Archive for the ‘Metaphysical’ Category

In May 2007, I was at Rydal Mount, the house Wordsworth occupied from 1813, until his death in 1850. While I was there, I took this photograph:

Rydal Mount, May 2007

But cameras don’t take images the way we see them. They make a recording that might be faithful in detail, but not in the mood. That has more to do with imagination and emotion at the moment we press the shutter. For the technically minded, I used a 12 megapixel Canon A640, set on aperture priority, with the lens stopped down to F8. At ISO 100, the shutter managed 1/125 second. On the plus side, the picture is evenly exposed, and sharp, no clipped highlights – a thing to which the A640, in common with many digital cameras of the period, was prone. On the downside, it looks flat, and dull, and certainly not as I remember it.

What I want to do is go back in time, to 2007, take this old photograph and see if we can liven it up a bit, using the tools and techniques we have now, that I didn’t have then. I want to make it look more like I saw it, and felt it on the day. To achieve this, I’ll be using two pieces of free, but powerfully sophisticated software: Luminance HDR, and GIMP,

Of course, the common objection among photographers is that if we have to manipulate an image to make it shine, then we should have taken a better image in the first place. That’s fair enough, and I shall always bow to greater skill. But I’m an amateur, not a pro, and if I can salvage a picture from the mess I’ve made of it, it’s all good.

The world’s earliest known, surviving, photograph was taken around 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, using a technique called heliography:

World’s earliest surviving photograph – Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras.

Image manipulation began almost at the same time, either as an aid to overcome shortcomings in rudimentary equipment, or to enhance details for artistic effect. Film negatives or glass plates would have areas scrubbed with wire wool to blur them out, and make other details prominent, and prints would be hand-tinted. Indeed, without significant image enhancement, even this grainy image of Niépce’s is barely recognisable as anything at all. But back to Wordsworth.

He was nearly evicted from Rydal Mount, on the whim of the rentier, Lady Anne le Flemin, who wanted it for a relative. But by now he’d developed a deep love for the place, had invested much effort and emotion in landscaping the garden, and he was understandably desperate not to lose it. But he was up against the local Aristocrat, so had to fight canny. He purchased an adjoining meadow, and let it be known he intended building on it, thus spoiling the view from Rydal Mount. He even went as far as having designs for a house drawn up. The ruse worked. The Wordsworths kept their home, and their garden.

Nearly a century after Wordsworth’s passing, the house was bought by Mary Henderson, his great-great-granddaughter. It remains in the possession of the Wordsworth family today, and is open to visitors. I’ve been a few times since 2007, but something about that morning sticks in the memory, and I was never able to capture the garden again, without people in it. My digital archive goes back 20 years, and it was while browsing I discovered the photograph. What struck me was the gap between my memory of the day, and the image. Digital images do not fade over time, of course. But something clearly happens to memory, and it’s more complex than simply fading away. Perhaps it becomes more idealised over time, or those impressions that are important to us begin to crystallise more.

Anyway, first we take our original image and load it into Luminance HDR. HDR stands for high dynamic range, which we’re not going to bother with today. All we’re going to use are the tone mapping algorithms, and apply them to this single image. Tone mapping is a way of taking what’s there – the light, the tones, the contrasts, and amplifying them, simulating the wide dynamic range of the human eye and allowing them to be displayed on a screen or in a print. Not all images are suited to the method, but one that’s well exposed with a good balance of tones and brightness to begin with will usually respond well. Then it’s just a question of fiddling about to get the effect you want. It can be overdone, and I’m as guilty as all amateurs of overcooking images. But I think this is a big improvement:

It’s lifted the various greens, brightened up the rhododendrons, and the azaleas, even uncovered some detail and texture in the rendering of the house. I’d say we were nearly there with this one, but there’s more we can do.

The garden at Rydal Mount is very much in the Romantic in style. Wordsworth, along with Southey and Coleridge, were the founders and champions of the English Romantic movement. Wordsworth was the author of its manifesto, which stands as a preface to the Lyrical Ballads. One of the tenets of Romanticism is that we should not seek to command nature. We should cooperate with it, and learn from it. Hence, the garden is very informal, flowing with the lie of the land, using natural elements for decoration, rather in the fashion of the Taoist inspired gardens of China. Does the photograph capture that? Perhaps we’re asking too much. Perhaps we’re going to end up overcooking it, now, but let’s have a look anyway.

We can add a touch of the romantic to any photograph by adding a layer of blur, or soft focus. But having just restored all that detail, it would be a shame to lose it in blurriness. What we want is something impressionist, but not too much. So we turn to a technique mastered by the photographer Michael Orton in the 1980’s. Orton experimented with superimposing photographs of the same scene, one sharp, the other deliberately defocused. As a professional fine art photographer, he was aiming at something very abstract, but the method was thereafter widely adopted by others for the impact it can add to an image. In the days of film transparencies it took a lot of technical skill and a professional darkroom to make this work, but since the digital age, anyone can do it. If you have filters on your phone camera, the chances are there’s an Orton effect among them.

We’ll be using GIMP for this bit. GIMP stands for GNU image manipulation program. GNU means it’s free and holds to a certain standard and a set of egalitarian values. GIMP is an amazingly versatile tool for a photographer. Your alternative is something like Photoshop, which, last time I checked, you couldn’t even own. You have to rent it. No thanks.

GIMP allows us to take our image, overlay a blurred copy of it, then blend the two together. There are various ways of blending, and the best one depends on the image, so we have to experiement. I most commonly use the “Soft Light” merge, or sometimes just “Overlay” with a degree of transparency. Here I find the “Multiply” option works best, with about 50% transparency. It deepens the greens, and the shadows, and lends a more dreamy feel to the image, while preserving the highlights:

We’ve perhaps lost a bit of the crackle in the detail, though, and part of the joy of that garden lies in its textures, so we bring back a bit of sharpness and texture by blending in another layer to which we’ve added a high pass filter. This basically preserves all the sharp corners, like in a line drawing. Thus, we get the impressionist blur, while the detail is still there to draw us in. The difference is subtle, on a screen, but certainly looks better as a print.

If you’ve ever done the Wordsworth thing at Grasmere, you’d be forgiven for thinking he spent his entire life at Dove Cottage. He didn’t. He was there for fourteen years, and, having, escaped its poky confines, and its gloomy light, I can well imagine his delight at discovering Rydal Mount. The EXIF data embedded in my original photograph tells me I took the picture at 10:30 am, which suggests I left the hotel after breakfast and went straight there. I’m sure it gets busier later on, but for a good hour we had the house and grounds to ourselves. There was a timeless atmosphere. I could imagine turning a corner to find the man himself in dreamy contemplation. He smiles, he nods in gentle welcome, before wandering off, counting meter, in his head.

FAREWELL, thou little Nook of mountain-ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which doth bound
One side of our whole vale with grandeur rare;
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,
Farewell!–we leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.

I’m glad his ruse worked, that he didn’t actually have to say farewell to Rydal Mount, though from the depth of feeling in his poem, he clearly felt it was going to be a close run thing.

Thanks for listening. And enjoy your photography.

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The falls on Stepback Brook

It’s a beautiful, mid-September morning. We reverse the little blue car from the garage, and let the top warm in the sun. It folds down easier when it’s warm, and I’m trying to spare it from further cracking. It’s a little frayed around the edges now, and not surprising at twenty years old, but still keeping the water out, so I’m in no hurry to replace it. We fold it back gently, flip the baffle plate, to keep the wind from sneaking up behind our backs, and make ready for the off. Every warm day from now is a bonus, and possibly the last we can get out with the top down, and enjoy the air.

I’ve wasted half the morning trying to load music onto my phone because I want to avoid the radio, but it’s a new phone and I can’t make head nor tail of it, so we’ll make do with the company of our thoughts as we drive instead. It’s a short run today, over the moors to the Royal, at Ryal Fold. It’s cool on the road, but pleasantly so with the heater on just a touch. Of the ongoing national mourning, there’s not much in evidence en-route, a few pubs with flags at half-mast. It’s a different story in the Capital, of course, with all-night queues for the lying in state, and extra trains for the influx of tourists.

The King meanwhile courts an occasional bad press for being grumpy. This is from both the political left and right, and both the royalist and the republican media. Memes are spreading across the Internet, some humorous, some spiteful. This seems to hint at the nature of the future relationship. Meanwhile, dissenters are being arrested. Even holding up a blank piece of paper will get you nabbed.

One broadcaster mistakes a crowd protesting the killing of a young black man by the Met, believing them instead to be well-wishers. It must be difficult trying to keep the commentary up for so long, when not everyone is following the same script.

Anyway, the car park at the Royal is busy, lots of people sitting out in the sunshine, enjoying an early lunch, but the Union Jacks are absent. There is an intoxicating scent of cooking and coffee, mingled with the moorland air. The plan is a circular walk to Darwen Tower, as I have it on reliable authority it is definitely open now after its years’ long refurbishment.

We follow the route up Stepback Brook to Lyon’s Den. There’s been rain recently, and the brook is musical, the little wayside fall running nicely, a generous and shapely mare’s tail. So we sneak down into the dell and try a shot or two, but we’re shooting into the sun, and the lens is flaring awkwardly. We’ll be lucky to salvage anything from it, but no one’s counting, and it’s always fun trying. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the day, and to be out in it, and looking at it the right way round.

Eighteen months retired now, and I’m still not sure if I can call it real, not sure if I’m making the best use of the time I’ve been waiting for so long to enjoy. I’m still aware of time ticking down, but now the deadline is not the Devil dragging me back to work on Mondays. It’s something more final, numbered perhaps in summers, and it needs to be overcome, for the sense of pressing time is the Devil itself.

Climbing the track to Lyon’s Den, we spy a note pinned to the fence. Someone is expressing thanks to the kind soul who found their photographs (we presume on a memory card, or something). We sometimes don’t appreciate how much stuff we have on these things, that their loss would be devastating to us. It is a random act of kindness, then, and a reciprocal gesture of appreciation. The finder gains nothing, materially, seeks no reward. It was a rationally meaningless act, then, yet also the act of any decent human being.

Lunch is served on the bench by the little copse above Lyon’s Den. The view from here is breathtaking. The cooler air of these September days cuts the haze, and jacks the clarity dial up to infinity. The Dales are so clear, it’s as if we could walk to them in five minute, the Cumbrian Mountains, too. Closer to hand is Bowland and Pendle, barely a stone’s throw.

An old timer comes ambling slowly by, trailing a pair of ancient Irish Wolf Hounds. They have the scent of my lunch, and are curious. He’s a pleasant soul, bids me good morning, gently tugs his giant creatures onwards, in the direction of the tower. There’s an air of ease, of gentleness to the day. The tower stands out, way across the moor, a Dan Dare rocket-ship, poised for take-off.

Darwen Tower – Yorkshire Dales beyond

So, a random act of kindness – finding a memory card in the mud, and placing it where the owner might find it, should they come looking. The simple goodness of that act has extended beyond returning those treasured photographs to a grateful owner. It has coloured the morning like a charm. It ripples out in time and space.

I have spent a long time on the trail of something “other”. Those more well travelled say it’s a journey that ends with the realisation there is no “other”. I think I know what that means, now. It grants a certain degree of shape to the cosmos that makes more sense, though it actually has no shape, beyond what we grant it, that subject and object are the same thing.

But the journey is like a long breathing in. And if you hold your breath long enough you get to the point of bliss, and it seems many travellers make do with that, sit on their cushions with their scented candles, and their singing bowls, lost in the emptiness. But you need to breathe out too, and that means bringing something back into the world, a world where there’s so much suffering it’s almost impossible to get anything done, and where nothing makes sense without these random acts of kindness.

But like the breathing in, we make a meal of it, and it turns out to be much simpler if we can only look at things the right way. I’m hoping it’s the same breathing out, breathing something back into the world, that it’s no more than a question of doing the good that you know, as it arises. But it’s a good that must come from an intelligence of the heart, which in turn comes from that journey to the realisation there is no other.

The finder of those photographs felt their loss, because it was they who lost them, they who also felt the joy of their return. I know I’m not making much sense, but it doesn’t matter. The message is in this mellow air, and in the ripples coming out from that little note, the lost, the found, and the random act of kindness.

Darwen Tower

We arrive at the tower to find it is indeed open, and looking in fine fettle after its long refurbishment. I venture inside a little way, take the spiral staircase to the lower balcony. The sun is very bright now and, entering the gloom, I find my old eyes are slow to adapt to the dark these days, so I’m fumbling for the steps with my toes. I’d get there eventually, but don’t feel confident in climbing to the top. The lower balcony will do, and in itself is a stupendous viewpoint.

There are two stories about the origins of the tower. One is that it was built to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria. But there is another story, one about land ownership, and the public’s rights of access to it. Once upon a time, I would not have been able to walk, as I’ve walked today. It would have been an insane trespass, and I would have been seen off by gamekeepers in the employ of an absentee landlord. But it was courageous acts of trespass, defiance, and an ensuing legal battle that opened the ways over Darwen Moor to everyone, and that’s what the tower celebrates. The intelligence of the heart says it was a good thing, securing freedoms we continue to enjoy today. But that is not to say our freedoms cannot once again be lost.

Darwen Moor

Thanks for listening.

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Living responsibly in an unfinished world

The idea of a purpose to the universe, and our individual place in it, has mostly lost out to a rational world view that relegates the whole of creation to an accident of nature. The only mystery left is how consciousness can arise from within a system of physical matter. This is called the hard problem, but lately there has arisen a breed of fundamentalist scientistic thinker claiming to have solved the problem by claiming consciousness does not exist. We only think it does, and by doing so, we are trying to make more of the cosmos than there really is. How depressing! The only miracle is how we do not all go mad, when faced with such pointlessness.

But there is a view that such scientific fundamentalism is actually dangerous, and in this book, Gary Lachman argues we urgently need to move ourselves back to the centre of the cosmos, and realise our role as its caretaker, before it’s too late.

As in all his other works, Lachman writes as a champion of consciousness. He assures us that not only is consciousness real, it is primary, and he reminds us of the reasons for such belief with the aid of a tour through a long history of ideas and thinkers.

While the scientific consensus has moved towards an ever more hardened and eliminative position, as if drawing the shutters on the light of consciousness, other thinkers have been trying to keep them open, and to let the light back in. The book opens with the Jewish, Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun. This views creation as imperfect, that man’s place, man’s purpose, is one of seeing to its ongoing repair.

The world is always going to hell in a handcart, have you noticed? But it could always be worse. We might feel we cannot affect significant change in the world, as individuals, but if we all did the little bit of good that we know, and feel, personally, then the world would be changed. This might sound twee, but as we work our way into the book, we begin to see the profundity of the concept. The question arises, though, what is good? Can man decide, rationally, and make laws to define it? Or is the idea of good something that comes from within, and an inherent property of a fundamentally conscious universe? Or is it neither? Is it not so much an action or a prohibition anyway, as a way of seeing, and being?

Another powerful idea is that of evil, and the perennial question: why does it exist? Here Lachman turns the argument around and asks instead: is evil, or rather an amoral “might is right”, “survival of the fittest” world, not the default position? And if so, why is there good in the world? His answer is that in all of evolutionary history, there was no “good”, until man came along.

There are so many references here, so many springboards for further thought and study, it’s difficult to know where to start, but one of the more striking quotes comes from the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who says: “we live in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope.” The suggestion here is that the universe is an experiment in existence, an experiment that would be pointless unless carried out under difficult conditions. Similarly, it would be equally pointless if all hope were extinguished, for then we would be justified in taking the nihilistic position, simply giving up and lowering our necks to the block, bowing to the axe of an irresistible evil. But the world is not like that. It is always on the brink,… and we work, argue and even at times fight to keep it in balance and moving forward.

This is an idea also reflected in the work of Gurdjieff who once remarked that the earth is in a very bad place in the universe, almost the worst… that everything we do is difficult and costs a great deal of effort, but it may be the only place where we can get things done.

At this point we encounter the work of Ian McGilchrist, whose book The Master and his Emissary, describes the differences between the left and the right brain hemispheres, and the types of attention they each bring to the world. The right hemisphere is geared towards observing reality with a kind of patient, broad brush attention, while the left is geared more towards control and manipulation of details. As an example of this we’re given the grain of sand in which the poet Blake, in an extreme right brain mode of attention, sees a whole world of wonders, but which, in left brain mode, others might see more as being insignificant, or worse, an annoying piece of grit in your shoe.

The kind of attention we must bring to bear in order to realise the good within ourselves, is of the right brain variety. The act of Tikkun, or repair, then, is not so much a specific act, or an intervention, but a way of looking at something while we are doing it, and it doesn’t matter what it is we’re doing. It is the kind of attention we employ that’s the important thing, because the kind of attention we direct at the world, determines the kind of world we encounter.

In the Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist argues that the right brain is the proper, natural master. It is like a King who must rule a nation. The King has a broad grasp of many things, but favours and retains no specifics. When he needs to pay closer attention to something, he deploys an emissary, the left brain, to deal with the details, to summarise, and report back for the King to act wisely. But as time has passed, human consciousness has evolved in ways that have allowed the left brain, the emissary, to dominate. We have become immersed in details, we drown in them, and can no longer see the broader picture. Thus, the kingdom suffers as the scientistic emissaries shut the King out, and work against him, decrying him as incompetent, and fuzzy minded. The prediction of this kind of thinking, should it come to dominate, is pretty much the kind of world we have now, one that denies the very existence of consciousness, and treats people as objects, as dumb machines, to be exploited, dominated, controlled.

Returning then to the idea of “doing the good that we know”, this sense can only arise in us with a right brain dominance, also when our basic needs are met – food, shelter, warmth, intimate relationships,… once all these things are in the bag, so to speak, the way becomes open for a person to self-actualise, to become, in the words of Abraham Maslow, more “fully human.” Then the sense of what is good arises spontaneously from a kind of intelligence of the heart.

Of course a great deal of harm has been done by people imposing their ideas of good on others, but the more fully human “self-actualisers” tend to be less concerned with other people, and seek instead to apply their instinctive sense of the good in their own struggle to develop. And such development leads to the conclusion that while we are in the cosmos, in a physical sense, we are not entirely of it. Metaphysically, we are “outside” of it, looking in.

When we study the works of early civilisations, in particular their art, there is a sense that they did not differentiate themselves from their environment, or from nature, that self consciousness was as yet nascent. Their art is curiously two-dimensional, and child-like. Only later do we see a change taking place, and art separating man from his world by the use of perspective. The world and nature becomes “object” and through our sense of separateness, we start to wonder about our place in it.

Objectifying the world has had its downsides, and may yet bring us to self-destruction, but the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, and there can be no return to earlier, pre-conscious modes of thinking. Evolution does not run backwards, so the task facing us is both critical for our own survival, but also for the cosmos, since, in a sense, we are the eyes and ears of the cosmos waking up to itself. If we stuff it up, the cosmos, as we know it, and therefore as it knows itself, will cease to exist.

The way ahead appears to be to achieve a greater understanding of the powers that we have. This means re-orientating ourselves back to the centre of our personal universe, to become more fully human, then to recognise and to do the good that we know. We bring the kind of attention to bear that we would like to see reflected in the world.

A thought-provoking and uplifting work, broad in scope but engagingly written. Fully referenced and with a lifetime’s worth of side reading.

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Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

Another posterior vitriol detachment, this one in the right eye, leaves me with a horseshoe shaped floater in centre vision to match the one in the left eye which appeared after a retinal firework display, a few years ago. I can’t blame this latest one on weeks of close work under the kosh of earning a living, so I must simply put it down to age. I mention this only as a metaphorical illustration of how one’s view of life can change suddenly, after a shift in the mode of vision.

