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Posts Tagged ‘wanting’

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.

 

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sunsetWintering in the same old cold and grey,
waiting for that chance-thing to arise
and say: here, this is how,
revealed in unambiguous guise,
you might now see and act
and leave behind at last
the lies you tell yourself
in order to maintain
this never ending waiting game!

But there is nothing new today.
No novelties arise, just the same
old cold and grey in which
you wear the usual disguise,
revealing this uncomfortable truth,
that for all your life you’ve hid,
dissolved in indecision.
And of all the things, of your own volition,
you might heartily have risked, and done,
you never risked, or did,
a single one.

 

 

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dunlinThey were dunlins I think,
A great cloud,
Like a ponderous comet,
Come to graze the marsh,
Far beyond the reach of men.

There seemed a million birds at once,
All wheeling in the pale blue
Of a spring morning.
Slow, sinuous waves,
Curling.
Waves within waves,
Black as smoke,
Then peeling to silver,
As they traced the contours,
Of the hidden world.

Each was the pixel part,
Of a greater being.
Each pair of eyes,
Shared host to a second sight.
And as I watched I felt a yearning,
Haunting and formless,
As if for a lost love,
Whose name I could not recall.

Meanwhile, behind me roared the road,
As the day warmed,
And the shops opened,
And the empty fast food cartons,
Scraped their drunken paths,
Along the promenade.

I bought new jeans and a hat,
And entering my code into the machine,
Became one pixel part,
Of another kind of being,
Also greater than myself,
But void of insight,
And a mere shadow,
Of the dunlins’ finer dance.

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green goddessWisdom sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. I had a neighbour – a man of little education, and long retired when I met him, a man of simple tastes, fond of his garden, not well off, but perfectly content in the bosom of his family. I forget how our conversation got on to the topic of consumerism, but he said his motto was that if you needed something, and you’d the money, then you should get it, but if you merely wanted a thing, then you shouldn’t get it, even if you’d the money.

Like it or loathe it, consumerism has changed the face of the western world, and it’s changed us. Prior to 1900, it was believed people were motivated by logical responses to available data: give them the relevant information and they’d make a rational choice based upon personal need. But the work of psychoanalysts like Freud, ¬†showed how we in fact respond to things in ways that are far from logical, that we are also driven by unconscious desires of a purely emotional and entirely irrational nature.

The advertising of goods used to focus on practical issues like how reliable the goods were, or what they did that was bigger/better/faster than all the other similar stuff out there. But it was found you could sell more goods if you could also sell the myth that a thing would make a person feel better about themselves in ways beyond the mere function of the thing itself. From then on manufactured goods were no longer practical necessities, they became lifestyle choices. We bought things because we desired them, because we wanted a piece of the mythical lifestyle that came with owning that product. It also meant that if our desires could be sated in this way, we were less likely to satisfy them in other ways, ways that might be socially or politically undesirable – things like taking to the streets in protest for example?

All of this sounds bizarre now, but a look back at the history of psychoanalysis and its links with advertising shows how our unconscious urges have been analysed, categorised and manipulated in order to maximise the sale of goods. Psychoanalysis has many critics, but we are all the living proof of how its theories have been put to devastatingly practical use, including, some might say, the control of large populations – you simply feed us a diet of “stuff”, and weave around it a fantasy of desire, and we become docile, endlessly chasing the myth of the ideal reality, instead of focussing on reality itself.

The history of the western world up to the middle of the twentieth century is one of upheaval and public revolt. But if we look at those same democracies in the early part of the twenty first century, democracies now steeped in a tradition of consumerism, our history is one of apathy. The mob no longer cares what’s going on in halls of power, so long as the postman turns up on time with our stuff from Amazon. Short of a postal strike, I can’t imagine us getting really upset about anything.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to see another pan-European war, but neither am I happy with the thought of a population so lost to the myth of stuff they’ve ¬†no longer the will to change society if they feel it needs changing, nor even the vision to see what needs changing in the first place.

So next time you’re in town, and you see some “thing” and you think to yourself if only I had that thing I’d feel a lot better about myself, remind yourself it won’t make more than five minutes difference to the way you feel at all. Feeling better about yourself comes from somewhere else, and there, I’m afraid, we’re on our own. So try to cut back a little more to the centre of yourself, try to clear the line between necessity and desire, and ask yourself: apart from all this stuff that I apparently want, who the hell am I, and what do I really, really need most in my life right now?

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