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Archive for the ‘Mysticism’ Category

A tree falls alone in the forest. It makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it. There can be no sound without the ear to hear, no scent without the nose to smell, and no colour without the eye to see. Nor can any of these things be apprehended, without the brain to reflect them as qualities upon the dark mirror of the mind, thereby creating the human experience of the world.

The common-sense story of the world says there is a universe of material objects – galaxies, stars, chairs, tables, teapots, atoms – all of them occupying space, and enduring for a time, in time. We are objects, too, but, unlike teapots, we have senses plugged into a material brain which, together, and by an unknown process, provide us with a mental image of reality. They also produce this thing we call “mind”, which enables us to be self-aware, to be conscious of ourselves.

This is the orthodox “materialist” story, born of the scientific revolution, and the consequent death of all the gods. It makes sense to us, because we all “seem” to share the same world. The world doesn’t “seem” to depend on our presence. The moon is still there when we are not looking at it. The ocean tides still follow a regular, and calculable pattern that is not of our imagining. And when we experience things in the world, our brains show measurable activity. All of this suggests the material world-model, and our separate subjective mental awareness of it, is the correct way of viewing things. It is the right story to tell, and to believe in. It is the right story to tell our children.

But we cannot explain how the material brain gives rise to the quality of feelings aroused by a sunset, or by falling in love, or the pleasure we take in the taste of things, or the scent of a rose, or in the ways music can move us, or even the perception of our favourite colour. These are all qualities, and are unresponsive to mathematical analysis. Mathematics favours the material. Materials have length, mass, time, temperature, current. But there is nothing about them that explains how they create the mental experience of sensed reality. The material universe exists materially, but our experience of it does not.

This, then, is the often told story of the world, but it has a gaping hole in the middle of the plot, because it does not explain the nature of our selves. And those writing this story are now so frustrated by the stubbornly inexplicable nature of “mind” and “consciousness”, they conclude it must be an illusion, that it is generated by an emergent property of the brain. Thus ends our journey into the material realm, with the conclusion that, although we think we exist, actually we do not. We have already eliminated the gods. Now we have eliminated ourselves.

So, a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound. This is confusing, because we mistakenly believe the material world itself possesses qualities like colour, taste and sound – that the greenness of the grass, the scent of the rose, the sweetness of the musical note, are in themselves physical, and “out there”. But they aren’t. That’s not what the material world story is saying at all.

What is the sound of the falling tree? In material terms, it is a wave of pressure. Quantities of pressure are called Pascals. Pascals are Newtons per square meter, which is a mass, multiplied by gravitational acceleration, which is meters per second, per second. Add it all up, and what have we, got? We have a mathematical statement of mass, length and time. What we do not have are timbre, rush or roar. What is “roar”? What is the mass-length-time of a roar, of a rush, of a timbre? Materially, there is no answer. Only the mind knows these things. What we don’t know is how the mind knows them.

What can we say with certainty about the mind? Let’s ask the materialists: It correlates with brain activity, they say. This is reasonable. But by the same reasoning, one would expect the mental experience to increase in proportion to the measured activity. A brain, lit up and buzzing with neuronal action, would be experiencing a greater degree of mental activity than one that is not. Let’s go further and say an inactive brain should give rise to no experience whatsoever. Such a brain would be unconscious, or even dead. However, there is persuasive evidence that the opposite is the case.

A dramatic reduction in recorded brain function correlates with the most profound expansion of the subjective mental experience. Two areas of research confirm this: near death studies, and the experience of psychedelics. In both cases, there is a diminution of the measured brain function, yet a corresponding explosion of subjective mental awareness. This awareness is not chaotic, as in an hallucination, nor is it passive, as in ordinary dreaming. It is lucid, coherent, memorable and profoundly meaningful to the individual. What does this suggest? It’s hard to say for certain, but there is the sense of a door opening.

A normally functioning brain gives rise to our experience of the world, but that’s not all. It also seems to be restricting access to a transcendent experience of being, one in which we seem to exist as a kind of psychical alter, in a realm of pure mind. This would otherwise overwhelm us for our day-to-day purposes, so there is a narrowing of the mental experience, one that is so difficult to escape, we conclude, quite reasonably, the material world is all there is. The transcendent experience however reveals that by far the greater sense of our being exists in a purely non-material sense, transcending the apparently material dimension. Is it then too far a leap to say that, in the normally parsimonious nature of the universe, there may not be a material reality, as we think of it, at all?

I don’t know, the answer to that question, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I sense the story of the world is not yet done, that a fresh and extraordinary chapter is beginning. With luck, it’ll patch up that glaring plot hole, and arrive at the conclusion we might exist after all, just not in the way we’ve come to think we do. It’s a curious concept, a little unsettling, just like the idea that when a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound.

Thanks for listening

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I am taking shelter in a bamboo house which stands above a road, on tall stilts. Access to it is by ladder to a trapdoor. The road leads off into the distance, both ahead and behind me. To the left and right are impassable ranges of forested mountains. People are processing along the road towards me. There are many of them, like a column of wartime refugees. As they pass under the bamboo house, some try to climb the ladder, wanting to get in. At first, I resist, preferring safety in isolation. But then I relent, open the trapdoor, and lower my hand to help the people up.

It’s a fragment of a dream I’ve been pondering for a few days, and it’s not making any sense. I’m also out of the habit of remembering dreams, and this fragment is the best I could rescue from a much longer dream sequence. I like to write dreams down, and mull them over. Sometimes they chime with my preoccupations, but even when they don’t, I enjoy them for the surreal imagery they serve up. Once you fall out of the habit, though, it can take several days for the dreams to start sticking again. And we’re not exactly there yet.

On the one hand then, this could be a dream about dreaming, and my neglect of it. You know? It could be an allegory about my looking to haul the dreams up into consciousness again, like I haul the people up. But the people do not strike me as representing dreams. They are people in distress, escaping a crisis, from what appears to be my future. Since all dream elements are aspects of the dreamer, what aspects of my future self might they be? What aspects of my self are migrating from a future crisis, to the past, which is (currently) my present?

I fear I am missing a significant punch-line here.

