September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
It seems so long since I wrote a blog – or at least so much has happened since then, including returning to Devon, and welcoming back my daughter, who has spent the summer in the Outer Hebrides in her van, weaving and songwriting. (see www.theseisles.co)
My own life is still in some state of uncertainty – but then, uncertainty is the human condition, and actually it's an impossible task to try to protect ourselves from that.
I was thinking about this as I stood on the little (probably prehistoric) clapper bridge above, so like some of ours on Dartmoor, on my last full day in Brittany recently. (I shall return; I intend to lead one of my holistic writing retreats nearby next autumn.)
I love the symbolism of bridges; the way they span two land masses, connect things, people or states of being that seem disparate or disconnected. (Gaston Bachelard wrote an inspiring and erudite essay on bridges in the esoteric periodical Sphinx a few years ago; and my dad was a bridge builder of the literal sort.)
In the case of the clapper bridge, something ancient and relatively unchanging – granite – spans something forever changing and fluid (water). There are ways of resting in some sort of permanence even in our transience, a theme that, in relation to the notion of our 'ground of being', preoccupies me.
We need rites of passage in our lives. It's with some sense of poignancy that I arrive, being a September person, near a significant birthday, as they say, and prepare too to take a couple of months for deep retreat: I need to create a ritual for myself for my own sense of time passing, and to immerse myself in this; and I need solitary time out from my habitual life experience and its many demands to be with the grief of the many losses of the past few years, in order to honour those who have passed, and in order to give myself pause and creative renewal. This is my bridge between past self and present self.
And linear time is of course a human construct. It is perhaps not helpful to think of it, as Louis Macneice also observed, as a 'waterfall abstracted from a river'. We can stand in the river and experience how there is no beginning and no end; we can stand on the clapper bridge and observe how there is no beginning and no end. We can do both. Each day, in Devon, the dog and I stroll to the brook, and stand in it together. In Brittany, I often did something similar each morning. It's healing. It's also a way of staying in touch, for me, with the feminine principle.
Atlantic coast, wells & chapels
|Photo: B Grundbacher|
On the way back from a long empty beach we passed this holy well in a field adjoining a C15th chapel, which had stunning wooden carvings inside near the roof, to the left. B had the foresight to take a photo before the incumbent – if it was he – shooed us out as they were preparing for a concert.
The well had its back to us, but when we went round to the front it was somehow shocking to see that the statues (of two healer/doctor saints from the C4th) had both been decapitated, presumably during the French Reformation. This happened to so many of the statues in GB, too, of course.
As with most holy wells, I assume this one had its origins in the pre-Christian era.
The path of Dharma
Thinking about transience and spirituality (or religion in the case of the well and chapel above) brings me inevitably back to Buddhism.
Linking Buddhism, psychology and deep ecology for me has been a key to my own Dharma ('path' or 'way'). All three, alongside shamanic practice in the British tradition, inform my personal and professional life (for they cannot be separated)
I feel that what serves the C21st is a spirituality – that is, (for now, here, anyway), a quest for meaning and a sense of a more numinous, enduring and transpersonal consciousness than that provided by the isolated individual ego alone – that goes hand-in-hand with psychological insight and commitment to social and ecological justice.
It is not enough, it seems to me, to 'believe'; this can simply act as a consolation. How one lives one's life is more significant, in my view, than what one believes to be true.
Buddhism requires no belief. There is no revealed Godhead, no set of commandments to follow. The Buddha suggested simply that we might like to try out his ideas on the path of liberation ourselves.
Zen Buddhism, the branch that I have incorporated into my life since my teens, doesn't offer a set of theories about the world and/or an afterworld. It is a methodology rather than a religion. It suggests that freedom comes from cutting through all the belief systems and habitual patterns of thought that keep us bound in order to experience the clarity of the pure creative void, unadulterated by our needs and theories.
What matters, perhaps, is our own experience and how we relate to that, and from that to the world. Are we motivated to examine our thoughts, our actions, our deeds and what they add to the project of evolving human consciousness? Can our spirituality help us to live a more aware, kinder and more compassionate life? How can we minimise the harm we cause simply by being alive?
My wound, my healing, is bound up with all others' and the world's woundedness and healing. To the extent that I deal with my own shadow, my own woundedness, I give back a degree of healing to the world's woundedness. We can't separate the two, ultimately. And who isn't wounded, who doesn't suffer? – There is a great deal I want to write about this; much of which I have also already written (here and in my first book Riding the Dragon and in various essays), so enough, for now.
But from immersion in Buddhist practice and nature-wisdom traditions coupled with a study of psychology and its application comes, for me, a sense of profound interconnectedness to All That Is.
Dharma teacher Ken Jones
I have never followed a guru. I have, though, and have had, a number of teachers, human and other-than.
One of these is, or was, Ken Jones, founder of the Network of Engaged Buddhists whose humour and rigour brought many insights to many of us, all delivered with his characteristic dry Lancashire ex-Marxist wit.
NEB, alongside a bardic/druidic network, is the closest I've come to a Sangha, or spiritual community, solitary that I usually am.
What marks NEB out is its commitment to active and non-violent involvement in social and environmental justice. Engaged Buddhism is not a form of navel-gazing personal escapism; rather it's a commitment to the liberation of others as we work to liberate ourselves.
Ken died on 2nd August this year, and I have thought a great deal about him since. He was the same age as my dad, in his mid-80s, when he finally succumbed to the cancer that had been stalking him for years.
Always gaunt as he was, I remember how ill he looked the last time I took a retreat with him on Dartmoor. And yet his commitment to intensive meditation practice and his Dharma Talks on Buddhist Psychology never flagged. He was always the first onto his zafu, meditation cushion, in the early morning.
Two things in particular stay with me when I think about Ken. One was his habit of spending a few days alone on a regular basis in his tiny tent, well into his seventies and early eighties, on his beloved sacred mountain of Plynlimon, in Wales, staring, as he told it, his death in the face.
The other was a moment on the last retreat. We were all waiting for a meditation session to begin, and Ken was away for an awfully long time.
When he eventually returned, he grinned at us all sheepishly. 'Been waiting outside an empty loo,' he said. 'There you have the whole of the Dharma.'