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

Saturday 29 March 2014

another equinox poem

Vernal Equinox

Those days of ice and fire have scorched or thawed their way
into temporary absence, along with the blades of wind.
Yesterday a snipe startled from among the woodland margins

and something like hope rekindled itself in the trees.
This morning, at the fulcrum of dark and light, after the night
and its absences, the birdtable wore a corona of bluetits,

and the pied garb of the pair of woodpeckers drew together
an alchemy of night and day, the hint of convergence,
their tails flashing red like passion in the drizzly dawn.

Now this pot of tea by the window; buzzard launching
from the tall ash; single goose heading up the valley
out of the mist, surfing the first wave of light.

© Roselle Angwin, in All the Missing Names of Love (see sidebar)

Wednesday 26 March 2014

spring plants & wild garlic recipes

...the river pools in swirls of froth and brandy
soft black soil and frogs creaking like doors
and see here wild duck
sliding amongst marsh marigold and frogspawn 
(from River Suite

In Simon's little pond now the marsh marigold (kingcups) are flowering, along with spikes of irises and flag irises. New tadpoles wriggle in the pondweed. Frogs and toads laid swathes and swathes of frogspawn right on the margins of the pond, so that when the water receded in the recent sun the spawn was left dry. I've scooped a little of it back into the water each time I've passed.

The stitchwort's out. The miniature wild daffs are in full flower amongst the periwinkles – a pleasing combination of complementary colours and shapes.

Yesterday, getting the campervan's gas looked at ready for the trip north (pleased to discover I have a very efficient gas heater installed!), the pussy-willow 'flowers' on the sallow tree behind where I park it were laden with bumblebees. 

Any time now, I guess, we'll be picking up our colony of Cornish black bees for our 'new' top bar hive. They're strongly resistant to viruses, hence our choice (and my attachment to bees from my native land). Better learn something about bees fast, I guess...

All our purple sprouting broccoli and kale seeds have germinated. As usual, TM has sown with enthusiasm – another takeover bid from the cabbage-family on the veg plots...

We've gathered so much wild garlic I'm going to attempt to freeze it, cut up as I do the herbs. The house is scented with spring.

With garlic and young nettles so prolific now, I've been adding them and wild sorrel leaves to everything I make – I'm told my breath can fell a man in a different room (the secret, of course, is to pump any man close by with as much garlic as I'm eating). However, my cardiovascular and immune systems are liking it, so I've no intention of stopping.

Here, below, I offer you free, gratis and for nothing two wild garlic recipes, should you live near any harvestable sources. (I see the Guardian last weekend also ran a load of wild garlic and nettle recipes - intend to try the gnocchi; home-made gnocchi was a speciality of my Italian ex.)

All fresh herbs and plants are better gathered in the morning, once the dew has dried off, and preferably in early sun – their alkaloids are stronger (this is more releavnt to medicinal herbs however).

Vegan 'Pesto':
Take a good handful or two of wild garlic
One handful of young nettle tops
A small handful of wild sorrel (optional)
Good pinch of parsley

Blanch the nettles leaves just for a minute or two (I steam them)
Put into a whizzer a good slosh or three of olive oil
The chopped garlic and nettle leaves
Pine nuts (tbsp or 2); roasted hazelnuts (small handful) – or one or the other
Add the parsley, and sorrel if using it

Whizz and season to taste.

Whether or not you're using sorrel, you might want to add something tart. I grate in some lemon zest and the juice of half a lemon.

Use on pasta, with baked potatoes, on oatcakes, with nut-roast, veggie sausages etc. The oil means it'll keep a few days. Last night I cooked the Irish dish colcannon, which uses mashed potatoes (our own), with chopped raw onion and in our case the last of our kale. I dolloped the pesto on top.

If you're veggie (or not) instead of vegan, I do have to say that the pesto's much tastier with cheese, I seem to remember. (Be aware though veggies that the traditional parmesan or pecorino almost always uses animal rennet – maybe in bigger towns you might track down some that doesn't, or I believe you can order it online.)

Here's my kidney bean, cashew and wild garlic dip:

1 tin of drained and rinsed kidney beans (or a handful or two dried, soaked and cooked)
cupful of cashew nuts
handful or two of wild garlic
slosh of olive oil
soy sauce
few dashes of tabasco
half tsp or more of smoked paprika (optional)
squeeze tomato purée (optional)

Whizz together. Good with crudités, toast, oatcakes.

Happy eating.

Monday 24 March 2014

a poetry sauna and interconnectedness

Travelling the east bank of the Teign for the first Teignmouth Poetry Festival, which turns out to be a wonderful event in many ways, a storm out at sea rags the clouds so that they drip blueblack into the green translucence of the sea, slant-lit by the setting sun behind us. A stray chunk of rainbow hovers in the clear strip between sea and stormcloud. Teignmouth from here, the other side of the Shaldon bridge, looks very romantic. I remember that Keats, as well Isambard Kingdom Brunel, hung out here.

I have the Famous Poet in the car beside me, and he's entertained me well on the journey. We pass now a whited-out billboard, whose graffiti reads I'M ALL WHITE NOW I'VE HAD ART THERAPY, which makes us both chuckle.

Famous Poet's gig was utterly brilliant (and sold out weeks before). Very funny, with ridiculous tiny nonsense poems that no-one else could possibly pull off, followed by serious sad poems delivered simply and plainly, and therefore all the more moving. What a star. And as usual, modest, engaged, kind and small of ego.

