Monthly Archives: October 2008

Winter Nights – embracing the darkness

 

A core memory from my Hebridean childhood is located in winter’s depths. Whilst dashing out to play after our evening meal, running up the garden path, breath frosty on the clear cold air, a glance at the pitch dark sky stopped me dead. A magical swirling dance of colour was washing the Northern sky with translucent radiance. I held my breath, friends forgotten,  gazing for a long time at the wonderful display. Gradually, inevitably, it faded and vanished.

This first experience of awe has remained etched on memory. It imprinted on my soul, at a very young age, a deep intuitive sense that there is a sublime mystery at the core of the interplay between light and dark.

 

The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights

Subsequent adult reading provided a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of the aurora borealis. But science cannot explain the sense of wonder and awe which the Northern Lights has evoked in countless numbers of us since our remote ancestors scanned the skies, seeing the Divine in natural beauty, and eventually in its predictable rhythms. Knowing that the Moon, for example, had its pattern of waxing and waning enabled our ancestors to plan the best times for planting, travelling, and timing their religious rituals. But the Moon’s guiding light could only be accessed in the dark of night.

We need winter. We may not like it much, especially in the frequently wet, grey dreariness of the West of Scotland at this time of year! But we need it, and the darkness that goes with it. A long rest refreshes the earth, revitalises it; new life quietly germinates in the dark, bursting forth in the miraculous renewal of spring.

We need the dark. Within the year’s natural cycle, the diurnal alternation of light and dark brings restful silence at night and the restorative power of sleep, without which all creatures including us would burn out and die before their time. We are in danger of forgetting this – at our peril – as an increasingly technology-driven culture sweeps the world, creating the illusion that we can live sustainably and healthily in defiance of the ancient rhythms set by the great cycles of nature.

One snowy winter’s dusk, I failed to return home from primary school. A snowstorm was blowing up with a fierce gale. Worried, my mother sent out a search party. I was found, in a state of some distress, almost white with snow, pinned against a fence. A slight child, I had been blown and held there by the wind. Where I grew up, we didn’t need to read books to understand the fierce destructive power of nature as well as its unearthly beauty.

From those childhood experiences on, I have walked the well trodden path underlying all faiths which seeks ways of affirming connection with that vast Power which runs nature, the Universe and everything, reconciling dark and light, going way beyond time.

Whilst reflecting on the profoundly mysterious and paradoxical relationship between light and dark, with which we humans have always wrestled in one form or another, the phrase ‘dazzling darkness’ came to mind. It persisted for days, until eventually I located the source.

It occurs in a fascinating article, which I had first read in 2002, titled

“A RELUCTANT MYSTIC: God-Consciousness not Guru Worship” by John Wren-Lewis. (1)

The author describes how, at the age of nearly sixty, retired and with a distinguished career as a scientist behind him,  he had spiritual consciousness “thrust upon me….without working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it.”

It was 1983. Wren-Lewis was in Thailand, in a hospital bed, hovering between life and death, having eaten a poisoned sweet given to him by a would-be thief. What happened next, a ‘near death experience’(NDE), he describes as follows:

 

“I simply entered – or rather, was – a timeless, spaceless void which in some indescribable way was total aliveness – an almost palpable blackness that was yet somehow radiant. Trying to find words for it afterwards, I recalled the mysterious line of Henry Vaughan’s poem The Night:

‘There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness’
.”

His return to life, as the medical staff gradually won their battle to save him, was not in any way accompanied by the typical NDE’s classic sense of regret or loss at having to go back to the world of the everyday. It was, in fact, “nothing like a return….more like an act of creation whereby the timeless, spaceless Dark budded out into manifestation”. Furthermore, the experience was “indescribably wonderful.”

In Wren-Lewis’ own words “I now know exactly why the Book of Genesis says that God looked upon all that He had made – not just beautiful sunsets, but dreary hospital rooms and traumatised sixty-year old bodies – and saw that it was very good.”

Moreover, this heightened awareness did not leave him. A permanent shift, without any effort at all, into what he calls “God-consciousness” caused him to do further reading and research beyond accounts of NDEs into the “once-despised world of mystical literature and spiritual movements”. But he rejects the notion held by experts in many religious traditions that the path to God-consciousness, or Enlightenment, or Nirvana requires years or even lifetimes of intensive spiritual effort. After all, he’d been handed “the pearl of great price on a plate” without ever seeking it, and found God-consciousness to be quintessentially ordinary and obvious – a feature emphasised by many mystics.

I was so intrigued by Wren-Lewis’ startling account  that I re-read the great Victorian psychologist William James’ classic book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” for the first time in nearly thirty years. This confirmed what I had already known but forgotten: a great many people who have profound religious or mystical experiences have them in nature.

