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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Triumph of Death - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - 1562No matter how fortunate we are in life, it’s a challenge to be grateful, a challenge to be at peace. Rather, we seem programmed more towards irritation, scornfullness, and resentment of anything we perceive as threatening to our sense of control. The peace we crave is for ever elusive, and all we’re left with is the craving.

I’ve noticed this with older, retired people, people I look at and think: how fortunate to have left behind the day-job, the mind-numbing commute. Their kids have flown, they have all the time in the world now to simply be; they can lie in of a morning, shuffle round Tescos, or the garden centre, or read a book, watch TV. Heavens, how blessed to have all that time and space to finally decompress! But there can be nothing more ornery than the older, retired person, a person with nothing to worry about, because in the absence of real troubles, we invent them.

Me? I’ve had a choppy week this week. My vehicle was issued a recall notice by the manufacturer for transmission problems. I made a difficult journey to the dealership – time off work and all that – to be told the recall is not actually a recall, and though there’s definitely a problem with my transmission there’s nothing they can do without it costing me a lot of money. Then I was soldering a piece of wire, and a ball of red hot flux spat out, landed on my specs, crazed the lens precisely in my line of vision, so I need new specs and, in the mean time, have two weeks of squinting around this damned fog-patch while my new specs are delivered. And this is just the start. I could go on and on about all the damned stuff that’s happened this week, but it would only try your patience, and mine.

We all have weeks like this. And if I’m calm and rational about it, I can see how all of these problems are either surmountable in time, or more simply irrelevant in the great scheme of things. But still, the pain-body relishes them, creates out of them the illusion of things clustering, like pack-dogs, circling, attacking.

It was  Eckhart Tolle, who first coined the phrase “Pain body”. It exists not in a literal sense, but more as a psychological complex and therefore real enough to cause us harm if not checked. It thrives on negative emotion and is sadly the default state for most people.

At the car dealership, I regret being less than civil, regret expressing my exasperation. I regret also cursing on the way home, genuinely believing there was not one person of competence in the world willing or even remotely able to deal with anything I could not deal with myself. But this was stupid; it was arrogant. It was my pain-body speaking, my pain body thinking, my pain body being stupid. But this does not excuse it, for a man is no less a fool for allowing himself to be ruled by his pain body.

Stuff happens, sometimes even all at once, and we deal with it. Then something else happens – that’s life. But at times of sinking spirit, of flagging energy, we find ourselves braced, walking on eggshells, wondering, what the F*&k next? So here I am, nearly two decades of mindfulness, of Tai Chi, of meditation, of walking the path towards self awareness, whatever the hell that means, and it all falls away. Once more, there stands my hideous, wrinkled old pain body, unscathed, pleased by my suffering over nothing.

To subvert the pain body we must starve it of what it most craves. To do this we first make space within ourselves. A single breath is a start, we breathe in, and as we breathe out, we try to sense the energy field of the body. It sounds la-di-da fanciful, but if we can only imagine it this way, I find it’s helpful. And in rediscovering the spaciousness in the energy body, it’s as if we have dodged behind a tree, and the pain body can no longer find us. It’ll catch up with us eventually because it’s a dogged little parasite, but it’s helpful to know we can at least evade it from time to time.

A permanent solution requires a more permanent connection, or rather it requires a particular kind of connection and, you know, I can’t remember what that is because it has no shape, nor any words to describe it. It is a state of grace, and I cannot find my way home to it. Nor does it help that the world today is presented as being so full of pain, that indeed even the leadership of entire nations is in the hands of Pain Bodies. Their sub-level vibrations are infectious, forming a global pandemic, a contagion to which we are all vulnerable.

Thinking of a solution only gets us so far. It brings us to a gate, and the gate is secured by a puzzling combination of locks. The locks draw our attention because the mind likes to solve puzzles, and we are programmed to expect to have to puzzle or think our way through the world. But what we fail to notice is there’s no wall either to the left or the right of the gate. We are too distracted by the puzzle – which is in any way unsolvable – to have noticed we can simply walk around it.

Faith in anything, in particular the supernatural, in magic, the esoteric might be comforting for a while, but it’s unreliable and without that connection it falls away at a moment’s notice, leaving us naked and vulnerable at a time when we think we most need it. Even memories of particularly charged and numinous past events fade, causing us to question our experience of the mysterious side of life, and before he knows it even the monk is shaking his fist at the moon.

