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, 28 February 2018

pushing through

Greetings from very snowy Devon, where I've a huddle of up to 35 birds at a time clustered on or near my doorstep, and the least-timid of the five robins in the immediate vicinity leaps to my hand as soon as it sees me draw it out of the birdseed tub.

I should have been leading a two-hour mindfulness walk and session at National Trust Greenway today, a brief continuation of my residency there; but to walk at zen-snail-pace in this extreme chill seemed an unfair hypothermia risk for participants: after all, we're not actually Zen monks (who in traditional monasteries often die young from the extreme endurance required). If you might like to come (it won't be extreme, just gentle), it's been rescheduled to 14th March.

There has been little let-up for me in the last decade of illnesses, deaths, and general Hard Things. This week brings another hard thing in the family, on the heels of the death of my best beloved dog on 12th. 

I remind myself that this is simply how it is, sometimes, and my power and equanimity both depend on my response to how it is. I can respond, or I can react. As I've written so many times on this blog before, 'we can't stop the waves but we can learn to surf' (I think that's Jon Kabat-Zinn: I had a poster on my wall as a teenager with an image of a guru in full robes surfing a big break, captioned with that phrase, which I've never forgotten).

This is the Two Arrows teaching of Zen practice (the first arrow is what happens and is unavoidable; the second, over which you have control, is how you relate to it).

Well, I've done my share of reacting, but I am also remembering the choice I have. Any life to be well-lived requires some self-examination, and in my brighter moments I chuckle at the embrace of hard stuff by G K Chesterton: 'Oh good, another obstacle.' I can relate to that.

Well, maybe it's my Catholic upbringing. I prefer to think, though, that I love freedom, and anything that expands our awareness leads us towards freedom.

So it was apposite that a Buddhist friend asked me (among many other Buddhist practitioners) to supply for her three quotes, slogans or aphorisms that helped my practice for her blog.

I thought for a day or two. There are so many! (And I forgot the one mentioned above, which is perhaps my key go-to quote.)

But I came down to these three, which I post here in case they're of interest to anyone else. Interestingly, only one is Buddhist.

The first, to my intense surprise as I blame him for a lot of our cultural ills, comes from Plato:

'Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.' Hard – and crucial – to remember that when you're so embedded in a reactive situation with another that you've lost perspective.

The second is from T S Eliot's The Waste Land (the burial of the dead):

'And I knew nothing. Looking into the heart of light, the silence.' I chose this because I find it incredibly stilling and in some way that I can't articulate quite reassuring. I've repeated it to myself over and over for maybe 40 years.

And the third is a Buddhist precept. I can't remember but I think this version comes from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

'Practise non-attachment to your own views in order to be open to be to others' views.'

This is perhaps where I find the reassurance I wrote of above. There's a freedom in letting go of what one thinks one knows (and yes, it's hard).

I'm SO opinionated. I've spent a great deal of my life thinking about the world and examining my place in it, my lapses and failures (yep Catholic burden of mea culpa), my contributions and responsibilities to self and other, and after my training in psychotherapy and being in psychotherapy myself I consider myself aware and self-aware. I mostly am aware of and take responsibility for my own shit and expect others to do the same. This also makes me self-righteous and idealistic, and I forget I'm human and sometimes wrong (though I also forget I'm human and sometimes right, far too easily taking the blame for others' shit, too). But I also forget to let other people be human.

I also think I know it all.

Like most of us, I fall into thinking of my own response when someone is offering a challenging perspective, rather than really listening and gently trying to understand their perspective, detaching from my own firm beliefs in order to give another's credence, even if their conclusions are very different from my own. (I don't mean ignoring critical thinking; I mean allowing for the fact that actually I don't know it all.)

So this one, perhaps, is the most significant of the lot. After all, surely most wars (or smaller domestic battles) begin because we think another's perspective is simply wrong?

Which, of course, is also another way of identifying with ego. But that's a whole different blog.

Back to feeding the birds, then a bit more online mentoring.


  1. You ARE too hard on yourself. My memory of you is how willing you always are to listen. And one can take things too far the other way (as I think I do) - which is to be so empathetic to other people's views that one loses sight of one's own. (Just a thought. I'm not very clever!) Bx
    PS I'm worrying about the birds too. eg How does one keep them in fresh water when it keeps freezing?

    1. Oh thank you, Belinda. Yes - it can be hard if one is too empathic, as happens with sensitives. My sister says it's the opposite end of the spectrum from autism, and to that extent I suspect it can foster co-dependency. Certainly it means one can be weighed down too far with others' troubles and the troubles of the world, and this can mean one puts up with behaviour from others it'd be better not to, and one can also be immobilised.

      How to love without being either swamped or over-detached? - The process of individuation...

      'Passionate equanimity' is what I try and hold in mind: listening to others without feeling responsible for fixing their pain, and speaking oneself without being accusatory. Letting it all go, over and over.

      So snowed-in here it feels like a holiday (TM is home too, despite a 4x4). Been watching and feeding birds endlessly - SO many of them! I keep heading out to add more hot water to refrozen cold water.


  2. A really interesting and important post, Roselle. It reminds me of the time when I felt like a scapegoat – so many people I liked and trusted unloading shit over me – or so it seemed. That was me reacting, of course. It was only several years later that I learned to 'respond'. A short course in Buddhism led by a wonderful young woman from the Conishead Priory Buddhist community, Cumbria did the trick. One session she asked us to 'forgive our enemies' – something I'd always found difficult. I considered it, thinking of those people who'd been unkind. It made complete sense. I began to empathise with those who'd hurt me, and to understand myself – that I was in danger of becoming everyone's enemy by being so self-obsessed. It completely changed my life though there are times, as you say, when it still happens. But I've never forgotten the remedy.

    Thank you also for reminding me to 'Practise non-attachment to your own views in order to be open to be to others' views.'
    So easy to wrap yourself in your own beliefs.

    Listening to the fierce north easterly raging out there, showers of snow, I'm glad to be inside, having ventured out for a brisk 2-miler at 6.30am!

    With love, Miri

  3. My goodness Miriam that's SO impressive! Here we're so very snowed-in I woudln't be able to walk down the drive (as of course you can picture) and The Man skidded even in 4WD yesterday.

    Thanks for your thoughts on all this. I hear such good things about Conishead - I so miss our regular retreats here with the Network of Engaged Buddhists (our teacher died a couple of years ago). Hope your heating systems are doing you well.


  4. What I meant to say was 'love your enemies' – rather different from 'forgive' and harder to achieve. That was the word the Buddhist from Conishead used.
    Miri x

    1. Yes, it is different - and the core message of both Buddhism and Christianity and no doubt others.

      Yes, this sense of being 'wronged' - Buddhism would say 'Show me this "I" that is being wronged' - making the point that that's the separative ego talking. Better still not to view another as an enemy in the first place, I guess.

      And yes, that's hard indeed.

      Plato's quote has really helped me with that. We're all doing the best we can, and you'll know as well as I do that while some behaviour is off-limits, people still have their reasons for what they do and say.

      I think about this a lot. The fact that they have their reasons doesn't mean it's OK for them to expect us to accept their shit, does it? We have the right not to accept such behaviour, and our power lies in choosing how to respond with firmness but kindness, and distance if necessary. Sometimes I wonder if respect and self-respect go hand-in-hand more than we think they might.

      Oh so easy to say! Lifelong apprenticeship - Bodhisattva-dom.

      Will email you about another matter soon.


  5. Yes, I agree with you, especially this: 'Better still not to view another as an enemy in the first place, I guess.' When I first heard the Buddhist's words 'love your enemies' my first thought was – well I can't love Hitler! second thought: but I have no enemies, just people I find difficult. 'Love' then became understanding and empathy and that's how I decided to interpret her words.
    I really like this: 'Sometimes I wonder if respect and self-respect go hand-in-hand more than we think they might.' Makes so much sense. Thanks for this enlightening dialogue


  6. And for your contribution, Miri.

    I think of several other relevant quotes; topping them is something my mother used to say (she was wiser than I allowed for): 'Condemn the sin and not the sinner.'

    Then there's Gandhi: 'An eye for an eye is a terrible way to blind the world.'

    It's a complex subject. However, hating someone takes a lot of energy. And I keep telling myself in situations where I've let someone get to me: 'Do I want this person inhabiting my mind rent-free?'

    yes, goo to talk about it with you. Rx

  7. Sorry about the typos!

    And yes, love as an (active) act of understanding and empathy - hard to better your words in relation to that.


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