I felt grateful then for that brilliant encounter with the Northern Lights, so long ago but still clearly remembered, which affirmed my need for ‘God consciousness’ before I could ever articulate it.

We need awe: it points our vision towards the sacred. So, readers, embrace the darkness if you can, these winter nights – you never can tell what wonders may reveal themselves ….

(1) from Self & Society Vol 29 Number 6 Feb-March 2002 (pp 22-24)

 

(published in ‘Magnificat’ magazine (UK) winter/spring 2007 )

1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Interesting Times – an astrologer’s view

Imagine, if you will, a Bushman in the middle of the Kalahari desert  conversing with a visiting Tibetan, in their respective languages, regarding the best way to get to Stornoway in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. One would suspect that the route might not become easily evident !

Speaking symbolic language

It’s rather like this for astrologers, whose view is holistic and whose language is symbolic, living in a culture whose prevailing terms for describing the world have been shaped by scientific rationalism for the last two hundred and fifty years. In our collective efforts to try and make sense out of life on earth there is no ONE language which can possibly describe the whole picture. We need the description provided by rational science. We also need the description provided by symbolism. We need all the help we can get.

Star Sign astrology as found in the media is too limited to tell us much about personal life or world affairs. It focuses largely on the position of the sun in the heavens on any given day,  equivalent to trying to tell the story of a complex play with the main emphasis on one central character. It can thus never offer much more than entertainment. This is the form of astrology which is vilified by people who don’t know that there is something much more profound hidden behind the “Star Sign” mask.

Astrologers have noted for several millennia that there are meaningful links between the planets’ movements and the rhythms of earthly life. They plot the position of the planets from the same starting point as astronomers and mariners do: using the 360 degree circle of sky from 0 degrees Aries or the Vernal Equinox (see image); this is where the sun’s path or Ecliptic (see image), in its movement into the Northern hemisphere in the spring, crosses the plane of the celestial equator. Astrologers divide the 360 degree circle from 0 degrees Aries into twelve sectors of 30 degrees each, called Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and so on.

The celestial sphere

The celestial sphere

This frame of reference against which the planets are located, known as the tropical Zodiac, should not be confused with the constellations which originally gave the signs (or 30 degree sectors) of the Zodiac their names. By drawing up a map of the heavens (known as a Birth Chart or Horoscope) of a particular moment in time in relation to this tropical Zodiac, astrologers can draw a symbolic picture of anything or anyone born at that moment.

Uses of astrology

Thus astrology has many uses : eg in the business world, to help plot and understand market trends and economic cycles; in medicine, to provide clarification of individuals’ predispositions to particular health problems, and most useful modes of intervention; in analysing the inner meaning and outer manifestation of major events in the affairs of nations and the wider world; in choosing favourable moments to begin new enterprises; in the analysis of personal relationships; and in providing individuals with a clearer understanding of who they are, and why they  do the things they do.

Each of the planets symbolises a different archetypal force, a shaping principle. As the planets move in their ever-changing weave through space and time, so the shape, meaning and manifestation of the pattern of life shifts from minute to minute, day to day, year to year and epoch to epoch.

Along with many modern astrologers, I have come to think of astrology as another form of physics: basically, it charts, maps and times the shifting dance of the energy patterns of our solar system – then offers grave offence to minds of a limited, conventional  cast by ascribing meaning to those patterns ! Most people do not realise, however,  that the association of particular meanings with the movements of  specific planets has been demonstrated through empirical observation and recording of the heavens for over six thousand years – since the astronomer/priests of ancient Babylon first stood on their watch towers, scanning the stars.

Astrology’s symbolic language tells us that everything is connected, materially and spiritually  – we are all part of  the One.

The moving picture – Pluto

To illustrate this, let us choose the action of  the furthest out planet, Pluto, whose status has been downgraded recently. Try telling astrologers who work with deep collective and individual crises, as the energy of Pluto continues its weave in the planetary tapestry, that Pluto is of little consequence now! Continuing empirical observation of Pluto’s symbolic action does not support this view at all….

The planet Pluto represents raw, primal power, taking its name from the much feared mythical god of the Underworld. It  is connected with the processes of death and regeneration which keep the life cycle going at every level.

In Scorpio – plumbing extremes

Pluto was observed against the 30 degree band of sky known as Scorpio from its entry in 1982 until its exit in 1995. Both Scorpio and Pluto are connected to the deepest, darkest and most extreme facets of life: during this time, for example, we had to face the rise of Aids, famine in Africa, and a dredging to the surface of the most taboo issues, especially incest and child abuse. This period also forced us to begin to realise more clearly than ever before that, if we continue to abuse the Earth, we put our collective survival at risk.

