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

Friday, 18 January 2013

naturally we will turn giddy (on visionquest & solitude)

As you'll have gathered, I spend a lot of my time immersed in the natural world. I'm passionate about this, and about what it means for humans to revision our often-unthinking relationship to this planet and its other species.

I'm also passionate about the aspects of my work that involve mediating others' experiences of wildish places, whether we see those as merely external or also internal. And important too to me is reminding people to really look, to really listen; and to listen as well to those quiet voices so often unheard.

One way of addressing these things is through rites-of-passage, and vision or wilderness quest work. Recently, my work, because of other demands, has moved away from this. I feel a huge tug back that way, incorporating trees, animals, birds and our relationship to the 'out there' and the 'in here', all through the lens of ecopsychospirituality (what a mouthful) into this work more overtly.

Several times lately I've had a flashback to work I did in the 90s. In my book Writing the Bright Moment, I used my own experiences during a vision quest from the 90s as a starting point for talking about solitude, land and writing. I thought I'd posted this before on my blog, but I can't find it; so here it is (maybe again!).

Almost every day towards dusk I am aware, now, since that quest, of the little pre-roosting ritual flurry that members of the corvine tribe, in this case rooks and jackdaws, do together en masse, circling and cawing enthusiastically. This, each dusk, is for me without fail a 'bright moment'; a ritual that reminds me we are never really alone, and that the world keeps turning.


The Still Small Voices

‘There's an enormous energy loose in the world and it passes through all of us. And some people who end up being writers or photographers or painters try to shape that energy through the techniques they have mastered or apprenticed themselves to. And make out of that energy a story. And so they stay attuned in their lives to that movement of energy through them. And for most artists that attunement requires some degree of solitariness – either in the reception or the creation...’
Barry Lopez

This chapter is actually about being alone – something that is not really culturally sanctioned in the West. Many of us have issues about it, too: it seems selfish, or weird, or an admission of social failure; or involves ‘rejecting’ another person; or maybe we’re scared of it. We have so little time for solitude, so few places where we can go to really be alone, to fast from people and stimuli. Culturally there is no structure for this kind of experience, though in the past of our own and the present of some other cultures, there has been the mechanism of ‘vision’ or ‘wilderness quest’ as a way of being still, looking for answers and/or healing, and marking a rite-of-passage; and then there was the original ‘quarantine’: an almost unthinkably strenuous period, to our contemporary minds, of forty days alone.
But how else, without this time alone, will we listen to the ‘still small voices’?

And the truth is, no matter how we attempt to fill the void, avoid the question or cram our minutes full, we are all, ultimately, alone. We come into this world alone and we leave it, too, on our own. This is the truth of it. This is of course not to deny friendship, intimacy, deep connection; nor to dismiss religious and philosophical traditions – not to mention the new paradigms thrown up by sciences such as quantum physics and chaos theory – which remind us that an equally valid truth is that we are all interconnected.

So we are solitary and we are also each part of a greater whole. We have an effect on the world around us, as it has an effect on us.

But the fact of our fundamental solitude is not something over which we have any power; there is no choice. The poet Rilke talks about this: ‘We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. That is all. But how much better it is to realize that we are so, yes, even to begin by assuming it. Naturally we will turn giddy.’

I guess the reason for my addressing this is obvious – writers have to spend large periods of time in self-imposed solitary confinement. No choice about that, either. I wonder whether sometimes when we say we ‘don’t have time’ to write, we are actually afraid of the solitude?

It’s a very wet March day on Dartmoor. There’s a force 9 gale haranguing the trees; everything looks sodden and winter-black. I have my waterproofs and a rucksack, in which is my sleeping bag, minimal shelter (the flysheet for a tent and its poles – rickety, to put it mildly), some water, a notebook and pen, and an emergency stash of dried fruit and nuts. I have no book, no mobile phone (and besides there would be no signal) and no ‘proper’ food.  I’m walking into a wild-ish patch of woodland under one of the tors; beside me is my friend and guide Jeremy Thres.

I’m about to enter a short period of fasting – from food, words, people and my normal distractions, like phone, books and music – time alone in the ‘wilderness’. Jeremy and I have spent some time preparing, and we will spend this day together at ‘base camp’, too. After that I’ll go off a little way on my own, and my agreement will be to be there on my own for thirty-six hours. There will be a day of re-acclimatising afterwards.

In the general run of things thirty-six hours is nothing for a wilderness, or vision, quest. Usually the time out alone, fasting, is a minimum of three days, often longer (and I was ‘allowed’ more shelter – the flysheet – than the usual basic tarp). Later, when I co-lead a quest with Jeremy, the whole thing will take a week: two days to prepare, three days out, two days to ‘come back to the world’; and the participants will go farther from base camp than I, coward that I’m being, choose to.

The point of it all of course is mindfulness: the unadulterated meeting with World; and the meeting with our selves, without the usual distractions with which we fill up our lives, and therefore avoid meeting life face-to-face. It’s a time to let all the little voices – normally rushed away before we can catch them, like leaves on a river - have their say.

I’m used to relatively untamed and/or remote places, having grown up in rural coastal Devon and spent almost all of my adult life living on or near Dartmoor, as well as having spent quite a lot of time in my early twenties in the high Pyrenees, on the border between France and Spain. I spend a lot of my time, on a regular/daily basis, walking alone with the dogs. When I travel, as I do for my courses, I have also always tended to be in wild-ish places, such as the Hebridean islands. I really love solitude, especially outdoors; it’s also when I am at my most calm and my most creative. Solutions, ideas and inspiration all arise during my time outdoors. I’m also very interested in natural history, in animal, bird and plant habits and habitats. And in my habitual adult life, I don’t get anything like enough ‘free’ time to do what I love – time to think, and to be, and to hang out in wild places.

So of course I was looking forward to it; and not really expecting any deep fears to arise. I have, after all, I think, spent a lot of time ‘looking at my stuff’, as they say.

The first few hours were great. I had been relishing the prospect of no interruptions: no phone, no work, no chores.
I wandered a bit. I sat on a wet and mossy rock and thought. I wandered a bit more. I got out my notebook.
I sat.
I tried not to think.
I wished I had a book.
I wished I had a dog.
I wished the sun would come out.
I sat a bit more.
I put my now-damp entirely-word-free notebook away.
I wished I could hear more birds – there seemed an unhealthy absence of bird-life.
I resented the mud and the rain and the ragged grey sky.
I heard my own voice talking.
I wondered about the current reports of another Black Beast of Dartmoor – a puma-like creature roaming the uplands of the moor, apparently spotted on a number of occasions not too far from where I was. I wondered how timid they were. I wondered how close they would come to humans. I remembered a recent case in the States of a woman jogger mauled and killed close to a town by a wild puma.
A fire. That’s what I needed, a fire. But there was no hope of dry tinder, and I wasn’t supposed to be drawing attention to myself anyway.
I was wet and cold.
I was – already! – tired of the inside of my own head.
I couldn’t hear any ‘still small voices’ for the drumming of my own rampaging fears.

Well, it was a tough thirty-six hours, when I faced my own fears of boredom – I, who longed, in a very full life, to be able to experience the space to be bored! I experienced the fear of meaninglessness; and of oblivion. I thought about mortality and immortality. I felt frightened by both.

I realised for the first time how much I use the stimulus of reading and music, for instance, as a way of not being still and utterly alone with myself – and the world as it is, and the Void.

Time stretched.

Then two little things happened to break the surge of panic and desolation I was feeling. One was my noticing how, just as the light was ebbing at dusk, the rooks and jackdaws somewhere on the verges of the wood all took to the wind cawing and clacking in a wild mingled swooping flypast, before finally settling. Somehow that lifted my spirits, took me out of my spinning head and dropped me firmly into the life of this particular wood at this particular moment; made me smile. Then, at dawn, after a damp, headachy and very restless night of almost no sleep and fleeting but disturbing dreams when I did manage to doze, I opened my eyes into more rain and wind – and somewhere close by thrush-song. Back into the moment, and a tuning-in to the waking sounds of the wood, the smell of sodden peaty soil, the spikes of bluebell shoots.

And now I could and did write – about my observations of my immediate environment, and then about my fears, and about what they triggered: about my realisations to do with the very real and basic fact of our aloneness; about my own spectres of loneliness and boredom.

Suddenly then too I realised how short my time out there alone really was, where yesterday it had seemed painfully endless; and of course by extension how short all our time ‘here’ really is.

There’s nothing like the shock of realising how you’re ‘wasting’ something as precious as unstructured time in a life that is continuously overfull and unrestful to focus your mind. Still small voices? Boy, did I start listening. And the rest of my very short period of time out there on the moor proved to be extraordinarily fruitful as an extremely intense spell of total immersion in everything around me; to the extent where, for a brief spell – and I use that word deliberately – I lost awareness of myself as a being separate from the rest of the universe. And, several years on, the small amount of writing I did during that time, and the awareness I brought back from it, is still influencing my life.

So, times like this morning when I hear the song thrush start up at 6.45 from the copper beech tree near my window, I’m jolted back into that time, and then into giving my full attention to listening, just listening, for a few minutes.


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