Category Archives: Essays

Time of Year: November 2021

It was the time of year when all things meld into one. . . I am thinking of my backyard and watching the rain pour down over the still soft ground. The loam we had put down in October to raise the area down by the stream has been mushing its way down the slight incline at the back of the lawn and settling into to the boggy place, increasing the mud, instead of firming up the area where I hope next spring, I will be able to take a lawn mower and cut the marsh grass instead wading through knee high mush with a weed whacker.

I despair that my brilliant solution to the muck is failing against the onslaught of climate change. This fall, so far, has been very mild and wet. In past years that boggy area is often frozen by Thanksgiving, but today it is a big, wet, mush. What’s a girl to do?

I am noticing small and large changes to the environment in our yard, that I attribute to climate change. Now, blue birds stay all year long. The low wet areas around the yard and in the woody areas around the yard are lower and wetter. The puddle ducks frequently have more puddles around the feeding area to wade and swim through.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy for 50 degree temperatures in late November. It gives me more time to clean up the oak leaves that take their good old time to drop from their homes along the gnarly branches of a dozen tall oaks that make a majestic boundary around the yard. It gives me an easier time of pushing the reflectors into the ground to mark the driveway for the snowplow. Snowplow? Will we even have any snow this winter or will climate change bring us frequent blizzards and deadly Nor’easters?

This time of year, like every other, is a mixed bag of seasonal shifts, time changes, and constant adjustments to what each new day brings. I don’t mind the turning of the seasons. . . it is as organic as the earth moving around the sun. . . I am, however, unnerved by its unpredictability in the age of climate change.

My body is tired, and I fear that the earth is tired, too. . .no longer able to recover from the intrusions of humankind and our efforts to control her. . .extract every ounce of life from her. Once the rainforests are gone and the thousands of species that keep our ecosystem going are gone and there are no more fossil fuels to extract and the world is covered with deserts and the oceans gobble up whole cites. . . there is no going back. Perhaps this is the way Earth responds to our thoughtlessness and when we are gone too, she will finally have a chance to recover her splendid beauty.

Copyright 2021 Patricia A Burke

Curiosity Never Killed Anything

I am astounded everyday when I look out toward our feeding table in the backyard and witness remarkable interactions between animals that have no business being near one another . . . or so it would seem. A doe and her two fawns have been frequenting the feeding area over the past couple of months. We have watched the fawns’ spots disappear as the summer light turns toward orange and the tidal marsh awakens with a different kind of life– the changing of the seasons and the vast movement of birds in the night sky. I learned recently from my spouse, who is a model to me of playful curiosity, that birds mostly migrate at night and that there are literally millions of them flying in the dark, out of sight, every night. Which is astounding in and of itself. But what happens on the ground at night is also remarkable.

One evening a mother skunk and her baby waddled up to the feeding table while the deer were busy picking up black oil sunflower seeds with their delicate lips. The skunks and deer were apparently unconcerned with each other, neither aggressing nor running away. One of the fawns suddenly looked over at the baby skunk, who was edging closer to her position at the feeding table. The fawn also began to edge closer to the skunk. It seemed as if she became quite curious, like a child at play, about this small, oddly shaped creature with a white stripe. Ann and I were watching this scene with a mix of enthusiasm and concern that the fawn might get too close, startle the skunk and then we would have to suffer the consequences of the spray that would ensue. But the fawn simply watched and took the baby skunk’s skunkness in. The doe moved off and the fawn followed. No spray ensued.

This gentle, non-judgmental, non-aggressive curiosity is one quality of mindful awareness. In Coming Closer to Ourselves: Making Everything a Path of Awakening, Buddhist nun, Pema Chödron talks about this quality of curiosity as a foundation of Buddhist practice and a powerful tool for making friends with our discomfort and what we judge to be negative in ourselves and our lives. Over the years, as I have deepened my understanding and practice of mindfulness, I have come to appreciate curiosity in this way. When I enter into a moment of curious attention, like the fawn at the feeding table, I experience a spaciousness where both enthusiasm and concern melt away and what is left is a fawn and a skunk, a truly odd couple – like comfort and discomfort– being themselves, together in the world, and at peace.

Copyright 2013, Patricia A Burke

Compassionate Self-Awareness

I have recently been struggling with terrible fatigue. I have gone to my doctor twice, had blood drawn, subjected myself to a battery of medical tests, all of which tell me that I am fine . . . that I am healthy and that there is nothing wrong with me physically . . . yet I am still fatigued . . . so tired that it is hard to walk up the stairs in my house . . . so tired that my mind races with anxious thoughts about what this all means . . . Is this simply aging (as my doctor remarked) . . . will this be the way it is for the rest of my life . . . do I have to look forward to thirty years of feeling overwhelmed by the smallest exertion or the thought of the smallest exertion? I have actively taken steps to manage the fatigue including taking naps, trying to improve my sleep, changing my diet . . . And yet, nothing I have done has significantly changed the fatigue itself.

I realized that my efforts to “fix” what I perceived to be “wrong” with me, were making me even more tired, so I became still and began to practice mindful awareness of the moment-to-moment unfolding of the experience of what I was calling fatigue. I became acutely aware of the heaviness in my chest and the constant stream of thoughts and the feeling of resistance to the discomfort of the heaviness. I imagined a white cloud of gentle, compassionate awareness in the middle of my chest. I gently invited the sensation of fatigue, the anxious thoughts, and the feeling of resistance to the fatigue to be held in the cloud . . . floating gently . . . in this cloud of compassionate awareness. My breathing opened and deepened. I began to notice a subtle change in my experience. The heaviness was still there, the thoughts continued to arise in my mind, but there was a softening of the resistance to feeling fatigued. I began to notice that the thoughts simply unhinged themselves from my effort to “fix” the fatigue and lost their power. They were no longer anxious thoughts . . . they were just thoughts. The heaviness was held lightly in this compassionate awareness and while I still felt it, I developed a different relationship to it. I could, for those brief moments of compassionate self-awareness, experience the fatigue without resisting it . . . the thoughts of fixing it tumbled into a void of spacious awareness . . . I entered into the moment and the story about what the sensation meant and what I had to do about it floated gently on the cloud. Relief.

This practice of compassionate self-awareness allowed me to enter into a conscious space of non-judging. In this space, the suffering that goes along with the resistance to what is and the effort of mind to fix what is “wrong” falls away. I will continue to pursue my exploration of medical (both allopathic and alternative) interventions that might ease the physical discomfort, but I will do that with a lighter heart and more compassion for my suffering.

Copyright 2013, Patricia A Burke

Addiction: A Misplaced Search for God

In 1961 Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote to Carl Jung, the father of Depth Psychology, to thank him for his unwitting role in the establishment of AA. In that letter he recounted a story of a former patient of Jung’s named Roland, who had been through all kinds of institutions to cure him of his alcoholism. When Roland found his way to Jung in the early 1930s, the doctor told him that he was a “hopeless case” and that his only chance for a cure was to “become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience– in short, a genuine conversion.” (Wilson/Jung Letters, 1987). When back in the United States, Roland discovered The Oxford Group, an evangelical movement dedicated to the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and service to others. He found sobriety there and through another member of the group helped Bill Wilson get sober.

In Jung’s reply he told Bill W. that he had always wondered what had happened to Roland and was glad to hear that he had experienced his religious conversion. He also told Bill W. a few things that he had not told Roland due to the fact that, at that time, he felt his notions about spirituality were not well received by the traditional medical and psychoanalytic community. He told Bill Wilson that he believed that Roland’s “craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness; expressed in the medieval language: the union with God.” (Wilson/Jung Letters, 1987). He then went on to say, “You see, “alcohol” in Latin is spiritus, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.” (Wilson/Jung Letters, 1987). Carl Jung’s message, delivered through Roland to Bill Wilson, eventually became the basis of the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

So for years the spiritual component of the recovery process has largely fallen under the auspices of Alcoholics Anonymous. When alcoholism become recognized as a medical disorder, treatable in the traditional western medical model of intervention, the medical establishment focused heavily on the physical aspects of the disorder and less on the emotional and psychological aspects, leaving the spiritual component entirely out of the loop. In fact, historically, the therapeutic value of spirituality and religion have largely been neglected in the teaching and practice of medicine in general (Office of Alternative Medicine Report to NIH, 1992). So it comes as no surprise that this bias would infiltrate the medicalization of the treatment of addictions. In recent years, however, there has been an increased awareness and interest in spiritual practices and processes, not only as an integral part of the Twelve Steps, but as adjuncts to more traditional medical and psychotherapeutic interventions in the addictive process. And as the addictions treatment field has grown from infancy into a legitimate field of study and taken on its own identity, we find a renewed effort to re-integrate the spiritual component of recovery into our treatment efforts.

