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Posts Tagged ‘contemplation’

The funeral of a neighbour brings me to the old church of St Michael’s and All Angels. It looks like the whole village has turned out. He was a well known character, much loved. It’s a hot day and I feel stupid for having brought a hat, this being to spare my bald pate under the fierce sun. But, apart from in gangster movies, is it ever acceptable for a man to wear a hat to a funeral? I had to walk there, so needed a hat, but then what does one do with it when one gets there? Maybe it is acceptable, but no one else had one, and I felt self-conscious twiddling with it throughout the proceedings. Strange, this self consciousness. You’d think I would be old enough now to disregard it. But enough about the hat.

We sang Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer, and Abide with me, read psalm 23, then the graveside thing. It was the full Anglican, so to speak. Then I walked home, in my hat, feeling overdressed. I spoke last time of religious observance being rejected in the west, and the church communities dwindling, yet, when it comes to the great events of life, we still like the church thing. We blow the dust off our childhood, and enter once more the ancient places, summon the priestly, and know roughly what to say in the right, and sometimes also the wrong places.

I’ve not worn a suit for years. It felt strange, strange also seeing so many faces I am familiar with in more casual garb, and all of us looking today, I suppose, like city-slickers. I also had to think about how you tie a tie. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden with tea. My neighbour was very old, and had lived an active life, until Covid, and lock-downs, which seemed to send him into a decline. Final departures are always poignant, but we do not live forever. He was given a good send off, will be long remembered, and by many.

One is always thoughtful after a funeral. There is a tenderness about them, a sadness of course, but it’s also an occasion to see old faces, and catch up. And laughter is never far away as stories are swapped in the mood of fond remembrance. But being myself not a naturally sociable soul, I mean beyond my immediate family, I find myself wondering who would turn up to mine. Certainly not the whole village. Then again, I don’t suppose it’s a problem that will concern me much, when the time comes.

Anyway, all this quiet reflection is arrested by my neighbour on the other side who plays rock music to the birds, and gets out his thundering tractor mower. Life goes on, of course. But must it always be so damned tasteless and ill-timed? Ah, but just listen to me. (apologies to rock music lovers)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful June day, the garden is coming on. My good lady’s tomatoes are showing flower, and she’ll be pleased about that, as she’s been nurturing them like babies since they were but tiny seeds. Then, perhaps in defiance of the inappropriate rock music, I find myself thinking of an earworm of an old song, one I once attempted to translate from the French, as part of my half century of attempts to learn the language. Languages are not my forte, but I should like to one day order lunch in French, in France, without the waiter laughing. Not all ambitions need be great to be satisfying in their pursuit. It goes something like this:

The sea, we see dancing,
Along the clear bays,
With silvery reflections.
The sea, reflections change,
Under the rain.
The sea, which the summer sky
Makes of these white breakers, like sheep,
The purest of angels.
The sea, an azure shepherdess,
Infinite.

Look, near the pools,
These tall wet reeds.
Look, these white birds,
And these rust-coloured houses.
The sea, it cradles them all,
Along the clear bays,
And a love song,
The sea, it cradles my heart for all time.

This, of course, being my own somewhat poetically loose interpretation of Charles Trenet’s 40s classic, La Mer. That’s a beautiful image, “the sea, we see dancing”, and even if you don’t understand the French, you cannot help but feel the sun coming out as it is sung. All of which seems somehow appropriate on this glorious afternoon, and a sweet segue from contemplation of the funereal, back into the light of life.

Thanks for listening

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mr smithThis is Mr Smith. He’s a floating balance clock with an hourly and half hourly strike. You could also describe him as an ugly old wind up from the late 1950s that nobody wanted any more. But he endures, and, except for the occasional melt-down, he’s reliable. He’s also symbolic of a bygone era. If that era has anything to teach us now is open to debate, but I think it has, and it’s nothing to do with nostalgia.

I paid fifteen quid for him off Ebay, then spent the best part of a year scratching my head about why he ran five minutes fast. He’d been doing it all his life, so far as I can tell, because the problem appeared to be a manufacturing fault. He must have driven a variety of owners mad and I’m surprised he avoided the tip for as long as he did. That’s another thing about Mr Smith. He’s sixty years old, but for all his imperfections – and they were clearly considerable – he keeps going.

My grandma used to say: buy second hand and you’re buying other people’s problems. She had a point. So, when dabbling on Ebay, you’ve got to gamble you’ve the ability to fix a thing someone else has given up on. When it comes to clocks, for me, that’s both a technical challenge, and an appeal to my anthropomorphic tendencies. Normally, you’d settle an old clock into its environment, then you’d regulate its time-keeping with whatever adjustment is possible. But Mr Smith was at the end of his adjustment, and still running fast. So I bonded a couple of microscopic screws from an old watch into the holes on his balance wheel. That was enough to settle him down and bring him back to within the realms of possibility. He can still be eccentric in other ways, but he does tell good time now.

Naturally, a professional clock and watch man will pull a face at such a repair, I mean one involving glue, no matter how precisely measured. They’re a fussy lot, rightly proud of their skills. But their skills are dying out because they charge the earth. It’s only worth their while touching the rare Rolls Royces of clocks now – you know, the sort you’ll find in stately homes. Sadly, that means your cheaper relics like Mr Smith get thrown out, or they fall into the hands of Bodger Bills like me, and with mixed results.

mr smith balance

Floating Balance Movement – 1956-1960

The floating balance appeared in 1956, licensed to Smiths by Hettich, a German maker. The balance wheel runs with its axis vertical, suspended on a piano wire to reduce friction. The balance spring also features a curious double helix that helps compensate for temperature changes. Smiths redesigned it in 1960, made it smaller and easier to adjust. My Mr Smith has the older version, which is a bit fiddly. Both types are very accurate, though accuracy is relative.

We take time for granted now. Glance at your phone and there it is, to within a split second. The machines have championed precision at our behest, and now they crack their whips at us. But humans have no emotional need of the split second. When Mr Smith was made, so long as a clock was a within a minute per week, and you could bring it back in to the BBC’s pips, you’d still make it to the bus on time.

I’ve had him in bits more than once, cleaned him, lubricated him, restored some of the shine to his case. He’s been fine until recently, when his bonger went berserk, and he just wouldn’t shut up. I realise this was my fault. I’d forgotten to wind him, so he’d drifted off into silence and reverie. But when a clock stops, and especially a striking clock, you should set it by winding the fingers forward, not back. I’d wound Mr Smith back.

I could stretch a metaphor here and say that trying to reset the beat of your own times, by winding back into the past is never a good idea. There’s always a risk you’ll break something in the process. Stretching the metaphor even further, from a point of stillness, it’s best to look forward, to what might be, rather than what has been. The former we can change if needs be. The latter is too late. Sure, the past can be a pleasant place, happy memories and all that, but it can be dangerous too because there may be regrets lurking. But I don’t think this is what Mr Smith is trying to tell me here, at least not entirely. There’s more.

The past has utility if it remains useful. Much of the anguish and the violence we’ve seen in recent years has been in large part a rage, as we fight over simple explanations to impossibly complex issues. It’s been a petulant desire for simpler times, times when we imagined we knew how the world worked. We didn’t, and we certainly don’t now. Indeed, the world is so complicated now – our technology, our tools – there’s a feeling of things running away with us. But there’s no going back. We have to become more advanced in ourselves to deal with it, to transcend the melee, and deploy these miracles more wisely, and with far greater moral compunction.

mr smith mechanism

Strike mechanism, Smiths Floating Balance clock

As I contemplate Mr Smith’s mechanism I can get my head around each component and understand its contribution to the whole function of time-telling. If I watch it in action for a while, I can figure out how it works, what’s gone wrong, and how I can put it right. The only dangerous element here is a fully wound mainspring, and I know how to deal with that.

But my ‘phone? That teller of precise time. I doubt there’s a single person alive who understands every part of it, even the people who made it. As for its dangers, there are many, and mostly unseen. For a start its potential function goes way beyond what its ostensible purpose is. It spies on me, and reads my mind – at least judging by the adverts that pop up on it. It tracks my movements and sends that information to be stored on computers half-way round the world. I don’t why it does that, but tailoring adverts to suit my needs, like it says, sounds a bit flimsy to me.

By contrast, there’s an honesty about Mr Smith. He doesn’t do anything underhand. He doesn’t get his time from “the cloud” and share it with me in exchange for my personal details, so he can sell them on. He tells the time. So if the past has any utility at all in this instance it is to remind us that honesty is a virtue. It’s not just that our technology used to be so much simpler. It was simply so much more trustworthy. Until we can recover that, we’ve a rocky road ahead.

As for Mr Smith’s bonger, it was just a simple adjustment. He’s back to counting the hours properly. There he sits, ticking away cosily, doing nothing but what he’s supposed to be doing, minding his business, while I mind mine.

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coirelagan

Corrie Lagan – Isle of Skye

In the summer of ’86, I took a long drive to the Isle of Skye. I was 25 and my life had not turned out as I’d expected. I’d followed a clearly mapped course from the age of 16: a long technical education, and indentureship to a profession that paid reasonably well. On the surface of things then, give or take a near nervous breakdown or two, I’d nothing to complain about: my car was just a few years old, and paid for, and I had saved enough money for a deposit on a house. It looked as if I was on my way, but something vital was missing and it haunted me.

My life’s course had led me to the edge of the map, and when I turned it over I found the page blank. The map seemed to be saying, this is it, what more do you expect? But the world at 25 was featureless and boring, and the future looked equally uninspiring, empty of mental stimulation, and everything I’d learned seemed of no use to me any more.

It didn’t help I was between girlfriends, pining for the one I’d lost, and not yet daring to anticipate the next. She was supposed to be with me on that trip, but we’d broken up just before, so I was in a state of mind that guaranteed the world would appear superficial, oblivious to my existence and entirely meaningless. But, for anyone craving hedonistic distraction from a serious romantic breakup, the emptiness of the Western Highlands and Islands isn’t the best choice of trip, better by far if it’s a kind of oblivion and rebirth we’re seeking, which I suppose I was. Indeed, as the ever more stunning landscape of the Western Highlands swallowed me up, I felt my loneliness deepen all the more. But there was a kind of adventure in it, too and a freedom of movement and a spontaneity I might not otherwise have enjoyed. I had not arranged a string of accommodation for my tour, but trusted entirely to fate, navigating from one hotel to the next, looking them up each morning after breakfast in my quaint yellow Automobile Association handbook, and ringing from little red call boxes in the most exquisitely picturesque locations. The first hotel to have vacancies would determine my course for the day. Thus it was, by a somewhat circuitous route, and after several days’ motoring I wound up in Mallaig. From there an old Calmac ferry brought me across the water to the Isle of Skye.

Skye is always a revelation, no matter how many times you see it, and though I have not seen it for a long time now, it remains fresh in memory, and for good reasons. Skye cradled my loneliness, not exactly comforting me, but inviting me instead to analyse what it was I felt. Its mountains had something of fairyland about them, something remote and beguiling, yes, but they were also brutal and I knew I was not up to exploring much beyond the foothills. This is where generations of British have trained for high adventure, and is not a place for the faint of heart. Even the rock of which Skye’s mountains are made will  flay the skin from your fingers, and tear your boots to rags.

All journeys have a trajectory to them and we can feel the turning point, the moment the outward leg finds its conclusion and turns for home. Mine came on the climb from Glenbrittle to the mountain tarn of Corrie Lagan. It’s a walk that brings you to the heart of the Cuillin, and from there a choice of more daring adventures. But instead of pressing on up the great stone chute to Sgurr Alisdair, I sat by the corrie in the sun, arrested by the view, and the air, and an indefinable strangeness.

There were men on the opposite bank, soldiers, though not wearing any semblance of uniform. They had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin ridge – a monumental feat of courage, steadiness and skill – and were cooling off. One of them plunged into the clear waters and swam across to me. We chatted amiably for a while, which was kind of him as we were clearly different species; I was a skinny, milk-white office-drone, far from home, and he a bronzed, muscled warrior for whom the whole world was home, and though we looked of a similar age he had already done and seen more than I ever would if I lived to be a hundred.

I realised too the island, and Corrie Lagan in particular had begun transforming my loneliness into a deeper longing, but not for company, at least not of the mortal kind. Nor was it the stimulation of material things I craved, nor the excitement of high adventure, nor even the arcane machinations of career progression. There was, it seemed at once, a deeper and more subtle dimension to the world. I first glimpsed it reflected in the clear scrying waters of Corrie  Lagan that day, and I heard it in the voices, half imagined, echoing from the Cuillin’s savage rim.

True, I would never be a warrior, they said, likely never cross the Cuillin ridge blithely, with my hands on top of my head and I would probably never be a millionaire. My chosen profession already bored the pants off me and I had no girlfriend. But so what? Such vexations might seem important at the time, but in the great scheme of things they are at the very least subordinate to this awakening to a sublime sense of the inner world, a thing not unlike falling in love, a phenomenon whose existence the genus loci of Corrie Lagan acquainted me with, then sent me home with a mind to exploring it for the rest of my days.

You don’t need to climb to Corrie Lagan to find it, though its openings in places like that are more obvious than elsewhere and easier for the neophyte to discern. But awareness of its presence cuts in two directions. Yes, it grants a higher perspective on life’s experience, and it renders much of what we do, and the things that vex us, banal, when compared with the potential we all have for a much deeper connection with the inspirational power of our natural surroundings. But when we see the despoliation of the earth, and the detritus of our messy civilisations spilling endlessly into the sea, we feel also those vital portals closing, shrinking back from our crass presence. We realise then with a sense of panic and grief, the few who have awakened fully to that greater reality, and might guide us more surely towards it, may well be the last of us. And what use is that?

It’s thirty five years now since that trip to the Isle of Skye, and after all this time I would not want this latter point to be the sole lesson of a life’s journey, a kind of too-late warning to mind how you go when the avalanche is all but on top of us. The next few decades will tell whether the map of our collective future leads to better things, or to extinction, but there is no mistaking the fact that right now the world stands on the cusp of great change, materially, socially, politically and ecologically. It could go either way but while pessimism is always tempting, especially given the things I have seen, in spite of myself, I am holding on for something infinitely more hopeful.

 

 

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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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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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hartsop doddIt’s summer, 2000. I’m walking in the English Lake District. It’s been a good day, and I’m feeling a delicious body-weary tingle as I come down the last mile to the car. And then,…. I’m no longer fully there. I’m experiencing something I will later come to understand was a mystical experience. It seems you can fall into them by accident, like I did, or you can train yourself in one of the contemplative traditions, and bring them on whenever you feel the need.

I’ve tried to put this into words before but I always fail, so I’m not going to try very hard here. For now there’s a sense of expanding into whatever I’m looking at  – the hills, the trees, the road. Wherever my vision falls, I’m  both “in” it and “around” it, no longer separate. Strange? No. It feels familiar, like I’ve woken up from the dream of life and realised who I really am. I also feel unconditionally loved, wrapped in a presence, familiar as my own blood, and which both exudes and engenders an infinite compassion for all things.

Remarkable, yes, and I feel fortunate in in having had the experience, but actually, they’re not terribly rare. Countless others have reported them, and it doesn’t automatically mean we’re all going to end up as future novices in a monk’s cell either. I have no difficulty accepting tales of mystical states are exactly what they appear to be, nor that the universe we experience is only a fraction of the universe that actually exists beyond our normal powers of perception; but if one is not to become a monk or a shaman, or a guru, then what? How does one apply that counter-intuitive knowledge in the day to dayness of our ordinary lives?

Well, move forward with me now to the present. It’s a Saturday afternoon, in town. I’m a week into treatment for Anosmia (no sense of smell). I’ve not had a sense of smell for many years now, but the treatment is working and suddenly I’m overwhelmed by the scent of a world I’d largely forgotten. Right now I’m sitting in a cafe, a cafetière of ground Sumatran beans on the table. I’ve poured a cup and my eyes are closed as the aroma rises from the bowl, filling my mind with a symphony of soundless sounds.

Then lunch arrives: Black Pudding and Bacon Panini, with a salad garnish. There’s the heavy, slightly oily scent of the fried Black Pudding and the bacon, then the subtleness of the salad with its vinaigrette dressing – something sweet, and sharp. And I can smell a tomato, fresh cut, like a revelation, singing clear on the side of my plate. You cannot taste when you cannot smell, and right now I am lost in the appreciation of these unfamiliar and infinitely delightful olfactory forms. Beautiful, yes, beyond words really, but I’m also afraid – afraid of losing this dimension to life, of going back into the darkness of a world that does not smell, or taste of anything. Life delights us, but each delight casts also the shadow of its own destruction, and we fear its loss – for then how shall we ever be as happy again without it as we are at this moment?

Well, like the adepts, we can let these forms go, shun enjoyment of the sensual world, retreat into mindful contemplation of the formless, or we can remain in the sensual life but in so doing we must also be accepting of its ephemeral nature, appreciating beauty as it arises, while knowing it for what it is – a reflection of the formless realm, and not exactly the real thing. Still, to be reminded of its presence  is important, not least for the love and compassion it can also engender in the breasts of those who are sensitive to it.

Heaven in a Black Pudding? Well, maybe not,… but it was close, and for a time afterwards I was in love with the whole world, and everyone in it.

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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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