Exiting The North

English: Photograph of a Vajrayogini painting ...

English: Photograph of a Vajrayogini painting from Thangka. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last few months have been strange.  A submersion in single-minded commitment. Trying hard to get the thesis finished, and when I haven’t succeeded in hitting the targets, putting everything else off till I do.

This approach, weirdly, sapped the energy right out of my work.  I see how much that is a part of my agreements.  To be alone.  To isolate myself.
I held on.
Doing the practices of the North, and dawn meditations, where I struggled to stay awake, I was aware of this deep anxiety.  The pain of how I separate myself from all things.  The way the work of the thesis, unreleased, hung around and fed the anxiety.  How as soon as I did the work, that anxiety would lift.  The sense of connection returned.
It has been a test to stay with it, and leave it, all at once.  Let this part of the project go.  And accept its incompleteness.  Because beyond assembling, some light editing and binding the thing, there isn’t a great deal more I can do content wise.  Got to trust what’s there.
I finally handed the thesis in a month and a half ago, but it is still not quite done.  There are the examiner’s comments, due after Easter.  Further revisions likely.  Meanwhile, life goes on.  In the North you face the biggest tests to your staying power…  I get it.  Finishing this work is my hot spot. Staying with the wisdom of the process as I begin to face East in the Wheel.
We went back to South Africa over the festive season.  To see family, and for my partner to do some work.  We have taken the risk that he leave his job to work the hail season over there, so that with the cash he makes, he can buy a vehicle over here in London and we can have more control over his working hours in order to share child care responsibilities more equitably.  While in South Africa, I kept writing on the thesis daily, energised by proximity to the place that my work is all about.  The tension between separation and unity.  This is all tied in with what I do next.  How I manifest my intention in the real world. On the last day there a friend came over to tell me about a project she is working on, to set up a school that emphasises the natural world and play as central to children’s education, and also bridges the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged in South Africa by offering subsidised places to low income families.  It’s about building an amazing, innovative space to educate children that is accessible to those who are normally excluded.  It is pretty risky and untested.  My friend wants me to get involved, and work on the project.  There is funding.  It’s a paid role.  This would be in about 6 months time.
I sit with the possibility of what can come next.  The risks and the rewards.  What do I do with what I’ve learnt?  How do I manifest right action?
Before we went to South Africa, and while we were discussing whether my partner should leave his job or not, I had the following dream.  It speaks to the heart of ‘what next’.  The step by step.  The letting go. The trust and faith.  The marriage of the miraculous with the pragmatic.  The dream mobilised many symbols of the past few years to powerfully engage me.  I’m still sitting with this one.
I go to a party, with young French people next door to our old home (This is the house we used to live in, our dream home, which we were evicted from very suddenly a year and a half ago.  Though traumatic, the energy released by leaving was what propelled me into opening up to new possibilites.)  I am not with my family.  I must make a decision about whether or not I stay and take halucinogens with these young, sweet, naive,open and exploring French students.  It is hard to make the decision, but still I stay, not deciding either way.  I know it is only for one night, taking the drugs and exploring my own mind.  I will go back to my family.  I look at our old garden next door.  I speak to Charlotte Joy (a colleague in the anthropology department who also has young children, but is more successful than me), and show her the garden, explaining how we lost it when we were evicted.  “It looks dull but at least it is here” I say, because the wild forest like garden planted by my friend is gone, and has been replaced by healthy looking – if dull- vegetable patches.  Well tended.  I am describing the garden to Charlotte in terms of loss, but I realise as I speak that there is no loss.  It was never really my garden.  
 
I must still make my decision about imbibing the halucinogens.  
 
There is aggressive knocking at the door.  Noise Officers from the council, female, like the two women who evicted us from our home in the real world.  i don’t invite them in, but they barge past to serve noise eviction notices.  Suddenly I realise I have nothing to fear from them!  This house is not mine, and the music that had been playing loudly has been turned off.  What a laugh!  An anti-climax for them.  
 
