Saturday, 15 December 2012

Christmas in London 2012

The following are my favourite photos of all those I've taken over the past few weeks.  They show that even in winter, London - and especially where I live in Kew - is a vibrant place, both culturally, naturally and visually.

This is my favourite structure in the area: the Pagoda at Kew Gardens; I can see it from my bedroom window and have taken photos of it from every angle.

I love this view of the formal gardens at Kew Palace; typically British: elegant, understated, balanced and a bit stark.

This is a view of the towpath in Richmond taken from the bridge.  To me it looks like a Constable painting and demonstrates the glorious colour of England in winter.

I am always drawn to the riverside in Richmond; irresistibly photogenic.

From every vantage point, there's something aesthetic to admire.

My older daughter, Lauren, was first to discover the perfect aspect of this shot which I nicked for this photo.

Kew Gardens have just set up the holiday carousel near Kew Palace.  Perfect photo op.

This is Liongate at Kew Grardens - quintessential in a cloudless sky.

This is the Chokushi-Mon gate at Kew Gardens, truly beautiful at any time of year.

This taken in October with the pagoda at back.

The garden below the gate is in such contrast to British gardens; far more controlled and manicured.

This is the Temple of Aeolus near the Palm House in Kew Gardens; looks like an Elysian idyll.

Another carousel on Southbank near the Eye. So glad that these old attractions are maintained and still tour the country.

I took this picture of of Regent Street from Oxford Circus.  Looks like there's a halo around the BBC; how ironic during its recent scandal.

Trafalgar Square with Whitehall and Houses of Parliament in the background, taken from the steps of the National Gallery.

And a view of Piccadilly Circus from Leicester Square.

Our beautiful kitten, Bowie; her first Christmas on earth.

I never tire of this view of the Thames from Richmond Hill.

While driving through Richmond Park last weekend, I caught a glimpse of St. Matthias's church in the distance.  I went back on foot on Wednesday to get this photo across the field.  This just doesn't look like London; it looks like a rural setting in Somerset; somehow it reassures me that there does exist some stability, peace and continuity in the world.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Coping with Leadership

There are many characteristics of leaders that are trotted out as being crucial for their personal success and that of the organisations which they manage and lead.  A shortlist of these traits includes superior cognitive skills and knowledge, fortitude, persuasiveness, decisiveness, charisma, authenticity, insightfulness, personality and character.  Obviously these range from ‘harder’ almost measurable qualities to those which are more a matter of subjective impression.

Managers and leaders are barraged with advice from consultants, TED gurus and the bookshelves of airport concession shops: be flexible & adaptable, be firm & have more of a backbone, keep it simple, deal with complexity, adapt, stick to your strengths.  Really, is it any wonder leaders who take this stuff seriously don’t become bipolar with the apparent conflicting advice.  Management is a notoriously trendy academic discipline; one of the best critics of guff at its most absurd is Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times and author of Who moved my Blackberry.  One of the trends I’ve noticed becoming more and more prominent in blogs and articles in the Twitterverse is management and leadership theories based on the truth claims and practices of Eastern spirituality.

A meditative practice which is receiving an enormous amount of attention these days – and not just in the pages of the Sunday Times Style section. Psychologies magazine or Oprah – is mindfulness.  It doesn't surprise me when these periodicals promote the latest, trendiest pop psychology ‘findings’, but mindfulness is being sold by management consultants and bloggers at the Harvard Business Review, which I find deeply alarming.  According to a specialist in the worldviews and practices of eastern religion, Marcia Montenegro, mindfulness isn't just a meditative practice but is an outlook on life derived from the Zen Buddhist notion of detachment; "detachment in Buddhism is necessary because Buddhism teaches that attachment to this world, to your thinking, to your identity as an individual self, and other attachments, such as desires, keep you in the cycle of rebirth.”

Now those who give mindfulness a go and sing its praises might say that these things are not of interest to them; it’s stress-relief and a break from ‘over thinking’ that they’re hoping to achieve so that in the end they can become better, more effective managers and leaders. 