In Sagittarius – expansiveness and greed

But things change. In January 1995 Pluto shifted into the 30 degree sector of sky known as Sagittarius. This sector is linked to the planet Jupiter, symbolising the urge to expand – in experience, knowledge, wealth, wisdom, and understanding of what life means. It expresses itself (amongst other related branches) through connections with Higher education, long distance travel, exploration of all kinds at all levels, the law and ethical structures, religious beliefs, the packaging of information to offer a better perspective on a bigger picture, and especially the willingness to gamble and take risks.

In the famous thumbnail description of the money markets being dominated by greed and fear, Sagittarius represents the greed end of that spectrum!

Pluto’s shift into Sagittarius brought us the biggest information packaging and disseminating system ever known to humanity – the Internet. Via stunning images brought back by the Hubble telescope, we have travelled to the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond. Recent advances in science and medicine continue to raise ethical issues on an unprecedented scale, regarding our tampering with the very basis of life itself and what the consequences may be.

The rise and spread of religious fundamentalism has dominated the period, with some devastating consequences most notably 9/11 in the USA. In our own little country the UK, the National Lottery became the focus for our hopes of greater wealth and a better life. The whole period has been characterised by unfettered optimism: from this arose collective and individual fiscal recklessness, with disregard for consequences on an unprecedented scale.

In Capricorn – facing consequences

Pluto traversed Sagittarius from January 1995 until the end of  January 2008 when it dipped into Capricorn for a few months, returning to Sagittarius in the middle of June 2008. As I write, with the money markets still in turmoil, Pluto is due to re-enter Capricorn on 28 November 2008, where it will then remain until 2024.

When the outer planets change signs, the energy patterns dominating our collective life also shift. What does this shift mean, in general terms? It means that the times of expansiveness, excessive optimism and risk-taking are now over. A more sober and cautious view of life must prevail as we face the consequences of our behaviour since the mid-Nineties.

Sagittarius is ruled by expansive Jupiter. Capricorn is ruled by stern and cautious Saturn, the planet of consequences, and represents the fear end of the greed/fear spectrum. Thus it didn’t require brilliantly perceptive astrological observation of this approaching shift, to be able to predict a major collective ice bath of realism at all levels. For example, the rumble of the impending train wreck of our collective financial arrangements could be heard during most of 2007. Then in 2008 came the crunch.

The sign of Capricorn, and its ruling planet Saturn,  is known for its association with prudence, realism and good judgement at one end of the spectrum – and fear, gloom, pessimism and harshness at the other. You cannot escape the consequences of your actions, is the message that this sign and planet bring.

All the help we can get….!

Pluto is about to traverse Capricorn for a very long time. The planet of purging and regeneration, Pluto’s movement is connected to the death of old forms so that something new and more constructive can arise. Knowing this may offer some insights to help us modify our wasteful and destructive ways for the better. As renowned astrologer Liz Greene observed some time ago in one of her seminars:
“ Saturn pushes us to separate out from what we are not – in order to become more fully who we are.”

We human beings urgently need all the help we can get from as many sources as possible to enable us to become more fully who we are: ie one strand, whose presence cannot be allowed to dominate the weave in the web of life. If we approach its wisdom in these turbulent times in an open and thoughtful way, the ancient language of astrology can aid us in developing a perspective appropriate for our times: one grounded in the humility and realism we need in the tough period which lies ahead.

Note : this is an updated and edited version of an article first published in Scotland’s Glasgow “Herald” as “The Cycles of Heaven and Earth” in November 1996. Copyright remains with the author.


1500 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

 

To read more about the shift of Pluto from Sagittarius into Capricorn in 2008, check out StarIQ , a USA based site which publishes quality astrological articles on current affairs( and many other topics of general interest ) which are accessible to non-astrologers seeking to deepen their knowledge of a great subject.

Favourite Quote: No birds’ nests today, thanks!

My artist friend Pam Blair and I share an office – it is filled with cheerful family photos, children’s drawings, and lovely pictures and images: some inspiring, some moving, and some designed to raise a laugh. We also have a very comfy green settee where we can sit clutching mugs of tea and staring cross-eyed at the wall. This of course greatly helps her to draw, and me to write !

We also like the idea that people passing our door – we are based in a thriving, busy local community centre – can have a chuckle in passing. So the door has our thought for the day pinned to it:

Bad Hair Day !

Bad Hair Day !

“That the birds of worry and care fly above your head,
this you cannot change,
but that they build nests in your hair,
this you can prevent .”

Chinese Proverb

Author review: never say never!

Joanna Trollope “The Rector’s Wife, “A Spanish Lover”, “ Second Honeymoon”  etc

For years I  passed over the highly popular novels of consistently best-selling author Joanna Trollope, going along with the patronising view that she was the writer of ‘Aga-sagas’– ie novels about certain types of rather well-heeled, well-educated and privileged middle-class English people – and as such, was better avoided. However, in recent years shades of grey grew more apparent in the surveying of life’s rich tapestry as I became inexorably middle-aged. This archetypal process (which will be only too familiar to many readers!) was fortuitously accompanied by a slow dissolving of many of my prejudices – often because it took up too much energy to hold onto them any longer, rather than for any more evolved reason!

