Dealing with our stuff

img_0130-2 I just love this conversation between Krista Tippett and angel Kyodo williams talking about meditation. The podcast and transcript can be found

ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS is the founder of the Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley, California. She’s the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace and Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.


I have looked at only one aspect of the conversation – the practice of sitting meditation.

williams is a Zen priest and offers incredible insights into the sitting practice. When we sit in meditation we experience and observe enormous number of emotions that we think are ours. This extract helps us make sense of emotions – we often take on others – and the language and imagery is explored in such a way that it landed on me and got me thinking.

In taking up bits from the conversation, I am captured by the idea of the emotions in a house and the layeredness of them. Here Tippett shows the idea in an instant – “we sit and feel”. What a wonderful way to see it.

MS. TIPPETT: One of the words you used, when you were writing in 2016 about what this moment requires of us, is that it calls for “pause.” And you come from a tradition, a spiritual tradition, which has sitting at its core — “So we sit, and we feel” — I want you to unfold that a little bit, because this thing we’re talking about, it’s so countercultural; it can so easily sound like this is about not being relevant and not attending to what is urgent. But sitting, as you — and what happens in sitting and in pausing is not about not acting. It’s a different move, so just take us inside that.

williams picks up the language of the “different move” but her response eloquently demonstrates how we interpret our feelings and, as she says, they ‘are not clean, or not free of all of the things that are impacting us outside’:

REV. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I love that — “It’s a different move.” There is so much momentum to every aspect of what drives us, what moves us, what has us hurtling through space, including all of our thoughts and even our own sense of our emotions; how we interpret any given feeling, any experience of discomfort; where that discomfort sits in our bodies. It’s not just that we have a feeling of pain or awkwardness. It’s that we then interpret that.

And those interpretations — much to our chagrin, we come to understand through a process of observing them — are not clean, or not free of all of the things that are impacting us outside. And so even our sense of what pains us and what makes us feel shame, feel guilt, feel awkwardness, feel put-upon by people, feel disempowered, has to do with the external information and cues that we have received. And they’re moving at an incredible rate of speed. And, for the most part, we almost never get the opportunity to observe them and sort through them — kind of like that drawer that collects everything in your house.

MS. TIPPETT: I have a few of those.

For me, the house imagery really says it all:

REV. WILLIAMS: Yeah, where you say, “Oh, but wait a minute, someone lived in this house before me,” in essence. “And some of that stuff is not mine. Actually, this is not mine. That’s my mom’s. This is not mine; that’s the inheritance of white supremacy,” or, “That’s the inheritance of generations of oppression and marginalization that subjects me to habitually feeling less-than, even if the current situation has no intent to make me feel that way.” And we have no real way of being able to discern what is mine, what is yours, what are we holding collectively, what have I inherited, what have I taken on as a measure of protection, of a way to cope at some point in my life or past lives, that I no longer need?

As williams says, there is no quick fix to get to the other side of how it can get to be and really is a daily process. williams again:

And sitting lets us begin to do that. It doesn’t do it right away, because what we first are confronted with is just the assault of the amount of thoughts and the mixed messages that just inhabit our body and our mind and our experience on an ongoing basis — that when we sit, the first thing we’re met with is not quiet or calm or peace. The first thing we’re met with is, “Oh, my God. Who is in here, and why won’t they shut up? How do I get them to stop?” And not only is something and someone and everyone speaking to me, it’s mixed messages. Things don’t agree with each other. I don’t agree with my own truth. I’m having arguments in here that are not my arguments, they are someone else’s arguments. They’re my parents’ arguments.

For the first time in my life, I have heard someone explore with such precision what happens to our thoughts and emotions. So often they are not our own and yet we make them our own – they are someone else’s arguments. Wow, what simplicity and so much power. williams continues by saying how important sitting is:

Sitting lets us just, first of all, recognize that we are this massive collection of thoughts and experiences and sensations that are moving at the speed of light and that we never get a chance to just be still and pause and look at them, just for what they are, and then slowly to sort out our own voice from the rest of the thoughts, emotions, the interpretations, the habits, the momentums that are just trying to overwhelm us at any given moment.

Ultimately, I am drawn to this because of the way in which williams singles out our own agency, our own choice, that we don’t have to be this or that or yanked around by other’s emotions. It gives a boundary that is quite extraordinary.

And when I say “trying to overwhelm us,” that’s really a key thing to understand, because that means that there’s an “us.” There’s a core and deep and abiding “us” that is being overwhelmed by something that’s actually not us. And when we become aware of it, we’re like: “Oh, I actually have some choice here.”

I believe it is grace that brings us to hear such incredible insights. I am so often aware how there is not a non-stop flight to our destination but rather short hauls to the next place where we are given opportunities to learn more deeply about ourselves and how we deal with stuff. Krista Tippett and angel Kyodo williams have been great travelling companions and I am grateful to them for how they help us to find our own voice with a language and clarity that I never thought possible.


In the Indian Ocean Light

Sun-soaked, dazzled in the Indian Ocean light of being young, we skip along the bleached sand, past bronzed volley-ball players, whooping with delight. The bucket and spade brigade rock-pool-leap, giddy with the sight of gaudy-coloured darting-fish. The waves break in a call-roar, evoking a memory of when they have crashed in the same place countless of times before the body-surfers ever tumbled onto the beach in splashed laughter and the occasional wince.

The sun dilates in the noon position.  Our salad days of baggy-shorted, long-haired youthfulness dance to the rhythm of the sing-song pulse of an endless forever.  A brief gasp and the sea draws us in and we are helpless with delight. Another wave breaks and we giggle with a wide-eyed grin. Waves of pleasure carry us back to the beach and we body-surf until we are satisfied.

Originally published in singofplaces in memory of our days – the seemingly endless forever – on the Durban Beach Front.


Persian Rug Seller

I met a Persian rug seller from Bulawayo on a recent trip to Joburg. We struck up a conversation as one does. He seemed interesting. He startled me when he said he was from Rhodesia. I was shocked, to say the least, by his use of the name that so oppressed him.

We talked of our shared love of the place. Our skins of course were a give-away of how different our experiences were and the thought struck me how we, then, could have lived on different planets. Nothing was really shared, except the place.

Over the sale of the Persian rug he gave me a snapshot of his life story. His sons ended up at the same high school that I attended. And then I was struck by something simply more profound. How un-bitter this man from Bulawayo was.

Originally published in singofplaces

Conversations with my father

I simply have no recollection of the day that Dr Martin Luther King was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the 4th April 1968.  I was twelve.

This is odd because of the fact that I had begun to have an interest in what was going on in the world. I don’t remember when I first knew of him and his work or the tragedy of his untimely death but, having scanned the archives of the conversations with my father, there is silence. Maybe I have mis-remembered but it is noticeable I remember the Arab-Israeli Six Day War the year before, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in August 1968 and the countless conversations around the assassination of JF Kennedy, obviously stirred up because of his brother’s death by an assassin in June 1968.

I come to only one conclusion. In my little white world in a faraway white settler community that had decided to declare unilateral independence*, black lives did not matter and, for this, I feel shame. What King had done and was doing mattered enormously and his death was horrific and yet it passed me by without a murmur.

When ever I teach the Civil Rights movement, I play the video of Dr King’s words the day before he died and I am always moved emotionally. I think of how my twelve year old self lost out on all of this:

Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. And so just as I said, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around. We aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

And then the words, just before he left the stage, choke me up – that deep, resonate voice saying, ‘And I’ve seen the promised land’:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Although there is no memory of any conversation about the assassination at the time, I want to somehow acknowledge Dr King’s passing when I was twelve and to say out loud, it mattered more than anything else in that momentous year of nineteen sixty eight.

* Ian Smith seized power from the British government in a coup d’etat to ensure white rule continued in Rhodesia on the 11th November 1965

You are not surprised by the force of the storm

“Onto a Vast Plain”


translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

Book of Hours, II 1

From the website

No escape


I was at Cape Town International Airport when he said that I should be grateful to the person who triggered my series of crises and, boy, was I furious with him.

In saying that he had absolutely no clue about the actual pain of the experience – the almighty disruption that had flipped me out. That had hung me out to dry. I literally had had no inner resources to deal with the flooding of my feelings that had nowhere to go.

That is why the therapeutic experience is so very important to deal with those feelings. Good therapy enables the crisis to be experienced in a way that is held. A kind of holding environment, a container. It is the place where extremely difficult feelings can be known, named, explored, excavated and dived into.

This is not to make it sound easy. It is emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Importantly though, the one to one experience with my therapists, gave me the time and space to get some kind of calmness and stability knowing that, although mine was fairly prolonged, ultimately the therapeutic environment is temporary.

