March Hare Hibernating
Every couple of years I find myself on the dark side of the moon, in clinical depression, and committed willy-nilly to three or four months of enforced retreat that’s part pathology and part shamanic journey.
The current bout began with biochemical meltdown just after Christmas; exhaustion so deep I was almost comatose; mind a war-zone; periods of harrowed, unresolved weeping; nausea so violent I had to virtually fast; radical insomnia; waves of vicious, corrosive anxiety and panic; driven, feral walks; extreme porosity to inner and outer stimuli that turned every ripple into a tidal wave.
In the past I’ve tried to fight this collapse, and grimly hold on to who I think I am. Resistance, I’ve learned, is futile and merely prolongs the pain. This time, almost without a whimper, I was able to lay on the altar all the ways I define myself; wordsmithing, teaching, being a WWOOF host over the fecund summer, busyness…It was all right to be unable to do anything, to feel and look hagridden, for the garden to run amok, to disclose my helplessness to my community and invoke its support.
At perhaps the worst moment, when fear was shaking me night and day like a dog with a rat, I ended up in casualty. And there, beside me in the darkness, was a young doctor from Pakistan who sat on my bed and talked about the poetry of Rumi, art and intuition in hospitals, and medicine in the third world. How astonishing, at the nadir, to be offered grace and mercy by a beloved stranger. In hindsight, it was then that fear fell away, and far off, the tide began to turn.
Now, nine weeks in, I’m over the worst. Gerard Manley Hopkins “cliffs of fall frightful” are so far behind me I no longer dread them. A friend who’s a yoga teacher told me depression triggers the vagus nerve hence nausea; my osteopath said he could calm the vagus, and did. I progressed from miso and yoghourt to gruel, and then to a normal diet. This week, for the first time since Christmas, I’ve twice slept for eight hours. My life still constellates around the need for rest, absolute as a newborn’s. Convalescence is a notoriously labyrinthine and unpredictable journey. If in the thrill of life returning, I transgress my own boundaries, I go tumbling back down the hill. There’s enough energy in my system now that I can write for an hour in the mornings, begin planting a winter garden, and embark on gentle stretching to recoup the flexibility and muscle tone I’ve lost.
I take medication like a sacrament, a sleeping tablet when I must. Acupuncture and cranio-sacral osteopathy alternating week about are lifegiving; so is regular massage to counterbalance depression’s horrid visceralness. Dreams, shamanic work, regression therapy all help plumb and map the moon’s dark side. Though I’m a hermit by temperament, and find depression much easier to deal with on my own, I make sure I spend quality time with at least one person every day. Being outside, working barefoot in the warm earth – it’s been a halcyon summer – are particularly salvific. Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Angela Thirkell – ah, the safety of the thirties – ABC-Classic FM and my cats are faithful comfort and company.
How spacious time is when the only requirement is that I be. I watch the sift of sunlight through silver birch leaves, eucalypts glittering in the wind, bees suckling comfrey flowers.
Sustained within this kindred web, body and spirit have all the time they need to heal; the well refills with water at kairotic, Huon pine speed. If I have a wish – not yet granted – it’s that I might be vouchsafed a glimpse, while my boundaries are still osmotic, into the inner nature of things; into the marvels of the sub-atomic realm, of DNA, of fractals; or the ninety-nine per cent of the universe we can’t see because light doesn’t reveal it.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s image of a flower as ‘a muscle of infinite reception’ forms and informs me. Praying the craziest, most real prayer I know – Thy will be done – I surrender to transformation, to being composted, to having my shit turned into roses. My full name is Anastasia, which means redemption, the harrowing of hell, the journey of Christ into the underworld between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I honour that process, whatever it costs. I honour, too, Ourobouros, the snake who in biting her own tail, releases the poison she needs for her healing; and Akhilandeshwari, the never-not-broken goddess. I practise the potent Buddhist tonglen, breathing pain and limitation (my own, the stranger’s, the world’s) into my heart where it’s transformed into
compassion, which I breathe out to myself, the stranger, the world…
OF GRIZZLY BEARS, PRESCIENCE AND PANIC DISORDER
12th December 2012
Reading ‘The Aftermath’ (30 November) left me feeling so charted and validated that I wept. Even though I’ve never encountered a grizzly bear, a shark or a murderer, the scenarios were wholly familiar; I live with an inner terrorist – aetiology unknown – who can trigger the selfsame psychic meltdown Patricia van Tighem and Micki Glenn describe. When it attacks, my everyday self is annihilated, and I’m an animal in a trap gnawing its leg off to escape. In this space, the abnormal becomes the normal; one of terror’s current triggers is any unfamiliar skin lesion – shall I chew, burn or cut it off? It’s a vicious control freak, a fundamentalist usurping all voices but its own, a Minotaur demanding endless sacrifice. I am both she who terrorises and she who is terrorised. Never yet has it told the truth.
I’m commensal with a dictator who would rather crucify her own people than relinquish control, contain within myself a microcosm of the blighting co-dependence of power misused and fear that so flay humankind. It’s a rueful comfort that it’s only myself I torment, not a country.
Jung suggests that in undertaking the rigorous work of making the darkness conscious – transforming our personal shadow – we’re also healing the collective, planetary unconscious. Is this then my fractal part in the redeeming of Earth? As I’ve slowly composted both anger as intense as vomiting shit, and nicotine addiction, might I also one day transform the Minotaur? I look forward to the gifts that, in Greek myth, arise from his blood; the winged horse Pegasus, and a golden sword of justice and truth.
Mental health, like race or gender, is a spectrum, part of the astonishing diversity of being human. I’m the odd one out in a singularly robust family; like Trevor Janz, their response when attacked by a grizzly bear would be curiosity; ‘So this is what death is.’ Like his wife, I’d react with pure panic. If I’d been a soldier in World War I, I’d have been classed as LMF – low moral fibre.
Two of the women in your excerpt reported premonitions they were unable to translate or trust. In 2009, the ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’, a lament for the beloved gone to war, howled incessantly and week-long in my mind, coupled with savage, causeless anxiety. Then my son, who I’d thought was safely in Geneva, rang to say he’d just got back from Afghanistan. I wasn’t going crazy; I just hadn’t known how to decode the symbols.
According to astronomers, light only reveals half of one per cent of what actually exists. The more I explore – as a matter of survival – my own consciousness, with its galaxies, sub-atomic particles and black holes, the more it seems to me that the psyche is as vast, mysterious, coherent, and potentially knowable as the physical cosmos. The further I go, the further there is to go.
(Published, somewhat pruned, 4.1.13)
6th December 2012
Your excellent reports on financial skulduggery (Offshore secrets, 30 November), and the harrowing, intractable conflicts in Gaza and the Congo (Undying hatred in Gaza combat zone; Congo once more descends into chaos, 30 November) are linked by synapses arising from their shared taproot in a global economic system that’s accountable only to profit, and therefore terminally skewed against morality and justice.
It seems to me obscene that the four biggest earners in the world economy are people trafficking, the trades in weapons and illegal drugs, and pornography. Three quarters of the world’s armaments are manufactured by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, US, UK, China and France. In this schizoid conflict of interest, how can peace ever prevail over violence lucratively institutionalised as war? Since most manufacturers, dealers, traders and users of weapons are men, with women and children forming a disproportionately high number of victims, the arms trade is one of the vilest manifestations of patriarchy. How is it that we not only sanction these legalised cannibals, but continue to tolerate an economic system that cheers them on? Why aren’t these ghouls, who foment mass murder and feast on living flesh, indicted before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity?
A Partridge in a Pear-Tree? Twelve Gifts for Christmas
I was born into a family of Protestant atheists, yet Catholicism, when the Church and I finally found each other – both parties resisting furiously – turned out to be as deep in me as race or gender. Fifteen years on, I’m still as in love with the sacramental church as I am at odds with the institution – a paradox uncomfortably familiar to many Catholics.
