The Inner Clutter of Old Emotions

Patterns DSC02538The second step on my journey into emptiness was getting to my inner clutter. When I had longer spells of unplanned time, I found myself feeling a little depressed—sometimes sad or cranky. One day, I found myself writing a long letter to one of my conservative sisters. Two years before, she had refused to let me stay with her family, because she didn’t want her children to be exposed to a different perspective on the world. I had never been able to respond to her letter. I needed to let her know how deeply she had hurt me. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine between us, except for this small matter of not being allowed to have a relationship with my nieces. The empty time gave me space to feel and grieve and name the reality between us, and write my own letter back to her.

When we take time for emptiness, old feelings emerge, all the unresolved emotions that we haven’t attended to. Perhaps that is one reason we like to keep busy. If you had a long period of silence, (and you had already completed a list of all your unfinished projects,) you might start to remember some of your own unfinished emotional business, the inner clutter you carry in your heart. Perhaps a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a while. An unresolved conflict. Guilt, pain, anxiety, anger, loneliness. By calling it clutter, I do not mean to imply that the feelings are unimportant, but rather that the feelings are stuck.

As my own unfinished emotions emerged that summer, I wrote in my journal: Remember the difference between grief and hunger. If I can recognize grief, that will make room for hunger. Keep them separate to keep hope alive. Here is what I meant: Grief involves a process of letting go. Hunger is a kind of reaching for something. In our emotions, if our grief becomes fused to our hungers, we become too attached to our feelings, rather than letting them go. If we do not let go, by grieving whatever is filling our soul with sadness, we will not have any room to draw to ourselves that for which we hunger.

One example of this is unrequited love. If we hold on to loving someone who does not love us in return, we barricade our hearts from the possibility of finding a mutual love. Just as I had to clear away the books I wasn’t using to make room for the books I was, so I had to clear away old unfinished emotions, had to clear away my attachment to situations that I could not change, to make room for something new.

 

Unfinished Projects and Clutter

At the beginning of my intentional journey into emptiness, I wrote in my journal: So much of life’s activities seem to be preparation for something else, a kind of infrastructure. We need to fix the bulkhead on our house, prune the vegetation in the yard, make a will to protect each other when we die, do the dishes and the laundry, and so on. I wrote down a whole list of unfinished projects. I am sure if you had five minutes of silence, and a pad of paper, you could fill in your own current list of unfinished projects. 

My journal continued: If “everything else” was done—the whole list of infrastructure projects—what would I like to be finally doing then? What are we preparing for? What is at the center? Sometimes I meditate, to feel centered for the rest of the day. But then that also seems to become so much preparation for something else. What is the something else? Is there something at the center? What is worth paying attention to? The yard right now reminds me of my life because it is being taken over by invasive species. When I look at it, I feel a sense of clutter there, too. I feel clutter within, and clutter without.

So, the first step on my journey into emptiness was an attempt to clear out some of the outside clutter. When I woke in the morning, I would gravitate in the direction of some cleaning project or another. I cleaned out my office at home. I moved books I wasn’t using from the bookshelves into the basement, to make room for the books I was using, that were stacked all over the floor. I cleared the surfaces of my dresser, of the desk, of the floor, sorting and putting away paper. Another day, I worked in the yard, to try to clear out some of the bittersweet, wild roses, and raspberry bushes that had formed an entanglement over our leach field.

But after a while, I realized that I could spend my whole vacation just working in the yard, or just doing various house projects. It wasn’t even possible that I would get to the end of the list. Even if I did, I wouldn’t find what I was looking for. But I needed to do some of it. If there was too much outside clutter, I couldn’t find the space within for what was most important.

