coming to terms with what is
It's a dark Friday evening at the end of October and about 40 of us are processing through the streets of Crouch End towards the Sunnyside community garden where we'll join in with their bonfire party. Rebecca's organised this event which has had its fair share of serendipity in actually coming about. Later on we'll go home feeling glad that we've seen each other by orange bonfire light, celebrated our community and somehow triumphed over darkness. We'll carry away the whiff of wood smoke in our hair, the taste of baked apples on our tongues. I will be feeling pleased that I managed to remember and re-tell the joke about the chicken and the library books. But at this point we have to get though my awkward moment.
So we're going coming down the hill, just before we arrive at Sunnyside. I'm getting into the spirit of things and suggest we make up a chant to announce our arrival. Me and the people nearby spontaneously come up with a line each. It rhymes: “We're coming through the darkness, we're not scared, we've got each other, a problem shared”. Someone grabs an abandoned for sale sign and beats out a rhythm. And yet ... and yet, something isn't quite right. It feels naff. Not everyone is joining in. People want to carry on with the conversations they were having before. I've turned into a teacher trying to make the class do something they don't want to and I actually feel slightly annoyed with the people who aren't chanting (which is nearly everyone). As we trickle into the park, only four or five of us are doing it. Although I refuse to feel embarrassed, I end up realising this was not the greatest idea I've ever had.
Weird that I had it at all, since I don't even like chanting.
I can do group singing. I can do walking meditations on the heels of my feet, looking like a penguin. I can (kind of) bare my soul in a Joanna Macy truth mandala or role play as part of someone else's “constellation”. I even started up the Macy Monday group so I can do these things regularly. But I can not do chanting. Which makes me feel bad.
I think it's because it reminds me of church. The tunes that go with chanting are often quite drony – they're not really tunes. That, combined with the relentless repetition, reminds me of sitting in my dad's Catholic church as a child while they Hail Maryed and Creeded for all eternity. Actually, it wasn't the length of it that bothered me - I could easily get myself lost in the huge stained glass windows. It was something to do with the sound of all those voices, the hollowness, the life gone out of them, the way they had become a machine. There's also something about feeling pressured to join in. For me chanting says, “stop thinking for yourself”. We repeat phrases until they lose their meaning. I had the chance to experience this as an adult when I agreed to go to the Catholic pilgrimage town of Medjugorje in Bosnia with my dad. He didn't mention that I'd be stuck on a bus with a gang of keen chanters. Their words were familiar but I was struck by how weird it is for people to do that. To me, that is. Obviously they were very happy and I wouldn't dismiss other people's religious practice. I have a Buddhist friend who says chanting saved her life. However it means nothing to me. In fact it makes me feel empty.
I'm thinking about what the group chant means and the sci-fi film Avatar pops into my head. In that, the Na'vi sit cross legged in rows with their arms interlocked, head tendrils plugged into the planet's neural network, collectively swaying and moaning. Little blue flashes of energy pass between them while they do this and it's obvious that their collective experience and acceptance of their goddess, Eywa, makes their chanting powerful and effective. They've given up their individuality to become part of the energy flow. This must affirm their beliefs, their place in the world and their power as a group. They don't look naff. And then there's that popular earth cult: football. Just like the Na'vi, football fans have common sense of purpose and experience. But what is the shared belief of me and a group of transitioners who happen to be out together on a night walk? Transition doesn't have a core belief system, does it? And even if it did, why would we be chanting together? What would be our creed?
I enjoy my connection with other people and with the universe in other ways. I was once fortunate enough to have a momentary glimpse of the immanent energy of the universe and so I have an awareness of, rather than a faith in, the magnificent and amoral force behind everything. I'd be happy tell you more but it would be so much lessened by being described because, when it comes down to it, language is pretty rubbish at communicating subjective experiences like that. The point is, knowing it's all outside my control (big picture-wise), makes me feel secure. I also have an inner resilience that stems from repeatedly listening to recordings by Steve Chandler and Paul McKenna. Yeah, I know, self-help books could be seen as naff, but they work for me.
Steve Chandler advocates a daily dose of LSD (that is, Laughter, Singing and Dancing) to become an “owner of the human spirit”. Owners take responsibility for their world view and for what happens rather than buying into the self-defeating belief that all power rests outside themselves; in other people and circumstance. Paul McKenna argues convincingly that we get more of what we focus on and he uses neuro-linguistic programming and hypnosis to reinforce positive patterns of thinking. He moves us towards the most productive state of mind: being “in flow”. Both have argued that our behaviour and thinking is habitual and therefore under our control. Now that I come to think of it, using this logic I should stop being a victim of my own negative thinking, ignore the chanting and focus on more LSD. Sorted.