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 28 January 2014

what we can learn from horses

A great deal of my work is directed towards our remembering our interconnectedness in the great web of being, and what it means to live wisely in this, with compassion, not force, as the modus operandi.

I think we all know that the dominator-model has had its day. It doesn't work – except for the few at the apex of the hierarchy, and it's destroyed whole cultures, much of the natural world, its wealth, and its native species, and the economy.

As someone who's shared most of her life with horses, I'm a big fan of the books of horsewoman and wisewoman Linda Kohanov (The Tao of Equus, Riding Between the Worlds) in which she explores the enormous wisdom of animals in general and horses in particular, and the ways in which our lives and theirs are and can be skilfully interwoven to create quite amazing partnerships. And there's much to learn in terms of co-operation, interdependency, and unity from the way herd animals relate to each other, as if operating through a group mind (as indeed they also do), and without ego.

You may remember, if you read this blog from time to time, that I was hoping to incorporate work with horses into my course programme. This won't happen for a while yet, but I continue to imagine how it might.

Meantime, I'm finding Kohanov's latest book, The Power of the Herd – a non-predatory approach to social intelligence, leadership and innovation very inspiring. In it, she explores through prey animals such as horses what it might mean for humans to move away from the old dominance/submission models of power-relationships and to learn instead intelligent actions based not on submission but on group responses of non-confrontation without submitting to predatory behaviour – and without becoming prey.

Even our assumptions about prey animals such as horses are seen through the lens of our own power-based predatory sociology. For instance, we all have this romantic picture, don't we, of fiery snorting stallions, on their hind legs, ruling the herd, dominating the herd, showing the way, commanding respect? And don't we somehow assume this position of arrogant power to be associated with survival of the fittest? (The fittest for what, has to be asked, perhaps.)

Kohanov is not the first to point out that it is rarely, in fact, the wild domineering throwing-his-weight stallion who holds the power in the herd. Mares appreciate a steady, trustworthy, friendly stallion who can calmly direct operations when that's needed and get on with his own thing in between. What's more, it's often the stroppy domineering stallions that are ejected by older calmer stallions in a bachelor-herd situation.

It's a long story, but a beautiful feisty little white ('grey') Welsh mare came to live with us when my daughter was 9. Since the mare was small and lightweight, my daughter had grown out of riding her in 5 or 6 years. Since our animals live with us for life, passing her on wasn't an option (plus she was a fiery handful, for all that she was small). We couldn't afford to buy a bigger pony, so we saved what little we could until we could afford to take the mare to stud with a beautiful fairy-tale snorting prancing bright bay Arabian stallion – all flashing eyes and flared nostrils. 

I confess I was anxious – two highly-strung and flighty animals together seemed like a challenging and potentially dangerous combination (when we arrived at the stud the stallion had actually broken through a concrete and stone wall to try to get to an in-season mare being ridden in the next field – had he managed, the woman riding could have been killed), but my daughter had lost her heart to the stallion, and I couldn't blame her.

Bubbles, the little mare, hadn't. Despite running with him for a few weeks, she didn't take to him or 'take', and so we were given a free return. To my intense, unending and grateful relief, Bubs had fallen for the bigger, older, quieter, steady, unpushy, gentle grey stallion, still an Arabian, but much more kindly engaged. You felt good simply being near him. I was so glad.

The product of that kind match, our beloved little Cirrus, was an extraordinary horse – and became the highlight of my daughter's life. That was quite a pairing, and the youngster had his dam's light beauty, intelligence and vitality, and his sire's kindness and steadiness. He was also a swift and courageous little thing. So when he tragically died, aged 13, in an accident, we were heartbroken, utterly bereft, having bonded with and handled him since day 1. 

For a long time the idea of having another horse was inconceivable. 

By this time Bubbles was in her mid-twenties, a good age for a horse; she'd lost some teeth, become a little stiff and hadn't been ridden for quite some years. She needed a companion. My daughter, savings in her pocket, started the search for a bigger horse. 

My heart sank when she chose a big-boned tall Spanish colt – unhandled, and with the intention of keeping him entire, as a stallion. I confess I was terrified he'd kill Bubs with a blow from one hoof, or rape her – which could have killed her, as he was twice her size and she was elderly; her being able to bear a healthy foal and survive it seemed impossible, too. (Fully-grown, now, he's a BIG horse.)

My daughter and I had a bad falling-out over that. I'm happy to report, though, that to my astonishment, Bubs very quickly assumed the leadership. Certainly, she was more active in avoiding his attentions in the three years before she died (basically of old age) than she'd had to be in a decade of idleness. Certainly he tried it on. But Bubs always retained the upper hand, without aggression or force, though she wasn't above a well-timed squeal or warning kick, or a nip to his quarters if necessary. Sometimes she just had to bare her teeth, or turn her back; but they were inseparable. And he respected her as 'leader' of their herd-of-two right up until her death, no question.

I'm not sure that I knew this then, but actually, the real herd leader is usually a mare. That's always a surprise to people. She's firm, she's confident, she's usually older, she's steady and again reliable, she's not pushy, she doesn't wave her ego around to intimidate others. She's friendly; she accommodates others. She doesn't have to be first. She's not competitive. She's not forceful. She's not controlling. She doesn't need to be – her quiet presence says it all, and in itself commands respect. She knows about boundaries. She'll nip, if she has to. She'll kick out when pushed – and then go back to what she was doing. Her instincts are strong and clear, and she's not prone to panic. She can co-operate – and she can also lead.

