Positively Wyrd – 11: One step at a time

Back in the real world, after our foray into the fair, we can stop and take a look around at our own version of reality. But for many of us, it may seem at first to be a nasty surprise… All the same old problems, still there: but now they seem even worse.

I think I’ll just give up and go to a monastery or something. Or just give up entirely…

Stop. Wait a moment. Things may well look worse: but that’s only because we can now see how bad they always were in the first place. There has been a big change, a vast improvement – but as yet it’s mostly in our ability to see what’s going on, and to understand some of those weird and tortuous twists in what is laughably called the ‘normal’ world. The real changes can’t happen without that wider awareness. It’s unfortunate, though, that as a side-effect things often appear almost unbearably awful. And we want to change it all now. Desperately. A new sense of panic.

If that’s what’s happening now, don’t worry! In the normal warped way of wyrd, it’s an indication that things are getting better, not worse. We’re no longer ‘numbed out’: and while it means we can now feel a lot of the old long-forgotten hurts – with all too much clarity, perhaps – we’re no longer at the effect of them in the same way as before. We’ve broken loose from the rigid mould of our old conditioning. And in actual fact the worst is probably over: we’ve done the hardest part, which was to get started at all.

Most ‘self-transformation’ books tell us that our aim should be to ‘get rid of’ our patterns – all our old fears and such – that we dislike. This happens, unfortunately, to be impossible: if we try to follow that advice, we’re going to be deeply disappointed. The reality is that these old patterns keep coming back again and again – and they always will. The senses taker, the silliness barrier, those obnoxious games of power-over and power-under that everyone plays – they’ll always be there. They’re part of the wyrd: regardless of whether we like them, they’re aspects of us all. And at first sight that seems to make the whole idea of personal growth a pointless task.

But as long as we face these patterns, and face the fears that drive them, they do get easier to deal with: they never quite disappear, however hard we try, but they do become less and less of a problem. And the reason they reappear is that they always have something new to show us. By our accepting their lessons, they change – as Ram Dass once put it – from being house-guests we can’t get rid of, to visitors we can safely welcome in for tea – knowing that they will move on, and sooner rather than later. “Ah, sexual perversity!”, he said, as an example, “haven’t met you in months! Do come in, the kettle’s on…!”

In time we can accept anything that comes to us on the web of wyrd. In time… but it probably won’t feel like that now! It takes practice: and practice often means allowing things to go wrong in order for them eventually to go more right. That’s why things may well seem to be going even more wrong than before. If that is the case, accept that it is only a stage, a temporary part of the process. And it is survivable: all we have to do is keep going, keep going, one step at a time.

A state of survival

Even if it’s not painful now, the important point is to keep going when it does become so. Which it will: it does. It’s part of the process. It comes, and it goes: we need to remember, then, that it does go!

Looking at old issues will bring up old hurts – long-forgotten, perhaps, but still lurking in the background, and still in the way until they’re dealt with. Most often, they’re dealt with simply by looking at them, and letting them go. But since it’s only too natural to avoid pain, and avoidance seems the obvious choice, the tendency will be to run away back to the old numbing habits – especially if, as per our cultural conditioning, we translate ‘more painful’ as ‘more failure’. Yet it is only temporary – if we keep going. Once we’ve started on some metaphoric tightrope, we must keep going till we’ve crossed it: if we stop – if we panic and try to turn round on the tightrope, so to speak – we risk being frozen for a while in a kind of limbo state, where the old hurts are staring us in the face again but nothing is moving. And that’s not comfortable at all.

What matters here are those often-hyped qualities of ‘self-esteem’ and ‘a positive attitude’, which essentially come down to a sense of trust and optimism about ourselves in the long term. We need a sense of direction, of clarity about our long-term aim. And also we need to remember the crucial distinction between happiness and joy: happiness is ephemeral, and cannot be held, whereas joy – riding the roller-coaster of emotions – can last the rest of our lives.

As the old story tells us, we enter the stream of life when we’re born, and our life flows onward from there. Change is the only constant in our lives – a stream of ephemeral incidents, flowing down to a greater ocean. So imagine life being like a river, flowing from the mountain to the sea: with rushing torrents and wide stately curves, with steep canyons, open meadows and stagnant bywaters. And imagine yourself floating down this river, as a leaf, a stick, a boat – choose! What part of the river are you in now? And how do you enjoy it?

On your journey down the river, what do you encounter? Are there obstacles in the way, like rocks or a waterfall? Are you in the main flow of the river, or stranded in some side-current?

We flow with the river: we have no choice about that. But we do still have choices. We can waste energy in a futile fight against the river, for example; or be pushed along, inert and passive, at the mercy of the whims of Fate – and complain about our powerlessness. Or we can choose to work with the river’s flow: action at the right moment – and only then – can give true direction to our path in life. But how do we choose? How do you know when it’s ‘the right moment’? Meditate on that for a while.

The way we act is important. It’s not action in the usual sense, but rather something that flows from a receptive awareness – a state of being rather than doing. At the beginning, this ‘receptive action’ is easily confused with passive inaction: it’s another of those subtle but crucial distinctions that can take a long time to learn. With practice, we do get the balance right – and the wyrd gives us plenty of practice, whether we want it or not!

Facing frustration

The hard part, perhaps, is accepting that it is only one step at a time. We all want it to change now. And it doesn’t. Change happens when it happens: “I’ll get there when I get there – not before, and probably not after”, as I often have to remind myself… We can place the invitation, so to speak; but after that we have to wait, quietly, receptively, listening – as the Taoists would say, “we can’t push the river”. Even if we try to force change, this often prevents or delays it, just as trying to prevent change often brings about that very change. Weird – of course.

It’s worth remembering that the three ‘Sisters of Wyrd’ are the sisters of time: their names mean ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’. We can’t fight the Fates – which means we also can’t fight time. If we have to wait, we have to wait: there’s nothing we can do about it. But we’re not used to waiting: we’re all trained to action, thinking always in terms of now. The result is often chaotic, especially in two modes which another friend describes as ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘ice-cream’. In the former (“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”) we confuse the present with the future, and get stuck in ineffectual panic; while in the ‘ice-cream’ mode (“want it NOW!”) we confuse the future with the present, and get stuck in angry frustration – which again achieves nothing.

We get frustrated because it’s the wrong time, or the wrong person, or the wrong situation. And it’s easy to reach out and blame the ‘other’ – whatever it is – rather than recognising that it’s actually our own expectations that are at fault. It ought to be this way, it should be this way, we’d say: but whilst those words may be magic in the power-under game, Reality Department takes no notice at all! By assuming that our expectations are reality, we disempower ourselves again: so somehow we have to learn to deal with it, and reclaim the power of choice that we lose to it so easily.

I’ve been painfully familiar with frustration-anger: ranting and raging for days on end at snail-paced bureaucracy, for example – dammit, I want to get on with my life! But it’s a very specific emotion: I can feel, even while it takes me over, that it comes from the head – from my fixed expectations about time – and is quite different from the true and powerful anger that wells out on rare occasions from the heart. And because it is a specific emotion – one I can recognise only too well – I’ve come to use it as a clue that tells me that I can’t do anything about the situation. It’s not in my control: so I simply have to wait, whether I like it or not… another lesson from the wyrd!

Is this familiar? How often do you find yourself ‘run over’ by this kind of anger? How do you deal with it? How do you bring yourself back out of the ‘ice-cream’ mode while allowing the situation to work itself out?

Frustration-anger is childish, which is one reason why it’s difficult for us to admit to it – the silliness-barrier again. The way out is to develop that childlike awareness, watching, watching in amusement and wonder. Just stand back and watch, like a child, as we go through our usual loops… and slowly, for example, we can see the subtle difference between when something isn’t working because we’re not trying hard enough, and when it’s not working because we’re trying too hard. With that awareness, we can recognise when we don’t need to try harder in some situation – because trying harder would only make things worse – and so release the frustration, the pressure to ‘do it now‘. But it takes time, and practice: it’s important to give ourselves that time, and allow things to ‘go wrong’ in the meanwhile. It’s not easy, of course… easier, in fact, to get stuck in frustration about still getting stuck in frustration!

Some of the tricks and techniques that we’ve learned so far can help. We can use affirmations, for example: “I, _, now release my frustration about _”. We know perfectly well that it isn’t true at the moment: but the point of the affirmation, and similar tools of the mind, is to place the invitation so that it can become so – especially if we’ve learnt a habit of believing that it can’t be so. And it’s useful to look back at that discussion about ‘everyone is to blame’: in some way we’ve chosen – if only by default – to get ourselves into this situation, so what can we learn from it?

Most important of all, though, is not to berate ourselves over the fact that things – or we ourselves – haven’t yet changed. It’s all subject to the wyrd, to the ‘sisters of time’: we must place the invitation, but change happens when it happens to happen – not before, and probably not after. Change is secretive: it only seems to happen when we’re not looking. And whilst the moment of change is instantaneous, to get to that moment takes time. Another weird paradox to ponder, perhaps?

Panics and priorities

In a way, that ‘ice-cream’ mode is self-centred, focussed on our own expectations of time: “I want it now”. The ‘White Rabbit’ mode, by contrast, is focussed on our beliefs about other people’s expectations of time: “I’m late, I’m late” is ‘other-centred’ – if it’s centred at all! Rushing around trying to do everything at once, we’ll be lucky to get anything actually done at all: there’s a real danger in scattering our attention at random – and losing our sense of self in the panic.

The word ‘panic’ is linked to the Greek prefix ‘pan-‘, meaning ‘everywhere’ – and in panic our attention is everywhere, anywhere but here. In what ways do you find yourself falling into panic? How do you recognise that state? And how do you reclaim your sense of self and purpose, in order to get anything done?

It’s interesting to note the roots of panic, as described in Greek mythology: it’s a response to the nature-god Pan, whose name also means ‘everywhere’. More accurately, it’s a failed response: if your courage failed when you found yourself facing Pan, you’d fall into a state of panic – rushing to be everywhere but here! The way to face Pan, in that tradition, was to be clear in your purpose, and use his enormous energy – the energy of everywhere, all focussed on here – to help you in your task.

That concept of Pan as ‘everywhere’ is useful in other ways. He represents the interweaving of everything and everywhere in here, and here in everywhere and everything: in fact one way to understand wyrd, if you’re more familiar with Greek mythology, is to combine the imagery of the three sisters of Fate with that of Pan – especially his wry humour and love of life, so different from the cold and dispassionate Moirae!

A very masculine symbol of the ubiquity of nature, Pan also represents power, a power without limit: but we first have to have a focus for that power, since true power, as we’ve seen, is strictly ‘the ability to do work’. And because he symbolizes everywhere and everything, he also tends to represent what Jung describes as the ‘shadow’, all those fears and unacceptable aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to face. So his most common depiction now, as ‘the Devil’, is actually the symbol of the shadow that we’re usually too frightened and too dishonest with ourselves to face: it’s hardly surprising, then, that so much of our culture is best described as ‘pan-demonium’ – ‘demons everywhere’ – a permanent state of panic!

Panic also has a weird counterpart: inertia. When there are so many changes that have to be made, each of them dependent on the others, and each of which has to be done now, which one do we do first? “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…”. So which one does get done first? The usual answer is: none. A real barrier of inertia… often linked to a sense of futility, of hopelessness.

We’ve tried panic: it doesn’t work. Now we’re stuck. That strange state of ‘stuckness’: a kind of frozen fascination, an actively passive nothingness, like a mouse cornered by a cat. It’s actually the same energy that drives us to action, but now turned inward against us: the so-called fight-or-flight syndrome is more accurately ‘fight or flight – or freeze’. The moment we look out from that space, everything screams for attention – now, nowNOW! – and we’re quickly overwhelmed. Inertia and lethargy are a kind of escape from the panic: but nothing gets done, because it’s an ‘escape’ into nothingness.

The way past that wall of inertia is to take things one at a time. Not nothing, slumped in hopelessness; nor everything at once, in a chaotic panic; but just one step at a time. Often, any step will do, as long as it’s a step: “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. And this is where that stuff about ‘listening to the inner self’ comes in: the outer analytic awareness can only focus on one thing at a time, which is why we get lost in chaos so easily when we try so hard to control; but while the inner awareness can’t focus in that way, it can maintain an overview of the twists and turns we need to maintain direction. And to listen to that inner awareness, we have to slow down, be quiet, be still – which is in any case a good way to reduce the grip of panic. “So what do I do now?”, I might ask myself. “Oh yes – the washing-up…” If I’m stuck in lethargy or in panic, even completing that task can be considered a major achievement!

It’s important to develop a vision of what we want, so as to give that inner awareness a direction in which to aim, and from which to derive priorities in the moment. When we’re half-drowning in alternate waves of lethargy and panic, this is not exactly easy! But think of it in terms of choosing which of the threads of wyrd we each relate to best, which ones feel right to us – and then allow ourselves to weave across on the warp of wyrd towards them. If we can maintain that vision – never easy at the best of times! – each choice then becomes a deliberate move towards that goal, though it’s not so much the goal that’s important, as having a goal at all. Given the twisted nature of wyrd, the true ‘towards’ choice may well seem to be one that takes us further away: and that’s when a trust in our inner awareness becomes important. But learning – or re-learning – to trust is not a quick process; and in any case is hard, since its choices so often seem so wrong…

Here’s an exercise on visions and choices – lovingly lifted from a certain well-known workshop!

Imagine yourself in twenty years’ time. What are you doing in this ‘now’? Where are you? Who is around you? What do you look like? How have you succeeded in your aims? How do you feel? Let the feelings wash over you.

Now come back, to ten years from now. What are you doing? Who are you with? Who are you now? What choices are you making that will enable you to reach that self you saw ten more years into the future?

Now come back another five years, to five years from now. Again, who are you? What choices are you making? What are your priorities here?

And come back, to just one year from now: who are you now, what are your choices now?

So come back to herenow: what are your choices, your focus for your interweavings with the wyrd? Remember that what you’re doing now will in some way determine the person and life you ‘saw’ in twenty years’ time; though remember too that while there’s always a choice, there’s always a twist…

Every one of our choices is part of the path that leads us to where we want to be in five, ten, twenty years. Everything matters: every choice, however trivial, is still a real choice on the wyrd. To keep out of the panic state, and maintain our priorities, we need to find a way to keep that quiet focus, of trying without trying. Listen to that inner awareness that does connect with the web of wyrd – and accept whatever it is that we get.

So what do I do now? Oh yes: the washing-up… Just what I don’t want to do, of course: but that’s what I’ve got!

Re-accepting self

Part of accepting what I have is accepting that I have myself, exactly as I am in each moment. Once again, “I am what I am” – and that includes all my many and evident imperfections. I dislike them, I’m embarrassed about them, I try to hide them: but at the moment they’re part of me, whether I like them or not. As long as I maintain some kind of focus, some kind of direction, and allow them to change more to what I’d like, they will change – in time. The ‘in time’ part is perhaps the hardest to accept… but change happens when it happens to happen – not before, and probably not after!

We can’t make things change; likewise, we can’t make ourselves change. All we can do is provide the invitation, the direction, and a certain if undefinable amount of effort: and we then have to accept a wait of a certain if undefinable amount of time. Changes happen suddenly, secretively, unobtrusively, partly to keep at bay the fears that make up the silliness-barrier: we don’t so much break a pattern as discover that it’s ‘suddenly and silently vanished away’ – we no longer react to something in the old habitual way. As before, change happens not because we find something new, but because we let go of something old – usually because we finally accept that the habit doesn’t serve us any more.

Change won’t happen while we watch: so one of the tricks to change involves what we might call ‘conscious forgetting’. I’ll work through every angle of some problem, without aiming for any real resolution; and then move onto something else, and quietly forget about it. Later on – it may be minutes, hours, days, weeks later – I become aware that there’s been a change: and often it takes some effort to work out what the change was from! I don’t really know how the change has happened; but by allowing for change, then forgetting that I’d done so, the change somehow worked itself, without my conscious involvement at all.

Think back on some old patterns that have already changed for you: when did you notice they’d changed? Had you forgotten they were once a problem? And having remembered, and thus perhaps re-awoken it, how do you set out to forget it again?

There’s a beautiful old Quaker story that describes this kind of change, but with a typical wry twist. In the early days of the movement, a true gentleman would never be seen without his sword – it was his mark of honour, of pride – but Quakers, with their commitment to pacifism, would not wear them. One new member, William Penn (later famous as the founder of Pennsylvania), found himself caught in internal conflict: his principles told him to get rid of his sword, but his pride wouldn’t let him – and he could not make himself change. “Wear thy sword while thou canst”, was George Fox’s cheerful advice. Don’t worry about it, don’t struggle, don’t try: if you’re committed to the change, sooner or later you will find that it’s happened. But in the meantime, “wear thy sword while thou canst”: enjoy your sword while you have it, for one day it will no longer be there!

It’s useful to keep a diary, to keep track of the changes in our dialogue with the world – and note that it’s essential to record what’s seemed good and successful in the day as well as what went wrong! The diary then acts as a proof that change can and does take place – something that can be very useful in those times when it seems the blackness and bleakness will never end… Those ‘endarkenments’ do pass, in time, but it can seem an unbearably long time: and so something of our own, like a diary, will prove to be a real help in a way that nothing else can do. It can be very consoling, for example, to discover that an old pattern that’s re-surfaced and we’re struggling with now was far worse and far more dominating a few months back!

A diary is also a way of re-accepting ourselves, and of watching our changes as we interact with our wyrd. “I am who I am – even though I don’t understand who I am”, as I found I’d written in my own diary a while back. Accepting the totality of who we are also gives the wyrd a kind of starting point on the threads, from which to weave in a change: so if we try to deny our faults and failings, we actually block the possibility of change.

We change all the time in any case. I look back at photographs taken of me at various times in my life: and even in the most recent ones I can sometimes barely recognise who I see there. “Who is this? I think I’ve seen them before…” And yet it’s always been the same me – constantly changing, yet still somehow identifiably myself.

For each of us, our face is a record both of the continuity of ‘I’ and of the constant changes that pass by on the wyrd – “It’s written all over your face”, someone might say. So look in a mirror: who is this stranger that you see? Have you met them before?

Look at that face for a while: what do you see written there? What are the feelings that are written on that face? Emotions on the surface: “I am what I am”. If you can, acknowledge those emotions by acting them out: release them from the face, and let them fly free. And watch the changes… watch the changes over time in this built-in ‘diary’ of your own.

I am who I am, constantly changing, yet always the same: it’s important that I accept that. Some changes happen whether we want them or not: we can’t evade the Sisters of Time, for example. But to make changes that we want, we have to be committed to them – and then allow each change to happen in its own way, and in its own time. And with that choice, that commitment, there’s also a weird twist: to release something we don’t want, don’t like, we often first have to enjoy it, to love it for what it is. So “wear thy sword while thou canst” – enjoy who we are in each moment, for that moment will not return again!

The process of change

Change is always weird. It’s a process, a state of becoming rather than being: and we pass each of our goals long before we recognise that we’ve done so. And yet it all takes time: its own time, not ours. All we can do is provide the direction, the energy – and then wait. Waiting is not easy…

It helps, though, to have an understanding of the weirdness of change – not just in theory, but in practice. The more we try to control change, the more we try to impose some kind of order, the less it happens – except for changes that we don’t want. True change has to be invited, encouraged: and it thrives best in the kind of quiet chaos that can, paradoxically, demand of us an intensity of courage. “Behind apparent order lies an eerie kind of chaos; yet behind the chaos lies an even eerier kind of order” – and that ‘eerier kind of order’ is weird. Wyrd. So by placing ourselves deliberately in an atmosphere of wyrd, we give ourselves the chance to take an active role in the change. By letting go of the fear, the need for control, we give ourselves the choice to reclaim a different kind of control with our lives. But it is a choice, of course, that always has a twist…

In the next few chapters we’ll look at some ways to work with wyrd in practice. Some of them work well for some people, others prefer others – we each choose our own wyrd – but it’s worth while to at least try each one.

In each case, look at the techniques it uses to connect with the web of wyrd; look inside, to that inner awareness, to see if they feel right for you. Put them into practice, and see what happens: it’s important to watch the results, but don’t try to make them fit some kind of explanation – you’ll miss the whole point of it if you do. Change thrives in chaos; explanations are an attempt at order; the two don’t easily mix!

In reaching out to work with the wyrd, it’s important to be aware that many of the techniques we use can bring to the surface old obstacles and old patterns – and sometimes that will hurt, because old emotions will come up too. Let them happen, and let them go: they do pass. But in a way this is often an indication that change is happening: the old habits fade, the old stuckness is released, and we’re free to move again. By keeping careful track of the changes, and developing that quiet space of inner awareness, we learn to know – not merely think, but know – when it works and when it doesn’t. And that’s definitely enlightening, in every sense.

But it can also, at times, be frightening: the wyrd is, after all, weird, and we all have our own fears about that. The wyrd connects us with everything, everywhere, everywhen: and we all have things that we’d rather not face! So there’s often a sense of being tested: and as with Pan, it’s important that we keep our courage, or we’ll collapse back into panic. As long as we maintain that inner awareness, and that acceptance of “I am what I am”, we can always survive the ‘test’ – though sometimes it’s hard to believe at the time. The way to cope with it, even in the worst of times, is to remember what we came here for: and just keep going, keep going – one step at a time.

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