from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

if at first you don't succeed... try the tao of imagination

For some months I’d been booked to offer a talk at a Consciousness event. It happened last week, and as they brought in more and more chairs it gradually dawned on me that it wasn’t going to be like a poetry reading I gave in Berkshire last century(!), where just 15 minutes before the event my only ‘audience’ was a vagrant, come in out of the rain and fast asleep and snoring across the front 3 or 4 seats. (It did fill up better than that, eventually!)

What’s more, I had the most wonderful and generous feedback at the end of the evening, and afterwards. People I hadn’t seen for 10 or 20 years turned up, and I felt moved and humbled.

I'd thought about the talk for weeks in advance, as some quite big-name international speakers are associated with the event. I needed, I felt, to speak in an authoritative and academic way about my great passions: interconnectedness, creativity, self-knowledge and eco-awareness, and about the essential role of the imagination in bringing about a re-visioning of our relationship with and place in the natural world.

All of these ideas feed into the work I do as a writer and workshop facilitator, and I’ve committed my life, really, to finding ways to enable others to reconnect with the lost parts of themselves, with human others, and with the other-than-human.

I write (at, some would say, some length) about these things on both of my websites (one is dedicated to creative and reflective writing; the other to ecopsychology. Both incorporate psychospiritual practice.)

So as the event approached, I’d built up about 18 pages of notes on what I wanted to speak of. I was trying to find a way in that wasn’t either ‘fluffy’ or too all-encompassing; that was tight and cogent but inclusive; that was philosophically rigorous and engaging at the same time; and that did justice to my notional title: ONLY CONNECT: ecosoul and the ecological imagination.

Only thing was, I felt that, whichever way I looked at it, the whole thing felt too ‘baggy’ and too detached for my natural approach, which is very much hands-on. I’m quite good at inspiring people, and getting people to write; I’m quite good at taking people outdoors and having them experience the land and its beings through their body and senses, their hearts, and their imagination; I’m quite good at writing about what I do and the philosophy behind it. I’m terrible at standing up and delivering a pre-memorised lecture. This one was promising to be as stodgy as an uncooked doughnut.

When I have doubts, I run a pattern of ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’ – which I realise is an introjected message from childhood, as is the notion that there is no such concept as ‘I can’t’. I know that the I Ching also counsels ‘Perseverance furthers’ – but this is not an absolute truth; instead it’s contextual. My trouble is that I strive and strive and strive to ‘get it right’ in every area of my life. For decades I’ve been aware that I’m like a salmon, struggling against the current upstream, getting ‘home’ against all the odds.

That’s at variance with my Zen practice, which suggests that sniffing out the direction of the current and learning to float with it is at times far wiser: the Tao (from which Zen partly arises) also of course counsels that. Why push against the river? (OK, sometimes you might need to; but mostly it might be wiser to use the current, and steer.) And – well, we have to make ‘home’ out of every moment and every place in which we find ourselves.

But, forgetting Zen and Taoism, I worked harder at my notes. The closer the day came, the more panicky I felt and the more notes I made.

Then one morning, a couple of days before the talk, I was walking the dog. Something happened that reminded me of a line from a Yeats poem. It had great resonance for me. I shan’t talk about the detail here as I’m partway through an essay in relation to it for my new book.

What’s relevant is that it shot me straight back into exactly where I needed to be – the river spat me out, so I had to find another course.

And I knew, instantly, that I could bin all my notes, as in fact the Yeats’ poem was my way in; and what I had been trying to do was to find an angle that was rational and intellectual rather than imaginative and intuitive – bit crazy, given the subject and my natural inclinations.

Through this poem I could talk of all the things I wanted to speak of, and feel so urgently about in relation to the future of our species, other species and this beautiful planet: the symbolic language of poetry, story and myth, and the wisdom-teachings they carry through generations; the search for soul, the lost feminine principle and its connection with the heart and the feeling nature in our Western twenty-first-century culture; and a different kind of consciousness we need to encourage and cultivate in relation to other beings which I am calling liminal or shamanic consciousness (the ability to slip the confines of both ego and rational mind, and share, enter and/or exchange consciousness with another being).

For a little while, right now, I’m swimming downstream, and holing up in the odd little backwater pool. Mmmm.


  1. Lovely article, Roselle!! Made me read at length about salmons (
    First of all, not ALL salmons are anadromous, and if so, their lives usually END in their natal spawning grounds:(. And prior to their run up the river, they undergo ‘profound physiological and also radical morphological changes’, preparing for the spawning event ahead.
    Therefore it may be wise for us to follow our own physiology – keep on holing and resting in your backwater pool for another little while:)!
    Love B xx

  2. B, thank you very much for that! I'm so pleased it got you researching.

    Yes, I know that about salmon (though I didn't know that they're not all anadromous): I've often watched them, read about them, and they're a very important symbol in Celtic myth, which is one of the reasons I used that metaphor! ;-) - Am currently writing about them.

    There's a wonderful book, old now, by Devon writer Henry Williamson, and set partly on the stream at the bottom of my childhood garden: 'Salar the Salmon', a childhood favourite (along with his better-known book set ditto, 'Tarka the Otter').

    More anon - and as always big thanks for the affirmation. You'll be pleased to know that I'm becoming well-acquainted with that little pool ;-) - and I'm looking forward v much to seeing you! With love, Rxx

  3. Smiled when I read this, oh that struggle to get it "right" only to realise, often at the last minute, that you were trying to fulfill someone else's idea of "right". I was sorry not to go to your presentation but have no doubt your integrity would have shone through.
    "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way.Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, and thousands can think for the one who can see. To see clearly is poetry,philosophy and religion - all in one" Ruskin.
    Surf the currents.. Carrie

  4. Carrie, so glad it resonated for you. And I didn't know the Ruskin quote - excellent. Might pin that up as a reminder! - And it would have been a LONG drive for you - I hadn't expected you to come!

    Thank you. And love. Rx

  5. Roselle. It was wonderful to hear you give this inspired talk the other night in Totnes. Since childhood I have been enchanted by the music and magic of that very Yeats poem, and I often bring it out of my head-library to dwell in it for a while. You deconstructed its symbolic and liminal significances brilliantly. It's very good for me to dip into all that Jungian animus/anima stuff - not that I entirely 'get' it, but for me it's also OK just to set that knowledge aside and take the words at face value. 'The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun." That touches something deep. Thank you. frances x

  6. Frances, how lovely to read this. Thank YOU. And I was very touched that you made such a journey – driving to see my two sisters up there, I know that it's a good 2 hours+. And your name's 'on the list' for a cancellation on Iona 2015, and if not on 2016! x

  7. '. . . find an angle that was rational and intellectual rather than imaginative and intuitive . . . '

    Roselle, I really sympathise with that urge to dwell on the intellectual and rational at the expense of imagination and intuition. It's almost as if the former becomes a safety-net, or defense-mechanism against sounding fey, or unscientific even though it involves contradicting our best instincts. Perhaps it's partly to do with lack of confidence, self-esteem, how fear of failure can still get in the way, even when you're experienced.
    Some time ago, in my old writing group, we were asked to write something about the Creative Process. My first instinct was to write an essay – until I had to stop from boredom and fear of sounding pompous. I'd left that behind, 30 years before, at school! And then, I found myself panning-out from a recent, rather disturbing experience, back in my birth-city of Liverpool, caring briefly for my parents – both over 80 and very ill with flu. I watched myself fleeing from the claustrophobic flat where they lived, trying for a few precious moments, to escape from the burden of expectation and responsibility. What came out of this was a far more interesting (or so I was told) piece of prose, later written as a poem, which illustrated the creative process far better than any essay I could've written. I then found I was able to add a comment at the end which seemed to complement the proceeding prose, rather than overstate or explain. It seems that all that is needed is something to get us flying, or running with the wind blowing our hair. Letting go, trusting yourself, I suppose.

    I'm just so sorry we couldn't be there to hear your talk and do hope you might feel able to post it here, or include it in any book that might come out of this blog.
    And by the way, I'd love to know which Yeats poem it was that inspired the new route into your talk?

    And now I must try and write, still looking for better ways into my latest chapter!
    Miriam xx

  8. 'It seems that all that is needed is something to get us flying, or running with the wind blowing our hair. Letting go, trusting yourself, I suppose.' I love that phrase, Miriam - yes, that's it EXACTLY! Lots to write about that, but mainly thank you for the empathy and your heartful additions to the conversation.

    The talk was recorded, so when I can next catch up with Max, it'll either be uploaded and accessible from here, or on CD or something. Thank you!

    Which poem: for reasons I don't want to go into here, I'm keeping that close to my chest until the essay is written! ;-) Forgive.

    Love to both, and er happy writing... Rxx


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