Archive for January, 2011

It’s been a while since I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, but I’m still pondering upon it, letting it inform the seething mass of my thoughts, and I’m finding it sheds light upon aspects of Tai Chi and Qigong practice.

I’ve read that the practice of Tai Chi and Qigong has a number of distinct phases. First comes the initial enthusiasm, sparked by the interest of doing something new, and something that apparently produces unexpected benefits in the mind and body. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about these, in spite of the mystical hype perpetrated by self-styled masters in their various self-help programmes; you simply feel more relaxed, and even though the exercises don’t seem very strenuous, you also find yourself feeling physically fitter, healthier and more energetic – less likely to nod off on lazy afternoons. You just need to practice – preferably in the company of others because the social aspect keeps your interest levels up as well. I’m sure many at my Tai Chi group get as much out of the cup of tea and a bit of a natter as they do from the practice, which has them laughing – and that’s also good.

But then your body adapts, and if you’re only putting in the same amount of practice time as before, you may find that while you retain the fitness levels, you lose that lovely tingly feeling at the end of your sessions. I began to wonder if it was no longer working for me, or if I’d started doing something wrong. For me the initial, enthusiastic phase lasted about a year. Then you’re into the dead space of simply turning up for practice, going through the forms and trying to convince yourself that you’re not deluding yourself.

Many students drop out during this phase. You wonder if you might be better off with another teacher, or taking up a different style of Tai Chi, or maybe it’s down to such minutiae as the fact you’re not holding your palm/arm/leg/head the right way – but really there’s no need to fuss. You’re fine as you are, and in fact after learning the basic forms, if it’s the health aspects you’re after, rather than the technical skills of the martial applications, I suspect you become your own best teacher at some point. If it’s martial skills you’re after, then okay, you need to spar against another student and learn from the bumps and bruises under the guidance of an expert bone breaker.

I don’t know how long this second phase lasts, because I think I’m still in it, even though I’m in my fourth year of practice now. But I’m still fairly regular – turn up for class once a week, and do the daily Qigong forms in between,… but I still find myself wondering what the hell I’m expecting.

Tolle’s book answers this question.

When looking for happiness, for satisfaction, for enlightenment, or whatever, we always fix our minds on some point in the future. The experience of meditation pulls us back into the present moment. Thus, centred in the present, we’re no longer interested in whether another form of Tai Chi is any better for us, or if yet another Qigong book from Amazon will contain that one useful gem that will transform our lives. Of course it won’t.

Practicing Tai Chi with a slow deliberation teaches us “presence” of mind. On bad days, when I’m doing the form, maybe with a hangover, from the night before, I can drift off into cloud cuckoo land and find myself lost. My head moves into the future or the past, daydreaming – while the rest of the class, more focussed in the present, stick with the correct movements and make me look stupid. So here’s the first insight this idea of Nowness grants us into the value of Tai Chi: it brings us into the present moment and teaches us a means of holding onto it. In the Yang style for example there’s something deeply relaxing about focussing on the palm as it moves into the Single Whip posture. Practice enough and you start getting the same feeling when drawing the curtains, or loading the dishwasher (all right maybe I’m pushing it a bit with loading the dishwasher, but you know what I mean).

The other thing Tolle’s “power of now” talks about is the value of attaining an intimate sense of the inner body. The inner body can be felt in Tai Chi as a kind of invisible skeleton, or an inner ghost, an energy form, if you, like that occupies your body space. Awareness of it comes most readily to mind when we focus down on the Dantien, this spot in the lower abdomen, but we also get a sense of it in our arms and legs when we concentrate, or when we practice the forms in a relaxed way. The energy body may be imaginary, a figment of  the mind, but it is also “real” in the sense that we can actually feel it – whatever it is.

Awareness of one’s self from the inside out is something I’ve written about before, without fully appreciating its fundamental value. This awareness goes hand in hand with a sense of the Nowness of things. You can’t feel your inner self if your mind is preoccupied with the past or the future. Tolle speaks of the importance of discovering this sense of one’s inner self and cultivating an awareness of it at all times. It’s another thing that stills the mind and brings you back into the present moment, the place where you belong.

