from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 30 November 2012


For the sea’s insistence in my chest
For the tall blue air
For the flame in the grate at dusk
For my feet to remember
the taste of soil, of peat, of mud, of stone, of bone

For my memory and my longing
For my past and my future
to meet and marry
For remembering that I live
between heaven and earth, both

Thursday, 29 November 2012

frost, mineral hearts, green hair & slugs...

The field and orchard are thick with frost crunching under our feet, just after nightfall. Dog is delighted – barking and bounding, remembering perhaps how her companion, Hess, exulted in frost and snow (Ash was always the quieter one when Hess was alive). There's a plump and delicious full moon like a gold coin, deep and rosy-gold, just pushing in between the ash trees, now bare, on the opposite hillside. Is it Jupiter just beside her, and Venus further west? The brook, swollen with all the flood water, murmurs away below us, and suddenly a tawny owl takes off just over my head from the oak tree at the field margin, and close by a pheasant clacks in alarm.

This morning was so exquisite I wanted to walk for hours – such a dramatic change from this time last week. The lanes around us though are hilly and deep-hedged, so they were also treacherously icy on the slopes. Away to the south over a little patch of moorland above Moreleigh a tag of morning mist was streaming up in the new warmth; in the east someone had lit a bonfire, so a white twist of smoke coiled up into the blue.

Flocks of migrant blackbirds and redwings are feasting in the hedgerows – others seem to have had a poor berry harvest, but ours is good here. Already the hazel catkins have appeared, and my witch hazel in its pot is pushing out fat buds. And – how I love the opportunity to say this phrase! – already, too, the ashes have put forth their sooty apical helispheres. It's hard to see the ash trees without feeling a tremor of anxiety.


I'm close friends with the animal and plant kingdoms. Seems I'm reacquainting myself with the mineral world. It started (again) with my dear friend H sending me two beautiful small agate hearts that she'd chosen for me in Lisbon after she'd heard the news of my protesting physical heart. I fell in love immediately with the green one (green is the colour of the heart chakra in some Eastern systems) – a kind of vibrant deep-pale-goldy-green, almost the colour of new beech leaves, and put a silver pin through the hole in its axis and hung it round my neck the same hour it arrived. I loved wearing it, and felt symbolically it was speaking to and strengthening my heart, too. Then after a month of wearing it 24/7 I lost it and was gutted – long story, but after hours of searching and phone calls and frantic and shameful trying to track down (without success) one the same on the internet so that I wouldn't have to admit to H that I'd lost it, a lovely guy from Riverford rang me to say someone had found it in their car park. Phew.

And, still on minerals, after a lot of research it occurred to me that I might be magnesium deficient – quite a common deficiency that could explain a number of my symptoms. (Mind you, so could stress, burnout and exhaustion.*) I'm currently using a pure form of magnesium that one sprays on the body – more easily absorbed than tablets. Worth checking that out, perhaps – it can account for a number of things, including severe back ache that doesn't respond to anything else... It needs to be in balance with calcium for both to work efficiently in the body, and more often than not it isn't.

And then, copper. A couple of days ago, after all that flooding, I noticed that the basin was staining green immediately, just hours after I'd cleaned it. Then I noticed that my hair has (present tense!) a greenish tinge to it. Very fetching, I thought first. Then: Help! Something's got into the watercourse. Once I became aware of that, I also noticed I'd had a strong metallic taste in my mouth for a day or two (though of course that could be a reading-a-medical-encyclopaedia-type-effect). I mentioned my hair to a friend who mentioned it to a friend who came back immediately and said 'Stop drinking the water. Sounds like there's a high acid content in your water and your pipes are leaching copper.' We're on a borehole and on slate bedrock, and I am imagining that with all these floods some run-off, possibly contaminated (that's a long story too), has capillaried through the sedimentary layers of slate to fill the aquifers faster than we thought it could.

So I'm googling copper toxicity and finding that some things I do suffer from – insomnia, headaches, constant tiredness, racing mind/anxiety – can be explained by a copper imbalance (see * above). As I'm a vegetarian it seems that I'm already likely to have fairly high copper levels (and vegans are off the chart) – whoa! – here's the encyclopaedia effect again. All of the above can be explained by many other things besides the biochemical – and the human being is after all a series of interconnected and interleaved levels and aspects of being, which all have subtle impacts on each other. Interesting, though, that one of the sites, that of a naturopath, suggests that there is also a copper 'type' – a rather Venusian creative over-sensitive kind of person, 'curvy rather than lean', who can be prone to anxiety. In esoteric thinking, Venus' metal is copper, and Venus rules the sign of Libra – and – guess what?

So, hello mineral kingdom. Meantime, we're getting the water tested and I am extremely reluctantly buying water in plastic containers – it's that or go thirsty, and at least it's local Dartmoor water; but not so local they'll have the same problem.


An addendum to the Co-operative plug: I meant to say that the Co-op has its own farms, on which welfare standards are apparently high. Plus it has PlanBee. A dharma friend says: 'You maybe aware that supporting Britain's bees and other pollinators has been a major campaign for the Co-operative for the last few years. So if groups are seeking funding to create bee-friendly environments you can apply for funding from the Co-operative Membership Community Fund.

'In the past I have sent a large quantity of wild flowers seeds to Holy Isle on the Firth of Clyde and worked with a nearby school to create a wild flower meadow.'


