Sunday, 29 April 2012

Demon dream

As I've often said in this blog, I'm a prolific, vivid dreamer.  I dream in colour; I can often remember 3 dreams a night; I often wake up unsure of what is real.

I took him into myself But even with those parameters, last night's dream was a doozy, bringing a whole new definition to 'real'. 


It was a dark and stormy night in the dream, as it was here last night. I was in my room - same dimensions, but completely uncluttered with my bed facing the other way. No curtains, the window was much bigger, and instead of looking out onto a development,it looked out onto a city street. 

I was half-awake from a nightmare, when the Nightmare Nemesis comes in - HUGE yellow eyes, humanoid, reptile skin. We started struggling. But instead of pushing him away so I could run or try to destroy him, I pulled him to me, with the intention of drawing him into me, much as Ged does with the shadow at the end of the Wizard of Earthsea.

The sense of groundedness and sudden rush of power was intense,  and I sensed a second gremlin was out front, so I ran down the steps, onto the pavement in the rain  - and I also caught and integrated him. Knowing there were more out there, I yelled at the night, 'Come here! BRING IT ON!' But there was silence, and I woke.

It took several minutes to realise that I was actually back in my own room and fully awake - recently I've had what I call 'Russian doll' dreams, or a dream within a dream, and I've thought I'm fully back when I'm not. 

But this one really felt like I'd dropped into a parallel universe overnight, it was that real - and something HAS shifted. I'm not sure what and how much yet, or how it will manifest, but it feels profound.

Bring it on. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Taking refuge in unholiness


It’s no secret that I relish announcing my privileged position as the driver of the Bus to Hell every chance I get.  I gleefully  – and regularly – pronounce myself irredeemable, heretical, unholy, unorthodox, a fiend, a bad influence… 

It might seem an unusual pastime for someone who identifies as religious/believing in God – after all, shouldn’t one be PURSUING holiness and eschewing unholiness? Well, that depends. You see, I don’t think that holiness is something that can be pursued, and I think that’s the reason that those who do chase it do so grimly, joylessly, unable to ever catch it. Even more fundamentally, I wonder if they even KNOW what it is they’re chasing. How does one define ‘holiness’? What does it look like? When will you know you’re there? From the answers – ‘Always calm, no anxiety, perpetual peace, always good and charitable’ and variations thereof – I’ve become more convinced that this chasing ‘holiness’ lark is less about a relationship with God and more about an opiate, via instructions given by others, rather than thinking for oneself, to numb pain they don’t want to face and reach a place where they no longer have to be in process and deal with darkness – they can just sit and enjoy the destination, effortlessly perfect in every action and reaction, emotion and thought, word and deed. 

But to quote a Gestalt therapist colleague, “There is ONLY process.” 

And to quote me: “BOR-ING.”

This stasis of perceived ‘holiness’ is petrification, not freedom. And therefore, I argue, it cannot be of God. 

Why? The evidence is all around us. The universe is in equilibrium, but not static. It is ever dynamic, ever in motion, often elegantly simple. Our blood is kept in the narrowest range of pH (7.38-7.42) through the back and forth of the simplest of chemical equations. Even at the end of lives - star, planet, human - what we are made of is taken back into the universe to return in another form. 

We are stardust.


And we are dynamic equilibrium, not static. We are the swinging of the pendulum, not the momentary stillness at the bottom of the swing, or the pause between figures of a dance. We are the rhythm; we are the dance. 


Living the creation, one finds it nearly impossible to imagine a static, monolithic creator. Such diversity, constant motion, the embedded drive towards growth and evolution - surely these things are reflections of the Creator. 


Thus, holiness, even if defined as a set of criteria, shifts with context, situation and person. Even more so if it is defined as being in right relationship with the Creator. All relationships are fluid, dancing, shifting - unless they are dead. So if an attribute of this universe, holiness would seem to most likely be fluid, dynamic, tending towards equilibrium.


Homeostasis - not static balance or holding a pose.


Holiness, when seen as a dance with the Creator, is beautiful - there can be nothing more so. Why, then, would I not seek it? Why would I take refuge in its apparent opposite, unholiness, and insist to everyone that I am irredeemable the moment the slightest intimation - even a joke - is made about my being holy?


Because as with anything that is tender, vulnerable and intimate - particularly relationship - it is often best hidden from a hostile world. 