Take Bill George in a recent HBR blog, “Mindfulness helps you become a better Leader.”  When he was executive vice president of Honeywell in the 1980s he says, “I was caught up with external measures of success instead of looking inward to measure my success as a human and a leader.  I was losing my way.”  George tried a TM workshop in 1974 and now considers meditation to be a key component of his daily routine; he says it has helped him to "stay calmer and more focused in my leadership, without losing the “edge” that I believed had made me successful.  Meditation enabled me to cast off the many trivial worries that once possessed me and gain clarity about what was really important.  I gradually became more self-aware and more sensitive to the impact I was having on others.  Just as important, my blood pressure returned to normal and stayed there.”  He also says that he never adopted the spiritual portion of TM but that the physical practice has become an integral part of his daily life.

Another example is Peter Bregman’s recent HBR blogpost, "Try Meditation to strengthen your Resilience".  Bregman is also is a keen proponent of meditation which he began to practice in order to find relief from the highs and lows of emotions he felt as a result of the various sorts of feedback he received from his writing and presenting.  He explains, “unless you find solid footing in your consistent, unshakable Self, you’ll be thrown off balance and lose your way.  You’ll change your mind at the first resistance.  You’ll become overconfident when praise abounds. And you’ll make poor decisions, just to feel better.”  Bregman says that he was in search of “something more solid, an alternative to being tossed around by external events that didn’t rely on pretence.”

He goes on to say that he found the solution to his problem in meditation: “As I followed my breath in and out, I noticed something I hadn’t paid much attention to before.  And paying attention to it changed everything.”  Through meditation, Bregman claims that he was able to find his unshakable Self which would help him to maintain his "equanimity, peace, clarity and judgment in the face of changing circumstances and pressures".  Meditation, he believes, allowed him to see that this 'Self' is always there, “watching.”  He then goes on to encourage readers of his blog to try meditation for themselves rather than taking his word for its benefits.  The result of concentrating on one’s breath, he says, will be that “you will notice that your mind is thinking about something…the person noticing those thoughts?  That’s you. That’s your Self.”

Bregman says, "you are not your thinking.  You are the person watching your thinking."  The concept he's trying to articulate is the Buddhist notion of the witness or observer which is not strictly a person at all.  Nevertheless, Bregman believes that it is detachment which gives a person control over their thoughts and emotions and greater courage in the face of risky situations because, he claims, “you’ll know, no matter what happens, that you’ll be fine.”

Here’s the zinger of his article and the part I find most disturbing: “Having a strong relationship with your Self will make you incorruptible.”

What does that even mean?  It isn’t clear at all that this has anything to do with thinking or behaving in a moral manner.  It’s the detachment associated with mindfulness, the Buddhist seventh step of the Eightfold Path.  As Marcia Montenegro explains on her website, “if one practices mindfulness meditation on a fairly regular basis, that person may eventually adopt the worldview behind it, leading one to believe that the process of detachment is at work.  However, since the self is real, there can be no true detachment; therefore, no liberation or true peace results from mindfulness.  The techniques of mindfulness meditation lead one to enter an altered state, the same state one is in when under hypnosis.  In this state, the meditator’s critical thinking and judgement are suspended, and anything can enter the mind.”  She states in another article:

Mindfulness meditation is not designed for stress reduction or or to be a trendy dabbling for harried Westerners.  It is rigorously religious and strictly spiritual.

What bothers me about the accounts of these two men’s meditation experiences is that they appear to be buying into the meditation trend without critically considering its origin or purpose.  They're simply saying that they found something which they believe is enhancing their ability to lead by controlling their cognitive functions.  Since they don’t believe in a spiritual realm, they think that it isn’t playing any role in their meditative practice.  I think this is like ordering a mimosa for the orange juice and stating that the champagne won’t affect you because you don’t believe it in.  Whether something is true or not is not dependent on whether someone believes it to be true or not.  Meditation, as Christine Pack so elegantly puts it, is like spiritual crack: “entering into an altered state of consciousness is playing with spiritual dynamite, and not in a good way.”

Is coping with stress important to leaders?  Clearly.  Is meditation, mindful or otherwise, the best way to accomplish this?  Obviously not.  There are many ways to lower blood pressure and heart rate including hobbies, creating art, walking, listening to music, writing a poem, reading fiction or having a bath.  OK, so walking your dog isn't going to make it into the HBR's blog, but it's far better for one's physical, mental and emotional health than suspending one's rational thought in order to detach from reality.

