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Posts Tagged ‘Meditation’

A relevant blast from the past in the light of yesterday’s post.

Forget about jam and Jerusalem. Marmalade and meditation is the real deal.

Bruce made a significant comment on my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book about the need for a proper balance between the way the two halves of our brain work together, the left with its word-dependent logic and the right with its creative intuition:

At the time I “found” McGilchrist’s book I was reading concurrently a history of Greek philosophers, a narrative of the development of the “western mind” and a quirky travelogue of discovery of “the psyche of Persia we really don’t know”, searching for something I wasn’t sure existed – a unified view, a coherence that McGilchrist just dropped into my lap . . . .  Best of all, when I put the book down, I find myself more inclined to seek out a wetlands forage for watercress than a newscheck on the internet!

When I read it I felt a twinge of envy at the idea of foraging for watercress in a wetlands habitat. It was only fleeting though. My connection with nature has always tended to be passive rather than active. My interest in gardens, for example, extends only as far as sitting in them with immense pleasure: any actual gardening tends to result in injury or accidental damage. I end up lacerated by thorns or by cutting the trimmer cable in half. This takes the edge of any slight pleasure I might have felt and tips me well over the cliff into aversion.

So, I came to feel, perhaps with a slight sense of smug complacency, that the impact on me of McGilchrist’s insights, though considerable, might extend no further than a bit of meditation laced with poetry. And those who have been following this blog will testify there’s been a lot of poetry recently. I never thought I’d sink to practicalities.

Until, that is, a friend of ours gave my wife a hefty bag of plums. It looked like there were millions of them and they were very small. My wife mentioned something about making jam so I made some excuse about needing to answer a load of emails and disappeared into my study. I was there for what felt like several hours and thought the whole thing would have blown over by the time I came downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

As even Basil Fawlty at his most obtuse would have realised, making coffee requires going into the kitchen, and going into the kitchen, when jam making is in the air, is not a smart move for those who don’t want to make jam. As soon as I walked in I knew I had made a fundamental error. There on the table was a mountain of plums piled carefully in a massive bowl. Within seconds – I’m still not sure how it happened – I was back on my computer looking for recipes for plum jam. One of the drawbacks of Google is that you can find exactly what you don’t want if you make the mistake of looking for it. And I did.

Initially I emailed three of the recipes to my wife and came back downstairs to continue making the coffee.

‘Have you got the recipes, love?’ my wife asked quietly.

“I’ve emailed them to you,’ I said defensively.

‘Couldn’t you print one off?’ came the response.

It was at that point I knew the game was up.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What I didn’t yet realise was how fulfilling the making of plum jam would be. And how my decision to resume regular and disciplined meditation two months previously had made it possible for me to take pleasure in exactly the kind of fiddly repetitive task that would have driven me to complete distraction just a few short weeks ago. Meditation had enabled me to maintain focus far better, accept the repetition in good spirit, notice with genuine surprise and pleasure the way each rounded fruit was subtly different from the last one and learn by stealth rather than conscious effort how to become more efficient and dextrous at getting every last piece of flesh off even the tiniest the stone. Preparing the plums in this way became a form of meditation in itself, a spiritual discipline that changed my consciousness, heightened my awareness and developed new skills. It changed me in a way that generalises to many things I do from emptying the dishwasher to replying to emails.

And it paved the way for making marmalade. My favourite form of jam.

But before I come onto that perhaps I’d better explain why I started to meditate again so much in earnest.

Sam Harris meditation pic

Meditation from Article by Sam Harris

 

It’s true that I have always done some meditation ever since I first learnt at the London Buddhist Society in the early 70s. But it had been a long time since I had done so with the discipline of those early days. It’s also true that for some years the emphasis psychology now places on mindfulness rekindled my interest a little. But I had of late been much more interested in reading about it than really doing it. And the McGilchrist book, while it drew me back to music and poetry, left my pattern of meditation very much as it found it.

In truth, I felt I was far too busy to make the time for anything more than a perfunctory gesture at the task. I had far more important things to do and I raced around doing them until the warnings from my interactions with the world became too strong for me to ignore.

First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.

I remembered the story about a well-known Bahá’í, Dorothy Baker, who had a serious and almost fatal car-accident on a steep mountain road.

She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’

To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’

The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’

Carl Jung used to say something like, ‘When life has a message for you, it first of all taps you gently on the shoulder, may be more than once. Then, if you don’t notice, it will slap you in the face. If you still don’t pay attention it will bang you hard in the head.’ This moment was my bang in the head.

It became clear to me that I had to take meditation seriously, slow down and trust that I would still be able to do all that was truly important to do.

So, at the start of every day since then, for half an hour at least, I have practised a form of meditation. (I won’t bore you with the details here but for anyone interested I’ve posted the basic model, as used in a group exercise, at this link Turning the Mirror to Heaven. It also explains how the method can be used alone.)

