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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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So, today is Monday. It’s cold and rainy. I’m ironing. I’m bleeding the radiators. I’m replying to a flurry of overnight comments on the blog. I’m pondering the next chapter of “A Lone Tree Falls”. Retirement is bliss, even on rainy days. Then the phone rings.

It’s a very well-spoken young man who’s concerned I’m missing out on loft insulation deals. I don’t quite get the angle, but anyway, he says my house has come up on his database as having a certain type of insulation. It doesn’t conform to the current regulations – tut tut – but not to worry. It means I can claim for,… well,… something,…

“If we could confirm your details, sir? Name, address, postcode?…

Now, I know very well what type of insulation I have, because I’m the one who put it in. So what I want to know from him is how come he knows so much about it. I’m a little more assertive than I usually am, but there are issues of privacy at stake here:

“If I could stop you there and ask: exactly – and I do emphasise the word ‘exactly’ – how you came by that information?”

I surprise myself. I seem to be settling in for a crossing of wits here, when I could as easily hang up. That’s what I normally do, though with a polite “sorry, not interested”, thereby extending courtesy even to ne-er-do-wells whose aim is to raid my life savings. Did I get out of the wrong side of bed or something? Where is your patience, Michael? Where is your joy of living?

Anyway, the line goes dead before the young man can explain himself – a fault at his end, I presume. But never mind, all is in its place again. God is in his heaven, and the scammers are sweating the phones.

And I have more important things to be thinking about, such as November 3rd 2019. Why? Well, that’s the day I took this picture:

It was a Sunday, the first dry day, after weeks of heavy rain. The gentle undulations of the meadows had become lakes, and in the early light of that morning, they were as beautiful as they were unexpected. I don’t know why the picture strikes me now, as it has languished on the memory card for years. Perhaps it’s more the date, marking a time just before the time everything changed.

My diary fills in the details:

I had bought a new lens for the camera, and was trying it out with this shot. I had also bought “the Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by Arhundhati Roy, from my local thrift shop. I was lamenting how I’d probably never get around to reading it, that it would languish on my TBR pile, which turns out, thus far, to be true. My hall table was also full of leaflets extolling the virtues of the Labour-party. I was delivering them in batches, around my patch, for the local party office. It seems I too was caught up in the heady Corbynism of those distant times.

Then, the day after I took the picture, I sat down with my boss and took pleasure in giving him a year’s notice. Of a sudden, I tasted freedom. I was as excited by that as the thought of an imminent, and long needed, change of political direction. Yes, politics featured large in my thoughts in those days, which I find embarrasses me, now, because it doesn’t feature at all these days. In fact, quite the opposite, I find I view such matters with a very cold eye, or perhaps that too could be called political thinking? But let’s not go there.

Covid was not even a rumour in November. The first cases would appear in China in the coming weeks. But it would be March before Britain, after believing itself immune, would be on its knees. Suddenly, I could not travel even to the next village without fear of curtain twitchers dobbing me in. As for our health service, it proved to be so ill prepared, hobbyists were in their bedrooms, churning out face-masks for doctors and nurses on their 3D Printers.

But back to the photograph. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it at the time. Perhaps it was because events overtook us, and everything that came “before” seemed no longer relevant in the world. Then I tried a different crop, and it seemed to speak to me a little more.
I remember the season came on with a record-breaking wet. The year after was the same. The water table rose, filling the hollows, spoiling crops of winter wheat and oilseed. Migrant birds enjoyed their new-found wetlands. But then each spring, came a drought that baked the land, first to iron, and then to dust.

The photograph tells me the world was beautiful then, as of course it still is. But I detect also now a more deeply entrenched fatalism among its people. There is a growing acceptance of the ruin, and all the casual corruption, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. It just is. And, as if by metaphor, while once upon a time we could avoid those of low character by avoiding a particular part of town at night, now they come at us in our homes, down our telephone wires, wherever we are, and there’s no protection, other than our wits. But such a wit as that risks also tarnishing the spirit and rendering it blind to the beauty of the world. It will make us cynical, it will tempt us over the threshold into the hell of a collective nihilism. And then we are lost.

