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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

lancashire plainIt’s a strange thing. Having loved the hills and mountains all my life, I’ve spent most of my life actually living on the flat, among the potatoes of the Lancashire plain. Here, the sky has a crushing quality that seems to laugh at the transcendence of spirit even the most modest of hills affords. On the mountain top, we are giants. On the plain we are small, and made to feel it.

Here the earth had become a factory for the intensive cultivation of vegetables, vast rectangles of land, tilled by machines and, when not under crop, the soil looks tired. It is puddled and bleak in winter and in summer it is dry and cracked and dusty, the whole of it is criss-crossed by stagnant sluices, and the high, strutting march of crackling power lines. For me, even during the most golden of golden hours, it lacks poetry.

So why am I still here?

Well, sometimes the practicalities of life leave us no choice. But it’s also one of life’s axioms that we are born within limits. And it is those limits that define us by providing the energy we need to live.

schop

Arthur Schopenauer 1788-1860

I’m dipping in and out of the philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at the moment. Their world-view is impressively bleak. I’m sure it’s only a mark of my own ignorance to say so, but I am reluctant to take such profoundly miserable men at their word. Life is pointless, says Schopenhauer. It is nothing but nature eating itself. True, says Nietzsche. If we can’t laugh at it, we should jump off a cliff and thereby deny it the satisfaction of our own suffering!

Not exactly promising, is it? Except, although there might not seem at first glance to be an inch of poetry anywhere here, the poetry comes anyway. And it’s not altogether bleak. Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Does it only betray my philosophical illiteracy that I am not more of an old sour-puss, like them?

Of course, when I do travel out a bit, get among the hills, the effect is more profound for my having been starved between-times of the sublime. I would like to think that if I lived among the hills, I would never tire of them, but I know that’s not so. I would always find something was in limited supply. A decent shop, a better Internet connection. And then the broad horizon and the humbling sky of the Lancashire Plain.

N

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

As the dam limits the progress of the river, it raises the water and gives a head of energy. This enables useful work, it fuels purpose. Even the gods understand this, and envy the limiting full-stop of our mortality. Why? For the intensity of experience it grants our lives. The secret is finding a balance. We seek a dynamic sweet-spot somewhere between that which crushes us, and that which bleeds us back into the hedonistic void.

To live, of course, is to suffer. Whether we turn that to positive use, or we just moan about, is up to us. The Buddhists are the experts at dealing with suffering, but their language is often times difficult. I fear we lay readers of Buddhism risk a simplistic interpretation of it – something about attaining a state of mind whereby we do not care about anything. But not to care is to lack energy for life. So why be alive?

“Living in the moment” is another lazy new-age trope, one I am also guilty of spouting from time to time. It suggests disregarding the future, including the bus that’s about to run us over. So before we settle into the present moment, we should take stock. We should change what is sensible to change, what can be changed, like avoiding that bus. As for what we cannot change, we seek a way of not minding it, for only then can we abide serenely in the ‘is’-ness of life.

Knowing what is sensible to change though is tricky, isn’t it? Do we change our car because it’s knackered, or because we’re bored with it? If the car is knackered but we have no money to change it, how do we not mind it? And what about my dilemma of living on the plain but craving the mountains?

I suppose if we want a thing, and cannot explain why, it’s wiser not to make an issue of it because change is unlikely to please us for very long. But if we need a thing, like we need a cat to keep away mice, and we can articulate that need without using the word “want”, then it has some utility, because one’s craving doesn’t come into it. Craving satisfaction rather suggests we are lacking a more useful purpose. In identifying craving, we can then choose to deny it, and pick up our purpose instead.

I understand “purpose” in creative terms as “the work”, the book, the poetry, the formulation of the idea. But without energy it doesn’t move. We become listless, becalmed like a sailboat without wind. We can lose our energy anywhere, whenever we succumb to craving what we think we lack. Similarly, we can find it anywhere – among the high places, or down among those potatoes of the Lancashire Plain. It’s just a question of knowing not so much where, but how to look.

So, Schopenhauer: austere, other worldly and profoundly pessimistic. And Nietzsche: bombastic, rude, and ready to have a pop at anything he doesn’t like, which is just about everything. I’m sure they have a point, and could easily embarrass me out of home-spun delusions, but I don’t suppose they were writing for me. And maybe that’s a good thing, that I’m not a philosopher, I mean. Otherwise, from time to time, I’d have nothing to smile, or write, about.

 

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mousemanIt’s going up for midnight now on a  wet Friday night and the house is quiet. In fact I have the house to myself, and I’m enjoying it. My wife has moved out. Again. And both my kids are away enjoying whatever passes for the night life these days. They won’t be back until late. I can wear my waistcoat and pocket-watch without incurring their mirthful banter. Hurray! So I’m a Victorian gent born a hundred years too late. Get over it.

I hasten to add my good lady has not gone permanently, at least I hope not, rather she is sleeping at her parents’ house not far away, and will be back tomorrow. The reason: she has a phobia of mice and refuses to sleep anywhere inhabited by even the thought of a mouse.

We’ve had a few this year, which is unusual. I’ve read it’s a climate-change thing, that mice are going hungry, or becoming more multitudinous, or at any rate more inclined to pop indoors than they once were. I was watching TV when I saw it, a fast moving blur in the corner of my eye. Being myopic I’m plagued by floaters anyway and wondered if it was one of those, hoped it was, but it wasn’t. The mouse put in another appearance shortly afterwards, slower this time, even pausing to have a look at me. Then it vanished behind a cabinet.

It was a work night and I didn’t want to be disturbed by mice, real or imagined, dancing the hokey-cokey around my bed. So I fetched all the traps out of the garage, where they have mouldered since the summer, and the last mouse incident. Eight traps, baited and set. I used the special mouse gunk they sell in B+Q. Overkill, perhaps, but by morning the mouse was dead.

On the one hand this was a positive result, but on the other, since I like mice, in the wild at least, it was not the ideal result. They are after all rather fascinating and evolutionary successful creatures, to say nothing of being quite cute. My actions therefore seemed somewhat utilitarian, hurried and precipitous, and I drove to work that morning in a rather thoughtful frame of mind, after dumping the mouse unceremoniously in the bin.

The mouse died because it had inconvenienced me, and I’m apt to ruminate upon the broader philosophical implications of such things. I was reminded of a scene from the otherwise dreadful movie: “The Next Karate Kid” where a delightfully young Hillary Swank is about to squish a cockroach at the dinner table in a monastery. The bug is swept to safety by one of the monks, and poor Hillary earns Mr Miyagi’s approbation, also a lecture on how the killing of anything sets up a chain of suffering, and that we should respect all life.

