Category Archives: Meditation, Yoga and Spirituality

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Life, Death and Gardening

Husband has found a novel way of dealing with pests in the garden. He eats them. Though he’s not keen on slugs (he ate one by accident and it took two days to cleanse his mouth of slime), he has developed quite an appetite for snails. In Catalunya, where we live, snails are a delicacy. So when they proved to be the culprits who were munching all the tender, young plants in our community garden, he started collecting them up. He feeds them on carrots until their poo turns orange and then fries them with garlic.

At Gaia House Retreat Centre in Devon, I discuss pest control with Will Newitt, the Garden Co-ordinator. His approach to slugs is to pop them into a container with some greens and then tip them out some distance from the centre. “It’s a real way to explore non-violence”, says Will.

Will Newitt at Gaia House Garden

I’m at Gaia House on a work retreat. Five hours a day in the garden, four hours on my cushion. It works well, not least because my body is so tired that my mind is happy to sit still. Engaged so fully in the physical world, I notice how joy arises from simple things. The sensation of warm sun on my back as I push tiny potential lettuces into pots. The chatter and squawk of crows. The excitement as seedlings I have sown emerge as bright green shoots. Will explains that the garden relies on volunteers like me to make it work. “Often people will compliment me on the garden and I accept the kindness of that, but it feels a bit fraudulent, because I’m just here for a very short amount of time. It’s whoever comes in who actually creates it. It’s many people over many years, with open hearts and with a sense of care and loving kindness and joy for what they are doing. I think that contributes something precious.”

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Seedlings emerging

Working in silence, I become more aware of how this cycle of being recreates itself. The garden only grows some of the food eaten at the centre, but their scraps are returned to the earth as compost, which enriches the soil to produce more food and the cycle begins again. As I harvest the last of the sprouting broccoli, other helpers are preparing beds for the next crop. Slowing down, I begin to notice the cycles everywhere. In the rhythm of day and night; the cooking and eating of lunch. Beginnings and endings. “When you really stop and look”, says Will, the teachings are there in every moment.”

Gaia Garden Greens
Gaia Garden Greens

Will remarks, too, on how friendly the wildlife is here. ‘I feel they are drawn to this place because it’s a safe haven. They’re not scared.”  I, too, feel safe to dive deeply. Stripped of all the doing in my normal life, there is plenty of time to simply be. I feel content with this. It is enough. I am not seeking excitement, nor entertainment, nor distraction. I am not even seeking ‘liberation’, but it occurs to me that this might, in fact, be something like it.

Meditation Hall at Gaia House
Meditation Hall at Gaia House

In his talk one evening, the teacher, Stephen Batchelor, speaks about solitude. On a retreat, he says, we seek solitude amongst others. Alone with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, we have an opportunity to slow down, to watch our breath and feel the beat of our heart. At this time, he suggests, we come close to the fragility of our own life. We understand that any moment, it might end and we will come face to face with death. He directs us to the walking room, where a real skeleton sits in full meditation pose.

Skeleton at Gaia House

As if to reinforce the teaching, the following day as I am sitting in meditation when I hear a thud at the window. I look up just in time to see a dark shape fall away. A fluttering blue tit looks down, a quizzical tilt to its head. I get up and go outside to find a thrush, lying face down, wings spread. Reaching out towards the bird, not yet sure if it is alive, it startles awake and hops into the undergrowth. The following day, underneath one of the apple trees I find a thrush. Its body is stiff, wings tightly folded. Will and I agree to leave it there for a while and I garland the body with dandelions, strung together in the way I wove them as a girl. Bright yellow encircling the small, dead form. As Will comments, “Here is nature, reminding us of the impermanence of life.”

A fallen thrush
Fallen Thrush

Back in our garden in Catalunya, I meditate amongst the rows of vegetables. In the warmth of the midday sun, I arrive briefly at a place of stillness before words bubble into my consciousness. Limpiar. Cuidar. Plantar. Esperar. Weed. Care for. Plant. Wait.
With this simple set of gardening instructions, the land speaks to me. But then wait, there is more…”Don’t forget to Disfrutar!”
Enjoy. Don’t forget to enjoy.
Because who knows when we will be halted by our own fly-into-the-window moment?

