Ah my beloved, let me sleep

Ah my beloved, let me sleep
stop prodding me with your smile.
I am trying to hold on to unconsciousness
but your quiet ‘wake up, wake up’
is loosening the grip of my drifting comfort.

Let me sleepwalk through my day
let me sleepwalk through my life
leave me alone with my pleasant meanderings.

If you truly loved me
you would leave me be
you would respect my space
you would let me succumb to slumber if I chose.

The clarity and brightness of your eyes
hurts mine.
I refuse to look.
I close my eyes on you.

Where is your compassion that you
police and poke me so
with your insistent ‘wake up, wake up’?
Let me sleep on, let me sleep on.

 

 

Waking up is often hard. Being present and mindful can be difficult. Finding God within requires a certain effort. The culture around us combines with our old habits to seduce us into drowsiness… life passes by. We know what we should do but it’s easier to drift. We may not be grateful to those who would help us. If we would help someone else we should not look for immediate gratitude. True compassion does not necessarily agree with what people say they want.

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Illuminated from within and without

On a hot autumn day I had several work meetings
and at teatime I had a meeting with Warton Crag
wandering through the woods on the limestone pavement.
Dragonflies and butterflies were present
as were leaves falling in the stillness of the soft evening sunshine.

Towards the end I came across a small hawthorn bush
leafless, wordless, emerging from the limestone
covered in thorns and dark red berries
glowing, illuminated from within.
And illuminated from without by the low red sun.

We both stood motionless in this encounter.

In the evening light I moved on from this silent meeting.
I could see the traffic glowing on the distant M6
and in the other direction the sun going down on Morecambe Bay.

Between us all there was a certain unanimity.

 

 

It’s usually easier to connect with beauty in the natural world, just as it’s usually easier to connect with our deeper selves in circumstances of peace and quiet. However we may also be able gradually to open to the beauty in all things, even those we have previously dismissed.
This poem, unusually, went through several revisions before ending up in this form. As with all forms, it only tells part of the story, but I hope even so, that it may open a little window for you.

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Develop your insertion and pounding skills

Love and compassion will not split this log.
A cold chisel inserted in a crack
and pounded with a lump hammer
will cleave it right open.
Then the pieces will fit in the stove
and heat will be released.

Choose a tool that will do the job
and apply the necessary force.

The right words inserted with the right energy
will break open collective misunderstanding
and reveal the grain of truth.

The right practice applied to your stuck life
will split up your bundled blockages
so that their strength is diminished
and the beauty of their inner formation revealed.

The right joke inserted against the grain
will crack open the moment
with all its knots and whorls and patterns.

So, develop your insertion and pounding skills.

Or leave the log to rot.
There is a slow beauty in that.

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And from this blissful meeting

Pilgrims walking the pilgrim route
we reach a Holy Well along the way
and see the clear water
welling up into the pool.
‘We have travelled far to meet you,’ we say.

‘And I have come far to meet you’ says the water
‘travelling slowly for many years
filtering through the darkness underground
purifying myself, clarifying myself.’

‘Now you can take me into you
and I will take you into me
and from this blissful meeting
what miracle will not come forth?’

And so we drank of the pure cold water
and took it into our bodies
and then we took off our clothes
and immersed our naked bodies in the water
springing from the ground into the pool.

And the sharpness removed our breath
and the cold took away our thoughts
and all that remained was purity and clarity
and into that liberated space
the grace of God poured infinite blessing.

 

At the Holy Well in Holywell in North Wales the spring is channelled into a small pool. You can get changed in a little tent and then immerse yourself in the intensity of cold, cold water, as pilgrims from an older age once did. What was that like for them? What is that like for you?

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Become a refugee

When the spring runs dry
dance round it with gratitude
for it is time to move on.

Become a refugee in your own land
taking with you only what you can carry
for the lighter you travel the further you can go.

Take refuge in whatever is holy
wherever it appears
for only there can you truly come home
and only there can your dance begin again
around the source of all.

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A giant leap

I sat in the sun one time
and felt a fly land on my bare arm
but when I looked to brush it off
I saw that it was a grasshopper.

He walked up my arm
tickling me with his progress
and then settled down by my knuckles.

I admired his grey-green suit
his insect eyes and the fragility
of his long bent back legs.

He made that chirruping grasshopper sound
but I couldn’t see that it came
from rubbing his legs together.

