All the true vows by David Whyte

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All the true vows

are secret vows

the ones we speak out loud

are the ones we break.

 

There is only one life

you can call your own

and a thousand others

you can call by any name you want.

 

Hold to the truth you make

every day with your own body,

don’t turn your face away.

 

Hold to your own truth

at the center of the image

you were born with.

 

Those who do not understand

their destiny will never understand

the friends they have made

nor the work they have chosen

 

nor the one life that waits

beyond all the others.

 

By the lake in the wood

in the shadows

you can

whisper that truth

to the quiet reflection

you see in the water.

 

Whatever you hear from

the water, remember,

 

it wants to carry

the sound of its truth on your lips.

 

Remember,

in this place

no one can hear you

 

and out of the silence

you can make a promise

it will kill you to break,

 

that way you’ll find

what is real and what is not.

 

I know what I am saying.

Time almost forsook me

and I looked again.

 

Seeing my reflection

I broke a promise

and spoke

for the first time

after all these years

 

in my own voice,

 

before it was too late

to turn my face again.

 

~ David Whyte ~

 

 

(House of Belonging)

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Agents of Change at Two Rivers Urban Park

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Today, we held a public intervention with  Agents of Change, at the Two Rivers Urban Park.  To me, agency means an ability to make my own contribution to the world, based on the insights I have around life, nature and an interconnected humanity.  Although I have focused on social justice for a very long time, it is only recently that I have become aware of how this is intertwined with environment, heritage and what it means to be a person living in the world.  David Abram, for example, speaks of the links between song, environment and ancestral heritage, and the way that traditional songs and stories can take people and communities into place.  By separating people from community and stories from their natural context, we are sometimes erasing cultural heritage.

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Ian McCallum argues that all people have a deep connection to the natural world, and states that by getting in touch with this soul aspect of ourselves, we are able to heal the wounds of spirit.  I’m beginning to understand how vital recognition of our connection to earth, and our ecological intelligence is when it comes to evaluating the wounds of society.  Space, place, belonging, identity, meaning and intangible (non-material) heritage are strongly intertwined. 

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Although the social world has been structured and hierarchies have been created between people, nature, mind and body, imagination and possibility enable us to work towards change.  Exploring our own values, meanings and interpretations of the world, and those aspects of ourselves we have forgotten enable us to bring new possibilities to life, creating a culture where human and non-human life is given a deeper sense of value and respect.

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“Let us sit down here…on the open prairie, where we can’t see a highway or a fence.  Let’s have no blankets to sit on, but feel the ground with our bodies, the earth, the yielding shrubs.  Let’s have the grass for a mattress, experiencing its sharpness and its softness.  Let us become like stones, plants and trees.  Let us be animals, think and feel like animals. Listen to the air.  You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it…the holy air…which renews all by its breath…spirit, life, breath, renewal…it means all that…we sit together, don’t touch, but something is there, we feel it between us, as a presence.  A good way to start thinking about nature, talk about it.  Rather talk to it, talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the wind as to our relatives.  John Fire Lame Deer quoted by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous

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Naming ‘race’

A little while back, I read an article which spoke about how ‘ethnic prejudice’ or ‘racism’ within the media is wrong.  The journalist who protested explained that it is perhaps helpful to snub those people who cannot contain their own prejudices as a means of creating a more just (or perhaps a more polite) society. 

Confronting race means going deeper than this though.  Looking at individual ‘racists’ and the prejudices which apparently exist within people is not enough to bring about transformation.  Sometimes it actually means blocking the ability to explore the social, psychological and material impacts of ‘race’. 

Speaking out against racial labeling in the article I read sounded noble.  Except that the person accused of being ‘prejudiced’ was trying to explore the structural racism which had threatened the life of a family member in the past.  He was explaining past injustice.  As a person from a population group historically marginalized, he was asking that we confront ‘racism’ or social categorization, recognize the impacts, and explore the nuances which exist.  He asked that history be recognized in all its nuance so that present day populations of people are given equal human rights.

As David Theo Goldberg explains:

Anti-racism must be conceived as a set of dispositions and commitments and an ongoing process. It is not reducible to a singular event…Anti-racisms require renewed, persistent, historically concretised interventions to sustain and extend the benchmarks of critical socialities, not stricken by racist arrangements, structures or outbursts.

