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
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)
I was once waiting for a bus as I travelled to teach a morning class. After a while of waiting for the bus to turn up and no sign of it appearing, a woman walked past and informed me, and the other people waiting, that the bus had been diverted as there had been a crash further up the road and the road was blocked. So myself and two old ladies who had been sitting next to me walked down the road till we reached the new diverted bus stop. As I sat with the two women I was aware that I felt quite tired and a sense of feeling isolated and unconnected from myself and my environment. The old lady next to me was telling the other lady that she was anxious, because she was planning to meet her daughter who was waiting for her and she had no way of letting her know she was running late. As I heard the conversation I was aware that I felt separate and removed from the world around me and the two women. I slowly became aware of this deep tension inside of me, one part wanting to stay isolated and detached and something else in me that was reminded of the novelist E M Forster’s famous words “only connect”.
After sitting with this tension for about a minute, I then reached into my pocket and produced my mobile phone and offered to call the woman’s daughter, to let her know her mother was okay. As soon as I spoke to the old woman and I came into relationship with her, I felt something shift in me, as if I had suddenly surrendered and let the world into my experience again and connected to a shared humanity. The old woman was relieved and happy that her daughter had been contacted. I share this story as it reminded me of how so often in our lives we can feel isolated and alone, and how challenging that view and trying to engage and reach out to others reminds us of our interconnectedness to all life and the responsibility we have for the world we live in.
“The important element is the way in which all things are connected. Every thought and action sends shivers of energy into the world around us, which affects all creation. Perceiving the world as a web of connectedness helps us to overcome the feelings of separation that hold us back and cloud our vision. This connection with all life increases our sense of responsibility for every move, every attitude, allowing us to see clearly that each soul does indeed make a difference to the whole.” ― Emma Restall Orr, Druid/Poet
When the Stone Roses reformed and played a low-key warm-up show in Warrington Ian Brown spoke to members of the audience who were excited trying to film the gig on their phones. He is reported to have said:
“If you put your cameras down you might be able to live in the moment. You have a memory there of something you’ve never lived.”.
I think Ian Brown is making a valid point; I recently attended a gig myself and found myself frustrated by the amount of people either trying to film the concert on their phone or spending most the evening talking to their friend, rather than just watching the musicians they have paid good money to see. The irony of the situation is that the moment you are excitedly trying to capture on your phone is being missed because you are trying to film it, on a device that will generally reproduce the event poorly.
With the advances in modern technology we now can now access vast amounts of information at the touch of a button, but at what expense to the quality of our lives? With so much information being bombarded at us we can lose the ability to just simply sit and listen to a piece of music, read a book, or eat a meal without the desire to share the experience via the Internet or with the world around us. The quality of mindfulness of just being aware and open to the present moment without trying to add to it is something we can learn to do: allowing the bare experience to be there, fully attending to it in a relaxed open awareness, tasting an aliveness, a vibrancy from the naked awareness of our lives as they unfold moment by moment.
From my experience this is not always a easy thing to do; I recently had a uncomfortable awareness of experiencing an event while at the same time noticing a mental dialog say “Oh I must share this on Facebook” which seemed to pull me away from just being open to the present moment as it was unfolding. I am not advocating that we should never take a photo again, but maybe next time we reach for our mobile to capture that moment, we could try leaving our phone in our pocket and just try being with life just as it is, without needing to hold on to it so tightly. I shall leave you with some words from the wonderful Ray Davis of the Kinks, who captures in song this desire we have to want to constantly capture and hold on to that illusive fleeting moment.
“People take pictures of the summer
Just in case someone thought they had missed it
Just to prove that it really existed
People take pictures of each other
And the moment to last them forever
Of the time when they mattered to someone
Picture of me when I was just three
Sucking my thumb by the old oak tree
Oh, how I love things as they used to be
Don’t show me no more, please”
The Kinks’ Picture Book from the album The Village Green Preservation Society
In 1943 a man wrote in a letter to his wife, “I am so sorry that I forgot our wedding anniversary for the first time but I was so busy these past few days”. In another letter home he wrote, “My dear mummy. A few quick lines. Enclosed are two packages and a piece of fruit cake.” The man in question who had written these words of affection and love for his family was Heinrich Himmler the Nazi leader of the SS and head of the Gestapo. Heinrich Himmler was also the man who gave the order to destroy the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and one of the people involved in the Holocaust in which six million Jewish people were killed.
What are we to make of these uncomfortable contradictions in one man’s actions and behaviour? His ability to both love and hate in equal measure? When I am confronted by these extreme and varying facets of the human psyche I have found it immensely helpful to view the perspective which suggests each of us are polyphonic. That is to say, we made up of many different voices, impulses, attitudes or parts. We are not just one thing.