And finally: the little miracles of friendship. 'An anonymous friend' has sent me a delightful book: Feeding Orchids to the Slugs – tales from a Zen kitchen ( What a heartwarming surprise! And I don't know who. There are all sorts of connections here, including the fact that the author of the book, Florencia Clifford, cooks at Maenllwyd Buddhist retreat centre in Wales where my Zen teacher teaches, though I've never been. Because of the Zen and the slugs it's either someone who knows me well, and/or it's one of you beloved blog readers. Whoever you are, a warm thank you and a deep bow to you across the miles – you brought a big smile to my lips.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Slipstream Poets competition

Come on, guys, get your cursors flowing – not to mention your imagination... I'm judging the Slipstream Poets competition (closing date January 31st). Here's an outline:

Slipstream Poets
invite entries to their
Open Poetry Competition 2013
Entries can be on any theme
Prizes - £250; £100; £75; 2 x £10.
Closing date 31st January 2013
Winners will be notified individually and all results  published on the Slipstream Web Site by 31st March 2013

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

in praise of – yes – a bank!

October 2013 update: in the light of the Co-op bank's buyout (of around 66%, anyway) by sharkier hedge fund banks, I have to revise what I've said below. However, after talking with others concerned, like me, to ensure that our money is not used for unethical purposes (to the extent that we have any choice in our capitalist economy), I'm not sure how many options exist if we want to use plastic and cheques, as opposed to cash and barter.

Until Triodos and Ecology buildings societies offer a current account, the Co-op may still be the best option, and we can be actively involved in demanding that its original values are continued. The Save the Co-op website says this ( hold fire on switching, and 'sign up to our campaign instead; then when we are in our thousands, let's see if they are prepared to listen. We have two aims; to protect the values and ethics of the bank, and – in time – to help it return to mutual ownership.' The campaign is backed by Ethical Consumer: lists banks and rates their performances from many perspectives, and you can choose to filter according to eg honesty, value to economy, ethics and a couple more. On ethics, the Islamic Bank of Britain and the Reliance (Salvation Army) both score high, as do some of the other mainstream banks, though they usually score lower on things like bonuses etc.

Further update, February 2014: the Co-op's ethical policy, integral to the bank since, I believe, its founding in the late C19th, has now been enshrined in their constitution. They still have struggles ahead, they say, but feel that they can make it.


I didn't think I'd find myself writing a blog about – a bank. I'm disinterested in money – always have been, which might be why I don't have much of it. Like many of us, I'm deeply concerned too about the capitalist model, predicated as it is on growth, preferably unlimited growth – an impossibility on our little planet with its finite reserves on which of course we are utterly dependent.

I have learned a little from TM of some of the implications of our current debt-based economy. Did you know that 97% of all money is entirely conceptual, created by debt? I know, it's hard to get one's head around. Earlier this year I wrote a post on this and on not being in debt:, so I won't repeat myself here.

It may be in human nature to try and accumulate, I don't know. But my own hobby horse is that the late Neolithic in Europe heralded capitalism as we know it: that is when we made the transition from a nomadic lifestyle, where we couldn't store food, to the agricultural (and incidentally – or not – militaristic) where we started enclosing land, calling it 'mine' and trying to expand the territory we had taken, and to defend it.

Anyway, that's off-topic, really, because what I actually want to do here, to my own astonishment, is to praise the English Co-operative Bank.

Yes, it's a mainstream bank, with an ordinary chequeing account.

When I was a student, the new intake at my university was bombarded with placards warning of the evils of the then Big Four 'high street' banks, and their involvement in eg arms deals. Having my 'awareness raised' at an impressionable age means that I still feel very strongly about this, and Not in my Name (even with my overdraft!) applies here.

So here is my praise for the overlooked and ethical high street Co-operative Bank. Its policy is to NOT invest in arms, tobacco, the fur trade, projects that involve questionable human rights, multinationals that have a poor environmental track record, animal testing and etc, and it positively supports sustainable projects (its supermarket arm is reasonably ethical too: it's a co-operative, so members share in the benefits; it's against animal testing and exploitation, and only stocks, for instance, free range eggs. It's the only supermarket I ever go into, albeit that only occasionally.) I do all my banking with the Co-op through the local post office, as I live nowhere near a branch. If I phone to do eg a transfer I get a 'real person' immediately, and as a bonus they're friendly. The bank takes a flexible and understanding humane attitude to loans, overdrafts and debts.

Here's what it says about its ethical policy: 'In 1992, after a long consultation with our customers, The Co-operative Bank launched its Ethical Policy – a first amongst UK high street banks and still unique today. The Policy ensures that we will always stand up for the issues that our customers feel passionate about. We allow you to have your say on the issues that matter to you, such as human rights, animal welfare, fair trade and the environment. So simply by being our customer, you're helping us change the world, little by little, every day.

'Since its launch in 1992, The Co-operative Bank has withheld over £1.2 billion of funding from business activities that its customers have said are unethical. Whilst at the same time, increasing commercial lending sixteen fold to almost £9 billion.'

And my current account comes automatically with worldwide family travel insurance, European-wide car breakdown cover, and mobile phone insurance.

