Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

Anglezarke, West Pennines

Oh, dullard brain, why do we push so far?
Who the hell do we think we are?
Three thousand years of philosophy,
And we think we’ll bottom it, over a cup of tea.

But that side of things has passed us by.
Before we catch up, the pigs will fly.
What we learned as a student, we don’t need any more,
All the nuts and bolts, of the physical world.

But the history of thought is a queer old fish.
Who said that, and who said this?
But more than that, what does it all mean?
And is it as hard as their language makes it seem?

In short, is philosophy not simply a curse?
Three thousand years and the world’s getting worse.
Those bearded old chaps, I’m sure they meant well,
But if they did us any good, it’s very hard to tell.

A change in the weather

Okay, I didn’t mean that. I was just tired and grumpy after a bad night with a blocked nose, and assailed by dreams of wasps. After such a hot spell, the forecast was for a change in the weather, so if I wanted to get out for the day, Monday was the best shot, but it was lunchtime by the time I made it out to the car. The wasp dream was triggered by an infestation of the little blighters. They’d been around for a while, making a nest in the attic, and were now pouring out like a biblical plague from a hole in the soffet board, dive-bombing as I loaded up. A few of them made it into the car with me.

I was caught in an ethical dilemma here. On the one hand, the environmentalists would say leave them alone if they’re doing no harm, while the pest men would say just kill them all, before they do some damage. I shooed the wasps from the car and set off, not entirely sure where I was going. I let the car decide, and it delivered me to Anglezarke.

Although the forecast was for cooler weather, it was still in the mid-twenties. But these don’t feel like the summers of childhood. Maybe we feel heat differently as we get older, but I’m sure there’s more to it, indeed something alien about the oppressive weight of summers now – at least those few weeks in the year when the sun really turns the wick up. We’d not be walking far, that was for sure. I let the boots choose, and they delivered me up to the Pikestones.

I knew the rest from here, barely three miles round. I could have stayed at home and walked further by doing laps around the garden, then sitting under the tree and drinking something cold. Except for the wasps. I had to admit, those wasps were becoming an issue, and only a matter of time before someone was stung. What to do, then? Get someone in, or have a go myself? Gor-blimey no, say the pest men. But what could possibly go wrong?

I’m reading about Hellenistic philosophy at the moment, this being the period commencing with the rapid rise of Alexander the Great’s empire, third century BC, and its long, slow disintegration. Those turbulent times had an effect on the collective psyche, which in turn spawned a new type of thinking – one that was concerned more with the nature of being, than the nature of reality. The times were causing great anxiety, and people had a need for philosophies that healed the soul.

We had the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Stoics. My favourite Cynic was Diogenes, who lived in a barrel – a notion I find curiously attractive in its simplicity – but he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to have round for a brew. The most famous of the Stoics would perhaps be Marcus Aurelius, who comes across in his writings as a remarkable chap, and worth delving into further, but that brings with it the history of the Roman Empire, and there are only so many tangents I can handle before I dissolve into my own nebulous entropy. Earlier Greek culture had offered an elaborate afterlife, a panoply of gods and a mythic, story-like structure to existence. But the Hellenistic philosophers weren’t much interested in gods, or what followed death, more in finding ways to be accepting of its finality. If you could do that, they said, you lived a better, happier life.

There’s much to be said for it. Too many of us bank on reward in the ever-after, and without actually getting going properly in the one life we’ve got. I don’t know for sure which camp I’m in. I suppose I’m guilty to a degree of constructing some kind of psychical escape capsule, where the summers are perfect, and the corn is always just ripe, and there are no wasps – a kind of dream-land I’ll linger in until I don’t care either way. It’s a comfort, and it’s probably wrong, and the Cynics and the Stoics are right. I get their point, but there’s no harm in hedging your bets.

Hard though. Philosophy. I suppose what I was getting at in that bit of opening doggerel is that my own student days were spent picking up technical subjects; mainly physics and engineering. I earned a living by it, but, now retired, it’s useless to me, most of it forgotten anyway and the rest obsolete. The arts, the humanities – I’ve dabbled in them outside of academia, and though they seem valuable now as an independent, economically self-sufficient – i.e. pensioned – citizen, it’s unlikely I can make much of a meaningful dent in them at this point in my life. A mature brain is not as plastic as a younger one, not as receptive to new stuff. A young brain can sit through a lecture and recall every word, while a mature brain drifts off after the first five minutes, and starts thinking about what the hell he should do about wasps.

The weather broke on Wednesday with thunderstorms, and it’s suddenly ten degrees cooler. Now we’re getting floods because the drains we have were made to handle the climate as it was thirty years ago. Anyway, I killed the wasps, dispersed them first with a shot of WD 40 under the eaves. That gave me a brief window of opportunity to get on the ladder and puff a great gasp of that noxious white wasp powder up the little hole. It did the job, but that’s not to say I feel good about it.

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself.” Marcus Aurelius AD 121 – 180

Rock on, Marcus.

Thanks for listening

Read Full Post »

philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

Read Full Post »

lancashire plainIt’s a strange thing. Having loved the hills and mountains all my life, I’ve spent most of my life actually living on the flat, among the potatoes of the Lancashire plain. Here, the sky has a crushing quality that seems to laugh at the transcendence of spirit even the most modest of hills affords. On the mountain top, we are giants. On the plain we are small, and made to feel it.

Here the earth had become a factory for the intensive cultivation of vegetables, vast rectangles of land, tilled by machines and, when not under crop, the soil looks tired. It is puddled and bleak in winter and in summer it is dry and cracked and dusty, the whole of it is criss-crossed by stagnant sluices, and the high, strutting march of crackling power lines. For me, even during the most golden of golden hours, it lacks poetry.

So why am I still here?

Well, sometimes the practicalities of life leave us no choice. But it’s also one of life’s axioms that we are born within limits. And it is those limits that define us by providing the energy we need to live.

schop

Arthur Schopenauer 1788-1860

I’m dipping in and out of the philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at the moment. Their world-view is impressively bleak. I’m sure it’s only a mark of my own ignorance to say so, but I am reluctant to take such profoundly miserable men at their word. Life is pointless, says Schopenhauer. It is nothing but nature eating itself. True, says Nietzsche. If we can’t laugh at it, we should jump off a cliff and thereby deny it the satisfaction of our own suffering!

Not exactly promising, is it? Except, although there might not seem at first glance to be an inch of poetry anywhere here, the poetry comes anyway. And it’s not altogether bleak. Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Does it only betray my philosophical illiteracy that I am not more of an old sour-puss, like them?

Of course, when I do travel out a bit, get among the hills, the effect is more profound for my having been starved between-times of the sublime. I would like to think that if I lived among the hills, I would never tire of them, but I know that’s not so. I would always find something was in limited supply. A decent shop, a better Internet connection. And then the broad horizon and the humbling sky of the Lancashire Plain.

N

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

As the dam limits the progress of the river, it raises the water and gives a head of energy. This enables useful work, it fuels purpose. Even the gods understand this, and envy the limiting full-stop of our mortality. Why? For the intensity of experience it grants our lives. The secret is finding a balance. We seek a dynamic sweet-spot somewhere between that which crushes us, and that which bleeds us back into the hedonistic void.

To live, of course, is to suffer. Whether we turn that to positive use, or we just moan about, is up to us. The Buddhists are the experts at dealing with suffering, but their language is often times difficult. I fear we lay readers of Buddhism risk a simplistic interpretation of it – something about attaining a state of mind whereby we do not care about anything. But not to care is to lack energy for life. So why be alive?

“Living in the moment” is another lazy new-age trope, one I am also guilty of spouting from time to time. It suggests disregarding the future, including the bus that’s about to run us over. So before we settle into the present moment, we should take stock. We should change what is sensible to change, what can be changed, like avoiding that bus. As for what we cannot change, we seek a way of not minding it, for only then can we abide serenely in the ‘is’-ness of life.

Knowing what is sensible to change though is tricky, isn’t it? Do we change our car because it’s knackered, or because we’re bored with it? If the car is knackered but we have no money to change it, how do we not mind it? And what about my dilemma of living on the plain but craving the mountains?

I suppose if we want a thing, and cannot explain why, it’s wiser not to make an issue of it because change is unlikely to please us for very long. But if we need a thing, like we need a cat to keep away mice, and we can articulate that need without using the word “want”, then it has some utility, because one’s craving doesn’t come into it. Craving satisfaction rather suggests we are lacking a more useful purpose. In identifying craving, we can then choose to deny it, and pick up our purpose instead.

I understand “purpose” in creative terms as “the work”, the book, the poetry, the formulation of the idea. But without energy it doesn’t move. We become listless, becalmed like a sailboat without wind. We can lose our energy anywhere, whenever we succumb to craving what we think we lack. Similarly, we can find it anywhere – among the high places, or down among those potatoes of the Lancashire Plain. It’s just a question of knowing not so much where, but how to look.

