That beautiful line from an old Jim Morrison song keeps coming back to me these days when I ponder life at all levels: the unmoored state of my personal life, work and relationships, the buddhist movement I have joined, and the world at large ecologically, politically and economically. As far as I can glean from the fragmented and contradictory news sources available, everything is indeed in the process of breaking up – or wilfully being torn apart rather in some cases. However, instead of just depressingly crumbling into dust, out of the ruins, like Phoenix from the ashes, unexpectedly creative new shapes and configurations keep dancing into being. As if life, love and joy had an irresistible way of reasserting themselves, in the toughest of circumstances. Maybe especially in the toughest of circumstances? I’m reading Arundhati Roy’s exhilarating new novel ‘The Ministry of utmost happiness’ at the moment, which seems to make that same point – however tragic and chaotic life gets, love and joy will defiantly find a way through the cracks.
I work with young unaccompanied refugee kids therapeutically, and the strength of their spirits against all the odds truly humbles me during each of our conversations. I was drawn to this work through my much less traumatic experience of leaving my native country by choice during adolescence, in order to escape a toxic and restrictive family atmosphere. I remember standing on deck of the boat leaving Europe’s mainland, bound for the U.K., suddenly nauseous with fear and at the same time exhilarated; the land receding putting me in touch with the magnitude of what I was doing, leaving my familiar home and family behind before I was even properly grown up, and heading off into the unknown, trusting it would be better somehow, that it would free me. So in a tiny measure I can relate to the accounts of boat journeys into the unknown I hear about now. Earlier this week I had the privilege of hearing the dissident chinese artist Ai Weiwei talk about his very compassionate film about the refugee situation, ‘Human Flow’ – which, as he put it, basically suggests that we must never forget we are all human and vulnerable and must preserve our care and respect for each other, whatever the circumstances. A simple yet profound message. The title of this film and its gist of following the currently most used migratory routes made me think yet again how at least one part of a resolution to this tragic situation would be to simply allow a free flow of people to the countries they are trying to reach; to accept that each and every one of us, if faced with war and starvation, would naturally flee to seek out more habitable living conditions, physically and psychically, and that there is nothing wrong with that. And that each person, if welcomed and accepted, is likely not only to take from but to contribute to the Society they join, with whatever qualities and skills they bring with them.
One reason I joined the particular Buddhist Movement I am now ordained into was its central image: that of the mythical 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva (=enlightened being) of compassion, looking and reaching out in all directions, ‘to do what needs to be done’ in any given situation – which basically is to help alleviate suffering – something all sentient beings experience as part of the process of being alive in a vulnerable body which ages, grows sick and eventually dies. Our Founder conceived of each Order Member as one arm of this great being, making their unique contribution to this endeavour. I still feel inspired by that ideal in itself – but recently, in the context of some considerable controversies regarding our Movement’s checkered history in terms of ethical behaviour, I have also become particularly interested in the ‘back story’ of how Avalokiteshvara came to take on this extraordinary mythical form. The story in a nutshell is that Avalokiteshvara was an idealistic young person (male in some and female in other cultures, interestingly) on an urgent spiritual quest, who had vowed to help the Tibetan people find their way out of suffering, and never to give up. They vowed that if they ever had a moment’s doubt about their mission, their mind and body should shatter apart. Which was what happened one day when they realised that they had not even been able to help more than a handful of people, despite their greatest efforts. They were exhausted, and asked themselves what was the use? At that moment their body broke into a thousand pieces and their head shattered into eleven fragments, as they cried out in pain. However, because their effort had been so sincere, the great mythical Buddha Amitabha – the Buddha of infinite light – came to their aid, refashioning their head into eleven heads looking in all directions, and their body into the greater body of the 1000-armed figure, able to accomplish so much more than any one person could.
One of the multilayered messages of that story is that we each have to surrender to something far beyond our limited individual selves, if we are to ‘do what needs to be done’ in terms of pouring wisdom and compassion into this living, suffering world. We need to develop trust and confidence
into a benevolent force in the universe which will support our efforts – even if on a mundane level they appear to be doomed to failure. Or another way of putting it would be not to worry too much about the scale or the end result of our efforts, but to trust that simply continuing to act with kindness and clarity in our everyday lives will bear fruit. It will not save the world in a Hollywood Blockbuster way, but it might just be of help to the person we’re currently talking to, or the particular kitten we’re getting down from the roof. I still remember many years ago spending about ten minutes with a colleague during our precious short lunch break, freeing a trapped and terrified pigeon’s legs from a plastic bag. Of absolutely no consequence at all to the world at large, but it felt right and natural – we were spontaneously doing what needed to be done at that moment in time, and it made I think both of us feel glad we had made the effort to help this suffering living being – I remember its heart beating so very fast in my hands – and had not just walked by, turning a blind eye.
Recently I went to an evening where George Monbiot was talking about his new book ‘Out of the wreckage’, elucidating his ideas of how to save the world by re-engendering hope in people, through ‘new stories’, as he put it. I was interested in his central image of something new and creative emerging from the wreckage, because it reminded me of the Avalokiteshvara story. To me, one of the most interesting things he said was an aside: that religious stories seemed to stand the test of time, while political stories needed to be ever-new and different if they were to inspire people and capture their imagination. I’m not sure about that; I think ancient stories are powerful because they’re true and real at a deep level; they are not made up in a superficial way, they have a totally different quality to them – they hit you like a depth charge, as they resonate at levels of your being you didn’t even know existed. I’ve never agreed with the ‘reframing’ theory of Family Therapy either for that reason – the idea that all we need to do is find a new, positive way of framing the past and our family relationships, and we would live happily ever after. In my experience that method doesn’t work when there has been deep trauma in your lived experience, when something has been truly lost or broken and can’t be recovered or repaired. What you need to do then is surrender to that truth and accept it as part of your reality, even if the pain of it feels unbearable at the time. The most moving and transformational moments which I have witnessed occur in therapy as both patient and therapist are when words fail altogether and a deep resonance charges the room – all that can possibly be said at such moments is ‘that’s true’. Truth matters more than novelty, matters more than anything, in my experience.
I think it’s our alienation from the truth of our situation that’s rendering us so hopeless and paralysed and utterly confused at the moment politically and psychologically, with no idea where to turn – not any lack of new ideas or stories – if anything, there are too many of these out there all over the worldwide web. We’re all trying to run from the truth because it’s frightening and tragic. But we need to find the courage to turn towards and fully open all our senses to both the darkness and the light, to get back to the truth of our bare feet on the ground of a particular, unique place we know and love. Where we notice and mourn the living things all around us dying, choking on our toxic waste. Where we also notice the sound of the ocean, or the flowing river, and the magnificent trees which have lived for far longer than us still thriving and breathing and steadily living through whatever is happening and is still to come, standing their ground. And a probably very hungry bird exuberantly offering its song to this tragic, beautiful dewdrop world regardless, as the sun goes down. When we connect and resonate with all that – as we once not so long ago all did quite naturally – when we allow the pain and beauty of all this wondrous complexity to break our hardened hearts open, then maybe something truly new can unfold, from our ancient depths, which are connected with all that lives.
How you stand here is important. How you listen for the next thing to happen. How you breathe. (from ‘Being a person’, William Stafford)