pilgrimage, Presence, Uncategorized

Waiting and Transformation

image

WAITING
Anna Citrino

The heat rises each day in Delhi now, and the trees
on my street have lost their leaves. The branches,

gone barren, crave a new life. They hold open the palms
of their hands in yearning. Hour after hour, the sun

kisses their fingertips saying, “Not yet, keep going.
Keep on,” as the trees breathe in the circling birds,

and breathe out their emptiness. They want to blow
open in sirens of life, to scream like a child in wild glee,

want to turn on the colored search lights, to shout out
the story of a yellow Eden. They want to sing

in a ten thousand blossomed glory, setting fire
to the air. But they don’t.

They wait. Day by day, a pyre of sticks, they stand
quietly shriveling into the sidewalk, as if

they understand the silence, the humility,
out of which life finally speaks.

Landscapes can embody both longing and renewal. When I lived in New Delhi, a tree grew along the roadside in front of the school and in the courtyard inside the front gate. As the year moved toward spring, I noticed the trees beginning to lose all their leaves, just as it seemed to me that they should be bursting with life. I thought the trees were dying, and felt very sad to see them go–all of them alongside the roadway drooping and bereft of leaves.

The trees were not dying, however, though they appeared to be. They were actually getting ready to burst forth in blossom. By May the trees, the cassia fistula, had become enormous clouds of brilliant yellow clusters of flowers cascading down from the height of their branches. Their vibrant color embodied New Delhi’s intense May heat where temperatures climb over a hundred Fahrenheit (in the thirties in Celsius) accompanied with May’s monsoon season humidity. Like drifts of yellow sun, their blossoms fell in thick drifts along the roadside. It felt like the trees had to lose all their leaves in order to make way for the myriad blooms.

Some people liked to call these trees the graduation trees as their blossoms arrived at about the same time as the school year’s end. People would leave school to ride out into their summer holidays and their new or their other lives, accompanied by the generous beauty of these trees celebrating their long awaited for transformation. I learned from these trees behavior that what is true in one environment doesn’t always hold true for another, and that sometimes things that appear to be dying might actually be making ready for something entirely new to occur, even, perhaps, something glorious.

 

20190519_130812.jpg

It’s a fortunate coincidence that the tree blossoms at the school year’s end, a time when tired teachers are very much in need of a boost to carry them into a time of rejuvenation and restoration before beginning a new school year.  It isn’t only teachers that need renewal, however. Many people carry on through years of work holding up their families, nurturing other people’s health or hold the safety and wellbeing of others in their care, and must find how to sustain themselves and others through long periods of time. Whether its for graduation, a job, retirement, better health, a word of encouragement or a hand of support, we are often awaiting renewal like the trees, preparing and storing up reserves for the arrival of that transformative time.

20190320_132745.jpg

Often, when we put closure to certain phases of our lives, people like to know what we’re going to do next. We don’t have to know everything about our future though as we move toward change. We each have our our own way of opening and can allow ourselves to learn how to unfold in our own time. Success and the continual idea that we must be doing something so we can be called successful or call ourselves successful can make us deeply unsettled, and can prevent us from living satisfying lives. To wait on ourselves, and to listen deeply to the rhythms and needs of our lives is important to living meaningfully and with contentment. Before bursting forth into blossom, nature practices stillness, goes into her dark place and can look as if she’s dying. Like the cassia fistula, we can hold back, listening to our inner selves.

Several years back now, the first blog post I wrote on this site spoke about the mandorla, the ancient symbol that can be found in cathedrals’ stained glass where two circles or ovals overlap. The overlapping portion symbolically represents that area where wholeness develops, and growing into oneness occurs. As Robert A. Johnson explains in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, the Dark Side of the Psyche, “The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. This middle place is a mandorla, ” The shadow times, times we’re seemingly dying but are still living, the times where all is still and it seems nothing at all is happening as we wander and explore, aiming to understand experiences, feelings or ideas are important to our inner growth and wellbeing. “Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the loneliness, anxiety, and dualistic limits of the ego instead of awakening to your higher calling,” writes Johnson, explaining how important times of emptiness are for our inner lives to grow.

We live inside a mandorla–a world where opposites overlap. Whether change occurs slowly or quickly, our lives are always in transition, moving from one world into another. The stillness and space between the oppositions in our lives is where we learn how to transform our lives and periodically allow ourselves to eventually burst into blossom. While we search for the boat of insight that will carry us to the other side of understanding, we can practice being still and enjoying the moment we’re in.

