be good to me,
the sea is so wide
and my boat is so small.”
Irish Fisherman’s Prayer
The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.
I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)
But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.
That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.
You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.
Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.
What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?
Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.
It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.
Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.
So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.
“For all my relations.”
Morning ritual #smallstone 8
I burn sage, each morning.
The snap of the lighter brings tiny tongues of flame licking at the grey leaves in the shell; the brilliant orange leaps and darts from leaf to leaf, before turning to a smoulder. Leaves char and burn and threads of smoke rise as I look to the east, to the risen sun lost in rain clouds. Softly I fan the eagle feather across the shell, wafting the smoke around, cleansing and restoring and I let the words of prayer speak silently to the patient Listener. Words of love and entreaty, some of gratitude, some of reproach and despair; no words are barred.
The faint blue tinge of sage smoke spreads through the room, the pungent scent calming, and I feel a sense of being heard.
That has to be enough, some days.
Breathe in; the moment has come
To hold your breath within your heart.
Silence, while the light becomes so still
You can hear the tiny cracks as dawn breaks.
This moment, the light has travelled far
And pauses before starting that slow return
Growing greater by minute increments
Invisible at first but sure and steady
In the agonising climb to another height.
Like a pendulum, the year has swung,
Reached that still point of lowness.
The rising sun weak with worn gold
Shot through with crimson blood
Peeps above heavy clouds and
The moment passes, as always,
And we breathe out, knowing that
The darkness is turned away.
“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”
Prayer is a simple thing, a holding of our thoughts and wishes like a handful of broken toys to the Eternal Father. It can be long and full of beautiful poetry or short and full of harsh, raw words. It can be in our daily acts of mercy and kindness, in our meetings with other souls. It can be in our every breath and every word.
It can be as simple as lighting a single candle and pausing for a moment to reflect.
Light one for me today.
I have been wanting to put a photo up of this stone for ages. I found it some years ago, on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, in a tiny little cove known as Ram’s Grove. It’s coincidentally pretty close to the cave where the burial of a Neanderthal body took place, the so-called Red Lady of Paviland(it was actually a man!) It’s one of the oldest known human burials, where ritual took place using red ochre and flowering plants.
The time I found this stone, we were camping a few miles away and had slipped down at the end of the day for a paddle. The tide was coming in quite fast and my husband spotted a large boulder with the very clear sign on it, of a white image embedded in black rock. I managed a quick and rather fuzzy picture of it before the tide covered it. I was very taken with it as it was an almost perfect natural yin-yang sign, but it was a massive boulder, embedded deeply among other rocks. I prayed out loud, that I might find a similar stone that I could take home with me and when I finished those words, I glanced down and by my feet was the stone above. I nearly fell over. I was shocked. So seldom are prayers answered THAT fast, after all.
I’ve kept it close ever since as a talisman and as a reminder that in light there is always dark and in dark there is always light, and also that just sometimes, you do get what you ask for in life, that prayer does work and finally, that God has a rather whimsical sense of humour.
I’ve long been a great fan of scented smoke, be it joss sticks or “proper” grain incense, much to the chagrin of my mother who thought it must be something to do with hash…
I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to it. I don’t think I can count how many brands I have tried. The incense from Greater goods http://www.greatergoods.co.uk ticks all the right boxes for me. Beautful scents, not too smokey, long burning, reliably combustible and more important yet, fair trade. If you have a look at their website you will discover they do great things in the world of workers’ rights and so on, and this adds extra sweetness to their incense. Many joss stick companies use children and the conditions are appalling.
For all this, you might expect a massive extra in the price range. Not so. They’re about the same price as any incense stick bought at your local bing-bong shop (s0 called because of the cacophany of windchimes usually hung outside!).
I had an article published this time last year on the use of aromatics in a sacred context in the magazine Sacred Hoop and I am in the slow process of writing a book of meditations using aromatics of all sorts, including incense. Incorporating scented smoke into your life, whether for prayer, relaxation or simply for pleasure and air freshening is a very rewarding experience and using incense from Greater Goods, it means it will also be rewarding for those who make it too.