Getting back to nature

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If you dig down deep enough, fear is at the root at a lot of different issues.

Maybe you haven’t learnt to drive a car yet because you’re afraid of causing an accident.

Maybe you haven’t quit your dismal job and started your own business because you’re scared of failing, looking like a fool, losing all your money, and/or ending up homeless.

Maybe you haven’t got out of your toxic relationship because you’re scared of being alone, or of the consequences of leaving.  Or maybe you haven’t got into a relationship in the first place, for fear of getting hurt.

As I’ve discovered, the groundwork for understanding the true nature of fear and learning to work through it is, quite literally, to ground yourself in a natural environment.

When we re-ground ourselves and reconnect with the Earth, we find our way back to Love with a capital L – a Love that isn’t dependent on a particular person continuing to support us, be there for us, or make our dreams come true.

This process is at the root of ecopsychology and ecotherapy, although the exercises that I teach aren’t ‘therapy’ in the conventional sense – they can be used by anyone, with or without mental health difficulties.

That doesn’t mean it’s an easy or comfortable process.   The nettles and thorns are just the beginning, and even the potential for disease-ridden ticks or venomous snakes isn’t the end of the story.  When we’re out wandering in the wilderness, we’re alone with ourselves.  We’re unprotected: away from all the distractions that keep us numbed and dumbed, like TV, overwork, overeating and social media obsession.  So the very soulwork that helps us to face our fears is, in itself, fundamentally scary for a lot of people.

It starts with a small, manageable step that most people probably wouldn’t expect…

Getting back to nature.

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Walking back to happiness?

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When I came back from Tanzania, I was a mess, which isn’t exactly surprising.  I’d walked away from my marriage, my extended family, my community, my business, my projects, and the land I loved.  All I’d brought back with me was my daughters, two suitcases per person weighing less than 20kg each, and an entire plane-load of emotional baggage.

My life was transformed, little by little, by consulting a spiritual counsellor who told me to go out walking and start re-rooting myself in my own ancestral landscape.  (She told me a lot of other things as well, but I’ll save those for future blogs, as they’re too important to squeeze into a paragraph.)

The work I’m doing now has all evolved from that point, but takes it a few steps further.  It’s based on the realisation that just walking the Land isn’t enough in itself, although it’s a great start: we need to learn specific skills if we’re ever to find our way home again, in this crazy society that we’ve constructed for ourselves.

There are actual strategies that we can use for observing the Land, breathing it in, meditating on it, encountering it, experiencing it, singing its songs, making art with it and about it, and having conversations with it and about it.

All this is `second nature’ (literally) to intact Indigenous communities living undisturbed on their ancestral lands, of which there are now sadly few left – but it’s almost disappeared in contemporary Western societies.  And when we lose our connection to the Earth, our Mother, we lose a crucial part of our own souls.

That ‘soul loss’ is at the root of all our fear and loneliness.

 

The other type of courage

Since I’ve been `outed’ online, not through choice, as That Woman who Married the Maasai Warrior, I’ve had all sorts of people getting in touch to tell me they’d love to go to Africa (or some other far-away place) but don’t know how they’ll ever find the courage.

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Reflecting on what made me brave enough to go to Tanzania in my early twenties, and why it’s so much harder to get brave enough to do anything outside my comfort zone now that I’m coming up to my fortieth birthday, what I’ve realised is that there are two different kinds of courage.

There’s what I call illusion-based courage, or `gap year’ courage.  Lots of people will know what I mean by that.  It’s a naïve kind of bravery, the kind you have when you’re looking out from a rose-coloured bubble of privilege and idealism.  When I first left Oxford, I did stuff just because I could, and didn’t overthink it.  Why shouldn’t I get out there and change the world?   Why shouldn’t I start a company and an NGO from scratch, build a school, save girls from FGM, marry my colleague, have kids, and take them to the Maasai village to visit their grandparents?  What could possibly go wrong?

I was in love.  Passionately.  Not just with Lesikar, but with Tanzania: the music, the colours, the stories, the wisdom, the land, the sky, the wildlife, the fruit, the flowers, the sense of community, the deep faith and trust, the fact that everyone talks about God and spirituality as if they’re completely taken for granted.

The flip side was always there, of course, but I wasn’t seeing it.  Well, they say love is blind.  If I felt any fear at all, which I don’t remember, it was overridden by a massive burst of endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and all that other feel-good stuff that happens when you’re in love.

And then, of course, things started to go wrong.  Sometimes a little bit wrong, like a bout of malaria that was quickly treated with medication and everything was fine again…until the next time.  Sometimes horribly wrong.

And then it got to a point where I realised that actually, it wasn’t all going to be fine, and prayer wasn’t going to magically make everything happen the way that I wished it would, and maybe I couldn’t manifest things just by dreaming them after all.

That’s when I needed the second type of courage.

The second type of courage, which I call disillusioned courage, is what you need in order to survive after the dream dies and the rosy bubble bursts…

It isn’t all sunshine and serotonin any more.  On a good day, it feels like two steps forward and one back.  On a bad day, it’s one forward and three back, and you wonder if you’ll ever figure it out.

Finding the courage to move to another country, or start a business, or whatever that big scary goal might be, is very different if you’re not under 22 and over-privileged.  It’s very different if you’ve already lived life, struggled, loved, lost your illusions, and been deeply hurt.  If you’ve been bereaved or traumatised, or suffered a serious illness.  If you’ve been in the same job for twenty years.

 So if that’s you, all I can say is please, please stop beating yourself up over the fact that you’re not already Doing The Thing.

Start celebrating the fact that you were brave enough to acknowledge that you’re afraid of it.  A lot of people go through their lives making all sorts of excuses as to why they haven’t Done The Thing, but never get around to admitting that actually it’s scaring the shit out of them.

Then take that first tiny step.  Send that e-mail or text, or make that phone call, or comment on this blog, or click a link, or invite a Facebook friend to meet up for a coffee… and celebrate that. Because these are the places where true, disillusioned courage begins.

It doesn’t begin when you step on the plane.

The remedy for deep fear is Deep Love

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There are so many people out there trying to spread fear, hatred and division.  We notice the violent ones, who make grand gestures and kill a lot of people in a short space of time, but we often don’t notice the ones who work in more subtle ways.

Much of today’s politics is based on fear.  Fear of those people who don’t look like us, or that culture that doesn’t do things the way we do them, or that guy who wants to change the system, or that group that calls itself by a different name and seems to be worshipping a different kind of Divinity.

That’s because fear is a natural human emotion.  It’s evolved to keep us alive, which is usually agreed to be a good thing.   So it’s easy for politicians to exploit it – to appeal to our primitive survival instincts, rather than our higher consciousness that keeps trying to wake us up and tell us the truth: There is no ‘us and them’.  

As I wrote in a poem when I was a teenager at the Drielandenpunt, where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all meet – countries that were once at war, but have now turned the site into an international peace park:

And should we speak of ‘them’ at all,

as ‘them and me’, or ‘them and us’,

or should we speak of us and us?

Why all this fuss?

A name is just a name…

 

God, Goddess, Allah, Mungu, Engai Brahma, Jehovah: these are just our feeble human attempts at naming something which is far, far bigger and more beautiful than we can ever dream of.

Muslim, Christian, Pagan, Druid, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jew, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, spiritual wanderer, or whatever other names we might come up with: we are all seekers, chasing sparks of that Divine Love and trying to fan them into flames.

We can’t let ourselves be distracted from our quest by people who don’t understand it, and think that ‘those people’ over there are ‘the enemy’.   A name is just a name…

 

 

 

 

On dreaming crazy dreams and making them realities

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We were all created to create something amazing.

We all have the potential to become artists, pilgrims, pioneers, visionaries, revolutionaries and world-changers.   This power isn’t just in some of us: it’s a Divine gift that’s been granted to every single soul.

We all have that Light burning within us, but most of the time, we hide it.  It’s too scary to shine that brightly.

Whatever it is that we’re dreaming of… we tell ourselves it’s crazy, or too weird, or too ‘out there’, or it’ll never work.

Or we kid ourselves we’re too small, too unknown, too young, too old, too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too dumb, or too unknown to make it work.

Or we insist we don’t have the right education, the right training, the right skills, the right background, the right contacts, the right car, the right shoes, or the right handbag.

What I loved about Tanzania in 1999 was that none of that stuff mattered.

I was part of a group of 19-22 year olds with a dream of building a Peace Village – a place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions.  We didn’t let anyone tell us we couldn’t do it.  We raised money, bought a plot of land, registered our own arts and culture organisation, and started building huts.

It got burnt down, so we adjusted the dream, grew the big crazy vision even bigger and crazier, and started again.

You can’t build that there, people told us.  Whatever are you thinking of?  You’re insane. 

It’s a barren patch of bushland.  There’s no infrastructure.  There’s no water.  There’s no electricity.

What you’re trying to do has never been done before.  There’s no path.

So we created the path by walking it.

Within five years, we had our place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions.   But it wasn’t just a Peace Village.  It was the beginning of a secondary school for underprivileged youth.

Those aren’t classrooms, officials told us.  An octagonal timber-frame building can’t be a classroom.  Classrooms are rectangular and built from concrete blocks.  They measure 9 metres by 7.2 metres and have three windows.

You don’t have to demolish them.  Just use them as store-rooms, or whatever.  But go away and build us some classrooms.

So we did.  And two staff houses, and toilet blocks, and a laboratory, and dormitories.  All in accordance with the officially recognised plans.

Those aren’t students.  You can’t be a student in a secondary school if you’re wearing Maasai robes.  Make them all buy shirts and trousers, or skirts if they’re girls.

Ouch.  That one hurt.  We thought about giving up at that point.  But we knew school would come to the village sooner or later.  We figured it was better to have one that honoured the Maasai traditions as best it could, and showed young people the power and the beauty of indigenous knowledge by bringing Masters and PhD students from overseas to study it… and let them wear their robes on special occasions, if they wanted to.  (Some of them didn’t, which was also fine…)

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I won’t say it was all 100% benefit and no costs.  Nothing in life ever is.  But since our first graduation in 2008, more than 300 students – most of them from low-income families who’d never have been able to afford an education – have graduated from Noonkodin Secondary School with a Form 4 certificate – the equivalent of GCSE or tenth grade.

