Archive for December, 2008

The cold spell continues here with temperatures down to -4C at night, and highs just above freezing by day. It seems rare in these years of global warming for us to experience such a sustained chill, but it’s entirely natural of course and, though hardly comfortable, it’s most welcome.

The car was thick with frost and the roads ominously dark with  ice as I set out at first light for the Trough of Bowland. I always start the year with a hike up some hill or other – something I find difficult to psyche myself up for as it flies in the face of the season, which seems to be encouraging me instead to lie down and submit to darkness, to hibernate, to snuggle beneath warm covers, and under no circumstances venture out into the dark and frozen world, this secret world of winter. All right, I know it’s not exacty the official New Year yet, but I seem to work to a different calendar, going more off the turn of the seasons, and in that respect my old year ended on the 21st.

It’s usually Cumbria or the Yorkshire Dales I head for, but this year I’ve been trying to get more intimately aquainted with the uplands to the north of my native Lancashire, an area known as the Trough. I had an unpromising start here in the summer with the remote summit of Ward’s Stone, which delivered up perhaps the most prolonged and severe drenching I can remember in my long walking career, as well a pair of the ugliest and most painful blisters it’s ever been my pleasure to hobble home upon.

A previous attempt on Ward’s Stone, many years ago, had to be aborted when I discovered that the Duke of Westminsters’ men, who were out for a spot of shooting, had closed all the paths.  So, this otherwise uniquely attractive region hasn’t exactly welcomed me with open arms in the past. However, my perseverance was rewarded today with an eight mile walk from the lovely village of Chipping, which  nestles deep in a maze of minor country roads. The classic walk from here is up Saddle Fell, then Fair Snape Fell and Parlick, a grand cirque of moorland summits and one that’s been on my list of “routes to do” for years.

Fortunately the cold weather was accompanied by mostly clear skies and, even though the sun shone pale and with little effect on the frozen land, it managed to paint a picture of winter in it’s most attractive aspect – the ground hard and white with frost, and the great khaki and russet coloured hills dusted with white, rising with an impressive dignity from the fertile pastures that huddle in the valleys. It was a day that reminded me why my walking boots are numbered amongst my most treasured possessions.


The boots, a pair of venerable Scarpas, must be fiteen years old now, deeply creased and cracked, and I suspect this was their last outing. They’ve carried me over much hallowed ground and I can hardly begrudge them their retirement now among the sawdust and the cobwebs of my garage. I can only trust my next pair will be as reliable.

I’ve had so many drenchings on the fells this  year it was easy to ignore the rasping cold today, to revel in it almost for its blessed dryness. The route from Fair Snape to Parlick was in the teeth of a stiff wind blowing over a hard frosted moor which took the temperature down to an abrasive -8C.

The summits here are around the 500 metre mark, which is typical for Lancashire’s higher peaks, and today they just pierced the thin cloud layer that clung to them, so the normally expansive views were obscured and there was a sense of being isolated in an upper world dusted with intricate particles of brilliant white ice.fair-snape-fell-summit-shelter

In the summers, after rain, the moors are mucky places, the more popular routes being churned to a mixture of peat slime and sheep poo but today there was an almost clinical cleanliness and a cryogenic stillness about them.

The year is only a little past the solstice, the earth still in deepest sleep, but these walks serve to remind both me and it that I am still very much alive and as keen in my exploration of the myriad pathways of both the inner and the outer world as I ever was. They are not quite an act of defiance, more a respectful reminder to the world that I still have my eyes upon it.

Family life has taken its toll over the years and prevented me from venturing into these precious places as often as I once did. Each year I tell myself I shall walk a little more, but seem only to end up walking a little less, and I had begun to fear a gradual decline in my physical ability to tackle such outings on those rare occasions when I have both the inclination and the opportunity to do so. Fortunately, the Tai Chi and Qigong, though unobtrusive in my life and apparently gentle in their effects have produced a noticeable improvement in my ability to draw breath and keep pace in the hills which is another reason I’m keen to keep them up.  As for the metaphysical, such outings as these rarely yield a ready  harvest of musings. Even this accounting is too soon after the event to unearth any clues, but I shall walk the way again, in imagination over the coming days, and in my dreams tonight, and I am assured the magical richness of today’s experience shall find its way into my writings, though it be in an encrypted form that shall in all likelihood defy even my own analysis.

paddys-pole1 The Trough of Bowland possesses a charm that is unique in England, also a rare, raw, remote north-country wildness that can both horrify and inspire. Long the preserve of the private, grouse bagging gentleman, decades of  campaigning by the Ramblers’ Association has now succeeded in opening up its secrets to those who are willing to put their boots upon the relatively few tracks that wend their way across this truly remarkable landscape.

Its unlikely my old Scarpas will see much more of this land and my current finances make it equally unlikely it will be a fresh pair of Scarpas that takes their place, but the wild still exerts a pull upon me and I am assured that replaced they will surely have to be. As a young man the lure of the lonely uplands was akin to a passionate love affair, while these days it is  a growing sense of the sublime nature of the land that attracts me. To be sure, I no longer feel the animal allure of  siren summits when I gaze across landscapes such as this, and more the whisperings of ghosts.  But whatever the nature of the attraction, I am grateful for it.

Michael Graeme


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It’s a rare thing, having the house to myself. Wife at work, kids at school, and here I am already a couple of days into my end of year break. It surprises me though how many people actually call during the day in order to disturb my peace, and usually at the most inconvenient times, such as when preparing a meal, or having a shower. Most of these people are after money – the milkman, the window cleaner, someone collecting charity envelopes I can no longer find. Then there’s the postman, twice – once with a sack load of junk mail and then again with the inkjet cartridges I only ordered the day before (thank you ink2U). And then I had the energy man – not to read the meter, but to doorstep me and apply all manner of psychological techniques in order to get me to switch my electricity supply to his company, rather than the one I’m already with. The conversation went something like this:

Energy man, jovially: “Would you be interested in saving some money on your energy bills?”

Me, suspicious:  “No.”

Energy man, feigning incredulity: “What? You’re not interested in saving money?”

Me, feeling like I’d been interrupted once too often that day: “Look, I’m not interested in switching.”

Energy man, confidently:  “There are lots of savings to be made at the moment, you know?”

Me, wanting him to get the message and go away: “I’m not interested.”

Energy man, beginning to look less sure of himself:  “But it only takes five minutes to change.”

Me, feeling myself becoming coldly obstinate: “I’m not interested.”

Energy man, one last attempt at confident joviality: “You’re really determined not to save any money?”

Me: “I’m not interested in changing.”

Energy man, crestfallen: “Well, can I leave you some information then?”

Me: “No.”

The energy man eventually got the message that my answer was “no” – as incredible as this might have seemed to him. Had he persisted though, and continued to wind me up, then asked me why I was being so obstinate, I might have told him the truth, that it was nothing personal, but that I viewed all the vendors of gas and electricity as potential cheats and liars, and that I didn’t trust him or anyone else who doorstepped me to have my best interests at heart.

And therin lies part of the problem of our rocketing energy prices. Since the deregulation of the energy business here in the UK, we, the consumers, have been granted  good deal of “choice” which is supposed to be good for us, in that it encourages the suppliers to be competitive, lowering their prices as much as they can afford to in order to win our business. That’s the theory, but it doesn’t seem to be working out that way.

If I go into a shop looking for, say a TV, the choice is obvious. I can read the specifications of the various TV’s, look at the quality of the picture, and the price tag, then make an informed choice. I can still get ripped off – especially if I take more notice of the salesman than the evidence of my own eyes and ears, but essentially the process is a simple one, and anyone can understand it.

When you’re buying gas and electricity though, it’s different. For one thing, I don’t understand how such basic commodities can be bought and sold at different prices – how for example, electricity can be generated not twenty miles from where I live, yet be sold to me by a company in a completely different part of the country. It’s a mystery. I do not understand it, so I hesitate to meddle with it in case I leg myself up, and for the sake of saving a few bob I end up in some technocratic/bureaucratic black hole which results in my supply being cut off.

Really, it’s a mystery how prices can possibly vary between companies, when the quality of the electrons or the gas molecules is determined by fundamental physical laws, so to my simple mind the variation in prices has to be some sort of economical trick, which again I do not understand, just as I do not know what the sub-prime market, or a derivative  is – they were tricks too – and they’ve turned out to be very bad, because it turns out nobody else understood them either, least of all the people who were dealing in them.

And then there are stories of people who went through the changeover process, and succeeded in saving a few bob, for a while, before having to switch back because their old supplier was suddenly much cheaper. So, many of us don’t change. We dig our heels in, become grumpy and obstinate and though we probably end up paying more as a result of it, we sit there gnashing our teeth and lamenting the loss of those far off days when we had no choice whatsoever, and yet, paradoxically, our energy bills were an insignificant proportion of our outgoings.

Still, on the bright side, I’ve just found a letter I received a little while ago, from another energy man – the one I’m currently with. He was very concerned about the high cost of energy and the effect it might be having on his poor customers. But help is at hand, he explained,  and all I had to do was sign on the dotted line, and they’d freeze their prices as their current levels for a few years.


Do I trust him? Afraid not. It sounds to me like prices might be coming down*.

*They did, about 3 weeks later!

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Mortgage screwed? Investments collapsed? Does it look like you’ll have to work until you’re ninety, always supposing you can find a job? Cheer up: go and visit your local public art gallery – it’s free and it’ll make you feel better.

I finished work yesterday – having adopted the habit of late years of saving up some leave, so I can get in a good long break at the year end. As is my habit, I used the first of my free days to slip into Southport, without my family, so I could concentrate on buying my wife her Christmas present.

It’s been about as cold as it gets here in the North of England, this past week, the car glazed with frost most mornings, temperatures down to around -5C and the occasional patch of black ice on the roads at first light. The sinking of the year, the draining of the light down to the solstice – these are all familiar themes and part of the natural cycle of our lives, but it seems to be mirrored this year by all this talk of global financial ruin. We seem to be getting the hang of it though, and I only lend it half an ear these days – the stock markets falling, and the BBC bringing us daily news of yet one more financial swindle that looks set to ruin the world.  I find I’m fairly laid back about all of this, and like most folks with half a brain, I’ve been expecting it for a while. My mortgage was screwed long ago, and now my modest stock market dabblings have followed. I’ve been putting a little by in one scheme or another since 1988, the plan being to have enough to retire on by 2015, but the way things are going I’ll be lucky if it’ll buy me a second hand car and I would have been far better just putting it all in a savings account like my granny would have done. Never mind, at least I still have a job, for now – unlike the staff of Woolworths, whose shop front in Southport this morning was plastered with notices of stock clearance sales. There’s something about this sudden torpedoing of Woolworths, a name that is inextricably linked with my own childhood Christmases, that tells me this is more than just your usual downturn – like the ones we’ve seen before.

Anyway, I have a great affection for Southport. It’s probably the only big town I know that does not seem permanently dark and dour, and which it is always a pleasure to visit at any time of year. Since Victorian times, it’s been the butt of many a joke about its claim to be a seaside resort: sure, it’s on the coast, but the beach here is miles wide, mostly mudflats and you usually need binoculars to see the sea. Until recent years it had all been going a little to seed, but it’s impossible to miss the dramatic developments along the seafront, and the Marine Drive now.

It’s a town with ambition, a town intent on rising above the sleazy image of graffiti-ed shop fronts and greasy chip wrappers, and instead it seems to want to embrace the corporate/designer/cafe/convention culture. The buildings going up are modern and stylish, and all the older buildings around seem to be rushing to spruce themselves up in order not to let the side down.

Southport’s  also a town with serious Eco friendly credentials and has for years been coaxing us motorists out of its busy centre  with ever increasing car-parking fees. I succumbed a while ago and now park dutifully at the admirably self sustaining Eco-Centre, to ride the admirable Eco Park-and Ride Bus onto Lord Street, in the heart of the shopping district.

My first port of call was a coffee  in the Cambridge Arcade, but there was a feeling of emptiness about the place that was down to more than just the usual early morning atmosphere of streets not yet aired. The Cambridge is a walk-through arcade that links the Edwardian styled boulevard of Lord Street with the big modern stores on Chapel Street. It’s home to a few cafes but mostly high class – ie generally expensive – shops, a cut above your usual bargain/thrift/clearance/affordable establishments. But many were empty, windows whitewashed or papered over – familiar names already gone. As a result, I sipped my coffee with not much to look at and  feeling that this was just the thin end of the wedge, that more familiar names might follow soon.

Being without my family I was able to indulge myself a little and, when in Southport, this means two things: a trip to Broadhursts Antiquarian bookshop, and the Atkinson Gallery. Broadhursts sells both new and used books and has the air of a proper bookshop because that’s exactly what it is. It’s always a pleasure to lose an hour here in its labyrinthine interior. I generally have no idea what I’m looking for when I go – something vaguely metaphysical perhaps or a bit of unusual poetry, but the point of these visits is more to allow a book to find me.  I came away empty handed though, and headed for the Atkinson.

The Atkinson occupies a fine location on Lord Street, between the library and the Art’s Center and is home to a collection of works dating from the mid Victorian period, through to the present day. Here, I lingered mainly over my favourites: Lilith of course, Dorette’s Sister, and a particular seascape that captures the light in a way that seems more like witchcraft than art. Galleries like the Atkinson were set up in Victorian times by philanthropic individuals for the purpose of reminding us that there’s more to life than work, bed and mortgages. We’ve much to thank these people for.

Sure my mortgage is screwed, my life savings are worth about the same now as they were twenty years ago, and never mind retiring in 2015 – I may have to go on until I drop – but those three pictures I gazed at made it easier to go on being philosophical about the whole thing, in spite of the News Vendors who seem to be trying to convince me it’s time I was reaching for the revolver.

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Tinnitus is a fairly common problem in which the sufferer’s ears can “hear” sounds that aren’t really there. We all get this occasionally, say when we have a cold or sometimes when we’ve been swimming – our ears ring. It usually clears up after a short time, but sometimes it doesn’t. With Tinnitus, the sounds can be very loud – like standing next to a jet engine, or they can be soft, like air leaking from a pipe. They can be steady, constant in pitch, high or low, or they can vary, like a cricket chirruping. Tinnitus can also beat in tune with one’s pulse, like a slow drum-beat.

Because of the constant nature of it, it can colour your world a sort of miserable grey and, not surprisingly, it can also trigger dark emotional responses like depression, anxiety, or just all round grumpiness. According to western medicine there is no cure for it and the best that can be done is simply help the sufferer come to terms with it, or to mask it with other, less irritating sounds.

The reason I’m writing about it is partly to record my own experience of tinnitus, and also to describe some of the interesting avenues I’ve explored in overcoming it. While I still get the odd bout of tinnitus, it no longer troubles me on a daily basis so I feel that to a large extent I have been successful in tackling it. I therefore want to pass on my experience for the benefit of those who might be struggling with it and looking for some advice.

Conventional Western Medicine was unable to offer me any hope of a resolution at all, so, desperate for a cure, I was forced to explore a very dodgy path of alternative treatments. Sceptics warned me that I was wasting my time, that I was simply in denial, and should just get used to the fact that I had tinnitus and get on with my life. This was not helpful. Anyway, after a broad study of what the alternative treatments were, I decided to try Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

I used a combination of acupuncture, Tai Chi and Qigong. The acupuncture was an expensive and lengthy business, but it did have a significant effect. It did not provide a miracle overnight cure, but rather a gradual easing of the condition over time. The Tai Chi and Qigong were less expensive and involved attending a weekly class, plus daily practice on my own. Qigong can be picked up to some extent from books, or off the web, but Tai Chi cannot – and you really do need to attend a class if you can find one.

I used Tai Chi and Qigong as a means of taking over from the acupuncture, and the techniques proved to be effective, enabling me to sustain a slow but steady recovery to the point where the tinnitus rarely troubles me now. I also feel much more energetic and relaxed. To be clear, I do still get the occasional “bad ear” day, but such occasions are rare now. When they do occur, I see them as a sign that I’m out of balance in other areas, usually tired and in need of some rest. That’s fine by me, because at its worst every day was a bad ear day.

The sceptics now tell me that my ear was obviously going to get better on its own anyway and that the TCM was still a waste of time (and money). I have no answer for them except to say that apart from easing my tinnitus, the TCM techniques I have learned have provided other benefits as well: boosting my sense of well being, making me more relaxed and energetic. Perhaps such a rejuvenation is common in one’s middle years?

