Posts Tagged ‘power of now’

Burne Jones and WIlliam Morris 1874Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher, and a successful author. His books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth” have been devoured by a worldwide audience in search of that intangible “something” that is missing from our lives. Tolle brings together insights from all the world’s religious traditions and, for me at least, his success lies in his non-religious, transcendental approach to matters of mind, body and spirit, also to his humility and his engaging sense of humour. It’s no secret that Tolle has suffered from depression and anxiety, no secret either that his success is due also in part to the way he has dealt with his own mental illness.

In a society built on rationalism, determinism, and materialism, people who are mentally ill are not seen as reliable witnesses to the facts of life, at least not usually by those who control the gateways to employment, and financial remuneration. But if we think about it for a moment, the statistics suggest one in five of us have or will suffer from a mental illness. Then, since 80% of mental illness goes undiagnosed, this suggests very nearly one in five of us doing valuable work right now is already mentally ill, yet managing to hold the place together somehow – so we can’t be that unreliable either, can we? What’s even more interesting is that by implication, statistically, probably one in five of those people who hold mental illness low regard, are themselves mentally ill.

As a student in England, Tolle, suffered terribly from feelings of anxiety and depression. One night he lay down so overcome, he told himself he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly, this is the fate of many – an illness held in secret, ending suddenly with a tragedy that leaves others shocked by its unexpectedness. But what happened to Tolle was not what usually happens. He experienced an inner separation and an insight that was to be the catalyst of his life’s work. I’m paraphrasing here but he asked himself something to the effect of: who is the self that cannot live with my self any longer? The self he could not live with, he concluded, was the bit he associated with the pain, the egoic self. And he reasoned that the essential part of “Tolle”, indeed of all of us, was something else, something above, and not part of the pain.

He went on from this potentially fatal moment to become a teacher, counsellor, and an engaging life coach to millions. His teachings are all over the place – on Youtube, in books, DVD’s, lecture tours. I find in them much that explains the highs and lows of the lives of human beings, but the story of Tolle is itself an inspiration, demonstrating that mental illness does not invalidate anyone from playing a constructive or even a leading role in society.

Yes, we’ll sometimes have a hard time from ignorants and materialists who think the brain is a computer made of meat, and that a part of our brains have gone rotten. But our brains are not rotten. You cannot diagnose mental illness from a brain scan. Our brains are like everyone else’s. There are no bits missing. What mental illness does, however, is it puts us on the edge of something, thrusts us into the depths of an unknown, even at times a frightening inner realm, but the stories we bring back from that place are important – not only for our own healing, but the healing of others like us. So tell the Internet your stories. Use your creative faculties.Get a blog, get a Flikr account, and get busy.

I spoke last time about the three vessels of being – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – and how attention to any one of them can help maintain the others and restore us to ourselves. Creative expression is very much concerned with the mental life, and is the most natural channel for the otherwise jagged and ferocious energies of mental illness. So many artists and larger than life celebrities are mentally ill, yet they are also possessed of the most remarkable abilities. So, write it, journal it, paint it, doodle it, tell it in poetry, sculpt it, and learn by it. Through creative expression we turn something negative into something positive and, as we give external shape to what has up ’till now been only an internal, mental thought form, we realise it is not who we really are at all, that pain. It dwells within us, yes, and it looks like that, but it is not who we are.

The search for who we are is the same as the search for our life’s meaning, whether we are suffering from a mental illness or not. But that you suffer can be interpreted as a sign you sense there is something vital missing from the world, that your inability to fit in with it is more a reluctance to dance with a partner who is not of your choosing. Again, one in five of us will at some point suffer from a mental illness. It is not our fault if society has difficulty in accommodating that fact, or in facing up to the question it begs regarding the nature of society, and the direction it is moving in. But neither can we blame society for its ignorance if we do not tell it how we feel.

Do not say how can I live with myself? but say instead who is the self that cannot live with my self. And in separating yourself from the pain, go seek instead the self you want to be.

I leave the last word on this to Eckhart Tolle:

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The way of the soul is not a straight line. It’s more of a spiral whose focus is centred very much in the core of the mysterious completeness of our being. We find a reference in a book and it fascinates us for a while, but our monkey mind moves us on before we’ve got to the bottom of things. Then we find ourselves, years later, turning up that same reference, that same idea once more, as if it were again the most precious thing, and we have made no progress in the intervening time at all. But if we think about it, we’ll realise, this time around, we are a little more receptive, we make a little more headway, move a little deeper in. Perhaps we weren’t ready before; it was just a passing glimpse, something interesting, or even useful for a time, but ultimately beyond our grasp – until now when we come full circling back. Again.

