Alan Heeks

The Wisdom Way of Knowing, by Cynthia Bourgeault

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Dec 202022
 

Practical approaches to spiritual resilience

This small, readable book is one of the best guides I’ve found to the principles and practicalities of spiritual resilience. Whilst it’s based on Wisdom teachings within the Christian tradition, Cynthia points out that “no matter which spiritual path you pursue, the nuts and bolts of spiritual transformation end up looking pretty much the same: surrender, detachment, compassion, forgiveness”.

It’s important to clarify that what this book presents as the real teachings of Jesus and of mystics like the Desert Fathers is pretty different than the Christian religion in most of its forms: she explains why the Wisdom tradition has been largely underground for many centuries.

A crucial element in accessing the Wisdom path is our ‘state of being’, i.e. bringing our full self to the experience. Like Neil Douglas-Klotz, Cynthia explains that this was a normality in Jesus’ time: people met life with heart, mind and body as one unity, and seeing a continuum in all life: humans, animals, plants, and angels.

After centuries of rationalism and materialism, this holistic, Wisdom way has to be deliberately recovered. I strongly share her view that the body has a key role in this. Many spiritual seekers focus on the heart, and perhaps the mind, but she gives the body, the “moving centre”, equal importance for its “unique perceptive gifts, the most important of which is to understand the language of faith encoded in sacred gesture”.

One inspiration for this book was a week-long retreat on an island off the coast of Maine, which aimed to create a monastic quality of life for people from the everyday world. Cynthia highlights the Benedictine motto of ora et labora, the rhythm of work, prayer and rest. She comments that the ‘teaching’ content of the retreat could have been covered in a couple of days, but the power of the event came from the quality of community, and engagement of the whole being, which arose from the combination of working together – cooking, bringing in firewood- with Wisdom practices . And it’s that sense of full community which we aim to enable at Hazel Hill Wood.

The last chapter of the book, called The Tools of Wisdom, is an excellent guide to practices which embody the Wisdom Way of Knowing. Meditation is here, as you might expect, but she also highlights sacred chanting and devotional movement, and I’ve found these vital in my spiritual resilience for many years: see more in my blog on this topic.

I regard this book as outstandingly practical, in a big-picture sense: it offers a clear view on human purpose, what are we here for? She comments, “We stand midway between the purely material and the purely energetic … The basic animal instincts are programmed right into us … But so are … the highest degree of lucidity and clarity, our true angelic destiny”. And our mission in a human life is to integrate the two, and bring divinity into material form. She explains that this is what Jesus really meant by “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you”.

I originally bought this book to explore the contemplative prayer branch of Christianity. Actually, I think Cynthia offers an approach much wider and deeper than that, and one which you should find catalytic whether or not you’re exploring a Christian path. Her approach will enrich many different approaches.

Hope and Resilience in the Climate and Ecological Emergency

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Nov 242022
 

A retreat led by Alan Heeks and Jonathan Herbert

Friday Feb 3 – Sunday Feb 5, 2023 at Hilfield Friary, Dorset

Using material from the Christian contemplative tradition, from Joanna Macy – a Buddhist and deep ecologist,  and from Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation approach, the group will explore ways to grow through emergency. We will move from a place of gratitude to a place of lament, to a place of learning to see differently and seek inspiration to act for the common good. There will be time for listening deeply to each other, meditation, walks and space for silence.

We aim to create a safe holding space for the weekend, both within our group, and within the welcoming community of around 30 people who live at Hilfield, including five Franciscan brothers. We will keep ourselves grounded and nourished in Nature, spending quite a lot of time in the beautiful gardens and woods at Hilfield, aiming to be outdoors for sunrise and dusk when possible. We can also draw on the support of the centuries-old monastic tradition by joining some of the daily cycle of Franciscan services.

This weekend is a rare chance to explore how faith, prayer and contemplation can combine with adaptation and emotional resilience processes to help us live with and respond creatively to the climate and ecological crisis. Whilst we will be drawing mostly on the Christian tradition, people are very welcome from all faiths or none.

Alan is a writer, group leader, and social entrepreneur with a passion for well-being, resilience and learning from nature. He has been involved with Deep Adaptation since 2018, and has led many groups using this and the Work That Reconnects: see here.