We have also seen an increased interest in spirituality in our society at large. I believe we are seeing, at the very roots of our culture, a longing for a spiritual remedy for the rampant societal addiction to all things material. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor (12/16/98) George H. Gallup, Jr., Chairman of the George H. Gallup International Institute, responded to questions about his recent survey of spirituality in the United States. He stated, “There’s a remarkable surge in spirituality in this country today. We’ve documented it in surveys. The proportion of people who believe that it’s very important for them to examine the meaning of life has soared in the last 13 years. The proportion of people eager to search for the sacred in their lives has soared in the last four years. So, we’re at a moment of great discovery and a retreat from materialism. The disappointments of this century, the failure when we don’t let God into our lives, when we try to run things ourselves, is dramatically apparent in the events of this century. There’s a great interest in spiritual life, and people are removing themselves from bondages of various sorts. Whether it’s chemical or otherwise, the root to recovery is ‘letting go, letting God.’” (Gallup, 1998).

So it seems that our culture is now just discovering what Carl Jung, Bill Wilson, and millions of recovering alcoholics, addicts, and their families have known for years, that the prescription for alcoholism (and all addictions) truly is “spiritus contra spiritum.” (Jung/Wilson Letters, 1987). Spirit against the ravages of spirits.

Mindfulness Exercise:

Let’s use this formula to investigate for ourselves where our search for God is displaced onto a “false god.” Get comfortable in your chair. Relax your muscles. Take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, or soften your gaze and find a point of concentration on the floor or across the room. Allow your attention to drop inside to a place of stillness. When you come to a place of stillness, as if you are sitting by a deep pool, drop in this question, like a small pebble, and simply notice what arises, like the rippling effect on the water. What is my intoxicant? Don’t look for an answer, simply notice what arises in your awareness, an image, words, thoughts, feelings, sensations in the body, whatever arises as an effect of asking this question. Trust what arises.

Your intoxicant may or may not be a chemical or substance. It may be a process, an activity, an emotion, a state of mind, etc. Now spend a few moments noticing whatever beliefs arise in relation to this question. Now take another deep breath, come back to a place of stillness and drop in another question. What is my story of intoxication? Let this question float in awareness, let it ripple through your still pool. Take a few minutes to notice what arises. Now take another deep breath, come back to stillness and drop in the question: What is my true experience of God? When you are ready open your eyes and write down whatever you noticed during this exercise.


You can integrate this practice of investigation into your daily lives as a kind of mindfulness meditation, allowing yourself to notice what kinds of intoxicants you “imbibe”. Remember, your intoxicants may not be chemicals at all, but certain beliefs, thoughts, desires, emotions, or states of mind. Also, as you investigate the story of your intoxicant and the effect of your attachment to that story, notice what happens when you put the story aside for a moment– as if you were putting down a drink. Think of it as an experiment in awareness. You may discover that your real experience of yourself and God is a kind of “sobriety” that opens you to truth and real joy.

Remember, you are simply noticing. There is no requirement to give up your intoxicant, just a simple willingness to notice the effect of “picking it up” and letting it take over your life. When we see how “picking up” these “false gods” leads us to greater suffering, we simply lose the desire to chase them. They let go of us.


Gallup, G. H. Jr., Measuring America’s Spiritual Hunger, The Christian Science Monitor, December 16, 1998.

Office of Alternative Medicine Report to NIH, Alternative Medicine: Expanding Horizons– A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States, NIH-263-89-C-0016, National Institute of Health, Washington, DC, 1992.

Wilson/Jung Letters, Spiritus Contra Spiritum: The Bill Wilson/C.G. Jung Letters, PARABOLA: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition (Addiction), Vol. XII (2), May, 1987.

Copyright 2000, Patricia A. Burke, MSW, LCSW, BCD, All Rights Reserved