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A poem to share (not mine)

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

by Rainer Miria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

from Book of Hours, I 59

Opening the Gates, Part 2

I wrote about Inanna having the gates opened for her to descend into the underworld in my last post.  My own journey through gates has been different, although I can identify with hers at times.  In earlier posts through this past year I have written about many different kinds of desire, and I am noticing a theme in my process.  The word that expresses this theme is CONNECTION.  Inanna was intimately in touch with life, but desired to connect with her sister – the unknown shadow to life, which is death.  My journey has been to dare to open my gates to life, others and the world.  Sometimes, there have been times of being thrust back behind them.  Sometimes an opening has been sudden and overwhelming, leading to a withdrawal, but I celebrate that I have persevered.

I think my desire for connection arose at my birth, due to an experience of separation, impossible to understand and integrate at the time, which I have written about elsewhere.1  Perhaps the general human existential longing for connection begins with the birth experience.  I don’t know, but I think mine did.  Thinking deeply enough about this as a young woman made me passionate about not being separated from my babies when they were both born.  But there is another theme emerging alongside which relates to the desire for connection and ties into my earlier enquiries into fear – the desire to open the gates.  By this I mean the gates inside that defend me from the perceived threats of existence –  defend my vulnerability.  There can be no intimacy, no deep connection without vulnerability.  If any of the inner gates are closed, connection has been limited.  What I see in my own writing is this DESIRE TO OPEN, so that I can touch and be touched.

During the time of my enquiry into desire, I have been influenced by the Buddhist teacher, Rob Burbea.  I was attracted by his way of looking at desire as a positive, transformative force.  At the start of the Preface to his book on Emptiness, Rob maintains, “Curiosity and desire can be the most precious forces.”2   This strongly resonates with me.  I have attended retreats with him and listened to many of his on-line talks, and he keeps asking, “What is it you most deeply want?  What’s the most important thing?”  He also maintains that if you take the time to deeply reflect on this, once you get through the surface desires of the body and the habitual craving of the mind, you will discover that what you most deeply want is already available.  You just have to open to it.  This may sound simple, but it has been a long, challenging and, at times, devastating journey for me.

My gates have protected me when I felt intolerably vulnerable – but they became habits.  Habitual defences are difficult to detect, easier to see in another than in yourself.  If you don’t know they are there, the gates will stay closed.  Finding my way through my gates has been happening since I first felt the longing to connect as a small child.  A sad feeling of separateness is maybe the first clue I had of being closed off – what I am now seeing as being behind gates.  It was all a very instinctive, unconscious journey until, due to recurrent depression, I began looking at this feeling more directly in Encounter Groups during my late 20s.  Through the years I have explored many different approaches to opening my gates, so many I don’t want to list them all here.  It has required me to look at what is unknown and frightening – to risk being vulnerable.  In Inanna’s story, she finally understood complete, ultimate vulnerability – death.

In a few weeks I will be 70 and still, after all this time, my gates are needing to continue to be opened.  The instinct of the soul is to open – to be revealed, to make more and more contact.  Rob maintains that this is endlessly rich in its potential.  The survival instinct is to curl up and hide or run away from contact. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it – but it makes sense to me now.  There is the need to take care of myself – to take care of my vulnerability.  Threats can be real, I know.  But sometimes it is necessary to be vulnerable in the face of real threats – as Inanna was – as climate activists are.  There is no way to defend against the ultimate threat, anyway.  Our choices about this depend on what is really, deeply important to us.  That was why I asked what it was Inanna wanted – even though there is no one answer.  That is why I keep asking myself what it is I really want.  What do I deeply desire?

I want to open more and more.  I want to open my energy body – soften and blur my boundaries, without losing touch with that clear, empty axis within, grounded in earth and reaching up to sky.  I want to open my joints and the cells of my body.  I want to open all my senses, open my heart, open my mind.

I want to touch and be touched by everything, however vulnerable that makes me.  I want to feel connected to it all without losing my sense of being embodied.

Though this connection, I want to feel the uniqueness and beauty of each time, place, being and thing, big and small, gentle and terrible, in and around me, including my own beauty and uniqueness.  I want to open to the complexity of all of this without falling into overwhelm.

I want to be filled with love for it all.  And I want to express and create from this place – to share it and help others become aware of the precious potential of connection.

This is not too much to ask.

 

1Booker, M (2015) Nothing Special, Experiencing Fear and Vulnerability in Daily Life; Axminster, England; Triarchy Press.

2Burbea, R (2014) Seeing That Frees, Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising; West Ogwell, Devon; Hermes Amãra Publications.

Opening the Gates, Part 1

Very early on in my enquiry into desire – 3 years ago – I found myself drawn to the story of The Descent of Inanna to the Great Below, a Sumerian myth written down in cuneiform script on clay tablets about 4,000 years ago.  Sumer, as a distinct land and culture, was already 1,000 years old by then, having emerged over millennia in an area where agriculture began – what is now southern Iraq.    It was able to develop because these people discovered how to irrigate the land.  Although Sumer had two great rivers running through it, the Tigris and the Euphrates, it was basically desert-like.  For drinking water, people relied on deep wells.  Once they understood how to irrigate their fields, increasing the yield of their crops, cities were eventually able to develop and, with them, an elaborate and highly sophisticated culture, including art, music and literature.  It is this culture that is so beautifully evidenced in the clay tablets.  For my understanding of this story I drew on two translations: SN Kramer’s and the University of Oxford’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, both of which you can read for yourself.

But the first stirrings happened when, in the autumn of 2016, I was asked in a poetry class to try to write from the point of view of a mythological character.  Ereshkigal popped immediately into my mind, despite my not having thought of this myth for many years.  The poem (see below) came out as a whole in a 10 minute writing exercise and has not needed to be changed or developed since.  This rarely happens for me.  As I reflected on Ereshkigal’s words, I wondered, “What desire led Inanna into attempting to do such a deadly dangerous thing?”  Inanna was the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the Great Above.  In cosmology she was the morning and the evening star, shining and beautiful.  She was dynamic, passionate and overtly sexual – desire itself.  She was also the goddess of war, fierce in the defense of her people.    At the time Inanna decided to take this journey, she was no longer a young goddess.  She was in the fullness of her power.  Her consort was Dumuzi, the great Shepherd-God, King of Uruk, Inanna’s special city.  She had two grown sons, both of whom were kings in other cities.   She had the love of her people and many temples devoted to her.

The Descent is clearly a myth of the cycles of nature, of the connection between birth and death, reflected in the processes of sowing, growing and harvesting grain.  But, like all great stories, it comes across as more complex than that, with many possible layers of meaning.  It is a shamanic journey, where wisdom is brought back from the underworld at great cost.  It has been given the full Jungian treatment as a story of psychological transformation.1   I, myself, have used it to help a therapy client make sense of her depression.  On yet another level the story can be seen as a family drama.  Sumerian mythology has a family structure and the characters are all enmeshed in close relationships.  Ereshkigal was described as Inanna’s sister.  Enki, who as the God of Wisdom and of the Deep, Sweet Waters is a key element in the outcome of the story, was their maternal grandfather.  Nanna was Inanna’s father and Enlil was her paternal grandfather.  Inanna’s close servant, advisor, companion and friend was Ninshubur, who was a Queen from the East in her own right.  My interest was in looking at the story from the perspective of desire – What did Inanna feel she wanted?  It must have been a deep desire for her to take such a huge risk.  Did she know what it was she wanted? – or was there just a deep “wanting”?

At the beginning of the story, Inanna “opened her ear to the Great Below.  She set her mind on the Great Below”.  Samuel Noah Kramer, who was one of the translators of the tablets, tells us that the word for “ear” and for “wisdom” are the same in Sumerian, and that it can also mean “mind”.  And he says that the word translated as “opened” can mean “set”.  Inanna specifically placed (set) her mind (ear) on the Great Below.2  What motivated her to do this and what she felt about it are not told, although, given the choice of words, the desire for wisdom or knowing seems to have been part of it.  She just determined to go.  The story also speaks in terms of abandonment.  She abandoned her people and her temples.  She abandoned the Great Above.  She left everything behind her to make this journey.

She prepared by taking to herself the seven “me”, her divine powers, in the form of the garments she wore.  Then she called for Ninshubur and together they made their way to the Gates of the Underworld.  There, Inanna told Ninshubur she needed her to wait outside the gates for her return.  If she didn’t come out in three days, Ninshubur was to take on all the attributes and garments of mourning and go to Inanna’s powerful grandfather, Enlil, and ask him to intervene.  If he refused, then she was to go to Nanna, Inanna’s father, for help.  If this proved fruitless as well, then she must go to Enki, because “He knows the secrets” and would know what to do.

