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southport pierIt was a beautiful hot day, early in the season, and I’d been tempted out to the coast, to Southport, for a walk along the promenade, then to the end of the pier, for coffee and doughnuts. Being rather challenged in the follicle department these days, I’d not wanted to catch the sun too much on the top of my head, so I’d called in to the Matalan store, just off the promenade, for a hat, choosing for myself an inexpensive, one-size-fits-all thing, made of straw.

Thus, protected from the sun, I re-joined the crowds making their way along the pier. It was a wonderful afternoon and my spirits soared. After feeling like I’d been cooped up in the house all winter, the sea air was incredibly invigorating. About half way along the pier we picked up a teasing breeze, and one of the mischievous little sprites of air lifted my new hat from head and snatched it out of reach of my startled grasp. Well, that’s that, I thought – I’d had the hat all of ten minutes, and there is was: gone! I turned then, just in time to see a quick witted lady, whom I took to be of Malaysian descent, catching hold of it with a dainty little hop and a laugh. Her companions, an English couple in their seventies, found the incident amusing and for a moment we all shared in the silliness of it. She had the most wonderful smile, this woman, and such playful eyes, and a charming demeanour. Graciously, she returned my hat and, a little embarrassed, I thanked her, then went on my way.

It was that same evening, at home, I got an email from a friend. I replied with some news about my day. I don’t know why I brought up the subject of nearly losing my hat – perhaps I was stuck for something to say – but anyway I described the incident to him pretty much as I’ve described it to you. Then, the very next day, he came back to me with another email. He said his sister, who lives in Southport, has a neighbour, a lady originally from the far east. She’d had some elderly English friends visiting recently, possibly the companions I’d described, and wouldn’t it be amazing if it was the same woman who’d caught my hat? Enthused by the possibility, he resolved to ask his sister to enquire at the next opportunity. And I, equally enthused, eagerly awaited news. The odds were pretty much against it, but stranger things have happened, plus I had this funny feeling,…

And you know what?

My friend’s sister’s neighbour said it definitely wasn’t her! But if it had been,… well, that would have been a really good story!

Of course, it would not have taken much for me to end my tale differently for you here, thus transforming rather a pointless, factual, anecdote into a more beguiling lie. Believe me, the temptation was strong, because I had wanted it to be true. I had wanted the neighbour of my friend’s sister to be the one who had caught my hat, because it would have created a highly improbable and possibly meaningful connection between strangers who were mutually, though rather vaguely connected already, yet entirely unknown to one another. That we are all more intimately connected than we suppose is, I believe, the way of the universe, and I’m hungry for stories that support this hypothesis, to the extent that I am often tempted to bend the facts in order to yield a more polished myth. This is, after all, what story-tellers do.

Sure, we’re all fond of amazing coincidences. It would have been like the universe singling me out on that sunny day, amid vast crowds, and raising me to the ranks of existential celebrity. It would have meant I was not just some insignificant twerp in a poorly fitting hat. But alas, in the absence of any miracle, as my good lady was kind enough to point out at the time, that’s exactly what I had been. That I’d been unable to hold onto my hat, and a stranger had caught it, was really neither here nor there, and barely worth the mention.

Except,…

This fragment of an opening has the feel of a romance about it, and I’m fond of writing those, so I shall step aside from myself for a moment and put a fictional protagonist in my shoes. He’s single, perhaps divorced, or maybe he just never got around to it in the first place. He’s thinking life’s passed him by, that the time for love has gone.

Then the wind snatches off his hat, just like that!

And the rest, as they say,…

Well, you couldn’t make it up, could you?

The Ebb Tide

southport beachThe tide ebbs,
And leaves nothing.
I scan the beach
For bits of interesting flotsam;
Things that might sparkle in the sun,
And which, from a distance
Look promising.

I imagine rare jewels,
Or a twist of something golden in the sand,
And scamper after each,
To discover amid the tangle
Of fly swarmed detritus,
Only junk;
Uninspiring;
Worthless as the world.

It goes out a long way here;
Miles and miles of slime-mud,
A disturbing plane of nothingness.
How naked and alone,
At ebb tide,
I am revealled,
Void even of the illusion
Of my robes of idle fancy.

