Posts Tagged ‘mystical’

MYST online 1

Imagine you wake on a mountain peak, a small hut for shelter, and no way down. Other distant peaks pierce a level plane of mist like lone islands in a milky sea. There’s a curious pillar outside your hut – half totem, half chimenea, patterned with strange glyphs. Touching it reveals an inner chamber in which there lies a book. In the book there is a picture of a desert landscape, mostly flat but with a volcanic caldera in the middle. Touch the picture, you fade out, rematerialise in the desert. The desert is vast. You wander, eventually coming upon a lone guy lounging outside his trailer,…

So begins your adventure.

Back in the day when computers were young there was a game called MYST. It was unusual among computer games; there were no guns, no racing cars, and no zombies; it did not depict war, nor indeed any sort of violence. Instead, this was a two dimensional point and click adventure – dull you might think by comparison, except it shone. It was imaginative, immersive – fiendish puzzles at every turn, and though it was basically an animated slide show, it developed a cult following that has continued through various incarnations to the present day.

I didn’t play it in the beginning, I found it too hard, discovered Tomb Raider and Lara Croft instead. I felt MYST would have been more engaging as a 3D walk-through, like the Tomb Raider series, but the machines of the time weren’t up to the scale and the ambition of it. Now is a different story. Now the machines have caught up, and are capaple of handling the sheer polygonal density of it, of rendering it beautiful.

So, you’re in this desert and there’s a guy telling you he knows why you’re there, which is more than you do. He tells you to check out the Cleft.

The Cleft is gash in the earth, accessible by creaky rope ladder and dotted with caves. They look like they’ve been home to ancient natives at some point, but there’s evidence of recent habitation too. There are more glyphs here, and strange machines, some old world, some of an unfamiliar technology. Bewildered, you go back to the trailer guy, he gives you some clues, talks about an imager. You go back down the hole, eventually work out how to fire this imager up, thinking it might explain something. It does. A hologram appears; it’s a girl, telling you a strange tale. You have to find seven glyphs. Do this and the hole at the end the of cleft can be opened. It takes a while, but you find the glyphs. The trailer guy helps some more. You open the hole in the root of a tree and down you go in the world of MYST.

It’s bewildering, ingenious, beautiful, immersive, and, like dreams sometimes are, also a little unsettling, but unlike the world of Tomb Raider, there are no death traps. Pull a lever and there’s no monster behind the door, no trapdoor over a spike filled pit, only a puzzle, another door to somewhere else, and another layer of mystery to add to the layers you already have.

MYST online is a massive download, 1.2Gbytes, but to play also requires a permanent hookup to the internet. I’ve a feeling much of the coming winter will be spent down this rabbit hole.

MYST is so different from any other game. Go wrong, fall off a ledge and into the lava for example, we simply wake back to our mountain hut, unhurt and more thoughtful. No one is torn limb from limb. No one is cut in two or has their head blown off. Get stuck and you can return to the hut any time. And the hut changes, things appear as you make progress through the levels, books appear on the shelf to help you, a more lush vegetation begins to grow. It’s puzzling, enigmatic, seductive.

And the purpose? Well, I’m several hours in and I really don’t know without reading the cheats and walkthroughs, which I don’t want to do at this stage. I’m determined to let the game inform me of its own purpose as I go along. It’s a quest of sorts, to find the glyphs, like the girl said, scattered thorughout the various levels of the world, but the world is vast and it comes at you all at once. This is not a linear adventure – doors open on vast levels, each with doors that open onto others, and somehow link back to one another through books and memory. It is a story, but one you don’t read. You have to live it. There is an intellectual challenge here unlike anything I’ve encountered in a computer game before.

And you are not alone. This is all online, a so called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game which means there are others in here, though thinly spread throughout the vast dreaminess of the place. You can work with them, or you can go it alone. It’s up to you.

All of this sounds like I’m trying to sell it to you, and I suppose I am – but only because, like any enthusiastic traveller, I want you to see the things I’ve seen. And, remarkably, the journey costs nothing. unlike a regular game, say for a Playstation which costs anything up to £40 these days. But the developers of MYST are giving it away, just asking for donations on the startup screen to help keep the servers running. My machine’s a regular quad-core laptop and manages it smoothly. If your computer was built in the last two or three years, it’ll probably do the same. All you need is your email for an account, a couple of hours for the download, and you’re in.

Lost in MYST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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rivington village greenThere are certain experiences which cannot be shared, yet they number among the most exquisite moments of our lives. Fleeting and unexpected, they can lift us from a dark place, and remind us that sometimes the best company we can ever keep is our own.

I took a walk this afternoon by the Yarrow reservoir at Rivington. It’s a walk I know well, a circuit of about an hour from the village green, across meadows, along an avenue of chestnut trees, then up by the shimmering mirror of the reservoir. The sky was full of contrasts today, from a stormy grey, to a deep blue and then a luminous white, and the whole of it in flux, pressed into motion by a stiff wind. The sun was intermittent, warmish when it put in an appearance, but the day still requirde several layers of clothing to keep the heat in.

