Compassion (Part One)
This the first of a series of commissioned articles on the concept of ‘compassion’, by Alastair McIntosh…
I got an email from the editors of Bella Caledonia asking if I’d write about compassion.
I’m going to share with you the dream that woke me up at 6.30 this morning. I’m then I’m going to set it in the context of what my wife and I were discussing last night.
I’ve not much time to edit this so it’s a raw stream of consciousness. And I’m only going to mention “compassion” once more, so it’s up to you to decide if I’m off-subject or not.
Let me set the cultural context. Recent years have seen both Labour/Liberal and the SNP administrations in Scotland struggling with how to reform the law surrounding crofting – small scale traditional living with the land. If I might simplify a complex spectrum of opinion, the debate is torn between two camps.
On the one hand are those who want crofting to remain as a form of tenure in which the land is “held” on a heritable basis but not outright “owned” in an individualistic way. Now that we have land reform in Scotland the over-arching framework of ownership doesn’t have to be a laird whose sole qualification is wealth. It can be a land trust where the whole community become secure tenants unto their democratically-elected selves. And you still “own” and can sell your private improvements to the land – the house, the fences, and all that.
This means that the community as a whole can determine developments and can apply occupancy rules to prevent, for example, homes being bought for speculation or holiday lets.
On the other hand, there are those who reject such mutual accountability and would like to see potentially valuable croft land fully privatised. This would let them use it, as the modern world so often demands, as collateral in seeking loans. And they could freely buy and sell the land as a commodity just like the property rights on any other freehold farm.
Right at the moment this debate is ripping apart harmony and reputations in the crofting counties. It raises much wider issues of relevance to all who ponder how best to live with the land, if not necessarily entirely from it.
And so … I dreamt that I was going to a meeting in a big old house. It was like our old schoolteacher’s home at Leurbost on the Isle of Lewis, but this was somewhere else in the Highlands or Islands; maybe on Skye.
I went into a room that had nobody in it, but a huge peat fire was burning. On the floor were several bags of coal in white sacks. People had evidently brought them for when the initial welcome of the aromatic peat ran out.
I too had a contribution – I’d brought up from Glasgow one of our bags of smokeless coal. We use it as a base in our woodburning stove. It comes in a yellow sack. I laid this down beside the white ones already there.
I smiled to myself, thinking that whoever was responsible for the fire would be wondering where this stranger’s sack had come from. And I was thinking that this is the way it always was and needs to be again … that we all bring something to give the hearth a heart.
I then went through to the next room. It was laid out like the pews in an old village mission hall. It was slowly filling up with people but was unheated. The room I’d just come from was for us all to go into later. To avert the chill I was wearing my Harris Tweed mantle or plaid, wrapped around my shoulders.
On the other side of the room I was reassured to see that another man, clearly a person of dignity and some standing in the community, was also wearing a Harris Tweed mantle. It was very similar to mine that the late John MacGregor of Gearranan had woven for me.
Seeing this I no longer felt slightly out of place. And as I looked around I could see some familiar faces from the Shetland conference of the Scottish Crofters Foundation several years ago, including the guys from Lewis.
We had gathered to debate, or to use a culturally more appropriate idiom, to discern, the future of crofting.
The distinguished guy in the tweed mantle across from me stirred and spoke first. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it had something to do with needing to understand that crofting at its deepest roots is about a spiritual set of relationships. That, he said, is what we must reconstitute to reform the way of life.
A couple of younger guys sitting behind me laughed quietly to themselves. But they were laughing only out of slight embarrassment, for who can seriously talk about such things these days? Yet without exception, everybody in the room knew that this man had spoken to the essence of what needed to be said.
A long silence followed as people took it in. After a while the stillness got uncomfortable because nobody quite knew how to follow on. There was a need to get the discussion going again, but how?
Behind me sat two young women. One of them – and my sense was that she came from the Orkneys – broke into a spontaneous folk song. It was something about counting pennies, bright and cheerful with no deep meaning to it except to loosen the ground, and the woman beside her joined in too so they became a duet.
I thought to myself, “How wonderful to be in a community that knows how to sing, and can do so even in a meeting like this. That’s a real culture for you!”
I then became aware that Iain MacKinnon from Sleat had come into the room and was sitting beside me. He was saying nothing but clearly carried some authority. He’d been taking a few notes as the man in the tweed spoke. When the duet finished, he looked over to another young man on my other side and asked if he’d mind taking the minutes of the meeting. He nodded in agreement and picked up a notebook. I liked that. It gave a sense of things functioning right.
Next a man got up in front of us and said he had a song to offer too. He was an incomer, a “white settler” as we’d sometimes say, but one of the kind who had come to belong to the place; one who had come to give, and not just to buy a bit of the view and to take.
This man’s song ran to a weird and twisting sort of ancient shamanic tune. The kind of thing you’d pull from the archives of the School of Scottish Studies. He said we could all join in because it had a slow motion that could easily be followed. So most of us did so, like following a precentor.
The song started with the line that was almost embarrassingly religious. It went: “There were four crosses at Calvary …”
But we quickly let go of the religious cringe because it turned out to be one of those strange Highland stories that you get in the tradition that takes some familiar theme, often from the Bible, and adds a new dimension that gives it local relevance.
There’s often a humorous edge to the serious side, like the story of God having created the Hebrides on the eighth day, or Donald the fisherman swapping his heart for Mammon’s jewels on the beach, or St Bride flying away from Iona with the angels to become the foster-mother of Christ.
So here was a new one. There were not three, but four crosses at Calvary … and I didn’t catch the rest of the words because I woke up just as the second line was starting. But you could imagine one of those competitions in schools to complete the story. You know, the kind of thing they throw out to the kids because it would be too infra dig for the adults!
Because it must have been a crofter on the fourth cross.
And would it have been a male crofter, or perhaps a female crofter, if that mattered? And would it have been a native crofter, or an incomer crofter, or even an “indigenous” crofter if that term can apply to either in the right spirit?
And would there have been a Crucifixion Commission? And would the Romans have been paying a subsidy on crosses and washing their hands of the problem?
Because you’ve got to have a laugh in these stories. Especially the true ones. And so, why? And what then? And what does it all mean?
I turned and opened my eyes, looking at the clock. It was only 6.30 and I didn’t want to get up yet, but I’d better to write something down before I forgot all this.
Because that’s what needs to be said – that crofting, and other such people-place relationships – are as nothing if they lose spiritual grounding, if they yield to greed.
And it came to me that when I write about it, I must stop it from being dismissed as hypothetical. I need to say that I am from a crofting community. And that I once declined the inheritance of a croft. Although I’d have got the assignation no bother, I knew my work and family circumstances would have made me an absentee. That’s not what the commons of crofting land is for. It’s just not right to pockmark the community with holes.
I now turn to the second part of this sharing, which is really part one, because it concerns the background to this dream within the past twelve hours.
I went to bed last night after spending all evening reflecting on “where the psyche of the world is at?” … and how there seems to be a particular dearth of vision at the moment – whether on climate change, on war, the economy – and how so many people are feeling depressed and burdened with the gravity of the times.
I’d gone outside into the garden. The rain that had flooded Aberdeen during the day had gone off. It was paradoxically warm, with a full moon “tossed upon cloudy seas,” the wind still up … and I went back indoors again and said to Vérène that the weather, after this wettest August on record, still felt tumultuous.
We’d been discussing how few really happy lasting marriages we know, and how love is primarily neither a sexual nor an economic relationship, but a spiritual one. And that like, with so many things, most folks are hardly aware of the need that kind of connection to nourish the roots of what gives life down the years. And if we don’t look we won’t see, and so we’ll never know.
And I was reading the final pages of Sabini’s anthology of Jung on nature. I was on this passage where he was speaking about the “rootless extraversion” of those who are not grounded in the land, and going deep into that, in what he called (in a private letter written in 1956 towards the end of his life) “the Great Mother”.
And Vérène and I were reflecting on this, and thinking of a particularly rootless person we know who’s forever thrusting herself on others, always creating a stir to draw in attention, an energy vampire unable simply to rest at ease in a community that would, otherwise, receive her.
And she’s not a one-off. She’s just a cutting edge of present times. As Jung wrote: “Rootlessness begets meaninglessness, and the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not yet begun to comprehend.”
And in my head an old hippie song was coming up. I couldn’t remember what, but I knew it somehow spoke to this our cut-off narcissistic age. And that it was beautiful, in its tune, its lyrics, and a heart-rending viola instrumental half way through.
All I could remember was that it contained the words, “all we are is…” so I went upstairs and googled that phrase. Straight up came “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, 1977. I found it on Youtube and played it over several times.
“Same old song, / just a drop of water in an endless sea/ All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see. / Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind./ Don’t hang on,/ nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky/ It slips away, /and all your money won’t another minute buy/ Dust in the wind,/ All we are is dust in the wind….”
Right at the end of Meredith Sabini’s Jung anthology she describes how, over and over again, he’d tell his rainmaker story. He advised his colleague Barbara Hannah always to use it when she began a course of lectures.
It was a true tale, given to him by his friend Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930) who had spent much of his life in China where he produced the definitive translation – I call it the Free Church translation, because it has none of the feel-good New Age baubles added – of the world’s most ancient oracle, the I Ching.
As it happened, a little earlier in the evening I’d enquired to reflect through the I Ching on the state of the world’s psyche at the moment. The I Ching deals in archetypal dynamics, not specifics, so I find it can be very helpful in this poetic evocative sort of way.
It came up with Treading – a time likened to being in danger of treading on the tiger’s tail. As Wilhelm’s commentary explains, “the weak follows the strong and worries it … one is handling wild, intractable people. In such a case one’s purpose will be achieved if one behaves with decorum.”
This moves on to Before Completion – a time when “The conditions are difficult. The task is great and full of responsibility. It is nothing less than that of leading the world out of confusion back to order. But it is a task that promises success, because there is a goal that can unite the forces now tending in different directions.”
And so, in the rainmaker story Jung tells how the region where Wilhelm had settled was afflicted by a very great drought while he was there. The Chinese tried everything but no rain came. Eventually they called on the rainmaker from another province.
This wizened little old man arrived. He asked for a hut and went to it. After three days there was a huge unseasonal fall of snow. The drought was over.
Being a Westerner, Wilhelm went to the old man and asked what he had done, or whether it had all just been coincidence. The rainmaker said he’d done nothing. He had simply come from his own village where he resided in the Tao – in right relationship with the “Spirit of the Valley”, with “God”.
When he got to Wilhelm’s village he found himself to be no longer in relationship with the Tao. For the three days sitting in the hut all that he had done was reconnect himself to the Tao. When that happened the clouds broke.
For Jung, this demonstrates the difference between western causality and what he saw as being the eastern paradigm of acausality, or synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. The western mind always seeks an explanation. Eastern thought recognises that some things are beyond explanation. It looks, to destiny rather than ambition; to the unfolding of the Dharma, the Way, the mighty Tao. Shakespeare puts it well in Comedie of Errors where he speaks of, “floating … obedient to the streame.’
This has big implications for how we engage in a troubled world, and how we express our activism. I am not suggesting that we all go and sit all day in huts. But we in the west do have a balance to redress. We do need to restore a grounded sense of poetic interconnection in resonance with the greater whole.
Like Wilhelm’s rainmaker, we need to re-attune our presence, our bearing, our decorum in the depths of our yearning.
As Jung said, “Analysis kills and synthesis brings to life. We must find out how to get everything back into connection with everything else. We must resist the vice of intellectualism and get it understood that we cannot only understand.”
So it’s not about having to choose metaphorically between East and West; poetry and reason. This is about having all that the intellect offers, but not stopping there. Not forgetting the bigger picture. Not letting the ego’s inflation of the head conceal the soul’s great canvas, cluttering it with mere graffiti.
Only then shall we cease from adding cross upon cross upon cross to the Cross upon the hill. The hill that historically was, and remains, the rubbish dump of our times.
The hill that is Golgotha; in Latin, Calvary, from Calvariae Locus, “the place of the skull.”
So these are Jung’s words as he points us beyond death and towards the archetypal, the timeless archaic ground of our being.
These are the words with which I laid down his book last night.
“The upheaval of our world and the upheaval of our consciousness are one and the same thing.”
“Go to bed. Think on your problem. See what you dream. Perhaps the Great Man, the 2,000,000 year old man, will speak. Only in a cul-de-sac do you hear his voice.”
Look upon the world, “not from the outside, but from the inside.”
And there we touch the meanings of compassion.