 

20190520_151541

art, Geography, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Sicily, and Cathedrals of the Heart

20161219_100643-1

I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.

20161218_164013Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.”  In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25).  As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.

The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.

Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.

The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.

20161218_150524

While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.

Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.

20161215_174636

Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.

From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.

Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.

20161218_163751

Uncategorized

Three Things That Can Make the Heart Glad

Pumpkin curry for dinner. How delicious! The supple pumpkin flesh surrounded in a sauce of coriander, ginger, tomato, onion, cashews, powdered coconut milk and spices, that has been zizzed in  blender. You bite in to the pumpkin, its subtle sweetness bathed in flavorful spice accompanied by plump golden raisin. Ah, the joy of eating. Eat slowly. Savor the food in your mouth. Every bite. No need to eat fast. Eat slowly and enjoy the fantastic presence of now, each swirl of flavor across the tongue. Who needs to go out for good food often when you can cook simple yet delicious meals night after night? It is such a pleasure to unwind from the day’s work with the tactile, aromatic experience of cooking the evening meal, and it is a wonderful way to transition into an evening at home.

You might recall the scene from the book Like Water for Chocolate, when Tita makes the dish of quail in rose petals, all of her love for Pedro going into the making of the dish. Those at the dinner party eat the food, and their emotions are powerfully effected. Food can do more than affect our bodies. It can affect our emotions too. Maybe not like Tita’s quail in rose cream, but it can bring us a sense of deep connection to those with whom we share the meal. I love the physicality of food, its beauty, and the caring hands that make and share it are a way of reaffirming our connection to each other and reconnecting to an awareness of the earth’s rich bounty that sustains us. When you work all day, spending a great deal of time in your head, coming home to scrub carrots as you hold them under cool water, to  chop red peppers, or breathe in the aroma of spices in a pan can physically ground and restore a person to her right self. Maybe that is why food is a part of so many religious traditions,  such as in the Christian ritual of breaking bread together at the communion table, or Muslims sharing the breaking of fast together. Such acts reconnect us. The etymology of the word “religion”, according to etymology dictionary is to go through again, rebind. Cooking and eating can be a kind or ritual that rebinds us in community. We can literally taste the goodness that relationships can bring. The Jewish religion has a wonderful way of grounding the spiritual life in physical reality. “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him,” writes the psalmist. Sharing food with a heart of gratitude can, indeed, rebind us to each other, and the earth as well as to God.  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Our feet are firmly planted on this earth, pointing us toward appreciation.

Music, too, is a wonderful way to lift the spirits. In reading about newly unfolding knowledge about brains, I have learned how, among other things, music can help improve young children’s intelligence, calm people with Alzheimer’s, and does things like boost immunity and reduces blood pressure. I don’t have first hand experience with any of these things, but have noticed repeatedly over the past couple of weeks that singing has done fantastic things for changing my stress level. Years ago, I remember working with a woman who used to sing often. I asked her about it and she said she had had cancer previously, and during that time she learned how much she had to be thankful for. As a result she sang more often. I remember that now as I sing portions of O Sole Mio on the way to work, on the way home, and from time to time during the day. When Michael got dengue recently and was lying in bed with a fever that didn’t go away for days on end, he wanted to hear it. I found this version by Mario Lanza. What a voice!  I remember my mother having a record of his when I was a child. The song is so expansive in its expression–the heart reaching up to the sky. Light rolls across the universe, and can’t help but flood your spirit and lighten your heart when you hear it. There is also the version by Il Volo, the three Italian young men in their teens, Piero Barone, Ignazio Boschetto and Gianluca Ginoble, who sing O Sole Mio with presence and vivacity. The intensity of life coming from them, like the words of the song, is shining sun. Even if you don’t sing or can’t carry a tune, you want to sing like Pavrotti, Plácido Domingo or José Carreras after hearing them sing O Sole Mio. You can read the Italian and English lyrics here. Try singing the song and see for yourself if you don’t feel happier after singing!

