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Posts Tagged ‘romanticism’

 

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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

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

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

lines of light

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

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

sunburst

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

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

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

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the alchymist = jospeh wright 1795

In Paulo Coelho’s best-selling story, the Alchemist – as near as I can remember it – a humble shepherd boy falls asleep under a tree on a Spanish hillside and dreams of a pot of gold buried in Egypt. (Spoiler alert) The dream has such a numinous feel to it, the boy is compelled to set out on a life-changing quest to find the gold. The story recounts the boy’s adventures, describes the characters he meets and what each encounter teaches him. After many hardships, he reaches his goal and starts to dig, but finds nothing. In despair he relates his story to a stranger. The stranger laughs at the boy’s foolishness and tells of a dream he had about a similar treasure lying buried under a tree on a Spanish hillside, and compliments himself on not being stupid enough to waste his entire life in setting out to look for it. Enlightened, the boy returns home.

You can take many things from this story – and for such a short book, as with all of Coelho’s work there’s a lot in it. But for me the gold is not the point – or rather recognising the gold for what it truly is – that is the point. The story tells of our compulsion to make a quest out of life. We are seeking something – satisfaction, happiness, self-justification – but seeking it always in material terms. In our consumer society this materiality all too often boils down to money – a literal gold – in the belief that the more material goods we can buy, the happier we will be. We all know this is wrong, yet altering our misguided perceptions is very difficult, since we seem preprogrammed into accepting the former view as the more sensible one. No matter how hard our higher will struggles to elevate us from the mud of the material mire, there is a default condition in which we prefer to wallow in it.

In the material world, having no money is a cause of great deprivation, unnecessary suffering and unhappiness, but having a fortune is no guarantee of happiness either. Money (gold) might buy us a more comfortable life, one free from hunger and curable disease, but it cannot make us a better human being. In the mediaeval alchemists’ quest, the esoteric texts relate the seemingly foolish attempt to transform worthless base metals into gold. But the Master Alchemist, Hermes the Thrice Great, source of all Hermetic wisdom, warns that this is a dangerous path, one that leads only to madness, because it’s not that kind of gold we should be thinking of. I look at the world today and imagine Hermes shaking his head in dismay.

The quest for gold leads us on, always looking for the next thing, imagining our treasure to be out there somewhere, hidden from view yet ultimately discoverable if we can only apply ourselves in the right way. But in fact, as in Coelho’s story of the shepherd boy , we already possess the thing we’re seeking, though it can take us a long time on the dusty trail of life before we wise up. In alchemy, the process is one of sublimation. We take the base metal and we apply heat, we melt the base, loosen its impurities and let them rise. We tend the fire for years and years, and we watch as the base metal undergoes a cyclical process of purification and transformation. But the substance glowing in the alchemists alembic, has to be seen as a metaphor. What the alchemists were talking about was in fact the human spirit. We are the base metal. What we are seeking is the transformation of ourselves. Alchemy was, and still, is a spiritual quest.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I write, and wondering as I do from time to time, why I write and for whom, and what it is I’m seeking from doing it. Sometimes I forget, you see, that I’m not actually doing it for anybody, or for anything, that I’m just doing it. I know the treasure lies inside myself, yet there are times – such as now – when I refuse to see it and wind up stretched out, face down in the mud. I’ve read books on Zen, studied Daoism and Buddhism, also the various alchemical traditions as well as European Romanticism. I’ve felt the glow of an inner peace, courtesy of the practice of meditation, Qigong and Tai Chi. And such things have each at times opened the door on a very special and self contained room, within myself, and what I’ve glimpsed in there I’ve tried to describe in my writings. But like the alchemists’ quest, it’s a circular path, not a linear one; there’s a rhythm to the openings and closings of that door. When it closes on me, the practice has already fallen into disarray. The fire has gone out. I become twitchy, irritable, plagued by aches and pains, jumping at shadows, doubting everything I thought I once knew and held to be true.

It takes a while to pull myself together, rekindle the flames, strip myself bare of all the false trappings of the material world, clothe myself once more in the homespun cloth of that purer sense of being. But without that first spark of an autonomous inner will, all else is useless. Attempts at firming up a routine of meditation, qigong, or even high minded reading, fall apart at the first hurdle. The fire splutters and is extinguished by the most trivial of occurrences – a blocked drain, the washing machine making a funny noise, a toilet cistern that won’t stop filling up, a car that fails its MOT. At such times life’s little snags take on the proportions of epic disasters, disruptive of our lives and insulting to the very core of our being. Indeed, once we enter this frame of mind, this mentality of siege, the universe obliges by providing one assault after the other.

It surfaces in my writing too, especially the blogging, when I find myself checking the stats, counting the likes and the visits after each entry, to see what effect I’m having on the world. But this is pointless. The effect I have, or rather the lack of it, is irrelevant. I took the decision, long ago, that I wrote simply because I write, and that to self-publish online is merely the completion of a contract with the inner daemon who would have me write in the first place. I have also told myself that whoever reads my writings thereafter, simply reads them and takes from them what they will. I write then, primarily, for myself, to stir and sift my way through the soup of what it is I think I think. Beyond that there is no purpose, no goal, and to find the place where I can take pleasure in that alone, is finally to come home to myself.

In material terms, we are none of us anybody, and we are none of us going anywhere. That the universe appears infinite can only be accommodated by the assumption that it is also nothing, that the reason it seems to occupy so much space, is that it occupies no space whatsoever. As human beings I think we begin from that position of nothingness, but we are born with an innate fear of it, not realising that only through its acceptance do we finally sublimate the spiritual gold of the alchemist in our hearts, through which our true, infinite worth might be glimpsed, at least in so far as any mortal being is capable, locked in the illusion of time and space, as we all are.

In the quest to find our own alchemical gold, we should each start out with the insight that, like Paulo’s shepherd boy, we’re probably already sitting on it. Whether we recognise it or not is down purely to the way we view the world, and sometimes it takes a long journey to alter our focus sufficiently to realise the power within us, and to return home. Nobody else can do this for us. It is the supreme paradox, that we are each of us nothing, but also everything at the same time.

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Lavender and the Rose CoverMy sincere thanks go to all of you who have written to me over the years, or commented on my novel The Lavender and the Rose. First published in 2008, I’ve been revising it this last few weeks, with a view to putting it up on Smashwords. As always, it’s been a pleasure hooking up with these characters again, and reminding myself of what we got up to back then. The Lavender and the Rose is a special story for me, being also the record of a shift in my personal, psychological outlook – no longer hanging on, but letting go; no longer maintaining a tight grip on who and what I thought I was, or wanted to be; no longer afraid of revealing what I might actually be, underneath. Instead I record in this story, a gloriously mad splitting apart into all the varied fragments of myself – bits I vaguely suspected were in there, and bits I was entirely unaware of.

A man is walking alone at dusk in the remote hills of Westmorland, an ancient county in the North of England. Coming down to a quiet mountain tarn, he discovers a woman, dressed entirely in Victorian costume, apparently waiting for him:

“Are you real?” I breathed, half expecting she would turn to smoke and disappear.

I remember she focused upon me with one eyebrow slightly raised, querying, challenging, inquisitive: “What would you do if I said not?”

She sounded real enough. “I don’t know. Are you telling me you’re not real?”

She lowered her gaze to the waters of the tarn. “Not at the moment,” she said.

“Then I’m seeing things?”

“Yes, I’m pure fantasy.”

I’m not sure what the remaining two hundred thousand words will read like to anyone who has not lived this story, as I have lived it. It will be compellingly mysterious I hope. Most commentators have said kind things about it, and it’s from this I take comfort that I am not imposing something on the world that is merely self indulgent. That said, it is a literary novel, not a thriller; if you’re expecting guns and fast cars and globe trotting assassins, you’ll probably find it a bit turgid.

It is a story in the Romantic tradition, and an explanation to myself why it is I feel and think and see things the way I do. Its genesis marks also the point at which two distinct personalities emerged from my psyche – the day-job Michael, and the other, the one who writes and who is gradually taking over the primary host personality. I am becoming him, as the characters in the Lavender and Rose also became something other than their host personalities. Or perhaps these were the people we were meant to grow into anyway, but something stopped us along the way.

