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.
Wednesday, 31 December 2014
Moving beyond fear
Firstly, Susan Jeffers. Her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway shifted something in me in my early 30s, and I've retained it.
After I closed the shoemaking business on the basis of one commissioned n-f book (Riding the Dragon - myth & the inner journey) I launched into freelance journalism. I'd already written a few articles, but needed to pitch higher and wider than reviews in poetry magazines and longer articles in small-circulation journals. So for a couple of years – until pitching to bored editors in London on topics I was staying abreast of by the seat of my pants brought unmanageable stress into my life, despite the best income I've ever had (that's not saying much, by the way) – where was I? oh yes – I wrote for mainstream newspapers and magazines as well as New Age ones on environmental issues and holistic matters: psychological and physical health.
One article I wrote for a women's magazine was on confidence, and Susan Jeffers gave me a generous dollop of her time long-distance on the phone.
Two things I took away from her book: one is that true courage is nothing to do with not feeling afraid, but in not letting fear stop you. The other is that the way to overcome fear is to remind oneself that it's usually not the focus of the fear, the thing itself, that is frightening, but the fear that we may not be able to handle it. Remembering the latter, and that it's a choice, reminds me of the dictum that we can't stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.
Of wolves and women
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Jungian, anthropologist, and storyteller. I had just finished writing Riding the Dragon when her wonderful book Women Who Run with the Wolves came out. It's a magnum opus of passion and wisdom and insight; empowering, inspiring and illuminating. There is nothing like it, and if I were Education Secretary it would be, along with its equivalent for men, Iron John, by Robert Bly, compulsory school reading for every teenager. (The third and complementary book I'd put on the curriculum would be Jungian James Hollis' The Eden Project – the search for the magical other; that way we'd restore in our culture a vision of what love really is, or could be, and lift the burden we all unknowingly place on the Other, who is tacitly or even overtly expected to meet our needs and make us happy 'in the name of love'. I have said here and elsewhere that the best thing we can do for this poor fractured world of ours is to make our relationship with ourselves more conscious; this book expresses and articulates further this idea with great eloquence and depth, as well as with disarming wryness.)
Forget the horse whisperer
More recently, I've devoured with passion and delight Linda Kohanov's book The Tao of Equus. As a lifelong accompanier of horses (along with my daughter) I was over the moon to find that someone had started a worldwide movement that exactly echoed the way in which my daughter and I have intuitively always related to horses: not as possessions to be dominated, coerced or expected simply to do our bidding, but partners in a kind of co-evolution of conscious relationship.
Perhaps you need to be into horses to get it; but it's more about the way in which we in the so-called 'developed world', anthropocentric as it is, relate to other species in general, and about what happens when we objectify, through a reductive viewpoint, aspects of our intertwined co-arising life. Yes, there's a mystical element, and I don't apologise for that.
If you read this blog often or know my work you'll know that my big thing is about revisioning our relationships not just to human others but to the other-than-human, as a matter of urgency. Kohanov's book dosed me up with such excitement I could barely sleep; she articulates so beautifully and from her own personal and professional experience what more and more of us sense.
The ecological revolution
Finally, for the moment, a big inspiration for me over many years now has been Buddhist and deep ecology scholar, social and environmental activist, and general wisewoman Joanna Macy, who founded the 'Work That Reconnects' network, and in relation to where we are as a species right now and the possibility of a tipping towards critical mass for major change, gave us the term 'The Great Turning' (the ecological revolution).
The vision behind my own work, clearly on a much smaller scale, echoes her work in many ways. One of my sisters had the inspiration to buy me Macy's most recent book, Active Hope, for Christmas – exactly the injection of energy and optimism I needed when I have so nearly myself been overwhelmed recently to the point of helplessness and despair and then inertia at the dire state of the world – like so many of us.
One thing Macy brings so well is the prompt to remember the sheer energising power of what she calls active hope. She identifies three common patterns of behaviour, 'three stories', in our relationship to our current environmental and social crises. (She points out that by 'story' she doesn't mean a work of fiction but rather the way we make sense of situations and events.)
