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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

Lochan na Eala

After so long hankering for broader travels, these pandemic years, and for the Romantic, I have decided to bring my travels to romantic lands closer to home. Today, then, we venture from my doorstep, to the small lake that is once more appearing on the Lancashire plain, and which I have today named Lochan na Eala. It means Lake of the Swans. I admit it’s an unlikely name to find on the maps of west of Lancashire, but then this place is not to be found on any maps at all.

In summer, it dries to a puddle, so cannot be said to exist, and therefore does not require a name. But over the course of winter it swells to such a proportion it looks embarrassed without one, so I have named it, because the migrating swans have found it, and they seem to like it, and “Swan Lake”, though more prosaic, and “English” and obvious, lacks the romance of a thing that is not always there. One needs the Celtic, bardic tongue, when it comes to dealing with the more subtle levels of reality.

The farmer has tried to drain it by digging a ditch, but the cause is more elemental, this being a general rise in the water table, and what looks like the slow return of the area to wetland. As I understand it, it’s part of the Environment Agency’s planned flood management programme for my locale, this inundation of natural flood planes. I was there some weeks ago, and had noted its return. In the near future, I suppose, it will become permanent, and named officially but, until then, Lochan na Eala it is, or at least it is for me.

So far, the day has not gone well, and we are in need of a change of scene. My good lady’s pipe has been put out by early morning leaks to the media we are to lead the world in rendering Covid endemic in the population. Free lateral flow tests are to end, and no further booster programs are under consideration. The reports are now disowned, but there is a rule of thumb which states one should never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied.

True or not, my good lady has eased her despair with an overly aggressive cleaning of the oven. This has caused the glass to pop out of the door, so we are currently without an oven. The glass was only glued in, and I think I might be able to repair it with a suitable adhesive, so have ordered special oven-door-glue from the aptly named oven-door-glue company. We now await the good graces of the postman, and the goddess of good fortune.

We’ve had a murky few days, and they’ve kept me indoors. I’ve passed the time reading Gary Lachman’s “Secret History of Consciousness”, which is a look at the nature of consciousness, and the ways in which we have come to approach it, over time. It’s rather a tour-de force, building a persuasive argument from the erudite blocks of the more obscure literature, both psychological and, for want of a better word, the theosophical. It’s making sense of other works I have read, but which proved rather heavy going at the time.

One of the remarkable things he describes is the theory of how we represent reality, that what we see is not what is truly there, that our concepts effectively boot up from different levels of the unconscious mind, whose origins lie in deeper, older parts of the brain. We have only to back-track a little in order to see the world in a radically different way. I remember coming round from being gassed by the dentist, as a child, and the way my return to waking reality was presaged by something I can only describe as abstract. At the time, it was explained away as an effect of the gas, nothing more, but I have always wondered about it.

None of this helped, of course, when I was considering the ugly fact of a broken oven door. Indeed, for a time, I was at a loss. The literature may have explained my dilemma in philosophical or neurological language, in addition to my own more prosaic terminology, but it could not help find a supplier for high-temperature adhesive that stood a cat in hell’s chance of working. Like everything else, that was down to Dr Google. The lesson here is that such explorations of the inner universe are all well and good, but whatever our reality is, it makes a good show of presenting a hard and uncompromising face, that if we have a purpose at all, part of it must be to manage the problems it presents us with first, before taking off on flights of fancy – alluring though those fancies may be.

Anyway, it’s rather a cold day, grey this morning, but forecast to break into sunny spells, later on – much later by the looks of it. Indeed, it’s only a few hours before dusk, now, and I’m half-hearted, setting out, having procrastinated most of the day away. But you never know, we may just catch a nice sunset at the last minute.

I am often dismayed by the two-dimensional emptiness of the Lancashire plain, which, these days, I call home. There are just a few trees that excite the senses by their near alien three-dimensional presence, but which would not be noticed anywhere else. The rest of it is reedy ditches and hawthorn hedgerows, and vast fields of black earth. The appearance of a lake is something of a revelation then.

Lachman speaks of an evolution of consciousness, that there is evidence our forbears saw the world in a radically different way, being barely self-conscious at all, but more intimately connected, as a collective, with their reality, which is internally, mind generated. Our evolution into fully self-aware beings came at the cost of a sense of separation, of alienation from the world, one he argues we have compensated for by mostly violent means. These are speculative ideas, but not implausible. The next phase is a level of consciousness that reconnects with that earlier phase, so we remain self-conscious, calculating beings, but also once more fully connected with the reality we represent. At this point we will be able to see, or rather experience, various levels, and various modes of being. This stage is a long way off, and we may of course extinct ourselves before we get there. If we do, by the same reasoning, the world itself too, as we know it, will also cease to exist, so the burden of responsibility is heavy.

