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Posts Tagged ‘soul’

The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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Some Jungian stuff today. I’m attempting to read Erich Neumann’s “Origins and History of Consciousness”. The book is beyond me, and I’m having to use a dictionary at some point on every page, which breaks the flow. In one sense it’s a technical work, aimed at the psychoanalytical community. In other ways, it’s a four-hundred-and-odd page poem about coming into being.

It’s about the development of an individual’s sense of “I”, also the psychological development of mankind, since the one reflects the other. What I don’t think is mentioned, since even Jung avoided direct talk of it, is that both are functions of an underlying metaphysics, built into the universe itself, that indeed it is the universe. Thus, psychoanalysis crosses the boundary into spirituality.

It’s heavy going, and this is my second attempt. Neumann, a student of Jung, lacks – for me at least – Jung’s ease with language. That said, it’s instructive to come at Jung from another direction, if only to rediscover old ground in a new light. What I’m reminded of today is how the metaphysical universe communicates in the language of symbols. Symbols are mental shapes given motion, and they arouse feeling. They might look like one thing, but we interpret them as something else. Symbols cloud together, so we can cross-reference, and map their meaning to something specific. Interpreted literally, the universe has no meaning, indeed appears, at times absurd. But when seen metaphorically, archetypally, the way is illumined as something else entirely

Culturally, western man thinks of the universe in physical terms, that what we see is all there is. Even what we can’t see we can glean by our ever more sophisticated instrumentation, by our science and our technology. There is nothing else. But such thinking leads to an impasse. Worse, it results in a breakdown in our natural development, because it’s not the full story. There is the universe as we see it, and then there’s the universe as it really is, and the two are not the same. Denying even the possibility of the universe as it is, we cut our selves off from our natural path and we disintegrate, as people and as a culture.

Jungian thinking posits the notion of a psychical underpinning to the universe. This is not to say the stars, the galaxies, the planets are alive and conscious of themselves. These are merely the bigger manifestations of the universe as we see it, not as it is. We don’t know how it is in itself. All we know of it is what we can perceive upon the screen of our senses. But while the rules governing material processes tend towards ever increasing states of disorder, universal consciousness tends towards greater levels of order, and it finds its greatest order, its sense of self-awareness, in each of us.

The formless aspect of the universe is a realm of archetypal pattern, whose behaviours we interpret through the language of myth. Myths are those stories which form the basis of human culture. They deal with the perplexing mysteries of where we come from, of how we should conduct ourselves while we’re here, and ultimately where we’re going. But since the individual mind is a microcosm of the universal mind, these stories can also be turned inward and used for self analysis. The world’s mythologies have more wisdom in them than any book on psychology.

And what the myths teach is that the individual life is the universe playing hide-and-seek with itself. We are born into the world, immersed in its material complexity, and having forgotten entirely who we really are. But we also have this strange kernel of longing for a greater understanding of the meaning of our lives. A life’s journey then becomes a journey to the realisation we are different versions of the same awareness, that we spring from the psychical ground of being. However, it’s one thing to be told such a thing, to be aware of it intellectually, quite another to feel it, and so to “know” it. To truly “know” it is to awaken.

To awaken, however, is a rare thing, even when you know the destination. But for the ordinary travelling souls, like me, what this also means is that if the road is of interest, we need only declare ourselves open for business, and the universe will co-operate to a degree that suits our personal limitations. It will constellate symbols around us and, if we can interpret them, they will draw us in a direction that is right for us. This is a little like confirmation bias, where we agree with those speakers who reflect best our own dispositions, and dislike those who do not.

The universe communicates by synchronicity. It leads us by coincidence to those things, events, or people that are most meaningful to us. And what is meaningful is that which will trigger the emotions we most need to address, they being of a negative, regressive variety. They cloud our vision, and muddy our minds. Whilst the goal here is not happiness, happiness becomes a more reliable companion, as a by-product of the process, while awakening remains the true goal.

The deeper we are lost in the game, the harder will our awakening be, and the more profound the lived experience. To what end, I don’t know. If I can ever get to the end of Neumann’s book, I may find out. But I’ve a feeling the universe was just having me on when it pointed him out to me, and by so doing is pointing out – symbolically – my own limitations.

And if so, then fair enough, but I remain, as ever, open for business.