Jonathan lives and leads retreats at Hilfield Community, from where he works with gypsies and travellers and is engaged in non-violent climate protest. He is an Anglican minister, formerly Warden of the Pilsdon community, with a longstanding love for the contemplative and mystical traditions.

Hilfield Friary is in a beautiful landscape in mid-Dorset: it is a thriving low-impact community, which grows much of its own food and has a biomass boiler. Our group will eat with the community, and has the chance to connect with them at meals and services. See more at www.hilfieldfriary.org.uk.

Suggested donation: £150, including food and accommodation.

For enquiries and bookings, contact Suzi at hilfieldssf@franciscans.org.uk or 01300 341741.

A Sufi way to discern reality

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Nov 072022
 

As material reality gets more uncertain and alarming, I have found that using spiritual practices to find my way forward is really helpful. I’ve been exploring Sufi teachings for over 20 years, and want to share a couple of processes which have helped me.

So what do I mean by Sufi? It’s an elusive idea: there’s no creed or text to define it. Here’s one summary I like: a Sufi is one who takes a heart-centred approach, seeing the divine unity in all forms of life. I’ll share examples of how I put this into practice.

If we’re looking for a gift in the problems of the climate crisis and other current challenges, it might be a call to a change in consciousness: seeing Nature as including all forms of life, including the human and divine. A key Sufi belief can help with this, summed up in an Arabic phrase: la illaha ill’allah. Which could be interpreted: there is no reality except divine unity, which includes all life, and is beyond our conceptions of it.

Try a Wazifa practice

Many Sufis use wazifas: typically a sound mantra which evokes an aspect or quality of divine unity. The sound of certain languages has particular power, and Arabic mantras are often used by Sufis. This sequence of four wazifas is one that I find especially effective in handling feelings of overwhelm around climate change, and discerning a bigger picture.

If you want to try this, read the whole section, and give yourself some quiet space and clear time. The best way to work with wazifas is to speak the sounds out loud, and repeat each one quite a few times, e.g. 33. The sound ya before each wazifa helps to call in or invoke the quality. I find it’s best to do this walking or standing, and using the hand gestures for each wazifa described below. You could try walking slowly and repeating the whole sequence numerous times, or repeating each wazifa on its own for a while, and then moving on to the next.

These four wazifas are all named in one Sura or chapter of the Koran, 103, to help individuals and communities to find a sense of purpose and coherence in life.

Ya haqq (pronounced hukk): starting where you’re at, recognising the truth of the situation, the ground you stand on. For climate change, this probably means letting in and feeling the alarming scale of the crisis. Feel your link to the Earth element, keeping yourself grounded and centred. Hand movement: both hands at hip height, palms facing the earth, to help you connect with the ground of the situation.

Ya sabur (pronounced sahbour): this invokes patience, stepping back to see the situation in perspective, and give time for insights and responses to evolve. A useful antidote to understandable panic. Feel your connection to the Water element, in its still and reflective qualities. Hand movement: hold your hands cupped together, palms facing upwards, on the lower abdomen, to help you connect with the quality of waiting patiently.

Ya iman (pronounced immahn): this wazifa is linguistically akin to the word amen used to affirm prayers. Both invoke trust, opening for support from divine power and wisdom, and also grounding, a reconnection with the support of the Earth. Connect with the element of Fire, let it warm your heart and shine a light to guide you beyond any sense of freezing under stress. Hand movement: both hands on your heart, to help you relax into the quality of trust.

Ya salik (pronounced salleek): here, we’re opening to the greater good we can find in a situation, and in particular to how our own life purpose can flow through us to serve in this. Expand with the element of Air, and feel it as a link with the breath and spirit of all life. Hand movement: repeatedly open your hands out from the heart into an expansive gesture, ending with the arms spread wide.

In many Middle Eastern spiritual traditions, what we might call prayer took quite active and embodied forms, so part of the power in the practice above is that it has been done for centuries, by many people. Speaking or chanting the wazifas out loud, and using the hand movements, helps us feel the full meaning of each one in the body.

Transforming your viewpoint

A feature of many Sufi teachings is to seek entirely different viewpoints to illuminate a situation. One of these is seeing all of Nature – trees, mountains, as well as animals – as having sentience and intelligence, a view shared by Thomas Berry and others. Sufi poets like Rumi, Hafiz and Shabistari can help us to play with reality and discern it more clearly. An example is Rumi’s famous poem, A Chickpea Leaps.

While life in general, as well as climate change, gets more challenging, I find that the fellowship and support of groups gets even more valuable. Sufi gatherings are part of this, and I like their inclusiveness: they are usually open to people of any spiritual belief, and draw on practices from a range of traditions. If you’d like to know more about the Sufi order I’m part of, and events they offer, see www.ruhaniat.org.uk

NOTE: The interpretations of the wazifas above are based on the work of Neil Douglas Klotz, including his book The Sufi Book of Life, which is a good introduction to the topic.

Death and beyond: a close-up view

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Jul 072022
 

Guest blog from Palden Jenkins

Alan Heeks writes: Palden is an old friend, who plays a Merlin-like role in my life, popping up periodically with cryptic insights. He’s a deep thinker out of the box, a seer and astrologer, who usually offers a radically different point of view. Palden is currently living with terminal cancer, so he can offer some unique insights on death and beyond.

It’s not binary. We aren’t either alive or dead. We’re all a mixture of both. Medical ideology has it that death means ‘clinical death’, when your life-signs hit zero, but no, this is but a stage of dying. You’re still alive afterwards, and you might be able to see and hear people for a while, but unless their psyches are receptive, they won’t see or hear you – and that can be problematic.

What happens in death has a lot to do with how we deal with life. If we are willing to own up in life, as much as we can, the matter of owning up in death gets easier. Life on Earth is such a fucked-up and complex thing that we’re all damaged and up to our eyeballs in karmic cobwebs, so this isn’t about being perfect – it’s about getting through. Leaving the world a slightly better place than when we started. At death you just can’t do anything more about anything. It all was as it was, and that’s that. The task is to accept that as much as possible and come to peace about it, to hand in your resignation wholeheartedly. This involves releasing and forgiving, letting be. It’s too late. Working on this before dying does help.

But there’s more to this. The more we are able to get through our life-crises and make them good, the more we establish a pattern of doing it. When death comes, it makes dying easier because the ‘growth choice’ is a habit, and we habitually do it even in death. The looser, more centred and psychospiritually flexible we are in handling life, the more we handle death. Though also, as I mentioned in a recent blog, we also get taken a level deeper, with new hoops to jump through. But look at this another way…

When you die you are entering a new world, and the way you get born into it, as is the case with incarnate life, greatly affects what happens afterwards. That is, as a (retired) astrologer, I can tell you revealing things about yourself on the basis of the time, date and place of your planetary birth, even without meeting you. So, when you sally forth to the other world, if you die well and do your best with it, you’ll start well on the next bit. This is important. It affects the decisions that are made about what you’ll take on next – your next incarnate life on Earth, if that is your path, or whatever happens instead, if that is your path.

But remember, you don’t get chocolate up there – if you want chocolate, Earth is the place. It’s a pretty good place for abuse, pain, violence, toxicity and insensitivity too. Get a load of that – it’s special, and it really rubs you up and grinds you down.

Your family, tribe and angels up there will help you get all this sorted out. It’s rather a process, and it involves referencing to all of your existences and their overall storyline and purpose. And your place in the tribe and its own wider evolution – we’re not just individuals but part of something much larger. There’s some bliss, relief, love, healing, rest, fellowship, education and soul-melding to be had too.

Unless perhaps you believe so strongly that you don’t deserve them that you wall yourself into an imaginal reality that carries you off somewhere else. Then you get another round of the same old thing, until you get it – a turning in the deepest seat of consciousness.

Part of our reason for being here is to evolve and train ourselves as supertrooper souls – souls who’ve been through the mill, shed some blood, sweat and tears and learned from it – experiences that just aren’t available elsewhere, in this way. Loads of shit flies here, and we have the profound option to become greater souls through handling it.

You see, there’s something many ancient peoples knew: the souls of the living and the souls of the dead walk alongside each other and help each other out. We’re in the same tribes and networks. We’re all still here. You can talk to your Mum (well, not anytime, but sometimes). They knock on our heads every now and then. It’s important to take note, to listen within and to answer.

2022 Climate Outlook: pray for miracles

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Jan 072022
 

The holiday time around New Year 2022 has been a chance for some of us to reflect on the outlook for the climate crisis, and it’s not a cheery prospect. I have been digging deep to find some constructive responses.