One thing you learn very quickly in religion, no matter what the flavour, is that there is very little space for discussion of one's experience of - and relationship with - God. There is plenty of space for discussing rubrics, or academic points, or miniscule details of how duties should be performed, clothes worn, why one's label is better than another's, what other people should be doing. But try to discuss relationship with God, even with pastors, even in denominations that claim that they have dispensed with formality to be all about 'a relationship with God', and one most often hears the sound of tumbleweed.


Why, when this is ostensibly what religion is meant to be all about? Everyone should be talking about their relationship with/experience of God, the sacraments, relationship with others. Anyone should be able to bring their dry spells and their epiphanies to any of their fellow pilgrims: clergy or laity. Unfortunately, one finds that it is often more imperative to hide these from their fellow religious pilgrims than from their non-religious friends, who are often curious, open and thoughtful. 


What is going on? I would postulate that most people 'inherit' religion, though many choose it later - a conceptual framework, a structure, a security that makes sense of their world. One hears over and over again that letting God into your life will turn it upside down - v'nahafoch hu, which we should welcome and celebrate - but God is held at a comfortable distance, even by those who preach it. He is put in a box, in a comfortable place that allows our lives to continue as they are. If we come to or are brought into an unhealthy dynamic with religion, one that tells us we are evil or will never be good enough, we replicate the chase for our emotionally unavailable parents' love by creating the chase for an impossible holiness and an emotionally demanding and unavailable God alongside our chase for emotionally unavailable others. 


Instead of coming into religion to be in right relationship and intimacy with ourselves, with the Creator and with others, far too many of us come into religion to avoid real relationship and genuine intimacy - with ourselves, with our God and with others.


This creates what I call the hungry ghost effect. We compare ourselves to others; judge both ourselves and them in the harshest of terms; insist only we have the truth and that everyone must meet God in OUR way and if we feel we can't attain something that someone else has, we use them as 'friends', when they are really commodities to soothe an insatiable hunger or we grasp at everyone and everything for what we feel we need, but cannot get on our own. Our mouths are open in a Munch-like scream, desperate to be fed, but our narrow necks mean that nothing can fill us.


Sometimes, our desperation drives us even further. I remember reading a wonderful definition of evil in Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall. Dirk, full-fledged Herald, and Elspeth, Queen's Heir, are musing on all things philosophical on their way to find Kris and Talia, when Elspeth asks him what evil is, and he responds: 


All right, I'll give it a try. This isn't the best answer by a long road, but I think it might be somewhere in the right direction. It seems to me that evil is a kind of ultimate greed, a greed that is so all-encompassing that it can't ever see anything lovely, rare, or precious without wanting to possess it. A greed so total that if it can't possess these things, it will destroy them rather than chance that someone else might have them. And a greed so intense that even having these things never causes it to lessen one iota—the lovely, the rare and the precious never affect it except to make it want them. 


The hunger, the desperate need, that drives so many to religion drives them to this ultimate, insatiable greed: scrabbling for approval, attempting to destroy those they feel have the approval, or worse, genuine friendship of those whose approval/'love' they desire; money; status; perfection in performance - of duties, rubrics, following the rules; all things they feel will bring them love. And when it doesn't, their rage at those they perceive to have the love they lack will lead them to acts of destruction that would not be part of their healthier nature. 


Almost everyone I know who has been part of a religious group/community - church, synagogue, mosque, temple - has at least brushed up against it - I did last autumn, when a good friend asked me a favour that was going to be in the public domain. This led to considerable sniping behind my back: Why HER? Why did she get to [do that]? How did she manage that/make that happen? Why was SHE chosen? Grab, grab, grab. I have little doubt that there are continued attempts in that same circle to chip away at the friendship via sniping, sneering and gossip - if one can't have it, then destroy it, to paraphrase Dirk. That's par for the religious course. But as for me, I will have faith - in my friend and in the strength of our friendship. 


This is why I take refuge in unholiness - irreverence, spikiness, shocking comments -  creating a thick wall of thorns around myself that most -who judge by accent, dress, wealth, status and obvious orthodoxy - will take for the real me and never attempt to penetrate. This is why, in religious groups, I cloak what I truly believe, how I truly feel, the close relationships, my faith, my compassion and my love. 


My dance with God - and those nearest to me - is private, protected.


But eventually, the wall of thorns, the private dance, make the holy relationship static. As St-Exupery once said, Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction. Relationships need to build a joint history, but they also need to bring their love to the world, to act on it. And that cannot be done behind a wall of thorns.


So as I look past it, I know I have trapped myself in the same world as those whose chasing after holiness make them my apparent opposite.