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There are stronger hints of spring, now. I see buds on the hedgerows ripe for opening, where they’re touched by the sun, and I catch the first pungent whiffs of allium along the riverbank. The river’s high and swift today, after rains. We’ve had two incidents of people falling in trying to rescue their dogs. This would be comical were it not potentially so serious. The first occasion I was on hand to help. The second was more difficult and involved the police, fire and ambulance services. Today is not a day for falling into the river, and I hope the dog-people, of whom there are many this afternoon, are mindful of that.


The meadows are slippery under an inch of water and make for heavy going. Approaches to the stiles and kissing-gates, which always seem so mysteriously attractive to cows, are trodden by the press of their hooves into a gloopy commando assault-course. My peregrinations have boiled down to two loops from the home village, now, both around five miles. We’re heading east today, up-river towards Eccleston. I have the camera, but I’ll take some persuading to get it out, because by now I’ve shot this walk to death. It’s a sunny afternoon, but I’m finding such days uninteresting now – photographically, I mean – a stinging, bright, squinting sun, and all the colours washed out. Strange to say, but I’m favouring a bit of cloud to add texture.


It’s funny how the footpath signs disappear. They’re obviously very fragile things. There’s often no more than tattered remnants left clinging to a gate or to a post to prove there was ever a right of way this way at all. Sometimes the post has disappeared as well, or you’ll come across it overthrown and tangled deep in the hedgerow. The council needs to make them of stronger stuff. I’m thinking of what the sportsmen must make their “Private fishing” signs from. The landed’s “no trespassing” signs too, seem to last forever – rude, officious and imperishable. I liken them to ruddy-faced farmers, legs astride as if to present their phallic authority over the land. The farmer has a shotgun in the crook of his arm. His steel toe-capped boot, encrusted with cow-shit, is swinging for my arse,…


Sorry, I digress. That was a long time ago. But such things, encountered in childhood, colour one’s outlook to land and one’s rights of access to it.


“F&%k off my land.”

“I’m not interested in traipsing your land willy-nilly, Mr Farmer. Indeed, I have better things to do, and would rather avoid this abominable scrap heap of a farm-yard if you would but kindly direct me safely through it. Also, I’ll walk my path as a mark of my diminishing freedoms. Interfere with that, and you’ll bring a war of ramblers down on your head.”


They are a precious thing, those green pecked lines on the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 maps. They are a fine Irish lacework of exploration, of fresh perspectives. And they are the gateway to a secret. Let me whisper it: they put you back in touch with the soul of the world. If you want to know a place, to feel it, you seek out the green pecked lines. You will never know a place from the roadside or through the windows of a car. You have to walk the paths that thread among the trees and the meadows. But sometimes the landed take those paths, your paths, and use the anvil of the law to straighten them out, to redirect them away from their properties. They channel them between high fences, between barbed wire and electric shocks. They keep to the letter of the law by right of way, but rob entirely the deeper meaning of the footpath network. They deny you your right to soul.


I have a path like that at the back of my house, once a meandering smudge through buttercups, across a pair of sleepy meadows. At certain times, you’d get a moonrise between a gap in the trees and on some nights, misty nights, say, that was a real jaw-dropper. Then the money came and bought the meadows for their horses. The path is now a pointless ginnel between squared up paddocks. It is an A to B of nothingness and all between destroyed. Money buys you space and the means to keep horses, but it clearly does not restore the sight of those who are already blind.


I find the “private fishing” signs along the river here an affront to decency. Big and white, they shout their possession, contaminate the scene, and ruin the photograph. I mean FFS, is there a problem with people fishing along here and not paying their dues? It seems odd to me. It would be pleasant to rummage along the river bank, see what’s about: Water-vole? Heron? I’m told there are salmon in the river now. But are there kingfisher? Alas, I am forbidden from casual investigation. I must stick to the path, and not linger too long in case my tardiness be misinterpreted as an encampment. Is it really true trespass is soon to be a criminal offence now? Will then the cops be swooping if I stray from the path? How long a stretch will it be for affronting the landed with my bootprints?


In my novel, the Singing Loch, it was in the wilder places the protagonists touched the soul of the world. It was the thing that gave life meaning. Without it everything else turned grey, like ash. The genesis of that novel lies thirty years in the past, in the emotions aroused by a book by Marion Shoard. Its sentiments still inform my philosophy. Around every town or village there’s a ring of dog turds, about a quarter mile out from the last house. Within that ring, all is tired and grey, void of any vestige of the world-soul. It’s trampled out, like the land around those stiles and kissing gates by the heels of cows. You’ve got to get beyond that ring, into the quiet zone, and among the shy creatures, before you can hear the earth breathe again. The footpath network will take you there, it will reconnect you.


Maybe that’s it then. The landed would rather you didn’t discover this secret for yourselves, and that’s why they hide the footpath signs. That’s why they tear them down (I can think of no other reason). They don’t want you waking up from your slavery. After all, who else is going to pay for their luxury, and the oats for their horses?

Ooh, it’s been a long time since I had a pop at the toffs. I quite enjoyed that. Forgive me such indulgence. Anyway,…


I brought back just the one picture. It was a blaze of late afternoon sunlight, and long shadows thrown by a tight little trio of trees. They spoke to me, in that instant, of the river, and the wind and of past rains. But I couldn’t capture it. Even with five brackets overlaid and through a Leica lens, it was a near-white-out barely rescued by post-processing trickery.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be obliged to stay at home, stay local. But we’d all do well to get out those maps, study our local footpath network, and discover its secrets. There’s more to our land than space for rich men’s horses. Go find it.

Goodnight all.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885

The material life is what it is. We are born into certain circumstances – an ethnicity, a religion, a family, a nationality, a moment in time – and we make of our circumstances what we can. We do this within the limitations of our personality, intelligence, and energy, also the limitations placed on us by history, culture, and by prejudice – our own prejudice directed at others, and theirs directed back at us.

Thus constrained we make way as best we can, always striving for personal happiness. But for all our hopes to the contrary, life is messy, impermanent, beset by tragedy, and there is nothing to suggest what we make of our material lives, whether we find our balance, or we thrive or are utterly crushed, is actually of any importance at all.

For proof we need only observe those among the rich and powerful, people who are the most materially successful and surely want for nothing, yet whose ignorance and cruelty suggests they are operating at a very low level of self awareness, that indeed as human beings, not only have they a long way to travel, that wealth or power or popularity is not the real measure of success at all. But then we all know this, don’t we?

Without a certain level of self awareness, we are like automata, we are as lacking in the essence of life as the material things we crave. Self awareness is standing beneath a starry sky and feeling one’s smallness while also awakening to a deep connection with the mystery of all before us; it is the realisation that without our eyes to see and hearts to feel, there is no beauty, that our exquisitely fragile presence is the only thing that grants the universe meaning. Thus the soul in man awakens.

Many confuse this soul-life with religion, and though it is indeed a spiritual matter, it is not about “getting” religion. Religion is easy. Spiritual matters are more difficult. They develop, not supernaturally, but from the psyche and they grow from enquiry into one’s self. Religions can provide a path to self awareness, but one that is too often subverted by the tendency of all hierarchical structures towards corruption.

As unlikely as it sounds, writing – or indeed any form of art – provides another path. There is in all of us a transcendent function that enquires of life and seeks wholeness, seeks oneness with “something”. We can ignore it, or we can grant it creative expression. It’s not a path for everyone, and really rather depends upon one’s psychological type. But it suits me, so I write.

When we write, we are dealing with the unconscious and its unknown contents. Through writing, we invite these contents to become known through the imagination. Once known, or at least hinted at, they become our life’s work, our life’s story. We work then at a pace in partnership between the forces that support us and our natural ability to assimilate them.

My own story thus far is contained in twelve novels, beginning with the Singing Loch, first penned in my twenties, and ending with my most recent, the Inn at the Edge of Light. It begins with the natural world, with the sublime nature of the hills and mountains of the British Isles, and the realisation that the sublime isn’t “out there” at all, but is actually a thing we project from within, like an archetype, a pattern of psychical energy, that the sublime is an abstract impression of the divine ground of being. We were separated from it at birth and we crave reconnection.

The paradox however is that, once awakened and craving reconnection, we realise the river of unconscious contents emanating from this inner universe we are seeking to re-enter, is flowing against us, striving ever more towards an awareness of itself in the physical world, a world that, to a human life, seems curtailed to the point of frustration and despair. It is as if timelessness seeks the ephemeral, a phenomenon as strange as the thought of a free man seeking imprisonment. This is a hard one to crack, but in writing we state the problem, and we invite the answer.

