The other day we all went off to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. What a great film and what a truly brilliant piece of twaddle! Following on from its thrilling prequel Rise of Planet of the Apes, these sagas are all about ape versus man in a scenario where thanks to a genetic wonder-drug the brains of apes are tweaked to make them as sophisticated as humans, and in some cases more so.
Sadly (or maybe happily) the brain and the human spirit need more than some kind of whacky chemical compound for us and out pets to be propelled into genius mode. If that was the case, we people of the 21st century would have philosophers as inspired as Plato and Socrates, instead of being stuck with the likes of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. Similarly artists like Leonardo and Cezanne would be really challenged by luminary creative talents; instead we have to put up with the derivative nonsense served up by Damien Hurst.
The brain and what makes it brilliant is a tricky little thing. Child prodigies like Mozart can be transformed into fabulous talents, but we seem to have a deadening effect on our wunderkinds in 2014; our era is obsessed with money, genius, fame, personality, success and growth. The actual art takes second place. It doesn’t look as though our nurturing techniques are coming up with the goodies at all.
It might help if we understood the human brain and its counterpart, the mind, a bit better. Added to all the unsolved mysteries of the brain, a growing number of scientists are now saying that we may have to give some sort of scientific credence to something called ‘the human spirit” or “the soul.” That said I reckon that the two previously mentioned living philosophers (who are currently enjoying amazing levels of popularity) would not agree, and that mindset is possibly holding us back.
Whether they agree or not, some things remain unknown, like:
Where is consciousness based?
What proportion of the brain is dedicated to conscious thought, and what proportion is run by the subconscious?
The Amazing and Incredible Power of Brain Editing
Apparently a massive part of the subconscious mind is dedicated to just editing out information – background stuff, noises like seagulls screaming, footballs banging, pogo sticks twanging and a zillion varieties of sound, smell, sense and bits of information that I don’t even want to think about. It must be said that I do urgently need this brain-editing faculty right now that we have hit the summer holidays, and my next-door neighbours’ children are seriously committed to kicking a football against a noisome and noisy wooden wall. Their busy sporting programme begins at 8.30am and goes on until 9.30pm with minimal breaks for ice cream. However the heat is considerable, so sometimes they have to cool down with another sporting activity – jumping up and down on a pogo stick. I don’t know who invented the pogo stick, but I think he should be congratulated for devising an activity that involves so much mindless movement, i.e. jumping up and down. It occurred to me that it might have been invented by an ape, who was keen to see the brains of young humans bounced into a state of mixed porridge and muesli, but maybe this is another episode of the Planet of the Apes saga yet to come.
It’s true to say, if you live in the second most popular holiday resort in the UK, you have to learn to love all manner of noise, screamy voices, pogo stick jumping records (running into thousands) police sirens, ice cream vans, wailing babyoids and rock music. I would just like to say that I give thanks to the subconscious bit of the brain that enables us to edit out all this kind of stuff. Around 70 per cent of people are troubled by noise in our City; I myself have been known to help people with noise problems in Brighton by providing hypnotherapy, which is truly needed in some cases. Most certainly if we didn’t have the ability to edit out external information attacking earoles, eyeballs, nostrils and sensory things, we would probably all be dead… but then when we are dead, apparently the limitation of the senses is not needed, and we can take everything in… and hereby hangs yet another tale, currently being researched by many people wiser than I.