Apart from the performances of Hillary Swank and Pat Morita as Miyagi, this was rather a weak outing for the “Karate-Kid” genre. A  lot of the philosophising was by this time sounding as if it came from self help books, without sitting on much by way of intellectual or philosophical bedrock. But  it got me thinking about this business of killing.

Should Hillary have let the bug crawl all over her food? Okay, she could have picked it off the table before it got to her bowl, set it safely down outside, so I suppose Mr Miyagi had a point. There was no need to kill the bug. Within the monastery, there is no killing, he tells us. All life is respected, but that’s rather an insular and somewhat simplified view of reality.

“You mean you’ve never killed a cockroach, Mr Miyagi?”

“Miyagi don’t live in Monastery, Julie San, but still respect all living things.”

Woa, wait a minute! Has Miyagi ever killed a cockroach? Answer the damned question, man! Hmm, you ask me,  I think he fluffed his answer. I don’t think he treated Julie (Hillary) with the necessary intellectual respect there. He did not solve the central paradox at all. To kill or not to kill.

Cockroaches aren’t the sort of creatures you want skittering around your kitchen. Similarly, mice aren’t conducive to human health and well being.  At the bigger end of the scale man-eating tigers develop a taste for humans and thereby cause no end of suffering for their victims and their victims’ loved ones. So,… is there there no point at which killing becomes necessary, or in any way even spiritually acceptable? Or should we always be prepared to sacrifice our own lives, our own health, our own well being, rather than take the life of the simplest of creatures?

If we give the problem a little thought we can say well, maybe it’s acceptable to  take life only if it’s unavoidable. But to what lengths should we go to avoid taking it? It’ll be Daddy Long-Leg season soon, and my good lady has a phobia for those as well, but they’re fairly easy to catch and put outside – hint, go for the wings rather than the legs because Daddy Long Legs are perfectly happy to shed a leg and leave you holding it. But really, is this not mere sentimentality? Are we to show the same respectful awe to the Daddy-long-leg, or the mouse that we do to the man-eating tiger, or the great white shark? I admit I’m prone to such thinking, and I do regret killing that mouse, but is it reasonable of me to do so? In relative peace-time when there is room to manoeuvre, I suppose it is, but in a fight for survival, the mouse or any other enemy can be dispatched without a second thought, especially if we can persuade ourselves they deserve the label: Evil.

But all of that was a few days ago, the house is free of mice now and I’m confident the good lady Graeme will return to sleep, eventually. I would much rather the mouse had found it’s way out of my house. I do respect all life, really, and to the mouse, I apologise, but like Mr Miyagi, I fluff the answer to the paradox.

I shall leave the last word to Mister Miyagi: “It’s okay to lose to your opponent. It’s never okay to lose to fear.”

No, actually my favourite quote is: “Never trust a spiritual leader who cannot dance.”

 

 

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PS_20150130152500I was driving home and had pulled up to the line, waiting for a space so I could nose my way onto the roundabout. It was busy, it being that time of night we used to call the rush hour but which now lasts from 4:00 pm ’til 7:00. It was wet, dark, and I was tired. The traffic was fast, unyielding. I settled down to wait for a gap, but I was disturbed by the flashing lights and the honking horn of a van behind me. It yanked itself out into the neighbouring lane, looking for a squeeze past, much to the consternation of those drivers already in that lane. Just then, a gap appeared on the roundabout, so I moved into it and cautiously joined the flow. Then the van came by and I saw a fierce-faced man giving me the finger.

Had I been a bit overcautious in moving off and thus sorely tested his patience? I really don’t know. Had I zoned out for a moment? It’s possible. I had certainly done something to upset him, though I’m also minded these days it takes very little for the fingers to start flying.

My reaction? Self questioning, self doubt, and yes, a little hurt by the face pulling of this stranger whom I had so mysteriously offended, but mostly I was saddened to think such anger might be floating just below the surface of everyday life, that we have only to snag ourselves ever so briefly against the flow of this mad, mad world for teeth to be bared and that phallic finger to be jabbed.

It is the egoic face and the egoic phallus that confidently accuses the “other” of incompetence, of being a knob, whilst bestowing the mantle of perfection on the accuser. It is the same face and finger we see reflected in the public opinion columns of the online media where we quickly learn that public opinion, unleashed en-mass and anonymous, can be a very nasty thing indeed.

One of the great wisdoms of ancient Chinese philosophy is that we can only view the world as it truly is from a position of stillness. Stillness comes when we dissolve the ego, when we react even to shocking events in an unemotional way. Emotions, be they good or bad, come pretty low down on the evolutionary scale, and they hold us back – worse they imprison us and render us vulnerable to manipulation. It’s only through stillness we become aware of these things, that under the influence of strong emotions we are not truly our selves at all.

In spiritual terms, ego and emotional arousal disconnect us from the true course of life, they subvert our direction, our purpose, render us vulnerable to an adverse fate or simply to the meddling of others. While we don’t need to go so far as to subscribing to an irrational belief in such things, I certainly find life is sweeter and smoother, the less my ego has to do with it.

I imagine, in an advanced society, we would all rest content in the unassailable validity of our being, and would not be roused to anger when someone questioned what we said or did, or even if we were a little slow pulling onto the roundabout. On the other hand, in a retrograde society, dissent, or even a senior moment, is met with a torrent of irrational abuse, and then we’d better all watch out.

We see this in the senseless cesspits of the comments sections of online media – a constant cross-fire of low minded thinking, based upon the dubious fictions that are these days peddled as facts, and in the belief the high ground is owned by those who shout loudest and longest. I might express an opinion on world affairs, or on the weather, or even simply on the comparisons between a Biro and a fountain pen, but my opinion would be seized upon by those of an opposing view, not with the aim of exploring the validity of my thinking, nor seeking, by the sharing of facts, to persuade me of another view, but more, by the finger and the angry face, shut me down, to silence the discussion, because in even allowing the debate, whatever its nature or topic, the ego is challenged, and a population reacting permanently to emotional stimuli finds itself in a perpetual fight for imaginary supremacy.

Of course, in a world where facts are easily checked, easily verified, spurious arguments might be short lived, the liar eventually silenced by the obvious and unassailable truth. But we live now in a post-truth world, where inflammatory falsehoods are blatantly paraded by those in powerful positions as fact, while truths are dismissed as fictitious. We are no longer surprised by it. We expect it, we accept it, and by doing so risk abandoning hope of forming rational opinions on anything ever again. Whatever the headline, whatever the view expressed through whatever media, we must now pause and ask ourselves the question: what emotions are these words intended to manifest in me? At whom am I supposed to jab my finger?