We both hung out in the sun.
I read papers for a meeting
but I couldn’t make any notes because
there was a grasshopper on my knuckles.

When I had to leave for the meeting
I put my hand down by the ground
and he suddenly sprang from my hand
towards the middle of the lawn.

I lost sight of him in the blur
but his fragility and power
his giant leap into the unknown
are still with me saying:

Come on, it’s not so difficult;
it’s only fear or habit that roots you to the spot.
The next jump to freedom
is always into the unknown.

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dear sister dear brother

dear sister dear brother
we cannot choke off our truthfulness
any more than we can block
the dawn arising from the dark
spreading new light
in bands of red and orange
across the waiting clouds.

dear sister dear brother
we cannot prevent our truthfulness emerging:
a warming, growing, burning flame
confronting our evasions
our glaciated lives
frozen and locked down in time and habit
and, in that elemental meeting
effecting a transformation
that creates new forms, new flows, new fields.

 

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A Bardsey monk

I met a monk on Bardsey.
This is my life, he said.
The tidal currents rip around our island
and keep us in a place beyond the ordinary.
I follow the rule and the more disciplined I am
the more freedom I feel.
I have no possessions and therefore nothing to defend
and therefore nothing to lose.
I contemplate when I work and I work when I contemplate.
On quiet nights the swish of the foam on the sand
brings me equanimity.
On noisy nights the pounding of the surf
or the screeching of many shearwaters
brings me urgency and power and gratitude.
I am surrounded by the bodies and spirits of pilgrims
with whom I am joined in communion.
Our end is clear.

But you do not need to come to Bardsey to live this life.
There are many currents swirling through life
to take you beyond the ordinary.
Every time you say no to a distraction
you collect more freedom in your life.
All that you own, you can hold with a light touch.
What job cannot be done more mindfully?
Listen to the beating of your own heart
or the chirping of sparrows and find wisdom there.
There is no-one who is not a fellow pilgrim on the path
and you are already joined with them.

And for all of us, our end is clear.

 

 

Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, was a destination for pilgrims, particularly in the mediaeval period. For some folk, it still is. The island lies a couple of miles off the end of the Llyn peninsula in North Wales. I once went there with some friends for a weekend, and then the weather got up and we ended up staying a week… A wild place at the end of the land. If you are searching for somewhere on the margins to get closer to God, this would be a great place to be a monk.

My ‘meeting’ takes place in the imaginal realm rather than the physical, and is informed by my perceptions of the monastics from Plum Village, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist tradition. One of them told me once that the more he kept the discipline of his vows, the more liberated he felt. 

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Building anew in the traditional way

See here!
They are starting to build a barn in the traditional way.
The workers are crouched on the ground round the template
with the beams laid out underneath.
They are working out how each beam will fit
and marking where they will need to be cut
and where the joints will be and where the pegs.

The gaffer is in charge. He has the plans.
He keeps the workers on track.

In a few months’ time when all the parts
are painstakingly shaped and assembled
they will be fitted together.
The new barn will be raised
in a flurry of concentrated activity.

So what is the next stage in your life and how will you get there?
Have you made your detailed plans or are you still just dreaming?
Do you think it will happen spontaneously, by magic?
Do you think you can just move in tomorrow?

Maybe you have already begun assembling what you need
shaping with love and care the new parts of your life;
maybe generous friends are helping, or giving you material.

At the right time, if your gaffer is good
you can make it all come together in the right way.
And then your hard work can be celebrated in this new life
which provides shelter, and space
and a place where you can start your dreaming again.

 

 

 

From work at Felin Uchaf, a wonderful project near Aberdaron.
So what’s the next stage in your life and how will you go about it?
Dreaming: good. Putting dreams into action: also good, but much much harder!
Felin Uchaf is a great example of both!

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The gathering

Go into the orchard and gather the ripe apples and pears
that lie red and bruised beneath the trees.
Go into the lanes and gather the blackberries
that nestle shining and plump amongst the thorns.
Go into the wind and sun and gather the freshness
that streams so freely in the world.
Go into your being and gather the love
that bubbles and pools so generously there.

Mix them all together with the oats and flour and oil;
bake them in a crumble
and serve to those who are gathered round the table.

They will find themselves partaking of a dish so delicious
that this particular gathering
will never be able to forget itself.

 

 

Again, written at Aberdaron. Autumn fruits gathered and baked with love by Rowan, Susie, and Charlotte. ‘Gathering’ in the penultimate line also contains the sense of a ‘gathered meeting’ as the Quakers say – that is, a group of people who have settled down into a deeper connection with each other, and through that, with God, or that of God, or the ultimate. So, three meanings in one word, blessed trinity….

 

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Don’t keep your failures to yourself

Don’t keep your failures to yourself:
you and they will get lonely.
Share them with those who will listen
and then you and they can transform into joy.

Enjoy your failures as they appear
like waves approaching the shore
emerging perfectly formed from the sea;
like the moon emerging from behind a cloud
illuminating a golden road across the deep.

Celebrate the perfection of your failures
as heartily as your more mundane triumphs
and then you will double and redouble
the joy you bring into the world.

 

 

I wrote this near Aberdaron, on the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. It’s on the theme of ‘non-discriminating wisdom’: if we can get ourselves out of the habit of automatically dividing our life up into opposites, and liking one, and disliking the other, then we may access a greater sense of wholeness, and, possibly, double the happiness. It’s very sound advice, and I could do with heeding it a bit more myself…

Here’s a description of how I came to write it:

On the Llyn for a week en famille and friends. Elemental winds and rain and clouds provide a perfect context. We look out on Aberdaron bay. Last night while others watched TV/films I went out into the evening, on to the beach and felt exquisitely melancholy in the empty village, till I nominated a sense of lonely failure as my secondary process, and then the world shifted as I did. Home on the hill looked warm and inviting, a perfect place to share the fruits that I had gathered.

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Massive Truth or Big Lie

I have seen massive cruck beams
recently shaped and erected inside a large hall
that have split and twisted in the dry air inside.

We need to be careful about what we regard as solid.
Thought-structures emerge from the current building style
and have a temporary life in the end.

Our Big Buildings may turn out to be Follies
the Big Lie may be a mere misperception
and The Truth may be just one step on a long journey.

Perhaps if we keep chipping away at our assumptions
we may be lucky and end up with enough shaped timber
to make a sweet shack in the woods.
Or we may be fortunate enough to end up with emptiness.
Either way we will have enough chippings
to feed a fire that keeps us warm all night.

 

I spent a day in a small town with an arts centre where these disparate elements were present and came together for me in this poem. As often, I enjoy the connections between the inner and the outer, and here I became aware of just how massive thought-structures may appear to be. But that doesn’t mean they can’t become twisted and disfunctional over time. How long do we allow them still to dominate our lives? Sometimes we can spot an opportunity to take a different path, and work away, and enjoy the unique results.

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How I held him

A song for Easter.
There’s an Anglo-Saxon poem called Dream of the Rood, which is about the crucifixion from the point of view of the cross. This is a poem (also a song) inspired by that. At the same time it’s a lament for his dead father by a young boy, who tried to save him as he was dying, but was not strong enough to do so.
At the end, the life everlasting promised through the sacrifice of the crucifixion may be a blessing, but the endless life alone faced by one who grieves has a different meaning.

How I held him

I felt the weight of his body
I felt the softness of his skin
A heavy burden was on my arms
As I held him up
I felt the life force draining from
His sinews and his beauty and his limbs

(Chorus)
Oh oh how I held him
Oh oh how I loved him
His ruined hands, the blood that ran, all of his plans
Oh magical, oh mortal-weary man

No-one asked me if I wanted
To be the one to bear his weight
Alone in the dark of that Friday
I held him up
While suffering the iron
In our arms and in our souls and in our fate

Chorus

(Bridge)
He bore me bravely on his shoulders
I just liked to feel him near
O he was innocent as I was
When I held him up
I opened to the wounding and the hatred and the fear

This all happened in the past now
I can never change what’s been and gone
So I will have to bear the future
When I held him up
I started on the strange days
and the endless years of the endless life to come

Chorus

Oh how I held him, oh how I loved him, (repeat, fade out)

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A recipe for happiness

when beauty arises from your being
be happy with that
when ugliness arises from your being
be happy with that
when nothing arises from your being
be happy with that

when the world says yes
be happy with that
when the world says no
be happy with that
when the world says nothing
be happy with that

 

I sat out early one morning in the summer sunshine and this emerged. We can’t control the whole world, but we can, to a degree, choose how we respond to it. So this poem is quite zen. Still hard to do it, though! When you keep trying, and keep failing, just be happy with that…

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And Where is God?

I was 13 when I went to communion classes in the village church. I was quite prepared to be curious, certainly ready to be inspired, to connect with whatever was important in the religious life. But the vicar turned it into a dirge, and an ordeal, and a turn-off. How it could have been different!
(I expect he had his own problems – he once turned up to Christmas midnight mass late, and rather drunk…).
Mystic poets like Rumi, or Hafiz, have such a different feel in their approach to the religious life. Joy as well as prayer. Joy in prayer. Joyous life. Mischievous mysticism. I get a little envious and sad when I think of how it could have been for me.
But the only real way forward is to be here, be grateful, and be open to any blessing that may come.

And Where is God?

God was not in our communion class
nor in the words of the vicar
despite his talk of heaven
and the bible and the creed.

Oh Hafiz, where were you when I needed you?
Why did you not slip into the pews with us
while the vicar rambled on
and whisper in our ears:
think of the sweetest thing you know, and there God is
think of your love for your closest friend, and there God is
we will dance on the grass in the moonlight and find God there
we will practise feeling right into our hearts and find God there.

‘Ah’, says Hafiz, in my ear, ‘but I have slipped in now.
Do you like these pews so much that you keep coming back?
But if you wish, we can find God here as well as anywhere.’

‘Now I remember’, says Pete, ‘I will smile, and be open, and wait.’

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Once you’re up

I’m interested in the links between our inner and outer lives – they form the subject matter of a lot of my poetry. Here, after experiencing a wonderful walk in the Lakes with some friends (thanks to Clive and Sue for being great guides…), I explore the parallels with meditation. Meditation, despite its appearance of peacefulness, is actually for me a strenuous inner/mental/spiritual activity involving continual practice, intention, training and skilfulness.

Sometimes (by no means always!), as with walking in the hills, meditation can lead to a place of  advantage, where the views are unusual, and the insights memorable. If that happens, it seems worth hanging around, at least for a while – though I know the traditions recommend not getting attached to any results…

I still ‘slide off the ridge’ sometimes, and then, remembering this experience, slide back on again… Thanks, Lake District fells.

 

Once you’re up

In the Lakes, once you’ve made the effort of getting high
you might as well stay up there and enjoy it:
take advantage of the views, the transcendent perspectives.
They say ridge walking is the best kind of Lakes walking.

Once you’ve done the hard work of sitting
and concentrating on your breathing, and body, and awareness,
and entered into a meditative state
you may as well stay there, and enjoy it.

Your hard work and effort and training over months
have got you up the zigzag path to St Sunday Crag;
you can now look down into Deepdale on one side
and Grisedale on the other, green patchworks far below.

You can stride along the ridge, shifting the perspective;
you can look across to ridge after ridge of fells fading into the distance.
You can see the rain clouds roiling up the dale from Troutbeck
and spilling over the ridge into Grisedale Tarn beneath you.

You can stay with your breathing, riding the thoughts that come
sometimes sliding off the ridge of awareness, but swooping back.
You can feel the freshness of new perspectives wash through you
insights emerging from a place beyond the everyday.

Once you’re up, it’s not much effort to stay longer:
the ridge to Fairfield beckons, and then on to Hart Crag.
You can return home at the end of the day
and share tea and travellers’ tales with your friends.

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From still or storm

If you are fortunate enough to be able to go sailing on the Norfolk Broads with amiable companions, perhaps enjoying the simple pleasures of Hunter’s Yard’s boats – mahogany-built in the 30s, gaff-rigged, and with no engines – so that you can moor up in unusual places at night and rest in the beauty of the natural world, however quiet or restless, then who knows whether you may perhaps be blessed with glimpses of that which is usually hidden from us.