Though the Church is where I most deeply ‘belong to be’, my life is continually enriched by other spiritual traditions. Almost half of humankind faces harassment, arrest, torture or death for attending a religious gathering. I’m all for plurality – anything to curb the blight of fundamentalism.
The divine is so inconceivably vast that in its presence we’re the proverbial blind women trying to describe an elephant; rather than squabbling about who’s right, let’s pool our ignorance. I have rich conversations with a Tibetan Buddhist, translating each other’s metaphors in order to understand we’re talking about the same thing. I’ve encountered ‘the peace that passeth understanding’ in a Baptist prayer group, at a Quaker meeting, in a yoga class, among dancing Sufis and once, unforgettably, at the feet of a guru; I was one of hundreds in the queue, yet when it was my turn I was struck by a lightning bolt of bliss that lasted for days.
Twelve insights from other pathways.
The Buddhist practice of tonglen. Breathe grief, anger, pain – your own, a stranger’s, the world’s – into your heart where suffering is transformed into compassion. Breathe out compassion for yourself, the stranger, the galaxy.
The mother of one of my English language students is a devout Hindu; whenever I visit, she’s weaving cotton-wool into candle-wicks. When she’s made 100,000, they will be lit on the altar in a glory of fire. I was delighted to be introduced recently to the Hindu deity Akhilandeshwari – the Never Not Broken Goddess.
Once a year the Kyoto Monks of Tibet come to Hobart and spend a week making an exquisite sand mandala. When it’s finished, it’s ritually dissolved into the Derwent. The chanting of the monks gives my soul goosebumps.
I’m still coming to terms with my father’s recently disclosed Jewish heritage. Now, when I hear Old Testament stories, it’s with double vision; I’m both outside looking in, and participating in my own history. I celebrate the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – collective soul-work for the redemption of the world.
’Islam simply means surrender to divine will. We demonise Moslems just as the Crusaders did; as Catholics and Protestants massacred each other all over Europe; like the Holocaust. One of my doorways into ’Islam is the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, mystics dancing with Theresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen on the head of a pin.
I’m so awed by the spirituality of indigenous Australians, by the Dreaming, songlines, the interwoven sacredness of place, humans, animals, plants, rocks and stars, that it feels presumptuous to say anything. I’ll tell a small story instead. I was once introduced to an Aboriginal Elder. Not knowing how to respond, I went into a corner and meditated. Very delicately, clear as bell, he greeted me in my mind. My eyes flew open; we met in a hug in the middle of the room.
Might we listen to what atheists are saying? Allow ourselves to be challenged? See ourselves in the mirror they hold up to us?
Celtic Christianity touches my heart. The Celtic cross brings the divine feminine into balanced relationship with the male. The prayers weave the sacred into daily life: “I tend the hearth as Mary tends it.” “ May the light warm your heart till it glows like a great peat fire.” And that loveliest of greetings, “What blossom is on you today?”
Do creativity, sex and prayer all arise from the same well? Music, poetry, art transcend and illumine. The best sex is a template for divine union. When I do a silent retreat, I know – then forget – that I spend most of my life splashing in the shallows while a vastness beyond my richest imaginings lies a breath away.
Our planet is a miracle. Consider the wisdom contained in a handful of seeds, the nano-structural genius of a feather. A friend, contemplating the mind-boggling intricacy of DNA says, “DNA is my god.” The genome of just one person, written as music, would take a century to play. Humans share nearly all our DNA, and our planet, with 8.7 billion species whose wellbeing is crucial to our own. I lament the failure of all major religions to act on climate change, on ecocide.
Physics is awe-inspiring. Solid matter isn’t solid. The universe we see is a half of one per cent of what’s actually out there. We live in a multiverse, many dimensions folded in on each other. Humans are midway in size between the universe and the smallest sub-atomic particle.
Muddle, paradox, chaos, radical amazement, being wrong, metanoia, the thirteenth fairy, not knowing…
(Published in The Tasmanian Catholic December 2012. Reprinted with permission).