The sensory world

In 1948 a small boy was accompanying his mother as she went shopping in London. His mother took him into Selfridges as she wanted to try on a beautiful new-look coat from Dior. The boy’s mother could not afford the coat but wanted to experience herself wearing it, even if only for a few minutes. The young boy watched his mother swirling around in the coat, which, as she moved, was lit from behind. The young boy thought she looked so beautiful and felt that this vision of his mother was like seeing the beauty of women for the first time.

This event had a dramatic effect on the boy’s life. Years later he trained to become a photographer and became one of the most famous fashion photographers in the world. His name was David Bailey. What I love about this story, is that it illustrates the qualities of someone who is alive to the sensory world around them. This has sometimes been called, in archetypal terms, the ‘lover’ archetype. These people have a appetite for life, they are sensually aware and sensitive to the realm of their senses, noticing colours, forms, sounds, tactile sensations and smells. If you have ever eaten a meal cooked by someone with a passion for food and cooking you will have been touched by someone with these qualities. Poets, painters, musicians and connoisseurs are often drawn to these vocations because they have these qualities and they subsequently flourish in these fields. In my own life I have found that when I open more deeply to the realm of my senses and relax into a spacious awareness I find that I can really enjoy and appreciate a piece of music or a moment in nature; the world around me takes on a vividness and aliveness, becoming a thing of beauty.

“Our senses are indeed our doors and windows on this world, in a very real sense the key to the unlocking of meaning and the wellspring of creativity.”
Jean Houston, Teacher.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions. I had gone to watch a film that you can guarantee will be showing on TV or at your local cinema as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is Frank Capra’s classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Made in 1947 and starring a great cast including James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, Capra’s film has a Dickensian quality to it. James Stewart plays the role of a selfless man George Bailey who is much loved in the small town of Bedford Falls; it’s a story of redemption that follows his suicidal despair one Christmas night. Clarence the angel appears and shows George how much of a dark and sad place the world would have been without him.

I believe that the reason the film is so loved by so many people is (not only due to Capra’s masterful direction and story-telling) because it illustrates a deeper, fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The truth is: that every life is of value and is important. We can often feel powerless in our lives and insignificant, even isolated and alone. But we are all interconnected to each other and to all of life – the threads that connect us to others and the world are not always easy to see. Even after many years of practising Buddhist meditation and yoga I still find myself at times struggling to see and accept that my actions touch other people’s lives.

A small act of kindness or a harsh word or action can have a profound effect, beyond what we can imagine. We have a responsibility for the world we live in; we are not separate from it but embedded in a network of complex patterns of connection. It can be helpful to stop and reflect on our lives and all we have done through our actions – great and small. The small acts of kindness shown to others bring us into deeper relationship with the world. Think of all the different people in your life and how their lives would be without you, and then you will begin to see the profound ordinary beauty that is your life.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
Clarence The Angel from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

There is a Mountain

In October of 1967 the British singer/songwriter Donovan released a new single, ‘There is a Mountain’ which climbed to No.8 in the UK charts. The song was something of a departure for Donovan with its sunny Calypso-style and irresistible melody. Accompanying him on the track were Tony Carr on percussion, Harold McNair on flute and Danny Thompson on bass. The song was later adapted to form the basis of the Allman Brothers’ lengthy live ‘Mountain Jam’ on the album ‘Eat a Peach’.

The song’s lyrics refer to a Buddhist text originally formulated by the 9th century Zen Buddhist teacher Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his ‘Essays in Zen Buddhism’, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan wrote:

“Before I had studied Chan / Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers when I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains and rivers once again as rivers.”

In 1965, Donovan was introduced to the Qingyuan Zen text by the US banjo player Derroll Adams, a popular figure on the British 60’s folk scene. Donovan took the text and adapted it to create lyrics that would become the song, ‘There is a Mountain’.

…First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
The caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.
Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is….

At the heart of Buddhist teachings we are told 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.