Sometimes the answers come directly from the unconscious, revealing themselves on the page, often trivial details in themselves but which form, over time, a greater structure of understanding. And sometimes it comes serendipitiously, the unconscious guiding us towards the works of others, works we may have perused many times and seen nothing in them, but through our continuing enquiry we awaken sufficiently to return and take what meaning is meant for us, at the time when we are ready to grasp it.

And finally, with the Inn at the Edge of Light I take my seat at the bar and the landlord pours me out a glass of the water of life and I begin to understand through all this mythologising the role of a man with one foot in the camps of both his conscious and his unconscious life. Either that or I fall victim to my own delusions, and what I have achieved is no more than a voyage of Romantic speculation – take your pick.

But if I can close by paraphrasing Carl Jung,…

To the intellect, mythologising is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a certain glamour which we would not like to do without.

Nor is there any reason why we should.

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rembrandt scholar

The online world remains the easiest outlet for creative expression, at least one that comes with an audience. I’d say it was my “preferred” option but that would be to suggest I have any other choice which, in common with many of my kind – at least those of us who have wised up – I don’t. However, I do actually “prefer” it because there’s a world of difference between writing and publishing and while writing online grants us the freedom to explore stories in a direction of our own choosing, publishing does not. Publishing just wants more of the same. Publishing wants what sells.

This is not to say I don’t still toy now and then with at least the idea of flirting with the printed press again, but the essentials there haven’t changed in forty years which means if long-form fiction’s your thing, you need an insider’s contacts to avoid the slush pile and to deliver your musings with an auspicious whack, directly to a commissioning editor’s desk. Without that advantage, you’re going nowhere my friend.

There’s self-publishing online for money of course, but for all its blather, writers should be wary of its over-hyped promise because this won’t make you rich and famous either. Kurt Vonnegut nailed it when he said the arts were no way to make a living, only to grow some soul. What does that mean? It means we have to buckle down and a get ourselves a proper job first. Anything will do, so long as it leaves us time and energy at the end of the day to write. The trouble is, being an amateur hack, we’re likely to be as unknown in our sixties as we were in our twenties. Is that a failure of ourselves as writers? Well, it depends how much you grow your soul in the mean time, and none of us are best placed to be the judge of that anyway.

I suspect it’s a journey we must all make as individuals, so nothing I say here is going to make sense to anyone just starting out, and they’ll still likely believe against the odds they can change the world with their story, if only the world would wise up and recognise their genius. But trust me, it wont.

It’s a funny old business, growing soul. I mean, if writing or any other form of art were truly integral to that process, one might think thrashing out the most perfect story or poem, then unceremoniously deleting it wouldn’t matter, that if anyone read it or not would be irrelevant, that growing one’s soul is a purely private matter, no audience required. Except to me it does seem important, this exchange from one mind to another, writer to reader, that unless we writers complete that particular end of the bargain, the muse or the genii or the daemons who gave us this stuff in the first place won’t be happy until they’ve goaded us into finding an audience for it. Or this may just be a sign of residual vanity in me, that forty years of writing has left my soul the same button-mushroom size it was when I was ten.

In the bad old days this primeval urge to find an audience would deliver us into the hands of the vanity press. You could tell them apart by the fact they accepted your manuscript in glowing terms, while the other lot simply returned it unread. Yes, the vanity press would butter you up no end, appeal to your – well – vanity, then print your novel and deliver you a crate of the things, leaving the rest to you, which is to say high and dry and probably skint. Beware, vanity is a terrible thing and can lead you into all kinds of trouble.

They’re still around, those shysters, moved mostly online now, offering also their worthless authoring services like reading and editing, all of which still leave the writer out of pocket and no nearer publication than when they started. So don’t be tempted, or at least if you are don’t be surprised when you get shafted.

I look to the online world then as a means of pacifying that particular whim of the muse who seems curiously untroubled by giving the work away. And it has to be said there’s something quietly subversive about it that I enjoy. Yes, you can charge for it on Amazon and Smashwords, but then the downloads shrivel to nothing, because everyone online is after free-stuff and the value of a work is, after all, in its scarcity, and regardless of the fact you spent a year writing it, your novel can be copied and pirated in a nanosecond, rendering it essentially worthless – at least in money terms – anyway.

The downside is that while the Internet has the advantage of a potentially global reach, for readers actually hitting upon one’s work it’s a bit like sitting on a needle in a haystack – an entirely chance and unlikely event. So, building even a humble readership can be rather a slow business. Why bother then?