Initially I found it almost impossible to step back from a very disempowering belief. I believed that making time to meditate, and then using the calm I had generated to slow down my pace of work, would in fact make the whole situation much worse by leaving a trail of neglected tasks in my wake for others to trip over.

And it’s true I’ve had to decline some requests to take on more than I could do, and that was hard. But to my astonishment, almost all the major projects I’ve taken on continue to progress, though it still is hard to trust that the pace is fast enough – but as far as I know there’s no great harm done (‘yet’ says the voice I have to fight every time I meditate or do things mindfully).

And the strangest thing of all is that there has been time to make my own marmalade. I never thought I’d see the day when I would take pleasure in slicing orange peel into thin strips as though I had all the time in the world, my enjoyment marred by only the faintest suspicion that in doing so I must be neglecting something more important.

So my present unprecedented state of mind seems to be thanks to marmalade, McGilchrist and meditation. I still find myself wondering quite often, though, how long it will be before life pricks this bubble too. Some people are never satisfied.

Oh and, by the way, we gave a jar of plum jam to the friend who’d set this whole jam thing going and to my surprise she seemed to love it. Perhaps she was just being polite.

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tomato-cropWe have a massive crop of tomatoes this year. Picking them is no problem. Eating them is more of a challenge. Fortunately I love tomatoes in almost any form: as Gazpacho, in salad, when fried (preferably with cheese), even grilled, and in some cases baked on top of a pizza.

Even so, there is still a risk that tomatoes every day will not keep boredom at bay, so some will be given away.

I’ll stop the rhymes now – feeling a bit dizzy.

plump-tomatoesI could make some chutney as well, I suppose. We’ve got some grotesque obstinately green tomatoes on another plant that look as though that would be the only option. Ever since my marmalade and meditation moment I have become a bit of a dab-hand at making pickle, but I’ve not had the chance so far at using tomatoes for that purpose. This could be the time!

The huge advantage of home-grown is that they taste like tomatoes used to taste when I was a child. Nowadays, if I were blindfolded and presented with a plate of supermarket fodder, the chances are I couldn’t tell a tomato from a cucumber by taste. The texture might give it away so they’d both have to go through a blender, of course, to make it a fair test.

tomato-traffic-lightsOne last thought I can’t resist sharing is about my tomato traffic light system.

As I was picking some the other day it occurred to me that the way I was deciding which to pick contradicted all my driving and pedestrian instincts. On the road, when the lights are red you stop, if amber you wait and on green you go.

Not so when you are picking tomatoes. If it’s green you stop picking and leave it completely alone. On amber, you might hold on a moment to decide if it’s on the green or red side of orange. Only if it’s red do you blast on regardless and stick it in your bowl.

I’d better make sure I don’t take my garden habits out onto the road.

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Autumn Garden

In the last post, I describe how William Wordless, Frederick Mires and I had been arguing over how to combine breadth of interests with depth of exploration. Then we joined the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right.

It’s too cold a day for the picnic area. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

‘Where’s Chris?’ I ask when we’re in earshot.

‘Sitting on a bench under a tree somewhere, I expect, waiting for enlightenment to strike,’ Pancake sarks. ‘What have you been doing?’

‘Arguing as usual,’ Mires sours.

‘What about?’ Pindance asks anxiously. She’s always sensitive to any hint of animosity.

‘Books mainly. Well, not exactly. About whether reflection will help us get more out of what we do including reading books,’ I attempt to explain.

‘Reading is a waste of time,’ Pancake flatly declares. ‘There’s not enough time as it is if we are going to change things for the better before we die. Wasting it on books is a crime against humanity.’ She’s just trying to be annoying now, and may be succeeding.

‘Don’t talk such rubbish,’ Mires shouts, catching the bait as usual. ‘Without books you won’t understand the reality you are trying to improve.’ Pancake barely manages to conceal a triumphant grin behind her coffee.

‘I think we need to have Chris here as well if we’re going to be able to talk about this calmly and constructively,’ I suggest.

‘I’ll go and find him. I think I know where he is.’ Pindance has made a strong connection with Humfreeze from the very beginning. He was the one who made first contact and encouraged her to come out of the shadows and loneliness of her earlier existence. She runs off up the path towards the Autumn Garden.

‘Anyone else want a drink I ask?’

‘Coffee for me,’ says Wordless.

‘Tea for me,’ says Mires.

‘D’you need a hand?’ Pancake asks.

‘I can manage,’ I answer with an echo of Pindance’s original independence script. ‘Are we staying outside?’

‘I think it would be better,’ Pancake advises, ‘given the way the conversation might unfold when we’re all together.’

By the time I come back with the drinks Christopher Humfreeze, meditator extraordinaire, has joined us with Pindance sitting next to him.

‘Sorry, Chris, did you want a drink?’ I ask in a tone that indicates that a refusal would be welcome at this point.