Is it true then?
That beneath the jolly roll
Of light-danced waves,
There is hidden nothing but the sly clams sucked deep,
And the rotting carcases of those
Who swam too near
A barren shore?

ouspenski

P D Ouspenski – 1878-1947

Ivan Osokin is a man in his middle twenties; he is feckless, undisciplined and broke. He’s had many chances to make good in life, but has squandered them all; he’s even let the love of his life ride off into the sunset without him and now receives news of her engagement to some boring old stiff-ass who’s plainly not worthy of her. No surprises there – he’s been on a course of disappointment and self inflicted disaster his whole life, and he just can’t help it.

He tells a magician of his woes, longs to begin his life over again, then he can change things for the better. The magician assures him things will be no different, but grants him his wish anyway and sends him back twelve years. Thus, Osokin arrives once more in the latter part of his childhood, just before the time he was expelled from school for being a prankster and a sluggard. And, just as the magician predicted, even though, second time around, Osokin knows he’s been this way before and he’d better pull his socks up, he’s unable to do so. Life presents him with the same choices, and the choices he makes are more like instinctive reactions than considered decisions. Once again he just can’t help himself; the groove of his life is simply too deep to escape.

Written around 1905, when Ouspenski was in his middle twenties (a bit like Osokin!) the “strange life” uses the idea of eternal recurrence, that we possess a kind of immortality, one in which no sooner are our lives over than we begin again, exactly as before. The more optimistic supporters of this system tell us that with skill and awareness we can feel when a choice we’re about to make is wrong, because last time it ended badly for us, so we make another choice, fine tuning our lives through successive incarnations, until we finally make the best of the circumstances into which we are born. The more pessimistic however, tell us that we are unable to change our ways, that, like poor Osokin, man is sleepwalking, an automaton, that eternal recurrence is actually a prison from which few escape, because they simply don’t know how. And that’s why the world is incurably mad.

Until 1915 Ouspenski was known as a philosopher, journalist and author of several influential works: The Fourth Dimension, Tertium Organum, and a New Model of the Universe. The new science of quantum mechanics had created a buzz, revealing a very strange universe, which cleared the way for a brief renaissance of mystical thinking that electrified the cultured classes. And at their centre were thinkers like Ouspenski.

The strange life of Ivan Osokin is an exploration of the possible reality of a fourth dimension, and the search for a deeper meaning to life. By 1915, when the story was published, the Russian Empire Ouspenski had grown up in was descending into the turmoil of revolution, while the rest of Europe was blasting itself to bits in the trenches of the first world war. All of mankind’s fine ideas seemed to have brought only ruin. Ouspenski was searching for a new way to overcome in man what seemed stupid and mechanical, and the search was urgent because, in the struggle between barbarism and civilisation, barbarism was definitely winning.

So,…

Osokin finally catches up with himself, second time around, and the magician says that he told him so. Osokin is appalled by how helpless he had been in avoiding ruin again, that even knowing his mistakes ahead of time, he was unable to avoid repeating any of them. Then the magician gives him a way out. He says Osokin can change his life next time around, but only by making significant changes within himself. But there’s a catch: Osokin cannot do this alone; he requires the help of an all-wise charismatic guru type – i.e. the magician – to whom he must first sell his soul for a very long apprenticeship.

The story reflects events in Ouspenski’s own life. In 1915, he met a charismatic magician in the mysterious Greek-Armenian, George Gurdjieff, to whom he hitched his brilliance and spent the next 9 years or so immersed in Gurdjieff’s bizarrely eclectic teachings. Of Gurdjieff, opinions vary depending on who you read. Some describe him as a genius, a sage, a magus, others as a madman and an outrageous charlatan who would have remained forever obscure, had it not been for the shield of Ouspenski’s reputation among European intellectuals.

But Gurdjieff is another story.

We leave Osokin contemplating whether or not to hand himself over into the care of his magician – as Ouspenski was perhaps also doing in 1915. For Ouspenski though, things didn’t work out particularly well with the magician. As early as 1918 he was having serious doubts about Gurdjieff’s methods but it wasn’t until until 1924, he finally announced his return to a more independent line of thought. Some would say however, that his best work was over by this time – some would even say it was over the day he met Gurdjieff. He died in England, in 1947, a source of great inspiration to many, both in his own time and in the succeeding generations who have discovered him anew. But he never found what he was looking for. Ouspenski’s story, and his search for meaning through some of the most turbulent events in history is a remarkable one, and his failure is  all the more poignant for its heroism.

