Keeping Company with Shadows

Girl in wood

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life.

C.G.Jung.

Awareness and compulsion cannot coexist, since the latter depends on obliteration of the former…The beginning always involves noticing where you are and what you are doing. Not trying to be anywhere else.

Geneen Roth.

When I started doing yoga a few years ago, I learned something valuable. Our teachers would sometimes put us in a pose and keep us there. Some of these poses became uncomfortable after a short while, and my body would beg for release. The teacher would remind us that our bodies were capable of being in the pose far longer than we thought. What was most interesting was the way my mind reacted (something the teachers also spoke about). Sometimes I found myself checking out mentally, thinking about the day ahead or the delicious smoothie I would have after class. Sometimes I found uncomfortable emotions coming to the surface, ones that intensified the longer we stayed in the pose. The challenge, we were reminded, was to stay with the discomfort: physical, mental and emotional, breathing through it while staying present to it, to be a witness to what was emerging.

This was new for me. The idea that I could stay present to something uncomfortable, without trying to change, analyse or conquer it, was a revelation, and a challenge. It was the start of a journey into myself, to the parts of me that I really didn’t want to acknowledge. I had spent years learning about my fears, anxieties and motivations. I was slowly building up a picture that was starting to make sense. What I hadn’t done was to open myself up to real awareness of the power of some of what lay buried inside. I needed to sit quietly as it rose to the surface, without judgement and without trying to fix it.

I had done a lot of work by then, important work: learning to reorder my thoughts, reducing stress by eating right, getting rest and exercising, reading lots of helpful books and practicing vulnerability, learning to be honest and sincere with others, about who I am and how I feel. All good things, and valuable parts of the process. But I did not know how to be angry or scared without trying to distract myself or overcome these “negative” emotions. I had not yet learned that our emotions are information, ways that our body communicates with us, wise messengers. I just thought they were imperfections to be avoided and ignored.

I wanted to be good, and uncomfortable emotions didn’t fit with my definition of good. I wanted to rise above them, be full of light and sweetness. But the deep places of my heart knew better, and kept reminding me of the shadows lurking behind my attempts at perfection. In The Cry of the Soul, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman remind us that our emotions “connect our inner and outer worlds'” and “open the door to asking hard questions…” They point out that without an honest engagement with these darker parts of ourselves, we will not be able to make sense of our lives.

I am learning to make friends with these feelings and sensations. I am beginning to see them not as unwelcome guests, but as pieces of myself that need tending. I must listen to what they have come to teach me, and value them as guides that help me to live a life of greater integrity and wholeness. This keeping company with shadows is not easy, but it is worthwhile.

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Waiting for Rain

rain pic

The tree that cannot shed its old leaves in the dry season, cannot survive the period of drought.

Nigerian Proverb

Here in Cape Town we are experiencing our worst drought in a century. Local government has issued a warning that we may face the turning off of taps by the middle of March. (We would have to queue at collection points for daily allocations of twenty-five litres each.) We find ourselves saving water in all sorts of ways we’d never imagined: learning to live without long daily showers, flushing our loos with grey water and watching our gardens wither in the heat.

In our “make things happen” culture, it’s hard to be faced with a situation over which we have no control. For all our technological wizardry, we cannot make it rain. There are no how-to videos on YouTube for coaxing water from the clouds, no “Rainmaking for Dummies” on the shelves of the local bookstore. There’s plenty of talk about how the situation could have been avoided, what the powers that be should have done, reasons we face such dire predictions. None of this changes the daily reality for those of us living with endless skies of blue.

As 2017 ends, I find myself turning to thoughts of new things. What does 2018 hold for me? I have plans, and I’m excited about entering into a new season of productivity and action. It’s a bit like planning a garden: laying out the space, preparing the soil, planting, watering, feeding and watching it grow. But what if I do everything I can, apply myself diligently to the tasks of planning, preparing and planting, only to find that no water is there for the growth to happen? What do I do if (and when) my plans wither? I do not have control over everything, and sometimes my hopes and dreams seem to come to nothing. In some endeavours, I feel like I plod along with little to show for my efforts. There’s growth, but it’s stunted and lacking the beauty and fruitfulness I had hoped for.

I could try to tie this metaphor up into a neat lesson on patience and the power of what is accomplished in me, in the waiting and the slow work of living daily into the challenges, trusting that something is happening, even if I can’t see what it is. I believe this is true. I also believe that sometimes the rain does not come; sometimes things die, and sometimes I get only a small harvest from my efforts. I don’t always know what this means, or whether I’ve learned some great and worthy lesson from the experience. I do know that I want to keep ploughing. I want to keep planting seeds and caring for them, because sometimes they do grow.

I like the Nigerian proverb quoted above. I like the reminder to let go of the old. It’s hard to do that in seasons of drought. It’s easier to hold on tight to what I have, afraid that it’s all I have, afraid that I’ll be left with nothing. But then I have less energy and space for anything new. So I am thinking about what must go. I need to let go not only of things, but of old ideas. There are stories inside me that have served their purpose and need revising. (Some need to be left behind altogether.) Here’s to a new year in which we move into the next season of life with courage, faith and a willingness to embrace whatever comes.