Then Inanna knocked loudly on the gates, which were guarded by the gatekeeper, Neti.  He didn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily want to come in and asked her, “Why has your heart led you on the road from which no traveller returns?”  Inanna announced it was because of her sister, Ereshkigal – and because she wanted to witness the funeral rites of her sister’s husband, The Bull of Heaven.  This last seems spurious to me and is never mentioned again, but the first rings true – she wanted to see her sister.  But why, and why now?  Here may lie the family drama.  Whatever the reason, Ereshkigal was not pleased when Neti brought her the news that her sister was outside the gate, demanding entrance.  Basically, she was being put into the position of having to commit sororicide.  She told Neti that he was to allow Inanna through the gates, all seven of them, but he must only lift each gate a little, so that she must crouch down in order to enter – and he was to remove one of her garments at each gate, thus divesting her of her divine powers.  The first time this happened, Inanna was indignant – but Neti firmly told her that she was not to question the ways of the underworld.  It seems to me that it must have been at this point, before which Inanna was every inch the proud and powerful goddess, that she realised the journey would not be on her own terms.  By the time she reached Ereshkigal, Inanna was naked and on her knees.

INANNA

Unlike the burning passion

I know so well –

hot, sticky and raging –

this desire rose cool and sharp

from deep inside me –

to see her, to touch her and know.

It would not let me rest.

 

I knew it would be risky

to go to my sister’s house,

so I left explicit instructions

with the woman I trusted most.

Even if the others refused,

the old man by the water

would not let me down.

 

Pierced through by longing

to hear her dark secrets,

the deeper I went

the less of me there was.

And when I looked up

into her obsidian eyes.

I knew I would know.

 

ERESHKIGAL

She wanted to come –

my beautiful, sparkling sister –

to visit me.

From where she danced in the sky –

kissing the moon –

she could not see me,

so failed to understand.

As much as I loved her, she needed to know

she could not just drop in for a chat.

 

So I stripped her of all her pretty things.

She could have turned back,

but she always was game for a lark –

up for a dare.  Even as a child

she would lead the way –

lifting up latches of doors

we were not meant to enter –

peering into places

we were not meant to see.

 

Here, I am in charge and I know this place.

The mysteries of darkness and death

are in my care –

not for the curious.

When finally she arrived –

naked and expectant –

I pulled off her shining skin

and hung up her dripping body.

She needed to understand her limits.

Outside the gates, Ninshubur waited the allotted three days, and then carefully followed the instructions Inanna had given her.  Both Enlil and Nanna refused to intervene, maintaining that Inanna well understood that going to “the Dark City” was a one-way trip.  It is interesting that in both translations these gods describe Inanna as having “craved” the Great Below – they believed she desired something there.  Ninshubur had to place all her hopes onto Enki.

NINSHUBUR

I did not want her to go.

But when she told me to stand guard –

to hold vigil – I thought:

I am a woman.

I know how to wait.

 

Her father and grandfather

dared not come between

these two puissant sisters.

I saw fear in their eyes,

and felt rage and despair.

 

So to the deep, sweet water

I walked and sat down.

I tore at my hair, called out my grievance.

The old man received me with

kindness and tears – then set to work.

 

ENKI

I heard her pain and grief

long before word arrived –

my skin tightened –

my bones ached.

This dark, solemn sister,

so aware of necessity,

knew she had no choice.

 

I remember them both

in my heart’s mind.

My fingers remember

the touch of their hair –

one like a raven’s wing –

the other, liquid light.

Two hearts beating in time.

 

Long separated –

co-existence not an option –

it was only a matter of time

before the shining one,

so full of possibility,

would seek the other out.

I choose to heal them both.

Enki pulled a little bit of dirt from under a fingernail on one of his hands and fashioned it into a tiny being, with no gender, and he called it a Kugara.  Then he pulled a little bit of dirt from under a fingernail on his other hand and fashioned it into another tiny being, with no gender, and he called it a Galatura.  To the Kugara he gave the Water of Life and to the Galatura he gave the Food of Life.  He told them to swiftly go down to the Gates of the Underworld and squeeze under them.  He said they would not be noticed because they were too small and they had no gender.  When they came into the presence of Ereshkigal, they would find her in great pain and unattended.  When she cried out, they must cry out too.  When she groaned, they were to groan with her.  When she moaned, they must moan too.  Then she would notice them, and she would be grateful that her pain had been witnessed and shared.  She would offer them a reward – anything they liked from all the riches of the world.  But they were to refuse anything she offered, and ask only for the body up on the hook – and she would give it to them.

KUGARA AND GALATURA

We are Enki’s emissaries.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

Like flies we flit to and through the dark gates.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

It’s life we carry – and the old man’s love.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

She’s alone and unaided – we come to her side.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

We hear her cry out – we hear her groan.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

We hear her pain – take her pain as our own.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

She is birthing in death and dying in birth.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

We echo her cries and offer our tears.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

She’s no longer alone – no longer unheard.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

She blesses our presence, gives us the dead.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

Both queens are restored by the water of life.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

Revived to themselves, healed of their strife.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

The smallest of gestures can cross deep divides.

It need not be much – a glance or a word.

I’m here and I see you – I’m touched by your pain.

Empathy’s emissaries.

And so Inanna was restored to life by the intercession of Enki’s tiny beings, and she began her journey back to the Great Above.  I want to leave the story there.  What comes next is rich and interesting, but it doesn’t shed any more light on what desire drew Inanna to make the descent in the first place.  I told this story, including reciting the poems, to an audience at Wootton Fitzpaine parish hall.  It was well received and, afterwards, I asked them what deep desire they thought led Inanna to go on such a dangerous journey.  Some answers were along the family drama line, the sister-thing; some along the more shamanic line and many along the line of the need to bring together the opposites of light and dark, life and death.  A child in the audience said she thought Inanna had become dissatisfied with having everything she wanted, and desired to know what it was like to have nothing.  Of course, all of these answers are valid.  Here are my thoughts:

The child is right.  Inanna was filled to the brim with the delights of heaven and earth.  It was what she knew and she felt confident and powerful there.  But she did not know death.  She was aware of death, but had no deep knowledge of it.  She must have sensed the power of it – something she could not get at – could not understand.  This left her with a sense of absence, of lack, and therefore of longing.  The desire for the underworld is about what you want and don’t know, not about what you know and want.  It involves that intense sense of wanting to penetrate something you feel is there somewhere, just out of sight, just out of reach.  It requires going deeply inwards, into the dark.

There are times in life when death reaches out and touches you.  Then the need, the desire even, wells up inside to understand what it really means.  From childhood onwards, it has come up many times in my life – death’s existential mystery.  Sometimes it has been just a soft brushing past and sometimes it has been a hard blow.  Since the death of my parents and then of several friends, mostly younger than me, combined with the undeniable aging of my own body, my awareness of the nearness and elusiveness of death appears on an almost daily basis.

I am beginning to see that my explorations into fear, creativity and vulnerability all have been, to some extent, a response to this call from the Great Below.  But I have also been passionately listening to the call of the Great Above.  I hear it in the song and flight of birds, see it in the soft look in another’s eyes, feel it in the shock of moorland or sea air in my lungs.  Desire is about life and, for me, about wanting to feel fully alive.  I don’t think Inanna wanted to lose her life.  It’s more like she wanted to add death to her life.  I think my bringing together of fear, creativity, vulnerability and desire have been further enabling me to “open the gates” – and these gates have levels of meaning, just like the story of Inanna has.  My deep desires are around feeling fully connected to my place in being.  This includes both death and life.

1Perera, S.B. (1881) Descent to the Goddess, A Way of Initiation for Women; Toronto, Canada; Inner City Books.

2Wolkstein, D & Kramer, S N (1983) Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer; New York, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Sand Francisco, London, Mexico City, Sãn Paulo, Sydney; Harper & Row Pub.

The desire behind the journey

The journey is a much used metaphor for the trajectory of life – as well as for the different phases, aspects or particular experiences of life.  It is a metaphor with mythic potential: the journey of the sun and of the moon in the sky, of migrations both human and animal, Homer’s Odyssey, the Saga of Eric the Viking, the Crusades, Eros and Psyche, the shamanic journey, etc.  Journeys appear over and over again in fairy tales: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the Snow Queen, Jack and the Beanstalk and The Musicians of Bremen, to name a few.  But the journey metaphor also has a deeply personal potential: the journey of one’s life as a whole, a journey of the heart, a journey of adolescent discovery, an educational journey like through university or a professional training, the journey of parenthood, an actual journey to a particular place or places and the way this impacts your life, a spiritual journey, and so on.

Journeys imply time, place and change.  You are not the same at the end of a journey as you were at the start.  I suggest that behind every journey in life or in story, lies desire.  There is something that one wants, hopes for, desires that motivates the action and direction of a journey – the more important the journey is, the deeper the underlying desire.  The deep desire motivating the journey may not always be known or understood by the journeyer.  It may lie beneath many layers of desire that feed the journey.

I am going to share here a particular journey I took in my early 20s – my emigration to Britain, where I have remained ever since. Initially I just wanted to separate from my life as it was in the US.  I wanted to separate from my family, from my former lover and from what I saw as the excessive consumerism and superficiality of Californian life – to have a new beginning.  I had spent a summer travelling around the UK, mostly hitch-hiking, just before my last year at university, and it had given me a sense of freedom, excitement and adventure that charmed me.  I had a sexual encounter that summer, that awoke a deeper physical passion in me than I had so far known, and I felt I wanted more of this. This desire for freedom was, I believed, what mainly drove my decision to undertake my journey.  Of course, as we know, life is not so simple.  I met many challenges, difficulties, and emotional heartaches within a short space of time after my arrival.  I was not free after all, as I had to earn a living, work out relationships, and make important decisions about creating new circumstances in my life.  It was hard.  But I still wanted to stay in Britain.  Why?  I didn’t really know at the time, but at every point where I could have returned to the US, I felt compelled to remain where I was.

After many years, what I have uncovered is my desire to be close to my mother – and to “mother” in terms of the earth that I feel I come from.  This makes my journey seem counter-intuitive, as my mother was American and I left her to undertake it.  But, a bit of family history might help reveal an understanding.  My father was English, and my mother was American.  She fell in love with him in the late 1930s, when she met him in Washington DC where he was a visiting scientist at the Carnegie Institution.  Against the wishes of her father, she married him and headed for England, just as the clouds of war were gathering.  He was returning to undertake the development of radar, which became a hugely important defensive tool during the war.  My mother moved with him from Cambridge, to Swanage and then to Malvern, following the radar research as it moved to avoid enemy detection.  I now understand the psychological romance of wartime existence that affected so many of her generation in Britain, but as a child what I felt was her deep connection with that place and time.  She was in love, during an intense time, in a new place, bonding with others in the same boat.  It remained a part of her own journey that had a kind of mythic aura about it.  When she talked about it, I could feel her sense of connection.  And that kind of connection was something I felt deeply lacking in myself.  So, without consciously realising it, I tried (mistakenly) to reproduce that experience of connection she had found.  What I really wanted was to connect with her – and to find, through that, connection to place, to body, to life.

I did eventually begin to find my own means of connection – but that was another journey, not the journey of migration I made in my 20s.  It took 40 years for me to really deeply connect with this place on earth and with my own body.  Through this connection there is a growing sense of a deeper and ever present connection, which I now experience as having been there and available all along – waiting to be recognised.

 

 

 

 

The desire for freedom – from what? to what?

A strong human desire that is expressed, as far as I can see, in all places and at all times of our history, is the desire for freedom.  That is not to say that everyone prioritises this desire.  Some people place their desire for safety and security before their desire for freedom.  But is this just prioritising the “freedom from” (hunger, uncertainty, pain, fear etc.) over the “freedom to” (move, express themselves, explore, question, develop etc.)?  And then, of course, there is the desire for freedom from desire, as in the Buddhist sense.

When I ponder deeply about the desire for freedom, I go down into my body and feel into a sense of not being free.  It feels immediately tight – constricted.  If I go with this further into the place of oppression, the images are of being bound, closed in, behind a barrier that I can see through but cannot open and go out – no access to the unlimited possibilities of being alive.  A feeling of anger arises at being unfree.  This is an anger that can lead to violence, revolt and war.  It feels powerfully energetic.  I want to burst the chains that bind, break open the gates – and push aside, even hurt, anyone that I feel is linked to my oppression or might try to block my movement to freedom.

When oppression is there – one person or group denying the freedom of another person or group – something needs to change.  How to bring about that change for all those involved – maximise both the freedom from and the freedom to – is a complex social issue that is essential to continue to address.  But it is not what I want to explore here.  I am more interested in inner freedom and, if you like, self-oppression.  The desire is the same, but the solutions are, perhaps, particular to the individual.

I think, for me, the desire for freedom is a deep desire.  It resonates through my body and my heart.  I recognise the feeling of constriction from my meditation practice – and I know that it is a sign of what in Buddhism is called “craving”, something I have already written about in my post “Desire arises from contact – a Buddhist perspective”.  Craving is a particular kind of desire to grasp at, cling to or push away whatever is seen as desirable or undesirable contact.  It is associated with the sense that things are not as they should be, a feeling of dissatisfaction, that in Buddhism is called dukkha.  How to free oneself from this craving is one of the main thrusts of Buddhist teachings.

I have learned, from Buddhist meditation practices and from Qigong, a way of following my desire for freedom that is not about engaging with the constriction through anger and effort.  Both anger and effort bring even more sense of constriction.  Freedom, instead, comes through relaxing more and opening more – becoming more soft and vulnerable, but without collapsing.

Initially, this feels counter-intuitive.  For instance, fear triggers the desire to escape what is seen as frightening and find safety.  In a survival situation, this is essential.  But, if it is not a real, here-and-now survival situation, the desire to escape becomes craving.  The mind and body feel constricted – insisting that you escape in whatever way you have learned to in your life.  I withdraw behind my inner gates and become, by so doing, less free.   I may believe myself to be more free from the source of the fear – but my “freedom to” has been seriously compromised.

An interesting reflection I have had about my desire for freedom is that I don’t want to be free of everything.  I want to be free within a sense of also being held – contained.  There needs to be a balance of some kind.  I can feel more free to move, to create, to express myself, if I feel held.  I think this is just because I am a human being, and we humans always need to feel we are in some way connected to others, or at least another.  This takes me back to what I wrote in the post, Why do I want to be witnessed.  I desire a sense of inner and outer freedom and feel it most when I am also held in open, warm, relaxed connection.  I want both, so there is a need for balance.

Within Buddhism, attachment is seen as a cause of dukkha.  But, to my surprise, I found when I married my husband, 25 years after we first got together, that a sense of great freedom and release came from giving in to, acknowledging and opening to my real attachment to him!  Before we got married, there was always a sense that we could break free from each other, and committing to a marriage has, in that sense, made us less free.  But I feel more free.  Is this just more free from the danger of losing him?  I know that by becoming attached I open myself to the pain of eventually losing him through death, my own or his.  Is the balance in freedom a balance between freedom from and freedom to?

Going deeper to be loved.

When I declared in my “Longing is not desire” post that I wanted “to touch and be touched by everything”, I knew that this required a degree of openness and vulnerability I had not yet allowed myself.  Was the statement an invitation?  Or is that way of thinking too reductionist and simplistic?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that, shortly following a fall in the middle of May this year, I experienced a mini stroke that rendered me more open and vulnerable than perhaps I have ever been since I was an infant.  I had no energy to resist feeling this vulnerable – I had to just allow it.  My body literally shook for several days at frequent intervals, like a rabbit who has had a near miss with death.  I could do nothing – go nowhere.  At first I had difficulty thinking and speaking.  It was over a week before I could even begin to reflect on what had been happening.  I was open to every emotion in and around me and found myself often in tears.  At some point in this time, the new neighbours across the road had the beautiful tulip tree in their front garden cut down.  I howled in grief and then wanted to kill.  Thank goodness I had no magical weapon to hand.  The swifts did not return when they usually do and I cried whenever I thought of them (some have now come back).  My friend wisely told me to stop listening to the news, because it was upsetting me so.

But the really interesting thing in all this weakness, openness and vulnerability was the kindness and love that washed towards and through me from so many people.  Now, I passionately believe in caring (see my post “Do you care?”) and I have been more than able to care for others: friends, lovers, my children, my students and clients and the many creatures we share this world with; but I have had to work very hard to allow myself to be cared for or cared about.  Not an unusual story, I know.  It’s all about vulnerability.  You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to deeply feel the caring of others.  My stroke rendered me deeply vulnerable and the care flooded in.  I hope I never stop crying about this.  Not only am I loved – but I have allowed myself to feel loved.  It took a stroke to get me there.  I wish it had not been so hard.  However, I am very lucky.  It was only a mini stroke, from which I will completely recover – not a full blown stroke.  And this huge lesson is the gift of it.

Why do I want to be witnessed?

I’m exploring here my desire to be witnessed in movement practice and what seems to happen when I experience being witnessed.  I acknowledge that the developmental root of this desire is within the mother/child dyad – the need for the mother’s gaze.  If there is any sense of lack arising from this need, it can lead to a longing for “being seen” – a sense of want based on longing and lack.  I know this longing well, and it has affected my relationships with important others all my life.  But I have already said that I want to take desire beyond longing and lack.  I am curious – is my desire to be witnessed just about longing and lack? – or is it more than this?

It doesn’t feel like a longing – it feels like a desire.  Partly this is because I have increasingly given myself the opportunities to experience it.  There is a sense of the excitement – frisson – about being witnessed when I move.  I know it will be a different experience from when I am moving within a group without having a focused witness.  It is also different from moving within a public context where I am noticed and watched by others.  There is some similarity to when I am performing for an audience – certainly then there is a sense of intensification – but I don’t have to be performing to feel these effects.

