Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

I have been an amateur novelist since I was a teenager. The stories had to be fitted in around the day-job. Sometimes I enjoyed the day-job, sometimes I didn’t. What I reliably disliked about it, was the sacrifice of freedom to live as I chose, in exchange for the means to live as I had to. It is a source of suffering common to many of us, and nothing unusual in it. But the question is: were the novels an escape from those aspects of life that caused me to suffer? Or, was having to suffer, in fact, the fuel that powered the novels? And now I am retired, and therefore free to live as I choose, where does that leave the writing?

The writing began as a search for self-validation. I wanted to know if my thoughts, my feelings, indeed my very being, were valid in the world. It’s a risky gambit to do this through writing, and I do not recommend it, since rejection by publishers can be problematic for one’s self-esteem. In this sense, I was indeed roundly rejected. But, through writing, I also discovered the psyche, and was able to grasp the idea that the value of writing as a mostly unpublished amateur, lies in its potential to transform the writer, and if necessary, to heal them. As for the validity of one’s being, the simple fact of our very existence vouches for that. This is something else the writing teaches us.

Now I’m retired, and there is no real stress I can think of, other than what I invent for myself. Decades of angst are dissolving out of me. I no longer suffer the working life, and I bask in my freedoms, living, mostly, as I please. It’s a blessed feeling, but can one still be a writer, without the fuel of at least some suffering to power it?

I once believed anger could help drive the work, since anger is a form of suffering. In this respect, I tried the partisanship of politics. But through the writing, I came to understand politics better. As such, it no longer angers me. Observing political polarities at work, one realises how slick a trap it is, this ready anger we possess, that the world does not come in the shape of our own liking, that others do not see things the way we do. But anger, whilst granting the illusion of impetus, only holds us fast in a trap of meaninglessness. To escape to a more meaningful life, we must let it go. Using suffering, as a way to power writing, is like running on dirty diesel. To take it further, you have to go green.

I am still writing in retirement, the blog, obviously, but also the fiction. In the fiction, I create imaginary worlds, but these were never escape-pods from petty suffering. They have always been settings for exploring what one’s current reality does not readily facilitate. They were, and are, experiments in thought. They were and are dialogues exploring the feasibility of ideas.

The will to explore the world through writing is still very much present, but the gearing has changed. I am no longer screwing the nuts off the engine. I have engaged cruise control. The energy is coming from somewhere, but I have to be careful with it. It’s like the wind. I have to read the weather and accept that, on occasion, I will be becalmed.

So that’s fine, we’re still moving. But what’s our general direction? What is the destination?

As well as discovering the psyche, the writing has uncovered a secret. I mean this in the intellectual sense, like one discovers a map of buried treasure. Intellectually, the secret makes sense, at least to me, but I can’t simply tell it for it to be of any use to anyone else. You have to discover the map for yourselves, and there is a path to be walked.

It starts from the first question, and goes on until you get the answer. I have walked the path through the writing of a dozen novels. I understand the symbols, and I can read the map. X marks the spot. But what’s lacking is the belief anything is truly buried there. This might sound strange, but I think it’s a necessary part of the journey. It prevents us from believing in every shiny thing that comes our way. The rational senses hold sway, and will not permit me to believe, except in moments too few to build an overwhelming and possibly megalomaniacal momentum, but sufficient to keep the idea alive. Thus, we still approach whatever it is, but gently.

Rationality then holds us to the values of the world, as we have constructed them, but not to the way the world is in itself. And I suppose what I’m writing towards now is the trigger that will have me believe in the world as it really is, in spite of all the dazzling distractions of the material life. Such a thing is probably beyond my skill, and my powers of insight, I mean without retreating to a cave for twenty years under the tutelage of a Zen monk, and likely not even then. But the search itself is purposeful, and grants its own kind of meaning. Anyway, the journey is more beautiful than being boxed in by the dreary, graffitied red-brick that is the endgame of diesel-chugging materialism.

I’ll tell you a part of my secret: it’s not a secret, but I’ll tell it anyway: that the sense of self you feel, looking out from behind your eyes, I think, it’s the same sense of self looking out from behind mine. We are the same in that respect. The only difference between us is our life-story, our memory, our history. These are significant differences, you might say, and fair enough, but we have to reckon with the likelihood they are transient and therefore individually meaningless. I may be wrong in this, I don’t know. At root, however, we are each of us an aspect of the Universe awakening and becoming aware of itself, through the perspective of our personal senses and our unique situation in time and space. This tells us there is less value in our differences than we like to think. We are all different, but we are also, more fundamentally, and much more importantly, all of us, versions of the One same thing.

Now, if we could believe in that, the world would already be moving towards a much better place. But the world is a mess of suffering and, worse, attempts to address any aspect of it have proven futile. Cure mankind of his immediate ills, and he will at once invent others to suffer from. He does not do this to spite the goodness in others, nor the tireless efforts of the saintly and the beneficent, but only to satisfy his own need to suffer, for only through the lens of a man’s suffering does the otherwise sterile, material life make sense to him.

Without the stress of the working life, I invent other things, trivial things to fret about. Is the boiler going to break down? My fences are looking like another winter will blow them away. There is an unfamiliar noise coming from the car’s transmission, and the mechanic cannot diagnose it. What if it breaks down and leaves me stranded? These are small matters, but rapidly inflated to calamitous proportion, if I do not spot them before they have gathered sufficient steam to sink my mood. Their energy is dirty, they have the potential to foul the atmosphere, to cloud the mind.

The world, as we have built it, is high on diesel fumes, and the lesson appears to be it’s a mistake to think any one of us can make a difference to it, other than by first addressing the suffering in ourselves. We must each of us consult the story of our lives, and, by whatever means comes to hand – in my case, by writing – learn the lessons of it. We must find a way of ditching the anger, of addressing the causes of our own suffering, down to the finest of detail, and we must learn to be vigilant as they morph and shift their angles of attack upon the serenity of one’s mood.

We do it, as best we can, by going green.

Thanks for listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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cool catI did an odd thing this morning – I deleted a post I’d put up the night before. First time I’ve ever done that. It was a poem called “Safe in the Shire” and was basically about the violence and suffering we see on the TV news every night, and how it creeps into our bones, paints the world as a very bad place and tells us to be afraid – to be very afraid. It was a clumsy swipe at the perpetrators of that violence but also at the media for their emotionally manipulative reporting of it. I basically called them both stupid, and I called myself stupid for feeling safe and remote from the suffering, that all I had to do was turn off the TV and everything would be okay, when it clearly wasn’t. I pulled it this morning because I feel my voice is weakest when I adopt a certain tone – a negative tone. As a weapon against the forces of evil and the media, it’s about as effective as a wet dishcloth against a Kalashnikov, or like a mouse spitting in the cat’s eye.

Speaking of cats, I’m away from home at the moment, cat-sitting at my sisters house. The silence is astonishing, and the cat’s needs are refreshingly basic – just food, water, and a voice to keep it company. I can say anything I like to it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the tone that counts. They are sensitive creatures, cats, and can feel the vibes of a room through their whiskers. I speak kindly to the cat, and I mean it. I ask its advice. I ask if it’s still raining outside. I ask its opinion on the upcoming local elections. The cat is patient, but cannot hide the fact it thinks I am a little strange.

I like both cats and dogs – dogs can be tremendous fun, but of the two I am more of a cat person. I give it space. It comes and goes, shares the firelight with me for a while, then slips out through the flap. I asked it about the poem just now. It’s obviously gone away to think about it.

I’m pretty sure I know the answer. We have to be ourselves. There is indeed great suffering in the world and, beamed daily into our homes, it can affect our lives in two ways. It can make us fearful of the world, and it can harden us, render us insensitive, because it’s a distant suffering and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we shut it out. Neither is a good thing. It chips away at our humanity. It festers. It erodes our compassion for our fellow man. But I cannot counter a negative with another negative. That’s a dark game against a grand-master who’s always going to be several moves ahead. And I’m trying to see the positive, trying, like the cat, to tune its whiskers into that which makes me purr. For the cat I’ve discovered it’s a simple matter – tap the spoon against the food dish. Big purr, and I’m the cat’s new best friend. There’s positive for you in the cat world! But for humans it’s more complicated, and it isn’t helped when every image we have thrust upon us is a bad one.

So I pulled the damned poem, scrunched it up and tossed it into the electronic bin as petulant nonsense. Instead, I counter the bad news of the world tonight with the simple pleasure of being back in the house where I was born, the house where I grew up. It’s not much of a weapon, I suppose, against the forces of evil, but it’s the most sincere thing in my armoury right now, and therefore the only thing I have that’s worth anything. I have such fond memories of this place, and of my parents – both gone now – and for whose lives, unknown to the world, I give thanks. Yes, there is great suffering, the causes being always, as Krishnamurti taught us, the defective thinking of man. And as a man, I cannot counter it with yet more defective thinking, because that’s only going to make things worse. We have to be positive, even if all we have left to us are the smallest things. I was raised in love, in this house and I remember it. I feel it most strongly, and I offer it back to the world, instead of that stupid poem.

The cat’s in again, looking at me. It’s either come to tell me I’m on the right lines, or I should put another log on the burner.

“Don’t sit the fire out, Michael.” That could be my mother speaking.

Cool creatures, cats.

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