I’ve been fortunate that for most of my life I’ve never felt the need to trouble the local doctor from one year to the next. On the rare occasions when I have visited his surgery, the impression I’ve come away with is of a man severely pressed for time and with a long queue of sick people backed out of the waiting room. Perhaps I have trouble expressing myself but under these circumstances I have found that doctors struggle to address any problems that I cannot point to, such as a swollen eye, or a nasty rash. Anything else, anything mysterious, anything that does not show changes in blood pressure or in blood and urine samples leaves them stumped. Tinnitus is a good example of this, but there are many other things I can think of: fatigue, lethargy, a whole raft of emotional problems, stress, anxiety,…

On the other hand, my experience with TCM has been mostly positive and in the future, while I’ll probably return to my overworked doctor with the straight forward problems I can point to, I will not hesitate to seek the advice of TCM for the other stuff.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Skepticism

TCM grew out of the philosophical aspects of Taoism, and can trace its development back some three thousand years to the “Yellow Emperor’s Handbook”. This book was the first to describe the Chinese concept of “Energy” or “Chi” and how it moves around the human body. I was introduced to the Chinese world view several years ago now, through my interest in the Book of Changes, or I Ching. However, in spite of my great respect for the Oriental take on life, I feel I was always guilty of viewing TCM as somewhat primitive and superstitious – at best a cheap, low tech placebo for the rural poor, while the urban rich, who could afford it, went to see a proper medical doctor. As for Qigong, or Chi Kung (same thing – different spelling), like many of us in the west, I had real problems with it on account of the dreaded “C” word (Chi or Qi). Qigong doesn’t make sense without accepting the existence of Chi, and the merest hint of that word has sceptics seeing red, because they say it cannot be measured, detected or, by any means other than imaginary, be said to exist at all.

Having poked around the subject for a while though, I’m persuaded that the problem with Chi lies in its historical associations – not so much with traditional Chinese thought, but with the relatively modern, Western, new-age spiritual movement that latched on to its supposed “mystical” properties and have since used it to support a belief in all manner of dubious paranormal phenomenon. But we western hippy types are not alone in giving Chi a bad reputation. Another problem with it, is its association with so called “Masters”, both Eastern and Western, who perform demonstrations of paranormal ability due to their apparent “mastery” of Chi. While these feats are undoubtedly impressive, and for all I know may even be genuine, they fall foul of the rational, skeptical mindset that’s always on the lookout for the trick – and I’m sure all of the demonstrations I’ve seen on film (see You Tube “Chi Demonstrations”), could be performed just as well by a competent illusionist. The problem here is not so much the truth of the matter then, as the perception. We might be dismissing Chi simply because of it’s bad reputation, not because it does not exist.

So, what is the truth concerning the “C” word? I can only speak from personal experience, and recently I have to admit I’ve come round to an acceptance of its existence. However, I see it more as a natural, though as yet poorly understood phenomenon, rather than a mystical super-power. One of the reasons for my “conversion” is that I’ve come to know some otherwise down to earth people who practice with and apparently “manipulate” Chi, internally, but who prefer not to call it by that name. They talk instead about a kind of electricity or energy that exists freely in the natural environment, and also in our bodies. Whatever its nature, they explained to me that if I did certain exercises I would begin to feel certain things – and feel them I did.

Swapping the word Chi for “electricity” might seem like a case of slippery political correctness, but it is an apt phrase, and I base that statement upon my practice with the range of mind-body exercises known collectively as Qigong. The sensations we experience in our body are highly subjective of course – sometimes real, sometimes imagined, and what to one person might be evidence of a physical manifestation of Chi, might to another simply be a case of pins and needles. By performing Qigong exercises, or by having acupuncture, we do experience some odd sensations: tingling, coolness, a spontateous flowing of “something” from our fingertips down our arms. We also experience an incredible internal heat that pumps the sweat out of us even though we’re doing nothing but standing still. Whether these sensations are real or imaginary is irrelevant though and what we have to ask ourselves is this: do these mind-body exercises bring about the stated physiological and psychological responses in a human body?

And in my experience they do.

Has the existence of Chi been scientifically demonstrated?

Skeptics will say no, absolutely not, but as is often the case, the fact of the matter is less clear. We may have known about Chi in the west for a long time, but we call it something else. A good book on this subject is “The Body Electric” by Dr Robert Becker who mapped out the human electromagnetic field in the 1970’s. There are no wires in the body for the passing of electrical current, more, as I understand it, a series of low resistance pathways, mostly in the sub-surface tissues, along which electrical energy finds it easier to travel. Resistance measurements suggest these pathways coincide with the acupuncture channels. Therefore, for a skeptic to say there is no basis for the ideas of Traditional Chinese Medicine in scientific fact and that “Chi” is unfounded fancy is actually not correct at all. Whatever we choose to call it, it seems there are more scientific grounds for taking it seriously and investigating it further, than for rejecting it as preposterous, as the sceptics would have us do.

I think back to my overcrowded doctor’s surgery and then to the queue outside the dispensing chemist of people getting their prescription drugs and I wonder how much money might be saved if those people could be allowed instead to spend half an hour lying comfortably on a couch with some pins stuck in them. Not everyone could be helped this way of course, and the idea of allowing ordinary people some time to relax perhaps goes against the grain of Western culture, but many could be helped and indeed are in other parts of the world.

Returning to Qigong, and having established that there might be something we can loosely term bioelectricity at work, we must now stretch our imaginations a little further and accept the possibility that one can influence the flow of this energy using the intention of the mind, and that we can also increase the amount of bioelectrical potential that we can store within the body. How might this work then? Well, in the conventional view we convert the food we eat into energy, and that’s all the energy we need. Then, if pressed, the western scientist will allow that the body has a natural electrical field that can be measured but, in the conventional view, this field is considered to be nothing more than a by-product of the body’s function. In the traditional Chinese view, however, the body’s electromagnetic field is more, and the form it takes is believed to actually influence the well being of the body itself.

Electrical energy is not just generated by the body, it is also channelled into the body from the environment. Under normal conditions the energy flows along the acupuncture meridians which emerge from the body at its extremities – tips of fingers, toes, top of the head and the perineum. If the energy field is undistorted, then it acts as a kind of blueprint that the body’s natural regenerative functions can use as a reference in repairing physical damage or fighting infection. If the blueprint is lost or distorted though, the body is thrown back upon itself and can go a little haywire – we become sick.

Through poor posture, poor diet, negative thinking, or years of nervous tension we can unconsciously impede the natural flow of energy through the acupuncture channels – just as if we sit awkwardly, we can impede the flow of blood and cause our legs to go to sleep. This has the effect of distorting our natural electromagnetic field and if these distortions become habitual and long term, things can start to break down. The other way of distorting the field has to do with external electromagnetic interference. There is no clear cut boundary to the human electromagnetic. In effect, it merges by imperceptible degrees into the electromagnetic field of the earth. Therefore the concern is that any strong local interference, such as from power lines, transformers or radio transmitters, could disrupt the body’s natural field, again messing up the reference blueprint that our natural defences use for self repair.

Or so the theory goes.

But what about my tinnitus? Could the manipulation of Chi get rid of what a western medical doctor had told me was incurable?

Well, as I’ve already said, the answer appears to be yes.

TCM and Tinnitus

TCM is not a miracle cure for everything. It aims to put the body’s natural electromagnetic field back into balance so the body knows how to repair itself. But there are some forms of damage that cannot be repaired. If we are unfortunate enough to lose a limb for example, no amount of acupuncture or qigong will make it grow back.

Our ears are delicate devices and tinnitus can be brought on by physical damage: by exposure to loud noise, by being too close to an explosion, by habitual exposure to dangerous industrial or recreational noise. It can also be brought on by poking around in the ear with a Q-tip, or through an infection introduced by a dirty finger-nail. With a damaged ear, as I understand it, TCM is as helpless as Western medicine. However, if you cannot pinpoint any such cause, if it came on suddenly and mysteriously then your tinnitus is probably the result of fatigue – in bioelectrical terms, your batteries are running down.

The body’s electromagnetic field is not a straightforward phenomenon. It divides itself into different channels, each of which provides energy for a particular bodily function. Each channel then feeds a store of energy that serves the body in different ways. One of these channels comes up from the feet and is loosely associated with the kidneys. As we age this energy can become depleted, and one of the side effects, as well as a general feeling of lethargy and exhaustion, is tinnitus.

The lesson here for the tinnitus sufferer is that although this energy can be restored, it will be lost again if we cannot identify our energy hungry habits and put an end to them. There are several reports of acupuncture having a short term effect on tinnitus: it helps, but once you stop the acupuncture, it comes back. Mine didn’t however – it continued to improve, but I was careful not to go back to my old ways, and I adopted a healthy exercise regime that seems to have kept my energy levels topped up.

In TCM, the most likely culprits in the onset of tinnitus are insufficient sleep, and, for men, sexual excess (sorry guys). Now none of this will be of much comfort if you’re a celibate teenager, and get ten hours sleep a night. But if you’re older, say past forty and sexually active (with or without a partner) this is definitely something you need to take seriously.

I was forty five, and energy hungry, working long hours with two jobs – one that paid, the other that didn’t, and I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough sleep. Acupuncture, Qigong and Tai Chi were very effective in getting rid of it, but it was a long haul. The whole process took over a year and I still practice Tai Chi and Qigong every day.

What follows is an account of my story in more detail. For those of you suffering with tinnitus, there may be something in it that can help. If, however, you’ve never heard of tinnitus then I’m just going to sound like a whingeing hypochondriac.


My tinnitus came on suddenly in the Spring of 2006. It was mainly in my left ear, and was like the hissing of air from a leaky pipe, or like the static hiss you get when you tune a radio in between stations. Sometimes we get these odd noises when we’re tired or we have a head cold, but we don’t pay them much attention and they usually go away, but this didn’t. Over the next few months the noise came and went a bit, but finally settled in until it was there pretty much all the time.

Some days I could only hear it in a very quiet room, or when I lay in bed at night – other days I could hear it over most of the everyday sounds, like watching TV or when driving. There seemed to be no clear pattern to the good days and the bad days, no obvious trigger, except that exposure to very loud noises like a washing machine suddenly kicking into its spin cycle, or using my petrol mower would turn a good day instantly into a bad one.

I waited until the late Summer before going to see the local GP. A quick examination revealed a plug of wax in the offending ear and I was hopeful that after washing it out, the noise would go, but it didn’t. I was stuffed: it seemed there was nothing more that could be done. The GP shrugged and diagnosed “tinnitus”. He said he could refer me to a specialist but that in his experience it wasn’t really worth it, that I’d be better off just getting used to it.

The real nature of the problem

On the up-side, it wasn’t life-threatening – just annoying – but I refused to believe that such an apparently common thing could not be cured. However, the internet revealed the situation to be (almost) hopeless. What particularly upset me were the “miracle cures”. When you see these – all sorts of weird devices and sounds on CD’s – all at exorbitant prices, you know you’ve tapped into one of those grey “snake-oil” areas. Look up “baldness” and you’ll get a similar crop of “miracle cures”. Well, I could live with being bald, I thought, but tinnitus: well that was a different matter altogether!

The condition seemed to worsen throughout the summer and winter of 2006. The noise wasn’t so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else, but it was noticeable over most of the sounds I encountered during a normal day, and my main worry was that it was going to get worse and worse. Then, strangely, I’d get a good day when I could barely hear the tinnitus, and I’d think I was getting better, but the following day it would be back again, seemingly louder than before.

Western medicine will glibly blame exposure to noise. The doctor jokingly suggested that I’d probably been to too many rock concerts in my youth. Well – at the risk of sounding like a bit of a bore, this wasn’t true – I’d always been keen to heed the warnings, because I didn’t want to develop tinnitus in later life. Ha! But anyway, I still wondered about noise. My day job involved working in a lab where there was a fairly constant buzz and rumble of extractors and cooling fans. These sounds were occasionally irritating, more so now that I was looking to blame them for causing the tinnitus. So I went through a phase of sitting in the lab with ear defenders on – but it didn’t make any difference, and the Health and Safety guys looked at me as if I’d gone mad when they came to measure the noise levels, because they barely registered on the equipment. So, in my case, noise didn’t look like being the primary cause then. Granted, once you’ve got tinnitus, exposure to loud noises will irritate it, but the real cause lies elsewhere. The real cause is fatigue.
I worked a fairly standard forty hour week, and I’d journey home each evening to take up my unpaid “real” job of writing. I’d work late into the night, most nights, and I’d usually unwind, as I wrote, to the accompaniment of a glass of wine, so when I did retire I’d only get a few hours kip before (if you’ll pardon me) having to empty my bladder. I didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, or a stressful job, but even from an early age I’ve been prone to nervous tension, the occasional bout of irrational anxiety in situations most of you will find innocuous, and not surprisingly I was pretty tired all of the time.

I won’t go into the sex bit in any personal detail and shall leave it to your imagination – except to say I don’t think it was a major factor in my own case. Anyway, the theory goes that sperm takes a lot of the available energy in a man’s body. If sperm is lost (during sex) the body immediately sets about making some more, consuming vast amounts of energy in the process. To a young man this is neither here nor there and he can have as much sex as his circumstances and good fortune allow, but to an older man it’s different and he needs to ration himself a bit more. In TCM there’s actually a chart that indicates the maximum number of ejaculations a man should have in a given period, depending on his age – if you’re over forty it’s about once a week or every ten days. This might seem a bit over the top but it’s something you do need to be aware of.

Measuring the tinnitus

I began a study of the tinnitus and came up with a measurement system, so I could tell how bad a day it had been. I defined three simple levels:

Level 3, I represented with a smiley face and this scored a 25, because I reckoned I only noticed it about a quarter, or 25%, of the time. Level 3 was fine – I could live my whole life at level three and not complain about it.

Level 2 was a straight faced “smiley”, and this scored 50% because I reckoned I’d been aware of it about half the time. Occasionally irritating, level 2 is not a good place to be, but it doesn’t make you feel ill, make you consider giving up your job, or cause you to fear for your sanity.

Then came level 1, which was a “bad ear day”, a miserable frowning “smiley” which scored a 75%. Level 1 was maddening. Level one was enough to have me going to bed in the early evening so I could cut the day short and escape the infernal racket. Level 1 I could not live with for very long at all and it made me adamant that I was going to find a way to cure it.

Thus began a daily chart on which I logged my scores, to see if the condition was getting worse or if it was stable. Every month I’d take an average and to my relief, the condition seemed to be fairly stable – between 55 and 60%.

I’ve read that it’s not a good idea to keep a log of your tinnitus because it makes you concentrate on it, and that in turn can make it seem worse than it really is. While I agree with this to a certain extent, I should emphasise that my log was just a quick assessment, usually in the morning – asking myself how good or bad the previous day had been. Then the book was closed and I just got with my day. Later on, I was glad of the record because, as things improved, it was easier to see the results on paper and this in itself boosted my morale and maintained my resolve to carry on with the “cure”.

At the time of writing, after some eighteen months since beginning to tackle it, I’m now down to around 35%, which means my life consists of mostly good days instead of mostly bad.

The TCM Sessions

Of all the nonsense I’d read on the internet the “nonsense” of TCM seemed the most plausible, and least expensive option, so I contacted a local practitioner. He was a Chinese doctor, trained in western medicine, but who specialised in TCM. The sessions were weekly, lasted between thirty and forty minutes and they cost me £25.00 a time. I went regularly for seven months. Now, you’re thinking to yourself that that’s a lot of money – nearly enough to buy one of those weird tinnitus-cure gadgets you see advertised on the internet, and you’re right. The difference is though, you’re only paying a little at a time, and if you decide it’s not working, you can cut your losses and stop going long before it’s cost you a fortune.

My first consultation was in February 2007. The TCM doctor checked my pulse on both wrists, examined my tongue and generally weighed me up, apparently by the look, feel and the “smell” of me. He went into some detail about family history, explored other issues of lifestyle that I didn’t think were related, and then began to suggest symptoms I’d forgotten to mention such as an embarrassing habit of breaking out into a drenching sweat for no apparent reason. I was given herbal remedies, a vigorous massage of my back and neck, and a form of acupressure on the sides of my head. The herbs were Er Long Zuo Chi Wan and Long Dan Zie Gan Wan. I kept this up for about 3 weeks but without any noticeable benefit. Then the doctor said we should try acupuncture.

If you’ve not had acupuncture [as I hadn’t] you might be nervous about it [as I was]. I discovered the pins used are not really pins at all – they are more like fine wires – and the doctor explained they are not pushed in very far – from 1 to 3 mm, depending on the location. There was a slight pricking sensation as they went in, but so long as you can relax this is hardly noticeable. Once the pins are in the sensation is more like the gentle pressure of a finger or some other blunt instrument held against the skin.

