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Posts Tagged ‘depression’

great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

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roamerInhibition. Self consciousness. It makes our dancing stiff, our singing flat, faltering, subdued. We know we can do better, but the crowd or at least the suspicion of its scrutiny puts us off. It’s better then to close our eyes, to believe we’re the only person in the room. But what about writing? Do we write best when we believe no one will ever read what we’ve written? For most writers this is a distinct possibility, but what’s the point in writing anything at all if you’re the only person who’s ever going to read it?

This is an existential question. The point of writing is opaque, defiant of reason, cycling between the black dog of depression and an over-inflated self worth. Both are damaging in their way, but in particular we fear that black dog getting the drop on us, for then surely we’ll never write another word.

For whom do we write, then?

I asked this question of Google and turned up one of my own blog pieces entitled, appropriately enough: For whom do we write? I concluded we write for ourselves, that the person we imagine reading our work, the imaginary “other” is a projected version of ourselves, and who am I to argue with my own analysis? But this is not to detract from the mystery of the process. Yes, we write for ourselves, but are inspired by the belief that any revelations we uncover in the process are potentially of value to others following in our wake.

1960AviaAs I write this evening, I’m wearing an AVIA wrist watch from the sixties. It’s nearly as old as I am. Although we’ve only recently become acquainted, it means as much to me as my father’s Roamer which dates to the late forties, and as much as the Rolex I bought myself with my first month’s salary, at the outset of my dayjob, in 1982. By contrast, I bought the AVIA off Ebay, last month for £20. Why should it mean anything? It’s worthless. What puzzle does it pose? And  why should you be interested in my telling you about it?

I mean, who are you anyway?

My father’s watch tells the story of his life, a story that ended when I was fourteen. I rarely wear it, but his life and its premature ending is what I think about when I handle it. It needs a minor repair, but one I’m not yet confident enough to tackle for fear of damaging it. The metaphor in this is complex and strange and deeply personal and may only yield further revelations when I have the courage to finally take the back off the watch.rolex

The Rolex was to some extent a marker of stability, telling of a time when I had stilled the stormy seas somewhat and established a way forward in life for myself. I wear it on special occasions, but am sometimes embarrassed to be the owner of an aspirational timepiece, all be it by now a vintage one – that a part of me once thought such things were important or impressive to anyone. I would never spend that sort of money on a watch today, no matter what my disposable income, yet I could never sell it, so appear to be clinging to those old perverted values, no matter what my opinion of them.

Then there’s the AVIA, a curious old thing that adds it own unique twist to the story. It tells of a thing as old as I am, one that’s survived the years in good condition, and is still of use, still reliable. The previous owner is unknown to me, as are the times the watch has known, a mystery only to be guessed at, times that have ticked away oblivious to my own, yet in parallel with them, yet also now suggesting a kind of collective completeness that might be revealed in the contemplation of its feeling tones.

I may of course be stretching my metaphors to destruction here, but these things provide sufficient energy to draw my fingers to the keyboard. But  I cannot allow myself to imagine your presence, your derision, your boredom, at least not until the thing is worked out and revealed at least to me as a valid commentary on the human condition. Then, my friend, you can take it or leave it.

A telling of any kind is an exploration of the mystery of being, and the conclusion is the opening of a door, one whose threshold we arrive at by entirely abstract means. And the revelation that awaits us might similarly be expressed in abstract ways, but the writer knows when the puzzle is solved, because that’s when the story ends, whether we’re writing literature, or a murder mystery. The tale of the three watches is still seeking its conclusion, and I use it here as an illustration of the underlying psychology and both the challenge and the necessity of  writing as if no one were listening.

A story is not real life. In a story the boundaries are set as a specimen mounted under a microscope. In a romance, often the telling is of the obstacles to love, commencing with the first meeting and concluding with the marriage, or the first kiss, or the long awaited making love. The story of a life however does not end in the same way. It goes on, rich in revelatory material, at least for the writer with sufficient sensibilities. But the love story is a familiar pathway, one most of us are familiar with, and it’s pleasing to be led along it, so the writer need not feel shy or self conscious in directing his pen to such an enterprise, even under the full glare of an imaginary readership. But what of those other stories, those other questions, questions one might even be afraid to ask?

