slipping into the masterpiece

Dissolver of Sugar, Dissolve Me, If Now is the Time…

You lose your grip, and then you slip, into the Masterpiece
Leonard Cohen

I love these lines from Rumi; their appeal to a force beyond us, to One who knows how to dissolve things; and alongside it the reverence and humility to know, despite the request, that we do not get to dictate when we ourselves dissolve. It’s as good an entry point as any to engage with this rich theme of how dissolution-capable we are – so much less separate and ‘individual’ than we imagine.

The fact of our inter-woven interdependence, the absence of a separate self, is of course a central tenet of Buddhist teaching and many spiritual (and scientific) traditions. Nonetheless, most of us find ourselves conceiving and speaking of ourselves as if we are discreet entities. This is the view endorsed by our culture, yet does not always serve us or capture the truth of our experience. Nonetheless, it dominates - for almost all of us, the way we perceive ourselves both implies and amplifies this sense of separate individuality. And so we tend to be, like Leonard suggests, ambivalent about ‘losing our grip’; we feel we need it, and at one level, we do, even if life within the masterpiece is far more magnificent.

But we are other, and more - and less - than the conventional view of self implies: As Thomas Hubl says, we are not on the planet, we are the planet. To experience ourselves as cellular manifestations of life, life-ing, is to live closer to the dynamism of raw existence at our essence.

I want to explore some of the many channels through which we may deepen our access to such dissolving. But first, a detour: In the past, for me, the Buddhist teaching of no-fixed self was something to ‘realise’ by drilling away at the mind’s instinct to self-identify. Or I would ‘use’ Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry Who am I? to penetrate to a state of impersonal witnessing consciousness. (I am not saying that this is Buddhism or Advaita, more how ‘I’ took up’ those teachings.) In any case, I was never particularly good at either, and when I did achieve some clarity of perception, it was, as Stephen Bachelor would say, a ‘constructed’ insight, reached through technique and effort - and swift to depart.

These days, from more effortless and communal angles, our non-separation seems inclined to impress its obvious truth: we are not separate, or distinct; life is living through us; we reverberate with a life force that bestows its grace on us; we interweave with everything and, on our lucky days, find ourselves enveloped within the masterpiece...

This perception now seems to emerge more often, and as a side-effect of other processes. I want to flesh out some of these a little, with a view to honouring and encouraging each of us to be pierced, melted and altered by our experiences in similar dimensions. The processes I will dwell on here arise in response to experiencing more directly through the body; being altered by aging; noticing our transmissions to each other; and, perhaps most preciously, dwelling in cultures of human un-defendedness, where our opportunity to relate from open presence supports and amplifies a capacity for dissolution.

For each of us, the flavours through which we find ourselves dissolving most gracefully will differ; for many, the invitation will come intensely through meditation, music, immersion in nature, sexual expression, any craft or task that absorbs us. Whatever the source, whatever processes are most potent for us, let’s treasure them. Let’s learn, incrementally, to partake of them wholeheartedly; to honour the invitation they offer us; to notice and thoroughly digest that we are continually experiencing the fluidity of our identity and the reality of our intermingling belonging with all of life...


So, below: four processes explored a little - a Visceral Process, an Aging Process, a Transmission Process and a Warming Process... the last one maybe of most interest to those drawn to spiritual inquiry practices...


A Visceral Process

I’m like a Ruby held up to sunrise
Is it still a flower or a world made of redness?


One element of this process is intensely visceral: from time to time we stumble into the experience that we partake of a cellular cacophony of life moving in us, of which we are hosts and witnesses. In such moments, we receive life from somewhere beyond us, and seem indivisible elements of a larger organism. Though this recognition often arises sensually, it carries more weight than that suggests - it is not merely a physical experience, rather an overwhelming, all-encompassing recognition via the body that we are life in process. 
Sometimes this comes upon us unexpectedly. A few years ago, swimming in the sea, I sensed the energy of the water run through my body directly. Skin seemed to function as a marginal membrane; the sea’s vitality moved unimpeded through a porous cellular body; the sense of union and indivisibility was immanent and vivid. (of course many of us have such experiences often, but even when they are generously given, we do not always process or absorb what they are showing us about who and what we are.)

I also want to give the ocean, and ocean-swimming, the credit it is due - many of us who swim in the sea experience a ‘transfer’ of energy that has a power to surprise us – transcending the merely physical shock of cold water - as if, by entering the ocean we explicitly enter into our non-dual belonging within the living, heaving planet, and are welcomed there.

This ‘ocean’ experience felt both sublime and deeply familiar, recalling me to an intensity I would often experience after days of silent retreat, standing on the grass at Gaia House in Devon, after a few neurotic layers of thought had been sloughed off in silence and meditation. There, I would find myself receive the living field of the body without interference, awestruck by the level of inner activity, the intensity of ‘un-managed’ and ‘un-conceptualised’ life within and around me.


An Aging Process 

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.

From No Going Back, Sabbath Poems,
Wendell Berry

Another element of this ‘dissolution’ of singular identity relates to something universal about good aging – the instinct to be what Erikson called ‘generative’ for our world as a whole. In Berry’s poem, there is a lovely sense of the transition from youth and the invitations it offers us as individuals to a recognition that life’s richness increasingly comes from how and where we give ourselves away and to whom. 

When we relate to ourselves as both part of and in service to life, lots of subtle, good shifts occur: It is as if we humans move from being ‘entities-in-ourselves’ to something closer to ‘shepherds-of-life-energy’.  This is to submit to a looser project and focus than the individual self. We surrender into participation rather than triumph, and in a way our life becomes akin to a field – a physical and energetic arena in which growth, death, work, rest, production occurs. 

If, as Winnicott suggested, there is no baby without a mother, (implying that the process between them was primary and utterly necessary for the baby to stay alive). There is also no adult, really, without a world, without the infinite planet floating around and through us, as us, we as it, and out the other side, into tomorrows without us. 

How we experience this can become a source of deep fulfillment and joy. Self-surrender, more and more often; the wish to offer our energies into life, the hope that our efforts float away from us, impacting and influencing elsewhere in good ways. We become a field we want to fertilise, not for its own sake, but for the sake of what life can grow there…



‘we all knew one thing by being there
the space we stood around had been emptied into us to keep
High cries were felled and a pure change happened…’

Seamus Heaney: Clearances

I want to catch something here about how we take each other in - and are taken in throughout our lives. This is a continual process of impact and influence. This element of transmission is often at its most vivid around others’ deaths and departures. Death is disruptive, in good as well as bad ways, creating apertures of expansion, uncertainty and transformation. 

In proximity to others’ deaths, we often experience something like spiritual transmission: an uncanny intensity in which a recently departed beloved’s essence seems to imbue space (our bodies, consciousness, the planet, the sky…). Temporarily, they seem suddenly everywhere. There may be an enormous sense of the impact of their being, as if, as in Heaney’s poem, there is a brief, precious moment in which we have the opportunity to take them in, to allow their essence imprint us.  

This is an amplified version of what analyst Christopher Bollas refers to when he suggests we truly know others by the ‘trace’ they leave in us. In our after-effect, much about who we are is revealed. And, throughout our days, we carry such traces of each other. In life’s chaotic eros, we exchange, from the beginning and always, not just DNA, but essences, moods, figures of speech, skills, delusions, habits, ways of seeing and being. We are constantly altering each other and being altered. This is the nature of our interpenetrating lives together – a constant interweaving and intermingling of impact, influence, affect. 


A Warming Process…

We are all substantially flawed, wounded, angry, hurt, here on Earth. But this human condition, so painful to us, and in some ways shameful – because we feel we are weak when the reality of ourselves is exposed – is made much more bearable when it is shared, face-to-face, in words that have expressive human eyes behind them…

Alice Walker, Anything We Love Can Be Saved

I want to speak finally of something very close to my heart, and where this dissolution has moved me the most, and it feels, blessed me the most- a ‘warming’ process sourced in cumulative moments of open presence with others. At its most potent, human contact characterised by trust and intimacy has the capacity both to soften our suffering, and to facilitate huge expansions of consciousness. 

What makes some contact so transforming? I can sense a few strands here, which often overlap, but don’t need to: moments in which an emotional wound or fragment of unresolved distress emerges from inside us and registers with an available, attuned other; moments in which we relate from a presence so open, trusting and unknown to ourselves that we relate from an unselfconscious presence where it is safe to be absolutely naked, allowing life express itself spontaneously through us; and finally those moments in which we are open to resonate with a quality of presence in others so free, non-identified and available that we attune to the beauty of where they are speaking from, and absorb something of its quality.

Love says I am everything. Wisdom says I am nothing.

Between the two, my life flows…


For me, a central ‘channel’ for this type of experiencing has been in spiritual practice communities where we consciously create environments highly supportive of exploration, immediacy and presence. These ask us to drop down from our habitual relating with its demands for pacing, coherence and social convention and relate from an open, meditative innocence. We are encouraged to speak from the edge of the unknown, to bring what is fresh and emergent into language. In doing this, our experience alters in quality, slowing down and becoming far more immediate, fresh and intensely experiential. 

The potency of being with others in this way is profound. Our experiences may be ruggedly earthy: speaking deeply and thoroughly of a shameful or vulnerable element of our lives, in such a way that it enters loving human relation, is understood and absorbed and carried more weightlessly afterward. They may also be far more mysterious and esoteric: we find ourselves ‘falling upwards’, slipping unexpectedly into the ‘masterpiece’ where we mirror each other in uncanny states of expansion rich with insight and nourishment. There is joy and wonder here, and also amplification and affirmation of our shared identity as presence. Moments like this have the feel of mystery and grace, a knowing that we partake of something larger than we can map, finding ourselves no longer in the journey to God, but on the journey in God. 

All this offers a deep invitation into both our ‘common humanity’ and our collective identity as a ‘we’ in which we sense ourselves dissolving and reforming, altered and lighter for our contact with each other. 

So what I am calling this ‘warming process’ consists of overlapping gifts: the release of areas of historical tension, loneliness and pain; the articulation of long-held patterns of suffering among human others, and the meeting with each other from presence, as presence, in emptier dimensions than conventional relating allows. The first confers a therapeutic softening and lightening of what we can call the ‘pain body’; the second a growing capacity, as Neelam writes, to knowing ourselves as Presence – and relate with each other from there. 

In writing of all this, I have no wish to give the impression that I am in any way ‘over’ being a troubled individual. But I do wish to honour these precious warming movements and processes of softening that all of us have access to, and to speak up for their capacity to dissolve our sense of seperation. In many of us, twin processes flow alongside each other: emotional attachment to the project of this individual self, and a more open allegiance and belonging to life itself and our intermingling presence here. 

Over to Hafiz:

In a Handful of God

Poetry reveals that there is no empty space.

When your truth forsakes its shyness,
when your fears surrender to your strengths,
you will begin to experience

that all existence
is a teeming sea of infinite life.

In a handful of ocean water
you could not count all the finely tuned

In a handful of the sky and earth,
in a handful of God,

we cannot count
all the ecstactic lovers  
who are dancing there.

True art reveals there is no void
of darkness,

there is no loneliness
in this luminous, brimming

playful world.

The Crack in Everything

Rilke meets the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi, Cohen and Marquez in these reflections on the inevitability and beauty of our imperfections....

broken crack gold.jpg


'Ring them bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering…'
Leonard Cohen

‘there is always something left to love’
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I’m often struck that Cohen’s next lines from Anthem – the ones about the crack in everything – are quoted so very often, and that these get less attention. Stunning as those big picture lines are, these ones are also worth treasuring for their practicality and command: they invite us toward contribution, with whatever is left of us, while we still can. They also bring to mind this wise, redeeming statement from Marquez: 'There is always something left to love’.

There is always something left to love, though it sure doesn’t always feel like it.

So I’d like to explore a little the territory these words provoke, the invitation I see in them, and the challenge they lay down to us.

What stops us courageously expressing ourselves like this, seeing that the world needs us, and sharing what we have to offer? For many of us, it’s some blend of shame, convention, fear, and worry that we are not worthy or will not be wanted in what we might have to offer. Sometimes it’s that we can’t forget the dreams we have failed to realise, the self we have failed to become. We are too disappointed; we imagined a perfect offering we could bring the world, one we perhaps hoped to shine in.

Our disappointment in our lives may feel deep and real. Our mourning has a truth to it - there is poignancy and pain in our glance backwards to the potential that lies unrealised, and the selves we failed to be. We have genuine grief there, maybe a sense of tragedy or haunting regret, bewilderment or error. Yet life itself is injured when we allow that sense of failure or lament to be our end point, to silence us and separate us from seeing that we are still of value, that there are tasks and beings that call us into life, just as we are.

‘everything here apparently needs us.’ Rilke

For here we still are, and here the world is. Here life is. Here others are. And, for all our failings, for all the disappointments, truncated hopes and stunted capacities we sense may litter our past, there is another sense in which, as Rilke says, ‘everything here apparently needs us.’

It may be hard to believe in the necessity Rilke speaks of – to see that our presence is inherent and of worth. And yet, it is all we have – and we have it only once, here (as Rilke continues) ‘in this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have been this once, completely, even if only once: to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing…’

 becoming more precious for having been broken

In appreciating our imperfection, I'm reminded of the Japanese craft of Kintsukuroi – in which ceramic bowls have cracks repaired with gold. In Kintsukuroi, when a broken object is repaired and its fractures rendered visible, we draw deliberate, honouring attention to its fragility, imbuing it with a more symbolic, complex beauty. Instead of the break diminishing the bowl's appeal, the object becomes more precious for having been broken.

Put more poetically, from this perspective, “the true life of the bowl…began the moment it was dropped…" This echoes Leonard’s words about the value of the ‘crack in everything,’ and Franciscan Richard Rohr’s central thesis in Falling Upwards – that it is what we do with the failures of our lives that contains their redemption.

So what if all this is true, and our broken, incomplete, un-longed for self is the better self – the one we were always intended to become? Despite our protests, it is who we have become and who we are: this real, limited, weird, irreconcilable, radically incomplete and contradictory human (who frustrates us endlessly). Can we nonetheless trust what life has done to us, and recognise that there is a richness and a gift capable of shining through the flaws and weaknesses we are often more acutely aware of?

This is to ring the bells that still can ring, to notice what faculties and capacities remain, what has been shaped by damage and what its’ gift might be. Being able to ‘forget our perfect offering’ is to drop our preoccupation with what we have failed to achieve, to recognise that we must mostly turn away from what is not, even if it once seemed possible or destined, and instead show up in our incompletion and tend to what is left for us to love.

the aesthetics of incompletion

I find great comfort and freedom in this nose to the grindstone work ethic from the imperfect self. There is less shame, less apology, less holding-back. A recognition that the ‘perfect’ will never be achieved, but that what is here is capable of contribution, and is all I will ever have. I remember reading somewhere that to work as a psychotherapist, it helped to have a feel for the ‘aesthetics of incompletion’. The implications of this are slowly dawning on me - that the hunt for wholeness serves as a distracting mirage and that, as Pema Chodron suggests, life often resembles more closely the vulnerability and openness of unrequited love: tender, unfinished, raw and full of longing.

Marquez’ words bring solace here, in their deep simplicity and truth. When life crashes and seems to lie in ruins around us, there is always something left to love. Often, what’s left to love is us. Often, another being or creature. Maybe - almost always - both. In any case, life calls to us, as Rilke says. Bells must be rung, and they are rung sometimes in celebration, sometimes in lament, but always, they are sacred, they mean something.



between Leonard Cohen and Simone Weil


Leonard Soul.jpg


People owe us what we imagine they will give us.
We must forgive them this debt. 
To accept the fact that they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. 
I am also other than what I imagine myself to be.
To know this is forgiveness…
Simone Weil

They say the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing
And the bitter liquor sweetens in the amber cup
Leonard Cohen: Born in Chains


I have found these two voices resonating in me in these potent days of quiet. Passing through this time of year, many of us seem to experience moments raw with vulnerability or touched by grace.

I’ll say a little about what these words carry for me and invite me toward. Simone Weil’s have both haunted and held me for about 25 years. They do not lessen in their import. When placed alongside Leonard’s understanding of the gifts of longing, from Born in Chains, something seems to deepen and warm.

In Weil’s words I hear always the recognition of the ‘surplus’ of our hope. Of how, when we are close to others – parents, children, lovers, partners, friends - it is so easy for our deep longings and unresolved hungers to constellate around them, expecting, finally to be salved. Our imaginations - as Weil says - create, without us quite realising it, a sense of ‘entitlement’ to receive what we hope for. (We often do not experience this as entitlement, but as some kind of inherent sense of relief: we know that this longed for quality is finally, finally in our grasp...) A long-awaited satiation of whatever our particular hunger - for tenderness, understanding, devotion, constancy – seems near at hand.

