Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The wounded celebrant

I was once accused by an Anglican Benedictine Abbot of, "being a victim of my own articulacy". This stung because I suspect it was true. It stung too, as I later realised, because it was said with all the rapacity of a person describing themselves! Of all the encounters in my life, I remember this one as perhaps the least pastorally sensitive!

It came to mind reading Monica Furlong's short, pithy and accomplished biography of Alan Watts - philosopher, trickster, showman of the 'counter-culture'. He was both a man of rare gifts and insight and profoundly wounded such that he reminded me of that saying of a Siberian shaman: that the gift of shamanism was also a curse.

Watts was preternaturally gifted. His first book, 'The Spirit of Zen' being published when he was nineteen. Yet running through his life was a thread of self displacement, self destruction that he never allowed himself fully to see. Every misstep could be justified with graceful, articulate sophistry.

He deliberately sabotaged his entrance into university justifying it by imagining that self-directed study would be more valid yet it deprived him of a place of stability that inwardly he sought. He renounced his Anglican ministry, itself a sophisticated, if possibly necessary, exercise in insincerity, only when his, and his then wife's behaviours, culminated in the inevitability of his dismissal. Finally he wore himself out working to pay the alimony for past wives and children and to 'survive' this effectively drank himself to death.

The religious scholar, Huston Smith, once engineered a meeting between the novelist, Aldous Huxley, and Watts. After Watts had left, Huxley and Smith returned to their seats and, as Smith reports, Huxley delivered his verdict. "What a curious man! Half monk, half race track operator". When this was later reported to Watts, he was delighted!

Yet Watts reminds us that holiness is never simply to be equated with 'wholeness'. Wholeness was never to be granted him but he carried everywhere a remarkable ability to see the contours of what a life lived in grace and unity looked like. An ability to recognise how we deny ourselves a life in flow through an isolating act of fantasising ourselves as 'egos in a bag of skin' rather than as waves in tumbling ocean, connected to everything.

Not only could he recognise this but in publication after publication, talk after talk give people ways of understanding it for themselves that were both intellectually robust and yet wholly accessible.

His articulacy may have blocked ways of seeing himself but in recompense, turned to others, it became a gift of showing forth. A gift that many continue to be grateful for, inviting them to dance with the creativity of their world.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The value of stretches: Yoga in Prisons

To coincide with the launch of a new book: Peace Inside: A Prisoners Guide to Meditation, its editor, Sam Settle, was interviewed on BBC 4's 'All in the Mind' here. The piece starts at 10.20 minutes into the programme.


More details on the book can be found here: http://www.jkp.com/uk/peace-inside-2.html

And the Prison Phoenix Trust (that I helped found) here: http://www.theppt.org.uk

The book is beautifully constructed and the explanation of how to meditate one of the clearest and simplest I have read necessarily so given it may be the only source of information a prison inmate might have at their disposal. But like any good account it is suitable for all - inside or out under any number of conditions of our 'imprisonment'!

Monday, July 31, 2017

A stain on the blood, an opportunity missed.

Sir Kenelm Digby (pictured) was dealt a rough opening hand. His father, Everard, more from friendly commitment than conviction, found himself embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot. He was tried, convicted and hung, drawn and quartered. This was an especially gruesome form of death. When it was described to me, as a child, by my English teacher, it led at least one classmate to actually faint!

Kenelm grew up, a recusant Catholic, motivated, so Joe Moshenska argues, to make for himself a life so splendid that the stain would be removed. How he did so is the subject of Moshenska's "A Stain on the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby".

It is a well written account that introduces you to a lost figure of seventeenth century English history who, as a person, is admirable. A myriad minded man he was scholarly, adventurous, an accomplished diplomat and, helpfully, for story telling, had a deeply passionate engagement with Venetia, the woman who became his wife; and, whom he deeply mourned on her early death. A death immortalised by Sir Anthony van Dyck, one of Digby's friends.

Digby was a genuinely transitional figure. A man as deeply interested in alchemy and astrology and a member of the newly founded Royal Society. A passionate Royalist and friend of Charles I and a man who found himself, on his voyage, questioning difference and tentatively considering the equality of men. A Catholic and a man who probed the viability, truthfulness of other traditions.

The problem with the book is, however, twofold.

First it tends to "over claim". Though he is undoubtedly worthwhile recovering, equally his disappearance is wholly fathomable. Even though he was compared to Descartes, so myriad minded was he, it is clear that none of his individual contributions to scholarship lasted. Indeed the book is strangely muted on what, in fact, Digby actually did think about the critical ideas of his time.

Nor was his voyage, though undoubtedly a success for him, especially remarkable historically. Yes, he was the first English sailor to directly release captives, among his countrymen, from slavery in Algiers (through the force of personality and good diplomacy alone). He collected a lot of manuscripts that enhanced the collections of Oxford but none were groundbreaking discoveries. He made a lot of money as a successful privateer and from buying wholesale antiquities from Greece. He helped reform the Royal Navy. But the sum of the parts does not appear to make up a compelling whole.

Second because it misses a 'trick'. Digby was a transitional figure between worlds and wrote voluminously and reflectively about them. Might we not learn something more about what that looked like: the magical and the new sense of the 'rational' jostling side by side and in cognitive dissonance?

We get a glimpse of this when Moshenska discusses Digby's development of a recipe for a 'sympathetic powder' by which by treating the harming instrument, a friend so harmed by the very same sword was apparently cured. Since this is "impossible'' (by current standards), it is described, though sympathetically, as belonging to the realm of the fabulous (or superstitious). But it was not so for Digby, it was simply an unusual but real element of science, waiting upon explanation (or refutation). What might it look like to inhabit this world? A world that, in many ways, feels more exploratory, and wonder filled, than our own. Likewise Digby is described, too briefly, utilizing alchemy to approach his wife's death, to explore the essence of soul. So briefly is it described as to sound intriguingly weird but what it meant for Digby (and how it was meant to 'work') is left unexamined.

Thus we are left with a rather one dimensional picture of Digby - the person pursuing his family's lost name in successful adventure - but not as a scholar, thinker, a man from a very different age of thought but one that birthed our own. This was a man, for example, who accompanied virtually his whole life by casting his own horoscope - now what did that mean for his biography (and in that he was no way unusual to his century)? We are not told. Sadly, it appears to follow too closely the failure of much contemporary biography of staying on the psychological surfaces and being fundamentally uninterested in the visions and ideas that make (some people at least) really tick. A recovery of that might have made for a truly fabulous journey in the history of lived ideas.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

In God there is no forgiveness

Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English anchorite and mystic, writes that in God there is no forgiveness. This, on first hearing, sounds unpromising. Are we faced by a deity so uncompromising that there is nothing that we can do to be saved except the impossible practice of perfection? Or a deity so arbitrary in their judgements that salvation is a lottery?

But, in truth, Julian is expounding two simple and related truths. The first that it is in the nature of God to be unchanging and that second God's forgiveness is the unconditional ground on which we all stand. Forgiveness simply is the reality of God.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Beatrice Bruteau's "Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World" when she draws our attention to the unconditional love that God offers and the invitation is, as Bruteau puts it, to 'relax back' into it, to allow it to unwind the complexities of our own defensive egos, with their endless, wound up, complex descriptions of 'how we are' and in doing so discover who we are. We discover that we are divine ourselves and our selves are divine. We are the dancer and a particular, precious dance, wholly and uniquely ourselves.

What Bruteau wants to do is to demonstrate that a traditional 'non-dual' view of reality, drawing on Vedanta, can be modified through both an evolutionary and trinitarian lens, to capture diversity in unity, the unique nature of each person bound together in an enfolding unity. And to make this view not only comprehensible but practically useful (and in 136 pages).

This she does, I think, triumphantly. It is a model of lucid compression.

For me the most beautiful and compelling part is where she discusses the dynamic between God's unconditional love and our own tendency to imagine that it is not - we must win it, deserve it, outsmart it - anything but simply accept it as the ground we dwell in. We spend so much energy building up descriptions of our selves in order to justify and compare our existence to our selves and others, to show that we are 'worth it', when we could settle back into our worth, our divine imaging, and learn to dance with our descriptions instead.

That we need to be described is an essential feature of being in time but the need to identify with them is not for we are the dancer as well as the dance. Our essential self is timeless and beyond all descriptions. Seen from this perspective, our descriptions become simply that - experiments - that should pass as soon as their usefulness is over - and never become closed or complete. We are an actor passing through our plays - each one a real and meaningful encounter - but none ever the final truth. Such a liberation it is when we catch our selves out in some drama in which we have fully disappeared only to realise it is not, nor ever can be, the whole story; and, we look at the situation we find ourselves in with renewed, wider attention and compassion.

Bruteau writes of this from a clear, uninhibited, Christian perspective but one that is always open to worlds of other perspectives. In her skilful hands, Christian life becomes ever more deeply simply life, described whole, and a Christian life open to the amendment of deeper insight as it proceeds, an evolutionary way, not a closed way. It is a delightful achievement told in the quietest of clear voices.

Bruteau is not, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes here http://www.contemplative.org/a-tribute-to-beatrice-bruteau-by-cynthia-bourgeault/ the best known of twentieth century contemplatives, though she knew and indeed mentored many of them, but she deserves to be, I feel, better known and more deeply appreciated. Her writing style - clear, calm, wry not emollient nor especially personal, takes a little getting use to, as does its blend of philosophical rigour and spiritually applicable content but once acclimatised she reminds me most of the early Church Fathers where theology, cosmology and spiritual insight come as a bracing whole and where 'knowing' is absolutely linked to the quality of 'being'.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mastering trauma

Olga Kharitidi's first book, "Entering the Circle" http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2016/12/entering-circle-psychiatrists-shamanic.html had its psychiatrist author stepping into the world of Altai shamanism. It is a journey of self-discovery beautifully told and grounded even when it demands much of your imaginative sympathy for the magical. 

Her second book, "Master of Lucid Dreams" traverses similar territory except now we step out of the territory of the familiar - shamanism - into the territory of the 'secret brotherhood' and if the former raised the spectre of Castaneda - what is testimony and what imaginative extrapolation? The latter brings us into the realm of Gurdjieff - charlatan or wise trickster, delusion or sagacity beyond our usual ken? 

What keeps the book on the side of the possible (to this reader at least) is Olga's transparent humility. She never pretends to be anything other than an overworked, vulnerable, often skeptical psychiatrist who finds herself, in her openness and gift for healing thrust into extraordinary encounters - and Russia and Central Asia (as I can attest) has huge reservoirs of belief both indigenous, folk and esoteric that seventy years of Communism, however hard it struggled, never eliminated - though it and modernity may have fragmented it. 

In the 1990s Olga finds herself at an unusual research institute in Novosibirsk, Siberia where the mysterious Smirnov is researching consciousness and the psychic (not an unfamiliar place even under the Soviets indeed the KGB were, and their successors maybe still be, deeply interested in such matters) and is enticed by one of his young subjects, Masha, to attend a lecture by a man named Vladimir. 

It is on a subject close to Olga's heart and her medical practice - the spirits of trauma. For Vladimir this is no metaphor - trauma is best configured as the actual practice of spirits (or memory demons as a later character, Michael, will call them) and they are not simply personal, you can inherit them from past generations, even places, and hand them on into the future. They manipulate memory and behaviour to secure their hold. The path free is through creating the right kind of internal space, reinforced by the right kind of remembering and storytelling, such that you win back their energy, making it, and them, your own, turning darkness into light. You can do this not only for yourself but for others - here in this world and in the next - as Olga will discover when she finds herself in Samarkand. 'Prayer' for the dead is not only for the 'living'!

Interestingly I was reminded of the work of the clinical psychologist (and expert on Swedenborg), Wilson Van Dusen, who, in his clinical practice, had great success by treating the multiple voices of his patients as real personalities, with agendas, if with agendas at odds with the true well-being of the patient subject to them, such that owning and responding to those voices, and transforming them, health was reborn and the patient regained control. Different traditions but similar underlying patterns.

However it is to Samarkand where Vladimir invites Olga (in a suitably esoteric and roundabout way) and it is here she meets the even more mysterious Michael, the master of lucid dreams. It is he who will lead her through the process and have her confront one of her deepest traumas - the failure to respond to a depressed friend's last cry for help, the friend subsequently committing suicide. 

This ritual has Olga journeying in imagination to the realm of the dead and finding her friend and helping release her on her journey. It is beautifully told and even if it were fictive (and I have no reason for believing it so) is one deeply resonant with multiple, over lapping traditions of afterlife - shamanism is here (and to the fore) but so to was Swedenborg (and, to my mind, though I expect not to the authors, George MacDonald). 

The book would be a disappointment if you imagined one was going to 'learn' how to lucid dream (and there are many texts for that) but not if you wanted inspiration as to why. As with her first book, Kharitidi paints a powerful picture of a deeply interconnected world of many mansions where consciousness flows, if not with ease with definite practice, and where both time and space is relative and relative to moral and spiritual imperatives. It is a deep reminder too that we all carry brokenness, that brokenness it suggests is not simply what we accrue in a particular lifetime, we inherit 'sin' and pass 'sin' on but it is also a reminder that this cycle can always be broken, now, in the past and in the future, for time and space are simply moving images of eternity; and, potentially that all will be well.

To quote another Russian, from a different but not unrelated tradition, St Silouan of Athos, when asked whether there would be anybody in hell at the end, he simply replied, "Love could not bear it" and for bearing the beams of love, to quote Blake, is the reason that we came. The Lord's hands are our hands, to interpose St Theresa of Avila, so that work of love is 'ours' too. This book is an invitation, if a somewhat esoteric one, to one of its many works.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Gardening soul

Robert Pogue Harrison's 'Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition', like his 'Forests' http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2014/08/if-you-go-to-woods-today.html, is a penetrating exploration of how a particular aspect of our world has been seen down the ages and how that seeing reveals key aspects of humanity and how it has changed from place to place and from time to time.

It begins with the most famous garden of all: Eden and suggests how Eve's eating of the apple was not a rebellion from a perfect state but an escape from a state too static, fixed, in which it was impossible to realise human(e) possibility. The core of this possibility is the ability to practice 'care', the ability to take a set of given conditions and navigate with and through them to achieve a dynamic, living reality, part shaped, part given, always vulnerable yet one's own. In fact, a real garden, actually loved and known, shaped by one's own hands. One that is always learning from the past and open to a challenging future.

The essay goes on to explore the ways in which 'the garden', real and imagined, has interacted with key moments of our unfolding culture and what it might reveal about humanity within that culture.

Of the two best chapters, the first is a defence of Epicurus who famously retreated to a private garden but not to cultivate that narrow hedonism with which he has become fixed in the modern mind but to practice the arts of friendship, gratitude, patience and serenity that would allow a person to face their mortality equitably and live a good life before that. It was a 'retreat' that was a political act - consciously taking oneself out of a given situation, the failure of Greek politics - to revaluate values and propose not 'a solution' but ways of life that might point to better possibilities in time.

The second is an exploration of the garden with relation to Christian and Islamic views of paradise. The latter place is concrete, realistic, a place of serenity and reward, a reward that can be continuously enjoyed. It is relaxing. The former is depicted only by way of analogy and metaphor, eluding description and is a place of renewed ecstasy where there is no completion only the prospect of further joys. It is restless.

In Islam, paradise is the Garden of Eden, reimagined. In Christianity, famously in Dante, Eden is a place one returns to (after purgatory) only to leave in a leap towards the ever receding fulfilment of the heavenly. God is all present in an Islamic paradise of fulfilled desire. God remains the target of desire in a Christian heaven.

Is it possible, Harrison speculates, that Islamic discomfort of 'the West' is not of our professed values but of our fundamental restlessness, of ever wanting to be somewhere other that, from an Islamic perspective, can only be evidence of a fundamental inability to be 'islam' - surrendered to the ever present God?

This thematic, however, is amplified throughout Harrison's text - the garden as a potential antidote to restlessness, providing an option for care within a nurturing environment, and our inability to recognise it fully, being deeply attracted, yet increasingly elusive, as we nurse our 'lack' and try to fill it with distraction rather than attractive activity, with consumption rather than care.