Under the sun, the colours were strong – the yellow heads of daffodils and the gorse almost aglow. The periods of sun were fleeting though, dogged at every turn by a sluggish overcast that rendered the land at once flat and cold, the colours muddy, the gorse and the daffodils winking out of notice – hopes raised, then dashed, then raised again. Walking alone, I kept an eye out for splashes of emotive light, or a pattern in the bark of a tree, or the curiously purposeful line of an old stone wall I might have walked past a thousand times, yet never noticed before.

lines of light

The moments of pure light were too brief to capture properly with a camera. By the time I’d switched the thing on and focused, the land had breathed and the mood of it changed to something else entirely, but I persisted, fiddling with apertures and metering, and waiting patiently for the sun to come out from behind the clouds. There were few people about – I’m lucky having the flexibility in my working patterns to have these Friday afternoons to myself. I saw just one other walker out and about. We passed, heading in opposite directions, exchanged friendly nods and the north-country Owdo. Two men, each alone, each viewing the land in their own way, taking from it whatever jewels of imagination it offered them.

On solitary walks like this I can summon imaginary companions. At such times my pace slows, becomes meditative, and my conversations – not spoken aloud – can lead me into interesting depths of the psyche, or they can defuse knots of angst and stress. They’re not real, these imaginary entities, not spirits. I call them ghosts, but they’re more shadowy than that – daemonic in a way, or splintered parts of me I have lost along the way. But today was not one of those days. My Friday afternoon pace tends to be brisk, and I take the inclines at a rate that I can feel in the muscles, because I want to be stronger for the next time I tackle Ingleborough, later in the year. So I wasn’t trailing any ghosts today, nor expecting any moments of revelation.


It came as I was walking by the Yarrow. A period of muddy overcast lifted suddenly as the late afternoon sun was reflected in rippled cobalt waters, making starbursts through the still stark black branches of leafless birch and rowan. Then came a heavy shower, like glass rods through which the sun’s rays shone in cool shades of yellow and silver. I was arrested by it, transfixed by the light and the sparkling air, and mood of the moment. I didn’t even bother reaching for the camera, because I’ve been fiddling with cameras for forty years, and I know there are certain things a camera cannot capture.

Had anyone been with me, they would most likely not have seen or felt it quite the same way, and their presence would have subtly altered my relationship with reality, rendered me less sensitive to its moods so I might have missed that moment altogether. I alone saw it, I alone felt it, that moment, this afternoon, by the Yarrow reservoir. But it wasn’t me – it never is in such moments as that. I seem only to lend the universe my eyes so it might look upon itself and see its own beauty. I felt a shiver, knew I had experienced something good, something worth remembering. The moment passed, and I went on my way.

An hour later I was in town, among the cars and the shops, people buying stuff, people in cafes bent over their Smartphones, traffic wardens stealing up on haphazardly parked vehicles. I bought fresh valves for my leaky radiator and a length of hose to help drain the system down, tomorrow. But I’m glad I took a turn around the reservoir first.

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parcelI know this traditional bookshop where they still wrap things with brown paper and string. Here, you’ll find a vast collection of second hand books, all neatly categorised and arrayed in labyrinthine rows on three creaky floors. It’s been there for generations, catering for the full spectrum of tastes, from the pre Socratic philosophers to the latest Fifty Shades. It’s a rare, book-scented treasure house, a bastion of colour and pattern and calm in an increasingly bland world.

I don’t always buy a book when I go there. At least half the pleasure in visiting this place is in browsing with no particular aim other than the search for something inspirational. My choices are therefore driven as much by mood as by the titles. My price limit also varies widely according to mood, and for all I know the cycles of the moon as well. I once parted with £25.00 for a copy of Jung’s Mysterium, a book much revered by psychoanalysts – and which I have not the Latin to decipher. At other times I am loathe to part with £5.00 and come away empty handed, dejected that nothing has taken my eye. To be sure, bookshops like this are mysterious places.

Last Saturday it was Wordsworth – well, not so much him as an idea inspired by him. I’d been revisiting the Romantics, thinking back on things I’ve written about Romanticism – most of it rubbish, but some of it still holding the test of time. And there it was, lurking upon a shelf of rather lack-lustre books, pressed a little to the back as if shy of the limelight: Wordsworth’s collected poems, dated 1868.

It was a handsome little volume – red cloth binding, the pages gilded, and the backing boards beautifully bevelled so the book turned smoothly in my hands like a bar of silky soap. Inside, among the familiar poems, there were engravings – intricate drawings, each protected by its own little insert of tissue paper. It was delightful. It might have been placed there only recently – or been there for twenty years, always escaping my eye until now. Only now did it speak to me. But what was it saying? Here are the poems of William Wordsworth, Michael? Read them? No, I already own a copy of his collected works. It wasn’t that I needed another. There was more going on here. All I know is I wanted it.

