Posts Tagged ‘self improvement’


man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’ve been getting a sudden flurry of comments on Wattpad. They’re all roughly the same, telling me I’ve won Premier Membership but if you click the link it simply takes you to a story that “cannot be found”. It’s some sort of scam then, the purpose of which eludes me, but more of that later.

Wattpad is one of many self-publishing platforms now. I’ve been on there for ages, with mixed results. The Seaview Cafe topped out at around 4000 reads, which was great, but other stuff hasn’t been read at all. This is probably because I don’t game it. It’s a social network you see, and as with all such things you have to spend time building it up, virtual schmoozing and following others in order to get the clicks. But I’m socially inept, and prefer just to write.

Wattpad sells advertising. Writers use it as a vehicle for self expression, while readers read their stuff for free, and as we go along we all get served these adverts. Adverts are annoying, but so long as you can forgive them Wattpad’s maybe worth a look if you’re starting out, and you’re the chatty type, but best not taken too seriously because a writer needs to be careful they don’t lose their way.

The Wattpad model has changed recently, a kind of ‘premium membership’ being rolled out, a select group of writers testing a “paid” model. Also, if the rest of us agree to a subscription, they’ll spare us the adverts. Payment to writers is based on donations – we buy virtual coins which we toss into the writer’s hat if we like their stuff. I don’t know who those writers are, so I suppose they’ll have to be promoted in some way – sexy mugshots and all that, no English teeth, and no one over thirty five?

But this is beginning to sound like conventional publishing – about half a dozen chosen ones awarded most of the budget, and the rest dividing the pennies between them. According to the blurb, all writers will be able to join the paid ranks eventually, and that’s alluring if you’re chasing the idea of writing for a living, but unless you have millions of readers, you’ll be lucky if you make the price of a cup of coffee. And with the money of course will come the scammers, because they always find a way, and I suppose those spurious comments I’m getting now are the first exploratory wave of that.

But if Wattpad changes, or stays the same, it’s irrelevant to those of us writing the stories, because the important thing is always the story, I mean as it’s being written and experienced by you the writer, also in future years, when you’re revising and reliving the adventure, when maybe you start to wonder what the hell you were on about back then, or you realise how much your outlook’s changed, and which bits you thought were profoundly insightful turn out to have been merely stupid. Thus, in part, the story always serves you first. That’s your reward. There may also be a greater purpose, but that’s complicated and mysterious and, it may not be true, but here goes:

Most writers who’ve been at it for a decade or more already know the chances of making an actual living by it are zero, so you wonder why you’re still in the game, and that’ll take some time, maybe even another decade, and in the mean time, with luck, you’ll still be writing. My own vague conclusion at the end of this process is that writers, known or not, are explorers of the possibilities of imagination, and exploration is typically a human thing to do. And some of us can’t help it.

But more than that, all stories are based on a set of myths that rise from the deep unconscious, and there aren’t that many of them. We saw them first played out in stories from all those ancient civilisations – like the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, and the Egyptians – but they’ve been re-told in an infinite number of ways since, because times change and the myths need re-imagining for each generation. We writers needn’t be aware of this process, but if we analyse our own stories enough and dig deeply into myth we’ll find similarities. We’ll realise we’re basically saying the same thing.

And then there’s this theory that without an ongoing process of mythical renewal, the Gods might get the impression we’re no longer listening to them, so they’ll start stirring things up by unleashing troublesome daemons among us, hastening our decent into barbarism, so something fresh can rise from the ruins. So, creative types on this side of the divide try to avoid the ruination by placating the Gods, the Daemons, the Muses, or whatever by taking notes, by refashioning the myths to keep them fresh in people’s heads.

Well that’s fine, you say, but no publisher’s interested, so you stick your damned story online where you’re lucky if half a dozen people see it. What’s the point in that? Well, that’s not your problem. You’ve done your bit, and it may be that if only a dozen people see it, then maybe they’re the only ones it needed to speak to. And yes, all right, that’s romantic, and wishful, and a somewhat daring thing to say in the wrong company, but it has a certain mythical charm to it, and I like to believe in it.

But the main thing is writers on social media should be wary of getting hung up on the clicks, or the coins, or the comments, or whatever, because it’ll kill your craft, and they don’t mean a damn to your primary purpose anyway, which is simply to keep going, deep into the woods, every day.


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durleston wood cover smallIn the dreams of men, encounters with an unknown woman are significant in that she represents a meeting with the image of the man’s soul, and sets out the state of development of his psyche, also the state of his relations with, and his knowledge of women. A sickly soul-image in dreams is an obvious sign something is wrong, similarly if she is wearing chains, or in some other way restrained or imprisoned.

We see it depicted in art as St George, come to release the maiden from where she has been chained to a tree and is harassed by the phallic dragon. George kills the dragon, more metaphorically the Ego, which releases the maiden, the soul, into a more constructive relationship. Without undergoing this fundamental mythical journey every man is going to struggle with aspects of himself later on, and not just in his relations with women.

The chained and sickly soul-image is a symbol. It does not mean she is lacking energy, quite the opposite in fact. But the energy is misdirected by a man’s lack of understanding of himself. It is a powerful force erupting from the unconscious and being projected out into the world, affecting the way he sees things, the way he sees women.

He notices a female, is attracted, besotted, obsessed, unaware what he’s seeing is a manifestation of something inside of him. This is partly how attraction between sexes works. But say we hit things off with the object of our desire, make love, get married, come to know her as a mortal woman, you might think we had then slain the dragon, that is until the soul projects herself onto someone else. Time and time again. If we have by now settled on our life mate, such serial infatuations can be troublesome, even dangerous. But rather than acting on them and potentially ruining our lives, the soul is inviting us to withdraw the projections, to dissolve them, and in doing so restore the power inwardly, allowing her the means of manifesting herself more in consciousness, thus aiding us in seeing the world more clearly and with a little more wisdom.

All of this sounds a bit odd. But there are precedents in stories, in myth, and in practice.

In Durleston Wood, the protagonist, Richard, has returned to his home village after a failed marriage, and takes up a teaching post at his old school where he finds himself in love with his headmistress. For a time he recognises this infatuation for what it is and does not act. Instead he basks in the sweet melancholy of its futility while taking long, lonely walks through the titular Durleston Wood. But in the wood is an old house, part ruined and overgrown, and living in it, kept prisoner there, possibly, is a woman he’s seen wearing the cuffs and chains of BDSM role-play. She’s apparently the sex slave of another man, and she invites our hero to rescue her, to take ownership of her,…

Houses are significant in Jungian psychology. They are the place of abode, both physically, and psychologically. In Jung’s own dreams, the rooms of the house represent aspects of the self. If your abode is dilapidated, as it is in Durleston Wood, it suggests a psyche in distress through neglect. Work on restoring such an abode is likewise suggestive of work upon the psyche, a process of healing. Thus Richard moves into the house in Durleston Wood, performs his restorations and releases the chained woman. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Work on the psychological aspects of the self do not in themselves guarantee the correctness of one’s direction thereafter. Indeed it can be a bit of a roller coaster. For certainty in navigation, you need wisdom as well, but it certainly gets things moving.

In Durleston Wood, free to your e-reader, sometimes sold in mangled form by pirates on Amazon – oo-arrr!

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So I finish my last piece on the enigmatic way the universe sometimes reveals a glimpse behind the curtain of reality, hinting, by means of syncronicity, at perhaps more revelations to come. Yet my expectations are tempered by the knowledge that the way always closes before I can get to it, and I know all too well the impossibility of interpreting the signs. So I end on a note of resigned ignorance, and with the implied question: what now? And the day after, in the Charity Shop, I pick up a novel called The Zahir by Paulo Coelho and, reading it, the answer jumps right out of the context, but pertinent I feel to my own enquiry, and it says:

“All you have to do is pay attention; the lessons arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs you will learn everything you need to know to take the next step.”

But while this sounds like it should mean something, and I’m sure it does, the crux of the matter is knowing how to read those signs. Another problem is seeing the signs in the first place, because that involves living in a world where you believe magic is still possible, and for that you have to be at least partly insane.

Well, at least I’m okay with that.

Meanwhile I sense my world hanging by a thread as I always do at this time of year. It’s something to do with the fading of the light and the thought of the long winter to come. A problem with my gas boiler returns – one I thought I’d fixed some weeks ago and celebrated as a triumph of genius over calamity. The mobile phone I thought I’d fixed in similar vein suddenly manifests fresh issues, shooting at my confidence in my technical ability – and telling me if I don’t have that I  don’t have anything. And then the Mazda, my most treasured possession, symbol of a past personal rejuvenation of sorts yields more signs of its vulnerability to the outrages of fate and old age.

These are the normal every day trials faced by everyone, but to one attempting a retreat into the semi-contemplative life, each fresh manifestation is resented with a passion that should tell me more about the state of my affairs than it apparently does.

Instead Ego gamely tries to plug the gaps, make the fixes, maintain control, and all the while another part of me steps back and observes, neutral in the inkling that my life is about to take a tailspin, more systems flashing malfunction than can be dealt with. And that I feel it, that I fear the tailspin tells me much about the shoddy state of my psyche, and that I risk a plunge more fearsome than any I have known before.

But this is Ego again.

