Samhain medicine

Today is Samhain, beginning and end of the Celtic New Year.  A time where the veil between the “seen world of matter and the unseen world of spirit” (Glennie Kindred) is at its thinnest.   It is a time for our Ancestors to step forward from the land of shadows and sit with us once again in the circle of light; a time to honour all those who have gone before us – those that once were here in body and now are gone beyond our Earthly reach.  We name them and we remember them, for it is in this naming and remembering that they remain alive to us always.

As has been tradition in our home for a few years now, it is also the time where we all choose new Medicine Cards.  Medicine for us to muse on for the coming year.  Medicine that may help to shine a light on those places that may be hiding from us in our own shadows.

For me, this year is for the Black Panther, whose medicine is Embracing The Unknown.

If the Black Panther has appeared today, it may be telling you not to worry about the future.  Trust that you are not supposed to mentally “figure it out” at this time.  You may need to confront fears of the unknown, of being less than you truly are, or an inability to simply BE.  Let go of fears that appear as obstacles or barriers.  Embrace the unknown and flow with the mystery that is unfolding in your life.  The next step may be leaping empty-handed into the void with implicit trust.

Medicine Cards, The Discovery of Power Through The Ways of Animals Jamie Sams & David Carson

In many ways, Black Panther tells me nothing I do not already know.  And… the words I read today allow me to peel back yet another layer of the mystery that continues to unfold before me.  Indeed, Black Panther’s medicine speaks to me LOUD and CLEAR.  This Entering the Stillness and Embracing the Unknown are journeys I am very familiar with.  Words such as ‘trust’, ‘acceptance’, ‘void’, ‘stillness’ are ones that echo around and around me with faithful repetition on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

And so… on I go…

Knowing that the Black Panther is just there behind me, though, waiting patiently in the shadows, gives me comfort beyond words and a new found confidence in my ongoing journey…

Bridge_WildRiver

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On the edge…

Boots_sea

I have been thinking a lot about edges over the past few months.

From a permaculture perspective, special things happen at edges.  Permaculture Principle number 11 states: ‘Use edges and value the marginal’:

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place.  These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
David Holmgren
 

Edges can often seem blurred, unclear, impenetrable.  They can be places of mystery, places where we put things and forget about them.  And so, they can also become places that we fear.

Light_sea

What I’ve realised is that I put myself on the edges of things a lot.  A LOT.   Whether it’s finding a task to take me away from the intensity of a group gathering, seeking ‘my place’ on the mountain at the furthest extreme, always choosing to lay my mat at the side and back of a yoga class, or heading for the public toilet cubicle at the end of the row, I recognise I often feel more comfortable when I’m on the edge, or outer side, of things.

So why do I do this?  I could say it’s because I like space around me, to move, stretch, lean into.  I could say it’s because I like to watch over things – like an eagle sitting still in a tree, I can take the wider view, take it all in, oversee everything (not public toilets, honestly).  I could say it’s because, unlike conventional readings of my zodiac sign, Leo, profess, I like to stand back and let others take centre stage.  I could even say that it’s because I know that the most interesting things happen at the edges.  All of these things are even true.

And, I could say it’s because of fear.  Fear of taking up ‘too much space’.  Fear of being seen.  Fear of being heard.  Fear of ‘showing up’.   Fear of being ‘found out’ for who I really am.  Fear of not knowing what to say.  Fear of not ‘fitting in’.  Fear of not being ‘enough’.

And all of these things, too, are true.

Indian_Brook

Edges are always there.  They are easy to see, and they are easy to ignore, because often we are standing over here and looking to over there, and we forget to notice all the change that has to happen in order for here and this to actually become there and that. We are often so intent on looking at the horizon, at the next thing, that we can miss all the wild and wonderful things between now and then.

Beaver_lodge

Each and every one of us has edges too.  Places we can either take ourselves to, or places where other people or events can nudge us into.  They are the places we deny in ourselves, the places we fear, the places we don’t want to talk about, places that, at times, feel so difficult to move past.  They are the places that ask too much of us, places that make us want to shrink back into our older, more comfortable, more familiar, safer selves.

And, this safety net can serve as a natural protection at times too.  Sometimes we are not quite ready to go to the next place.  Sometimes we need to sit awhile, absorbing all that is here, all that is familiar, all that is us, just as we know it, before we move through the edge and into the other.  We need to honour those edges – they are not to be taken lightly!  Yes, there are deep pots of gold there, buried in all the undergrowth, but sometimes we must dig gently, respectfully, cautious of what else resides there, seen and unseen.

