Greetings from a melting hot Southern France.
On the third day of the week-long silent retreat in the Pyrenees I’ve just been part of, Jaya Ashmore (our natural jewel of a retreat leader) read Rilke’s words below.
“Aaah not to be cut off, not through the slightest partition,
Shut out from the law of the stars!
The inner, what is it, if not intensified sky,
Hurled with birds
And deep with the winds of homecoming?”
As these words dropped into my experience after 3 days of silent walking and resting meditation in the hills, every one of them permeated my senses, resonating straight to my core. This meeting opened up a free-flowing fountain from somewhere deep within me, literally moving me to floods of tears. I felt expansive, welcomed and allowed like I’d never felt before.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a deep longing to ‘know’ life. I’ve never wanted to settle with ‘surviving’. Of course, as we all have, I’ve had to muddle my way through many challenges of life in survival mode. Yet an underlying wish has remained within me to live fully, authentically, to taste the beauty and intensity of life in its purest, most real and natural form.
This wish has at times felt like a curse, born out of an innate willingness I’ve felt inevitably bound to and even trapped in. I’ve always known deep down that it would lead me down an challenging path and at times, I’ve felt willing to risk almost anything to feel real, alive and free – perhaps guided by some magnetic pull to move closer to “the law of the stars”.
People have sometimes wondered why I’d wish for that, and to tell the truth, I often fail to understand it myself. It doesn’t stand to reason, it feels more like a thirst from within, entirely beyond my control.
At times the longing is quiet, gently whispering in the background of my experience. Other times, my trust in it shatters in panic when its consequences feel too scary, and my mind hurls me into storms of doubt. And occasionally, in brief moments of connection with others, nature, life that make it all so vitally worthwhile, I’m filled with overwhelming intense, beautiful waves of ‘aliveness’. And then perhaps, as my trust in it grows, what can feel like the greatest curse becomes the most precious gift.
More importantly maybe, I often wonder whether deep down, we all hold this wish? It can feel terrifying, so much that we prefer to bury it deep underneath the ‘surface’ of our lives, the roles we play, the people we think ourselves to be. And indeed there are times when we absolutely need to do this to survive when life can feel too intense, too much, too real.
But what if ‘knowing life’ were also a necessary, vital wish? One that could lead us to living with greater trust and in closer harmony with life – internally and externally? A wish that could guide us and the rest of the planet ‘back to life’?
As a teenager, I felt a mistrust of modern life’s stories and bargains of happiness and ‘success’ in money, marriage, career. I’m not saying these can’t be integrally part of happy lives, they absolutely can. I mean rather that they felt to me far from the solutions to happier lives. And most of all, I often wondered, were these my aspirations, my stories, my rules?
It was then that I began to turn to nature. Indeed, as Rilke says, what are we, if not ‘intensified sky”? If we want to find out about how to live life, why not turn to life itself?
My quest began by studying nature through biology, physics and chemistry. But still, I felt unsatisfied: was that really ‘knowing life’? The more I tried to explore life in this way, the more baffled my mind became seeking for answers that were not there. Life felt unfathomable, ungraspable to my mind.
And to quote Wendell Berry:
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.“
It was then that I began to turn to nature in a different way – ‘with my heart’. Instead of living in the realm of ideas about life, I experimented with tuning into my direct experience of life.
Our western society believes so firmly in ideas, concepts, beliefs and understanding that perhaps we’ve forgotten how to tune into the direct mysterious truth of our moment-to-moment experience, how to really pay attention, really listen and let all of life in?
This was the turning point when my necessary wish to ‘know life’ began to come true. Indeed, the following 15 years to this date have been a path of discovery towards fulfilling that wish to explore life, to get to ‘know aliveness’.
The deep need to respond to this wish hasn’t been a smooth ride. ‘Mindfulness’ is often misrepresented as a fix-it pacifying practice, bringing us closer to some kind of ‘zen’ coma of acceptance of everything. Mindfulness is far from that . It’s about feeling reality and feeling ‘aliveness’. It’s about exploring life directly: our ‘ego centered’ habitual thoughts and emotions and so much beyond – sounds, sights, scents, touch, body sensations and energy formed and formless – all quietly calling us back to belonging, wholeness and connection – in every single moment. What if we tuned into this subtle, intense, beautiful life and moved into action from there – instead of from the controlling, fixing, reductionist stories of our habitual minds?
When I heard Rilke’s words last week, they met my deepest wish. It felt as if he had understood the intense beauty and pain of a lifelong longing.
The retreat gifted me with other glimpses of life that at times felt so intensely real they were dreamlike. These moments, in the most down-to-earth way possible, felt magical and profoundly revealed to me the power of true silence and listening with a depth I had never been touched by before.
The strange beauty of responding to my wish to ‘know life’, is that the more I explore getting to ‘know life’ directly, the more I discover that I really have no idea what life is.
To my fixing, controlling, grasping mind, this can feel like a painful frustration – yet to my heart, it can feel like pure, playful, mysterious wonder.
Feeling into the beauty and intensity of life on our own can be hard and at times impossibly intense. But this ‘intensified sky’ is in all of us and perhaps if we turned towards it together, we could hold it with greater ease? Perhaps it could even move us towards creative action for a happier, more peaceful and sustainable world?
Either way, I chose to keep my attention on the wonder. This is the free-flowing fountain which inspires my everyday invitation to you. Join me?