Last Saturday I gave a speech at an Interfaith Climate Change Conference in Brighton. Here’s what I said: Seven years ago, when I was just about to be ordained as an interfaith minister, my group was asked if there were any important issues that hadn’t been tackled during our two years training; I put my hand up… and said that I was surprised that after such an inspired education programme the issue of climate change and environmental responsibility hadn’t been confronted. The response was underwhelming. Three of my fellow students responded – one who I know to be environmentally committed (and a close friend) muttered “Oh dear”… another said: “I know you’re Green, but all this environmental stuff isn’t related to faith issues, it’s just political, and it’s not important,” and the third one took me to one side and said “there, there, we all get these bees in our bonnet, it isn’t a real issue, this is something you just feel about personally today, but it’ll all blow over in a few years time, and you’ll be thinking about something else quite different in the future.” His lovely peaceful, placating approach really got him places. He’s on the Board of trustees now. Right now I would like to tell him… “no, you’re wrong mate…the situation is worse, and I’m still thinking about it”.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that what happened to me is a sort of microcosmic ‘take’ on the malaise in the world’s faiths, at present, and I say at present, because I think and I truly hope, that change is in the air. The faith leaders have talked about the environmental issue (I think Rowan Williams spoke at the Copenhagen conference, and there are a few active environmental groups) but it all looks a bit half-hearted at the moment. The real commitment is simply not there at the moment. The environmental crisis is (in my view) a life and death issue and also a spiritual issue… the one and the other in a sense being the same.
So why are people of faith seemingly not responding to the issue of climate change as we might expect? Just about every faith adheres to the principle that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself, and this ‘Golden Rule’ has existed in religious thought from Confucianism to the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, and beyond. Theoretically If one does believe in the ‘Golden Rule” one would respect ones brothers and sisters across the world, and not want to see them exposed to poisons in their food, or noxious gasses, or the environmental hazards, or death from famine, or lack of water… and one would adopt a very scrupulous lifestyle that would honour others as oneself… but of course we don’t. We can be as spiritual minded as we like, but in reality our Western lifestyle with its oversized carbon footprint is extremely difficult to get round.
I think the problem with most of the mainstream religions today is that they are deeply involved in ‘being’ – just as my fellow graduates of the interfaith foundation just wanted to ‘be’ interfaith ministers – to the exclusion of everything else. This ‘being’ is a defensive position because so many of established religions justifiably feel under attack today, they are now in survival mode, with declining Church attendances it may be difficult to think about climate change and environmental catastrophe as anything other than a minor news item, in the same way as my colleagues at the Interfaith Seminary viewed it.
The list of causes that are undermining the main religions and their leaders we all know… it begins with increased transparency which has had a devastating effect on Catholicism, and to a lesser degree the Anglican church and its senior ministers; also capitalism which in a sense is a religion with materialism at its heart, and this in turn has turned shopping malls into the new cathedrals. Yet another threat to established religion is military intervention by our government and their allies which has undermined the Western worlds’ relations with Islamic peoples, and disillusioned a good many people; then there are such issues as outmoded attitudes to the LGBT community and also the ordination of women as bishops (now resolved… and about time too) and so forth. But beyond the problems of declining church attendances, and the survival generally of established religions… we are now witnessing a massive interest in spiritual activities – yoga and meditation groups, and a host of mind, body and spirit organisations, books and classes on spirit and self-help that show that although people are turning away from the religious patterns of their forbears, they are discovering spiritual awareness for themselves… and dare I say it… this spiritual awareness goes hand in hand with environmental awareness.
So why should religious groups take up the cause of climate change? I believe that the very nature of connecting to the environment at the deepest level is a faith issue. Nobody knows this better than indigenous faith groups living in the wild corners of the planet that have profound spiritual connections to trees, flowers, plants and elements. These connections are real, they teach us everything from how to look after ourselves, to how to heal ourselves. Connecting with nature also offers us a moral code, which goes very deep indeed; it’s something we may well have to relearn.
So why should faith groups take up the cause of climate change? Because the real connections with nature still remain in the territory of faith, the ecstasy of Carmelite nuns is not 100 miles from the inspiration you and I get from looking at a great sunset, or certain types of eastern (yogic or trantric) meditation. These are spiritual experiences, and it is appropriate that when encountering spiritual experiences that we should learn from the experts, the people of faith.