Each other's shadows, forever bound.


Until someone chooses to break the pause and step into the next figure of the dance. In the world, not hidden from it.


Hey, Lord, is that a gap I see amongst the thorns?

But don't worry, I won't be handing over the keys to the bus.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rescuing hostages for science....

ATTENTION, ALL READERS, ESPECIALLY GAMERS: I'M POSTING THIS ON BEHALF OF A POST-DOCTORAL FRIEND OF MINE. PLEASE, DO CONSIDER DOING THIS. /all caps Thank you! :-)

I'm working as a postdoc on a project that studies cooperative communication by having people play an online two-player computer game involving bombs and hostages and killing badguys. It's not a particularly high-tech game, but most people who have played have had fun. I've discovered the best way to do this is to get a group of interested people to meet online at a designated time and play for an hour or two - this way, no one has to wait ages for a partner (we lose a lot of players that way), and people tend to talk to each other more. If you play through Amazon Turk, you even get paid at the incredibly lucrative rate of a dollar a game, with the possibility of earning a (gasp!) fifty-cent bonus! My friends are pretty well mined out by this point (although a few of them like the game so much they apparently want to play again), so now I'm trying to find new people who might be interested in rescuing some hostages For Science.

You can find out more about the game, and the project it's part of, here:http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~muri/pragbot2.html

If you're interested in playing, email me (Irim) and I'll give you her email address so you can get in touch.


Thanks again!


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Musings on anger

I have often been called 'angry', and I wouldn't deny this. Anger is often my first reaction to a number of things, usually based on underlying assumptions about what's going on: 'They're late because they don't care'/'They're not in touch because they don't give a f***' and so on. Most of my personal anger revolves around a sense of abandonment or feeling shut out without fair warning/a fair chance. My more 'public' anger revolves around others being hurt, injustice, unfairness, all the things that most people get angry about. 

What strikes me is that no matter what my anger is about, I get similar reactions: dismissed, my feelings denied, 'you are so...', used to channel other people's anger, 'It's scary when you get angry,' not listened to, not genuinely engaged with. 

But guess what? The moment you validate my anger, or just listen? It's over. And I find it's that way with most people I know. Allow them the space to be angry, acknowledge it, listen and engage, and things can get constructive very quickly. 

We all know what we hear: that anger can be a constructive emotion; that it warns us boundaries have been crossed and is a force for action. As M pointed out on the status that kicked off this blog entry, it is pretty much understood that anger is seen as a vehicle for other emotions: fear and pain. But I would argue that it isn't just a 'carrier', as it were, and it often runs very deep indeed, embedded in every cell, because of trauma and injustice inflicted over and over. 

So, if we know these things, if we know anger is compressed pain, the way a diamond is compressed carbon; that acknowledgment will make a difference; why do we avoid those we perceive as angry, dismiss our loved one's anger, deny our own?

It is anger's intensity, power and its tendency to attack when directed outward or cause self-destruction  - intense depression, self-harm, suicide - when turned inward that causes fear in others - either of it being turned towards us or possibly even 'catching' it (and it is known to spread through populations - just watch any number of public demonstrations). It is an emotion that feels out of control - we've seen its effects and perceive it as too passionate, too violent, too MUCH. 

Perhaps even too alive? After all, our vitality, our life force, can get trapped in it. Perhaps being numb feels safer than freeing our power.

Too much, we think, too much. So though we know better, we treat anger like a frightening monolith casting frightening shadows. Rage, after all, is terrifying to witness.

But it is only out of control if we choose not to know it. If we hide it and let it build; if we believe that we can lash out or shut out as venting mechanisms without deeply affecting our relationships; if we refuse to recognise it till the dam breaks and it erupts in a form we cannot control and cannot learn from.

So, what if we do the opposite?  If when we feel it, WE acknowledge it, WE listen to it, WE feel it? Might we not find that all our anger is not, in fact, the same? That there is no monolith, but a mosaic - a pattern, a picture, telling us what we need to know?

About a year ago, I decided to try an exercise suggested by Pema Chodron, the famous Buddhist nun - whenever I was feeling something intensely, I would try to let go of the story and hold the feeling, sensing its colour/texture/feeling, getting to know it intimately. As I've noted above, I DO carry a lot of anger, so many of these feelings were anger about perceived abandonment, dismissal and so on. 

At first, I was afraid to feel it, terrified I'd discover what a horrible person I am. I put up great resistance - but I'd promised myself to give it a try, and one thing I was trying to do was not betray myself.