And then, inevitably, life happens. Their difference from our expectations crashes into us. Our beloveds express and manifest an independent will; they articulate their own unfoldment in some way or other that dismays us and confronts us with the hope we unconsciously placed in them. And sometimes this is shattering. Sometimes the open-hearted faith we were in the way of feels so crushed, so wounded, so devastated. Our pain and disappointment are fierce. Our hurt or anger may be great.

What we do then – what we are able to do – matters greatly. Can we bear our disappointment? Can we see that our needs and longings were our own and not commitments they ever signed up to? Can we – in Weil’s terms – forgive them the ‘debt’ we placed on them? It’s hard, often. There is grieving. There is impact. There may be resentment, a sense of betrayal, a desire to reject. A catastrophic, familiar despair.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

a tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress…’

WB Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

But if - as Leonard says - ‘the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing…’ this raw confrontation with our own disappointment is also an opportunity: We are invited to deepen and grow. Yeats wrote so beautifully of this need for the soul to embrace the unwanted impacts of living: 'An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress…’ When we can find a capacity to meet our own longing, to feel its resounding momentum and the grief of its disappointment inside us, we deepen and unfold the life of the soul.

Weil asks us to do this - to renounce our claim on others – to shed the role we have carved for them and the illusion that we know who and how they should be. Unfortunately, for the part of us that wishes to use them for something, we must accept that they are ‘other than creatures of our imagination’. They are not supposed to be who we have longed for, even if some archaic part of our psyche demands that they must.

Can we live in the paradox and tension of our longing – allowing it to blossom – which Leonard was so good at, but not to insist on its gratification? Can we be this gracious and humble each other, this alive and willing to host the longings in our souls?

And then Weil offers recalls us to something that reaches another layer – we too are mysteries, sometimes ‘failures’ or disappointments. We do not know who we are:

‘I also am other than I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness’.

In our capacity to mistake both our own characters and our essence, we find ourselves down among those who have (in our imaginations) ‘wronged’ us. We are stopped in our tracks. Yet to rest into this disorienting humility – to know that we do not know ourselves – is the beginning of something else. It releases a profoundly intimate warmth - a forgiveness that can touch us with a kind of sombre, witnessing tenderness, holding our frailty and humanness.

Let’s be gentle with each other. And ourselves, too...

 Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, and political activist

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, and political activist


Lofty Companions & the Energy of Aspiration

Inspired by Robert Bly, this piece celebrates the ideals we are drawn toward as children and the buoyancy we gain from the goodness of our friends…



“This being is like a friend.

It is a friend. It travels with us..."


Robert Bly introduces the term Lofty Companion in The Sibling Society. Bly’s Lofty Companion is a kind of inner imaginary comrade we first develop a connection with in childhood. We start to befriend this inner being – “a figure put together from disparate fragments of "who I want to be"…’ and, in a sense, fall under the influence and guidance of our dialogues together:

I made my Lofty Companion from a careful choice among my actual qualities, plus qualities I pulled out of the air, with much denial and wish fulfilment as glue.

There’s a few things I love about this concept of Bly’s: its’ attention to our inner goodness and unique visions as children; its’ highlighting of the warmth and particularity of our inner compasses and the dreamy part of our inner relation to ourselves. I also love it for the space it opens to notice and celebrate the loftiness in our friends, and the source of nourishment their particular ideals can be for us.

Bly evocatively describes our relationship with the Lofty Companion, and his words help us recall an ephemeral, often unacknowledged process which many of us will recognise.  Though in some ways his concept is close to Freud’s ego-ideal: “the part of the mind which imposes on itself concepts of ideal behaviour developed from parental and social”, as Bly says, ‘that’s boring and the name misses the companionship it provides’. Bly’s description is more souful, poetic and honouring of quirky uniqueness.

For Bly the emergence of the Lofty Companion is part of an unfolding process of self-discovery and self-knowledge. It clarifies our purpose and calls us into life, asking us to be in service of it:

“Creating a Lofty Companion, which is your life's work for about ten years, tends to isolate you from others because you need to listen, to him or her or it...This agency of aspiration is more adept than we are, and will be our entry into success, authenticity and achievement."


Her Bly captures the vitality and strength generated by the Lofty Companion – how its aspirations can carry us like a calling, energising and giving shape to our lives.  In a sense, it helps to ‘launch’ us into the complexity of adulthood, creating a beautiful if naïve image we attempt to represent. That we will inevitably fail at this in all sorts of humbling ways is something we do not yet know.

But as it forms in us, we do not know the challenges that lie ahead – we feel buoyed by our potential and believe in our greatness: “With its help, you begin to feel you're not like those others” writes Bly, "I'm made for better things…"  These ‘better things’ are not about superiority so much as individuation. The Lofty Companion callus us to grow away from the pack, inviting us inside toward an identity and ideals we intuit there. This also beckons us toward ‘great people’ beyond our circle. In this sense it expands our horizons and calls us to belong in the world at large:

the creation also brings you closer to great people alive now whom you hear of, an artist, an inventor, a musician, also the great people who are dead and whom only you understand.

In exploring our relationship with the Lofty Companion, Bly is also honouring an era in our lives that is rarely treasured. The Lofty Companion is a warm thread of interior continuity between childhood, adolescence and young adulthood., bearing testimony to a steady private goodness, a subtle process of eros within us. It is a truly rich element of the interior life of these years, (which we are inclined to think of in such cliched terms). Bly’s emphasis recalibrates our vision of youth, capturing the mood of our ideals and how they form an intention or longing inside us to contribute. Much of our beauty lies there.



Reading Bly on this threw up a further resonance with lofti-ness and how it can nourish us - Why and how do good friends nourish us, specifically? How does another’s loftiness reach us? Friends who are good and in touch with their own ‘energy of aspiration’ help us both practically (in advice and companionship) but also through how we imbibe their goodness and take it inside us over the course of our knowing of them.

It is no coincidence that the wisdom and spiritual traditions place an enormous emphasis on ‘good friendship’:

Friendship is perhaps the highest summit of the moral life. in which virtue and happiness are united. Friendship is a worthy outlet for the talents and energies of great-souled people... 

--Lorraine S. Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship

Across religions, proximity and affinity with good others is seen as one of the most potent forces of virtue, good fortune and happiness in our lives. I’m going to offer an excerpt here from Zen teacher Norman Fischer, because it captures how integral the goodness of our friends is to living beautifully:

“Five things induce release of heart and lasting peace,” the Buddha said. “First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Second, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence.”

Then, for Meghiya’s further benefit, and to the cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: “When there is a lovely intimacy between friends, then there is virtuous conduct,” et cetera. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything else naturally flows from it.


To live in attunment to the goodness of others – friends, family members, spiritual figures, historical ancestors – is a deep blessing. It offers a kind of ethical, civic buoyancy that supports us when we feel depleted; when our faith in humans falters; when we are disappointed, despairing or betrayed. When we sense others’ goodness intimately, when we have an affinity with the loftiness inside them and their attempts to manifest it, counteracts so many ills: alienation, disappointment, some sad, cynical, minimalist belief that we are all out for ourselves. Those of us who are lucky, have seen too much goodness for that.

Here’s Norman Fischer again:

To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years is a special joy. So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendships even more important.

When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice is a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible—just as the Buddha says—for spiritual qualities conducive to awakening not to ripen…

So there is deep grace in sensing an affinity with the goodness in our friends, and living near to it.  Like us, our friends will not always live up to the ideals of their young longings, but if they have treasured and struggled with the Lofty within them, they inspire us to be better in ways we cannot be alone. 

So in writing of Bly’s Lofty Companion, I do no more than speak to that early love affair with virtue, speak up for it, and maybe elevate it to our consciousness a little more fully, that we may remember this early best self, converse with it more often, sense it in others, and also take up the invitation of adult life, of finding ways to ‘keep our integrity after we have lost our innocence...’


re-learning loveliness

i find myself with a deep sense of passion and urgency about this theme - as i see how profoundly a lack of natural inner kindness depletes so many of our lives, and leaves us sadder and living in harsher, lonelier worlds than is good for us. The piece below looks at how we may learn to include ourselves within our field of care in healthy and life-giving ways...

learning to abide with ourselves…

Sometimes you come across an idea that sheds light on familiar territory and something clarifies from a new angle. This happened me several times reading Chronic Shame by Patricia DeYoung. I want to focus on just one fragment here, in case it has resonance for others: it is about learning to relate to and from ourselves as if our inner experience actually matters. Learning to abide with ourselves.

