Soul School – navigating the anatomy of the soul

In February of this year, in company with a small online community and led by Kim Rosen, I embarked on a five month adventure, Soul School.

Poetry, music, presence, and the wisdom in our own bodies / feelings / knowings, as well as readings and videos from many sources ignite and waken us. This is an invitation to radical self-honesty, realness, curiosity and community that will at least disrupt who you think you are, and possibly leave you, as Mary Oliver writes, “a bride married to amazement.”

~Kim Rosen

This was quite a journey, intentionally touching on both light and darkness. In this post I gather together of some of the key strands from my personal perceptions and responses to the invitations. This is partly a record for myself. But I hope that, just as the poems and sharings of the course ignited sparks of awareness for me, so there may be something here that leads you deeper into yourself.

What is the soul?

Soul is . . .

Soul is the meeting point
of the impermanent
and the eternal.

Soul is the deep calm
beneath the crashing waves
of a turbulent sea.

Soul is sun’s abiding presence
behind storm’s devastation,
beyond the darkest night.

Soul inhabits stillness,
is the ‘still, small voice’
that speaks the language of silence.

It is the tendrils of soul energy
that weave connections
to other souls and to the soul of the world.

My soul is not contained by my body;
rather, my body exists within the boundlessness of my soul!

My soul is fueled
   by unsentimental compassionate love;
     by joy and wonder;
         by gratitude;
            by acceptance;
              by laughter;
                 and by the depths of the living silence;
                    all of which bring me to the place of presence.

Walk softly on the earth
holding nothing but an open heart . . .

The land of my soul
The land of my soul . . .

The False Self

This was an opportunity to look at the imperatives that bind and keep me from my fullest self.

These are the building blocks of the learned impulses, the self-image that defines me as ‘facilitator’, ‘changemaker’, the one who makes things happen and who makes things right, who does what must be done.

And, though they are not in themselves false, indeed encompass much of value, they cannot resonate as ‘true’ when they become rigidified and ‘absolute’; when they are rigid, they build a prison for the soul.

Ruach*

The Siren call of ‘should’
recedes into the tide
of accumulating years.

Beneath the surface, though,
still swirl the subtler soundings
of impulse and desire: 

    to ‘make a difference’ or
    to ‘make it so’;
    to ‘go the extra mile’;
    to ‘live life to the full’;
    to ‘keep my word’ and
    ‘fill the need’

Recurrent melodies
within the song of ‘I’,
these deepest ‘truths’
constrain the deepest lie.

 *************************

For the wind to blow through me
I must open
to the cracks in the universe
that let the light shine in;

must move
with the ability of grass
to give way
yet return to itself;

must dance
with the fluid abandon
and ecstatic release
of autumn trees.

 *************************

Let the wind sing
through me,
carry the breath
of ‘I am’
into the greater chorus
that is life.

Let me continue
to shed old skins,
strip away
the shielding shadows
as I expand
into my fullness. 

Let me humbly inhabit
the cyclical rhythms
of the universe
that take me
beyond question and answer
to the paradox of all that is.

* The Hebrew ruach means “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.” The corresponding Greek word is pneuma. Both words are commonly used in passages referring to the Holy Spirit.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.

~ David Whyte in Self Portrait

I am learning the distinction
between capability and capacity.
I am learning to sit with the silence
and listen to the wind.

Any thought, no matter how wise, is a rigid form, and life is movement and constant change. Any rigid form obstructs the flow of life, even a beautiful one.

~ Kim Rosen


The Beast and the Beauty

The focus of this session was to open to the darkness, the beast within, to reveal, acknowledge and own it so as to reclaim its energy. By definition, this was difficult material and it feels inappropriate to share too much detail.

As I searched, I discovered that my deepest fear is of the distortions and perversions of power in both the interior and exterior worlds.

It was interesting that, in a guided meditation exploring the feminine archetypes, the ones I shied away from were the ‘power’ figures.

In an apparent contradiction, I am afraid both to be powerful and of being powerless.

I also learned that even a ‘wise gift’ carries with it potential distortion. An early message that ‘making a difference can be as simple as a smile to a stranger’ and other similar transmitted wisdom from my mother has simultaneously been a powerful positive force in my life and has bound me to my false self.

The most important question for me, as I emerge through a time of very conscious transition into my Crone years, is this:

How may I open and deepen into the embrace of my own innate wisdom and power to the benefit of myself and others?


The Essential Self

When we align with who we really are, who-what we are designed to be, we unfurl. Benefit in all directions abounds that has little to do with us. We are simply being . . . and the benefit that happens, in a way, is none of our business.