Meanwhile, the horseshoes dance across the white of the computer screen, disrupting the flow. They have me closing my eyes from time to time, taking refuge in darkness, and in thought. Reading books is also suddenly tiresome as they drift across the text, obscuring it and causing it to ripple. I can still walk around and drive without interference. It’s focusing close that renders their presence more brutishly real, and I like to focus. The fresh one will fade a little over time, and having one in each eye has me hoping I’m done exploring posterior vitriol detachments forever. Then again, old age never comes alone. I’m looking at the next twenty years, and hoping my travelling companion into senescence will not be blindness.

We are never just the one thing. This struck me while reading of Ouspensky’s encounter with the magician Gurdjieff, in a Moscow Café in 1915. Gurdjieff – as near as I can understand him – describes people as automatic machines, reacting to inputs, and that they are never the same person, even two days in a row. He has a point. Reading back over the Rivendale Review, I have lost count of the number of people I am, or have been. While being a distinctly human characteristic, apparently, this is not a good thing when it comes to blogging.

Blogging, I’ve read, is about setting yourself up as just the one thing, as an expert at that thing, then readers know what to expect from you, and where to come for ideas. I suppose I’m off to a bad start in that respect, then, never having considered myself knowledgeable about anything, at least not to the level of expertise. Indeed, I’ve always fought shy of it, the level of expertise being where the shouting starts, as other experts vie for eminence. No, I’m far too reticent a character to set myself up as an expert.

I have written about tinnitus, which was once a defining thing for me, and, though all of that is old material, now, it’s still a piece that’s read a lot. However, those readers hoping to find more up-to-date material on the topic, will discover I am no longer that person at all. Of late, I am a writer of mostly local adventures in the English countryside, with occasional thoughts about writing.

Writing what? Well,… fiction and ,… stuff.

I have been a writer on spiritual matters, and still am occasionally, but spiritual seekers don’t know what to make of me, as the Rivendale Review is too eclectic to tune in regularly and expect things of a similar theme on a regular basis. One week I might be blundering through Advaita Vedanta, or Zen, and the next I am scrambling down a hillside to photograph an orchid, or setting up a camera to capture an interesting sky, talking about aperture and shutter speed and focal length because I like technical things as well.

And photographers, encountering such talk, might bookmark me, only to find me writing about the demise of Hen Harriers in the Forest of Bowland next. And bird people intrigued by those avian interests will then discover me uttering dark curses over the price of fuel and butter, as if I can make a difference. I have opined on politics, but no longer have the steam to make a thing of it. Political pundit, then, I no longer am.

I have written about Chinese martial arts, about traditional Chinese medicine, and its western medical correlates, but anyone looking for my current thoughts on the subject will be confused to find I am no longer that man at all. I have explored that world, found much in it that was good, absorbed it, made peace with it, and moved on. So yes, I am pretty well aware of the shortcomings of the Rivendale Review as it glides ever so slowly into deeper levels of obscurity. However, I find I cannot let it go, or change it to more closely resemble what I’m told a blog should be. That would not be me. The Rivendale Review, should be, is, and always will be – obscure.

Gurdjieff was saying this mechanical trait in people is unconscious. We do not know who we are at any particular time, and his route to awakening was a process of stopping the flow, and remembering. That I am writing about Gurdjeff illustrates only another person in me, a man who is interested in the history of ideas, and certainly not one who is a reliable expert on Gurdjieff. Next week I will be writing about something else entirely, while hopefully remembering all these different people inhabiting my psyche are connected by a single thread, and that it is the binding thread that is the important thing.

The world is just so awesomely big. There are two ways we can deal with its daunting dimensions. We can focus down on one thing, and ignore the rest. Or we can follow the ideas of the world wherever they lead. I think the world of ideas was meant to be explored, the universe itself being one’s personal guide with its whispers and its serendipitous segues. That in itself is a kind of stopping and remembering, that while we are indeed many people, knowing that to be the case, doesn’t put us far from the wrong path. While we are none of us anybody in particular, and none of us are actually going anywhere, it does not mean we should ignore the call to journey wherever the mind takes us, and to enjoy the scenery along the way.

The Rivendale Review is just an old-fashioned blog about nothing in particular. And if it must offer anything, I suppose I would like to think that someone reading about the various eccentricities of this one obscure life, might grant permission for other obscure lives to embrace their own eccentricities, and their obscurity too. We have all of us been many people, even in the same lifetime, and none of them are who we really are. Who we are, is the thread that binds them.

Thanks for listening

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We think we know ourselves through our thoughts, our emotions, and our memories. We think about things, we feel things, as we explore our being in the world, and memory shows us there is a continuity, a story of ourselves we can rewind and play back in our heads. For most of us, this is enough. But what if there’s more? Would you want to go there? Do we have any choice?

The first inkling we get is when we recognise there is an awareness behind these things. Without this awareness we could not be “aware” of our thoughts, feelings and memories, because these things are not conscious in themselves. We must refer them to something else in order to see them. We could not experience the world, nor ponder its nature, without awareness. So, we have thoughts, emotions, and memories, but this does not mean we are them. We experience them, so it is the “experiencer” we must look to for an idea of who we really are. This might sound like nit-picking, but it puts on the path of a world view as laid out by the philosophies of Advaita Vedanta, also western idealism, and non-dualism. Literally, there is only one thing, and that is consciousness.

Thoughts and emotions come and go, memories rise and sink back. We extend our sense of self into our things, into possessions – cars, houses, clothing, all the bits and bobs of life. Then we mistake our selves for what we imagine those things say about us, that they differentiate us from others. But again, possessions come and go. If we were to lose everything, we would not stop existing. We might not like it, but “not liking” is an emotion, which, again, is not who we are.

Through meditation, we can separate our awareness out from the noise of our thoughts and become aware of observing them. Like chairs and tables, we identify them as things, and give them names: Thinking. Emotion. Memory. They exist solely in consciousness. And if we explore this idea a little further, we can say the whole of experience, that all things, exist solely in consciousness, including the apparent materiality, the very chairs and tables, of the universe.

This is not to say the universe exists solely in my consciousness, or your consciousness. We speak here of a transcendent consciousness, one that we all share, and are discreet localisations of. Nor are we saying the chairs and tables are conscious, only that they exist, like all other things, within the transcendent consciousness. It is not to deny the reality or the solidity of things, only that we misunderstand their underlying nature. Thus, the universe can be described as an idea, coming into awareness of itself, and exploring itself through us. This also means the awareness that observes the world through your eyes, and grants you your sense of being, is the same as mine.

This realisation can either be a wonderful thing, or it can be an unpleasant shock. Indeed, it can be such an awful revelation, we try to shut it out. We retreat back into the known territory of the material world. We nestle back into the familiar comfort of our thoughts, emotions, sensations and memories, what we call the Ego. But while the Ego can be a familiar companion, it is never comfortable for long, for “discomfort” and “dissatisfaction” are its very nature.

As a way of being, identifying through the Ego works to a point, and has carried us this far in our evolution. But the problem with it is it traps us at a finite level of being, one beyond which we can evolve no further. We are twenty-first century people, still possessed of a mind adapted for hunting woolly mammoths, and avoiding sabre-toothed tigers. It is a limiting of vision, through which the universe can explore no further this awareness of itself.

For the spiritually, and the philosophically minded, there is a belief we will all eventually awaken to this point of view, that the world is stuck unless we do. To identify more fully with one’s awareness is to be “present”. It is to be able to observe one’s thoughts and emotions, moment by moment, and to maintain a buffer around them. When we feel anger, we observe it, recognise it for what it is, and the anger subsides, allowing us to act or to speak without its influence. People who are fully present tend to radiate stillness, and never react angrily, even to the most severe provocation. Conceptually, then, we might say taking this view of reality to heart, and living it, has its attractions – both personally and for the world in general.

But what has this to do with the creative process? Well, whilst we can identify an inward call to awaken, to become more present in the world, it’s also important to balance that awakening with the realisation of an outward flow, of a universe exploring the idea of itself, and that we must also flow with it.

When we write, when I write, it’s impossible to say where the words come from. I do not think each word into place, except to follow linguistic and grammatical convention. The ideas, the characters, the stories, the thoughts, arise through me, and in some sense are mine, but only in so far as I am a channel for a deeper expression, one that is not me, or at least not my Ego.

The finest poetry is never written by an Ego. The poet settles, quiets the Ego, tunes in to that deeper frequency, like chasing static on the short wave, which, as anyone of a certain generation might recall, is mostly whistles, pops, and the ocean roar of signals we do not understand. But then, with patience, suddenly, there comes a voice, clear as a bell.

All of this sounds a bit highbrow, a bit esoteric, but it need not be like that. There is also a playfulness about it, a sense of joy in the experiment, and the creation. When writing, I find ideas popping up all over the place, wanting to be included, to have their say. They want to see what sticks, what pathways will open, see what evolves, what works, and of course what fails. This is the universe of ideas evolving through us. In this sense then, the Ego becomes, at best, the parent of these creations, these up-wellings from a universal consciousness. In writing, then, we should be nurturing, encouraging, but never too controlling of the spontaneity. And when it works, we know, because we are rewarded with a sense of joy in the participation.

And when it doesn’t work,… well we’ve all been there.

Thanks for listening


Kastrup – Why Materialism is Baloney

Spira – The Transparency of things

Tolle – A New Earth

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Dean Black Brook, White Coppice, Lancashire

The cold seems to have been hanging on this first week in June, the house struggling to warm, most days never breaking eighteen degrees. The boiler lies dormant. Jumpers and jackets suffice for comfort and, of an evening, only essential lamps are lit. Appliances are scrutinised for kilowatts, and used as necessary but with circumspection. I don’t know if such economies are futile, but we make them anyway. And as I gaze out along the street, none of my neighbours are lit up either, so I guess I’m not the only one feeling a way through these strange times.

Meanwhile, malodorous smoke drifts, chugging out from the chimneys of those with wood-burners. These were purchased no doubt, for fancy, when they were of a fashion, but are now pressed into the more serious production of free heat – this, I suspect, from the burning of old pallets, and window frames. All of which is to the chagrin of those with hung out washing, and to me, whose sinuses swell at the merest whiff. Reluctantly, I take an anti-histamine.

