Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The sacred traffic in the Earl's Court Road.

I find that one way of sensing our unity with the universe- that is, with reaching a sense of in-depth commonality - is to take in the complexity of even the most apparently mundane scene.


We’re walking along a side-street off the Earls Court Road. It’s a grey London morning. You look at a parked car, and think briefly of the complexity of its manufacture, all the physical and chemical actions and reactions ready to burst into action when the driver arrives. 

Think of the cultural associations that went into its design, into even just its name. Think of it two years ago - molten steel being rolled into sheets, plastic dashboard being moulded, computer circuits being set up..this isn't one thing.Think of the car in 20 years' time - a rusting relic, or a cube of scrap steel.  This car is in motion even when its parked. As are we all.

Look up at the large terraces lining the street. Each storey is a flat. Each flat contains a history of arrivals and departures, joys and sorrows. Individuals emerge from the door of just one flat and hurry off towards their work, or school, or....? 

They take with them their stories to date, the stories they are building in their heads, the memories they are dwelling on, remoulding and changing them in the moment.

Here’s one of those lovely large London plane trees, just beginning to shed its leaves, moving into its autumn, maybe a little earlier than some of the other trees, a little later than some. Every tree varies, is unique, yet we can name it as a type of tree. Think of all that photosynthesis, water being drawn up the trunk, insects living in the tree far above the busy street.

We turn into Earls Court Road itself...the traffic is a loud discombobulating torrent.

You think you know the Earls Court Road. You don’t, even if you’ve lived in the area all your life. You don’t completely know anything, because to do so would tie it down to one time and place. The river of traffic in the road - a cliché but a useful metaphor if it reminds us that the road is a slower version of the traffic thundering along it. It is all processes,  not separate things.

People from the flats go their separate ways. You and I part, you to the Undergound station and thence wherever you need to get to, building your own changing story of today. 

I walk on, remembering that I’m not the same person who left the hotel ten minutes ago. All is change, all is in motion; feeling that, the traffic seems a little more bearable, part of the unique present moment that goes as soon as it arrives. 

Like that damned great truck. I need to stop musing and concentrate on crossing the road, or - squelch. I would become a quite different set of processes!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Attending to inner struggles

It's about accepting instead of fighting the conflicts within ourselves. There's a meditation text embedded in it.

You might find it helpful/useful

Goodbye and thank you Aretha

Perfomers I've admired all my life keep pegging out on me. I guess that's what happens as you get older - if you're lucky enough to stick around long enough. Oldies like me, we all have our own individual lists, I'm sure. But...

Goddammit, she was good. 
OK, some of the comparative statements in tributes are ludicrous. "The greatest singer ever.." "Maria Callas and her..." Really, what's the point? She was herself.
Someone put his finger right on it. She carried forward in her voice the power of Afro-American suffering and hope, as it was realised in southern church music. Like Ray Charles, her voice brought gospel and blues together. Some churchgoers disapproved of soul music for that very reason - they felt that sort of yearning passion was only for church. 
Soul music, the great secularizer of religious passion. No wonder she brought Obama to tears.
Soul music of her time can sound simple and repetitive in its sturctures and riffs. A lot of modern pop/rock music is much more varied and sophisticated. And that's part of the point. Simplicity. For me, it's the voice. She is singing directly and only to each of us - a quality only really great performers have. Ella Fitzgerald, say, or Miles Davis middle period.

And my, doesn't Aretha build it and take it on out? Listen, if you will, to the studio recording of "Respect" - such a powerful arrangement, great musicians, great backing singers. Then watch this 1967 live recording. The sound is really poor, the spirit triumphant. She's preaching. The audience are gone. Me too.



Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A sacred connection via Stuart A Kauffman

I think I am beginning to find what I’m looking for, though it won’t stay still when I find it. That’s because I’m not a thing that stays still - none of us are, we just look as though we are, or wish we were, staying still. Since we are processes in time, then, whatever we’re looking for will change as we do. We create meanings, and they change with us.

So what am I engaged in? I think it resembles what very many people are engaged in.

