Monthly Archives: March 2013

Feast on Your Life

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I spoke about the importance of coming back home to oneself in my previous post. Here’s a poem that says it all in a nutshell, by Derek Walcott. Enjoy:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

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Walking through The Swamplands of The Soul

It happened one evening some years ago. I was quite tired after a long day and I had already gone to bed. I was in that misty, indefinite area between waking state and sleep – just about to fall asleep – when all of a sudden I saw a beautiful face in front of me; introverted, eyes closed, as if in deep meditation.

For a moment the face was still, and then the closed eyes opened slowly and looked deeply into mine. The look was very gentle and aware, and it awoke me from my near-sleep state.

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, "The face of my dream" (1)

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (1)

I sat up and thought: “What on earth was that?”

At that time I was preparing works for my next art exhibition. The vision that I had just seen was so powerful that I decided to try to paint it. Eventually it became the theme of the whole exhibition that I would name “Beyond The Faces”.

But there was much more to that mysterious face than just an inspiration for my art exhibition. I believe the face was saying: “Time to wake up. Time to come back to yourself.”

Prior to that evening I had been on a four-year long journey of spiritual inquiry. I had become an active member of an Indian spiritual group. I had adopted the same goal as the other members. I tried to become nothing less than an angel – a pure, bodiless, spiritual being. I tried to follow the same principles, the same daily routines and practices as others. I was very happy that I was accepted in a company of very friendly, like-minded people, a big spiritual family.

For quite some time life felt great. I thought I had found my place and people in this world.

But then a nagging doubt entered my mind, and my heart began to feel odd, empty and cold. A huge void, like an infinite desert, settled inside me.

I had lost contact with myself, and my soul was crying for me to come home back to myself.

Harsh terrains

What had gone wrong in an endeavour that had started so well?

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, "The face of my dream" (2)

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (2)

One reason was in my psychological history. My own unrecognized wounds had lured me into a trap. My parents divorced when I was six years old. The divorce left me traumatized, and the years that followed were not easy.

Therefore, from this early age on my life was marked by an aching longing for acceptance and belonging. Of course I wasn’t aware of that, and so my unconscious forces eventually threw me into the lap of this spiritual group.

Now I want to make it very clear that I do not consider all spirituality simply as escapism from unresolved psychological problems. But I do want to note that in mature spirituality (and for that matter, in life in general!) it is necessary to become aware, at least somehow, of the pain and shadows of one’s psyche. We can’t reach the vast skies of our soul unless we also walk through the harsh terrains of our personal history. Or, to put it in another way, to get hold of the gold that lies within, we first have to scrape all the mud from its surface.

So I had bought the acceptance of a friendly, always-smiling spiritual community with the price of losing contact with my true self. I believed the acceptance was unconditional, but of course it wasn’t. Like in all human relationships there were rules I had to play by. And of course at some point I started to question them.

Cutting off portions of the self

Another reason for my life reaching a crisis was the imbalance in the teaching that I tried to follow. It was not downright denying the shadowy corners of being human, but it emphasized and focused so much on the spiritual, immaterial, and positive-only, that it automatically slipped into a very polarized view of life.

For me this meant that I ended up living in some sort of nebulous plane of existence, somewhere inside my head or, should I say, several centimeters above my head. Everything below that level became unclear, and even a bit scary. No wonder also my heart felt empty and hollow, and my body alien and lifeless.

Now seeing reality and life in opposing pairs of right-or-wrong, good-or-bad, mind-or-body, spirit-or-matter is certainly not characteristic of spirituality and religion only. It happens in all areas of life.

But like I already said in my first blog, nature knows no borders. Borders are a product of the human mind. What often seems to happen in spiritual approaches is that, as they aim to rise to the “higher” realms of consciousness, they begin to consider “lower” ones something bad and inferior.

Ultimately this leads to slicing off integral parts of being human. Being human means, among other things, being part of nature by having a physical body that, in many ways, bears resemblance to that of animals. It also means having a wide range of emotions and feelings from the most altruistic love to hate and rage. Therefore, true healing and wholeness can only be achieved by integrating even those parts of our being that seem contrary to each other.

Seduction of easy answers

I have tried, in this very condensed form of a blog post, to cover a topic that is broad, complex and deep. There is so much more I could say. But I’ve tried to give at least a glimpse into my own experience and to the lesson life has given me. I know my spiritual odyssey is by no means unique, and it most certainly isn’t over, but I hope that sharing about it might help others who are right now on a similar journey and feel lost.

“Swamplands of the soul” is a very apt expression to what I went through. I no longer think that my adventure with an Indian spiritual group was a mistake that I should somehow regret. I needed to go through this particular swampland. It is an integral part of my life history and it definitely made me a bit wiser. At least I hope so.

I finish with a quote of Jungian analyst James Hollis:

“Added to this fantasy of transcending our natural reality is the understandable desire to avoid what I call ‘the swamplands of the soul’, those dark places where fate, fortune, and our own psyches frequently take us. No amount of right thinking or right conduct  will spare us swampland visitations. Much so-called New Age thinking has seeped into general public consciousness, and this populist philosophy offers seductive, ungrounded spiritual practices that seek to finesse the question of suffering. — If we are free of suffering, we are less likely to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are. The rigor and depth of questions raised by suffering jar us out of complacency, out of the casual reiterations of troubled life, and bring us to the daily dilemma of enlargement or diminishment.”

