Archive for November, 2013

On the edge of a grimpen

On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold, and menaced by monsters…

(T.S. Elliott, “East Coker,” Four Quartets)


At a recent monthly board meeting of the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society, a friend began waxing poetic about the wetlands of our area.  These moist and messy places are the most biologically diverse spots on earth, she claimed.  She named wetlands as the lungs and kidneys of the planet’s watersheds: essential, irreplaceable.  Plus, she added, they prevent flooding.

But she didn’t stop there.  She said that our wetlands, the ones in this valley, are unique.  Because dams destroy the natural wetlands on lakes and rivers, and because the Slocan is the only undammed watershed in the Columbia River system, our area constitutes a template for restoration attempts across the Basin.

After all this, she made a pitch for us to sponsor a wetlands workshop.  And then to join a loose affiliation known as S.W.A.M.P., the Slocan Wetlands Assessment and Mapping Project.

I voted in favour of these suggestions, grudgingly and with trepidation.  While I understand the importance of mucky places, I find it hard to love a wetland.  In fact, they horrify me.

I blame this on the stories told by my brothers prior to our 1957 family move to rural Georgia.  In those tales—whispered in the dark when the parents weren’t listening—sucking mud and snapping alligators were prominent.  My trepidation might have sunk into simple unease were it not for the fact that the actual experience of rural Georgia did indeed encompass alligators and viscous mud.  It also included swimming holes with water moccasins, woods with rattlesnakes, chiggers and ticks, and swamps with leeches and carnivorous plants.  I am still unable to walk among high grasses without a frisson of terror, while a boggy patch in the trail makes me leap for hummocks.  While I appreciate the concept of wetlands, I don’t really want one close to me.

I don’t think that I am alone in my ambivalence about swampy places: the province is currently engaging in something that looks familiarly equivocal, as one agency allows developers to fill in the flyway marshes south of Vancouver (more shopping malls and condos!), while another funds the construction of artificial sloughs to prevent flooding.


This might have simply developed into a short treatise on the magnificence of the hydrological cycle if it hadn’t occurred to me that there’s an internal match for my external dislike.  I probably fear those inner mucky places more deeply than any waterlogged ground on which I’ve trod.

In my experience, internal wetlands are scary places for exactly the same reason as external wetlands are scary places: they teem with life, but not necessarily benevolent life.  As a friend said recently, That stuff in there can kill you.  It feels, when I get into one of these mucky inner spaces, as if a single wrong step could plant me in quicksand.  At the very least, internal swamps render me uncertain of my direction, prey to all sorts of bloodsuckers, wet—as in tearful—and conspicuously sullied.

These days, I’ve been reading, and re-reading, an essay from Helen Luke.  It’s titled “Suffering,” and you can find it in her book entitled Old Age or in her earlier book, The Way of Woman.  It’s probably the most succinct, thoughtful, and deeply spiritual work I’ve ever read on human suffering.  I’ve been reading and re-reading it because I got stuck in some stupid suffering this year.  In a series of curiously similar interactions where I was working hard to be gracious in a difficult situation, the other person involved accused me of being profoundly uncaring.  Because none of these conversations were private, not only did I feel misjudged, I also felt publicly humiliated.  Although I held my temper, I can tell you that the next stop in my mind was anger and indignation.  All in all, I was handed a sure ticket to a nasty inner quagmire.

(An aside: there’s something about that claim I was working hard to be gracious that smacks of pompousness, doesn’t it?  I’m leaving it.  Reminds me of how blind I can be to my own shit.)

Anyway.  Luke, who was a Jungian psychotherapist, stressed that there are two different kinds of suffering.  One of them—which she labeled neurotic suffering—is that guilt-laden, self-focused suffering where we go around and around the same territory.  I did this for a while.  I kept revisiting the events obsessively.  I would think of how wrong the other person was and get angry; then I’d think about where I’d screwed up and feel shame.  Then I’d go to thinking of what I should have said, remembering what they’d done to me in the past, and get mad all over again.  Tears, bloodsuckers, and lost bearings, indeed.

If I were being truthful, I’d admit that my preferred way of dealing with an inner quagmire like this isn’t neurotic suffering.  I instinctually opt to avoid the issue altogether, pretending that the mess doesn’t exist.  But this kind of denial requires that I perform the emotional equivalent of dumping truckloads of sand and gravel (i.e., sweets, novels, busyness) over top of the muck, in an attempt to find something, anything, that will take that discomfort away.

Maybe this would be fine if it actually worked, but it doesn’t: the internal landscape really does mirror the external world here.  First you find that more and more fill is required.  Then, after you’ve used the whole damn gravel pit, you’ve got a lifeless spot of land subject to flash floods and sinkholes, that’s all the more dangerous because the problem has been covered over.  When I do a really thorough job on denial, I don’t even know I’m in pain: my neurotic suffering is compounded by ignorance.  Helen Luke is pretty harsh about this kind of avoidance: Deeply ingrained in the infantile psyche is the conscious or unconscious assumption that the cure for depression is to replace it with pleasant happy feelings, whereas the only valid cure for any kind of depression lies in the acceptance of real suffering.

