The Goddess as Active Listener (Part 4) - by Brian George


(Brian George) #21

Hi John,

In sections five through ten of the essay—to be posted sometime over the next week, when Marco is finished with a technical upgrade of the site—I address a number of the issues that you raise, so much of this discussion might be better left for then. You write, “I assume when you first arrived to her you weren’t a smooth and polished aesthete with perfect manners and etiquette, but were unkempt and unruly and unpredictable in your boundless curiosity about what actually makes things and people tick down in their hidden mechanisms and operations.” I was definitely very badly behaved as a teenager, in equal parts arrogant and insecure, brimming with anger towards the injustices of society, contemptuous of the complacent, pointlessly insulting, eager to mix things up at the drop of a hat. In the same semester, my grades might range from A to D. I am sure that I was quite a trial for the majority of my teachers, in those cases where I chose to say anything at all.

When I did want to participate, I was sometimes kicked in the head. I took one literature course with a teacher who fascinated me. He had written several novels and had a Hemingwayesque persona. I wanted to know more, and I relentlessly peppered him with questions. Like Hemingway, alcohol seemed to be a major factor in his life, and, in retrospect, I can see that he had burnt out years before I met him. He wanted to do nothing more than to show slides and film strips and then hand out multiple-choice quizzes. With all of the best intentions, I refused to let him get away with this. Then, one day, he took me by the arm and pulled me out into the hallway. “Read the books on the list,” he said, “and turn in a few essays. I will give you a B. Whatever you do, though, don’t come back into this class again.” This type of attitude was more typical of teachers in my earlier school experience. Doherty High, to which I had just transferred after getting kicked out of St. Peter’s, was actually an excellent school. There were any number of good teachers there. I just was not prepared to meet most of them half-way.

You write, “What really distinguished (Sue Castigliano) from other teachers you had? Also, this is another question which comes to mind I really want to ask you: Do you think there are teachers more suitable to an individual and his or her development than others?” These two things are really aspects of one question. Sue was exactly the right teacher for me at this particular time. She may very well have been for other students also. I couldn’t say. I was far too self-centered during this period to ever stop to notice. So, what qualities defined her? First, she listened, to what was said and to what was not said. Second, she saw, intuitively and in depth, in a way that felt both reassuring and invasive, in a way that mysteriously showed me to myself. No one else had ever done this; no one had ever tried. And third, she was far less interested in teaching a subject than in communicating on some level of direct presence. For this reason, I think of her as my first real spiritual teacher. You write, “The Goddess as Active Listener, your former teacher Sue Castigliano. How do you imagine she would have dealt with a difficult subject like myself if she was in your shoes and on the receiving end of my words? Would she have sent me to the corner with a dunce cap on my head?” The short answer is “Yes.” If I made too many demands, if I treated a classmate badly, for obscure reasons known only to herself or for no reason at all, she would sometimes act as if I wasn’t even there. Then, at some unpredictable moment, she would give me her full attention.

You ask, “In what way did you give back to Sue Castigliano and help her in her own development for becoming an even better teacher for those who came after you?” I wish that I could answer that. Up until I met her, I had not had many teachers who were in any way on my wavelength. I would like to think that my enthusiasm provided some degree of repayment. In addition, she was going through struggles of her own at the time. Even the worst of her problems seemed magical to me. I had just discovered that I had the ability to listen, and we would talk at considerable length. I don’t think, though, that I ever did specifically say “Thank you,” however much she might have inferred it from my actions. By the end of my senior year, exactly at the point when I was starting to grow up, Sue moved back to Ohio with her husband and three children. I was left to process any lessons learned in silence.

(John Dockus) #22

Hi Brian -

Finally got a chance to read this in full more closely. Incredibly generous of you to expose yourself in this way, giving a glimpse in poignant abbreviated form what you experienced and how you felt during periods leading up to or when you learned of the deaths of individuals very dear to you. Thank you for sharing this. It really hits home. I don’t think anyone could read it without having stirred the remembrance of family and friends they themselves have lost. For sure not one of us escapes the experience of such loss and each of us also will have our turn being ferried across the River Styx.

In the exchange between Socrates and Simmias as recorded by Plato, the deep acceptance of the inevitably of death and the lifetime of preparation for it which is the practice of philosophy, and the beautifully serene quality of that humor shared between them, is not lost on me.

I also appreciate the sort of short essay you wrote and added to the second part of your comment. I really don’t disagree with you, and feel because I didn’t first develop the overall context I’m responsible for an assumption about where my own thinking is on this topic, and my intended humor missed the mark. If I was on my deathbed and you hired a quartet to set up around me and play Mozart, I would dissolve in bliss. If you hired a troupe of mimes to dress up as skeletons and do a slapstick Danse Macabre for me, I’d be in stitches. If however you pulled up a chair and started academically elaborating on a metaphor for what I was going through, you yourself not in my body and going through it, and I was in unspeakable agony and totally fatigued, I’d feel like calling for the nurse to escort you out of the door. It’s just the way it is, buddy. I’d also have escorted out any priestly person who started to preach God and tell me of a great journey as if he himself had died and gone to heaven and came back and was now here to tell me about it. I’d probably start thrashing around on my bed. If you were in the area, Brian, I’d love for you to burst into the room dressed as a priest, squirt me in the face with a seltzer bottle, and shout, “The power of the Christ compels you!” I’d laugh so hard I’d probably die of a heart attack.

P. S. My dear Pops was a big ole’ mixed bag of a man. He could shout profanities with the best of them, he could be quite heated and prickly and opinionated, but deep down he had a soft and sentimental heart. Passionately and unabashedly blue-collar, a champion of the Everyman, he was also a sports fan. It was always great fun watching games with him. I have no doubt that our banter and mock-insults and repartee was often funny for onlookers to witness, and probably eyebrow-raising too. We could get under each other’s skin to where it could turn really ugly or just be hilarious.

He liked his martini a particular way, with a specific brand and crushed ice in a separate glass and a lemon wedge on the side, to where I joked that he should have instructions written on an index card for bartenders, waiters and waitresses. In certain establishments he became known for how he liked his martini. I read W. H. Auden was a martini enthusiast who liked his a particular way. But in the midst of this cruder matter, shall we say, and seeing the great painting you posted, Brian, here is a surprising fact about my dear Dad: He absolutely loved Botticelli. Botticelli was one if not his absolute favorite artist. How sweet it is when a gruff man is moved by sublime beauty.

(Brian George) #23

Hi Maia,

You write, “It was also true, he used to say, that we die with every breath. And that every death we choose, teaches us what we need to know, where we need to go. That the two primordial creative forces are: Strewing and Gathering, Expanding and Contracting…” I would add to these oppositions Exile and Return. It has been perhaps 30 years since I have read it, but I think that Heidegger asks, near the start of Being and Time , “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He then proceeds to not quite answer the question for 500 or so pages. I would not presume to answer the question either, at least not intellectually, but it is one that I have wrestled with for most of my adult life. For me, this question is also tied up with the mystery of evil and the linear movement known as “history.” If the cosmos is whole, in what way can it be broken? Is such a break an accident, the result of some malicious act, a form of play, or is it one phase in a larger pattern of necessity?

The Yoruba say, “It takes a little bit of everything to make the world.” For something to exist, everything must exist, in the same way that you cannot experience true joy if you refuse to allow yourself to feel sorrow. However much it does not free us from the experience of evil, we can perhaps intuit a kind of commerce—let’s say, a sacrificial commerce—between Strewing and Gathering, Expanding and Contracting, Exile and Return. In my piece “The Ocean and its Attendants,” I write, “There were those who believed that the ocean was not once as red as blood, or “wine dark,” as the poet would prefer. A wave had once shattered every symbol on the coast, taking with it, as it withdrew, the occult history of our race. In our hearts was a catastrophe; we would pour them out. We drunken sailors did not have any choice but to gather up wealth from the four corners of the world.”

Illustration: Adolph Gottlieb, “Flotsam at Noon”

(Maia ) #24

“…because the last thing I want to do is to kill this conversation.” John, these words of yours made me I laugh at the image they created in my mind! But, also, seriously, I 've been wanting to say to you and Brian how very much I appreciate the chance to have such deep and wide conversation, here, so rare and rich…
I believe that there are, as you say, teachers who are right for you and those who are not. One of my teachers (in the formal sense of the world), had just changed his overall approach to teaching before I met him. His own teacher had been a very “tough” Zen master who provoked and challenged unpredictably, so my teacher, let’s call him S. tried to do the same. But after several years, he realized that it was a “role” and that yes, it worked well for some people, but with others it drove them away or bruised their spirits and did not seem to be of help. S. began to spontaneously teach with skillful means of a gentler sort, also revealing his own weaknesses when appropriate, and allowing himself to come down from the “role” into a more natural being who was devoted to “what works” for each student, and encouraging them to approach their own practice in that spirit as well. As he told the story of this change, how and why it had come about, I immediately replied (which I never did, especially in groups, being very shy) that if he had not changed, I would not be there, and if he ever changed back, I’d be gone! He smiled cryptically and nodded. But then after the class he came up to me and said, “Don’t worry, I’m actually very shy and this way of teaching suits me”. I broke tradition, hugged him and we laughed.
I always thought that a major reason he was such a good match for me was because I was bullied and physically abused in my family. Any sort of tough Zen master style would have been both “nothing” compared to what I’d experienced, and exactly wrong for me. And yet, I saw too, that he was strong enough for the “teaching” to go both ways, so to speak, which after all these years is still what I do believe: all meaningful teaching is a two-way gift.
S. worked a lot with dying people, in fact, he specialized in it and made himself available at any hour if someone should need his help. He took the general approach of finding out what they wanted, and then suggesting ways to go with that , with his encouragment. He said it was nearly always clearly helpful, and often joyful/peaceful. At retreats, we would practice doing exactly this, either with him, or on our own, so that a kind of deep familiarity with “minimal self” could be evoked by a certain kind of attention and intention coming together. When a you are able to trust this “place”, even pain and fear is minimized and the experience almost always turns into gratitude/peace/quiet joy or at times, bliss. This is still my main approach to practice.
At times when I am very ill again, or in other way things appear to be seriously falling apart, I lose that trust awhile and have to rediscover it. (How long? Sometimes minutes sometimes months) A losing and finding rhythm seems to be built in to the natural world/life, as far as I can tell, and so “losing” (Like contracting, exile, scattering) does not signal “something wrong” though the smaller self always takes it that way, at first. At first, I say, because evnentually—and the story goes differently every time----eventually, concord/gratitude/embracing returns.
When I do worry that I won’t be “up to it” when death comes, fear comes in this form: I’ll be so miserable/in pain, etc etc that I’ll forget how to make my way to embracing/being found, and I’ll die while “lost”. (I don’t fear afterward, though.) I accept that this worry is simply part of being human and that I can know nothing ultimately except that death may be the greatest teacher of all, ripening us and freeing us as human beings, enough to become helpers of the others—human and more than human.

(Maia ) #25

"I would add to these oppositions Exile and Return. It has been perhaps 30 years since I have read it, but I think that Heidegger asks, near the start of Being and Time , “Why is there something rather than nothing?” "

Yes! I believe this is, in my reply to John today, what I refer to as the rhythm of Finding and Losing which is built into the universe. Philosophy/History of Religion was my focus in college and I remember Being and Time electrifying my mind, as though experiencing the dynamic hydrologics of things and being.
“It takes a little bit of everything to make the world” is embodied, for me, too, in the Native American “all our relations” which expands the meaning of “relations” to include stones, stars, wind and water and all the rest, vividly and in the round, so to speak, in the living present.

I love “sacrificial commerce”… which, if I understand your meaning, can go a very long way toward reconciling us with our personal deaths, as well as the death of every other in the universe. We are all relations in this way, too. Always dying and always being born.

How can I see The Ocean and its Attendants?

(Brian George) #26

Hi Maia,

I will send you a copy of “The Ocean and its Attendants.”

Here is a paragraph form my essay “Ashe, the First Artist” that speaks to the idea of commerce:

The Yoruba say that the other world is our home but that this world is the marketplace. The marketplace is where all the action is, and it is a desirable place to be. This attitude has always struck me as a remnant from a previous world age, when humans consciously chose the role they were to play in the project of creation, when the goal was full embodiment rather than transcendence. A traditional Yoruba community was organized in the shape of a large wheel, and so great was the importance of the marketplace that they put it right at the center, just next to the palace. The relation between the circumference and the center of the wheel could be seen as the relation between the Ipori and the Ori, or between the almost disconnected pieces of the first and current versions of the human.

(Brian George) #27

Thinking about the idea of exile in relation to the Goddess, I remembered this double sestina by Phillip Sidney. The mode of address and the cosmology, I think, point straight back to the troubadours of Provence. It is a strange and haunting piece and is one of my favorite poems from the Elizabethan period.

A DOUBLE SESTINA / Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)


Ye goatherd-gods, that love the grassy mountains;

Ye nymphs, which haunt the springs in pleasant valleys;

Ye satyrs, joyed with free and quiet forests;

Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,

Which to my woes gives still an early morning,

And draws the dolor on till weary evening.


O Mercury, forgoer to the evening;

O heavenly huntress of the savage mountains;

O lovely star, entitled of the morning;

While that my voice doth fill these woeful valleys,

Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,

Which oft hath Echo tired in secret forests.


I, that was once free burgess of the forests,

Where shade from sun and sport I sought in evening;

I, that was once esteemed for pleasant music,

Am banished now among the monstrous mountains

Of huge despair, and foul affliction’s valleys;

Am grown a screech owl to myself each morning.


I, that was once delighted every morning,

Hunting the wild inhabiters of forests;

I, that was once the music of these valleys,

So darkened am that all my day is evening;

Heartbroken so that molehills seem high mountains,

And fill the vales with cries instead of music.


Long since, alas, my deadly swannish music

Hath made itself a crier of the morning,

And hath with wailing strength climbed highest mountains;

Long since my thoughts more desert be than forests;

Long since I see my joys come to their evening,

And state thrown down to over-trodden valleys.


Long since the happy dwellers of these valleys

Have prayed me leave my strange exclaiming music,

Which troubles their day’s work and joys of evening;

Long since I hate the night, more hate the morning;

Long since my thoughts chase me like beasts in forests,

And make me wish myself laid under mountains.


Meseems I see the high and stately mountains

Transform themselves to low dejected valleys;

Meseems I hear in these ill-changed forests,

The nightingales do learn of owls their music;

Meseems I feel the comfort of the morning

Turned to the mortal serene of an evening.


Meseems I see a filthy cloudy evening

As soon as sun begins to climb the mountains;

Meseems I feel a noisome scent, the morning,

When I do smell the flowers of these valleys;

Meseems I hear, when I do hear sweet music,

The dreadful cries of murdered men in forests.


I wish to fire the trees of all these forests;

I give the sun a last farewell each evening;

I curse the fiddling finders-out of music;

With envy I do hate the lofty mountains,

And with despite despise the humble valleys;

I do detest night, evening, day, and morning.


Curse to myself my prayer is, the morning;

My fire is more than can be made with forests,

My state more base than are the basest valleys;

I wish no evenings more to see, each evening;

Shamed, I hate myself in sight of mountains,

And stop mine ears, lest I grow mad with music.


For she whose parts maintained a perfect music,

Whose beauties shined more than the blushing morning;

Who much did pass in state the stately mountains,

In straightness past the cedars of the forests,

Hath cast me, wretch, into eternal evening,

By taking her two suns from these dark valleys.


For she, with whom compared, the Alps are valleys;

She, whose least word brings from the spheres their music;

At whose approach the sun rose in the evening;

Who where she went bore in her forehead morning,

Is gone, is gone, from these our spoiled forests,

Turning to deserts our best pastured mountains.


These mountains witness shall, so shall these valleys;


These forests eke, made wretched by our music;


Our morning hymn is this, and song at evening.

(John Dockus) #28

Hi Maia:

Your presence and spirit in these comment sections is a welcome relief and I think with your fluid gentleness and quiet nurturing has been essential for helping bring us to this point. Thank you so much for what you are contributing! I think if you leave two men alone long enough in a confined space or an isolated situation they will exercise civility up to a certain point but eventually will start taking runs at each other and butting heads.

It’s just the nature of the beast.

What is primal in both men and women needs vent and expression too, and if this is denied and suppressed too long, or forced to play by too many rules in a parlor room game of etiquette, it will only gather more force and fury in the shadows and eventually blow the bars and roof off of its cage and perhaps do more damage than it would have done otherwise if it was let out to exercise every now and then and allowed to share in the air we breathe.

Every dog needs a bone and some space to run around in, and it wouldn’t hurt to give the cat a ball of yarn and if used sparingly and responsibly some catnip sometimes.

I’m deeply sympathetic that you suffered abuse in the past. I could say that I did too. So did my two sisters, though on the whole I don’t believe it was intentional. I can think of other family members too who have been through a helluva lot. I think this sort of thing impacts and affects each of us in highly individual ways. What can crush and destroy one individual can actually end up fortifying and strengthening the character of another. The great intangible is resilience and guts and heart. Some come out of incredibly abusive backgrounds filled with rage and hardened in hate, looking to get revenge, while others, even because they carry wounds, become extraordinarily compassionate and loving human beings. The whole idea of the wounded healer is fascinating to me, and I wonder to what extent I might be one of these.

Certainly to become more skilled and able to produce better results I need more practice. Evidence is here in my previous comments and elsewhere in my personal life how far I have yet to go. When it comes to the art of the wounded healer I know I am nowhere near to being a fully realized and wise practitioner, that I am definitely not a master, and there is a good chance I never become one. I wouldn’t even presume to call myself a teacher, but more of a bumbling and rough and tumble child trying things out by instinct and by trial and error. You could say I leave the mystic rose where others will come away from it with a thorn or two stuck in their ass!

P. S. I love your account of your teacher who abandoned the tough and severe method of instruction he had adopted from his former teacher, realizing he was only playing a role, and finally moving into a way of relating and teaching more in living and breathing harmony with his actual nature. I totally agree with you that the student and teacher relation is a two way gift. Sometimes it is the student who provides the wake-up call and reminder to the teacher of where the attention needs to be, where the watering needs to be done. It’s like Brian said of his former teacher Sue Castigliano: she knew when to be attentive and how really to listen to him. She appears to have been one of those teachers who not only gave the lessons that she was paid to give but also was accessible as a human being and really open to learning from her students. I can’t help but to think that she also must have been a wonderful mother. I’d be curious to know how her three children turned out.