Wilderness Wanderings 3: Cornwall

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‘Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch…’
(Rebecca Solnit in ‘A field guide to getting lost’)

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Finally I’m finding the time to write a few words about my five days in Cornwall at the end of last month – ‘West Penwith and the Lizard’ to be precise – the south-western peninsula around Penzance and Lizard’s Head. Basically I loved the piraty edge-lands feel of this far west and south boundary of the troubled UK island, its Celtic mystery, and the realness and open friendliness of the people there – much less of a divide here it seemed to me between cornish people and ‘incomers’ than further north; instead more of an unsentimental, down to earth sense of ‘we’re all in this together, so let’s just try to get on and live with each other as best we can.’

I travelled on the train to Penzance – the end of the railway line – together with a buddhist friend who had moved to Land’s End from East London a year ago. She had grown up in Cornwall, and has moved back mainly for family reasons; however, she clearly also feels deeply connected with the landscape and elements down there, and despite some bouts of homesickness doubts that she will ever return to London to live. Over several meandering conversations we discovered that there was much common ground in our outlook on life and the world and our way and vision of practicing a buddhist life in these troubled times. Both of us are trying to simplify, minimise our possessions, as well as letting go of deep-seated attachments to identity, status and the need for recognition from others and from the inner need for our lives to ‘amount to something’, rather than just flow along creatively. Quite a tall order which may take several lifetimes of course, but we can at least try to make a start (: And I certainly think that living quite literally on the edge of the land with the sea and huge horizons all around would help me not take myself too seriously, to ‘find my place in the family of things’ as I think Marianne Moore put it in one of her poems. Plus it looks as if by serendipity, at least one other Buddhist friend, maybe more, are currently planning to move to this particular place, making a small sangha context viable.

The bargain basement Airbnb in the heart of Penzance I had booked turned out not to feel quite right, so I ended up staying with members of my friend’s family instead, in a village called Pendeen, near the small town of St. Just. There are many old abandoned tin mines around the coast there – quite a dark and painful but also fascinating legacy. The shafts go almost a mile underground and out into the sea-bed in some places – I can’t imagine how claustrophobic and frightening it must have felt to work in there, and the noise and pollution must have been terrible. Arsenic was used to separate the tin out, leaving fossilised fluorescent spills on the rocks, and rusted metal pipes and chimneys jut out as you walk along, now turned into a somewhat macabre tourist attraction.

The dramatic headland of Cape Cornwall was only a couple of hours walk away along the coastal path from there, and just south of that lies Land’s End, the most westerly point of mainland U.K. My friend lives in quite an extraordinary place: a barn room attached to a house near Lands’ End Airport – which consists of one runway for planes flying to and from the Isles of Scilly. A land artist owns the house and 6 acres of land around it, and we spent an afternoon on a magical mystery tour, walking, climbing and sometimes crawling around the labyrinthine paths through the beautiful but also quite eerie spaces she has created there. I was reminded of a very moving presentation I had just attended of a forest garden in neighbouring Devon, where its creator had talked about people naturally liking and responding to the feel of concealed and curving paths revealing surprising spaces; that rhythm of concealment and discovery of yet another ‘room’ opening out, so to speak. I wondered whether these two people might be quite interested in seeing each other’s created spaces as they both seem to be exploring this interesting paradox of a place becoming larger in our minds when putting in divisions and boundaries, introducing these elements of hiddenness and discovery, concealment and revelation. Rich ground for further reflection.

Behind the house lies a heather- and gorse-covered moorland hill called Chapel Cairn Brae; National Trust Land inhabited by five semi-wild Dartmoor ponies. The hill was enveloped in mist when we climbed it, which made it all the more atmospheric, though I didn’t get to see the views all around on this occasion.

As I was wandering around each day getting a feel for the place, I was reading Philip Marsden’s evocative book about Cornwall: ‘Rising Ground’. He talks of the importance of reconnecting with specific, unique and particular places and become curious about them, get to know them deeply. In the ancient past, a person’s world would have mostly consisted in the relatively small area they could cover in a day’s walk, but they would have known every detail of that place intimately. While now we are supposedly globally super-connected both virtually and in terms of being able to fly off to distant destinations at great speed, but actually often this just renders us more alienated and clueless as to where we actually are or belong, in any deep sense.

