In our final blog on the theme of ‘This is a Map to Where I Live’, Karen shares some passages from Mary Oliver’s book, “Upstream” and juxtaposes them with her own childhood experiences. In a way, what Oliver expresses is a neat distillation of the spirit of the blogs on this theme, which have preceded this one, and which were published on the 8th, 17th and 22nd of May respectively. Thank you to all who have contributed.
“Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity”. Mary Oliver
When I was a child, around four or five years old, I had a treehouse, built in the boughs of a walnut tree by my father. It had a floor made of wooden pallets, a small square of tarpaulin for a roof and a short ladder, to help me get up into the lower branches. Here, I would play with my dolls, draw and meditate. Not the formal meditation of an adult, which I would learn later, which is a more disciplined and directed act of reflection, but a continuation of the natural meditative state that children are born with and remain in for as long as the world allows.
I would stay in my tree for hours, often looking out across the cultivated fields adjoining our rented smallholding, which spread out in all directions. I enjoyed staring into the distant woodland and watching the bird and animal life nearer to me. Sometimes I would create stories in my mind about the creatures who lived amongst the trees. At other times, I would just sit quietly and look towards the horizon. When it rained, or even in a thunderstorm, my mother would simply bring me a plastic mac and Sowester and go back indoors.
When I was six, we left the smallholding and the treehouse. My parents bought a small house, just down the road. Here, my ‘playground’ widened to include the meadows, brooks and lanes nearby; lanes full of cow parsley, primrose and vetch, in spring; blackberries and cob nuts, in autumn. When my social circle widened, and I got my first second-hand bicycle, summer holidays would see us cycling for miles, only stopping to eat the jam sandwiches and elderflower pop that our parents had provided.
That time was a gift. It grounded me. It allowed me to remain in a state of innocence for much longer than most children are able. Whilst my senses and intellect were developing, commensurate with my age, I was not subject to unneeded or unhelpful stimuli that would drag me prematurely from a natural state into a world of wants and desires. I was a primitive, in the most positive sense of the word.
Soon life would change. My father would leave us and my mother, distraught, would sell the house. I would move from the gentle meadows of childhood into the far more rocky terrain of adolescence and the realities of the everyday world. But those early formative years, steeped in nature, had done their work, they developed an inner trig point, to which I could return, whenever I felt blown off course.
When later I became a Buddhist and learned to meditate more formally, it was a homecoming. I still meditate most naturally out of doors, in the fresh air, on a garden bench or sitting in a field.
Mary Oliver writes, again:
” And we might, in our lives, have many thresholds, many houses to walk out from and view the stars, or to turn and go back for warmth and company. But the real one – the actual house not of beams and nails but existence itself – is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans and stars, or from pleasure or wretchedness either, or hope, or weakness, or greed” 1
Continuing with our theme of ‘A Map to Where I Live’, Mo Henderson prompts us to accept the “challenge of getting to know who we are and embrace reality with trust” in order to “be aware of the needs of our neighbours in the communities where we live”.
When spring begins in the temperate zone of Northern Europe myriads of birds come together in numberless bands to fly northwards. Here, where I live in Northern France, swallows arrive to rear their offspring, having made their miraculous 6,000-mile journey from South Africa. Amazingly, many return to the same mud-built nest, made the year or years before, enabling recycling of their previous home once again.
I am always fascinated by the way these little birds illustrate what mutual aid means for them. Watching them gather together for safety at night and collecting to migrate in swarms when they are ready to return South. They instinctively show a protective force, an energy of protection for all of their species. Coming together at nesting time is common with many birds and if one visits a nesting ground, there is often a sense of peace and harmony. Even the weakest of little birds benefit from this cycle of nesting gatherings. If a large bird of prey approaches to steal eggs or chicks, they are immediately surrounded and chased away. I have seen this happen at a local sea bird nesting area on the shoreline rocks near where I live, when eggs and young chicks are threatened, the birds will rise up together and chase the invader away. Also, I see it with crows in the forest nearby, gathering to chase away a hunting buzzard.
With birds and other animals, mutual aid seems a natural phenomenon. For example, the enormous ‘effort’ the swallows make to rear their chicks and ensure their survival, whether biological, instinctual or with an element of feeling and belonging together. After all, today many countries are naming animals now as sentient beings, capable of experiencing fear, stress and pain, both at a physical and psychological level, and I would add a sense of ‘universality’.
How capable are we humans in today’s world of climate change, pandemics, and social and economic divisions, to be aware of the needs of our neighbours in the communities where we live? To connect with others in a way which is helpful for all. You are probably already doing so if you have ever shared a meal with a stranger, realizing it was easier and better to do it together, instead of depending on others to do it for you. Have you ever quickly run to help someone who has fallen, without even having to think about it? I believe there is a natural sense of belonging at the heart of human nature and offering to others is part of that heart, albeit sometimes unconsciously. What is our natural ‘rhythm of life’? There seem to be many things which distract and divide us from being at ‘home’ and aware of the needs of our local community and the wider conditions which are so closely interconnected.
In my own experience, sometimes I sense my body ‘knows’ but my mind can be separated and ‘homeless’. Listening to my own heart means being present wholeheartedly with body and mind. Being at home with myself involves a certain kind of ‘effort’. The most basic, traditional definition of ‘Right Effort’ is to exert oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities. I often struggle to understand what it is I need to do to be helpful to everyone. However, life is what comes to us and, as I understand it, we don’t need to search for how to help, we simply need to be aware of what is happening, be still with it and respond, this may mean doing something or nothing.
‘The right application of effort in training is a bit of a paradox. If we do not try to make some changes in our lives, what is the point of undertaking training in the first place? But letting go of things such as “trying” is itself one of the changes that we need to make! What are we to do?’ Daizui McPhillamy ‘The Eightfold Path’.
I have learned many a lesson through the experience of becoming distracted by over-concern or attachment to working projects and the subsequent consequences of dividing myself from ‘the heart of the matter’. For me, being still and at home with myself and others has often been a challenge.
‘The danger of division is insecurity and uncertainty. When the mind sees division not intellectually, not emotionally, but actually, then there is a different kind of action’.
Research has shown that birds, animals and other creatures who help each other are more likely to survive in an evolutionary sense. They can act in a natural sense whether instinctual, biological or as sentient beings. Where are we humans heading on an evolutionary scale?
‘But whatever the opinions as to the first origin of mutual-aid feeling or instinct, in the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace back to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethics, progress of humanity’.
(Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution by Peter Kropotkin page161).
Can we as human beings spread our wings and rise up like the little birds to protect and bring safety to help others each in our own unique way? Unlike the birds we have choices, but first we have the challenge of getting to know who we are and embrace reality with trust, not knowing what comes in the constant changing and unfolding of life, but realising this is truly our home, wherever we may be.
Mia writes in response to this month’s theme, The Map To Where I Live
My parents loved to travel, and created the chance to do it with their work. (They’d both worked their way from humble beginnings into careers in development economics and science.) My siblings and I travelled with them. As a result, I grew up moving countries and sometimes continents every few years.
Maybe this sounds like an incredible way to grow up; I don’t know. In retrospect I think I was lucky, though at the time, of course, it was all I knew. On the one hand, I was jealous of children who never moved or travelled; they seemed to have a lot more friends and confidence than I did. I felt insecure and anguished from never having the chance to attach to people and places outside of my small nuclear family. On the rare occasions that I did make a connection, I would soon be forced to leave them behind, and most likely never saw them again.
On the other hand, I lived like a very small social anthropologist, living literally side-by-side with people of every age, class, and from almost every corner of the world. I was endlessly curious about their lives, drives, ‘loves’ and ‘hates’; all the ways in which we humans are different from each other, and in which ways we are the same.
I adored where I lived aged eleven for almost three years, in Zimbabwe. This was in the 1980s after Independence, when to many Zimbabweans the country felt more safe, strong, free, and full of possibility than it had before. It seemed a perfect environment for a young pre-teen.
