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

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.

cogito ergo cogito sum

“But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2.16

Meditation: “Meditation is like sinking up to your neck in quicksand with only a fistful of thought balloons to keep your ego afloat.”

Via Negativa

the-thinkerThere are few philosophical sayings that pass into everyday language. You might come up with ‘know thyself’ or in an exam if pushed ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ both from that gadly of Athens Socrates. There are even fewer popular sayings in Latin but ‘cogito ergo sum’ is universally recognised even if its author Descartes is not.

It is deceptively simple – one might say unarguable – yet simply deceptive and forms the cornerstone of modern philosophy and has a whole school of thought named after it – Cartesian duality.

Descartes strips away everything that we know with the paring knife of doubt to reduce knowledge to the core – I think therefore I am.

The senses are unreliable. The perceived material world can only be known through the senses. I may doubt everything but the one thing I cannot doubt is that I think and therefore I must exist – even as a doubting thinker. “He who doubts is a doubter” says St Paul helpfully.

In his ‘Discourse on Method’ and later in his ‘Meditations’ Descartes sought to apply the scientific method he derived from the geometry and algebra he learned at his Jesuit school at La Flèche to a universal method applicable to the whole tree of knowledge. His method is accessible to everyone:

  1. never accept anything as true that you do not know to be evidently so without prejudice
  2. divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as might be possible and necessary in order to solve it
  3. begin with the simplest and easiest to know building to the complex
  4. review everything to omit nothing

It was the rigour of his method that led him to two surprising ‘certainties’ – that I exist and that God exists. In fact, in an earlier publication ‘The Rules for the Direction of the Mind’ he formulates this as ‘Sum ergo deus est’ – I am therefore God is. I say surprising because one would have thought that the father of the modern scientific method would have dispensed with the notion of God. On the contrary. with audacious logic he argues that if, as an imperfect limited human being he can conceive of the idea of perfection then it must have been put there by the only prime cause of perfection – God himself. Slam dunk.

His other surprising conclusion is that mind is a separate substance from the body and indeed all material forms hence the term ‘Cartesian duality’. All that can be said about the
human state is that ‘I am a thinking thing’ with attributes that cannot be measured unlike the ‘extensions’ of the material world – length, width, motion.

He strides like a Colossus across modern thought but you could argue he was straddling the divide between body and mind without reconciling them. An uncomfortable stride – like each foot on a different log on the river of life.

In my book his thinking does not go far enough. Who is this ‘I’ doing the thinking? If you can observe your thoughts who is the observer? If he is nothing more than ‘a thinking thing’ all he can truly say is ‘cogito ergo cogito sum’ – I think therefore I think I am. But this doesn’t address the possibility that this thinking ‘I’ is nothing but an illusion – a construct of thought.

What would have resolved the duality and stopped the straddling is to allow himself the more audacious thought – I am that which thought appears in. Sum. Enough said.

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


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.


much ado about nothing

“Outside of God there is nothing but nothing.”

Meister Eckhart


“Meditation is like fly fishing without a fly expecting to catch nothing … expecting nothing … standing in the Source.”

Via Negativa

nothingIt was only in the 5th century that ‘zero’ was introduced to mathematics and philosophy and it set a cat amongst the pigeons. Before then there was no nothing. The church even banned any talk of ‘zero’. It seemed to negate everything that God had created and everything that was ‘good’.

The oldest known text to use a decimal place-value system, including a zero, is the Jain text from India entitled the Lokavibhâga, dated 458 AD, where shunya (“void” or “empty”) was employed for this purpose.

The rules governing the use of zero appeared for the first time in Brahmagupta’s book Brahmasputha Siddhanta (The Opening of the Universe), written in 628 AD. Here Brahmagupta considers not only zero, but negative numbers, and the algebraic rules for the elementary operations of arithmetic with such numbers. Here are the rules of Brahmagupta:

  • The sum of zero and a negative number is negative.
  • The sum of zero and a positive number is positive.
  • The sum of zero and zero is zero.
  • The sum of a positive and a negative is their difference; or, if their absolute values are equal, zero.
  • A positive or negative number when divided by zero is a fraction with the zero as denominator.
  • Zero divided by a negative or positive number is either zero or is expressed as a fraction with zero as numerator and the finite quantity as denominator.
  • Zero divided by zero is zero.

In saying zero divided by zero is zero, Brahmagupta differs from the modern position. Mathematicians normally do not assign a value to this, whereas computers and calculators sometimes assign NaN, which means “not a number.” Try it now on a calculator or your phone – on my iPhone I get “ERROR”. On my Mac I get ‘Not a Number’. I like NaN … its also a palindrome – nothing is the same backwards as forwards.

But without nothing, or rather what we’ve long taken to be nothing – we’d be nowhere. For centuries, scientists have known that it may be the key to understanding everything from why particles have mass to the expansion of the universe. The start – and end – of the universe, dark energy, superconductivity, consciousness – all these scientific issues are players in the drama surrounding nothing. These ideas about nothing are explored in the New Scientist book aptly titled … ‘Nothing‘.

So, don’t avoid doing nothing or thinking about nothing … it is the seed of everything.

Watch this animation from New Scientist explaining why there is no such thing as nothing.


lighten our darkness

“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God”
T.S. Eliot


“Each repetition of the word is like a hachure stroke towards perfect darkness.”

Via Negativa

lighten our darknessThe purpose of meditation is not to control your thoughts – they cannot be tamed – but to lose control. To shift out of the constant stream of thoughts that animate our every waking moment. To rest in the still small voice of silence. To give yourself – your frantic posturing self – a break and allow the natural self to rise up from the ground of your Being.

The word ‘meditation’ comes from the Latin ‘medio stare’ – to stand in the middle. In the middle of what? In the middle of stillness … in the middle of darkness.

There is a wonderful visitor attraction on Lanzarote created by Cesar Manrique called Jameos del Agua which some say is the eighth wonder of the world (probably the Lanzarote Tourist Board). It is a natural volcanic grotto with a lake home to a unique species of blind white crab – ‘munidopsis polimorpha’. I guess they’re blind because there was no natural light in the cave until it was turned into a night club. It’s a great place to visit – I created the ‘Via Transformativa’ audio meditation there. But its not dark.

If you want real darkness, in your face darkness, just across the road on the way to the Cuevas Verde caves there is a hidden cave with a kink after the entrance so in a short walk you are in total darkness and total silence. Take a torch. Take two. And a candle and incense and meditate in utter darkness for half an hour. You can even keep your eyes open – not a single photon disturbs your gaze.

At first its a bit scary … but do you know what? After a while it is the most natural relaxing way to just ‘be’. A bit like a womb without a view.

“The final goal of being is the darkness and unknowability of the hidden divinity, which is that light which shines but the darkness cannot comprehend it.”
Meister Eckhart



“God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.”
Meister Eckhart


“Meditation is like Windows Task Manager allowing CPU usage to fall to 0%.”

Via Negativa

On a riverside walk recently (today actually) I was musing on where negativity comes from. Is it our ground zero … our natural state? The total absence of positive energy?

And like all closed systems, as the Second Law of Thermodynamics states, the quality of matter/energy deteriorates gradually over time … as we inexorably move towards increased entropy. Sounds pretty bleak to me.

But then I thought – maybe this only applies if we see ourselves as separate entities … separate from others, from Nature, from the Universe and we muster maximum positive energy to maintain our separateness.. Whereas, in reality, we are One with all that is … so we can’t ‘leak’ and maximum entropy is where the silence of God is loudest.

Muse have had similar musings recently in their latest album catchily titled ‘2nd Law’ …

“All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way
that the availability of the remaining energy decreases.
In all energy exchanges,
if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system
the entropy of that system increases.

Energy continuously flows from being concentrated,
to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless.
New energy cannot be created and high grade energy is being destroyed
An economy based on endless growth is…

You’re unsustainable

The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits
on technological innovation and human advancement.
In an isolated system the entropy can only increase.
A species set on endless growth is…


Muse – The 2nd Law: Unsustainable


neti neti

“Once you label me you negate me.”
Søren Kierkegaard


“The more you abandon all images, all words, all imaginings and the more you allow the silence to overwhelm you … the more powerful you become.”

Via Negativa

My favourite guru in the annual spiritual supermarket sweeps in Tiruvanamalai in Tamil Nadu every December and January was a dreadlocked Jamaican kindly bear of a man from Brixton called Mooji.

I chose to spend most of my seven weeks in Tiru attending his ‘satsangs’ – open meetings in a rice mill including a five day silent retreat.

One of the little exercises he set us was to walk about town observing everything but resisting the temptation to label anything … ‘tuck-tuck’, ‘cow’, ‘chapati’ … but rather seeing things for what they are. As soon as you name anything you negate its true essence – a bit like the collapse of the wave function in quantum physics when an object is observed. It was playing hide and seek with you until the very moment you observed it when it crystallises into the familiar object you give a name. Names are useful but merely socially conducted concepts or taxonomies to help us impress a matrix of meaning on an otherwise chaotic sense-world.

In every mystic tradition there is a form of meditation called apophatic – from the Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι – apophēmi, “to deny” – which takes as its starting point the fact that God is not what you can say about him. “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” John Scot Erigena (9th century)

In India this is called ‘neti neti’ which is a Sanskrit expression which means “not this, not this”, or “neither this, nor that”. You arrive at a closer affinity with God by a process of taking away. In the Christian mystic tradition this is called the Via Negativa. Try observing without naming; reducing everything to its ‘isness’ which is God.

“The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:21



“Meditation is like lowering yourself in a bucket into the centre of your soul.”

“Think of the soul as a whirlpool and you will understand how we are to sink eternally from negation to negation into the One.” Meister Eckhart

Via Negativa

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Do we? Do we, indeed? One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual path in contrast to other avenues of human endeavour is that in order to ‘add’ to our knowledge of the divine in us we need to ‘deduct’ what we already know. It is a process of unlearning not adding new learning. So we can welcome all circumstance into our life as an opportunity to let go of our old understandings and sink into the nothingness we may call god.

There is no new knowledge, new teacher, new technique, new practice which will ‘get us’ to god for we are already in the place we seek. It’s just hidden from plain sight. We do not need new knowledge … we need new eyes. The kingdom is both within you and amongst you. Luke 17:21

“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there is no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. ‘I am he and/ He is me:/ Spring nightfall.’ Abandon the self, and there you are.”
―  Haruki Murakami,  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle