On going soft in the head

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco — The homeless girl with love in her eyes.

It was during a balmy mid-afternoon in Central Oxford that I and my friend of some 20 years’ standing gingerly negotiated a crossing of the busy street that had first been lain a millennia ago during Saxon times — then a loosely set cobbled carriageway running northwards up from the ford of the oxen at Grandpont, some half mile or so distant along adjoining St. Aldates. The year was 1992 and a palpably self-satisfied, Thatcher-hewn metropolitan hum of affluence pervaded the air in equal measure to the oppressive diesel fumes belching from the buses and taxis that laboured and lurched their way along Cornmarket Street towards Carfax, twixt which our bodies wove, breathing in unnatural rhythms, yet mysteriously embracing the effluvium with bare arms and wide open hearts, unburdened neither by concerns nor the otherwise ubiquitously lugged, logo-laden bags of well-sated shoppers.

And then it hit me. Like Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, like Drury’s hypnotically corrective stick — ich liebe dich! I knew I was now in love, and that I loved my friend; I loved the woman who brushed past us so irritably; I loved, too, the arthritic elderly gentleman who froze with anxious eyes in deliberating the manner of his crossing, and I loved the carcinogenic particles pumping through my lungs out into the yielding air, the dumb dummies posing erect at shined panes with their cold, dead eyes and synthetic elegance, the chaos and indecipherable din of a gaggle of garrulous language students, of horns a-honking, of the lumbering bells of St. Michael’s tolling optimistically, and of ancient Oxenaforda’s silenced, illustrious past; yet I was not only in love, as love was now in me as I turned, looking at my friend, laconically offering, “I feel great”, at which, with pursed smile, he said, “You feel it too, do you?”

A religious may call it God’s Presence, though in these days of Rationalism I should deem it the cranial release of monoamines and oxytocin. I’m unsure what to call it, ‘Love’ seeming as polluted a term as was Cornmarket on that summer’s day 25 years ago. Most will know of this state by whatever name or none; Buddhists call it ‘Mettā’ (Pali) or ‘Maitrī’ (Sanskrit), ancient terms denoting ‘kindly, loving feelings of amity and benevolence’, the Aristotelian ‘Philia’ and Judaic ‘Chesed’ meaning the same. It’s a state of mind, my friend and I feeling it contemporaneously in empathic triggering of a brain region known as the Periaqueductal Gray; mirror neurons firing sympathetically, some might claim. It matters little; what counts is its vividly transcendent actuality, its negation of isolative self-consciousness. Most interesting, is it being a state susceptible to nurturing in Buddhist mental culture practices.

I’ve no interest in quasi-religious cosmologies or in ritualistically indulging spiritual performances of any hue; although I do enjoy evensong at nearby Wells Cathedral, imbibing both quietude and its glorious choral music as an uninitiated yet appreciative bystander. Still, there exist practices of mental culture advanced in ancient canonical texts that benefit us in contemporary life, easing burdens and providing solace; moreover, quieting our troubling, nascent neuroses and supplanting them with those feelings of Mettā — the amity and benevolence that so readily mirrors in encounters, be they with friend, stranger, or foe. Yes, foe too, as in the culture of Mettā we extend the feeling even to those to whom enmity is harboured, reorienting our former negative emotional predispositions. In our polarised, hate-drenched world, now moreso than ever I find this quiet mental skill an incomparable boon.

People are hurting; they are fearful in a world at its most perilous juncture since October 1962; greater still given AUMF and AGW. Our individual deep traumas arising from horrifyingly common sexual and physical abuses, and the acute stress disorders brought on by profound adversities or our innate neurological imbalances, must be addressed by professional clinical means. Mettā is not a cure-all or some nostrum for the naïvely credulous; rather it is an engaging of focused, potent feeling which conciliates an agitated mind, loosens nervously held tension, and eradicates discordant enmity. Buddhist psychology addresses the subtle absence of contentedness which pervades consciousness in varying degrees, ubiquitously so. We tolerate this just as we might static in radio reception, or the buzzing of our refrigerator. Mettā ameliorates this negative hum, softening our mind and social interactions.