So, Schopenhauer: austere, other worldly and profoundly pessimistic. And Nietzsche: bombastic, rude, and ready to have a pop at anything he doesn’t like, which is just about everything. I’m sure they have a point, and could easily embarrass me out of home-spun delusions, but I don’t suppose they were writing for me. And maybe that’s a good thing, that I’m not a philosopher, I mean. Otherwise, from time to time, I’d have nothing to smile, or write, about.

 

Read Full Post »

tree paintingIf we ask: ‘what is the meaning of life’, we’ll get different answers of course, depending on who we ask, but most will talk of happiness: to be happy, to attain happiness, to spread happiness – because happiness is a good feeling, so why not?

We pursue it in various ways but always indirectly, by pursuing something else we believe will ‘make’ us happy: money, the perfect relationship, the acquisition of fancy stuff. And though we seem willing enough victims to this fallacy we all know it doesn’t work.

Stuff? No sooner have we got that new thing it’s no longer desirable and we’re on to the next. Relationships? Sorry, but there’ll be good times and bad. There’s security and warmth in a good relationship for sure, and love if you’re lucky, but love isn’t a one way ticket to happiness either. Indeed there are times when there is no misery greater than being in love. Money? Well, we all need a little money if we’re not to go hungry, and we need a key to our own front door, but that won’t make us happy for long either. It’ll just stop us from hurting, which isn’t the same thing. Indeed it seems nothing ‘makes’ us happy for long. Happiness keeps its own counsel, it comes and goes as it pleases.

It can be dispiriting once we realise how fickle happiness is, and how much effort we’ve already spent in hope of its eventual attainment, that while we may have had fleeting glimpses, it never settles in. We might even have risen to become stupendously successful, at least materially, yet there we are, sitting on the deck of our super-yacht, surrounded by golden stuff, fawned over by the world’s most beautiful partner, and still as miserable as sin. Is happiness then even worth pursuing, when its pursuit seems so self defeating?

I’m no stranger to happiness. Hopefully none of us are. But I’ve noticed I find it more often in small things, in quiet moments, in unexpected places, and without really looking for it. It’s sporadic, unpredictable, and I enjoy it while I can, but its comings and goings are impossible to predict and one must be sanguine when we are without it. No sense running after a thing, when we don’t even know where it lives.

One of my happiest moments, and certainly one of the most memorable,  was sitting under the pavement-awning of the Glenridding Hotel in pouring rain with coffee, having just walked the length of Ullswater. I remember taking a breath and seeing the rain fall – I mean the individual droplets, as if frozen in motion – and feeling time stop as the moment opened out as seemingly perfect as it could ever be.

It had been a beautiful walk, yes, but there was no need to be so ecstatic about it, surely? All I can think is the walk had given me a sense of purpose for the day. The boat drops you off at the far end of the lake and then it’s ten miles back under your own steam or nothing. Sure, I’m always happy after a long walk. Everything looks and tastes and feels better. It focuses the mind, grants one a tangible purpose, and makes us work for it.

Purpose,… now that’s an interesting word, and one worth exploring – this idea of defining a goal and working towards it. It seems to colour our lives in brighter tones. Even the cheery ring of a teaspoon in a cup can bring us joy if life provides a sufficient sense of purpose in other areas. And it doesn’t seem to matter what that purpose is. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Anything will do it, big or small, so long as you feel that in doing it you’re making things better, or even just a little bit different than they were yesterday. You could be improving yourself perhaps, or helping out in some way, or painting a picture, or making something, oiling a squeaky hinge, fixing that puncture on your bike, or that ultimate of domestic challenges: tidying up your shed! I always feel great after tidying my shed!

We’re wired for purpose, for challenge. We like to ‘do’ things, set things in order, we like to make things, explore things, we like to look back and see where we’ve been. Nothing gives us greater satisfaction and opens the door to personal happiness more than a sense of purpose. But purpose is a slippery eel, especially in a society that measures everything in terms of monetary value. Many of us would like to find purpose in our work, and this makes sense since we spend such a long time doing it, but it also renders us vulnerable should we find ourselves turfed out of it when others think our work is no longer worth it. Whole industries have gone that way, casting adrift generations, condemned them to living without practical purpose, or pressed into jobs that seem thankless, pointless and spiritually toxic.

We can’t rely on society then to provide our sense of purpose. Each of us must define it for ourselves, perhaps more especially now society, zombified by a decade of economic austerity, finds so little value in the individual human beings of which it comprises. There are so many challenges facing the world, but one of the most overlooked is this loss of all sense of the value of the individual in society, also any reasonable expectation those individuals might have that things can one day be any better than they are now. There’s nothing like a knee in the balls for making one question one’s purpose in life.

