Dear Jane

 

This is is a piece I wrote in a recent writing class. The brief was to write an encouraging letter to a young writer.

 

Dear Jane,

I have been wondering how I could reply to your last letter. I have waited so long to receive it, though I knew one day it would come.

Strangely, since I read it, I have been taken up with thoughts of swans.

I agree that, as a child, like the Ugly Duckling, you were different to those around you. Even in your own family, you felt as if you didn’t belong. You struggled so hard to fit in and be accepted. I watched you spend yourself trying to please everyone, trying to fulfil the expectations of others.

The light I saw in your eyes had almost gone out.

Almost.

But now, the dreams you had as a girl, that were set aside amid the frantic pace of your life have come tapping on the window of your soul once more.

I hear in your words the longing for something more, something you can barely name. You speak of lives you might have lived. But you say the alarm is set for 6, there is no time for dreams.

Yet I hear the longing in every word you write.

You say you are writing again, a journal, words full of longing and despair, words you say you will show no one. Words you wish you could share with the world.

Listen to that voice, Jane. The longing inside you is beginning to speak.

This longing will not let you go because the world needs YOUR voice. We need your love, your pain, your loneliness, your belonging, your joy, your sorrow, the light in your eyes, the tears streaming down your face. We need to read about how you became a swan. For swan you are, Jane, ready at last to take your place in the world.

It won’t be easy, Jane. There is that old fear of rejection, the sense that others have done it better, written words more eloquent than yours could ever be. But I have learned in my 70 years on earth, that the Grace that placed the longing in your heart will fulfil that longing if you let it. You need only consent to come out of hiding, to allow your light to shine to remind us of our own.

Without your voice, the song is incomplete, the poem unfinished, the longing in so many of us unexpressed and unresolved. Your longing, expressed as you, will heal us all.

My dearest Jane, give yourself to the Grace that waits to hold you. You will find yourself, as Rilke said, like the swan, at home at last in the water, “unmoving and marvellously calm, pleased to be carried”.

 

With love

Aunt Sue.

 

Swan reflections

 

Spiritual schizophrenia?

I feel like a spiritual schizophrenic. I am the wee scared self (wss) who needs her plans. I am the Witness who whispers “Nothing wrong”.

wss is scared of missing out, being left behind, of delusion. She makes plans for a future that does not exist, broods over a past now gone. She does not know who she is without a plan, how will she get out of bed? She loves her problem solving mind, her analytical skills that are failing her now. She is the needy girl, face pressed against the window, even now, even here, begging “Let me in”. Her only question was always “Why?”. She needs to know, she can’t let go until she knows.

Her need to know feels like a tantrum now, wss is a toddler throwing a fit, shaking her fist towards the heavens, hot tears streaming from her eyes, her face red and scrunched in pent-up anger. The anger of being misunderstood, ignored, sidelined.

The Witness Susan Self ( WSS) watches with compassionate love , scoops wss into her arms and asks tenderly “what do you want, my darling?”

wss sobs “I want to be loved, I want to be free, I want to be seen, to run and jump and play. I want you to look at me and see who I am”.

Who am I?

Who am I without my plans? Who am I without the solid ground of everything I took myself to be?

Who is this I who wants so desperately?

Who is this I who sees?

I want to know the answers and I want them now.

WSS soothes my fevered brow, brushes hot sweaty hair from my eyes.

“You do not need the answers, not yet, not yet, yet”

“But I want them”, wss wails.

A storm is raging inside me, against a paradoxical background of peace and joy. A hurricane of pain and longing  is blowing through me, created by a S/self that both knows and refuses to know.

I am a spiritual schizophrenic. Two tracks playing their simultaneous songs.

There is nothing wrong/I am losing my mind/There is nothing wrong/I am losing my mind/There is nothing wrong/I am losing my mind/There is nothing wrong/I am losing my mind.

WSS says “Relax and enjoy the storm, let it blow right through you without resistance, you will soon smell the ozone in the crisp morning air.”

wss says “You are losing your mind, you need to stop right now, go back to where you came from, you were safe there. Everyone thinks you are crazy, you are making it all up. Why can’t you just be normal? Who do you think you are? You are going to lose everything and everybody.?