For myself I have no interest in controversy, finding, as you’ve seen here, sufficient mystery in the tale of three wrist watches, and it’s perhaps for that reason I’m content to proceed without an audience, if only because I cannot imagine anyone being held rapt by the telling of such a tale. What provides the energy to keep writing in this vein is not the arrogance  my musings are as valid as anyone else’s. To be sure they may be nonsense, but in writing the only arrogance is the belief we are in any way responsible for the creation of our own work in the first place.

The question of the three wrist watches rises from a part of me to which I have no direct access. Yet it burns, and must be given voice to or the writer in me is not complete. In this sense then the audience does not matter. So yes, although it’s a hard thing to imagine, we must write like no one’s ever going to read our words. This isn’t so difficult as the non-writer might suppose, for the words themselves, even if they lead the writer on a merry dance to nowhere, are sufficient reward, and especially if, through their telling, the writer gets to glimpse beyond the doorway of one’s liminal consciousness to an abstraction of the universal revelation of what it means to be a living, thinking, feeling human being.

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mazda night journey HDR

When I came across the writings of the Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Jung, some fifteen years ago, they caused a radical shift in my world-view. Or perhaps my world-view was changing anyway, and his ideas provided a safety net, or a supporting structure that allowed me to explore the irrational byways of the world and the psyche without the normal concerns that I was going insane questioning what I had been conditioned to accept as the true nature of reality. But plenty of others had trod this path, said Jung, many via his consulting room. You’re not losing it, the anxiety you feel is not pathological, it is more a part of the natural process to grow and develop – not physically, but psychologically, and spiritually. You’re just searching for something. You are a pilgrim on the way of the psyche. You are on the night journey of the way of the soul.

I had plenty of reasons for going off the rails, for descending into mental illness – a strongly introverted type with a track record of social maladjustment, of anxiety, and depression, stretching back to my first days at school, and the fitting of a yoke that chafed badly, and still does. And in later years there were circumstances, both professional and personal, that provided ample excuse for a return to the existential darkness I had known as a youth, and from which this time there might not have been any safe return.

My problem was not one of being unable to fit in with the world. Being passive by nature I have always been very good at that, so long as I am prepared to accept and acquiesce to the world view, and inevitably also to the will of others. But behind the mask I wear, mostly what I see in the world I do not like, or I secretly resent its demands that I change in me those things that are not negotiable. And now, knowing I can do nothing about the way I am, I come to accept myself and seek always to disconnect myself from those things that would mould me into a shape contrary to what my instinct tells me nature has intended.

The rational world holds few answers for people like me, though, like an archaeologist, I have studied its traces through many layers, and in great detail now. Yet all my life it has cold shouldered the more important questions, and it has failed even to see, let alone alleviate my underlying ills.

Around the age of thirty I consulted an overworked village doctor. I was showing clear symptoms of burn-out, of anxiety of, ugh,.. depression, and, after a consultation lasting all of two minutes, came out with a prescription for the wonder-drug of the 90’s: Prozac. But the Prozac made me ill, made me more anxious and irritable to the point of despair. I was not suited to it, clearly, but my telling the doctor so made him cross. This surprised me. I was not for ever pestering him with my ills. I had seen him twice in my life. Perhaps he was on Prozac too?

It was the first and only time I have sought pharmaceutical redress for such things. I did not blame the doctor – doctors are not gods, they are only men, and as prone to weakness as the rest of us. It’s sobering though, the realisation there are few true healers in the world, so it is as well not to rely upon one of them being around when you have need – better to seek ways of healing yourself. It’s only sensible.

Healing came first from Yoga, from which I gleaned sufficient knowledge of meditation to pass my fourth decade in a state of at least superficially high-functioning normality. But there was always something loose about me, something rebellious and suspicious of the cock-sure confidence and the de-facto authority of the rational world. Behind the mask, I still resented its stupidity writ large, ruining lives and tearing up the planet. It might be circumspect to respect authority, but it is also wise never to trust it. Indeed, it seemed to me the rational world was a fragile thing, sick at its roots, and irredeemable. The rational world of course is just an idea. It does not actually exist beyond thought, though we like to believe it does in case all else falls away, and at any rate it’s better than believing in fairies.

The path to Jung was gradual, it involved first perhaps a dangerous erosion of the rational sense, the thing that normally protects one from all manner of strange and harmful ideas; it involved an arrogant tearing at the fabric of the known world, and an equally arrogant probing at the structure of the unknown with the help of a five thousand year old oracular device, bequeathed to me by Jung, called the I Ching.

It was he who introduced the fledgling methods of studying the unconscious traces, Jung who opened a curtain onto the nature of processes hitherto unsuspected, but it was not a pretty picture. He poked about in the midst of a turd-smeared madness, like a witch doctor probing at a chicken’s giblets, for clues to the archetypal forces that underlie the world. No, madness is not a pretty thing; it is not Keira Knightley in comely distress as Jung pursues his “Dangerous Method”. Madness is uncompromising in its daemonic ugliness and its rejection of reality, and it is a thing we seek to escape, to lock away at all costs for fear of it overwhelming us. And if we really must tread that way then we had better tread lightly.

Jung’s was a world in which the dream was to be read with as much seriousness as the events of the day, and in which the events of the day were to be interpreted with the same looseness and symbolic radar as the dream, for what it might teach us of the reality underlying what we think of as reality. It was a world that spoke of the idea that reality was to be read in a non-literal way if we were to properly understand it, that if a woman were to say she lived on the moon, we could not dismiss the idea as absurd, that instead we should accept it might be true, at least in a non-literal sense, that if we accepted the validity of the psyche, as we must, then at the level of the psyche all things become potentially true, and the boundaries between what is accepted as sane and insane blur into a bewildering non-existence.

Indeed, as we explore the path of the psyche, seeking structure in non-structure, we approach a point when we realise there is actually nothing there at all, that the chaotic forces of the psychic collective and the daemonic underworld are a pullulating layer of fledgling cognition spread pitifully thin upon the eternal void, that what we are is a universe moving from that void in search of itself, that the void, being nothing, posits its own existence as a certainty, and its nothingness as an impossibility, though both sides of this equation be, on the surface at least, a self cancelling paradox.

Madness is to languish in the collective of the archetypes, sanity is to pay them homage while rising above them into the sunshine of the material world, at the same time accepting that deep down lies the great stillness that underpins reality. Jung is not for the faint of heart, and most of his writings lose me at the first paragraph because I do not have the latin, nor yet the looseness of mind to slip into the cracks of the underworld where he fears not to go.

Popular reinterpretations of his works are always lacking, while those following him with the same intellectual rigour risk inaccessibility, at least to the interested layman. And at twelve hundred words or so, I know I’ve left most of you behind me now. So I pull over to the side of road and note how the way wends for ever on.

It gives me pause, and I wonder if perhaps I’ve reached my limit too. Even a brief dip into the ideas of Jung is enough to fill several of the lives of lesser minds. But one thing I have noticed is that to explore the unconscious is also to swim against the tide of a universe of ideas all swimming the other way, that our redemption is not to seek escape inside an inner world of our own making when the will of everything that’s inside of us is to make itself conscious, to emerge wide eyed and blinking into the sunshine of a world many of us would reject as too imperfect for the perfect interpretations of our selves.

In truth we are all insane, some of us more highly functioning than others and better able to fit in with the touch-stone patterns we have collectively constructed that pass as the rational world view. But we are all subject to the ideas, the archetypes, the thought forms that seek passage into the world through us, and it is a milestone along the way to be accepting of that. Another milestone perhaps is when we no longer ask of them what they can do for us, but what we can do for them, and in so doing circle back to the beginning of things, but with a good deal less existential angst than before.

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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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cropped-dscf30611.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The_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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Beardy manWe must be careful not to misunderstand the word “spiritual”, nor think we can only come to it through religion. The spiritual dimension existed before there were ever religions to give it a name. Many people, both religious and otherwise, have experienced it and they use words like timelessness, boundlessness, oneness, and love to describe it. This is the mystical core at the heart of all religion, yet many who would not consider themselves religious at all tumble into it by accident. They do not see angels, or saints, or witness terrifying revelations , but describe a more abstract experience, marvellous and expansive. It leaves them altered. They no longer need to seek or indeed reject “belief”. They simply know that it is so.

