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, 30 June 2014

knowing who you are

I had a precocious boyfriend when I was 17 (there were many other adjectives that would fit him too, but I think we'll leave it there. Let's just say I learned a lot!).

My time with him was one of those fork-in-the-road times. We were committed members of the counterculture: hippies, or 'heads' or 'freaks' as those-in-the-know would refer to us. He and I and two friends at the time had a dream to go off and set up in self-sufficiency in the Hebrides; consequently I was teaching myself to spin, knit, weave, dye wool using plants, milk goats, and learning basic herbal medicine and growing. 

However, I took the other path: having left the convent school which didn't take us beyond O levels – GCSEs – I was doing A levels at the local technical-college-as-was, now setting itself up as the North Devon College and incorporating arts and A levels.

The NDC wished to acquire a name for itself. I was headhunted as potential 'Oxbridge material' and persuaded to apply for Cambridge. 

I had no intention of going to Cambridge, and in fact when I was offered an interview (which I agreed to attend for the fun of it, really) I went hoping to put off the interviewer. I wore my long skirt, which was more patch than skirt, bare feet, and (accidentally) my hair was green.

Unfortunately, the tutor – not many years older than myself – and I struck up an immediate rapport as she happened to mention the Mabinogion and the Grail legends, both already major passions of mine, and off we ran onto an exciting and inspiring conversation. I had the 'uhoh' moment about 30 minutes in, by which time it was too late, and she offered me a place.

Said boyfriend was very sniffy about this, and gave me an ultimatum: him or uni. I don't like ultimata. So there we are.

Anyway, one of the several things he introduced me to was a book by the wonderful and very readable writer on Eastern spirituality, Alan Watts. He gave me a copy of The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, a book that I realise has shaped a lot of my thinking since then (along with a couple of other books from the same time, Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, which introduced me to the work of Gary Snyder, 'Japhy Ryder' in that novel, and Beyond the Death of God – the gospel according to Zen, both of which I believe I've mentioned here before, and alongside a great many books on mysticism, and Celtic, pagan and mystery tradition spiritualities).

I mention this because a friend who came to my talk on soul and ecology the other night also mentioned this book, about which I haven't thought in years.

Here's the first para of the Preface:

'This book explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo – our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are. Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego jammed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East–in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man's natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.' (My italics. How prescient was that, published in 1969, 45 years ago?)

The friend has sent me what she calls her 'adaptation' of Watts' book, and since I thought it was an excellent little précis-poem, I've her permission to post it here:

I shall never tell you to 'face reality'
for you ARE reality. 

Never say 'I came into this world' 
for you came OUT of this world 
as leaves come out of trees 

Don't see yourself as 
'someone acting in this world' 
you are the action OF the world 

(Thalia Vitali courtesy of Alan Watts)


  1. Oh yes, Roselle, this is also close to my heart: 'Knowing who you are' and fighting the taboo against seeking it; one of my wishes for mankind.
    I haven't read the book but shall hope to, soon.
    It's amazing, I find, how many people are very resistant to believing in furthering self-knowledge, recognising how vital it is in the first place. Interesting to read Jenny Diski's review in last Sat's Guardian about evidence-based psychotherapies such as CBT which might well have it's place but seems to deny the importance of digging deep into oneself and one's past; as well as recognising negative thoughts as wrong thoughts, instead of accepting them and learning to live with them, gain something from them.
    I very much like the 'précis-poem' of the Watts book which clearly relates the individual to the wider world.

    I've been thinking lately about structure and function – how they, too, seem separate but symbiotic, how hard it is to separate one from the other. Sometimes I worry that when I've found a good idea that works it might become a one-track way of seeing the world. And then I see that that's where the open mind is so important; that, and retaining an objective view of things including yourself. And so back to the beginning: in order to do that you need to know who you are!
    Thanks for adding to my solitary thoughts!

    Miriam xx

  2. Hello Miriam - yes, I do agree: CBT-based therapies certainly have their place, but I fear they remain somewhat superficial. My own sense is that many of our current crises have their roots in a crisis of meaning; this is addressed by depth work that includes some psychospiritual/transpersonal perspective in my view, and that isn't really within CBT's remit. But maybe they have different and complementary places in the holistic picture.

    I do also agree about structure and function: surely ideally they enhance and enlarge each other in synergy, as you say?

    More to say, of course - but stacks to do, as always.

    Love, and thank you (as always, too) for your invaluable contributions here.



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