February 2016


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