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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

mariaThe paradox of human life is the evidence of its apparent pointlessness juxtaposed with our innate sense of infinite self worth. We are each placed at the very centre of our universe, yet we are able to make very little difference to it, and instead seem more often the victim of mischance or the misdeed of others. Thus, at times, we feel acutely vulnerable, afraid of injury or even annihilation.

We also find ourselves in a world pre-made by our collective forebears, a machine of rules, ideas and interactions whose mechanism is so complex it beggars all understanding, but whose purpose is more clearly the distribution of money and power – power over others, from whom the more powerful might extract money. Thus the machine defines its only measure of self-worth: money and power. The more you have the more successful you are. That the weak starve and whither is irrelevant. The machine must discard them. It has no choice. We are complicit in this inhumanity because of a self inflicted fallacy that it’s not our problem, or that somehow we cannot afford it, that there is not enough money for everyone born today to be allowed to live out the full span of their natural lives.

The bank is empty, the credit card maxed out – these being the simplistic metaphors used by politicians and the plutocratic machine minders to convince us of the need for a nation to “live within its means”, while at the same time facilitating the mass sequestering a nation’s means into the pockets of the predatory super-rich and powerful. Thus the machine mimics crudely the principles of natural selection, the evolutionary survival of the more well adapted being – in the machine’s case, adaptation being predicated purely on ego, cunning and greed. But unlike nature, which favours the proliferation or decline of a species at large, the machine produces only a small percentage of winners.

The rest, the losers can aspire only to the role of robotic serfdom, that is until the machine replaces them with actual robots, more perfect versions of the human being, at least in machine terms, in the way they function, for robots do not aspire to anything better than they are; they do not wonder about their purpose; they are not distracted by emotion, by cold, by hunger, by danger, by love. They do not require healthcare. We see now why the development of robots are so important to the machine – they are the perfect player in the “world-as-machine”, mirroring its deadness, a dead facsimile of a being for a dead world.

There was a picture in the newspapers this week of a gold plated super car. I mean, why settle for paint, when you can afford gold? The gold plated super-car is remarkably conspicuous. It is also a grotesquely apposite symbol of the end game of the world-construct as a money-game, when in those same cities we find broken and discarded people sleeping in doorways. But this is only to be expected since such mass economic casualties are written in to the machine’s code as a perfectly acceptable consequence.

As the machine automates its functions and increasingly delegates the human tasks to its robotic serfs, it is inevitable, according to machine logic, more of us will be discarded this way. And, since compassion is not a phenomenon that arises from machines, human beings who are not favoured among the rich and powerful cannot help but fare badly.

For all the shouting in this seemingly endless election season, I see no political solution to the machine’s excesses. The radical, humanistic policies necessary for averting such a grim, inhuman future are shredded daily by a psychological warfare of algorithmically targeted media falsehoods, ensuring our votes are for ever cast in the direction that is killing us.We cannot help ourselves. The machine has entered our blood, our bodies, our brains via the proxy devices we clutch daily to our bosoms, and through them it has infested us with its virulent nihilistic memes.

It is not unexpected, for it is a very ancient and human, and accurate observation that all things tend towards excess. They also contain within them the seeds of their own destruction, and the longer a thing stands, the greater the excesses it achieves, the more sudden and violent its downfall. The machine has facilitated an excess of inequality greater than the world has ever known. It is beyond obscenity, beyond systemic correction, beyond control, but will decay of its own accord, and I am not assured it will pass peacefully.

We cannot prepare for it, other than to make sure we are not so identified with the machine we are damaged by its disintegration. Materially of course, we will indeed be damaged – jobs, savings, welfare, all will be hit. But this is not our life. The machine world, though it seems all encompassing, is only the situation we exist in. Mentally, emotionally, life is elsewhere. It is in the stillness of our souls, it is to exist, to co-exist and to nurture both one’s own potential, and that of others. But the potential to what? What is the truest measure of doing well in the world? Is it really no more than a gold plated motor car? Is that the best we can aspire to?

When, in the near future, a robot looks upon the stars at night, it will do so only in terms of quantifiable data. How many stars? What type of star? It cannot transcend the data and be moved by the vision. The vision, the faculty of “being moved” is something distinctly human, born of the emotion and the imagination. It is a thing of the moment, a connection with that which is great and Godlike in all of us. So, if the world seems unrelentingly bleak and fractious and febrile right now, perhaps that’s because it is, and it remains so because we have lost the ability to imagine it any other way.

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philosophersWhat do we really know for sure? When it comes to defining the nature of reality there’s actually very little we can be sure of at all. I can even view my surroundings right now, and my presence in them as a dream, indeed I might as well for it’s impossible to prove things are otherwise. Even when I suffer I might be dreaming my suffering, and in the presence of others, I might be dreaming their presence. And the facts of the world, the laws by which it is governed may simply be the facts as I have invented them in the dream of the world, from the rising and the setting of the sun, to the swirl of atoms. As for the laws of physics not yet discovered, perhaps I merely invent them as I go along.

We learn from dreaming how malleable facts can be. The preposterous becomes true, not merely because we allow ourselves to believe it is so, but because the entire dream paradigm endorses it as such and so it becomes, at least within the bounding conditions of the dream, a verifiable fact. Often I will dream I have dreamed a dream before and only on waking realise the deceit, that I have not dreamed it before, that it was only a fact of the dream and only upon attaining an external perspective, by waking, do I realise the dream’s false nature.

Similarly in order to realise our false perceptions of the waking world, we must gain an external perspective, for only then might we know it for the illusion it either is, or is not. You might think this is impossible, that we are too firmly embedded in life in order to see our life in the third person. However, by a process of contemplation we can loosen our grip and achieve a somewhat abstract focus upon the world, sufficient to realise the only thing we can be certain of is the fact of our consciousness.

We are conscious.

There,… it’s a start.

And having realised it, there is a stage further we can go, already implied by the realisation, and this involves the realisation we are conscious of our consciousness, that we are self aware, and self reflective, and then it is only one more step to the realisation we can observe our thoughts as we think them, that we can become aware of ourselves thinking, that we are not in fact our thoughts, that another presence altogether is responsible for that sense of self awareness.

And this is who we really are.

This is a pivotal realisation for a human being, one that marks a separation of the true self, this sense of self awareness, from the thinking or the false self.

That we are not our thoughts.

Thinking does not reveal the underlying truth of anything. On those occasions when the mind approaches an axiomatic truth, it is noted how sophistication falls away, that insight is achieved
more by observation without judgement, and in stillness. In such moments truth is revealed as plain as a key, and truth is what lies behind the door it spontaneously unlocks, and is felt in the feeling tones of the experience.

In this way we come to realise there can be more truth in the fall of light upon a pebble than in the liturgy of all religions, and in the whole of poetry; it depends how you view it and where your heart is at the time. At all other times it’s just a pebble. Purple prose will not convey its essence, for the longer a name and the more adjectives and metaphor we deploy in its description, the less resemblance it bears to any truth we might have felt. Nor does the truth bear with it any sense of urgency. It does not hurry us along to some imagined goal. It does not speak of time running out. It does not measure or judge, but possess instead a spaciousness and a love in which to rest, unquestioning in the peacefulness of true insight.

Anything else is just the noise of the world.

So, what do we know for sure? Not much. But then we don’t need to know much to be certain of the single most important thing in the world. Indeed for that we don’t need to know anything at all.

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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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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The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The unnamable is the eternally real
Naming is the origin of all things
Free from desire, we realise the mystery
Caught in desire, we see only the manifestations
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source
The source is called darkness
Darkness within darkness
The gateway to all understanding

Carina NebulaSo runs the first chapter of the Dao De Jing, the seminal text of spiritual and philosophical Daoism. Although attributed by legend to the archetypal  and possibly mythical white-bearded sage figure Lao-tse, its true authorship is still debated. What is not in doubt is its antiquity – the earliest surviving versions thus far uncovered dating to around 300-400 BC, while tradition dates it much earlier to around 500-600 BC. In archeological terms its existence provides evidence of a remarkable awakening of a deeply spiritual, philosophical and self-reflective human consciousness – an awakening that seems to have taken place across many cultures, both east and west, around the same time.

The  Dao De Jing  is also a troubling text – just eighty one short, enigmatic verses that have been translated and interpreted in different ways. The above quote is from the opening of the Stephen Mitchell version which, although frowned upon by some scholars of Daoism, remains popular – perhaps, like the Dao de Jing itself – for holding more to the heart, than to the letter of an idea.

At first glance, the Dao De Jing reads like nonsense, and many of us will discard it as being too enigmatic for its own good. It’s only as we deepen psychologically and spiritually that more of the text begins to make sense. As children of a material and rigorously rational paradigm, we prefer our lessons delivered in plain words, our descriptions of reality literal, and our proofs of phenomenon to be demonstrated with an irrefutable logic. But the Dao De Jing suggests the ultimate nature of reality simply isn’t like that. This makes describing it in literal terms impossible, so the text uses paradox to provoke, twist and even to paralyse the mind into a logical impasse from which the meaning arises of its own accord, not as words but as visceral insights.

The unnamable is the eternally real. What’s eternally real is beyond language.  We know what it is, but not its nature. It is the ground of being, it is the gap in the perceivable quanta of the manifest world, but if we try to define it or even imagine it,  we limit our understanding to what we can perceive with the inadequate apparatus of the logical, thinking mind. It’s better then to have no mind, no convictions about the eternally real than any mind at all.

This is not to say the eternally real cannot be experienced. We are, after all, part of the ultimate nature of reality ourselves, our minds holographic reductions of a greater conscious whole. It’s through the mind therefore we can tune in, if we can first of all tune out the mind’s more daily preoccupations with material things or rational thoughts – for what we think about things is paradoxically our biggest hurdle to understanding any-thing at all.

If we can use our minds this way, and by a process of mindfulness seek nothing but the stillness in every moment, we might eventually glimpse the darkness of our immaterial self, and in so doing realise we can only be experiencing this self from the perspective of a deeper blackness, a more authentic all-encompassing formlessness that seems both self and no-self.

Impossible to define in intellectual terms this no-thing-ness is experienced as a sense of oneness, familiar and comforting as a passionate lover’s embrace. And with it comes the reminder this exquisite state is our most natural state, our own ground of being. It is who and what we really are – and we have merely forgotten it for a while, temporarily lost as we all are, in the world of forms.

Self in no self. Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

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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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Once upon a time I bought a house. It had been in my good lady’s family for generations, passed through the hands of several elderly relatives, and by the time it came to us it was in need of modernisation. One of the first jobs was to install double glazing. This required us to endure the peculiar methods of a long line of double-glazing salespersons, one of whom I remember, sat me and my good lady down in our front room and subjected us to a couple of  hours of death by Powerpoint presentation – or what passed for it back then.

His windows were terribly expensive, and we were so bamboozled by his convoluted facts we had no way of deducing if those costs were justified. What was also puzzling was that if we agreed to the installation, and then ten years later, on a certain day, if we rang a certain telephone number, we would get all our money back. What? Get our windows for free? How does that work then?

Whatever the merits of this scheme, we were so cross and impatient by the end of this presentation, I’m afraid to say we bundled the man out of the house without so much as a cup of tea. His departure was hastened, I recall, by my equally frustrated son, then about eighteen months old, hungry for his bedtime story,  hurling Thomas the Tank Engine books at him as he went.

The next salesman was a pony tailed, oily, orange tanned sort of man who drove a bright red sport’s car. My good lady was already bristling when he stepped over the threshold and he hadn’t said anything yet. But his speal was much more succinct than the previous chap – just a quick measure up, a brief explanation of the style and construction of the windows, then a straight forward price. I was astonished and relieved by how easy the process had been this time. I was astonished too by the price because it was a fraction of the other quotes we’d had, but now I was wondering to myself, how on earth they could do it for that? There must be a catch! Darn it, what shall we do?

I left it a few days, in the hope my intuition would guide me through what was quickly becoming a bit of a minefield, where logic and reason were no guarantees of avoiding a ripoff. So then I had the idea of  telephoning the pony-tailed salesman and politely asking him if I could just confirm a few facts about his windows – thinking to discover the catch as to why they were so inexpensive. But it was as if I’d insulted his mother. He became rude at once, even aggressive – calling me stupid, that I had sat for an hour while he’d explained all of this and now I had the gall to ring him up and ask the sort of basic effing questions I should have asked him before, when I’d had the chance,…

Yes, indeed. He was very rude. But I sensed something else was going on here, something I couldn’t see, something lurking under the surface, and rather than take his tone personally, get all cross and hurt, as perhaps I should have done, I took a step back inside myself, puzzled, and I tried to see the bigger picture.

There’s the story of a king who goes by night in disguise to seek the counsel of a humble monk. While in the presence of the monk the king assumes an air of deference, while the monk, a happy-go-lucky, ragged, impoverished character, teaches the king the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Then one night the king says, okay I’ve got all of that, but what I’m really struggling with now is this concept of the Ego. What is the ego? What’s that all about? At which the monk laughs, apparently in disbelief, and says what kind of a stupid question is that?

Of course at this point the king drops all pretence, calls the monk rude names, says he’s just a destitute monk and how dare he speak to the king like that? To which the monk says, now that, your majesty, is everything you need to know about the ego.

Returning to my rather more prosaic story about the double glazing salesman, I don’t know what caused that momentary gap to open up between what should have been my natural reaction of hurling back some retaliatory insults, before slamming the phone down and fuming in hurt and humiliation for the rest of the day, and what I actually did, which was to make a calmly reasoned guess at the likely truth of the matter:

He’d made a terrible mistake in the price he’d quoted me for those windows – and as far as commission went, all he’d be getting was a good telling off from his boss for the error. His only hope of recovering his position was if I didn’t take him up on the offer, which was by then already legally binding on his firm – so he insulted me, thinking to lever up the lid on my ego and give it a good slapping, then my ego would tear up the quotation – after all a sale lost was better than a sale he couldn’t afford. I thought about it, but then I took a risk that this peculiarly egoless entity I’d discovered lurking inside of me wasn’t too far off the mark; I forgave his bad language, and accepted his offer.

Double glazing companies come and go, proving like nothing else the Buddhist adage that all forms are impermanent. The firm who offered me that money back guarantee after ten years folded after just two – so I don’t suppose their magic money-back telephone number is still working now. The one that actually fitted the windows did better,  lasting around five years, but at least the windows they fitted are still looking like new after – oh, it must be fifteen years now.

I did see the pony tailed, orange tanned salesman again – he came to make some final measurements before the windows went in. I won’t say he had that tail between his legs, but he was a little sheepish. He did however have the good grace to apologise for his rudeness on the phone. I mumbled something about it being okay, that it sounded like he’d been having a bad day, and not to worry about it. He didn’t mention the price and I didn’t rub it in.

I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I trust he’s found a way of moving on. I’m sure there are those who enjoy manipulating egos in order to get what they want, but it sounds like a tiresome business, and dangerous too because a roused ego can cause a normally placid human being to become physically violent. But it can be dangerous too in that every now and then you’re going to come across someone who’s ego’s too sluggish to be of much use in your machinations, or it’s like smoke and only vaguely there at all, because then they might see through you and the best you can hope for when that happens is that someone genuinely lacking in ego would never think to hurt you.

Of course that I can look back on all of this and still feel a smug glow of satisfaction proves my own ego isn’t quite so far beneath the surface as I’d like to make out. I’ve a long way to go then along the path of spiritual realisation – sure I know that – but in my defence I’d also argue it’s better to have begun the journey even if I’ve got nowhere at all, than not realise there’s a journey to be made in the first place.

So, beware, once you start to lose your mind, you’ll discover there’s potentially as much wisdom to be found in ordering double glazing, as there is in the whole of the Tao Te Ching, that even men with orange tans and red sports cars can become, for a time, your most important gurus.

Good night all

Enjoy yourselves, but stay safe.

Michael.

 

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