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 July 2012

the still mind and relentless participation

TM has an admirable quality of focus in his life. There are two or three things that are very important to him and his priority is to achieve a concentrated focus in relation to them without being too distracted by other stuff.

Sometimes our styles clash. My mind is more like a trawl net. I extend it in many directions at once, fishing for rich ideas, intense experience, significant friendships. Never mind that (friendships aside!) what is sometimes caught are old boots, broken shells, half-dead fish; sometimes, just sometimes, I bring up a flock of stars (or whatever the equivalent is in the fishing world).

Sometimes I remember that fly-fishing might be more effective: choosing the right fly, the right spot, casting carefully. Sometimes I think I need to cast harder and more often, thus agitating the surface of the water and scaring all the fish away.

As a vegan, I'm not entirely comfortable with this imagery.

As a writer, I know how apt it is.

As someone interested in archetypal approaches to psychology and the life of the soul, it's hugely potent, the idea of fishing (in the waters of the unconscious).

As a meditator, it's a really useful image for me; or rather, what's useful is the image of interacting with the water and stirring it up; or choosing instead to sit quietly and watch for fish to rise and then sink again without any grabbing or pushing until finally maybe even the fish don't disturb the surface, for a little while at least. The fish – the thoughts and images and feelings thrown up by the human mind – are not, in fact, the point here.

The first part of Zazen is entirely about stilling the mind and losing our identity with 'small self'. Without this, no kind of transcendence, or the bliss of a sense of unitive rather than egoic consciousness, can occur. This is so hard, even after decades of (admittedly erratic) practice. Monkey mind rules the land; but how on earth can I start to see things as they really are when I'm running such interference in a torrent of opinions, beliefs, pre-judgements, emotional knee-jerks, attachment to this, aversion from that, thoughts about instead of immersion in What Is – etc etc.

As a human being, I am at last learning (at least in theory) the huge power of being able to cultivate the still mind.

Actually, that's not true. What is truer is that I've known that nothing effective can change without a still mind since my first encounter with a hardcore Soto Zen group in my student years. What is true now is that my psyche, and my body, can no longer cope with my endless need for 'relentless participation' (thank you Elizabeth Gilbert for crystallising what I knew but couldn't articulate so exactly as in that phrase. It's been so helpful to think 'Ah yes, here I go again – my relentless need to participate.').

For the moment I've dropped off my social media perch, and I am saying 'no' (occasionally!) where my addiction to intensity of experience, and my unconscious elision of quantity with quality, would have me 'out there', eternally seeking more. (This partly explains my scarcity of blogs lately too.)

It's always as if this experience, this idea, this person, this group, this interaction, will hold a key for me. And almost always, in fact, they do. But where to hang all the keys, where to file all the new information, and what door is it I'm looking so relentlessly to open?

How can I transmute information and input into wisdom? Quietly, I suspect, in the solitary moments when I've stopped even needing to feed my mind with words.

Withdrawal symptoms? Big time, as they say.

I have to thank Ms Gilbert too for reminding me of the Italian phrase 'il bel far niente': 'the beautiful doing-nothing'.

This morning I walk to the quarry pool in this gift of a scented sunshiny day, and I watch how the deep opaque green water simply receives, and reflects back – no effort. I watch how, over ten minutes, my mind slows down. I watch how the ripples happen, spread and dissolve with no effort from me or the pool. I notice how my heart calms to simply sit here. I don't even have to interact with it all – I can just sit here.

Sitting quietly, doing nothing
spring comes and the grass grows by itself...

ladling out clear water from the depths of the fire

(The Zenrin)


  1. What a deeply beautiful post, Roselle. And much resonates... (relentless participation... oh yes.)

  2. Thank you, - your post speaks to me Rozelle. I am almost 88 years old and have still not been able to conquer the tendency to 'relentless participation' - but I keep trying to resist and find the still core within....

  3. Fiona, thank you, you lovely woman.

    Hildred/Charles - you sound lovely! Have scooted over briefly to your blog - you both sound so inspiring. Will visit properly soon. Thank you so much for your comments...

  4. Thank you, thank you. This is so wonderfully insightful and I love it.
    At 51 I try too hard and get out there too much - never allow myself the space and time, too busy enabling others!!
    Thank you so much

  5. Just reading your description of the quarry pool had monkey mind taking a break. It would be really interesting to try not using any nonvegan nonpacifist metaphors like 'hunting down', 'battling' and 'conquering' etc.

  6. TQotH: thank you! But please don't imagine I MANAGE this myself very often (easier outdoors, alone, to slip the human traces in both senses of that word); and like you spend most of my life enabling others. 'Trying too hard' can become a life signature, can't it? Am trying very hard not to try too hard ;-)

    David, thank you as always. Am glad you caught a brief monkey-free break! You know, I do generally manage/make a conscious effort to avoid all verbs associated with warfare/exploitation/harming. It does make a difference, of course, to challenge the way we habitually use language, doesn't it? It's really worth keeping this in mind, isn't it, and thank you for the reminder.

    'Fishing' is a hard one for me, though; the Jungian in me recognises what a very profound image it is, archetypally speaking, for the Western wounded mind - as you may know, several writers (including me in my first book) have spoken of the image of fishing, relating it to the bringing to the surface of unconconscious content in order that it may be processed so that we move towards wholeness, as a metaphor for deep healing (viz the Grail legend cycle and the Wounded King, symbol too of the Wasteland). I haven't yet found an alternative... :-|


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