The Biggest Distractions

One of the books I am enjoying immensely at the moment is legendary dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp‘s The Creative Habit. This book has itself become legendary among creative types, and I can’t believe I have left it till now to start reading it.

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It is filled with practical information and advice, and Tharp is quite severe with her advice sometimes. But I think that, with her lifetime of amazing productivity and achievement, she has probably earned her right to be a little didactic.

One of the things she recommends, and which struck me immediately as something I could apply to my own life, is listing the biggest distractions that take you away from your work and then disciplining yourself to spend a week without one of them, and then alternating them week after week.

How would this look for me?

1 week with no Twitter – by far my biggest distraction.

1 week with no other forms of social media – principally Facebook, Tumblr and Google+. All lesser distractions, but it adds up nonetheless.

1 week with no TV – of course, no-one watches TV anymore, but everyone watches entire series, one or two episodes a night. This can steal some substantial time.

1 week with no pleasure reading – absolutely nothing that is not related directly to my work. This especially includes spiritual and self-help books, which I turn to when I am feeling stressed and overburdened.

1 week with no blogs, newspaper or other media sites perused on-line – again, a lesser distraction, but one which still can steal a few hours from my creative/work time.

So what would your list like? Would you like to share in the comments those things you’d like to take a break from occasionally, and perhaps create a rotating roster of voluntary abstinence from your biggest distractions, like I have?

Walter Mason

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Walter Mason, the constantly distracted writer

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Jacquie Pryor reviews The Testament of Mary

Today’s blog post is from Jacquie Pryor, who is a cherished Eremos elder and who served as volunteer and as editor of the Eremos magazine for many years:

I’ve just read a book called The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. In it, the mother of Jesus retells, late in her life, the events leading up to the crucifixion, and the crucifixion itself, in the first person. I was interested in the book because I thought it would offer some insight into the society of the times. I had few assumptions about Mary the mother of Jesus. I just thought of her as a woman unfortunate enough to lose her son, and to be born into such harsh times, and to have had a baby conceived in such an extremely odd way. I never really thought of her as the mother of the Son of God. It all seemed too fanciful. I guess it’s where the natural interfaces with the supernatural in the most incredible way.

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Now this book gives another slant on Mary. Tóibin presents us with a woman who just wanted her son be normal, to stay close to home and not do wondrous things that attracted attention in such a way as to put himself in danger. Mary goes to the wedding at Cana with the express purpose of telling Jesus to come home, for example. Jesus gives a fairly predictable response, but one which doesn’t show him as transcending the situation and empathising with his mother.

The Wedding at Cana

The Wedding at Cana

The book raises the question of how valuable historical fiction might be. Are we any the wiser for reading other people’s imaginative renderings of what once were facts? It might seem strange, but the book reminded me of Australian author Eleanor Spence‘s quite compelling children’s novels, Me and Jeshua and Miranda going Home. I am old enough not to be embarrassed about learning from children’s literature, especially works of the 70s and 80s which formed, I believe, the golden age of the genre, despite cultural quirks which we need to allow for today.

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Spence succeeds where Tóibin falls down: he does not evoke warmth between Jesus and his mother, so we can’t get emotionally engaged with the drama of his death from Mary’s perspective. Mary comes over as needing him, and quite willing to ‘smother’ if she can only get him to come home. Jesus comes across as fanatical, slightly mad and even self-absorbed in his attitude to his mother.

But it’s good to enter into the story in this way. It certainly challenges the sentimental view of Mary which has prevailed down the ages. It has made me think – I don’t know yet whether I give it a thumbs up or down. I believe it is available on Kindle which would be more economical than purchasing the very elegant hard copy edition.

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Rob Brennan’s Reflections on Prayer

There’s an old saying, attributed to St Ignatius Loyola: “Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you.” It came to mind as I read about the appalling shootings at the school in Connecticut. A lady on her way into the church in the town was quoted as saying, “We’re just praying – we just need to pray to God that this does not happen again, no matter where.”

I can’t help feeling that parents of children that were killed by this poor deranged young man might say, “By all means pray, but let’s also make sure there are no easily accessible guns for such people to use.”

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Prayer has always been a rather mysterious activity to me. In my youth – probably early twenties – I read the slim volume called Prayer by O Hallesby. He made it all seem so simple. I particularly remember his dictum that “prayer is an activity of the helpless”. That seems to concur with Ignatius, in other words we pray about the things over which we have no control.

For me, that sometimes meant praying for a fine day on some important occasion. I’ve heard people testify to their success in praying for a convenient parking spot. Prayers of this kind seem to be very self-oriented, in other words, “God please make life enjoyable/easy for me.” Why not pray for the old person in that other car to find a good parking spot?

Sometimes I’ve felt that my prayer was really just a kind of self-therapy, making me more inclined to be kind to that sick person for whose healing I had prayed, or to make a donation to an organisation that I had asked God to bless. I can always do with a bit of that.

The shopping list style of prayer always made me feel a touch uncomfortable. “Lord, you know that missionary Jones in the Congo needs a jeep and a new generator.” If God knows, and is not inclined to forget, why do I need to mention it? Would it not be more to the point to make a donation to that missionary? Of course, God could presumably move the owner of a jeep and a generator to donate them to the cause. But I know God works in mysterious ways, and hardly needs me to suggest which mysterious ways to use.

These days, I don’t pray much in the formal sense, even though Paul enjoins us to “pray constantly” (1 Thess 5:17). But I do sometimes drop down on my knees beside the bed to acknowledge to God that I feel rather helpless.

How does prayer fit into your life?

This entry by writer and pilgrim Rob Brennan

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A reflection on generosity and how not to be generous

I find it fascinating that ‘genuine’ and ‘generosity’ come from the same root word, “genus”. There’s a sense in which generosity requires a connection to origin. A generous act is birthed from an unbounded source. It is freely given without expectation of reimbursement or return.

So, when I say to my friend, who owns a car, “Would you like to come for a coffee at (insert location which just happens to be around the corner from my 3pm appointment)…”, even if I buy the coffee, I’m possibly not quite grasping the concept. When I’m in solve-everybody’s-problems-including-my-own mode, I might even add some perfectly legitimate reason why it’s in their best interests to take up my offer of a last minute coffee date, “…didn’t you want to take back those DVDs?”

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My opportunism began at an early age. I remember, one afternoon, (after the standard fight over who gets to sit in the front seat of Mum’s car) I convinced my brother that since his birthday falls on a date which is an even number, he could have the front seat on the even days of each month, and I would take the odd days. A diplomatic solution… until a few weeks later when he realised how many months have a ‘day 31′ immediately followed by the 1st day of the next month.

These examples may seem innocuous, but I think there’s a real danger in control masked as generosity. Generosity is a bountiful and transparent offering that flows from abundance. Both genuine and generative; it fosters in each of us the freedom to respond in the same spirit, with a full hearted “yes”; or, as is sometimes most generous, to oneself and to others, a clear, simple “no”.

What does generosity look, feel or sound like to you?

- Stephanie Gesling

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Stephanie Gesling is a facilitator, a writer and an arts enabler; you can follow her on twitter @PaperCatTales

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The Heart of Understanding – Thich Nhat Hanh

Listening today to a podcast about a Christian Zen practitioner, I heard the interviewer mention the Heart Sutra. This caused me to go straight to my shelves and take down my slim copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra and one of the books I have read over and over again through the years.

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What exactly is the Heart Sutra? It is the shortest of the Mahayana Sutras, or holy writings, and it is a pithy and poetic examination of the concept of emptiness. The Buddhist notion of Emptiness, which is reasonably well known by its Sanskrit name sunyata, is one of those that most troubles Christians when they investigate Buddhism. It is the notion that, at the basis of all things, there is no substance – all is empty.

In Vietnamese Buddhist temples the Heart Sutra is chanted at each prayer sesssion, and it can be identified by the chanting of its ditinctive mantra, which always remains untranslated: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. Offering a translation is kind of pointless, but I have found that English speakers always want one, so, for what it’s worth, this mantra is literally saying (in Edward Conze‘s version): “gone gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!”