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Festa mayor parade winds through village of Sant Pere de Ribes, Catalonia

Building Resilience through Connection

In Buddhist circles, January is traditionally a month for retreat. It is the time of the monsoon, when the nomadic life of Gautama and his disciples was hampered by the rains. Instead of their usual pattern of roaming and teaching, they stayed in one place, waiting out the weather until the spring allowed them to once more take their message to the villages. With Husband away for 10 days visiting family, I decide to engage in a self-retreat, committing to stay in one place, more or less, until his return. It’s a way of connecting deeply to myself, but I’ve also been thinking that it’s a way of building resilience.

At the beginning of my retreat I impose boundaries, choosing the lines I draw between ‘normal’ and ‘retreat’ life, making an intention to limit those habits which I know take me away from my present state of being. I decide, above all, to limit my use of media. For me, there is no better tool for producing a sense of FOMO – or missing out on something, than trolling through Facebook! In addition to this, I commit to a daily practice of those things which enhance my sense of being present. Yoga and a daily walk – to bring me into my body. Meditation, to quiet and centre my mind. I add in a writing practice, to exercise creativity and ground my energy, but I promise myself that I will not expect productivity, which helps me approach it in a relaxed way.

The retreat begins as usual, with me  feeling very tired. It’s as though in the very act of turning my attention inward, I come face to face the effort of daily life. I sleep more in the first day and on the second, I really enjoy the stillness and softness of a warm home and little activity. On the third, my energy starts to rise and I feel surges of spontaneous joy. My walk takes me through the local village, which is celebrating the Festa Mayor of Sant Pau. What strikes me now about these festivities is how they manage to include the whole community. How everyone takes such pride in their role. An hour before the parade begins, I see people dressed in traditional costume walking purposefully through the village. Their white shirts and pants are immaculate, contrasting impressively with the bright red and blue of their shoes, belts, cravats and headscarfs. Small bells attached to their ankles jingle excitedly as they walk. There is a sense of anticipation in the air.

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Festa Mayor Sant Pere de Ribes

In Catalonia, no festival is complete without a correfoc, a ‘fire run’, evolved from mediaeval street theatre. Bands of young people dressed in painted hessian cloaks hold aloft fireworks which rain sparks onto the crowds lining the street. Their hoods are adorned with bright red horns, their clothing painted with images of demons and fire. It’s not hard to work out the symbology. This is an ancient standoff between good and evil. These devils are followed by dancers, clearly from the same origins as Morris and Ceilidh dancers, leaping and jumping and swinging each other around, or bashing sticks one against another with a force that suggests the moves, like the katas in karate, mimic combat. Each crew of ‘devils’ is accompanied by an ear-splitting samba band. Each set of dancers by jovial pipers. The whole procession lasts an hour or more and winds up with a moving maypole attended by male and female young people and topped with an extremely lifelike owl. Back in my retreat space, I can hear the sound of real owls hooting in the forest around me as fireworks resound through the valley.

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Procession to the hermitage of Sant Pau

Maintaining my retreat intention, it seems fitting to join the celebratory mass at the hermitage the following morning. The day breaks cold, gray and rainy and as the same parade weaves out from the town centre, plumes of smoke from fireworks fill the damp morning air. The sinister sound of drums moves closer and closer, the fizz, splutter and bang of explosions creating a stir in the atmosphere. I am reminded of the noise and clatter of Tibetan horns, bells and symbals as the buddhas are summoned for a puja. Up close, it can be an unnerving experience. There is little doubt that the spirits are responding, for when the monks play like this, the room crackles with energy. This morning, two new players have appeared in the throng. A woman and a girl in the same fireproof gear join the head of the procession, but instead of demons in yellow and red, their cloaks are painted in white and blue with angels and doves . Amongst the noise and hubris of bedevilment, they make a calm case for the  peace and innocence.

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Triumph of good over evil?

Inside the church, where it is standing room only, I am moved to contemplation. The choirmaster conducts a willing congregation, producing melodic harmonies which rise past the elaborate chandelier to the simple arched ceiling. Outside, the dancers continue the procession, filling the space outside the church with a party atmosphere. A makeshift bar is doing a roaring trade in patatas bravas and beer. It seems that the whole town is here and everyone, from the smallest child to the greyest elder has a costume and a role to play.

correfoc youngster
Everyone has a role to play!