An expensive book, I feared, but no – £4.50 was its considered worth, which placed it within the means of my capricious and, of late, austerity-conscious pocket. It could be mine. It would be mine.

I am not a book dealer or a collector. I do not browse these shelves for unknown money-treasures in order to sell them on. The vendor is, after all, an antiquarian dealer of some renown, so I presume the real collectors’ items have already been filtered out of this very public domain – leaving only the dross, where treasure is to be found only in sentiment. I was under no illusions then; to a dealer in books this book, pretty thought it was, was worthless.

Was it really only sentiment then that drew my eye? Could sentiment take my breath away like this and fill me with a such possessive craving for a thing that was otherwise of no use nor value to me? Perhaps it was simply its great age and the fact I have a track record in collecting old and useless things. The Sage of Grasmere had not been 20 years dead when this book was issued, and here it was, still in marvelous condition –  a little frayed at the top and bottom of the spine, but otherwise pristine. Clearly it had been respected throughout its life, and was that not reason enough to earn my own respect now? Or was it that the book lain neglected behind the glass of some unfrequented country house library, untouched by sticky fingers – and now at last had come its chance to be handled, to be loved. Is that why is spoke to me?

It was a mystery, but one I was clearly in a mood to ponder in slower time. For now the priority was merely to rescue it, to possess it.

I took my prize downstairs to the lady at the till and she looked upon it with a genuine delight. She ran her long pale hands over the cover as I had done a moment ago, and in doing so shared with me the loveliness of it.  Her actions, unconsciously sensual and simple enough on her part, were to my romantic eye like holy devotions and they amplified an already growing numinosity. Then she wrapped it carefully, folding the paper with a neat, practised precision, deft fingers twisting the knot, an enchantress sealing in the spell of that afternoon – an afternoon possessed suddenly of a richness and a fertility I had not known in such a long, long time.

I emerged from the shop tingling with something that ran far deeper than the mere purchase of an old book. But what was it?

I’ve had that book for four days now and you might think it curious but  it rests upon my  desk, still in its tight little wrapping. I do not want to open it in case the magic of that afternoon evaporates. While I keep it wrapped, you see, the spell remains intact and only good things can happen from now on. The glass will for ever be half full,… never again half empty. But such an obsessive devotion as this is stretching things, even for me, and I realise it’s in my little foible – some might say my weakness – the mystery of that afternoon is revealed.

One cannot really capture a moment like that, any more than one can capture its essence in a photograph. All you’re really left with at the moment of capture is a dead thing. As I’ve written before, and keep telling myself, as if for the first time anew, the moment comes from within and cannot be contained in any “thing”. Curiosity will eventually overcome my obsessive Romantic sentiment, and I will snip open that package to discover all that lies inside is just a worthless old book, a little more world-worn and weary than I remember it.

The real power lies always in the moment and it will always be erased by time until we can find a way of staying in the moment all the time. If we can do that then every moment becomes imbued with a mysterious presence, a presence that has the power to inspire and elevate us beyond the mundane. There we discover that the meaning of our lives – the meaning we might have searched for all our lives – was never really lost. Nor was it such a big secret anyway, nor less a thing to be toiled at, nor pondered over with our heads in our hands, nor winkled out of the dusty tomes of several millenia’s worth of arcane spiritual teachings. It was there all the time; the numinous, the sheer pullulating exuberance of life.

You do not find it in work or wealth or learning, but in random moments of spontaneous inner realisation, like with me on that Saturday afternoon, browsing the hushed labyrinth of an antiquarian bookshop. But we’ve all had moments like this, and perhaps the only secret is that we should allow ourselves to recognise their intrinsic sacredness, then trust the mind, or whatever greater consciousness lies behind it, will grant us the presence to realise them more often.

Of course a more skilled pilgrim than I would have admired that book for what it was and, without losing a fraction of the meaning in that moment, simply left it on the shelf for someone else to find.

Pass me those scissor’s will you?

Thanks for listening.

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To the ancient (male) poets, poetry was the resulting progeny of a part unconscious, part inspirational, part devotional intercourse with a mythical yet hauntingly ever-present creature called the Muse. Anything else was doggerel and not worth the papyrus scroll it was written on. Beautiful, merciless, demanding of unwavering dedication, yet disproportionately frugal with her favours, the Muse has many guises, but all of them essentially female.

If a poet was respectful of his muse, in sufficient awe of her, and sufficiently in thrall to the muse’s more corporeal and multifarious projections onto mortal women, then his poetry would be profound and recognised at once as the purest utterings of the Divine One herself, unsullied by the poet’s rather more imperfect, and all too human excretions.