~ Kim Rosen

Coming home

As I have entered this new stage of my life in which I am consciously embracing ‘the season of the Crone’, there is a deepening sense of coming home to my truest self. Increasingly the pervading qualities are authenticity, presence and love. These are underpinned by a deep knowledge of a calm place of awareness, of a ‘secure base’ that lies within and is always available to me.

I think this has only become possible as I have embraced the beauty of imperfection, most particularly in self and others. Perhaps the most glorious human quality is that of compassion; in a perfect world filled with perfect beings, compassion would have no place! This realization allowed me finally to release the last remnants of the need to be perfect.

I believe that this is what it means ‘to be who I am meant to be’. It is at the heart of both self-acceptance and of a letting go of external agendas and attachment to outcomes.

I am still working towards understanding my purpose as (hopefully!) a ‘wise woman’ or ‘elder’ in a society that is only beginning to re-discover these concepts. But it may well be that living truly to the best that I am, present, authentic, loving, accepting, without expectation, is the greatest gift that I can give to others, to the world. Is this how ‘making a difference’ seeps into the fabric of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’?

Listening

My listening and ‘received guidance’ so often come through a deep attention to the natural world. I learn that I am made of the same stuff, that my patterns are also the ones I see every day in the lake, the trees, the creatures around me and in the turning of the seasons.

I am both as precious and as insignificant as the wondrous, diverse lives I see around me. I value, hold to my heart every living thing (even if I admit to a certain ambivalence when it comes to ticks and mosquitos!). Yet when the hawk swoops on the chipmunk, I accept this too with love. This is at the heart of what I mean when I speak of ‘unsentimental compassion’.

I think for a long time that my perception of wisdom and the way I thought an ‘enlightened’ human life was meant to be was to reach a place where I was always able to be calm, never losing my temper or feeling angry or depressed. But when I look at the constant change in nature, the storms, the subtle shifts of wind, and light, the impact of freeze and thaw or heat and drought, I am so conscious that I too am part of this. These shifts are important, a necessary part of living and being, part of the richness.

All things pass – both life’s challenges and its gifts. What remains with us is what we have made of the experiences. So now I have no expectation that I will feel a particular way, will maintain an unruffled calm. Instead there is a growing ability to retain an abiding consciousness of that ‘calm place of awareness’ in just the same way that, in becoming intimate with the shifts in the lake that is the backdrop to my life, I am aware of the calm that lies beneath all.

When the wind blows and white caps form, when rain falls in torrents to break the surface, when ice forms and makes the surface static, that living, fluid state of calm still exists. And before long there will be another moment of exquisite stillness or of evening light reflected back, painting the trees copper and gold.

The Return

I had supposed
it was sun’s warmth
that allowed the frozen lake
to remember its fluidity.

**************************

This year, I watch, I listen.

**************************

Sun carves
holes in ice;
night recoats them
with transparent stillness.

Wind comes,
blustering, buffeting force.
Ice creaks and groans
and breaks apart.

The lake
remembers movement;
its interior currents
persevere with wind’s work.

With thaw
come surge and flood,
release and ecstasy,
unbridled power and overwhelm.

The land
slakes its thirst,
opens into
its own messy awakening.

The lake returns to itself,
its fluid, shifting moods,
and, beneath,
that deep reflective calm.


The Unnameable Vastness of Being

There are no words for that inner space beyond all the assumed identities, but the nearest I can get, inspired by John O’Donohue, is ‘eternal presence and belonging’.

I had not consciously sought to ‘just sit’ but was called to it one extraordinary afternoon by the visiting presence of Scarlet Tanager, Redwing Blackbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting.

This Wondrous Now

Spring green and dappled sunlight,
shot with transient jewel bright
flashes of delight:

scarlet, blood-red on coal,
gilded crimson epaulettes;
vivid orange-gold, blazing;
rose breast bursting from black and white;
a brilliant scrap of indigo sky,
all held within an exuberance of song!

My heart leaps with joy
at the unfolding moments;
I cannot bear to tear myself
from this wondrous now!


To sit with no defined purpose or structure is still somehow disorientating, sometimes challenging; and even though it is like a homecoming, there is a kind of resistance. There is also a pull to ruminate.

The flow of sensory input intensifies, and I am aware of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations as part of that input.

Yet I also become vividly aware of this sensory information as just another construct; my experience is partial – other species see, smell, hear (and probably taste and feel) within totally different ranges; their reality is not mine. However wondrous, absorbing, awe-inspiring I may find that which I experience through my senses, there is a consciousness that this is just a tiny part of something so much bigger!