I find the idea of an eternal recurrence an interesting one. It makes a kind of intellectual sense out of life, whether you take the optimistic or the pessimistic track. It may be that many of the decisions we make are indeed unconscious – but I also think the biggest mistake we can make is to hand over responsibility for personal change to someone else. The right choice is the one for which we can fully accept responsibility for our actions, while remaining mindful of their consequences, both practically and emotionally, for ourselves and others. Without such a grounding, no magician is ever going to make a ha’porth of difference to our lives. But maybe that’s just my conservative nature, and my own trap.

In the Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I would not have handed my fate over to that smug and quite possibly insane magician, submitted myself to his teachings – which I admit I’m unable to penetrate at all, and which at times seem quite silly. Better for me to have got on the train and followed the love of my life, begged her not to marry the other guy. We would have married and had kids, and I would have settled down to look for the answer to the meaning of my life elsewhere, between the demands of a banal dayjob, and changing poopy diapers. I would have looked for it in books, and in the ideas of others, looked for connections in the muddle of world thought that others had perhaps missed.

I would not have found the meaning of my life in my choice of life, but Ouspenski didn’t find it either and if he couldn’t, I don’t rate anyone else’s chances very much, at least not on this side of the fourth dimension. Maybe he would have done it, had he not fallen under Gurdjieff’s remarkable spell.

I don’t know; maybe he’ll work it out, next time around, and next time I read The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I’ll realise where I’ve been going wrong too.

The strange life of Ivan Osokin

dipper

White throated dipper

I drove back in time at least two weeks yesterday. Around my home village, on the sleepy plains of West Lancashire, the harbingers of Spring are maturing nicely – hawthorns greening and the first crop of daffodils already looking spent. But an hour north, in the Yorkshire dales there was a colder, harder feel to the air. Here, the hawthorns were bare and frigid, and the watery sunshine I’d woken to had become more of a watery grey with spitting rain and a sleepy clag hugging the hills.

I was bound for Ingleton, a little dales village which has been drawing tourists since the 18th century. I was en route for the famous waterfall trail. Largely unknown outside of Ingleton until the 1860′s the waterfall trail takes in a series of some of England’s finest falls – a four and a half mile circuit of breathtaking beauty, and an absolute must for anyone visiting the Dales on holiday. There is a catch though – it’s not free. At the time of writing there’s a £6.00 per person charge. I’ve noticed a lot of grumbling about this in various forums, and while I wouldn’t normally condone the private ownership of our natural heritage, and the charging of fees to see it, I think the waterfall trail is special case.

Difficult of access and in places downright dangerous, this trail couldn’t possibly cope with the visitor numbers it sees without special attention to the paths, or they’d be churned to slime in a season, and people would be lost regularly – drowned, swept away or dashed to bits in the rocky ravines that truly are the stuff nightmare. As a walk it might be classed as easy to moderate, meaning anyone who can put one foot in front of the other and climb a flight of stairs is probably up to it. However, without those well maintained walkways, this would be a serious scramble and off limits to all but the hardiest and footsure.

So I paid my £6 with a glad heart and drove onto the carpark. Huge carpark, and I was the first one on it. I therefore had the luxury of choosing my spot and picked out a fairly private bit with a nice view of the river. I was pulling on my boots when the second car arrived. He had almost as much choice as I, but decided to squeeze his car in next to mine with barely a wafer between them, then opened his door clumsily. Bang!

“Oops, sorry mate.” He checks his door. “No damage.” He pulls on his coat and bumbles off to the toilets.

Had it been me I would have preferred to park some distance away; with so much room available it makes no sense to crowd others, or maybe I’m more of a misanthrope than I think, and others more naturally gregarious. People confuse me, and while I think I have made some halting headway over years in analysing myself, a lifetime of observing others has taught me nothing. I moved the car before the clot came back and delivered old grumpy another crack.

money tree

Money tree, Swilla Glen

The walk begins by following the river Twiss upstream through Swilla Glen, a beautifully mossy, wooded ravine. The first feature of note here is not a waterfall, but a fallen tree-stump covered with an armour plating of copper coins that have been knocked into it. It’s a custom you see a lot in Yorkshire. If this were Lancashire there’d be someone with a pair of pliers pulling the coins out. I’m not sure of its origins but suspect something pagan, a distant folk memory perhaps of paying ones respects to the water-faery, for good luck or healing – or so my romantic imagination insists. The real reason is probably far more prosaic.