Anti-racialism, by contrast, seeks to end racial reference. It tends to be a politics from dominance, seeking to hang on to its social standing or force, or to extend itself. It commits itself to erasing the evidence of racisms, to silencing the ghosts rather than addressing structures, deeds and effects. Racisms are persistent (even as they morph in kind) and are processes of establishment or revival, persistence and renewal, requiring, in contrast to the merely anti-racial, anti-racist commitments equal to the vigour of racisms and attendant to the specificities of their expression.

(http://mg.co.za/article/2014-07-03-anti-racism-is-a-struggle-from-below)

Naming people who speak out against past injustices as ‘racist’ prevents transformation from occurring.  It blocks a willingness to listen to the insights being shared and it declares that a person has done something wrong by discussing history, even if past imbalances have killed off opportunities (or lives).  And this is very, very unhelpful in working towards social justice. 

When we make ‘racism’ or prejudice an individual quality, and we go hunting for those people who have got it wrong, discuss how angry ‘they’ are, and absolve the social world (and ourselves) or any responsibility, then we block the need to look any deeper, maintaining any imbalances which still exist. 

We live in a world where teenagers have been shot simply because of skin pigment, and the beliefs we have constructed around this.  We come from one of the bloodiest centuries in the history of the world.  Nations have been bombed, people have been killed, genocides have taken place, and racial categorization has determined whether or not people can have a life, go to hospital when sick, cross borders or be given basic human rights. 

Although as individual people we are responsible for our actions, we live in a social world which both shapes, and is shaped by us.  How much opportunity we get to shape society, and how that benefits or excludes us, is considered our privilege (or lack of privilege). 

Instead of exploring who is overly angry, it is perhaps time to start questioning who benefits from the way society is constructed at the moment?  Do marginalized groups benefit from being under threat?  No, of course not.  And so it is time to make changes which increase safety, human rights and basic dignity.

Social transformation is about questioning all that we see to be normal.  What knowledge are we taught at school?  Which perspectives are constantly shown or re-presented as right or good, and which perspectives are wrong, or bad?  What does history show us about time?  What does it mean to say that the past is over, when present day inequalities still exist?  Who gets to speak (or insists on speaking for ‘other’ people)?  How is our social world structured to give to some people and deprive others?  How has our own learning contributed to this? 

Pointing out  inequalities and injustices, and the nuances which surround social rights isn’t racist.  It’s helpful in exploring who gets to have rights and creating new possiblity.  Speaking of historical inequalities helps us to see how history has harmed populations of people in the past, and how to ensure that these acts are not repeated.  Speaking of eliminating classifications, names or divides is only helpful if we blow up context, place the story within a historical framework and properly try to understand what is being said. 

When we look at people as existing within a social, historical and embodied context, where rights and realities have been shaped by social position, a different picture starts to emerge.  We no longer need to speak for (or at) other people. All people have a voice.  Instead, we need to work around opportunities for each person to share.  And we need to take people seriously when they do share. 

Recognizing the multiple stories which exist within the social world, and the nuances within these stories, helps to increase the complexity of the world around us.  It helps to prevent constrained versions of reality, and that in turn helps to prevent marginalization, discrimination, the killing off of opportunity, and the killing off of people. 

We are individuals who are responsible for our actions, and we can make many different contributions to our world.  What those contributions are remains a choice we make each step of the way.  At the same time, we don’t exist in isolation.  We are social, historical and embodied beings who exist within a greater social reality.  The more aware of this we are, the greater impact we are able to make.

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Lost

I found this poem, courtesy of Bill Plotkin, who shares poems on nature in his books, which include Wildmind, Nature and the Human Soul, and Soulcraft.

 

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

-David Wagoner

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How do you see the earth?

Originally posted on A Small Act Of Kindness Can Bring Smile On Million Faces:

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Do the nationality suppresses our humanistic traits? Do these nationalities contribute to make earth a better place?

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Exploring beauty

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Last week, I was lucky enough to facilitate a conversation about beauty. The people who participated in this conversation responded in the most inspiring of ways.

Beauty included:

Somebody making a cup of coffee for you.

Going up onto Table Mountain and viewing the plants, trees and the life which is so abundant on the slopes.

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And the sensual nature of life, which is made up of the peppery aroma of leaves, spiky textures, and rustling sounds as we walk past long grasses.

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Cape Town must be one of the most beautiful places to go and explore the beauty of outside spaces. And yet one person explained the beauty we all get to share, the beauty of children, still young, free and able to imagine.