Interfaith ministers face all sorts of choices when they go out into the world, and we all have different speciality acts. Among my personal passions are the environment, of course, and also meditation using visualization and altered states, where one explores the beauty and power of the inner human landscape. This connection with the inner landscape strengthens ones relationship with the outer landscape, and ones relationship with the world. In addition to this… I have also spent over 20 years studying death, having read about it and written about it and run workshops on it for a number of years. Death is a subject (one might say) that is very close to my heart. In the course of reading about death, I find myself studying the enormous body of work currently looking into death through the eyes of those people who have come close to death… which points us in a very unexpected direction with regard to care for the planet. Near death experiences (or NDEs as they are called) are innately spiritual experiences encountered at the moment when one has died or is about to die. Such personal events have been described and recorded for hundreds of years, but only now, with better systems for communication and machinery for monitoring and resuscitating people are we aware of the significance of the data we are gaining from people who die, and are revived. The most remarkable thing is that those that return from death acquire very particular concepts and views that they have never held before. Cynics may attribute such changes to all sorts of physical things, but by the time one has worked ones way through the brilliant research of Kubler Ross, Moody, Sartori, Pim Van Lommel, Peter Fenwick and others, I personally don’t find it easy to argue sensibly with cynics, any more than I find it easy to argue sensibly with climate change deniers. People return from near death with both physical and mental changes; they are able to understand things that they didn’t comprehend before… they no longer have any fear of death, and despite having had a profound spiritual experience, most, continue to retain their spiritual views – be they atheist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. Lots of people return from death to become much more altruistic than they had been before, but most significantly… they say something very pertinent to this conference today … and I quote Dr Penny Sartori:
“Following an NDE, many people become more concerned with ecological issues, and the conservation of the planet becomes very important to them.”
It is evident to me, that care of this world, as many indigenous peoples have always believed, is a spiritual issue… and this is going to become increasingly evident, as we discover that our materialist western life-style has too high a price to pay, as we endanger our own lives, our children and life generally on our planet.
This is our world. It is the only one we have. Many faiths believe that we have more than one life, they believe that we reincarnate, and there are good indications that nearly all the major faiths have held this view at some time or another (even Christianity). Whether we believe we have one or many lives or not, whether we believe that death is the end, one thing is certain: this is the only world we have, and as members of the human race, it is imperative that we accept the sacred nature of this world, in all its beauty, diversity and mystery. For this reason I ask you, whatever your faith, to honour and care for our planet, and above all… to encourage those around you to do the same. Thank you.
There is this chapter in The Bible (I may have mentioned it before) that reveals that even ancient wisdom can be thoroughly useful at times; it comes from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 and it states that ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the sky…a time to be born… a time to die…” and it goes on to state that planting, harvesting, healing, destroying and creating all have their time, along with knowing when to embrace, or not to embrace, a useful thing when encountering certain persons along the road of life. Sadly it does not mention when one should, or should not open ones mouth.
But there is one thing even more useful than knowing about creating or identifying the appropriate time, it is knowing about timing itself… the thing that leads up to choosing the moment. Timing decides whether your allotment is going to produce weeds or luscious crops, whether a joke is funny or facetious, or if a piece of art is rubbish or truly great. Listening to the great Shirley Horn sing is astonishing. Her interpretation could be a drag; instead her slow and structured timing is literally breath-taking. There is this weird little track featuring two songs squashed into one called ‘Come A Little Closer/Wild is the Wind’. It starts out quite nicely, a jazzy interpretation of a pleasant song, but when it goes into ‘Wild is the Wind’, it shifts into soft alluring harmonies that lead one into a dimension of perfectly controlled timing… that literally has one holding ones breath for the sound of each and every note that follows. Shirley Horn does timing, Holly Johnson just sings about it (‘Relax’ is an OK track, but it just warbles on about timing).
So today is International Timing Day. Today doctors will have to listen to patients talking about their ailments instead of staring mindlessly at the computer, and then prescribe with care and deliberation; drivers will look and think thoughtfully before doing a right turn; musicians will sit back and listen to Shirley Horn’s rendering of ‘But Beautiful’, ‘Solitary Moon’ or ‘Blue in Green’. Alternatively they can tune in to Otto Klemperer playing anything by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And if that isn’t enough to gain an understanding about how timing works, let’s just sit down and watch a sunflower grow, a tree come into blossom, or a lion or bird of prey doing what comes naturally. If we all tuned into timing, don’t you think that life would be a great deal lovelier?