And I have the signs at least, so avoiding that tailspin is just a matter of knowing how to read them.

Or am just too eager to retreat into the nether regions of the dream life? and the world with all its stone throwing, is simply telling me: don’t go!



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TPON_Cover_LGFood for the soul or new-age mumbo jumbo?

Spiritual books are ten a penny, always have been, and in our cynical, secular times the pedlars of such material are often viewed with suspicion – and, sadly, frequently, not without good reason. And amid this plethora of colourful and often-times bizarre pathways to enlightenment, some of these works occasionally break the mould and top the best seller list for a while, promising a radically new way of thinking that will turn the reader’s sad life around, attract millions of dollars to their bank account and transform them overnight from abject losers into white toothed entrepreneurial winners.

The power of now is different. Published in 1997, it came out of the author’s personal mental breakdown, and a desire to understand the profound psychological metamorphosis that followed. It had a quiet start, selling modestly by word of mouth on the spiritual circuit, but by 2009 it had reached 3 million copies and been translated into 33 languages. Of the author, Eckhart Tolle, I had heard nothing until I was loaned a copy of the book by a Buddhist friend who was of the opinion that most self styled spiritual teachers were either insane or merely egotistical poseurs. This man, however, he said, was possibly the real thing.

Personally, I fell away from organised religion early on in life, but have had a number of spontaneous mystical experiences that have denied me the easier option of a godless secular materialism. In short, I know there is more to life, but I have paradoxically struggled to find anything in conventional models of spirituality that address the very personal nature of the spiritual experience itself. The Power of Now confounded my initial expectations by doing just that, and by answering many of the existential questions I had been asking for decades.

What impressed me about the language of the book was its simplicity. Many spiritual works convey a “method”, they invent terminology, ritual, prayer, they invent arbitrary self important lists, a set of steps, exercises and vast labyrinths of mystery for the adept to follow. And there is always the suspicion that the method is there only to show how intellectually superior the author is, and how stupid we poor adepts are for not being able to follow in their footsteps. But The Power of Now describes none of these things. Instead it has the audacity to suggest that the answer we’re looking for is something we possess anyway but have merely forgotten, that from birth we have become so overwhelmed by our own thoughts, we can no longer remember who we really are. The power of the Power of Now lies in its ability to reunite us with the very thing we have lost touch with: our real selves.

With the birth of consciousness comes self awareness, and the faculty for thought, but a problem arises when we become so identified with our thoughts we believe that is all we are, this self constructed narrative, this story of our lives: the memories, the aspirations, the self-critical expectations. And most of us alive today do indeed believe we are nothing more than this thought-constructed entity – that anything else is simply inconceivable.

For Tolle, the awakening came one dark night of the soul when, tortured by lifelong depression and anxiety, he decided he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly this happens a lot in modern society and it rarely ends well, but for Tolle it was the catalyst. It was the thought to end all thoughts, when he realised that to even consider the idea of not living with himself implied there were two parts to his consciousness – the thinking part, and the part that was aware of the thinking part. By allowing the thinking part to dissolve, Tolle was then released into a state of primary awareness. What’s this? Well, it’s like viewing yourself in the first and the third person at the same time, and the feeling that accompanies it is one of deep bliss.

Some critics of the book complain that Tolle merely reworks ideas from eastern religions and gives them a new age spin, peppered here and there with quotes from the Bible. In a sense this is true, but only in so far that Tolle gets at the vital essence at the core of all organised religions, east and west, the key message if you like, underneath what is by now millennia of obfuscating cultural over-painting, and presents it in a simple language, entirely void of spiritual affectation, and which is above all accessible.

That we are each of us mostly a self invented fantasy is at first a hard message to swallow, and again one needs perhaps first to be open to the message if one is not to be deeply offended by it. Everything that happens to us in reality takes place in the present moment, obviously, yet we spend an awful lot of time raking over the past and worrying about the future. These are the natural realms of the thinking entity we believe ourselves to be, yet neither past nor future actually exists in real terms outside of memory or anticipation at all. What exists is the present moment, a moment so infinitesimally small it cannot be measured and we might pass our entire lives in ignorance of it, but it can be entered and experienced when the thinking mind is quiet, and when we do enter it, the world looks and feels very different indeed.

Tolle covers a lot of ground here. As a work of comparative religion alone it’s very powerful in illustrating that the spiritual principles underlying all traditions are essentially the same, and that they point to a further level of evolutionary development that is inevitable, and must happen sooner rather than later because if it doesn’t the energies thus far unleashed by the collective egoic mindset, are already well on their way towards destroying us. Powerful and sobering stuff!

But of course, Tolle is not without his detractors. Setting aside his ideas for a moment, Tolle’s publishing success is, in part, of course due to celebrity endorsement. Many familiar famous names now claim to have been helped back from the brink by his book and, since critics like nothing more than to get their teeth into a foolish celebrity baring their souls and possibly also their arses, they are also quick to label anything held dear by said celebrity as being vapid by association. And then some critics point out Tolle’s history of depression and anxiety, as if a history of mental illness disqualifies him from having any valid opinions on anything. Of course it does not, if only because to be content in a world that is plainly mad is no measure of sanity, indeed it is perhaps only those who have suffered such profound disquiet as Tolle himself who have the most valid, clear sighted perspectives to offer on modern living anyway.

Unlike many titles of this genre, the Power of Now was not intended to propel its author onto the international stage – indeed I can easily imagine him wishing by now it had not. But that it has done so, that it has fallen foul of the curse of its own popularity, should not detract from the sincerity of the message and the ideas the book contains. This is real and substantial food for the soul.

The Power of Now – a guide to spiritual enlightenment. Sounds like new age mumbo jumbo, but it isn’t.

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“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?


It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

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adrienneAllow me to introduce you. This is Adrienne Divine. She’s thirty five, British, and a former university lecturer now working as an estate agent in Carnforth, Lancs. Two years ago she had a serious car accident which left her in a coma. When she came round some weeks later, she discovered her husband – whom she’d not been getting along with for a while – had decamped to his native America, taking their two children with him.

In the movies, she would have flown over there straight away, engaged a ruggedly handsome lawyer and, after a dramatic legal battle, plus a threadbare sub-plot involving lots of guns, drug dealers and high speed car chases, she would have taken her husband to the cleaners, had her sweet revenge on him, rescued her children and brought them safely back to Blighty. She would also probably have fallen in lust with the lawyer enabling the inclusion of a  fairly tame boobs and butt love-scene – her stretchmarks and his bald-spot being expertly fuzzed out by CGI of course.

But this isn’t the movies, and Adrienne’s broke. She’s currently moving from one low paid job to another, barely able to cover the rent, let alone jet off to the States for an uspecified period of time and pay a lawyer thousands of dollars by the hour in order to untangle a messy affair, none of which is her fault. So she does what most ordinary people would do – they absorb the devastating hurt, and just get on, day to day, as best they can while hoping for a miracle.

Then Adrienne meets Phil, who’s not exactly the miracle she was hoping for, but it’s just possible he could be the next best thing. He’s a prospective buyer for a house her agency is trying hard to flog, but it’s a flat market and there’s something about the house that makes it even harder to sell. It’s remote, stuck out on a tidal island where it gets cut off by the sea for twelve hours out of twenty four. No one in their right mind, other than a hermit or a recluse, would ever consider buying it.

Phil is an oil and gas-industry geologist, struggling to adjust to a mainly desk-bound job in Manchester. A decade ago, he was involved in an accident flying out to a rig in the Atlantic which left six of his colleagues dead. Still suffering from PTSD, discontented by his bureucratic post, and perhaps even a little menopausal by now, he’s looking to buy somewhere really cheap, then quit the job and live frugally off his savings until the company pension kicks in. He doesn’t care what he does, so long as it’s different and he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone while he’s doing it.

Phil and Adrienne meet when he turns up at the office and she’s delegated, against her will, to drive him out to the house. He falls in love with her at once – well, who wouldn’t? But he also finds her cold, prickly and remote. She thinks he’s a boring, faceless corporate drone who talks too much. Plus he’s ten years older than she and her life’s complicated enough as it is without getting involved with another man.
They aren’t the most likely of lovers then.

The house doesn’t really suit him. It’s too close to the sea for a start which has a habit of irritating his neuroses, and he’s decided too much solitude wouldn’t be good for him anyway, that living out on a tidal island would be like casting himself adrift. But he goes along with Adreinne to view the place because he doesn’t want to come across as a prat and a time-waster. There something listless about him – he’s ambivalent about the house, confused, and looking like a man becalmed, waiting for a stiff wind to fill his sails.

As unlikely as it seems, these two will become lovers at some point – indeed their unfolding story seems contrived by fate in such a way as to make it almost inevitable; while they’re out on the island, the tide comes in earlier than predicted, on account of a  storm surge, trapping them there overnight. They’ve no choice then but to find a way  of getting along and after a shaky start, by morning both have got more than they bargained for. Less inevitable however, is the degree to which Phil and Adrienne discover in each other the catalyst for triggering a shift in mental perspective, enabling them to suddenly transcend their personal demons, and kindle fresh meaning for their lives.