This probably sounds extremely simple, but it is a source of huge struggle for many of us to take account of ourselves in a natural, balanced way. So the respect for inner experience I am referring to is not about self-obsession, or placing ourselves ahead of others, it is about knowing how to balance our natural capacity to care so that it becomes available to our inner selves in an ongoing, life-giving way.

 a chance to learn both ways of being in the world

The sentence that triggered me looking at this differently comes up when DeYoung quotes Francis Broucek on the importance of parents “reflecting a child as both subject an object, so a child has a chance to learn both ways of being in the world...”  I felt an immediate sense of beauty, balance and alignment when I read that phrase. Since then, a clarity about our need to relate and be related to from both angles has been reverberating through me – we are living, sensitive creatures with inner experience that is precious, and creatures who inhabit a shared, inter-penetrating world impacting life and others, who, hopefully, want to do that with maturity, grace and love.

when the balance leans toward objectification in our early lives,

we grow up vulnerable to forgetting ourselves.

So that’s the territory we are in: how to achieve a balance between these two. The point DeYoung makes next is essential – of these two ‘ways of relating’, in our formative years, the subjective element is most essential: In early life we really, really need it. For, [when objectification dominates] “the child loses the possibility of recovering what Francis Broucek calls primary communion with others….”  In other words, if we are related to chiefly in terms of our outsides, something goes wrong in our capacity to bond from (and with) the middle of ourselves.  When our inner experience is not mirrored back to us as existing or worthy of relating to, we learn, implicitly, that how it is to be us is irrelevant to how the world flows.

This can have big repercussions, because we tend to replicate, ad infinitum, this blindness to our own insides. So, when the balance leans toward objectification in our early lives, we grow up vulnerable to forgetting ourselves. We learn to automatically leave ourselves out, unconsciously believing this is required of us in order to belong, be loveable, or be worthy of contact with others.

It is important to distinguish between this self-forgetting and the mature, nourishing surrender of absorption in service, work or play. This is more like a bias of neglect - an unconscious impulse to over-ride ourselves, as if it is necessary to do so. Natural self-care eludes us.


This instinct toward self-neglect appears to be a foreign country to the people I know who are happiest. They seem to have an organic, warm bond with their own subjectivity – an inner friendship that is primary, affection for themselves and a natural concern that they be happy. They live and relate among others naturally as if they matter – not merely as functioning things who should function well (though many of them care very deeply about this), but as humans whose own happiness is a natural priority for them. They act and move in ways that reflect their sensibilities and preferences without a process of struggle or fraught anxiety about whether they will be punished or rejected for doing so.

ironically, over time, the habit of self-neglect leaves us

at risk of becoming self-obsessed

When I think about those of us who struggle more, we seem inclined to over-ride our subjectivity as a matter of course. We live as if impacts and imprints on our souls should not hurt us, or interrupt our functioning. We do not easily heed signals of distress when they arise inside us, or consider that we might pause to abide with ourselves. We may not know how, or feel that we are ‘allowed’ to. At some very fundamental level, we have not imbibed that our insides are worthy of care, so, at least in company, we unconsciously presume we must abandon them.

Yet in our self-abandonment, it is not just we who suffer: we often end up far more preoccupied with ourselves than those who take themselves into account. This makes sense: neglect is not good for anything. So, ironically, over time, the habit of self-neglect leaves us at risk of becoming self-obsessed in complex and demanding ways, swamped as we are by the distress of our own unsupported, ravenous-to-be-related to inner states.

how can we learn to care?

So, how can we learn to care? It is often said that what is formed relationally needs to be healed relationally. Probably the most potent way initially to address this deficit is to cultivate relationships (whether therapeutic or personal) in which our inner selves are related to with interest and love. Many of the most powerful moments in healing occur when we are caught in some form of despair about ourselves (where at some level we are experiencing ourselves as failing objects), and another mirrors back to us something more raw, tender and acknowledging of our insides. Something in how they hold us allows us, however briefly, to be nourished there, to temporarily abandon the objectification, to be merely, unhappily human, but abided with, embraced, offered, in Broucek’s term, primary communion.

Moments like these are miniature trainings, recalibrations wherein we learn, viscerally, that we are worthy of being related to, just for our sakes.  We feel the goodness of this. It touches us deeply, and may shock us in its intimacy and tenderness. This tenderness may surface new layers of sensitivity and pain. But it also begins to ignite a new interior capacity – to notice and respect ourselves with a parallel commitment, to care for what we find inside ourselves, to abide with our own interior without moving away. One of my favourite statements by one of my favourite analytic writers, Christopher Bollas is that one of the most valuable outcomes of psychotherapy is its capacity to ‘transform a person’s relation to themselves as an object of care’ – in other words, being intimately cared for and related to with true respect can, over time, transform how we treat ourselves. As Galway Kinnel writes: 'sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.'  May those of us who have misplaced it, begin remembering our loveliness  in ways that nourish our inner and outer rhythms, and soften the hard moments of our lives.


(if these words speak to you but something feels hazy or unclear, please feel free to mail me, as I'd really like it to be accessible)

This piece dovetails with a few other pieces I've written: It: Thou after Buber on another way we forget ourselves in service to others; reflections On Love by Milosz - a stunning poem about this balance of care for self and world; and a book review of DeYoung's book on Shame). Below, the full poem by Galway Kinnell.

St Francis and the Sow

The bud

stands for all things,

even those things that don't flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;

as St. Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of

the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking

and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

by Galway Kinnell

resources for self-care

IMG_7678 (2).JPG



'Negativity' Re-Imagined

Our aim is not to feel better, but to get better at feeling…

Michael Brown: The Presence Process

Despair in childhood leaves a brutal legacy. It inhibits our faith that feeling bad – angry, hurt, disappointed – is part of life. Instead, these seem impostors we should deny – so threatening to our tentative attachments that we must repress them.  All this quickly becomes instinctive; we dismiss our distress, we turn aggression inward; we pretend that all is well.

From the point of view of mood, this is a disaster: we find ourselves at odds with our own experience, constrained and cautious with others, ‘knowing’ there is much we must repress. We find ourselves isolated, living muted lives, sadder than we feel we should be.

On Learning to Feel Bad

If this is where we find ourselves, what are our options? Essentially, to remain as we are - or to begin to recover our capacity to feel ‘bad’ things. This is to admit that we carry hurt, rage, bitterness, and to see how these have led us to withdraw and to contract. It is to ask ourselves whether our attempts to avoid these states have really helped us; or whether they have stunted our relationships and deepened our struggle with mood.

This is not to criticize our attempt to manage pain: It is natural that we are frightened. We have associated bad feelings with overwhelm in childhood; we continue to worry that they will devastate us as they once did. But our capacity is different now, and if we are despairing as adults, we need to investigate this territory: to question whether we continue to ‘jump over’ difficult parts of our experience, and what the effect of this may be. It is possible, that we may need to feel not less, but more to release the vitality blocked by burying these difficult states. 

At this point in our development, we can recover this lost art of feeling bad. Some lucky people learned this small: how to go on being amid distress. But so many of us didn’t.

This is ground we can reclaim. There is a lot to be gained by learning how to feel, especially when we feel bad. We may come to see that ‘bad’ feelings are not our enemy; they are natural and necessary to our relationships and to our living. This is not just a matter of acknowledging difficult feelings, but of living through them well. We can learn to let them in, to give them breathing space, to ask what their function is, seek what they are trying to show us.

Rumi's Guesthouse

This is, in the words of Rumi’s poem, to see that however temporarily difficult to experience, feelings are also a source of information, a ‘guide from beyond…’

Why – when they seem so negative - might we choose to make room for feelings such as these? Because we are suffering. Because sadness or despair can be a stagnant place, arising from an inner impulse to deaden, a shutting down to impact. Faced with pain, we learned to block, to dissociate, to rationalize and to pretend. But all this cuts is off from a flow/rhythm of renewal etc.

‘Bad’ feelings are a natural part of life. For as long as they seem a threat, we will be bullied by them.  If we want to build our strength/resilience, we must develop our capacity to remain alive, sensitive and open, amid unwanted things. This helps us feel robust and secure:  Finally, we can start to trust ourselves to feel the emotions we have always felt obliged to reject – to experience what we actually think and feel, however often we have muted it.

