Episode #90 Thresholds of Being: Connecting to the webs of land, life and death with Dr Sharon Blackie
In a world where the only constant is change, how can we find the best of our wisdom? How can we find true connection to the spirits of the places we live so that we might learn better how to be in the transition that is coming? How, above all, can we approach death with equanimity, and even joy? This week, we explore all of this with author, mythicist – and elder – Dr. Sharon Blackie.
Sharon is an award-winning writer and internationally recognised teacher whose work sits at the interface of psychology, mythology and ecology.
Her highly acclaimed books, courses, lectures and workshops are focused on the development of the mythic imagination, and on the relevance of our native myths, fairy tales and folk traditions to the personal, social and environmental problems we face today. As well as writing four books of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling If Women Rose Rooted, her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Irish Times, the Scotsman and more, and she has been interviewed by the BBC and other major broadcasters on her areas of expertise.
Sharon is one of those rare people who walks her talk in every part of her life. Through the past decades, she has lived in each one of the Celtic lands: Scotland, then Ireland, then Wales, always in remote areas with few people and a wild, powerful landscape. Her deep roots to our mythology and to the spirits of place have left her uniquely placed to speak to and of the old ways of our ancestors – and the ways we can avail ourselves of the ancient wisdom of lineage and place to weave new ways of being that will help to guide us through the change that is coming. This week’s podcast is a deep, deep dive into our shamanic past and our future. Join us and step beyond the veils.
My guest this week is Dr Sharon Blackie. She’s an award winning writer, an internationally recognised teacher whose work sits at the interface between psychology and mythology and ecology. And that’s what it says on her website. And it’s true. But Sharon is one of those women whose lives penetrate the magical side of the world more than anybody else I have known or met. She studied mythology and she studied psychology, and as you will hear in the podcast, she brought those two together. But then she lives her world. She went to live on the far southern tip of Lewis, which is one of the Outer Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland. Really on the edge of the world. And from there, she moved to the edge of Ireland. And now she lives in Mid Wales.
She’s inhabited the Celtic lands and has brought into her bones the mythology of these places in ways that enables her to connect out into the world and share the realities that her ancestors lived and worked and dreamt and danced and loved and died. Her work comes in many forms. She is the author of the book If Women Rose Rooted. She’s also written Foxfire and Wolf Skin, which is a series of just beautiful short stories, and The Enchanted Life. And each of these, if you haven’t read them, and you are a fan of this podcast, then they need to go to the top of your reading list, and we will put links in the show notes. Each of them is an exploration of the ways that we can be in the world where the magic is alive. And they’re based on Sharon’s understanding and her scholarship and her life and therefore they’re real. So people of the podcast, as we step into this enchanted life, please welcome Dr Sharon Blackie. So, Doctor Sharon Blackie, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast on this slightly wet and grey August. Although I think we will be putting this out in September. Afternoon. How are you and how is life in your part of the world?
Sharon: Thank you for having me on your wonderful podcast. And I am very well. And it’s great here as well. And I love it because I am really not a summer person. I’m a creature of the dark. And I can’t wait for September.
Manda: For the equinox.
Sharon: Yes. Yes, I can, because I have been reading your book, The Enchanted Life, again. And you do say in that that come the summer solstice when the nights imperceptibly begin to grow longer, you settle into the world and yourself. And I know so many people who go into mourning as summer peaks and heads for winter. And it’s really a key part of who you are, I would say, that the dark is your place. So I’d love to explore that at some point. But before we get there, tell us a little bit about how Sharon Blackieie came to be the person who wrote The Enchanted Life, The person who is writing Hagitude, the person who runs all of the extraordinary online courses that you do, and the woman who wrote If Women Rose Rooted, which is, I think, a cult book, probably for almost everyone who listens to this podcast. So give us a little bit of a sketch of who you are and how you came to be here.
Sharon: That’s a big question, isn’t it? So I think I would say that I came to be here by making mistakes, which is the best kind of journey to me. You know, we have a tendency to think that the mistakes, the so-called mistakes we make in life really were mistakes. And the ones that I made, which were in brief, following a very safe corporate existence for a number of years, out of a sense of fear rather than what I knew I ought to be, even as a very, very young child, which was something a little bit more magical, a little bit more mystical, perhaps a little bit more engaged in the world. I saw that for a long time as a mistake. And I beat myself up, you know, for a long time over doing that for a good number of years. But I think it was only in the skills that I learnt from having walked that, it wasn’t a wrong path, but that path that wasn’t, you know, intended to be mine forever, that I gained the strength and I guess the vision, if I can say that without sounding a bit too bigheaded, that enabled me to write those books. So I think I’m a great fan of people making what they consider to be the wrong choices. So I, at about the age of 40, finally got out of my corporate existence and set off becoming what I had always wanted to be, which was somewhere between a psychologist and a writer, and ideally both, always with a passion for story and for myth, and set about, I suppose, without any clear trajectory in mind, set about creating both writing and courses, and I hope in some small way, a life that reflects that. And it’s been very much as perhaps we’ll come to later on, very much a journey about my relationship with various places, and the way the Land speaks to me, and the kind of mythical overlay that I think of when I look at the land that I live on.
Manda: Definitely. We will definitely come to that shortly, but just before we do: a lot of people who listen to this podcast are probably at the transition point of being locked in a life that they thought they ought to lead. Probably something embedded in our Neoliberal, predatory capitalist system, because that’s what we’re brought up to, that’s what our schools do. That’s what we are headed for, unless we have a lot of capacity to break out of the system as young people. When you got to fortyish, what was it that gave you the impetus and the insight and the vision to get out?
Sharon: Because I felt that I was dying in any way that meant anything. I just had a very, very strong sense. And I’d always had it without being able to put words in it from being a child, that this wasn’t a free ride, you know, that I was supposed to do something here and I didn’t know what it was necessarily. But there was a sense that, no, you’re not you’re not here just to kind of, you know, be safe. You’re here to risk everything. And I wasn’t risking everything. I was being safe. And at about the age 38, I decided to risk everything in a very real and visceral way. I decided to learn to fly in spite of the fear of flying. And in the deserts of New Mexico and Louisville, Kentucky, two very strangely different places, I did that. And I literally, every time I got in that small plane, I felt that I was staring death in the face. And if I couldn’t stare death in the face and somehow thrive on it, I wasn’t ever going to live. Now, I couldn’t have put it in those words at the time, because we don’t do we, we ony see this beautiful pattern in hindsight. But really, that was it. I felt that I just, it wasn’t worth living the way that I was. It wasn’t that I was miserable or unhappy or whatever, but I knew that it didn’t mean anything, and I didn’t know how to break out of it. And the only way that I could break out of it was by doing something very, very drastic, which was, you know, knocking all of those safety dominoes down that I had been so attached to over the years.
Manda: Yes. And then interestingly, you married an R.A.F. tornado pilot, which must be one of the most dangerous forms of flying that one could possibly imagine.
Sharon: Yeah, upside down at 500 miles an hour through a narrow valley. That takes some guts. And I have to say, you know, we met after he had just received a medal for bravery in the Iraq war, which I marched against. So that was a marriage made in heaven at the beginning. He’s seen the error of his ways now. But yeah, it was a little bit fraught for for a little while. But, yes, I think there’s something about David as a bird. You know, he even when he was flying, he was a hang glider in his spare time, whereas I was never really comfortable in the air. So there is that whole business of putting yourself at risk, I think, which I was probably trying to do to to find the courage to actually go out and live a life that I thought was more meaningful. And so I would say to to anybody who, you know, finds themself on that threshold, I think you know, when there is no choice, you know, when the alternative is just to shrivel and to die. And I think for most people, that’s when they feel more able to take that leap into the unknown.
Manda: And you write very movingly in the Enchanted Life and and other of your writing of a sense of enchantment in your childhood. And I think, again, that most people can look back to a childhood where magic was alive. And like you, it’s not necessarily that we believed in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy, because almost certainly most of us didn’t. But that the world spoke to us. And then we went into the deadening process of education, and came out the other side as happy little robots. And you managed somehow to hold on to that mythic imagination from your childhood, I think, that’s as I understand your writing. Well, am I right in that? Or was it that you rediscovered it as an adult and then made the links back to childhood?
Sharon: A little bit of both, I think. I always kept some part of it so that even when I was in my kind of corporate days, even when I was studying the most behaviourist scientistic psychology that was possible to study in the UK at the time, you know, I would go and read myths and kind of fantasy and Tolkien in my spare time, and I might not tell anybody about it, but it was always there. And it was only really later in life that I realised how important that had been, and was drawn back to myth and fairy tales in a very, very big way. When I left corporate life and went back to the highlands of Scotland and had a little croft in the northwest highlands and retrained as a psychologist, which had been my original degree, you know, and started to go into practise, and specialised in a form of narrative psychology that used storytelling and myths to help people reimagine their their way of being in the world. And that’s really where a lot of this work came from. That to me, transformation is the reason for life. If we can’t change, if we really think, and not of the sake of it. But, you know, if we’re not open to some very profound shaking to the core transformation, then I think we’re just not really living. And fairy tales, and myth, fairy tales particularly are all about transformation. You know, transformation isn’t optional. It’s going to happen. And the only question is what form you permit it to take. So I think that passion for transformation, for change, has been with me ever since I was younger, because, you know, even when I was in this very safe corporate environment, I was travelling a lot in different places of the world. I moved a lot. I didn’t just sit there and and settle in any kind of way.
Manda: Right. Really interesting. So in a moment, we’ll definitely want to explore more deeply into this concept of transformation. I was reading something yesterday, and I can’t remember who it was quoting, but the basis was everything we touch changes, everything we change changes us. Change is the only constant. God is change. And this was, I think, a Jesuit way back in the kind of 15th century, which must have been fairly radical back then. He probably got burned at the stake. I don’t know. So let’s head into that in a moment. But before that, you went to your croft in the Highland.s and as a Highland lass, that fills my little Scottish heart with great joy. And we both now live, you live on the west side of the English Welsh border. I live on the English side. We live relatively close together. And we both, I think, have lived in different places enough to understand the magic of place. And you have lived in all of the Celtic nations. You’ve lived in several places in Scotland. You’ve lived in Ireland. You’ve lived in Wales. Let’s explore place, and how the transformation that happens to us can be mediated through the places where we live. Does that make sense as a concept?
Sharon: It does indeed.
Manda: Let’s start off with Scotland and your first croft, and then you moved out to the Outer Isles, which fills me with awe, because they always seem to me quite inhospitable places, challenging. So, again, you were not putting yourself in a tiny little plane and expecting it to stay aloft, but you were putting yourself on the edge of the world, on the active of an inhabitable capacity, I think. Tell us a bit about that.
Sharon: Well, just to say that I came back to Scotland, my father’s family is entirely from Scotland, that nobody lives outside of Scotland to this day. So even though I never lived there as a child, it always felt like home. So I had this very strong sense when I was in America that I had to come back to my father’s place, and that I had to somehow make my peace with my father, who was not an easy man. He was quite violent, and kind of abandoned us when I was a very small child. But I’m very like him, and very like his family. So there’s a sense of going home in a sense that I had to explore that part of my life. And to me, you know, perhaps we’ll come back to this as to why I’m in Wales, to me, that place is the biggest teacher. And it reflects my psychology, and not just my genetics, but the stuff that I have to deal with, the mess that my family is. You know, to me, dealing with that isn’t just about being in my head and kind of thinking it through. It’s about going to the places where they came from, and seeing what made them the way they are. So I was drawn back to Scotland when I finally managed to get out of corporate life, and left America, and had a croft in the north west Highlands, just outside of a place called Ullapool, which I’m sure lots of people will know. I was there for seven years by myself, with some very kind neighbours who showed me how to stick my hand up a chicken’s bum and kind of, you know, pluck it, and all of that kind of thing, which is very fine.
Sharon: Then I met and married David, and we had a joint midlife crisis. I’d already had like two by that stage, but he was in his first. So we had a joint midlife crisis, which was endearing. And we finally realised at this late stage in our lives, which is pitiful really, when you think about it, that the world wasn’t exactly going the way that we thought it should. You know, there was this big environmental crisis. I mean, you know, we were in our early 40s by then. It took that long, but it did. And we had a real meltdown kind of at the same time. And we wanted, I think our initial response to it, both of us, instinctive response was to get the hell away from it, you know, to get as far as we could away from civilisation and just sit and regroup and think, well, what is this for? So we ended up – cut a very long story short, right at the far western end of the Isle of Lewis, at the end of what is called the longest Cul-De-Sac in Europe.
Sharon: We could see St Kilda from our kitchen window. It was that remote. And we wanted to not rely on civilisation, whatever that is, as much as we could. We wanted to rely on it not at all. And so we set about some crazy form of self-sufficiency, you know, with animals of all kinds: sheep, ducks, cows, turkeys, pigs. It just went on and on and on. We were looking at installing a wind turbine, so we could be self-sufficient in power by the time we finally left. And it was really the sense that for me, at least, David, perhaps his reasons, perhaps were slightly different. But for me, it was really part of that process, which I guess began when I started Land flying of needing to go to the extremes just to see, because II thought I would find my way back from that extremity. But if I didn’t get to the extremity, I wouldn’t know what was possible. I wouldn’t be tested. And I really wanted still to be tested, because transformation is about testing yourself. And boy, we tested. You know, we lived there for four years. And I could tell you all of the places that I’ve been, many of which I’ve loved, that that was the most singularly transformative experience of my life, that my relationship with that place was intense because there was nobody there that we could remotely talk to, or that we could remotely relate to.
Sharon: So I talked to the Land, and this is really where a lot of my sense of animism, for want of a better word in place, and my sense of the mythic in place came from. It was just that process of literally everyday getting up, taking the dogs out to the headland, seeing a rock that was in the shape of an old woman, talking to it as if it was an old woman, finding that there was this wonderful old woman, the Cailleach in Scottish and Irish mythology, and thinking, oh, there we go, there’s the Gods and the Land. And just building such a relationship that I really felt as if I had, a phrase that I’ve used for is fallen into the Land’s dreaming, that there was this other layer of life, I’d kind of crossed into the other world, if you like, in some kind of way, but I’d done it in a waking state. And every day my walking was kind of, I always think of the true Celts, if you like, is walking with one foot in the other world. Anyway, and that’s what I felt as if I was doing.
Manda: Yes. It does seem to me that our indigenous forebears, that must have been the way they lived. I think this is perhaps, for me and I would like to see for you, the role of humanity is to be the bridge between the worlds.
Sharon: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what you wrote about, of course, in your very, very wonderful Boudicca novel. So your dreaming, in a sense is that, isn’t it? It’s a mediation between the worlds.
Manda: Yeah. My best attempt. And one question, I question, my experience when I can get into the right place is that the animals with whom I share my life, so particularly the horses, but even the kites on the hill, exist in what we might call the dream time, pretty much fully. If we are bridging between the worlds from the dream time to the world that ordinary humanity inhabits, other than people, what are we bridging for? And I don’t have an answer for that. And I wonder if you do.
Sharon: What are we approaching for other than people?
Manda: Yeah, so we’re bridging from the Dreamtime to what let’s call consensus reality. Hmm. Not much else exists and fully in consensus reality besides the greater mass of humanity in its kind of crisis state at the moment. And yet I still have a core heart-mind sense being that bridge is what we’re for. But I’ve never been clear what we’re bridging to.
Sharon: It’s interesting. I suppose my sense of it is, it’s a very personal sense, I’m not saying this is right, I think we all have our own way of doing this stuff, but I had a real epiphany, I suppose, when I stepped a little bit out of my Celtic comfort zone and went back to Plato, who I previously declared to be thethe reason for the downfall of Western civilisation. And then I thought one day, oh, I’d better go back and actually read Plato because I keep on saying that. So I did. And actually found that Plato was very wonderful, that it was kind of maybe Aristotle was the bad guy. But anyway, that’s another story. And, you know, this whole beautiful idea that Plato and his forebears and other Greek philosophers had of the Anima Mundi, the world’s soul, kind of being created by the creator, whatever that was. They didn’t use the term God with all its connotations in those days. And that soul infusing everything in the world, including us. And my sense, to cut another long story short is that our reason for bridging between the worlds, for entering into that space, which the ancient Sufis used to call the Mudist imagin, is, you know, the imaginal world is can be purely for the purpose of keeping it alive, because I think it requires participation and it requires engagement.
Sharon: And I think if we don’t court the world soul, if we don’t honour the world soul, if we don’t talk to it and be in relationship with it, then it dies, because we’re not participating in it. And I think that that is a real duty that humans have. And I don’t see it necessarily as being for anything other than that. Now, other things might accrue out of that. We might change some things that need to be changed. We might reimagine the world in a very wonderful way. We might ourselves become enchanted so that we transform our entire way of looking at the world. But just the act of going out there and saying hello crow, or talking to a tree, or engaging with a red kite, rather than just the humans that are around you, in a sense, to me is keeping the world soul alive. And it’s struggling at the moment, isn’t it? It’s struggling. And it needs our love and care and attention, just like any of us do. And I think at some level, although it sounds awfully simplistic, I think that’s the beginning of everything.
Manda: Let’s unpack this. The world’s soul is the world’s soul. I’m feeling possibly that it was here before humanity became recognisably what we are now. And if a new virus were to arise, that obliterated only humanity from the planet in our little thought form tomorrow, I think the world soul would still be there. And the red kites, and the crows and the ravens would inhabit the dream time, as they do now. My feeling remains that there must be something that humanity brings that is different and unique and part of the weave, a thread that only we are that colour, and that without that colour, the thread will change. And part of your writing, I think I understood, was putting forward the concept that consciousness, the self reflective consciousness, the Max Weber ideas of ‘the universe is conscious, but only when it has the capacity to be self reflective, and that we are the self reflective part. As far as we know. I mean, who knows? It’s entirely possible that the blue whales are very self reflective. We just haven’t managed to find that out yet. But what we know, what we know, which is that we have the capacity to step into the world soul and to connect with it, and to make that kind of heart mind connexion. And we have the capacity for self reflection. In your cosmology, if humanity were to be virally wiped out tomorrow, what difference do you think that would make to the world soul? Does that make sense as a question?
Sharon: Yes, it does make very good sense as a question. And it’s kind of difficult, isn’t it, to to even address this question, because neither of us are particularly anthropocentric beings, you know. So neither of us think that it’s all just about humanity. And nevertheless, there has been this strain even in the more, even in the philosophers in ancient Europe and the Middle East, that recognised the importance of animals and their own unique wisdom. I mean, that’s fundamental to Celtic wisdom, is that animals know stuff that we don’t, and therefore we need to treat them with respect. So but nevertheless, throughout even that kind of philosophy, there is this sense that humans, as you say, have something, some ability to imagine, some ability – co creation is another one of those words that I hate, because it’s been kind of, you know, subsumed into all kinds of nonsense. But nevertheless, it’s there in it, and it works, that we have this particular ability through our imagination, through our unique ways of bridging into the imaginal world, connecting with the world soul that perhaps other beings don’t have. And it has to be OK for us to say that. It has to be OK, because it doesn’t mean that we’re better. It means that we, like them, have a particular unique niche in the world. But this is our responsibility. And it breaks my heart in a very genuine way when I see people wandering the world just oblivious just to trees, to crows, to all of these amazing beings that have this whole mythical layer, apart from their wonderful, beautiful, physical, embodied selves, that we’re just not seeing. And it’s just like, you know what you’re missing A, and B, you’re hurting the world soul cause you’re not acknowledging it. It needs us to acknowledge it. It needs our participation. We are part of this process. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know in what way a crow is part of this process. Sorry. I’m obsessed with crows. They’re always my first go to example. But I do know that we are necessary. And it may well be that if crows disappeared, there’d be some terrible thing that happened that we wouldn’t, you know, that we don’t really understand. But all we can understand is our own way of being in the world, in our own interaction with the world. So, and I agree with you. I think it’s absolutely critical that we do this work, whatever way we can. There are lots of ways to do it. I don’t know.
Manda: But yeah, there are lots of ways. And so I think one of the things we try to do in the podcast is give people ideas of what they can do, give them agency and a sense of doing things. And what absolutely lives through your books is that that you walk your talk. This isn’t theory. I mean, there is a lot of theory underpinning it, if that’s what people want. But it’s really a lived experience. I’m not sure I love that phrase. Really. It’s a bit of a, you genuinely do do what you’re saying. You go out and you talk to the rock, or there’s a beautiful bit where you’re in Ireland and there are the two mountains called the Big Horse and the Little Horse. Can you just talk us through your discovery on that? Because it was so beautiful and it would be a nice way in again to that sense of how in actual practical, logistical terms can people begin to open to the soul of the world around them?
Sharon: Yeah, I landed in Donegal in Ireland after Lewis. That’s where we ended up when we kind of fled after four radical years. And we lived in a part of Donegal where there were mountains called the Seven Sisters. At each of the seven sisters had a name. And yes, two of them were there, An Eachla Bheag, and An Eachla Mhór, the Little Horse and the Big Horse. And I just I always wondered what was horsey about them. Now, you know, that part of Ireland, the north of Ireland, has that wonderful story of Mahat, the horse goddess. And so there is a horse thing going on in the land there. But just every morning I would walk in the bogs next to the Seven Sisters. I had a wonderful panoramic view of every one of them, and I would name them every morning. I would stand there and I would tell them, you know, their names. I would acknowledge them. And that really became a very important ritual to me. But I couldn’t figure out why there were the horses. And there was just this one day where the light had shifted at a part of the year that I, you know, that I was in Donegal for the first time, and the shadows of the clouds just highlighted the contours of these two mountains.
Sharon: And it became incredibly clear to me that these were two horses lying down on the ground, kind of entwined in each other, you know, one turning one way and the other turning the other way. There’s a symbol for that. And I can’t think what it is, what it’s called. And I could see the rise of their necks and their, you know, the noses that went down. And it was just like a moment of revelation. And I thought to myself at the time, that happened to me with another mountain in the Seven Sisters. I really had to work for that. You know, it wasn’t going to reveal itself until I’d been out there every morning for a few months, and called it by its name, and wondered, and respected it, and thought that there was a mystery there that was worth having. And then it’s like, OK, OK, now I’ll show you. And so that sense of always looking for, in the Land for something that reflects the mysteries of our own lives, I suppose. A lot of people think that’s anthropomorphic, I don’t believe in anthropomorphism. You know, we can only approach a tree as a human. We can’t approach a tree as a tree. So the question to me is, what is in the space between us and a tree, or us and a mountain? And of course, it’s going to reflect our own symbols and our own way of looking at the world.And I don’t think a mountain or a tree is going to be offended in any way by that. What is it thinking when it looks at us? Heaven above knows.
So to me, it’s just that sense of looking. I knew the geology of the place. I knew the ecology of the place. But what I was looking for with this mythic overlay, which is what I think of as enchantment, is like, as well as understanding that a crow is this very wonderful black feathered being who lays eggs in a particular place and has this particular kind of behaviour, what else is it? What is the kind of, what is it in the imaginal world? You know, because, again, it walks in with one wing in each place. What is crow in the imaginal world? And that, to me is really important, to know the full embodied physical beingness of a crow, but also to somehow be able to perceive, it’s as if your eyes kind of fade, and you perceive what crow is, or you perceive what a mountain is. That’s something on top of, if that makes sense.
Manda: It totally does. I would love to know what crow is in the imaginal world for you, but that’s also probably quite hard to put into words. Can you find words for it?
Sharon: I can’t. I can’t. Because what I tend to do then, is I tend to resort to the old stories like, you know, the wonderful Irish stories of Crow goddesses, the Morrígan. And I think, well, what is that energy, that she would be as comfortable in a crow form as in the human form? What is it about Crow that enabled her to be the particular archetypal being, the goddess, if you like, that she was? And I think it is that you don’t mess with Crow, at some level. You know, Crow may seem to be very tricksterish and very funny sometimes and what have you. But, boy, you’d better get at some very deep level, you don’t want to mess with a crow. And so I think of it in that way. And the other thing that I think as well, every time when I go out into the world, and this to me is a kind of, it’s almost an element of reciprocity, or a respectful relationship. I also think, well, what am I in Crow’s mythology? You know, and how do I look to Crow, and how do I want to look to Crow? What do I want to be in a Crow’s mythology? That’s a good thing, potentially. Of course, I’ll never know. But it’s a good question to ask, I think.
Manda: Yes. Yes. And if we asked of ourselves, what am I in the mythology of everything that touches our lives? It’s that sense that we only come to know who we truly are when we are mirrored by other aspects of consciousness. And frequently for me, the best mirroring has come from the non-human aspects of consciousness. We build ourselves in relationship to other people because because we can hold the outloud conversations, I think. But the inner conversations, the dreamworld conversations, seem to me to shape us.
Sharon: Indeed. And I don’t know whether you remember a few weeks or months ago, I came to you because I had landed in Wales, in a place that was overrun with red kites. And Red Kite is not in my mythology. I don’t know anything about red kites. I’ve never lived with red kites. And I said to you, because I know that you live with red kites, I sent you an email and said, what’s a red kite? What’s a red kite? And you said something about, kind of ruthlessness. And I can’t remember your exact words, but it really made me think in one day, the next day I was looking at the red kite, and it was stripping the bones of some creature, I don’t know what, in the field. And it just looked at me and then just looked away as though I wasn’t very interesting. And I suddenly had this archetypal character come into my head, because that’s what I do: Old Bone Mother. And then that whole idea of the red kite as this stripping, this archetypal being that strips away all the rotten meat, all the dead flesh, all the stuff. we don’t need, a kind of alchemist of the skies, if you like. You know, the ultimate transformation from life to death. And then all of a sudden it’s like, OK, now I can be comfortable because I’ve got someway of approaching a red kite. Until I can do that, I’m not happy.
Manda: Right. And it’s such a powerful image, that Old Bone Mother. Because the kites are the vultures of our land, and that sense of being that which carries something from life into death feels very also present for humanity just now. There’s a poem in your book, The Enchanted Life, that you’ve quoted from a woman, I’m assuming a woman actually, called Leslie Marmon Silko, which is also the male spelling of the word. But I just want to read it, and then I want to look at where that takes us. It says: ‘They see no life. When they look, they see only objects. The world is a dead thing for them. The trees and the rivers are not alive. The mountains and stones are not alive. The deer and the bear are objects. They see no life. They fear the world. They destroy what they fear. They fear themselves.’ So the ‘they’ of the poem is Western people, those of us who live in the Western educated, industrial, rich democracies, otherwise known as the weird side of the world, we who have cut ourselves off from all the enchantment that we’ve been talking about, and have deadened ourselves, I think. And it seems to me that what you are doing, one of the several things that you are doing is is reclaiming the pathways back into to living so that we don’t destroy what we fear, we don’t fear ourselves, and we don’t see the rest of the world as only a resource to be mined endlessly for profit. And in the doing of that, because you have a lot of people who come on your courses, who listen to you, who engage with you, are you feeling a sense of a tide turning, of the enchantment returning of the world soul revivifying?
Sharon: I don’t know, is the honest answer to that. And the other honest answer is that one of my own ways of learning, like some kind of sixty, just – finally figuring out that I’m probably on line with what I think of as my own calling is a lack of attachment to outcome in that way. And I don’t mean that I don’t give a damn. I mean that I think there is a point… I’m slightly off topic now, so forgive me, but it is relevant to your question. I think there is a point when you’re searching for what it is that is your own unique gift, and I think that we all have one, that the point where it doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing it, and as long as you can see some change. And I think what keeps me going is the fact that every day, you know, If Women Rose Rooted, for example, was published in 2016, and I still get women writing saying that it has changed their lives. And I don’t know which of those women will change the world, probably all of them in various different ways. I don’t know which one will matter. I don’t know whether it matters that 100,000, is it the 99th, or is it the, you know, nine hundred and ninety nine thousandth? I don’t know. But all I know is that there are various ways of changing the world. But in order to do any of them in a lasting and meaningful way, we have to change ourselves.
Sharon: And as a psychologist, I guess that’s always been my my key thing. And I don’t know, I agonised for years: how many, how many, how many do I have to get? You know, how many do I have to get to listen to me? And I just, any more, that is not in my control. I don’t know. And there is a sense that, I do have a sense, I guess it is a spiritual sense that something out there knows better than we do. And we just have to serve it, and not in a kind of, you know, not in a demeaning kind of way, but just that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to put that gift out into the world for its ongoing beauty. And that to me is enough. But yes, but really, having said all that, having caveated that, yeah, I do think there is, that the tide is changing a little bit. Will it be enough? You know, I get days where I think it’s impossible, and I get days where I think, OK, it’s impossible. I can’t see the world ever changing. Does it matter? And I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t, you know, none of us know what the big picture is, but we have to do our bit anyway. We have to do what we’re here to do, what we’re capable of doing. You know,what gives us joy.
Manda: The dinosaurs may have sat around talking to each other on the dinosaur equivalent of doom about how to change themselves and change the world. And they still are not here and the world is still ticking over. So, yes, it’s possible. Ok, so let’s move this into a slightly new avenue. All the way through our conversation, you’ve had that – I’ve had a sense of you very deliberately taking yourself to the edge place where you danced with death, particularly starting off with your flying in the States, since your kind of epiphany and decision to to live differently. And then you had to move on on the edge of reality at Lewis. And then more recently, it feels to me you’ve done that physically and it wasn’t as overtly a conscious decision. Are you able to talk a little bit about that?
Sharon: Yes, of course. So, so recently, after quite a strange year and the relocation here from Ireland, to cut another third long story short, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lymphoma back in January of this year. So that was quite an experience of realising that, yeah, I could die from that, and certainly would have died within months without treatment. And then going through what is known to be one of the more brutal chemotherapies. Although I was very lucky in my reaction to it, it wasn’t as brutal for me as it is for many. I was in fairly good shape going in, and possibly attitude helps, I don’t know, but we’ll maybe come to that. So, yeah, that was that. That’s about as close to dancing with death as I think you can probably get without actually kicking the bucket.
Manda: Yeah. And you’ve been writing a new book while this process has been going on. And when you and I spoke not that long ago, shortly before your sixtieth birthday, Happy Birthday, you said two things: first of all, that it had radically fed into the book, and second, that you wouldn’t change the experience for anything. Can you unpick that a little for us? Because most people would, I think – well, actually, that’s not true. Almost everybody I know whose faced death and step away from it said they wouldn’t change it, actually. So, but still unpick it a little. I think it’s an interesting place to go.
Sharon: I think, again, it’s to me, looking back on it, I found myself, I suppose, not as obviously, but I found myself in a kind of a similar place that I was when I was stuck in corporate life and needed to look death in the face to to move on. And I wouldn’t have said that to you. I wouldn’t have known that at the time. And yet I was feeling jaded. I was feeling a little of the joy had gone out of life. And it was, everything just seemed very tiring. And there’s a classic poem, you know, that Robert Frost poem,’ The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.’ I wept over those lines for years and thought that was my life, that I had all these miles to go. And it wasn’t that I didn’t take joy in my work, but I was tired, and I was tired for such a long time, really, since the days of Lewis. And I realised, just to show you the shift, I wrote that poem everywhere. I came across it the other day in the notebook, and I thought, ‘miles to go before I sleep’! Great! And it was just such a, you know, that was completely unconscious, just, Oh, my God! And if I could put it, that’s it in a nutshell. It just wiped all of that away. And I’ve come out of that chemotherapy experience feeling as if someone has taken a broom, you know, to the inside of my head, to my soul, to my body.
Sharon: And it just feels clean and clear. And a lot of crap that I hadn’t dealt with came to the fore. And I had nothing to do but to sit there and sort of like, you know, deal with it. And it gave me many, many gifts. At the beginning, there was another poem at the beginning of that whole process that that stayed with me, and that was the Rumi poem: ‘This being human is a guest house’. You know, welcome in all guests: even the ones that you think are unwelcome. And it’s just like, boy, the gifts that particular guest brought, the learnings that I had, were just remarkable. So I feel a thousand pounds lighter in every possible way, really. And I think a lot of it was partly my own, going into it, you know, because I you know, I work in this area. And so this was a work in this area of archetype and mass and psychology, just like, OK, you know that this is an important rite of passage. You know, this isn’t a punishment. It’s not an accident. It has meaning, coming at this point in my life, at this juncture. And it was clearly something that I had to find meaning and so rather than fight it, you know, you have to ‘fight the cancer’ and ‘do battle with it’, just like no, no, no! You have to surrender to it! And sit there, and just listen to it, and find out what it wants from you, what it’s trying to teach you. And so I didn’t fight it. And I stopped everything. You know, apart from the writing, writing is kind of life. It’s like breathing. I stopped the teaching, and I turned down all kinds of stuff, you know, otherwise I would have killed myself trying to squeeze in. You also know that. And I stopped it, and I just stopped and let it all happen for a little while. And, yeah, it was big.
So I think that is what death teaches us. And, you know, chemotherapy is a little death, and a little rebirth. Every cell in your body, basically, it kills the good ones as well as the bad ones. And so, and then it all, and so you’re left with it, you know. So I lost hair, I lost everything. And I didn’t recognise myself when I looked in the mirror. I was just this blobby thing that had, that was featureless. And it’s just like, and then it started to to grow back. So it was a huge dissolution, of any sense of self. And then that whole question of, okay, what’s there then? What’s there, then, if I haven’t got hair to hide behind? You know, if I haven’t got any of this, what’s there, and what’s it for? So, yeah, it was amazing.
Manda: Yeah. And you look vibrant. We record this podcast with a video, which I’m sorry to say the listeners don’t get to see, but you do look really vibrantly alive. And I’m guessing you feel that, some of it.
Sharon: Yeah, I do. And a lot of the things that used to bug me, you know, that I get angry about or whatever. There are very few things that can bug me these days. Some things can. But really, it’s just I, yeah, it’s very hard to put words on it other than just that sweeping clean and a very clear focus, and a sense that, no, you know, there is a lot of joy there in what I have to do still in the world. And it’s that classic, you know, that is a bit of a cliche, isn’t it, that people who come out of this kind of life and death experience, every minute matters, and it does. That’s what it’s for. It’s just to give you a little bit of a reset, to shake you up and say, OK, are you going to do this properly, or are you going to just sit there and be sorry for yourself? There you go. Death is a, you know, kind of grumpy old teacher, but a very fine one.
Manda: Yes. Yes, because this is not a dress rehearsal, as I remember having on some kind of sticker on my pencil case when I was at school, but it took me a very long time to take it seriously. And you’re finding, though, ‘miles to go before I sleep’ is a joyous thing. And I haven’t, other than as a mind game, had the experience of being, of really facing death in the face, and you have. And it was recent. And so I wonder, if you had any sense or any exploration, and obviously this is unverifiable, that’s the nature of being dead. Humanity, from as long as we’ve been conscious, has been trying to predict what happens when we take that step. But I wonder, did you, even as a mindgame, head into what would it be to be dead?
Sharon: Not in a very detailed kind of way, so all I can give you is a very strong sense I have, which again is probably not particularly original, that it is like going home, and that that this is where we came from. And I say that, remembering in this I wrote this in the Enchanted Life, my friend Moia, who lives in Ireland, is a kind of a horse whisperer, if you like. So she does a lot of work with the horse communications. And I would say that she fixes horses in trouble. But most of the time she fixes their humans. And it’s not actually the horse, it’s them. But I remember her, too, telling me about sitting with a horse that was unfortunately going to have to be put to sleep for its own, you know, for its own comfort, because it was in deep pain. And she was in communication with the horse. And she said the very strong sense that you had from the horse is the horse, I find it very difficult to talk about this, it makes me a bit emotional. The horse was filled with joy. And she had this very strong sense that the horse was saying, is it time to go home now?
Sharon: And I felt that as well. And I think part of my sense of vibrance, or whatever it is that that I think I have, I think you detect, is that sense that if, you know, I’m not out of the woods yet, so there are three years where I really have to, it may come back. And the second time it may be treatable, or it may not be. So it’s a constant walk with death. But I have a very strong sense of peace that if it did, if it happened, then that would be fine. You know, that I would happily take death by the hand. I would see death as a friend, and I would go home. But in the meantime, I don’t think I’m done yet. I don’t think my work’s done. So that’s as kind of close to it as I can get. I didn’t really take a, you know, a very deep journey with death. To me, death is, death has two faces, you know, in that archetypal sense. So I do see death, and maybe I’m just a bit too steeped in Irish mythology, so death is a blackhaired, raven winged woman. So maybe she is some Morrígan, because she was very much, she wasn’t a goddess of war, for heaven’s sake. She was a goddess of life and death. They all were. You couldn’t have one without the other. They were all both. We didn’t have goddesses of anything other than life and death. And she’s also Old Bone Mother, this wonderful character, this wonderful old woman. And you always have the two faces of the goddesses in Irish mythology, the young and the old. So I see her as a figure that I admire, I respect, I kind of want to know better. And that’s what it will be, kind of when I die. So that’s, I don’t know whether that’s an answer to your question.
Manda: Yeah, I think it’s a very beautiful answer to your question. And I’m really struck by the fact that when you describe the horse that was dying, you and I both had real trouble breathing even for a moment. And I’m not sure I would get to that if you described a person who was dying. And I don’t know if it’s just horses, or whether there’s something about other species and their heart connexion that really touches us.
Sharon: I think it probably is. But there is also another very beautiful poem by an Irish poet called Eavan Boland, who is dead now, who wrote a wonderful poem called Anna Liffey. At the end of it, she is talking about a woman reflecting a river. And at the end of it, she talks about, you know, a river is always en route to its own dissolution, right from the beginning, it is going home. As the river kind of gives out into the sea, and it’s just like, oh, my God, that’s another one of those images, that this is what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to die. We’re supposed to go back. So you know that intellectually. But I think until perhaps you faced it in one way or another, you don’t really feel it in a visceral sense that, oh, no, this is great!
Manda: And that it’s death that gives life its meaning. I think that feels to me like a really important concept that our culture’s somehow has managed – we’ve made stuff give life our meaning, or power. I read a glorious book over the weekend that I won’t go into in depth because I would just rave, and it’s great. But they were talking about our consensus reality system, and the way that it’s organised and how everybody’s aim is to rise to the top with more money. Possibly not you and I, but most people. And the conclusion was, it’s all about power. Money is just a way of keeping score. And it’s that sense that the more power we can accrue, the more value we can accrue. That is what life is for. And their aim was to find everlasting life with their power. Because they couldn’t face the concept of the river heading to its destination. And it seems to me almost criminal not to experience dying as a sacrament and a rite of passage that is as important as any of our other rites of passage. So I thought that was beautiful, actually, your way of looking at it seems to me glorious. And our ancient Celtic ancestors, Caesar said, they view death as they view taking off a shirt.
Sharon: Exactly. And that’s wonderful, isn’t it?
Manda: And then he put on another one, and it’s not a problem. And I’m kind of guessing their shirts were not the same as our shirts, and they probably took them off less often. But still, we knew that at one point, and somehow we lost it. So we’re going down to the wire of our time. And I’m wondering, there’s so much that’s so rich in all that you do. And we’ve only really scratched the surface of it. And we will direct people to your books and your website and your courses. But is there anything for people listening as a way of helping them to connect to the world in the ways that you do, that you could think of? Or ways of being more alive without having to stand on the borderline with death? That would be useful.
Sharon: To me. It’s a very simple and straightforward thing. And maybe it’s so simple that perhaps it sounds obvious or trite, but I would recommend that any time you go outside, or actually maybe inside, you know, the objects around us are arguably imbued with a world soul as much as a crow or a tree. But you talk to it as if you were meeting a neighbour on the street that you were going to exchange a few words with, and you continued to treat it, if you don’t believe this, or even if you do, but you intellectually believe it, you’ve never viscerally felt it, that you talk to every crow that you see in the sky, that you talk to a rock, you talk to the beautiful old gnarly tree that looks like an old lady that’s down the lane, or the tree that’s got this little branch poking out that looks like a dragon, you know, you talk to it as if it’s a dragon. And then as you do that and you carry on doing it, it becomes a practise and you forget that you’re doing it, but it’s just who you are. Then I think that is the point where you start to find the world in relationship with you. And that is the point at which I think that we are able to discern meaning in the Land, you know, so our ancestors, of course, were always looking for signs, for oracles, for signs that would give them some guidance in their lives for what they should do. And I think you can only really do that if you have this kind of relationship so that you know what’s unusual, and what’s not usual.
So to me, that sense of the World Soul, the Land wanting to help us, wanting to be in relationship with us, wanting to guide us, requires that very, very deep participation where we go out and we talk to it, and we communicate with it, and we treat it like we would a person or a member of our family. And then, you know, we find ourselves able to listen just in the way that your work certainly shows very, very well, that the creatures that come to us in dreams. You know, we know when it’s what Carl Jung called a big dream, a dream that actually matters, whether some archetypal being that actually has a message for us, and when we’re just kind of, you know, doing the kind of background noise of the day. And that practice, simple, simple practice just helps us to discern, I think to know, to be able to tune in to some kind of deeper level of communication with the Land.
Manda: Beautiful. That’s magical. I think that’s a wrap. Thank you so much, Sharon Blackie, for coming onto the Accidental Gods podcast.
Sharon: What a wonderful conversation. Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Sharon for the integrity and the wisdom and the depth and the magic of all that she is and says and does. As we said at the start, I will put links in the show notes to her website where you can look at her courses, and I’ll put links to her books. If you haven’t read If Women Rose Rooted, and the Enchanted Life, then do head out and get them. And there’s a new book on the way called Hagitude, which will be looking at the rite of passage of growing older. We didn’t explore that much on the podcast, but when it comes out, we will come back and have another conversation.
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