One other story that shows the power of poetry to change people’s behavior and return them to their senses is the story about Dante’s Beatrice in Alighieri’s poem, “Dante’s Inferno,” and the bridge on which Dante saw Beatrice. Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Gold, explained how when he was a very young man, Dante saw Beatrice standing on the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the Arno River that runs through Florence, Italy. Dante fell in love with her, though he could not marry her, since marriages at that time were arranged, and he could not choose her. Nevertheless, he carries her in his heart through the rest of his life, , as a symbol of  beauty and purity. The most surprising thing, however, is the way this piece of literature affected the flow of history.  Johnson explained that during WWII, when the “Americans were chasing the German army up the Italian “boot.” The Germans were blowing up everything of aid to the progression of the American army, including the bridges across the Arno River. But no one wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio, because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about her. So the German army made radio contact with the Americans and, in plain language, said they would leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it. The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American soldier or piece of equipment went across it.” (See more here.) Poetry can change us! That is a wonderful thought. It has in at least this one specific instance helped humans to not choose a destructive act. I remember Lucille Clifton saying at a Flight of the Mind women’s writing workshop in Oregon some years ago now how poetry humanizes us. This example Johnson gives of this decision to save the bridge during WWII exemplifies Clifton’s statement. There are too many people in this world keeping animosity between sides going, too many people feeding the engine that makes sure the lines between us are drawn and that we do not have to listen to each other and figure out how to stop blowing up the bridges between us. The name Beatrice means blessing, I vote for more of the blessing in this world that her presence inspired in Dante. I hope there are more stories about poems that have brought people together like this one. I’d love to learn of them. “Music in the soul can be heard by the universe,” says Lao Tzu. Poetry, music, making and sharing food together–these are creative acts that can unite the opposing forces in our own minds as well as those in the world.

pilgrimage, Reading, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living Contentedly

20180913_183435-1-e1549430118152.jpgThis is the time of year when international school teachers begin to pursue jobs in new locations if they are planning to move to a new school the following school year. There is a lot of appeal to moving to a new school in a new country. It is exciting to explore a new culture, to enter into a new world that holds a different way of thinking, living and being as there are always valuable things to learn from other cultures, and living in one makes you examine your own life and values.

On the other hand, there are also good things to be said for staying in one place and going  deeper into the reality you are confronted with in the culture you are currently in? How can you learn what the place you are living has to teach you about yourself? I find it challenging to live in a city as big as Delhi, where to get out of the city takes a few hours, and where access to nature is limited. Something in me longs for a walk in the woods,  needs the opportunity to stare out at the sea spreading into endless space.  Something in those experiences feed me and reconnect me to Life, and help to restore me to wholeness. Nothing like that exists near me, however, and so the task is to learn how to be happy, truly content with the situation I am in, and that is challenging.

Sometimes the notion of moving to a new location slips into my mind, or going on a holiday, but in reality, doing these things would not bring me contentment in themselves, because they are only temporary solutions to the deeper need we all have of how to find contentment. Going on holiday or moving to a new situation could be an excellent thing to do, however, they are not a long term solution for living a contented life. Moving or going on a holiday would only mean trading some things I long for with a different set of things I long for.

No situation in life provides a person with perfect contentment, of course, or if it does, rarely does it last for long. Life has a rhythm of ups and downs. St. Paul said he had found that whatever state he was in he could be content. For most of us, learning how to be content in whatever situation we are found is a life long challenge. Taking on the perspective, however, that difficult situations can enable us to grow and can in fact help to teach us how to be content no matter what our outward situation is like, if we open ourselves to the lesson. That’s not always an easy lesson because it requires practice–consistent focused effort and attention over time. As a result, we would sometimes rather distract ourselves with something that will pump us up and make us excited about this or that. New things can be wonderful. They activate and energize our brains. If we are always in a state of excitement, however, we don’t know how to deal with the opposite side of that experience. We won’t know how to live normal, everyday life very well. We won’t be stable or content. We will always be swinging between high and low.

Our modern culture seems to be built around the idea that “too much is not enough,” as someone I know describes this perspective.  How do we be content with what is?  How do we focus on becoming more of who we are in the midst of a media driven world that constantly works on our emotions to make us feel that we are never quite right or enough, that we need to be who others say we need to be, that we need to keep our competitive edge in whatever it is we do in order to be taken seriously?

