Whitby weekend: Making soul cakes?

Whitby

There is more to a Silent Eye workshop than a simple wander in the landscape, but although the shape of the weekend may be carefully crafted, much of what happens next comes from the intent of those who attend. Working as a group, the shared journey amplifies the experience as we learn from and with each other. If we do not always go into great detail about how such a workshop ‘works’, it is because you really have to be there and be part of the alchemy, to feel the full effects.

Steve, who organised the Whitby workshop, has told how we gathered on the Friday for lunch and to talk about the themes for the weekend. On the slip of paper I pulled from the bag that was passed around the table, the four words given spoke to me on several levels. My immediate reaction was to identify them as pertaining to a point on the enneagram; those of us there who are part of the Silent Eye had the advantage of recognising their origin.

The enneagram is a symbol best known as a psychological tool but it can also provide a window on the inner and spiritual life, which is how it is used within the school. The nine points of the enneagram illustrate the nine major personality types. We are none of us just one ‘type’, but are, each of us, a unique mixture of all of them, with one being dominant. Within each type are levels of function, encapsulating the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ aspects of how that type can…and will… interact with the world. The system is simple enough on the surface, but gets more complex the deeper you go, with each type being influenced by its secondary type, as well as its sub-type… and with each one of them functioning on different levels.

It is easier to think about baking.

Flour… eggs… milk… fat/oil… sugar… baking soda… spices… fruit…  nuts

I know that with just these nine basic ingredients in my cupboard, I can make any number of different cakes, cookies, pies and puddings, biscuits and buns. Within each type of ingredient, there are sub-types… I could, for instance, use butter, margarine, lard or oil. Demerara, white or powdered sugar. Any of the hundreds of available spices…

What comes out of the oven depends upon the proportions, quality and quantities of what goes into the mixing bowl, how each ingredient is treated and the process I use to combine them. A lemon meringue is a very different experience from, say, a pancake, a scone or an apple pie.  I could make any or all of them from those basic ingredients. None is better than another. All will be delicious if cooked to the highest standard… though personal taste may say otherwise… and all, even the best, have their negative side in their calorie content.

Beneath the Crossing at Lastingham

So, although the chains of four words that we each picked from the bag may, or may not, have pertained to the predominant lens through which we see and interact with the world, they were all relevant to all of us and, as the weekend progressed, we would each learn from the others as we explored their meaning.

The words I chose were indolence, procrastination, action, love. They illustrate an evolving process. For me, they were immediately relevant. I have never mastered the art of indolence…pure laziness does not sit well with me. Even when I am still and silent, it is an active stillness… a conscious choice with which I am engaged.

Procrastination, on the other hand, I have mastered. I can be hugely and genuinely busy… far too busy to begin the things I know I ought to be doing… especially if they are likely to be unpleasant or upset the status quo. And, like indolence, that is a fear reaction. Fear of change… of shifting the balance… of possibly making a situation worse…of failure…or even of facing an uncomfortable truth.  There are any number of fears hidden behind the pleasant veil of procrastination.

Action is what we choose when the tipping point is reached… when we step, deliberately, from one pan of the scales to the other. From resisting to embracing life in all its glorious, complicated messiness. We move towards love… and, as we do so, it reaches out to us.

A string of words, randomly chosen yet wholly pertinent… and, because we gave them our attention, applying them to our lives in a way that allowed us to focus on aspects of self we had, perhaps, ignored or simply not seen, any of them would have given us the keys to a shadowed part of our being. By looking within we can explore a wider horizon.

At the Crossing, Whitby Abbey

Later that weekend, at Whitby Abbey, we would be asked to find a location that symbolised the essence of those four words for each of us. The symbolism inherent in any place once held sacred can speak to us, regardless of the path we follow.

I chose the Crossing, where the vertical aisle meets the two ‘arms’ of the transepts. It is, in many ways, the heart of a church. The cruciform shape echoes that of the crucifix and the heart of the crucified would have rested above it.

Pickering Church… where we found the same icon as we had seen at Lastingham.

For indolence, it symbolised all the possibilities that were there for the choosing… and the choice made to embrace none of them. For procrastination, it was the perfect illustration of its fear and uncertainty; what happens when you leave the place where you stand? Have you made the right choice? What if you get it wrong? Better not to move at all…

By choosing action, you move, take one of the paths offered… actually get somewhere, even if it wasn’t where you thought you might go. And by moving, you leave the space empty for something else to come in… and what comes as you embrace life is light and love.

St Oswald’s, Lythe.

Close to home

scotland trip jan 15 481

I had occasion recently to talk with someone whose actions had once caused me a good deal of pain. I was asked, in the light of later maturity, if I could ever forgive them.

I found that I could not.

I could not forgive because I had never really blamed. I cannot blame what I can understand. That does not mean that I condone, accept or agree with harmful actions. It simply means that if I can see why it was, for that person and at that moment, the only thing they felt they could do, I cannot truly blame. If I were them, I would be in their shoes at that moment and would I have acted any differently? Probably not.

It is something none of us can know. We will never be in their precise position and can only hope that if we were in a similar situation, we would do otherwise. That does not make any of us better than another, or any more likely to take the best course instead of a reactive one. It just means that we approach each moment with a different arsenal of experience with which to make our own choices… and our own mistakes.

“I forgive you.”

The word sounds like the giving of a gift, doesn’t it? In some respects, that is true. But what exactly are we giving… and to whom?  A full pardon for an offence? An assurance that we will put the memory of that offence behind us? Or a complete forgetting of all that the offence engendered? Whatever those words mean for each of us, the simple fact of choosing to forgive implies that we feel a wrong was done and that some aspect of that injury remains. If not, there would be nothing to forgive.

By offering forgiveness, there is also an implication there has been an admission of guilt… a mutual accord that wrong has been given and received.

Is it even humanly possible to choose true forgiveness and forgetting in a single moment? To wipe the slate clean with three words, leaving no trace of hurt, resentment or guilt? I don’t think it is. We may be able to maintain an attitude of forgiveness and genuinely act from the heart, as if it were true, but all hurts take time to heal and memories need time to fade.

The only way I have found to really forgive a perceived injury is to change my own relationship to it. Sometimes a little human understanding is enough and the old platitudes about ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ and ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ can be enough to create that change. Many injuries are not what we feel them to be but have their cause rooted somewhere beyond the obvious.

Sometimes the change may come with a flash of understanding sparked from an outside source, like the words of a friend or a chance phrase you have read. Most of the time, though, you have to dig deeper, realising that in hanging onto your resentment, the only person who is suffering may be yourself.

We learn such a lot through our interactions with each other. When someone has harmed us in any way, we will, in an ideal world, learn from that experience and not allow ourselves to be in that position again. In reality, we tend to meet variants of these same situations over and over again, each of them dressed differently so that we are fooled into thinking them something new. It is only in looking closer that we see a common thread…and that thread may be traced back through the labyrinth to its source, which is often some aspect of our own personality.

That is not to say that we are to blame for the actions of others, but it is we ourselves who open the doors of experience and any repeating pattern holds a clue to who we are, how we show ourselves to the world and how others will see us… including those who would hurt us.

Learning to really understand ourselves and what is behind our actions can be one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake…and the most rewarding. Systems such as the one we use in the Silent Eye can help give a structure to that quest and hold up a mirror in which we can begin to see ourselves more clearly, identifying the cracks and vulnerable spots in our characters and emotions and allowing us to address them. There is no blame where there is understanding…and the empathy and compassion that leads to real forgiveness must start with ourselves.

Shine…

Have you ever thought how fragmented we are most of the time? Bits of our attention are given or called here and there, certain of our skills and talents required but seldom more than that. If I am asked to hang a picture, for example, it has no relevance that I can bake a fabulous chocolate cake or speak decent French, and (unless they have an urgent desire for cake with a little je ne sais quoi while I hang the frame) the person who asks me will have no interest in those talents at that moment in time.