The stallion protects the herd in times of danger. In the top photo, of a Dartmoor feral herd, the white spotty pony is a stallion. Notice how alert he is, watching the camera and my dog (front right). Behind him are a mare and foal, and out of the frame another few mares and foals.

The lead mare does just that – she leads, in a quiet, assured way. 

And us? What might we learn from those species who live co-operatively?

Of course, no matter what our biological gender, we are all both masculine and feminine. The challenge, in both inner and outer realms, is to bring the two together to complement each other's strengths; and from where we are in the Western world in the C21st, we clearly have a way to go yet before a healthier balanced relationship is possible, and our socioeconomic systems don't operate predominantly out of principles of aggression, competitiveness and dominance – winner/loser model, where actually we all lose.

'Know the yang, but cleave to the yin,' counsels the Tao Te Ching. Following the yin, or 'feminine', way of co-operation, relatedness, receptivity, engagement and non-domination might yet save us, perhaps, if we can bring it up to a level where it can be seen to offer a positive alternative to power- and aggression-based strategies, and where the healthy yang, the focused, direct and unhesitating 'masculine principle' in humanity – in men and women –  can be seen to complement it. 

And then we might be fit, at last, to co-rule, yin and yang together, with the strengths of both appreciated, needed and pooled.

Monday 27 January 2014

bliss and the heart

One of the ways in which TM and I differ is that my preferred way of waking up is in the silence of birdsong from outside the window, or to classical music. 

TM likes to hit the day running, and waking up to the news on Radio 4 does it for him. I dislike digital clocks and clock radios in the bedroom intensely, and I hate waking to the news. In fact I barely listen to it or read it more than once or twice a week, and that when I'm wide awake and doing OK. First thing in the morning one is vulnerable, and to have the world's disasters, about which one can do so little, pouring in at a tender time feels all wrong to me and can affect my whole day and way of viewing the world. (If I could afford it, and persuade TM of its value, it'd be a beautiful wooden alarm bell from the Mountains and Rivers Zen monastery; now that wakes the soul gently and prepares it for the day.)

Anyway, we find ways of compromising: when, like recently, TM has not had to get up before 6am for work, the radio alarm isn't on at all. If we do have to use it, we set it earlier, so I'm prepared by the time we get to bad news.

From tomorrow, it'll be 5.45. This morning he set the alarm for a practice run for 7 and it was the news. Grrr. But one item was poetry in medicine. How lovely to hear of the poetry award established for NHS practitioners by cardiologist Professor John Martin from UCL and Yale. He founded the award four years ago to counteract the 'intellectual brutalising' of medical staff. Hooray for a man with vision and humanity.


Speaking of hearts, Joseph Campbell, that great mythologian and Jungian, has influenced my way of looking at the world since I began my training in Transpersonal Pyschology way back in my 20s. The 'Hero's Journey' model of psychospiritual development, on which I drew for my first book in 1993 (Riding the Dragon – myth and the inner journey), arose out of Campbell's enquiry into the world's myths: underpinning all cultures, found Campbell, is what he identified as the monomyth, or the quest-motif (he advised George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, on this).

I've been rewatching on DVD the wonderful series made not long before his death, in which he's interviewed by Bill Moyers: The Power of Myth. Last night I watched again 'Sacrifice and Bliss', in which Campbell uses that well-known phrase of his 'follow your bliss', as a dictum for how to live your life, and which he exemplified.

It reminds me that whatever else I could say about my own life, I have done that, mostly. That doesn't mean it's easy; there are sacrifices in a life whichever path you take. My English A level teacher said once that she saw her role as waking us up to the fact that life would imprison us; her main interest was in enabling us to choose our own prisons. Thank you, Mrs Westcott. From time to time fear takes over in me, and tells me I should get a proper job, with a regular salary, a property of my own, money in the bank and a pension. Whenever that happens, though, I know even as the suggestion arises that there is no way that's going to happen. I know I'm living in accord with my soul promptings, more or less; I know I'm doing the work I love. What a privilege that is. 

And something of that sits behind my forthcoming weekend workshop, of which the standalone day component, next Saturday, Imbolc, February 1st, is specifically shaped to ask questions of the participants about how to live by following one's bliss.

Campbell says: 'Most of our action is economically and/or socially determined, and does not come out of our LIFE.' His prescription is what he has chosen to follow himself: living according to the principles of the Sanskrit word satchitananda, which he defines like this: 'sat' is 'being'; 'chit' means 'full consciousness' and 'ananda' means 'rapture'. 'Follow your bliss.'

Related to this, you must have a room, or an hour a day, he says, dedicated to incubating the creative imagination, dedicated to the sacred. In this hour, you need to slip the leash of the world's news, of the requirements imposed on you by relationship to others, and of yours on them. In losing your ties, temporarily, this way you might end up glimpsing your bliss. 

This, of course, is the function of meditation; of free-writing, or, I find, of my morning walk by the brook, in the woods, on the old trackway, free from humans except perhaps a farmer in the distance on a quad bike checking his lambing ewes (poor little scraps, in this dreadful January weather – but that's off-topic).

All of this, he suggests, is dedicated to letting the sacred and its unity and unifying ability shine through – something it's hard to do in our world. This is, of course, the practice of mindfulness – not just on your cushion for a comfortable half hour, but in each minute we have the choice of bringing our full attention – or not. When we can, that experience of unity and of bliss can enter.