If you are at all concerned about what your money is invested in but thought that your only options were non-ethical or building-society-type accounts, then I warmly invite you to try out the Co-op. And I'm not on a commission, by the way.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Just This, mark 11: non-dual being

This one's a post to respond briefly to those of you who've said they don't always understand the poems I post, and to clear up misapprehensions. If you 'got' it then you might want to skip this.

The other day I posted this little poem:

So what in the end
might it mean to tear
the veil and tumble through
into the world
of exquisite infinite light?

Nothing special, I guess:
still this last robin
greeting the dusk with all of herself
this half moon rising in fugitive blue
and that small plane droning into the West

no longer a watcher
and no watched

For those of you who thought I was preoccupied with notions of death, and was maybe speaking about 'heaven', I wanted to mention that I was thinking about the Buddhist notion of enlightenment, or satori – and although it suggests a state of moving beyond the ego, that isn't the same thing as physical death (although it might also be). It's about waking up – in so many ways quite the opposite, and yet also integrally connected.

In speaking of tearing the veil, etc, I was also referring to a term from Celtic mythology and metaphysics: the Otherworld (not to be confused with the Underworld, realm of the dead). The Otherworld represents, one might say, a state of 'non-ordinary reality', or heightened consciousness. I've elided the two notions – transcendent consciousness with non-dualism.

The 'aim', one could say, is to bring our normal functioning mode of awareness together with this higher consciousness, so that our lives are infused with a greater sense of the fundamental nature of 'interbeing'.

Buddhist teachings see this state of non-duality as the desired outcome of the practice of mindfulness and meditation. It's all about oneness, essential unity. Where most of us spend most of our time identified with our ego, which we then vigorously defend, enlightenment is a state of awareness in which we know ourselves to be a unified consciousness, not apart from anyone/everyone anything/everything else, a state in which one knows that 'I' and 'you' are a nonsense. Needless to say, almost no-one achieves this state of non-dual thinking in a physical life, and certainly not in one lifetime, but that is the 'ideal' state of awareness and awakeness.

Buddhist teachings and teachers remind us over and over that it is not a 'special' state. One ancient phrase goes  something like this: 'Before enlightenment, chopping wood, drawing water. After enlightenment, chopping wood, drawing water.'

Jack Kornfield's book title alludes to this: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. In other words, life carries on as before – with the subtle and crucial distinction that someone who's tasted that state of being – and I have every reason to suppose that one can and does touch it in moments, if not consistently, with certain practices and experiences – no longer falls into the trap of believing in the ultimate existence of a distinct, separate, solid and unchanging egoic 'self'.

My poem, of course, alludes to both the phrase and the book title and what lies behind both; as well as to those moments in our encounters, if we are aware of them, with the Otherworld, 'non-ordinary reality', where time and space as we know them stop being relevant, and everything is 'just as it is' – but more so.

In terms of the watcher and the watched, the overt content was as above. I guess I was also alluding to the findings of quantum physics that suggest that the watcher and watched are integrally connected: that the one affects the other (and presumably the other way round?) – which seems to me to be a very potent teaching on ultimate non-duality... If this is the case, then there really is no ultimate separation – how can there be?

I believe all this is also what is meant in Blake's phrase about cleansing the doors of perception (then borrowed for a title by Aldous Huxley):

'If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.' (From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

So I hope that's reassured those of you who might think my mind has turned to death! – although I do also accept that death, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us, is simply part of the life-death-life cycle – it's a change of state that is inevitably involved in any earthly process; I have had to meet it in a number of lives of people and animals I've loved the last few years, as we all do; and in a few endings and beginnings on more subtle planes. While I have no desire for physical death myself right now, I see no usefulness in pushing the concept away, or suppressing it out of fear.

And any beginning first of all involves a death in some way; that's how we grow.

'This too.'


Saturday, 24 November 2012

to live and to let go

From the window a greyish-white blob has appeared across the valley in the upper limbs of the old lightning-struck oak. With binoculars I can see what I suspected: a heron perched high above the brook, in this wild weather, clinging to the very tip of the highest branch, almost an extension of the tree limbs.

In the last couple of winters I've seen a small egret here, too, come inland, as they do at times.

Yesterday a jackdaw was whipped over my head, playing and spinning and tumbling, in the gale-force southerlies, croaking away to itself in what had to be manifest corvine joy. And then just now, at the very top of an ash tree in the very top margin of our little area of woodland a crow was being thrashed so hard in the wind and pelting rain it was a mere flurry of feathers, and yet it showed no desire to be elsewhere.

I love how hard animals and birds cling to life, immersing themselves fully (as far as I can tell from my human perspective) in the being alive; and then, when it's time to go, simply letting go in the way that an autumn leaf might.

