Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘contemplation’

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »