Spiral Life

There are symbols, and stories, that you encounter outside in the world around you, and you think ‘isn’t that intriguing’ or ‘wow how lovely’ or ‘oh, that’s an interesting way to look at it’, and there they sit outside you.

And there is a moment to be lived when it dawns on you that the reason you encountered those symbols, and stories, or that you took more notice of them than of others, is because they are the ones that emerge from inside you to give your life the shapes that it has.

Do people really choose the rhythms and myths they live by, or do the choices get made because the rhythms and myths have already chosen them? When is it possible or wise to choose against the grain of your own rhythm or mythology – which question assumes of course that you think of yourself as having a rhythm, a mythology – and when does such a move drag against you as much as any other ill-fitting relationship would do?

Spirals attract me. Labyrinths, cup-and-ring markings, nautilus shells, water disappearing down the plughole. I know that the worldwide recurrence of the spiral as a symbol is said to be because it is the shape of life itself – encoded deep in the double helix of DNA. ‘Said to be’ shows you the intellectual form in which I know that piece of knowledge; I have also listened to more than one person tell me that the idea of life heading in the straight line of time’s arrow makes no sense for them, that their personal history is rather composed of the same old stuff looping back again and again under different guises. But I’ve also come recently to realise – though ‘understand’ is better – that the prevailing dynamics of my own life all twist and turn in spirals; and now this dawning has reached me I also understand that this is nothing like as straightforward as ‘ah, got it’ and carrying on tidily from there. It’s neither ‘straight’ nor ‘forward’; it’s about touching the grain of something there but evasive, in blindness.

Thirty minutes a morning, five or six mornings a week, more consistently than not for the past eleven years, I practice yoga. Up until recently, my mental image of my yoga practice was that this regularity ought to guarantee some basic predictability of performance, with a slow and gentle orientation – given my general laziness, and shortage of ambition – towards improvement. Greater flexibility, better balance and strength, a steadily expanding repertoire of asanas. The reality is that my yoga constantly spirals, ebbing and flowing through gradations between two outlying states, in one of which I am alert and stretchy and can meet myself to be challenged and go further with ease,  and in the other am stiff and blurred and wobbly, as if submerged in stagnant oily water beneath the surface of myself, barely able to lever my truculent body through the easiest, gentlest poses. The notional goal of ‘improvement’ makes less sense to me now (though I can in the same breath speak evidence of such improvement), than yoga as a mind/body microscope, the meditation that it is anyway, through which you learn to feel whatever place you’re at more acutely, and with more compassion.

So my regular yoga oscillates; in other pursuits with which I choose to fill my time there is little regularity to perceive or second-guess. I go like an adolescent through phases, pursuing drawing or photography or this writing (the thing I do most of) for a while with an enthusiasm that will stretch and inspire me to learn new things inside it, until one morning I wake up and just don’t feel like it, that a door has closed and I have zero energy and motivation to push it back open. Then in kicks the background anxiety that whatever it was will never come back, and that if I want to practice this thing as much as I tell myself I want to, then the least I can do is do it like my yoga, with habitual regularity, riding out the ebbs and flows. More often than not the motivation to do x will come back -when I least expect it. Some days I will sit at the computer for hours and peck at my Twitter and Facebook feeds every fifteen minutes like a battery chicken and fret about my mind turning to battery chicken feed (even though a good percentage of the incisive stuff that I learn about the world these days comes via Twitter); some days I am not even moved to switch the computer on, but will wander the city for hours or converse or concentrate on writing or drawing or reading a book, the old-fashioned paper-and-board kind. Statistical averages, the illusions of even regularity that they conjure – average number of hours spent on Twitter per week, average number of hours spent walking per week – are thin abstractions that mean little to me, because they don’t capture the quality of this shifting experience, distended then waned; nor how I feel inside each variation, nor what highly differentiated needs the constant changes might nourish.

If I were the kind of person given to keeping track, in theory I could keep records of my biorhythms and my menstrual cycle, take note of the weather and the changing seasons and the phases of the moon, note down what I ate and drank and how much sleep I got and whether I stayed unruffled or got caught up the stupid argument, and cross-reference all these with my work habits and mind/body yoga sensations and my capricious moods in general, to see if there is any pattern to be discerned. I don’t, though (nor do I question the value of such tracking for those inclined to pursue it). Not just from laziness, but because I wouldn’t know where to stop tracking, what might make a difference to the pattern and what not, since even the slightest unperceived butterfly-wing flapping across my tracks might in theory affect them. In yoga, for instance, I notice that how far I’ve walked, over what surfaces, and in which footwear will register as a difference in how I feel and move over the following days.

Also, there would be the severe temptation of prediction; of overconfidently projecting any patterns that emerged forward into the future. More than spoiling the surprise, the predictions would most likely turn out plain wrong. My experience is not of circles, where each stage recurs in a place that can be foreseen precisely – like the notchable waystations of solstices and equinoxes – but of uneven spirals that have their vaguely familiar comings and goings, but never on-the-dot predictability or repetition. Always some margin for variation, perhaps because of that perpetual unperceived flapping of things changing and so causing the spirals to change, or perhaps simply a mystery.

The tale of Euridyce in Greek mythology and the tale of Lot’s wife in the Bible are both stories of women lost because they looked back. Is there something else in these stories, if they are turned to face the other way? Dougald Hine wrote a blog post recently about glimpsing something of the patterns and story-figures that shape his own life, which are to do with improvising, walking backwards, gathering up fragments of cultural and social habit left behind in the past and seeing whether they can be reinvented for use in the present. One of the thoughts his post brought me was that these moments when you suddenly recognise a pattern in your own life have two edges. The trick, the hard part, is to note the patterns, and yet to keep improvising and not-knowing; recognising that perceiving patterns can be of help when looking back or navigating the immediate present, but if you take a pattern as read, try to project it too far into an unpredictable future and walk into it, you will be lost. Something will change, throwing out the design you thought was there; some unforeseen miracle or misfortune, some butterfly previously absent, or not perceived.

The uneven spiral of my life is its default, what I tend to settle into anyway, in the absence of strong external or internal pressures to do otherwise. Observing it, to the extent that it will reveal itself to be observed, I wonder more deliberately about the depths and twists of learning to work honestly with this pattern, of adapting to it whatever work I might in future choose to do; or consciously choosing the kinds of work that flow most easily with it.

The wondering comes because I’m approaching a blind curve, around which those decisions will start arising, and while there’s no predicting exactly what they are or where they might take me, I am beginning to touch, in this dark, an evasive grain to go with.


8 thoughts on “Spiral Life

  1. I guess you will have read it already but Gate of Horn: A Study of the Religious Concepts of the Stone Age by Gertrude Rachel Levy has a lot to say about spiral or meandering tracks as markers, maps of the underworld: both as guides to deep places where cave art was inscribed and to the trails taken by the spirit ancestors, to allow the totemic people to re-enact the scene, a symbolic and spatial script for the course of renewal. This is a very opaque way of saying that the myths and rhythms select you; my experience has been to interpret the way the hairs go stiff on the backs of my forearms as a fundamental recognition of something deeper than is required by adaptive or evolutionary biology (otherwise it would happen each time we drove past fast food restaurants rather than when imbibing a story about the power of masks by Robert Holdstock, for example – which has apparently nothing necessary about it whatsoever). I think the recognition of such symbols that happens has little to do with even any neo-whatever fad. It’s a felt closeness to ourselves as expressions of a rather inconsequential, bored species, literally casting about for some fancy to believe in, notions that are both ephemeral and eternal, since we have not only merely invented them but also guess that the same attempt at imbuing the world was made by our forebears. Ode to a Nightingale puts it more than just succinctly:

    Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
    No hungry generations tread thee down;
    The voice I hear this passing night was heard
    In ancient days by emperor and clown:
    Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
    Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
    The same that ofttimes hath
    Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

    Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
    To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
    Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
    As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
    Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
    Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
    Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
    In the next valley-glades:
    Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
    Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

    We are compelled to re-enact for renewal but the performance depends on the weather, what we ate, and the grumblings in the stalls, but we will try again and again, in the hope perhaps that the fancy will cheat us in the end, and we will find ourselves truly transported along a way that we know was not made by us.

