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Posts Tagged ‘transcendental’

Beardy manWe must be careful not to misunderstand the word “spiritual”, nor think we can only come to it through religion. The spiritual dimension existed before there were ever religions to give it a name. Many people, both religious and otherwise, have experienced it and they use words like timelessness, boundlessness, oneness, and love to describe it. This is the mystical core at the heart of all religion, yet many who would not consider themselves religious at all tumble into it by accident. They do not see angels, or saints, or witness terrifying revelations , but describe a more abstract experience, marvellous and expansive. It leaves them altered. They no longer need to seek or indeed reject “belief”. They simply know that it is so.

Of course not all who invite such an experience will find it, yet all who do seek it discover that the search alone shifts the focus of their lives away from inner pain and more towards a mindful awareness of life itself. In eastern philosophies there is no separation between the mental life and the spiritual. In addressing one we are always addressing the other. I wrote earlier about the three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. They are the three legs upon which we stand. Kick one away, or deny its existence altogether, and we are sure to lose our balance.

In secular society, there is a problem with religion; at the state level it is, on the one hand, irrelevant since society is now entirely market driven. On the other, religiously motivated violence is sadly nowadays such a threat to life and limb, religion is only tolerated so long as it does not get out of hand. At the personal level too religion can be seen as lacking any real goodness, that indeed it works contrary to its stated purpose – dividing and persecuting, instead of uniting and embracing our diversity. If the spiritual vessel exists at all nowadays it has been upturned and its contents tipped out. Sadly, this is to deny our true nature, and what we suppress will always come back to haunt us ten fold.

Buried deep in the psyche there is a spiritual function. It is the generator of a current that urges us all towards change, towards transformation and transcendence through the assimilation of energies that rise from both the personal and the collective unconscious. We have no choice in this, it is a part of what we are, a part of what moves us. Through us, nature is evolving psychically. There is nothing supernatural about this; it is an aspiration, a movement towards what is intrinsically good, a goodness that is not written down anywhere but simply known.

The early churches were formed to bring us to this enlightened state, but somewhere along the way they became hung up on ritual and power. Non-affiliated mystics continue to seek the core experience, yet cautioned all the while by the orthodox priesthood, also by the robustly irreligious and the scientistic, that when we stop believing in God, we start believing in anything. But this is not true. We set aside belief and seek instead our own direct experience of the transcendent dimension, the soul life. In a mental health context, the quest for healing, for happiness, for wholeness, is always, in part, a spiritual quest – it’s just that our search is more desperate.

The spiritual vessel is the one most easily damaged by the turbulence of our collective existential angst and it is existential matters that are central to feelings of wholeness, and by implication also their antithesis: depression and anxiety. Topping that vessel up will restore us to ourselves like no other medicine, but first we must divine the shape of the vessel within us, then set it upright. Many succeed in this through the prodigals’ return to the churches they rejected in the long ago, but to the isolated, the disconnected and the lonely in spirit, traditional congregations can be sources of stress, the liturgies triggers for uncomprehending anxiety.

Yet the spiritual function demands its fill whether we are religious or not. It contains the unwritten codex, the contract of our time on earth, and we are obliged to make our peace with it, to move in the direction it is suggesting, both as individuals, and collectively as a species. It would be a lot simpler if all of this was written down for us at birth, perhaps tattooed on our palms, but it isn’t. We have to divine the meaning for ourselves – that is our purpose and we do it by developing a personal relationship with “God”, or whatever label you want to attach to this sense of something “other”.

It sounds arrogant, putting oneself above two thousand years of religious teaching, but we have no choice in it. Just because one finds no connection through conventional worship, it does not stop the stirrings of the spiritual function, so we turn instead to the incoming tide of personal-development literature. This is as eclectic as the varieties of spiritual experience, but it is not easily dismissed. Broadly it suggests we work towards mindful self analysis, seek the stillness within us, and if we need a story to describe it, then a personal mythology will suffice – it does not need to be true for anyone else so long as it sits comfortably with us.

Over the course of a couple of million words, and several strange novels, this is the direction I am moving in. Other researches, online musings, and occasional dialogues with a book from China’s mythic past, enable me to keep my own vessel pointing the right way up, and the water in it just warm enough to relax into now and then. You can do this too. I don’t know how, and hesitate to suggest anything other than that by finding the vessel inside of you, the spiritual function will begin to work its way through you too of its own accord. Then you simply follow wherever it leads.