Do you feel your life is full of outside clutter, surfaces that are full of paper or books, projects that you can’t get to?  Part of a journey into emptiness might to clear out some of that clutter.  Try taking one area and see what happens if you clear out the clutter there.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

A Journey Into Emptiness

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness
                                           Lao Tse

In order to enter the consciousness of now, we must quiet the activity of the left brain mind. This is not easy. Most of us keep very busy with left brain activities. The United States is a country of work, projects, and keeping busy. We are a country of doing. Did you know that Americans take less time on vacation than all the rest of the industrialized nations of the world? Workers outside the U.S. enjoy as much as three times more vacation than their American counterparts. And often when we do take a vacation, we fill our days with so many activities, we are as busy as when we are working.

I know that has happened for me. I can become so accustomed to a pattern of filling up my days that even my time off is soon filled with more projects. Even spiritual practice can become a project. But when I get too busy, even with work that I love—when I fill my days with more and more activity—I start to feel that something is missing. In the midst of my busyness, I can’t even tell exactly what it is I am missing, but I feel some sort of undefined emptiness within. And so I have learned that for me, it is essential to find a time for not doing anything, so that I can remember that lost something, and find being again.

I entered this process in an intentional way several summers ago. I decided to use my vacation time not in travel or some other highly scheduled activity, but for a different kind of journey. It is interesting to note that the word vacation comes from a Latin root, vacare, meaning, to be empty. I wanted to journey into the emptiness, into the interior of my life. I wanted to find the center.

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I hope to share with you some of what I experienced in my next few blog posts.

All the Water Is One Water

Earth_high_def_1024Earth is a water planet. …Between earth and earth’s atmosphere, the amount of water remains constant; there is never a drop more, never a drop less. This is a story of circular infinity, of a planet birthing itself.
                                                                                                   Linda Hogan

It is a tradition in my congregation that every September we gather ourselves together with a water ritual. We bring water from the places we love, the places we may have traveled, to pour into one container. At the end, each person takes some of the water, and we bring it home with us.

One summer, I attended a similar ritual with Starhawk, at the beginning of an Earth Activist Training. Starhawk began collecting water many years ago. She brought water back from her travels around the world, and asked her friends to bring back water when they went to far off places. They poured all these waters into one big container. Over time, people brought water from the sacred Ganges River in India, and from the great Nile River in Egypt; even melted ice from Antarctica. After a while, they had waters from every continent.

When you pour it in one container, all of the water mixes together, and every drop has some of the molecules of water from every place. So if you take a small bottle of water out, you have the waters from many places in one bottle. Each time you have a water ritual, you add some water from the bottle you saved from the previous ritual. In that way, each ritual, each small bottle, contain the waters from all over the world.

Why would we want to have a small bottle of waters from everywhere in the world? For me, it is a reminder that water is sacred–without water there would be no life at all. It is also a reminder that we need to take care of the waters of the world. All water is connected, and the same water recycles itself through the whole earth. All the waters on earth are really one water. So even if we get water from our kitchen tap, that water has been around the world on its journey

Linda Hogan reminds us,

It has lived beneath the lights of fireflies in bayous at night when mist laid itself around cypress trunks. It has held sea turtles in its rocking arms. …It reminds us that we are water people. Our salt bodies, like the great round of ocean, are pulled and held by the moon. We are creatures that belong here. This world is in our blood and bones, and our blood and bones are the earth.

Linda Hogan quotes are from Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living Worldpp. 99, 106, 108.

The Sun Shines on All

Reconciliation and forgiveness require us to seek out those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us, to make things whole again. We must mend the threads of connection between ourselves and other people, between ourselves and the earth, between ourselves and the Mystery of life.

This is not easy work. It is not just big societal evils that we face. We also face the everyday betrayals and regrets. Self-forgiveness may be the hardest of all. We face the perennial faults that are unique to us, yet common to so many. We mean to be kind, but find ourselves cranky and rude instead. We mean to be supportive to a friend or family member, but feel judgmental instead. We mean to be honest, but tell little lies to avoid upsetting someone. We mean to be generous, but feel greedy about our pleasures.

Can I forgive myself the belief that I am right when I argue with my neighbor? Can you forgive yourself the angry words shouted at your child as you are trying to get out of the house to make it to school or work on time? Can we forgive ourselves the end of a relationship with a partner or spouse? Can I forgive myself for needing help when I don’t know how to face a situation on my own?