  2. Mike,
    Thanks for these thoughts, & Keats. I’ve not read Gate of Horn (which sounds fascinating), but this triggers a dim memory of similar themes (in Hengeworld maybe), and of a partial explanation of spirals as a form of ritual containment, guiding in ancestors and other spirits so that they can be engaged with, and at the same time holding them so they cannot escape and cause havoc in the everyday world. One thing about being literally inside a spiralling shape is that does restrict how far ahead you can see / know; thus the ‘humane’ abbatoir facilities designed by Temple Grandin channel the animals through curved corrals, so they cannot see their predecessors receiving the bolt to the brain, and remain calmly oblivious to their fate.

    Although on some level I agree with you that ‘symbols choose us’, I’m not so sure that they are just a random human urge to attach meaning to something, anything; with their only weight coming from accretions of past human attempts at the same. Otherwise, why spirals as the shape of life, rather than zig-zags or seven-pointed stars, why the same forms recurring across cultures? My hunch – only a hunch mind – would be that there is at least some process of unfolding feedback going on between humans as symbol-recorders and transmitters, and the patterns and rhythms of the places, biosphere and cosmos in which we’re embedded.

  3. What an incredible thread unwinding here!
    Spirals, Keats, and the hairs standing on end.
    Then that there is a two-way communication.
    The brain projects, but does Mind transmit?

  4. I grew up on the inside of a spiral, Cape Cod. It’s what Shoal Hope is about.
    A spit of sand, smoke rising in still air, water trailing off an oar, these are spirals like a shell, or a galaxy, that start out tight and then dissipate. DNA, and what else? is a spiral that maintains itself as a column not growing or dissipating through time. There’s continuity there that outlasts the multitudes of iterations of the life that carries it. Seen end-on, and in “perspective” it looks like a common spiral, its 2-d representation. The pop into three dimensions and then time is what we’ve only now come to recognize. There’s room there for new imagery, new stories?

  5. Tony,
    Spiral places (moments?) on / within Earth are another fascination, and this distinction you observe between those that dissipate and those that stay constant. Looking (ahead) into a narrowing spiral is a similar deception to anticipating the future: when you arrive in it, the space has opened out into the present. The stability of spirals too, thinking on a practical, mechanical level of springs – coiled wire able to buffer and concentrate energy and momentum. Also apologies for this late response to your comments – I’ve dropped into holiday mode, despite not having gone anywhere!

  6. “Looking (ahead) into a narrowing spiral is a similar deception to anticipating the future: when you arrive in it, the space has opened out into the present. The stability of spirals too, thinking on a practical, mechanical level of springs – coiled wire able to buffer and concentrate energy and momentum.”

    Those are great observations! The first leads to spirals acting as traps, as the perception of constriction leads to constriction – tunnel vision. The second is another way to see that “parallel?” spirals carry continuity through time/change, not only at the level of evolution, but even in the simpler world of mechanics.

    The dog days are upon us….

  7. Nice writing. I really like and appreciate the spirals. It reminded me of my path with horses, and riding- and how many times I have come back to it, but in a different way. Somewhat of the chinese proverb- you can never step into the same river twice;)

    I wonder if all things tend toward spiralling- sort of a response to the Coriolis (spelling?) effect. maybe DNA spirals as the reaction to something, rather than the spiral being the “cause.” things that make you say hhmmmm:)…

    Now I am curious;)

    I like the bit about inadvertently staying in the moment. That is very profound. Oh, and it made me think of something similar, sort of, from the Andean cosmology. I was taught that they conceive that the past is situated in front of us, because we can see it. The future, behind us, as we cannot see it. A very unique way of presenting something. so when we look behind us, we are somehow also looking ahead, too. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that one, that’s for sure:)

  8. Teri, a belated thanks for your kind comment, & a scattering of your spiral journey with horses. I’m in the midst of moving back to England, and on borrowed laptop time; hence my slipping-up in blog etiquette 🙂

    I like this Andean idea of walking forwards into the past, that we know. Or perhaps, with Epimetheus, we are simply walking backward all the time.

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