I’m looking for a profound connection, a sense of the sacred that I can live with for the rest of my days, that will make me feel part of more than “getting and spending.”

Maybe I’m looking for a Way to Sacredness. (I’ll get back another time to what “sacred” might mean in this context, but I don’t simply mean discovering or re-discovering the beliefs needed to follow a single codified religion.)

And I’m grappling with a book that seems to me very important to anyone who needs to know what life itself is, how it evolved: “Re-inventing The Sacred,” by Stuart A. Kauffman. 

I do wish he’d called it “Re-discovering the Sacred,” because I don’t think any of us can invent the sacred. It’s there all the time, ready for us. But never mind.

Kauffman is a scientist, a cellular biologist of real distinction. The book is based on scientific thought and discovery, and that is why I’m finding it so valuable. It looks as though Kauffman is going to take care of that end of my search - to find a sense of the sacred that can be reconcilable with scientific discovery, and with the rational mindset that most of us are brought up in.

I know lots of people don’t need any help with overcoming my “either/or” hangup about science and spirituality, they can be scientists and yet have some spiritual faith or other. e.g. Einstein himself. But I do need some help, and I’m hugely grateful to Kauffman, and to an old and special friend of mine who put me on to him, a friend who first dropped into my awareness the phrase “the emergent properties of complex systems.” 

If you want to know how I felt at that moment, and in further discussions with J., and when I read Kauffman -  see Keats’ sonnet “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer.” Me, I’m stout Cortes.

I've found Kauffman’s book to be alternately very clear, and then pretty tough for a non-scientist, and then clear to me again. I’m going to try to write out my view of some of the most important things, for me, that I’m finding out from him. Extreme folly I’m sure, and I might ask friend J to put me right as I stumble along my Way.

So: more on Kauffman another time.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Ishmael's vision of the sea

In my last post, I referred to the opening of "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville. Here it is. I'd never noticed the last sentence below, even though it's a theme I often return to.

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. 

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 

This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs- commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling And there they stand- miles of them- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets avenues- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever."


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Ah no, the years O

Here's a beautiful and terrifying poem. But it could jolt, or help, us into working at a better understanding and acceptance of our own mortality. That's a big journey to embark on - bon voyage. 

"During Wind and Rain" by Thomas Hardy
They sing their dearest songs—
       He, she, all of them—yea,
       Treble and tenor and bass,
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

       They change to a high new house,
       He, she, all of them—aye,
       Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
       And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years; 
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

TS Eliot and Donald Rumsfeld

In our meditation group the other day, we had some poetry read aloud to us. We often do - either poetry as a gateway to meditation, or poetry about meditative states- stuff we can feel and learn from.

TS Eliot, then, excerpts from "Four Quartets."

 "In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
       You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
       You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
       You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not."

I think here he is writing about a state of being that is ultimately indescribable. It is only routes to it that can be verbalised, not the state itself, the "still point of the turning world." Paradox is useful, as in koans and various zen stories, to break the mind out of customary linear and rational thinking patterns.

 What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. 

This can't be literally true, unless you believe in an afterlife, or re-incarnation, but it perhaps helps us escape from our usual linear sense of time unfolding, the world "progressing," into something more cyclical. Time, some physicists are now telling us, doesn't exist, all that exists is entropy. In cycles, presumably, or how come death and decay are preceded by birth, whether of a baby,  a broad bean or a star?

 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.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—

So mostly we get hints, "half-heard," and there is no "stillness between two waves of the sea," it is always moving. There is no still point round which the world turns, the point itself moves - but I'm being literal again, and what's the use of poetry of it's only going to be literally, rationally valid? The stillness between two waves of the sea is, I'm sure now, what draws me back again and again to be in the moment on the sea-shore - and millions of us feel the same, however unconsciously. See the opening page of "Moby Dick."

It was agreed by those present that the first passage was, er, challenging. Good, I think we're not gathering only to relax. 

One of us said it reminded him of Donald Rumsfeld, and his known unknowns. I'd never before seen Rumsfeld as a mystic, there's a new perspective on US foreign policy....

We had a good discussion about "words, words, words..." and what of us is verbal. Then another short meditation.