Seeking the soul in our selves requires a degree of stillness. Attaining stillness we are able to observe life from a detached perspective and make more considered judgements without the anxiety of being bound up in the seemingly ruthless flow of time. If we have attained stillness, we can extract ourselves, even in the midst of crisis, and see things unfolding that we might otherwise miss, so when we are brought to act we do so more skilfully. And it is through stillness the soul speaks most clearly to us, through stillness, her wisdom is more readily integrated into the pattern of our thoughts and our lives so that at times we act spontaneously, in ways we do not understand, but which we know are right.

The meditative arts all seek to attain this prize of inner stillness. The mind becomes calm, the obscuring sediment of our thoughts settle out, and we regain clarity. Clarity feels calm. It feels like an hour plucked out of the split second, allowing us to observe the world with a mindful detachment even as we are carried along with it. But finding stillness isn’t easy, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Chinese art of Zhan Zhuang.

Attaining stillness through Zhan Zhuang is one of those ideas I encountered some years ago, and to which I now find myself full circling back in search of a greater familiarity and depth. Zhan Zuang, or standing like a tree, is a unique form of qigong, taught for thousands of years. The tree stands still, rooted in the earth, unmoving, yet by imperceptible degrees it grows strong. The method was brought to the west by Lam Kam Chuen, whose book “The Way of Energy” has been a long time resident of my little library. I touched upon it briefly, once, extracted some knowledge from it to incorporate in my own varied and somewhat half-assed practice. Now though, via a chain of serendipitous events, I find myself exploring Zhan Zhuang anew.

What better way to attain stillness than by literally standing still?

Why would we do this? What use is stillness in a fast moving world? What use is it to retreat into the mindful moment when to truly engage with the roller coaster of human affairs can be so exhilarating? Well, there are times when that roller coaster makes us ill, and then it’s wise to step aside from it for a while. But the roots of stillness go much deeper.

Although we are each of us a unique individual, filled with our own promise, there is another side to us, more primitive, one that is less thinking and feeling. This is no more apparent than when we enter the noisy crowd of our fellow man and become once more a pack animal surfing the psychological tides of the collective will. The violence of crowds is well known, that the shadow of man is more easily provoked when we run in large numbers. In such situations, we can find ourselves doing and saying things that would be unthinkable were we in that slower time of solitude. We can become spiteful, violent, racist, bigoted,… a crowd can even commit murder, and feel itself justified.

But to develop stillness is to install a safety fuse, a thing that blows of its own accord, allowing us to distance ourselves from the unskilful excesses of the instinct driven-crowd. It gives us back to ourselves, it teaches us to recognise again our own face in the midst of noise, that we are the awareness behind the chatter of our thoughts, that we are the stillness upon whose shoulder sits the monkey mind. We are in short the voice that takes us out of the crowd when the crowd is moving in the wrong direction.

During Zhan Zhuang, the monkey mind is forced into a more intimate awareness of the sensations of the body and of the breath, leaving it little opportunity for flitting through the treetops, swinging on the vines of one associative thought after the other. To stand still for thirty minutes – as still as a tree – is a thing I have yet to manage. Indeed it takes great determination, more determination than I as yet possess. But even in much smaller doses, it’s one of the most powerfully energising forms of qigong I know.

Noise and movement come easily to us. Indeed they seem so integral to our way of life, the vacuum of stillness is disturbing to us now. Attaining stillness is hard, and finding it in the modern world is vanishingly rare, but it’s important we don’t lose touch with it because it’s thorough stillness we realise more accurately the way of the soul, and become, in the same breath, more essentially human.

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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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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.



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I recently heard about this thing called Generation X. They are basically people born between 1961 and 1981 and, unlike the baby boomers who preceded them, and  knew at least a decade or so of optimism, Generation X has known only a long period of  decline, which after a brief blip of money grabbing madness in the mid 1980’s has been accelerating into economic oblivion  ever since. For Generation X, there is less of everything than there was yesterday, less opportunity, less work, less money, less confidence, less hope. I’m not a sociologist and I don’t know if this is true – I trust it’s not, but Wednesday’s news didn’t exactly offer any hope.

