It’s been a bruising few days for us Britons.

When I woke up on Friday morning, having driven a 300 mile round trip during filming to vote in Newhaven, and still recovering from a violent bout of food poisoning (which seems poetic in retrospect), I was KO’d by the referendum result. I lay in bed actually clutching my temples and feeling winded.

After days of rain and vomiting, the sun was shining, so I took my body-blow for a walk up onto the beautiful cliffs over Newhaven West Beach.

For me, the “Leave” vote meant generations of British people impoverished, cut off from the prosperity of one of the world’s biggest trading blocks, it meant further austerity, insularity, xenophobia in the face of global crisis and change. But watching a fox sniff across the rain-bright chalky uplands, I also felt physically nauseous from a sense of social split within my own circle, my own community.

I looked back over the town of Newhaven and knew that the majority of my fellow burgers had probably voted “Leave”. I knew two neighbours on my street who flew “Leave” pennants from their windows. I knew that as a Ferry port with a on-going battle with the French company that owns the harbour, most people in my town are at best apathetic to and mostly disgusted with the idea of Europe.

Walking back through the sunny but as-yet deserted streets I felt there was division in the air. I saw people and my first thought was :”How did they vote?”

Later that day, at work, when it was hinted that a colleague may have voted ‘Leave’ as well, both myself and my other “Remain” colleagues found it hard to talk to them. There were strong feelings of fear, of anger, of distain. Within families younger generations were angry with older parents and grandparents who had seemingly sold their future of free-travel and prosperity down the river. For a few days it felt like I was afraid of others in my own country and the split seemed irreparable.

But the weekend was healing in all sorts of ways. Some friends of mine got married, as a surprise, during their daughter’s naming day ceremony. I met my partner’s family (who had voted mostly to leave) and they didn’t have six-heads and poisonous eye-darts. I started to exit the bubble of Facebook and read what other sides were saying…

When I woke up alone that Friday, I took comfort of going on-line and checking-in with my friends on Facebook. I needed a safe circle of friends with similar views to hold my anger and upset.I was too upset and highly charged to be high-minded and equanimous.

But over the dizzy course of the next 48 hours, I thought about simply going to my “Vote Leave” neighbours and listening to what they had to say, how they felt, what they hoped might happen. I didn’t do it – but would it be so frightening to just listen to someone who had views 180 degrees from you – not argue or convince them, just accept that they exist?

I began to think about Facebook and the way that I and many of my friends get their information. I began to think about the way that the Referendum was reported and the way people encounter fact and opinion.

The very things that I fear most from a “Leave Vote” – isolation and intolerance – seem to go on all the time in the echo-chamber of a Facebook feed or a self-similar news source. Comforting as it is, to have a circle of friends mirroring and reflecting the same views and sentiments, the violence and contempt that erupted on Friday across social media was also scary. People saying that they wanted all “Leave Voters” to de-friend them and the branding the people who voted differently as racists and proto-Brownshirts massing on the edge of imagination – all this magnifies the division and tribalism in a different but equally troubling way.

A lot of us in the Remain camp feel angry and frightened by the consequences of (what most agree was an ill-informed) Leave vote but it is troubling to see how many people said they were “shocked”. Shocked? Really? With polls running neck and neck for weeks and “Leave” pulling ahead a couple of days before the 23rd?

I was so angry with the Daily Mail and the Sun and Express for their poisonous drip-feed of anti-immigrant stories but I reflected on Sunday that I’d never actually read any of them. So putting aside my life-long allergy to these right-wing papers I started adding them to my news feed. I found this in the Sun. I don’t agree with their politics and from my point of view, the protest vote of “Leave” is only going to leave the working classes more economically disenfranchised but you can suddenly see how the “Vote Leave are all ignorant racists” trope might feel from a Sun-reader’s point of view.

The Daily Mail, who’s raison d’être is to moan and complain and generate a sense of envy and discontent, seemed all at sea as their readers were suddenly stranded abroad with no money because of the Pound’s collapse. It was intriguing rather than disgusting to see this paper’s Brexit fervour curdle. Founded at the end of the 19th century with a female readership in mind, it’s the biggest selling paper in the UK and is still predominantly read by women. What do the women who read the Mail think when they read this paper?

Weirdly, as I opened up to the “leave” side’s half-hearted and jittery ‘celebrations’ my sense of anger and anxiety started to recede. The “us vs. them” split is the oldest and most powerful tool in anxiety’s toolbox and any deconstruction of it leads to a softening of the heart. And that felt really good after 48 hours of frightened constriction.

As the new week begins, I have to wonder too whether my much-beloved BBC was at fault. After the shock of Friday morning passed, there was as sense, during the weekend, of seeing things sharp and fresh: scouring multiple news sources, following the street protests, hearing opinions from friends in Berlin and from America, noticing on-line petitions, the politics of the wider EU, a sense of global history unfolding. And then when I turn on Radio 4 this morning it’s the same tiny Westminster focus that we’ve heard for months and months: a Tory MP talking about Boris Johnston; a live-broadcast of George Osbourne’s platitudes. It suddenly felt stiflingly parochial and small-scale.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the decision to give equal weight to Leave and Remain despite the massively unequal evidence distorted the debate considerably. I’m not sure what else the BBC could have done but I suddenly can see how the sense of a “Westminster’s Insider Club” can gain traction across the nation.

Despite these questions, I still feel that Friday’s decision was a protest vote gone wrong: an act of global vandalism. (We hear about ‘Regrexit’ where Leave voters are waking up from a trance to see the ruinous consequences of their vote.) And, if parliament goes on to ratify the referendum and we do go ahead and leave the EU, I still believe the economic, cultural and social consequences will be painful and permanent. We will suffer further from cuts and a catastrophic collapse in funding; free-marketeers will take advantage of the lack of EU legal protection to dismantle the NHS, roll-out environmentally damaging agriculture and tear-up our few remaining labour laws; and there will be nasty and permanent increase in racist attacks on our citizens. (Let’s not forget that an MP was MURDERED by a racist and people still voted Leave).

However, I do sincerely hope that the rupture that this vote has caused will wake us up from our bubble-chambers and self-selecting tribes and force us to LISTEN (not hector or convince or argue or rant at) our fellow citizens. The one thing we can’t let it do is shut our minds to 17 million people and walk the streets in a rictus of suspicion and hatred. Because then the racists and hate-mongers have really won.

Just in case you don’t have 20 minutes to listen to Prof. Dougan’s talk here are the main points (and yes, Dougan is the Jean Monnet chair at the University and it is funded by the EU. Nonetheless I have not read a single thing on the Brexit side that has more substance or factual accuracy).

SOVEREIGNTY: The UK is a sovereign power and the ultimate power lies with Parliament. The EU is not even a sovereign entity – it has no power in our country unless parliament grants it.

US vs. THEM: People talk about “Brussels” as if it were an alien entity. We are one of the “Big Three” (the others are France and Germany) who have the deciding say in everything that the EU decides (with 73, 74 and 96 MEPs respectively). Most decisions are made by consensus. The Commission does not dictate. The Council (all countries’ representatives at a table) and the Parliament (directly elected by national populations) decide what will be most beneficial to all involved. We are one of the most power decision makers in Europe.

LAW: European Law does not supersede UK law. When the UK judges sometimes overrule British decisions in favour of the EU it is because the UK parliament has told them to do so. If we leave the EU then all our laws will have to be re-written in short measure. And, Prof, Dougan, argues Parliament will not have the time to do this – it will be left to unelected bodies.

TRADE: The the EU is the most sophisticated and powerful trading block in the world by a long way. Not just the lack of tariffs but much more importantly the lack of regulatory construction (where the UK can’t sell its computers to France because of different health, environmental, safety laws). To leave the Single Market would bring us back to square one. The “Norwegian option” means that we would have to abide by all EU laws but have no say in how they’re made – also we would still have to pay a huge fee to trade. If we wanted to limit free movement of people then we would have to leave completely. This would mean we would have to negotiate from scratch bi-lateral agreements with all countries of the world which would take up to 10 years. (Switzerland is still negotiating these treaties after voting not to be in the Single Market in the 1970s).