In other, not unrelated, matters, I have been pursuing this apparently new-fangled thing called “the meaning crisis”. Various learned authors are pontificating on it, and I’ve been hitching a ride with them, looking for answers, doubling down on my reading. And I’ve been listening to lengthy lectures on You-Tube. It is the main talking point for the so-called Intellectual Dark Web.

The meaning crisis is something afflicting the western world in particular. But any nation that becomes “westernised” will inevitably fall victim to it. It sounds very serious, and has to do with the individual’s loss of meaning in the midst of material plenty, including such technological wonders as the Internet and Android telephones. But then it strikes me of a sudden, I’ve been writing about this for twenty years. What seems to have happened is I’ve forgotten all of that, and allowed myself to be bedazzled by charismatic intellectuals into thinking the meaning crisis is something new, when it isn’t. Its effects are simply more prevalent now.

The Jungian school of psychoanalysis bottomed it a century ago, Jung himself describing mankind as hanging by a thin thread, that is the psyche. The poets, particularly the Romantics, nailed it too. I came to the gist of it, intuitively, through my reading in the late nineteen nineties, as my own psyche began to mature and to pick up on these things. Through that maturation, I began to see materialism not as a panacea, but for the spiritual poison that it was. I explored it in my first novel, the Singing Loch. I was clumsy and naive, though, and fudged the conclusion. I’d not a clue how you went about solving a problem like that. The clever men who write books about it now don’t know either. I think we have a better idea of the causes, not least from our understanding of Jung. But knowing the calibre of bullet doesn’t help you, when it’s aimed at your head.

A good metaphor, is the right-left brain dichotomy. The left hemisphere of the brain deals with what’s in front of it. It’s logical and mechanical, and it jumps to conclusions. Our ego finds its most natural home there. Meanwhile, the right brain hemisphere is more holistic, deals with ambiguity, and is the source of our creativity. It’s more nuanced, and can bring intuition to bear in situations of complex ambiguity that will stump the left brain. But in a materialistic society, the left brain dominates. Indeed, it shapes society in its own image. Thus, our world becomes unimaginative, superficial, materialistic, and pointless.

This is the nub of the meaning crisis.

The left brain should not be in charge. The right brain is the better master, and without it, we’d be sunk. The left brain’s proper place is as the right brain’s gopher. But the gopher has staged a coup to the extent we don’t even know what the right brain is for any more.

The left brain also killed God. This was sometime in the Victorian period. Neitzsche called it out, and said we’d never be able to wash away the blood. We can interpret this as meaning that when we stop believing in God, we discover we need a material replacement. So, the left brain presents us with any number of man-made ideologies to choose from. The downside is, the history of the twentieth century teaches us all those ideologies end in terrible suffering. The twenty-first isn’t shaping up any better.

A little before his death, Jung had a vision of the end of humanity. His daughter wrote it down and left it in the care of his associate, Marie Louise Von Frantz. If we take it in the context of its times, we were in the midst of the cold war, only a few years away from the near nuclear catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps he had projected himself into an alternate future, where that particular incident went badly. I don’t know. But the thrust of his thesis was always that man is the greatest danger to himself. And his greatest danger is his inability to deal with his own shadow.

One of the great psychological conundrums concerns the most evil acts in history – there are plenty to choose from, but it’s basically this: what is it that can drive basically good people, into doing very bad things. What is that transforms the ordinary baker and candlestick maker into the mass butcher of men? It has to do with the shadow, at both the personal and the collective level. And we only spare ourselves the shadow’s excesses by realising everything we label as evil, is actually a part of us. Refusing to accept that, and to integrate the shadowy parts of us into our awareness, it takes very little for us to begin acting out what we say we are not. A group is labelled as “other”, thereby dehumanised, trumpeted in the collective-shadow-tabloids as vermin, and we too are but a heartbeat away from killing.

Religion is important in tempering the shadow. Or rather, it’s not any more. Religion is easy. You learn the lines, and you pay your lip-service once a week. Anyone can be religious. It’s the spiritual journey that tames the shadow, and spiritual matters, once upon a time the purview of religion, are more difficult. We can’t ignore the spiritual in us, though the left brain has been trying to eradicate it.

It was the Jungians who demonstrated the need for human beings to grow, spiritually. How we deal with that en-masse is a complicated business, but religions used to handle it reasonably well, until the left brain of religion decided it was all about power and influence, and to hell with that airy fairy business of the spirit. But ignoring the religious function – the spiritual function – the need to grow, people lose direction, become sick in the head, start believing in stupid things, and then they start killing each other.

The spiritual path, however you define it, is about dealing with the personal and the collective shadow. The modern psycho-spiritual types call it “shadow work.” But who has the time and patience for that, when the most pressing issue for many westerners now, is how to pay the rent, or the gas bill?

Jung hoped enough would wake up to spare the total extermination of the species, but we seem a long way off. It’s not exactly talked about, let alone taught at a level aimed at capturing the popular imagination. And of course any mention of Jung, even sixty years after his death, is still enough to trigger the shadow-splenetic of all manner of left brained intellectual and cultural punditry.

But what has all this to do with my dream of the Bamboo House? Well, given that this is an outline of my current thinking, it’s a fair bet it has something to do with it, because such is the stuff that dreams are made of. I trust another dream will come along and clarify it, that is, if I can stick around long enough to remember the punch-line.

Thanks for listening.

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In the Red Box

There’s a supernatural quality about her. I mean, it’s like she’s not really there, or she’s conjured up by my unconscious, complete with every compelling virtue unique to my own psyche. As regards what I do about that, I can only sit and stare, like she stares, unblinking, back at me. What I feel is awe, but her? I doubt she feels anything. She’s just reading me. Judging.

Hers is not the kind of beauty a man can ever aspire to, and I know not to spoil the moment, not even by talking to her. There is a poignant perfection to it, you see? Like in the patterns of a snowflake. To catch it up in the palm of one’s hand would be to see it melt away forever. You must never do that, for you pass this way but once. They say each pilgrim on this road is granted a fragment of wise counsel, to offer those who follow. If that is you, my friend, this, then, is my advice: do not fall in love with the girl, but take that love you feel rising in you, and keep it safe. It’s a gift. Don’t waste it on where it cannot be requited.

“You understand,” she says. “Not all who come here are prepared for what they find.”

Yes, I can well imagine that.

“You seek the wisdom of angels, but what if it’s demons that lured you to this room?”

I’ve wondered the same over the years. And yes, sometimes the angels that led me here have indeed been demons, shadows of my own self, and of the most deceptive sort. Other times, I’m convinced the angels only acted that way, because they know it’s demons we mortals find easier to listen to. We have no way of knowing for sure, except to trust in our better instincts. Either that, or we should not fear the consequences of our mistakes.

She turns to the green door. “All who enter there are changed. You come seeking clarity, and you may well find it, but others are driven mad by what they see.”

Yes, I’ve heard this from other pilgrims. Some leave with the starry light of revelation in their eyes, others run screaming into the dark. But I’m here, now, and it’s been a long journey; it’s a risk I accept.

She gives the briefest of nods. Is it that she finds me worthy? Or is it more she has only done her duty by the warning?

“You can go through,” she says.

The door opens a crack, and there’s a soft, soothing light on the other side, drawing me in. And there, at last, I find him.

He’s older than I’m expecting, in his eighties, or even nineties perhaps, but there’s a glow about him that defies time. He wears the tweeds of a country doctor from long ago, and he sits easy in a high-backed chair. The lines on his face speak of the wisdom of centuries. Hands clasped loosely, he peers over his knuckles at me, strokes his lip with the tip of his thumb, and he smiles.

“Welcome,” he says. “You’ve been a long time travelling, no doubt.”

“Yes. It’s been a long time.”

“They tell me I’m a difficult man to find. Is that still true?”

“Oh yes, you’re still a very difficult man to find. Almost impossible, I’d say.”

He bids me sit, and tell him my troubles, to spare him nothing. There is a low table between us, and on the table is a small, octagonal box of reddish hue.

So it’s true what they say!

He’s watching my reactions, reading my face. “Ah, I see you’ve heard of the red box.”

“Yes.”

“Alluring, isn’t it. Such a pretty, thing. And very old. There were many like it, once, now discarded out of ignorance at their true value. And the craftsmen who made them are long gone, their skills quite mysterious to us, and lost forever. But never mind that for now. Tell me what brings you.”

So I tell him my story, but not in the most eloquent of ways. It’s certainly not in the way I had prepared it over the years, anticipating this moment. Indeed, it spills out now, choppy, and it splashes here, there and everywhere. The thoughts come at me in spasms, like the chattering of those demons that have plagued me since the earliest of days.

I tell him that maybe guys like me have no right to feel so anxious, so lost in the world. Others start out with no money, no work, no girl, and that’s where they stay. Maybe they’re living on skid row. Or they’re with parents they should have moved away from years ago, but couldn’t afford to. So they’re stuck, their lives going nowhere, and the clock ticking. A guy like that has a right to be depressed, to be angry. He has a right to hunger, and to wonder what the hell the world is for if he is denied any useful part in it. Him, that guy, he has a right to be sitting here, asking what I’m asking. So I’m asking for both of us, him and me.

As for me, I managed to make a go of it, before it all unravelled. I was even married for a while, had a little house on an estate of similar little houses, that I could barely afford. I went to work every day, sat in front of a computer screen, and did stuff with spreadsheets. And I got shouted at by sociopathic bosses, for no more reason than that’s just the way it is.

It doesn’t sound great when you add it all up, but it’s the modern way. I mean, what else is there for what amounts to the 99% of us? But even the rich don’t seem happy. They can’t be, if the only fun they get is to go about shaping the world in ever more fiendish ways that make life a meaningless hell for the rest of us. Still, what right have I to feel the way I do?

“And what is it that you feel?” he asks.

Angry, I tell him. No, not angry. It’s more I feel a desperate hunger, like I’m starving. Yet this thing I’m so desperate for, I’m not even sure it exists, actually. But, there has to be more than this, surely? There has to be something.

I’ve had these intimations, you see, even in the early days, when the black dogs first came stalking, that there was nothing really wrong with me. It was more that something was missing from the world. Or maybe that thing was still there, but we’d all lost sight of it, something vital, long ago. Those of us falling sick of it, were the only ones waking up to this widening gap between what we reasonably aspired to as human beings, and what the world of material men – such as men were these days – had to offer.

By the time I hit forty, we’d had the crash, and the world had turned a permanent shade of grey. My wife and house were gone, and I was living in a two bed rent trap. Doctors were no help. Indeed, they seemed as much a part of the problem as everything else. A prescription for happy-pills, and a referral for counselling, was the best they could do.

But the health services had long since been rationed beyond all practical utility, and I never did get that referral because I guess I wasn’t considered ill enough. But if I wasn’t ill, then what was this sense of emptiness that would sooner have me sleep than be alive? What was this sense of dreadful meaninglessness? Why could I not simply fit in with the world as it was, like I was expected to?

The old man listens to all of this, and I mean the quiet sort of listening that draws the words out of you. So you keep going, the words spilling, and spiralling, and him soaking them up.

Some say he’s dangerous. They say the authorities would shut him down if they ever caught up with him, and that’s why he’s so hard to find. Others say he’s mad, or an outrageous charlatan who preys on the gullible, and the needy, and the lost.

When you think you’ve caught up with him, he’s already moved on, to another town, another country, and always one rumour ahead of you. But I kept going, because I knew in my heart he’s the last hope we’ve got of making sense of things. Meanwhile, the world, as we have made it, would sooner be without him. It would sooner we didn’t know of his existence at all, this man who is said to be capable of restoring one’s vision, one’s sense of meaning, and wonder,….

Anyway, here I am, after years of chasing rumours, through the back-street bars and the coffee shops of Europe, these wafer thin whispers of the old man, and the girl. And every contact along the way is cautious, suspicious of your motives. You have to persuade them of your sincerity, and it’s no use pretending. It’s something he does to people, you see? He makes them guarded, protective of his secret, because what he imparts to them is so extraordinary, though none of them can put it into words when you ask them.