Well, perhaps the truth is if we were wealthy enough we might spin our musings from the psychiatrist’s couch, whittle down to the nub of things that way, but instead we write for the mysterious “other”. The “other” understands us perfectly; they just never write back to say so, and that’s fine because if they did, we’d know it wasn’t them anyway.

Is that growing some soul? I don’t know, but I’m still writing, always looking for the next story, the next tumble down the wormholes of my dizzy head.

And that has to count for something.

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jefferies[1]

My most treasured book by Richard Jeffries is not this one but a fragile early edition of The Amateur Poacher, (1879). The Amateur Poacher is a collection of essays detailing bucolic life around Jeffries’ native Coates, in Wiltshire and is cherished for its evocation of a rural England now lost. But there’s something else in it, not so much written as alluded to through the intensity and the beauty of Jeffries’ prose. What that is exactly is hard to describe but many have felt it, and wondered,…

Let us get out of these indoor, narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

Traditional ideas of spirituality and religion are but the ossified remains of this ineffable thing the ancients called “divine”, but it’s still present in the world and can be felt anywhere where the last sleepy cottage slips from view, where we can immerse ourselves once more in nature and intensify our experience of it through the lens of the psyche as well as the senses.  Jeffries allows that nature can be cultivated – meadows, coppices, fields of wheat – it does not have to be wilderness. It’s the life-energy in it that’s important to the soul, while the built world – the towns, the cities – are dead places more associated with the soul’s decay.

The nature of this ineffable “something” haunted Jeffries. While it’s hinted at throughout his writings, it’s here in “The Story of my heart” he attempts a more direct understanding of it. It’s not an easy book to summarise and must really be experienced, so there’s little I can do here but grant a flavour of it.

Written in the intense and emotional language of a prose poem, the book treats mankind as a being both of and keenly attuned to beauty, also as something apart from the world and capable of great perfection on our own terms, both physically and mentally. Nature, on the other hand, though at times ravishing to the senses, is more reflective of something within us, while being of itself blind to our existence. Though not intentionally cruel, nature can easily harm us. Also when we see the low creeping forms of life, it can be ugly, even offensive to the soul. Only superficially then can we describe Jeffries as a nature mystic. He does not deify nature, more something in man that’s higher than anything we can imagine.

“The sea does not make boats for us,” he says, “nor the earth of her own will build us hospitals.”

But for all our efforts with boats and hospitals in the last twelve thousand years, we’ve done nothing more than struggle for subsistence. Yet if we put our minds to it we might harvest in a single year enough to feed the entire world for decades. That we don’t suggests a deep failing, that we allow ourselves to be perversely distracted by everything that is bad for us, deliberately avoiding the need for cultivating the soul-life. Instead, we eulogise enslavement to largely meaningless and unproductive work.

He describes observing traffic in London, the crowds the carriages, the mad, rushing crush of it, everyone driven by an insatiable craving for motion and direction. Yet for all of that, he says, we are going nowhere, and shall continue to do so: while money, furniture, affected show and the pageantry of wealth are the ambitions of the multitude.

He sees the general human condition as one of perpetual ignorance and suffering,… so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. He dismisses religion in all its forms, also the idea of deity entirely on the basis of the evidence,… that there is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs.

Our miseries are our own doing, he insists, and we must own them: because you have mind and thought, and could have prevented them. You can prevent them in future. You do not even try.

For us to progress, he urges us to reconnect with the higher mind, what he calls the “mind of the mind” – this being the soul, or the psyche because:

The mind is infinite and able to understand everything that is brought before it. The limit is the littleness of the things and the narrowness of the ideas put for it to consider.

Neither religion nor the physical sciences can offer us anything in this regard, those modes of thinking being completely wide of the mark. But as one who has felt the full blistering force of his own higher nature, Jeffries cannot be wholly pessimistic about our lot either, only lamenting that we need a quantum leap in understanding if we are not to spend another twelve thousand years going around in circles.

But while he tries his eloquent best to tell us the story of his heart, the abiding impression of this book is of an exquisitely sensitive man beset all his life by visions and feelings of such sublime loveliness they left him virtually speechless.

I was sensitive to all things, the earth under, and the star-hollow round about; to the last blade of grass, to the largest oak. They seemed like exterior nerves and veins for the conveyance of feeling to me.

Branded heretical in his time, pilloried by the Church for his paganism, and by urbanites for his unflattering views of London, the book did not sell well and many critics dismissed it as unintelligible. But for others, including me, Jeffries’ prose describes most powerfully those things all sensitive countryphiles have felt, and which we know point to a greater understanding of our place in the Cosmos – if only, like him, we could open our hearts to it properly, and find the words.

*[Richard Jeffries, English nature-writer, novelist, natural historian. 1848-1887]

For more information about Richard Jeffries you can do no better than to click here.

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mazda night journey HDR

November and these cloud-thick nights,
Darken now my wending of the way,
Releasing sleepy thoughts,
From the oppression,
Of that harsher light of waking day.

Such a long road, so often travelled,
But now without the stars to guide,
Their names forgotten,
Friendly patterns lost
As with the memory
Of once much clearer skies.

There are just these vague pecked lines,
Ticking out the time,
And the blind old eyes of cats,
Sunk, each in their little pit of grime,
Depressed in layer upon layer
Of careless tar,
And just the odd one
Feebly blinking now
At the passing of my car,

Lost souls, all.
Adrift, alone,
And not candle in the dark,
To guide us home.

 

 

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It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

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With the going of the light, and the fast fading memory of summer’s ease, Black Dog comes stalking once again. We toss him a stick, some stupid novelty or other, which he returns sodden and chewed beyond attraction. Thus, after a couple of turns, we are no longer minded to pick it up, so there he curls, our unshakeable friend, creeping ever closer until he’s in our lap, weighting down all possibility of forward movement.

Words fail in our throats, people look strange, look also strangely at us as we sink into paranoia at the apparent indifference, even of our loved ones. In pettiness, we withdraw, lose empathy, and equanimity as we huddle in imaginary self defence. We become then the worst of ourselves, favouring the lonely places, or the indoors, the impersonal, the pointless flicking at our phones,  the mindless digestion of the indigestible, the foolish, and the vain.

The soundtrack to our lives deepens to despair as Gorecki displaces once more the Red Priest from the player. A symphony of sorrowful songs de-tunes the cellos from their once ravishing Baroque concertos, splits the lustrous age-old wood, breaks the bows, shape-shifts rosin into a cold slime, and bends the dead strings into the intersecting snail-trails of man’s infinite inhumanity.

The filters of filth fail us, and we are overwhelmed by the madness of the world again, no longer able to blind-eye its deep vales of deceit, its mountains of depravity. And we see the leaders naked, as they truly are perhaps, lost or mad or utterly grotesque, letting loose their policemen, black-armoured cockroach armies to hammer blood from dissent.

Black Dog, your visions are cruel, rendered bearable only by the numbing fragrance of your breath. You are the rot of crushed leaves, the rot of wood dissolved to crumb by cringe-legged beetling lice, you are the perennial black mould on the wallpaper above my desk, you are the scratching in the night, and the sinister rustling of an infestation of mice.

We brush down our books in vain, our books of dreams, of alchemy, of transcendentalism, yet, once treasured, we find them mould-stained and dusty, and scented of you, taking with them the key to the only escape we knew, to the vast labyrinth of the esoteric. Now there is only the unsoftened day ahead, each to be taken in its turn. Thus we answer each half-lit morn the alarm clock’s shrill call, rise, stretch our stiffening limbs, pee out our aching bladder.

Is this really the only way? But what of those moments when we shook you from our lap and soared? Those days we rattled the high roads while the beatific sun beat down and tanned our faces? Where were you then? Or the glad beach-days with the soft sand and the multitudinous shades of ocean blue? Or coffee, and company, and that gentle hand to hold? Where were you then?

But these are earthly things for sure and transient as mist, the meagre sticks we toss, then you’ll chase and allow us a moment to breathe. What we seek now is the secret of another kind of cultivation, and the ability to cast it an infinite distance away.

Then go,… Fetch!

Damn you.

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souls-codeDr James Hillman (1926-2011) was a renowned post-Jungian analyst, depth psychologist and latter day guru of the human development movement. His books offer ideas that draw on early Western (Greek) philosophy and mythology. If we want to understand, to accommodate and direct the forces of the psyche, says Hillman, then we do well to think on what the Greeks wrote about their gods.

I find him difficult, but if one perseveres bits of him stick. In the Soul’s Code he tells us about Plato’s myth of Er, part of his magnum opus, The Republic, in which we are acquainted with the idea of a personal Daemon, an internal, psychical companion who carries the map of our lives, according to a plan laid down before our birth.  Our future then, according to this myth, is not determined so much by the environment we are born into as by a kernel of potential, like an acorn, that will grow into what it was meant to be regardless of any adversity we face in life, or possibly even because of it.

