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Posts Tagged ‘nature of reality’

southport beachI didn’t see the figures on the sands when I took this picture. I was more interested in seeing how the polarising filter would help bring details out in the sky, while leaving the sands recognisable as, well,… sands. It was only later when I put the picture up on the bigger screen of my PC, then cropped and zoomed,  other details became apparent, and the ghosts emerged.

No, I didn’t know they were there, I don’t know who they are, and of course I don’t know where they are now. They’re simply gone. But for that moment, at 14:53 hours and 53 seconds on the 17/2/2013,  they were everything, creating a living harmony out of what is otherwise nothing.

I get this same eerie philosophical melancholia from watching crowds. There are so many of us alive, and each life of infinite importance to itself, each of us viewing the universe from the centre of ourselves in a uniquely different way.   But for me there’s something about the lone figure or a small group of figures set against a vast landscape that turns up the wick, and applies a more intense heat to the question of what it is to be human in the world.

On the one hand the seeming smallness of our presence can make the individual life appear worthless and futile, while on the other it might be said it’s in the very uniqueness of our  perspective there lies a value that goes beyond the material –  that it’s in adjusting to this perception of ourselves, and seeing more clearly through what one might call the eye of spirit,  we each have the potential to realise the preciousness that is the individual life lived well, no matter how fleeting and superficially futile that life might appear to be.

I’m reading Field and Hedgerow by Richard Jeffries at the moment. Jeffries (1848-1887) was a small-town English journalist, essayist and novelist, who, after labouring long in obscurity, became quietly popular in the late Victorian period. Another of his works “The Amateur Poacher” has been my companion since childhood, and I still find much in him to admire. His particular forte was nature mysticism. To say Jeffries revered nature doesn’t quite get to the point of him, though revere it he most certainly did. Here was a man who could look at  a grain of sand under his fingernail and tease the meaning of life from it  – all without the aid of opium –  but he was careful not to over-romanticise – being conscious and respectful of the red-in-tooth-and claw dimension of nature as well. He was also a man who saw more of God in a Greek statue than in the whole of King James.

Stay with me, this is relevant.

lilithOf course we’re not all blessed with the divine attributes of a Greek statue, and I suppose Jeffries was getting at more than seeing a literal image of “God as deity” in hominid physiology. What the Classical Greeks saw in the human form, Jeffries hints at in his various works, while the rest of us cover it with loincloths for modesty, mistake it for a perverted Eros, and childishly titter at it. What is it? I don’t know, but if you’ll allow me a moment’s nudity, I can gaze for ever at John Collier’s Lillith (Atkinson Memorial Gallery, Southport UK), and see more than just her bosoms. There’s a ghost in her, and like my figures in the landscape, she gives me pause.

Getting back to the subject of nature, in “Field and Hedgerow” Jeffries writes of an unemployed farm labourer rejecting the grim soulless state-handout sanctuary of the Workhouse and choosing instead to survive the winter living rough, sleeping in out-buildings, finding what few scraps of charity he can from the farm wives. Jeffries suggests that in his struggle to maintain a personal dignified independence, against the rigours of nature, there is something noble, even Godlike about him.

Nature is impassive, impervious to our complaints. The rain falls and the frost bites regardless of our wishes, or the quality of our clothes. Still, on a sunny day, when the butterflies come out, you can look for God in it, a God that transcends deity, as the Romantics would say. Indeed when it’s not inflicting pain upon us, there’s enough stillness and sublime beauty in nature to see projections of all sorts of things. But whatever we discover, compassion will not be among its qualities.

In my  photograph, the tide is out. Three hours later it would be in, and the small lives that had scampered across the sands that afternoon would have to scamper for safety or be washed away. The beach is also known for quicksand. An unwary figure going down in them could not rely upon nature, or the gods, for deliverance. For the survival of calamity, or nature’s worst excesses, we’re always going to need the compassion and the selfless intervention of other human beings. We might pray to our deities but it will be another human being who pulls us from the mire, offers reassurance at our tremblings, and a hot cup of  tea to soothe away the aftershocks.

Some might take this as evidence the Divine works through us, that our capacity for compassion is a manifestation of the ineffable at work in the world. I’m coming to the same conclusion. It was Jeffries who taught me you don’t find God in mere deity, (Story of my heart), but only through a higher form of soul-life. And, incredible, as it seems, the fact remains that in a world apparently on fire, torn apart by the darker side of our natures, it’s only in human beings we find the contrary, even paradoxical evidence of a divinely transcendent and infinitely compassionate dimension, a dimension, the existence of which, is the only thing worth all the living and the dying for. If we are to understand the value of the individual life, no matter how fleeting or anonymous, like my figures in the landscape, we must first do what we can to nurture a compassion for the lives of others, and trust we’ll find it in others when we’re most in need of it ourselves.

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“Hey, You a dreamer?”

“Yeah.”

“Haven’t seen too many of you around lately. Things have been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming’s dead; no one does it anymore. It’s not dead, it’s just that it’s been forgotten. Removed from our language. Nobody teaches it, so nobody knows it exists. Dreamers are banished to obscurity. I’m trying to change all that, and I hope you are too. By dreaming, everyday. Dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced, ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. Things have just started.”

I’ve been listening to these words for weeks now. They’re embedded into an eclectic mix on a podcast from an internet radio station I discovered some years ago, and whose combination of trance and ambient chill-out I more or less listen to exclusively these days*. Anyway. I did some detective work, took the phrase: They say dreaming’s dead; no one does it anymore, fed it into the Google box and out popped references to the Kleptones who worked the reading I’ve been listening to into their 2006 concept album, 24 hours, but there were also references to the original dialogue which was lifted from a film called Waking Life (2001) by Richard Linklater.

I don’t know what I was doing in 2001, but this film passed completely under my radar, and I’m sorry it’s taken me over a decade to catch up with it. You’ll find clips on You Tube, but I wanted the whole experience so I ordered it from Amazon for the princely sum of £4.00 (including postage), and I watched it last night.

I found it mesmerising, but also puzzling that it should surface now because it deals with a lot of stuff that’s running around in my head at the moment, and which I’m trying to get a firmer handle on in order to make way in my own inner life. It resonates because I’m dreamer. I dream with my mind and with my hands. Dreams are great liberators, but they can puzzle or enlighten in equal measure. They can also be disturbing if we’re not ready for what they have to say, and they can make us ill, if we repeatedly ignore their warnings.

The film uses the phenomenon of lucid dreaming as a vehicle for exploring the nature of reality – a lucid dream being  the kind of dream where you wake up in your dream, and become lucid. Lucid dreams are a rare and startling faculty of the human psyche. The dream world, normally vague and passively experienced, is suddenly focussed by the conscious ego into a tangible alternate reality, one in which you can interact with the dream-scape, and change it. You can engage with the characters in your dream, ask their advice, respond to them, make love to them. A lucid dream can be a life-changing experience.

Personally, I don’t dream lucidly, but I do record my ordinary third person dreams, and sift the imagery in a Jungian way for clues as to how I might improve my outlook on life. There’s been enough strangeness in my ordinary dreams – false awakenings, and the occasional bizarre occurence of frustratingly banal precognition – for them to be at least suggestive of the existence of an imaginal plane outside of time, one we might actually inhabit all the time, without our knowing. And that’s without getting into lucid dreaming.

Anyway.

For anyone who’s ever asked questions about the nature of dreams and reality, you’ll find them all in this quirky little movie – the questions, not the answers. But in this field, you don’t need answers. Just asking the right questions can change the way you see the world. I thought the film was a beautifully crafted discussion piece, a gem of art-house animated movie-making –  thought provoking, astonishing, and – well – dream-like.

Without spoiling anything, the main character in the film arrives in a town that’s familiar to him, but which has also taken on certain odd qualities. The characters he meets seem intensely hung up on existential matters – from college professors to ordinary people in the street – they all have something to impart to him regarding the nature of reality. At intervals, he wakes up and realises he’s been dreaming all of this. But these are false awakenings – the kind where you think you’ve woken up and gone through your normal routine to start your day, only to find yourself waking up again, that you’d simply dreamed waking up. Each successive false awaking, plunges our character deeper into the dream. By now he knows he’s dreaming, realises he’s fully lucid and able to participate in the dream world. He wonders if in fact he’s dead, wonders how he can escape and finally wake up,…

Dreams feature a lot in my stories, either as a means of passing on a vital insight to one of the protagonists, or more full on, as a means of slipping out of one reality and entering another. In the past there’s been a tendency in fiction to rely on some form of technology to do this for us, to open the doors to other worlds – fantastic machines to make all things possible. But lately I sense things are changing, that our collective love affair with technology is coming to an end and what we’re heading for is a period of collective navel gazing in order to work out what it is we want from our lives. This might take some time. Indeed, it’s a process that can take a life-time, but I think it’s also healthy. It’s when we deny the objective reality of our dream life that the trouble starts. You don’t need fantastic machines to be at the cutting edge of reality, all you need is a working knowledge of the one thing we were all born with. Our mind.

Dreaming isn’t dead. It’s just that nobody teaches any more, so nobody knows that it exists.

There are still plenty of technologists out there of course, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and to some extent, in my day-job, I’m one of them, but they’ve also got a lot of people these days looking over their shoulders, scrutinising what they’re doing – and not everyone’s happy with what they see. Technology is a tool and like all tools it can work wonders. It has the potential for doing a lot of good, but it can also be destructive, and are we wise to trust in it as much as we do when, in our technologically sophisticated world, there are still people dying for want of a clean drink of water? There’s no point being technologically sophisticated when we’re also morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We have to recognise technology for what it is, and that if we don’t also use our brains, it can be worse than useless. The brain – or rather the mind – has to be the starting point. It’s where we came from, and where we all ultimately return – or if the premise of the film “Waking Life” is to be believed, it’s somewhere we never actually leave. But whatever the truth of it, I think that in order to fully realise our potential, we have to look at what the mind can offer us, what doorways it can open up, if only to make us all better people. And we can do that by dreaming.

“Dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced, ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive.”

Maybe things have just started.

I hope so.

Goodnight all.

(I think I’ll watch it again)

* Frisky Radio

** The picture accompanying this post is by the German artist Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942)

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The true nature of reality?

Human reality may be exactly what it appears to be: a fragile existence on a rock in space, a speck of life born out of a biological accident, with all our self-conscious ramblings on the meaning of it amounting to nothing when the bag of bones we think of as our body finally quits on us. I may be wrong, but I imagine few of us are comfortable with this idea. Speaking for myself, if that’s the point of it, then it might as well be done with now as at some point in the future and I’d rather my genetic material found some other way of furthering its greedy existence without dragging me along after it and making me think I’m important when I’m not.

Fortunately I’ve come to believe there’s more to things than this, and my voyages into the greyer areas of reality have led to a more positive and optimistic outlook, rather than a negative one. And that’s without getting into religion.

A certain kind of psychologist will smile sagely at all our fanciful musings and tell us we are unconsciously afraid of death and would rather not face the pointlessness of life, so we invent scenarios in which “magic” becomes a part of our reality, thereby granting us the deluded notion of an escape route – reincarnation, heavenly realms, or some other form of personal psychical continuation of life after death. Magical, mysterious mysticism is thus demoted to the level of a childish coping-mechanism.

In my case,  there’s nothing unconscious about it – of course I fear death and I agree speculation on the magical or mysterious aspects of reality may be a coping-mechanism. If so, they are a very effective one  because I feel better about myself and my place in the universe when I explore these things.  I’m also convinced there’s more to them than wishful thinking.

There’s more to my conviction than deluded zeal, as anyone of an open and enquiring mind can surely testify. There are many clues that suggest the nature of reality isn’t so hard and cold as the materialists tell us. In fact its edges are fuzzy, and you don’t need to be religious to find them. I might even go so far as to say a religious perspective is the last thing that’s going to help you. In religion we say our lines, we conform to the group-speak, consider ourselves holier than the Jones’ if we go to church more often than they do, or we feel guilty if they go more than we. As for belief, well,  we trust the vicar knows what he’s talking about and leave it at that. That’s religion. But, if you want to know, really know then you have to blow the dust off the history of the world and you have to examine the experiences of ordinary people.

A certain kind of biologist will tell you the mind – the thing that makes you think you are you – is  confined to that lumpen grey organ called the brain and when the brain stops working, the illusion of you vanishes without a trace. This is the conventional view. It’s a safe position to hold, but when you start to dig you realise the truth is more complicated. A century of study has yielded a tidal wave of evidence that tells us the mind extends beyond the brain, that it can sometimes see around corners. It seems there really is such a thing as ESP, and people sometimes really do experience moments of precognition, and moments of heightened awareness in which time dissolves and all things become one  – like the mystics tell us.

But nothing in this fuzzy realm is certain. ESP can only be demonstrated as a general effect in a large group of people, but when it comes to specific individuals, ESP is difficult to reproduce on demand. It exists, but it cannot be reliably demonstrated in front of a body of hardened skeptics aiming at the gold standard of a peer reviewed publication. The same goes for precognition and so called mystical experiences: they cannot be dialled up, nor paraded for inspection.

What use is it then? We know these things exist, but for all practical purposes, they might as well not.

For me it’s enough we are given the occasional glimpse behind the curtain, for the reassurance it grants us that the cold, hard, physical reality we see is not everything there is. Personally I’d rather not live in a world where magical things are the stuff of every day experience. I don’t want others to know routinely what is inside my head because, like the contents of my diary, I would fear their misinterpretation. Similarly, I would not like the ability to see inside of yours, for fear your thoughts might be hurtful to me.

The most I think we can say for certain is that there is more to the mind than the brain. If we go one step further, we could also speculate, with some justification, that the mind’s ability to exceed it’s apparent biological boundaries suggests it might also capable of some form of psychical existence independent of them. What that tells us about the nature of reality, or the survival of the personality after death is anyone’s guess. Beyond this point the speculation becomes ever more tenuous, and we risk falling over the fuzzy edge of reality into a void that is impregnable to the human intellect – and where our only recourse is to invent stories.

So far as our personal, tangible, non-fuzzy reality is concerned, it seems to be defined by the choices we make. Whether those choices will lead us to happiness or to misery is very much dependent upon what our motives are when we make the choices. A certain kind of thinking will lead us towards a happier and more contented kind of life. Material circumstances are irrelevant: we might be rich, we might be poor, but material wealth is not a goal in itself, and story books are full of moral tales that teach us how its pursuit can lead to personal ruin if we’re not in firm control of ourselves in other ways first. So, while the true nature of reality remains largely hidden from us, there is a feeling the best way of approaching it is to discover what that “certain kind of thinking is”, and to practice it.

Like many of my generation, I’ve come at this down a long, rocky road, through the distilled essence of three thousand years of eastern philosophy, dimly grasped but enough I think to shine a light into my own little corner of the world. I can hazard a guess then at what that certain kind of thinking is, and when I’m struggling I have the eccentric option of consulting the I Ching – which usually puts me straight. For many of course this will seem barking mad. It’s just my way though, and you must find your own. But however we come at it, you can take all the words that were ever written on this subject and disregard them because a lady called Beatrix Potter summed it up long ago in this delightful quote:

“All outward forms of religion are almost useless and are the causes of endless strife. Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.”

You heard the lady. Just be congnisant of the fact that there’s something there.  It’s intentions are benign, and beyond that you don’t need to think about it much at all. Just behave yourself and never mind the rest. Behaving yourself is the tricky part of course, and working out what it means is possibly the one thing you were were born to do.

Graeme out.

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