Mickie his name was, the weaver betwixt buses, he of the mirror neurons, my fellow choker in the pack. After that day he began to develop the mental culture of Mettā so as to be able to auto-intuit that same sense of amity and connection whenever it was helpful. He dissolved his former self-centricity — an affliction common to us all — and others would quietly remark to him that something was different, he’d changed, in subtext asking what alchemy had caused this. Yet there was nothing in Mickie’s nature that isn’t present in others too; he’d simply learned to access the contentedness and amity lying dormant within humankind. I so admired him for cultivating his mind with Mettā, that faculty of intuiting a kindly benevolence which he gifted to others as much as to himself, they mirroring silently, unbidden. I think of it as him having gone soft in the head. If only I were wise enough, I would too.

Mettā very much: Marie Williams & Mickie Brough-T.

The ambit of ambition

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

It was a bright and still morning as he stepped from his elegant Georgian town house in Bedford Square, the ad-be-clad double-deckers delivering the day’s first visitants to The British Museum on the far side of his familiar Fitzrovian neighbourhood. Sunday. Church bells pealing. An absence of sharp tailoring on the now ambiguously accoutred. More of a crinkled linen state of affairs, for those consciously á la modish. A day of rest, not of work, not for most. Free of the throbbing urgency of nine-to-five-ness; though usually for him, for my erstwhile friend, it was seven-to-ten-ness. Long days keeping his holed ship afloat. A captain of business anticipating, in some dread, any skipper’s final obligation should the waterline be holed.

A resting day, yes, and so he strolled towards a wooden bench in the tweet-filled square oasis, these days now twice tweet-filled, but then just sparrow emanations. A time to consider: options, options. In the past, Virginia Woolf may well too have weighed her fate here, before in time lining a weighty overcoat’s pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse on a similar Spring day four decades ago. Across the square, another local resident, John Maynard Keynes, would have sat considering means to palliate Capitalism’s frequent waterline breaches. Later still it would be Madonna Ciccone, then Lady Gaga, eyed at discrete distances by ex-vets, they too bereft of options within their muscle-twitching watchfulness. This quadrant, hemming in.

Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

A short stroll to the workplace; thirty seconds to key the alarm codes; an ascent to a now eerily quiet office; a passive stare at his Mac Classic and the sleep-depriving spreadsheet printouts; pour a single malt; more – at least three fingers; slump in the chair; toss the carton of Pethidine onto the desk; options, options. The ship was going down, and it needed half a million to stay afloat. These days, his home in Fitzrovia would amply cover that sum, nine or tenfold. But this was back in Thatcher’s day, and besides, the bank already had a charge over the house. Options, options none. He takes a pill, the first of forty. Clarity pacifies the mind where options once had wearied. Each pill a pocketed stone; each bell-tolled minute a step closer to the river.

And so it was, upon that bright sun Sunday, my friend found his way out. A victim of his own designs, sunk by ambition. Now I’m told that such striving is a healthy, natural human quality, hearing politicians’ endless mantras of ‘aspiration’, of people wanting to ‘get on’, to ‘work hard’, to ‘climb the property ladder’, and thereby ‘doing the right thing’. The message is clear: compete or fall by the wayside. I must set goals to ensure my security, must compete – perhaps even against my own instincts – so as to propagate and extend familial interests. Who, ultimately, is served, though? I witnessed so many follow this ambition-laden trajectory over the years, and learned that whatever promise was fulfilled, and mostly it was not, the price was heavy.

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Can sufficient ever satiate my fundamental desire for contentedness, or am I bound to a striven life irrespective of my material needs? As I heedlessly clamber, eyes directed skywards, over the failed ambitions of the many less able to compete, as I turn my thoughts away from the price others pay for my cutting myself a larger slice of the pie, do I feel true to the ethics I would so glibly espouse, in knowing I really am ‘doing the right thing’? Again, who or what is served in my assumed, self-centric ambitions, other than a vague article of misplaced faith which somehow came to inhabit me as if a given of nature? If my contentedness subsists in the ambitious pursuit of wealth or status, so my innermost needs are met. The thing is, it seems it is not so.

The ambit of ambition is exposed in asking just such questions, and yet why would I ever doubt my assumptions; why should my ambition be bounded? Is it not so that, just as my erstwhile friend believed, an endless succession of frontiers are there to be conquered, each elevating one to an ever higher degree of fulfilment? Or has what I serve now become a vacuous promise, a point at which my remaining time – perhaps a span shorter than I suppose – would best be passed in restraining my purblind acquisitiveness? Oh, the justifications leap quickly to one’s defence, do they not? As always, we find the complex though habituated easier than the simple yet uncustomary – a perverse trait in many higher animals, even we, the paragon amongst them.

The house was sold; the bank and preferential creditors paid off; the Mac and remaining assets auctioned; and in short time, Madonna arrived in the square – for the very first time – and Thatcher, in tears, left Downing Street – for the very last time. Unlike so many, and would he but have realised it, my friend could have attenuated his pernicious cupidity, spared himself that opiate-dulled submersion into the darkened waters of quietus. Most have not even the choice to indulge likewise such avarice, their ambitions extending no further than providing essentials, with perhaps the occasional purchase of some brief cheering. So it is that my words are as irrelevant to them as ineffectual they are to those spellbound by an ambit-less ambition.

No carrots mummy

Chinese Buddhist monk. 1,050-1,150 CE. Drents Museum, Nederlands

Chinese Buddhist monk. 1,050-1,150 CE. Drents Museum, Nederlands

Faded salmon pink. No longer much give in the wool. Twenty and more years lining these corridors of quietude. Silent, ownerless footsteps. Not even that. Just a delicious, slow, rolling sensation of movement and pressure. Release; airborne. Now reappearing on the other side. Side of what? Subtle intimations of cedar incense mixed with the ubiquitous scent of layers of aging beeswax, each applied watchfully to the old pinewood architraves every winter. Upon the tray I hold, more scents rise from the day’s one full meal. The pealing bells of the church far below the monastery grounds just carry on the stilled autumnal air as I pass the last window before entering my cell. The silence is working now; a few days into the retreat and I can hear it; see the tranquil hush. I set down carefully; cutlery; attention. A last look out onto the closing day of the garden. Bliss in mind.

Many thousands of meals before, each inattentively consumed over chatter or thinking or impatience or just about anything other than the meal itself. The autopilot takes control; I’ve done this so many times I’m bored with the process; the robot is dreaming. This time it’s different. Everything matters. Everything is exquisitely alive and silent. A taster: something – I have no concern for whatever it is – rotates slowly within space. All this thingless something is comprises only colour and form – orange tones and a cylindrical shape with one beveled edge; the whole gaining in size over a slow pirouette. Absolutely captivating. A revolving revolution in perception. What just died within me in these moments, I wonder? It feels as though my past way of apprehending the world is mummified, still within, yet without use. A cognitive skeleton denuded of past meanings.

In Joachim Gasquet’s ‘Cézanne, – a Memoir with Conversations’ (1897 – 1906), Paul Cézanne, during the final years of his life said that “The day is coming when a single original carrot will give birth to a revolution”. He was talking about observing something directly, and then painting it in the very personal way it is seen, rather than by the book, so to speak. You have to be a true artist to do that, and I am not one of any kind. And yet each of us, even those with wits as dull as my own, may observe the world directly at times. What does that mean? It is the act of pure perception, and the purity is the absence of contaminating thought. Most of the time, when we see, the mind brings along a retained perceptual knowledge that loosely fits what is seen. This is the thought that knows the carrot is a carrot. That is mostly useful, as when needing to distinguish perceptual activity conceptually.

CT-Scan reveals mummified monk (possible self-mummification)

CT-Scan reveals mummified monk (possible self-mummification)

This process of verifying what we apprehend with our store of perceptual knowledge becomes ingrained, and we ourselves are imperceptibly released into a world of concepts, seldom to escape. It isn’t that we use probative words, such as ‘this is a carrot’; yet the knowledge that is synonymous with that idea is brought along with the pure perception, most of the time entirely unnecessarily yet without in the least discommoding us. Everything works, even though we remain one step removed from our actuality. And again, much of the time we need to know that the shape and form approaching us across the savannah is a lion; or that the appearances of vaporous clouds above liquid indicate extremes of temperature. By far the greater part of our lives is lived in a stream of mentation, of conceptual referencing. So this is a world of otherness, of ‘carrots’, ‘lions’ and ‘kettles’.

The Pyrrhonists of ancient Greece used the term ‘epoché’ to denote the suspension of this conceptual stream, and in modern times Edmund Husserl popularised the term in his phenomenology. Whenever this suspension occurs, not only do we become freed from the world of concepts, but the running assumptions of subject and object also dissipate. There is only what T.S. Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’. In mundane terms, we no longer possess any knowledge that we have a carrot on our fork and are about to eat it; all that comprises the entire world is shape and form, colour and movement, scent and feeling. The very greater part of our cognitive apparatus becomes temporarily mummified, preserved for another world, the world of concepts and ideas, thoughts and memories. The skeletal frame of our cognitive apparatus sits perfectly still.

I return the tray to the trestle table that two tonsured recluses have just erected downstairs beside the kitchen entrance, and walk slowly out into the monastery gardens with a mug of tea. Now resting on a varnished wooden bench beside a large algae-covered bubbling stone, the senses settle into their own slow rhythm, each a delicious presentation of a world that I am neither part of nor separate from. The freedom of not being anywhere. The view from nowhere. A bee, out to collect the last of the summer’s pollen, and perhaps sensing harmlessness, loudly passes inches from my nose and I feel the breeze its wings create upon my face. There is no desire, no aversion, none of the subtle awkwardness of my own self-aware existence. There is just a bee bee-ing. A marble Buddha stands watch in an arched hollow of the honeyed-limestone wall, and we all share smile.

Behavioral awareness and change

Alan. By Chez Worldwide, Manchester

Photography: Chez Worldwide, Manchester

There’s a man I’ve known for a number of years who, despite his intelligence and sensitivity, has a behavioural problem he’s quite unaware of. This man is by no means unique in that regard; many of us are blinded to aspects of ourselves which in others we may well regard as failings. It’s a known phenomenon; we quite often take exception to the character traits of others that are prominent in ourselves too, though which we deny or remain ignorant of. It’s quite likely that you too may recognise this phenomenon in someone you know quite well.

When sub-consciously we recognise in ourselves a very similar characteristic to that which we disapprove of in others, there’s often a strong emotional response that appears as if out of nowhere. All the while, we deny access in awareness to this very same characteristic that we too abundantly possess. Whilst those around us may often see through the lack of self-awareness, we assiduously maintain our self-deception. So this is what the man I’m referring to does, and I thought it would be useful to write about how it’s affected him throughout life.

As I was saying, this fellow is intelligent; he’s a lecturer in the humanities department of a state-run college. He reads quite widely on the environment and politics, through evolutionary biology and anthropology, to current affairs and social trends. And like I said, he’s sensitive too; he recognises inequality and injustice in their many forms, and responds emotionally to any act of compassion he may witness or hear of. So you would think that most of the pieces are in place for him to be a reflective and self-aware man – someone who knows himself.

What this chap fails to see in his persona is an arrogance borne of impatience. In other words, his compulsively impatient nature leads him into making snap judgements in which he assumes he knows best. In a sense, these conclusions are logical, because if we resist understanding the position of the other, then what remains is only our own position or world view. And of course, we all assume our own views and opinions are best – if we thought they weren’t we wouldn’t hold them. So the impatient mind tends to limit its capacity to be informed by others.

Now of course, in his chosen reading, this man takes on board the views of others – he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Yet this reading conforms to his world-view in that it’s self-selected; he reads what broadly endorses, or expands upon, his own set of beliefs. When it comes to the views of his social and familial contacts however, the shutters come down. His impatience impels him into snap judgements which invariably fail to grant any validity to the other. To him, it’s just a waste of time to listen to what is borne of the others’ life experience; to him it has no validity.

Naturally, this results in a tangibly felt transmission of high-handedness. There’s a palpable air of exclusion, a heavily qualified acceptance in which the other knows and feels what’s implied – that ultimately they don’t count for much. And all of this rebounds upon our man because he cares for his friends and family of course. And like him, his friends and family have sensitivities too; they know what they feel even though they may not extend those feelings into any analysis. They don’t need to; they know their feelings are true, and know how and when they arise.

So this chap I’m discussing who could know himself and yet doesn’t, unwittingly creates a distance between himself and those around him. He stifles his siblings and parents with his arrogant assumptions, which he regards as reasonable but which are solely self-validations. And he oppresses those who would be close to him in denying the validity of their experience. He’s blinded to all this, even though his culpability is quite apparent to others. Retrenched into self-validating views which he protects at the cost of his relationships; he in effect denies himself too.

If he were able to resist his impulse to judge prematurely, for once to be unconcerned about wasting time and the terrible possibility of suffering a little boredom, he’d learn much about himself through others. He’d see that each individual has a uniqueness of experience no less valid than his own, so having a valuable capacity to inform. Progressively gaining insight into his wilfully ignored and damaging past behavioural traits, his self-validating existence would gradually be supplanted with a new sense of engagement in which all around him would happily participate.

Instead though, this otherwise intelligent man remains intolerant of any whose views are unaligned to his own. Ungraciously rebuffing those who wilfully resist or simply ignore his own perceived correctness, he dismisses them with a passive aggression – sarcasm or hostile humour. Yet the others’ discounting of his stance was akin to his own behaviour reflecting back at him, and which sub-consciously he recognises as such. So he responds curtly, spurning the very thing he perpetuates in his own persona. He rejects this trait, though in others only – it’s hypocrisy.

