On a Saturday in December 1967, a young man went down to his local record shop in London called ‘One Stop Records’. On this Saturday in question the young man had gone to buy Donovan’s new album ‘A Gift From a Flower to a Garden’. As he queued to pay, he glanced around at the people behind him and saw Michael Caine patiently waiting his turn, holding the album ‘Forever Changes’ by Love.
This album was released by Elektra Records on 1st November 1967 and this month will be its 50th anniversary. ‘Forever Changes’ failed to achieve commercial success when it was first released, but has gone on to be recognized as one of the greatest albums ever made.
Upon its release the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The album can survive endless listening with no diminishing either of power or of freshness”, while noting “…parts of the album are beautiful; others are disturbingly ugly, reflections of the pop movement towards realism”.
‘Forever Changes’ has a musical background of lush orchestral string arrangements and mariachi style brass accompaniment. It manages to effortlessly move between haunting beauty one moment and eerie darkness the next, combined with Arthur Lee’s surreal, unsettling lyrics such as “Sitting on a hillside watching all the people die / I’ll feel much better on the other side” you have unique album like no other.
I first discovered the album whilst studying at art college and soon fell under its intoxicating spell. I have discovered it’s an album that once you fall in love with, the love lasts a lifetime. One of the enduring themes within the album is its exploration of the human condition. It touches on themes of life, death, beauty and time.
One of the central Buddhist teachings is that all things are impermanent and subject to change and flux. Simply stated, nothing in the world around us or our self is fixed or solid. There are no things, just process and flux. There is no fixed unchanging centre in any object in our experience. Unfortunately, we suffer and experience difficulties in life because we perceive the world around us as solid, looking for stability where there is none.
Discovering these Buddhist teachings on impermanence and this vision of life as flowing change and process, rather than something solid and permanent was for me, exciting and profound it was as if Buddhism was articulating something I intuitively sensed in the world, but was not able to articulate. What I love about ‘Forever Changes’ is that within the medium of a rock album, we encounter similar profound insights on life that can be found in the teachings of Buddhism.
Sometimes within popular culture we can find genuine works of art that have the ability to change our lives for the better. ‘Forever Changes’ is I feel, one such work of art and it is just as relevant today as it was in 1967.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
So wrote Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms.
I was reminded of these words recently as October marks the second anniversary of the death of my beloved girlfriend Elaine. Since her death, I have been living with the subsequent grief that comes from loosing a partner you loved and planned to spend the rest of your life with. I feel my heart broke the day Elaine died and something in me died with her. I have lived these last few years with a sense of feeling broken. At the same time my life has continued to unfold and I try to engage with it. I go to work, do the weekly food shop, pay the bills, spend time with friends and family. Yet beneath all this, a sense of being broken continues. When we have something broken in our lives, we generally try and mend it or fix it.
In Japan there is a word Kintsukuroi or 金繕い which means “Golden Repair”
Kintsukuroi or kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and silver or gold.
The flaws of the broken pottery are highlighted by this process. There is an understanding that the new piece is more beautiful for having been broken. The flaw in the pottery is seen.
as part of the history of the object, creating its own unique beauty, rather than something to disguise or be hidden. It is in fact more beautiful for having been broken.
If we take the image of the broken piece of pottery and it’s golden repair, we may reflect on our own lives and the places that may feel broken within us. Maybe rather than feeling a need to hide those aspects of ourselves, we could allow them to be visible to the world, learning to carry them with us. The broken flaw is now a part of us, it never leaves us, but it also doesn’t define us as we begin to look towards the future and the life we can imagine for ourselves.
There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.
My grandmother had a love of the silver screen and as a small boy I would happily spend afternoons with her watching iconic films such as, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lady Vanishes’ which starred the great British actress Margaret Lockwood. Who during the war years was Britain’s number one box office star, starring in films such as ‘The Man in Grey’ and ‘The Wicked Lady’. One day, I was shown a fascinating photo of her which was signed to my Great Grandfather Adam Moffat. The faded inscription read “To Adam, best wishes from Margaret Lockwood & Toots.’
