March 2008


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Been reading more Alan Watts. No one I’ve read or listened to has more succintly and pithily summed up the core ideas of Buddhist Dharma for me. If you read one dharma talk then ‘Biting the Iron Bull’ is it. Unfortunately, I can’t find any transcripts of it on line – though there are MP3 versions of Watts reading it.

He talk so brilliantly about many things but I’ve not come across a more perfect description of the ego.

Now, an ego is not the same thing as a particular living organism. The organism is something real, though it is not a separate thing but a feature of the universe. On the other hand, what we call the ego is something abstract, it has the same order and kind of reality as an hour or an inch or pound or a line of longitude. It exists for purposes of discussion, for convenience.
…this image is not ourselves anymore than the idea of a tree is a tree, anymore than you can get wet in the word ‘water’.

So far so good. But what he says next is the key and core of practice. And that’s the idea of the unnecessary tension of ego. He compares the ego ‘I’ with the bodily ‘eye’. When the eye is working OK we don’t notice it, it doesn’t make us aware of the optical nerve and the lens or the retinal image being upside down. But the ego gets in the way and makes it’s presence known:

If my ego, my consciousness, is working, I ought not be aware of it; yet I am, as some sort of nuisance, the thing that sits in the middle of everything.

I think I have discovered that [the ego] is a chronic and habitual sense of muscular strain, which we were taught to do in the process of perfoming normally spontaneous things to order. When you are taking off in a jet plane, and the plane has gone rather further down the runway than you think it should have without getting up in the air, you may start pulling at your seatbelt to get off the ground. Of course, this is perfectly useless. A similar thing happens when somone tells us to look carefully, to listen or pay attention. We start st raining the muscles around our eyes, ears, jaws and hands. We try to use our muscles to make our nerves work which is, of course, futile and infact hinders the functioning of the nerves.

This chronic tension , which in Sanskrit is called sankoca meaning contraction, is the root of what we call the feeling of ego.

How brilliant. The redundant tension that we carry with us is completely unecessary since life goes on quite easily and wonderfully without all that huffing and puffing.

Watts goes on to explore this sense of effortless life as the universe proliferating itself. Like Shelley he notes that we are the eyes of the universe observing itself and finding that is is good – or at least interesting. This brings up the question, ‘Well, yes, but who is doing the observing?’ – which as Watts points out is fallacious question:

When you ask the question ‘who is doing the chasing?’ you are still working under the assumption that every verb has to have a subject, and that when there is an action there has to be a doer. This is merely a grammatical convention, leading to what Whitehead called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ like the famous ‘it’ in ‘it is raining’. So when one declares that there cannot be a knowing without a knower, one is saying no more than there cannot be a verb without a subject; that, however, is a grammatical rule, not a law of nature.

The universe is just verbs not nouns. It’s a constant stream of patterns and processes and trying to perceive ‘stuff’ in it is just a trick of the eyes. “What we call stuff is simply pattern seen out of focus”.

All this totally ties in with the way I’m feeling right now in the first days of Spring. Spring is the seasonal embodiment of all that change. What was dead comes back to life. What was underground is resurrected into the air. No wonder Easter is when it is. But the illusion that something died in the first place is just another trick of the eyes. We just didn’t pay attention to the constant change.

Watt’s brilliance is to make clear and distinct things that are cloaked in high falutin’ spiritual gobbledegook. We’re taught that egolessness, enlightenment is nigh-on impossible but, actually, all we need to do is relax that tension. That seat-belting-pulling clench. The ego is a useful abstraction but we don’t need it all the time,

The ego cannot be transcended because it does not properly exist. You cannot do anything about a non-existent thing, anymore than you can cut a cheese with a line of longitude.

As Tilda said: ‘Less talk, more action. Less paralysis. More work.’

Enjoy that Spring thing.

Everything recently has been pointing me towards the joy of the home made, of the amateur.

Professional and amateur: when you set those two opposites together nowadays, the values are clear. Professional is good and sleek and efficient. Amateur is messy, substandard. But the word amateur comes from amor. The person who loves what they do. And think about professional. The profession is what we do to earn money. The professional is the act that is finessed by the financial, by earning our keep.

One is about transaction and the other is about love.

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This week I went to the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine evening at the Colisseum. NYCB are the acme of polished dance. Spotless, athletic, beautiful. I love Balanchine and in the final cascade of Symphony in C I felt the bubbles of delight rise in my throat.

The following day, I went, after work to see my nephew who had been cast in the lead of the High Wycombe district’s combined schools musical ‘The Bluebird.’ Six hundred children singing together wonderful music written specially for them – dancing and acting their way through the story.
In terms of response, in terms of pure unadulterated delight, the ragged, joyful sprawl of ‘The Bluebird’ beat the Balanchine hands down.

Not to say that school plays are better than Balanchine. There’s space for both. But definitely to say that the amateur is often – if not intrinsically – more satisfying than the professional

When you make things for money not for love then the delight dims.

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I have always wholeheartedly treasured in your work the whiff of the school play. It tickles me still and I miss it terribly.

Tilda Swinton wrote a fabulous open letter to the dead filmmaker Derek Jarman which is the basis to a new documentary on his life. You should look at the full text – it’s wonderful and inspiring.

She is far from hagiographic and often deflates Jarman’s bumptiousness but her passion for what his films stood for is undimmed:

Things have got awfully tidy recently. There is a lot of finish on things. Clingfilm gloss and the neatest of hospital corners. The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product. Financial returns… add -water- and -stir [ ... ]The dead hand of Good Taste has commenced its last great attempt to buy up every soul on the planet, and from where I’m sitting, it’s going great guns.

What stands out is that spirit of the ‘school-play’, the amateur. Most of Jarman’s films were made for £200,000. But it was precisely that willfull and perverse determination that characterises the love that makes the ‘amateur’ better and more satisfying than the professional.

That the example you set us is as simple as a logo to sell a sports shoe; less chat, more action, less fiscal reports, more films, less paralysis, more process. Less deference. More dignity. Less money. More work. Less rules. More examples. Less dependence. More love.

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I loved the films of Jarman when I was growing up and I wondered whether they would have aged well with all their heavy and often pretensious imagery and allusion. I think they have. I loved seeing them again. Their wit and freshness was bracing.

The rather vicious reviews the show at the Serpentine got seem to me the laziest kind of homophobia. The thrust of them all was: why did he bang on about being gay all the time. A question one never poses to any heterosexual filmmaker. And besides why not? He was a gay man and he was dying of AIDS. Isn’t that valid enough. It actually infuriates me that these fat, married art critics are allowed to make comment’s like:

As my 13-year-old daughter muttered harshly as she fled a show that offered her absolutely nothing in the way of shared experiences: “Okay, you’re gay. Now move on.”

Since when has a 13-year-old girl’s experience been the touchstone of artistic validity? What is the shared experience in Guernica, in the St Matthew’s Passion, in Beethoven’s string quartet that would interest a 13-year-old girl? It’s blatantly a ‘disgust’ rather than a absence of shared experience that inspires that comment. Which says more about Waldemar Januszczak’s parenting than his daughter’s aesthetic taste.

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On a less narked and more amatory note. (Or should that be amateury?) I went to ‘Duckie’ last night at the Vauxhall Tavern. A venerable bastion of gay culture through the years – Lily Savage fought the police here – the Royal Vauxhall Tavern has always kept the gay cultural flag burning. Duckie is particularly wonderful. I think they describe themselves as authentic London honky-tonk and progressive working-class art for giddy young men. I’ve seen some bizarre and wonderful things put on in that tiny, beery, sweaty venue, to a rapt and appreciative and mostly drunk crowd of happy gay men and women.

Last night was the Srishti Dance company. 8 eleganted shirt-and-tied men dancing and singing the most electrifying Indian music and dance. A bit like Kathak vogueing. How on earth they stayed so elegant on that tiny slippery stage I have no idea. Anyway, I loved them and I loved the beery crowd who cheered their hearts out more.

And the last word to Tilda on Derek:

And the clarity with which you offered up your life and the living of it, particularly since the epiphany – I can call it nothing less – of your illness, was a genius stroke, not only of provocation, but of grace . With your gesture of public confessional, both within and without your work- at a time when people talked fairly openly about setting up ostracised HIV island communities and others feared, not only for their lives, but, believe it or not, also for their jobs, their insurance policies, their friendships, their civil rights – was made with such particular, and characteristically inclusive, generosity that it was at that point that you made an impact far outspanning the influence of your work. ..you made your spirit , your nature, known to us – and the possibility of an artist’s fearlessness, a reality. And the truth of it is: by defying it, you may have changed the market as well

I love Rilke and I was sent a lovely translation of this Sonnet to Orpheus by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy which seemed to capture all my recent musings on change and flux and the excitement of accepting both. Strangely, this sonnet is not in my Mitchell edition of Rilke but it seems miraculously Buddhist in sentiment, though perfectly Rilkean in construction.

As I was reading it I thought it might be nice to create a 4 dimensional quotation for the blog. Almost 6 hours later, here it is. Who would have thought something so simple looking would require such finessing. Though truth to tell I love the zone I get into while editing and never tire of watching the sequence back over and over.

The music is Rachmaninov’s 10th Prelude played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Download

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I’ve always puzzled at the high placing given to equanimity in the Buddhist canon. After all, being steady is kind of boring. Not being swept up on the highs of life and down on the lows would make for a pretty dreary universe. It also seems a little cowardly. As if too much emotion either way up or down was something to fear.

But I’m now realizing that equanimity or upekkha (to give it its more accurate and less flip-floppy Pali term) is actually the key to lots of things. And actually is rather exciting and revolutionary.

A friend of mine many years ago, long before I’d started meditating, talked through the benefits of his years of therapy. ‘In the end’, he said, ‘the most important thing was learning not to care.’

At the time I remember thinking how horrible and heartless that sounded. But now I realise he was entirely right. A life where you’re always caring what other people think of you and your behaviour is inauthentic, is miserable and is ultimately cowardly. He was right, a truely free and happy life is one where you have enough power and self-regard not to care what others think of you and create your own life regardless.

Of course I don’t mean not care for people, not look after them or love them. But no genuine love is possible if you’re constantly worried about what others think of you.

Gradually, gently, freeing yourself from this dependence of what other people think of you is upekkha. It’s wonderfully liberating.

It’s the deep seat of creativity for example. You can’t create something new and wonderful in the world if you’re worrying about what others might think of it all the time. It ends up some rehashed committee piece where you weren’t even on the committee.

The Buddha talks about the Eight Worldly Winds that are constantly blowing whether you’re enlightened or not. Praise and blame are two of the eight winds. Praise and blame come to everyone – Buddhas included – and they are constantly blowing one way or the other.

There will always be someone who’ll love what you do and there will always be people who’ll hate it. Caring about either is dangerous.

When I first started in television and started getting fan letters, a sage actor friend of mine picked up a pepper mill in my kitchen and said – ‘If this pepper mill was on telly, it would get fan mail and hate mail too. Automatically. It’s nothing to do with you.’

Of course, I wanted to believe the fan mail was for me. Was true and accurate. But actually its just as inaccurate and unimportant as the hate mail and criticism.

Always seeking praise and believing people 100% when they praise you is phoney. Always trying to avoid criticism and trying to discredit 100% of any criticism that comes your way is phoney too. Praise and blame are external to your life. They come from someone else‘s life. They come and go like the weather. Equanimity allows you to go on creating without reference to the random changes of meterology.

The most freedom comes when you learn to displease your teachers by doing what you know is good. Similarly, the day you can tear up what you know is bad regardless of the gushing praise lavished on it, is the day you become truely powerful.

Of course, it’s painful to give up our addiction to praise, to getting pats on the backs when we do something good.

Look at the sort of industry I chose to work in… Television is almost entirely caught up in the winds of praise/blame, fame/infamy, success/failure. And I’ve been in painful convulsions on the prongs of all of them. Hating it when jobs have gone elsewhere, when commissioners haven’t liked what I’ve done. Ecstatic when things go my way, when I get a new job or a flattering email.

I will probably always feel these things. But I don’t have to believe them. It the fine distinction equanimity allows.

That letting go of praise and blame, of people pleasing, of guilt at failure, and panic at success is liberating. It’s upekkha. And it’s far from grey and undifferentiated. In fact it’s the opposite. That miasma of anxiety, that constant caring about other people’s opinion, that‘s grey and undifferentiated. Upekkha is actually much more vital. You feel the highs and the lows because they’re yours and they’re authentic. You do things (even if you’re making a mistake) because you believe in them and you’re not constantly worried about other people’s opinion. Even if you make a complete ass of yourself, that’s fine. You can be equanimous about that too.

Thanks to Tim for the cartoon. It made me laugh. As did this.

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