In my case the “pins” were applied to my shins, the backs of my hands, sides of the neck, the mandibles, and the top of my head. I had no knowledge of the so called meridian system at that time and therefore no idea of the reasoning behind the doctor’s choice in these locations. The combined sensation was really peculiar, but not unpleasant – in fact, after a while, I looked forward to my sessions because of their relaxing effect. The pins were left in place for about 20 minutes, while I lay comfortably on my back. The only clothes I had to take off were my shoes. The doctor was a pleasant, chatty gentleman, not long in the UK and he spoke in very broken English, a language he was studying. He was the first doctor I’ve ever met who did not treat me like a lump of meat.

On the first occasion I think I’d been expecting a miracle, but the ears were still ringing when the pins came out and I was disappointed, thinking they’d had no effect at all. However, on the way home, after that first session, I began to feel really strange – very tired, and like I’d had an electric shock. I arrived home stunned, and feeling “heavy”. The closest thing I could liken it to was, years before, when I’d been in a car accident – a sudden jarring smash that I’d walked away from apparently unscathed – but the day after I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. Then there was an occasion in my foolish youth when I’d nearly killed myself buggering about with mains electricity – I’d got away with just a warning jolt but I remembered the sensation of an electrically triggered muscular spasm. That evening I was in bed at nine and I slept like I’d been drugged, but I woke up next morning feeling fresher than I’d done in years. Unfortunately the ear was still ringing.
Perhaps understandably then I approached my next session with some trepidation. The doctor explained that my reaction had been normal – being plugged into the mains, he said, was not a bad analogy. My body wasn’t used to it, but it wouldn’t react so dramatically next time. This was indeed the case, and the following sessions were quite straight forward. After each session thereafter, I always felt deeply relaxed and refreshed.

With few exceptions, the TCM sessions stuck to a regular format: After a quick examination of tongue and pulse, I would have twenty minutes of acupuncture, twenty minutes of massage around the back and neck, then the usual herbs and I’d be on my way. The few exceptions involved a process called candling – sticking a lighted, hollow candle in my ear. Though again I found the candling to be relaxing, I could not say it had any effect on my tinnitus.

I kept all of this up for 7 months, which cost around £700 in the end – a lot of money? Well, all things are relative, and it depends how much you’re earning. It was about the price of a holiday, or a decent computer. But the important thing is: did it work?

And the answer is Yes.

According to the chart I kept the effect was immediate, though slight. Consecutive months showed a steady improvement until after six months of treatment I was down to around the 40% mark. But the improvement in the tinnitus was not the only thing I noticed. Throughout the Summer of 2007, I felt incredibly more energetic, and about a decade younger.

But I had to pack it in. It came down to money really, plus the abiding scepticism of my good lady who insisted it was all in the mind anyway, and that £100 a month could be better spent elsewhere. Admittedly, I had hoped for faster cure. I was growing increasingly frustrated by the routine nature of my TCM sessions and the slow progress. Sure, I was improving slightly, but at this rate I was going to be broke before I got close to being free of tinnitus. If I could have afforded to keep going, then I would have done so. The difference it made to my sense of well being was profound, but in the real world, as the tinnitus subsided, the TCM sessions began to feel more like a delicious luxury than a necessity.

I asked the doctor’s advice and he said that tinnitus was a stubborn thing to shift, but that we were heading in the right direction, and why didn’t I consider taking up Tai Chi as well – that regular practice might speed things up. The doctor practised it himself and looked very well off it. I found a local class and enrolled in August 2007. They taught the traditional Chen style, beginning with a fourteen week introductory course, and I was hooked from the beginning.

Tai Chi for Health

Like Yoga, to some extent it is possible to gain benefit from Tai Chi without considering or “believing in” the “internal” energies involved, but without them Tai Chi is just a form of dancing. We’re talking about Chi again, though at the class I attended, “Chi” was rarely mentioned. Instead, it was glossed over or loosely defined as a kind of “electricity” or “energy” and we were taught that whatever “it” was, it was important to have it circulating correctly, just as it was important to have good circulation of the blood and the lymph.
The Tai Chi moves, or “form”, encourage this circulation as well as developing a heightened sense of balance and improving one’s flexibility or suppleness. The “energy aspects” are also specifically targeted or boosted by special exercises known collectively as Qigong. Qigong and Tai Chi are usually taught together as one coherent system. Tai Chi was developed during a troubled period of China’s history when isolated agricultural communities were vulnerable to hoards of raiding bandits. It was a highly effective means of self defence, and each of the individual moves has an application in protecting oneself from a would be attacker. In their original form, these moves are rather uncompromising and designed to inflict severe injury. In short Tai Chi breaks bones and smashes heads. It’s therefore not the ideal sport for full contact sparring, except the highly specific form known as push hands.

The elements of posture, energy and physique one develops from practising these moves renders them beneficial either from the fighting angle, or from the health angle. Most of us in the west, practice for our health. We carry out the moves slowly and with a mind for their correctness. When, as beginners, we hit upon the correct way of moving, the correct posture or whatever, we are rewarded with a physical sensation that is unlike any other I have ever experienced.

There are thousands of Qigong forms, and to the uninitiated, it’s difficult to know where to start, but they all combine the breath with gentle movement, or static postures, and an inner sense of “energy” flow. Qigong aims at increasing a practitioner’s internal energy.

The Qigong styles I was introduced to through my Tai Chi classes were the 18 form Shibashi, and the 8 Piece Brocade. I attended a seminar on the 8 Piece Brocade in October 2007, and of the two, it was this one that I personally found much easier to get into the “feel” of. It’s also easier to remember a sequence of 8 postures than 18. It was while carrying out this sequence of simple moves that I began to feel something of my own electricity – either imagined or otherwise.

Another static Qigong posture that was taught was “standing like a tree”, a position I found incredibly difficult to hold for more than a few minutes without breaking into a sweat, but which again I found to be ultimately very beneficial indeed.

Interestingly the TCM doctor did not entirely approve of Qigong, warning me that it produced too much “heat” – in the TCM sense, and that this could make things worse for me in the short term. I was puzzled by this, as I’d been sure the acupuncture and the herbs he’d been prescribing had been aimed at increasing my own internal energy – that my flagging reserves were the cause of the tinnitus. So what was wrong with an exercise designed to do the same thing? Unfortunately, he was right though, and immediately upon beginning to practice Qigong, I recorded a slight worsening of the tinnitus. Anyway, for good or ill, the time had come for me to part company with the doctor. This was a difficult thing to do as I’d come to know him quite well by this time, and enjoyed our conversations, enjoyed also walking out of his clinic and feeling like I was floating – but my good lady had by now already issued various ultimatums, and I simply couldn’t keep it up. To be fair, 7 months had been a long time – a fair shot at it, I thought, and with some success.
I kept up the Tai Chi (Qigong and all), acting on instinct, and feeling that this was something my body wanted or needed me to do. So, I ended the TCM in September 2007 and for the next few months the tinnitus stabilised a few points up at around 42%. Then I began to practice the Tai Chi and Qigong very seriously. I attended class once a week, but practice at home for at least thirty minutes a day, every day, without fail. The Tai Chi I was learning was a relatively modern short form designed for beginners by Master Liming Yue of the Manchester based Tai Chi Centre – just 11 moves, and I picked these up slowly over the autumn and winter of 2007/2008. In the main though, my private practice consisted of Qigong.

I would begin each session with the warm-up routines I’d learned for the Tai Chi form, then do the 8 piece Brocade, usually followed by a session of standing like a tree for as long as I could. Alternatively, I would perform a set of moving exercises, also part of the Chen Style repertoire, called “Silk Reeling” . Finally if I felt like it, I’d finish off with a bit of revision on the Tai Chi form, then do the warm down exercises, another form of Qigong that supposedly settles the imaginary “electricity” to the Dan Tien – a point (imaginary or otherwise) a couple of inches below the belly button.

In Tai Chi we try to think of the Dan Tien as our energy source, a bit like a rechargeable battery, also as our centre of gravity and that any moves we make are driven by a twisting or a spiralling of energy that begins in the Dan Tien. Under normal conditions it draws charge from the food we eat and from the environment, passing it along the acupuncture channels but if these become blocked, the flow of energy is impeded. Practising the 8 piece brocade aims to relax and free up these channels, lowering the resistance, and improving the charge going to the Dan Tien.

One possible problem with Qigong practice is that to the western mind, an exercise set implies sweating and straining. This is exactly the opposite of what we want though. In practising the 8 piece brocade, we might begin to sweat, because it does raise a tremendous heat apparently from nowhere, but putting strain or “effort” into the moves is wrong – we need to relax as much as possible. Breath and intention are central to any Qigong practice. The theory tells us that energy follows the mind’s intention and its movement or flow is encouraged by the breath. One’s focus then is naturally upon the Dan Tien, which we try to develop an imaginary feel for, and this comes with practice. As we perform the movements, we synchronise them to the natural flow of our breath, tending to push as we breathe out, and pull as we breath in. Breathing is slow and relaxed, tending to be deep, the diaphragm extending down as we breathe in – the belly pushing out, and relaxing to normal as we breathe out.

In tree standing, the focus again is on the Dan Tien and the breath. The postures in tree standing vary but the style I was taught simply involve holding the arms out in front of the body, or above the head. When beginning it seems impossible that anyone can hold these postures for 10 or 20 minutes – but with patience and practice it is possible. The point of all this escaped me at first and it seemed little more than a sort of sadomasochism. It was excruciating holding my arms up even for five minutes, but after a while, incredible though it may sound, the weight of one’s arms eventually seems to disappear and it is as if they are suspended by invisible threads. But the more interesting thing, obviously, for me, was that after a few months of regular practice, the tinnitus began to improve again. As with the acupuncture, the improvement was a gradual thing, but taken over a period of six months, it was significant to the point where I can say that, in the main, it simply doesn’t bother me any more.

By March of 2008 my tinnitus levels were down to about 35% – based on my rough smiley chart. Bad ear days still occurred – but only about once a fortnight, as opposed to several times a week, when I set out in 2006. I also felt much brighter, more positive in my outlook and significantly more energetic. Needless to say, my view of TCM has changed completely from early scepticism (but what the hell I’ve nothing to lose) to one of respect.

It will not cure everything. Sometimes our bodies get themselves into such a mess we need the drastic intervention of powerful pharmaceuticals, antibiotics or urgent surgery. But there are also a lot of conditions western medicine seems to shrug its shoulders at because they’re not life threatening – “merely” irritating to the sufferer. These conditions can be both physical and emotional and in my view are symptomatic of a deeper malaise, one that western medicine will never get at because it’s too focussed on attacking the symptoms with pharmaceuticals, rather than understanding the underlying cause. With TCM things work the other way around. If the nature of the imbalance can be identified and addressed, the symptoms will disappear on their own. Even, it seems, the apparently incurable ones like tinnitus.

Advice to Tinnitus Sufferers

My advice, if you’re suffering from tinnitus is first of all see your local GP, if you haven’t already done so, if only to check for damage and to have the condition confirmed. If you’re lucky (or unlucky – depending on your point of view) you may be referred to a specialist at the hospital. From then on you can expect a lot of appointments, a lot of poking about in your ear, a lot of literature on tinnitus support groups, but no cure. It’s up to you whether you want to venture down this path or not – depends if you like hospital waiting rooms, I suppose.

Alternatively, consult a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine to see what their diagnosis is, and to ask about herbs, massage and acupuncture – or whatever they recommend to re-balance your system. One thing I didn’t do, and which I recommend, is to ask up front how long they think the treatment will take – so you know what you’re in for. It sounds stupid but I was too polite to ask.
At the same time, consider taking up Tai Chi, as well as the 8 Brocades Qigong, and Tree standing, also known as Zhan Zhuang (pronounced jam jong). Although the practitioner I saw was wary about Qigong, and the practice did at first seem to be working against the acupuncture, continued practice did eventually yield significant results (and for a fraction of the cost).

The other things you can do for yourself are:

1) Record the levels of tinnitus so you have a baseline against which to measure subsequent improvements.

2) Remember you’re not suffering from tinnitus – that’s just a symptom. What you’re most likely suffering from is fatigue, so make sure you get plenty of sleep – at least eight hours – more if you can manage it.

3) Avoid large drinks late at night – alcoholic or otherwise – or anything that’s going to get you up in the small hours to relieve your bladder and disturb your sleep.

4) And gentlemen, if you’re over forty, you really have to limit your ejaculations, assisted or DIY, to no more than once a week. Read Mantak Chia’s “Multi Orgasmic Man” for further information and some very interesting alternatives.

(Obviously, Ladies don’t need to worry about this aspect.)

5) Take up Tai Chi and Qigong – I had good results with the 8 Brocades, Tree Standing and Chen Style Silk Reeling. But you need to persevere – it will take you a year at least, so be prepared.

Tinnitus is a worrying condition because it throws us back on ourselves a bit. No one else is going to sort this out for you, so you have to take responsibility for improving the condition of your own body, its balance and its well-being. Tai Chi and Qigong are the tools that enabled me to do just that.

I highly recommend them.

Books and DVD’s on Tai Chi and Qigong

There are of course many books on the subject of Qigong, and Tai Chi – search Amazon and you’ll see what I mean – but in my experience there are very few good ones – I know because I’ve ended up buying a good many of them. Western authors tend to get hung up too quickly on the mystical or the paranormal side of it – and though I admit I’m a bit of a mystic myself, when it comes to what ails you I think you need to be a bit more down to earth. Forget “astral travel” and just give me something that can help me pass my day with more of a spring in my step!

Qigong forms tend to involve static postures that you hold while focusing on the breath and to some extent you might be successful in picking these up from illustrated books, DVDs or off the Internet. But by far the best way is to attend a class. Having said this, quite late on in my practice, I became aware of a book called “The Way of Energy” by Lam Kam Chuen. By strange coincidence, this book covered both the 8 Brocade and Tree Standing that I’d been learning in class. I thought this book was very well written, beautifully and appropriately illustrated and above all informative. This is a very rare exception, and learning from this book is possibly even better than attending a class with an instructor who isn’t as well informed.
As for Tai Chi, its forms involve complex and highly dynamic moves which you simply cannot learn from a book, or an instructional DVD. You need to follow a real live person, preferably one who knows what they’re doing. The books and DVD’s can then help you with your home practice and background studies. My advice in the first place then is to find a Tai Chi class and give it a try. Inquire first of all to make sure that Qigong is integral to the practice – not all instructors teach it, but in my opinion, without it, Tai Chi is simply a form of dancing. The 8 Brocades and Tree Standing are common to all styles of Tai Chi, though there may be subtle differences in the way they’re taught – this doesn’t matter. I’m learning Chen Style, which is not as common in the UK as other styles – you’re more likely to encounter Yang Style, but don’t get hung up on the names – they’re all highly respected as health systems.

A final word on the mystical side: Many forms of Qigong are banned in China as the authorities tighten up on anything that has even the faintest whiff of “cultishness” or “witchcraft” about it. The Falun Gong system is perhaps the most well known of the proscribed forms, but there are others. The only forms of Qigong that have gained the approval of the authorities are those that have proven health benefits. The 8 Brocades, the 18 form Shibashi and Tree Standing are considered such, and all are widely and openly practice in China, so there’s no need to worry about the spiritual stuff if you’re a sceptical westerner – just try if for a bit and see what happens.

I think you’ll be impressed!

Michael Graeme


The Body Electric – Dr Robert Becker

The Way of Energy – Lam Kam Chuen

The Multi-Orgasmic Man – Mantak Chia

*** updated February 2014 ***

Master Lam has now put up an excellent set of instructional videos on You Tube detailing a ten day course to get you going with Zhan Zhuang.  Episode one is here:

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I’ve written elsewhere in some detail about the reasons I came to get involved with Tai Chi, but to summarise, I was advised to take it up by a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine as a means of augmenting a course of acupuncture. That was some eighteen months ago, now, and though my ailment has largely cleared up, and I no longer bother with the acupuncture, I still  practice Tai Chi most days.

When I began learning, I followed the movements, as demonstrated by my instructor, in a fairly mechanical way. It reminded me a little of dancing – the music was different, the rhythms somewhat unfamiliar but you were still moving your arms and your legs in a set sequence.  I always felt very relaxed after an hour of practice – even if all I’d been doing was repeating the same few moves over and over again. It was interesting that I’d spent the whole of the nineteen eighties and most of the nineties learning ball-room dancing. My lessons had often left me sweating and breathless, but never infused with a warm sense of well being, as Tai Chi did – so there had to be more to it than the normal side effects of vigorous exercise.

Apart from that  warm sense of well being, however, I felt nothing “internally”, while the musings of other practitioners I read had led me to expects all sorts of feelings, and I began to wonder if talk of Chi and meridians and energy flow was just a load of clap-trap. Looking back, I’d missed the point, and that warm sense of well being is exactly what Chi can sometimes feel like.  But eventually, as I continued with the practice, I began to feel other things that finally convinced me there was something very unusual going on.