The day-job Michael lives his regular sort of life, a nine to five, modern sort of life, a life spent mostly fitting in with the world of forms, which means doing things that are incomprehensible to him. This used to make him ill. He was sure he wasn’t meant to live that way, and aspire to nothing greater than what the material world seemed to offer. In tackling the Lavender and the Rose, the Michael who writes escaped, and began to live the kind of life the day-job Michael needed him to in order for them both to survive. Balance was duly restored, but only by adopting a view of life that was distinctly old fashioned and Romantic.

Romanticism is a very long essay with only vague conclusions. But it contains within it a spiritual philosophy, loosely defined and having no real interest in belief, nor evangelism. I am a mystic. I sense a connection between an essentially immortal part of myself and the universe, and I choose to both explore and express that connection in ways that are distinctly off-piste. I find clues to it in Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, also neo-paganism, and Hermeticism. But I find it too in art and in the natural world, its pulse running through all things. But it is a presence realised only when the world is viewed through the lens of the Romantic imagination.

The grand old age of Romanticism was officially declared over in 1850, coinciding with the passing of William Wordsworth. But nobody informed the Romantics, and there are still a lot of us around.

The Lavender and the Rose was a great pleasure to write and has been a great pleasure to revisit. It’s available for free in various formats at Feedbooks, or in its newly revised edition – containing fewer typos, I hope – at Smashwords.

 

Michael Graeme

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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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leaving darwen tower

I talked last night about letting go of our anxieties and I’m conscious now of  making it sound easier than it really is. If we are born with a personality that is prone to anxiety, depression, or any other form of psychological turbulence, ” letting go” is more of a lifetime’s work than something that can be taught in a one off session – it’s part of who we are, and we’ll never be described as “normal” in the clinical sense, but then who is normal? On the upside, with hindsight, for a writer, it gives us a lot of interesting material to work with – though it might not feel like it at the time.

Of course, we can be brought quickly back onto the straight and narrow with the aid of drugs like SSRI’s. These alter the way we experience emotion, and can be quite powerful, but speaking as a layman, they also have their downsides. If your depression is so deep you’re literally at risk of razor blades in the bathroom, then SSRI’s can save your life, so we shouldn’t be too squeamish about taking them. Equally though, I know people who are stuck on them and for no reason I can see, other than they’re not aware of  any other option.

I spent a short time on SSRI’s myself, following a stressful transition in both my work and personal life, back in the nineties. This was a decade when they seemed to be handing them out like sweets. Prozac in particular was hailed as the new wonder drug – a substance that would render things like depression and anxiety a thing of the past. Well, Prozac’s still with us, but so are things like depression and anxiety.

Before taking Prozac, I was jumping at shadows, I was anxious about things stretching way into the future, things that might never happen. I’d break out sweating for no reason, I’d get dizzy behind the wheel of a car, mainly because my neck was so tightly screwed up I was shutting off the circulation to my brain – and I’d only to be trapped in a room full of people before I was imagining I was going to faint – probably for the same reason.

On reflection I recognize the root cause of my anxieties was not wanting to be where I was. But my societal duties and my apparent life’s path – including the basic need to go out and earn a living – insisted I endure situations I found absurd, not only that, but situations in which I was obliged to act and speak as if I thought everything was “normal”, that I’d somehow bought-in to the collective delusion. You can only do that for so long before your unconscious erupts on a volcanic scale, laying waste to your life, prompting you to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, hopefully on a more psychically sincere path. If you can’t do that, there’s a chance it’ll simply pull the plug on you and find a more willing companion next time around.

On Prozac, however, fitting in was no longer a problem. I also discovered astonishing levels of self confidence. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have moved, except to brush the dust from my shoulders. If the boss had shouted at me, I would have felt confident enough to tell him what I thought, then wee on his desk. A wonder-drug? Yes, and with good reason; my early days on Prozac were a revelation!