Of course not all who invite such an experience will find it, yet all who do seek it discover that the search alone shifts the focus of their lives away from inner pain and more towards a mindful awareness of life itself. In eastern philosophies there is no separation between the mental life and the spiritual. In addressing one we are always addressing the other. I wrote earlier about the three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. They are the three legs upon which we stand. Kick one away, or deny its existence altogether, and we are sure to lose our balance.

In secular society, there is a problem with religion; at the state level it is, on the one hand, irrelevant since society is now entirely market driven. On the other, religiously motivated violence is sadly nowadays such a threat to life and limb, religion is only tolerated so long as it does not get out of hand. At the personal level too religion can be seen as lacking any real goodness, that indeed it works contrary to its stated purpose – dividing and persecuting, instead of uniting and embracing our diversity. If the spiritual vessel exists at all nowadays it has been upturned and its contents tipped out. Sadly, this is to deny our true nature, and what we suppress will always come back to haunt us ten fold.

Buried deep in the psyche there is a spiritual function. It is the generator of a current that urges us all towards change, towards transformation and transcendence through the assimilation of energies that rise from both the personal and the collective unconscious. We have no choice in this, it is a part of what we are, a part of what moves us. Through us, nature is evolving psychically. There is nothing supernatural about this; it is an aspiration, a movement towards what is intrinsically good, a goodness that is not written down anywhere but simply known.

The early churches were formed to bring us to this enlightened state, but somewhere along the way they became hung up on ritual and power. Non-affiliated mystics continue to seek the core experience, yet cautioned all the while by the orthodox priesthood, also by the robustly irreligious and the scientistic, that when we stop believing in God, we start believing in anything. But this is not true. We set aside belief and seek instead our own direct experience of the transcendent dimension, the soul life. In a mental health context, the quest for healing, for happiness, for wholeness, is always, in part, a spiritual quest – it’s just that our search is more desperate.

The spiritual vessel is the one most easily damaged by the turbulence of our collective existential angst and it is existential matters that are central to feelings of wholeness, and by implication also their antithesis: depression and anxiety. Topping that vessel up will restore us to ourselves like no other medicine, but first we must divine the shape of the vessel within us, then set it upright. Many succeed in this through the prodigals’ return to the churches they rejected in the long ago, but to the isolated, the disconnected and the lonely in spirit, traditional congregations can be sources of stress, the liturgies triggers for uncomprehending anxiety.

Yet the spiritual function demands its fill whether we are religious or not. It contains the unwritten codex, the contract of our time on earth, and we are obliged to make our peace with it, to move in the direction it is suggesting, both as individuals, and collectively as a species. It would be a lot simpler if all of this was written down for us at birth, perhaps tattooed on our palms, but it isn’t. We have to divine the meaning for ourselves – that is our purpose and we do it by developing a personal relationship with “God”, or whatever label you want to attach to this sense of something “other”.

It sounds arrogant, putting oneself above two thousand years of religious teaching, but we have no choice in it. Just because one finds no connection through conventional worship, it does not stop the stirrings of the spiritual function, so we turn instead to the incoming tide of personal-development literature. This is as eclectic as the varieties of spiritual experience, but it is not easily dismissed. Broadly it suggests we work towards mindful self analysis, seek the stillness within us, and if we need a story to describe it, then a personal mythology will suffice – it does not need to be true for anyone else so long as it sits comfortably with us.

Over the course of a couple of million words, and several strange novels, this is the direction I am moving in. Other researches, online musings, and occasional dialogues with a book from China’s mythic past, enable me to keep my own vessel pointing the right way up, and the water in it just warm enough to relax into now and then. You can do this too. I don’t know how, and hesitate to suggest anything other than that by finding the vessel inside of you, the spiritual function will begin to work its way through you too of its own accord. Then you simply follow wherever it leads.

I hesitate to tell you that, if my own history is anything to go by, none of this will stop that black dog from settling in from time to time. That’s just its nature. Mental illness will always cast a shadow over the lives of those who have even once suffered from it. But through an awareness of simple self-healing – physical, mental and spiritual – we need not feel quite so helpless as we were before. We know we can always beat a path back to the light of life whenever we find ourselves benighted.

I’ll leave the subject of men’s mental health there.

Thanks for listening.

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