Wisebirds: Meditation, Regenerative Culture, Ecofeminism: Dido Dunlop

Inner Work to Build a Life in Accord with Nature

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Composting Pain


(This is part 4 of a talk I gave recently at our New Zealand Permaculture gathering 2015, exploring how we can apply Nature’s ecosystems model to human relationships, to create a resilient way to live; it’s a contribution to Social Permaculture)

What do we do with emotions that feel bad? How do we turn our miseries into rich nourishing resources, into love and constructive action?

11 loo front

COMPOST TOILET the compost toilet I used for the last four years.

When we try to throw things out that smell bad, they don’t go away. That applies to emotions as much as food scraps and poo. We put our ‘waste’ in the compost heap so as not to waste those rich resources: we know it will transform into nutritious soil. You gardeners and permaculturists, isn’t compost our greatest delight and joy? How many happy hours have I spent discussing our most exciting creative endeavour, compost toilets?

Can we love our heart’s compost with equal delight? Can we rub our hands with glee and say, oh great! all my despair and misery are going to produce lots of rich emotional soil, and that’ll feed everyone else too!


13 compost - V2 lowCOMPOST MANDALA The middle shows the composting cycle. At the top are the food scraps, weeds, poo: the rotting smelly waste we begin with.

WHAT IS COMPOST IN A HUMAN HEART? Our heart’s pains, grief, anger, hurt, loneliness, we often reject like waste, and don’t want to know about.

Climate change is bearing down on us. More and more of what goes in our compost heap now is climate change fears, fury and powerlessness. I’m freaked out about methane levels right now. Has it gone out of our control?

We often call these ‘negatives’, and pretend they’re not happening; we should be able to cope better, should be more ‘positive’. People fear if they give voice to such emotions, they might be overwhelmed, and not able to find their way back to happiness. It’s hard to see how such painful feelings could produce nourishment and new growth.

Compost is nature’s ecosystem way to recycle. Ecosystems include dark, light, beauty and shit. As gardeners and permaculturists we embrace all that. How do we embrace our dark and light emotions? Not cut off our pain or joy, and treat them all as nutrients, to help us flourish?

We can take our emotions through a transformation process. Composting emotions is an inner process, within each of us; and we can help each other do this by how we relate to each other’s difficult feelings. The same approach applies equally to how we care for our own hearts, and how we care for others who are suffering.


What dies rots, and feeds new life. A compost heap or worm bin provides good conditions for rotten smelly stuff to decompose, with the help of worms and bugs, and transform efficiently into rich nutritious soil to feed the veggies.

THE HEART-COMPOST HEAP is a safe environment to support and encourage our emotional transformation process to happen. Rather than feel destroyed and overcome by difficult emotions, we can emerge happier, wiser and more loving, ready to try practical solutions to problems that might have appeared overwhelming.

Good places for composting are friends who know how to listen, and who understand the composting process; or things like cocounseling, or a form of meditation which teaches us to listen to ourself deeply.

A Joanna Macy workshop is a great heart-compost bin – she’s developed safe ways to feel and express our grief and ange over climate change, environment and nuclear power. We contact the care beneath pain, and turn the strength of our feeling to good purpose and constructive action.

Composting is not an overnight process; it’s the same with emotions. The work may take months or years; it’s really the ongoing work of a lifetime: especially now climate change and looming economic collapse present us with larger challenges than we were bred to deal with. There’s always room to extend our strength and emotional resilience.


The essential thing that makes a safe environment for heart-composting is our trust in the transformation process. Gradually we build up experience of this, so we know it works. We may never fully comprehend it – the human psyche is deep and wise beyond our conscious understanding.

In this safe environment of trust, we can allow anger, grief and loneliness to be seen, let ourselves feel the feelings, and perhaps express it to trusted friends or counsellors.

We don’t indulge in blame and ranting. We don’t intend to hurt anyone. We don’t express anger, or whatever emotion it is – for the hell of it. How do we treat pain in an affirming way, find ways to be constructive about it?


In the dark of the compost heap, little worms and bugs eat our rotting stuff. They are the first to be fed by it, and their enjoyment makes the transformation happen. It’s worth noting that the worms are happily nourished as they process waste. That reminds us not to be goal-orientated. The results are also in the process itself, not just the freedom that happens afterwards.


Essential conditions (worms and bugs) for heart-composting are –

Trust in the transforming process.

Treat anger, grief, misery and loneliness as a source of growth and healing: rich resources, not bad stuff to deny.

Motivation to transform it into nourishment.

Listen. Compassionate awareness is key. Affirming pain is true compassion.


In a fundamental way it’s the same for one who experiences the pain and for any person assisting. With compassionate awareness we listen to our own pain, or listen to someone else expressing theirs.