Inevitably, I believe (although this may not be true for everyone) we have to fall back on our own inner lives. What therapy did was to give me the language to name the feelings and the emotions and ultimately helped me to see the universal truth that suffering is something that each of us do in varying degrees. Jack Kornfield amusingly states in one of his podcasts, some of us are quite loyal to suffering and I can relate to that experience.

What is key though is what Mark Epstein says in The Trauma of Everyday Living about the examination of our own trauma: ‘While the things that bother us cannot always be eliminated, we can change the way we relate to them.’ I am not sure what I am imagined when I first went into therapy – whether I wished to find a way to escape from the pain – but I thought six or seven sessions would fix me. Not so. Over four years later I am not fixed but I am in an environment where I have at long last acknowledged my suffering in all its awfulness. I am in a much better position to be the sovereign of my own destiny and not yanked about by feelings and emotions. The key thing, too, is that I am not alone.

The disruption has led me down all sorts of roads and discoveries of contemporary psychotherapists and philosophers, thinkers and wise men and women who have an extraordinary understanding of the human condition. I have learned a lot and it has been tough – on reflection there is no single truth except perhaps the line from Pema Chodron’s book, The Wisdom of No Escape. All the wisdom points in this direction. It is in the examining of the feelings, rather than running away from them and acknowledging trauma and suffering instead of pretending that everything is normal, that we can begin to walk into a wider view of how we live and deal with our stuff.

I wrote Raw-Red Bone of Memory in the midst of my own extraordinary pain which was both spiritual and mental and on re-reading, I have a new perspective. I had had a sharp memory of physical pain and in some kind of weird way this experience became, without sounding too pompous, allegorical.

He called out in a distress forged in the tangle-metal of an accident. Only the songbird-needle of morphine could ever so briefly-fleetingly extinguish the misery of the wide-open unhealed wound, gaping with flesh and blood.

I lay in the next bed to him in the hospital, having been admitted in the morning, doubled over with my own pale version of pain. An emergency had whipped out a fetid appendix (yes, I know, I am being dramatic) and my only experience then was of post-anaesthesia dullness and the odd stomach muscle smarting slightly in a sudden movement.

Summoned, the nurse was unable to ease his pain. He half-shouted out that he didn’t care about being addicted to that songbird in a vial. He simply needed the sweet relief, even if it only glanced him, took the edge off.

Until today, I had completely forgotten about those midnight hours lying in a hospital bed listening to a man who sobbed in his pain, and who cursed and swore at the world. I had been  remembering my own pain, gliding in on a songbird of hope, blowing away the awful what-have-beens that sometimes fester in the raw-red bone of memory when, startled, I thought of that hospital ward thirty four years ago.

Which leads to the bit where, now looking back, I can be thankful to the bastard that triggered my shit. I have come full circle from that conversation in Cape Town and see this differently too.

Epstein posits that if trauma does not destroy us, ‘wakes us up both to our own relational capacities and to the suffering of others. Not only does it make us hurt , it makes us more human caring and wise’.

That’s my wish for myself and anyone who is in crisis and pain.


”Where ever you go, there will be people who will be difficult. You know they are waiting for you.” Jack Kornfield, Podcast: The Garden of the Heart



I am trying to find my seventeen year old self in the fog. Hindsight sits under the retina of how I see it from the distance of adulthood.

The time between then and now takes away the authenticity of how I probably felt.

The war came in an announcement by a commissioned officer to a group of sixth form boys.

“Gentlemen, Rhodesia is at war.”

I felt instantly irritated. At the time, I thought the man absurd. The origins of the annoyance probably lay in the fact that I probably knew he was right. My little world in smithereens because of one sentence.

This much I know: that idyll was based on privilege and ignorance. That this war was fought on a fabrication – aren’t they all? The lies they told us. The lies that we believed.

And so the men and women who desired freedom more than life came with their battle cries – they swept a way of life into the bin. We are scattered now, our childhoods gone.

This much I remember. After a couple of drinks out on the lawn the adults’ tone more aggressive, the pejorative smacked against the lips. People dehumanised.

The fog was lifted during a coming of age. There is no dreaming, hoping, desire to recreate something that was built on the quicksand of injustice and oppression.

It should remain in smithereens.


Note to reader: The piece I wrote refers to the year 1973. The Bush War in Rhodesia had started in December 1972. I later learned that the insurgency against white rule had started as early as 1966 when the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) engaged with the Rhodesian police near Sinoia on the 28th April 1966. It is recognised as the first battle of the Second Chimurenga.