The idea of the human psyche being multifaceted, even split in some cases is not a new one. Since ancient times man has been aware of multiple personalities within himself. In ancient Greece, in Plato’s book ‘The Republic’ he spoke of three parts of the psyche: ‘The rational’, ‘The appetitive’ and ‘The spirited’. We also find examples in 20th century literature and in Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘The Waves’ her character Bernard said, “I am not one person: I am many people, I do not altogether know who I am”.
In 1910 an Italian Psychoanalyst called Roberto Assagioli began to create a new system of Psychotherapy called Psychosynthesis in which he explored a model following on from Carl Jung making use and understanding of what he called ‘sub personalities’. His idea was that a range of these sub personalities existed within us and wanted to express themselves. We might come to meet within ourselves ‘The Mystic’, ‘The Hag’, ‘The Materialist’, ‘The Sadist’ and ‘The Frightened Child’ amongst many others and by recognizing that at times a sub personality can take over, it can be a helpful way to understand our somewhat contradictory behaviour. Learning to understand and recognize our inner landscape and the figures or creatures that inhabit it can be helpful. Though listening to all these various voices can sometimes feel like trying to conduct an unruly orchestra and can leave us feeling split or divided. For example, how many times have I been consumed with anger and acted from that state, believing it the right thing to do only to find myself several hours later feeling a sense of regret that I have acted in this way? It might be a helpful perspective to consider that the one fuelled by anger is not now the one feeling the regret.
After these realisations, we can begin to accept those aspects of ourselves and move towards phases of integration. We are then able to hold and stay conscious within ourselves from a place of disidentification where we are less likely to be hijacked by our sub personalities, who may wish to cause us harm or even inflict suffering onto others.
By understanding ourselves and these sub personalities within us, by making conscious and working with both our darkness and our light, we are given a larger, richer context in which to examine what it means to be human.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large – I contain multitudes.”
(Walt Whitman, Poet)
In September of 2014 I spent a very enjoyable week in the Oxfordshire countryside at Charney Manor, a 13th-century manor house situated in the picturesque village of Charney Bassett. The Manor is a very peaceful and tranquil place with beautiful landscaped gardens. People often come from across the country to stay at the manor for reflection and relaxation. The reason for my visit was to attend a week-long Yoga Nidra training course with James Reeves and the iRest community who have been inspired by the work and teachings of Richard Miller, an American yoga teacher and Clinical Psychologist. Yoga Nidra (an ancient meditative practice dating back to 2500 B.C.E.) renamed ‘Integrative Restoration’ or ‘iRest’ for short, has been a particularly effective healing practice for military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Since returning from my time at Charney Manor I have spent the last few years exploring Yoga Nidra in more depth in my own practice, with students on retreat, in workshops, and on a one to one basis. I have often been struck by the simple, yet profound effect the practice can have on people. One of the aspects of the practice which has inspired me the most is that it is not seen as a self-improvement plan. Often, with practices such as yoga or meditation we can take them up with an agenda to improve ourselves in some way, which although at times helpful, can also reinforce a deeply held view of an inherent lack of essential goodness.
In the practice of Yoga Nidra we are invited to explore directly through our senses the six koshas (a Sanskrit term meaning sheaths or bodies). In the vijnanamaya kosha we are invited to explore opposite beliefs. For instance, I may believe that if I do or attain something, then I will be better than who I was. The practice invites us to explore the opposite, which would be ‘I’m perfect as I am, and there is nothing I need to do or attain that will make me any better than I am’.
In the Buddhist Dzogchen teachings we are offered a view that we all have Buddha Nature or essential goodness, a potentiality that lives within us all but is often hidden to us by ignorance and confusion. We live in a culture of validation through performance and achievement. The dominant view in our culture is to work hard, transcend yourself, develop yourself and get the most out of life.
On a relative level it can be helpful to develop skills to be in the world, but how often do we get validation of ourselves, just for being us? The Buddhist teacher James Low says “Everything you do is icing on the cake, but the cake without icing is fine, the cake is good”. Any skills we have are useful but they are conditional, transient and should be held very lightly. This may be a challenging idea to hear, but something I feel every one of us really needs to hear. Maybe as we make our way through the world we could just allow ourselves to accept our essential goodness and trust that we are okay and fine, just as we are.
“You don’t have to justify your existence by being useful. You yourself are the justification for your existence. You haven’t come into existence after all these millions of years of evolution just to sit down in front of a typewriter, or to keep accounts. You are the justification of that whole process. You are an end in yourself. All that you can really be said to be here for is to develop into some higher form of human life…So don’t be ashamed of sitting around and doing nothing. Glory in it. Do things spontaneously, out of a state of inner satisfaction and achievement. It is a virtue to be ornamental as well as useful”.
From ‘Wisdom Beyond Words’ by Sangharakshita, Buddhist teacher.