Adrienne once wrote poetry, lectured in English Lit, also Psychology and Philosophy. As a girl she also dabbled in bedroom witchcraft, a practice through which she finds increasing comfort now as means of self empowerment in a world that appears to have otherwise stripped her of everything else. And Phil’s not the corporate drone he appears in his plain grey suit and plain grey rep-mobile of a car. He sees things, hears things, imagines things that inform his intuition in a way that goes beyond the rational.

He also draws pictures like the one he did of Adrienne, and posts them on Flickr,…

Having grown up in a society that frowns on the “irrational”, the emotional, and the intuitive, they’re both embarrassed  to admit this side of themselves in public, yet both begin to see their salvation depends not only on admitting their true inner natures, but embracing them – that only when envisoned through the lens of a romantic, mystical and even a magical perspective, can the world begin to mean anything again.


I’m writing this down in precis form because I want to get at the essence of what their story is about, and sometimes you need to get outside of it to do that, just like you can’t always see where you’re going for the lay of the land. And it’s beginning to make sense, what Phil and Adrienne have been telling me.

I’ve been trying to solve the puzzle of their story for about a year now, since they first came to see me with their unlikely opening scenario and persuaded me it would be worthwhile running with it. Sure, there’ll be several more drafts to go before I’ve wrung every last drop of meaning out of it, but the majority of the work is done. I can sit back and enjoy the ride now, without the worry of not knowing where we’re going any more.

Just because I talk to ghosts, it doesn’t make me insane, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. They dictate my stories for me, and I learn a lot from them. And Adrienne, a very particular ghost on this occasion, is telling me there’s no such thing as a small life, that we’re all heroes because to paraphrase the song, our skins are so soft and even supposedly ordinary lives can sometimes be very, very hard.

Thanks for listening.


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Dodgy word: Enlightenment. In new agey circles, it’s touted as the ultimate goal of all those expensive retreats and meditation seminars, or those long years spent in monkish self-denial, sequestered with books and DVD’s on the million and one programs of self-improvement. It’ll take you a while, decades maybe, but eventually it’ll come – the realisation – the enlightenment if you like – that enlightenment itself cannot possibly come from an accumulation of “stuff” – be they methods, or secret knowledge, or special Yoga mats.

It’s like trying to put a fire out by throwing petrol on it.

You’re only going to make things worse.

This is not to say enlightenment is a foolish aspiration. Indeed it’s the one noble thing, consciously or unconsciously, we’re all moving towards – the one noble goal in the whole confused mish mash of human endeavour. But what is it? Well, I think I’m coming close to a definition of it now – which isn’t the same thing as becoming enlightened of course – but anyway: so far as I can work out, it’s a state of mind, a way of seeing the world through fresh eyes, eyes born anew out of a rare state of grace.

Some people are fortunate enough to be granted glimpses of it, but their grip is tenuous and the vision goes away, leaving them amazed, but they also bounce off it into a kind of wilderness where they’re left doubting the validity of their experience. They wonder if they weren’t deluding themselves, they wonder if they weren’t suffering from a self-induced psychotropic hallucination. I count myself among their number – temporarily amazed, then self-doubting, and all I can do now is study the words and the curious aphorisms of those who have gone before me in the hope I’ll be granted a clue, one reliable signpost on the outskirts of the forest, that will allow me to navigate my way safely and securely back in. But those aphorisms can be hard nuts to crack – like: “The way that can be named is not the true way,” according to Lao Tzu’s enigmatic opening of the Tao Te Ching, which makes me wonder if looking for a signpost isn’t a waste of time anyway – and I should just plunge right in.

For those gifted individuals who have permanently attained this state of mind, there is no sudden recoiling to an aftershock of doubt. They have all the time in the world to be absolutely certain what they see, their enlightened vision, is true. They don’t need to believe in it because it’s not about belief. It’s about experience, and knowing.

But knowing what? Well, putting it crudely, it’s knowing that our true selves are already perfect, that they don’t actually need improving in any way, and that our true self is immortal. Such an insight as this has a transformational effect on the psyche. It doesn’t change the world before our eyes, but it makes us infinitely more compassionate in our dealings with it. And instead of everything causing us pain or confusion, and seeing nothing out there but an existential waste, we see instead the wonder of the universe and the meaning of it in everything. And the meaning of it is the universe awakening to a knowledge of itself through us.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? A good way to live – and I’ve often wondered why, if such a state of mind is real, then why isn’t it better known? After tens of thousands of years of human evolution, why haven’t we all attained this delicious state of grace yet? It’s suspicious, perhaps? What’s even more suspicious is the enlightened ones us tell us theirs is not an exclusive club, that you don’t need a million dollars to join, that we can all achieve this state for free. So why aren’t we signing up in droves? Well, it might be free, but it’s not easy, and the difficulty lies in what we most identify ourselves with.