I was learning a set of eleven movements, part of a fairly modern frame, devised by Liming Yue of the Manchester Tai Chi Centre. Among other practices like Silk Reeling and Push Hands, this “eleven form” took me six months to complete. Other courses were offered in various Qigong techniques, and I now have a working knowledge of The Ba Dua Yin, the Yi Jing Ching, and the Shibashi. My personal favourite is the Ba Dua Yin, and I practice this most days.

After the first six months of practice, I began to develop an unusual  sensation in my arms, hands and fingers. It was noticeable particularly during the Qigong practice, but also during the Tai Chi form when my posture happened to fall into the correct alignment. The feeling was like a “tension” or a slight “numbness” that ran from the fingertips, along the arms, and across the shoulders – literally like an unbroken string being drawn firm. Stand normally, move normally, and it isn’t there. Drop into a Tai Chi position, and move through a little of the form, or do some Qigong, and there it is again. Being largely ignorant of human anatomy, on account of my squeamishness, I wondered at first if this “tension” was simply a tightening of the tendons that connect the bones to the muscles, but there are many discrete tendons between the fingertips and the shoulder – definitely not one long one, as the sensation seemed to suggest.

The daily practice of Qigong also began to yield its own range of odd sensations – one in particular, for a while, was an apparent rushing of “something” up my spine, to the top of my head, resulting in a mild dizziness – when all I’d done was move my arms in a particular way.

Perhaps the most obvious weirdness though was simply the heat the practice of both Tai Chi and Qigong generates. Before beginning Tai Chi, I had imagined the practice halls would all be like little pieces of old China, transplanted into an English setting. However, the truth is somewhat different and the practice halls are more likely to be pretty run down, and typically English – musty old church halls, rotten scout huts and the gutted remains of old mills. Where I currently practice, there’s no heating, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem. The winters here are usually pretty mild but cold snaps can take easily take temperatures down to around minus 5C. On such occasions, the temperature in the practise hall barely hovers above freezing, so we generally begin our warm-ups wearing fleece tops and cardigans. After twenty minutes though, the  fleece has been discarded and my tee shirt is usually beginning to show damp patches. Had I been doing something obviously energetic, this would not have surprised me, but in those twenty minutes we might only have done a gentle ten minute warm up routine, no more energetic than walking really, followed by a qigong posture that involves nothing more energetic than standing still. You can imagine then that in the summer, when temperatures get up above 20C, I usually have need of a towel. At first I was sure there was something wrong with me, that I was incredibly unfit, or ill,  but I’ve been assured time and again that I’m simply doing it right and that this is just another example of what Chi feels like.

Inevitably the practice of Tai Chi begins to have effects that are felt in daily life. Apart from the generally relaxed outlook, and the physical sensations, I suddenly found I could beat my son at arm-wrestling – all right, I know this is childish – but  I found if I could bring my thoughts to focus upon my arm, and swell what few paltry muscles I’ve got with my mind, so to speak, I could make it immovable and my son would tire himself out straining against it. Also, on one occasion, when trying to uproot a tree, frankly to the point of exhaustion, I was able to finally snap off the last of its tenacious roots, by winding up the energy from my dan tien and applying a martial release. It worked and the combined effects of the energy, and my surprise, had me falling over backwards, bringing down on top of me a shower of uprooted tree and soil. I’m not making any claims for super normal strength here – indeed I suspect this energy is nothing more than the normal condition of the human body, but applied in a way that’s more efficient than normal. It’s curious though, and  I find that, after only eighteen months of practise, I now believe that much of what has been written about Tai Chi and Qigong, isn’t quite as preposterous as it sounds.

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I was sitting alone at a table at what was Alexander’s Brasserie, in Southport, one sunny Saturday afternoon. Those of you who knew this little place will perhaps share with me the memory of its unusual allure – a French cafe in Wayfarer’s, a beautifully glazed Victorian arcade just off the strangely Parisian boulevard of Southport’s Lord street. It was, for long time, a favourite little refuge of mine, vaguely foreign and yet at the same time easily familiar, somewhere to slip sideways,… to sit aloof from the crowd and yet be positioned curiously in their midstream.

My attitude that afternoon was not gloomy, nor was it entirely introspective. Indeed for a good hour I spun out my Omelette de Maison and my dainty Espresso thinking of nothing but the crowds that passed me by.

The cafe had a seating area under the high glass of the arcade, a sort of enclosure fenced off from the casual shoppers who carousel endlessly around it,… and who perhaps unwittingly provide one of its attractions. If you sit down for long enough in a place like that they say you will see the whole of life pass before your eyes. This is a strange notion, and at first quite puzzling. I’ve always understood it to mean that if you look closely enough you will see a metaphor for every possible aspect of life,… no answers perhaps,… just carefully phrased questions that will cause you to ponder your own place in the scheme of things. And this, I guess, is the allure of watching people.

I was aware, naturally, of the girls and their fashions – the bright peacocks of our kind. And to be sure, many a shapely body passed me by that afternoon, but where my eyes would once have rested with discreet admiration, I was suddenly aware only of the transience of youth. It’s perhaps a regrettable, but fairly obvious truth that the pert bottom of today’s teenaged girl will inevitably become the wrinkled buttock of tomorrow’s older woman.

There is a transience to our being which makes a nonsense out of what popular western culture teaches us to perceive as being beautiful and desirable, when it is but a snapshot of a point in time that cannot possibly be sustained. This is the culture of youth, of celebrity and the glossy media, and no lasting happiness can ever be gained from its pursuit. Indeed the only logical result of the adoration of these values is a permanent anxiety for their impending loss.
Ladies might seek to remedy their saggy bottoms with painful and expensive surgery and so prolong the illusion of their beauty well beyond their middle age. But it is entirely natural that such pertness should fade,.. and I believe we would do better to become more accepting of it.
So began the train of my thoughts that singular Saturday afternoon. And then as if reacting violently to this awakening, my thoughts at once leaped to the consideration of the opposite end of the scale, to those individuals popular culture would have us believe are no longer beautiful, those whose condition, it might be suggested, is not at all desirable. And this again is strange, for theirs is a condition to which we are all inevitably bound.
I’m speaking of the many old folks, stiffer, more angular, their gait not so graceful and the truth of their forms hidden under clothing designed more with practicality in mind than the exhibition of attributes they no longer possess. Some of them seemed to shuffle with eyes disconcertingly dulled by their lives. Then there were the rotund, scowling old dears with a permanent metaphorical grip on their frail husbands’ earlobes – husbands who’s industry-tired bodies seemed transparent, and bent, and wasted.
I searched those aged eyes for anything that might betray a secret knowledge, a knowledge that was perhaps gained only from the long experience of life itself, but I saw nothing. There was certainly no ethereal glow born of enlightenment and indeed there was in fact nothing to tell me that what I observed was anything more than an all to graphic illustration of the frailty of mankind, and the futility of our struggle in the face of nature.
From the time of pert bottoms, it seemed, there lay only a brief fluttering of angst before there loomed fragility and death. No, the meaning of our lives lay not in the contemplation of our physical condition, nor in the joys of our flesh. That was too fleeting a phenomenon for it to have any genuine relevance in the cosmic scheme of things.
Now this was really troubling because since the dawn of time there have been learned men who spoke of enlightenment – men whose mighty intellects have scoured the words of every age and culture for a magic formula. So what was it? Where was the fruit of their labour?
Of course no formula has ever been found, at least no serum to be injected en mass in order to induce a grand, collective enlightenment,… and those powerful intellects go the way of all flesh, eventually unfulfilled and, one might suspect, ultimately unenlightened. So the busy chase of learning was just as futile,… unless of course these scholars were tight lipped about their discoveries and took their secrets with them. But that seemed equally unlikely for in all the ages past, you’d think at least one of them would have blabbed it out: the secret to the meaning of our lives.
Then, added to the swirling carousel of life, there came families, their children in various stages of development, from blubbery babes in cumbersome buggies to the bright, alert eyes of pre-teen children, testing every nerve, every shred of patience of their middle aged parents. This was familiar ground for me,… these harassed mothers and fathers, always tired, a little unkempt due to having insufficient time for themselves, or even for each other – the complete sacrifice of one’s self for the creation of new life! I saw no ethereal glow in their eyes, only tiredness and the tight lined grimaces of a permanently simmering anger.
In my more cynical moments I have wanted to gather the pert bottoms and point out to them the disheveled parents who seem the only logical conclusion to the attractiveness of youth and the urge to partake of the pleasures of the flesh. Such is life, I’d say, and certainly it had begun to seem more and more like a process as ruthless and as cold as evolution. Was there no solace? Was there no profound satisfaction to be had even in the rearing of children? Well – and I speak from experience here – while it is true that in parenthood we discover an unselfish and instinctive love for our children, it is a love that we pay for in a currency that demands the negation of desire, clarity of thought, and contemplation of one’s self.
It did not seem altogether hopeful then, although I remained optimistic that a face would eventually present itself, however fleetingly, a face which, by look or gesture would convey a vital essence, a key that would unlock the riddle I had lately come to ponder: the true meaning of this carousel of life.
I saw a priest and my attention was at once arrested by his silvery white hair as he swept by. There was a stately grace in his movements which might have suggested an inkling of something, but the eyes cannot lie, and in them I saw as much self absorption, as much self doubt, and human pettiness as in the rest of us. Many would have turned to such a man, I thought, and no doubt he could have offered much in terms of ritual prayer, but for an old agnostic like me it was not a salve I needed, but a solution.
A waitress busied herself among the empty tables and obliged me with a friendly smile. She was very young and very pretty, with platinum blonde hair worn with all the natural softness of her youth. In another light she might have passed for the most desirable of women, but I guessed she was only sixteen or seventeen, her waitressing but a weekend job, and a break from her studies. In her face I saw promise and warmth, and hope. I saw a setting out and guessed she would not be waiting on tables when I next visited that cafe.
My own setting out had been like that, I thought, a sense of promise and hope, yet though I could not complain at the way my life had unfolded, my life had provided none of the answers I had sought for so long, and yielded instead only one vexed question after the other.
Perhaps in another thirty years the girl would be a woman sitting at this table pondering the slowly shuffling carousel of passers by, and where would I be then? Would I would be grey and transparent? Would I be a metaphor of another stage in life: the man who’d searched for something but gave up because he couldn’t find it,… or came to realise it wasn’t there at all?
Oh, how I hoped that would not be the case! Certainly, I would grow old and grey and bent – in simple biological terms, that was pretty much the best I could hope for – but I did not like to think of her eyes resting upon me and reading nothing. I would have liked to think she could look at me and realise that, yes, her life meant something,… that something in my eyes would betray the evidence of a deeper level to human experience, a level that the experience of my own life had revealed to me. And from that brief glimpse perhaps she might have gained a measure of encouragement, that the transience of her life, the fading of her youth, and the spreading of her cellulite did not exclude her from experiencing a profound understanding,… an understanding worth the searching and the living, and the dying for.
It had not been an expensive trip to Southport, which was unusual. Whenever I went with my family we always seemed to amass a weighty collection of carrier bags – metaphors themselves of the curious condition of our lives, the weight,.. the restriction, the sense of burden that our accrued goods instill.
My purchases that day were modest. All I’d bought in fact was a slim second-hand volume of poems from Broadhursts, the antiquarian booksellers, on Market Street. It was an anthology, a collection of verse written by members of the British armed forces at the time of the Second World War. It had cost me only a few pounds and yet it had granted me the priceless feeling of flight, of travelling light, of Zen-like simplicity and escape from those other burdened shoppers weighed down by their purchases, and by their lives.
What I would find in the book I did not yet know because for now it lay unopened at the side of my coffee cup. Its plain brown dust jacket and the wartime economy of its construction betrayed no particular flavour of its contents. And what could a book tell me anyway? If there was a book, a magical book that contained the formula of enlightenment, then surely it would be well known.
I did not even know what it was that had possessed me to buy it, other than its apparent contradictions – the idea that amid the horror and the filth of war, the human spirit could still find a voice, and resort to the uncommon and eternal beauty of poetry. It was a connection, I suppose, and lately I had grown fond of connections, fond of the idea of meaningful coincidences.
“Can I take your plate?”
It was the waitress, smiling again. The light in her eyes impressed me, for so many of our youths these days seem barely conscious, performing their movements without thought or enthusiasm, as if they’ve glimpsed the future in their dreams and it fails to animate them.
I thanked the girl and, with the plate gone from my little table, I was then able to slide the book in front of me and contemplate it properly. The dust jacket was in good condition, the book itself also undamaged. To a collector such things are important I suppose, but to a mere reader they can sometimes instill a sense of unease. The book had not been read much in the sixty years since its publication. Indeed it looked like it had lain undisturbed on shelves, possibly also behind sliding glass, its little poems, its slices of emotion unknown, untasted. Was this because they were not worth the effort? Or was it just that no one else had taken the time?
I’ve always liked poetry, though I do not always understand it. My taste in it is simple – some might say simplistic. I prefer the rhyme and rhythm of the verses I learned at Primary School – The Tyger Tyger and The Listeners, and The Land Where The Bong Tree Grows. Indeed some of the messages and fine emotion woven into the twiddly verse of our more revered poets, peppered as they are with unpronounceable names from classical antiquity, I find altogether too intimidating, too tedious. Nor do I understand the jarring brashness of contemporary work, which irritates me deeply, and which I always feel is sneering at my staidness and my stupidity.
I took a tentative flick through the book. There was rhyme and rhythm, and plain words. It seemed we would get on well! A closer look now revealed poems that dealt with battle, with death, with the Blitz, with thoughts on leave from the battlefront, on returning to units in far flung places. But two things immediately struck me as being of perhaps more value. These were not the types of puerile verse that dealt with the death-or-glory fantasy of war, nor did they expound nobly on its futility, but merely its matter of fact reality, and the emotions it aroused in the hearts of the whole spectrum of people who bore witness to it. Secondly it struck me that few of those people who contributed to the volume would actually have described themselves as professional poets. They were ordinary souls, taken from this carousel of life, put into uniform and sent out to do extraordinary things, to face extraordinary situations, including the possibility of their own death.
The poems were slices through the hearts of people, just like the ones milling around in the Wayfarer’s arcade on that Saturday afternoon. I closed the book and looked up at those people now with renewed interest. It was not much of a revelation I suppose, but of course each of those pairs of eyes on that shuffling carousel came with its own soul, each capable of conveying the impressions gleaned by its own experience.
I still have that book and nowadays I value its poetry in different ways, but there is not a single poem, nor line, nor even an isolated word that I can say has pointed me in the direction of anything new. The importance was the book itself, plucked as it was that afternoon from the shelves of Broadhursts bookshop, and its plain presence on the table in the cafe in Wayfarer’s Arcade,… a combination of events coming together and unlocking a single thought,… freeing up the rigidity of my own mind and forming a prelude for much that was to follow in the coming years.
We are rarely aware of the turning points in our lives, and only in retrospect do we sometimes see their importance. Then we might ask ourselves, how could we not have felt that change of course? How could we not have felt the sails, so long becalmed fill slowly with cool wind, and set us on our way?
I gathered up my book and left the waitress a tip, a token, from my hand to hers, and small payment for the changes brought about that day. Then I joined the crowds, and became aware of them more intensely than before. They were no longer a passive phenomenon. Indeed each pair of eyes, each soul seemed suddenly conscious of itself in relation to everyone else. Everyone was aware of themselves in relation to others, glancing at others, briefly judging their own state from the state of those they encountered, including me. We were all like little mirrors reflecting light, illuminating something for someone else. We were each of us reflecting images of each other, in whom we saw reflected images of ourselves.
We are each of us bound on different journeys, each of us possessing a different and seemingly unrelated purpose, but at a fundamental level we are the same, each of us an expression of the same tangle of energy that is seeking to know itself through us. Therefore we can never be alone in our quest. Help will come in many guises,… be it a dusty old book that we might previously have overlooked a hundred times, or the innocent smile of a waitress as she cleans tables in a cafe. Similarly, without knowing it we help others on their way, by an innocuous word or gesture, a kaleidoscope of reflection and connection.
The challenge for each of us is not the effort, nor less the intellect required in understanding the meaning of our lives, for that is unknowable. The challenge is more the opening of one’s self to the possibilities, and being always receptive to the connections.

Then the connections cannot help but be made.

Copyright © M Graeme 2008

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Being a holistic approach to coping with a nervous disability, a rejection of therapeutic druggery, and the values of secular society that would have us believe it alone possesses the key to the meaning of our lives.