I must still decide.  
Sarah from the ReUnion (the amazing artist project that I got to know over the summer that took over and transformed urban waste ground near our flat into a magical summer space) talks it through with me.  She is somehow running all of this.  But she is neither naive nor young.  She is youthful, knowing and wise.  She is the one who knows.  She will not make a decision for me, but she shows me the den that has been made to cocoon me when I need to retreat from the massive explorations of my conciousness I will undertake by eating the halucinogens.  I know that I will take this leap, it is just scary and I worry about leaving my children.  
 
But it is only one night!  
 
I will be back with my family!
 
This decision is connected to the business idea my partner and I have been discussing in the real world. I see that our plans have a spiritual source and involve travel to South Africa.  
 
I take the drug.
 
My daughter is suddenly there, and afraid.  
 
Twin goddesses rise up out of the wooden floor boards to help me.  
 
They are made out of fire.  Wildly powerful.  But also controlled, exotic, and deeply knowing.  They are coloured red and orange.  
    
They have a lot to show me.  
 
A sweet Bengali girl from my daughter’s school comes and comforts her as I absorb the knowing the Goddesses are imparting.  They do this by asking a series of questions about the business idea.  As I answer it gets clearer.  At its heart, the plan must be altruistic and self-helping, connected to our mission in South Africa.  
At this point I woke up.
I went to the bathroom, and when I came back to bed and fell asleep, I felt the Goddess again, her twin aspect now singular.
My body was vibrating.
I knew she was made of fire.

Am I Done Yet? Shame and the Writer.

When you’ve been with a project for a long time – and I’ve been with the work of my post graduate degree for almost ten years – it’s sort of weird to let go of it.  Especially when it doesn’t feel like I did my best.  I handed the thesis in last week Friday.  A big heavy blue bound tome, that looked the part, but left me feeling empty.

Because it could’ve been better?

Because I’m painfully aware of how my habitual pattern of refusal has kept me time and time again from doing the work I dream of doing?

Because there is still the letter to the examiners to complete?

Instead of the expected and hoped for rush of release, I reached my target and fell flat.  Seeing only the gaps, what’s wrong with the work, the real possibility of failure.  Or the even scarier possibility of being given yet another chance to give it my best shot.

What might have been a celebration of completing  became a wallowing in self-criticism.  I shudder when I think of the examiners reading what I have written, sweated over and sacrificed for.  Close my eyes like I’m on a scary roller coaster I’m riding over and over again in a grim endurance test.  I start to write the letter to them explaining what I have done to the manuscript in response to their last set of comments, and feel ashamed.

That’s what’s at the core of this refusal to be cool with where I am at: shame.

It’s been written all over the life story exercises of the West of the Wheel.  A deep abiding shame.  Damn!  And there was me thinking I’d got this thing down.  Ready to enter serene and smiling into the East.   When it doesn’t turn out that way, my impulse is to give up.  I can’t do this.

Can I?

Who is the ‘I’ at the centre of all this chat anyways?

My writing partner and friend in the Circle writes to me.  A reminder that these are the fault lines.  Recognise the cracks, but don’t fall in.  Not this time.  Wallowing in my shame is Resistance to Life.  And life is sweet at its heart.  Sweet and shameless.

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My Circle partner shared a powerful reflection on shame, thesis submission and the intersection of the personal with the social scientific by Alison Pryer.  You can read the full post by clicking the link at the end.  It’s so beautiful, and true.  Her story, and the bravery with which she writes,  put my stuff in perspective.  And the way that it is poetry that offers her a wild exit from the sense of shame that threatens to paralyse her creativity resonated deeply with what it means to me when I let go and allow that channel to be opened.  Reflecting right now, the experience I can liken it to is the one I had giving birth: something that could’ve so easily been tainted with shame, but for various reasons wasn’t, unlike other parts of my life.  Why was that?  Pryer alludes to it when she writes about the poet maintaining a state of alertness while lovingly attending to the world.  Much of the pleasure of making poetry lies in the wait for and then the chase after that which is elusive, and which will always ultimately evade us. Like pleasure itself, poetry is somewhat unruly and feral. It can’t be controlled or scheduled. You have to take what comes. Thus, the poet must remain in a state of alertness, must attend lovingly to the world, in order to experience and represent wonder and possibility.

Here is a bigger extract.  I urge you to click the link at the end.

