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

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!


  1. I love your blog. There is much that I connect with, but I'm not 'at home' with horses, badgers or elephants. Night noises alarm me. Yet the connexions- soul work- enable me to connect in a small way with a part of life I don't know.

  2. Hello -

    Thank you so much for the kind words. And as for the not being at home with the animals (and I shan't be working with elephants! - as far as I know -) thank you for being willing to admit this. Takes courage. Part of the point of the work I am doing is to bring people back to feeling at home with the animal kingdoms and natural world. Many don't.

    I do understand re night noises - I'm fine with them in the natural world, and terrible with them in urban areas... Depends what you're used to, I guess.

    All warm wishes to you.

  3. Great mum! Though forgive me: 'natural horsemanship' is a term I am wary of. Lots of reasons - one simple one in the words of amazing saddler Dave Genadek (although in parnetheses are largely mine): common horsemanship addresses the horse's body (and gets into fights); 'natural horsemanship' (Parelli, Monty Roberts et al) addresses the horse's mind (and manipulates); high school addresses the horse as an emotional being. Mum and I address the horse's spirit! (BUT this lovely photo of Horse has him wearing a 'natural horsemanship' Parelli knotted halter that exerts force on pressure points - and a bit, for the only time in his life!) Loathed compromises!

  4. Hi darling (anonymous) daughter - thanks for reading it and commenting. I completely agree with your reservations about the term 'natural horsemanship' but can't find another that does the job. We'll have to coin one. 'Spirit Horse workshops' might do it except there's a wild storytelling outfit based in Wales that already use the term 'Spirit Horse'...

    It is such a lovely photo, but I was anxious too about the fact that you were using a bit for the one and only time - I remember why, but still we need to emphasise perhaps that we would generally want to avoid anything coercive, even when used with care and gentleness... If you have another that you could jpeg me of his face I'd love to use that?



Blog Archive