I wish you much sweetness, joy and goodness in 2018.

With love,

Carri.

 

Unpacking

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I have a problem with packing. I think some of you may relate; my problem is that I almost always pack too much. I pile in a whole lot of items I think I will need (the words “just in case” often run through my thoughts as I fill my bag). I seldom use everything I take.

This was never the case when we went on trips into the mountains with my dad. We had to carry everything we needed on our backs: food, cooking equipment, clothes, sleeping bags and anything else we required for survival in the wild. I loved it; loved the paring down of everything into absolute essentials. Having to carry your life on your back made it really easy to get clear about what went into your backpack and what stayed behind.

I’ve been thinking on this lately, how to make choices about what to take into the next phase of my journey. So many shiny and beautiful things call for my attention, and it would be nice to do a little of all of it, taste something of everything.

But I find myself less and less interested in doing a little of this and a little of that. Life no longer stretches out into infinity as it once seemed to. I sense a deep desire to give myself fully to a few important things. I want to become clear about what those things are, then act with determination to follow where they lead, without getting distracted or sidetracked.

I wrote about this recently, in a poem called Narrowing. You will find it on the poetry page. You will also find a writing exercise, designed to help you think about some of this for yourself, at This Month’s Prompt.

A Slow Unfolding

time

Everything must be carried to term before it is born…These things cannot be measured by time, a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all!

Rainer Maria Rilke

This morning I gathered leaves and flowers from my herb garden and spread them out to dry. I chopped up some plants that were dying back, put them in a bucket and covered them with water, to make a nourishing tea for other plants. Later I will cut some spinach and put it in a quiche. It is spring here, and the garden is full of nasturtiums rambling uninvited over everything, bright flowers, tomatoes coming up in odd places and more weeds than I can ever manage properly. I think it is beautiful; it’s not a neat, manicured garden. But I love it; I am learning to enjoy simply being in it, and to be a co-creator of an unfolding process of which I am a part. I have given up trying to make everything fit into a vision that I have created. Instead I have entered into a conversation with this little piece of land. I don’t know what it will look like in the months to come, but that no longer matters.

I have written much in the last year about the season of transition in which I find myself. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out a series of clear steps forward. I’ve taken a few of those steps. Some have led where I expected, others have not. Some seem to have disappeared; I look back and they’re gone and I have to start again. I’ve learned so much about myself, about what works for me and about what I really want (as opposed to what I thought I wanted).

And now it is November, only weeks to Christmas. I look back on ten months of change and turmoil, of leaping into new opportunities and seeing where they lead. We’ve experienced our children leaving home, moving house, and the increasingly fragile health of loved ones. It has taken so long for me to realise that there is almost never a clear way forward. There is only today. I need to gather all I know and love and care about, and make of that a kind of framework for making decisions, trusting that the path will unfold.

I will make mistakes, and things will sometimes unravel. I used to think that this meant that I’d failed, missed the perfect plan. I think now that there is no perfect plan, only a gradual movement towards wholeness. The missteps and detours are part of that journey. I am becoming more curious now, more willing to take risks, more comfortable with confusion and not knowing, and with difficult feelings. I cry a lot more; I laugh a lot more too. Like my garden, I can’t say what my life will look like this time next year, and that no longer troubles me. I am happy to give up on constantly trying to clip the edges of my life straight, to pull every weed.

Grief and Hope

love the earth

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. 

Joanna Macy.

I was listening earlier to an interview with Clare Dubois (founder of Treesisters). She spoke about fear and grief, as she wept over the death of trees in Colorado and the devastation of our oceans. She said that fear points us in the direction of our greatest love, and that it is in surrendering to grief that we make our way into the heart of our love and find courage for our work in the world. I needed to hear that, needed reminding that it is in allowing my heart to break open, as Joanna Macy says, that I can engage with life fully enough to move into the world with purpose and energy.

There is so much tumult everywhere: people arguing over flags and anthems, news of corruption and abuse, leaders failing the people they are supposed to serve. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and to retreat. I leave you with more wise words from Joanna Macy. I hope you find in them an encouragement not to retreat, but to immerse yourself more fully in the world, with all its complexity, struggle and beauty.

 

Active Hope is not wishful thinking.

Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued…

by some saviour.

Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life

on whose behalf we can act.

We belong to this world.

The web of life is calling us forth at this time.

We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.

With Active Hope we realise that there are adventures in store,

strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.

Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths

in ourselves and in others;

a readiness to discover the reasons for hope

and the occasions for love.

A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,

our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,

our own authority, our love for life,

the liveliness of our curiosity,

the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,

the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.

None of these things can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.

Distraction

Surrealistic-Pillow-Project-1 - Copy

Newsfeed

 

Someone I don’t know

has just received

“the yummiest homemade all natural peanut butter”.

(I can order a jar for thirty rand.)

Sam Harris (a neuroscientist)

has selected twelve books that everyone should read.

(I haven’t read any of them.)

Someone has shared a map of the world

showing “who every country thinks is most dangerous”.

A lot of the world is covered

in American flags.

Most of Africa is blank.

(Did someone forget to ask them?)

Bookstreet wants to know if I can pass

the Hogwarts Defence Against the Dark Arts Exam.

(probably not)

The Old Farmers Almanac

(there’s a missing apostrophe there)

has a list of common cooking mistakes.

Apparently J.K.Rowling has apologized for “Anti-Trump Tweets”.

(She’d reacted to a fake news report.)

Someone says vaccines are dangerous.

Musi says the parliament needs dissolving.

but the Horse Hippie reminds me that

“This Too Shall Pass”.

Positively Positive wants me to know that the way I make a fist

reveals my leadership style.

(fascinating)

Do I love Elephants enough to sign this petition?

What do I think of this Bronco Riding Disaster?

And I need to celebrate #International Day of Friendship

by reading this article

on the 5 Types of Friendships You Need in Your Life

 

Time for the back button.

I’d rather write a poem.

 

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago. I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and started writing down what came up. It was quite an eye-opener, seeing the posts ranged next to one another like that, in black and white. I wondered why I spend time allowing my mind to jump from one (mostly) meaningless piece of information to another. I thought about the evenings I’ve spent reading, with my cell phone off, challenging myself to focus on one thread of ideas, choosing to move deeply into words that require effort and concentration. I thought about how satisfying it is, and how the words and thoughts of others help me to reflect on my own life more clearly. Reading, writing, reflecting…these pursuits add texture and depth; they keep me from becoming lazy in my thinking.

But it’s not just Facebook. There’s Netflix, TedTalks, Whatsapp groups and a whole lot of other excuses to avoid engaging with meaningful work or real re-creation. I often find that it takes genuine mental effort to pick up a book (or tackle something that I’ve been avoiding) rather than hit the button for an app, check my mails (another distraction) or open Accuweather (because of course it’s necessary to know the exact temperature every hour).

I guess it’s unrealistic to expect that I will forgo these distractions completely, but perhaps I could make some rules for how and when to allow myself a trip down the rabbit hole. And I could think about how to use the technology more intelligently, rather than just falling into undetermined periods of time in which my mind goes into neutral.

I find that I am often anxious about the things I need to do, and diving into distraction is a way to escape that unease. But when I do what I must and get on with the scary things, I feel better. This has been a surprise. Fear is a good salesperson, telling me that if I do what I fear, that I will feel worse, or that something terrible will happen to me. Fear sells inertia, a promise that if I just bury myself in meaningless distraction or hide away from my life, the terror will go away. It’s a lie, but a convincing one. Only as I move into my life, through the discomfort and messiness, do I feel stronger and more empowered. I also experience more joy, and a capacity to see and love others. (Fear and anxiety will keep you trapped in your own mind.)

This is where distractions like Facebook become more insidious for me. They feed that lie. Every time I reach for my phone instead of doing the hard things, I am reinforcing the notion that whatever it is that I fear, is too much for me. I fall for the idea that I am not enough, that I am alone, that I should just give up and go home.

But I have been given capacities and gifts. I have work to do in the world. It helps to know that I am not the only who wrestles with uncertainty and the little voice that says I am wasting my time. Great men and women have battled anxiety, as have friends and family. I am not alone. I am not unique in this struggle.

So today I will get out of bed, open up my laptop, make some calls and venture into the tasks that seem overwhelming. And at the end of the day, I will curl up on the couch with a good book, and feel stronger.

A New Boat

little boat (2)

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

I’ve always liked this quote (frequently misattributed to Mark Twain, actually said by H. Jackson Brown’s mother). It stirs the adventurer in me and makes me want to go out and do Big Things. Unfortunately my natural uncertainty, and a tendency to question my intuition and ideas, has often stood in the way. This has changed over the last couple of years, and I’ve found myself trying all sorts of things. It’s been at times terrifying, and at times exhilarating. I’ve made some mistakes (lots of mistakes) but discovered that I am much stronger, more creative and a lot braver than I thought.

On Saturday Lisa Steyn and I will be doing a storytime launch of our children’s book, Granny’s Butterflies, at The Book lounge. (You can purchase the e-book on Amazon here.) We’ll be doing a reading of the story, and the book will be available to buy. There’ll also be a simple craft activity and snacks on sale. This is definitely one of those throwing away the bowlines moments. Part of me feels like running away, but another part of me is excited and looking forward to the day.

I came across this poem by Mary Oliver a few weeks ago, and it made me think. I’ve always been someone who loves order, structure and calm. I am learning that I need to live my life in a way that honours my essential need for ‘days that rhyme‘. But there is much I cannot control, and sometimes leaps of faith lead to unpredictable outcomes. I am beginning to appreciate that this can be good for me.

If I Wanted a Boat

I would want a boat, if I wanted a

boat, that bounded hard on the waves,

that didn’t know starboard from port

and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed

dolphins and headed straight for the

whales, that, when rocks were close,

would slide in for a touch or two,

that wouldn’t keep land in sight and

went fast, that leaped into the spray.

What kind of life is it always to plan

and do, to promise and finish, to wish

for the near and the safe? Yes, by the 

heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want

a boat I couldn’t steer.

Mary Oliver