January 2016

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years —
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious

KAY RYAN: We’re building the ship as we sail it

One of the unexpected things about my stay at Crestone was how psychological it was.
I had gaily turned up thinking that I’d be hanging out with my friends in the snow, meditating beautifully, feeling the space all around me. Instead, I turned up to a strictly silent, very sober Zen sesshin where we sat for 9 hours a day in regimented rows and ate and slept and moved in a highly controlled and very muted atmosphere.

I’ve been on vipassana retreats before but the juxtaposition of my expectation (cosy, lying down, embodied) with the reality (chill, sitting-up, hopelessly in my head) gave this one much more impact.

Despite sitting for 21 days at a stretch my practice never really took off as I had fantasized. I slogged through the long sits and tried gamely to follow the instruction. But practices like yin-belly breathing, earth descent and darkness practice that had flown on angel wings all the year previously seemed clipped and clumsy during this Dathün month.

Neil McKinley, Reggie’s senior teacher who was leading the first week, gave us Pema Chödrön’s advice: “Start where you are” and I took this on board. “This is not going to be a glorious time of practice. Ok. What is it?”

What it was was a plummet, featherless with broken pinions, down into an icy abyss of a lot of childhood stuff. Or rather the reified remnants of thoughts and fears left in my system from over 40 years ago.

In a brilliant but simple device, these strict vipassana retreats with zero distraction (no writing, no reading, no speaking, little movement) cause us to crash headlong into our most primitive selves. The child or baby that hates being restrained, told-off, punished roars to the fore. The poor facilitators who set up the rules and enforce the ‘container’ of the retreat become the target of 120 people’s atavistic rage at authority, at parents, at the impinging World in general.

In my specific case I spent a good eight days raging at the teachers, at Dharma Ocean, at Reggie, at the Lineage and indulging in endless internal speeches in my head where I would stand up and point out everything that was wrong with this place and this way of practising. I knew better and these angry monologues became more and more desperate and vituperative as the days wore on. I knew better. I knew better…

Eventually something cracked. I saw that it was not really anything to do with this beautiful place or these kind-hearted people – but to do with me and the darker echoes of my childhood. A lot of the dark places I had explored in therapy came crisply and simply into focus. And I saw with weary clearness that although I had spend time with my therapist and in the caverns of Ayahuasca, inhabiting the pain of those states, I hadn’t really extended my awareness to the defences and mental-gymnastics my little self had set running in the back ground.

My endless speeches and self-justificatory defences (like a defendant in the dock would give) had been running since my 6-year-old self started thinking them. They were running in the background, submerged in the silt-water of my unconscious, but nonetheless colouring and controlling a lot of my relations with the world. I recognised that self-justification as a very deep habit of mind: the worried child who always feels that he has to defend his being in the world. And the silence and snowy stillness of Crestone was allowing it be heard, painfully clear.

In the end, I threw myself on the mercy of the Lineage. Reggie’s teaching is part of a long river of teaching that flows back through Chögyam Trungpa to the Kagyü teachers through the wisdom torrents of the Himalayas and the Indian North – ultimately back to the Buddha. And I recognised that I desperately needed to abandon my ‘I must do everything myself’ belief and throw myself on the compassion of others.

I sat down in front of the Shrine one evening, gave up all my defence speeches and asked for help. Then I went to bed.

The next I meditated as normal and set off, as normal, on my 2 hour walk up in the snowy hills above the retreat centre.

After stomping up the very long and tiring (high altitude) path, I came to one of my favourite walks, a long level, snow-white road that wound past the Zen Centre and was overseen by Mount Crestone (which Reggie had identified as the holy Mountain Protector, Ritrö Gonpo). I was walking and taking in the view and suddenly I noticed: it had stopped.

The endless, compulsive, furious voice of self-justification and defence had gone. How had I not noticed before? But here it was – a spacious, lovely, receptive Mind. A body moving through the snow, a few thoughts here and there – but that constant suffocating stream of thinking was gone. And, I’m glad to say, has still gone, back down the mountain, weeks later.

