This photograph was taken by Tom Sangster, a new Melbourne friend of mine. Among the many lovely images he captured while travelling in Spain, this one especially caught my eye.
A solitary chair stands against the high wall of a cloister with well-defined shadows creating a frame for it – an architecture of light and dark that speaks of gateways between life and death, and a moment of reckoning, or contemplation at the point of passage.
The three-leafed pattern stenciled in strong sunlight at the top of the photograph evokes the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but it also calls up more pagan associations especially since the angle of the photo has slightly elongated the lower petal of the trefoil, or triquetra. If this shape were scrawled on the wall by a graffiti artist, rather than produced by the decorative elements of monastic architecture, it would let us see the fertile force of sexuality present even in this orderly, peaceful place.
|Triqutra on one of the |
Funbo Runestones in Sweden
This seems appropriate since the triquetra is originally a pagan symbol. It appears on ancient runestones in Northern Europe, and is used by contemporary Germanic Neopagans and Wiccans to represent the division of the world into the realms of Land, Sea and Sky. They also use it as a symbol of triple goddesses such as the Morrígan, goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty.
These associations led me from this luminous image to thoughts of a friend of mine, Fiona, who died in January, just before I went on the yoga retreat which preceded my impromptu flight into the desert. It was a violent death: she threw herself in front of a train. For years she had struggled with mental health problems, which were exacerbated by the side-effects of medication she took in attempting to overcome her suffering. Her death brought back memories of another death that greatly troubled me, that of a young woman who did a doctorate in philosophy at the same university as me. This woman, Mairead, threw herself off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like Fiona, she was highly intelligent, attractive and sensitive. She was also suffering from side-effects of medication which had been prescribed to help her sleep.
On the morning of the day I left for Alice Springs, I felt I faced a turning point, or a decision like the one demanded of the reader at the bottom of each page in a choose your own adventure book. Each option is equally available, but will lead to quite different versions of the story. I had three possibilities. I could take an early flight and arrive back in Sydney in time to attend Fiona’s funeral. Or I could catch the afternoon flight I’d already booked and paid for before hearing the news of her death. This way I would miss the funeral, and simply continue along the pre-established track of my life. Or I could embark on an adventure that would take me across a vast, almost shadowless landscape, and give me a sense of opening myself to the intense pleasures, if also the dangers of life. I could live for a few days like a mythical goddess, traveling in a great white chariot, driven by a stranger who fortunately turned out to be a capable and trustworthy charioteer (albeit one who was highly dissatisfied with his chariot, but that’s another story).
I thought that Fiona would have approved of my selection of this third option, or at least empathized with it. But no doubt it was, to a greater degree than either of the options involving air travel, a form of flight. Eventually, I would need to stop, find a seat in a quiet, sunny space, and let myself face the fact of my friend’s death and the difficult emotions it provoked in me.
This finally happened over the Easter long weekend, when I did a meditation retreat at Vejjasala, a healing centre in the Southern Highlands. This is a lovely, tranquil place, recently opened by the Association of Engaged Buddhists, led by a wonderful monk and very dear friend, Bhante Tejadhammo. On this retreat, the first to be held at the centre, one of my fellow retreatants happened to be a psychologist who specializes in grief therapy. At one point we had a discussion about grieving. What I took from it was the idea that to grieve properly, or to help someone else to grieve, you need to let yourself feel the suffering caused by the loss. But to do this without becoming overwhelmed or reacting against the suffering requires a certain amount of equanimity, or peacefulness.
Peacefulness is what we are seeking when we turn to drugs to pacify our anxieties, but I doubt that drugs can ever produce real equanimity. Too often they only dam up the pain, which then accumulates to a point where it must eventually break the increasingly fragile barriers that hold it in, sometimes with terrible results. Equanimity, on the other hand, gives you the strength to let yourself feel the pain, and let it subside, or give way naturally to the next emotional weather pattern.
Bhante Teja mentioned that one of the Buddha’s images of equanimity is that of a mountain standing in the sea. Whether the water is moved by ordinary tides, churned into crashing waves, or unusually serene, the mountain continues to stand there, accepting whatever comes, never running from or refusing any experience. To cultivate this kind of solidity and ability to stay with whatever is happening is a central goal of meditative practice. It is the necessary support for the other practices of love taught by the Buddha: loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy.
This suggests another interpretation of the triquetra, which is often shown with a circle entwining the three interlinked petals. The circle would be the profound peacefulness and solidity of equanimity, which allows the three more active aspects of love to flourish in response to the pleasurable, painful and ordinary conditions of human life and death.
A Gaelic Blessing
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
R.I.P. Fiona Gwynne, 1970-2012