Author Archives: Andrew

About Andrew

I am journeying through life practicing a Christian spirituality. I am also an Oblate of the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Life on the Edge of an Unjust System

This post was first published as an article on the Australian on-line journal Eureka Street on April 26, 2019 under the title ‘My Newstart Conundrum‘. If you are able and think it worthwhile, please support Eureka Street with a donation.

Recently I was placed on the Federal Government’s Mutual Obligation program, otherwise known as ‘Work for the Dole’. This happened as a result of being on a partial Newstart payment for twelve months. I have been underemployed for around three years now and Newstart provided a welcome top-up as I continued to look for more work.

Each Newstart recipient is given a Job Access Provider (JAP) to help them look for work. My JAP informed me that I was required to do 21 hours per week of Mutual Obligation activity. This was in addition to looking for work, made up of applying for at least 20 jobs every four weeks.

My JAP worker assured me that the 21 hours per week would help me to remain motivated and focused on the task at hand: finding work. I replied that I would now have to stop doing the things that were keeping me motivated to satisfy my Mutual Obligation requirements.

I live in Western Sydney. My JAP had me volunteering with a Christian outreach program doing good things in the area for people living with significant financial and personal disadvantage, largely via housing and food initiatives. It is safe to say that many of these people are unemployed.

After four weeks on ‘Work for the Dole’ I decided that it was best for my own well-being to go back to the things I had been doing to remain motivated. This meant coming off Newstart. Fortunately, I have good support. Others are not so fortunate.

The others with me doing their own Mutual Obligation hours were diverse: people living with various forms of mental and emotional disorder deemed by their JAP and the Federal Government as employable. There were also people with differing physical conditions similarly assessed as employable. Add to this underemployed people and itinerate workers between jobs. One person I spoke to, who was an underemployed casual teacher, said that her Newstart benefit was paying her rent.

A common experience of those I spoke with during this time was that their long-term experience had been one of a slow decent into hopelessness and powerlessness. The combination of an inadequate Newstart while searching for 20 jobs a month plus compulsory Mutual Obligation, (as well as, for some, underemployment), had become overwhelming.

A recent federal budget news report contained an estimation that 28,000 people in Australia have been receiving Newstart for more than ten years and that 60 per cent of all Newstart recipients have been on this benefit for more than 2 years. That’s a lot of job searching and Mutual Obligation required from people struggling to find enough work, or any work at all. In my view, this expectation is quite unreasonable.

Another issue relevant here is the idea of full employment. What exactly is it? The Reserve Bank had been, until recently, operating with the idea that full employment is 5 per cent, though it might now be lower – perhaps somewhere between 4 and 5 per cent. This means that there is little or no work currently available for 4 to 5 per cent of the population that are assumed to be work ready, let alone those who, realistically, are not.

What we now have in this country is a cohort of our fellow Australians who will never find work, or enough work. This fact is due to a combination of personal and systemic factors. Either they will be deemed unemployable by potential employers, or adequate employment options are just not there for them.

It is unjust to provide a sub-standard Newstart allowance and compulsory Mutual Obligation to those genuinely struggling to find adequate employment in a system that does not provide enough opportunity for employment. Is there an alternative?

Currently the tax-free threshold is $18,200 per year. What if we were to give all Australians of working age currently unemployed $18,200 a year. Those of us who are underemployed would be given enough money to also have us on $18,200 per year.

For example, if someone is earning $12,000 a year working, they would be given $6,200. Any income after $18,200 would be taxed at the normal rate, regardless of whether that income be from Newstart or employment. For the unemployed single, this would guarantee around $674 per fortnight in addition to a Newstart benefit of $555 per fortnight. This would mean that the single unemployed person would be on $32,396 per year after tax, much better than the current $14,985 per year (tax free). This is, of course, before any increase in Newstart.

As for the Mutual Obligation hours, let’s not make Newstart dependent on doing these hours, and let’s tailor the activities more towards each person and their circumstance. Yes, we might need practical encouragement to remain motivated, however, we may already be doing this for ourselves. Let the system recognise this.

 

 


David’s Place Retreat

This was first published in a David’s Place newsletter and in the December 2018 edition of ‘Via Vitae’, a newsletter for the oblates of The World Community for Christian Meditation (which can be viewed and downloaded here). The retreat was run in October 2018.

For the last seven years, members of Sydney’s David’s Place community have made their way to St. Benedict’s Monastery, near Arcadia (in Sydney’s north west), for their annual retreat. Oblates from The World Community for Christian Meditation have been invited, each year, to support them.

What is David’s Place?

David’s place is an inner-city space where Sydney’s homeless and marginalised can come to find friendship, peace, spiritual nourishment and connect with the wider community.

It was created to be a place where Jesus would have liked to hang out, where it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, or where life has led you.

David’s Place brings together both rich and poor, breaking down barriers in our city. Division in our communities is where many of our societal problems arise. To experience David’s Place for yourself is to know that such separation is avoidable. (from davidsplace.com.au)

Jesus was not about class. Jesus was about the Kingdom, or Kin-dom of God: places and ways of life that are about kindness, compassion, and just relations. Attempting Kin-dom living can be a challenging way to operate. It can involve being with people very different to ourselves. This can reveal to us our tendencies toward fear in the face of difference. Division can be a product of this fear.

It is familiarity that breaks down uncertainty and fear. Community is the place where the stranger becomes familiar, where the stranger can then become a friend. David’s Place is such a place.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2Cor 4:7)

The clay jar of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a great metaphor for the human condition. We are all jars of clay. In our psychology and physicality, we are the stuff of the earth. Some jars have been mostly looked after, cared for; others have been neglected. Some jars have been shaped with weaknesses, fault lines in the clay that are just there. Some jars are stronger in their shape and can bear a load that other jars cannot.

This year’s David’s Place retreat was a time for us, as clay jars, to come away and rest. For many, the load of living in the inner-city was set aside; fault lines were eased.

The wonderful thing about being jars of clay is that the ‘weaker’ ones can remind the ‘stronger’ ones what we all carry: the treasure that is Christ. This is what happened at this year’s retreat. Human acts of love and kindness revealed this treasure within: wheelchairs pushed through the mud and the rain; words of encouragement and love given amid challenging circumstance; concern voiced for those upset; inclusion valued above everything else; prayers of thanks and intercession offered; gratitude abounding; silence shared.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2Cor 4:8-10)

Many at David’s Place live with fragile clay. It bends, it cracks, it can break. And so it can be with all of us. This year’s retreat showed that fragile acts of love are the strongest acts; in their vulnerability they reveal the invincibility of divine love in human experience. Love is an extraordinary power that lives in us, waiting to move and act as us. Fragile clay is love’s sacrament.

During the retreat our breaks and cracks were on display – we could not help it. And not being able to help it is the gift. In all this is a treasure shines through, transfiguring weakness into ways of love. This is what happens when fragile human beings dare to love each other. This is what happened at this year’s David’s Place Retreat.

For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2Cor 4:11-12)

What can happen for us who accept something of the clay that they are, the jar we have become, and still together attempt love? We experience that this Jesus, this treasure of Christ within us, is mysteriously one with who we most deeply are. The humanity of Jesus is his solidarity with us. Being human is enough – whatever jar we are.

Each year, at St. Benedict’s Monastery, the David’s Place Community are their own human face of divine love for each other. This is what all community can be, both for each other and for the world.


The Caravan: Awareness Without Thought (Part 2)

As we drove back to the caravan, I could sense the resistance in me. As best as I could, I gave attention to it without thought, without questioning what the resistance might mean. It was simply a time to experience it.

Resistance is not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s a sign that things are moving too quickly for us and we need to take a step back; sometimes it might mean that we are avoiding something that could be good for us. Other times resistance could be telling us that it is somehow best to not engage a situation or circumstance. Resistance is usually a fear response; but a fear of what: of life generally, of being somehow overwhelmed, making a wrong decision?