In this essay I speak as someone who has suffered from a troublesome psyche since I was a boy. My earliest encounter with it was an inexplicable feeling of dread in large social gatherings such as school assemblies or church services, a dire panic at having to stand through hymn-singing because I had become irrationally convinced I was going to faint.

The medical profession call these episodes panic attacks and, since the 1990s, have controlled them with a family of drugs called SSRI’s. Two of the most common of these are known as Prozac and Seroxat. In fact they’re prescribed for a wide variety of emotional problems: anxiety, depression, or indeed anything that prevents us, emotionally, from somehow “fitting in” with the world. They work by altering the way the brain handles serotonin and essentially alter what an individual sees as stressful, like putting on dark glasses in bright sunlight. My personal experience of SSRI’s was brief and unpleasant though useful by way of being a formative experience, one that was instrumental in pushing me into a more holistic view of things.

I’ve never understood the cause of my own panic attacks, which somehow added to the feeling of helplessness when I was in the middle of one – but fortunately, their grip has slackened in recent years, and though I hate to tempt fate, I can’t remember the last time I had one – though the old defence mechanisms are still a part of my routine: when entering a room of people, say at a lecture or a music concert, I still naturally take up a position at the sides, by the aisles, and in line of sight of the exit, so I can leave with the minimum of fuss should I begin to struggle with myself later on. Even in my darkest days, I never actually had to make a desperate bolt for the exit, but reminding myself of these facts did not help struggling against the urge when the mood was upon me.

The problem morphed and splintered over the years into a number of other related manifestations. For example, at concerts of classical music, where the listening experience tends to be subtle and intense, I once developed the peculiar habit of wanting to swallow in order to ease a certain dryness of the throat which threatened to erupt into a cough. Swallowing would then become compulsive, and had to be repeated every few seconds until I lost all sense of pleasure in the music. Thus, concerts that should have lifted the spirit left me feeling only jittery and ashamed of my weakness. I would also sometimes suffer a peculiar sensation of imbalance when walking into a room full of noisy people, say at a party or in a crowded restaurant. Outside I would be fine, or if the room were empty, but in a gathering of people, my legs would become strangely tense and wobbly and the floor would become like the swaying deck of a ship. And again there was the situation of being cornered by the consummate bore, the person who told you everything about his life from birth to the present day by way of answer to even the most succinct enquiry. How often have I found myself trapped, not listening, for what seemed like hours, afraid of breaking out into a sweat, afraid of a dizzy spell coming on, and too polite, too sensitive to the bore’s feelings to break him off abruptly, stick my finger in his eye and run screaming for fresh air and freedom?

Yet another peculiar manifestation once concerned my driving. Many years ago now, I suddenly discovered that at certain key points of my daily commute I would experience the very real sensation that my forward motion had been arrested and that I was slipping backwards. This last peculiar episode was perhaps the most frightening because, unlike all the other “trigger environments” driving was not something I could easily avoid: it threatened my freedom to get about.

Somehow though, one muddles through, unable to explain to others for fear of being labelled a nutter,… and the medical profession unfortunately, I always found to be less than helpful. For all the good intentions of the British National Health system my personal experience of it is an inability to deal with any illness that does not show changes in blood and urine samples or cannot be quickly fixed up by a few stitches, a plaster cast, or a dose of antibiotics. There was a doctor, some twenty years ago, who listened to me for all of five minutes. I seemed barely to have begun explaining myself before the man was confidently writing up a prescription for what turned out to be the new cure-all wonder-drug: Prozac. For a few days this was my one and only foray into the chemically adjusted reality of the then modern age. My experience of it was short lived and, though rather distressing, I view it now with all the detachment of an impartial observer, and with the magnanimity of one who has learned his lesson.
For a time it was like putting on a warm straight jacket. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have cared, nor I suspect would I have moved, except perhaps to glance up slowly and brush the dust from my clothes. I was stoned, literally, it seemed, turned to stone. Unfortunately it also stopped me from sleeping, for sleep is a human thing and stones have no need of it. After about a week of doing pushups into the small hours, in order to wear myself out, in the vain hope of encouraging a collapse into a fatigue induced stupor, I experienced for the first and only time in my life a profound sense of drug-induced despair. The whole experience of the medication was far more emotionally disturbing than the occasional fit of the jitters I was trying to cure, so the Prozac went into the bin.

Nowadays I no longer trouble the medical profession with any ailment that I cannot point to such as a sore thumb, or a swollen eye. Of course, this probably means that if I contract a fatal disease I shall probably die from it – but the chances are I’ll die from it anyway, so I’m willing to take the risk.
My slow road to regaining control over my life began with the memory of an experience from my first year as an engineering apprentice, in the latter days of the 1970’s. While doing basic training in manufacturing processes, a colleague injured his finger on a machine. This caused him to swear and me to faint. I was seen by the work’s doctor as a precaution and he advised me to get back on that machine as soon as possible, and to consider taking up some form of transcendental meditation. The machine part made sense, but the meditation did not. I possessed a very rational mindset in those days and I rejected anything that was not grounded in material “fact”.

But always, I wondered.

Later, following the Prozac episode, I overcame my overwhelming prejudice and bought a book on Hatha Yoga. I learned a few basic postures and some breathing exercises, and much to my surprise, they seemed to work. The jitters did not entirely pass, but they were suddenly subdued, and the fact I had discovered at last some means of holding them at bay was itself crucial in changing my life. I turn to Yoga now, and other esoteric practices, whenever I feel the jitters coming on and the jitters duly pass. I’m afraid I’m not disciplined enough to practise all the time and I’ve never attended a Yoga class or anything, but even doing these exercises in a half-assed way, succeeds where the medical profession failed completely, either due to lack of time or interest. To be clear, the jitters are still there, for it seems it’s a part of my nature to incubate them, but I am no longer at their mercy, and I get by.
Perhaps after all of this I have given the impression of my being a twitchy, jumpy neurotic, the sort of person you’d easily pick out of a crowd, the one who leaps a mile whenever anyone says “boo”, but you’d be wrong. People who know Michael Graeme’s alter ego (or is he mine? I forget these days!) describe him as “laid back”, to quote the vernacular, which always makes me smile. Appearances can be deceptive you see? Next time you look into the eyes of someone you think you know remember this: you do not know them at all, though you might like to think you do. What you see is a mask. The reality lies somewhere beneath and that reality might both surprise and disturb you.

I say I don’t really understand the origins of my own particular neuroses, and this is true, at least in any detail, but in a broader sense I think I understand them well enough. Psychologists tell us a neurosis is born as the result of an event that we find uncomfortable, frightening or embarrassing. We may no longer remember what that event was because we’ve shoved it deep into our unconscious mind and we’re pretending it never happened. We hide from these things, but the unconscious is very good at remembering what we would otherwise choose to forget, and so we are never truly rid of our skeletons. They become suppressed, and therefore troublesome. Once this happens we’re stuck unless we can afford the time and the money to have someone painstakingly analyse us and expose our fears for what they are. Personally I’ve not gone this far. I probably would if I could afford it, but I’m just an ordinary Joe, and psychoanalysis is a luxury for the wealthy, for the people whose mortgages and pensions haven’t been screwed by twenty years of robber-barron economics. It’s for the ten percent of the population currently sitting at the top of the global financial food chain, rather than the rest of us who are sitting nearer to the bottom, and sliding ever closer into ruin.

So, I live with it, and for most of the time, I’m as happy as the next person. On the positive side, I have sometimes found my neuroses useful, and looking back over the years I see a definite pattern to their awakenings. These patterns correspond to changes in my life, changes of direction when I’m sailing close to the wind, when I’m involved in situations or relationships that are likely to do me harm. In a positive sense then, my neuroses can be viewed as warnings to change course, now! Or else! Unfortunately though, we are all prisoners to a way of life and to some extent also the life choices we have made, and changes of direction are not always possible, no matter what our unconscious is throwing at us.

Personally I’ve come to believe that our natural inclination as human beings is not to live in the sort of society that the secular west is becoming at all. I believe we are meant to live a much freer, more open sort of life, closer to nature perhaps, less regimented, less structured, one where people are free to engage with their spiritual or psychological sides without being exploited, brainwashed or just plain hoodwinked by either charismatic charlatans, or organised religions. Too much conformity, too much of doing what we’re told, rather than what we please is bad for us. Bad for our psyche, bad for our spirit. As Aleister Crowley once wrote [and I paraphrase]: If it harms no one, (and presumably this includes ourselves), then we should be able to do as we like.

My first brush with the pain of compulsory conformity were my school days, which I hated with a passion from beginning to end. I was taken from the meadows and woodlands around my home and placed in the stifling confines of primary school. It was to be the first of many yokes – each one telling me I could not be what I wanted to be. I could not even have the time to think about what I wanted to be. There is a system to life you see? It imposes itself upon you. You do not shape it. It shapes you. So we become, not really ourselves but a mask in the form of what we believe, or what we are taught will be acceptable to society. We measure our words, we do not say what we feel, yet at the same time try to convince ourselves that we do believe in what we say. The illusion is complete: Individual and society engaging on terms that are mutually delusional.

Then comes work and marriage and children, and mortgages and pension provisions, so you will not starve when you grow old. And all the time a part of you is thinking: I’m really not meant for this. There’s something else I was supposed to do with my life, except there’s no longer any time to remember what it was. I do not care about money or fine houses or fashionable cars – easy for me to say perhaps: I have a roof over my head, not a big house but a nice one, and I drive a seven year old car, but – I think I’m old enough now to understand the trap of our possessions. All I have ever really wanted is to be free, to think my own thoughts and simply “be”, without having to speak in a manner that I believe will be pleasing to someone else, so that I won’t get fired or be thought of as strange. And I’ve long held the belief that my own neuroses are the inevitable consequences of being entangled in a world, in a system, and to a lifetime of conformity that I was not designed for.

If this is true, then there are an awful lot of people like me, and I fear my own neuroses are as nothing compared to those endured quietly by others. If you count yourself among our number then this essay’s for you. It may not bring you much comfort beyond the reassurance that you are not alone. But also I hope I can show you that far from putting you on the outside of life, your differences actually make you all the more a part of it than the seemingly happy majority who have never experienced the power or the horror of a sudden volcanic eruption from their unconscious mind.

For a person to suffer under the pressures of our society does not mean that person is in any way weaker than others,… just more sensitive to the absurdities and, to be quite frank the sometimes outrageous indignities we have to endure. Are we the crazy ones or are we simply the only ones left with eyes to see?

It is no measure of health to be to well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

J Krishnamurti

I’m too old to have any illusions about our way of life in the west, which since about 1985 seems to have been slipping into a sort of neo-conservative, survival-of-the-fittest, free market, free for all, one in which it’s assumed we’re all out to get whatever we want regardless of the heads we must trample in order to get it. But I refuse to join in such a cynical and demeaning game, and am presently trying to see my way through to retirement in as inoffensive and inconspicuous a manner as possible. Then, I tell myself, I’ll have a couple of decades to savour my freedom and soak the neuroses out of my system, that perhaps then, in the brief decades remaining, I will finally remember what it was I was supposed to have done with my life.

But the way of life that supports us has shown itself to be founded on a philosophy that’s no longer sustainable, and it looks like the financial securities we took for granted twenty years ago simply won’t be there when we finally come to rely upon them. Indeed, our politicians are presently laying the groundwork for an argument intent on convincing us that some of us may never retire at all, and if we insist on doing so we will live in a sort of grey poverty until the end of our days.

For all my dislike of our way of life, I always had a faith in its reliability. I may not like it I thought, but the system seems to work, well not any more. In five years time the mortgage on my house will mature, and after paying my dues to the building society every month for the past twenty five years, it looks like I will still owe as much as when I started. The financial mechanism that was to provide the money needed to pay it off has simply collapsed. As an example of the utilitarian depths to which our financial institutions have now stooped, I contacted my mortgage company, trying to find the best way of sorting things out, the way that was going to be least financially crucifying, but they refused to advise me, claiming it was no longer their policy to do so. They could sell me a “product” that was of benefit to them, on their terms, but their responsibility went no further than that. I suppose I was naive for even asking. My mortgage payments have now trebled.

Also, the same financial system that was to provide a pension in old age, I discover can no longer do so unless, again, I treble the contributions I make. So it seems all the promises that were made have now been broken by the small print that basically absolves the financial vendors of any responsibility. In the 1980’s we dared to harbour dreams of retirement in our fifties in order to pursue the things we all wanted to pursue, outside of the world of mundane work, but twenty years later we are waking up to the reality of a life spent in debt and servitude, for the term of our natural lives.

My apologies for the rant, but generally what I’m trying to illustrate here is that, these past years, and especially since the turn of the century, society has shown itself to be in state of undisguised crisis. There is a climate of uncertainty, and fear. Indeed we find ourselves subjected to an apocalyptic vision in which we dare not move or even breathe for fear of armageddon – either from a terrorist outrage, or a climatic upheaval of Old Testament proportions. Both government and increasingly influential fundamentalist religions seem united in encouraging this belief.
Now, in a sense all of this comes as a relief to me because it suggests I was not wrong to have spent my whole life viewing the world with an attitude similar to one of politely enduring the irritations of an obnoxious relative. The truth is out; it wasn’t just my imagination: he was obnoxious after all!

Life goes on, but there is an appalling sense that the future will be radically different from the one we imagined. And I’m not talking about the threat from global terrorism. In spite of the terrible outrages perpetrated in recent years, you’re still about as likely to die at the hands of a terrorist as you are from being struck by lightning, and far more likely to die as a result of a drug related gun crime, or a stupid car accident. What I’m talking about here is the death of hope, the death of meaning, and the loss of any dreams of comfort by way of compensation as we enter the latter part of our lives. What need have we to sit and think, to while away our latter years in idle pleasure,… when we could be earning our keep and paying our taxes until the day we drop?

Depressing, isn’t it?

If you suffer from your own neuroses, take comfort from the fact your sufferings are not your fault. They are perhaps the result of a society imposing something upon you, asking you to accept something as being normal that your natural self, perhaps your unconscious self finds simply too outrageous to bear, but is too polite to say – so you’ve swallowed it and it’s been giving you indigestion ever since.

Now, there’s not much I can do about the slow demise of western society, the breakdown of the family, the flood tide of drugs that lay waste to entire communities, the philosophy of slash and burn economics, or the rise of meaningless terrorism against which there appears to be little defence other than a knee-jerk leap into the Orwellian nightmare of a techno-totalitarian state. The social exterminations wrought by the utilitarian swings of the global economy are equally quite beyond my influence. I’m just an ordinary man tapping words into an old computer. I cannot save your mortgages, nor your pensions, and if the retirement age is jacked up to seventy five, or even abandoned altogether, there’s not much I can do about that either.

What I can do however is reassure you that it’s not your fault, that the jitters you feel are the natural consequences of enduring something that is alien to the nature God gave you. What you can do, however, is accept yourself for what you are. The jitters, the neuroses,… these are differences in you that serve only to affirm your humanity. They do not separate you from anything other than the false idea of conformity to some rosy image of what a normal human being is supposed to be like.

My own neuroses over the years have carried messages for me that I was too deaf to heed at the time. You’re going the wrong way, Mike, they said. Pull back, stop, turn the car around! Meanwhile poor Mike couldn’t imagine what was going on. He didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, he wasn’t some ruthless, corporate go-getter, and his marriage wasn’t on the rocks. So what was it that got under his skin so much that at times he wanted to scream?

In this sense, my neuroses seem to have had the same intent as bad dreams, not just the expression of an anxiety, but a clue also regarding their cause, and cure. The agoraphobic is perhaps the most illustrative of the meaningful malaise. I’ve known a few agoraphobics over the years, and this condition for the sufferer, and their loved ones is no joke. A normal, attractive, healthy person becomes by degrees less confident in dealing with the world until a state is reached where the whole world is viewed with such anxiety that the person withdraws completely, feeling safe nowhere outside the bounds of their own home. They get by, day to day, but survive in a sort of prison of their own making. It is a total disengagement from a reality they have come to abhor. In order to be cured the agoraphobic has to lose their dread of society, or at least become more accepting of it.

But what if it’s society that’s at fault?

What if it really is better to withdraw than to sup with the devil himself?

For me, it was the school assembly and the church service, a lack of comprehension and a total reluctance to be away from the things that meant most to me in my childhood. Conformance was demanded, but as a result I have always been stubbornly elusive when it comes to committing myself to anything I do not wholeheartedly believe in. The trouble is, there seems to be so little worth believing in, so I slip through life unconnected and uncommitted to anyone or anything outside of my own close family. The only exception seem to be my writings which bear witness to life through these, my own eyes.
I did not rationalise it this way at the time. I only knew I was afraid of something, afraid of the inexplicable physical manifestations, the tension, the dizziness, the increased pulse. So the physical symptom, the sense of strangeness, became the thing to be feared, and for many years the root cause was overlooked.

The medical books tell us that our flesh and blood bodies have developed a physical response to things that frightens us. Our heart-rate goes up, we become tense, poised ready either to fight for our lives or run like hell. But how can you run from a reluctance to conform? How can we run from the demands of our society, from the responsibilities we all have and which inevitably involve facing up to things we’d really rather not do? Indeed we’re conditioned to accept this as a normal part of our lives. But equally we hate it.

It’s easy to stand up and begin whining on behalf of everyone who’s experience of life has left them jaded and jittery, but that’s not really my aim here. My aim is more to look at society and ask the question, what is it that we are afraid of? We have no control over the life we are born into and therefore it seems cruel that we should come up against circumstances over which we have no control but which nevertheless are sure to drive us mad – not all of us perhaps – just those unable to adapt or to cope well enough with the reality of the world as we see it.

In my own case, it has always been a fear of emptiness, that our lives mean nothing. It has always been my desire to explore life in a way that was most meaningful to me. This seems to be a thing that gains the approval of my unconscious because time spent in focussed introspection is time rewarded with a sense of calm, while time spent dealing with the day to day chaotic scatter of a workaday life is punishable by tiresome neurosis – at least it was until I came to believe that there was indeed nothing more to society than a chaotic scattering of half-bakedness.

To be sure, it’s a closely guarded secret that “society” is not actually the purpose of our lives at all. It’s more the stage on which we play our life out. It’s when we come to believe that somewhere in society might lie the secret of our purpose that the problems begin. Society itself holds no meaning whatsoever. If we want to experience any sort of genuine fulfilment, then we have to provide that meaning for ourselves as individuals. True purpose is the indefinable belief in something “other”, something outside of society, like the guiding hand of a beloved parent. When we let go of our parent’s hand as children, we suffer the bewildering crowds as they swirl around us, careless and oblivious to our need. We fear the loss of ourselves, the inability ever again to feel the warmth and the sure guidance of those we love. We fear losing our centre, losing our self.

Now and then, when I’m feeling particularly tired and jittery I will experience a moment of complete disengagement. It can be anywhere – in a meeting at work, in a restaurant, or when chatting with others. It comes suddenly – a sense of shifting outside of myself and of leaving behind only a disorientated shell, a shell momentarily paralysed and fearful for its existence, alone in these strange surroundings without a guiding psyche. It is unlike a daydream, for in daydreaming the action always takes place inside one’s head. What I call the disengagement of my soul is quite different. In disengagement of the soul,… the soul seems to momentarily slip out of the host.

I might be fearful for my sanity, prone as I am to such episodes, but I’ve experienced them since childhood and they seem to have done me no harm. They are not, then, a symptom of advancing madness, but more perhaps a looseness of grip. The feeling is one of bearing witness to a dream, a feeling things are not real and that I need to wake up and find my true self, my true reality, except of course the self that is dreaming protests that it is the real self and I’d better hang on to the dream because it’s all there is!

Well,… such are the storms that periodically sweep this particular mind. The worst thing is the suspicion that I am alone in these experiences, that only the inmates of an asylum can experience anything worse, but of course I am far from alone, and my storms are as nothing compared to some – rendered sluggish perhaps by the chemical quagmire of Prozac or Seroxat, but there all the same.

Now, it might seem a little childish, harking back to pre-school days as being the happiest of my life, or later, the temporary freedom of those delicious six week summer holidays when the time stretched out each morning, an infinity of choice, and when each day was a pleasure sipped like fine wine. But you can’t live like that, can you? You have to make a living. You have to contribute to your society by paying your way, and paying your taxes. Of course you do, but what you must not do is look to society, nor even to the people around you, to provide the meaning in your own life.

As Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “there is no such thing as society”. Now, I’m not sure in what context this was meant to be taken, but from one particular angle at least, I find myself in agreement with the Iron Lady. Society is an abstract concept of varying parameters that are entirely dependent upon an individual’s perception. Society does not feel anything. It does not look down upon individuals with either compassion or contempt. It owes us nothing, as we owe it nothing beyond our legal dues. It is simply an organisational structure, and I’m afraid to say that in modern secular terms this boils down to people who are either customers or salesmen. How many times a day does your telephone ring with someone trying to sell you something? In short, there is no meaning to the secular society beyond a system of financial transactions.

The only practical advice I can offer, if you don’t do it already, is to do as that old medical officer told me, mysteriously, so long ago, and that’s meditate, which is really no more than sitting quietly and alone from time to time. Some people buy books and tapes and learn to do it in the way of the great meditative traditions, while some go to classes, and this is fine if you can make the time, because the deeper you go the better. Do it every day if you can. If not, if like me the kids burst in, or start to whine every time you sit down, then just do it whenever you can, even if it’s only for a moment. And when you’ve done it, remember that the way we live our lives does not provide the meaning to our lives. Meaning is what we carry in our hearts. It is personal, meaningful in a way specific only to ourselves. Others need not share our vision, or indeed know anything about it at all. Our vision, our sense of meaning is ours alone.
In meditating, we cut back to the centre of ourselves, we reach out for the hand we let go of at the moment of our birth, the only thing connecting us to something safe and sure in a world that is otherwise completely bewildering. That hand is there for each of us and it has nothing to do with this world at all,… it is completely beyond it. We have only to touch it in our minds, for a kind of enlightenment to ensue.

And it goes something like this:

If contemporary society truly possessed the meaning of our lives, it would not offer it back to us for free. We would have to pay for it, and the price would be so high that only a few elite individuals would ever be able to possess it. Or, it would be owned by a mega-corporation that might allow us to pay for it in instalments over a lifetime, with the promise that, like our homes, it would eventually be ours. However, there would probably be something in the small print that absolved the mega-corp from any responsibility when at the end of our term it presented us with a dog eared piece of paper with the number 42 written upon it.

[if unsure Google 42 “meaning of life”]

But the meaning of life is not a thing, not a number, not an equation, nor is it an explanation of any kind, for there is not a question that can be adequately framed to solicit anything approaching a satisfactory answer. It is much simpler than all of that. It is a state of being, a state of grace, and I’m sorry but that costs nothing at all, and it is the birthright of every one of us. What is it? You know what it is. Just sit still for a moment, close your eyes and listen to the sound of it coming from that space between your ears, and no, I don’t mean the tinnitus! Maybe you can even see it with your mind’s eye, but rest assured, if you sit there often enough, pretty soon,…

…. you’ll begin to feel it.

Michael Graeme

April 2007

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The trouble with religion

It’s no secret that many of us in the West have a growing problem with religion. I don’t believe this is due to a weakening of our sense of the spiritual, rather I believe it’s more that the predominant religion in the West, namely Christianity seems to be losing its ability to connect or keep pace with the spiritual sense that is innate in man.

As a child I went every Sunday to our local Anglican church, winning prizes for Sunday School attendance, and for my knowledge of the Bible. Then as soon as I hit my teens, and was old enough to say no to my parents, I stopped going and haven’t attended since.It wasn’t that I had given up on wanting to understand my place the world. Christianity had given me the Ten Commandments which, as a guide for living my life seemed perfectly reasonable,but, perhaps paradoxically, I could not say it had given me any sense that my life actually meant anything. Instead it spoke in simplistic and slightly condescending terms about heaven and hell and called me a sinner, even though I couldn’t remember doing anything so bad someone had to die for it. I remember a lot of symbolism, and mysterious talk of trinities, and the use of an antiquated biblical language that I found as easy to grasp as middle English. None of these things were explained in any way and I was left to assume that they were the preserve of more advanced Christians.

Of course one is afraid of asking questions in case it makes you look stupid or insufficiently holy. So you sit quietly and gradually disconnect. In a word, it was boring.

I’d also become aware that there were other faiths in the world. People believed in different things, but rather than explain these faiths, my own religion sought only to debunk them, so condemning any non-Christian to an eternity in hell. Now, at the bottom of my heart, I couldn’t see how this could possibly be fair, even if the other faiths were misguided in their beliefs, since I was sure the followers of other traditions were in any case decent human beings, and it wasn’t their fault their culture taught them to believe in something else.

Also, as I reached my early teens I realised religion was conspicuously failing to answer any of the questions my education had begun to pose, such as how come the Bible says it was God who created Man, when all the scientific evidence suggests it was a thing called evolution? And how come religion is so earth centred, when the more we look into the universe, the greater we realise the chances are that there will be conscious life-forms inhabiting other worlds, life forms equally capable of spiritual expression, who aren’t likely to have heard of Jesus, and without that knowledge these other worlds are equally damned – apparently writing off the entire universe, but for our own, small planet.

Now, I don’t quote these examples lightly. They are a genuine challenge to the religious world view that require an answer beyond the repetition of the same old dogma. When science is faced with a challenge to a firmly held idea like this it sparks a lot of debate and research is conducted in an objective attempt to either accommodate or repudiate the challenge. The response of religion however, is to deny the challenge in the first place, as in the case of Galileo, in the seventeenth century, who perfected the telescope and then discovered Jupiter’s moons with it. This led him to lend his support to the Copernican view of the solar system, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of the sun around the earth, like it implies in the Bible. At this point in history, religious scholars had the opportunity to study the evidence of their eyes, and view the Bible in a new and less literal light, but instead they put Galileo in prison. Indeed, it’s only in relatively recent times the church has quietly let it be known that in the case of poor old Galileo, it made a mistake. That’s the trouble with dogma. It might hold sway for a long time, but if it isn’t based on verifiable facts, then sooner or later (usually much later) it’s going to break down.

In certain parts of America literal interpretations of the bible still form the bedrock of fundamentalist Christian worship. There are the Creationists of course who refuse to accept evolution at all, and seek to discourage its teaching in schools, and in another fundamentalist branch of the Christian faith, the congregation practice the taking up of serpents in order to demonstrate the strength of their faith in God, that He might spare them from deadly bites. In other fundamentalist branches, the intervention of potentially life saving medicine is discouraged because it is seen as interference in God’s will.

We all have our private opinions of this kind of thing but what I want to emphasise here is that I found it all very unsettling, the fact that some should feel the need to test their faith to such a degree, when the case of Galileo demonstrated that not everything in the Bible need be taken at face value. Equally, why should others, like me, who for a long time followed less rigorous doctrines of Christianity feel themselves equally deserving of a place in Heaven?

The congregation of the church I attended were not so extreme, just middle of the road Anglicans, but with all respect to the people of that church it was nevertheless beset with petty jealousies, and Machiavellian intrigues, surrounding vexed questions such as who should hand round the collection plate or whose daughter should be appointed Rose Queen for the year. In this respect, my experience of religion was no different to that of any other organisation or club. It was dominated by a ruling elite, or clique whose motivation seemed suspiciously more self seeking than spiritual. On the greater scale, I was forced to conclude that while the message of Christianity remains unchanged in over 2000 years, and is a profoundly noble one, somewhere along the way it has been subverted to serve a distinctly human set of masters.

I should also mention another factor that may or may not have contributed to the complete subversion of my spiritual direction, and that was the sudden death of my father, at the age of 47. This happened when I was fourteen and it was an event that completely destroyed the person I was becoming at that time. What emerged from the darkness of perhaps two years of voiceless grief was someone else, someone with a distinctly different view of life, a view that was not altogether optimistic. My father was a good man, a shining hero, as all young boys father’s are, and there seemed no longer anything benign about a God who would rob my father of nearly half the life he might reasonably have expected to live, especially when he’d done nothing to deserve it.

Religion then was not only boring, it was spiritually bankrupt and pointless. Life was a lottery, who lived who died,… it was evolution, survival of the fittest, and also a question of luck that you didn’t cop for some terminal malfunction of the flesh. And no amount of praying made a jot of difference to anything.

So I turned away.

The secular world

It’s easy to turn away from religion. You don’t fall down immediately through a hole into the depths of hell. You simply step blinking from the gloom of the church into the pale sunshine of the secular world where religion is entirely irrelevant.

The secular world is one founded on capitalism. We make things, sometimes quite trivial and bizarre things. We market them, and the masses consume them. But anyone who looks at this from the outside for long enough can see that such a society is like a shop-a-holic trying to purchase his way to happiness in a series of short fixes that are plainly not working, or at best are very short term in their effects.

“It’ll be great when I get my new hi-fi, or my new T.V., or when I change my car.”

Retail therapy is pedalled as a cure-all, but while the shop tills ring, pumping money round the economy, our instant gratification slowly wears off to reveal that same dull ache – the feeling that something is missing.

We don’t feel better because the creed underpinning a secular society is mainstream science and science has always made it clear that it can offer us no guidance on the subject of emotion, or morals, or religion. Of course if our emotions become troublesome, science can offer us drugs to modify them, to calm us down, to help us sleep, but these are symptoms of a deeper malaise that has its roots in the undeniably spiritual need of individual human beings, and that is not the territory into which science likes to stray.

The business of science is to look at the physical world and to make sense of it. Spiritual or moral matters are not within its remit. But taken to the extreme a wholly secular society would be one in which, once we’d grown too old or too poor to consume at the prerequisite rate, we’d lose our usefulness and might as well be dead. Religion might promise us an afterlife but the secular world doesn’t offer any hope of that either. The insult to our humanity is total. We are, in the final analysis, merely component parts, statistically defined units, the average of a nebulous sum, void of personality, earning and spending in an international marketplace.

In the secular world, there is only one power greater than ourselves, and that is the market. The market consists of all the world’s financial institutions, each one connected to the other via their computers – to which they have delegated entire responsibility for their business. In this sense no one controls it. Take a look on the Internet at the rise and fall of the Financial Times 100 index. It’s as self regulating, as any autonomous organism, determining for itself the rise and fall in the value of things. No one determines the rate of inflation or the pound dollar exchange rate, no more than anyone controls the weather – these things simply “are”.

The market is beyond the control of any government, and governmental policies are at best directed towards predicting and reacting to its whims. In short, a secular society is market driven, and the market is its deity. But what good is such a deity when it can offer no guidance on the question of life and death, when it is not underpinned by any coherent set of moral principles? The secular world is vastly successful, but it is far from being a comfortable place for anyone who still has spiritual leanings.

And I was becoming uncomfortable,.. was there perhaps a dark of spirituality left inside of me, something that my early experience of religion, and the death of a beloved parent had not quite destroyed?

Seeking spirituality outside of the mainstream.

I found myself in the unfortunate position of having rejected religion, because it was not in tune with my spiritual instincts, and because the picture of God it painted had made increasingly less sense to me as I’d grown up, but I was also struggling to settle into the secular world for its lack of any spiritual dimension at all. So, I turned inside myself and I got to thinking about what it means to be human, about what it is we’ve got that raises us above the level of animals and makes us think we’re special.

There’s no great mystery here and of course it’s fairly obvious: We are conscious. We are aware of ourselves. We can sit down and write essays like this one on the subject of life, we can invent rich traditions, like religion, or folklore, and we can inform and entertain others by telling stories. Fortunately then, I was able to reassure myself there is rather a lot to being human. We are more than statistical units that earn and spend in a global market. We are not void of personality, indeed it is the very existence of our person, our consciousness, that makes us so important and any system that did not recognise that, be it religious or secular, had to be just plain wrong.

Now, religion would have it that God made man what he is, made him conscious. The scientific tradition on the other hand tells us that man evolved through ever more complex forms over millions of years, until he reached a sufficient level of complexity to become aware of himself – to become conscious, that it is a state that requires us to have our brains wired in a certain, though still entirely mysterious way.

As an engineer, my background is scientific, and therefore I always go with the scientific and evolutionary, rather than the religious, creationist view of the world. This is not simply a negative bias on my part. Maintaining a rational outlook is quite often a matter of survival, because we have to be careful with religious explanations of our origins and the shape of the world. Unless you can put some sums down on paper to support your ideas, or point to it in the geological strata, then really you’ve got nothing at all.

I could say the universe was a bubble being blown out of the end of a giant elephant’s trunk. If I was especially persuasive, I could gather about me a following of like minded believers and we could create an intricate set of rituals in worship of the almighty elephant, and no one could disprove anything we said. So, in seeking the truth of existence one must tread carefully.

There’s a growing interest in ancient belief systems such as Paganism and Druidism, but with all respect to the followers of such creeds, it doesn’t mean they’re any nearer the truth than mainstream religion. Also, disaffected Christians are converting to Islam or Buddhism or Taoism, but again one must avoid abandoning a particular following in favour of another, simply because it’s different. Departing from the established path, the path worn by your parents and grandparents, can be an interesting experience, but it’s important to keep our wits about us, especially when relying on other people for directions because faith is not always question of believing in God, but whether or not you believe in the people who are telling you about Him.

The question of beauty

Throughout the remainder of my teens I embraced the secular way without really thinking much about anything in particular except cars and girls. I dare say this was a natural condition for a young man still living at home with time on his hands. When I wasn’t chasing girls, I was tinkering with a long line of elderly motor vehicles, a pastime that proved infinitely more fruitful than the girls.

It was the car that got me as far as the Lake District, and that began a strange fascination with what I can only describe as the power in dramatic landscapes. To me, a mountain scene was not merely impressive, or pretty to look at. It radiated an energy that literally set my body tingling. I was receptive to it, and it filled me to the brim. Throughout my twenties, as the cars I could afford became more reliable, I ventured more often to the Lakes, and to the remoter regions of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and I took to mountain walking.

I did not begin such hard walking out of a desire to become super-fit, nor to do desperate battle with nature. I did it simply because I found the mountains extraordinarily alluring, their high ground offering a different perspective on life. They drew my eye from the valleys, and they called to me with siren voices. They made me ache when I was among them, and they made me ache when I was separated from them. I had touched something strange, something inexplicable, and emotionally overwhelming. I knew the feeling from the hopeless crushes I’d had on girls at school. It seemed I was in love.

In walking the mountains, it was above all the experience of them that mattered, rather than their conquest. My routes would always be a circuitous sampling of the land, an exploration of and an exposure to raw, physical beauty. This got me thinking about our appreciation of beauty and our subjective sense of what is and what is not beautiful. It is an exclusively human thing, and one that seems to have no use whatsoever in strictly scientific or evolutionary terms. To be emotionally stirred by a sunset, or by the way light glints off snow or illuminates autumn leaves, is irrelevant to our survival yet it is a fact of our existence and it sets us apart from the other creatures that inhabit the earth.

Science has presented many convincing arguments that explain much of our behaviour, our appearance, and our origins, but, like spirituality, on the subject of beauty it has nothing to say. I began to wonder then if, in our perception of beauty, there might be some clues that would point the way to a deeper understanding of life.

At some point in my late twenties, after much walking and writing down impressions, stories and even a novel inspired by the wild places I’d seen, I came to the conclusion that beauty in itself means absolutely nothing. A mountain, a fine painting, a pretty face, a sunset; they mean nothing until we turn our eyes upon them and engage our hearts. Only then, through the medium of our senses, have they the potential to be transformed into something uplifting. Look away and the beauty is lost. The physical manifestation then – the mountain, or the art is merely a device, like a mirror; we look into it and see reflected an image of something inside of ourselves.

The perception of reality

In scientific terms, the behaviour of the physical world has been modelled over the centuries by a series of approximations, each one an improvement on the last, as our insight into the workings of nature has deepened. The Greek mathematician Euclid gave us the basic laws of geometry that we all learn at school. But Euclid lived at a time when everyone thought the world was flat. Consequently, his geometry only works over short distances. If you begin to draw geometrical shapes that cover many thousands of miles, his laws begin to break down. For example, according to Euclidean geometry you cannot have more than one right angle in a triangle. This might seem a fairly obvious thing to say, but if you make your triangle big enough, you can have not one, not two, but three right angles in your triangle. How? Because the earth isn’t flat at all. It’s a sphere. Draw a line from the North Pole down to the equator. Draw another from the pole at 90 degrees to the first, again down to the equator, then join the two ends and you have triangle with three right angles. Now, we don’t use spherical geometry much, because the equations of Euclidean geometry are simpler to work with and hold true enough for all practical purposes. I use this example to illustrate the notion of how false our perception of the world around us can be. In using the geometry of Euclid, our senses perceive the world in a certain simplistic way. We all know the earth is round even though the evidence of our eyes would not at first suggest this to be the case. We know it’s round but we tend to think of it, and experience it as flat.

In a similar way, the history of science is still one of shifting perceptions, or paradigms, each one only serving to confirm that our perception is always going to be based upon a simplification, an approximation of the way things really are. We think of the physical world as one that consists of matter: solid objects, liquids, gasses and biological entities such as plants and animals, and people. All of these things, we are taught, consist, at a fundamental level, of atoms. Now, since the discovery of atoms, scientists have asked questions such as: “If everything’s made of atoms then what are atoms made of?”

But the answers at this level are not so straight forward. When we try to crack open the atom and peer inside, we begin to realise that the way we see the world bears no resemblance at all to how it really is, and that all of our mathematics, all our centuries of calculation still represent only the simplest of approximations.

For a start, at a fundamental level, the concept of “solid” loses meaning. Atoms are not solid, indeed they are mostly space, consisting of a tiny nucleus, orbited by a cloud of even tinier electrons that have no mass whatsoever. Nor is the nucleus solid. Blasting the nucleus apart reveals a host of particles that consist of other particles, all of which can vanish into a puff of energy, then reappear again somewhere else as a particle.

The particles, it seems, are an illusion. In fact, there are only patterns of energy. So, at the ordinary everyday level we see ourselves as flesh and blood, as individual beings, living in a world that consists of a bewildering diversity of material things, when in fact what underlies our being is a pattern of energy, a cloud of order in an infinite continuum, a creative potential. Of course this also means that at this same fundamental level, we can no longer consider ourselves as separate individuals at all. We are all bound, all part of the same creative matrix and the energy that runs through me is the same energy that runs through you.

This is the cutting edge scientific view, the way of seeing the universe as opened up by particle physics, and it is a shifting world where nothing is certain any more, where the very existence of things is no longer calculated in terms of certainty but more as probabilities or tendencies to exist. This, says science, is simply a picture of the way it is. It’s a breathtaking picture, but what it means to us as human beings is no clearer now than it was at the dawn of civilisation.

The broader view

Okay, let’s strip it all away, all we’ve ever built, and stand ourselves quite naked on that lonely mountain top and surround ourselves only with the natural world. In this simple, undistracted state, free of consumer goods, fine philosophies and particle physics, the fundamental question at back of all our minds is what happens to us when we die. It is the double edged sword of our supremacy. We have achieved a conscious awareness of our selves and value it so highly it cannot help but hone a sharper edge to our fear, above the normal instinctual terror that most creatures have of death.

Is it simply the end? Will the experience of my life, and all the memories I have, simply be lost. It’s a disturbing, unsettling question and we set it aside, preferring not to think about it for too long. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could live for ever, but with certain modifications such as the elimination of suffering, of fear, and if everything could be beautiful – if the whole world could be warm and sunny and the garden would grow without having to water it, and where the grass never needed cutting?

We have a capacity for imagination, so we can imagine such a world exists somewhere beyond the horizon, beyond what we can ordinarily see, and that when we die that’s where we’ll go. But at this point our imaginings are just a game, like the fantasy of a child and we need a bit more convincing that such a place could actually exist. Also, concerning the location of this heavenly place, it always has to be just beyond the limits of where we can see,… which these days puts it outside of the physical universe altogether.

The Christian tradition offers us such a way out, a place we can go, but only if we behave ourselves in the meantime, and admit we’re sinners. That wouldn’t be so bad I suppose, if only we could assure ourselves that it was true. There are no calculations that can plot us a course through the stars to Heaven, so is the Christian view of it as a “place” merely a deliberate simplification, perhaps aimed at putting across the general idea to the great mass of humanity, for whom notions of a more abstract, metaphysical heaven might be even more alarming than the prospect of death? I don’t really know. It was never explained to me in those terms and would certainly have been viewed as a scandalous idea by the churchmen who preached to me as a child.

Other traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have a slightly different view of the afterlife and prefer to think of us as being physically reborn, and that if we have previously lived a good life, then our spiritual status in the next one will be enhanced. So the broad view is one of anxiety at our mortality, an anxiety that is addressed by a wide range of religious creeds. But what are these religions? Where did they come from?

The origins of religion

There is a tendency within secular thinking to dismiss religion as a kind of fairy tale, to cast doubt on whether it’s main characters really existed. This is a mistake. The common factor in all religions, is that the central tenets were founded by real human beings who underwent a life-transforming experience. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha, were all men who underwent such an experience. They walked the earth, initially as ordinary men, but something happened that caused them to believe they had experienced “God”.

Their testimony and their teachings, based upon their transformative experience then formed the central theme of our religious texts and also, at the same time, formed a trail of documentary evidence proving, if nothing else, that these people did indeed exist. It’s a historical fact, in the same way we know Julius Caesar existed, or Cleopatra or Alexander the Great, either from their own writings or from the accounts of various reliable sources who were around at the time, and whose works have survived.

Confucius, Aristotle, Plato,… all these men predate Christ, yet we read their words today and do not doubt that they existed. So, why then question the existence of Christ? Religion is not a fairly tale, its scriptures are not fiction, nor are they founded merely in the popular imagination, but describe people, their beliefs, their teachings, and the events relating to their beliefs. Whether or not we consider those beliefs were founded on a genuine encounter with the divine, or were the result of a delusional experience, is entirely a matter of faith. In a similar way, accounts of miraculous events may be taken literally, or they may be put down to exaggeration, or artistic licence over the centuries that followed those events, thus blurring the line between fact and legend. Again it is a matter of faith and personal choice how literally one chooses to hold to such things.

To describe a religious experience as a delusion is perhaps a little unfair, a little simplistic, because another defining characteristic of the religious transformative experience is that its manifestation results in a universal affirmation, rather than a negation, of human spiritual and moral values. These values are distinctive by virtue of their similarity, regardless of the creed from which they are derived – i.e. respecting your fellow man and behaving in a responsible manner by not stealing or killing or otherwise indulging in behaviour that might reasonably be expected to cause offence. If such tenets are the result of a delusion, then it is a remarkably benign one and a delusion that finds easy and widespread resonance in the hearts and minds of men. So, when is a delusional experience a revelation?

Whatever one’s opinion of organised religion, the more one studies it from a non-partisan view, the more one recognises the similarities. Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity,… all the world’s faiths are talking about the same thing,… God,… divinity, and the potential for human consciousness to be transformed by contact, by communion, by letting him into your heart, by accepting the faith, by becoming one,… and all those other stock phrases that are used to describe “it” and have the unfortunate effect of being rather embarrassing if spoken about too loudly and in the wrong company.

But what exactly is “it”.

Looking for God.

What is god? Until very recently, this was a question I was unable to make any headway with, nor even to decide whether or not there was such a thing. My professional life had led me down the road of hard headed logic and rationalism. I designed things made from metal, tangible things that either existed or they did not and their genesis relied upon numbers, calculations, dimensions and geometry. I also programmed computers which require an unambiguous stream of code. A switch can be either on or off, there is no middle way. My world was one of strict cause and effect, no spiritual fuzziness. It was not spirituality, I argued, that gave us the means to build our jumbo jets, or send men into space. It was science and engineering. Anything else was just idle, unsubstantiated chatter.

The scientific way is a good way. It provides us with a largely reliable understanding of the world and allows us to shape it in ways that enable us to live as we do. Nations that have founded themselves on this method are, generally speaking, nations that sustain a large population in conditions where no one need reasonably fear death by starvation, or curable disease. States founded entirely upon religious creeds on the other hand are largely locked in a feudal dark age. I imagine a country run by the congregation of the church I attended as a child and I shudder. I imagine a country run by the more fundamental wings of Christianity, or Islam and I imagine a free thinker like me would either have to shut the hell up or fear for his life.

But this is not to say the scientific way is perfect. Like all institutions it suffers from the same problems as any other large gathering of people. It can be short sighted, it can be protective of its own interests and it can be as arrogant in it’s preaching as any pious churchman. I was no different. There was a time when I looked upon any spiritual matter as a distinctly suspicious business. As for any fringe practices such as astrology, fortune telling or tarot reading, these belonged to the realm of primitive superstition and anyone practising such black arts were not to be relied upon.

This is how it remained for a long time, but then you get older and your attitudes begin to change. I had always read widely around things that were familiar to me from my college days, all no nonsense subjects related to science and engineering, popular works on physics, mathematics and cosmology. This was safe ground, secure ground, but then, gradually, through my reading I began to realise that scientists didn’t have all the answers either.

A good illustration of this was when the first books on chaos theory came out in the mid 1980’s. Chaos was a troubling phenomenon and it caused a sudden shift in thinking, a final realisation that it was no longer acceptable to look at the world as if it were a piece of clockwork, as an entirely deterministic system of cause and effect. There was something intangible, something disturbingly unpredictable underlying nature. Mathematicians and physicists were coming to terms with what it meant and were modifying their models of the world, but they were having to head off in all sorts of strange and counterintuitive directions.

I also studied the parallels between physics and our thought processes, such as how it could be that we were able to comprehend the universe at all, and make occasionally counter intuitive leaps to form a greater understanding of things (such as chaos theory) when it was clear by purely deductive reasoning we should never have been able to work anything out. One cannot go from a handful of equations, say Newton’s laws of motion and derive from these a profound understanding of the meaning of life. There are gaps in our knowledge that we somehow manage to bridge by other means.

On this the conclusion seemed to be that the structure underpinning the universe was the same as that underpinning the structure of our minds. We comprehend things because we already know them, but have somehow, in the process of being born, forgotten or had the wiring scrambled up. Thus all thought along these lines is something akin to a methodical exploration, a systematic uncovering of our own connections with the physical world, and that intuition is an occasional short circuit, inexplicable through our normal understanding of the mind, but one that evidently works to our advantage.

Reading the testimony of great thinkers who had achieved such leaps of understanding it became clear that their impressions were of not having been entirely responsible for their achievements. Their remarkable insights had been brought about through them, yes, but also, crucially by something greater than themselves, working inside of them.

At this point in my search for the meaning of my life, it seemed that everything was pointing inwards rather than outwards and I was led on to seek a deeper understanding of the human psyche, its form and the strangeness of the structure of our minds. But the realm of the psyche is a minefield for the layman.

We have Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, all scientific disciplines devoted to the study of the mind and its ailments. But to a rational thinker, it is a strange science, tending more towards philosophy on account it’s emphasis on “interpretation”. The Philosopher studies the world of man based upon a particular interpretation or view of the nature of reality. The psychiatrist studies the mind of man based upon a particular interpretation of the structure of the psyche. And the mind is a dark place in which we have no option but to grope blindly, to probe the structure by remote means.

There are essentially two schools of thought on the nature of the mind, one established by Sigmund Freud and the other by Carl Jung, in the early years of the twentieth century. Freud is known as the founder of psychoanalysis and Jung was one of his most devoted followers until his own ideas gradually brought the two men into conflict. First of all it’s important to point out that no one really knows what’s going on in our minds with anything approaching a degree of certainty, because you can’t just stop the brain and take it apart like you can with a watch and then expect it to work again afterwards. But having said this, Freud’s view of the mind was that it was essentially mechanistic in nature and he related mental problems to suppressed sexual disturbances in early childhood, and that curing such aliments was a question of having the patient remember the experience – a bit like exorcising a ghost.

Carl Jung believed this was too simplistic a view and developed his own model based upon his experience of working with mentally deranged people. Jung’s model consisted of three layers of consciousness. There was ordinary every day consciousness, and then a personal unconscious, but deeper than the personal unconscious there was a thing called the collective unconscious that consisted of archetypal ideas that were common to all people and across all cultures. These archetypes revealed themselves in folklore and literature and seemed to have a timeless and autonomous nature.

Characters like Merlin from the Arthurian legends and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings, or even Obe Wan from the Star Wars films are similar in their nature, being wise old men who serve lesser beings, granting them the benefit of their wisdom and their magic. One is not merely a plagarisation of the other, but an archetype of a more abstract idea that lives in the minds of every one of us and this results in a frequent recurrence of a similar theme. In the same way the femme fatal from the old film noir genre, and Riger Haggard’s “She” are manifestations of another archetype, a darkly attractive female, dangerous to know, suicidally alluring, yet also, potentially a source of wisdom.

Jung believed it was the archetypes that determined the way we think and feel. In a man, there is an archetype called the anima which is essentially female and it is through this archetype that a man possesses an intimate foreknowledge of women. Sexual attraction is said to be the projection of this archetype onto a suitable female. The anima within men is ageless, so what attracts the man at sixteen is the same as what attracts him at eighty four. It is perhaps unfair then to condemn an octogenarian who takes up with a fresh young girl as a dirty old man,… he is merely giving in to attractions that remain for him timeless, in spite of his own advancing years.

In a normally adjusted individual, the archetypes are maintained in balance, but disturbances can occur and Jung ascribes many such occurrences as incidents of individuals becoming possessed by a particular archetype.

Now, the collective unconscious has been interpreted by some to imply a sort of afterlife, a place we sink back to when we die, but so far as I can work out Jung took care to emphasise only that the archetypes were inherited. Never the less the idea of passing on primeval memories from one generation to another has found less acceptance than Freud’s mechanistic view of the psyche. It’s clear that we can inherit genes from our parents, but to be fair, any mechanism by which we can inherit an the entire unconscious blueprint of everyone who has ever lived remains unknown.

Both Jung and Freud, and indeed the whole sphere of psychoanalysis has its critics, but I feel Jungian theories struggle to find any favour whatsoever with mainstream scientific thinking these days and tend to be favoured more by spiritual wanderers who are attracted by their mystery and their willingness to reach out towards a more optimistic and holistic view of mankind. Freud’s views on the other hand, while more widely accepted, offer no hope for a continuance of existence. Freud reduces us to little more than beasts. Only Jung was unashamed to touch the divine aspects of our nature and to put mankind back in the centre of a bewildering universe. Another thing that is sometimes overlooked with regards to Jung: he was often regarded as being scathingly critical of organised religion which in a sense he was, yet one only has to read his works to sense that he remained a deeply religious man until the end of his days. When asked if he believed in God, he replied that he did not believe,…. he knew. His criticism of organised religion was only that it had failed to move on, that it had failed to keep pace with the living spirit of makind. And that was something that found immediate resonance with me.

I’m in no way qualified to argue the pros and cons of Jungian and Freudian psychology, and I only wish I’d been born with the tiniest fraction of the intelligence and the energy possessed by these two collosal intellects,… but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about stories. For a start, I know that when we let our imagination run away with us, out they come,… the wise old men, the femme fatales, the earth mothers, the nature children, the fantastic beasts,… and all those other corny devices,.. but they’re only corny because they’re so familiar and I believe they’re familiar because regardless of where in the world we come from, we’ve known them all our lives. They are timeless and mysteriously manifest in all of us.

I felt, instinctively that Jung was right, or had at least hit upon a valid model that went some way towards explaining the human mind. I spent a good few years devouring everything he’d ever written and everything others had written about him. Jung became for me, as I’m sure he had for many, the wise old man of the twentieth century. Now, Jung was an extraordinary thinker, and is an essay in himself so I won’t go into him any more here except to say that anyone who begins to read the works of Jung, as I did, will sooner or later come across the I Ching. And if you sit down with the I Ching, as I did, with anything approaching an open mind you are sure to have what’s left of your rational senses completely shattered.

The I Ching

The I Ching is a book, what one might call an oracle. You ask questions of it and by a process that is at first glance purely random in nature, you are directed to a reading that describes your situation and how to make the best of it. It’s an extraordinary work dating back some three thousand years and underpins both Taoist and Confucian philosophy. The version of the book I came across was a famous translation by the Christian missionary Richard Wilhelm, printed in English in 1950, and my link to it was the fact the Carl Jung wrote the foreword.

Contrary to popular belief, the I Ching does not tell us the future, but describes our present in ways that enable us to choose the wisest course, so that we may meet the future in an advantageous way. Nor is the I Ching strictly a religious book in the normal sense. It does not profess a deity, nor an afterlife. It does not require ritual worship, or sacrifice, or prayer. Indeed it seems curiously content to sit alongside the prevailing theology of whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. It is as much at home in the hands of a devout but open minded Christian as it is in the hands of a devout but open minded Taoist.

In essence, it contains insightful wisdom, and seeks to describe both the physical world and the inner world of the psyche in a way that enables an understanding of both, and a convergence of thought and spirit with the underlying nature of the physical world. It’s curious, and unique. Indeed in the entire history of mankind, I’m sure nothing has evolved that is even remotely like the I Ching.

So, by a circuitous trail, a religious dropout and hard headed rationalist eventually found himself in possession of a 3000 year old oracle that seemed to come with at least a semi-respectable provenance. I read the instructions: You formulate a question, you toss some coins, and you receive a reading,…

It had to be nonsense, of course! It could be nothing but a random, meaningless process. But I had hit a low point in my life, and a part of me wanted desperately to believe in something irrational. It could have been anything: Astrology, Tarot, Rune’s or theology,… for some reason it just happened to be the I Ching. And the most astonishing thing was, it seemed to work.

When I asked how best to live my life, it answered with a description of the distinctly Christian virtue of “modesty”. I asked how I might best use this oracle and it answered: as a fountain of knowledge, or as a well from which one might draw spiritual nourishment.

Then my rational senses kicked in and reassured me that the wording of the I Ching was so loose I could probably twist meaning from every answer to suit whatever question I cared to ask. But I wasn’t entirely sure and for the first time in my life I began to mistrust my rational side. It wanted to dismiss the thing and go on chasing some sort of inner meaning by a rational analysis. But that’s a bit of a contradiction in terms. Inner meaning, an explanation of life, what it means to be human and what happens to us when we die, is by its nature a spiritual question and rationalism cannot deal with it. Rationality, otherwise defined as ego consciousness, is afraid of it because it allows the existence of forces over which it has no control, forces the ego cannot explain, or understand,… manifestations of things in the physical world without any apparent cause. And there lies madness.

So, I reached a compromise with myself and effectively split my personality in two. One side of me decided to believe in the I Ching for a while and I used it on a daily basis to answer questions on all manner of things. As a concession to my rational side I kept a detailed diary and compiled data on how effective I thought the I Ching had been in answering my questions. Then, the rational side of me took the data, compiled graphs and carried out a statistical analysis.

Over a period of about a year, I undertook a serious study of the I Ching. It’s accessibility and ease of use makes it easily available for scrutiny and experimentation without having to go through the normal and sometimes dubious human interface of a priesthood. I asked it questions, and more often than not it gave me answers that made sense in a clear and direct way. I studied the answers, I studied the times when it made sense and the times when it did not. I applied my rational intelligence, a smattering of statistical analysis and after some three hundred consultations, had no choice but to conclude that the I Ching worked, that it was not random, that I could not twist meaning from a response willy nilly. Moreover if I was open and responsive (If I let myself believe in it), it answered well. If I was tired and unreceptive but fired questions at it in a cold and mechanical manner anyway, then the answers were opaque. Nor was it certain that if you asked the same question more than once, you would get a different answer each time. Indeed I found that if I questioned the I Ching along similar lines, say perhaps to explore a particular avenue of thought, then the same answers came up, again and again and again. Indeed at one point, over a period of two months, I asked some 104 questions and got the same answer 11 times. If it were pure chance at work, I might have expected it to happen two or three times.

Mainstream rational, scientific opinion of the I Ching is no different to that of astrology or any other occult practice,… that it does not work and those professing belief in such things are merely deluding themselves. There are some within the scientific community who agree that the I Ching works but these are renegade voices and anyone picking up this remarkable book, must essentially decide for themselves.


It is possible to account for the workings of the I Ching, but only if we accept the validity of rather a contentious phenomenon that sits awkwardly in the mid stream of scientific and pseudoscientific study, namely synchronicity. A synchronistic event is essentially a coincidence that holds meaning for the observer. You think of a person, and seconds later they ring you up or you bump into them on the street. The psychological process and the physical event are linked. Now, to a rationally minded person, this is just a coincidence, whether it’s meaningful or not and there are plausible arguments that show how certain events are more likely to occur than one might expect.

Anyway, with respect to the I Ching, the psychological process is the formulation of a question, and the related physical response, the synchronistic event, is the text to which the observer is directed. The psychological process of the observer, his inner world, determines the answer. The answer comes from within himself,… if we accept the premise of synchronicity, that is. Now, accepting synchronicity as a valid phenomenon is a key step in all that follows. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons for my own belief in the face of much scepticism:

Many years ago, I moved into a new department at the place where I worked. There, I struck up a friendship with another chap. We got on well and had similar interests. Following our meeting, we then kept bumping into each other in the most unlikely places outside of work, while out walking, while out shopping in town. The occurrences were unexpected and their frequency surprising, coming in quick succession so that we even jokingly began suggesting ways we might avoid one another. In the course of time I moved departments and our friendship became by degrees more casual until we were merely on nodding terms. Consequently, the coincidental meetings ceased. He left the company some time later. That was twenty years ago and I haven’t seen him since, yet there was a time when I was falling over him on every street corner.

While I was writing this section of the essay, I broke off to cast my mind back over my life for other odd coincidences, but thinking in particular of former colleagues who had left the company I worked for and who I hadn’t seen for many years. I went into town, walked into a store and there was a former colleague I haven’t seen for about ten years. I left the store, walked around the corner and nearly fell over someone I still work with.

Similarly, a friend of mine lost touch with a former colleague, didn’t see him for about twenty years, then bumped into him in town. Surprised, both men exchanged pleasantries and caught up on the intervening years, then went their separate ways. Shortly afterwards, my friend was waking in a remote area of moor land where the chances of meeting anyone are pretty slim, but who should he meet? You guessed it. Now, it’s a decade since that last meeting and they haven’t seen each other since.

We all have similar stories to tell, tales of the most unlikely occurrences. But some will say it’s precisely because they’re so rare that they stick in our minds. People quote the odds of winning a jackpot on the lottery which are pretty slim, but someone always wins. Likewise, rare occurrences will happen to us, simply because they have to. It may not be a lottery win (which we might hope for) or being struck by a meteorite (which we might not hope for) but some unspecified rare phenomenon will occur frequently on account of there being an infinite number of possible unspecified rare phenomenon. And if, by chance, it strikes a chord, then it will engage our attention in a way it otherwise might not.

But personally, I’m moving away from the rational arguments on synchronicity, not simply on account of my own experiences with it but also as a result of my experiments with the I Ching. The rationalist in me, the ego consciousness that is always demanding the evidence of my own eyes seems curiously subdued by the data I’ve been compiling. The I Ching works and that implies a psychological connection between me and whatever phenomenon it is that speaks through the I Ching. But what is it?

When we question the I Ching who answers?

This is a fairly obvious thing to ask and it raises a profound issue: Is it God? In consulting the I Ching, are we merely formulating a prayer, and through the structure of the I Ching, is God able to answer us in a more constructive manner than he might otherwise be able to do? There’s no direct answer to this of course. I have asked the I Ching this and it’ given me images that describe a fountain of knowledge, a source of inner truth, and a symbol of unity around which people can unite. All these things may be descriptions of God, but whatever it is, is something greater than myself. And I have no choice but to believe in it.

Where I go from here is less certain. I have my own ideas now about the nature of reality and our purpose, insights gained through the I Ching. I’ll outline these later because if you’ve stuck with me this far, you must be interested enough to know what it has to say. But in a sense I’m almost reluctant to do this because another thing I’ve learned along the way is that it’s the height of bad manners to criticise anyone for their beliefs, or indeed their non-belief, and it’s even worse to try to force your own ideas onto others. We all believe what we believe. Some believe wholeheartedly in the concept of a Godless universe. Some like the conformity and the security of a shared belief system. And some believe in “something” but don’t quite know how to categorise it. I seem to fall into the latter camp. But there’s something out there. It’s knowing and it’s wise and I’ve touched it.

I can’t reach the atheists or even the agnostics on this because at one time or another I’ve been both and I know you have to walk your own path in these matters, but for those who sense a certain something in their lives but can’t quite put their finger on it, I’d say don’t worry about it, because all the roads are leading in the same direction and, so long as we believe in something, it can lend an inner calm and a spiritual certainty to our lives, that might otherwise be missing.

A personal view of the meaning of life, based on conversations with the I Ching

Make of this what you will, and remember that these are personal beliefs based upon the questioning of a three thousand year old oracular device.

First of all, the idea of heaven as a place to where we might go after we die did not get a positive response from the I Ching, only the suggestion that my thoughts along these lines were out of accord with the true nature of things. Nor did it offer any hope of a more metaphysical realm where we might float as some sort of disembodied soul. Indeed the I Ching said that without a physical realm, and interaction with other people, the light that is my mind would have no fuel to keep going and I’d fizzle out in no time.

I have to admit I found both these ideas something of a relief. The idea of a heaven where everything is perfect sounds great at first, but I’m sure living there would be rather boring after a while, because another thing the I Ching has taught me is the value of limits,… that if a man were to live in a world of limitless pleasure and freedom his vital self would become dissipated. Only by knowing the bad times can he discern the good ones. Happiness only comes when limits are set on the pleasures we receive.

As for the disembodied, metaphysical realm, where my bit of soul floated like a tiny drop in an infinite soul-ocean,… I just didn’t see how that could be worth looking forward to at all! It’s fortunate then this vision does not accord with the I Ching’s image of reality either.

On the question of our mortality, the I Ching points out that when we are faced with the transience of our existence, we are apt to react in one of two different ways. We will either sink into a miserable melancholy as we contemplate the ending of our days, or we will blindly pursue the pleasures of life while we can in order to shut out all thought of the inevitable. Both attitudes, the I Ching says, are wrong because one approach avoids contemplating the end, while the other shrinks from it. The correct path is to accept life as it comes and to learn from it what one can, to seek what wisdom we can glean from our own experience, and that of others, and to accept our end as easily as we accept our life. That to live without an easy acceptance of our death is to be not quite fully alive.

Now this is all well and good, but in order to be comfortable with the idea of his death it’s only reasonable that a man should seek assurances that something worthwhile is going to follow. The I Ching had already told me there were problems with the notion of a perfect Heaven, so I asked about the only other option I could think of, namely the idea of rebirth. This met with a more positive response, the I Ching suggesting my thoughts in this direction were more in accord with the nature of reality.

So, rebirth seemed the most likely outcome. But what about everything we’ve done in our previous life? Obviously, if it’s true that I’ve been reborn from a previous existence, I remember nothing of it, which also seems to suggest my previous existence was a complete waste of time. Is our experience really thrown away? All my memories? Family days growing up? my first kiss? the view from the summit of Ben Nevis? holding my new-born son in my arms for the first time? All lost? All useless?

Well, in part, the I Ching suggests these individual memories are not important, like the photographs of places we’ve been to, they tend to fade and no longer do justice to the feelings we experienced at the time we first captured those images. So, it’s not so much the pictures of the things we’ve done or achieved in our lives that are important, more the way we thought and felt when we were doing them. Therefore, whether you are a king or a peasant, we all have an equal opportunity to contribute towards the spiritual evolution of mankind. A king, for all the luxury at his fingertips, might be a miserable old git, while the peasant might take great pleasure in the humblest of experiences. It’s all an attitude of mind.

The I Ching leads me to believe that it is this experience of individual lives that becomes shared by everyone alive now and everyone yet to be born, not as direct experiences that we would recognise of course, but more as influences that cause a gradual evolution of the archetypes in the collective unconscious, upon which we all rely as the psychical bedrock of our individual selves. Also, the way we have lived our life determines to some extent the circumstances into which we are born in the next.

Both good and bad influences determine the evolution of our personal psyche. And it is for this reason it’s important for us to follow the best of examples when we live our lives, to strive, as the Taoists put it, to follow “the way”, the path of harmony. Thus, in addition to making the world a better place for us to live in now, such positive tendencies will be passed on, leading to a gradual evolution of the human spirit in a positive direction.

Every bad thing mankind has ever done is in there as well, as a negative influence. This means none of us can look on while terrible crimes are perpetrated in some far flung corner of the world. Comforting ourselves by saying it’s none of our business isn’t going to help. It’s everyone’s business, for whatever mankind has sown in the past, is sowing now, and will sow in generations to come, we shall all reap. Only in this sense are we all born in sin. Though we are born in innocence, the shared substrate of our psyche is somewhat tarnished.

Of course it is quite beyond the power of a child born now, today, to atone directly for the darkest moments of mankind’s evolution. It’s frankly unfair to expect that, and downright cruel for anyone to point to history and say to a child, look,… that was your fault. But the child does have the power to redress the balance by living a good and blameless life, by enriching the collective well we all draw from with a purer water, diluting bit by bit the poison that’s seeped in over the generations.

That’s as far as it goes. The I Ching hints at much more, but when I press for details regarding the idea of rebirth it seems to grow strangely elusive. Perhaps I’m not ready, or simply incapable of understanding the answers it gives. I don’t know what God looks like, or even what God is, but I do understand now that God was powerless to prevent my father from being taken from me. It was not God’s fault. It was biology and the fragility of life. God brings all things into being, both good and bad and is powerless to interfere with either.

I’ve come a long way in a short period of time, from scientific rationalism and godless secularism to a kind of belief. The I Ching has snatched me back from the abyss and shown me a way through life, and my life has become all the richer for it. And the strange thing is it doesn’t seem to matter what you believe in, or how you define it. The important thing is simply to believe,…

…. in something!

M Graeme

July 2003


Copyright © M Graeme 2003

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