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.
I made the mistake of ringing home at lunchtime and thus am I here now, having come home missing my last hour of teaching.
The vet didn’t have good news. When they got a proper look, it seems that it’s not a cut but a tumour that has done the damage. Now in dogs, any cancers of the mouth are often aggressive and malignant.
All the way home my inner voice was saying “it’s not malignant, it’s not as bad as it might be”. I don’t want my inner voice to be a liar, but I also don’t want to be an ostrich.
If you pray, please pray for my dog.
I’ve always had a bit of a problem with belief. I’ve stopped believing in things most people believe in and I hang onto beliefs many folks have long given up on, for far longer than you’d imagine. I believed in Father Christmas long after everyone else had decided it was definitely your mum and dad; I still do, to tell you the truth. It’s based on some fairly complex metaphysics these days, but back at age five, it was based on the empirical evidence of my own ears. You see, I heard the sleigh bells on the roof, one Christmas. The fact(eagerly pointed out to me by my older brother) that we lived in a Victorian house with a system of interconnecting chimneys, and I surely heard the sound transmitted from downstairs fireplace to my bedroom fireplace, where my father sat wrapping a jingly toy by the fire, and not from the roof as I thought, simply didn’t dent my belief that father Christmas was a real entity. I still believe it, now aged almost 43.
I don’t for example believe in Red Nose Day or Children in Need, Sport Aid or any of the other media fuelled charity blow outs this country seems to delight in. My bus driver today wore a red curly wig and a red nose; I suspect he wasn’t happy about it but you can’t go against the mass without jeopardising your place by the fire. I fully accept they raise a massive amount of much needed money for great causes. But I don’t believe they are the best way. They actually create charity fatigue; people get fed up with it and it’s a fair bet many give out of guilt and a fear of looking mean. I also have a cynical concern that a vast amount of the money raised vanishes in costs and administration.
I also don’t believe in the essential goodness of people, despite plenty of evidence experienced personally. This is based largely on statistics; in short, the sums just don’t add up. If people were basically good, then the world would not be in the mess it seems to be in right now.
My current belief in God wavers; I suspect God not only exists and I’d also be willing to bet that He/She is basically benign. But also mainly unknowable. If you haven’t ever read “Mister God, this is Anna,” I’d highly recommend it; I think it ought to be required reading at every Bible college, vicar factory, theological college and seminary in the world. In one section, Anna, the eponymous heroine(an eight year old orphan) is watching some ants and tried to explain to Fyn, the author, that however much she loves the ants, there is no way for her to ever convey that love to the ants. Too much of a gulf exists for her to be able to make the ants know of her love. For me, in many ways, this is how I feel, a slightly enlightened ant, knowing that God is unknowable to me in my ant state but having a dim idea that he/she exists and probably loves me.
But, being me, the biggest thing I don’t and cannot believe in, is simply myself.
I have tried. Endlessly. And without success. Others do; others tell me I should believe in myself. I am told I have plenty to believe in, but when I try, nada.
I understand that faith is a gift, a grace if you like. I had a friend who was dying, some years ago. I spent a lot of time with him, massaging his feet and listening and talking. He wanted to believe in God, he really did. He envied his wife and her faith, but even though he wanted to, he simply never reached a point fo faith. I went to see him up until five days before his death, when cellular breakdown meant I could no longer touch his feet without causing serum to leak through his skin; he was the first person who I saw after death. I stood in the room while my husband said the prayers for the dead, holding hands with the family and friends and I could feel him in the room, a peaceful presence. His shell looked very peaceful and it no longer looked even remotely like him. I had the very strong feeling he knew now what he had been unable to believe in life, and it was good. His spirit appeared a few days later to a family member who had been unable to get to visit in the last days; he told her he was surrounded by light, and that it was just wonderful and then he vanished.
I’d like to be given a gift of faith, not just in God, because I have that to some extent, but in myself.
As a part of my daily spiritual practise, such as it is, I draw a card at random from my set of Healing Cards by Caroline Myss. I’ve used many cards over the years, some I still use and others have served their time and are left fallow now.
These particular cards have a picture and some words, drawn from every major spiritual tradition in the world. One side there is a soundbite with a picture and on the reverse is a few lines expanding it.
Today’s sound bite was, “Recovery isn’t a goal, but a process”
On the reverse, “You never stop repairing and renewing yourself. You must absorb the light and shadow of each day you live. Don’t keep your spirit stuck in yesterday as a new day begins. Prayer is process.”
As I wrote first thing, I am feeling very stressed and anxious. I thought I was past this being at the mercy of anxiety, but it seems not.
It seems like it’s part of my life’s work to work through this. Today is tough.
But at least I am safe home and can now try and deal with it now my chores are done with.