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

I have fled the never-ending English Winter for an instant, well-established Spring in Cyprus.

And sitting among the purple vetches and white wild garlic, with bees missiling past my head and birds being very urgent in their sexed-up calls, I had a lovely long meditation looking out over the mountains about Limassol.

Part of the reason I booked a last minute flight towards the sun was to give myself some time-out between a lot of teaching and a long summer of filming. But there was so much interesting stuff in the teaching that is still buzzing round my head.

Mindsprings ran a weekend course at the Abbey on ‘Anxiety: The mindful approach’ (which sounds like a franchised film title, but was actually a great two day workshop). I was so happy with the way it went. And one of the many interesting things that came out of it was the concept of ‘surfing’ one’s neuroses through to a certain age and then hopping off them.

Having negotiated 40 and had a physical meltdown at 42, I’m feeling quite good about being 43. It seems like the ‘mid-life crisis’ is more of a ‘mid-life’ opportunity.

The surfing idea came up while we were discussing a concept I use from ACT therapy, called “dirty (dis)comfort.”

Basically a dirty (dis)comfort is a defence that is meant to make us comfortable by avoiding the experience of anxiety.

So a thought or a situation arises that rightfully makes our physical body send out anxiety signals (heightened heart-rate, pained breathing, stomach contractions, sweat, narrow thinking) and rather than acknowledge it we pretend it’s not there by indulging in an avoidant or defensive behaviour which ‘takes our mind off’ the anxiety. So for example, if we remember something our boss said that belittled or enraged us, and then we suddenly find ourselves half way through a bottle or beer or a tub of Hagen Daaz. Now we have the angry thought + the hangover/lovehandles. The dirty (dis)comfort is meant to make us feel better but actually makes us feel worse – hence the bracketted “dis”.

Dirty (dis)comforts (DDs) can be one-off behaviours like lighting a cigarette or shouting at your partner but they can also be habitual stances or behaviours that become part of our personality.

So, as I mention in my last post, we might react to the anxiety of being abandoned by always being a ‘people pleaser’. The DD momentarily assuages our anxiety by winning a reprieve but does nothing to dislodge the faulty belief (“people hate me”) that caused the anxiety to arise in the first place. In this way, the seeming success of DDs lead to them becoming endlessly repeated but futile character traits.

With mindfulness we get a chance to see through the thought and also experience the anxiety for what it is: an appropriate physical reaction to (possibly) inappropriate thoughts.

However, the thing that came up in the course was that these character DDs were not bad. Nothing is bad in mindfulness. They’re not bad but they may have outlived their usefulness.

We have to remember that these defensive decisions that we took when we were very young were the ones that helped us survive through to adulthood. OK, in the clear light of the 40s, they may not have been the best decisions we ever made (and believed a million times over) but they were good enough. They got us through.

But now, as adults with the ability to think clearly, with independence and more wisdom, we can change.

Neuroplasticity says that our brains can change – admittedly less swiftly than in infancy or in teenage, – and this moment right now, seems a good one.

We can acknowledge that our DDs have carried us like a wave through life to this point but now – before the wave crashes destructively into the gravelly shingle of the beach – is a good moment to jump off the wave. Before it breaks.

No regrets, no rubbishing what we have been, but a clear-sighted decision to do things differently from now on. Let’s thank the wave for getting us this far alive and hop off into buoyant waters, full of fish and life. No more surfing. Let’s go snorkelling among the corals before they die.

I’ve been unable to write here for some time.

Infact, I’ve been feeling utterly uninclined to write, full stop, for almost four months. Words seemed to turn to dust in my brain and settle sludgy up in the wet matter. Which is a massive shift since I’ve been a wordy thing since I was little.

The slow erosion of my wordiness started in October when I was teaching up in Scotland and feeling a bit under the weather. That fluey feeling persisted and melded with an increasing amount of anxiety and uncertainty about what I was feeling or what was going on in my body. Where before I would write and journal or talk and things would settle, it was like someone had flipped a switch in my brain. I lost my bearings. I would calculate that I should eat by the time on the clock but not by the feeling in my belly. I would sleep but very fitfully, waking up with no sense of having slept at all. I would feel things under a sheet of leaded mental glass. Getting things done became very wearisome. Other people became unbearably demanding. I became very antisocial.

If one of my clients had come to me with these symptoms I might have assumed that they were depressed. But I have had experience of depression and I KNEW that I wasn’t depressed and I felt instinctively that something physical – possibly brainy – was out of kilter.

However, I lost my certainty. I wasn’t at all sure if I wasn’t just imagining things. The shift seemed gradual. So gradual that I couldn’t never quite see if things had gotten worse or better. It took a friend staying and reflecting back my very erratic behaviour to make me visit my GP. After blood tests, I was diagnosed as hypothyroidal. Unusual in a man and in someone my age.

What is astonishing in the change I feel since I started taking thyroxin (which acts like the body’s starter motor) is that an organic change – a shift in chemistry – can have such a profound effect in how we experience the world.

My confidence (in teaching, in therapy) that there is consensual reality that we can all talk about has been left wobbling like jelly. Most of my meditative ‘wisdoms’ felt like so much irritating dust and needless needling when I was unwell. They were meaningless when I was in that desert place. If I had been teaching myself back then I would be irritating the hell out of myself. I wonder now how can I ever know from which chemical / organic platform my clients or students or friends are listening to me?

I wrote in a poem 23 years ago about that imponderable gap in terms of language:

i push out a word.
it floats in the air
between us.

to me it looks blue.

but my blue is your red
& so i say:
“it’s blue.”

you nod.

But actually there is a bigger divide than just words. What I experienced in those four weeks of thyroid-desert was a different self experience. I was a different Alistair. The world felt different, my brain felt different, time flowed differently. So how can we ever know what other people are experiencing when we say something, when we reach up and touch them in some way? If I can be so different within the same body, how can we ever really know what’s going in someone else’s skin?

The one great benefit – I’m tapping around for positives as the neuronal lights come back on – is that I have HUGE empathy now when people say “I’m not sleeping well” or “I’m not feeling myself” or “I’m on meds” . I am much less likely to ASSUME what is going on across the room, which is a terrible temptation as a therapist or a teacher. I hate to turn everything into a little life lesson – but there’s also no point in tipping 120 days experience into a bin bag marked “TOXIC”.

That poem continues:

i write “flower”
but you read it “flower”
meaning something
very different.

i fall apart.

wish me joy in trying
because poems do nothing
but push a pencil
into a creepingly spastic


After a bit of technical head-scratching, I think the Mindsprings Podcast page is up and running. Hurrah!

You can to subscribe through the iTunes Store like other podcasts or you can just click through to this page right now.

That’s the Welcome page. Click at the top to get to the Podcast page. And then listen to which ever lesson you’d like. When enough of the file has loaded you can press play – and in the little bottom strip, towards the right, there are also the chapter headings if you don’t want to listen to the whole one and half hours… For example. there is the guided meditation itself or the discussion afterwards which contains a lot more tangential stuff.

You can download the mp3 files to your computer and thence to your iPod by clicking subscribe. This will take you automatically to iTunes store and you can get the podcasts sent directly into your iTunes player. You can then transfer it to your iPod and listen to anywhere – though please don’t go into deep samadhi while operating heavy machinery.

Hope you enjoy and please let me know if there are any technical foul-ups along the way.
I shalln’t be alerting you to every week’s new Podcast – if you’d like to keep abreast, the little purple ‘Subscribe’ button will bond you forever to the emergent world of Mindsprings.


I’ve finally managed to record one of the classes I teach in Kensal Rise, should anyone be interested.
I’ll be archiving all the four classes in this series on the Mindsprings website. They’re looking at the way we deal with ‘thinking’ in meditation.

You can hear the whole lesson (an hour and half) here but it’s broken up into chapters for ease of skipping on your iPod.

1. there’s the opening relaxation, lying down
2. an introduction into the practice, in this instance concentration on the breath.
3. feedback and answers after the first session
4. a recap of the practice for practising on your own
5. another feed back after the second session and a sum-up for practice at home.

Many thanks to Jeremy for persevering with my technical inadequacies and for all the participants. Their names have been removed though their questions remain.

Meditation at Special Yoga Centre 05/01/09: Part 1 (of 4) Dealing with Thoughts

Next Page »