And then there’s his last line of defence: the girl.

They say, not even the most sincere always get past the girl. There’s some flaw, some weakness in the way we regard her. But if she lets us pass, the old man listens, and then he asks us to look inside the red box.

But pass or fail, sincerity is the only thing that keeps us safe. There is no point trying to be clever, either, because you’re dealign with a power beyond your imagining. I got this from some guy I finally caught up with in a bar in Paris. I’d sought him out from rumours I’d picked up first in Milan, then followed them through Zurich and Prague. Sometimes the newspapers smell a story, he told me. Scandal. Sex. You name it. They send journalists to hunt him down. Or the politicians send private eyes, who pretend to be seeking the meaning of their lives, same as us.

But it’s not the truth they’re after. Not meaning. Nothing like it. Regardless of anything true, they only want to make a fool of him, so people won’t trust him any more. They don’t care what treasure gets destroyed in the process. They don’t care if generations are to live their lives in black and white, never to know again the riches of a world in colour.

For sure, not many of that sort get past the girl, but if they do, and they look into the red box,… man, watch out! What they see in there isn’t what others see. It drives them mad.

“What do they see?”

“Who knows?” said the guy. “It’s different for everyone. To seek what we seek, it puts you on a knife edge between heaven and hell. Fall one side, and you wake up in paradise, fall the other, and you’re burned up by your darkest imaginings.”

“And you? What did you see?”

The guy shook his head. “Like you, I’d sought them for years, the old man and the girl. I got past the girl, and I told the old man my story. But in the end, I was too scared to look inside that box. I chose to live with it, the meaninglessness.”

To live with it?

I’ve wondered about that, too, just living with it, I mean, crawling back under the duvet, instead of facing another day, and just letting the years slide by, pouring another glass of whiskey, while I scroll the rubbish on my phone. Let my brain stultify. Let the decades roll. Isn’t that what’s required of us? It must be, for I see no alternative. But to find the sanity, and the clarity in all of that, to have the colour restored, well, you’d have to do something with it. You couldn’t just sit on it, could you?

And are you ready for that?

This last thought comes back to me as I lock eyes with the old man. I wonder if he reads my mind, if this is what he’s waiting for. He nods, gestures then to the red box.

“If I told you what you’re looking for, the answer is in that box, and will change everything for you, would you believe me? Tell me, yes or no.”

Careful now. Wanting to believe is not the same as actually believing. So,…

“No.”

“You’re thinking the answer has to be more complicated, than that?”

“No. I’m wondering if there can be any answer at all, complex, or simple. Others have said there is. And that’s why I’ve followed the path I have, but more in hope than expectation. The best I can say is there may be nothing in that box at all. But from what I’ve heard, I have to reckon with the possibility there might be exactly what you say there is.”

I’m feeling a little woozy now. The old man does not seem so substantial as before. I wonder if the girl has hypnotised me. I wonder if the old man is an illusion. So all there is, is the girl, and what she symbolises: our addiction to love, and to beauty. But that’s not the answer to anything, or rather it’s only half the answer. It’s how we interpret it, that’s the key.

“Open the box,” he says.

So I take up the box, and I open it, and at the bottom is a mirror, offering me the most perfect reflection of my own self, all the way down to the very bones of me. The old man is fading fast, now. The last I see of him is his smile. The door opens, and I step out into the world. The colours are startling. The girl has gone. Only her beauty remains, and a sense of the deepest love.

It’s everywhere I look, and in everything I touch.

I can’t explain it any more than that. You’d have to look into the red box for yourself, to know what I mean.

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Photo by Tim Grundtner on Pexels.com

Unplugging all connections,
Unfastening all the snares,
Might we not embrace this cleaner air,
And fall?
See how tight we cling
To things
Of no consequence,
Our fingers jammed in every crack,
Our arms, oh so tired now,
And aching,
Legs, fearful, shaking.
Let it go, let it all go,
And backwards fall, and trust.
No dash of rocks, no rush
Of earth to black.
There is only this endless void, and true,
In which we might begin,
To embrace the world anew,
Then open up our Eye,
And let the clearer light, of day,
Come flooding in.

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Some Jungian stuff today. I’m attempting to read Erich Neumann’s “Origins and History of Consciousness”. The book is beyond me, and I’m having to use a dictionary at some point on every page, which breaks the flow. In one sense it’s a technical work, aimed at the psychoanalytical community. In other ways, it’s a four-hundred-and-odd page poem about coming into being.

It’s about the development of an individual’s sense of “I”, also the psychological development of mankind, since the one reflects the other. What I don’t think is mentioned, since even Jung avoided direct talk of it, is that both are functions of an underlying metaphysics, built into the universe itself, that indeed it is the universe. Thus, psychoanalysis crosses the boundary into spirituality.

It’s heavy going, and this is my second attempt. Neumann, a student of Jung, lacks – for me at least – Jung’s ease with language. That said, it’s instructive to come at Jung from another direction, if only to rediscover old ground in a new light. What I’m reminded of today is how the metaphysical universe communicates in the language of symbols. Symbols are mental shapes given motion, and they arouse feeling. They might look like one thing, but we interpret them as something else. Symbols cloud together, so we can cross-reference, and map their meaning to something specific. Interpreted literally, the universe has no meaning, indeed appears, at times absurd. But when seen metaphorically, archetypally, the way is illumined as something else entirely

Culturally, western man thinks of the universe in physical terms, that what we see is all there is. Even what we can’t see we can glean by our ever more sophisticated instrumentation, by our science and our technology. There is nothing else. But such thinking leads to an impasse. Worse, it results in a breakdown in our natural development, because it’s not the full story. There is the universe as we see it, and then there’s the universe as it really is, and the two are not the same. Denying even the possibility of the universe as it is, we cut our selves off from our natural path and we disintegrate, as people and as a culture.

Jungian thinking posits the notion of a psychical underpinning to the universe. This is not to say the stars, the galaxies, the planets are alive and conscious of themselves. These are merely the bigger manifestations of the universe as we see it, not as it is. We don’t know how it is in itself. All we know of it is what we can perceive upon the screen of our senses. But while the rules governing material processes tend towards ever increasing states of disorder, universal consciousness tends towards greater levels of order, and it finds its greatest order, its sense of self-awareness, in each of us.

The formless aspect of the universe is a realm of archetypal pattern, whose behaviours we interpret through the language of myth. Myths are those stories which form the basis of human culture. They deal with the perplexing mysteries of where we come from, of how we should conduct ourselves while we’re here, and ultimately where we’re going. But since the individual mind is a microcosm of the universal mind, these stories can also be turned inward and used for self analysis. The world’s mythologies have more wisdom in them than any book on psychology.

And what the myths teach is that the individual life is the universe playing hide-and-seek with itself. We are born into the world, immersed in its material complexity, and having forgotten entirely who we really are. But we also have this strange kernel of longing for a greater understanding of the meaning of our lives. A life’s journey then becomes a journey to the realisation we are different versions of the same awareness, that we spring from the psychical ground of being. However, it’s one thing to be told such a thing, to be aware of it intellectually, quite another to feel it, and so to “know” it. To truly “know” it is to awaken.

To awaken, however, is a rare thing, even when you know the destination. But for the ordinary travelling souls, like me, what this also means is that if the road is of interest, we need only declare ourselves open for business, and the universe will co-operate to a degree that suits our personal limitations. It will constellate symbols around us and, if we can interpret them, they will draw us in a direction that is right for us. This is a little like confirmation bias, where we agree with those speakers who reflect best our own dispositions, and dislike those who do not.

The universe communicates by synchronicity. It leads us by coincidence to those things, events, or people that are most meaningful to us. And what is meaningful is that which will trigger the emotions we most need to address, they being of a negative, regressive variety. They cloud our vision, and muddy our minds. Whilst the goal here is not happiness, happiness becomes a more reliable companion, as a by-product of the process, while awakening remains the true goal.

The deeper we are lost in the game, the harder will our awakening be, and the more profound the lived experience. To what end, I don’t know. If I can ever get to the end of Neumann’s book, I may find out. But I’ve a feeling the universe was just having me on when it pointed him out to me, and by so doing is pointing out – symbolically – my own limitations.

And if so, then fair enough, but I remain, as ever, open for business.

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The way of the material man is the conversion of material into money. It’s a process that inevitably leads us away from nature, towards the building of cities. Cities shun nature, while absorbing vast quantities of people, fossil fuels and water, and from these nutrients they grow. And as they grow, they eject filth. The way of the material man is thus ill-suited to the presence of the natural world and the sooner it is consumed entirely the better. As for the filth, it’s fine so long as it’s not on his own doorstep.

In the city, mankind is organized for commerce, exploiters and exploited living in handy proximity. The accumulation of money is then the measure of a man’s success, that one man’s shoes are worth more than another man’s car. Nature, soul, spirit, indeed the whole of metaphysics is dismissed as an obsession of the weird. This is an old story, one often told, but in which the happy-endings we crave seem less and less plausible.

Meanwhile, the rubbish of the city spills outwards from its bounds, scattered by its itinerant emissaries along the leafy byways and the ferny dells whose misfortune it is to lie an easy drive away. Supermarket carrier bags are snagged in the boughs of trees. There, they are torn season by season into the filthy grey battle-banners of further urbanization.

But not everyone is drawn to cities. Indeed, they’ve always horrified me. To my eye there is something dead about them, no matter how lively they might appear on the surface. I have drawn the ire of city folk for saying such things. But the cities are such vibrant places, I’m told. They are centres of culture, indeed the very epicentres of governance and civilization. Would you find the Elgin Marbles, or a Van Gough on display in a provincial village library? Would you find the seat of a nation’s power residing in the village old folk’s hut?

I counter that the cities also deaden the sensibilities. They deny easy reconnection with the natural world. Instead, they attempt to assimilate it, while colouring it as grey as the city environment. No stars are visible from its streets, and the skylark does not sing its praises. Cities cradle violence. They incubate neuroses and paranoia. And in the city’s virulent graffiti there is the metaphor of a poor, lonesome dog chewing raw its own paws for entertainment.

So, the country lanes, within easy driving distance of cities, are hung with bags of dog muck, ubiquitous markers of urban neuroses, centred upon the interests of the self. The lay-bys are strewn with nitrous oxide cartridges, each one a lamentable attempt at gaining fleeting release, but which colours only more warmly the urban way and forgives the jettison of another load of McTrash out the car window. As for the hanging of the prophylactic’s hurried orgasm on the barbed wire’s thorns,… well,… the least said on that one the better, but I guess by now you know where I’m going with all of this.

Year by year, it’s harder to say hell isn’t where we’re heading. And while this may indeed be so, the material man cares nothing, and has not the nous to understand the poisoned haiku of a beer-can in the hedge. Yes, we all need money to live, but money is also imaginary, and it imprisons us. It has us valuing the wrong things. A man of soul will admire the oak for its expression, and it having known so many generations. A man of money will cut it down and have it sawn as planks to sell. The man of soul feels its loss, the man of money looks for another oak to fell. Which one is the fool? The man of soul seeks the ineffable, the magical in a landscape. The man of money puts a fence around it, builds a hotel and a golf course.

The country boy under siege turns to philosophy. He risks New Age quackery, and dallies with paganism. He takes up meditation, studies Buddhism, Daoism, indeed any bloody “ism” that does not champion the material. He asks: How does a Zen master view the city’s inexorable sprawl? The all knowing Google machine answers: “Where to buy the city’s inexorable sprawl”; “who owns the city’s inexorable sprawl”; “how to market the city’s inexorable sprawl”. And then, even less helpfully, “where to find a Zen Master?” and “what is Zen?”

I suppose if we take the longer view, it doesn’t matter. Civilizations come and go. Ours will be no different. A thousand years from now, I imagine an archaeologist scraping layers of mud from the outline of my house. And he will add my leavings to the average assessment of the broader culture, and the times I lived in. He will assume I was a material man, for what evidence will there be to the contrary?

We are all the product of an age and a zeitgeist. So, as Chris Rea sings, this might well indeed be The Road to Hell, and no bother, for there never was a golden age. Blink and we’re all gone. More than that, we never existed in the first place. Walk up and down the room, and where are your footprints? As for the search for the bucolic, that route without a single bag of dog muck to mark the way, it’s a fantasy born of too romantic a vision of the world, while real human beings just aren’t like that. All of which means of course, it’s me who’s the freak.

I’d advise the urban folk please to follow the countryside code, except the latest version reads like it was focus-grouped by weekend Welly wearers only, not deliberated upon by countrymen with any serious intent to protect. Perhaps Chris Rea would have included that line in the song, except he couldn’t find a decent rhyme for Welly. So I tell them to read Richard Jeffries’ instead. “The Story of my Heart” will do. Or “The Amateur Poacher”. His world isn’t something any of us will ever know, but perhaps in realizing what it is we’ve already lost, we’ll hesitate to further desecrate what very little there is left.

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It was reading the psychoanalysts that introduced me to the interpretation of dreams. But I also read Dunne’s “Experiment with Time“, which said if you make a note of your dreams for long enough you’ll dream of things you’ll later encounter in waking life, like a premonition. If I’m being honest with myself then, it was more on account of Dunne than the psychoanalysts I began a dream journal. I was looking for personal experience of something anomalous, something that would challenge the rationalizing ego, and grant credence to the possibility there was something beyond the face value of the material life.

And you know, Dunne was right. Time is not the straight line we think it is, or at least my own experiments along his lines – basically recording one’s dreams as diligently as possible – convinced me it was so. Sometimes we do dream of things that subsequently happen, as if the dreaming mind can borrow images from both our past, and our future. What do you do with that? Well, you think about it for a bit, then screw the lid back on, tight, because having established the fact there’s something wobbly about the way we view the world, something strange about our concept of time, you discover you’re not equipped to explain what it means and, in spite of his valiant efforts to the contrary, throughout several subsequent books, neither was Dunne. Then I read Priestly’s “Man and Time” which covered some of the same ground as Dunne, though without the analytical ambitions. Priestly, the artist and playwright, was able to look differently on the results than Dunne, who was a scientist and an engineer. He was able to say (and I paraphrase): “yes, it’s a rum one this, and we’ll likely never get to the bottom of it. Best just to go with it then, and don’t worry about solving all the equations.”

So, instead I turned back to the psychoanalysts and tried interpreting dreams. This is something of a hit-and-miss affair. Plus, those psychoanalysts will throw you deep into symbolism and mythology, stuff you’ve never heard of, nor will you ever discover in a lifetime, and I worry if you think long and hard enough there’s a danger you’ll read something into nothing. Personally, I’d rather the dreams spoke in a language tailored to one’s own ability, otherwise what’s the use? Sometimes they do just that, but mostly they don’t.

So while it is indeed possible to glean some insights from our nightly adventures in dreams, I reckon it’s best to simply let the dreams be. By this I mean, don’t try to dismantle them and examine the pieces. James Hillman’s book “The Dream and the Underworld” says something along those lines and discourages any particular practice in following dreams, other than, well, just following them. Sometimes you’ll get a definite “Aha!”, but overall the impression is that the dream has its own life, and we’re giving ourselves airs if we think its business is to interfere in our every waking step along the way.

I’m still in the habit of remembering dreams. Mostly though, I recall only fleeting glimpses. At one time I would have beaten myself up over that, worried I might have missed out on a vital insight, so the most valuable lesson there is to let them go their own way if they’re not for hanging around. I’ve a feeling we dream all the time anyway, night and day. Slip into an afternoon nap, and the dream-life is right there again to pick you up and carry you along in its surreal flow. It’s like a soap opera, no matter how many episodes you miss, you can jump back in anywhere and pick up the threads. Dreaming is one half of our natural state of being, but mostly I’ve no idea what the other guy is up to in there. Sometimes our paths will cross though, and then the one world mirrors the other in ways that mean something.

There’s a school of psychology which holds our brains to be computers made of meat, that we are nothing but biological machines, that dreams are junk, and we shouldn’t bother our waking consciousness with them. But I suspect those who say such things don’t dream very well, or very deeply. Anyone who’s had a big dream and been moved by it knows that, while they cannot always be understood, dreams are certainly not junk. And sometimes, yes, they’ll trip you up with hints of the non linearity of time. And maybe you wished you’d not seen that, because in fact it’s easier to go on believing we are indeed just biological machines with an end-by date, that time is a straight line, and that there’s nothing more to the world than a swirling bag of dust and a black void at the end of it.

True, most of the time that’s the way it looks, and you wonder at the point of plodding on. Then you have a big dream, and you wake up knowing that’s not the way things are at all, and you’d better keep going because there’s a bigger picture here, and while you might not understand it, you’re a part of it, and you don’t want to let the team down by giving up on it. Like Dunne discovered, you’ll never explain it, because we’ve not the language, neither mathematically, nor philosophically. Yet, like Priestly tells us, it adds another dimension to the world, if we’re only prepared to think on it without a view to explaining anything, and rather just accepting that things may just be so. And if we can do that, it’s like opening a door without wondering how the lock and hinges work.

As for what’s on the other side, well that’s more a sense of being, than a way of thinking.

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I’ve never had as much time on my hands, retiring into this slow time when everything is shut, and we can’t go anywhere. But the time is passing anyway, and perhaps too quickly. From not that long ago, rising early to a long commute, I’m now up around eight, making coffee, and taking it back to bed. I cannot overstate the sense of luxury in this. I read the news, do some online lessons – learning French and brushing up my chess. Then I start the day, pick up the housework, bits of DIY, walk if it’s fine, or sometimes if it’s not. And I write.


I’ve been writing a piece on Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, the father of consumerism. I was exploring the limitations of a society that reflects the shallow desires of the self, asking how we can move beyond it, and is it wise to do so? But do I know what I’m talking about? Have I sufficient grasp, sufficient depth? Can I come up with a conclusion from the mess of it that would not merely be a shallow eye-roll at the shallowness of the world? And is this not just old ground anyway, reflections of pre-retirement angst?

Potato ridges and the coming of snow

Then I had this dream. I was dancing with an exotically costumed woman, like a queen from Ancient Egypt. We were doing the waltz, foxtrot, that sort of thing, but instead of music she had letters from my past, things I’d written. As she chose each piece, I aged or grew younger in accordance. She was playing me, across time. I was all ages at the same time. I like to think I can read dreams but, though I’ve pondered long upon this one, I can only go on the mood it left when I woke. And when I woke, I didn’t care about the Freud piece. Indeed I was embarrassed to have written it. It was about hell and handcarts, and we’re past all that. So I shelved it, and I’m writing this instead.


The car still hasn’t moved. I’ve had the battery on charge a few times, after it flat-lined. It needs a good run, but for now it languishes in a cluttered garage that I intend tidying, but not yet. I read there are people driving hundreds of miles to walk from my doorstep, and here I am in solidarity with the seventy-five percent, making do with what our own doorsteps have to offer. The cops clock incomers’ number plates, as and when they can, and fine them. It had me wondering if, during the blitz and the blackout, and all that, there were people exercising their rights to liberty in defiance of authority by shining torches into the night sky even as the bombers approached?


I’ve been thinking about time, actually. Thinking back to past adventures, past travels that, at the time, always seemed accompanied by the feeling that first pass was just a dress rehearsal, that I would come back another time, in slower time, and spend time in proper contemplation of a place or a thing, or a journey – if you know what I mean. But already it’s a half a century ago, and you never do go back. I tell myself I was too busy working and bringing up children. Well, now I’ve plenty of time, but can’t go anywhere, and the car’s battery is flat, and it’s dead of winter anyway. So, I suppose what I’m saying is obvious: life is not a dress rehearsal, and every experience – even ironing my shirts this morning – needs to be experienced fully, as it happens, and for whatever juice there is in it, because every day of our lives is a one time thing, it is a once told story, the pages burned each night on the altar of our dreams.

Earth, tree and sky


I feel for the old folks who are counting down, perhaps on the fingers of one hand now, their remaining summers. These restrictions are particularly irksome for them. But I feel the passing of time too. For years, I’ve gone to Glasson on the last Friday of February, done the walk down to Cockerham, lunched at Lantern O’er Lune. Ah, those were the days! This year it looks like it’ll be another doorstep walk instead, perhaps accompanied by a flask of soup for a picnic. But how much more can one squeeze out of the Lancashire plain? We were hardly friends to begin with, and there are limits to its generosity, surely?

It was cold this afternoon, setting out again across the plain, There was a raw wind with bits of snow in it, fluttering about like moths. I was later setting out than usual, less than an hour from sundown, but I was only after a short walk among the mud and potatoes, out to a familiar tree and, I hoped, some interesting light. The way was heavy, almost too muddy even for wellies. The sky was dull, oppressive, pregnant with snow. But as I reached the tree, there was a transformation as there often is around sunset, an opening of the sky to more dramatic contrasts. There were shades of – tobacco, blue-grey, white, and cobalt. I took five exposures with the Lumix, bracketing stops above and below – still chasing the high dynamic range look. We would see what came out in “post”, as they say. Then I moved on to see what else looked promising.


I never used to bother much with the sky. It was always there of course. It was moody on occasion, but I preferred it blue and clear, and forgettable. I should have taken more notice of it in the past. In the past my cameras simply provided a record of places. Now they teach a way of seeing, and they see more than I do. The high dynamic range pictures are coming out better as I get the hang of the software, teasing out more of what the sensor sees and I, on account of my human eye, do not. I’m favouring a method that gives an antique look, grainy, detailed. I like the way it renders the sky.

Lumix LX100 (Mk1)


It’s possible of course, I will return to the scene of former travels, when we are allowed. But time will have moved those places on, made of them a fresh present to be enjoyed in the moment, observed, wrung dry for whatever that moment has to offer. My memory of the past is beginning to sharpen, as I’m told it does in later life. I’m sure it’s also becoming rose-tinted. There are clear dangers in that of course, for it blinds us to the importance of the fleeting present.


I could not have been much of a dancer when I was young, and I wonder what the Egyptian queen saw in me back then. One thing from the dream I remember was her timelessness, also a sense of her devotion and her protection – provided I keep faith in her. We keep that faith in many ways. One of them, I think, is in understanding this slow time, this time of doorstep walks across the mud of the plain, that this is not a dress rehearsal, that we need to carry as much as is useful of this time into the future with us, because there’s no going back, and the earth is fertile wherever and whenever we cast our eye, if we only have the eye to see.

Earth , tree and sky

But neither should we discount those past moments we feel we failed to do justice to at the time. We do not read the letters of our lives in sequence. Sure, that way they make sense as a sequence of actions, but the broader meaning in them, the soul-meaning, only becomes clear when we consider them all at the same time. That way our lives do not start from thin threads, swell to fullness, before tapering off into emptiness. Things only make proper sense from a transcendent perspective. That’s a hard one to visualize, especially at times of strife, but sometimes the camera catches it unawares. Mostly it doesn’t. But it’s there all the same, and its in the ordinary, the mundane. It’s in the glamour of a broad dynamic sweep of sky, it’s in the mud of the earth, and it’s in the strange sleeping beauty of trees in winter.


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Below the hill there stood an oak tree.
Beneath the oak there was a stone,
And the stone, it was an anchor
To hold the heavens down.

But then came the generations,
For whom the heavens grew dim.
Then came the man who built a house
And sealed himself within.

The house stood in a garden,
But the garden was too small,
So he burned the tree and broke the stone,
To extend his garden wall.

Then his pastures grew infertile,
As the sun-king lost his mind,
And the moon, she raised the wind and rain
And turned his lands to slime.

The heavens, they waited patiently,
Above the man’s bowed head,
But the stone was gone, the tree was burned
And the heavens? No, they could not return,
Until both man and house were gone,
And from the rested ground there grew,
From sleeping acorns, trees anew.

Then the sun king smiled,
And the moon his queen,
And blessed those men who quietly,
Raised back the stones from memories
Of when in former times we’d heard
The heavens whispering in our dreams.

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The story of the Fisher King is best known as a fragment of the Arthurian Grail myth. It comes to us from various sources, the earliest being Celtic paganism. Later versions are more Christianized and somewhat opaque to analysis – at least for me. But essentially, the story speaks of the wasteland of the world, and a malaise we feel unable to heal. I’ve been confused by its various tellings, and am therefore grateful to Robert Johnson’s book, “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”, for stripping away the layers of literary flourish, romanticism, and religiosity, and for helping me to get to grips with the mythical core of it.

We each react to life in different ways, depending on our personality type. In Jungian typology there are four functions: Thinking, Intuiting, Sensing and Feeling. Thinking, we weigh the facts, but in doing so our thoughts attach no particular value to themselves. Sensing, we take the world in through our senses, but again our senses themselves pass no judgment on those sensations. Intuiting, we leap the gaps in logic, but we intuit no value to our intuitions. Only the feeling function adds life-value, adds meaning to the world we perceive but, sadly, most of us are underdeveloped in the feeling function. Life therefore lacks meaning, and we compensate by chasing it through the other functions: thinking, and seeking ever more sensual experience, but this is fruitless; only feeling can bring meaning back into our lives. Only feeling can restore the full richness to a world that is on the one hand technologically advanced, but on the other emotionally bankrupt.

This is what the story of the Fisher King is about – our loss of feeling, the reasons why, and, like all myths, having lost it (because as humans we always lose it) how we get it back.

So, the story goes, we find ourselves in a barren land, night coming on amid an endless forest and, just as we think we are lost, we discover a lake. On the lake there is a boat, and in the boat there is a man, fishing. We are looking for shelter, for nourishment, for safety, so ask directions. The man tells us there is no dwelling, no nourishment, no place of safety within thirty miles, but if we go down the road we’re on, just a little way, then turn left, we will find a castle. If we cross the drawbridge and enter, we will be received and welcomed.

So, here’s a contradiction: there is no place of safety for many miles, yet, just down the way a little, turn left, and there’s a castle, the ultimate symbol of fortified safety. But this is no ordinary castle. This is the Grail castle, place of legend – the Grail being any one of various symbolic maguffins, depending on which version of the story you read. Later Christian versions have it as the cup of Christ, earlier versions as a Celtic cauldron, the source of all life, still others as a stone that fell from the heavens. However you choose to represent it, and whatever the nature of your malaise, the important thing to remember about the Grail is that its mere proximity can bring healing.

All of this is mythical, metaphorical – not literal – so the castle does not exist anywhere but in the imagination. That’s what the mysterious fishing man means – no dwelling within thirty miles, nothing in the material world will bring us safety. So carry on a bit – do as you were doing before – but turn left, symbolic of the way of the inner life. To find safety therefore, we must cross a liminal zone, cross the castle moat, the drawbridge. There we find ourselves in a special place, the infinite ground of being, the collective unconscious, the underworld, the world of the Fey, the place where myth plays out.

Every night there is a ceremony at the castle, just as every night we dream. The castle is the inner self. Every night, the Grail is paraded, and each participant is invited to partake of it. Everyone does so, except for the one man who cannot. This is the man we encountered earlier, the fisherman. But it turns out he’s also the king, the keeper of the Grail, and he’s a sick man, too ill to live, yet unable to die. Another contradiction! Could it be, we are describing ourselves here, and the condition of the modern man?

What’s wrong with him? Well, there are various explanations, but most stories have it, he was shot through the groin by an arrow that cannot be pulled out. The wound has left him infertile. He’s unable to rule effectively, so his kingdom ails, as he ails. It has become a wasteland. The only thing that gives him temporary respite is fishing on the lake, symbolic of our dabbling with anything that connects us with the unconscious, no matter how tenuous.

He might be cured of his ills, but only by an innocent stranger attending the ceremony of the Grail, and asking a specific question. Are we that innocent stranger? And what is the question? Don’t worry about the answer, the answer will be given. Just asking the right question is sufficient to unlock the puzzle, and cure the king.

All the characters in the myth, as in our dreams, are aspects of ourselves, so we are both the innocent traveller, and the king. We also possess the healing properties of the grail, but are unable to partake of it. To understand why, we need to know more about how the king was wounded, how we were wounded. To be wounded in the groin is symbolic – obviously boding ill for our ability to be fertile, to create. So, it’s bad for the man, and bad for the future of his generations. So our kingdom stagnates. How did things come to such a dreadful pass? Well, it all began with a fish, but not just any fish: the King of fish, the Salmon.

The Salmon harks back to the Celtic roots of the story, it having echoes in the Salmon of Knowledge, from the Irish, Fenian Myth cycle. There, the Salmon gains all the wisdom in the world by eating the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from the trees that encircle it. To catch the Salmon and eat it would therefore bestow the wisdom of the world upon the eater. At this point the stories diverge significantly. In the Celtic, the eating of the salmon indeed brings wisdom, but not to the man intended. In the English and continental European versions, the knowledge is so fierce it burns the eater, and results in his dreadful wounding.

Being all-knowing robs us of a sense of the value and meaning of life. Only contact with the Grail can temper such hardness and help us back on the path. But the wounded fisher is, ironically, too weakened by his wisdom to partake of it, even though he is charged also with being the holder and protector of his own salvation. It requires a return to a certain unaffected innocence, and reminding ourselves of the question:

What question? “Whom does the Grail serve?”

And the reply: “It serves the King.”

By the King, here, is meant something bigger than ourselves. We can call it service to God(s), to the awakening universe, or All that Is, either by seeking direct communion with it, or indirectly through selfless service to others. The story of the Fisher King teaches us that, by the acquisition of knowledge alone, we serve only a part of our selves. We facilitate our technological development, our civilization, but all of this comes at the price of our ultimate development, our evolutionary destiny, as a species.

We are far more technologically advanced now than we were in the Middle Ages, but are no more psychologically evolved, which makes us only the more dangerous to our selves, as our technology outstrips our ability to use it wisely. Without humility and the sense of serving something greater, the world will always lack meaning. And without that sense of meaning, we can never realize our potential, no matter how powerful a gift, the gift of the Salmon of Wisdom.

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