A week later, I walk the same path past the hermitage and out into the vineyards. I am accompanied by three other ‘pilgrims’ on a small yatra, a meditative walk, mostly in silence, to celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar.  Empty shells of fireworks litter the path and along the way we pause to take in the scent of rosemary and thyme growing abundantly in the wayside. All through the fields, the vines are bare, stretched out and prepared for leaves that will soon appear. Warm rays of sunshine have broken through the early mist and we peel off layers as we walk. Pink and white almond blossom, thronged with happy bees, gives pause for reflection.

In challenging times, these resources will create resilience.

Connection to self, connection to each other and connection to nature.

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Almond blossom Imbolc 2017

 

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Solstice Meditation

At this solstice time of year, as that still point approaches when the sun seems to pause in the sky for a moment before turning about face toward the opposite end of the cycle, I, too, feel a deep need to pause. Over the past few days, I have felt a slowing down, a desire to disengage, to rest. In preparation for renewal, I grind to a halt, cancelling plans and staying home, staying put, staying still.

This year has been a tough one. Not just for me, but for many beings around this planet. On some level, we are all experiencing a shift. In awareness. In consciousness. In being. It can strike as a profound unease, rattling our bones and jangling our nerves, so that we wake in the night, bathed in sweat and worrying about the future. It may appear as anger or distress, a desperate call for attention. For someone, anyone, to notice our suffering and help bring about some sense of calm. It may manifest as argument or discussion, as we battle our neighbours and friends in wars of words, or worse.

The game playing out on the world’s stage is a bizarre one. One we barely recognise, unless we are versed in drama and intrigue. Which of course we all are. We just imagined that  it was in the realm of fiction. Yet as the creative dystopias of our authors and playwrights become fact, there must be more we can do than stand and stare, wringing our hands in dismay?

May I make a suggestion? For a moment, friends, allow yourself to do nothing. Empower yourself to sit still. Prepare a space with invitations of comfort. A cushion. A blanket. Make your place warm and welcoming. A candle. A cup of tea. An inspiring image.

Relax, if you can. Feel your breath in your body. Come to know that as long as the breath is with you, there is hope. Follow your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Make it longer, easier. Notice when it pauses, and when it wants to rush. Let it be just as it is, but notice it. Listen to it. Listen too, to your mind as it chatters hither and thither, circling the matters of importance. Listen deeply, as if you are listening to the yearning of your heart.

Can you hear what your heart yearns for? Can you hear, beneath the clamour for attention and approval? Beneath the cry of pain or dismay? Beneath the agitation and the anxiety?

Sit still and listen deeply, and when you hear the call of your heart, set your navigation towards it. And then little by little, step by step, you will approach it, until one day, finally, you will arrive.

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Supermoon November 2016

{Solstice- Derived from the Latin sol, “Sun,” and stitium, “stoppage,” as the Sun appears to stand still on the first day of winter.} Source: The Free Dictionary

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Here be Dragons – Meditation on Uncertainty

Yesterday, as we sailed into the uncharted waters of Trumpdom, an artist came into my Catalan class to give a presentation. It was a workshop in emotional intelligence, using the dragon as a symbol of fear, though it might easily have been a signifier for Trump himself.  The artist, who sported a blue beard (for what reason we never knew) led us in a game. We stood in a circle and threw a length of cord between us, stating each our name, where we come from and where we now live. It is an exercise I have led myself, during workshops in film-making. “Em dic Helen. Soc de Gales. Visc en Sant Pere de Ribes.” Simple stuff,  but looking around at my classmates, I see what a multicultural world I live in. People from from Gambia, China and Pakistan, from Morocco and Ecuador, Andalucia, and Portugal. All making an effort to get their tongue around the native language.  I also see how the Catalan people, at least, are embracing those of many different cultures. As Trump closes US borders to Mexicans and Muslims; as Britain winds up the drawbridge to their tiny island and hopes to weather the storm alone; as Australia turns back the boats bringing refugees from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I look around at these different faces, with different dress codes and different accents and I feel a certain warmth. I, too, am an immigrant here. In a recent exercise discussing whether our eyes are fosc or clar, I was the only member of the group with blue eyes.

The artist talks about maps, and how cartographers used to label uncharted territories with a drac. A dragon. For some, he said, the symbol of a dragon would instill fear and be a sign never to go there. For others, it would be an invitation to explore. In our own uncharted territories, the  outer and inner worlds we inhabit and traverse, there are also times when we encounter fear. Our dragons breathe fire and make loud noises, as if to scare us from ever going to that place. The dragon is both guard and protector. It warns us that it might be painful to go there. That we might need to prepare ourselves for disappointment, failure, or loss. But does that mean that we should not go? Coming face to face with our dragons is what makes us heroes. It helps us develop courage and strength. When our eyes (and hearts) are opened to new experiences, new people, new worlds, new challenges, this is when we tend to grow.
Sant Jordi – Saint George – is an important figure in Catalan culture. He is the dragon-slayer that we know from English stories but he has a special purpose here. El Dia de Sant Jordi is celebrated with two special customs. Men present women with a rose and women make men the gift of a book, bringing together the heart and the head – the organs of feeling and of reason. We can take this symbology as an object of meditation as we travel into unfamiliar waters. Whilst it would be foolish to completely ignore the warnings pointed out to us by the mind, it is unlikely that we will survive, let alone thrive, without the unique tool provided for us by the heart. If the times ahead are to be challenging, let us rely on the intelligence of the mind and the care of the heart, for one without the other will fall short, delivering us headlong into the teeth of the threefold ‘dragons’ of fear, hatred and delusion. The Buddha advised that our main practice is to develop the two ‘wings’ of wisdom and compassion. In times of uncertainty, we need them more than ever.

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Earth-Care, Self-Care

Recently, a client of mine made me a wonderful offer. He would stump up the cash to fly me to Australia for the launch of Child of the Earth, a film we made together about the life of activist counsellor, social worker, nurse and educator Glen Ochre. I have to say, I was both tempted and flattered “Go!” my friends said. “It’s part of being a filmmaker, attending the launch!” Well, that’s true, but what if you’re a filmmaker AND an environmentalist. Do you still fly around the world attending every screening just to hear the applause?

It’s a hard call to make, because after the final edit is made and the film has been signed off, those moments of applause might be the best form of feedback you get. To sit in a room and hear people laugh at the funny moments. to watch the tears roll down when the story is sad. These can be defining richly rewarding for anyone who has spent a significant period of their life on a project. Those reactions can stay with you for years. They can help you embark on, stay with and complete the next project. What’s more, in the audience, you might meet your next client, or the person who will produce your next film. So what made me say “no thanks” to this marvellous offer? Why didn’t I grab the chance to meet up with my Melbourne friends and revisit my old haunts? Well, it’s simple. Sometimes, we need to sit still.

In a world of depleting resources and runaway climate change, not to mention stress and over-achievement, we all need to take the time to stop and be where we are. In the recent Brexit vote, a good pal of mine confessed that she voted for Britain to leave the European Union. Her reason, she said, was not to control the borders or to regain access to the money we are supposed to be wasting on European governance. Her reason, she said, was that people need to stay put. This argument was a bit rich, coming from someone who had spent most of her life crossing continents like roads. But I knew what she meant. I mean I KNEW what she meant. I felt it in my heart and in my bones. I, myself, personally, need to sit still for a while.

As a meditator of over twenty years experience, I feel that need often. Those times in my day or my week when only sitting still will enable me to connect with my true feelings, or with others, or with the world around me. Only sitting still will fix the ache in my soul – the one that cries out for approval, or wealth, or notoriety. Only sitting still will make me feel whole. This self-care was also one of the maxims for Glen’s ground-breaking work in group facilitation. So instead of flying around the world to Australia, I set up a meditation Meetup right here in my new home town. I resolved to find some other people who wanted to sit still with me. Together we will sit still for the good of the planet. For the sheer pleasure of it and perhaps most of all, to satisfy our need for connection.

I’m not saying I will never cross continents again, or that I will never travel for work or to see my friends and family. I hope I will. It’s just interesting to know that sometimes, saying “no” can be equally as positive and life-affirming as saying “yes.”

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The Community in Gardening

I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.

On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.

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Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.

When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.

We need Nature.

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A City Meditation

The other day I woke with a voice in my head. “No words” it said, over and over. Sin palabras (I’m learning Spanish). Accompanying the voice was a sharp headache, which sent shock waves through my being when I moved too quickly. The message seemed clear to me. “Slow down, shut up and listen!”

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However exciting, the noise, activity and distraction of city life can be overwhelming. Whether a brief visitor or a long-term resident, we often lack the resources to carve out quiet time. A friend of mine, who is an artist in London, once gave me some advice. “In the country, there is lots of space outside, but in the city, I find I need to create more internal space.” It reminds me of a question once asked on a meditation retreat. “How can we “go out” whilst “staying in”? How can we be in and of the world whilst maintaining the equilibrium and peace of mind we need to negotiate our days with grace and clarity?

Ancient-tree

I felt I needed some air, so I took myself out into the street and sauntered into the square nearby. At the stroke of noon, a tinkle of church bells began to peal and I couldn’t help but follow the sound. Still walking ever so slowly, I felt my feet connect with the cobblestones, my hands reaching out to stroke ancient Roman walls. I found myself led to a garden, where fresh water flowed through an ornate fountain. I was drawn to the way the light fell into the courtyard, spilling shadows over ornately-carved doors. Bustling tourists hurried past me with cameras, clicking and moving on, clicking and moving on, while I paused, breathed, contemplated.

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In Barcelona, it’s not difficult to imagine the sacred amongst the ordinary. Around every corner, yet another stunning cathedral reaches heavenwards and at regular intervals, the Christian call to prayer rings out across the jumbled rooftops. Whatever our beliefs, with a little imagination, we can make these spaces our own. We can bring our own sense of what is holy.

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My journey that day led me to take a seat in the sun and enjoy the music from a talented busker playing jazz music in the plaza. An ancient palm tree told tales of long ago merchants and scholars…a centuries-old Jewish place of worship offered up long-held secrets…an intriguing mural gave insight into a local community and a hidden school yard sheltered children playing freely. I was moved to regard the older residents of Barcelona ambling through the place they know so well, and for a moment, my mind stopped its ceaseless racing and my senses gathered in close. For a while, I tuned in to a different pace and time. More at home, both within myself, and without.

#light #shadow #silenttour #simplyliving #Barcelona #ceramics

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Contemplating the dharma in climate change

Lately, I’ve been listening to talks from Buddhist teachers exploring a response to climate change. There is much discussion of grief. The sense of loss and despair which can arise when we truly connect with what we humans have done – are doing – to the natural world. Joanna Macy is famous for exploring this phenomenon in her “Work that Reconnects”, where she encourages us to go deep and face the truth of what is. But so many of us are caught in inaction, in not knowing what we can possibly DO that will make a difference. At the Local Lives, Local Matters Conference in Castlemaine last weekend, Zen teacher and author Susan Murphy told us “You don’t solve a koan, it resolves you. Shows you how to respond.” “Not knowing”, she said, “is the most intimate state of awareness.”

Although the wisdom of this statement hit me immediately, in order to give it due consideration I had to wait until I had time to sit with it, to turn it over in my mind, to meditate on it. A common response to climate change is a sense of overwhelm, of disempowerment. No wonder, then, that what so often emerges is denial. While climate-deniers are slammed as being ignorant and dangerous, it’s useful to consider that in her seminal book “On Death and Dying”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first stage of grief. Denial, then, is entirely appropriate, given the enormity of what we are facing.

But denial is not an appropriate place to linger. As the inevitable approaches, we need to develop tools which will help us negotiate the rocky path ahead. We need to move on. Susan spoke of the need to stay with what is in order to know it deeply and how this is what we do in meditation practice. We stay with what is.

When I lived in my wooden house in Wales, I knew each night where the moon rose. In fullness, her silvery glow woke me, steeping my bedroom in cool luminescence. Beckoned, I would creep out under her gaze and gaze back. Her face to mine. I would walk in the woodland garden, watching the leaves light up under her brilliant blue-white light.

Since living in the city, I feel the lack of moonlight keenly. Sometimes, I see her peek from between the tall buildings as if to say “Here I am!” But then she is gone, ducked behind an edifice of concrete and glass and I, in any case, have little time to linger.

When I first left Wales to come to live in Melbourne, I felt the loss of nature acutely. I mourned the roar and crash of waves on the beach, the chaotic crescendo of chattering wildlife on a spring morning, the broad sky above me. But over time, I came to love the leaves in the park across the road from my inner city home. I saw the seasons turn in sunlight and shadow. I stretched on the grass and let the swirling plane seeds alight in my hair and clothes.

