One week, Phil Hathaway, the gently nurturing and supportive leader of our coaching group suggested the discussion topic: ’Is the universe kind?’
Before we start, he said, I’d like us to watch a short video.
The video he showed was of a cuckoo pushing an egg out of a starling’s nest and laying its own egg in the space. The cuckoo’s egg hatched before the others and within minutes of its emergence, bits of shell still stuck in its sticky feathers, the baby bird was using its beak to push the other eggs up and over the edge of the nest. It then had the nest to itself. The tiny parent starlings, much smaller in size than the baby cuckoo returned again and again to the nest with food to satisfy the ravenous chick that had killed their offspring.
The video ended.
Unhatched baby chicks smashed on the floor… Parent birds exhausting themselves to the brink of death to feed a usurper in their nest… A kind universe?
To me he could just as easily have shown, if a video had existed, my father dying of leukaemia leaving two daughters aged 10 and 8 and a wife who adored him. Or my 11 IVF attempts and two miscarriages. Or my sister being born with Cystic Fibrosis and a 16 year life expectancy.
He could have replayed to the other members of the group their own personal experiences of death, sadness, ill-treatment, pain and discomfort.
He could have shown to all of us a reel of the tragedies we see every night on the news. Natural disasters. Starvation. Torture and abuse. Violence. The deaths of children. Bullying in schools.
A kind universe? Seems pretty cruel to me. At best, indifferent, surely?
Why on earth would we trust in this intelligence? Well, here is what I have seen:
- There is no alternative
We are born with the capacity to create our world through the power of Thought. We cannot experience the world directly which means that whatever experience we are having is generated by thought in that moment. This also means that whatever experience we are having can change from one second to another. All of this is fluid, volatile, ever-changing and impermanent. There is nothing in here which we can reliably use as guide for our lives.
Sometimes thought comes to us in the form of insight or a fresh new idea that nudges and prompts and makes sense. We have no control over the content, timing or frequency of these ideas. One moment they are formless the next they are there in our mind. The only place they can come from therefore is Universal Intelligence or formless energy or Mind or whatever words you choose to use.
These suggestions that come to us are unique to us. We can receive them and know that anything we think about them will change and yet the insight or idea remains as something that simply seems to make sense for us to do, that seems to have a truth to it.
So we have two options:
a) Act on what we know is not true.
b) Act on what is occurring to us to do from a place of simplicity, truth and insight.
The more clearly we see this choice the more we realise we have no other option but to act on what is occurring us to do, knowing that any meaning we make of it, anything we think of it is made up.
2. It is our greatest gift
I hope that first point didn’t sound grudging… because the reality is that this one viable option we are left with (acting on what we know to do) has a power, magnificence, benevolence and enormity that is beyond words or comprehension.
It is as though someone has taken the mystery of Stone Henge, the first words of Pride and Prejudice, the clarity of Einstein, the vocal reach of Aretha Franklin, the peacefulness of dawn… (those are mine by the way, you’ll have your own..) and distilled them into an essence of genius, inspiration and beauty designed expressly for you and expressly for you in every moment.
That is the gift to you. Designed for you to use in the way that only you can, express in the only way that you can express, experience this in the only way that you can experience it.’
That is the purest possible kindness. A gift that can never be equalled. It is you, in the only way you can be, receiving inspiration designed only for you in order that you live in the greatest, most creative, most graceful way imaginable.
And the beauty is that our entire life on earth is designed to continually remind us of this gift.
3. Life is designed for appreciation
There is not a single thing in our life that stays the same, that we have control over or that belongs to us. Even mountains are moving, changing colour and shape before our eyes. We have no guarantee that we will be alive tomorrow or even in the next ten minutes. Change is the nature of our universe. It has to be this way for the infinite variety of life to exist.
Built into the nature of change is the nature of detachment and of appreciation.
Nothing is permanent and nothing belongs to us. In our deepest wisdom we know this. The clinging on, the desperation, come from the thoughts of how things should be, of what we need in order to be OK.
In the detachment is the genuine appreciation. Like a butterfly landing on my finger. It is not mine. It will not last. All I can do is appreciate it in the time it is in my life.
Life is designed for appreciation and detachment in the moment. It is in this moment that we have everything and change, and that means death, kindly reminds us of that.
4. No circumstances or outcomes are better than any other
This seems crazy. This is ‘positive thinking gone mad’! (If you are from Britain that will be said with Victor Meldrew type outrage.)
How can we say that making a meal from a cupboard full of food isn’t better than dying of starvation in an African camp? Or that sailing a yacht around the Bahamas is no better than being one of 200 refugees crammed into a boat designed for 50?
I have a client who taught in a school for children from some of the poorest families. She was experiencing burn out at how hopeless she believed her job to be. She told me how she would look out at the pupils and inwardly weep for them, for their circumstances, the bleakness of their futures. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, could barely get to school in the mornings. Yet many of those pupils would have been far more in touch with their own inner well-being than my client at the time. She was exhausted, hopeless. They, on the other hand, were vibrant, full of life, energy and creativity.
My colleague Jane Cockerell, a humanitarian aid expert, talks of seeing the same range of human experience from exhaustion and disillusion to optimism and laughter whether she is handing out food packs in the Sudan or working in her office in London.
The circumstances are always neutral. It is our thoughts that make them something that has the power to destroy us or that turn them into moments of life to cherish.
And the fascinating thing about this is that the more we realise our own innate wellbeing and that of others regardless of the circumstances, the clearer we are about how to change the circumstances. That is the in-built kindness.
5 It has given us the gift of watching and the gift of immersion
Imagine if all we had was thought with no discrimination. Every piece of thinking that went through our mind would be real, believed, experienced, acted on. We would be trapped in a cinema for eternity, head fixed so that we could not turn away from the screen, doomed to experience every emotion that the film dictated.
Or imagine if all we had was inspiration. We could never experience our version of life. We would never experience the wonderful illusion of self. There would be no bringing alive of the technicolour power of thought. We would miss out on the roller coaster, the love and loss of life, the simple, complex humanness of it all.
We have both. The power to immerse ourselves in life and the power to detach. The ability to experience thought and the ability to see through it. The realisation of who we are through the realisation of who we are not.
To live fully we need both. That is kindness.
6. If we value life then every moment has to be for living.
Byron Katie talks of watching her grand daughter struggling for breath seconds after birth. She describes the hospital staff rushing to help the baby and her daughter and husband starting to panic. She describes how her own mind remained totally open and free. If her granddaughter was only going to live for one minute then she was going to have that one minute with her. She was not prepared to miss even one fraction of a second of that time.
Resistance to anything in the moment reduces our experience of the moment. It is living but it is also not living. It is living with conditions on what it means to live.
When we see through those conditions we automatically know what to do to expand more fully into life, to live in a way that does justice to the gift of life.
7. What is kindness anyway?
If no circumstance is better than any other. If no particular outcome is preferable. Then what does it mean to say ‘The universe has our back’. What would this kindness even be?
Well we know it is not a kindness that prevents death because kindness gives us this gift of life, of change, of appreciation through this gift of death.
It is not a kindness that prevents suffering because suffering is a loving way of reminding us we do not need to suffer.
It is not a kindness that gives us what we need to feel secure because feelings of insecurity come and go from one moment to the next.
The kindness is the death and the suffering.
It is the reminder of the magnificent truth of life.
It is the reminder of our creative power to make up whatever we want our life to be.
It is the elbow in the ribs to look up from our phone and notice the spectacular display that the universe is putting on right now.
It is the gentle nudge to live fully, in this moment.
The kindness is the design. The design is kindness.
The universe has got our back.