Real suffering is something entirely different from neurotic suffering or denial.  Luke says that real suffering consists of consciously picking up and carrying our humiliation without any attempt to self-justify.  Then, she says, …we cease to be humiliated and begin to suffer.  We’re not resisting, judging, or angry: nor are we resigned, coerced, or giving up.  We simply are present to what hurts, without resistance and without defeat.

So I’ve been trying this for the last few months, and making a little bit of headway.  Enough to imagine how the other person may have felt in one of these sticky situations; enough to admit the ambiguity of my own behaviour; enough to imagine meeting them again with love in my heart.  I even tried to accept my own guilt and shame objectively and simply let myself be pierced.  But there still seemed to be a piece missing, a part of the toolkit that I wasn’t getting.

It came together about two weeks ago.  I was headed to Spokane to pick up a retreat leader, and I decided to listen to a download from Cynthia Bourgeault while I drove.  Curiously, she was dealing with this same reading from Helen Luke.  She added, however, the description of how it feels inside of us when we allow real suffering: we refrain from bracing.  Keep your inner core feeling open and vulnerable, she said.  Not helpless—that coils down into anger—but open in that way that has curiosity and steadiness mixed in.

When I heard this, I decided to practice right away.  I needed to because, as usual, I was running late and feeling anxious.  But the world gave me a much bigger opportunity than I’d hoped for on that trip.

I’d picked up our presenter, and we were trying to make it home for a late dinner.  Then we hit the border, and I guess you could say that things went sideways.  The border guard got decidedly crabby when I said, Oh, he’s coming to lead a retreat for us—at the same time that my guest was saying, I’m just coming to visit friends.  It was hard to know how to answer some of the questions she asked, and everything we said seemed wrong.  The guard accused our guest of trying to work without a permit (he didn’t need one); I was repeatedly asked if I was bringing in drugs or alcohol; the car was searched; we were both accused of providing false information.

I had several different reactions during this extended event, and they cycled through regularly.  The first was anger: How dare she treat me like this?  Why did he say that?  And why is he wearing that stupid beard?  The second was shame: Why did I say that?  I shouldn’t have said that; how stupid am I?  He’s gonna hate me.  Then there was the third reaction, the one I worked to come back to over and over again: Don’t brace.  Stay soft inside.  Just stay here and don’t judge her or him or yourself. 

When, an hour and a half later, we were told that all was well and that we were free to leave, I was tired and hungry but I wasn’t angry.  (I guess I can’t quite say that I wasn’t resentful, since this story still carries enough charge for me to remember it, but heck, not very resentful, anyway.)  I realized that I’d felt compassion for all the players in that little drama even as it was happening.  Most surprising to me was that I had no idea how long we had been there: I thought it was 20 minutes.

I am not going to pretend that this was a good time.  It was an honest-to-God swamp, dammit.  It felt dangerous; I wanted to cry; I was confused; I had no idea whether something really bad was going to happen; and I definitely wasn’t in control.  But I don’t think that I added to the suffering inherent in the situation; I just worked to carry the part of it that was mine.


So that worked, I guess, that practice of not bracing on the inside.

But there’s more to this than some private little system of water filtration.  When we are willing to enter that inner wetland, we acknowledge our place in the cosmic ecosystem.  Metaphorically, my fen and your bog interact.  Here’s the way I get it, courtesy of a basic lesson in hydrology:

When wetlands are destroyed, the land loses its most fertile and biologically diverse areas; the natural world’s capacity to filter water is also destroyed.  These are big, big deals for the continuance of life on earth, and for our health.  But there’s another effect, a domino effect.  When we lose a wetland, the water that used to be filtered there still needs someplace to go.  So the land looses mud in slides, or water runs off to flood adjacent areas or tears high-speed downhill in deep and undermining channels.  A “decommissioned” wetland no longer deals with its own problems.  Instead, it shoves them off on the neighbours.

Which is exactly what Helen Luke says about suffering.  Our choice to bear our own suffering has an impact on others.

Every time a person exchanges neurotic depression for real suffering, he or she is sharing to some small degree in the carrying of the suffering of mankind, in bearing a tiny part of the darkness of the world…the smallest consent to the fierce, sharp pain of objective suffering in the most trivial-seeming matter may have an influence, as the Chinese sage puts it, “at a distance of a thousand miles.”

When I choose to carry the suffering that is really mine, then no one else has to be burdened with it.  If my swamp is filtering groundwater as it should, the runoff won’t drown someone else.  It’s not the act of a martyr or an attempt to fix myself, or you. Carrying my own suffering is a simple act of humility.  We cease to fight what is.

I know now that when I allow—however haltingly—that fierce, sharp pain, I also allow the experience of myself as part of the whole, one in the One.  Like the wetlands in the hills around us, if I can take in that which could be destructive, filter out the death-dealing bits and let them sink into a rich bed for growth, I’ll be able to make clear and gentle offerings: water of life for our human relations, water of life for our planet.