I’m not offering details of techniques here, such as listening skills (though it’s very important to learn and practise those). This is about our attitude to misery, and our motivation: to approach it with compassion, and affirm it so it transmutes.

For the one whose pain it is – let the pain be there – acknowledge and affirm it; allow the experience, express it. It will still hurt: notice how it hurts, stay present with it; it needs simply to be seen and felt, so the bugs can start on it.

Watch it ‘decompose’. You may feel your body physically letting go, deep sighs of relief, feeling lighter, more energy flowing in the body, new insights welling up.

As the one assisting – you may be assisting yourself, or someone else. Listen. That’s all you need to do: stay present, compassionate and open, and listen, without judging. This is the equivalent of worms and bugs eating and digesting food scraps. Listening is our digesting process.

Compassionate listening affirms the feelings. To affirm is to meet the reality: when there’s pain there’s pain. Recognise and acknowledge it with compassion. Listening to others, or ourself, deepens our compassion; it’s a transforming process in itself, like the worms enjoying their feast.

If you’re listening to your own pain, in meditation for example, be compassionately aware of sensations in the body that go with the miseries. If you’re listening to someone else, your compassionate presence is the most important thing. What you say is extra. There are many good instructions for active listening: ‘I understand you feel this way’. Help the person simply feel the feelings, with ‘I statements’, not blaming others.

Nobody said it’s easy. Helping people with practical problems is emotionally relatively straightforward. It’s hard to stay open and kind with intense emotional pain, perhaps especially when it’s our own. It can feel full of peril. ‘I don’t want to feel grief and desperation, I don’t want to be sympathetic to someone else’s anger or grief. The storm might drown me. I might be overwhelmed.’ To listen to pain requires stamina and trust in the process.


Why would we feel frustrated or sad if we didn’t care – about the earth, about someone else, or ourselves? When we allow ourself to feel sad when whales die, it’s not hard to identify how precious they are to us. We affirm pain or anger to find the love beneath, the love that makes us care enough to suffer about it. Our nutritious composted soil is compassion, love and caring.

When pain transforms, and we can feel the caring within it, its locked-up power is released. We have creative energy for constructive action. It’s very empowering to feel the desire to act that comes out of the emotion-transforming process. It feels juicy, like the rich soil of matured compost.


A lot – not all – of new growth and wisdom comes through pain. Also, getting in touch with our caring has very practical results. We put to use the creative energy we’ve released, exploring new ways to do things, and relate to people. How do we affirm the people around us, as we go through our days, and build robust functioning connections? How can we affirm the importance of Mother Nature? What can we do to care for her?


14 negative lowLet’s look briefly at what happens when we don’t let the listening-worms loose on our distresses. This is the real ‘negative’.

There’s a tendency these days to want to espouse only the ‘positive’, sweetness and light. The ‘church of positivity’ calls pain and difficulties ‘negatives’, and tries to shut them out.

It can be unkind and judgemental: you should be positive, being negative is bad. How often have I been told I’m being ‘negative’, when I expressed pain? I did it trusting the transforming process; those who called me ‘negative’ didn’t see the worms feasting; they thought I was choosing to indulge in negative view, and that’s what caused me to suffer: if I stopped doing that, I’d earn more money and life would go perfectly for me.

I heard someone say recently, ‘Don’t think about climate change, we don’t want to have negative thoughts.’ That’s the new age version of heads in the sand. While we ignore climate change, it only grows into a worse problem.

This attitude mistakes what ‘negative’ is. Sure, we don’t want to be lost in unhelpful destructive thoughts. However, pain itself is not negative. The real Negative is negating pain, trying to avoid it. Negating is denying our compost.

If we don’t compost or recycle waste, we put it into landfill, where it leaks into the groundwater and pollutes it. Or our poo: Rotorua city put its sewage into its lake, and all the lakes down the line became polluted too. My parents lived on one of those lakes, Rotoiti, so I saw the whole process. Lakeweed clogged up the water till boats couldn’t get through. So they sprayed poison, paraquat, to kill the weed, and the frogs and baby birds died too.

The same sort of thing happens when we negate and deny rotten smelly emotions. We say no no, you’re being negative, and suppress them. Shutting them out is like sending them to clog up the town sewer and be poured into some pristine lake. It wastes precious resources. We get isolated, depressed, tense, and prone to ill health: the emotional equivalent of dirty water and dead soil.


A compost heap is positive. It’s positive to trust in the transforming process. We don’t have to try and be sweetness and light to affirm life. We need to be positive about so-called negatives too. It’s all part of our egosystem.

We even need to be positive and affirming when we recognise we’re denying pain – and not deny that we’re denying it. Then we can begin to unravel why we feel the need to do that, and what we do to deny pain. We can explore how to befriend pain – not wallow in the mud of pain: dissolve resistance, which is the real negative, till we distil the love, and its creative power.

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