P.S. In addition to some fantastic people who have given me support in my journey I have also had great books and texts that have traveled with me. To mention but a few:

  • Krishnamurti, Total Freedom
  • Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: Perils and Promises of A Spiritual Path
  • Charles Bentley, A Journey by Coach: the way back to personal authenticity
  • James Hollis, Finding Meaning in The Second Half of Life
  • And last but not least Ted Hughes and his little masterpiece, a description of our Inner Child, at Brain Pickings.

Chocolates and Silent Listening

“Conversation was never begun at once, or in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence to the speechmaker and his own moment of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that ‘thought comes before speech’.”

Those were the words of Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939), Oglala Sioux chief.

I remembered the chief’s words recently, probably because I have tried to pay more attention to the way I listen and talk to people. It’s the training that I’m going through that has brought about this focus. (I’ll talk more about it in some later post.)

Luther Standing Bear’s brief account gives us a glimpse to a world that feels very distant to our present reality. The contrast is actually quite staggering. It makes me think about the paradox that our whole modern world is evolved around communication – and still it often seems that there is less and less genuine connection between people, less true listening and less open talking.

Because I think you know what I mean I’ll give only a few examples:

  • We don’t have patience to wait till the other person has finished talking. Instead we interrupt them to let them hear our reply.
  • We tend to speak loud and fast.
  • We don’t even try to understand the other person while listening to them.
  • When meeting each other in groups we don’t bother to create a true connection between people; instead we tend to focus on speaking in a way that shows how smart and witty we are.
  • Even with our closest friends our conversations may completely wander off from the point. For example: your call a friend to talk about a specific problem, but your friend uses it as an excuse to start talking about their own issue, instead of trying to understand you.
  • Conversations and interaction in families… I think we all know how easy it is to misunderstand and to be misunderstood.
Painting: Hannes Scholtz

Painting: Hannes Scholtz

The various dimensions of speaking and listening

“Be careful when speaking. You create the world around you with your words.” That’s a saying of the Navajos.

Speaking and listening – we take them for granted, but they aren’t that simple. They are skills that are deeply interwoven. They are multidimensional and paradoxical phenomena. Why?

Because speaking implies also listening to my inner self. Am I honest? What am I feeling? Do I talk from my heart?

Because listening means also listening to myself as I listen to others. That is, it means being aware of my own reactions. Awareness of myself during the process of listening helps to keep my little ego out of the way.

Then there is of course that inner talk that goes on incessantly in our heads. Are we able to hear what it really says? For example, is there a judge or a critic talking to you, if you have been less than perfect? Or are you sometimes lucky and hear a voice of self-empathy and self-forgiveness?

At its best, listening to another person can resemble those forms of meditation in which we use a specific focus. In deep listening that focus is the other person.

A new approach

Let me tell you about an episode of my life that is related to listening and talking.

My husband and I had a little disagreement a few weeks ago. The cause of our dispute was not really very dramatic or big. But it had to do with my weekend routines and my longing for greater freedom and flexibility – so we ended up having a very heated conversation.

I had to call a time out. I went alone to town and found a cosy cafe where I spent an hour or so. I ordered a cup of cappuccino and three quite expensive Belgian chocolates. One was not enough.

Then I finished the book that I had been reading: The Surprising Purpose of Anger by Marshall B. Rosenberg.

After finishing my cappuccino, chocolates, and the book about anger I was not so angry any more. I decided to try a new approach.

So I went back home and suggested to my husband something that I’ve learned recently – a bit different way of talking and listening.

We agreed on the following rules before we started:

  1. We both use at least 15-20 minutes to tell each other what is going on  inside ourselves at the moment.
  2. The one who talks should only focus in their own feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the present moment. Commenting, interpreting, or blaming the other person was not allowed.
  3. The one who listens, listens in silence. To nod, to say “hmm” or “yes” was allowed, for the speaker to feel that their words are heard.
  4. After the person has spoken, the listener rephrases what he or she has just heard. This must happen again without commenting, interpreting or judging.

Looking in the same direction

As we are an old couple – we’ve been married for 25 years and known each other even longer – we no longer enjoy wasting energy in sulking at each other. We both believe that deep in our hearts we always have good intentions toward each other, even if the situation sometimes should prove the opposite.

So my husband starting talking and I listened.

While we spoke we didn’t look at each other. I’ve noticed it’s sometimes easier that way, particularly if you’re very close to someone, and if you feel very hurt.

My advice for similar situations: Look in the same direction but not at each other! (You may want to try talking in the car.)

So I looked at the painting on the wall (the one you see in the picture). It represents an African landscape, and I really love its colors and spaciousness.  That moment it also helped me to stay a bit more detached.

– Well? Did the approach work?

It did!

I was reminded of the fact that I share my life with another human being, not just with a “husband” or “father” of our daughter. I had a glimpse into this man’s soul, and into his fragility.

In everyday life it is so easy to forget the preciousness of the other person. Listening silently to my husband revived my love for him. It helped me to honour the life that is present in him.

And he, for his part, told me that now he really understands the importance of my request, and that he finds it very reasonable and understandable.

* * * * * * * * *

More paintings by my friend Hannes can be seen here.