On the way home, we're talking about redundancy in poems. He says something interesting: some poems have a last line that sends a shiver up the spine of the poem. That sends a shiver up my spine, so spot-on an observation it is, and I realise how much I look for that effect in poetry, and how rare it is to find it. How difficult it is to pull off, too – how it can turn a basically-descriptive poem into something much more profound; but how the weight of that last line has to be so subtly, so delicately, gauged: a gram too heavy and it becomes a punchline, self-conscious and self-aggrandising.

I mention two poems that I think do this very well: James Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock in William Duffy's Farm in... Minnesota' (I've found the poem with different versions of the title); and Seamus Heaney's 'Postscript' (the poem at this link has a couple of typos, by the way).


Saturday brings a very good selection of poems in translation, read in their original Spanish, Greek, French, Latin, Welsh and Finnish too.

Andy Brown holds the audience rapt in his evening presentation, that includes an eclectic range of visuals to accompany his poetry on the body and medicine, the theme of an anthology he's editing for Bloomsbury. Andy's work is great spoken or read aloud, but also repays further reading on the page. His voice is very much his own, and it's an inspiration to include a visual dimension; this always seems to deepen our experience of and relationship to the poem by more than simply the sum of word and image.

At the end of the evening, I felt as if I'd been immersed in a poetry sauna for 24 hours. I hadn't realised how starved I'd been feeling of this experience; I could feel something a little cramped inside me expanding, like those paper Japanese flowers that blossom from small tight dry coils when you drop them in water.

My own afternoon session was – sigh of relief! – well attended, with a thoughtful and engaged audience. Not only were the cakes excellent, but we also had a discussion about whether and how poetry could help us make connections, which was the theme of my title. (If poetry can't, than maybe home-made cakes can...)

I've written here before, perhaps, of my recent recognition of the fact that everything I do is, in one way or another, concerned with our connectedness – or otherwise. I gave a talk on that to a group at Schumacher College a week or two ago, and something along those lines will be what I'll be speaking on at the June 'Consciousness Café' here in Totnes.

If we know that everything, everything we can know, is interconnected with everything else – a major insight of many spiritual and mystical traditions, and backed up recently in science, whether holistic, evolutionary (ecosystems) or quantum physics – then how might we live in ways that reflect and honour that state of being?

It has seemed to me for a long time that our behaviour, based on perception of/assumptions about the separative ego (as if we were separate lumps of matter pushing other separate lumps of matter around the universe basically according to our needs and desire nature), is what's responsible for the inner and outer fractures in our lives, most especially in relation to the environment and its destruction.

Like my life, all my work is aimed, albeitly subtly, at addressing and exploring this.

I believe poetry has a unique part to play in changing our perception. As novelist and poet Lindsay Clarke once said in an interview with me for a journal: 'Without imagination we cannot have compassion'; a statement so obvious that I had never really seen it. It stopped my flow of questions for long enough to realise that this is a simple and very profound insight.

So imagination, and cultivating it, is a major preoccupation of mine.

Poetry is, in my view, soulwork. Coming as it does from both head and heart, I believe that poetry can open and/or restore a sense of connectedness on an inner level. I also feel it can create a rare intimacy interpersonally. Combining image and sound, it reaches beyond the intellect alone. It can heal fractures between people and peoples; across borders and nations. It can bring or remind us of a transpersonal dimension to our experience.

And it seems to me that we can't separate it, either, from the possibility of increased self-knowledge; so that, for me, there's always a psychospiritual dimension to it (I know many people wouldn't agree with this, as poetry is a bit of a shapeshifter and can take many forms).

Crucially, I feel, when accompanying work outdoors it can open inner vision and outer relationship, joining inner and outer geographies. It can enable us to renew our deeper ties with other species, place and land (my ecosoul work, on the ecological imagination and ecopsychology, concentrates specifically on this).

In a world that seems so riven with separateness, any practice that opens the channels for intimacy with the lost, hidden, forgotten or split-off parts of ourselves, with a flow of creativity and imagination, with other humans, with the other-than-human and the more-than-human, is doing this world a huge favour, it seems to me. Poetry happens to be the skin I like to wear, the heart in whose beat I rest and breathe.

So driving back, leaving the sea behind me, on Saturday night I was aware that something had been restored in me. Something that was in danger of suffocation had opened its wings in my chest.

I hope, too, that the experience of poetry at this wonderful first Teignmouth Poetry Festival, and our lively discussion after my reading of it, had allowed a descent into some kind of depth in all of us.

Friday 21 March 2014

spring equinox poem 2014

I've made a commitment to myself to post here poems for the solstices and equinoxes; partly kept together by my commitment to another poet at each quarter date. So – here it is; though it has to be said my well feels a little low at the moment, and that's OK.

As in the turning year, there are cycles of course in everything, inner as well as outer, and my own cycle of creative inspiration in its poetic shape seems to be about 3 months. Right now, I'm at its nadir. This is a time when I need to fill it up rather than empty it further.

This is, I suppose, an apology for a poem that feels uninspired and rather squeezed-out. That happens; and that has to be OK too.

Good job I have others I'm rather more pleased with, given that I'm reading at the inaugural Teignmouth Poetry Festival tomorrow. (Have I already tried to bribe you with the rumoured tea and cake?)

Tonight I have the job of transporting Brian Patten to his opening gig there.