Harrison begins quoting Voltaire in Candide, the famous last line, that we should cultivate our gardens as the most meaningful response to the world's chaos. Three centuries later it continues, suggests Harrison, to be sensible advice. For in gardening is an ethic of recognising limits, postponing complete satisfaction as you advance modest goals in the face of the world's uncertainties. Not an 'heroic' ethic but maybe a liveable, sane one.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Good and evil, a world embraced and denied: Milosz's life

"Wherever I am, at whatever place on earth, I hide from people the conviction that I am not from here. It's as if I'd been sent, to extract as many colours, tastes, smells, to experience everything that is a man's share, to transpose what is felt into a magical register and carry it there, from whence I came"! 

A task achieved in ripe abundance!

I remember reading the Polish Nobel Laureate, poet, essayist, philosopher, Czeslaw Milosz, first at university. I was introduced to him, as was so often the case, through reading the review, 'Temenos'. It was, I think, my parallel and also primary education to that offered by my apparent university course. Fittingly I encountered him through the lens of his own introduction to the man he considered his master, his distant cousin, the visionary poet (and successful diplomat), Oskar Milosz.

To Czeslaw Milosz, I owe too, amongst other things, my introduction to Simone Weil through an essay of his in 'Emperor of Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision' that was the first book of his I read.

Like Weil there was a Manichaean element to Milosz as the above quotation implies. This world is not our home and whatever our necessary purpose here, we belong elsewhere, to another perception. This tension between love of the world that, even when created good, has gone astray, disfigured by evil is a notable tension in the poet's work.

This is unsurprising if you consider his biography and I have been reading Andrzej Franazek's masterly account, recently translated from the Polish. As a child, he was sufficiently old to register on his childhood sensibility the throes of the Russian Revolution, civil war and wars of national liberation in the febrile borderlands between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. He entered a pause - and idyllic mid-childhood so hauntingly described in his novel, 'The Issa Valley' before growing up into a world slowly unravelling out into the apocalyptic conflict, most especially for Poland, of the Second World War and the subsuming aftermath of Stalinist totalitarianism. This tortuously, because his sympathies had always been leftist though never Communist, led him finally into a literal exile in the United States until with a final twist Communism collapsed and as a man in his eighties returning to live and finally die in his adopted city of Krakow.

It was often a life of both socially/politically imposed and personal suffering - both his wives predeceased him even when the second, Carol, was thirty years his junior, and one of his two sons suffered from bipolar disorder but he was triumphantly resilient and consistently curious, questioning, learning and transforming what he found into poems of great beauty, intelligence and, for want of a better word, toughness. 

His journey too was one from the lofty peaks of an intellectual superiority, a swiftness to criticise, even condemn, towards a gathering compassion. It was a journey too from scepticism to faith - though a Catholic faith that never lost a necessary quality of doubt. A doubt both about the reality of the sacred as such as well as a doubt as to the 'orthodoxy' of his Christianity. A doubt too of his significance as a person (though never as a poet) for who would be interested in his sins, told with self-deprecatorily irony in the poem, 'At a Certain Age':

"We wanted to confess our sins but there we no takers
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess their what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: "That's me."

For me, however, Milosz greatest achievement - both as poet and essayist - was a spirited incorporation and defence of the metaphysical of the world that was enchanted and though scarred with suffering was both worthy of celebration and of recognition that the suffering breaks us open to deepening questions of meaning - most especially for Milosz of good and evil - rather than huddling us out into passing pleasure surrounded by grey seas of indifference and a stuttering end. 

For me his greatest book, much as I love the poems, is 'The Land of Ulro' his sustained defence of such a sacred world where he jousts with 'Ulro' - William Blake's guiding, enchaining spirit of a levelling, self-contained reason. For Milosz poetry is ultimately essential because it brings into focus a sensual, celebrated world saturated with meanings to which there is never a complete closure, transcendence always beckons, where the invitation is always to remain vulnerable to new revelations, gifts of grace.

In passing, he also gave one of the best pieces of writing advice, I have read. You cannot write if you doubt. As the word hits the page, no doubt can be permitted. Five minutes afterwards yes but not before!

The wounded celebrant

I was once accused by an Anglican Benedictine Abbot of, "being a victim of my own articulacy". This stung because I suspect it wa...