I had assumed that it was all part of the anger I carried from my childhood, that it all looked the same, but that was simply not true. I thought it would all be hard, sharp, dark, glassy, molecularly sharp, like obsidian. But over time, I realised that my anger was nuanced. Yes, sometimes, it had the obsidian in it - more than sometimes, maybe. But it was different every time. My episodes of anger were like snowflakes, no two the same.

Sometimes, there was more hurt; sometimes, more a sense of injustice; sometimes, it was terribly young, the archetypal anger of the babe with no one to contain her. Sometimes, more loneliness; sometimes, more fear. Well, always pain and fear in some combination. Occasionally tsunami-like, every so often spiky, like shards of glass trying to work their way out. Everchanging, and sometimes, beautiful in its terribleness.

But what surprised me was how often it was mixed with love, with compassion, with sorrow, with protectiveness - how many of what I considered 'good' feelings were often tied up in and occasionally driving the anger, so I would speak, so I would act.

So I would do what was right, even if I was standing alone. 

Once I felt it, got to know it the way I would the body of a lover, held it and listened to what was needed, it dissipated and was reabsorbed into my self, into my whole, in the way it was meant to be, bringing healing and peace in its wake - like water returning to the ocean, its home. 

To quote a well-known character, I can feel your anger. 

I'm here. I am willing to hold the space for it and listen.

Are you?


Holy Saturday

Playing with colour and sepia here, having fun the night of the Easter Vigil.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The open sacristy door...


Meet the open sacristy door. 

Now, to non-Catholics reading this, it's probably just a door.  

Catholics may understand a bit more about where this is going, as the sacristy door is a definite boundary. How much of a boundary depends on the church: the higher the church, the greater the demarcation between priest and laity, and it becomes more like the door of a house than a room.

This, as you can guess, is 'my' open sacristy door at the O.

Why 'my'? Well, because... I have to confess to a relationship with the open sacristy door.

And yes, I can sense your puzzlement from here.

Now, if the sacristy door is closed, I won't touch it without reason: real need of a priest, someone has a phone call and we're checking if they're in there, that kind of thing. 

But the open sacristy door, well...it's like an emotionally unavailable boyfriend. It draws; it tantalises; it gives you a peek as to what's really going on inside; maybe even lets you in briefly, but it's never going to be a lasting relationship. You're always going to be shut out again.

Moth - flame.

I've walked through that door to clean, to play a St Philip's Day practical joke, to speak to the sacristan or the celebrant - that doorway and I know each other well. I've walked all the way in, poked my head round, even tried on one of the servers' cassocks (No Oratorians read this, so they'll never know :-D - and yes, my bum DID look big in it. I looked even hippier than any of the Oratorians do in that DIRE cotta that has lace from the waist down and ends at EXACTLY the wrong place - one day, it will disappear, oh yes it will).

In this, the sacristy door and I have a healthy relationship - no co-dependency, no attempt to make the door what it isn't, no trying to get it to commit.

No, the unhealthy part of our relationship is the peek-a-boo one.

There are few things quite so mesmerising as watching the preparation for mass through that door - the hurried conversations which give brief insight into the emotional tenor; the moving things around; the fiddling with the vestments that have been laid out. But nothing quite captures the attention like the vesting.

Watching the transformation is riveting, especially when it's someone you know well or are close to. Clericals or cassocks aren't an issue, that's how you know them - though I insist on mufti if we're stepping off the premises for coffee or dinner. But vestments - they bring a strangeness into the familiarity, even if one still feels comfortable enough to send a 'WTF' look across the sanctuary during the odd snippet of a 20th century mass setting. There's no way to quite explain what watching that strangeness settle in, layer by layer, is like.

But as John O'Donohue reminds us, that sense of strangeness, of 'other', often brings the familiarity into sharp, sometimes heart-stopping focus. Certain ways of doing things - adjusting cinctures, chasubles, amices, chalices make one think, 'Oh, that is SO you,' and grin affectionately. But the moments that make one's breath catch are the glimpses of something deeper - the moment of utter vulnerability where they're just in an alb, before the chasuble goes on; the expression as they adjust an amice in the mirror by the sacristy door; the fingers through their hair. The precious seconds when the mask slips, and for an instant, there they are.

And it is here I beg the sacristy door, 'Show me more.'

But in the way of all things emotionally unavailable, once it has found the emotional hook and drawn one in, even allowed one a glimpse of the reality within...

...the door closes.