The post truth world presents many challenges if we are to thrive, or even just survive as independent, thinking individuals. The emotional landscape of the future will be a tempestuous one as it reacts to bare faced manipulation, and there will be no safe media on which to rely for facts. There will only be the braying of the crowd on the infotainment channels, in the cesspits of social media commentary, and of course those crass, emotive headlines in the dailies.

But we can at least rest easy in our selves, and in our right to be, regardless of what fictions assail us. We ask questions if we must, but trust no answers that are nailed home by the finger. And in the mean time we endeavour to show kindness, while expecting none in return.

I also beg we all be patient with the guy in front, hesitating to join the Lemming like rush on the journey home.

Because it might just be me.

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cropped-dscf30611.jpg

I’m not seeing the world in much depth at the moment. I know this because I’m growing once more prone to irritation, to entanglement in emotional snares. I should be old enough and wise enough to avoid such things by now, but instead seem at times set to become one of those grumpy old guys who shouts at the radio.Hopefully I can avoid this fate but the signs are not promising. I shouted at the radio last night, on the long, sticky commute home, then again at the TV, at the po faced presenter announcing with barely subdued glee the latest bit of grim news, of why we should be afraid, that the sky is falling and the world is going to hell. And all that.

So I took a walk, a circuit from home that included a large bite out of the Lancashire plain. It was a humid evening after heavy rain, the tracks just drying out. There were muddy puddles to splash through, and the meadows steamed sleepily, slugs and snails making their glistening trails as they slid ponderously about their business, unconcerned by the stupidity of men or the quest for wholeness.

I met one other person, a woman walking her dog. As we approached each other from opposite directions, I looked at her, intending to give her a polite smile, (to be translated as “I’m harmless”), but she was otherwise engaged, talking animatedly into her ‘phone. I noted how her dog shuffled along with a reluctant gait and what appeared to me to be a dejected expression, as if the poor beast lacked attention and had long given up expecting any. I reeled the smile back in, did not bother to say hello, and carried on my way.

The plain is not an overly stimulating place, no sense of Wow in the scenery, just a gridwork of straight tracks, laid down in the long ago, and always disappearing into the distance like an artist’s simplistic study in perspective. The tracks are flanked by deep, almost defensive ditchworks, also thorny hedgerows barring access to the vast meadows beyond, where they grow wheat, potatoes, carrots, oilseed, sprouts, barley, cabbage, and weeds. But for all this seasonal vegetal variety, the view is unchanging, the only real interest being in the sky which is at times a wide and ever moving canvas of delight.

Last night it was beautifully animated, the dusky hour rendering broody contrasts in colour and a full pallet: vanilla, tobacco, washday white, murky grey and steely blue. The atmosphere was dynamic, displaying the whole geography book of cloud types – the low and creeping, the exuberantly puffy, and the ominously towering, and I could see heavy showers slanting down as they swept the horizon. We lacked only lightning bolts to complete the story.

It being a circular walk, I met the woman again some thirty minutes later, still talking into her ‘phone. I did not bother to look this time, but kept my eyes alternately on the track, and on the sky.The dog’s spirits had not rallied much. In its weary glance I caught a twinkle of past memories, of balls tossed, of splashing shoulder deep in ponds to fetch sticks, of having ears fondled and belly tickled, tongue lolling at the simple pleasures of a dog’s life. But such things were a long time ago, I suspect.

There were just two of us out that night, but only one of us had noticed the sky, and the fact of my wry observation of this fact told me I wasn’t really seeing it in much depth either. What was it to me that the woman had spent the whole time talking on her ‘phone instead of being simply “present” in the world? What was it to me she might have seen more in that night’s episode of East Enders, or Corrie, or Emmerdale, than in that glorious dome of sky? Why could she not have talked instead to her dog? Made him happy instead of trailing him along like just another dull task in hand? What was any of that to do with me?

Ah, but when we are out of sorts and irritated by what we see as the apparent shortcomings of others, I find it is usually something in ourselves that’s crying out for attention. And is depression of the spirit not always presaged by the black dog that’s given up on expecting to be noticed?

Reading back into my diary, peeling away the years, I feel a greater depth in my words a decade ago than now, and fear more recent times have fetched me up in shallow waters. But then again I find passages that suggest I have always felt this way, that an aversion to shallowness is one of the permanently bounding conditions of my psyche, the other being a paradoxical fear of drowning in waters that are out of my depth. So I oscillate between the two, reaching back into the past for that mythical hoard of depth and wisdom, and fearing tomorrow for its inevitable loss.

It was a shame though, I mean that the woman missed that beautiful sky. Feeling my own presence beneath its dome, I was granted sufficient grace to return home in less of a mood for shouting at the radio.

How often though we hurry by, lost in the world of our thoughts, or caught up reacting to the thoughts of others. The whole of human society is made up of the things we either think or have thought into being, and much of human thinking is prone to fault, yet still it consumes us; we think that to think is the most cherished of all human gifts. By contrast, the world does not think at all. It just is, and this lends it a stillness which, if we can only transcend thinking for a moment, allows to to see ourselves in the wider context, in the third person so to speak, as a portal of life, unique and sparkly-small beneath that simple dome of sky.

There are those who live to move and shape society by influencing thought, but I am not one of them – at least no longer. I accept this may be a fault, that there may be things, thoughts I possess, that might be of benefit to the world, but in the world of thought, influence must be won, fought for, talked for animatedly like the woman on her phone. And I am not a talker, not a fighter. I am too remote, withdrawn from the world, and by ambition set only to become more withdrawn, an ever greater space between myself and the noise of thought and the glitter of the ten thousand things.

Being nobody, going nowhere – the Buddhist meditation. I am nothing. Our only purpose in life is our awakening to that sobering revelation, or if we already suspect it, then to its acceptance, that life is a journey to nowhere if it does not lead eventually into silence, into the realisation of nothingness. But this is not the nothingness of a dead thing, but the emptiness of pure presence and one has only to experience the most fleeting moment to feel also the joy in it and to know viscerally, this is a direction that is intrinsically true and worth the years of nurturing.

I do hope that poor dog cheered up when it got home.

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the alchymist = jospeh wright 1795

In Paulo Coelho’s best-selling story, the Alchemist – as near as I can remember it – a humble shepherd boy falls asleep under a tree on a Spanish hillside and dreams of a pot of gold buried in Egypt. (Spoiler alert) The dream has such a numinous feel to it, the boy is compelled to set out on a life-changing quest to find the gold. The story recounts the boy’s adventures, describes the characters he meets and what each encounter teaches him. After many hardships, he reaches his goal and starts to dig, but finds nothing. In despair he relates his story to a stranger. The stranger laughs at the boy’s foolishness and tells of a dream he had about a similar treasure lying buried under a tree on a Spanish hillside, and compliments himself on not being stupid enough to waste his entire life in setting out to look for it. Enlightened, the boy returns home.