Upon further investigation I discovered my Great Grandfather had been given the photo after she had visited the clothing factory where he worked as a foreman in 1948. Accompanying the photo was a letter thanking him for a kilt he made for her daughter Toots:
“Dear Mr. Moffat, Just a note from myself and Toots to thank you personally for the very useful and charming kilt which you made for her. It was a most pleasant surprise and added a great deal to my enjoyment of a most interesting visit to your factory. Thank You again Yours Sincerely Margaret Lockwood”
I share this story with you because this experience gave me a sense that the world was suddenly bigger than the one I previously known. I began to discover a love of the cinema, the theatre and art which developed a sense of meaning and creativity I had not previously been exposed to. For me, the arts provided a vital gateway into life. They helped me make sense of what it was to be alive and in the world, with all its complexity.
Many years later I inherited that photo of Margaret Lockwood and it know sits framed in my flat. When I look at it, I feel a thread of connection not only to my family, but also to my early love of the arts in all forms and how much they have enriched my life for the better.
“The arts, quite simply, nourish the soul. They sustain, comfort, inspire. There is nothing like that exquisite moment when you first discover the beauty of connecting with others in celebration of larger ideals and shared wisdom”.
There is a fascinating story about a Japanese artist called Hokusai who was a painter and printmaker during Japan’s Edo period. In 1810 at the age of 50, Hokusai went to the Buddhist temple Myōken Hall in Yanagishima to make offerings and prayers to the Bodhisattva Myōken. He prayed to Myōken to make him a great artist and then apparently on his way home from the temple he was struck by lightning! He survived this and did indeed go on to become one of Japan’s great artists. He is most renowned for his famous woodblock print series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, which includes the iconic print most people are familiar with, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’.
When looking at Hokusai’s paintings and drawings I am really moved by his relationship to the natural world around him. It seems as if Hokusai spent his whole lifetime in a sense of wonder and curiosity. Like all great artists, he communicated his vision and knowledge through his paintings. He seemed to have the ability to look so clearly at the subject of his painting become one with the wave or the fish or the mountain, allowing the world to live inside him and through him.
While working on another famous series called “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji” he wrote:
“From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own”
One of my favourite poems is called ‘Hokusai Says’ by Roger Keyes. When I first heard the poem on a meditation retreat I was moved to tears. The poem really captures the poetic and soulful relationship we can develop towards ourselves and the world we live in. The poem offers an invitation to glimpse the world through Hokusai’s eyes and live with the world inside you.
Hokusai Says – Roger Keyes
Hokusai says Look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.
He says Look Forward to getting old.
He says keep changing, you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.
He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says every one of us is a child, every one of us is ancient, every one of us has a body.
He says every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find a way to live with fear.
He says everything is alive –shells, buildings, people, fish, mountains, trees.
Wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.
He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.
It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your veranda
or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength is life living through you.
Peace is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
I have a particular vivid memory of my first visit to Florence’s main cathedral “Santa Maria del Fioreor” or the Duomo as it is most often referred to. The cathedral stands proudly over the city with its magnificent Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. On the day of my visit to the cathedral, I entered the huge bronze main door, which is adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna and it’s scale and grandeur feels like you have just stepped onto the set of the Lord of the Rings. As I walked into the main cathedral entrance of the building, to my surprise the organist started to play and I found myself surrounded by heavenly choral music as I gazed at the awe inspiring mosaic pavements, architecture and fresco paintings. In that moment, the beauty of what I was experiencing felt almost overwhelming. I felt like I wanted to drop to my knees and prostrate on the floor, in response to it.
I share this episode with you as I have been reflecting recently on the theme of beauty.
According to the Oxford dictionary, beauty is “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight ” We may say things such as ‘I was struck by her beauty’ or we visited ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty’
I have always loved the quote by the English textile designer, William Morris who said. “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Inspired by the words of William Morris I have in the last few years tried to make an effort to bring more beauty into my daily life. One of my weekly rituals is to buy fresh flowers for my flat I live in and also keep my bird feeders topped up with seeds, which means that I will get some regular visitors to my window. Maybe some colourful goldfinches or a little robin. For me I find that cultivating a deeper relationship to beauty, helps draw me into life more fully. We unfortunately cannot spend our lives wandering the streets of Florence, but we can I believe take time to be open to moments of beauty in our ordinary daily lives. It may be enjoying the spring blossom on a tree on our way to work, noticing the bees on the flowers or an evening sunset. These ordinary moments of allowing the beauty of the world to touch us, may help us feel a more living, vibrant connection to being alive and connected to ourselves and the world we inhabit more deeply.
Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies fall away like sand, creeds follow one another, but what is beautiful is a joy for all seasons, a possession for all eternity.
On Thursday 1st June 1967 the Beatles released their album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and this year sees its 50th anniversary being celebrated. The album had a huge impact around the world and became the soundtrack to what was soon to be termed, “The Summer of Love”. With its iconic album cover designed by the pop artists Peter Blake and Jan Howarth it spent 27 weeks at the top of the album charts in the U.K and 15 weeks at number one in the U.S. Time magazine called it, “A historic departure in the progress of music – any music”. Today, it is still seen by many as one of the greatest pop album’s ever made. With songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, and the extraordinary, ‘A Day in the Life’. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s created what would become a new standard within which pop music could be judged.
On the album there is a song by George Harrison called ‘Within You, Without You’. What makes the song unique is that it was one of the few Beatles songs not to include the other Beatles. Harrison recorded it with members of London’s Asian Music Circle in EMI Studio 2 at Abbey Road. They tried to create an appropriate mood by inviting the musicians to play sitting on woven carpets, with incense burning and the lights dimmed low. In the song, Harrison attempted to explore his new found love of Hindustani music. The song was partially inspired by a lengthy suite written by the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Harrison had recently begun a friendship with Ravi Shankar and had spent the previous year in India trying to learn the sitar. “I had George practice all the correct positions of sitting and some of the basic exercises.” Shankar wrote in his autobiography, ‘My Music, My Life’. Apparently, Harrison found the new sitting postures required to learn the sitar challenging on his hips, so Shankar suggested he take up yoga.
As I began my own personal exploration of Buddhist meditation practices and yoga I was reminded of the song. Through the song Harrison explored a view of Indian philosophy and religious tradition. He also offered a critique on materialism, “the people who gain the world and lose their soul” suggesting deeper meaning and salvation could be found through an inner spiritual transcendence. I was particularly struck by the words, “When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there, and the time will come when you see we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you”
Harrison’s song can point to an experience of our sense of self as not fixed, but rather as something open, fluid and constantly changing. The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. This is not a strange form of nihilism and it is not that we do not exist rather, that when we look at our direct experience all we observe are thoughts, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing can be said to be solid and permanent. There is no fixed, unchanging self at the centre of our experience. Everything that arises in our life is dependent on many complex conditions. Unfortunately, we sometimes suffer because we can believe the opposite to be true and spend our days trying to defend or assert a belief in a fixed identity and self.
Such teachings can seem bewildering. I have found it helpful to reflect on the basic view that you people are not fixed and that it is possible to change. People may have limiting views but are not defined by them. Maybe, as we live our lives we too can glimpse a sense of this, experiencing the fluid nature of ourselves and trust that we have the potential to be always so much more than we think we are.
Now, 50 years later, it is still possible to marvel at the brilliance of the crafted pop songs that make up ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and how the biggest pop band in the world at the time were not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of what pop music could be. The Beatles introduced musical ideas from the avant-garde and profound concepts from Indian philosophy; transforming pop music once viewed as a disposable light weight commodity to a thing of beauty, depth and art.