Emotional pain, anger, frustration,… all of these things have their roots in our tendency to live with our heads in either the anticipation of some future event, or the regret of something we perceive to have been irretrievably lost in the past. The Power of Now reiterates in very simple language, the message of Zen Buddhism. It makes sense of the idea of an enlightened glimpse or moment of sartori, and grants us the means of approaching it, by teaching us what it feels like.

An hour of Tai Chi, no matter how imperfectly performed will reward you with the feeling of yourself from the inside out. You will feel your arms, legs and abdomen warm and tingling. You will feel them buzzing with an electricity which, if you like, you can put down to your imagination. Whatever it is, it’s a lovely feeling to sink into. This awareness of oneself, is in itself energising. Tolle speaks of its restorative, its rejuvanating properties, and this this sounds like Tai Chi to me.

The forms, be they Chen Style, Yang Style, Sun Style, they all have a set sequence to them, a choreography if you like, but I no longer believe their secret lies in completing the form, in memorizing it or repeating it. The forms are derived from their martial applications, and if all we’re interested in is our health then, a pernikerty adherence to their correctness is no more than dancing.

In Chen Style, it seemed the most important thing to me to gain a knowledge of each of the 72 forms, but having completed them, I now know that all the health benefits are effectively contained in the first five moves – but that repeating them over and over would be boring, so the 72, the Lao Ja or old frame, mixes them up to make them more interesting to practice.

In fact, I suspect it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you try to achive the Tai Chi basics of an “open” body, wide stance, shoulders rounded, chest sunken, arms relaxed,… then you can make it up as you go along, so long as you can remain focussed on what you’re doing. I’ve begun to experiment now with a mixture of the Yang and Chen forms, mixed in with a bit of Silk Reeling and Qigong moves, just doing whatever the inner body seems to gain the most expression through.

In such free-style practice, the Nowness becomes the essential thing. The blood and the lymph circulate freely, stimulating the body and enhancing the feel of the moves, so that when you stop, this inner ghost continues to tingle and helps you to remember what it feels like, at times when you’re not practicing – like sitting in a ten mile tail back on the M6, or when pushing your trolley around the supermarket. You just take a breath, push it down to the Dantien, and it wakes up. You remember it. You remember your inner self, you are pulled back into the now, and you no longer feel anxious, frustrated or bored. You still feel good, relaxed, aware.

So there seems to come a point when everything is Tai Chi. Maybe this is the third stage. No! Hold that thought right there, you’re letting your mind run off into the future again.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure why I’m putting this up because it’s something I’ve not been interested in for a long time now, and every time I research it, I’m reminded why. But if you’re interested in writing fiction, traditional publishing is still the only way of attaining any significant “financial” reward for your work. In order to achieve this you need a publisher and an agent, but you should be realistic about your chances of securing either. As I’m fond of saying: someone always wins the lottery, even though the odds are vanishingly small, but for every person who wins, there are millions of others tearing up their tickets (or manuscripts) wondering why they ever bothered.

But if you’re deadly serious and determined to scale the edifice of the traditional publishing world, and become a successful author you need to narrow the odds a bit. This starts before you ever put pen to paper. Published books fall into a number of genres. Each one has a specific heading which can neatly pigeon hole a story, and if your book doesn’t fit clearly into one of them you’re off to a bad start already. It’s no use writing to a publisher or an agent and saying your book is likely to appeal to a wide audience. That’s really not good enough. You must be specific. Say it’s like one of those Twilight books, or a Light Romance, or Crime, or Historical Aventure. And there’s nothing to be gained from inventing your own weird crossover genre because publishers have figures that show how much a book in a particular “official” genre is likely to generate. No use twisting one of your own stories to fit a recognisable genre either. You start with the genre and you write something specifically to fit it, after overdosing on reading other books in that genre until they’re coming out of your ears and you can barely bring yourself to contemplate writing something similar. This is otherwise known as studying the “market”. However, be aware that the “top” genre you identify at the time you begin writing is likely to be at the bottom by the time you “finish”, because tastes are so fickle, darling!

Want to carry on?