When we look at a mountain, we may initially perceive it to be a solid and fixed thing in the world. This level of conceptualisation and labelling gives us the false impression that we know what something is e.g. a mountain. Upon meditative reflection we come to realise that the idea of the mountain as being a solid fixed object in our experience is a limited and false misconception. We begin to see more clearly that it is something arising moment by moment in time, dependent on many conditions. It is alive, vibrant, constantly changing and moving. It is not a static, solid fixed object. In the final stage, with a deepening insight, we no longer perceive the mountain as a solid thing but as a flowing process and we then use language to describe the idea or concept of what a mountain is, but from a new awareness where we hold any concepts of things in the world very lightly.

What I love about Donovan’s simple song is that within the medium of a disposable pop song that thousands of people have heard over the years, we find a deeply profound Buddhist teaching that within two and half minutes manages to offer more insights than a large volume of books could ever hope to.

 

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

On the evening of October 7th 1955, Gallery Six took place in a low-ceilinged former auto-body repair shop in San Francisco.  Gallery Six was an event where local artists within the bohemian community could meet and share their work. That evening, various poets including Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Michael McClure performed their work.  Also that evening, a relatively unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg got up on the makeshift orange-crate podium and read a new poem he had been working on called, ‘Howl’. The poem, with its hallucinatory style was seen as a response to Cold War America and drew on themes from Ginsberg’s personal experience with references to illicit drugs, sex and homosexuality. This epic poem sent ripples out into the world and even that evening for those who had heard and witnessed its birth, felt that something special had just happened. The poem now considered to be one of the great works of American Literature and the birth of the Beat Generation.

The morning after the debut reading of ‘Howl’ Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of the City Lights Bookshop & Press sent Ginsberg a telegram. In it he wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti then published, ‘Howl and Other Poems’ in 1956.

In 1957, 520 copies of the book were seized by U.S. Customs Officials, and Ferlinghetti was charged with “…willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and selling obscene writings.” A famous censorship trail ensued and Ginsberg, along with his friends were thrust into the international headlines. Ferlinghetti won the case as the Judge decided that the poem had, “redeeming social importance.” This judgement sealed Ginsberg’s role as one of the most famous poets of the modern age.

The definition of the word censorship is, “The name for the process or idea of keeping things like obscene words or graphic images from an audience.”  If we take the idea that certain images and words are deemed offensive to our morality or decency as true, then we can become bound by the conditioned beliefs of the culture we live in and we are not free.

If we look at our own lives and take a deeper inquiry within, we may find that we have our own censorship trials taking place. What we do on an external level as a society or culture is a mirrored reflection of how we might view ourselves on an inner level. We may have certain thoughts, feelings and images that arise in our experience that we deem unacceptable and this may leave us feeling uncomfortable. As a response to this we may try and censor these aspects of self and label them as, bad or wrong.  If we look at this from a Buddhist perspective, this can be seen in a new light. When we observe our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, they cannot be said to be solid or permanent. Everything that arises in our experience is like a play of energy in the mind or a rainbow in the sky. It has no fixed essence, appearing one moment then dissolving the next.

Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
Has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with,
And become attached to it,
Passing Judgement upon it and ourselves?
Far better to simply
let the entire game happen on its own,
springing up and falling back like waves
without changing or manipulating anything
and notice how everything
vanishes and reappears, magically,
Again and again, time without end.
Free and Easy,
A Spontaneous Vajra Song: Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche

What’s The Story?

When I was a small boy my mother would read to me bedtime stories, which I used to look forward to with great delight. Two of my favorites were  AA Milne’s “Winnie-The Pooh” and “The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, in which the copy of the latter my mum read from were wonderfully enchanting illustrations by Arthur Rackham. I would find myself engrossed in the adventures of Christopher Robin, Pooh Bear, Eeyore and Piglet – or the amusing tales of Toad of Toad Hall – feeding my hungry imagination with colourful worlds that came to life every evening before bedtime.

I recently met a friend for coffee and, during our time together, I became aware of how strongly the stories or narratives that we tell ourselves shape the lives we live. My friend had a strong story that had been with him for many years, that he was unlovable in some way and, because some part of him believed this to be true, he had found it difficult to experience healthy loving relationships. I too could identify with this view my friend held about himself, as it was once a view I held about myself.