Back with my friends and their caravan, we sat down to talk about how the last week had gone and how I was feeling about my time in the caravan. I still did not have an answer to what the resistance might mean. It felt like a risk to be speaking about something I did not (as yet) have a clear answer for.

Often we don’t come to clear enough answers about questions on our own. Sometimes sitting with things by ourselves is not enough. When we start to talk to others about how we are feeling, then this is when things might start to clarify for us. This sense of clarification happens in the deep of us, a kind of coming together of sense and feeling to form an intuition in the heart: a discernment.

As I spoke, I discovered myself speaking in the past tense about being in the caravan. Upon this discovery, I began to feel a kind of relief. The resistance began to subside. We continued to talk. In time I came to a decision to leave. With this I felt some peace; and then I felt guilt, and shame.  

In coming to a decision, we can soon feel a variety of emotions and feelings. It can be a challenge to navigate a decision within ourselves while all this energy is moving around in us. We can start to question whether a decision is the right one or not. With this questioning can come doubt. In this instance it can be a good thing to say the mantra, especially if our practice is such that the mantra has become grounded enough in the heart. Here, the mantra is like a sinker on a fishing line: it can drop attention back into the heart, the place where our original intuition was experienced, before thought and emotion crowded this intuition out.

I am now living back in Sydney, back in the house I lived in for a couple of years prior to 2019. Upon arrival it felt like I had come home. There is a deep sense that it is good to be here before the challenge and change of moving to France takes place. The guilt and shame have fallen away.

We may not know enough about the fit of a decision until we act on it. Hopefully there has been enough discernment before the action. An important part of discernment is the art of not thinking; this might seem a strange thing to say, especially if we think all life decisions are problems to solve – some are not. It can seem counterintuitive to not think about something we are unsure of, and yet when it comes to decisions of the heart a time of thoughtlessness is wise. Meditation is the art of not thinking about a decision that can be a part of the process of coming to a decision. In time, and with others, we can use words to clarify what our hearts have said.


The Caravan: Awareness Without Thought (Part 1)

For the last couple of years or so, myself and some other members of The WCCM have been planning a move. Come the middle of April this year I should be arriving at Bonnevaux, the new international retreat centre for The WCCM. I will be there as part of the live-in community. In the meantime, I am living in transitional accommodation in an on-site caravan at a friends place in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (west of Sydney, Australia).

Where I’m living is a wonderful place, full of trees and wildlife and a generous spirit. It is a place of peace that is giving me and many others a space of quiet and safety. Indeed, the spirit of the place has been stirring in me feelings that I might have not noticed or might have otherwise been tempted to ignore.

As accommodation goes the caravan is refreshingly basic: bed, a small swinging table, limited seating (thanks in no small part to my luggage), pump action tap with sink, two electric hotplates, some cupboard space, and a bar fridge. Volunteering for manual labor comes with the accommodation. This transitional accommodation is for two months.

After living in the caravan for around a week and a half, circumstances have found me back in Sydney this past week and in the house where I used to live. I am due back at the caravan this weekend, and I now find myself in something of a quandary: I am noticing resistance within me around returning. It is not about the caravan itself; more about my reaction to returning.

What am I do to with this resistance? Ignore it? Push it down beyond awareness? Just live with it? What might it be saying?

This occasion of resistance is a good time to practice what many are calling these days mindfulness; or perhaps we could call it the practice of becoming aware, without thought, of what I am feeling about heading back to the caravan.

How could this be done – to not think about what I am aware of? Isn’t thought and awareness the same thing? No. Thinking is largely a product of our self-consciousness, while awareness occurs in consciousness. What we repress ends up as unconscious.

Feelings are best felt rather than ignored, suppressed, and repressed. Feelings left unfelt in this way require quite a bit of energy to keep them ‘out of mind’. Over a lifetime, energy used in this way can cause exhaustion, anger, resentment, even grief and depression. Repression of feelings also contributes to the ageing and damaging of our bodies. So it’s important to grow in the practice of the regulation of our feelings, allowing them to rise and be felt. However, because we are well versed in repression, this can be a challenge to learn and continue to practice.

A healthy mind is all about being conscious. If we are too self-conscious (a common malady today), our thinking can crowd out our feelings, giving little space for us to simply feel. Anger may rise, for example, and what we could do is quickly start to analyse it: where is this from, why am I feeling this? The result of this is that we are no longer feeling or allowing space for feeling. Thinking can also be a part of suppression and repression; over-thinking contributes to feelings becoming unconscious and unfelt.

So, it follows then, that if we are to give more space to the feeling of feelings and so become more mindful, it would be good to practice the art of not thinking. Easily said than done.

Meditation is the practice of not thinking, or non-thinking. How does this happen? Via the giving and re-giving of attention to a mantra we, in efffect, give the energy invlolved in thought something else to do. Rather than thinking about tomorrow, last week, or today’s to-do list, we practice the art of allowing thinking to recede and quieten via attention on the mantra. What then happens, over time, is that space is freed to feel. Feelings can rise safely and not be subjected to the scruttiny of self-consciousness via thought. In time, too, because they are being safely felt, the intensity of our feelings subside. Another way of saying all this is to say that we are becoming conscious.

So now is the time for me to become aware of what I am feeling. It is important that I put any descriptive words aside and simply feel the feelings. Now is not the time to speculate. Now is the time to simply feel. After feeling words will come. This practice is a fruit of meditation.


Chapter 7.11: Humility

This is a post from another blog that is being run in conjunction with Lines From Inbetween. The blog is called The Rule of Benedict: Reflections from Christian Meditators. Posts appear on this blog about once a fortnight.

The Rule of Benedict

The seventh step of humility is that we not only admit with our tongues but are also convinced in our hearts that we are inferior to all and of less value, humbling ourselves and saying with the prophet: “I am truly a worm, not even human, scorned and despised by all” (Ps. 22:7). “I was exalted, then I was humbled and overwhelmed with confusion” (Ps. 88:16). And again, “It is a blessing that you have humbled me so that I can learn your commandments” (Ps. 119:71, 73).

This step of humility seems harsh. To be convinced that we are worthless and inferior – surely this cannot be good for us; to be despised by all – this is being mistreated and bullied, yes? And to deny our humanity – what kind of humbling is this? Here, are we not being led into the extremes of humiliation, rather than into a…

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Bonnevaux: The Walls of the Monastery Without Walls

Recently, on his blog, Fr. Laurence Freeman wrote about the “patterns and resonances in life, personal and communal, luring [us] ever deeper into the experience of meaning.” (Not a Nostalgic Reflection). Laurence wrote about the patterns and resonances of The WCCM[1], from its foundations in Montreal (40 years ago), to its growth into the global community that it is today, and the folding into this of Bonnevaux: our new international retreat centre to be, in France.

Bonnevaux is a big part of the growth happening now in The WCCM: our community that is a ‘monastery without walls’. Paradoxically, Bonnevaux has walls – ancient walls. Internationally, Bonnevaux is to be les murs du monastère sans murs (the walls of the monastery without walls).

Paradox cannot be ‘figured out’. It is not something to problem solve, something to be unlocked rationally. Paradox finds a home deeper in us, in the heart; over time it comes to a quiet and mysterious resolution there. And over time, from the heart, a gentle ‘paradoxical wisdom’ is released for us to intuit and live. As we meditate, as we attend into silence, our consciousness is infused with this wisdom of the heart.

In time, Bonnevaux will become the international heart of The WCCM. Its walls will resolve in the wall-less global community of meditators it will serve. In this it will also grow into a global agent and sign for peace. This is the vision. This is what we hope (in faith) that the patterns and resonances happening now are luring us into.

With Bonnevaux we continue on our way as part of the re-emergence of the human reality that Christianity calls the contemplative life. This re-emergence is profoundly needed today. Bonnevaux’s deep Benedictine roots sit well with the Benedictine roots of The WCCM. Benedictine roots are also human and Christian roots: one more paradox.

