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.
Wednesday, 11 December 2013
'don't just do something, sit there'
That's a timely reminder, as I have found myself back in my old habits of working very long hours again the last couple of weeks; and I have paid for it – again – with a recurrence of a heart problem that started at the end of 2012. So here I am, at the end of a year when I've had to challenge my perpetual addiction to 'doing'.
It seems like forever that I've known the wisdom of balancing doing with being. It's just that I don't actually do – 'be' – it. It's for the best of reasons, as far as I'm concerned: I love this world, I love engaging with this world, and am passionate about all there is to know about this world. I also live by the fruits of my imagination, one way and another, about which I'm also passionate, and there seems to be no end to what there is to explore and uncover. There is so much that inspires me.
Once upon a time – I tell you this a little embarrassedly, because I'm the first to voice to others my right-on dislike of objectification– I used to chuckle quietly to myself, nodding away (inwardly), on hearing the tongue-in-cheek phrase 'so many men, so little time'. Nowadays, I'm driven – yes, that is the right word, though the Buddhist in me deplores it – by the much bigger picture: 'so much cosmos, so little time'.
Having decided very early in my adult life that I wanted to live by my creativity and not compromise my values, I've chosen a very hard, albeit very fulfilling, route to earning a living. For most of my adult life, I've never known from where the rent money at the beginning of the next month would come – I was cavalier, or trusting, as it always did come in in time, but being a single parent with a daughter and no other financial help I did sail a bit close to the wind, and although my daughter tells me she had a wonderful childhood, full of adventure and wildlife, woodland and moors at our doorstep, and animals and creativity, something in her, I am sure, must have been sacrificed to the insecurity.
And although it took decades to manifest more seriously, it certainly took its toll on me. The adventurer in me didn't mind, too much; in fact s/he quite liked this living on the edge that became my habit (I say s/he because I think it was the masculine, or animus, part of me that drove like this: each of us, of course, containing a transsexual unconscious part, if Jung is to be believed). The human being, though, the intensely sensitive vulnerable even frightened bit that I was used to putting into a box marked 'later', paid the price. Of course, it caught up with me.
When we are committed to a vision, it's easy to over-ride both our instinctual natures, the ones that know about rhythm and rest and recharging, as animals do, and the associated needs of our bodies for said cycles of doing and being.
Or when we live in Western society. I'm not telling you anything new when I mention the pull-quote at the top of Steven Poole's article in the current issue of New Statesman: 'From footballers' work rates to the world of Big Data, the cult of "productivity" seems all-pervasive – but doing nothing might be the best thing for your well-being and your brain.'
In GB, we work the longest hours in Europe. I used to think nothing of doing a 70-hour week, starting my working day again when my daughter was in bed, and/or getting up in the very early morning if I needed to, routinely.
One of the poets from my regular group is a hospital doctor. He mentioned on Saturday that he'd gone part-time. 'That's excellent news!' I said. 'That means,' he responded, 'only a 46-hour working week now.'
Just a few weeks ago said guy could barely walk. Some infection had taken hold of his system and temporarily knocked out his immune system – so that it started to turn in on itself, creating agony in his joints. He'd been expected back to work as soon as he could stand – and expected that of himself, too. He has a partner and three boys under 5, as well as the makings of a small smallholding, so his 'free time' is fairly busy.
What are we like, as they say?
In summer 2012, in a kind of prescient moment, I took a week's solo retreat in a beautiful converted hayloft in the wooded grounds, complete with river pool, of a C17th manor on the edge of Dartmoor, courtesy of an acquaintance. I knew I needed silence and solitude more than anything, and I was breaking a lifelong pattern here by putting my own needs first.
It was the first time in maybe 7 years, maybe 37, that I started to feel something really unfurl in me. For the first time in my life I started to take short rests, usually hanging out watching dragonflies, damselflies and herons down by the pool. Otherwise, I wrote and read and strolled. It was also a very creative time, and I had deliberately gone, like Thoreau to his pond, to be silent and learn something of stillness. A blog I wrote from then (I wrote several blogs about this week in early August 2012) says:
Lots of writing, lots of reading. Books are such good company! In a good one you'll find answers to questions you didn't even know you wanted, but now covet madly. I do know that without books my time here would be harder – they stand between me and myself, or my recent history, I'm aware, as well as being such a rich source of Mind. So in a way I'm cheating – full silence would mean too silence from others' thoughts, which is also an addiction of mine. They can run interference, as the Americans say, between oneself and How It Is. There are things, like the swathe of recent family deaths and the changes and reorientation they bring, that I'm not ready to face full-frontal, so to speak.
Oh and there are the little issues, like how do I want to live the rest of my life?
Jenny Diski says in On Trying to Keep Still, my first piece of reading matter, from the bookshelves here, that there is 'essentially only one question. It is "What is the point?" and in some form or another it is asked over and over again by those of us who have failed to mature enough to stop asking it.' She follows this by a list of people – writers, philosophers in the main – who exemplify this. I can't remember the others but I remember Nietzsche.
This makes me smile. Isn't this exactly why we write, one way or another? And maybe why we read, too?
And she says: 'Another question is what is it like when something or nothing happens? Something or nothing happens all the time.' I like this too. Except that I think that it might be something AND nothing, because I think they're perhaps ultimately the same thing; it's all in how you relate to it and whether you can buy paradox, or whether you prefer everything all lined up and neat and tidy in two distinct rows. This. That.
Anyway. This week's solo retreat for me is all about sitting in the middle of the quiet thrum of life that is somethinging and nothinging all the time within me and around me, and see how it is to share in that something and nothing and nothing and something without being driven to fill every moment with ways of not sitting here in the centre of... Everything. Nothing. In the heart of each moment. The Vast Abundant Emptiness, the Fertile Void. (And without being driven mad by eyeballing said vast emptiness.)
My motto for the week was 'il bel far niente' - the beautiful 'doing nothing', of which Elizabeth Gilbert speaks in her Eat, Pray, Love (quite an uplifting book, I found, despite having resisted reading it for years because of its popularity in New Age circles, and my own snobbishness about that).
That week brought me many poems, and a bone-deep sense of restoration; which was just as well, as about a month after that I was suddenly really quite ill (that's why I say 'prescient'). That's all too boring to go into, except to say that it was (still is, a bit, if I do too much), a heart issue – yes physical heart but yes what a great symbol – symptom as symbol – of a failure to look after my over-committed, over-caring, over-responsible worn-out heart and its needs. (From a holistic perspective it is always, always, worth looking at illness as metaphor, as symbol – its type and location may give us insight into more subtle needs and protests.) Seven years of intense and very serious family illness, on top of thirty years of ignoring my body's needs, coupled with my own expectations of myself to step in, put my needs last, sort out what needed sorting out, drive two hundred miles at the end of a working day to visit a sick relative first in hospital and then back at home but vulnerable – Ms Superwoman thought she could do it all.
How can we be any use to others if we cannot even look after ourselves?
So I look back over the last year, and see how far I've come. I'm much quieter. I'm letting myself be the introverted recluse that I have always been, and denied. I'm more sober. I've learned to stop – though even as a meditator of 40 years I find it near-impossible to stop the torrent of thoughts, though at least I'm aware of them and their seductions.
And I no longer believe I can and should do everything for anyone who asks or who seems to need it. (That's an important lesson, especially for women. In the myth of Psyche and Eros, one of the very last tasks that Psyche is set on her journey to love [wholeness, in effect], is to carry on with her own journey despite the many hands clawing at her for help. She's warned that she won't be able to come back from the Underworld if she doesn't focus on her task here, which is a single-pointed commitment to her own journey. Many of us, including in my experience very many women, find this almost impossible.)
This year, I've had to learn to say NO, and sometimes to say it loudly: to others, to myself. It's about saving my soul, saving my heart – and letting go of the childhood Catholic in me who thinks that to be true and good means putting my own needs last instead of first, or the misguided Buddhist who basically thinks it's ego calling the shots if I sometimes turn away another in favour of my own wellbeing (of course I have known the false assumptions behind these two states of mind for decades – intellectually. Letting myself challenge them from a sense of their emotional weight of misinterpretation is a different matter.)
This year, I've learned how very good it can feel to take what feels like a ridiculously indulgent hour 'when I should be working', up in a hammock slung between an ash and an oak.
This year, too, I've learned how to accept the generosity of others without feeling I have to earn it, deserve it, or pay it back in full. I've been able to let myself lie on the sofa now and then in the daytime with a book – unthinkable before this year. Doing (almost) nothing!
I have survived financially (and maybe even physically, given the warning signs), during a year when I've had to cut my work, only courtesy of the kindest most generous friend, and also with the emotional support of TM; I've been able to have acupuncture, which has really started to make a big difference to my health, courtesy of another dear friend. And I was given a grant to explore my dreams, creativity and the life of my psyche and its promptings – psyche always knows what we need, if we're willing to listen carefully – with a Jungian analyst.
What a universe we live in; how expansive and bountiful and all-providing. And what treasure 'beyond all price', as they say in the myths, a true and good and generous friendship or two. And what wisdom, albeit a few decades later than it might have been, to hang out on a stile in late sun under the ash trees without being driven endlessly by all the 'must do' messages – even if only for 5 minutes. And, at last, what a gift to have been able to learn to love, or at least direct care towards, myself, knowing that without really knowing how to do that I can't possibly love another.
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