The Worshippers Part 8: Visit to Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church

The Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church held its harvest celebration service the Sunday I attended on October 14th.  This is a lovely small church located in the historic area of Richmond in the road behind the Odeon Cinema.

Though I hadn’t been to a Unitarian service since we attended Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead eighteen years ago, the readings and hymns of the service were all very familiar to me.  I also recognised the flame and chalice displayed on a banner hanging on the raised platform at the stained-glass end of the church.

There was a choir composed of around 10 men and women who elegantly and sonorously led the 25 congregants and guests through the hymns.  There was also a child's naming ceremony during the service.

The minister, Linda hart, told a story to illustrate some of the principles of the Unitarian faith.  It was the story of some crows who stole the entire harvest away from some animals who had painstakingly sewn, grown and planted it.  When the crows had come back to do some more scavenging, the animals didn't scold or reject them, but rather welcomed the crows and allowed them to share in the next harvest, for which the crows were surprised, but grateful.  I think the point of the story was to illustrate the aims and purposes of the Unitarian church which are these:

We are a congregation with open hearts and open minds.  We gather to celebrate the blessings of life, to support each other and to join with others who follow a spiritual path.  Our purposes are to promote spiritual enquiry in a welcoming, fellowship based on non-discrimination and care for others and to help people of all religious traditions and none find their own spiritual path based on exploration, questioning, insight, intuition and reason.[1]

The key themes of the sermon were to do with inclusion, tolerance and a non-judgmental attitude.  Which seems very mature and reasonable.  But I think there's something vital that's missing.  What about wrong-doing and justice?  The crows seriously ripped off the animals.  And though it's a beautiful thing to welcome them back to the table, to just forget the misdead isn't the same thing as to forgive.  It's forgiveness which wipes the slate clean.  I got the impression that, as in the Christian Science faith and some sects of the New Age, the concept of evil is sidestepped; it's presented as an illusion, therefore no foregiveness is necessary.  Can life work like that?  Certainly not in the secular world, which is why we have courts and prisons.  In the  Christian Kingdom, a price must be paid for sin and this was accomplished through the atonement at the crucifixion.  This is how some people are able to forgive seemingly heinous crimes, because they know that they've been forgiven.  Sotierology is totally absent from many faiths that claim Christian heritage.  The gospel isn't the focus of that heritage for them; I think they look to Jesus as a good teacher.  But as Tim Keller has said many times, the gospel isn't good advice, it's good news.  That's the meaning of sotierology.  In the reverend’s story the theft isn’t acknowledged at all; instead we skip straight to a fairy tale conclusion that all will be well. 

After the service, I was able to talk to some members of the church who were genuinely warm, helpful and candid.  I told them about my project to which they expressed support and interest.  They said that their service often included guests from other faiths such as Buddhism, as the notions of loving kindness and compassion were tenets that the two faiths shared in common.  I was also told that some members are interested in Buddist practices such as bhavana meditation.

Places such as the Unitarian church and the Quaker meeting house I visited earlier in the month are the churches in which I really sense that anyone would be welcomed and – crucially – would not feel intimidated or judged.  People should feel that way about Christian churches but, sadly, many probably don’t.

[1] The Flame, Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church Newsletter, October 2012.

The Worshippers Part 7: Visit to Quaker Meeting House

The Sunday morning I visited the Quaker Meeting house in Retreat Road, Richmond was quintessentially autumnal: clear, crisp and sleepy.  The meeting house is located down a beautiful small cul-de-sac off Richmond Green very close to the Thames tow path.

The structure is in fact an enormous Georgian house currently under renovation (located where it is, it must be worth a fortune).

I arrived a few minutes late for the 10.30 meeting, but was able to wait in the foyer with one of the church elders who told me we could go into the meeting room with any other stranglers at around 10.45.  She was very warm, welcoming and amenable when I explained the purpose of my visit.

We entered at the arranged short break time, took our places and the door was closed – this time, for the rest of the meeting.  There were around 20 ‘friends’ and I seated in a large lounge, mostly around the perimeter of the room, with some additional seating in rows in an adjacent space.  We sat in silence for around 45 minutes; some with eyes closed, others with eyes open.  There was a single reading which broke up the silence around 5 minutes into the worship – a short couple of sentences about sharing the faith with younger generations. 