I've never forgotten his kindness when, about 16 years ago, I was 'support act' for his reading at Exeter Phoenix. I was unknown (not that I'm much better known now!) and also unknown to him. We were sharing a drink at the bar, when the tannoy announced that it was time to take our places in the auditorium for 'Brian Patten's event'. Brian slammed his glass down, marched out of the bar to the front desk, and asked them to replay the message but saying 'Brian Patten and Roselle Angwin's event'.

Here's the equinox poem:

Spring equinox 2014

New young sun. The onion sets are in,
bean, brassica and leek are building up a sweat
in their glasshouse home, and the garden
smells of ocean with its many loads
of kelp. And I’ve spoken all there is

to speak of the year’s great wheel turning
without end, of the pairs of opposites
who each holds each in perfect balance
at facing sides of the cycle until
one or other in the end concedes

how earth and sun, darkness and light
chase each other forever in the silences
of space, the way grief and joy are always
intermingled. I’ve made so many metaphors
of this, and of the swift year’s dying and rebirth

how at the place and time where words fail
we have to follow the flower-maiden
into the dark until at last we learn
to swallow the waiting seeds. So now I let
the family of tits in the willow, new spikes of iris

young badger turning leaves
at the margins of the wood speak
for themselves, for me, of how we’re all
connected, and how everything
dissolves and is remade.

© Roselle Angwin 2014

Thursday 20 March 2014

the lost, the forgotten, guilt or the unsaid thank you...

A great deal of my work is, one way or another, about connections, and the quality of our connections. Because I am interested also in the healing power of words, the work I do is about more than 'creative writing'; more, too, than 'reflective writing'. As a course participant astutely said last year, it's really about how we live.

Part of this inevitably involves reconnection: with ourselves, with others, with the world around us; with all the lost and forgotten ones, or aspects of ourselves.

And I remember weeping copiously as I navigated the ring road around Glasgow, heading for the hills, last year or the year before listening to a similar programme as that mentioned below on Radio 4.

For all these reasons, I thought I'd post for you an email that arrived in my inbox last week. Please do get in touch with the person concerned if you think you could be one of the people she's looking for:

'I'm working at Wall to Wall - a television production company - on a new series for BBC One provisionally called 'The Gift'. I just wanted to tell you a bit about it and see if you thought it might be the sort of thing any of your writing group might be interested in. It would be really interesting to know what you think.

'The concept is all about resolution and reconciliation – helping people to make amends for something that they have done or to express their gratitude to someone who has affected their life in a really profound way. We’ve found that holding on to an unpaid debt of gratitude or the burden of guilt can have a really negative impact on both the physical and mental health of an individual, and leave them unable to move on with their lives. Yet people often find it difficult to do this themselves. For example they no longer have contact with the person who helped them when they needed it most, or don’t perhaps have the courage to make an approach to an old friend alone.  We’re putting together a team of professional mediators and specialists in tracing people, to responsibly put these people in touch, and support them through a meeting.

'We are currently trying to find people who may need our help. We are aware that people who are relevant to our search will come from all walks of life, professions and backgrounds and we’re trying to spread the word to as many people as possible. It doesn’t take a lot to lose touch with someone important, and even with the advent of social media some people are still hard to find.

'Perhaps someone has been looking for an old friend or even a stranger who was really there for them at one point in their life and who they no longer have contact with? Perhaps someone who really helped or inspired them at an integral moment in their life who they’ve never had the opportunity to thank? Perhaps someone they really regret hurting who they’d finally like the ability to apologise to? I think, for many it’s often difficult to realise exactly what a person meant to you until it is too late to tell them.

It would be great to speak further if you think this might be something that any of your writing groups or writers might be interested in. I can be contacted on 020 3301 7871 or via email at'

Wednesday 19 March 2014

from the ragbag: spring, sea, pilgrimage & being

... which is really a way of procrastinating while I work out which is more of a priority: planning the reading for a poetry event I'm involved in on Saturday, trying to find a focus and a way in for a long essay I'm writing on megalithic Britain (proving difficult as I'm trying to condense 40 years and a book's worth of passion and research into a few thousand words), getting on with admin, or getting out into the garden while there's still some hazy sun before the forecast rain...

So. Two weeks nearly of sun, and spring flowers are blossoming everywhere. The fields are littered with lambs now, and the willows, elders, spindles and hawthorns are fizzing with green. Totnes is full of cherries, damsons, plums and magnolias in blossom, and birch trees have defined themselves with their magenta crowns, ready for leafing.

I always like to get the words 'apical helispheres' into a spring blog if I can: and the ashes now have bursting sooty ones.

Speaking of ashes, She-Who-Wears-Her-Grey-Matter-on-the-Outside, Ash, had some more big lumps off yesterday (luckily benign). Here she is just post-op (my wonderful vet, who is also an animal-acupuncturist, has a mobile surgery;

The sea was so different the other day when we went for another load of deepsea kelp, washed up by the ton in the winter storms. It couldn't have been bluer, more tranquil. Hard to believe, in the warmth of the sun, it's only mid-March.

From the inland wetlands a pair of whooper swan took off over our heads; given the number of twitchers with their binoculars trained on the sea, something else had been blown off-course, or there had been unusual migratory sightings.

We brought back 30 more sacks of kelp for the veg garden – very satisfying; and hopefully we'd worked off the veggie breakfast in the Beachhouse Café, which is our bribe each time. Now each of the four raised beds has had either seaweed or manure or homegrown compost this winter, ready for the onions and leeks, brassicas, potatoes and beans. The garlic's growing strongly, the broad beans and early potatoes are in, and much more is under the new cold frame. We're hoping to plant squash and courgette, as well as sweetcorn, in the woodland margin, facing sunwise, near the bees.

