Afghanistan and the Stone Circles

It’s the end of August 2021, northern England. Dusk gathers about three stone circles. The setting is dazzling, a moorland ringed by mountains. It’s just me camping with nature, the evening before I turn fifty. I can feel the edge – of crossing one of life’s important thresholds, an upping of the ante, of not knowing what the night might bring.

Almost twenty years earlier two jets were flown into the Twin Towers in New York that brought them crashing down. I was living in Tribeca at the time, on the thirty-second floor of an apartment block, not far from where the towers had stood. Looking back it feels so mythic. Some evenings I would gaze out from the apartment window at smouldering Ground Zero, inhale the smell of burning plastic that hung in the air for months. They were liminal moments, seeming to symbolise something within myself where a restless part of me padded about in a gilded cage, craving a deeper-feeling freedom than the manic, disembodied world of investment banking. All I knew consciously was that something was missing, something vital. Working harder only made it worse. Two years later, I nudged open the cage door and leaped from that world into another.

In the week before I arrived at the stone circles, the headlines were dominated by the rushed withdrawal of Western military from Afghanistan and a humanitarian crisis left in its wake, some asking: Why had governments still not learned that fighting and meddling overseas doesn’t work? I wondered, behind the dubious reasons given for invading, and the reasons given for staying longer, behind the hidden agendas, the oppression, the dogma, what was it about Afghanistan that so captured my imagination? The answer is easy. Beyond the vast indigo skies and a striking landscape that sings of high adventure, it has what my culture seems to have lost – wild grace and a slower pace.

Matt and Anna, Lakes of Band-i-Amir, Afghanistan

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck northern Pakistan in October 2005, I travelled through an Afghanistan that few foreigners see these days, including the military, reaching Kabul via the Khyber Pass and travelling overland through the middle of the country to Herat. A spontaneous adventure. Unguided, two friends and I had galloped on horses up through a gorgeous canyon to reach the high altitude, pristine lakes of Band-i-Amir. A local man had greeted us as gifts from God, as was their custom, stabled and fed our horses, offered us the choice room in the house and fed us with the best naan, stew and curd we had tasted. Closer to Herat, we rode pillion with local lads, through a terrain ideal for ambush, to the remote and exquisite Minaret of Jam, all that Genghis Khan is said to have left standing of the Ghorid empire’s Turquoise Mountain capital.

Reading the articles on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, once again I feel that place, and others like it, calling out to a questing part of me. But I returned to Britain in 2018 with the intention of drawing out from the British culture what it was that drew me elsewhere – the easy smiles of warm welcomes, the sense of being seen, of feeling gloriously alive in a mysterious world, the of course I’ll help you, anything is possible mind-set unhampered by bureaucracy, and functioning communities dwarfed by wild landscapes. The sense that every day was a fresh start bursting with potential.

Riding pillion with Fazel to the Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan

As I sit in one of the stone circles watching dusk thicken to night, it’s crystal clear what I had longed for while working in New York and what I had been seeking during the years of adventure that followed – my soul. It had been calling out to me all along. But if someone had spoken to my thirty-something-self in terms of soul and suggested that I was somehow wounded by my disconnection from it, I would have laughed it off as nonsense.

The old stories tell us that courting the soul is a life-long enterprise. In his book The Waters of Life, the storyteller Michael Meade states that the soul usually visits us in our mid-teens and offers us a vision of the meaning of our lives, but our egos aren’t sufficiently mature to survive the descent. The soul checks back in with us in mid-life when, hopefully, we start to become useful to something bigger than ourselves. In the mythic language of the psyche, the masculine part inside all people, regardless of gender, begins to tire of heroic deeds. Fair maidens lose their allure and fighting dragons no longer inspires us to action. Such pastimes have become superficial. They no longer feel wild enough or deep enough. The journey shifts from a need to find something to fight, to quest after, from the need to be remarkable, to a feminine need for solitude and stillness, to a need to reconcile opposing forces and to heal a wound that is feminine in its nature – a wound to the feeling function, to the tender feelings shut down in childhood, the ones that connect us to mystery and meaning. To the very thing that is most precious to us. To soul. Our true nature. 

The Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan

It’s a shift from a mind-set of either-or to a mind-set of both-and . . . A shift to a third way that works for all people, all species, in every sphere of life. It’s the letting go of a heroic, saviour-like vision of how the world ought to be, no matter how appealing that vision might seem, and opening to guidance from nature’s staggering intelligence.

It feels so right to be sitting by myself in the ancient stone circle at such a time on the island of my birth. I wonder at the cost of the long, spectacular, at times testing journey to arrive at this way-marker – the real cost of this ongoing process of tempering, the damage done, a bill that’s paid by nature, of which our souls are so obviously a part. I marvel at the mystery of it, at the unwavering patience of the exiled parts of our psyches yearning to come home, only appearing when we’re still enough, subtle enough and sufficiently grounded to perceive them.

Local children, village near the Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan

I have no doubt that the old stories are right – to be human is to be wounded, to initially be burdened with shame and guilt, sometimes so subtly that, later in life, we scoff at the idea. The wounding is by design, oddly sacred, made in childhood in the very place where our unique magnificence tried to awaken. We lose a faculty for decades, before rediscovering it on a more profound, more mysterious level, empowered and tempered by life experience, finally ready to embrace it, grounded in the knowledge that the further we venture into that place of trauma, the more miracles we bring back to share. Without a yearning for that missing magnificence, the gifts maturing within the wound can’t be revealed.

Night arrives at the circles. I’m seated at the centre of the larger one, myself the offering. My intention: to be fully at the service of nature, of soul, to help hold space for what needs to emerge, in whatever way I can. A barn owl flies phantom-like over my head, glancing down at me, first from the North then from the East. I’m awestruck. A fox barks nearby with a sense of urgency. Dream-time begins and the Otherworld says, in its complex and astounding way, Yes.

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