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meridian systemI was lying on a table in the back room of a two up two down terraced former mill-house in Chorley, pins sticking out of my arms, my legs and my face, and I felt weird, but in a good way. No, this isn’t the opening of a piece of fiction. This was 2007 and the beginning of my journey into the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, my first consultation with an acupuncturist – though my experience and subsequent journey into the esoteric, did go a long way in informing my romantic story “Push Hands”.

I’d felt I had no choice in trying acupuncture, being afflicted with a ringing ear that western medicine could do nothing about. And you know what? It worked – of a fashion. Over a period my ringing ear didn’t ring so much any more. And the sessions made me feel different in other ways. I was suddenly more relaxed, more clear headed and energetic. In short, I felt better and a good ten years younger.

Acupuncture’s not available on the NHS, and at thirty quid a session, and with anything up to a dozen sessions or more being required, depending on what ails you, you have to be sure you want to use it. But then I found you could maintain that calmness, that clear headed, relaxed feeling by practising Tai Chi and Qigong. And eventually as we practice, we feel unfamiliar sensations in the hands and the arms, and we wonder: is it Qi?

I began, years ago thinking to nail this mysterious business of Qi, because without it, I believed, TCM and all that mind-body stuff didn’t make sense. But I’ve ended with a more pragmatic view, and a greater understanding of western physiology which explains things well enough if you can only be bothered getting to the bottom of it. I still hear Qi talked about in classes, and it grates a little now, but you can approach it from different angles, both from the traditional, and the practical and the secret is not to get hung up on either. Just do the exercises, the meditation; visualise, rationalise it however you want. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is it works.

One of my biggest frustrations with the traditional path is there has never been a consensus among so called masters about what Qi is, at least nothing one can glean from reading their books. With medical science, the more you read, the clearer things become. With Qi, however, the more you read, the less you understand anything at all. I’ve come to the conclusion the whole business is more of a misunderstanding, born partly out of a rejection of science in the west among those largely resistant to or ignorant of it, and in the east a willingness to present concepts in terms of what we apparently want to believe. And what we want to believe in is Qi.

In that acupuncturist’s consulting room there was a dummy with all the acupuncture points indicated as dots, with lines joining them like the map of a railway system. The lines indicate the so called meridians along which Qi is said to flow, an idea that can be traced back to a book by George Soulie de Morant, an early translator of oriental philosophy. But the strange thing is even the most revered founding oriental work on acupuncture, the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook doesn’t mention meridians. The meridian theory appears to have been an early twentieth century, and largely western, invention. It caught on and we’ve been talking rubbish ever since.

The acupuncture points are real enough. They are what we would now call neuro-vascular nodes, areas dense in fine veins and nerves, situated along the routes of the major arteries. These are referred to in early Chinese texts, a link having been found between them and the function of the organs of the body, that stimulating them can bring about certain healing effects – reducing inflammation, pain, sickness. The precise mechanism is complex and not well understood, but appears to be a result of the stimulation of the body’s natural healing mechanisms. In short, TCM works and is very effective, but the meridian theory, the model underpinning it, as presented to the west, and all its talk of Qi, is misleading at best, at worst, plain wrong.

But having said that it’s sometimes still useful to think in terms of Qi, more as a metaphor of physical effects. In practical terms, Qi has two components. One is oxygen, the other is glucose. The oxygen we get by breathing air, while glucose comes from the food in our stomachs. Both are carried by the blood to every part of the body where they combine to produce chemical energy, either for motion, or for healing and regeneration of tissue. Practices like Tai Chi and Qigong encourage deep breathing, boosting the amount of oxygen in the blood – you also get hot and you sweat because the by product of the body’s chemical equation is heat and water. Heat and water are a good sign. The movements during practice stimulate the neuro-vascular nodes, drive the lymph, and the relaxed, mindful attitude encourages a return to homeostasis, a neutral chemical balance essential for a healthy body. To practice Tai Chi or Qigong for an hour a day is to experience a dramatic change in the way you see and feel your body and the world about you.

The problem for westerners has been the gradual erosion of any romantic notions regarding one’s existence. Medical science has reduced life to a series of mechanical functions, an approach that, while advancing our understanding to miraculous levels, has ironically sucked the life out of being, and what we crave is a return to the mysterious. Perhaps in Qi we have been seeking to put the soul back into the machinery, and to revivify belief in the reality of our selves. But the path of the soul is something else, a somewhat longer journey of which the mind-body stuff can be a part, but only in the sense that in calming the mind, in freeing it from the debilitating distractions of the material life, it can then, in quieter times, return more readily to a deeper contemplation of other things.

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nuclear burst.jpgDear potential leader,

Why should I vote for you if you’re cagey about whether you would ever contemplate pressing the red button to launch our nuclear weapons against another state that’s already launched its nuclear missiles against us?

You mean, you want me to launch first?

Em,… no, that’s not exactly British – I mean, more in self defence,… like.

Well, clearly my friend you misunderstand the nature of nuclear warfare, against which, I assure you, there is no such thing as self defence. If another state has launched its nuclear missiles at us, I have already failed you,  because we are already dead.

Regardless of your faith in technology, I assure you, even now, in this age of wonders, there is no missile that can  intercept those incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. They are the fastest things imaginable, faster even than an impact prone asteroid, and just as deadly. We are, therefore, already dead, horribly dead, and I have failed you miserably, abominably, in my responsibility as a politician, and a statesman and as a leader.

I should have stopped it. I’m sorry, but that is the reality of nuclear war.

Yes, admittedly, before we die, there is probably still time to press that red button, and to thereby ensure the deaths of millions of people in retaliation for our own demise – and all right you say, but they’re just Johnny foreigner, and don’t count for much – but still that is not self defence, by any description. That is Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD as we used to call it in the old days.

It’s like a game of bluff, I suppose. We each have all these terrible weapons perfectly capable of destroying each other many times over. So it boils down to a game of poker. I bluff, saying to the world I am perfectly prepared to use our nukes, as does the other side. But implicit in this argument is the assumption the other side won’t dare to launch first, because they know they’ll die as well, because sure as hell we’ll launch ours, not in defence, but in revenge.

Revenge?

Yes. That’s a different spin for sure, but it’s what it boils down to. Nuclear war is complicated, but also very simple: we all die.

So you want me to pay lip service to the MADness game and say I will press the button, even if I won’t, because there’s this argument that MADness prevented the nuclear holocaust that was imminent any time between 1950 and 1989. But why should I? What use is there in revenge? I don’t believe there’s anything useful or worthy in revenge.

So,.. we died. But at least we killed the other lot as well. Doesn’t sound so grand when you put it like that , does it?

It seems to me previous generations understood the business of nuclear war better than we do now, certainly better than the angry old white men who read the Daily Mail. Instead read Nevil Chute’s “On the Beach” (1957) if you want a compelling account from a fiction writer and an engineer who knew the maths, and the technology better than any one, even by today’s standards, at least judging by the right wing populist rhetoric. There is no surviving a nuclear war. Ironically, it is the younger generation who seem to understand this better than their parents.

Talk of red buttons and who will press them is fatuous. The guy who says he wouldn’t press it under any circumstances is by far the more interesting and forward thinking. His is the world I want to live in. It’s a struggle of the imagination, and a courageous one, but one worth fighting for.

And he gets my vote.

 

 

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watchwordThe Watchword technique is method of self analysis. Its origins are obscure, but find themselves formalised in this 1990’s title by Michael Daniels, senior lecturer in what was then Liverpool Polytechnic’s Department of Psychology. The book has a very Jungian grounding, and aims to give the reader a clear picture of the forces at play in the currents of the psyche – where we’re going, what’s holding us back, what are the dominant forces driving us, what areas we need to work on, to let go of and so on.

If you’re of a New Agey, self analysis, Jung-fan bent, you probably already have a number of methods for getting inside your head. Tarot cards are popular, as are Runes. For a long time I favoured the I Ching but, like all oracular devices it can be misunderstood and, like the Tarot and Runes, is somewhat tainted by an occultish aura which does not appeal to everyone.

Oracles do not foretell tell the future. It’s a common misconception. Instead, they read the psychical landscape and make projections from it. They grant us a look inside our heads, revealing what might otherwise be hidden. All methods have their attractions and drawbacks and we should feel free to take them up and set them aside as and when the mood takes us, never adhering to them too slavishly, but rather listening to our own instincts for what’s right at the time. In this way the Watchword technique can be looked upon as another thing to try, perhaps when answers are failing you elsewhere. The method is direct, and carries none of the occult baggage associated with other methods, though this is not to say its intuitions are both startling and mysterious.

The technique involves writing down sixteen words – whatever comes into one’s head – then pairing them off and looking for an association with the linked words, then pairing these off. Reminiscent of a Jungian word association test, and dream amplification, what we end up with is a grid of highly charged words which, like dream symbols, represent the archetypal forces, or a kind of psychical weather forecast. As a method I find it very powerful, though as Daniels cautions in the book, it is not something to be read too literally or follow too slavishly.

So, our sixteen seed words are boiled down by a process of association into a square matrix which we then interpret using a form of directional symbolism. In short, the up and down directions indicate progressive and regressive tendencies, the left and the right involve the more subtle interpretation of inner (left) and outer (right) psychological urges. The overall balance of the square therefore comes to represent a map of the forces within us and the complex dynamical churn between them. A further pattern of three words emerges in the centre of the matrix, the middle one of these being taken as the ultimate direction implied from the interplay of all the other forces in the mix.

While this may sound dubious to anyone not versed in symbolic or archetypal thinking, I find the method has an uncanny way of homing in on the key dynamics. The answers arise from our own thought processes, it’s just that some of them are normally hidden from view and the method tries to tease them out. At its most basic level the Watchword technique can be treated as a word game, as a bit of fun, and when beginning with it, it’s perhaps best to treat it as such. But at its deepest level it can aid us in coming up with some profound insights into our own strengths and failings.

A more individual analysis of the words we’ve chosen can also reveal our Myers Briggs type, and the book goes into this in some depth, but I’ve found the technique less reliable in that respect, probably due to my own failings in grasping the symbolic significance of the words we use, better to use the Myers Briggs method itself, but in all other respects this is a valuable tool for anyone on the path towards self discovery.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Triumph of Death - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - 1562No matter how fortunate we are in life, it’s a challenge to be grateful, a challenge to be at peace. Rather, we seem programmed more towards irritation, scornfullness, and resentment of anything we perceive as threatening to our sense of control. The peace we crave is for ever elusive, and all we’re left with is the craving.

I’ve noticed this with older, retired people, people I look at and think: how fortunate to have left behind the day-job, the mind-numbing commute. Their kids have flown, they have all the time in the world now to simply be; they can lie in of a morning, shuffle round Tescos, or the garden centre, or read a book, watch TV. Heavens, how blessed to have all that time and space to finally decompress! But there can be nothing more ornery than the older, retired person, a person with nothing to worry about, because in the absence of real troubles, we invent them.

Me? I’ve had a choppy week this week. My vehicle was issued a recall notice by the manufacturer for transmission problems. I made a difficult journey to the dealership – time off work and all that – to be told the recall is not actually a recall, and though there’s definitely a problem with my transmission there’s nothing they can do without it costing me a lot of money. Then I was soldering a piece of wire, and a ball of red hot flux spat out, landed on my specs, crazed the lens precisely in my line of vision, so I need new specs and, in the mean time, have two weeks of squinting around this damned fog-patch while my new specs are delivered. And this is just the start. I could go on and on about all the damned stuff that’s happened this week, but it would only try your patience, and mine.

We all have weeks like this. And if I’m calm and rational about it, I can see how all of these problems are either surmountable in time, or more simply irrelevant in the great scheme of things. But still, the pain-body relishes them, creates out of them the illusion of things clustering, like pack-dogs, circling, attacking.

It was  Eckhart Tolle, who first coined the phrase “Pain body”. It exists not in a literal sense, but more as a psychological complex and therefore real enough to cause us harm if not checked. It thrives on negative emotion and is sadly the default state for most people.

At the car dealership, I regret being less than civil, regret expressing my exasperation. I regret also cursing on the way home, genuinely believing there was not one person of competence in the world willing or even remotely able to deal with anything I could not deal with myself. But this was stupid; it was arrogant. It was my pain-body speaking, my pain body thinking, my pain body being stupid. But this does not excuse it, for a man is no less a fool for allowing himself to be ruled by his pain body.

