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, 11 December 2013

'don't just do something, sit there'

... is a phrase that I've remet twice this week: once in Jungian Robert Johnson's captivating autobiography Balancing Heaven and Earth, that I've just reread; and once in one of my favourite books that I'm always rereading, living as it does by my bed: Wherever you go, there you are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. 

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.


  1. Your journey has helped me though I come with different expectations of myself. During the summer the image of you lolling in a hammock helped me to slow and not expect too much of myself! For me, what happens, I think I've cracked it, I'm better - no longer pushing too hard, feeling low because I'm not 'successful'- and wow I'm back on the driven train again almost without noticing. Except now and again, I do.
    much love, and thanks,


  2. Oh Marg, yes exactly - I know that so well myself - thinking one's cracked it whatever 'it' is – and jumping right back on that train! let's remember we're not alone; and also that it's perhaps not what we're here for, pushing ourselves to 'achieve', as if there's somewhere to get to... I recommend a hammock! - and, of course, taking time out to smell the flowers AND KNOWING THAT'S AS IMPORTANT AS ANYTHING ELSE! With love to you - Rx

  3. I have so enjoyed reading this post Roselle. For me it took many years of chronic ill health to finally understand how important it is to carve out time and be quiet, to listen to that inner voice and not to judge it. I am aware however how easy it is to slip back into old patterns, to understand that we are all driven. I like to sit on my front doorstep and catch the sun, both my cats love it when I do this, just sitting and being and reminding myself of the need to stop.
    All good wishes for the Solstice and Christmas. Raine Geoghegan

  4. Raine, how kind of you to write.Thank you. It's heartening to me to know that others go through this, and find ways to simply sit in sun, with animals, just being. I wish you (and me too) much more of that!

  5. What a great, admirable and encouraging step towards loving life wisely! Thank you, Roselle!
    Love Bxx

  6. From Miriam:
    Yes, it is so difficult not to take the body of granted when it seems to be working well. Recently. in relation to my own health problems, I've been thinking much about Body & Mind (with capitals as if they're separate people, held in balance by oneself at a still centre, one hopes). Easy to see Mind as the adult, wise one up against the recalcitrant, childish Body who sulks and hurts adolescently and won't cooperate. In fact, over the last few days I've come to think of them differently: Body as bedrock, the wise ancient worn out by an exhausting, excitable, ever-youthful Mind. Look, Body says, 'I can't do this any more, please understand, channel your vigour and energy into something more gentle or please, just bugger off and let me be for a while'.
    And so, I've done just that and have to resist feeling that I really don't justify my existence enough because I've pruned it so much. There's still the vestige of fear of what others say about me: lazy, self-indulgent, wimpish etc. No, I won't have it. Those days are gone. I don't care so much about what others think. I do care about the meaning of life, about asking – what's the point of life, of anything? –usually rhetorical for me these days. I only have to look out of the window to see and that's just the exciting beginning; I come here to this wonderful blog for more inspiration and get it handed on a plate.
    If the mind has energy, walk slowly, gently for a while, come back and pour it into something like this.

    Thanks, Roselle, and I know you'll look after yourself, Mind & Body (must fit Soul in somewhere, some time). Be well.
    With love, M.

  7. A truly wonderful post! It's so interesting how after 6 years of enforced 'sitting and being' after my stroke in May 2007, my Word for 2014 is actually about 'doing'!! Our lives travel in cycles, like Nature's years... It's so good that we can find companions along the way - some in the same part of the cycle, others in a different one... Tis the wonder of the internet! Blessings of the Season to you, Roselle x

  8. B, Miriam, Claire - I was very moved by your kindness and the words you shared. We are not alone, as you've also suggested; and there's warmth in remembering that these struggles for balance are simply the 'human condition' aren't they? Thank you all for the support (and M I'm so glad you're where you are with it all!) - truth be told I was afraid that was one self-indulgent egocentric blog post, so I am glad you could all, it seems, read past the 'I' there. With love and winter blessings - Rxx

  9. Roselle – what you say always resonates and moves far beyond the egocentric. You give from within – it is a gift – which enables us to share and feel part of this rare and indispensable community.
    There's a huge difference between egocentricity (or self-obsession) and the self awareness/knowledge which informs empathy.
    Thanks and love, Miriam.

  10. Miriam - a smile, a hug and appreciation - as always. Thank you. Rx

  11. Have just read your blog and the wonderfully supportive responses. I was unaware of your dance with "dis-ease" last year, though I realised that for you to take time out you must have been stopped in your tracks, literally. Both for your bruised heart and your superb
    inner strength in addressing it's implications I can only send a metaphorical garland of scented winter box and snowdrops to call in the solstice. As the head knows and the body requires, enjoy the effort of doing nothing. love Carolyn.

  12. Carolyn what a lovely comment. Thank you. - And how strange - that's the second time in an hour I've read the name 'scented winter box' - I don't think I was aware of its existence before! I shall seek it out now. That was v poetic, and I send you joy, warmth and rest at this season too. With love, Rx


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