Have you ever heard the phrase: I don’t know who I am any more! Or how about: I need to know who I am, or I need to find out who I really am, or I need time to discover my true self – I’m sure the angsty characters in my novels have all uttered these corny lines at some point, but there’s nothing profound in them – indeed they are all meaningless. The path to enlightenment is littered with the bodies of those who were looking for themselves.

In his book “The New Earth” Ekhart Tolle tells us: If you can be absolutely comfortable with not knowing who you are, then what’s left is who you are – the being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality, rather than something that is already defined.

Does that make sense to you? The being behind the human?

Most of us spend our lives seeing an image of ourselves, unaware that it’s an image reflected back to us from the mirror of the world, and we’re unable to differentiate between that image and the person doing the looking. When we sit down to meditate and we’re barraged by all those inconvenient thoughts, and we tell ourselves: No, I don’t want to think about that right now – who is the silent watcher of those thoughts? Who says I don’t want to think about that? The silent watcher is what’s left when we can be absolutely comfortable in letting go of everything else.

The true self is a form of awareness, it’s a realisation of our self both in and of the world and crucially, a realisation of the psychological nature of reality. The only difference between stuff and thought is the frequency at which energy vibrates, because energy is all there is, the conscious energy of the cosmos. It’s this realisation that enables us at last to take the unimaginable vastness of the universe, to make sense of it, and pack it into William Blake’s grain of sand – no – into less than a grain of sand – into nothing.

So why can’t we do this? What’s stopping us? With all those self help books out there why hasn’t any one of them delivered the key? Is it because all this talk of conscious energy and the psychological nature of things is bunkum? Possibly, though I’m inclined to think we have to reckon with the possibility that it’s not. So again: what’s stopping us?

Well unfortunately the self help industry is no different to any other part of the material world. It’s become integral to the way we actually live and is therefore, paradoxically, of no use whatsoever to anyone really trying to help themselves out of their existential wilderness. All economies – even those that were once the most ideologically opposed to capitalism, are now rushing to embrace the ultimate opium of the peoples – not, as Marx said, religion – but just stuff, material stuff. And in this respect, even new-agey pseudo spiritual stuff is no different to the fatuousness of designer footwear.

You think it may be just the thing you need to fill that hole in your soul, this new material thing, but having made your purchase you realise it isn’t. So the next time you’re looking at those sexy new training shoes, or that seductive new-agey book, and considering handing over your plastic for it, ask yourself who gains here, and what part of my self wants it?

One of the most difficult things to grasp on this mythical road to enlightenment is that we are not our thoughts, or our memories. Sure, we can all think things through and come to conclusions based on a mixture of logic, experience and intuition – that’s how this piece of writing is coming together. But it would be wrong of me to conclude that it defines the part of me I call my unique self. Twelve months from now I’ll probably have forgotten what I’ve written here, while the self I think I am will still be with me.

I look at pictures of myself as a child, and I can no longer remember what I was thinking or feeling at the time the picture was taken. I recognise the likeness, but if thoughts or memories are anything to go by, the person in that photograph no longer exists. Yet here I am, self evidently still around, still gathering memories which will likewise fade over time.

And as we grow older, this habit of forgetting intensifies, the conversations we had thirty years ago, even the relationships we shared all fade to a ghostly transparency. But does their loss render the self we think we are any smaller? No. Do we wink out of existence when we can no longer remember our first kiss, or that first magical time we made love? No.

Could I lose all memory, all faculty for logic and reason, and yet retain the awareness of my self as an individual being?

The answer, say the enlightened ones, is yes. Indeed, we can go further: it seems we are happiest when we can let everything go. We become our truest self when can forget the false self we think we are. The road to enlightenment therefore is not a road at all, not journey, not a search. It’s a moment of awareness, and it’s a letting go. Then we wake up to the dream of the world, instead of being unconscious to it.  And we discover a more lucid way of being.

Letting go?

How can I let go, you ask? How can I afford to float off into a self-indulgent contemplative bubble? Sure, it would be great. Instead of taking it up the ass every day at work, I’d like to do what my instincts are telling me: tell the boss to shove it. But if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat, I lose my house, and that contemplative bubble isn’t going to keep me and the kids very warm when we’re sitting at the side of the road. Enlightenment’s fine for a monk sitting in a cave with no rent to pay. But in the real world?…

Okay, okay I get the message.

It’s no use saying the world is just a dream, that our purpose is to wake up to that fact. The world is as it is and letting go doesn’t mean dropping out of it. Enlightenment is useless if it can’t help the needy and the oppressed who are already entangled in the guts of the world-machine. And is the world that bad, if it’s technologically sophisticated enough to feed such a staggering number of people, and still allow them time to contemplate their place in the universe?