I don’t really know how it happened – perhaps as Krishnamurti says, “The seeing is the doing”. When I recognised that this childhood need to self-justify had been running in the background for so long, then it could be dismantled. It just needed to be seen. Perhaps it was the Lineage simply responding to my call for help. Or Ritrö Gonpo sweeping down the mountain with his sword, slicing through with pure awareness.

It definitely felt and feels like a relief. That mechanism of terrified defence that had run so long in the background ate up so much vital energy and got in the way of so many healthy connections.

When we are little people we make so many decisions and cobble-together so many Heath-Robinson strategies to make sense of and survive childhood. The fear of drowning (as Ryan says) is overwhelming for a wee one. And once the raft is made it’s hard to make it elegant and watertight. No wonder so many of us just paddle on in the hope that there’ll be no more highwater. Building a ship as we go along is hard.

I think Reggie might say that the whole project of ship-building is an understandable but misguided thing. Rather than trying to sleeken the hull we should beach it or indeed breach it on the rocks of the World and step off, into the wide waters. But I’m meanwhile happy to have scraped off the mile-deep layer of barnacles that my defensive monologue had built up on the underside. Crestone may not have made me a deep-sea pearl fisher but it has definitely made me a lighter paddle-boarder.

Words have loyalties
to so much
we don’t control.
Each word we write
rights itself
according to poles
we can’t see; think of
magnetic compulsion
or an equal stringency.
It’s hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then North shifts,
buildings shear
and we suspect.

KAY RYAN, “Shift”

I was talking to a friend in Vienna on Skype last night who’s hitting a big wall in his mid-30s. And I was talking to an old Uni friend last month who smashed and lacerated himself through the last two years of his mid-40s and only now is blinking, calmer in the daylight. And I had lunch with some friends who have just left London and moved to the countryside as they approach 40. And I, myself, wake up these days happy to see the sun rising over Seaford Head but vague about the terrible turmoil of the last 3 years (in my mid 40s) that brought me to this seaside place.

‘Mid life crisis’ is a poor set of words for this experience.

It feels more like the sloughing of an impossibly tight snakeskin.

We go through the first 40 years of life with a largely improvised and jerry-rigged set of life-strategies that we snatched together when we were kids and which seemed to meet the moment. Probably any fittingness was co-incidental. These strategies – which were mostly magic thinking of the ‘don’t step on the cracks in the pavement’ sort – are hopelessly out-dated by the time we hit our 20s but by then they’re too rigidly cemented into our personalities to be changed. “I’m the sort of person who…” or “I never feel…” or “In our family we always…”

These sanctions and rules have the absurd and touching zaniness of Nasruddin who, in the Sufi tale, is found in the street clicking his fingers and whistling. ‘What are you doing?” some one asks the wise fool. “I’m scaring away the tigers”, he answers. “But tigers don’t live in Iran,” someone points out. “You see,” say Jalludin, “it works.”

So we proceed in our life by the logic of OCD. Irrational and unreal thoughts surface in our minds – “No one loves me” – and we feel anxious. Rather than noticing that the thought is wrong and taking time to correct it, we rush on as if the thought were right and fuss and obsess about ways of getting rid of the anxiety it produces. We become extra nice to everyone. Or we become super sexual and seductive. Or we are compulsed into being richer and wealthier that all those people who we believe do not love us.

And so thirty years of our adult life skip by. Speaking personally, I bulldozed blindly into a career in television, driven invisibly from behind by the paranoid childhood fear that everyone wanted to kill me. (It’s almost absurd to voice these primitive infant thoughts but it’s profoundly healing as well…) Being celebritous, being on telly, being complimented on my nice looks or my pleasant manner quelled my anxiety temporarily – but the underlying thought pulsed on. In fact, when you think that everyone is against you, the sugary compliments and unfounded admiration of a television watcher feel … well, almost sinister.

It took a physical breakdown with a mysterious ‘illness’ to take me out of London and down to the seaside where I could break down for real and dissolve the straight jacket of out-dated strategies that had ended up suffocating me. At the time I had no idea what was dragging me down to the sea but my world ruptured and cracked and ice-cold salt water rushed in. I made sense of it all much later.

As Kay Ryan says, when “North shifts, buildings shear”. We suspect that the underlying structure of our lives has been built wonky and the powerful torsion of reality will no longer tolerate the bad build.

I think there comes a point in anyone’s life (sometimes precipitated by a life-threatening illness or a bereavement or just becoming 40 something) when the superstructure of Life starts to exert such a powerful influence on us that we can no longer live in the houses our child-selves built. I eventually realised that I didn’t have to wear myself out appeasing would-be assassins with ever-new escapades of charm or creativity. I could simply undo that unfounded assassin-thought and step out into the field of Life.

People who survive the “sloughing of the Straitjacket Skin” (and not everyone does) talk about things being calmer, more spacious, less painful.

It’s like the throbbing magnet of that childhood fear gets switched off and the iron filings of our life start to arrange themselves according to the life around us instead of the fear inside us.

Reggie Ray talks about this implicitly, I think, when he talks about the ‘central channel’. This is the column of spaciousness that we carry energetically inside us and which is empty of, but responsive to, the ‘stuff’ of our lives. (Interesting there is a spatial specificity here: it’s not below us or above us but it is seamed through us like a spine of space.)

So we might be all wrapped up in our worries about work, or our love life or our financial concerns – but within us there is this core of spaciousness and energy which is actually the true ‘North’ of our being. This core is actually what holds us up. The ‘tall spires’ we believe our mind holds up are actually supported by forces way beyond our imagining. These are what we flow out into when we shed that skin.

This requires modesty. That overarching and unstoppable narcissism of youth has to give way to a much quieter recognition that we’re not the Star of the World’s Show and not everything is about us. This is a wonderful relief. We can start to arrange ourselves to so that things lie more simply in the field of the World’s magnetism and we are flowing with that field rather than shearing our selves into to anguished contortions against it.

Ryan talks about words but I might say energy. The energy of life rights itself according to poles we can’t see. Meditation helps with this – gradually untying that straightjacket of silly childhood fears, knot by knot, strap by strap and giving us permission to shuck it off and step out into the wider fields of energy that flow off in all directions, fresh and warm like the sun on water, or the sound of gulls in the morning.

I was coming down the snowy mountain from my 3-week retreat when David Bowie died.

I don’t much care to add to the pile of panegyric that is piling up on him. I loved him moderately. Didn’t listen to anything for years. Was a bit luke-warm about his last, ‘come-back’ album “The Next Day”. But he was a true creator and wild – which I loved.

But I sat and watched the video he made to accompany the title track from his very last album and it made me feel very rich inside.

A sick singer, fully aware of his probably terminal diagnosis, commissions a young video artist to make a video that explores and most importantly ritualises the approach of death.

Bowie as the character ‘Button Eyes’ (who appears in Lazarus’ video too), is there singing in a room with three young epiletically shaking dancers. A beautiful woman calmly collects the rotten skull of Major Tom from an astronaut’s suit and brings it to an all-female ritual. Scarecrows are attacked by something dark and terrible, never quite seen.

It’s the visual poetry of death matched by music and lyrics that are first incantatory and then, in the middle section, uplifting:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar)

Like the best poetry its meaning exceeds itself and the symbols ooze excess. It disrupts any clear reduction but it is undeniably about death.

Recently in the LRB, there was a good review by Adam Mars-Jones of a novel “Grief is the thing with Feathers.” He is quizzical if not critical of the ‘grief’ industry. He pointed out that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the grandmother of the five-stages of grieving, died far from peaceful but bitter and angry, saying “life is shit’.

Kübler-Ross’ neat five stages never really happen as planned – neither for the dying or for the grieving. Death is disorientating – the great disrupter – and making premature peace with it would be foolish. Nonetheless, what Bowie demonstrates is how an artistic (and by that, here, I could also say ritual) approach to death both contains and amplifies the crazy disruption of the End.

Knowing that he is going to die, Bowie doesn’t tell the world about his diagnosis but he makes art that raises his death to another order; where the images of death hang around in the minds of the living for days and weeks after he himself has passed. The images become a way of containing our grief as the artist sails off into silence.

I have always had a fraught relationship with grief and a suspiciously straight-forward relationship with death. There was a lot of death going on in my household when I was a very little one. My mother’s father died when she was carrying me. Her mother died a year after I was born. Death was not the problem – but the grief that took my mother’s attention from me was.

So typically, during my therapy training, I would notice how other people’s grief would make me angry rather than sympathetic. Death, it seemed to me then was a straightforward part of life and dissolution shouldn’t come as a shock. This is why, at that point, I made such an eerily good Buddhist but a terrible therapist.It took seven years of therapy and training to understand the frozen rage that made me so numb around the subject of my own or other’s grieving.

Unearthing of that infant rage allowed me to approach grief differently. I still don’t fear death – I think that my experiences on Ayahuasca may have prepared me a little for the mystery and I sense in death one of those exciting transitions that all humans share. But I do realise that embracing grief is – paradoxically – a very life-enhancing thing.

If you can truly love something then you have to accept that grief is part of it. Without the amplitude for grief then then there can’t really be the space for loving. If you make space to grieve something then you have allowed it to mean something, allowed it to fill that space that will be left empty.

I never met David Bowie so I can’t speak about his love for his family or friends. I’ve heard different tales: that he was a charming gentlemanly character and that he was curiously vacant like an empty space waiting to pull on his next mask. This video definitely seems to point to the Bowe-half-full interpretation. There is such heart but also such vulnerability. This is true in Blackstar but also in Lazarus. He is broken and dying but he is also youthful and dancing. Craggy and decaying but also bright-eyed and luminous.

But there can be no doubt of his great love for his art. And he exhibits in his music and songs and ‘image’ the full spectrum of human emotion in a way that few other rock stars did. Scary Monsters is one of my favourite albums because it is so blisteringly angry and, well, scary. It seemed to articulate some of the blind, roaring confusion of my teenage and early 20s. For friends of mine, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane articulated the gender ambiguity that before had seen so taboo. The Berlin albums prefigured my own experience in Berlin 20 years after his. I even chose to live in Neukölln because it was a track on Heroes.

With Black Star he articulates the ultimate piece of the human puzzle. When the tectonic plate of life shears and crunches down under the plate of death. Where the dark continent stands unescapable on the horizon and we dance and shake and cover our eyes. Where words and music and imagery stop. He pushed it all right up to the sutured seam of life and death and then left. But left us something to grieve with. And not sobbing and weeping but a dry-eyed wonder at the magic of that transition.

Imagine a
train-track figure
made of sliver
over sliver of
vision, each
slice too brief
to add detail
or deepen: that
could be a hat
if it’s a person
if it’s a person
if it’s a person.
Just the same
scant information
timed to supplant
the same scant

KAY RYAN, Train-Track Figure

I was lying in my bath last night (2 cup full of Epsom Salts in the tub water, Reggie’s tip. Or was it my friend Candy’s? I can’t remember) and I was pondering the issue of blogging.

For years, I was an avid blogger. And then somewhere in the midst of my aged-43 meltdown I lost my Eden. Before I had tasted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, blogging seemed like an unenviable good – expressing myself, creative, communicative. Then some serpent somewhere pointed out that all public offerings were 1) a part of the industrial-social complex ruled by Google and Facebook and thus a piece in the puzzle of corporate carpet bombing and 2) usually ghastly echoes of childhood need or narcissistic flatulence dressed up as creative communication (“I am feeling so sad today” i.e *love me or “Look at my shiny new shoes “ i.e.*love me/ envy me). So for the last few years I have drifted away from blogging. Hiding my sputtering light under the bushel of my own privacy.

That retreat into the cave of my own experience has been wonderfully healing. Working with Reggie and understanding the primacy of somatic experience – what I am actually feeling in my body not what my mind thinks I’m feeling – has been transformative. Like Plato’s cave dreamer saying “Fuck these shadows.I’m going out into the Greek sunlight to eat me some olives and smell me some oleander.”

Private reality tastes good. But too much privacy is also a problem. Once we have our ontological tastebuds back then we still need to have pomegranates and plums to taste. Less poetically: we need to communicate with others or there stops being anything worth communicating.

In the tub, I realised that a lot of my hesitancy about blogging is now about cowardice. “Why would anyone listen? What if what I say gets shot down? Who will trample me when I lay my entrails on the pavement?”. It’s true there’s nothing new in the world to say and that one person’s opinion is another person’s pet-peeve but it is in the telling and re-telling and the trampling and the up-scraping of self, that the Self (Jungian capitals, notice) gets strengthened.

The self in the cave is easy to maintain (repeat, confirm and name) but the Self in the world is much more unstable, quantum and outlandish – banging up against other people’s opinions and elbows, resplendent in the sunshine, tiny in the drizzle. So, I’m coming back to blogging.

And I thought I’d start by poetry. Kay Ryan’s to be precise (the 16th US Laureate, I notice from the dust jacket of her book). Her modest-seeming but internally expansive poems lead me all over the place – but circle around the areas currently close to my heart having just come down the mountain from Reggie’s 4-week retreat in Colorado (like a polite, English Zarathustra).

The self of the thinking mind and more specifically here the others around us are ‘sliver over sliver’ of half perceived projection. The scantness of the information we glean from the fields around us is paltry – but enough, it seems, to build a complete scarecrow to stand in for the splendour of the person seen. Glimpse after glimpse, lazily/hazily transformed into a full-on hologram of projected desires and fears.

There’s lovely line in the morning chants at Crestone which runs: “Mesmerized by the myriad variety of appearance/ Mad with hope and fear / Beings roam the endless wastes of samsara”. We live in a holographic world (not David Icke holograph, no lizards) but one that is a pale but mesmerising imitation of the real splendours of the world ( I wrote a poem when I was 22 that contained the lines “Splendour! Splendour! Beaver always after splendour!/It swizzles at the end of your/Finger! Finger!/Launch it gleeful into your mouth” ). Sadly the splendour of the world gets laminated all over a paltry layer of projection.

What we fear in our bones (“People will hate me / I am not meant to be alive / others will always exploit me”) and what we desire in our lymph nodes (“Everyone must look after me / he or she will be my father or mother / they will provide me sex”) gets sprayed out over the surrounding countryside like so much DDT. IN our frenzy to harvest what we want to see and experience in the World we end up with handfuls of chemically-scorched nothing.

Ryan’s uncertainty (it’s striking how there’s no pronouns in her poem, no ‘I’ or “we” or “you” – just the implied vantage of the imperative: “Imagine”) is about the scantness of information (is it even a person?). The flickering paucity of material as the train carriages patter past and the slivers of platform seen between them become ever-more fleeting doesn’t stop us imagining. It’s just the imagination isn’t very ‘deep’.

Mountain retreat – with its long hours of silent sitting, highly regimented and simplified timetable and rarefied atmosphere (and I’m speaking literally there – at 9,000ft I was often gasping on the hills) – allows the gaps between the railway cars to widen enormously. You can see the whole platform. You can see that there is a hat. Indeed, there is a person. You (and by you I mean I) might begin to see that the people are real and kind and three-dimensional, not flickering projections of the fearful or desiring mind.

The poem from my twenties continues:

Thinking :
quick thumb nails pinned up
slowed down.
Thought number ten zillion nine hundred and nine.
Some fusing thing will bind them up
and number will in love be slain.
I hope.

Here’s to love. Perhaps I’ll get to that in the next Ryan poem, the next blog…