For such a tiny pill, the anti-histamine packs a mighty punch, and I never could handle them. It does nothing for the sinuses, but puts me in a muddle all the next day long, and takes my legs. We’ll say that’s what it is anyway, as we feel the path bite. We’re in White Coppice, a little late in the day, so it was a struggle to park. I think some schools are still on Half Term – so hard to judge them these days. The plan is to wander up the ravine of Dean Black Brook, breaking out towards its head to Great Hill, but I find I’m overdressed for the day, which warms suddenly, and my legs are – well – leaden.

It’s becoming quite a sporting route, this, the path eroding, and dangerous in places as it slides away to a long and exposed drop. Or it may just be my age, and it’s always been this way. As an approach to Great Hill, it’s a more intimate route than the more popular path by Drinkwaters with its wide moorland vistas.

There are little cascades along the way, some accessible, some not, as the path sweeps up and down. At the first of these, I rest a bit, pull off the jacket before I boil, and settle down to take a photograph. It’s a cheat, I suppose, but even a modest runnel of water like this can be made to appear dramatic, from the right angle, and with a bit of cropping. Thus, I fuss over dozens of shots, thinking at least one is likely to come out all right. I’m packing up and turn to recover the path, only to be startled by a pair of Amazons coming at me like they mean business. That’s it with running water, you don’t hear the approach of others.

They have stepped out of an Instagram shoot, these girls. They are – what do you call them? – influencers, or perhaps more likely influenced. Tall, both of them, blonde and shapely, in their twenties, hair tied up in identical ways, like twin sisters. They wear identical gear: very short shorts, tight tee-shirts, little back-packs bouncing in the smalls of their backs, and running shoes. They are moving fast, and have looks of grim determination about them.

The lead girl is bold, and sure of foot, heedless of the sometimes sporting nature of the path. The girl who follows is more hesitant. She is the one I would have most in common with, I think. I never had much time for bold leader-types, nor they for me. I feel almost bowled aside by them, but they do not seem to notice me.

I venture a polite hello. The lead girl ignores it, or does not hear it. The girl who follows makes a belated, surprised response, as if indeed they had not noticed me. With a fragrant waft of body-spray, they are gone, up the side of the ravine, climbing like mountain goats. I see only legs, and sky. I reassure myself I would have outpaced them once, but not today. Today, I flake out at every opportunity, and fiddle with the camera.

We fiddle with it some more, at every insignificant sparkle of the brook along the way. Our progress is slow and halting, the day of a sudden somehow jaded. We take pictures of the more unfamiliar flora to identify later (heath bedstraw), and note the fresh green ferns now sprouting, marking their assertive dominance. In a few weeks they will be tall and wavy, and the valley will be pungent with them, and the air caught in their fronds will be thick with the drone of flies.

I see the crown of Great Hill ahead, and the sycamores by the ruin of Great Hill Farm. The Amazons are already two jogging dots of white against the heat wobbled green of the moor. They were indeed beautiful girls, but they struck me as cold, and that’s always something of a paradox, as I always imagine beauty to be warm. Bodies to die for, of course, and which would lure even the most nervous would-be lover from his mother’s apron, but they possessed not a smile between them. I don’t know why that struck me. Perhaps it was just the day and the muddlement, caused by the anti-histamine. It would need a poem to explore it.

We leave Black Dean Brook by the kissing gate that brings us up to the ruin of Drinkwaters, and there we sit in the shade of trees, enjoying a cooling breeze. Even the sheep are reluctant to relinquish their shade, now, and keep us company. A few lines of a poem by Betjeman comes unbidden:

Fair tigress of the tennis courts,
So short in sleeve and strong in shorts,
Little, alas, to you I mean,
For I am bald and old and green,..

And while I thank the unconscious pixie for its wry humour – which does indeed raise a smile – I know that’s not it, and it knows I know, but challenges me to mull it over and come back with a more serious answer to the question the day poses. So then it’s down to White Coppice in weary defeat, Great Hill seeming an Everest of effort, and quite beyond us, nothing in the legs, and this haunting sense of Beauty having turned its back.

At home, we sit out with coffee, and watch the sunset. The day is cooling again, and needs a sweater for comfort. Then the village stokes its wood-burners for the evening, and we withdraw to the cleaner air indoors, to dream, not of Amazons, but of sparkling rills along the Dean Black Brook.

And we attempt our reply, not as erudite or as witty as Betjeman:

Awakening to loss, we mourn the day’s swift run,
Seeking shallow waters, so to play,
Mistaking splash and haste for meaning,
And with foolish swings,
Scythe then our harvest home,
Thin as air, wholesome as the dust,
Of windblown clay.
Only in the lingering pause of beauty,
Do the depths reveal,
And then, smiling, lead the way.

The forecast says the days will turn warmer. I welcome that.

Thanks for listening.

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On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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Dreaming. 1860. J. Israels

You’re out driving, and there’s a cop car at the side of the road. He’s pulled someone over and is serving them a ticket. You cruise past, glance through your passenger window, and the scene triggers a flash-back to last night’s dream – the same type of cop car, glimpsed through the passenger side window. So you think: that’s a neat coincidence. Right?

