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Truth be told

lizardThe Internet has given us all a much wider view of the world than we used to have. Once upon a time, the TV and radio news broadcasts, and the newspapers were all we had. But events are treated so superficially by these media it’s impossible to know exactly what the underlying reasons are for a thing. Every headline is merely the tip of an iceberg of events, the details of which we never learn about in any depth. And it is always in the deeper understanding of events we find the truth, never the headline itself.

Control of such a limited bandwidth media renders it, and us, notoriously vulnerable to manipulation – the camera pointing in a certain direction, while ignoring others that may be inconvenient, embarrassing or decidedly off-message to powerful, controlling interests. Nowadays of course we have a much wider source of information and current affairs, courtesy of the plethora of online news and opinion. Indeed now you might say there are cameras pointing everywhere, and from every conceivable angle. There are facts a plenty for those willing to seek them out, but in seeking them we discover we also have fictions presented as facts, lies as truths, dreams as realities, indeed such a confused mish-mash of “content” we are still no more able to identify the underlying truth of a thing than we were before.

While controlled media has the potential to make us believe whatever the controller of that media wants us to believe, the Internet merely reflects back whatever it is we want to believe in the first place; it hides the truth in plain sight. The Internet grants the freedom to dream, to believe what we want, but what kind of freedom is that exactly when we are unable to tell the genuine article from the false? What we want to believe may well be the truth, but unless we bear it witness, personally, we will never know for sure, because for every story that says a thing is true, there are many others that say it’s not.

Let’s say I believed the world’s elite were descended from a race of lizards. Why would I believe such a preposterous thing? Because it’s what I heard; it’s what someone I respect told me was true, therefore I am inclined to believe in it as well, and there are plenty of Internet sources to support this particular belief. Or how about a global conspiracy to keep us all docile by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere? Sure,… I heard it said, and there’s plenty of stuff online to support that belief also. Ditto UFO’s, that the earth is flat, or the moon is made of blue cheese.

Whatever we want to believe, we will find convincingly corroborating sources online, and these will lend comfort to our beliefs. Whether this stuff is true or not is never clear for media of any kind does not constitute proof, and relies instead on our credulous support to render it a viable myth and myths are not truths. Myths are myths.

The same thing applies to world affairs. If we turn to You Tube, we get snippets of current affairs spinning at us from so many directions and angles now it’s impossible to know which is correct. In short, the Internet solves nothing, because from a medium of endless choice, we merely select those stories that suit our beliefs and allow our prejudice to reject the ones that don’t. Worse, the Internet tailors our searches to give us more of what it thinks we want, based on our previous searches, tending only to reinforce and narrow, rather than widen our views.

We need a fair arbiter of the truth, a voice that tells us which of the stories of the world are worth listening to. But how do we find such a trustworthy arbiter when any bloody fool can be a pundit on their own Internet news channel? Have we really arrived at the situation where we can trust no one’s judgement other than our own? But how can we even trust ourselves? How do I know I am not deluded in my beliefs, or that the person who passed on these beliefs to me was not himself deluded, ignorant, bigoted, racist, sexist, or just plain stupid?

There are those who know they don’t know a thing, and for them something might be done. It’s called education. But for those who don’t know they don’t know a thing, or worse don’t know a thing when they think they know all about it, education is of little use and most likely will be rejected anyway as a conspiracy to brainwash them of the truth. This is the way it’s always been, and the result is called the human race. And the human race, equipped with the Internet, is the human race as we once knew it but on steroids. It is a collective at the mercy of its own increasingly vicious, ignorant, unconscious maelstrom of thought and emotion.

Only education points the way to truth. Armed with a wide, general and impartial knowledge of the world, and an experience of life, you might eventually ask how likely is the truth of a thing, and thereby come to some sort of approximation of it, but even this is no guarantee, for there are many highly educated people who are also fools, lending their foolish opinions to the world of thought.

I’ve heard it said there’s no such thing as the truth anyway. It was probably one of those half baked puffball quotations you get from a self-styled self-help guru’s website, one that thinks it knows a thing when it doesn’t. But in an altercation between two individuals one of them clearly hits the other first. There is a definite truth to it, but when both cry foul, and in the absence of impartial witness, there’s no knowing who started it, no actual “knowing” the truth of their story at all. At school, in the days of corporal punishment, both would have their backsides tanned, both truth and falsehood winding up with smarting asses, the truth resentful at not being believed, the falsehood smug at having truth concealed.

So how do we get at the truth? Beats me. Age doesn’t help – the older one gets the wider only one’s view of the sea of untruth. This doesn’t aid navigation much; it results only in a gradual becalming, so progress turns in on itself, becomes contemplative and philosophical, rather than desiring to bring about change in the world, for without foundation all things crumble into dust, so where is one to begin? It’s tempting to believe all humans are mad, incapable of either telling or perceiving the truth any more, and that the only philosophy worth a damn, whether it’s true or not, is one that tries to stop us inflicting suffering on each other, or on ourselves, because, well, pain hurts, and it makes sense to stop it. But that’s life in general. You begin thinking you know everything about it, and wind up realising you don’t know anything at all.

And that’s the truth.

Dammit.

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885So, you’ve written a story. It might be a short story or a long story, or even a very long novel length story, and you’re thinking it’s the best of you, that others have only to read it in order to see the world differently, to be transformed, dazzled, blown away by this original idea, by this new talent, the talent that you are. It will be the vindication of everything you’ve ever worked for, it will be a poke in the eye for those who told you you were wasting your time, that you would never be published. But you’re also thinking it’s unfortunate, that after sending it out to magazine editors , agents, and publishers for years and years and years, it looks like the naysayers were right: you can’t get your story published anywhere.

Still on the upside, no one’s actually said you can’t write, that you haven’t the talent, the originality, the sheer imagination or whatever to write a proper story – the type others want to read, the type supermarkets want to sell, the type people pick up at airports to take on their holidays, the type hundreds of years from now people will still want to read while hailing you as a literary genius. No. Nobody’s actually said you’re no good, though at times you’re tempted to infer it from the fact of your lack any of success whatsoever .

I offer no opinions on the trials of conventional publishing at all, other than the fact publishing is, and always has been, the writer’s bane, and is becoming no easier an ordeal either to endure or survive, let alone succeed with. What I try to do instead, is ask the writer in this position what it is they want.

Michael Graeme has never published anything. He’s an online creation, as much of a fiction as the books he writes. His alter ego however, was active as a writer throughout the 80’s and the ’90’s, and by fluke published some short fictions in an Irish Magazine, but he has this to say of them:

If through publication it’s a vindication of your own self worth as a writer you’re seeking, you can forget it. You won’t find it in the first story to be accepted, nor the second nor any after that. There’s a moment of euphoria of course, but after that you’re thinking of the next story, and the next, and the next and each one trying to prove you’ve not lost your edge since the last. And publishers, magazines, whatever, they have a very narrow view of what it is they want, and what they want from you is pretty much what they had last time, so under no circumstances should you offer them anything ¬†different.

So you write to suit the guidelines until there’s nothing left you can say, and you feel like a dried out sponge unable to bear the thought of penning one more damned tale along those same old lines and within the crucifying limits of that same old word-count. But you’ll always have other types of stories you want to tell. You’re a human being, you’re psyche changes as you grow, you want to move on, but publication pins you down with a label through your heart that reads “successful formula, do not change”. This applies until the publisher’s criterion changes, and then you’re finished.

So you write other stuff, and send it off elsewhere, but this time you’re not so lucky, the market not so broad, it’s more competitive perhaps, and so your self worth is shot through once more and you’ve forgotten those earlier stories you’ve already had the stamp of approval on, because they do not vindicate the you that you are now. And the moral of all this is not to seek the vindication of self worth in publication at all. Publish yes, if you’re lucky, but do not pin your life’s worth upon it, because the odds are too long to be risking such a fortune as that.

Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps deep down you admit to yourself you just want to be read, because you believe in this story you’re writing and you want others to share in what you feel when you’re writing it. And actually, are you that bothered about the money? Apart from a few celebrity authors, the money in writing has never been worth counting on, so much so that non-celebrity authors have always had to get themselves proper jobs as well to pay the bills.

We’ve all forgotten that before the Internet, before Smashwords and Feedbooks and Wattpad, the writer had no choice but to deal with the world of conventional publishing, with the agents and the magazine editors, because they were the gatekeepers to the printing press and the distribution networks. But now you can be read in a heartbeat, provided you’re willing to give your work away. Interesting angle that: give your work away? Of course, you’ll be told it’s rubbish doing it that way, that your work is just as lost, tossed into a sea of semi-literate garbage, and that’s no place for a fine upstanding writer like yourself. But don’t listen. There are readers out there, looking for stuff like yours. They read it on their ‘phones during all those empty times we have to fill, like waiting in line for stuff, or sitting on a train, or surreptitiously at work when we should be shovelling data into spreadsheets.

Put a story on Feedbooks and you’ll have a hundred readers in the first week, maybe a thousand before the month is out. Things will tail off after that, and you may get a half dozen readers a week thereafter, but it’s more than you’d get by persevering with the printed press for years before giving up on it. And these are readers with an international distribution: America, Canada, the UK, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand to list but a few of the countries the stats indicate Michael Graeme has reached. Some will even get in touch and let you know what they thought; most won’t, but the muse does not expect them to, and neither should we.

The internet opens up a whole new landscape for the writer with the right attitude. And the attitude is this: If writing means that much to you, if it’s coded into your DNA and you’d feel worthless and lost without it, then you cannot afford to pin your self-worth on the whims of conventional publishing – and of ever seeing your book in glossy covers on the shelves at Waterstones. In fact, this is a bit childish. Ask yourself instead if you could bear to give your work away, to expect nothing for it in return except the occasional thank you from a stranger on the other side of the world. It’s not easy, I know, to break the expectation you should be paid for your work, but if you can bring yourself to look beyond it, the rewards are immense. If you believe in your work, the money is always secondary any way.

In writing for nothing online, we still complete the contract with our muse, our genius, our daemon – whatever you want to call it – that we cast the words it gives us on the wind. The rest is up to fate, and always has been. And then it’s from within we are granted our fortune, our rest, our energy and of course our inspiration for the next project.

That’s writing, and it’s rewarding.

the sea view cafe - smallSo, I’m working on this story called The Sea View Cafe and I have this character, a young Romanian woman, Anica, who’s travelled across Europe in search of her sister, whom she believes came to Britain looking for work. ¬†Anica winds up in a small, recession hit seaside town on England’s North West coast and it’s here, she befriends Hermione, owner of the Sea View Cafe.

Hermione is afraid for Anica, wanting to protect her, but not sure of her legal status in England, with all this perpetual political and populist talk of hammering down on immigrants and migrant workers, but Anica proudly announces there is no problem, that, being Romanian, she is a citizen of the European Union. It is an expansive, transcendent title, one that lifts her above petty nationhood and puts her on an equal footing with Hermione.

At least that was the situation pre-Brexit; it allowed Anica an open door to become involved in the story of the Sea View Cafe and its denizens, to develop relationships, to make plans for her future, to fall in love, and very welcome she was too. But I chose Anica, not because she lacked Britishness. Indeed I’m not sure why I chose a Romanian girl, specifically, except perhaps by way of subliminal gratitude since I once had a couple of short fictions translated and published by an online Romanian based ‘zine. But that’s another story. No, what was needed more from Anica was her spirit, her energy, her youthful vibe, and her capacity for unconditional love.

But political events have overtaken the story and Anica’s presence in the soon to be dis-united Kingdom is suddenly in doubt. Now, I’m sure Anica’s presence can be legalised in successive drafts of my story by my writing in a tourist visa or something, but her longer term desire of living and working in the UK are now uncertain and very much tied up in the political machinations of the next few years. Indeed, as a writer I’m asking the question can she realistically be retained without making an issue out of it, or would it be easier to write her out of my story altogether? I really don’t want to do that because I’ve come to know her, and love her, and anyway why the hell should I? Am I speaking metaphorically here?

The Sea View Cafe is just a story and of little importance in the great scheme of things, but for many waking up in this post Brexit Britain, the questions are real and of vital importance. Would you prevent Anica from settling here? What if Anica had already been living here as a citizen of the EU for say a decade? What if she had a job, a house, a mortgage, and her savings, all in pounds, sat in a British bank? Would you insist she went home to Romania? I suspect if you knew her, as I do, you would think that unfair, because someone you know is not a foreigner. If you don’t know her, if you don’t know anyone of another nationality at all, you may feel differently. Then they become the shadowy other, comin’ over ‘ere, taking your jobs and ruinin’ your ‘elf system. And what of the Brits now retired to Spain, or enjoying their settled lives in France, Germany, Portugal? Must they now apply for visas to remain, and how easy will it be for them to obtain residency? Will they soon all be coming home?

So far the only official word we’ve had is that, for now, the status of settled EU citizens in the UK and abroad is unchanged. But this is a statement of the obvious. We know it’s unchanged “for now”, but we also know it is going to change, and we want to know when, and when it does what that status is going to be. Or at least I do, as I’m sure do many others, though for entirely different reasons.

But for now I must leave Anica in the company of her Sea View Cafe friends, clutching her EU passport, and contemplating a long bus-ride home. I was thinking to have the novel cracked by the end of this year but this is a serious spanner in the works and I’m doubtful the question will be resolved any time soon.

You might say of course Anica will be all right because she has the poetic license of a romantic author behind her, but those living in the real world, outside of my story do not. The fallout of those crosses we placed last Thursday has opened a Pandora’s box of consequences impossible to predict. And while the dominoes fall across Europe, our political leadership, now seen as brittle, dissolves once more into a febrile self destruction, the pot stirred by a vicious, crass and infantile press, interested not in the solutions to any of this, but only the emotive headlines to be gleaned from the chaos and the name-calling.

Delete me

mazda southportI have begun deleting old blog posts, posts that have not been read in years, thinking to eke back a little of my free gigabyte allowance, though at just over 3% used I’m hardly in danger of running out. It’s more the sense that old stuff just doesn’t matter, that the past is of no relevance to the online world at all. Our history, our heritage, ever since the avaricious eighties, is casually disposable at a click. The blog appeals only to the present moment of the written world, as the Instagram stream appeals to the visual, and neither being an accounting to be trawled through very deeply, for there is a sameness to things, and in maintaining the regular drumbeat of one’s online activity, it reveals itself merely as an existential radar ping: that the moment is now, ever persisting, and for a while at least here I am,… persisting in it.

The past has nothing to say, though paradoxically the past at one time was very much the present moment. But we reinvent ourselves with each new dawn, and the selves we were, we do not recognise or trust any more.

One of the posts I deleted was called “The Mowing Season Opens”, this being the mowing season of 2008, yet in all essential details no different to the mowing season of 2016, but what I wrote “then” lacks the indefinable essence of “now”. Like yesterday’s news I discount its relevance. It becomes old and dusty. No matter how true or authentic or sincere I felt it was at the time I wonder if it could really have happened that way anyway. And how can I trust it, now?

On Instagram posted a photograph of my car at the seaside. There was a moody sky, the colours blown by HDR fakery, and though there was undoubtedly a uniqueness to that moment, visually it is not significantly different to a photograph of the same thing I posted a couple of weeks before. Both photographs are of equal value, but we take the more recent to be of greater importance and all because it happened within the nearer reach of memory, and there is still the illusion we are less changed by time and therefore more trustworthy than the person who took the earlier picture, that indeed the earlier person no longer exists.

This is another symptom of the all but universal western paradigm of consumerism. We consume the present in all its recorded forms, digest it down into the bowels of the past, from where we assume there is no longer to be found any nourishment at all. And always there is the want, the craving for something new, freshly minted, something no one else has touched, or seen or heard before.

When I meditate, I possess an awareness of my self as a unique individual, yet I am not lost in the memory of past things, so it is not memory that defines me, more perhaps the mythical hero’s quest for wholeness, and the chance of discovering the secret key that will unlock the harmony I have sought all my life. But this is another symptom, that we are all pitching headlong into death, yet only subliminally aware the fabled harmony, true wisdom, enlightenment and all that wishy washy existential stuff, are only to be found on the other side of the Styx. We try to square this with the fact of our lives and the Egoic imperative to search for meaning in the details. We know it cannot be found in the past, for if it could it would already have been discovered, and since the future does not exist, all we have is the present moment, today’s post, today’s words, today’s fleeting capture of colour and light and shade.

But the significance of life lies not in its material forms, nor in any of its forms of thought, all of which we scurry to record as if in fear of the setting sun. Here, this is me, see me. See how I live, and think and what it is I love. But what we truly seek is not a thing at all. It is more an opening into formlessness, the blinking of an eye in the material world, and so subtle we shall always miss it. Yet it is reflective of eternity, rising sweet like the brush of an erotic love. It’s always there, always open to us, yet we cover it afresh each day with all the dross of what is new. Perhaps we think we have glimpsed it, in a word, in a turn of phrase, in a relationship, or in the picture of an old blue car at sunset, yet each in its turn sinks into the sedimentary layers of discarded experience. And there we let it lie, perhaps because we fear the truth – that we did not find it then, and shall not find it now.

The fact of our persistence is a mystery, the worthlessness of the shape of all our yesterdays an awkward fact that can do nothing but reinforce the need for humility in the face of infinity. This is not lest we should offend the gods by our arrogance, but more that we should not be driven mad by the paradox of our sense of self importance in the face of an overwhelming material irrelevance, that though we live we might so easily be deleted, and none would know we had ever been this way at all.

Regarding the EU referendum, I made a number of predictions. The first of these I got wrong.

I had thought the internationalist view would prevail, that my own views on openness and cooperation, on trade and industry, and of fellowship with other member nations were generally shared by the majority of the UK population, and I’d be waking up this morning to find I was still a European man. Instead I find myself a little Englander, wrapped uncomfortably in the union flag, or to be more precise in the banner of Saint George, since the Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain and are thus as disappointed as I am.