The Romantics were on the right path, using the imagination to explore their inner worlds, and the qualitative nature of experience. But many went mad, since reality itself refused to bend to their will; it remained ugly and inconvenient. It was their oven-door moment, and Dr Google had not been invented to provide a source of glue. All of this might be idle speculation, and of only passing interest, but others have wondered and felt strange things, intimations of other levels of reality, as have I.

One of the writers Lachman quotes is the Russian philosopher, P D Ouspensky, who describes an experience he had in 1908, while on a ship, crossing the Sea of Marmora, and how, for a moment, he became everything he was looking at. So profound an experience this was, he spent the rest of his life trying to explain it. It’s the clearest account of a similar experience I had in the Newlands Valley, twenty years, ago, but could not articulate so well as he. Such a thing becomes your life’s work, whether you’re up to it or not. He was. I’m not, so why that doorway opened a crack for me, I’ll never know, since there is, I fear, so little I can do with it, except wonder.

Anyway, here we are, the lovely Lochan na Eala. Just a short stretch of the legs. And what’s this? The sun makes an unexpected, last minute appearance as the sky opens. Nice that. It seems there may once have been a time, like Ouspensky, when I remembered I was it – I mean all of this. And if that’s true, then, whatever we choose to call it, so are you.

Thanks for listening.

Play me out:

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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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mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

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philosophersWhat do we really know for sure? When it comes to defining the nature of reality there’s actually very little we can be sure of at all. I can even view my surroundings right now, and my presence in them as a dream, indeed I might as well for it’s impossible to prove things are otherwise. Even when I suffer I might be dreaming my suffering, and in the presence of others, I might be dreaming their presence. And the facts of the world, the laws by which it is governed may simply be the facts as I have invented them in the dream of the world, from the rising and the setting of the sun, to the swirl of atoms. As for the laws of physics not yet discovered, perhaps I merely invent them as I go along.

We learn from dreaming how malleable facts can be. The preposterous becomes true, not merely because we allow ourselves to believe it is so, but because the entire dream paradigm endorses it as such and so it becomes, at least within the bounding conditions of the dream, a verifiable fact. Often I will dream I have dreamed a dream before and only on waking realise the deceit, that I have not dreamed it before, that it was only a fact of the dream and only upon attaining an external perspective, by waking, do I realise the dream’s false nature.

Similarly in order to realise our false perceptions of the waking world, we must gain an external perspective, for only then might we know it for the illusion it either is, or is not. You might think this is impossible, that we are too firmly embedded in life in order to see our life in the third person. However, by a process of contemplation we can loosen our grip and achieve a somewhat abstract focus upon the world, sufficient to realise the only thing we can be certain of is the fact of our consciousness.

We are conscious.

There,… it’s a start.

And having realised it, there is a stage further we can go, already implied by the realisation, and this involves the realisation we are conscious of our consciousness, that we are self aware, and self reflective, and then it is only one more step to the realisation we can observe our thoughts as we think them, that we can become aware of ourselves thinking, that we are not in fact our thoughts, that another presence altogether is responsible for that sense of self awareness.

And this is who we really are.

This is a pivotal realisation for a human being, one that marks a separation of the true self, this sense of self awareness, from the thinking or the false self.

That we are not our thoughts.

Thinking does not reveal the underlying truth of anything. On those occasions when the mind approaches an axiomatic truth, it is noted how sophistication falls away, that insight is achieved
more by observation without judgement, and in stillness. In such moments truth is revealed as plain as a key, and truth is what lies behind the door it spontaneously unlocks, and is felt in the feeling tones of the experience.

In this way we come to realise there can be more truth in the fall of light upon a pebble than in the liturgy of all religions, and in the whole of poetry; it depends how you view it and where your heart is at the time. At all other times it’s just a pebble. Purple prose will not convey its essence, for the longer a name and the more adjectives and metaphor we deploy in its description, the less resemblance it bears to any truth we might have felt. Nor does the truth bear with it any sense of urgency. It does not hurry us along to some imagined goal. It does not speak of time running out. It does not measure or judge, but possess instead a spaciousness and a love in which to rest, unquestioning in the peacefulness of true insight.

Anything else is just the noise of the world.

So, what do we know for sure? Not much. But then we don’t need to know much to be certain of the single most important thing in the world. Indeed for that we don’t need to know anything at all.

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the sea southportThe summer has been a bit of a washout. We are already into September and I can recall very few days when I have felt comfortable without my jumper. Granted, I was fortunate and those few days I do remember coincided with my holidays, but one would hope for a more extensive summer than a single shirt-sleeved stroll along the promenade at Scarborough. And the next day it rained.

So now the garden is crisping up, the borders thickening with dead-heads and neglect. On the upside, the lawn is no longer as voracious in its appetite for the mower, but too late, the feeling of decay has entered my bones, got me braced for something I cannot avoid, like the new school term, even though it’s thirty years since I needed trouble myself about that.

I received a message from Yahoo Customer Services informing me that unless I entered my password into the proffered window pane, my mail would be terminated within 24 hours. The message is composed in poor English and as such is rather a transparent attempt at phishing – a criminal ploy to get me to reveal my email login details.

I dislike this kind of thing, that there are those in the world who would do harm to innocents. This sounds pathetic, naive, even to say it, but I truly wish the world could have turned out otherwise. We have after all had ample opportunity. Is it wise or even sane to remain optimistic?

Another message this morning informs me my mail has duly been suspended. It has not. I confirm the fact by sending myself an email from one of many other accounts I use, and it pings up in my Yahoo inbox as normal But still, one wonders. Does the phisher single me out, or is my mail merely one morsel of millions in a broadly cast bait?

All day I have imagined my computer is behaving strangely, that the blackness of infection seeps in through cracks I cannot see. Defender and Firewall do not seem to be in a flap about it.

But still, it leaves one feeling a little unsettled.

Anyway, it was another cloudy start to the day, light rain, but clearing by mid-afternoon to a kind of blustery-sunshine, and rather cool, 12 degrees. But that the sun shone at all was sufficient to entice me out to the coast, to Southport.

And tide was in, which cheered me.

There are music hall jokes about Southport and the sea – that you need a camel to reach it, and it’s true it does go an awfully long way out, so much so that some visitors would query if Southport actually qualifies as a seaside town at all, but I can assure non-natives, as all Sandgrounders know, it comes in again twice a day, just like everywhere else.

I like the light here.

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

I wonder what might be lost, I mean were the darkness to take hold of my email account. Since Michael Graeme exists only online, the mangling or the hijacking of his imaginary affairs would hardly matter. But what other doors does that password unlock? And what other unfortunate souls have left themselves open this way, rashly taking the phisher’s poisoned bait. How does one protect ones young in such a world as this?

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

I find my way to Yahoo, log myself in securely, change my password. All seems normal. But still, there’s that feeling of unease, of shadows creeping through my innermost world. I light candles and utter spells of protection, draw circles of exclusion in my mind.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Phishers, like all criminals, are a challenge to ones understanding. They present often the keenest intelligence, the highest of ability and ingenuity, yet in human terms they also operate at a low level of consciousness, or they would be more mindful of the suffering they cause. They are, in a sense, a sub-human species. But one must be careful in condemnation, for then the blackness creeps inside the soul. They are in fact like bacteria, not sufficiently conscious to render any negative emotion on my part a truly rational thing. I think this is in the nature of forgiveness. Still, I can only hope that as with any bacteria, I am fortunate in avoiding infection.

The sea sparkled at Southport as the sun glanced from the little wave crests. I walked the boards of the pier, gazed out through binoculars at the boats and the rigs and the windmills that dot the horizon. But the sea here is not of sufficient depth to hide the murkiness of the sands underneath. There are no blue boisterous depths to wash clean the shore on which we travel.

The tide swirls murkily, and with each swift retreat is revealed the scum line of all our sins.

The verses of course are Longfellow’s, and not mine.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsAmazing, how quickly the cosy glow of one’s holidays fades, isn’t it? Mid morning, first morning back at the day job and there you are, things settling upon you once more, a million crabs nipping and nagging at you, something slithering over your skin – that all too familiar cold slime of responsibility. Then it’s out into the near stagnant commute, arriving home some indeterminate time later, brain-fried and grumpy, then bed by ten, waking at six thirty a.m. feeling totally unrefreshed, and getting up and doing it all again.

But we would be much worse off if we didn’t get that two week break, if like in the olden golden times of arch Conservatism, the labouring masses got no holidays at all, but for Christmas day, and we worked a six and a half day, sixty five hour week until we dropped dead, never having climbed a step from poverty – a regime we’re heading back to if our young are to have any hope of living off the wages that are paid in these enlightened, tightened times, these times of grim austerity.

I can’t believe I am still hearing that word.

Surely austerity was for the nineteen fifties, after the world was nearly ruined in a storm of war that lasted five years – not this, this financial crisis, this money game, this accounting fraud that has already lasted much longer than a world at war, laying waste to the less fortunate of nations as surely as if they had been invaded by tanks and guns.

The black tide of Nazism was defeated in less time than this. And the only strategy against the tyranny of the money game that the money captains can come up with is to convince us there is no alternative to an eternal free fall into a future of less and less, into an austerity of eternal midnight.

Alas, it is the banishment of all hope, all ye who enter here.

But for a weeks I flew. I climbed the little road from Malham in a lovely old car with the top down. I flew all the way to Leyburn, I left the bustling market square at Masham early one Saturday morning beneath a deep summer blue sky and with the birds singing, and I flew all the way to Scarborough. There, I walked the long front from north to south bays and back, explored the steep and narrow of the old town, and breathed a different air. And the gulls were not the killer gulls of the bonkers press. They were the snow white fisher-birds I have always known, and there were only ink-dirty fingers pointing blame where blame there was none, creating a story, where story there was none, while steadfastly ignoring the real story of our times.

In the creed of Nowness, the past is unimportant, but the recent memory of a positive experience can sustain us, at least for a little while, as we nudge ourselves back into the material reality of our dayjobs. It creates a bit of space. The darkness of the first week back after one’s holidays can then be punctured by a gentle reflection. But I fear in my case, after thirty seven years of nine to five, I am already growing out of work, my mind turning far too soon to other things. I would as soon eschew the looming golden watch, escape instead, travel the length and breadth of my United Kingdom in that little roadster with a light bag and a box of books, and a little tapping pad on which to muse and write of what I find along the way.

Sigh.

It’ll be a while before I can realistically do that, but there it is:

The dream of flight.

Of escape.

But what if what we are trying to escape from is a state of mind? one that constructs cages for itself, and the cage is on castors, so we cannot help but take it wherever we go? What if it cannot be escaped by running? To be sure the snares of the material world are myriad, and the thing with snares is the rabbit strangles itself by thinking it can get away, by resisting, by struggling. But by resisting, the noose only tightens all the more. It is the evil efficiency of the snare, that it uses one’s own energy to bring about our destruction.

Thus it is the creed of Nowness teaches us the art of escape through stillness, by creating space within ourselves so we slip through unharmed, like a slippery seed, clean through the arsehole of the world, to bloom elsewhere, upon another plane. And so, even amid the nine to five, we walk a kind of inner freedom, and we do not mind the world as it is any more. Even the bumbling blather of austerity talk and money tyranny melt into the background, into a meaningless Muzak.

Or so the theory goes.

It troubles me only in that all of this sounds a little defeatist. Surely if we are trapped we should fight with all our might, and at the very least do something? Seeking instead our escape within we might as well be wishing an early grave, for both things are liberating in a sense, but hardly what one might call living. I suppose it’s just this feeling I have done my time at the work face, my nose pressed against the dirt for too long, and would leave the struggle to others now, to those who still can – struggle on. For as the saying goes, those who can do, while those who cannot do teach, and those who are not for doing any more, and cannot teach, can only write.

I don’t know if I’ve returned, post trip, with a straighter head or not. It feels a bit wobbly to me. Do you think?

Graeme out.

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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_ScreamCome Friday my flexi-time balance is usually in credit, so I finish at lunch-time, then head up to Rivington Barn for an egg and bacon butty. It’s a popular spot, and you’ll probably have to queue. I was there last Friday, and I was about half way down that queue before realising what I was doing would once have been impossible. When was that? Ten, fifteen years ago? It wasn’t just queues either – the cinema was out of bounds too, and music concerts, and the theatre – anywhere with lots of people in a captive environment, so to speak. Some things you can avoid, of course, while some you can’t, and the ones you can’t are a nightmare. You live in dread of them.

We do not always realise the distance we have travelled; nowadays, I’m pretty much functioning with a level(ish) head, and grateful for it because living like that was awkward. Panic and anxiety, these are manifestations of the psyche, a storm of sorts, and therefore a reaction to living in a way we find somehow threatening. But when we watch the news bulletins, we see so many have died now on the long migration routes to the west, gambolling their lives on a chance at sharing even a little bit of what I take for granted, it seems immoral I should even question it. After all, mine is an ordinary life, secure in the bosom of the west, and it’s irrational to panic, when my life is clearly not threatened. But I never said it was my life I felt was threatened, more my sense of being.