I suppose solving that one is a thing worth working towards, that the grand, collective purpose seems subverted nowadays, and how do we put that right? But in the mean time, there are personal missions a-plenty to unlock the secret of at least little happiness for each of us.

Read Full Post »

pardiseThe gurus tell us the purpose of life is to awaken. We become aware of our unconsciousness, and the general unconsciousness of others, and in the process come to see the turmoil of human existence from a different perspective. What appeared incomprehensible to us before then makes sense, but not in a way that would make sense to anyone else not similarly awake, even if we tried explaining it to them. Or so the theory goes. Most of us are asleep, all the time, I get that. We’re ruled by primitive instincts and faulty thinking, and we identify too much with forms, be they thoughts or things. And it’s these same things, on the grand, collective scale, that drive the perpetual turmoil of the world.

We can all experience the occasional moment of awakening, but then the Sandman comes along, perhaps nowadays in the form of our mobile phone, and we’re back flicking through the dross of our chosen news bias, and the beguiling freak-shows of the various online media. It seems that even when we wake up, it’s all too easy for us to fall asleep again, that unless we are permanently on our guard, like monks sequestered in caves, we are always at the mercy of our inferior natures. And who wants to live in a cave?

It’s not a promising scenario then, because until the majority of beings awaken, things will never change and it seems unlikely it will happen now, locked as we are in this massively dumb and ever burgeoning iron brain of ours. Yet I have always imagined a greater awakening must be our eventual path, because just a handful of enlightened non-egoic beings can make no difference to anything but themselves. They have to be like a virus, a contagion that infects the earth and brings about a sweeping change, otherwise they suffer the same fate as the rest of us when we drown in our own poison and the lights go out, and the earth turns itself against us in a death of heat. I suppose then their only advantage is they’ll be less cut up about it.

Still, against all reason, I trust in the contagion hypothesis if only because you feel better, personally, if you stay on the bright side of things. It may take another hundred years, but the way I see it, we are part of a process in which the universe is becoming aware of itself, through us, and if it cannot complete that process here, it will go on elsewhere. Then all life on earth, the whole staggering sweep of human history will be as if it had never been, and the universe will awaken to itself instead on one of those intriguing exo-planets our telescopes are revealing left, right and centre these days, where the dominant species might be slime-dripping Octopods with swivel-eyes on stalks, and never a dark thought, but only love for their fellow beings.

The notion of any meaningful awakening flies in the face of the unconscious forces that dominate life on earth, the zeitgeist suggesting we are falling ever deeper into sleep, unconsciousness being worn instead as a badge of honour, and the most repulsive, and unhinged of characters raised up as our champions. Still, the gurus tell us this will not always be so, that they detect a wave of awakening, though from my own perspective, in the post industrial wasteland that is the north of England, it’s hard to keep faith with the idea. But stranger things have happened recently – just in entirely the opposite direction.

The first stage of waking up is the sense there’s something wrong in the world – and I think we all get that – but what we miss is the fact there’s also something mistaken in the way we see ourselves. We have an idea of our selves as a being existing in time, that we’re made up of memories, aspirations, fears, wants, loathings, desires, which are all essentially thought processes that trigger either positive or negative emotions.

In order to be happy we assume we must think of ways to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives. But this is to live locked in an unconscious life. True happiness, say the gurus, is achieved only through the cessation of thinking and in the silence that ensures, recognising the primary awareness underpinning our being. So by its very definition, continually thinking of ways to be happy is self defeating. And that’s the trap we’re in.

Familiarity with pure awareness is rare because we are not taught to recognise it, or value it, or even to know it is there. Instead we busy ourselves with the mess of the world, upset ourselves with it, try to think our way out of it, when all we have to do is pause for a moment, look inwards to the silence and recognise in that silence the ever-present companionship within us.

We find it in meditation, also in moments of devastating loss when the Ego is temporarily crushed, and we find it in moments of connection in the natural world. Indeed, the natural world is a special case. It stirs us, fills us with an inarticulate longing, because what we’re seeing, what we’re feeling is that hidden part of ourselves reflected back. And the more we seek it out, this awareness, the happier and the more fulfilled we are.

Of course, the story of our lives may not change. If we are born poor we might still always be poor. If we are born into violent circumstances, to despotism, to oppression, we may still be at the mercy of those things. But we will at least have reconnected with the truth of our own being, and it’s from there we change the world, and the universe awakens to itself, one mind at a time.

