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

Monday, 17 December 2012

the (un)quiet heart

'Our own life has to be our message.' ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

It has long seemed to me that a spiritual practice is as good as its results in the world. In other words, if it doesn't change, even if only slowly and almost imperceptibly, the way we actually live on a daily basis, then something is perhaps adrift with either the practice we've chosen, or our understanding of it. (That 'something' might of course simply be the all-too-human habits of laziness, greed, selfishness etc, from which none of us is ever truly free while living in material form, I imagine.)

I wrote nearly 20 years ago now in Riding the Dragon of the wisdom of finding a core 'seat', that of the 'Wise Observer', at the hub of the whirling wheel so that we are not tempted to be spun around so easily by our emotions, our thoughts and opinions, our hungers, our false gods; and, more significantly, so that we do not make the mistake of identifying ourselves with our emotions, our thoughts, etc. We need to let them spin around on the periphery while we sit at the hub of the wheel, noticing and not buying into the temptation to indulge them.*

Another challenge is to receive the world and others in it, human or non-, with an open heart, while retaining our own internal stillness; giving without giving ourselves away, and for motivations that are not self-centred. To move beyond the petty demands of ego, we have to be prepared to confront ourselves, to learn over and over our habits of delusions, of greed, of self-protectiveness, of projection onto others of our own qualities and issues, positive or 'negative', to reclaim the baggage that is rightfully our own.

Oh so easy to write about these things, to believe them, to know the best way forward – in theory.

I suppose, for me, a measure of the depth of my spiritual practice is how easily I can retain a core of stillness despite outer events; and if I lose it, how swiftly I can return.

A profound shift for me at midlife has been an awareness that I no longer so readily identify happiness with excitement, passion, stimulus and adventure, but with a quiet heart. I don't quite so easily see the fieriness of an exchange as automatically a 'positive' stimulation (though something in me does respond to the words of – was it John of The Cross? – 'Oh good – another obstacle!'. And this is not necessarily just a dysfunctional masochism or the confusion of emotionally-fused relationships where any kind of engagement is sometimes preferable to none; but an awareness that we have to tackle the grit in the oyster consciously in order to grow. The issue is how we relate to it all.)

I've known for a long time, too, that it is no one else's 'job' to make me happy – especially not my loved ones'. (Doesn't stop me blaming them when they don't, though, subtly if not overtly.)

A couple of days ago three people in three completely different arenas of my life pressed my buttons. Each of them, in three very different ways, was 'invading' my core, I felt, and each of them with varying degrees of anger: from so subtle it was almost more an intuition on my part, to out loud and shouty, with a rude and patronising arrogance in between.

I noticed in myself the arising of the fight/flight impulse. I noticed how I often so much prefer the flight pole, and immediately my old well-embedded fantasies of living alone in a tiny cabin by water in a wood, with only animals and birds for company, presented themselves. I so needed relief from humans and all their emotional demands; I felt suffocated and overwhelmed by what I experienced as their insistence on their needs, subtle or otherwise, at a time of personal exhaustion.

I resisted my own impulse to flee, mostly; at least in literal terms; and my own impulse, mostly, to hit back, metaphorically speaking. I agreed with myself that I also needed to look at my part in the exchanges – as of course these dynamics, at least in 'normal' daily circumstances, never belong only to one person and not the other. (Clearly, it's one thing to know that; quite another to actually do it when one is smouldering with righteous indignation!)

But I couldn't resist my own anxiety, and for twenty-four hours I knew myself to be 'beside myself'. This is so apposite an image: when strong emotions take us out of our core, the hub, something in us, a personal demon from the unconscious, walks alongside us and we identify with it. Our rational mind goes out of the picture, and any sense of balance, too.

Worse, we close down our hearts.

A significant lover in my life in my 20s pointed out to me that all we did, he and I, was react to each other rather than respond. At the time, that really brought me up short as a major insight – which of course it is: how many of us can keep a hold of ourselves in any situation where there is a conflict of egoic interests (which generally sits at the heart of any conflict) long enough as to truly respond from the better part of ourselves, appropriately?

But relationship, after all, is where we have the opportunity to really see ourselves enough as to notice what we need to move beyond in order to grow into our heart-nature. I have long believed that the path of conscious relationship is a 'fast-track' spiritual practice. In relationship all our demons and vulnerabilities are triggered, over and over; our job is not to suppress those waves – we can't – but to learn to surf them, wisely.

So this time, lying there anxiously awake all one night, still wanting to flee humankind, I felt some despair at how I had been gripped by an emotive state that closed down my generous and loving responses. Had I learned nothing in all these long years of meditation and mindfulness practice, from my habit of rigorous self-examination?

The next day, though, equilibrium returned; and I realised how very long it is since I was last gripped by an emotional reactivity that lasted that long. Sometimes, just sometimes, these days I can hold onto myself long enough as to respond rather than react, and I notice that. We have choices. All is not lost.

* Addendum: writing this sentence ('We need to let them spin around on the periphery while we sit at the hub of the wheel, noticing and not buying into the temptation to indulge them') I felt I wasn't saying quite what I intended to say. What I meant was more something along the lines of 'giving ourselves a choice as to whether to respond to them, or not'. This is important, I think; emotions do flag up stuff that might need addressing. As Linda Kohanov says: '...emotion itself [is] a resonant, multidimensional force that connect[s] all sentient beings'. I wasn't meaning that one should ignore an emotional impulse, but that sitting at the hub of the wheel allows us to respond appropriately rather than simply react on impulse.


  1. That's a very helpful distinction - responding vs. reacting. We can have a quiet heart even in the midst of furious activity as long as we are responding, but the quiet heart goes out the window when we react. Zen master Yunmen was once asked: “What is the teaching of the Buddha's entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered “An appropriate response.” I guess that sums it up. I agree all is definitely not lost, although in the midst of reacting, I do wonder.

  2. David, this is wonderful: '“What is the teaching of the Buddha's entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered “An appropriate response.”'

    Thank you. I agree – it says all we need to know; the rest of the time is spent figuring out what is and how to do the appropriate response!


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