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Some say that the Heart Sutra is the best known of all the Buddhist sutras, and its brevity means that it is commonly presented in Buddhist art. It can also be found printed on small cards and distributed freely in temples; and also etched onto jewellery, ritual objects and cups. In these forms the Sutra becomes something like a talisman.

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Scholars think that the Sutra was probably composed in Chinese and later into Sanskrit, though Buddhist tradition has always claimed the opposite. It is said to be the work of Xuanzang, the monk famously depicted in the Monkey stories and one of the powerhouses of Chinese Buddhist literature.

The famous Buddhist Master Lok To wrote that chanting the Sutra was a powerful way to drive away demons, both real and imaginary, and Thich Nhat Hanh points out that its central point is to point out the interdependence of all states of being.

I think that The Heart of Understanding is the best commentary on the Heart Sutra the beginner could hope to read. It is certainly the most accessible. This small piece of text has inspired a bewildering amount of writing, much of it very esoteric indeed!

 

Walter Mason

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Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Our Teasers:

 

“Religions seem to know a great deal about our loneliness. Even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of their doctrines, we can nevertheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers and their attempts to melt away one or two of the prejudices that normally prevent us from building connections with others.”

~ p. 30, “Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Botton Image

 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks! :D

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Using Social Media Intentionally

Recently I was listening to an interview with “Spiritual Activist” Andrew Harvey, and he talked about the importance of using social media with spiritual intent and to mobilise people around just causes. This is certainly the purpose of Eremos’ engagement with the world of social media, as haphazard as it may be.

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There has been a great deal of talk recently about the phenomenon of trolls, i.e. those people who seek to use social media to destroy and denigrate rather than uplift and transform. On a bad day, it can seem as though the trolls have won. But I contend that the only real way to deal with trolls is to drown them out with good stuff.

Some people want to blame the tools for the errors of the carpenter. Just as, 15 years ago, people sought to blame the internet itself for the social problems it exposed, many now point to social media as some kind of bogeyman. Social media, they say, is the source of social dislocation, of bullying and the fracturing of the human mind. It has been ever thus. Technology has always had to bear the brunt of the anxieties of the age – witness how some in the nineteenth century tried to have the trains shut down because of their dizzying effect on the modern psychology.

Just as with all of our forms of communication, there are ways we can use social media as an extension of our moral lives and an expression of our spiritual commitments. I’m not talking about proselytising here. I am talking about “walking the talk” and using our presence on social media as a tool for the common good. Social media can, actually, help us towards what Andrew Harvey describes as “an immense mystical renaissance taking place.”

Here are some tips for how to be a good virtual person:

1. Don’t yell, pester or harass – Basically, don’t write anything you wouldn’t say directly to a person’s face. Virtual anonymity has made a warrior of many a coward. Remember, somewhere a living, breathing human being is reading the things you wrote. How would you feel if someone said those same things to you?

2. Spread the praise – We live in a society in which it is sometimes embarrassing to be enthusiastic about something. Swallow your pride and tell someone publicly what a good job they are doing.

3. Build community – reach out and contact those people you hear about or discover who hold similar values to you and are doing work that you admire. Spend time making comments on their blogs. Make connections.

4. If you can’t say anything nice… – Just today I read a blog post that really annoyed me. Once upon a time I would have dashed off a witty putdown and really put those people in their place. But to what end? Would I have felt any better for it? Would I have grown as a person? I doubt it. The fact is, the writers were intelligent, thoughtful people expressing a point of view I don’t agree with. That’s their right, and more praise to them for taking the time to do it. Live and let live.

5. Help promote the things you like – One of the really amazing things about this new world of social media is that you can bring people, ideas and philosophies to the attention of others in previously unimaginable ways. Where once you might have had to make a dozen photocopies of an article and post it off to a select few, you can now bring it the attention of 4,000 people on Twitter, and also Facebook and Google+. Each of us now enjoys the most incredible reach, and, in a very real way, anyone active on social media is an influencer. Don’t waste that privilege on criticising and tearing down. Use it to build up the things and people you admire.

 

Walter Mason

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