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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the nub of the meaning crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

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In the Red Box

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

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

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

Yes, I can well imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

“You can go through,” she says.

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

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

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

“Yes. It’s been a long time.”

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

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

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

So it’s true what they say!

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do they see?”

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

“And you? What did you see?”

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

To live with it?

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

And are you ready for that?

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

“Open the box,” he says.

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

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

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

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Photo by Tim Grundtner on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I was going to write something grumbly today, something about the decline of real blogging, the decline of writerly bloggers who blog for the sake of it, and without giving themselves the airs of entrepreneurs. You know the type? They’re always offering six easy steps to financial success, and a set of perfect white teeth along the way, the sort of entrepreneurial bloggers who tag my blog daily now as if I’m even remotely interested in what they’re selling. If only they would wise up, admit that, in the great scheme of things, like all of us, they’re simply nobody, going nowhere, and then open their eyes to the world and tell me what they see and feel, in original prose or poetry that seeks no remuneration. Then I’d be interested, and I’d follow back. But I’m not going to write about that.

In truth, I’m a little grumpy because I have the beginnings of a toothache. A bit of filling has dropped out, and my dentist won’t see me for a month. The place was taken over by a corporate brand, a few years ago, the original staff all fired off and replaced with younger, cheaper versions, who now offer botox treatment, white smiles, and other questionable cosmetic enhancements. I sense they now rather look down on the humble, unwashed NHS patient, who simply wants competent dental care and an annual checkup. Anyway, there’s nothing like a bit of naggy pain for refusing admittance to the higher realms of imagination, for imprisoning one instead in this denser version of reality. So we’ll distract ourselves as best we can with the ironing and an exploration of Zen.

How to iron a man’s shirt? Well, first you take the cuff,… or so begins one of those Youtube instructables. It’s a job I’ve taken up more seriously, now I have the time, ironing shirts, trousers, handkerchiefs. I always used to rush it before, and with mixed results. As a kid I had to pick skills up fast, like how to handle a turret lathe, or a milling machine without losing a finger, and all that was before they’d let me near those dangerously sharp pencils in the engineering office.

Once you’ve got the basics, it’s just a matter of practice and focus, and with ironing there’s as much of it to practise on as you want. It also grants an hour or so out of the day, to plug in and listen to lectures on You-tube, which is the main reason I like it, but don’t tell anyone. In particular, I’ve recently discovered a rich seam of wisdom in Alan Watts (1915-1973), many of his recorded interviews, lectures and radio broadcasts being now online.

When plodding a personal metaphysical path, we come to realize there’s no one person who has a monopoly on wisdom. More, there’s always been a succession of teachers throughout time who were able to communicate, or not, in different ways. We might encounter the works of one person and find them too advanced, or too difficult or irrelevant, but we might circle back to them when we’re ready. I think that’s what happened with me and Alan Watts.

Watts had (and still has) an immensely popular following in spiritual and philosophical circles, though various biographies I’ve read suggest he was somewhat shunned by the more orthodox intelligentsia of his day. I find he has a fascinating voice, a compelling manner, an infectious humour, and a canny way of getting across complex ideas, shedding them of their mystique. His topic area is the whole of eastern spiritual thought and seeking a synthesis between it and western metaphysics, but at the moment, it’s his lectures on Zen I’m finding most interesting.

Zen, fares well in the pop culture of the west, with books on “Zen and the art of this, that and the other”. What Zen is though, actually, is a tricky thing to pin down, its subject matter being so ineffable. I’ve read western books on Zen, but none made sense, and the eastern works seemed always to be either laughing or throwing up the shutters at my ignorance. The nearest we can get to it, in western terms, says Watts, is the field of psychoanalysis. This makes sense, suggesting the nature of the mind is bound up with the nature of being, and reality. Watts has opened the door there a little.

The nature of the self – our true self – is generally unrecognized throughout our lives, being too easily mistaken instead for the story of our lives. But, says Watts, when two Zen masters meet, they need no introduction, because each of them knows not only who they are themselves but who the other guy is as well. Each understands there is, as such, no “other”. Both are “it”.

The awareness that grants one’s sense of being is the same awareness as everyone else’s. That’s not an easy thing to grasp. Indeed, it’s somewhat troubling, and near impossible for a materialist to even grant it an audience, since it posits the fundamentally “conscious” nature of reality.