We need a powerful formula to keep the shine on things, and to keep believing it all means something. For myself, I trust it is sufficient never take our eye off the beauty of the world, never to let it be diminished in our souls, that therein lies the path to truly better days.

Now, please excuse me, the phone is ringing again. Perhaps it’s that young man with his explanation.

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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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I have been an amateur novelist since I was a teenager. The stories had to be fitted in around the day-job. Sometimes I enjoyed the day-job, sometimes I didn’t. What I reliably disliked about it, was the sacrifice of freedom to live as I chose, in exchange for the means to live as I had to. It is a source of suffering common to many of us, and nothing unusual in it. But the question is: were the novels an escape from those aspects of life that caused me to suffer? Or, was having to suffer, in fact, the fuel that powered the novels? And now I am retired, and therefore free to live as I choose, where does that leave the writing?

The writing began as a search for self-validation. I wanted to know if my thoughts, my feelings, indeed my very being, were valid in the world. It’s a risky gambit to do this through writing, and I do not recommend it, since rejection by publishers can be problematic for one’s self-esteem. In this sense, I was indeed roundly rejected. But, through writing, I also discovered the psyche, and was able to grasp the idea that the value of writing as a mostly unpublished amateur, lies in its potential to transform the writer, and if necessary, to heal them. As for the validity of one’s being, the simple fact of our very existence vouches for that. This is something else the writing teaches us.

Now I’m retired, and there is no real stress I can think of, other than what I invent for myself. Decades of angst are dissolving out of me. I no longer suffer the working life, and I bask in my freedoms, living, mostly, as I please. It’s a blessed feeling, but can one still be a writer, without the fuel of at least some suffering to power it?

I once believed anger could help drive the work, since anger is a form of suffering. In this respect, I tried the partisanship of politics. But through the writing, I came to understand politics better. As such, it no longer angers me. Observing political polarities at work, one realises how slick a trap it is, this ready anger we possess, that the world does not come in the shape of our own liking, that others do not see things the way we do. But anger, whilst granting the illusion of impetus, only holds us fast in a trap of meaninglessness. To escape to a more meaningful life, we must let it go. Using suffering, as a way to power writing, is like running on dirty diesel. To take it further, you have to go green.

I am still writing in retirement, the blog, obviously, but also the fiction. In the fiction, I create imaginary worlds, but these were never escape-pods from petty suffering. They have always been settings for exploring what one’s current reality does not readily facilitate. They were, and are, experiments in thought. They were and are dialogues exploring the feasibility of ideas.

The will to explore the world through writing is still very much present, but the gearing has changed. I am no longer screwing the nuts off the engine. I have engaged cruise control. The energy is coming from somewhere, but I have to be careful with it. It’s like the wind. I have to read the weather and accept that, on occasion, I will be becalmed.

So that’s fine, we’re still moving. But what’s our general direction? What is the destination?

As well as discovering the psyche, the writing has uncovered a secret. I mean this in the intellectual sense, like one discovers a map of buried treasure. Intellectually, the secret makes sense, at least to me, but I can’t simply tell it for it to be of any use to anyone else. You have to discover the map for yourselves, and there is a path to be walked.

It starts from the first question, and goes on until you get the answer. I have walked the path through the writing of a dozen novels. I understand the symbols, and I can read the map. X marks the spot. But what’s lacking is the belief anything is truly buried there. This might sound strange, but I think it’s a necessary part of the journey. It prevents us from believing in every shiny thing that comes our way. The rational senses hold sway, and will not permit me to believe, except in moments too few to build an overwhelming and possibly megalomaniacal momentum, but sufficient to keep the idea alive. Thus, we still approach whatever it is, but gently.

Rationality then holds us to the values of the world, as we have constructed them, but not to the way the world is in itself. And I suppose what I’m writing towards now is the trigger that will have me believe in the world as it really is, in spite of all the dazzling distractions of the material life. Such a thing is probably beyond my skill, and my powers of insight, I mean without retreating to a cave for twenty years under the tutelage of a Zen monk, and likely not even then. But the search itself is purposeful, and grants its own kind of meaning. Anyway, the journey is more beautiful than being boxed in by the dreary, graffitied red-brick that is the endgame of diesel-chugging materialism.