You can take many things from this story – and for such a short book, as with all of Coelho’s work there’s a lot in it. But for me the gold is not the point – or rather recognising the gold for what it truly is – that is the point. The story tells of our compulsion to make a quest out of life. We are seeking something – satisfaction, happiness, self-justification – but seeking it always in material terms. In our consumer society this materiality all too often boils down to money – a literal gold – in the belief that the more material goods we can buy, the happier we will be. We all know this is wrong, yet altering our misguided perceptions is very difficult, since we seem preprogrammed into accepting the former view as the more sensible one. No matter how hard our higher will struggles to elevate us from the mud of the material mire, there is a default condition in which we prefer to wallow in it.

In the material world, having no money is a cause of great deprivation, unnecessary suffering and unhappiness, but having a fortune is no guarantee of happiness either. Money (gold) might buy us a more comfortable life, one free from hunger and curable disease, but it cannot make us a better human being. In the mediaeval alchemists’ quest, the esoteric texts relate the seemingly foolish attempt to transform worthless base metals into gold. But the Master Alchemist, Hermes the Thrice Great, source of all Hermetic wisdom, warns that this is a dangerous path, one that leads only to madness, because it’s not that kind of gold we should be thinking of. I look at the world today and imagine Hermes shaking his head in dismay.

The quest for gold leads us on, always looking for the next thing, imagining our treasure to be out there somewhere, hidden from view yet ultimately discoverable if we can only apply ourselves in the right way. But in fact, as in Coelho’s story of the shepherd boy , we already possess the thing we’re seeking, though it can take us a long time on the dusty trail of life before we wise up. In alchemy, the process is one of sublimation. We take the base metal and we apply heat, we melt the base, loosen its impurities and let them rise. We tend the fire for years and years, and we watch as the base metal undergoes a cyclical process of purification and transformation. But the substance glowing in the alchemists alembic, has to be seen as a metaphor. What the alchemists were talking about was in fact the human spirit. We are the base metal. What we are seeking is the transformation of ourselves. Alchemy was, and still, is a spiritual quest.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I write, and wondering as I do from time to time, why I write and for whom, and what it is I’m seeking from doing it. Sometimes I forget, you see, that I’m not actually doing it for anybody, or for anything, that I’m just doing it. I know the treasure lies inside myself, yet there are times – such as now – when I refuse to see it and wind up stretched out, face down in the mud. I’ve read books on Zen, studied Daoism and Buddhism, also the various alchemical traditions as well as European Romanticism. I’ve felt the glow of an inner peace, courtesy of the practice of meditation, Qigong and Tai Chi. And such things have each at times opened the door on a very special and self contained room, within myself, and what I’ve glimpsed in there I’ve tried to describe in my writings. But like the alchemists’ quest, it’s a circular path, not a linear one; there’s a rhythm to the openings and closings of that door. When it closes on me, the practice has already fallen into disarray. The fire has gone out. I become twitchy, irritable, plagued by aches and pains, jumping at shadows, doubting everything I thought I once knew and held to be true.

It takes a while to pull myself together, rekindle the flames, strip myself bare of all the false trappings of the material world, clothe myself once more in the homespun cloth of that purer sense of being. But without that first spark of an autonomous inner will, all else is useless. Attempts at firming up a routine of meditation, qigong, or even high minded reading, fall apart at the first hurdle. The fire splutters and is extinguished by the most trivial of occurrences – a blocked drain, the washing machine making a funny noise, a toilet cistern that won’t stop filling up, a car that fails its MOT. At such times life’s little snags take on the proportions of epic disasters, disruptive of our lives and insulting to the very core of our being. Indeed, once we enter this frame of mind, this mentality of siege, the universe obliges by providing one assault after the other.

It surfaces in my writing too, especially the blogging, when I find myself checking the stats, counting the likes and the visits after each entry, to see what effect I’m having on the world. But this is pointless. The effect I have, or rather the lack of it, is irrelevant. I took the decision, long ago, that I wrote simply because I write, and that to self-publish online is merely the completion of a contract with the inner daemon who would have me write in the first place. I have also told myself that whoever reads my writings thereafter, simply reads them and takes from them what they will. I write then, primarily, for myself, to stir and sift my way through the soup of what it is I think I think. Beyond that there is no purpose, no goal, and to find the place where I can take pleasure in that alone, is finally to come home to myself.

In material terms, we are none of us anybody, and we are none of us going anywhere. That the universe appears infinite can only be accommodated by the assumption that it is also nothing, that the reason it seems to occupy so much space, is that it occupies no space whatsoever. As human beings I think we begin from that position of nothingness, but we are born with an innate fear of it, not realising that only through its acceptance do we finally sublimate the spiritual gold of the alchemist in our hearts, through which our true, infinite worth might be glimpsed, at least in so far as any mortal being is capable, locked in the illusion of time and space, as we all are.

In the quest to find our own alchemical gold, we should each start out with the insight that, like Paulo’s shepherd boy, we’re probably already sitting on it. Whether we recognise it or not is down purely to the way we view the world, and sometimes it takes a long journey to alter our focus sufficiently to realise the power within us, and to return home. Nobody else can do this for us. It is the supreme paradox, that we are each of us nothing, but also everything at the same time.

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leaving darwen tower

I talked last night about letting go of our anxieties and I’m conscious now of  making it sound easier than it really is. If we are born with a personality that is prone to anxiety, depression, or any other form of psychological turbulence, ” letting go” is more of a lifetime’s work than something that can be taught in a one off session – it’s part of who we are, and we’ll never be described as “normal” in the clinical sense, but then who is normal? On the upside, with hindsight, for a writer, it gives us a lot of interesting material to work with – though it might not feel like it at the time.

Of course, we can be brought quickly back onto the straight and narrow with the aid of drugs like SSRI’s. These alter the way we experience emotion, and can be quite powerful, but speaking as a layman, they also have their downsides. If your depression is so deep you’re literally at risk of razor blades in the bathroom, then SSRI’s can save your life, so we shouldn’t be too squeamish about taking them. Equally though, I know people who are stuck on them and for no reason I can see, other than they’re not aware of  any other option.

I spent a short time on SSRI’s myself, following a stressful transition in both my work and personal life, back in the nineties. This was a decade when they seemed to be handing them out like sweets. Prozac in particular was hailed as the new wonder drug – a substance that would render things like depression and anxiety a thing of the past. Well, Prozac’s still with us, but so are things like depression and anxiety.

Before taking Prozac, I was jumping at shadows, I was anxious about things stretching way into the future, things that might never happen. I’d break out sweating for no reason, I’d get dizzy behind the wheel of a car, mainly because my neck was so tightly screwed up I was shutting off the circulation to my brain – and I’d only to be trapped in a room full of people before I was imagining I was going to faint – probably for the same reason.

On reflection I recognize the root cause of my anxieties was not wanting to be where I was. But my societal duties and my apparent life’s path – including the basic need to go out and earn a living – insisted I endure situations I found absurd, not only that, but situations in which I was obliged to act and speak as if I thought everything was “normal”, that I’d somehow bought-in to the collective delusion. You can only do that for so long before your unconscious erupts on a volcanic scale, laying waste to your life, prompting you to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, hopefully on a more psychically sincere path. If you can’t do that, there’s a chance it’ll simply pull the plug on you and find a more willing companion next time around.

On Prozac, however, fitting in was no longer a problem. I also discovered astonishing levels of self confidence. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have moved, except to brush the dust from my shoulders. If the boss had shouted at me, I would have felt confident enough to tell him what I thought, then wee on his desk. A wonder-drug? Yes, and with good reason; my early days on Prozac were a revelation!

However, I lasted only a short while before the side effects kicked in. I found myself unable to sleep. I remember I didn’t sleep for a whole week, and that put me into a darker hole than I’d been in in the first place. You can get tablets for insomnia of course, and I was offered them as a quick fix, but I decided to make a break at this point and began the long road to becoming a closet hippy instead. Twenty five years later, I still wear a conventional collar and tie to work, and I draw a salary that’s been uninterrupted by time off for “stress”. But there’s a yin-yang pendant and a tree of life next to my skin, and my wisest confidant is a book called the I Ching.

This wasn’t an easy transition.

I was 28, a self styled mathematician and a physicist, having just completed 10 years of studies. To my mind, if you couldn’t plot its trajectory, or describe its behaviour with differential equations, “it” didn’t exist. I was rational, and a materialist. Many tread that path their whole lives, carving out impressive careers for themselves. Not me. It took a while for me to realise the stuff I’d learned was already a hundred years out of date, and that while there were many aspects of life you could explore, extrapolate and interpolate with the calculus of Isaac Newton, there were others it wouldn’t touch. The mind was one of them. For that you needed to get weird. Even Newton knew this, and wasn’t afraid to get weird himself.

So I got weird.

I started on the body with Yoga, then on the mind with Jung, then on both body and mind with Tai Chi and Qigong. For the spirit, I circled Daoism, Buddhism, then came back to Jung again – it was he who taught me there can be no dichotomy between psyche and spirit. I walked, I read, and I wrote. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and I’ve still no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ve never since felt the dark depths of despair that SSRI’s dumped me in. I’ve since faced far more stressful situations, without a serious wobble, so I must be doing something right. As for certainty though, you can forget it – about the only thing I know for sure in all of this is that what’s real is not always what you can plot on a graph.

As Jung said, what’s real is simply what works.

And it changes, all the time. What’s right for you now may not work in another year or two. You have to keep pace with your changing psyche. As Jung also said: All true things must change, and what does not change, cannot be true.

It might not sound like much of a cure – a quarter of a century of faltering steps along an essentially intangible mystical path, but reality was transformed for me once I took those first steps, and I feel the world has in all that time been coloured a more vivid shade of life than it ever would have been on SSRI’s.

A critical look at the dynamics of human interaction on a global scale reveals the disturbing fact that the world has evolved into a profoundly sick beast, that we live out daily the madness of the collective unconscious, pretty much as you can see it lived among the inmates of any institution for the seriously disturbed. And we participate in it because we have no choice – we’re all imprisoned by the essentially delusional values of money, and status, and even things like national or religious identities.

SSRI’s make us conveniently forgetful of this madness, allowing us to go on living in the world, but in ways that are making us increasingly ill. For the mystic to live in such a world, and see it as he does, does not make for comfortable viewing, but it at least grants him the ability to rise above the bullshit, to see it for what it is, and to maintain his psychical integrity rather than being negatively influenced and dragged down into the depths of hell by it.

But how do you let go? How does the office worker, the teacher, the health care professional,… all of them oppressed by organisational structures based upon delusional understandings of the human psyche, and metered by the dollar,… how do they let their anxieties go?

Well, the transcendental path is the only one I know, and your journey starts when you can deal with any negative materialistic reactions you might have to that word: Transcendental. The next step is looking that word up, understanding what it means to you, and then realising what a big word it is.

But the bottom line in all of this is it’s a personal journey. You can seek help, talk to people, read books, research the internet. But at some point you have to take charge of your own psychical destiny, and do something about it. Don’t worry that your actions might seem weird, because then you’re falling into another common trap – that of living your life through the eyes of someone else, someone always critical and questioning of your rational grip, of your right to be whomever you want to be. We’ve all done this. Recognising it, again, is one of the first steps to being free of it.

I could talk about meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Jungian Psychology, non literal reality, the Romantic movement, looking for meaning in our dreams, guided imagination – as I have done at at various times in this blog, and shall do so again,… but none of these things may be right for you, so just find what works, and get on with it.

Come to think of it, I haven’t talked about meditation.

I may do that next.

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darwen towerExploring duality on Darwen Moor

I drove up to the Royal Arms at Tockholes today and stretched my legs on Darwen Moor. My ancestors were weavers and mill-workers in this area, and would have been intimately acquainted with the ancient byways that criss cross these rather bleak hills. How can I describe Darwen Moor? Technically it’s an upland plateau, though more poetically I can’t help thinking of it as a dour blend of gritstone, peat and heather – black as a hag’s teeth in winter. And there’s a tower.

I needed the air. And I needed my ancestors.

A dull daily commute, followed by pastimes that center upon the contemplation of one’s navel can lead to some very insulated ways of thinking, particularly when we start probing the nature of reality. Many an unfortunate hippy has passed this way, picked up on the Buddhist idea of “Maya”, misinterpreted it, and concluded that the world we think of as real is just an illusion, that attachment to it is the biggest delusion we can fall foul of, and that the more valid experience is a total retreat into an imaginary inner world, aided, if necessary, by powerful hallucinogens.

But we need to be careful.

Personally, I prefer the notion that having a keen and clear-headed handle on the ways of the physical world is far from delusional, if only because our mortal contract insists we spend so much time learning the ropes here in the first place. I like the Daoist view which describes us as being caught with our feet in both camps, that we exist partially both in the inner and the outer world, and that we can’t make sense of either without paying due attention to both.

