Over the last series of lectures this year, I have been asked the same questions many times. Some of these enquiries have formed systematic patterns. They often come from people who have endured great loss and suffering. The themes of these questions have a common thread. My Christmas offering is in part a meditation on these lingering questions.
All of us are searching for personal happiness. In my book Changing The World, I wrote about interior joy. There is an urgent need for us to possess ourselves. So often I find myself repeating the same messages that have been enshrined in philosophy and spirituality for thousands of years. During this period of reflection and renewal, I think that it would be useful to share some common threads in these age-old dilemmas.
One of the most important secrets of interior happiness seems to be discovering a space in our lives for inner silence. In such a busy world, it is very hard sometimes for our minds to experience true silence. This profound stillness heals and restores our minds, bodies and spirits.
I work in rural Africa. Almost all of those we work with have never had electricity or the distractions of the modern world. In places like these communities, you can discover the power of stillness. Another very important daily practice is to be grateful for everything. We often forget to give thanks for the countless gifts we receive everyday. All of the people that I know who are full of personal joy are very grateful. When you experience true thankfulness, the mind flows with an internal peace, giving us a very real energy and balance.
This stillness and gratitude comes from being completely awake. It is not about withdrawing from the world, but being completely conscious of what is happening. This awareness helps us to see things more clearly. There was a most wonderful old priest I knew. He created our charity ICROSS with me, he possessed almost nothing. When he died, we put all of his earthly possessions into a laundry bag. He had given everything that he had away. He once told me that he was just passing through. Father Paul Cunningham was one of those rare people who understood what really matters about being alive. Whenever he spoke to somebody, he was capable of making them feel like they were the most important person in the world. He had the true power of embracing their totality. It is this capacity to prioritise other people and embrace them that springs from a heart that is fully aware. Father Paul did not have any clutter in his life, he had no distractions. This allowed his energy not to be interrupted by anything. His life was in flow and completely self-possessed.
Many people are afraid of being alone. They associate this with loneliness. If you really love yourself, you will be able to celebrate self-presence and look forward to personal solitude and time with yourself. The more I discover myself, the more I delight in time alone. This allows us to experience for the first time our internal being.
One of the most wonderful things we have is the potential of compassion. This allows us to celebrate others, serve and to give. This renewal helps us to learn all of the things that makes us afraid. Compassion allows us to let go of things. In the celebration, we discover, often for the first time, that we don’t need any external affirmation. Through giving, we find a new self belief. By listening to our inner heart, we take back control of our freedom and learn to be gentle with our interior being.
There was once a very anxious young man who was constantly frustrated, stressed out and unable to sleep. I invited him to spend his vacation in one of our remote projects. Over the weeks that followed, he had no Facebook, social media or phone. What he did experience for the first time was encountering himself. He was not determined by the communication that filled every minute of the day. He met and began to know the stranger that was himself. We need to delete the negative energy and distractions around us. We need to speak with greater awareness of our words. In this self-education, we need to become more conscious not of the problems around us, but of the solutions that lie within us.
In some of the retreats that I have given, I often encounter nurses and doctors who say they cannot meditate because their minds are buzzing the whole time, even when they try to sleep. They are in constant stress. As is so often the case, care-givers rarely care for themselves. At the annual conference of nurses in the UK, one is often struck by the unhealthy lifestyles of those who give so much every day. We need to look after our bodies and listen very carefully to what they are telling us. We can slide very easily into bad habits and no longer become proactive agents in ourselves. I often find it helpful to make a mind-map of those who matter in my own life. All too often, we put time and effort into people who do not care about us and drain ourselves.
Of course, self-love requires a lot of change. It is the opposite of selfishness. By being open to new things, we carve out more time for ourselves. We stop wasting time listening to bad news, we respect our own opinions, we become open to change, and we have a great appetite to learn more.
In research on happiness, it has been found that generally happy people take more risks, step outside their familiar surroundings and have meaningful friendships. They have healthy support networks and are capable of embracing dramatic and traumatic change. Happy people are capable of adaptation. They can change their environment, tastes and interests because they are constantly growing.
Every year, not at any particular period, I ask my close friends to share with me any books, art or music that they discovered recently. Depending on the person, this can range from literature or dance, natural history or a simple story. Within this tapestry of many different streams of consciousness, we can uncover new sparks of energy and discovery, often humorous and always surprising. Perhaps it is these moments of awareness that encourages to begin again enriching lasting friendships.
My wish to you this Christmas is to be different, to always forgive and above all to embrace the mystery.
“Today we can change the future for someone, we have only to act”
Surprised by Joy, Dr Michael Meegan
“Vision without action which fails to touch the lives of the poor is not vision, but self-delusion”
Changing the World, Dr Michael Meegan