The remedy entails receptivity and a willingness to listen, to set aside our impatient self-interestedness and participate in shared moments without pre-judging. In not indulging impatience, its opposite arises and we engage with others rather than being dismissive of them. If boredom or conflict arises in our mind, we accept this is self-generated – it’s our problem, not the others’. Rather than enslaving ourselves to impulse and alienating those around us through our behaviour, we put our house in order. We can change at any time in life; all it takes is the will to do so.

A friend seeks contentment the creative way

Photography by Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was very clear, very driven, and very talented. He knew exactly what he needed to do in life to find fulfilment. That clarity and sense of purpose, together with his precocious artistic talent, would see him home. There was no doubt about it. He could see the route to finding the contentment he instinctively sought. The plan was quite simple.

How lucky he was, at this tender age of fourteen, to know his purpose in life. How many of us have the remotest idea of what lies ahead beyond the dreams, the vague and perhaps utterly unrealistic visions, the naïvely faithful notions of our own abilities? But this young man had substance to it all. He had talent and artistic sensibility in abundance.

None of this would be easy though – and he knew it. It didn’t matter. It was Plan A, and it was the only plan. He didn’t need alternatives, reserve positions, a fall back. This was going to work; there was no question about it. All he had to do was hone his craft further. All he had to do was to give his natural ability time to mature and develop.

Five years he gave it; ten at the outside. It didn’t matter – it would happen. He’d devote himself wholeheartedly, sacrifice everything. Forget the girls, the blokey camaraderie, the non-essential studies and the qualifications. Forget the inevitable loneliness and isolation that this devotion would bring. This was art; you suffer for it – you have to.

He became a master of his instrument. It took less than four years. By the time he was eighteen he was hailed as the very finest in a field of other prodigiously talented young musicians. He could play any venue and the past masters would turn out to listen. He was in demand as a session player with recording artists too. He’d made it ahead of time.

Now in his mid-twenties, certain things were becoming apparent to him. He’d attuned to the success, but it gave him no real sense of fulfilment. I asked him why he seemed unhappy, why he wasn’t as responsive as he used to be. He replied: ‘Cos I’m depressed Hariod. Sometimes I feel like killing myself. The music’s never given me what I thought it would’.

Fortunately, my friend survived the crisis. The affection of a dog helped, as it always does. So did the wonderful countryside he found solace within. It was a long process though, several years in fact. Eventually, the adjustment was made, and the realisation set in that the creative impulse, as potent as it was, could never create contentment itself.

When we invest in our dreams we take a huge gamble. We love the content of those dreams, and we become wedded to the embedded illusory projections. Yet divorce is always painful. To invest our entire emotional and physical energy into what amounts to no more than desire, is dangerous. It feeds blind belief, and it abandons reason.

We create in our dreams a fairy tale in which we live contentedly, fulfilled, free of striving, free of internal strife. This narrative projection in effect becomes our personal identity. We inhabit this narrative thinking that it’s what our life will become. We project our personal self-entity so as that ‘self’ becomes both narrator and narrative alike.

It’s all incredibly creative. You might say it’s one of humankind’s most sophisticated attributes – the projection of the ‘self’ into a complex narrative. Very few other animals can do this; and even then, it barely warrants comparison. Our capacity to delude ourselves with these narrative creations and projections is enticing too. It feeds desire.

We can make intelligent plans; we can and must project into the future – of course. These plans can be as creative and ambitious as we like; there’s no harm in any of that. But when we project our ‘self’ into future scenarios, such that the projection becomes belief, then the creative force turns into an adversary. We think it’s our friend, but in truth it’s not.

We can’t create contentment. It can’t be willed or manipulated into being through self-interest and acquisitive desire. It’s in fact this self-interest that blocks any contentment. If we’re able to remove the ‘self’ from our plans and projections, then we’re immediately shielded from the intense negativity my friend suffered. So we need to uncreate this self-entity.

A friend seeks contentment the escapists way

Photo: Sukanto debnath, Flickr

Photography: Sukanto Debnath, Hyderabad

He’d moved to London from another country, knowing that this would be the place he’d find fulfilment. Here, in the capital, he’d access the vibrant core of the British music scene and escape the parochial, small-minded outlook of his friends and family. There’d be no looking back to the old country. The millennium was advancing, and so was he.