Every day we further embed low mood because we never learned how to feel bad well. We do not imagine such a thing is possible.  But it is. Over time, we can develop a deep familiarity with difficult emotions and a trust in our capacity to bear them.

Among the deeply moody, for all our claims of enduring great suffering, most of us are bad at actually feeling bad.

Among the deeply moody, for all our claims of enduring great suffering, most of us are bad at actually feeling bad. We can speak about it, we can describe our awful moods but do not actually know how to feel them. Insidiously they seep into us – and fuel low mood.

‘Bad’ feelings are a natural part of life. For as long as they seem a threat, we will be bullied by them.  If we want to build our strength/resilience, we must develop our capacity to remain alive, sensitive and open, amid unwanted things. This helps us feel robust and secure:  Finally, we can start to trust ourselves to feel the emotions we have always felt obliged to reject – to experience what we actually think and feel, however often we have muted it.


Anger is a central element in this recovery. Freud pointed out that depressives tend to skew their anger, frustration and disappointment into self-hatred, bitterness and diffuse resentment. If we disavow anger and desire, so much grinds to a halt. So tuning into our anger, learning to allow it and engage it, can be at the heart of recovering our capacity to feel bad well – and thus to live well. The first part of the chapter explores the value of opening to and ‘including’ anger, learning to allow ourselves to experience it viscerally, and learning to attend to the messages that it contains. We then look at ‘what lies beneath’: the other emotions: disappointment, longing, heart, which anger arises in response to. We explore how to feel these things, and what their significance is within the economy of our sadness.

Three Capacities with our Emotions

There are three capacities we need to develop with each emotion: the ability to accept, allow and live through it at an experiential level – befriending its presence within us; the ability to listen to the truths/messages which it contains – the valuable information it carries for us; and the ability to include these feelings within the central relationships of our lives. (This is to return to the origin of melancholia identified by Freud – relational disappointment – and to find a way to live through it that forges relationship and vitality rather than isolation and despair.)




Befriending the Pain Body – 2:

the resonant embrace…


“we know well enough that some things we never learn,
cannot help, fall back to and cry from again and again… 
James Hillman

From time to time we find ourselves submerged in what Eckhart Tolle called the Pain Body, “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.”   As I wrote in the first piece (below), this can be one of the most difficult things about being human: states of acute despair, loss, terror, or pure pain take hold at times and feel almost too strong to bear.  For each of us, the flavour of pain will differ a little – we may feel a profound looping anxiety, bereft abandonment, enraged bitterness, relentless gloom, loneliness.


‘it is as if there were a basic cry in persons that gives direct voice to the abandoned content. For some persons it is: "Help me, please help me…or the cry from the bottom may say, “Let me alone, all alone; just let me be... 
 James Hillman, Blue Fire


Such ‘invasions’ tend to be amplified by self-rejection, shame and hopelessness. We are dismayed to find ourselves here, again. We feel haunted; we tell ourselves we are pathetic, we dread what all this says about who we are and where our lives are headed. And we are often simply scared to feel as bad as we do. 

The Self-Embrace

What I want to speak to here is what we can do – or more accurately – how we can be with ourselves in a way that helps us. I am writing for those not deeply talented or disciplined in transcending the grip of the pain body (some people are gifted at drawing on extraordinary grace or discipline to penetrate suffering at its source without much emotional involvement). – I am writing for those of us whose skills are more clumsy and tentative – who sense we need a range of things – ordinary, cumulative, and humble things – to help us soften.

There are so many layers by which we can engage this material. For now, I’ll keep it simple, and look at two 1) the practice of presence, as outlined by Tolle and others, and 2) a more empathic, patient self-accompaniment that does not strive too quickly to cut through our suffering. I emphasize (2) for two reasons: Tolle’s instructions are expressed more skilfully elsewhere and because sometimes we can feel like failures (and accentuate the pain body) when we fail to live up to this guidance.

1)    Dis-identification and Presence

For Tolle, the Pain Body “consists of negative emotions that were not faced, accepted, and then let go in the moment they arose.“ Tolle suggests that  ‘…we release [the pain body] by cutting the link between the pain-body and our thought processes, so that we no longer feed the pain-body with our thinking… dis-identification from the emotion and just being in the now moment is the way to stop the cycle of constantly recreating painful experiences’. What Tolle describes is both ambitious and effective: We can learn to cut the link between thought and pain body – we do so by feeling into the body directly, being as present there as we are able, and not ‘identifying’ with the thoughts connected to our emotions.

Tolle’s guidance here is echoed by many other teachers: in Pema Chodron’s thorough, down-to-earth, and profound teachings on bearing with the ‘raw stuff’ of our experience and ‘learning to stay’;  by Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, who encourages us to make contact with overwhelming experience for ‘just three breaths,’ slowly and safely learning to relax the intensity of our dread.

2)    the tender, resonant embrace...

the abandoned child is both that which never grows….and also that futurity springing from vulnerability itself…that which becomes different are our connections with these places and our reflections through them’

James Hillman, Abandoning.

I love this quote from Hillman. It captures both the inevitability of repetition – we will never get rid of ourselves, never fully resolve the substance of our wounds, and yet the way that we relate to our 'abandoned' parts is capable of profound, creative transformation. Being kind and tolerant toward ourselves, patient with the recurrence of the same pain, is what transforms our connections. The spirit of Hillman’s words is close to Arthur Miller’sdescription of reluctantly overcoming an intense pattern of self-rejection:

I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible...but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one's life in one's arms.

Arthur Miller – After the Fall

So how do we embrace ourselves like this, take our life in our arms and thereby give birth, in Hillman's words to ‘that futurity springing from vulnerability itself’?  What kind of embrace transforms us, rendering our futures translucent, fresh, buoyant amid our flaws, fragility and beauty? The term that comes to me is a kind of resonant communion: When I reflect on what both soothes the pain body, and begins to dissipate it, the answer in both cases is something similar: non-rejection, non-indulgence, a kind of loving 'communion' with the raw truths of ourselves and our experience. (Resistance, self-aversion, overwhelm – these seem to feed its’ anxiety and magnify our suffering). When we become more willing, skilful and confident in bearing with ourselves, we can ‘accompany’ ourselves in the throes of the pain body or our hurt without colluding with the world view it tries to pitch to us – that we are failures, that we are unlovable, that all is hopeless. In this we experience a kind of deep harmonic permission to be ourselves, a cellular accompaniment, and wherever this communion is offered we experience a blessing and a relaxation.  

Whatever the intensity of our pain body, we can become more confident in bearing with fear, remembering, as Tolle suggests, to release the connection between feeling and thought, ‘rest’ into the unfolding of the body, learning to be so deeply present that we are no longer fuelling our own distress, but helping it settle. We also learn to tolerate the temporary return of states of torture, to share ourselves when we know that is what we need, developing a discernment about who can bear with us lovingly in ways that help us.


moments of embrace transform us...

What is realistic to hope for? Most of us, probably, would like to transcend identification and emotional suffering forever, but we could do worse than aim for a flexible maturity - an ongoing extension of capacity. Capacity in what we can bear alone; capacity in what we can be vulnerably alive in with others. Optimally, as adults, we would rarely be spinning in hell realms, but, depending on our history, sometimes these tendencies endure.

For most of us, the pain body must be befriended from many angles, and it absorbs the goodness of these moments - and they are moments - of atunement from others, of grace, of relaxation or internal gentleness. As these accumulate, the ‘nameless dread’ begins to retreat, and when our worst suffering arises, its toxicity is less dreadful and its’ shame less acute. The self besieged is more 'held' in an inner and outer community that do not shun it. This embrace holds us more gracefully. Slowly we grow toward a new, tentative adulthood, finding our feet like foals do.  Slowly, we learn to stand, more often, with more grace, in the futurity that Hillman speaks of.


Befriending the Pain Body – 1:

our hopes for comfort…


'…and thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes 

I thought it was there for good, so I never tried…'

Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat 

(one day workshop, April 29, Befriending the Pain Body, places remaining)


One of the most difficult things about being human is the experience of being assailed by the ‘worst’ in ourselves: states of acute despair, loss, terror, or pure pain take hold at times and feel almost too strong to bear.  For each of us, the flavour of this pain may differ a little. But those of us who suffer such things are in no doubt when we are in their grip. They are personal and they are unrelenting.  Such ‘invasions’ may be amplified by self-rejection, shame and hopelessness. We are dismayed to find ourselves here, again. We feel haunted; we tell ourselves we are pathetic, we dread what all this says about who we are. And we are simply scared to feel as bad as we do.  


