Abba Poemen was a desert father: these were men and women who took to the desert and lived in caves in Egypt in the 4th century. Christianity was still a faith in formation at the time, it was around then that the Emperor Constantine who was at the time the head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church held his famous council meeting in which it was decided which gospels would remain and which would be flung out – including, it is said. the gospels of Sophia and Mary. It was Constantine also who recast Mary Magdalen from pure disciple to prostitute, a mistake that has taken until the 21st century to correct.
History doesn’t relate how the men and women of the desert felt about what Constantine was doing but certainly they were spiritual anarchists. They did not believe in being told how to be or how to pray and had no desire to be part of a spiritual hierarchy. They escaped to the desert to find ‘a clear unobstructed vision of truth and an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality in God, through Christ.’  They came to be recognized as seers and ordinary men and women sought their guidance on how to live, pray and love God. To these seekers the Mother and Fathers gave their ‘sayings’.
What inspires me about the men and women of the desert is the freedom they embodied to be themselves. Their sayings are not consistent and are frankly, often baffling. And they chose a hard core life to live in the desert and scratch an existence without creature comforts which I can’t relate to. But there is a wild selfness and selflessness that is liberating to those of us who have grown up with spirituality always being modeled by authorities who uphold a set of ‘rules’ that must be followed. These were spiritual seekers of the Wild West. They took no direction, needed no maps but trusted that their hearts, fashioned by a loving source of life, would lead them to direct relationship with it.
 Council of Nicea.
 (italics mine) Thomas Merton. The Wisdom of the Desert. Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the 4th Century. Shambala books 2004.
Essentially this means that if we do not find some physical expression for our feelings, they will cause dis-ease. Trouble is we live in a culture that doesn't encourage the expression of emotion: tears are met with apology and embarassment, anger with shame and so on.
A teacher of mine from the Daosit tradition, Chung Fu explained to me that the word (e)motion should be seen as 'e -for energy- in motion'. A feeling is a rising of an energy that wants and needs to move, much like a wave. If the energy of the emotion is blocked and we stop the flow we ‘bank’ up the tension of that unreleased emotion and sabotage our wellbeing. A wave wants to peak and then dissolve on the shore, it swells to an enormous strength and then dissolves. It must be allowed to do so.
We live in a society where emotion is not welcomed. You often hear people apologise for becoming emotional as if they’ve offended some rule. The silent unexpressed rule is ‘don’t show your feelings’. That rule has left me in a terrible bind much of my life. I grew up feeling that these powerful emotions within me were an embarrassing aberration. So I was horrified by the concept when first introduced to it.
It took me a while, years probably, and baby steps (and because I am of mystical bent and need to discover things for myself) I began to experiment with ways to express my feeling and in time found that this wisdom was indeed true for me too.
The first step was to notice that a strong feeling was present in my body (I’d got so used to ignoring my feelings and carrying on). (Acknowledge) Accept it's presence and allow it's expression.
How to do this? The next step was to find a safe space to express it and to give myself permission to allow the spontaneous sound and movement that is the emotion on it’s way home. One of my favourites if I’m feeling really, really angry is to go to the woods. I find a dead fallen tree and beat it with branches. I say all the things it would be harmful to say to the person, and I take off all the edits/ ‘I hate you’ ‘How could you do this?’ etc with a full complement of expletives and angry sounds. Or sometimes I just sit on the tree and cry my eyes out. And when woods aren’t available, I’ve used toilets before to shake or cry (rather more quietly than I would in the woods!). It sounds insane, but trust me it feels amazing!
I am daunted even now by this practise, I want to wimp out and hope the feeling goes away. But there is always the certain reward of relief afterwards. When I do, it’s as if the emotions took up space in the inner cupboards, and my whole system goes ‘phew, there’s space inside again’. In the space there is now room for the other things in my life I actually want to pay attention to, and I am free from the compulsive thought cycle that is powered by a strong suppressed emotion and I often experience a joyful lightness. Because I suppose, not only has the uncomfortable emotion passed, but I have a glorious sense of mastery. That maybe I can sculpt my own experience, I am not purely a victim of what life throws at me. I can choose to transform my experience. This is in itself is quite an ecstatic feeling of freedom.
Vulnerability is the key to this process. There is a beautiful irony in the idea that to become masters of our own experience, we have to become vulnerable. I have to allow myself to be as a child, free with my feelings and spontaneous and vulnerable. I don’t do this any time, anywhere. I do it responsibly with awareness. But if I don’t allow myself to be as a child, and pause the self-editing voices in my head, I cannot inhabit the feelings with enough commitment to fully express and let them go. Becoming at ease with being vulnerable is still in progress. I’m yet to discover the lengths and depths of what this attitude to feeling really means. It has certainly taken an enormous amount of courage.
But it is no mistake that the word ‘vulnere’, the root of the word ‘vulnerable,’ means ‘wound’. It makes sense then that to heal a wound, we have to first acknowledge and express our woundedness: at least to ourselves. This is the great revelation of the desert, wherever we are, in the 4th or the 21st century the ultimate relationship is with ourselves. It is only when we can feel our own wounds can we begin to heal them.