. In death and life, all you can do is influence, not control, and realising this can bring you to a more realistic, two-way relationship with the world around you, and free you from the stress of trying to control everything.
- ?Do the related exercises in Appendix I. Yes, really: do them now. They will truly help you enjoy living to the full, and help you clarify what’s important in life for you.
- ?If there are things you want to say to people before you die, do it now. It can enrich the rest of the time you have with them, and ensure that you get the chance to do it.
- ?Cultivate gratitude: appreciation arises naturally when you recognise that this moment is all you have, this life could end anytime. Thankfulness will enrich your life, and others around you.
- ?Live every day as if your last: doing this will help you focus on what matters, drop resentments and petty conflicts, and apologise where you need to. At a time when Linda and I had big relationship problems, this one principle transformed the situation.
- ?Get your admin straight – i.e. will, funeral, papers, financial records.
I would recommend that you focus on personal contacts and direct experiences, rather than books and websites. However, here are a couple of threads you could follow.
The Power of Now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle. ISBN 978-0-340-73350-9. This is one of the best-selling recent books in this field, and deservedly. Especially helpful for men, since it shows how the mind gets in our way, how to move past this, and how to focus on the now.
The Power of Modern Spirituality: How to live a life of compassion and personal fulfilment, by William Bloom. ISBN 978-0749952853. I rate William highly as a teacher who is both deep and accessible, and this book has both of these qualities. It is a good guide to exploring and evolving your own spiritual path, and the book is not linked to any one path or doctrine. It also has some very good resources for further exploration.
Prayers of the Cosmos, by Neil Douglas-Klotz. ISBN 0-06-061995-3. If your earlier contact with the Christian faith ended with you dropping out disillusioned, like me, this short and accessible book could help you. It provides extended translations from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, which throw a different light on the essential teachings. The book also suggests practices to help you experience and embody these teachings, and it has helped me and others to find a renewed connection with the Christian path.
Desert Wisdom, by Neil Douglas-Klotz. ISBN 978-1456516475. This brilliant book can help you understand and experience some of the deepest teachings from the spiritual traditions of the Middle East, including Sufi, Christian and others. It has helped my spiritual path for many years.
Spiritual paths is a topic where web searches are likely to leave you boggled: if you want to try this, focussing helps, eg results for Celtic spirituality are somewhat less confusing than spirituality in general.
One teacher who I and several friends have found helpful as a starting point is William Bloom, see www.williambloom.com for details of his events and publications.
www.abwoon.org: This is the website of Neil Douglas-Klotz, a leading international teacher of Sufi, Christian and other middle eastern spiritual traditions. The website contains some useful written material, details of all his books including Desert Wisdom, and listings of events.
There are many different Buddhist orders active in the UK. Here are websites for a couple of them:
Alternatives of St James in London offers a wide variety of evening sessions and longer workshop which can help you to experience and explore different paths and teachers. See more at www.alternatives.org.uk.
Facing your dying
Who dies? An investigation of conscious living and conscious dying, by Stephen Levine. ISBN 978-0385262217. This is a beautifully written book which can help you live well and die well. Much of it is relevant at any time in the mature years, and some of it is specifically about the time of physical death. There are some good guided meditations, exploration of what lies beyond death, and useful lists of books and music.
Healing into Life and Death, by Stephen Levine. ISBN 0-946551-48-0. This excellent book differs from Who dies? in its strong focus on self-healing, with more of a workbook flavour, and many guided meditations and exercises.
The Tibetan book of living and dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. ISBN 0712671390. Written by one of the most warm and engaging Tibetan Buddhist teachers, this is a relatively approachable way into the deep and complex Tibetan teachings about conscious dying, the life beyond, and how this can enrich life now.
www.deathanddying.org. This is a Buddhist website, which can provide some helpful insights, and links to further resources.
www.hospiceuk.org/our-campaigns/dying-matters. This is a UK website raising awareness of dying, death and bereavement. It encourages people to talk about dying, and offers useful advice, contacts for support, and links to other useful organisations.