Free to Say No


 I tend not to be moved by exhortations such as 'Just do it! or, 'We can do it!’ These phrases do nothing for me, especially when accompanied by cranked up displays of bubbly enthusiasm. 

 In my experience, these kinds of peppy words tend to be uttered in an atmosphere of gleefulness that leaves me cold, and do not ring true.

 I always feel in response that there's something missing - something lacking. I surely therefore would make a poor candidate to 'Come on down!' on the Price is Right

 And thus my tendency in these kinds of vertiginous contexts is to find a way to turn down the volume, or failing that, to get out fast. 

 I guess I tend to be a little less festive that some like to be. As more and more people gravitate towards some center of noise, I’m usually headed in the opposite direction.

 My practice is the art of the quick escape.

 It’s not that I’m against enthusiasm, but feel it has to arise from something, that is, from a certain inner fullness of depth, integrity and wisdom.

 When that inspired level of fullness is evident, then it’s an entirely different story. I then can share in the joy and the celebrating. A sense of it all meaning something changes everything. 

 But that is a rare instance. Most of the time, I’m trying to find a way to get away from the big bash. 

 I would hate therefore to be described as excitable: ‘He’s so excitable.’ I can hardly imagine a worse indictment of someone's character. ‘He’s so excitable. He gets so easily worked up about this or that.' You mean, there's so little to him?

 I share in author of Quiet, Susan Cain’s, dismay who, upon registering for a Tony Robbins seminar, heard screams in the distance from the participants and cringed in horror. Yet went ahead anyway to endure the event, but only for the sake of the research she was doing on why introverts hate these kinds of gatherings. 

 Identifying with Susan, I am not going to be impressed with the party enthusiast who hurls herself into the party pool, but rather with that person who is found to be sitting in a corner away from everyone, looking like a thought or two is actually going through her head.

 And I will be especially drawn to such a person if I sense that she has a strong inner life and the corresponding poise and freedom that goes hand in hand with that.

 Here then before me in some social context is an admirable human being whose inner life I have discerned is surging with energy. With the qualification that her soaring energy is also contained. And in like manner, such an admirable person is full of passion, but disciplined. Wild, too, but not reckless.

 What’s admirable is to behold a man or woman in full - a phrase I like. I admire someone whose practice is, in John Tauler’s words "the recollection of all of one’s powers.”

 I'm thinking here of the sort of person who characteristically pauses, hesitates and listens before acting. Perhaps like Socrates in some measure, whose habit - apparently his most noticed disposition - was to pause to listen for the inner prompting of his daimon -the voice of a higher presence.

 That habit of turning inward and listening first is so very impressive to me. And I have never seen it more powerfully displayed than when I visited the Gurdjieff society in Seattle. I was astonished to notice that everyone there paused before speaking. People weren’t noisily jabbering at each other, as at most social events. There were actually huge silent places, even during the social time. And those silences only deepened when the formal meeting began.

 All around me in that room in Seattle were people who were poised and collected. They were in possession of themselves. It was evident that they had been ‘doing the work’ necessary to become very present and attentive human beings. They converted me on the spot by the quality of their collective presence.

 Grounded in something higher, these were people who I would describe as inwardly free enough and strong enough not to impulsively join in with the latest throng, crowd or chorus. 

 And likely therefore to be persons who are carefully carving out particular identities while living in a world where the tendency is to scatter one’s powers and consequently to live in a fragmented state.

 How rare and wonderful to meet someone who doesn’t squander the essence of himself in this way or that, but who lives a life of integrity.

 As for instance in the case of Reggie, a P.G. Wodehouse character, who with great determination, decided to disentangle himself from the keeping of bad company.

 The author states: “I found Reggie in the club on Saturday morning. He was reclining in a long chair, motionless, his eyes fixed glassily on the ceiling." 

 "You don’t seem to be doing anything," I said.

 "It’s not what I’m doing,” he replied, - "it’s what I am not doing that matters.” Which is, I think, a highly significant statement.

 Reggie was celebrating what he was not doing. What he refused to do was defining him.

 So there sat Reggie, content not to be going anywhere, or doing anything.

 When asked about his not doing anything, he responded: “Do you know Bodfish?