Many of them are now teachers, nurses or business owners.  And one is the Headmaster.

So if you have a dream, however wild and crazy, don’t let anyone put you down.  Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too much, or that you’re not enough.

You are enough.

We are ALL enough.

We are big enough, smart enough, brave enough… even when we aren’t feeling it.

 

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Why Christianity? The truth of love transcending death

Since my last visit to Tanzania, in December 2016, I’ve become a regular and passionate attendee of my local Baptist church.

That shocks some people, including my older daughter who’s very politically aware, because of what `the Christian Church’ has done in Africa and what it’s doing right now in the USA – all the racism and homophobia and sexism that’s somehow being sold to people as having something to do with Jesus.

But I think Jesus would be appalled by the misuse of his name, because he was a genuine revolutionary.  He was someone who touched lepers and invited prostitutes to his house for dinner, and then went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the people who were making money off the backs of the poor, and criticised them in the strongest terms possible, and that’s why the religious leaders of the day insisted that he had to be crucified – because he was a threat to their power.

And whatever you think of the Resurrection of Christ, whether you see it as a physical resurrection in the body – and I believe there’s a lot about the human body that scientists are still trying to get their heads around, this whole emerging belief that in the end we’re all just energy, and we still don’t know what we don’t know – or as a phenomenon that occurred in the disciples’ consciousness, a sort of collective shamanic experience, I think what matters most is the message behind it.  It’s an overwhelming message of the truth of Love transcending death

It’s not just Love transcending death in a physical sense that matters, but also – in fact, all the more – in a spiritual sense.  It’s about the ability of Love to break through depression, anxiety, apathy, overwork, overwhelm, addictions, and that awful sense of emptiness that symbolises the ‘dark night of the soul’.

It’s the idea that individually and collectively, we can come through even the most horrific of circumstances and be reborn: we can make a fresh start at any moment, full of hope and passion and joy.

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The deeper ‘why’ behind my adventures

The point I’ve been trying to work up to, in these blog posts, is the deeper ‘why’.

Why I went to Africa; why I stayed so long; why I came back to the UK.

I think when you distil it down, it’s about the contrast between material poverty with spiritual wealth, on one side of the world, and spiritual poverty with material wealth, on the other.  I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that everyone in Tanzania is blissfully happy all the time even in the face of death and disease, but there really is this mindset in Africa that just makes life so much more liveable.  There’s an acceptance of the present moment, and a contentment with what is (even when, on the face of it, ‘what is’ is full of troubles and hardships).

And there’s a genuine faith in God/dess (the Maasai word Engai is grammatically feminine, whereas the Swahili Mungu is gender-neutral) that flows through everyone’s conversation, all the time.

 

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A Tanzanian friend of mine once asked me why white people always `hurry-worry’ and forget about the God who created them, and it’s so true.  He gave me the example of tiny ants living in a red hibiscus flower: they don’t worry about tomorrow, they just live in the moment.  He’s living in the USA now, though, so he gets it, he understands that we have to hurry-worry because that’s the way the system is designed, and it’s really, really hard to opt out of that system and find another way of being.  And now he’s just trying to save up enough money to pay for a ticket back to Tanzania.

Another aspect of the spiritual wealth of Africa is that there’s a real, tangible interdependence, and a recognition of the fact that we truly are `all one’, at a very deep level: you can’t just look at where someone’s body begins and ends, and think that’s the end of who they are as a person.  Everything is about the community, and what’s good for the community, rather than the individual.   Even material goods get shared around the community, which is pretty frustrating when it’s your expensive watch or mobile phone or whatever and your neighbour’s son’s idea of interacting with it is to take it to pieces and see what’s inside.  But hey, it’s all part of the learning curve.

A living spirituality that’s rooted in nature and community doesn’t have to be something ‘out there’.  I’ve met some amazing people and been to some wonderful projects that are all about trying to rebuild a sense of community, and restore people’s connection with nature at a very deep level, but I think there’s still this huge tendency to assume that in Britain we don’t have any indigenous knowledge or indigenous spirituality.  People are trying to import shamanism from Siberia or sweat lodges from the Native Americans, because that’s what they know about, but beneath the surface we have all these ancient British traditions of our own.  We cling on to things like May Day and Halloween but we’ve forgotten the meanings.

There are two things that have been life-changing for me since I came back from Africa.  The first was rediscovering this whole British pre-Christian tradition, which has survived or been revived in a whole variety of different forms, like Druidry, Wicca, Paganism, Goddess worship, and so on.  That’s what got me back out into nature and making pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites, it’s what enabled me to connect with like-minded people who cared about creativity and community and celebrating the changing seasons, and overall it’s what pulled me out of quite a dark depression.

And the second was rediscovering Christianity.