How seldom is it that we are asked to give ourselves whole to any task or area of our lives? Even rarer, perhaps, are the occasions when we choose to do so, simply because we can, plunging head first into the moment at hand as if it is all there is in the whole of eternity?

I wonder if anyone is ever really known, except in a fragmentary way, through the facet of the self in action in a particular arena or relationship? Even our nearest and dearest have things they do not share with us, facets of themselves we may never see… and that is as it should be… we too have faces we may not show or share with everyone.

Even we seldom consciously know and accept our entire selves. We readily admit our flaws to ourselves, once we have become aware of them. Yet, while we may admit, nay boast, even, of the glories of our respective chocolate gateaux, few of us will admit to those personality traits which are seen as ‘good’.

We may admit to the socially acceptable ones… the type we put on job application forms… flexible, adaptable, good with people… but the really good ones, we seldom admit to seeing in ourselves. Possibly in part because those who voice that recognition of their own better qualities rarely seem to actually have them. ‘I see myself as compassionate/empathetic/generous’ … the vast majority of the time, these things are said by those who aren’t and we have all known those who voice them and yet wouldn’t know true humility or compassion if it hit them in the face with the proverbial wet fish.

But voicing it is different from feeling it. To speak of compassion and to feel it working through the layers of your being, reaching out, that is a different thing. Compassion is not pity… pity looks with a sad smile from on high… compassion reaches out in empathy from the level ground of a shared humanity.

Perhaps we need to take that scintilla of time to simply recognise the good within us as we feel it, in exactly the same way as we recognise the darker facets of ourselves in action… the ones that make us cringe and squirm occasionally. We all have those. Because unless we are prepared to admit who we are to ourselves… the good equally with the less good, accepting our wholeness in all its balanced beauty, how can anyone else ever see that in us too?

Don’t we all wish to be loved and accepted for who we are in our entirety? Yet we hide the good, even from ourselves, behind a socially acceptable modesty while brandishing our flaws and frailties as if they alone define who we are. They do not. We define who we are. As much by how we choose to see ourselves as by anything else. If we see ourselves whole, perhaps others may too. They cannot until we do, as we project outward only a fragment of who we are. The saying ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ comes to mind. Maybe if we love our whole selves we can love others wholly too.

We are told that the very physical fabric of everything we know, including our own bodies, is made of the matter from which the stars were formed. Our physical forms exist because somewhere, aeons ago, a star died. If that is so, why should we not simply shine?

Clueless…

The past few days have seen us up to our eyeballs in research, planning and speculation. With the December Living Land workshop less than two weeks away, this was our last chance to get out in the field and check the details… so out into the fields and hills we went.

We were lucky with the weather, in spite of the frost that whitened the world. The chill of mid-November was mitigated by clear skies and a hint of sun on the coppery carpets of beech leaves. The emerald leaves of bluebells, reminding us that spring is just on the other side of winter, cluster thickly around stone and tree.  Wherever we went, a robin seemed to be watching and busy squirrels worked frantically at secreting their winter hoard. And, wherever we ventured, odd and intriguing clues seemed to laugh at our blindness.

Places we have visited many times before suddenly seemed to be revealing secrets. Not that they had ever been hidden. Most of them had been seen, even photographed, before… but we had not seen them to any purpose. The familiar was made new in our eyes and, as we finally considered what we thought we already knew, intriguing lines of exploration wandered across time and history, opening our eyes and minds to possibilities we had never noticed.

There is a curious ‘blindness’, as if some things may not be known until the time is right…or until you are equipped with sufficient knowledge or experience to begin to appreciate the insights they are offering. Their presence is registered, you can call them up on memory, yet their significance is veiled and does not impinge upon conscious thought. What goes on in the subconscious mind, though, is another matter.

All that which has apparently passed unnoticed is filed in a dark corner that might as well be labelled ‘classified’ for all the good it appears to serve. Yet, beneath the surface, everything we see, hear, read or experience is busy ferreting out the connections needed to give it enough relevance to be useful. It may eventually resurface with the flourish of a pantomime fairy, throwing off its dark cloak to reveal the magic it has kept hidden…and leaving you wondering at your own lack of vision.

Whether it is a clue in the landscape that elucidates a mystery, or something that was within you all along that illuminates your vision of yourself, we are all blinkered from time to time. The conscious mind and its hidden counterpart seem to work at different speeds and have a differing view of the world. Then sometimes they work in tandem, needing only a single clue cast into the cup to create an elixir that clears the mist to leave you speechless at what was right there in front of your eyes all along. Knowledge becomes understanding and your world takes on a new depth and dimension. How could you possibly have missed that for so long..? But you did, and you undoubtedly will again… until the moment is right.

Red socks and empathy

pink laundry

There it is… the almost inevitable intruder… the stray red sock…lurking within the folds of the erstwhile pristine sheets. The hot wash has leached the dye from the offending article and snowy white linen is now a distinct, if uneven, shade of rose. The whites, ostensibly laundered to clean them… whites that have been subjected to the process of detergent, hot water and multiple rinses in order to restore their brilliance… greet you with a shamefaced blush as you open the door. To add insult to injury the scarlet lurker looks as bright as ever. It has tainted everything else in the machine, yet remains, itself, apparently unchanged. You reach for the stain remover with gritted teeth…

There is always a missing red sock at some point… and it always shows up, it seems, in the white wash. Or perhaps it is the steady attrition of mixed washes that dull the whites and colour them grey. We end up reaching for the chemicals we hope will redress the damage, or simply discard the ruined items that are no longer fit for purpose. It doesn’t stop there though… unless we make a point of rooting out all future red socks and learn to separate the lights and the darks before we stuff them in the machine the problem will continue and repeat itself.

The scenario is a common one; familiar to many of us, especially in the early learning curve of domestic responsibility. It is just as common within our own minds though, as the forgotten scarlet of old wounds colours our emotions over the years.

There are events in almost any life that leave a dark stain in a hidden corner of the mind. Sometimes they remain a very conscious part of our self-definition, sometimes they are secreted far beneath the surface layers and spread their discolouration insidiously. They may be events of which we have been the victim or the perpetrator. Either way, the damage can be as difficult to remove as the spreading stain of a red sock. There is no magical product that can restore the brightness of the psyche to the purity of childlike innocence nor can we simply discard a past that is, for good or ill, part of the formative process of our today.

Such inner stains leave can run the full gamut from shame to hurt, guilt to anger, and while no individual emotion is without its possibilities to become the impetus for change or for good, the stain is present. We can take out the hurts and examine them, but unless we do something about the underlying problem the likelihood is that in such situations the best we can hope for is a steady greying of our inner brightness as the past is allowed to taint both present and future.

I was reminded of this yesterday when discussing such old wounds; looking at how healing can take place. There are many studies that show how forgiveness has a positive impact on life and health. To forgive does not mean there was justification for the event, or that there was never a need for responsibility. It does not condone or minimise the act itself. It means letting go of the hold the event has on your life.

Yet it is not, I think, enough to simply be able to say we forgive, whether ourselves or others. There is a need to find a certain level of understanding of the real cause, both of the event and our own reactions to it. In the case of those old… perhaps ancient… hurts that stay with us, hidden in the laundry hamper of the mind like a lone red sock, we are at a disadvantage as the understanding we garner today may satisfy adult logic, but fail to address the emotions of the child or youngster who sustained the hurt. We need to find a way back to that moment of feeling and empathise, not sympathise, with that younger self, as we would with a child and answer its need to understand; not pretending the hurt never happened or that, in the greater scheme of things it was perhaps not all that important. Empathy and compassion go hand in hand and are at the root of forgiveness and apply equally to ourselves and to others… and empathy is perhaps our best weapon against the stray red sock in the soul.