I had a little rescue dog, Hessary, until 2010. I found her as a young puppy in the April of 2000. She'd been dumped in a cardboard box at two weeks old that January in the rain at the roadside, along with her siblings. She and a young male were so ill they nearly didn't pull through; but pull through she did, and, deaf and partially-sighted as I came to realise she was, she demonstrated a huge-hearted and totally enthusiastic engagement with life that one almost never witnesses in a human.  Everything without fail was a cause for delight and (noisy) celebration. (Admittedly she was sometimes a pain in the bum, but that was more than compensated for in her joie de vivre. Mostly. Perhaps not quite so at 4 a.m. on a wintry January night/morning when you're on your own with a sick horse to tend in a flooded stable and you're due 100 miles further north before the start of the working day and Hess is delightedly evading capture down in the woods a mile from the house, and you are so exhausted anyway with a post-viral illness that all you want to do is lie down in the mud and rain and sleep and sleep…)

When she was 10 she suddenly started throwing up. It's a long story but it turned out she had a tumour on her lung, inoperable, and a spleen about 6 times as big as it should have been. She went downhill rapidly, and stopped eating. Still, she snuck off to the brook at the end of our track every morning (crossing the lane on the bend which, given that she was deaf and quite liked racing out to chase cars anyway – yes, she was part-collie – even that ill, was heartstoppingly tricky at times) in order to swim at length in the little pool, barking with joy. And yet she was too weak to climb back up the track – I had to go and find her and carry her. And on her almost-last day, though she was too weak to go anywhere and had been breathing so fast and shallowly I wasn't sure how she was still alive; still, in this state, when we carried her up into her favourite place in the orchard, when my daughter lay down face-to-face with her, Hess passed the ball back and forth between them with her nose, with her usual engagement and gusto, in the habitually gentle sensitive way she played with people, for half an hour or more.

And when her time came it was very clear; and she simply let go.

To live with that level of joyful engagement! And when the time comes, to let go by simply closing your eyes and dropping off the tree.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Just This

So what in the end
might it mean to tear
the veil and tumble through
into the world
of exquisite infinite light?

Nothing special, I guess:
still this last robin
greeting the dusk with all of herself
this half moon rising in fugitive blue
and that small plane droning into the West

no longer a watcher
and no watched

© Roselle Angwin November 2012

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

everything that's not elephant (or horse)

photo by my daughter

One of those apocryphal quotes is a question addressed to a sculptor, carving an elephant. 'How do you know how to begin carving an elephant out of marble?' The sculptor's reply: 'It's easy. All I do is chip away everything that doesn't look like elephant.' (The original is reputedly attributed to Michelangelo, when asked about carving 'David'. I imagine that he said 'David', rather than 'elephant'!)

When I completed my training in Transpersonal Psychology and began offering counselling, I was acutely aware that I was much more interested in bringing to the surface what was 'right' in people and helping them build on that, towards wholeness, than in exposing what was 'wrong' (of course these ideas are not mutually exclusive, but it's a question of emphasis). To continue my opening analogy, what one is chipping away at, I suppose, are the surface layers of fears, of self-dislike, of low self-esteem, lack of self-belief, self-protectiveness, a feeling one is not 'worthy of love', and so on, to reveal something more attuned to essence.

This eventually led me into groupwork: initially in the field of personal development and psycho-spirituality – still my passion – but as it became harder and harder to make a living in a field that is relatively unadopted by mainstream culture as it runs directly against mainstream ideas and values, on the whole, I found I could rely more heavily on workshops focusing on creative and reflective writing. This is still true, especially since I live in an area where there simply isn't the density of population to continuously fill arcane workshops.

However, as some of you will know, this undercurrent is relatively explicitly present in some workshops still, like my January 'Thresholds', the women's 'Singing over the Bones' I'm leading with Sharon Blackie in Scotland next year, and a series on the 'Grail of the Heart' that is warming away in the cauldron of my imagination. It hums its deep note, its canto hondo, in the quiet retreat I lead on the beautiful Isle of Iona each April. And it shapes, in my heart, the work I do in the outdoor 'Ground of Being' days and weeks, and when I work as mentor with individuals. And of course it is still present, at least tacitly, in the poetry and story courses – how could it not be? – it is the pulse that keeps them alive.

I'm talking about soulwork. How hard it is to use that term in our culture. I was in my early thirties when I set up a series of workshops under the collective title of 'Myth as Metaphor', rooted in an understanding of the shaping power of symbols and archteypes, myth and story on the human soul; or perhaps I mean the way the soul expresses itself through images and story rather than through more 'left brain' modes, and how we ignore this 'language', which has affinities with the feeling nature and the imagination, as well as the power of the collective, at great cost, both individually and to the society in which we find ourselves.

I have never lost the thread of that initial strong impetus. It has, however, I realise, become badly frayed in the despair and helplessness I feel when I look at the cruelty, barbarism, mindless ignorance and predominance of conflict that is bound to co-emerge in any society that is built on a hierarchy of power: not simply within the human race but in our attitudes to this beautiful planet and our sibling species. (I feel very strongly about this but have written about it elsewhere, so I will spare you the rant.)

On a personal level, as some of you know, I have had 6 years of intense family trouble, illness and loss, unremittingly, that has left me more than burnt out, finally. The thread has become almost transparent. And I am forced, at last, by my body to stop and register my deep distress – and this is not just personal, but it is completely infused by the horror and helplessness and despair I feel at what we are doing to each other and to the other species with whom we are so completely interdependent. I am too permeable, have always been too permeable, and have nearly gone under. I have felt immobilised by this pain.

BUT in the quiet moments when I'm walking with Dog, or lying staring at the fire, I can feel the wells beginning to fill up again with the life-giving notes of the canto hondo. Somewhere inside – and I can't do more really than give voice to a felt but vague sense – I am incubating something of elephant.

'… [T]he universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,' said  Thomas Berry.

From early childhood onwards my parents nurtured in me a deep love of and life intertwined with animals, as I then did with my daughter. So my life has been filled with the friendship of animals from a very early age when I seemed to tend a large menagerie of domestic and wild animals, the latter usually injured and sometimes brought by others to me. I have never let go of this thread, but its practice has receded a little. Now the animal kingdom – in its own right, but also as an 'intermediary' zone between us and other life on the earth – is rushing back into my life. It's an important and profound psychic zone through which we can experience deep connection, too, to all that is, physical and metaphysical. On the way, it imparts something of deep healing to our sense of fragmentation and woundedness.

At the moment I am simply listening, but I do know that I will be including in some way in group and individual work with others felt experience of the companionship and direct wisdom of the animal species who have most accompanied us over the last few millennia, namely the horse (alongside the dog), to offer us again, through relationship, a conduit into a deeper, kinder and much more understanding and compassionate connection with the other nations who accompany the human journey here. (My daughter is a key here, too, I think, and we will in some way join energies: we have both experienced lifelong friendship with the horse, and she is currently using the great wisdom of 'natural horsemanship' and what she has learned of the principles of leading and following through close relationship in tango to do very impressive work alongside the young horse who shares her life.)

This relationship, the importance of this direct felt experience of Other, bird, animal or tree, or even water, grass and rock, is a missing link, I believe: we forget that we're all in this together; we are all 'of the earth', our own species one among many; and that our survival, and theirs, hangs on a wiser relationship on our part, one founded in mutuality. We need to move, as I wrote in Riding the Dragon albeit not using these terms, and in many other writings of mine more overtly, and as I emphasise through direct experience in eg my Ground of Being days, into a worldview that is ecocentric rather than anthropocentric, in which we are all pulling together for 'what is right' in us all.

And on an indirectly related note, I'm delighted to report that there is a strong movement afoot to begin vaccinating badgers here in the South Hams, in advance of any future move on the Government's part to cull again. I have signed up to train to vaccinate. This feels so right. This is one way of helping mend our broken hearts, of reminding us of what strengths we are capable, in our weakness. (Anyone local to South Devon who wants more info, contact me.)

And anyone wanting more info on the mentoring and groupwork I'm talking about above, do ask to be on my mailing list, or check out my website. I should say this will not happen for a little while, as I'm still recuperating.

As always, thanks to the many of you who read this blog. I hope you know appreciated you are!

Monday, 19 November 2012

shaking the air

The autumn beech hedge kaleidoscoped by rain on the windowpane. Tatters of little scented pink rambler roses, blooming fiercely in November bluster. In the room sandalwood and vanilla, this small candle's flame, a dozen bodies waking to this Monday, and once again this dance: in and out of relationship with self, other, life, death, life. There is the beat and only the beat, the dance and only the dance, the cycles that rise and fall and rise.

The dancers' bodies shake the air
A passing train shakes the air
The steady stream of photons shakes the air
The proximity of the moor
A sparrow's cheep

'Getting close by going far away,' croons the male voice, and I smile because I have been thinking lately again of just this: how two bodies need differentiation before they can really join. 'Getting lost to find my way back home.'

Friday, 16 November 2012

until exile too is home (a poem)

for Jo

My friend says we experience loss at every turn. We know about exile. Here the stoic stove-pipe emits its steely ticks, the flames transmuting earth and water back to air.

My longings carry me across the skies like swallows, until exile becomes a steady state, almost a benediction, and the longing for a home, for home, becomes in itself belonging.

          A predominance of blue.

I learn of nourishment from the inconstancy of cloud, from transience, from loss. I remember
that the grass can grow without me. I set fire by mistake
to the inner forest, which seems more thickly-wooded every day.

                                                                Some days
I have an urge to cast myself upon the waves, be borne away like Neruda’s dark stone

knowing nothing of time, or homesickness.

© Roselle Angwin 2010

Thursday, 15 November 2012

letting go the reins

Twenty years ago, in Riding the Dragon–myth and the inner journey, I wrote: 'If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got.' (Not original words, and I don't know who first voiced them; but this apparently-simple statement is profound in its implications for how we live our lives.)

I've been talking with a friend about a motif in the Grail story of Parsifal, having been re-reading Lindsay Clarke's re-telling of this story: Parzival and the Stone from Heaven. I know the basic story well, having not only used it as a core myth in my own book and in workshops, but also from much studying of the Grail legends in their original languages at university, and then later in some psychological depth in my three-year training in Transpersonal Psychology. The latter is rooted in the writings of C G Jung and the many post-Jungians who have followed this thread, which makes much of the archetypes in myth in general and the symbolic psycho-spiritual wisdom teachings of the Grail corpus in particular, speaking as it does to the concerns of our era in the last millennium.

Re-reading Clarke's book, a little keynote idea which I know so well but had forgotten hit me like the blast of a blow-torch. In this part of the story, many years in, Parsifal has come near to despair. He has no strategies for the future; everything he has tried has brought him outer success, but no closer to the deep desires of his heart, nor to a sense of meaning, wholeness and completion. 'I was lost in fog,' says Parzival. 'I let my horse's reins hang loose' – and that is how, finally, he found the way to the Grail Castle, for which in one guise or another he'd been searching for many years, using the way of the warrior-hero and the 'masculine' attributes of acuity of will, logic and intellect. That way had brought him many fine adventures, both warrior-adventures and romantic encounters, and a place in King Arthur's court; but none had revealed to him the Grail.

