Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews fellow member Susan Holliday‘s creative guide, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart, and finds ‘wise friends on the path’ of seeing deeply into connections, and a fellow traveller in the landscape of human nature.
1,600 words: estimate reading time = approximately 6.5 minutes
“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”
— Sioux medicine man Black Elk, quoted in Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.
Lockdown, for me and many, once I’d got through the initial shock of the newness, became an opportunity to really look, listen. To see and to hear.
To hear the birds — in my case the red kites circling the Oxford streets where I spent a large chunk of lockdown time, and to see those birds close up for the first time. And the deer, emboldened by lack of traffic, explored the concrete and the human-inhabited world. It was a time to both see and hear inquisitively at first, and then more deeply, to enjoy the artfulness and insight, and to start to peer further into the nature of the physical, and the metaphysical.
A guide into the human heart
Of course, this is the first part of the process, to see and to hear, followed then by to feel, and to know. Finding guides, wise ones, therapists, gurus, seers — in Buddhism the term is sangha, ‘wise friends on the path’ — is crucial, otherwise we mainline on experience alone.
Therapist, photographer, and seer Susan Holliday has produced a clear, close, and wise guide to the process of deeply looking — a ‘when and how to, and what we might encounter’ book that should be alongside us as we navigate pandemics, liminal times, and all our explorations of this, the human journey. Natural insight is key to Holliday’s vision: it is what we all have, and have probably buried or veneered over with the hurly-burly of life. If we unpeel, and find ways back to it — through deep looking, creative expression, and seeing through the grief and the reasons we paper over our own cracks — this heartful insight enables a visionary life full of magic and wonder, connected to and part of the natural ecosystem of all life:
“Disconnected from the vital intelligence of our hearts we look to things, mountains of things, to replenish the void in our being. We plunder the natural world around us to fill the bottomless pit within. Our myopia, it seems, is costing us the earth.”
Holliday shares six client stories from her psychotherapy practice, which go deeply into how she can hold a client’s grief seemingly in her own soul:
“When the decisive moment came, I was able to ‘capture it immediately’ because my spirit was already full of him, full of his grief and pregnant with the shape of the beautiful carefree boy who once tumbled down the hills of his moorland home,” she writes of one client, named here as Jake. Of another, Cassy, Holliday says: “She has wandered into the heart of her own wilderness.”
Her professional beholding of clients, and leading them to a place of change, which she articulates so clearly and incisively, is matched throughout with her understanding of her own striving for seeing, and sensing the world through her own arts practice — through the lens. Although none of her images are found within the book, you can see her work shared on Twitter, and the book is full of references to the writers, artists, and activists who inform her journey.
The art of seeing deeply
I was delighted when first opening the book to see so many quotes and nods to photographer Bill Brandt, whose black and white explorations of human forms on a beach, and wartime documentary stills, inspired me so much in my early studies in image-making, that has in turn informed the last 20 years as a filmmaker.
Holliday describes herself midway through Hidden Wonders as a “traveller in the landscape of human nature”, and this powerfully resonates with me. Equipped with an MSc in Human Ecology some years ago, I too set out to navigate that path through the hills of both articulated and mediated expression. Time and again, I need to return to that centred space of heartful hearing and insight from the natural worlds within — my own microfauna of emotional fungi and mycelial vessels of coursing blood.
“At its best I believe that therapy is akin to painting, to playing an instrument, to speaking a poem or performing a play. Like those it has the potential to lift us, both seer and seen, towards a quality of vision which is equivalent to art, in that it opens us up to the richness, vitality and truth of our existence. So to explore the nature of insight, this book asks what painters, photographers, poets, sculptors and performers have to teach us about seeing deeply.”
There is a flow of both process and experience articulated with these particular clients and their often deeply painful and acutely alive stories, and in this expansive referencing of artists’ understanding of their creative practices, coupled with current advances in neuroscience, perception, and some religious philosophies. However, Hidden Wonders is to my mind a book that someway fills that space where retreating religions in the West have allowed our own creative expansiveness to fill, if we so wish it. It is a strong challenge, not to succumb to the industrial ‘achievement’ mindset, or be lashed by depression in response to systemic failures and collapse and all its latent traps that bind us to its synthetic portals.
I’ve been rereading this book while on a break in England’s North East, staying in a small coastal town ravaged by its mining past. Elemental materials were not long ago hauled out from deep bowels beneath the town, and now, as the pandemic opens into another era here, it is currently awash with regeneration funding, promoting mining museum culture and walking breaks across moors and stunning coastline. Instead of cracking the earth and removing its core, this locality now seems to be all about promoting looking, stretching, walking, seeing, planting, and engaging with a remediated landscape.
I’ve been fixated on walking past all that, nodding and chatting to locals, admiring the many huts of the local pigeon fancying group (some 30,000 birds kept here for racing and message carrying), and getting in some serious beach time along the coast: looking, and seeing past the material, soaking up the elements and seeking to understand myself within this process of stones and sand. Ebb and flow. Time and tide. Human industry and human leisure.
I sense that we, the human-sphere, are in what writer and eco-philosopher Mick Collins calls the ‘transformocene’, not the ‘anthropocene’ as some say, where we as a species rise to transform our reliance upon industrialisation, economic dependence, and the mechanical thinking that has grown from these mindsets. As Fritjof Capra describes ‘the systems view of life’: to finally fully understand our place within the ecology of all things, perhaps returning to the biblical Garden of Eden, or in the holistic sense of animal nature within the Gaian theory, as proposed by James Lovelock et al.
Choosing another path
While this is not a book dealing with climate grief per se, it does point us toward tools of awareness, which is the key to healing from the overload of trauma, and how we respond to and hold news of this climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Holliday acutely picks up on our possible human response of calcifying, or cracking, as “Our human ecology is becoming overheated. A sign that environmental stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our nature.”
She wisely returns with another choice: “We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.”
Social movements, uprisings, rebellions, protests — all are about change and resistance to old ways, changing seemingly dominant narratives of doing and exploiting that ultimately damage the earth’s resources and exploit ourselves as a species. These are vital community-building events; whether or not the object of rebellion or resistance is changed, a community has been formed around a ‘thing’, and now the energy exists — and change will come. Transformation will occur, and we will overcome. Transformation of our own selves and our stuck patterns, of subtle griefs and trauma, will happen, and in this vital book, Susan Holliday gives paths and examples to return to our natural insight, and live within ‘the vital ecology of the human heart.’
“Seeing through the heart of our sorrow, we discover a realm of human nature full of hidden wonders. Reconnected to our own source of replenishment and renewal, we might begin to cherish, rather than to plunder, the natural world around us.”
Find out more
Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart: How to see through your sorrow – a creative guide to revelation and renewal by Susan Holliday (2021) is published by Troubador Publishing, where you can preview the book. You can find out more about Susan’s work as a psychotherapist and her writing and photography on Twitter @SusanHolliday0 and at susanholliday.co.uk.
James also mentions eco-philosopher Mick Collins and his proposal of the Transformocene in contrast to the concept of the Anthropocene. You can read more in Mark O’Connell’s 2018 Permaculture review of his book The Visionary Spirit. In April, Mick has a new book coming out, The Restorative Spirit, and James has recently been filming Mick for the launch.