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, 23 January 2018

zen & the human condition

My friends, I'm aware that my posts have been fewer and fewer. Right now, my energy levels have ground to a halt as I'm waiting for a glimpse of a way forward: there's much inner change going on and it's all very fluid right now.

Just as significantly, I'm trying to clear my life for at least two months to concentrate on the book, set and partly written in a Brittany forest, which has had such a difficult labour lately (the beginning was so sweet!), and is on the 5th draft.

So rather than adding another 'should' to my interminable list, for the next few weeks I'm intending to repost old blogs, and/or post here items from my various creative works.

Today, here's a reblog (from 2012, when I'd been quite ill) of a post on the perfect imperfections of being human, from the perspective of my adult-life-long (and sometimes erratic) practice of Zen.


Our condition is one of living with joy and sorrow both – that's simply how it is – whatever our circumstances; and we do best to say 'YES' to it all; simply YES. It's the resistance that brings the suffering.

So there has to be a YES to opening my heart over and over to the dharma, which is simply the Way – the journey; in this case right here right now, to what my heart is telling me.

And here on my meditation stool this morning, having decided at last to give myself rest, so a lazy start to Bach on the CD player and a gentle breakfast by the courtyard window, here on the stool I meet those old friends, the 'five hindrances' of the human condition, according to Buddhism: craving, aversion, apathy, anxiety, doubt.

I've been doing this for decades. They don't go away, these old friends; utterly loyal, we meet each other over and over. The good news is I don't fight them so much any more – not quite. I nod, and let my attention rest again in silence. And again. And again. Yes, that's progress!

'We all dread the helplessness of losing control, and yet real freedom lies in recognizing the futility of demanding that life be within our control. Instead, we must learn the willingness to feel—to say yes to—the experience of helplessness itself. This is one of the hidden gifts of serious illness or loss. It pushes us right to our edge, where we may have the good fortune to realize that our only real option is to surrender to our experience and let it just be.' (Ezra Bayda, "The Three Things We Fear Most"; from Tricycle Daily Dharma)

Zazen, Zen sitting meditation, is one of the toughest practices, it seems to me. When sitting, you simply – SIT. How hard is that? When I was a teenager muddling my way towards some sort of path that was spiritual but not 'religious' or monotheistic I learned all kinds of lovely soothing meditation practices with candles and mantras and mudras and visualisations and substitutions of positives for negatives and 'bringing in the light' and chants and prayerbeads. Dreamy trancey stuff.

Then one day I decided I'd give 'proper' Zen meditation a go. Boy, was it tough. Bearing in mind I was a romantic young thing, newly-arrived at university, into poetry, music, New Age stuff and a little experimentation with soft drugs, Zazen shocked me awake.

One austere white room. Half a dozen scary-looking austere silent men, all much older than me. Two forty-minute sitting sessions, facing the white wall, eyes a little open. No movement. No mantra. No guidance. No distraction, not even a candle. No words. Twenty minutes silent slow walking in between the two forty-minute sitting 'sesshins'. My mind, cartwheeling, freefalling, bored, running amok, disliking intensely this confrontation with – itself, no distraction.

You could ask: 'and the point?' – To be present. Really present, in each moment; not to rush towards death in a flurry of trivia and distraction. To peer deeply into everything and everyone you encounter, including your own internal horrors, illusions and errors and the way you visit them not only on yourself but on others. To appreciate the 'isness' of it all; the 'suchness'. To face head-on the fear of emptiness. To live as if everything mattered. And nothing.

Zazen is also perhaps, it seems to me, one of the most courageous meditation practices. You don't attempt to fill the emptiness that arises when we're no longer distracted. You simply watch the mind – its games, its addictions, its evasions and duckings and divings, its endless babble. You watch it. This is how it is. You don't need to hang onto any of it, though the mind will try and try.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you break through this chatter and you fly free, for a little while – 'free of the false, free of the true' as the Zenrin has it. Free of all our conceptualisations, as well as our preoccupations. 'Me, you, these walls, these books, all gone like a waterfall over a cliff.'

I have other spiritual practices besides, mainly on the Old pagan turning dates of the year, that draw on my transpersonal, druidic, Western Mystery Tradition values, but Zazen is core. It's like the movement from a very beautiful very elaborate celebration in an ornate temple to a very simple hut in the woods. How little we need, not how much.

Zen is a practice to do with cutting through the games of ego. It's integrative rather than transcendental – and as someone who craves transcendental experience it's been really useful and grounding for me to stay with something unshowy and simple and direct. The aim is to enquire, to see clearly, into the nature of reality by becoming aware and slipping the bonds of the things that keep us stuck: our fears, our anger and resistance, our greed, our dislikes, our cravings; and seeing them all as ways of distracting ourselves, as reactive constructs of the ego-mind that sit between us and All That Is.

Yep, it's still as hard, sometimes, as when I was a teenager. Sometimes it's not. I'm learning not to resist or judge. And I have discovered that Zazen is the candle. And my heart likes this spaciousness that opens up if I can just sit with everything exactly as it is, without needing to change it or move away or towards it.


  1. Very pertinent, Roselle.
    'craving, aversion, apathy, anxiety, doubt.'
    Exactly what I've been feeling since November when I assumed that by new year I might be close to the end of my novel. I recognise what you say about your own writing: 'which has had such a difficult labour lately (the beginning was so sweet!), and is on the 5th draft.'
    I'm on the umpteenth draft of certain chapters and still have new ones to write. So it's always comforting to know that I'm not alone and to feel that all you say here speaks directly to me even though I'm not a Buddhist and know very little – though value what I have gleaned – and find it creeping into so much of my life.
    I haven't read this blog of 2012 (my first year on Iona) so I welcome it, as usual, before diving back into TWR. I still hope to send you something for next week's Jan end/Feb start. Is that still ok?
    Meanwhile, Roselle, I wish you well in this shared struggle. Now I know how tough it all is. So, to quote you again – 'Let it just be' or my dad's version, said with a sweet-sad smile: 'that's the way it is'.
    With love and thanks, Miri

    1. Hello Miri - I'm glad it resonated for you! 'How it is.'

      Yes, TWR is fine whenever; will try best to make room for it at the end of Feb with my usual various end-of-month mentoring commitment.

      See you before too long. Glad Jeff is joining us for some of the retreat-time.



  2. Thank you for this. I particularly like the five 'hindrances'. All best wishes for your time out. Am still blogging and trying to write! Bx

  3. Hello Belinda - lovely to hear from you. Am so glad you're still writing!

    Oh yes, the five hindrances. Don't we all know them?



Blog Archive