Apart from the clumsy clot on the carpark, my luck was holding and the heavy rain that had been forecast was so far limiting itself to a light drizzle. There was still a lot of water coming down the glen though and I could hear the Pecca falls thundering long before I saw them. I have stood by the Pecca falls when the air has been shuddering and the ground shaking. The volume of water and the energy behind it is an awesome spectacle – one of the attractions of falls worldwide of course, but none more so than here. The walkways and bridges manage to get you in really close to these falls and you’ve only to imagine tourists scrambling over lichen slick rock to appreciate the sense in paying for a bit of maintenance, some steps and a stout barrier between yourself and certain death.

pecca falls

Pecca Falls

But the most famous and picturesque of the falls lies further on. This is Thornton force. Unlike the Pecca falls, which are squeezed in raging white torrents down a deep rocky ravine, Thornton force spills its thunderous way in the wide open. Take my picture it says, or paint me. But photographs can’t do it justice – they shrink it to a fraction of its true size, and they silence its throaty roar. I have sat and stared at Thornton force on a summer’s day and lost myself in it. A fine, double cascade – no one passes by here without a feeling of wonder – yet all it is water falling.

thornton force

Thornton force

We leave the ravines of the Twiss above Thornton force and climb to the Twistleton scars. This is the exposed bit and if you’re going to catch the weather it’ll be here. And it was. I caught a cold wind and a stiff back hander from the rain which gave me a good soaking, until I was able to dip down into the valley of the Doe and the down-stream leg of the walk. The falls here I think have a more subtle beauty about them. The vale is more densely wooded, more intimate, more sylvan, the rocks more heavily lichened, the water white and more dancing, as it makes its jolly way.

beezley falls

Beezley falls

The upper falls here – the Beezley falls, are a photographer’s delight, with such a fascinating number of twists and turns, every step revealing a new and ever more dramatic picture, but again the camera shrinks them to an atom, robs them of every spark of life. The pictures I’ve included here must be enlarged in the imagination a hundred fold, to the accompaniment of a deep, rumbling roar, and the song of birds.

The last of the falls on this spectacular trail is Snow Falls, another impressive and powerful cataract, though hidden at first by the deep ravine through which it passes, and one views it almost in retrospect. Before this towering curtain of white water, I noticed a bird, perched upon on a low rock, surrounded by leaping torrents. Binoculars showed it to be a dipper, rather a beautiful, playful little thing, mostly black, white throated, with a russet cap and waistcoat. It would occasionally go wading, swimming in the eddies, diving, then bobbing back up to its rocky perch. The dipper is a well named bird.

The gorge which ends with Snow Falls struck me as something akin to the gates of hell, a terrifying place where only madmen would venture voluntarily, but here was this beautiful little bird, unafraid, undaunted by the din. Perfectly adapted to its environment, it did not see the falls as I saw them – magnified and personified through the imaginative apparatus.

after twistleton

It’s significant, I think that people have flocked to Ingleton, and places like it, for centuries. We come and gaze wide eyed at the scenery, blinking as if at some alien world. We are amazed by it because we are not quite one with it. Were we ever to become truly one with it, we would become like the dipper, a thing of innocent beauty in itself, gambolling amid great beauty, but entirely unconscious of it. Like the tree that falls alone in the forest and makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it, it is mankind who lends an eye to show the world how beautiful it is, and a heart to reveal what mysterious joys such beauty can inspire.

So, two significant encounters – the clot on the carpark, and the dipper. I learned much more from the dipper, but then I’ve never been very good with people.