‘No thanks.’ Humfreeze waves his bottle of water vaguely in the air. ‘This is healthier.’

‘Have the others brought you up to speed, Chris?’ I ask as I squeeze awkwardly into the gap between the attached bench seat and the wooden table, almost spilling my coffee over Mires as I do so. I must remember to always put my drink down before performing acrobatics.

‘They have.’

‘So, what do you think?’

‘Well, I daresay you can guess, and it’s not gone down well with Fred and Emmie. Not sure about Indie. She’s not said anything yet.’

‘Well, fill me in anyway, Chris.’

‘OK. I personally don’t think there’s any need to read obsessively or keep constantly busy. We should just meditate consistently – then we’ll do only what really needs to be done and read only what needs to be read, and no more.’ He paused, then added ‘Simples,’ in Meercat style with a defiant grin on his face.

‘But how do you know that the books you haven’t read are not for you right now? You can’t know till you start reading them surely,’ came Mires’s predictable response.

‘Surely you learn more from direct contact with reality, than you can ever get from a book, and meditation in a vacuum, cut off from the oxygen of the ordinary world, is a fast train to lala land,’ came Pancake’s attempt to refute them both.

‘Only if you refuse to believe you can access a wiser self through silence and solitude,’ Humfreeze snapped back. ‘Our wiser self has access to levels of consciousness deeper and broader than any book, but it’s hard to reach and hear it in the distracting hubbub of the social world.’

‘We’re in danger of creating another stand off if we carry on like this. That’s not what we agreed we would do from now on. We need to work together on a solution that works for us all, not just for one of us.’ Mires is remembering his psychology at last.

‘That’s going to be easier said than done,’ Pancake chips in. ‘It’s not easy to step back from the habits of a lifetime, especially ones we feel are vital to our survival as ourselves, at that.’

Wordless nods in agreement. ‘I’d like to hear from Pindance. I bet she has a different view of things again.’

She looks hesitant and uncertain but manages to speak at last.

‘Do you remember, Pete, a long time ago, over coffee in a basement kitchen, a good friend of yours who died recently, shared a great idea.’

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Indie.’

‘You were telling him how hard it was to focus on what you needed to do. He asked “Why don’t you try time-banding?” Do you remember now?’

‘I do,’ I said softly. ‘It was such an important idea, and yet so simple. Just put a fence round certain spans of time and do nothing but what you have planned to do in that time frame. It might even be only an hour, but protect it from distraction. How is that going to help us now though?’

‘Well,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘for a start time banding protects you from time bandits.’

‘I get that all right. Distractions steal time and we need to shut them out somehow. But our problem is we have competing priorities. Chris’s bandit is Fred’s best friend!’

‘You’ll have to make a deal,’ Pindance spoke more forcefully than usual. ‘I can’t stand to see you all at odds like this. Your arguments really upset me. I need you to be kind and calm together, or I get scared that one of you will betray us and what we should stand for, like I was betrayed before, and we might all have to go down into the shadows I was lost among before.’

She stared round anxiously at all of us, straining to read our faces, as though fearing we would not understand her.

‘I just want to create harmony and peace. I want to learn to get to the roots of mine and other people’s anger, fear and sadness and transform it into something more positive – I’m not sure what exactly. I just know that each of you, as well as me, have pain and trauma rooted in some experience. Your passion for reading, Fred, yours for poetry, Bill, and yours for action, Emmie, have their roots in something in our past. Understanding these roots can help our branches create more nutritious fruits.’

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh (possibly his last painting)

That definitely focuses our minds.

Pancake has clearly got part of her point at least. ‘If time banding works, and we can find enough time to divide between us, we can each take our share of protected time to use for what we value most. More than that, if we all help each other make use of this special time it could work better than before. If Fred doesn’t make me feel guilty for being out there in the world, and I don’t keep nagging Chris to get off his backside, we’ll all benefit. And that includes your poetry, Bill, and your reflective approach in all these things, Pete. We may even manage to create some spaces for covering a wide range of interests as reflectively as possible, and others for a more focused  and deeper exploration of specific topics. I’m not sure what you need time for, Indie. You need to let us know.’

‘How can you be so young and yet so wise, Indie?’ Wordless finally manages to get a word in edgewise. ‘You speak almost like a poet.’

‘Because I have been quiet all this time, and simply listened and watched, for fear of being harmed, I’ve learned a lot.’

‘You must share this with us sometime,’ Mires quietly requests.

‘I can only explain what I know how to put into words so far. Maybe, Emmie, I need quiet time to dive beneath the surfaces I only float across so far,’ she replies. ‘I’m not really sure yet.’