 

From still or storm

Waking in the night at South Walsham:
from the silence of the broad
from the stillness of the water
from the cooing of the pigeons
from the yellowness of the crescent moon
from the sharpness of the stars, even unto the little bear
from the spreading glow of eastern red
from the snoring of my crew-mate
and the happiness of my breathing
only one truth comes
we are all this

Waking in the night at Barton Turf:
from the roaring of the wind
from the lashing of the rain
from the dancing of the tree shadows
silhouetted by the boat yard lights
on the inside of the canvas boat cover
from the snubbing of the boat against the mooring ropes
from the yellow gleam of piss in the torchlight
from the snoring of my crew-mate
and the happiness of my breathing
only one truth comes

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The troubled North Sea, 1942

My dad, Ernest Armstrong, joined the navy as a 16 year-old in 1937. He spent part of the war in the North Sea in motor launches . These were relatively small (up to 100 feet long), lightweight boats used for patrolling, air-sea rescue, anti-submarine work and general defence work. They would have gone out a lot at night-time.
I recently found his bible amongst my mum’s possessions, and to my surprise (I didn’t think of him as religious), I found it well used. One of the places it opened at readily was Psalm 77. I thought of his life at this point, perhaps with him seeking comfort and meaning in the bible during these difficult and dangerous times.
I wrote this poem to commemorate his experience, and that of so many other young men.
This poem is in my book ‘The Commitment of the Lark.’

The troubled North Sea, 1942
Psalm 77
Verse 1 I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me.
Verse 16 The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.
Verse 19 Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.

O Lord, thy sea is so troubled, so vast and dark;
protect we few as we cast ourselves upon thy sea tonight.

O Lord, look after our boat, Melampus (ML 1065);
keep our look-outs sharp, our engineer efficient,
our weaponry working;
and help our officer make the right decisions,
and not be too bold.

May the Germans not find us tonight before we find them,
for they will kill us if they can,
and we must try and kill them too.

May our engines continue to roar and throb
for the next twelve hours without cease,
making our heads ache.
O Lord, when we really need it, help us hit high speed fast,
keep our seventy foot launch driving through the waves,
twisting and turning,
making our bones vibrate with the hammering.

O Lord, please help our plywood hull keep out the waves,
even if it cannot keep out the German ordnance.
Help the enemy tracer miss our fuel tanks
so that we do not burn fiercely, lighting the night
until the dark waves quench us.

O God, help us return by morning
to this dreary east coast port that we love.

O Lord, spare me tonight, and the next nights;
I have a good woman to find and love and marry;
I have two sons who wait to be conceived.

We are a little afraid here, and troubled to our depths;
our way is in the sea, but we know not our footsteps;
O God, I cry unto Thee with my voice, even unto Thee with my voice;
O God, give ear unto me.

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The dance of the shining blue bird

Breathing and Mumford and Sons in my ears
and then you are there, in my being
oh, special shining blue bird that I love so much
sitting on a rock in the swimming place
flying off down the river
surely all the dog-walkers in the world
can hear my shout of acclamation.

I know that all is gift and all is beauty
but shining blue one that I have not seen for too long
and whose normal name in these moments I do not know
you bring a giant leap to my heart.

Running up the hill past the railway
there is the price to pay for your gift.
The shining blue sky is above me
and I am so happy that my opening heart hurts
and my tears stream down.

Here is home and I am warming down
with Mumford on this shining new morning
while my shadow on the wall frolics with me
in the dance of the shining blue bird.

 

I spent a couple of years enjoying (much to my surprise) running every few days on a circuit near my house – till my hip complained, and I had to stop. Sometimes I would listen to Mumford and Sons on my mp3 player, a rather surreal backdrop to fields and river, and northern moors. One time I saw a kingfisher on a rock, and was extremely happy. But sometimes to be very happy is also to be in pain, as the heart stretches in an unaccostomed way. Still, this is not a cause for complaint, but for celebration. Gratitude to kingfishers, and to young men who make heartfelt music.

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My younger brother

At lunchtime, below the Priory, I passed four young men
sitting on a wall, drinking beer.
‘Are you from the police?’ one called out.
I stopped to talk, as best I could.

The one who called out had just been released
from eighteen months in prison;
he was celebrating by drinking
with his younger brother and two friends.

We discussed alcohol, and smoking, and drugs.
The one who called out said
he was looking after his younger brother
but he used a smack on the head to do it.

The one who called out said prison was hard.
He too was hard, and a bit scary
but something scared in him touched me
and when I left I wished him well.

But I forgot to smack him on the head and say
‘So what will you do to make sure you stay out, dickhead
because otherwise you’ll find yourself back inside.’

I forgot that the one who calls out
may also be my younger brother.

 

This was in Lancaster, on a path below the Priory, and the Castle (till recently, also a prison for 240 men). How far will we go to express love in language that will be understood? Do we speak only in our own familiar words? Is our compassion true compassion, or only, in Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase ‘idiot compassion’? How would true compassion manifest?

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