I hesitate to tell you that, if my own history is anything to go by, none of this will stop that black dog from settling in from time to time. That’s just its nature. Mental illness will always cast a shadow over the lives of those who have even once suffered from it. But through an awareness of simple self-healing – physical, mental and spiritual – we need not feel quite so helpless as we were before. We know we can always beat a path back to the light of life whenever we find ourselves benighted.

I’ll leave the subject of men’s mental health there.

Thanks for listening.

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Desert at dusk by Lady Caroline Gray Hill 1843-1924

Spring,1855. Andrew Wilson, a young, unemployed journalist, has ventured across the western frontier of British India and begun a meandering exploration of neighbouring Baluchistan. He’s down on his luck, looking for distraction in adventure. There, in the desert, he comes across ruins dating back to the time of Alexander – vast mausoleums, marking the passing of innumerable lives. He’s moved to sit and reflect on this, scribbles some lines in his notebook, speaks wistfully of the vastness of the ages and the obscurity of the individual life, a life of infinite worth to itself but passed entirely unknown and apparently worthless to anyone else now living. Those lines appeared in a magazine in 1857 where, in turn, they gave me pause when I discovered them in dusty archives a hundred and fifty years later.

Think about this for a moment – the act of that young man, sitting down in the dust and the desert hush, being moved to reflect. Who did he imagine he was writing for? He was not well known – certainly no darling of the literati. Indeed, his own failures and obscurity at the time, must have weighed heavily upon him.

Wilson had been studying divinity, thinking to become a  minister like his father, but he’d had a head-on collision with the German Romantic movement, an experience that had rendered him suddenly too much of a mystic for the staid pulpit of the Kirk, and landed him instead in the precarious position of a jobbing hack.

And then there’s me. Where do I fit in the strange equation of time and chance? There’s not much we have in common, Wilson and I, other than the fact we’re both an unlikely pair of mystics. All I can do is reflect upon his thoughts. If I’d been with him that day I would have replied it was the uniqueness of individual experience that makes each life infinitely valuable, not only to itself but to the greater consciousness out of which we’re all briefly incarnated. Yes, those Alexandrian era lives are gone, as Wilson is now, and as I shall be one day, but for a time we each look upon this world and reflect back, if only through our hearts, what we’ve felt about the whole experience of time and form.

We exist far apart in history, Wilson and I, but nowadays disparate souls need not wait upon the ages, nor the printing press to court these serendipitous encounters. We can blog our reflections, and if in doing so one other person  reflects upon what we write we have already entered upon that vast and subtle network of  human thought, pulsating, vibrating, self-reflecting, and ultimately, I’m sure, swelling towards a transcendental awakening in the collective being.

Take heart then, dear  blogger, and believe your persistence, even in the face of your individual obscurity will play its own part in helping sweep aside the sterile structures we see decaying daily all around us, that it will play its part too in building  upon the better reflections of all who have lived, nurturing what is best in human nature, and learning to let go of what is not.

We owe it to those lost Alexandrian era lives, passed entirely unknown in the wilds of Baluchistan. We owe it to every life alive now, reflective of its own experience, and of course we owe it to ourselves.

What say you, Wilson?

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waltham 3This is a favourite little pocket watch of mine. I bought it off a market stall for twenty quid in 1996 and it’s one of the few in my collection I use on a regular basis for telling the time. I usually wear it with a short chain in a casual waistcoat pocket, though my children insist I must have my jacket buttoned up if I’m to walk with them. It seems waistcoats attract so many brickbats these days there’s even a risk of collateral damage.

Anyway, a little research reveals the mechanism of this watch was made in Waltham, Massachusets in 1888. I think the gold plated brass case is a Dennison, shelled out by the millions in Birmingham UK. The case proudly announces it’s “guaranteed to wear 5 years”, so it’s not done too badly, though most of that gold plate has by now worn away.

The mechanism is of reasonable quality, having a jewelled lever and a split bi-metallic balance  for automatic regulation of the time over a range of temperatures. There’s also a bit of filigree detailing which I think is rather nice.  But given the utility of the case,  I don’t think this was intended as a “Sunday best”  watch,  more something that would have been used during the workaday week – a workaday watch for measuring the hours at the office or the factory and for judging the trains.