The 8 artichoke plants have survived the winter well: 

Look at this strange thing: I imagine it's a seaweed root, kelp, I guess, with a great 'main (severed) artery' on the reverse.

And some sandstone rock, with what looks like limestone incursion (the stone switches from one to the other further east along the coast from here, and this sandstone belt is I believe the same one, running diagonally across the county, as emerges on the North Devon coast where I was brought up).


Spring, and a wanderlust arises. Does it for you too? The campervan is serviced and ready to go, and I'm already thinking about my trip northwest in a month's time, to two Hebridean islands and then to the sacred Isle of Iona for the annual writing retreat I lead there; and because of that thinking too about pilgrimage, and what marks it out as different from 'holiday'. Of course, it's to do with intention, a spirit of undertaking a journey mindfully, with awareness; and where the journey is as much the point as the destination is. And of course there is much more to say about this; and I have elsewhere in this blog, as I have in various essays. I feel another small book coming on...

As of last year, I've created another 'Iona'-style retreat, but this time in the wonderful lush forested mountains of the Cévennes, in southern France in August. I'm utterly delighted that the Iona retreat has had its full complement of 15 participants since the end of last year, with bookings being taken for 2015; the French retreat venue is now full, too, although there are two or three places available on the course for people willing to sleep in the local Auberge. Looks like this too will now be an annual event. 

What's wonderful, apart from the fact that a small chunk of my small annual and generally unpredictable income is guaranteed, is that without fail these two longer courses create a deep sense of community, whether or not people have attended before; a sense that coming together for creative and reflective practice in relationship to place and the land is soulwork and matters, and adds, in its small way, to the growing sense that cultural, psychological and social transformation is possible.


One of my constant preoccupations is with the creative tension created by seeing ourselves as separate from others, whether those others are human, other-than-human, or more-than-human. It seems an inevitability, and it also, in my opinion, is both necessary to our individuation process and, paradoxically, exactly what allows us to push other beings around in this infinite and mysterious universe as if they were mere objects.

Because of my teenage introduction to Zen ideas about non-dual being, this question, paradox, has underpinned all my thinking (and subtly underlies all my workshops to the extent that they're about connection and relationship) for 40 years.

I've been looking back over an essay of mine (for the forthcoming book) on the act of naming, and the way it both helps create intimacy with another AND simultaneously creates division.  Synchronistically, I've been reading a book by non-dual teacher Adyashanti on being, where he also addresses this issue. I'll leave you with a paragraph of his, from Falling Into Grace:

'You respond to your name, you go to work, you do your job, you call yourself a husband or a wife or a sister or a brother. All of these are names we give to each other. All of these are labels. All of them are fine. There is nothing wrong with any one of them, until you actually believe they're true' [ie you start to identify 'who you are' with your labels]. 'As soon as you believe that a label you've put on yourself is true, you've limited something that is literally limitless, you've limited who you are into nothing more than a thought.'

Sunday 16 March 2014

on trust

Spring is crossing the land towards us at, I believe it's said, 2mph.

This afternoon, in a blue day, after sowing the rest of my broad beans and cleaning the recycled glass panes topping the big cold frame TM has made us (now housing germinating seeds of soya beans, French beans, borlotti, cavallo nero, kale, leeks and 3 kinds of purple sprouting broccoli), with the temperature in the 20s, I lay in the hammock – yes, hammock! – in sun, near the apple trees, and looked up at the buzzard cruising in the thermals, at the contrail of a jet above it, and thought about trust.

Initially I was just thinking about how we trust the earth to keep spinning at its regular speed of whatever-it-is, trust gravity to stop us flying into space, and trust aerodynamics, the internal combustion engine, engineers and pilots to keep us up in the air in those little metal boxes. How I trust the apple trees to keep budding, how I trust that the newly-planted seeds will shoot, and leaf, and deliver fruit, how I trust the dog, lying on the grass nearby, never to bite me, how I trust that today I won't die.

Then my mind turned on a conversation I had with my daughter yesterday, about the components of trust. She said, insightfully, I think, that almost without exception we – she and I – have surrounded ourselves with people whom we can trust completely, and take that so for granted we don't think about it, or need to think about it. Until or unless someone betrays us.

I have been naïve in this way, at times. Most of my life I've trusted the people I've met. I am myself, on the whole, reasonably trustworthy, I think; and I'd much rather go through life that way, trusting, than the other. 

I've also found that when you trust people they do generally turn out to be trustworthy, which reinforces both your wish and your ability to trust.

A simple example of this occurred weekly, in the days when I was a shoemaker. I worked for myself, and hand-made, to measure, shoes that would go out all over the world (I had a three-month waiting list). Customers would pay me a small deposit and pay the balance, plus postage, on receipt. Of the hundreds, tens of hundreds, maybe, of shoes I sent out on trust, I was only ever let down twice in 14 years. That ain't bad.

However, in my personal life I've been burned a few times, usually when my instinct has said one thing and I've ignored it and gone the other way. Last year this was brought home sharply to me when I was betrayed by a friend. It shocked and hurt me deeply. Perhaps now I'm not quite as blindly trusting; and I also no longer ignore my instinct.

One of my own weaknesses is that I can sometimes leave things for too long before raising them, because of my intense dislike of hurting people or creating disharmony – all very well, but there's a cowardice in there at times, too, that can make a situation worse when it does blow up. (In that way, I could no doubt improve my own trustworthiness by being more willing to speak out and rock boats when it's needed earlier rather than later.)

So, lying there in my hammock, I was thinking about my conversation with my daughter, and musing on what we mean by trust, and what that means in relation to people we entrust our friendship to. What qualities does the word 'trust' connote?

I guess the most obvious quality is that of integrity: our knowing that someone will aim to act honourably.

I guess this presupposes, and this is where it gets tricky, that we share, loosely, a value-system that we – both parties – hold as central to our lives. It is, perhaps, hard to trust someone deeply if their values are very different from one's own.
When we give someone our trust, it's reasonable to suppose that they will bear in mind our rights, and our wellbeing, with regard to their actions. Someone we trust will not compete with us, put us down, diminish us, or take what isn't freely given. They will make our life bigger, not smaller.

Then there's self-responsibility, which means something like taking responsibility for their own words and actions, and especially when they mess up (rather than denying, blaming, guilt-tripping and hitting out). This requires a certain level of self-awareness, and courage.
It means that they are willing to look at their own lies in relation to themselves, perhaps (because we all do lie to ourselves), and any duplicity, or economy with the truth, in relation to us.

It means they're willing to hear our point of view. It means they're willing to share theirs, too. And they won't be afraid to challenge us, or be challenged, without it being aggressive, harsh or blaming.

I guess it means that we trust their continuing intention to be kind, truthful, and honest; even though we all know that all of us will get it wrong sometimes. 

We trust them, above all, to act with authenticity, which I guess is trusting them to act in a way that's true to themselves and their values, and therefore clear in its communication of what matters to them (of course this kind of clarity is always a work-in-progress, but I think it can be conveyed and intuited). So there's a willingness to be straight, even if it disappoints another.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer says in her famous 'The Invitation': 'I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.'

(OMD has said somewhere that she's lost count of the number of times people have corrected that word 'faithless' to 'faithFUL'. No, not FAITHFUL – faithless; meaning that when push comes to shove a person will not betray themselves to garner approval; that's the point.)

For me, that's perhaps the key: I trust someone when I know that they will, no matter what, not betray who they are, their deepest values, for the sake of convenience or comfort. The many people whom I love, I love dearly; and without exception they are true to themselves, and therefore they are true with me also.

I'm sure I've only skimmed the surface, and would be glad to hear your thoughts and additions?

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Zen, non-religion, non-attachment & eros

During the break at the talk ('Only Connect') I gave the other day to a group meeting at Schumacher College, one of the members came up to me and said 'I'm surprised you follow a Buddhist path. I'd have thought Hinduism was more up your street? Buddhism has always struck me as such a cold and detached religion.'

I always enjoy being prompted to question myself and my ways. It can bring a freshness, and a letting-go of outdated ideas or habits, and an opportunity to see what something looks like from another's perspective.

We had about two minutes, and I couldn't start to explore it all with her there and then. I said, rather lamely, that it wasn't Buddhism per se but Zen specifically (and its emphasis on mindfulness) that underpinned my spirituality (alongside the teachings of what is commonly known as the Western Mystery Tradition), and that I saw Zen more as a methodology, an approach to living, than a 'religion'.

There is nothing, and also far too much, to say about Zen. 

Had I wanted to try what I might have said, had there been time, was that 'religion' requires a set of (usually divinely revealed) beliefs, and especially a belief in a divinity; and whether monotheistic or polytheistic, there's normally a hierarchy that one needs to invoke, pray to or propitiate (I'm of course over-simplifying here). And there's something about such a hierarchy, and the idea of a (usually male) mediating élite as well as Top Guy, that turns me off. (Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing.)

My path, both/all aspects of it, is one of gnosis: direct knowledge or insight through direct experience. I could summarise it by saying it's about waking up.

What I love about Zen is that it's about cutting through: cutting through all our preconceptions, our ideas about, our opinions, our habits, our intellectual posturing, so that we may see reality, the clear pool, the 'ground of being', beneath it all. 

Zen doesn't require that I believe anything, it has no ultimate God (and no set of beliefs in relation to one), and we don't worship the Buddha (who as an enlightened being offered us teachings in relation to the way out of suffering, that's all). 

Zen, like most schools of Buddhist thought, is more a psychology, really, than anything; and its central premises can be tested out by anyone: that most of our suffering arises in our relationship to transience, our inability to live in the only reality we can actually experience, right here, right now, and how hard we cling to ideas of the separate self, and what it needs, desires and dislikes.  

Growing as it did out of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, Zen (in Japan) or Chan (in China), counsels that Buddha-nature resides in everything: this flower, that slug, that rat in the compost bin, this raindrop, this human being; and that waking up consists in seeing that, and in seeing the ultimate unity that forms and dissolves and reforms in everything.

It is true that Buddhism in the West very often seems to come across as a cerebral, detached, passionless practice. I've known a great many practitioners – often, although not exclusively, men – who come to Buddhism (as far as I can tell) because it suits their personalities/fears/predilections to remove themselves from the messy emotional realm of the human passions, and a misunderstanding of Buddhist teachings (in my humble opinion, of course!) can seem to justify that as a more 'spiritual' way of being. That's a form of denial, and a repressive rationalisation.

I don't buy it. Eros, the desire-nature, is not only part of our makeup but crucial for living a vital, creative, engaged life. Passion is not to be repressed; rather, it is our light, and also our servant, and only becomes a problem when we become its

What Buddhism can do is remind us that anything to which we become enslaved – or conversely anything which we hate and push away – takes us off the Middle Way and into more suffering.