..I think in a deeper sense we could say that we have become the stewards of this sacred place [Bonnevaux], where the contemplative life has been lived in a spirit of service for hundreds of years. And we are pledging ourselves to continue that vision and that tradition in a contemporary way. (Laurence Freeman)

Some context for us: around 800 years ago, when Bonnevaux was first established, there was a major shift forming in Christianity: the separation of spirituality and theology. This happening has been historically personalised via a 12th century debate that happened between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard. Bernard, a French Cistercian Monk, wanted spirituality and theology to remain united. Abelard, a French philosopher and theologian, supported the rise of theology as a discipline standing largely apart from monasteries. Bernard won the debate, however the die was cast[2].

In the last 40 years or so this separation has begun to be addressed. I see John Main and The WCCM as part of the resolution of this separation. Christian spirituality divorced from theology risks self-indulgence and a certain vagueness. Meanwhile theology apart from authentic spirituality risks staying a rarefied specialisation of the few.

In the broad context of the history of Christianity, it does seem significant that this separation of spirituality and theology that was happening whilst Bonnevaux was being established, is on its way to resolution as we become Bonnevaux’s stewards.

 

 

 

[1] The World Community for Christian Meditation

[2] David Ranson, Across The Great Divide: Bridging Spirituality and Religion Today, 11.


Cemetery In My Mind: Midnight Oil

The Australian band Midnight Oil are back together and touring the world. Their Great Circle Tour is circuiting the globe with the band’s distinctive sound and message. Politics, the environment, social justice, and the ‘human condition’: all are featured. Distraction and lethargy are not an option. The prophets have returned to wake up the dead and jolt the living.

I had a search through their catalogue to find a song that might be of use for us. While most of their music is decidedly action-focused, there are some that attempt an ‘introspective kick-in-the pants’. Cemetery in My Mind is one such song.

For me the message of the song is blunt: what do you want to be – death alive or living a life?

There is a dynamic in culture that distracts from purpose, from meaning, from the heart’s calling. It would have us in the mall, the shopping centre, consumers. How many of us seek to salve emptiness with the latest product or device?

Life as going through the motions, life as avoidance of hurts, life as fear of possibilities: all this can make a cemetery of the mind and life.

What of our dreams, our purpose, our meaning, our calling? How do we find these? How do we deepen in them? Is it too late? Purpose, meaning, calling: what is the experience of these things?

When life becomes dry enough, when dreams die, when no direction affects us enough, despite fear we can start to ask deeper questions: ‘You can fall, but can you rise?’

In the now, not in tomorrow, is the heart. In the centre of consciousness, in the centre of mind is the always alive spiritual heart. It has for us purpose, meaning, and calling. Amid distraction, hurt, and fear we can (if we want to) learn to steadily hear it. In the hearing, there is the following.

We cover consciousness and the heart with too much thinking. Too much imagining, reflecting, assessing – all this and more can keep attention from being in touch with the deeper wisdom of the heart. We then forget how to hear the heart, or if we do, the hearing can often be fleeting – like an echo of the sound of something loving and familiar.

Healthy spiritual paths will have practical ways to guide us into the hearing of our hearts. If all we get are ‘mother statements’ – listen to your heart, follow your dreams – with no practical ways, then hope becomes strained and frustration can rise because the path has become ethereal.

Long standing spiritualities and religions do have practical ways to the heart. One such practical way is meditation. How can meditation help? By giving attention to a word or phrase, for at least 20 minutes a day morning and evening, there will be an effect. Regular practice of this way will see the mind, over time, quieten. As thoughts and imaginings soften, there will be more space for feelings to rise and fall, heal and integrate. Thinking will become something that happens more appropriately and less often. In the space now within, a space once occupied by too much thinking and emotional disorder, the heart moves into awareness.

As we become aware, we experience the heart’s drawing and longing. In time and with guidance we can come to understand that certain people, places, and things draw our hearts and cause them to long. The practical ways in which we follow this drawing and longing become our way of purpose, of meaning and calling.

Life can be more than ‘wake work drink sleep retire’.

 


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