I just finished reading Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl’s book, Contentment.  The authors state that discontent is important for our growth.  Johnson and Ruhl are Jungian psychologists who suggest that we need to honor our discontent. “…if you can stand to live in paradox long enough, then transformation takes place and a new consciousness is born. This occurs when one has stopped trying to maneuver external reality so that it will work out as the “I” desires. Contentment, the authors say, requires energy, and we need to learn how to say “Enough is enough,” and they go on to name several things that people can practice to help them regain balance in their lives so they can live purposefully and become whole.

The first thing the authors mention that can help us on this path is to honor the sabbath.  “We all need a sabbath, whether we are religious or not. Without the pause of the seventh day (or sabbath), life simply becomes an indistinguishable blur and monotony rules…Don’t let duties and responsibilities from the week, even work around the house or social obligations, spill over and claim your energy on this day. Make it a priority to preserve an oasis of rest, contemplation, and spiritual renewal.” Keeping the sabbath is a challenging, radically uncommon thing to do in our culture. It goes directly against the thinking that more is better and affirms the idea that you can rest that what you need will be there for you when you need it. Rather than thinking that everything you have or do is totally from your own effort, you are trusting that you will have time, that things will work out. You are letting go of the control and setting aside the kind of thinking that everything you have is through your own efforts.

A second thing Johnson and Ruhl suggest is fidelity to the moment. The authors explain how St Benedict’s novices took the vow of  “fidelity to the moment.” Its purpose was to help those who have just begun their spiritual journey. The idea is to concentrate on whatever is directly before you in the moment. Give your full attention to it in what you say, do and think. My mother taught me as a child that doing the dishes can be a sacred act, if you do it with concentration and an open heart. Everyday acts can be holy, can be offerings of ourselves.

Another thing the authors suggest is to take some time to just be. Reduce the to do list. This is a challenging one, as lists can be never ending for people that are goal oriented. I am reminded of how Thoreau could sit in his doorway at Walden Pond all morning, absorbing the sun and watching the light, and feel it was a day well spent.

Attending to the heart is a further practice that brings contentment. The authors suggest that you find a quiet place, close your eyes, place your hand over your heart. Take some breaths then think of the things you’ve put your energy into during the week. Evaluate how each has added to or taken away from your contentment. Continuing to think of your list, shift your attention to your heart, and ask it what is required for contentment. What does your heart yearn for? Wait and listen, they suggest. Compare lists, and then consider investing some time, money, or energy into what your heart yearns for rather than what you head desires.

The Dalai Llama in his poem, “Never Give Up” says, “Too much energy in your country/ is spent developing the mind/ develop the heart. Tobin Hart, also talks about the importance of keeping children’s hearts open to wonder as they grow and is exploring more of how schools and educators might include practices that help young people learn how do this. The practices he suggests, such as deep listening, use of reflective questions, freewriting, use of poetry and concentrated language, guided relaxation, and other suggestions as well, are different ways of helping us attend to the heart.

Spending time in nature is further activity that can enable you to reconnect to what supports life in yourself. Take a walk in the rain, in the woods, by the sea, in a park. Listen to and watch the birds. Getting out of the door and on to your balcony for a few moments, if you have one, or just staring out the window and noticing what the leaves on a tree are doing, or growing a small plant in your window and taking care of it each day are all ways to spend time with nature in a small, simple way if you can’t easily go for a walk in the out of doors. Satish Kumar, when he was visiting Delhi, suggested that part of school children’s day should be spent in nature, caring for it, so that they learn to make the connection with nature. When we spend time with nature, we learn to feel our connection to it.

Find home. Consider what home means to you and find what the gift of your own home is. Johnson and Ruhl suggest. What is within the circumstances of your own life that is worth affirming as a treasure? We may search the world for our treasure but what we look for is often right in our own home. Like the scarecrow, tin man and lion in the Wizard of Oz, we carry with us what we most treasure, but perhaps we are not noticing what it is we have. How might we notice what it is we have in our home. The practice of noticing these things and also expressing gratitude for these things on a regular basis can help shift our perspective. Gratitude helps bring greater physical and mental health.