I’ll tell you a part of my secret: it’s not a secret, but I’ll tell it anyway: that the sense of self you feel, looking out from behind your eyes, I think, it’s the same sense of self looking out from behind mine. We are the same in that respect. The only difference between us is our life-story, our memory, our history. These are significant differences, you might say, and fair enough, but we have to reckon with the likelihood they are transient and therefore individually meaningless. I may be wrong in this, I don’t know. At root, however, we are each of us an aspect of the Universe awakening and becoming aware of itself, through the perspective of our personal senses and our unique situation in time and space. This tells us there is less value in our differences than we like to think. We are all different, but we are also, more fundamentally, and much more importantly, all of us, versions of the One same thing.

Now, if we could believe in that, the world would already be moving towards a much better place. But the world is a mess of suffering and, worse, attempts to address any aspect of it have proven futile. Cure mankind of his immediate ills, and he will at once invent others to suffer from. He does not do this to spite the goodness in others, nor the tireless efforts of the saintly and the beneficent, but only to satisfy his own need to suffer, for only through the lens of a man’s suffering does the otherwise sterile, material life make sense to him.

Without the stress of the working life, I invent other things, trivial things to fret about. Is the boiler going to break down? My fences are looking like another winter will blow them away. There is an unfamiliar noise coming from the car’s transmission, and the mechanic cannot diagnose it. What if it breaks down and leaves me stranded? These are small matters, but rapidly inflated to calamitous proportion, if I do not spot them before they have gathered sufficient steam to sink my mood. Their energy is dirty, they have the potential to foul the atmosphere, to cloud the mind.

The world, as we have built it, is high on diesel fumes, and the lesson appears to be it’s a mistake to think any one of us can make a difference to it, other than by first addressing the suffering in ourselves. We must each of us consult the story of our lives, and, by whatever means comes to hand – in my case, by writing – learn the lessons of it. We must find a way of ditching the anger, of addressing the causes of our own suffering, down to the finest of detail, and we must learn to be vigilant as they morph and shift their angles of attack upon the serenity of one’s mood.

We do it, as best we can, by going green.

Thanks for listening.

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Anglezarke, West Pennines

Oh, dullard brain, why do we push so far?
Who the hell do we think we are?
Three thousand years of philosophy,
And we think we’ll bottom it, over a cup of tea.

But that side of things has passed us by.
Before we catch up, the pigs will fly.
What we learned as a student, we don’t need any more,
All the nuts and bolts, of the physical world.

But the history of thought is a queer old fish.
Who said that, and who said this?
But more than that, what does it all mean?
And is it as hard as their language makes it seem?

In short, is philosophy not simply a curse?
Three thousand years and the world’s getting worse.
Those bearded old chaps, I’m sure they meant well,
But if they did us any good, it’s very hard to tell.

A change in the weather

Okay, I didn’t mean that. I was just tired and grumpy after a bad night with a blocked nose, and assailed by dreams of wasps. After such a hot spell, the forecast was for a change in the weather, so if I wanted to get out for the day, Monday was the best shot, but it was lunchtime by the time I made it out to the car. The wasp dream was triggered by an infestation of the little blighters. They’d been around for a while, making a nest in the attic, and were now pouring out like a biblical plague from a hole in the soffet board, dive-bombing as I loaded up. A few of them made it into the car with me.

I was caught in an ethical dilemma here. On the one hand, the environmentalists would say leave them alone if they’re doing no harm, while the pest men would say just kill them all, before they do some damage. I shooed the wasps from the car and set off, not entirely sure where I was going. I let the car decide, and it delivered me to Anglezarke.

Although the forecast was for cooler weather, it was still in the mid-twenties. But these don’t feel like the summers of childhood. Maybe we feel heat differently as we get older, but I’m sure there’s more to it, indeed something alien about the oppressive weight of summers now – at least those few weeks in the year when the sun really turns the wick up. We’d not be walking far, that was for sure. I let the boots choose, and they delivered me up to the Pikestones.

I knew the rest from here, barely three miles round. I could have stayed at home and walked further by doing laps around the garden, then sitting under the tree and drinking something cold. Except for the wasps. I had to admit, those wasps were becoming an issue, and only a matter of time before someone was stung. What to do, then? Get someone in, or have a go myself? Gor-blimey no, say the pest men. But what could possibly go wrong?

I’m reading about Hellenistic philosophy at the moment, this being the period commencing with the rapid rise of Alexander the Great’s empire, third century BC, and its long, slow disintegration. Those turbulent times had an effect on the collective psyche, which in turn spawned a new type of thinking – one that was concerned more with the nature of being, than the nature of reality. The times were causing great anxiety, and people had a need for philosophies that healed the soul.

We had the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Stoics. My favourite Cynic was Diogenes, who lived in a barrel – a notion I find curiously attractive in its simplicity – but he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to have round for a brew. The most famous of the Stoics would perhaps be Marcus Aurelius, who comes across in his writings as a remarkable chap, and worth delving into further, but that brings with it the history of the Roman Empire, and there are only so many tangents I can handle before I dissolve into my own nebulous entropy. Earlier Greek culture had offered an elaborate afterlife, a panoply of gods and a mythic, story-like structure to existence. But the Hellenistic philosophers weren’t much interested in gods, or what followed death, more in finding ways to be accepting of its finality. If you could do that, they said, you lived a better, happier life.

There’s much to be said for it. Too many of us bank on reward in the ever-after, and without actually getting going properly in the one life we’ve got. I don’t know for sure which camp I’m in. I suppose I’m guilty to a degree of constructing some kind of psychical escape capsule, where the summers are perfect, and the corn is always just ripe, and there are no wasps – a kind of dream-land I’ll linger in until I don’t care either way. It’s a comfort, and it’s probably wrong, and the Cynics and the Stoics are right. I get their point, but there’s no harm in hedging your bets.

Hard though. Philosophy. I suppose what I was getting at in that bit of opening doggerel is that my own student days were spent picking up technical subjects; mainly physics and engineering. I earned a living by it, but, now retired, it’s useless to me, most of it forgotten anyway and the rest obsolete. The arts, the humanities – I’ve dabbled in them outside of academia, and though they seem valuable now as an independent, economically self-sufficient – i.e. pensioned – citizen, it’s unlikely I can make much of a meaningful dent in them at this point in my life. A mature brain is not as plastic as a younger one, not as receptive to new stuff. A young brain can sit through a lecture and recall every word, while a mature brain drifts off after the first five minutes, and starts thinking about what the hell he should do about wasps.

The weather broke on Wednesday with thunderstorms, and it’s suddenly ten degrees cooler. Now we’re getting floods because the drains we have were made to handle the climate as it was thirty years ago. Anyway, I killed the wasps, dispersed them first with a shot of WD 40 under the eaves. That gave me a brief window of opportunity to get on the ladder and puff a great gasp of that noxious white wasp powder up the little hole. It did the job, but that’s not to say I feel good about it.

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself.” Marcus Aurelius AD 121 – 180

Rock on, Marcus.

Thanks for listening

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Not being a fan of horror movies, I’ve not spent much time thinking about zombies. But in this book the authors present a convincing argument that, in fact, the zombie genre is the underlying myth of our times.

The zombie first appears in western popular culture around 1920, and has seen an exponential rise ever since. Of the 600 zombie movies ever made, over half have been made in the last decade. The prevalence of the genre is hard to miss and crosses platforms easily from print to film to video games. But whatever the platform there are characteristics of the zombie that do not change, which suggests something deeper is at play – that the zombie is a symbolic representation, a thing of mythic importance, a monster rising from the depths of its creator – us -and saying something about the state of our collective psyche.

Zombies eat brains, but are themselves without mind. And no matter how many brains they eat, they gain no wisdom, yet continue mindlessly consuming. To kill a zombie you have to destroy its brain, or rather, in order to prevent the zombie eating your brain and rendering you mindless, you have to destroy its empty mindedness. So here’s a clue that what we’re talking about is ourselves; we are the zombies, we are the walking dead.