He vowed forever to release himself from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, from what he saw as the provincialism of his parents and all they stood for. He’d be contented and free, endlessly creating new music to accompany him in his endlessly renewing life. There’d be obstacles; but with his talent, wit and charm, he’d find contentment and freedom.

The connections were built soon enough. Despite his tender years, he was savvy; he knew how to look the part, and how to play the part. He knew the music scene was largely theatre. Talent was partly optional, but in any case he had it in spades. Within two years he was playing sessions, and within four he was on a world tour with a huge star.

Yet still he felt trapped, still part of a controlling network of managers and agents, the hordes of goffers and of course, the stars of the shows. So he tried to escape through sex. He was a pretty boy, on show nightly to many willing and available girls. Maybe with them, each in turn, he would feel less trapped, find the contentment and freedom he sought.

But soon the girls became more of a burden than a pleasure, just more obligations and more small-mindedness. It felt a bit like the old country. So he tried to escape with cocaine, yet that proved even more of a trap, and his mind became smaller and more caged-in still. No matter how he tried to escape his sense of emptiness, he could never escape himself.

As the years passed, he turned back to the Catholic church of his homeland. He stopped rejecting his past and what felt most like home. He gave up on finding fulfilment in himself, and age dulled awareness of his discontent. Besides, now he had a son he could project all his own failed ideas into, and the circular predictability of it all came to pass.

I’m still in touch with my friend, but we don’t talk about much of this; it’s too difficult for him to swallow. And who am I to be telling others why their lives didn’t produce what they thought it would? My friend found credibility and prestige, has a wonderful family, health and wealth. What he didn’t find was how to escape the aching void within.

For 35 years he’d tried to escape that void, that inner sense of discontent and the absence of fulfilment. He tried escaping by leaving his country, by attaching to fame and glamour, by getting lost in music, lost in sex, lost in cocaine. He tried to escape vicariously through his son, who through his father’s connections now himself has fame and glamour.

But it’s futile to seek contentment by escaping, because in any seeking we always bring our self along. And it’s this idea we have of our self which is the problem; it’s this entity which thinks contentment can be found and attached to. The self-entity misguidedly attempts to manipulate the world in order to satiate its desires and avoid all else.

We can’t escape the self or its misguided manipulations. What we can do is deconstruct it, and see it for what it is. It isn’t what I am; it isn’t what you are. It’s an on-going narrative construct that embeds within our being as belief. This means we come to believe that this narrative that comprises the self-entity correlates to the actuality of our being.

That actuality – what I am and what you are beyond selfhood – has a default state of perfect contentedness in being. That actuality doesn’t need to escape anything, or discover anything, in order to dwell fulfilled and in an emotional and psychological well-being. This isn’t some fanciful idea; it’s fully provable through a cultivated presence in being.

In developing presence in being, and through living contemplatively aware, we see that escapism is redundant. In fact it’s utterly useless. We may escape into pleasure, into forgetfulness, into distraction and indulgence. But we can never escape our sense of self once there. In our informed presence we see this truth, seeing what we are beyond self.

 

A friend seeks contentment the heavenly way

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

She was an oddly attractive young woman, gregarious and vivacious, amusingly unpredictable in her scatter-brained thought processes. Yet to chat with her could feel like being spun in a cement mixer, never certain which way was up or ever knowing when you might be disgorged to go off in a nonplussed silence – like her, mixed up, but not unpleasantly so.

At other times it was like trying to read Ulysses in a hurricane, or after a few too many gin and tonics, her monologue a flight of consciousness borne on a slipstream of vacuity. She’d rarely be able to end sentences; there was always something vital to add; and whilst meaning seemed promised, her turbulent fervour meant it was always lost along the way.

And getting lost was very much her thing. When she wasn’t adrift churning your brain with her vapid and vacuous inanities, she’d seek to lose herself in other ways. It was as if she was running away from the possibility of simplicity, instead losing herself in rabid mindlessness and scared she may be forced to face directly her own simple, alive presence.

Sex was another of her favoured routes to losing herself. Here, once again, she clambered into the cement mixer – churning, enfolding, collapsing, resurfacing, over and over. And once again she would find herself at last setting in silence – the emptiness of alienation and self-loathing. Powerless to dispel these feelings, she settled for God’s Plan B:

Get to heaven; not now of course, but when God chose. Only there might she finally rest content as the soul she was sure she possessed. There’d be no need to get lost any more; in heaven she’d finally dispel her fears, safely in God’s presence. All else had failed; that was her proof that this world was just a staging post, a stop-over to a final destination.

It’s was a great plan for her, because she could carry on pretty much as before, knowing that eventually all would be well. All it took was belief and a few minor behavioural adjustments. She got into a circle of believers whose groupthink was policed and bonded by a prayer leader cum show master. And there she relaxed in God’s merciful hands.

I could guess at my friend’s thinking, though it wouldn’t have been consciously known to her. She was fearful of the world, so she tried to lose herself in it. The mind is a great place to get lost – lost in thought. It needn’t be prayerful thinking – just words, imagery, sounds; anything will do. Keep churning it out and you’ll lose all sense of your own being.

And then you simply wait; lost to your own reality, yet in God’s waiting room. It doesn’t have to be Eastbourne or Palm Beach. You just do it in your own mind and body. Contentment must wait too as you’ve found you couldn’t will it into being. All you need is the belief that one day the waiting room vacates as your soul steps through the doors of heaven.

At some level, we all do this. We all have our own version of God’s Plan B. If we’re rational and not given to such flights of fancy, we invent our own little piece of heaven that’s somewhere along our chosen path. Like my friend, we too seek contentment. We may conceive of it differently – happiness, wealth, status, relationships – but it’s the same final objective.

And if like my friend, we find our plan isn’t working, we either come up with another one or seek to lose ourselves in the world. There’s a million ways to get lost, most of which come down to an incessant distraction. Industries exist to feed this need to get lost in distractedness: drugs, drink, sex, entertainment and a whole host of anodyne consumerist fads.

Whether we choose to get lost in distractedness, or plan a route to contentment, we’re always putting things off. We’re always saying that the immediacy of being present in life is not sufficient; it’s not going to bring contentment. Yet contentment is accepting what is, as what is. It’s accepting our own presence in any and all circumstances. That is all it is.

Do you see how simple that is? Nothing has to change, to ‘get better’, to ‘be more than’, or to ‘become other than’. It’s incredibly simple and immediate. It’s nothing to do with plans or Gods, with projections or heavens. It isn’t about seeking or believing. It isn’t ‘about’ anything other than the vital immediacy of your own undeniable presence as you.

A friend seeks contentment the hard way

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was born into an assured middle class comfort, a guarantee of a private education and career to follow. His future classmates would go on to become cabinet ministers in government, bankers and CEO’s. A few became artists with no real need even to sell their work. Like him, their future would be cushioned with inheritances, trust funds, contacts.

By his mid-teens, these privileges had begun to jar with his sense of individuality. He felt he was being led along a path of someone else’s choosing – his father, his teachers, what used to be called ‘the establishment’. There was a feeling of an enforced cronyism which he felt deeply reluctant to conform to. So he decided he had to rebel.

And what does a privately educated, rebellious British schoolboy do in the 1960’s? – he becomes a communist. Attaching to an ideology which fed his youthful contrarianism made him feel he was charting his own course in life. He was wrong-footed by the Czech invasion, but his thinking was by then set. He would be a grafting wage-earner.

Being both an idealist and a romantic, he set sail for Ireland where he would sell his labour working on a travelling fair. Never quite feeling accepted and a little hurt for all that, he returned to England, toiling shifts in factories. His political ideology became more sophisticated. He cultivated the speech of his co-workers. But he was still a posh boy.

And he couldn’t shake it off. There was an irrepressible haughtiness to him, still that exaggerated springing gait that his kind affected during their elite schooling. Still he fought it; still he believed that only by conforming to his absurdly fake self-image would he find contentment and feel comfortable in himself. He sought authenticity in play-acting.

‘Why do I always seem to provoke people? No matter how hard I try to befriend them, they always end up wanting to attack me in some way’. I had to be honest; it was a sincere question from a very dear old friend. I told him it was his fake image that was being attacked. Hard as he tried, people saw right through the pretence; they were offended by it.

Of course, we all have a self-image that we nurture and project. In that sense, my friend was only doing what we all do. We inhabit a narrative of our personal identity, an epic tale of what and who we are. We cling to this so dearly such that it becomes embedded as belief – we believe the story correlates to reality. And if we believe it, why shouldn’t others?

This on-going narration is largely responsible for sustaining our sense of selfhood. We keep the thing knitted together with the flow of our thoughts and perceptions, and all that those mental phenomena give rise to in action. Along with our bodily feelings, our running analysis of our situation and our undeniable sense of being, this narration feeds the self.