‘At the risk of raining on your parade, I have to say that there’s just one other slight snag with all this. Time banding is just one part of the solution.’ Humfreeze is speaking quietly but with an almost irresistible firmness of purpose. ‘An equally important consideration is mind-banding as a way of resisting mind-banditry. It’s true that if we all co-operate, mind-banding will be easier. But we can’t assume that we are all the entities active in Pete’s mind. There may well be others keen to sabotage our project for what seem to them good reasons. We have to take up Pete’s idea of trying to master the art of reflection as well as my pet discipline, mindfulness, if we are to be sure of fending off enough of the possible distractions to get the most out of whatever experience we are jointly having. Does that make sense?’

‘Complete sense, even to me,’ Pancake confirms. The rest of us are all nodding as she speaks, and, as she stops, the phone rings and I wake suddenly. Irritated, I listen for the message before I pick up.

A robot voice begins ‘We understand you recently have been involved in a serious accident . . .’ I press to answer and immediately hang up.

Still half asleep I pick up the pencil and the pad from the bedside table and begin to write. What I have just dreamt is far too important to forget – far more important than an accident that never happened.

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Coffe cup on garden tableI’m asleep. At least I think I am. We’re altogether this time, sitting round the glass table in the garden. We are wrestling with the problem of how to find out if my head has any other entities lurking beneath consciousness and if so, how to get in touch with them. We’ve postponed trying to reach agreement on how to reflect more often and more effectively until we’ve sorted this issue out.

‘We don’t seem to be getting very far with our watching brief plan. And I don’t think we’re going to. We need to do something more proactive.’ He paused for a moment and when no one else spoke he added, ‘Why don’t we try using an ouija board?’ Frederick Mires seems slightly embarrassed to be making this suggestion.

‘Good to see a brain scientist prepared to put something so discredited to the test, Fred.’ Christopher Humfreeze finds it hard to conceal his pleasure at scoring such an unlikely point. For once he is not on the receiving end of Mires’s unremitting need to test the validity of his faith in meditation.

‘Too easy to fake, isn’t it?’ comments the pragmatic Emma Pancake dismissively. Anything so flaky is unlikely to receive the support of such a hard-line campaigner in the socio-political sphere.

‘What’s an Ouija board?’ asks the bewildered William Wordless. Exploring and rhapsodising about mountains and forests has obviously given him too little time to explore the esoteric.

I feel it’s time I stepped in.

‘I don’t think we have to explain that to you, Bill, I’m happy to say. I’m not convinced that tables, letter cards and up-turned tumblers are going to get us very far towards solving this problem. We’re not in a material space now but an immaterial one: dreamland requires a different approach, I feel.’

There is a period of silence.

‘I have an idea but it’s unlikely to work,’ Mires muses.

‘We’d be glad to hear it, whatever it is,’ is my attempt at an encouraging response.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, you know I’ve been investigating consciousness for decades now, and there is one method that in my view, if it can work at all, could just possibly work as well in dreamland as in waking time.’ He pauses dramatically.

‘Come on, Fred. Don’t keep us hanging in suspense.’ Pancake has little patience with anyone’s dramatics except her own.

‘Calm down, Emmie! I’m going to tell you now. If we had access to a psychic, a spirit medium, we could possibly detect and access whatever is there.’

‘That puts the kibosh on that one then,’ gloats Pancake. ‘We haven’t got a medium.’

‘Slow down a moment, folks. Not so hasty.’ Bill clearly doesn’t like Pancake’s knee jerk dismissal of this idea. There’s always been a tension between them. He knows she despises his love of poetry: she sees it as an impractical waste of time. He, on the other hand, distrusts the frantic activity with which she chases her dream of changing the world.

‘Maybe we have someone who doesn’t know they’re a medium.’

‘How likely is that, Bill?’ asks Mires. ‘We’ve been together in here for decades. We know each other really well. I don’t see anyone among us with a secret gift for contacting spirits.’

‘That’s where I think you’re mistaken, Fred. You’ve never been convinced that meditation does what Chris says it can. What if he’s right? What if he is closer to his soul than any of us? What if that means he can tune in to the world of souls and spirits that we can’t sense?’

‘Steady on, Bill, for heaven’s sake,’ Humfreeze butts in. ‘It’s my head you’re talking about here. Don’t let your poetic imagination run away with you. I have never had, and I do not expect ever to have, psychic powers, whatever they are. That’s not why I meditate.’

‘I’m not suggesting that is why you do it, only that it might have helped you be able to do it and not even know. Why don’t you just give it try? We really need to find a way to do this.’

Humfreeze seems to be shrinking with repugnance at the whole idea.

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

‘I know this probably cuts across everything you feel you are trying to do,’ Mires interjects sympathetically, ‘and I will respect and understand whatever decision you make in the end. However, I think there is something here that trumps your reluctance. If there is a hidden entity inside Pete’s head and if contacting it results in us all becoming more able to do more good, then there’s no blame attached to your testing the existence of a possible skill you never tried to acquire. It can do no harm and might do a lot of good.’

‘That’s an awful lot of ifs,’ laments Humfreeze. He pauses for a moment as he ponders what to say. We all realise this is a tipping point and keep schtum.