Stories have a way of deeply affecting us. They speak to those deep aspects of our minds and souls. We may connect to them through books, film, television, or even through events that shape our lives. We may have stories that we carry around with us, like a small book hidden in our pocket or buried deep in our hearts or bones. These stories or narratives may help us to live creative and meaningful lives, or they may limit and restrict us in how we view ourselves and the world around us. Some stories we may have carried around with us for so long, maybe even since childhood.  They feel like a part of our DNA; we may not even know that they are there.

It is only when we begin to examine and bring awareness to our experience more deeply through practices such as yoga, meditation, psychotherapy and bodywork, that we may begin to see more clearly what our stories are. We then have an opportunity to decide if the stories we carry with us are helpful or not. Do they lead us to a more expansive life of greater meaning, connection and love? Or, do they limit us and leave us feeling isolated and separate from the world and others? The problem with any story, helpful or not, is that it is a idea or concept, but not reality itself. It is something we place onto our experience to make sense of our lives, and it’s better to always try and hold concepts and ideas lightly, as they may be the map but not the terrain.

“We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.” Joan Didion Writer

Put The Needle On The Record

Several years ago I decided to purchase a record player. I had been considering this for some time and even though I had a hi-fi system that worked perfectly well, and I was able to play a large collection of my CDs, I felt something was missing. As a little boy growing up in the early seventies I was aware of the power of music and how it shaped my world. Seeing Marc Bolan and David Bowie on Top of The Pops, like a lot of young people of my generation, had a profound effect on me. Their androgynous beauty combined with a Dionysian other-worldliness made its mark on my impressionable mind.

I cannot remember what age I was when I played my first record (memory is a slippery beast) but my mother owned a small portable record player – the sort of one that was to be found in teenage bedrooms throughout the land in the 1960s. She was not a huge collector of records herself; her tastes, at the time, were like a lot of young women in the early seventies, leaning towards the singer-songwriters, whose self-reflective, confessional tone caught the mood of the early 70s. I am very grateful for her introducing me to the delights of Bob Dylan, Donovan, Cat Stevens, and early Rod Stewart. She did, however, have four brothers with large record collections who were always passing down records to her, which meant she inherited copies of The Beatles Revolver and Rubber Soul.

One day I found myself alone in the living room with a small pile of 45s and a selection of various albums, and access to my mum’s record player. I cannot remember exactly what I played on that day, although I have a faint memory of playing some early Elvis singles. What I do remember was loving the ritual of taking the record out of the sleeve, holding it carefully in my hands, then placing it on the turntable and carrying the needle across ’til it touched the record, then listening to that light crackle of the needle on vinyl and the glorious, warm sound of the record booming out the speaker. I loved the tactile experience and the sense of intimacy it created between me and the record and the music. As I listened to those records I would often lie on the floor gazing for hours at the beautiful record sleeves that adorned each record, that hinted at the music contained within.

So I ask myself the question, have I purchased a record player out of some sort of over-40s male nostalgia? Maybe? But I also feel that, with the increasing growth in modern technology, we now live in a world where we are offered limitless opportunities to listen to music at the touch of a button, to be able to download any film, television show or song in a few moments. As wonderful as these latest developments are (and I am a man who likes his iPod) I feel we lose something on a very human, soulful level. Just because something is easy does not mean it has the same value. Think of the difference between a ready meal from your local supermarket and a meal you have prepared by hand, having gone to your local greengrocer to select your ingredients, and then lovingly cooked for yourself, family or a loved one. Since purchasing my new record player, I have really enjoyed going into Stretford on a Saturday afternoon and going to my local record shop Reel Around the Fountain, looking through the record racks and buying a record with my well earned cash. I feel much more a sense of human interaction and effort made to obtain something I really care about. In my experience people love their record collections – they don’t feel the same way about their CDs!

I have made a little pact with myself that the next time I get the urge to go on Amazon because it is easier to buy something, I will try and pause for a moment and ask myself whether I could take effort to go to a local shop and buy it from there.

 

“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, *life* has surface noise.”   John Peel ( the longest serving of the original BBC Radio1 DJs)