The first is a denial of the scale of the problems; 'business as usual'.
The second, what she calls 'The Great Unravelling', is a kind of despair at the magnitude of the problems, and a pessimistic feeling of powerlessness. This can lead to a sense that our individual drops in the ocean are too small to count; so alarmed and helpless we too can default to 'business as usual' (this story is putting us on 'a collision course with disaster', as we most of us do know, even if we'd rather not know).
The third, 'The Great Turning', is a recognition that together we can make a difference: 'The third is about a groundswell of response to danger and the multifaceted transition to a life-sustaining civilization. Recognizing that we can choose the story we live from can be liberating; finding a good story to take part in adds to our sense of purpose and aliveness.'
In the story of The Great Turning we make a commitment 'to act for the sake of life on Earth, as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so'. She also reminds us that this isn't too far-fetched now: Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, suggests that there are over one million and maybe more like two million organisations working towards ecological sustainability and social justice. Not so few drops in the ocean, then.
She reminds us that whatever situation we face, we can choose our response. This echoes Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning: 'When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves... Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.'
We can live in denial – the comfortable way. We can live in despair – in some ways, also an easy, even indulgent, option, uncomfortable though it is.
Or we can elect for change, and challenge what keeps us stuck in old destructive patterns. This requires active hope. Here's Macy again: 'Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we'd like things to move in or the values we'd like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction... Since Active Hope doesn't require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on intention and let it be our guide.'
(Some of these ideas are relevant to my next one-day workshop, Thresholds, here in Devon, with relationship both to our individual lives and what we contribute to the wider world.)
So I guess the best thing to wish you all for 2015 is active hope, and the courage to live your beliefs and visions regardless of what the tide of popular opinion is doing.
'See' you here next year...
Sunday, 28 December 2014
'The purposes of pruning are to maintain, increase, or prolong the vitality of a plant, or to keep it in bounds, or to direct its energy to a special purpose.' (The Small Garden; C E Lucas Phillips)
These beautiful liminal days between the solstice/Christmas and the first day of the Gregorian calendar's new year are a perfect time to reflect on what's leaving our lives with the turning year, and what is still to be born.
Actually, the whole of the winter time can bring that hibernatory aspect, and there are many seasonal points in the wheel of the year that offer such pauses. But I guess I'm not alone in using this time for some kind of reflective process – it feels rather more substantial than the option of joining the feeding frenzy of post-Christmas bargain-buying (though I'm not pretending I'm free of consumerist acquisitiveness).
It's particularly poignant for me this year as yesterday my sisters and I cleared out the suite of rooms that our father, and before that our mother too, inhabited for the last few years of his, and their, life. It's been a bare three weeks since he died, and I've inevitably had the presence of his death, burial and now the clearout uppermost in my mind this month. I'd have liked to have had the luxury of leaving the clearing of his few possessions for a while yet, but there was no option.
As we went through his belongings yesterday one of my sisters said that she could understand the Romany way of setting light to the dead person's vardo (wagon), with all their belongings inside. There's something satisfyingly unequivocal about that, and one's memory and emotions have less opportunity to be reflexively dragged back to painful, or at least bittersweet, memories over and over, at least for a while.
It was a hard process. I've brought very little back with me: his wonderful handmade hazel staff with the antler thumb-rest; a wrought-iron handmade dragon; some books and music. The little earthenware plaque with the words of Julian of Norwich on it. A photograph that I had taken of my childhood beach.
None of his paintings – they went to my sisters, all bar one, of his grandfather, former Mayor of St Ives, that will be donated to St Ives museum. His silversmithing tools, his microscope, his musical instruments have all gone. What to do with the beautiful green and tan leather waistcoats that he made for himself?
But I brought back the 85-year-old teddy bear that was my mum's when she was a toddler – apposite as tutelary deity of my campervan which was bought with some of her legacy to me. I imagine it will be poignant for a long time, seeing these possessions of theirs each day.