We zombies have no sense of home, no coherent language, we shuffle en-masse, but with no real aim. We are hideously ugly, a decaying parody of, and an insult to, the human forms we possess. Though we gather in large numbers, we have no community, no culture to nourish the spirit, no purpose other than to eat, to consume mindlessly. We do not co-operate with one another, we employ no particular strategy in the pursuit of our mindless aims. When faced with the very real danger of our own elimination, we take no evasive action. We simply haven’t the sense to care one way or the other.

Another curious fact is the zombie is never named as such in the stories. Only we, the viewer, know its name. The human protagonists are prey to their own whims and inevitably fall foul of the contagion. One by one, they become zombified. They never say: oh, right, they’re zombies, here’s what we need to do.

To follow the genre’s usual mythic narrative, we, the non-zombies, seek refuge with others of our kind, in fortified surroundings, and from where we blast away at the brain-dead with whatever weapons come to hand. But, in spite of our best efforts at cooperation, there’s always a falling out into irreconcilable factions that work against one another. Then there’s a weakness in the defences, a door unlocked, a window left open that lets the zombies in. Significantly, say the authors, there is never a happy ending, no superhero, no super-technology, no God-sent zombie-killing virus to the rescue.

But here’s the thing: the zombie is not evil. It just does what it does, mindlessly, without malice. It’s not dead, but not entirely alive either, and to be touched by one is to become a zombie yourself. They are existentially terrifying. But more, the undead nature of the zombie, and its links to the apocalypse, say the authors, are a reference to our rejection and perversion of the Christian myth. As Nietzsche wrote towards the end of the nineteenth century, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” then a short time later, the zombies (us, denuded of something vital) appear in the culture.

This is a short book, scholarly in nature, but I found it deeply interesting, accessible and very readable. Since reading it, I am seeing zombies everywhere, in the news, on social media, on the street, infecting others with their mindlessness. While it is significant, the loss of any spiritual dimension to the culture, the breakdown of organised religions – i.e. traditional, institutional beliefs in a “God” archetype – are also considered culturally inevitable. Religious attendance in the west is inversely correlated with the rise of the zombie. But equally, our search for an alternative “secular” spirituality won’t work, those on offer being too small and fragmented. Attempts by the state to usurp the function of religion, by substituting political and social ideologies like Marxism and Fascism, it’s to be hoped are experiments we can avoid repeating.

Just as the zombie myth does not offer any hope of salvation, neither do the authors at this stage offer any solution to the crisis of meaninglessness in our times. However, it at least enables us to get a handle on the nature of the problem, perhaps with a view to an intelligent attack at some point in the future, and this will be the subject of a future book.

Speaking of John Vervaeke, for anyone working through his “Meaning Crisis” lecture series on Youtube – in my humble opinion, one of the best things on there at the moment – I’ve found “Zombies in Western Culture” a good introduction to his thinking.

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Dear George,

In answer to your query, when we write long-form fiction, interesting things emerge. Whether the story ever sees the light of day or not, it is an exploration of ideas, of events salient to our attention, and to our sense of being, at least at the time of writing. It clarifies what it is we think, also what we think we think, but in fact do not. Thus, it points the finger at our bullshit, and our vulnerability to the subversion of our thinking by invasive memes.

Memes sweep the culture, inculcate it, shape it. They cling to our coat-tails like briars, and we must be careful of them. Are these the things we really think? Or are they infections we have picked up and would be better seeking a cure for them? And is there really any difference?

In our current work in progress we have picked up a few threads familiar from previous writings: the secret state, neo-pagan spirituality, depth psychology, the politics of inequality. This is normal, a kind of narrative continuity. But you are right to point out a meme I have missed, and which might be harmful to us both.

As near as I can tell, it is the meme that says the man’s too big – the man being any authority we labour under, or against. The man deploys his authoritarian tool-box to crush dissent, he twists every instrument of the law to protect himself, he is made of Teflon, nothing sticks, and no lie is too big. Indeed, lies are no longer lies in contemporary political parlance; they have become tactical deceits. As for that most urgent issue of global warming, it’s too late to alter the course of it, and since we’re all doomed anyway, why bother even talking about it?

My last hero, Rick, turned his back on climate activism and politics, and went to live with a magical woman in the equivalent of a walled, Edenic garden. I wasn’t happy with him for doing that, but given the nature of the woman, I couldn’t entirely blame him. But it was also a return to the womb, which is hardly a healthy state of affairs. The world is where we live, not the womb. That we are born at all means we have a responsibility to shape the Zeitgeist. Heaven or Hell? The choice, as you say George, is ours.

In my defence, I might argue I wanted others to be angry with Rick as well, for who else can we rely upon to put the world to rights if not our heroes? And when the heroes quit the field in despair at our apathy, it should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that something is seriously wrong. It was, then, a small gesture, rooted in reverse psychology, and probably futile. But, you ask, is there not also a danger I have fallen for my own meme, and begun to believe in it? The man’s too big, the man’s too strong. Go contemplate your navel.

In “a lone tree falls” Rick is reborn as you, George. You are a former intelligence officer, a man of middling rank, intimate with international affairs, familiar with facts that are kept from the rest of us for reasons both fair and foul, familiar too with facts that have been spun to the inverse of their original meaning. But now you too find yourself in the path of the bulldozer, and the big man bearing down. Like Rick, the solution I am suggesting for you is defeatist. You’re knocking on in years, you see the future of the UK as a kleptocratic failed state, buffeted by an increasingly violent climate, spiralling levels of poverty, and an infrastructure always on the verge of collapse. But since – forgive me George – you’ll be dead before the worst of it hits, why worry? Keep your head down. Pour yourself another G+T and salute the sunset.

However, I note your objection, and agree all of this is convenient for the kleptocrats. One wonders if such “resistance is futile” memes can be seeded in the mire of social media to purposely sprout invasive blooms of defeatist nihilism. I also note that to be accepting of what we cannot change is also touted, in the emerging self-help literature, as being psychologically mature – this particular meme coming out of the man’s misappropriation of Buddhist mindfulness techniques. We are taught now to move on from contentious issues as a form of self-preservation. We should not interfere to change the madness, says the man, but employ age-old psycho-technologies to merely cope with it, and therefore remain obligingly docile and economically productive, as we spiral down the vortex of heat-death.

Why do I suggest that you, dear George, escape your responsibilities by making off with a muse half your age, disappear on a canal boat into the sub-cultural wonderland of England’s inland waterways? Is this not another metaphor of the womb, like Rick’s Edenic garden? Have I not worked out yet that the man holds the plug, and can drain any medium of true flight? There is no escaping responsibility.

But what, exactly, are our responsibilities to the world, and to the species? To whom, or to what are we held responsible, and to what standard? I hear your complaint, George, that, though we men of senior years feel no longer capable of action ourselves, we should at the very least take care we do not infect the young, for there is nothing worse for a young person’s confidence than seeing a defeated old man preaching the nihilist memes he learned at the knee of his masters and economic betters. Who then can blame the young for retreating into the virtual worlds of their computer games, drawing their curtains against the light, and subverting intelligent activism into vile shouting matches on Twitter?

Do not be defeatist, be determined? Do not be bitter, be better? Do not resign, be resilient? I hear you, George. My powers are limited, but I’ll see what I can do to preserve your honour and dignity.

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I want to write poetry,
just like in olden times
with a notebook, and a fountain pen,
and a book of common rhymes.

I want to watch the sunset,
across this folded dale,
with a lantern at my elbow,
as the light begins to fail,
and the sash taps out in whispers,
the ciphers of the muse,
dot-dot dash, dot-dot dash,
at the rising of the moon.

And if I pay attention,
yet resist that grasping urge
the pen might yet decipher
an authentic string of words,
a pattern in the ink strokes
on this smooth vanilla page,
a thing we can hold onto
at the fading of the age,
a string of understanding,
timeless and complete,
indelible and indifferent,
to control, and alt-delete.

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