Stuff happens, sometimes even all at once, and we deal with it. Then something else happens – that’s life. But at times of sinking spirit, of flagging energy, we find ourselves braced, walking on eggshells, wondering, what the F*&k next? So here I am, nearly two decades of mindfulness, of Tai Chi, of meditation, of walking the path towards self awareness, whatever the hell that means, and it all falls away. Once more, there stands my hideous, wrinkled old pain body, unscathed, pleased by my suffering over nothing.

To subvert the pain body we must starve it of what it most craves. To do this we first make space within ourselves. A single breath is a start, we breathe in, and as we breathe out, we try to sense the energy field of the body. It sounds la-di-da fanciful, but if we can only imagine it this way, I find it’s helpful. And in rediscovering the spaciousness in the energy body, it’s as if we have dodged behind a tree, and the pain body can no longer find us. It’ll catch up with us eventually because it’s a dogged little parasite, but it’s helpful to know we can at least evade it from time to time.

A permanent solution requires a more permanent connection, or rather it requires a particular kind of connection and, you know, I can’t remember what that is because it has no shape, nor any words to describe it. It is a state of grace, and I cannot find my way home to it. Nor does it help that the world today is presented as being so full of pain, that indeed even the leadership of entire nations is in the hands of Pain Bodies. Their sub-level vibrations are infectious, forming a global pandemic, a contagion to which we are all vulnerable.

Thinking of a solution only gets us so far. It brings us to a gate, and the gate is secured by a puzzling combination of locks. The locks draw our attention because the mind likes to solve puzzles, and we are programmed to expect to have to puzzle or think our way through the world. But what we fail to notice is there’s no wall either to the left or the right of the gate. We are too distracted by the puzzle – which is in any way unsolvable – to have noticed we can simply walk around it.

Faith in anything, in particular the supernatural, in magic, the esoteric might be comforting for a while, but it’s unreliable and without that connection it falls away at a moment’s notice, leaving us naked and vulnerable at a time when we think we most need it. Even memories of particularly charged and numinous past events fade, causing us to question our experience of the mysterious side of life, and before he knows it even the monk is shaking his fist at the moon.

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thorpe-fell-top

The Weathered trig point on Thorpe Fell Top

The greatest pleasures in life are free. It’s not a particularly profound observation, but we sometimes forget. Life closes over us and we think we have to buy our way to pleasure, to satisfaction, or even just to make ourselves feel a little better. We all know this doesn’t work. What does work, is a simple walk, preferably up a hill. After a walk up a hill, no matter what life is nagging us with, we return relaxed, magnanimous, philosophical. It’s like a reset button, a thing that reliably blows away all the wormy gremlins.

Of late I’ve been seeking my hills in the Yorkshire Dales, an area unique in character and, to my mind, not as spoiled by rampant tourism, as the neighbouring Lake District. Unlike the Lakes, in the Dales we still find towns and villages that are home to a mostly indigenous population, where the trinket shops are few, and the holiday homes and b+b’s do not yet outnumber the genuine residences. Here, I find every visit yields yet another discovery, another unexpected hamlet with village green, duck-pond and homely teashop.

My most recent discovery, on this bright, frosty winter’s morning is Linton. Linton fits into the geography of Wharfedale, being just a stone’s throw from Burnsall, Hebden and Grassington. I’ve been driving up and down the Wharfe for years and not suspected Linton’s existence at all, and was drawn to it eventually simply as the starting point for this walk up Thorpe Fell. I had to check the map, and there it was.

I don’t know the stories of place here as well as I should, but this lends a touch of mystery to the land, and a void into which imagination tumbles with all the enthusiasm of the Romantic poet. I am prone to a certain mysticism in the empty places. There are many parts of the Dales, particularly what I still think of as the old West Riding, that have something of the big-house estate about them, something almost Feudal. This area is dominated by the vast Bolton Abbey Estate, and not well served with rights of way across its siren tops – we woolly hatted ones I imagine being discouraged, pre “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, but we are now free to explore – just don’t expect many waymarked paths while you’re at it.

Thorpe Fell is one of the most stunning heather moors I’ve seen. This morning the heather is dusted with frost and presents us with rather an eerie, windswept yet curiously beguiling wilderness. I can imagine September here will be ablaze with purple, and promise myself I will return to see it.

From Linton, we make our way by meadow and country lane to Thorpe Village, from where a track begins the ascent of the moor, petering out by degrees until one is all but relying on a sixth sense. There is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness which makes all the more surprising the presence of rather a fine tea-hut on the moor’s windy edge. It isn’t marked on my edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The hut looks cosy, but is locked up tight and shuttered against intruders – I presume being solely for the use of the sons of gentlemen when they come up in their tweeds and knickerbockers to shoot grouse. But there is also rather a fine, open, grass roofed barn nearby, also not marked on the map, and in which I take brief shelter while enjoying lunch.

There is an indistinct summit to Thorpe Fell, complete with weathered trig-point, but it is not served by any path – the only path hereabouts veering off from the tea hut roughly north west, avoiding the summit which lies to the south west. The land, however, is open access, unless the gentlemen are shooting of course, and today they are not, so we are free to make a stab at its general direction. It’s a quarter mile or so of raw moor-bashing, the heather thick and springy with just the occasional weathered outcrop to provide a firmer going.

From the crumbling trig point (506 metres) the views are simply stunning. It’s also possible to see the next objective, the memorial on Cracoe Fell a little to the west of south west. It’s best to head due west from here though, rather than make a bee line, otherwise peat hags and the upper reaches of Yethersgill make for a laborious approach. Instead, due west, we pick up the line of a wall, and beside it a confident path leads us more easily to the memorial.

The memorial, a huge cairn, sitting atop a fine outcrop, adds height and drama to the fell – it bears a plaque marking the years 1914-1919, and the names of the fallen. This is the point at which we begin our descent, first to the village of Cracoe, then back through the meadows to Linton. But there is no direct route to Cracoe from the top, as I discovered in the attempting of it. I was thinking to head north west, a trackless bee-line towards an enticing bit of track that runs up from Cracoe to a weather station, but this leads quickly to bog, and for me rather a cold dip as one foot broke through the crust into something altogether less pleasant below. So, it’s better to back track a little from the memorial, back along the wall we have just come along, to where a gate gives access westwards. Either way we’re aiming for the Fell Lane track, which takes us to Cracoe, and the meadow paths home to Linton.

We’ve been walking for 5 hours now, the light beginning to leak away as we cross the various stiles and lush, frost dusted meadows. My feet always seem to know when I’m on the last mile, whether the walk is a couple of miles or ten, and they start to complain. But it’s a pleasant complaint, anticipating the eventual loosening of laces, and the body’s repose after a day in the field. Darkness is coming on, the temperature plummeting as we return to the car, and my boots begin to steam when I pull them off.

I’m always different after a walk. I’d left home that morning labouring under a cloud, my vehicle potentially stuffed at four years old with a major transmission problem . I’d been duped by the dealer I bought it from, was feeling fobbed off and badly served, facing now the prospect of a search for another vehicle and all the hazards that entails (dodgy dealers included – even the big glossy ones), or a very expensive repair. Ah,… cars eh?

Either way were looking at a serious hit in the wallet at a time of year when one can ill afford it. To be sure, it had felt like the end of the world as I’d dragged my bones from bed that morning, and mustered my walking gear, so much so I nearly didn’t bother setting off. But as I poured out my coffee in the Cracoe Cafe that evening, I could not have cared less.

It was a fine sunset, a clear azure sky, another keen, frosty evening coming on. The moon was up, Venus in attendance, with a distinctly coquettish gleam in her eye.

What more could a man want?

Well, let me see,… ah yes!

I ordered a toasted teacake.

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MX5 HortonIt’s my third summer now with the MX5, and with all due respect to those pop psychologists, I didn’t buy it because I was menopausal, even though I’m probably of an age that’s ripe for it. I bought it because I wanted one when I was seventeen and couldn’t afford the insurance. By the time I could afford it, I was married with kids, so a two seater sports car was impractical and I ran around for a quarter century in a family hatchback instead. Then the kids reached a stage when they wouldn’t be seen dead going out with me any more and suddenly that open topped sports car was on the cards again, and if you go for an old second hand one, neither are they particularly expensive.

But there’s nothing the media likes more than to gather a few pop psychologists and poke fun at all us silver foxes pretending to be teenagers. I mean, can’t we see how ridiculous we look? I suspect such articles are written by people in their twenties, who have no idea what it actually feels like to be a man in their fifties. Well, you know what? Being a man in your fifties feels just like being a man in your twenties, except in one or two significant respects which makes being in your fifties infinitely better.

Horton Church and PenyghentI took the MX5 to the Yorkshire Dales today, a round trip of about a hundred miles, drove it with the top down all the way, not in order to attract the admiring glances of women, but because there’s a greater sense of presence when you drive this way. The air feels good once you get off the highways and you appreciate the scenery more.

I took the car to the Dales because I wanted to climb Penyghent. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was in my twenties. I’d puff and wheeze my way up it back then, and I still puff and wheeze my way up it now. I’m not worried about advancing age, I’m not trying to prove anything, this is nothing about bucket-lists or raging at the setting of the sun. I took the car to the Dales, I did the hill, and I called for coffee on the way back. It was a great day out and I didn’t once feel self conscious or stupid.

The Mazda’s in the garage now cosseted under its dust sheet, and I’m in the summer house with a glass of wine and the laptop, thinking back over the day. There were plenty on the hill who were a good deal older than me, and they’re an inspiration in the sense that no one is too old for anything. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend climbing Penyghent in your eighties if you’ve never done a day’s walking before, but if you’ve been doing it all your life nothing’s going to stop you, is it?

I’m not saying the male menopause doesn’t exist, because it does, and a man must deal with it as best he can. But what the writers of pop articles about the male menopause overlook is that it’s no fun being young either. Being young has its own problems. True, you’ve more chance of attracting beautiful women and making love to them when you’re younger, but I seem to recall there was a downside to all of that as well, and one I definitely don’t miss.

penyghentOn my way up to the Dales, I stopped at some lights and a brand new Maserati pulled up beside me. It was growling like a tiger with bad guts. The driver wasn’t a silver fox, just a rich bastard with more money and ego than he knew what to do with. I could tell what was coming. When the lights changed that Maserati set off like a bat out of hell, the driver’s point being that his willy was bigger than mine. By the time I’d even snicked her into second, he was just a dot in the distance. His car was worth about £60K, mine about £900, not much of a contest, yet he still felt the need to establish his simian “superiority”.

It doesn’t take much of a psychologist to work out he’s got a considerable menopause waiting for him.

My MX5 is fourteen years old now, done 80K, still drives like new. The 1.6 litre engine isn’t particularly quick, but she’s gutsy on the hills. We attract a lot of bumper stick on BMWs and Mercs and Audis because they’re more powerful and go faster, and their drivers are rude and impatient and not a bit dim. She’s generally in good nick. Her back wings have had some work in the past, but they’re starting to bubble though again and she’ll need a bit of tidying up soon. Returning to her this afternoon after a couple of hours on the fells, I was glad to see her, glad to pull off my boots and settle into her, and I was looking forward to dropping the top and enjoying the sunshine on the drive home. In short she adds something to the day that those old family hatchbacks did not. It’s significant, I think, that I remember none of them with affection.

The menopause in males isn’t about hormonal changes, it’s about the dying of the light, the fear of death and the realisation of its proximity at time when we feel we’ve not yet begun to live, when we haven’t yet made a difference in the world. The ego cannot accept its impending annihilation and seeks as a last gasp some way of making its mark even if that risks killing us or making us look stupid. And the bigger the ego, the bigger the problem. There’s nothing surprising about this, no complex psychology, no thesis to be written. The risk is we’ll rage against it, or we’ll pretend we’re still in our twenties, that even as our hair greys, the sun will never set. Neither attitude is helpful, and neither are smart-arse psycho pop articles that miss the point entirely.

So if you’re a silver fox like me who missed out on that old MG when you were younger, don’t let societal jokes or pop psychologists get under your skin. Sure, you’re not in your twenties any more, but neither are you dead. If your kids have flown the nest and you can persuade the wife she’ll enjoy it, then go for it my friend. Stop thinking about how others see you; don’t live your life through their eyes. You are the eyes of the world as you see it, and it’s your purpose in life to go out and enjoy life as best you can, and if that means being a silver fox in an old MX5, then so be it.

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mazda night journey HDR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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