Nature persists. She seeps between the cracks in the pavement and speaks to us of impermanence and perseverance. She hums through the corridors of commerce and reminds us of what is necessary and true. She is unyielding, relentless and bold. In the face of our own destruction, we, too, must find this insistence. We must return again and again to the source of ourselves in order to learn to love her.  Because only what we love, will we be moved to protect. Connecting with nature is to connect with the nature of ourselves and the nature of each other. It is to come home to the fact that we are one with everything, and everyone, else.

This great Buddhist truth emerges under the scrutiny of our gaze. We don’t need to be Buddhist to know the interconnection of all beings. Science will tell us how trees process our waste and produce oxygen for us to breathe. But just as a lover needs to be touched, this knowledge needs to be known, to be embodied, to be FELT.  We need to make a deep and personal connection with nature so that we might know her. So that we might be moved to act in accordance with her needs. As Susan said, “Intimacy reveals mutuality.”

I am intrigued with the current movement towards re-wilding – not just the earth, but ourselves. There is an urgent need to re-learn, to re-know, to re-love the natural world. Spending time with our loved one, with the earth, might provoke movement through the other – equally uncomfortable stages of grief – anger, bargaining and depression. But only by reaching acceptance will we reach the steady heart from which our own personal response can emerge.

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Night view of fire in shelter-crop

Rewilding the Feminine

A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn

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At what cost? At what cost does a woman pursue “the path less travelled” and focus on her inner life? Although the subject of women’s spiritual journeys has been habitually scrubbed from history, can it be true that lately, we are witnessing an unearthing of the divine feminine?
In these times of great challenge for our world, there is a need to balance the strong, extrovert, “doing” masculine energy which dominates the western culture with something that is more gentle, more yielding, more “being”. This is just the re-balancing that Claire Dunn is undertaking in her book “My Year Without Matches”.

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Australia, surely, is a land made for men. Tough and unforgiving, the landscape reveals how humans are vulnerable to nature. Lethal snakes, poisonous spiders, a harsh and deadly sun. This is the landscape that Claire is encountering. She intuits a need to connect with the land. A need to learn nature’s ways and fall into step with Her rhythm. With the rhythm of herself. And in the process, she awakens to the feminine within.
As I turn the pages, Claire Dunn’s voice changes from young, scared girl to mature, wise woman. Leaving the comfort of suburban society, she enrols in a bush programme and takes to the wild for a year. Schooled in the basic skills of shelter-building, fire-starting, tracking and trapping, she makes a place for herself in the landscape. She sets strong boundaries, sometimes too strong, and learns what it is to both stick to her principles and to go with the flow.
Although firmly set in the outer world of survival, the strength of the story, for me, is in the depiction of Claire’s inner world. We watch as she revisits her relationship with her parents, enlisting their help but noticing her reluctance to gracefully receive it. The surly teenager grows up. We see her wrestle with the need for, and rejection of companionship. Walking the line between loneliness and solitude, she discovers the push and pull of neediness and interdependence.
Claire’s self-imposed celibacy and fasting resonates strongly with a path of renunciation, which has come to mean self-denial but more traditionally, was a way to find your edges. Spiritual traditions have a way of testing you, so that you come to know yourself fully. So that your actions, where once they were mechanical or driven by habit, become full of purpose and intent. And this is Claire’s striving. To find meaning in her life. To be able to walk a road which makes sense to her, to her fellows and to the earth herself.

The courage with which she undertakes this task inspires awe. Awesome is a word somewhat overused in Australia, but Claire’s journey, and the book which emerges from it, deserve the phrase. Awesome.

