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Coming Alongside: Living Beautifully 

Image courtesy of the author

The point of the departed arrow is not merely to pierce the bullseye and carry the trophy: the point of the arrow is to sing the wind and remake the world in the brevity of flight. 

Bayo Akomolafe

It’s Thursday afternoon, my regular slot with an almost-nine-year-old girl called Willow, my “Buddha daughter.” I pick her up at the library, where she hangs out with her home-education tribe, and we catch up while we walk through the Botanic Gardens. She tells me how often every member of her family washes their hair and enquires after my own hair-washing frequency. When we arrive at my place, I ask her whether she wants anything to drink or eat.  She barely listens and instead lies down in the center of the large, off-white rug in our living room. She moves her arms and legs in wide arcs: “snow angel,” I guess correctly. I lie down next to her and take off my glasses. Curled toward each other we look into each other’s eyes. neither of us knows what’s going to happen next. We are entering the strange and riveting zone of free-play and she is by far the more confident player. But my meditation practice has been of some help.

In my previous article, I mentioned the three “A”s: Acknowledge, Allow, and Appreciate. Following on from a retreat I recently led on “Coming down to Earth and into the Heart,” there is now a fourth “A”: Apply. How can we make a bridge from meditation to everyday life? But first let me come back to “Appreciate:” I take it as an encouragement to “let the beauty we love be what we do;” to “kneel and kiss the ground.” Rumi inspires us to question the stories our competent egos are busy reiterating; that keep us on the straight and narrow of rationality, duty and respectability, and that give us a tenuous sense of control. Efficiency is not to be coughed at, but aren’t we all longing for a way of life that also makes our hearts sing? What is it that stops us giving more value to a less utilitarian mode of being?

It may have to do with the level of urgency and intensity of the issues that present themselves—feelings of alarm tend to call forth a limited, binary mind set. Whether faced with a personal difficulty, systemic injustice, or with the planetary emergency, we easily slip into a problem-solving mode that leads to emotional distancing and polarization. This unwittingly perpetuates the attitudes that led to it in the first place. The second A of “Allow,” of taking time to really get to know the issue from close-up, is too easily skipped over, out of fear, perhaps, that the matter or our feelings about it will get out of control. So we fight it.

Here is a story that I heard from the eco-philosopher Bayo Akomolafe during a recent talk organized by the Centre for Human Ecology in Glasgow. It is a story that illustrates a “third way” to respond to a crisis that doesn’t unwittingly re-enforce it through methods of combat that bear the hallmarks of the same unquestioned power-over paradigm. He and his family were in a shopping mall where they split up—his wife and daughter went off to purchase something and he was with his autistic son. His son had one of his meltdowns, throwing himself onto the floor and screaming. His wife, Bayo told us, objects to the term “meltdown.” She calls it “the passing of a wild god.” Anyway, he was unable to quiet his son and felt increasingly uncomfortable, attracting attention as a black man in a predominantly white environment. Eventually his wife turned up and simply lay down next to their son, right in the middle of the shopping mall. She didn’t say anything to him, but eventually he calmed down. Bayo described this as an example of “radical accompaniment,” a “third way:” coming alongside a problem and letting ourselves be disoriented in order to find “new places of power, and of slow limbs.”

In order to find the openings for powerfully creative ways to approach emergencies, I need to slow down. This is where the first “A” comes in: basic awareness skills. I can acknowledge my fears and the impulse to fix things so that I don’t have to feel the fear. Over time, I live more constantly in this spaciousness, where there is room for maneuvering in less predictable, more enjoyable ways. I become less goal-driven in meditation and more loving and playful with children. And I generally live out my brief time in a way that embraces actively caring for this imperiled planet and its suffering inhabitants, while following my heart’s longing for beauty and deep connection. I am happy to employ “minor gestures”—another of Bayo’s poetic expressions—that don’t make a big point of protest, but find the cracks in the everyday to let another spirit breathe through. This morning, after devoting myself wholeheartedly to some mindful movement and meditation practice, I was preparing breakfast. As I was stretching to get a jar of almonds from the top shelf, my body remembered the Feldenkrais movement I had just done lying on the living room rug, where I played with letting movement ripple organically and effortlessly through the body, through the spine into the arm, as a rebound response to the feet pushing into the earth. I enjoyed that ordinary stretch in the kitchen so much that I went backwards and forwards several times, relishing the rhythm of that live energy. It became a dance, and I relished the song of its unfolding as much as the target. As Bayo Akomolafe says: “The point of the arrow is to sing the wind and remake the world in the brevity of flight.” (Bayo Akomolafe)

Coming alongside a happy, playful child and relaxing into the intimacy and unpredictability of play is one of the ways we can prime our nervous systems to recognize a bit more room to maneuver when more seems to be at stake. Making art of any kind, opening our senses to natural beauty, fully inhabiting our bodies through mindful movement, dancing and sitting meditation are other ways. We can also get to know our inner children better, both the happy and the distressed ones, letting them feel we are there, right beside them. We can become embodiments of the “third way,” as an offering to this beleaguered world. 

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Bayo Akomolafe

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