Graeme out.

dunneIt’s about quarter of a century now since I first encountered the book “An Experiment with Time” by the former gentleman-designer and aircraft pioneer, J W Dunne (1875-1949). In 1902 Dunne had a dream about the eruption of Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique, shortly before it happened for real. He did not dream of himself being present during the eruption but, more crucially, of picking up a newspaper at home and reading about it. Why crucially? Well, Dunne concluded the dream was not a presentiment of the disaster itself, but of his own action of picking up the newspaper. Dunne had seen himself at a point in his own future. This incident spawned much private theorising on the nature of time and existence, which in turn led to a series of very popular books, the first of which was “An Experiment with Time”, published in 1927 and which has been steadily reprinted ever since. This book suggests that in certain mental states – dreams or hypnogogic imagery – we are all capable of a form of first hand precognition of ourselves at a point days or weeks in our own future.

When we dream, we often recognise the influences of the recent past playing out in the dream narrative. But what Dunne suggested was that if we paid sufficient attention to our dreams we would find unequivocal influences from our immediate future as well. Dunne picked up a newspaper and read of the eruption in Martinique, but that event had already imprinted itself in his consciousness sufficient for it to appear as a fairly clear influence in his dreams some time previously. Dunne professed no psychic abilities and was rather disturbed by the prospect that he might be “gifted” in this way. Rather than assume this to be the case however, he chose instead to pursue the idea that the ability was in fact latent in all of us, and that all we have to do is make a record of our dreams in order to realise the truth of it.

Having made this startling observation, Dunne then began to puzzle over what it revealed about the nature of time if a part of us was indeed capable of seeing into the future. The familiar stuff of fiction and pseudo science, precognition – if true – has some serious implications for our understanding of the nature of reality. We might dream of ourselves in a situation we’d like to avoid – say a fatal accident – and decide not to get out of bed that day, so altering a future we had apparently already witnessed. But if we have already witnessed it, how can we avoid it? This is one of the paradoxes which cannot be reconciled in a deterministic universe, which suggests our futures are fixed, but which Dunne’s observations apparently bull-doze aside.

Was Dunne right? Can we dream of future things? As experiments go, the protocols Dunne uses and describes in “Experiment with Time” wouldn’t pass muster in modern parapsychological research, but his examples are compelling, and anyway, we can all sit down and make an accounting of our own dreams and decide for ourselves, so I decided to take a look at mine. It took several months, but sure enough my own little experiments with time revealed a number of intriguing de-ja-vous experiences. The first was a dream of myself sailing down an industrial backwater, on a canal boat. The following evening, when channel zapping on the TV, I zapped into the scene from the dream. Another was a dream of walking along a beach with peculiar dune formations, then of visiting that beach quite by chance some time later, a place I’d never been before. There were other incidents, most of them undramatic – indeed quite banal – but sufficient to convince me Dunne was not a crackpot, and that he had indeed revealed something peculiar, not only about time, but of our place in it.

Scientifically speaking  dream anecdotes do not equate to data and you must bear that in mind dear reader while reading this exposition by a self confessed mystical fiction writer. Sure enough Dunne met with serious opposition in academic circles on both the scientific and philosophical fronts. Among writers though, especially those of a mystical bent, and non-academic philosophers, and indeed the general public, his theories became very popular.

A man who knew Dunne and had the pleasure of discussing these ideas with him personally was the author, playwright and broadcaster J B Priestly. Priestly’s book Man and Time (1964) deals in part with Dunne’s work and in my opinion does a better job of exploring the philosophical issues. Unlike Dunne, however, Priestly wisely avoids any home-spun theorising on a scientific explanation. Such theorising however was to be Dunne’s undoing.

Dunne’s first rate technical background meant he was unable to let his experiments rest without coming up with a detailed conjecture involving maths and charts that explained it all, text-book fashion – at least to his satisfaction. Thus Dunne plunged headlong into a field that few theorists at the time were equipped to deal with, and duly came a cropper. He speculated that while the conscious mind experiences time linearly, the unconscious can plunder images from any point in our life from birth to death. We therefore exist, he said, for all time as an infinite number of moments whose direction lies at right angles to the familiar direction of time’s arrow, a series of “serial” moments. We never die, argued Dunne, because although we do exist somewhere at the point of death we are also still young, somewhere in time. Although I’m personally open to such a notion, it is vulnerable to philosophical attack, and Dunne was to spend much of his later years locking horns with learned critics, gaining the reputation of a bit of a crackpot.

Suffice it to say, he was never invited to expound upon his ideas at the Royal Institution, and while this may not be without sound reason, it’s a pity his actual observations were thrown out with the bath-water of his dubious scientific theories. It remains an awkward fact, I believe, that we do sometimes dream of things that are influenced by events we have yet to encounter. Where this leaves us in terms of an understanding of the nature of time and our place in it is no more certain now than it was when Dunne first dreamed of the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902. Indeed it’s probably best not to think too hard on it, but it is interesting. Writers of course are free to speculate and plunder his ideas at will for material. As well as Priestly, he was an influence on the Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein, and of course on more obscure scribes such as yours truly – see my story The Choices.

We can of course make a great deal of sense of the universe from the perspective of reductionist thinking. We paint a very convincing picture of a materialistic and mechanistic world, and for the day to day stuff this is fine – we get by – but we also do well to bear in mind that this is not the real nature of the universe at all. It’s much, much stranger than our physical senses perceive it. How strange? Well, how strange can you imagine it?

An Experiment with Time – 1927 J W Dunne (1875-1949)

rivington village greenThere are certain experiences which cannot be shared, yet they number among the most exquisite moments of our lives. Fleeting and unexpected, they can lift us from a dark place, and remind us that sometimes the best company we can ever keep is our own.

I took a walk this afternoon by the Yarrow reservoir at Rivington. It’s a walk I know well, a circuit of about an hour from the village green, across meadows, along an avenue of chestnut trees, then up by the shimmering mirror of the reservoir. The sky was full of contrasts today, from a stormy grey, to a deep blue and then a luminous white, and the whole of it in flux, pressed into motion by a stiff wind. The sun was intermittent, warmish when it put in an appearance, but the day still requirde several layers of clothing to keep the heat in.

Under the sun, the colours were strong – the yellow heads of daffodils and the gorse almost aglow. The periods of sun were fleeting though, dogged at every turn by a sluggish overcast that rendered the land at once flat and cold, the colours muddy, the gorse and the daffodils winking out of notice – hopes raised, then dashed, then raised again. Walking alone, I kept an eye out for splashes of emotive light, or a pattern in the bark of a tree, or the curiously purposeful line of an old stone wall I might have walked past a thousand times, yet never noticed before.

lines of light

The moments of pure light were too brief to capture properly with a camera. By the time I’d switched the thing on and focused, the land had breathed and the mood of it changed to something else entirely, but I persisted, fiddling with apertures and metering, and waiting patiently for the sun to come out from behind the clouds. There were few people about – I’m lucky having the flexibility in my working patterns to have these Friday afternoons to myself. I saw just one other walker out and about. We passed, heading in opposite directions, exchanged friendly nods and the north-country Owdo. Two men, each alone, each viewing the land in their own way, taking from it whatever jewels of imagination it offered them.

On solitary walks like this I can summon imaginary companions. At such times my pace slows, becomes meditative, and my conversations – not spoken aloud – can lead me into interesting depths of the psyche, or they can defuse knots of angst and stress. They’re not real, these imaginary entities, not spirits. I call them ghosts, but they’re more shadowy than that – daemonic in a way, or splintered parts of me I have lost along the way. But today was not one of those days. My Friday afternoon pace tends to be brisk, and I take the inclines at a rate that I can feel in the muscles, because I want to be stronger for the next time I tackle Ingleborough, later in the year. So I wasn’t trailing any ghosts today, nor expecting any moments of revelation.

sunburst

It came as I was walking by the Yarrow. A period of muddy overcast lifted suddenly as the late afternoon sun was reflected in rippled cobalt waters, making starbursts through the still stark black branches of leafless birch and rowan. Then came a heavy shower, like glass rods through which the sun’s rays shone in cool shades of yellow and silver. I was arrested by it, transfixed by the light and the sparkling air, and mood of the moment. I didn’t even bother reaching for the camera, because I’ve been fiddling with cameras for forty years, and I know there are certain things a camera cannot capture.

Had anyone been with me, they would most likely not have seen or felt it quite the same way, and their presence would have subtly altered my relationship with reality, rendered me less sensitive to its moods so I might have missed that moment altogether. I alone saw it, I alone felt it, that moment, this afternoon, by the Yarrow reservoir. But it wasn’t me – it never is in such moments as that. I seem only to lend the universe my eyes so it might look upon itself and see its own beauty. I felt a shiver, knew I had experienced something good, something worth remembering. The moment passed, and I went on my way.

