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Archive for the ‘Mysticism’ Category

I know you think you’ve failed us, mate.
Such big dreams we’ve always had,
and that wide world out there to roam.
Then love!
Man, would we explode in love,
and in love, for sure, the gods
would see us home.

I know, it’s not been like that.
All those circles that we drew?
They seemed so small,
and this old town, now, crumbling,
its walls, they blocked our every turn.

But what better way to shift the gaze?
From the outwards, to the in,
and through the light of imagination
to hear the angels sing.

So, do not lament the loss of ages,
for all the ages melt away,
and the atom splits to emptiness,
to that field where angels play.

Indeed, you’ve brought us far, old man,
you have shown the universe quite small.
You have peered us deep into infinity,
and closed our fist around it all.

First published in Visual Verse, February ’23

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It beggars belief, but yesterday’s domestic news was dominated by our recently ousted PM’s unsubtly trailed and somewhat premature angling for a comeback. In her forty-day tenure – the shortest serving PM in history – she crashed the markets, wiped billions off investments, stunted the growth of defined benefit pensions for millions of workers, and ruined the UK’s reputation for sound financial governance. But, she writes, it was not her fault. She was badly advised. And worse, there are those within the now bitter dregs of her party who think she’s right. My heart sinks, says the leader of the opposition. Mine too, mate.

Then, political journalist, Andrew Marr, now released from the constraints of corporate news media, has been more frank and informative in his analysis of world events of late. Rumours of an early end to the war in Ukraine are premature, he says – though I must admit I had not heard any such rumours – and we should be prepared for it to go on for another five or ten years. This will cast a dark shadow over European – indeed world – affairs throughout the 20’s. But the UK is particularly exposed, it being now the worst performing of the western nations, including Russia, with stagnant growth and levels of entrenched inequality that are quite staggering. You are better off being poor virtually anywhere else in the world, than in the UK. We must expect energy and food prices to remain high, for a long time.

All of this paints a bleak picture, one that is in contrast to the positive vibes of the morning, with clear skies and the frost still lying across the meadows. We leave the car on Dole Lane at Abbey Village, and walk down to the Hare and Hounds, then strike out along the right of way whose signage does its best to say it is not a right of way, but access only to a private residence. But a right of way it is, and has been forever, so off we go.

Just a short walk today, more of a dog waking circuit for Abbey residents, and incomers like me, around the lower reservoirs, and the Roddlesworth plantations. We have no dog, but there is no shortage of yappy canine accompaniment, and our trousers are soon muddied by an over-friendly, jumpy creature, who gets a telling off by a scold-faced woman. I am ready to wave away her apology, but do not get one. Most people we meet are open and friendly, but we tend only to mark the ones who are not.

We’re planning a bigger walk in the Forest of Bowland for later in the week, when the weather is looking iffy, but today, being such a good day, it was a pity to waste it indoors, so here we are, but not wanting to wear our legs out for the upcoming epic. We have time to linger over familiar ways, to take photographs, and to ponder world affairs. As we move from winter’s dark into the first hints of post Imbolc light, and the snowdrops begin to show, there is the feeling of a weight lifted, of an optimism returning. The media, however, have other ideas and would sooner scotch all hope before it has the chance to bud.

I have the long lens today, not the obvious choice for woodland photography, but I’m looking for details in isolation with blurry backgrounds. The obvious targets are the lone juvenile copper birches, holding onto their leaves, and rising into shafts of sunlight against a backdrop of fuzzed out darker woodland. I’ve a feeling it’s a cliché, but I’m not selling photographs, so it doesn’t matter. There’s something in them that’s worth a moment of contemplation, anyway. The branches have poise, like a dancer, expressive of,… well,… something.

The big international news of course is this devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Over 5000 souls are known to be lost, so far. It’s an unimaginable and sudden tragedy that puts our European troubles into perspective. It’s also worth remembering, however, that a study by the University of Glasgow concludes we lost 335,000 souls, across the home nations, between 2012 and 2019, due to poverty alone, as caused by political austerity a fact the media seems curiously reticent about. But to dwell on these things, says our redoubtable chancellor, is to talk Britain down.

On the middle reservoir, the fly-fishermen have pulled their boats in for the winter, so the cormorants are perched instead on the mooring buoys. Patient birds, they share the character of vultures in their Victorian funeral feathers. We are also befriended by a robin which hops onto a post within arm’s reach, and eyes us cheekily. He bobs about there for ages, so enchanting we forget about the camera, and as soon as we do remember it and try to get focus, he’s gone.

Then we meet a bunch of guys we used to work with, the entire department actually, all retired, but still keeping in touch and meeting up for regular walks. It was a tonic to see them looking so hale and hearty. The chancellor scowls and tells us we are part of the problem, we, the early retired, and economically inactive, and should get back to work, along with the sick and disabled, fill in all those vacancies left by our European friends who went home post BREXIT. But the taxman still collects his dues from us, which is more than can be said for certain members of the cabinet. He will have a tough job coaxing us back into the office, should we even be wanted, which I am sure by now we are not.

We have in common our freedom from the constraints of those things we cannot alter, like the clocking machine for a start, and the daily deluge of bullshit emails. We have the freedom to focus on those things that are within our remit: to stay at home and write, do a bit of DIY, tidy the garden, come out for a walk, explore an unfamiliar part of the country, choose which lens to bring with the camera. These are small things for sure, but important all the same, if not as things in themselves, then as vehicles for exploring the deeper self. But even granted such freedom, we risk ignoring it, to go fretting instead over those things we cannot change, like what further madness the chancellor and his swivel eyed colleagues might be planning next. How about scrapping all environmental, food, employment and animal welfare standards? And making it illegal to go on strike.

I have begun a new story, about a man living alone on a remote Scottish island. He finds a humanoid robot of the type they are now developing, and hyping to a ridiculous extent, washed up on the beach. I take all the frankly improbable tech utopian projections, and bestow them in spades upon my fictional bot. It wakes up and proves itself both intelligent and an astonishingly capable companion, as well as gorgeously female in appearance. In what ways does it alter the man’s outlook on his own life?

Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic, but even as a romantic with an increasingly non-dualist perspective, I hesitate to make fun of it. It is a thing to be reckoned with and, if the impact of the Internet is anything to go by, it will render the near future unrecognisable, and in ways that are not predictable and not entirely benign either. Again, this is something we have no control over, but at least as a writer I can explore it, whilst being careful not to be too shrill in its condemnation, or as its advocate. We’re up to three chapters and the ideas are still coming, but we’ll say no more in case I jinx it.

Anyway, just two and a half miles today in frosty sunshine, then a pleasant drive back over the moors. At home, we clean and waterproof the boots for Bowland. I read on a blog recently of a method of spiritual and philosophical reflection, where we cast our minds back over the week, and ask what lessons we learned, something our former PM would do well to dwell upon. I’m not sure if I’ve heard this before – I think I might have – but it’s not something I do by habit, and it’s early in the week yet, so I hesitate to jump to conclusions.

We’ll see come Friday.

Thanks for listening

https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=15/53.6950/-2.5344&layers=C

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You are still in love with Yasmina. You have always known it, but sometimes forget. You last saw her in the July of 1976. That’s forty-seven years ago and, since you are approaching old age now, it’s possible she is no longer of this world. They say we know, when a distant loved one has departed for the next life, but that’s only if they have ever thought of you, and she never did. Indeed, I doubt she even knew your name. Sometimes love is like that.

It was the most beautiful, yet also the most painful thing you have known. It was also the most formative, in that it made you what you are. Which is what? What are you, my friend? Will I tell you? You lack confidence in the world, or you would not have withdrawn from it as early as you did. You are isolated in your feelings, feeling always the strangeness of yourself, and your thoughts. And that she did not know you, never asked your name, has also lent the world this air of a thing made of glass. It is transparent to you, but has an impermeable surface, which puts you always on the outside of it. Or so it feels on days like these, when the rain beats against the window, and nothing amuses you. Not reading, not writing, nor the role-call of old acquaintances – those still living, that is. So many names now remain pencilled, but with lights gone out, yet you cannot erase them, as you cannot erase Yasmina.

You were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, and have never felt anything so powerful. There have been women since, though few. There have even been nights of passion but, again, few. And every emotion you have felt, pales beside what you felt for her, both in the pain and the glory of it. She was, is, and always will be the standard by which you judge all things. Indeed, your whole life has been a quest for the source of what you felt in her. For though you love her, you are wise enough to know she was but the channel of a source beyond imagining. During those all too brief years, it took human form in Yasmina, for it was in her alone you might have recognised it for the divinity it was.

You cannot believe there is no purpose in such a love as that. Granted, such refusal may arise from a fear belief is delusional in a world void of meaning. And all rational evidence suggests the meaning of life is much less than we would like it to be. What is the meaning of a life, then? Any life. Will we ask it of the computer?

Hey Noodle, what do you say is the meaning of life?

Meaning, replies Noodle,… hmm, that’s a deep one, for the machine is programmed to simulate character, and humour. It then quotes us Simone De Bouvoir. It was she who said life only has meaning in so far as we value the lives of others. That’s about the best the Existentialists will allow. A gloomy bunch to be sure, best suited to violent times, not times of capitulation and crushing despair such as these. But they don’t ring true for you, and why? You have valued Yasmina above all others, and felt only her indifference. You have sought the surrogate of her love in others, and they all failed you, and only because they were not Yasmina. What then is the meaning, if the reward for so valuing others, is to be rejected by them?

Let us ask the computer again.

To exist, says Noodle, means to have a way of living. The computer’s way of living is to search, so the meaning of life, according to Noodle, is to search and to learn. Which all sounds rather dry. Plus, there are two problems with it. One, the computer is not alive, and second, there is nothing to say its way of being – as it describes – is the same as yours. But let us be generous and say we are all on the path of learning, and searching. And for sure, you have sought and learned much. But you have never shared your knowledge, always assuming the world to be indifferent to such learning, as gleaned by outsiders, like you. You therefore keep your own counsel, though your better instinct is to share.

Your purpose then, according to Noodle’s logic, is to exist in secret, and in isolation, but only in so far as you see yourself. In relation to others, you have no existence at all. So be it, but you still love Yasmina. And, strange though it may seem, therein also lies, if not your life’s purpose, then the seedling from which all else grew.

Now, from this perspective, turn your eyes away from the rain, and the despair of the times, pick up your pen, and write.

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Spies are interested in secrets, and will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. But for all their efforts, do spies keep us safe? They protect the interests of their home countries, or at least a certain demographic within them, but, taken worldwide, is the number of innocents lost to violence, any less than if the spies, as a profession, had not bothered to glean their secrets, or is it perhaps even the worse for it?

It’s a question suggested by a line from a le Carré spy novel, and it got me thinking. Around the same time, a beech tree came down in winter storms. I’d known it since childhood and thought it would stand forever. Its loss was a shock, and seemed an ill omen, considering all that was going on in the world, and in particular my own country – politically, socially, economically. And then there’s the old Zen thing – which isn’t actually a Zen thing – about how the tree that falls alone makes no sound.

Corruption in high places, staggering levels of inequality, unaffordable rents and energy, children eating erasers at school to stave off hunger pains. Britain, in 2022. Is that enough of a dystopia, or shall we project it forward a little? 2025, say? Or 2030? It should be easy enough to plot where we’ll be, given current trends, but do we really want to go there?

This is the background music as I sit down to write, in early 2022, and what takes shape over the course of the year is a story called A Lone Tree Falls. It proposes the quest for a secret, and the searcher is a former spy turned mystic. But this is no ordinary secret. This is the Secret above all secrets.

The Secret above all secrets tells us the world isn’t what we think it is, that our obsession with the materiality of it is a misunderstanding of the way things are. It is an illusion, and all we do by our obsession with it is perpetuate it. This is not to say we have any choice. It is our fate that our mortal lives at least are spent abiding in this state, but we do have a choice in how we react to it. We can either persist in ignorance of the deeper picture, in which case we gain nothing, and we finish our lives pretty much where we started. Or we can wake up.

Waking up begins with the lone tree that falls, and the realisation it made no sound, and it goes on to the conclusion that there is no difference between you and whatever you are looking at, that all there is to anything is mental phenomena, though the strict rules, spun out of an evolving Universe, leave us no option but to deal with the world as it appears – as solidly real and (mostly) impermeable to the will. But if that revelation is not to implode into the absurdity of philosophical solipsism, one must also wake up to the notion that the essence of one’s self, like everything else, is dreamed into being by the Universe, and not the other way round.

This is the mystical path. It’s a well trodden one, but what’s the point of it? My guess – since I’m only writing about it, rather than making a career of it – is, once you arrive at that destination, it affects your dealings with other people, who, like you, are dreamed into being. So, we are all the same in this respect, both the dreamers and the dreamed. The feeling you have of your own awareness of self, is the same as everyone else’s. All that’s different is our back-story. The other man’s pain, whether you like that guy or not, is your own pain. Hurt him, and you hurt yourself.

But it’s one thing to be told a secret, quite another to believe it. But such is the quest of our protagonist, this former spy of sorts who is also mostly the Fool from the Tarot, or sometimes the Magician, when he needs to be.

I didn’t want to write this story. I wanted to write a simple boy meets girl romance, but the story had other ideas and wanted out. We’re pretty much there with it now, and I’ll have it up on Smashwords in the coming weeks. As for the conclusion, does my protagonist believe in the Secret? Do I? Can we even get there by a pathway of words and thoughts? Or is that just part of illusion as well? I don’t know. We’ll see.

Next time though, next time, it will be a simple boy meets girl romance.

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A wet week looks like having us confined mostly to barracks. Since the youngest flew the nest, last year, I have acquired a study. It has a view of the garden, and beyond, to a once grand ash tree, now beginning to die back. We resist the obvious metaphor, focus instead on the stripes of the lawn, and the remaining splashes of colour among the heleniums.

I’m thinking about something that happened a long time ago. It was a moment of transcendence, I think, one in which there was no difference between who I was, and what I was looking at. That I happened to be looking at Scope End, a shapely cone of a mountain in the Newlands Valley, made this a very grand experience indeed. And whether it was a genuine taste of oneness, as the Buddhists would have it, or just a bit of a funny do, is largely irrelevant at this stage. I’m inclined towards the former, since it has remained fresh in memory all these years, and has driven a lot of creative efforts in mystical directions, though I readily accept the possibility of the latter.

It’s hard to imagine everything we see as being made of atoms: the lawn, the heleniums, and the old ash tree. We know it to be so, thanks to the elementary science we learned at school, but we still tend not to think of things that way. To do so would lend the world a layer of complication we can manage perfectly well without, day to day. Atoms are mostly space, yet the world looks solid. Go down another level, and atoms are made of smaller particles. Then again, these smaller particles are made from even smaller particles, none of which are actually particles, but more like twists of energy, vibrating in what is called the Unified Field. The field is a thing beyond which there is nothing, because it is nothing, yet it gives rise to the world, to the universe of appearances.

It’s also here, while conducting science at this subatomic level, the consciousness of the observer has an effect on what manifests, on that which is observed, which leads to speculation that the unified field – if not in itself actually aware – is the ground from which even consciousness arises. All of this is simply to say that when I am looking at the ash tree, my relationship to it is more complicated than surface appearances, and certainly more complicated than I am ordinarily aware.

All of this, the last hundred years or so of scientific thinking finds itself converging on the Vedic tradition, which speaks also of a fundamental ground of being, an emptiness, a nothingness, a formlessness, timeless and infinite, from which all things arise. And the tradition holds that this state can be experienced directly, either by diligence in the practice of meditation, or you can even sometimes fall into it by accident.

In my case, the accident occurred at the tail end of a long and very beautiful walk in the mountains, some time around the millennium. It probably lasted only the length of time it takes for the raising of a foot, as I walked, and the placing of it down again, but, internally, the experience was much more expansive, and timeless. It posed many questions, of course, and the subsequent search for answers became a considerable part of my leisure time thinking, thereafter, a search for which one feels poorly equipped, bound as one is by the nine to five-ness of ordinary, suburban circumstances.

Scope End, June 2005

Although I have speculated on it before, a firmer link between Vedic – also to some degree Buddhist – philosophy and the Unified Field of contemporary physics came to me only recently while revisiting some old notes on Transcendentalism – Transcendent meaning a direct experience of the ground of being, or the divine, or however you want to put it. I first heard the term, long ago, when a work’s doctor was interviewing me, after I’d fainted. I was a manufacturing apprentice, and my mate had injured his finger on a machine. He swore, and I fainted. I came round in a sweat, the doc pronounced me fit, told me to get back out on the shop and then, as if he had peered into my soul, added that I’d probably benefit from some form of Transcendental Meditation. It was perhaps the single most sage piece of advice I was ever given, but I ignored it.

And just as well I did, because the “official” Transcendental Meditation (TM) would have been beyond my means. Even if I’d found a teacher, TM costs you serious money, and I’d a long way to go before I was ready, or desperate enough to take any form of meditation seriously, but especially one where they asked you for money. Now, I’ve no reason to doubt TM is as effective as they say it is – even though most of those saying it are celebrities who can well afford it – but there are plenty of other forms you can learn from books, or from inexpensive church hall classes, if you want to give it a go.

As for TM in particular, it’s a technique defined by the use of a mantra, a meaningless word that has a certain resonance in the mind as it is silently repeated. In the official TM that mantra is a secret – specific to you – given to you by your teacher and never to be shared. Naturally, this raises some sceptical eyebrows. Personally, I think you could find your own mantra, and that will do just as well.

I’ve used meditation – though not TM – as a means of controlling stress and anxiety, mostly work related, and found it effective, but it never took me back to that moment in the mountains. Then again, I don’t meditate very often these days, and I’m not sure I want, or need, to go back to that moment anyway, because it raised more questions than I can ever answer, at least in this lifetime. But I’m grateful for the glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, if indeed that’s what it was. It’s certainly gifted me plenty of speculative avenues to explore over the years, and the mind has enjoyed toying with them in my various fictional writings.

It’s deeply strange to look at a mountain and have one’s consciousness expand until one is both oneself, and the mountain. That’s too clumsy a way of putting it. Perhaps a better way is to say the unified field contains both the manifestation of the mountain, and one’s own consciousness, and that, for a moment, one attains a glimpse of both, from some higher perspective.

Of course the ego resists even this one small concession, that while it might be possible this is the way it really is, Ego denies any certainty of belief, that beyond granting the world is indeed a beautiful place, and at times hauntingly so, it would sooner take anchor in a materiality we know full well to be a serious simplification of the way things truly are.

And now, after all of that, the sun is shining, so we’ll slip out for a walk, while the going is good, and I’ll leave you in the company of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) who I think explains it very well.

Thanks for listening

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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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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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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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