Parzival, like most of us in our time, was driven by the need to achieve and the 'doing' nature, and the arts of strategy, planning, achievement, competition, gain, 'success', 'progress', and outwardness, all shaped by a sense of structure and control. Unself-conscious, he was also, through ignorance rather than anything more negative, ultimately self-seeking.

What was sacrificed was what we call in our time 'emotional intelligence': being, the inner world of feeling, dream, intuition, instinct, and the heart-nature qualities of imagination, compassion and empathy; what was missing was a softer focus that allowed uncertainty, quiet, solitude and reflection, and, crucially, an awareness of the importance of the feeling nature both in the making of decisions and the timing of them.

Dropping the reins means letting go, for a little while, of our continual striving to do more of the same, to determinedly shape our direction; giving ourselves over, for a spell, to the innate, unerring and simple wisdom of our bodies (the horse) and our feeling responses to the world; letting instinct and intuition guide our way, and allowing ourselves to be lost in the fog until it clears by itself and a new direction becomes possible, or at least imaginable. (I believe this is something of what Keats was gesturing towards with his phrase 'negative capability'.) We call this, too, 'getting out of our own light' – that is, not being overly ego-focused. Giving up striving. Giving up thinking we have all the answers.

If we don't do that willingly, life, through its natural orientation towards harmony and balance, homeostasis, will, one way or another, force us to.

As someone who is enjoying letting the horse carry me where I need to go, at last, I want to remind you how restorative a period of letting go can be...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

the spirit of the ash tree

I feel a tug of sadness now as I walk through the avenue of young ash trees planted along the footpath by the stream (photo from March this year). 

If you live in Britain, you'll know what a huge threat the ash (fraxinus excelsior) is under, with some arborists suggesting we might lose 80% of this ancient and iconic species to fungal disease. The Government has acted far far too late to ban the import of foreign ashes apparently responsible for importing the disease from Eastern Europe – some would say completely unnecessary, given how well the ash tree grows, or has grown, here, and how prolific it is. And it seems there's little that can be done. All we, the public, can do apparently is to wash our hands after visiting woodland in order to try and halt its spread. (It's rather reminiscent of the Government's instructions for the event of a nuclear disaster in the 70s/80s: paint yourself white and hide under the kitchen table. But it may, may possibly, help halt the spread.) 

If the oak is the king of the forest here, the ash is the queen. Elegant and ethereal, her slender feathered leaves allow more light through the canopy than many British trees, so nurturing a host of species of flora and fauna.

Earlier this year I wrote:

'Because of the time of year here in the UK... I've been noting with joy a kind of green aura around each of the young ash trees in an avenue along the brookside path (I say 'aura' because they are not in any visible way actually leafing, but from a distance there is a very distinct green tinge to the whole stand, as well as each tree).'

Now as I walk through them I speak to them, I tell them I care about them, wish them vitality and longevity. What else can we do? My friend Fred Hageneder, who has dedicated his life to trees, says: 'All over Europe people have traditionally talked to the tree beings...'* In Sweden, for instance, there was traditionally a guardian tree of home or farm, an ash, elm or lime, most commonly. This tree was greeted, and libations of milk or beer were made at certain times to, for instance, the Ash Woman spirit.

If we are interconnected then it may be that at some level they 'receive' the care we put out, and are affected by it, as we are reciprocally by them, whether or not we're conscious of it. I remember Lyall Watson's research in the 70s showing that, for instance, some plants, like geraniums, responded noticeably positively to eg the music of Bach (I do, 'n' all!), and failed rather if played disharmonious music (I do that too). Lots more to say about all that, but not here.

If trees are the lungs of the planet, as someone once said, we are in trouble (as we know already) through deforestation, and desertification as a result.

I'm reposting here an excerpt from a blog of mine last year (

'Both oak and ash, sacred to the Celts, occur also in the list of the seven ‘chieftain trees’ in mediaeval Ireland; the unlawful felling of one tree from any of the species in this list (as opposed to the lesser ‘peasant’, ‘shrub’ and ‘bramble’ lists) was punishable via a fine of one cow (in the earlier Triads of Ireland, the death penalty, says Robert Graves, was the price of unlawfully felling a hazel or an apple, two other chieftain trees). The ash mythologically is associated with Poseidon, god of the oceans, (though I am sure there would also have been a female deity associated with the ash) and ‘cloud making’, and also with Gwydion, the master Druid of Britain...'

The ash, along with the hawthorn, is the tree most commonly found near a holy well. Further research suggests it's connected with a number of water gods and goddesses.

Hageneder in another of his books, The Spirit of Trees, reminds us that the old Irish name of the ash in the ogham alphabet, nion, links it with Nuada of the Silver Hand, a king of the elfin Otherworld's Tuatha de Danaan (Nodens in England). As the third tree in the tree alphabet, which also has been seen as a description of the unfolding of the progression of the human soul through an incarnation, it represents our connection with others, our 'right relationship', you could say. I experience it as a threshold tree, concerned with the liminal and with the boundaries – or lack of them – between self and other. I wrote a mnemonic many years ago, a kind of ditty, to help me remember: 'Ash tree dancing on the edge / show me the secrets of the hedge. / Keeping in and keeping out / boundaries are what you're about.'