In reviewing current information, I was startled to learn that, if you adjust for the temporary economic slowdown from covid, global carbon emissions in 2021 continued to grow, and the growth rate is accelerating. This is featured in a YouTube talk by David Ramsden MBE, see talk here.

He also reports that CO2 emissions in recent years have been above the trend towards worst case scenarios (3.2o to 5.4o rise by 2100), and that the mean average of projections for 2100 has risen to 4.0o, from 3.5o in 2018. Maybe we have forgotten COP26 over Christmas, but recall that it needs massive cuts in annual emissions, starting now, to keep temperature rises to 1.5o overall. Frankly, this is unlikely.

This outlook has led to a sense of desperation, for me, and many people I know. I was touched by a recent article by George Monbiot, describing how he burst into tears on live TV when being interviewed after COP26. See feature here.

So in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been down in the pit of despond, looking for gems of hope. They’re hard to find, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Pray for miracles: it is objectively true that only miracles, i.e. events way beyond rational expectation, can save us from temperature rises well over 1.5o, and all they’d bring. So we can at least pray for such miracles to happen. As part of this, picture the transformative changes you hope for, such as radical action by governments, huge behaviour shifts by billions of consumers, and a longterm approach from businesses. Quite a few people, including me, are praying and meditating for planetary healing and positive change at 7.00pm GMT every Sunday, for half an hour.
  2. Do what you can in your local community: even though I don’t think my efforts in the last two years locally have had a big impact, they’ve had some, and that may accelerate as climate extremes, gas and food costs, etc., get worse. At minimum, doing what you can will help your morale, and we’re all going to need mutual support soon in our local communities.

One of the Bridport Climate Forums which Alan helped organise

  • Do what you can for the bigger picture: this could include supporting national campaigns, lobbying your MP, donating to help the many people already dislocated by climate change, protecting forests and habitats. See where your passion is and act on it!
  • Keep your heart open, and grow your resilience: In my recent dig for gems of hope, I had a helpful talk with a friend who is an Anglican priest, and an activist with Extinction Rebellion. I asked, “If we believe there is a divine power shaping the human world, why would it be creating this huge, worsening crisis, and all the suffering it’s likely to bring?”

Between us, the best answer we could come up with is this: to see this extreme crisis as urging us all to go beyond, to grow in extraordinary ways. In particular, to keep our hearts open, to stay loving, generous, collaborative, under pressures that could just lead to selfish grabbing. Exploring Soul Resilience might be part of this for you, as it is for me. We also need to transform the level of our resilience skills: for example, our ability to live with and mediate conflicts, to stay clear amid confusion. Co-creativity will be crucial for this.

An introduction to Soul Resilience

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Sep 012021
 

If you hope to thrive and grow through your life, not just cope and survive, how will you do this in the stormier times we can see ahead of us? It needs a quantum step up in resilience, and that’s what Soul Resilience could offer you.

Exploring the soul’s journey is one of the best ways I’ve found to navigate my rising anxiety and bewilderment in the last few years. Try sharing my belief that the soul is a piece of wise essence in each of us, whose journey may last thousands of years, and which chooses each human incarnation it comes into.

This belief offers a radical and positive twist in the way you view your current situation. Instead of feeling you’re a victim of random challenging events, try asking your soul, Why am I here? In other words, dialogue with your soul about why it chose this life you’re in, and what it wants to learn, experience, or do in its time here on Earth with you.

You may ask, why would a soul choose a life with severe covid, or as a refugee? The best answer I can offer is this: I believe there are many more dimensions or aspects to life than the few we perceive, and from a bigger, soul perspective, there can be positive reasons. Viktor Frankl’s time in concentration camps is one example of how love can grow in awful situations.

The idea of choosing to come into a time of crisis may be a hard one to accept, but I invite you to explore it. On my new website www.soulresilience.net, you’ll find more resources to help you explore the soul’s journey and start a dialogue with your soul.

What I’ve learned from asking my soul these questions is that my soul is curious, and wants to experience how it is to live in a time of upheaval and dissolution. It doesn’t expect us to save the situation, but it wants to learn how to stay centred and positive in an alarming era, and how to be loving and supportive to people and the planet when it’s tempting to be self-centred and focus on survival.

I’ve also found that dialogue with my soul can give me lots of practical resilience advice: for example, how much to limit my intake of bad news, how to process difficult feelings like alarm, and how to balance them with gratitude and trust.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in group exploration of these topics, and I’ve found that there’s a lot of mutual support and wisdom to be found collectively. If this might interest you, see the Groups section of my new website.