Movement practice is not therapy.  It feels very different to me, even if there are therapeutic outcomes that can arise from it.  So, let me try to distinguish having the attention of a therapist from having the kind of attention I am talking about.

As a dramatherapist, I have developed some understanding of the effects of therapeutic witnessing.  There is, of course, the sense of holding, receiving and supporting, which relates to the developmental roots mentioned above.  It’s an important function of the therapist role – to give the client a healing experience of being seen – and this is on-going in both one-to-one and group therapy.  But, in a therapy group, I have noticed something more than this can arise.  What I have experienced when being actively witnessed in a therapeutic group setting (the focus of the group is on what I am expressing) is an intensification in what I am feeling and a heightened focus in what I am doing.  It suddenly feels more “real”.  I believe I become more connected to myself as well as to the context I am in.  I have talked about this in the past with my dramatherapy students, and they have reported a similar experience.

Witnessing, of the kind I desire, means giving agreed, gentle and curious attention from a kind of distance.  The witness has no particular desire to affect the actions of the person being witnessed.  They have no particular agenda for the other within their role – although, just by witnessing, they do affect them.

I had a lovely experience recently of being witnessed in a movement group.  The instructions to the witness were to allow and witness the other’s “complexity” as they moved. I felt the usual “frisson” and also an intensification of my awareness and focus.  But something more than this began to happen – I felt free.  And with this a kind of playful joy arose.  Was it my complexity being “allowed” that enabled this?  Was it the quality of the attention my witness gave me?  Was I just at that place in my own process where this could happen?  Or a complex mixture of all of these?

The context of a group seems a factor in what I experience – whether the witness is another in the group, or the group, itself, is witnessing.  Is this about having a social context? – about the primal group (family)?

 

 

 

Desire as Life

 

It is possible to view, and to feel, desire as life force: the desire of each alive being to have its own life – the desire to grow, to express one’s being, and to procreate – the desire for life to create more life.  In early spring the desire for the return of the light arises strongly in me and others – for the return of the life that light brings.  Now the light is returning, there is a huge energy for life seen and felt all around.

In my life I have experienced several bouts of lengthy depression – some deeper and longer than others.  In that place, desire disappears.  I have never arrived at the point of reaching a true desire for death, but I certainly know the lack of desire for anything at all.  There has always been something that keeps me going – but never feeling like desire.  Eventually, I have learned that it does not last.  The last time it arose, I saw it and knew it quite quickly – and knew I just had to wait it out.  It was an awareness that took the darkness and fear out of depression – but not the lack of desire, energy, motivation and joy in life.

Over 30 years ago, in my Jungian readings, I came across the metaphor of a mythological journey of descent for depression – and saw that I could view it as my psyche needing time in the underworld.  I couldn’t follow it there – my body left empty in the land of the living.  I had to wait for re-emergence, and the time needed has varied from a few weeks to many months.  But learning about, and resonating with, the mythological journey to the underworld, Earth’s seasonal cycles, is one thing.  It took more years and further descents for the realisation of this to become embodied and part of my deep knowing.  Discovering the metaphor was a seed of understanding, not the lived understanding itself, which required repeated journeys into the underworld of depression.  These kinds of insights keep deepening with lived experience.

As shown in the poem below, there is a kind of longing in depression – but it is not desire.

Turning

 

I have wanted to lie down in a muddy field –

to have rain dissolve my bones and my flesh –

to become earth again.

 

I have wanted my body to be carried by a river

out onto the sea –  shifted like driftwood –

above the deep wet.

 

I have wanted to stretch and thin out –

the wind to blow through me –  my cell walls to open

like wings to the air.

 

Fleeing like Daphne, this longing to shapeshift –

turn away from the fire – has never endured.

I return to desire.

Lemon Desires

Desire is everywhere.  I was recently presented with a number of items and invited to choose the one I desired – I went straight to a lemon.

Lemon Desires

 

This lemon wants to have my attention – and it does.

It wants me to break open its bright yellow skin.

As I do, my desire increases with its

only-possible-as-lemon scent.

Its desire meets and engages my desire.

We are in a mutual desire relationship.

 

This lemon wants its seed released

to germinate, to reach for the warmth,

then the light of the sun.

 

This lemon wants to express its treeness –

to root, branch, leaf and blossom –

to open its blossom, exude nectar and pollen –

to arouse the desire of bees.

The exotic, erotic blossom desires to pollenate

and be pollenated.

 

This lemon embraces the desire of

seed, tree and blossom to fruit –

and requires the whole cosmos

for its fulfilment.

I desire to be a willing participant

in this relationship of desire –

to see, to touch, to hold, to smell,

to break into, to taste –

too sour!

What is Desire?

In many conversations I have had about writing this blog and exploring desire, there comes the question of definition:  What is desire?  I don’t feel any urge to answer this in a definitive way.  I have already said that longing, for me, is not desire – and yet I know it is an important element of some desires.  It just does not equate with desire for me.

However, I am always interested in what others say about this question.  A friend recently sent me this quote, which is from “Abraham Hicks” who is a channelled teacher.  I have nothing to say at the moment about the value or not of channelled teachings, but I found the quote interesting:

We would describe the sensation of desire as the delicious awareness of new possibilities.  Desire is a fresh, free feeling of anticipating wonderful expansion.  The feeling of desire is truly the feeling of life flowing through you.  But many people, while they are using the word desire, feel something quite different. Desire for them often feels like yearning.  For while they are focused upon something that they want to experience or have they are equally aware of its absence.  And so, while they are using words of desire, they are offering a vibration of lack. They come to think that the feeling of desire is like wanting something that they do not have.  But there is no feeling of lack in pure desire.

I recently wrote a “found” poem on desire as a verb.  A found poem is one that is basically something the poet has found, and turned into a poem just by how it is arranged.  This poem I “found” in my much used, very battered paperback Thesaurus, which has been a companion for about 55 years. I have hardly changed what was there on the page and it is still in the same order that it was.

To Desire: Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus, 1963

 

To wish, wish for, care for, affect,

like, take to, cling to, fancy.

To prefer, have an eye to, have a mind to.

To have a fancy for, have at heart, be bent upon.

To set one’s heart (or mind) upon,

covet, crave, hanker after, pine for, long for.

To hope, etc.

To woo, court, ogle, solicit, fish for.

To want, miss, need, lack, feel the want of.

 

Note how Roget finishes with lack.  And there is no inclusion of anything like what Abraham Hicks describes as “pure desire”.  What is this “pure” desiring?  What jumps out for me in the Hicks quote is the word “expansion”.  This word resonates with my own sense of deep desire – that it is an opening to, rather than a closing around, the other, whatever that other may be.  This quality of expansion takes desire out of the realms of craving and of lack.

 

 

Wings of Desire

The poem below is named after a wonderful Wim Wenders’ film from 1987 called Wings of Desire.  Filmed in black and white, it tells the story of an angel whose task is to support mortals in need on the streets of Berlin.  There are many deeply touching moments in this film, but the crux of the story is that the angel falls in love with a trapeze artist and renounces his angelic status to become human so that he can love her more fully.

I have two children, first a son and then a daughter.  I feel utterly blessed in this.  I still remember the powerful desire for children that gripped me in my early 30s.  Each time it was different.  The first time there was a viseral tension in it: must have!  But the second time was different.  As the poem shows, I felt my heart calling out and a definite answer came back.  After her birth, I never felt the desire to have a baby again – although I love babies.

Wings of Desire

For Alice

 

Standing in weak winter sunshine

on the draughty floorboards

of our small tied cottage,

I closed my eyes and silently

called from my heart,

“Are you there?”

 

To my surprise, you answered

with a soft feather touch on my face –

my desire for you touched

by your desire for me –

this body – this life.

 

For days after,

in solitary moments,

I felt you fluttering around me –

and then a great calm.

 

It was no surprise

when the sickness began.

Had you been a boy,

your name would have been

Gabriel.

 

Do you care?

This is a picture of me about 3 years old with a kitten.  My father took slides and this one was so old and underexposed that I had to have it professionally dealt with to reveal even this much detail.  But I like it.  To me it shows that 3 year old Mary knew how to care – and that my care was acceptable.

To care – to take care – to care about – to care for…

Since I was a small child I have had the desire to care. This deep desire is found in many living beings – maybe all. It interests and disturbs me that when I express it, this desire to care has been sometimes met by others with a mixture of ambivalence, diminishment, distrust, even mocking or by suggestions that it is somehow inappropriate, excessive, misguided or a bit sad – rather than it being accepted as just the care that I desired to show.

My desire to care has, at times, been associated with a peculiarly negative image of mothering – as if I must be a smothering or insensitive mother, more concerned with my own needs and desires than the needs and desires of those I care for.  I am sorry to say this has mostly come from men – rather than other women.

Yes – my experience of being cared for at birth and through my childhood was not ideal.  The experience of Lemn Sissay’s was far worse, and yet it is clear that he cares deeply and has made a very positive impact with his caring.  Yes – we can displace our need for care by attempting to care for others, not always meeting their actual needs – and it is essential to become aware of this.  But is this all that is going on when others push back, belittle or criticise our care for them?  Of course it is more complicated, involving individual histories and circumstances.