So it's more correct, and an essential distinction, to say that Buddhism counsels non-attachment – warm engagement, but with an open heart and an open hand, aware of transience and impermanence, aware of the follies of trying to hold on to anything, even life; and aware too of what a gift it is to be alive. 

I'm reading psychiatrist and Buddhist Mark Epstein's book Open To Desire (it's a wonderful and clear-sighted book on living with the apparent contradictions of being human).

In it, he quotes international Buddhist teachers, Stephen and Martine Batchelor (who were originally teachers here, close by, at Sharpham when it was a Buddhist community and college). Martine uses the image of the hand and the coin: we can either clutch the coin tightly in our fist, or we can allow it to rest on our open palm. Both ways are ways of holding the coin; one more 'skilful' than the other. The opening of the fist is not passionless, but trusting.

'As the bee tastes the essence of a flower and then flies on without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life', says the Dhammapada, one of my favourites, an ancient Pali text (Juan Mascaro's translation, but amended a little by me).

Epstein says 'Desire is the crucible within which the self is formed.' The problem is in our thinking that desire can ultimately be fulfilled in any of the ways in which we usually try to assuage it, and the restlessness of being forever driven by that need.

So I guess I come back to a metaphor I come back to over and over: it's important not to mistake the pointing finger for the moon. 

Desire, yearning, can be one of the most profound experiences of human existence. It reminds us of hugeness, of vastness. And it may also point the way ahead. 

It may be that yearning itself that teaches us that it cannot ultimately be found in any one thing, person, place or situation, and that our work may be to transform both ourself, and our desire, into something more awakened, more enduring and actually more present. And then we stand a chance of moving beyond our separateness (for that, really, is the aim of desire) into true unity-with-everything.

My friend Jo once said to me, as we were leaving the Isle of Iona where I lead a writing retreat each year: 'I wish you passionate equanimity.'  That has become a kind of mantra for me, exemplifying exactly that harmony of living with eros from out of a quiet centre.

Monday 10 March 2014

there is the wound & there is the healing

A recent article of mine, 'The Inward Healing', is lead article in the Spring issue of MsLexia, the women's writing journal. Here's the opening (a version of the whole piece will eventually come out in a book of essays I'm writing, and the workshop I mention below will be repeated at the end of January 2015):

Outside, the wind is ripping jackdaws and rooks across the sky, but young light is breaking through the bare ash trees, above the snowdrops. Inside, we’re snug with the woodburner’s glow against the rain storming the windows. I’m facilitating a writing workshop. In a minute, we’ll burn our scraps of paper, on which we’ve written the things we are choosing to let go of from our past year, and our lives in general.

An important strand in the work I do with groups and individuals is reflective and therapeutic writing, sitting as it does between creative writing and depth psychology.

Writing in the way we are this weekend allows an uncovering, discovering, recovering. I know, as do those who’ve worked with me before, that participants will leave feeling clearer, stronger, rejuvenated and focused in various ways after exploring the story of our past year/s like this.

When we write, the imagination will always come into play as a connecting or associating factor, if nothing else. No surprise, then, that Freud said that his work of psychoanalysis ‘was better understood and applied by writers and artists than doctors’...

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I did a training course in Transpersonal Psychology, as a way in to offering counselling.

Transpersonal Psychology, growing out of the humanistic field and based as it is in Jungian thought and the work of luminaries like Maslow, Assagioli, Mare-Louise von Franz, Joseph Campbell, and more recently Ken Wilber, draws heavily on archetype, myth, poetry and visualisation.

A strong part of its focus, unlike the more behaviorist models of psychology, is to do with purpose and meaning. An important aspect of it, and one that has deeply influenced my own work, is the notion of the 'Hero's Journey' to wholeness; I followed this through the Grail legends in Celtic and early French mythology.

Once qualified (I also had a training in Astrological Psychology as taught through the Zurich/Jung foundation through the work of Liz Greene), I did do some one-to-one work, but as it happens, the groupwork took over, and this was reinforced by the then Element Books, who commissioned my first book, Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey. Since then, most of my work has revolved around groupwork involving writing, and my own writing.

I'm delighted, though, to be incorporating more one-to-one sessions in my working life. These, like some of the groups, often take the shape of writing as a tool for exploring and expressing life issues.

However, I have never felt that it makes any sense to separate out creative and therapeutic strands in relation to the writing process, though sometimes one and sometimes the other will take precedence in terms of the emphasis of that particular workshop.

In writing, even if it's heavily disguised as fiction, or a poem, it seems to me that we are bound, sooner or later, to come up against our woundedness – for who amongst us isn't wounded? And it may well be that our best creativity comes from touching that wound.

As I go on to explain in the article, there is plenty of documentation to testify to the fact that the very act of writing about something painful is healing; perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, since we know about the mind/body connection, our bodies can heal, measurably, as a result of that writing, too.

Healing, of course, doesn't always involve 'getting better from'. Sometimes it means learning to live at peace with what has caused, or still causes us, trouble, and this happens, I believe, through making it conscious.

The wound, in fact, is a prompt to staying alive. What's more, it may never actually leave us, but we will, perhaps, and likely as a result of facing it, maybe through therapy or through writing (or both together), be better able to learn from it, incorporate its teachings, and move on towards wholeness.