No. Enlightenment is about living consciously, of seeing everything there is to see in objects, in people and in the events of our daily lives. And if we can all live, consciously, then the world will become an infinitely better place.

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Let me begin by saying the following essay has nothing to do with religion. I mention this because my researches on this evocative trio of words, when conducted through the Google box, throw up two kinds of website – either the new agey type or the biblical scripture type. If either of these are your bag, I apologise, but I tend to approach spiritual matters from the psychological perspective and this entry is no exception.


I was introduced to spiritual matters through the writings of Carl Jung, who managed to convince me of the objective reality of the spiritual dimension. He did this by plunging me into a dialog with the contents of my dreams and thereby equating the spiritual with the imaginary world.

Normally , if we imagine something, we do not think of it in literal terms – we do not grant it the status of a tangible reality. Whether what we think of comes from dreams, hallucinations or waking reveries, we tell ourselves they are just images we created in our heads and they are not important. To imagine things in our heads is all right for children, but if we’re still doing it when we grow up we are either a poet or there’s something wrong with us. This is the contemporary, rational viewpoint, and it is well embedded in the Western zeitgeist. Scientists, religious agnostics and pious churchmen alike would all look with suspicion upon anyone who took their imaginings seriously, or attempted to argue that they possessed any form of autonomous, objective reality,… that the characters they met in dreams were in any way real.

Yet it was just such an idea that developed in early Greek culture, in the days of Plato, and became the basis of a philosophy that shaped the minds of generations of intellectuals, right through to what might be called the end of the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century. At this point, the so called “Enlightenment” of Scientific Rationalism finally forced it out of any serious intellectual debate and relegated it instead to the underground journals of the mystics, the die-hard romantic poets, and the new age gurus. But for a long time before this, it had formed the binding thread of the secretive practice of western alchemy, and it survives as such intact up to the present day. To the uninitiated alchemy the ludicrous practice of attempting to transmute base metals into Gold, but this is a trite and overly literal interpretation of the philosopher’s art. There was considerably more to it, and if the alchemists had been found out they would have been burned as witches.

Jung was more than a dreamer, more than a plagiarist regurgitating the works of past generations. As a psychiatrist, working in a mental asylum, he encountered people who were mentally lost,… irrational beyond hope of remedy, and all Jung could do was listen to their apparently incoherent ravings. However, he sometimes noticed patterns in these ravings, and eventually realised these ramblings were in fact the retelling of ancient myths, that the voices speaking through these poor lost souls possessed a Daemonic quality – not “demonic” in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religious sense, but Daemonic in the Platonic sense, in the sense of the old philosophers, the alchemists.

The mythological symbols and patterns of ancient man were alive, in an independent sense, in a substratum of the unconscious minds of people whose consciousness was apparently broken and therefore unable to filter out the bizarre imagery. This led Jung to formulate a model of the human psyche which included a collective aspect to the unconscious mind, through which we were all linked. What Jung seemed to have uncovered was evidence of what the alchemists knew as the Anima Mundi, the world soul.

The world soul, if real, suggests that the one thing underpinning all of reality, as well as the totality of the psyche of each and every one of us is a deep unconscious stratum of thought. It is teeming with pattern, symbols and myth, and it exists independently of us. We do not think it into being. It came before us. It was already there when we arrived, and became conscious of ourselves in a physical reality.

Biological evolution has given us a physical form with which we obviously identify very strongly. We are fond of our bodies, and sexually attracted to the bodies of our fellow humans. The human form then is impressed upon us as a primary image. When we dream, we encounter psychic energies which we interpret in the symbolic language we understand and therefore grant form to these energies as other human beings, male, female, sometimes distorted, or modified in ways both beautiful and repulsive. Other images we encounter in reality – our landscapes, creatures,…. all of these things are embedded in our minds and used to form meaningful pictures from the seething mass of symbols in the unconscious mind. We see a dragon in our dreams, but it is not a dragon in a literal sense, more something that has suggested to us the form a dragon. We need to be careful then in our interpretation of imaginary things, cautious of reading only the literal interpretation of what we apparently see and should try instead to get at the meaning behind the image, try to interpret the symbol, for therein lies the truth of it.

These ideas have held me in thrall for many years now. Unfortunately, Jung, though popular in his lifetime, is not for the fainthearted, and you are unlikely to find any of his works in the high street today – more likely it will be trite self help books, if you’re lucky enough to find a bookshop at all. But if you have the time and you’re serious about uncovering some of the more curious aspects of the nature of reality, then I suggest you look him up on Amazon. Start with his “Selected Writings” or “Dreams Memories and Reflections”, but avoid “Mysterium”, which reads more like the Magnum Opus of a wizard than any mortal man.