All of us have at some time or another keenly felt the intense burn of shame – the horrible recognition of our deficiency, inadequacy, and unworthiness, that feeling of exposure and social alienation (Kaufman, 1980). Shame is the obliteration of vulnerability and trust in relationship. Thus, shame is only possible when we make or find ourselves vulnerable, as I was in this particular pedagogical situation as a doctoral student being publicly examined at my doctoral defence, where I had chosen to talk about my explorations of a subject matter that was taboo. Clearly, I had been naively trusting, blind to the power of academe to uphold its unspoken culture of silence, even though I had so accurately described it in my work.

 Unfortunately, further factors compounded my shame. According to Elspeth Probyn (2005), shame “always attends the writer” (p. xvii). Also, those who have experienced shame early on in their lives have “a greater capacity to re-experience the feeling” (Probyn, 83). To make matters worse, according to Gershel Kaufman (1980), shame is “always particularly amplified in a culture which values achievement and success” (xiv). By the end of my doctoral examination I was teetering on the brink of failure.

Perhaps western culture goes too far in its almost complete pathologization of shame. So much so that it is shameful to even talk of shame. Yes, shame is always unwelcome, always uncomfortable, painful even. Shame “marks the break” (Probyn, 2005, 13) in relationship, in connection, in community, in trust. We feel shame not because we don’t care, or because we have no interest in a given situation, but because our interest, our love, our care, our desire for mutuality in relationship is not returned. We are spurned. We yearn to repair “the break” so that our interest, love, desire, and care might in some measure be reciprocated. Shame, writes Probyn, “illuminates our intense attachment to the world, our desire to be connected,” (63) and is always deeply embedded in contexts, politics, and bodies.

As I have since discovered, it is how we respond to an experience of shame that matters the most (Kaufman, 1980; Probyn, 2005). Shame can be a highly generative emotion, a catalyst for self-transformation. Probyn puts it this way:

Shame is not unlike being in love. The blush resonates with the first flush of desire. It carries the uncertainty about oneself and about the object of love; the world is revealed anew and the skin feels raw. Shame makes us quiver. (2)

This keen appreciation of our longing for connection and community is in itself deeply transformative. Shame, shot through with desire, may embolden us to tell new stories (Probyn, 2005), or to tell old stories in new ways.

            Poetry may be the ideal medium of inquiry for someone (like me) who’s longing for connection and community has been heightened through an experience of shame. The making of poetry is deeply concerned with building relationships and seeing affinities (Simic, in Zwicky, 2003, 47). It is also about finding community, coming home as it were, to our own lives and the life of the wider world. Thus, it is a medium that affords an ecology of both knowing and expression. Jane Hirschfield (in Zwicky, 2003) expresses this more poetically:

Every metaphor, every description that moves its reader, every hymn-shout of praise, points to the shared existence of beings and things. The mind of poetry makes visible how permeable we are to the winds and moonlight with which we share our house. (16)

Poetry is also an ideal medium of inquiry for someone (like me) who has experienced trauma. The poet, Charles Simic (in Zwicky, 2003), writes:

My hunch has always been that our deepest experiences are wordless. There may be images, but there are no words to describe the gap between seeing and saying, for example. The labour of poetry is finding a way through language to point to what cannot be put into words. (85)

Much of the pleasure of making poetry lies in the wait for and then the chase after that which is elusive, and which will always ultimately evade us. Like pleasure itself, poetry is somewhat unruly and feral. It can’t be controlled or scheduled. You have to take what comes. Thus, the poet must remain in a state of alertness, must attend lovingly to the world, in order to experience and represent wonder and possibility.

         Simone Weil (in Zwicky, 2003) says, “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love” (102). Adam Zagajewski (in Zwicky, 2003) insists that in poetry we exercise our capacity “to experience astonishment and stop still in that astonishment for an extended moment or two” (p. 108). Thus, the creation of poetry calls for a nondualistic appraisal and understanding of the world, one that privileges neither thought nor feeling, intellect nor emotion.

         Earlier I quoted Probyn’s (2005) claim that “shame always attends the writer” (p. xvii). However, the quality and clarity of a poet’s perception helps to dissolve feelings of writerly shame by rekindling profound connections to the world. Simic (in Zwicky, 2003) proclaims only half in jest:

The ambition of each image and metaphor is to redescribe the world, or more accurately, to blaspheme. . . . The truth of poetry is a scandal. A thousand fornicating couples with their moans and contortions are nothing compared to a good metaphor. (46)

So the poetic impulse – that generative, loving state where whole worlds are birthed with mere words – is of necessity quite shameless.

Cultivate a shameless heart filled with light.  Be that girl.

Over and out.

http://www.ccfi.educ.ubc.ca/publication/insights/v13n03/articles/pryer/index.html

 

 

 

This post arrived in my inbox at just the right time. I have one week to go till I re-submit my PhD thesis, my family have gone ahead to South Africa, and I am alone with this work, gifted with a slice of time to birth it, temporarily freed from the obligations of family life. Yet, I feel this heaviness, and fear, despite being so close to the finish. It stops me in my tracks. Dangerous quicksands. So this felt like a miracle. A reminder to tread lightly through these last tasks, to allow them the space to happen, and continue to proceed one light step at a time towards completion. As Brenda puts it so well in her post, ‘I go small and lightly so I don’t stop completely and let insecurity win’. Beautiful and timely words indeed.

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floating with balloon

Lightly Child, Lightly

It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them…So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. ~ Aldous Huxley, Island

(Above passage discovered in David Kanigan’s beautiful blog Lead. Learn. Live.)

I have the hardest time going lightly.  I’m damn sensitive. I absorb every comment, look and gesture.  Criticism is felt deeply, so is praise. I can’t turn it off.  My friend tells me I analyze  too much but I secretly know I love to analyze and it is natural and involuntary for me. When you intensely process life  you do not go lightly.

Want…

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When Work is Resistance

I’ve thought a lot about resistance over the past year.  Read Stephen Pressfield’s book, been inspired and shaken by the rallying cry to recognise the insidious forms resistance takes.  For me this meant getting on with my work; with writing; no matter what it took.  The results were powerful, and productive.  I realised I did have it in me to do this thing.  To finish the thesis I have been working on for years.  To move on.  To use other forms of writing to take the pressure off the dissertation, to allow it to be what it is (an academic training exercise) rather than the bearer of all my memories and experience.

I’m handing it in in two weeks.  And the pressure is on to keep working.  To keep up the momentum and get it done.  And I’ve been there at the coal face.  Everyday, writing, editing, crafting.  Releasing the need for it to be perfect (it isn’t).  Releasing the need to know everything (I don’t).

So what’s gone wrong?

I got an inkling of it when my daughter fractured her arm in the playground last week and the first thought that flashed into my head was , “But what about my work?”

Then a dear friend extended an invitation to come to a surprise birthday celebration for her husband.  First response?  “But what about my work?”

Well, what about my work?  In pursuing it so single mindedly I have begun to exclude other daily practices that give my work life and purpose.  In the aftermath of the resistance to engage with what is happening elsewhere in my life, my work has begun to congeal.  I find that though I turn up everyday, progress is slow, the creative spark that was transforming the text vanished.  Resistance came in by the back door.  Not because I wasn’t turning up for work, but because I wasn’t turning off the work.

I see that Resistance is also about not participating fully in my own life.  That the single minded pursuit of work, when it is at the cost of a balanced Wheel, drains the life blood of what sustains the work in the first place.

The Love that keeps you turning up.

The Love that lets you leave when it’s time to.

Untangling the threads of these final weeks, I see that my challenge is not to simply turn up for work.  It is also to blur the boundary of work and play, to make work a long term satisfying practice that I return to, restoring the meaningfulness of work as part of my Life, rather than a crash diet I go on every now and again.

Pause to keep going.  Funny that.

Setting Intentions

It’s hard for me to set intentions.  This is the second time I have been in the South, and again, this struggle with setting an intention.  Like it’s on the edges, but finding the exact words eludes me.  I am grasping at something, not fully formed but waiting to be born.  And I know it is waiting to be born because in the last few weeks I have had recurring dreams where I am heavily pregnant and about to give birth…, but it is not quite the right time yet.