I don’t usually write about political things on here although as the years pass I find myself moving to a more radical and left-wing view of the world – (It’s a stubborn counter-move to that awful belief that we’re socialist in youth and conservative in old-age). The significance of the Brexit vote for British citizens and the sense of moral decay in the air, prompted me to post this.

The horrific murder of more than 50 LGBT revellers in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the equally shocking murder of the British politician Jo Cox moved have moved me like they moved millions – and they have made me vocal and angry about not only the two murderers but about the whole undercurrent of hatred and bigotry that cultivated their murderers’ mindset.

It is impossible and duplicitous, for example, for American establishment figures to wring their hands about what happened in Orlando while at the same time turning a blind eye to the fact that Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, was happy to shake hands with a right-wing pastor who advocates execution for gay people. Similarly, it is impossible to ignore the obvious connection between Cox’s murderer shouting “Britain First” and the paranoid and distorted rhetoric being used by UKIP posters and the loose-canon Brexiteers in the run up to UK’s referendum on leaving Europe.

The revolting drip-feed of negativity towards ‘migrants’ and Muslims in British newspapers like the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express is clearly complicit in this national drift towards an atavistic and small-minded fear mentallity. It is out of this tragic and terrible manure that the murderous acts spring. Not from some ‘evil’ unconnected to the press and the media.

Rather than bracketing the Orlando killer and Cox’s killer into the ‘insane’ or the ‘jihadi/extremist’ bracket we have to acknowledged that these men acted in a context of increasing bigotry and close-mindedness. The brutality of these men (and indeed of ISIS executing gay men and non-Muslims) is the very extreme end of a spectrum that begins with civilised people closing their minds and hearts to people who are different from them.

One of the heart-numbing aspects of the Brexit debates in the UK is the idea that there always have to be a ‘balance’. That if most people (for example 95% of scientists and economists) agree that leaving the EU would be disastrous for the country and our children’s future in the world, then we have to find someone in the 5% to “balance” the argument. Both are given equal airtime and the truth is distorted. If most people (100% of scientists) believe that evolution provides a robust explanation of life on Earth, then we don’t have to give a platform to the nonsense of Creationism as a ‘balance”.

The fact is that some things are just bad ideas. Putting your hand into a fire is a bad idea. We don’t need to balance that by having someone argue that it is a good one.

Toleration, kindness, openness, communication, trade, dialogue, open-mindedness, co-operation, compassion, curiosity are qualities that lead to positive life constellations. Bitterness, close-mindedness, greed, deafness, rigidity, isolationism and hatred lead to increased misery and conflict.

I don’t doubt that there are a huge number of Britons who sincerely believe that leaving the EU will be good for the country. But the overwhelming evidence shows that it will not. The EU (flawed as it may be) has brought environmental safeguards, labour laws and peace and prosperity that our grandparent’s generation only dreamed of in the post-war years. The access to culture, funding, research, trade, security and social fields is a huge boon for the generations to come. The Brexiteers who clamour for ‘less red tape’ are also the free marketeers who are keen to scrap maternity leave, sickness pay and labour protection. The energy and tax that young migrants bring into an economy far, far outweigh the cost to the infrastructure of a country and besides, as a union of 500 million people we have a duty to help the many millions displaced by a war in Syria that we are indirectly responsible for.

Staying in Europe makes it easier to police our borders and protect our welfare. (Do the Brexiteers imagine that France will continue to hold refugees at Calais once Britain leaves the EU border conventions?) Being part of the EU will allow our youngsters to study in universities that get European research grants and work abroad and be inspired about being part of a wider European family. And quite apart from the mere economic benefits, I feel that there is a much more resonant cultural and emotional connection.

I have always been delighted to feel part of Europe. To hang out in Berlin, drink Pernod in Paris, eat paella in Barcelona, explore the Carpathians, swim in the lakes of Mazuria. I have taken full advantage of studying for free in Berlin, working in Germany, paying tax in Germany and using German swimming pools and roads paid for by my taxes. I have criss-crossed boarders willy-nilly and learned languages and I am constantly learning from the counter-point that other nations brings to the experience of being English.

When I lived in Berlin in the 90s I came into a much clearer and prouder relationship with both my Britishness and my Englishness. But I also came to be full of admiration for the unique history that Berliners lived through and had a much more vivid sense of the Second World War there where the scars of the Cold War were still so visible. Being a European is just one concentric circle in my life. Within it there is being British and being English. Beyond it is being a Buddhist and being a human. Many circles makes for resonance.

What terrifies me is the growing constriction of circles that Brexit hints at: closed borders, closed economy, closed minds. It’s an isolationist creed that finds echoes in Donald Trump and i believe it’s the very opposite of the thing that has always made Britain great: our openness to the world, to science, to trade, to diplomacy and to others. Voting to remain a part of a greater whole can only empower us. Closing doors will leave us to stagnate and founder.

Just back from a quick weekend visit to Berlin, my old home town from 1992 to 1998.

It was grizzly, wet and cold weather and the city was looking as forlorn and unappealing as it possibly could. Lots of my friends were sick and ill and I wondered as I wandered across the bleak wasteland that is the ‘Regierungsviertel’ why on earth I had come back in the dead-end of winter.

But a few hours later I was drinking hot ginger tea in a Prenzlauerberg bar with a couple of friends and enjoying the sort of serious but animated conversation that Berlin still thrives on.

I was puzzling the fact that ‘my’ Berlin had been overwhelmed by an influx of English speaking ‘hobby-Berliners’, drawn there by the international glamour of the city and cheap(er) rents. The old, grumpy German-speaking Berlin (which I experienced as ghastly-hard but authentic) has been covered up by a much more friendly, tourist-inflected confection of coffee-bars, graffiti art museums and more coffee-bars. This makes the city a much easier place to hang-out but somehow seems to have comotosed the rude recalcitrance of Berlin into something much more compliant and consumerist.

Adrian, an artist, art fabricant and magician of wood, pointed out that thousands of very talented people are drawn there by the art scene but only a tiny fragment will make it. This is largely due to a shift in the art market towards the ephemeral and ‘fashionable’ (which is actually a society-wide shift towards the consumer mode.) Previously, artists and gallerists would have a long-term relationship which would pay off in a long career of varied work and stably-rising prices. Now the “market’ has become the driving mechanism and, as everywhere, the market is interested in the new and instantly saleable rather than long-term investments. This means that even among successful artists there can be a terribly short shelf life.

Adrian has built his robust career on honing his skill as a ‘maker’ and he spoke of an book by Hans-Ulrich Obrist about how in the long run only people with ‘skills’ will flourish. In a world of conceptual art, the ability to work with wood and marble and metal and often hard-to-access ‘stuff’ becomes a lasting anchor. Adrian has made a decision to stay put, to hone a skill, to work day-by-day to improve that skill and he knows that it’s a good bet. Concepts are too cheap. The speed and ephemerality of ideas make them particularly prone to consumer erosion.

This ties in with what I was saying in the last post about the tick-tock of anxiety. Placing your existential eggs in the basket of thought is a perilous decision. Because thinking is so fast and erratic, one is always anxious about breakage. There is much to be said about resting in the concrete, staying put and honing a skill.

Translating Adrian’s professional aperçu into my world, then it becomes about people rather than materials. The skills I have to hone are teaching and therapy and my workstuff is the human mind and its wellbeing. But his decision to hone and engage with stuff is inspiring in other ways.

For a long time I’ve suspected that daily engagement with the actual stuff of the world rather than our thoughts about it, leads to mental health. Our consciousness according to Alva Noë arises because we have brains in bodies that move in a world. The essential component of heightened consciousness is that the body is emplaced in a vibrant and ever-challenging and refreshing world. Not a stale simulacrum of thoughts. In short, too much thinking kills us.

I was staying with my very action-orientated friend Tamsin who juggles a magnificent family of children, a challenging journalistic career, a novel-writing strand and a panache with vegan chocolate and home-made cosmetics. That level of relentless doing makes me quail a little – but as she points out: the doing breeds energy. Just as thinking makes us anxious, there is a certain kind of doing that is not addictive workaholism but is a virtuous generator of connection. So although Tamsin is working non-stop, the daily interaction with children, colleagues, cocoa-butter feeds back into her consciousness and enlivens it.

I would hazard a guess that this kind of doing (like Adrian’s daily battle with steel and oak) is tempered or made wholesome by interpersonal context. This is what stops “healthy doing” becoming “anxious doing”. We need to stay rooted in the world and other people.

Reading Iris Murdoch’s letters she writes to her French lover, Raymond Queneau: “ I don’t care a hang this evening about anything theoretical. I care so much more about people, indeed I always do.” Elsewhere she says: “Being incarnate is a business”. Which strikes me a doubly wonderful. The flesh and bone of being human as a joyful activity.

This may seem to run counter to the thrust of meditation as ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ – but this trip to Berlin, damp as it was, has pointed out that too much ‘being’ (especially when it actually involves endless thinking) can make you liable to paralysing anxiety and thence selfishness. The ‘business’ of the embodied brain moving in the world creates consciousness but not just an embodied one but a socialised one. I suspect that that “world context” contributes to a sense of inter-subjectivity that is crucial for well-being.

Perhaps it was just the gloomy weather and a fluey headache, but when I stepped into a coffee-shop to escape the rain on Saturday and was surrounded by a host of dozens of young ‘Berliners’ all staring at their glowing laptops, I felt the city had become depressingly unsocialised in the way that swathes of London and Manhattan have.

Adrian’s boyfriend was telling me about epiphytic plants which are not directly parasitic on the tree they dwell on but rather hop on the branches and commit ‘resource piracy’ – not eating the tree but taking up a lot of the airspace. One of the disturbing aspects of New Berlin is that it is becoming – like so many places – full of people who don’t directly drain the place they live in but don’t seem to connect to it either. Most of the international “Berliners”, for example, don’t speak German and have created enclaves where it’s not necessary. This self-soothing bubble existence can be terrible selfish. That’s not true of the trunk of German Berliners who have shown, for example, inspirational welcome to the Syrian refugees but more to the international epiphytic ferns that have come to nest in Berlin’s branches.

Making ends meet, planning your great start-up, securing your big art deal: these are the typical activity of your 20s these days and they are hedged around with anxiety. But how much more anxious are they in the epiphytic atmosphere that has no real roots in the otherness of the world and wants to create a ‘safe’ bubble of curated space. Planning without doing, being ‘awesome’ without actually being anything in the real world, sipping lattes instead of getting things done. It’s alarming to me – because (of course) it reminds me so much of me – but also because it is going to lead to an enormous sense of disappointment when the “Berlin” bubble pops and people have to make it in the real world of big roots, thick trunks and winter weather.

I spend most of yesterday having cups of tea and meals with different people, talking about the desire to break free of the humdrum patterns of life and the hypnotic compulsion of ‘to-do’ lists. How to unwind the daily grind – what the French concisely call “le train-train”.

It’s only three weeks since I came back from Colorado but I’ve been keenly aware of le train-train pulling into the station and not leaving. It’s a very deep-rooted mental system (akin to those other ones that I worked through in Crestone) but one that is particularly activated when I get home from travel and settle down to the routine of “getting things done”.

Like the jerry-rigged beliefs of childhood that serve us very poorly as we get older, so the idea of “I have to do this” gets in the way of a life well-lived.

Of course, we all have our own idea of what a “life well-lived” might look like, but I wager most of us know deep down that the way we live right now is not it.

I hear over and over from so many of my friends about hair-crisping amounts of stress; of to-do lists as long as the Nile; and whirring, flailing cogs of planning and agitation that prevent even the smallest crack of pleasure or relaxation from entering our days.

Many of us wake up and turn on our phones. We read the news and rush to work. We answer emails on the bus and tick off to-do lists in the elevator. There is a perpetual displacement of a “life well-lived” until we have cleared the desk of all the things we need to do. “I’ll read that book / write that novel / live my life when I have some spare time”.

But, of course, there is never spare time in le train-train. The daily grind is just that – it grinds the ‘life well lived’ into dust. And it’s awful.

It’s awful and heart-breaking and – when I’m free from le train-train, through meditation or Ayahuasca or moments of grace – then I’m moved to tears by the sheer waste and tragedy of it. How can I live in such a beautiful world – where there are worms and hawthorn bushes, birds-foot trefoils and chalk cliffs, crocuses and people’s funny moods – and sit trapped in the grey reclusion of “I must do this, I must do that”. Where is the radiance in that?

William Blake, (Reggie’s favorite poet) creates a whole mythology where the demiurge Urizen chains humanity in manacles of Concept. Slavishly entrained by the drumbeat of “I must do this, I must do that”, the imaginative life, Los, is forgotten and dies.


Since coming back from the snowy heights of Crestone, I have come face-to-face with the structures of Urizen very strongly in my life. I have been waking every morning in a dull sweat and swept instantly off into a ceaseless stream of cruel to-do lists. Even an hour’s meditation and lots of lovely teaching has barely dented the hypnotic strength of this internal drumbeat.

Crestone taught me very viscerally that the only way to undo these internal structures is to see them so clearly that they can no longer be ignored. Subconscious structures are the worst because they structure without our knowledge. This drum beat was becoming more and more audible, more and more unbearable.

One way of responding to this relentless rhythm would, indeed, be to flee. To get on a plane and travel to the Hindu Kush or go scuba-diving in the Cook Islands. And as I found in Colorado and Bahia, there is a disruptive salve in these rupturous journeys. The rupture makes le train-train visible.

However, tempting and delicious as the vision of ‘complete rupture’ may be, there is a part of me that feels that that is not the answer. I suspect that the minute I get to Qarabolq or Turoa Beach the drumbeat will still be there. And besides, if I can’t get peaceful along the chalky downlands of the South of England then surely there’s something wrong with the circuitry not with the location?

I realised that I had been weirdly in denial of my locality since coming back from Colorado. It was perhaps the power of the Sangre di Cristo mountains- imperious and daunting but intensely enchanting – that still had me in their grip. Usually, the very first thing I do when I get home from my travels is to take a walk up the cliffs near my house and look out over the English Channel and the sweep of the beach east to Seaford Head; and the charismatic Georgian seawall at the mouth of the Ouse which curves out like a friendly arm towards the horizon. This landscape of chalk and clay, river and sea, was what drew me magnetically to Newhaven three years ago. It has been a daily comfort to me – but weirdly since coming back from Colorado, I hadn’t been up there once. Almost a month had past without me making that local pilgrimage.

Since I woke feeling particularly train-train this morning – a bit coldy, a bit tired – it took some effort to drag myself out, but the sun was shining and the town was busying up for the day. White vans parked along the recreation ground waiting for their deliveries to load; the boats in the marina making their cling-cling-cling sound; the birds in the thick tangles of gorse and hawthorn singing up a racket. And the February sun bringing everything into sharp focus.

As I climbed behind the redbrick fort (built to defend against Napoleon and now pleasingly crumbly), crested the hill and saw the sea all magnesium-white with the morning sun, I wondered, out loud: “Why have I not been up here?”. This locality is my sustenance and it also anchors me. And in its magical force-field the drumbeat of the train-train faded away.

One of my clients yesterday was talking about how much pleasure he gets from playing the piano. Real, unentangled joy. And that piano playing is an island of autotelic pleasure in an ocean of grinding, anxious thinking. And, as is often the case, I thought how clients describe and elucidate what I too experience. Identifying a joy, independent of outcome, is what can undo the misery of le train-train. It’s like Kryptonite for habituated grind. Because once you’ve experience that sort of free-floating joy (doodling, reading a poem, looking at a patch of grass, singing in the shower, erotic daydreams) then the thin justification for relentless busyness dissolves all at once.

Who is that ‘they” that we’re always working for? What is the “terrible thing” that will happen if we don’t get everything on our to-do list finished? What is more important than being content in the here-and-now?

I don’t have answers but these sort of rhetorical questions put me in mind again of William Blake whose (mostly indigestible) prophetic books are often page after page of questions. The puzzle of Urizen’s hold on us isn’t solved in a day – but I intuit that finding joy where you are might well be the answer.

O Urizen! Creator of men! mistake Demon of heaven:
Thy joys are tears! thy labour vain, to form men to thine image.
How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love.

WILLIAM BLAKE, Visions of the Daughters of Albion

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