However, I lasted only a short while before the side effects kicked in. I found myself unable to sleep. I remember I didn’t sleep for a whole week, and that put me into a darker hole than I’d been in in the first place. You can get tablets for insomnia of course, and I was offered them as a quick fix, but I decided to make a break at this point and began the long road to becoming a closet hippy instead. Twenty five years later, I still wear a conventional collar and tie to work, and I draw a salary that’s been uninterrupted by time off for “stress”. But there’s a yin-yang pendant and a tree of life next to my skin, and my wisest confidant is a book called the I Ching.

This wasn’t an easy transition.

I was 28, a self styled mathematician and a physicist, having just completed 10 years of studies. To my mind, if you couldn’t plot its trajectory, or describe its behaviour with differential equations, “it” didn’t exist. I was rational, and a materialist. Many tread that path their whole lives, carving out impressive careers for themselves. Not me. It took a while for me to realise the stuff I’d learned was already a hundred years out of date, and that while there were many aspects of life you could explore, extrapolate and interpolate with the calculus of Isaac Newton, there were others it wouldn’t touch. The mind was one of them. For that you needed to get weird. Even Newton knew this, and wasn’t afraid to get weird himself.

So I got weird.

I started on the body with Yoga, then on the mind with Jung, then on both body and mind with Tai Chi and Qigong. For the spirit, I circled Daoism, Buddhism, then came back to Jung again – it was he who taught me there can be no dichotomy between psyche and spirit. I walked, I read, and I wrote. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and I’ve still no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ve never since felt the dark depths of despair that SSRI’s dumped me in. I’ve since faced far more stressful situations, without a serious wobble, so I must be doing something right. As for certainty though, you can forget it – about the only thing I know for sure in all of this is that what’s real is not always what you can plot on a graph.

As Jung said, what’s real is simply what works.

And it changes, all the time. What’s right for you now may not work in another year or two. You have to keep pace with your changing psyche. As Jung also said: All true things must change, and what does not change, cannot be true.

It might not sound like much of a cure – a quarter of a century of faltering steps along an essentially intangible mystical path, but reality was transformed for me once I took those first steps, and I feel the world has in all that time been coloured a more vivid shade of life than it ever would have been on SSRI’s.

A critical look at the dynamics of human interaction on a global scale reveals the disturbing fact that the world has evolved into a profoundly sick beast, that we live out daily the madness of the collective unconscious, pretty much as you can see it lived among the inmates of any institution for the seriously disturbed. And we participate in it because we have no choice – we’re all imprisoned by the essentially delusional values of money, and status, and even things like national or religious identities.

SSRI’s make us conveniently forgetful of this madness, allowing us to go on living in the world, but in ways that are making us increasingly ill. For the mystic to live in such a world, and see it as he does, does not make for comfortable viewing, but it at least grants him the ability to rise above the bullshit, to see it for what it is, and to maintain his psychical integrity rather than being negatively influenced and dragged down into the depths of hell by it.

But how do you let go? How does the office worker, the teacher, the health care professional,… all of them oppressed by organisational structures based upon delusional understandings of the human psyche, and metered by the dollar,… how do they let their anxieties go?

Well, the transcendental path is the only one I know, and your journey starts when you can deal with any negative materialistic reactions you might have to that word: Transcendental. The next step is looking that word up, understanding what it means to you, and then realising what a big word it is.

But the bottom line in all of this is it’s a personal journey. You can seek help, talk to people, read books, research the internet. But at some point you have to take charge of your own psychical destiny, and do something about it. Don’t worry that your actions might seem weird, because then you’re falling into another common trap – that of living your life through the eyes of someone else, someone always critical and questioning of your rational grip, of your right to be whomever you want to be. We’ve all done this. Recognising it, again, is one of the first steps to being free of it.

I could talk about meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Jungian Psychology, non literal reality, the Romantic movement, looking for meaning in our dreams, guided imagination – as I have done at at various times in this blog, and shall do so again,… but none of these things may be right for you, so just find what works, and get on with it.

Come to think of it, I haven’t talked about meditation.

I may do that next.

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