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PS_20150130152500I was driving home and had pulled up to the line, waiting for a space so I could nose my way onto the roundabout. It was busy, it being that time of night we used to call the rush hour but which now lasts from 4:00 pm ’til 7:00. It was wet, dark, and I was tired. The traffic was fast, unyielding. I settled down to wait for a gap, but I was disturbed by the flashing lights and the honking horn of a van behind me. It yanked itself out into the neighbouring lane, looking for a squeeze past, much to the consternation of those drivers already in that lane. Just then, a gap appeared on the roundabout, so I moved into it and cautiously joined the flow. Then the van came by and I saw a fierce-faced man giving me the finger.

Had I been a bit overcautious in moving off and thus sorely tested his patience? I really don’t know. Had I zoned out for a moment? It’s possible. I had certainly done something to upset him, though I’m also minded these days it takes very little for the fingers to start flying.

My reaction? Self questioning, self doubt, and yes, a little hurt by the face pulling of this stranger whom I had so mysteriously offended, but mostly I was saddened to think such anger might be floating just below the surface of everyday life, that we have only to snag ourselves ever so briefly against the flow of this mad, mad world for teeth to be bared and that phallic finger to be jabbed.

It is the egoic face and the egoic phallus that confidently accuses the “other” of incompetence, of being a knob, whilst bestowing the mantle of perfection on the accuser. It is the same face and finger we see reflected in the public opinion columns of the online media where we quickly learn that public opinion, unleashed en-mass and anonymous, can be a very nasty thing indeed.

One of the great wisdoms of ancient Chinese philosophy is that we can only view the world as it truly is from a position of stillness. Stillness comes when we dissolve the ego, when we react even to shocking events in an unemotional way. Emotions, be they good or bad, come pretty low down on the evolutionary scale, and they hold us back – worse they imprison us and render us vulnerable to manipulation. It’s only through stillness we become aware of these things, that under the influence of strong emotions we are not truly our selves at all.

In spiritual terms, ego and emotional arousal disconnect us from the true course of life, they subvert our direction, our purpose, render us vulnerable to an adverse fate or simply to the meddling of others. While we don’t need to go so far as to subscribing to an irrational belief in such things, I certainly find life is sweeter and smoother, the less my ego has to do with it.

I imagine, in an advanced society, we would all rest content in the unassailable validity of our being, and would not be roused to anger when someone questioned what we said or did, or even if we were a little slow pulling onto the roundabout. On the other hand, in a retrograde society, dissent, or even a senior moment, is met with a torrent of irrational abuse, and then we’d better all watch out.

We see this in the senseless cesspits of the comments sections of online media – a constant cross-fire of low minded thinking, based upon the dubious fictions that are these days peddled as facts, and in the belief the high ground is owned by those who shout loudest and longest. I might express an opinion on world affairs, or on the weather, or even simply on the comparisons between a Biro and a fountain pen, but my opinion would be seized upon by those of an opposing view, not with the aim of exploring the validity of my thinking, nor seeking, by the sharing of facts, to persuade me of another view, but more, by the finger and the angry face, shut me down, to silence the discussion, because in even allowing the debate, whatever its nature or topic, the ego is challenged, and a population reacting permanently to emotional stimuli finds itself in a perpetual fight for imaginary supremacy.

Of course, in a world where facts are easily checked, easily verified, spurious arguments might be short lived, the liar eventually silenced by the obvious and unassailable truth. But we live now in a post-truth world, where inflammatory falsehoods are blatantly paraded by those in powerful positions as fact, while truths are dismissed as fictitious. We are no longer surprised by it. We expect it, we accept it, and by doing so risk abandoning hope of forming rational opinions on anything ever again. Whatever the headline, whatever the view expressed through whatever media, we must now pause and ask ourselves the question: what emotions are these words intended to manifest in me? At whom am I supposed to jab my finger?

The post truth world presents many challenges if we are to thrive, or even just survive as independent, thinking individuals. The emotional landscape of the future will be a tempestuous one as it reacts to bare faced manipulation, and there will be no safe media on which to rely for facts. There will only be the braying of the crowd on the infotainment channels, in the cesspits of social media commentary, and of course those crass, emotive headlines in the dailies.

But we can at least rest easy in our selves, and in our right to be, regardless of what fictions assail us. We ask questions if we must, but trust no answers that are nailed home by the finger. And in the mean time we endeavour to show kindness, while expecting none in return.

I also beg we all be patient with the guy in front, hesitating to join the Lemming like rush on the journey home.

