Tag Archives: Ursula K LeGuin

Poem: A Dedication

Under the stones of the river flowing cold

Reverberations of all the words so old

Sound for the connected souls who care to hear

Undulating rhythms, yet somehow so clear

Let those who wish to receive them gather in

And offer love; respect; honour – with a grin

 

Knowing what we have lost, wise beautiful soul

 

Let’s remember the way back to being whole

Ever the words remain while we can hear them

Gaining inspiration, and holding dear them

Using our power, hopefully, within the

Internal equilibrium, weaving, we

Now rejoice in the words which help us be free.

 

In memory of a great word-weaver, who this year joined with the infinite

Photo by David Ashwanden

Advertisements

Summer and the Way of Art

It’s been almost a year since my last published article on here – the Wheel of the Seasons has turned around and here we are already at Beltane; a time of cleansing with fire, of coming back to life, of the balance of light and dark tipping ever more towards the light. A time of freshness, creativity and renewal. I thought it an appropriate time to write somewhat of a meta-post (don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it) on the artistic or creative process and why it sometimes seems so very difficult.

My last article was ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ (1); well, I might have fallen down it and got lost for a while. These are my experiences, I hope they resonate with you and maybe even help you on your own artistic path.

Why make art?

Much of our society appears geared towards short-term material gain. In a world of intellectual property rights, deeds of entitlement, money as time and where creating art in order to sell a product can gain you instant financial success compared with the uncertain and often penniless path of creating things simply for the pleasure of creating, is it any wonder that sometimes we may ask Why am I making this art? What purpose does it have? Can I use it in a professional context and if not, should I really be wasting my time on it?

Such questions, though understandable, miss the fundamental aspect of art: that it is absolutely neccessary for our continued existence as humans. We are creative beings; simply by being alive we carry the ability to make and regenerate, as well as the ability to stagnate and destroy. The choice is always ours. The creative process is an aid to so many aspects of our lives. Indeed, John Paul Lederach, founder of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at the Eastern Mennonite University (2) writes about how, since making and maintaining peaceful societies is an ongoing process of creativity, one must be in tune with one’s creative drive in order to effectively achieve peace (3). In this sense, art and peace can be seen as inextricably linked; we cannot live in a world which is more or less free of conflict unless we honour and exercise the artist within us.

The Moral Imagination

Who can make art? The answer, of course, is ‘you’; and indeed everyone. Artistic actions are not necessarily measurable and so their effect can often be overlooked. Lederach gives a number of examples of artists responding to times of extreme violence or crisis, and the possible consequences; though these can never truly be known except in the hearts of those who experience them. For instance, the cellist who sat playing in the public square of his town while bombs fell all around him, following the murder of many of his fellow townsfolk who were trying only to buy bread.

As Lederach writes,

When his spontaneous playing was done, Smailovic discovered that people had gathered to listen near the square… ‘I understood then,’ he wrote, ‘That…music heals, and that this was no longer a personal issue.’ He decided to return to the Bread Massacre Square and play every day for twenty-two days in a row, one day for each person killed in the massacre. Shelling never ceased during those days, but neither did his music.

On one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, ‘Aren’t you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?’ Smailovic responded, ‘Playing music is not crazy. Why don’t you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.’” (3)

For Lederach, this story and many other examples are portrayals not only of people using creativity, but of the embodiment of what he calls the “moral imagination”. This is made up of four things, creativity being one of them;

1- Holistic thinking (this could also be equated to ‘permaculture’); an ability to view the holistic web of relationships which make up our experience

2 – A “paradoxical curiosity” about what is possible

3 – Creativity; A “fundamental belief” in the power of art and the creative act

4 – Risk; the willingness to take risks. (3)

The art of falling into a hole

I go into more detail about the moral imagination in my article here (4) and if you are interested in the subject, I strongly recommend that you read Lederach’s book of the same name (3). Right now I want to look at the fourth strand of the moral imagination, that of risk. This can be seen as, in many ways, the most difficult practice of all of them. Artists are kind of risk-takers by nature, in that we journey beyond what has previously been deemed possible, find ways to receive the gifts of what we find there, and bring them back to our respective societies. We walk the “sharpened edge of the razor,” as Joseph Campbell puts it (5).

But sometimes it is easy to slip into the comfort of not taking risks. This comfort could be in the fact that you feel pretty good where you are and do not want to change it. However, it could also be the opposite; that the status quo, however violent, painful or full of suffering it may be, has been going on for so long that you have become used to it, and to change it would be to upset your feeling of security within it. Along with this might be the lure of many artists, the idea that perfection is unachievable and pain is inevitable, which, if taken to unhealthy extremes, could lead to the conception that there is no need to change anything because it is already how it is.

If you keep going with that train of thought, in my experience, it can lead past a balanced view of the holistic equilibrium of life, to a kind of inertia in the face of it, or even an irresistible attraction to that which can be seen as dark and ugly; since that is what we are already accustomed to. As Ursula K. LeGuin put it,

Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” (6)

That's when we might fall into a hole.

So how can we step beyond this potential inertia or depression?

Lederach says,

Risk is mystery. It requires a journey. Risk means that we take a step toward and into the unknown.” (3)

The unknown can always be a scary place, but not to go into it willingly and creattively is to somewhat let go of our enthusiam for life.

Lederach writes mainly from his experience of working with people in situations of overt physical violence or conflict, from Sri Lanka to Serbia, Colombia to Northern Ireland, where after over thirty years of “Troubles”, one peace researcher is quoted as saying,

Violence, fear and division are known. Peace is the mystery! People are frightened of peace. It is simultaneously exciting and fearful. This is mystery. Peace asks a lot of you. It asks you to share memory…it asks you to share the future…It is walking into the unknown.” (3)

Heading into the unknown

I believe that even if you do not live in a society where violence and conflict are overt, Lederach’s work can still be immensely useful and powerful. All violence and conflict can be seen as beginning within each individual human consciousness, and we need to exercise the moral imagination within ourselves in order to then bring it to our communities.

crawling out

Feeling pain and experiencing violence is part of life. Pretty much every society in this world has some kind of overt or inherent violence to it, and to some extent it can be helpful to accept this since it is how it is. But allowing it to influence our actions just because it has been so for some time is to refuse the call of the artist, which is the call of our own inner voice.

crawling out

Our art probably can help us in many ways, help us to heal, help us to be happy, help us to gain the resources we need to live. But until we listen to the voice inside us we probably can’t know how; the path of the artist is not really something which can be planned.

Listen to it, follow it, even into mystery and the unknown.

You never know where it might take you.

out the hole

References

1. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Down the Rabbit-Hole: Storytelling and its Healing Potential in Modern Society’. Abundance Garden, 20/6/17. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/down-the-rabbit-hole/

2. Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, 2018. ‘About CJP’. https://emu.edu/cjp/about/

3. Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

4. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Permaculture and Community, part 1: Permaculture as a tool for peace’. Permaculture News, 2/11/17. https://permaculturenews.org/2017/11/02/permaculture-community-part-1-permaculture-tool-peace/

5. Campbell, J, 1959. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.

6. LeGuin, UK, 1973. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: A Story (A Wind’s Twelve Quarters Story). Harper Perennial: New York City, USA.

Using our Language-Shadows

We are capable of great creative and regenerative actions, as well as destructive and futile ones. Many recognise the increased power of our creativity and destructiveness as stemming from the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, when we began, at an unprecedented rate, burning much of what had previously been the ground we walked upon and the forests whose air we breathe. Yet how we came to be the complex web of human society, technology and machinery we are today has roots in a much more subtle event.

Buckminster Fuller, in his exploration of the history of human culture, mentions the invention of technology as a key component in shaping our societies. Yet he also points out that ‘technology’ refers to any tool which we create for our use, and that the first piece of technology we ever invented was the first word (1).

Power of words

Just because one has a tool, does not necessarily mean one knows how to use it in the most beneficial way. Our words can shape, twist and bend reality; we have created abstract concepts and ideas and with this, extended the reach of our human influence far beyond our own sensing bodies.

From some angles, we can see that all of the destruction, disregard for other species and mismanagement of our own home, the Earth, which we engage in is the result of a single factor: our extraction of ourselves from the natural world around us. Such an idea of separation can only even be conceptualised by the kind of language which many modern cultures use – language which has lost its roots in the surrounding world.