What is happening, and what will alleviate its impact? 

I want to bring together a few threads of theory from psychotherapy and spirituality that may help to understand this kind of experience, map it a little inside us and live through it with less suffering and more grace.  And I want to propose that these states usually need a range of things – skillful responses from us and good accompaniment from others – to begin to relax their density and release their grip. 

What is the Pain Body?

'the accumulation of old emotional pain

that almost all people carry in their energy field'

Eckhart Tolle

When these states surge, we are in the field of what Eckhart Tolle calls the Pain Body, “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.”   For most of us, the core quality of this pain body seems to form its character in early childhood, and then ‘solidifies’ as we live through its’ recurrence. By the time we reach mid-life, our pain body carries both the signature of our original wound(s) alongside the traces of their repetition. It gets dense. We become adults for whom certain territories of feeling and experience remain difficult to endure.  

Our pathways in these states do not yet know how to move well: to communicate or live through their need or distress in a fluid, wholesome way. But the density of the pain body can be dissipated; we can learn to attend skilfully to it and support its softening and release. Doing so successfully requires either exceptional spiritual prowess and grace - or something more humble and ordinary: a blend of discipline, tenderness, and attuned, loving accompaniment. This is what i want to look at here: the ordinary ways we can understand and respond to the pain we feel. In this segment, I focus on the theme of our need for company and our hope for help. (I will explore elsewhere, soon, what we can do for ourselves – the discipline and tenderness part).


Our need of others 

Would you lay with me in a field of stone ?
If my needs were strong would you lay with me ?

(lyrics David Allan Coe, sung by Johnny Cash)

We tend to feel as adults that we ‘should’ be able to tolerate our inner experience and survive difficult states.  And yet we cannot always do this.

Though there is a time in which to develop resilience and self-containment, trying to bear pain alone isn’t always good for us, especially if we are traumatised. Our soul may ache for human company, and that ache is intelligent and hopeful.  If we reject our longing and merely survive each assault, we deprive ourselves of the loving contact that would actually facilitate our healing, and the emergence of a stronger, more resilient self. 

Let’s backtrack a little and look at where we learned to feel – and find unbearable – the emotions which now assail us. Some obvious theory: Babies struggle to endure their feelings alone and need help to tolerate, and process the intense needs and fears that besiege them. In an ideal world, amid empathic, available parents they learn that soothing is possible, reliable, and available to them. In response, they slowly internalize a sense of safety and ‘holding’ when distressed. This does not mean there is no pain, just that their pain is less profoundly disturbing – that they have some sense of it being ‘workable’ and non-catastrophic.

Bion's 'nameless dread'

'It's not how she is, it's how we feel she is when we're in pain'

Robert Bly, on our mothers, The Sibling Society

Yet our world is not ideal, and most of us develop only partially. What are we left with? Places where we freeze over, and do not feel ‘safe’.  Another theory fragment: Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion describes how when a baby is overwhelmed, he reaches to the eyes and arms of his mother for reassurance.  When the baby looks to her and perceives that she cannot soothe him – because she herself is scared, preoccupied, irritated – instead of the reassurance he longs for, he absorbs her state, learning that not only can he not endure himself, but that she too rejects him. And so the baby imbibes catastrophe, rejection, heightened terror. Thereafter, in Bion’s evocative phrase, he comes to associate a quality of ‘nameless dread’ with those feelings he had sought her help with.  

Whether Bion’s description is literally true for us, it captures how bad we can feel when we feel bad: bad beyond words, bad beyond help, and bad in a way that will evoke overwhelm, revulsion, and anxiety in others. And a ‘nameless dread’ – of certain states – may loop inside us for decades, destabilising us whenever it comes. We carry an often unconscious ‘knowing’ that nobody can help us endure ourselves – either because they could not bear to be near us, or because their presence would be futile.  

'Longing to be comforted is not wrong...'

What I want to catch here is that though our hope for comfort is natural and healthy, it is often experienced as toxic, forbidden, pointless and shameful.  And this stalls us in a repetitive loop of shame, isolation and self-abandonment. We forbid ourselves to seek the help we sense we need. Longing to be comforted is not wrong: mammals, when distressed, seek each other out.  Our aching for soothing company is a signal of need, a sign of hope, and an ally in our desire to heal and be known by our kin.   

The more trauma we carry, the more likely it is that we won’t heal its impact alone. There are many advantages to bringing pain into healing contact with others – we start to reverse the ‘convictions’ we formed in times of ‘nameless dread’; we learn that some others can bear with us when we feel bad; and, if we are lucky, we discover that loving human company is potent and lovely for our lonely, frightened cells. Sometimes we sense them swoon that another is willing to be with them.


(Later this week, i'll post the other element of this theme - how we ourselves can respond more creatively, tenderly and wisely to our pain. This balance of discipline and self-tenderness alongside authentic need of others can allow us unfold our futures differently, and be less haunted.)


(one day workshop, April 29, Befriending the Pain Body, places remaining) - touching the angel's hand

It feels a little strange for me to be speaking up for joy (as if I am betraying deep allegiances and contracts with my tribe). But I will take the risk, hoping all of us can loosen our habitual leanings and open to the grace and beauty that runs like a rich vein through everything. I was prompted to write this because an old school-friend I have not seen for thirty years asked me the other day if my default state in life was gloom (given all my words about sadness), and it is not. Less than ever. So here is a little bit about ‘uncovering a capacity for joy’, inspired by spring, by buoyancy, and by one of the loveliest texts about this I know from Fra Giovanni:


 I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  
 The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see.  And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look! 
Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. 
Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. 
Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home. 


Many of you will be familiar with this beautiful piece of writing. I first came across it when it was sent to me about twenty years ago by my friend Kieran. We are still friends, and both of us, in that time, have become better, if such a thing is possible, at bearing suffering and becoming available to joy.  


Yet on my worst days, Fra Giovanni’s Letter irritated me – for its apparent casualness about pain, it’s insistence that joy lies near and may be easily found. (such ‘good news’ feels almost offensive when our minds loop in distress and our souls congeal in gloom). And yet it is a hard text to really reject, because it’s tone is so lovely: It is a passionate and personal expression of deep friendship, imbued with conviction, faith and encouragement.  

Expanding our Mood Repertoire ;-)

' The gloom of the world is but a shadow.

Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy...'

For those of us allied to gloom, how may we see beyond it? How can we heed Giovanni's invitation and make sure that, if joy is available, we learn to taste it? How can we make sure we don’t get stuck in one ‘genre’ of human experience and miss out on the more buoyant, light and beautiful side of things?

This notion of genre is so important – and our subtle loyalty to tragedy. Those of us who have an affinity with suffering so easily get trapped there. I love what Adam Phillips has to say about this preference for particular genres: ‘part of [our] predicament that [we are] trapped in a specific genre...unable to move freely among the genres available, [our] farces, say, are all experienced as tragedies…’ This is the natural leaning for many of us - to loop within a dominant atmosphere of masochistic or fatalistic lament, identified and bonded with a notion that life is a place where something is, and always will be 'wrong'.

How do we evolve beyond this: loosen and learn to inhabit other genres - Where is our joy? Where are our comedies - our romances? Where is the ‘radiance and glory' of which Giovanni speaks?  

Joy arises on the cusp of our capacity to be touched freshly by life - to be surprised. We cannot command 'joy', but we can develop our ability to live in such a way that joy arises more frequently, and registers more fully in us, altering our sense of goodness, abundance and vitality.

Fra Giovanni's line: 'the gloom of the world is but a shadow...behind it, yet within reach, is joy...' captures how joy may often be found 'just behind' or 'inside' an experience that we may be interpreting as difficult or painful.  His assertion that joy is 'within reach' even in the midst of apparent gloom, asks us to look more closely, to see 'what else' is happening, which may be evading our notice. 

The Art of Dropping Bias:

Giovanni is not a bad guide here: his answers seem to lie in Looking Deeper, Receptivity, and Courage. And I would add to this – when we flounder - good and loving others in whom we have faith, who reveal horizons and capacities obscure to us.   

Looking Deeper

empowers us to engage with rather than ‘manage’ our distress. Learning ‘to look’ differently is a skill we can develop, and when we do, our transformation is authentic, our capacity to ‘see through’ what once seemed opaque states – to a more light and lucid emptiness becomes possible. We come to see moments untarnished by bias, beauty uninterrupted by dread. 