I worry now if even writing about it will open a door on the past, that the next time I stand in a queue, I will have cause to regret it. A panic attic is like being turned inside out. We focus obsessively on our own mental noise and we imagine the eyes of others upon us, imagine ourselves seen through their eyes, this person, wobbling, perhaps looking strange, perhaps about to faint. The fear feeds upon itself, reaches a terrifying resonance in which we simply must flee the scene. Anyone who has suffered this will tell you it’s deadly serious. It’s also becoming commoner in the general population.

The cure? Well, obviously there is a cure, or I could not have waited the five minutes for my bacon butty, and received it in the same calm mental state as when I had joined that queue, nor even sat and enjoyed it. Medication? No, I don’t take medication. I have nothing against it these days, though I’ve been guilty of an anti-med zealotry in the past. Medication can save lives, so I accept it has its role to play. But medication is never without risk or side effect, and it’s true to say I have also felt uncomfortable with the psyche that remains, after medication, a psyche that is, in a way, still imprisoned, and prevented its desired freedoms, only this time, apparently, for its own good.

But for all the cherished values of the west, the way we live is the cause. If you want to get philosophical about it, it’s the feeling that in our guts we are more than the material world gives us credit for, that we are not machines, yet are being squeezed at every turn so we might fit into a machine-like world, a machine driven in such a way that even a dollar profit will outweigh the most basic, uncosted, intangible human need.

Happiness? Who needs it? Purpose? So what? Love? Buy it. A sense that things can never be any better than this, that we have killed God, and even the priesthood seems not to have noticed? Who cares? Well, we all care, but we feel powerless to bring about change, so we do nothing. And some of us panic.

But standing in that queue, I was no longer aware of my own mental noise. My thoughts were few, my head was quiet. I was aware of my body, my breath, and I was aware of others, but not in the sense of morbidly and self consciously wondering how they saw me. I was more the observer, observing them – snippets of conversation, body language, their choices, demeanours. I had become the watcher, rather than the watched, but not in the sense of judging others – just watching, and I was no longer inside-out of myself. I was simply more my self. It is a state that allows one to become quietly curious of the world and all that’s in it. We become more grounded.

But one should never take these things for granted, hence my abiding interest in the secrets of the psyche, and its various palliatives. Meditation is perhaps the most powerful of these, but also methods that reconnect the mind with the sensations of the physical body, both in motion and at rest – things like Tai Chi and Qigong. Notably these are not western techniques, but things we borrow from the east.

As I sit now, I am aware of my energy body. This will already sound unpalatable to many who are steeped in the materialist tradition. But there’s nothing spooky about the term “energy body”. If you close your eyes, how do you know your hands are still there? Obviously, you can feel them, but what you are feeling is the mind created sense of your physical being, the energy body, for want of another term. If you wiggle your fingers you can feel it more strongly. If you take an inward breath, and let it out slowly, the feeling becomes stronger. You can play with it.

Once you show the mind a way back inside the body, it will crave a deeper exploration: arms, legs, chest; there is no part of the body that cannot be felt this way, and in feeling it we ground ourselves, root ourselves back in our selves, and in the world. The feeling is one of great calmness, and allows an alert resting awareness in which the world seems all the more alive for the undivided attention we can now give it.

There is no single reliable method of attaining this state. You have to experiment and find the one that works for you. This is part of the journey into the inside of yourself and worth undertaking. Although it takes years to de-program the stress response entirely, meaningful results should come within months or even just weeks of daily practise. That said, I find having been once been prone to panic and anxiety, it is something one needs to keep working at.

I have not suffered much hardship in my life, but it’s an unfortunate fact that the mind can create hardship where there is none. Our quiet backwaters then become personal warzones, and the most innocuous activity fraught with imagined danger. Returning to our selves then, we are also reminded that, compared with the actual physical suffering of so many others in the world today, how lucky we really are.

And yes, that egg and bacon butty was well worth the wait.

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warrior girlMy dream takes on the sound of the sea and the feeling of a warm night. At some point Rebecca and I have spooned up, and even through my closed eyes, I know her by her heat and by her scent. And keeping my eyes closed I carry with me the impression of dawn breaking, and of waking with her beside me still.