When my parents’ work contract ended, I desperately tried to stay on my own, by getting myself adopted by a close friend’s missionary family. My parents were understandably not willing to let me go however, and I braced myself for another repeat of grey and angst-ridden Swedish suburbia. Sweden was my family’s “default country”: most of us had been born there, and our passports and my father’s work HQ were based there.
A year or so later, my family was supposed to move to Indonesia. At the last minute however, my father’s new work contract fell through. Somehow I ended up living on my own in Jakarta aged only fifteen because I’d already been enrolled in school there.
While living alone in a completely new culture was a shock, just like in Zimbabwe I fell in love with the country, the school, my new friends and opportunities.
Unfortunately at the end of the school year, again I was not able to find a way to stay. I was told to return to Swedish suburbia again, where I despondently stumbled my way through the remaining years of secondary school.
By the time I finally graduated school I felt exhausted, lonely, and out of sync with my peers. I was eighteen and had struggled to live on my own for three years, as well as having attended nine schools (in four education systems, on three continents). I hadn’t even begun my adult life, but I knew down to my bones what love and loss were.
Looking back I can count how by that time, I had loved and lost four times. Not in the romantic or familial sense that people usually mean when they say that; rather I had lost the sense of somewhere to call “home”: somewhere to belong; familiarities that I’d slowly built, with continuity of friendships, interests, and relative safety. A comfortable-enough place to eat dinner at night, and to sleep. Somewhere to be happy, or comforted when I was sad.
Humans tend to naturally and mostly unconsciously build healthy attachments to the place where they find themselves. As a toddler, I naturally attached to wherever I lived. As a teen however I found far greater belonging and joy in Zimbabwe and Indonesia, than in what others called my “home country”. I realised that to some extent—if there is some sense of safety, joy, and connection—it is possible to choose where (and who) to attach to.
I moved to London to study, reasoning that a degree in Development would allow me to work in the places that I loved. What I learned instead was that engineering would have been far more useful, and I was not an engineer. Nor was I cut out for the other jobs in demand where I wanted to live — English teaching, business, medicine, politics, and missionary work.
I was drawn to psychology, the arts, and journalism. But with the exception of war reporting, these careers typically required years of slow growth: building a work portfolio in a small hometown, as my parents had managed to do, and then maybe by your 40s working your way up and out—if you can and wish.
I tried it. I wanted so badly the traditional and sensible approach to work. However by the age of 29, despite my best attempts, I was no closer to the sense of connection that I yearned for. Instead, I had battled clinical depression multiple times. I felt unable to bear any longer the shadow of alienation that followed me around, and yearned for a place—any place—that truly felt like home.
With a sense of urgency, I approached the puzzle the other way around. “Maybe I should save up and move to somewhere I love first,” I thought, “and THEN try to find a local job once I’m there.” It was risky; I would have to leave behind my job, friends, fiancé, and the house he’d bought (that I had never felt at home in). But my life was in my hands, and I felt that I had no choice.
For almost one whole joyful and adventurous year, I worked as a columnist in Thailand—another country that I had always loved.
Unfortunately because of my lack of relevant experience, I couldn’t secure a long-term work and residence permit. I returned to the UK and ended up for many years in the same situation as perhaps most: in a good-enough place that would have me, doing good-enough work when I could get it.
As a Buddhist, I kept trying to be whole-heartedly present and to do my best: to choose wherever I already found myself, if I had no other choice. But my heart still wasn’t in it, and I was back fighting both bills and depression.
Until one day, after eleven years had passed, I felt like a grown butterfly looking with surprise back at my discarded cocoon. Sometimes change is simultaneously seismic and gentle. Without warning or apparent cause, it seemed that nothing and yet everything had changed. I might as well have been flung into a parallel galaxy or taken over by an alien life form, for all the familiarity that my usual, ordinary, daily life still held for me.
It was unchanged on the surface: I had the same name, address, and appearance; the same flat that I struggled to pay the rent for; the same cheap-but-nice throw pillows, old desk and kitchen utensils.
But somehow, all these things and identifiers had become void of intrinsic significance. In other words, they no longer felt familiar; I could no longer take them for granted. At the same time I could see that at their core, along with all other things—somehow, beyond material form—my life and all the people and things in it were incredibly precious; treasures.
I hadn’t taken any drugs. So by which circuitous route, I wondered, had I arrived in this brand new “place”?
Maybe it was pure chance. Or maybe everything we do adds up, even as we despair that our efforts do not appear worthwhile. Since I hadn’t been successful at choosing the big life-changing things like work, home and family, I had resigned myself to chipping away at doing my best in all the tiny day-to-day choices that I did have: my thoughts, words, and actions, as they related to the Buddhist precepts. I don’t know; other than that one day, without my doing anything differently, my life had completely and irrevocably changed in every way.
This month’s blog theme is “The Map To Where I Live”. Like a nurse seeking a vein from which to tap blood, I had spent my life seeking a map that would lead me to the river of life itself. A few times I had been lucky to fall into that river, and to find myself fully and happily submerged. Equally unpredictably though, I’d been flung back out into what felt like an unforgiving desert. Then I’d spent years feeling lost and trying to trace my way back.
But there is no “way back”. If there’s anything, it’s not a linear path but a spiral: a gradual climb, as if towards the sun. Familiar challenges return to us again and again, sometimes harder or softer. And as long as the challenges don’t kill us, the best we can do is keep trying.
Within this work, imperceptibly is something akin to progress. While this on the surface is the opposite of ‘the way back’, because the shape of life is a spiral, perhaps even the smallest step leads home: to the place that we’ve been trying so hard to return to.
‘Home’ for me was not a place after all, but a state of heart over time.
Many years ago, I walked into an empty house. We were moving in, the furniture van was on its way. It was a different sort of house for us – modern, detached, four bedrooms, on an estate of sorts. Not like the Victorian terraces, we’d always had. Perhaps it was the very strangeness of it. It didn’t feel like home.
The thought that came into my mind was ‘I don’t own this. It’s a myth. You can’t actually own anything, let alone a house. What I have bought is the right to live in this house for a while, and then we will move on and someone else will buy that right.’
It was strangely liberating, because I didn’t much like the house in truth, and for the first time I didn’t see the place where I lived as reflecting anything about me.
Now, I also live in a house that I don’t ‘own’ in any common use of the term. The house belongs to the man I married and he has lived here for 30 years. I simply dwell in it, alongside him. And it feels very different. Ultimately the house is not my responsibility. That too feels liberating. It is an old house, but I don’t need to worry about the state of the roof or the boiler or the paintwork.
And so I live where I am. You can find me in the woods and the fields. You can find me swimming in the rivers. You can post letters to me at a particular address but I only live here for as long as I am in the house. At other times I live in other places: on trains, in a priory, in cities or on the beach at the edge of the waves.
I don’t even live inside this body. I am this body and there is no separation. There is no ‘me’ inside. This body moves freely in time and space and lives wherever it finds itself.
In our final post on the theme of “Hello”, Anna Aysea comments on a very relatable situation and offers insights into the cause and effects of “The Problem”.
“The problem must be on your end” insisted the female support line rep of my hosting provider.
“Well, I don’t think it is, I mean, we have just gone through everything here, several times in fact, and..”
As I was put on hold once again for the 4th time after the same circular conversation, I was forcefully reminded of the movie “Groundhog Day” about a man caught in a time loop.
Looking for the cause of the connectivity issue I had reported, we had gone through all the possible causes on my end and eliminated them. Three times. Causes I had eliminated before making the call anyway, but never mind. So, there was no issue found on my end, yet the rep was insisting it was not on their end. I had the distinct feeling she was determined to stay with that position no matter what and she was only pretending to look into the issue.
As I sat with the knot of frustration – and I had ample time for that since the subsequent holds were getting longer each time – it suddenly hit me: She doesn’t have a clue how to solve this issue and she cannot say that, probably out of fear for the consequences. Hence the frustrating head-in-sand policy.
The flash of understanding of the situation on the other side had a profound effect. My frustration and irritation evaporated like a puff of smoke as I realized the predicament of this, inexperienced employee. Even though the situation wasn’t resolved, I was not resisting. The sense of freedom that followed the dissipation of tension in mind and body was absolute and instantaneous.
When the representative returned to the call with the predictable: “The problem must be on your end”, I thanked her for her time and ended the Groundhog Day loop. Half an hour later I called the support line, again, and got a different rep. Within minutes the issue was identified and fixed. The cause was definitely on their end. The freedom from suffering I experienced may be subscribed to understanding and empathy. I believe understanding and empathy do certainly ease the way but freedom comes only from acceptance.
Life is full of interactions where someone fails to meet a reasonable expectation – after all, it is a reasonable assumption that a support line employee handles a reported problem professionally. I did register this representative was not handling the situation well, but instead of acknowledging it, I resisted that. I rejected her refusal to help. Frustration and irritation, the manifestations of resistance, were the resulting suffering. The flash of understanding led to acceptance and the freedom that comes with it, that is, the end of suffering. I could however have reached the end of suffering more directly, simply by accepting the fact of the situation right away, without necessarily understanding the reasons.
Why not accept the fact of the situation right away? After all, registering a given fact and then rejecting it is a form of madness. The resistance is in truth not so much about the situation as it is about the feelings triggered by the situation: feelings of being dismissed, of not being heard, of not being respected, wanting to make the feelings go away by trying to change the situatio. Understanding the situation on the other side can help dissolve the “me” feelings and pave the way for acceptance but it is a roundabout way. It may not always be possible to gain sufficient insight into the situation of another to help dissolve resistance. Focusing on the situation is in fact a diversion act to avoid the real issue. A more direct and failproof route is to simply accept a given fact right then and there. Acceptance of a fact doesn’t mean resigning, agreeing or subscribing to it. It is an acknowledgement, like the acknowledgement that it is raining today. Whatever the needed course of action, it will then be based on facts rather than denial and rejection and will be more effective for it.
The choice between suffering and instantaneous freedom sounds like a no-brainer, and it is. Except that the tricky part is the resistance to the me-feelings of hurt, triggered by the behaviour of someone. The default reaction is to resist these feelings and attempt to eliminate them by trying to make the other person behave differently in an attempt to appease the hurt. Enter the house of conflict and dependency: I need you to cooperate, to hear me, to respect me, to not dismiss me, I need you to not make me feel hurt.
Well, too late. The action-reaction qualified as hurtful is already a given and the whole universe has cooperated for this interaction to take place, so it is not just a case of these two limited entities, me and you, colliding. Like the rain, the interaction and whatever arises as a result is a cosmic event, courtesy of myriad ways and means coming together to manifest this. Refraining from resisting what arises ends the conflict and cuts through dependency: This person is unable/unwilling to meet reasonable expectations, what is needed to deal with this fact adequately? This is a position of openness, the opposite of resistance which says: you should not be acting this way because I don’t want the feelings your behaviour is triggering. There is always the liberty to remove oneself from the interaction if someone oversteps what is acceptable in the given context. This innate freedom becomes hampered and inaccessible by resistance: If I am rejecting or denying what is arising I am preoccupied with being in conflict with it and I am stuck; I am not exercising the innate power and freedom to choose the best course of action. In this case, ironically, what was arising was denial and rejection and I was rejecting the rejection.
It is raining, what is needed to deal with it adequately? I have usually no problem with simply acknowledging the rain as a given and dealing with it.
Without resistance there is no conflict, no psychological suffering, so dealing with the situation is a practical matter. Without resistance to the me-feelings, there is no conflict with them arising, nor with the behaviour triggering them. And without conflict, there is power and freedom to act, to choose the right course of action. Even if the answer is not obvious right away to the question “what is needed to deal with this effectively?”, adopting the position of openness, refraining from rejecting the triggered feelings and refraining from trying to make the other person behave differently is already a true taste of freedom.
Once I was able to fully accept the unhelpful head-in-sand policy and the frustration it triggered, I was able to act effectively, remove myself from the repetitive interaction that is characteristic of resistance and conflict and the situation was reduced to a practical matter. Miss Headinsand was right on one thing, this particular problem of resistance was not on their end.