 "I shuddered. You mean Wilkinson Bodfish? I do."

"Have you ever spent a weekend at Bodfish’s place in the country?"

 "I shuddered. I have."

 Well, I’m not spending the weekend at Bodfish’s place in the country.”

 "I am deliberately not spending the weekend there.

 I love Reggie’s resolve.  

 "Can you imagine anything more delightful than not spending a weekend with Bodfish? Well, that’s what I’m doing now.”

 Reggie had resolved not to be there with Bodfish. As he says: I’m "not strolling down to Bodfish’s garage, listening to him prattle on about his new car. I am "not shaking hands with Mrs. Bodfish” and not hearing about her prematurely advanced children. "I am not there after dinner playing bridge with Bodfish, Mrs. Bodfish, and a neighbour.” 

 Well, Reggie had disengaged from bad company. A good first step. But there’s something higher that I care to write about.

 And that is that there needs to be as well the effort to befriend what has been described as our chief good - a phrase not likely to be heard very much these days.

 We hear instead about the search for good times, and not so much about the search for our chief good.

 And yet the great sages and seers have always said that our chief good is to experience a relationship with the Divine.

 Our chief good is an experience of intimacy with what Meister Eckhart calls ‘That which is near to me than I am to myself.’ As he exclaims: "I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself.

 Our chief good is to identify with the indestructible and Divine element within us. 

 Such an identification is enabled to the degree that two conditions are met. One is virtuous living, the other is spiritual vigilance.

 Ursula Fleming (1930 to 1992) an English psychotherapist, sought to live her life in these terms.

 I learned of her only recently and have been intrigued with her story, a story with which I identify.

 Ursula had decided to abandon her Christianity, but a Buddhist, interestingly, intervened with a suggestion. 

 Marco Pollis advised her to “Go back to the religion of her birth. Go back to the sacraments. And read Eckhart.” 

 Well, she took the advise, but after a while told Marco: "I like Eckhart but I only understand fragments of what he is saying."

 She then received that special advise that would make all the difference in the growth of her spiritual life: "Don’t try to understand him. Just go on reading him.”

 Which I regard as the best advise ever. Ursula was being told that the contemplative reading of Eckhart was not about  trying to figure him out. 

 It was more about allowing the words of Eckhart gradually to seep into her consciousness. A process that over time would release her more and more from the domesticated mind - the everyday or routinized mind. 

 John O’Donohue, the Irish poet/philosopher, and lover of Eckhart, writes about leaving behind the haze of the shallow mind to behold an amazing inner plentitude.

 To find this inner experience, says O’Donohue, sometimes requires a crisis of some kind.

 It could happen, he says, that "one evening, you are busy with many things, netted into your role and the phone rings. Someone you love is suddenly in the grip of an illness that could end her life without hours." 

 "When you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world.” 

 I used to notice just such an awakening effect when I was a hospital chaplain.

 Some crisis would cause people to get real and to talk about things perhaps not faced for years. 

 And sometimes this would lead to talk about a longing to cultivate a spiritual life. 

 A determination would arise in people like this to "leave the kingdom of fake surfaces, repetitive talk and weary roles.” (J O’Donohue)

 They had a new sense that time is precious and needs to be used well. 

 And, too, they were realizing that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In other words, if inner freedom is to be found there is the need to be aware and watchful.

 Which means a new determination to watch and listen before plunging into some frivolity, giddy with excitement.

 Now on a spiritual path there was a growing sense of becoming free enough to assert that certain activities should be left behind. 

 As someone on such a path might put it: 'You can do it if you want. Go the way you want. But leave me out of it.'The whole world can go however it wants to go, but I will not be joining in.' 

 'For I truly have a life now.'

 'I may not be able clearly to tell you exactly what it is that I feel called to. But I tell you that 'I hear it in my dreams. I hear it when listening to great music. I hear it when talking with a great friend. I hear if when I’m meditating. I hear it when I’m praying. I hear it in my best moments. And I want my life to line up to with my best moments.

 I’m tired of it being otherwise.

 My intention now is resist the pressure to give in to those restless impulses that suffocate my soul.

 I am becoming free enough to say no.


Kirtan Sohila - Recitation, Snatam Kaur