In The Wisdom of No Escape: And the Path of Loving Kindness, Pema Chodron writes that “Life is a whole journey of meeting your edge again and again” and I know that she is right.  Where I’ve come to myself, with all this musing, is that I need to really recognise and respect edges, both in the natural world, and within myself, for what they are.  The whens, wheres, whys, and hows of them all.   I need to make sure I’m using these edges wisely, that I am neither overlooking them nor spending too much time in them.  What I realise is that they can be tempting places, these dark and mysterious edges, when I start to investigate them in detail, and I can easily lose myself in them.

Sandals_fire

Into the woods

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness

John Muir

In the past, T and I have discussed the question “Are you a plains person or a forest person?”  So, if you had to choose, would you live on the top of a hill with wide views all around, open space in abundance, or would you choose the closer confines of a woodland environment, surrounded by trees?  He’s always said forest.  I’ve been plains.

Here, in Cape Breton, we are surrounded by trees.  Everywhere we go… trees.  It is only when we’re on the beach, looking out on to the Gulf of St Lawrence, that there is not forest as far as the eye can see.  Other than the Daintree Rainforest in Northern Queensland, I have never before spent so much time in and amongst so many trees.  And it’s interesting what it’s doing to my psyche.

Intellectually, I feel excited.  All the reading I’ve been doing over the last year or so, about ‘wilderness’ and the impact of the loss of our native large fauna on our natural world, tells me that this landscape is how our own small and terribly overcrowded island would have looked before the forests disappeared.  This is what projects like Trees For Life, who’s aim it is to restore the Caledonian Forest up in Scotland, are envisioning.  A land literally COVERED in trees.  In fact, before we left home, someone said to me “Nova Scotia is just like Scotland, before they cut down all the trees”.  While this is true in some sense – there are huge numbers of lakes, some vast, some small, there are hills , there are blackflies aplenty (midgie equivalent), there is even a man playing the bagpipes just outside the cafe where I’m sitting right now – I don’t feel the immensity of space that I do when I’m in Scotland.   This is because not only are the ‘mountains’ here that much smaller, but in Scotland the bare and open landscape, devoid of trees in many parts, gives me much more a sense of expansiveness somehow.  And, although the Gaelic music also floats around in abundance here, what I hear around me are Canadian accents, and so I feel very, very far away from my own ‘culture’ and, most importantly, my own land.

But what is “my own land” (by that I mean the land of my birth)?  What does it really look like?  I know WHAT it looks like in present times, of course, but now I also have a sense of what it must have looked like way back when (and perhaps what it ‘should’ look like now?)  And it’s pretty radically different.  While humans have clearly made their mark here – dirt tracks disappear off main roads, marking out thoroughfares used by people living in the near and far reaches of the forest – because of the impenetrable nature of this forest, it feels like there are large areas where no human foot can ever have stepped.  Up there in the hills reside bears, coyotes, moose, and lynx.  The kinds of animals that conjure up feelings of fear, excitement and WILDNESS in me.

So, it’s interesting.  As I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with those ecologists that lament the loss of our native wildscapes, those who campaign for the return of our vast forests, for the reintroduction of our lost megafauna, I also find myself questioning just how I personally would cope living in and amongst so many trees again.  I say “again” because once upon a long time ago all of our ancestors walked these forests. These tree-covered lands are in our blood, in the ancient memories stored in our very bones.  Their roots grow deep within our souls.  We are of the forest and we are one with the forest.  It is only because we cut the vast majority of them down so very long ago that we have lost that conscious knowing of the wild woods cape.  Not only that, but we have also, tragically, become afraid of it.

That comes as a huge sense of loss, for me.  When I was in the Daintree I felt fear of ‘what is out there’.  At times, I couldn’t fully enjoy where I was because I was worried about what I couldn’t see.  And here it is the same.  What is out there IS unknown and unseen.  We, as humans, do not fare well when we do not know and can not see what is coming towards us.  Or, indeed, as my own small family takes its first tentative footsteps out into the world, far away from the comfort, safety and loving arms of our home, family and friends, when we do not know what we, ourselves, are heading towards.

So, I take these forests as a fine metaphor for where I find myself in life right now.  I literally CAN NOT see what is out there.   I must let go of knowing, and trust that, step by tiny step, we will find our way.

When I first read John Muir’s quote above, I thought “Ha, not for me!”  Clearly, I have much to learn.  Or re-learn perhaps…

Forest

Teachings

I’ve been aware for a while that I am looking for a teacher.  Teachers perhaps.  Guides.  Mentors.  People (women, if I’m honest) that can help me navigate my way through this sometimes calm, sometimes stormy ocean of life.  The thing is, I’ve never been very good at asking for what I need, nor necessarily always recognising things that are right there in front of me.

