One more year in the City Take 6: January

I only spent half of last month in the city, and it felt quite difficult to return to its speed and complexity once more, after the slower, simpler pace of Cornwall. However, I think I’m gradually finding a perspective of fully being here and making the most of my remaining six months in the presence of my old friends, colleagues and contexts – allowing myself to realise how much I will miss them.

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Around about today as I am writing this is the ancient Celtic pre-Spring festival of Imbolc, which apparently means ‘in the belly’. It’s celebrated exactly halfway between Midwinter Solstice – the longest night and shortest day – and the Spring Equinox, when day and night are once again going to be of equal length. I’m mentioning this as with the time of my leaving the city for a Celtic wild land coming closer, I find myself becoming increasingly interested in the ancient pagan festivals and rituals which connect us to the circling seasons in this northern hemisphere, and through that to nature and the elements, in quite a simple yet profound way. So Imbolc is a fire festival celebrating the return to the earth of the light and warmth of the sun, after the cold and dark winter. It’s about noticing those first small signs of new life emerging from the frozen ground – the snowdrops and crocuses; observing the gradual lengthening of the days, and delighting in the birds beginning to sing more loudly and optimistically, and starting to build nests. In farming areas, lambs are traditionally born around this time, and in ancient times people used to spring clean their houses, especially the hearth, the fireplace. A young, beautiful fire goddess was worshipped around this time, who with the advent of Christianity transformed into St. Brigid, and the festival into candlemas. Before that it was connected with the female mysteries, with purification and fertility, with holy wells and the maidens guarding the sacred springs of water, of life. I remember the lantern processions around this time in southern Germany where I grew up, and singing to the sun, emulating its warm light with our paper lanterns, encouraging the sun to stay, to increase in strength, addressing the sun in our songs as a living being, calling to it, like the birds do each morning and evening, greeting it and then saying goodbye to it.

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The Imbolc Wheel

I marked Imbolc in a low-key way in my buddhist class this morning, with a chant and the invitation of offering some light to the female Buddha associated with the element fire. The response was a little bit shy and reluctant – maybe not surprising, being as we are in the middle of the city, not usually tuned into such things. Yesterday evening in the monthly social dreaming matrix I participate in, we talked of layers of history under the city and in our hearts, needing to be processed and brought to light somehow, and how connecting with the earth and the elements helps with that. How different places hold different ambiences – I could definitely feel a rich and ancient and complex ambience on Bodmin Moor last month – not altogether friendly or comfortable, but important to recognise and learn from somehow. But yes, cities too of course have their layers of unseen dimensions – both treasures and horrors hidden underground. We talked of London’s underground rivers keeping these energies moving, and how this felt good, that these forces were not stuck or trapped but flowing.

No conclusion, except that I keep feeling waves of gratitude these days for the richness of my life and relationships, which is new, and encouraging.

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Cornwall Winter Wanderings Part 3

Thursday 11th January

I’m now sitting in the most southerly cafe at Lizard Point, outside on the terrace in the warm sun (!) in an absolutely stunning place. The sound and smell of waves crashing against the rocks as the tide is coming in, and gulls shrieking in delight seemingly, at the sheer powerful spectacle of the sea’s powerful beauty. There’s a rusted, decaying pier jutting out, I wonder what that was used for – I can’t imagine anyone heading out into such treacherous waters full whirlpools and rocks! Ah, it was a manned lifeboat station until the mid 1950’s, wow. This is definitely a place I will come back to, for longer.

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I drove here from Pendeen via Lamorna Cove, where two seafront houses were for sale which I would have moved into there and then had I had the cash (: I would have to leave my car a few miles away probably as the tiny lanes were too nerve wracking for words – which would mean a wonderfully bracing stroll home each time.

A beautiful birthday dinner in a Coastguard Cottage in Prussia Cove quite near Penzance yesterday afternoon with three Buddhist friends, and today I’m making my way back up north slowly, via the Lizard where I am now, then Falmouth Point, and possibly Bodmin if there’s time before nightfall. I can feel my head clearing noticeably with the bracing sea air – I can’t do this experience just now justice either in words or images I’m afraid – you’d have to be there, with all your senses wide open…

Evening, back at the ‘Healing Tree’

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Lots of driving these past few days – I decided to head back to the Jamaica Inn on the way back and go for another moor-walk from there, in golden sunshine this time; but instead ended up being directed by my idiosyncratic SATNAV down tiny lanes all around the big lake on the south moor – which was stunningly beautiful but took absolutely ages, with some hairy moments trying to squeeze past tractors and the like … so the sun was already beginning to go down as I finally arrived at the Inn, and I was still too nervous to drive back ‘home’ in complete darkness – so I just had some tea and half an hour’s online time, looking out of the window at the misty dusk enfolding the landscape, as the temperature suddenly dropped quite rapidly. What an awe-inspiring place!

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It’s becoming clearer through my outer explorations & conversations, dreams and inner ponderings that never mind what happens in terms of work, I will start off living in or around Penzance, so as to consciously put my Buddhist practice (including a new little budding sangha) and contact with wild nature at the centre of my mandala; work will have to emerge from and fit around that. Falmouth is pretty, but not exhilarating like Penzance – I like its simple layout, its roughness around the edges, and the wild ‘Celtic Sea’ / Atlantic Ocean pounding its shores, rather than the English Channel’s more tamely lapping waves…

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Friday 12th January

Today on my last full day here I did a smaller circle round Tintagel, Boscastle and Bude – where I met an old East London friend who now lives in Devon for coffee, as she was serendipitously passing through the area. Tintagel castle and coastline were magical, though the village itself felt quite tacky, grumpy and depressing. Boscastle was stunningly beautiful but felt like Yorkshire or Lancashire to me rather than Cornwall – as did the quite odd little town of Bude. So at the end of today it’s very clear that it’s definitely the southwest of the county that speaks to me; Penzance and the Lizard are the places which definitely make my heart beat faster.

Saturday 13th January

A yellow weather warning day for rain and crosswinds today, so I’m quite proud I got the little fiat safely back to its base in ‘downtown Truro’, and am relieved to be sitting on the train back to London now, no longer fiercely concentrating. We’ve just passed the romantically named ‘Lostwithiel’, where a river snakes through the fields, with wooded hills all around…but would I miss the sea, so close and yet not in view?

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So anyway, the last thing I wanted to share in the light of this exploratory winter journey was a dream I had a few months back, which feels significant in relation to the question as to where exactly I will end up basing myself – especially in the longer term, ie it may offer a pointer as to the nature and location of my future castle in the clouds eco-house … so here goes:

I was living in a hexagonal cell-like structure, like a ‘Bienenwabe’ (= a section of a beehive). On one side was an earth-wall, like the back of a cave, firmly rooted in the earth, simple and rough, basic. On the sides there was a double wall, with Nursery wallpaper visible through a hole I had drilled too big by accident; I had been trying to surround myself with Buddha images – to cover up the gaping hole of my history, and / or to turn more firmly from the conditioned to the unconditioned? At the front, the place was wide open to the landscape – an overgrown garden which later I weeded radically, except around an old, strong tree in the corner, which I left intact in its habitat.

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At the time, what it made me think of was part of a beautiful film by Tilda Swinton about her friend John Berger where he had talked to her (over peeling some apples for a crumble in his rural farmhouse) about time extending vertically through the history of our lived lives, our past, and our ancestors – and of space now extending vastly horizontally through the world wide web; simultaneous moments in space – which could be a good and magical thing, but only if attended to selectively, with true mindfulness. He had also said that ‘photographs are a mode of transport, and a measure of someone’s absence’, which I didn’t and don’t fully understand, but find intriguing. Anyway, here it is, to be pondered further as time goes on…over and out for now.

 

 

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Cornwall Winter Wanderings Part 2

Tuesday, 9th January

So meanwhile I have reached my second base of the Healing Tree Centre on the Bude Rd, way up in North Cornwall. I’m getting quite confident in driving my little car, mostly on tiny roads full of mud and small floods, so that it doesn’t look all that white any more – it also has seaweed stuck all over it from a wave that crashed over it on the coastal road the other day, during a spectacular super-moon induced spring tide! I think I might treat it to a car-wash tomorrow, on our long way back down south for a birthday party in Prussia Cove, near Penzance.

The Eden Project was interesting, though not half as inspiring or magical as the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan, at least not on first sight – no doubt there is much more to it than meets the casual visitor’s eye, and it would be interesting to find out more about their courses, events and research activities. Bjork is due to give a concert there in the summer which my friend is going to – I imagine it must be a spectacular concert venue.

My first solo drive north yesterday went remarkably smoothly, and I managed rainy, foggy and dusky conditions today on the Moors, though with my friend capably navigating. We found Launceston – the poet Charles Causley’s home town – to be another quite depressed and depressing town, with many shops closed or closing; just one second hand bookshop with a downhearted owner telling us he was ‘just about holding on by the skin of his teeth’. That was sad to see, as historically / architecturally the town looked very interesting, with its bits of ancient city wall and two impressive old churches.

My second base is cosy and quirky – a self catering caravan at the end of a lane, part of Raven Hill Farm / the Healing Tree Centre, which runs shamanic training and crafts workshops. We had an interesting conversation with its resident shaman yesterday afternoon, and as a result visited quite a magical holy well and chapel on the outskirts of Bodmin Moor this morning, St. Clether. One of his friends is the Guardian if the Well, and has written a historical novel about the Guardians of this particular well through the ages, which will be my reading on the train back to London.

The weather was very ‘Wuthering Heights’ today, so we only managed to have quite a brief ramble to and around ‘the Hurlers’ set of three stone circles before the rain started pelting down with some force this afternoon, and the Cheesewring disappeared in a fog before our eyes. But the colours and feel of the place were exquisite, vast and ancient. I’m going to try to have coffee in ‘Jamaica Inn’ tomorrow morning, as we didn’t quite manage this today before the daylight faded – and I’m still quite nervous about driving in the dark.

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Cornwall Winter Wanderings – a diary

 

Wednesday 3rd January 2018

Smooth journey, overall – I had time to explore the frankly depressing town centre of St Austell, and talk on the phone to a woman from an agency about potential work opportunities. Saltash might be my starting point, so will do some research on that area, to see whether there are any likely wooded creeks between there and Penzance. It took the bus driver 15 minutes to find reverse gear – she needed to go get some help in the end – I felt for her, that might be me in a couple of days…

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Still, I arrived at Gorran Churchtown and the tiny, beautiful, warm Shepherd’s Hut named Ismay just before darkness fell and the heavens opened with rain. Dave the smallholder came to meet me at the bus stop and gave me a brief tour (joined by two dogs and a cat), some matches and a head torch. I harvested some kale and just cooked a delicious meal in one pot with that, carrots, onions and dark quinoa. Now I’m listening to the rain by candlelight – contentment. I will meditate, write and sleep when it’s dark, and only venture out of the hut for cooking and other activities in the daylight hours. It’s very dark tonight, the clouds covering the super-moon.

Thursday 4th January

Mild, blustery and fitfully sunny today, so I ventured out soon after breakfast on the suggested circular walk via Gorran’s Haven to Vault Beach and back across the fields – it took me three hours – invigorating and beautiful. It was warm enough to have lunch outside in the sun, and now I’m sitting in the Meditation Roundhouse, the newest structure in the place, writing this. Facing west into the sunset, its octagonal shape evoking memories of Kalimpong…the sun heating it up enough through the glass not to need the wood stove yet, but maybe shortly..

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Friday 5th January

It’s a french wood stove I found out today, with a small fire pit at the bottom, so that the large middle space can be used as an oven to roast and bake things! I may well experiment with roasting the giant parsnip I harvested yesterday. This afternoon I dreamily meditated into the sunset, with the fire crackling beside me – bliss.

I walked down the steep grass slope through the woods to Portmellon this morning (only falling over once in the slippery mud), and from there on the coastal road to the pretty little village of Mevagissey. Rainbows wreathed the woods all the way down, creating their magic in the sunny-showery weather. The woman running the cafe on the quay wasn’t too perturbed by my somewhat wild, mud-smeared appearance, because she loved those woods too and lived up in Gorran. She told me she had had to wade to work this morning, as what with the supermoon the spring tides had started early, and she found the boats bobbing about on the quay! Both she and a young man who helped me locate my bus stop thought that ‘the Roseland Peninsula’ round here was the most beautiful part of Cornwall. Both had moved here from elsewhere and loved it. Both thought I would know once I had arrived in the place I wanted to stay by intuition, as ‘the land round here speaks to people’ – I like that, and can well believe it.

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Okay, I’d better get some clean clothes ready for a slightly more civilised day tomorrow – on the train to Truro, to hire my little car!

Saturday 6th January

Definitely my most nerve-wracking day so far, but with the help of my friend’s calm and reassuring presence I managed to get my little white (!) Fiat from Truro to Gorran almost without incident – as suspected, the first bit of getting the car out of the car hire place and onto the road without alarming the staff too unduly was the trickiest – after that it all seemed to come back to me intuitively, and I almost enjoyed the last part of the way. I learnt that the location of any car hire place not at an airport is described as ‘downtown’ – so due to my lack of prior detailed checking I ended up walking disgruntled quite a stretch out of town and didn’t get a chance to actually explore ‘downtown Truro’ at all…oh well, that will have to wait until next Saturday, when I return the car. Really looking forward to my much wider radius over this next week – starting with a day with an old East London friend at the Eden Project tomorrow (:

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One more year in the City Take 5: December 2017

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Over xmas and the New Year I have had the flat to myself, as both my flatmates went home over the winter break from their studies. I’ve played around with the space in my tiny room, and am happy to report that by shifting the bed to the opposite wall, I have managed to create enough room to sit at my table and look out of the window into the garden.

I feel very comfortable and centred here, in a strange way, given the somewhat random and temporary circumstances. It’s been a lovely base this month  from which to plan the teaching sessions of the West London City Retreat I have just been co-leading. The turnout and atmosphere were very good, and it was a delight to witness people’s engagement and generosity.  Our theme was the mandala of the 5 Buddhas, which I suppose is all about integration and centering.

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‘Everything is broken up, and dances’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

03959835-1F2E-4C11-ABF3-C68A8A526750Recently 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.

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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.

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How you stand here is important. How you listen for the next thing to happen. How you breathe. (from ‘Being a person’, William Stafford)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One more year in the city Take 4: November

 

There has been a stripped down to basics simplicity to my life over this past month which I’ve really liked and appreciated. The pattern – such as there is – to my days are spacious mornings with plenty of time to meditate, read, write and reflect on things – alongside planning my Buddhist teaching sessions and work admin -followed by quite busy work afternoons and social / cultural evenings. I’ve been trying to make the most of still being in the city by seeking out special events. There were two in November, which I visited with each of my flat mates in turn: Eco-warrior supreme George Monbiot talking with considerable passion about his new book ‘Out of the wreckage’ in the atmospheric surroundings of the Hampstead Baptist Church, and the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei attending for Q&A on the Premiere of his first feature film about The Refugee situation, ‘Human Flow’. I will say a bit more about those events in a longer post soon – it was very stimulating to encounter both live and direct, and I know I will miss these opportunities out in the wilds…but then again, my favourite November week was the last one, which I spent on an inspiring Retreat in the Malvern Hills, returning all mellowed out and restored. The themes were simplicity, stillness and contentment, and the meaning and role of faith in Buddhist practice. Which all seems highly relevant to me in a world hellbent in the opposite direction. As the Buddha aptly asked a very long time ago: ‘If you point your cart north when you want to go south, how will you arrive?’

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