Last week’s conversation really seemed to touch a rich seam – starting with looking at how we can foster community, the issue of loneliness, the technique of paradoxical intention, allowing rather than resisting. And to illustrate these ideas, I brought in the example of the film The Fear of 13.
This week I’d like to look at the word I just used to describe what’s happening here, what’s happening between us. I’m referring to it as ‘conversation’, but you could quite reasonably say “Well it’s not that really, because it’s mainly you talking,” but I still hold to the idea that it’s a conversation for three reasons:
Firstly, when I’m talking, I’m not lecturing. I’m imaging we are all together in one room, and that we are holding a conversation, and I just happen to be holding the floor – it’s my turn in the conversation. I hope it comes across like this, but if it doesn’t, let me assure you that it’s a whole different feeling if you as a speaker give a talk in a traditional lecture style, as opposed to holding in your mind, having the attitude, of being in a conversation amongst equals.
Secondly, you can contribute to the discussion by typing in, and you can do that afterwards so you’re not missing out on hearing the next thought as you type. And I do read the comments, so there is an exchange going on. A good conversation doesn’t just happen in the moment, but echoes on as the ideas discussed trigger new associations for us in the following days. Of course this internet format is not ideal, but it’s pretty amazing we can do this around the world, so let’s make the best of it! You could even argue that it’s better than a conventional format, because you can go back to the record of it, without having to rely on your memory.
Thirdly, I see this as we’re not just having isolated random conversations each week, but that they are connected, there is a flow going on. So what you type in one week can influence what is discussed either directly or, and this is equally important, indirectly. So the way to see it, is as an ongoing conversation, not as a series of separate ones.
To illustrate this, the other week I asked for some ideas about what we should explore together, and amongst the many suggestions, someone wrote ‘The mouth of the river’. And I love that, because its meaning is not immediately clear, or rather it’s open-ended, evocative, connotative rather than denotative. Like a dream image or symbol, we can follow it in all sorts of different ways, so I’m going to take it now as illustrative of our conversation. All sorts of things are happening at a river mouth – there’s a conversation going back and forth, particularly at the mouth of a tidal river where the river flows out to sea, and the sea flows up the river too. And river mouths are often some of the most fertile regions in the world. I’m thinking of where river mouths form deltas: the Nile delta, the Ganges Delta in the Bay of Bengal, the Mekong delta – known in Vietnam as the Nine Dragon river delta.
Wherever there is a meeting – of people, ideas, cultures, there is the potential for growth, for fertility. And that’s what a conversation offers. The New England Transcendentalists, such as Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Mary Fuller, whose ideas are so in tune with contemporary nature spiritualities like Druidry, advocated the use of conversation as a key tool in the spiritual life.
Let me quote from Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, by Barry M. Andrews, and then give you a link to an online article where you can read more: “The role of conversation in the Transcendentalists’ pursuit of self-culture cannot be overstated. They would have readily agreed with the words of French essayist Michel de Montaigne who wrote, “In my opinion the most profitable and most natural exercise of our mind is conversation. To me it is a more agreeable occupation than any other in life.” Reading, he said, is a passive activity, whereas “conversation instructs and exercises us at the same time.” Read more here.
Now here’s a bit that I love. The article goes on to say that conversation can become a kind of ‘collective midwifery’, by which each participant helps to bring the latent thoughts of others to consciousness. Read the full article here.
That’s what we’re doing here, I hope! We are all acting as midwives to each other. The person who suggested the River Mouth as a topic has helped to midwife ideas about the fertility of conversation and meetings, and so in this spirit I’d like to read out some participants’ contributions to earlier discussions, I case you missed them, and because they are all parts of our ongoing conversation, all parts of the river.
In thinking about the idea of not resisting feelings of loneliness, Corine said: “Years ago I heard this powerful little story: a butterfly was flying around a temple, free and happy. But then it flew up into a temple bell. It flapped its wings and tried to get out. After fighting for ages it became very tired. It finally accepted it wasn’t going to get out, and stopped flapping its wings. It let go, and of course fell downwards and was free!
“This story is always with me,” says Corine. “In the last three years I have had moments of great despair and loneliness. I realised the solution involves not only embracing and accepting, but also letting go of everything you want in that process: love, attention, friends, feeling better. Aching for all that eats your energy. It was in those moments of really wanting nothing at all, letting go, that I had two very special moments of feeling so loved – loved beyond…everything. Those moments have been rare but they saved me. Totally letting go, not asking or wanting! It made me feel that I was just a soul connecting with, yes, the universe! This was such a gift, and I can go back to those moments when I want to. You must go through gates and transformations on your own, but we are not alone.”
A number of people drew out the distinction we need to make between loneliness and solitude. Jesse said: “I often crave solitude as a remedy to the loneliness of living surrounded by people.” Kathy said: “As an introvert I have felt both the sadness and the comforting renewal of aloneness. The older I get, the more I ‘enjoy’ the silent connection with all.” Isn’t it interesting how good it can feel to sit in what one might call a ‘meaningful silence’ together? I even feel it in our meetings together, in the pauses in the meditation. It feels good – we know we are together, but we are silent – in our own solitude in one sense for that moment, but that aloneness is underpinned by a feeling of our connection to all.
Sammy wrote: “Thank you so much for touching on this fascinating, and somewhat emotive subject. I’ve lived on my own (on and off) for a few years now, and for various harsh reasons, it has been one of the biggest struggles in my life. I persevered and after years of self-love practices and consolidating hobbies and practices and relations, I’m now – finally! – the happiest I’ve ever been. It’s definitely a skill to be happy alone that we don’t all naturally possess, and I have a lot of time and sympathy for people who struggle with isolation.” And then she gave a real clue: “I’m less lonely now I spend more quality time with myself.”
And then Todd said: “Sitting under a willow always makes me better,” which introduces the idea that trees can be our friends, as can of course other plants and animals. We may have no human friends, we may be estranged from our family or just feel no deep connection with them, but we are still held within the embrace of the wider family of all of Nature.
And then this beautiful feeling arises that Mary Oliver in her poem ‘Wild Geese’ expresses so wonderfully:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.