Another legacy of my mum's was a Christmas tradition that she initiated when we were kids: giving away one thing for every present received. I'm so grateful to her for that principle, and today I've been going through some of my clothes with just that in mind. Tomorrow, much harder, I'll do that in relation to my several-thousand-strong books.
As I sat looking at the birds in the courtyard earlier today I was thinking about pruning the various shrubs and trees, and consulting my mum's book The Small Garden for just that. And I was thinking about my Inner Magpie need to pick up things that I see, and to which I attribute significance – the Iona greenstones, the shells from Cornish beaches, the buzzard feathers dropped in the field, etc etc. That's my own acquisitiveness – I don't buy much but I sure as hell collect. (Correction – I do buy books. Far too many.)
And so I was thinking about pruning. Of course, it's not just pruning material belongings, but attitudes and habits too. My inability to see something beautiful and just leave it where it is. My need to be right. My need to think, intensely and unremittingly. My need to join in. My compulsive need to communicate. My unwillingness to simply let things be without trying to sort or fix them. My lack of skill at 'keeping my own counsel'. My appetite for more of everything: intellectual and emotional as much as, or rather more than, material. There's a kind of 'spiritual materialism' at play in that, to use the words of Chogyam Trungpa.
Dare I call my listing of these habits my New Year's Resolution challenge?
And so, as I slide to the end of the year with its accumulations of loss and pain and also joys and inspirations, I remind myself again that, cliché though this is, the real pleasures, the real gifts*, are the everyday miracles of things that can't be sought, or bought, or measured, and whose impact is way beyond acquisition of the material: being alive, for instance. Having loved, and loving. Being loved. Friends. Intimacy – with self, humans, the other-than-human. Acts of kindness. Listening. Being listened to. Birdsong. Ideas. Music. Art. Touch. Poetry. Dance. The companionship of animals, birds, trees. A sense of belonging. Work that feels worthwhile and takes place with wonderful heartful people in beautiful places.
And yes also the material: enough to eat. Reasonably clean water to drink. Shelter, and a fire. The luxury of not only not being in a war zone, but living somewhere with very little light, noise or air pollution.
What more do I really need? What can I prune? Stripping back my acquisitions, material, emotional, and intellectual, might just free up what I need for more important direction of my vital energies.
'How little do I need?' is so much more useful a question than the converse.
* Since you, readers, are part of the 'real gifts' that enter my life freely, without my seeking or buying the privilege of your participation, this is a good opportunity to thank you for all you bring into my life with your presence – virtual, mostly, but still felt and appreciated. May the year's turning and the unfolding of 2015 be peaceful, happy, fulfilling for you all.
Tuesday, 23 December 2014
I remembered then the robin singing in last year's solstice evening, and so I'm reposting my poem from a year ago. Such journeys we all make, have all made, in this one circuit of the earth around the sun.
I wish you all a warm, heartful, creative and deep year's turning, and the wisdom and courage to keep surfing the waves, no matter how big, in the confidence and knowledge that you can.
May we all find peace, and remember what the truest values are. May all beings find peace.
Just now, in the full night of midwinter’s night
over the traffic and the cop-cars and the late shoppers,
down at the bottom of the hill in the car park
where the red dogwoods flame, a robin started up
her strong ribbon of song in the lee of the storm, and as I
drive up the hill, window open to let in the dark,
a second tunes in, and then on the brow another,
each singing its loud hymn to the night and the cloud
and the brimming tapers of stars between, and this,
this, must surely be grace, a moment’s inbreath, in our
onwards rush, on this northern side of this lost-in-space
spinning-back-towards-the-light planet, our home star.
© Roselle Angwin 2013
Saturday, 20 December 2014
In many cultures the solar god figure was interred, hung from the tree (think Odin/Woden, and also the Hanged Man of the Tarot), or dismembered like Osiris, for three days and nights at this midwinter time, to be born again, as the sun seems to be after this time of the shortest day, towards a gradual lengthening of daylight, once the sun moves on. (It's no coincidence that Jesus' birthday is close to the winter solstice.)
In West Cornwall, there are some enigmatic underground chambers called 'fogous'. Many stretch for quite some metres, and many have little round side-chambers known as 'creep' chambers. They're Iron Age in origin, and we don't know what they were built for.