Climate alarm? Learning to live with it

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Aug 262021
 

The IPCC report this week on the climate crisis has left me alarmed and unsettled, maybe you too. I’m writing this blog for myself as much as anyone, as part of my long-running search for ways to live with this. There are plenty of good processes out there, and many of us have been using them for a while. However, I keep feeling that it’s like baling out a sinking boat with a teaspoon: my raw emotions are flooding in much faster than I can process them out.

Why is this? We’re now in a climate crisis which really is threatening our survival, the stability of our societies and our individual wellbeing. So floods of raw emotion could well be seen as a healthy, functional response to the current facts.

I also suspect that the emotional impact on us is aggravated by the pandemic. At root, humans are social animals: we need in-person eye contact, smiles, hugs, companionship, to nourish our sense of safety, and in an alarm we need to gather in groups to gain understanding, support, and a view on how to respond. We’re all in deficit for such contact because of covid, and still limited on what’s possible.

For millennia, in a crisis people would gather in circles on the land

One of the ways I try to meet a challenge is to look for the gift in the problem. Where are the upsides in the current climate crisis? One is that it’s getting very hard to deny that we’re in a climate emergency caused by human activity. So we’re all in this together. Another is that it’s affecting lives across the world, and clearly the crisis is here, now, not elsewhere or in the future. These views are confirmed by recent UK research from Climate Outreach, see my blog on it here.

Beyond these basics, the picture gets muddier. We can see that many people can’t live with the alarming realities of the climate crisis: even if they don’t take refuge in denial, many will go to despair or apathy, feeling there’s no way out. All too understandable.

So where to turn? Deep Adaptation is in my view one of the best guides in this bewilderment: see my overview blog here. I agree with Jem Bendell that the first step is to accept, learn to live with, and grow through, all the big emotions this crisis stirs up: fear, overwhelm, despair and more.

In Jem’s view and mine, one of the best processes to do this is one from Joanna Macy, known as the Work that Reconnects, or deep ecology: see my overview writeup here. But there’s a catch: the key to this process is having your feelings witnessed and validated by others. Not easy to arrange these days!

So, back to the gift in the problem. The best I’ve come up with so far is these steps:

  1. Self-care: Accept how alarming this situation is, and love the parts of you that feel panicky, that want to hide in a cave or find someone to make it right for them. Give time to support yourself in whatever ways work for you, e.g. time in Nature, prayer, rest, singing, creativity.
  2. Mutual care: Find chances for mutual support wherever you can. Take a risk, look for this in social settings, or people you don’t know well, as well as close contacts. Recently I was chatting with an acquaintance, who suddenly said, “My wife and I just admitted to each other we’re terrified about the climate crisis.” That helped me hugely.
  3. Practical steps: Resilience research shows that it helps us when we take action, and support others. Recently I’ve been drafting a short briefing on practical local steps we can all take as climate responses: you can see the current draft here. Comments welcome! I’m planning to use this in various ways in my local community, including a briefing event for Great Big Green Week in September.
  4. Communing with Nature: Clearly the natural world is in crisis as much as the human one, and seeing them as a unity will help. For deep insights on this, see Thomas Berry. I’m finding a sense of mutual support by meditating outdoors, in my garden or elsewhere. Just as trees handle storms by deepening their roots, we can do the same see more on my website: naturalhappiness.net. And if you believe (as I do) that there is some divine power as well as material reality, pray that we’re all guided through this, and that suffering is relieved for all forms of life.
  5. Love and disruption: Turbulence and glitches in daily life are already rising, and the risk of bigger disruptions is rising too. We can’t stop these, so we need to find a better response. I recommend a blog by Jem Bendell, called The Love in Deep Adaptation. It’s a deeply-considered call for us to move beyond alarm and self-centredness, to meet others (and ourselves) with love and compassion. This, surely, is the gift in the climate emergency we’re having to live with.

How do we find the spiritual roots of resilience?

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Dec 092021
 

There’s so much talk about resilience these days, but little of it explores spiritual sources. My focus is resilience in everyday life: how we can stay steady, and grow through daily stress and bigger crises.

There’s plenty of research to show that people who feel a higher sense of purpose, who have a spiritual path, who pray or meditate, on average feel more wellbeing, and handle challenges more easily. But you can’t plug these features into your life like a phone app, so how can you evolve them and find a way that suits you?

I’ve been exploring these questions, for myself and in leading retreat groups, for twenty years. This blog offers a few highlights of what has helped me and some others to deepen our spiritual roots.

Resilience grows from strong roots

One place to start is great teachers like Jesus, Muhammad and the Sufi poet Rumi.  The best way I’ve found to access this wisdom is the work of Neil Douglas Klotz, who not only re-translates from the original language, but teaches spiritual practices used at the time, such as song, sound mantras, sacred movement, and walking meditation, which help to experience and embody them.

All of this has given me a very different, living sense of what Jesus and others can teach us about resilience. Here’s an example: the third Beatitude. In King James this reads, Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Neil’s translation is: Healthy are those who have softened what is rigid within; they shall receive physical vigour and strength from the universe.

More broadly, the original spiritual teachings of the Middle East can teach us a lot about resilience, probably more than the organised religions that grew from them. Most of them see divinity as the unity of spirit in life, not a patriarch, and heaven as a universal quality of inspiration, not a separate place ‘up there’.

Alan with Bedouin guides

A related source of my roots of resilience is what I’ve learned from semi-nomadic Bedouin in the Sahara. Between 2001 and 2012, I led twelve retreat groups in the Tunisian Sahara, travelling on foot and on camel with Bedouin guides.

If you want a role model of how to be happy with no control over your environment, and few material possessions, the Bedouin are an inspiring one. As they often told me, “You may be rich in possessions, but we are rich in our community”. For more about these experiences, see the Desert Wisdom section of my website www.living-organically.com.

A community that’s part of your spiritual roots is harder to find in Britain than the Sahara, but I’ve discovered ways to create this, for example in weekend retreats, Celtic seasonal celebrations, and even online meditation groups. Sharing songs, food, stories, and your uncertainties about life’s journey, can all help this process.

Another crucial part of my spiritual roots of resilience is deep connection to nature and the landscapes around me. This is part of the Bedouins’ resilience too.  And the teachings of Jesus and others from those lands are full of natural imagery and connection, in the original language.

As the climate crisis has deepened, and other uncertainties mount up, I have found that talking with my soul can really help my resilience: I ask it why it chose to be here in a human life in these troubled times, and I get some useful answers. If you’d like to know more about Soul Resilience, and about groups I am running to explore it, see www.soulresilience.net.

Nomadic Wisdom: old roots for new futures

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Nov 172021
 

Probably all of us are facing a future with a lot more uncertainty, and a lot less control. So what can we learn from people who have been living positively in that condition for thousands of years? By definition, nomads represent an extreme example of this, having no ownership or control of land, very few assets, and being at the mercy of whatever the climate throws at them.

Alan with Ali, one of our Bedouin guides

Some of the most inspiring times of my life were the ten retreat groups I organised in the Tunisian Sahara, travelling by foot and camel with semi-nomadic Bedouin guides. You can see my blogs about these trips here.

These were men born and bred in the desert, as nomads, who in the 1980s had to move to a town because climate change had dried up the shallow wells and springs. They still bred and herded camels in the desert, and they loved my groups because they were back in the life they loved.

The Bedouin are profound teachers by their approach to life. Although their situation is materially tough and basic, they are happy, dignified people. As they sit in a circle in the chilly light before sunrise, they are chatting, lighting the fire, making the bread, tending the camels and singing. I join them and ask myself, “Is this work time or social time?”, knowing that this is a western mindset and the question would be meaningless to them. Their songs move seamlessly from praise of Allah through romantic ballads to children’s play songs. Their days really are a flowing dance uniting, work, spirit, fellowship and recreation. Because of some of them speak good French, this is a rare chance to share the life and culture of people who are still within the semi-nomadic tradition.

You might think that losing the nomad life, living quite poorly in a town, would leave them despairing or bitter, but it hasn’t. They are some of the most happy, resilient people I’ve met. Around a campfire under a million stars, we’d ask why. They said, “You may be rich in things, but we are rich in our families.” Beside their deep, tribal sense of community, I could see that they had roots in their love for the desert, and in their faith, in Islam. A friend who works in Palestine says this is all true there.