He talks about roots and rootedness a lot in his book, which I find quite painful, as I don’t feel particularly rooted in any one place myself. However, I could relate to his search and quest for deep, intimate connection with each place he travelled to; with wanting to learn as much as he could about it and from it through his own senses as well as in conversation with local people, and reading about it. With the myth of the wanderer, and keeping your orbit small and bounded enough to be able to delve into depth. More and more of less and less – which also for me relates back to what I am trying to do in relation to life in general, as I get older and have maybe explored enough places and contexts for one lifetime – so now it’s time to focus in, to choose and then stay in one place, and get to know its particular nature more deeply.

The Jessica Warboys installation in the Tate St. Ives epitomised something for me about this immersion in place – the profound simplicity yet power of it. She had hung raw, untreated canvases like curtains around the large curved gallery space, filled with the coloured patterns made by the wind and waves as she had spread these canvases out on the beach and poured pigment on them, to be transformed by the elements. Sitting there surrounded by the sounds of the sea she had also recorded as a backdrop was mesmerising, and deeply restful as well as vibrantly alive.

Writing this just then I remembered an afternoon two years ago in the Lepcha tribal land of Dzongu, in Sikkim, where I stayed with a very inspiring anti-dam activist and his family for a week. We sat on his terrace surrounded by rainforest, and a new traveller who had just arrived was talking non-stop, showing us a bewildering array of photos he had taken on his laptop, on what sounded like quite an epic whirlwind journey. He paid very little attention to where he was right now. When the traveller had finally gone to his room to rest, we returned with relief to listening to the river and forest sounds all around us. After a while my host said simply: ‘I think that man has been to too many places, too quickly. He needs to relax, to stop and stay somewhere.’ This struck me as profoundly true and wise at the time and still does.

But to want to stay, a place has to claim and entrance you – a bit like Philip Marsden describes it at the end of his book:

‘…I had the sensation of being right at the centre of the land … it can have several effects, that impression of being enclosed by the rising ground. It can help populate its features with ancestral spirits or deities … or … you can feel the self dissolve, let its burden drop, and slip back into the slopes and hollows of the land.
(Philip Marsden)

Although I haven’t had that kind of sublime experience there yet, the place and its atmosphere, and the way my week there unfolded in unexpected and serendipitous ways were strong and positive enough to think that maybe this could be it, this could potentially work out … so I am planning to return for a winter visit in January, and in the meantime will research potential employment and accommodation options – zooming in.

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One more year in the city – a chronicle in 12 chapters

 

August – Finding a new vantage point

IMG_1490So now I find myself in a tiny but beautifully situated south-east facing room in Archway, North-London, for this next year. It has been a great relief to move out of the chronically tense and lonely atmosphere of our troubled river house community-that-never-came-together, sadly. Much to be reflected on over time, in relation to these past painful eighteen months…not now though, not yet, that needs to be given its own space and time…

IMG_1488Surprisingly, I have not yet missed the river but found spaciousness in the simple back garden instead, with its beautiful lattice dappled sunlight effect.And somehow it feels right to have come full circle in a way, back to North London where I spent 12 years working for the NHS just down the road, and where I’m now volunteering for an excellent and innovative small Refugee Charity – the work I will miss most when I leave town. I hope at will be able to apply what I’m learning there though, wherever I land next. So yes, Archway – an evocatively named vantage point from which to survey what has happened, and look ahead to the next, quite probably Cornwall-based adventure.

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‘Kindly adapt’

IMG_1165At a recent Professional Conference, I heard a story that stayed with me: a group of western tourists in India were anxious, disgruntled, some even outraged when their train inadvertently changed course and took them to an entirely different town from their planned destination. The station master simply smiled at them, waggled his head in the characteristic indian fashion and said: “Kindly adapt – this is a beautiful place!” Which made them realise their tight and narrow view of the situation, and enabled them to ‘kindly adapt’. I felt encouraged to hear this very dharmic story in my psychotherapy work context, once again confirming to me that the dharmic and psychodynamic frameworks of thinking are compatible and complementary.