Sun and Snow DSC06016What helps me to forgive is to remember the sun. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, making no distinction between the good and the bad, making no distinction between when I am in tune with all my values, or when I fail. Its light is constant, never changing because of virtue or vice, but merely following the rhythm of the seasons and lighting up the blue sky or the gray clouds. Its light keeps shining, giving life to all creatures. When I remember that I am accepted as part of the circle of life, it seems easier to open my heart to forgive myself.

And if I am a part of the circle of life, so is everyone else. If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. This is the heart of spiritual practice—to open our hearts to the larger whole of which we are a part.

The Partnership of Human and Tree

When I write in my journal, I do it on paper, and what is paper but very thin slices of wood? Each time I write, I enter this old partnership of human and tree. We join together to create a magic of exploration and memory which neither of us could do alone. Think of the vast store of human wisdom and history found in libraries around the world. All of it would have been impossible without trees to hold our words in their keeping.

Beech Tree Close Up 133650001Many years after I sat in the beech tree, I discovered another link. According to Gilbert Waldbauer, the ancient Germanic peoples would carve their runes on thin slabs of beech wood. These were sometimes laced together with thongs to create what they called a Buch, which is the German word for both beech and book.

The tree is our original text, the bearer of all text. When I sat in the beech tree, I was face to face with that perennial yearning of humankind to leave our mark. I too had a yearning to leave my mark on paper, writing my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and memories, creating something new with the magic of words.

Trees have been the foundation of so much human life and culture. The first fuel of many of our ancestors was wood. Our houses are made of wood. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the window frames and doorways. We are surrounded and held up and sheltered by the gift of trees. Our musical instruments, our tools, our boats, many of our foods and medicines, all are possible because of trees. No wonder we say “Knock on wood” when everything is going well and we wish to protect ourselves from bad luck.

Trees also play a significant role in the crisis we face today for the health of our planet. Deforestation has contributed to global warming, and planting new trees can contribute to reducing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Beginning in 1977, she organized poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees, and learn small scale trades that benefit the environment while providing a living. Over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty-six years.

Sometime I wish we Americans could go back to the old European pagan approach to trees. They didn’t believe it was wrong to cut down trees or use their products for their needs. But the old pagans taught that before cutting a tree one must ask permission of the tree. To request its consent acknowledges that we have a relationship of mutuality and respect. Some might say that asking wouldn’t alter the act of cutting the tree. But just compare how consent and respect differentiate acts of lovemaking from acts of assault.

To relate to a tree with respect will change the nature of the use we make of it for our survival needs. I believe that a tree is not merely a tool and resource for human needs. The tree is a sacred Other, with its own inherent value and meaning. How do we know that the tree does not have its own sentient life? Recently I learned that trees emit low frequency vibrations that human ears cannot detect. My lack of knowledge about its language, does not determine that the tree is without a language of its own. 

Writing as Dialogue

Along with journaling, another form of writing that has been a part of my spiritual journey is to write to someone I care about—not to be sent to that person, but to express what I need to express to them. This can be especially powerful when we have lost someone we love to death. My first romantic partner, Gary, and I were together for six years. After we had been separated for a few years, he was killed in an auto accident. I still loved him, and my heart felt broken at his passing. There was much that had been left unfinished in our connection. I found that I could write to him in my journal—I could tell him all the things that had not been said between us. It was a way to find healing and bring closure to our relationship.

Another side to this writing is to write in the voice of the other person or being. Here is an example of what I mean. I ask a question, whatever question is deep in my heart. One of my perennial questions is “How can I learn to live in harmony with the earth?” I write it down. Snow on Branches DSC05758Then I let the voice of the trees answer the question. I do this literally. I write, “the trees say:” and then keep writing. Here is what came out when I asked this question most recently: “The trees say slow down, stop running everywhere, feel the wind on your face, feel the sun on your skin. Don’t be afraid, you can do this. You belong to the earth.”