Physical navigation in the desert is very difficult: there are no roads, and very few features you can put on a map.  If you go into the desert with native Bedouin guides, as I have done many times, they never use a map or compass. They navigate the desert as their forebears did in Old Testament times. They literally know the desert like the back of their hand: every dune and contour, every stump of palm or odd shaped rock, they can distinguish and steer by. My guess is that the Bedouins’ love for this land nourishes them so deeply because it feels like a reciprocal relationship: their intimate knowledge of the land, their rapport with its fragile ecosystems, enables them to navigate the desert, and even harvest from it, in the sense of finding grazing for their camels.

On most of my retreats, we had 24 hours where the visitors went into silent, solo time. On one trip, I had a friend who is an organic farmer in Surrey: he said he spent a lot of time on his farm alone and in silence, and would rather spend this time living with the Bedouin. This gave him and me a deeper sense of how they operate as a community: they seem more like a group, and less like individuals than westerners, and they moved seamlessly from one combined task to the next.

It is probably no coincidence that Islam originated in the desert, and that the Prophet Mohammad organised camel caravans before he received divine inspiration. I have studied Islamic teachings enough to see their beauty, and their relevance to a life without control. The Fateha, the Islamic equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer, celebrates the idea of divine unity, recognises a bigger power than the human individual, and calls upon that power for compassion, guidance and inspiration.What might be called the spiritual resilience of the Bedouin is well worth exploring further: if this interests you, see my blog on Desert Wisdom: the book and the nomads.

Book blog: The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller

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Oct 042021
 

Subtitle: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

You may have noticed, as I have, a growing number of grief tending workshops, grief rituals and similar events in recent years. What’s your reaction to them? I admit that mine has been a mix of mild interest and some resistance. Francis Weller is one of the leading American teachers in this field, and this book has the conviction of someone who has worked with groups for over 30 years, and has learned from many good sources, including tribal cultures. This book is not an easy read, because it digs into feelings that many of us bury, but it’s a very worthwhile one. Weller believes that most of us carry a lot more grief, and from a wider range of sources, than we let ourselves acknowledge, and I agree with him. This book is written with a lot of care and respect for the grief we all carry, and it is an excellent guide to this difficult territory.

This book offers a useful map of five gates of grief. The first is familiar: Everything we love, we will lose. The second is probably less familiar: The places that have not known love. This means the feelings and parts of ourselves that we have shut down and pushed away: the places associated with shame, trauma, and what he calls soul loss.

The third gate is the sorrows of the world. This is probably familiar to most of us, but he helpfully explains why this grief is so powerful in our times. He quotes the psychiatrist R. D. Laing describing us all as “Stone Age children”. Weller goes on: Our entire psychic, physical, emotional, and spiritual makeup was shaped in the long evolutionary sweep of our species. Our inheritance includes an intimate and permeable exchange with the wild world. It is what our minds and bodies expect.”

Weller’s fourth gate of grief is an intriguing one: What we expected and did not receive. This includes our ‘longing to belong’: he beautifully describes visiting Malidoma Somé’s village in Burkina Faso. He writes: “Every night near dusk, people would gather in the common area and share their day…. Children were there as well, weaving in and out of conversations, playing until they lay down and drifted into sleep…. Imagine how profoundly that would impact us, if we knew that we were welcome in any home and to find sustenance at any fire.” This gate is also about our hopes of fulfilling our gifts and potential, and being recognised for them, and our desire for a sense of oneness with all life, not just human. We need to recognise how far from this most modern life has moved.

The fifth gate is ancestral grief: I share his view that most of us carry unresolved traumas of many kinds from the generations before us, who rarely had the time and skills to resolve them. This is an extra weight that many of us carry, but at least recognising it is a first step to discharging it.

Weller regards ritual as a vital element in processing grief: he gives good examples of how this was used in different ways in tribal societies, and how we can use it in our modern times. He sees the crucial dynamics in ritual as being to provide both containment and release, and ‘making the repressed visible’.

If grief was a country, you could say that this book is an excellent guide to its heartlands, to what they contain, and how to access them. But even with a good guide like this, I feel it needs a lot of strength and courage to journey into these heartlands. In some of my groups, I explore the frontiers of this terrain, using processes like The Work that Reconnects, which provides a contained way to start feeling our grief, rather than a complete plunge into the depths. If this topic interests you, this book gives you an excellent sense of different ways to start your journey, and what that journey may entail.