So, you hack away for a couple of years and produce your novel. What then? Do you seek a publisher or an agent? Well this is where your Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook comes in. I’ve not bought one for a decade or more, but I presume they still publish the damned thing. What is it? It’s about two inches thick and it makes you feel like an important writer simply by handing it over to the check-out girl in Smiths or Waterstones.  In there, along with a lot of other guff, the nature of which I can’t recall now, you’ll find the listings of Publishers and Agents. Read them carefully. There’s no point sending a light romance to a sci-fi publisher eh? That’s what all those trite self help “how to get published” books will tell you. But there’s more. Indeed the “how tos” are endless, mysterious and constantly changing. You may find for example that that the publisher suddenly decides they don’t read unsolicited manuscripts any more. What are are unsolicited manuscripts? Well, they are you, my friend. That’s what they are. Unsolicited equates to: un-asked for and translates as: you’re wasting your time sending your story in. This publisher only reads stuff sent to them by agents – and the last time I passed this way it seemed to be all of them. Even if you find a publisher who will sully themselves by actually reading your unsolicited manuscript, don’t expect them to give it any priority. It’ll land in a pile of other unsolicited material to be picked up and flicked through when editors and their readers have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon. But don’t blame them. They didn’t ask for it. It’s like junk mail to them. What would you do? Put it in the bin? Or would you read it on the off chance it might be to your advantage? Whatever, expect to wait six months for a reply, longer for the return of your manuscript, with a standard rejection letter.

Not sounding so glamorous now, is it?

Want to carry on?


I think the advice these days is for the newbie writer to steer clear of publishers, and to seek an agent instead from the outset. But don’t waste your postage on sending in the full manuscript. Send a few chapters, a synopsis and a snappy introductory letter that tells the agent how brilliant you are, and why you stand out from the hum-drum cloud of losers, but without sounding sick-makingly and pretentiously juvenile, nor grovellingly desperate. Tricky, I know,… and humiliating for you, I can assure you, but it’s what you want, so go ahead.

The agents’ listings in Writer and Artist’s Year Book will probably also suggest you don’t send your synopsis off to more than one agent at a time, but since you’re unlikely to see it again for six months you should ignore this rather archaic advice and send it off simultaneously to as many as you like. I mean life’s too short, isn’t it? And you may have to write to twenty agents in order to score with just one.

What I’m trying to say is the odds of attracting an agent’s attention are small – even if your work is reasonably literate and yew can spel. Trust your uncle Michael: there are thousands of writers just like you: unknown, ambitious, filled with a sense of the vital importance of their own work. A few will make it and get a fabled life-changing acceptance letter. The rest are also-rans whom no godlike reader will ever know. Celebrities? You say they’re off to a head start? Well of course they are, but there’s no use crying over it.  Publishing’s a business, and celebrities sell. Does that surprise you? I know, terrible isn’t it.

But it’s worse than that. Given a hundred unknown writers, all of them with a readable story and a punchy query letter, the one who’ll get their work taken on is the one who knows the agent personally, bumped into them at a literary do and made friends with them, or got themselves introduced to that agent by another writer the agent already represents and whose opinion they value. This isn’t Michael Graeme being a cynical old git. It’s human nature. It’s how deals are made in the real world. Don’t live in the big city where those literary parties are thrown? Don’t know any agents or other suited literary types? Don’t even know any other writers, published or unpublished? Live out in the countryside in some remote village no one’s ever heard of, but like to write? Don’t let me put you off, it’s still possible to get yourself published, but you need to understand the obstacles in your path.

Want to carry on?


So,… you’re a newbie writer. You’ve attained the impossible heights of success and by hook or by crook, you’ve secured an agent, and miracle of miracles, after a couple of years, your agent has even found you a publisher for this manuscript, the gist of which you can barely recall by now. But you’re not a name yet. What’s a name? A name is a label. A brand. It is a mythical symbol, a magical spell. Cast thine name upon the bookshelves of the hightstreet and the buyer knows instantly what to expect. A name sells books in large quantities. A name alone  attains that mythological status: the professional writer.

Praise be!

