In 2004 a German photographer named Thomas Struth was commissioned by Franca Falletti, Director of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, to produce a series of photographs to mark the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s statue of David. Struth worked over the course of a week and produced a series of 16 photographs. He came up with the concept of positioning a hidden camera at the base of the statue of David, that would capture people’s responses as they beheld the statue. which for some was their first time. In this piece, which he called “Audience”, he managed to capture the audience’s gaze from the perspective of the work of art.
When I visited Florence several years ago, like many tourist from all corners of the world, I made my pilgrimage to the Uffizi gallery where many of the greatest examples of renaissance art can be found with works by Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. And also the Accademia where some of the finest examples of sculpture and painting can also be found, including the jewel in the crown, the statue of David. As a young man I attended art college and studied renaissance art so I was familiar with the statue, an image that has been reproduced many times on postcards, jigsaw puzzles, tea towels, posters, even tea coasters such that we may feel very familiar with the image. But, as I turned the corner and walked into the room in which it is displayed, nothing could prepare me for the awe I felt at beholding such a thing of extraordinary beauty. It seemed to capture and be a symbol of strength, youth and human beauty. The first thing one is aware of is it’s size – it is 5.17-metre (17.0 ft) and is carved out of one piece of marble. The statue is of a standing male nude depicting the biblical hero David and Michelangelo created it between 1501 and 1504. It was initially commissioned to stand on the roof of the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, but due to its size on completion it was decided to be exhibited next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.
Like Struth’s photographs of people gazing at the statue, I too almost felt overwhelmed by its majesty. Seeing Michelangelo’s statue of David reminded me of how much I can take for granted an experience of seeing a painting or a work of art because I think I know it. So often we bring labels and concepts of what is happening to the situation rather than just being with the direct experience as it is. Through conceptualisation and labelling we create a false impression of how something really is, whether a painting, statue, city or person etc. If we can learn to come into relationship with our bodies and simply stay with the sensation as perceived via our senses, allowing just the bare experience, fully attending to it, in a relaxed and open awareness, then something alive and vibrant is revealed. On that day when I saw Michelangelo’s David, I was shocked out of my assumptions, and given an opportunity to open through my senses to the mystery of direct experience as it unfolds.
When you get free from certain fixed concepts of the way the world is, you find it is far more subtle, and far more miraculous, than you thought it was.
Alan Watts philosopher
Every Tuesday morning I take the 25 bus to Heaton Moor in Manchester where I teach my weekly Cerebral Palsy yoga class. One of the highlights of this is not only the class but an encounter on my journey home. At the bus stop, I have struck up a friendship with an old lady in her nineties. I always look forward to seeing her and sharing our thoughts. For a woman in her late nineties she is quite a remarkable lady. She takes the bus to her weekly keep fit class at the local church, where she gets to spend time with other friends and they share lunch together. She told me last week that at Easter they are rather looking forward to having salmon sandwiches for lunch as a special treat. We only speak for a few minutes each week, but over the years we have developed something of a friendship. I really enjoy hearing her stories about her life. Recently she told me that as a young woman she had traveled with friends in an open-top charabanc to Blackpool. A charabanc was a early motor coach, usually open-topped, common in Britain during the early part of the 20th century, popular for ‘works outings’ to the country or the seaside. On another occasion she shared with me stories of her late husband who, when he was a handsome young man, sported a rather dashing moustache. She has also shared her experiences of living and working in Manchester as a young woman during the Second World War blitz when the German Luftwaffe heavily bombed the city centre.
I was reminded of my meetings at the bus stop when I recently listened to a talk by James Low, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist who grew up in Glasgow in the 1950’s. He was commenting on the fact that if you stood at a bus stop in those days, sooner or later somebody would start up a conversation with you. He felt the reason for these exchanges was because community was valued as something important. People valued being a part of something greater than themselves and valued the people who were part of their community. Generally, in the modern world, isolation and individualism are given greater presidency. I feel that this type of isolated view of the world needs examining. I notice that the small encounters that I have with people during my day remind me to stay connected to others and help me to feel a part of the world, rather than seeing myself as separate and isolated from other people. From a Buddhist and yogic perspective we are not separate from the world or other people, but connected and linked by many unseen threads of interconnection. One of the reasons we experience suffering and difficulties in life is because we believe that we are separate. I think it is important to take up your place in the world but to always remember to stay in relationship to ourselves and others.