Read Full Post »

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Publishing a novel? Well, it’s easy. Anyone can publish a novel these days. You write it, then you put it on the Internet. You do it yourself through a blog, serving it out of a Dropbox account, or use the likes of Smashwords, Wattpad, FreeEbooks, Amazon, and sundry others I’ve yet to make the acquaintance of, who serve it out for you. Your work gets published for free and people will read it. Guaranteed. Simple. Amazon and Smashwords even let you set a fee, so you can actually make money at it. The downside? Unless you go viral, don’t expect to make more than pocket-money, and your chances of going viral are about the same as coming up on the lottery. People come up on the lottery all the time, but the chances are it won’t be you, so don’t bank on it. Most likely you’ll make nothing at all.

I can feel your disappointment right there, because money’s the thing, isn’t it? What you really want to know is how to make serious money at it, or maybe even just enough to quit the day job and write full time. So, let’s go there. You write your novel and, if you don’t fancy online self-publishing, or it just doesn’t seem real to you, then send it to a traditional publisher or a literary agent. But this route is even more like a lottery. Someone always wins, but the chances are you won’t. In fact, the odds are so stacked against you doing it this way, it makes more sense not to bother, and only a fool would waste years filling out their ticket anyway.

There are exceptions, not to be cynical, but you need an edge. Your name needs to be widely known for some other reason, either by fair means or foul, because publishing’s about selling and names sell. Or you need an influential contact in the industry, someone who can sing your praises to a commissioning editor. Or you can enter your novel for a prestigious literary prize, but that’s an even bigger lottery. Either way, without your invite to the party, you’re not getting in, and that’s just the way it is. Always has been.

Persistence pays? Yes, I’ve heard that too, mostly from published literary types selling tips to writers who can’t get published, and maybe it’s true, worth a dabble perhaps, but don’t waste your life trying . Don’t spend decades hawking that novel, constantly raking back over old ground with rewrites, moving commas this way and that and coming up with yet one more killer submission, then beating yourself up when it’s rejected. Again. Don’t lie awake at night grinding your teeth, wondering what’s wrong with you, wondering why no one wants to publish your story. Chances are you’ll never know. So let it go, it’s done. Now write another.

What is a writer for? Do they create purely in order to give pleasure to others? Or do they do it for the money? Do they crave critical acclaim? Or is it more simply to satisfy a need in themselves? Why does anyone create anything that serves no practical purpose? I mean, come on, it’s just a story after all.

In my own writing I explore things, ideas that interest me. I enjoy painting and drawing too, but it’s the writing that gets me down to the nitty gritty, writing that is the true melting pot of thought, the alchemists alembic through which I attempt a kind of self-sublimation, a transformation from older, less skilful ways of thinking, and through which I try to make sense of a largely unintelligible world. The finished product, the novel, the story, the poem or whatever, is almost incidental, but until it’s finished the conundrum, the puzzle I’ve set myself isn’t complete. Completion is the last piece of the jigsaw, the moment of “Aha!” – or more often a wordless understanding that signifies a shift in consciousness, hopefully one in the right direction.

I know this isn’t what writing’s about for others. But most likely those others are a good deal younger than I am, and not as well acquainted with the realities of hawking the written word in exchange for a living. I’ve been writing for fifty years, never made a bean, haven’t even tried since ’98.  This is just the way it’s evolved for me, but don’t let that put you off. You do what you want. You may get lucky, or die trying.

How to get a novel published? Other than giving it away online, who knows? It’s always been a mystery to me, but in one sense persistence does indeed pay, in that it eventually yields a little known secret about getting yourself published, and I’ll share it with you now: when it comes to the art of writing, getting yourself published isn’t really the most important thing.

Read Full Post »

IMG_20170821_213323_429

We all know the meaning of life, the universe and everything is Forty Two, at least according to Douglas Adams’ super computer “Deep Thought” in his fictional trilogy: the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s the existential question and the absurd answer, reflecting only our arrogance that we think we might be capable even of understanding the question, let alone the answer. Or do we underestimate ourselves?

What is the meaning of a spoon or a shoe? Unless they are to be considered merely decorative, their meaning lies in their purpose. On this basis then, the purpose of a human life is no more than the reproduction of its own kind to add to future generations of the evolutionary milieu. Doesn’t sound that great, does it? But if we want more than that, the meaning of life must be explored in more philosophical, dare we even say even “spiritual” terms? But since such things cannot be defined as objects, can they be said to exist at all, and should we not discount them as unreliable, and a bit airy fairy?

Well we might – indeed many people do – except, evolution has risen us up from the swamp to an extent that we are asking such questions, so is it wise we should silence the asking? Because if the questions are meaningless, and evolution is as successful at eradicating the meaningless, the superfluous and the degenerate as it’s supposed to be, then why are we still asking those questions?

Could it be it’s correct we consider ourselves to be more than objects? Okay, let’s try that. It isn’t too difficult since we’re obviously also possessed of a mind-realm, home to thought and memory and dreaming, which are at least something even though we cannot define the shape of them. And even though we cannot define them at all it turns out we derive our sense of self from them anyway, which is weird, isn’t it?

Well, not really.

But there’s more. If we withdraw sufficiently inside our heads from the noise of the physical world, it’s possible to arrive at the fact our identity lies, actually, not so much in thought or memory or dreaming, but in a state of disembodied awareness without whose presence memory or thought or dreaming cannot arise in the first place. And that’s a very strange thought indeed.

Stranger still, if we can fully enter into that state, there comes the startling revelation of a rapturous, effortless awareness, and the realisation this is more who we truly are than who we actually think we are. And if that were not enough there also comes the certain knowledge there is nothing “out there” at all, that “we” and “it” are the same thing, that all objects are pure invention, that all there is is a kind of mind-stuff.

This is a bit of a leap, I know. Indeed, it’s counter-intuitive, a hard thing to swallow for anyone still possessed of a rock solid ego, but it’s a state none-the-less many human beings have experienced. And if it’s so, then perhaps our purpose in life is to work towards achieving an awakening to that awareness, which seems to involve dissolving those aspects of the personality that prevent it. Purpose then becomes our graduation from the university of life by the dispossession of destructive personality traits, and it is in this psychological process we find our purpose.

Of course it’s not certain any of this is true. All it tells us for sure is there is no meaning to be found in the material things of life itself, in the objects, in the world of thought and thinking, nor even in all the fine things we have built and worked to artistic effect. They’re simply there, and we can enjoy them for a time, but they’re transient as dust. What life does provide us with now and then are clues to the existence of a side to ourselves that transcends the physical, and it gives us ample opportunity to allow ourselves to be drawn in that direction, the direction of our true identity, and the source of all our existential longings.

Or we could apply our efforts instead to working out how to get rich at the expense of others. We might succeed in that, or we might waste our lives trying, corrupting also the lives of everyone we encounter along the way. I don’t advise it, because then all we’ll ever be is an object with as much meaning as a spoon or a shoe.

 

 

Read Full Post »

avia-peseus

An old cairn marks the end of a moorland spur. Away from the main routes, it’s little visited. We could sit here all day and not see another soul. It’s around noon, warm in the sun. We are lost in thought, ruminating, casting our minds back, running over the details of a tough couple of weeks.

We have a problem. Our magnanimity is crumbling. We feel unappreciated, feel as if we’re at everyone’s beck and call, forever feeding the insatiable demands of the world we inhabit. It’s been going on for years, our whole lives probably, and we are at times resentful we spend most of that time feeding others our energy. It’s like everyone we know is standing there with their mouths wide open and we are shovelling stuff in faster and faster. We are forgetting things now. People are asking us where we’re up to with things we cannot even remember being tasked with. Is this age creeping up, or is our mind so full now we cannot possibly process things any longer? And we are left wondering, who feeds us?

The weeks, indeed the years ahead look similarly frantic and with nothing in the calendar we can point to that we have underlined exclusively for nurturing our own sense of being. We might have had this moment, alone, on the moors, except by now we’ve carried the whole mess up with us, and we are lost in it, thinking about it. We’re exhausted, sleeping poorly, drinking too much,…

It’s a beautiful spot, views out across the plain, as far as the sea. Sunsets from here are magical. But we do not feel the way we once did about any of this. We are no longer present in it, our mind instead locked in the prison of incessant thinking, and much of it negative.

Then we hear a skylark, an exuberant twittering rush of song, hard to ignore as it soars above us. We remember the words of Matsuo Basho:

Above the moor, not attached to anything, a skylark singing,…

It’s the first thing in months to break through and draw us back into self awareness, and for a moment, though we do not realise it yet, we are no longer thinking. Slowly our awareness of the world expands. We notice too there are grasshoppers chirruping, and a gentle breeze like heaven, cool upon our skin. There’s the scent of the moor, the sedge and the reeds and the sphagnum and eons of peat layered beneath us. These sense-impressions are there all the time of course, just mostly shut out by the infernal noise of thinking.