In other words, a man does not make poetry up, or for that matter fiction, or music, or paintings, or indeed any other form of art. He seeks inspiration, and by some mysterious contract, all too often signed in the poet’s own blood, the muse delivers the art to him. He merely transcribes it, therefore a wise poet never takes credit for his best work, lest he should court her wrath. Conversely, he must always be ready to accept the crap as his own.

But what happens if the poet, the artist or whatever, is a woman?

Male Muse-Goddess psychology is amply explained in the theories of Carl Jung, who would have termed her “Anima”, the divine feminine. It’s from Anima a man derives his wisdom, his inspiration, and his more intuitive faculties. When it comes to women though, I find Jung is less clear – her soul image being defined instead by an amorphous harem of male figures – which doesn’t sound very mystical and muse-like. But to stick with Jung for a moment, it’s through him the concept of the Muse, the Goddess, or even a belief in fairies is rendered accessible and relatively harmless to otherwise rational minds by a process of de-literalising and internalising.

Rather than devaluing such concepts however, Jungian psychology achieves the opposite, promoting the unconscious imaginal realms these daemonic creatures inhabit to a real, if hidden, collective dimension – or what in classical mythology might be called the Underworld. Jung thereby granted the Goddess a supernatural reality she’d not enjoyed since the banishing of the pagan gods by a stern, male-centric, Christianity.

Through our mythologies we see how many a powerful Goddess once influenced the world stage, and one might be forgiven for thinking both contemporary religion and rational secularism have banished her to such an abject obscurity only poets and other unreliable types still talk of her. But we should be careful, for it is through our own selves the old deities have always lived, and through our own irrational and so often inexplicable behaviour they still wield their mysterious influence in the world.

Thus it was in the middle of the twentieth century, the Goddess found herself reborn among a resurgent neo-pagan faithful, who have been quietly redefining the nature of mystical spiritualism under such banners as Wicca and Modern Witchcraft. And it is from among their ranks, some might argue, and some might even hope, she is earnestly plotting the rescue of both the Great Mother (earth), and humankind from ten thousand years of blood letting at the behest of the formerly all-powerful (and male) Sun God, and his equally misogynic demi-gods of War, Rape and Avarice.

The poet Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a vociferous champion of the Goddess, and in his book “The White Goddess” (1948) he claimed to have uncovered, by a process of linguistic analysis of ancient European and Greek myths, persuasive evidence for a Goddess-centric civilisation predating the classical period and stretching back into Neolithic times. The book was largely ignored by scholars who paused only briefly to point out it’s shortcomings and Graves’ embarrassing lack of authority on the subject. However, later work by archeologist and leading feminist Dr. Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), found persuasive evidence in support of Graves’ hypothesis.

It seems there are indeed enigmatic traces of a lost European culture – matriarchal, sophisticated in its industry, and possessed of some of the earliest known writing on the planet – dating to 4000 BC – possibly the equal of the Chinese in its documented antiquity. This old European civilisation, according to Gimbutas, also distinguished itself by having left no trace among its artifacts of any history of warfare, or weapons, suggesting a political philosophy of admirably passive coexistence, resulting in a society that was breathtaking for its multi-millenial longevity.

It has to be said, not withstanding the physical evidence, Gimbutas’ unashamedly feminist interpretation does not go uncontested. However, her thesis, presented in her book The Goddess and Gods of Old Europe (1974) along with Graves’ The White Goddess became essential reading for the feminist and Neo Pagan movements.

But whatever the evidence for her possible role as a Neolithic deity, what we can say for sure is that the Goddess-Muse constitutes an abiding pattern of psychic energy, one whose presence has always been a powerful force in creation. But to come back to my earlier question, given her voracious and vampire like appetite for men, what about women?

If the muse is possessed of such sexually desirable feminine attributes, how can a woman show sufficient devotion as befits art, without distorting her own sexuality? Do women poets, for example, have male muses instead? Can the muse even be conceived of in masculine terms? As a man myself I’m outraged at the very thought, so devoted and protective am I of the Muse-Goddess. Therefore, are only men and moon-struck Lesbians capable of writing decent love letters? And are not all love letters incantations to the Muse, rather than to the poor young lady in question, and on whose shoulder the Muse just happens to be sitting at the time?

These are provocative questions, and clearly I’ll need to tread carefully. Or perhaps not, for since women are every bit as capable as men of sublime artistic expression, the Muse, or the Goddess, is clearly working through them anyway, and we can define it however we like. Just because a woman is an artist it does not make her Saphically inclined, so what is the nature of her relationship with the Muse? And similarly if she aspires to the ranks of neo-pagan neophytes, how does she relate, spiritually, to the Goddess, given that the female psyche is wired so differently to the male? Ah,… I think there might be a clue here.