The amazing database of Waltham serial numbers – entirely the work of volunteers at the NAWCC archive, confirms this, telling me the movement is of a fairly basic standard with seven jewels, and was unadjusted for accuracy. But even after 125 years, and with no obvious evidence of restoration, it’s still capable of telling the time to within a couple of seconds a day, so I’m not complaining. How many consumer devices can you think of that are being put together today and will still be working 125 years from now?

waltham 4I’ve had a fascination for pocket watches since I was a boy,  and my collection now consists of nine pieces, some inherited, some picked up as I go about my travels. None of them, however, are worth much, other than in sentimental terms. But my intention here isn’t to bore you with the details of another of my obsessions. What I’m trying to get at is what  this fascination for old timepieces might yield to a little over-analysis.

The watch or clock face is a good example of a mandala. This is a psychological archetype,  said to represent aspects of the unconscious self, and their drive towards integration, or wholeness. Mandalas are usually circular – either a painting or a drawing, or a physical object like a ring or a watch face, or even an arrangement of objects like a stone circle or a fairy ring. And they fascinate us. They usually feature some form of geometric division, commonly into quarters, but not always. Indeed, they can be quite abstract and if we draw them ourselves they can form a basis for psychoanalysis, because they weave a story of the psyche at a moment in time, one indicative of both a state of mind, and a direction to be taken if it’s wholeness we’re seeking. And whether we’re aware of it or not, wholeness is what we’re all seeking.

Sometimes, like with the Waltham, I’ll encounter a watch syncronistically in the wild, so to speak, at a “time” of auspicious transition. At other times – times of introspection and self analysis – a watch from my collection will unconsciously find it’s way into my hands,.. or my waistcoat pocket.  I’ve looked at all of this before, but that’s another thing with mandala’s – they tell us we cannot measure psychological progress in a straight line. Progress always involves a circumnambulation of the centre, encountering the same lessons, the same insights time after time – but hopefully with each full circle bringing us a little closer to home.

The time element might also be meaningful of course – especially the idea of being tied to it, indeed literally chained to it. The watch measures out the passing of time, the passing of a man’s life. It speaks from the past, also speaks of the future. It speaks of order, precision, regulation, of a desire to be on time. But to be on time also implies being lost “in” time. You’d better solve this, because “time” is running out. You can’t do this now because you haven’t got the “time”. How much more “time” must I wait? How much more “time” before my life improves, before I gain the satisfation I crave?

You get the picture?

waltham 1At this level, the watch is more obviously a projection of one’s Ego with it’s ability to measure out, to analyse, to rationalise, to regulate. And there’s nothing like the fear of not having enough “time” for placing a strain on our nerves. The urgent and all pervasive sense of “not enough” is Ego pointing out our inadequacy. We become slaves to time. Look around: we’re obsessed by it! There’s a watch on our wrist, a clock on the wall,  a clock widget on our ‘phone, or a readout on our computer screen – reminders everywhere that we should remain in time and that time is constantly moving, constantly in danger of running out, and we need to keep up with it if we don’t want to be caught out and shown to be less than who we otherwise like to believe we are.

But on another level a pocket watch is different. You don’t see them much any more. They’re disappearing from general use, having been discarded long ago for being too slow, too fancy, too fussy with the time. But then there are people like me seeking them out from the junk stalls,  saying hold on; I think we’re missing something here.

But what is it?

waltham 2Well, I was in the woods the other day, at a local beauty spot, down by the river – a weir roaring, sunlight filtering through bare trees, early daffodils nodding. I was lost in the motion of the water, leaning on a fence, breathing the air, not thinking of anything.

Then someone appeared at my elbow with an urgent enquiry: “Have you got the time, mate?”

A snatch at my sleeve revealed an empty wrist and a reminder I was “off duty”, wearing the waistcoat under a jacket, carrying the Waltham. So I had to unzip my jacket, feel for the chain, draw the watch up. I did it hurriedly, snagging my zipper, and altogether making a terrible fuss in order to get at the watch, when all the guy wanted was the time – instantly! Hurry. Hurry. Time is running out! He was even poised on one leg as if ready to bolt back into time, as soon as he got the time, and the time was soooo slow in coming. No wonder they invented the wrist watch.

“Half past twelve,” I replied, eventually, and off he went like the Mad Hatter, already late, because for too long I had delayed his re-entry into time.

But what time was it, really?

When he’d gone, I felt time slowing down again, and I wondered why I’d been in such a hurry. Half past twelve, said the watch. It felt warm and vital in my hand, having absorbed so much heat from my pocket. I flipped open the back and watched that balance bouncing. It felt alive. I could feel it through my finger-tips. The sun was shining beautifully, the water making a mesmerising roar – a little rainbow forming in the spray. A thrush was singing. I snapped the case shut, put the time back in my pocket, and settled once more into the moment. We become more aware of life, I think, when we can put the time away, and in doing so find the space in any moment, space enough to expand and rediscover the pleasure of simply being.

