quotes


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

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And the, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Seamus Heaney, Squarings

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we chose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should love, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory

Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Beacon Press 1994) quoted in Noam Chomsky Occupy (Penguin Books 2012)

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THIS WAY: UNDERWORLD

Pound on the return of Ulysses to the dead:

The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here they did rites…
[...]
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youth and of the old who had borne much;
Soul stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with broze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me
[...]
and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me and spoke first:
“A second time? why? man of ill star,
Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
For soothsay,”
And I stepped back,
And he strong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions.”

and then Rilke on Eurydice, called unwilling up from death:

Being dead
Filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.
She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall

[...]

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

ice-and-snow

SNOW
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Louis McNiece (thanks to whiskyriver)

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