But you’re a newbie so don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of money on a big print run, nor a promotional tour allowing you to sample the high life: first class travel, top hotels, celebrity parties, millions of adoring fans. A thousand copies or so. That’s your limit. They’ve done the mathematics. They know the market. They know a thousand copies is what you’ll sell so they’re not going to print any spares. Think about this: I don’t know how big a cut the Publishers or the Agents take, but if you break even, you’ll be lucky. What does that mean? It means you can call yourself a published author, but you’re a long way from making your living at it. A thousand or so people have read your work! Is that good? Well, of course it is and considering the odds you were up against, well done to you.

But think about this:

I put my novel Push Hands online, about a year ago and it’s been downloaded about 7000 times, and rising. The Lavender and the Rose went up last month, and it’s already up to 1500. I’m an independent author, hacking stuff out in whatever spare moments the day or night allows. You can go into any bar in the world these days and ask who Michael Graeme is, and no one will know – but it’s the same for you. We are the same, you and I, dear wannabe writer, both of us obscure. You’ve “sold” more books than me, but more people are likely to have read one of my books than yours.

My message to the frustrated wannabe writer is this: does your dayjob pay the bills? Can you bear it? Then make your peace with it, and consider going independent. You’ll never make a fortune, but you’ll achieve a global readership almost by default.  Your words, your thoughts, your idiosyncrasies,.. they are important to us. Who are we? We are you. We are readers, writers, onliners, just like you. Upload them to the collective, to what in modern parlance is known as “the cloud”. Cool eh?  Don’t sniff at the online independent freebie ebook thing because you can shift a lot of copies that way. If it’s down to money for you and you’re determined to quit that boring dayjob, then so be it, go for paper, and good luck. Otherwise hang in there. You’re important. Traditionally published or not.

Relevant anecdote: Michael Graeme is a secret. I live and work under the name of my primary personality, and no one except my immediate family can link the two. I was listening to a conversation between a couple of colleagues in my day-job office, one who had just bought an Amazon Kindle and was amazed by the amount of  free original fiction available online, and wondered why he would ever want to pay for fiction again. Another colleague countered rather sniffily: okay, but is it any good? Colleague number one said: Who cares? Of course some of its  crap but its not cost me anything, so what’s the problem?  Have you never paid good money for a book, only to decide it was crap? And some of this free stuff’s okay.

Age-wise both colleagues were in the fifty plus bracket. But then a young lad,… seventeen or eighteen joined in, and said he liked blagging free fiction on his iPod touch of an evening from this site called Feedbooks. I concluded therefore the indy publishing scene was appealing to a very wide demographic. I smiled, kept my secret, pleased that people were still enjoying simply reading stuff.

Free? Why not? How weird is that? It makes a change when just about every other person in the real world is trying to sell you something you don’t want and making you feel like an idiot for not wanting it. The world of writing is changing, and traditional publishing is beginning to looking seriously dull – especially for the wannabe writer. Whether you are a reader, a writer, or  both, take a look at Feedbooks or Lulu or Smashwords. Seek out their free stuff. Give it the first paragraph test. I dare you. Some of it you’ll cringe at because it’s more idiosyncratic than legible. Some of it you’ll find a bit ragged around the edges, like reading your mate’s submission for his English creative writing homework. But some of it will grab you, suck you in and move you to tears. This is the work of ordinary people who like to write. This is the indy scene; anarchic, careless of spelling and grammar at times, but sincere, raw and thought provoking. Let those celebrities pen their sterile, expertly edited yarns, and their jolly autobiographies to adorn the highstreet bookshelves, but if you want truly sincere meat and drink, if you want it told the way it is, it’s now to be found exclusively in “the cloud” and its tagged “free”.

Read Full Post »

Let me begin by saying the following essay has nothing to do with religion. I mention this because my researches on this evocative trio of words, when conducted through the Google box, throw up two kinds of website – either the new agey type or the biblical scripture type. If either of these are your bag, I apologise, but I tend to approach spiritual matters from the psychological perspective and this entry is no exception.


I was introduced to spiritual matters through the writings of Carl Jung, who managed to convince me of the objective reality of the spiritual dimension. He did this by plunging me into a dialog with the contents of my dreams and thereby equating the spiritual with the imaginary world.

Normally , if we imagine something, we do not think of it in literal terms – we do not grant it the status of a tangible reality. Whether what we think of comes from dreams, hallucinations or waking reveries, we tell ourselves they are just images we created in our heads and they are not important. To imagine things in our heads is all right for children, but if we’re still doing it when we grow up we are either a poet or there’s something wrong with us. This is the contemporary, rational viewpoint, and it is well embedded in the Western zeitgeist. Scientists, religious agnostics and pious churchmen alike would all look with suspicion upon anyone who took their imaginings seriously, or attempted to argue that they possessed any form of autonomous, objective reality,… that the characters they met in dreams were in any way real.

Yet it was just such an idea that developed in early Greek culture, in the days of Plato, and became the basis of a philosophy that shaped the minds of generations of intellectuals, right through to what might be called the end of the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century. At this point, the so called “Enlightenment” of Scientific Rationalism finally forced it out of any serious intellectual debate and relegated it instead to the underground journals of the mystics, the die-hard romantic poets, and the new age gurus. But for a long time before this, it had formed the binding thread of the secretive practice of western alchemy, and it survives as such intact up to the present day. To the uninitiated alchemy the ludicrous practice of attempting to transmute base metals into Gold, but this is a trite and overly literal interpretation of the philosopher’s art. There was considerably more to it, and if the alchemists had been found out they would have been burned as witches.

Jung was more than a dreamer, more than a plagiarist regurgitating the works of past generations. As a psychiatrist, working in a mental asylum, he encountered people who were mentally lost,… irrational beyond hope of remedy, and all Jung could do was listen to their apparently incoherent ravings. However, he sometimes noticed patterns in these ravings, and eventually realised these ramblings were in fact the retelling of ancient myths, that the voices speaking through these poor lost souls possessed a Daemonic quality – not “demonic” in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religious sense, but Daemonic in the Platonic sense, in the sense of the old philosophers, the alchemists.

The mythological symbols and patterns of ancient man were alive, in an independent sense, in a substratum of the unconscious minds of people whose consciousness was apparently broken and therefore unable to filter out the bizarre imagery. This led Jung to formulate a model of the human psyche which included a collective aspect to the unconscious mind, through which we were all linked. What Jung seemed to have uncovered was evidence of what the alchemists knew as the Anima Mundi, the world soul.

The world soul, if real, suggests that the one thing underpinning all of reality, as well as the totality of the psyche of each and every one of us is a deep unconscious stratum of thought. It is teeming with pattern, symbols and myth, and it exists independently of us. We do not think it into being. It came before us. It was already there when we arrived, and became conscious of ourselves in a physical reality.

Biological evolution has given us a physical form with which we obviously identify very strongly. We are fond of our bodies, and sexually attracted to the bodies of our fellow humans. The human form then is impressed upon us as a primary image. When we dream, we encounter psychic energies which we interpret in the symbolic language we understand and therefore grant form to these energies as other human beings, male, female, sometimes distorted, or modified in ways both beautiful and repulsive. Other images we encounter in reality – our landscapes, creatures,…. all of these things are embedded in our minds and used to form meaningful pictures from the seething mass of symbols in the unconscious mind. We see a dragon in our dreams, but it is not a dragon in a literal sense, more something that has suggested to us the form a dragon. We need to be careful then in our interpretation of imaginary things, cautious of reading only the literal interpretation of what we apparently see and should try instead to get at the meaning behind the image, try to interpret the symbol, for therein lies the truth of it.

These ideas have held me in thrall for many years now. Unfortunately, Jung, though popular in his lifetime, is not for the fainthearted, and you are unlikely to find any of his works in the high street today – more likely it will be trite self help books, if you’re lucky enough to find a bookshop at all. But if you have the time and you’re serious about uncovering some of the more curious aspects of the nature of reality, then I suggest you look him up on Amazon. Start with his “Selected Writings” or “Dreams Memories and Reflections”, but avoid “Mysterium”, which reads more like the Magnum Opus of a wizard than any mortal man.

Modern learned writers on this subject are hard to find. The self help industry is massive and many of the writings you will discover are just reworkings of ideas from Jung, the Theosophists, Blavatsky, and a long list of other post Romantic mystics. Their works are suspiciously self serving, being more about making money for the gurus by selling books and seminars than attempting to sincerely further our knowledge of this important subject.