Who sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels, thinks?

How does that which experiences in me connect
to that which experiences in you?

Allium
Allium

Sitting gazing through the window’s glass . . .

A few feet from me, a honeybee works diligently, collecting nectar from a vivid purple allium. Do the florets shift with the subtle disruption of the bee’s wings, or is it just the breeze?


Story

A story unfolds – why is this so compelling?

An invisible filament of spider’s web is strung between allium stems – I deduce its presence because of the catkin and the mayfly apparently suspended in mid-air. For a few moments it seems as if the bee will be likewise captured, held, and my heart lurches – I want to rush outside, to liberate it. But the bee reclaims its freedom, returns to its business of scouring the purple blooms before spiraling into the great beyond – a somewhere that exists beyond my peep-hole into its world.

The story fades.


Colours gain intensity; the furred texture of the poppy stem and buds makes me want to reach through the glass, to experience with touch, maybe to smell and taste, to hear the bee’s almost imperceptible hum.

This reminds me that, even if I have cultivated sensory presence and relish the joy it brings, it is still all too easy to forget, to fall into the habit of experiencing as if through glass, from a place of separation.

I am also aware that, joyous as the sensory experience is, there is another layer, the “invisible world” of the Celts, the great unknown and the source of eternal wonder. I feel blessed always to have carried this awareness with me, a small but widening tear in the fabric of this limited reality through which I sense that ‘eternal presence and belonging’.

Paraphrasing John O’Donohue, may you be at ease with the unsolved and the unfinished and be able to recognize, in the scattered graffiti of your desires, the signature of the eternal.

The season of the Crone

This is the witching time of year, the season of the Crone!

In ancient times, the Goddess as Crone or ‘Queen of Witches’ ruled the autumn harvest festivals. Hekat in Egypt, Hecate in Greece, Latin Proserpina, Semitic Lilith with her sacred totem the owl, Celtic Cailleach, Welsh Cerridwen – these are just a few of the many manifestations of the  Crone Goddess.

The words we use

It is interesting that many of the words we apply to Crones have been twisted from their original meanings to represent something vile, ugly or evil. Hag derives from the Greek ‘hagia’, meaning ‘holy one’. There is little agreement as to the derivation of witch, but suggestions include the ancient Indo-European word ‘weik’, which connects to religion and magic; the Anglo-Saxon witega, a prophet or seer; a relationship to wit, or wisdom;  a root meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’.  Some people believe that the word Crone is rooted in the meaning ‘crowned one’, though standard etymology still has it as a Middle English term of abuse.

The Golden Bough - by Jeroen van Valkenburg (This picture could represent the triple aspect of the Wiccan Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. The three manifestations are symbols of the cycle of life, of reincarnation and of the three phases of the human life.)

Halloween and Samhain

Halloween has its roots in these ancient traditions, particularly Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) Samhain is the most important of the Celtic festivals, the end of one year and start of the next.

It is a day on which to remember, to commune with and honour the dead. At the same time it was a celebration of the eternal cycle of rebirth.

It is a time of endings, of coming to terms with the many small deaths, the losses that are part of every life. But it is also a time of beginning, of transition and change. It is a time to go within, a time to come to know yourself, to celebrate the growth you have realized over this last cycle and release all that was in preparation for what will be.

Samhain night exists outside time and between worlds, deeply rooted in mystery and enchantment.

Visual exploration of the season of the crone
A visual exploration of the season of the Crone, October 2010, research for the Halloween ‘Crone’ I created

Crone nature

As an archetype, the Crone assists us in transition from one life to the next, leaving one level of our existence and entering the next, hence her association with Samhain.

I find this illuminating as to the nature of the Crone. For me it creates a sense of her as a midwife of the soul. She teaches us that sometimes we must let go if we are to move on.

 Looking back at the my visual exploration of the crone in 2010, I love the idea of the season of the Crone as a time to harvest experience and to become a way-shower.

In her article The Ancient CroneAnya Silverman describes the Crone as

an older woman who has learned to walk in her own truth, in her own way, having gained her strength by acknowledging the power and wisdom of the totality of her experience. She is “a wise old woman’.

A Crone is a woman burnished bright by an inner fire that sharpens both her wit and her intensity, her passion and her power.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her wonderful book Crones Don’t Whine, notes that ‘to be a crone is about inner development, not outer appearance’. She writes of the Crone as a potential,

much like an inherent talent, that needs to be recognized and practiced in order to develop. This wise presence in your psyche will grow, once you trust that there is a crone within and begin to listen. Then in the quiet of your own mind, pay attention to her perceptions and intuitions and act upon them. Crone qualities are the distinguishing features by which a crone (as a woman or an archetype) can be known.

 

Crone qualities

As I embrace my own season of the Crone, I have been exploring and considering what Crone qualities I would wish to make manifest in my life. These include

  • earned wisdom
  • compassion without the illusion and sentiment of youth
  • non-judgement
  • inner beauty
  • confidence
  • honesty
  • authenticity
  • self-knowledge balanced with self-compassion
  • humour
  • courage

Jean Shinoda Bolen’s list has an earthy practicality that offers some useful guidance. She says Crones

  • don’t whine and don’t indulge their whining inner child;
  • are juicy – and what makes life juicy is being deeply involved in life;
  • have green thumbs – they nurture growth, weed well, prune and build strong boundaries;
  • trust what they know in their bones – they transform their bad experiences into wisdom and embrace mystery;
  • meditate in their fashion, developing heartfulness and nurturing inner life;
  • are fierce about what matters to them – a crone is a woman who has found her voice;
  • choose the path with heart, understanding that choosing one path means giving up another;
  • speak the truth with compassion, increasingly knowing when to speak and what to say;
  • listen to their bodies, responding to their needs and hearing the underlying messages between the emotional and physical body;
  • improvise, adapting to change;
  • don’t grovel – for approval, love, acceptance;
  • laugh together, the deep belly laughs that come from a well of feeling;
  • savor the good in their lives, knowing how fortunate they are still to be alive.

Embracing the role of modern Crone

In an awesome blog post, The Rise of the Modern Crone, Diana Frajman suggests that

It takes a woman with an understanding of two of the most basic of human needs to evolve into a modern Crone. Those needs are connection and community.

She suggests that it is only with an understanding of connection that wisdom can have an impact and goes on to define the role of modern Crone:

. . .  This is an amazing time to embrace your inner Crone. More than ever the world needs the comfort and certainty that wisdom and experience from a life well lived can give. The voice of expertise and mastery combined with the sageness of maturity and wisdom assures us that there is hope. We need these enlightened guides to bring us safely into the future. That is the role of the new modern Crone.

What a challenge!

Meditating today, I remembered the sense of metamorphosis as I emerged from the stage of maiden to mother.  I had a vivid image of pouring all the learning, the experiences, the insights from my life into a great cauldron set amongst the flames and brewing an elixir of transfiguration.  I was aware of the Crone as the most powerful embodiment of the feminine, freed from earlier responsibilities and constraints, connected to mystery and a kind of primal wildness.

I am excited to embrace the season of the Crone,  to discover in myself its potential and consciously to recognize and practice those ways of being that manifest it most fully.

 

Embracing the age of the Crone – a view from a distance

At 60, I definitely feel myself entering into the age of the Crone. Some definitions would say you begin to cross the threshold at 50. But it was at 44, writing a journalistic exercise about looking forward to a specific birthday, that I first welcomed the vision of this aspect of later life as a woman.

I am looking forward to delving more into what this means to me over the coming months, but I thought I would start with that early vision.

Blue Crone


I’m looking forward to being 70.  After that I will consider myself to be on extra time, with nothing owed and naught to loose.  I will gleefully claim my freedom to ‘wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t suit me’[1].

At a mere 44, the milestone of my allotted ‘three score years and ten’ lies well beyond the horizon.  But already I feel the first intimations of the influence of the waning crescent moon, symbol of the Goddess in her final incarnation of ‘crone’.

Perhaps bound up with our contemporary obsession with physical appearance, our pursuit of an illusion of eternal youth, the ‘crone’ has had some very bad press.  The word invokes an image of an ugly, wizened, witch of an old woman, maybe embittered and very possibly evil.  Is it any wonder that so many women run scared of the inexorable accumulation of birthdays?

I am not soaked in the spell of paganism, claim no great knowledge of its lore.  But I willingly embrace its vision of the crone as the ultimate, most powerful manifestation of womanhood.  She personifies wisdom, compassion and completion.  Her closer relationship to death is not one of fear but a potent awareness of renewal. 

So, when I reach 70, dressed in crone’s purple, I will cherish my wrinkles and wear them with pride and relief that youth’s vanity is done. I will breathe deep, walk slow and do nothing, joyously!  I will undoubtedly ‘misbehave’ outrageously.  I’m looking forward to being 70.

[1] Quoted from “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, voted Britain’s best-loved poem by viewers of BBC TV’s Bookworm

Gina Bearne, 2002