Thursday, 22 September 2016

dear readers, followers and Traherne

I'm very pleased to have a new follower and a new reader. Welcome, and thanks for stopping by.

If you feel there's anyone you know who might possibly get something other than a headache from reading this stuff, please feel free to draw them into our waterwords. 

And do comment if you'd like to - always welcome. It can even lead to dialogue - it used to on my old blog "mortality branchlines." I think you have to have a Google account to comment, and I never like suggesting products to people, but Google owns about a third of the planet anyway, so I give in. It's not too arduous a business getting an account.

I'll leave you for a short time with these lovely words from Thomas Traherne, who makes the point so wonderfully that each of us is of the entire universe.

In the 1600’s Traherne wrote, “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars.

how to be a poet - or...

(to remind myself)
by Wendell Berry
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

"Shun electric wire" and "stay away from screens," good advice and probably what I'll be doing for a while. I'll be back - but please don't you stay away from What the Water Says screens!

Monday, 12 September 2016

Home, part 3

(This one may get a bit preachy for you; if so, just flee...It also rambles a bit, but one tried, one tries...)

So we are a restless species, looking for a home, and not just when we have to. I knew a man who had a good job - vice-principal of a nice college, in the days before things got a wee bit more challenging in the 90s. When I told him I was leaving to work abroad for a couple of years, he said that he'd often wished he'd chucked it all up and done something similar. Even he, who seemed very contented, could feel restless, wishing he'd tried a new home.

Americans (USA variety) have so many road books and films, so much space and distance. In "The Electric Muse" Rob Young contrasts the US road myth as a way of finding roots and belonging somewhere else - a horizontal journey - with an English inner and vertical journey. Back in the mind and in the music to the past as a state of mind.  Young moves on from this to write about the folk revival in terms of classical composers like Vaughan Williams and Moeran, who used folk tunes in sophisticated compositions, and then on to the folk-singer's revival we're still in the middle of. Looking for a musical home.

So maybe it's this:

vs this:

or this:

Looking for a home, on the road to LA if you're from midtown Illinois, amongst the travelling people and their songs if you're Sam Lee. (Forefront, above) In the uncertain but ancient past of the Horn Dance. (Dig the, it's too easy to laugh. They are in pursuit of something significant for them.)

I don't mean to suggest that folk singers and travellers on Route 66 are all wracked with uncertainty; I just want to move on from that idea of outer or inner journeying to find a home, to the psychological and spiritual dimension. The greater journey.

RD Laing talked about "ontological insecurity;" Buddhists talk about "Dukkha," perhaps too easily translated as "suffering." According to John Peacock, the root of the word is in something closer to discomfort and unease, the idea of a wheel that doesn't fit properly on its axle and gives you a queasy sort of ride.

Meditation can help us spend some time in the present, out of the stream of wanting and dreaming and planning, of wishing we were somewhere else, were something else, out of a state of recurrent unease. It is a training in reducing dukkha. It won't show us a new home - it's not so much a revelation of a new heaven and a new earth,  it helps us to be where we are. Ultimately, it refers I think to (another tricky word coming up) a mystical state, non-verbal -  both in time, as everything is, and out of it.

Eliot says it is:

"Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline."

He also tells us
"I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time."

It's not that we spend our meditation time entirely there, it is simply that meditating without striving; recalling the restless mind to the present (usually using the breath); moving our attention back to the present and what is happening now, can have a cumulative, slow but powerful effect. It can put us in a different relationship with the present, giving us a wider sense of what is real. It can make us feel more entirely at home in ourselves and where we are.

It's not stasis, it does not abolish conflicting impulses and pressures, we don't grind to a halt in some phoney self-willed pretend-nirvana. But we can feel, if we persevere, if we expect nothing and strive for nothing, we can feel less existential unease, less ontological insecurity.

Accepting our present state doesn't mean all is perfect in a perfect world. Nor does it mean we should simply give up trying to make material matters better for ourselves and others. But it surely means we are more fully in our world, not at a slight angle to it. We can feel of our world, not outside looking in and wondering if somewhere, down Route 66, there's somewhere else, more perfect for us.  

Eliot again:

"Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated 

Of dead and living."


"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

I think the physical journeying, the mythical explorations, can merge with the mental, spiritual journey.

In "Learning to Fall," Philip Simmons writes:
"We seek that sure ground of our being and our doing, the home that withstands the vagaries of time and chance and change."  

I'd add that we cannot overcome time chance and change, we have to accept that we are exactly those things. The paradox is surely that we can only be at home by acknowledging it, by living in the understanding that home always changes with us.

Simmons agrees with Eliot, that "in the end we return home by recognising that we're already there. Indeed our true home is within." 

He quotes Marcus Aurelius: "Look within. Within is the fountain of good. And it will ever bubble up if thou wilt ever dig." 