But is it sometimes that they are expressing a fear of the whole realm of care?  Fear of their own vulnerability and need for care?  Their own lack of care and caring?

To care is the foundation of love and of compassion.  We need to talk more about caring, not just side-line it to the arena of care for the ultra-vulnerable – the very young, elderly, disabled and dying.  We need to examine our own relationship with care.  Do we care?  What do we care about?  How do we care?  Are we caring enough?  How easy is it to just not care?

We need to urgently look at our own lives through the lens of care – to begin to find the best ways to care for ourselves, each other and our whole environment.  Each of us needs to more identify with Mother Earth – to challenge the misogynistic negative mother image that is insidious in Western culture and the relegation of care to “carers.”

It is often said that one needs to learn to take care of oneself first before being able to care for others – and there is some wisdom in this.  But my experience is that it is more a case of slowly learning to include myself in my caring – to continue to care deeply about others, but also include myself in that care.  Sometimes I need to focus more on caring for myself, when it clearly is not happening enough – but also to keep desiring to care about everything.

Desire Arises From Contact – a Buddhist perspective

Contact is fundamental:  “The Eros of reality begins with touch.  There is no life without contact.  Without touch there is no desire, no fulfillment – and no mind.”1   I will go more deeply into Eros and touch in another posting.  Here, rather, is my opportunity to discover how much I have really absorbed the basic Buddhist teachings on desire – after trying to understand them for almost 30 years.

In Buddhism they speak of “sense contact” as the primary experience that can lead to desire in terms of grasping, clinging, attachment and aversion – all of which result in the kind of suffering Buddhists call “dukkha”.  Sense contact, in itself, is not a problem – that just happens by being alive.  The problems come in what the mind can do with it.

Nature has designed living beings to move towards what is “pleasant” and move away from what is “unpleasant”.  This is necessary at the base level for survival and, in itself, there is not a big problem in this – except you find you cannot simply do it.  Human life is hugely complex, full of obstacles to our desire for our existence to be pleasant.  Even simple organisms cannot escape their own demise.  And don’t assume sensory pleasures will always be comfortable either.  If we eat too much lovely food our stomach hurts.  If we attach to a lover, it pains to part.  The beautiful rose blossom opens and soon falls apart and drops to the muddy ground.  The things we want – desire – will often be uncomfortable at times.  I want to meditate – I have a strong desire to do so – it could be said that I really love it – but sometimes it causes my knees to hurt.  Many of the things in life which I have truly desired, my children for instance, have caused me great heartache at times.

Some unpleasant experiences need to be gone through.  The task is to be with them rather than turn away and close off from them.  This is not easy.  It’s a kind of “swimming against the tide” and is why there is such a strong emphasis on practice in Buddhism.  You need to practice – lots – with the small, everyday unpleasant things, so that you can stand a chance of being able to open to and embrace the big unpleasant things, like dying.  The reward for being able to do this is peace of mind – for some, a very deep peace of mind indeed.

Change is the only thing you can count on.  If you embrace impermanence, there can be a great deal of joy – even, and sometimes especially, in the changing itself.  Each changing has its own pace and is in consort with every other change connected to it.  If you resist the changing – and its pace – that is what the Buddhists call “dukkha” – and dukkha is distinctly unpleasant.  The Buddhist scholar and teacher, John Peacock, once described it as “like slowly rubbing your arm against a brick wall.”  That really spoke to me.  You would think that, due to its ultimately unpleasant nature, we would not indulge in it the way we do.  But our minds are restless, always seeking to grasp the pleasant, however we view this, and push away the unpleasant.  Nothing is ever quite right – it is always “unsatisfactory”.  “Craving” is often defined as a sense of “unsatisfactoriness” and it is.  But this gives no sense of how deeply unpleasant it can make our minds and lives feel.  Dukkha is what happens when desire becomes “craving” – a sense of constriction around the experience of wanting and not wanting.  Instead of opening to what is, there comes a closing and tightening, leading to all kinds of tortuous mental and emotional activity, which can feel very visceral indeed.

This is only scratching the surface of Buddhist practice and philosophy – but it is enough for now.  There is certainly a lot of craving in many desires.  My question here is:  Is it possible to desire without craving?  What does that feel like?

1 Weber, Andreas (2014) Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology; White River Junction, Vermont; Chelsea Green Publishing; p 16.

Death and Desire

A week ago, I started awake in the early hours with fear flooding my body.  The realisation was that, when my mother was my age now, she was probably already in the first stage of the dementia that claimed her life 10 years later.  As her sister also fell victim to dementia, there were some greater than average odds that I might too.  I don’t have much time!  The fear has stayed with me in smaller and larger waves – and fear, as I well know, can be paralysing.  But I keep moving and watching the fear moving in my body and mind.  I spoke about the fear to a few trusted others.  Naming it out loud helped, but it felt very vulnerable.

I was due to give a poetry reading a few days later, and had decided to read Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”  as my closing offering – a tribute to her.  She has had no small effect on me over the years – all positive – and she met her own death very recently.  Mary Oliver’s poems seem always to speak to my own deep desire to connect with life – to be fully awake and attentive to the ordinary joys endlessly available in this unfathomable world I find myself in.  It’s the simple and invaluable gift her poems give to anyone willing to receive – and in this poem she reminds us, Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Andreas Weber, in his book, Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology, devotes a whole chapter to Death.  He claims that Aliveness must be able to fail if it is to be truly alive.  Only because of death does life become creative.1  And then, Stubbornly insisting on life can result in the opposite.  The frantic desire to ward off death can actually invite it.  Conversely, if you wish for life you must be prepared to welcome death…Perhaps we can speak of a biocentric tragedy, of a rift that cleaves the living heart and makes it bleed.  But this division alone is what makes space for desire, it frees this desire, this longing to reveal itself in snowstorms of hawthorn blossoms, in the swifts’ joyous arcs through the evening air…2

Of course – the beauty, poignancy and aliveness of impermanence – cherry blossoms.  Why else write poems?

But I have desires about how I want to die, too – as did Mary Oliver.  In her poem “When Death Comes” , she says she wants to be able to step through the door full of curiosity.  Ah!  I desire to do same!  To die the death of the fully alive.  To open to death as I would to a lover, not a thief.  Fat chance if I succumb to Alzheimer’s!  Death is not a thief, but dementia is – slowing taking every meaning from you, crumb by crumb, connection by connection, brain cell by brain cell.  It angers and frightens me.

I wrote about my mother in Nothing Special: “My Mother’s Kitchen”

My mother’s kitchen was her kingdom.

She ruled there as despot and sage –

copper bottomed saucepans rubbed to a shine

with vinegar and salt –

cupboards with Lazy Susan circular trays

that turned around bringing

spices from China and India,

condiments from Italy and Japan,

spinning around into her easy reach.

 

Dishes were rinsed from right to left

and into the dishwasher –

but not the lead crystal

or the bone-handled knives.

 

She cooked with concentration,

subtlety and sincerity.

It was her poetry

and her pride.

 

But she was left walking through it

one heavy autumn day

with a spoon in her hand.

Looking at it, she turned to me and asked,

“What is this for?”

 

I can, and will, keep exploring and opening to my deep desires for as long as possible.  And I can also feel that death, itself, makes this space for desiring.  But how will my fear of dementia impact this?  What is this for?

 

1 Weber, Andreas (2014) Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology; White River Junction, Vermont; Chelsea Green Publishing; p 50.

2Ibid; p 60.

 

 

The Desire to Name – Naming with Nigel

For me words are a way of touching.  I am touched by words and I offer words as a means of touching others.  Naming is at the heart of language and infants are enthusiastic about it.  Naming locates and separates out – a way of framing.  It invites associations, images, feelings and connections.  Names are magical – even the most simple ones.  For me, naming isn’t about boxing in or defining, which is just limiting and alienating.  Naming creates a magical space around something or someone that can allow perception to deepen and become playful.  Our minds want to name – but so do our hearts.  There is a pleasure and some kind of desire expressed in naming.  It creates “the other” that we can then try to somehow touch and to know, despite them being always intrinsically unknowable.  In the deepest sense, there is something erotic about naming.  That is how I have viewed the naming of birds.

Using a book, I have named flowers in hedges, fields and woods – always experiencing the pleasure of naming.  But flowers want to be seen – they are dressed for it – and they stay still.  Birds have always moved my heart – even without being able to name them – and I have felt a ridiculous thrill whenever I have been able to name one.  For the most part, they do not want to be seen by the likes of us, and only want to be heard by us in order to tell us to go away.  Their colours, songs and calls are for others of their own kind.  I have found books of limited use in naming birds.  To name, you have to know where to find them first, know what details to observe and then get them to show themselves enough to observe those details.  Naming by ear is a wonderful skill that hugely increases the naming possibilities when out walking, but is not learned from books.  I can identify a few birds by sound – the ones that are most present in my immediate environment: house sparrow, wood pigeon, swift, magpie, crow, blackbird, buzzard.  But there are even sounds that some of these birds make that I can’t distinguish.  You have to repeatedly put the sound and the sight together.  Best to have a teacher and guide.  For me, that has been Nigel.