I now find myself keeping company with the English Nationalists, the White Supremacists, and all those tiresome ignorants who wag their Daily Mails and blame our ills on these damned foreigners ‘comin over ‘ere. They blame the other guy, the immigrant, the refugee, the black guy escaping persecution in his war-torn homeland, they blame the homesick eastern European seeking a pittance picking strawberries in England’s muddy fields or scraping cockles from our treacherous coastlines.

My other predictions were pretty much on the money, that the P.M. would resign, that the value of Sterling would plummet and we would see 10% wiped off the value of the stock market. All these things have come to pass, and within hours of the result. I take no comfort from this.

Overwhelmingly the young voted to remain, so in this, their elders have betrayed them, denied them a future of free movement and work in one of the biggest combined economies on the planet. I hope they will forgive us for that, though from speaking to my own youngsters, I doubt it. They will have to live within little England’s borders with only the flag of St George to keep them warm and the prospect thrills them not at all.

I hesitate to predict further what will happen now, but some things are a reasonably safe bet. On the up-side, in the shorter term, the money markets will seek to stabilise as best they can and shares will recover, because shares always do, though it might take a decade. And the ruling party, now leaderless, will see the appointment of a pro Brexit champion, and none of those faces have much in common with the working man. In other words we shall see a lurch even further to the right in British politics and that’s not a place to be if you’re already poor.

What remains of the social and welfare state (the health service) will come under a more direct attack now, as the Americanisation of the UK gains pace. I mean Austerity Super-Heavy. This may give some steel to the opposition, but factions within it are already blaming their own leader for not putting up enough of a fight to prevent us leaving the EU in the first place. Though they are my own party, they are a party still very much in disarray, and not yet looking fit to govern. This is disappointing. A general election, even if we go the full term, will see only the consolidation of the Right, who are set to hold power now for close on a decade.

The Scots are reviving the possibility of another referendum on whether they remain in the UK, since they clearly want to remain in the EU, and England doesn’t. The result was close last time we passed that way, but today’s events will galvanise the Scots, and next time the union will be broken for sure.

The North of Ireland too want to remain, and this plays neatly into the politics of reunion with the south. If Ireland unites, the North has a direct route back into Europe. If nothing else the coming years will have plenty for the political pundits to jabber on about, and no one can say British politics is dull any more.

Of course the UK is not going to fall into the sea, but we are pulling away from the shores of Europe, and it will be interesting to look to other non EU countries in Europe for a model of how things might be made to work. But these countries are small, small populations, small economies. They are not like the UK at all. Britain will not be bigger in the world after today – quite the opposite. Indeed I feel we are already a much smaller country than we were before.

On the upside, if you’re not British, it’s a good time to visit, the pound being worth not much more than it’s scrap value at the moment, so any other currency will buy a lot. Don’t be put off. We have some very beautiful scenery, and our young people are by and large remarkably stoical in the face of adversity. They are intelligent, and outward looking. You just have to watch out for the old duffers wagging their Daily Mails, and careening about, flying the flag of Saint George. But for all those still worried tonight, we will get through this. Turnout for the referendum was 75%. That’s very high. Just make sure you vote as enthusiastically in all upcoming elections, big or small. Get involved. Let your Parliamentary representative know what you think. Apathy in the future will not do. This time we really are all in it together.

I may be wrong in having cleaved to the EU all these years. It was far from perfect, but I felt it was an institution worth the fight to change, and too important, to simply walk away from.

It’s not often I involve myself in political comment as it’s a field beset by few facts, much emotion, ignorance, and very little romance, so I apologise for wading into a field for which I am as poorly qualified as most other political pundits, but I felt today warranted an exception.

Normal service resumes shortly.

garden buddhaThe western path to happiness is pathologically conflated with, and therefore subverted by, the contaminant nature of acquisitive consumerism, and the faulty thinking that we can actually buy our way to it, or read our way to it, or attain it if we wear the right clothes, or we ape the glossy aspirational celebrity lifestyle. It’s ridiculous really, trite, shallow, yet there is something in our psyche that makes us vulnerable to such puerile deceit, and it is used relentlessly to oppress us.

Consumerism is like drinking salt-water. The more we drink the thirstier we become. It is self evidently absurd – we feel unhappy, afraid, existentially irrelevant, so we go out and buy something. And we feel better for a millisecond. Some of us might wake up to this never ending cycle of and seek happiness instead in religion, in a belief in something greater than ourselves, greater even than the consumer society, something spiritual. But religious belief can also run counter to what is humane, or sensible, or even decent, especially when dogma is held to be of more importance than individual human suffering. Then we end up merely fighting the other guy because he does not hold to our beliefs, and because his very existence is a challenge to the validity of our own ideas. And in destroying him we prove our beliefs are stronger, truer, closer to God and all that. By our own oppression of others then we seek to prove that we are right.

The perverted nature of both consumerism and religion is writ large enough in the world for us all to know it when we see it, but it is still hard to untangle ourselves and live a decent, happy life. If we are fortunate in finding a way to analyse ourselves, this can at least grant us sufficient perspective to avoid the worst excesses of our profoundly sick society. And curiously, sometimes, self analysis throws up parallels to the ancient founding methods espoused by certain religions themselves, methods that take much by way of digging now to get at, as they have been glossed over or obscured by sedimentary layers of elaborate decoration.

Take me, for example. I have been following a largely Buddhist path for decades now, but even to label it as such risks narrowing its meaning to the point where it disappears. In attempting to explain this philosophy in simple terms I sometimes say I am drawn to Buddhism, but I find even the mention of that word causes confusion

“So,… like,… you mean,… you actually worship the Buddha?”

No, I do not worship the Buddha.

I don’t do that kind of Buddhism.

Secular or philosophical Buddhism is not a belief system. It does not offer up an image for deification and worship, although the Buddha finds himself, much against his own advice, an inevitable candidate amongst the more religious followers of his teachings.

Secular Buddhism is more a pragmatic approach to understanding the mind. Among the many traditions, it comes closest to the enigmatically inscrutable Zen or Chan Buddhism. In this sense there is much to compare between it and the western practice of Psychoanalysis. The man we call Buddha thought about the nature of suffering, and its antithesis: happiness. Why are we not happy? Because we suffer. Why do we suffer? Because we fear the loss of something, all the time: money, youth, prestige, health, and ultimately life itself. Through our attachments, and our self centred cravings to hold on to these things, and through them our selves, we suffer.

The realisation of the nature of suffering and its causes in continual craving are the first two of the four so called noble truths of Buddhism, and the keystone of its thinking. From here, Buddhism can become either a religion or a philosophy, depending on one’s approach. If we accept these things as being true, but without any direct experience of them, then they become part of a belief system, and Buddhism becomes a religion we choose to believe in. If however, we have a visceral experience of the truth of these things, then we have the beginnings of a practical approach for realising our own happiness, which means attaining a peaceful coexistence with our selves and our fellow human beings.

The notion of an eternal craving giving rise to suffering is something I have no trouble accepting. Apart from the usual aforementioned day to day stuff my own significant past cravings have been for wellness and acceptance, neither of which are attainable by craving them, so I have had to find a way of stopping craving them. This is not to say that to stop craving them means we will attain them, merely that the lack of them no longer makes us unhappy. At times, we defeat ourselves from the outset in our search for a thing simply by setting out on the search for it in the first place.

The other two noble truths follow on from the realisation of suffering and its cause: craving: namely that craving can cease, and that there is a way of achieving it, a path if you like, a way of thinking, a way of approaching life, of recognising that what we seek is not always the thing we most need and that what we most need, we can discover unexpectedly by not looking for it. By not looking for a thing, we discover something else, something better.

Like all the ancient religions, Buddhism is now overlaid with rich tapestries of tradition, ritual, and myth. Its myths, like all religions, offer a slant on what happens to us when we die – namely the belief in reincarnation and that the quality of our current life is determined by our conduct in the last one (Karma). Differing Buddhist traditions offer varying emphasis, and more or less significance to each. Many in the west have trouble with both Reincarnation and Karma, but if we get to the root of Buddhism, we find we need not hold to them if we do not like them. It does not exclude us from Buddhist thought.

I have written elsewhere about the possible nature of a continuation of a form of psychical existence after death. This is my own myth-making and borrows more from the western classical tradition. I have woven it into my stories as a means of exploring it, and am drawn intellectually towards the evidence suggestive of it, (precognition, lucid dreaming, near death experience)but this evidence is far from conclusive, and to claim otherwise would be to infuse my explorations with a religiosity demanding much by way of belief. And I am not a religious person.

Buddhism does not inform such beliefs, more it affirms the value of simply saying we do not know. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, meditations on the approach and nearness to death are said to ready one for the transition to the afterlife state, and subsequent rebirth, but if it turns out there is no such thing, to approach one’s death calmly, through meditation, is far better than to approach it in a state of fear. Here we see traditional belief tempered back from the rigidity of dogma, by an admirable pragmatism.

Buddhist religious beliefs vary from one tradition to the next, but at its root it can be taken as a purely agnostic system of thought. To be agnostic, we accept there are certain things in life we cannot know. This is not to confuse agnosticism with indecision, nor scepticism. In true agnosticism, we simply rely on our rational senses to take us as far as we can in understanding what’s going on, without accepting as concrete any conclusions drawn by others that have not first been demonstrated to us, and thereby absorbed into rational knowledge by our own experience.

Nor is, “awakening”, in the Buddhist sense, to experience a mind blowing, transcendental awareness of our oneness with all things. This is not say such things do not happen; they have happened to me, and they are perplexing, but I do not know what they mean, and it’s all right not to know, and to accept that one may never explain them. To awaken is simply to realise the nature of suffering, and that its cause lies in our perpetual craving for things to be other than they are.

To live along Buddhist principles is to walk the path of gradually releasing oneself back into a state of awareness untainted by craving. And to be released is to experience the world around us more vividly , and with a compassion for everything alive in it. We feel craving day to day as a resistance to things, to ideas, to the way things are going, or might go for us, to the thought of things running out, time or life or both, to the thought of things filling up like our email inbox when we are away on holiday. We wish these things were not so, internally, we resist them. Letting go of the craving for things to be other than they are, is a matter of simply not resisting what happens.

“Only if we resist what happens are we at the mercy of what happens, and the world will determine our happiness and unhappiness. “

– Eckhart Tolle

If we can reasonably bring about change in order to subvert what we perceive to be an adverse fate – like pulling our money out of the stock market before it crashes – then we should do so, so long as we do not expect such things to permanently secure our happiness. But in the main it is about remaining alert for those things that give rise to a resistance of the present moment, and learning to let them go. We rest then in our own experience of life, resisting nothing, trusting only in what is worthy, and believing in absolutely nothing.

But don’t be fooled. Life is still a trial. I rant, get cross and grumpy about things I cannot alter and fail to act in time with those things I can and should alter. I lose myself in the noise, I fall down in despair at the apparent unfairness of things, I become a “poor me”, but sometimes,.. just sometimes, I’m able to catch myself, remind myself there is another way to think, another way to be, and then I am able to brighten up, to enjoy the world for a while once more.

This may be Buddhism, it may not.

Call it what you like.

 

mazda night journey HDR

When I came across the writings of the Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Jung, some fifteen years ago, they caused a radical shift in my world-view. Or perhaps my world-view was changing anyway, and his ideas provided a safety net, or a supporting structure that allowed me to explore the irrational byways of the world and the psyche without the normal concerns that I was going insane questioning what I had been conditioned to accept as the true nature of reality. But plenty of others had trod this path, said Jung, many via his consulting room. You’re not losing it, the anxiety you feel is not pathological, it is more a part of the natural process to grow and develop – not physically, but psychologically, and spiritually. You’re just searching for something. You are a pilgrim on the way of the psyche. You are on the night journey of the way of the soul.

I had plenty of reasons for going off the rails, for descending into mental illness – a strongly introverted type with a track record of social maladjustment, of anxiety, and depression, stretching back to my first days at school, and the fitting of a yoke that chafed badly, and still does. And in later years there were circumstances, both professional and personal, that provided ample excuse for a return to the existential darkness I had known as a youth, and from which this time there might not have been any safe return.

My problem was not one of being unable to fit in with the world. Being passive by nature I have always been very good at that, so long as I am prepared to accept and acquiesce to the world view, and inevitably also to the will of others. But behind the mask I wear, mostly what I see in the world I do not like, or I secretly resent its demands that I change in me those things that are not negotiable. And now, knowing I can do nothing about the way I am, I come to accept myself and seek always to disconnect myself from those things that would mould me into a shape contrary to what my instinct tells me nature has intended.

The rational world holds few answers for people like me, though, like an archaeologist, I have studied its traces through many layers, and in great detail now. Yet all my life it has cold shouldered the more important questions, and it has failed even to see, let alone alleviate my underlying ills.

Around the age of thirty I consulted an overworked village doctor. I was showing clear symptoms of burn-out, of anxiety of, ugh,.. depression, and, after a consultation lasting all of two minutes, came out with a prescription for the wonder-drug of the 90’s: Prozac. But the Prozac made me ill, made me more anxious and irritable to the point of despair. I was not suited to it, clearly, but my telling the doctor so made him cross. This surprised me. I was not for ever pestering him with my ills. I had seen him twice in my life. Perhaps he was on Prozac too?

It was the first and only time I have sought pharmaceutical redress for such things. I did not blame the doctor – doctors are not gods, they are only men, and as prone to weakness as the rest of us. It’s sobering though, the realisation there are few true healers in the world, so it is as well not to rely upon one of them being around when you have need – better to seek ways of healing yourself. It’s only sensible.

Healing came first from Yoga, from which I gleaned sufficient knowledge of meditation to pass my fourth decade in a state of at least superficially high-functioning normality. But there was always something loose about me, something rebellious and suspicious of the cock-sure confidence and the de-facto authority of the rational world. Behind the mask, I still resented its stupidity writ large, ruining lives and tearing up the planet. It might be circumspect to respect authority, but it is also wise never to trust it. Indeed, it seemed to me the rational world was a fragile thing, sick at its roots, and irredeemable. The rational world of course is just an idea. It does not actually exist beyond thought, though we like to believe it does in case all else falls away, and at any rate it’s better than believing in fairies.

The path to Jung was gradual, it involved first perhaps a dangerous erosion of the rational sense, the thing that normally protects one from all manner of strange and harmful ideas; it involved an arrogant tearing at the fabric of the known world, and an equally arrogant probing at the structure of the unknown with the help of a five thousand year old oracular device, bequeathed to me by Jung, called the I Ching.

It was he who introduced the fledgling methods of studying the unconscious traces, Jung who opened a curtain onto the nature of processes hitherto unsuspected, but it was not a pretty picture. He poked about in the midst of a turd-smeared madness, like a witch doctor probing at a chicken’s giblets, for clues to the archetypal forces that underlie the world. No, madness is not a pretty thing; it is not Keira Knightley in comely distress as Jung pursues his “Dangerous Method”. Madness is uncompromising in its daemonic ugliness and its rejection of reality, and it is a thing we seek to escape, to lock away at all costs for fear of it overwhelming us. And if we really must tread that way then we had better tread lightly.

Jung’s was a world in which the dream was to be read with as much seriousness as the events of the day, and in which the events of the day were to be interpreted with the same looseness and symbolic radar as the dream, for what it might teach us of the reality underlying what we think of as reality. It was a world that spoke of the idea that reality was to be read in a non-literal way if we were to properly understand it, that if a woman were to say she lived on the moon, we could not dismiss the idea as absurd, that instead we should accept it might be true, at least in a non-literal sense, that if we accepted the validity of the psyche, as we must, then at the level of the psyche all things become potentially true, and the boundaries between what is accepted as sane and insane blur into a bewildering non-existence.

Indeed, as we explore the path of the psyche, seeking structure in non-structure, we approach a point when we realise there is actually nothing there at all, that the chaotic forces of the psychic collective and the daemonic underworld are a pullulating layer of fledgling cognition spread pitifully thin upon the eternal void, that what we are is a universe moving from that void in search of itself, that the void, being nothing, posits its own existence as a certainty, and its nothingness as an impossibility, though both sides of this equation be, on the surface at least, a self cancelling paradox.

Madness is to languish in the collective of the archetypes, sanity is to pay them homage while rising above them into the sunshine of the material world, at the same time accepting that deep down lies the great stillness that underpins reality. Jung is not for the faint of heart, and most of his writings lose me at the first paragraph because I do not have the latin, nor yet the looseness of mind to slip into the cracks of the underworld where he fears not to go.

Popular reinterpretations of his works are always lacking, while those following him with the same intellectual rigour risk inaccessibility, at least to the interested layman. And at twelve hundred words or so, I know I’ve left most of you behind me now. So I pull over to the side of road and note how the way wends for ever on.

It gives me pause, and I wonder if perhaps I’ve reached my limit too. Even a brief dip into the ideas of Jung is enough to fill several of the lives of lesser minds. But one thing I have noticed is that to explore the unconscious is also to swim against the tide of a universe of ideas all swimming the other way, that our redemption is not to seek escape inside an inner world of our own making when the will of everything that’s inside of us is to make itself conscious, to emerge wide eyed and blinking into the sunshine of a world many of us would reject as too imperfect for the perfect interpretations of our selves.

In truth we are all insane, some of us more highly functioning than others and better able to fit in with the touch-stone patterns we have collectively constructed that pass as the rational world view. But we are all subject to the ideas, the archetypes, the thought forms that seek passage into the world through us, and it is a milestone along the way to be accepting of that. Another milestone perhaps is when we no longer ask of them what they can do for us, but what we can do for them, and in so doing circle back to the beginning of things, but with a good deal less existential angst than before.

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