One exception I stumbled upon recently are the works of Patrick Harpur, whose Philosopher’s Secret Fire, Compete Guide to the Soul and Mercurius, arrested my attention in the summer of 2010, and had me thinking back on my interpretation of Jung. Harpur picks up on Jung’s works without slavishly worshipping them, and his books have granted me a fresh perspective on ideas that have haunted me for a decade, allowing me I think to move on a little further towards a better understanding of these things. I ground to a halt with Jung some years ago, because I think I fell into the trap of wanting to take him too literally. But through the work of Harpur, I’ve begun to feel things moving again, and I’m very glad indeed that I stumbled across him. To tread the spiritual path outside of the mainstream, we all need to be alchemists.

So,… soul, spirit, self,…

These are words bandied about in books and poems and seem to be used interchangeably – meaning the same thing, but what that thing is is never made clear. There is a clear difference however, and understanding it helps us to understand both the nature of the human psyche and our place in reality, because there can be no understanding of reality without understanding the psyche.

To begin then, the Self is the totality of the human psyche. It consists of both who we think we are, and who we truly are, but are not necessarily aware of being. In other words it consists of our conscious awareness, and our unconscious. This dichotomy also divides the psyche into the two opposed elements, the yin and the yang of it, or the spirit and the soul.

We feel Soul as a stirring inside of us. Soul’s nature is feminine, regardless of our gender and her domain is the unconscious which itself is rooted in the collective unconscious, or the soul of the world, the Anima Mundi. The soul bears aspects that are both shared and individual. It is our souls that connect us to each other. When we look at another person and feel an attraction, an affinity, it is through the aegis of our soul.

The unconscious aspect of the psyche is vast in comparison with the conscious, and it is from here our imaginary life swells. We sit down one day, take up a pen and begin to doodle a pattern, or a human character forms in our mind’s eye, and we write down a few lines of dialogue for a story. We do not consciously think these things into being. They appear spontaneously. They are at best teased up from the unconscious, then given a coherent shape by the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of them. When I write my stories, I do not base them on real things that have happened to me and can pluck from memory. I do not base my characters on people I know. They come from my unconscious as images ready formed, and I puzzle over them, I try to fit them into a pattern that conveys something rounded and satisfying. Sometimes it works and the story finds its way into the public domain. Sometimes it doesn’t and the unsolved puzzle remains on the hard drive of my computer, perhaps to await the one piece that my unconscious is witholding from me.

Spirit on the other hand is a conscious energy. We say a man or a woman has “spirit”. They are animated, driven, lively, beguling. Spirit is the urge to explore, to create, it is the drive behind the quest, be it physical or spiritual. It is the desire to learn, to understand, to broaden the horizons of our thoughts our beliefs, our understanding of the world. It is the animating drive behind my fingers as I type, but it is the unconscious, and my inner dialogue with Soul that I trust to deliver up the answers to the questions Spirit asks.

And it works, but only if I am patient and respectful of Soul’s wishes. Soul is mysterious, dark, sinking down into the sea of being, the dark seething cloud of the Anima Mundi. She is Yin. Spirit however, is soaring, bright, thrusting. It is Yang. It is also always a work in progress.

As a conscious energy, Spirit has much in common with the Jungian term “Ego”. Ego gets a bad press. “He’s so Egotistical!” It has become a byword for combative self importance, and a pathalogical belief in one’s superiority above others. It’s perhaps understandable then that some self help books teach us that Ego must be broken at all costs if we are to enter into the spiritual bliss of enlightement. But I think this goes too far. We are here in physical reality for a reason. Spirit is the name of our vehicle, Soul our navigator. Without Ego we would sink into a state of catatonic listlessness, our physical bodies wasting, our minds permanently arrested by daydreams. Without Ego, our Spirits can be broken.

A hard ego though is a brittle thing. Like heated steel quenched in water, it becomes very hard, but is also easily broken when tested. Ego is better when it’s tempered by reheating a little and cooling slowly. The tempering flame of the spirit is communion with the soul. Taking her seriously allows us to heal up the deepst cracks of the psyche, to heal neuroses and to develop a more complete self, a self that is flexible, resilient, respectful of both physical and non-physical realty,… and thereby content.

Read Full Post »