It wouldn’t have to be trees. It could be birds, the ocean, the moon. It could be myself at the age of eight. It could be my old love Gary. On a psychological level, in all of these exercises, what I am doing is tapping into parts of myself that hold wisdom. On a spiritual level, we are not separate from trees, birds, the ocean or the moon—so who is to say that if we open our souls we can’t hear the wisdom they might have for us? Writing connects us to the depths of our own hearts, and our hearts connect us to all that is.

Anne LeClaire, a writer I met while living on Cape Cod, said we must take up our pen “like a heat-seeking missile… aiming it for the territory of truth.” We must go to the places we are afraid to go. We so often try to keep our hearts hidden, afraid to expose our secret selves. But LeClaire challenges us: “The heart of the universe is always within our own hearts if only we can be brave enough to expose it.”

Writing is a journey we take to discover who we are and what in us is true. Writing will surprise us. We don’t know ahead of time what will come out on the page, what will emerge within our souls. Like the magic of the ancient runes carved in trees, writing reveals secrets to us.

Quote from Anne D. LeClaire, “Writers and… Risks,” in The Cape Codder, Nov. 3, 2000.

Writing a Journal

Journaling DSC01316I started to write a journal when I was a young adult. It was 1979, and I was a year into my first serious relationship with a partner. His name was Gary, and we were deeply in love. But the first pages of an orange spiral notebook are filled with my confusion and pain about the struggles in our relationship. When things were difficult, he withdrew from me, and so I wrote about the pain I felt when he withdrew. I wrote about who we were together, and parts of myself that seemed to be disappearing. Perhaps I should thank him now—if he were a better listener, maybe I wouldn’t have started writing so much.

But once I started, writing became an important way of learning about myself, a spiritual practice that has continued to this day. I wrote my questions about how to live in the world, what my own calling might be, what brought me joy and what left me empty. I wrote my questions about God. It was in that same year, 1979, that I was wrestling with big questions of spirit and faith. I was introduced to the idea of the Goddess, and women’s spiritual circles. I wrote to God, to Goddess, to Jesus, all my questions and doubts, in a kind of prayer—are you real? Are you there for me? What am I meant to do in this life?

Writing can unburden our hearts and minds. We can take our weary feelings, our anger, our confusion, our loneliness, and we can put it outside of us, setting it down on paper. It can help us to let go, and move on. Writing can also take us more deeply into our own hearts and minds, and open us, layer upon layer, until we reach the place of inner wisdom. Polly Berends said, “Everything that happens to you is your teacher…the secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.” Journaling is a way of sitting at the feet of our own life and being taught by it.

A few years into my journaling, I began to mark the pages according to the cycles of the moon. Each new moon, I began to read back to the last new moon, and sometimes I would give a theme to that moon time, like a chapter to a book: the traveling moon, the moon of discernment, the moon of confusion. To read through our own journal entries is another way of being taught by our lives.

Rune Carvings

Beech Tree Markings 133650002When I sat in the old copper beech tree, surrounded by the hopeful carvings of many human persons, I was reminded of the runes, the early carved alphabet of the Germanic languages. I had earlier taken up the study of runes, because I was curious about the culture and spirituality of my ancient Germanic ancestors. The traditional way of making runes is to carve them into small staves of wood cut from the branch of a fruit bearing tree. The rune letters themselves are sharp and angular, revealing their origins in the markings that blades can make in wood. Each of the rune letters is a symbol of some sacred power in the German understanding of the universe.

Runes were used for magic, for divination, and for communicating with sacred forces. According to some German and Norse myths, the runes were given to the God Odin, after he hung suspended for nine days and nine nights on the sacred tree of the world, Yggdrasil. Odin then shared the runes with humankind. The runes were a gift from a holy tree.