It's not for nothing that the druid's wand was sometimes made of ash; and the choice of the 'ashplant', stick or staff, with its vaguely mystical overtones even today, carried by a countrydweller was, or is, a nod to the old sacred status of trees...  

* The Heritage of Trees: history, culture and symbolism (Floris Books)
See also


Friday, 9 November 2012

being nowhere; and other nations

In the field the cherry clatters its leaves and lets drop another handful. The light breeze spins the beech leaves – at last they recognise autumn, and have turned intense chartreuse, amber, russet. 

I pick a few more beans to pod (a meagre harvest this year) for the freezer: beautiful red and green borlotti, creamy pea beans with a chestnut nub, jewel-green flageolets. 

The fox disappears over the bank as Dog and I come up the slope; sits in a splinter of sun surveying the valley from the ochre hillside next door.

The stream rushes in the valley. A raven passes over. Yesterday, twice, a snipe flew very low over my head – I've only ever seen a couple in my whole life. In shamanic thinking, if an animal appears three times in quick succession in dream or in waking time, it may be a spirit animal for the human to whom it appears. I'm waiting for a third visit from Snipe. I need to learn its habits.

And in this enforced lull in my work I'm allowing in new possibilities. One certainty is that in one way or another I'm resurrecting my deep lifelong connection with the Horse tribe; daughter and self will in some way be incorporating horse wisdom into our work. They have, after all, horses, accompanied humans for so many millennia, usually badly exploited as slaves, or in war. We need to remember a different relationship with horse (indeed all animals) as equal, as teachers, as carrier of wisdom, as healers, even, for the fractured human psyche in its disconnected state.

I'm remembering this most wonderful quote from that most inspiring book The Outermost House, by Henry Beston (thank you, Barry Oleksak, for that gift all those years ago):

'When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of our very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity.

'We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.'

This morning, I can stop on the bench at the top of the field under the cerise and orange spindle tree berries. I can simply slow to the rhythm of the day. I can watch the unfolding of the 'splendour and travail' of the earth.

 Nowhere to get to; nowhere to go. 'Without going out of my door I can learn the whole world.'

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

the walking is the road

'Traveller, your footprints
are the road, and nothing more;
traveller, there is no road,
the road is made by moving.'

Antonio Machado

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

between heaven and earth

My friend Sharon Blackie edits Earthlines magazine. This third issue, the current one, is as beautiful, committed, erudite, wise and sharp-focused as the other two. Sharon and her husband David operate out of a small working croft on the Hebridean island of Lewis, and the dynamism and dedication of the duo is evident in the books they publish, as well as in the journal.

There is much to praise and comment on in the journal. For my purposes now, though, I was struck by a few lines quoted in an article on Chinese eco-poet Yang Jian from an interview with him in the Jing Daily of 2007.

When asked 'Why do you write poetry?' his response was: 'Because of water... Because of the old ox that drags his plow behind him in the dusk... Because of the red carp in 'Journey to the West' that swam away when I was little... Because of the peach tree in front of an old cottage... it bloomed, beautiful and free...'

This is a poem in itself. What struck me in particular is that he answered that question in images, so inviting us to think in poetry too. Here in the West my experience from asking that question of people many many times is that we tend to answer in the abstract, in concepts. 'Because I have to.' 'Because it's a way of saving my life.' 'Because I have something I want to communicate.' 'To know what I'm thinking, what I'm feeling.' 'Because there is no other way of saying what I want to say.' These are common responses; valid and true responses. But they don't have the vitality of the image, and they don't therefore convey what poetry alone can convey.

So last Saturday with my regular group I asked once again this question, and requested that they respond in images; in poetry, in fact. The difference was enormous, and the poetry that they created in response potent.

For myself, I wrote several pages of image-based notes. I'm aware of a biggish poem taking shape in the liminal spaces as a result of that. My starting point, unbidden, was an image of an owl, and here are the few words I wrote as a 'way in' to writing about other more far-ranging and significant things:

I write poetry
for that owl
perched in its pine tree
eyes lit by the glow
of the Guy Fawkes' bonfire
gazing down
at that little girl
gazing up
who so wanted
like the owl
to live between heaven and earth
and didn't yet know
she already did

and I write poetry
to remember that

Sunday, 4 November 2012

shadow of the heart

I woke this morning remembering the beginning of a poem that has stayed with me since I first read it in 1998. It's called 'In the Dark 2', and it's by Lizzie Spring. It can be found in an anthology edited by my ex-colleague and friend Jay Ramsay: TRANSFORMATION: the poetry of spiritual consciousness.

The beginning goes like this:

'It is necessary
to do that which
the inner journey dictates.
To do otherwise
is to fly
into all the faces of adversity
towards certain death
without choice of transformation.
It is necessary to submit.
These creasing aching breaking
will force one
out of the    old skin
                   old bone
                   old body
the old pattern pulverised.'

It is a New Age cliché that every crisis is also an opportunity. And it's a cliché precisely because it embodies a truth, which is that a crisis is notice that something is out of balance. We see this on the macro level every day. What the crisis brings, though, is a chance to address the imbalance. This is the journey to wholeness.

The imbalances out there in the world affect us all, both knowingly and on an unconscious level. The way in which we arrive at and deal with crisis is also a reflection of our relationship, or potential relationship, to the whole; and in a tiny way adds to the collective sum of humanity's learning.