“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibres connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibres, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick)
Friday November 22nd 1963 is a day that many people remember. At 12.30pm John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. This event sent shock waves around the world. At 5:20 pm on the same day the English author and respected intellectual Aldous Huxley died quietly, with his wife by his side, in Los Angeles, aged 69. Any news coverage of Huxley’s death was of course overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Aldous Huxley is best known for his novels which include Brave New World, set in a dystopian London, The Doors of Perception, which explores his experiences when taking psychedelic drugs and The Perennial Philosophy, which examines the various teachings of mystics and spirituality in the world.
In Huxley’s last novel Island, published in 1962, he explores the theme of an Utopian society on the island of Pala and its way of life struggling against the expanding surrounding materialism. Huxley uses an image within the novel that I find rather evocative and beautiful. We are told that there are Mynah birds that live on the island that fly about calling out “Attention” repeatedly and “Here and now”. The birds have been trained to do this because “you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now”.
When I first read Island I was struck by this image of the mynah birds calling out to the people of the island to pay attention and be here and now. If, like me, you have ever tried to be present to your experience for any length of time you will notice how hard it is to just be aware and alive in the present moment, mindful of your life as it unfolds. We so easily become absent from ourselves and our experience. Unfortunately we do not live in a society like the inhabitants of Pala, having mynah birds flying around us during our day reminding us to stay aware and pay “Attention” to what is going on in the “Here and Now”.
As we move into autumn and the seasons change, I go about my daily life and from the surrounding hedgerows and trees I can hear birdsong. For me this can feel like a calling to pause, connect and come home to myself once again. Maybe when we next hear the birds singing in the trees we could imagine it as an invitation to return home to ourselves. It is easy to be lost in the world, lost in our work, relationships, even our families and forget who we are and what is really important to us. But if we are willing to try and live a conscious life, then we have the potential to live more fully in a congruent and whole way.
“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’”
Oscar Wilde once said that “To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual”. We live in a modern world where the idea of productivity is held in great esteem. Phrases such as “work hard, play hard” are seen as qualities that successful people should strive for and the old phrase“The devil finds work for idle hands to do” suggests that evil is to be found for those who give time to doing nothing!.
Since the industrial revolution and the idea of the protestant work ethic our lives have been regulated more and more by working longer hours. The idea that any value could be found in doing nothing, such as lying on your bed, and gazing out your window as the clouds pass by, or sitting quietly in nature just enjoying a state of relaxed being, can seem miles away from our busy lives or even a little threatening. Even as a yoga teacher and somebody with a meditation practice, I am often humbled by how hard I find it to just stop and move from a state of doing to just being. We may have views that nothing productive can come from doing nothing, when in fact allowing for moments of reflection and stillness can be nourishing for our bodies and soul. I have often found that when I do give myself time to do nothing I encounter a deep state of relaxed, open spaciousness and stillness. Things in my life that may have seemed a challenging difficulty before are perceived from a new fresh perspective. And I find myself re-engaging with life again with a new sense of vigor and aliveness.
“The ironic thing about doing nothing is that sometimes we accomplish an awful lot while appearing to be unproductive. When you recharge, gather your thoughts, and take time to simply be, you allow yourself to both enjoy stillness and more effectively engage in the world later. It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the most complete days are the ones that are not full. What meaningless activity can you replace with purposeful nothing today?” Lori Deschene Author of Tiny Buddha.
I was recently interviewed by a journalist for a magazine and was asked the question ‘Is yoga a spiritual activity?’ I thought this was an interesting question. As a yoga and meditation teacher I often come across the word ‘spiritual’. People I meet may think of me as someone who is spiritual, particularly as I have a Buddhist name.
Spiritual may mean different things to different people so, to begin with, we need to clarify what is actually meant by the term ‘spiritual’. The dictionary defines it as ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things,’ which I think may be helpful. It alludes to transcendence, moving beyond the mundane and material world, to something or someone concerned with higher matters. Personally I am not very keen on the word spiritual, as I feel it encourages a potential tendency for aloofness, seeing spiritual practice as escape, cut off from our lived experience and engagement with the everyday world. Sometimes this tendency can lead to a desire to repress aspects of ourselves such as our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies. I think the late Jungian psychologist James Hillman captures this well when he says “The Spiritual point of view always posits itself as superior, and operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes.”
This Spiritual view can express itself with ideas like drinking a pint of beer down the pub or enjoying fish and chips for your supper are not very ‘spiritual’ activities, whereas going on retreat, meditating and practicing yoga are somehow higher or more spiritual activities. A view like this, I feel, has an aspect of Spiritual arrogance and is not very helpful, as it can potentially lead to a cutting off from the ordinariness of human life.
Hillman draws out a counter-balance to this aspect of Spirit or Spiritual. He calls this Soul. He sees Spirit as concerned with transcendence, to move beyond, to distance oneself, the realm of ideas, clarity, masculinity. Soul in Hillman’s sense is not used in the way we sometimes think of it, as an eternal part of us that will be liberated from the body after death. Soul in this sense is not a thing but a quality: dark, mysterious, moist, associated with the earth, the body, imagination and the feminine. Soul by its very nature is relational and is very much about being in the world.
I believe that spiritual traditions can have, by their very nature, a view of transcendence. As someone who has spent the last 20 years exploring Buddhism, this has been my own personal experience. For me, I have found a healthy balance is needed between these two qualities of Soul and Spirit. We all need spirit in our lives to enable us to see beyond the horizon, a glimpse of something bigger than ourselves, but we also need soul, to remind us of our bodies and the earth beneath our feet. I think during my first 10 years of practicing Buddhism I had a view that I wanted to transcend the world in some way, partly because my experience of being in the world and my own inner life were at times painful or difficult. Now I feel rather than trying to transcend the world I am more interested in making my way through it.
I am reminded of the words by the American poet Wallace Stephens:
“The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it
I recently spent a week teaching on a yoga and meditation retreat at Dhanakosa, a Buddhist retreat centre in Scotland located next to Loch Voil & the Trossachs National Park. Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit Dhanakosa will know It provides a quiet and beautiful setting for retreats.
During my stay I became aware of the chorus of bird song that would surround me every day. When we would meditate in the shrine room in the afternoon I particularly loved hearing the sound of a Woodpecker in the nearby trees, tapping away. I noticed that when I listened to sound of the Woodpecker it acted as a reminder to stay embedded in my body whist also staying connected with the world.
I reflected on how often we can lose our sense of belonging and connection to our environment and the world. The meditation teacher Paramananda wrote about this in his book, ‘The Body’ where he described watching a television programme about the culture of Indigenous Australian peoples.
“I was struck by their intimacy with the world around them. I was impressed not only by their vast knowledge of plants and animals, but also by their sense of care and appreciation for their environment, a profound sense of belonging within the landscape that brought forth a feeling of reverence and responsibility for the world that sustained them. They seemed totally at home in the world, in a deep, yet relaxed, intimacy with everything around them”.
How can we find our own way to connect more deeply with the environment and our world? This may not come naturally to us, we may not live directly in nature or be able to visit beautiful landscapes all the time. However, I think that in our daily lives our meditation and yoga practice can help us towards this goal.
When I mediate or do my yoga practice in the morning I try and come into a simple relationship with my body, feeling through my senses where my body meets the floor and when I do this I give myself the opportunity to notice any sensations through my pelvis, my back or my legs. Then, I open my awareness out to include any sounds around me in the room such as a ticking clock or the hum of a radiator. From there, I focus on the sounds outside of the room. For example, I have a neighbour who is a talented musician and I can often hear them practicing their guitar. Sometimes I hear children playing in the gardens outside my room. Rather than interpreting these sounds in my environment as an intrusion on my practice, I try and see them in the same way as I saw the Woodpecker – as a calling bringing me deeper into life and my connection with the world. If I can relax and open to the experience, I often feel more connected and embedded in the world and my life. From this, a natural desire to want to care for my community and the world around me comes alive and I feel less isolated.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
E. M. Foster – ‘Howards End’