But this sense of self is not identical to our authentic being; it doesn’t correlate to the actuality of our being. It is, for the most part, merely this mental creation of the narrative. We can manipulate the narrative as much as we like, we can be as extreme as my friend and fabricate a new story; but it’ll never authentically disclose our being to itself or to others.

There was nothing wrong with being born into privilege. My friend had no need to disown all that entailed. It’s incredibly hard work fictionalising a life. It took my friend most of his adulthood to realise the futility of attempting this. All the while, he believed his authentic self truly was a fairground worker, a night-shift operator, a revolutionary.

He exhausted himself in attempting to inhabit these fake identities. He offended and disturbed so many people in his clumsy, transparent masquerading. And when people were provoked into attacking him in some way because of it, he tried even harder to deceive by manipulating the attackers’ own feelings. This cleverness only made matters worse.

Our authentic identity isn’t a narrative creation. It doesn’t need working at with story-telling and charades. We don’t need to create an acceptable self to project to the world, let alone an unacceptable one. Such manipulations are only ever mutations of inauthentic selfhood in any case. In seeing through this great deception, our authenticity is realised.

A friend seeks contentment the stupid way

Photo: Tibor Vegh

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

She’d had a privileged education, had become versed in European literature, could read Latin and speak three modern languages fluently. She was healthy, solvent and now free to do as she wished. By any standard, this was an advantageous start to her adult life. Qualified and confident in herself, she set out to travel and explore the world.

Her experiences were interesting and varied, though not as rewarding as she first had imagined. So after a year she came back to England and got a job in publishing – a plan which suited her well so she thought. She’d landed the perfect means of earning a living and so could settle into her life back in England with an assured future ahead of her.

After a while she began to dimly sense that her career may never prove quite as fulfilling as she’d anticipated. It had begun to feel one-dimensional, as if going nowhere in an undisturbed and rather bland serenity. Was this to be the sum total of her reward in life? How could this ever prove satisfying to her at any fundamental level?

She gradually realised with an increasing certainty that she wasn’t really contented in her stable and untroubled life. So she decided the best thing to do was to ordain as a nun, to live her life in an ascetic and highly controlled monastic order. Here, she would find the answer to her discontentment. Here, the fulfilment she sought would be found.

For 12 years she lived shaven-headed, wearing the unwomanly, rough cotton robes of her order. She spent her days in prayer and meditation, and in performing duties around the monastery. She was convinced that she’d eventually come to some understanding, to see what it was that prevented her from feeling content with life, and within herself.

Finally, she decided she’d had enough, so disrobed and quit the order to re-enter Civvy Street. A few months later, we were having dinner together at her place, discussing the whole experience. She didn’t seem too enthusiastic; so I asked her why she’d spent all those years locked away from the world. ‘Because I was stupid’, she said.

What my friend learned was that we don’t ‘find’ contentment; we don’t discover it in different places or situations. What she learned was that the fulfilment and contentedness she’d sought both by going outwards in travel, and inwards in meditation, were the wrong approaches. What she learned was that contentment couldn’t be reached by her ‘self’.

Very few individuals show the radical determination that my friend did in her search for contentedness. Most of us incline to the more obvious and conservative routes to well-being. We choose acquisitiveness through careers, or reputation, through our families or in our relationships. Most of us don’t stake everything on the search.

This, as my friend eventually discovered, is a good thing. For her, it wasn’t the travel that was misguided, or the career, or the interminable hours of prayer and meditation. It was the seeking itself. It was the idea she had that she could ‘find’ contentment, and that once found, this sense of well-being would attach to her – she’d possess it for her ‘self’.

When she’d responded to my question as to why she’d taken such an extreme approach to finding contentment, she spoke a profound truth. In saying ‘because I was stupid’, she was telling me a lot about myself, and about most of us in fact. What I learned from that stark comment was that I’d be stupid too if I let my ‘self’ go in search of contentment.

And this is the great difficulty, the paradox, the conundrum. Behind all our ideas about becoming happier, more fulfilled, about garnering prestige or increasing our pleasures, there’s a fundamental flaw. There’s the notion that all these things can be attached to and experienced by my ‘self’. But this ‘self’ is just an idea, a narrative process acting itself out.

Once we begin to realise what my friend did, that the unfolding narrative of her ‘self’ was what obstructed contentedness, the paradox begins to dissolve. And being willing to see through that mostly deeply held belief, that story of ‘me’ and my ‘self’, is what’s truly radical. This is an old message, a timeless one. Am I stupid to ignore it?