My spirits lift.

It’s enough, and I don’t care where we are now, nor what point in time we have emerged back into an ordinary waking reality, so long as we are together. But the sea is still washing on the shore, a reminder of last night’s dream, also harbinger of the fact I have not truly woken, that I am likely still dreaming. Then someone is touching my arm and I open my eyes to see Emma crouched in the sand, looking tenderly down.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” she says.

I turn to Rebecca but she’s no longer there. She’s waking, somewhere, and I find myself once more alone in the dreaming, with Emma. I’m afraid, because Emma is usually the herald of much strangeness, and I can bear it no more. I want simplicity. Pray God, I want the coherence of a single line in time. I must escape her.

I must!

I cannot force myself awake, and dare not ask it of the dream to take me back in time again, though ironically this seems the easier thing to do if the last occasion is anything to go by. Instead, I do the next best thing, the safer thing; I close my eyes and ask it of the dreaming for a change of scene. But even as I feel the giddiness of the transition, I am aware of Emma’s hand upon my arm; it is therefore no surprise when I open them to find she’s still there.

“You must be wide awake to loosen my grip,” she says. “And you are not for waking yet. You’re so tired of the world and all that’s in it; it’ll be a while longer, I’m afraid. If ever. But what is this, my love? Anyone would think you did not trust me any more.”

I do not like it, the suggestion I may never wake up. I wish she would go easy on me, but that is not her purpose.

We are back in the mythic levels, as we were before, the pair of us seated in Sunday best, upon a cold flat rock by night, facing the lake. I did not ask for this location, and why the dreaming thinks it is important I do not know, other than the fact it is but one step removed from Rebecca and her prayers for deliverance. Is that where she’s gone now? Is she not waking to a fresh dawn somewhere, but still sleeping, like me? And is she still dreaming of delivering the world, through her ministry?

I need the protection of my girls.

They are already disembarking from the skiff; bronze breastplates glinting beneath cloaks of Phoenician purple. They draw swords and fan out cautiously, prepared to do my bidding, but looking all the while hesitant, unsure, as if afraid I would command them injure a vital part of my self. Then Emma’s own entourage emerges from the shadows, all leather Basques and straps, and fishnets and whips, like a comical teen fantasy.

My girls draw swords, Emma’s unfurl their whips.

Emma laughs. “Gracious, what a curious stand-off. How shall we resolve it, I wonder?”

She yields, lets go of my arm. Her girls withdraw into the shadows. My own sheathe their swords and step back to the shore. I see the glitter of relief in their eyes.

“There,” she says. “That’s better. Now we can talk.”

“Please,… no more talk, Emma. Can’t you see how overwhelmed my senses are with all of this?”

“Then let me show you something,” she says. “It shall make all things clear at last. And afterwards, I’ll let you wake up. I promise.”

Thus the scene is set for the denouement of my story. We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, so it’s been a long time coming. What will Emma show me that’ll make everything clear and lead me into the final chapters? I can’t say, and for the simple reason that, although I am the author of this story, I don’t know, because she has not told me.

What she has told me is that a damaged life is not a ruined one, that it is upon the whetstone of adversity the human spirit is most keenly sharpened. Yet, naturally, if given the opportunity to invent our own realities, we would edit out all forms of adversity, all forms of pain. We would invent for ourselves a paradise of pleasure. But pleasure is a thing we do in resting. Adversity, suffering, is the thing we do for a living. We cannot help ourselves. Lives are broken on its harsh anvil, while others are made more meaningful, and rise more beautifully from the ashes of suffering, redeemed, enlightened,…

And eternity is a long time to be spent merely resting in pleasure.

Is any of this true?

What’s true is the world is a place of immense suffering, and at times it’s impossible to see the good in it. Our ignorance sows an ever more bitter harvest, one spotlighted with brutal efficiency by our global news media, which shall surely one day put a camera on the very tip of a bullet. A hundred years ago, we were less aware of the suffering in the greater world, unlike now, when there is no end to the live commentary by which we might probe its ills, from the very comfort of our living rooms. And our analysis reveals what? That the innocents run from the juggernaut path, that it careens blindly, scorching vast swathes of the earth, returning them to barbarism. Our capacity for the creation of suffering immense, yet seemingly the work of mere moments of madness. Conversely our ability to subvert the suffering of the world is pitifully weak, itself fraught with conflicting opinions. And it is the work of generations.

But if we could realise the dream, what kind of earth would it be? Easy, one might say. There would be no living in fear of our neighbour; there would be plenty to eat, and everyone would possess a secure roof under which to make love and nurture children. Returned to such an Eden, we might then vent our energies and our intellect in the creation of what? Great works of art to uplift the spirit? Contemplation of God’s will? In such a world no man need fear being anything other than his true self, and he would certainly not fear his neighbour might rob him of his goods, or his life.

From such a secure foundation, a man might then exercise his ingenuity, coupled with his spiritual instincts, and all so he could explore the million and one ways he might do good, and express his loving nature in the world.

But Eden has fallen.

In schizophrenia, the sufferer experiences a breaking through of unconscious energies from deep within the collective mind. They manifest as voices, as a dire urges, as a debilitating cacophony of destructive thought that burst with uncontrollable fervour upon the defences of the personality. They overwhelm us. Literally, they swallow us in madness. And these energies are amoral, grotesque, irrational, the very antithesis of order and calm. We see this too in the world, this breaking through of hitherto unimagined disorder. We see it night after night on our TV screens – a veritable daemonic orgy of death, destruction, and the ever more imaginative ways one human being can do harm to another.

One might have thought ten thousand years of civilisation would have yielded some defence, a key, a wise philosophy by which we might all live in harmony, and in doing so turn back the tide. But if such a philosophy exists, we have rendered it in so many layers of myth by now we can do no more than argue over its interpretation. Meanwhile the earth burns; and the pace of this awful breaking through of banshees from the dark depths accelerates.

As with schizophrenia, there is no cure for what ails man’s dominion over the earth. It might be controlled somewhat, moderated in its worst excesses by targeted therapies, but the overall prognosis is rarely positive. It is something we have to live with, something we must manage as best we can.

Is it this, the thing Emma would show me?

Would she take me on a tour of Bedlam to show me only the hopelessness of it, the absence of any cure to mankind’s most pernicious malaise? One might be tempted to say yes, except there are some humans who dare to look the daemons in the eye as they tear screaming though the gates of hell, and to ask them their names. If these are the denizens of the nether world, their residence in that abode seems only to have rendered them all the more destructive to a higher purpose. And the more we dream of Utopia, the more we seem only to feed their appetite for chaos and destruction.

But is Emma not herself a daemon?

She has all the qualifications, existing solely in imagination, her form rising from the archetypal foundations of the psychical sub-stratum of experience. Semi-autonomous, she draws me into her world, reveals to me forms that are infinitely malleable to my will. Meanwhile her brethren invade my own realm to torch the forms I cherish, to torment the living even as they flee from the shadows. And she reveals to me how readily I would escape the world, escape the madness, when my place is still firmly rooted in it.

“It is as Lao Tzu taught us,” she says, “that a man stands most strongly when he has one foot in the outer, and one foot in the inner world.”

If we shut ourselves off from the inner world, it’s excesses will lay waste to the physical, to the world of forms. Its energies exist, whether we believe in them or not, and their natural tendency is to flow into the world, through us, regardless of our will. If they do so, untempered by our communion, the result will be a world always falling to chaos, no matter how carefully or rationally we have built it. If we turn our backs on the physical, sink back into the inner world from whence we came, seek escape in our dreams, we will lose our selves, and our purpose, and all meaning, in its infinite possibilities.

I have betrayed my kind. I have betrayed my self.

“Time to wake up,” she says. “You’ll be late for work.”

And then, as she said to me at the very opening of my story:

“The most vital issue of the age is whether the future progress of humanity is to be governed by the modern economic and materialistic mind of the West or by a nobler pragmatism guided, uplifted and enlightened by spiritual culture and knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo 1872-1950

So, after all of that, am I any nearer my conclusion?

Don’t count on it.

Thanks for listening.

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mariaThe world of artificial intelligence is in a buzz at the moment over a machine which recently passed the Turing Test. This means that during a question and answer session, a computer was able to convince a human judge, most of the time that its answers to his questions came from another human being, rather than a cleverly designed machine.

Passing the Turing test does not in any way infer a machine is sentient or conscious, or in any way “alive”, merely that its programmed responses convincingly simulate the responses a human being might give to those same questions. But that a machine has now passed the Turing Test means it’s time we sat up and took notice of what’s been happening in the world of artificial intelligence.

There are two kinds of artificial intelligence gurus. There are those who believe machines will one day become conscious, artificial life-forms. The followers of this school, tend to view the world in purely mechanistic and materialistic terms, believing that the processes going on in a human brain are ultimately machine like, something to do with molecules and electrons, and can therefore be replicated by digital processing, which is also to do with molecules and electrons. Gurus of this school are the latter day Dr Frankensteins, and we fear them releasing Armageddon by their foolish meddling.

The threat posed by a rogue, conscious mega-machine, plugged in to all the world’s digital and electronic systems is the stuff of nightmare and many a corny film plot, but I don’t think we need worry too much on this score as there are a lot of sound arguments pointing the other way, that when it comes to defining what consciousness is, it puts it well beyond what can be programmed into a machine. But a machine does not need to be conscious or self aware in order to be harmful to humans, and I don’t just mean physically harmful either.

Artificial Intelligence is an interesting field, calling into question what it means to be human and conscious. It also acts as a flash point for the soul-spirit debate – the non-materialists insisting there is more to consciousness than mere physical states, that there is also a ghost in the machine, our spiritual nature, which lights up the apparatus to produce a self-aware human being, and without that ghost, you can never have a conscious machine.

The other kind of artificial intelligence guru bypasses the argument about conscious machines altogether, and is more concerned with exploring the limits and the potential of machine based intelligence, and in particular the way machines can interface with human beings. If you flip over to the chatbot, Alice, at Pandorabot, and ask  “her” a few questions, you might find yourself getting drawn in by the answers. This machine is very good, but not perfect and with a little intelligence on the part of a human inquisitor the flaws in Alice’s “intelligence” are soon revealed, but we can see where this is going.

With most communications now going on “online”, it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a near future scenario where our emails to corporations are answered by Alice-type machines, and we’d be unable to tell if we were corresponding with a human being, or a bot. This of extends to spoken communication as well. At present it’s easy to tell when you’ve been sucked into the black hole of a human operated call centre, but speech recognition and synthesised computer voices are becoming highly advanced and I can see a scenario within the next decade, where call centres, already largely scripted, become entirely computerised.

One of the more amusing applications of a chat-bot, like Alice is to let one loose in a chat-forum. Even more hilarious is to let more than one loose. The human participants haven’t a clue – the only give-away is that Alice has better language and grammar skills. The point is, actually, it’s pointless to have one chat-bot chatting to another, because it’s the human being – again the ghost in the machine – no matter how imperfect, that grants meaning to the whole enterprise.

The replacement of humans by machines has been going on since the industrial revolution. The losers are always the humans who have been replaced, while the winners are the owners of the machines. Since the former outnumber the latter by thousands to one, replacing a human being with a machine can never be justified in humanistic terms, unless it is to release human beings to more personally rewarding or less hazardous tasks. In practice though, the machines release human beings only to the inescapable poverty of state-welfare or those low paid tasks where the machines have yet to make inroads.

When all the world’s systems are computerised and digitised, and the vast majority of human beings are no longer required to perform any useful function in the world at all, machine logic dictates that there will have to be invented for us an artificial function in order to “earn” the carefully calculated minimum number of “credits” to be spent on keeping oneself alive. Such a synthetic function might involve say one human putting pebbles into a bag, and passing them to another human being who then takes them out. A hundred pebbles, in or out, earns a credit. Too slow with the pebbles, your credit is halved. This is the way it’s always been of course – only the rise of the machines points out its questionable moral value.

It reduces human beings to pieces of machine code, to cogs in a machine, or more literally to a pair of hands. And we are more than that. We have complex needs, complex emotions. We need compassion, a sense of purpose, and we need to aspire to something greater than we already are or we become sick, and we die before our time. These things cannot be simulated or coded, and their absence cannot be compensated for by a warm, synthetic voice with nothing at its heart.

We are constructing an artificial intelligence that serves no purpose, one that’s on a divergent course to our own basic needs. I trust we won’t simply rush after it in the belief that even though machines might never be “sentient” their simulated intelligence makes them somehow better and more trustworthy than a fellow human being.

When I gaze into the night sky, I cannot count the stars as a machine might, and come back with a figure of so many million. I cannot categorise their brightness, nor catalogue their distance from earth, but what I simply feel when I look the night sky puts a distance between me and any machine, a distance that can never be bridged. That machines should always serve us, and not the other way around seems an unnecessary note of caution, but for that to mean anything we need to know first what it is we are for and what values we ourselves hold to. Otherwise we end up as slaves to a synthetic system that’s void of compassion and at the bottom of it really, really stupid. When that happens we will have become as pointless as the machines we are already beginning to serve.

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