Here, I want to speak a little about my own personal experience, right now, of crisis. I'm posting it as I know I'm not alone with attempting to deal with these issues, and it's always reassuring to me to read of others making this journey, this struggle towards being more conscious, this reaching for the light; so I hope there's something of relevance here for others.

What we react to, what we admire, envy, or fear, or hate in another is a very good indicator of what in ourselves needs developing, or is hidden and unconscious in us (which amounts to the same thing). In Jungian psychology this mechanism – seeing in another what we are not conscious of in ourselves – is known as projection, or the Shadow. It's prevalent in all our relationships.

I notice that I find people who appear to be disengaged – from me, from others, from the world and its problems, maybe even from themselves – challenging. They really press my buttons. This is, clearly, where my learning might happen. More in a minute.

What has happened for me recently, as some of you will know, is that many many years of stress and of ignoring my deeper needs for rest in a life that has been very full and very 'out there', have somatised into a potentially serious 'heart condition'.

According to the holistic viewpoint, once the lifelong patterns of thought, belief, habit manifest physically they have become chronic and entrenched, and the body's somatisation of these is the densest form the unthought structures we subscribe to take. In the West our way of dealing with them is to throw fast alleviation at the symptoms without looking at the causes.

My heart now needs serious physical care. I can treat the symptoms: I am accepting some of the allopathic remedies of Western medicine to help the immediate situation, and refusing others as I don't want to have to deal with the possible long term effects.

I take the view that a symptom is also a symbol. In looking at it like this we're offered a channel for exploration. It may not be as simple as a direct correlation of cause>effect, subtle>dense, but chances are there is at least a corollary on the subtle plane.

I can support my mind and body's deeper needs, so I am doing that too. In terms of the latter, with the generosity of good friends, I'm taking various measures, as I've said here before. I'm taking herbs that will strengthen my heart muscle, normalise its rhythms, and bring my blood pressure down. They're not cheap, and they take longer to kick in than allopathic drugs, but they are gentle, safe and effective. I am continuing with dance, walking, yoga and meditation, with support from acupuncture and osteopathy.

All this is hugely beneficial; but if I don't look at why my heart rebelled in the first place the possible causes haven't really been addressed. So I can look at what my heart is telling me. I can look, too, at how permanently, pathologically, I'm addicted to being 'engaged', and what that costs. I can look at wearing my heart out through too much caring about everything.

The big thing for me is that I live on full throttle. I do work that I love and believe in, I have friends and family whom I deeply love, I have many interests and passions, I love the life of the mind and the heart, I experience huge joy out in the natural world, I do what I can I for environmental causes. In short, I love life, and engage with it wholeheartedly.

I am also over-responsible, over-conscientious, and almost incapable of saying no. I also believe I have to save the world.

Trouble is, I don't really have an 'off' switch. So while I'm capable of feeding both body and mind, and give both exercise and stimulus, and routinely offer what I have to give to others, what I know almost nothing about is simply resting and looking after myself. I don't know what 'downtime' looks like, and despite my espousal of Eastern wisdom about the need for being as well as doing, I seem almost pathologically incapable of actually just being. I have routinely worked very long hours for an income that is ludicrously small. I have refused – to the extent that one can, living in the West – to buy into ideas of 'must-have' consumerism. As a single parent really struggling simply to pay the rent for many years as a result of choosing a path that has meaning but is unconventional, I've always lived close to the edge. I know the edge, and I know it's addictive: creative and exciting and rewarding.

And in consistently overriding the needs of body and mind, treating both as if they were invincible machines, I have come perilously close to falling off the edge.

And what is even more relevant here is that, despite my decades of writing about living with heart, teaching it and talking about it to others, my acknowledgement of the needs of my heart is all theory. Until very recently I have consistently denied my heart in the last few years a regular dose of much of what it really needs: self-love and gentle care, time to enjoy deep friendships, birdsong, animal company, dance, poetry, sea, wilderness, time out. Solitude. Rest. Rest. Rest.

A break from saving the world. A break from saving others. A break from the hubris involved in thinking it's my job to.

But until I can learn to really listen with the ears of the heart, really see with the eyes of the heart, really be open to the gentle and difficult messages of the heart, then nothing I do on the physical plane will make enough difference. It is so easy for me to rationalise away the little quiet voices that ask me to do things differently. It's so easy to be 'pulled out' by my perception of the needs and rights of others.

So here is where I can learn from those people who are disengaged: I can learn to be truly more reclusive (I think that I am, living where I do and not being involved in a social whirl, but actually I am still always doing).

What does it mean? It means recognising my own needs to only be in touch with the human world, whether that's actual or virtual, when I want to, not when I feel I 'should', or from neediness. It has meant cutting back on all e-communication. It means a lot less doing, mentally at least as much as physically. It means stepping back where I would usually step forwards. It means not caring if others don't like that. It means listening to the many often contradictory messages from my heart and following the one I know to be the truest, the most authentic. It means saying no, including to my addictions and cravings – not least, my thirst for being in touch, in communication, in connection with others. It means simply switching off and not being always on standby, available to anyone who wants my attention and any and all distractions. It means stopping feeling I need to be all things to all people all the time. It means trusting that what I have to offer, when I have it, will be enough. It means simply – giving up, giving in to what has to be.

It means, above all, learning to rest, and to let that be enough. And OH! how hard: 'It is necessary to submit.'

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