Thus, on a visit one afternoon to our excellent local Oxfam bookstore in Byres Road, Glasgow, Scotland, UK, unable to find a more appealing novel to feed my addiction (I get jittery if I don’t have at least two novels stacked up in advance) I bought Trollope’s “The Rector’s Wife.” Might as well give Trollope a go, I thought to myself. Eight of her books later, hunting them out now in my favourite second hand book haunts, I am a convert….

Over this summer, I have read “Marrying the Mistress”, which was excellent, as well as  “Brothers and Sisters” which explores the familial consequences of non-related adopted siblings jointly seeking their origins. Trollope is a fine, gripping, economical writer with a wryly humorous, nuanced grasp of the multi-layered joys, sorrows and dilemmas of the human condition. I have just finished reading “Second Honeymoon”, another classic of observation and reflection on the harvests and the blights of loving, and the compromises we must make amidst the muddle, delight and mess of everyday life.

It doesn’t bother me any more that she does indeed tend to write about a particular group of people. Strip away the trappings of material comfort, culture, race, or creed  – we are all the same underneath.

350 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Seize the Day!

 

This article was first published in Connections magazine, August 2006,  as

“Order, Chaos and Carpe Diem”

“ Today I walked to my office, in pouring rain, and got soaked. Here I sit writing, my jeans  steaming dry on the heater, feeling really joyful. ‘Why?’ you may ask. “Is she mad? What’s good about getting frozen and soaked in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of May?”

I’ll tell you why. Because normal and ordinary and energetic feel like gifts. Having a normal body, doing ordinary things, having the good health and energy to be able to walk in the rain, feel precious to me now. For years, whilst making the best of the circumstances in which I found myself, I couldn’t help longing at times for normal and ordinary as my body, mind and spirit went through apparently endless bouts of turbulence.

My five year odyssey in the underworld of burnout and retreat, which some of you will have read about in the first two issues of this column, now feels as though it is coming to an end. Quite suddenly, in recent weeks, my energy has sprung back and various unpleasant symptoms have largely gone.

Yes, order seems to have returned. I celebrate that, and give thanks daily.

However – having survived a prolonged period of chaos where most of my familiar landscapes simply disappeared and the usual strategies for managing life ceased to be of any use – a few things are much, much clearer than they ever were before.

Someone observed that life should be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. How right they were! One of the many advantages of growing older is that we have more life to look back on. Surviving until middle age and beyond – something our remote ancestors rarely did – offers us an opportunity fully to understand and accept the essential precariousness of the human condition. With this acceptance can come a greater degree of letting-go, and consequent inner peace, than is possible in youth.

Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:

Pema Chodron’sWhen things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see Personal Book Reviews page for review of this great book) and Bo Lozoff’s “It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.

Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :

“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.

Bo Lozoff is now in his late fifties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits. Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg  “Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”

In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are. I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen –  bracingly therapeutic, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.

Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound. Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.

How do we cope with this ?

The Buddha

The Buddha

Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.

At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also wise to remember that the scientific materialism which has come to dominate our view of life is very recent – a shallow surface layer of a couple of hundred years or so. For many milennia, at every stage of cultural and religious evolution, human beings across the world have perceived the whole of life as sacred, saturated with meaning.

Our distant ancestors realised that humankind could not survive alone. In coping with the often brutal buffetings of life they needed one another, and connection with the divine spirit which vitiates all creatures. Communal social and religious rituals were a vital tool in affirming connection with a greater Order. Despite the unprecedented materialism and self-obsession of our age, which seems to be bringing humanity increased levels of disorder and unhappiness, as a species we remain ‘wired for God’.

It doesn’t matter whether Ultimate Reality is perceived as transcendental unity, Emptiness or the Void in Buddhist terminology, the quantum vacuum of contemporary cosmology, or God of  the traditional theistic religions. There is now much research supporting the fact that the happiest individuals are those who believe that there is a greater Order which embraces everything known, unknown and unknowable, and who are part of a faith community with shared values centred on the Golden Rule : “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The great psychologist Carl Jung observed that he had never treated a patient in mid life for whom their spiritual need was not part of the crisis….so here, in conclusion, is a prescription for happy ageing:

“ Hold lightly to order, embrace chaos, realise that suffering arises from the desire that things be different than they are, live in the moment, and find the God of your understanding to honour and serve in the company of  fellow spirits.”

There, my jeans are dry now and the sun has come out. Time to seize the moment and go sit in the park ! ”

1200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page