Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Getting to sleep at night

It's a hell of a wet December day out there so no chance of interesting walks for the foreseeable. But never fear, I just had an email from Craig, a friend in Australia who reminded me of something I wrote a few weeks ago when he asked me how to deal with being wakeful on going to bed.

My first attempt to reply to him got a bit out of hand so I sent him a few quick ideas. However I persevered with the mind clearing exercise he set off in me and sent him the long answer some weeks later.

I've no idea if I answered his question but I got something off my chest and thank him for providing the impetus.

You get the long answer I'm afraid.

Hi Craig

It may surprise you but receiving an email such as yours excites me.
I’ll tell you why. It suggests that there is someone out there who might be responding to what life offers.

This may seem obscure to you but it is my understanding that life is always dropping hints to us. Not many people respond to them other than to bat them away or complain so I’d like to do what I can to encourage you to explore the clues offered. Hints about what you might ask?

Well it is also my understanding that we are here to make the most of ourselves and yet most of us don’t. We get stuck in the troubled and ignorant patterns of childhood and never manage to free ourselves.

That poses another question. What is freedom?

All this and I haven’t got anywhere near addressing your question about getting to sleep at night. That’s the nature of the challenge we have I’m afraid. Getting through all the apparent junk to the heart of the matter. And we all have it. So much so that we don’t even know it’s a problem.

It has never occurred to most people to consider that freedom might be something to aspire to or indeed that they aren’t free. So the first step is to entertain the idea that they might not be.

Not being able to switch off and go to sleep at night is a clear sign of being in the grip of something. It might be indigestion of course but I doubt it☺ Exploring what the real issue might be is the first step towards finding out what is controlling us. Do that with a little determination and a whole new view of life opens up. My whole approach to life is based on wanting to get to the truth of things.

So let’s start with the concept of freedom as I understand it so far.
It seems to me that freedom happens, if it happens at all, bit by bit. You turn a lifelong prisoner out of his habitual jail and he freaks out. Stay in a darkened room for a few hours and run into sunlight and you’re blinded. No, the best option is to be let out for brief trips into the dangerous world of freedom with some kind of easy guidebook. I’ve been assembling my own for years mostly through a process of trial and error.

The first step if you want to be free might well be to begin by examining the nature of the walls and bars surrounding you. At present the indications are that your prison walls emerge most clearly when you lie down at night and try to go to sleep. If you think about it, they appear to be made of thoughts, probably, if they are anything like mine, repeated and never ending. They may turn up as worries about things you feel can’t do much about while lying in bed or plans that grab your imagination. You try to stop them and they wriggle out of your control. I’m only imagining this of course. The experience for you may be different. That’s for you to know and explore.

Let’s leave that thought there for a minute and jump to another idea.

Where do thoughts come from? Somewhere in my mind, seems an obvious answer. But where is that mind? In my head? I wonder about that. But more on that later, perhaps.

Here I can only speak from my own experience of exploring this issue. For me thoughts appear as a narrative accompanying images or scenes. Does that ring true with you? So where do these images come from? What triggers them? I did a lot of wondering about that in my early adult life. When I was unable to stop thinking in my twenties I had a hell of a time getting to sleep and used to ponder a great deal.

There were two factors that I identified as important for me. One was that in my childhood my mother wasn’t very tactile. She never cuddled me to sleep, never read me bedtime stories (she was too busy with my older brothers, the ironing, the washing up etc.) I don’t ever recall having a kiss goodnight when I was tucked up in bed. She never used terms of endearment. I’m sure she loved me but it was never overtly expressed. They say you don’t miss what you don’t know but I know my own kids really enjoyed a story and a goodnight kiss and wouldn’t go to sleep without one. I think my childhood experience left me with emotional heart damage and numbness. I explored all this when I was in my twenties. I'm sure my stuff is totally different from your stuff but you can bet your life you have stuff to explore about your mum. We all do and will never be free until we face it.

The second factor was my dad’s expectations. He was a very reassuring chap to have around and made me feel safe but there were conditions, big conditions and they were never overtly mentioned. The main one was that I knew I had to do well at school. I never questioned this at the time. It seemed like common sense because I went to schools where that kind of hard studying attitude was assumed by all. But when I had achieved all my goals academically, good A levels, the best university, a good degree, after the euphoria, I was left with a total emptiness. I soon realised I’d more or less done it for my dad.

After being confused and without direction or ambition for a while I ended up in a terrible marriage that soon broke up and left me with a baby daughter that I had to leave with a mum I didn’t trust to bring her up. You see how life gets you in the nuts. I felt such an impotent failure and so depressed I could hardly get out of bed let alone get a proper job. I was so burdened it felt like the end.

So what has all this got to do with my dad you may be wondering? Well, one thing just leads to another in that fascinating way life has.

In desperation and needing somehow to support my kid and her mum, I ended up as a bus driver. You could say life drove me to it because it was certainly the last thing on my mind. The bus depot just happened to be less than a hundred yards from the little room I had rented when we split up. I turned up feeling pretty unemployable and wondering if I could get a job as a bus conductor. The guy behind the glass partition took one look at me and said, “You look the sort who’d make a good driver. Come back on Monday morning and we’ll try you out”.

He turned out to be a chap called Fred. Everyday angels like Fred seem to appear in my life from time to time. You may think I’m barmy but it seems to me there are times when we’re invited or directed to do things it would never occur to us to do normally. It was almost as if he’d been expecting me. I could give you further examples but it would take too long. Angels appear when most needed and least expected. People turn up in unlikely places with rather forthright messages and we do well to notice what they say.

At any rate a long stint as a bus driver turned out to be the greatest blessing I could have wished for. Bus drivers have to pay attention but they don’t have to think. It occupies some restless part of the brain and releases energy for other things that are on the mind. At last, after years of studying and striving to pass exams I was suddenly free of all that. I could earn a living in a simple thought free way.

Freedom I hear you say!! Yes it was freedom but freedom of the most circumscribed kind. I certainly never saw it as up to much to start with though, made to work odd hours on different shifts. Unable to do any regular sports. Given the plainest, old maid as a conductress when other blokes seemed to get the dolly birds. Grumble, grumble. But there was a sense of power in driving an old fashioned double-decker and it was so obviously a useful service to the community. It was novel and not unpleasant. An outdoor job in a cosy indoor environment. Oddly satisfying.

However, the real benefit was that I was given the chance to spend time on my own safely enclosed in a bus cab. Unwittingly I’d let life inveigle me into getting to know the content and workings of my mind. Very few people get this chance and no one tells us at school that it’s vitally important if you want to be free. Essential, it seems to me now. In my ignorance I was truly blessed.

Driving a bus became second nature after a few weeks. I enjoyed it. My mind, however, was a revelation. It became a tyrant and there was no escape. I just couldn’t stop the inner dialogue. It was a nightmare, an inescapable nightmare of semi-logical jabbering and argument, philosophising and self-justification, pontificating and imagining. But there was nowhere to hide so eventually I gave up the struggle to control it and went at it with a will. It took a while to make any sense of it because I felt so guilty about my daughter and such a failure.

When that subsided, I started writing thoughts down at the terminus or on breaks, even at traffic lights or when stuck in traffic. I filled several small spiral notebooks. It soon became an amazing adventure, full of discoveries and creation, poetry and memories. There was a darker side to it as well but more of that later.

First I want to mention one book I was reading. This was a book on Zen by D.T.Suzuki. The ideas in Zen fascinated me. They were all about no thing or nothing. What is the nature of reality? What is the mind? What happens when the mind is still? All very theoretical when my mind was whizzing about all over the place, with me feeling euphoric one moment, depressed the next. But it was important to add this new element of possibility. Zen Koans did seem to interrupt the thinking and leave gaps. The gaps were fleeting and soon flooded with thinking but they were there.

Gradually I became aware that a part of me was not completely caught up in this merry go round. That part was just observing. The still point at the centre of the Catherine wheel isn’t the bit that gets all the attention. It didn’t strike me as very important at the time because the rest of me was having fun feeling momentous or anguished and generally making such a din. I think this awareness of an observer was helped, though, by the fact that there was yet another part of me that was driving the bus. After a year the bus driver often did the job without the thinker even noticing him.

So the observer was just one more bit of me. It was just the bit that didn’t seem to do anything at all. It didn’t think, it just noticed. An odd discovery really for someone trained to think for England if not the world. How was it possible to exist without thinking? There’s a question that bears contemplating. Who’s there when the thinking stops? All very Zen. The answer vanishes the moment it appears. Like trying to grab at an eel.

It is often the case that we don’t notice something important in our minds because we are so caught up in old habits. Also the quiet bits tend to attract very little attention. It happens in life everywhere. We get drawn to where the action is, where the crowds are. A key lesson to learn is that the witness only gets caught up in the action when you think about it. It is free until you become conscious of it. Becoming aware of the witness is a massive step. So massive I still get shocked when I notice it and jump into thought.

The mere fact of identifying and describing the witness state tends to limit it and diminish it. It is so much more alive and immediate than thought. Whole philosophies are based on it. Here I just want to brush up against it in passing so to speak and then retreat to the safety of thought before I spoil it. But rest assured it’s there like some huge living presence. By comparison thoughts and even imaginings are pretty secondary.

I clearly remember how a kabbalah teacher I knew before my marriage collapsed used to start his meetings. He would ask us to sit there quietly and feel the presence. I had no idea what he was on about or how to feel such a bizarre thing and plenty of ideas rattling around my head to clutter up the silence. I'd come to hear words and argue the toss not sit about feeling presences. But there was something about the man that drew me back

Well, to return to the topic of thinking, as time passed I grew pretty used to the thoughts in my head and began to identify frequent visitors and sort them out. After a few months I could sort out the confusion and boot them all off into space within an hour or so of beginning my shift. This eventually became so easy that I only had to get in the cab and switch into driving mode for them to dissolve. Except for some core feelings that would go quiet but not go away.

These took centre stage when I finished work, went home and lay down on my bed to rest. Then the deep stuff would eat into me.

What I understood to be happening was that my driving was a bit like the Buddhist concept of sweeping the temple. It gave me a peaceful routine to get my head clear but once that stopped I was faced with deeper stuff. Which brings me again to the second element that was at play, my dad and his expectations.

In all this mental kerfuffle I hadn’t understood just how important my parents still were in my inner world. I was 26 for God’s sake and assumed I’d grown up and left home. I even lived 100 miles away and rarely saw them. I hadn’t lived at home since the age of 19. But while I drove there they were in my head the whole time, indeed, occupying large areas of it.

My mum wasn’t so much a problem as someone I felt sad for. I seemed to want her to love me but it always ended up with me comforting her. A part of me resented that but I couldn’t bear her a grudge because she’d so obviously done her best given the knowledge and upbringing she had. So I just noticed her there.

Slowly I became aware of the image of her that was triggering my thoughts and feelings of her. She was a baby crying for attention, crying her eyes out. I ended up holding her in my arms and singing songs to her. It made me feel better, more relaxed. I didn’t see my real mother during this time nor did I ever tell her any of this. I have no idea whether the nature of my thoughts affected her or not.

What I did gradually come to understand was that the parents we deal with inside our minds are not the people we see on show out there in the "real" world. They may be, to some extent, a product of our childhood suffering and imagining. More perceptively, they may be indicative of our subconscious awareness of their subconscious workings. Our adult discoveries about them may change our view of them and thereby change our reactions to them and theirs to us. All of this may be beneficial in improving peaceful communication but the point of it all is not to change them but to be free of their control.

When push comes to shove, though, not many people want to be totally free of their parents. They want to remain in the child state to some degree because the prospect of freedom is so frightening. Often, of course, they do this by creating a substitute parent out of their life partner. But that’s another very interesting can of worms I don’t want to open here. Suffice to say, it worth a look at some stage.

When exploring the mind it’s important to make this distinction between inner and outer because one is then free to allow feelings to arise that have been suppressed by society’s moral codes. One does not become free by applying moral rules to one’s feelings. In the inner world one has to be free to let the imagination loose. It is my experience that people who bear great resentment of their parents become free once they are allowed to imagine inflicting some very satisfying kind of punishment on them. Having empowered themselves by imagining bashing their brains out they can then see them much more clearly as damaged individuals rather than the tyrants they were when seen through the eyes of a frightened or needy child. Any trip down memory lane is of great value as long as we take our mature self with us and give people and events a new assessment with more mature eyes. It can help us let go of highly debilitating grievances.

Which brings me to my dad. In his quiet way he was a powerful chap for a little lad to grow up with. I used to hear him yelling at my older brothers when they didn’t get their music practice right. I took the hint and never showed any interest in playing a musical instrument. I also must have decided at a very young age that it was best to be a good boy and obey the rules. Only until such time as I could get away from home, of course, but childhood habits die hard.

It never occurred to me to picture him as I drove but he was there all right. I used to spend ages trying to justify myself to him. Trying to get him to approve of all the brilliant ideas I was having about the nature of the mind and the problems of the world. The man in my head never said a word but didn’t seem to accept my explanations however hard I tried.

He just never seemed to get the fact that someone with a Cambridge degree could be leading a useful and even important life as a bus driver. I rationalised and argued the toss with him until I was exhausted. Needless to say the man himself knew nothing of this as he worried about me in his workplace a hundred miles away. While I was at work the driving brought a kind of relaxing counterbalance to the vigorous but one-sided arguing but once I lay on my bed at home I just felt sick and desperate.

At certain times while driving and trying to explain things like the Zen concept of no mind to my dad I would make mental connections and discoveries that seemed positively earth shattering. He was the most challenging and fruitful stumbling block because he never said anything and was impossible to please. Perhaps this is how some people are driven to create whole systems of philosophy, simply to get some dominant parent off their backs. It was all very exciting and gave me a greater sense of self worth I’m sure, but this sense of euphoria collapsed the moment I lay on my bed. The foundations were non-existent. I’d let my dad down.

And this brings me back to a previous question. If thoughts are triggered by images, as I suspect they are, where do images arise? Well, I can only tell you what I experienced regarding my dad.

One afternoon, after work, I sank even more deeply into the depths of despair that awaited me every day. I could almost see it as a black tarry swamp somewhere in my solar plexus. This time instead of fighting to get out some fascination took over and I just sank down and looked into this black, black pit. Looking back now with the benefit of greater experience, I think what happened, and this is the true crux of the matter, was that I simply gave up trying to escape it. I surrendered and finally witnessed the sensation.

What then happened is an indication that there is more to witnessing than just doing nothing. At the time I didn’t understand this but witnessing is more than just looking. It causes something to shift and release the emotion locked up in what is seen. This is the crucial part for me. When we do nothing with full attention we become very powerful but in such a subtle way that we dismiss it as nothing at all. In reality we become life givers or creators of life. Pure attention or pure consciousness is the essence of life.

What happened was that it suddenly occurred to me to look up into my mind and see what was there. This occurring was in some way different from a usual thought. It was a sudden connection from my solar plexus to the front of my brain where the picture show is. There on the screen, right in the middle of my mind was my dad’s face. It was just looking at me with a stony, judgemental look. I knew it had always been there whether I’d noticed it or not. That was why I felt so desperate.

As always the face said nothing but just seeing it caused something to stir in the pit below. They were inextricably connected, the pit and the image. In my whole body there was like the roar of something waking up at last. A pair of hands, my hands rose out of the pit. Reaching up, they took hold of my dad’s head one hand on each side of his face and heaved it out of the way. Their power was irresistible.

Behind the face was a very pale disk of light.

At the time the significance of this was lost on me but I now regard it as one of the most important steps I took on the path to freedom. I shoved my dad out of the way. I had been arguing the toss with him because, as a child, I had unwittingly, though highly understandably, set him up on the throne as my judge. He was blocking my view and interfering with all my thoughts. Up until then, I could do nothing without reference to him for his approval.

From this it has become my understanding that as long as any person or any god image occupies the throne in my mind, I cannot be free. If I detect any person trying to set them selves up as my judge, I have to challenge them and push them aside. No one has the right to judge me.

Of course I still argued the toss with my dad for ages afterwards because you don’t kick a lifelong habit overnight, but now I knew what lay behind it and found myself laughing when it happened. Whenever I saw the judge appear, I took to swiping his head off with an imaginary samurai sword. I never told my dad anything about this because it wasn't about him but about what I'd made of him.

Gradually the chatter in my head diminished and I could think more clearly and concisely rather than rattling around on a treadmill. As far as I know none of this aggression did my dad the least harm and, as time went on his trust in me grew and my freedom to mess up my life as I saw fit was no longer subject to his interference. I had become a man. Dadadaaaaaaa!

As with all such revelations, I spent plenty of time reviewing this inner event and absorbing the message it contained. Even writing about it again now has given me further insight into its ramifications. I’m not a particularly quick learner or dedicated practitioner of meditation techniques. I just mull things over and pay attention as best I can.

So now I’m going to pause and read this lot through after a while and see if it makes sense. Then I’ll answer your question and you’ll know why I’m suggesting what I do. You can then decide whether it has any relevance to your life and if not work out your own solution and approach. That way I won’t feel like a bully.

Back in a bit….

And there the letter ends just as breaks begin to appear in the clouds outside. I'll take the hint and try to deliver some Christmas cards and parcels that have been wrongly addressed. Life goes on....

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Something a little different from 25 years ago

On a dank December night I thought I'd warm myself up by looking again at stuff I wrote back in the early eighties while working thousands of miles away from my family in the Saudi port of Yanbu . Hot sunshine, dust, warm nights, scruffy surroundings and Arab culture. Glorious empty beaches. I thought I'd change the colour of the text to match the sky.

On the road from Jeddah to Yanbu

Police car flashing ahead
Guarding a dead
Body lying across the middle
Of the village street
Covered in a white sheet
Except for one bare foot

Around the ankle a cut
Red but no blood coming out
The heel of the foot looks cracked and old

Under such burning sun
How can the body grow cold?

A few robed figures look on
No sound of rage or lamentation

I ease by
Then accelerate to full speed
Remembering mostly
The whiteness of the shroud
Holding the stillness
Of the brown foot on the ground

My first evening in Yanbu al Bahar

In downtown Yanbu
We sat in the square
Drinking coke from the bottle
On rickety chairs

We sat in the square
With rubbish all around
Rubble and reinforcing rods
Mangled on the ground
The reek of the hookah pipes
Fouling the air
Reducing the smokers
To a vacant stare

Downtown Yanbu was
Where it's all at

You bent down and greeted
An elegant stray cat

As wild eyed waiters
In Yemeni skirts
Plied the tables
And trampled the dirt
Yelling out orders
In raucous voice

I would think I was crazy
If I had a choice
To be facing such squalor
In the balmy night air

Only the well paid
Stay in Yanbu Sur Mer


First sunlight shatters gold across the sky
Warm mists enfold the crumples
Of giant Radwan's fists
Rough knuckles rapping softly on the town
Tall at our backs he stands
Black glacier in a lake of sand
A crenellated block blown from a sea
Whose silver treasures scintillate the eye
Conceal the teeth that tear intruders down


How cool this air of autumn seems
Compared to molten summer
The breezes balmy now
That stifled breath and violated skin
No longer haste to shrink back into shade
Closed doors and windows, dead conditioned state

Now we can live, now
Gentle loitering hours
Hold charm in this neap season
Restful sleep with windows wide at night
Release for those
Imprisoned by the heat

All alone in the shallows at the Creek

Turning in shallow waters
Not watching, not waiting
Weightless undulating

An end is beginning

Now, unthinking
The sea bird calls

Sun's hand deepening
Under skin

Wonder full mind
Smoothed through sleep

From here
A hundred thousand miles
In only a moment's
Reflection of light
The shore extends

I am the water, the waves, the wind
Intoning a music
No other voice can sing

Local life

Closed shuffling world
Shuttered houses
Keep out the light

Black shapes
Furtive eyes
Keep out of sight

I am the lord and master
Of this house
Pride puffs me up
Like a rotting cat
Inside the maggots
Ignorance and fear
Gorge in darkness

My wife, a simple soul
A slave
Accepts all that
Ashamed to show
Her honest face
In the back
Of my brand new
Air conditioned


There's nothing beautiful in Yanbu al Bahar
That I can tell
Except for the neat horizon of the sea
Between there and me
A jumble of half finished buildings and rubble strewn gaps
A jaggle of concrete and reinforcing rods
Rooftops bristling with uneven crew-cuts
Finished blocks with no windows in
Gardens of dirt

Today is Friday and a sparrow chirps above my balcony
An evening breeze strolls over the scruffy city
Lifting a lazy polythene bag or two
Effortlessly to the skies

Away they sail like liberated souls
Till suddenly over the tarmaced acres of the port
They die, never to reach the sea
Except, with luck, on all fours crawling
At last gasp
Like all the other bits of plastic and paper
And even the odd tin can, blessed with a fortuitous throw and unhindered roll
They drop
Down into the living coral brine

In Yanbu al Bahar the magic of evening time
Billows warm breezes through open doors
Onto sunstained skin
From pale and naked skies
Ruffling the only trees
Huddled in protective frames
At intervals between the cars
Watered once a week, if they don't forget
By two men and the water truck

With luck they may survive a year or two
And then become the victims of some accident
Between a Chevy and a Datsun pick up truck
The trees, I mean
Or perhaps not

Thinking of home

In a room completely mine
Eyes curve
Cascading on the sudden fountain leaves
Of spider plants so full with months of care
Soft breaths slip by the sunlit dreams of home

A lovely woman with our children there
And memories of here today
Alone beside a clear blue pool
Tired limbs remember swimming
And relax

Around these shades of mind a peace enfolds
Like fine net curtains swelling
In the summer evening breeze
About the vase and ornamental boxes on a writing desk

The air subsides
And curtains fall to rest
And through the veil a world
With all that happens there
Alive, unchangeable by me
Spectator, child and yet creator
At the dawn of our long dream

Down deep in time original
I grow with love and pride
And knowledge of the right
Attending like a servant
Near the crucible of light


Who will remember
Yanbu al Bahar
When I have left
And the dream is ended?

Can a dead Mercedes
Or a rusting air conditioner
Lolling in the dirt?

The people will all be gone
Back to Manila, Sri Lanka, Houston or London

The few who remain
Will load up their air conditioned world
Into a truck
And mindlessly move on

How long will it take
For eternity to return
To Yanbu al Bahar?

Flight Home

Dawn's distant lullabies
Soften the dark
And gradually night
Floats down to sleep the day

Under the paling black
Somewhere the sun seeks
The perfect spot in time
To crack the ragged blur
Of sea and sky

I watch

Dull glowing deltas
Seep across
And finally a red blob pops
Much smaller than I'd wanted
Just a spot
Not much to worship
For a waiting heart
Not much at all....

The roundness fills
A clear edged dome of fire
But still just red

The sun all right
But somehow not yet quite....

And breakfast comes at thirty thousand feet
A plastic box of croissant, jam and cheese
Not bad.... I'm hungry and it's good to eat

The window to my right flares up
A blast of yellow to the limit of my sight
Then incandescent white around a pulsing core
The universal might
Perpetual exploding of a nuclear device
Onto the infinite trillion particles
In our molecule of night

The crowning light

A visit to the post office

The other day I received an email from someone who, having read something I had written, assumed that I was a committed spiritual seeker. Something in that assumption jarred. The description didn’t sound right to me. Over the years I’ve known a few people who called themselves spiritual seekers and never felt that I belonged among their number.

What is it about the word spiritual that makes me so uneasy? The ways some of those people led their lives, stuck in dead or barren marriages, stumbling from one failed relationship to the next or living a troubled and angry existence while proclaiming their spirituality has made me think that the word either has no real meaning or is deeply misunderstood.

What on earth is spirituality?

For some of us it seems to mean doing one’s best to be kind to others and look on the bright side however miserable one may feel on the inside. This well-meaning approach is fine but if it doesn’t come from the heart it can so easily lead to all kinds of unnecessary soldiering on, self-sacrifice, suppressed rage and dishonesty. I don’t find it sits well with the term spiritual.

Indeed I sometimes find well-meaning people presumptuous and annoying. They have a tendency to know what’s best for others and occupy a superior position that brings out in me a strong urge to shock them with gratuitous vulgarity. Underlying this is, I’m sure, a longing to thump them. Not a very spiritual approach I agree but an honest one.

Is it a matter of seeking God, whatever that may mean given one’s upbringing? It is quite possible to try to do this in the most dysfunctional and fruitless ways that act as a substitute for or avoidance of addressing the personal issues that daily stare us all in the face. I’m thinking here of the many gurus and pundits on the new age circuit who get up to all kinds of mischief while spreading the good word. I’m sure you know plenty of examples yourself. Child molesting, sexual predation, cupidity, wife beating are the most obvious signs of a lack of integrity. Lesser signs are an inability to make loving parents or genuinely kind friendships.

Once again, my sense of outrage at all this may not be deemed very spiritual but it gets the poison out of my system.

Spirituality is usually very uncomfortable around or totally obsessed with sexuality. One outcome is that unresolved issues to do with childhood abuse, guilt and shame are avoided by seeking to equate spirituality with purity of thought and deed. This purity represents a total denial of the fundamental animal part of our nature and as such is doomed to failure. It has to end up in hypocrisy and condemnation of others who don’t have the same issues.

Alternatively, some kind of spiritual sex is practised with many partners with a view to reaching enlightenment while having an ostensibly guilt-free good time. How often does this end in disappointment, disillusionment and tears?

My response to all of this is to reserve the right to enjoy a woman’s body as a thing of great beauty. Breasts and bums appeal to my man’s eye. This doesn’t mean that I need to do anything about them other than admire and show appreciation where it won’t be felt as unsettling. Is that unspiritual? I don’t know and care very little what others may think about it.

The list of things that might be considered spiritual but aren’t could go on and on. In some ways it might be possible to reach a definition of spirituality by stripping away all that’s misguided and bogus. I’d rather cut to the chase and suggest another way.

This morning I went to the post office to see if there were any forms for Sarah to fill in so as to change the address details in her car registration document. I did it in the spare hour I had before catching the train back to London.

When I got there I found no forms on display except for those selling products like holiday insurance. I was disgruntled and only marginally courteous to the lady on the sales desk. She told me they were kept behind the counters and the queue for them was long. She pointed me to a chap whose job was to help the confused. Regarding myself as one such, I stood next to an old lady who was also in that category.

While we waited for the man to finish dealing with another lady wanting information about setting up some savings account, we somehow got chatting. I wasn’t in the best of tempers after the fruitless search for a form and let the old lady know this. Disgruntled of Mortlake. I was only there to pick up a form. She immediately offered to let me go in front of her because she was there to ask for help getting some passport photos for her new bus pass. It might take him some time to deal with her.

What a kind gesture. That warmed my heart and as a result I immediately lost my disgruntlement and offered to help her with the photo machine as soon as I’d got the form.

She was clearly relieved to hear that and, as we chatted, I discovered that she was almost blind in one eye and that the sight in the other was poor. It had been made worse by the worry she’d had in recent days when there’d been a couple of break-ins at the flats where she lived. Very worrying I’m sure for someone who was getting on and living on her own.

She was a dear soul, a tiny lady with a pale worn face and watery eyes but kind and generous of spirit. She told me the free bus passes would soon be valid all over the country and that pleased me. I said I had one too and how great they were for getting around London. She had family in Bristol and Plymouth and often went there to see her grandchildren. I dared to ask her age. Eighty next birthday, she told me with a proud smile.

Our turn came to talk to the man and I quickly found out Sarah didn’t need a form at all but just had to fill in her new details on the form she already had and send it off. I then said I’d offered to help the lady with her photos and he responded warmly to my offer but told us the machine was out of order. It kept rejecting money and people kept coming upstairs for a refund. It wasn’t the post offices machine so they felt put out by having to help run what should have been an automatic operation.

But my kind offer had given me some power in the matter so I explained that she’d already been to another shop but there’d been a long queue there and in view of her age and disability it would be nice if he could let me have a go to get the machine working.

This awakened his kind heart too and we set off down the stairs to the machine. I complimented the lady on her strong legs as she trotted nimbly downstairs. Once there the man switched the machine on and as we waited for the computer to warm up I told him it was okay to leave me there to help her. He asked me to switch the machine off again after we’d finished.

So we got it sorted out, adjusted the seat height to the sound of her frequent expressions of gratitude. These did my heart no harm at all. What a nice lady! I found the slot and put the money in. All the instructions came up on a screen and a voice told us what to do too but it was very high tech and obviously intimidating for many older people.

I began to understand why they’d had so many requests for refunds. Old people simply got confused by it and needed help from friends. Also a new pass was coming out soon and there must have been a stream of old people turning up for a photo the previous Saturday causing all kinds of confusion. So they’d simply turned the machine off and put an out of order sign on it. Indeed while we were pottering away several people came up and told us it said out of order. I briefly explained the problem and they went off except for another very wrinkled old lady in the same situation as the first one.

She stood by and watched while we got the job done and my first old lady retrieved her photos from the slot and went on her way expressing even more gratitude.

It seemed only fair to help the second lady as she’d been so patient and was obviously baffled by all the various steps involved. It only took a few more minutes to sort her out and she was so grateful she wanted to give me some money. Laughingly I refused saying that it was kindness that made the world go round and I had plenty of time before my train went. She too went off full of gratitude into the big wide world. Who knows how many people benefited from that gratitude as the day proceeded? That’s how to make the world a better place without any effort at all and I don’t give myself enough opportunity to do my share.

By this time there was a third lady. She was slightly less old and soon got the idea of what to do. When she expressed dissatisfaction with the way she looked on her first try and opted for another go and started fiddling about with her hair I realised this was a rather different customer. We laughed and I said cheekily that she was a vain one and left her to it.

It just remained for me to nip back upstairs and explain to the man in charge that it was the people not the machine that were going wrong and he popped back down and turned it off again.

So what’s the point of this tale and why did it come to mind when I was trying to get to grips with spirituality. Well, as must be obvious, it was all about kindness and gratitude. It was the old lady’s initial offer to let me go in front of her that set me free from my grumpiness and allowed me to enjoy being kind to her. It was a joy to be helpful in this small way. There was nothing grand about it, no religious fervour or conscious decision to go out and help someone. It just happened in the moment as one kindness led to another.

All I did was initiate a conversation, be honest about my needs and respond to the needs of the person I was chatting to. It was no big deal and I was no big hero. Just a fairly relaxed person being aware of what was going on around him and naturally kind when he felt moved to help.

As far as I’m concerned at my stage in life, you can keep all your spiritual seeking and high-sounding intentions. Life is at its most real and enjoyable in the little situations that arise when human beings meet and respond to one another with spontaneity, kindness and care.

After this little episode my heart was singing with pleasure and satisfaction. No need for long retreats and hours of meditation or even self-flagellation, just a little kindness and no sacrifice at all. It does the heart good and when the heart is good all else flows with great ease. If you want to call that leading a spiritual life then I’m happy to agree.

I wrote this on the train home and the three-and-a-half hour journey passed in no time at all.

Monday, 3 December 2007

A walk from Mortlake to Hammersmith

There is a part of me here that wants to communicate with you. I’m speaking to you at the moment but that isn’t the part of me that wants to communicate. I can chat on at length but it still won’t get a word in. Indeed the more I rabbit on the less it may be inclined to communicate. It will just lose heart and go back into the recesses of who I am. Somehow I need to shut up and still hold your attention. That’s the challenge.

In the past I’ve tried to explain to people what that part of me would say. It works only imperfectly. Words seem to connect us but in practice they block any direct communication. The need to interpret their meaning creates a barrier because they arouse different images and ideas depending upon background and education. They can only go so far in painting a picture that hints at this reticent part.

It is so reticent indeed that I had no idea it was there until a few years ago and even when it revealed itself I couldn’t understand the full implications of what it signified. I’m not sure that I can even now.

Instead of worrying about it I’ll tell you a story if I may.

In essence it concerns my heart.

Yesterday I walked along the Thames from Mortlake into Hammersmith in order to meet up with my daughter for lunch at her workplace. At first I was pretty half hearted about the walking bit. The route lay along the tree-lined banks but it wasn’t a particularly nice day – a bit dull and dank, autumn winding inexorably down to the shortest day. It was muddy under foot too, and sticky with sodden leaves totally devoid of the colours they’d worn brightly for so long this year.

The river was hardly the mighty Father Thames of world renown either. More like his starving nephew. The tide was so far out it looked a fairly trivial stream with its grubby, muddy beaches stretching far out from the banks.

And then I noticed a bird singing. Probably a robin I thought. Before now on sunnier days I’d been brought to a halt by that most exquisite singing only to have to hunt about for ages with my eyes before locating the neat little source of the sound. This time I accepted that it was a robin and walked on without stopping. But there it was. I’d noticed.

Part of me was still mulling over the events of the past few days - unmistakeable signs that I was waking up from the enforced distraction and worry of serious illness. Hints that I might be able soon to let that silent part out into better view.

I walked along the roadside approaching Barnes and then cut back onto the muddy path. I was getting warmer so I took my woolly hat off. Into my stride more, I was beginning to enjoy myself. Soon I had my jacket undone.

Most of the trees were bare by now and not particularly alive but there were still a few, mostly saplings, holding on to an array of big, pale yellow hands. A common tree I’m sure but not one I know the name of. Every so often there was a movement and a leaf dislodged itself. Usually there was a squirrel nearby busily sorting things out. Not too shy of me but wary and alert.

African grey parrots are indigenous round these parts nowadays but there’s still a delight in seeing a gang go squawking by. They made me smile to myself. African parrots at home by the Thames. What nonsense that was. But they didn’t mind my gentle scorn – far too busy screeching about for that.

Herons too, every few hundred yards and obviously good hunting for them at low tide - plenty of ideal places in the shallows to ply their trade. I didn’t pay much attention to the first few but then a pair caught my eye, standing a dozen or so yards apart. The male, presumably, with a long neat, pencil of a crest stretching down the nape of his neck. Handsome birds these, unlike the scruffy scrounger who begs food from humans on the lawns by Richmond Bridge. He often slumps on a moored boat like an old bag on a hook. No pride.

But, these were a different kettle of fisher-folk, the real thing, sleek, elegant, brimming with life in their gathered stillness. I watched, as still as they, wondering if I’d see a kill. At intervals, the female would very gradually extend her neck towards the mill pond surface. I could sense the small fish cruising in and just out of snatching reach. She extended and then raised her head to the rhythm of the fish. I felt my attention swaying with her.

But this time it was not to be.

As I continued on my way I wondered how I’d have felt at the sight of a kill. Elation probably. And the fish. I nearly said poor fish but stopped myself. Ridiculous sentimentality. Remove that and I felt the moment of shock. Death and silence.
The heart leaps one moment sinks the next. It’s coming alive.

Next on the way, one particular squirrel caught my eye, sitting looking out across the school playing fields. He held me in his right eye but didn’t move. Grey squirrel, how we seek to demean them with that name and blame them for removing our beloved reds. More sentimentality. This chap was up on his hind legs looking lovely with his feathery brown cheeks and hands up at the ready. Tail curled over behind. How could I describe the feeling of that sight? It arrested my attention. Don’t remember using that term before. But it was the one. Arreter in French, to stop. That squirrel stopped my heart with its beauty, shocked it into life As, I soon realised, did the herons, the leaves, and eventually even the muddy path.

On past St Paul’s boat house, a huddle of kids behind the shed in the trees having a sly fag. My dad went to St Paul’s in the mid twenties, presumably before it moved out of the city. Somehow that made me proud. He was a clever chap my dad, a scholarship boy. Not one to make a fuss but he had something about him. My eyes filled with tears. I loved my dad even though it was impossible for such words to be used between us, not with his upbringing or, indeed, mine. Just saying it to myself by the river made me feel richer.

I wanted to say it again. I loved my dad. Typing it now makes me cry. The power of saying those words! What a barricaded heart I must have developed as a child. No longer so locked away now. Those words unlock my heart. My heart says them.

I reached Hammersmith Bridge and cleaned the mud off my shoes on some fresh grass. Walking across the bridge behind a lady in a leather coat. Humans go about their business showing the scars of their upbringing but they walk on all the same often with heads held high despite their chains. My heart hurt as I contemplated that leather clad back and then tears came again. So many unsung heroes. So many songless hearts.

I remembered hearing a pop song of a few years ago on the radio that morning. Love is in the air. I had begun to dance about the flat to the jaunty rhythm. My hips were freer than of late, my back less stiff. On the mend. I wanted that song played at my funeral.

I caught the bus along to Earl’s Court exhibition hall and then met up with Anna outside her offices. We went off to the nearby Tescos to buy some soup for lunch. As we looked for the right aisle we bumped into a baby being pushed in a pram type pushchair. No ordinary baby this one. It was facing towards us standing up, holding the hood and peering eagerly over the back of the seat. Such a bright soul. We smiled at both mother and child and cooed our pleasure.

After spending a few minutes deciding which bunch of flowers to buy for Anna’s colleague who was getting the keys to her new house on Friday, we found the soup and set off in search of rolls. Suddenly there she was again, beaming up from her pushchair. I had to stop this time. “Aren’t you lovely?” I had no idea if it was a girl or boy. Her mum said she was a girl but hadn’t got any hair yet. She told me her name but it was an eastern European variant of one of ours and I forgot it almost immediately. How old? Ten months. Can she walk yet? No but she can stand. I beamed at her again. What a joy to behold!
She beamed back, her tiny teeth shining in her smile. “You are so gorgeous.” I had to say it again. She said it all with her smile. As yet no words to disturb her.

We found the bread and went back to have a happy lunch with some of Anna’s lovely colleagues. I was so full of beans and probably talked too much but they didn’t seem to mind. We had a great time.

On the bus home I relived the moments of my walk and then suddenly remembered that baby. Squirrels and herons are one thing but another person however small is so much more than that. She had more than arrested me, she’d set me free as well, free to adore her without any fear or shame. My heart filled brim full.

So what was I trying to say by recounting this tale? I still can’t quite put my finger on it but my eyes are filling with tears as I write. My heart is brimming over.