So, it does you good to get out once in a while, to climb the muddy trails up into the clouds, far above the towns and cities, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of your mortal nature by the feel of the wind on your face. If I had a more thrill-seeking personality I’d probably take up skydiving or base-jumping. As it is a walk in the hills is usually sufficient to re-calibrate and ground my sense of reality.

frozen pathTemperatures have been getting down to below freezing here and the visitor center carpark at the Royal Arms was slick with ice. As I picked up the trail, I found the ground hard with frost and the paths, normally glutinous mud and stagnant pools of water, were rendered difficult with long stretches like rivers of ice. My instep crampons would have been useful, but I’d left them at home because this is only Darwen Moor after all, not Helvellyn, though the winter weather has been known to kill people up here. I decided to chance it anyway, trusting to luck there’d be enough clear stretches to get me to the tower and back without breaking a leg. I find walking boots are useless in conditions like this, hard soled and slippery as hell, needing the addition of steel spikes to bite. The fell runners were faring far better in their soft soled trainers. I cringed at the sight of their bare legs. It was cold. Biting cold.

path to darwen towerAs I walked, I was thinking about a passage in the story I’m currently writing. The heroine, Adrienne, has survived a near fatal car accident that’s left her haunted, not least by a classic near death experience – tunnel of light, meeting dead relatives and all that. The hero, Phil, is a survivor of a different kind of accident – a helicopter crash at sea that left him traumatized  having been tossed in a rubber boat for three days in a storm, thinking he was going to drown. He suffered hallucinations towards the end, and ever since has experienced lucid dreams and an uncanny intuition apparently guided by imaginary conversations with his great great grandfather. (Don’t ask me where I get this stuff from)

Anyway, when these two meet, their chatter inevitably circles around the meaning and the nature of reality as they try to make sense of their experiences, as well as dealing with the psychological damage from which they’re still both still suffering. At one point, Phil is wondering if they’re not both actually dead, that neither of them in fact survived their accidents, and that what they think is real life is actually some kind of strange mutual lucid dream experience, or a kind of purgatory. And how would they know otherwise? But Adrienne isn’t impressed and retorts that she knows what “dead” feels like,…

“and it’s a whole lot better than this, Phil. No, this feels pretty much like being alive to me.”

So,…

Ice on the ascent. You slip – best case, you bruise your gluteus maximus. Worst, you go over a crag and break your neck. But crags are few on Darwen Moor, and the way is relatively easy, plus they’re a hardy lot round here and I had plenty of company on the way up, most of them moving faster than me – not just hardy walker types, but rosy cheeked families out for a bit of a blow. I seemed to be testing every step, or paused fiddling with my camera, while my overtakers tramped gleefully on, passing me with a neighbourly “Ow do.” Maybe I should get out more. Maybe I should should swap my shamefully underused Brashers for a pair of cheap soft soled boots from the discount store, and simply learn to walk again?

It’s not a long hike to the tower from the Royal Arms, only a couple of miles, and well worth it. It’s one of the most impressive follies in the district, built in 1898, and a magnet for generations of walkers. Unlike many such structures these days, it isn’t fenced off and boarded up. You can still climb up it, and in spite of being in one of the bleakest spots in the West Pennines, it shoulders the weather well. With a little TLC over the years, it’s maintained its structural integrity, and bourne the occasional insults of vandals good naturedly. From inside, via a spiral stone staircase, you can access a mid level viewing balcony. If you’ve the nerve for it, you can press on to the top. The stone stairway ends just short of the top where you then climb a short section of iron spiral steps, to emerge through a doorway in the upper, glazed, pergola-like dome. This gives access to the upper turret, raised some eighty feet above the moor. The views from here are breathtaking, but I’m no good with exposed heights and usually need a braver companion to goad me into making the ascent.

darwen tower turretThe tower has lost its glazed dome twice, once in 1947 in a gale, and again more recently in 2010. The latest impressive replacement was built by a local engineering company and was lowered gingerly into place by helicopter back in January this year.

Ostensibly built to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, the tower also celebrates the victory of local people who regained their rights of access to the ancient trails hereabouts, and which had been blocked by the absentee landlord who was more concerned with rearing grouse for the guns of the monied classes. It was an unfortunate fact that much of the British uplands were once denied to the local population until the mass-trespass movements began the long process of winning those uplands back. The most famous of these was on Derbyshire’s Kinder Scout in 1932, but it all began here over Darwen in the 1890’s. It’s a sad fact however that access wasn’t enshrined in law until the Countryside and Rights of Way act in 2000, over a hundred years later. The moral is you don’t need to be a sage to appreciate the restorative nature of the uplands. Spend your working week doing 12 hours shifts on a loom down in a smokey town and you’ll appreciate it well enough.

I didn’t climb the tower today. I was feeling a bit done in to be honest, plus the light was going and there was sleet in the air. And, all right, I’m chicken.

Fear – rational or otherwise – and conflict, also the wind biting your nose, and the ever present risk of a slip, of physical injury. Yes,… like Adrienne says: Feels pretty much like being alive to me.

Yet I know the Buddhists have a point about Maya. I glimpsed it once in a brief moment of staggering awareness – that at a certain level of perception what we see and experience in the world is a mental construct, that there’s no difference between who we think we are, and what we see in the world. We are indeed “that“. But adopting this philosophical stance doesn’t make things any easier for us at the operating level of reality. We have no choice but to go with the world as we see and feel it, being bound by physical rules that restrict our ability to mentally manipulate our realities, rules that render us fragile in a world that can seem brutally impassive, rules that mean when we trap our finger in the car door, it hurts, and when we find ourselves on an ice-bound trail in the British uplands, we’re going to have to watch our step.

But this kind of thinking raises a paradox that haunts me: If I am what I’m looking at, then who are you? Since there’s nothing special about me, you must also be what you’re looking at, and if we’re both looking at the same thing, then at some unimaginable level we are the same, you and I.

I’m afraid my rather dull abilities as a philosopher won’t carry me beyond this point – how we can be both separate and unique expressions of spirit, yet also be the same. How can I look at the world, and at the same time construct it, yet do so in such a way that it makes perfect sense to you, as your world makes sense to me? There are many expressions of philosophical duality but this one beats the hell out of me. So I find myself slithering over the moors on contemplative walks, admiring the views, taking photographs and occasionally talking to myself.

Still, it’s better than fretting about the gas bill, or the price of petrol.

I made it back from the tower without incident, the only downside to the day being that the visitor center cafe was closing, and I didn’t get my bacon butty.

Damn.

Goodnight all.

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So,… I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”.  Books are mysterious things. You seem to come upon them randomly but, like the hexagrams of the I Ching, I’ve found they can also be meaningful, and timely. Although not elusively a guide to Buddhist thought, there’s much in here that reconnects me with the paths I trod years ago through Buddhism and Taoism, but only half understood them – and essentially this idea of living in the present moment. On the one hand it ought to be a very simple thing, but just try it and the mind screams out to be released from it and wander about once more in the past or anticipation of the future.