I've been rereading the wonderful James Hollis, a Jungian analyst and writer. He's sobering on this idea that the core wound may continue to be a motivating factor in our lives:

'First, you will have to deal with this core issue the rest of your life, and at best you will manage to win a few skirmishes in your long uncivil war with yourself. Decades from now you will be fighting on these familiar fronts, though the terrain may have shifted so much that you may have difficulty recognizing the same old, same old.

'Second, you will be obliged to disassemble the many forces you have gathered to defend against your wound. At this late date it is your defenses, not your wound, that cause the problem and arrest your journey...

'And third, you will not be spared pain, vouchsafed wisdom or granted exemption from future suffering....

'Therapy will not heal you, make your problems go away or make your life work out. It will, quite simply, make your life more interesting. You will come to more and more complex riddles wrapped within yourself and your relationships. This claim seems small potatoes to the anxious consumer world, but it is an immense gift, a stupendous contribution... Consciousness is the gift, and that is the best it gets.'

In taking the 'hero's journey', I've written elsewhere, whatever healing we manage of our own woundedness is also a gift to the collective; and that, in our fractured world, may be the pearl beyond price.

© Roselle Angwin, 2014

Friday 7 March 2014

what binds us

Every time I read poet Jane Hirshfield's poem 'For What Binds Us', the title alone makes me smile. The poem is, Hirshfield (who is also a Buddhist) herself says, perhaps about love, or about the end of love, or maybe about time and connections.

This post is not about that poem, however.

For me, no matter what the subject, the title immediately makes me think of Indra's Net, that wonderful image for the Web of Being as envisaged by the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. I've spoken of it here before, and no doubt I will again – it underpins my worldview in a way that the Western canon's image never can: that hierarchy with – guess – man (sic) in a position of entitlement, privilege and unique rights at the apex, and with all other beings beneath.

The Indra's Net model is a beautiful and elegant image: all of us, all beings, held in an energetic mesh of interbeing, and where, at each node of the web, glows the jewel of a being, each intrinsic and essential to the whole.

What is important, to me, to remember is that the net is both immensely strong and durable, and also fragile. A tug, or a tear, anywhere in it will send ripples through the whole (as we are seeing in the dramatic and interlinked consequences of our interference in the ecosystems that are, and are of, the whole).

And I think of this web, this net, as being a constant interchange of energy and matter (the beings at each node being energy condensed into form, we could say), with the energetic connections sustaining the whole, and matter forming, dissolving and reforming, for always in its own beautiful unfolding, the 'law of continuing', which will, no doubt, continue, despite us. The binding of interbeing. 

Tuesday 4 March 2014

wild garlic, and 'only connect'

Talk delivered (and enjoyed – by me, anyway), even though I went off-piste and needed to fit at least 6 days' worth of talking about 40 years' worth of thinking, study and experience into an hour of presentation and a further hour of discussion and co-enquiry into the theme, a double-breasted affair of 'Only Connect', and 'Know Thyself' (more on all this another time).

Meantime, while I was in the discussion meeting my father was taken into hospital, so I'm on standby for news, and not fully able to concentrate.

While I'm waiting, in the spirit of present-moment-awareness and appreciation, here's the snippet of news from South Devon: spring is springing. To my great delight the wild garlic is in leaf here – in beautiful lush exuberant leaf.

I gathered a big bunch last night, and tonight, Shrove Tuesday (St Piran's Day too for we Cornish), I shall make leek, spinach and wild garlic pancakes, with goat's cheese in TM's ones.

In celebration of this new lushness, here's a version of an old poem of mine:

Wild Garlic 2

The wild garlic this year amongst the bluebell spikes
is suddenly prolific, pungent as parable. I’m gathering
leaves by the armful, and soon the starry flowers. For months
it’ll spice our table; better for the heart even than roses.

Everyone we love and everything we know will be taken
from us one day, or we’ll leave them. That’s what the wise
priest said at that wedding all those years ago. Knowing that,
how can I not love this world fully, while I may?

© Roselle Angwin


Sunday 2 March 2014

guest blog: 'money as the means of a new feudalism'

One of the things that TM and I have in common, in addition to a passion for ideas, is a deep passion for ecology, and a commitment to finding how we might live a sustainable lifestyle.

Where we differ, perhaps, is that to me we can't consider our relationship with the ecosystem of which we are part, and which we are currently in the process of damaging perhaps beyond the point of no return, without considering the psychological dimensions of our relationships to Other.

For TM, the emphasis would perhaps be more on the interrelationship between ecology and political economy.

His interest has been heightened and understanding deepened in the reading of Michael Rowbotham's seminal and underestimated book Grip of Death (which is, more or less, the literal translation of mortgage).

Because Rowbotham's work points to a truth about our economic system of which I, as it seems most of the population, was ignorant and which does have some major implications, I asked him to write me a blog on this (this was then in fact first published on the Triarchy Press website, which is in partnership with the visionary International Futures Forum).

Here are his thoughts (don't worry, normal service will be restored soon. Am currently very preoccupied in putting together a presentation – to happen very soon – on the ways in which ideas of consciousness, relationship and interconnectedness underpin all my work, for a group that includes some very high-powered people and that meets at Schumacher College. Help!).


Money as the means of a new feudalism.

The first and most important rule of money is that it’s a concept, not a thing.

For many if not most people, money is a huge practical and psychological factor in their lives. Perhaps because of this, it is usually regarded as a given – an objectively real quantity which can change hands, sure, and be argued about, but which in effect has to be there already, to have some ill-defined historical provenance before it can be fit, proper and legal. Almost no-one thinks that it’s even relevant to ask the questions of how it is created, who creates it and what effects this has.

To the extent that anyone does think about it, the most likely-seeming answer would probably be that governments have a monopoly of lawful money creation: isn’t that what the Royal Mint’s for, and why forging money is, er... a crime? Well, yes and no – but mainly no. Governments are indeed responsible for the supply of some of the money in circulation. The thing is, in almost all modern currencies only around 3% is actual government-created banknotes and coins, whilst the remaining 97% is entirely virtual, coming into existence by virtue of commercial banks making loans with interest attached. It does not represent any tangible stored resource, gold, silver or anything else. In other words, far from being a solid and neutral tool, almost all money is created out of nothing and exists only as debt.

This immediately seems contrary to common sense. It’s such an implausible claim that it surely has to emanate from rather desperate conspiracy theorists. Except that it’s documented: in relation to sterling, Bank of England statistical releases show that for September 2013, the total of what they call “narrow money”, i.e. notes and coins issued debt free by the state, amounted to 2.8% of the total money supply (designated as M4). The rest is the sum total of bank lending, registered as deposits in bank accounts. When a loan is finally repaid, that money disappears from currency, which means that to maintain supply and keep banks going (in aggregate the same  thing), new loans have constantly to be made. That explains a lot, and turns out to have vast knock on effects.

This situation has been building up for hundreds of years, at least since a consortium of subscribers to the newly formed and (then) privately owned Bank of England loaned the crown £1.2 million in 1696 to defray military spending, so initiating the National Debt and being granted in return the exclusive right to issue promissory notes as legal tender. Goldsmiths had for a long time been issuing similar notes, well beyond the quantities of gold they actually held, which were traded more locally and less officially.

The model of money as bank credit, i.e. debt, became established. Perhaps governments found it convenient to follow the practice of borrowing supposedly objective money from private sources, because outsourcing seemed to transfer responsibility. In any event, the literal equation of money with debt to banks has expanded internationally to the present extraordinary ratio, accelerated considerably by the global deregulation of the last 30 years. (In 1965 “only” 80% of sterling was bank-created.)

The effects are profound. 97% of all money is fundamentally owned by banks and hired out to everyone else, with interest charged for the privilege of using it. Therefore almost all economic transactions, since they are carried out by use of money, have to produce not only what is required by participants, but an additional percentage to repay banks for advancing
the money. All parties have in effect to find an extra profit margin to achieve this, and the only way to generate it is at each others’ expense, by seeking to increase their own share. The overall effect, which as a rule goes completely unrecognised, is to create a ferocious built-in competition for money, as people can only continue to “have” and use it if they can make the interest component. One psychological effect is the increasing sense of “running to stand still”.

Not everyone is in debt; however, the debt money ratio does require that debt must exist in correlation with c.97% of traded wealth. The more surplus accrues to some people, the more aggregated debt necessarily attaches to everyone else. Apart from the 3% of “narrow money”, for any individual or social group to have positive bank balances, another individual or group must have corresponding negative balances. Any net inherited assets such as land and property which are not directly monetised or represented in bank accounts, will modify that overall balance of assets and liabilities, and weight the distribution of economic power accordingly.

To repeat: the only way to eliminate debt within the existing monetary system would be to eliminate 97% of money – thereby also halting all employment and production. For the great majority of people, owning any significant asset entails debt, a situation which cannot even theoretically be avoided. Debt is obligation, so in a monetised society those who control and benefit from creation of debt are in an increasingly powerful position. This power increases, or tends to become more concentrated, as a result of constant collection of interest on money created, which leads those paying the interest to require extra money – i.e. loans – in self-perpetuating cycles.

Not only do the majority have to work ever harder to stand still, but as loans are repaid, more have to be created to maintain the money supply; if for any reason banks reduce the total recycled loan amounts, money automatically disappears from the economy, leading to recessions or economic depressions.

A steady state economy with stable employment is structurally impossible under this arrangement. The alternatives are increased economic hardship or unlimited growth, which helps to explain why ecological imperatives are effectively ignored.

In the past, government spending based on borrowing has in some degree mitigated these economic effects, with the cost being growing levels of national debt in nearly all countries. It is no coincidence that the historical high point for economic equality in western nations occurred in the 1970s, before the systematic reduction of state provision in the 80s. When governments decide to reduce their borrowing and spending, e.g. because of a perceived need for “austerity”, this also results in money being removed from the economy, which far from increasing economic vigour makes recession virtually inevitable.

In recessions, debts are harder to repay and assets are more likely to be repossessed or otherwise sold. Naturally what is sold in these circumstances, frequently at reduced values, will tend to be acquired by those who hold the debt –usually banks – and by those who have financial surplus. The economic and financial pyramid becomes more pronounced, with the majority possessing fewer net assets and being more financially obligated. The more acute this state of affairs becomes, the more it looks like a modern financially engineered analogue of that mediaeval system of labour and land tenure obligations known as feudalism.


This recent Guardian piece by American academic David Graeber refers to recent Bank of England tweets that essentially confirm the debt money thesis.

Further reading:

Where Does Money Come From? 
Ryan-Collins, Greenham, Werner & Jackson (New Economics Foundation, 2011)

Modernising Money
 Jackson & Dyson (Positive Money, 2012)

Grip Of Death
 Michael Rowbotham  (Jon Carpenter, 1998)


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