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

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

cliffs, strawberries and being awake in the gap...

So there are these moments in every life, when none of your plans seems to lead where you'd – well, planned, when every avenue seems to bring you to a cul-de-sac and where your current 'where' is completely, as far as you can tell, untenable (we all arrive there, wherever 'there' is, I guess; but does this happen even more in the life of a freelance in the creative field than in other lives?)...

And it has to be said that the word 'plan' is not one that my family and friends would say in the same breath as my name. It's true that I (and certainly my younger self) have rather disdained the whole notion of 'planning' as being stultifying, seeing in it that phrase of T S Eliot's about 'measuring out my life in coffee spoons'. Planning can be a bit of an anathema to the creative process too, which requires a certain fluidity. Plus I was seduced by that line by Laurens van der Post as a young and impressionable romantic adolescent: 'And so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or intentional design, but rather as someone following the flight of a bird...' And on the whole, it has to be said, I've hugely enjoyed that flight-following adventure, though it's not always easy in a money-fixated culture to live in that way when money has not been for me a major motivating force.

But plan or no plan, the winds take you just the same, it seems to me.

And then sometimes they drop you mid-ocean. What do you do in this place of utter becalm-ment (a bit of a misnomer, as for most of us arrival at such a situation evokes rather less – or do I mean more – than a calm response)? Well, of course, you catch fish; or, if you're a vegetarian, you pick strawberries (to mix my sea metaphor with a land one).

Do you remember that teaching tale – it must be from Zen, or maybe it's a Sufi or Indian story – about just that? A man has arrived at a cliff's edge and is gazing at the horizon of his life. Suddenly he becomes aware, too late, that the cliff beneath his feet is crumbling, and almost simultaneously he's gone over the edge and is plummeting to the rocks hundreds of feet below. Flashing past his face, then, is a small bush – and miraculously his outstretched hand just catches hold of a branch; and just in time he can break his fall. With a struggle he cements his grip enough as not to be in immediate danger of the plummet to death. Looking up, though, there's a white tiger baring its teeth at him over the cliff edge. Glancing down, he sees to his dismay that below him is a black tiger, jaws agape. And then he hears the horrifying tearing sound of the bush's roots beginning to come away from the cliff face. Just at that moment he spots a tiny wild strawberry plant in front of him, the fruit so juicy, so red, so luscious... and ah! the sweetness of those few fruit, the sweetness! – suspended as he is between the moment of his birth and the truth of his death...

Some would call that 'fiddling while Rome burns'. I've found, though, that there is a profound truth in being able to suck the strawberry of the present moment instead of allowing myself to wallow in despair and despondency; fears for the future, regrets about the past (that's not to say that I don't, of course! – just that finally, after 30 years of practice, I'm getting better, sometimes, at returning to sit at the hub of the wheel of the present moment rather than identifying 'me' and 'my life' with the emotions that threaten to spin me around at speed on the periphery).

This is mindfulness: paying attention to how things are, in the present moment, with all of myself and without judgement, as John Kabat-Zinn defines it. The secret is not to identify one's Self, one's true self, with the ego; and to remember transience is simply how it is. Oh yes – easy to say, Roselle...

And recently I've come across Daniel Goleman's words (he of Emotional Intelligence) which sum up the essence of mindfulness for me: 'everything happens in that gap between impulse and action' (my paraphrase). That's where the electricity is: the charge, the means to change our life, each moment, every moment: in being awake in that gap, remembering we have choice. This is T S Eliot's 'stillpoint / where the dance is'.

Me? Far more to do than I can manage today. Future completely opaque and rather daunting. Solution? Ten minutes out, watching the woodpecker at the feeder. ('Following the flight of a bird.') How it is. This. Here. Now. Then bringing that being into doing, in the present moment, without losing myself in fear and anxiety...

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