I am losing my mind. WSS applauds in the background.

“At last”, she says.

“Be brave,  my love, come home”

wss is terrified. WSS just smiles.

Talking to myself

This feels like the bravest post I have done to date. I have written about the spiritual experiences I have had since I experienced burnout. I have become aware of a Self that observes everything that happens, as well as another part of me that is scared.

I decided to set up a dialogue between them in order to get some insight and this is what emerged. I feel vulnerable as hell posting this. I have used wss (wee scared self) and WSS (Witness Susan Self) which makes me sound crazy. Oh God I am judging myself so harshly.

wss: When I burned out last year, I could not believe I had gone from a 6 year struggle to regain my health, to getting my degree, becoming a teacher, getting a promotion to a job I felt born to do, then losing it all again. Everything about that is just plain wrong.

WSS: Nothing is wrong, my love. Every experience you chose was tailor made for your awakening.

wss: How? What was the point of it all?

WSS: To wake you up and prepare you for the work you came here to do.

wss: What is that?

WSS: To be a teacher, of course. But not of Mathematics! You chose situations to develop capacities you need – how can you sit with the suffering, if you have never known what it is to suffer? How can you be a light in this world if you have never known darkness?

wss: I am so scared I am just making all of this up. That I am delusional or mentally ill. That I am losing my grip on reality. Am I just parroting the words of other people whose books I have read? How would I know? I read it is dangerous to overstate one’s level of awareness. Is that what I am doing?

WSS: Firstly, those that are delusional would never ask such questions or have such doubts. You are losing your grasp of your perceived reality in order to grasp Reality. This is a very good thing.

wss: So why am I so scared?

WSS: You aren’t!

wss: Do not dismiss my feelings!  I am terrified of being misunderstood, excluded, mocked, laughed at, criticised. I want to be loved and to feel safe.

WSS: You have already created the conditions for you to feel all those things. You can lay them all aside now, you know that.

wss: I am still scared

WSS: It is only the vibration of what you thought you are. The ripples of it are far from your centre now. Watch them go. Stay in the centre. What have I told you?

wss: There is nothing wrong

WSS: and……..

wss: Relax and enjoy?

WSS: Yes. There is no more fear unless you choose it. Do you choose it?

wss: No.

WSS: There you go. Nothing more to do or be except what is arising now. You have already written about waiting for the impulse to act to arise. That is all that you need do. Don’t live in the past, in remembered pain or in the future in imagined pain. Relax and enjoy the ever arising now. Everything you need is here, now and now and now. Not everything you THINK you need, just everything you need.

Always, now.

[Pressing publish before I lose my nerve]

On quiet

Quiet is the gift I found at the bottom of the abyss of despair.

Its only voice is “there is nothing wrong”. The chatter of plans gone wrong is silenced in that truth.

Who am I without the story of things gone wrong?

Woman in chair, puppy by her side, the rain on the window, the rustle of my husband’s newspaper, all is happening in quiet perfection.

My hands still above the keyboard, waiting for the next impulse.

Quiet.

The rumble of lorries at the sawmill, emerges from the quiet, dissolves back into it.

My mind has stopped clinging, stopped grasping, for now.

My hand moves to scratch my chin, out of the corner of my eye, my husband lifts his teacup to his lips, a flash of colour.

Quiet.

The tick of the clock, raindrops.

Quiet joy.

On explorations of the soul

In Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always–

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.”

What does it mean to “arrive where we first started and know the place for the first time”?

Perhaps it is that our explorations change our point of view. When we release ourselves from the thoughts, mindsets and perspectives that we have collected from childhood, some of which we realise are not our own, we see the world with fresh eyes. There is beauty in the most ordinary of things, a peacefulness and joy that comes from the first morning sip of tea, the feeling of the body stretching and relaxing into our yoga practice. We watch the world, of which we now know ourselves to be a much loved part, with the eyes of compassion. We see God blaze through the eyes of our lover, our children, our pets, the homeless man in the street. We see the inherent dignity of all beings and a silent Namaste blooms in our hearts. We arrive at “a condition of complete simplicity”, which costs us everything, every defended position, every ego-filled want, every childish fantasy of control. We gladly relinquish these as the certainty dawns, that despite outward appearances “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

On being honest

 

I am learning to be honest but the journey is not an easy one. Girls are not taught to be honest, we are taught to be good, compliant, helpful, pleasing to others. What a price we pay for this.