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I’m writing this on the long train journey back from a summer visit to Germany – a two week intensive meditation retreat in the Sauerland forest – my first in the german language – followed by a visit to my family in the south, which went remarkably well, considering the complex and painful dynamics between us all. In both settings we all did our best to ‘kindly adapt’ to each other, which felt encouraging. Having said that, the quite challenging but fruitful theme of ‘Ent-taeuschung’ (=dis-illusionment) was paramount throughout my time back in my old ‘Heimat’; in that my lack of good, nourishing roots and the preponderance of toxic ones both in language and place was confirmed beyond any further doubt. Although profoundly sad, I also felt huge relief on recognising this so clearly and vividly – it feels as if this time I have really given up the ‘hopeless hope’ I have held on to for too long of something changing, the situation shifting enough between us as a family for me to feel a belated sense of belonging and welcome here within my immediate family … this was frankly never likely to happen, but still so very hard to entirely let go of as a possibility – it literally took 36 years! My brother and I had a tough but clarifying conversation yesterday evening about how we would try and share both emotionally and financially whatever challenges will arise in the context of our parents’ future need for care and support. They’re in their mid-80’s now, and we had a recent mini-crisis around our mother’s care when our father ended up having to spend a few days in hospital. The main thing we need to do is stay in good and mutually supportive communication with each other about whatever happens, which in our family always has been the greatest challenge; but after these few days at feel a bit more confident that when the chips are down, we will manage to find ways of helping rather than hindering each other.

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I was glad about the mental preparation of becoming as continuously compassionately mindful as possible, on our forest retreat preceding my family visit – encouragingly it did seem to carry over and lead to my feeling more emotionally in touch as well as resilient as I might otherwise have been in the fairly sobering reality of contact with my parents, brother and his family. What also helped greatly was the kindness and thoughtfulness of my father’s only friends, who spontaneously offered to put me up in their guest room, and showed straightforward, genuine, non-judgmental interest and concern for the whole complicated situation – exactly what was needed. I feel very grateful to them.

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So now back to London, to face an equally challenging situation of flux and change there, as all four of us prepare to move out of our beautiful river house, which for complex reasons sadly never became the community we had envisioned. So all we can do there too is ‘kindly adapt’, and wait and see how this next step of moving on as creatively as we can unfolds for each of us.

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Wilderness Wanderings 2: The Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides

Day 1 – the long road to the north

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I set off from Euston Station yesterday on a gloriously sunny day, and within ten hours had arrived very smoothly in Inverness. I managed to get most of my left over admin work done on the first leg of the journey, leaving my mind clear to enjoy the expanding horizons. It was interesting to sit for a while on George’s Square in Glasgow whilst waiting for my connecting train. Scores of delighted locals were lying on the grass marvelling at the hot weather, almost unheard of in these parts. A teenage girl freaked out about a greenfly landing on her flowery dress. People were swimming in rivers as I travelled further up towards Inverness, and the Cairngorm mountains looked like great smooth whale-like beings in the blue evening light. I’ve started reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Field Guide to getting lost’ – not that I need much help with that, as a rule! It’s written like a poem with a recurring refrain called ‘the blue of distance’. Apparently the light at the blue end of the spectrum doesn’t travel the whole distance from the sun to us – it scatters in the air and disperses in water, which gives it its sense of depth and distance and otherworldliness – wondrous.

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I was staying the night with a Buddhist friend who lives in a caravan park right by the sea, in Brunchrew. The bus driver taking me there joked that ‘there was nothing out there’, speculating that I would be his only passenger that evening – which was almost true. There was plenty out there though if you had eyes to see, as the pictures in this post testify! My friend had cooked vegetarian moussaka and baked sourdough bread, and after dinner we walked along the beach to her favourite massive old cedar tree in the grounds of a pink luxury hotel. She told me she had kayaked across the bay recently, and we exchanged esoteric knowledge about sea- and river tides and shamanic nature connection practices, as the sun very slowly sank into the sea – my kind of evening (: I met two of my friend’s interesting neighbours: an 83 year old man who has lived in his caravan since 1957 but is now worried he may have to leave as his health is failing with old age, and a woman who has adopted the role of observing and caring for a rare Pine Marten which has started roaming the site, displaced from its former habitat by some tree felling further up the coast. She showed us little videos she had taken of the beast with a motion activated camera installed on her verandah – no need for TV or Netflix in these parts – a true marginal edge-land place in the best possible sense. I fell asleep guarded by Vajrayogini and Kurukulla – two female buddhist warrior figures – which felt like a very good start to this adventure. It’s now the crack of a still and sunny dawn, and I’m sitting in Charlie’s cafe at the bus station writing this, waiting for the bus to Ullapool, from where the ferry will take me to the island.