Modern learned writers on this subject are hard to find. The self help industry is massive and many of the writings you will discover are just reworkings of ideas from Jung, the Theosophists, Blavatsky, and a long list of other post Romantic mystics. Their works are suspiciously self serving, being more about making money for the gurus by selling books and seminars than attempting to sincerely further our knowledge of this important subject.

One exception I stumbled upon recently are the works of Patrick Harpur, whose Philosopher’s Secret Fire, Compete Guide to the Soul and Mercurius, arrested my attention in the summer of 2010, and had me thinking back on my interpretation of Jung. Harpur picks up on Jung’s works without slavishly worshipping them, and his books have granted me a fresh perspective on ideas that have haunted me for a decade, allowing me I think to move on a little further towards a better understanding of these things. I ground to a halt with Jung some years ago, because I think I fell into the trap of wanting to take him too literally. But through the work of Harpur, I’ve begun to feel things moving again, and I’m very glad indeed that I stumbled across him. To tread the spiritual path outside of the mainstream, we all need to be alchemists.

So,… soul, spirit, self,…

These are words bandied about in books and poems and seem to be used interchangeably – meaning the same thing, but what that thing is is never made clear. There is a clear difference however, and understanding it helps us to understand both the nature of the human psyche and our place in reality, because there can be no understanding of reality without understanding the psyche.

To begin then, the Self is the totality of the human psyche. It consists of both who we think we are, and who we truly are, but are not necessarily aware of being. In other words it consists of our conscious awareness, and our unconscious. This dichotomy also divides the psyche into the two opposed elements, the yin and the yang of it, or the spirit and the soul.

We feel Soul as a stirring inside of us. Soul’s nature is feminine, regardless of our gender and her domain is the unconscious which itself is rooted in the collective unconscious, or the soul of the world, the Anima Mundi. The soul bears aspects that are both shared and individual. It is our souls that connect us to each other. When we look at another person and feel an attraction, an affinity, it is through the aegis of our soul.

The unconscious aspect of the psyche is vast in comparison with the conscious, and it is from here our imaginary life swells. We sit down one day, take up a pen and begin to doodle a pattern, or a human character forms in our mind’s eye, and we write down a few lines of dialogue for a story. We do not consciously think these things into being. They appear spontaneously. They are at best teased up from the unconscious, then given a coherent shape by the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of them. When I write my stories, I do not base them on real things that have happened to me and can pluck from memory. I do not base my characters on people I know. They come from my unconscious as images ready formed, and I puzzle over them, I try to fit them into a pattern that conveys something rounded and satisfying. Sometimes it works and the story finds its way into the public domain. Sometimes it doesn’t and the unsolved puzzle remains on the hard drive of my computer, perhaps to await the one piece that my unconscious is witholding from me.

Spirit on the other hand is a conscious energy. We say a man or a woman has “spirit”. They are animated, driven, lively, beguling. Spirit is the urge to explore, to create, it is the drive behind the quest, be it physical or spiritual. It is the desire to learn, to understand, to broaden the horizons of our thoughts our beliefs, our understanding of the world. It is the animating drive behind my fingers as I type, but it is the unconscious, and my inner dialogue with Soul that I trust to deliver up the answers to the questions Spirit asks.

And it works, but only if I am patient and respectful of Soul’s wishes. Soul is mysterious, dark, sinking down into the sea of being, the dark seething cloud of the Anima Mundi. She is Yin. Spirit however, is soaring, bright, thrusting. It is Yang. It is also always a work in progress.

As a conscious energy, Spirit has much in common with the Jungian term “Ego”. Ego gets a bad press. “He’s so Egotistical!” It has become a byword for combative self importance, and a pathalogical belief in one’s superiority above others. It’s perhaps understandable then that some self help books teach us that Ego must be broken at all costs if we are to enter into the spiritual bliss of enlightement. But I think this goes too far. We are here in physical reality for a reason. Spirit is the name of our vehicle, Soul our navigator. Without Ego we would sink into a state of catatonic listlessness, our physical bodies wasting, our minds permanently arrested by daydreams. Without Ego, our Spirits can be broken.

A hard ego though is a brittle thing. Like heated steel quenched in water, it becomes very hard, but is also easily broken when tested. Ego is better when it’s tempered by reheating a little and cooling slowly. The tempering flame of the spirit is communion with the soul. Taking her seriously allows us to heal up the deepst cracks of the psyche, to heal neuroses and to develop a more complete self, a self that is flexible, resilient, respectful of both physical and non-physical realty,… and thereby content.

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