Finding this fountain of good, adds Simmonds, "we discover that no land is foreign, no matter where we go we are never strangers. We return home to the place we never left."

So we aren't boll weevils. We can only feel at home if we are at home in ourselves. My route to that home is meditation, and some reading. What's yours?

Friday, 9 September 2016

Inuit "Sila," and the still point of the turning world

If we feel underlying unease, anxiety sometimes, about being our individual selves in a world out there that seems not-us, separate from us, then maybe we are looking for a way of being that is more unified with the rest of our world. (Not everyone feels that sense of unease, I'm sure - or they sense it but don't know what it is?)

It's one thing to understand intellectually that we are the same stuff as the rest of the universe, just assembled differently for a life-time. It may be another thing to live and feel that oneness with It All and Now.

According to Emma Thompson's daughter Gaia,  above right, who's been campaigning with her mum to try to protect the Arctic sea ice, the Inuit word "sila" means "weather;" but it also means "oneness" and "consciousness."

Ms Thompson remarks "says it all, really." Er...says what?

Well, it suggests to me the Inuit culture has built into its language the understanding that being at one with the weather, the turning seasons, is the same as being truly conscious, aware of what we are. At one with the world.

Understanding and being with the range of meanings in "sila" is how we feel ourselves to be part of and the same as the rest of the universe - if we will allow ourselves to feel it, to live in that state. 

So much can prevent us from being at one, leaving us uneasy, insecure in our separateness, scared by our own mortality. So much boils down to our being "distracted from distraction by distraction."

I don't want to idealise the Inuit people - I don't know much about them for starters, and they may be just as over-busy and preoccupied with inessential but appealing stuff as we are, though I doubt it. 

We live where we do and as we do. Nevertheless, even in amongst our stuff-filled headlong lives, we can make little corners of consciousness in which feel an underlying sense of unity with the universe. We are at one anyway, all the time, but we hide our awareness of it. 

Autumn is a good time to feel part of the endless change, part of the weather, the seasons, the turning world. May that feeling help us to find the still point that is changeless change.

Are we boll weevils? - home part 2

Remember the song about the boll weevil? "He's a-lookin' for a home.." which is why he devastated the cotton crop.

 I attended the boarding school I mentioned in my last post for nine years, which means that for over half of each year I didn't live at home (i.e. my parents' house) but had to seek something homely, somewhere I could feel I belonged, at the school. In a sense, it meant that for nine years I was from two places, not one. 

EM Forster described the poet Cavafy as "standing absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe." I think many of us know that feeling, and I've come to feel now that maybe most of us feel that at times; whatever reason we may locate for such feelings, it may simply be part of us. 

There are people who seem very good at making themselves at home wherever they are, and others who never seem entirely at ease with their dwelling, their social setting, their environment. They are perhaps not at home in themselves, suffering from what RD Laing* called "ontological insecurity," uncertainty as to the reality of their existence in the world. 

"Ontological insecurity refers, in an existential sense, to a person's sense of “being” in the world. An ontologically insecure person does not accept at a fundamental level the reality or existence of things, themselves, and others. In contrast, the ontologically secure person has a stable and unquestioned sense of self and of his or her place in the world in relation to other people and objects." ("Encyclopedia of Identity," Jackson and Hogg)

Seems to me the contrast is over-stated. We can swing between one state and the other, and I reckon most of us are, at times, or all the time, boll weevils, lookin' for a home. Wanting to feel at home, in themselves, wherever they are. And material well-being may not of itself be a final answer.

Perhaps its that searching impulse that makes us love alternative homes, hideaways, tree-houses, sheds, dens. Small boys I know love making a den, then they tend to sit in it for a bit, lose interest, and wander off. They've made a little homeliness for themselves, then they move on. Whereas it seems slightly more grown-up boys often stay in a shed, a personal base, for rather longer....
It may be that this den-making, this search for an extra bit of home, however content or well-balanced we may be, is a relatively superficial manifestation of a more profound need. 

A home is after all, where you belong. The need to belong, emotionally, intellectually, instinctively, is powerful. People will sometimes land up not in a nice homely cotton boll, but in something dangerous and destructive. 

OK I'm not going to attack "religion" now, but I will just distinguish between religions (social structures, codes and commandments) and spiritual needs - a conflicted word for me, "spiritual," but let it stand for now. 

Let's say a sense of profundity, connectedness, belonging. Established religions may supply that spiritual need for many people - and for others it is not at all what they need, if they are to feel connected to something greater than themselves. And maybe that connectedness is a common and profound need.

*Laing, if you don't already know this, was an influential and controversial figure in 1960s psychiatry and libertarian left thinking. His theories about mental illness were - radical, and dismissed by many in the field.