In the past three years I have created two rather small ponds. it would have been better to have had one large one but there was a mass of concrete in the way – so two ponds it is. And through sitting, watching and waiting and clearing out duck weed and string algae I feel I have come to be closely involved with pond life. I think pond life is a term of insult but the whole thing is wonderful. Basically pond life seems to arrive as if from nowhere. I did begin with some frog spawn from a friend but last year a load of toads arrived and this year I was amazed to see newts… At least two so far and I’ve seen them attacking one another… perhaps there is an aspect of slight horror on first relating to the newts. There does seem something prehistoric. But I’m also thrilled that the pond can sustain all these life forms ..
In his autobiography called Native Realm Czeslaw Milosz, the East European poet, writes about his ‘old resentment toward nature, my fear of her cruelties – nature meaning both the one outside us and the one within us’. And in one of his letters to Thomas Merton, Milosz takes issue with what he sees as Merton’s sentimentality towards nature. When I realised that all the frog spawn in pond B had been eaten by the newts I felt this cruelty and feared for the tadpoles in pond A. When I bought four pond snails for pond B I participated in that cruelty because in my ignorance I didn’t know that newts can kill and eat pond snails. The frogs eat the slugs and today one ate a woodlouse – I watched it jump up and take it. So yes Milosz fears the cruelty in the natural world – the impersonal matter of fact aspects of it .. after all the frogs are being frogs and the newts are being newts. Thomas Merton talking of rabbits writes of the ‘rabbitness of God’ – in other words God is in all those rabbits and in the pond life … but surely human cruelty has the added horror that often we can weigh up what we are doing and why and still act ruthlessly, without compassion. I find Jung’s belief that God is both good and evil, compassionate and cruel a difficult one… The Christian belief is that God is love … and as human’s we choose whether to be kind or cruel…
Last night I was at the book launch of the latest edited book by Anthony Molino and again this morning went to the talk he gave put on by The Analytic Network. I was struck by a word he used yesterday evening ‘commodification’. This links to the marketable quality of something and how whatever it is it can be turned into a commodity. Molino was speaking about the development of Buddhism in the West and how mindfulness that comes from Buddhist meditation has now become a commodity. It’s everywhere as a solution to this or that or the other… mindfulness as a way of managing anger or anxiety or sorrow… A bit like CBT it offers an economically ‘viable’ way out of contemporary angst. You can sort things in 6-8 week courses or even just focus for a moment on a piece of fruit or whatever is happening in the body or indeed the mind. The selling point is that with a bit of effort you can be up and fully functioning in the work place and in that way pulling your own economic weight. In other words use the commodity to increase your own life as a commodity and while you are about it get out there and keep shopping, especially for all those things you didn’t know you wanted.
And of course the Buddhist part has been dropped from the technique which is sold as a technique and nothing more. Mindfulness is a secular idea for secular ends. There’s a sort of connection with the Buddhist heads and statues that you can find in garden centres. The commodification in this example is something about leisure and resting. These are not objects for meditation or imbued with meaning and deep tradition.
But the deep meaning and practice of genuine religion is not commodifiable .. Christianity and Christ, contemplative prayer and all forms of meditation where they are linked to their source cannot be marketed. After all what’s for sale – becoming one with Christ, the experience of the no-self, emptying of the mind … no profit for the post capitalist economy in any of that.
There’s a similarity with psychoanalysis or analytic psychology. Why can’t that be marketed in the same way as CBT and mindfulness… partly because it all takes time…two or three or more times a week for years and years. Both Christian contemplative prayer and Buddhist meditation, psychoanalysis and analytic psychology are genuine and transformative practices.
Perhaps the idea of ‘going on’ is a contradiction to the idea of a ‘retreat’ or ‘withdrawal’ but it is harder to retreat at home with all the usual distractions and temptations, so it’s good to get away. I’ve just come back from four days at The Well at Willen this is just on the outskirts of Milton Keynes and is a community made up of associates of the Society of the Sacred Mission. This was my second visit there.
What I liked about this time away – and it is in contrast to some other places that I have been – is that it seemed possible to be oneself…whatever that means. On some other occasions there has been a tremendous pressure and I don’t think necessarily from me to feel that you have to fit in to a rather prescribed and narrow situation. This may be especially so where the retreat house is run by a strict order and you can almost feel that you are there on sufferance. Allied to that feeling are then all sorts of projections that kick in of disapproving parents and then of course the rebellious adolescent begins to resurface. A few years back that happened and I found I spent all the time leaving the retreat house going off to look in the nearby town anything rather than stay in the enclosure which was the point of the experience… perhaps it’s a horror of being trapped in some way.
Anyway none of that happened at The Well and I felt happy. Now that’s a change! And I had one of those Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, moments where I saw ‘the tree with the lights in it’ and that is worth having seen…as Dillard writes ‘when I see this way I see truly’ and it’s only possible in solitude and when there’s nothing much else happening in the mind ..it’s sitting or walking and looking really looking without conceptual thought butting in and spoiling it all.
There’s a lovely couple of sentences in Isaiah which suggest that even if times are tough we can be guided. It continues: ‘And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying , “This is the way; walk in it “‘.
Sometimes it’s really unclear what action to take or what to do… and sometimes the inner voice of God or the wise part of ourselves is unclear. I think I’ve begun to learn that the Quaker process of discernment can be really helpful. I suppose it’s being reflective. Quakers usually do it in a group so there’s a chance for different perspectives to be raised and heard without interruption or opposition and I think this can happen inside oneself too in the sense of allowing oneself to really allow alternatives to have their time and space to be heard. On Monday night I was at a CPD meeting put on by The Analytic Network, it was about something called Internal Family Systems but was about a dialogue taking place with different parts of the self but in the company of an experienced facilitator who kept his eye on what was happening. The person doing this was mostly silent though on the recording we watched you could see the internal shifts in their face and body. I imagine that over time the process could become internalised so you wouldn’t need the facilitator. That would be like self-analysis …but my experience of that is that it is only too easy to deceive oneself about what is happening. Perhaps deep contemplative prayer and really listening and then emptying the mind is the only way and how hard that is too, especially if one is anxious about what path to take.