Pema Chodron

A good friend of mine introduced me to Pema Chrodron some time ago.  And, over the last couple of weeks I have been reading some of her books, which I am finding gentle, nurturing, enlightening and deeply inspiring.

Pema Chodron, born Deirdre Blomfeld-Brown, is an American Buddhist nun, author and teacher, and a mother.  Born in 1936, she married twice and had two children before immersing herself in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-30s, eventually becoming ordained as a novice nun in 1974.

So, not only is Pema Chodron a woman, but she has lived ‘in the world’, so to speak, and has birthed children.  She knows what it means to be married, to commit living her life alongside someone else, to raise young ones, and to live surrounded by concrete, noise, busyness and craziness in the reality of a Western world city.  As such, when I read her words, I feel like maybe she’s known some of what I have experienced in life.  Perhaps she has walked a little way in my shoes, and I in hers.  I can’t say the same about the Dalai Lama or, much as I love him, Eckhart Tolle, or indeed any of the other inspirational male spiritual ‘leaders’ that speak gentle truths of love, life and compassion.

Having been scarred by Catholic schooling for most of my youth, I am very resistant to organised religion.  I know there is rebellion in me in embracing one way of seeing the world, one way of understanding how it all works, one way of explaining what happens to us after we die.  Also, I’ve never been brilliant with rules.  I have a tendency to break them.  And, as a feminist, I know I can certainly never follow a faith system that has one male entity at its head.  It just does not work for me.  Not in this truly unbalanced world we live in, where women can still be stoned to death for having been raped, or shot at for daring to speak out about a girl’s right to education.

When people ask me “What do you believe in?” I find it hard to answer.  Quite simply, I believe in what I feel.  I believe in the beauty of the natural world and the mirrors that it constantly holds up to our faces.  I believe in the power of nature to not only show us what is going on in our lives, but to also hold a space for us to always walk into, to access the power of the land, the wind, the sea, in order that we can learn to heal ourselves.  I believe in stillness, in silence, and I believe in listening to the sound of our inner knowing.  I have experienced moments of what I can only describe as complete belonging; moments in which I know, with total assuredness, that all of us, all of this, is connected.  I believe in the power of the individual, and I believe in the power of community.  I believe in the power of sitting in circle, of talking and listening from the heart.  I believe in rites of passage to mark, honour and celebrate all the transitions we make throughout our lives.  I know I need these things in order that I can make sense of it all, and I know I am not alone in this.

Pema Chodron’s teachings have come to me at a time in my life when I feel ready to open to them.  I take great comfort in her words so full of simple wisdom that I find myself nodding, saying thank you, and wanting somehow to eat them up so that they can stay within my very core always.

And then, just a few weeks ago, our Canadian friend (and soon-to-be neighbour) pointed out that the abbey Pema Chodron is the resident teacher at, Gampo Abbey, is “just down the coast” from where we’ll be living in Cape Breton come mid-July.  For me, who trusts in the natural ebb and flow of life, who struggles when it feels like things are not moving along easily, that things are being forced into being, this discovery felt like nothing less than serendipity.  Her own words about the abbey only serve to strengthen my resolve to spend some time there if I possibly can:

Gampo Abbey is a vast place where the sea and sky melt into each other.  The horizon extends infinitely, and in this vast space float seagulls and ravens.  The setting is like a huge mirror that exaggerates the sense of there being nowhere to hide.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Over the last couple of weeks I have been meditating on the question “What or who are you resisting in your life right now?”  I know now that the “who” in this question is myself.  And, I feel ready to come out of hiding.

I also believe Pema Chodron may be one of the teachers I have been waiting for to help me do this.

 

 

 

 

 

Threshold

tree_threshold

You will go with your guide to a wilderness place.  All you have will be the pack on your back.  A base camp will be established on the perimeter of the threshold area.  Now you are at the border of a land without borders.  You are about to enter the hallowed cathedral of the Great Mother.

The last night, by the firelight, the faces of people in the group have never seemed more honest.  Defenses are down.  Conversation is real and full of truth.  Like the others, you have come to the end of a trail littered with old spoor.  Soon you will walk away from it.  You are one sleepless night away from liberation…

For the next three or four days and nights you will see no one.  In the silence of your separateness you will seek a vision… This is the time to forget time, to remember what it is you are seeking, and to take it into your heart.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

It is almost a year to the day that I came down from a mountain in North Wales, having spent four days and four nights up there, alone, fasting, praying for a vision.  And, as I make my preparations to return to that same mountain, to ‘complete’ the ceremony, if you like, the memories of that time come flooding back to me in wild and unbidden ways.

The fear, the doubts, the hunger, the dreams, the seemingly endless passage of the sun through the sky overhead.  Then the clarity, the knowing, the feeling that my heart would burst open with the love and connection that I felt for everyone and everything around me.  An openness that I have not felt anywhere before or since.  A deep, earth-reverberating, soul-aching belonging to the world that made me want to laugh and cry in equal measure.

In any rite of passage ceremony, there are three identifiable phases which must be gone through by the initiate: Severence (where we separate literally from our former worlds), Threshold (where we enter the ‘sacred world’ and so begins the time of testing), and Reincorporation (where we return to our ‘village’, our people, carrying our vision before us).  Each stage is as elemental to the whole as each other.  Each one is unique, intense, and full of medicine that keeps showing itself in wild and mysterious ways.  Each one takes an enormous amount of courage that at times can feel insurmountable.

One definition in the Oxford English Dictionary describes threshold as “a point of entry or beginning”.  Indeed, threshold marks a place between here and there, now and then.  It allows us a point in space and time to step through, shedding all that we have been carrying up to then – the point at which “(We) may face deep truths, extreme weakness and strength that (we) never knew (we) had; in order to stand in (our) naked truth and surrender into (our) uniqueness” (Pip Bondy, http://www.ancienthealingways.co.uk/vision-quest/).  We can, indeed we MUST, ask ourselves: What are we leaving behind in order to step through, past and beyond ourselves at this juncture?

Marking threshold is potent.  It can be a physical location in space, or it can be a point in our lives when we know we have reached the end of one thing, one way of being, and now we need to step into something else.  Another, different part of ourselves that we know is in there, buried deep beneath years of sorrow or pain perhaps, or simply a lack of recognition of seeing something for what it is.

sea_threshold

Now you stand alone at the gates of sacred time.  Before you lie the features of eternity.  By your own efforts you have become a worthy candidate.  Now the cord binding you to your former life must be severed.  You will cut the cord by actually entering the passage.  This is an auspicious and powerful moment.

Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest

As I stand at that edge and ask myself “What am I willing to leave behind so that I can fully step through, in and beyond?” I feel fear, anticipation, excitement AND a deep knowing that this is where I have been coming to since I walked down that mountain a year ago yesterday, my bag heavy on my back, my vision light in my heart.

I have laughed, cried, worried, questioned,  stumbled and walked gracefully through reincorporation. I unconsciously re-entered severance during this time, and once again I find myself standing at the doorway that leads from here to there.

And I laugh too, because after two years of doing some intense self work, I promised myself that I would have a ‘year off’ this year.  Little did I know that by choosing to step up to this journey all those many months ago, all I really did was open a door.  One of many doors.

And, of course, with each new door comes a new threshold…

Facing the unknown

“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.”

Pema Chodron

The unknown.  Ah what romance and delights it holds!  What potential, what excitements, what empty, open spaces lie in wait for us to step into and uncover all those hidden mysteries!

The adventure.  The open road.  The one way ticket out of here and into there…

And yet…

And yet, how can we possibly know if we have the courage or not to face it when we don’t really know what IT even is?

Sadly (in my opinion), it is almost impossible to experience the complete unknown in our modern world.  Think of a place.  Any place.  Someone has already been there.  They probably stuck a flag in the ground just to prove they got there first.  And then they went home and wrote a book about it.  It is probably a very ‘interesting’ book.  It might even be the best book you’ve ever read! And I can totally understand that desire to share something you’ve done, something you’ve seen, something you’ve heard, something that feels so extraordinary that you just HAVE to share it with someone else just so that they, too, can get just the tiniest glimpse into just how extraordinary it really was.  (I am a blogger after all…)

And yet (again)… in that very action we take something away.  Not only from the other person, who was not there when said extaordinary thing happened, but actually we take something away from ourselves too. In the very moment that those first words are spoken, we have lost a bit of the preciousness of our experience. We have released it, and, therefore, imperceptible as it may seem at first, we no longer fully, selfishly own it.

Luckily (and frustratingly), we know that no retelling of a story will ever pass on to the listener the true, unique magic of the moment from which our story evolved.  We have all seen and felt that missing ‘something’ in our listeners as their eyes glaze over, their attention drifts, they start to ask irrelevant questions.  How can they possibly see what we’ve seen?!  How can they possibly feel how we feel? We saw it with OUR eyes, we walked it with OUR feet.  And so, always, they will be OUR stories and no one elses.

So perhaps, after all, even with all the maps, books, songs, stories and far flung tales that are out there of lands already discovered, seas already sailed and dragons already spied, it still IS possible to visit new places and discover a whole new story just for ourselves.

Any new adventure takes true courage, yes.

This, I am learning in abundance at the moment, as the unknown beckons me into her mysterious, tempting and delectable depths.  I am teetering on the edge of complete surrender and at times I feel truly afraid.