Nigel always insists you have to earn your birds.  His ability to name birds by sight and by sound outstrips anyone else I have personally known.  He is definitely not interested in naming as simply a way to define, and thereby limit, anything.  I feel he appreciates the mystery, the undiscovered and undiscoverable of everything in nature – while still being insatiably curious.  This made him my perfect teacher.

Early on, Nigel taught me to begin learning to what he called “jigsaw”: to try to name a bird by the flying silhouette against the sky.  This opened me up to the sheer beauty of bird shapes in the sky – how they fit there just so.  I realised I already knew some basic jigsaws, mostly the same birds whose sounds I knew, and I began to take more interest in the aerial shapes around me.  I was very pleased with this growing ability, a part of the pleasure in naming.  Then I stayed in a campsite south of London and saw a shape in the sky heading for a very tall tree – a shape I felt somehow didn’t belong there – not a proper part of the puzzle.  I busily jigsawed away.  Was it a pheasant?  No, flying too high – wrong shape.  Was it a corvid?  Definitely not.  It was when I heard it that the penny slowly dropped.  I had seen my first parakeet in the British skyscape!  Pleasure is too tame a word for my feeling at this naming.  Here are just a few of the naming experiences that Nigel has enabled for me:

A Dipper flying into a tunnel next to a reservoir (Is its nest in there?).

Fieldfares in a field (Where else!).

Brent Geese on a sand bar.

Red Kite infiltrating the Dartmoor sky.

Siskins whispering in woods.

A pair of Shovelers feeding at the edges of a lake.

A Ring Ousel on a Dartmoor gatepost.

A Kestrel on a granite boulder.

Reed warblers on reeds.

Goldcrests busy in a tree above a Topsham street.

Wrens shouting and singing out from bushes and hedges.

Meadow Pipits undulating across the moor.

Oystercatchers and Greenshanks in shallow estuary mud.

Cattle Egrets in a water meadow.

And one of the most exciting for me: Crossbills, lots of them, on the tops of tall evergreens.

I am growing more confident in my naming and here are some I have done on my own:

A Chiffchaff on a hawthorn tree a few feet above where I was lying on a Dorset hillside.

And a flock of Goldfinches in the hedge nearby.

A Great Black-backed Gull gliding below my eye line while I stand on a cliff over the sea, amazed by its wingspan.

A pair of Ravens on the ground in a field that later flew into the woods, gronking to each other as they went.

Swifts, Swifts, Swifts and more Swifts swooping through our garden and over the neighbouring houses.  I know them so well yet can’t even imagine what they really are.  And always I want to call out their name to them and everyone around me.

A Garden Warbler singing every day from a telephone line stretching across a garden where I was staying for a week in the North Devon countryside.

Curlews calling in the dusk at Topsham estuary.

A Kingfisher almost dancing above the Thames near Reading (For years I have been wanting to see one!)

And very recently I think I saw and heard a little group of Bramblings.

So, there is this desire in me to name.  Naming in this way is not just a pleasure – it can feel ecstatic!

 

More longing and lack

Many who write about desire do so in terms of lack and longing.  I certainly can feel this lack and longing, as evidenced by this poem I wrote in 2012.  But is the desire only in the lack and longing – even here?

Morning Moment

It’s not quite 6:30 and I wake from a dream I can’t remember –                throw my legs out of bed and turn off the not-yet-ringing alarm clock.  It’s morning again.

I see a smudge of pink through the leaf patterns on the glass in the bathroom window.  Opening it a crack reveals to me broken grey clouds.  It’s a splash-the-face-only day.

Downstairs, dressed in a new blue top and with beads dripping from my earlobes, I know the birds are waiting for me in the garden.

Damp grass (rain last night) – apples and rose petals fallen on the ground.  There it is – that longing  – to enter together with another into the morning scents, the light – and delight – blurring into each other’s being within the living moment.  Morning moment.

There is no one there.

Longing is not desire

Longing is powerless – knowing

I will never have –

can’t have – shouldn’t have.

Longing is tinted with lack

and veined with loss.

Longing and fear of loss

imprison desire.

But I am getting old –

time thins before me.

A passionate woman is

feared by men –

distrusted by women.

Trust me or move aside

because I have a passion for life.

My love is not your longing.

My love is not what you long for.

I desire more than your love –

sweet as it is.

I want to touch and be touched

by everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Baby

During my research into working creatively with fear, I explored some sessions of EMRD (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).  I used the sessions to look at my claustrophobia, which is marked, but not totally debilitating: anxiety in lifts, on the underground, in airplanes, going into caves or other enclosed places, putting on a balaclava, having my head under the bedclothes, etc.  Lots of people have these feelings.  I felt, for me, they might be connected to an experience of accidentally almost being smothered by my brother in the backseat of the car when I was 5 years old.  He had fallen asleep on top of a pillow that was on top of sleeping me!  I was impressed with how working on this memory through EMDR actually significantly reduced my claustrophobia (though not removing it entirely). So I asked the therapist if she felt EMDR could also be used to address my eating issues.  She said possibly, so we had a go.  What emerged was an image of a huge, hungry Bear who felt it could dominate me whenever it wanted to!  This certainly encapsulated the feeling of being taken over described in my previous posting.  That was as far as the EMDR process could take me.  When I explored it more with Sandra Reeve, the message arising from this was that I needed to “dance with the Bear.”  Hmmmm…….  Dance with a bear????

Reading Bromberg [1], who I mentioned in my first posting, offered me a way of viewing the Bear and its effect on me.  He asserts that, “most of the symptoms associated with eating disorders can best be understood as an outcome of dissociation.”  He describes “a never-ending war between parts of self, each denouncing the other around the issue of appetite and desire ”.  He locates “an affectively out-of-control infant within a dissociated self-state that takes on an imperious life of its own”.  This last sounded like it could be the Bear.  And a “war between parts of self” brought to mind another therapeutic method I had come across in my research into working with fear: Internal Family Systems Therapy[2] (IFS).  It focuses on communicating with parts of self.  I contacted an IFS therapist to see if he could help me with the Bear.

I had five sessions altogether and they proved to be both interesting and helpful.  The Bear quite quickly turned into a very large Baby that was cut off from me and all of my other “parts” (literally on the other side of a deep trench) – what is known as an “Exile” in IFS terminology.  With the therapist’s help, I dialogued with lots of other parts of myself that had a let’s-keep-the-Baby-out-of-the-picture attitude – ostensibly protecting me from this very Bad Baby.  These are divided into the “Managers” who organise and control things for me, and the “Firefighters” who react and create little (or big) distracting dramas.  They are aspects of myself I easily recognised.  I then remembered I had actually encountered the Baby many years ago.  It had arisen when I was having Gestalt therapy just before my 40th birthday.  I even wrote a little song about it at the time:

BALLAD OF THE BAD BABY

I’ve been the good baby all of my life.

I’ve been the good girl.  I’ve been the good wife.

I’ve been the good mother.  I’ve been the good friend.

But now I’m afraid that this is gonna end.

 

Refrain:

For, the bad baby’s waking up.

The bad baby’s waking up.

She’s waking up today,

And there’ll be hell to pay.

Yes, the bad baby’s waking up.

 

The bad baby wants to fight.  The bad baby wants to cry.

The bad baby doesn’t love you, and she will tell you why.

The bad baby’s full of anger.  The bad baby’s full of pain.

She knew you wouldn’t love her, that’s why she never came.

 

But,….(Refrain)

 

I’ve tried to take good care of this bad baby inside me.

I’ve kept her in a glass box, but now I’ve set her free.

So if you think you see something strange behind my eyes,

You’ll know that it will be the bad baby on the rise.

 

Yes,…(Refrain)

 

This bad baby isn’t kind.  This bad baby isn’t fair.

This bad baby wants to make a mess of everywhere.

She hasn’t learned to love, and she hasn’t learned to care.

But I know that I can’t live as if she isn’t there.

 

For,…(Refrain)

 

I’m loud and unreasonable.  I want to be heard.

I’m not being fair.  I’m being absurd.

I know that you are angry, and I know you have a right.

But I no longer can keep this bad baby out of sight.

 

Cause…(Refrain)

 

If you think that you know me, if you think that I’m your friend,

I hope that you can see this change through to the end.

She’s very unattractive, but I think that you can see,

This terrible bad baby is the other half of me.

 

Help this bad baby to wake up…(Refrain)  (written 12.11.1989)

My first marriage did not long survive this awakening – too much of a challenge!  But the other dramas of that difficult time pushed my awareness of the Baby back into the unconscious again.  I was not as fully aware as perhaps I might have been that her “awakening” actually signaled a slow but steady rise in compulsive desire around food.  I was still trying to manage her rather than communicate with her. The IFS process helped me to move the controlling parts of myself, the Managers and Firefighters, back just enough for me to reach out and connect with the Baby.  She did not initially want to communicate with me – why should she?  Eventually, I was able to cross over the barrier and we seemed to agree to listen to each other more.  So now I consciously give her ice cream or chocolate cake at times and I cuddle her (myself) more these days.  This feels like some sort of success to me, but still I feel there is more to do in this area of distorted desire.  The IFS therapist observed that my use of an intermittent “fasting” routine, which I have done for almost 4 years since I heard Dr Michael Mosley talk about it on TV, might be my way of reproducing the circumstances of my early weeks of life.  I think he has a point, but it seems to be the least punishing way I have ever found of controlling my weight – and it has other positive health benefits.

Desire confusion around food is on-going.  What I am more able to do now is feel where the desire is coming from.  Quite often, my body is saying, “I don’t want” while the Baby is saying, “I want.”  And my body is getting a bigger voice in my life than it used to.  That voice is slowing strengthening, but I need to remember that the Baby can easily dominate things from behind a screen.

 

[1] Bromberg, Philip M (2011) Awakening the Dreamer, Clinical Journeys; Hove, East Sussex, New York; Routledge.

[2] Schwartz, Richard C (1995) Internal Family Systems Therapy; New York, London: The Guildford Press.

Is Stoicism of any use?

I have been reading Epictetus.  Along with Marcus Aurelius, he keeps popping up in my general reading around philosophy and desire.  They were both Romans (MA was Emperor between 161 and 180 AD).  The classical Greco-Roman perspective was patriarchal with big dollops of misogyny.  So – I’ve said it – that’s the way it was then – but we can still think about their philosophy even so.  They were both adherents of the Stoic school of philosophy.  Epictetus was earlier (c.AD 55-135), and he influenced MA.  Epictetus was born a slave, which is interesting in itself, as he talked a lot about freedom and slavery in relation to desire in his Discourses.  His master had access to the Imperial household, recognised and supported Epictetus’ abilities, and eventually freed him.  For his own safety (philosophers in Rome were out of favour with the Emperor Domitian), Epictetus moved across the Adriatic and founded a school of philosophy at Nicopolis on the west coast of Greece.

Epictetus’ general advice was to focus both your desire and your aversion only on whatever is within your control.  Only then can you be considered free.    He asks, “Can you be forced by anyone to desire something against your will?”1  This gives his student (and us) pause for thought.  He talks a lot about will – of course – and the exercise of restraint.  Anyone who has tried to deal with eating issues knows that will power has its limits – or can work so well that it kills you.

But let’s persevere with Epictetus.  I am going to quote here the entire Chapter 2 from his Enchiridion2:

[1] The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want, while aversion purports to shield you from what you don’t.  If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy.  So direct aversion only towards things that are under your control and alien to your nature, and you will not fall victim to any of the things that you dislike.  But if your resentment is directed at illness, death or poverty, you are headed for disappointment.

[2] Remove it from anything not in our power to control, and direct it instead toward things contrary to our nature that we do control.  As for desire, suspend it completely for now.  Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain.  Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, with discipline and detachment.

Epictetus maintains that if you can do this, it will lead to a state of tranquillity.  In many ways this sounds like the state of equanimity so valued in the practice of Buddhism, where one is no longer gripped by the craving of attachment and aversion.  And, as in Buddhism, it cannot actually be reached by a simple act of will – but requires deep awareness and examination of attachment (desire) and aversion.  Epictetus is not entirely anti-desire – nor were any of the Stoics as far as I know.  The Stoic approach is more what you might call common sense and sticking with the achievable that is moderate and honourable.  He makes it sound simpler than I think he knows it is.  He shows how there has to be a weighing up of what you desire more/most.  If you feel you deeply value freedom and honour (as the Stoics tend to), the choices of turning from desires that are outside your control and engaging in “discipline and detachment” become more obvious.  So – you have to go down deep to feel what it is that you really want.  These deep desires need to be achievable and (as described in the 20/10/2018 post) “hedonic” to be effective at helping to moderate all the other competing desires that can arise.

Amy brought up the Rebel in her comments on 01/11/2018.  I think the roots of this might be in the desires for freedom and for having one’s autonomy respected, deep desires coloured by both cultural and personal differences in their meaning.  You can see these desires arise in infant development, rise again in adolescence – but then often getting lost in the competing desires/demands of adulthood, sometimes leaving people with a sense of not having really lived their own life.  Epictetus must have been able to live with not being free in the ordinary sense (he had no choice while he was a slave), but he obviously deeply valued inner freedom.

Do I want to be “tranquil” whatever that means?  Where was my “choice” in the episode of the Snickers bar (01/11/2018)? And, as I pointed out, there are cultural forces like shame that enter in.  Is this part of “discipline and detachment?  It doesn’t quite feel like that.  But Epictitus does make sense to me, too – especially in the idea of desire needing to be somehow “achievable”.  And inner freedom feels immensely desirable.  Do we all want to be free?  And what does that mean to each of us?  I was listening today to some songs of freedom from the South African freedom struggle – the desire was powerful there.

  1. Discourses, Book IV:74
  2. Discourses and Selected Writings; Penguin Classics

Who or what is taking me for a ride?

If I put “desire” into the alchemical vessel, will its golden essence be found?  That’s kind of what I’m hoping to do, but I’m thinking it’s very easy to end up with fool’s gold.  The connection between fear and desire can be seen in some of the possible “impurities” I’ve been considering:

  • Drives/needs: for food, sex, safety, security, a sense of self-worth etc. These are baselines for desire rather than desire itself, but the potential for confusion is present even at this level.  For instance, the overlap in desire imagery between food and sex has often been noted.  When basic needs/drives are frustrated or damaged, they might lead to problematic desires connected with:
  • Addictive behaviours & substance addiction
  • Obsession
  • A focus on worldly desires such as for wealth, power, conquest, fame, etc.
  • Longing: It seems to me this is not as able to motivate action as desire is. It even can lead to chronic inaction. Pothos was one of the Erotes and symbolised longing or yearning.  It’s interesting that his flower was one that was used at funerals!  Are we in the realm of Freud’s Thanatos?
  • A focus on physical pleasure/hedonism: Might this be a distraction or escape from facing inevitable mortality?

 

Before going deeply into desire, the surface area needs to be examined – then, ideally, to go down layer by layer.  I seriously doubt I will be that systematic but, as archaeologists know, what is discovered on the surface can give important information about what might be below.  I wrote an essay in high school on “Why I want to be an archaeologist.”  Was this the beginning of my desire to dig down deeply?  Instead I became a therapist, and it’s my daughter who now has a PhD in archaeology.  I’m not sure I have an archaeologist’s patience.  There will be a few spontaneous plunges and resulting re-surfacing that might happen in this enquiry.

On the surface of my life is a certain desire to eat in a unregulated manner that seems to take possession of me and does not really relate to any current actual need for food (although it probably relates to my very early actual needs for food/comfort etc.).  There is a difference, according to much on-line advice, between hunger (naturally arising from natural need) and appetite (the desire for food), which in either extreme (excessive or repressed) falls within the impurity of addiction in the above list.

I have always had difficulties with impulsive/emotional eating, often when I am tired, or when I am living in my head or when I am unhappy, frustrated, anxious or angry.  I am one of millions who suffer from this.  There are so many of us you might as well call it normal.  But it is very humiliating be thrown out of control so frequently around food, and this is made worse by the pressures and shame our culture projects onto women’s bodies and appetite.  Ever since knowing the circumstances of my birth, I have felt my eating issues were rooted in my birth experience and then compounded by my relationship with my not-quite-available mother as I grew up.  I have written about my birth and my mother elsewhere in Nothing Special, Experiencing Fear and Vulnerability in Daily Life (2015, Triarchy Press), but, in a nut-shell, I was separated from her at my hospital birth and brought to her every four hours for “ten minutes a side” –  then firmly taken from her again.  My father was away and the hospital wouldn’t let my mother go home until he returned two weeks later.  My mother said by then I was “a very good baby”, meaning I didn’t make much of a fuss.  In my childhood, while she was providing my food (and she was very good at this), I remained unaware of any impulsive eating.  But I did suck my thumb (a lot) until I was 11/12 years old when shame of the behaviour finally out-weighed the desire.  I also went through a period in late childhood of stealing – mostly little things from five & dime stores that I didn’t even want.  The shame I felt every time was excruciating.  This came to an end when I stole $5 from my mother’s purse.  She asked me about it and I denied knowing anything, but the unbearable shame about lying to my beloved (if unobtainable) mother brought an end to my stealing.  I am noticing the connection between desire and shame arising here.

It was when I left home and started feeding myself that the sense of a lack of control around eating began to be felt.  I have found various ways of managing my weight through my adult life – but not a way of managing the feelings of shame and being out of control around certain foods (usually fatty, sweet things).  I was breastfed, and honour my mother in her insistence on this against the prevailing culture of the time.  Having breastfed my own children, I now know how sweet breast milk tastes.  Sweet is a very primal taste and is associated with feeling nourished, relaxed and held.  Only, indulging in sweet foods doesn’t really provide that, does it?  At least not for long.  It’s been like this: I’m driving home from a long day and know I will be passing a shop.  The desire-thought for a Snickers bar arises in my mind (a neat package of sweet, fat & protein – like breast milk).  I recognise it and think I’ve got a handle on it. I try to let what arises in my mind just flow through me: “You deserve it after such a hard day!” – the taste memory arises – “You’re too weak to stop yourself, aren’t you!” – I smell the Snickers bar.  But I then remind myself about how bad I will feel afterwards, both physically and emotionally, and tell myself that what I really need is a couple of crackers and a cup of tea, followed by a 15 minute lie-down.  Yes – I am almost home and relax a bit.  Suddenly someone else takes control of the car and of me, and I am turning into the local shop, getting out, buying a Snickers bar and eating it immediately in the car.  I drive home feeling defeated and humiliated – but also sort of satisfied.  I have been struggling with various versions of this scenario throughout my adult life and still can’t seem to get out of being taken for a ride by this kind of desire now and again.  I know there are many others who can immediately relate to this.  What to do?

What are the origins of desire?

My first response to this question was to consider the primary experience of “wanting” – where “wanting” might first be felt – from the perspective of becoming newly born:

The Birthing of Desire

 

I want to move!

I want more room – more space!

I want this squeezing to stop!

I want the hurting to stop!

 

I want the warmth I have lost!

I want the holding I have lost!

I want the sounds I have lost!

I want the soft light, soft dark I have lost!

I want the place of just being I have lost!

 

Is anyone there?

I want you.

 

Now…is “wanting” the same as desiring?  My daughter-in-law pointed out that the way we regard the word “want” has changed from the original sense of lacking something required or essential1 to a more selfish “having a desire to possess” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/want).   This possibly reflects the increased value we give to being an individual that has arisen over historical time.

William Irvine2 looks at the connection between desire and motivation, seeing that some types of desires are far more motivating than others.  His conclusion is that hedonic desire (clearly emotional) is far more motivating than non-hedonic desire (seemingly intellectual).  The intellect tends to form “instrumental desires” that lead towards something more rooted in emotion.  There are “chains of desire” in which it can be hard to determine the origin.  But if there is motivation then there is emotion.  He points out that “emotion” and “motivate” come from the same root: “movere,” the Latin for “to move”.  What he calls the “wellsprings” of desire lie in the classic approach/avoidance response – our wanting to feel good and avoid feeling bad.  This response can be seen in just about any life form that can move at all – and it is about surviving and thriving.  From the Buddhist perspective, this leads to attachment and aversion, both forms of what is called “craving.”  I intend to explore the Buddhist view of desire at a later point, but, as my above poem indicates, it may be necessary and natural to be pushed beyond avoiding feeling bad – and feeling bad may be necessary in order to connect with feeling good.  How good it can feel when a pain disappears!

Looking for origins is a never-ending backward glancing.  Behind the infant is the desire of the two people who came together, with varying desires, to create the embryo.  When looking at creation mythology I found a number of myths about “original parents” – and their desires.

Prapto3, a Javanese movement teacher who inspires and informs me, likes to tell one of these stories.  Here is my recalling of it as he told it in June 2015:

Shiva wants to be married – to have sons, make his own community.  He falls in love with a beautiful woman, like fire.  They go on honeymoon, riding the buffalo through the cosmos – Uma is in front, Shiva behind – over the south ocean of Java.  There is a beautiful sunset.  They see the stars coming – the shining of the sky – colours changing – at the same time, the moon is coming.  Uma is so beautiful in stillness, like a flower opening.  Shiva’s desire awakes.  Shiva is lost in desire.  She is flower fire in the cosmos shining!  Shiva wants intercourse.  Uma says, “Please, don’t or the cosmos will see us!”  Uma wants to go home and prepare.  Shiva says, “No! Now! Really, I need it!”  But she didn’t want to.  Uma refuses.  Shiva is angry.  Both become demonic.  Uma goes down and becomes Queen of Demons.  Shiva ejaculated sperm drops to the ocean and lots of demons are born – grow big – eat!  The God of Oceans says, “You cannot eat others.  Go ask your father for food.”  Up to Shiva all the demons go.  Shiva breaks his fangs.  He makes them into the God of Time, Kala.  He sends the God of Time down to Uma.

After the story, Prapto said, “The man cannot understand the meditation of the woman.  Always wants penetration of Emptiness.”

I realise I have wandered all over here.  But “wanting” is a thread through it all.  What else is emerging?

 

 

  1. Little W, Fowler, H W & Coulson J (revised & edited by C T Onions) (1964 edition) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Vol II (p2383); Oxford; Clarendon Press.
  2. Irvine, W B (2006) On Desire, Why We Want What We Want; Oxford, New York; Oxford University Press.
  3. If you want to have a look at Prapto (Suprapto Suryodarmo) moving, try http://www.darc.media/suprapto-suryodarmo-stone-is-not-just-stone/ Filmed at Avebury the same month he told the above story, I am moved by the stillness of the stone, the inner stillness in his movement and the restless traffic beyond.

 

To Begin

I think I am a life-long enquirer, although I have usually seen this as being a “seeker” or “traveller”.  Becoming a dramatherapist was part of the evolving journey, as was becoming a Buddhist.  Enquiry for me is about looking as deeply as I can, both within and without, waiting and wondering, digging around, opening doorways to see what will emerge or where I might step into – and finding ways to creatively express it all.  Always it is about questioning, questioning, questioning.  Enquiry is the thing, answers being not so important to me, feeling too close-ended, while resonances, patterns and connections are stimulating.

This blog arises out a previous self-generated enquiry that ran in various stages and formats between 2012 and 2017.  It started when Sandra Reeve invited me to take part in her first Project Group, a one year movement-based group where each participant would “bring into life a creative project” with her support and that of the other group members.  I still remember the rush of excitement when I received Sandra’s invitation and spontaneously knew I wanted to use the group to explore FEAR.  The project, which I named Working Creatively with Fear, took 5 years in all and found several expressions.  I created a performance of a series of my own poems based on the relationship some of the characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest have with fear.  I ran a “therapeutic enquiry group” on the project’s theme with a group of therapists.  A book of my poetry and photos around the theme of vulnerability was published, and I wrote a chapter on my enquiry for the European Consortium of Arts Therapy Education.  Since the end of 2015, when the poetry book was published, I felt my desire to enquire was seeking out a new direction.

I like to write and am not so bad at it, poetry and essay being my favourite forms.  I am also now 68 years old and feel a bit behind those younger than me (and many older than me) in using the internet for creative purposes – so writing a blog seems like a good challenge.  This blog will not only contain my writing.  I am hoping there will be photography and video in it as well – and if I am feeling very brave, some visual artwork.  I will have to learn as I go.  I am not trying to promote anything, rather the aim is to share my enquiry.  I am curious about how others will respond to it – and what directions this might take me in.  But what am I enquiring into now?  Where do I want to start?  What do I want to explore?  What do I really want?  What is my desire?  Where will it take me?

The idea that came up, seemingly naturally, from my enquiries into fear and vulnerability was to enquire into DESIRE itself.  Why?  It first arose clearly when reading a book called Awakening the Dreamer, Clinical Journeys by Philip Bromberg towards the end of my research into trauma as part of my fear project.  Referring to H R Boris who wrote in the 1980s about working with anorexia, he states that “eating disorders arise when the dysregulation of desire is linked in infancy with the dysregulation of appetite.”  He goes on to say “that the essence of the human condition is having to recognise one’s insufficiency, and that the degree to which one draws satisfaction from human relatedness will keep one from seeking nonhuman solutions (e.g. food) as a means of compensating for the experience of loss.”  Further on he says, for some of us “what in adulthood might have developed into appetite and healthy, regulatable desire, instead, because it is denied the relational context on which that transformation depends, freezes the experience of being an affectively out-of-control infant within a dissociated self-state that takes on an imperious life of its own.”[1]  This immediately and strongly resonated with my own early history and still unresolved issues around eating.  Inability to regulate emotionally is connected with early trauma, which I had been investigating during my fear enquiry.  But desire feels so much more than purely physiological urges and appetite.  What about the desire to create, the desire to explore, the desire to connect, the desire to enter deeply into life, the mind, the heart?  I WANT my desire – but I think it needs to be freed from the limitations of early trauma.

[1] Bromberg, Philip M (2011, p.119) Awakening the Dreamer, Clinical Journeys; Hove, East Sussex, New York; Routledge.