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Day 2: Arrival on the Island

So this is the first of three wilderness locations I’m visiting over the next six month or so, to explore the potential of living in one of them, on leaving London next summer. This one is the most far out and least likely, but I was compelled to visit it on reading its description by a woman from my buddhist sangha who has lived there for four years, and invited people to visit her and consider joining her. The bus ride and ferry crossing were beautiful and smooth. Ullapool looked like an interesting and quirky little town, with a superior cafe just by the harbour. I spent the whole ferry journey lying down on the glassed-in observation deck, mesmerised by the expanse of sea and sky, with islands dotted about. I then had six hours to play with until R was picking me up after her day’s work in her local general store. She had suggested I explore the Art Gallery, castle and castle grounds – the only place on the island where there are big trees! Serendipitously, the current very good exhibition at An Llantair Gallery was around the theme of edge-lands, so this is clearly becoming my journey theme. I was very struck by the no-nonsense yet attentive friendliness of people everywhere, which seemed to correspond to their not yet being plugged into the matrix of their phones as much but noticing and interacting with each other instead. The Gallery was open until 1am for what sounded like quite a wild and eclectic live music event – no sign of presbyterian puritanism there!

The woods around the castle (complete with another superior cafe) were beautiful, and I learnt something about the history and landscape of the island in the museum-wing’s exhibition – it reminded me a bit of Western Ireland, with Gaelic and old crafts and an indomitable island community spirit being revived and freshly valued. I found out later that R is very interested in Gaelic singing in particular, and has tried to set up a local singing group to learn the traditional songs. However, joyful pastimes like singing and dancing were heavily prohibited by the quite fundamentalist Free Church in these parts, which sadly has really disinhibited people – unlike in the nearby catholic island of Barra, where traditional singing and dancing still abounds.

The day ended with supper together at a Thai community cafe, within a very pleasant looking student accommodation block. Apparently there are quite sizeable Thai and Nepali ethnically Buddhist communities in Stornoway, but it seems difficult to get them to see the value of linking up. I wonder whether joint celebrations of Buddhist festivals might be one way – or would this be frowned upon by the Christian community, some of whom believe any religion other than their own is ‘the work of the devil?’ R later told me that the symbolism of a church with a steeple was to point towards heaven, while the Presbyterian steeple-less church architecture symbolises the much more dark and pessimistic ‘blocking the gates to hell’.

Day 3 – An excursion around the Uig peninsula

A sunny Sunday morning spent walking along the coastline and beach, paddling and sunbathing, followed by lunch in the ‘Cafe at the Edge’, in a village of mostly military style prefab houses up in the north of the Uig peninsula. The cafe was, as a child rightly remarked ‘like someone’s house’ – everyone sat round one long wooden table, and one woman ran the place singlehandedly, producing the most delicious food, though she was not surprisingly slightly overwhelmed by the number of guests arriving on her doorstep on this glorious day. Apparently this is the only cafe open on a Sunday between here and Stornoway, at the opposite end of the island! I met several of R’s fellow artist friends, all completely in love with the island, and one of them a german from Berlin – he said you do have to get used to the weather, this being quite possibly one of the only sunny days of the year…there was a local saying that this year, summer was happening on a Friday.

After a late afternoon nap, we then set back off for a couple of hours’ peat cutting, breaking the sabbath rule, and what’s more taking along a bottle of beer to share during breaks – which is traditional (: R’s peat cutting tool was handmade by a 90 year-old local toolsmith whose craft is slowly dying out, as these old ways of life are diminishing…sad but inevitable – and understandable, as I can now testify that ‘cutting the peats’ is hard and painstaking physical work – yet so satisfying and enjoyable when done communally, even with one other person. Traditionally, it would have been done by a whole village together, and combined with feasting and celebrating when the task was done. We fell into bed after a late supper properly tired out in a good way.

Day 4 – Walking with Ciostal the zen dog

I woke up this morning finding myself feeling quite overwhelmed by the sheer size and magnitude of the landscape, and my lack of any prior connection with or knowledge of it. So it was quite perfect timing that today’s circle was going to be a relatively small one: a walk all around a very beautiful bay full of Oyster catchers, across several beaches, and then on to the little Uig Heritage Centre (and of course Cafe!) and to the general store. 

Not being a dog person, I felt nervous initially about taking Caoistal with me, but he is such a calm and friendly dog that it was a .pleasure to have his company. He seems to love gazing out across the water, in zen like fashion. Today though he was wildly excited about all the beaches and rabbit warrens in particular, and spent a good deal of time digging around in them while waiting for me. He also found a plastic ball on the beach which I threw around for him, and then we got a bit lost, stuck and weary on the last part of the walk up to the cafe – styles, roads and cattle grids were definitely not Caoistal’s thing. By the time we finally reached our destination, he collapsed in a heap on the grass and fell asleep, much to everyone’s amusement.

I feel a bit bad about having worn him out that much, although I also feel quite done in for the day (: We got a lift back from a local woman who runs a croft with 60 sheep and 40 lambs all by herself, having taken it on from her father. She talked about the changes on the island since her childhood, when she said there had still been large communities here, and sheep all over the hills – now the villages were empty, and the deer had taken over the island, in her perception. She was also very clear that she didn’t think winter was a good thing, she didn’t like its harshness. But for her there was no question that her life was here, come what may.

Day 5 – The bus to Harris

Gneiss – the oldest known rock.

R is teaching in Stornoway today and tomorrow, so I’m going into town with her early and taking buses north and south, to explore different parts of the island – it was Harris to the south today. The cloud hung low in the sky most of the day, with some spectacular downpours, but also the most magical misty light from the sun breaking through in places. Unfortunately I didn’t get that many photos, sitting as I was on a little bus going down a very windy road, all the way to the tip of South Harris and back again, with just a couple of strolls to the lovely ‘First Fruits’ teashop in Tarbert, and to an eery and fascinating medieval church in Rodel, down south. I didn’t find the image of an ancient pre-christian goddess R had told me about, but could imagine that the style of worship there would have fully embraced nature, set as it is in a dramatic, windswept bay.

The mountains were breathtakingly beautiful and huge. Two seals frolicked about in the water at one point, and I listened to and had interesting little conversations with the very friendly bus driver along the way – he clearly knew all his local passengers well, and went out of his way to drop an old man off right at his doorstep during a downpour, as he was concerned for his health. I listened in on an island gossip conversation between the bus driver and a woman who ran an airb’n’b house, examining the various habits and personalities and relationships of a number of local people, and passing quite definite judgment on them one way or the other, going as far as saying ‘I’m on her side / his side’ etc. – quite a warning of how intensely scrutinised anyone living here would be, and how crucial cultivating good neighbourly relations would be, so as to be regarded as a nice person, rather than one to be shunned or regarded with wariness.

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Back in town I rummaged through the old fashioned treasure trove of a Harris Tweed shop R had recommended, and bought a few bargain offcuts for a future collage which is beginning to take shape in my mind, and to repair my favourite green coat. After a quick Thai stirfry meal, we set off for an evening’s stint of collecting sand and gravel for the foundation of an artist studio porter cabin R is going to instal at the bottom of her garden, as a hideaway for a good artist friend who often comes to visit. We passed a croft where a young family of 6 are living in a derelict bus at the moment, while they build a house on their land.The light here is most beautiful in the early morning and late evening – we meandered around a magnificent salmon filled loch on the way back – the perfect combination between quite hard physical exertion and natural beauty – like in Akashavana. However, like there I don’t feel this particular landscape speaks to me that easily – there’s a distance and quite cold, forbiddingness to it – maybe I will need something softer and warmer to live in than this…or maybe the forbidding remoteness is a reflection of my inner state, and therefore something to look at, soften and warm up in myself?

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Day 6: Heading north: The Butt of Lewis and Port Ness

After a lovely birdsong meditation in the woods (interrupted by a few friendly ‘hellos’ from passing dog walkers) I took the bus up to near the lighthouse in the far north of the island. The woman in the bus station recognised me today and was in a much more communicative mood – she told me that her father used to be a lighthouse keeper and so her family moved around every three years, including to the island of Rona, which she said was stunningly beautiful. The landscape in the north is much flatter and less spectacular, but by the look of it also more fertile, with soft grass growing everywhere. A few houses had high walls around them and trees and bushes planted all around, like small forest hideaways. 

The walk from the bus stop to the lighthouse reminded me of a smaller scale american prairie, with its straight road going through fields of grass. On the coast the cliffs are sheer and vertical, with narrow sea caves washed into them, and terns and seagulls nesting on the ledges. The small terns bravely kept me at bay of their nests by mock-dive-bombing around my head with shrill little cries. Clearly not many people used the faintly marked coastal path to Port Ness, so the cliffs were territorially owned by the birds. I had flashbacks to the wonderful Cliffs of Moher in Western Ireland, one of my favourite places…I seem to be pointed towards Western Ireland a lot this week.

I’m writing this in the quirky museum cafe down the road, waiting for the next bus back into town. The shop here is stocked with apocalyptic free church literature, admonishing people to repent so as to be saved as the end of the world approaches – oh dear…

And then my host, me and the dog ended the day with al fresco dinner by the loch – wrapped up in a few thermal layers!

The last few days – reflections on the island

IMG_1038So here I am sitting on the fabulous observation deck of the ferry back to the mainland, after spending an interesting couple of hours now talking and ‘coffee-crawling’ with the island’s currently only and clearly very committed buddhist man from our buddhist movement – although there are said to be a couple of resident zen buddhists too, in addition to the ethnic Nepalese and Thai Buddhist population; which could make for an interesting Sangha experience, if there were ways of enticing people to connect up – which however as I know from London is notoriously difficult. D tells me that there was a joint celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment recently, which sounded like a good start. Thanks to the internet and the 2-3 degrees of separation within the Movement as a whole though, D seems to have made quite a few meaningful connections despite his relative geographical isolation. It was also impressive and inspiring to hear how much his practice and study had helped him with a very challenging personal situation over this past year.

IMG_1012I went out in a boat to watch grey seals, herons and a sea eagle, and visited the famous Neolithic standing stones and medieval black-houses over the last couple of days here, as well as a fortress like dwelling called a broch – all of which gave me a sense of the ancient and mysterious history of this place in terms of animal and human habitation. We still don’t really know and will never know for sure the significance of the standing stones, but the interpretations are all very evocative: that they symbolise sacred mountains, or people turned to stone, or provide a kind of dance floor for the moon to play along when it hangs low over the horizon during certain months of the year. I read around in one of R’s books about celtic places and symbolism and was thrilled to find that the lake of my birth and several features in the southern german landscape are sacred celtic sites! So although this is not the place I will be moving to, the journey has been important both in making me realise the magnitude of the step I’m taking in leaving the city for a wilder place, and in beginning to clarify one crucial condition for me to follow it through: namely some kind of prior familiarity, either in terms of the landscape, people or local culture. Humblingly, this place for all its astonishing natural beauty has felt too big and strange and overwhelming for me to really be able to get close to – difficult to describe in words, but I felt a visceral dissonance throughout the week, something not quite resonating. It had to do with a grey utilitarian hardness, like the concrete houses everywhere, which seemed connected with the dark and pessimistic so-called ‘Free Church’ Protestant Christianity that’s gripped this island. Which seems to my mind to have all of the harsh judgement and hypocrisy yet none of the exuberant magic and mystery of the more ancient catholic religion. Like someone’s put a serious fear-based dampener on people’s spirits here. I’d like to visit the smaller Hebridean islands over time to test out this impression – especially the still catholic ones! And of course Ireland…but for now, back to a busy few working weeks back in London, my current home, which has just been rocked by another random violent attack, a truck driving into crowds of people on London Bridge. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…’

IMG_1028‘Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch…’
(Rebecca Solnit, ‘A field guide to getting lost’)

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A gannet

 

 

 

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Seaside Social Dreaming

View towards Beachy Head

I’m writing this brief note in a cafe overlooking Beachy Head on the Eastbourne Sea Front. I’ve just spent this Saturday morning sitting in a spiral in what’s called a ‘Social Dreaming Matrix’, with a bunch of ten other people. Social Dreaming is a concept that was ‘discovered’ by psychoanalyst and organisational consultant Gordon Lawrence in the late 70’s, when he was becoming frustrated with what he came to see as the sometimes limited and limiting use of dreams in individual psychoanalytic treatments – i.e. merely to illuminate an individual’s personal inner conflicts, anxieties and desires. He drew on the traditional social and collective use of dreams in tribal peoples around the world to inform his experiments with what he came to call ‘Social Dreaming Matrices’ in a variety of settings. He chose the word ‘matrix’ because it indicated a fertile ground something new could grow out of. By now a number of fascinating papers and books have been written about the method – my favourites being Gordon Lawrence’s paper ‘Won from the Void and Formless Infinite’ (1991) and his subsequent book: ‘The infinite possibilities of Social Dreaming’. I first participated in a Social Dreaming Matrix as part of my Child Psychotherapy Training in the late 1990’s, and have since then participated in some which formed part of Psychotherapy Conferences. I also took part many years ago now in a year long Jungian Dream Workshop, where Social Dreaming was one of the topics discussed and explored as an interesting application of dreamwork. Its premise of the natural deep interconnectedness of dreams accords quite closely with the jungian concept of the collective unconscious – as well as the buddhist premise of the interconnectedness of all that lives.

This particular event was connected with a Light Installation at a local Eastbourne Gallery. Explicitly combining Social Dreaming with an Art exhibition was an experiment by the convenors, and proved a very conducive setting for wide ranging creative musings about how to make sense of and live in this complex and troubling world we inhabit. As someone said, we ended up referring and relating to the artworks like dreams, which was fascinating. Themes emerging included the ephemeralness of life, and how beauty but also fear was to be found in our vulnerability as human beings, and therefore drove us to polarise and ‘irritably reach for fact and reason’, rather than live in the questions, as the poets (Keats and Rilke) advise us to do…

One of our concluding thoughts was that live gatherings of people in this liberating and creative way were of great value in the context of the accelerating forces of utter confusion and destructiveness in the world. I’m therefore really pleased to have made a personal connection now over lunch with one of the Trainers in Social Dreaming, and am hoping to learn the method from her properly, so that I can apply it with more skill and depth to my various contexts. For this purpose I need to find around 8-12 people interested in being part of a matrix, as well as a suitable space to conduct it in. One idea I have is to try it outdoors in nature somewhere – maybe with a sheltering space nearby, in case of rain. If this sounds like something you would be potentially interested in, please let me know and we can talk more, live and direct (: 

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Wilderness Wanderings Part 1: Ecodharma

IMG_2219I’m sitting on the railway platform in the small French seaside town of Narbonne, waiting for the somewhat delayed train to Montpellier – keeping my fingers crossed that we will make the connection to the Lille-Europe Eurostar … so far, the journey from Barcelone has been remarkably smooth and beautiful, including some sublime views of snow-capped Montserrat in the sunshine earlier. The question whether there was wifi on the station met with a puzzled frown earlier, so I continued reading through the whole book of Wendell Berry’s eco-activist essays instead and feel quite focussed and inspired as a result, rather than drained and scattered as I might have been after an hour of browsing the net – a good experiential lesson! Somewhat to my surprise (given my current disillusionment with cities) I started gradually falling in love with the wonderfully joyful and anarchic Barcelona this time, which previously always felt a bit overwhelming – but this time round I was beginning to know my way round and could keep returning to my favourite spots without too much disorientation – e.g. Park Guell, as well as the old cathedral cloisters with their resident geese, and the gothic city cafes around there. I would also highly recommend La Isla, the small Pensione near Arc de Triomphe, for the combination of high quality quirkiness, low price and accessibility. It can be easily reached on foot from both Estacione Franca and Nord.IMG_2123

Ecodharma was as expected inspiring and challenging in equal measure. Challenging physically, as my inflamed Achilles’ tendons made walking on the ‘excessively uneven ground’ quite painful and laborious. That factor in combination with clearly being the oldest person of the group did give rise to a few internal bouts of frustration and despondency. However, this was far outweighed by feeling increasingly delighted and inspired by both the landscape and what ‘G’ was achieving there gradually, in setting up an organically developing unique ecodharma-village, with an experimental and creative training programme. After some fruitful initial conversations with the team, I very much hope to be able to contribute to and participate in their nature connection programme in the future. I feel really excited by that possibility now feeling quite tangible, and especially by the clear connection back to my past vision quest experience; the coming together of the dharmic and elemental, animist dimensions which seems to have been brewing in my being for a long time at last now feels quite imminent. It definitely feels as if this has been the first of many longer visits, which I am very happy about. I loved the ‘caravan village’ for visiting teachers, around the community. I now feel motivated to put some time and effort into learning Spanish, and maybe over time a bit of Catalan too – it really bothered me not to be able to communicate directly with people over the past couple of days – which is simply down to my vagueness and laziness! But after this week I’m beginning to feel much clearer what specifically I want to give my time and attention to next . IMG_2160

I’ll end with my favourite instance of synchronicity – the live Native American chant we were woken up to each morning up in the mountains, which connected me back to my grandmother, my long ago vision quest with the Bear Tribe, and also to last year’s Ecotherapy Course:

‘There is an old woman living inside,
See her spin, watch her fingers glide.
She has been here from beginning to end,
Our grandmother, sister and friend.
She is the needle, we are the thread,
She is the weaver, we are the web.
She changes everything she touches,
And everything she touches, changes.’

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Groundless Living

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Essex Mud-Flats

So continuing on from my last post, I’m writing this from my favourite perspective – sitting amidst two bags of essential belongings, about to set off on a journey. This one is to the first of three potential wilderness settings I’m checking out for future reference: the Ecodharma Retreat Centre in the Spanish Pyrenees. I’ve been wanting to go there for years, and am looking forward to finally taking in its remote mountain ambience, as well as to getting to know its Founder Guhyapati a bit more in the process of his leading this retreat called ‘Mindfulness for Social Activists’. I feel like a bit of an impostor in that respect, not having engaged in a great deal of social activism lately – apart maybe from my voluntary work for a small but unique Refugee Charity, of which more in a future post – definitely my most harrowing yet equally inspiring current working context. Anyway, there might well be opportunities for becoming involved in assisting future nature connection retreats @ Ecodharma, which I would be very interested in.

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Park Guell, Barcelona

Years ago during my child psychotherapy training, I tried to connect with my family on one Germany visit by suggesting we construct a family tree together. The first thing I discovered was a deep resistance and distrust, based in the historical connotations of family trees in the German psyche with the Third Reich: Hitler had decreed during his reign that each person had to prove their pure aryan roots with a family tree stretching three generations back. I hadn’t known that, and felt shocked. It led to a slight, cautious opening up of that taboo topic of ‘what did you do in the War’. We then did embark on the family tree project, and the next fascinating discovery was that in each generation on both sides of my family most people led very traditional lives, staying within ten miles of where they had been born, forming nuclear families with two or three children, either farming (on my mother’s side) or doing town- and city based administrative work on my father’s side. However, there seemed to be at least one rogue person in each generation, often a woman interestingly, who either left home for learning and adventure or decided not to have children, or both. So in my generation I am that rogue element, the adventurer cutting loose. I really like the fact that I am following a family tradition of breaking with tradition, of striking out on new paths. It makes me feel connected to the unconventional, freedom-seeking aspect of my family roots. My father’s cousin, my godmother is the free spirit of the last generation – she became a biologist, specialising in insect life, and lives with her husband in a beautiful house in the University town of Tuebingen, where my parallel life might have happened in different circumstances, studying German literature and philosophy…and in the generation before that it was my maternal grandmother whose spirit was internally free, though externally she was very firmly rooted in the place of her birth. She intuitively recognised the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life, and lived that out by exemplifying simplicity and depth of connectedness between her inner and outer nature. She felt particularly connected with the wild deer in the forest, and like them knew where the wild berry bushes grew.

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Near Perpignan

So over these next ten days, I am hoping for plenty of time and space to ponder my next year, in terms of how best still to engage with yet gradually disentangle myself from my London contexts, in preparation for my stint in whichever wilderness I will head for next summer. Despite plenty of moments of lurching anxiety and vertigo, overall this time feels liberating and clarifying – the familiar myth of homelessness gradually taking centre stage in my practice yet again – with my grandmother’s example in my heart, of how to immerse myself fully and deeply in the spirit of a place, and to connect with all its living beings. For her this was one particular unique place where she lived all her life – that hasn’t happened for me, which will always remain a deep source of sadness in my heart. But I wonder whether the depth connection can be with the journey of life itself, and the multiple places encountered along the way? The plight of the displaced – people and animals – is what moves me most, of all the sufferings in the world. Roots in the sky.

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Park Guell

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