Feeling festive and end-of-termy in the week before Christmas I handed over the task of selecting readings to group members. There was something light-headed and liberating about this, as if a bubble of delightful guilt, of hooky-playing levity, were rising in my throat. But then I quickly developed an anxiety about not being prepared and being exposed, feeling very much as you do when you have one of those dreams where you inexplicably turn up for a job interview naked and dread the moment your name is called. I need not have worried, however, because not only did the readings come, but there was a surprising unity of theme among them which suggested that, in ways both subtle and mysterious, group members were experiencing a strange yuletide convergence.

Cassie brought in a short excerpt from Walden –  one of many in which Henry David Thoreau extolls the virtues of simplicity over the obvious (but empty) worth of material accumulation. He was writing about house ownership and the business of wanting more and more, as opposed to the satisfying graft of building oneself a shelter or seat – something that just met the most essential human needs –  and finding that one suddenly wanted less and less.

Things got interesting when we began considering what exactly those essential human needs were.

Looking to the plight of the homeless, the question emerged of what we owe one another as human beings. Are we not obliged to ensure that the most basic needs of our fellow men and women are met? Are there not a set of fundamental entitlements (to warmth, clothing, shelter) that if we do not, as a society, accord everyone, then we may as well give up any purchase to being civilised?  Maslow, after all, included ‘property’ – by which I suspect he meant shelter — towards the bottom, or most fundamental, of human needs in his pyramidal hierarchy.

This was my kind of discussion, I have to say – a discussion where exploring a piece of literature spiraled out into an investigation of morality, humanity, philosophy.  Take any moderately engaged group of people, give them the same set of texts, and I’m convinced that a similar discussion would ensue. The difference with a spiritually-oriented group only showed itself when Clive observed that connecting with the homeless was less about acknowledging an obligation to help them, as acknowledging, or, more accurately, being stopped in your tracks by the stunning recognition that there but for the grace of God go you. ‘You see yourself in someone’s else’s plight’, said Clive, ‘so that their suffering becomes your suffering’.

Earlier I referred to a surprising convergence of theme, and this is where it lay: in the experience of oneness with other beings. We read poems by Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Chinmoy, T S Eliot and others, and we kept coming back to this idea of a unity – as opposed to a hierarchy  — of existence. How reassuring it was.

….How very Christmassy.

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