So today was a long session in our initiation circle… sharing the free writing we have been doing around crafting an intention.  My circle partner and I are both tired….  and the session feels like we are circling this thing, constantly ebbing and flowing around cracking it, then doubting it….  I find myself in particular being resistant to pinning this thing down.  A commitment phobia.  We discuss how I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to get this thing exactly right, and that that might be part of the stuckness.  I have the following insight about this which applies to many other parts of life, especially in my writing work:

*In wanting things to be perfect, I prevent myself from completing tasks.

Indeed I can circle them for years at a time, as I have done with my Phd thesis.

So after the group, I take my baby son to the bedroom to feed him.  we are cocooned in Oxytocin.  Both of us tired. Me from wrestling with intentions; him from learning how to pull himself up in his cot and crawl around the flat.  We fall into a deep sleep, but not before I grab this book to look at while I breastfeed.  It’s one I looked at a few weeks ago, and one part stayed with me and is now circling my head demanding to be looked at again.  It is Illusions by Richard Bach, and here is the part that got me.  The part where God speaks direct to the reluctant messiah who wants to give up being a Christ-figure in order to be a mechanic again:

“I command that you be happy in the world, as long as you live…. In the path of our happiness shall we find the learning for which we have chosen this lifetime”

Imagine that!  That all we have to do to realise our purpose is to gravitate towards what truly makes us happy.  Of course, filtering out what we think will make us happy from what actually does make us happy is the life work!

I fall asleep, with my son, warm on my chest.

The sun is out.  First day of spring.  And as I enter a half awake half asleep state, I feel it very warm on my body.  It reminds me what a powerful source of life the sun is, how much we are a part of it.  as i dream, I am repeating the intentions I have crafted out that day, trying out new formations and orderings of the words.  Always inserting into the intention this line about happiness… a path based on joy… realising my purpose not through the hardship and pain which brought me on this, and other, Initiation journeys, but the joy at the core of me that will be what ultimately enables the transformation to live more authentically.  I wake refreshed, with my son.  he immediately rolls off the mattress and gets busy with his purpose, which right now is practicing how to crawl.  I splash my face, pull on trainers and a jacket.  Time for the school run…. taking the warmth of the sun with me… contemplating intentions and a path of happiness.

Self-Sabotage and the Writer

So here I am in the Anthropology Department, attemoting to get these thesis revisions done in time for re-submission in April.  This work is so unwieldy and frankly out of control.  I really have no idea how any sane examiner will let it pass.  I’m in the process of getting some feedback on how I’m doing with communicating ideas and responding to the examiner’s reports, and the issue of self-sabotage has come up in a big way.

I need to send the examiner’s reports to my feedback person, and what I find is that I have deleted them from my inbox…  gone!  Of all the things I could’ve deleted, this really doesn’t make any sense.  I certainly don’t remember doing it.  But because I have, there is going to be a delay in getting the feedback I need as I have to hunt for printed copies, scan, email blah blah blah.  And I really don’t have time to waste at this stage!  In order to have any chance of passing by the skin of my teeth, this thing needs to keep moving.  A clear case of self-sabotage is at work here!  Why do we do it?

Steven Pressfield, whose book ‘The War of Art‘ I’m reading at the moment, would put it down to Resistance, that shadowy, disinterested force that prevents us from doing our real work. Self-sabotage, and especially this unconcious self-sabotage, where it’s almost like you can attribute it to some external factor over which you have no control, is a manifestation of Resistance.  And it’s resistance that comes up as a result of being afraid of success.  Yes!  Fear of actually doing well at something for the right reasons.  He puts it like this,

“We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are.  More than our parents/children/teachers think we are.  We fear that we actually possess the talent  that our still, small voice tells us.  That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity.  We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land.  We fear this because if it’s true, then we become estranged form all we know.  We pass through a membrane.  We become monsters and monstrous.” (2002:143)

Thinking of it this way, I wonder how else Resistance is manifesting here?  In seeking feedback, and making a big old obstacle that will take most of the morning to clear, am I putting off doing the Work?  Which is carrying on with re-writing Chpater3.  Yes, this evening, once the kids are asleep, I can get those reports together and email them, and get the feedback which will help to clarify how I’m getting on.  Feedback is important; vital.  But right now, I need to accept the block, deal with it later, and not allow my act of unconcious self-sabotage keep me one minute longer from the work I want to do.  Whether the thesis passes or fails; is a success or a failure.  This is my work.  So get on with it.