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Living in Cape Town means being spoiled when it comes to beautiful outside spaces. We have Table Mountain, the Forests, beaches and rivers. Quite surprisingly, we have beauty which appears in all it’s majesty within the most unexpected places. A walk down the road of our village suburb means the ability to encounter different coloured Frangipani flowers, food baking, colour, life and energy. I see people chatting as they walk to the train, or laughing as they run to the station. Children catch the train to school in the morning, and sometimes they pick flowers and leave the petals strewn on the road like a trail.

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My favourite space is the beach. The constant motion of the waves is hypnotic, and the chance to watch them approach and retreat again, in constant cycles soothes me. I learn about the patterns of life, about the new and the old, the way the earth tilts away from the sun, and about the life within life, always unfolding, shifting, transforming and evolving. I’ve learned that we are nature, matter, light and darkness, water and salt. And this knowledge brings with it a deep connection to life.

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Searching for soul

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(Image from the farside: a sheep searching for transcendence)

I love House M.D., and the social questions which get asked. It’s been interesting to explore how a doctor who asks the hard question of “Who benefits from this status quo.” can bring about debate and exploration.

The asking self is described by Whitmont as absolutely crucial. Evoking the myth of the holy grail, he explains the importance of going beyond the wastelands, dried and barren, and into a space of moistness, soul and transformation. Whitmont explains:

What matters most is the asking itself – regardless of what the answers might mean, or even whether there is an answer. (p173).

Questioning or challenging the status quo is uncomfortable though. Going beyond the given answers offers a space for creativity and transformation. And yet, in a very technocratic culture, we are taught that discomfort is to be avoided at all costs. We can take pills (which are likely to be very helpful if a person feels incapacitated and cannot manage to explore new answers without them), buy things in search of happiness and ease, or take up spiritual goals as a means of bettering ourselves. But one thing it seems we cannot do is feel anxious, angry or out of control.

A couple of years back, I read Boler’s critique of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and her opinion that EQ values empathy and optimism, while casting anger and anxiety out of favour. I’d never been very interested in EQ. It felt quite corporate and measured, and I find HOW TO/SHOULD guides frustrating. And so I read what she said, felt grateful for the information, and then I moved on.

But as this year has gone by, EQ, or the debate around it has raised its head again. Because how can we question the world we live in if we won’t let ourselves feel anxious? How can we feel outraged at abuse or contempt if anger is cast out of favour. And how can we feel true empathy, or claim to value empathy, and cast certain emotions into shameful boxes, encouraging people to repress them instantly?

I’m not saying people should be free to be abusive, but why do we want to judge, silence or repress emotions, and who gets to decide when that should happen?

Should we stay happy and optimistic when people treat us with contempt, or should we be able to share our anger and our anxiety? Repressed emotions burst out all over the place, or they create scape – goats who are ‘bad’ or ‘faulted’ and just not ‘good enough’. And the questions which come with these emotions, questions like “Who benefits?” go unexplored.

James Hillman speaks of the importance of soul, that grounded, connected, emotional aspect of life which feels, processes and explores. Modern psychology, James Hillman explains, is afraid of soul. And in a world with a lack of soul, we move into spirit, logic, masculinity and a quest for goodness. In an attempt to transcend all that is human, we are unable to address our wounds, bring about transformation, or process our lives, histories, or the feelings which come with this.

Hillman gives us the theory of the soul code, encapsulated in the image of an acorn, which must grow down into the ground, as well as up into the sky. That grounded, emotional, and, Whitmont explains, feminine aspect of ourselves brings about the possibility of healing. Unless, of course, we are taught to deny it.

Working towards constant happiness, although noble, means we deny our own souls, and the souls of other people. And ironically, this leads to a world of war, hierarchy, discrimination, pain, and the inability to question or process why this is happening. We lose our own voices when we don’t process our feelings and allow them to guide us, shaping new options or possibilities. We lose imagination and the ability to respond to the world.

Allowing ourselves to feel pain, discomfort and the crisis this sometimes evokes within us means allowing our hearts to explore different answers to the ones we have always been given. And so we recognize our own lives, our humanity, and the rights of others, both human and non human, as the very first step in working towards a more just world.

James Hillman asks that we do not work towards enlightenment, but towards the transparent self, no longer ashamed, but open to who we are (and therefore human), accepting of that, and therefore able to accept others.

Edward Whitmont. Return of the Goddess. Continuum.

James Hillman. A Blue Fire. Harper Perenial.

Boler. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge.

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