When I burned out, in order to recover, I had to look at all the ways I had abandoned myself. Why did I neglect my own needs? On the surface, it looked like I was doing everything right. I worked hard, was motivated to give my pupils my full attention and my best work. I tried hard to be a good wife, good mother, good daughter, good sister, good aunt, good friend, good person. I thought that was what I was supposed to do : be a loving, productive member of society.

One day, I read a poem, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. In it she says

“You do not have to be good………

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”.

These words stopped me in my tracks. My whole life was fuelled by the desire to be good. Being good had led me all the way to burnout and I had no idea what the “soft animal” of my body loved. My body was at the mercy of my mind, that cruel taskmaster who brooked no weakness.

I learned that burnout burns the whole edifice of the self to the ground. When all we know ourselves to be is gone and the body collapses in exhaustion, there is a sense of falling into a void, where only being honest will save you.

This honesty is painful.

Who am I when I have no job, no useful role to play in society?

Who am I when all my plans lie like dust at my feet?

Who am I now when my whole way of being in the world led me to this?

Slowly, as the tears of loss and grief dry, a new realisation begins to emerge from these questions.

Who am I without any labels?

Who am I when I do not try to be good?

Who am I when I do not try?

What does the “soft animal” love?

I sit here in the soft morning light, pen spilling its purple ink secrets onto the page, coffee by my side, the smell of fresh air through the open door. Puppies chase each other in the garden, birdsong fills the air, trees sprawl green and luscious above my head. Just this, now, is enough. This I love.

The realisation that I belong to the world, as it belongs to me. I do not have to be good, I do not have to earn my place.

Mary Oliver concludes her poem:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

The world offers itself to your imagination

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

Over and over, announcing your place

In the family of things”.

Relax and enjoy

 

She believed the lie she had been told for most of her life. Be a good girl, work hard, put others first, do your best. Her whole life was built around this lie. She had tried hard to secure her place in the world, to secure their love.

She hid her sadness, her aloneness, her sense of being different and tried to fit in. She presented her happy, helpful, perfectly made-up face to the world as she had been taught to do.

But, one day, a cold wind of change blew through and uprooted her carefully constructed life.

She raged against this injustice “Why me?” she cried. “I don’t deserve this!”, “I always tried so hard”.

Day after day, she tried to rebuild her life. She had all the tools: yoga, meditation, counsellors and advisors, the latest spiritual books. Her constant mantra: “I must try harder”.

But try as she might, she could not go on. Every time she smiled and said, “I am fine, thanks” was another lie. Every downward dog she pushed herself into an affront to her fragile soul.

On the very day she gave up striving, she thought she heard a song. At first, she caught only the softest grace note, but as she began to slow down and listen, she heard the tantalising snippets of an ancient, long-forgotten melody.

“You are loved, just as you are.”

“Nothing to do, nothing to strive for.”

And finally, the one that made the ears of her soul prick up: “Relax and enjoy”.

She took to her bed, unwilling to get up until she had understood. She thought she was going mad, hearing voices in the wind. She decided even madness would be preferable to the constant striving. She wanted to know the truth.

She noticed the light streaming though her bedroom window, the breeze causing the branches on the trees to dance. She saw the birds gliding effortlessly through the sky, the buds on the cherry blossom tree that always appear at Easter. She watched it happening, without effort.

She breathed in and out, and as tears poured down her cheeks, she realised she was being breathed. Each breath was a gift she did nothing to earn.

For the first time, in a lifetime spent trying to achieve, she notices it is enough to lie on her back and watch herself being breathed, watch the trees being blown, the birds being flown, the buds being born.

It is all there is.

It is enough.

Write into Light: The SIP-Anything but what is.

 

I recently joined a writing class called Write into Light run by Martha Beck. write-into-light

My first submission was a piece bringing together some of the things I have been writing about on this blog.

The SIP: Anything but what is.

I have recently become aware that my whole life has been a self-improvement plan. (Hereinafter to be referred to as a SIP). Lying on my bed, in 1982, age 20, devouring Helen Gurley Brown’s newly released “Having it all”, I determined that I would become a souped-up (SIPped-up?) version of myself.

No area of my life was left unimproved. I prided myself on my constant search for tips on how to excel. My house is filled with self-help books on every conceivable topic: weight loss, yoga, writing, gardening, simple living, luxurious living, meditation, parenting, business, blogging, emotional health, physical health, psychological health, spiritual health. Everything I know I learned from a book, a course or a retreat. Everything I know I learned from someone else, my success always located in some imagined future.

The more prescriptive the SIP, the better I liked it: “10 steps to inner peace and thinner thighs” was my idea of heaven. Follow the plan, do the work, bask in the accomplishment. I was very good at these plans. I did them so many times.

Why so many times? Because the effects never lasted. Left to my own devices, I floundered. I literally forgot who I am without a plan.

When my reading moved on to topics such as living in the present moment, I, of course, wanted the “Enlightenment in 10 easy steps” version.

Of course, you know it doesn’t exist.

Instead, we are advised to love what is. Wait a minute, love these thighs? This messy imperfect life?

I started to realise that in choosing the SIP I had rejected myself over and over again. I had rejected the reality of this present moment, in all its perceived imperfection for a fantasy future that does not exist.

Let that sink in: I have completely and utterly rejected myself and my own precious experience. I was too busy to smell the roses (something I learned in a SIP that one must do daily to be well-balanced). I was much too busy reading books on how to change my husband into a man who would bring me roses.

Dear reader, I burned out.

I came to a screeching halt where no SIP could save me.

Thank God.

I am writing this now, in my pyjamas.

I don’t have the answers, no 10-step plan for recovering from burnout.

But I do notice my fingers tapping the key board, I notice my hair needs to be washed after another night of hot flushes.

I hear the ticking clock, notice the light streaming through the window.

I notice that I don’t have the energy for any more SIPs. I wonder if letting go means resting in this present experience or if it means giving up on trying. I wonder if they are the same thing. I notice there remains a longing for a book or a guru to explain this to me. I want to know how to do it. But I can no longer abandon myself for someone else’s wisdom.

 

Unless it is Rumi:

 

“Last night I learned how to be a lover of God,
To live in this world and call nothing my own.

I looked inward
And the beauty of my own emptiness
filled me till dawn.
It enveloped me like a mine of rubies.
Its hue clothed me in red silk.

Within the cavern of my soul
I heard the voice of a lover crying,
“Drink now! Drink now!”—

I took a sip and saw the vast ocean—
Wave upon wave caressed my soul.
The lovers of God dance around
And the circle of their steps
becomes a ring of fire round my neck.

Heaven calls me with its rain and thunder—
a hundred thousand cries
yet I cannot hear…..

All I hear is the call of my Beloved.”

 

 

Resistance

Since I have found myself completely unable to write a blog post for over a month, I have been thinking a lot about resistance and how it shows up in my life.

I seem to have resistance to continuing with things that previously seemed to be a good idea. Strangely, these are often things I enjoy, but the minute I tell myself I SHOULD do them, they become less attractive to me and resistance sets in.

For example:

I SHOULD go for a walk

I SHOULD do some yoga

I SHOLD write a blog post

I SHOULD make a green juice

I SHOULD read the book instead of going on Facebook

I SHOULD do some housework

I SHOULD go for a nap as I am exhausted.

These SHOULDS are so entrenched in my mind that I wonder how it is even possible to get out of bed without them. What does it mean to resist nothing and still live a productive life? Won’t I just sit in the couch, eating chocolate, watching crap daytime TV?

From our earliest childhood, we are raised on a diet of shoulds:

We SHOULD behave

We SHOULD eat our vegetables

We SHOULD go to school and try hard when we get there

We SHOULD respect our elders

We SHOULD play nicely and share our toys.