Many pilgrims come unstuck at this point, either unable to accept the universe is thinking itself into being, or they think it’s them, their mind, that’s at the centre of everything, that they are somehow omnipotent. Then their world collapses into a solipsistic delusion with their megalomaniacal ego at the centre of it. The nearest I can get to what Zen, in part, is saying is the western idealist philosophy which suggests the universe is thinking “us” into being and not the other way around, meaning the thinker thinking you, is the same thinker who’s thinking me.

If we can at least work with the possibility reality is structured in this way, it grants us a fresh perspective on life. It allows us to explore reasons why such a thing might be the case, and what it means to be human in the world. It presents also the paradox of waking up to the transcendent nature of reality, while at the same time being trapped within the limitations of this particular version of it. We have our personal functional limitations – like how it’s taking me an age to iron this one damned shirt, when the dude in the video says I should be able to do it in three minutes – but also the fact that the whole of human endeavour is so prone to suffering, and no matter how carefully we build our societies up for the greater good, we cannot help but sow within them the seeds of our own destruction.

As for what Zen has got to with ironing this shirt, I don’t know, except,… just do it, maybe? Nor does it explain the purpose of my toothache, which perhaps only goes to show I know nothing of the true path of Zen, that if I did, I simply wouldn’t mind it.

I’ll tackle ironing a pair of trousers next. Damned tricky things, trousers.

Last word to Alan Watts (audio only):

Keep well all.

Graeme out.

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I’ll take the ticking of my father’s watch

And the tales my mother told,

And I shall pack them safe with fragrances,

In the pocket of my soul.

There shall be sandalwood and cinnamon,

For days beneath the sun,

While for the moon I’ll ride on lavender,

Until the dreaming has begun.

And there I shall encamp myself,

In a meadow by the sea

And from the shore I shall take pebbles,

As round as round can be.

And I shall plant them in that dreaming earth,

A dreaming circle wide,

And wait upon the morning,

And the coming of my guide.

I shall know him by his wisdom,

And the feeling I am blessed.

Then we shall wait upon the sunset

And a boat, into the west.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What question? “Whom does the Grail serve?”

And the reply: “It serves the King.”

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

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

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I begin with an apology to those who have downloaded my story “Winter on the hill”. I’ve been going through it in recent days and discovered it’s riddled with more typos than usual. This is embarrassing. There’s a fresh copy on Smashwords now which tidies it up somewhat. Still, there’s no getting away from the fact I’ve been a bit distracted this year. We all have, I know. But worse, I began the year angry, and that’s never a good sign, and certainly not a good start.

It suggests there were more shadow issues inside me than I’d thought. This is always the case, the shadow leading us on a merry dance all our lives – a blessing when we can spot his tricks, a curse when we do not. The trigger for my anger was the result of the December 2019 election and the rout of Leftist politics, to which I’d hitched my wagon, my shadow plainly visible in those talking heads I’d labelled “right wing nutjobs”, “gammons” and “swivel eyed loons”. I’d seen the election as the last chance for a reversal in our direction of travel as a nation – less poverty, a renewal of the regions, and a green new deal. The majority of my countrymen, however did not agree.

2019 was an ugly year, a year of lies, fakery and flying spittle. It was also the year I realized it was no longer possible to make sense of anything, that the optical apparatus of the western world is so bent out of shape it swerves all semblance of truth. We have resolved it out of the equation of our life and times, and are thereby building a new Zeitgeist on quicksand, one in which the poor sink first, while sustaining the rich on their backs. In some respects, then, 2020 is the year we deserved, if only as a reminder there are some things that have an inescapable truth about them. You can ignore them all you like, say they’re not true, but that won’t make them go away. There were those who denied the existence of Covid from the beginning. Indeed, even with seventy-five thousand dead in the UK, some still do.

So the lesson of 2020 is that truth does not belong to those who shout the loudest, or to those who pour the most money into public relations. I don’t know where we’re going as a nation, only that I’m not angry about it any more, and I have “Winter on the Hill”, and my dialogue with its various characters to thank for that. I accept some people firmly believe in things I think are strange, and I accept persuading them otherwise is not a matter of pointing out my own version of the truth. Indeed, this is as likely to inflame them, as it runs counter to their own world view, that dialogue – true dialogue is presently impossible.

This is not to say I no longer believe, for example, that BREXIT is the biggest act of self harm in our post-war history. It’s an opinion based on an analysis of geopolitics and global economics, at least in so far as I understand these things. Many more of course understand things differently and therefore disagree with my view. But Winter on the Hill has taught me not to label these contrary opinions as merely crackpot, or even dare I say dangerous? It has also granted me some insight into the reasons Brexiteers think the way they do. But reaching this point you find you have transcended politics. You have swapped partisanship for the hill-craft necessary in crossing the daunting terrain as it now presents itself in 2021 and beyond.

The sight of Londoners fleeing the Capital, before the new Tier 4 rules came in, reminds me we shall not be spared the stupidity of crowds any time soon. The temporary blockading of the Channel ports and the halting of continental freight is a reminder of the fragility of the supply chains keeping our supermarkets stocked. But my hill-craft also tells me this is simply the nature of the new landscape we are traversing, and this, the incoming and decidedly inclement weather. Better to prepare for it than merely shake our fist.

I wish I could say I think 2021 will be any less “distracting”, that the stories I write will be free from error, but I suspect this will not be the case. What I can say though is that a partisan anger at the poverty, the foodbanks and the holes in the road has gone, and is in any case counterproductive. It doesn’t solve the problem, but if the best I can do is buy the homeless guy a sandwich and a cup of tea, then so be it. That’s all I could ever do. Compassion is a bottom up thing, and we’d all do well to remember that, because it’s only by the grace of God it’s not us sitting there instead of him.

And yes, come the next election, there’s a chance we’ll be falling over ourselves again to vote for more of the same, because most of us are not interested in solutions to longer term questions, even those concerning the sustainability of the species. We just want to know how to go on living as we are right now, without changing anything, even when we know change is likely coming, and the truth of the world is poking us in the eye day by day, by way of warning.

True hillcraft requires more than knowledge of the ropes and a gung-ho spirit. It requires a calmness of mind. It requires us to have the confidence not to go jumping at every passing fluffy cloud that sweeps the tops, but equally we must beware the overconfidence that scorns the anvil-heads. Angry, we remain blind to the subtlety of the way ahead, and come to grief in quick-time. Only by calmness do we navigate winter on the hill, and see ourselves safely to the other side. This is not to say I’m done with the shadow, only this particular manifestation of it. Heaven knows where he’ll take me next.

My thanks to everyone who has kept me company over the year and my very best wishes to you all.

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moss1I’m struggling with my reading at the moment – a couple of difficult books on the go. One of them is Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness. The other is Bernado Kastrup’s Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics. The Neumann is from 1949, a distillation of Jungian thinking on the nature of the unconscious. The Kastrup is a recently published book that revisits the eighteenth century idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading books like this, way beyond my intellect, I accept I’ll only grasp them dimly and in the hope the effort goes some way towards expanding the mind, even a bit. But their greater impact is on the imagination, where even imperfectly grasped imagery can take on a life of its own, dance with images gleaned from elsewhere, and in ways the authors never intended. And there are some startling images in those books.

It’s thus, stumbling through other books, I’ve gleaned bits of metaphysical ideas over the years, and begun assembling a story that’s making sense in layman’s terms – if not in its details, then in its broad generalities. But sometimes I wonder if I’m mistaken, not so much in the truth of these matters – though there is always that of course. It’s more the question of embarking upon such a quest in the first place. Is my head, in fact, pointing in the wrong direction?

When we speak of metaphysics we’re talking about the origins and the inner workings of the universe, also its reflection in the structure and the flow of the human mind. It’s unlikely you’ll get any of this if you’re a materialist, and view the universe as comprising purely material stuff that was big-banged out of nothing. There is another view though – the idealist view – that there is no material, that what we experience in the world is a result of our being conscious within a greater consciousness, a consciousness that sets the stage, and the rules we play by.

If materialism is true, then fair enough, the game is up, life is absurdly pointless, and we’re all doomed. But with idealism, everything is still to play for, and the possibilities worth exploring. I used to be a materialist – as an engineer you more or less have to be – but that stopped making sense for me a while ago. Idealism may be wrong but it’s much more fertile ground for the imagination.

It was once intimated to me that we already know the true nature of things, but we’ve forgotten them as a precondition of being born. At some point though, when we fall asleep for good, we’ll go: “Oh yea, I remember now!” I say it was “intimated”, and the realization did feel very real at the time, but of course I’ve forgotten it all again now. However, the point is, why spend decades of your life banging away at this stuff, when you’ll be gifted it all back in crystal clarity anyway? And if such talk is nonsense – as it may well be – then it doesn’t matter either way, does it? So why the imperative to probe the metaphysical? And if it was so terribly important for us to know – I mean to help us all get along in the world – we’d be born with a greater sense of it than we have, wouldn’t we?

I don’t know. Would we? Do we, actually? Are those haunting aspects of existence, things like love and beauty, not metaphysical intimations? And what about dreams?

Are you still with me?

What I mean is, pursuing the metaphysical can be like scaling a waterfall when it’s in spate. The general flow of being is in the other direction, and perhaps we’d do better to flow with it. Maybe it’s a reaction to the chaos of a world gone mad that we’d even bother trying. Maybe it’s one’s apparent inability to effect much change or understanding of things that we want to escape from the madness. So we seek to resist the flow of life, which seems permanently bound for disaster, and swim back upstream to rest in the formless, as far away from ground zero as we can manage.

But then the chaos we see in the human world is a result of those same intrinsic energies that give vent to life. Left to itself, the natural world will thrive on those energies. It will be red in tooth and claw, and endlessly self consuming, but it will not be self-reflective. It will be ignorant of its own beauty, and that strikes me as a gap worth filling.

Self reflection is an imperfect instrument though, and comes with risks. It can distort how we see the world. Sit that on top of largely simian instincts and you can see how easily we land ourselves in trouble. If we are not to destroy ourselves, we need to wise up! But what can one do if the route to wisdom is so difficult, and only the Neumanns and the Kastrups can attempt an understanding of it, for are they not too few to form a critical mass? Must the rest of us wait for a divine transformation to enlighten us?

Imagine, jealousy, greed, hate and the evil that is lifestyle blogging, all gone in an instant. Imagine, enlightenment as instinctive as the knowledge never to wear brown shoes with blue trousers, enlightenment that we can look back upon our history with equanimity and wonder how there could once ever have been a people so benighted.

There are those in the human development movement who believe such a thing will happen, but this sounds more to me like the second coming of the Christians, a thing I suspect should be interpreted in terms rather less than literal. In other words, I’m not holding my breath. I’m reminded that in the Daoist way of thinking, mankind stands with one foot in the world, the other in the heavens. Some of us are more inclined one way or the other, but the important thing is to find a balance. Which means,…

It’s time to set the Neumann and the Kastrup aside for a bit. Instead, I’m picking up Le Carre’s “Agent running in the field“, and, delight of delights, I am to spend a week, holed up in tier three isolation, with no interruptions, and Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness.”

Let it rain!

[Unless you’ve got plans, then let it shine]

Graeme out.

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I still pay for a television licence, but I can’t remember when I last watched a scheduled broadcast. I used to listen to the BBC on my morning commute, but not for years now. As for commercial radio you know how that goes? You eventually find a tune you like, but before you settle into it, it cuts to an advert followed by a load of verbal drivel from the DJ. So, if I want music I bypass the radio, plug in the Android and listen to MP3. If I want debate or current affairs, I go online, listen to a podcast on a topic that interests me. It cuts out the adverts and the false adversarial baying, and it restores a contemplative calm to the day.

I still have a TV, left over from the noughties, but I only ever cast media to it from other online sources. Broadcast media is expensive to produce and, in a bean-counter culture, the key performance indicators are listener numbers. How do you grow and hold an audience? You present a diet of inflammatory material with the intent to create outrage.

We see this in the mainstream TV and print media, where intelligent and genuine debate is obsolete. But its most prevalent on Social Media, where outrage is manufactured and monetised to a fine science. This was brought home to me when searching online for material on the history of philosophy. That search took me to Bryan Magee and a series of broadcasts he did in the nineteen eighties. What struck me was that such material would never find air-time now. If you want it, you have to go online, but to a layer of the web beneath the bubble-gum of social media.

Yes, the Internet is a repository for all that is the worst in human thinking, but also the very best. It now hosts some of the finest contemporary thought, and acts as curator of our past, preserving valuable material that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Culturally, we have reached a point of transition. We’re living in the so-called post-modern era, but post-modernism has stalled. It has lost itself in a tangle of ideologically defined oppressor/oppressed relationships and has birthed a bewildering spawn of identity politics and endless cultural wars that defy common sense. This basically means any one of us can identify as being the member of an oppressed group. It also means each of us can be accused of oppressing someone else, even if we’ve never met them. Heavens, I sound like a Tory!

The cultural periods of human history mark the stages of our evolution as a species. When evolution stalls, it back-tracks to the last known good position and tries another way. The chaos we see now is the vacuum left by evolution on its hasty retreat from leading edge post-modernism, away from the venal tribalism it has led us into.

Many thinkers have sensed this. Some are pessimistic and predict our demise in the flames of anarchy and planetary heat-death. Others see a glimmer of hope in various online voices. But that debate is complex and subtle and must avoid the outrage between artificially inflated tribal camps. It’s therefore not a debate you’ll ever find in the mainstream news broadcasts, or the magazines now.

Its nexus is an informal group of thinkers and facilitators, the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Some of its voices, like Ken Wilbur and Jordan Peterson have been around for a long time. They come from a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and psychology from spirituality and tech. The result is a penetrating analysis of our present ills and a potential way forward. But it involves breaking the post-modern grip. This is already happening anyway. We see it in the reaction of politics. Culturally, the leading edge has adopted neo-Marxist ideals, and the mirror-image of that is political authoritarianism, and proto-fascism. It’s a bewildering paradox to bear witness to.

One of the most influential voices against post-modernism in recent years has been Jordan Peterson’s. What’s striking about Peterson is the degree to which the mainstream pundits, both left and right, misrepresent him. Claimed by the right for his critique of the left, Peterson is a-political but possibly slightly left-liberal. To know him though you have to engage with his material, read his books, sit through his online-lectures. This also takes you to the heart of the intellectual dark web. If you’re looking for sound-bites to define this movement, you’re not of the movement, more the subject of it.

I’m very much of the left when it comes to my own politics, but the left has taken particularly ill to Peterson and that puzzles me because I find him tremendously enlightening, and I can only conclude it’s a tribal reaction to someone telling you something you don’t want to hear. Indeed, his critique of the radical neo-Marxist left, is sobering. As a moderate leftist who has never read Marx, I am mindful of its post-revolutionary slide into the Gulag. The radical Marxists who run our university Humanities departments, seem to have forgotten it. Instead, they have created for us a thousand identity barriers for us to trip over, while leaving out the fact we are, above all human.

As we become more polarized, culturally and politically, the moderates of both camps, left and right, find themselves without a home, find themselves de-platformed from the mainstream for wanting to discuss what, in post-modern terms, are now taboo subjects. So they’ve begun to coalesce around this intellectual dark web. Here the moderate leftists and conservative thinkers engage in meaningful conversation. Online, they are unhindered by sound-bite culture, and don’t need to curtail their presentations to suit a snappy TV editorial format. Peterson’s lectures can last for hours, yet he attracts millions of viewers, so there is a hunger for this material, a hunger for a way out of the bind we find ourselves in.

We are all a mixture of good ideas and bad, we all hold a piece of the truth. Therefore, the way ahead can only be the vector sum of all the truths, as articulate, thinking individuals open themselves up in non-adversarial discussion. But to get to that point requires a degree of sincere debate that is no longer possible via the usual mainstream channels. If you vote conservative I call you a right wing nut job, and you call me a lib-tard commie bastard, both of us intent on nothing more than saving face. That’s a zero sum game, and we should all know the extremes at both ends lead to murder and to lost generations.

With the rise of social media and surveillance capitalism, the Internet looked set to ruin us, and it still might. I don’t know to what extent the Intellectual Dark Web can influence the debate back to common sense, lurking as it does beneath a surface scum of click-baity dross. It seems an unlikely place for the intellect to regroup and to pivot post-modernism away from the disaster it seems to be openly courting. But for now I am lending it my optimism.

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