Because it might just be me.

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hubberholme churchReligion is a big thing in human affairs. Unfortunately much of what we hear about it in the media dwells upon the negative – the violent, the bigoted and the perverse. Religion indeed, for all but those who practice it, can seem uncompromisingly repulsive, and at times a very dangerous thing indeed.

My own repulsion from village church going as a child was more on account of bum-aching boredom and a failure of religious language to connect with the affinity children have for the magical dimension. Any potential I might have had for awakening to the more traditional forms of religious expression was blunted, and though I remain sympathetic to its aims, I remain also, at least thus, far immune to evangelism. What I see of religion then will always be from the perspective of an external observer, and the first thing one notices from the outside looking in is that there is a clear dichotomy between matters of spirit and religion.

Those who break with religion scatter into a number of camps. There are those who rail against it aggressively for the rest of their lives, while others don’t think much about it at all, residing contentedly instead in the rational ephemera of the material world. Others set out to roundly disprove the claims of the religious life, only to conclude from their deeper studies on the matter there’s perhaps something in it after all. Thus they are drawn back, supercharged, into the fold, often to number amongst religion’s stoutest champions.

And there are others who spin off into the eclectic and mystical avenues of the so called New Age. This is a potentially dangerous field of study, but there is ground to be made from it. Of course the term “New Age” is a misleading one. We might think it started in the Sixties, with flower-power, LSD and fornicating hippies and all that, but its origins and its underlying philosophies go back much further, to the encounters of western minds with eastern thought in the nineteenth century, also further still to the European Romantic movement, and further, along the trail to where our written accounts peter out on the edge of the impenetrable, into folk religion, into paganism and myth.

The “New Age” is often dismissed as a childish aberration, invention of decadent, spoiled westerners, purloining from the world’s faith traditions the things they like, while ignoring the things they don’t. This may be so, but in its defence I would add what the New Age seeks above all is connection, it seeks the metaphors, the symbols that would translate the words of all spiritual traditions into a single, inclusive and coherent story of life.

MinotaurusBut is such a thing possible? It might seem unlikely with so many stories now purporting to be the word of God, but the work does enable us to pare away the obfuscating trimmings of culture and power politics, to reveal the underlying spiritual ideas. And religions, when mined deep this way, do reveal themselves as essentially the same at root, no matter how different in the flowering of their liturgies – at least if interpreted with a broadly sympathetic and impartial mind. And from such analysis comes a thread, like the thread of Theseus, laid to lead him safe from the labyrinth of the beast man. This thread is the Perennial philosophy, written of with such eloquence by Huxley, a philosophy first taught to us at the knees of Thoth in the days of ancient Egypt, and an enduring idea in the philosophies of the east throughout history.

But while all these things might seek to explain the world, and with diligence we might uncover them and learn them and quote their tenets by rote, the one thing they possess that is exactly the same in each case, is that the philosophy, the thought, the state of mind, the belief, if you will, must be lived for it to mean anything.

Belief is a difficult and a dangerous word. We must have a reason to believe that goes beyond fear – fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be punished until we say we do; fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be ostracised, that we will not be accepted into the group, that we will be stoned to death, our heads cut off, our living bodies set on fire. True belief is about seeing, it is about feeling, it is about an innate knowing.

Belief, in its broadest terms, is an inner knowledge that while the Cosmos will remain for ever pretty much a mystery to us, it is not indifferent to our lives, and it is benign. It is at least well meaning in the general thrust of its direction. Also there are ways we as individuals can make representations to it, and in return receive wisdom, guidance and comfort, like a lamp in the darkness. If we can accept such a thing, if we can go with the flow of it, then we align ourselves with the Cosmic will  and are rewarded with a sense of peace that is rooted in the soul.

This means living a life in one sense always at least partially through the eyes of the Cosmos and measuring our actions accordingly. It makes a difference to the feel of life, to live that way, but it is not essential to life, and even once found and enjoyed, it is easy also to fall away from it, if not exactly to lose faith, but to forget its power to heal in times of personal crisis. The science fiction writer PK Dick was once asked if he could define the nature of reality, and he replied that reality is simply the bit that’s left when you stop believing in it. Stop believing in the spiritual dimension, the physical life, reality, goes on pretty much the same. So who cares?

durleston wood cover smallBut the spiritual life does add immeasurably to the nature of reality, to the way it is seen and felt and experienced.  In my story “Durleston Wood” the protagonist is an agnostic teacher working at a Church School, and to maintain appearances he attends church every Sunday. If all it takes to be a Christian is an hour a week, he tells us, then even he can do it. But our hero has a secret, is cohabiting in the depths of Durleston wood with a dark skinned girl called Lillian, a thing that would upset his largely irreligious, bigoted, and racist fellow church goers. Religion has done little to educate them in the ways of spirit, or even basic decency towards others. But then as Lillian says, the religious life is easy, it is spiritual matters that are much more difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

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van goughReactions to suicide say much about society’s attitudes to mental health. In Victorian times, suicides were often explained away in order to avoid a social stain on the family. There was also the unhelpful religious belief that those who died by their own hand went straight to hell. So we got things like: he accidentally fell into the pond and drowned, or he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.

There’s still an air of evasiveness when discussing mental illness, but there is at least a recognition now that it is a real illness rather than a weakness of character. When someone known to us takes their life, the reaction is one of shock that anyone so well liked/loved/respected could ever feel that way and we be unaware of it. But there’s guilt too that we did not see it coming, that we did not do more to help. We feel complicit, guilty in our silence at holding to the secret of others’ despair. But what can one do? Not everyone suffering from mental illness wants to talk about it. And when you realise how little others understand your feelings, you can hardly be blamed for not wanting to share them.

There are no easy answers.

It’s an unfortunate fact that high-profile celebrity suicides raise awareness more than any well meaning mental health campaign. They launch tragedy squarely onto the front pages, but even here amid the collective shock, “normal” people can still be dismissive, telling us celebrities are notorious libertines, usually off their heads on drugs and it should be no surprise they kill themselves now and then. But this is to ignore the despair and the sheer existential emptiness that underlies mental illness, an illness bullet-pointed with unshakable, negative self beliefs:

* My life is a mess;
* I am ill adjusted to the place I find myself in, yet cannot escape it;
* I am unequal to my responsibilities;
* People expect more from me than I am capable of delivering;
*I am letting everyone down;
*It’s all out of control;
*I cannot move another step;
*I am useless;
*I am a bad person;
*My life has no meaning;

Do any of the above ring true for you?

Of course people in the forefront of public life are no more likely to suffer mental illness than the ordinary and the poor. Indeed being poor, being unable to make ends meet is a very dangerous place to be in the mental health stakes, more so as you are less likely to have the money to access competent people who can help you. But we all worry, and even when we have nothing to worry about, like having no money and no job, we invent other worries – seemingly trivial things – and inflate them to apocalyptic proportions. If we are susceptible, these worries will plant the seeds that blossom into hideous mental blooms of distorted self image.

We need to talk about it. Even just sharing the secret with someone can help. I spoke of mental health services last time – admittedly in less than glowing terms. Lack of funding means the gap between aspiration and reality is now unbridgeable, at least for 90% of the population, but the important thing here is that we make the effort. We admit our fears by sharing them with as many healthcare professionals who will listen. Even if the person we’re sharing them with has one eye on the clock, and can never get our name right, the process of sharing can be helpful. But there are other things we can do too, things that are even more effective in returning control of our selves back to our selves.

With a little imagination we can think of the human being, metaphysically, as comprising three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to keep all three topped up. If one of those vessels is leaking, it can be replenished by the others. If all the others are leaking too, then we’re in trouble, but the good news is paying attention to any one of them can help the entire system to restore its balance.

The easiest to fix is the physical.

Among my memories of the darkest of my hours there shine radiant beacons of days simply walking in the Lake District Mountains. I have never felt ill on a mountain. It was when I came back down to earth the problems recurred. Physical exercise of any kind is good for us, good for circulation of the blood and the lymphatic system – getting the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, and you don’t need to do it on a mountain; a walk in the park is good too, or take up dancing, jogging, tennis, Tai Chi,… whatever interests you and suits your abilities. The after-effects of even gentle physical exercise dribble through into the mental vessel, surprising the most depressed of moods with little revelations of relaxation and calm.

It sounds too good to be true, that merely exercising the body can make a real difference the problem is, getting up off your arse when the black dog comes calling takes a monumental effort. We resist it, even though we know it’s good for us. This is another of the mysteries of mental illness; it is as if the pain is itself an intelligent entity dwelling within us and fears for its existence; it sees where we’re going with this and holds us back; it would much rather we vegetate in front of the telly, drink alcohol every night, and drop fatty treats into our mouths. I know, I’ve done it. But we must resist the resistance.

And keep moving.

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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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