Archive for December, 2012

girl meditatingMeditation should be a straight forward business but is too often shrouded in a mystical  fog. In fact meditation is very simple, literally as simple as breathing and should be looked upon as a basic life-skill, like swimming or riding a bicycle – things that at some time or another can prove useful, life-saving, or just life-enhancing. But where do we start? You’ve only to read a few books on the subject to realise there are so many different techniques. Which one is the best? Who knows? If you’re interested in the subject all you can do is read widely, try out those methods that make sense to you and don’t worry about those that don’t. But perhaps the best advice is to keep it simple.

In the words of Lao Tzu:

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.

I’ll outline a basic technique of my own in a moment, which may or may not suit you, but as Lao Tzu also said:

He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.

So you must make of this piece what you will.

Before we sit down to meditate there’s something we need to get out of the way or we’re wasting our time. What we should never do as lay meditators is have any ambitions of being lifted to a higher spiritual plane, or attaining enlightenment, or discovering the delights of astral travel,  because it most likely won’t happen. I’ve been meditating off an on for around twenty years and I don’t know what any of these things are supposed to feel like, but I do know there is a belief that meditation is the key to them. While this may be true for certain dedicated individuals, you’ll find no secrets here.

Enlightenment is a serious business of course, but you don’t achieve it in the hours either side of your nine-to five, nor even in one of those expensive weekend workshops. You’ll most likely need to become a monk, or a hermit, or some kind of self flagellating ascetic, and unless you’re willing to give up just about everything else in your life for the pursuit of that one goal, then you should forget it, otherwise you fall into the trap of New Age Materialism. And materialism is like opium: sweet dreams for a while, but ultimately useless.

Society programs us from an early age to be ego driven and goal orientated – we have to do well at school, pass our exams, get a good job, earn some money, get a house, a bigger house, be successful and so on. It’s counter intuitive then, to grasp the notion that in order to feel good for longer than five minutes we have to forget this “achievement culture”. We have to let go of any ambitions. New age materialism? You’ve only to look all those self help books, and all the money you’ll need to spend in order to achieve the promise of a happy, fulfilled and enlightened existence. But of course the answer isn’t in the next book, nor the next new age trinket – just like for most of us meditation isn’t about sitting down with a mind to gaining spiritual awareness, or opening the door onto  an astral plane.

Having said that, we’re obviously looking to gain something, or we wouldn’t be doing it. But as lay meditators I would argue we’re looking to achieve only a degree of clarity, we’re looking to feel better in ourselves, which is a much more modest goal than that of attaining Buddhahood. Let’s just say to ourselves we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know how we’ll feel. or where meditation will lead us,…

We’re happy to simply keep an open mind.

So why meditate?

Hopefully by now we’re no longer troubled by inappropriate ambitions in our meditation. But, at a basic level, meditation can bring about a gradual change in our outlook, in particular our sense of personal well-being, simply by calming us down and enabling us to remember who we really are.

What does that mean?

We are happiest in life when we are comfortable in our own skins, when we like ourselves, when we can look in the mirror and say to ourselves – yes, that guy/girl is okay.  I’m not talking about becoming conceited or narcissistic here – it’s more a case of being at peace with yourself, also having a sense of the rightness of your life’s direction, even though it might not be clear to you or anyone else what that direction is.

If you’re not blessed with what contemporary society considers to be “good looks” – for example, if you’re fat or bald, wrinkled, over 25 and short sighted – no amount of meditation is going to change that, but what it can do, is enable you to look in the mirror, at your fat, bald, wrinkled, ageing, short sighted self, and be comfortable with it by virtue of a confidence in yourself and your God given right to simply be – how-ever, and who-ever you are.

Such a state requires mental clarity, and meditation restores clarity.

What does clarity feel like?

It feels calm.

Calmness comes from stilling the mind. It comes from slowing down the rush of one’s thoughts. If you take a glass of muddy water and you keep stirring it, this is a good illustration of the way the mind feels with its swirl of thoughts. If only the mind could become still enough for the sediment to settle and for clarity to be restored.

Meditation restores clarity.

Clarity feels calm.

So meditate. –

meditation abstract 4 renderHow to Meditate

There are many meditation techniques. What I’m about to describe is just one of them. It blends Buddhist mindfulness with a little Daoist internal energy work. But don’t worry about what that might mean. If you’re in a dark place right now, any meditation technique will help you. Whatever method you decide upon, do it every day until you feel steady enough to start forgetting the practice. If you should start to wobble again, dust off your meditation notes, or see if you can find the link to this blog posting, and start doing it again.

That’s how you meditate.

As for the method, I’ll summarise the main points at the end, so if you’re patient to get on then skip to there, otherwise here’s the nitty gritty.

1) How long shall we meditate for?

The first thing we need to do is decide how long we can spare to meditate. Ten minutes is a good starting point. As you get into it, you’ll naturally want to increase the time you spend doing it. I generally aim for about thirty minutes, but when I’m really in “the zone” I’ve been known to go on for an hour or more.

Normally I take a dim view of any gadget that’s touted as being essential for your spiritual, emotional or physical well being, but I make an exception here, because we’re only talking about a simple timer. If you can set a timer, do so – an egg timer, an oven timer, an alarm clock, anything that pings or rings or dings, but without tick tocking all the time while you’re doing it. The timer lets you relax. You’re not constantly wondering if your time is up yet and checking your watch. So, get your timer, set it, and forget it.

If you don’t live alone – and especially if you’ve got children running about all over the place, you need to be honest with them about what you’re doing. So, tell them: “Look, I’m going to meditate. I know you might think that’s a bit weird, but I’m really serious about giving it a go, and I do not want disturbing for the next ten minutes.” Or you can try:”Come and get me if the house is burning down – otherwise I’m not here, okay?”

This probably won’t work, but at least you’ve done your best, and hopefully they’ll get the message eventually. Be kind to them, and be kind to yourself. Don’t be angry if you get disturbed. Anger is the opposite of where we want to be. If they burst in, think of it as an opportunity for measuring how far away from being angry you are.

Anger, under any circumstances is really bad for you.

Fortunately, with experience, you’ll find you can shut down and meditate anywhere, even an airport terminal – though I admit it’s not the ideal place to start. Also, very few of us can enjoy the luxury of a private “meditation room” so just use your common sense and go somewhere you think you’ll be the most comfortable and the least likely to be disturbed. If that means doing it in the bathroom, then so be it.

Now sit.

2) Sitting

In an instructional video on the subject of Chen Style Tai Chi, Grand Master Chen Zheng Lee describes the process of meditation with  disarming simplicity:

He says: “Just sit quietly for a while.”

Really – don’t get hung up about it – just sit.

If you can manage a “full lotus” without it hurting you, then go for it. If not, just sit as best you can, legs crossed or splayed open, it doesn’t matter – the main aim is simply to provide a comfortable and stable base from which to align your back gently upright.

The back is the important thing here, and we can achieve something like the right posture if we imagine our heads suspended from a thread attached to our crown and pulling us gently upright, with our back hanging from it. Don’t worry too much about this – just do what feels comfortable. Roughly speaking the right position is somewhere between slouching over and sitting bolt upright.

If you can’t sit on the floor – if you’ve got troublesome joints and struggle to get down, or get back up again, then sit in a chair, but again, pay attention to the posture of your spine and avoid the temptation to lean back into the chair. In his famous book on Microcosmic Meditation, Mantak Chia rejects outright the idea of sitting cross legged on the floor, and heartily recommends using a chair. Confused? Me too. Don’t worry, just do what you want – we’re not looking to move the earth here.

So, now we’re sitting.

What next?

3) Quelling the restless mind

What’s next is you’ll be interrupted – if not by someone you live with, then by someone you share your head with. It’ll say something like this: “I’m not comfortable. Can we move over a bit?”

So, you’re an obliging soul and you move over and sure enough in no time at all the voice comes again: “This is no good either,” it says. “My leg’s killing me.”

You can put up with this for only so long, shuffling about, sitting this way and that, hands resting here, there and everywhere, but then some point you’ve got to say: “Look, we were perfectly comfortable a moment ago. So what’s changed?”

Quietly but firmly, say “NO” to the nagging voice.

This is the first step in letting go.

Settle into position and do not move from that position until your time is up. Really! Relax into it, then freeze. Become an inanimate doll, a living statue. Do not move a muscle. Not even one millimeter.

So, now we’re quietly resolved not to move. What happens next is we encounter the annoying conversationalist.

This is like when you’ve been given an important job and you want to focus on it, but you’re constantly interrupted by others with nothing better to do but tell you about their holidays, or a bit of silly gossip. It’s that child in your mind again – assailing you with a string of thoughts. What do you do? Well, you can’t consciously stop it, no more than you can consciously stop breathing. So, like with the real life gossip, you take a step back, and you only lend half an ear, while remaining quietly focussed on your task. And our task, remember, is nothing more complicated than sitting quietly.

Let your thoughts come and go. Don’t try to stop them, but try instead to avoid actively dwelling on them. If you catch yourself lingering over something, don’t be hard on yourself – just let it go, brush it gently aside, say to yourself – I don’t want to be thinking about that right now. It is ultimately our aim to subdue these flittering thoughts, but it’s early days yet and one never counters force with force. This is your own self we’re talking about  after all, so be gentle. No sense in beating yourself up over it.

No sense in getting angry.

Anger is the opposite of where we want to be.

What now?

We breathe.

From the Dantien.

meditation abstract 34) What’s the Dantien?

Chances are, in the human biology you learned at school, there was never any mention of the Dantien. The reason for this is the kindest thing western medicine has to say about it is it’s imaginary. However, if you take the  trouble to imagine it, to focus your thoughts upon it as if it were real, then, eventually you will feel it as a physical presence, as something moving, something swelling, something firm, warm, tingly and inexplicably energising. Then try telling me the Dantien does not exit.

Where is it?

If you rest your hand on your belly, put the tip of your index finger into your belly button, then press down gently with the tip of your little finger, that’s where your Dantien is, a few inches inside your lower abdomen. Familiarise yourself with the idea of this “imaginary” thing called the Dantien and try to persuade your mind – perhaps against its better nature – of the physical reality of this region inside of you. Nurture it ,even when you’re not meditating. Think about it and see if you can feel it. What we need to do is wake it up and we do that, in part, by breathing. If you’ve never felt your Dantien before, don’t be afraid. This is the most intimate part of you, the very centre of your being. It’s like the best friend you never knew you had.

5) Breathing

The way we breathe in meditation is important – in fact the way we breathe is meditation, so I’ll take a little time to describe it.

We should always breathe through the nose. Take notice of your own natural breathing, and if you discover you’ve fallen out of the habit of using your nose, then try to re-educate yourself. Nose breathing is the proper way to breathe and without too much effort it will become automatic again. Of course if you’re troubled with a blocked nose, then forget what I’ve just said and breathe through your mouth.

To help you breathe through your nose, close your mouth and touch the tip of your tongue to the hard palate just behind your top front teeth, and keep it there. You might have read about this somewhere before. Various reasons are given for it  depending on the kind of books you read. A Kung Fu fighter does it so his tongue’s out of the way, and if he gets kicked in the face, he won’t bite it off. A serious qigonger will tell you it’s to complete the circuit on the conception channel that runs down the front of your body, that Chi can’t settle in your Dantien without it. For us lay meditators, it’s best to think of it as being simply a way of double sealing our mouth in order to re-enforce the message to our brain that we’re really serious about wanting to breathe through our nose.


Nose breathing.

When we inhale, we imagine the air being drawn into the Dantien, as if the Dantien itself were a kind of lung, swelling out and sucking in air. To help with this we breathe with our abdomen rather than our chest, which might seem odd. In fact what we’re doing is filling our lungs from the bottom up, so as we breathe in we push the belly out – this causes the lungs and the diaphragm to extend downwards. This is called abdominal breathing. Over time this technique will increase the capacity of the lungs and encourage a longer, slower breathing rate.

It’s healthier to breathe this way, the lungs take in a much greater volume of air and the blood becomes more highly oxygenated. It also stimulates the lymphatic system, clearing out toxins and generally any nastiness we can do without. Once your body becomes familiar with the feel of abdominal breathing it seems to become automatic, so its well worth playing about with as a technique in its own right, even when you’re not meditating.

The average, non-meditating adult breathes at a rate of between 12 and 20 breaths per minute, when resting. The higher the breathing rate, the shallower each breath is, with some people seeming to breathe only with the very tops of their lungs in a series of rapid, short, panting breaths. Everyone’s different and results will vary but after practicing for a number of years, my own natural respiration rate, at rest, is around four or five breaths per minute, and during meditation it will drop naturally to about one and a half breaths.

The Dantien and the breath are important in meditation, at least the way I practise it, and even when we’re not meditating, its good to become familiar with the feel of them. When we breathe in, we imagine the Dantien swelling as the belly expands, imagine the air being drawn down to the Dantien like a cool, silken thread, but when we breathe out, rather than imagine the Dantien collapsing, it’s as if we seal it off, it retains the air, and as the belly contracts to normal on the outward breath, the sensation in the Dantien is one of compression, compaction, or consolidation.

All of this might sound a bit silly, and to begin with it will be an entirely imaginary exercise, but if you’re patient you’ll eventually begin to feel the Dantien, feel an “energy” building up in it, and once you’ve made it’s acquaintance – even if you don’t meditate for a while, you’ve only to settle your thoughts upon it again and you’ll feel it stirring. Exactly what the Dantien is, I’ve no idea, but to feel what I can only describe as the breath energy building up in it is a very relaxing and a very comforting thing.

Getting a feel for the Dantien then is one of the milestones in the kind of mediation I do. It won’t come right away, and we shouldn’t try to pursue it, or in any way become fixated upon it. The Dantien is like a cat purring on your lap. Stroke it, feel its heat, it’s comforting vibration thoughout your body, but other than that leave it alone.

Getting a feel for the Dantien goes hand in glove with the feeling of relaxed, slow, deep breathing. Once you develop the feel for it, you’ll discover that focusing upon it has given the mind something else to do and you’re less troubled now by flittering thoughts.

But you can go further.

It also helps to listen to the sound of your breath.

So listen.

If you can hear your breath while you’re breathing, you’re breathing too fast. It’s when you can hear only the sound of your silent breath that you enter into a deeper state of meditation.

meditation abstract 25) The sound of the silent breath

A Zen koan? The sound of the silent breath. It’s like the old chestnut about the sound of one hand clapping, it doesn’t make sense at all – but really it’s very simple. If you breathe normally, and listen, you’ll both hear and feel the air moving in and out of your nose. Breathe more slowly and the sound and the feel of it will fade until you reach a point where you only know you’re still breathing because of the almost imperceptible movement of your abdomen. There is no sound, no sense of the breathing process in your ears or your nose. This is the sound of the silent breath.

Slow down.

See if you can find it.


You’re meditating.

Summing up

(1) Decide how long you’ve got to spare. Set a timer.

(2) Sit, back straight and not touching anything. Legs crossed or open, on the floor or on a chair. It doesn’t matter. Relax.

(3) Settle on a position, say to yourself this feels okay. Relax.

(4) Don’t move a muscle until the timer pings.

(5) Say to yourself, I don’t want to think about anything right now, but don’t try to stop your thoughts arising spontaneously – it’s impossible. Aim for a centered, calm, unthinking zone. If if thoughts arise and you catch yourself dwelling on something, brush those thoughts gently aside.

(6) Close your mouth, touch the tip of your tongue to the hard palate just behind your top front teeth.

(7) Imagine your Dantien

(8) Breathe through your nose if you can. Imagine the Dantien sucking the air down when you breathe in. Imagine it is the Dantien, rather than the lungs doing the breathing. Blocked nose? Then obviously breathe through your mouth.

(9) As you breathe in, let the belly expand. As you breathe out let the belly relax back naturally, and see if you can fel the Dantien purring.

(10) Follow your breaths, slowing them down until you can’t hear them any more.

(11) Be sensitive to any feelings coming from your Dantien.

(12) Relax and enjoy them.

(13) Let the timer ping.

(14) Get up and go about your day.

meditation abstractMeditation, when and how often?

This is really up to you. It depends on your lifestyle and how much time you’ve got. If you’re being a martinet about it, set a specific time aside every day in your private meditation chamber, preferably some ungodly hour in the morning. If you have the discipline to do that, then go for it. See if you can manage an hour a day. Otherwise don’t worry about it.

If you’re a suburban creature with a nine to five, living with a houseful of other active folks, most likely setting any kind of specific timetable for meditation is useless as it’s inevitable some familial crisis will interrupt your neatly ordered existence. In practice you need to be flexible then. If you’re feeling troubled and tense, then try to meditate at some point every day, gradually bringing up your time spent in the zone from ten to thirty minutes. Afterwards you’ll feel steadier. Calmer.

What you shouldn’t do is get into a situation where you feel guilty because you’ve missed your meditation, either because something came up and you really didn’t get the time, or you felt an internal resistance to the idea. We’ve all been there. Be kind to yourself. Don’t feel guilty.

Me? After attaining a certain degree of steadiness from meditating every day, my practice falls off and becomes sporadic. I don’t think this matters. You come back to it when you need it. I’m not aiming for Buddahood, just a little clarity.

What does clarity feel like?

It feels calm.


Books I enjoyed and found very helpful with meditation are:

Mindfulness: Bante Gee

Being Nobody Going Nowhere – Aya Keema

Starting to meditate – Professor David Fontana

The Healing Power of  Dao – Mantak Chia

The Dalai Llama’s little book of Calm – the Dalai Llama

The Secret of the Golden Flower – Cleary/Wilhelm

The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle

A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle

The Lavender and The Rose  – Michael Graeme

(only joking about the last one – it’s rubbish)

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leaving darwen tower

I talked last night about letting go of our anxieties and I’m conscious now of  making it sound easier than it really is. If we are born with a personality that is prone to anxiety, depression, or any other form of psychological turbulence, ” letting go” is more of a lifetime’s work than something that can be taught in a one off session – it’s part of who we are, and we’ll never be described as “normal” in the clinical sense, but then who is normal? On the upside, with hindsight, for a writer, it gives us a lot of interesting material to work with – though it might not feel like it at the time.

Of course, we can be brought quickly back onto the straight and narrow with the aid of drugs like SSRI’s. These alter the way we experience emotion, and can be quite powerful, but speaking as a layman, they also have their downsides. If your depression is so deep you’re literally at risk of razor blades in the bathroom, then SSRI’s can save your life, so we shouldn’t be too squeamish about taking them. Equally though, I know people who are stuck on them and for no reason I can see, other than they’re not aware of  any other option.

I spent a short time on SSRI’s myself, following a stressful transition in both my work and personal life, back in the nineties. This was a decade when they seemed to be handing them out like sweets. Prozac in particular was hailed as the new wonder drug – a substance that would render things like depression and anxiety a thing of the past. Well, Prozac’s still with us, but so are things like depression and anxiety.

Before taking Prozac, I was jumping at shadows, I was anxious about things stretching way into the future, things that might never happen. I’d break out sweating for no reason, I’d get dizzy behind the wheel of a car, mainly because my neck was so tightly screwed up I was shutting off the circulation to my brain – and I’d only to be trapped in a room full of people before I was imagining I was going to faint – probably for the same reason.

On reflection I recognize the root cause of my anxieties was not wanting to be where I was. But my societal duties and my apparent life’s path – including the basic need to go out and earn a living – insisted I endure situations I found absurd, not only that, but situations in which I was obliged to act and speak as if I thought everything was “normal”, that I’d somehow bought-in to the collective delusion. You can only do that for so long before your unconscious erupts on a volcanic scale, laying waste to your life, prompting you to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, hopefully on a more psychically sincere path. If you can’t do that, there’s a chance it’ll simply pull the plug on you and find a more willing companion next time around.

On Prozac, however, fitting in was no longer a problem. I also discovered astonishing levels of self confidence. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have moved, except to brush the dust from my shoulders. If the boss had shouted at me, I would have felt confident enough to tell him what I thought, then wee on his desk. A wonder-drug? Yes, and with good reason; my early days on Prozac were a revelation!

However, I lasted only a short while before the side effects kicked in. I found myself unable to sleep. I remember I didn’t sleep for a whole week, and that put me into a darker hole than I’d been in in the first place. You can get tablets for insomnia of course, and I was offered them as a quick fix, but I decided to make a break at this point and began the long road to becoming a closet hippy instead. Twenty five years later, I still wear a conventional collar and tie to work, and I draw a salary that’s been uninterrupted by time off for “stress”. But there’s a yin-yang pendant and a tree of life next to my skin, and my wisest confidant is a book called the I Ching.

This wasn’t an easy transition.

I was 28, a self styled mathematician and a physicist, having just completed 10 years of studies. To my mind, if you couldn’t plot its trajectory, or describe its behaviour with differential equations, “it” didn’t exist. I was rational, and a materialist. Many tread that path their whole lives, carving out impressive careers for themselves. Not me. It took a while for me to realise the stuff I’d learned was already a hundred years out of date, and that while there were many aspects of life you could explore, extrapolate and interpolate with the calculus of Isaac Newton, there were others it wouldn’t touch. The mind was one of them. For that you needed to get weird. Even Newton knew this, and wasn’t afraid to get weird himself.

So I got weird.

I started on the body with Yoga, then on the mind with Jung, then on both body and mind with Tai Chi and Qigong. For the spirit, I circled Daoism, Buddhism, then came back to Jung again – it was he who taught me there can be no dichotomy between psyche and spirit. I walked, I read, and I wrote. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and I’ve still no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ve never since felt the dark depths of despair that SSRI’s dumped me in. I’ve since faced far more stressful situations, without a serious wobble, so I must be doing something right. As for certainty though, you can forget it – about the only thing I know for sure in all of this is that what’s real is not always what you can plot on a graph.

As Jung said, what’s real is simply what works.

And it changes, all the time. What’s right for you now may not work in another year or two. You have to keep pace with your changing psyche. As Jung also said: All true things must change, and what does not change, cannot be true.

It might not sound like much of a cure – a quarter of a century of faltering steps along an essentially intangible mystical path, but reality was transformed for me once I took those first steps, and I feel the world has in all that time been coloured a more vivid shade of life than it ever would have been on SSRI’s.

A critical look at the dynamics of human interaction on a global scale reveals the disturbing fact that the world has evolved into a profoundly sick beast, that we live out daily the madness of the collective unconscious, pretty much as you can see it lived among the inmates of any institution for the seriously disturbed. And we participate in it because we have no choice – we’re all imprisoned by the essentially delusional values of money, and status, and even things like national or religious identities.

SSRI’s make us conveniently forgetful of this madness, allowing us to go on living in the world, but in ways that are making us increasingly ill. For the mystic to live in such a world, and see it as he does, does not make for comfortable viewing, but it at least grants him the ability to rise above the bullshit, to see it for what it is, and to maintain his psychical integrity rather than being negatively influenced and dragged down into the depths of hell by it.

But how do you let go? How does the office worker, the teacher, the health care professional,… all of them oppressed by organisational structures based upon delusional understandings of the human psyche, and metered by the dollar,… how do they let their anxieties go?

Well, the transcendental path is the only one I know, and your journey starts when you can deal with any negative materialistic reactions you might have to that word: Transcendental. The next step is looking that word up, understanding what it means to you, and then realising what a big word it is.

But the bottom line in all of this is it’s a personal journey. You can seek help, talk to people, read books, research the internet. But at some point you have to take charge of your own psychical destiny, and do something about it. Don’t worry that your actions might seem weird, because then you’re falling into another common trap – that of living your life through the eyes of someone else, someone always critical and questioning of your rational grip, of your right to be whomever you want to be. We’ve all done this. Recognising it, again, is one of the first steps to being free of it.

I could talk about meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Jungian Psychology, non literal reality, the Romantic movement, looking for meaning in our dreams, guided imagination – as I have done at at various times in this blog, and shall do so again,… but none of these things may be right for you, so just find what works, and get on with it.

Come to think of it, I haven’t talked about meditation.

I may do that next.

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Baoding ballsIn the 1954 movie “The Caine Mutiny” Humphrey Bogart plays the haunted, eccentric and much hated USN officer Captain Queeg. It’s a story in which Queeg finds himself up against accusations of incompetence lodged by his long suffering junior officers, two of whom he’s had hauled before a Court’s Marshal for mutiny. One of the most memorable images of the film is of Bogart rotating a pair of ball bearings in his hand as a stress reliever, while he glares moodily at his oppressors like a man possessed.

People manifest different habits when it comes to unconscious stress relief, not all of them quite so cinematically dramatic as Bogart’s ball bearings – biting nails, biting the inside of your mouth (one of mine), twiddling your hair, your eyebrows(another one of mine), or the ends of your mustache  or picking your toenails. Whatever the habit, it’s temporarily soothing for the doer, but it can be frustrating, even intimidating, for innocent bystanders.

A step up from Bogart’s ball bearings are the so called Chinese “healthy balls” [sic?]. These have the added curiosity of a chime built into them. As you rotate them against each other, you get a pleasing vibration in the palm of your hand – but again to anyone trapped in your company, the sound can be really annoying. I bought them because I liked the look of them, rather than believing they possessed any special healing properties, and I don’t play with them all the time – honestly.

Several of the major organs of the so called energy body have meridians that pass through the fingers, then through the palm of the hand and the arms, as they thread their way into the physical body. The constant dinging and vibration as you rotate the balls are supposed to stimulate the meridians which helps maintain a balanced energy body, which in turn regulates the physical body and keeps you healthy, hence the imperfectly translated: “healthy balls”.

That’s the theory anyway, and I should have an open mind about it, being otherwise such an advocate of alternative therapies, but my sense of smell which was temporarily restored by acupuncture, disappeared about a month ago and, in spite of continuing weekly sessions where I basically have pins stuck in my face, I’m now back to my old anosmic self – perhaps not helped by a stubborn chest infection. I’m therefore not really in a mood to talk about TCM, because I’m frustrated by anosmia – and for various other reasons as well.

Indeed, I feel very much like Bogart, oppressed and misunderstood, so I sit sour faced this evening, juggling my ball bearings. But the ball bearings are no good, Humphrey. You see, the frustration you feel creates a very negative kind of energy that you channel into the motion of those balls. It temporarily diverts the energy, stops it from damaging you, but the source is still there, eating away at you all the time, even when you’re asleep. What you’ve got to do is defuse it. Bad things happen you see? There is misfortune and suffering. That’s life, and its how we deal with it that’s the important thing. So take a deep breath, and let it go.

Well, that’s easy for you to say, says Bogart, but some things are just so goddamned awful, you can’t simply let them go, can you? Like your crew-members ganging up on you and trying to get away with mutiny by challenging your competence. But I think you can let it go, Humphrey. Indeed, I think we must. Lao Tzu said that if you’re frustrated or depressed, you’re living in the past, contemplating things that have already happened. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future, contemplating what has yet to come. So, let it go, steady yourself in the moment. Let the sediment fall, then clarity will be restored. Stress and anxiety cloud the thoughts. They stop you from seeing straight, stop you from making the right decisions for yourself and others in your care.

I once asked a TCM doctor if those “healthy balls” were any good, since he had a pair on the shelf in his office, and of all people he should probably have the straight dope on them. And he said, well,… if someone’s annoying you, you can gain temporary relief by picking one up and hitting him with it. Other than that they’re probably useless.

By all means juggle your balls or twiddle your eyebrows, but letting go feels so much better. This is not to say we retreat from that which oppresses us, but if we can rid ourselves of the reactionary cloud of negative emotion, we act as we should – wisely, skilfully and in the clear light of day – rather than being influenced by darker energies, which will always waylay us and lead us into making bad decisions.

I hope I have the good sense to take my own advice!

Goodnight all.

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darwen towerExploring duality on Darwen Moor

I drove up to the Royal Arms at Tockholes today and stretched my legs on Darwen Moor. My ancestors were weavers and mill-workers in this area, and would have been intimately acquainted with the ancient byways that criss cross these rather bleak hills. How can I describe Darwen Moor? Technically it’s an upland plateau, though more poetically I can’t help thinking of it as a dour blend of gritstone, peat and heather – black as a hag’s teeth in winter. And there’s a tower.

I needed the air. And I needed my ancestors.

A dull daily commute, followed by pastimes that center upon the contemplation of one’s navel can lead to some very insulated ways of thinking, particularly when we start probing the nature of reality. Many an unfortunate hippy has passed this way, picked up on the Buddhist idea of “Maya”, misinterpreted it, and concluded that the world we think of as real is just an illusion, that attachment to it is the biggest delusion we can fall foul of, and that the more valid experience is a total retreat into an imaginary inner world, aided, if necessary, by powerful hallucinogens.

But we need to be careful.

Personally, I prefer the notion that having a keen and clear-headed handle on the ways of the physical world is far from delusional, if only because our mortal contract insists we spend so much time learning the ropes here in the first place. I like the Daoist view which describes us as being caught with our feet in both camps, that we exist partially both in the inner and the outer world, and that we can’t make sense of either without paying due attention to both.

So, it does you good to get out once in a while, to climb the muddy trails up into the clouds, far above the towns and cities, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of your mortal nature by the feel of the wind on your face. If I had a more thrill-seeking personality I’d probably take up skydiving or base-jumping. As it is a walk in the hills is usually sufficient to re-calibrate and ground my sense of reality.

frozen pathTemperatures have been getting down to below freezing here and the visitor center carpark at the Royal Arms was slick with ice. As I picked up the trail, I found the ground hard with frost and the paths, normally glutinous mud and stagnant pools of water, were rendered difficult with long stretches like rivers of ice. My instep crampons would have been useful, but I’d left them at home because this is only Darwen Moor after all, not Helvellyn, though the winter weather has been known to kill people up here. I decided to chance it anyway, trusting to luck there’d be enough clear stretches to get me to the tower and back without breaking a leg. I find walking boots are useless in conditions like this, hard soled and slippery as hell, needing the addition of steel spikes to bite. The fell runners were faring far better in their soft soled trainers. I cringed at the sight of their bare legs. It was cold. Biting cold.

path to darwen towerAs I walked, I was thinking about a passage in the story I’m currently writing. The heroine, Adrienne, has survived a near fatal car accident that’s left her haunted, not least by a classic near death experience – tunnel of light, meeting dead relatives and all that. The hero, Phil, is a survivor of a different kind of accident – a helicopter crash at sea that left him traumatized  having been tossed in a rubber boat for three days in a storm, thinking he was going to drown. He suffered hallucinations towards the end, and ever since has experienced lucid dreams and an uncanny intuition apparently guided by imaginary conversations with his great great grandfather. (Don’t ask me where I get this stuff from)

Anyway, when these two meet, their chatter inevitably circles around the meaning and the nature of reality as they try to make sense of their experiences, as well as dealing with the psychological damage from which they’re still both still suffering. At one point, Phil is wondering if they’re not both actually dead, that neither of them in fact survived their accidents, and that what they think is real life is actually some kind of strange mutual lucid dream experience, or a kind of purgatory. And how would they know otherwise? But Adrienne isn’t impressed and retorts that she knows what “dead” feels like,…

“and it’s a whole lot better than this, Phil. No, this feels pretty much like being alive to me.”


Ice on the ascent. You slip – best case, you bruise your gluteus maximus. Worst, you go over a crag and break your neck. But crags are few on Darwen Moor, and the way is relatively easy, plus they’re a hardy lot round here and I had plenty of company on the way up, most of them moving faster than me – not just hardy walker types, but rosy cheeked families out for a bit of a blow. I seemed to be testing every step, or paused fiddling with my camera, while my overtakers tramped gleefully on, passing me with a neighbourly “Ow do.” Maybe I should get out more. Maybe I should should swap my shamefully underused Brashers for a pair of cheap soft soled boots from the discount store, and simply learn to walk again?

It’s not a long hike to the tower from the Royal Arms, only a couple of miles, and well worth it. It’s one of the most impressive follies in the district, built in 1898, and a magnet for generations of walkers. Unlike many such structures these days, it isn’t fenced off and boarded up. You can still climb up it, and in spite of being in one of the bleakest spots in the West Pennines, it shoulders the weather well. With a little TLC over the years, it’s maintained its structural integrity, and bourne the occasional insults of vandals good naturedly. From inside, via a spiral stone staircase, you can access a mid level viewing balcony. If you’ve the nerve for it, you can press on to the top. The stone stairway ends just short of the top where you then climb a short section of iron spiral steps, to emerge through a doorway in the upper, glazed, pergola-like dome. This gives access to the upper turret, raised some eighty feet above the moor. The views from here are breathtaking, but I’m no good with exposed heights and usually need a braver companion to goad me into making the ascent.

darwen tower turretThe tower has lost its glazed dome twice, once in 1947 in a gale, and again more recently in 2010. The latest impressive replacement was built by a local engineering company and was lowered gingerly into place by helicopter back in January this year.

Ostensibly built to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, the tower also celebrates the victory of local people who regained their rights of access to the ancient trails hereabouts, and which had been blocked by the absentee landlord who was more concerned with rearing grouse for the guns of the monied classes. It was an unfortunate fact that much of the British uplands were once denied to the local population until the mass-trespass movements began the long process of winning those uplands back. The most famous of these was on Derbyshire’s Kinder Scout in 1932, but it all began here over Darwen in the 1890’s. It’s a sad fact however that access wasn’t enshrined in law until the Countryside and Rights of Way act in 2000, over a hundred years later. The moral is you don’t need to be a sage to appreciate the restorative nature of the uplands. Spend your working week doing 12 hours shifts on a loom down in a smokey town and you’ll appreciate it well enough.

I didn’t climb the tower today. I was feeling a bit done in to be honest, plus the light was going and there was sleet in the air. And, all right, I’m chicken.

Fear – rational or otherwise – and conflict, also the wind biting your nose, and the ever present risk of a slip, of physical injury. Yes,… like Adrienne says: Feels pretty much like being alive to me.

Yet I know the Buddhists have a point about Maya. I glimpsed it once in a brief moment of staggering awareness – that at a certain level of perception what we see and experience in the world is a mental construct, that there’s no difference between who we think we are, and what we see in the world. We are indeed “that“. But adopting this philosophical stance doesn’t make things any easier for us at the operating level of reality. We have no choice but to go with the world as we see and feel it, being bound by physical rules that restrict our ability to mentally manipulate our realities, rules that render us fragile in a world that can seem brutally impassive, rules that mean when we trap our finger in the car door, it hurts, and when we find ourselves on an ice-bound trail in the British uplands, we’re going to have to watch our step.

But this kind of thinking raises a paradox that haunts me: If I am what I’m looking at, then who are you? Since there’s nothing special about me, you must also be what you’re looking at, and if we’re both looking at the same thing, then at some unimaginable level we are the same, you and I.

I’m afraid my rather dull abilities as a philosopher won’t carry me beyond this point – how we can be both separate and unique expressions of spirit, yet also be the same. How can I look at the world, and at the same time construct it, yet do so in such a way that it makes perfect sense to you, as your world makes sense to me? There are many expressions of philosophical duality but this one beats the hell out of me. So I find myself slithering over the moors on contemplative walks, admiring the views, taking photographs and occasionally talking to myself.

Still, it’s better than fretting about the gas bill, or the price of petrol.

I made it back from the tower without incident, the only downside to the day being that the visitor center cafe was closing, and I didn’t get my bacon butty.


Goodnight all.

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Twitter Blog Birds

I’ve been tweeting again. I thought I’d given up on this years ago. I’d noticed my tweets had started looking like glimpses of a darker world than I really believed in. Reading them, there was a sense of falling off the edge, a lot of bleating on about the price of petrol, road tax and the unreliability of my car, which I’d Christened “old grumpy”.

Old grumpy had become a proxy for my perceived trials and tribulations in a world that was forever breaking down. In my tweets I read the story of a man caught between a rock and a hard place, facing the obliteration of his future economic security to say nothing of the ruin of his dreams, and whether any of that was true or not, in the end I just I didn’t like the sound of my own voice any more, so I shut up.

A few of my tweets however, seemed to capture something else, something more enduring and more faithful to the kind of vision I once saw reflected in the world, a vision that had become clouded by the darker stuff, and my path lost. They might not have meant anything to anyone else, but they managed to puncture the hard shell of my day to day, and let bleed out a flavour of something much sweeter, something I could still taste. So I let them be, and deleted all the rest.

Of course there’s something of the Haiku about the Tweet – this is the ancient short-form Japanese poetic style, associated with Zen. Its matsuo basholimit on the means of creative expression forces you to say more with less, and right now, for me, I think that’s important:

Above the moor, not attached to anything, a skylark singing.

(Matsuo Basho 1644-1694)

Ten words, descriptive of a moment, and a profound insight.

We can’t all be Matsuo Basho, but if we choose our words carefully, we can achieve a resonance of sorts, allowing the universe to take over and tell its own story, one that swells from the seed we provide. It’s hard of course, getting those words right, setting up that initial resonance, but well worth meditating upon and of course very satisfying when you pull it off. Our bell may not ring as loud and clear as Basho’s, but we still know it when we hear it.

In the sad old pre-internet days of chasing magazine publication, I was always up against a word limit. Back then Ireland’s Own, a  traditional Irish family magazine, was kind enough to take some of my stuff on a fairly regular basis, so I found myself coming up with all sorts of story ideas and having to tell them in about 2000 words. That’s not easy. It teaches you efficiency with words and style, but also ways of saying things, not just with words but also with the words you leave out – like Ernest Hemingway’s famously ingenious six word short story: For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

When you begin writing, your worry is being able to write enough to meet the target. The problem goes back to our schooldays and having to come up with two thousand word essays on topics that don’t inspire us much. But once you find your muse and she’s set you alight, you realise the danger then is in writing too much, while paradoxically saying too little of what you, or your muse, really mean. You wonder how you can ever twist and chop and trim your tale into so measly an allowance of column inches as the commercial magazine allows.

dovetails imageMy story “Dovetails” is indicative of the kind of thing I was writing for Ireland’s Own, though by the time I’d finished it, I’d been seduced by sci fi and fantasy magazines like Interzone and The Third Alternative. They allowed me to bend my world into more speculative realms, and explore them within a limit of up to 6500 words. But is more any better?

None of those 6500 word stories were ever published, and you’ll find them all on Feedbooks now for free. Likewise, the self published novels – which allow me a theoretically unlimited number of words to tell my tales. Lately though, I’ve begun to wonder about the novel. Is there a danger in writing 100,000 words yet paradoxically saying nothing at all?

Can we say, or see, or feel much more, with less?

For now, I’m back to tweeting, back to feeling the moments in time, and attempting to express them in 140 characters. This is not to say I’ll be wasting characters bleating on about the price of petrol again, or the annual shock of road tax for old grumpy, because these are not momentary glimpses of satori. They’re more the dull bludgeon of the unreal world that can so easily waylay us. They are the chatter in our monkey-minds when we are trying to meditate.


Evil grey-green dawn. Cold rain falls in stair-rods, snow-spits inbetween. An old car at blurry lights. Prefers this kind of weather.

Slightly sinister, but that was how I saw it “in the moment” this morning.

And, on a cosier note:

Light leaks early now to winter’s night. Psyche turns inward as Luna passes full. Home, a haven of soft light, old books, and bed.


Goodnight all.

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