It's also what art can bring us. 'The one radiance shines through all things,' says Campbell. 'That is the function of art – to reveal through the object the radiance behind it.'

Today I wish you, whatever your circumstances, glimpse after glimpse of bliss – no matter how fleeting, no matter how insubstantial. And I wish you time out from the social and economic and domestic pressures of your day – also no matter how brief.

Friday 24 January 2014

two poems

What I could have said

It is winter and the sky
is a grand loneliness
I could have said
are beginning to write
themselves into being
I could have said
(now we’re the other side
of last year’s winter)
‘stay – stay here with me’
but I’m not sure
who would’ve heard it
with all that rain
and all those miles

© Roselle Angwin 2014


I open the door and let you back in,
old friend, and can’t believe how long
I left you standing out there leaning
on the wall, for it’s not your way to insist,
and how often – in sun, in rain, in cold –
while I forget about you and yours;
and now how good it is to talk with you
again, let my steps fall in with your own.
How I emerge each time from dream.
Lightning in a summer cloud; bubble in a stream.

© Roselle Angwin 2014

Thursday 23 January 2014

I and Thou

star blast formation (detail) from
BLAST telescope (Creative Commons)

One of the problems in a philosophically materialist (as opposed to acquisitively materialist) culture is that it's hard to find space for the sacred – by definition, since this view of materialism takes into account the existence only of that which can be tangibly perceived and empirically measured – and, perhaps crucially, is often seen as relatively inert in comparison with, say, the human.

With this belief, the universe seems to consist of unrelated objects that, basically, we push around (that's a paraphrase of something Jungian James Hillman said). This is an inevitability in the prevailing view of our culture, which is that matter is here for us to exploit, to view as a 'resource' for humans – but that's way beyond the scope of this post (and I've work to do!).

I guess that any kind of metaphysical take on the world involves the understanding and acceptance of more subtle levels of being as well as and also inhabiting the world of concrete matter. Maybe that metaphysic doesn't have to involve only the high-flown models of cosmology; maybe it is more an awareness of a connecting principle that links everything we can know into a greater whole. The notion of Gaia, for instance, is an example of this: that the earthly world (in this case) is more than the sum of its parts, and adds up to a greater 'force'.

I'm laying this out because we seem to have lost sight of a basic perception that everything and every being we meet is sacred. This view has persisted for rather a long time, but was exacerbated during the so-called Enlightenment, which put paid to 'unscientific' and 'irrational' 'superstition' – and increased our tendency towards dualistic perception.

The sacred here is what Martin Büber meant by the concept of 'Thou', as I understand it: that everyone (and I include other species in this) is worthy of our utmost respect and consideration simply by virtue of their existing; and existing as an integral part of the whole web of being.

If we really believed this, we couldn't trash Other because we would deeply understand that, because of the laws of interconnectedness, trashing Other affects not only ourselves, but the rest of the web too.

The Quakers speak of 'seeing that of God in everyone'.

Other really is also self, at a subtle level. What we do to another we do to ourselves – most spiritual traditions the world over hold this to be true. How would it be to live this truth?

I posted this on facebook yesterday. Someone initially said she didn't really believe it was true (she retracted, later, but it made me think about certain assumptions I make about the world):

'When you meet anyone, remember it is a sacred encounter. As you see her you will see yourself. As you treat him you will treat yourself. As you think of her you will think of yourself... In him you will find yourself or lose yourself.' (Helen Schucman, slightly adapted by me.)

When we meet Other, human or other-than-human, we could remember that they too partake of the universe, collaborate in the unfolding of the universe, are part of its fabric, its light; that everyone/thing is in correspondence with everyone/thing else; everyone is worthy of respect and reverence – as we all are, simply by virtue of the miracle of being; of being here at all.

What we see in another we can only see because it is also in ourselves, whether it's 'positive' or 'negative', their greatness or their weakness, whether we're conscious of it or not (projection, in other words). 

When we harm another we harm ourselves (karma). 

And I also believe that we can only really love another to the extent that we can love ourselves. 

What we notice in Other says more about ourselves than other, often. 

And then there is the whole question of appropriate boundaries, and when or whether we can loosen them to let in another because of love, rather than close them out because of fear. 

To close on that note, here's a snippet from an old poem of mine, 'Three for Dharma', in Looking For Icarus (bluechrome 2005) 

What liberate
are these correspondences:
ocean mind, heart speaking to heart,
to be intimate with

To travel
beyond the names of things.

That we should be here at all

That we dare to cross these divides -
all that stands between us –
risk shipwreck, falling, drowning
over and over to save these separate selves
from separateness.
        That we dare.

© Roselle Angwin

Wednesday 22 January 2014

the great kelp hunt

One of the theoretical joys of being self-employed is that one's time's one's own. (Actually, working in the arts, this is very rarely the case – everyone I know who, like myself, makes their income from creativity and is not employed by A N Other routinely works far longer hours than most employees, and of course with an erratic and usually scanty income, rather than a regular salary.)

So/but now and then there is an opportunity too good to miss. The deep-sea storms have brought a wealth of kelp to the South Devon beaches, and this past Monday was a beauty – soft sun, after so much rain and hail and cold. 

I began work on Monday at about 7.30am, so that mid-morning TM and I could make a trip to South Milton, where I knew the seaweed would be piled up by the southwesterlies at the eastern edge of the beach, and to where we could bring the truck.