I have no idea where I am going with this, but as someone who has lived her life trying to do her best, trying to do everything she thought was expected of her and experiencing complete burnout, my sense is there must be a better way!

Our society has placed a whole new level of SHOULDS on women.

We SHOULD have a fulfilling career

We SHOULD have well-behaved, adorable children

We SHOULD have a handsome husband that treats us like queens

We SHOULD have a spotless well-run house that could grace the pages of Homes and Gardens.

We SHOULD rustle up gourmet meals a la Nigella

We SHOULD have a group of close girlfriends, with whom we can bear our souls and go to book group, yoga and wine bars.

We SHOULD be slim and gorgeous, well-groomed at all times, unflappable, smiling superwomen.

Am I alone in thinking that this image of the modern woman is so seductive but completely unattainable?

How many of us have tried? How many of us have failed? I remember in my late teens devouring Helen Gurley Brown’s book “Having it all” and believing that it was possible.

How many women are there, like me, who have dragged themselves through their days, completely exhausted, but trying so damn hard to hold it all together and get things done, because the things that had to be done seemed so important?

How much division has there been among women who watch each other and wrongly assume “she has it all together”?

Who is telling the truth about how they really feel?

I will go first: I feel real grief for that woman who tried so hard, who put in 100% effort and forgot about her own needs in the process. I feel lonely, out of the workforce. I feel forgotten and misunderstood. I feel as though I have so much to offer inside, but lack the physical energy to do it. I miss my job; I miss my colleagues and most of all I miss the kids at school. I miss having a purpose. I feel as though as I am just on the edge of depression. I feel sad that for every lovely experience that I push myself to enjoy, recently a holiday and a wedding, there are weeks of payback as my energy level crashes.

And so, just for today, I will resist nothing. I will allow myself to feel what I feel without a plan to fix it. Hell, I can’t fix it, I have tried so hard to do that too.

The quote above says that resisting nothing is the real secret to finding inner peace.

I will let you know if it is true.

 

Surrender to what is

A while ago I read a story about how we never know if something is good or bad.

The Taoist farmer

One day in late summer, a farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and decided to let it go into the mountains to live out the rest of its life in peace.

Soon after, neighbours visited him and said, “What a shame. Your only horse is gone. You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see”.

Two days later the old horse came back, rejuvenated after its time in the mountains eating the wild grasses. With him were twelve young healthy horses that had followed him home.

Word got out in the village of the farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate him on his good luck.  “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. You must be very happy!”  Again, the farmer said softly, “Who knows? We shall see.”

At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off  to train the new horses, but he was thrown to the ground and broke his leg.  One by one, villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune.  “Oh, what a tragedy!  Your son won’t be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You’ll have to do all the work yourself, how will you survive? You must be very sad”.  Calmly going about his usual business, the farmer answered, “Who knows? We shall see”

Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village to conscript young men into the army.  Of course, the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg.  “What very good fortune you have!!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Who knows? We shall see!”, replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

Sadly, the other young village boys  died in the war and the farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy”, to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!” 

I find this story comforting. It is easy to label things good or bad, before we know what the outcome will be.

It seems to me that the only sensible response it to surrender to what is. To see it all as grace. To come back to reside in the present moment.

What if everything is flowing toward me in the perfect time? How much energy would be freed up by stopping the resistance to what is? By dropping the incessant analysis? By dropping the “why me?”

What would it be like to live a life of openness and acceptance? To let what wants to come, come and what wants to go, go? (They will anyway, with or without my consent!)

The decision to live in a state of surrendered gratitude is the only one I need to make. I tried to control my world and that led to burnout!

Instead of making a schedule, for example, I could listen to my body. I could listen for the inner prompt, that tells me when it is time to act. I know that voice, but too often when it doesn’t come quickly enough, I tell myself I am lazy, rather than accept its absence means it is still time to rest.

This takes practice and gentleness with myself and the willingness to stay here, in this moment and not spin off to some imagined future.

So, what IS here now:

Fingers on keyboard

Sun on the screen

Sound of rugby in the next room

Itch on my nose

A desire to stop typing and get something to eat.

It seems so simple but I sense it will be the practice of a lifetime.