It’s often puzzled me, the idea of a present moment, and at one time I came to the conclusion that there was no such thing, or rather that the present moment was a period of infinitely short duration so as to be practically unobtainable. Indeed our conscious awareness seems mainly caught up in the contemplation of things either in the future, or in the past, and this is interesting because neither the future nor the past can actually be said to exist in any tangible way at all. We spend our lives in contemplation of something we think of as reality, but which is in fact is not. We live in a kind of fantasy. The past is gone, and we distort our memories of it, we make the bad things that happened there worse and the good things rosier than in fact they were. And the future? Well, that’s where our happiness lies – at some point in the future when we have done this or that, for then we will finally be content – it’s also where our deadlines are, either actual or imagined, and it’s also where we die. But the future has a funny way of never quite materializing as we expected it to, and with it our happiness. Indeed I’m sure there are people who wait their whole lives for their lives to begin, so caught up are they in this idea of chasing an imaginary goal, a point in the future when everything is finally going to be in its place and they can relax and begin doing what they always wanted to do.

I’m generally a decade behind with these things. I have a dozen books on Zen, all of them with pretty pictures of Zen gardens and Bamboo, but fairly light on explanation. Tolle’s book was published in 1999 and has been on the reading list of every new-age flake since, but it was only a few days ago I saw it on a colleague’s desk, after he’d picked it up from a charity shop and, noting my interest, he passed it on to me. I’m about half way through, and wishing I’d read the book years ago. It’s not a program, or a trite self help guide, but a very simple thing that Tolle is offering us, something he hammers home time and again, as if in the hope that eventually we’ll be able to escape from our programming and achieve this one simple thing that is the key to everything.

What is it?

It’s that infinitesimally, impossibly small point between past and future we call the present, that thing I’ve struggled so long to grasp and to understand the significance of. You have to find it. And to find it, I suggest you read “The Power of Now”.

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Sunset Lancashire Oct 28th 2009I wrote in an earlier post about how I’d managed to break my wristwatch – rather an old Rolex, it turns out, one I bought in 1981 as a 21st birthday present to myself. I remember paying £270 for it, which was rather a lot of money in those days – but as a young and single man, a final year engineering apprentice, I’d nothing else to spend my money on except cars and girls – so what the hell? The trouble with your Rolex though is that only an authorised Rolex dealer will touch it when it goes wrong, and they seem to have a standard charge for putting things right whether you’ve simply scratched the glass and want it polishing out or you’ve had it run over by a Sherman tank.

So, anyway, I took it into town and the rather glamorous lady assistant in the jewlers asked me how old the watch was, and I said 1981, and she said: “Gosh I’d only just been born then,”  and I thought – am I really that old ? She was tall and blonde and and lovely and though she didn’t mean me to, I suddenly felt ancient, bald and crumpled. I mean, I’m married and everything and wouldn’t even think about it, but let’s just say under other circumstances I would definitely have fancied the pants off her  – but clearly I would just have been an old fool making an ass of himself, on account of being old enough to be her father. But that’s life, and just one of the interesting conundrums it throws at us older chaps – like what use is it feeling like a teenager, when the skin you’re wearing looks like it could do with a good ironing, and glamourous women no longer even look twice at you? (not that they ever did in the first place, but you know what I mean)

But I digress. Back to the Rolex: It has to go away for an estimate but it looks like it could cost me somewhere in the order of what I originally paid for it to get it going again, and I’m wondering: is it worth it? I could buy a lot of watch for £270 these days – admittedly not a Rolex, but does the Rolex mean that much to me now?

DSCF5004The young  guy who bought it in 1981 – my younger self – doesn’t exist any more, does he? So what does it matter what he would think about this older and supposedly wiser self saying stuff it and burying the thing in a bottom drawer somewhere? I mean – it’s not like I wear it every day is it? And I seem as fond of my current Timex as I am of the old Rolex. But we’re clearly talking about more than a wristwatch here, aren’t we? We’re talking about something that’s symbolic of a defining era in my past. We’re talking about the things I thought, the hopes I had, the hopeless loves I had by then already lost, to say nothing of the desires and the aspirations of that young man just setting out, finding his feet in the world. I think back and I really like that young guy, he was okay,  he meant well. I hope he’d feel the same way about me if he could look forward upon me from my past, as I can look back upon him from his future. And I think he would be hoping I wouldn’t give up on it – whatever “it” is, this symbol, this mysterious thing I feel when think back upon those times – this thing we share.

So I’ll bite the bullet and I’ll get it fixed.

In Buddhism this would not make sense of course. It would be like trying to hold on to something from the past – a classic case of attachment. We evolve. We are are never the same person from one moment to the next. Our consciousness changes, it’s an illusion of sorts, a compendium of memory, emotion and instinct. We should let it go, lose our sense of the flow of life and time, and seek to live only in the present moment – because that is the only useful reality – everything else is either memory or anticipation and we can change the contents of neither. That’s all well and good, but I think as long as we can maintain a moderate perspective on the past, it can serve us well to delve into it occasionally – not out of a desire for nostalgic self indulgence, but to understand better who we are now by reminding us of who we once were.

It’s no coincidence that this question of getting a time-piece fixed causes me to think more deeply on questions regarding the nature of time itself. Many of my stories in recent years have played hard and fast with the conventional notionsof time, blurring the present into the past and the future into the present, all of them somehow adding up to inform each other in meaningful ways. The Rolex has measured the linear time of my life for the past twenty eight years, but I’m no longer sure the deeper part of who I think I am exists in linear time at all. Getting on for a decade ago now, I stood before  a mountain and felt myself slip into an eerie state of mind where the notion of time seemed rather a fuzzy concept, and where this bag of bones standing up in his boots was as much a part of his experience of life as  the mountain he was looking at – that reality and time were not physical at all, that physicality itself was somehow negotiable, that the only reality was essentially psychological, the only reality was mind .

I still do not understand that experience, but it suggests to me now that youngster’s as alive and well and as fully a part of my experience of life as he ever was, as I am a part of his. From his frame of reference he can have no concept of me, his older self looking back upon him and promising, hand on heart to get his watch fixed, just as I can have no concept of my future self looking back upon these words and wondering what the hell I thought I was blathering on about. But there is a connection.

I’m sure of it.

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garden buddhaSome time ago now, my good lady was a guest at a church service in London. The sermon, she said, with a mischievous twinkle, would have interested me because it began with the showing of two pictures, side by side, one of Christ nailed to the cross, and the other of the Buddha, serenely floating on a cloud. However, this was not an example of ecumenical harmony  – indeed it was quite the opposite. The illustrations were used to show how Christ was very much involved in life, quite literally nailed up and suffering on account of it, that this was what life was all about: being in the thick of things, and really suffering. As for the other fellow, well just look at him: floating about serenely, eyes closed, completely out of it. How involved is that? One is living with suffering, the other is avoiding life by retreating into a sort of cloud-cuckoo land.

Now, I was a little surprised by this as I’d imagined the various religious genres were less prone to taking a pop at one another these days, though I suppose of all the non-christian religious icons that might have been chosen for such undeserved denigration, Buddha is probably the one least likely to have taken offence.

Anyway, for a moment, I found myself feeling quite cross, which was surely what my good lady, had playfully intended. I was cross because the vicar or the speaker, or whoever this person was had obviously missed the point and was demonstrating only their ignorance of Buddhism. Moreover, as a spiritual leader, they really should have known better than to speak in such an ill-informed way about another tradition. Surely, no one understands the nature of suffering, its reality, and its causes, more than the Buddhists! Also if it’s possible by analysis to root out the causes of suffering, eliminate it as much as is possible, and live a happier, more peaceful life as a result, as the Buddhists suggest we can, then what’s wrong with that? How could the speaker not have understood this? I mean, it was ridiculous! It was a cheap shot, playing to an audience of the already converted. How antiquated! How perfectly,….. medieval!

Then as if he’d been sitting up on the back row of the theatre of my mind, I heard Buddha break out into an enormous belly laugh, not at news of the sermon, but at me, at my crossness. I saw the joke, and laughed too, laughed at myself. You let it go. You recognise the snare, you disentangle yourself from it before it’s had time to do you any damage, and you move on.

I’ve been studying Buddhist and Taoist philosophies now for about a decade,  looking for parallels in  various western humanist ideas, and trying to apply the stuff I’ve picked up in both my basic approach to living, and also in trying to understand life a little better. I’ve had a small statue of the Buddha in a corner of my garden for several years,  but this is more on account of his role as a cultural icon, than a religious one  – I bought him from a garden centre. I’ve certainly never considered myself to be a Buddhist, because I always reckoned there was so much more involved than I probably had time for, and I wasn’t sure I really “got” Buddhism that well anyway. I have some books, I explore meditation, I sometimes seek out the Dalai Lama on You Tube, but it doesn’t make you a Buddhist, does it? I mean, I don’t want to be pinned down, and labelled as anything really. I’m not that familiar with the Buddha’s Dhammapada, and find myself more naturally drawn to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Also, it has to be said, I rather like the idea of Lao Tzu putting all his wisdom into those wonderfully enigmatic verses, before disappearing into the sunset with a dancing girl, and leaving us all to it. (at least that’s what I heard)

For a moment though, after Buddha laughed, I realised I understood more about Buddhism than I’d perhaps given myself credit for. It crystallised, and in the letting go of my childish pique, I became a  Buddhist – at least for the moment – if not actually a real one, then perhaps a sincere garden one, one who has gained much spiritual,  psychological and philosophical mileage from reading the ideas of a character, who, in modern times has sneaked into the West in disguise as this cultural icon, rather than an overtly religious one.

Conversely, I failed to understand why picture of the suffering Christ was spiritually superior.  Perhaps someone can enlighten me? To suffer is to live? I don’t think the Buddhists would argue with that one, but there seemed to be a suggestion that it was somehow more virtuous to suffer, and unrealistic to seek an end to suffering – that indeed this could only be achieved by retreating from the world into a kind of meditative bubble in which we might as well not be alive at all.

But meditation is not an escape. We do not hide in our meditation – indeed, psychologically speaking, the opposite seems the case to me, most of us only able to get by in our day-to-day lives by hiding all sorts of things from ourselves, all the time. There is nothing more fantastical therefore, than the perception of reality many of us weave for ourselves. Meditation, on the other hand, gives us a chance to step aside from the illusion. In meditation we seek to achieve nothing at all for a while. We just stop. And if we stop often enough, the mind begins to simmer down a bit, and eventually, when we’re not meditating, we begin to see things differently, and react to situations differently, because a part of the mind that was subdued before, has the chance to get a word in edgeways now. Meditation then, is not sitting on a cloud and hiding from reality. It’s about establishing for yourself a subtly different view of what that reality is.

Our actual life is no different. We still suffer. We have the same disappointments, shocks and upsets as before. Family and friends pass away unexpectedly, we still get ill, crash our car, lose our wallet, the doorbell rings in the middle of our tea and there’s some evangelist trying to convert us to their particular brand of religious extremism, our computer gets a virus, and we break our wristwatch. Then there are more subtle  forms of suffering that one might call self-inflicted, and are  caused simply by the way we view the world through the distorted lens of our attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

Buddhism then does not change the things life throws at you. It just makes you see them differently, so you suffer less emotional damage as a result. And of course seeing things differently dissolves our unhelpful attitudes and our petty prejudices, so that self inflicted suffering, at least, ought to be attainable by all but the most benighted of souls.

The Buddhists say we suffer in life because we’re attached to it – not just to life, but to the details that make up our lives. Things can never really be the way we want, they say, because things just don’t last. They are impermanent, yet we try to fool ourselves into thinking everything’s going to last for ever, and that certain things are valuable enough to be worth pursuing at any cost – money, fame, material goods, or even less tangible things like love, health, happiness, or the respect of others. The pursuit of anything gives rise to feelings of passion, excitement and greed but once we have attained something our desire for it vanishes, to be replaced by the fear of its possible loss. Its loss is inevitable, eventually: whatever it is, it won’t last, but we still cling to it.

What can we do then? Well, according to the Buddhist method, if we can accept our troubles are caused by our desires, then naturally we can reduce our troubles by desiring things less, by recognising more the impermanent nature of the world around us and the things in it, and getting less worked up by unhelpful ambitions to hang onto things for ever, be they stuff, states of mind or even just ideas about the way things are. If we can find a way of looking at life dispassionately, if we can recognise the impermanent nature of things, and be less inclined towards attachment, that is the secret of a happier life. Happiness therefore is not hanging on against the odds – it is letting go. The pursuit of happiness is inherently self defeating and the secret is that the giving up of one’s ambitions to be happy, leads to the greatest happiness of all.

As with all the things I witter on about, they should not be looked upon as self-evident truths, or beliefs that I wish to force down the throats of others. They are merely the things I think, and, in the words of the writer Flannery O’Conner, I tend to write in order to see what it is that I think. And I have been led to think this way because I find that if I apply these thoughts, I feel a little better, and fancy I can sometimes see a little further than the end of my nose  – which is really the best any of us have to go on.

To live is to suffer, sure, but the idea that it is good to suffer any more than we have to sounds more like self-indulgence to me.

Michael Graeme

www.mgraeme.ic24.net

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