There are several other practices that Johnson and Ruhl suggest in their book, but I will post only these for now. The difficulties we confront in our lives are our teachers. They are our opportunity where we can practice how to take the opposites of our lives and put them in a new framework. We can approach them from a different angle, breaking old patterns perhaps, so we can see things differently and begin to live differently. I view it somewhat like what happens when writing. Sometimes  you have to let a draft sit for a time and go out and live, do something different, then come back to the piece and read it out loud or have someone else read it out loud, or you might need print it off. You have to do something different with the work you have made so that you can see it anew. Then you can revise what you’ve done and see where to go. It’s a back and forth process and it involves waiting and listening very carefully to the bigger picture of what it is you are trying to say or do. Life is like that too.  You put old problems in a new framework so you can learn how to change and become new. Then you persevere. Slowly, over time, like all normal growth processes, contentment grows. It is the work of our life, is why we are here. I am still learning.

Uncategorized

The Mandorla

Recently I read renowned Jungian psychologist, Robert A. Johnson’s book, Owning Your Own Shadow, Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, where I learned about the mandorla. Most people know what a mandala is, but a mandorla, Johnson explains is “that almond-shaped segment that is made when two circles partly overlap…This symbol signifies nothing less than the overlap of the opposites…the overlap of heaven and earth.” Many of Europe’s cathedrals have mandorlas and often either Christ or the Virgin Mary is framed in the mandorla. Johnson says that the mandorla is the place of poetry. Johnson explains that the mandorla can help us when we no longer know how to live between the pull of opposites in our lives. It can help us rebind what is torn apart.

“It is the duty of a true poetry to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and to make unit of it…All poetry is based upon the assertion that this is that. When the images overlap, we have a mystical statement of unity. We feel there is safety and sureness in our fractured world, and the poet has given us the gift of synthesis.

Great poetry makes these leaps and unites the beauty and the terror of existence. It has the ability to surprise and shock–to remind us that there are links between the things we have always thought of as opposites.”

Johnson goes on to explain that if we make a practice of our effort to create poetry, we can find a way to see how the two worlds are really a part of each other, part of a larger whole. The space in the center where the circles overlap will grow larger and larger, until we see that everything is actually only part of a larger whole. Essentially, I see what he is talking about like this: We get born into a culture and we learn to place things in certain forms. We learn we are this, but not that. This is part of growing up and we function under the laws and ways of being of that culture. Our culture is just a form, a shape, and it is good to learn the rules for the ways of being that are given to us–it is part of being human. Then, at some point in our lives we go through a kind of crisis when things more or less fall apart or become very difficult, and we move out of that Garden and into the world. It is in this space where there are no clear cut laws that we learn how to have true relationship.

This struggle between opposites, the not heaven and not earth is where we learn authentic relationship and learn who we are–where we do the work of becoming. Maybe this is what St. Paul recognized when he encouraged the followers of Jesus to be in the world but not of the world. (Romans 12:2)  Johnson says that “to balance out our cultural indoctrination, we need to do our shadow work on a daily basis.” By this he means to consciously be aware of it and confront it ritually each day, and to spend time consciously letting it go of it. This has the benefit of not imposing our shadow side on others, which also enables us to do less harm in the world by not feeding the general unrest and conflict that is there. The other result, Johnson says, is “that we prepare the way for the mandorla–that high vision of beauty and wholeness that is the great prize of human consciousness.”  Ceremonies such as the mass of the Christian church, he says is one of the ways culture enables us to live out the unwanted elements symbolically so we do not live it out in real life.

Johnson’s discussion reminds me of Lorca’s essay on duende where Lorca describes how the Muse struggles with death, and in that tension is where great art is born.

As Lorca decribes it–

The true struggle is with the duende.

The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.

Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline.

We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks, or strips Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer stark naked in the cold of the Pyrenees, or sends Jorge Manrique to wait for death in the wastes of Ocaña, or clothes Rimbaud’s delicate body in a saltimbanque’s costume, or gives the Comte de Lautréamont the eyes of a dead fish, at dawn, on the boulevard.” (Garcia Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende)

What I especially love about Johnson’s book is in the way it clearly describes large and complex ideas in accessible language.  The work of our lives is to balance being with doing. Our culture strongly emphasizes doing–who we know, what we know, how accomplished we are, how we can market our skills, etc. Johnson is suggests that the more we can balance doing with being the more whole and healthy we will be. He quotes Jung as saying, “Find out what a person fears most, and that is where he will develop next.” Basically, living in the in between places is where we do our soul work, the work that will enable us to move to a greater place of wholeness. We are like Jacob, wrestling with our angel and the place where we can contact the duende is where the art of our life is born, it is where Spirit lives and where we work out our salvation.