It wasn’t exactly the same situation. In the dream, you were parked, and the cop car pulled alongside, and the cop said: “You don’t mind if I park here, do you, sir?” But you were definitely looking at this same kind of cop car, through the passenger side window. And if things had happened the other way around, say you’d seen the cop car, and then the next night it had popped up in your dreams, you’d know where the dream had borrowed it from. But as things stand, it was just a coincidence. Anything else, and the dream had seen your future. And that’s not possible. Is it?

So then, some nights later, you dream you’re out in a part of the countryside you’ve not been to for years. It’s not an extraordinary dream – just your usual muddle of inside out and back to front stuff, the one thing bleeding into the other, and no particularly coherent narrative. Then you wake, and you reach for the phone, and you read the blogs you follow, and a guy has posted a piece on that same part of the countryside, which triggers the memory of the dream, and you think: that’s odd. Another coincidence? Sure. Or maybe you caught a glimpse of that blog before you slept, and you just forgot. Because anything else is impossible. Right?

So then you dream you’re talking to a notorious world leader in your back garden – like you do – but you’re struggling to understand what he’s saying, and you’re worried he’ll think you’re a bit numb, but you can’t help it because he’s contorting the upper left side of his lip in the most peculiar way, which distorts his speech. The next evening you decide to check out a film on Netflix, in which it turns out the lead man is portrayed with a hair lip, which has the same way of moving as in the dream. It breaks the dream, so to speak, brings back the memory of it. Another coincidence? Startling one too, this. Or maybe you caught a trailer for the film before you slept, and you just forgot.

These are all dreams I’ve collected over the last few weeks. And the question arises: how many dreams like that does it take, before the only reasonable conclusion you can come to is that your dreams are indeed previsioning little bits of your future? The thing to note is the banal nature of the images, and the fact we’re seeing in the dream what we will see, ourselves, at a point in our own future. We’re not talking about any dramatic premonition of calamity. Nor are we claiming any paranormal faculty. It seems to be the normal way the mind – any mind, your mind, my mind – Hoovers up observed events and regurgitates them in distorted form, in dreams. It’s just that the dreams seem to have access to events you haven’t observed yet. Only by habitual observation of the visual details of your dreams do you realise it. And who’s crazy enough to do that?

Isolated instances can perhaps be dismissed as coincidence, but the longer we pay attention to our dreams, and the more hits we score, the less likely coincidence becomes. Of course, if you’re of a materialist, reductionist mindset, no matter how many dreams you have, you’ll still call it a coincidence, or you’ll swerve your dreams altogether, believing them to be nonsense anyway, so the problem will not arise for you.

Others have written at length on this phenomenon, namely J W Dunne, J B Priestly and more recently Gary Lachman. Tentative explanations involve additional levels of consciousness, each with its own time reference. I can’t say for sure if this is right, but it does make a kind of sense. Let’s say, as a working hypothesis, it’s plausible, but it also strikes me that, even when science means well by the unknown, it comes across as being somewhat primitive in its toolkit.

So if we are indeed opening a crack in time by paying attention to our dreams, we have to accept there are no definitive explanations about what’s going on. There are only more questions. What draws us forward are the tantalising hints at unexplored human potential. We’ve been a long time evolving, but there’s nothing to say we’re yet done adapting to our environment, even as we shape it. In this light, precognitive dreaming might be a thing we’re evolving towards, an evolutionary mutation still looking for an advantage in the world we’re creating. Or maybe such precognition was an advantage in our hunter-gatherer past, say, warning of the bear we were to encounter in the woods next day, and which risked killing us. But now it’s a faculty that’s atrophied for want of use, like one’s appendix, or coccyx. Still, there are plenty of dangers facing us in the contemporary world, yet my dreams seem more concerned with quirky art-house details than risks to life and limb – so maybe that’s not its function at all. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Philosophers paint such a gloomy picture of the human condition, the existentialists having concluded we’re just an accident of nature, and better off adjusting to that fact, than hanging on for something transcendent, or for hints of meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one can hardly blame them for reaching such a bleak conclusion. Nor is the twenty-first shaping up to be any better. But I think nature has left enough clues in the shadows to hint at a path, which has the potential to lead us from the dark forest the philosophers have abandoned us in. I am confident we are more than we seem, and that there is more to the world, to its space and time.

Then again, before we set foot down this path, we must be sure what beckons is not simply a will-o’-the-wisp, leading us to drown in a bog of groundless speculation. Maybe there is a rational explanation for that cop car, the country roads, and the hare lip, one that doesn’t sound even more far-fetched than the suggestion we sometimes see our future. Selective bias and coincidence are the usual explainaways. Belief in the paranormal is another, as it’s highly correlated with a propensity towards selective bias and outright self-delusion. Still, none of these ring true to me, in this insance, but then I suppose they wouldn’t. From your own perspective, of course, the obvious explainaway is that Dunne, Priestly, Lachman, and me, we’re all making it up, that we story tellers are simply looking for attention, or to fill column space on an otherwise dull day.

That’s fine, until you have such a dream yourself, and then you cannot help but wonder.

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