Joy is also often found when we slow down. This is because - while the mind can experience excitement - joy is often more sensual and subtle.  We may be transported by presence, by a quality of calm, by a moment of perception of beauty or love, by an unanticipated look of happiness in a child or stranger.

Receptivity and Courage

Sometimes we are so committed to believing our life is hard, we cannot taste the lightness or the beauty when it offers itself to us. We may be, as the Indian teacher Papaji said, 'neck deep in grace' - surrounded by bounty, yet committed elsewhere.  Something in us is shy to fully take in life's generosity to us - I find myself slow to commit to words the glorious goodness I have known, the spectacular loveliness of humans and things I have been blessed by. They don't quite fit my well-worn template; they embarrass me a little, I fear ridicules. And so, like Michael Eigen, despair feels more reliable and steadfast. I dwell more comfortably among the wounded, I have ‘a penchant for destruction, a taste for wounds… a gravitational pull toward injury. The black hole suits [us] well…’ 

 ‘Remove their covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendour…’ 

And yet, this space of struggle is never a complete picture. Can we move freely, at least sometimes, to life beyond the veil of pain: can we bear witness to the taste of beauty, the feel of grace and the sense of a benign and loving angel’s hand? 

When we have the courage and clarity to risk seeing freshly, an alternate world opens. In place of the ‘heart of darkness’, lies subtle, alternate life. Beneath and behind the veil of recalcitrant thought lies a living body: Vivid cellular movement, sensual presence, freshness and flow. This is the rich vein of life moving in us, beneath and beyond identification, bias and ego, like an underground stream of revelation.  It is often a source of enormous vitality and joy. 

Real Presences – Human Warmth

Yet most of us need encouragement to learn to dwell there: support in our suffering and encouragement sometimes to release it. In this, few things are as soothing or supportive of our well-being as human warmth, as capable of transforming our tragedies to comedies and our disasters to unlikely romances.

We need and long for one another more than we often care to say. Central to the beauty of this letter is that it is written with such intense love, and from a place of ‘having been there’ - not from a hierarchy of any kind, but from the position that ‘we are all pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home’. 

So let's find our way of seeing behind or beyond our particular biases and veils of suffering, and become receptive to the grace (when it comes) of the angel's hand, the generous whispers of spring, the taste of something more sublime and beautiful than we are used to letting define things...

The core question when it comes to joy is one of freshness and repetition: Are we available to be touched in the present, by life’s unfoldment before us, within us, or are we mentally preoccupied in a way that obscures our contact with Being?


the recovery of disappointment

Living is strife and torment, disappointment and love and sacrifice, golden sunsets and black storms. I said that some time ago, and today I do not think I would add one word.
Laurence Olivier

I like Olivier's words for placing disappointment alongside love, and sunsets alongside black storms. This excerpt from my mood writing looks at how some of us are inclined to deny our experiences of disappointment, why we may do this (with thanks to Dr Freud), and makes the case for living through it more freely and honouring its messages. I've called it 'the recovery of disappointment' because disappointment can be rich and vitalizing when we let it reach us, but we have often learned not to feel it... 


In some sense, disappointment is always a story of failure. What we longed for did not come. Some people can digest this, live on to express a new desire, to fight another day. For others it is an occasion of shame and despair: an utterly ordinary human experience we cannot bear to feel. We simply feel too hopeless or too hurt. And so we like to pretend it is not there.

Of course our resistance to disappointment has its reasons: Disappointment hurts. It is blunt, immediate and stark. It does – temporarily – threaten harmony. It does – momentarily - make us feel bad. Acknowledging it recalls us to difficult things: a sense of failure, hurt. These seem a bad idea to take in.

The truth is, it need not be a threat, yet we act as if it is. We ‘naturally’ contract against disappointment, becoming in the process, estranged from ourselves. This takes place all the time: small, unacknowledged disappointments accumulate inside us. We resist them in the attempt to ward off pain. Yet each time we do, we express a lack of faith that we can live through it fruitfully.  We can, but we may not know this yet.

What makes so ordinary an experience become so toxic, and why does it matter?  To understand this territory, and what it’s implications are, it's helpful to return to Freud’s sense of the origin of melancholia; because the inability to live through disappointment well lies at its core. Freud proposed that in response to disappointment in a loved person, we retreated as children from the central relationship of our lives. We felt let down, but did not have the resilience or capacity to express this. Instead we turned inward,  managing our despair through a blend of repression, withdrawal and self-attack. This gave birth to two patterns inside us: the feeling of disappointment was seen to be dangerous, and was rejected; and we could not bear to acknowledge that we felt ‘failed’ by those who mattered to us.This established significant and damaging precedents founded in a false resilience and premature 'independence': We neither communicate our disappointment to others, nor allow ourselves to experience it within ourselves.

Both habits die hard. Many of us stay loyal to this early shaping, remaining, as adults, inclined to respond as if our hurt and disappointment are not there. We become accomplished at denial; we go on as if nothing has happened. But inside, behind the scenes, despairs accumulate; our hope falters, our bonds weaken; our relationships remain partial and insecure.

“But there were worse things than disappointment, and I'd lived through several of them already.”

― R.J. Anderson, Ultraviolet

Anderson’s words remind us of how bearable disappointment is. This is important. We can actually bear it. But we may not know this yet.  I was 25 before I actually noticed disappointment as a possible feeling I could have.

discovering disappointment - reluctantly

I am 25, away with a friend for a few days near the coast. With her, there is nowhere to hide. My pretence that I am happy meets such incredulous eyes that I cannot bear to be near her. I take walks to get away, but the beauty around me does not register. These are causelessly sad days imbued with an inexplicable devastation, a mood that hovers and bears thickly down. One day, on a walk, half-way down the beach, amid the mood, a word begins to form....Disappointment: the word leaves me reeling. Ridiculous though it may seem, amid frequent unhappiness, I have never thought to use this word about myself. I do not remember saying, to anyone, ever ‘I am disappointed’ - about anything. I always pretended I had never hoped for more. I swallowed hope. Now the feeling floods me.

Until then, my pride was too strong. I had always had a category for sadness; when low, it became a natural blanket over everything. Sadness doesn’t accuse anyone, and it is not particular. It is a vague and comfortable fog, implicating no-one but us.  Wehn we are sad, we can just hide out there, and flounder, invisibly, the contours of our hurt and hope obscured. Anger, disappointment, hurt: all are relational. They make us far more vulnerable.

What if being disappointed is not necessarily a depletion, but a return? What if it can recall us to ourselves? Disappointment has a function and a message. Do we have the capacity and courage to feel disappointed when we are - to let it live and breathe a little, within our bodies and minds and among others?

As adults, letting in disappointment seems to carry three core threats:

  • to our mood: will feeling this bring us down?
  • to our self-image: is preserving our pride is more important than uncovering the truth of our  experience;
  • to our relationships – are we preserving a false harmony at the expense of some imperfect, but genuine contact.

Disappointment in relationship

Many of us pretend we’re not disappointed with others when we are. It is tempting to want it not to have happened, to move swiftly on. The continuations of our bonds seem to demand that. But there is a problem. The more we deny our true feelings, the less we entrust ourselves to others; the self we share grows thin, the foundation of our bonds becomes precarious, we begin to feel lonely and unknown, though this is precisely what we dread.

We are up against primitive forces: our childhood conviction that disappointment cannot be borne ‘between us’. (We may also sense that the raw pain of it cannot be borne within). This pressurizes us to deny an inevitable experience: we don’t learn to feel disappointment naturally as part of life, and we don’t process our disappointment in ways that could protect us.

Relationship is invariably a field of hope and disappointment, damage and repair. The more freely we can bear all this: the more buoyant and resilient we are, the freer  to engage deeply with others. But for those of us whose bonds are tentative - who may have felt rejected or failed in early life - there is often a history of hope hurting too much, so we allow hopelessness to form in place of pain. We minimize desire; we are subdued.

As we learn to be disappointed in ordinary, bearable ways - rather than see it as proof of our failure, or the fact that no-one cares for us - a relaxation and settling can occur. We allow ourselves to be affected, and not pretend otherwise.

...standing in the glow of ripeness...  

on Love by Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz'  Love brings together deep, beautiful truths about love – not romantic love or even familial love - rather the kind of love that redeems us, and in redeeming us, redeems our relationship to life.