There is no need to concentrate. The world and all the life around us is simply there, and for a time we become effortlessly aware of it. We try a breath or two, deep, slow, and we become aware of the body again, the feel of it heightened in waves by the motion of the breath. It’s like another body, but inside of us and made of a purer, incorruptible energy, an energy whose presence is calmness itself and which provides an anchor against the capricious tug of our thoughts.

Yes, the thoughts come washing back, leaking in, speculative at first, testing the water. There is pain, anxiety, indignation at the rudeness of others, indignation that all the traffic is decidedly one way. Worse, there’s a buzzing from our chest – our damned ‘phone, message received, some jerk has sent a picture of themselves, a goofy grin as they raise a pint of beer. We don’t even know them, yet here they are intruding, someone else demanding our attention. Look at me! Like me! Bolster my self worth! We switch the ‘phone off, set it aside, try to recover our awareness, focus back on the lark’s song,… and the inner body.

Eventually, we notice there are gaps in our thoughts, like the blue sky between clouds. And more, when we expand our awareness we open up a space, a gap between us and whatever we imagine assails us. And what assails us is like a like a yard full of dogs, all yapping to be fed, but now there’s a fence between us and we longer fear their bite if we fail to feed them quickly enough. In another sense the dogs and the anxiety they arouse can be seen as indicative our failure to accept the moment as it, that we desire things to be other than they are. Thus we render ourselves at the mercy of the world and its noisy demands, at the mercy of things over which we have no control, then the world dictates the terms of our unhappiness, and we become exhausted.

But this spaciousness is like an opening now, a conduit to a source of energy both infinite and generous. This is what feed us, and it’s all we need. And as we gaze down upon the land we realise the effortlessness of our awareness, and in the midst of it glimpse the greatest secret of them all, that we are not our thoughts, that we can be free, for a time at least. They are just a story we tell ourselves, a story of the person we believe ourselves to be. But who we really are, who we have always and will for ever be, is the awareness that we are aware. We are the watcher of our thoughts.

The afternoon deepens. We feel rested, magnanimity returns. We become aware of ourselves in the world once more, yet buffered from its excesses. We make our way down from the hill, but slowly, not wanting to break this expansive feeling, nor lose the sound of the lark. We realise half way down our damned phone is still where we left it in the grass, by the cairn. Rain is forecast. Do we go back and get it?

Why should we? It’s old and cheap, and contains only a Pandora’s box of the absurd.

How about a bit of a bit of Vaughn Williams instead?

Read Full Post »

IMG_2745As I sit here in this garden, staring out at the sea, I realise with some disappointment the perfection of the world can only ever be approximated by the descriptive eye. Blue does not describe the sea today, nor any day, nor grey nor green. It is too approximate. The fancy writer can borrow from the artist’s pallet, attempt words like cerulean, indigo or cobalt, but these suppose the reader is familiar with such flowery synonyms and anyway they similarly fall short of being definitive. We also have teal, turquoise, beryl, utramarine, aquamarine. I take a chance on Beryl, but find it comes in two shades – one blue green, like I imagine a clear tropical ocean, and the other closer to sapphire and how I imagine the cold Atlantic on a sunlit winter’s day.

This is a warmer blue, a mid-blue, I suppose, but threaded with sinewy bands of a paler hue, tending towards – all right – towards aquamarine. These bands are also of a finer, smoother texture than the wide expanse of mid-blue which is finely stippled with the grey of wavelets. But in the time I have taken to describe it, it has already changed, a pool of something paler in the broad sweep of the bay opens up as the waters steadies, and the tide slackens. It will be different again in a moment, and in a minute, and in an hour as the light changes and this July afternoon deepens towards tea time. There will never be a moment or day when it is the same as it is now, this moment in time.

On the horizon, gliding south, seemingly on the line between sea and sky, there is a coaster, long and low and white, a handful of pale pixels in the great scheme of things. The sea, this same sea, will be different out there as it butts up against the clanking, rust streaked hull, a different dynamic to the passage of a ship and the turn of water and the way it catches light.

A writer might as well just say the sea was blue, or perhaps grey, if it was that sort of day. More useful is to accept the transience of the moment, its indescribable nature, and instead to read the sea for emotion.

Warm and languid, that’s the North sea on this sunny afternoon, under a long hot, clear skied bake of sun. Just now a pleasure cruiser out of Scarborough, bobs into view. It’s white, with Britannia bunting hung from fore and aft masts, Union Jacks fluttering. It has a jolly, perky feel about it. But when we feel the scene we have to realise we are seeing ourselves reflected in it and that once again we are failing to see the beauty of the world as it truly is, with acceptance and abandon.

