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

Wednesday 16 May 2012

balance of attention

In the Hebrides, just before I was due to run my retreat, I developed a tooth abscess which soon became excruciating. I was nowhere near a dentist, and for the first two or so days led the retreat anyway, until it became obvious (no sleep) that I needed to do something about it.

On a sunny morning, the day of our scheduled silent day-long walk to St Columba's Bay, I took the ferry back from Iona to Mull, where the lovely doctor gave me some antibiotics (I've almost never taken them in my life) on the strict understanding that I'd see my dentist here on my return.

It was a blue blue day, perfect for the walk; and because of someone else from the hotel on Iona needing the doctor, and therefore a lift, too, I missed the ferry. I'd said to the group to go ahead without me (the core group knew the way and the practice I make of the day) if I wasn't on the 10.30 ferry back – which I wasn't.

To my amazement, and my delight – this silent group walk is in a way the culmination of the retreat, and certainly a high point – when I arrived instead on the 12.20 ferry they were still there waiting for me on the sunny shoreside lawn, writing (the photo above was taken on a different and clearly more stormy day).

Now, back in Totnes, I take my abscess to my dentist. The antibiotics stopped the continual throbbing pain, and allowed me to bite, but the abscess is still very much present and very tender.

'Root canal work,' says Marchin. 'Has to be.'

And so it is. The needle is frighteningly large, there's a hefty dose of anaesthetic, and it's going right into the abscess which is alarmingly close to my cheekbone. PAIN. The work itself was ok, although the sensation of one's jaw being drilled into is – well, odd.

After, the dog and I went for a walk in the water meadows at Longmarsh – a new walk to me – next to the tidal Dart. All was well for about an hour, by which time the anaesthetic had worn off. Then there was a sudden intrusion of excruciating pain in my whole jaw, and then head and neck; a worse pain than the original one, that increased until I could barely think or walk, took over my whole body and awareness.

Now I know that actually this kind of pain is nothing. I've broken limbs and ribs, fractured my back, been through childbirth, suffered loss and death. I'm not a soldier on a battlefield; I'm not a kidnapped child. Of course, even in the middle of that pain, I had that perspective. But I couldn't think of anything other than getting back to the car, getting rid of the pain, going to sleep.

My whole attention was focused on the pain, and in my reaction to it ('PAIN BAD! PAIN BAD!), my resistance to it ('I DON'T LIKE THIS'), I lost myself, lost a sense of both centre and wholeness. Instead of keeping part of my awareness on the pain, on the experience, but reminding myself that it is not the whole, I could only think pain, and of stopping it. The beauty of my surroundings was completely irrelevant, what I had to do next ditto.

Then something extraordinary happened. Into my head flashed an image of a seal, and suddenly I knew for certain that I was about to see one. Though it is still tidal here, I have never before seen one here on the Dart this far inland by miles.

And yes, there right ahead of me, right by Totnes Bridge, in town, was a seal (being mobbed by gulls, as it happens). I had the privilege of seeing it, hearing the frothy wet whooooosh of its breathing as it dived, swam and emerged again, of watching it for long minutes.

Walking on, afterwards, back to the car my pain hadn't changed, but my relationship to it was utterly different.

What the seal brought me was an injection of intense joy – both for its presence, and for the fact that even in the middle of my pain, immersed in it, I was not immune to the attunement of self with universe – I knew I was going to see that seal before it happened.

And what that did for me was remind me of the potency of moments of joy, and the potency, too, of transience; and how in even extreme situations we can choose our response, and we can choose to bring in a balance of attention. 'Both this and this.' The universe is not my pain, and I don't need to shrink to fit my pain.

It also reminded me of the nature of our utter interconnectedness in the web of life at all times – how did I know I was going to see that seal? – and how small the cell of our individual life, and its small discomforts, is, when set against the whole.

While fully experiencing whatever it is I am currently experiencing I can still choose to remember it is never the whole picture, and this, too, will pass.


  1. This is so vivid, it brought tears to my eyes - empathetic toothache, but so much more too! A searing reminder in my mind and all my senses, at a time when life is very challenging (not physical pain), of what can get lost when one aspect of experience is overwhelming. This is what creative writing is for. Sorry about the abcess experience, the toothache and the stress - poor you. And thank you for this powerful sharing.

  2. Jean, thank you so much for your kindness and empathy. And here I'm sending you some back, for your own challenges, with love.


  3. I was feeling emotionally low. Looked for your blog for perspective and there it was! I could identify with your experience and I saw your seal!
    Many thanks

  4. Blimey. Wonderful. Something similar happened to me once as a child.

  5. Marg, thank you; and I'm sorry to hear you've been low.

    Andie - :-). Thanks. And I know you know about teeth! :-(.

    I believe that this kind of attunement is the potential norm; we obscure it through a kind of lack of presence, a lack of attention; losing ourselves in a kind of fog.

    I find it goes in cycles, often for me at roughly 3-monthly intervals (which is interesting because that coincides, loosely, with my creative peakings, too). Do you know what I mean? Periods of intense alignment when I know, time after time, who is going to telephone, or be in touch or turn up, even if I've heard nothing of them for years; or what will be around the next corner; or how someone I care about is, over a distance; and then suddenly it's gone again.

    I've found that I can increase its incidence through focus and practise, through paying deep attention to the quality of times when it does happen, through assuming it will... ??



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