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.
Monday, 30 December 2013
A snatch of a poem from Mary Oliver followed me home many years ago. It's the end of her 'In Blackwater Woods' poem, and this is it:
'to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things –
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.'
As a Buddhist and also a follower of the old pagan and druidic ways, part of my practice is exactly this: trying to hold everything and everyone I love to my heart with a fierce passion, without holding on to it/them. Paradoxical? Not really. How to love deeply and wholeheartedly, and how to love open-handedly, too, is the path. Easy? Well, no. Of course not. (The process is the product, the journey is the destination, etc.)
Holding on – clinging, craving, attachment – is one of the causes of suffering, says the Buddha. But it's not the opposite, complete detachment, that's the answer, but rather a way of both cherishing and holding the world lightly, knowing that everything's transient and that nothing really ever belongs to us: not our houses, our possessions, our children, our friends, our bodies, our thoughts – all on loan, precious temporary gifts that arise from and will return to the cosmos. I guess this is scary; I guess that's why we make a fortress of the ego: 'I, me, mine' and defend it against – well, everything, basically, as 'everything' is both uncertain and constantly changing.
We need, over and over, to let go: of our need for things to be other than they are, for people to be other than they are, for our need for things to be unchanging and to our liking. We need to let go of our emotional reactivity when we do, or don't, like how something is; we need to let go of our opinions, of our certainties, of our attachment to our rights. We need to let go of our need to be right, our need to be understood, our need to justify, our need to explain.
We may be called to let go of a friendship – that person may, as someone said, be part of our history but not of our destiny. We might be called to let go of our health, of our children, of our parents, of our attachment to a certain place, a certain job, a certain role, a certain view of ourselves, a certain identity. We will, undoubtedly, one day, be asked to let go of a loved one, and then of life itself. All the rest of it is practice.
And underneath all that is simply a relaxation into how it is, right now, exactly how it is.
In some schools of Buddhism, notably Tibetan and some Indian sects, we are taught to practice this letting go of our attachment to life through meditations on death. Some saddhus meditate in graveyards and charnel grounds. You are recommended to meditate on your beloved as he or she actually is, in physicality, anyway – a lump of flesh decaying back to earth. This helps us loosen our hold on the material plane, allegedly.
To us in the West, this all sounds abominably gruesome. But the wisdom behind it is about loosening our grip; recognising the place too of death, of the wholeness of the life-death-life cycle that Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks of: a way of accepting the whole package just exactly as it is.
So when one of my Buddhist friends, on hearing that I've been in bed for 3 days with flu and a temperature, emails me to say 'have fun with flu – good practice for death' I can chuckle.
Letting it be, at this turning time, exactly as it is; resolving not to hang on so hard next year to making things happen the way I think I want them. Like the reeds, blowing with the wind; like the water, letting the riverbanks, currents and pull of the open sea direct my course; and, who knows, maybe with a little less ego each passing year... who knows.
Perhaps there is only one question that matters, each time we hit one of these seasonal turning points: what have I made of these opportunities? Have I learned to be more, or less, loving?
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