‘OK. This is the deal. I want to hear everyone’s opinion on this insane suggestion. If I end up feeling that all of you are definitely in favour of this plan, I will give it a go. I will try three times and three times only. If nothing happens, I’m not doing it again, do you all understand?’

‘Thank you, Chris. That’s very gracious of you, and we really appreciate how much it cost you to say that. So, what do we all think of the plan, then? You first, Emmie.’ Mires gives Pancake a searching look.

‘Did you have to start with me, Fred?’ Pancake complains. ‘I need more time. Ask someone else.’

Mires’s stops himself from commenting that this is the first occasion to his knowledge that she has wanted more time before deciding to act.

‘I’ll come back to you then. What do you think, Bill. Are you still for the idea?’

‘Definitely. I think we have to give it a go.’

‘Pete, what do you think?’

‘Well, I’m not very happy to go down this road, but I can’t think of a better idea. I have a really strong sense there is some kind of being underneath our awareness that we absolutely need to get in touch with, so I feel we should accept Chris’s generous offer and see if he’s psychic after all.’

‘Back to you then, Emmie. I’m in favour of trying this out even though I’m anything but sure it will work. It can’t do any harm and there’s a lot at stake here, and I’ve been wrong before.’

‘Can I have that in writing, Fred, for use in future arguments?’ quips Pancake. We all laugh, glad to have an excuse to break the tension a little.

‘I’ve had time to think and I agree we should go with this idea. I find it hard to believe it will work but we’ve got nothing to lose by trying.’

‘That’s it then, Chris. I come back to you with a unanimous decision that we ask you to try.’

‘I was afraid that would be how it turned out. I said I would do it if you all agreed and I’ll stick to my word. Can you give me just a bit more time to prepare?’

We all nod and agree to meet as soon as Humfreeze lets us know he’s ready.

Coming through the open window in the heat, the sound of the milkman’s van outside wakes me up. It’s light already but far too early to get up. I turn on my other side mulling over the contents of the dream as the mist of sleep slowly blots out my thoughts.

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EaswaranMorning meditation is very important to me for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. I do struggle with remaining focused on what I have decided to practice, whether that be following the breath Buddhist-style, mindfulness after the fashion of Williams and Penman, or a kind of Bahá’í mantram which involves mindfully repeating Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times. Although beads are not recommended by Easwaran for such an exercise, I have found using them works far better for me than any other method of keeping track of the numbers.

The first few repetitions have gone well up till now, and then they start up again, the voluble quartet inside my head.

‘At least he hasn’t started expanding his meditation time yet, Williams and Penmanwhich is a relief.’ Christopher Humfreeze is eating his breakfast in the dining room. The bags under his eyes are darker than usual, but his kaftan is bright and shining. The other three have joined him, which is unusual. I haven’t known them all eat together in this way before.

‘We agreed that we would all meet up for breakfast today to discuss what we’re going to do about his reflection plan. Are you all happy to carry on? No one has changed their mind?’

Emma Pancake, William Wordless and Frederick Mires all nod, but not enthusiastically.

‘You look a bit tired, Chris,’ Pancake observes sympathetically.

‘I haven’t slept well for the last few nights to tell you the truth. I just can’t see how we are going to make a plan that will work. And it’s not just that he’s going to resist it as far as he can if he doesn’t like it. In fact, it’s more to do with the differences between us.’

‘How do mean, Chris?’ asks Wordless, through a mouthful of porridge, a few specks of which fly onto Humfreeze’s new kaftan, much to his disgust.

That was not a good start, given that the two of them are usually at odds anyway under the best of circumstances.

‘Well, I hope I don’t offend anyone but there are two of us here, at the far end of the Entish spectrum. We are bent on taking our time in our own way on our different projects. The other two of us, the Hurry Up brigade, like to get as many things done as fast as possible. If this table were a car and we the passenger-drivers, both you, Emmie, and you, Fred, would have your feet on the accelerator, pushing it down for all you were worth, practically standing on it in fact. Admittedly you’d be wrenching the steering wheel in different directions but that’s just another hurdle for us to get over. Bill and I, on the other hand, would be heaving on the handbrake and pressing the brake pedal at the same time as hard as we possibly could. We are each one another’s Opposition. How are we ever going to agree on what to do in such a serious situation as this is becoming?’

‘I see where you are coming from, Chris,’ says Mires slowly and thoughtfully, ‘but I think that’s only a small part of the problem. I think we might have another even more difficult problem on our hands. Think about this. We know about each other because he knows about all of us. But what if there are others inside his head that none of us know about including him.’

‘What on earth are you talking about, Fred? That sounds like your usual improbable psychobabble’ Pancake cuts in.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, I don’t want to get bogged down in too much detail, but you know I have studied the human mind for more than thirty years now. . . ’

All heads tilt back and all eyes rise heavenwards except mine, as I’m not sure what might happen to them if I did the same.

‘. . . and I’ve read in many places that a person can contain coherent motivated structures within the mind with an agenda of their own that the owner of the mind doesn’t even know about.’

A puzzled expression slowly takes shape on Pancake’s face.

‘Now if there are such entities in here with us that he doesn’t know about, we may not know about them either, though I admit that sometimes the people in a person’s head can know about each other even if the mind that contains them hasn’t a clue.’

Pancake is plainly baffled. Wordless looks sceptical: poets know their own mind, surely.

‘But if there were any others in here that mattered we should have had some idea they were there, even if we couldn’t sense them, because things would happen that we couldn’t explain otherwise and I’ve never felt that way,’ offers Humfreeze, predictably at odds with Mires.

At this point the completely unexpected happens.

‘Do you mind if I join in this conversation?’ I ask.

There is a long and stunned silence.

‘Hello,’ I repeat. ‘Is there anybody there anymore? Have I frightened you all off?’

‘Er, we’re all . .’ began Mires.

‘. . . . here,’ stuttered Wordless.

‘This is amazing,’ shrieks Pancake. ‘Maybe we’re really not all there in a different sense.’

Humfreeze has gone quite pale, in fact almost green, as though he is seasick.

‘I have been longing for this day,’ he finally manages to say, ‘but I thought that it would never happen. I thought we were all too far apart. This is a huge shock to me, so much of a shock that, even though I am delighted, I feel thunderstruck.’

Pancake, probably for the first time ever, gets up from her place at table and moves closer to Humfreeze and puts her arm around his shoulders.

‘Doesn’t this say something wonderful about us? Doesn’t it say we have done something almost unique? We have grown so close we can communicate clearly across the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious.’

She sounds exultant, almost intoxicated with the thought.

‘I believe you are right,’ I confirm, almost equally delighted, and also strangely moved, as though I were meeting someone I dearly loved after a long separation. There are tears in my eyes, in fact. ‘Perhaps this is meant to happen now because it needs to happen. Perhaps Fred is right. Perhaps there are forces at work below our consciousness, which we can only tackle together. Even the four of you are not enough, and I certainly couldn’t do it alone. Perhaps we’ll become another Famous Five.’

I’ve always had a tendency to get ahead of myself.

‘But what kind of forces could these possibly be?’ asks Wordless.

Snowman‘Well, I’ve had one experience before where something previously hidden burst into consciousness, initially in a dream. You remember? I’ve blogged about it, calling it the Iceman. I even tried to catch some of the feeling about it in a poem called The Freezer.

They all nod. ‘We remember,’ they chime.

‘So, do you agree with me, then, that there is probably something or someone there we need to deal with?’ asks Fred.

‘I definitely think it’s possible, yes,’ is my reply.

‘Scary,’ says Pancake, ‘but fascinating. What do we need to do to find out?’

‘Keep watch and compare notes,’ I reckon,’ is the best that I can suggest.’

‘Is that a deal everyone?’ asks Fred. They all nod enthusiastically if somewhat anxiously.

My phone chimes that my 30 minutes meditation period is up. The four figures at their breakfast fade into the intruding daylight as I open my eyes. I put my beads away in the right hand drawer of my desk wondering where on earth this is going to lead.

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Ring and Book

Leaning back against the pillows, highlighter pen in hand, I pick up my newly acquired copy of Browning’s The Ring & the Book. I’ve been so lucky to find an affordable replacement for the copy I gave away all those years ago, thinking I’d never want to read it again. Since savouring the rich switching of perspectives in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much, which reminded me so much of Browning’s masterpiece, I’d been itching to get my hands on another copy, and there it was – a Penguin Classic, with its colourful Millais cover, tucked away in a small second-hand bookshop at the unlikely end of the Castle Arcade in Cardiff – only £6, instead of the £25 for the previous copy I’d seen.

When I’d betrayed how keen I was, the vendor said, ‘In that case I’m doubling the price.’

As I made totroutmark-books-cardiff head for the exit he added, ‘Only kidding!’

I’d known that of course, and he knew also that I’d be back again at Troutmark Books as soon as I could.

On the way back from Cardiff on the train I’d finished the first book of the twelve. I was captivated again. Browning manages to capture the ambiguous chaos of experience without losing hold of the imperfect variations of coherence we each manage to impose on it. And he does so, as I remembered, from so many different points of view.

Now just as I am settling down to savour the second book, they start up again, my Parliament of Selves.

‘Where’s Chris?’ Emma Pancake hisses anxiously of their mystical mystery colleague, Humfreeze. Instead of sitting feet up on the table as usual she’s finding it very hard to stand still, shifting from one foot to the other when she isn’t pacing back and forth.

‘He’s deep in his last meditation of the day,’ Frederick Mires whispers. ‘He won’t hear a thing. Why does it matter, Emma?’

‘Well, he – you know who I mean, Fred?’ Mires nods.

They’re talking about me behind my back. No amount of whispering will completely shield them now I know they’re there: I can always hear enough to get their drift.

Pancake fills in the details. ‘He’s got some crackpot plan to meditate more so he can – what’s the word he uses? – reflect is it? He thinks that’ll make him a better poet. Mad, he is.’

Mires looks worried. ‘Is that what he means by reflection? I thought he just meant thinking hard. He doesn’t give me enough time to read all the books I need to anyway. If he’s going to squander more hours on this nonsense I’ll never get all the information and ideas I need to get to the bottom of consciousness. I can see why you don’t want Chris to hear this. What are we going to do? D’you think Bill will help us?’

Mires realises they will need the help of the poet manqué, Wordless, if they’re going to block my plan.

‘I’m not sure. He’s been dithering on this one. He really likes quiet moments staring at trees and lakes and stuff like that. He says it helps his poetry. I know he hates the way Chris rubbishes words but that may not be enough to get him on our side and stop this whole daft plan before it gets off the ground. I bet he thinks a bit more meditation will solve his writer’s block. Hang on, here he comes.’

The garden gate squeaks on its hinges, and a disconsolate figure in a long black coat closes it carefully behind him.

‘Hi, Bill,’ Pancake calls out.

William Wordless turns round in surprise, completely unused to such warm and friendly tones coming from that quarter.

‘What do you want?’ he mutters, trying to walk on past to the garden table.

‘Just a few quiet words, Bill,’ Mires charms in, ‘before Chris comes back to reality to join the rest of us.’

“What about?’ Wordless seems less than enthralled at the idea.

‘Have you cottoned on to what you-know-who is planning to do?’ Pancake tries to keep her voice soft and calm.

‘I think so. This reflection idea. It seems a good one to me as long as Chris doesn’t stretch it too far.’

There’s a short silence as Pancake and Mires exchange a brief glance and try to work out what best to say next.

‘I think I’ve had a brilliant idea,’ Pancake’s voice vibrates with excitement. She pauses as though not sure whether to say anymore.

‘Come on, then,’ Mires bursts out. ‘Tell us what it is. Don’t keep us on tenterhooks.’

‘Well,’ she said slightly more calmly, ‘I know we were talking about stopping him altogether, but maybe that’s not going to work. We’ll just have a wrestling match and none of us will win. Maybe we don’t need to work together to stop him doing this completely. We need instead to work together to find a way of getting him to implement it so that it benefits us all.’

‘Even Chris,’ she adds reluctantly.

Browning

This book deals with the period of Browning’s life, after the death of his wife, during which he wrote ‘The Ring & the Book.’

‘That could make sense,’ Wordless nods. ‘He’s already started reading poetry again – or pretending to. You can see him at it now. Not that I like Browning much. He’s more interested in people than he is in nature. He’d be right up your street, Fred.’

“I’m not sure I can see how I could ever benefit out of a plan like this,’ Mires grumbles.

‘You don’t really get it, do you, for all your reading and for all your degrees?’ Pancake mocks, before twigging that she needs to soften her tone if she’s going to get him on their side.

‘I know it’s hard for someone who is so much into books, and is always looking out for the next one to read so you don’t miss out on anything. It’s a bit like me with my meetings and my contacts. I’m scared that, if I don’t keep up with the crowd, I’ll get left behind and achieve nothing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to do it than that, but we won’t find out if we’re not prepared to stop and think quietly about it first. D’you follow? You must do. You believe in the scientific approach, doing experiments, that kind of thing.’

‘I understand what you mean but I’m not sure I agree,’ Mires mutters doubtfully.

‘If you go down this road, Fred, you’ll have me on your side. But if you just try and stop him and block it completely, I’ll do all I can to make sure you lose,’ Wordless asserts firmly. Then you’ll probably be worse off even than you are now.’ He clearly means every word of it.

‘OK, Bill,’ Mires says sourly after a slight pause. ‘Let’s see if we can work out something that makes sense to all of us.’

They share a long silence.

‘We’d better talk to Chris then, when he’s finished his meditation,’ Mires suggests. ‘I’m not sure how we’ll get him to work a plan that suits us, but if we can – and I think it’s a big if – I’m prepared to give it a try.’

After that things went quiet, and all I could hear was the entrancing colloquial swing of Browning’s pentameters until I fell asleep (page 65 – lines 1-4):

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o’ the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.

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Bee & SnapdragonMy Parliament of Selves is in furious session. It’s a bit early in the day even for them. I’m barely halfway through my first cup of coffee. I’ve known for a long time about their constant squabbling, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.

William Wordless, smelling the fuschias hanging from the basket by the wall, scowls as he speaks.

‘I feel we really need to set aside quality time for writing poetry. It’s been months since I’ve written anything worth reading in that line.’ His long grey hair mimics the swinging of the blossoms in the breeze.

‘For God’s sake, Bill, grow up!’ Frederick Mires is lounging in his garden chair at the long glass table with a book in his hand as he growls. There is a pile of several thick volumes on the table beside him. ‘You can’t have your head in the clouds singing about daffodils the whole time. There are far more important things than that.’ The sunlight flashes dazzlingly from the lenses of his reading glasses.

‘Like what for heaven’s sake, Fred? What’s more important than singing about nature in words that reach the heart.’ Wordless blinks as he speaks and can’t meet the glare of Mires’s gaze.

‘The mind, Bill, the mind. Even if I spent the rest of my days working to understand consciousness, I’d still be only just scratching the surface when I died. But consciousness is what we truly are, and we must understand it better. It’s vital, and psychology is by far the best path.’

‘May I get a word in edgeways here?’

A tall figure in a kaftan moves out of the shadows at the far end of the garden. Christopher Humfreeze hates arguments. In fact he doesn’t like company of any kind much, feeling that his time alone communing with his spirit is far too valuable to squander on small talk.

Wordless bares his teeth in a wide grin. ‘If you must!’

‘Poetry and psychology are all very well as far as they go, but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. They are word-blocked. We have to go deeper than words can carry on us: we have to learn how to travel the path of silence.  That’s the only way to get to the very heart of things in themselves.’

‘But that’s what poetry does as well in a different way, you bigoted idiot!’ blurts Wordless somewhat tactlessly.

‘Calm down, Bill,’ soothes Mires in a slightly condescending fashion. ‘Give him a chance to explain himself. Psychology teaches that every perspective is valuable in helping us understand a reality as complex as . . . .’

‘Thank you, Fred. Can I carry on now?’ interjects Humfreeze with the calm under provocation that only his many hours of meditative practice enable him to do, and with only the faintest tinge of contempt for Mires’s patronising tone.

‘Not if I have anything to do with it!’ Emma Pancake snorts as she strides across the garden, throwing her handbag and a stack of leaflets onto the table. ‘I’ve heard all this a zillion times before.’ She throws herself into a vacant chair, pours a cold coffee from the cafetière and sits back with her feet on the table.

‘Do you really believe that sitting still for hours on end is going to change the world for the better? Never in a million years! You all need to grow up and get real. Yes, I agree that words aren’t enough in themselves, but decades of navel-gazing isn’t the answer either. We’ve got to get out there and do something fast. We can’t wait until our words tinkle like bells, until we’ve got completely bogged down trying to understand everything completely, or only after we’ve plumbed the depths of our own mind to the bottom of beyond.’

‘We’ve heard all this from you before as well, Emmie, as you dash around too fast with your half-baked plans,’ Humfreeze cuts across her quietly, ‘and anyway it was my turn to speak and you interrupted.’

‘Sorry to say this,’ Wordless butts in clearly not meaning it.

‘We can all say that. We’ve heard your icily detached take on things a million times or more, Chris, and to be fair we’ve sat through mine and Fred’s as well. We can go over and over this for another thirty years and end up in exactly the same pointless stand-off. I will be writing no real poems. You won’t understand consciousness any better than you do now, Fred. You’ll still be skating across the mind’s surface, Chris, and you, Emmie, will have done almost nothing to change anything. Until we learn to work together we are never going to get anywhere.’

‘And how are the hell are we supposed to do that, if you don’t mind my asking?’ she retorts acidly.

Bee in Snapdragon 3I take another sip of coffee and gaze at the three bees foraging on the snapdragons. The skill with which they lift each flower head’s petal lid to gain entry is spellbinding to watch.

Wordless is right. How am I ever going to get these warring selves in my head working together?

Till now I’ve given each of them a parcel of my time, switching between poetry, meditation, psychology and activism. As a result I’ve not got very far with any of them. It takes focus and almost endless effort to achieve excellence in any field, but I have seemed unable to decide what to focus on in this way for any length of time. A pentathlete can win a gold medal across five disciplines, but of course is unlikely to overtake a specialist in any of them. In this case, at least though, all the skills are in the domain of physical prowess. I’ve not put anywhere near even that level of effort into any of the four fields I am pretending to plough, and they are not even closely related at first glance. No wonder excellence seems to be eluding me across the board!

From my supraliminal point of view, I’m being taken over by each of them in turn in a blind and random way, rather than choosing consciously and deliberately to identify with whichever of them best suits the current situation and my carefully chosen purposes.

Could Humfreeze be right in one sense at least, though they didn’t give him a chance to explain it? Mastering the art of deep reflection might not just benefit him, but lift the poet, the activist and the psychologist within me to higher levels of functioning which will benefit me as well.

If so, how to make a plan that would achieve this? And who’s going to make it?

‘That remains the challenge of the moment,’ I think as I get up, say farewell to the foragers, pick up my cup, and go back indoors to rinse it in the sink as mindfully as I can.

Wish me luck, whoever I am!

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