An hour later I was in town, among the cars and the shops, people buying stuff, people in cafes bent over their Smartphones, traffic wardens stealing up on haphazardly parked vehicles. I bought fresh valves for my leaky radiator and a length of hose to help drain the system down, tomorrow. But I’m glad I took a turn around the reservoir first.

nondual awarenessOne of the milestones along the path of the soul is the realisation of the non-dual nature of the psyche, indeed of reality itself. Many traditions describe this state, and it’s possible by careful study of the writings of their wise men to form an idea of what it might mean, intellectually. But the intellect alone cannot fully grasp it, nor can it fully accept its reality. The non-dual state must be experienced for it to have any meaningful effect on a man’s life, and the way to attaining that experience cannot be written down in any detail. Pilgrims can be pointed in the general direction by others who have gone before, but the experience itself is always a matter of chance, an accident. It’s just that some pilgrims are more accident prone than others.

You don’t have to be monk or a saint to experience it, though this helps. You can fall into it at any stage of life, and you don’t even have to be meditating. It can even happen when you’re not ready, when your mind is still rigidly rational in its outlook. But this can also leave you in a very strange place, questioning both the validity of what you experienced in the non-dual state, and questioning too the nature of the reality you have always believed to be unassailably firm.Thus, instead of celebrating one’s brush with non-dual awareness, one ends up pathologising it, dismissing it, saying we were simply off our head, that the concepts revealed in the non-dual state are simply so far at odds with the reality we daily perceive and understand, they cannot possibly be true. So we hide from them. We cover them with intellectual detritus and a fog of words.

I’m not sure if this is normal.

Others talk of an instant conversion, like a light-switch, and once it’s on, brother, it’s definitely ON! Personality changes wrought by the experience can be dramatic and overwhelming both for pilgrim and loved ones alike, to say nothing of embarrassing. Some feel called to greatness, even martyrdom as a result of their psychological shift, but others don’t. Others become even more confused than before.

The non-dual state is characterised by a dissolving of the boundaries between the individual and the world of form, yielding the devastating insight that there is no “other”, no “out there”, that we are both what we feel ourselves to be, as well as being whatever we are looking at. This is not to say we become one with the mountain because this implies the mountain has an independent existence in the world of forms. It’s more fundamental than that; we are the mountain, and, bizarre as all of this might sound, none of it comes as a great surprise to those plunged into the experience – more it’s like the remembering of something we have always known, but somehow forgotten.

Some would say the purpose of our lives is simply to awaken to this state, to renew our acquaintanceship with the hidden hyper-reality that is our natural heritage. But this cannot be the whole story.

The nature of reality as revealed in the non-dual state suggests that anything is possible, that our own reach knows no bounds. But if that’s true, then what are we doing here? In flesh, my furthest reach enables me to scratch my bottom and change a lightbulb. The experience in flesh is rather more limited then, also fraught with emotion. The experience of the non-dual state, by contrast, is liberating, it is to be embraced by an infinite loving wisdom and a boundless compassion, while the experience of the flesh is one of imprisonment, loneliness, disappointment and desire.

There must be a very good reason for us being here if we’re missing out on all of that. But what is it?

I’m not going to answer this question because I really don’t know, and can only speculate like anyone else. But there is a clue, I think in the fact that the experience of non-dual awareness occurs at a point in time that is neither past nor future, but at the singularity of their interstices, in the “now”. Past and future are psychological constructs, neither of them existing as anything other than memory or anticipation. The closer we can bring our minds, in the day to dayness of our lives, to that present moment, feel our presence in it, the less we fear the future, and the less we lament the events of the past, and the more we feel our aliveness and our interconnection with all things. Our purpose in life then may be nothing more than to achieve a sense of presence in whatever we happen to be doing at the time.

The rest is unimportant.

Or so I tried to tell myself this evening as I took a spanner to my leaking radiator valve. But no amount of presence would lessen the dripping to a rate that might be contained by an old biscuit tin until morning. Non-dual awareness wasn’t much help either, the sense that the aged leaking valve and I were one – although as metaphors go we we’re pretty well matched. What I really needed was not a sage but plumber. What use is non-dual awareness when my radiator valve is leaking? Answer that and I think you’ve covered just about everything a man could ever want to know.

leaking radiator

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