Runes DSC01305Two of the runes are specifically linked to trees. Eiwaz represents the yew tree and Berkana, the birch tree. The yew tree is a symbol for Yggdrasil and is linked to death and the everlasting realm beyond death. The tree is poisonous and its wood was used to make long bows for hunting and war. It lives to be perhaps the oldest tree we know. There is a yew tree called the Fortingall yew, which is situated in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland. It is believed to be the most ancient tree in Europe, between two and five thousand years old.

The birch tree, on the other hand, is linked to birth and beginnings. It is one of the first trees to grow in an area after a fire has destroyed its vegetation. Birch branches were used in cheerful springtime rituals, a symbol of new life and the fruitfulness of spring. When Margy and I were looking for a home in Maine, we were feeling discouraged after May and June had passed without our finding anything. We did a reading of the runes, and pulled out Berkana—the birch tree rune. It could be read as a great indicator of prosperous new beginnings coming into our life. But we also decided to take it more literally.

We began to look for houses that had anything to do with birch trees. We noticed an ad for a house on Birchwood Road, and saw another house described as having birch cabinets, and a few others like that. So we came up the last weekend in July to check them out, and then found another house in the newspaper on the last day. The backyard turned out to be full of birch trees. It was also just what we were looking for.

Some people believe that the runes communicate magic messages. But what strikes me most powerfully about the runes is the magic of written language itself. What an uncanny ability it must have been at first—to communicate across distance or time in a way that talking could never match. The root of the word “rune” implies secret or hidden. A message could be carved out by one who knew the runes, and—sent via a messenger who did not know the message—it could be understood by another person far away. The ability of rune readers to communicate in silence with each other would have appeared magical to anyone who witnessed it. These messages could even endure beyond the death of their creators, to be received by those who came after. We have forgotten to be in awe of that power.

The Four Directions Tree

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.              Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Beech Tree 133650000When I lived in Boston, during the time I was preparing for ordained ministry, I used to visit a certain copper beech tree in the Forest Hill cemetery. It was about a ten minute walk from my home in Jamaica Plain, situated next to a small pond. I called it the four directions tree. This was because its giant trunk divided into four huge branches at about the level of my waist, and then reached toward the sky in opposite directions. One of the branches bent off a little lower, so it served as a step, up to a spot where a person could sit, right in the heart of the tree.Beech Tree Perch 133650003

Almost every day I would climb up to that perch, and lean my back against the smooth gray bark. From within, the purple leaves of the tree appeared a translucent green as the sun’s light filtered through. Some of the branches bent downward to almost touch the earth again, creating a shady yet glowing canopy. On the gray bark all around me were carved initials and messages—ragged names and dates, hearts and promises of true love always. I used to be upset that people would carve on trees, but then I began to wonder if there was something about these particular trees with their smooth elephant-like skins, that invited us to leave a permanent record.

When I was feeling tired or overwhelmed, I could sit in the four directions tree and give it my worries. Sometimes I felt that if a moment were important enough, I too would want to carve my tale in letters in its bark. My sisters and I, when we were little, would take turns writing words on each others backs as we lay in bed at night. The one whose back was being written on would try to read what message was being spelled out. I wondered if maybe, in a very important moment, the tree might read my words like that.

I went to the beech tree when I was looking for something to root me, something to rely on: When my days got too hectic and it seemed that I would never finish everything I had to do. When I was anxious about my future and wondered if I would find my calling as a minister. When I grew discouraged about the struggle and pain of the world around me. Whenever I found myself speeding up—as if I were on a frantic chase that left me breathless, as if I were trying to catch up to something just out of reach.

Then, I would go to the four directions tree. The tree didn’t speak in English words. But it seemed to bring me answers in a more subtle language. I would trace its bark with my fingertips, and remember who I was. I would remember that speeding up never brings me more time; only slowing down can do that.

I never did carve my initials there, but it seemed as if my deepest identity could be deciphered in its patterns. Sitting with my back against one of the branches, I could feel myself growing roots again. I would become as common as soil. As precious as water. Worthy of the sun. Perhaps that is the secret of why we write on trees. So that our truest dreams and memories might be found there again and again.