Graves addresses this enigma in The White Goddess, and I also see answers to it in the WordPress musings of neo-pagan adepts, a great many of whom of course are women. And of those women, a great many I note are also very young. This is interesting, for they are exposed to the same youth-targeted, and overwhelmingly consumerist distractions as others of their age, yet they draw something from the archetype of the Goddess they find uniquely empowering, uniquely capable of granting them the gift of transcendence. By this I mean that through the Goddess concept, they are capable of communing with the spirit, where so many of the godless, and even the nominally religious see nothing of the spirit at all, but instead a bland consumerist edifice where is written the somewhat cynical mantra of our times: “I consume, therefore I am”.

Graves, although a severe and curmudgeonly critic of faddish and pretentious poets, did not admonish women who dallied with the perils of poetic genius. Rather he urged women to recognise their essential femininity, and to write as women, and not to try to write like men whose vision and whose relationship with the muse, by dint of male psychology, is always going to be different.

So after all of that I think the answer slowly reveals itself. A man’s relationship with the Goddess-Muse is one of subservience. She is the dominatrix, sometimes cruel, but just sweet enough, and often enough, to hold the man in thrall. Sometimes dismissed by non-artists as the result of infantile male sexual fantasy, this is none the less how the Muse engages men and goes about her business. For the woman though it’s different. For the woman, the aim is never to court the Goddess, but rather to avail herself and, if favoured, then to be the Goddess. And therin lies the innate power of any woman, be it through her art or in the potential of her relationships with men.

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The recent deepening of psychological shadows has had me reaching for the I Ching again. The I Ching is a book, the so called Book of Changes. Few have heard of it, and of those even fewer understand what it’s really about. Those of a New Age bent will blithely sit down and tell their fortunes with it, or charge money in order to tell the fortunes of others. But this is not what it’s for at all.

What the I Ching possesses is the curious ability to help you see what it is that’s coming at you and to understand why it is you feel the way you do, why you can be calm and magnanimous in the face of things one day, only to wake up the next morning with your guts aching at the hollowness of it all. This is not fortune telling. It’s not skipping ahead in the movie of your life in order to get a preview of what’s in store. What it is is understanding the nature of the times as they are now, and what you can do about them.

This has a way of putting you back in the Zen-zone. You realise you’re caught up in things that don’t matter, you’re becoming attached, egotistical and working against the grain of your own nature.

This is human.

We get muddled up easily, and it can take us a while to get back on track. We live in a world where secular values hold sway and it’s easy to be swept along by them. But it’s important to understand that the secular way is a superficial one; it has no intrinsic meaning, and its most cherished values, things like social status and material wealth are meaningless.

These are old lessons, we all know them, but sometimes we forget.

We forget because we need balance, and the balance within us has been tipped too much towards the material. We are not altogether material beings, you see? We exist a great deal inside our own heads, and what goes on in there is a spiritual matter. I don’t mean this in a religious sense – only that it is of the spirit, the soul, the piece of you that no one else can ever truly touch, or take away or even comprehend.

Forays by materialism into the confines of the head lead only to disaster and dehumanization.

I’d use the term psycho-spiritual here in order to introduce the psychological nature of spiritual study, but it’s ugly and off-putting. However, you cannot come to terms with your psychological nature without addressing your spiritual nature as well, and your spiritual nature is far too important a thing to be left in the hands of a one-size-fits-all religious model.

For me, our spiritual nature is best defined by the old Chinese idea of Dao, viewed – because I am a western man – through the western, Jungian prism of a personal journey towards individuation, or wholeness. This is a personal view, interpreted through the further prism of my own nature, including all my shortcomings and considerable ignorance. The way I see it though, certain actions bring us a step nearer the goal of wholeness, while others take us further way. Individuation, or oneness with Dao is not something that can be achieved by swallowing a pill, or reading a line of wisdom in a book. It’s a life-long journey and it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, so long as you remain mindful of your own path.

This is not to say we become selfish or self-seeking, because any action that knowingly subverts the path of others is always going to subvert your own in the end. Therefore you can’t go around standing on the heads of other people in order to get what you want. It might get you the big house and the six figure bonus on top of your five figure salary, but it won’t make you a decent person, a wise person, a loving person,… or a happy one.

The I Ching came out of the Daoist tradition, and was adopted by Jungian schools of psychoanalysis from around the 1930’s onwards. It’s a psychological tool. Think of it as a compass. The I Ching is a means of navigating your personal Dao.

I don’t know how the I Ching works. I’ve puzzled over it for years, but really, it’s best to simply let it be. You ask it a question, frame it precisely, pull an answer from the book, and then think on it. The curious thing is that the answers it gives are always pertinent to your query. They are searching, insightful, and wise, even though the process of generating that answer is simply the random toss of some coins.

For an intelligent, rationally minded person who has not used the book, the explanation is blindingly obvious: the I Ching is worded in so vague a manner that anything it says can be twisted by a credulous and needy mind into something meaningful. Rational and intelligent people who have used the book however, are not so quick to offer that explanation any more. They go underground. By day they are rational, intelligent people, but by night they explore the tunnels of their unconscious minds by the light of this mysterious device. The I Ching becomes for them like a darkly exotic mistress. She takes them to the giddiest of psychological heights, holds up a mirror to their own inner being, enlightens and enlivens their lives. But they do not like to be seen out with her in public.

You can use the book in a trivial, playful way if you want and it’ll come back at you in a trivial, playful manner. But get serious with it and the window on your mind is flung wide open. It’s like stepping up to the edge of a precipice, and preparing to absiel down into pitch darkness. How deep you go depends entirely on your own courage. The I Ching is as deep as your mind, and for any of us, that’s a very long way down indeed.

The I Ching describes a method of generating any one of sixty four so-called hexagrams – arrangements of six lines, the lines being either whole or divided, representing Yang or Yin respectively. This is the archaic core of the book, which archeological evidence tells us dates back to the overthrow of the Shang dynasty by  the Zhou, around 1000 B.C – though the book’s actual origins certainly pre-date this.

The I Ching has been interpreted and re-interpreted by scholars for roughly threehexagrams thousand years, and each of them have added to it their own particular slant on what  those sixty four hexagrams actually mean. But each of these scholars did this within  the social and political contexts of their own times, so the earliest interpretations can seem a little esoteric to more modern readers. Each generation has therefore sought to reinterpret the book within the context of their own times.

There are by now many interpretations and I probably own most of them. Because I like writing, it was inevitable I should have a go at interpreting the thing myself, the result of which was “The Hexagrams of the I Ching” which you can get a copy of for free from the margin of this blog.

So, anyway,…

What’s this all about then?

I settle down in the quiet of my study and I toss some coins,…

Michael Graeme


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I was sitting alone at a table at what was Alexander’s Brasserie, in Southport, one sunny Saturday afternoon. Those of you who knew this little place will perhaps share with me the memory of its unusual allure – a French cafe in Wayfarer’s, a beautifully glazed Victorian arcade just off the strangely Parisian boulevard of Southport’s Lord street. It was, for long time, a favourite little refuge of mine, vaguely foreign and yet at the same time easily familiar, somewhere to slip sideways,… to sit aloof from the crowd and yet be positioned curiously in their midstream.

My attitude that afternoon was not gloomy, nor was it entirely introspective. Indeed for a good hour I spun out my Omelette de Maison and my dainty Espresso thinking of nothing but the crowds that passed me by.

The cafe had a seating area under the high glass of the arcade, a sort of enclosure fenced off from the casual shoppers who carousel endlessly around it,… and who perhaps unwittingly provide one of its attractions. If you sit down for long enough in a place like that they say you will see the whole of life pass before your eyes. This is a strange notion, and at first quite puzzling. I’ve always understood it to mean that if you look closely enough you will see a metaphor for every possible aspect of life,… no answers perhaps,… just carefully phrased questions that will cause you to ponder your own place in the scheme of things. And this, I guess, is the allure of watching people.

I was aware, naturally, of the girls and their fashions – the bright peacocks of our kind. And to be sure, many a shapely body passed me by that afternoon, but where my eyes would once have rested with discreet admiration, I was suddenly aware only of the transience of youth. It’s perhaps a regrettable, but fairly obvious truth that the pert bottom of today’s teenaged girl will inevitably become the wrinkled buttock of tomorrow’s older woman.

There is a transience to our being which makes a nonsense out of what popular western culture teaches us to perceive as being beautiful and desirable, when it is but a snapshot of a point in time that cannot possibly be sustained. This is the culture of youth, of celebrity and the glossy media, and no lasting happiness can ever be gained from its pursuit. Indeed the only logical result of the adoration of these values is a permanent anxiety for their impending loss.
Ladies might seek to remedy their saggy bottoms with painful and expensive surgery and so prolong the illusion of their beauty well beyond their middle age. But it is entirely natural that such pertness should fade,.. and I believe we would do better to become more accepting of it.
So began the train of my thoughts that singular Saturday afternoon. And then as if reacting violently to this awakening, my thoughts at once leaped to the consideration of the opposite end of the scale, to those individuals popular culture would have us believe are no longer beautiful, those whose condition, it might be suggested, is not at all desirable. And this again is strange, for theirs is a condition to which we are all inevitably bound.
I’m speaking of the many old folks, stiffer, more angular, their gait not so graceful and the truth of their forms hidden under clothing designed more with practicality in mind than the exhibition of attributes they no longer possess. Some of them seemed to shuffle with eyes disconcertingly dulled by their lives. Then there were the rotund, scowling old dears with a permanent metaphorical grip on their frail husbands’ earlobes – husbands who’s industry-tired bodies seemed transparent, and bent, and wasted.
I searched those aged eyes for anything that might betray a secret knowledge, a knowledge that was perhaps gained only from the long experience of life itself, but I saw nothing. There was certainly no ethereal glow born of enlightenment and indeed there was in fact nothing to tell me that what I observed was anything more than an all to graphic illustration of the frailty of mankind, and the futility of our struggle in the face of nature.
From the time of pert bottoms, it seemed, there lay only a brief fluttering of angst before there loomed fragility and death. No, the meaning of our lives lay not in the contemplation of our physical condition, nor in the joys of our flesh. That was too fleeting a phenomenon for it to have any genuine relevance in the cosmic scheme of things.
Now this was really troubling because since the dawn of time there have been learned men who spoke of enlightenment – men whose mighty intellects have scoured the words of every age and culture for a magic formula. So what was it? Where was the fruit of their labour?
Of course no formula has ever been found, at least no serum to be injected en mass in order to induce a grand, collective enlightenment,… and those powerful intellects go the way of all flesh, eventually unfulfilled and, one might suspect, ultimately unenlightened. So the busy chase of learning was just as futile,… unless of course these scholars were tight lipped about their discoveries and took their secrets with them. But that seemed equally unlikely for in all the ages past, you’d think at least one of them would have blabbed it out: the secret to the meaning of our lives.
Then, added to the swirling carousel of life, there came families, their children in various stages of development, from blubbery babes in cumbersome buggies to the bright, alert eyes of pre-teen children, testing every nerve, every shred of patience of their middle aged parents. This was familiar ground for me,… these harassed mothers and fathers, always tired, a little unkempt due to having insufficient time for themselves, or even for each other – the complete sacrifice of one’s self for the creation of new life! I saw no ethereal glow in their eyes, only tiredness and the tight lined grimaces of a permanently simmering anger.
In my more cynical moments I have wanted to gather the pert bottoms and point out to them the disheveled parents who seem the only logical conclusion to the attractiveness of youth and the urge to partake of the pleasures of the flesh. Such is life, I’d say, and certainly it had begun to seem more and more like a process as ruthless and as cold as evolution. Was there no solace? Was there no profound satisfaction to be had even in the rearing of children? Well – and I speak from experience here – while it is true that in parenthood we discover an unselfish and instinctive love for our children, it is a love that we pay for in a currency that demands the negation of desire, clarity of thought, and contemplation of one’s self.
It did not seem altogether hopeful then, although I remained optimistic that a face would eventually present itself, however fleetingly, a face which, by look or gesture would convey a vital essence, a key that would unlock the riddle I had lately come to ponder: the true meaning of this carousel of life.
I saw a priest and my attention was at once arrested by his silvery white hair as he swept by. There was a stately grace in his movements which might have suggested an inkling of something, but the eyes cannot lie, and in them I saw as much self absorption, as much self doubt, and human pettiness as in the rest of us. Many would have turned to such a man, I thought, and no doubt he could have offered much in terms of ritual prayer, but for an old agnostic like me it was not a salve I needed, but a solution.
A waitress busied herself among the empty tables and obliged me with a friendly smile. She was very young and very pretty, with platinum blonde hair worn with all the natural softness of her youth. In another light she might have passed for the most desirable of women, but I guessed she was only sixteen or seventeen, her waitressing but a weekend job, and a break from her studies. In her face I saw promise and warmth, and hope. I saw a setting out and guessed she would not be waiting on tables when I next visited that cafe.
My own setting out had been like that, I thought, a sense of promise and hope, yet though I could not complain at the way my life had unfolded, my life had provided none of the answers I had sought for so long, and yielded instead only one vexed question after the other.
Perhaps in another thirty years the girl would be a woman sitting at this table pondering the slowly shuffling carousel of passers by, and where would I be then? Would I would be grey and transparent? Would I be a metaphor of another stage in life: the man who’d searched for something but gave up because he couldn’t find it,… or came to realise it wasn’t there at all?
Oh, how I hoped that would not be the case! Certainly, I would grow old and grey and bent – in simple biological terms, that was pretty much the best I could hope for – but I did not like to think of her eyes resting upon me and reading nothing. I would have liked to think she could look at me and realise that, yes, her life meant something,… that something in my eyes would betray the evidence of a deeper level to human experience, a level that the experience of my own life had revealed to me. And from that brief glimpse perhaps she might have gained a measure of encouragement, that the transience of her life, the fading of her youth, and the spreading of her cellulite did not exclude her from experiencing a profound understanding,… an understanding worth the searching and the living, and the dying for.
It had not been an expensive trip to Southport, which was unusual. Whenever I went with my family we always seemed to amass a weighty collection of carrier bags – metaphors themselves of the curious condition of our lives, the weight,.. the restriction, the sense of burden that our accrued goods instill.
My purchases that day were modest. All I’d bought in fact was a slim second-hand volume of poems from Broadhursts, the antiquarian booksellers, on Market Street. It was an anthology, a collection of verse written by members of the British armed forces at the time of the Second World War. It had cost me only a few pounds and yet it had granted me the priceless feeling of flight, of travelling light, of Zen-like simplicity and escape from those other burdened shoppers weighed down by their purchases, and by their lives.
What I would find in the book I did not yet know because for now it lay unopened at the side of my coffee cup. Its plain brown dust jacket and the wartime economy of its construction betrayed no particular flavour of its contents. And what could a book tell me anyway? If there was a book, a magical book that contained the formula of enlightenment, then surely it would be well known.
I did not even know what it was that had possessed me to buy it, other than its apparent contradictions – the idea that amid the horror and the filth of war, the human spirit could still find a voice, and resort to the uncommon and eternal beauty of poetry. It was a connection, I suppose, and lately I had grown fond of connections, fond of the idea of meaningful coincidences.
“Can I take your plate?”
It was the waitress, smiling again. The light in her eyes impressed me, for so many of our youths these days seem barely conscious, performing their movements without thought or enthusiasm, as if they’ve glimpsed the future in their dreams and it fails to animate them.
I thanked the girl and, with the plate gone from my little table, I was then able to slide the book in front of me and contemplate it properly. The dust jacket was in good condition, the book itself also undamaged. To a collector such things are important I suppose, but to a mere reader they can sometimes instill a sense of unease. The book had not been read much in the sixty years since its publication. Indeed it looked like it had lain undisturbed on shelves, possibly also behind sliding glass, its little poems, its slices of emotion unknown, untasted. Was this because they were not worth the effort? Or was it just that no one else had taken the time?
I’ve always liked poetry, though I do not always understand it. My taste in it is simple – some might say simplistic. I prefer the rhyme and rhythm of the verses I learned at Primary School – The Tyger Tyger and The Listeners, and The Land Where The Bong Tree Grows. Indeed some of the messages and fine emotion woven into the twiddly verse of our more revered poets, peppered as they are with unpronounceable names from classical antiquity, I find altogether too intimidating, too tedious. Nor do I understand the jarring brashness of contemporary work, which irritates me deeply, and which I always feel is sneering at my staidness and my stupidity.
I took a tentative flick through the book. There was rhyme and rhythm, and plain words. It seemed we would get on well! A closer look now revealed poems that dealt with battle, with death, with the Blitz, with thoughts on leave from the battlefront, on returning to units in far flung places. But two things immediately struck me as being of perhaps more value. These were not the types of puerile verse that dealt with the death-or-glory fantasy of war, nor did they expound nobly on its futility, but merely its matter of fact reality, and the emotions it aroused in the hearts of the whole spectrum of people who bore witness to it. Secondly it struck me that few of those people who contributed to the volume would actually have described themselves as professional poets. They were ordinary souls, taken from this carousel of life, put into uniform and sent out to do extraordinary things, to face extraordinary situations, including the possibility of their own death.
The poems were slices through the hearts of people, just like the ones milling around in the Wayfarer’s arcade on that Saturday afternoon. I closed the book and looked up at those people now with renewed interest. It was not much of a revelation I suppose, but of course each of those pairs of eyes on that shuffling carousel came with its own soul, each capable of conveying the impressions gleaned by its own experience.
I still have that book and nowadays I value its poetry in different ways, but there is not a single poem, nor line, nor even an isolated word that I can say has pointed me in the direction of anything new. The importance was the book itself, plucked as it was that afternoon from the shelves of Broadhursts bookshop, and its plain presence on the table in the cafe in Wayfarer’s Arcade,… a combination of events coming together and unlocking a single thought,… freeing up the rigidity of my own mind and forming a prelude for much that was to follow in the coming years.
We are rarely aware of the turning points in our lives, and only in retrospect do we sometimes see their importance. Then we might ask ourselves, how could we not have felt that change of course? How could we not have felt the sails, so long becalmed fill slowly with cool wind, and set us on our way?
I gathered up my book and left the waitress a tip, a token, from my hand to hers, and small payment for the changes brought about that day. Then I joined the crowds, and became aware of them more intensely than before. They were no longer a passive phenomenon. Indeed each pair of eyes, each soul seemed suddenly conscious of itself in relation to everyone else. Everyone was aware of themselves in relation to others, glancing at others, briefly judging their own state from the state of those they encountered, including me. We were all like little mirrors reflecting light, illuminating something for someone else. We were each of us reflecting images of each other, in whom we saw reflected images of ourselves.
We are each of us bound on different journeys, each of us possessing a different and seemingly unrelated purpose, but at a fundamental level we are the same, each of us an expression of the same tangle of energy that is seeking to know itself through us. Therefore we can never be alone in our quest. Help will come in many guises,… be it a dusty old book that we might previously have overlooked a hundred times, or the innocent smile of a waitress as she cleans tables in a cafe. Similarly, without knowing it we help others on their way, by an innocuous word or gesture, a kaleidoscope of reflection and connection.
The challenge for each of us is not the effort, nor less the intellect required in understanding the meaning of our lives, for that is unknowable. The challenge is more the opening of one’s self to the possibilities, and being always receptive to the connections.

Then the connections cannot help but be made.

Copyright © M Graeme 2008

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