I have never seen as many varieties of birds as I have this afternoon, just sitting here in the sun. I have a handful of names for birds but my vocabulary, such as it is is entirely inadequate. I resist the camera. I do not want to capture them for later classification. I try not to want to know their names in case it robs them of their  beauty.

And then we have the scent. To a former anosmic, the reintroduction of scent into the world is a dramatic thing, nothing short of revelatory, and one simply must know the source of every scent as if greedy to restore lost memory. It has a sweetness to it, like a freshly mown lawn, but drier somehow, a little dusty, damp and warm – though how scent can be dusty I do not know. It’s the wheat, I think, the vast expanse of it, like a straw coloured foreground bowl that contains the sea. The wheat is stagnant, stupefied by the heat, animated only by squadrons of wood pigeon that over-fly it in number. It is hauntingly aromatic – haunting in the way it triggers memories of childhood summer dusks at play in harvest meadows, memories forgotten until now, in passing.

Four thirty and the shadows lengthen to a few yards. The eastern face of the house affords cool and shade now. And though I continue to write, to scan my lines, I am not thinking of anything, desiring nothing but the eternal elongation of this moment.

But I suppose I shall have to be thinking soon about what I want to make for tea.

Read Full Post »

thumbnailOnline social media highlights and exploits our universal human vulnerability, that we all want to be someone. We all want to be recognised, liked, admired, and generally believed to be an awesome human being because we think that, in the acceptance of our awesomeness, we’ll find escape from the horror of anonymity and obscurity in the face of inevitable death. Of course it won’t work.

We are none of us really anybody in this narrow sense. Even those admired and cow-towed to are no different to anyone else. They have their own problems, their own duel with death, one they’ll eventually lose like the rest of us. Then they’ll be forgotten, and even so little as a hundred years from now, no one will care. Many a good and talented man has gone to his grave unknown. It’s a sobering realisation, one we must face and understand why an obscure life is not necessarily a wasted one.

One of the pictures I recently put up on Instagram got forty likes. Experience tells me it’ll not get many more. It’s a about my limit, and seems to be a function of the number of people you follow and the amount of time you’re willing to spend liking other stuff, or somehow gaming the system. But it’s no big deal. It is, after all, just a picture of a hat. Sure, pictures of other people’s hats can garner tens of thousands of likes, and how they do that remains a mystery to me, but it’s still just a picture of a hat and as such will never confer immortality.

My Instagram account leaks a few clicks over to the blog, which in turn leaks a few clicks over to my fiction, which is why I’m on Instagram in the first place. It’s also why I blog. They are both subtle lures to my fiction writings, coaxing readers now and them into my fictional worlds. But my stories are not important either, at least not as influential tools to shape the zeitgeist, nor even just to trumpet my awesomeness. I leave that to others, more savvy, sassy, whatever, and dare I say, more celebrated for their craft.

My thoughts are perhaps too convoluted for a sound-bite culture to make much sense of, and I’m conscious too my outlook, though sincere, may be no more than a mushy blend of pop-philosophy sweetened by archaic Romanticism. The importance of the work then lies only in what it teaches me, and I’m coming to the conclusion what it’s teaching me is how to recognise those useless egotistical compulsions and to rise above words, that the forms of thought we pursue so doggedly throughout our lives, are just shadows of something we will never grasp. It’s not a question of lacking intellect, more that the brain is altogether the wrong shape to accommodate what it is we crave.

You don’t need to write to reach the same conclusion. You just need to live your life as it was given to you, and develop a mindful approach to it. I’m not talking about that self-help-how-to-be-a-winner-in-life kind of mindfulness either. It’s more simply an awareness of our selves in life, and the way we react to situations, and how we can tell if those reactions are the right ones or not, if they contribute to a general transcendence of this fear we have of living, or dig us more firmly into the mire of it.

It might sound as if I’m some way along the path towards nihilism, but nihilism isn’t helpful, other than as a place to bounce back from. Yes, so much of what we are capable of seeing is indeed unimportant, but the world is also rich with a transcendent beauty we are equally capable of recognising, at least in its more lavish manifestations, say in the natural world. And perhaps progress in the right direction is simply our ability to find such transcendence in smaller and smaller places. Indeed perhaps the ultimate success in life, the ultimate awesomeness, is the attainment of absolute obscurity, and the ability to sit alone, quietly, to stare closely at your thumb nail and go:

WOW!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »