Plato’s cave – the shadow of the real

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
― 1 Corinthians ch13 v12

Meditation: “Saying the mantra ma-ra-na-tha … each repetition the erasure of a pixel of illusion.”

Via Transformativa

Pop prophet Andy Warhol famously said one day everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes. He didn’t specify how or famous for what but now we know. In our celebrity obsessed culture when asked what do you want to be the majority of pre-adolescents replied “famous”.* Famous for what? They want to be famous for being famous. Like Kim Kardashian. 29,892,572 people do ‘Like’ her on Facebook. That’s 14,946,286 per cheek. No-one can tell me what for. Susan Boyle who can sing has only 1,590,233 ‘Likes’.

Famous how? This is now a well trodden path. All you have to do is make Simon Cowell smile – or scowl – so long as you win X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent – both Cowell properties. That’s how Susan did it. Can we remember any of the other nine BGT winners or twelve X-F winners? Even your fifteen minutes is quickly forgotten.

The other avenue these days is, of course, the internet. The most ‘famous’ Vlogger I’ve never heard of (that’s video blogger to you and me) is KSIOlajideBT – aka KSI or Olajide Olatunji from Hertfordshire whose YouTube channel has 16 million subscribers and 3.1 billion views. His videos mostly consist of him playing FIFA video games along with his commentary. Famous for 45 minutes each way?

What are the chances of realising fame for it’s own sake? According to Wired magazine** the fraction of living famous people is 0.000086. The chances of winning the UK Lottery jackpot is 1 in 45,057,474 or if every one of the 7,059,837,187 living people on the planet joined in there would be 157 winners or represented as a fraction 0.0064. More than a hundred times better chance than being famous. And as a Lottery winner you’d be famous as well. As I say to my brilliant aerialist daughter “do your work – fame is none of your business”.

The lure of celebrity as a way out of the humdrum of austerity is compelling. As the poison dwarf Angela says in American Beauty “there’s nothing worse than being ordinary.” But the price can be more than the entry fee to X-Factor or a Lottery ticket.

“Chasing fame is like chasing a ghost. It’s a fool’s errand. What happens when you search for it for your whole life and never find it? What does that do to your psyche? How could you ever hope to be happy without this thing you crave so desperately?” Adam Pliskin

Chasing shadows is the theme of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, or Plato’s Cave, in Book VII of his Republic written in about 380BCE to compare “the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature”. It is the most accessible discussion of the nature of reality in philosophy to this day. The allegory is related to Plato’s Theory of Forms, according to which ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ and not the material world known to us through our senses possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality.

It goes like this:

Imagine a cave in which there are prisoners shackled and their head is tied so that they cannot look at anything but the cave wall in front of them. They have been there since birth and have never seen outside of the cave. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between them is a raised walkway. People walk along this walkway carrying things which cast a shadow on to the wall. If you had never seen the real objects before you would believe that the shadows of objects were ‘real.’

Plato suggests that the prisoners would begin a ‘game’ of guessing which shadow would appear next. If one of the prisoners were to correctly guess the others would consider him or her smart – knowledgable. One of the prisoners escapes from their bindings and finds a way out of the cave. He is shocked at the world he discovers outside the cave and at first does not believe it can be real. As he gets used to his new surroundings, he realises that his former view of reality was an illusion. He begins to understand his new world and sees that the sun is the source of life and goes on a journey where he discovers truth, beauty and meaning. The prisoner returns to the cave to tell them the good news. They do not believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free.

“Previously he had been looking merely at phantoms; now he is nearer the true nature of being.” Plato

There have been other occasions where people would rather kill the Truth than have their illusions shattered. Who was it that said “for most people thinking amounts to no more than re-arranging their prejudices”?

If you ask a fish what the water’s like today he would reply “what’s water?” Before Aristotle you would trust your senses and believe the earth was flat. You probably believe in evolution even though you’ve not studied the empirical evidence. Neither have I. Our latest scientific theory or conjecture as John Hands corrects us*** is that our universe began in a Big Bang 13.4 billion years ago followed by an inflation faster than the speed of light. Believable? Modern cosmologists tell us 95% of the total mass–energy content of the universe is missing and call it dark energy (68%) and dark matter (27%). Would you believe it? Scientific truth is always provisional.

The mystic does her own experiments on the nature of reality in the cave of the heart where there are no shadows only Light. You can try it yourself without buying a ticket but you’re very unlikely to get famous just eternal.

“This world is not unreal; it is the real world, but reflected as in a mirror. To mistake the reflection for the reality, to think that the world as it appears to the senses is real in itself, is illusion.” Bede Griffiths


unoriginal sin

“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
― Oscar Wilde

Meditation: “Saying the mantra ma-ra-na-tha is like rune reading the pattern on the side of a snake as it slithers by.””

Via Negativa

What’s so original about original sin?

I guess there has to be a first time for everything so for the originals of the species, Adam and Eve, I suppose technically the first bite was the deepest. And it led to the sweat of the brow in both hard labour and child birth for all of us who dwell east of Eden.

I don’t blame my misdemeanours on inexperienced scrumpers. Even the country with the highest prison population, the Unites States, has a three strike rule. It seems a bit harsh to me to expel your offspring made in your image for their first offence.

It’s not the sin that is original – we all have a propensity to miss the mark (which is what the Hebrew word for sin means) and anyone with kids knows only too well that a sure fire way to encourage disobedience is to forbid something. “Whatever you do don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is asking for trouble. Using reverse, if risky, psychology on my kids I encouraged them to partake of the falling down water and puff the magic dragon on the grounds that they wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. It worked .. for a while anyway.

No, it’s not the idea or fact of sin that is original it is the … I have to use the word … original idea that it is an inherited disease without remission that is new. Life becomes a sexually transmitted disease. The author of this mortal curse on the human race was not God or the writer of Genesis where the story of The Fall appears, nor even Mark E Smith the author of The Fall. In fact, the word ‘sin’ does not appear in the Garden of Eden story at all. The first time the word ‘sin’ appears in Genesis is chapter 4 when Cain kills Abel. Now that, as the Pet Shop Boys might sing, is a sin.

No, the author and perfecter of the original sin doctrine was St Augustine who was so ashamed of his debauched early years he wrote a book of Confessions about them. As surprising as Tracey Emin writing Scouting for Girls. If he was on Tinder he would confess to being a ‘player’. This, by the way, was in AD400 – 1,000 years after the writer of Genesis. It’s a little surprising the forbidden fruit story was around that long before it received its mortal spin. And, as Matthew Fox points out in ‘Original Blessing’, after God created heaven and earth it was declared ‘good’ for 6,000 years (if you believe the strict Biblical chronology or about 13 billion years otherwise) before Adam and Eve upset the apple cart. Yet Augustine’s concept of original sin took root in the early church like a worm in an apple which contaminated the whole barrel. Why?

Well, the cynic in me sees it as an opportunity for the early church hierarchy (all male)  to position itself as the mediator for sin. If everyone is tarred with the same original sin brush and only the clergy can absolve they have a stranglehold over the laity. It’s also not lost on me that original sin places the blame on women and being portrayed as the temptress her sexuality is forever suspect. As Adam says to God when they’re caught apple-handed, “She gave it to me.” Snitch.

But why did Augustine’s grotesque idea take hold of the whole church? After all he was only the Bishop of Hippo not the Pope. Two reasons. He was very good at social media, publishing and distributing over 1,000 books and homilies of which the most famous are City of God and Confessions which itself ran to 13 volumes and was very successful and widely read in his own time. The other reason has a resonance for our time. In 410AD the unthinkable happened. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Bearing in mind that by this time Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire it must have felt like the impending fall of a whole civilisation as indeed it was and Augustine’s uncompromising take on the inheritability of sin must have been as appealing as Richard Dawkins evangelical zeal for the selfish gene is to atheists.
But there is another more compelling interpretation of The Fall. The sin wasn’t disobeying the fruit embargo. Even the fruit of the tree of Life was not forbidden which would offer eternal life for man. No – it was the sin of separation from union with God as a consequence of triggering the knowledge of good and evil that did the damage. A sort of original Brexit. With the knowledge of good and evil comes discrimination – this is good, that is bad. And with a discriminating mind comes names and forms and concepts – the collapse of unity. What was the immediate consequence of that fateful bite? They hid from God – separation – and they were ashamed of their nakedness. There was no separation and no shame before the knowledge of good and evil.
The Fall was a fall in consciousness. From union to separation. From freedom to bondage. From Eden to an endangered planet.
“There is nothing original about me except a little original sin.” Jane Bowles

beyond belief

“Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

Meditation: “Meditation is like floating on the meniscus between sky and water, between heaven and earth, between spirit and flesh, between knowing and believing.”

Via Transformativa

believe bɪˈliːv

verb – accept that (something) is true, especially without proof. Oxford English Dictionary

One of the unexpected casualties of the UK referendum on British exit of the EU or ‘Brexit’ was truth itself. Prominent ‘Leave’ campaigners unapologetically misled voters with the trumped up claim that the £350m weekly EU budget would be redirected to the NHS if Britain left the EU. 52% of the British electorate believed the lie and won the day to Leave. The day after the result the claim was removed from the Leave campaign website and one of its most prominent mouthpieces, Nigel Farage, the then leader of the UK Independence Party, disowned it on TV. Who believes a politician?

It is not only political careerists who are not trusted. In a populist anti-intellectual tide sweeping western democracies it is fashionable to trash anyone who is presented as an ‘expert’. We no longer put any store in the pronouncements of pollsters, academics and economists. “People in this country have had enough of experts” was how Michael Gove, one of the leading figures in the campaign to leave the European Union, infamously responded to warnings against Brexit from economists.

It is not only in the secular world that the currency of belief has been devalued. In his 2016 book Brian McClaren calls for a spiritual migration from a system of beliefs to a way of life. “What we need is not simply a new set of beliefs but a new way of believing.” He is not suggesting having a belief is wrong (unless, presumably, it is the ‘wrong’ belief which for him is everything else except Christian) but he is suggesting if we use our system of beliefs as our primary way of gatekeeping those who are “in” or “out” of our exclusive club called the ….. (insert name of religious group here) we are missing the true meaning of believing in Jesus as the way into the Kingdom. “Belief systems perform practical survival and political functions that are completely independent of the truth of their component beliefs.”

So when the evangelical (or the atheist come to that matter) asks “what do you believe in?” it is not a theological question more a sociological question. Are you one of us?

This way of believing you might call dogma and it appeals to the mind. There is a different way of believing which appeals to something beyond mind which you might call spirit. When Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of darkness he wanted to keep his options open. When Bob Hope was asked why he did benefit gigs for all religions he said he didn’t want to ruin his chances of eternity on a technicality. Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews but felt attracted by this radical rabbi. If Jesus had a direct route to God he wanted some of it. He used flattery to draw him out but Jesus cut through his double mindedness. “Unless one is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus took him literally at mind level. Jesus challenged him to go beyond earthly things if he was to enter the kingdom of heaven. It required a response beyond belief in earthly understanding. “Whoever believes in the Son of Man may have eternal life.” A belief beyond belief.

Jesus was not asking Nicodemus to accept a new belief system to upgrade his old belief system … Judaism 2.0. He was inviting Nicodemus to accept that He was the fulfilment of the law and the prophets and that He and the Father were one. To ‘know’ this is not so much mind’s assent to dogma. Rather a spiritual ‘ascent to the cave of the heart’ as French Benedictine mystic Henri le Saux titled his journal.

“I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not. Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.” Rumi

on stillness

“Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.” Meister Eckhart

Meditation: “Meditation is like spinning a silk Sagrada Familia out of silence.”

Via Creativa

Lake DallWhat started out as a reaction to fast food culture – ‘slow food’ – has accelerated into other areas of modern life including slow travel, slow gardening and slow sex.

Carl Honoré’s 2004 book, In Praise of Slowness, explored how the Slow philosophy might be applied in every field of human endeavour and coined the phrase ‘slow movement’. “It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better” says Honoré.  “The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.”

My personal transition from mental worker advising startup businesses, where everything was required to happen at internet speed, to metal worker where I soon discovered that if I tried to rush a solder joint either the component I was soldering would burn up or I’d burn my fingers up, has taught me the benefits of going slow. I’m sure manual artisan work uses a different part of the brain thereby reducing the stress brought on by overthinking and we all know the pleasure of being totally absorbed in a pastime where we lose all sense of time and yet feel more refreshed afterwards.

What would happen if you slowed to a complete stop?

For some this represents their worst nightmare to be avoided at all costs. Observe yourself the next time you are just sitting how long it is before you get bored, irritated or even angry and seek any distraction to fill the stillness.

For others, however, stillness is the gateway to where the real action is – the portal to the numinous and the seed of all creativity. “The act of creation—whether from a blank page to a poem, an empty space to a building, a thought to a song or film—starts with a void” proffers music producer Rick Rubin from the stillness.

Pico Iyer interviewed Jikan – the artist formerly known as Leonard Cohen – in the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in 1994 where the poet and songwriter spent five years mostly sitting still. “Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life – an art – out of stillness.”

Not all of us can sit still for five minutes let alone five years. Italianophile novelist Tim Parks couldn’t either although in his case it was due to chronic pelvic pain disturbing his daytime peace and his nights sleep with visits to the loo. The author of ‘Teach Us to Sit Still’ describes the pain as “a general smouldering tension throughout the abdomen, a sharp jab in the perineum, an electric shock darting down the inside of the thighs, an ache in the small of the back, a shivery twinge in the penis itself”.

Submitting to western medicine he underwent several operations but the pain remained. As a last resort Parks goes to India to see an Indian doctor. “There is a tussle in your mind,” says the doctor. The pain is “blocked vata”. The cure? Sit still. Parkes embarked on a series of meditation retreats including an intensive vipassana with a strange old American guru called John Coleman. Vipassana is a sort of ‘extreme meditation’ focusing on the deep interconnection between mind and body which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations including, in Tim Parks’ case, his persistent pelvic pain. Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, helped him to examine the source of his pain – a bit like giving himself an MRI scan with his attention – and by persevering with sitting still the pain dissolved. A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing – the subtitle of his book – distils the benefit he found from being still.

There is more than one kind of stillness. There is the outer stillness of the cessation of activity and being at home in your body and the world – watching the world go by. On Lanzarote I play a game called ‘count the geckos’. You sit in the sun by a volcanic stone wall or rocks and see how many lizards you can spot – the indigenous geckos have cute blue spots on their back like badly applied eye shadow. At first you can’t see any until a darting movement catches the eye and you detect a head sticking out from behind a rock. If you sit still long enough your eyes adjust and you can see two, three, maybe four at once. Any slight movement on your part and they’re all gone. My high score is seven.

Then there is the other kind of stillness – inner stillness. Most spiritual practices in every tradition include some form of meditation. The word itself comes from the Latin verb meditari although I’ve also heard it comes from the Latin ‘medio stare’ – to stand in the middle. In this case to stand (or sit) in the middle of your life … the still point. There are many tried and tested methods of meditation some of which include the use of a mantra – a repeated word or phrase. You will find a simple guide here.

Even God took a day off to be still after a busy week creating. A sabbath rest. St Paul exhorts us to “strive to enter that sabbath rest”. Hebrews 4 v.11 Jesus tells his listeners to his sermon on the mount “do not worry about your life.” Seek first the kingdom of stillness and everything else will follow.

There is a perfect resolution to life’s innate tension between anxious striving (or creative exploring if you prefer) and coming home to stillness in my favourite T S Eliot poem East Coker from Four Quartets:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

So the next time you are tempted to clean the house … instead just sit still – it is stillness that is next to Godliness not cleanliness.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46 v.10

how the light gets in

“Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.” Paul McCartney

Meditation: “Meditation is like picking your way across a peat bog from one tuft of silence to another.”

Via Negativa

cohen-fedoraWhen the comfort of our familiar world becomes threatened by changing local or world events a common response is to look backwards to the ‘good old days’. Nostalgia sells. It sells the lie that if we go back to the way things were we will be better off or safer. It is born out of fear of loss – loss of what we have and fear of what an uncertain future threatens. The antidote to fear is faith. Rather uncompromisingly a verse in Romans warns us “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

There’s been a whole lotta sinning going on as politicians and the media peddle fear to promote their own ends – power or profit – regardless of the cost to the duped voters or readers. It has ever thus been so and there are plenty of recent examples of how fear has fuelled far reaching political change in the UK, Europe and USA.

It is the artists, poets, writers and songwriters who are at the forefront of the changing zeitgeist which is why we need them more than ever to help us navigate the waters of change lest we become shipwrecked – detached and disaffected. If you’re feeling like a castaway yourself then Desert Island Discs may offer some comfort with its archive of seventy years of soundtracks for the stranded – the longest running music programme in the history of radio.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Yesterday” has been covered around 1,600 times, making it the most covered song of all time. The tune came to Paul McCartney in a dream. He woke up one morning, late in 1963 in the attic bedroom of girlfriend Jane Asher’s house with a complete melody in his head. It sounded familiar and he thought it might be a jazz tune he’d heard his dad listening to so he played it to some musicians to see if it was a cover of something that already existed. The lyrics on the other hand were months in gestation. This most covered song in the history of popular song writing started life as “Scrambled eggs, Oh you’ve got such lovely legs, Scrambled eggs. Oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” Allegedly it was John who came up with the title ‘Yesterday’ and Paul completed the lyrics in June 1965 at The Shadows’ guitarist Bruce Welch’s Portuguese villa. It was recorded on 14th and 17th of June and released on 6 August 1965 in the UK and on 13 September 1966 in the US where it became the most-played song on American radio, a position it held for eight consecutive years.

Apparently it took Leonard Cohen 10 years to write one of his most often quoted songs ‘Anthem’.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

“I delayed its birth for so long because it wasn’t right or appropriate or true” Cohen says in an interview in 1992. “This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”

Cohen harbours a profound poetic melancholy merging the sacred and profane into an almost shamanic healing drone. With his fame, fedora and serial lovers you could be forgiven for mistaking him to be a shallow lothario yet this poet laureate of pessimism devoted his life to the deepest of callings – to plumb the depths of the human condition and distil out of all the dross an elixir the taste of which on the lips of the initiate elicits the cry ‘Hallelujah”.

What most people don’t know is that in 1994 Cohen had moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to embark on five years of seclusion, serving as personal assistant to the Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, then in his late eighties. Midway through his time at the Zen Center, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and given the Dharma name Jikan — Pali for ‘silence.’ Iyer went to visit him.

“Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life – an art – out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts.”

When life seems to be racing away from you you can either retreat into nostalgia or retreat into stillness.

“(Sitting still) seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.” Leonard Cohen to Pico Iyer.

the Promised Land

“Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have already given to you, as I promised to Moses..” Joshua ch1 v 3

Meditation: “Saying the mantra is like playing verbal hopscotch from now to now.”

Via Positiva

WHAT-DREAMS-MAY-COMEOne of the things our parents teach us if we are well socialised is to suffer the sweet pain of deferred gratification – resisting immediate sweetie rewards in order to receive a sweeter reward later. I swallowed it. I still had Easter eggs left over when I went on my summer holidays.

This capacity to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in anticipation of a later better reward can be seen either as sign of growing up or or a sign of being controlled by the grown ups or those in authority. Religion has cornered the market in deferred gratification with the trump card of heaven – put off eating all chocolate until you taste the resurrection egg.

This is neither biblical nor liveable. When God promised Moses the Promised Land He wasn’t referring to heaven but to the conquest of Canaan in the next generation and before Joshua crossed over God encouraged him with these strange words. “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have already given to you, as I promised to Moses.” The future promise is already a present given. Like a Russian Easter egg the favourable future outcome is already hidden in the womb of the present moment. Jesus said “the Kingdom is within you.”

That’s why there is a seed of truth in the second step of Skakti Gawain’s four steps to effective creative visualisation. “You should think of it in the present tense as already existing the way you want it to be.” The danger of living on a promise is that tomorrow never comes and you miss the gift in the present. You become addicted to the idea that there is something missing and you go looking for it somewhere else. As Lauren Britt puts it, “beware of Destination Addiction—a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, or with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”

The other danger is only living for the present moment as though there was no promise for tomorrow – what has become our YOLO mentality of “you only live once” which confuses happiness with pleasure. The utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill puts this ‘pleasure paradox’ succinctly. “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

Which reminds me of something Charles Kingsley says. “We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements in life, when all we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”

If you want to be happy find something to be enthusiastic about or, if you want to be uber enthusiastic like Soren Kierkegaard, find the idea for which you are willing to live and die for. It may involve a little deferred gratification following this path but you’ll be happy in the moment. What did the Buddha say? “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” I still don’t really understand what he meant. It is tautological.

The thing that separates us from our future happiness is time. If it wasn’t for time the happiness that you anticipate experiencing tomorrow in your promised land is already here now. Which is fortunate since all mystics agree that time is an illusion of the mind.

In the inspiring documentary ‘Taro – El Eco de Manrique‘ the artist Cesar Manrique says “time is a creation of the brain.” Living in the now is the surest way to the promised land.

“Here is the Promised Land. The eternal is here. Have you ever noticed that you have never left here, except in your mind? When you remember the past, you are not actually in the past. Your remembering is happening here. When you think about the future, that future projection is completely here. And when you get to the future, it’s here. It’s no longer the future.

To be here, all you have to do is let go of who you think you are. That’s all! And then you realise, “I’m here.” Here is where thoughts aren’t believed. Every time you come here, you are nothing. Radiantly nothing. Absolutely and eternally zero. Emptiness that is awake. Emptiness that is full.” Adyashanti


an idea to live and die for

“The thing is to find a truth which is a truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” Kierkegaard

Meditation: “Saying the mantra is like entering the void – each syllable a hachure stroke towards perfect darkness.”

Via Negativa

Kierkegaard WarholIn the credits at the end of the film ‘Amores Perros‘ – dangerous loves – if you are patient towards the end you will catch a quote which, if my Spanish serves me well, says “we are also defined by what we have lost.”

In a world addicted to the pursuit of happiness and specifically the misconceived idea that acquiring more – more knowledge, more experience, more love, more stuff – will make you happy it may seem counterintuitive to entertain the idea that less is more.

Yet the way of the mystic in all traditions has always included the ‘Via Negativa’ – the negative path, the way of negation, of taking away, the dark night of the soul of the desert fathers, the ‘neti neti’ ‘not this not this’ of the Hindu mystics. The path leading to the irreducible core or ground of being – die grunde.

The founding father of what we now call Existentialism, Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard, understood that knowing yourself embraced this not-knowing and in this knowledge was authentic freedom. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” says Jesus in John 8v32.

As Kierkegaard puts it in his journal AA “One must first learn to know oneself before knowing anything else. Only when the person has inwardly understood himself and then sees the way forward on his path does his life acquire repose and meaning.”

Kierkegaard knew about loss. His early life in Copenhagen in the second decade of the nineteenth century, the Danish ‘Golden Age’, was a litany of loss. He lost six siblings and both his mother and father by the age of twenty five and only his elder brother, Peter Christian, survived. Kierkegaard all his life was convinced he himself was going to die at the age of thirty three. In his diary in the Royal Library in Copenhagen I read the page where he expressed his surprise at reaching his thirty fourth birthday.

His father’s first wife died after two years of marriage and within nine months his father, a pious stern Lutheran, had an affair with the maid who was four months pregnant when they married. His father once raged against God and cursed God and was convinced that as a result of his misdeeds he and the family were cursed and so the young Kierkegaard grew up under the sombre shadow of being cursed by God and being convinced he was going to die at thirty three.

Not the most promising start for a man who was to set a cat amongst the pigeons of complacent bourgeois thought and belief in Danish society, church and academia and go on to establish the foundations of modern philosophy. But in his case it was the catalyst he needed to forge his purpose in life. “The thing is to find a truth which is a truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

In his comparatively short life – he died at the age of 42 – he published over 40 books on philosophy and religion redefining what it is to be Christian … or indeed a free human being “alone in this terrible exertion.”

The starting point on the path to truth is to surrender all you know in the fire of not-knowing.

And I watch you run down on your bended knees By the burnt out well, can you tell me please? Between Heaven and Hell, wont you take me down? To the burning ground, to the burning ground.

Van Morrison


the best day of your life

“Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.”



“Saying the mantra is like watching the bag dancing in the wind in American Beauty.”

Via Transformativa

Playa de las ConchasHow will you know when it’s the best day of your life?

Well, of course, you won’t. It will have passed before you know it. And anyway – no matter how fantastic this day is turning out to be who’s to say tomorrow won’t be even better?

In the movie ‘About Time’ Tim discovers that, like his father, he can travel in time and change what happens in his own life. Desperate for a girlfriend he is able to re-engineer social situations to his advantage. Result. As the novelty wears off he uses his ‘skip backwards’ trick to relive ordinary days to find the gold in the lead.

So although playing the game of ‘spot the best day of your life’ can be fun it can’t be won but it does help us focus on fully appreciating the present experience not becoming lost to the moment in some anticipated future or fondly remembered past.

We can take this a step further. Because the perfect day will elude us in its passing we can always live this present day as if it was the perfect day. And in a profound way it is. In the grand order of things the cosmos is in its perfect stage of inflation, our galaxy is in a perfect spin rotating once every 226 million years and the sun comes up on the frostiest of mornings. More prosaically, the traffic on the ring road is exactly as busy as it is and you will get to the station just in time to catch (or miss) your train.

With so much finely tuned for benevolence it seems churlish to accuse the garden of Life of serving you a lemon. Learn to like lemons. Who is the sage that said “happiness consists in wanting what you’ve got”?

This is not a manifesto for passive acquiescence in the face of unacceptable injustice. It is, however, a manifesto based on the intuitive understanding that you and Life are not separate … or that Life is ‘being done’ to you. You are Life unfolding.

“The truth is I now don’t travel back at all, not even for the day. I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.” Tim in About Time.


what time is now?

“All time is contained in the present Now-moment.”
Meister Eckhart


“Saying the mantra is like dismantling a wall that separates your true Self from union with God … each syllable a brick … each word a course.”

Via Integrativa

m_Time20And20A20Word_01Today the clocks go back – so don’t forget to correct yours. The clock on my wall is perfectly correct twice a day. That’s because it’s stopped. My clock is a record player deck with a vinyl album on it and three hands – hours, minutes, seconds. The album (chosen by me) is ‘Time And A Word’ by Yes not because its my favourite album (it isn’t) but because I nicked the title for the lyrics to one of my songs.

Jesus did not own a record player but he was splayed on a wooden deck his arms and legs stretched out to embrace and integrate the agony of now-in-the-body with the bliss of eternity-in-I-Amness.

He said some pretty strange things in relation to time: “Before Abraham was … I Am.” (John 8:58) This little aside was enough to get him stoned for blasphemy. And when one of the criminals alongside him asked a favour “remember me when you come into your kingdom” Jesus replied “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Was Jesus a Time Lord like Dr Who?

His take on time seemed to be that the eternal kingdom is here, is now. For it is not a place it is a state. “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) As Einstein says “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

It is only when we calibrate time on external reference points that eternity loses its immediacy. “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once” puns Woody Allen paraphrasing science fiction writer Ray Cummings which is why, on a day like today, we put our clocks back so we can all experience each other in the same time zone – the time is always now.


presence and absence

“In the silent darkness we are given new eyes. In the heart of the divine we can see more clearly who we are.”

Macrina Wiederkehr


“Saying the mantra is like dismantling a wall that separates your true Self from union with God … each syllable a brick … each word a course.”

Via Negativa

two faces and a vaseIn his book of essays, ‘Working the Room’, Geoff Dyer suggests we reflect not only on the positive things that shaped our lives but also on the negative things that did not happen – those events that did not register on our internal seismograph.

In his case, narrowly avoiding being written off by an American truck when he was driving too tired at night on the wrong side of the road. In my case, the job offer I turned down in High Point, North Carolina  when I was on tour with the band. And others.

Seeing our life in relief – the positive and the negative, like a brass rubbing – brings a sense of relief. And gratitude. Gratitude for the good things we care to remember and gratitude for the bad things that could have happened but didn’t.

The path to the awakened life is not one of addition – adding missing knowledge or perfected practice to who you are already. Rather, it is a path of subtraction – letting go of ideas you have accrued. It is a state of remembering who you already are – your true nature.

At the end of González Iñárritu’s film ‘Amores Perros’ – a meditation on death – if you stay long enough and read the credits before the house lights go up you will see an unattributed quote: “Porque también somos lo que hemos perdido.” Because we are also what we have lost.