Our task in life is to live out the potential of the acorn, to allow it to grow down from the fertile earth of the deep psyche into the blossom of material realisation through the physical entity that we are. But the Daemon also has the power to bend and shape events to suit the attainment of its ambition for us. So,… we miss the bus, the car gets a flat tyre, we miss the crucial meeting, we lose our job; seen from the Ego’s perspective as personal disasters, such upsets can now be re-interpreted as part of a grander plan, releasing us to pursue another path, one closer to what the Daemon has intended for us. It’s a catch-all – so even the bad hand we are dealt can be greeted with a philosophical acquiescence. It was simply meant to be.

But we can also resist the daemon, resist the call, run capriciously and contrary to the Daemon’s aim. When this happens though, we will at some point feel resistance, feel a gnawing dissatisfaction with our lives and our tireless wants. Persist long enough in a contrary direction and the Daemon will make us ill, or even kill us off altogether, write us off as a bad job, and start afresh.

To realise the Daemon’s plan is to live the life we were intended. The challenge though is divining what it is the Daemon wants for us, and knowing if we’re on the path or not. Personal happiness is not the key, for many who have lived Daemon haunted lives do not end their lives well. Their achievements may stand out, make history, save lives, bring comfort to millions, while their own lives end in apparent ruin and ignominy.

What I find confusing about The Soul’s Code is Hillman’s use of remarkable lives as illustrations of the Daemon at work. He does this, he says, to magnify the phenomenon, to render it visible to analysis but, though he tells us the Daemon is at work in all our lives, the temptation at a first reading is to conclude only those names lit up by fame have listened well enough, and the rest of us are losers.

I’m sure this isn’t what Hillman is saying, or maybe it is. I find much in him that’s contradictory, elusive, beguilingly and beautifully poetic, rather like the psyche itself: alluring, intangible, ambiguous, shape-shifting. There are no firm handles, no answers, nothing to gain purchase, nothing one can test by putting into practice, no ten step plan for contacting your Daemon and realising your full potential. He is the dream to be interpreted, and like the all dreams perhaps not taken too literally.

I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of a personal Daemon. Indeed I think I met mine once, during a brief, spontaneous moment of transcendence, when I recognised myself as being interconnected with everything. Everywhere I looked, there I was. And the Daemon was there, felt, rather than seen, a formless presence reminding me, wordlessly, that as remarkable and unlikely as this vision of seemed, I had always known it to be the truth, but had forgotten it. I had drunk, as Hillman might have quoted, from Greek Myth, from the waters of the Lethe.

But the puzzle for all of us is what I feel Hillman did not address in any depth, and I’d hoped he would – this being the sense of our own importance, our own mission, which is at complete odds with the reality of a small speck of life played out in an infinite, cold and unfeeling universe. In company with our Daemon we feel how interconnected we are with world, that man and world cannot not be said to exist at all in isolation from the other. But in my case, my awareness underlined how much this was, my universe, my journey, that the Daemon and I are alone in working towards our purpose, no matter how insignificant a thing that might appear to be on paper. The Daemon is the captain of my vessel, while my ego-self, the thing I think of as me, is more the sole deckhand, as we sail the tempestuous seas of fate and mischance.

But where does this leave you?

In the working out of my journey are you merely the personification of my own fate and mischance, to be used by my captain as an object lesson – friends, lovers, family,… ill or well met, the whole damned lot of you? And how about the man who talks to himself on the bus, and whom I’d rather avoid? Is he a God in disguise, come to test my own godliness, my own compassion? Are you all merely the humours and the godlings come to test and steer, as in those old Greek stories.

Are you not really there at all?

Perhaps I should have listened more to those Greek myths as a child, for as Hillman teaches, there’s probably many a metaphorical clue in there I’ve missed that would be of help to me now. But the Greeks, like Hillman are not exactly an easy read, and diligence seems rewarded with only more questions, while the answers, far from clear, seem lacking altogether.

Or I could just leave it to the Daemon, and hope I’m on the right path anyway. Then none of it matters and the acorn of my life will, out in spite of all my protestations to the contrary.

I leave you with a taste of the late great, Dr James Hillman (1926-2011):

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