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.

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

 

 

 

Gratitude is good for you!

(The third of three interconnected posts on gratitude)

Increasingly science suggests that gratitude is good for us.

Research by Robert Emmons indicates that people who consciously focus on gratitude experience greater emotional wellbeing and physical health than those who don’t. Gratitude:

  • Brings us happiness, boosting optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm and other positive emotions.
  • Reduces anxiety and depression.
  • Is good for our bodies, strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing symptoms of stress, illness and aches and pains and encouraging us to take care of ourselves.
  • Improves sleep
  • Makes us more resilient
  • Strengthens relationships
  • Promotes forgiveness
  • Feeds altruism and compassion

In particular, says Emmons,

“I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Greater Good Website – Why Gratitude is Good

He suggests that “true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others”, whether other people or ‘higher powers’ and lists four reasons for its transformative power:

  1. It allows us to celebrate the present and magnifies positive emotions
  2. It blocks toxic, negative emotions
  3. It provides resistance against stress
  4. It results in a heightened sense of self-worth

He acknowledges that the practice of gratitude can be challenging. It is predicated on acceptance rather than control. It is at odds with the ‘self-serving bias’. It contradicts the ‘just-world’ hypothesis, which says that we get what we deserve, and the sense of ‘entitlement’ that rest on this.

Cultivating gratitude, therefore, has to be a conscious choice and lifelong practice.

The infomatic below, included by Robert Emmons on the Greater Good website, gives a great sense of why you might want to cultivate the practice of gratitude.

What good is gratitude? Infomatic

For more details of this fascinating research, I would encourage you to explore the University of California, Berkeley Greater Good website.

 

(See also Gratitude and Joy – an intimate relationship and Grateful to whom?)

Grateful to whom?

(The second of three interconnected posts on gratitude)

When I experience gratitude, to whom do I give thanks?

Although there are many circumstances in which gratitude is and should be other-directed, my perception of it as a state of being implies that it is a state complete in and of itself. It is a profound and positive way of relating to reality.

At the most fundamental level, it acknowledges the gift of life. I wake up each day with a deep sense of gratitude for being alive. I am grateful to my parents, my family, my friends for their love and care, for the pleasure of their company, for their impact on my life. I am grateful for water to drink, air to breathe, for sunlight, for all the miraculous natural processes that sustain life. I am grateful for beauty, whether in looking in awe at the rich colours of an autumn landscape or in experiencing human constructs – art, architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, good food and wine and more.

Gratitude for Autumn Glory at the Brickworks

But, in cultivating the practice of gratitude, I am also grateful for the growth and learning offered by the less obviously ‘positive’ experiences. I would not wish a head injury on anyone. But as well as being profoundly grateful that it wasn’t worse, I am genuinely grateful for the insights I am gaining from my current experience of post-concussion syndrome. I have a new appreciation of the demands we make on our brain, the intense sensory input of modern life, and the way in which the stream of our thoughts impacts on our processing ability and levels of fatigue. This awareness offers me new choices as to how to live and be. My ‘prescription’ of thirty minutes meditation morning and evening is forcing me to adopt a discipline that I hope to maintain at some level for the rest of my life. I have been gifted an opportunity to embrace a time of life-change with a degree of mindfulness that, given my enthusiastic nature, I would likely never have managed had I not hit my head! And, of course, any such experience can feed our capacity for compassion through the new awareness it brings.

This kind of gratitude practice is a discipline and also a chosen lens. It is perhaps most closely aligned to Buddhist thought, though I feel blessed that for me it seems to have been a natural part of my relationship with life as far back as I can remember.

It is possible, even at a very mundane level, to choose gratitude. I learned long ago to choose to be grateful, every time I catch a red light, for a moment or two of space in which to stop and breathe!

Of course, gratitude may be experienced or perceived in the light of our beliefs and directed towards God, Allah, the Universe, Mother Earth, a Higher Power. Some would argue that atheist or agnostic gratitude must admit a somewhat limited quality. This is not my experience. If gratitude is simply the expression of a feeling, then perhaps this may be true. If it is experienced as a way of being it is genuinely transformative,  regardless of an individual’s belief system.

Gratitude accepts that nothing is ours by right; it roots us in mindful awareness, acceptance and humility; it helps us achieve peace of mind, even when life is challenging; and, increasingly, modern science recognizes that it is good for us!

(See also Gratitude and Joy – an intimate relationship and Gratitude is good for you!)

Gratitude and joy – an intimate relationship

(The first of three interconnected posts on gratitude)

I am increasingly inclined to think that joy and gratitude are close companions, engaged in a mutual dance of enrichment.

When we experience that moment of joy, whether at the birth of a child or in witnessing a beautiful sunset, is it possible to feel joy without a sense of gratitude?

Joy and gratitude for an Outouais Sunset

Perhaps gratitude can exist without joy, but I think ‘the practice of gratitude’ at the very least primes us to experience joy more readily.

So how do we define gratitude? The dictionary definition is simply ‘the quality of being thankful’. Robert Emmons, possibly the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, expands on this, describing it as an affirmation of goodness and a recognition that the sources of this goodness are outside ourselves (see his full definition at the University of California, Berkeley Greater Good website).

A hundred or so years B.C., Cicero argued that among virtues, gratitude is ‘the parent of all the others’, a virtue that begets other virtues. This is backed up by contemporary social scientists who contend that gratitude ‘stimulates moral behaviour’.

I experience gratitude as a state of being, one which provides the lens through which I choose to experience life. As with joy, I am conscious that gratitude is a practice that must be cultivated. I share the Buddhist perception that such a practice leads to the direct experience and awareness of the inter-connectedness of all of life and of the ongoing dynamic of giving and receiving. As well, it creates a context of abundance.

Gratitude also roots us more firmly in the moment. As the Chopra Centre puts it:

“gratitude brings our attention into the present, which is the only place where miracles can unfold. The deeper our appreciation, the more we see with the eyes of the soul and the more our life flows in harmony with the creative power of the universe.”
http://www.chopra.com/ccl/cultivate-the-healing-power-of-gratitude

Whilst gathering my thoughts for this post, the phrase ‘a state of grace’ flickered through my consciousness. Given that the words ‘gratitude’ and ‘grace’ share a common root, this is unsurprising. But what does this mean to our understanding of gratitude?  Vipassana (insight) meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt expresses this beautifully:

“This grace of conscious life, of having a mind that can know “this moment is like this,” is the root of all wonder, from which gratitude flows. The wonder, the mystery, is that you, like everyone else, are given this short, precious time of conscious embodiment in which you can directly know life for yourself.”
http://dharmawisdom.org/teachings/articles/selfless-gratitude

(See also Grateful to whom? and Gratitude is good for you!)