 Here’s the full text (translated by Robert Hass).

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.


In a way, the first three lines contain the whole poem. Everything that happens after is a consequence.

'Love means to learn to look at yourself...'

there is an audacity to defining love, to saying what it ‘means’. But Milosz offers a fresh, surprising definition which cuts through any potential for grandiosity or cliché. He wants us to learn to perceive ourselves. At first glance this may look like narcissism: So many of us are perpetually ‘looking at’ ourselves, checking our internal self-image or our image in the eyes of others, trying to establish whether we are adequate, beautiful, good enough. But this is habitual, neurotic, egoic looking.

We have not learned to look in a way that deepens perception. So, in this first line, there is the naming of a craft – the craft of looking – seeing ourselves is something that might require learning: In voicing this, Milosz echoes a truth that reverberates across spiritual traditions: “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence,” wrote Jiddu Krishnamurti, while The Yoga Sutras concur that ‘self-observation without judgement’ is a potent and precious source of transformation.

‘the way one looks at distant things...'

maybe once or twice a year I catch a glimpse of myself this way. I perceive, not from over-familiar interior too-close-to lens that is niggly and habitual, but with a curious, gentle objectivity. It is a shock to see the self this way, but not the ‘bad’ shock of dismay or shame, when we catch a glimpse of ugliness or inadequacy. Instead, it is a seeing graced by tenderness. There is a pathos in seeing the smallness of ourselves, the predominance of our earnest innocence, the way this little human believes it carries great or subtle burdens.  Such glimpses arise as blessings.

'For you are only one thing among many…'

This is perhaps the most beautiful line of all, and the heart of the poem. To realise this – that we are ‘only’ one thing... to know that it is all we are, yet for this not to be a source of self-diminishment. If we each knew this deep in our bones – that we are only one thing - yet knew it from a viewpoint of cherishing, how different might our world be? This would be to echo the vision of St Augustine, who wrote: ‘God loves each of us as if there were only one of us’. Is it possible for us to feel ourselves beloved like this - not as special, privileged selves, but simply as the creatures that we are, on a planet resplendent with creatures and other forms, each of us merely one thing?

Attuning to this truth transforms the heart:

'And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.'

There is an alchemical beauty to how the heart is healed. It is not deliberate or intentional - it is a side effect of seeing. When the self is neither elevated nor neglected, but seen clearly, we are altered. Cures happen. Our narcissism begins to fall away; the wounded gloom of our neglect dissipates; we catch glimpses of beauty that move us. And these things happen indirectly, because we have learned to see.

Then comes a further layer of blessing. As the heart is cured, we receive a sweetening intimacy with everything. Life comes to meet us differently. Other creatures sense something in us, and they befriend us. This effortless belonging, this fellowship among equals, softens our vanity and our aloneness. We notice we are enchanted to be ‘found.’ And another layer opens:

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

Again, we are in a field of grace. Seeing has brought us to kinship, and this kinship initiates our desire to act from a place of union: ‘When I don’t know who I am, I serve you…’ said Hanuman, ‘…when I know who I am, you and I are one’. As we sense how full and complete our belonging, we find ourselves ready to serve - a thing among things yearning to collaborate to complete and fulfill each other. Yes, we ‘use’ ourselves, but not in a utilitarian way, more as an unfolding expression of surrender.  We relate to life richly, wishing to raise things up, as we ourselves are raised. Rumi captured this passion to transform through love: ‘I have come to drag you out of yourself and take you into my heart/I have come to bring out the beauty you never knew you had and raise you like a prayer to the sky’.  We long to raise life like a prayer. We find, sometimes, that we do.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

These closing words are less translucent for me. But I think it is something like this: a natural alignment happens when we live as kin - our actions are inevitably ‘ripening’. Then, in the final line, this definitely truthful thing - - that those most full of concepts are not always the most realized or faithful servants.  


One of the elements I treasure in this poem is how it touches on so many essential themes – calling, narcissism, service, non-dual belonging – in a way that illuminates each. It invites us to be touched – in tenderness - by all things, including our own belonging. Its' lines have soaked into my bones over the past years, and come to me repeatedly.  

Calling - living in the glow of ripeness -

Dublin workshop Sat April 8...




tapestries of gratitude - inspired by the mature loveliness of Marcus Aurelius vision of indebtedness...

Apparently, I’m among the last philosophy-reading-humans alive to come to Marcus Aurelius. (Pretty much every friend I’ve checked with has been reading him for decades – so forgive me the enthusiasm of a new convert). Marcus seems kind of the philosophical equivalent to Leonard Cohen: people love the writing or ideas of other philosophers, but they love Marcus Aurelius.

Why do we respond so personally to Marcus? (almost everyone calls him Marcus) I know why I do: a sincerity and intimacy runs through his writing. He is so clearly first and foremost, a human just like us, striving to see reality clearly and encourage himself to live well.

It is so from the beginning: When we open the Meditations, we are introduced not to a grand idea or big question, but to a son, a father, a student, a subject of the gods. In his opening, Debts and Lessons, we meet him through his human origins: his relationships and how he perceives what they have brought to him. Aurelius speaks with the sobering humility of a middle-aged man taking stock.

This is Aurelius on what he absorbed from his paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus, who raised him after his father’s death:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.

Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.

His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.

A sense of when to push and when to back off.


I do not recall another philosophy book that begins from such earthed places. Just a man, naming where he comes from. This informal, yet serious tone runs throughout his work, in how he addresses himself, in the sincerity of his efforts to guide himself, and is central to how deeply his words land in us, so many centuries later.

Marcus makes our acquaintance by declaring the human context of his life: the tribe he comes from, and the way he conceives of it. It is a peculiarly personal, naked introduction of self. I was so struck by the personal, unadorned tone of his writings that I wanted to check whether they had ever been intended for publication. No. Marcus was – as many of us are – writing to himself – in an effort to clarify the wisdom he could garner and the qualities he might hope to cultivate, based on what he treasured in those closest to him. A lot about his character is expressed both in the act of indebtedness and in what he identifies as being of value to him: a seriousness, a precision of perception, a breadth of care, a capacity for gratitude, and a generosity of that allows him to identify the best in others.

In essence, he is saying: ‘before I begin to speak to you, let me tell you where I have come from. In terms of others. In terms of my indebtedness.’ Except he isn’t because he didn’t know we would read the words.  This is beautiful not just as an expression of gratitude, but because it reflects the truth that we are all amalgamations, highly dependent on the care and sacrifice and battles already endured by those who have gone before us. So, by beginning [1]with an accumulation of ‘sources’ - kind of a human bibliography of himself – Marcus avoids the delusion that we are separate selves: that we achieve our insights or capacities alone.

By beginning his work this way, Marcus inadvertently debunks the myth of the independent philosopher of self-achieved genius. He does not claim any wisdom as a separate self; he voices origins. And as we take in his tapestry of indebtedness, we sense abundance: not necessarily an abundance of good fortune – though there is some of that - but an abundance of discerning intelligence and gratitude, an abundance of sources and the capacity to identify lessons worth learning and recognize indebtedness.

One of the lovely elements to this, is the specificity of his appreciation of different characters:

From his brother Severus, “to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you”; from his mother, generosity and an “inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.”

Implicit in all this is an invitation to us all to be humble, and to reflect. Reading through Debts and Lessons, we cannot but become aware of those whose impact and gifts we carry inside us. What might emerge if we undertook the same task as Aurelius – if we took the time to acknowledge the many humans who have supported us and discern their specific gifts? Contemporary writer William Gibson coined the idea that each of us inhabits “a personal micro-culture” — the many elements that have made us who we are. Aurelius offers us an example of how to clarify our personal influences and origins.

To map our lives this way, at any point, is to paint a rich portrait of where the soul stands ‘now’. Who and what would register for us? What would be ‘left out’ from our field of gratitude? (What remains unresolved or bitter inside us)? How capable would we be of discerning or appreciating the different gifts or lessons bestowed on us?  What others would mean the most to us and how would our appreciation of them have morphed and clarified over the years?


(I'll be offering a workshop on 're-imagining gratitude' on April 29 - drawing on Marcus, Leonard Cohen, and contemporary gratitude research. We will explore how to refine and  deepen our vision of our gratitude to make room for resentment and irresolution, and, as Marcus did, identify the lessons, even in the hard things)


lovely graphic novel on one of Marcus meditations has been created by Zen Pencils