Susan Scott is a brilliant writer whose writings reveal the profound depth of her wisdom. This interview has been long in the making – Susan has been most patient through my various challenges this year – that continually put this interview on hold. Finally it is here. I hope you will engage with the wisdom in these pages and find that thread that speaks to your soul.
Prem: What motivated you to climb Kilimanjaro despite your injuries (or as your husband diagnosed “total body crumble”) – what fueled your resolve to still go ahead and do the climb?
Susan: It was touch and go. There were plenty of physical dramas leading up to departure date. I was unable to exercise for 6 weeks prior because of pain in my leg and hip. Even simple stretching exercises in Yoga were painful. One after the other there were complications. I honestly thought I would not be able to do it, and was strongly advised not to. I was in email contact with Susan Schwartz who lives in Phoenix, Arizona – she and her husband were flying over to do the climb. She knew of all that had been happening. About a week before departure date she wrote me: She said, “take it as it comes Susan, take it as it comes”. Well, when I read that, I literally felt a weight lifting – it was a phenomenal and very real happening. Off came the weight of the dramas, off it came, rising, disappearing and I felt immediately lighter. From then on everything came together and in the last week all was well.
Prem: How does the advice “take it as it comes” by your friend and fellow climber guide you in your life today?
Susan: We have control over some areas of our lives but it’s an illusion to think that we have control over all that happens to us. We know that when the unexpected happens, we feel that the bottom of the world has disappeared from under our feet leaving us rudderless. Others may offer comfort in our despair, but it is up to each of us to take the moments as they happen, all those feelings of helplessness that are as real as the sun’s rising and setting. It helps me to have an awareness of this when for example I’m driving in unknown territory on my own, to take it as it comes and not get anxious of what ‘may’ happen. I can only hope that Providence is on my side.
Prem: Your total engagement with the moment during the climb taught you a lot about the nature of time and the paradox it embodies: “I was watch – less. Time was not an issue for me” “I was fully in the moment. There was no “other way”. Describe your experience of time on the mountain and if you are still able to translate that experience to your living of life today? How did your experience open you up into the deeper and more profound dimensions of time?
“Maybe you’ve been assigned
this mountain to show others
it can be moved”
Susan: My full attention was on one step at a time, dear Jesus, that’s all I’m asking of You. It was like a mantra for me which kept me fully in the moment. It was a huge experience for me, not wondering when we were going to stop for a while, how much further we had to go that day or when supper was going to be, or how long we had to sleep. Feeling the timelessness of my experience, I felt as if I was in some way taken out of myself while being in the moment. It’s a wonderful paradox which affirms for me the reality beyond causality, temporal time and its linearity into a deeper dimension of time. I wonder about our – or my – allotted time on earth. Time is of course linked to death and as time narrows as I get older, time seems to fly even faster. The anticipation of death brings into sharper focus unfinished business. Which brings up for me questions such as, have I done enough, been conscious enough, kind and thoughtful enough, free from hidden agendas enough? Have I enough courage to trust in life? And if not, is there hopefully enough time to rectify this? Although coming down the mountain was another story – I wanted to know how much longer, how much further – I wanted to know the answer to this unanswerable question no doubt in part because of the difficulty of the descent…
Prem: “The face/attitude that one turns towards the unconscious or the unknown is exactly the same face that will be turned back to you in real life” – you describe this saying as “spiritual gravitas”. What wisdom can you share about this saying and how can we negotiate our unconscious using it as our guide?
Susan: For me, it’s important to ask myself, what is my attitude for example to this relationship, that person, this set of circumstances, that attitude towards my parents, institutions, politics, religion and especially towards my own self. Am I too conditioned to thinking in a certain and overly fixed way? What attitude do I have towards the unknown? Am I fearful and anxious, or could I be more trusting in the universe? We can use the unconscious as our guide if we choose to. We can note our dreams and see what messages come from that rich soil that is the unconscious and make a serious attempt in trying to decode these messages of the night meant specifically for the dreamer. They open up a house of unexplored treasures, which may well release us from a fixed attitude. Being open to a change of attitude about things we’ve previously held fast to, for example ‘that a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ or ‘that men shouldn’t cry’, is very releasing even if difficult in the beginning. If we can be in the world with less guile, less self-deception or a hidden agenda, we open up to the world. From the microcosm to the macrocosm. I do believe that the attitude that we hold is the one that is reflected back to us.
Prem: Your descent on the mountain passes through a terrain you call the “Land of the Dead”. You could say that humans as a species are collectively negotiating what may be called a dark night of the soul – passing through what may be called the Land of the Dead. From your experience on the mountain what wisdom could you impart to us in negotiating this particularly and desolate part of our collective journey?
Susan: Coming down the mountain was a completely different experience to the ascent. I hadn’t given a thought that when you get up you have to come down. It was barren, bleak and bleached, the terrain totally desolate. Not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere, robbed of vitality, no sign of life. It just seemed dead, a wasteland. For me it was soul-less. Incidentally the route of the descent was different to the route of the ascent. I stumbled and cursed many times and felt utterly helpless most of the time.
Though I did stop at a point on the descent and give silent thanks to my parents and ancestors for getting me to where I was – the dark night of the soul is in its way, paradoxically alive, and a fertile dynamic. The dark night offers potential and possibilities. I am keenly aware that it seems that we, collectively, are undergoing a dark night of the soul. Can we struggle through it and emerge, changed? Change, if it’s going to happen and be meaningful, begins within, within each one of us.
Is the macrocosm a reflection, a mirror image of the microcosm? The loss of soul is apparent in the way we treat nature and her inhabitants, and the way in which we treat each other. We’re brittle, anxious, agitated, uncertain, leaving it up to others and institutions to sort it out. It’s too big for us as individuals. Better to keep our heads in the sand, be like an ostrich. ‘How do we negotiate and traverse?’ – this is the question you’re asking me and it’s a question we each have to ask ourselves, while knowing that there are no simple answers. How could there be? But asking the question is a start in the right direction. We could ask ourselves in what way have we been part of the problem for example in laziness or carelessness about plastic use, and take steps within our own sphere of influence to clean up our act, thereby hopefully contributing in the wider sphere.
We could plant a seed of love, peace and compassion within our own hearts which on this microscopic level would have an effect on a macroscopic level – and the energy of that would flow between the two in both directions. I think about this all the time. I wonder about our loss of soul that has allowed this sorry state of affairs. This point where we are, thoroughly disillusioned, maybe feeling doubt and despair, is a good place to be. Being disillusioned has its own value; it means a stripping away of all that is illusion and getting to the real; what better place to start. Hopefully we’ll be willing and able to move out of our crippling complacency and illusory comforts and take action – not only for our own good but for all others.
Prem: The times we are living in requires a move away from independence towards interdependence – from independence towards moving together as a group. Your time on the mountain taught you this necessary lesson – learning to depend on others to make it through the difficult and treacherous parts of the journey.
Susan: For someone like me who is overly independent this was a huge lesson in interdependence, knowing that I could rely on the others and that I could be relied upon. I accepted the camaraderie that developed among us. Each of us in our 9-person group was mindful that each of us was facing a challenge the likes of which we’d not experienced before, individually and collectively. This camaraderie was very energizing and real. This makes me wonder whether we as humans would benefit from a collective social consciousness for the benefit of all, including Nature and all its inhabitants, and for this to be a common and uniting purpose.
Prem: What wisdom did you learn that could be of benefit to us in moving away from the isolated independent individual to engaging in group dynamics for the highest good of all.
Susan: There seems to be a growing awareness of the necessity of mutual dependence. No man is an island. This reminds me of the message of Ubuntu, an African Nguni word, meaning where I am is because of you, or a person is a person through other people. It requires us to mirror our humanity towards each other. When people get together for a common cause much can be achieved in willing participation and co-operation. Invariably though it takes one person to start and invite others to join. The ocean clean up, or the plastics clean up, or the protests about deforestation are usually most effective when many are involved. Though we can individually do our bit, our actions seemingly small yet having far reaching consequences.
Prem: What did you learn about courage and surrender when facing the challenge of climbing this awesome mountain?
Susan: There were two things: though we were fearful for the first few days, we learned that it was safe to surrender to the knowledge and abilities of our guides on the mountain and to trust this. We were a little more courageous about going into the unknown. Julius was my guide on the descent. I was on my own with him as the others had gone on ahead. I could not have had a kinder or more patient person than Julius to help me all the times I stumbled. I surrendered my independence to him, and it was a lovely and secure feeling to know that I could depend on him no matter what. My inner center was strengthened by this. The second incident was a conversation after the climb when we were safely ensconced in comfortable surroundings at Maji Moto, many hours away from the mountain. I said to Frederic that I was stronger than I had previously thought. His response was that I would remember that when I needed to and that I had a reservoir of strength that I can draw on.
Prem: Any closing thoughts or further wisdom you wish to share?
Susan: Often, when we reflect back on our experiences whether climbing mountains, or struggling with the complexities of life, we find that we have a wider view of them. Hopefully the lens through which we look is a little wiser, more compassionate towards how we were at the time, especially if we feel we have failed in some way. Have more trust in your innate wisdom and that of the world. And be courageous in facing the unknown. The universe wants to support you.
Prem: Your book Lilith, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and other stories is rich and wise – in a world dominated by patriarchal values how can the archetype of Lilith help women today – how can women find through Lilith the courage to “rise again”
Susan: The archetype of Lilith is a very complex one indeed. But as some may know, Lilith, according to the Midrash, was the first wife of Adam who refused to be submissive to him and for this refusal was banished to the Red Sea to be never heard from again. But, she does arise again, in the guise of the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempts Eve with the apple which Eve accepts, bites into and digests and Adam does likewise. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent when confronted by the Almighty. For their disobedience both are banished from the Garden.
There are many ways of looking at this story or myth – a constructive way is seeing Lilith, in the guise of the serpent, as offering Eve a way out of the Garden, where all was ‘bliss’ and all their needs taken care of, like little children. Their time to move out of unconscious unity had come, to move out into a 2nd world, where choice, free will and action were to be accounted for.
Many women are in exile in one way or another, where they feel that the status quo is far removed from their essential selves, yet they do not have the courage or wherewithal to move on. Rejection and repression is a serious wound to any human. But more women are speaking out these days how they’ve been sidelined and silenced when they’ve tried to use their voice; and about the negative effects of being subservient to a patriarchal world view in all areas of life.
The story of Lilith is a powerful one. She has been called all sorts of vitriolic names under the sun, from baby snatcher to whore. She is a woman who stood up and was thus exiled but not forever. She arose again. Lilith & Eve were the original trailblazers.
Each of us has a voice, and what better instrument can there be than to use it to speak their truth.
Prem: “This is the autumn of our lives. But is it also the winter of our discontent?” –your book ‘Aging and Becoming – A Reflective Inquiry’ is a rich reflection that covers so many topics – it provides rich fodder for deep contemplation of this oftentimes difficult rite of passage. What inspired you to write this book and how can it be a support to us during our own deep contemplative journeys into wise womanhood.
Susan: Dr. Susan E Schwartz (Jungian analyst in Phoenix Arizona) and I co-authored the book. The material contained in it is really our own personal reflections of this stage of our lives where aging has us in its radar. Like all the transitions we face in our lives whether death – birth, marriage – divorce, retirement – retrenchment, tricky relationships within the family or the workplace, aging is also such a transition where our mortality becomes more evident.
We challenge the view that older women have little to offer. Aging gives us the opportunity to express a more rounded-out personality, where the older woman feels the pull to be more authentic, finding freedom in the widening of the lens and into wise-womanhood.
Aging gives us the opportunity for self reflection and introspection to look backwards over our lives, to try to trace the pattern and weave of our lives, to see where the web was broken and if it can be mended. It can allow us, if we approach this task with openness and a lack of guile, to make amends to others and see ourselves and others with more compassion for where we may have transgressed. To allow those unexpressed griefs to come more to the fore. The older woman has less time left in terms of years; this could be a time for renewal of herself in a way that she feels is truer and expressive of her. What better gift to herself – and to others.
Susan’s books are published on amazon.com
The link to her blog is:
Susan and her husband live in Plettenburg Bay.