South Milton, along with neighbouring Thurlestone, is also an important wetlands site, so we got out of the truck to the sound of many wild geese and oystercatchers, plus other waterbirds. Above us, a sparrowhawk surfed the wind.

I do have to confess that a bit of a pull is the beach café, open 364 days of the year:

where the veggie breakfast was so massive, and the coffee so good, that in gratitude or guilt I agreed we'd fill 26 bags this time, and so we did:

C21st hunter-gatherer with 4x4
Also on the beach was a mermaid's purse, its occupant, a member of the shark family – perhaps skate or ray, I don't know for sure* – long gone. 

Sharks, especially the large ones, top of the foodchain and therefore necessary to the health of the whole, like wolves, are an endangered species: from memory, one shark is killed worldwide every three minutes, day and night, whereas human deaths from sharks are a handful a year, and those usually either in self-defence on the part of the shark (fishermen who've dragged them into boats, or harpooned them), or shark mistaking a human for a seal, whereupon they normally spit them out again. It's worth remembering this, given how much we demonise the creatures.

(*If you know, I'd love to know; been going round in circles on the internet.)

There is something so happy-making about the action of gathering free food (well, this will become food for our veg and fruit, which will then become food for us), in such abundance. It's not just the sun, and the sea, and a morning bunking off work; nor is it just the primal foraging instinct. (And it wasn't entirely the veggie-breakfast-bribe.)

There's something else, for me: deeper than all that in combination. I don't know whether it's directly ancestral – all my Celtic forebears will have done this on the Atlantic seaboard back to the early days of farming in the Neolithic; or whether it's simply something about being completely in tune with the land, the turning year, in my body and out of my head, by the sea: in alignment with everything.

As you perhaps know as I speak of it often here, I feel as if I'm doing the work I was born to do, with my own writing, with my tutoring and mentoring of others in the creative and eco- field, with the retreats; something about connectedness, something about consciousness. 

But there's something about this activity this morning that also reminds me why I'm alive, fully inhabiting my animal body, and is satisfyingly transverbal. 

Perhaps that's it: taking my place in the ecosystem, alongside the other species, and getting on with the very fundamental task of collecting what's offered with gratitude, knowing that you can't get much more connected than gathering and growing. 

Sunday 19 January 2014

from the rainblack ash (a poem)

From  the Rainblack Ash

In the water gardens the day in their hands
is all scintilla and snakes of water
those coiling ribbons of light –
she needs to lap at it like a dog

down on hands & knees
on the slippy oak walkway
then the enmeshing nets of rain in the cherry
in winter sun; the green day

silhouetting them. It’s too much
naming this November ‘spring’
but they do, and do
again: that green water on her tongue

the light reframing itself
over & over till her head
is awash with a Glassworks pattern
in a minor key, brimming

before the crossroads
& on the blind bend
(the pub – the fire, the soup,

what might have been)

the urgent words skeining between them
which is not much of a reason
for the hot press
of their side-by-side bodies, though

their brief private joy is; and the vastness of the world
and winter, and the long lonely night –
and that this day will never
be theirs again –

and the crashing horde just outside the doors
of a war they did not choose, and sudden loss
and deaths that are not theirs, but are;

but still, listen, outside now
that one last thrush unspooling song
from the rainblack ash.

© 2005 Roselle Angwin in Looking for Icarus (bluechrome)

Saturday 18 January 2014

the rain it raineth; thrushes; dreams

...on and on. The rivers are brimming. Yesterday, I walked on my childhood beach in wild rain and hail and wind, light glittering in a smear of gilt in front of the coast at Clovelly, and the sand washed clean from the full moon high tides.

Shock to see how far back the recent storm surges have cut into the sand-dunes, and the strange little building just down from the car park seems like an isolated islet, with an excavation of probably more than a metre extra carved around its brick and concrete plinth. The old concrete part-bunker, pillbox, left over from the war, was ripped and tossed close by. A deep broad swathe of big pebbles was strewn at the foot of the dunes for maybe close on a mile: not obvious whether it had been deliberately dumped here as an emergency breakwater, or whether the sea had done the dumping.

The art deco long white hotel on the cliffs overlooking the sea is now sporting a landslip just below it. The sandstone cliffs have slipped, too, a little further along the coast. Like the hotel, the scatter of houses above the landslips are OK – for the moment.

It's easy to forget the cost to wildlife, as we concern ourselves with the durability of our human-made structures. R4 spoke yesterday evening of the loss of animal life on the North Norfolk coasts over the last few days: a number of seal pups, greylag/pinkfoot geese, even a hare were all caught out by surges of seawater breaching banks. There's further damage to insect, fish and wetland species by the newly-saline water in their freshwater habitat; this will affect not only their own lives but that of other species which depend on them in the food-chain. The rare marsh harrier, for instance, may be affected by loss of life of its prey in marshland now flooded and salty.

And yet, as the days lengthen, hope runs like a small underground stream as the earth goes about its business anyway.

In the lanes, wild strawberry flowers still hold up their faces. Tattered red campion and starry periwinkle still flutter, and the new primrose and borage leaves are thrusting through. Already, the snowdrops in the garden resemble green-stemmed cotton buds, ready to erupt into flower any day now.

As I pass the fruit, flower and herb beds I'm transported to the coast on a gale of kelp-scent from the seaweed collected last weekend to feed the garden.

A pair of mallard duck are back on the little brook in the valley, where I see small trout darting into the weeds at my shadowfall. The buzzard calls in its soaring flight in breaks between rain-surges. Despite the rain I see an occasional thrush calling its spring mating song on a high twig at the top of an ash tree in the field margins – both song thrush and the amber-listed mistle thrush, or stormcock. 

If you are in the UK, do take an hour out next weekend, 24/25 January, to note down the birds you see in your garden or a local park, to help the RSPB monitor species' numbers:

Mistle Thrush: wikimedia commons, photo T.Voekler

Joy of joys: Jeremy Irons reading probably my Desert Island poem, T S Eliot's Four Quartets, in its entirety, just now on R4. One whole hour of a profound poetry-bath, accompanied by the melody of one thrush, throughout, voiced over the words from beyond the window.

                               Other echoes 
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? 
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, 
Round the corner. Through the first gate, 
Into our first world, shall we follow 
The deception of the thrush? 


A reader of this blog commented on a recent post of mine, on accessing the subconscious and using its content in poetry, thus: '...there is too much fishing around in the so called subconscious. Most people have very little of significance lurking under the surface, in the same way that dreams, mine included, are tedious piffle.'

As I am sure you can imagine, I don't agree with that diagnosis. I won't repeat my response here as you can find it for yourself (the collage-poem blog), but I wanted simply to say that, once again, my dreamlife has come to my rescue. As someone used to tracking their dreams for my whole adult life, I'm very aware that long-distance themes that give my conscious life the slip but arise through dreams, memories, visualisations, symbolic techniques with which I work, and creative writing are enormous gifts, helping me uncover issues, deal more effectively with my emotional life, and determine direction and appropriate action in my daily life as well as in the wider picture.

You may know from this blog that I arrived at burnout 15 months ago. Too many decades of working too hard for very little financial return, of being an impoverished single parent, of trying to take care of too many other seriously ill people, of trying to be too many things to too many people who weren't ill but needed things from me, of living in a precariously insecure way on too many edges all at once – all these conspired to cause my heart to weaken. My heart in many different ways was compromised and in conflict, and I also needed to work on both balance and boundaries in my personal and professional life.

I knew I had to change my life, and yet I didn't want to give up what I do – I love my work, I believe in it, it's my life-path. But the message from my wornout heart and body was that I had to revision how I do what I do.

The most useful thing for me was to take into account my limits and limitations – I habitually ignored both.

Thanks to the generosity of two friends, one in particular, and also of TM, I cut my work to half-time last year, and tried to learn how to rest. The summer, and a hammock, changed the way I prioritise, and by the end of 2013 my health was significantly better. However, on New Year's Day this year I found myself immediately and completely back in my old habits, set in my early 20s, of working every possible hour (receiving my accounts back from the year 2012/3 didn't help my sense of panic). 

The space and ease I discovered last year closed up again.

No surprise, then, that my heart has been playing up again.

Last night, I had a very clear dream in which a slender dark woman, a woman radiant with compassion and wisdom, spoke to me with conviction and clarity. What she told me was that I was once again pitting myself at a very steep mountainside and forcing myself to run up it. What I needed to do, she said, was to freewheel, even though at first it would seem as if I was dropping downhill. 'The momentum you acquire then will allow you to ascend the next hill, a gently-sloping hill, effortlessly. That's the way to arrive at where you need to be.'

Note taken, dream-woman. Thank you.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

our pain for the world

'Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine', says Mary Oliver.

For many of us, our joy at the world is tempered by a deep despair at what's happening to it at our hands. No other species has the capacity to destroy the world as we do. The scale of the destruction can feel too much for our hearts to open to. This fact haunts me; and perhaps it does you, too. 

We have to keep opening our hearts; we have to not close down. That's what makes us human. To do otherwise makes us machines.
And I also know that pain can be the prompt to action. In other words, our despair can motivate us. Tonight, I shall go and hear Polly Higgins speak on ecocide (and perhaps report back).

Meantime, here is the wonderful Joanna Macy on despair:

'Where does despair fit in? Why is our pain for the world so important? Because these responses manifest our interconnectedness. Our feelings of social and planetary distress serve as a doorway to systemic social consciousness. To use another metaphor, they are like a "shadow limb." Just as an amputee continues to feel twinges in the severed limb, so in a sense do we experience, in anguish for homeless people or hunted whales, pain that belongs to a separated part of our body—a larger body than we thought we had, unbounded by our skin.

Through the systemic currents of knowing that interweave our world, each of us can be the catalyst or "tipping point" by which new forms of behavior can spread. There are as many different ways of being responsive as there are different gifts we possess. For some of us it can be through study or conversation, for others theater or public office, for still others civil disobedience and imprisonment. But the diversities of our gifts interweave richly when we recognize the larger web within which we act. We begin in this web and, at the same time, journey toward it. We are making it conscious.'

—Joanna Macy

From the article Working Through Environmental Despair,

Tuesday 14 January 2014

inviting the bad fairy to the feast

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin, Wikipedia creative commons

In a Christmas blog ('Christmas cheer & Baba Yaga'), I wrote about Baba Yaga – that fierce and fearsome witch of the Russian fairytales who eats people.

In summary, I spoke of the need to incorporate what Jungians call the Shadow into our consciousness. (In fairy tales, these unconscious 'subpersonalities' often appear as the ugly hag, the wicked stepmother, the bad fairy, the giant, -the ogre etc.)

All of us have parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of, or dislike, or someone else has disliked, or that we fear. We tend to deal with these aspects by repressing them very firmly. However, in this case they become constellations of energy in the psyche which, when triggered, can cause enormous unpleasantness as we suddenly succumb to a mood, or a rage, or an out-of-proportion upset that can tear us or others apart. When this happens, it's worth asking what it is in us that needs to be brought to the surface.

Often, we can get some measure of these psychic, 'hot', bundles of energy by noticing our moods and affects; often, too, by becoming aware of what really gets us going in another – if we don't meet our own Shadow aspects face-to-face, we'll tend to meet them 'out there', in the guise of another. (This goes for our positive but unrecognised aspects as much as our negatives – what we really admire in another gives us a clue as to what we need to work on in ourselves to liberate.) The wise way is to look them square in the face.

I've written much about all this, on this blog and also elsewhere, so I'm going to leave it at that, except to post a poem that addresses this, emailed to me yesterday by a long-time friend. Thank you, Sheena.

Sheena writes: '...have only just had a chance to catch up with your wonderful blogs. The one about the Baba Yaga within really struck a chord; it's a concept which has preoccupied me for years. I once wrote a piece about it which I called 'The Visitor' – although I think 'The Sitting Tenant' might be nearer the mark!'

I am your uninvited guest
at the feast
you eat alone    we share a name
but mine is mirror-writ and odd
you know it all the same

I am the little voice
that wakes you
long before the light is due
whispers the thoughts that you were dreaming
tells you your dream was true

naming casts a powerful spell
shall I name you     or you name me?
and will we be coupled closer then
or will we set each other free?

© Sheena Odle 2014 


Monday 13 January 2014

more silence: and then there's...

... the dance; which for me is another way of experiencing silence (silence-of-the-mind-via-music-and-body), as I did for two whole glorious hours this morning. How different it is dancing at the beginning of this year from last year, when my heart had taken me into a state of fear at its odd fibrillations, and where I didn't have the breath capacity (because my heart wasn't circulating oxygen through my body properly) to have any stamina.

This morning, outside the window, a thrush kept its covenant with sky. And the latter shifted through charcoal to pewter to silver to gold and back to the beginning of the cycle, just as the music too shifted and my body moved with it – no thought, no hesitation, no judgement, everything joined up.

And that, I realise, is the essence of silence for me: not in any way an absence, but a quality of presence that is all about alignment, continuity, uninterrupted flow of experience.

This presence is characterised by an unimpeded flow of circulation between inner and outer, self and other, cosmos and individual, immanent and transcendent. What interrupts it, breaks it, is not other, or sound, per se; but intrusive human-made dissonant sounds: heavy machinery, traffic, industry, loud voices, unskilful (intrusive or harsh) use of communication. 

And – words. Some words can convey silence – some poems, prayer, meditations; but I notice for me that reciprocal conversation, which usually at least in part takes me up into my head, will usually break the internal connections even as I may be making verbal – and wonderful – connection with another.

In the dance too, even without words, there's always the danger of my breaking my internal connections by an uncertainty around personal boundaries – and which of us gets that right all the time? Many of us are too porous; probably an equal number are not porous enough, emotionally-speaking. Five Rhythms dance allows you to see how you 'do' your daily life, also, mirror-wise – I've long been aware how easily I depart from myself in my eagerness to connect with another human – even as I also tend to linger just on the edges of total immersion in the group.

This too is about a relationship with silence (as I'm defining it), I'm seeing; something about maintaining an inner quiet and alignment no matter what is going on outside or around me. Of course, this is also part of the point of meditation.

So the challenge for me, both in and after the dance, or during my encounters with other humans (it doesn't ever happen with the other-than-human) is to hold to that internal silence, its quiet passages, even when I'm dancing, or talking, with another.

That's a lifetime's practice.


(As an aside, I often incorporate silent walking together in groups I lead. If you haven't ever tried walking in companionable silence with another, I do so recommend it.)

Sunday 12 January 2014

the other face of music

... is silence. But not the 'other side of the coin' – more like 'both this and this,' not 'either music or silence'. Music and silence are in some ways the same thing.

I say this because great music also brings with it a great silence, a stillness, that fills up all that you are so that that most stealthy and insidious stealer-of-silence, your own eternal internal chatterer, gives way to a vastness that contains little of the thinking I, and few of the distractions that so often pass for thought – there is simply no space for them. When I listen to great music I slip the bounds of my separate self, boundaries and thoughts dissolve, and music and silence become the same vast 'everything' with which I, momentarily, merge.

The sound of the sea is another great silence, for me, as is walking by the stream in the many voices of the birds, or along the high top lane in a wild wind with the tossed trees and the distant view of the moor. Our encounter with dramatic landscapes is an entry into silence, too – whether or not they are composed of actual absence of sound – which must almost never occur in nature.

There's a quality of silence to my encounter with the bay pony along the lane, where we stand nose to nose and maybe just nudge each other, blow into each other's nostrils, a little, for long moments; or when I massage the dog's stiff and painful back.

There's tranquil silence when TM and I sit side-by-side in front of the crackling fire with the wind outside, the tawny owl who's recently come to the hazel bush hooting gently just a yard or two from the garden door, and our separate books.

Meditation, of course, is an inviting-in of the great silence – harder in some ways than walking out into it.

So it's not about an absence of noise or of doing; rather about a quality of sound and a quality of being that permits a sense of oneness.

And there is something in silence that encourages slowness; a blissful counterpoint to our rushed lives.

Yesterday, in beautiful sun after so much torrential rain, we went to the sea – I have longed to be there again: I was too ill over Christmas to get to the shore, the first time in many many Christmases that I've missed it. The sea washes something out of me: an accumulation, an overfullness, an acceleration, an over-saturation with all the demands of being human, and my own addiction to engagement with the human world – and fills me with a vastness that has no name, no defining features except a huge sense of wellbeing, and no limits.

After all the storms, the deep-sea kelp was piled metres thick and a metre deep on the tideline, and we gathered 18 sacks of glorious rich free seaweed for the garden. Today, just before the rain came in again, I spread it on the soft-fruit bed, the flower-and-herb bed, the bases of the new damson, plum and greengage trees, and then where I was about to plant the garlic. (If anyone knows of any reason why I shouldn't be top-dressing any of those plants with seaweed – please DON'T tell me – until next year!)

To the accompaniment of the magpies, jays, jackdaws, gulls, a robin, a thrush and a buzzard – the silence of the garden – as I plunged fingers into the cold soil for the garlic (too wet to plant at my habitual winter-solstice date) I realised again that this, these moments without thought but just being, in tune with greater forces, these days is what unadulterated happiness means for me.

When did my love affair with silence (and with the solitude and stillness that so often accompanies it) begin? I'm a talker; I love people; love engagement; love communication; love ideas (make my living, such as it is, from these things) – and cannot thrive without hefty doses of silence: something I've denied myself much of my life, acting as I have like an extravert.

Of course it also happens as people get older. The mediaeval model of the woman past childbearing age entering a convent is not as outmoded or outrageous as some people think. We do move towards an inwardness later in life, if we let ourselves – it balances out all that compulsive doing of the first half of life, and there is a certain relief in slipping off some of the risk-taking, adventurousness and restlessness that has characterised much of my life.

I've learned to listen: to this planet turning in space, to the growth in the soil, to the woodmouse creeping through the grasses, to the individual bluetits' songs to each other, to the snowdrop spikes poking through the wintry grasses.

'In our noise-obsessed culture' says Sara Maitland in her A Book of Silence, 'it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent – gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos. The earth spins, it spins fast. It spins about its own axis at about 1,700 kilometres per hour (at the Equator); it orbits the sun at 107,218 kilometres per hour. And the whole solar system spins through the spinning galaxy at speeds I hardly dare to think about. The earth's atmosphere spins with it, which is why we do not feel it spinning. It all happens silently.'

Now, I slip on silence as I might a silk gown, a night-sky gown spangled with stars. When I do this, I'm invisible and inaudible, even to myself. What a relief.

Thursday 9 January 2014

music as presence

'It is only when you become enraptured in great music that you begin to understand how deeply we are reached and nourished by sound,' says John O'Donohue, that much-missed Irish philosopher and poet who died a couple of years ago (just after he'd met the love of his life – tragically, and beautifully), in his little chapter of the above title*.

Music has always had a crucial role in my life. Both my parents were amateur musicians: my mum a classical pianist, my dad a folk-rock-blues-jazzman. In fact almost all of my family, including my ex-husband and daughter, are consummate musicians, some of them (my dad, one sister, my daughter, my nephew) being multi-instrumentalists – the kind of people who can pick up just about any instrument and play it immediately.

One of my earliest memories is asking my mum for 'the ice-cream record': a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (the cover of which showed a great studded door with shadows making cones beneath the studs, looking for all the world like ice creams). The Brandenburgs are still among my favourite pieces of music – they never fail to uplift me; but then, I'd say that of most of Bach's music.

Another memory is the way my dad would make a 'one-man-band' for us: banjo, mouth organ on a strut round his neck (so hand-free), cymbals between his knees, a tambourine strapped to his back and operated by a cord attached to his heel. It's through my dad that I first heard Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a number of protest singers, and my parents took an interest in the music we all listened to as we grew up.

So music has been a significant part of my life, all my life. My daughter and I still go to gigs together as our tastes are similar: classical, or gyspy-jazz-klezmer fusion, or folk-rock, especially when we can also dance.

But as a player it's rather different for me. I limp along; I can make notes out of several instruments, learned the guitar and banjo a bit, play various recorders and the flute, but none of them very well except the recorders – and am making very heavy weather of learning the Celtic harp. But it's exciting, having always played by ear, learning just a little of the theory of music: why it is that fifths as bass notes will often sit comfortably with so many other melody notes where triads won't necessarily (I think!); considering that in relation to more cosmic proportions and harmonies (and not yet coming up with an answer).

And this is the year I really am going to connect up my very good sound system, bought secondhand from a friend who was emigrating just before I moved in with TM, and currently still on the floor, five years later, in a tangle of completely-incomprehensible (to me, and also I think to TM) wires. We do have music, but it's in the kitchen which is vast and cold and it's not a particularly good system (I'm a snob about the quality of reproduction – it's crucial, to me), and since I've been here I have never once lain on the sofa in the sitting room upstairs in the firelight, and really deeply listened to a piece of music that nourishes and transports me.

It is as if, I've realised lately, I've lost a dimension from my life: a particular colour-register, almost – as if everything is dulled down just a little, like looking through muslin.

The first thing I did here was unpack my books; the second thing should have been my music. J O'D: 'Music is perhaps the most divine of all the art forms in that it creates an active, living and moving form that takes us for a while into another world. There is no doubt that music strikes a deep and eternal echo within the human heart. Music resonates in and with us... Generally we neglect almost completely the nourishment of listening to good and true sounds. The sound quality of contemporary life is utter dissonance and cacophony. We live in a world of mechanical noise which allows no spaces for silence to come through to enfold us... We are forever being stoned by dead sounds... one of the key building materials now is mass concrete. When you strike mass concrete with a hammer, the sound is muffled and dead and swallows itself. When you strike a stone an echo leaps from it; the music of the stone sings out. The sounds of our time have little inner music; all you hear is muffled hunger... in its deepest hearth the soul is musical... is sonorous, echoing the eternal music of the spheres.'

He goes on to say that music is the perfect sister of silence.

He also asks: 'Is the music you hear too small for your growing soul?'

Good music allows one to enter into a great silence; one free of the petty concerns of daily life and the ego, even if only briefly. It consoles, it uplifts, it transforms one, it deepens, it connects. My musician friends tell me that making music with others is better than sex.

I ask myself: why have I chosen to live five years without a daily bath of good music?


* Eternal Echoes – exploring our hunger to belong, John O'Donohue, Bantam Books, 2000.

Monday 6 January 2014

storms like birds

Down by the causeway the river looks innocuous, innocently emptied. I can tell from the debris strewn in gardens, on the lane, on the track, though, how high it has been in its tidal moments, wind-pushed even this far upriver from the ocean at Plymouth.

Across the water, where the 18th century carriage ride unfolds through the woods, past the holy well to the circular lookout opposite the lime kiln, the clumps of holm oak, evergreens, are shaking silvery leaves.

At my approach, the usual little egret close to the seawall flaps up and away, yellow legs trailing behind her. The blackheaded gulls are making no headway downriver, the best they can hope for being to be held up like kites in the gusts. Out mid-channel, on the mudbank, maybe 8o Canada geese are voicing their croonings to each other.

I heard this morning on radio 4 – yes, I was driving across Dartmoor once again – of computer-aided technology – 'hearing instruments', for a young man who is losing his hearing – which can in principle allow him to hear within a supersonic range inaccessible to humans, generally speaking. When they played the results of a geomagnetic storm – stratospheric tempests – as this technology would allow him to hear it, it sounded like a flock of waterbirds, with the gentle burbling crescendos of curlews, at first. How exciting.

On the same programme they spoke of a guy who was born unable to see colour – is it called achromatic disorder? He, being an electronics wizard, has made himself an antenna which 'speaks' to a chip in his head, so that he 'hears' colour. Blue, for instance, is C#. (Oh – there's so much to say about this! The chakra system and its notes and colours, the notes of the musical scale and their colour correspondences, the association with the planets of our solar system, the mathematical intervals and their corresondences – but that's a whole book.) Going into Tesco's, therefore, gives him a symphony. An art exhibition turns painters into composers, in his words.

Driving back across the moor was sublime – in the old Romantic sense of the word. I drove back at dusk from seeing my dad, who has vascular dementia (but today was a good day), as the clouds were gathering into a bruised and brooding mass bunched over Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall, to our West. Coming up high out of Tavistock into the wildish uplands of the moor, with their exposed reaches and tors, the storm was poised like a massive panther – dramatic, beautiful, utterly oblivious to humans. 

The hilly fields to either side as I left the agricultural land had a nacreous sub-nocturnal glow from a previous hailstorm, and everything seemed to hold its breath. Then, so suddenly that I jumped in the car seat, the sky in front of me split open, and again, and again. Lightning screamed as far across the sky as I could see, from north to south, over and over. 

By now I was up high on seriously open moorland, being buffeted. I know that lightning rarely if ever hits cars; or at least the rubber tyres earth the strike. However, I've also had St Elmo's Fire bounce off my bonnet once, taking the radio out and causing a little puff of smoke. How strange, though, this time that a little torch that lives in my car but hasn't worked for months suddenly came on with the lightning.

I love this display of elemental wildness; and part of the joy is the reminder that nature is always bigger than we humans, even if our current weather patterns are down to anthropogenic climate change. 

Not much further on, a Volvo estate car had come off the road, presumably when the heavens opened after the lightning – wild rain, wild hail, wild rain – and landed a couple of metres down from the road surface in a marsh (occupant was OK). There but for the grace – in my little skitty lightweight car (haven't yet sold the Golf as the campervan has been in the mechanics' workshop for two months with its brains all over the floor; luckily successfully operated on now, I hear).

27 feet waves at Land's End. Some guys on the radio speaking of waves like that off the coast of Donegal, which they were surfing today; mentioning 80 foot waves elsewhere (don't know if they attempted to surf there).

I think of a winter spent in a tiny fishing village in the Basque Pyrenees, myself, my then husband, and our very young daughter, about 32 years ago. The village is known for its exceptional surf break to a handful of global surfers, who trek vast distances to catch the waves over a few specific weeks each winter here. Late that February, the snowmelt coming down from the mountains meeting the Atlantic in the Bay of Biscay created what my Italian husband called a 'spindryer' effect: huge tumultuous rollers of routinely 30 feet+, which – yes – he'd attempt to surf. 

That was some winter – but that's another story.

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