According to their literature, Quakers believe:

We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence.  We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us….Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find the evil weakening in you and the good raised up.[1]

At the end of the meeting I was able to chat to two members of the congregation who were open to sharing with me their beliefs as well as willing to hear about my experiences in the various stops I’d made on my faith journey.

The Quakers, I learned, do not espouse any single belief system or set of doctrines; rather they believe that everyone can find their own personal path by entering the silence.  Some meditate, though others do not.   They believe that each person has a particular experience of God and must each find his or way to be true to it.  This also from the literature:

As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us. We have found corporately that the Spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading….Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal  experience…The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship on silent waiting testifies to this.[2]

I found this interesting sentence among the Advices and Queries booklet: "Are you open to the healing power of God’s love?  Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you.  Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.”[3] I have difficulty with this; the new age ‘ground of being’ is a notion.  The Tao is a way.  Christianity is neither a notion nor a way.  It’s a person.

The idea or tenet that truth is found by going deep within sounds laudable; but it isn’t difficult to see that when some look deep within and act on intuitive impulses, the resulting behaviour can actually be destructive.  Again from the literature, “Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes.  If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply."[4]

One of the Friends I spoke with was rather disdainful of the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith.  I’ve noticed this quite a lot – that there is often disgust expressed for the church, Christian practices and the gospel.   And whereas it is right that we Christians are convicted when others point out where our actions and beliefs contradict one another (hypocrisy); it seems nonetheless difficult to accept a faith whose bedrock is personal, autonomous truth.  I don’t understand how one can assert relativism with regard to ultimate reality without denying it.  The Quaker Way puts it like this: 

It should not be imagined, however, that Quakers are impossibly 'good' people.  Like others they have faults and fall short of their own aims.  Nor do they claim that their path is the only true one, they have simply found it right for them.[5]

[1] Advices & Queries, The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 2009, based on writings of George Fax, 1656.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] "The Quaker Way."

The Worshippers Part 6: Visit to St. Luke’s, the Avenue, Kew

In mid-September I paid a visit to St. Luke’s Church in the Avenue not far from Kew Village and around a two minute walk from my house.  Why had I never been there before, considering it was so close?  Well, when we were planning our move from Surrey to London, the google search result to ‘evangelical churches in southwest London’ yielded one result: Holy Trinity Richmond.  After a visit there in December 2010 and hearing David Cooke speak, we’ve been there ever since.

St. Luke’s is an enormous structure – a traditional Anglican church build in the 19th century; its spire can be seen for miles around.  I’ve always known that hosts the Kew Community Trust, which uses the church hall to put on a variety of community and private activities including bridge and bingo for seniors as well as yoga, reiki, meditation and tai chi available to the locals.  The hall is also used for birthdays and weddings and there’s often some sort of celebration spilling out of the entrance on any given Saturday afternoon.

Given the enormous size of the church, I was very surprised when I walked in and directed to an area at one end – the former chancel which is now the worship space.  So the original altar and small bit of the nave make up the current chapel.  It’s quite beautiful, with all the stained glass and carvings, only it does feel a bit truncated, the hall having usurped the lionshare of the original holy space.

It was a small, intimate and lovely service with perhaps 15 children, who came back after their activities to sing a traditional Christian song; I think it was “Rise and Shine” – I recognised it as something my children had performed for chapel choir and primary school.  The service was also traditional with lovely hymns that I’d remembered from long ago.    There were around 60 people in the pews, including many families and older congregants.  The organ was massive and impressive, especially considering the somewhat confined space to which the organist played.

I enjoyed the sermon and there was something Reverend Stephen said that has stayed with me ever since.  He said that “where we cease to struggle, we cease to be” and this reminded me both of Descartes famous assertion and also eastern philosophy which says that when we cease to struggle – i.e. when we have left the vale of illusion though enlightenment, then we truly are.  When people say that all religions lead to God, they either haven’t really investigated the truth claims of the various faiths or their minimising or eliminating these very significant approaches to life here on earth and in eternity.

St. Luke’s has a sister church, St. Phillips located a mile away in another neighbourhood of Kew; advertisements on the noticeboard of St. Luke’s indicate that St. Phillip’s hosts meditation sessions which I’m curious to discover whether these are contemplative in nature.  So I plan to visit this church to speak to some of its worshippers soon.