As Abram (1986) comments on, much of animistic, metaphorical culture relies on a deep linguistic connection with the non-human world, whose ties can be seen as having been broken by the advent of phonetic and written language (3). For example, the English language is made up of phonetic sounds which have little or no direct connection to what Abram and others term the more-than-human world, and so we have a much higher tendency of taking literally those symbols which are always only ever meant to point to a deeper truth, rather than being the truth itself.

We can also use words to artificially separate ourselves into ‘nature’ and ‘humans’: a separation which is only possible in abstract thought and which when applied to our sensing bodies and the world around us does not make any sense at all.

Walls of Words

Having identified that our use of phonetic language is a key factor in our disregard for the more-than-human world, should we then stop using this most dangerous and powerful of tools?

Perhaps it would be better for the planet if our method of communication had stayed in total connection with the more-than-human world around us, and therefore we can feel more readily the tearing pain of the mountain being sliced into quarried rocks; the stifling horror of the toxins pouring into the rivers and oceans, or the senseless mutilation of the millions of chickens who are born and die in the same tomb, all too often for their bodies to simply become discarded.

Yet the fact remains that we have invented phonetic language, and with it, abstract thought and the idea that we can harm and kill the other living beings which make up our world without causing detriment to ourselves. As Ursula K LeGuin puts it,

“You cannot take things that exist in the world, and try to drive them back into the Dream—to hold them inside the Dream with walls and pretences.

That is insanity.

What is, is.

There is no use pretending now that we do not know how to kill each other”. (3)

When considering that the more-than-human world, or web of biodiversity, extends to include all, “each other” has a very broad definition. Yet to condemn our actions is to waste energy in trying to will into non-existence what is already here. This is the same whether we are talking about the global ecosystem, the human species, or each individual soul. When applied on a personal level we can see that if we attempt to deny or escape parts of ourselves which we do not like, we usually end up sooner or later being controlled by those same aspects.

Psychologist Jung conceptualised this as the idea of the “shadow self”: that part of us which we may not necessarily be aware of, have fear of, or actively attempt to get rid of (see for example 4). Yet if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others it is beneficial to at least be aware of our shadows, even if we do not exactly make friends with them. For it is from the darkness that we can gain more light; by accepting what we are and what we do we can learn from it and evolve.

Darkness and Light

The conceptualisation of the world as a balanced equilibrium between the two forces which can be roughly divided into dark and light is present in many cultures, from the Yin-Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy to the Incan God Viracocha, whose tears of sadness at the suffering of the world are the very rivers and lakes which provide the nourishment for all life (5). We cannot have one without the other;

“Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” (7)

Acceptance and Action

In accepting and even embracing those aspects of ourselves and the world which seem repugnant we can reach a new way of perceiving where we regain lost connections. However, this does not mean that there is no point in trying to change what we see for the better. Whatever we feel we can do to improve the quality of life of those around us, both human and more-than-human, if we feel it is right then it should be done. Yet the only really effective way of creating these improvements is from a starting point that allows for all perspectives; or at least as many as you, with your one human body and mind, can cope with.

In this we need to become fully aware of our situation and the brilliant potential power we have to shape our own destiny, and therefore the destiny of the world around us.

Magic words

Much of this power resides in the words we use. Perhaps we have not always used them in a way which is beneficial for us or those around us. The first way to change this is to become aware of how we use language. Are the words you use creating boxes and divisions in your mind, storing up emotions, or derogating yourself or other beings of the universe? If so, maybe we can think about changing the way we use them.

Words are indeed powerful tools; keys, if you like, to open the boxes and release all the power inside you. Words are not the only power. But if we wish to act together with other humans, using words in a conscious and considerate way will certainly be of some use.

Photo by David Ashwanden

References

  1. Fuller, Buckminster R, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City
  2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Random House: New York City
  3. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1976. Hainish Cycle No. 6: The Word for World is Forest. Tor Books: New York City
  4. Jung, C.G, 1938. “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
  5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library: New York City
  6. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1968. The Earthsea Cycles: A Wizard of Earthsea.