Wide shot of shelter spot-web

After reading “My Year Without Matches”, I’m raving to my husband about it and he picks up the book. “She lives in Newcastle”, he says. ”So you won’t be able to add her to your signed book collection.”
“Mmm”, I respond. “You never know.”
The book is still sitting on the coffee table when I am invited to attend a gathering at the Urban Temple – a small shared-house community in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s trendy inner North. I’m circling the laden pot-luck table when I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a woman chatting. I wonder, thinking that I recognise her. The man speaking with her mentions “Newcastle” and I know that it is her. “Are you Claire?” I ask, shyly.
We chat over dinner and I ask if I may interview her. She agrees good naturedly. When I get home, I thrust the book into my husband’s hands, pointing to the image of Claire on the back cover. “Guess who I met this evening!”
A couple of weeks later, Claire and I are sitting in my apartment in Fitzroy, drinking tea. She has only recently moved to Melbourne. After finishing her book a year ago, she has been engaged in the world of promotion.
“I’m still enjoying this part of the process”, she says. “It’s kind of ‘out from under a rock’. It’s why I’ve come to Melbourne. It feels like there’s a community down here that’s very interested in this work. Earth-connectedness and personal transformation through that doorway. It feels much stronger down here than anywhere else I’ve been. I always thought it was an urban myth that Sydney and Melbourne were so different, but they feel like very different beasts. Very different jungles.”

I can only agree. Not having lived in Sydney, I don’t know what that’s like, but the Melbourne community – especially the inner North, has responded very well to my own work on conscious communities. I ask her if she is making any money from the book, given that it has just gone into its second edition.
“I’ve just been given my first royalty cheque after my advance. So it was the first money I’ve been given since 18 months ago for my book. I’m making my living doing freelance journalism for Fairfax – Sydney Morning Herald and the Newcastle Herald. I think there’s only a handful of writers in Australia – novelists or non-fiction – who make a living from their writing – writing books, anyway.”

If it’s not the money keeping her going, why does she do it? I ask.

It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” says Claire. “When I finished writing that book I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m writing another book’. I can see how easily you could get caught up in ‘well I’ve written a book, everyone’s expecting the next one, ok, I’ll just do something’. But I can really see how it could become a case of not really embodying what I’m passionate about because I’m too busy talking about it or writing about it.”

And embodying it – walking her talk – is important to Claire. She’s started running “Earth Wisdom” courses and gets invitations to collaborate with other people doing the same kind of work. It was a determination she arrived at in the final pages of “My Year Without Matches”. That she wanted to work as a “bridge builder” between mainstream society and the natural world.
“I’m feeling the call back to the earth.” she says. “Back to the land. Back to what inspired me on this journey in the first place. It’s like a spiralling back.”

Spinning fire, shelter background-web

It wasn’t until I actually sat down to write the review that I fully realised what a spiritual book “My Year Without Matches” is. I ask Claire how that spiritual journey is unfolding, now that she has left the forest.
““Well, it feels like all the stuff I wrote about in the book I’m absolutely needing to embody and trust in a new way. It’s almost like that year in the bush gave me that first insight, and those first new, very powerful experiences of this new way of being, which at the time I referred to as the feminine way. I was discovering this much more feminine way of showing up in the world, which was much more motivated and moved by desire, impulse, intuition and feeling, than by thought, and rationality and logic. And so the last few years I’ve been given the opportunity to practice that, both with the uncertainty of choosing to write a book with no publisher confirmed, and also the way that I’ve chosen to live my life, which is moving around a lot, and not having a stable job as such, and feeling the fear in that, but also the deeper desire to walk the talk, to really live from that place. My old identity fell away. All the certainties and the youthful idealism or ‘this is the way life will unfold’ – that’s all dissolved.  It’s much more about inhabiting that fluid space of ‘where am i drawn, where do I feel that I want to contribute. what wants to come through me? What stories, what gifts to I have to bring right now? Is it a learning time or a teaching time? Is it a giving time or a receiving time?’ Knowing that life is seasonal and cyclical and and flowing with that. So it feels to me that living from that place, embodying that feminine pattern of energy which is all about receptivity, intuition, really puts into practice all the concepts that i’ve learnt about a spiritual life. It’s easy to just agree with them when you hear about them – uncertainty, unknowing, emptiness, fullness, but living from this place is putting it into practice for me.”

I can only agree.
Further information
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
http://www.claire-dunn.com/the-book/

Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.

photographs by Australian Geographic – see a sample of Claire’s writing on their website

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deep-listening-dadirri-crowdfund

Live

Live. or Live. How do you say it? It depends. When your crowd fund goes “live”, how does it feel? I feel relieved. It’s been two and a half years of film-making. Five months of screening, feedback, re-edits and, quite frankily, stress. It’s time to let this baby go.

Will you help her stand alone?

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