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

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Islands: immensity & emptiness (inc poem)

traigh ban nam manach (roselle - photo)

The world was made to be free in / and anyone and anything that does not bring you alive / is too small for you      
(David Whyte)

Being on an island, especially this little Hebridean Iona, reminds me always of how little I need, in material terms, to be happy, rather than how much. Other than books, and yes OK music (the meeting with other minds and hearts), it is not things I crave but experience, inner experience, and the experience of meeting the outer, human and other – its wildness, its sweetness – with all of myself.

The experience is so rich here working intensely with a group of poets in this crucible of the island with its vastnesses of sky and sea, its fastnesses of rock, that sometimes it’s almost too much – the gates between inner and outer worlds are ripped off their hinges and World rushes in, and through.


This room is not big enough to contain these words, stories, poems; nor the laughter that breaks against and flows over and around the rafters towards the sky

But I know that even this craving for experience can be, too, a kind of spiritual materialism. I don’t always know when to simply let experiences, events, situations, just be – let them drift by without having to grab at them, without fearing there won’t be an opportunity again to feel this good. It can be a kind of hamster wheel: I think about this and I think about my local wild place, and the time I spend there, alone and with others who ‘get’ it:

This constant need to know
to change state, to move on

that leat up at Four Winds
on Dartmoor: I could be like

the weed streaming in its flow,
or the pebble in its bed, simply being there

not forever craving more,
not forever thinking they’re lost.

– Roselle Angwin

This morning, before our hour’s quiet in the group, I was flipping through a John O’Donohue book looking for a particular passage to read out, and came across this that I’d marked another time, from ‘The Wisdom to Subtract from the Feast’: ‘Functionalism wants to acquire and control; its hunger is endless. The reverential mind can let things be and celebrate a person’s presence or a thing’s beauty without wanting something from them. There is an ascetical rhythm to experience. It is content to endure its own emptiness and does not need to rush to fill it with the latest distraction… Its […] balanced expression recognises and respects the otherness and beauty of the world and endeavours to transfigure the desire to define oneself through possessions, achievements and power… There is a driven desperation at the heart of functionalism. Deep down it is a craven desire for identity and poise; but it is also a desperate flight from oneself. At its root is a fear of nothingness. It panics in the face of the creative and generous uncertainty at the heart of life.’

O’Donohue here is speaking, I think, of what Keats meant with the phrase ‘negative capability’. J O’D goes on to speak of incorporating a little ascetical practice into one’s week: fasting from food on a particular day, risking more regular and clearer meeting with one’s solitude, coming out from the protection of one’s entrenched beliefs and opinions; visiting a prison, hospital or old people’s home once a month. The intention of this spiritual discipline is, he says, not to turn you into a spiritual warrior but to free you from the habits that keep you enchained, to free you for compassion and love towards others, and towards yourself. (And how difficult that is! The resistance when I ask group members to write a love letter to themselves…!)

There is a connection between emptiness and immensity. When I came back from a three-day vision quest on the moor – force 9 gale and torrents of rain, no tent, just a tarp, a sleeping bag and some water and not even a book, let alone, of course, a mobile or contact with others, I felt both hollowed out and immense, as if my centre was everywhere. When I came home, my daughter had had the love and thoughtfulness to cook my first meal in four days on an open fire, and we ate pan-roast smoky almonds, apple and blue cheese outside; and for a few days after that I slept in the garden. My outer layer of subtle skin was scoured to the extent that I felt there was no inside and no outside. I remember a butterfly attaching itself to my chest, a robin perching on my bare foot, and a pheasant hen suddenly appeared, and for weeks flew up to my first floor kitchen window to tap on the glass and take food from my hand. The gifts of the wild; its bounty. For a year after that I marked the quest by fasting one day a week, as a reminder to loosen my grip.

Here on the island the immensity of sea, sky, and the small and specific limits of the land are ever-present. Letting go of the solid we catch the updraught into the limitless.

And sometimes we meet that emptiness with hurt. Poet Robert Hass in his ‘Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer’ speaks of the pain at the ending of his marriage:

‘…I was hollowed out by pain,
honeycombed with the emptiness of it,
like the bird bones on the beach
the salt of the bay water had worked on for a season –
such surprising lightness in the hand –’


‘So there were two kinds of emptiness: one made of pain and desire / and one made of vacancy.’

‘Robert,’ I want to say, ‘I know you know there are three – because there is also the one where the no-self has lifted away from the ego into the vast luminosity that cannot be mapped or named, not even pointed at.’

I think of my walk down to Traigh Mor and Sandeels Bay just now, in the mist, low tide and the beach strewn with deep sea kelp; and how I turned my head just in time to catch the wings of a sea-eagle drifting away from land, heading for the vastness of sea-fret and haar.

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