Some suggest that they had ritual significance, and this seems likely. Other barrows have similar side-chambers (for instance in Brittany), and the thinking is that an initiate would be entombed, alive, in this little womb-like chamber for three days and three nights, to be 'reborn' at the midwinter sunrise (usually; sometimes solstice sunset) when the entrance was unblocked. This sensory deprivation would have either killed through shock, made mad ditto, or transformed the individual.
Until the house was sold some years ago now I used to lead residential workshops at a place called Rosemerryn, near Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall. The house was built within a double concentric earthwork dating from the Iron Age, and it has a magnificent fogou in the grounds close by. Just up the road is the Merry Maidens, or Dawns Men ('stone dance') stone circle dating probably from the early Bronze Age, opposite a pair of tall menhirs known as the Boleigh Pipers. Close by is another menhir, the Fiddler. (West Cornwall has a very dense concentration of prehistoric monuments.)
Sometimes we entered the dark throat of the fogou, and lit candles to float in the deep puddle caused by the collapse of part of the roof – a magical experience, and in itself gently transformative.
Meantime here are two poems written after entering the Boleigh Fogou a few years ago. They both appear (the second in a slightly different format, a prose poem like the first, below) in my collection Bardo – an appropriate title for this liminal time.
Friday, 12 December 2014
Winter lounges, sodden and unused –
Tuesday, 9 December 2014
A death reinforces the fact that, whatever our beliefs, imaginings, hopes, fears, intuitions or psychic/transcendent experiences, we simply do not know what happens after death. We are brought face-to-face with our own unknowing, despite any spiritual practice we have followed for no matter how long. Or at least, I am.
TM and I disagree on this quite ferociously at times, but I'm with Karen Armstrong: questions are more useful, more valuable, than answers. The truth is, who can really know with any certainty about the nature of realms or planes of being beyond the purely material? Which of us has privileged access, a hotline, to the Absolute?
For many of us, there is, we think, a continuation of some sort – of the soul or even of the personality bundle, of essence – on more subtle planes of being. For some, we incarnate with the same group of people over and over, for the purposes of soul-growth. For others, materialists, nothing happens – everything is down to neural impulses, including 'God', and at death our atoms are simply dispersed.
I'm with Jai Lakhani, who says: 'To imagine consciousness originates in the brain is like saying that electricity resides in the light switch.' In my view, everything is consciousness; and for sharpening my thinking on that, I have TM to thank.
There is some comfort, perhaps, whatever your belief, in the fact that in some way, as mere atoms or as less tangible essence, we are returned to All That Is; to the collective, in union. As I say in my header poem, we might dissolve but we can't ever disappear.
During the period of the recent gruelling hospital visits – the worst thing is seeing a loved one suffer and knowing you can do nothing about it – by way of light relief I was involved from time to time in an online conversation about the nature of spirituality with the head of a Buddhist order. (Light relief?? – Well, you should see me when I'm heavy! And I don't do 'retail therapy'.)
This came about because I was invited, by someone I respect, to 'like' the facebook page about the teacher's latest book. I also like and respect the teacher concerned.
But I found I couldn't in all wholeheartedness 'like' the page, as the book makes the case for Buddhism being a religion.
'Yes and...?' you might respond. Well, for me, having been very deeply influenced by Zen for 40 years now, one of the very things that Zen Buddhism emphasises in my view is a cutting-through the ideas, structures and belief-patterns that keep us trapped in delusions of ego, of 'self and other'. It's a path of psychospiritual awakening, rather than a set of tenets I have to espouse to 'be a believer'.
I have always seen Buddhism as, rather than a set of beliefs relating to some distant godhead, a way of liberation from the beliefs and opinions that hold us separate. To me, it doesn't require belief but living. The Buddha is said to have said (in effect) 'Don't take my word for it, try it out for yourself'.
It's a path of life and thought that integrates spirit and matter, consciousness and form, and in my view (and I'm not alone) is a spirituality rather than a religion – as the latter comes with an organisation, normally hierarchical, and prescribed sets of beliefs and practices that are, in one way or another, supposedly 'God-given' (and this God is normally envisaged as a kind of a male, distant, rather stern father-figure, in my view an anthropomorphic projection). Practice usually revolves around this deity, who is somehow external to us and all living beings, whom one worships. (It was the phrase 'worshipping the Buddha' that got me going in the conversation I was having – this seemed to me so contrary to the Buddha's teachings.) These are some of the reasons I left the Catholic Church of my childhood.
A spirituality, for me, is an awareness and acknowledgement that the material plane is probably a manifestation of greater more subtle forces, of collective realities which are likely to endure beyond the cycles of transience that we experience in the physical plane. A metaphysic, in other words.
It's also a felt sense that we are all in this together, suspended in Indra's Net, the great 4-dimensional web of being: mouse, gnat, oak tree, amoeba, human. This is what Buddhism calls interdependent co-arising.
The trouble with organised religion, too (though I do understand the benefits of fellowship, community and a sense of belonging), is that it almost inevitably calcifies into 'us and them' – sectarianism, separatism, prejudice and intolerance. Look at all the religious wars – which end up being about one group being 'right' and another 'wrong', and translate into power and territory wars. What's more, some have it and some don't.
I do have a strong metaphysic; that is, I am fairly sure that there are subtle planes of being behind the material world, out of which the material world arises and into which it dissolves. I don't know this but it seems extraordinarily likely, and it's very clear to me that we live our lives within a great interconnected and interpenetrating web of being that can be sensed, intuited and experienced, if not proven to exist (though I'm interested in the new science's agreement with, basically, mystics' experience from forever, and an acceptance of the notion of an ecosystem is a good illustration of the principle).
My own path is, loosely, a blend of nature-based spirituality, our indigenous British Mystery Tradition and native shamanic practices, mystical experience, poetry-as-soul-medium, psychotherapy and Buddhist methodology.
But what I noticed in our conversation, which was at times, let's say, 'firm', was our individual attachment to our own maps, beliefs and opinions. A belief is merely that; an opinion is merely our own; and both are ways in which the ego attempts to shore itself up. It's an emotional reaction to a 'territorial' threat, basically.
As practitioners of the Middle Way, we were still not immune from that. These are attributes of the personality, not the soul, or essential nature, and perhaps what all spiritualities offer is a way to transcend the dictates of the 'small self'.
And to the extent that we all shore up our little egos, we're all focusing on the finger, not the moon; the map and not the territory. To really pay attention to the moon, to the territory, to Other, we need to come empty – to attempt to see reality as it is, or seems to be, not as we are. So easy to say. But that, too, is the heart of Buddhist practice. And it's of course a lifelong apprenticeship.
Meantime, I 'believe' there are many paths up the sacred mountain; many different maps.
And having said that, in the spirit of Zen paradox, I'll stay with Antonio Machado's words: 'Pilgrim, there is no path / the path is made by walking.'
Saturday, 6 December 2014
How it is.
So much of our suffering, says Jungian and cantadora Clarissa Pinkola Estes, comes about because we cleave to the 'life' aspect of the life/death/life cycle and push away the 'death' part. Buddhism says something similar.
So in the spirit of 'and this too', here is a small part of a story-within-a-story; it comes from my most recent novel, The Burning Ground.
Friday, 5 December 2014
in the sky where it dwelled when we
were born, he and I both, a generation apart,
in the same holy river.
time’s gatekeeper, further again cycle
the greater cosmic forces by which the stars
are posted to their own allotted places,
spheres of a different finitude on the dark face
In a day, in a moment
we are brought to a threshold and gathered
in and over. Nothing
can stop the old order
breaking down; not our wishes, not tears,
not prayers – for only thus can the new
ever be born.
In this first, new, December day,
grey dawn paints in the monochrome tones
of the valley; and look! – at the old field gate
how beautiful, how heartbreaking, this lone
fragile white periwinkle, opening to sky.
© Roselle Angwin, 4th December 2014, for JOA, 1928–2014
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