What time is it? Well, it’s a trick question and you shouldn’t fall for it. The time is always “now”. Not in the future, at some imaginary time that never actually arrives, a  time we might easily waste our whole lives waiting for. Our lives are not a destination but an experience to be perpetually explored – and this does not mean the more extreme or exotic the experience the better – you can find it in nothing if you know how to look, even in the beating of an obsolete timepiece, so long as you can see past its mere function and realise its inner beauty.

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Cultivating your dreams can be a deeply therapeutic process. Mostly I’ve found the effects to be subtle, your outlook changing gradually over time as more of your unconscious knots are straightened out and the threads drawn up into consciousness, but every now and then a single dream can usher in a dramtic change of outlook.

For about a year now I’ve found myself in the apparent midst of a storm of anxieties that’s had my mood plummeting in a seemingly irrecoverable nose-dive. It’s been a combination of things – a series of terrible world events, the slow motion train wreck of the western economy, and the erasing of any sense of a secure financial future for myself and those I love. It seems relentless, with the media gleefully swinging one meaty cosh after the other at us, as if to reinforce on a daily basis how truly awful things are.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Of course I am, but that’s it when the dark clouds settle in; they amplify the slightest thing to apocalyptic proportions and you suddenly find yourself embattled, taking cover and bracing yourself against things that might never happen.

The darkness seemed to deepen over a long, bitter winter and steadfastly defied the loveliest of springs, even as the blossom came out and the first mow released the heady perfume of fresh-cut grass. There seemed to be no escape, but then at the beginning of April I made a trip to the Lake District and while I was there I spent a meditative hour by a waterfall. I think this single act granted me a bit of a breathing space and ushered in a subtle change of direction.

 On my return from the Lakes, I began idly leafing through my dream journals from 2002 and 2003. I had no particular aim in mind – at least none I was consciously aware of. What struck me though was the richness, the detail and the frequency with which I had once dreamed. By contrast, in more recent years, I’ve fallen out of the habit, recording only a few dreams over the course of a year, when once I’d dreamed most nights and applied myself dilligently to the Jungian interpretation of the symbols that arose.

I don’t know why I stopped cultivating my dreams like this. I suppose it came down to necessity and I’d apparently felt more of a need in those days, while recent years have been marked, I’d perhaps pompously assumed, by a philosophical resilience, and an outlook that had seemed to require little by way of bolstering from the denizens of my inner world. And if you don’t court your dreams, they vanish on waking.

Inspired anew by these old dreams, I began cultivating them again recently. Cultivating one’s dreams is no more complicated than lying down of a night and simply asking yourself to try to remember them. Things didn’t happen straight away – I think it took a few nights before I was permitted leave to recall my nocturnal wanderings again, and it was yet a few more nights after that before I was rewarded with a series of dreams that were highly detailed, visually startling and emotionally charged.

The last of these dreams occurred on the night of April 18th, the night of the full moon, which in imagination at least I’ve always associated with a peak in imaginative energy. In the dream I encountered an unknown woman – the classic symbol of the soul, or in drier, Jungian terminology, the Anima archetype. She was once a familiar visitor, chosing a different disguise each time – sometime evasive, sometimes challenging, sometimes downright lascivious. But whoever or whatever she was, on this occasion she restored in me a sense of the most profoundly transcendent love. In the dream she seduced me into thinking the love I felt was for her, but on waking the feel of that love remained like a warm glow in my guts, and I recognised it as a connection with something old and fundamental.

I rose into a world unchanged in any tangible way. The news from Libya was dire, and the fiscal pundits on the radio were bleating as usual about our financial ruin, while the politicians traded insults, and the media sought with tiresome pedantry to find the cracks between them as if it mattered or we actually cared any more. But it was a world that no longer assailed me. I was a man in love with something, or rather I was a man who had been reminded he was in love, that he had somehow forgotten – but it was all right, his lover was constant and patient, and she had apparently forgiven him.

I drove to work, past the petrol station whose regularly ratcheting fuel prices have become a curious indicator of my rising anxieties – and though the price had jumped overnight to a record high, I was unable to muster much of a reaction.

Indeed it seemed trivial. I had regained a more balanced perspective and was able to let it go.

I only hope it lasts.

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