France is currently crippled by strikes, has run out of fuel, and is about to run out of electricity. Ordinary people have taken to the streets to protest at the austerity measures which seem targeted at them rather than the high flying cocktail-swilling idiots who brought the global economy to its knees. The last I heard they were about to send in “specialist” police teams to break the blockades. Vive La France!

Here in the UK we can’t be bothered. Even though we’ve just been hit with the most draconian cuts in public spending since the 1940’s, and the futures of even the most hard working and hard saving citizens are now well and truly screwed (well perhaps theirs in particular) we somehow feel in our bones that resistance is useless – not that we can’t admire the sheer Gallic ire of our brothers and sisters across the channel – we are apathetic, so the richest in our society continue to get richer. It’s a simple fact that the moral standing of any nation can be judged by the standard of living and the life expectancy of the poorest of its citizens, not its richest. In the grimmest of regimes the rich will always be comfortable, yet as Blake taught us: the dog starved at its masters gate, predicts the ruin of the state.

Anyway,… I had all this on the hourly BBC news bulletins,  on my way to Coventry last Wednesday. It was a grim commentary for a grim run down a grim stretch of motorway. I’d hired a car, and the day-job had let me out to visit a conference and exhibition at the impressive Ricoh Arena. It’s a journey of about a hundred miles down the M6 which, even at a sedate speed should have taken me no more than a couple of hours. It actually took me four, locked into a convoy of  heavy goods vehicles that spent more time in park mode than actually moving anywhere.

Richard Hunter, the hero in my novel “Durleston Wood” calls the M6 the conveyor of the living dead, a dreary motorway, the most congested in the UK, along which has shuttled generations of business travelers.

Anyway, sitting in park mode around Cannock, my ETA nudging ever further away from me, I had another first hand glimpse of Eckhart Tolle’s insight – namely his power of now. At one time a journey like that would have left me so screwed up at the end of it I’d’ve been fit for nothing, let alone traipsing around an industrial exhibition for a couple of hours and making some intelligent analysis of current trends, before driving home again. Anxiety, tension, frustration,… all of these things make you want to grip the steering wheel and scream. But that’s only because your mind’s running ahead and asking all those what if’s. What if I don’t make it in time? What if I can’t find my way at the end of this nightmare? What if? What if? What if?

But then I heard that wise old voice asking me: “what’s wrong with the present moment?” and I had to say, well, nothing master. I was sitting in the plush interior of a brand new (hired) Peugeot 308, new car scent, delivery mileage, and when I had the sense to turn the radio off,  I was able to listen to a podcast from Frisky Radio, sexy rhythm, lovely vocals. There was nothing I could do to change my situation, so I had to be accepting of it. Anything else was simply illogical. Pulling myself back into the now, the anxiety disappeared, and I actually arrived at Coventry after four hours in decent frame of mind.

That said, after 30 years of cruising the M6, I have to agree with Richard Hunter, it really is the Conveyor of the Living Dead – especially that bleak old stretch through the midlands.

Anyway, a little poem of mine from way back when:


What are you doing business man,
So far away from home,
With trouser legs all wrinkled,
As you sit there on your own?

Customers in Newcastle?
Board meeting in Slough?
Then four hours traffic hotel bound.
What are you doing now?

Fish and chips at Corley,
On the M6 motorway,
And a quick read of your paper,
At the ending of the day?

And is your paper comforting?
Somewhere to hide your eyes?
To keep your thoughts from straying,
From that corporate disguise?

Or are you really unconcerned,
And merely passing through,
Oblivious to the rest of us,
Who barely notice you?

Your wife, your kids, forgotten,
In some bland suburban place,
Her parting kisses fading fast,
Upon your weary face.

A ‘phone call from the hotel,
On the ten pence slot machine.
“Hi Hun. I’ll see you Friday.”
“Keep it hot – know what I mean?”

Or is it not like that at all?
No solace from the roar?
Just passion grabbed like fast-food,
With a wolf outside the door?

Meanwhile you sit there don’t you?
Indigestion on the run,
A headache from the red tail lights,
And the week barely begun.

Still four hours traffic hotel bound.
A nightmare in the rain.
With just an Aspirin in your pocket,
To soak away the pain.

October 1992

Good night all, and keep safe.




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